Wednesday, 25 November 2015

The epistle for Advent Sunday

1 Thessalonians 3:9-end (NRSV)

9How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? 10Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith.
11 Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. 12And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. 13And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. 

Brother Mark,
A few thoughts on the Epistle for Advent Sunday.
It is indeed a pleasure to reflect on Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, probably one of the earliest writings now part of the New Testament.
Paul speaks of the joy he experienced because of the Thessalonian church – ‘… the joy of one who had created something which would stand the tests and temptations of time …’ You know better than me of the joy a parent who can point to a child who has done well as you have four boys, but even I can know this as Gareth flourishes in what he does. He is in a very competitive environment and does not always come out tops, but when he does  it is a joy to share in his delight.  Paul was so proud of the way in which this Church was flourishing as a parent feels joy for a child.
There is also prayer. Barclay makes a lovely comment: “… We will never know from how much sins we have been saved and how much temptation we have conquered because someone has prayed for us.’ He continues with a lovely illustration:
A servant girl became a member of a Church. She was asked what Christian work she did. She said that she had not the opportunity to do much because her duties were so constant, but, she said, “When I go to bed I take the morning newspaper to my bed with me; and I read the births and I pray for the all little babies; and I read the notices of marriage and I pray that those who have been married may be happy; and I read the announcements of death and I pray that the sorrowing may be comforted. No man can ever tell what tides of grace flowed from that attic bedroom. When we can serve people no other way, when, like Paul, we are unwillingly separated from them, there is one thing we can still do – we can pray for them.
Paul also prays that God would open a way for him to travel to Thessalonica. Barclay points out that Paul was in the habit of praying about everything including the ordinary, everyday things, even simple journeys. Barclay comments:
One of the great and grave mistakes of life is to turn to God only in the great moments and overpowering emergencies and the shattering crises … In ordinary things we disregard Him, thinking we can manage well enough by ourselves; in the emergency we clutch at Him, knowing that we cannot get through without Him.
Barclay concludes, that by only coming to God when there is trouble we are living a ‘God-rescued life’, when real living is a ‘God-directed life’.
Paul also prays that the Thessalonians will be enabled to fulfil the law of love in their daily lives. We often find living the Christian life difficult, especially in the mundane, ordinary relationships, and this is because we are trying to live in our own strength alone. Barclay puts it this way:
The man who goes out in the morning without prayer is, in effect saying, “I can quite well tackle today by myself.” The man who lays himself to rest without speaking to God, is in effect saying, “I can bear whatever consequences today has brought myself.”
The author of that excellent book The 39 Steps, John Buchan, described an atheist as one who “… has no invisible means of support …”
To try to live without God is impossible!
Paul also prays for ultimate safety. Now he is thinking of the end of time, the Second Coming and Judgement. Here Paul prays that God would preserve His people that they may be blameless and that on that day they would not be ashamed.
Shame is a much lost concept in the western world. We now have TV programmes that deliberately humiliate people; celebrity is worshipped for its baring all and its shameful sexual and other antics; there is a whole industry – and sadly a lucrative and popular one at that – that thrives on the loss of human dignity.
For me there is a useful yardstick: Is what I am doing or saying going to enhance my dignity or might I feel ashamed?
Barclay suggests that the only way to prepare to meet God is to live daily with God and ends with:
The shock of that day will not be for those who have so lived that they have become friends with God, but for those who meet God as a terrible stranger.

What wonderful thoughts from St Paul and William Barclay as we enter the season of Advent.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Apologies for lateness ... Christ the King

John 18:33-37 (NRSV)

33 Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ 34Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ 35Pilate replied, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?’ 36Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ 37Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’

