Sunday 27 May 2012

Should Christians stay away from certain professions?

He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful (good) with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need.
Ephesians 4:28

Paul doesn’t simply say to the thief, “Stop stealing!” I mean, he does  - “He must steal no longer,” says Paul, but that’s not all he says. He calls on the Christian to do honest work - even, hard word (“with his own hands”) - in order to be in the position to bless others (“those in need”).

Now in a couple of months, graduating students will be sending out their CV’s in search for work and employment, and some will ask the question: Which ones are off-limits? Are there jobs which Christians should stay away from?

Well, yes. Don’t steal. That’s obvious enough from this verse. Use your common sense and your conscience when considering that job advert: Is it wrong? Not simply whether it is illegal, but is the work that is involved in that profession sinful or unwise? A good article that helps us think through this issue can be read online here:

And yet, I wonder if most of us think this question as irrelevant because we hold a respectable job. Because we work for a big-name corporation, in a nice office and we dress up every morning for work in a suit. Because our professions are respectable - doctor, programmer, financial adviser, lawyer, researcher - we think our respectability means this verse doesn’t apply to us. Because we have been sponsored by a government agency in Singapore and have no choice but to become a paper-pushing civil servant, we think, “This verse is not talking about me. It’s for the thieves. It’s for unscrupulous businessmen who cheat their customers of their hard-earned savings. It’s for those who work in casinos, bars and pyramid-schemes.” If that’s what we think, we’ve missed the purpose of God’s work for our lives.

Paul is saying your work is given you to serve and bless others. He starts with the thief, yes, but his point is radical transformation. The converted thief no longer exploits others to serve himself, he now does everything he can; uses everything he has; to serve those in need. It is talking about repentance: turning away from selfishness in sin to face God and being willing to be used by God to serve his people.

Meaning all the more - to the doctor, lawyer, financial officer, computer programmer; to the full-time pastor - are you serving others at the expense of yourself? Your work is given you not for your personal status nor your image of respectability. Use your profession to glorify God. Work hard with your hands, meaning put your back into it. Look out for those in need so as to be able to serve them and to bless them - not just out of your abundance, not simply out of excess - but with all that God has entrusted you with.

Even your work.

Saturday 19 May 2012

A marriage made in heaven (Ephesians 5:21-33)

One of the clearest texts on Christian marriage in the one we are looking at today. It is the longest found in the bible on the subject of marriage. It is the most direct - addressing wives and husbands about their marriage. And yet, I wonder if it is also the most unpopular. Thinking back to weddings I’ve attended in past years, none have chosen this text as a bible reading. Almost all refer to 1 Corinthians 13, emphasising love. “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud... Love never fails.” 1 Corinthians 13 is a marvellous passage, don’t get me wrong. Only there, the bible isn’t speaking about marital love in particular - the love between a husband and a wife - but rather, Christian love amongst all believers. Indeed, if we understood the context of 1 Corinthians, we would know that Paul was writing to an unloving church, teaching them about what it means to love and rebuking them for not displaying such love in Jesus Christ.

No, this is the passage to read, to have preached, to commit to memory and to apply in our daily lives, if you are at all serious about marriage. Whether it is because you are married, or that you are thinking about getting married, or even if you have chosen not to get married - yes, the bible is speaking to you also. Because Paul begins by speaking not just to the married couple, but to the entire church.

Submit to one another out of reverence to Christ.
Ephesians 5:21

The theme is submission. That is the heading for this entire section of Paul’s letter to Christians in Ephesus: Submit to one another. What follows are three examples of submission - the wife to her husband (Ephesians 5:22-33), children to their parents (Ephesians 6:1-4) and slaves to their masters (Ephesians 6:5-9); three relationships characterised by submission, three relationships expressing submission to Jesus Christ as Lord. “Out of reverence to Christ,” Paul writes.

That is hard. If you are the wife, the child or the slave, you might say to me, “That is impossibly hard!” More likely, you might say to me, “That is unfair.” I want to convince you that instead of being unfair, burdensome or old-fashioned, what we have here is real, helpful and demonstrable love. What I mean is this: Paul doesn’t just leave things at verse 21. Otherwise, I wonder if we might invest all kinds of meaning into that command to “Submit to one another,” from either being touchy-feely and superficial in our submission (like the way Chinese people fuss over the bill at the end of a meal in a restaurant), to being overbearing and abusive in our relationships by reminding others to be submissive (like telling off the teenagers for not helping to serve tea after church).

What Paul does is illustrate for us what it means to submit to one another in Jesus, as if to say, “This is what it looks like.” Immediately, Paul turns and addresses the women, saying, “Wives...”

Submissive wives

Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour.
Ephesians 5:22

Paul speaks directly to the wives; the married women in the church. “Ladies,” he says, “I want you to know that you are not following some sort of tradition, some old-fashioned ideas cooked up by men to oppress women in the workplace and in the bedroom. You are following Jesus.” Meaning, Paul isn’t simply giving good advice. He is helping married women to work out what it means to be a Christian believer in their marriage. As far as we can tell, Paul himself was single and unmarried. So, he isn’t saying, “Look at how successful my marriage is. Why, yours can be, too!” What he is saying is, “This is God’s word to you as married women who follow Jesus Christ as Lord: Submit to your husbands.”

Now, submission does not mean servitude. Submission does not mean you allow yourself to be abused physically and emotionally by your husband. Submission does not mean you participate in sinful acts with your husband. But submission does mean that you recognise your husband as the head of the household. He has authority and responsibility over you and your family, just as Jesus has authority and responsibility over the church. It is recognising an order in creation and salvation.

For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour.
Ephesians 5:23

Some would argue that this submission goes both ways. After all, verse 21 calls on all of us to “Submit to one another,” advocating a kind of mutual submission. Therefore, the husband, too, ought to submit to his wife. I must admit how attractive this idea of mutual submission is, as elsewhere, Paul does tell us to humble ourselves before one another (Philippians 2:3). Having said that, to conclude that submission is generically the same in every direction (without any distinction between husband and wife) would be to misunderstand the nature of the word “submission” and to misinterpret the phrase, “one another”.

Firstly, submission (Greek: hypotasso) means putting yourself under another person’s authority, or as Paul puts it, another person’s headship. Hence the headship of Christ over his church becomes the basis of the headship of the husband over his wife. This headship is embedded in creation, going back to the opening chapters of Genesis, where God gave authority to the man and woman to “subdue” the earth and “rule” over all living creatures (Genesis 1:28). This is a headship that is seen in God’s authority over man and man’s authority over creation. When the man and the woman sinned, they reversed the order of headship, seen in the serpent (representing creation) deceiving the woman, the woman taking the fruit and giving it to the man, and the man putting the blame on God. In other words, sin results in the reversal of the God’s original design. In his rebellion, the first man Adam set himself over God. In salvation, Jesus Christ comes as the second Adam, the true man who humbles himself before God his Father and willingly goes to the cross. The result is a new creation, one where Jesus reigns as Christ and Lord, and all creation is put in submission under his feet. Ephesians Chapter 1, verse 22 says “And God placed everything under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body.” Just as Christ submits himself under God, so Christians submit themselves under Jesus as Lord. This is seen in our relationships to one another as the church. This is reflected in our marriages as husbands and wives under Christ.

Secondly, submitting to one another does not - and cannot - mean mutual submission. Nowhere does Christ submit himself under the authority of the church. Nowhere does it say that God submits himself under the headship of Christ. And in our passage today, husbands are not called to submit under the authority of their wives. So, when Paul calls upon the church to “submit to one another in reverence to Christ”, he isn’t therefore instituting a flat organisational structure, abolishing all forms of authority within the Christian community. If anything Paul establishes Jesus Christ as first and foremost, Lord over his the church, his body. And out of reverence, literally fear of him (referring to his final judgement and return), we are called to submit to his word and to the authority of leaders whose chief responsibility is to preach his word in the church (see Ephesians 4:11 on apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers, also Hebrews 13:17, “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority”). Submitting to “one another”, far from abolishing all forms of authority and hierarchy, actually assumes visible loving leadership in the church.

But what does this look like in the home, for the wife? In short, it means that the godly wife allows her husband to be the man in their marriage. It means letting him take the lead - on matters to do with money, on matters to do with the children, on where you will live - and submitting to those decisions in love and full support under Christ. Again, remember the events before and after the fall in Genesis: the woman was created as companion and helper to the man but after the fall, God pronounces the curse on Eve, saying, “Your desire will be on your husband and he will rule over you.” It is the desire to usurp the role of the man. To take charge and diminish the headship of the man. Submission is the reversal of this curse that comes salvation in Christ. Jesus frees you from sin to serve him as Lord, but also to serve your husband in your marriage.

This is God’s word to the Christian wife. But what if your husband messes up? What if he doesn’t take charge? What if he’s a good-for-nothing bum? Paul will speak to him very soon, but right here, right now, he speaks to you. “Wives,” he says. This is about your walk with Jesus and what it looks like in your marriages. But I think Paul does sense how hard this will be for the married women he is speaking to, and I get this from what he says next.

Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.
Ephesians 5:24

He says, “Look at the church.” The rest of you here today who are going, “Phew! I’m glad I’m not a married woman. Submission sounds hard!” Well, know this. Paul is telling these same married women to look at you to gain insight and encouragement to be submissive to their husbands. The question is, therefore: How is your submission? Does your own life display continuing, growing, loving submission to Jesus? Or are you using your singleness and freedom as an excuse to be selfish? Paul is saying to the wives in our church, look at how your brothers and sisters put Jesus first in their life decisions. I hope that’s true here in the Chinese Church. I hope the married sisters and mums come here, look at all of us and see that submission is not something that only they have to struggle with at home, but that submission characterises our daily walk with Jesus. We are always seeking to please him, to serve him and to love him.

