Category Archives: Grace
Martin Luther nails his 95 Theses to the church door at Wittenberg
Romans 3:19-28, Jeremiah 31:31-34
At Hallowe’en this year we shall be commemorating 500 years of the Reformation, for it was on 31st. October, the eve of All Saints Day, in 1517, that Martin Luther posted his famous 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. In those days the church door functioned as a kind of public notice board ( for those who could read). All kinds of public notices were nailed to the church door. So Martin Luther’s action was not the act of vandalism it might at first seem to be to us!
But why did Luther post this notice on Hallowe’en? Well, on the eve of All Saints Day the Castle Church was open to the public. People came to view the large collection of relics of the saints which were held there. It was believed that if you viewed these relics you could obtain a reduction in the time you would spend in Purgatory. In fact it was considered equivalent to buying an indulgence for your sins. So there was a significance in Luther choosing that day to put up his notice.
Well, I’m not going to go into Luther’s 95 Theses now, but I do want us to think about what the Reformation stands for. What does it mean to be a Protestant? In what ways do we differ from our Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters? In what I am now going to say I do not want anyone to see it as some kind of attack on non-protestants. It’s just that I believe strongly that we ought not to be ashamed of what we believe as Protestants. In these ecumenical times you quite often hear people expressing regret for the Reformation – as if it was an unnecessary splitting up of Christendom. Well, I don’t regret it. It was a necessary return to Biblical truth at a time when the Church had lost its way.
Discarding the untrue
Reformation is about discarding those things which are not Biblical, and which are untrue, and at the same time holding on to Biblical truths which might have been forgotten over time. That is what Luther and Calvin and all the other Reformers were trying to do. And that is what we should be trying to do also.
So what were the things they discarded?
· The sale of indulgences – you could pay money so that your sins would be forgiven and you would spend less time in purgatory ( it was thought).
· The doctrine of Purgatory itself – it’s not taught in the Bible.
· Praying to the saints.
· Offering worship to the Virgin Mary
· Praying for the souls of the dead
· Bowing down to images of saints and angels
· Bowing to the altar and worshipping the bread and wine of the Eucharist as the actual body and blood of God: the doctrine of transubstantiation.
· The power of the priesthood, who were believed to be able to forgive people’s sins.
All these things were thrown out by the Reformers. (However, many of these practices were brought back into the Church of England with the Anglo-catholic movement of the C19th.) You will notice in Presbyterian churches we don’t offer prayers to the saints, or pray for the souls of the dead. Nor do we believe that the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper actually turn into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.
These are the things which we don’t do, but what are the things we do do ? Let’s not be too negative. We might, as Protestants, have a tendency to stress the things we protest about rather than the things we positively stand for. So I want to rectify that – here are the things the Protestant Reformation stressed, the Biblical truths they rediscovered and emphasized:
The priesthood of all believers
Before the Reformation if you wanted to get close to God you thought you had to go to a priest. You had to confess your sins to him. He alone had power to absolve you. He alone could bring God near to you and he did this by offering you the Host – the sacramental wafer which was the Body of Christ.
When you prayed you didn’t unusually pray directly to God the Father, or to the Son. You prayed to the Virgin Mary, or to one of the other saints, or to your guardian angel. They were closer to God – they would act as intermediaries between you and God.
When the Reformation came people realised the truth of the Apostle Paul’s words to Timothy :
For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus. (1 Timothy 2:5)
So, in the name of Jesus you can pray directly to God. In Old Testament times only the priests could enter the Holy Place in the Temple to draw near to God. But now, under the New Covenant, we all have access to God.
In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence. ( Ephesians 3:12 )
We are all priests. Hence the expression: “Priesthood of all believers”.
Justification by faith
Before the Reformation you struggled hard to find peace with God. Luther himself had been a monk for many years. He had fasted and flagellated himself and prayed, and yet somehow never got right with God. He was aware of his sins and also became aware that none of these disciplines of fasting and penance could wash them away.
Then, one day as he was studying the Letter to the Romans he came upon this verse:
For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: The righteous will live by faith.
( Romans 1:17 )
Luther realised that it was only the grace of God which could save him. He threw himself on the mercy of God and trusted Christ for his forgiveness. Luther realised these great truths : no need to make pilgrimages to the graves of the saints, no need to fast on Fridays, no need to flagellate himself, no need to pay the church for indulgences. All he had to do was truly repent of his sins and trust in Christ. This is the great liberating truth of our faith – Jesus saves.
Centrality of the Bible
“Scriptura sola” – the Bible alone – was the Reformers’ great motto. Before the Reformation you could only get the Bible in Latin. Only priests could read it and only they could interpret what it said. Also the tradition of the church was held to be of equal importance to the Bible.
So, if the Church taught about purgatory, and indulgences, and Mary being perpetually a virgin and sinless, and Papal authority, these things must be true – even though they are not in the Bible! With the coming of the Reformation people threw out these ideas as erroneous and returned to the pure teaching of the Bible. They also had it translated into the language of the people – German, French, English, Welsh – rather than in Latin.
