Philemon 1: the Gospel changing lives and reconciling believers and transforming communities

This evening we are invited not only to read this letter, but see the way the Gospel was changing lives in the first century. For this personal letter opens up a window on an entire series of relationships. It reveals to us that St Paul led people from all kinds of places to faith in Christ Jesus.

Firstly, it is a letter that is written to a man named Philemon, and Philemon was a significant figure in the Colossian church. In fact we know that the Church met in Philemon’s house. So he is a wealthy man. He’s a man of property. And he’s man known for His faith and love for all the believers.

Secondly, it’s a personal letter of appeal, it’s written on behalf of Onesimus, a slave who had wronged his master, by running away with his possessions. And it’s written to effect reconciliation between the two men.

Thirdly, it is letter that reveals to us how the theology Paul wrote about is worked out through the life of the early church. On a church level Paul has already written to the Colossians and he’s told them that: “God forgave us all our sins, having cancelled the charge of our legal indebtedness”.

And now he follows this letter up by addressing one particular situation:

Onesimus, left Colossae secretly, he would have taken possessions, to sell on his journey and travelled to Rome, with a dream of freedom. And maybe Onesimus thought he had gotten away with it, maybe he reached Rome under his own steam, or maybe he was arrested and imprisoned.

It doesn’t really matter how he came to be there, but what matters is that he didn’t escape from God’s providential plan. Some 932 miles from home, Onesimus must’ve thought that he was far enough away from Colossae to be safe.

If only he had read Psalm 139: ‘If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. ’

How true those words are, for at the far side of the sea, the Lord brings Onesimus into Paul’s life. One man a slave trying to live as a freeman; the other a freeman living in chains for the sake of the Gospel. And a freeman who has become like a slave for the sake of Jesus Christ, and a man who preaches that the greatest freedom is living under Jesus as Lord and Master.

And though this encounter, the run-away slave chooses to place his faith in Jesus, and enters into fellowship with Paul in Rome. Somewhere, along the way, Onesimus tells Paul his story. You can imagine the conversation.

Oh you’re from Colossae, I know Colossae… You know Philemon, I know Philemon… You what?!?

Let me help you put some of this right. Let’s try to sort this mess out.

So Paul writes this incredibly ingratiating letter, to his friend Philemon, he praises his faith and love for the saints, he tells him of the troubles and the chains he is experiencing, he appeals to his old age, and then he lets Philemon have the truth.

Just as Philemon is bursting with joy and the kind words Paul is sharing. Out comes the truth.

‘Though I could command you’, Paul writes, ‘For loves’ sake I appeal to you. For my child Onesimus.’

Notice that Paul doesn’t side step the issue. He could have kept Onesimus with him. He could of simply paid a slave price to set him free. But Paul doesn’t do that, he knows that this is an opportunity to reveal how the grace of God works in our lives.

It doesn’t bypass the consequences of our actions. Sometimes we have to face up to potentially difficult, even dangerous situations, but in doing so it changes us.

For Onesimus, whose name means useful or beneficial, was actually rather useless, but now by the grace of God he is living up to his name. He has been useful to me. He has ministered to me in your place. And now he is useful, no longer as a slave, but as a brother.

And Paul continues the letter with even more gracious words for Philemon, writing receive him as your would receive me, I know you will do this and even more, and prepare a guest room for me as I trust that by your prayers I will be coming to you.

Then he signs off. Passing on the greetings of all the other believers who will be eagerly watching the example Philemon will set.

And apart from the record of this letter that seems to suggest that Philemon did free Onesimus, we have also the tradition of the early church that credits Onesimus as having a role in collecting and preserving and passing on these letters of Paul and therefore being useful not only to Paul and Philemon but also being useful to us.

And we can see how the Gospel that transforms slaves and makes brothers, also transformed society and continues to transform lives today. As people love and forgive and include and welcome sinners back into relationship today.

