Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Mark 6.1-13 (NRSV)



The Rejection of Jesus at Nazareth


6He left that place and came to his home town, and his disciples followed him. 2On the Sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, ‘Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! 3Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary* and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offence* at him. 4Then Jesus said to them, ‘Prophets are not without honour, except in their home town, and among their own kin, and in their own house.’ 5And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. 6And he was amazed at their unbelief.

The Mission of the Twelve

Then he went about among the villages teaching. 7He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. 8He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; 9but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. 10He said to them, ‘Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. 11If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.’ 12So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. 13They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.




I am indebted to the inspiration I have received from Professor William Barclay for these sermon notes.

My text today is written in Mark 6.12:

12So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent.

Jesus was rejected because he was too ‘ordinary’ – he was just a carpenter. In today’s world, he would probably be seen as a handyman – very skilled – but nothing special and Barclay adds the telling point that …

“ … God, when He came to earth, claimed no exemptions. He took upon Himself this common life with all its common tasks …”

Jesus would have been rejected today as well, because people evaluate people by externals and not because of their inherent worth as individuals.

Jesus never left Nazareth until he was about thirty. Why? Because his father had died young and he was needed to support his mother and his brothers and sisters. It was only when they were old enough to fend for themselves that he felt free to leave. Even God’s mission had to wait. I find this truly wonderful; God being there in the ordinary in every respect.

Because Jesus had lived in this little insignificant place for so long, and because he was so well-known that he was rejected. Barclay writes: “Some times we are too near people to see their greatness.”

It is sad that Jesus could therefore do no mighty works in Nazareth and this itself reminds us of an important truth and that is that some things simply cannot be done if the atmosphere is all wrong.

Firstly, no person can be healed if they refuse to be healed. Without the will to live, even the best doctors can do nothing. I will always cherish the memory of Trish’s lovely father who was broken by the tragedy of the death of his son followed by the deaths of his brother and closest friend – all in a matter of months. He simply broke and on his death certificate the cause of death is “… of a broken heart …” He lost the will to live – but he is with our Lord and is now at peace.

Secondly, there can be no preaching in the wrong atmosphere. Barclay contends that congregations preach half the sermons. I find this to be so true. If people engage with me as the preacher I feel a real sense of liberty and can preach well, but if they are hostile, everything falls flat. We all had this experience in South Africa when challenging Apartheid from the pulpit, sometimes the hostility was palpable!

There can be no peace-making in the wrong atmosphere. If people come together to hate, they will hate. If they come together with the conscious decision to love Christ and each other, it will always work. Barclay concludes:

“There is laid upon us the tremendous responsibility that we can either help or hinder the work of Jesus Christ. We can open the door wide to Him – or we can slam it in his face.”

When doing God’s work – something we are all involved in – our reading this morning offers some important guidance.

William Barclay points out that one can summarise what the twelve did as follows:

(i) They were heralds of the message of Jesus – they did not create a message, they ‘brought’ it. They did not tell the people what they believed or considered probable – “… they told people what God had told them …” They were like their prophets of old and could begin what they said with the words: “Thus saith the Lord …” I know this is difficult, but we need to be able to do the same.

I love reading the sermons of the great thinkers, because this is when one really gets to the essence of their wisdom. There is something about the preached word, the dynamism, the inspiration from the Holy Spirit, the response of those listening as God moves in the place, and one can even get this from reading the sermons afterward.

It is this conviction that led us Methodists to answer when we are asked: “What are your doctrines?” we reply that they are contained in John Wesley’s sermons.

I vehemently disagreed with Paul Tillich – until I read his sermons – and the same applied to Rudolf Bultmann.

(ii) They preached the message of Jesus which had at its core: “Repent!” There is a need to change. This is bound to hurt and be unpopular, because it implies that we are getting things wrong. It requires that we are ‘disturbed’ and most people like being kept in their comfort zones. But repentance is the most positive thing anyone can do – because it means that we can change and become more like the people we want to be – deep down – by becoming the person God wants us to be. It is for our sake – not God’s sake. Repentance needs to be at the core of our message and until it becomes so, the Church will continue to decline.

Like it or not, a central feature in Jesus’ message was the need to repent – because he knew that, by nature, we are all selfish and in order for things to become better for all – we need to undergo radical change. Barclay illustrates this by using an example from the novel “Quo Vadis” where a young Roman falls in love with a Christian girl. Because he is not a Christian, the girl will have nothing to do with him. He tries to find out more and so secretly follows the Christians to one of their meetings and listens to the sermon preached by Peter. Barclay writes:

“He felt that if he wished to follow that teaching, he would have to place on a burning pile all his thoughts, habits and character, his whole nature up to that moment, burn them into ashes and then fill himself with a life altogether different, and an entirely new soul. That is repentance.”

And most people in Britain today simply do not want this. They just want to be left alone. Because this is a lovely country in which to live and because by far the largest majority of people are not guilty of robbery, theft, murder, adultery – what Barclay refers to as the ‘glaring sins’ – they believe they are good people. And by the standards of the rest of the world, they definitely are. But the standards for a disciple of Jesus are much higher, because they require a complete paradigm shift from being self- centred (which our society largely is) to being God-centred and this requires change, and if there is anything British society does NOT like, it is change!

Barclay concludes:

“Repentance is no sentimental feeling sorry; repentance is a revolutionary thing – this is why so few people repent.”

This passage ends with the way the disciples brought with them the ‘King’s mercy’ – help and healing. They brought liberation from demons and illness; they desired to bring health to both body and soul, what Barclay refers to as ‘whole salvation’ and not just ‘soul salvation’. There is great significance in the way they anointed with oil, because in the ancient world oil was regarded to have great healing powers. In the hands of the disciples, an old remedy therefore took on new significance, because the spirit of Christ gave it new virtue and power.

The twelve brought to the world the message and the mercy of the king, ‘… and that remains the church’s task today and every day …’

How are things in our lives? I believe that, if we are honest, we will all acknowledge that we are not perfect; in fact we are far from perfect. Perhaps we need to take the advice of those first disciples and repent, allow God to transform our lives, so that we can become the people God wants us to be. Mark put it this way:

12So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent.

Amen.


