Friday, 24 June 2016

Luke 9:51-end (NRSV)

The meaning of discipleship

Luke 9:51-end  (NRSV)
A Samaritan Village Refuses to Receive Jesus
 When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set towards Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, ‘Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?’ But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went on to another village.

Would-Be Followers of Jesus
 As they were going along the road, someone said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ To another he said, ‘Follow me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’ Another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.’ Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’

Mt text this morning is written in Luke 9:62:

Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’

Up to this point in our study of Luke's gospel, Luke has concentrated exclusively on the deeds of Jesus. From now on Luke concentrates on Jesus' words. Jesus the teacher becomes the central feature of this central section of the gospel narrative. The end of the Galilean ministry ended with the injunction by Jesus to his disciples that they should follow him. In these verses Jesus begins the long road of teaching the disciples how to follow him. This journey is both figurative - where we learn what it means to be a disciple of Jesus - and literal in that Jesus was making his way to Jerusalem where he knew that his ministry would reach its climax on the cross. It would be a mistake if we were try to trace the physical journey from Galilee to Jerusalem because there are many confusing details. What is important here, are not these practical details but rather the theological significance of what Jesus taught. Kummel sums us the message as follows:

... the Lord, who goes to suffer according to God's will, equips his disciples for the mission of preaching after his death.

Jesus knew that he needed to move towards Jerusalem and so left Galilee and began his final journey. In order to get there, it was necessary either to move through Samaritan territory, or around it. Jesus decided to move through Samaria and so sent some disciples on ahead to arrange accommodation for the night. They returned with the news that they were not welcome and were obviously angered because they entertained the thought of destroying their rejecters. It is important to place this incident into its historical context.

Samaritans were descendants of Gentile settlers and Israelites. They were racially mixed. Purebred Jews looked down upon the half-bred Samaritans. Earle Ellis writes:

They [the Samaritans] were publicly cursed in the synagogues and made the object of a daily prayer - that they might not enter eternal life. Their centre of worship in Samaria was a countertype and rival to the temple in Jerusalem. Therefore, Galilean pilgrims, crossing Samaria on their way to Jerusalem, were subjected to harassment and sometimes to overt violence.

And so racial hatred developed between these two groups. This tension was so bad that Jewish travellers often walked around Samaria rather than through it, even though this meant that their journey would be considerably lengthened. Jesus had no preference for any people on any grounds and so it is not surprising that he wanted to go through Samaria and tell them about the Kingdom of God.

When the disciples were rejected they reacted in a typically human fashion with anger and retaliation. They had been wronged, of that there is no doubt. But because they had been hurt, they felt that they could legitimately respond in anger and even use violence. This is not Christian and is a repugnant sin against God. Violence is never and can never be justified. Jesus rebuked the disciples and Morris writes: 'That is not the way His followers behave. And without taking any steps in opposition to the Samaritans they went on to another village ...' (Morris 179).

While Christian people might use force to protect themselves, they are never people who perpetrate violence - physical, emotional, psychological. Christians reject violence in any guise. The commentator in the Life Application Bible (LAB) writes:

When others reject or scorn us, we too may feel like retaliating. We must remember that judgement belongs to God, and we must not expect him to use his power to carry out our personal vendettas.

For Luke there was special significance in Jesus' rejection in Samaria. One can see a parallel between this incident, the rejection of Jesus by Jews in his hometown - Nazareth, the Gentiles at Gerasa, and finally the people and leaders in Jerusalem. Finally, 'Jesus goes to the cross rejected by all'.

And so the journey continued!

By this time, it should have become apparent to the disciples that following Jesus was not an easy way out, rather, it presented a great challenge. Being a disciple meant a way of life that was totally different to even what was considered to be acceptable wisdom. What followed gave the disciples yet another dimension of what it would mean to be a follower of Jesus.

The first would-be follower of Jesus stated that he would follow Jesus wherever he went. Jesus replied: "Foxes have dens, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man doesn't have a place to call his own". (verse 58) This disciple and all Christians need to realise that 'the security of hearth and home which one expects in normal life has to take second place where commitment to the Son of man is concerned' (Wilcock p. 118). Christians need to realise that following Jesus is not necessarily going to mean an easy life - on the contrary, we might have to endure the complete opposite. The second would-be follower first needed to complete the task of burying his father. Once again, the historical context helps us to understand this verse.

