Saturday, February 24, 2018

The Heart of Prayer: God's Saving Love Shown In Jesus Christ ( 1 Timothy 2:1-7)


I don’t know about you, but I find myself caught between two impluses when it comes to prayer…

The first is that we need to pray more. Pray, pray, Pray… you hear the wonderful stories of revivals that are the result of a small group of people getting serious about prayer. Like the one in the Hebrides in 1949 that started when a small group of seven people, five men and two women dedicated themselves to pray for revival, and so met each night in a local barn, and one night as they prayed inspired by Psalm 24 where it asks who can stand in the holy place and replies the one with clean hands and a pure heart, began confessing their sins, and the atmosphere on the island changed and when they invited a guest evangelist to come to the island, the local parish church was full to overflowing, and many became followers of Jesus. Visiting businessmen to the island talked of sensing the presence of God as they stepped off the boat.  If we would just pray more. Get serious about it.

The other impulse is to say we just need to get on and do it, we can spend all our time praying and worshipping and focused on those things and well not do what needs to be done. Maybe we catch a glimpse of that with the response to the latest mass school shooting in the US… We don’t need your prayers and thoughts they won’t protect us, we need gun reform.”

In the end it’s not a matter of either or but of both and, prayer and action are indelibly connected.

 “Prayer and action go hand in hand. The activity comes out of relationship.”(Nicky Gumbel).

In the passage we had read out to us today we see the connection of that relationship with God who wills all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth”, and action: Paul’s own call and mission as an apostle and herald to the gentile nations.” That action comes out of knowing the heart of God in prayer.

We are working our way through what are known as the pastoral epistles, letters that Paul has written not to churches, but to co-workers dealing with specific pastoral issues. We are looking at them for what they can say to us about Christian leadership and see how what Paul has to say speaks about maturity and ministry in our lives today. We just finished a couple of weeks looking at Paul’s charge to Timothy to counter false teaching in Ephesus, and now we are moving onto the body of the letter, what Timothy is to do. Paul starts with prayer.

Paul starts with prayer… “I urge you, first of all”. This is not just Paul bullet pointing his way through a to do list for Timothy and the church. The sense of urge together with first of all  speaks to us about priority. The most important thing Paul says is prayer. That relationship with God. In his charge to Timothy he had talked of the centrality of faith, that invisible relationship with God, and love, the visible expression of that relationship, and now Paul says that prayer is the key way that faith relationship is to be maintained. It is the pattern we see in Jesus life action and ministry and times alone with God. Even at the heart of Jesus interaction and ministry to people is prayer, he prays for people. If Christ is the head of the church and we are his body then it stands to reason that that line of communication is to be paramount, without it our activity and action is running round like a headless chicken.

Last week we looked at the key role of the prophetic word of God, God’s timeless word made timely to us, in helping us hold onto our faith and love, and it is appropriate that we looked at that before we looked at Prayer. Because prayer is a two-way conversation between us and God. Our prayer comes in response to his word. To what we know of God. We see this in the passage today as Pauls urge to pray is for all men and all In authority is because it is God’s heart and God’s desire for all to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. Nicky Gumbel says he always starts his quite time by reading the bible, because what God wants to say to him is more important that what he has to say to God.

Paul then goes on to say that he urges “all petitions, prayers, intersession and thanksgiving be made for all people.”  In Ephesus part of the false teaching seems to be a focus on genealogies and myths and wanting to be seen as ‘teachers of the law’ there is a sense of an developing focusing on the churches exclusively on Jewishness, that may have resulted in their rejection of Paul’s mission to the gentiles,  and in calling for prayer for all people Paul is inviting the church to widen its horizons and understanding of the grace and mission of God. God’s love for all people, God’s desire for all to come and be saved, Jesus Christ giving his life as a ransom for all people. But it is also easy for us to simply think that we remember all people in our prayer and we can forget that it is specifically part of the our mission as well. We can forget the greatest thing we can desire for someone is that they come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. We pray for all their presenting needs, out of compassion, but the greatest need of all humanity is to be reconciled with God through Jesus Christ, to have their sins forgiven and find new and abundant life and purpose in Christ.

Paul then turns to urge prayers for kings and all those in authority. During the exile the Jews became more aware of God sovereignty over all the nations of the world, that even pagan rulers could be agents of God’s will. So here Paul calls us to bring them before God. He does that so that there might be security and peace. Which again like with the exile is the Christian seeking the peace and prosperity of the city in which we find ourselves, being good citizens. However that quite and peaceful life is not an end  in itself rather that is the best environment for the Church to grow, that is the best environment for the gospel to be spread.  The reason Paul asks us to pray for rulers so we can have a peaceful and quite life is that we may grow into all godliness and holiness. Yes the church, by the grace of God grows under opposition and persecution, it grows in times of turmoil and upheaval,  but Paul want it to have the right conditions to show in its actions and reactions the love of Christ. Godliness and holiness do not talk about a separation from the word but that there is an integrity between the God we worship and how we live. That will be part of people coming to know the truth about Jesus Christ. They will see something of Christ as we grow in maturity, in love for one another, in compassion and honesty, patience self-control.

It is interesting in church history when they look at external factors for the spread of the Christian faith in the early days, they point to three things: The roman empire like with the EU today made travel easier as it was under one rule, there was a common trading language across the Mediterranean and Europe, Koina Greek, which the new testament is written in, and also the Pax Roma, meant travel was safe and made possible because of the enforcing of order by roman law and roman army.  That peaceful and quite life enabled the spread of the gospel. Later as it became more prominent there would be problems a clash, persecution, but it enabled Christianity to grow and flourish.

Then we get to the heart of prayer, Paul says “such prayers are good and pleasing to God our savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” God’s desire is that all come into relationship with him. Some have latched onto this verse as a support for universalism, the idea that all will be saved, it’s the all roads lead to God way of thinking. But Paul unpacks that for us, he says ‘there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people.” It is universal in that all people are invited into a relationship with the one God, it is universal and inclusive because Jesus Christ and his death on the cross, is the means by which all people come back into relationship with God.  It is inclusive and universal in that God is the God of all the world. It is excusive because its focus is on the God who has revealed himself in the scriptures of the Old and New testament there is no other.  It is universal in that Jesus Christ gave his life as a ransom for all people, but exclusive in that Jesus Christ is the only mediator between humanity and God.