Monday, 22 June 2015

Mark 5.21-end (NRSV)

Mark 5.21-end (NRSV)
A Girl Restored to Life and a Woman Healed
21 When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered round him; and he was by the lake. 22Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet 23and begged him repeatedly, ‘My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.’ 24So he went with him. And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. 25Now there was a woman who had been suffering from haemorrhages for twelve years.26She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. 27She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, 28for she said, ‘If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.’29Immediately her haemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. 30Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, ‘Who touched my clothes?’ 31And his disciples said to him, ‘You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, “Who touched me?” ’ 32He looked all round to see who had done it. 33But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. 34He said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.’ 35 While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, ‘Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?’ 36But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, ‘Do not fear, only believe.’ 37He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. 38When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. 39When he had entered, he said to them, ‘Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.’ 40And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. 41He took her by the hand and said to her, ‘Talitha cum’, which means, ‘Little girl, get up!’ 42And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. 43He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.

I mention a variety of commentators from different Christian traditions as expound on this lovely passage.

When Jesus returned from his time in Gerasa where he had healed the man possessed by demons, there was a large crowd waiting for him. One of these people was a synagogue leader named Jairus. Because so much opposition had arisen from within organised Judaism, it must have required both courage and humility on his part to make the approach.

Jairus had known the joy of having his daughter with him for 12 years. But now she was close to death. He came to Jesus - desperate - because he knew that there was nothing anyone could do to save her. In Jairus therefore, we see a beautiful image of faith and humility. This great spiritual leader and highly respected member of the community kneeled down before Jesus and begged him to come to his home.

Another person who was waiting for Jesus was a woman - we are not given her name. In contrast to the 12 years of joy that prefaced Jairus' encounter with Jesus, this woman had known 12 years of misery - for she had experienced constant menstrual bleeding in this time. This had dire consequences for her. In addition to the physical discomfort, this ailment made her ceremonially unclean. This meant that she became an outcast in society, because according to Levitical law (Leviticus 15:19-22) a woman with her problem was considered ritually unclean. She was therefore denied access to worship or fellowship. In essence this meant that she was denied access to God. She was financially destitute because she had spent everything on doctors, but to no avail. She too, was desperate.

The woman had heard about Jesus and how, when he touched people, or when people touched him, they were healed. She was nevertheless a bit concerned. She was so embarrassed about her ailment that she did not want to go public with it. So, she decided to touch Jesus secretly. She thought that it would be sufficient if she just touched one of the tassels of his robe. The minute she touched the tassel, she was healed and she knew it. She now wanted to slink away secretly. The woman's reasons for not openly coming to Jesus seemed valid. According to the Levitical law, if she touched Jesus, she would also make him ritually unclean. But Jesus forced her to come into the open because he had important lessons to teach both the woman and the crowd. Wiersbe comments: 

To begin with, this public confession was for her sake. It was an opportunity for her to confess Christ and glorify God. Had she stolen away in the crowd, she would have not met Jesus personally or heard His words of assurance and comfort.

Miller adds:

She seems to have had a rather magical idea that a touch of his garment was all that was needed to restore her to health. And this it did! But Jesus wanted to lead her to a faith which rested on a personal acquaintance and open confession of him. Then she could go with a deeper "peace" than that which mere recovery of health could bring.

It is amazing how many people receive great blessing from God. Some receive miraculous healings like this woman, but they never really accept Jesus personally and therefore never receive his gift of enduring faith. Like the people in the parable of the sower, who are like the seed that falls on rocky ground, when the going gets tough - they give up. All of us have received great blessing from God. If we look at what we have, we see that we are blessed with far more than we really need. But so many of us are willing to throw in the towel when things get hard?

Jesus wanted the woman to be able to stand firm no matter what happened to her in the future. Jesus therefore insisted that she have a personal encounter with him and so receive a deep and significant faith.

The crowd also needed to learn a lesson. Wiersbe continues:

You can be part of the crowd and never get any blessing from being near Jesus! It is one thing to "press Him" and another thing to "touch Him" by faith.

How many of us crowd around Jesus as we gather Sunday after Sunday to worship, but never really take the step forward in humility and faith? How many of us see wonderful things happening to others and resign ourselves that it will never happen to us, simply because we do not reach out, by faith, and touch our Lord? Faith only comes when one has a personal encounter with Jesus by faith. And faith grows when it is tested.

Jairus knew that Jesus could save his child. He had faith. But his faith was tested. While Jesus was still speaking to the woman, a messenger came from Jairus' home with the news that his daughter had died. Jesus overheard and spoke words of comfort to him. We read in verse 36:

When Jesus heard this, he told Jairus, "Don't worry! Have faith, and your daughter will get well."

Morris suggests that this verse could be translated 'make an act of faith' or 'put your trust in Me'. Jesus meant that he should never give up, but keep believing.

The scene when they arrived at Jairus' home must have been depressing. One can assume that the professional mourners would have arrived, and the friends and neighbours would also have gathered around. Jesus stilled the people and said, "The child is not dead. She is just asleep."  They laughed at him, because they knew that the child was dead.

Jesus emptied the house of all save a chosen few. He took the girl by the hand and said, "Child, get up!" Mark records Jesus as using the Aramaic words: "Talitha cumi! Little girl, arise!" These are the words her mother would have used each morning to waken her daughter. The tenderness of this moment cannot be captured using words. 'She came back to life and got right up'.

The incident ends with Jesus exhorting the parents not to spread the news of what had happened. Jesus did not want to attract a large following of curious onlookers who were only seeking to get what they wanted out of him. This is why he taught in parables - so that only those who were really committed would follow him.

And so, the lesson on faith that began with the parable of the sower is now complete with the practical demonstrations of the storm, the healings and finally the raising of Jairus' daughter to life. The secret behind a full and wonderful life is to have faith in Jesus Christ. Unless our faith grows to maturity even the small traumas that come our way will often get us down. We all need to pray - "Lord, make our faith stronger!”

There are many painful things that can happen to us, because we live in an imperfect world where the majority of people choose to reject Christ and His law of love. Satan is also active. The result - suffering is a fact of life. Without faith, we will become easily discouraged. The only thing that can lift us up and give us hope is an abiding sense of Christ's love, His wisdom and His care for us. So, when the tests come and with God's help our faith endures, we feel lifted up and encouraged. As Ryle comments:

Faith can sit still and wait for better times. Faith can see light even in the darkest hour, and a needs-be for the heaviest trial. Faith ... can sing songs in the night in any condition.

The prophet Isaiah writes:

You, Lord, give perfect peace to those who keep their purpose firm and put their trust in you. Trust in the Lord for ever; and he will always protect you.

