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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Loving ourselves more

One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

Mark 12:28-31

Image by quinndombrowski@flickr and made available under this licence.

How are you feeling this morning? Have you had a good, healthy breakfast? Have you been for your morning run yet? Have you looked at yourself in the mirror and told yourself that, all things considered, you’re not doing too badly really?

Or perhaps the reverse is true. Maybe you haven’t had time to get yourself a hearty meal. Perhaps a run is the most awful thing you can think of. Maybe you’ve looked at yourself and told yourself that, all things considered, you’re a bit of a failure.

With the pace of life and pressures of every day living, it can be all too easy for us to fall into a negative spiral when it comes to our own perspective of ourselves. Yet in chapter 12 of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus says that the second greatest commandment, after loving the Lord God, is to love our neighbour as ourselves. Whilst this speaks volumes about the attitude that we should adopt to those around us, it is telling that Jesus uses the love we have for ourselves as a benchmark for the love we should have for others. Jesus plainly thinks that we have good reason to love ourselves.

Many Christians struggle with the idea of loving themselves. There is a big difference between arrogant self love and ensuring that we treat ourselves with the care and consideration that we need, however. If we believe that we are created in God’s image, and that the Holy Spirit dwells within us, there is clearly a case for loving and respecting ourselves. Perhaps we need to think more positively about ourselves, therefore, and not allow ourselves to fall into self-loathing. After all, if God has a plan for our lives, we have a responsibility to ensure that we are fit and well enough to carry it out!

Let’s think today of how we can love ourselves better. Maybe that is thinking more carefully about the food and drink that we consume and making sure that we get enough exercise. Perhaps it is recognising that we are loved by God and have a specific role to play in his creation. Rather than putting ourselves down and being critical of ourselves, maybe we should rise to the challenge of loving ourselves more!

Originally presented as a Thought of the Day on the Premier Christian Radio ‘Inspirational Breakfast’ show.

Anger and reconciliation

21 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgement.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgement. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.

23 “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.

25 “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.

Matthew 5:21-26

The Reconciliation of the Montagues and the Capulets by Frederic Leighton [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Reconciliation of the Montagues and the Capulets by Frederic Leighton [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve just got back to work after collecting my suit from the dry cleaners. I tried to collect it a couple of days ago but the man who has just taken over the running of our local dry cleaners has a new policy of only accepting cash for payments below £10. Since my cleaning came to £9.95 he would only take my card if I paid him an extra £1.50, which I refused to do. I stormed out and was so angry that I returned to work and started ranting at my colleagues about the preposterousness of this situation. Anger for me, as you might be able to tell, is a real challenge. I find that sometimes even trivial matters make me really angry. That’s why this particular passage of the Sermon on the Mount is so challenging to me.

Immediately prior to this section of teaching, Jesus stated that he had not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets but to fulfil them. He went on to say that we should both practise and teach the commandments of the Old Testament. In this next section of scripture, he develops the Old Testament teaching even further, beginning with murder.

Confronted with the commandment ‘you shall not murder’ most people probably find their consciences clear. Murder is (thankfully) not particularly common, and few of us would have any difficulty obeying this commandment. Jesus does not view the commandments as a legalistic tick list, though, but as deeper guidance for life. If you have ever found yourself getting angry with another person, then you are subject to the same judgement that a murderer faces. In the spirit of verse 20 (‘for I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven’), Jesus has far higher expectations than adhering merely to the letter of the law; he expects the law to shape our character and to develop our righteousness.

Jesus continues by showing the importance he places on eradicating anger from our lives. He says that if someone is worshipping and remembers that they have a broken relationship with someone else, then they are to immediately stop what they’re doing and go and ‘be reconciled to them’. Reconciliation is viewed by Jesus as being even more important than worshipping God. And this makes sense when you think about it. How can you truly worship God when inwardly you are seething with anger at another person? Reconciliation takes precedence even over worship since if we are angry with a neighbour, our sinful behaviour simply serves to build another wall between us and Jesus Christ. Worship in this context is not so much genuine worship but merely going through the motions.

Jesus offers a further example concerning the importance of right relationships with our neighbours. If we find ourselves being taken to court by an ‘adversary’, perhaps over money we owe them, we should endeavour to solve the problem before reaching court. We should aim to find a peaceful out of court settlement to our difficulty. If we do not, then we may find that the judge punishes us to the fullest extent, perhaps throwing us in prison. We’ll still end up paying every penny of the debt that we owe, but we’ll also find ourselves also serving time in jail. Clinging to a belief that we are right and our neighbour therefore is wrong is sinful, since it is based on our own sense of self-righteousness. Not only is this harmful to our relationship with God, it also serves as a very poor witness to those around us.