The Gospel reading moves back to John as today Sunday is the feast of Christ the King, the Sunday before Advent. Pilate asks Jesus if he is the king of the Jews. Pilate seems perplexed – what is the issue? In verse 35 he explains: “Your nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” Well, in the eyes of the law, Jesus had done nothing wrong. Jesus makes the case very clearly that there is nothing for the temporal powers to be worried about, as if he were indeed wanting to become a political ruler, he had amassed enough support. This is evident in his triumphal entry into Jerusalem and he was also able to get away with the outrageous cleansing of the Temple. Jesus said: ‘… If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’
Jesus was wanting to do something far more radical; his kingdom deals with the essence of who people are. His kingdom does not require armies and taxes to support them – just transformed lives. I am fascinated by the emphasis on ‘truth’ and find it surprising that the compilers of the Lectionary end the passage at verse 37, as the key statement for me in this passage is verse 38 where Pilate asks Jesus: “What is truth?” But before I go there, let us reflect, briefly, on the whole issue of government. Here J C Ryle has some interesting observations.
Ryle suggests that Jesus  knew that ‘… the prosperity of kingdoms is wholly dependent on the blessing of God, and that kings are as much bound to encourage righteousness and godliness, as to punish unrighteousness and immorality …’
It is a joy for me to live in a free society where religious freedom is at the core of what we stand for. I remember when I first arrived, the joy that was mine to be free to be truly me. Britain has prospered, when the Gospel was indeed not just tolerated, but also encouraged. We have the most marvellous health system in the world and this is because of Christian insistence that unless we do this and help people at their point of need, we could be guilty of murder; if we do not have a welfare system that pays pensions, then we do not honour our fathers and our mothers. There was a time when Christian morality was key, and we became one of the great national powers. Ryle continues:
… no Government can expect to prosper which refuses to recognise religion, which deals with its subjects as if they had no souls, and cares not whether they serve God …
And the reason is almost what my students would call a ‘no brainer’. Ryle puts it this way:
The kingdom where there is most industry, temperance, truthfulness, and honesty, will always be the most prosperous of kingdoms.
I am not one for prosperity gospels and the like, but I do believe that we are in the state we are in partly because our society has abandoned the Gospel. Ryle was writing in the height of the 19th century Evangelical Revival – when British society flourished.
To believe is to do, to commit, to work things out in practice.
It would appear that Pilate did not want to condemn Jesus, because he knew he was innocent. Barclay suggests that Pilate was ‘… caught in the mesh of his own past …’ As he had before, Pilate tried to put the responsibility onto someone else – the Jews in this instance. He tried to do what no one can do – and that is - evade dealing with Jesus. No one else can deal with Jesus; we must deal with him ourselves. There is no escape from a personal decision in regard to Jesus: we must ourselves decide what we will do with him, accept him or reject him.
Pilate also tried to compromise. But no person can compromise with Jesus; no person can serve two masters. We are either for Jesus or against him.
Pilate’s biggest problem was that he did not have the courage to take the right decision and do the right thing! Pilate was at sea; he did not want to be bothered with Jewish ways and it is therefore not surprising that he got things wrong because no one can govern effectively if they do not understand their people and enter their thoughts and minds. Pilate was also superstitious rather than religious, and was hesitant because Jesus might in fact be who he claimed to be.
By today’s standards even, Pilate had it ‘made’ – he was at the top of his profession – but in meeting this mysterious man Jesus, came to see that he had missed out on what really mattered. That day he might have found all that he had missed; but he had not the courage to defy the world in spite of his past, and to take his stand with Christ and a future which was glorious.
No one can read this story without seeing the sheer majesty of Jesus. There is no sense that Jesus is on trial. But when a person faces him, it is not Jesus on trial but the person. It seems as though it is Jesus who is in control and Pilate who is on trial.
Here, Jesus also speaks to us with utter directness about his kingdom: it is not of this earth. The atmosphere in Jerusalem was electric; it was Passover and Pilate would (as usual) have drafted more troops into the city. If Jesus wished to have called for rebellion, he could have done it easily, but he makes it quite clear that his kingdom is in the hearts of people – he aimed at conquest, but his conquest was the conquest of love.
Jesus tells us why he came into the world. The days of guessing and half-truths were gone. He came to tell us the truth. This is one of the great reasons why we must either accept or refuse Christ. There is no half-way house about the truth. A man either accepts it or rejects it: and Christ is the truth.”

We belong to the truth and so must listen to his voice …

Friday, 13 November 2015

Here are a few thoughts on a passage from Hebrews as we remember Armistice Day this week.

Hebrews 10:11-14 (New International Version)

11Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. 12But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God. 13Since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool, 14because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.

The writer to the Hebrews now stresses the exaltation of Jesus and he chooses his words carefully. Jesus sits down at the right hand of God. As much as to say that Jesus, unlike the priests, takes the position of a monarch. Jesus is the King come home. His task is accomplished and his victory won.

