Church, Differently

What follows is a short video reflection produced during the 2020 Coronavirus Lockdown for St Andrew’s Methodist Church and Southwater Community Church, both in Horsham, West Sussex.

Scroll to the bottom for an audio recording.

How are you coping?

These are very strange times we’re living in.

I’m sure that we all have our own particular reasons for finding life difficult at the moment.

Maybe we’re finding it tough not being able to meet up with friends, family, loved ones.

Maybe we’re finding life dull and monotonous.

Perhaps we have very real health worries and concerns.

Perhaps we’re worried about our finances, or our jobs.

Maybe we’re missing church – the fellowship of our fellow believers, the experience of worshipping together, of celebrating the Lord’s Supper together. Perhaps we’re missing the teaching.

I thought today we could think a little about what precisely church is, and how we might strive to continue being church in these difficult times.

I’d like to take a look at the early church.

The reading is from Acts 2:42-47, which says:

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to everyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”

What picture do we get of the early church from this passage, and how might we emulate this, even in lockdown?

It’s clear that the early church was a learning church. We read that they “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching.” They listened intently to all that the apostles had to say about Jesus. They hung on their every word.

We might not be able to physically go to church, but we can still devote ourselves to the teaching of the apostles. We have this readily available to us in the New Testament. Perhaps we can spend some of the time available to us now reading our Bibles, and learning all that we can about Jesus?

It’s clear that the early church was a loving church. Not only were the early believers devoted to the teaching, they were also devoted to the fellowship – to the community of believers. They shared their lives together. They ate together. They worshipped together. They supported those in need. They were generous to each other.

We might be physically separated from our fellow believers, but this doesn’t stop us loving each other. We can meet together using modern technologies like Zoom, Skype and Facebook. We can phone each other. We can reach out to those who need help, support those in need. Our buildings may be closed but our fellowship doesn’t have to stop. Indeed, it’s possible it might grow even stronger!

It’s clear that the early church was a worshipping church. They met regularly to share the Lord’s Supper together and to pray together. They met at the temple and they met in each other’s homes. They praised God together.

We might not be able to worship together at church, we might not be able to invite people to our homes to worship, but be can still worship together through Zoom meetings or Skype calls. I attended our church prayer meeting this week over Zoom, and there were over 120 people in attendance, far more than would usually attend our monthly prayer meetings.

We can still worship God together, and by thinking creatively and embracing modern technologies, we can potentially worship with our brothers and sisters more regularly. Perhaps we could even aspire to meet together to worship every day, just as the early Christians did.

It’s clear that the early church was an evangelistic church. Jesus added to their number every day. Jesus saved people every day.

Just because we’re trapped in our own homes does not mean that we cannot embrace this aspect of church life. Many of our friends have time on their hands. Many are looking for meaning. Many, precisely because they can’t lead their normal lives, are seeking to understand what life is really all about.

There are so many brilliant resources available online. Spring Harvest have offered up some brilliant resources. The Alpha Course is available online. So is Christianity Explored. So is the Marriage Course. Just this week I’ve seen a brilliant resource called The Word One to One to help us introduce our friends to Jesus by working through John’s Gospel together.

We might be in lock down. We might be stuck at home. But we can still be church together.

We can still learn.

We can still love.

We can still worship.

We can still evangelise.

So let’s rise to the challenge and be church, but differently.

We must not fear

1 The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
3 he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.

5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely your goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
forever.

Psalm 23

What follows is the text of a sermon that I was due to preach at Southwater Community Church, West Sussex, on March 22nd 2020. Since all churches in the UK were closed as a consequence of the Coronavirus pandemic, this didn’t happen. I instead recorded this at my home. Scroll to the bottom for an audio recording.

Photo by Daniel Burka at Unsplash.com

What a week.

What a month.

What a year.

It’s only March and yet 2020 already seems to have found its place in the history books.

A few weeks ago I thought that place would be by virtue of Brexit.

But then along came Coronavirus. COVID-19.

Now we live in fear.

Fear of contracting the virus.

Fear of being ill.

Fear of dying.

Fear of not finding food to eat.

Fear of losing our jobs.

Fear of losing our homes.

Fear of losing loved ones.

It all looks rather bleak, really doesn’t it?

Coronavirus has undeniably impacted on just about every aspect of our lives.

Many of us are working from home.

Schools are closed.

Pubs, restaurants, cinemas, leisure centres, gyms, all closed.

No food in the supermarkets.

No meeting up with friends.

Holidays cancelled.

Weddings postponed.

Churches closed.

It’s only natural to be worried. To be concerned. To be upset.

But you know what, these issues are only temporary.

It hurts right now.

It’s difficult.

It might last a while.

But it’s only temporary.

As Christians, of course, we place our hope in a bright future, an eternal future with God in heaven.

And, as Christians, we have a God who cares for us right now. In the midst of all our difficulties.

We can place our faith and put our trust into a Shepherd God – a God who loves us, who provides for us, and who guides and protects us.

