Tag Archives: Bible

The Urgent Message

But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”

(Mark 16:6-7 NRSV)

 

The Gospel of Mark is both the shortest and the earliest of the stories of the Life of Jesus in the Bible. It has often been referred to as an “extended passion narrative,” meaning that the author has devoted a good portion of the gospel to reflection on the events leading up to that first Easter. By contrast he seems to have very little to say about what happened after Jesus rose.

Matthew’s Gospel completes the story of Jesus’ earthly mission by sending out his disciples to carry on his work – to teach, to baptise and to make new disciples in every nation. And the Gospels of Luke and John both have considerable details of the risen Lord and his encounter with the disciples – Luke’s account continuing into the Acts of the Apostles and the writings of Paul.

But Mark’s gospel leaves us in a strange place, and this is partly because we don’t know if verses 9 to 20 of the last chapter of the gospel were written by the author, or added later as a summary by someone else.

The reason we don’t know is that these 12 verses do not appear in some of the earliest manuscripts of Mark’s Gospel. They are completely missing. For some Biblical scholars, they have all the appearance of a summary added by someone else to tidy up Mark’s messy ending.

That’s why many translations of the Bible put those verses in brackets or as a footnote to the Gospel. We don’t know their provenance for certain; you must decide for yourself.

What we do know and what really matters is that the resurrection of Jesus is proclaimed without any ambiguity and uncertainly – Jesus is risen and that, given the somewhat terse writing style of the author, may be all he wants his readers to grasp.

Christ is risen, Mark tells us. Christ is risen, Matthew, Luke and John tell us. Christ is risen, proclaims Paul to all who will listen – and that is what really matters.

Two things follow from the acceptance of this truth. Firstly, we are directed to the identity of Jesus: The Messiah, the Son of God, the Word incarnate – the very presence of all that God is, in human form.

Secondly, we who call ourselves Christians are both challenged and commissioned. We are challenged to do our utmost to live our lives according to the teachings of Jesus – specifically to live lives of love for God and love for those around us. We are called to explore the scriptures to learn and discern God’s purposes for our lives, in Christ. And we are commissioned to share what we know with others, and to encourage, others by our best example, to see the importance of Christ for their lives, too.

To put it simply: Mark’s Gospel proclaims the risen Christ. His proclamation is urgent and brief with the clear intention to encourage others to do the same.

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Consumed

Are we really better off, Lord?

I mean, we have more than we can possibly need,

but we want more, and our consumption destroys your world.

And while we consume, a million babies die on a dollar a day.

 

Consumption is all, it seems.

We’re never satisfied;

and envy poisons our souls so that we consume each other:

the doctor who tries to heal us,

the police officer who protects us,

the employer, the banker, the politician, the celebrity, the worker . . . our neighbour.

We clothe ourselves so easily with the victim’s apparel,

the better to consume with pure hearts,

while the real victims wear the mantle of invisibility.

 

And still we’re not satisfied, so we fight:

we fight for land, we fight for supremacy, we fight for ideologies;

we fight to ignore the refugee

in case she comes with her children and consumes what we think is ours.

 

What we can’t consume we seek to control.

That which might serve to curb our rapacity is pushed aside.

Where once we would seek to protect the innocent in public places;

now from cinema to TV we consume our violence, sex and foul speech,

allowing our children to emulate us,

whilst your prayer is ridiculed, discarded or banned.

 

Your prayer,

which speaks of your holiness;

of your blessed kingdom of love, justice and peace;

of forgiveness;

of our need of your protection – if only from ourselves.

 

But then, you can’t consume a prayer, can you?

And there is a danger that it may make us think twice;

think about you;

so its best to ban it in public, in case it causes offence.

 

But let your prayer remind us of who we are,

and of who we might be.

Let it be a doorway into your realm.

Let it be a song of praise from Earth to Heaven.

Let it be a comfort when days are dark.

Let it speak volumes when all our words fail us.

