Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Luke 7.1-10 Jesus Heals a Centurion’s Servant

Love in Action (1) - The centurion and his slave.
Luke 7:1-10.

Luke 7.1-10
Jesus Heals a Centurion’s Servant
7After Jesus* had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. 2A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. 3When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. 4When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, ‘He is worthy of having you do this for him, 5for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.’ 6And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, ‘Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; 7therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. 8For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, “Go”, and he goes, and to another, “Come”, and he comes, and to my slave, “Do this”, and the slave does it.’ 9When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, ‘I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.’ 10When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.

In the previous section of his Gospel, Luke shows Jesus establishing the New Israel and implementing the New Law. Having spent some time explaining the theory behind the new law, he now sets about putting love into action. In this lesson we see Jesus revealing aspects of what the law of love is all about. To understand the law of love in its entirety, one needs to examine the whole life and ministry of Jesus, eventually reaching the climax in the passion of the cross.

In this first example we meet a remarkable man of faith. The centurion was a Gentile army captain who was more than likely in command of Jews who had been recruited into the military forces. Galilee was not yet ruled directly by Rome, but was still under the Jewish King, Herod Antipas. Rome allowed him to rule and would probably have assisted him with infrastructure, including military officers (Morris p. 136). The troops would have served as a police force to maintain law and order in the region as well as to ensure that people paid their taxes. Capernaum was a border town and so the soldiers would have served as customs officials (Ellis p. 117).

A centurion was an important man who held a position of great status in the community. Even though the Jewish people and leaders had little or no time for Romans in general and Roman soldiers in particular, it is interesting to note how differently the Jewish people felt about this particular Roman officer. And the reason was simply because - as Wiersbe (pp. 74-75) puts it:

This centurion was not a Stoic who insulated himself from the pain of others. He had a heart of concern, even for the lowly servant boy who was dying from a paralysing disease.

In the centurion we see therefore the most unlikely character, chosen by our Lord to reveal one of the greatest miracles even performed by Jesus.

This passage is loaded with wonderful truths.

Firstly, it is important to note that we are reminded, once again, that no people, irrespective of who they are or what they have done, are ever excluded from God's love. There can never be any person or group of people who ever feel that they are unworthy of our Lord's love - because in fact, all people are unworthy. It is not who we are or what we have done that makes God's grace and love available to us - it is who Jesus is and what Jesus has done that we can come to Him. So often people make the mistake of thinking that a person will be saved because of what they have done. In this passage, the Jewish leaders suggested that Jesus should help the Centurion because - as verses 4 and 5 put it:

"He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us."

No person can earn God's favour; no person can deserve God's love or blessing. Christians are not people who are better than others. The Christian attitude is that of the Centurion who in verse 6 says:

"Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy ..."

We receive God's love freely, never because we deserve it - but only because God loves us and blesses us even though we do not deserve it.

Christians love others, do good deeds and are prepared to sacrifice everything for the sake of others - but note - not so that they can earn God's love and salvation, but rather because they have been given God's love and salvation as free and unconditional gifts. We come to our Lord with our prayers for ourselves and others, not because we deserve to come to God in this way, but because God loves us in Jesus Christ and enables us to come to Him by faith in the power of the Holy Spirit - even though we do not deserve it. The centurion was blessed therefore, not because of who is was or what he did, but because as Jesus says in verse 9:

"In all of Israel I've never found anyone with this much faith!" (CEV)

Secondly, people of faith become completely different. They no longer behave towards others as they are expected to by society. When people receive undeserved kindness, they respond by being kind to others. Why? Because, when God enters the life of a person, they change. The Centurion had opened himself up to God and the result - he was a changed person. We see this in the way that he had supported the Jewish people in their faith. Miller (p. 84) suggests that

He was probably a "God-fearer," who had been attracted to Judaism by its monotheism and high ethical teaching, and who even worshipped at the synagogue, but had not been circumcised as a proselyte ... It had been through the Jews that the centurion heard of Jesus and his work.

Having come to faith in Jesus the centurion felt compassion towards others, especially those in need. The centurion requested a miracle, not for himself, nor even a member of his family, but for a slave. Barclay (p. 84) suggests that 'He had a completely unusual attitude to his slave'. He had every right to do whatever he pleased with his slave, because as we know, slaves had absolutely no rights at all. Roman law described a slave as a 'living tool'. A master could even kill his slaves if he so wished. But when Christ enters a person’s life, they treat all people, irrespective of their political, social, racial, economic standing or position in society, as very special. We should learn an important lesson from the centurion's example. We should show kindness to everyone that we have anything to do with.

Thirdly, we see the importance of humility in the life of a believer. The centurion realised that he was not worthy of having the Lord come to his house. Humility is one of the most powerful indications of the presence of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Humility is not a natural gift in people because we are all born proud. Jesus frequently had to point out the need for Godly humility, perhaps best summed up in Luke 18:14 (CEV) where Jesus says: 'If you put yourself before others, you will be put down. But if you humble yourself, you will be honoured'. Christ revealed this virtue in his own life. In Matthew 11:29 (CEV) Jesus says: '... learn from me. I am gentle and humble and you will find rest'. Paul explains: 'Jesus 'humbled himself and became obedient to death - even death upon a cross'.