Over the next twenty minutes or so, we’ll be reflecting on Psalm 23, and considering how this ancient poem might speak to us today, in the midst of this awful crisis.

If you have access to a Bible or a Bible app, it would be helpful to have Psalm 23 open in front of you.

As we begin, though, let us pray:

Loving Heavenly Father. Thank you for your word. Thank you for the Psalms, that still resonate with us so vividly all these thousands of years later. We thank you in particular for Psalm 23, and the image it provides, of a Shepherd God. We ask that you would be with us now as we study and reflect on these words together. And as David wrote in Psalm 19, may these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.

In Jesus’ name.

Amen.

It started off with loo roll, didn’t it? I suppose it was a couple of weeks ago now. People started panic buying loo roll, for no discernible reason.

What started off with loo roll soon became a bigger issue though.

The supermarkets ran out of paracetamol.

Then they ran out of pasta.

Then rice.

Then tinned food.

Then frozen food.

Then on Wednesday, having worked late, I went to Waitrose to pick up something for my supper, and the shelves were bare.

I crossed the road to Sainsbury’s, and the picture was the same.

Last weekend I made a trip to Tesco in Burgess Hill. The shelves were pretty much empty. And I saw people literally crying in the aisles.

What are we doing?

How can people be so selfish?

I guess it’s borne out of a genuine fear that people won’t be able to feed themselves, or their families.

I guess the situation arises because people are terrified.

So they take matters into their own hands, and buy up what they can, when they can.

Psalm 23 suggests that we do not need to put our trust in supermarket supply chains, or rationing, or the good sense of our fellow shoppers.

Psalm 23 suggests that we would be much better placing our trust in God.

We should place our trust in God because as Christians, we have a God who provides for all our needs. We do not need to panic. We do not need to be anxious.

David begins this Psalm by declaring, The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.

David was, of course, a shepherd himself. He knew that the most crucial role of a shepherd is to provide for his sheep. David’s sheep were completely dependent on him to provide him with all that they needed to survive.

Without their shepherd, David’s sheep would have died.

David understood that God fulfils the same role for his people. God provides his people with all we need.

David trusted God to take care of all of his needs.

David returns to this theme in the second half of verse five, when he says, “you anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows.”

David understood that God is nor a miserly provider, but the most generous of benefactors.

At the time David was writing, it was common for a host to anoint a distinguished guest’s head with oil on arrival at their home. David knew that, despite his lowly position, each day of his life he is treated by God as an honoured guest, his head anointed personally by his Lord.

David follows this up by saying that the cup his Lord gives him is overflowing. Here’s an image of the abundant generosity of God. God holds nothing back from his people, but graciously provides us with all that we need – and more. His goodness literally overflows.

David is clear that God’s generous provision is something that never leaves him. In verse 6 of Psalm 23 he says, “surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.”

David understands that God bestows good things on him all day, every day. Not a day goes by when God does not provide for David in abundance. Similarly, David understands that he is never separated from God’s mercy.

If we understand that God’s goodness and mercy follows us all day, every day, then we do not need to worry about whether we will be able to buy pasta, or paracetamol, or loo roll. Because if we place our trust in God, if we make him the shepherd of our lives, then we will lack nothing.

We will get through this global crisis.

We just need to place our trust in God.

We need to become the sheep to his shepherd.

We should similarly rejoice that God’s goodness and love are always with us. We should be thankful to him for the bountiful provision that he lavishes upon us. Rather than worrying about what we haven’t got, we should give thanks for all that we do have, and share generously.

Why not take the opportunity for a few minutes each day to think about all the good things that God has given you? If we consciously adopt a more thankful attitude then the world will seem a much more pleasant place. Reflecting on our gratitude to God will help us to place our current troubles into context, and life will feel much more positive.

What’s more, our gratitude, particularly in these difficult times, will be apparent to all whom we encounter too, serving as a powerful witness to all whom we encounter, that we place our trust not in the supply lines of fickle supermarkets, but in God, our shepherd, the creator of the universe.

David trusted that God would provide all that he needed, and said with confidence, “the Lord is my shepherd.” I wonder if we can trust God to provide for us in abundance?

Can we join David and declare, “the Lord is OUR shepherd?”

Claire and I got married nearly ten years ago. It’s astonishing how fast the last decade has gone! It’s our wedding anniversary this summer. To celebrate we have booked for the two of us to return to the hotel where we spent our honeymoon. It’s called Hotel Verbano, and it’s situated on a tiny island in Lake Maggiore in Italy. It’s a really idyllic location, and we have been looking forward to a few nights away for months.

Now, of course, our trip away looks incredibly unlikely.

Maybe we’ll be able to spend our eleventh wedding anniversary on the island instead.

We’ll have to look elsewhere for our rest this summer. Somewhere closer to home.

If things continue as they are, I think we’ll need a rest by the summer. With Coronavirus having such an impact on the whole world, on our entire lives, I think we’ll all need rest and relaxation before too much longer.

