Monthly Archives: July 2014

Consequences

When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.
(Luke 23:33 NRSV)

Have you ever played the game of Consequences? As children we used to play it occasionally: writing random names and actions on pieces of paper, folding them over and then passing them on for someone else to write the next bit. At the end the paper would be unfolded and the story read out, amid much giggling at the various outcomes.

Of course, all actions have consequences, for good or ill, intended or unexpected.

In the story of Jesus it is quite clear that most of his disciples expected a very different outcome than did Jesus himself.

They expected a new King to be crowned; one who would, probably leading an army, throw out the hated Roman occupiers and revive the ancient kingdom of David.

Jesus knew different. He knew that the kingdom of costly love which he came to establish was deeply subversive of the existing kingdoms and, as a somewhat ironic consequence, would generate substantial opposition.

He challenged those who abused power.

He challenged those who abused wealth.

He challenged those who abused status.

He challenged those who wore their religion like a badge but refused to acknowledge their obligations to fellow human beings.

He showed that many people’s ideas about God, and God’s purposes for his world, were wrong.

He demonstrated that, in his Kingdom, life would be lived differently; in the present.

Jesus knew there would be consequences. And so there were: betrayed by a friend, arrested after dark and dragged off to face trumped-up charges of blasphemy before a kangaroo court, hauled before the governor on different charges (treason against Rome), beaten, scourged, humiliated and finally brutally and publically executed as a political expedient.

And as a consequence his enemies believed that they had solved their problem and set an example for other would-be messiahs to be aware of. “This is what happens to those who challenge us.” His friends thought that their hopes and dreams had died on that cross.

But the important thing for us to remember about the crucifixion of Jesus is that it is not the end of the story. There are further consequences.

Jesus,
Sometimes I look at the cross
and just don’t know what to think;
overwhelmed by its mingled story of love
in the face of deep brutality.
Help me to grasp its meaning
for your Kingdom
in our time.
Amen.

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The Mind of God

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.
(John 1:1-4 NRSV)

What must it be like to know the mind of God?

If we’re honest, we often have enough trouble trying to work out what others are thinking, without trying to make the quantum leap of discerning God’s thoughts.

But John’s Gospel tells us that we can know the mind of God. At the beginning of his Gospel, instead of a narrative about how Jesus was born, John offers us a profound creation story, (at the same time dispelling the notion that God is some sort of angry old man in the clouds).

The trouble is, the translation of the key phrase into modern language has allowed some to over-simplify our image of God and reduce him to a rather confusing concept to be merely “believed in”.

The writer is, of course, talking about Jesus when he describes him as the “Word”. This is sometimes taken to mean that Jesus is the embodiment of God’s command, or the physical outworking of God’s instructions. That may be so, but Jesus is much more than that.

In the introduction above “Word” means “the expression,” “the reason,” “the purpose,” “the intention,” “the essence,” the very “mind” of God. The person we call “Jesus” was all of these things, in human flesh. That’s what the Gospel writer is trying to tell us.

In other words, if you want to know the mind of God, you will see it expressed in the life of Jesus and described, however imperfectly, in the New Testament.

Read the passage again, slowly, with an expanded idea of the “Word.” It helps to clarify a lot of other things which we read in the New Testament. God, the creator of life in its fullness, expresses his reason, purpose and intention for his creation in the person of Jesus Christ.

Jesus,
in you I can see all the fulfilment
of the mind of God for Creation.
Guide me to expand my understanding of God,
whose purpose is love.
Amen

You did it to Me

And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’
(Matthew 25:40 NRSV)

So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
(James 2:17 NRSV)

Many years ago I was talking to a friend about my sadness at the sudden death of someone who had been my course tutor at a college I had attended. As I talked with my friend about this sad incident, about this good family man in his forties, he suddenly turned to me and said, “But was he saved?”

As you may imagine, that brought the conversation to something of an abrupt halt. I must admit that for a few fleeting moments the notion of my friend’s nose and my fist coming into brief contact with each other was quite appealing. However, wiser thoughts prevailed and I kept my own counsel.

There is a powerful movement in Christian thought which claims that belief is everything; that all you have to do is believe in Jesus and everything else will fall into place. The logical conclusion of this line of thought is that it doesn’t matter what happens to you in this life; so long as you believe then you are booked in for eternity.

I beg to differ. And so would millions of other Christians. And so would the Bible.

Jesus’ command in the New Testament is to love God, and to love our neighbour. The two are inextricably linked.

Our faith should shape our lives. Jesus emphasised this in many of his parables, including the one from which the quotation above is taken, (powerfully reinforced by the extract from the letter of James). It’s not a parable about who’s in and who’s out, but an explanation of what it means to love God and neighbour.

Discipleship is a life-long experience of learning and growing. Jesus’ point is that we should aspire to the place where acts of love for others happen without a second thought.

Our faith should shape our lives, and the consequence should be a quiet growing of the Kingdom of God, “on Earth as it is in Heaven”.

