Tag Archives: Forgiveness

Words of Life

Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel. (Ephesians 6:19 NRSV)

Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. (John 6:68 NRSV)

I have occasionally been told that I have something of a mischievous sense of humour. I suspect that people are usually being polite when they say that and what they really mean is something much less complementary.

I don’t mean that I’m a practical joker or anything like that, because I think that most practical jokes are usually not very funny, and can even be a form of bullying. But I do have a slightly oddball sense of humour, based on a significant number of years observing life in all its “richness”. I’m a bit of a people watcher.

So, for example, when someone comes up to me and says, rather sternly, “I’d like a word with you vicar,” whilst I try to maintain a calm and collected countenance, occasionally one part of my brain is saying, “Put the kettle on. This is going to be a long job,” another part of me is mentally checking my insurance policies whilst a third part is thinking, “Any particular word you would like?”

In the same way, I’m not much of a fan of certain types of modern comedy, which I often find to be crude, vulgar and demeaning or so politically correct that you have to be told when to laugh. Alternatively it looks down its nose at those people it considers to be “uncool”.

I’m sure this is partly a facet of my generation, but I quite like the humour of an earlier age which was often based on word-play or innuendo.

But words do matter; and the way we use words matters, too.

Words do more than merely share conversation. Words are amazingly powerful. For Christians, words are part of the way in which we share God’s love with each other, and they are certainly the means by which we communicate a major part of our Good News. In fact one whole gospel is dedicated to the one who is described as “the Word.” Take a look at the Gospel of John, Chapter 1, verses 1 to 14.

Words really do matter, and so does the way that we use them.

St Paul was quite a wordsmith when he wanted to be, but he was also deeply concerned that God would give him the words to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ – which are nothing less than the words of forgiveness, reconciliation, healing and salvation.

He asked his friends: “Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel.” That should certainly be our prayer, too. It is most definitely mine.

Just imagine, for a moment, that our words were not idle gossip, not words of judgement or criticism of another person, not words of complaint or envy – but words of eternal life: words which flow from our relationship with our Lord; words not based on our shopping list of demands of God, but on the intimacy of our prayerful relationship with him.

What kind of words would they be?

What would be their effect?

Who would they comfort?

Who would they build up or inspire?

Who would they release from bondage?

Whose eyes would be lifted over the horizon?

With whom would they join us in a relationship of love?

The words of eternal life are spoken by Jesus and recorded in the gospels. We should study them very carefully, for they are intended for us, too.

St Paul asked his friends to pray that he would be able to proclaim that gospel. And there’s our cue; because the prayer of St Paul should be our prayer too: that God will give us the right words, to use with the right people, in the right season.

NJC

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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

Father, Forgive

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. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing.
(Luke 23:33-34 NRSV)

First of all, the cross is about forgiveness.

The Incarnation of Jesus, the taking of our human flesh by God himself, was significantly about healing a relationship: the relationship between humankind and God. The God who loves and deeply respects his creation sought to restore that broken relationship.

Anyone who has experienced the breakdown of a relationship or friendship knows just how acrimonious that can turn out to be. Blame is heaped upon blame; accusations fly in all directions; only very occasionally does anyone ever say sorry; but often by then the damage is done, the trust is broken.

But saying sorry is only a part of the story. To heal a damaged or broken relationship also requires forgiveness; and true forgiveness – the setting aside of the perceived offences – is one of the toughest things we will ever have to do; because to forgive is to bear the cost and the pain of the offence, forever if necessary. Those who say “I’ll forgive but I will never forget” have not truly forgiven, but bear a grudge in their hearts which is just waiting to burst out on a future occasion.

The pain may be even more acute if the offender is not even aware of the offence. The people of Jesus’ time, just as are so many of our own time, were largely unaware of their sin, including their sin of the persecution of the one who came to show God’s love.

“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” Forgive also acts of ignorance and carelessness – and the cost is nothing less than the pain and death of the victim.
Many in our time would see such forgiveness as a pathetic and weak stance; but it is, in fact, an act of the purest self-emptying love.

