Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Luke 11.1-13 (NRSV)

The Lord’s Prayer
11He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’ 2He said to them, ‘When you pray, say:
Father, hallowed be your name.
   Your kingdom come.
3   Give us each day our daily bread.
4   And forgive us our sins,
     for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
   And do not bring us to the time of trial.’
Perseverance in Prayer
5 And he said to them, ‘Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, “Friend, lend me three loaves of bread;6for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.”7And he answers from within, “Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.” 8I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.
9 ‘So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 11Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? 12Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? 13If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’

I am indebted to the works by Barclay, Caird and Miller for the compiling of this reflection.

Prayer is central to the Christian life. We can do absolutely nothing unless we pray. Jesus was the Son of Almighty God and prayer was central in his life. As we reads Luke's gospel, we see how Jesus was a person of regular and disciplined prayer. He prayed at his baptism (3:21); he prayed before choosing his 12 apostles (6:12); he prayed when ministering to the crowds (5:16); he prayed before asking the 12 to confess their faith (9:18) and he prayed at the Transfiguration (9:29). If Jesus needed to have prayer at the focal point of his life on earth, how much more need we, weak sinful mortals, spend time in prayer.

The apostles knew that Jesus was special and was able to do great and marvellous things, because he prayed and so they asked him for his secret.

Firstly, Jesus said that we should always begin with praise, worship and giving honour to God. True and effective prayer is only possible for those who are in a position to call God their Father. It is only possible to call God Father, if we have become his children. And it is only possible to become a child of God through Jesus Christ our Lord. Paul explains in Galatians 4:4:

... when the right time finally came, God sent his own Son. He came as the son of a human mother and lived under the Jewish Law, to redeem those who were under the Law, so that me might become God's sons and daughters. (TEV)

Any person can recognise God as a Father, but only those who have received the gift of forgiveness through Jesus Christ can come to God as their Father because when this happens, St Paul explains '... God's Spirit joins himself to our spirits to declare that we are God's children'. Through Jesus Christ we have a family intimacy with God who is our Father.

As God's children, we pray that our Father's holy name may be honoured. A name in Hebrew culture stood for the entire nature, character and personality of the person. God's name is honoured therefore when his nature, character and purposes are known and honoured. When we pray that God's name will be honoured, we pledge ourselves to action where we study God's word, are enabled to discern his will for us, and we respond in faithfulness and obedience to what God is calling us to do.

We pray 'may your kingdom come.' God's kingdom is not an earthly kingdom; it is his reign in the hearts of people. When people are filled with the Spirit of God they change and become new creations. God desires all people to be saved. He desires all people to know peace in their hearts through the forgiveness of their sins. He desires people to know peace within themselves. God also wants all people to live at peace with each other. Jesus is the 'Prince of Peace' and his kingdom is the kingdom of peace. When Jesus rules in the hearts of people, the effects of this should be evident in society. Like the leaven in dough spreads throughout the whole loaf, when God's kingdom comes into the hearts of believes it spreads throughout the world.

When we pray the first thing we need to do is give God praise and glory through reverent worship. When we meditate on God and his word, things come into perspective and we will know better what we ought to ask for ourselves and more importantly for others. True prayer is not getting man's will done in heaven, but God's will done on earth. Prayer is not telling God what we want and then selfishly enjoy it, but rather asking God to use us to accomplish what he wants. This is how his name is honoured, his kingdom is established and extended and his will is achieved - as Matthew puts it 'on earth as it is in heaven'.

Within the perspective of worshipping God and knowing his word and will, we can bring our needs before him. We can come to him with our present needs, but note there is no place for greed. God allows us to bring our daily needs to him and he will meet them. The image of bread is significant and probably refers to God's provision of manna to the people in the desert. I am sure we all remember his instructions to the Israelites:

            Moses said to them, "This is the food that the Lord has given you to eat. The Lord has commanded that each of you is to gather as much of it as he needs ..." (Exodus 16)

While we know of the need to be responsible in making provision for our future, Christians should never be greedy. God blesses us with everything we need in accordance with his will, and we have no right to make selfish demands in our prayers.

When we pray we also pray about the past. The most significant aspect of the past for us is the need to be forgiven. God promises us that he will forgive us but we need to be open to receive this forgiveness. The way we open ourselves to receive this gift is through our willingness to forgive others. As one commentator puts it:

            To remain unforgiving shows we have not understood that we ourselves deeply need to be forgiven. Think of some people who have wronged you. Have you forgiven them? How can God deal with you if he treats you as you treat them?