According to Rabbinical teaching, the burial of deceased relatives was vitally important. The presence of a corpse made a person ceremonially unclean and so one could not perform any religious function. In the light of this, this man's request was proper and necessary. Why then does Jesus react in the way he did when he said: "Let the dead take care of the dead, while you go and tell about God's kingdom." (verse 60) The commentator in the NIV Study Bible explains:

If his father had already died, the man would have been occupied with the burial then. [But he was with Jesus so his father was most probably still alive]. ... he wanted to wait until after his father's death, which might have been years away. Jesus told him that the spiritually dead could bury the physically dead, and that the spiritually alive should be busy proclaiming the kingdom of God. (p. 1559)

The third person offered himself to Jesus but with a condition attached to the offer - he first wanted to bid his family farewell. This too - on the surface - seems like a reasonable request, but in fact it reveals rather a 'reluctance to take the final step' (Morris p. 180).

Salvation is possible through Jesus Christ. We know that entry into the Kingdom of God is through faith in Jesus' life, death, resurrection and ascension. But to accept this free gift of salvation implies that the saved person becomes a follower of Jesus. Faith leads to action or else there is no faith at all.

As the letter to James stresses: ‘... faith without works is dead ...’ together with 1 John: ‘You know you love God, when you love one another; you cannot say that you love God, whom you have not seen, unless you love your neighbour whom you have seen.’

And this action is revealed in the lives we live. We cannot think that we can make a decision for Jesus and still continue to do as we please. We need to reveal the fact of Christ's presence in our lives by the way we live. Wilcock states:

... God tests the earnestness of men's hearts by bringing them to this fork in the road. When it becomes necessary to choose between two ways, which do we follow? Comfort or convention, or custom - or Christ? The test from the very outset ... has been "Follow me". (p. 119)

Jesus requires total dedication from us, not commitment to him and his way of life when it suits us. God is not there for our convenience. We do not have the option of selecting those things about Christian living and belief that suit us - 'we have to accept the cross with the crown, judgement as well as mercy'. (LAB p. 1770) While entry into the kingdom of God is free - Jesus has paid the price - remaining there costs our very lives - everything we are and have. Salvation is not for those who have only entered and stayed for a short period of time - salvation is for those who enter and remain faithful, those who are willing to pay the price - what is often referred to as the cost of discipleship. Caird concludes:

... a man must be prepared to sacrifice security, duty, and affection, if he is to respond to the call of the kingdom, a call so urgent and imperative that all other loyalties must give way before it. The most difficult choices in life are not between good and evil, but between the good and the best. (p. 141)

Jesus put it this way:

‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’


Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Luke 8.26-39 (NRSV)

Jesus Heals the Gerasene Demoniac

26 Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. 27As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. 28When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me’— 29for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) 30Jesus then asked him, ‘What is your name?’ He said, ‘Legion’; for many demons had entered him. 31They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.

32 Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. 33Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.

34 When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. 35Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. 36Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed.37Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. 38The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying,39‘Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.’ So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.

In verses 26-39 we see Jesus moving from the calming of the seas, to the calming of a deranged mind. No sooner had they arrived at the opposite shore than Jesus was confronted by a person who was possessed by a demon. The man called himself ‘Legion’, because he believed that he was possessed by many, many demons. The demons immediately recognised who Jesus was. They knew they were in for trouble, so they begged Jesus to spare them from total destruction. Jesus sent them into a herd of pigs which ran into the lake and drowned.

Many people have been perplexed by this. Why, they ask, did he not just destroy them and complete the task? One commentator suggests:

Because the time for such work had not yet come. He healed many people of the destructive work of demon possession, but he did not yet destroy demons. The same question could be asked today - why doesn't Jesus stop all the evil in the world? His time for that has not yet come. But it will come.