Another important point we learn from verse 24 is this: Your husband doesn’t save you, only Jesus does. The NIV has “Now as the church submits to Christ,” comparing the submission of Christians to Jesus to the submission of wives to their husbands, when the word is actually “but” (Greek: alla). Meaning, yes, there is a comparison with Jesus, but also a contrast between husbands and Jesus. Earlier, Paul says that Christ “is himself its Saviour” (ESV). But. There is a turning point. Jesus saves the church. Jesus is head over the church. The church is the body of Christ. And because of all this, wives ought to submit to Jesus and submit to their husbands. But only Jesus saves.

Why labour on this point? Look around you. Here in the Chinese Church, and in most churches in the UK and around the world, most converts are women. Most Christians who continue coming to church are women. There are more women following Jesus than men. There are more wives coming to church, telling their kids about Jesus, than their husbands. This situation results in two heart-breaking problems: (1) unmarried Christian girls who can’t find a faithful life partner; and (2) Christian wives whose husbands do not know Jesus. The bible is saying to both, your husband cannot save you, only Jesus can, and the command still stands: Submit yourselves to your husbands. To those who are unmarried, it is very unwise to enter into a relationship with someone who isn’t a Christian. I have heard every excuse there is, including the one that says, “He will have more opportunity to hear about Jesus.” The truth is, you are putting yourself between him and knowing God. To enter into a relationship with a non-believer would be unwise and moreover, unloving. To the married, the bible is reminding us of our first devotion to Jesus, which ought to make us more faithful, not less to our spouses; more loving, not less to our spouses - irrespective of their own walk with Jesus; irrespective of their own faithfulness to Jesus. Your obedience is not contingent on theirs. If you are married Christian woman, these verses are speaking directly to you, reminding you to continue in obedience, love and faithfulness to Jesus, trusting him for your salvation, and entrusting him with the salvation of your loved ones.

You might say to me, “You don’t understand, Calvin. This is so hard.” And the bible recognises that, encouraging you to look Jesus as a loving Saviour, reminding you that he is the true head whom you are submitting yourself to. He makes you part of his body, the church, giving you brothers and sisters who are all, likewise, living their lives in submission to him. But I do want to emphasise how the bible is helpfully clear on the subject of submission and that there is joy to be found in living dependently on God’s grace. It teaches us patience, humility and hope. It makes our hearts long for Jesus.

What is surprising is that the bible doesn’t say to wives, “Love your husbands,” neither here nor anywhere else in the New Testament for the matter. Rather, the command to love is specifically given to the men.

Loving husbands

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing of water through the word.
Ephesians 5:25-26

“Husbands,” Paul says directly to the married men, “Love your wives.” He says it again, “In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives,” and again, “He who loves his wife loves himself” (verse 28). And again, “Each of you must love his wife” (verse 33). Paul never says this to women, but four times to the men, he commands them to be loving. Love is not an emotional response. It’s not something only the women do (like watching the Great British Menu). Paul says love is manly. Christian husbands must be loving husbands.

What does that mean? Buying flowers. Taking her out for a nice dinner. Doing the dishes. Looking after the kids so that she can have a night out with her friends. Reminding her how much you love her. Waiting outside M&S holding her shopping bags while she tries on the clothes. Yes, it means all of these things - certainly not less - but the bible gives us more, providing us with one clear comparison on what loving your wife looks like. It looks like Jesus dying on the cross. “Just as Christ loved the church and gave himself (paredoken) up for her.” We encountered this phrase a couple of weeks ago near the beginning of Chapter 5. “Jesus Christ loved us and gave himself up (paredoken) for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:2). It means to die. Husbands, your job is to die. To sacrifice yourself for the good of your wives. That is what it means to love.

It is a privilege that Jesus bestows upon us as men. Marriage is the opportunity to give ourselves fully and sacrificially for the good of our wives. Headship is a responsibility. It is your job to provide for her. It is your job to protect her. It is your job to serve her. More than that, as husband and head of the household, you are responsible for the spiritual leadership in your family. It is not the wife’s job to say, “I think we should pray about this,” it’s yours.  It is not the wife’s job to bug you about sleeping early on Saturday night so that you can get up in time for church. It is yours. Earlier on, Paul said to the wives: Let the husband be a man. Now, the bible is says to you: Be the man!

The model the bible gives us for this manhood - for male headship - is Jesus. It’s a strange picture because Jesus was single throughout his earthly life. Yet some of us might recall how the bible continually refers to Jesus as the bridegroom. And here in Ephesians we see that it is the church that is being described as his bride - “Jesus loved the church and gave himself up for her (a feminine article, again speaking about the church)”. But more than just dying for the church, Paul says that Jesus’ love actually makes her more beautiful. Or to be precise, it makes her radiant!

To make her more holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.
Ephesians 5:26-27

Most single guys, when thinking about marriage, look for the most attractive, the most compatible girl with whom they have “chemistry”. In other words, we go all out to look for beauty but this passage says that Jesus goes all out to make us beautiful. He makes her holy (or another word would be “exclusive”, again symbolising marriage) and cleanses her. That’s what Jesus did and Paul is saying, that’s what a true marriage ought to do. It makes our wives beautiful, not through make-up and cosmetics; Jesus didn’t cover up the stains and wrinkles and blemishes. No, what he did was wash her with water of the word. He purified the church and he did this with the gospel. You see, men, if you make the gospel the centre of your marriage it changes you and it changes your wife and it transforms your marriage. It doesn’t just make her look good, it makes her absolutely radiant. The gospel has the power to make your marriage beautiful.

Paul is using an Old Testament picture, specifically from the prophet Ezekiel, where God is described as the bridegroom who clothes his bride. We find similar language from the prophetic writings of Hosea. Now when you do read such passages in the Old Testament, the striking thing you find isn’t simply that God would compare himself to the experiences of a husband, providing for his wife, loving his wife and caring for his wife; but also that in many of these instances, God equates himself with the husband whose love has been rejected by his wife. In Ezekiel Chapter 16 - which Paul is likely referring to when he uses this language of the cleansing and washing with water here in Ephesians - God begins by declaring his love for his bride, but then exposing her shame for having taken advantage of that love and being unfaithful to his love. So, when Jesus came declaring himself to be the bridegroom (Luke 5:45, also see John 3:28), he is, on the one hand revealing his identity as the God of the Old Testament, but on the other, revealing himself as the one who restores the beauty, the love and the faithfulness of his bride. Do you see how powerful these words are in Ephesians? It is God saying to husbands, I know how painful and sacrificial it is be a husband. I even know the pain of you rejected husbands. But in the gospel lies the power to restore love and to restore beauty - through the death and sacrifice of Jesus Christ - he brings healing, forgiveness, restoration. The bible is saying, "That’s what Jesus did in his love for the church, his bride," then turns to husbands and says to them, "Now you do the same for your brides." “In the same way...” Paul says.

In the same way, husbands ought to love their wives, as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church.
Ephesians 5:28-29

There is a kind of warped reasoning not uncommon in today’s culture that reads these verses and somehow concludes: We must love ourselves more; that says: the key to loving others is to learn to love yourself. It is the kind of rationale that thinks of marriage as kind of self-fulfilment exercise. It is popular because, in part, it is true. Marriage is a blessing given by God, not just to Christians, but to men and women in the created order. It was instituted by God between the first man and woman before the fall. We were made for companionship, partnership and love; marriage is God’s gift to a man and woman to be able to express that lifelong relationship to one another in emotional and physical intimacy.

Yet Paul is not telling us to love ourselves more - and therefore, find a life-partner to be fulfilled. Far from that. He assumes that we already love ourselves, that we care for our needs; and using that as a basis, he says, “Care for your wives.” If anything, Paul is saying to us, “It’s no longer just about you.” This is where the analogy of the body comes in. In verse 29, he says, “After all, no one ever hated his own body.” The ESV has, “no one ever hated his own flesh (sarx)” And that’s a significant switch - from body to flesh - because of the very next verse.

“For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh (sarx).”
Ephesians 5:31

The quote comes from Genesis Chapter 2, verse 24, where “one flesh” is picture language of physical intimacy - one of the clearest bible teaching that sex is God’s gift to be enjoyed in marriage and only in marriage - but is picked up here by Paul to bring across another point. He is saying to the husband: You and your wife are now one in God’s eyes; not two individuals who happened to sign a legal document; not two people living separate lives under one roof. You are one. Notice, that Paul says this to the husband (Verse 28: “In the same way, husbands...”), meaning: Husbands, you are no longer your own. Your money is not your money. Your time is no longer your time. Your life is no longer your own. She is now part of your life. Use your money to serve her. Use your time and energies to love her. Use your life - sacrifice it even - to love her.

Paul’s instruction to husbands, saying, “He who loves his wife, loves himself” (verse 28) ought to be a familiar one. After the first commandment to love God, the second greatest, according to none other than Jesus himself, is to “love your neighbour as yourself "(Mark 12:31, quoting Leviticus 19:18). It’s not talking about self-fulfilment. It is a response of obedience to God, expressed in service to someone else, not ourselves. The bible is saying to husbands, your wife is your primary ministry: Serve her needs. The reason you have a job is not to buy a nicer car, to advance your career, to make more money. It is to serve the needs of your wife. The best way of using your gifts, talents, time and resources is firstly to meet the needs of your spouse. This is so far from self-fulfilment and self-centredness. To be married is to be other person centred.

