Monday, December 4, 2017

God's salvation plan: Saved to do good for the common good (Titus 3:1-15)

Our faith in Jesus Christ needs to make a visible positive difference through our actions, behavior and relationships if it is genuine.  I’m not talking about moral perfectionism we all make mistakes, we all have our faults and foibles, we all get it wrong. But if there is no discernable difference between the behavior of Christians and the Society around us, then we are either in a place that can only be described as the Kingdom of God, and Hallelujah or there is a disconnect between gospel truth and gospel living in our lives. We need to ask the question, is the church simply an extension of the culture and climate it lives in, or an expression of the Christ it claims to live for?

 “True Christianity”, Francis Schaeffer told the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization in 1974, “produces beauty as well as truth. If we do not show beauty in the way we treat each other, then in the eyes of the world and in the eyes of our own children, we are destroying the truth we proclaim.”

We are working our way through what are known as the pastoral epistles, and in particular Paul’s letter to Titus. Looking at what Paul can tell us about both Christian living and Christian leadership as he writes to encourage his coworkers in maturity and ministry. Paul had sent Titus to Crete to finish the task of establishing the Church on the island, and for the church in Crete how the Christian faith was to be lived out in society was as major an issue as it is for us in our changing society today.  

After a long introduction, in his letter Paul tasked Titus to appoint leaders, elders and overseers who were able to model and teach how the Christian faith was to be lived out. Titus was tasked with teaching the Christians how to be an example of Christ like living in whatever place and strata they found themselves in their very structured society: He applied the gospel to the Roman household Code, when we looked at it in our cafĂ© service we talked of God’s call to ‘lead where you are’. Now in the passage we had read out to us today, Paul tells Titus to remind the believers on Crete that God’s salvation plan was a call for them “to devote themselves to doing what is good.”

The passage is set out in a very Jewish thought pattern, the central thing is in the center, in this case it is an expounding of God’s salvation plan. Paul calls it a trust worthy saying which means that it is not necessarily his own words, rather it maybe an earlier formula of the gospel that the Cretans would have been familiar with, that Paul then uses as a rational for God’s people being about the common good. That is bookended by two different sets of relationships. The first is with the wider society, how they are to relate to civil government and interact with people in the public domain, outside the household. Then in the end he applies it to how they are to relate to the false teachers who have been causing disruption in households and the church on Crete. Because it’s a letter the whole thing is wrapped up with personal information and greetings.

We are used to the images of before and after, that we see in ads for all that weird and wonderful fitness equipment and sure to work diets. Paul uses that formula of before and after to talk of the difference the gospel has made. At one time he says… Before…  “ we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslave by all kinds of passions and pleasures, we lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating each other.” Just like the images in those commercials we are not supposed to like the before image that is painted. We individually may not have been like that whole description and it is not saying that humans are not capable of  great good outside of Christ, rather Paul paints a picture of the state that we all have found ourselves in, it is an expression of the fallen state of humanity … foolish speaks of a life lived without reference to God. Atheists often speak of not having their own annual holiday, and jokingly I suggest April 1st,  because in psalm 14;1 it says “ a fool says in their heart “there is no God”. Moving on the rest of Paul’s list is the damaging opposite of the Christian faiths call to obedience, self-control and loving one another.

Paul then talks of what God has done to change the situation. It’s not a fitness machine and our own efforts, but Christ’s death on the cross and his effort for us that makes us  fit into God’s family.  Because of God’s kindness God sent our savior Jesus Christ, not because of what we have done right, but because of God’s righteousness and mercy. The savior has washed us clean of all we have done wrong, which is symbolized by our identifying with Christ’s death and resurrection in baptism, and has poured out his Holy Spirit on us to renew us. That we may have the hope of eternal life: That we are heirs, welcomed into the family of God, and have the hope of eternal life. Here is the good news of Jesus Christ in a nutshell.

But with that formula perhaps what’s missing is the after image. People can view it like you would an insurance policy for the afterlife, or maybe even like one of those fitness machines that are so easy to fold up and store away that we fold them up and store them away under the bed and forget its there and you don’t’ change, and occasional you’ll say Oh yeah I bought that one I must pull it out sometime. No says Paul here is the picture of what its like after, we’ve been called to devote ourselves to doing what is good. We are not saved by good deeds we are saved for good deeds, for showing Christ like love and compassion and care, and that says Paul is excellent and profitable for everyone. Its for the common good.

It’s to be worked out in the public arena, in how we relate to government and wider society. It’s a call Paul says to obey and be subject to rulers and authorities. On one level it’s about compliance, keeping the laws and paying taxes. Social structure and order is a positive for society, that Christians are to uphold. In Roman 13 Paul talks of government being appointed by God, with the purpose of defending the innocent, acknowledging the good, and punishing those who do wrong.