It is probably also true that there are no such beings as demons, and so it is more about needing to deal with the fact of human sin – and this remedy is much more difficult to implement. Perhaps, therefore, a more significant reason might be that the disciples and the people of the region needed to learn an important lesson. Christ is not the source of evil and suffering in the world - sin is - and the sin of the people who rebelled against the loss of their pigs, is graphically revealed in this incident.

Some suggest that Jesus had every right to destroy a herd of 2 000 pigs, because God owns everything. We are reminded of this fact in Psalm 50:10-11:

Every animal in the forest belongs to me, and so do the cattle on a thousand hills. I know all the birds in the mountains, and every wild creature is in my care.

Because God owns everything, he has every right to do with it as he pleases. Nothing that we are and have belongs to us. We are merely entrusted with everything and, as stewards, we administer what belongs to the Lord. When we realise this - we are liberated from another sort of bondage - possession by our possessions. But this is only good theory. In practice this is a concern because we also know that God is love and that Jesus is the incarnation of God because he embodies this love. This being true, we know that God wants all suffering to end and it is almost insulting to God to just say that because everything is his, He can do what he likes with it. We know that what God wants is love and the end of suffering. We need to think more clearly about this and not allow simplistic answers to complex issues to tempt us away from the important task of wrestling with this.

The community should have thanked Jesus for delivering the man from his demon possession, no matter what it cost. But what was their response. Verse 37 explains: 'Everyone from around Gerasa begged Jesus to leave'. A commentator in the Life Application Bible writes:

People have always tended to value financial gain above needy people. ... People are continually being sacrificed to money. Don't think more highly of "pigs" than people. Think carefully about how your decisions will affect other human beings, and be willing to choose a simpler life-style if it would keep other people from being harmed.

The healed man, in obedience to Jesus, returned to the village and told others about what had happened to him. His insistence that he remain with Jesus might well have been motivated out of fear that he might fall prey to demons once more. We too, are often racked with insecurity, but like this man, if we are faithful to what Jesus calls us to do, we will be kept safe. As Miller (p. 93) states: 'Unless faith issues in obedient action it is no permanent safeguard against evil'.

Here again we are reminded that those who hear the word and keep it are the true citizens of the New Kingdom. Faith is the response through which one receives the benefits of being a citizen of the Kingdom of God. When people exercise their faith, it grows and one knows life in all its fullness. This theme was taken up by James in his letter (1.1-4) where we read:

My friends, be glad, even if you have a lot of trouble. You know that you learn to endure by having your faith tested. But you must learn to endure everything, so that you will be completely mature and not lacking in anything.

This too is often used as a simple answer to complex issues. It is easy to say ‘be glad’ from where we are sitting in our comfort and relative ease; I think we need to delve deeper and not be content with a simplistic understanding of this text either.

Caird suggests that Jesus is here calming a deranged mind – a disintegrated personality – and this is evidenced in the morbid preoccupation with graves, abnormal strength, insensitivity to pain, refusal to wear clothes and a multiple and fluctuating self – the man thinking that he was possessed by a whole regiment of demons. It may be that he was this way because of traumatic experiences associated with the Roman occupation. His cure came with a violent convulsion, which was so dramatic that it caused a herd of pigs to stampede in panic. Those observing all this made an association between unclean demons and unclean animals assuming that the ‘demons’ found a new unclean home and that this must have happened with the consent of Jesus.

This story is difficult to get to grips with, with a modern way of thinking, but it is helpful to remember that, at the time of Jesus, demons were very real to the people. Whatever was the cause, this man was so ill that he was considered a danger to others and forced to live away from society. His immense strength suggests that it was courageous of Jesus to go even near him. It would appear that everyone else was too afraid of him and so he was left to his own devices.

Barclay suggests that we have made too much of the matter of the pigs, especially those who feel inclined to condemn Jesus as being guilty of immoral cruelty. He too suggests that we need to remember the intensity of the contemporary belief in demons. It seems that the man was so ‘possessed’ by his illness that he would need a visible sign to prove to him that the demons had left his body – and the pigs served this purpose. It is almost as if Jesus was able to say to him: “Look your demons have gone!”(Barclay, p. 108) Barclay adds that the love of Jesus for this man required him to find some way to get through to him.