Have we all received the free gift of faith offered by Christ to all - or are we just members of the crowd? We have all heard the message. Are the seeds of faith falling on the road, on rocky ground or amongst thorn bushes? Let us rather be those who are like the good ground, who hear God's word and are willing to obey it and so see our faith grow, flourish and mature - especially when it is tested - so that we might be mature and complete never lacking anything.[1]



[1] James 1:1-4.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Mark 4:35-41 (NRSV)



Mark 4:35-41 (NRSV)
Jesus Stills a Storm

35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’ 36And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37A great gale arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ 39He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ 41And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’


Barclay, Nineham and Ryle have been the inspiration for this reflection.

The lake of Galilee was notorious for storms – especially those that came out of the blue. It seems strange that the disciples panicked on this occasion, so it was probably a storm that was unusually fierce. Jesus was situated in the boat in the place reserved for an honoured guest – in the stern where a carpet and cushion were arranged for his comfort. Behind him would have been the helmsman.

Barclay points out that the words Jesus used were the same as the ones he used when he addressed the demon-possessed man (Mark 1:15). This could have been Mark, putting his interpretation into his retelling of the account because it was commonly believed, at the time, that because of the destructive nature of storms, ‘… the evil power of the demons was at work in the realm of nature …’ This could well be the case, but this does not alter the fact, for me, that there was an incident when Jesus stilled a storm (as some of our liberal colleagues might suggest!) As Barclay comments:

“We do this story far less than justice if we merely take it in a literalistic sense …’ because if we do so, it remains just a lovely story, something about which we just read and enjoy, something that could have happened in the past, but never again. But our experience is different: all of us know that Jesus has calmed storms in our own lives. And it is something that still happens because “… in the presence of Jesus we can have peace even in the wildest storms of life.”

Barclay gives us three examples to reflect on:

(i) Jesus gives us peace in the storms of SORROW: Sorrow comes to all of us, but when it does, he tells us that this life is not all there is. Jesus tells us of the love of God which accepts us and blesses us and those we love. Jesus tells us that those whom we love and who have left this life have gone to be with God “… and gives us the certainty that we shall meet again those whom we have loved and lost awhile …”

(ii) Jesus gives us peace in the storms of LIFE’S PROBLEMS: There are times when we do not know what to do, when we have doubts and uncertainties. When we ask: “Lord, what would you have me do?” eventually the way will be clear and plain. Barclay claims: “The real tragedy is not that we do not know what to do; it is that so often we do not humbly submit to His guidance.” When we submit to the will of God, we know His peace.

(iii) Jesus gives us peace in the storms of ANXIETY: The enemy of peace is worry – for ourselves, for the future, for those we love. Barclay concludes:

“But Jesus speaks to us of a Father whose hand will never cause His child a needless tear and of a love beyond which neither we nor those we love can ever drift. In the storm of anxiety He brings us to the peace of the love of God.”

Lake Galilee was (and still is) prone to violent storms, but for Jesus, he completely trusted in the divine power to ‘make him dwell in safety’, while the disciples were those who – as they often did – proved to be of little faith. They mistook Jesus’ profound faith as indifference and woke him with a rebuke.

Denis Nineham reminds us that in stilling the storm, Jesus performed a divine act. This resulted in the disciples being filled with a different type of fear, realising that Jesus was therefore divine. The early church saw this as clear evidence that Jesus was no ordinary person and that, if he was not God Himself, then he was at least His ‘… eschatological agent … entrusted with the plenitude of divine power for the protecting and saving of his church …’

As we journey through life, it sometimes seems as though Christ is asleep while we are being buffeted in great storms. But we are reassured here that He is not indifferent to our plight. But often the calming is not in the way we expect – often the storm remains – but we are filled with a deep inner sense of calm.

The richness of this simple passage is evident when one reads comments on it from a variety of different perspectives. So far we have seen the devotional reflection of William Barclay, and some thoughts from the scholarly approach of Denis Nineham and now I go back into the middle of the 19th Century – 1857 in fact - and see some of the thoughts expressed by J C Ryle who was then a parish priest and who was later to become Bishop of Liverpool.

This was an interesting time. Industrialisation was happening, people were moving into the towns, there were wars and conflicts; the Empire was expanding and much of what life was like was captured in the writings of Charles Dickens. Into this context, there was a revival of Christianity and societies were transformed by the Gospel. People found a dignity and worth for themselves – even in the midst of difficulty – because in finding Christ, they found meaning and purpose for their lives. Ryle was convinced of the importance of having a living relationship with Jesus Christ, not just an historical understanding of some particular character of history.

Firstly, we are reminded that Christ’s service does not exempt His servants from storms. The disciples were model followers, they were obedient to Jesus, daily spending time with Him and listening to His word and they testified to the world ‘… yet here we see these men in trouble, tossed up and down by a tempest, and in danger of being drowned …’

We ought not to expect everything to be smooth in our journey to heaven. It is to be expected that we will experience sickness, losses, bereavements and disappointments – just like any other person. Jesus never promised us that we would not have afflictions. By these afflictions Jesus teaches us many precious lessons which we would otherwise never learn. Ryle writes:

“By affliction he shows us our emptiness and weakness, draws us to the throne of grace, purifies our affections, weans us from the world, makes us long for heaven. In the resurrection morning we shall say, ‘… it is good for me that I was afflicted …’ We shall thank God for every storm.”

Secondly, we learn that our Lord Jesus Christ was truly man. He had a body like ours – a body that could hunger, and thirst, and feel pain, and be weary and need rest. Jesus was exhausted because of the drain of his ministry on his own body. Ryle writes: “He knows the trials of man, for he has experienced them.” He identified precisely with everything that bring to him as we cry out to him in the midst of our afflictions (cf Hebrews 4:15)

Thirdly, Jesus has almighty power. In these verses we read of Jesus doing what was humanly impossible – the winds and waves obey him – ‘… he turns a raging storm into a calm with a few words …’ These are the words God used at Creation. So, for our Lord Jesus, nothing is impossible. Ryle gives the following examples: stormy passions, temper, disquieted conscience, despair, temptations and concludes:

“No [person] ever need despair, if he will only bow down his pride, and come as a humbled sinner to Christ. Christ can do miracles upon his heart. … It is all or nothing, if Christ is on our side, and we are in the ship with Him. greater is He that is for us, than all they that are against us.”

