A wise man who built his house on the rock

‘Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.’

Matthew 7:24-27

Some friends of mine recently built a new chalet on the beach close to where I go on holiday. The building replaced an old chalet that sadly burnt down. The construction caused a few headaches, not least because the building was to be constructed literally on the beach, raised up on stilts to prevent the tide flooding it twice a day. They had hoped to use the tried and tested construction method of sinking a few feet of concrete into the beach and then bolting wooden piles onto these strong foundations, before building a base on the top of the stilts. The council, however, had other ideas. They required my friends to sink piles thirty feet into the sand before starting work on the chalet. This clearly had cost implications on the build as well as extending the time taken quite considerably. Still, at least they can sleep confidently in their smart new chalet, firm in the knowledge that nothing short of a cataclysmic event will bring their holiday home down!

Jesus points out several times in the gospel that true faith needs to be firmly rooted in the word of God. A faith that is not built on firm foundations will soon come crashing down as soon as trouble or hardship is encountered. A faith that is rooted in scripture will endure through life’s difficulties and disasters. When a person bases their faith on the teaching in the Bible they will understand that being a Christian does not mean that we won’t face difficulties, that God will not test someone beyond their capabilities, that problems are the means by which faith gets deeper and we become more like Christ, that God never abandons his children but sends his Holy Spirit to protect and guide believers, and that ultimately, if we share in Christ’s sacrifice we will be rewarded with a place in God’s heavenly kingdom. And that’s just the start of it!

In today’s passage, Jesus states that it is not enough even to hear and believe the word of God. He tells his listeners that it is those who hear his words AND put them into practice who will find their faith able to endure the hardships of this life without falling with a great crash. Coming at the end of an extended section of teaching, known as the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is evidently imploring all those who have listened to him to pay careful attention to all that he has said and to apply it to their own lives. For us today, who read this teaching, perhaps this is an opportune moment to flick back through the preceding two chapters of Matthew’s Gospel, and to pray that we will strive to apply all that we learn from this important text in our own lives.

Has your life been transformed by the Sermon on the Mount? Do you strive not just to read and understand Jesus’ teaching but to build your life upon it? It is a wise person who puts Jesus’ teaching into practice, but a foolish person who reads it, yet fails to act on it. Are you wise or foolish?

Not everyone who says ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”

Matthew 7:21-23

"Stefan Lochner 006" by Stefan Lochner (circa 1400/1410–1451) - Postcard. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

“Stefan Lochner 006” by Stefan Lochner (circa 1400/1410–1451) – Postcard. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Every Monday when I go back to school I hear my pupils discussing the weekend’s footballing action. “We scored some impressive goals!” they might say, or “we got a great result this weekend!” Being the pedant that I am, I always feel like saying, “you don’t mean we, you mean they!” But football fans get so caught up in the excitement of cheering on their favourite teams that their identification is so strong that it is almost as if they have played their part in getting the ball into the net.

Many people across the world identify themselves as Christians. Here in the UK, although the phenomenon is diminishing, a substantial number of people, when asked their religion, would reply ‘C of E’. Especially amongst the older generation there is the view that if you live in England, then, if you do not hold to any other religion, you are automatically ‘Church of England’. Whilst the Church of England is, of course, there for everyone, and as the established church, plays an important role in the life of our country, identifying with the ‘C of E’ is not sufficient to gain salvation. Jesus makes it clear that it is not enough merely to identify with him; he says that ‘only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven’ will enter the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus goes even further, though. There are those who earnestly believe that they are serving him, yet will not enter the kingdom of heaven. He says that some will say to him on judgement day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Yet he will turn to them and say to them, ‘I never knew you. Away from me you evil doers!’

Some people don’t just identify with the Christian faith but believe they are fulfilling the obligations that Christ laid down for them. They would call themselves Christians, they might help with the tea and coffee after church, they might play in the church band, they might even run a church. Yet if, despite all of this, these people do not have a genuine and personal relationship with Christ then all their efforts, as noble as they might be, will not secure their place in heaven.