But I think the real challenge of this book today is what must we do. Are we like Philemon needing to forgive someone today? Do we need to allow them back into our hearts? To extend love to someone who has hurt us, stolen from us, and insulted our generosity? Is this letter calling on us accept someone in particular back into our family?

Or are we like Onesimus, do we need to retrace our steps, to return may be even as far as 932 miles back to Colossae, to ask for forgiveness? Maybe we thought we could run away from something in our lives, but every time we come to worship, every time we pick up the Bible, we’re reminded that we need to be reconciled!

For this is the challenge of the book of Philemon for us today. To live the theology of the Gospel through reconciled and reconciling lives!

Salvation Song

One of the great joys of my job is the time it affords me to participate in group Bible studies. It is a real privilege to gather on Monday evenings with young adults from several churches across Leamington Spa and the surrounding villages to study God’s Word. It is a joy to meet with several members from both my congregations on a Friday night to worship, pray and study Scripture together.

Each week people bring different reflections and thoughts to our worship, prayer and study. It was my turn to lead worship last Monday and we were thinking about the call of Abraham later in the evening. As I was praying and reflection on the life of Abraham one question kept coming back to me: why did God call Abram?

I mean on the face of it he’s not a courageous leader or great husband, he gives his wife away… twice, he doesn’t trust God to bring about what he has promised and then he abdicates responsibility rather than dealing with the conflict between Hagar and Sarah. Yet, God still chose him. As I wondered about this I suddenly thought why does God choose any of us?

I found the answer in Ephesians: ‘and you were dead in your transgressions and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience… But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ- by grace you have been saved- and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness to us in Christ Jesus.’

That brought me to Stuart Townsend’s hymn: Loved before the dawn of time. This beautiful hymn draws us into the captivating grace of God who called us in Christ before the world began. Very few songs or hymns express the wonder of God who has chosen us before the foundation of the world to make known the glory of His grace. Yet, this is at the heart of God’s purpose in our salvation.

So I commend this hymn to you:

Loved before the dawn of time,
Chosen by my Maker,
Hidden in my Saviour,
I am His and He is mine,
Cherished for eternity.

Stars will fade and mountains fall,
Christ will shine forever,
Loves unfading splendour,
Earth and heaven will bow in awe,
Joining in salvation’s song.

God of God

This last Sunday, members of Hall Gate URC in Doncaster joined together after their morning service of worship for a meal and discussion. I’ve started a church history course with them that looks at old events to see their contemporary relevance. Sunday’s session was supposed to be on the Fourth Century as a whole touching on men like John Chrysostom and Augustine of Hippo.

wpid-DSC_0794.JPGWe didn’t get quite that far, though.

All our time was taken up with looking at the Christological and Trinitarian controversies that led to the Councils of Nicea (325AD) and Constantinople (381AD). After a short discussion on whether Constantine was good for the church or not, we began to look at the Arian controversy and the first Nicene creed. It was a great time and led to some really interesting discussion. From the events of 1600 years ago we began to discuss modern worship, tolerance, evangelism and everything else you can think of. Christology and Trinitarianism became more than just dusty words in Systematic Theology books and became living realities.

I hope that our discussion will lead people to understand the second verse of O Come All Ye Faithful a little more. The composer of the hymn, John Francis Wade and its translator Frederick Oakley were both Roman Catholics. Wade was a Jacobite who fled to France. Oakley was a Tractarian in the Church of England before following the logic of their position and joining the Roman Church. I’m sure I’d have some “pleasant theological discussions” with both men but there’s no doubting the orthodoxy of the second verse of this hymn.

With words taken from the Nicene Creed we sing:

God of God,
Light of Light,
Lo, he abhors not the Virgin’s womb;
Very God,
Begotten, not created:

The third line is an interesting translation of gestant puellæ viscera meaning “carried in a virgin’s womb”. But the rest is fabulous stuff. Jesus, who we adore, is fully God. There was no time when he wasn’t. He always was and always will be the eternal Son, the second person of the Trinity. O come, let us adore him this Christmas for who he is. God in flesh. God with us. Immanuel.