There is also a wholeness to the life of Christ that I have never before understood in this way. His life is incomplete without his death; his death is incomplete without his resurrection; his resurrection is incomplete without his return to glory. It is the same Jesus who lived and died and rose again and is at the right hand of God. He is not simply a saint who lived a lovely life; not simply a martyr who died an heroic death; not simply a risen figure who returned to company with his friends. He is the Lord of glory. His life is like a panelled tapestry; to look at one panel is to see only a bit of the story. The tapestry must be looked at as a whole before the full greatness is disclosed.

Then the writer stresses the final triumph of Jesus. He awaits the final subjugation of his enemies; in the end there must come a universe in which he is supreme. How that will come is not ours to know; but it may be that this final subjugation will come not in the extinction of his enemies but in their submission to his love. It is not so much the power but the love of God which must conquer in the end.

Finally, as is the habit of the writer to the Hebrews, he clinches his argument with a quotation from scripture. He quotes Jeremiah who says, "I will remember their sins no more" Jeremiah 31:34). Because of Jesus the barrier of sin is forever taken away.

God bless you


Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Mark 13:1-8 (NRSV)
The Destruction of the Temple Foretold:
13As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ 2Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’ 3 When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, 4‘Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?’ 5Then Jesus began to say to them, ‘Beware that no one leads you astray. 6Many will come in my name and say, “I am he!” and they will lead many astray. 7When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. 8For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.
Inspiration for this sermon comes from the commentaries by J C Ryle and William Barclay.
My text this morning is written in Mark 13.5:
5Then Jesus began to say to them, ‘Beware that no one leads you astray.’
The disciples were just like us – easily taken in by impressive sights – not least wonderful architecture. By all accounts, Herod’s Temple was a marvel of architecture and wealth and it had been a feature of great significance for hundreds of years. Jesus prophesied its destruction.
This is a well-used passage when referring to the end of time and is controversial because it often becomes part of the package of those who become obsessed with it. J C Ryle writes: “Chapters like this ought to be deeply interesting to every true Christian … The rise and fall of worldly empires are events of comparatively small importance in the sight of God … are nothing in His eyes by the side of the mystical body of Christ …” It was good and interesting for me to read Ryle say this, this because I have to confess that passages like this, are not my favourite and this is one of the reasons why the discipline of following the Lectionary is so good for me. So what is Ryle’s contribution that makes it – in his opinion – such an important passage? The disciples’ admiration for the splendour of the Temple gets an unexpected response from Jesus who ‘… expresses no commendation of the design or workmanship of the gorgeous structure before him …’ Ryle’s exposition continues. The true glory of any place of worship has nothing to do with its physical presence and splendour; but in the faith and godliness of its members. It is interesting to note that, even though Jesus, the Jew, knew that the Temple contained the Holy of Holies, the golden candlestick and the altar of burnt offering – all central to Jewish worship at the time - Jesus could find no pleasure in looking at what was obviously a magnificent building! The same holds true for Christians and churches today: what matters is that God’s Word (written and living) and His Spirit are honoured – that is all.
Yet today, Christians are often still fixated on buildings. Ministries are diluted because people refuse to close churches and chapels that have long since been not viable and millions are spent on the restoration of impressive piles, when people are starving and going in need.
We are naturally inclined to judge things by their outward appearance. Ryle continues:
We are too apt to suppose that where there is a stately ecclesiastical building and a magnificent ceremonial, - carved stone and painted glass, - fine music and impressively dressed ministers, there must be some real religion. And yet there may be no religion at all. It may be all form and show, and appeal to the senses. There may be nothing to satisfy the conscience, nothing to cure the heart.

The ministers might be ignorant of the Gospel and the worshippers may be dead in their trespasses and sins. Sadly this is true in many places.
What matters is that Christ be preached, the Word of God is expounded and that Christians live lives of holiness as they are transformed in love by the Holy Spirit. I can identify completely with what Ryle is suggesting here: “ … the meanest room where Christ is preached, at this day, is more honourable in his eyes than the cathedral of St Peter’s at Rome …’ if the Word is not faithfully preached and the lives of those present are not living letters to be read of all. It goes without saying that the opposite is also not true. As Ryle adds:
There is no true religion in having a dirty, mean shabby, and disorderly place of worship … But let it be a settled principle in our religion, however beautiful we make our churches … It has no glory if God is not there.

