Luther

This Tuesday 31st October will mark the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. On that day Martin Luther issued 95 theological propositions (theses), which challenged the papacy’s power to issue indulgences which a person could purchase in advance, that would give them the forgiveness of sins before they had committed them. The legend is that Luther nailed the 95 theses on door of the Wittenberg Cathedral. What is more likely is that Luther wrote to his bishop, Albrecht von Brandenburg, protesting at the sale of the indulgences. He enclosed in his letter a copy of his “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences”, which came to be known as the Ninety-five Theses. Although written in Latin, by January 1518 Luther’s friends had translated them into German – and then printed them on what was the new communication device of the age: the printing press. Within two weeks, all Germany had copies, within two months, all Europe. Luther advanced the view that a person is forgiven their sins and justified by God, on the merits of the death of Christ, and by faith in Christ, not in our religious works or religious sentiment or piety. The shift away from the authority of the Catholic church, its councils, and the received tradition, back onto the teaching of the Bible, broke its right to determine religious matters. Luther’s emphasis on ‘faith alone’, ‘Christ alone’, and the ‘Bible alone’ then fueled European nationalism and independence from Rome, the establishment of new denominations (including the Anglican church in England), and fed into the eventual flowering of democracy.

Candles in the Darkness

Christians have always held out the candle of hope in the darkest places. Prisons are no exception. They have campaigned for prison reform, like the Quaker Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845), who pioneered the campaign for better conditions in prisons during the Victorian Period in Britain.

Christians today, through the ministry of Prison Fellowship, provide inmates with training and transitional support as they move from custody back into the community. Their volunteers regularly spend time in each of Victoria’s prisons, listening to inmates, building relationships and responding to needs as appropriate. This is a pastoral care style ministry where volunteers are able to spend time with those whom our society often forgets.

Prison Fellowship also offers ‘SLAM’ (Sport Lights A Message), where sport is used to build relationships with those in prison and to share the hope presented in the message of Jesus Christ. Volunteers also write to inmates, supplying a vital life-line to men and women who may otherwise have little or no contact with people ‘on the outside’. Prison Fellowship also has a ministry to families and young people who have a loved one in prison. They provide camps, school holiday programs and Christmas & birthday presents to families free of charge. They also run a mentoring program and post release mentoring and community support.

In Victoria there were 6,522 prisoners on 30th June , 2016, which represents 138.1 per 100,000 of adult population. This was less than the Australian average of 208 prisoners per 100,000 of the population.

In recent years, the prison population has grown by as much as 8% per annum. At St Edward’s, we have annually participated in the Christmas ‘Angel Tree’ which is run by Prison Fellowship.

Faith in Challenging Times

We live in anxious times: the possibility of war to the north, a fragile economy and
the worry of rising interest rates; the breakdown of moral values, rising numbers
of refugees in need of a home, family disintegration and domestic violence and an
epidemic of hard drug use. And the church in Australia, like most Western countries, is in
decline. There is one certainty in life: we always live in uncertain and challenging
times.
In this, we differ little from the period when St Edward the Confessor King ruled
from 1042 to 1066 during what would be the last days of the Anglo-Saxon world. (Harold
Godwinson succeeded him and was briefly the last Anglo-Saxon king of England, being
defeated at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 by the Norman, William 1).  St Edward is
remembered for his piety and his re-endowmentof the Benedictine monastery
and building their first abbey church on the banks of the Thames River, Westminster,
London. It was rebuilt in its current Gothic style by King Henry III and reconsecrated
1269.
For Paul who wrote the letter to the Philippians, it was an even more uncertain
period politically and socially, under house arrest, awaiting trial in Rome. The Philippian
church he writes to faces its own issues of Jewish Christians flaunting their superiority
and questioning the validity of the Greco-Roman Christians’ experience (3:1-11). A
horrible division had occurred in the church due to two of the leading women falling out
over some issue (4:2-3). And many were swollen with pride, grumbling about the
rosters or some such issue in the fellowship (ch 2).
Paul’s response to his situation is not to lose his head. Rather, it is to stand firm in the Lord (4:1); to rejoice in the Lord always (4:4). Don’t be anxious about anything (4:6). Pray. Present your requests to God (6:6). Paul is not ‘dreaming’, but a realist. He knows the dark side of human nature (2:15; 3:19). But he knows the Lord even better. The Lord is near, bringing peace (4:9), and sustaining him during this difficult period.