Lastly, we see one of the most perfect examples of Christian faith in action. Listen to the centurion's words:

But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed.

The centurion knew that Jesus could heal - this was not doubted for a minute. He also knew that if Jesus were just to say the word, then it would happen. He believed that Jesus had the authority necessary to do anything. As a military person, he knew that a command would be obeyed! He did not see the need for any miraculous sign - he simply believed and trusted in Jesus. How many of us pray, confident that Jesus can heal, save, do whatever we request of him? Are our prayers not more often merely hoping for the best but not really expecting anything. There is so much evidence today of the power of Jesus - in fact much more evidence than was available to people in Jesus' day - and yet so many people still do not believe!

But notice that his faith led to action - he did something. Realising that he was unworthy, he sought the aid of others. The result he received, great blessing. Faith needs action. We too can follow the example of the centurion by asking others to pray for us. And when we also believe and trust, our Lord will bless us.

Our Lord has therefore reminded us again today of the wonderful truth that all people are special and that no person who comes to Jesus in faith will ever be turned away. But we need to come to him in faith and in all humility. We need to be ready do something in response to our faith - be it asking others to pray for us, go to the doctor - whatever we come to realise we need to do. But we are assured once more, that God loves us and welcomes all who come to him. Miller (p. 84) concludes:

It is significant that the first incident that Luke records after the forming of the New Israel and the setting forth of its law, presents a gentile manifesting the sort of faith which makes one a member of it.

Have we come humbly to Jesus and accepted Him and His Word into our lives by faith? Are we citizens of the New Israel, the Kingdom of God? Is this evident by the way we treat others? Do we follow the teachings of Christ and the New Law, or do we follow our own ways and only come to Christ when it suits us or when we want something for ourselves? Are we people of faith, always asking that the Lord increase our faith?

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Gospel and Epistle for Trinity Sunday

John 16.12-15 (NRSV)
12 ‘I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.15All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

My text this morning is written in  John 16.13 (a)

13When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth

It is interesting to note that the compilers of the Lectionary have chosen this passage for Trinity Sunday, as its focus is still on the Holy Spirit – referred to here as ‘... the Spirit of truth .. (vs 13). It is by the Spirit that God’s truth is revealed to us – it is not discovered, or figured out, it is made known to us.

This wonderful truth is revealed in a progressive way – bit by bit - as we enabled to grasp it. I deliberately do not use the word ‘understand’ because it is more than a mere cerebral experience; it is something that we grasp with our whole being. Jesus explained that there were some things that the disciples at the time could not deal with then (vs 12); he could not tell them important things because they were unable to grasp the truth. The progressive nature of things has been applied to a number of areas of human experience. Jean Piaget spoke of levels of cognitive development which has been invaluable for those concerned with the education of children. People lean by building on earlier knowledge and skill e.g. one needs to be able to do basic arithmetic before one can move on the calculus. Lawrence Kohlberg discovered that there are discernible levels of moral development where it is important to lay good foundations early on in life and build on them until a person reaches maturity where they try to be good people, not only to avoid unpleasant consequences, but just because it is the right thing to do. Here Jesus is speaking of levels of spiritual development, where important foundations lead to growth into spiritual maturity.

Benedictine Prayer Book

It is also important to realise that the Bible is not the only source of revelation. God’s Spirit is always at work deep within his people and working through the Church. It is important to grasp this important truth; Jesus is the Word of God – he is not just a figure of history of which we read in the Gospels – he is a living person and through him God’s revelation continues.

It is also true that it is not only ministers and theologians who are inspired by the Spirit; there are also hymn writers and composers of music amongst others. Handel’s Messiah is for me one of them, as is Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater. But this is also true of great scientific discoveries and medical advances. This is because all truth is God’s truth, and the work of revelation is the work of the Holy Spirit.

Progress in medicine to begin with – Christians inspired to be part of the healing ministry of Jesus.

Business people like Cadbury and Wedgewood – inspired by their faith

Revelation is also the continued revelation of the truth of who Jesus is. Barclay points out that

‘… revelation comes to us, not from any book or creed, but from a living person. The nearer we live to Jesus, the better we will know him. The more we become like him, the more he will be able to tell us. To enjoy his revelation, we must accept his mastery.’ (p. 196)

John Marsh adds wonderful additional insights from this passage. He reminds us that the Spirit does not bring us any new truth; it might seem new to us, but it has been eternally thus. But importantly, it is the revelation of the truth of Jesus that is of great significance as we progress on our spiritual journey. If one places this passage in his historical context, this utterance was before the crucifixion and so the reference to the ‘things to come’ would be a reference to the Cross and its meaning and significance. With all the tragedy lying ahead in the future, Jesus is in effect saying to the disciples that they will be led by the Spirit to understand what it all means. Marsh explains: ‘Without the Spirit’s illumination Christ’s death would be a complete tragedy; under his instruction it will be the great victory of the Lord over the adversary, the decisive moment in the salvation of the world ...’ (p. 538) Marsh suggests that this is confirmed by verse 14 where Jesus speaks about being glorified. To be glorified is to make it clear that what seems like a humiliation of apparent defeat ‘… is nothing else but the real triumph of victory.’