At the heart of prayer is the heart of God, his love for the world shown to us by sending the means by which we can be forgiven and reconciled with God as our loving father, Jesus Christ. That as we saw in chapter 1 v 15 Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners is the core of the gospel. The heart of God is for us…all.

Now in modern society that exclusive claim is offensive, we value tolerance and inclusivity, we want to affirm everyone’s truth as equal and valid. The reality is here that the love of God and his desire to have all people be saved is that God has provided a mediator. God’s made the first move… Paul responds to that by talking of salvation as coming to the knowledge of the truth. The truth of who God is and of who Jesus Christ is.  It is exclusive and offensive but open to all and for all. Also Paul responds by talking of his own calling and mission that he is appointed a herald and a apostle a true and faithful teacher of the gentiles. Gods desire has resulted in sending Paul to all. God’s response is that the church live out an authentic and consistent ethical life, what we summarise as Love, that shows people what Christ is like and what the Kingdom of God is like.

People have also looked at the ‘all’ in this passage from a very western modern individualistic understanding. Does it mean this person, that person. What about someone who does not hear about Christ? Paul here is combatting a tendency for the church to have a more insular and limited understanding of God’s salvation plans, it reflects the great commissions go into all the world and make disciples, baptising them in the name of the father the son and the holy spirit and teaching them all I have commanded you’. The people is plural. When  it comes to the individual we find ourselves with Abraham in Genesis 18:25 as he pleads for Sodom and Gomorrah, an example of bringing prayers for all people to God…who says ’surely the judge of all the earth can be trusted to act rightly.” 

How does this connect with us today…?

Perhaps it’s best illustrated by the story of the change that a simple call to pray has been making over the past several years. In the church of England about four years ago a prayer movement was started. The first year it was simply asking people to pray the Lord’s prayer to pray “thy kingdom Come” in the week between ascension and Pentecost, which is a way of asking that God’s reign established in Jesus Christ would manifest itself more in our lives and our world and in the church.

The next year it focused more on praying for God to bring people to Jesus Christ, for the church to be renewed n their love for God and love for people. It’s a movement that has spread around the world. Its calledthykingdomcome and you can go on line and become part of it. But it is inviting Christians to pray in a way that is good and pleasing to God. A few years ago we used one of their resources to pray for five people to come to know Jesus. I’ve still got those five people, when I mentioned that at the minister’s association my friend from the Pentecostal church up the road said “yeah he is doing it as well, but he’s seen 95 people on that list of five come to faith.’ Which is both a challenge and encouragement to me…  More recently out of that prayer movement has come action… well we are praying for this, what would it look like in my life, what would it look like in our congregation and resources are being developed to help people and churches share their faith and evangelise. There is a sense that the heart that prays is being stirred to reflect the heart of God and join Paul’s mission to take the gospel to all people.

When it comes to those two impulses to do with prayer the answer as I said is both. We need to pray more, make it part of life and we need to allow it to lead us into action. The heart of prayer is knowing the heart of God and the reality is we know what that is because he has revealed it to us in Jesus Christ, his desire is that all may come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ, when we pray for all people and leaders we are joining that heartbeat of God… and that heart beat becomes ours… so let us pray.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Avoiding a shipwrecked faith remembering God’s prophetic word as we battle on.( 1 Timothy 1:18-20)


When I read the passage we are looking at today I couldn’t help but remember times that God had spoken into my life through prophetic ministry.

One time in particular came to mind.

I was over on great barrier Island with a group of friends, we’d gone over to camp and tramp and fish and dive. A friend from church was working as a cook at Orama Christian community on the island and had asked us to bring his suite case over with us and drop it off. So we used it to store food in for the first few days we were camping and then two of us tramped over the island to give it to him.

We arrived in the middle of the Orama Christian conference and got invited into one of their meetings by our friend. The guy who was speaking was Des Short, the principle of Faith bible college. When he finished his message he looked straight at me pointed with his figure and in a loud voice said “You”.

Now I thought he was upset that we were there and was going to have us thrown out. You see while my fashion forward style could be described as aging vagrant or transient sage, back then I was a bit wilder.   I used to have long hair and a full beard, and this was the only time in my life when I had dreadlocks. I should say the only time I had a dreadlock. We’d been tenting with no fresh water for showers and swimming and snorkling everyday for hours, So my hair was matted into one salt encrusted dread lock, over to one side of my head.  We’d just spent two hours tramping over the Hills from Port Fitzroy. The track was a firebreak and went straight up the hill and then straight down the other side, so we were all sweaty. I’d borrowed my mate Tim’s jacket, to try and look descent, but I ended up looking even worse, the problem was Tim was shorter and smaller than I was and I ripped the sleeves and back out of  it, and the man at the front said “you… you Young man” and my heart fell.

Then he said that he believed that God had called me to be a pillar in the church and that I would make a mark for Christ. Which freaked me out a bit more than if we’d been thrown out for being too scruffy. God was speaking into my life… it was part of a call to ministry.

There are times when I think I’m not really cut out for ministry, like you probably do as well, that the spirit reminds me of that time. When I find myself trying to cope with pressure and stress I’ve sensed the Spirit say well pillars are supposed to be load bearing. It has been helpful as I have found myself in times of struggle to keep on fighting the good fight… to battle on.

In the passage we had read to us today Paul tells Timothy that he has given him his command and to remember the prophecies once made about you, so that by recalling them you may fight the battle well, holding on to faith and a good conscience, which some have rejected so have suffered shipwreck with regards to the faith. The passage rounds off the opening section of Paul’s letter and completes Paul’s charge to Timothy to oppose false teachers and advance God’s work by faith which result in love. We are going to look at the passage and then look at what it can say to us about avoiding being shipwrecked as we battle on in the faith as well.

