Thursday, June 29, 2017

God's Great Love... a prayer of thanks giving and confession

once again just a simply prayer for our church service this week. 

What great love you have for us God,

We are fearfully and wonderful made, each unique one off’s

You know us so well, you saw us in our mother’s wombs

While some of us might want to have words with you about it

The psalmist tells us you even know the number of hairs on our head

You know our comings in and going out, our times are in your hands

You know our needs even before we ask you

And you see the deep hidden things at the very core of us,

Both the good and prise worthy and the pains and wounds of our heart

What great love you have for us

What great love you have shown us

We had gone our own way and turned our backs

Yet you sent your son to make a way for us to come back to you

Jesus emptied himself and became one of us, a servant

Preached and proclaimed Good news to the poor

Healed the sick and set the captives free,

Gave sight to the blind, both physical and spiritual

He willing gave up his life for the forgiveness of our sins,

Being betrayed and falsely accused, he dies on the cross

But you raised him to life again and he is seated at your right hand

What great love you have shown us

What great love we experience from you

In Christ’s death and resurrection, we are forgive and have new life,

We know your abiding presence because you have sent your Holy Spirit

That fulness of life is eternal because it is lived in you, eternal God

We were distant and estranged, you called us together as your people

Brothers and sister in Christ, with those next to us and round the world

You provide our needs through the wonder of your creation

You provide for our needs in answering our prayers

We find meaning and purpose in serving you by loving others

What great love we experience from you

Your faithful love is new every morning

So today we come and ask your forgiveness

We have done things that you have said we should not

We have left undone the good you have told us to do

We acknowledge that we have sinned forgive us Lord we pray

Because you are faithful we know we are forgiven and made new

Today we ask for a fresh filling of your spirit

Today we ask that you may help us to love as Christ loved

Today we say glory to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit

Your faithful love is new every morning

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Worthy of the Gospel: Standing Firm and Striving together (Philippians 2:1-11)

I remember one summer night when I was about twenty and living in west Auckland I went out to Piha with a group of friends. It was a very wild west coast kind of instead of swimming or surfing we explored the rocks to the south of the beach. One of the guys who was with us ran along the rock ledge just above the waterline when a wave… a huge wave… came and broke over the top of him…. Boom. We thought we’d lost him that he’d be swept away, gone… But as the water drained away there was our mate hanging on to the rocks, a bit bruised and battered but alive.

Now being young, we decided that looked like fun and we’d give it a go. So we found a place just a bit further up the rocks and wedged ourselves in and let the spray from the waves break over us. Now and again a big set would come in and threaten to break our grip on the rocks. Looking back It was kind of dangerous and stupid but it was also exciting and exhilarating, and one of those male bonding things. We held fast together against the wind and the waves.

In the passage we had read to us today Paul turns from sharing his own experience with dealing with suffering and opposition to encourage the church to live a life worthy of the gospel and stand firm together in the struggles that they are facing, the same struggles that Paul had faced at Philippi and was facing now, opposition and persecution. What reminded me of that night out at Piha is a comment from New Testament scholar Frank Thielman, he says that Paul is not talking about suffering in general or standing firm for our own personal agenda but rather he is writing to "encourage a small group of people who stood as an Island of commitment to the gospel amidst a raging sea of pagan antagonism." And what Paul says is as encouraging to us today as it was to his first hearers in Philippi.

Over the winter months we are working our way through Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi. A letter where he thanks the church for their support and prayers and encourages them to stand firm in the faith. It a letter in which Paul uses the word joy sixteen times he encourages the church not only to stand firm but to rejoice in what Christ has done, is doing and will do for and through them. That encouragement is not only for his original readers but for us as we stand firm on our joyous journey following Jesus.

The passage we had read out to us today starts “whatever happens” and it links us back to what Paul had said previously. He had started his letter with formal introductions and thanksgiving and prayers for the church at Philippi, then he had told them about what was happening to him. That he was in prison in Rome awaiting his case to be heard by the emperor. He does not know whether he will live or die . He can rejoice however because even though he is in chains the gospel is unchained and people are hearing of Jesus Christ, and whatever happens to him his future is certain, it is with Christ. Now he turns to the church at Philippi and addresses them in their situation. It is part of Paul’s ministry, he continues to live, so he continues to build up the church.

Paul starts by telling them whatever happens to me, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. This imperative acts as a subject heading for the rest of the letter. Paul is going to expound ways in which the church at Philippi can live in that manner. The Greek word that we translate ‘conduct yourselves’, is only used two times in the New Testament, here and in Acts 23:1. It has a political context of living as a citizen, behave like a good citizen, in Acts when Paul uses it is translated Duty, Paul says he has fulfilled his duty to God. Philippi was a Roman colony, which meant that its inhabitants were citizens of Rome by right. Just as Dunedin was designed to be the Edinburgh of the south, Philippi was designed to be a little bit of Rome on the shores of the Agean. It’s people were to live as citizens of Rome, keeping the roman law and order and exemplifying Roman culture. In telling the Church to conduct themselves in a manner worthy of the Gospel, Paul is telling them they are to live their lives not as a bit of Rome far away from home, but as citizens of heaven, people of the Kingdom of God, to live out God’s will on earth as it is in heaven. We’ve got the British and Irish lion’s tour in New Zealand. The first test was last night, when you see the stadiums you can tell who are citizens of Britain and Ireland down here to support the Lion’s they are in red and chanting “Lions, Lions” and you can tell the All Black’s fan’s because they are dressed in black and chanting ‘Tutiramai nga iwi’ or Black, black…

But it is not clothing or chanting that is going to distinguish the church as Citizen’s of the kingdom of God, it is the way in which they live. Paul goes on to tell the church at Philippi to stand firm in one spirit, striving together as one for the faith of the gospel. The conduct that Paul is looking for is their unity and love for one another.