In this passage Jesus offers some practical examples of how we are to live lives marked with righteousness. We must ensure that we do not simply follow the letter of the law laid down in the Bible, but ensure that the law percolates into our hearts, our minds and our souls, and shapes our actions. In particular, Jesus speaks here of the importance of maintaining good relationships with our neighbours to prevent small issues spiralling out of control. In addition, Jesus warns that we must ensure that we do not allow anger with another person to cripple us and to darken our souls. We must make reconciliation with those with whom we have damaged relationships an absolute priority. Only then can we ensure that we are living lives marked with righteousness.

Is there anyone that you can think of with whom you need to be reconciled today? Why not make this a key priority. If you can’t think of a particular person, why not pray that the Holy Spirit will direct your relationships with others and help you to avoid anger in the weeks ahead.

I have not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets

17 ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practises and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5:17-21

Law and Grace by Lucas Cranach the Elder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Law and Grace by Lucas Cranach the Elder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A few years ago I spent some time on a mission in Belarus, which Condaleezza Rice, whilst US Secretary of State, described as “truly still the last remaining true dictatorship in the heart of Europe.” This was a truly life changing trip for me for many reasons, but particularly as a result of getting to know a young student named Macsim. Whilst speaking to Max, as we knew him, about the Gospel, it quickly became apparent that he knew as much as any of us about Jesus and about the teachings of the Bible. For him, though, the Bible was pure ‘head knowledge’ – he knew a great deal about it, but that knowledge had not changed his life. We spent a great deal of time telling Max that Christianity was not just about knowing stuff, but about allowing that knowledge to transform our hearts and minds and to shape our whole lives. I think, by the end of our time in Belarus, Max was beginning to understand this, and whilst he did not make a personal commitment of faith whilst we were with him, I am sure that we had given him a great deal to think about.

The passage that we’re looking at today speaks to me a great deal about the difference between ‘head knowledge’ and true, transformational faith in Christ. This is framed through teaching on the Law and the Prophets. Jesus was quick to challenge the role of the ‘law’ and the ‘prophets’, that is, the Old Testament. Clearly some people had suggested that Jesus believed that he had come to sweep away all the old scriptures, and was going to build a new set of guidance for living in a Godly way. Jesus stepped in to tell his audience that this was most certainly not the case. He couldn’t be any clearer in his statement at the beginning of this passage, “‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets’.” Indeed, in the coming verses, Jesus can be seen to be teaching a strict adherence to the rules set out in the New Testament, making it clear that obedience needs to be wholehearted and not simply a legalistic attempt to keep to the letter of the law. Jesus expected his followers to have a living faith and not just follow a behavioural checklist.

Jesus does not just say that he has not come to abolish the Law; he says that he has come to fulfil it. The Law set out what was necessary for humanity to establish and maintain a relationship with God. A key element of this was the establishment of a sacrificial system by which God’s people could make offerings to gain forgiveness from their sins. This was an imperfect system, which is evident from the fact that sacrifices had to be made over and over again. When Christ went to the cross, however, he paid the price for all of humanity’s sins, in a once-for-all offering that covered the wrongdoing of all people, across all time. The Law still applies, but in Christ’s sacrifice of himself, the punishment has been served. We are still required to strive for holiness, but when we inevitably fail, our sin is already forgiven since Christ was the fulfilment of the law.

Jesus is also the fulfilment of the Prophets. The Old Testament contains hundreds of prophecies – word from God sent to teach people about who he was, how people should live, and what they needed to do to build a relationship with him. Many hundreds of these prophecies also, of course, foretold the coming of a messiah who would save God’s people. The Jewish people had waited for hundreds of years for the arrival of this messiah. In Jesus, all of the prophecies of the Old Testament were fulfilled. Here was the messiah who would save God’s people from death. And here was the person who embodied both perfect adherence to the Law and perfection in relationship with God, since he was not only wholly human but also wholly God.

In confirming that he has come to fulfil, and not to abolish the Law and the Prophets, Jesus also makes it clear that we, as his followers, are expected to both practice and teach the commands set out within them. Jesus tells his followers, “‘unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven’.” This must have seemed hugely shocking for those listening at the time. The Pharisees and the teachers of the law were known for their knowledge of Biblical law and for their efforts to follow it. The issue was, though, that for them adherence to the law was something that they made a great show of, but which they did largely to show how great they were to others. Their righteousness was public and demonstrated by their actions, but it was not deep righteousness at the level of their hearts. Following Christ is not just simply following a check list of rules, but allowing the spirit of the laws to transform our hearts and our minds as well as our actions. We need to go beyond mere ‘head knowledge’ – knowing what the rules are, and aim for transformed hearts and minds.

These five verses are quite complex and within them lurks a great deal about the nature and purpose of Jesus. Much has been written on this short chunk of scripture, but for me, today, the take home message is how we respond to the commands found in the Law and the Prophets. Do we practise and teach these commands? Have they taken deep hold of us and impacted our hearts and minds as well as shaping our actions? Do we constantly strive to live in a righteous fashion? As we begin this new week and this new month, do take time to reflect on these questions and pray that the Holy Spirit might work within us to ensure that our righteousness ‘surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law’.