Status Anxiety

Each time I see the peacock proudly displaying his tail to attract the attention of a peahen, I smile in recognition how we humans are often little better. The queue of young men and women standing outside a night club, the train of punters going to the Flemington racetrack for the Spring Racing Carnival or the person with the flash sports car driving down Lygon St, Carlton, are the expression by some to project their status in order to feel important (and probably noticed). Unsurprisingly, it occurs in all social gatherings, including the church. Jesus touched on this issue when he warned his disciples not to be overawed by the Pharisees and teachers of the law who projected their status to impress others and claimed the best seats in the synagogues (Mk 12:38-40; Lk 11:43). James bluntly warns his readers not to get sucked in by the crowd in fine clothes as it leads to discrimination (Jas 2:1-7). Some have expressed their status in the church by claiming to have a superior heritage, especially a religious one. Their superiority is supposed to give them more authority over everyone else. This occurred in the Philippian church where Jewish believers flaunted their status (Phil 3:1-14). What’s worse, they insisted that Greek Christians had to be circumcised to be a ‘true Christian’. Paul calls them ‘dogs and mutilators of the flesh’ (3:2). Paul responds to their claims by recounting his status, Jewish heritage and superior training – and declares them all ‘garbage’ (3:8). The loss of these as a believer in Christ – is now his gain. Knowing Christ, and the righteousness of Christ by faith, has given him a true status and riches which his Jewish heritage never gave him.

To be Christians we must live like Christians

For Paul, those who wish to identify as Christians, are expected to live like Christians. Sadly, as obvious as this might seem, many who claim to be Christians fail to demonstrate in their behaviour that they are any different from the rest of humanity. Paul expects their behaviour, attitudes and a lifestyle of purity will mark them out as followers of Christ (Phil 2:14-16). The model which they are to copy is the example of Christ himself (Phil 2:5-11). His example surpasses all others because he was God, and who in becoming human, submitted himself to God’s will and became a slave, even becoming obedient to death. This ‘descent’ of Christ to absolute humility, is what is to characterise the Christian’s attitudes to others, especially in the church (2:3-4).

In place of selfish ambition, pride, envy and a strong, independent will expresses itself in the claim they are right, Paul wants them to be united in love, with tenderness. Pushy ambition has no place in the church either (Phil 2:2-3). Evidence of God’s will and blessing on someone’s idea or view will be seen in the fruit it produces. Does it promote a common mind, a sense we are all sharing in the same plan? If it does, this is an indication that the Spirit of God is at work (2:1).

Our lifestyle, the way we speak to each other and treat each other, must be like that of Christ. Paul highlights that they, as Christians, live in the midst of a ‘crooked and morally twisted generation’ (2:15). Against this dark background, the Christian shines like the stars on a dark night (2:15). If we claim to be one of Christ’s, we must act like we really are one of his followers.

What is the Gospel?

Being in jail is not the place to be, if you are wanting to promote your cause. But for Paul, it is. His optimistic view of his situation is not due to the ‘power of positive thinking’. He tells us that being in chains has got people talking and asking, “Why are you here?” (Philippians 1:12-14). It gives Paul the opportunity to tell others that he is in jail because he has appealed to Caesar as the highest court in the empire. What is at stake for Paul? The resurrection of Christ. The Jews in Jerusalem however, claimed that the dead are not raised and therefore Jesus the Messiah has not been raised. Paul’s claim caused a riot, then his arrest which was followed by several other trials, before his appeal and then transportation to Rome (Acts 21:27 – 26:32). At stake for Paul are two issues. The first is that he and this new religious movement he has joined, are law abiding citizens; not law breakers. He persistently shows his obedience to the authorities as a Roman citizen. The second, and most important, is that the truth of the gospel rests on the resurrection.
But what then is the gospel? It is the good news that Jesus the Messiah and Son of God has died for our sins and he been raised from the dead. As proof that his death was sufficient to deal with our sins once, for all time, is the resurrection. It also points to the Lordship of Christ, that he has the authority to raise all people to life and then judge them (Acts 17:29-31). Everyone who dies will face judgement and be condemned if they have not sought the solution provided by the death of Christ. This upset the religious people of Paul’s day because they trusted in their religion, not Christ. And so it is the case today.

How do we live together when we disagree?