Lastly, our Lord Jesus Christ is exceedingly patient and pitiful in dealing with His own people. On this occasion, the faith of the disciples was very weak. They forgot their Master’s miracles and His care for them. They thought of nothing but the present peril. Yet we see Jesus dealing with them most tenderly and gently; he does not prove them, but simply asks the question: ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ Jesus does not deal with us according to our sins, nor reward us according to our iniquities. He loves us. Ryle concludes: “When He sees a heart right, it is His glory to pass over many a short-coming.”

The most important aspect comes at the end of Ryle’s exposition. Here he reminds his readers that all this remains true TODAY, because Jesus has not changed. What was true for the disciples then, remains true for us even today, because we are in a relationship with the same Jesus.


Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Gospel and Epistle for next Sunday ...

Mark 4.26-34:
The Parable of the Growing Seed
26 He also said, ‘The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, 27and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. 28The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 29But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.’
The Parable of the Mustard Seed
30 He also said, ‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.’
The Use of Parables
33 With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; 34he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples. 

2 Corinthians 5:6-17 (NRSV)
6 So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord— 7for we walk by faith, not by sight. 8Yes, we do have confidence, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. 9So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. 10For all of us must appear before the judgement seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil
11 Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we try to persuade others; but we ourselves are well known to God, and I hope that we are also well known to your consciences. 12We are not commending ourselves to you again, but giving you an opportunity to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast in outward appearance and not in the heart. 13For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you.
 14For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. 15And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. 16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view;* even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view,* we know him no longer in that way. 17So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

My text is written in 2 Corinthians 5.17
17So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!
The Parable of the growing seed is unique to Mark and it has proven difficult to interpret. This is always good news, because from the earliest times, we know that such passages have been seen as a special gift by the Church, because it suggests deep and special meaning for those who are willing to struggle with it. Most agree that it has nothing to do with the gradualness of the coming of the Kingdom, but rather that it turns on its head some of the ideas expressed in the earlier recorded Parable of the Sower. In the Sower, a response was sought; here the farmer is inactive. Once the seed is planted, he carries on life, letting the process of growing happen by itself, without understanding how.
In this Parable of the Growing Seed, the disciples are challenged to follow the example of the farmer; once they have done what they have needed to do – once th3ey have planted their seed – they must leave the rest up to God ; they must have faith that God will bring about the growth and the harvest in his good time.
This is a wonderful encouragement for people of every time and generation. It is easy for us to become impatient and encouraged, when what we need to do is just be faithful to what God has called us to do.
Think of the experience and example of Jesus. His ministry had produced no spectacular results, in fact in human terms it was somewhat of a failure; but in the hands of God, it has transformed the world. God lets things run their course and rewards patience.
Jesus then goes on to tell the Parable of the Mustard Seed. Mark emphasises the smallness of the seed and the size of what arises from it. The earthly ministry of Jesus seemed small and insignificant at the time, but the result has been a transformed world. Denis Nineham suggests that we should never judge the significance of results by the size of the beginnings. A number of examples spring to mind: Rosa Parks refusing to obey a racist bus driver and give up her seat to a white bigot; Wesley’s Holy Club at Oxford, Trevor Huddleston raising his had out of respect when greeting Desmond Tuts mother in the dusty streets of Sophiatown. The first Methodist preachers, a handful accompanying the 5000 British Settlers in South Africa in 1820, transformed the area and eventually educated Nelson Mandela and many in the Cabinet of the first democratically elected South African government. I am sure many other examples will spring to mind.
Professor Charlie Moule suggests a slightly different emphasis; namely the mystery of the life force in the seed. The ground seems to produce the crop by itself, if it is properly prepared. Moule writes:
The most the farmer can do is prepare good ground. He then leaves the seed and the good earth does the rest.
Truth is wonderful, but attaining it requires effort and even struggle. Truth is also timeless, because it is not rigid and literal. Part of the genius of Jesus was his use of parable, because by being designed to be obscure, in searching for understanding from them within each time and context, truth will be found.
Moule explains:
You cannot teach people by spoon-feeding; you must set them a puzzle so that they can work things out for themselves; there is no short-cut to understanding.
This is certainly true when it comes to human existence and the meaning of life. We too can become impatient when it comes to our own lives and the slow progress we make in being transformed into the image of Christ. What about the body and the soul? The Greeks of the day separated them in a crude dualism, elevating the soul as being important and the body something that they did not need to respect. Paul never despised the body and insisted that it needed to be treated with the utmost respect, because what we do with our bodies is going to determine our judgement as Paul explains in 2 Corinthians 5.10. But here too, progress can be painfully slow; and we need to be faithful and patient.
We are helped by knowing the ‘… fear of the Lord …’ In the modern mind, this seems strange and even plain wrong; for no one would ever agree that holiness, morality and being good should ever be because one is afraid of punishment. Today, the word ‘fear’ is associated with terror, but scholars suggests that the connotation here is more like awe and respect – the sort of fear that keeps a person from doing something that will break the heart of someone they love.
For me, love – agape – is at the heart of everything, the nature and being of God, the way to holiness and the yardstick by which Christians should measure their lives. The transformation, the change, the holiness that we all aspire to is to be perfected in love – and this takes time – there are no short-cuts.
We live in fear of God, not terror, but the fear that keeps us from doing something that will break the heart of someone we love and in the process we are re-created. Barnett explains:
“Meanwhile, since sin and its outworking has not yet been abolished, everyone will continue to undergo, in varying degrees difficulty and hardship – including those in whom the new creation has begun.”
“’Tis mystery all, immense and free …’ but it requires time and effort, and God’s grace. I am also reminded of the American President, James A Garfield, who before rising to this high office, had been a College President. He was approached by a wealthy parent asking if there was not a way to shorten his son’s education in exchange for a generous donation. Garfield replied: “Of course there is a way; it all depends on what you want your boy to do. When God wants to grow an oak tree, he takes a hundred years, when he wants to make a pumpkin, it only takes two months!”
Indeed this was Paul’s experience. Love replaced hate; service replaced selfishness, true understanding replaced ignorance. Paul Barnett, the Australian Biblical scholar explains that Paul uses the same creation vocabulary here that is used in Genesis. Before coming to Christ we are in darkness – like the primal darkness – God now speaks the Gospel word, and then there is light – inward light as Paul has explained earlier in 4:6:
“For it is God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give us the light of the Glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ …” (NRSV)
We begin as babes in Christ and need to go through growth toward maturity. Elsewhere Paul also speaks of us as being a building, needing firm foundations first and then further growth. In 1 Corinthians Paul speaks of us as builders, using either precious materials or wood hay and straw – building by the lives we live.
But we rejoice because before God our status is that of one in whom the work is completed – because we have been given the status of Christ –even though the work is far from complete as we have the privilege of working out our own salvation as well. This is all a wonderful mystery, great blessing and joy.
The last few verses of our Epistle put things in a nutshell:
14For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. 15And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. 16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view;* even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view,* we know him no longer in that way.
Ending with the words …
17So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!