It’s more than just compliance however says Paul, we are called to make a positive difference, to be ready to do whatever is good. When the people of Israel were in exile in Babylon God’s word to them through Jeremiah was to seek the peace and prosperity o the city where they lived. AS Jesus put It is about being slat and light. On a large scale John Stott talks of how historian say the Wesleyan revival saved England from a savage and bloody revolution like the one that happened in France, the reawakening of Christian faith lead to social reforms like the abolition of slavery, the end of child labor, the call for universal education, people needed to know how to read so they could read the bible themselves, public libraries and patronage of the arts, the establishment of the RSPCA and animal welfare measurers. We see it today with the mana in which groups like the salvation army are treated in a New Zealand society that tends to be suspicious of Christianity. On a smaller scale we had Steve Farrelly speak at our mature and marvelous service at the start of October, who when he heard of all the reports because of his Christian faith went to a decile one school to ask how he could help and now runs breakfast clubs in well over seven schools round the city and country, and genuinely makes a difference. It was great at the pizza and planning gathering last week to hear the desire for us to be involved in various ways with the issue of poverty in New Zealand. In his concluding remarks Paul brings doing good down to the very practical level of helping and providing hospitality to Itinerant Christian leaders Zena the lawyer and Apollos. That in doing that they will use their resources to provide for other peoples needs and not simply use them for indulgence.

In 1 Peter 2:11-12, Peter uses the metaphor of being an alien in a strange land to speak of how Christians were to act in society, maybe into days political climate it is important to see what is being said here in terms of us being migrants from the kingdom of God. Like many migrants we are very aware of wanting to be good citizens and keeping the laws of our new land but also we want to contribute to it and make it a better place as well so we bring the best of our culture, in our case the best of that culture is Christ.

One of the big challenges of Paul’s assertion of submitting to the government and authorities is what happens when you find yourself facing a despotic, oppressive or cruel and corrupt or evil regime. Do we simply submit?  Paul’s teaching here is helpful. Firstly, as salt and light, we should always be a movement for good in society, that acts as a counterpoint. It is not simply being a people who are opposed to something but who live out a Christ honoring alternative. Do not says Paul over come evil with evil rather over come evil with good, secondly the list of attitudes to people in verse 2 of the passage we are looking at today speak not only to how we are to treat people in society in a loving manner but how we are to respond in difficult situations, The Christian is called to have a prophetic role to speak the truth in love, not to slander and speak ill of people. Peaceable and considerate speaks of a commitment to a Christ honoring response, and gentle is the word meek which means that we are not willing to let anything, no slight or threat or violence stop us from the focus of the common good, God’s preferred future… Our examples are Christ facing the cross, martin Luther king Jr and his nonviolence.

Paul also helps us out in his instructions to Titus on how to deal with the false teachers who were disturbing the Church. Jesus called us not only to love one another but also to love our enemies, and Paul gives a balance between that and the necessity to safeguard the church. He tells Titus not simply to get caught up in the arguments about genealogies and quarrels about the law. That was of no use.  He was not to let the false teachers set the agenda. Paul always addresses false teaching and error by going back to the gospel basics of Christ crucified and gospel living of loving one another, which in Titus he couches in the virtues of Greek philosophy. He also gives them a process to work through. One that we find Jesus giving his disciples in Matthew 18 It kind of has the sound of a process for dealing with complaints in the work place, a series of warnings then dismissal, and to a certain extent it is just that, however in the NIV translation using the word warning takes away from the idea Paul has of admonishing the people who are disturbing the Church. It isn’t simply stop doing what you are doing it’s a sitting down and working through it from the gospel, its always with the hope that people will change and see the truth. It’s only when they proved themselves unwilling to change that Paul uses the idea of removing them from fellowship. Even then this is not to be seen as punishment but with the hope of reconciliation and restoration to the truth.

It’s interesting that Paul can quickly move from this important teaching about the gospel and its implications on how we are to relate to the society around us to simply finishing off by telling Titus news about the movements of other Christian leaders… It’s the form of a Greek letter to do that, but it speaks to us that looking to relate our Christian faith to the wider society is lived out in the everydayness of life. In the midst of our plans for the day and life, and our  comings and goings, the Holy Spirit may speak of people who need our help on practical levels and Paul’s quick to point out that that is where this doing good for the common good starts. The kingdom of God breaks into the realms of this world in small acts of kindness. We celebrated one of our congregation, Dulcie Blairs life at her funeral here on Thursday and the stories that came to the fore of her 95 years were of service and care, of hospitality and a home open to all, a welcome for those who were in need and sharing the precious everyday skills with others (Dulcie cooked for the youth camps Ralph directed for close to forty years,  a knack for making people feel welcome, and for ralph and Dulcie how these things made an impact on the lives of so many, in this church and through involvement in a wider youth camping with thousands of young people. That it had ripple effects in the community and country… A real testimony to how doing simple good deeds impacts the common good. You and I have been loved and saved by God he has poured his Holy Spirit out on us and calls us to devote ourselves to doing Good, you know what that is Christian leadership.

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