The Lord’s Supper as a memorial
Before the Reformation the Lord’s Supper was seen as the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. It was believed that the bread and wine actually changed into the Body and Blood of Christ. The priest offered the Body and Blood of Christ as a sacrifice at the altar – just as the Old Testament priests offered the sacrificial animals. Every time the Mass was celebrated Christ was offered again for the sins of the world. But the Reformers realised the truth of these words from Hebrews:
Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself. ( Hebrews 7:27)
The Lord’s Supper is a meal we share in memorial of our Lord. We take bread and wine as symbols of his Body and Blood. They remind us of his sacrifice on the cross. We do not sacrifice him again.
You won’t find crucifixes in our churches because Christ is not still on the cross. Instead you will see the plain, empty cross – a sign that Christ has risen and is alive today.
No, I can’t agree with those who decry the Reformation and seem to want to apologise for it. We cling to the truths rediscovered by Luther and the other Reformers. And a Reformed church is not just one which was reformed 500 years ago – it’s a church which is continually reforming – always looking for new insights in God’s word, and new ways to reach out with the Good News of Jesus Christ.
[An earlier version of this sermon was first blogged in 2008 under the title “Reformation”.]
After Jesus had risen from the dead and appeared to his disciples for forty days he ascended and returned to his Father in heaven. On the Day of Pentecost he sent the Holy Spirit to help his disciples. And so the first Christians went out in the power of the Spirit with the Good News. They went into all the towns and cities of the Roman world. Today we are going to hear the story of two of them: Saul of Tarsus and Ananias of Damascus.
My name is Saul. I was born in Tarsus (in what you would call Turkey). My family is Jewish, so when I was a boy I went to school in the local synagogue. I learned all about the Lord God and all about the laws God gave to Moses. I would sit on the floor with the other boys in a circle around our Rabbi. He was called Gamaliel and he was a world famous teacher.
I grew up to be very religious: I always tried my hardest to keep all of God’s laws. I was also very proud of being Jewish and of belonging to the strictest sect of the Jewish faith – the Pharisees. I was proud of all my good deeds and I thought that if anyone deserved to go to heaven it was I. I thought God was pleased with me.
And so when I heard about these Christians I was furious. These people didn’t follow all the rules that we Pharisees followed. These people said you could not get to Heaven by your good deeds, but only by trusting in Jesus who had been crucified and come back to life.
To me these people were heretics. As a young man I hated them and I persecuted them vehemently. I obtained permission from the Jewish authorities to arrest anyone who followed Jesus. So I punished them, I tried to force them to give up following Jesus, I even went to other cities to arrest them.
It was on one of these persecuting missions that my life was completely turned round. I was on my way to Damascus with letters from the religious leaders giving me the authority to arrest anyone who followed Jesus. But as I travelled on the road I was not entirely at ease with myself. There was something nagging in the back of my mind:
“I have mistreated so many Christians, but they have never cursed me. They might well be heretics but they seem to be such good people. And have I been in the right to persecute them?”
You see, I had been one of those present when they killed Stephen – the first man who died for the Christian faith. In fact I looked after the coats of the men who were stoning him to death, and I agreed with what they did at that time.
But there was something about Stephen. There was a look on his face like that of an angel. He was happy and peaceful even as he was being stoned to death!
“Lord, do not hold this sin against them!”, he cried out, just before he died. I just could not understand it – it disturbed me. My conscience was troubled.
But what was I saying? Oh yes, my journey to Damascus. As we were nearing the gate of the City of Damascus, suddenly a dazzling light shone all about me. It was much brighter than the sun. It stunned me and I fell to the ground. A voice spoke to me saying:
“Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the stabbing of your conscience.”
“Who are you, Lord,” I said.
“I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. Get up and go into the City – there you will be told what to do.”
Then the brightness faded, and when I opened my eyes I found I was totally blind. Someone had to lead me by the hand into the City and I went to the house of a man called Judas, in Straight Street. This was the start of the most amazing change in my life.
Reflection on Saul’s story
From when he had been a child Saul had to tried to please God by keeping all the rules. He thought he was good at it.
He didn’t just try to keep the Ten Commandments and the Law of Moses, but also the extra rules invented by the Pharisees. That’s why he persecuted the Christians. They seemed to be telling people not to bother with God’s laws. (The Christians were not actually saying that. They were saying that because we are sinful people we cannot keep God’s laws perfectly.) Saul thought that if you did a good deed, for example: giving some money to a poor man, that would make you more acceptable to God. But even as he gave the money his heart was filled with pride and conceit – which is a sin. Saul didn’t see that his pride and self-righteousness were keeping him from God.
We are all a bit like Saul. We think of our good deeds as being like a clean, white linen cloth. But when God looks into our hearts, he sees filthy rags – not a clean, white linen cloth. Even our good deeds are tainted with sin and selfishness and with wrong motives. And so the Word of God tells us, “All our good deeds are like filthy rags.” (Isaiah 64:6)
But the good news is that Jesus can cleanse us from that sin. Jesus can make us pure within. If we trust in him who died for us, and throw ourselves on his mercy, all our sins are washed away.
As he sat in darkness in the house of Judas in Straight Street, Saul thought about these things. He realised his sin, and he prayed to God to forgive him for persecuting the Christians, and all his other sins. He fasted, in fact he did not eat for three days. He cried out to God for mercy.
Like Saul we also, every one of us, need to cry out to God for mercy. (Maybe not in such a dramatic way as Saul did, but we all need God’s forgiveness and grace.)