It’s a unity of one spirit, now there are different interpretations of this, Paul is a bit ambiguous when he says that. It can mean that the church shares a sense of shared comradery and belonging together, a very human emotion or understanding of being together. It could also be talking of being one in the one Spirit, the Holy Spirit. We are united and stand firm together because we share the same promised Holy Spirit. I think it is not a matter of either and here, but of both and, We do belong to each other we have that spirit of comradery because we do share the same Spirit, the Holy Spirit given to everyone who believes. I might not have much in common with you and you may not have much in common with me, but what makes us united is that we have both, all been bought to know God through Jesus Christ and the same Spirit lives within lives within me. The Irish and welsh and English and Scotts don’t always get on together, but on the lion’s tour they see each other and instantly there is a sense of being one as Lion’s supporters.

But that unity is not just on that emotional and theological level, Paul says it’s on a practical level as well striving together as one for the faith in the gospel. The church is not just a place where in Christ we all belong, it is a place where we all have a part to play as well. Alec Motyer says the church has a no passenger policy. We all do our part for the furthering of the gospel. It’s a hands on thing. Athenagora ( (illustration found in Frank Thielman's commentary) was a second century apologist for the Christian faith, he defended Christianity in the reign of two roman emperors; Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Aurelius Commodus. They were very keen on Philosophy and saw Christians as uneducated and backward one of Athenagora’s answered that by saying

“with us on the contrary, you will find unlettered people, tradesmen and old women, who though unable to express in words the advantages of our teaching, demonstrate by acts the value of their principles. For they do not rehearse speeches but evidence kind deeds; when struck they do not strike back when robbed they do not sue, to those who ask they give, and they love their neighbour as themselves.”

You may have heard that saying ‘Share the gospel, and if you have to use words’ Well it’s not biblical. In his Introduction Paul had talked of defending the gospel, then he goes on to talk of the gospel being proclaimed in his personal circumstances and now he talks of a life that is worthy of the gospel. Proclamation and living out go hand in hand together and are how all of us strive for the faith of the gospel. The gospel is a beautiful song, with profound life giving lyrics and what makes it catchy is the music that goes along with it, which is our lives lived worthy of the gospel. It’s best performed by all of in playing in unison and being in harmony.

 Paul goes on to say we are to do this striving without being frightened of those who oppose us. In fact this is a sign that they will be destroyed but that you will be saved. Paul had already given the church a look at his own attitude to suffering. Yes he was in chains he was at the emperors mercy   but he didn’t let that rob him of his courage or his joy. Paul was seeing one of the elite units in the roman army become aware of the gospel. The gospel was permeating Roman culture and power. They respond to opposition with kindness and exemplary behaviour. There are good examples of this in history… I’ve mentioned it a few times but when the berlin wall came down, massive prayer meeting had had a major part in it and one East German official had said ‘they were ready for riots and revolution, violence and uprising, but they were not ready for prayers and candles.’ The civil rites movement in the US’s use of non-violence showed the brutality and evil of racism up for what it was and was able to overcome it and tear it down. In the end our hope is that it is not the power of the majority or the mighty but of God that is at work and for us.

Paul finishes by saying that the church has not only been given the gift of believing in Jesus Christ but also to suffer for him. This is a hard thing for us to understand because we do not see suffering as a gift. This passage can be skewed to make us think that all the problems we face or suffering we have are gifts from God, which is not true. What it does mean is that suffering opposition and struggles are not a sign of God’s forgetfulness, that he has abandoned us, but rather that just as Christ’s suffering was redemptive and carried out God’s will, when we face opposition and persecution for the sake of the gospel, we are identifying with Christ, and we know his suffering was redemptive, and that is our hope that God can bring his grace and redemption through our persecution an trouble. That was Paul’s experience and it is the church at Philippi and ours as well.

How do we tie all that together and apply it our lives, how do we go from the then and there to the here and now?

Firstly, Just as the church at Philippi was told to live a life worth of the Gospel, so that is Paul’s words to us as well. We face the same challenge, how are we to live as good citizen’s not of our western democracy here in New Zealand but as citizens of the kingdom of God.  Together in Christ!

In the western world we do not face the open persecution and opposition like the church in Philippi did, but in the world today many of our brothers and sister do. In the Philippine, in India, Syria, Africa, communist countries, the middle east.  Paul’s letter gives us ways for us to respond to that. Just as Paul in his situation with his struggles writes to comfort and encourage the church at Philippi, you and I can pray for and where possible communicate with others.

Just like with the Church at Philippi does with Paul, we can share what we have with them to help them to continue proclaiming the gospel. We have newsletters from groups like voices of the Martyrs that advocate for persecuted Christians in our church foyer. Although I went looking for them during the week and sadly I think some of them went out in the working bee.