And this is more than the simple fact of crucifixion, because this could be understood by mere observation of the event or hearsay. By the Spirit, the disciples would learn that the Cross revealed the ‘… depths of the relationship between the Father and the Son in the Godhead …’ (p. 539). This is why the passage is so full of the close relationship, Father, Son and Spirit – a graphic explanation of the Trinity and its oneness.

This leads us into the contribution of the Epistle for Trinity Sunday.

Romans 5:1-5 (NRSV)

Results of Justification

5Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

When one has received the gift of faith, everything makes sense, even difficult times. Paul makes the point that times of suffering are character building and links them to producing hope. It is interesting that he uses the word ‘boast’ as the preface to dealing with this, because in 3:27, he writes of boasting being excluded from the Christian experience; boasting in what we do. Here we have seen that we boast in our hope of sharing in God’s glory, and we boast in our sufferings. Here we boast in God’s character and achievements, not those of our own. Our justification is God’s doing and not our own. It is because of this that we hope, because God’s love is poured into our hearts and fills us with hope. Barclay explains: “The Christian hope never proves an illusion for it is founded on the love of God.”

It is true that when we confront the problems of our lives, we grow, our character is built up, and our trust in God is deepened and our confidence in the future is assured, because even though we are free, God is always there for us to make positive things come out of the negative. All this is possible because it is not up to us to face life’s challenges alone. In the Gospel we are reminded that we are given the Holy Spirit and the word used was parakletos the ‘parallel’ counsellor to enable us to do what we cannot achieve in our own strength.

All this is possible because ‘... God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.’

A M Hunter adds another interesting dimension: The paraclete does more than reveal or expose, he will also teach and will guide all believers of all time into all the truth of the Gospel. It is an individual journey as well as a communal journey. We will be enlightened on our personal journey of faith, but we will also be guided by the confirmation of our experience through the testimony of the Spirit to the Church.

We need to be asking: What does God want us as a Church to be doing? Are we being obedient to what God is calling us to be and to do?

 Jesus put it this way:

13When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth ...

Which leaves only one question – are we searching for the truth?


Monday, 9 May 2016

The Gospel for Pentecost Sunday

John 14:8-17 (NRSV)
8 Philip said to him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’9Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father”? 10Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works.11Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves12Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. 13I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.
The Promise of the Holy Spirit
15 ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments16And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. 17This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

I am grateful to Barclay, Marsh, Taylor and Ryle for this reflection on the Gospel reading for Pentecost Sunday.

My text this morning is written in John 14.17:

17This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

In our reading, Philip asks for a theophany – a divine disclosure to man – and Jesus repeats the answer that he gave to Thomas because Philip’s request makes the same sort of presupposition as Thomas’ question: it assumed that the Father was other than the Son. Philip could not conceive of the unity of Father and Son which Jesus had spoken of so frequently (as recorded in the John’s version of the Gospel). Jesus refers to the two dominant themes of the Gospel: his word and his works. Neither of these are done on his own: his words are not spoken on his own authority but with the authenticity of the Father. This is sufficient theophany. His works are also not his own doing, but those of the Father who dwells in the Son. What Philip needs to do is recognise this. Jesus says (verses 10-11) ‘… I am in the Father and the Father is in me …’ and the ultimate proof of this is in Jesus’ works – in what he did.

For Jesus to ‘… go to the Father …’ does not mean a departure; it means staying with him … abiding with him forever. Marsh adds: “The metaphor of ‘departure’ must not be pressed to the point of letting any disciple suppose that there is knowledge of the Father to be had beyond Jesus himself. In the Son, the Father has been pleased to manifest himself.”

Jesus had made this point many times: “If you had known me you will have known my Father”; “He that has seen me has seen the Father”; “I am in the Father, and the Father in me” and “The Father that dwells in me, he does the works …” If anyone wants to know what God is like – look to Jesus as the final revelation of God to man.

J C Ryle writes: “Sayings like these are full of deep mystery. We have no eyes to see their meaning fully, no line to fathom it, no language to express it, no mind to take it in.”

Bishop John V Taylor spoke of Jesus reflecting in a human life the being of God. Norman Pottinger captured the essence of this truth in his book entitled The Human Face of God where he wrote: “… the Word is made flesh in one of our own kind, our Brother, without over-riding or denying the humanity which is ours, but rather crowning and completing all that is implicit in humanity from the beginning. The divine intention is ‘enmanned’ among us.”

I am also taken with the understanding of Thomas Merton who said that he underwent two conversions – the first to the transcendent, awesome God, with whom communion may be enjoyed through worship and contemplation, the second to the imminent, approachable God, who is present in his world and its people.

Indeed, the Feast of Pentecost reminds us of another two-fold experience: the risen and ascended Jesus of history whose transcendence enables him to be imminent in the power of the Holy Spirit as he dwells within us in the world today. Jesus himself said that where two or more are gathered, he is there in the midst, and Mother Teresa reminds us of our Lord’s teaching in Matthew 25 that we meet Jesus in the needs of the most vulnerable in the world … and this is especially evident when people respond in faith and continue to do the works of our Lord in the present.