I have mentioned this before, but one of the most beautiful places of worship I have ever attended was the ‘Motherwell Cathedral’ made of throw away, rusted wrought iron, in a squatter camp outside Port Elizabeth in South Africa. It’s Cross and furnishings were fashioned from material from the rubbish dump – but it was spotlessly clean and lovingly maintained. God was there, more than the Cathedral I left behind. In Ryle’s words, ‘… the humblest cottage where the Gospel is preached is lovely and beautiful …’

Jesus then went on to intimately expand on his prophecy of the end times to his inner circle, this time including Andrew. Jesus was aware that, before the end of time there would be heresy. And it was early in the history of the Church that heresy arose.
Humans have a great ability for wishful thinking. Many people today do this – they claim, for instance - that there is no God because they do not wish there to be a God because it suits their lifestyle. They make outrageous claims that science has proven that there is no God, even though the most respected scientists in the world today are saying that there probably is! If the Big Bang is true as the origin of everything, then the choice is either it all happened by chance or someone or something started it off. “Chance” – philosophically speaking – requires more faith than belief in God – even if at a minimum as deist God. Even Professor Richard Dawkins – the great anti-theist of our time – admitted on Channel 4 television to Mark Dowd, the producer of that fantastic documentary, Tsunami – where was God ? – that a deist God is probable. But people want to do as they please – and the fact of God makes this uncomfortable for them. So, one of the great heresies of our day is secularism – and it has been found wanting. Possessions, status, position, wealth and all the other trappings of a Godless society have been shown to be empty and meaningless. Our ethics seems to be dominated by the 11th Commandment – “Thou shalt not be found out!” The whole idea of been accountable – even if no one else knows or finds out – is uncomfortable; the idea of judgement – is unpopular because people do not want to be held responsible. People disregard the idea of the Second Coming of Christ and judgement because they don’t want to live in a way that holds them accountable if no one finds out. These truths are uncomfortable and they would prefer to ignore them.
This leads to the second cause of heresy, the establishing of a religion that suits people, a religion that will be popular and attractive. To do this, it needs to be watered down. As William Barclay writes: “The sting, the condemnation, the humiliation, the moral demand, have to be taken out of it ... It is not our job to alter Christianity to suit people, but to alter people to suit Christianity.” Some of the Churches in the world have courses that are very popular, because they offer quick fix solutions to some of the great moral dilemmas of our time. There are those that simply quote bible passage after bible passage as the answer – and their churches are full to overflowing - boasting thousands upon thousands of members. It is these that people like Dawkins can tear apart – in fact, even my Year 9 class at the grammar school could do the same. We should never be impressed by numbers alone, though we should all rejoice at true revival, but as Jesus was constantly doing with his first disciples, we must make clear the cost of discipleship.
Heresy also comes from trying to be completely intelligible: Yes, we are under a duty to try to understand our faith, but it is also true that we are mere finite, contingent beings and the God we seek to know and understand is infinite and we will never fully be able to understand Him and His ways. This means that any expression of our faith that is ‘… neatly stated in a series of propositions and neatly proved in a series of logical steps like a geometrical theorem is an impossibility and a contradiction in terms … As G K Chesterton said, “It is only the fool who tries to get the heavens inside his head, and not unnaturally his head bursts. The wise person is content to get his head inside the heavens. “’ Barclay concludes that “Even at our most intellectual we must remember that there is always – and will always be - place for the ultimate mystery before which we can only worship, wonder and adore.” Tertullian put it this way: “I believe, because it is impossible.”
Why is it that people claim that the existence of suffering, war, natural disasters – and all the other realities of human existence – make them challenge God’s existence. From the earliest time, Jesus has told us that this is going to be the case. The truth seems to be that the cause of suffering in the world rests at the door of the peoples of the world, and not God for even natural disaster only devastate and cause suffering because the rich are unwilling to cater for the needs of the poor by providing them with the means to deal with these things effectively.
It is time to offer the peoples of the world the undiluted and liberating Gospel of Jesus Christ – free of the trappings of tradition – whatever form it takes – because the secular heresies of the 20 and 21st Centuries have been found wanting and there is a hunger for the Gospel once more. I believe we need to act in such a way so as to enable those who have rejected the Church and its teachings to find credibility in what we have to offer them. We need to beware of watering down our message and seeking to cater for the lowest possible denominator in worship and teaching. To do this we need to address issues that matter to them and not be so fixated on those things that matter only to us and that are not germane to the Gospel of Christ. We need to make a stand for justice and oppose small-mindedness and bigotry of any sort – because it is these squabbles in the Church that put those outside off, relegating us to being a dated irrelevance. And we need to begin with redeeming in their eyes, the nature of God as revealed in Jesus Christ, who, as the embodiment of love, and who gives us a way of living that unites us to God in the power of the Holy Spirit. We need less religion – especially that which detracts us from our responsibility of living and proclaiming the Gospel - and more of a focus on following Christ in costly discipleship, being aware of the many distractions that will tempt us away from this task. As Jesus warned:

‘Beware that no one leads you astray.’


Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Mark 1:14-20 (NRSV)

The Beginning of the Galilean Ministry

14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’ 

Jesus Calls the First Disciples

16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen.17And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ 18And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

A reflection based on Barclay’s Daily Study Bible …

In verses 14 and 15 we encounter three great themes of the Christian faith.
Firstly, there is good news: The essence of the message of Jesus is good news for humankind. If we follow the word εὐαγγέλιον.

Throughout the New Testament we discover more of what it means:

(a)  It is good news because it is truth (Galatians 2:5; Colossians 1:5). As Barclay comments: “Until Jesus came, men could only grope after God. ‘O that I knew where I might find him,’ cried Job (Job 23:3).” With the coming of Jesus we can now see clearly what God is like – guess work has come to an end.

(b)  It is good news of hope (Colossians 1:23). The ancient world was full of pessimism; in their struggle for goodness, people felt defeated – but the coming of Jesus brings hope to the hopeless heart.

(c)  It is good news of peace (Ephesians 6:15). It is our lot that we struggle with sin and goodness – but in Christ we can find peace as his grace works out his purposes for our lives.

(d)  It is good news of promise (Ephesians 3:6). Jesus reveals that God is not full of threats but love and forgiveness and so is full of promise.

(e)  It is good news of immortality (2 Timothy 1:10). Life is not a one way road to death and the end. In Jesus we are on a road to life and not death.

(f)   It is good news of salvation (Ephesians 1:13). This is not just a liberation from penalty and escape from past sin; ‘… it is the power to live life victoriously and to conquer sin …’
Secondly, there is the word repent: Barclay points out that this is a more complex word than we sometimes think. The Greek word metanoia literally means to change our mind. We sometimes confuse two things: sorrow for the consequences of sin and sorrow for sin. Too many of us would continue to do things if we were confident that we could escape the consequences. Barclay writes: “Repentance means that the person who was in love with sin comes to hate sin because of its exceeding sinfulness.”

Thirdly, there is the word believe: Barclay suggests that ‘believe’ here means to ‘… take Jesus at his word, to believe that God is the kind of God that Jesus told us about, to believe that God so loves the world that he will make any sacrifice to bring us back to himself, to believe that what sounds too good to be true is really true.’

Barclay writes:

A leader must begin somewhere. He must get himself a little band of kindred souls to whom he can unburden his own heart and on whose hearts he may write his message.

Who did Jesus look for:

(i)            They were simple folk – not from the great halls of learning or religious authority so they were neither learned nor wealthy. Jesus opted for ordinary people. Lincoln once said: “God must love the common people – He made so many of them.” Jesus was of the view that, even ordinary people, if they are willing to give themselves to Him, could change the world – and they did. Barclay concludes: “A person should never think so much of what they think other people think of them as of what Jesus thinks of them.”

(ii)           Notice what they were doing when Jesus called them – just their ordinary day’s work. It was the same with some of the great prophets. Amos was a herdsman and gatherer of sycamore fruit. The call of God can come to a person especially in the midst of the ordinary.

It is also interesting to note that Jesus called them to ‘Follow me’. He did not say: “I have a theological system which I would like you to investigate; I have certain theories that I would like you to think over; I have an ethical system that I would like to discuss with you. He said ‘Follow me’.” It is all about relationships – it is about falling in love – it is not necessarily rational. So Barclay concludes: “In the greatest number of cases a man follows Jesus Christ, not because of anything that Jesus said, but because of everything that Jesus is.”
This is why it is who we are more than what we say that has the greatest impact on our ministry. Lovely thoughts; but also a deep challenge.

Jesus offered his first disciples and us – a task! He called them not to ease, but to service. Someone once said that “every person needs something in which they can invest their lives.” So Jesus called his disciples not to a comfortable lifestyle, not to a passive inactivity; he gave them a task in which they would have to spend themselves up, and in the end die for His sake and for the sake of others.