But also in our own country, we don’t face such overt persecution, but there are more subtle waves that pound against the church and the Christian faith. There is a prevailing tendency to trivialise the spiritual, and what Spiritual things are permissible are not from the Christian faith or organised religion. Christianity is often mocked.  Increasingly Christian notions are excluded from public debate. Christian thinking is marginalised in academic institution, whereas for centuries it has been foundational. And as one commentator says ‘ there are subtle pressures on believers to view their answers to life most profound questions as unimportant and slightly backward. This can lead to feelings of isolation and depression. It may not be wild west coast waves of persecution, but faith can be undermined by the constant lap of these kinds of waves… But Pauls words are equally relevant calling us to unity, not so we can huddle together and hunker in the church like it is a bunker, but that our unity in spirit and action would be a defence for the gospel. Together our love for one another and in acts of kindness and exemplary behaviour opponents might see Christ like love and who knows be drawn to Christ.  That we conduct ourselves in a way worthy of the Gospel.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Worthy of the Gospel a Prayer of Thanksgiving and Confession...

This Prayer is based around Paul's imperitive to the church at Philippi to live worthy of the gospel (Philippians 1:27). It gives thanks to God for all he has done for us and offers a prayer that we might live our lives in a way that is an expression of God's grace and love.

Lord God we come today to thank you for your great Love
Shown in all the wonderful things you have done for us.
We thank you for all you have made
Diverse environments and the Immense splendour of the night sky,
The delicate and intricate, the beautiful and awe inspiring
For the unique individuals, you have made each of us
We praise you for your loving craftmanship
And pray you would help us to care for, and treat it wisely
And treat each other as fearfully and wonderfully made in your image.

Loving God, full of mercy and grace
 We thank you for your redemptive love shown in Jesus Christ
Jesus stepped humbly down in to our world
proclaimed good news to the poor freedom to captive, sight to blind
He healed the sick, welcomed back the outcast
Died on the cross for the forgiveness of sin, and rose again to life.
We praise you that in this we who were lost in the dark, are found in the light,
And we pray we would live worthy of that great love
That we may show the same grace and love to all around us

Holy God, who choses to dwell in your people by the Holy Spirit
We thank you that you have poured out your Spirit on us all
You comfort us and council us on how to live for Christ
You fill us with  the power we need to witness to Jesus as Lord
You enable and equip us to love and serve as Christ did.
Walking with the Holy Spirit you produce Christ honouring fruit in us
We praise you for your abiding presence with and within us
We pray that we may know more of you each day
We pray as the spirit moves we may grow to maturity in faith and love 

Gracious Lord, we come today aware of our need for you
Full of thanks and praise for you and your love for us
Fully aware of our failings and brokenness
We acknowledge that we have done wrong
That we have left undone the good you call us to do
That we have not loved as you have loved us
We thank you that you are  just and faithful and hear our confession
We pray that you would forgive us and wipe the slate clean
We humbly hear you gracious words “you are forgiven”

Father God, who sent us your Son, who sends the Holy Spirit
In response to your love we dedicate ourselves afresh today
We open ourselves up afresh to you
Fill us we pray with your Holy Spirit
Lead us and teach us to walk in your ways
Reenergise our love in Christ and witness to Christ
We praise you Father, Son and Holy Spirit for hearing our pray
We ask that you would help us to live worth of your gospel
All glory and Honour to you God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Paul gives two Reasons to Rejoice, even in chains and facing an uncertain future: The certainty of the gospel unchained (Philippians 1:12-26)

When we were young one of the things we had to do after Christmas and our birthdays was sit down and write thank you letters to the various distant relatives who’d sent us a card and some money. They were people we didn’t really know that we’d only seen in old faded black and white photographs or met once or twice or maybe seen at family gathering every other year or four. So I remember asking my mum what do you say after you’ve written the introduction stuff. Dear Auntie Petunia or Uncle Bob, I’m writing to say thank you for the lovely birthday/Christmas present. Thanks, you very much.’ My mom would say well why don’t you tell them about what you are doing, about what year you are in at school, what are your interests and that sort of thing… Let them know what is happening in your life. Which we did, I don’t think there was ever more than a stilted line or two. I know it was never anything profound. The letters never got past just the superficial stuff and I doubt whether they were preserved for posterity.  

In the passage, we had read out to us today Paul after his Christ filled introduction tells the church at Philippi about what is going on in his life. They had sent him a gift to support him in prison and he lets them know what has happened, where he is now and the uncertainty of his future. In this we have a window into Pauls experiences and mind, but also because of who Paul is we are given an example of true Christian living in the face of suffering and uncertainty. A statement of principle to guide all the saints, the church in Philippi way back then and there, and us, as God’s people, here and now.

This winter we are working our way through Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi. A letter he wrote to thank them for their support and prayers. A letter that he writes to encourage them to stand firm in the faith in the face of external persecution and false teaching within. A letter that uses the word joy sixteen times and encourages the church to rejoice because of what Jesus Christ has done and is doing and can be trusted to do in the future. That in Christ we can know Joy regardless of the circumstance. In the passage, we are looking at day, Paul gives two reasons he rejoices in the face of suffering: while he is in chains the gospel is unchained, Jesus Christ is being proclaimed, and while his future is uncertain, whether he lives or dies he is certain it is held in Christ.