‘This is our life’ by Lesslie Newbigin

I recently took the funeral of a retired minister in one of my congregations, and his daughter passed on to me a selection of his books. One was a thin paperback book entitled ‘This is our life’ by Bishop Lesslie Newbigin. As many URC folks will know, Newbigin was a bishop in the Church of South India who – in ‘retirement’ – became a URC Minister and Moderator of Assembly on his return to Britain. This little book, available online here, is Newbigin’s address to the 1978 URC General Assembly.

What struck me about this little book is how desperately the URC still needs to hear Newbigin’s 1978 address. Newbigin preached on Romans 1:16:

“I am not ashamed of the Gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith.”

I don’t want to give a lengthy ‘review’ because I want to encourage you to read it and pray through it for yourself. I will just draw your attention to three of Newbigin’s points though:

First, having stated his passage, Newbigin begins “At the opening of our Assembly I want to direct your minds to the Gospel…” If only this happened at every Assembly. If only this happened in every sermon preached in every congregation in every place around the world. If only we were so focussed on the whole point of faith, on the whole reason we exist as a church, if only we listened and humbled ourselves before the good news of God revealed in His word to us. If only!

Secondly, Newbigin reminds us of the meaninglessness of listening to the world’s judgement of the Church. It doesn’t matter whether the world thinks we should be doing this, that or the other. What matters is what God says.

Thirdly, the Gospel is NOT ‘Loving God and loving your neighbour’. This is not the Gospel, this is the Law. The Gospel liberates, the Law enslaves. Most people know we ought to love God and almost everyone knows we ought to love others others. This is not what the Church is called to preach to the world. There is nothing distinctive about such a message. “We exist, the Church exists, because there is a Gospel, good news which cannot be discovered but only told…”

May the URC of 2012 and 2013 and beyond hear again this prophetic message.

From the Squalor of a borrowed stable

As I read through the beginning of the four gospels I’m constantly thrown forward thirty years to Easter.  Matthew in his gospel reminds us that the name Jesus, means ‘Save people from their sins’ and that Jesus is Emmanuel, “God with us”.  Mark misses the whole birth thing out, but instead begins with John the Baptist who is asking people to repent of their sins.  Luke weaves together Mary and Joseph’s story with that of Elizabeth and Zechariah, which in my mind reaches its climax as Zechariah sings aloud that a time is coming when sins will be forgiven and by the tender mercy of God a new dawn will break upon us.  And John in his grand opening reminds us on several occassions that Christ is full of grace.

All of which has made me ponder over what we sing about in our churches at Christmas.  Yes we’ve held nativities, and carol services, and Christmas socials, and playing in a brass band I know my way round many a Christmas carol at this time of the year.  And yet very few of them actually take seriously the connection that all the gospel writers made between Christmas and Easter.  They focus on cattle lowing, or our Lord’s conception (if that is what is meant by lo he abhors not the virgins womb), or the shepherds in their fields, even king herod’s terrorism.  Few carols present Jesus as anything other than a baby in a manger.  If they’re bold enough you may get some mention that he is the son of God, but few talk of the fact that this baby came to earth to save people from their sins by dying on the cross as an atoning sacrifice given by the mercy and grace of God.  If the gospel writers can get that across as the opening gambit in their proclamation of the Good News of Christ Jesus, is too much to ask for in a carol?

One carol (or perhaps its just a song) that, in my mind, balances the Christ of Christmas being the Christ of Easter is Stuart Townend’s ‘From the squalor of the borrowed stable’.  He begins like many of our carols, in Bethlehem that first Christmas:

From the squalor of a borrowed stable,
By the spirit and a virgin’s faith;
To the anguish and the shame of scandal
Came the Saviour of the human race!
But the skies were filled, with the praise of heav’n,
Shepherds listen as the angels tell
Of the Gift of God, come down to man
At the dawning of Immanuel.