Of course, if we wish to find perfect rest, we should look not to holidays, which can be snatched away from us at a moment’s notice, or to trips to the theatre, which can be closed down without warning, or even trips to coffee shops with friends, which can be cruelly snatched away before you can even get your order out.

True rest, as David knows, is to be found through a relationship with God.

In Psalm 23, David presents us with a vision of true peace. He says in verse three that God makes him lie down in green pastures, and leads him beside quiet waters. David knew when shepherding his flock that he needed to ensure that he gave his sheep time to rest. Without sufficient rest, David knew his sheep would become stressed and distressed, which could have a serious impact on their health, and the health of the wider flock.

David understood that his shepherd, the Lord, looked out for him in a similar way, ensuring that he found sufficient time to rest and recover from the busyness of his own life.

If like David we make God the shepherd of our lives, if we dedicate our lives to following him as our shepherd, we can have the same confidence that God will show us peace.

The rest that David knew he received from God was not limited to just physical and mental rest. David trusted that God would provide him with spiritual rest that refreshes his soul, as he wrote in verse three. This is the kind of peace that can only be found through knowing God. Augustine famously wrote, “you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you.” He, like David, knew that true rest can only be found through a relationship with God.

If we want to find true peace, then that can be found only in one place – through a relationship with God. True peace only comes from loving and knowing Jesus as a friend and as our saviour,

Jesus promised this kind of rest to his followers when he said, “come to me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” This is recorded in chapter 11 of Matthew’s Gospel.

It’s interesting the wording that David uses in verse 2. He doesn’t say that God occasionally suggests that he might like to take a break, or even that God tells him to take a break. No, he says that God makes him lie down in green pastures. David implies that God is active in making him take a break. Perhaps there are times when God intervenes in our lives in order to make us stop.

What if this is one of those moments?

We’ve found our diaries cleared, our plans thwarted, and our lives refocused on our own homes.

Perhaps this is God making us lie down in green pastures.

Perhaps this is God giving us time to slow down, to pause, to reflect.

Perhaps this is God giving us time to spend time with our families, to develop our relationships.

Perhaps this is God giving us time to study his word, to pray, to deepen our relationship with him.

I’m not for one moment saying that God has sent the Coronavirus. I’m not saying that God is responsible for this situation. But we don’t have to look too far in the Bible, or even in our own lives, to see that God works through bad situations to accomplish good.

Paul writes in Romans 8, “we know that in all things, God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

Perhaps instead of dwelling on the obvious and significant unpleasantness of this global pandemic, we can look for the good lurking within it.

I felt really quite low yesterday morning, but then I went to the woods with my two children, and we ran around in the sun, chased each other, played hide and seek, and had a really lovely time. Over the next few weeks, and possibly months, there might be many other opportunities like this, as we find ourselves, as a result of circumstances, spending much more time together.

What a blessing!

What a joy!

It’s at times of crisis that we particularly need to place our faith and our confidence in God. Perhaps in the coming days, weeks and months, as we find ourselves wrestling with stressful, difficult and uncertain situations, we need more than ever to ensure that we find time just to stop. To lie down in those metaphorical green pastures. To pause beside those quiet waters. To be quiet. And to allow God to refresh our souls.

David trusted that God would refresh his soul, and said with confidence, “the Lord is my shepherd.” I wonder if we can trust in God to lead us to peace and to refresh our souls, and say, “the Lord is our shepherd?”

When I left the school where I work on Friday afternoon, it felt very strange. We should be at school next week, but for obvious reasons, we will be Remote Teaching, so I packed away my classroom as if for the Easter holiday. Saying farewell to friends and colleagues was quite emotional. You see I have no idea when I will be returning to school. Actually, I’ve applied for another job, so I don’t even know if I will return to my current school at all. At the same time, with the cloud of Coronavirus, sickness, and potentially even death hanging over us all, I couldn’t be sure that my colleagues would be safe, would be well, would be okay.

I got quite emotional actually.

Ultimately, of course, we have to trust in God. We have to put our lives into his hands, and allow him to guide us.

None of us knows what is before us. Now more than ever.

None of us knows what the future holds. Now more than ever.

But God does.

And David understood this.

David sings, “He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake.”

David believed that God would guide him through his life, showing him the direction that he should take.

If we allow God into our lives, he will guide us along the right paths too, guide us through our lives.

But how do we know what the right paths are? How do we know where he is guiding us?

The key to understand this verse comes right at the end of verse three. David says that God guides him along the right paths – for his name’s sake.

The right paths through our lives are those that bring glory to the name of God.

When we put our trust in God as our shepherd, we should strive to put him at the heart of everything that we do in life. Our key priorities should be to love God, to love ourselves, and to love our neighbours, since these are what Jesus described as the greatest commandments.

If we factor these commandments into the decisions that we make, as well as dwelling on God’s word, and spending time in prayer, them God will provide us with the direction that we so desperately seek.

