Category Archives: Romans

Lord of all

Conversion of St Augustine. Fra Angelico (circa 1395–1455) and workshop [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Conversion of St Augustine. Fra Angelico (circa 1395–1455) and workshop [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It has been said that there are three conversions in a Christian man or woman’s life. First to Christ, then to the church and then back to the world. Or, put another way, there are three ways in which an alleged conversion may be incomplete and imperfect. I propose in the next two or three issues to have a look at those three facets of the conversion process as stated above.

First, a conversion is incomplete if it does not leave Jesus in the central place in our life. In fact, without him it cannot happen. I have told the story; I repeat it without apology. It takes me back to Salvation Army days when I was young and had never witnessed an altar call. I have told in an earlier edition how I missed out on a visit to the penitent form. It was not uncommon in those days for the sermon in worship to conclude with an appeal to those who were not saved to claim the gift of salvation here and now. As I recall, the first testimony given by a convert went something like this: The worse of drink one Saturday night I followed the band to its meeting place [the SA Citadel] and I heard the story of Jesus from the Major. At his invitation, I staggered to the altar and knelt there and surrendered my life to the Lord Jesus Christ, my Saviour. I have never looked back; Amen!’ The testimony of a man for whom it happened the way St Paul told the people in Rome. He said: If you confess with the mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your hearts, you shall be saved. (Romans 10:9) How we describe who Jesus is may differ from person to person, circumstances may differ, but down through the centuries women and men have told the same story. Even so, the Christian church is far from monochrome in the way it does things, the way it says things, what it believes on certain issues and its expectations of its members.

When the Second World War ended and the need for reconciliation and the restoration of broken relationships was both urgent and necessary, the first post-war Conference of World Christians was planned to convene as soon as possible. The big question, in view of the great diversity, ecclesiastically and nationally – how could this large and diverse community come together and hold together? No easy matter, in the circumstances. Jesus Christ is Lord was the banner that united all who gathered in Oslo on that historic occasion. Surprisingly, Jesus was not called Lord very often in the Gospels. But of all the titles of Jesus, the word Lord became the more commonly used. By the time of Paul, in one form or another, the Apostle refers to Jesus as Lord some two hundred times and it was Jesus the risen Lord who saved and redeemed, that convinced them he is Lord. A bishop in some branches of the church is addressed as My Lord, although no one pretends that he or she ranks alongside Jesus in status or authority. Nevertheless, it is a pity that any servant of the Church is accorded the same title given to the One whose unique authority alone merits it. Do not let us confuse the one with the other, or even compare or imagine any likeness. Jesus is Lord, the one person with the sole right to claim our full obedience.

There is no better illustration than to think of our elder forebears in the faith subjected to the authority of the Roman Empire. At the very beginning of the Jesus movement, Rome was a force to be reckoned with throughout the then known world: there were few places where the Roman Ensign was not raised. But the Roman Empire was a vast heterogeneous mass, difficult to unite and hold together. Rome looked for some unifying bond and thought it had hit on the ideal solution. Caesar worship would do the trick. Once a year anyone living under the flag of the Roman Empire was required to burn a mere pinch of incense to the godhead of the Emperor and to say Caesar is Lord. Do it, then go home and worship whichever god or gods took your fancy. A simple and innocuous ritual, but it was too much to ask of Christians. They dug in their heels: there was to be no surrender and no compromise. Jesus alone was entitled to their obedience and none other than Jesus was Lord.

Richard Holloway, a former Bishop of Edinburgh, put it like this: They heard from Him a divinely compelling demand. What Jesus stood for had an enormous intrinsic power. It compelled people, converted them, it turned them around. This is the touchstone of our Christianity, the first step in our Christian conversion – to be confronted by the wonder of Jesus that He can do for us what we can never hope to achieve by ourselves.