A New Kingdom

But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (Matthew 16:23 NRSV)

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. (Romans 12:9-10 NRSV)

When the Romans built the most powerful empire of the ancient world, they ruled brutally and ruthlessly at the point of a sword. Those who stood against them, or who disobeyed their laws were summarily dealt with, and often made an example of.

The whole point of taking those who had been sentenced to death and parading them through the streets to a very public execution at the city gates was to serve as a warning to others. “This is how we deal with those who cross us.”

But, at the risk of sounding like someone from a “Monty Python” film, the Romans were not just savage brutes, they did some positive things as well, copying the Greeks to develop their civilisation into something which many have looked back upon with admiration.

They were, for example remarkably tolerant of various religions and, crucially, they understood that for most people, while they may take pride in their imperial prowess and prestige, other more basic concerns (like food, clothing and safety) would always predominate.

The Leaders also knew that people also needed to feel that they could somehow participate in the imperial enterprise and so the emperors responded by building huge amphitheatres and stadia for the games which people could enjoy. It’s where we get the rather cynical notion of “Bread and Circuses” from – keep the people fed and distracted and all will be well.

However, in the middle of this dangerous and politically charged realm, a new Kingdom was being established; and its founders knew that it would face opposition, even persecution.

And although this Kingdom, the Kingdom of God, had been inaugurated by Our Lord in what would have seemed like the most inauspicious of circumstances, it was, within a very few years of Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, already beginning to flourish and grow. Little communities, little groups of people were gathering together to worship God and follow the teachings of his Son Jesus Christ.

For Jesus’ Kingdom would be a very different one from the Kingdom of the Romans, or any other regime for that matter. And it was a Kingdom where behaviour mattered just as much as belief.

The passage from Matthew’s Gospel shows us just what happened to poor old Peter when he tried to apply his understanding of worldly leaders, to the one who would be Lord of God’s Kingdom. Control, manipulation, revenge and the ruthless use of power have no place in this Kingdom.

Although Jesus does talk about the importance of belief, it is the consequences of that belief which matter. God’s Kingdom is built on those consequences.

Jesus explains the values of God’s Kingdom very early on in his ministry, and he keeps returning to the theme, and I find it amazing that so many Christians, in their obsession about believing the “right” things, simply miss what Jesus is saying.

We can say that we believe all kinds of things about God and Jesus, but if our beliefs don’t percolate through into our day to day behaviour and decisions, then our beliefs are nothing more than a bit of personal comfort.

What is required before we can even begin to understand the nature of God’s Kingdom is actually a change of heart and mind to see the world through Jesus’ eyes, the eyes of the Kingdom, rather than through the eyes of contemporary culture. And that has always been true, for the last 2000 years.

That process of changing our hearts and minds so that we think in the ways of God’s kingdom – that process is called repentance. Repentance is much less about anguished breast-beating over real or imagined sinfulness, and much more of a change of heart which reorients us to live the values of the Kingdom.

St Paul, in his letter to the little community of believers in Rome, seeks to add flesh to the bones of their belief. Being part of God’s Kingdom means that they must think again about their attitudes and actions, to each other and to the wider world.

Just listen to some of his words:

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour.

Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.

Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.

Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.

Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.
If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.

Paul is saying to them, “The life you have in Christ together is a precious gift, because it is nothing less than the life of God’s Kingdom. So you should outdo each other in your enthusiasm to live by God’s life-enhancing ways, the ways of Christ.”

The Christian faith is much more than can be defined by the narrow definition of a religion. I don’t think Jesus came to found a new religion to add to the world’s strife and conflict. At its best, (and I mean at its very best), our Christian faith is much more than a set of religious practices and beliefs.

At its best, it is nothing less than a worldly manifestation of the eternal Kingdom of God.

A Friend on the Journey

When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.
(Luke 24:30-31 NRSV)

I must admit that my favourite story about Jesus, from the time after he had risen, is the account of the “Walk to Emmaus” from Luke’s Gospel.

It is Easter Day and two of Jesus’ bewildered disciples are taking the afternoon walk from Jerusalem to the village of Emmaus when a stranger joins them. Luke informs the reader that the stranger is the risen Jesus, but his friends don’t recognise him.