There is therefore the real sense that what angered the people more than anything was their loss of material wealth and that they cared more for their possessions than for this poor wretched man.

There is a disturbing modern parallel. A while back we heard of the tragic loss of life in the sweat shops in Bangladesh, where hundreds of people suffered to provide the west with cheap clothing. Is the west’s insistence on cheap food and clothing, when most of us can afford to pay much more for things, just the same? Profit seems to be valued above the value of human life. If we stand on the rights of the pigs in this story, and complain about what Jesus did, are we too not placing a higher value on things rather than people? The Gerasenes should have rejoiced that this poor soul was healed and saved, no matter what the cost.

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Luke 7:36-8:3 (NRSV)

A Sinful Woman Forgiven
36 One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. 37 And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. 38 She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.’ 40 Jesus spoke up and said to him, ‘Simon, I have something to say to you.’ ‘Teacher,’ he replied, ‘speak.’ 41 ‘A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 When they could not pay, he cancelled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?’ 43 Simon answered, ‘I suppose the one for whom he cancelled the greater debt.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘You have judged rightly.’ 44 Then turning towards the woman, he said to Simon, ‘Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.’ 48Then he said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’49But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’ 50And he said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.’
Some Women Accompany Jesus
8 Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, 2as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, 3and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.

My text today is written in Luke 7:48-50:
48Then he said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’49But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’ 50And he said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.’

I am indebted to Barclay, Caird, Miller and Ryle for this reflection.

Jesus was on the road, as all the synagogues were now closed to him. Instead of finding welcome and openness in the Jewish meeting places, he had found hostility. He was accompanied by a small group of women who provided for Jesus and the disciples. It was always considered to be a pious thing to do to support a rabbi and so this would have been nothing out of the ordinary. What was different was the composition of this group. There was Mary Magdalene from whom Jesus had cast seven devils; there was Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s epitropos – one who served Herod’s interests. In those days, it would be unheard of for women of such different social status being brought together like this.  In Christ the Church the people of God need to be yoked together in a common harness to work for the kingdom and they are, status being of no consequence!

In this group with Jesus were people whose help was practical: they were women so they would not have preached but they gave generous gifts of what they had. This makes a vital point and that is that it is not always the people in the foreground who do the greatest work because without it, nothing can happen. Barclay concludes: “Many of the greatest servants are in the background, unseen but essential to his cause.”

This is so important: what matters is that we are linked together as children of God, that we are committed to following the ways of Jesus and doing his will, and that we treat all people with equal dignity and respect, not even taking into account mistakes of the past – a lesson that the small company who met in the Pharisee’s house needed to learn.

When all of us, in our own small ways, are faithful to what Jesus calls us to do, great things can and do happen!

Today's lesson reveals a number of important truths. Firstly, we must never confuse respect for Jesus and his message with what it means to be a true disciple. The Pharisee, Simon, respected Jesus enough to call him Rabbi. He might even have gone so far as to suggest that he was a prophet. He was sufficiently interested in Jesus to invite him to dinner. Missing, however, were the little gestures of genuine hospitality - the footbath, the kiss and the perfume.  Miller suggests that

Simon's motive in inviting him to dinner is not mentioned. The fact that the common courtesies were not extended to Jesus ... has suggested to some that Simon invited him out of mere curiosity.

But Jesus was willing to go, even though he must have known that Simon's motives were questionable. Irrespective of what Simon's motives were, he showed Jesus more respect than many others. However at the heart of the matter is that there is a difference between being outwardly civil - and real, deep and intimate love.

In this lesson therefore, Jesus warns people to beware that they do not fall into the trap of believing that everything is alright with their souls simply because they do the right religious things like attending church regularly. J C Ryle explains:

It is quite possible to have a decent form of religion, and yet know nothing of the Gospel of Christ, - to treat Christianity with respect, ... to behave with great correctness and propriety at Church, and yet to hate justification by faith and salvation by grace.

Secondly, we see that all those who have experienced Christ's salvation, reveal this fact by their love. Jesus explains this in his dealing with the sinful woman. Verse 37 describes her as 'a woman who had lived a sinful life in that town ...' This woman was more than likely a prostitute - considered then as today to be one of the most degrading things for any person to do. In order to understand the significance of what follows it is useful to explain what happened.