Friends

Friendship Image by Tiago Ribiero via Wikimedia

Friendship
Image by Tiago Ribiero via Wikimedia

It has been “that kind of day” – sometimes a happy time when things have gone well and there have been some surprises. We feel good, reminisce with a song, What a day it has been, What a rare mood I’m in, And I think I am falling in love! Although I suspect my blog reading friends may have fallen long ago! But you get the idea. More often than not, I imagine, it could be a different story. We’ve had a bad day, a miserable week. In spite of everything the preacher promises (or the blogger!) or how earnestly we try to hold on to our faith, “trust in the Lord and don’t despair” and all that, we cannot see the bright side. What a day – we all have them and I am no exception: pessimistic thoughts, irritating doubts, faith under threat and all too often behaving like there is no bright side. Forgive, if I appear to boast! It is not meant to be. It is testimony to what is known as Saving Grace that I continue to be who I am and what I am.

It would be dishonest to pretend I enjoyed every minute of my forty-one years of active ministry. I remember all too well a time around the “middle years’ crisis” when I had actually composed in my mind my resignation from the ministry. I was so fed-up for a spell with what I was doing, perhaps more accurate to say, with what I was not able to do. Praises be! My crisis moments chose not to last too long. When I turned my gaze away from inner self and focused on those loving people committed to my pastoral care, their faithfulness to church and Lord and their love for one another, allowing me to share their hopes and fears and showing me love and friendship, I could not walk away. Testing times, frustrating times, unhappy moments, but I have never regretted being “called and sent.” “My people” as much as anything else have kept me on “the straight and narrow.”

A saying to remember (quote on fridge magnet): A friend will joyfully sing with you at the mountain-top and silently walk beside you through the valley.

The evening before our departure from one of the four churches I was privileged to serve in the USA, albeit for six weeks only in each venue, we were presented with a small framed piece of cross-stitch which I have kept and cherished. On it, the stitched saying reads, Don’t forget – let this remind you – you left a lot of friends behind you. We did, not only in Kansas but in Michigan, Alabama and Nebraska, and the truth of it was to be confirmed in subsequent holiday visits to the friends we left behind. We were welcomed and treated like we were one of them, one of the family. Although separated by thousands of miles and unlikely to meet again, the friendships survive. The same might be said, even more emphatically, of my experience here at home. For over 40 years, moving from one appointment to another, we made countless friends and although many have gone to “a better place”, there are many homes into which we could go and know we will be received with love and affection, with whom we might spend a happy hour of intimate and warm fellowship. As Christian disciples we belong to a Church committed from early days to a ministry of hospitality. Friendship should be second-nature to us.

There is one Friend who complies more than any other, who matches completely the criteria of friendship. We used to sing Jesus friend of little children be a friend to me; Take my hand and ever keep me, close to Thee. Saint Paul assures us in his letter to the Church in Rome, “There is nothing in the whole of life that will separate us from the love of Christ.” What a friend we have in Jesus, Jesus the best friend, Jesus the friend of all. Jesus who said, “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (John 13; 34) And there is John Wesley’s oft quoted mantra, “I am the friend of all and the enemy of none.”

Friendships make lives brighter. . . . .

You cannot put the clock back

Image credit: Soil-Net Library via Wikimedia

Image credit: Soil-Net Library via Wikimedia

On the week before my fourteenth birthday I went to spend the school summer holidays on the farm of friends, where I was to work for the next two and a half years. On a Sunday afternoon stroll with my father I told him I did not want to go to secondary school and intended to remain on the farm. My father’s reaction took me by surprise – it was not what I anticipated and dreaded. He wasn’t angry and he didn’t try to dissuade me. Instead he told me that, if that was what I wanted, all right, but I must not complain, or blame anyone but myself if there came a time when I regretted it. I was reminded of this recently when I walked over the actual spot where I confronted my father with my life-changing decision. I have never forgotten.