Paul starts by saying what has happened to him in the past has served to advance the gospel. We know form the book of Acts of the things that Paul has endured and the suffering he has faced, and in those situations the gospel has been advanced. People have heard the gospel message. People have encountered Jesus Christ and become his disciples, there have been many who have been healed and set free in Christ. We know Paul’s journey to imprisonment in Rome. In Acts 21 we see that Paul is arrested in Jerusalem and falsely accused of taking a gentile into the temple. Even as he is being arrested and guarded by roman soldiers he gives his testimony to the crowds gathered. He speaks to the Jewish governing body the Sanhedrin and to the Roman officials. He is a Roman citizen so he makes an appeal to have his case heard by the Emperor, and is transported to Rome. We read of his ship wreck and the founding of the church in Malta as a result. Acts finishes with Paul in house arrest in Rome awaiting his hearing before the Emperor. He can look back at all these things that have happened in the past and see that God has used them to further the gospel

That is the confidence that you and I have as well, that if we serve Christ and are about his business that God can use the ups and downs in our life to further the gospel. The good times and the tough times for the furthering of his Kingdom. When we were in Napier I had a suspicious possibly cancerous lump on my leg removed. I spent about a week in hospital lying on my back unable to move in case I disturbed the skin graft on my leg. I was in a hospital room with four other men and you know in the evenings we had some of the best conversations I’ve ever had with non-Christians about the faith and I got to share the Christian faith with them in a way I don’t think would have been possible in everyday life. They may not have come to faith at that moment but I know that the Holy Spirit gave each of them a nudge in a Christ-ward direction. God can use what has happened in our past both the good and the bad for the sake of the gospel. It can be used for the glory of God.

Then Paul turns to talk of his present situation.  In our minds, we think of prison as punishment for wrong doing, but in this case Paul could be said to be on remand awaiting trial. He is waiting to have his case heard before the emperor. He s under house arrest and is chained all the time between two guards, soldiers form the prestigious Praetorian guard. He is not able to leave his place of residence but he is allowed to have visitors, and meets with those whom Acts tell us are with him, like timothy and even Luke, and also people from the fledgling church in Rome and from the end of Acts we see also the local Jews as well. Maybe we are used to the legal system taking a long time and it seems Paul has a two or more year wait for his audience with Caesar.

From this passage also we can see that Paul’s reception in Rome seems not to have been totally warm from the Church and there are groups within the church who do not regard Paul highly as an apostle, it maybe a case of jealousy, that this big wig has turned up on their patch, we don’t know but this is adding to Paul’s suffering. You see very often in the Psalms of David, that David’s suffering is often amplified by peoples gossiping and speaking ill of him. Maybe you’ve experienced that as people have talked about what you are facing and how you are dealing with it behind your back.

Yet even amidst this waiting period, this period of captivity and inactivity Paul rejoices. While he is in chains the gospel is unchained. He maybe a captive but all day everyday he has a captive audience, who listen to his prayers, his meeting with Christian brothers and sisters and his speaking with the Jews about Christ. Who when they are alone with Paul he speaks with and shares his faith, prays for them and their families. Paul reports that Jesus Christ has become known amongst the whole palace guard. It’s very subversive but those who are tasked with protecting Caesar as Lord are coming to know ‘Jesus as Lord’. God is using Paul’s captivity to reach into a sphere of Roman society that it may well have been impossible to reach any other way.

Paul rejoices that while he is in chains, the gospel is unchained, because of his courage the church around him is encouraged more to speak and share and proclaim Jesus Christ. It’s not the leaders that Paul sees only doing this but rather it is the people who are inspired to talk of their faith. Maybe Paul being in Rome has been a catalyst for people to inquire about the Christian faith. I’ve had a lot of discussions with non-Christians about the faith because of Brian Tamaki. For a while there Brian got lots of stick from the media, when people find out I’m a minister they want to know what I think of him and what really is the heart of Christianity. I’m sure Brian does not like the adverse publicity but its opened doors for the gospel. Yes I know it has hardened a few as well.  Even says Paul those whose motive are wrong, who are wanting to compete with Paul are preaching the gospel.  These are the things that make Paul rejoice.

Richard Wurmbrand was imprisoned for many years under the communist and Ceausescu  regime in Romania, he suffered torture, illness, physical and phycological pain. Yet during that time his imprisonment encouraged the church outside to continue and he witnessed to many of the prisoners who were with him in prison, seeing them come to the Lord. AS the regime continued and various factions fell out of favour, Wurmbrand found himself sharing his cell with the people who had tormented him, prosecuted him and even tortured him and was able to speak with them and share Christ’s love.  When he was released he has influenced many Christians by his testimony of God’s grace and love for enemies. In communist China one of the ways in which the gospel spread was through the witness of Christians in prisons and labour camps. They were the only ones the guards could trust to shave them, as they knew they could be trusted not to cut their throats. The Christians would give up their precious eggs a major source of protein to give to the prisoners in the infirmary. Even in Egypt today as Christian face persecution and death at the hands of Islamic extremists, their willingness to forgive their neighbour has meant that young Muslim’s men are seeing Islam killing people and destroying villages and they don’t want that kind of religion and are starting to ask questions of the Christian faith. There is a real challenge for us as well to be prepared to step outside the western ideology of materialism and look at a different way of living and we will see the same thing, but as long as we continue to be chained to the same things as our neighbours they won’t see the gospel unchained.

Finally Paul looks to his uncertain future, not with trepidation but continuing to rejoice.  His case has been on appeal to the emperor and his life is literally in the emperor hand. Will he see Pauls case as a squabble amongst religious factions or will he see it as a threat to the empire, saying Jesus is Lord is a very political statement. It is to claim another king, to claim to be part of a different kingdom. Will he live or will he die? Paul faces that with the certainty of the unchained gospel.