Simon's house was probably built around an open courtyard in the form of a hollow square. In warm weather, meals would be enjoyed in this yard. It was common practise that, when a Rabbi was at a meal in such a house, all kinds of people were permitted to come in to the area to listen to his teachings.

Normally, and especially when a distinguished Rabbi was visiting, the host would do three things as the honoured guest entered the house: (i) place his hand on the guest's shoulder and give him the kiss of peace; (ii) the guest's sandals would be removed and his feet washed - preferably by a slave - because it was considered below the average person even to touch anybody's feet and (iii) either a pinch of sweet-smelling incense was burned or a drop of attar of roses was placed on the guest's head. To do these things was considered nothing more than good manners.  They were not done for Jesus and no reason is given why.

After these gestures of hospitality were completed, the guests would recline on low couches with their feet behind them. What would follow would be the meal and discussion.
While it was not uncommon to leave the doors open on such occasions to allow all sorts of people to enter, a prostitute would never, under normal circumstances, have even dared to do such a thing because they were considered to be ceremonially unclean. They were completely shunned by respectable people.

It seems unlikely that Jesus and this woman had ever spoken before. She had probably heard him teach from the fringe of the crowd. Caird explains:

... that had been enough to soften the hardness of her heart and set her back on the road to self-respect. She had been a woman of evil ways and evil reputation: the reputation remained, but the ways were changed.

Verse 38 describes a wonderful scene of love and worship:

... she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.
Caird paraphrases what happened in a beautifully sensitive manner. He writes:

... she came to make a magnificent gesture of gratitude; but tears came before she could get the stopper out of her bottle of perfume, and, forgetting that this was something a decent woman never did in public, she let her hair down to wipe them away.

Simon was shocked. He would have avoided any contact with the unclean woman. All he saw was a filthy sinner - Jesus saw a sinner who had been pardoned and restored. Simon, in typical judgemental style, frowned on the fact that Jesus had allowed this woman to publicly humiliate herself and him. He thought that this brought into question whether or not Jesus actually was a prophet. But Jesus re-established his credentials by showing that he could read Simon's thoughts, and taught the people using a parable.

Verses 41-43 record the story of the two debtors who were excused their debts. It is pretty obvious which one would love their benefactor more. Simon rather reluctantly agrees. Verse 43 records his words 'I suppose the one with the bigger debt'.  Verses 44-46 explain the meaning of the parable. Even the words 'Do you see this woman' are important because Simon did not really see her at all - because all he could see was what the woman had been. Jesus then compared what she had done with what Simon had done. While Simon had not even shown the customary hospitality, the woman had spent everything she had, emotionally and financially, to bless her Lord.

Jesus did not gloss over the woman's sins. In verse 47 Jesus refers to them as being many. It is all too easy to develop a familiar attitude toward sin and sinning because we know that forgiveness is possible. It is also dangerous to think that we can freely sin and just repeatedly turn forgiveness on or off whenever necessary. It is sad that many, many people think that they are forgiven when they in fact are not! It costs something to be forgiven - it cost Jesus' life - he shed his blood so that people could be forgiven. On our part, it takes a deliberate act of the will, a conscious decision - what John the Baptist and Jesus referred to as repentance. Remember the Greek word metanoia means to turn 180 degrees. To be forgiven requires more than being sorry for what one has done, it also requires a decision never to do it again. One cannot, e.g. expect to be forgiven for living in adultery if one does not end the relationship, one cannot expect to be forgiven for stealing if one continues to steal. In short, it becomes evident in a person's behaviour whether one has real sorrow, repentance and gratitude - whether one has been forgiven. As Jesus explains in verse 47 - '... I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven - for she has loved much'. Caird explains: 'Her love was not the ground of a pardon she had come to seek, but the proof of a pardon she had come to acknowledge'. She most probably did not understand the dynamics of what had happened. The commentator in the NIV Study Bible adds:

She must have heard Jesus preach, and in repentance she determined to lead a new life. She came out of love and gratitude, in the understanding that she could be forgiven.