Amen.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

2 Corinthians 5:6-17 (NRSV)
6 So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord— 7for we walk by faith, not by sight. 8Yes, we do have confidence, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. 9So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. 10For all of us must appear before the judgement seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil
11 Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we try to persuade others; but we ourselves are well known to God, and I hope that we are also well known to your consciences. 12We are not commending ourselves to you again, but giving you an opportunity to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast in outward appearance and not in the heart. 13For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you.
 14For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. 15And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. 16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view;* even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view,* we know him no longer in that way. 17So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

 Barclay and others have been my guides for this reflection on the Epistle. I will also be reflecting on the Gospel later in the week, when time permits.

Greeks and Romans believed in a crude dualism where the body was of no importance, in fact it was a hindrance because it entombed the soul. They did what they liked because they believed that the body was a thing to be despised. They were ashamed to have bodies and as Seneca wrote, it was a detestable habitation in which ‘… dwells the free soul …’
Paul saw the body as a temporary dwelling place – a tent – where we sojourn until the day comes when it is transformed into a spiritual body which is the real abode for our souls. But Paul does not despise the body; it must be treated with great awe and respect, because what we do with it will one day be judged. The body is important because, the new body we are given will be that which enables us to continue to serve God in the heavenly places after death. As Barclay explains: “[Paul] saw eternity not as a release into permanent inaction, but as the entry into a body in which service would be complete.”

But we do not yearn for this life to come; our faith is not about ‘pie in the sky when we die!’ In this life we are in good heart because we possess the Holy Spirit which is the first instalment of the life to come (see 1:22). So, we already enjoy a first taste of the life to come.
We are citizens of two worlds. This does not mean that we despise this one, but rather – as Barclay contends – we find it ‘… clad with a sheen of glory which is the reflection of the greater glory to come …’ we have ‘steak on the plate while we wait!’
Here Paul explains that while we are on the road to glory we are ALSO on the road to judgement where we will await the verdict of God. I am not convinced that this will be the severe judgement of a cruel judge. I think it will be more a time when we suffer loss because of the ways in which we have fallen short.
It is interesting and important to unpack the notion of judgement. It does not seem to refer to – what Barclay refers to as – ‘the terror’ of Christ, but rather awe and reverence an idea of cleansing fear. The Old Testament certainly alludes to this:

Job 28:28 refers to ‘… the fear of the Lord that is wisdom …’

Proverbs 1:7 and 9:10 – ‘… The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge …’

Proverbs 16:6 – ‘… By the fear of the Lord, a man avoids evil …’

This does not refer to a fear of a dog that waits to be whipped, but rather ‘… that which keeps even a thoughtless man from desecrating a holy place …’ It is a fear that keeps one from doing something that will break the heart of someone that they love. The Psalmist peaks of ‘… the fear of the Lord is pure (clean) …’ This is a healthy ‘fear’ that is part of our lives and which is necessary to live the lives we ought.
In verse 12, Paul is trying to persuade the Corinthians about his sincerity, because, if this is questioned, it injures the impact of a person’s message. Barclay puts it this way: “A Man’s message will always be heard in the context of his character.”
Brother, this puts us under pressure – the right pressure. We need to be above reproach and suspicion; we need to avoid evil and even the appearance of evil so that no one will think anything less of us or more importantly our message.
Verse 13 is interesting: “13For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you.”

Paul’s only motive is to serve God and help the Corinthians. But, like Jesus, people thought he was crazy. But, in this way, he does not really care what others think, because – deep down – people admire this sort of craziness! Barclay writes:
“If a man follows out the Christian way of generosity, forgiveness and utter loyalty, there will always be worldly-wise people who will bluntly call him crazy.”
Christians are ‘in’ Christ and as a result, the old self has died in Christ’s death and has arisen anew in his Resurrection and becomes new, as if freshly created by God. This is evident because the Christian has a new set of standards – and these seem crazy in the eyes of the world!
I have just returned from taking a Chapel Service for our Prep School based on the parable of the mustard seed – focusing on the importance of little things - and I was reminded of the need for patience. When God establishes his Kingdom in our lives – when God re-creates us – we must be patient – it takes time.
I am also reminded of the American President, James A Garfield, who before rising to this high office, had been a College President. He was approached by a wealthy parent asking if there was not a way to shorten his son’s education in exchange for a generous donation. Garfield replied: “Of course there is a way; it all depends on what you want your boy to do. When God wants to grow an oak tree, he takes a hundred years, when he wants to make a pumpkin, it only takes two months!”
Indeed this was Paul’s experience. Love replaced hate; service replaced selfishness, true understanding replaced ignorance. Paul Barnett, the Australian Biblical scholar explains that Paul uses the same creation vocabulary here that is used in Genesis. Before coming to Christ we are in darkness – like the primal darkness – God now speaks the Gospel word, and then there is light – inward light as Paul has explained earlier in 4:6:
“For it is God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give us the light of the Glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ …” (NRSV)
We begin as babes in Christ and need to go through growth toward maturity. Elsewhere Paul also speaks of us as being a building, needing firm foundations first and then further growth. In 1 Corinthians Paul speaks of us as builders, using either precious materials or wood hay and straw – building by the lives we live.
We live in fear of God – not terror – but the fear that keeps one from doing something that will break the heart of someone that they love and in the process we are re-created. Barnett concludes:
“Meanwhile, since sin and its outworkings have not yet been abolished, everyone will continue to undergo, in varying degrees difficulty and hardship – including those in whom the new creation has begun.”
But we rejoice because before God our status is that of one in whom the work is completed – because we have been given the status of Christ –even though the work is far from complete as we have the privilege of working out our own salvation as well. This is all a wonderful mystery, great blessing and joy.






