The Old Life and the New

February 4, 2017

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Preached by Canon Mark Collinson using (Amos 2.4-16) and Ephesians 4.17-32 at Mattins on Sunday 5th February 2017 the Fourth Sunday before Lent

17 Now this I affirm and insist on in the Lord: you must no longer live as the Gentiles live, in the futility of their minds. 18 They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of their ignorance and hardness of heart. 19 They have lost all sensitivity and have abandoned themselves to licentiousness, greedy to practise every kind of impurity. 20 That is not the way you learned Christ! 21 For surely you have heard about him and were taught in him, as truth is in Jesus. 22 You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, 23 and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, 24 and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.

25 So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbours, for we are members of one another. 26 Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and do not make room for the devil. 28 Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labour and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. 29 Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up,[a] as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. 31 Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, 32 and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.[b]

When I was leading a church in Amsterdam, I was surprised learn that part of the ministry involved visiting church members who were locked up in prisons. This wasn’t a ‘prison-visiting’ ministry; I’m talking about key members of the church, regular attenders, who served on rotas and ended up, for one reason or another, going through the courts and being found guilty. One such member, I’ll call him Peter, ended up in jail in the UK for drug smuggling. So on one visit to the UK I arranged to visit him and find out how he was getting on. I had the chance to ask him what he was doing and how he got caught.

I was shocked to hear that other members of the church, befriended him, and asked him to take a package to their friends in London, when he next went across on the ferry. Peter was a simple and trusting guy who had washed up on the shores of the port of Amsterdam, and I honestly believe he did not suspect he was carrying drugs when he took this package. Anyway, he was busted, and he served time.

‘What sort of church was I running in Amsterdam?’ I rightly hear you ask. A den of vice and iniquity, a drug smuggling centre that preys on innocent trusting victims?

Well, perhaps drug smugglers and liars are the kind of people who we should expect to find in a church. No-one is beyond redemption. No-one is so bad that they cannot be transformed into the likeness of Jesus.

In his letter to the Ephesians, the apostle Paul gives us a list of vices that we turn away from, and a list of virtues that we adopt when we become Christians. Clearly the Gentiles who came to faith in Christ in Ephesus were coming from a world that was a bit like the people I found in my church in Amsterdam. They were ignorant of God. They had lost all sensitivity and abandoned themselves to licentiousness, greed, and practiced every kind of impurity. Their old self was corrupt and deluded by lusts. (Eph 4:18-22).

That’s why Paul is addressing people who used to be thieves, but had become Christians. Stealing from people to meet your needs was just a way of life, for them – a way of life they found hard to stop. They hadn’t yet been challenged to put their old way of life behind them and be renewed in the spirit of their minds.

So, just to make it clear, Paul says, ‘Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labour and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy’ (Eph 4:28).

So, let me put it to you straight, if you’re stealing, stop it!

I hope that is clear. It will be clear I think to the HBOS bankers who were convicted last week of defrauding victims out of millions of pounds and are now sitting in a prison cell.

But what intrigues me more than getting away from our vices is developing our virtues, and particularly how we connect our work with our faith. Apart from visiting church members in prison, I used to visit church members at their place of work so we could talk about what difference it makes being a Christian in their workplace.

A new report that will be discussed in General Synod in a week’s time, called Setting God’s People Free talks about how important it is for church members to understand how they are fulfilling the mission of God by doing the daily grind of work. The report tells the story of Curt, who works as a policeman. In a group with other Christians he is asked how his work relates to his faith in Christ. All the group shuffle nervously unwilling to say anything, not least in case they say something wrong. So the group leader asks them to write down on a post-it note, what they are good at when they are at work.

‘OK,’ says the leader, ‘Read out what you’ve written.’ Curt hestitantly reads what he’s written to the group. He says, ‘I work at No 10 as part of the Diplomatic Protection Group. It’s a pretty macho team.’ The people in the group can imagine why.

The men and women in Curt’s team wear Kevlar body armour, submachine guns slung over their shoulders and Glock pistols at their side. They are called to put themselves in the line of fire in an incident. Of course it’s a macho team.

Curt continues, ‘Over the years there’s been quite a bit of conflict in the team but I’ve found I’m quite good at bringing people back together.’ Unused to sharing about himself, he looks down at the coffee table, embarrassed. Someone then pipes up, ‘You’ve got a ministry of reconciliation.’ ‘You’re a peacemaker’! Curt, looks up, and breaks into a smile the width of the River Thames.

So Curt begins to understand how God has intrinsically gifted him to be someone that brings peace. He doesn’t think it’s anything special. He just does it naturally, because it’s who he is, who God has made him to be. But it’s a gift, and his team needs him to use that gift.

Each of us is gifted by God with various gifts, and he calls us to use these gifts in our places of work, or, if you don’t work, in places where you serve others as a volunteer, or how you entertain or where you socialise with other people. Using these gifts is our God given calling.

If you’ve seen a copy of this month’s Newsletter you’ll see that we’re launching a series of talks called Fruitfulness on the Frontline. The first lecture will be given on 6 March by the Executive Director of the London Institute of Contemporary Christianity, Mark Greene.

He has pioneered how Christians in the contemporary world can relate their faith in Christ to the work they do Monday to Friday. I commend this lecture to you.

It will be followed by a series of six further talks that will focus on different aspects of Christian character and feature people from different industries: healthcare, education, politics, business and the retail sector (I’m still looking for someone to cover jurisprudence!). The aim is for us to work out how we are each doing an honest days work as Christians, and how God is specifically using us to influence the teams and people with whom we work.

My prayer is that churches and cathedrals across the country will be filled with people who are theives, drug dealers & greedy idolatrous fraudsters; people who wouldn’t share a pound with beggar, who are completely ignorant of the ways of Jesus Christ.

But when we, together with them, have met Jesus Christ who shared everything he had for us, we find ourselves building our lives on a new foundation. On that foundation of Jesus Christ we begin to find new significance in the work we do, because we are using our God-given gifts to serve others.

Amen.