This is a profound mystery - but I am talking about Christ and church.
Ephesians 5:32

By “mystery”, Paul isn’t throwing his arms in the air and going, “Ah! But who knows how to do this... it’s a mystery!” He isn’t saying that this is mysterious! Rather, “mystery” in the bible is something previously hidden that has now been uncovered. “Secret” would be a better word. Psst! Here’s the secret, Paul seems to be saying: It’s Jesus.

A few moments ago, I said to the wives, “If you feel discouraged, look to the church.” But do you know what this verse is saying? It’s saying to the whole church, “If you feel discouraged, look to the husbands.” A husband who is godly, who loves his wife sacrificially, becomes a display of Jesus’ love for his church that is so powerful, it reveals the gospel. In part, this is why God entrusts the care of his church into the hands of ordinary, faithful, loving men who know what it takes to care for their own family. These men display God’s saving love in Jesus Christ.

However, each of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.
Ephesians 5:32

Finally, Paul talks to both the husband and wife. “Each of you,” speaking to the husbands, “must love”. Both husband and wife are in the same room, sitting next to one another. The bible address both together; but God also speaks to each individually. Meaning this: You don’t need to tell the other to get this done. Husbands, it’s not your job to remind your wives after service today, to nag less, to be more submissive, to be more obedient. You have your own job to get done: Love your wives and meet her needs! Wives, it’s not your job to point out how your husbands have not been loving enough, to say to them, “Aha! Did you hear what today’s passage was saying to you today? (Wink, wink!)” You have your own word from God, too: Be submissive to your husbands.

What this means is, for those of us who are married, your relationship with your spouse is an expression of your faith and trust in Jesus Christ. The NIV has the instruction to wives as “respect [your] husband”. More accurately, the word is “fear” (phobeomai), the same word used at the beginning of our passage, “Submit to one another out of fear of Christ.” I can understand why most translations would rather not use that word. “Fear” sounds negative. When applied towards husbands, it sounds absolutely horrifying. But it’s not talking about fearful husbands. Rather, the bible is addressing God-fearing wives who submit themselves under loving, sacrificial husbands. It is pointing us back to the original theme verse, addressing all Christians in the church to recognise the lordship of Jesus Christ and to walk obediently in his love.

Submit to one another out of reverence to (or, fear of) Christ.
Ephesians 5:21

I began by saying that though this is the clearest passage on marriage, it is also the most unpopular. It is not hard to see why. Words like submission, fear, sacrifice and death don’t exactly feature in most wedding sermons. And yet, for all the complexity of today’s bible text, isn’t it rather clear? Wives, submit. Husbands, die... I mean, love sacrificially. The problem isn’t that non-Christians will misunderstand the meaning of the bible. Quite the opposite, in fact. The problem is the bible is crystal clear on the role and responsibilities of the husband and wife, and that’s why we avoid texts like these. We are afraid of offending our guests. If so, it is worth repeating Paul’s opening statement to all Christians in verse 21, to fear Christ. He is Lord.

Then again, Paul isn’t addressing the bridegroom and the bride on their wedding day. These instructions are to the husband and the wife who are already married. And these instructions were written to a gathering of people who were already believers in Christ. And that’s an encouraging thought. It means the proper setting to learn and to understand this text is right here, on a Sunday like this, in the Chinese Church. It means that husbands and wives will continue to struggle with issues of submission and loving leadership, in every marriage in every church (that’s why we have similar instructions in Colossians 3 and 1 Peter 3) but also that they can keep coming back to God’s word for guidance, comfort and strength. But most of all, it is encouraging because it reminds all of us that Jesus loves us - he is the source of our humility and the true example of submission; he is the true bridegroom and head over the church. Jesus loves us fully and enables us to respond in loving obedience to him and even to one another. As husbands and wives. As brothers and sisters. As sons and daughters of God.

Sunday 13 May 2012

Wake up and smell the Jesus (Ephesians 5:3-20)

Back in college, I used to bunk in a room with three other guys. We’d go to lectures together, eat our meals together, revise for our exams together, and then stay up late chatting over cups of Milo together. This meant, though, that we always had problems waking up in the morning. None of us could get up on time, even though we all had alarm clocks. We would set them, our alarm clocks would start ringing, but then we would immediately turn it off and go back to bed, thinking that the other guy’s alarm would still wake us up. As a result, we were often late. Together.

In today’s passage, the bible is telling us that we need to wake up. It is saying that some of us go through life like sleepyheads. We make unwise decisions and choose foolish paths simply because we are unconscious. Meaning, we coast through life. We don’t take advantage of the opportunities given to us. We waste our time, not realising that we are wasting our lives. As Chinese philosopher and thinker, Bruce Lee, once said, “If you love life, don’t waste time, for time is what life is made up of.” (Whhooaaaaaah!!) The bible says the same thing:

Be careful then, how you live - not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity because the days are evil.
Ephesians 5:15-16

In particular, the bible says we need to be wise about three things: sin, secretiveness and the Spirit. Those are the three points from our passage today. We need to be aware of sin - how destructive it is but also, how deceptive sin is. We need to be wise about secretiveness - about hiding our sin, putting on an act and covering our sin instead of confessing our sin. Finally, we need to be filled with the Spirit - a way of saying, that we need to actively seek out God’s will for our lives and encourage others to do the same.

Sex, drugs and rock n’ roll

But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving.
Ephesians 5:3-4

The first thing the apostle Paul deals with is sin. He warns Christians about sinful actions - sexual immorality, impurity, greed. he also singles out sinful speech - obscenity, foolish talk, coarse joking. Yet the word he uses to describe these sinful actions isn’t “sin”. They are bad, yes; they are destructive, definitely. Instead, the person who does all these things isn’t just the bad guy; the sinful man. Paul says such a man is an idolater.

For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person - such a man is an idolater - has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.
Ephesians 5:5

Meaning, Paul is calling the sinful man an idol worshipper. He is saying that when you sin - whether with your body, mind or speech - you are no different from the guy bowing down at the temple with joss-sticks before idols. That’s surprising for many of us to hear. We expect the bible to condemn the sinner by saying that he has broken the rules; he has offended God. And indeed, one aspect of sin is all about turning against God in defiance and rebellion, and saying to him, “Get lost!” But another important way the bible pictures sin is the replacement of God, is the setting up of a counterfeit God. We look for our identity, fulfilment and satisfaction in something else other than God. That happens in temples, before statues of Kuan Yin - idols of deities, to whom we might offer incense, money or devotion. But that also happens in the Grand Arcade, before the gods of All Saints, Three Mobile and the Apple Store, in which we exchange our money and our time for a new look or a better phone plan. Both are essentially the same thing - the worship of idols. We turn away from God to look elsewhere for our fulfilment and meaning in life.

So, when you go back and read how Paul says these things are “improper” for God’s holy people (verse 3), he doesn’t mean “goody-two shoes”. To be holy means to be different. To be distinctive. To be exclusive to God and God alone. One important mark of this difference is therefore, thanksgiving. Verse 4: “Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse-joking, but rather, thanksgiving.” We are acknowledging God in his goodness and his blessing to us, not because we are deserving but because he is a merciful and generous God. That is distinctive worship. That’s what Christians do when they gather as God’s people on Sundays and in small groups. They recognise God for who he is what he has done for us in Jesus Christ. And that’s what Christians do when they do get that iPhone or those new pair of jeans from All Saints - sorry, to imply that you can’t ever shop in the Grand Arcade - but your distinctiveness is seen not in where you shop but how you shop. You are conscious of God’s grace. You are thankful for God’s goodness. You are giving glory to God when you receive his good gifts.

Here as Paul addresses the serious issue of sin, we need to hear his note of concern. This isn’t an angry schoolteacher telling off some students for goofing off at the back of the class. This is a concerned parent. This is a loving pastor saying to a group of Christians, “You guys don’t know what serious harm you’re doing when you sin. You don’t get it - the more you sin, the more you are fooled into thinking that it doesn’t matter that you sin.”

Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient.
Ephesians 5:6

“It is no big deal!” That’s the excuse we give whenever we’re confronted with a sinful action or behaviour. Such words are empty words, and yet we are tempted to believe them. They convince us that God doesn’t care how we live; that we can go on living any way we like, and it is nobody’s business but our own. Paul warns us, “because of such things” God’s anger is going be poured out directly on the disobedient. These “sons of disobedience” (as the English Standard Version has it) describe those who know God and yet choose to ignore him as God; who choose to ignore his word for their lives. Words like wrath, anger, hell, judgement. They say these are just words designed to scare us into being good, things parents say to get their kids to behave. Paul says judgement is very real. In fact, notice that Paul says that judgement is very near - God’s wrath “comes” - not that it “will be coming”, but that it is here: judgement is described in the present tense. There comes a point in our act of sin when we are so wilful and determined to carry out that sin, that all God needs to do is to step back and give us over to our sinfulness. To that person may seem like, “Hey! Look at me, I’m doing this with no consequences whatsoever.” To God, that person has been written off. That’s scary. Paul is describing a real, present judgement that can be seen even today, and he says to us, “Let no one deceive you.” Wake up!

But also, Paul says, “Don’t join them.”