Let it be a gift to remind us that all our consumption

will never satisfy our spiritual hunger or thirst:

 

Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as in heaven.


Give us today our daily bread.


Forgive us our sins
as we forgive those who sin against us.


Lead us not into temptation
but deliver us from evil.

For the kingdom, the power,
and the glory are yours
now and for ever.

Amen.

Discipleship: Relationship not Religion

No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. (1 John 4:12 NRSV)

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 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 10:25-27 NRSV)

In the first of this short series of thoughts (here) on the theme of discipleship, I reflected on the tensions between belonging and believing. I argued that, for most people, the biggest part of their Christian belief grows over a period of time, as a consequence of being welcomed into a caring Christian community – a church family.

I would like to pick up that theme and continue to explore what it might mean to be a disciple in our own time; and I would like to suggest that as disciples of Jesus Christ, we are primarily called to a relationship not a religion.

Christ calls us into a living relationship with him far more than he does to a set of rules which we must adhere to, or a theological construct which we must support. I am convinced that God weeps at our childish tribalism of churchmanship or denomination.

In a church where I once worshipped, (a generation ago now!), on one occasion as I was coming into the evening service I was followed in by a man who I didn’t recognise as a regular Church member.

He quite tentatively came through the door and approached a long-standing member of the church with a simple question. “I’m looking for the Catholic Church,” he said. “Is this the Catholic church?”

The person to whom the question had been addressed immediately spun on his heels and exclaimed in quite a loud voice, “You mean the Roman Catholic church. This is the Church of England Parish Church and we are part of the one holy catholic and apostolic church. The church you want is around the corner and up the hill.”

And as he was saying this he was ushering the poor man out of the church door.

Sure, he directed the man to where he could find his church, but he couldn’t do it without making a point, he had to rub it in. He just had to play religious one-upmanship.

The Old Testament of the Bible, in the Book of the Exodus, speaks of what we call the Ten Commandments which codified some of the founding principles of the laws of God’s Chosen People, Israel.

But the crucial point is that the people didn’t have to live by those rules in order to be God’s people. They were already chosen by God and the commandments (along with the other laws) were given to help them to live God’s way.

But God had already entered into a relationship with his people long before they received the commandments: he was the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and now he was the God of Moses and the people of Israel. The relationship was paramount.

Look at that well known story which we call the parable of the Good Samaritan from Luke’s Gospel (Luke 10: v25 – 37)

In Jesus’ story, the religious people come off very poorly indeed. Why, because when they see a man dying at the side of the road they put their religious observance before their common humanity. If either of the religious characters in this parable had touched this man they ran the risk of being declared ritually unclean and would not have been able to carry out their duties in the temple.

And Jesus is quite canny in his telling of the parable, because the person who shows the wounded man care and concern is a member of an utterly despised group of people: The Samaritans.

He was one of them: those who were not talked about in polite company, those who you didn’t invite to dinner – even though you were distantly related to them.

But it was the Samaritan who was the injured man’s neighbour; who showed him God’s love; who went more than the extra mile; who broke all the social conventions and entered into a relationship with him.

And why is this important? Because Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan in the context of a question about rules. “What do I have to do to inherit eternal life?” asked the lawyer who wanted to trick Jesus.

Jesus tells his questioner that there really are only two rules: Love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength; and love your neighbour as much as you love yourself. God quite simply wants us to love him and to love the people around us – whoever they are.

Why? Well, as St John says in his letter and in his Gospel, because God loves us, God loves you, God loves me – and he loved us before we had ever heard of him.

He wants us to live in a loving relationship with him and with each other. You might say that relationship is cross-shaped: the vertical is our loving relationship with God, and the horizontal is our loving relationship with each other.

Jesus’ point was that you can’t earn your way into heaven.

You can’t keep a list of the Ten Commandments or various other rules and say, “Yes, I’ve done this, that and that. I’ve refrained from this and that. I’ve ticked all the boxes, I’ve followed all the rules. God must approve of me now. I’m going to heaven.”