Firstly Paul addresses Timothy as his son, as he had in verse 2 and this not only denotes a warm and strong relationship between the two but also that Paul sees Timothy as being his natural successor and representative in this situation. Paul is throwing the full weight of his apostleship behind Timothy. It’s kind of like with the royal family at the moment; the younger royals are stepping up and taking some of the work off the queen and in particular the duke of Edinburgh as he has retired. Like Remembrance Day last year. When they speak they speak with the Queens authority, she as prince William says ‘She is the boss’.


By inviting Timothy to remember the prophecies spoken about him Paul is saying don’t just take my word for it, he is asking him to remember how God has called him to ministry, so he will keep going when things get tough. But he is also asking him to remember that his authority and ministry is affirmed by the Holy Spirit and by the wider church. In the New Testament there are not many examples of people receiving such a call. You could think of Jesus baptism, or Paul’s own conversion, the disciples being called by Jesus to follow him. The best example of this would be in Acts 13 where the elders, teachers and prophets at Antioch call Paul and Banabas and set them aside for the work God had for them, and they set out on their missionary trips, one result of which is the planting of the Church in Ephesus. Timothy’s mission is not just a good Plan of Paul’s but part of the good God’s plans for Timothy.

Having given Timothy, the charge to fight the good fight, Paul then turns to how he is to fight, he is to hold on to faith and the good conscience. Ephesus was a major trade city it had been fought over and passed from empire to empire and would have been used to seeing troop garrisoned there. So Paul uses military metaphors. In his letter to the church at Ephesus Paul had told his readers to put on the whole armour of God and here amidst the military language of command and charge and fight, Paul mentions two of those things, faith, which in Ephesians Paul says is like a shield and good conscience which could be likened to the breastplate of righteousness. They are not offensive weapons rather they are defensive things, they are designed to hold ground and repel attacks. It is our faith in God and how that works out in how we act and react that is the best way of refuting false teaching and provide a defence of th hope we have in Christ.   

Faith speaks of that invisible relationship with God, that Paul had just finished saying was based on the grace of God, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Good conscience is the way that that relationship with God gives us a moral compass for decision making. It is how we live out that faith we have with God. James puts it like this faith without works is dead. In John’s first epistle he puts it like this ‘everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Who ever does not love does not know God, because God is Love.” As the conclusion to his sermon on the mount Jesus had said those who love him are the ones who hear his word and obey them, put it into action. We are saved by grace by Christ’s death and resurrection, and as we receive that love its transforms us to that we act and react out of that love and grace to the world around us.

Paul then contrasts Timothy’s holding on to faith and a good conscience with the false teachers who have veered off course and have ended up being shipwrecked. It might seem as if Paul is mixing metaphors here saying Paul needs to be a good solider, a metaphor he uses in his second letter, and a good sailor, as well as having a large military garrison Ephesus was also a major port and people would have been used a regular occurrence for some ships to leave port and be shipwrecked. Paul himself knew what it was like to be shipwrecked. Paul says the reason they have had this happen to them is they have rejected faith and good conscience, in the Greek the word reject is singular, so may apply simply to the good conscience, what Paul told of us the false teachers is that they were getting caught up in controversial speculation in myths and genealogies and were misusing the law and there is a sense here that they had disconnected faith from good conscience. They did not have that moral compass and so were lead off track and up onto the rocks or out into Adriatic and Mediterranean storms and founded in the changing winds of temptation and shifting ethical standards.

Paul finishes this section by refering to two specific people, who we are to assume were false teachers. Hymenaeus, who we only have mentioned here and in 2 Timothy and Alexander who may or may not be the Alexander we meet in Ephesus in Acts, A Jew who tries and tell the crowd what is wrong with Paul and his Christian faith, in second Timothy, Alexander the silver smith is mentioned as someone who Paul says he has suffered much at his hands. Alexander was a common name amongst Jews in Greek society.   But Paul says he has handed them over to Satan to learn not to blaspheme. Hand them over to Satan is a way of saying that they have been removed from fellowship, they are outside the protection of the church. However this is not a punishment rather it is in the hope that they will learn. Perhaps part of Timothy’s charge is to teach them and discuss with them the gospel in the hope of them changing their minds. Paul had called himself a blasphemer out of ignorance he had spoken against Jesus Christ and the sense here is that these two know about Christ but have chosen to speak carelessly about God.  We tend to link blaspheme simply with using Jesus name as a swear word, but here Paul sees it as much more its speaking falsely about the nature and grace of God.

How does this apply to us, how can Paul’s charge to Timothy help us avoid a shipwreck of faith?

Firstly, we are all in a battle, we all have a fight to fight…following Christ puts us at odds with the world in which we live. It calls us to swim against the tide and sail a different course, our sails unfurled for the wind of the Holy Spirit. You could liken the church to a lifeboat called by Christ to battle the storm to rescue and save people. We need the same encouragement and help that Paul was offering Timothy. 

I don’t mean everyone has to have those experiences of a prophetic call to a specific ministry like Timothy did to look back to and remember and be encouraged by. They are not common in the scriptures or today. While I have found those times encouraging and a reminder of God’s call, If I was to depend on those two or three times that God has spoken into my life they would be rather thin threads to help me hold onto the faith and good conscience, they would be distant and dispersed fix points, almost impossible  to use to navigate through the shallows and rocks of life.  Nor does it mean that you can sit back and say see Howard I knew all this talk about Christian leadership wasn’t for me… “I haven’t had that same experience as Timothy or you.

The best definitions of prophecy is the Holy Spirit taking the timeless word of God and making it timely, applying to the here and now.  We are all able to experience and know that in our lives. It is as we focus on God’s word on a regular daily basis that our faith and our good consciences are encouraged and strengthened. As we read it devotionally and as we study it and wrestle to understand and apply it to life, that it is able to point us to our true north in Jesus Christ. Using like Paul does a military image… During desert storm fighting vehicles were unloaded out of planes and off ships and the first thing they would do was stop in a painted square on the runway or port they arrived at. It was a square whose positioning was exactly known so they could recalibrate their GPS systems which enabled them to manoeuvre cross country in the trackless desert and achieve their mission. That is the same as the word of God is for us. It points us to the true north of Jesus Christ.