All Christians – not just those of us who are ordained - have a vocation - and that is to live for others. I love Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s reference to Christ as ‘… a man for others …’ – and we are called to be imitators of Christ. It is here that we find fulfilment, as we spend ourselves up in our service of others.

There is a sense that we need to leave our different ‘nets’ behind us as we daily take up the mantle of service and follow in our Lord’s footsteps.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

All Saints Day Reflection

John 11:32-44
32When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ 33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ 35Jesus began to weep. 36So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ 37But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’ 38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.’ 40Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ 41So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’ 43When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ 44The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’

The readings this week are for All Saints Day celebrated next Sunday.

In this reading we have a lovely example of the humanity of our Lord. It is so important for me to stress that Jesus was fully human, for if he was not, then how could he really know what we all experience? Yes, he was the incarnation as well, but I do not believe that this means that he was not human in the same way as we are. The incarnation will always remain a mystery.

Jesus was heartbroken by the news of the death of his friend Lazarus – and he wept. It was especially sad as, while it is possible to argue that the others whom Jesus raised might merely have been in a coma or a very deep sleep, all Jews were of the view that, after four days, the spirit finally left the body, and a sign of this was that the body – very definitely – began to decay; in fact in the hot climate, by this time it would be so badly decayed that it would be hardly recognisable.

Jesus asked for the stone to be removed, and because of the decay, his request was initially challenged because of the stench that would result. But Jesus responded “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”

Before going into any depth, Barclay suggests that there are certain things to take special note of:

Firstly, Jesus prayed. The power that flowed through him was not his; it was God’s. “Miracles” says Godet, “are just so many answered prayers.”

Secondly, Jesus sought only the glory of God. He did nothing to glorify himself.

Everything that Jesus did was due to the power of God and was designed for the glory of God. We are so different. Barclay comments: “So much that we do is attempted in our own power and designed for our own prestige. It may be that there would be more wonders in our life too, if we ceased to act by ourselves and for ourselves and set God in the central place.”

I must admit, that, initially, I found Barclay’s notes on this passage, a little disappointing, as he did not penetrate the text in the same way that he normally does. In a later reflection, he gets closer to the mark when he exhorts us to honestly face the difficulties.

(i) In the other Gospels there are accounts of people being raised e.g. Jairus’ daughter, the widow’s son at Nain. As I mentioned earlier, it is quite possible that these people were merely in a coma. Barclay explains that, at this time, it happened quite frequently that people were in fact buried alive because of the necessary haste to bury them, so Jesus could have been seen as saving them from this sort of death.
(ii) There is no mention at all of the raising of Lazarus in the other Gospel accounts.
(iii) John portrays the event of the raising of Lazarus as the final straw which caused the authorities to want to get rid of Jesus – where in the other Gospels, it was Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple.

There have been some attempts to address these issues:

(i) Renan sees the whole incident as a fraud arranged by Jesus and Martha, Mary and Lazarus. Barclay (rightly) dismisses this as needing to be mentioned just to be dismissed as incredible.
(ii) Perhaps Lazarus was in a coma, but the events in the narrative seem to dismiss this – the detail is simply too vivid.
(iii) The story could be an allegory.

I like the way Barclay deals with this. He aggress that there are difficulties and we might never really know exactly what happened. But something significant must have happened.

Perhaps the most important thing to stress here is the fact of our present experience of death and resurrection, for this is something that is real in the life of Christians. So Barclay comments:

“There may be problems with this story; we may never know what exactly happened at Bethany so many years ago: but we do know for certain that Jesus is still the Resurrection and the Life. That is what the story tells us – and that is what really happens …”