It doesn’t work like that.

We may, and should, keep all those rules, but not so that we can pat ourselves on the back and say what good religious people we are, and compare ourselves to others in a favourable light.

Rather, we seek to follow them out of gratitude for the immense love which God has already shown to us by sending his Son to help us to live in relationship with him and with each other. We keep God’s commandments because we are aware of his love for us and want to show that love in return: to God, and to others.

But God knows that we are not very good at doing what we ought to if we don’t perceive a particular reward or punishment, and so he has given us the church so that we can help and support each other along the way; so that we can love and encourage each other.

But the primary aspect of a Church is that it should be a relational community, a loving community – expressed chiefly in our relationship with God in worship and prayer; and in our relationship with each other and with the wider community in which we are set. To put it simply: we don’t go to Church; we are the Church.

“If we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” (1 John 4: v12)

Or to put it another way “God is love. Those who live in love live in God, and God lives in them.” (1 John 4: v16)

We find that we need a few rules because we are less than perfect human beings and we need a framework. But to live our faith as if the rules were all that matters – well, that’s religion.

However, to behave in certain ways out of thanksgiving for all the love which God has shown to us, especially in relationship with our fellow Christians – now that’s discipleship.

NJC

Did you receive the Spirit?

He said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” They replied, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”
(Acts 19:2 NRSV)

From the early 1970s through to the late 1980s a fascinating phenomenon swept through churches in our land. It affected many Christians and its impact was probably felt, to a greater or lesser extent, by most Churches.

The phenomenon became known as the Charismatic Renewal Movement and, though it really began in the free churches, it spread to all the churches, and we still feel its effects today, in our worship, our liturgy and our music.

The Charismatic Renewal Movement had some things in common with the revivals of earlier generations but it was different in the sense that it seemed to relate to a whole range of understandings of worship.

Of course, as with all great movements, not everyone who got involved helped it to be seen in the best light, but the Renewal Movement enabled many people come to a faith in Jesus which has lasted throughout their lives since.

Churches were re-invigorated and some have gone from strength to strength. Others, more interested in their internal workings than in what God might be doing, have fared less well.

One of the most important legacies of the Renewal Movement is that it has restored the importance and significance of the Holy Spirit in the minds of many Christians. It has helped us all to think again about the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church and in our lives.

For the Charismatic Renewal Movement celebrated the work of the Holy Spirit and the gifts which he has showered upon the Church. The very word, “Charismatic” means “Spiritual Gifts” or “Gifts of Grace” – gifts given by the Holy Spirit to each Christian for the work of God’s Church.

St Paul talks at length about Spiritual gifts in his First Letter to The Corinthians, chapters 12 to 14, including what he considers to be the greatest gift of all, the gift of sacrificial love.

But the Holy Spirit is referred to throughout the New Testament, and spiritual gifts are seen to be the mark of faith in many of the New Testament accounts.

Our Baptism into Christ’s family, the Church, unites us with God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and those who are Confirmed in Episcopal Churches find that calling upon the Holy Spirit is the major theme of the service.

And yet, though many have been Confirmed, and countless more have been baptised, we often behave like those believers who St Paul encountered, as if “we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”

But the work of the Holy Spirit is essential to our Christian faith.

The Holy Spirit gently nudges us in the direction of God. The Spirit opens the scriptures to us, leading us into truth.

The Spirit enables our prayer, especially when we don’t know what to pray, or how to pray it.

Every Christian is endowed with Spiritual gifts, to help us to grow in faith, to nurture the faith of others, and to build up the church of God.

The Spirit is the very presence of God with us, wherever we are, empowering us to serve the kingdom, to develop our abilities, to do things we never imagined we could do, to grow in courage and confidence for our Lord.

The Spirit can be the gentle breath of God, quietly pointing us in the direction which God would have us go; or the Spirit can be wind and flame rushing through the Church, blowing out the cobwebs and disturbing our comfortable routines and expectations.