In John 14, Jesus proclaimed, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”

David says that God guides him along the right paths, and Jesus says that he IS the way. Jesus is the good shepherd who leads his followers along the right paths. He turns our meaningless meanderings into straight paths that lead directly to a place with God in heaven.

Of course, sometimes these paths will take us into places where we would rather not be. David knows that the path that he follows through life will take him into dark places. He says in verse four, “even though I walk through the darkest valley.”

For David, it is an inevitability that at some point his life journey will take dark turns. He does not say “if” I walk through the darkest valley, but “even though” I walk through the darkest valley. He knows for certain that, even if he is following God, life will sometimes take a dark turn.

I don’t know about you, but to me the present situation seems pretty dark. When I look around me, when I read the news, when I watch television and listen to the radio, the world at present seems in a pretty dark valley.

We are in a time of great uncertainty. Nothing seems secure anymore. The very foundations of our lives feel as if they are shaking beneath our feet. We’re clinging on to any semblance of normality, any source of comfort we can find, to avoid being thrown over.

But we must not fear.

We should not fear.

Why?

Because God is with us.

He is guiding us.

And he will protect us.

He will guide us with his staff. Like a good shepherd, he will prod us in the right direction. If we listen for his voice, he will not allow us to take the wrong turning.

He will protect us from the enemy. He is equipped with a rod to protect us against anything that the enemy might throw at us.

And he will comfort us.

When we find ourselves facing danger or uncertainty, he will comfort us with the reassurance that his right paths have a destination.

That destination is eternal life.

David put his life on the line for his sheep. He battled wild animals to keep them safe.

In Jesus we have a perfect shepherd, who not only put his life on the line for us, but gave his life up for us.

He went to the cross and took on himself the punishment that should have been ours.

But death could not hold him, and three days later, he rose from the grave, and later ascended to heaven to sit at the right hand of his father.

One day he will return again, and he will lead all those who love him on the final part of our journey, to eternal life with him in God’s new creation.

And that’s what we must hold onto when the going gets tough. When life gets so difficult that we cannot see the way forward.

One day all the difficulties we face now, the sickness, the viruses, and death itself will disappear, having been beaten once and for all by our shepherd, the Lord Jesus Christ.

David knew that God would guide and protect him, and said with confidence, “the Lord is my shepherd.” I wonder if we trust that Jesus will guide and protect us and declare, “the Lord is OUR shepherd?”

Psalm 23 may just be six short verses, but it is an incredibly rich source of inspiration, instruction and guidance. I hope that David’s words have inspired you to consider the extent to which you know that leadership of the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, in your own lives.

I hope that having seen how the Shepherd God provides for us, restores us, and protects and guides us, you have been challenged to become more sheep-like in your relationship with Jesus Christ.

Now, more than ever before, we could really benefit from trusting in God’s provision, restoration, protection and guidance.

So as everyone around you loses their heads, keep yours.

Put your trust in Jesus.

Hold onto him.

He’s got you.

And he will lead you through this current, momentary crisis.

Let us pray:

Heavenly Father, Thank you for the words of David in Psalm 23. Thank you that in Jesus we have a good shepherd, willing to lay down his life for us. Thank you, father, that you provide for us so generously. Help us to place our trust in your provision. Thank you that you refresh our souls. Help us to find rest in you. And thank you that you guide and protect us. Help us to follow you. And as we find ourselves in the midst of a global pandemic, help us to find opportunities to show your love and generosity to those around us. Help us to find the blessings within the difficulties. And ultimately, we pray, Heavenly Father, that you will lead us through our present difficulties, through this dark valley, and into the green pastures and quiet waters that lie beyond. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

Raised from the dead

Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. 11 Whether, then, it is I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.

12 But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

20 But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. 22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. 23 But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. 24 Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 27 For he “has put everything under his feet.” Now when it says that “everything” has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. 28 When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all.

1 Corinthians 15:1-28

What follows is the text of a sermon preached at All Saints’ Lindfield, West Sussex, on March 8th 2020. Scroll to the bottom for an audio recording.

The Garden of Gethsemane
Photo by Stacey Franco on Unsplash

It’s Sunday morning. The sun has yet to rise. Two women are walking in the garden. They are shocked and terrified when an earthquake shakes the ground. They approach the tomb of their friend, the man whom they had called Lord. As they get nearer they see a man. He seems to be shining in the early morning darkness. The women are terrified, but can’t help approaching. They watch as the man, whom they are convinced must be an angel, rolls back the stone sealing the tomb of their Lord, and, having rolled it away, sits upon it. The angel speaks to them. “Do not be afraid!” he says. “I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and behold, he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him. See, I have told you.”

The women are stunned. Can this be true? Can their Lord, their friend, have risen from the dead? Overcome by emotion they run to tell Jesus’ disciples what they have seen. As they run, they meet Jesus himself, who tells them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.”

This is the account of Jesus’ resurrection in Matthew’s Gospel.

But can it be true?

Did Jesus really rise from the dead?

This is what we’ll be considering this morning.

Was Jesus raised from the dead?