And now to the other figure in the story:
My name is Ananias of Damascus, a believer in Jesus. One night I went to bed somewhat troubled.I had heard that Saul of Tarsus was coming to arrest all the Christians in Damascus. I was a Jew, but also a Christian, I believed in the Lord Jesus as my Messiah. And Saul was on his way to arrest us!
During that night the Lord spoke to me in a vision:
“Go to the house of Judas, on Straight Street, and ask for Saul of Tarsus. I have told him in a vision that you will go to heal him of his blindness.”
“Lord, I know all about this man, and all the harm he has done to your people – how can I go to him?”
“Do it! This man is my chosen instrument to bring the Good News to the Gentiles.”
So I did what my Lord said. With my heart thumping I went to the house of Judas in straight Street and there I saw a blind man. I placed my hands on his head.
“Brother Saul,” I said. (Remember this was my enemy!)
“Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the way has sent me, so that you may receive your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”
Then I saw something that looked like scales falling from his eyes, and he was able to see! Later I baptised him and welcomed him into God’s family.
And so here ends the story of Saul and Ananias.
After this experience Saul was a changed man – he never looked back. He went on to become a great preacher of the Gospel. He was never afraid to tell people that Jesus was Lord. He suffered a lot for the sake of his Lord, and eventually died for his faith. His name was Saul of Tarsus, but we usually know him by his other name – the Apostle Paul.
Later the Apostle Paul wrote these words:
“If anyone ever had reason to hope that he would save himself, it would be I. For I went through the Jewish initiation ceremony when I was eight days old, having been born into a pure blooded Jewish home that was a branch of the old original Benjamin family. So I was a real Jew if there ever was! What’s more, I was a member of the Pharisees who demand the strictest obedience to every Jewish law and custom. And sincere? Yes, so much so that I greatly persecuted the Church: and I tried to obey the Jewish rules and regulations right down to the last point.
But all these things that I once thought very worthwhile – now I’ve thrown them all away so that I can put my trust and hope in Christ alone. Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the priceless gift of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. I have put aside all else, counting it worth less than nothing, in order that I can have Christ.”
(Philippians 3: 4-8, Living Bible)
Whatever wealth, position and prestige we may have in the world, nothing can compare with the immense privilege of belonging to Christ; of being members of Gods family, sons and daughters of the Heavenly King; our sins cleansed away and eternal life our reward.
Matthew 22 1-14
The Parable of the Wedding Banquet, as we find it in Matthew’s Gospel, is packed full of meaning. It teaches us many things about our acceptance or rejection of the truth found in Jesus Christ. This parable is in fact two parables. The first one refers to the rejection by God’s people of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. One result of this rejection was the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans. (In the parable the King sends out troops to destroy the town of the evil doers.) A second result of this rejection is that the Gentiles, the outsiders, are invited insead. And they respond in great numbers.
The second parable is tacked on this first parable. It is about a man who came to the Kings banquet wearing the wrong clothes. it’s this second parable we shall be looking at today.
‘But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. He asked, “How did you get in here without wedding clothes, friend?” The man was speechless.
The deeper meaning of the parable
At first sight it all seems terribly unfair to us. This man who had come to the banquet apparently was turned out from the feast simply because he was wearing the wrong clothes. Surely this can never be right! Of course no t – there is a much deeper meaning to this parable here.
I wonder if there is anyone here who has ever been invited to Buckingham Palace to be presented to the Queen, either for an award or to attend a garden party in recognition of service to the community. Over the years I have met a number of people who have been summoned to Buckingham Palace in that way. No one that I know of has ever refused such an invitation. It always involves a great deal of discussion about what to wear, and perhaps spending a bit of money on getting some clothes suitable for the occasion.
Now the man in the parable had turned up to the King’s banquet in clothes which were totally unsuitable for the occasion. He was just wearing his everyday clothes and he failed to do honour to the King. This man was indifferent to the King. It is as though he were saying, “You will have to just take me as I am. I haven’t got time for this sort of thing. I’m here, am I not?” This attitude would have been completely disrespectful. He had no notion of the honour conferred upon him, or the efforts that would be taken for his enjoyment. In the parable he is reprimanded severely and kicked out.
Now we have to be careful that we do not interpret this parable literally, as though it is all about what we wear when we come to church. That is not what the parable is about. The church of Jesus Christ was never meant to be a fashion parade (although there have been times in the life of the Church where it has been so). Nowadays we do not tend to dress up so much when we come to come to church. We wear clothes which are respectable but not showy. Over the years fashions have changed. For most people today their best clothes are the smart-casual ones. And when they appear in church in these clothes they mean no disrespect to God at all. No true Christian person would want to turn away people from worship because of what they are wearing. We would rather see people come to church in their ordinary clothes to sincerely worship God, then come all dressed up simply to show off. So we don’t dress up to come to church, we just see that we look respectable.
No, this Parable is not about what we should be wearing when we come to worship God. It is not about our outward coverings – it is about our inner attitudes. We should worship God in the right spirit. Listen to what Paul says:
As God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.
Paul says we are to clothe ourselves inwardly with the right attitude. This is far more important than outward garments.