Therefore do not be partners with them.
Ephesians 5:7

He’s not saying here to Christians that we need to avoid them. Don’t be partners with them, meaning, don’t join them in their actions; in abusing your freedom, don’t join them in sinning with your body and mind, don’t join them in carelessly speaking hurtful words to one another. Being holy means displaying God’s holiness in a world that isn’t holy. It doesn’t mean pulling away from the world, but displaying God’s distinctiveness in this world. Paul clarifies in 1 Corinthians Chapter 5:

I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people - not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave the world. But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, or an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat.
1 Corinthians 5:9-11

Here in 1 Corinthians, we find the same categories of sin we saw in Ephesians - sexual immorality, greed, idolatry - but Paul says you can’t hide away from people who do these things. You are not supposed to. Otherwise, “you would have to leave the world”. Sometimes, that’s what we try to do. In a sincere effort to be God’s people, to live in a way that is pleasing to God, we pull away from anyone who doesn’t meet God’s standards. Paul is saying, “That’s just silly!” What he does warn us to do is to stay away from the Christian brother who does do these things. “With such a man do not even eat.” Again this is a wake-up call. We get the order mixed-up: we condemn the people who sin outside the church, and we ignore the sin that goes on and on inside the church. Paul says we live holy lives in the midst of a world that isn’t holy, and we are more conscious of it within the church which should be holy - not more oblivious to it, or dismissive of it here in the church - but more serious about it.

So, the first thing we need to be aware of is sin: the destructiveness of sin but also, the deceptiveness of sin - the kind of “empty” talk that says that there are no consequences to sin. Paul uses worship language to open our eyes to what really happens when we sin - we a giving ourselves to idolatry and we are facing the reality of God’s wrath. Instead, as Christians, we characterise our lives with holiness and we characterise our words with thanksgiving. Or, as Paul says next, we are to be “light in the Lord”.

Living as children of light

For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of the light (for the fruit of the light consists of all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord.
Ephesians 5:9

Elsewhere in the bible, Christians are described as those who have been called out of darkness into God’s wonderful light (1 Peter 2:9). It’s like you’ve moved house. You pack up all your things, you move out of darkness and you now live at a new address - Light. Things should look different in your life. Darkness is where you used to come from but not any more. You now live in the light.

However, Ephesians puts this rather different. Paul says, you were darkness, now you are light. Not that you’ve moved into light but that you’ve become light. Let me tell you why this is important - to see that we are not simply moving into a domain of light, but that we ourselves, have become a source of that light. We’ve just been talking about sin - sexual sins, greed sins, idolatrous sins - and we just heard that these sinful actions have no place among God’s people. The temptation is to deal with sin by avoiding it, maybe even, by denying it. So, we stay away from sinful people. We tell our kids to stay away from the bad kids who always get into trouble. We move out of bad neighbourhoods, away from crime, away from violence. These are not necessarily bad things to do. It is wise to stay away from temptation, especially when you know that you are susceptible to particular sins. And yet, the problem is, we might think that the solution to sin is simply to change our address. To put on a show. To try to look respectable. To avoid the bad hats and hang out with the good guys. Thinking this is what it means to be in the light.

Paul says, “You are light,” and that means two things. Firstly, you need to change. You were once darkness - you used to do these things; not any more. You need to change - your behaviour, your attitude, your life - and live for Jesus. This change is inside-out. It begins with a heart that says I’m no longer living for myself, I am going to do what God wants me to do (which is why Paul writes in verse 10: “Find out what pleases the Lord”). So, the first thing it means is radical change beginning with your life - from darkness to light. From living for ourselves to living for Jesus Christ.

But secondly, it means you become the agent of change in the lives of others. Your job isn’t simply to avoid sin, to avoid darkness. Being light means your job is to shine into the darkness. To speak lovingly and truthfully into situations where you do encounter sin. Or as Paul says next, you are called to expose the darkness.

Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible.
Ephesians 5:11-13

Now I know that this is a risky thing to say because it sounds like an excuse for being judgemental. It sounds like the busy-body who goes around pointing out problems in other people’s lives. No one likes that guy and no one ever listens to that guy. No, the way we are called to “expose” darkness is by being light in the darkness. It is talking about a contrast; a radical difference. We don’t go around saying, “That’s wrong, that’s wrong, that’s oh so wrong,” but rather we humbly live lives that say, “This is what it means to do right, to act justly, to love God.” It’s a contrast. Paul says, “The fruit of light is goodness, righteousness and truth” and he contrasts that against the “fruitless deeds of darkness.” Meaning, on one hand, you can’t help but expose sin simply by living holy lives. People will be more aware of their sin, they might even be more ashamed by their sin if they see you not caught up in those same sins. But on the other hand, you aren’t leaving people stuck in the dark either. You are speaking light into darkness. You pointing them to Jesus who died for our sins and frees us from our sin.

For it is light that makes everything visible. This is why it is said:
“Wake up, O sleeper,
rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.”
Ephesians 5:14

It’s never pleasant dealing with sin, whether it’s in ourselves or in those we love. But the reason why we don’t avoid it, or sweep it under the carpet - the reason why it is actually loving to wake people up to the reality of their sin - is because it means we are waking them up to the reality of who Jesus is. We are not telling them that they are bad people who need to be good. We are not telling them they are lazy people who need to work harder. We are waking them up to see that they can’t help themselves, they are caught up in their sin, they are in danger of God’s wrath, but that they need Jesus who died on the cross to change them from darkness to light. Wake up, rise from the dead and Christ will shine on you!

Which brings me to my point of secretiveness. Paul says we need to expose darkness. We need to wake up and let Christ shine into our darkness. Again and again, the bible is saying to us how pointless it is to put on an act to cover up our sin. I know it is a shameful thing to admit that we are sinful. I know it is a painful thing to have those around us know that we have been sinful. But trying to hide it is foolish and it doesn’t work. I am not saying that you then need to confess your sins to me or to everyone in front of the church, that’s not what I’m getting at. What I am saying is this: Are you even aware of your sin? Do you need a wake-up call about a particular sin your life, which maybe no one sees because you have hidden it so well, in the dark, for so long? Why not try this: say to God, show me my sin. Say to Jesus: Shine your light on my life - every bit of it - show me who I really am. You know, Jesus says one of the signs of a genuine believer is that he isn’t afraid to do this.

Everyone who does evil hates the light and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.
John 3:20-21

To recap, Paul says the second thing we need to be aware of is secretiveness - our propensity to hide our sin, the temptation to cover up our sin. And he says to us, You were once darkness, now you are light. In Jesus, he enables you to confront the darkness inside of you. He even uses you as an agent to confront the darkness in the lives of others, such that you are not simply calling them to turn away from their sin; you are giving them the opportunity to respond to Christ as their Lord and Saviour.

He is saying to us, this is what it means to live wisely - it is making the most of every opportunity in living for Jesus and speaking to others about Jesus.

Be filled with the Spirit

Be very careful, then, how you live - not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is.
Ephesians 5:15-17

In the movie Dead Poets Society, Robin Williams plays John Keating, an English teacher in a prep school. On the first day of school, he brings all his students to the trophy room. He makes them all stand in front of a large display case, drawing their attention to black and white photographs of old students who used to be just like them, who studied in the same school, who shared their hopes and dreams, some of whom went on to do great things. John says to his students, “Go on. Lean in and look at them. Can you hear their voices speaking to you?” Then, whispering in the background, Mr Keating goes, “Car-pe.... Carpe.... Diem. Carpe Diem. Seize the day!”

You have one life. Make it count. Seize the day. Don’t just coast through life, be deliberate. Or to use Paul’s words, “make the most of every opportunity because the days are evil.” Literally, the phrase means “buying time”. It’s a business term, meaning, your assets, your commodities are in a currency called time. Like a good businessman, you are always thinking, “How can I invest my time?” “How can I make the most return for my time.” It is saying that if you are smart and wise, you will realise that the important things in life cost you time. It means you have limited time - you can do one thing, you can’t do everything. And the worst thing you could do with your valuable time is nothing. The worst thing you could do is to waste your life.

That is what we do, if we are not wise. If we do not wake up. We let time pass us by, and in doing so, we let our lives pass us by. In the same movie, Robin William’s character quotes these words from American poet, Henry Thoreau:

‎"I went to the woods
because I wanted to live deliberately,
I wanted to live deep
and suck out all the marrow of life,
To put to rout all that was not life
and not when I had come to die
Discover that I had not lived."

You have one life. Wouldn’t it be a tragedy to say at the end of your life, “When I had come to die, (I discovered) that I had not lived”? But what’s the alternative? What does it means to “suck out the marrow of life”? I think it means this: To live passionately for Jesus. Or as Paul calls it, to be filled with the Spirit.

Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit. Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Ephesians 5:18-20

Some have used this phrase, “Be filled with the Spirit” as a way of saying that we need to have more of the Spirit, implying that some of us have less, others have more. You have 20% for coming on Sunday, but if you lead worship, you have 40%, and if you can lead worship and play guitar, you have 60%. That’s not what it’s saying. It’s not about having more of the Spirit, but about the Spirit of God having more of us, again linking back to the concept of redeeming and buying our time. It is making God more and more central in every aspect of our daily lives and saying to God, “Please fill me, all of me - my studies, my work, the way I use my money, the way I relate to my brothers and sisters in church - please use more of me for your glory.”

But why, then, does Paul compare the Spirit to wine? “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery (which means recklessness; a destructive behaviour which doesn’t care about consequences) - instead, be filled with the Spirit, he says in verse 18. The problem is with drunkenness and not with the wine. It is taking something which is good and turning to it in excess for fulfilment and for pleasure, instead of turning to God. It’s no different from the idea of idolatry we saw earlier. It only results in disappointment and destruction. You could replace wine, with food: too much results in gluttony. You could replace it with money: too much results in greed.