Does it matter if Jesus was raised from the dead?

What are the consequences of Jesus being raised from the dead?

Firstly, then, was Jesus raised from the dead?

Paul begins chapter fifteen of his first letter to the Corinthians by reminding the Corinthians of the gospel that he preached to them. He tells them that they received this gospel, and they have stood firm, holding onto all that he has taught them. It is by this gospel that they are saved, he reminds them, if they hold firmly to the word that he has preached to them.

This gospel, this news, that he has taught them is of fundamental importance, since it has the power to save people. People need to be saved. And the news that Paul passed on to the Corinthians means that they can be saved.

What does this gospel save people from?

We can see this in verse three – Christ died for our sins.

Since the time of Adam, all people have sinned. All have fallen short of God’s expectations. Humanity has turned its back on God. We have opted to go our way, not God’s way. To live our lives as we want, not as God would like. We have put ourselves first, and neglected God.

As a consequence of this, we can expect to be judged by God, and found wanting.

We find ourselves in a desperately hopeless position.

But this Gospel that Paul has been sharing means that we can be saved. We can be saved because Christ died for our sins.

He died.

He was buried.

But then, on the third day, he was raised according to the scriptures.

Where’s the evidence, though?

How can the Corinthians be expected to hold firmly to his teaching, to take a stand, to believe that Jesus rose from the dead, without evidence?

Paul understands this and provides them with three reasons why they can trust that the resurrection happened.

Firstly, Jesus was raised on the third day – in accordance with the scriptures. That is, in fulfilment of the Old Testament. The Old Testament is full of references to resurrection. Let’s just pick up a few now.

In Isaiah 53 we read about how the suffering servant will suffer, die, and then see the light of life.

In Psalm 16, David prophesies that God would not abandon his faithful one to the realm of the dead or let his body see decay.

Psalm 22:22-31 speaks of life after death.

The resurrection is foreshadowed in Jonah 1:17 where we read that Jonah was “in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.” Jesus himself referenced Jonah when he said, “as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” That’s Matthew 12:40.

So the Old Testament scriptures provide evidence through prophecy that Jesus was raised from the dead. As Paul stated, Jesus was “raised on the third day according to the scriptures.”

Secondly, the Corinthians can trust that the resurrection happened because there were plenty of witnesses to this fact.

We read in verses 5 to 8 that Jesus appeared to Cephas, or Peter, and then to the twelve apostles. After that Jesus appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at the same time – most of whom, Paul says, are still living. Then he appeared to James and to all the apostles.

Paul is keen to point out that this is not a story that he has concocted. This is verifiable truth; there were dozens, hundreds, even, of witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus, who could testify that yes, Jesus died, yes, he was buried, and yes, he rose from the dead. If anyone in Corinth was unsure about the truth of the resurrection, who questioned whether Jesus really rose from the dead, all they needed to do was find one of these people. Jump in a boat and head for Galilee. It shouldn’t be too hard to find someone who witnessed Jesus alive and well after seeing him dead on the cross.

Jesus’ resurrection, then, it not a myth. The gospel is not a story. It is rooted in verifiable truth.

Thirdly, the Corinthians could trust that Jesus was raised from the dead because Jesus appeared to Paul personally. Paul is a direct eye witness. If the Corinthians don’t want to accept it from anyone else, then they should accept it from Paul, who was well known to them, who was the one who told them the Gospel in the first place.

Three reasons, then, why the Corinthians could trust that Jesus was raised from the dead.

Three reasons why we can trust that Jesus was raised from the dead.

Paul, then wants to leave his readers in absolutely no doubt that Jesus was raised from the dead.

But why?

Does it matter if Jesus was raised from the dead?

After all, there are plenty of people who profess to be Christian, yet dispute the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ. Scarcely a year goes by when a senior figure in the Church doesn’t hit the headlines for supposedly denying that the bodily resurrection of Christ took place.

This was evidently the case within the Corinthian Church as well, which is why Paul asks in verse 12, “if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection for the dead. If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised.”

Paul outlines several consequences of Jesus not being raised from the dead in verses 12 to 19.

Firstly, if Jesus was not raised from the dead, Paul and the apostles have misrepresented God. They are false teachers, since they have been testifying that God raised Christ, which, if there is no resurrection, is not true. This means that Paul and all of the apostles have invented false stories and misled God’s people. As such, they could expect to experience the full wrath of God.

Secondly, if there is no resurrection, then the faith of the Corinthians has been in vain. Indeed, if Jesus was not raised from the dead then our faith is in vain. Our faith is futile. And, most significantly, we are still in our sins.

Christ has not defeated death.

He has not redeemed our sin.

We will still face the full wrath of God when we die.

Thirdly, if Jesus was not raised from the dead, all those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. All those faithful Christians who have followed Jesus over the centuries, have perished. All our Christian friends and family who have died have perished. That’s it. They’re dead and that’s that.

