Tag Archives: Reflection

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.

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Thirst

After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I am thirsty.”
(John 19:28 NRSV)

Bleeding from severe wounds inflicted by the soldiers before and during his crucifixion, and exposed to the burning heat of the mid-day sun; his lungs drawing fluid into themselves as a consequence of this barbaric form of execution, it is little wonder that the dehydrating and dying Jesus complains of thirst.

The irony of the cup of suffering, from which Jesus had told his followers he must drink, is that its consequence is the deep thirst of body and soul.

As life slips away the spirit calls out to that which alone will satisfy: the healing of God himself. He who has brought healing and reconciliation to the world is now in need of God’s healing.

For what do we thirst? If it is for money, power or renown – even in a small sphere of life – then most of us will not achieve it and many will become bitter in later life. Those of us who do achieve these things may have the satisfaction, for a while, of their comforts; but we will cut ourselves off from the rest of humanity. The New Testament is clear on that. For where our treasure is, there our heart will be.

But what if we thirst for God’s Kingdom to come, and pledge ourselves to work for it? What then?

Even as Jesus stands along-side the suffering and the penitent of humanity – identifying with their lot at the hands of the powerful and loveless who believe that might, or money, or dogma is right, we may just see in his thirst, a glimpse of something that mere wine or water cannot quench.

Forsaken

At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
(Mark 15:34 NRSV)

“My God, why have you forsaken me?”

The cry of the poor, the abandoned, the beaten, the unjustly accused, the powerless, the abused – all echoed both in the words of the 22nd Psalm and on the Cross of Christ.

Only those who have truly known the sense of wretchedness and utter isolation of the innocent victim can even begin to come to terms with the meaning of these words. To be alone in all the world, hated and despised by your enemies, whilst those you love can only watch in despair: it is the isolation of the death camp, the gulag, the disappeared.

Like many who have been dragged off in the middle of the night to be tortured and beaten and even killed, Jesus carries the burden of his isolation.

Some would say that Jesus could not suffer as we do – he’s God after all!

But this Son of God, fully human as much as he is fully divine, carries not only the burden of his human torture, he carries also the burden of human sinfulness. If Jesus is not God, then he cannot bring God’s forgiveness and salvation. If Jesus is not human, then our humanity is not redeemed.

And so even the Son of God, in his darkest hour, describes himself in the words of the psalmist who has been brought low.

Jesus genuinely knows your pain, because he has experienced it. He has known the utter desolation of feeling cut off from God.

But in using the words of the Psalmist, which he would have known by heart, Jesus offers a clue as to the eventual outcome.

For the Psalm of Lament eventually becomes a song of praise. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” eventually becomes, “Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it.”

The King

There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
(Luke 23:38-43 NRSV)

“This is the King of the Jews.”

During the story of Jesus’ arrest and trials a subtle change takes place in the narrative. He is arrested on a charge of blasphemy, but by the time he is nailed to the cross he has been condemned for treason against the Roman Empire. For the occupying power, there can only be one King of the Jews: Caesar.

Only one of Jesus’ crucified companions recognises that Jesus’ Kingdom is of a very different nature, and pays him homage, even as both are dying, and receives Jesus’ blessing: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”

The Kingdom which Jesus came to inaugurate has no geographical or tribal relevance. It is a Kingdom of eternity which stretches into and beyond our own time.
The criminal who derided Jesus was looking for salvation in this life. He wanted to be saved from death. The penitent thief realised (or at least he sincerely hoped) that death was not the end of the story: that in eternity there is another dimension of life which can be shared in the presence of the true saviour.

His faith revealed that truth to him, and enabled Jesus to offer him words of comfort.
How many of us shout and shake our fists at God, or deny his existence, in the face of death, perhaps especially the death of a loved one. But the eyes of faith will allow us to see beyond our mortal life to the promise of our Lord that we will be with him in Paradise.

That knowledge changes how we see the world, how we live our lives. We live with the vision that this is not all there is, and we begin to see the glimpses of God’s Kingdom all around us.

Loss and Hope

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

Proclaim and Explain

Bible Sunday

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.
(Colossians 3:16 NRSV)

Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
(Matthew 24:35 NRSV)

We live in the age of information. It is hard for anyone, perhaps under the age of 40 or even 50, to realise just what a revolution has taken place in the way we communicate.

Sadly, I am old enough to remember the time when, if my mum wanted to phone her brother in Toronto, she would have to book the call in advance, and it had to be kept short because it would cost an arm and a leg to speak for a few almost unintelligible moments over a transatlantic phone line.

I also remember the introduction in the UK of Subscriber Trunk Dialling, the great innovation of the 1960s which enabled you to call another town, London even, without having to ask an operator to connect you.

Nowadays my daughter in the US might as well be in the next room. We can communicate at the speed of light and my mid-afternoon text can wake her from her morning slumbers.

The technology is fabulous, and I come from the generation which can remember when these things were just gadgets in James Bond films, Dr Who and Thunderbirds. Now, it’s all everyday reality – and I must admit that I think it’s great. I really do. We have never been so connected. Communication around the world is just so easy. And we take all of this for granted. It’s utterly normal.

And I think this is important because communication has always fascinated me.

Now, you have to understand that, although I have spent nearly half of my professional career in and around the communication industry, there is nevertheless an irony in my fascination with communication.

The irony is that I am, like many others, a deep introvert by personality. I have learned that truth by many years of experience and exploration. Being an introvert, I can only cope for so long in large groups of people. Lots of people, all chatting, sharing their views and airing their opinions gets me agitated, and I value significantly those times when I can just be on my own.

But I can’t let go of the simple truth that communication is one of the greatest gifts that God has given to the human race. Its not just about technology. Simple words, and the way that we use them, are fundamental to our ability to be human. Words matter. And not only do words matter, but the way we use them matters too.

