Ken's Pastoral Letter for July
Remembering the sacrifices of a century ago.
On Sunday the 27th June at Greenfield Chapel we commemorated the installation one hundred years ago, almost to the day on the 26th June 1921, of the two stained glass memorial windows situated on the Eastern elevation of our chapel. The inscriptions at the head of the windows read ‘Courage’ and ‘Fortitude’, qualities needed by any soldier who is required to attend to his or her duties in the face of hardship, and even of raw paralyzing fear. Our commemorative service included the reading out of letters written by two young men from Greenfield who went to war and did not return; who in one case was killed in action while in the other, though surviving wounds received, died of pneumonia only a month before the war’s end. Both demonstrated in their letters a robust cheerfulness in military service and a continuing devotion to church and family.
As we considered the sacrifice of these and so many other young men of that era we remembered the words of Jesus: ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends’. (John 15:13, KJV). This moving declaration comes home to us every year on Remembrance Sunday, and no doubt will do so again this year. Indeed, many of us were privileged to attend acts of remembrance just last month as we marked the one hundredth anniversary of the Royal British Legion and all of the great work that it does in looking after soldiers who have returned damaged from the fight, and thus unable to properly look after themselves.
Seeing the parallels of remembrance and faith.
It is the notion of men, and today of course of women too, going off to fight so that we wouldn’t have to that resonates with us, and that leads us to endorse the words of our Saviour, even though we understand that no soldier sets out to lose his or her life in the way that Jesus went voluntarily to certain death on our behalf. We nevertheless recognise that when casualties of war are reported among our forces that they are from among those who had always considered it to be a possibility for themselves not to return from the fight, and yet still went – ‘Greater love….’
It is on days like Sunday just gone, and on Remembrance Sunday, that the Gospel truth that Jesus fought a battle with death for us so that we would not have to, makes real sense to us. The idea that He stood in for us: ‘Bearing shame and scoffing rude, in my place condemned he stood’ [Man of Sorrows! Philip Bliss (1838 – 76)] comes as good news to those who recognise their need of something more than themselves, and more importantly someone more than themselves, to act and to speak for them in the face of death, and even in the face of life! Those who recognise in themselves a moral deficiency and feel the chill wind of unpreparedness to meet a holy and righteous God with nothing to show for themselves at the end of life but their own efforts at life – efforts which may not always have been worthy or true – these are those most likely to come to faith in a loving God who sent His Son to die for the sins of humankind.
Faith is not of our own making.
The Bible makes it plain that faith is only the instrument by which we come into relationship with God and that this faith is not even of our own making but that it also is given to us from God: ‘For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God..’ (Ephesians 2:8).
Jesus came from God in order to live a life of perfect obedience to the Law and in order to die a death in which He took upon Himself the curse of the Law by shouldering the sins of the world. ‘Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, …..’ (Galatians 3:13, NIV). Christ kept the law on our behalf and paid the penalty for our failure to keep it. Paul saw very clearly that faith does the crucial job of uniting us with Christ, of placing us in Christ, whereby our sins are laid upon Him, while we receive the forgiveness that comes from his death, the clean slate if you will, and furthermore His life of absolute righteousness laid to our credit in this great exchange: what the Reformers referred to as the mirifica commutato, ‘For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.’ (2 Corinthians 5:21). In this way in Christ we are guaranteed eternal life. A slate wiped clean can always be marked up again but in the great exchange we receive Christ’s righteousness – a once for all time free gift. A clean slate whatever its subsequent usage. This is what makes the Gospel shocking and leads to accusations of moral incongruity. It is true that the believer declared righteous in Christ is not thereafter sinless and lapses do occur. However the person who is in Christ has Christ in them too, and a new nature is revealed, sometimes dramatically, sometimes slowly and progressively, but always inevitably, or faith is not real!
Salvation by faith not because of faith.
These things come to us by faith but not because of faith! Faith contributes nothing to our salvation, it is only the means by which we believe into Christ: the means by which we become united with Him. And anyone can exercise faith since it is God’s gift. And God, says the Bible, ‘wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.’ (1 Timothy 2:4, NIV). Consequently it surely follows that faith is available to all. Our part is to acknowledge our need of Christ, to repent and to open our hearts to His offer of forgiveness.
Keeping faith and its operation in mind as we read the Gospels.
In our lectionary readings we have been looking in recent weeks at the parables of the Kingdom (Mark 4:1-34) and how they relate to having faith: how the seed of the word falls, some on good ground (the receptive heart) and some on the path (the non-receptive heart). How if on good ground it grows through stages: first the blade then the ear, then the full corn in the ear until a new and faltering faith becomes a bold and confident declaration of the same; how something which begins as barely enough to be noticed in a life eventually grows to be the definitive mark of that life, as taught by the parable of the mustard seed, and all because the owner of that life arrived at the end of themselves and reached out with God given faith, even if only for a moment, to invite Christ into their heart.
Examples of fledgling faith in Mark’s Gospel.
The lectionary readings in Mark’s Gospel then continue through various action scenes: the stilling of the storm, the deliverance of the man dwelling among the tombs who could not be restrained, the healing of the woman who had been ill for twelve years and the raising from the dead of Jairus’s little daughter. In each case a fledgling faith was rewarded with deliverance and in each case the object of faith was Christ Himself and the subject of faith (the ones exercising it) were at the end of themselves. Faith draws everything from Christ and contributes nothing to Him. Faith is simply a shorthand description of abandoning oneself trustingly to Christ, whom God has made our righteousness. [Ferguson, S. B., Some Pastors and Teachers (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2017) p. 493].
Mark’s chapter on faith.
Chapter five of Mark has been described as the chapter of faith. As we enter chapter six, however, we encounter a very different reaction to Christ in the gospel: we see the effects of a lack of faith, of a failure to reach an end of self, and instead a rejection of Christ is portrayed due to an obsession with self: the congregation in the synagogue at Nazareth who are affronted at a local man knowing ‘these things’. Jesus’ response to all this was to redouble His efforts and to teach the word around the villages and to send out his disciples to do the same. And the end result of that was a widespread response of faith among the sick and the needy. We see also a hardened lack of faith in King Herod, afraid for his past actions over John the Baptist , and even the disciples themselves again fearful that their lives were in danger at sea in His service, despite His teaching, and who show themselves unable to see a way through the crisis of the feeding of the multitude! 'Faith, then, is Christ directed, not self-directed, and Christ-reliant, not self-reliant. It involves the abandoning, not the congratulating of self.’ [Ibid., p. 493].
Last Sunday at Greenfield.
When we gathered on Sunday to remember the sacrifice of our forebears, marked in the commemorative windows installed in chapel there was no hint of self-congratulation. Why would there be? We didn’t do anything! As we ‘remembered’ we all knew that the freedoms that were won for us were at the cost of others’ lives and not of our own. Similarly, women and men of faith know no other way to present themselves before God than by abandoning themselves and leaning entirely on Christ’s merits for eternal life. Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling! [Rock of Ages Augustus Montague Toplady (1740 – 78)].
As we continue to look into the lectionary texts over the next few weeks, and as we navigate our way out of lockdown and through new chapters in the national life of our denomination (see accompanying letter from our superintendent) let’s remember that faith is all about Him and not all about us. Faith is the means by which we appropriate grace, and grace is unmerited favour.
Yours always in Christian love,