He knows that with the prayers of the saints and the provision of the Holy Spirit that God whatever happens will turn out for his deliverance. The word deliverance can mean that he will be saved from his current predicament. It is the confidence that the God who saved Daniel  from the Lion’s den and who saved Shadrack,  Meshach and Abendigo from the fiery furnace can deliver him from the emperor. The situation is the same their wholehearted devotion to the heavenly king, puts them at odds with the realms of this world.  Pauls certainty is more than just a divine get out of jail free card  it is a certain hope that God has provided for his full salvation. He is forgiven and bought into relationship with God through Christ, it is God’s will that will prevail in this situation. Whether it is death or continuing living he knows it means for him Christ. To die is to go and be with his saviour face to face, to continue living is to know and be known By Christ. To continue living is to continue to work for and with Christ to build up the Church. Either way Paul’s desire is to Glorify God in his body, in death and in life. In that certain future through Paul his death or his life that the gospel will continue to be unchained and do God’s work of redemption and restoration.

This is the joy filled  attitude that Paul demonstrates for the Church to follow, the church in Philippi that they can find joy in Christ trusting him to complete his work in them. This is the attitude he offers them that in whatever circumstance they face they can have a certain hope, confidence in Christ.

This is the joy filled attitude that Paul models for you and I as well. We can rejoice in the face of past suffering, present challenges and sorrow and future uncertainty because of the certainty of the gospel of Jesus Christ. That he who started a good work in us will bring it to completion in the day of the Lord as Paul had told the church in his prayer of thanksgiving for them in Philippians 1:6. The certainty he showed them in his own life, facing an uncertain future.  

This is the joy filled  hope we have that whatever chains us up and tried to hold us down, the gospel is unchained. It is able to achieve what God desires. Illness, age, social standing, the things from the past that try and hold on to us and drag us down, our own internal dialogue, that image we see of ourselves, real life persecution and opposition that try and chain us, none of them can chain the gospel down to do its work in us, to do Christ’s work through us… The gospel is unchained. It will continue to bear fruit, and we can rejoice in that.

This is the Joy filled challenge to you and I , that in all the circumstances we find ourselves in we would follow Paul’s example and desire that Christ might be glorified in our body. That brings it down to a very practical level, in hands that reach out with Christ’s love, feet that are willing to go to the places God calls us to, hearts open enough to a world God loves,  the places of ease and the places where we face constraints and uncertainty, a voice that speaks and tells of what we know. In how we live and in how we die, both to ourselves as we allow The things of this world to fade in comparison to the great joy of knowing Jesus Christ and as we give our lives in service to him. That the thank you letter we write with our lives to Christ might be full of rejoicing that Christ proclaimed.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Introduction to Paul's Letter to the Philippians: We can be confident in Christ from start to finish (philippians 1:1-11)

It’s Church statistics month in the Presbyterian church. The national church collects data like church attendance, split into different age categories, membership numbers and financial figures. They send out a letter with all the forms and instructions on how to collect and record the numbers for them.

One day at St John’s in Rotorua we received a letter asking us for statistical data on our flock. But it was not from the national church, it wasn’t really wanting data on our congregation.  The letter was from the New Zealand Perendale Sheep Breeders Association. It really made us laugh. We wrote back to them to say that we didn’t have any Perendales in our flock, we were more a mix of different sorts from all over, and that our flock’s statistics wouldn’t help them very much and what they wanted to know wouldn’t help our statistical analysis either. While there was a very humorous connection we had received a letter that was meant for someone else. 

Today, we are starting our winter sermon series at St Peter’s, and we are going to be looking at Paul’s letter to the Church at Philippi. A letter that was meant originally for someone else, not for us. A letter to a specific group in a specific time and place. Written in a specific style, in response to a specific situation.  In this case Paul is writing to the church at the city of Philippi to thank them for supporting him financially while he is in prison in Rome. Paul takes that chance to bring encouragement to his readers. Encouragement to stand firm in the face of persecution and opposition and to rejoice regardless of the circumstances, because of the good news of Jesus Christ.

There is more than a tenuous connection to us as Paul’s words have been recognised as being Spirit inspired and being God’s word to all who are ‘in Christ’. To all God’s people for all time and place, equally relevant and inspirational for you and I as they were to their original readers. Encouragement for us to ‘Stand Firm on our own joyous journey following Jesus’.

The passage we had read to us today is the formal introduction to this letter. It’s all the things a first century person would expect to see in a letter. Like you and I expect certain things when we receive a letter or an email today. It starts with who is writing, who the letter is for, a greeting, and then thanksgiving and prayer for the people being writing to.  A more expanded and personal and spiritual version of the things we might expect at the beginning of a personal letter, like, ‘I hope you are well’. You see this format in all the epistles, or letters that along with Acts and the four Gospel’s make up the New Testament.

It gives us some basic information. The Letter is written by Paul and Timothy. Paul we know from the book of Acts is an apostle of Jesus Christ. We know his history, a member of the Pharisee’s faction of the Jews, very anti-Christian, who has an encounter with the risen Jesus on his way to get Christians in Damascus arrested, and is converted to being a follower of Jesus.  He was responsible for planting churches in Asia Minor and into Europe. He planted the church in Philippi. Timothy we know from Acts as well is his protege, the young man he is training up to continue doing what Paul has been doing. Paul shares information he is in prison for the gospel, and that he is very blessed to have received a gift from the Philippian church for his support.