Christians have never found it easy to get along. It is not just personality differences which are the cause, it is how we see things and what we consider important. Consider the different views Christians have had over music and even whether organs can be used in a church. Canadian Christians live happily under a constitutional monarchy (like Australians do also), while Christians across the border in the United States believe a republic is better.
Paul knew the Roman church was divided over the issue of whether a Christian had to keep a Sabbath (like their brothers with Jewish heritage), or whether it was optional (Romans 14:1-6). How do we live together when we disagree? Paul distinguishes between what might be called ‘foundational’ truths and ‘secondary’ issues. A foundational truth is one on which our faith rests. Change it, and you change the very nature of Christianity. The rejection of the resurrection would be a foundational truth. When Christians differ over ‘secondary’ issues, like wearing hats in church, or women wearing trousers, Paul’s concern is that the one who is ‘more permissive’ and accepting of things, does not treat with contempt the person who is convinced their narrow view is true. Conversely, the person who is convinced their position is right and it is a black and white issue, is not to judge the person who is more liberal in such matters (Rom 14:3). The person with the liberal view will be answerable to Christ. Then Paul reminds us that we will all appear before Christ and be answerable to him (14:12). We need to remember that Christ also died for those we argue with and respect them (14:15).

First, Read the Instructions

Have you had the problem assembling the Ikea furniture or using paint at home? Our response is then to read the instructions. For Christians, when confronted with something they have not considered before, their response is to consult the ‘instruction book’, the Bible, to find out what it really says. Our reading from Romans 13:1-7 is one of these passages. When the ruler of the day begins to impact their life, Christians turn to it to see what it really says about our relationship to the state and its laws. Few passages in the NT have been studied and analysed over the years than this one. The history of interpretation has largely been the history of attempts to avoid what the passage at first sight plainly seems to say. Paul appears to be demanding that every person always obey whatever any government authority tells them what to do, for God has appointed every authority that exists. But Christians in every generation have questioned whether we should obey rulers who are corrupt, advocating policies they disagree with or persecuting the church. We remember the German people’s unquestioning obedience to the Nazi government and the consequences which followed, so we are reluctant to obey the government without questioning its policies and practices. Yet it is God’s goodness in creation which makes civil order possible, but it is the corruption of sin which makes civil order necessary. Paul does not say that a government must be ‘Christian’ or democratic to fulfil their duty. But it must reflect the divine order of honouring good and punishing evil. When it fails, personal resistance as seen in Revelation, may be then be necessary.

Love in Action

“All you need is love” sung the Beatles. But that rarely worked for my generation with high divorce rates. Jesus himself put love for God and love for others at the heart of his teaching. However, it is rare in the NT to find the various authors calling on the Christian to love God. They prefer to speak of faith and obedience instead. But they follow Jesus almost identically by making love for other people the focus of their application of what it is to be a Christian. Love is, after all, what should be the defining mark of those who are his disciples (John 13:35). But what it means to love can easily remain a vague idea.

Paul prefers to give instructions about what behaviours demonstrate love in action. (The Greek word used in the NT is agape, a sacrificial love.) So in our reading of Romans 12:9-21 we see a series of practical exhortations which express love practically. It is not surprising that this passage is sometimes read at weddings (or the other one which Paul wrote – 1 Corinthians 13). But when Paul writes about love, it is about how we as the church, express our love for each other and love the neighbour who is outside the church. Paul is seeking to establish a new, alternative, community to the human family and the Roman Empire. He wants the church to show God’s love in our actions as this will promote the message of the gospel.

“Who do you say I am?”

‘Who do people think I am?’, Jesus asked his disciples. It is a searching question and our answer often reflects our expectations. His disciples reported the gossip surrounding Jesus. But he pushed them further: ‘Who do you say I am?’ (Matt 16:15) Peter characteristically voices the insight which the other disciples no doubt shared. ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ Peter recognises that Jesus is the anointed representative and king of God; but also that he is the Son of God – a title pointing to his divine nature. In both Jewish and Roman thought, the ‘son of God’ embodied the reality of God in all his fullness in himself.
No sooner than they grasp this insight, Jesus tells them to tell no one that he is the Messiah. (Matt 16:20) Why? The answer is found in the verse which follows: ‘From that time on Jesus began to explain that he must go to Jerusalem, suffer many things, be killed and raised from the dead on the third day.’ (16:21) Jesus will define on his terms what his messiahship is like and it will not be one which fulfills popular expectations. Peter objects; it is incomprehensible to him. (16:22). Yet the example of Jesus the Messiah, of suffering, humiliation and death before vindication and exaltation – will be their pattern as they follow Jesus. They must pick up their cross and follow too. This surprises modern expectations concerning Jesus.