Coming to worship God
When we come to God’s house to worship him (and especially when we come to the Communion Table) we need to examine ourselves, to see whether we are coming to God’s banquet wearing the right clothing inwardly. I am sure some people just turn up on Sunday without really preparing themselves to worship, without seeking to repent of their sins, without coming in humility and wanting to worship God. But when we come to worship God (and especially when we come to the Communion Table) we need to come with two particular inward garments, as it were: gratitude and humility.
Gratitude is the only proper response to the Gospel (and that’s why in some churches the Communion Service is known as the Eucharist – which is Greek for “Thanksgiving”).
And then there is humility. With this attitude we recognise our unworthiness, our sinfulness, our selfishness and our need for forgiveness. And so we humbly and gratefully come to worship God.
The Robe of Righteousness
But who is worthy to come into God’s presence, and who is worthy to sit at the King’s Table? If any person thinks that their own righteousness grants from the right to come then they are wearing the wrong clothes. If any person puts their trust in their own goodness rather than God’s goodness then they must learn the lesson that
“all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6 – King James Version )
It’s not a question of being worthy, it’s a question of accepting the invitation and receiving the Grace that God gives us.
As it says in the Presbyterian Service Book, with regard to the Lord’s Supper:
“Come to the Holy Table, not because you’re strong, but because you are weak.
Come, not because any goodness of your own give a right to come, but because you need mercy and help.
Come, not because you love the Lord enough, but because you want to love him more.”
Apparently it was the custom in the East at the time of Jesus that if a guest were invited to a royal reception and for some reason or other did not have the appropriate clothes to wear, then the royal personage would provide the necessary robes for the occasion.
Something like this happened almost 65 years ago, at the time that Sir John Hunt and his team conquered Mount Everest. Tenzing Norgay the Sherpa and Sir Edmund Hillary were the two men to first stand on the peak of Everest. When the climbers returned to Kathmandu there was a flood of congratulatory telegrams, including an invitation for the team to attend Buckingham Palace. This caused a major crisis for Tenzing and for the rest of the team. Tenzing refused to go. He wasn’t going to Buckingham Palace. He had never even been out of Nepal before. He wasn’t used to high functions of this kind, and besides he didn’t have anything to wear, except his rough Sherpa clothes.
John Hunt and his party tried all they could to persuade Tenzing to change his mind, but they completely failed. On the other hand, there was no way they could think of accepting the Queen’s invitation without Tenzing, the first to reach the top of Everest. In desperation they sent a message to Nehru, the Prime Minister of India, asking him to intercede on their behalf with Tenzing. And so Nehru summoned Tenzing to Delhi and plainly told him that it would be an insult to the Queen and indeed an insult to his own Nepalese people, if he refused this royal invitation. And then he added: “I understand that clothes are your difficulty. I have anticipated that – come with me”.
And so he took Tenzing to his apartment. He said to him, “We’re about the same size. Put on these clothes.” And there was a complete outfit, in immaculate condition of the Prime Minister’s own clothes! So it was that Norgay Tenzing went to Buckingham Palace after all. He appeared before the Queen in the garments of the Prime Minister of India!
We have no garments of our own with which to appear before the King of Kings. But Christ has died on the cross to provide us with garments. He has provided for us a robe of righteousness and holiness that makes it possible for us to come before him. Our own good deeds and self-righteousness are worth nothing, but the goodness of Christ is a robe that we can wear.
What Jesus asks for is not any kind of elaborate ceremony or ritual, but a simple personal faith in him. It is a faith that believes that he’s able to do what we cannot do. A faith that believes in Christ’s sacrifice for us on the cross. A faith that believes that Jesus can clothe us with his own righteousness. A faith that with a humble, grateful reliance on him alone goes out, is his strength alone, to do those things that are worthy of his name. All we have to do is say “yes” to his invitation.
Well then, have we answered his invitation with a “yes”, or are we still finding other things to do and say is an excuse for staying away and missing out on the richest of all blessings – his daily presence in our hearts.
The man in the parable was speechless before the King when he was challenged about not having the right robe. Let us be careful that we do respond to the King with words of gratitude and appreciation for all that he has done for us.
(Sermon preached at the Brecon Presbyterian Church, based on an outline prepared by the late Rev. R. B. Owen, Prestatyn.)
Jesus asks Peter if he loves him
Another look at Simon Peter
Last week we looked at the life of Simon Peter: in our all-age worship. Today let’s think a bit more about this man, about his character. It was amazing the way Peter changed from being an unreliable, impetuous, hothead to become a Rock, upon which Jesus could build his Church.
When we first meet Simon in the Gospels, we see a man with certain glaring character faults. Simon was loud-mouthed, he was impetuous, he was boastful, he lacked humility and he was unstable. You might wonder why Jesus would want Simon for a disciple – but then many of the other disciples were not much better. (At this time they were all young men with many of the faults of youth, but they were capable of changing.) And we do see other sides of Simon’s character which are more positive. I think he was a generous man, he was warm and outgoing, he was enthusiastic, he was a man of strong emotions and he was a natural leader. But most important of all: he was devoted to Jesus.