The letter is to the whole church in Philippi, along with its leadership team. We know from the book of Acts how the Church was established in Philippi. In fact that it was the first recoded church we have in Europe. Philippi is a major city on the trade route to Rome in Macedonia. Lydia is the first convert in Philippi, and therefore Europe. She is a Jewish merchant and immediately invites Paul and his team to base themselves at her house. The Church grows, Paul finds himself in prison after a riot caused by his delivering a slave girl of a demonic spirit, the slave girl had been making money for her master by telling fortunes. In Jail an earthquake set Paul and Silas free, but they stay put and their jailer and his family become believers. Paul does not get to stay in Philippi for long, to build up the fledgling church that meets at Lydia’s house. So as he writes to the church now he praises God that they have continued in the faith, evident by their gift to him, he acknowledges that God who started his good work in them will be able to complete it in the day of the Lord Jesus Christ, and Prays that they may continue to grow in love, as they grow in knowledge and insight in Jesus Christ. 

This is not, however, just a perfunctory form letter, that simply gives us cold clinical information  about sender and receiver, it is full of profound and inspiring truth. The whole thing can to be said to be In Jesus Christ. Inn fact paul mentions Jesus seven times in his formal opening, adress, greeting and prayer. We have the sender and receiver but who they are, their identity is given in Christ. The relationship between sender and recipient is given in Christ.  We can know the history of the sender and recipients, but their times, past, present and future are held in Christ.  The blessings and deep-felt prayer for the church at Philippi come from being in Christ.

Paul introduces himself and Timothy, as servants of Jesus Christ. It would be easy for him write as the person who founded the Church or one with Authority because of his position in the fledgling Christian group, but rather he sees himself as a servant. The word actually means slave, one who has been bought with a price and who goes about the business of his master. This is how Paul sees himself. He is aware that he is saved by God’s grace, the price has been paid for all he has done wrong, through Jesus, life, death and resurrection. He is aware that he is called according to Jesus plan and purpose and mission for the church: to witness to Jesus Christ and make disciples in all nations. He is aware that it is only the power and presence of the Holy Spirit that makes him able to do it. He is aware that it does not mean status and importance, but rather that he is alongside all the believers as fellow servants of the same master. Paul’s affection for the Church is not just a whimsical remembering of good times at Philippi but it a sharing of the love that Jesus Christ has for them.

Likewise the Church at Philippi are God’s Holy People in Christ.  In other translations, it is ‘to all the saints in Philippi.’ We’ve often seen saints as being the more godly amongst us, the heroes and superstars of our faith: The apostles are saints, our church is St Peter’s after Simon Peter. In the Celtic church it was a honorific title for a missionary, like St Kentigern, which the Presbyterian school out here in Pakuranga is named after. St Kentigern was a monk who bought the gospel to the welsh people. St Cuthbert’s, in Epsom, is another one.  We see the canonisation process that goes on in the catholic Church. But we are the saint.  It applies to all of believers. We are people who in Jesus Christ have been set aside for God: by his death and resurrection made Holy. We are called to be children of the God most high through Jesus Christ, We are to be the people who in how we live are to show what God’s kingdom is like to the world around us.

Pauls address to God’s holy people at Philippi, is together with the leaders and deacons, and speaks to our understanding of Church leadership. First and foremost, it is who we all are in Christ that is important thing. We are celebrating the 500th anniversary of the reformation this year and one of the catch cries of that movement was and still is ‘a priesthood of all believers’. Our Access to God no longer needs to be mediated through special people set aside for that task, priests, but because of Jesus Christ we all have access to God, we can all boldly approach the throne of God. Leadership in the Church is leadership alongside the people, it’s not a hierarchy, through whom the presence or access to God is somehow contained and controlled. It is there for a purpose and a reason, to help organise God’s people and assist in their growth to maturity in Christ. Paul uses two words to describe them. Overseers or bishop’s in other places he will use the word elders, They are the people who assert Spiritual leadership and deacons, who are people who take on the more practical needs of the community. In Acts 6, we see seven Deacon’s chosen to ensure that the food given for widows is given equally to both the widows who were from Judah, and those who were Hellenistic Jews, from more of a Greek influenced area and background, so the apostles could concentrate on the teaching of the word. In our tradition it has usually been seen in two leadership groups elders and the board of managers. But they are alongside the church and there just like Paul to be Christ’s servant and to serve his people.

Paul’s blessing on the church in Philippi is that they may know the grace and peace of God or father and the Lord Jesus Christ. It’s Trinity Sunday today in the Church and in this greeting and blessing Paul is making a statement about the deity of Jesus Christ. The blessing is that the church may receive the Grace of God in Jesus Christ. It is Jesus who has made that grace known to us, it is Jesus who has demonstrated that Grace to us in his death and resurrection. Also the peace of God, peace again is not the absence of conflict or trouble, but that wholeness in relationship, right relationship with God, with each other, with the created world and with our possessions, a peace that comes in and through Jesus Christ, who reconciles us with God, and with each other.

Paul’s prayer of thanksgiving also focuses on Christ Jesus. He gives thanks for the Philippians because of how they show how the good News of Jesus Christ has changed them because of how they partner with him in the furthering of the Gospel. This is evidence that they have come to know Jesus Christ. Lydia’s first response to coming to faith and being baptised is to offer hospitality, the Philippian jailer, his first response is to take care of Paul and Silas wounds. When they hear of Paul’s imprisonment, the first thing they do is send him money to support him. In New Zealand today we have this debate about how much it costs to keep people in prison, it’s a costly business, that hasn’t changed, but in Roman times it was not the state that footed the bill it was the prisoners themselves. If they didn’t have the means to keep themselves then it was a very hard it’s a real lifesaver for Paul.