I had never thought that this passage was as controversial as it seems – probably because most of my ministry has been in schools where I have been a teacher of philosophy. So many scholars think it probably never happened and that this was just John revealing an important truth – a vital truth – but using a made up story to illustrate the point. Richardson calls this the ‘… last and most stupendous of St John’s seven signs …’ Richardson continues explaining that John’s purpose was ‘… to relate the Gospel story in such a way as to make the meaning of the life of Christ in history while at the same time he felt free to re-cast the whole synoptic tradition in the interest of his purpose …’ So, Richardson concludes that it is not literally true but John is telling a story to explain a greater than literal truth.
To modern ears – even to mine – this seems outrageous: how can he feel free to (in effect) make something up, portray it as something that actually happened, to make a theological point?
It is true that experience bears witness to the truth that Jesus has conquered death and that spiritual existence is more real and precious than mere physical existence. John Suggit explains that the experience of Lazarus is a type of Christian disciples and what happened to him is the experience of every Christian. Like Lazarus we are loved by the Lord, we are called by name from death to life, like him, as sheep of the good shepherd, we listen and obey and we are handed over into the Christian community when we have found new life in Christ and most important, just as Lazarus was found at dinner with Jesus and the disciples (12:2) so are we at the celebration of the Eucharist. Suggit concludes:
“It is not difficult therefore to consider chapter 11 as reflecting the experience of every Christian who has been raised to life by Christ …”
But is it true that John was just writing a spiritual gospel for those who were already in the faith? Suggit disagrees and adds:
“…John has narrated the story, which presumably he accepted as a historical event, in a way which symbolically describes the person and work of Jesus …”
John is stressing that they need to see the life of Jesus and his earthly ministry and relate it to their own experience. Lazarus’ death and rising is mirrored in our experience. Jesus is the giver of life – real life – and this is much more than mere physical existence, not a mere continuation of mortal life. True life can be found only by abiding in Christ. This life is received by faith, when a person becomes a Christian. This new life involves a death. To find life we must share in the death of Christ as Thomas said earlier in chapter 11 (verse 16) “Let us too go with him that we may die with him.”
We need to have died to our old selves and find new meaning by being united with Christ.
This passage tells of something both dramatic and yet very ordinary. It tells of a simple trust and faith friends have for each other. Mary comes to Jesus with the simple words of conviction: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Jesus responds with the complete identification of love for her and her brother and so spontaneously allows himself to be moved to tears because he is vulnerable and is overwhelmed. He wept; he did not just shed a polite tear – he literally wept. Those who are allowed to witness the privilege of this profound intimacy comment: “See how he loved him …” What they next say shows how they are voyeurs and not part of the real moment. But John is; for me evidence that it was John, the Apostle and the Beloved disciple; because John notices that Jesus was “… greatly disturbed …”
Jesus said to Martha, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ Allow me a moment to elaborate on this, which for me, is a most important point. Karen Armstrong, in her The Case for God makes an important point:
Why did Jesus set such store by [belief]? The simple answer is that he did not. The word translated ‘faith’ in the New Testament is the Greek pistis … which means ‘trust; loyalty; engagement; commitment’. Jesus was not asking people to ‘believe’ in his divinity … he was asking people for commitment. He wanted disciples who would engage with his mission, give all they had to the poor, feed the hungry, refuse to be hampered by family ties, abandon their pride, lay aside their self-importance and sense of entitlement … trust in the God who was their father.

In Middle English bileven meant to ‘prize; to value; to hold dear. It was related to the German belieben (to love). Armstrong continues:
So, ‘belief’ originally meant ‘loyalty to a person to whom one is bound in promise or duty.

Belief and faith became interchangeable. Belief only became to be seen differently during the late 17th Century and the Enlightenment. Now it started to be used as an intellectual assent to a particular proposition, teaching, opinion or doctrine. Armstrong concludes:
It was used in this modern sense first by philosophers and scientists, and the new usage did not become common in religious contexts until the 19th Century.

It seems feasible then, that Jesus was saying to Martha – and now to paraphrase – “Did I not tell you that if you remained loyal and committed and trusted God, your Father, you would see his glory.”
John’s writing is so crucial for Christians. It forces us to move away from being mere observes and challenges us to become engaged in a dynamic, personal encounter with the narrative and from there to the living Christ in our own lives. Suggit puts it this way:
… the purpose is to draw the reader or hearer to be closely involved in the story which he unfolds … the story is as much a reflection of the circumstances in which the gospels were produced as a history of the events in Jesus’ life …

If this was not the case, all we would have would be the so-called ‘facts’ about what happened, but we would be unaware of their real significance. Jesus is not just a figure of past history, but the living Lord of the church. Suggit continues:
… the meaning is [also] not fixed once for all but has continually to be discovered or rediscovered by the reader or hearer, who needs to share at least some of the attitudes of the evangelist.

This is what I believe! May you all be blessed this All Saints day.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Mark 10:46-end (NRSV)

Mark 10:46-end (NRSV)

The Healing of Blind Bartimaeus

46 They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. 47When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’48Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ 49Jesus stood still and said, ‘Call him here.’ And they called the blind man, saying to him, ‘Take heart; get up, he is calling you.’ 50So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. 51Then Jesus said to him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ The blind man said to him, ‘My teacher, let me see again.’ 52Jesus said to him, ‘Go; your faith has made you well.’ Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way. 