And so we rejoice today because we know that forgiveness is possible for all those who really seek God's forgiveness in Jesus Christ. If one earnestly desires to be made whole, one can be restored. There is nothing that anybody can ever do that can be so bad that they will be turned away if they come to Christ. But come to Christ one must. It is because we have been forgiven much that we love much and we demonstrate this in our worship, study, prayer - all the things that make Jesus the central focus of our lives.

Jesus said to the woman and he says to all of us as we come in repentance and faith:

 ‘Your sins are forgiven.’49But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’ 50And he said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.’

Thursday, 2 June 2016

Luke 7:11-17

Love in Action - The widow.
Luke 7:11-17 (NRSV)
11 Soon afterwards he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. 12As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. 13When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’ 14Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, ‘Young man, I say to you, rise!’15The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. 16Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, ‘A great prophet has risen among us!’ and ‘God has looked favourably on his people!’ 17This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.

In this event, we see death at its worst. A young man had died. It is always easier to come to terms with death in old people, especially when they have lived long, full and productive lives. When people are old and frail, we even look forward to death for them, because we know that they will be liberated from their frailty and suffering and will be transported into the presence of the Lord when their soul departs from their bodies. We as Christians never see death, any death as a tragedy, because we know that life with Christ in heaven is far better than life on earth and also that in Christ, we have the victory over death - its loses its sting. But while this is true, Christians also love life on earth, because Christ gives us life in all its fullness as he transforms us from sin to holiness.

When a young person dies, it is more difficult to deal with, not because Christians have anything to fear in death, but because we love people and want to be with them for a time longer. When young people die or are killed, the pain is therefore much greater and we need God's grace in abundance to help us to deal with our great loss. I don't think many of us realise the vast amount of pain experienced in our country at the moment. We so glibly hear of the countless hundreds who die daily in the violence in our land. It is too easy not to think of the many mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, in short the many people who have been devastated by the unnecessary loss of dear young people through the violence and hatred that ravishes our land. Again we are reminded that the only solution for our country is Jesus Christ, convicting of sin and healing the brokenness that so characterises these times.

Miller suggests that in this story of the widow, 'death is seen at its worst'. The man was young and his only remaining relative was a widow. This death therefore had serious consequences for the widow. In addition to losing her husband, she had now also lost her son and thereby her last means of support.

Widows had no legal rights in these times and they were not allowed to receive any inheritance. On the death of their husbands, widow were therefore totally dependent upon their sons or other relatives. The death of this widow's son therefore meant that, in addition to the pain she felt at losing a loved one, she had now also become defenceless in a particularly cruel world. The commentator in the Life Application Bible writes:

Unless a relative came to her aid, her future was bleak. She would be an easy prey for swindlers, and she would likely be reduced to begging for food.

But notice verse 13, which has to be one of the most precious verses in all of Scripture. It reads:  “When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her ...”

Jesus never waited for her to come to him for help. The woman was too broken to do anything; she was too devastated to be able to think straight. Again we see the wonder of the humanity of Jesus. Jesus was fully human. He knew a mother's tender care because he had known Mary's love for him and so even though the widow was rendered powerless by her grief, Jesus reached out to her.

This is a wonderful truth that we should all take to our comfort. Even when we are powerless, in fact, especially when we are powerless to do anything, Jesus often comes to us and blesses us. We must never forget that Jesus is the same God, yesterday, today and forever. Jesus never changes. And Jesus is alive. He lives. He is as real to us today as when he lived on earth, in fact we know that he is even closer to us because he fills us with his Spirit. Our spirits are linked to Jesus' Spirit in an intimate and extremely personal way. The words that Jesus spoke to the people as recorded in Luke's gospel are real and alive and are addressed to Christians of all generations. And so when Jesus comforts the grieving widow - he comforts us to. J C Ryle elaborates:

He lives, who made the widow's heart sing for joy in the gate of Nain. He lives, to receive all labouring and heavy-laden ones, if they will only come to Him by faith. He lives, to heal the broken-hearted, and to be a Friend that sticketh closer than a brother.

