Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Grace Over-rides Law

Time and time again we need to come back to a basic principle in the heart of God: if people finally desire to turn to him then God will receive them, trumping any 'barriers of law' that might otherwise be in the way. At the point of a human heart returning, grace over-rides law.

A great example is in 2 Chronicles 30. Hezekiah has instigated something of a spiritual homecoming for the wider populace, and is marking it with a passover celebration (the first in many years apparently). The passover came with regulations, conditions, rules about 'how it should be done'. In the gathering momentum of so many turning up to take part, there are a good number who don't meet the requirements but join in anyway. Hezekiah's prayer is instructive:

May the Lord, who is good, pardon everyone who sets their heart on seeking God ... even if they are not clean according to the rules.

See verses 18 to 20: The Lord heard this prayer! Grace over-rides law.

Interestingly we are told that the Lord 'healed' the people - as if they had an ailment or condition. But just as God can heal our medical issues, He can resolve our spiritual-uncleanness issues as well (cross reference Jesus and the man lowered through the roof, e.g. Matthew 9:1-8).

When our understanding of the Christian faith somehow slips back to rules and requirements for newcomers (or even home-comers!), let us remember and use Hezekiah's short prayer, and the grace-trumps-law principle it embodies.

Monday, 29 August 2016

Why are we in this mess?

I love Gideon's question found in Judges chapter 6, verse 13. In my own words it reads something like this: "If the Lord is with us, why are we in this mess?".

Gideon is told that the Lord is with him, but his logic is based on the circumstances around him. And those circumstances were bleak: Midianites had leached away prosperity and left many cowering in caves. Gideon himself was using a winepress to thresh wheat as his own way of eeking out survival for his family. 'In this mess' is a good description for their plight.

The angel's reply is simple: "Go in the strength you have and save ...". The circumstances were irrelevant, and thus the logic that went with them rendered redundant. There was a calling from God, and that transcends everything on the ground.

Of course Gideon misinterpreted 'the strength you have', foolishly equating it with his own personal strength (which wasn't much). It was the Lord's strength, something given by God for the purpose. Again human logic redundant.

Seek the Lord, discover His calling and purposes, and learn to go with it. There may be mess all around, which logically might suggest to you that little can be achieved. Yet in the light of the Lord's calling such logic is redundant, the 'why are we in this mess?' effectively irrelevant ... because there is a God-called task to get on with, and He will give the strength to do it.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Future Echoes

The story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19 is not the easiest of stories to digest. It can be read in different ways, and doubtless they have their own validity. But maybe it actually pre-figures the better that is yet to come, kind of acting like a film trailer or new series teaser?

The outcry to the Lord concerning these places is already great - in other words their guilt is already well established. Into this God sends his agents (in this case two angels). They are not received by anyone except for the guy called Lot. Worse still the other inhabitants would rather abuse them rather than receive them (effectively confirming the guilt that was already known).

The inevitable destruction comes, except for Lot and those he persuades to come with him (and not look back!). They are given passage safely out of the city by the angels.

So summing up we have: established guilt and therefore destruction for all except those who received God's agents.

Now lets fast forward to the real film, which will be at the end of time. The guilt will be known and established. That must be dealt with and wiped away ... except for those who received God's agent (who is of course God come in human form: Jesus). This is equally summed up in John 1:12 'Yet to all who received him, he gave the right to become children of God'.

So in this way the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is a future echo of what is to come. A kind of pre-telling of the eventual story.

If you can accept all that, then two interesting points are raised:
  1. Only Lot does the actual receiving, yet he is invited to bring others with him. Can we receive and then bring others with us too?
  2. In Matthew 10 Jesus says 'it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah than for the town (that does not receive the disciples)'. Does that mean that the physical destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah was not the ultimate end for its inhabitants? If so, it lends weight to the story being a future echo of the eventual actual story. At the very least, it connects with the notion of the story being about receiving those sent by God.

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

The Demons Submit Criteria

Time and time again when people report on their church they seem to revert to talking about the numbers in their Sunday service or similar. Sometimes it is literally as direct as the raw numbers, other times the report is more general ... but distilled down it is still the same basic thing, the size of the Sunday congregation.

Yet in Luke 10 when the extended group of disciples return from their assignment the criteria is this: "even the demons submit to us in your name" (verse 17). The talk is about how they have pushed the boundaries in mission, and seen tangible spiritual effect.

Jesus reminds them that their security is in Him rather than in any particular ministry or ministry result (v20), but nevertheless the successful attack on the enemy's domain is celebrated.