As he walks with them he lifts their hearts with his explanation of why all these things had taken place. When they get to their destination it is dusk so they invite the stranger in to eat with them.

As they recognise him in the blessing and breaking of bread, they are astonished but, even as he disappears from them, they suddenly understand the depth of meaning in their encounter. Hearts ablaze with joy and enthusiasm, they ignore the dangers of a night-time journey and rush back to Jerusalem to tell their friends.

Jesus’ friends had thought that it had all gone horribly wrong for them; that all in which they had put their hope and trust had turned to dust; had been an illusion. Even as reports of Jesus’ resurrection began to emerge some of them (quite understandably!) struggled to take it in.

The encounter with the risen Christ changed that.

We have the benefit of the New Testament to explain this to us, and many have encountered the risen Christ starting with a tentative exploration of the Gospels.

But Luke, in his vivid account, gives us another clue. It was in the breaking of bread that his friends recognised Jesus with them; and for twenty centuries countless worshippers have discovered the same.

There are several names for it and numerous ways to understand it, but it remains true that many continue to find strength, inner healing, peace, forgiveness, renewal, enthusiasm, commitment and a deep sense of relationship with Jesus through worship which includes the breaking of bread.

Jesus,
Set my heart ablaze with love for you
and my neighbour.
Guide me to your truth
and enthuse me by your Spirit.
Amen.

The Power of the Cross

When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
(John 19:30 NRSV)

Why is the cross such a powerful symbol?

Some see the cross and it lifts their spirits or offers them hope. Others despise it and all that they see it standing for. Whichever way, the cross tends to evoke quite a strong response. I remember, many years ago now, seeing a letter in a journal from someone who was complaining because she had sat a university examination in a church which had been converted for the occasion. She felt that being surrounded by crosses was quite “creepy.”

But for Christians the cross is the ultimate symbol of Jesus Christ. It speaks of humanity’s reconciliation with God through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Some will look at the cross and see God’s forgiveness in the sacrifice of his sinless Son for the sins of the whole world, for all time.

Others will look upon the image of Christ crucified and see him bearing our burdens, standing with us in our darkest moments: God knows your pain because he has endured it.

Many will see, in the empty cross of Easter Day, the mighty power of God at work in the resurrection of Jesus.

For me, the cross is the symbol of God’s overwhelming love. It was not inevitable, though Jesus knew it would happen. He could have walked away from it at any time but he chose to accept it, such was his love.

There, on the cross, we witness pure, divine, self-emptying, subversive love facing the evil that the world can throw at it. From the cross, Christ looks at me (and you) and the look says, “I did this for you.”

And the world is changed, because ultimately (and despite what we may see around us) evil has no voice when confronted by such powerful love. That love has conquered even death itself.

The cross is, for good or ill, many things to many people; but despite the fact that it has been a much abused and misused symbol it is supremely the symbol of God’s love for his world.

Jesus,
Your cross evokes many layers of meaning,
but I thank you
that it is, first and foremost,
the symbol of love.
Amen.

Saint or Satan?

And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.
(Matthew 16:18 NRSV)

But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
(Matthew 16:23 NRSV)

Part of the genius of the gospel writers is that they give us a great insight into some of the personalities they portray, and do so with the utmost economy of words. We know very little about the background of some of the people in the New Testament, and yet their characters stand out clearly through their interaction with Jesus.

Nowhere is this more true than in the writings about Peter, who emerges as a bold and impetuous man, who can also be a coward; a man who often speaks and acts before he thinks, a dear friend of Jesus who denies him at the crucial moment.

It was Peter who exclaimed, with great insight, that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. The same Peter then simply could not grasp the true suffering nature of Jesus’ vocation. One minute he is the “Rock” and the next he is Satan, the accuser and deceiver of souls. You have to have some sympathy for him.

But Peter remained one of Jesus’ closest friends and followers, despite the fact that he let him down when he needed him the most.

For Peter knew that in his encounter with Jesus he had caught that glimpse of heaven. He just struggled to work out what that would mean for the life of an ordinary fisherman and his friends.