On the other hand, we have the Spirit. And Paul is saying, being filled with God’s spirit is a tremendously good thing and when it overflows it results in blessing. In other words, you can’t have too much of God. “Speak to one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs (or songs inspired by the Spirit).” It is talking about joy and encouragement. Some songs you can listen to again and again. You’re not trying to memorise verses for an exam. You’re not being forced to sing it. You listen and you sing it because it’s fulfilling in and of itself - it’s an overflow. Often you call these “worship” songs, that is we are singing them to God, expressing thanks in Jesus. But notice that these songs are sung to “one another”. It says the same thing in Colossians 3:16, by the way. We sing to one another as a form of encouragement, that’s why it’s not just about those one or two people who are the best singers standing up front, doing a performance in front of the church. It is all of us, singing together, praising together, even singing to one another, as an overflow of being filled with the Spirit.

But also, we sing to our hearts. “Sing and make music in your hearts to the Lord.” Jesus Loves me this I know.... Yes, Jesus loves me, the bible tells me so. Knowing you, Jesus, there is no greater thing. You are ministering to your heart when you do that.

And Paul’s point is, You can’t do this enough. Anything else, you kinda need to watch yourselves that it doesn’t come back and bite you in the backside. Wine, movies, Facebook, TV, holidays, gardening, Tripos - all these are good, helpful, godly things given us for our enjoyment and God’s glory. But we can make idols out of them. Too much and we lose ourselves in them. Not the Spirit. Not Jesus. If you had to choose one thing to invest your time in that you know will give you a 100% return on investment, it’s knowing God’s will. He actually says it three times in our passage.

For of this you can be sure... (or know with certainty, and then he goes on to talk about the kingdom of Christ and of God)
Ephesians 5:5

And find out (discern, figure out) what pleases the Lord.
Ephesians 5:10

Do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is.
Ephesians 5:17

Three times, Paul comes back to knowing Jesus, figuring out what pleases him, and understanding his will. With regard to sin, the bible says, Don’t be swayed by empty words but be anchored on God’s word about his judgement and salvation. With regard to salvation, the bible says, goodness, righteousness, truth aren’t just perks that come with trusting Jesus, they flow from a heart that wants to please Jesus. And will regards to wisdom about the Spirit, about not wasting your life, Paul says, Don’t be foolish. Find out what Jesus wants you to do. That’s pretty amazing. Actually, I think it makes things very simple. The best way to guard your hearts, to spend life, to find true satisfaction is keep coming back to Jesus.

And amazingly, as he ends, he says even when we turn to God, when we give thanks to God, the best way of doing so, is always through Jesus Christ.

Wake up and smell the Jesus

Always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Ephesians 5:20

In a way, today’s passage speaks to three kinds people, and to all three, the bible says, you need to wake up and smell the Jesus. To the one caught in idolatry and sin, the bible says, give your worship to Jesus, who died for your sin and freed you from your sin. To the one trying to help his friend in sin, the bible says, point them to Jesus who is the one who can change them and whose love transforms them from darkness to light. Finally, to the one looking to spend his life wisely, who wants to live the extraordinary life, the bible says, look to Jesus and live for him. Everything we receive, we receive by grace from God, and it comes to us through one person and by one name, Jesus, our Lord and Saviour.

Thursday 10 May 2012

The rich young man (Mark 10:17-27)

C.S. Lewis once compared God to a dentist. Let me explain: When you go to God with a problem, you know that he is not going to stop with your toothache. He is going to notice all those cavities that need filling and he is going to keep on working at it until all your teeth are fixed. God is not going to stop until you get the full treatment.

In today’s passage a man runs up to Jesus with the question, “How do I get to heaven?” It is a sincere question but Jesus gives an answer that surprises him and amazes everyone around him. “Sell everything and follow me.” Jesus gives him the full treatment. Understandably, some of us hear that and wonder if Jesus went too far. Some of us wonder if Jesus was asking too much.

The curious thing is, the bible tells us that Jesus said this out of love. Verse 23: “Jesus looked at him and loved him.” In order for this man to get to heaven, Jesus explains that he would need to turn away - not from his badness - but from his goodness. Not from his weaknesses, but from his wealth. It is a surprising answer because many of us have never heard that before. It is a loving answer because it reveals the truth about who we are and who Jesus is.

I want us to notice three things from our bible passage today.

1. A good man
2. A rich man
3. A God who does the impossible

1. A good man

The first thing I want us to see is that this man is genuinely good. He approaches Jesus respectfully and earnestly, bowing before Jesus and calling him, “Good teacher”; the way we might address someone as “Professor” at the university. Yet the question he puts before this teacher is not academic but personal. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“Trust in God and you will be saved!” That’s what Jesus should have said. “Follow me and receive eternal life.” That’s what we expect Jesus to have said. Strangely, Jesus gave none of those answers. Instead, Jesus asks him to consider a different question.

“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good - except God alone.”
Mark 10:18

Jesus is saying that “goodness” is absolute, not relative. Put it another way: goodness is digital, not analogue. There is one standard of goodness and it is God alone. Now why does Jesus seem to go off on this tangent? Well, here’s this young man coming up to Jesus acknowledging him as a good teacher, meaning he saw Jesus as a capable teacher, a gifted speaker, a moral guru. Jesus points out a flaw with that approach. You are thinking about eternal life which is an good thing and an important thing to be thinking about. You want an absolute answer but you have posed a relative question: ‘What can I do?’ You are looking for five ways to improve yourself. You are searching for ten steps to maximise your happiness. Unfortunately, that approach won’t bring you any closer to heaven. It won’t bring you a step closer to God.

The clue lies behind the word “inheritance”. The man asks, “What can I do to inherit eternal life?” When a person dies he leaves behind an inheritance for members of his family. So, a father leaves behind his property to his sons and daughters as an inheritance. Do you see the flaw in the young man’s logic? He calls eternal life an inheritance and yet wants to know what he can do to gain this inheritance. The simple answer is you can’t do anything! You are either in the will or you’re not. You receive your inheritance by virtue of a relationship, not by virtue of your effort.

Here is an intelligent young man who is monumentally deluded with the idea that he can do something to gain eternal life as an inheritance. Jesus immediately identifies the reason why: it is his goodness. This man is good, moral and upright. And Jesus’ next question is designed to show him that his goodness is not enough, even for God.

“You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honour your father and your mother.’”

“Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.
Matthew 10:19-20

This guy is the real deal. When he says to Jesus, “I’ve kept all the commandments,” I believe that he has sincerely tried. He isn’t boasting of his accomplishment saying, “I’ve been doing this since I was a kid,” but rather, the young man is giving a sincere answer to Jesus’ question, “I’ve been good.” I must say, I have great respect for a guy like that. He is the kind of guy you would want as your friend. In fact, he is the kind of guy you want as your Prime Minister. He doesn’t lie, cheat or steal. He is honest and respectful to his parents. He is sincerely and genuinely good.

What is more, this young man is obedient to God. The “commandments” that Jesus lists are taken from the Ten Commandments in the bible: Ten rules of conduct set by God himself. Every good Jewish boy knew these rules and obeyed these rules. Now, I doubt a Muslim would have any problems with these rules. I doubt even an atheist would have any problems with these rules. Jesus intentionally chooses five of the ten commandments - leaving out the ones that have to do with loving the one true God - and including only the ones which have to do with loving your neighbour. Do not murder. Do not commit adultery. Do not steal. Do not lie. Do not cheat. Respect your parents. All of these commandments are the ones you do. Remember the young man’s question back in verse 17: What must I do to inherit eternal life? Jesus is saying, “Well, do this, this, this, this and this. Obey the commandments.” The young man answers, “All of these I have done since I was a kid.” Yet even as he says this, don’t you hear the frustration in his voice? I’ve done this, I’ve kept these commands. Yet why do I feel as if something is missing. Do you sense a lack of confidence? Please tell me: What else must I do?  Do you hear that longing for something else he needs to be able to do? Jesus does.

2. A rich man

Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad because he had great wealth.
Mark 10:21-22

I recently led a bible study on this passage with a group of teenagers. I asked them, “What if Jesus said to you, ‘Give away everything you have, everything that is of significant value in your life - your iPod, all your nice clothes, all your money - even your university degree?’” To which one girl cried out, “NooooooOOOOoooo!!!! That’s too much. That’s cruel. That’s unfair.” The natural reaction to such a bold request is shock. Surprise. After all, that is the reaction we see from Jesus’ friends, who were “amazed” and then were “even more amazed” by Jesus’ words.

Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to enter the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?”
Mark 10:23-26

“If this guy can’t get into heaven, who can?” the disciples were saying to one another. Here was the ideal candidate: A Cambridge graduate, successful in his career, responsible with his money, generous with his life, obedient to God’s law. If Jesus was turning away such talent, what chance do the rest of us have?

The disciples were amazed, as we ought to be amazed with such a radical request. Yet, notice that wasn’t the response of the young man. He wasn’t shocked, he wasn’t amazed. In fact, I wonder if he was surprised by Jesus’ call to sell everything he had. Instead the bible tell us that his immediate reaction was sadness. Jesus told him he lacked one thing. Just one: To give his money away. He approached Jesus in all eagerness and anticipation. He turned away in sadness and depression.

What was the turning point for the young man? His wealth. Verse 22: “He went away sad because he had great wealth.” Jesus tells his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich” - the wealthy, those who have money, status, possessions in this life - “to enter the kingdom of God!” Now Jesus isn’t saying that having lots and lots of money is bad. Nowhere does he imply that this young man obtained his wealth through ill-gotten gains. If anything, it is remarkable that this man was so young, so moral and at the same time, so wealthy. It means that he used his money for good. It means that he earned his money responsibly by working hard. Remember his answer about the commandments - he never stole, lied or defrauded anyone. Meaning this: Jesus doesn’t have any problems with wealth per se, but what Jesus does here is expose a side-effect that comes from having abundant wealth: we become attached to our wealth. The more money we have, the more likely we are to define our identity by the our money. The more wealthy we are, the more likely we are to measure our goodness against our wealth.