Jesus,
Deepen my faith and trust,
and shape my life
for the service of your Kingdom of love, justice and peace.
Amen.

Go, for Me

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
(Matthew 28:18-20 NRSV)

So what was that all about?

No fond farewells, no words of appreciation, no “Thanks for being my friends guys. Gotta go now. Its been a blast!” None of it.

But Jesus knew what he was doing, and so did the Gospel writer. There are no farewells because Jesus is speaking of his presence with them – for ever. This is the moment he has been preparing them for.

If Jesus stays then his friends will not do the very thing he needs them to do – to carry on his work for the Kingdom. They have done their “basic training” and now its time for them to go and get on with it.

In fact, that little paragraph has become known over the years as “The Great Commission”. They are to make disciples (more learners) in every nation and of every nation. And they are to be the teachers and exemplars of this new way.

Can you imagine the scene? A motley bunch of eleven disciples – with not a great leader amongst them – some of whom are not completely sure that they are believing what they are seeing, listening to Jesus tell them to go out and change the world.

But the evidence that they must have done so is to be found all around us, in the lives of many who have influenced us, and in the many-faceted stories of the Christian Church throughout twenty centuries and around the world.

“Go and teach, go and welcome people into my Kingdom, go and take healing with you, go and care, go for justice, for genuine community, for those who are left behind. Go until the hungry are fed, the broken-hearted are bound up, there is sight and speech, and those in bondage are free. Go and nurture; go and make new disciples, new teachers, new healers, new workers for my Kingdom.

Go in faith, because I will be with you. Go in the face of opposition and apathy. Go into the cacophony of the marketplace of ideas, and live what you know.

Go, for me.”

Jesus,
help me to learn of your way
and to grow in my love;
not just for my sake,
but so that others may know
of your love for them, too.
Amen

A Whiff of Scandal

Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
(Luke 1:38 NRSV)

Over the centuries a great many words have been written and spoken, from every religious perspective, about the role and status of Mary, the mother of Jesus.

In Luke’s gospel one attribute shines out about this young girl above all else: her outstanding courage.

She has just been told that she will take part in a world-changing event; that she will be the means by which God will share our humanity. What would be your reaction?

News about her ‘condition’ will soon get out. What will she say to her intended husband? What will she tell her family? In the context of her time, what sense of disgrace will be brought upon her home, or indeed her village?

Luke tells us nothing of this in his account, though Matthew hints at it in his gospel.

And yet her trust, her humility and, supremely, her courage allow Mary to say “yes” to God.

Mary agrees to allow her humanity to bring God into the world. Her response is an act of courageous love.

It is through acts of courageous love that God’s kingdom is built.

Jesus,
You taught us and showed us
that love for God and for people is the greatest thing.
Give me the courage to love.
Amen.

And on that Bombshell . . .

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.
(Luke 1:26-29 NRSV)

Have you ever found yourself saying something along the lines of, “Well, I never expected a day like that when I got up this morning.”?

That sense of surprise; a reaction of “Where did that come from?” is what the gospel writer, Luke, is seeking to portray in his wonderful account of the birth of Jesus.

Those who have listened to the Christmas story through recitations, children’s nativity plays and concerts can become inured to the sense of the drama that is taking place here. We think we know the story well, and we make our decisions about whether we believe it or not.

But anyone who has experienced a sudden life-changing event will know that shock and confusion are a significant part of our reaction. To say that this young girl, Mary, “was much perplexed by his words” is putting it mildly!

Who is this, and what’s he got to do with me?

Luke, in his gospel, is trying to give “an ordered account” – he’s telling people what’s happening. God has changed the world and nothing can be the same again.

How has God done this? Through the birth of Jesus.

This is not, and was never intended to be, a gentle story of the birth of a child. Rather, Luke describes the shock intervention of God into his creation, usually with all the “wrong” people taking prominent roles, and amidst a degree of confusion and considerable pain and suffering.

We don’t know the date of Jesus’ birth. The Gospel writers omit that detail from their accounts; but it doesn’t matter anyway. What we do know is that, with the birth of Jesus, God did intervene into the messiness of our world.

And he continues to do so.

Jesus,
Whether I become complacent,
thinking my life is well sorted out;
or whether I become angry and confused
because things just won’t go my way,
remind me of your constant presence
in comfortable or perplexing times.
Amen.

Live This Life

Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?
(Matthew 6:26-27 NRSV)

Like many others I have spent too much of my life worrying: chiefly worrying about the future, or worrying about what others might think. What a waste of time! My family and friends, the people who know me and love me (warts and all) do so, I presume, because of the kind of person I am, or who I try to be. And I love them dearly for the same reasons. What more could matter?

And as for worrying about the future . . . ! Does worrying about it really change things? I doubt it.

So I’m learning.

And yet I meet so many people who are stricken with anxiety that I think it must be one of the major conditions of our time.

But Jesus says, “Stop worrying”. You are the person that God has created; the person who God loves and who God wants to be in relationship with. God cares passionately about every aspect of your life and will bless, sanctify and transform each of those aspects to the extent that you allow him.