We also pray about the future - '... and do not bring us to hard testing'. Christians desire more than anything else, the strength to be able to live as God intends them to live. They know that evil is always trying to lead them astray and so destroy the joy of the reality God's kingdom in their lives. Each day, we need therefore to seek God's protection.

Jesus illustrated his teaching on prayer by using two parables. The reluctant neighbour in verses 5-10 does not mean that God would ever be reluctant in giving us what we need. God is always desirous of answering our prayers, but he cannot do it lightly or cheaply in response to half-hearted desire on our part. God gives good things to many people, but his choicest blessings are reserved for those who will value them and prove that they will really appreciate them by asking until they receive. Christians are those who humbly persist in their prayers. If a tired and selfish neighbour eventually gives in and gives what is needed, how much more will our loving heavenly Father, who never gets tired or sleeps, who never gets impatient or irritable, who is always generous and who delights in blessing his children, give them all the things they need to make them happy and blessed and whole human beings. God also calls us to persist because he does not want us only to come to him with 'midnight emergencies', but to remain in constant communication with him. All too often people only pray when there is a particular emergency. This reminds me of a rather humorous story:

            Two men were being chased by an obviously evil‑intentioned bull.
            "What are we to do?" puffed one.
            "Can you pray?" Panted the other.
            "The only prayer I can remember is "For what we are about to receive..."

When we are regular in prayer, God will show us the way; God will reveal his will for us.

In prayer, God gives us everything we need because he gives us of himself - as verse 13 explains:

            Bad as you are, you know how to give good things to your children. How much more, then, will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!

Being filled with the Spirit enables us to discern the mind of God as he provides us with everything we need. William Barclay concludes:

            If we do not receive what we pray for, it is not because God grudgingly refuses to give it but because he has some better thing for us. There is no such thing as unanswered prayer. The answer given may not be the answer we desired or expected; but even when t is a refusal it is the answer of the love and wisdom of God.

Saturday, 16 July 2016

Luke 10.38-end (NRSV)

Luke 10.38-end (NRSV)
Jesus Visits Martha and Mary
38 Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’ 41But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’

As usual there are many lessons to be learnt from this passage, but allow me to share just a few thoughts with you.

Firstly, we must be reminded that all people are precious, because God created us. Even though people are different, it is wonderful to realise the God knows us in our uniqueness and also loves us in our uniqueness. This truth is beautifully captured in Psalm 139 (1-6) where we read:

You have looked deep into my heart, Lord, and you know all about me. You know when I am resting and when I am working, and from heaven you discover my thoughts. You notice everything I do and everywhere I go. Before I even speak a word, you know what I will say, and with your powerful arm you protect me from every side. I can't understand all of this! Such knowledge is far above me.

The Psalmist reminds us of the fact that God knows each individual intimately and personally and that he cares about us.

However, it is only when a person knows the reality of forgiveness that they can also know the peace that controls the way we think and feel. This is why commitment to Christ by faith is so important, because it makes real for us, the love of God in Jesus our Lord as we experience this in reality by the Spirit.

Even though we are all so very different, the fact remains that each one of us is special. You are special. Jesus died for all of us and therefore died also for you. Do you know this? More importantly, is this real in your life or is it just a truth that you understand? Do you know the intimacy with God that the Psalmist wrote about, or does God seem to you to be a distant other-worldly creature separate from your reality?

Just as all people are precious this passage also reminds us secondly that, we should accept all other people, even though they might be very different from us.

Some people are naturally very active while others are naturally quiet. A problem occurs when an active person does not understand a quiet person and vica versa. So often, very active people frown upon those who are quiet and reserved, calling them lazy or other offensive adjectives. The same is often true of the person who is devoted to quiet times and meditation. These people might accuse active people of being shallow and also offend them with unfair judgement.

Mary and Martha provide wonderful examples. Both of them were committed to our Lord, both honoured Jesus, both loved him, but it would be difficult to find two people who were more different. Martha was very active; it appears, also impulsive, not shy to speak her mind. Mary on the other hand, was quiet and thought a great deal before she said anything. When Jesus came to their home, Martha rejoiced to see him and set about making the best possible preparations for his visit. Mary was also delighted that Jesus was coming to see them, but her first thought was for the time she could spend with him, listening to him and learning from him. The one was not totally right and the other totally wrong - they were only different.