So why do we not use this kind of 'even the demons submit' criteria? Why are our reports not descriptions of mission boundaries explored, pushed out and why are the effects on the enemy not rehearsed?

When John the Baptist's messengers came to quiz Jesus, his reply was not "I'm chuffed, because I've got 12 regulars at my Bible study". No, it was 'see & hear: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, those with leprosy are cleansed" (Luke 7:18 to 23)!

Put bluntly and directly: have we got the wrong criteria?

Thursday, 4 August 2016


Life has ups and downs. Things go well, and things go not so well. Sometimes everything just flows, other times its frustration upon frustration. Thats life.

Ministry is pretty much the same! Things go well, and things go not so well. Sometimes it all comes together, other times you wonder why you even started. Heck, sometimes you wonder why you even thought that starting might possibly be a good idea ...

If our joy in ministry is to be derived from all this, then we are in trouble. Yes there will be good times which will bring good mood and much joy. But of course there will be the bad ... so what happens to our mood then?

But Jesus talks of a different joy. Recorded in John 15 Jesus says 'remain in my love' (verse 9). He goes on 'so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete'. In short: stick with and go along with me → my joy in you → your joy.

That is clearly not a joy that derives from the ups and downs. That is a joy implanted in us by God, that emerges and wells up in us. It flows from our relationship with Jesus, not from the events of the day.

Jesus gives these words in those countdown hours on the way to the cross, in other words not at a good time for him! Yet he is determined to stick with his Father, to continue in His ways (aka 'keep his commands').

Good and bad will come - thats life and pretty much beyond our control. But we can control our choice (or not) to abide in Jesus, sticking with him. From that a different kind of joy can emerge.

Thursday, 28 July 2016

Grace and Right Living

It is by grace we are saved, though faith, the gift of God. Well known words from Ephesians that echo Paul's letter to the Romans where he clearly defines God's saving ways that work apart from the Law.

Yet everyone has their codes and standards of behaviour, and Christians are typically high up on the league table of having expectations on how people should or shouldn't behave.

The problem is that even if our code is reasonable or correct, we typically incorrectly translate it to our relationships with people who do not know Christ, and this messes up our witness and evangelism. In the worst case it effectively reverts us back to salvation by Law.

In simplistic bullet items, here are some suggested lines I use to make sense of the 'grace versus license-to-anything' tension, and to keep things on the grace-only track:
  • Non-Christians cannot be expected to know how to live rightly - why would they?
    • we can appeal for better in the wider society and we can encourage individuals to live better, but we should not be surprised if they don't (or can't) 'measure up'
  • Because salvation is not by law, changing their behaviour (even if they can) is not the way for them to be saved - that is by grace alone (an encounter with Jesus)
  • In someone coming to Christ (discovering grace) we can start to work pastorally with them to help them see the incongruity of continuing to live their old ways
    • encourage people to see that now we are in Christ "we don't want to do that kind of thing any more"
    • realise too that the Holy Spirit takes people on a journey, different people at different speeds
  • Since a church is a body of Christ-followers which is visible in the wider society, they will want to strive for certain standards for themselves (taken as a whole) in order to avoid undermining their witness and standing in the community
    • but they need to be careful of simply projecting those standards as an organisation onto others
  • Leaders of the church are in positions of influence and also likely to represent the public face of the church. It is therefore right to expect them to meet even higher standards.

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

The Genuine Community Test Factor

Doubtless anyone evaluating a mission initiative in the UK would want to look at the fruit. To have that as a test is no surprise. Another typical test would be numeric - the number of people reached. Of course one can then argue about quality versus quantity, which is really re-considering the fruit aspect once again.

But I am seriously considering adding another test factor: that of genuine community. This would look at the sense of community among the people undertaking the mission. Do they support each other, do they disciple one another, and do they invest in a shared spirituality with each other? Does this give something stronger than any one individual, no matter how important or influential that individual is to the work? Is the strength of the initiative traceable back to the resilience of this community rather than relying on institutional structures?

I wish to tread carefully here because countless people do great gospel work, quite often as an individual or as a small team together with a periphery of supporters. Their work may be fantastic, and for the Kingdom, yet might fail the test I envisage!

In calling people to follow himself, Jesus enjoined people into a community. There would be discipling, shared learning, and assignments. Add to that our UK context, where we know that there is a longing among many for genuine community, since community spirit is not completely dead but often severely eroded. Furthermore we know the support and resilience that genuine community can give. All these suggest to me that we should look at genuine community as a key ingredient in our endeavours.

Hence the health of an initiative, and a clue to its ability to persist through thick and thin, would be aided by including genuine community as a test factor.