Pauls’ confidence that the church will continue and will grow in maturity and love and produce Christ like fruit is that Jesus Christ is at work in them. He started the good work, in his death and resurrection, in forgiving the Philippian Christians when they turned to him, he has given them the promised Holy Spirit, to lead and to guide, to dwell within them, he will continue that work till it is finished and complete at the day of the Lord. It is because of that he can pray that they grow in knowledge and truth and depth of insight and discern what is best and stay pure and blameless, because the faithful God is at work in them in Christ, able to carry on his work. Paul’s payer in verse 9-11 also shows us that the agenda of the Christian life is growth. The trend in education circles these days is life-long learning, The post graduate departments at some colleges are now called life-long learning departments, the work force is always being encouraged to upskill, the Christian faith is growing it’s in growing in depth of Jesus Christ and then seeing that worked in our lives by more Christ like fruit.

We’ve focused on what this introduction to Paul’s letter tells us about the sender and recipient, historically and theologically, and while this may be a letter originally ment for someone else, it speaks to us today because we find ourselves sharing the same address… In Christ. You and I share the same identity as the church in Philippi, in Christ, a people set aside for God’s purposes, with our leaders alongside. You and I share the same hope and confidence, that he who started this good work in us, Jesus Christ, can be trusted to bring it to completion in the day of the Lord Jesus Christ.  Our challenges and difficulties and obstacles maybe different from our first century, first church in Europe forebears but our hope is the same it’s in Christ.

We started off talking about statistics and while numbers may fluctuate up and down in a church, the certainty is We can rejoice because the faithfulness of God in Jesus Christ will not just see us through, but see us grow in the depth of knowing Christ, grow in love and righteous fruit in Christ to the glory of God.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

The Promise Fufilled: the Spirit poured out then and then and here and noa (Joel 2:28-32, Acts 2:1-16,40-47)

Since we’ve moved to our new place in Onehunga, Mangere bridge has become a feature in my life. Or I should say the Mangere bridges. The new bridge adds a constant background motorway hum to the soundtrack of our everyday. At night, out our window there is a line of red and white lights arching over the dark stripe where the Manukau Harbour morphs into the Mangere basin.  On days off I’ve gone for a walk across the old Mangere bridge, with its vistas down toward the Manukau heads. Puponga point and the
Awhitu peninsula in the distance. The harbour changing with the weather, from friendly sparkly blue, to moody forbidding grey. As the sun sets there is an array of golds and reds. Even the old cement silo’s become a canvas for the magical play of last light. Having grown up on this side of the Manukau, up in the hills out west, the far side of the bridge has always seemed like a distant shore, another place and it still seems like you are going somewhere else when you walk over the bridge but now exploring both sides helps me understand this city more.

We’ve been looking at the work  of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament from hovering over the waters in the creation narrative at the beginning of Genesis, through to the promise of the Holy Spirit being poured out on all flesh, in the prophecy in Joel chapter 2. The fulfillment of which came at Pentecost, recorded in our reading from Acts chapter 2 this morning. We’ve been looking at what the Spirit did on the far off then and there shore, & how the life, death and resurrection of Jesus has changed things and what it means for us on this side, here and now.

Joel’s prophecy acts as a great bridge between the then and there and the here and now. Then and there, because it stands at the end of the Old Testament narrative, looking at God’s restoration of Judah and Jerusalem, that started with the return of the exiles from Babylon and stares off at the hope for a greater fulfillment in future times.  Here and Now because it is the passage that Peter uses to explain what was happening to the one hundred and twenty followers of Jesus gathered in that upper room in Jerusalem: that what was promised then was being fulfilled now, God was pouring out his Spirit on all flesh. It stands at the birth of the Church, the reality that we as God’s people live in today.

Today is Pentecost, and I want to go backwards and forwards across that bridge between then and there and here and now so that we may know the reality of that Spirit poured out. I want to focus on three things, the context we find ourselves in, where we are at in God’s story. Secondly to explore the idea of all flesh and to see ourselves in that, and finally to look at what it means that we all prophecy, to be a prophetic people. Then we’ll ties it all together.

Firstly context. 

The book of Joel speaks of Judah facing judgment, locusts and a drought, that judgment is accompanied by a call to repentance, then assurance that after the judgment, God would restore the fortunes of his people and would renew his relationship with them, they would be blessed and the nations around them judged. Scholars are unable to tie Joel down to any historical facts or time, but it was included into the Old Testament cannon because people could see it as God speaking directly to Judah’s journey. Their exile in Babylon and after that of the restoration of Jerusalem, that we see in books like Ezra and Nehemiah, but also looked to greater and fuller restoration and fulfillment to come. Joel Baker sums this journey up in the title of his commentary of Joel “ from the depth of despair and sorrow to the promise of presence”.

The ultimate way in which God has forgiven his people and made a way for them to be reconciled with him is in the life death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We’ve just spent about a year and a half working our way through Luke’s gospel and one of the ways Jesus talks of his death is as a judgment on the spiritual blindness of the world.  It is Jesus who takes on himself God’s judgment, and enables the restoration of relationship with God through his suffering and death. It is in his resurrection that that new life is made possible. We experience that new life and restoration, the fulfillment of the promise of God’s presence, with a greater fulfillment when Christ returns.  Bakers title could as easily refer to the Easter story ‘from the depth of despair and sorrow of the cross to the promise of presence in the words of the risen Jesus ‘and I am with you till the end of the age” made real at Pentecost.

You and I find ourselves in that story as well. It’s not just history, it’s our story. Once we were far away from God as it says in 1 Peter 2;10 but now we have drawn near. Because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ we can know God’s forgiveness for all we have done wrong and we are bought back into a relationship with God, as his children and as his people. In Christ we have been given new life, abundant life. At the centre of that is that God restores his relationship with us by filling us with the Holy Spirit.  Our story is that we have come out of the deep despair and sorrow of life without God to the promise of his presence.