Fourthly, if Jesus was not raised from the dead then we are of all people most to be pitied. If we place our hope in Jesus in this life only, then we are fools, because there is no hope. We too are doomed to an eternal death, with no hope of an eternal life. We might as well, as Paul puts it later in verse 32, join in with everyone who says, “let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” We would be better living as if we only live once.

Well of course it is important then, that Christ was raised from the dead. If he has not been raised from the dead, then we are all fools, fools with no hope for the future.

What a bleak prospect that is!

But Paul doesn’t entertain that bleak prospect of no resurrection for long. He hits us in verse 20 with a bold statement – “but in fact Christ HAS been raised from the dead!”

Paul is unequivocal in this. There is no doubt in his mind at all, because of all the evidence he has already presented us with. Christ HAS been raised from the dead! And it matters that Christ HAS been raised from the dead!

So what are the consequences of Jesus being raised from the dead?

The consequences are truly profound.

The first consequence we can glean from Paul here is that Jesus is the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.

I spend quite a lot of my summer in the north Essex countryside. Next to us there’s an old Second World War mine depot, where explosives were built, tested and stored during the war. What went on there was so secret that to this day no-one really knows the truth. What we do know, though, is that blackberries grow there very well now.

My family love blackberrying. Claire, my wife, takes great delight in finding and devouring the first blackberry of summer. As she eats it, she knows that this is a significant moment because in due course there will be hundreds, thousands, millions of other blackberries all over the mine depot.

It would be rather odd if that first blackberry was the one and only blackberry. If it was the only blackberry not just in north Essex, but across the country.

We would rejoice that that one blackberry had grown so near to us, and that we’d been able to witness it with our own eyes.

But it would feel a little hollow if we weren’t anticipating the growth of many more for our summer puddings, for our crumbles, and for our jam.

So when, in verse 20, Paul describes Jesus as the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep, it is clear that he expects Jesus to be the first of many, many millions of people to be raised.

Those who know and love Jesus will be raised. Just as we can sure that Jesus was raised, we can be sure that we, too, will be raised.

Here we see Paul recounting God’s plan for the world. We see in the verses from verse 21 onwards the significance of Jesus’ resurrection, as Paul draws up a direct contrast between Adam and Jesus.

Death came through a man. Adam disobeyed God. He ignored his commandment. Adam sinned. The wages of sin are death. Because of Adam’s sin, death entered creation. As a result of Adam we all die. Death makes its presence felt all around us. We are all edging towards death. It is an inevitability.

Death doesn’t have to be the end, though, because just as death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man.

All those who are in Christ will be made alive.

All those who belong to Jesus will be made alive.

Just as a harvest follows the first fruits of summer, so too a rich harvest will follow the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus isn’t the only one who will be raised to life.

And that is amazing news. The greatest news ever!

Paul suggests that there is a prescribed order to this resurrection.

As Paul has already established, Jesus is the first to be raised from the dead.

When Jesus returns, all those who belong to Christ will be raised, those who knew Jesus, who loved Jesus, and who sought to follow him in their lives – they will be raised.

Finally, at the end, Jesus will destroy every rule and every authority and every power, and deliver the kingdom to God the Father. Jesus will reign and all his enemies will be put under his feet. At that point, the last enemy will finally be destroyed – death itself.

Death was never a part of God’s plan. It was introduced as a consequence of human sin. Jesus defeated death when he died on the cross and rose again. And when he returns, he will defeat it once and for all, enabling all those who love him to be raised to life.

So can we say with confidence that on the third day Jesus rose again? Paul firmly believes that we can. He shows us that we can be confident that Christ rose. Scripture proclaims this. The prophets proclaimed this. The apostles proclaimed this. The hundreds of witnesses proclaimed this.

The consequences of Christ’s resurrection are truly profound. As Paul reminded us, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ are at the heart of the Gospel. Indeed, he went further than that. The death and resurrection of Jesus ARE the gospel. It is the gospel by which we are saved.

That is of first importance.

Whilst many would say that the cross is the most fundamental element of the Christian gospel, the truth is that without the resurrection, the gospel is lacking.

By rising from the dead, Jesus was able to demonstrate that he has defeated death.

By rising from the dead and appearing to the apostles and to the 500, we have evidence that Jesus defeated death.

By rising from the dead and ascending to heaven to sit at the right hand of the Father, Jesus is able to return to earth to destroy all dominion, authority and power, and to hand over the kingdom to his Father.

By rising from the dead and placing all his enemies under his feet, Jesus is able to destroy the last enemy, death, to ensure that all those who place their trust in him will also be raised from the dead, the full harvest that follows the firstfruits of resurrection.

If Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead, we are fools to be pitied beyond all others.

But Christ indeed has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.

And that is the greatest news the world has ever known.

Christ is risen!

He is risen indeed!

Hallelujah!

