Tag Archives: Gospel of John

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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Discipleship: Growing in Grace

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:1-3 NRSV)

My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. (John 15:8 NRSV)

Not long after we moved into our current home, my wife Denise was looking through a few shrubs and things that were being sold off at a garden centre, and she picked up a couple of English grape vine cuttings for a few pounds.

We put them in patio pots, not expecting much to happen, partly because they had been sold off at the end of season and didn’t look to be particularly healthy specimens. In addition, the latitude at which we live is not especially famous for generating the kind of climate in which grapes are known to flourish. Even though southern England now has some successful vineyards, we’re just a bit too far north.

Sure enough, within a few months one of the vines had died off, but the other had grown a few shoots so, for a bit of fun, next spring we planted it in a sunny spot which was also sheltered from the wind.

Well, it did survive and began to flourish. About three years ago it produced a few tiny grapes. The next year, however, our vine went almost rampant. It took over one wall of the house and started climbing towards the roof. It produced many bunches of grapes hanging from it ready to be harvested.

They are still not the huge bunches that grow in France, Spain and Italy, but at last, after about 8 years, our vine is starting to bear real fruit. It has taken time, a bit of patience and some pruning, but the results are there to be seen.

In the first of these little reflections on the theme of Discipleship (here) we thought about the importance of “belonging” to a loving church family as an aid to our growth as disciples. In our second reflection (here), we considered that the practice of religion – doing and saying all the right things, following all the rules – might well be important, but it was of far less significance than growing in our relationship with God and each other.

We also saw that being a disciple was very much like being an apprentice – we are learning on the job, learning to become the people God created us to be, learning to be God’s people.

We are on a journey of growth, and we might say that we are on a journey of growing in God’s Grace.

But what is Grace, and why do we need to grow in it?

Grace is one of those words to which we attach all kinds of meanings, and which we use in a variety of situations.

It has become popular again as a child’s name at baptisms; we talk about people being graceful, when often we mean elegant; we speak of someone’s graciousness, thinking about their kindness and generosity of heart. Sometimes we use it to mean humility: we say “he had the grace to apologise.”

And, of course, the correct way to address an archbishop (the next time you find yourself in such elevated company) is, “Your Grace.”

But “Grace” in Christian terms has a very specific and technical meaning.

Grace is that which is a free, and completely undeserved, gift from God.

And so for Paul in his First Letter to the Church at Corinth, love, the love he proclaims to the Corinthians, is the greatest of all God’s gifts of Grace.

Sadly, over the years I have seen some ungracious things going on in churches, and I have to confess that, on occasions, I have been a part of them. I have seen Anglo Catholics stamping their feet because somebody hasn’t been called “Father” or some particular ritual hasn’t been carried out properly. Equally, I have seen Evangelicals insisting that others are not Christians because they don’t sign up to a specific ideology.

I have seen liberal intellectuals dismiss with contempt the humble faith of ordinary people; and I have seen Pentecostals who hang signs over their church doors telling people that you can’t be a member of their church unless you speak in tongues.

Name the denomination, name the church, and we’ve all done it – to our collective shame; God forgive us.

For none of this, nor many of the antics and attitudes which can affect the life of any church – none of it has anything whatsoever to do with discipleship.

Because discipleship is about growing in Grace.

It is about gradually shedding those attitudes and activities which cut us off from God and our neighbours, and growing in the self-giving love which is God’s most gracious gift to each of us.

And God knows we can’t do it all at once: that it might take the rest of our lives. That’s why being a disciple is not about being part of a holy club, nor a religious sect, but about being part of loving fellowship seeking a life-transforming relationship with God.

And in order to grow in love, and in those other gracious gifts which God showers upon us, we need to remain united to Jesus Christ, in worship, in fellowship and in the service of his kingdom.

So the analogy of the vine is a very helpful one. (Read John, Ch 15, verses 1 – 8) It is through our relationship with Christ: through our worship, prayer, study of the scriptures and acts of service and forgiveness – that we grow in grace to become more like the people God created us to be.

But, as has been explained so well by Rick Warren, its not all about us.

Being a disciple, growing in grace, is not a lifestyle choice as in following the latest social trend. It is about allowing the life of Jesus, the true vine, to flow through us to nurture and invigorate us. Therefore the analogy of being a part of the true vine takes us further still, because the purpose of our discipleship is to bear fruit as people and for God’s Kingdom.

Many years ago now, as I was anxiously exploring my vocation to ministry, a wise priest said to a group of us, “God does not call you to be successful; but he does call you to be fruitful.”