Coupled with this unfathomable compassion, we see also in this incident the immense power of our saviour. Verses 14 and 15 read: ‘Then he went up and touched the coffin, and those carrying it stood still. He said, "Young man, I say to you, get up!" ... and Jesus gave him back to his mother.”

The crowd were filled with awe. They immediately recognised him as a great prophet because they would have known that what Jesus had done was paralleled in their Scriptures. In fact, verse 15 is a quotation from the story of Elijah and the raising of the widow of Zarephath's son as recorded in 1 Kings 17:23. But we know that Jesus is far more than a great prophet, Jesus is God Himself, who came to earth to reveal Himself to us and save us from sin and its consequences.

We see therefore a beautifully intimate picture of our God, perfectly revealed in and through Jesus Christ: We see God who is sensitive to and who understands everything that humans have to go through; we see God who has compassion for humans who are hurt and helpless and who loves us so much that He is willing to allow His heart to go out to us; we see God who is willing to do even more and intervene into our various situations and do things to mend our brokenness; we see God who is powerful enough to achieve what is humanly impossible - forgiveness, worthiness, wholeness; we see God who has had nothing to do with anything evil, sin, suffering - in fact anything negative in the world - who even warns people against all these things, and yet, He never loses patience with us when we ignore him, go our own way and thereby cause hurt and pain to ourselves and others; we see a God who never turns away from anyone who turns to him in their helplessness and powerlessness.

It seems obvious that the widow was prepared to accept the gift of her son's life at our Lord's hand - it would seem ridiculous that she might ever even consider refusing it. Yet Christ offers new life to all people unconditionally and yet most people turn their backs on Him and reject it. Jesus offers all people a wonderful life on this earth, a life of dignity, worth, contentment, purpose and inner peace even in the face of the sin and suffering that characterises this life - and yet, most people choose to reject it too.

Jesus knows everything about every individual. There is nothing that he does not know. Jesus also loves all people. He has compassion on every one of us and his heart goes out to us in our need. He also offers all people a new life.

If only more would accept the gift and live …

It is interesting to be reminded by one of the top theologians and philosophers of today – Keith Ward - that the only credible means of using Scripture is to not take it literally, but to read it for what it is: a human document where people try to put into words the inexpressible; people’s experience of God. These authors were not conscious that they were being inspired, they were just honestly trying to convey to others, the joy and beauty of their experiences – as best they could. Like so many things, trying to explain to others when something special has happened, we find words fail us and we need to resort to ‘you had to be there’ because no words ever do justice to what we have experienced. What is also evident is that just as we interpret things wrongly, some of the authors were also mistaken and so needed to have their misconceptions challenged and corrected. The Book of Job is a case in point where people thought that if they were good they would prosper and if they were evil they would suffer loss. Job points out that even the ‘good’ suffer, not because of anything that God does but because of the reality of sin and evil in the world we inhabit. It is vital that the misconceptions remain part of the biblical canon, because we can follow the journey of others and so learn from their mistakes.

Fundamentalism is a relatively recent innovation. Aquinas spoke of the need to use analogy when speaking of God because God, by definition is so ‘other’ that human vocabulary can never come close to understanding or expressing divine truth. Throughout the ages people sought to differentiate between the literal and allegorical messages of Scripture. Neither Luther, Calvin or Zwingly were fundamentalists. Fundamentalism was never the intention of any of the authors who rather spoke into different contexts. The resulting so-called contradictions are not contradictions at all, but merely revealing the need to address different specific situations.

It is a complex matter, and I do not do justice to Ward here, but am inspired yet again to wrestle with Scripture in an attempt to discover what God is saying to us now and in our context. I am reminded of my calling as written in 2 Timothy 2:15:

“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth.”

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Luke 7.1-10 Jesus Heals a Centurion’s Servant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This passage is loaded with wonderful truths.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Gospel and Epistle for Trinity Sunday

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

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

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

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

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

Benedictine Prayer Book

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

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

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

Business people like Cadbury and Wedgewood – inspired by their faith

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

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

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

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

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

Romans 5:1-5 (NRSV)

Results of Justification

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Jesus put it this way:

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

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


Monday, 9 May 2016

The Gospel for Pentecost Sunday

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

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

My text this morning is written in John 14.17:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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