Wednesday, 3 June 2015

The Epistle for the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost


2 Corinthians 4.13-5.1 (NRSV)
13 But just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture—‘I believed, and so I spoke’—we also believe, and so we speak, 14because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence.15Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.
Living by Faith
16 So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. 17For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, 18because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.
5For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.


Paul begins this passage with a quotation from Psalm 116.10: ‘I believed, and so I spoke’.  Paul explains that he too has believed and so now he now proclaims the Gospel. For Paul, faith is not merely a subjective experience because it also has an objective content viz. the fact that God raised Jesus from the dead, and that he has the confidence that he too will be raised – at the end of time – to be with Jesus – and implies that this is also true for the Corinthians to whom he now writes.
Everything Paul does is for the sake of his converts to Christ as a result of his ministry and this is beautifully expressed in verse 15.  His purpose is not to increase his own stature, position or station, but so that more people can be blessed by being united with Christ, and know what it means to have life and that in all its fullness. This will result in an increase in thanksgiving as people experience this life of blessing.
Francis Fallon (upon whose work I am indebted for this reflection) points out that the passage from verse 16, ‘... has long been notoriously difficult for interpreters of Paul for a number of factors.
1.      This part seems to digress from the main theme;
2.      There are severe shifts in images – from the inner person to a house and then to clothing to being at home;
3.      There seems to be a conflict between the eschatology expressed here and that which Paul refers to elsewhere in his writings. In 1 Thessalonians and 1 Corinthians, Paul seems to await the second coming of Christ, where he seems to think that he will be alive at the time and he looks forward to being transformed into a person who will live for all eternity. Here Paul seems to be thinking of an intermediate state, including those who have died earlier – who are already ‘with the Lord’. Here too Paul seems to adopt the Greek idea of a dualism between body and soul.
As always, William Barclay cuts to the essence and applies Paul’s ideas here to our present Christian experience.
All through our lives, our bodies weaken, but as this happens, for the Christian, our souls ought to be strengthened. Even those sufferings that especially weaken our bodies, ought also to fortify our souls. From a spiritual understanding, age should mean ‘... climbing up a hill that leads to the presence of God.’ Barclay continues: ‘... No man need fear the years, for they bring him nearer, not to death, but to God.’
Paul was convinced that anything that he had to suffer in this life was nothing compared with the wonder of what he would experience in the next. Barclay uses the example of a godly Scotswoman who was, by force of circumstances, had to leave her idyllic life in the country and move to live in a city slum. Barclay writes: ‘... She still lived close to God, and one day said: “God will make it up to me, and I will see flowers again.”’ Earth’s sufferings are often forgotten in the glory of heaven.
It is interesting to be reminded that Jesus never spoke of his death without also mentioning his Resurrection. Our eyes must always be fixed on the things of the Spirit and not of this world – on the unseen things of God and not the seen things of this world. Robert Louis Stevenson adds that if we think only of the things that are visible, we are bound to see life in the same way and he quoted a simple byre man whose daily toil was in the muck of the byre. On sympathising with him, the man responded: “He that has something beyond need never weary.” Barclay concludes: ‘To him it will be a day of joy when he is done with this human body.’ It is merely our tent, a temporary dwelling place. One day it will end and then we will ‘... enter the real abode of our souls.’


Wednesday, 27 May 2015

John 3.1-17 (NRSV)
Nicodemus Visits Jesus
3Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.2He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ 3Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ 4Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ 5Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” 8The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ 9Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ 10Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
11 ‘Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
16 ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
17 ‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

I am indebted to William Barclay's Daily Study Bible commentary for this reflection.