The Church of God

Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes,To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours:Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.I always thank my God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus. For in him you have been enriched in every way—with all kinds of speech and with all knowledge— God thus confirming our testimony about Christ among you. Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. He will also keep you firm to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, who has called you into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

1 Corinthians 1:1-9
The Temple of Apollo, Corinth. Image courtesy of Alun Salt @Flickr. Released under CC BY-SA 2.0

When I was a student I was quite heavily involved with the Christian Union. I remember that the first few weeks of the Michaelmas Term each year were generally spent organising lots of trips to different churches so that our new members could find a church for themselves for the next three years. I often wondered what it was that people were looking for. Was it sound Biblical preaching? Was it good quality music? Was it a young congregation? Was it good provision of home groups? Was it decent coffee after the service? Was it cake?

The church that Paul writes to in Corinth is a troubled church. It is chaotic. It is riven with disagreements. People are falling out. People are taking each other to court. People are guilty of sexual sin. I suspect that if any of our students walked into a church like this they would have simply walked out, convinced that here was a failing organisation that should be left to collapse. Paul, however, does not write off this church. Indeed, in verse four of chapter one he says, “I always thank my God for you” and proceeds to outline the reasons he gives thanks. In doing so he shares some insights regarding the nature of the church. These insights remain relevant and instructional two thousand years later. 

So, what does Paul say about the nature of the church? What are the characteristics of, as Paul puts it in verse two, a ‘church of God’?

Paul says that the church of God is “sanctified in Christ Jesus” (1:2). Christians, through Jesus, as a consequence of his death and resurrection, have been set apart for God. Our primary role as members of the church, of Christ’s body, is to serve God in all that we do. As a consequence of our sanctification we are called by God “to be his holy people” (1:2). What a privilege this is, that we should be called by God to be his!

This, of course, means we have a great responsibility. If we are called to be holy this has great significance for how we live our lives. Holiness is one of God’s characteristics; we proclaim his holiness in church when we sing, and when we share in the Eucharist. Holiness is not a natural characteristic of a human, since we sin every day. Yet Paul tells us that we are called to be God’s holy people.

Our response to this should be that we strive to be more like Christ, and strive to reflect him in our lives. This means refraining from sin as far as we possibly can. We will never be perfect in this life. We will never be blameless, but this doesn’t mean that we can’t aspire to live lives which are good, which honour God and other people, and that are as free from conscious sin as possible. If we are called to be holy by virtue of our sanctification, we should try and live lives that are pleasing to God. 

Paul says that as a church the Corinthians “have been enriched in every way” (1:4). God has lavished his blessings on them, and there is nothing that they lack in order to serve him. This is true for us today; it’s good to be reminded of this and to periodically reflect on all the gifts that God has given us both as a church and individually. In the case of the Corinthians, Paul specifically says they they have been enriched “with all kinds of speech and with all knowledge” (1:5). Corinthians were renowned for their intellectualism and love of wisdom. Paul sees these attributes as gifts from God that the Corinthians can and should be using to build up the church in Corinth.

Paul comments that this enrichment of the church is not limited just to speech and knowledge. He also says that his they have remained committed to his teaching (see verse 6), they “do not lack any spiritual gift” (verse 7). 

Paul explores what precisely these spiritual gifts are in much more detail in chapter twelve of this letter. He is clear that as Christians we all receive different gifts from the Holy Spirit. In chapter twelve Paul states, “there are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work” (12:4-6). God lavishes gifts on his church through the Holy Spirit. He equips us with these gifts to support us as we carry out God’s work. These gifts are further evidence that as a church we, like the Corinthians, “have been enriched in every way.”

We receive these Spiritual gifts if we accept the gospel. Paul tells the Corinthians that the presence of Spiritual gifts amongst them is a consequence of their acceptance of Paul’s teaching. He tells them that, “For in him you have been enriched in every way – with all kinds of speech and with all knowledge – God thus confirming our testimony of Christ among you” (1:5-6). They have clearly accepted Jesus, and as a consequence, the Holy Spirit is lavishing gifts on them. When we accept Jesus, God also lavishes Spiritual gifts upon us.

Finally in his introductory remarks, Paul gives the great news that God will “keep you firm to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, who has called you into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1:8-9). We can be assured that we believe in a faithful God who keeps his promises, and who will equip us for lifelong faith and trust in his son, Jesus Christ. God has called us to be members of his church, and since he is faithful he will ensure that Christ’s sacrifice for our sin will cover us from the moment he called us to faith until the moment he calls us to him at the end of our earthly lives. We can be tremendously reassured that we believe and trust in a faithful God; he has been faithful to us in the past and will continue to be faithful to us in the future. 

Paul has packed an incredible amount into the first nine verses of this letter. He tells us that we are sanctified, or set apart for God’s service. He tells us that we are enriched in every way with the gifts of the Holy Spirit. He tells us that we believe in a faithful God who will keep us blameless to the end. What is revelatory, though, is that Paul is writing these words to the Corinthians – a divided church riven with division, in which sexual immorality is ignored and God’s gifts used inappropriately! This is a church that we would probably consider to be failing and undeserving of God’s blessings. And yet despite this, Paul is clear that the Corinthians remain blessed by God. How incredibly reassuring this is. How reassuring that even when we mess up, God remains faithful, still lavishes gifts upon us, and keeps us firm to the end.