For all his willingness to obey the commandments, to strive to greater heights to serve God and love his neighbour - for all his goodness - there was one thing the rich young man was unwilling to do. He couldn’t let go of money. The King James Version of the bible reads, “He went away grieving.” That is insightful. You grieve when you lose someone you cherish. You grieve at the loss of someone you love. Just the thought of giving away all his wealth made him mourn. Again, we are not talking about a greedy businessman who lied, stole and cheated his way to success. Whatever the circumstances this young man received his fortune, he got it honestly and he used it generously. But somewhere along the way, money become more than just money to him. It became a source of his identity. His money became the means of his morality.

I wonder if this might be true of you as well? We apply for the grant with the biggest funding not simply because it would useful to have more money for the project is it? It’s because more money means we are worth more; more money means our work is more significant. And when the economy forces us to take a pay cut or when that unexpected bill leaves us with less in the bank - we feel less secure. We might even feel angry and betrayed. Some of us wonder if God is punishing us by taking away our money.

That’s what Jesus means when he says, “It’s hard.” It’s hard to let go of money. But notice, Jesus doesn’t simply say give up everything and cling to nothing. He isn’t advocating a life of abstinence and poverty. Look again at what he says to the young man.

Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come follow me.
Mark 10:21

He is challenging the young man who is eager to gain eternal life, “Would you let go of all your wealth in exchange for heaven?” More than that, Jesus is saying to the young man, “Would you be willing to lose all your wealth in order to follow me?” That’s a hard thing to do. In fact, by the end of our passage we find Jesus saying to his disciples, it is impossible for us to do.

3. A God who does the impossible

Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”
Mark 10:27

Earlier on, Jesus looks at the young man and tells him to sell his possessions. And notice here, Jesus does the exact same thing: he looks right at his disciples. There is a connecting thought here - Jesus looks at him; immediately Jesus turns and looks straight at them. The disciples are wondering how God can save anyone if the demands are so impossibly high. Jesus is about to answer that question. It is the same answer he gave to the rich young man.

The question they ask is, “Who can be saved?” If you read verse 27 on its own, Jesus’ answer sounds almost dismissive, “All things are possible with God,” as if to say, “God will make a way. Somehow, it will happen.” But if you see the connection between the this answer and the one previously given to the rich young man; if you see that Jesus is using the rich young man as a picture of how God will do this impossible thing - we see that the demand which Jesus placed on that young man to give up all his riches is a demand that Jesus himself has fulfilled.

Why does it say that Jesus looked at him “and loved him”? Because Jesus looked at the young man and saw a reflection of himself. At this point in his life, Jesus was barely over thirty. He was in the prime of his life. The bible contends that all throughout his earthly existence, Jesus never sinned, not even once. Jesus claimed that he came to fulfill God’s law in its entirety - he met every requirement, he never broke a single rule. More than that, Christians believe that Jesus is the eternal Son of God, who left the gaze of angels, who left the glory of his Father to come to earth to take on human flesh. Jesus is the ultimate rich young man who gave up a heavenly inheritance in order to enter our poverty. The bible says,

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for our sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.
2 Corinthians 8:9

Jesus was the ultimate rich young ruler who gave up all privilege, who sacrificed all wealth; who, on the cross, gave up his life so that we would receive his reward; so that we would gain eternal life. God was doing the impossible in Jesus Christ, he became a man. He humbled himself as a servant. He died to take our punishment. And he rose to give us eternal life.

“Who then can be saved?” That is the question Jesus was answering. The answer is not the one who gets wealthy. It is not even the one who gives up his wealth. Jesus is saying the one who is saved is the one who receives salvation as a gift - as an inheritance - through Jesus’ death. Who receives wealth through his poverty. For our sakes, Jesus Christ laid aside his majesty, took our debt of sins and lavished us with his reward, his acceptance and his love.

In Jesus Christ, we see the truly righteous man - who fulfilled all of God’s law. We see the truly rich man - who left his wealth to enter our poverty. And in Jesus Christ, we see God doing the impossible - saving sinners at the cost of his own Son, by giving him up on the cross.

In love, Jesus looks at us and calls us to exchange our lives for something infinitely more valuable than all the treasures of heaven. God offers us the gift of himself. With man this is impossible. With God all things are possible through Jesus Christ.

Monday 7 May 2012

Five marks of a good Sunday School teacher

Yesterday at the Chinese Church, we looked at the five qualities which make for a good Sunday School Teacher.

1. Tells the truth to his students

Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully (literally, truth) to your neighbour, for we are all members of one body.
Ephesians 4:25

Holding back the truth is just as bad as telling lies. Every teacher wants to establish mutual respect and close rapport with his students. Paul says the basis of this relationship is truth-speaking. In part, it is the willingness to be vulnerable. To be honest and open with one another. More specifically, “the truth” that Paul is referring to is the gospel. The gospel isn’t simply course material that the Sunday School teacher needs to get through. Paul is saying that the gospel is almost something that you owe to your students. Don’t hold back the gospel. You owe it to them.

2. Holds his temper with his students

In your anger do not sin.
Ephesians 4:26

This verse could also be translated, “Be angry, but do not sin.” Your students may give you good cause to be angry. If you love your students, there are situations in which you ought to be angry, especially when they are hurting others or even themselves. But Paul says, “Be angry but do not sin.” And Paul says, “Be angry, but not for too long,” - “Don’t let the sun go down while you are still angry”. Unresolved anger is indicative of pride. It introduces fractures in the church. It gives opportunity to the enemy (4:27). The way to deal with our anger is not by storing it up but by surrendering it all to Jesus. Go to the cross with your anger. Leave it there.

3. Seeks to transform the worst of students

He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his hands, that he may have something to share with those in need.
Ephesians 4:28

A good teacher doesn’t merely punish the bad apple and reward the good kid in his class. Paul points to the selfish thief and says to him, “I want you to be the most gracious of servants.” He who used to steal with his hands must now work with his hands. He who used to be selfish must now be eager to share "with those in need". A good teacher knows that there is no student too lost, too hopeless, too far from the transforming work of the gospel.

4. Always thinks on behalf of his students

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.
Ephesians 4:29

Students can tell when a teacher has their best interests at heart. Your listeners are more likely to pay attention to you when you are speaking to them and not at them. Get to know the students in your class, where they are at and where they are coming from. At the very least, know their names. Paul says it isn’t enough to watch your bad language, you need to watch your good words, too - that is, to measure them against what your listeners need to hear - speaking “only what is helpful (literally, good) for building others up”, “according to their needs”, “that it may benefit those who listen”. In other words, don’t be self-absorbed. Know your audience. Better yet, love them enough to let them know they are there.

5. Trusts in Jesus Christ

Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and a sacrifice to God.
Ephesians 5:1-2

Your students may roll their eyes at you. Their parents might think you’re missing the point. There will be times when you will feel embarrassed for saying so, when it may sound corny just saying so. But always remind your students that God loves them and that Jesus Christ died for them as their substitute on the cross. The bible is not a series of rules to follow in order to be lovable. The bible reminds us that we are loved. That God loves the unlovable. That Jesus came to save sinners.

These are the five marks of a good Sunday School teacher, of the faithful bible teacher. In truth, Paul is describing every single believer in Christ. All of us have the privilege of speaking the gospel and sharing the good news of the cross with one another. It takes boldness and brokenness, confidence and contriteness. It takes love that comes from knowing that we are loved, in Jesus Christ who “gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and a sacrifice to God”. May God enable each of us to continually walk in his love.

Sunday 6 May 2012

Loving like Jesus (Ephesians 4:25-5:2)

Don’t lie. Don’t get angry. Stop stealing.

These instructions are practical. They are commendable. And if we are honest, they are predictable. You expect to hear these instructions - from your mum at home. From your teacher in school. From the preacher in church. Tell the truth. Share with those in need. No one would be surprised to hear these words coming from the bible (or from the Qur’an for the matter.) They teach us what it means to be decent, to be good. To be loving.

Look again, not simply at the instructions, but at the reasons behind each instruction.

And do not give the devil a foothold. Ephesians 4:27
And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God. Ephesians 4:30
Forgive one another, just as in Christ God forgave you. Ephesians 4:32

We might dismiss these arguments as irrelevant. They merely spiritualise and complicate what are essentially practical issues of common decency. All this talk about the devil, about grieving the Holy Spirit. What really matters is that we get along with one another, not impose religious rules on one another. If anything, these rules expose Christians as the hypocrites they really are. Their own scriptures teach them to be holy, but the truth is, they are just as bad as the rest of us, or so the reasoning goes.

Today we begin a series entitled, “Loving like Jesus.” It is what Paul tells us to do in Chapter 5 and verse 2.

And live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
Ephesians 5:2

This verse is important because the bible teaches us that we cannot love like Jesus until we are loved in Jesus. That is important. You cannot love, you cannot forgive, you cannot serve one another simply by following Jesus as your example. You must follow him as your Lord and Saviour having been loved in him, forgiven in him and served in him. And all throughout our passage today, Paul punctuates this long list of ethical do’s and don’ts with the same lesson: You can’t do this. Not on your own strength. But only by receiving his.

In a sense then, Paul goes through the list, expecting it to be obvious to his listeners. Of course you should be loving. Of course you should tell the truth. He assumes that we know these demands yet what he does not assume is that we can actually meet them, only those who have been “made new in the spirit of their minds” (Ephesians 4:23). Neither is Paul pointing the finger at non-believers saying, “Look at those pagans, with all their debauchery and licentiousness, no wonder they are headed for destruction.” No, he writes to Christians living in the city of Ephesus, who used to do these very things, saying, Here’s the reason why you don’t have to anymore. The reason is Jesus. He changes you and he empowers you to put off your old self as slaves to sin, and to put on your new self as sons and daughters of God.