Nicodemus came to Jesus because he was impressed by the signs and wonders. Jesus needs to make it clear to him that this is not what was most important; what really matters is a change in a person’s inner life that follows from a new birth. Nicodemus had difficulty with this – because he took what Jesus was saying literally. Barclay explains that the Greek word ‘anothen’ has three possible meanings:
(i) ‘From the beginning, completely and radically’;
(ii) ‘Again’ – i.e. for a second time;
(iii) ‘From above’ implying ‘from God’
Once again, we find the richness of the Greek difficult to translate into English, but what it is saying is that one needs to ‘… undergo such a radical change that it is like a new birth; it is to have something happen to the soul which can only be described as being born all over again; and the whole process is not a human achievement, because it comes from the grace and power of God.’
Nicodemus seems to have only thought of what Jesus was saying in the second sense – ‘again’ and so with a crude literalism. But Barclay also sees in his reply a ‘… great unsatisfied longing …’ because, deep down, he knew that there was more to life, but the ‘more’ seemed impossible to achieve.
By today’s standards, Nicodemus had it all – but he realized that, in fact, he had nothing. He was a wealthy man, a great intellect, one of the rulers of the day and probably from one of the distinguished Jewish families of the day, but he had come to realize this was not what life was all about. This is of course echoed in those words that echo so true from St Augustine which speaks about the origin and the goal of human nature.
‘… You have made us for yourself, O Lord,
and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you …’
Our current world is restless – and needs to be born again, radically, of God. People think they have it all and have found their ‘all’ to be lacking and severely wanting. I believe that the message of Christ is on the cusp of a great revival as restless souls seek peace.
Barclay reminds us that the image of being born again, born anew or rebirth is integral to the whole of the New Testament, and cites examples:
  • Peter speaks of being born anew by God’s great mercy (1 Peter 1:3);
  • Peter speaks of being born anew not of perishable seed, but of imperishable (1 Peter 1:22-23);
  • James speaks of God bringing us forth by the word of truth (James 1:18);
  • The letter to Titus speaks of the washing of regeneration (Titus 3:5)
  • There are times when the image of death and resurrection is used – or a re-creation, e.g. Paul speaks of the Christian as dying with Christ and then rising to new life (Romans 6:1-11);
  • Paul speaks of new Christians as ‘babes in Christ’ (1 Corinthians 3:1-2);
  • Those who are in Christ being a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17 and Galatians 6:15);
  • The author of the letter to the Hebrews speaks of the new Christians as being like a child (Hebrews 5:12-14).
This was nothing new for Jews who used the same imagery in speaking of the proselyte who converted to the Jewish faith, and who, after sacrifice and baptism were considered to have been born again. So radical was the change, that it was believed that sins had been forgiven and that they were different people with a fresh start.
The Greek community also held similar beliefs as part of their mystery religions, including dying and rising, including sacrifices for sins, washing in blood and a God who suffered in our place. Barclay therefore concludes that:
“When Christianity came to the world with a message of rebirth, it came with precisely that for which all the world was seeking.”
This is one of the most precious gifts of the Christian message, the fact that people can be forgiven and given a second (and third, and fourth etc.) chance in life.
To begin with Nicodemus does not understand. Why? Barclay contends that there are two kinds of misunderstanding: (i) those who have not yet reached the stage of knowledge and experience where they – as it were – they do not have the equipment to help them to understand. This is what we have committed out lives to doing – educating young people so that they ‘do’ have the skills needed; and (ii) those who are ‘unwilling’ to understand because they ‘refuse’ to see. Nicodemus was in the second category. He was a Pharisee, steeped in the Scriptures and so would have known the prophetic utterances of Ezekiel who spoke of the need for a new heart and a new spirit (Ezekiel 18:31, 36:26) Barclay continues:
“If a man does not wish to be reborn, he will deliberately misunderstand what rebirth means. If a man does not wish to be changed, he will shut his eyes and his mind and his heart to the power which can change him.”
Still today, there are many who refuse the offer of our Lord to change us and to re-create us. It is as if people today are saying: “No thanks: I am quite satisfied with who I am, and I do not want to be changed!”
Jesus then uses the image of the wind blowing to explain the work of the Spirit. Barclay points out that the word for spirit used here is ‘pneuma’ which is used for both wind and spirit. The same is true of the Hebrew word ‘ruach’. This means that Jesus is saying to Nicodemus: ‘Just as you do not understand how the wind works, you can see what it does – its effect is plain for all to see … It is the same with the Spirit – you might not understand how it works, but you will be able to see its impact in changed humans lives.’
Barclay gives a lovely illustration of a workman who had been a drunken reprobate and was converted. His workmates did their best to make him feel a fool, saying: “Surely you cannot believe in miracles and things like that? Surely you cannot believe that Jesus turned water into wine?” The workman replied: “I don’t know, but I do know that in my own house and home Jesus has turned beer into furniture.”
“The unanswerable argument for Christianity is the Christian life. No man can disregard a faith which is able to make bad men good.”
Has the mainstream church today not lost some of this? Have we not over-intellectualised things, or focused too much on ceremony and beautiful music – all wonderful and good – at the expense of offering changed lives? Christianity is not just something to be discussed, but something to be experienced.
Just as we do not need to be able to understand the workings of electricity to enjoy it, or how medicine works to take it and be healed. Barclay states:
“At its heart there is a mystery, but it is not the mystery of intellectual appreciation; it is the mystery of redemption.”
The reference to Moses and the brazen serpent recalling the incident in the desert during the Exodus is of interest and significance. (When I taught Reformation Theology, I referred, on one occasion, to Luther’s reference to this in the formation of his understanding of Justification by Faith. One of my students had never heard of Moses! I was – and remain amazed).
Jesus’ referral to this incident is most important, because it revolutionised the people’s understanding of the nature of God. The Jews had been complaining in the desert and were regretting leaving Egypt, so God sent a plague of serpents to punish the people. When they repented and cried for mercy, Moses was instructed to make a brazen serpent, and when he lifted it up, and the people looked on it, they were saved. Eventually, in the history of the people of Israel, this had become an idol and so during the reforms of Hezekiah, it had to be destroyed (2 Kings 18.4) because the point needed to be made that the healing power lay in God and not in the image.
John uses this as a parable for Jesus, so when Jesus is lifted up, and people turn their thoughts to him, and believe in him, they too will find eternal life. Barclay is brilliant in his use of Greek. He explains that the word used here for lifted up is ‘hupsoun’ and that it is applied to Jesus in two ways: (i) when he was lifted up on the Cross and (ii) when he was lifted up to glory in the Ascension and that the two are connected because the Cross was the way to glory. This can be applied to our own lives. Barclay writes:
“We can, if we like, choose the easy way; we can, if we like, refuse the Cross that every Christian is called to bear; but if we do, we lose the glory … There is an unalterable law of life that if there is no Cross, there is no crown …”
God is not a God that demands who just imposes laws on us and who punishes those who break them. God is not just a judge and people criminals. For us to enter God’s presence no price needs to be paid by us. Jesus revealed a God as is a Father who longs for nothing so much as to have his people return home to; a God who loves us, who cares for us and who wants to forgive us. It cost the life and death of Jesus to tell us this.
But the reality of life is this: There will be crosses to bear – not given to us by God – but because we live in a world where the ways of God have become distorted by the free choices of people. But we are given the Spirit of Jesus – which is the Spirit of God – to fill us with the strength we need to face and overcome – even more – to know God’s glory.
For God so loved the world …
The incident that John refers to here is the time in the desert when there was a plague of snakes and people were dying and Moses was instructed to make a brazen image of a snake and when he lifted it up and the people gazed upon it, they were saved.  This is recorded in Numbers 21:4-9 and is a remote story only really known in Christian circles because John makes the link with Jesus.
The people began worshipping the image as an idol and, finally, in the days of Hezekiah, it had to be destroyed because of this (2 Kings18.4). The healing power lay not in the brazen serpent; it was only a symbol to turn their thoughts to God. When they did this, they were healed.