And Jesus called the Holy Spirit the “friend,” the “helper,” the “advocate” – the one who accompanies us on our journey; who speaks for us.

In fact, the simple truth is that the church would never have got off the ground but for Jesus’ gift of the Holy Spirit, who turned a rag bag of confused disciples into what became the mighty global movement it is today.

But there are two things we ought to know about the Spirit, two things which will help us to discern the Spirit at work.

First of all, the Spirit’s movement and the teachings of Jesus are in complete harmony. If someone is claiming that they are being led by the Spirit, but their behaviour is contrary to the teachings of Jesus, they are wrong. The only thing leading them is their own ego.

Secondly, We worship a genuinely awesome God; but we also worship a courteous God. God’s Holy Spirit will prompt and nudge, and guide – but he will wait for us to co-operate. He may whisper gently, or blow through the house, but the decision to act or follow is ours.

And, contrary to the impression that is often given, its not all about feelings, either. The Spirit makes his home deep within our souls and works from that depth of being. The same Spirit is at work whether we feel it or not.

Of course, it does make sense for us to set quiet time aside so that we might have a better chance of connecting with what God is trying to say to us through his Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is the life-blood of the Christian Church, pointing us to the teaching of Jesus and drawing us into the worship of God. He is the sustainer of our life and faith, the gracious giver of spiritual gifts and the builder of the Kingdom of God.

Some Christians talk about the Holy Spirit too much, even to the exclusion of conversation about Jesus. Most of us, though, don’t acknowledge the Holy Spirit enough as the amazing outpouring of God’s grace into his world.

NJC

Bread of Life

When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the LORD has given you to eat.
(Exodus 16:14-15 NRSV)

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
(Ephesians 4:1-3 NRSV)

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
(John 6:35 NRSV)

If you’ve never had a go at bread-making, I can recommend it. It really is highly therapeutic and the product is much nicer than all the mass-produced stuff that you can buy.

In our house we tried for a while to use these bread-making machines and sometimes what came out was ok, but at other times some very peculiar stuff came out of the thing. In addition to that, I managed to wreck the first machine we had and we had to replace it – but we just couldn’t get consistent results.

So my wife, Denise, said to me, “I’m going to teach you to bake!” and so she did. And it’s great fun. I love it. Baking bread is very rewarding – you get to enjoy the product of your labour – which is probably why my weight is creeping inexorably upwards. It’s also satisfying in that you get to do something useful – and it is a wonderful exercise in patience. You can’t rush it. You have to wait for the yeast to do its stuff in secret.

It’s almost a parable in its own right. No wonder Jesus alluded to it in some of his teachings.

“I am the bread of life,” he said. An often quoted, and often misunderstood statement which has frequently been used as an argument about the Eucharist – Jesus is talking about his presence in the breaking of bread. But, whilst at we quite properly can (and do) draw comfort from that connection, at another level at least, it’s more than that.

Jesus is saying to those around him – “You still don’t get it, do you?”

He is saying: “Look, you’ve heard the good news, you’ve seen that the lame walk and the blind see, and the lepers are healed. You’ve heard the truth about God’s eternal kingdom.”

This is what life is ultimately about – not power games, not beggar-my-neighbour survival, not desperate dog-eat-do attempts to scramble to the top of the heap, not religious practices which keep people from God, not sectarian bigotry – not food that rots – but God’s healing, God’s teaching, God’s forgiveness, God’s acceptance of you as you are, God’s salvation – and God’s call to us to live the Kingdom values of love, justice and peace.

And that’s what St Paul is reminding us about in that passage from his letter to the church at Ephesus: as followers of the way of Christ we know that the grace that we have received in him is to help us to live in love and unity so that others may see that there is a different way to be, a Kingdom way to be – not for our satisfaction or so that we can feel smug; but for God’s glory, and for all those who don’t yet know of his love.

Our Lord says to us, “You are precious to God. God loves you and I have come to reveal that love to you. That is who I am. That is why I am here.”