Secondly, “all flesh”

As we’ve seen in our survey of the Old Testament God has worked and spoken through individuals who he has filled with his Holy Spirit. But in this passage, it says he will pour out his Spirit on all flesh. Flesh is used here to distinguish humans, beings of flesh and blood, from God, who is Spirit. And ‘all flesh’ is reinforced in this passage by the language of inclusion. In three statements sex age and socio-economic status are swept aside. Your sons and daughters will prophecy. Old Men will dream, dreams and young men will see visions. Dreams and visions are scriptural ways in which God gives revelation to people. Age is not a barrier. Even on your servants, both men and women. Slaves in Israel were also most probably foreigners, and this is not only speaking about social status not being a barrier but also the possibility of the gentiles being involved. I’m allowed one bad pun a sermon… here it is… It is for all sorts, but seriously it is  for everyone.

In Acts we see all flesh being reinforced by the apostles speaking in all the languages of the people gathered from all the regions of the then known world. Pilgrims who had come to Jerusalem for the festival of Pentecost. It is a prophetic event, Jesus had come and given his life because God so loved the world, he had commissioned his followers to go and make disciples of all nations, they were to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth. The Holy Spirit was enabling them empowering them to do that. Symbolized by the speaking in all the different languages of the known world. In Acts 10, when the Gentiles receive the Holy Spirit this sign is repeated to show that ‘all flesh includes the gentile nations as well.

Peter finishes his sermon at Pentecost, by saying this is for you and your children and for those who are far off. Time and place are not a barrier either, it isn’t just for one generation, one place and time, just to get the church growing and off the ground, a bit of start-up capital thrown in by an entrepreneurial God. Not just limited to that place.  It is God’s promise to all of us, to you and I. the language of inclusion is not just used here to fit into some politically correct agenda, it’s the promise of a loving caring God, for all of us.

Lastly, what does it mean that all will prophecy? I mean there are not enough street corners for all of us to stand there wild eyed calling out ‘the end is near’ which maybe the image that comes to mind when you think of that.

Joel chapter 2, does not exist in a vacuum, there is a whole thread in Old Testament scriptures that we need to touch on to understand what is meant. Moses in Number 11:29 says “I wish that all the LORD’s people were prophets and he put his Spirit on them.” The hope that all God’s people would know him as Moses did, and be able to declare his timeless word and purposes in a timely manner.  In Ezekiel and Jeremiah, we see that just as they had been given a scroll of God’s word to eat, there is the promise that God would put his word in people’s minds and hearts, and change their hearts of stone to hearts of flesh. They would be a people whose hearts were filed with God’s grace and love. A motif that runs through the Old Testament is that Israel has a missional task in world history, to live in such a way, caring for the poor and the marginalised, being a beacon of justice and righteousness, that nations would come to see and know and worship Israel’s God. They were to be a prophetic people. The Spirit was going to e poured out on them to enable them to do that.

In Acts, we see this at work as well. All the disciples gathered together are filled with the Holy Spirit and begin praising God. It’s self a prophetic Act declaring the good things God has done.  Peter stands and begins to prophecy, he takes God’s timeless word, from Joel 2, and makes it timely, this is what is happening now. In the New Testament, there are people given gifts and ministry of prophecy, it is their task to speak forth God’s word, but all of us are called to prophecy. Acts 2 finishes with a description of the church in Jerusalem living in a way that declares and witnesses to Jesus Christ. There life is built round, the teaching of the apostles, prayer and the breaking of the bread: these are the means of grace by which we know Jesus more and more and allow that relationship to shape and mould us. They form community and share hospitality. There is a genuine concern for the poor, they sell what they have and give the money to those in need. They care and pray for those who are sick and see God’s healing. AS they do this people come to see Jesus Christ in their midst.

It’s the same for us today. People often equate the whole Holy Spirit thing with chandelier swingers and happy clappys, as pure emotionalism, and can I say why shouldn’t you get excited about knowing God’s very presence and power. But the result of the Holy Spirit’s activity and genuine revivals has always been a hunger for God’s word, an increase in prayer, a renewal of worship, a desire for Christian unity, hospitality, a desire to see people come to know Jesus, genuine signs and wonders but also a seeking of justice and righteousness a care and care for the poor. The Spirit of God is what gives us the Spiritual vitality we need to face and work for peace in the world. It gives us joy and hope in the face of evil and disaster.

This Pentecost as I’ve reread acts chapter two, the thing that really stuck out to me was that the fire that symbolised the Holy Spirit, came and appeared as a tongue of fire above each of the followers gathered there. When we focus on ideas like context and all flesh and being a prophetic people, its easy to get caught up in the big picture, get lost in the crowd. It’s easy to think of the Holy Spirit being poured out on all flesh as kind of like splashes on the masses, like those weather events we’ve had recently, indiscriminate drenching. But the Spirit came upon each individual person, they were not lost in the crowd, each unique person encountered a God who knows them, who loves them, who sent his Son to live die and rise again for them. I just want to say it’s for all of us corporately, which means its for you and I individually.  We started with the image of a bridge that has come to mean something in my life, and we’ve been across the bridge from then and there to here and now in a survey of the Old Testament, but it is for you to be willing to cross that bridge from it being a then and there thing to a here and now reality. To stop and to ask the father to fill us afresh, to fill and keep filling us with his Spirit’s presence.