Flower Festival Weekend and Looking Ahead

What an amazing event we witnessed in our church’s life last weekend, as we saw hundreds of visitors walking into St Mary’s Church as part of the Easton Flower Festival.

A much fuller report on this (together with links to a video sequence filmed inside the church) will appear in the coming days, but for now we can only express our profound appreciation to the Planning Committee, together with their many helpers and assistants, for all their creativity, planning, and sheer hard work.

So please do join us this coming Sunday (26 June) in St Mary’s, when we will be holding a special Service of Thanksgiving for the Flower Festival. This will be a ‘Songs of Praise’ service at 6.00pm—an opportunity to sing at least five of your favourite traditional hymns and to give thanks to God and to those involved for all that was accomplished last weekend when, in the words of David Swinstead, “the church’s interior has never in all its long history looked as stunningly beautiful”.

As well as the wonderful flower festival we joined together for Valley Worship where John Barber spoke, a recording of his talk can be heard below or the full transcript at the bottom of this post.

To complete the picture, we are also delighted to welcome the family of Jonathan and Francesca, as they bring their son, Alistair, for baptism in our Parish Communion service at 10.00am in St Swithun’s, Martyr Worthy.

There’s always something to look forward to in the Itchen Valley Parish!

Revd Peter

Philippians 2:12-18 

12: Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence but much more now in my absence, work on your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13:  for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure. 14: Do all things without murmuring and arguing, 15: so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world, 16: holding forth the word of life so that I can boast on the day of Christ that I did not run in vain or labour in vain. 17: But even if I am being poured out as a libation over the sacrifice and the service of your faith, I rejoice, and I rejoice together with all of you; 18 in the same way also you should rejoice and rejoice together with me.

When I was 14, at school I had a class in European History taught by a Jewish lady from Eastern Germany who had found refuge in the US as a young woman.   She brought the characters of history alive to teenagers and often asked searching questions.  One day she inquired what the point of studying history was; the answers we gave, including mine, were mostly variations of the famous phrase, ‘Those who ignore the mistakes of the past are condemned to repeat them.’   I was taken aback when she rejected this response completely.  She observed tartly that people never learned from the past, that vicious cycles repeated themselves.   The sole reason to study history was curiosity – about how people lived in the past, and even about how we were destined to meet with the same fate as had history’s characters.

Clearly my teacher had unspoken reasons for her fatalistic views and certainly our fallen world offers daily evidence to support her conclusion.   However, this passage gives us hope that we can believe the opposite – we can actually rejoice that history will not endlessly repeat itself destructively, but rather that it will end in a restored and renewed world, when the day of Christ mentioned in verse 16 comes and Jesus returns.

Of course we don’t know when that day of Christ will come – the Bible does not reveal its timing.   Yet this passage makes it clear that we are not to be passive bystanders awaiting it, but rather active participants in pointing the way to it even as human history continues to run.

I’d like to concentrate on two core themes in this passage – who works out our salvation and how we can shine like stars in the darkness of this world.    Some of the language in this translation is a bit confusing and so at times I’ll draw on the words of another one, the NIV, when I think they may be more clear.

Turning to the first theme, it is raised right away in verses 12 and 13 – ‘work on (or work out) your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.’

There is an obvious tension raised here – what does ‘work out our salvation’ mean, in the context of multiple teachings elsewhere in the Bible that tell us that salvation is God’s free gift, one he gives by grace to people like us who don’t deserve it and can’t earn it?  Doesn’t working out our salvation imply that we have a role in securing and retaining it, or that we can somehow achieve more of it by trying harder?

Salvation is a gift from God to us, one completely beyond our control, yet ours to enjoy.   It is a conclusive, one time gift but also a lasting one.  We can be no more saved on Day One of being saved than at the end of our lives, but we can grow much closer to God in the passage of time in between.   Think of it like a marriage – legally, and spiritually, husband and wife are no more nor less married on their wedding day than they are on their Golden Anniversary.   However, fifty years on, they would nearly always report how much better they knew each other, how much their shared experience had shaped them, since Day One.    So it can be with our relationship with God.

Verse 13 gives us the other half of the equation — as we work out our salvation in relationship with God, he is at work in us.  The original Greek verb – energeo – means work that achieves its purpose, where there is sufficient power supplied to reach the goal.  This resolves the tension – once again, it is God who graciously gives us all we need, working in us and providing the means to achieve His ‘good pleasure’ (perhaps better translated as ‘good purposes’ for us).

Recognising that God is the active agent both in our salvation and in giving us what we need to work it out, what are we to conclude?   Perhaps that we are free to work out our salvation in relationship with a God who loves us unconditionally and has totally accepted us.  At the same time he also has high standards for us and longs for us to commit our time to sustaining and maturing our relationship with him.

How does this strike you?   Does the excitement of the moment you experienced salvation seem distant?  Do you think of your relationship with God as something to invest in, as something that can improve with age?  Perhaps it is time for a fresh start – with confidence that it is not your own limited power that will be working within you when you try, but rather God’s infinite energy.

One yardstick to measure how our relationship with God is doing is our prayer life.   I’ve certainly experienced both dry and fruitful seasons in mine over the years – how would you assess the state of yours at the moment?