You are a precious child of God. You are a child of God. With all your strengths, with all your weaknesses – all your successes and all your failures – all your joys and all your pain – you are God’s child, if only you would realise it.

“OK”, we might say, “If we are precious to God, how can we know about him, and about his purpose for our lives?”

And Jesus says: “I am the bread of life.”

Bread is something which we take so much for granted in our more-than-affluent society. If bread is all we’ve got to eat, we complain – can’t it at least be a sesame seed bun with a triple-decker cheese burger inside, or a baguette with tuna and five types of coleslaw? Try giving a guest just bread – and wait for the reaction.

And yet, not that many years ago, very many people would have understood the real meaning of the phrase – “The bread of life”.

It might not be the trendiest of diets, but bread will keep you alive – as hundreds of generations of ordinary people could have testified. And if you were hungry, you made sure the children were fed first. That is still the reality for very many in our world today. The bread of life, in whatever form it takes, is in short supply.

And that was just as true in Jesus’ time. Many could not guarantee where there next meal might come from. They hoped, they prayed and they worked – but there were no certainties.

Moses had spoken of the manna in the desert as being God’s gift of bread for the hungry but ungrateful Israelites to eat. By God’s grace they got what they needed – and now Jesus came to embody that grace of God in himself. He had just demonstrated God’s bounteous grace by feeding the five thousand on the hillside – and now he wanted them to think further and deeper.

“I am the bread of life” – whatever happens, whatever circumstances life inflicts upon you, whatever the wealthy and the powerful do to you – you are a precious child of God, and I have come to show God’s love to you.” That’s what Jesus means.

The sacramental truth is that in Jesus we may see all that we need to know about God. We have what we need to sustain us for eternity. In the man we see God at work.

Look to Jesus, look at his life, his teaching, his miracles, his persecution, his death and his resurrection. There you will find the bread of life.

“I am the bread of life – feed on me and you will never be hungry”.

Why Will They Come?

Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. (Ephesians 3:20-21 NRSV)

A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. (John 6:2 NRSV)

The question is, why did the crowds follow Jesus in such great numbers?

Well, because he was the Son of God, we might answer; or, because he taught with authority; or even, because they saw him as the Messiah who would free Israel from foreign oppression.

Maybe, but I think the answer is simpler, but no less important for being so. I think the answer to why so many people flocked to hear Jesus in such great numbers is “Self Interest” – or at least that’s where it began.

You see, I don’t believe that, at its root, human nature changes a great deal from one generation to another.

We may live in a society which is more sophisticated in some ways than that of First Century Palestine but when push comes to shove, we’re not that different really. We may smirk at the superstitions and pretentions of previous generations, but we have our own, which future generations will laugh at in their turn. We may abhor the brutality and violence of older societies but, in truth, it is never far below the surface of our own.

Certainly, we have learned and are continuing to learn of different ways to approach the problems of our world, but hindsight can be the weapon of the smug and to project our values onto the people of ancient times is to act with considerable arrogance. You see, we’re not so different; which is why the Gospel is just as relevant to us as it was to the people of Jesus’ time.

The clue to why so many people followed Jesus on his earthly travels is given to us in that short passage from John’s gospel, above. In verse 2 of chapter 6 the evangelist tells us: “A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick.”

They came to him for healing of the body and stayed for the healing of the soul.

The people of Jesus’ day, just like the people of today, needed hope. And Jesus gave them hope. He didn’t need, on the whole, to teach them to believe in God. The vast majority of them already believed. The same is true today.

Many people came to him because they heard that he could heal them of their infirmities. They came to him in their brokenness, and he gave them their lives back. For that is what healing is – to be given a new lease of life. All those people Jesus healed would go on to face death like the rest of us; but their encounter with him changed their lives.

And having come to him, either for themselves or bringing their loved ones with them, they saw that this man was different; and they stayed to hear what he had to say. Their encounter with Jesus reconnected them with the God who loved them. He not only gave them back their lives: he gave them hope – for this life and for eternity.