So what Paul does is he goes down this practical list of four points - lies, anger, stealing and swearing - and at each point, he shows us how Jesus makes all the difference by transforming us on the inside to deal with our sin and by empowering us on the outside to relate with one another in love.

Lies and truth

Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbour, for we are all members of one body.
Ephesians 4:25

The thing to notice about this point on lying, and actually together with all the other three points, is that Paul deals with the individual within the greater context of the community. He zooms in on each person - each one of you needs to be on board on this - Put off lying and speak the truth, but then pans out to apply this principle to the whole church. There is both personal responsibility (Each of you) and corporate accountability (We are all).

Meaning: Paul is saying much more than, Be honest. Don’t lie. He is actually saying that you owe the truth to your neighbour. Scholars tells us that at this point, Paul is using language from the Old Testament, specifically quoting the prophet Zechariah:

“These are the things you are to do: Speak the truth to each other, and render true and sound judgement in your courts; do not plot evil against your neighbour, and do not love to swear falsely. I hate all this,” declares the LORD.
Zechariah 8:16-17

Zechariah’s uses legal language depicting a scene in a law court with God as the supreme judge. Lying is like giving false testimony. Withholding the truth is like withholding evidence. “I hate all this,” God says. Taking a closer look at the context behind this Old Testament prophecy, we find God is addressing the exiles, that is the people of Israel who have been kicked out of their country, saying to them, One day, I’m bringing you back home. One day you will return to Jerusalem, “the City of Truth” (Zechariah 8:3). God will gather everyone who has been scattered across the nations to this one city, gathering them into his kingdom as the true people of God. For Paul to quote this Old Testament prophecy, what he is saying is this: That day has come. God has redeemed his people in Jesus Christ. In other words, the prophecy of Zechariah is fulfilled in the New Testament church, in Christians living in community with one another. When you speak truth in love to one another (see Ephesians 4:15) you are displaying that reality, that you truly are the people of God, belonging to Jesus, belonging to one another. “We are all members of one another,” Paul says.

What is interesting about this statement is how it implies that falsehood and lying have the ultimate effect of alienating ourselves from one another. It separates us from God (whom we’ve seen in Zechariah 8:3, hates lying). It introduces fractures into the community of believers. Right after the fall, when Adam and Eve took the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the first thing they did was to cover themselves up with fig-leaves and hide themselves from God. They took in the lies of the serpent and the result was alienation from God and from one another. When we try to rationalise our lying by saying that we are protecting our hearers from the truth, all we do is alienate ourselves even further from those we love. Lying only ever results in discord, distrust and disappointment.

Unity within a community of believers is built on truth, specifically, the truth of the gospel. It is honesty before God, that we are sinners before him deserving wrath and condemnation, yet receiving mercy and love through Jesus. It is honesty before one another, that we are members of one body and fellow-partakers in the promise of Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:6), therefore unable to boast of our unrighteousness but constantly dependant upon his. When we speak the truth of the gospel to one another, we are but beggars showing other beggars where to find bread.

Anger management

“In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and give the devil a foothold.
Ephesians 4:26-27

Next, Paul deals with anger. The interesting thing is, he doesn’t say, Don’t be angry. Rather, he says, Be angry but don’t sin. He says, Be angry but don’t be angry for too long.

I find this very helpful. When you’re dealing with a friend who is really angry, telling him or her to stop feeling angry rarely ever works. (If anything, it just ticks them off even more!) What works is helping your friend deal with their anger, helping them resolve their anger. At times, you might even be able to say, “You anger is justified.” This verse recognises that there is a place for anger in our lives as Christians. When faced with oppression, injustice and sin, we should be angry because God is angry when he sees things in our lives. Our anger is often tainted with self-interest, of course, but nonetheless, anger isn’t entirely an unhealthy emotion to have. Instead, anger can flow out of a person’s love and concern. The more you love someone the more you are hurt by that person’s sin, the more you are upset by that person’s sinfulness.

Paul says, “In your anger, do not sin.” Your anger might be justified, but your actions may not be. The key is to deal with it quickly. Don’t let the sun go down on your anger, meaning, don’t hold on to your anger. Whenever I see this verse, I think of that rather cheesy song by Elton John, which he performed with George Michael.

I took a chance and changed your way of life
but you misread my meaning when I met you
closed the door and left me blinded by the light
don't let the sun go down on me

As sentimental as the lyrics might be (especially the chorus which a couple of my good friends used to love belting out at karaoke, screaming “Don’t let the sun go down on me nowwww” at the top of their voices), these words do express insight on how we deal with our anger: by shutting people out of our lives. That’s not a healthy way to deal with our anger. Whenever our frustration is directed at a brother or sister in Christ, the bible is always moving us towards reconciliation, not isolation nor separation.

More seriously, Paul warns us that unresolved anger is precisely what the devil wants. “Do not give the devil a foothold.” What gets you worked up, again and again? Or what’s your pet peeve? For some, it isn’t the gravity of a situation that gets them all riled up, it’s the familiarity “I can’t believe that guy’s done it... again!” When talking about sin, some preachers come back to the same illustration again and again leaving you wondering, “Has this guy actually dealt with that issue? Why is he so hung up over something that happened years and years ago?” I have to watch myself, my words whenever I’m speaking from God’s word, not to use it as a springboard for my own agenda. It is helpful when I get feedback because I might be blind to my own unresolved issues (like when a brother were to say to me, “Hey, I wonder if you went a little overboard on that last point today?”) Why not give your close friends the permission to call you out in the same way? It is a healthy thing to do. If your friend is a real friend, it is a loving thing to do.

A little later on, Paul will say, “Get rid of all anger.” But here, his point is rather different. He is saying to us, “Don’t hold on to your anger.” Some of us need to hear that. We hold on to that frustration, to that indignation, feeding it day by day, letting it consume our insides, when we should instead surrender that anger to Jesus. Bring it to the cross. After all, that is where God dealt with his anger upon our sin, and his anger was fully justified. Why are you still holding on to yours?

The word “foothold” simply means “space”. When we give the devil a foothold through our unresolved anger, Paul is saying, we give the devil real-estate here in the church. It would be like a the Pentagon renting out office space to Al-Qaeda. The damage isn’t restricted just to that small cubicle, it destroys the integrity of the whole area, it compromises the safety of everyone connected to that area. In the same way, the devil uses the space you let him in through your unresolved anger, to break down the unity in the body in the Christ. It’s not just you he is after, it is all those you are connected to, all who care about you, all who love you, who are ultimately hurt through your anger. Deal with your anger, especially those old familiar ones. Bring it to Jesus. Leave it at the cross.


He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work (hard), doing something useful (or good) with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need.
Ephesians 4:28

If we were Paul, we would say, “He who has been stealing...must go to jail!” The reason Paul uses theft as his next example, isn’t simply because there were crooks in this church - there may have been, but that isn’t the main point. Paul’s main point is transformation. Notice that so far, Paul identifies a problematic behaviour within the church and he doesn’t simply say, “Stop that!” No, to the one who has been lying he says, “Tell the truth.” To the one who is holding on his or her anger, he says, “Deal with it today.” That is, for every negative instruction, there is positive encouragement - “Do this instead.” Paul’s focus is radical transformation from the inside-out and that comes only through the transforming work of the gospel.

So, he talks to the thief and says to him, “You used to steal. Now you must serve.” The gospel gives us a new direction in life. The thief who used to steal with his hands is now commanded to work with his hands. The one who previously took advantage of others to benefit himself must now labour sacrificially, using his own resources, to benefit others within the community - to serve “those in need”. It isn’t simply a call to be productive, it is a new purpose in life. The selfish individual now lives to serve and bless others.

It is one thing for the twenty-something jobless teenager who used to live off mum and dad, staying home to play World of Warcraft all day in his pyjamas, to get out into the world and find a job. I mean, we would call that progress. Many of us would call that an improvement. (Some parents would call that a miracle.) It is quite another to find that same person doing everything he can to serve his parents, spending his pay not on himself but generously taking them out to a fancy dinner and using his Bank Holiday weekends to fix the broken washing machine. This is the kind of transformation Paul is talking about. It comes from a radically changed life. The thief used to live his life headed in one direction to benefit himself, he is now lives to serve others at personal cost to himself.

The words that Paul uses is “work hard”. That means more than “Get a job”. He is saying to us, “Put your back into it.” I know that there are faithful Christians who are out of work, living at home because times are tough and jobs are scarce. Yet they are being useful and helping out at home, in church, in the neighbourhood. I want to say that all that counts. It’s not the job that defines the transformation, it’s the purpose for doing that job. After all, you could argue that stealing is a profession in itself - but one that takes advantage of others instead of benefiting others. No, the point is to be other-person-centred: working hard at your job, using the resources at your disposal, being sacrificial in terms of your time and energy, not with the ultimately aim of advancing your career and maximising your comfort, but with a desire to display God’s glory and to seek the good of his people. The bible word for this is “repentance”. Repentance means a total change in life direction to serve God instead of ourselves. Paul says the thief repents from stealing by serving. He repents from selfishness by being sacrificial.

Now don’t forget that Paul is talking about thieves. Criminals. And he is saying that even a criminal can be transformed by the gospel to extent that he is now serving his brothers and sisters in the church. Would you employ ex-convict? Would you let him serve in church ministry? Paul pushes the implications of the gospel even further with the next example where the ex-offender is not simply changed in his ways, he is building others up with his words.