The same truth prevails today. We must never expect all Christians to be exactly the same, because they never will be. We must also never judge others just because they are different or because they do things differently. In addition the Scriptures add that we should never be critical of those who differ from us. James writes:

My friends, don't say cruel things about others! If you do, or if you condemn others, you are condemning God's Law. And if you condemn God's Law, you put yourself above the Law and refuse to obey it or God who gave it. God is our judge, and he can save or destroy us. What right do you have to condemn anyone? (11-12 CEV)

Jesus, you will remember, summarised the Law as loving God and our neighbour as we love ourselves. Paul said that in loving our neighbours, we completely satisfy the requirements of the Law. When we fail to love others, we are actually sinning because we are breaking God's Law. One of the commentators writes:

When you're ready to criticise someone, remember God's Law of love and say something good instead. Saying something beneficial to others will cure you of finding fault and increase your ability to obey God's law of love. (Life Application Bible)

Even if you believe a person is sinning, Jesus warns that we need to employ caution. Remember our Lord's teaching in Matthew 7:

You can see the speck in your friend's eye, but you don't notice the log in your own eye. How can you say, "My friend, let me take the speck out of your eye," when you don't see the log in your own eye? You're nothing but showoffs! First, take the log out of your own eye. Then you can see how to take the speck out of your friends eye. (3-5 CEV)

The fact is that people are different and they always will be. But being different does not mean that those who are different are wrong. If a person has repented of their sin and given their life to the Lord and are striving to serve him faithfully, we have no right to judge them or even criticise them.

Thirdly, when we feel inclined to be critical of others, it is usually because we have not been spending enough time with our Lord. Martha had become excessively occupied with unimportant earthly matters, to the detriment of her soul. So often we too become ensnared by the cares of the world that our spiritual life takes second place, or is even forgotten. How many of us do not have time for prayer, worship, Bible study or Christian service? Many people are only prepared to give one hour each week - and sometimes this is only out of a sense of duty. It seems strange when one compares the amount of time people have for television, sport or other recreation, but they seldom have time for the Church and the things of the Lord.

Martha's problem was not that she was different to Mary, but that she allowed herself to become so entrapped into what she thought was the right thing to do. She became unnecessarily critical of Mary whom she automatically thought was wrong because she saw things differently. So Martha blurted out, thoughtlessly:

"Lord, doesn't it bother you that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to come and help me!" (40b CEV)

Many of us, as we read this passage find ourselves sympathising with Martha. But, what seems logically and reasonably wrong in others, to us, is not necessarily true. This should teach us to employ caution. To Martha, Mary was obviously in the wrong, but in essence, Martha was the one who needed guidance and direction and so Jesus gently corrected her.

Lastly, notice how important it is to place the nurture of our souls as the first priority in our lives. Jesus said:

"Martha, Martha! You are worried and upset about so many things ..."

Martha was overly preoccupied with the things of this world, that she was able to think clearly and discern spiritual truth. She had neglected what was really important - being with Jesus and learning from Him. If we do not spend enough time with the Lord, we too will experience the same problem.

People who are critical of others have very often fallen into the trap because they are in a spiritual desert, having allowed worldly matters to keep them from the nurture of their souls. Husbands and wives tend to be at each other's throats, there is disruption between parents and children, friendships are smashed and people become polarised - believing that they are right and not even able to concede that the other person has a valid point of view.

It might have come as quite a shock to Martha when she understood, as a result of our Lord's gentle rebuke, that in this particular instance, Mary was doing the right thing and that Martha was the one in the wrong because she was thoughtlessly critical of Mary.

It is necessary is for us to realise that our lives are not merely physical and mental, but also spiritual. To neglect the spiritual dimension of our lives is to court disaster. Mary realised that she needed to spend time with Jesus and so was calm and composed and had things in perspective. When we spend time with Jesus, daily sitting at his feat, listening to what He has to say to us from His Word, bringing ourselves and others to him in prayer, that we too will have a sense of balance return to our lives.

To sum this all up: Let us never forget that even though we are different people, God cares for us. He knows us intimately and he loves us deeply. In the same way that God loves us, so too, should we love one another. We need to accept each other even though we are different. We should not insist that people do things our way. Let us banish criticism from our lifestyles and nurture and encourage each other in love. If we are struggling with this, it is most likely because we are not spending enough time with the Lord. It is only when we are found sitting at his feet, daily, that the balance of true peace between ourselves God and others can become real in our lives.