Maybe if your prayer or quiet times have become stale it is time to begin anew – maybe at a different time of day, or in a different place.  You could set yourself a not overly ambitious goal for time with God every day or make a commitment to pray regularly with your other half or a close friend.    The Covid era has obviously been costly in lots of ways, but for my wife Nicky and me it has also been really beneficial in terms of our joint prayer life.   It used to be that I was often away travelling or departed early to catch the train to London for work.   As I am now almost entirely based at home, for the last couple of years we’ve made it a daily practice to pray together for 10 or 15 minutes in the morning before launching into the day.   We both now love this time together and, as we are more aware day to day of what is on each other’s heart or mind, it has drawn us closer.  I’m quite sure it has also led us to make better decisions than when we were less committed to this joint effort.

Let’s move on to the next few verses, which make the case for the second point I’d like to draw from this passage – the fact we are saved means we should live our lives reflecting that truth.     Verses 14 and 15 demonstrate how immersed Paul was in the Scripture of his day, as they contain several references to Israel’s past – these would have resonated with the contemporary readers of this letter to the Philippians, who for the most part would have shared his heritage and had similar familiarity with what we now call the Old Testament.

As examples, the first part of verse 14 – ‘do all things without murmuring or arguing’ – directly recalls the grumbling of the Israelites in the desert, despite God’s constant provision of manna to eat.  The verse tells us also of our goal – we are to be ‘children of God without blemish in a crooked and perverse generation’; in Deuteronomy’s chapter 32, it was the rebellious Israelites themselves who were condemned as ‘crooked and perverse.’

How can our roles be reversed in this way?  Simply because we now have the privilege of salvation.   Despite our failings, God actually sees us as blameless and innocent, as verse 15 states, thanks to Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf.   Striving to achieve this special status is no longer necessary – we have the firm assurance of it.   Instead, our lives need to reflect how God already sees us – you can almost hear the insistence in Paul’s voice as he says ‘be blameless and innocent.’   Show the world what you already are, show by your behaviour that you really are children of God – so, for example, stop complaining and arguing as the Israelites did so unnecessarily.

As we meet the standards God already gives us credit for, we fulfil our key responsibility as a believing community in this world – ‘holding forth the word of life’ (verse 16), the Gospel, the truth, God’s saving message, the key to eternal existence.  When we do so, we will ‘shine like stars in the world.’  Notice that we are to hold forth the word of life, like a lantern shining light in the darkness, sharing it generously.    Just as stars stand out from the darkness of the night sky, we are to stand out as well, providing direction and hope.

What might shining like stars look like?    At work, in our marriages, when we are out with friends, in how we spend our free time.   You may remember those wristbands with the abbreviation WWJD that were popular a while back; you might have thought they were a bit cheesy, but their message – ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ – was actually telling.    Trying in all circumstances to behave in a Christ-like manner really would be quite a special personal mission statement, day in and day out, through thick and thin.

My wife and I were challenged as recently as yesterday morning on whether we are actually shining as stars in the darkness as followers of Jesus ourselves.   On Friday evening we went to quite a lavish summer drinks party hosted by friends we got to know when our children were in primary school together.   There were lots of friends and acquaintances from the same vintage at the party, many of whom we hadn’t seen for years, mostly people who’ve been very successful in their careers, looking their best in glorious sunshine and the long evening light of June, literally almost shining.   Many of the ladies wore expensive dresses (maybe bought from Moda Rosa) and had beautiful jewellery and everyone seemed confidently at ease, to the extent that this crowd actually felt quite daunting at times.

As we reflected on the gathering yesterday morning, we realised that most of the people there – however outwardly successful and confident – have no saving relationship with Jesus yet.  They are likely also to have as many sources of private pain as the rest of us and to be just as much in need of the hope and security only Jesus can provide.  Our question to ourselves yesterday morning was whether we had genuinely shone like stars in this setting and, if not, what that might look like.

Here are a few ideas that you might consider.   Knowing that God loves all people equally, do we try to look at other people through Jesus’ eyes, trying to see what he would see behind the confident or protective masks?  Are we always ready to give a reason for the hope we have, simply, with no jargon and empathetically?   Do we try to get easy laughs in social settings at others’ expense?   Do we gossip or boast when the social stakes are high?

This passage closes quite densely with an emphasis on sacrifice and service and another set of complex allusions to Old Testament precedents, for example ‘being poured out like a libation,’ sometimes translated as a ‘drink offering.’   This recalls the Old Testament sacrificial system, which required the offering of beasts and blood to cancel human sin.   Then only Levitical priests administered sacrifices; here Paul encouraged ordinary Philippians (and now we later readers) to act similarly in sacrificing and serving for the sake of the Gospel.  Paul is able to describe this in perhaps unnatural terms, in verses 17 and 18 – ‘I rejoice and rejoice together with all of you.  In the same way you should rejoice and rejoice together with me.’

How can he be joyful, remembering that he was in prison as he wrote this letter?  Ultimately, because of his conviction that the day of Christ is a goal toward which we should run and for which we should labour, to paraphrase verse 16.    He foresaw a vastly better time – an end to our experience now, with all its flaws, with all the effects of sin it displays – and was willing to strive, to give his all, to bring it closer.   As the Gospel spreads, the ever-nearing day of Christ, even if it was still very far away, was and is a source of joy.       Amen.

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