Jesus was lifted up on the Cross and when we look on the cross, sign ourselves with the sign of the cross or offer the Blessing – Jesus is lifted up - our thoughts are turned to God and we are touched by God’s peace.
We are reminded that Jesus did not take the easy way and so must we avoid taking the easy way. Jesus did not refuse the Cross, neither must we; because the Cross was the way to glory for Jesus and it will be for us too (as has been part of our earlier reflections).
This passage ends with the words: “…whoever believes in him …” These are important because it includes “…may have eternal life …”
What does it mean to “… believe …?”
Barclay points out that it means believing that God loves us, cares for us and wants nothing more than to forgive us. This would not have been easy for a Jew of those days to accept, because they looked on God as law-giver, a judge and one who demands sacrifices and offerings. To get into God’s presence one had to pay a price. Now Jesus reveals that God is a Father, “… who longed for nothing so much as to have his erring children come back home.”
God had tried to make this clear through His intervention into the life of the people of Israel and Judah and through the prophets, but they could not see it, so it cost the life and death of Jesus to make this clear.
How can we be sure of this? Because John begins his Gospel by explaining that Jesus is the Word of God – the same as God – one of the great mysteries of faith and so whatever Jesus says about God is true. It also means accepting Jesus’ message and obeying his commands.
In Sum: Belief that God is a loving Father, that Jesus is the Word of God and following him in obedience are all vital ingredients in what it means to “believe in him”!
What does it mean to have “eternal life”?
Barclay suggests that this life is the “very life of God Himself”. If we possess eternal life, what do we have?
Peace with God – having God as a loving and forgiving Father; peace with others whom we are ready to forgive because we are so freely forgiven; peace with life – even though we do not understand it any better and are perplexed by it - but we will not resent it anymore and peace with ourselves. Barclay comments on what this means for us as individuals:
“He knows his own weakness; he knows the force of his own temptations; he knows his own tasks and the demands of his own life. But now he knows that he is facing it all with God. It is not he who lives, but Christ who lives in him. There is a peace founded on strength in his life.”
And this peace is only a shadow of the peace which is to come. It is good to be reminded that we have the peace of God which passes all understanding – the words I often use when introducing the Blessing after having begun an act of worship with the words: “The peace of the Lord be with you …”
Linked with your thoughts here again we see that it is God who takes the initiative and is motivated by His love for all that he was willing to make it possible for people to have eternal life which is to share life with God.
God does not need to be pacified; He is not a wrathful God, and Jesus is not the lightning conductor that deflects God’s wrath and satisfies it at the moment when he cries out “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me!” Yes, in my heady days as an undergraduate, I preferred the AV translation of ‘hilasterion’ in Romans 3:24 as ‘propitiation’ because all this is encapsulated in this word. But over the years, as I have walked with our Lord, I have come to the understanding that ‘expiation’ is far more appropriate (and equally valid translation of this word) – and refers rather to “atonement for sin” and ‘atonement’ is the word most translators prefer. God is not angry and Jesus not the gentle one ready to forgive; it is the mystery of both incarnation and atonement that I do not need to understand; it is something I know because it is part of my being, or as Paul puts it in Romans 5 because “I have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” This is something more profound than just cognitive, mental understanding, it is part of one’s very existence – God’s Spirit testifying with my Spirit that I am one of his children – unearned and undeserved – a gift!
Wow!
It all started with God, who sent his Son, because he loved the people of the world.
Indeed, this is central to John’s understanding of God and this is beautifully represented in his Epistle where he simply states: “God is love!” Barclay puts it this way:
“God acting not for his own sake, but for ours, not to satisfy his desire for power, not to bring a universe to heel, but to satisfy his love … God is the Father who cannot be happy until his wondering children have come home. God does not smash people into submission; he yearns over them and woos them into love …”
Augustine puts it even better:
“God loves each one of us as if there was only one of us to love.”
I will never even get close to the example of people like Mother Teresa – but God will still love me as much as he loves Mother Teresa – all because of Jesus and his grace.
I do not need to write anything more, do I?
Here we encounter the paradox of love and judgment. Barclay explains how the experience of love can turn out to be an experience of judgment. He tells of a music lover, who finds that he is closest to God when listening to a great piece of music. He wants to share this with a friend. He has no aim other than to share both the majesty of the music and his experience of God’s presence – but the other person just does not get it – because he has a “blind spot on his soul”. I did not find this illustration convincing until I read further where he goes on to illustrate his point from an example from an art gallery where there are some of the world’s great masterpieces and one of the visitors comes to the end of the tour as states:
“Well, I don’t think much of your old pictures.” The attendant answers quietly: “Sir, I would remind you that these pictures are no longer on trial, but those that look on them are.” All that the man’s reaction has done was reveal his own blindness.
This now makes more sense to me. When people are confronted with Jesus, their souls ought to be attracted to him – “But if, when he is confronted with Jesus, he sees nothing lovely, he stands condemned.”
God sent Jesus in love, so that man might be saved, but it can become a condemnation when man condemns himself.  This is because, in our natural state, we love darkness rather than light.
I believe this is why our churches are emptying. People in the west are increasingly attracted to the darkness. When they come into the light they become acutely embarrassed because, deep down, they know of their guilt. The experience of Christians ought to be different; when we compare ourselves with our Lord we see ourselves as we really are, but the difference is that we want to be like Jesus and so we invite him into our lives, we repent and seek God’s grace and His Spirit so that we can become more like our Lord. Barclay puts it brilliantly:
“The man who is engaged on an evil task does not want a flood of light shed on him; but the man engaged on an honourable task does not fear the light.”
When preaching is faithful, it will show people what they really are. For those who place themselves under judgment and condemnation, this is the last thing they will want to see. They prefer being able to hide in the darkness. If a person loves Jesus, they will want the light to reveal where they fall short so that they might be transformed by the love of their Lord.
To put it starkly: If anyone was to have challenged Mother Teresa and pointed out her weaknesses and shortcomings – she would have wholeheartedly have agreed with them and prayed for forgiveness. Suggest to anyone who is not a Christian that they are not a good person and they will be outraged and will defend themselves most vehemently. And in so doing they reveal that Jesus, who was sent in love, becomes to them, judgment. This is beautifully illustrated in Zechariah’s prophecy:
“Then he showed me the high priest Joshua standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan* standing at his right hand to accuse him. 2And the Lord said to Satan,* ‘The Lord rebuke you, O Satan!* The Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is not this man a brand plucked from the fire?’ 3Now Joshua was dressed in filthy clothes as he stood before the angel. 4The angel said to those who were standing before him, ‘Take off his filthy clothes.’ And to him he said, ‘See, I have taken your guilt away from you, and I will clothe you in festal apparel.’ 5And I said, ‘Let them put a clean turban on his head.’ So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him in the apparel; and the angel of the Lord was standing by. 6 Then the angel of the Lord assured Joshua, saying 7‘Thus says the Lord of hosts: If you will walk in my ways and keep my requirements, then you shall rule my house and have charge of my courts, and I will give you the right of access among those who are standing here.” (Zechariah 3:1-7, NRSV)
Coming into God’s presence is like coming into a great light – and reveals that our garments of righteousness are like filthy rags. But he clothes us “… in righteousness divine …” and gives us the command to “… walk in his ways and keep his requirements …”
We are justified by grace through faith and this is not our own doing – it is a gift of God – so that no one can boast.  And so we love coming into the light, because we know we are not condemned. We also want to become what we have been declared to be and so we want to light to reveal our shortcomings.
Amen.