His good qualities and his bad qualities were two sides of the same coin. And we are all like this – we all have unique personalities, and that personality will have both strengths and weaknesses. Our personalities need to be submitted to God so that the Holy Spirit can work to produce the Fruit of the Spirit in us. Then the positive aspects of our personality will show up and we will help to build up the body of Christ, the fellowship of the Church.Not all of us will have Peter’s gregarious and extrovert temperament, but we all can learn from Simon Peter’s life. So let’s first look at some of his faults:
“Impulsive” is the word you would use to describe Peter. Whenever a new situation arose, you could always guarantee that it would be Simon Peter who would jump in with both feet!
Remember when Jesus walked on the water? It was Simon who said, “Lord, command me to come to you on the water. “ ( Matthew 14: 22) – and before you could say “Jack Robinson” Simon stepped out of the boat and walked across the water towards Jesus. Now that is impulsive behaviour.
On the night that Jesus was arrested Simon Peter whipped out his sword and attacked the servant of the High Priest (John 18:10). That is impulsive behaviour.
After Jesus rose from the dead it was John who got to the empty tomb first but he hesitated before going in. (He was a cautious character.) Peter arrived after John and just rushed straight into the tomb. John then looked in as well, and it was John, not Peter, who understood what he saw and believe that Jesus was alive. You understand what I’m saying? Peter was the one who bounded into the tomb without really understanding. (John was the reflective one, who understand the significance of the Empty Tomb.)
There are many other occasions when we see examples of Peter’s impetuousness. He’s always the one who speaks up first. Sometimes that is a good thing – as when he confessed Jesus to be the Son of the Living God. But then later we read about him remonstrating with Jesus for saying that he is going to be killed. “Lord,” he said, “this will never happen to you.”
Now for Jesus this was a temptation to forgo the way of the Cross. Jesus saw this temptation as coming from the Devil, even though it was Peter who said the words. He had to rebuke Peter, saying that he is in effect the mouthpiece of Satan. Unknowingly, Simon Peter was seeking to deflect Jesus from the path of duty and sacrifice.
So sometimes Peter’s impulsive words were commendable – at other times they were the opposite.
At the Transfiguration we have an awe-inspiring occasion: Jesus is shining out with divine light, and speaking to Moses and Elijah, who also shine out with heavenly glory.The other two disciples, James and John, are struck silent with awe. But Peter just comes out with whatever is in his mind! First he just speaks a platitude: “Lord, it’s good to be here with you up on the mountain.” And then he suggests making three shelters for Moses, Elijah and Jesus. He didn’t really know what he was saying. It doesn’t really make sense, and anyway, what to did he think he was doing interrupting the conversation that Jesus was having with no less than Moses and Elijah? These were inappropriate words.
Peter’s reaction is always to open his mouth without first engaging his brain! And so he did often act and speak without thinking. This was a great fault, you might think, and surely a disqualification to become the leader of the Apostolic Band. But apparently Jesus saw things differently. He saw what Peter was capable of becoming – a Rock upon which he would be able to rely.
Arrogant and boastful
Peter was always likely, in his enthusiasm, to bite off much more than he could chew. He was also arrogant and boastful. On one occasion he claimed that he loved Jesus more than the others, that he would be more loyal to Jesus. Jesus had said how all his disciples were going to leave him when he was arrested. And Peter said, “All the others might run off Lord, but I will never abandon you. I will go to prison and death rather than leave you.”
Peter was in for a rude awakening. When it came down to the nitty-gritty, when Jesus actually was arrested, Peter ran off, just as the others did. Later, we read how he denied Jesus three times in order to save his own skin. Where was all his boasted loyalty now? When the cock crowed Peter remembered the words of Jesus, “Before the cock crows you will deny that you know me three times. And he went out and wept bitterly.
This was a testing time for Peter – this was a turning point of his life. He was humbled. He realised he had failed to be a Rock. he had not lived up to the nickname the Lord has given him.
We see a change in Peter’s life after the Resurrection. The first significant event was when Jesus reinstated him as leader of the Apostolic Band. This happened on the lakeside in Galilee, where the risen Jesus asked Peter three times if he loved Jesus. Peter replied three times that he did, and three times Jesus told him to take care of his lambs and to feed his sheep.
Peter had denied his Lord three times: now Jesus reassures him that he is forgiven three times. Not only that, but Jesus will entrust to Peter the pastoral care of the early Church. What a risk for the Lord to take: to give the job to unreliable, boastful blustering Peter! But the Lord knew what he was doing.
Peter had denied Jesus rather than face imprisonment or death, but now Jesus predicts that he will one day die as a martyr for his faith in Jesus:
Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.’ Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, ‘Follow me!’
Filled with the Spirit
And Peter did indeed follow Jesus. Just a few weeks later we find him standing up on the Day of Pentecost, filled with the Spirit and boldly speaking to a crowd.
“With the help of evil men you nailed him to a cross”, Peter said to the crowd. (Acts 2: 23).
Yes, he actually is brave enough to accuse them of crucifying Christ. Later, when he speaks to the crowd after the healing of the man at the Temple he says, “You killed the one who gives life! But God raised him from death.”
Once again he is bold enough to make the direct accusation the people that they had crucified Jesus.
Then, when he and John were brought before the Jewish leaders, once again he said, “You nailed him to the cross. But God raised him from death. (Acts 4:10)
All fear of reprisal is now gone and Peter boldly testifies to Christ. He truly is becoming a Rock.