He didn’t judge who was worthy, who was the right kind of person, or who could best benefit from his services. He just met the needs of everyone who came – and proclaimed the Kingdom of God.

He then called his followers to go out and do the same, first in half a dozen pairs and then later in larger numbers. And finally he commissioned his friends do carry on his work – not to build an institution, a sect or a denomination – but to care, to proclaim, to baptize and to teach.

That task falls upon our generation too; and we still have the gift of the Holy Spirit to empower and enthuse us for our work. We may feel that we are frail and faltering Christians, and that is probably true – its certainly true for me; but by God’s grace and in God’s name we are called to share his love with those around us – to help them to have that life-changing encounter with Christ.

The people of our time need hope too. Can you think of anything more hope-less than just getting by from birth to death with no sense of purpose or aim?

But Christ offers us hope, and God has a purpose for each life. In Christ we can discover that purpose. We may not have Christ’s miraculous powers to ourselves but the purpose of the church church is to be a community of hope and encounter with the love of God.

That is a tough vocation, but it is also an attractive one, for when people catch a glimpse of hope they are much more likely to stay to hear the words of eternal life, and grow into the people God created them to be.

But, we say to ourselves, “Oh, I could never do that. I could never bring someone to encounter Christ. That’s not for me. I could never do it.”

Well, you’re in good company: including people like Moses who, in his old age, when called by God to go and free the Israelites from slavery, responded with words to the effect of: “Here I am lord. Please send somebody else!”

But we have the gift of the Holy Spirit to inspire and guide us in our vocation.

And we should also remind ourselves of those words from St Paul in that passage from Ephesians, above: “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”

Trinity of Love

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:9-11 NRSV)

In my view, for what it’s worth, there seem to be basically two ways of studying Theology. There are those theologians who see their subject as an academic discipline, to be studied and explored much as you would do for, say, history or archaeology.

And then there are those for whom the study of theology is a determined effort to discover more of the truth about God, especially so that they can be applied to the Christian life.

For Christians, the latter approach is likely to bear more fruit, but that is not to denigrate the discoveries made by those who pursue an academic discipline for its own sake. Study for its own sake is both honourable and necessary to enable out thinking to be challenged.

However, I do get a little puzzled when theologians occasionally make comments to the effect that you won’t find much talk about the Holy Trinity in the New Testament.

The quotation from Mark’s gospel, above, is just one example of why that simply isn’t an accurate picture. Certainly, the term “Holy Trinity” is not used, but the presence of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit is explicit in the gospels.

The study of the Trinity, difficult though it is, is necessary if we are to deepen our understanding of the one whom we worship.

It is important to grapple with that age-old problem which has faced human beings since almost time began. How do you define God?

Its an age-old problem because no-one has ever really successfully solved it. But, if you think about it, that’s really how it ought to be.

Because if we could define God – if we could, with 100% certainty say that God is this or God is that, then we would present ourselves with another difficulty.

And that difficulty is this:  once you have defined God, you must know pretty well everything about him. And the only person who knows everything about God – is God! So, to be able to accurately define God is a logical and philosophical impossibility. (No surprise, then, that one of the Great names for God in the Old Testament may be translated simply as “I am” – “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.'” (Exodus 3:14 NRSV)).

To attempt to prove the point, try something on a smaller scale. Try defining another human being. If you got half a dozen people to give description of someone they all know, that description might agree in many senses – but there would be disagreements in the detail.

And that wouldn’t surprise anyone, because they would all have encountered different aspects of that person. You might be father, mother, brother, sister, son, daughter, friend, work mate and each would bring about different ways of describing him or her.

But it’s even more complicated than that, because each one who tried to make their description would be filtering their views through their own personality, their own preoccupations, their own values.

So if it’s so hard to define another human being it should be little wonder that we have such difficulty in defining God.

But part of the vocation of the Christian is to try to at least understand more about God. And that is why our understanding has grown and developed over the centuries.