This passage is of great significance for me. When I first entered the ministry, I reflected on this passage before a sermon, using the Ignatian style of meditation I was instructed in as part of my training, and I was transported to the scene in my mind’s eye and saw Jesus reaching out to me with the lovely question: “What do you want me to do for you?” My response was the same as that of Bartimeaus “My teacher let me see …” It was at this time that I felt called to be a biblical expositor and began preaching through Luke’s Gospel. It was a blessed time, with people returning each week for the next instalment, often bringing family and friends along with them. Soon, the Church was full. I am convinced that expository preaching is at the heart of church growth because – others like William Temple and the Benedictine Prayer Book also place their emphasis on reading and hearing the Word of God. God meets with His people in a special way when we come to the written word – because it is here that we encounter the Living Word – giving us guidance, challenge and blessing for our lives in the here and now. It is all too easy to think that we are dealing with a person in the past – where Jesus is a living, real presence. What he says to Bartimaeus he does indeed say to all of us – a reason why Ignatius and the Jesuits became such a vital and important force; why evangelical divines fill their churches and why people like Barclay and his commentaries (our mentor on many of my reflections) have such powerful and effective ministries. And people are starving for this! Too often, I have attended worship, heard the readings, have hungered for more, only to find that the preacher preaches on something else!
Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem for the Passover. He was surrounded by a crowd who were listening to him as he walked and taught. This was one of the most common ways of teaching. If you lived within 15 miles of Jerusalem, you were under a duty to attend Temple worship at Passover time, so the place will have been packed, with all the Temple priests on duty. Barclay suggests that
“… there would be many cold and bleak and hostile eyes in that crowd that day, because it was clear that if Jesus was right the whole Temple worship was one vast irrelevancy …”
At the northern gate there sat a beggar, Bartimaeus; he must have asked what was happening only to be told that it was Jesus’ group that was approaching, so he called out, knowing that this was his only chance for help, so ‘… he cried with such violence and importunity that the procession stopped …’ and he was brought to Jesus.
Barclay suggests that this event gives us insight to what he calls the ‘… conditions of a miracle …’
(i)                 There is the PERSISTENCE of Bartimaeus – nothing would stop him from coming face to face with Jesus – and it is this that gets things done. It is my view that many people do not ever expect to meet Jesus at all and think that we refer to the Jesus of history alone. It is also my experience that when people are reminded and persist in their quest to meet with the risen Christ, the Christ of faith – then things begin to happen in their lives. The first step is not only to persist, but to come face to face with our risen Lord who is real today as ever when he walked this earth before us.
(ii)               The response of Bartimaeus to our Lord’s call was IMMEDIATE. There are certain chances that happen only once and Bartimaeus instinctively knew this and acted with immediate effect. Sometimes we have a longing for something to change in our lives – and we procrastinate – and the moment, possibly a life-transforming moment passes.
(iii)             He knew PRECISELY what he wanted. Barclay claims that all too often we are vague and sentimental – and it would be good if we could be specific in some instances and this is because we do not want the self-examination that decisiveness requires. Bartimaeus must have had plenty of time for reflection, but there was no doubting in his mind what he wanted from our Lord.
We have all experienced many miracles in our lives, not least the blessing of ontological ordination and the privilege of being priests.
Bartimaeus had an inadequate conception of Jesus – referring to him as the Son of David. True, this was a Messianic title, but the one that referred to a conquering Messiah, a King of David’s line who would lead the people to military and political victory and national greatness. But despite this, he had a more important virtue – faith – and this made up for the inadequacy of his theology. We are not required to fully understand – because this is humanly impossible – but we are required to have faith.
Faith ought not to be confused with belief – faith refers rather to a personal relationship with Jesus – as Barclay explains: “… a reaction of love, an instinctive feeling that here is the one person who can meet our need. Even if we are able to think things out, theologically, that instinctive response and cry of the human heart is enough …”
And in the end there is the one precious touch. Bartimaeus might have been a beggar, but he was a grateful beggar. Having received the touch of our Lord, he followed Jesus. He did not selfishly go his own way once his need was met. Barclay concludes:
“He began with need, went on to gratitude, and finished with loyalty – and that is a perfect summary of the stages of discipleship.”
We have both been touched by Jesus and have been given the privilege of working with young people. Let us touch those we meet with the love of Christ.