And…The reality is that scripture says we are called by God, God has spoken and called us to be witnesses to Jesus Christ, as we go in this world. We are called to be God’s people, a royal priesthood as it says in 1 Peter called forth to declare the praises of him who has called us out of darkness into his wonderful light, we are all called to love one another as Christ has loved us. The Holy Spirit gives each one of us gifts that we are to use for the common good.

In the midst of the wrestling with the things that would try and take us away from Christ and shipwreck our faith we are able to remember that prophetic word of God… I’m reminded of Jesus in the desert facing temptation he was able to navigate his way through that by focusing on God’s timeless word made timely to the situation, which came to him as a devote Jewish man from a life of studying the scriptures, and the presence of the same Holy spirit that is poured out on you and I. He remembered it as a rock not on which he would be shipwrecked but on which he could stand, a rock to anchor him in the storms and battles of life.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

The Good God, the Good Law and the Goodnews: Saved by grace and how to properly use the law (1 Timothy 1:8-17)


We are working our way through the first of Paul’s two letters to Timothy. As part of a wider series looking at the pastoral epistles, Paul’s letters on ministry and maturity to Christian leaders.


 Paul had left Timothy in Ephesus to stop certain false teachers. In his introduction, that we looked at last week,  I couldn’t help but get the feeling that Paul saw those false teachers like a bunch boy racers doing a burn out. Paul says they are getting caught up in controversial speculation about myths and genealogies, ’it’s like they were spinning their wheels as fast as they could but going nowhere, and going nowhere fast. They are just making lots of smoke and noise and a nuisance of themselves. His charge to Timothy is to keep the church on track, on the right road, advancing the work of God-by faith with the result of love.

In the passage we had read today Paul moves on to contrast his message with that of the false teachers and his authority and authenticity with those who want to be considered ‘teachers of the law’. He does it by challenging their use of the mosaic Law, and by talking of the gospel he has received from God and experienced in his own life. Which in verse 17 leads Paul to praise God. This part of Paul’s letter acts like the thanksgiving prayers in his epistles to Churches. It is a personal letter and Paul gives thanks to God for what has happened in his own life and that all can experience that same good news.

In fact Paul starts this section by acknowledging that the Law is good, he is not writing it off, it is after all from the good God, the only true God who has given the law. Jesus had said he did not come to do away with the law but came to fulfil it. In Paul’s second letter to Timothy Paul says that the scriptures are God breathed and useful for teaching and rebuking and training people up for all good deeds. Often people will talk about a difference between old testament law and new testament grace. But the challenge for us as it was for the Church in Ephesus is not the difference between law and grace, it is the proper use of the law in light of grace.

Paul accuses the so-called teachers of the law, of misusing the law. Kind of like saying cars are good, if they are used properly, not for burn outs. I think we catch something of Paul’s relationship with Timothy as his true son in the gospel here as Paul uses a bit of dad humour: a play on the word law which is lost in the English, he says that the law needs to be used lawly, or lawfully in the proper way. He describes that first by saying what it is not for. It is not for the righteous. Because it is impossible to legislate for love. Law is used as a guideline for loving thy neighbour in terms of stopping the negative elements but as Paul had already told Timothy the goal of God’s activity by faith; the gospel, is love.

 In Galatians 5 Paul had talked of the Christian life being a process of walking with the Holy Spirit, which produces fruit, love, joy peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, against which there is no Law. In fact as they paint a picture of being Christlike you could see how they fulfil the law, in loving God and loving others.

We don’t know what the false teachers in Ephesus were doing with the law.  We do know elsewhere Paul had battled a circumcision  group, who were focusing on the ritual laws of the old testament as the way of people needed to follow to be put right with God, Paul’s focus on salvation by grace here could be seen as a counter to that. We know from history that the church has struggled to walk a tight rope when it comes to the law. We have wavered and fallen off on the side of legalism, we have let the wonderful liberating relationship with God through Jesus Christ become the shackles of dos and don’t and right steps and pit falls. We have over balanced and fallen off on the side of licence and seen our freedom in Christ as having no moral application or substance and found ourselves caught again in the snare of sin and death.

Paul then says law  is to be applied to lawbreakers and rebels, the law is to show people where they have gone wrong. To illustrate that Paul uses a list of actions that are contrary to God law. It is a list of actions that were seen as immoral in Greek society but in the way they are grouped together and written is a reflection of the 10 commandments. The first four ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious relate to our relationship with God, then the rest apply to the commandments about  our relationship with others. They are to be seen as extreme examples of breaking those laws; killing mothers and fathers is an extreme example of not honouring your mother and father, murderers is the extreme of thou shall not kill, sexually immoral and homosexual behaviour are used as the extremes of do not commit adultery, the slave trade is seen as an extreme of don’t steal; what can be worse than to kidnap and steal a person and rob them of freedom, choice, status and dignity and tern them into a commodity. Liar and perjurers are extremes of bearing false witness. Paul seems to leave no converting out, but finishes his list by  adding anything else that is contrary to sound doctrine that confirms to the gospel. The word we translate here sound in the greek has the idea of healthy, healthy in terms of our relationship to God and to each other and this leads Donald Guthrie to sum Pauls teaching on the law here by saying “ law is a sort of medicine , only to be applied where the moral nature is diseased, Christian teaching is a healthy food for healthy people, a means of joy, freedom and larger activity’… By that larger activity I think it is the drawing us beyond ourselves to the kingdom of God. We have our needs meet in Christ and it calls us to put first the kingdom of God.

With our modern sensitivities, the homosexual practises stand out in that list. It speaks to the current debate over homosexuality in our society. It would be easy to focus on this for the whole of this sermon, which I don’t want to do, but I do want to make some comments which I hope will be helpful. The first is context, Paul is wanting to focus on the 10 commandments and in this case the law against adultery and in using sexual immorality and homosexual practises he is wanting to affirm God’s desire for fidelity in marriage… he is covering the whole spectrum of sexual expression outside of marriage to do so. The word Paul uses here is putting together of two words man and lie in bed with, else where another word is used to describe boys or effeminate men who were used for sexual exploitation. It definitely does apply to the activity rather than the orientation. Some have seen this passage as applying to all sexual activity outside of marriage and others see the categories used here as applying to sex with temple prostitutes, male and female, as part of pagan worship, and so not relating to what we would see as homosexuality today. Ephesus was world renowned for the temple of Artemis so there would have been such pagan activity in the city. 