And for Christians, the words of the Bible matter, too. Greatly.

But, as with all our conversations, we need to be aware that how we use words can significantly affect their impact and meaning; and we need to remember that all words are culturally defined.

Let me give you an example which some might find painful, but it does illustrate the point.

If I were to say that, “Suicide is a dreadful thing,” I would be expressing compassion for the victim and his or her family; trying to understand something of the anguish which had brought this tragic event to happen, and to seeking to care for the victim’s relatives and friends. Seems common sense to me.

However, were I to go back a hundred years, the phrase “Suicide is a dreadful thing,” might well be a statement of condemnation of the person who had taken his own life, because the religious and cultural environment of the time simply couldn’t contemplate that a God-given life could be so bad as to want to end it.

It’s just an example. Thank God we understand anxiety and depression much better today, but let us not pretend that we don’t have our taboos, which are just as significant.

So, the words and the way that we use them really matter, and that is why it is of the greatest importance to try to understand the words of the scriptures as they were meant to be heard in their time, and as they offered for us to hear now.

Simply looking through the Bible to try to find a verse which suits your feelings or opinions is a lazy and somewhat dangerous pastime.

There is an old saying which says that “a text without a context is a pretext.” It means that if you use the Bible simply to reinforce your own prejudices, as many have done over the centuries, then you are committing a great sin with the word of God.

The Bible is a wonderful source of inspiration and guidance, as well as much else; but it is also a dangerous weapon, an unstable explosive, and you must use it with care. Firing off a verse to suit your convictions is simply dishonest, and will usually be seen as such.

But, at the most fundamental level, so many people simply do not know that they are deeply loved by God, their Creator, and that Jesus came to restore us into a relationship with God. That is why our greatest call at this point in the life of the Church is to proclaim and explain the gospel – the good news of God in Jesus Christ – to all who will listen; and there are many who will, in our society which lacks hope and purpose. But we must do it with understanding, sensitivity, and great care for those with whom we would communicate.

The words of the Gospel matter, they really do! Nothing, I repeat, and I repeat again: nothing matters as much as our call to proclaim and explain the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ to our and future generations; not the way we worship, not the way we organise our church life, not the way we relate to the institution of the church.

Nothing, is more important than our call to proclaim and explain the Gospel to the people of our time.

And the words we use will matter, as will the way that we use them.

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 New Beginning?

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
(Mark 1:1 NRSV)

That’s it! That’s how Mark does it. The shortest and earliest written of the four Gospels (good news) telling the story of Jesus begins with no fanfare, no preliminaries and not an angel or a shepherd in sight; just a straight message that what follows is good news, life-changing news. There are many people around the world today who would share that view: that in Jesus of Nazareth God has done something new, and as a result the world is a different place.

There is still scope, though, for that good news to be heard by fresh generations, or for it to be heard again as the radical truth which it should be.

We live in a time which is, in one sense at least, not unlike the time in which the gospels were written. In a similar manner to the First Century AD (or CE if you prefer) the Christian message must take its place in the great market-place of ideas which is the modern world. That’s fair enough. If the message has validity then people will listen. In addition, just as the Roman roads of the First Century facilitated a huge improvement in communication, our age is experiencing a communication revolution of its own. There has never been a better time to share the Gospel message.

In each of the reflections in Three Minutes with Jesus you will have the opportunity to think about some aspect of the Christian faith via a short passage from the New Testament. They are not “bible studies” as such, but perhaps a starting point for a conversation or an exploration.

The coming of Jesus did herald a new era: the Coming of the Kingdom of God – the Kingdom of love, justice, forgiveness and peace. Even if the followers of Jesus have often failed to live up to those Kingdom values that doesn’t change the basic truth.

But perhaps it is better to say that the coming of Jesus enabled not so much a new start, as a new opportunity for our lives to be lived as God always intended; less of a new beginning, more of a new way to be.

Jesus,
show me that your story is still Good News:
for me, for those I love, for my community
and ultimately for God’s world.
Amen.

Tell it like it is . . .

At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
(Mark 15:34 NRSV)

What’s the sign of a close relationship?

Well, no-doubt there are many, but surely one of the hallmarks of a close relationship is honesty. Friends and acquaintances usually receive an edited transcript of our feelings. Our loved ones occasionally experience them in Technicolor and surround-sound!

Sadly, we quite often treat God as if he were an elderly relative or a friend from a genteel neighbourhood. It’s as if we don’t feel able to tell God just how we are feeling.

But it is ok to shake your fist at God in times of grief and anguish: first of all because the Creator of all that exists can cope with our tantrums; secondly because there is an honourable history of those who have shouted at God in their suffering; and thirdly because being honest with God is a sign of a close relationship, not a weak faith.

The collection of poems, hymns and prayers in the Old Testament Book of Psalms has many examples of people expressing their anger at God, from a position of deep faith. Jesus would have known well the words of Psalm 22, from which his own words are taken. It is a prayer which begins with complaints of bitter anguish and deep depression, but it ends as a hymn of praise.

As Jesus shared the human experience of agonising desolation it would be natural for him to turn to familiar words to cry out in pain.

But God had not abandoned him in his hour of need, as the resurrection demonstrates. Nor does God abandon us in our times of desperation either. He is present despite the sense of isolation, of crucifixion.

I hope that you never experience such times; but let’s face it, most of us do. For many, it is that close relationship with God, expressed in raw words of pain at the darkest moments, which helps them to see the dawn light later on.

Jesus,
You shared our humanity
in all its fullness
and its limitations.
Teach us, me,
to grow in faith
and in honesty of relationship with you,
the human face of God.
Amen

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.