The Revd Dr Howard Watkin-Jones, presiding at my final interview as a candidate for ordained ministry, asked me if and how I thought my farming experience might be useful to me and to the church in ministry. In my reply I suggested I might have a useful ministry in a rural set-up (I did) and possibly someday retire in the country (I didn’t). Dr Howard Watkin-Jones (later to teach me in Church History) assured me that if God had a plan for me in ministry, my time in the country could be part of the shaping of my future ministry; he was right!

I have never complained but on occasions I do regret not having continued at school. Looking back, I can see those things which might have been different – things I would want to change if I were to live my life again. Wishful thinking and a pointless exercise. I can’t put the clock back! When I find myself singing the words of the song I wish I were a little bit younger and know what I know now I’m asking the impossible. To be younger, I would forfeit all the lessons that life has taught me. In spite of failure, mistakes, disappointments, when I count my blessings I cannot dismiss the providence of God. Perhaps there was no other way for me to take but to travel the road I’ve followed and to come to the place where I am now.

In everything God works for good with those who love Him. Romans 8:28

Contrary to what may be said of it – not an easy text.

Not all will be happy

I was the visiting preacher conducting worship in a church where I was not much known. At the end of the service, as the congregation left for home, I was surprised to hear so many of them say, “I did enjoy the hymns.” No mention of the sermon!

In the vestibule of the church a small group of worshippers were busily engaged in conversation. I joined them – they were discussing the service. One of the ladies turned to me and said, “We get so many hymns we don’t know and don’t greatly like, it’s good to have someone who gives us a good old-fashioned sing.” I was quite chuffed; whether or not I should regard those comments as a compliment, I’m not sure – probably not! Maybe I’m an old fuddy-duddy standing in the way of progress by, in the current context, sticking with those old-fashioned hymns, to the neglect of new songs and choruses. “Ah!” I exclaimed to the group, “it would be different if I was here every week; you would probably get some really difficult and unfamiliar ones!” As a visiting preacher, not knowing the congregation’s tastes, I would play safe and choose hymns (songs too!) that are certain to be known, even at the expense of some I considered more suitable. “You just go on playing safe”, one lady said, “especially when you come here. Come again soon.”

English: Charles Wesley

English: Charles Wesley (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hymns are dicey anyway. From the pulpit you can see those who don’t like the “modern stuff”. They stand tight-lipped and silent. On the other hand, I’ve seen enthusiasm unbounded accompanying modern religious songs, swaying, clapping hands stretching to the ceiling, but when asked to sing a good Charles Wesley, or an Isaac Watts hymn it’s their turn to stand silent, hymn book superfluous. Hymns or whatever – the most we can hope for is to please some of the people, some of the time. If anyone could have succeeded in pleasing everybody, surely it was Jesus. But not even He achieved such fame. He displeased the religious Pharisees and Sadducees so much that they formed an unusual coalition to get rid of him. The man or woman able to please everybody hasn’t been born yet. It is unlikely there ever will be such a superhuman; questionable if it is even desirable. What kind of world would it be if everyone shared the same likes and dislikes? The variety and the character would vanish from life.

In almost every church (and community) I’ve known, at some time or other there has been a difference of opinion in the fellowship. Sadly, the cause may be trivial but, on the other hand, serious enough to threaten the harmony and joy of discipleship with folk taking sides, people getting hurt, taking offence and becoming disillusioned. You cannot please or even agree with everyone; no one should expect it; life would lose some of its interest and colour. A favourite hymn of mine has the line, Didst thou not make us one, that we might one remain.