I firmly believe that so many of us get it wrong about God, and that Jesus seeks to correct our misunderstanding. God is not interested in how religious we are, or how pious we can be. He doesn’t want us to worship him because we are worried about what might happen in eternity. Rather, he wants us to realise that we are living in eternity now, and that this life matters because it is God’s loving gift to us which he wants us to live as fully as possible.

To live for today, to be true to who we are, to journey with integrity, to seek justice and the good of others, all in thanksgiving for God’s gracious love, is to honour the life that God has given us.

Does anyone feel a party coming on?

Jesus,
teach me to stop worrying
about everything under the sun,
and to live today
as a precious child of God.
Amen

Welcome to the Kingdom

He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”
(Matthew 13:31-32 NRSV)

A recent family trip overseas highlighted to me the levels of nervousness which some countries now feel towards those who enter their territory. Bags are x-rayed and sometimes searched, shoes and belts are removed for body scans, occasionally people are searched and questions are always asked. The officials concerned are properly performing their duties but to an infrequent traveller it can all be quite intimidating. It was quite a relief that, on returning home, we found that we could just scan our passports and head for the baggage claim.

If our modern secular kingdoms are difficult to enter, the same is not true of the Kingdom of God, otherwise called the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus makes many allusions to God’s Kingdom throughout his ministry, and it is pretty clear that this is the place to be!

But where is it? What is it?

Well, Jesus shows us that the Kingdom is not primarily a geographical place, though it may be found everywhere. There is, certainly, an eternal dimension to consider but the here-and-now may be enough for us.

The Kingdom of God is to be found wherever the hungry are fed, the sick are cared for, the broken-hearted are comforted, where the peacemakers rule, where the last are first and everyone is valued regardless of who they are. It is a kingdom where life, indeed all creation, is hallowed, justice and mercy abound, forgiveness is the norm, diversity is standard, joy is paramount and God’s love is celebrated and lived.

It is the place where relationships are not only valued, but deeply loved.

In other words, God’s Kingdom is to be found wherever God’s ways are lived out in the lives of his children: including you and me.

Welcome to the Kingdom.

Jesus,
guide me to see
the glimpses of the Kingdom
which are all around me,
and to celebrate their reality.
Amen

Love Your Enemy

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
(Matthew 5:43-44 NRSV)

Jesus’ words above remind us that “love” is not the soft option in our relationships and dealings with others. In fact it is sometimes the toughest option.

There are those who will say that to love your enemy is a fool’s charter, a recipe for disaster or just plain pie-in-the-sky do-gooder nonsense.

But Jesus does not say that to love your enemy is to acquiesce to all their actions, or that to pray for those who persecute you is to condone or collude with their wrongdoing. Far from it.

Justice is justice; and sometimes we have to stand up against those who would be our enemies, and seek help against those who would persecute us. Jesus’ words are not a victim’s sentence of purgatory, either. Those who prey on the vulnerable must face justice, and those who would use threats and power must be stood against, for everyone’s sake. History shows that appeasement of the bully ultimately causes more suffering.

But revenge is not justice. Retribution is not justice. There is no place for the lynch mob here. History also shows that here, too, lies more suffering.

The really tough part is that to love our enemy is to acknowledge their humanity, bearing the image of God, too. To pray for those who persecute us is to take the giant step of overcoming fear, disgust and loathing so that we don’t, at some point in the future, suddenly find ourselves standing in their shoes.

To love is not to be a door mat. To pray is not to condone persecution. They are, rather, to seek to break the cycle which may condemn others to the same treatment.

And this is the love of Jesus for those who persecuted him.

Jesus,
help me to love
with your love.
Amen

Love Yourself

He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.”
(Luke 10:27 NRSV)

“All you need is love,” went the old Beatles song. The song became something of a peace anthem and has, of course, popped up on a regular basis over the years.

Actually, I think without realising it, the “Fab Four” got close to the real meaning of a relationship with God at taught by Jesus. But there’s a problem.

“Love God, and love your neighbour as much as you love yourself.” The problem is with the “. . . as much as you love yourself” clause.

The communities in which I have ministered over the years have contained a number of people who live with low self-esteem.

Whatever its causes, and whatever form it takes, low self-esteem is a powerful hindrance to our growth as human beings and its effects should not be under-estimated. Anecdotally, it can be associated with low aspiration and achievement, poverty, weak community cohesion, with a consequent lack of diversity, and a generally poor sense of well-being in individuals and families.

Another way of putting this is that low self-esteem is a lack of self-love.

But it might be argued that self-love is a form of pride or even narcissism. No. In the context of Jesus’ words, to love one’s self is to love the person who God created.

And only when we can love that person can we turn and love our neighbour too. If we can appreciate the person God has created in ourselves, then we stand a better chance of seeing the child of God in others.

To love your neighbour as Jesus taught, you must begin to love yourself a little, too; in thankfulness for the work of God.

Jesus,
teach me to love
the person God has created in me,
and to love others
with that same thankful love.
Amen.