People have reflected on the existence and presence of God in our universe, they have seen the results of his activity in creation, and of what happens to creation when his creatures live without reference to God. And so our understanding has grown.

In any case, we know enough to get by. And we celebrate what we do know about God: that God is Creator of all; that God has taken on our human likeness; and that God is Spirit – comforting and disturbing us in our daily lives.

And supremely, we know that the God we worship is a God of love.

Over the millennia people have tried to project all kinds of fearsome attributes onto God – usually at someone else’s expense. Anger, jealousy, vengeance have all been laid at God’s door, often as a means of seeking to control other people.

Children have been threatened with eternal damnation if they don’t sit up, take notice and, of course, behave.

I have a friend who was completely put off her childhood faith because pious teachers told her that if she didn’t work hard and do her homework, she would probably go straight to the fires of hell for all eternity.

And Christians down the centuries have often tried to turn their churches into private clubs which ensure that some are “in” and others are “out”.

It’s no wonder organised religion has something of a dodgy name.

For one of the most potent and powerful attributes of God is NOT anger, jealousy or vengeance – but love.

And the evidence and the experience of so many Christians is so overwhelming that if we are to understand nothing else at all about God, we must understand that he is a God of love.

Creation is an act of love, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is an act of love, the activity of the Holy Spirit in the life of the world is an act of love. If it is not of love, then it is not of God.

Speaking of a God of love is not a cop out, not a 1960s hippie sentiment. Nor is it an easy way of avoiding all the really serious issues. Far from it.

For the love of God is so awesome that it can be a fearful enough thing in itself. It is a love which we may aspire to but can’t hope to live up to.

When we talk about God Almighty, God all powerful, God the omnipotent, remember that God is also God the vulnerable, God who risks humiliation, God who weeps, God who suffers.

Re-read carefully the story of Jesus – especially the part leading up to and including the events of the cross on Good Friday. The Cross itself was an act of love.

That is why it is right to try to express that love of God in the life of our church communities. We need to take risks for God, we need to become vulnerable for God. For only then can we get along-side God’s people – both inside and outside the Church.

God’s love, by human standards, is often reckless and foolhardy. That may have to be our model too.

God the Holy Trinity might ultimately be undefinable by human intellect – but his loving purposes are clear enough for us to see; and for that we offer him our worship and our thanks and praise.

The Cornerstone

This Jesus is ‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.’
(Acts 4:11 NRSV)

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
(John 10:11 NRSV)

The stone that was rejected has become the cornerstone – the cornerstone of what?

Building methods have changed considerably over the centuries; and nothing more than in recent times. These days if you want to put up a building you choose your method according to the size of the building. If it’s a house, you make sure that there is a good concrete raft for the structure to stand on. If it’s a larger building, you erect a frame of rolled steel joists and clad these with bricks, or stones, or even steel, aluminium or plastic.

In the first instance it is the concrete raft which supports the weight of the building. In the latter it is the steel frame, usually anchored in concrete which does the job.

But up until the 20th century your options were more constrained.

Look at any pre-20th Century English church. One of the most common architectural features is that it depends on keystones for its structural integrity. Keystones are the tapered blocks at the head of all the arches which stop the whole structure from collapsing. They lock the other stones into place and transfer the weight down the columns to the foundations.

Similarly, in times gone by, large buildings depended on cornerstones. Cornerstones do what it says on the tin. They are substantial stones placed at the corners of large buildings which serve to support the weight of the structure and to provide the point of reference for all the other stones in the structure.

If Jesus is the corner stone of the church, he is supporting a very great weight indeed.

And yet this is exactly the way in which the early church viewed him. Without Christ the Church is utterly without support, and will collapse. Without Christ, the Church has no point of reference against which to define its purpose.

Whatever does that mean?

Well, it means that the church is not a club for like-minded people; nor is it a place where we come just to feel better because we believe in God.