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Luke 10.25-37 (NRSV)

Luke 10.25-37 (NRSV)

The Parable of the Good Samaritan

25 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ 26He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ 27He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.’28And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’
29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ 30Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” 36Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ 37He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’

Dear reader,

I realise that some of what I reflect on this week might be considered controversial, for some years ago, I too would have thought this way if I were to have read this then. Please feel free to enter into discussion with me (and with others) on this important parable. It seems to me to be true that, as Dr Tom Wright suggests, the most familiar can sometimes be the most difficult to learn from, unless we are open to see things differently. For me, this parable has been the most familiar of all, and it has also been the one that has opened my eyes to the breadth and depth of the love of God in Jesus Christ and his Gospel.

As we saw last Sunday, the Apostles and the 70 disciples had experienced many wonderful things happening as they had ministered in Jesus' name. Now they needed to be taken yet a step further in their understanding. In his conversation with the Jewish lawyer in this lesson, Jesus explained the link between the ethics of law and the ethics of love. The lawyer asked Jesus the important question:

‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’

Jesus answered by putting a question to the lawyer who answered it perfectly. Verses 26-28 record:

26He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ 27He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.’28And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’

I used to believe that the point is that neither the lawyer, nor any other human being has ever been able to keep God's law. In a sense this is true, but I now think that God does appreciate our efforts – inadequate though they might seem – and loves the fact that we do what we can. I also believe that he fills us with his Spirit and so enables us to grow in our love for others and that this is revealed by the good that we do. I also believed that there is no doubting the lawyer's knowledge of the Scriptures and their meaning and that even such excellent knowledge can do nothing to save a person. But experience has made me modify my ideas, especially as I have experienced the love of God from what I would have considered in the past to be the most surprising of sources – which to me - is exactly what I believe Jesus is trying to point out in this parable.

I used to believe that only those who had made a decision for Jesus, through repentance and faith were the ‘saved’ and unless a person accepts Jesus into their life by faith, they are going to a lost eternity. I also used to believe that there was a distinction between ethically good people and the ‘saved’ and that because we are justified by faith – apart from the works of the law – even these good living people are lost – unless they are able to express a faith in Christ.

I have come to realise that there are some people who think that because they believe all the right things, all is well with them before God. Yet, sometimes, their behaviour does not match up. From some people who claim to have correct doctrine, I have experienced judgmental behaviour, bigotry and prejudice, even leading to terrible incidents of discrimination. This was especially true in South Africa where I was born and educated. Of course the opposite is also true, where people who have espoused ‘correct’ doctrine, have also led lives that even better articulate what they believe by their actions rather than by their words. But it has also been my experience that some people of other faiths or indeed no faith at all, can be deeply caring, loving and all in a selfless way – even better than many Christians. I also know from Matthew 25 that when we are eventually judged, what we have believed will not even come into the question. What matters is how we have lived: have we fed the hungry, given drink to the thirsty, clothed the naked ... etc.?

I now believe that the love and forgiveness of Jesus is vast and is experienced by all who respond to other people as they try to love them as best they know how. I still believe that the ‘saved’ are not those who are trying to be good so that they can earn their just rewards. But I believe that the evidence of the love of God expressed through people’s selfless actions of love towards others is evidence that they have taken the step of faith, knowing that living this way is the right way – and simply that – and even if they do not know this or express this using theological language, or can be sure of this, it is this love that gives expression to their saving faith. I am now with Karl Rahner who suggested that goodness is a sign of salvation, even if the ‘good’ person does not know this – what he referred to as anonymous Christians.

The lawyer in this parable had all the right theology and doctrine and could not be faulted on any of these points; but he had also got things completely wrong.

My Samaritans have come in the form of Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims and even some atheists – all lovely gracious people - who have loved and cared for me in an unconditional way – giving me the evidence that they are disciples of Jesus – even if they do not know this as a fine point of doctrine. Recently I have discovered that many of these people of other faiths do indeed consider themselves disciples of Jesus with Hindus seeing Jesus as an incarnation, Muslims who revere Jesus and his teachings as from one of the greatest prophets. Yes, I would go much further than both as I see Jesus as the incarnation and that he is greater than all prophets, but I also believe that this parable is talking in radical terms suggesting that who is and who is not saved is God’s business, not mine! Making a Samaritan the hero, would have been radical of Jesus and I believe he is challenging us to radical love.