Of course there are implications for how we live our lives today in these words. We need to live moral lives that honour God and mark us out as holy. We need to recognise our spiritual gifts and use them appropriately, working to build up the church of God where we live and around the world. And since God is faithful to us to the end, we should strive to also be faithful to the end of our lives, striving to put him first in all that we do.

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The Baptism of Jesus

13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. 14 But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”15 Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

Matthew 3:13-17
I, Davezelenka [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons
The Baptism of Christ

What’s the most remarkable thing that you have ever witnessed? I would have to think long and hard about this. Perhaps, for me, it was the scenes of every day life I witnessed whilst spending a month in a country in eastern Europe. Perhaps it was the power of the water crashing down the Bridal Veil falls in Niagara Falls, USA. On reflection, though, it would have to be the birth of my two children, both experiences very different and completely remarkable in their own way. 

In this reading from Matthew’s Gospel we witness something utterly remarkable, something that would shock even the least-shockable of people. The incredible events we witness occur on the banks of the River Jordan, where John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, is drawing quite a crowd as he preaches and baptises those gathered who repent of their sin. It is in this busy scene that we have our first encounter with the adult Jesus – the first time we see him as an adult in the New Testament. First impressions really count, and Jesus certainly makes quite an impression!

At the beginning of Matthew 3 we are introduced to John the Baptist. He is roaming the “wilderness of Judea” (3:1) calling on people to “repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (3:2). He evidently drew quite a crowd since Matthew recounts that “people went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan” (3:5). Matthew continues, “confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River” (3:6).  

John explains to those gathered, particularly the Pharisees and Sadducees, “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (3:11). John called upon those gathered to repent of their sin, and then to be baptised. This was to be a sign of their repentance,  their decision to renounce their old lives and to follow God. 

It is perhaps surprising, then, that the first time we see the adult Jesus is when he appears at the Jordan “to be baptized by John” (3:13). If Jesus is free from sin, if he had no old life to renounce, if he is in fact God, then there is no need for him to be baptised. John is well aware of this, and tries to tell Jesus this, insisting that it is he who should be baptised by Jesus. He recognises that his cousin is the Son of God, the one who will baptise with the Holy Spirit and fire (3:11). 

Yet Jesus insists that John baptises him, saying, “it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s plan, prophesised throughout the Old Testament, to save people from their sin and to reconcile humanity with God. Jesus’ baptism marks the beginning of his earthly ministry. He fulfills all righteousness, in that he enables all people to be justified before God, to be righteous before him. 

The words uttered by Jesus here are in fact the very first words we hear from him in the New Testament. It is fitting that straight away we see his dedication to his ministry, his fulfillment of righteousness, his opening of heaven for sinners. 

What follows Jesus’ baptism is completely remarkable. As Jesus rose out of the water, the barrier between sinful earth and perfect heaven opened up. Jesus opened the way to God for humanity. He did something that no sacrifice, no sin offering, no priestly action had ever been able to achieve – the gulf that opened up between humans and God when Adam and Eve disobeyed God was bridged, once and for all, by Jesus Christ. 

As heaven opened, the Holy Spirit came down from heaven and equipped Jesus for the ministry on which he is about to embark. The Holy Spirit “alights” on him, affirming that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. This is a clear visual sign which all present can see for themselves, leaving them in no doubt that Jesus has a special role to carry out here on earth. As heaven opened, a voice came from heaven, declaring, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” This must have shocked and stunned all those gathered to watch John the Baptist by the Jordan. Just imagine how it must have felt to be standing on the banks of the River Jordan and to hear God’s voice booming from heaven! This is a clear audible sign which all those present can hear for themselves, leaving them in no doubt that Jesus is nothing less than the beloved Son of God.

After witnessing this incredible scene, those gathered must surely have known that there was something utterly remarkable about Jesus. They must have witnessed many baptisms already that day, but at no point had heaven been opened up before their very eyes. But as Jesus rose up out of the water this exactly what happened. God the Father and God the Holy Spirit affirmed and equipped Jesus for the ministry on which he was now embarking.

It’s only natural as we read through the Gospels to find ourselves pondering – who is this man Jesus? Was he a good teacher? Was he just an eccentric carpenter? Or was he the Son of God, the Messiah, for whom the world had waited for generation after generation? If we are to believe the words of Matthew in his Gospel, we should be in no doubt about the identify of Jesus. Affirmed by both the Holy Spirit and God the Father, there is no doubt at all that Jesus is the Son of God. And if this is true, this is utterly remarkable. It is not the baptism of Jesus that is remarkable; it is the fact that the Son of God came to earth from heaven, that he lived amongst us, that he experienced everything that human life involves, that he identified with us in our sinfulness whilst remaining free of sin himself. Ultimately, of course, he died and rose again so that we might not just hear God from heaven, but be with him when we die. Now that truly is remarkable.

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