Our discipleship will not guarantee us success, but it will help us to bear fruit – for the benefit of others: in our homes, in our church family, in our neighbourhood, for future generations of Christians – for the poor, the sick, the marginalised, the abused, the forgotten – those for whom Jesus demonstrated his divine and gracious love.

The purpose of discipleship, the purpose of growing in grace through our relationship with Jesus Christ is not just so that we can feel better about ourselves – though it may do that. Nor is it so that we can be more holy, or more correct in our religious observances – though those things may well happen as a side-effect.

No, the real purpose of our discipleship is to share in the life of the Kingdom, with God and with each other, to grow into the people God created us to be, and to bear fruit for the Kingdom – fruit that will last, fruit that will hopefully outlast us.

Because that is how God is glorified.

NJC

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

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.”

Loss and Hope

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And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”
(Revelation 21:3-4 NRSV)

In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?
(John 14:2 NRSV)

The Festivals of All Saints (1st November) and All Souls (2nd November), certainly come at a fitting time of the year, and they are much more profound than the nonsense which Halloween has become. (Halloween – “All Hallows Eve” – draws its name from the fact that it is the eve of All Saints Day).

But these two festivals engage with us at the levels of our faith and our sense of mortality. The days are shorter and the nights are drawing in and memories of the passing year, and of passing time, come to the fore. And so this time of year is naturally a time of remembrance.

On All Saints Day we give thanks for those men and women, famous and unknown, who have, little by little, changed the world by living their Christian values, by putting Christ at the centre of their world, in their everyday, ordinary lives.

On All Souls Day we give thanks for our loved ones, those who have nurtured us and cared for us, befriended us, protected us and taught us – and we do so especially for those whose loss we have recently borne.

A few days hence, of course, in the UK we remember with pride and thanksgiving those who have paid the greatest price in the wars and conflicts of our land; whose gift and sacrifice has kept us safe; something we so often take for granted.

It is a time for Remembering.

There are many things which we share as part of our common humanity and, sadly, suffering and death is one of them.

And yet, each death, each loss, is such a personal thing. The person we mourn is a husband, a wife, a mum or a dad, a grandmother or grandfather, a child, a relative, a partner, a friend, a lover. The grief is raw and personal, and we think that no-one can understand what we are going through.

And that is true; because no matter how psychologists attempt to label our feelings, grief is a very individual phenomenon. It’s different for each of us, even though there may be some common threads.

The feelings associated with the loss of a loved one cut to the core of who we are as human beings. It can cause us to ask some very fundamental questions about the meaning of life.

Sadly, for example, at such times some people give up on God, because their grief brings out a very understandable sense of anger. They blame God for their loss. How could a “Good God” allow this to happen to me, to him, to her? If this is the place you are in, have a look in your Bible at Psalm 22. See how it begins; see how it ends.

Then, if you have time, take a look at Luke’s Gospel, Chapter 23, verses 33-48.

For other people, however, those fundamental questions of existence and the meaning of life set them off on a journey which draws them closer to our Lord. The pain is just as deep, but somehow it seems a little more bearable because of their hope and trust in the words of our Lord.

That’s what hope is; not a form of wishful thinking, (as in “I hope things turn out for the best.”), but rather a trust in the promises of God.

And we catch just a glimpse of those promises in the two excerpts at the top of this page.

The passage from the Book of the Revelation was written at a time of great tribulation; and yet the writer is able to describe a vision where God has put an end to pain and suffering – death even, and will wipe our very tears away. That passage, and other similar ones, have given great comfort and consolation to millions of people through the centuries, and continue to do so around our world today.

In the passage from John’s Gospel we hear Jesus reminding his bewildered friends of their eternal hope. He speaks of a house with many rooms which he prepares for us, and even offers to be our guide.

He couldn’t be clearer: there is a place in God’s eternal Kingdom for all. It is a powerful metaphor of the truth that death is not the end, but simply a way-point on the journey. And, Jesus went on to demonstrate that truth through his own suffering and death – and his glorious resurrection.

What many of us want to know, when we lose a loved one, is “is that the end? Is there more? Is there really a heaven? If so, is the person I love there and in safe hands?”

The words of Jesus spoken just before his own terrible suffering, offer us that reassurance, that true hope.

No one else may be able to understand what we are going through in our grief – but God does; and, if we allow him to, he will enter the painful silence and emptiness of our hearts, and bring us healing and hope – hope for our loved ones and for ourselves. Hope that God will eventually wipe away our tears, in that house with many rooms; hope, not to give up and retreat into ourselves, but to continue our lives until that promise is fulfilled for each of us.

Just Ask

If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.
(John 14:14 NRSV)

At the heart of a living relationship with God is prayer.