I believe our Lord is challenging us to ask: Who are our Samaritans? – as well as - who are our neighbours? As well as - who do we need to care for? And the answer appears to be – all people without exception.

The lawyer tried to avoid the discomfort he must have felt by asking another question. Verse 29 records:

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ 

Warren Wiersbe comments:

The scribe gave the right answer, but he would not apply it personally to himself and admit his own lack of love for both God and his neighbour. So, instead of being justified by throwing himself on the mercy of God ..., he tried to justify himself and wriggle out of his predicament. He used the old debating tactic, "Define your terms! What do you mean by 'neighbour'? Who is my neighbour?"

Jesus did not answer this question directly, but told a story.

The road from Jerusalem to Jericho is about 27 km long. It was wild country and a place where people were often robbed. It was obviously unwise for anybody to travel this road alone. The victim was badly injured and is described as being 'half dead'.

A priest came by while the man was lying there. As the man was 'half dead', the priest might well have thought that he was in fact dead. If he touched a dead man the priest would become ceremonially unclean. To him therefore, religious ceremony was more important than human need. He did more than not help; he deliberately avoided any contact and went by on the other side. A Levite also came along, but he too, thought it better not to get involved and so he passed by on the other side.

Both these men, because of their profession or office ought to have been willing to do good to one in distress, but they were both too selfish. They might well have reasoned with themselves e.g. they did not know the wounded man, he might have got into trouble because he had been irresponsible and so it was his own fault, their time was limited or any number of excuses that all people are so adept at making. J C Ryle explains further:

We have in this a striking description, an exact picture of what is continually going on in the world. Selfishness is the leading characteristic of the great majority of [humankind]. That cheap charity that costs nothing more than a trifling subscription or contribution is common enough. But that self-sacrificing kindness of heart, which cares not what trouble is entailed, while good can be done, is a grace that is rarely met with.

Jesus' audience would have expected the priest and Levite to be followed by an Israelite lay member. They would almost certainly have expected a story with an anti Jewish religious twist. The religious leaders' opposition to Jesus was obvious to all and Jesus was often scathing in his response to them.  But, in view of the traditional bitterness between Jews and Samaritans, a Samaritan was probably the least expected person to be introduced. When they first heard mention of a Samaritan, they might even have thought that Jesus was bringing the robber out into the open. The Jews hated the Samaritans for many reasons, not least because they were racially mixed. Jesus showed them that what is important is not one's race, language or culture – and now my experience would even suggest ‘religion’ – because Samaritans were believed to be false in their beliefs - but what is in one's heart.

The Samaritan did the best he could there and then to make the man feel more comfortable. He cleaned the wounds with wine - the alcohol acting as a disinfectant. He then soothed the man's pain with oil. He also put the man on his donkey and travelled to the nearest inn. Most people, if they ever got this far in helping another person, would feel that they had fulfilled their responsibility; but not the Samaritan. He made further provision for the man, leaving money and promising more if necessary when he returned. In essence, the Samaritan was providing the man with about two months board and lodging. He saw what the man needed and did more than required to meet these needs.  He was able to help and so he went the extra mile and did everything and more for him.

This is the sort of behaviour that all Christians should be involved in. We should be ready to show kindness and love to everyone who is in need. We should not only care for our families, friends and relations or only those in the church. We do not need to get depressed because we cannot do everything possible for all those in need. Like the Samaritan, let us be found faithful in giving to those who come across our path. Let us not try to side-step them, but gladly minister to their every need as he was able.

In this story we see a summary of the different ways people deal with need in the world. The lawyer treated the wounded man as a topic for discussion; the thieves treated him as an object to exploit for their own gain. The priest saw him as a problem to avoid and the Levite as an object of curiosity. 'Only the Samaritan treated him as a person to love'. The commentator in the Life Application Bible concludes:

From the parable we learn three principles about loving our neighbour: (1) lack of love is often easy to justify, although it is never right; (2) our neighbour is any one of any race or creed or social background who is in need. (3) Wherever you live, there are needy people close by. There is no good rationale for refusing to help.

Jesus turned to the lawyer and asked:

... "Which one of these people was a real neighbour to the man who was beaten up by the robbers?" The teacher answered, "The one who showed pity." Jesus said, "Go and do the same."

Jesus revealed to the lawyer that even though he might have thought that he had been obedient to the law - he had not.