I just want to make four quick points on this topic, (click for words) the first is that the word definitely relates to homosexual activity. People try and get round this as they do with other controversial parts of this letter to Timothy, which we are going to be looking at…hold on to your hats… ladies, by saying it is not Pauline, Paul didn’t write them. They reflect a time when the revolution of Jesus was slowly being pulled back into a socially conservative institution. That is matter of some debate. Bible commentator Philip Towner is correct when he says that when it comes to this word and passage the discussion and debate is not exegetically, that means understanding the text, rather is one of hermeneutics, how we interpret and apply the scripture. Here Christians do tend to be split usually by where they stand on the issue of homosexuality, reading that back into scripture. Secondly (click) as this is a passage about the correct application of the law followed by an amazing proclamation of God’s grace, we do need to be careful that we don’t use the law like a sledgehammer to beat people over the head and condemn and write them off as sadly we see some Christians do, we need to remember that Paul’s great good news is that God has come to save sinners the law points to the fact that we all need to know God’s forgiveness in our lives and no one is beyond redemption, even me as I find myself saying with Paul. The law and gospel does challenge us all about our sexuality. (click) I also think in a secular society like the one we live in there do need to be rules and law to protect people from discrimination simply for who they are, and that those in long term relationships should benefit from the protection of the law and protection when such relationships break up. (click)  I also affirm statement the PCANZ has made about sex and Christian leaders when it says God’s purpose for sexual expression is within the confines of loving, mutual, marriage between a man and a woman.

Paul’s focus is on the gospel he has been entrusted with. That’s what we will focus on now. He talks of his on going experience of God’s grace. It is God who gives him strength to carry out the service he has been appointed to do, that he has been entrusted with. It is God’s grace in Jesus Christ in the past that has lead him to that place. Paul talks of his life prior to knowing Jesus. He says he was a blasphemer, now elsewhere Paul had talked of being blameless as unto the law, he had kept the ritual law, but as he had encountered Jesus Christ on that Road to Damascus he was aware that he was guilty of blaspheming, denying God by speaking his name carelessly or disrespectfully. Paul now realises that in disregarding Jesus claims to be the messiah he had done that.  He was a persecutor, he had persecuted the believers and Christ, he had agreed with the stoning of Stephen and wanted to see others bought to a similar end, he was a violent man… even though he acknowledges he did these thing out of ignorance, while he was an unbeliever…  now says Christ, now God’s mercy shown in Jesus Christ has changed all that, his life now is based on faith and love in Jesus Christ. Both gifts from Christ, remember faiths speaks of the invisible vertical relationship with God and love speaks of the horizontal outworking of that relationship in service to others. That is the core of the gospel for Paul because that is what he has experienced and known from God.

Paul then widens that out and applies it generally, he refers to a trustworthy saying, in that he is referring to what someone else has said that is true, in this case it may well be Jesus words themselves. He says this is the gospel ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’. It echoes Jesus summation of his earthly ministry in Luke 19:10 ‘the son of man has come to seek and save the lost”… It echoes his response to the Pharisees and teachers of the Law when he dined at Levi’s house in Mark 2, “ it is not the healthy that need a doctor but the sick. I have come not to call the righteous but the sinners”. It rings with the words from john’s gospel ‘for god so loved the world he send his only begotten son, that who ever believed in him would not perish but have everlasting Life”. The centre of the gospel is that in Jesus the son of god came into this world as a human being, to make a way for you and I to know God, be forgiven and to love one another. Paul repeats his own experience by saying you know God could even do it for me the first amongst sinners. He presents his life as a model for the Christian experience, the former life, changed forgiven and renewed by Jesus Christ, now changed to serve and love others to reflect the great patience of God that we have experienced. The law can show us our need for God’s forgiveness and a new life but it is Jesus Christ that is the mans by which that happens.

I’m reading Eugene Petersen classic book ‘A long obedience is the same direction’, this year as my spiritual health book. A book I read and reread all year as a focus for my devotional life. It looks at the Psalms of ascent as a pattern for the spiritual journey of the Christian. I cheated and read the last chapter on Psalm 134 because I was preaching on it up at Edmund Hillary retirement home and Eugene Petersen says something that sums up this passage of Pauls. He says speaking of the psalms of ascent that the journey which started with repentance, in psalm 120,” and Petersen defines repentance as saying no to the lies of this world and yes to the truth of God, “finishes in a life of praise’. That is what Paul does here, his journey which started in seeing his need for God as the law became alive through Christ, and which was turned around by Jesus Christ now finishes in Praise. In the epistle in verse 17, but also as Paul had finished by talking of eternal life with God through Jesus Christ that that worship and knowing of God face to face would be his destination.

When I found this image behind me it encapsulated all that Paul was saying in this passage. The gospel is not just a spinning wheel going nowhere, rather it is the saving  life ring that God has given us through Jesus Christ.  Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners- even me. The challenge for us all from this passage is that it is easy to get caught up in the law and miss the wonderful main thing of the gospel… We can get caught up in doing this or that to find our way to God,. Pauls shows the way for Christians is to humbly recognise that it is not about what we would like to be known as, but that we have become known by Christ, we have been forgiven and called and equipped and strengthened by Christ's abiding presence not by a list of dos and don’t, our character and behaviour which is sacrificial love comes from that relationship, and how we see and use the law must be shown through that lens of Christ’s love and grace.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Philemon and a glimpse of the Church as a place of hope and an agent of change



I want to acknowledge my indebtedness to Scott McKnight's  for his wonderful commentary on Philemon and the courage that he showed in being willing to face the issue of the gospel and slavery. McKnight's commentary on Philemon is the New International Commentary series was so good and enthralling it was part of holiday reading over the summer.  This sermon is my humble wrestling with what the scripture has to say about the issue of slavery and some reflections on what Philemon says to us about facing large social issues. 