Swearing and speaking grace

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful (or good) for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit (or give grace) those who listen.
Ephesians 4:29

Previously, we encountered this expression of “building others up” in verse 12. There it was used of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. Here it is used to describe the one who used to speak “unwholesome” words. Literally, the word means “smelly”. This guy has a foul mouth. It is describing bad language, swearing and cursing. Paul says it isn’t enough for us to stop ourselves from using bad language in the church, he says we must speak in such a way as to “build others up”.

I was talking to H this week about his attachment to a school here in Cambridge as part of his undergraduate course on Education. Something he said to me reminded me of what makes a good teacher. Sometimes you meet a teacher and you ask them, “What do you teach?” They might answer, “Biology,” or “Chemistry,” or “History.” The moment they say that, you know, that’s a bad teacher! You see, a good teacher teaches students. “I teach ten-year olds.” That’s a good teacher. “I teach X, Y and Z every week at Sunday School about Jesus.” That’s a faithful teacher. When I asked Howai the same question, he talked about the kids in his class. He talked about what they did every day and the challenges they faced. That’s the mark of a good teacher. He is always thinking about his students. A good teacher doesn’t consume himself with getting the syllabus done, getting those papers marked - as necessary and as important as these tasks are. No, a good teacher is always thinking of his students, where they are at, how he can help them, what they need to get out of his class in order to grow and to mature in their thinking.

Paul says the same thing to us. When we open our mouths, we ought to be thinking about the people who are listening to our words. We are building them up “according to their needs”. We are saying only what will “benefit those who listen”. It is other-people-centredness, that’s what it is. Again, the phrase “building one another up” was previously used by Paul to describe pastors and teachers of the bible. It means to speak the gospel, to tell others about Jesus. It makes all the difference that we evangelise with a concern for the people we are speaking to, with a sincere desire for their good. And the amazing thing is, Paul says even the guy who used to have a foul-mouth can do this. The problem is not manners and the solution is not lessons in cultural etiquette. This change comes only through gospel transformation. It results in a heart that longs to speak Jesus into the lives of others.

If you are a Sunday School teacher, this is tremendous encouragement. The gospel can transform the most difficult kid, the noisiest kid. Haribo and Veggietales can only do so much. What they need and what will help is the gospel. If you are a bible study leader, the same is true of your youth group and the young adults in your fellowship. Love them, serve them and tell them the gospel. And when things get tough, the bible says, remind them that their ultimate accountability is not to a standard of behaviour, but to God himself.

And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God with whom you have been sealed for the day of redemption.
Ephesians 4:30

This verse is a warning not to take our salvation for granted. God puts his Holy Spirit in us as a seal, Paul says, and that seal is a mark of authenticity and protection. If you are a Christian, God assures you of your salvation in Christ. If you are a Christian, God protects you until the day of Christ, “the day of redemption”. But don’t take your assurance and your salvation for granted, Paul says. Do not grieve the Holy Spirit, which on surface sounds like we are breaking God’s heart when we sin, or use bad language in this context. These words come from Isaiah Chapter 3, where we read of God “redeeming” his people, who then rebel against him by “grieving his Holy Spirit”.

In his love and mercy he redeemed them;
he lifted them up and carried them
all the days of old.

Yet they rebelled
and grieved his Holy Spirit.
So he turned and became their enemy
and he himself fought against them.
Isaiah 63:9-10

When we swear or use bad language, the common excuse is, “Everyone does it.” Or we say, “It doesn’t mean a thing.” The bible says our words actually do. Isaiah’s prophecy looks back to God’s salvation of Israel from slavery in Egypt, after which he says, “they rebelled.” Now the way the Israelites rebelled against God was not by mounting an army and attacking God head-on. All they did was complain. All they did was to turn their backs against God and say that life was better back in Egypt as slaves. All they did was blame God for the severe weather conditions and quality of food and drink. They took God for granted and his salvation for granted. “So he turned and became their enemy and he himself fought against them.” This is serious stuff.

If you are a Sunday School teacher, your job is not to babysit the kids and keep them out of the way of the adults as they worship God in the sanctuary. Your job is to tell them the truth about God in Jesus Christ. If you are a bible study leader, your job is not to organise barbeques, outings and ice-breaker games. Your job is to tell them the truth about God in Jesus Christ. Because in the end, you are accountable to him for your life and they are accountable to him for theirs - in terms of our behaviour, our actions, our thoughts and even our words. You are telling them that our lives have eternal value in God’s eyes. And of course, some will roll their eyes at you when you say this. Some will behave even worse because you said this to them. But know that God is always sovereign and gracious; some will listen and some will change. When they do, you will know for sure that God was responsible for that change.

You are loved

Get rid (or Take off) of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.
Ephesians 4:31-32

Today we mark our fifteenth anniversary as the Chinese Church here in Cambridge. At a celebration like this, we want to look back on the years and be nostalgic. We want to remind each other about the good old times, to recall the milestones, to have someone regale us with amusing anecdotes from the past. It is good to learn thankfulness and glorify God for his goodness. The bible reminds us that this is a safeguard against bitterness and hardness of heart. And yet, here is our passage today, written by the apostle Paul, addressing a Christians in love and saying to them, “Get rid of bitterness, rage, anger, brawling, slander, malice,” by which his emphasis is not on how good this church is and how far they have come, but on how gracious God has been to them in Jesus Christ. “In Christ God forgave you.”

The true mark of growth in any relationship - in a friendship, in a marriage, in a church - is the ability to look back on the years and not just skim over the difficult bits, and not to dwell over them in worry and guilt either, but to be thankful and joyful even in the difficult times. If we could do that today as a church, that would display real growth. If we learn to do this every day as a church, that would display true maturity.

Paul says to us, “Forgive one another” - present tense. This is an ongoing reality. Every day that passes until Jesus returns, you and I will continue to forgive one another, to be compassionate towards one another, to be kind towards one another - every single day, because every day that we do this, God is reminding us, “I have forgiven you.” That is the beauty of the Christian life. Fifteen years pass by, that’s fifteen years worth of forgiveness and love and kindness and reconciliation. If God were to bless us with another year, what should be expect? More people coming to our church, more events in the calendar? Those might happen, but those are not the expectation we find in the bible. No, what we can expect from God is more grace, more forgiveness, more kindness, more love and more compassion in Jesus, through whom God says to us every day, “I have forgiven you.”

Friends, this is what the bible means by love. It’s not touchy-feely, airy-fairy love. It is heart-wrenching, sin-repenting, pride-humbling, anger-resolving, self-sacrificing, truth-speaking, Jesus-trusting love. The question is: Do you love like this? Or better yet: Have you been loved like this? Paul wants us to be able to say, “Yes! God loves me, Jesus loves me, without any doubt whatsoever.”

Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
Ephesians 5:1-2

You cannot love like Jesus until you are loved in Jesus. The question at the end of the day is not: How have you loved one another? The real question is: Do you even know this kind of all-encompassing love? Do you know what it means to be loved? They are two different issues altogether: showing love and being loved. What is worrying is how easily we get the two mixed up. One of the most tragic things in life is to try and earn another person’s love, to pour your life into being lovable, yet to never actually know what it means to be loved.

I remember a student I once knew who was the most gifted and promising amongst all his classmates. He did well in every subject. All the teachers praised him for being well-behaved and hard-working. One day he just dropped out of school. He just disappeared.

So when he called me one day to arrange to meet up, I jumped at the chance to find out what had happened. We had coffee in town and I asked him how he was but he evaded all my questions. He said he had something important to show me, a “golden opportunity”. Finally we went to this swish office building, up to the top floor, where he tried to get me to sign up for a pyramid scheme.

I often think back to that incident and wonder what happened to this young, promising student and wonder if all this boy ever heard in his life was how good and smart and brilliant he was and if that perhaps was our fault as his teachers and friends. Don’t get me wrong, he was never proud or boastful, at least not in his outward behaviour. He was gentle and quietly confident. As teachers, we kept praising him for his loveliness but in hindsight what he really needed to know was that was loved. I knew that at home, he was expected to be the responsible one, to earn money, to make his family proud. All he knew was the approval of having done well, of being good. Eventually it just got to a point where he felt school was holding him back from being all that he could be - a successful entrepreneur, a respected businessman. So he left, seeking to find his approval elsewhere.

The bible assures that in Jesus, we are loved as sons and daughters, not because of our loveliness. If anything, it is in spite of our brokenness and sin. “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.” It is describing the cross as the source of assurance of God’s love, and friends, the cross is about as unlovely a scene as it gets. Jesus’ tortured body, covered in blood and sweat, hanging from a wooden frame, surrounded by a mob screaming insults and abuse at him. Yet Paul says this was a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice to God. Paul says we look at the cross and we see there God saying to us, “You are loved.” Jesus takes all our anger, all our pride, all our sin, all our slander, all our bitterness, all our shame on himself. And he covers us with all his righteousness, all his holiness, all his loveliness, all his humility, all his acceptance. All of his love.

Paul wants Jesus’ love to be obvious to us. Look to the cross, he says to us. But he also wants Jesus’ love to be obvious in us: in our walk and in our lives. And that’s the real purpose for the list of do’s and don’t we have in today’s passage. Through our conduct, our actions; through our kindness and forgiveness to one another, the world will look upon us and see - not how good these Christians are, not how lovely the church can be - but how loved these men and women truly are in Jesus Christ.

“By this all men will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Jesus Christ
John 13:35

Jesus loves me! This I know,
For the Bible tells me so.
Little ones to Him belong;
They are weak, but He is strong.

Yes, Jesus loves me!
Yes, Jesus loves me!
Yes, Jesus loves me!
The Bible tells me so.