Ben Squires, in his book Walking Into Enemy Territory with a Wounded Man on Your Horse (see www.sermons.com) gives the following example that explains the parable in modern terms:

Biblical scholar Kenneth Bailey paints the picture of what it meant for the Good Samaritan to take the wounded man on his own donkey, ride into town, put him up at the inn, and care for him. There’s an unwritten shock in the parable of Jesus, a shock only heard by people living in the context of the story, a shock lost on us, but when Bailey changes the location and races of the characters, we today might have a better sense of the impact Jesus meant to have with this parable.

Bailey writes that the Good Samaritan is like “a Plains Indian in 1875 walking into Dodge City with a scalped cowboy on his horse, checking into a room over the local saloon, and staying the night to take care of him. Any Indian so brave would be fortunate to get out of the city alive even if he had saved the cowboy’s life.”

I have no doubt that salvation comes to the world in Jesus of Nazareth, who through his death and resurrection revealed that he was God’s Messiah, the Christ. But I believe this parable gives us a wake-up call to be open to those of other faiths and none who have obviously received the love of God into their lives because of the way that the fruits of the Spirit are revealed in their lives. I believe this is expressed in the opening words of Peter’s sermon when he met with Cornelius as recorded in Acts 10:34-5:

Then Peter began to speak to them: ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.


Saturday, 2 July 2016

Luke 10.1-20

Luke 10.1-20

The Mission of the Seventy

10After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. 2He said to them, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest. 3Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. 4Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. 5Whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this house!” 6And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. 7Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the labourer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. 8Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; 9cure the sick who are there, and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” 10But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, 11“Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.” 12I tell you, on that day it will be more tolerable for Sodom than for that town.

16 ‘Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.’

17 The seventy returned with joy, saying, ‘Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!’ 18He said to them, ‘I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. 19See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. 20Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.’

My text this morning is written in Luke 10.20:

20Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.’

We are reminded in verse 1 that many people had been following Jesus than merely the 12 Apostles, in fact he commissioned 70 other disciples to go into towns where he was intending to teach, and prepare the way for him. There is some significance in the number 70. Miller (p. 102) explains:

The Jews considered 70 to be the number of the Gentile nations. Although Jesus' work was largely confined to the Jews (Matt 15:24), there are clear indications that, quickened by the Old Testament promises ..., he intended his followers to take the gospel to all [people].

It is also not impossible that there is some significance in the number 72 - the number used in some translations. Morris (p. 181) explains:

Others, however, associate the number with that of the elders appointed by Moses ... seventy two with the two who remained in the camp. They see Jesus as the second Moses. ... Whatever the truth behind these conjectures, Jesus sent the disciples ahead of Him in pairs. Such as large group of forerunners shows that He had a busy itinerary ahead of him.

These disciples were sent ahead of Jesus, like ambassadors going before him to prepare the way for his coming in the future. What a privilege this must have been for them and what a privilege it is for us – to be sent into our world with the wonderful message that God loves all, and offers us a different way of living – the way of peace and fulfilment – no matter what challenges and difficulties come our way. We live in a world where people are confused, tossed about in a state of insecurity.

Verse 2 tells us that the work that lies before us is not going to be easy. In fact there is a great deal of work to do and too few workers to do it. Each and every Christian needs to be involved in the process of harvesting for the Lord. While it is true that not every Christian can leave secular employment and enter the mission field, this does not mean that they have no responsibility. Every Christian needs to pray as Jesus says in verse 2: 'Ask the Lord in charge of the harvest to send out workers to bring it in'. I wonder how many of us make a deliberate and conscious effort to pray that the Lord would send people to spread His truth about salvation and the Kingdom of God to the world?

Verse 3 explains that the calling to be a harvester for the Lord is dangerous - as Jesus said:

... remember, I am sending you like lambs into a pack of wolves.

God's servants are always at the mercy of the world and, like lambs, they do not have the strength required in order to survive. In fact, they cannot hope to cope with the task they have been called to in their own strength. They need to look to God to equip them for what lies ahead. And so in verse 4 Jesus continues:

Don't take along a moneybag or a travelling bag or sandals. And don't waste time greeting people on the road.

The only way one can fulfil what God intends for us is through discipline and faith. There was also a great deal of urgency. Miller (p. 102) writes:

... the Lord did not want them to be overburdened with extra supplies or be delayed on the road by elaborate Eastern greetings. They had to trust God to provide homes and food for them, and they were not to be embarrassed to accept hospitality. In contrast with the Zealots who were spreading a message of revolution in the region, the disciples of Jesus were spreading a message about peace.