What it does mean is that the Church, local, world-wide and universal, draws its strength and its entire purpose from the reality of the Son of God, and all that he came to do. He is her cornerstone, her one point of reference.

The Church in every age is the embodiment of the purposes of God in Christ; or at least we should be.

And so we ask again: whatever does that mean? To put it plainly: whatever Jesus was, the Church should seek to be in our time and place.

Jesus described himself as the good shepherd, meaning that there was nothing that he would not do for his flock: including dying for them – for us. As the body of Christ in our time and place – tough though it seems – we need to be prepared to follow Christ’s example. That is the concept of agapé; the self-giving love exemplified by Christ.

Many were drawn to Jesus by his teaching, his healing and his example of humility. The Church of today must continue his teaching and, though we may lack his miraculous powers, there is much we can do to offer healing to each other and those around us.

Never underestimate the healing power of a kind word or a smile of welcome. And, in the name of Christ’s humility, there is an immense amount that we could do to be genuinely welcoming of others into our church communities – it’s a role which is not just for the welcome team but for the whole church family.

We are greatly blessed that, in his mission of salvation, Jesus held absolutely nothing back in his care for us. Our vocation, our calling, is to continue that mission – to care for the flock and to reach out for the lost sheep in the name of Jesus.

We need to worship, we need to proclaim, we need to support, we need to evangelise, we need to teach and nurture, we need to give and to forgive, and we need to care – in the name of Jesus our Lord.

For there is no other name in which we dare do this; no other name which is worthy; only Jesus Christ, who is the cornerstone of our faith.

Accomplished

A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
(John 19:29-30 NRSV)

It is finished. It is all accomplished.

The death of Jesus on the cross is not a failure, but a resounding success. He has done all he has come to do.

He has lived, he has taught, he has healed, he has overcome temptation, he has borne the sin of humanity, he has forgiven, he has offered himself up once and for all.

That is why we may call it Good Friday; because through it the slate is wiped clean and humanity is redeemed.

Through the life and death of Jesus the eternal Kingdom of God is inaugurated for our place and time, and its servant King has been crowned.

But this is not the end of the story, merely the end of a chapter; for soon there will be a rising, a new creation, a new exodus, a new dawn; the dawn of a new adventure which thunders down the ages to our time – an adventure in which we may take part.

Prayer
Lord Jesus,
we have remembered the agony of your Cross.
Through it we have seen your love
and known your saving grace.
May its power guide and strengthen us throughout our lives,
and point us always to the gateway of the Kingdom;
for your Holy name’s sake.
Amen

Rest

Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” (Luke 23:46 NRSV)

The ordeal is over; the crucified victim can take his rest.

Surely it wasn’t supposed to be this way? Not like this.

The one who came to reveal God’s love, to bring forgiveness, to be the promised blessing to all nations, to restore us to a loving relationship with our Creator – surely it shouldn’t have come to this?

A loving father would seek, would move heaven and earth, to protect his son from such pain and humiliation. Would not a loving God do the same?

The irony is that Jesus knew that this trial would come upon him, and he warned his followers in advance (even the previous evening); though they didn’t understand his prophecy.

But doesn’t that make God a capricious tyrant who would demand his own Son’s sacrifice as a ransom for sin?

No. Jesus, fully God and fully human, brought God’s love to a broken world freely and voluntarily. He could have walked away at any time, but thank God he didn’t because then salvation would not be ours.

Jesus was certainly a prophet. He knew God’s purposes and he knew the human heart; and he spoke of one into the other. And he did so out of love.

Jesus was also a priest, in the Old Testament sense of the word. He both offered and provided the sacrifice of himself (the unblemished Lamb of God) to atone for the sin of the world – including our own sin – for all time. And he did so out of love.

And Jesus was (and is) a king. Far from representing his humiliation, his crucifixion marked his coronation as the Servant King of the Servant Kingdom. The world is changed forever because of his love for all people, including you and me.

The ordeal is over; the crucified victim can take his rest.