The story of Peter can be seen as an allegory of our encounter with God. In that story, the sacred and the secular, the mundane and the mysterious are thoroughly blended together. Human foolishness and weakness is transformed by divine wisdom, forgiveness and love.

And, because the story hasn’t ended (for we are part of the same story which the gospel writers began), the same can be true for us.

Jesus,
Overwhelm my foolishness and weakness
with your wisdom, love and forgiveness.
Bless the everyday things of my life
with your divine grace,
and guide my steps to follow where you lead.
Amen

Salty Goodness!

“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under-foot.”
(Matthew 5:13 NRSV)

I had a friend who tended to have something of a standard response to those who irritated him. “That man is the salt of the earth” he would proclaim, before adding “and he doesn’t half rub it in your wounds!”

I have, today, read an article on the BBC website which speaks of the discomfort felt by atheists in some US communities.

I found the article to be full of sadness for a variety of reasons.

At one shockingly ironic level, you could take the word “atheist” in this article and replace it with the word “Christian” for many. There are places and occasions in my own country where it is not always wise to speak from an explicitly Christian perspective, and those who discover a faith can find themselves ridiculed by friends and even family. So it is sad that people of faith and atheists find themselves experiencing the same sense of dislocation from their peers or from their community for exactly the opposite reasons.

Regardless of what others may say or do, if Christians are so convinced of their rightness that people feel excluded or even persecuted, then we have failed and we should apologise.

God’s Kingdom is one of sacrificial love, and of justice. Any kingdom which seeks to gather one group together and excludes others, for no other reason than that they don’t share our world-view, is not a Kingdom I would wish to be a part of. It is the realm of the tyrant.

Jesus rebuked those who only cared for their own kind. He also reminded people of the commandment to love God and neighbour. He did not say “Love your neighbour if he believes in God.” He simply said, “Love your neighbour.”

The whole business of being “the salt of the earth” is that Christian lives should enhance the experience of those around them, not poison it. We must be mindful of history and, as frail human beings, seek to act out of love. That is especially true in our families, amongst our friends and in our wider communities.

Jesus,
In your love you have welcomed me into your Kingdom.
Help me to understand my call
to share that love with others,
not to prove my point
but in obedience to your gracious command.
Amen.

A Change of Heart

Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
(Mark 1:14-15 NRSV)

Christians occasionally find themselves teased with the image of the street-corner preacher, clutching a huge brass-clasped Bible, whilst wearing a maniacal expression and proclaiming “repent for the end of the world is nigh!” I once saw a cartoon variation of this satire in the form of a man, wearing a huge sandwich board which proclaimed “The end of the world is nigh” on the front and “half-price meals at Joe’s Café” on the back.

The problem is with the word “repent.” It hangs like a mill-stone around the necks of so many as an exhortation to beat our breasts in sorrow for our past life, to seek God’s forgiveness and to turn to Christ.

Whilst there is a great deal of truth in that, especially where our consciences trouble us for genuine (as opposed to imagined) misdeeds, the definition is much too narrow. There is more, and better, to it.

The word “repent” is based on an ancient Greek word which means “to have a change of mind,” or to “think in a different way.” We might think of it as a change of heart, perhaps as a consequence of thinking more deeply or seeing the “bigger picture.”

When Jesus proclaims the Kingdom of God, he is more concerned with saying that something new and wonderful is being inaugurated than he is in raking up the ashes of people’s earlier lives.

Jesus is challenging his hearers, including ourselves, to break out of conventional and long-assumed modes of living to see the world from the perspective of eternity: from God’s perspective.

The Kingdom is not a place for world-weary cynicism, or for exploitation of the status quo. Membership of The Kingdom is not limited to those who think they have attained a degree of holiness.

The Kingdom is the place for those with big and growing hearts, who open their minds to what God is doing in his world, and who want to join in.

That’s the Kingdom of God which Jesus came to proclaim.

Jesus,
show me the big picture
as far as I am able to see it.
Change my heart,
grow my mind
to understand the works of your Kingdom.
Amen