Even here, Townend isn’t ashamed or frightened to recognise the baby in the stable  will suffer great anguish and the shame of scandal.  Following a second verse focussing on the amazing grace that the King of heaven is now the friend of sinners, walking our road, and feeling our pain, he goes on to a third verse:

Through the kisses of a friend’s betrayal,
He was lifted on a cruel cross;
He was punished for a world’s transgressions,
He was suffering to save the lost
He fights for breath, He fights for me
Loosing sinners from the claims of hell;
And with a shout, our souls are free –
Death defeated by Immanuel!

No wonder the final verse declares that Christ, the baby in the manger, is now standing in the place of honour taking his rightful place as the glorious King over all awaiting the Bride of Christ: the Church, to run into her lover’s arms, giving glory to Emmanuel!  I’ll leave you to be blessed by this music:

Book Review: Calvin on the Songs of the Nativity

When thinking about the work of John Calvin our minds may take us to the Institutes of the Christian Religion or to the many volumes of commentaries on books of the Bible. Some of us may think of his fabulous treatises On the Necessity of Reforming the Church and An Inventory of Relics. All these works are worthy of reading and studying and will be rich sources of edification to any believer.

songsofthenativityBut if we restrict ourselves to these works we miss a vital part of Calvin’s output. We will miss out on what Calvin thought was the most important part of his life and ministry. We will miss out on his preaching.

Calvin was, first and foremost, a preacher. He ascended the steps of St Peter’s pulpit almost every day to preach the Word of God to the people under his care. And in the pulpit we hear the voice of a man who used his considerable intellect and learning to bring that Word to the lowliest child in the faith.

Calvin preached without notes and only with the original Greek or Hebrew text in front of him. But from very early on in his time at Geneva a stenographer was found to record the sermons. These records have long been extant but only a few volumes have ever been translated into English.

The Banner of Truth Trust, however, has published many volumes of Calvin’s sermons in English. One of their most recent volumes makes fabulous reading over the Christmas period. In Songs of the Nativity Calvin expounds the songs found in the first two chapters of Luke. The songs of Mary, Zechariah, the angels and Simeon are here opened up to the reader in a way that directs our thoughts to the glory of God and the riches of Christ.

If you’ve never read Calvin before you will find him to be more readable than Karl Barth or Rowan Williams. He will have better applications than Rick Warren or Tim Keller, despite the gap of time between him and us. Calvin’s sermons were preached to people like you. Pick up this volume (or any volume of his sermons) and delight yourself in the Christ who has saved you.

1 Timothy 6:6-10 – On the love of money

The Bible allows no room for ambiguity on the dangers of money. Jesus says, “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money” (Matt. 6:24). Elsewhere, Jesus says “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Matt. 19:24). No ifs, no buts, no maybes. No excuses or get out clauses. Jesus is refreshingly frank. Here in 1 Timothy 6, Paul reiterates Jesus’ teaching by saying, “People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. (vv.9-10)”

Wealth can become a god, an idol that ensnares us. To get more money, we can fall into the trap of doing things that are harmful to our families, our friends, ourselves, and, most importantly of all, our relationship with God. When we start focussing on money, we stop focussing on God.

Looking around my city of Norwich, wealth (and spending it) is certainly the most prominent and publicly worshipped god. On a Sunday morning on my way to church, I drive past the long queue of cars waiting to get their place in Chapel Field Shopping Centre. In the city’s many supermarkets, there are mountains – literally – of sweets and treats stacked to the ceilings as you walk through the doors, and aisle-upon-aisle of goods that we simply don’t need.  I often wonder what these places must feel like to those who have little or nothing. What would an Indian Dalit or starving African child make of our extravagance and gluttony? We earn more money to spend more money to accumulate more things that we don’t need. Last year, £594 million of Christmas presents were unwanted (not to mention those that weren’t needed!). 1.5 million new items were listed on eBay on Boxing Day. What a ridiculous world we live in!