Jesus put it this way: 11Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. 

Jesus offered a test based on two things: what he said and what he did. When we read or hear the words attributed to Jesus, they have the ring of truth and – as Barclay rightly observes – when we hear them we cannot help saying: “If only the world would live on these principles, how different it would be!” And of course, Jesus’ deeds did cause one to pause and think; “Who is this?” Barclay comments:

“Still the way to Christian belief is not to argue about Jesus, but to listen to him and to look at him. If we do that, the sheer personal impact will compel us to believe.”

Jesus has sought to comfort his disciples by revealing to them the fact that his death is not the tragedy they think it is going to be. From verse 12 he goes on to show that they can be part of his ongoing ministry by sharing in it, and in a sense do even greater things than the Son has achieved.

It is quite clear that in the early days of the Church close to the first Pentecost, they possessed miraculous powers, and healing was a significant part of their ministry. But it is not clear from the Scriptures that they did greater healing miracles than Jesus. Today, these seem less manifest, and we rely more and more on the work of skilled medical professionals. However, if our modern medical care would have been available at the time of Jesus and the early Church, it would have appeared fantastic! There is a very real sense that Christian people have striven to make these advances, because of the example of Jesus, for we know that the early medical professionals were inspired by the teaching of Jesus. Barclay suggests: “… whether they knew it or not, Jesus was saying to them through his Spirit: ‘These people must be helped and healed. You must do it. It is your responsibility and privilege to do all you can for them.” People today do things that in Jesus day would have been considered utterly impossible.

Think also of the limits of the ministry of Jesus. He never left Palestine. The world was in a mess: in the Roman Empire morality was hardly in existence even compared to today, things were outrageous. And into this world went the disciples of Jesus.

It is all too easy to forget that we are together with Jesus. His Ascension is a wonderful truth, because it reminds us that Jesus left the constraints of this earthly existence and so can be with us all – everywhere freed from the limits of time and space. But more, He is with us now, when we are alone, and especially when we are together in worship and fellowship with others. What binds us to our Lord is not an act of intellectual assent; it is a bond of love. It is because we love Jesus that we willingly accept what he calls us to do, and this requires obedience to our Lord’s teachings.

To those who respond in obedience to our Lord’s calling, he offers us another counsellor. Jesus had been the disciple’s counsellor while he was with them, and when he left this earthly realm he gave them the Holy Spirit who would remain with them forever. Marsh writes: “So his departure will not leave them unsupported and unguided as they might have feared. The coming of the Spirit of truth to stay with them will mark them off from the world; for just as the world cannot see Jesus for the Son he really is, so it cannot discern the presence of the Spirit of truth, for the world cannot see him nor know him. But the disciples will know him, for he will be dwelling in them.”

For the disciples, the Holy Spirit was not a replacement for Jesus, it is Jesus, but just in another form. The disciples will see him for – as Marsh explains - “… they together will enter upon a life with quite new conditions.”

Love is not s sentimental emotion; its expression is always moral and is revealed in obedience. You cannot claim to love someone, if you bring them hardship and heartbreak. Children and young people cannot claim that they love their parents and at the same time cause them grief and anxiety. There are children who claim to love their parents, yet cause them a great deal of anxiety and grief; there are husbands who claim to love their wives and yet they are inconsiderate, irritable, thoughtless and unkind. Real love is not easy – it is shown through obedience to God’s laws of love.

But we are not left to struggle alone – Jesus gives us another helper – the Greek word used here for the Holy Spirit is parakletos which is very difficult to translate. The Authorised Version renders it Comforter,  Barclay, Helper, NRSV, Advocate. Probably the best way to translate it is ‘… someone who is called in …’ but this alone is not enough; what also matters is why the person is called in. In Ancient Greece, people were ‘called in’ to give evidence in a court of law in someone’s favour; an expert called in to give advice in some difficult situation; to give encouragement to a group of soldiers who had lost heart. The parakletos was called in to help in times of trouble or need. This is what the Holy Spirit does for us: “He takes away our inadequacies and enables us to cope with life.” Barclay suggests that Jesus is, in effect, saying: “I am setting you a hard task, and I am sending you out on a very difficult engagement. But I am going to send you someone, the parakletos, who will guide you as to what to do and enable you to do it.”

The world cannot recognise the Holy Spirit because we can see only what we are equipped to see. An astronomer can look into the night sky and see much more than the average person; a botanist can look into a hedgerow and see far more than the average person; someone who knows art will see far more in a painting than others. What we see or experience depends on what we bring to the sight or experience. A person who has dismissed God as impossible will never hear His voice deep within their lives when he speaks, and will never receive the Holy Spirit unless we wait, look and prayerfully seek for him to come to us in the depth of our being. Barclay concludes: “The Holy Spirit gate-crashes no person’s heart: He waits to be received. So when we think of the wonderful things which the Holy Spirit can do, surely we will set apart some time amidst the bustle and rush of life to wait in silence for his coming.”