How can we be sure of entering the kingdom of heaven? Jesus tells us here. We must do the will of Jesus’ father who is in heaven. How can we be sure of what that is? By studying his word and listening to his voice, identifying from scripture the kind of people that Jesus wants us to be. And by praying, asking God to use the Holy Spirit to fashion us into people who will place his will first, and make serving him the number one priority in our lives. Ultimately, there is nothing that we can do to earn our salvation; ultimately salvation comes as a gift to those who place their trust in Jesus, acknowledge their own weaknesses, and gratefully accept that Christ died and rose again to win our freedom.

The question today is: do you identify with Christ, or do you actively seek to do the will of Jesus’ father who is in heaven?

Enter through the narrow gate

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”

Matthew 7:13-14

My friend Clive used to have impressive knowledge of the UK’s road network. If you gave him any two points on the British Isles he would be able tell you at least a couple of different routes to travel from one to another. Whilst this was undoubtedly a useful skill, he has unfortunately been surpassed by sat-navs, and mobile phones with smart apps.

Today’s verses are interesting, since Jesus explains how there are just two routes through life: a broad road, that culminates in a wide gate, and a narrow road that ultimately leads through a small gate.

Clearly, when confronted with these two options, the easiest road to follow would be the broad road. The broad road could be seen to be a bustling superhighway, with plenty of lanes to choose from. The person who opts to travel down this road will have the opportunity to choose their own route, within the scope of the broad highway. The ultimate destination of this road is easy to arrive at too, since on reaching the destination, the highway leads through a wide gate.

The second road is rather different. This route could be seen as a single track that offers little opportunity for choice; if you follow this road, there is only one option available to pursue, and that is straight on. The only alternative would be to veer off the track and lurch into the undergrowth which surrounds it. The small gate at the end of this road would probably prove tricky to manoeuvre through; if you’re following this road the driver would need to ensure that the vehicle is perfectly aligned, or else risk crashing into the gate posts and veering off wildly.

Of course, Jesus is here talking about the routes that we opt to take through life. As far as he is concerned there are only two possibilities; we pursue the simple, wide road, or the trickier narrow road. Whilst the broad route is more straightforward, ultimately it leads to destruction. The narrow route leads to life.

The two options open to us are to follow Jesus, and allow him to act as our shepherd and guide along the narrow road. Ultimately if we pursue this route we will find eternal life in God’s new creation. This is the route that he urges us to take when he tells us to “enter through the narrow gate.”

The other option is to follow our own route, to turn the sat-nav off, and pigheadedly assume that we know where we are going and how to get there. This broad route gives us the freedom to make our own path along the broad road, but ultimately leads to destruction, death and despair.

The narrow route is undeniably a harder route to pursue, and Jesus himself said that few will find this route. But the rewards for finding, and successfully following, this route are great, and ultimately, the only sensible course to pursue. The Christian life is not always easy, and along the way the person who chooses this route will inevitably experience bumps, holes and sections that seem impossible to navigate. Yet Jesus is always with us as we pursue a Christian life, supporting us, loving us, and guiding us with the Holy Spirit.

Which route have you chosen? Do you trust in your own knowledge and understanding of life and the universe and therefore follow the broad road? Or do you accept that you need guidance, that you need a shepherd to lead you through life, and therefore stick firmly to the narrow road? Are you on the road to life, or the road to destruction?

Do to others what you would have them do to you

“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”

Matthew 7:12

"Bernard d'Agesci La Justice" by Bernard d'Agesci, painter (Jeffdelonge pict) - Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

“Bernard d’Agesci La Justice” by Bernard d’Agesci, painter (Jeffdelonge pict) – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

I’m a History teacher, but since I am also a Christian, I have also found myself teaching some RE. Whilst teaching RE, it is always very interesting to hear what twelve and thirteen year old children think Christianity is about. Some children nail it straight away, stating that Christianity is a personal belief that a just but loving God sent his only son, Jesus Christ, to die for our sins, and that all those who believe in him have eternal life. Others take a completely opposite viewpoint, arguing that it is a made up story and that Jesus Christ never even existed. Most, though, will take a middle road, saying something along the lines of how Jesus was a good man who taught that if we are all nice to each other then we go to heaven. I suspect that these viewpoints are similar to those held by most people.

Many people who take a middle-of-the-road viewpoint of the Christian faith would point to today’s verse as solid reasoning for their understanding of Christianity. After all, here we see Jesus delivering the classic ‘do as you would be done by’ commandment.