If the people rejected their message, the disciples were to leave. Jesus said:

If the people living there are peace-loving, your prayer for peace will bless them. But if they are not peace-loving, your prayer will return to you.

Morris (p. 182) explains:

This is figurative language which assures the disciples that they will not be trying to convey a blessing to someone who does not wish to receive it.

This is a sad truth. Many people even today, reject the peace of God offered to them through our Lord Jesus Christ. If people refuse to receive it, we too should not belabour the point - but move on.

Jesus continued by stating that the ambassadors should not be embarrassed to receive accommodation and food and their other material requirements from the people. We read in verse 7 he states: '... workers are worth what they earn'. This is a difficult verse for me to comment on because it has direct bearing upon my circumstances. Perhaps, therefore, I should shelve my opinions and allow the commentator in the Life Application Bible (p. 1772) to comment:

Ministers of the gospel deserve to be supported, and it is our responsibility to make sure that they have what they need. ... First, see that they have an adequate salary. Second, see that they are supported emotionally; plan a time to express appreciation for something they have done. Third, lift their spirits with encouraging surprises from time to time. Our ministers deserve to know we are giving to them cheerfully and generously.

Jesus adds that his ambassadors should not actively seek material comfort and prosperity - in his words 'Don't move around from house to house'. If ministers are being looked after they should not need to go searching for anything better. Once again there should be the balance; sufficient giving and gracious contentment. Miller (p. 103) puts this teaching in a nutshell. He writes:

They are worthy of their keep, but should be content with whatever they were given.

From verse 17 we encounter the disciples returning from their mission. Verse 17 captures their mood. The verse reads:

The seventy returned with joy, saying, "Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!"

These last verses are filled with typical metaphorical hyperbole. Of course there are things that hurt us, and we need to be careful, but I believe our Lord is saying here is that we need to get our priorities right. It is all too easy for people to make excuses for not being obedient to what God is calling them to do. These disciples had enjoyed tremendous results. They had discovered that ministry in Jesus' name and authority was successful. They had been given the power and might to heal, cast out demons and preach the Word of God and in all these areas they had been successful. And we too will discover the same joy and encouragement when we respond in obedience to what God is calling us to do.

To the average observer, all that they would have seen happen would have been a few preachers who had spoken in a few small towns and healed a few sick people. Jesus was obviously speaking figuratively here. There is absolutely no reason to believe that he was saying that the disciples would be immune from actual snakes and scorpions.

Miller explains that serpents and scorpions are symbols of spiritual enemies and the good news is that all these have been defeated.

These disciples had enjoyed a wonderful privilege. They had the opportunity to see the Son of God in action. For many months they had taken him for granted. They had not really listened to his teachings, nor had they been obedient. We today are in an even more privileged position. We have the entire Bible, the complete revelation of God to humankind, as well as over 2 000 years of church history ‑ all of which tell of the truth of Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God. Yet we too sometimes take this for granted. Let us remedy this today by firstly living victorious lives in the power of the Holy Spirit. Let us stop trying to live in our own strength and begin relying on Christ. The fact is that we can be victorious when we live in Jesus' name, when we pray in Jesus' name and when we do all things through Christ who strengthens us. Let us also make sure that we have all responded to the call of Christ. Are we those who hear his message, obey it and put it into action? G B Caird puts it this way:

Be faithful in doing what God has called us to do – and leave the rest up to God, because our names are already in the ‘Book’ so our ultimate victory is assured.

This passage challenges us to get our priorities right. Is what we are doing as individuals or as a church focused on reaching out to others with the good news that the love of God is available for all who would receive it? Are we reaching out with the Gospel? William Barclay offers the following illustration to bring this point home.

Sir James Simpson was the inventor of chloroform. He, probably more than anyone else, saved people from pain, because all safe and effective pain relief stems from his research. Yet when asked what he thought his greatest discovery was, he replied:

My greatest discovery was that Jesus Christ was my saviour.

Do the people we meet, who use our facilities, know the Gospel we stand for? Have they been offered the greatest gift of all? Does our world who, as the hymn writer explains are ‘... oppressed by pleasure wealth and care ...’ know that there is a different way? This is a difficult task, but also the greatest privilege – being ambassadors for Christ in the important work of reaching out for him. And the good news for us too is that our names are ‘... written in heaven.’

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.’