Christian people ought to be remarkably different; there ought to be something special about us, something that marks us out from the rest of the world. And when this happens, it becomes obvious: it was obvious in the lives of Luther, Wesley, Oscar Romero, Mother Teresa, but also John Smith of Stepney or Gareth Jones from Cardiff or Ian MacKenzie from Glasgow.

People outside of Christ cannot fathom this. Paul explains this in 1 Corinthians 2:14: “Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are discerned spiritually.”

This is why I said earlier that it is fruitless to try to convince someone through argument; they have to experience it. When people experience love, they know it; when they experience grace, they know it; when they experience selflessness, they come to know it.

Jesus put it this way: 17This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

Thursday, 5 May 2016

John 17.20-end (NRSV)

John 17.20-end (NRSV)

20 ‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one,23I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. 24Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.
25 ‘Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. 26I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.’ 

This is one of the most beautiful passages of Scripture, where Jesus, in effect, prays for us as ‘… those who will believe in me …’ through the message of the Apostles which they have passed down to us. The prayer is that we are united – that we are one – because this is the only way that the rest of the world will be able to see that what we stand for, what we believe in, and what guides our lives, is the truth, as Jesus put it, ‘… so that the world may believe that you have sent me …’

When people abide in Christ, this means living in love and obedience to the guidance Jesus has given us in the example of his life and teaching, we experience a wonderful unity that becomes real for us personally (as we are united with God) and as a community (as we are united with each other and God). This is especially true as we gather for worship, to reflect on the Word (our personal experience of Jesus in his Holy Spirit) and as we partake in Holy Communion.

Historically, as the witness of the Church spread, it became increasingly difficult for there to be unity because of the diversity of believers that accepted the ways of Christ. At the same time, this unity is vital because this is the only proof to the world that Jesus was sent by God the Father, and that the Gospel is true (Filson 1963:130). When true unity happens ‘… with Father and Son and with one another …’ (ibid) something of the glory of God will be evident. But this is impossible if one tries to achieve this without divine help; it only becomes possible when the Church is truly open to the leading and guidance of the Holy Spirit.

The bond holding the unity together is that of divine agape love, as revealed in the life and teaching of Jesus. It is as verse 26 explains – ‘…so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.’

The world does not naturally know God, but Jesus has known the Father intimately, and through his life and teaching so have the disciples, and through their witness, so have we. Jesus has revealed God’s nature and name, not only the formal name Yahweh, but also his nature and purpose – expressed most fully on the Cross – because through the death and resurrection of Jesus ‘… he [has made] the Father known in a unique way …’ (ibid. 131) In the passion of the Cross, God’s true nature as divine love is given its fullest expression. As we are filled with the Spirit of Jesus, we experience and also learn, not only with our minds but with our whole being, the truth of the love of God. This is real ‘knowing’. The reason why the world does not know God is because they think that knowing is purely a mental thing – a cerebral experience that can be articulated using words alone. We all know that this is not true, because everything that makes our lives meaningful and rich, while it does find some expression in words, needs more, because it includes our souls and our spirits. This is why music, art, poetry and other expressions of beauty are so important for our flourishing. Filson writes:

Jesus has made the love of God real to them [the disciples], and as Jesus dwells in their lives they will know that God’s love has taken possession of them, to uphold them in their Christian witness and to bless them in their Christian lives.’ (ibid. 131)

Even here, those outside the faith will misunderstand, because the word ‘possession’ today implies the surrender of control that leads to a loss of freedom. But we who have experienced the love of Christ know that it is utterly liberating, setting us free to love so that we are no longer bound by the constraints of sin and the human weaknesses and frailties that tempt us away from what is good and beautiful and true. The love of God makes our fulfillment possible, because it sets us free.

It is interesting to note that even secular thinkers find it easy to understand the flawed nature of humanity. This was the essence behind Freud’s thinking; he was trying to find ways to explain, understand and then remedy those things that hinder us from being truly good people. The same was true for others like Stanley Milgram, who sought to understand how otherwise lovely people – the German nation – could have stooped so low as to sanction the Holocaust. He tried out his experiment in his native USA first, before travelling to Germany, and found that the same is true for all people. He discovered this: that there is a willingness to do the most devastating things, if we feel that we are not responsible because someone in authority has told us to do it!

The only remedy for human frailty is love, and we know what this love is because Jesus has explained it to us, demonstrated it to us – revealed it to us - and he gives it to us the power of his Spirit. We learn it ultimately when we experience it first hand, and we do this when others, filled with the same love, love us and give us the privilege of loving them in return.

So, the unity that Jesus prays for here, is not - as Barclay reminds us – a unity of organization or administration – because people will always like to do things differently. This is good because it gives us the freedom to express our love and faith in different ways. What Jesus prays for here is a unity ‘… in which [people] loved each other because they loved him, a unity based entirely on the relationship between heart and heart.’ (Barclay, 1975:218)

I believe that some have misunderstood true ecumenism, thinking that we all need to become part of the same denomination. But as Barclay adds, we will always want to organize our churches differently, worship in different styles and ways, and believe different things to be paramount, things we like to emphasize above others, ‘… but Christian unity transcends all these differences and joins [people] together in love …’ (ibid. 218)

The trouble is that some people love their own church organization systems, creeds, rituals and other things, more than they love other Christians. This is the hub of the problem. We must not be surprised if the world is not attracted to us as Christians, if we remain so divided. We should celebrate that there are differences and therefore styles and ways of doing things, but we should never say that our way is the ‘only’ way, just a ‘different’ way.