Paul’s short letter to Philemon, pleading with him to welcome back his runaway salve Onesimus, gives us a snap shot of how the gospel speaks to what was a specific serious pastoral issue. Paul applies the radically different understanding of our relationships with each other as brothers and sisters in Christ, and partners in the gospel, to the relationship between a slave owner and a slave. Calling for the grace and peace he gave in his blessing at the start of this letter to manifest itself between them. Commentator Scott McKnight says this is “an important example of how Pauline circles sought to embody a new vision for humanity-the Church.” A place where there was neither male nor female, slave nor free, Jew nor gentile, Greek nor barbarian… in Christ we are one.

 Last week we explored Philemon and what it had to say to us about the way of love when it comes to dealing with broken relationships between people. We looked at it from that pastoral level. However, It is impossible for modern readers to look at this epistle and not have some questions to ask about the bigger issue of the relationship between the gospel and slavery itself. It seems the early church was able to formulate an understanding of equality without calling for the abolition of the underlying social injustice of slavery.

There is no evidence that Paul actively sought for Onesimus to be emancipated. In having confidence that Philemon will do even more than Paul asks, some commentators suggest that he has left freedoms door ajar in the hope that Philemon would walk through it. Whether Philemon set Onesimus free falls outside the frame of the snap shot the epistle gives us, it is a story without a beginning or an end.

The sad truth is that Christian Europe and North America did not deal with the issue of slavery until into the eighteenth and nineteenth century. They benefited and flourished economically from slavery. In the western world it is tied to racism, how one group could see another as subhuman enough to simply be considered property, to own, buy and sell.  Slavery is also not a thing of the past but a growing modern phenomenon, the United Nations estimate that twenty-one million people are in slavery today, some non-profit organisations place it as high as thirty-five million. About a quarter are forced into the sex industry, about forty percent are under eighteen, forty six percent male and fifty six percent women. Sixty seven percent are in the Asia-Pacific region.

The profits from slavery are staggering, you can imagine agriculture and fishing and manufacture with out the labour costs and slavery in the sex industry is said to make over $100 billion a year. slavery is pervasive, when companies seek for the least cost they can for goods in a globalised labour market. Many countries now ask large international brands to guarantee that no slave or sweated labour is in their supply chain. While not technically slavery, the exploitation of migrant workers and exploitative practises in some industries in New Zealand show we need to on guard even in our own country.

The first thing we need to say is that the early church lives in a slave society and may not have the same sensitivity that we have to it today. Roman society was a slave society. Paul can say neither slave nor free in Christ because that was one of the social divides of his day, you were either free or a slave.  

Slavery permeates the whole of the biblical narrative as well. I read through the scriptures each year and as it’s January I’m reading through Genesis and because I’ve been working on this sermon I’ve been more aware of slavery. Abraham was a slave owner when he receives God’s call in Genesis 12 it says he left with his wife and family all his property and in verse 3, the people he had acquired in Harran. When Sarai is unable to have a child, she gives her Egyptian slave girl Hagar to Abraham so she might give him a child.  Later Sarai mistreats her, and she flees. God appears to her in the desert and she calls God… ‘the God who sees me’. There is the story of Jacob and again slave girls given to Jacob to have children, in a kind of competition between Rebecka and Leah.

Joseph is sold into slavery by his brothers as a lesser evil to killing him. While Joseph says that God used that evil for good, it still says that such enslaving is wrong. It is interesting that in New Zealand history God used a slave for the furthering of the gospel amongst Maori tribes. You are probably familiar with the story of Tarore and her St Luke’s gospel.  Tarore is the daughter of a chief, she is killed by a members of the Te Awa tribe, her most valued possession a copy of the gospel of St Luke in Te Reo that she kept in a kete round her neck is taken. At her funeral her father Ngakuku, a christian preaches forgiveness not revenge. Meanwhile her bible remains unread until a slave who can read  by the name of Ripahau comes along and as he reads the gospel to Uita the chief responsible for the death of Tarore, Uita’s heart is changed and he becomes a follower of Christ and knows he must take the risky step of asking for forgiveness, which he does and there is peace and reconciliation between the tribes. Ripahau later would read the scriptures to other tribes and chiefs and was instrumental in the spread of the gospel. As missionaries came they found the gospel had gone before them and refreshed peoples hearts, to use a line from Philemon.

We could go on and do a biblical survey, looking at the people of Israel being oppressed in Egypt after they had been treated well and the impact that had on them. We could talk of how after the exile, the idea of being redeemed was that wealthy kin would buy back people who for reasons of poverty had become slaves, and the call of the prophets to deal with the underlying problem of poverty so that they wouldn’t have to resort to such drastic solutions. We can forget that a lot of Jesus parables about servants were not about people in the hospitality industry but slaves in people’s households or royal courts.

But the gospel does have an impact. As we see from the glimpse we have in Philemon, Paul sees that as we come to faith in Jesus Christ, our relationship fundamentally changes, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer says “ our community with each other is founded solely on what Christ has done for us” Not on social status. Paul invites Philemon to see Onesimus no longer as a slave with no status, but as a man and a brother in Christ,  no longer useless but useful as a partner in the gospel.

In the letter to the church at Corinth this understanding of the family and household of God has other practical application. In 1 Corinthians 11 Paul talks of people going ahead at Christian gatherings and eating and having their full and those who come late missing out. Those who came late were most probably slaves who couldn’t come till they had finished their work, Paul says in the Christian community, you wait for those who wait on you so you may eat together as equals in Christ.

In second Corinthians Paul encourages slaves not to  be upset with their position, he is concerned about revolt, but also to get free when they can.  In his letter to the Ephesians Paul turn the roman household code on its head by making it not a means of keeping people in their place, but a way of showing Christian love and service by submitting to each other in reverence to Christ. 

 In 1 Timothy 1:11 which we are going to look at next week, Paul lists slave trading in a list of things that are morally wrong, slaves in roman society were usually either the off spring of slaves or captured in warfare. But slave traders were people who would kidnap people and then sell them as slaves and this was seen as immoral and wrong. That practise was the basis of the slave trade from Africa and black birding in the Pacific and was where in more modern times slavery was denounced. It is the basis of a lot of modern day slavery as well.