As Christians, it’s easy to get sucked in to the greed and consumerism of our society. I admit that I struggle. It happens almost naturally. Who – if they’re totally honest – doesn’t want to live as comfortably and as well as possible? Who doesn’t want the same gadgets and lifestyle as everyone else around them?

We need a regular reality check. We need to hold one another to account. We need to stop, stand back, and ask ourselves the difficult questions:

  • What really drives us in life? Is it really God and our faith in Christ?
  • What do we really want, and what, by contrast, do we really need in our lives?
  • How is God asking us to use our money?

Paul, in his first letter to Timothy, reminds us that “godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that” (vv.6-8).

‘Contentment’ – ‘autarkeia’ in Greek – is the key word. This was a great watchword of the Stoic philosophers that meant ‘self-sufficiency.’ They meant a frame of mind which was completely independent of outward things, completely satisfied with what it already had and not ‘needing’ anything else.

How do we get this contentment? Quite simply, from God, through Jesus, and in the power of the Holy Spirit. When we are focussed on God, our meaning for life is found in Him. We realise that this life is only a test for the next one. Jesus is all that matters; everything else is fluff that gets in the way.

As the Westminster Shorter Catechism so brilliantly puts it: “the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” You don’t need an iPad, a flashy car, a big house, a higher bank balance or a larger pension to do that. All you need – this Christmas and throughout the year – is the one who said, “I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6).

On how not to be a schismatic – 1 Timothy 6:3-4

Think about what we hear in many URC circles about the evangelical position. It’s divisive, contentious, looking for arguments over unimportant issues, uneducated, simple.
That’s what I thought, anyway. Surely progressive Christianity was the way forward? Unfortunately, the Bible gave no encouragement in that belief. In fact, quite the opposite. Scripture teaches that Christianity is ultimately a conservative religion, concerned with handing on a message from one generation to the next and that those who seek to change that message are the real schismatics.
Paul couldn’t be clearer in this passage. “If anyone teaches a different doctrine…he is puffed up and understands nothing.”
This passage teaches us that there is a pattern of teaching which must be preached and adhered to. This passage teaches that this doctrine is linked to the Lord Jesus. This passage teaches us that there is a teaching that corresponds to godliness.
The question we must ask then is: Are we teaching that pattern of sound words? Or do we think we know better?
Think of how things have gone in the 20th century. Was that a century of clinging to old doctrine? Or was it, on the whole, a century when words like atonement, salvation, Gospel, were redefined to suit modern sensibilities?
If you’ve ever attempted to show how clever you are by questioning the message of Paul then he has some news for you. You’re the one dividing the church. You’re the disillusioned one. You’re the one who is using the church to make a name for yourself.
There’s still time to change. There’s still time to repent and come back to sound doctrine. God did this for me, he can do it for you too.
You don’t want to be a schismatic do you?

Songs with a Story

Every year, one of my churches has a ‘Songs of Praise’ service at the end of November. Church members are invited to select their favourite hymns and then somehow or other I try to link them all together in some kind of order, with words of Scripture, prayer and a message for the evening interspersed between them.  Some hymns come up time and time again. Some are old, some are new. Some I’ve never heard of! However, what has struck me every year so far is how many hymns have a powerful story behind them.

One of my favourite newer songs is ‘Blessed be Your Name’ by Matt Redman. The emphasis on the sovereignty of God – to give and to take away – is not something you find in many hymns. The words reminds us that we are to worship, to bless the Name of the Lord, in the ‘land that is plentiful’ and in ‘the desert place’. This great song was written in light of the tragedy of 9/11, Matt and Beth Redman’s own life experience (including repeated miscarriage), and scriptures from the book of Job.