Verses 22-26 speak of Jesus giving his disciples the ‘glory’. In the commentaries I have consulted Barclay seems to give the best explanation of what is meant by the ‘… glory of Jesus …’ Barclay suggests that there were THREE ways in which Jesus used the term: (i) The Cross what his glory: Jesus did not speak of being crucified; he spoke of being glorified. Sometimes, we as Christians have to face our own personal ‘crosses’ and it should be an honour to share in the sufferings for Christ’s sake. Barclay explains: ‘The harder the task we give a student, or a craftsman, or a surgeon, the more we honour him.’ In effect we are saying that they are up to the task. ‘So when it is hard to be a Christian, we must consider it as our glory given to us by God.’

(ii) The perfect obedience to the will of God was his glory. Barclay explains that we find glory, not in doing what we like, but by doing what God wills – the greater the obedience; the greater the glory.

(iii) Jesus also speaks of glory when referring to eternity in the presence of God. We will share in all the experiences of Christ, including all the wonderful things. The second Letter of Timothy explains that ‘… if we endure, we shall also reign with him.’ (2 Timothy 2.11-12)

‘Tis mystery all, and I am not sure that I am in accord with everything Barclay suggests here, but he has certainly provided food for thought.

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

John 14:23-29 (NRSV)

John 14:23-29 (NRSV)
23Jesus answered him, ‘Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. 24Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.
25 ‘I have said these things to you while I am still with you. 26But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.27Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. 28You heard me say to you, “I am going away, and I am coming to you.” If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. 29And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe.