The question needs to be asked why didn’t this new way of being together automatically result in a movement to oppose slavery? Why did Christian slaves remain so? Why were Christians on both sides of the abolition debate? In the Us the bible belt and the old slave states virtually coincide?  How do we apply the gospel and the church as a place of the hope of change to our world today?

Firstly, it is easy to find ourselves immersed in our culture and society rather than in the scripture and its implications. We like those in the first century world find ourselves with cultural blind spots. It is easy for us to be products of our society and time. It’s as simple as that. We can become settled and comfortable in the place where we are and forget Jesus call to come and follow him. Jesus warns of the danger of wealth and comfort when he says you can serve God and mammon, and you know what it’s easy to find ourselves in the impossible place of doing both. It’s why in the Old testament God continually sends the prophets to critic what is going on and call the people back to God’s ways. It is why God raises up those sorts of people within the church as well. Historically we could look at St Francis of Assisi, John Wesley, whose revival gave the spiritual vitality that underpinned the movement for the abolistion of slavery and so much social reform, even the new monastic movement in our own time, who chose a radical path. They invite us to revaluate ourselves by confronting us with the uncomfortable demands and call of the gospel, to move us back towards Christ. 

The second thing is that one of the voices we don’t hear in the book of Philemon is Onesimus, Paul speaks for him as an advocate. We don’t know what he has told Paul about his life as a slave, the process of forgiving and being healed that he has had to go through, his pain and his suffering, coming to realise that in Christ he has real worth, not just as property we don’t hear his story or his voice. If we are to see each other as beloved brothers and sisters, then we need to hear the voices of people who are impacted the most by things like slavery and poverty and abuse. We need to hear them look at the scriptures and ask the    difficult questions, even wrestle with that age old question in the wisdom literature ’How long O God, How Long… will you allow this suffering to go on, will you abandon me.’ But also as they speak hear the gospel ring true again of transformation and new creation in Christ. St Patrick was a ardent anti slave voice in Ireland because he had suffered as a slave taken in a raid. Scott McKnight says that it was not till after the revolution in Haiti amongst black slaves demanding freedom that the abolition movement took off. In England, when former slave, Olaudah Equiano wrote his biography and outlined the abuses, violence and evil he had experienced it resulted in a petition going to parliament to stop the salve trade.  It is why the trusted voices of people like  Martin Luther king Jr and Desmond Tutu, are so powerful and important. It is the power of the voices in the women’s movement as well and those we hear in the me too movement challenging sexual harassment and the abuse of power.

Lastly Philemon is just a quick snap shot into both a personal pastoral issue and a larger social injustice. It does not provide us with a overarching solution or even all the answers to our questions. One of the things it does is that it brings theology down to a personal step. One step forward. The way to change is being prepared to take that step forward. We don’t know what impact Paul’s letter had on Philemon, as a church leader and slave owner/household head, it may have been radical he may have been willing to not just forgive and welcome Onesimus, but free him, maybe his household was radically changed… its out of the picture we have.  But how the gospel relates to slavery and to other issues of injustice comes down to that personal step, leaving the door ajar so that we may walk through it…


My mother’s family name was Sharp. One of our ancestors was Granville Sharp who was know as the father of the movement to abolish slavery… his journey started one day in the streets of London, a simple clerk he came upon a runaway salve by the name of Johnathan strong who had been beaten and left for dead. Granville Sharp took him to see his brother, who just happened to be the royal physician and Johnathan Strong was given the best of medical care and restored to health , when his previous owners saw this they had him arrested and were going to ship him off to the Caribbean to work in their plantations. Grenville sharp paid a lawyer to defend him in court arguing that you couldn’t own another person in England. He failed in that, but he went on to train himself in the law and fight several other legal cases, till he succeeded, the justices used to quake as this simple clerk came into their court room because of the rightness and justice of his cause.

How does the gospel relates to slavery and other injustices in the world today is an unfinished story, the open ended nature of Philemon invites us to take a step and write it with our lives, to change the picture for our suffering brothers and sisters, for Christs sake.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Philemon and the way of Love


In the short letter of Philemon we catch a glimpse into how the gospel of grace and our Christian faith steps into a specific real life situation. A very serious pastoral issue on a personal level. And a very challenging social issue on the wider scale.

 Paul is writing to Philemon a house church leader, and slave owner, probably in the city of Colossae, acting as an advocate for a runaway slave, Onesimus. Asking that Onesimus be welcomed as a Christian brother forgiven and released so he can serve as a co-worker with Paul in his gospel mission.

This is part of our series on the pastoral epistles called Maturity and Ministry: what Paul has to say to church leaders.  We are going to take two weeks to look at this letter, this week we are going to focus on the pastoral issue of reconciliation with a fellow believer-the way of Love. It’s helpful for us because we may be involved in situations where relationships are strained and broken because of what we have done to another or where we are having to decide how we will respond to someone who has wronged us, or even how as Christian brothers and sisters or leaders we can help fellow believers who find themselves in that situation.

Next week we will look at what Philemon has to say about the wider issue of slavery and what it can say to us about the church as a place of hope for change. That it might provide insights into how we deal with an issue that has raised its head in our world again today, slavery, and how we might face other equally challenging issues.  


Philemon is a letter that comes into a story without a beginning or end. We don’t know what the start of the story was, and we don’t know the outcome. This letter is simply the place where the grace and peace that Paul blesses Philemon, his fellow leaders, both men and women, and the whole church can step into the story.


From the letter we know that Paul at this time is in prison, probably in Ephesus rather than Rome, and by the providence of God has met Onesimus a runaway slave from the household of Philemon. Paul leads him to Christ and finds him useful in his mission. We know from the letter that Onesimus has probably stolen some money from Philemon. Slaves in first century roman society, did not own anything, remember they were owned, and the only way to make good an escape would be to steal enough funds and clothes to get away to a major city where they maybe able to disappear in the crowd.

But as he has run away he has run straight into the arms of the gospel and somehow through contact with Paul has become a follower of Jesus. This puts him and Paul in a difficult situation. If he stays with Paul, Paul is guilty of harbouring a runaway slave, a serious crime. Onesimus is also always going to have the stigma of being a runaway slave, always looking over his shoulder, always a fugitive. On top of that how is he going to live out his new faith without seeking reconciliation with those he has wronged. 