One of the characteristics that I have not yet mentioned is that of Peter’s xenophobia. In this respect he was very much the same as most of the Jews of his day. They tended to despise the Gentiles. They prided themselves on being God’s people: the Jews. They thought they were superior to everyone else. And so there was a certain degree of xenophobia. They weren’t supposed to fraternize with Gentiles, to sit down at table with them, nor to have any kind of fellowship with them.
Now, Peter was orthodox in his practice of the Jewish Faith, and he didn’t cease to keep the Jewish ritual laws of diet and custom after he became a follower of Jesus. Indeed, all the first Christians were Jews, and they had all been circumcised.
The time came, however, when the Holy Spirit led some of these Jewish Christians to go out to preach to the Gentiles as well as to the Jews. And so it was that non-Jews were coming to faith in Christ. It is at this time that Peter has his famous vision of a cloth or sheet coming down from heaven.
The Spirit of God wanted to get Peter out of his xenophobic rut and start welcoming Gentile believers into his house, to sit at table with them and have fellowship with them. This was a very big thing to ask from a very observant Jew!
In his vision Peter sees what looks like a huge sheet lowered down to earth from heaven. In the sheet he sees all sorts of animals which were considered unclean by the Jews. I imagine there would have been pigs and rats as well as all kinds of unclean birds and reptiles. A voice from heaven said: “Get up Peter, kill and eat!” Peter replied: “ Lord, I have never eaten anything that isn’t holy or clean.”
The voice said: “God has made these things clean. Don’t you call them unclean.”
This vision was repeated two more times, and then Peter came out of the trance that he was in. And just then messengers came asking Peter to go to the house of Cornelius the Centurion, to tell him and all his Gentile relatives and friends about Jesus. (You can read about all this in Acts, Chapter 10).
The upshot of it all was that Peter went to Cornelius’ house and told the people there the message of salvation. When they heard Peter’s words they believed in Jesus, and the Holy Spirit came upon them – a sure sign that they had been accepted by God. The Holy Spirit had made it known to the early Church that the Gentiles were just as welcome as the Jews in God’s Kingdom.
And so Peter was changed forever from being a narrow xenophobic Jew, to become one who welcomed Gentile believers and had fellowship with them. (It is true that later on we find him back-tracking a little bit when he met some very extreme Jewish Christians. Peter compromised his position at that time.)
But he has definitely changed. He has become one who will welcome anyone who believes in Jesus – whatever their race or origin. His whole approach has changed.
The lesson of humility and submission
By the time we get to the Epistles of Peter, at the end of the New Testament, written when Peter was getting to be an old man, we see one who has learned the lesson of humility, submission to God, and being prepared to suffer for the sake of the Gospel.
In his youth he had been as unstable as water, but in his maturity he became the Rock on which the Church was built. He had been a young man when his first met Jesus – probably only in his early twenties – he had been full of immaturity and pride. But God that taken hold of him and changed them. He became Peter the Rock.
Last week in our harvest service we were looking thinking about the Fruit of the Spirit. This week I’d like to go into the subject in a little more detail.
A few theological terms
What we have here are nine qualities of the Christ-like character. To produce the Fruit of the Spirit is to become more like Jesus himself. It is the work of the Holy Spirit to do this, and another name for this process is Sanctification. To become more holy, to become more like God, this is what Sanctification means.
So how can the work of Sanctification go forward in our lives?
First, we need to note that it takes time. No one ever transformed from being a sinner to a saint overnight. Fruit on a tree takes time to grow – no one plants an apple tree and expects to pick apples from it the following week. And it’s the same with the Fruit of the Spirit – it takes time to develop.
This is the main distinction between Conversion and Sanctification. We can be converted instantly. A person might undergo a dramatic change of direction in their life. They might commit themselves wholeheartedly to Christ and seek to follow him. When that happens all our sins are instantly washed away, we are cleansed by the blood of Christ. His death on the Cross atones for us. The theological term for this is Justification. God pronounces us to be “just” or “innocent” of all the wrong we have done because he has taken our sins away.
There is a play of words which you can use to help you remember what Justification means: Justified = “just [as] if I’d never sinned.”
But when you do become a Christian you don’t become perfect over night. Indeed you won’t ever be perfect in this lifetime – but you can go on towards perfection. This is what we mean by Sanctification. Now when we are converted to Christ we find we may still have a lot of bad habits that are not going to disappear immediately. If our fault was that we were quick to anger, we might still have a problem with our temper. If we had a tendency to be judgemental of others, we might still find it hard to stop criticizing. If we were dishonest in our dealings, we might find it hard to go straight. The Holy Spirit needs time to work in our hearts and lives, and we have to open up to the Holy Spirit. This is what Paul is saying when he writes to the Galatians:
So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
(Galatians 5: 16-18)
And then Paul lists all the Works of the Flesh or “acts of the sinful nature”, as it says in some modern versions.
The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.
(Galatians 5 19-23)
Now, it is the Fruit of the Spirit I want us to concentrate on, rather than the Works of the Flesh.
The Fruit of the Spirit
This is not just love in the everyday sense of the word. Certainly it is not to be confused with romantic or erotic love. The Greek word Agape means a love which bears all things, a love which sacrifices itself on behalf of the beloved. Paul eulogises that kind of love in his wonderful hymn to love in 1 Corinthians, chapter 13. Jesus showed that kind of love when he offered himself as a sacrifice for the sins of the world. On the cross of Christ we see the epitome of that Agape love.