The problem is that so many of us take such an individualistic consumer approach to prayer that when things don’t go our way, we assume that prayer doesn’t work and we give up.

But I have seen prayer work, and I have seen lives changed by prayer, including my own.

But what is prayer, and why bother to pray? Well, many books continue to be written on the subject and there are a whole range of prayer and spiritual disciplines.

In a nutshell, though, prayer is our conversation with God. In healthy prayer, just as in a healthy conversation with other people, we talk and we listen. If I am having a conversation with my wife, I don’t think I would be all that popular if I am doing all the talking. That’s especially true if all my talk is about the list of things I want her to do for me!

No, if our relationship means all that it should, we will talk, listen, and sometimes just sit quietly and enjoy each other’s company. And If I want our relationship to continue to grow and develop I will make sure that I take an interest in the things that are important to her. Finally, neither of us would ask the other to do something which was clearly not right for them, or not in character.

Our prayer life can be similar. Through it each of us can grow in our spiritual relationship with God. Yes, we can lay our burdens before him, and we can make our requests in prayer, but how much better it is to take God seriously enough to want to get to know him better along the way.

Just talk to God, anywhere, any time. Don’t use religious language; just tell him what’s on your heart. And take the time to listen, too.

Jesus said, “Ask anything in my name.” – and the clue is in those words: “in my name.”

Prayer is not the presentation of a shopping list of demands to God. It is the cornerstone of our relationship with him, and a means by which our lives can be transformed.

Jesus,
teach me to pray,
teach me to talk, to listen and to keep silent.
Amen.

God’s Vineyard

I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.
(John 15:5 NRSV)

The age of individualism is passing, or so we are told. The “crowd” is everything for the millennial generation. However, I’m not sure that the crowd is the same as the community. A crowd may go to a concert, but it may still be a bunch of individuals gathered in one place. A community is something entirely different.

So many of us today think of the Church either as a formal and hierarchical institution, or a place where we go to (as individuals) on a Sunday; or for a wedding or funeral. There is truth in both these concepts, but neither is what Jesus means when he speaks of the community of Christians. Jesus talks about his followers as being part of a vine.

I have a vine growing up the wall of my house and, if I neglect to prune it and trim it, it really can send out shoots in every direction. But it is entirely dependent upon a single stem to connect it to its source of nourishment.

Jesus does not seek followers who are super men or women; or with holier-than-thou pomposity, or who are cleverer or more religious than everyone else. Rather he seeks those who will be the shoots of his vine that will spread and bear fruit. A clergyman who helped me greatly on my journey once said, “God does not call us to be successful. He calls us to be fruitful.”

Bearing fruit happens when we seek to live the values of the Kingdom of God, in the places where we find ourselves from day to day. But the concept of the vine is very important here because, being frail human beings, the best way for us to seek to live out those Kingdom values, is to remain united to the King through worship, prayer, fellowship and discipleship.

The Church is neither a religious building, nor a religious institution; and it has nothing to do with denomination. At its best the Church is the (global) community of people seeking to bear fruit for the Kingdom through its unity with Jesus.

Jesus,
when I forget my need of you,
and neglect my relationship with the people you love,
draw me to the vine.
Amen.

Some Help Along the Way

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.
(John 14:15-16 NRSV)

The concept of the Holy Trinity is firmly established in Christian understanding about the Nature of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit (or, if you prefer, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer) is the shorthand for a way of understanding the God who was there before all things, who entered into relationship with his own Creation and who ultimately pervades every aspect of life.

I find it to be mind-boggling stuff and prefer to leave it to those who are experts in various “-ologies” to argue things through.

That’s not intended to be an act of inverted snobbery but rather an acknowledgement that we can get so caught up in the finer details of a topic that we might miss what God is saying to us. We need to stand back from the trees to see the forest.

When Jesus talks about “the advocate” he is referring, of course, to the Holy Spirit, whose role is to enlighten, inspire and empower us as we seek to follow his teachings. The Spirit is the helper and guide, symbolised by the dove and by flames.

Jesus knew that for the Kingdom to grow he would have to leave his disciples to carry on and carry forward his work. Shortly before his arrest he tells them that after he has gone they will be given another helper for the task ahead. They couldn’t do it alone.

It was that special gift of God’s Holy Spirit which enabled Jesus’s followers (a motley bunch of ordinary people) to get up and proclaim the Gospel of God’s love right across the known world. That special gift continues to be at work in our time and is the one who, if I may be so bold as to say so, is at work in you as you explore your own questions of faith.

Jesus,
Thank you for the gift of the Holy Spirit.
May I be empowered to serve your Kingdom,
inspired to proclaim your love
and enlightened to know your truth.
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.