Philemon, we know is the head of a roman household and Church, Apphia maybe his wife, but is also a fellow leader in the church. As a head of a roman household Philemon would have owned slaves. We do know that he also through the ministry of Paul has become a follower of Jesus and has grown in his faith and taken on leadership in a house church. We don’t have any idea of the time frame of Onesimus running away, it may have been before Philemon came to faith. We have no idea of what sort of slave owner Philemon was, slaves as people of no status were open to physical abuse and deprivation, sexual abuse, they could be bought and sold. Has Philemon’s new faith impacted and transformed his actions.  As an owner of slaves Philemon would have been expected to put out notices and a description of his runaway slave and been expected to punish the slave if they were caught and returned.   

Paul writes a letter and sends it along with Onesimus back to the church. When we come to faith, as Christ moves in our lives there is often the need for us to put things right and seek forgiveness for what we have done in the past. In the book ‘the Cross and the switch blade’ about David Wilkinson’s work with 1950’s street gangs in New York, the thing that showed how real the conversion of the gang members was, was when they were seen walking through their neighbourhoods returning what they had stolen, and going to the police station to apologise for all the trouble they had caused and getting the police to sign their bibles. Doing that there was the very real possibility of prosecution, but grace demanded it.

My father in law Ray told the story of having the big industrial non-slip mat at his bakery stolen one night. He was extremely hacked off that he had to buy another one.  A long time later he was rather taken back when a man walked into his store and said he had become a Christian and wanted to return the mat he had stolen and asked for forgiveness. He forgave him and in his typical pragmatic way wondered what he was going to do with two mats.  For Onesimus it wasn’t a mat but a more serious matter but he was willing to trust himself to God’s grace and love.  

Paul acknowledges the good things he has heard about Philemon, the way he has shown his love and care for God’s people. 

He tells Philemon that he could order him to welcome Onesimus back, but he chooses not to. Rather his appeal is on the basis of Love. You cannot command reconciliation and forgiveness, it must come from the passion and compassion of Christ. Also here an appeal to authority and legality may be counter productive because of the authority and laws of the roman empire involved.

Paul rather takes a Christ like approach, he had written to the people of Philippi about having the mind of Christ and here he demonstrated it, by laying aside power or status, he is simply Paul, an old man, a prisoner, he stands alongside Onesimus, he is willing to take on the debt of what Onesimus has done wrong to see him restored.  Most of Paul’s letter were dictated to a scribe and he would only write the final greeting at the end. Here that occurs earlier in the letter and is a sign of Paul’s commitment to pay the price for Onesimus. 

He speaks out of the grace that both Philemon and Onesimus have received, they have found new life in Christ. This has changed their basic relationship to one another. In roman society slaves were never considered to become full adults they were always seen as minors, with no status, that is reflected in that most offensive of title used to African American male slaves, “Boy”, but Paul now turns that round to say Onesimus has become his beloved son.  They are no longer just slave and master but they are now brothers in Christ. One no longer belongs and works for the other but they have become partners in the gospel, both are co-workers.

Paul uses a wonderful word play to describe how Onesimus status has changed, he tells Philemon once he was useless, but now he is useful to both you and to me. Onesimus means useful, it was a common name for a slave in roman days, but here instead of just being a slave name it is infused with the good news of the Gospel. No longer is Onesimus only good for doing work to help Philemon’s house or business, which he ran away from, but he is of eternal worth as he shares and ministers the good news of Jesus Christ.   Paul asks Philemon to welcome Onesimus back. Not only that but to be willing to send him to serve Paul.

So you know I really like word plays and I really like and value Paul’s play on words here. If I’m in a fluster or aware of my own imperfections I find myself resorting to a kind of destructive self-speech, I say ‘howard you‘re useless’ this passage speaks God’s truth that in Christ we are Onesimus…useful, called and equipped by God for his purposes and mission, I just have to remind my heart to listen sometimes. 

Here is the way of Love. That we seek to be reconciled with each other because of the grace and life changing love of Jesus Christ. Because we have been welcomed into the family and household of God, we have received grace so we should show that grace to one another, we have an advocate in heaven who pleads our case for us, so we should stand alongside those who genuinely seek reconciliation and show and speak the gospel. While many have said that Paul sounds almost like is manipulating Philemon here, it is only by coming back to what Christ has done for us and the grace and wholeness and peace we have received in Christ that invites us to show such love and grace to others. Even those who have wronged us. To offer them grace and love as our brothers and sisters in Christ.

This letter would have been read out in public because it had an impact on the whole Church.  A church made up of both household heads, free people, slaves, men and women, Jew and gentile, Greek and barbarians , and how the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus is restored would impact the whole church. Was Philemon going to forgive and welcome Onesimus back as a Christian brother, maybe even free him, which by the way goes beyond the bounds of the knowledge. Being God’s people calls us to a different understanding of relationships with one another, it calls us to a way of love. Broken relationship within a church community have a damaging effect for the whole people of God they can impact and effect a community and weaken and destroy our witness to Christ’s love. It’s important that we be willing to walk the road of Onesimus and seek to be reconciled with those we have wronged. To advocate for each other.

But as I said before this letter is part of a story that has no beginning or end. WE don’t know how Philemon acted do we. The fact that it is included in the scriptures may be testimony to the fact that it is an example of the way of love of great forgiveness and reconciliation. Onesimus is mentioned in Paul’s letter to the Colossians visiting the Church with Tychicus. An Onesimus is also mentioned by Ignatius a second century church father as being the bishop of Ephesus… But we don’t really know… it is open ended. 

That invites us to step into the story and to ask the question how would we react? what we would do in this situation?  If we were in Philemon’s shoes, how would we be constrained by the love and grace of God that we have experienced in Christ?  Would we welcome this person who had wronged us as a brother in Christ?

It opens us up to find ourselves in Philemon’s shoes in our own life as well… How are we to respond to the situations and broken relationship we find ourselves in? When we are confronted by the way of love? How does the gospel invite us to respond when we are wronged? In our response how do we refresh the hearts of the believers around us?