My text this morning is written in John 14:23
“… Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. …”
For John, love is the basis of everything: God loves Jesus, Jesus loves God; God loves humanity, Jesus loves humanity, humanity loves God through Jesus; humanity loves each other; all is based on love!
But once again we see another important issue: not only is everything based on love, obedience is also important, for it is “Those who keep my word …” that are especially loved. Love is proven by obedience. Barclay suggests that obedient, trusting love leads to two things:
(i)                  It leads to ultimate safety: Whatever happens in the life of the Christian, we feel safe and secure in the love God has for us;
(ii)                It leads to fuller revelation. The revelation of God is a costly thing and it is for the people who keep his commandments. No evil person can receive the revelation of God. Barclay explains: “It is only to the man who is looking for him that God reveals himself; and it is only to the man who, in spite of failure, is reaching up that God reaches down.”
John Marsh explains: “The eternal dwelling of God with men begins now. Jesus continues that the man who does not love him will not keep his word; so we may deduce, the Father cannot enter into the same relationships with him as with the loving and obedient disciple.”
There are some questions that cannot be answered simply using reason and human intellect. We can only know certain things, the most important things of life, its meaning and purpose, by allowing God to dwell within us and in our lives. This is only possible for those who love the Son, our Lord Jesus Christ and who are obedient to His teachings. Marsh continues: “It would not be possible, indeed, for the Father to dwell in the hearts and lives that did not honour the Son.”
When people totally reject God and close their hearts (and more importantly their minds) to His prompting and leading, God can do nothing for them; in fact the whole notion of God seems ridiculous to them. I am not surprised that people like Richard Dawkins and other atheists find God, and especially Jesus, ridiculous.
This is why truth is linked to the presence of the Spirit in the life of a person that must be the yardstick: people are attracted to the message of ‘good’ people, and it is only possible to be really good when the Holy Spirit enables us to live the life of Christ.
Fellowship with God and the revelation of God are dependent on love, and love is dependent upon obedience. Barclay adds: “… the person who walks in His way inevitably walks with him…”
I am reminded of some of the hymns I used to love as a young Christian: “When we walk with the Lord in the light of His word … Trust and obey, for there’s no other way, to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey …” (This seems to be a recurring theme in the lectionary because I can remember thinking of this before, quite recently).
Those who follow the ways of Jesus are given a special promise, (verse 23 continues) “… and we will come to them and make our home with them.”
God, in Christ, through the Spirit fills our lives – something we can never fathom – but we can experience it. J C Ryle writes: “… holiness [being obedient in love to our Lord’s teachings] brings eminent comfort with it, and that no man has such sensible enjoyment of his religion as the man who … walks closely with God … There is more of heaven on earth to be obtained than most Christians are aware of …”
If we are not happy, we need to ask: “Are we being holy?” This is a vital question. If we are following God in obedience to the teachings of Jesus, the Spirit will fill our lives with peace and joy, even in the midst of all the challenges that life brings. Ryle adds: “If we want to be eminently happy, we must strive to be eminently holy.”
The Holy Spirit is the presence of Christ in the here and now and also teaches us all things. This is not a one off experience that the disciples knew on the day of Pentecost, it is a continuous process, because the Holy Spirit leads us deeper and deeper into the truth of God. Barclay makes the important point that ‘… there is never any excuse in the Christian faith for the shut mind …’ The Christian who feels that he has got things sorted, and has nothing more to learn ‘… is the Christian who has not even begun to understand the doctrine of the Holy Spirit …’
I am troubled by those who think they have it all figured out; I am disturbed by those whose arrogance leads to them publishing their own personal study bibles and who claim to have an answer for every question. I keep on saying that the greatest threat in the 21st century is certainty, because it is this that closes the door to the Spirit’s leading and teaching. Jesus explained this as recorded in Luke 11:35: “Therefore consider whether the light in you is not darkness.”
Jesus continues to speak of how the Holy Spirit reminds us of what he said. I know there are difficulties in the Scriptures, but this to me is one of their strengths. I believe the authors of the Gospels were guided by the Holy Spirit to remember what God wanted to be written of the life and teaching of Jesus. I do not believe that complete precision and so-called accuracy is what God wants, because it would lead to the very fundamentalism that is so dangerous. The things of God (the things of Jesus) have to be mysterious. We have a wonderfully diverse and rich expression of the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels and we need to help of the Holy Spirit to discern the meaning of Jesus’ message for today. Barclay adds: “… the Holy Spirit saves us from arrogance and error of thought …” In addition, it is the Holy Spirit that will keep us right in matters of conduct as well.
Once more Jesus gives the disciples the gift of peace – the Hebrew – shalom. This is much more than the absence of trouble, it means everything which makes for the highest good. Nothing can happen in the life of the Christian that ever disturbs a deep sense of inner peace – that which only the Holy Spirit can give. I remember this well when I was so ill with a pancreatic tumour. Even in my darkest time, there was a very real sense of peace.
Jesus makes it clear that his ways are not the ways of the world. He is going back to the Father and says that if the disciples really love him they would be pleased. He was going to be released from the limitations of this world and to be restored to his rightful place in glory. If we really understand this we too would be glad when those we love, go to be with God. We would be gutted with sorrow, but even in our sorrow and loneliness we ought to be glad for them, for they have gone to be with our Lord which, as St Paul puts it, is ‘better by far’.
This is so difficult. I am dealing with two people who just cannot get over their loss and while I know this theory, their pain is so acute that they cannot hear it yet. Yet on the other hand, another colleague who was devastated by the loss of his wife about two years ago now, is now delighted as he has met and fallen in love with someone new, who was also bereaved a few years ago.  It is difficult and complex.
J C Ryle suggests that this passage contains truths that ‘… no man can understand except he that receives and experiences it …’ but adds that what we can know is that ‘… eminent holiness brings eminent comfort …’ Happiness, joy and peace come from obedience to what Jesus taught because this is how we love him in practical action. We are helped in this because to try to do it alone only leads to failure; and so we are given the Holy Spirit – the Comforter – to remind us of all Jesus did and taught and inspire us to action as Ryle suggests: “He can keep in our minds the whole system of truth and duty, and make us ready for every good word and work.”
What Jesus can give us is peace – not money, worldly satisfaction or prosperity – because these are temporary. What Jesus gives the world is incapable of giving. But it is sometimes difficult to find because our humanity is so weak and frail. 
Once again this truth is not to be experienced by our trying harder and harder, because this never works; it is experienced when we try less and rest in the grace of God, as we allow the Spirit to fill us and flood us with God’s peace.
Jesus ends with an explanation that he will be going away, but only to return again to be with them and bless them in the power of his spirit and to explain that he was teaching them in this way so that they might believe, because none of these wonderful promises would be possible unless he too was obedient to the end of what he had come to do – offer himself up on the Cross so that the world might come to him.
We can know God’s peace, which is real, deep and meaningful, not the peace of the world, the ‘peace of God that passes all understanding’. We can also know joy and purpose in our lives, but it requires us to do something. We need to love Jesus, and this is not some superficial, sentimental experience, it is practical and significant – we need to be obedient to what he calls us to do. When we do this, God comes to us and makes his home within us. Jesus put it this way:
“… Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. …” (John 14:23)

Saturday, 23 April 2016

Apologies for lateness as it has a been a busy first week of term!
Acts 11:1-18 (NRSV)
Peter’s Report to the Church at Jerusalem
Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, 3saying, ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’ 4Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, 5‘I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. 6As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. 7I also heard a voice saying to me, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” 8But I replied, “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” 9But a second time the voice answered from heaven, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” 10This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. 11At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 12The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, “Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; 14he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.” 15And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning.16And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” 17If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?’ 18When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’ 