Love is the chief of the Fruit of the Spirit. Indeed, you could say love is the Fruit of the Spirit and all the other qualities are just aspects of that love – just ways that love works out in practice in our lives.
Some people say, “the Fruits of the Spirit”. “Fruits”: plural. But what Paul actually writes is, “Fruit of the Spirit.” “Fruit”: singular. There is just one Fruit of the Spirit but it has many different flavours. Or another way of looking at it: there is one Fruit of the Spirit, and that is Love, and the others are a part of that. One preacher said the Fruit of the Spirit is like an orange with eight segments. Love is the whole orange, and the eight segments are: Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness and Self-control.
If you don’t behave in a loving way towards others then your Christian life is a sham. Faith without love is nothing. Religious activities without love are nothing. It’s all there in 1 Corinthians, chapter 13.
Joy is a quality produced deep in our soul when we allow the Holy Spirit to be at work. It stems from the knowledge that we are safe in the arms of God and nothing can separate us from his love. Anything may happen to us in life, but joy will remain, even under the most adverse circumstances. In this respect it is quite different from happiness. The word “happy” comes from “hap”, an old word meaning “chance”, or “circumstance” (as when you say something is haphazard). we are happy when good things happen to us. And when bad things happen to us we become unhappy. This is the superficial quality of happiness which changes. But joy remains constant. It is not dependent on circumstances but on our relationship with God.
In the Bible the word peace ( in Hebrew: Shalom) refers to an inner completeness or wholeness. It stems from being in harmony with God, and it spreads out to other people. Thus the Christian is called to be a peacemaker in the world, to seek means of reconciliation among warring parties. But it’s only when we have that Fruit of the Spirit, peace, within our own hearts that we are able to be effective peacemakers in the world around us.
Patience has the ability to endure hard circumstances of life, or to put up with other people mistreating us. Another word for it is “longsuffering” – the ability to suffer adverse circumstances in life and not to give up – not to lose faith, hope and love. This is patience: it is part of the Fruit of the Spirit and it is definitely something which requires time to develop.
This is when we show friendship and benevolence towards others. It involves being flexible and adaptable to the needs of others, rather than always selfishly insisting on having our own way.
Goodness refers to the essential character of the Christian. No one is perfect in this life, but we should live lives which are moral and honest, and which reflect the faith we profess. The Holy Spirit produces this quality of goodness, that enables others to see in you something of Jesus.
Faithfulness is similar to goodness. If people look at our lives and they see that we are completely dependable, that we always keep our word, that they can rely on us, that we won’t let them down, then they are seeing something of God in us. For God himself is faithful – he is totally trustworthy. We are justified in putting our faith in him. But here’s a question: are people justified in putting their faith in us? To be faithful and trustworthy is one of the Fruit of the Spirit.
Gentleness is the same as meekness – and that is not the same as weakness. The gentle or meek person has plenty of strength and power, but that power is kept under control. Such a person might be quite capable of beating you up but won’t do it because he’s gentle. Or might be quite capable of cutting you to the heart with a wounding word, but won’t do it because he is gentle. It’s all too easy for us to come down hard on people. We need to learn to produce the fruit of gentleness.
And the last section of the Fruits of the Spirit:
If gentleness is keeping your strength within restraint, then self-control is keeping your thoughts and actions within restraint. If you look at the list of the Works the Spirit that Paul gives us just before the Fruit of the Spirit you see that so many of these evils stem from lack of self-control. Our basic human instincts are strong and we need to learn to control them. (We have to do this actually just to live in a civilised society, but the Christian should demonstrate even more self-control than those in the world.) Whatever these instincts are, whether anger, lust or greed, we have to learn to control them. And this is the working of the Holy Spirit.
So then this is the Fruit of the Spirit. It is the Christ-like character which grows in the life of the believer. If it is the work of the Holy Spirit, is there anything then we can do to encourage that work? How can we help this fruit to grow? You see, we are called to be co-workers with God in our own lives. And just as it is possible to quench the Holy Spirit and to grieve the Holy Spirit, so we can also do the opposite – to encourage the working of the Spirit In our lives.
How do we do this? By making use of the “Means of Grace”. God has provided us with different means by which we can take hold of his grace. He’s made it possible for us to talk to him in prayer and to listen to his voice. He has provided the Bible which we can read, and hear, and take into our lives. He has provided the Church, where we can meet with fellow Christians, sharing fellowship with them, listening to sermons. We can read Christian books, listen to Christian CDs and DVDs, radio, TV and Internet channels. We can partake of the Sacrament of Holy Communion. All these can be Means of Grace and we need to make use of them if we are to grow as Christians so that the Fruit of the Spirit may be produced in our lives.
[Sermon preached on Remembrance Sunday 2015]
The Lord said to Moses, ‘Tell Aaron and his sons, “This is how you are to bless the Israelites. Say to them:
‘“‘The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you;
the Lord turn his face towards you and give you peace.’”
‘So they will put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.’