We cannot please everybody all of the time but we should always try to please God. When the Apostle Paul was writing to the church at Rome about the ethical requirements of Christian faith that ought to be the hall-mark of the Christian life, he was anxious that the Christian should be distinctive. “Being a Christian”, he said, “means being able to discern what God wills for us that our life may be lived to please Him”. (Romans 12:2). Well, what should our mantra be? An Old Testament one comes to mind, from the Book of the prophet Micah (6:8):

He has shown you what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

Welcome Eastertide

Judy Garland – remember her?  If you are a certain age, you will!  And – the song?  “Put on your Easter bonnet, with all the ribbons on it …. and join the Easter Parade.”   Easter is special in the song; the occasion for a grand parade.  Join the crowd, follow the band, dress up with your Easter Bonnet and all the ribbons on it.  But that was a film made in Hollywood!  When do you see women in hats with ribbons these days?  Or, for that matter, without ribbons?  At a wedding – maybe – but at Easter!  Well, hat or no hat, Easter is a happy festival occasion, a time for celebration in Church.  A time for ”euphonium, trombone and big bass drum”.  Although I didn’t always appreciate it when I was rudely aroused from my slumbers at 7 a.m. on Easter Sunday morning; woken by the Findochty Salvation Army band parading past my bedroom window, flag a-flying, big drum beating, heralding the event, proclaiming the good news,” Christ the Lord is Risen today, Alleluia!”

The Way of the Cross at SunsetSource: Wikimedia Commons

The Way of the Cross at Sunset
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Fred Pratt Green, the Methodist 20th Century hymn-writer gives his hymn, ‘This joyful Eastertide’  the refrain: Come, share our Easter joy, That death could not imprison,  Nor any power destroy, Our Lord who is arisen.’  But it wasn’t much like that at the dawn of the first Easter morning.  When news of the Resurrection broke, we can only imagine the anger and consternation it must have caused those who engineered the events of Good Friday. Even the close friends of Jesus were disturbed and perturbed by it.  Their response to the news that Christ was risen was slow, almost reluctant.  The women who visited the tomb were distressed, terrified, completely at a loss.  Mary was in tears.  There were many bizarre ways to explain the disappearance of a dead body – resurrection the least likely.  Thomas, the disciple, was not with his friends when the Risen Jesus was with them.  When given the news, it was all too fantastic for words – to be taken with a pinch of salt.  Later still, the Apostle Paul doing a stint of open-air preaching on Mars Hill in Athens must have been disappointed if he expected a rapturous reception.  The crowd listened respectfully at first – until he mentioned the resurrection, then a section of his hearers began to mock him.  Paul also found it difficult to convince the Church of the mystery and glory of the resurrection.  But, preach it he must; he is convinced that, “ If Christ has not been raised from death, then we have nothing to preach and you have nothing to believe.”  (strong stuff! 1 Corinthians, 15.14)

Good News BiblePaul, anxious to communicate and share the joy and assurance of Easter, acknowledging the need of some further explanation, writes in his correspondence with the church at Colossae – if you think of your baptism you will begin to understand the significance of resurrection and penetrate its mystery. ( Colossians 2.12; cf also Romans 6.4.)  In Paul’s day baptism would probably be mostly by total immersion in water The candidate would step into the water, probably a river and an Apostle (or some other) would plunge the convert completely under the water. In fact ‘to baptise’ is the translation of a Greek word meaning ‘to plunge.’  Paul’s linking of baptism with resurrection is simply that, apart from it being the rite of admission to the church, baptism was symbolically like dying and rising again. To be plunged under water was like being buried In the grave; when you rose out of the water – like rising from the grave.

What Paul is saying directs us to the very heart of the Easter message; when we are baptised we die with Christ and we are raised to new life with Him!  We are not meant to take it literally – we cannot go back in time or go through the awful pain and agony of crucifixion or put ourselves in the shoes of Jesus’ friends standing at the entrance to an empty tomb that first Easter morning. One more thing that ties the two together – baptism and resurrection:  in the first days of Christendom baptism was usually associated with a personal confession of faith.  Interesting as it may be to speculate, to debate, to posses a shelf full of theological tomes, the Easter message is to be believed rather than talked about.   Easter faith is not the preserve of one day in the year only, it is the faith in which Christians daily live. We are the Easter people.  Let us rejoice as Fred Pratt Green’s hymn  invites . . . . . . . . .  share our Easter joy!

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Welcome Eastertide
Source: Wikimedia Commons