In this post Easter season, the majority of Mainstream Churches throughout the world recommend that the readings from Acts take precedence even over the Gospel readings, which hint at their great importance. This particular passage is important because Luke, even though he was greatly limited in space, repeats it. At the time of writing, writers were limited to a roll of papyrus; the longest available was about 35 feet long – almost precisely the length used by Acts. Into this space, Luke would have had to face the challenge of what to leave out. Barclay adds: “He must have selected with the greatest care what he was going to preserve and set down; and yet he finds this incident of Peter and Cornelius of such paramount importance that he relates it in full twice.”
It was possible, in these early days, that Christianity would be just another small and rather minor sect within Judaism. All the first Christians were Jews and traditional Judaism would have made them keep this new revelation to themselves, as God could not have meant it for all people – especially the much despised Gentiles! Luke therefore stresses that this is not so, and that Jesus came for ALL people without exception – as Barclay concludes: “Luke gives this incident in full twice over because he sees it as a notable mile-stone on the road along which the Church was groping its way to the conception of a world for Christ.”
Strict Jews, as we know, would have nothing to do with Gentiles and would never have ever entered a Gentile house and would certainly never have shared a meal with them. By doing what Peter did caused an absolute outrage.
Peter defended himself, not by using argument; he simply stated some facts. Whatever his critics might say, the Holy Spirit had come upon these Gentiles in the most notable way – and here there was no argument.
Peter had taken six people with him so a total of seven made up his party. In Egyptian law, seven witnesses were necessary to prove a case. In Roman law, seven seals were necessary to authenticate an important document. Barclay suggests the following:
“… Peter is in effect saying, ‘I am not arguing with you. I am telling you the facts and of these facts there are seven witnesses. The case is proved.’”
The proof of Christianity lies in the facts. It is unlikely that anyone has ever been ‘argued into’ Christianity. Christianity is proven because it works – that it does change the lives of people – it makes bad people good; it brings to people the Spirit of Christ. Barclay argues convincingly that:
“… the duty of the Christian is not to talk about his faith but to demonstrate his faith. It is when a man’s deeds give the lie to his words that the gravest discredit is brought to Christianity; it is when a man’s words are guaranteed by his deeds that the world is presented with an argument for Christianity which will brook no denial.”
My own theology was transformed when those whom I thought I agreed with showed so little love and wisdom, and my then so-called opponents revealed to me the depth of insight and love and grace that made it obvious to me that they were filled with the Spirit of Christ.
I have been reading a lovely book entitled: Rebels and Reformers: Christian renewal in the 20th Century by Trevor Beeson. As you know, I am a great fan of biographies, my only book of any significance being a work of biographical studies of African leaders. Why I find them important is that I believe the Holy Spirit makes it possible for people to have their lives transformed and in the process transform the world where they are, and so make the kingdom of God a reality in the here and now.
The Church in the UK is on its knees – not in the way it should be – being one with our Lord in prayer; but dying slowly but surely. I believe this is because people cannot see the relevance of the Church anymore because – in the main – being part of the Church seems to make such little difference. In Beeson’s book, those who are included are always there because their contribution made a difference, and in them the world experienced a glimpse of what it meant to be a citizen of the Kingdom of God.
In our reading from Acts, the yard stick was the presence of the Holy Spirit in the lives of people – their lives were profoundly different – and bore witness to the fact that God was with them and within them – they were baptized with the Spirit. The following is the stunning example of George Tyrrell (1861-1909):
Tyrrell was a Roman Catholic theologian who was expelled from the Jesuit Order because of his beliefs and his criticisms of ecclesiastical authority … but I believe it was the Church that got things wrong – not Tyrrell.
Tyrrell made a sharp distinction between theology as embodied in abstract, static, doctrinal statements and theology as a dynamic, personal experience and response to divine revelation. Like the experience of Peter and the six in our Acts reading, Tyrrell believed that the truth of religious belief is to be tested by its effects on the believers’ way of life, not only in their ethical behaviour, but also in their spiritual lives. He claimed (rightly in my view) that it is a waste of time trying to fathom the intricacies of doctrine and stated that ‘… the refinements of Scholastic metaphysics on the Trinity, the Incarnation and the Real Presence were “even further from the truth than the simple faith of a peasant.”’ The truth of revelation cannot be conveyed in theological statements, but only in fact and experience and he contrasted living faith and dead theology.
It is only possible to live a godly life if one is enabled by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit; our faith is revealed – yes – but not as an intellectual assent only. Barclay reminded us earlier that few come to Christ through argument, but many are attracted to a transformed life. Earlier in our discussions I pointed out that the biblical notion of faith was not so much an intellectual assent to a set of doctrines, but a motivation to action.
We reflect on God’s Word, the Scriptures, which includes our minds, but more, it is a spiritual and not merely an intellectual exercise. It is important that we grasp things with our minds, but also that we allow God to commune with our Spirits. Jesus is alive and so speaks to us through the Word, but in the process touches us at the core of our being. Worship is real when we make contact: when the infinite God – the ground of all being – touches us at the core of who we are – our ‘being’.
We need to use our minds, of course, but in a different way. We must not commit intellectual suicide and therefore not confront the issues that come our way, because we are cerebral beings. Nothing is more off-putting than a rank mindless fundamentalism. But our minds are linked with our Spirits and we only realize true wisdom when, prayerfully, we are united with Christ in a living, vibrant relationship. When this happens, our thinking is translated into action because our believing is a cerebral thing and much, much more; it is deeply spiritual – as Tyrrell put it – it living faith and not dead theology. St Paul put it this way: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12.1-2)