(Numbers 6: 22-27)
When I was young, growing up in Park End Church, Cardiff, these words were always sung at every baptism service. Just after the minister had baptized the child the whole Congregation would sing this benediction. (No. 556 in the Church Hymnary.) So they are vary familiar words to me – I heard them many times in my youth. I know them very well, but it was only much later in my life that I realised they came from the Book of Numbers. In that book God commanded that at certain times the Priests, the Sons of Aaron, should bless the people using these words. To this day this Benediction is used in the Synagogue whenever descendants of the priests (cohenim) are present. Any Jew with the name Cohen is a descendant of the ancient Hebrew priests.
1) The Lord bless you and keep you
For the Israelites, blessing was seen mainly in terms of a material prosperity: good harvests, plenty of food for everyone and many children to enlarge your family. These were the blessings they sought. And we can seek such blessings today. It’s not wrong to pray for material things. After all, Jesus taught us to ask for our daily bread in the Lord’s Prayer: to ask God to give us the necessities of life.
But we can see there is so much more to blessing then just food, clothing and material possessions. There is spiritual well-being and wholeness. There is a sense of inner content. There Is love, there is joy, there is peace. There is the blessing of a happy marriage and family life. There are the blessings of friendship and of Christian fellowship. There is the blessing of knowing that our sins are forgiven through the Cross of Christ. There is the blessing of receiving eternal life in his name. We can go on naming blessings – and these are all things we can ask for ourselves. But we can also invoke God to bring these blessings on others.
In the Old Testament it was the Priests, the Cohenim, a who pronounced blessings on the people, but under the Christian Dispensation all believers can do this. All who trust in Jesus Christ as their Saviour are priests of God. We believe in the priesthood of all believers. So you don’t have to have the name Cohen in order to be able to say this Benediction. Nor do you even have to be an ordained minister of the Church to pronounce God’s blessings on others. Maybe we should all bless one another much more often.
We see a positive and a negative side to this first sentence of the blessing. The positive is seen in the words “the Lord bless you”. And the negative in the words “keep you” – that is to say “preserve you from harm”. As for the Israelites, they wanted to be kept safe from their enemies, from plagues and diseases, from bad harvests, from childlessness. We also can pray for protection in this way. But again we might also wish to be protected from spiritual harm: protected from temptation, protected from undergoing hard times of testing, protected from the power of the Evil One. In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus tells us to say, “forgive us our sins” and “lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil” – that is, from the power of the Evil One.
2) The Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you
God is light and him there is no darkness at all ( 1 John 1:5). The light of God needs to shine into our hearts, but that light is pure and sinless. It shows up all our darkness, it makes us more aware of our own sinfulness. That in itself is not a blessing at all – we might indeed feel that it is a curse. But look more carefully at these words. “The Lord make his face to shine upon you”. In human beings the face is the most expressive part of us. It registers our feelings, it expresses our emotions, it manifest our character. You can tell by looking at someone what they are like. You can see whether they are weak or resilient, bitter or forgiving, stern or kind.. God’s “face” then, is a poetic way of referring to his character. But what is that character like? Is it stern or kindly?
Well let’s go back to thinking about human beings again. If a person’s face is shining, what does that mean? It means they are joyful. If we say someone’s face is beaming, what does that mean? It means they are wreathed in smiles. If God “makes his face to shine upon us”, then it means he is smiling his approval on us, he is happy in our company, he loves us and grants us his favour.
And this leads us to the second part of the sentence: “and be gracious unto you”. He is showing us his grace, his undeserved favour. Is God’s face shining on you? Does he smile his approval when he sees your life? If you are truly trusting in Jesus and seeking to follow this way, then God will indeed be blessing you. You will know his grace. The light of his face will illuminate you.
3) The Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace
The word translated “countenance” in the King James Version is simply the normal Hebrew word for “face”. This is why The New International Version has “the Lord turn his face towards you”. Now if you turn your face toward a person it is because you are giving them your attention. And so this is saying: “may God be concerned about your needs and give you peace.”
That word “peace” is very important. We usually think of it as the opposite of war – as in such expressions as “War and Peace”. But even in the English language it has many other meanings. Peace can connote tranquility, quietness or rest, as well as harmony and absence of conflict.
The word used in the Hebrew language – “shalom” – means all this and so much more. It means wholeness, completeness or well-being. In Israel today you will hear the word “shalom” used all the time to greet people. They use it for “hello” or “good-bye”. In classical Hebrew the greeting is “shalom aleichem” – “peace be upon you”. You are wishing wholeness and well-being on the other person.
When we keep Remembrance Sunday and Armistice day it’s not because we want to glorify war, but because we value peace. We thank God that in Britain at present we are living mostly peaceful lives. We remember with gratitude those whose peace was shattered as they made sacrifices for their country and for mankind.
We also pray for reconciliation and justice between nations. This is all part of “shalom” And we know that it is only by coming into a right relationship with God that anyone can know that “shalom”. When We trust in Jesus, we know our sins are forgiven through his death upon the Cross. And so we find inner peace and we are given strength to extend that peace to others.
It is only when “the Lord lifts up his countenance upon us” that we experience this true peace. When he “makes his face to shine upon us and is gracious unto us”.
· Through the Holy Spirit may the peace of Christ dwell in our hearts.
· Through the Holy Spirit may the love of God be shed abroad in our hearts.
· Through the Holy Spirit may we learn to be peace-makers and thus become true sons and daughters of God.