Those who say that this is the central message of the Christian faith have a point. After all, Jesus said that one of the greatest commandments is to love our neighbour as ourself. If we want to live according to Jesus’ teaching then we need to ensure that we are loving to all those whom we encounter, friends and enemies alike, and treat them in a way that we would like them to treat us. If everyone lived according to this teaching, we would live in a peaceful world. Each person would treat everyone else, and their property, with respect, fully expecting that they, in return would be treated the same way. There would be no murder, no theft, no fighting, and no wars.

So why, then, do we live in a world in which all of these things exist? Why do we live in a world afflicted by the horrors of ISIS, global terrorism, violence and death? Why do we live in a country which still requires law courts to deal with those who fight, or wound, or kill, or steal from their neighbours?

This is the key point. Whilst Jesus commands us to do to others what we would have them do to us, we fail on a daily, indeed, hourly, basis to live according to this seemingly simple commandment. We cannot help ourselves. That’s why we still need laws and courts, to outline how we are expected to live and to bring justice when we fall short of the standards expected of society.

This is why Christianity is not simply about doing to others as we would have them do to us.

Jesus continues in today’s verse by telling us that this simple commandment sums up the Law and the Prophets – that is, all the teaching that we find in the Old Testament.

The ultimate culmination of the teaching of the Old Testament is, of course, Jesus Christ. It is to him that the whole of scripture points. He was sent into the world as the one and only dearly beloved son of God, free from all blame and all guilt. He is the only person who on his own has managed to live according to God’s teaching. And he is the one who took our punishment for failing to follow this oft-quoted commandment.

Jesus, in this verse, gives us a truly wonderful commandment, a rule which is recognised by most of the world as a fundamental guide for living. Yet it is also a rule that we break on a daily basis. A faith based solely on this rule, without recognition that we cannot possibly live up to the standards it requires, would be a hollow and empty faith. For without Christ, we are truly lost.

The next time someone suggests to you that Christianity is simply about doing to others as you would have them do to you, ask them if they manage to follow this rule, every day, without fail. And ask them what happens when they break this fundamental commandment. Remind them that it is only through Christ that we can find forgiveness, and only by placing our trust in him that we can find eternal peace with God.

Ask and it will be given to you

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”

Matthew 7:7-8

Condover Hall - the base for our school trip to Shropshire.

Condover Hall – the base for our school trip to Shropshire.

I recently spent a week in Shropshire with 60 twelve year olds. It wasn’t some kind of bizarre punishment for wrongdoing but a school trip. Actually, it was quite enjoyable. We saw lots of interesting sights and, for the most part, the children were not just well behaved but a pleasure to spend time with. They were a little irritating when it came to the vending machine, however. They had all been instructed that they were not to buy sweets or drinks from the vending machine, but that didn’t stop a stream of children approaching me every day asking if it would be alright for them to visit the machines. The answer, of course, was always no. We were provided with ample excellent food and the sugary snacks would not only be bad for their health but would probably result in hyperactivity.

I find today’s verses from Matthew’s Gospel really exciting. If we ask God for something, it will be given to us, Jesus says! Of course, Jesus is not saying here that if I ask God for an Aston Martin (which I would quite like) or a Golf GTI (which I would settle for), I will wake up one morning to find one parked on my driveway. Jesus expects that when people decide to follow him, they will be transformed by the renewing of their minds (as Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans). The process of being transformed by the renewing of our minds will enable us to raise our thoughts to more heavenly matters, seeking first God’s kingdom rather than personal wealth and material possessions. If we have genuinely been transformed by wholeheartedly following Christ, then we will no longer want fast cars or big houses; rather, our priority will be to build God’s kingdom here on earth, living according to his teachings, loving him and our neighbours, and telling all we encounter about God’s love for us. If our priorities are in line with God’s, if our desires match his, anything that we ask him for in prayer will be given to us.

Not only are today’s verses an enormous encouragement, but there’s also a challenge lurking there in Jesus’ words. Do we genuinely seek his kingdom? Are our priorities matched with God’s? And do we immerse ourselves in prayer, asking constantly for his kingdom to come, and for the tools we need to play our part in its arrival?