A traditional hymn with a powerful testimony behind it is ‘It is well with my soul.’  Horatio Spafford, a Chicago lawyer and  friend of D.L.Moody, wrote this hymn after almost unimaginable personal loss. Horatio’s son died aged 4 from scarlet fever; a year later his entire real estate portfolio was wiped out by the great Chicago fire; and two years later his remaining children died after the French steamer ‘Ville de Havre’ sank in the Atlantic, claiming the lives of 226 people. When Spafford travelled to England a few days later to meet his wife, who miraculously survived, he asked the Captain to tell him when they reached the point where the ship had sunk. After they reached that point, Horatio then returned to his cabin and penned the lyrics of his great hymn. The words which Spafford wrote that day come from 2 Kings 4:26. They echo the response of the Shunammite woman to the sudden death of her only child. Though we are told “her soul is vexed within her”, she still maintains that ‘It is well.” And Spafford’s song reveals a man whose trust in the Lord is as unwavering as hers was:

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

These are only two examples, but there are many others: ‘Take my life and let it be’ (covered in a previous post here), ‘Amazing grace’ (reflecting Newton’s past as a slave trader), and ‘All hail the power of Jesus’ name’ (reflecting E.P. Scott’s experience as a missionary in India). For more stories behind the songs, see here (mostly new songs) and here (mostly traditional hymns). This book, The Complete Book of Hymns,  may also be of interest.

Do songs need a powerful story behind them? No, of course not. Good solid lucid Biblical theology is key. However, I do believe the stories can help us in our worship. If we recognise the faith and story behind a hymn it can challenge us or spur us on to imitate that faith. ‘Blessed be Your Name’ strikes a chord with many because we all struggle with tragedy in life, and struggle even more to see God’s hand at work in it. ‘It is well with my soul’ challenges us because, when we know the story behind it, we cannot escape from wondering how we would respond in such tragic circumstances. We can be inspired in faith and witness by the saints who have gone before. To God be the glory!

Breaking the Idols of Your Heart; How to Navigate the Temptations of Life

I don’t know how you feel about the Ecclesiastes but when I hear my Bible Study group is to spend a term exploring the book my heart sinks. I mean apart from the ‘there is a time for everything’ passage and of course the ‘remember your Creator in the days of your youth’ bit, the rest of it seems a little dark and depressing. I saw the book of Ecclesiastes is essentially nihilistic, denying life’s value, meaning and purpose.

Then I picked up this book by Tremper Longman III and Dan Allender, it appeared to have a really helpful angle on studying, understanding and applying the book of Ecclesiastes to the Christian’s life of discipleship. Now in college I was made to read Tremper’s ‘Literary Approaches to Biblical Interpretation’ which was worthy if at points a little dull. So I wasn’t expecting ‘Breaking the Idols of Your Heart’ to be quite so engaging, easy to read, and enjoyable as I found it.

It seems that the starting point for their exploration of Ecclesiastes is the idea that the Teacher’s study of this life can serve to disturb our spiritual complacency, shake us from our idolatrous trust in the things ‘under the sun’ and point us towards what is truly worth living for. In seven chapters, the authors’ examine in a fresh way our desire to find meaning in control, relationships, work and money, pleasure, wisdom, even spirituality and immortality.  

Each chapter follows the same pattern. Opening with Dan’s narrative rooting the study of Ecclesiastes in the lives of Noah, Joan, Jack, Marcia, Jessie and Mimi, a fictional church house group, going on to Tremper’s wrestling with the Teacher’s seemingly paradoxical statements about life’s meaning, and ending with a few questions for self-examination.

It is a topical rather than linear study of the book of Ecclesiastes, but I think it would be appropriate for private devotional or small group study (though you would have to pad the questions out a little). I think sometimes the fictional narrative is fits too comfortably with the study as a whole. This raises questions for me about what we do when our lives don’t strike a chord with our beliefs and understanding of Scripture. But on the whole I found this book engaging and uplifting, it helped me to understand Ecclesiastes place within the wider narrative of the Bible. So I happily commend it to you.