Wednesday, 27 May 2015

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

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

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

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

A reflection for Pentecost

Acts 2:1-21
The Coming of the Holy Spirit
2When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ 12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ 13But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’
Peter Addresses the Crowd
14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them: ‘Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
17In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
   and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
   and your old men shall dream dreams.
18Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
   in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
     and they shall prophesy.
19And I will show portents in the heaven above
   and signs on the earth below,
     blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
20The sun shall be turned to darkness
   and the moon to blood,
     before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
21Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

I am indebted to the commentary by William Barclay for much of this reflection.

My text this morning is written in Acts 2.21:

… everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved …

Pentecost was originally a Jewish festival. Literally it means 50th - because it fell on a ‘week of weeks’ after the Passover – so it is also sometimes referred to as ‘The Feast of Weeks’. The weather was mostly good at this time and a great many people travelled to Jerusalem for the occasion, and so never was there a more international crowd in Jerusalem than at this time. God’s timing was perfect – something special and significant would happen - and the news would be taken to the four corners of the then known world.

Pentecost, for the Jews, had two main significances: (i) a reminder of the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai and (ii) an offering of the first omer of the barley harvest to God – two barley loaves were offered to God in gratitude for the completed harvest. On this day, no ‘servile’ work was to be done and so it was a holiday for all and there was generally a great crowd in the streets. There would, therefore, be no better time for God to reveal his truth to the people of the day – especially something as important as the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai – the giving of the new law of love.

Notice how on the first Pentecost, the people were all together in the one place. It is so vital that people come together, because this is a time of special blessing and encouragement. People claim that it is not important to attend worship regularly. I beg to differ. Without regular worship, prayer and the study of the Scriptures together, we begin to starve, spiritually and we will struggle to keep going. Luke gives us the recipe for spiritual growth and renewal as he explains later in this chapter – in verse 42: ‘They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.’

In the past the Spirit of God had been given only to special people for special occasions. In the days of the Old Testament, it was also a temporary gift. The people in the Old Testament times longed for a time when the Spirit would be present all the time and be available to all people and so Moses prayed – as recorded in Numbers 11.29: “Would that all the Lord’s people be prophets, that the Lord would put his Spirit upon them!” In their foretelling of the coming of the Messiah, the prophets hoped that he would be different from all others in that the Spirit of God would rest on him (Isaiah 11.1-3). On the first Day of Pentecost the longing of the Old Testament was fulfilled for the Spirit came, ‘... not to some individual in crisis, but to an assembled people ...’ and not temporarily, but to dwell in their midst, to be their bond of fellowship, the secret source of their common life, the inspiration for their mission to the world, and to be the power of their preaching.

The disciples were so overwhelmed by the presence of the love of God that they could not express it in ordinary words and so they burst into ecstatic speech. You cannot speak in this way by trying to do so, because it is not the work of normal human faculties – it is a gift of the Spirit of God – and it has recurred in the Church from time to time as we read in 1 Corinthians 14 as well as Acts 10.46 and 19.6, and it continues to the present day, especially in times of revival.

I had this experience of ecstatic utterance when I was an undergraduate. I believed then (as did the people of the New Testament) that the unintelligible utterances were directly inspired by the Holy Spirit of God. But this is no longer part of my spiritual experience! Why? I cherish it as part of the important time when, in my spiritual youth, God gave me this gift to encourage me and help me on my way. I still cherish the time of deep and meaningful experience. But it is not something that we should focus on too much as other things matter much more. The teachings of the New Testament makes this point clearly.

St Paul was sceptical of all these ecstatic utterances, preferring intelligible words, making the important point that, if a stranger came in to an assembly and this was happening, he would think he had stumbled across a gathering of the insane. A message that all can understand is much more important. But we must not dismiss this gift too quickly.

In my first pastoral appointment, a retired minister and his wife were a wonderful support to me. After one Pentecost Sunday service, Mel told me the story of a time when she was nursing in Port Elizabeth. A very ill patient was admitted from a Russian trawler and was in a coma. She felt called to pray for him and, having the gift of tongues, began to pray in her ecstatic language. When the sailor recovered he asked for the nurse who had prayed for him in Russian and it turned out to have been Mel!

On this first occasion the gift was the ability to speak in other languages. We know that such a miracle was unnecessary as all the people present would probably have understood Aramaic – as we see when Peter explained everything in the second part of our reading – he just used his normal language and all the people there understood him. There is also no evidence that there was any need to use this special gift in the later ministry of the Apostles.

Why then did it happen? Because it symbolised something important– the healing of the nations by bringing people together and reversing the divisions as symbolised by the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11.1-9. All divisions can be healed when people come to Christ.

In all my many travels throughout the world – whenever I have met Christians – Amish, Mennonite, Brethren, Roman Catholic the experience has been the same, one of immediate kindred spirit and a sense of fellowship. Paul is so right when he explains in that, in Christ, we are one (Galatians 3.28).

It also symbolises the importance of people being able to have access to the truth of God in their own language – so that they can be nourished, blessed, encouraged, challenged and be given the gift of God’s truth for their own lives that they too ‘... can hear the message in their own languages telling of the mighty works and love of God.’

This has inspired missionaries to reduced languages and dialects to writing – and to make illiterate masses literate – so that they can find things out for themselves, and make free decisions for themselves, by studying the Scriptures for themselves.

Peter’s sermon was more important than this miraculous gift. The Greek word translated as ‘addressed’ in verse 14 is the same word used in verse 4 to speak of the gift of tongues. It is the explanation of things that matters most, because faith comes from understanding and deciding for oneself. We read in Romans 10.17 where we read: ‘So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ’, and again 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.’ Judaism has a lovely image of a pious Jew being covered by the presence of God as they study the law – the shekinah – the glow of God that accompanied Moses when we he returned on receiving the Law from Mount Sinai. As people prayerfully study scripture today, this can be their experience as the Holy Spirits refines – like fire – and inspires with depth of insight and understanding.

Peter explains that what happened was in fulfilment of the Old Testament prophecy of Joel.
This prophecy speaks of the last days – and these clearly have not happened yet. Does this mean that Joel and Peter got things wrong? I do not think so. Rather, the event of Jesus and Pentecost ushered in a new kind of time. We live in a time when the ‘Kingdom of God’ could reign and where there could be peace and the end of poverty; a time when justice and fairness could prevail. A small percentage of the defence budget of each country could end poverty. But then people would all need to accept the ways of Christ: repent of the sins of selfishness and pride, be willing to admit fault and apologise, attempt to right the wrongs we have done and work for a better world.

But sadly the people of the world have chosen to reject the ways of Christ and so in reality we still live in the kingdom of this world and injustice, suffering, poverty and warfare remain the order of the day. But this need not be so for Jesus came to show us a different way, the way of love, and he gives us His Spirit to be able to live in the ways of his Kingdom.

Pentecost is a time of the giving of a new law – the law of the Kingdom of love. It is a time to be reminded that we can live as citizens of the Kingdom of God, because God’s Spirit enables us, equips us and empowers us. It is a time when we are inspired to go out with the message to the world – extolling – “Things need not be this way, there is a better way ...” for as Peter quoted from the prophet Joel for as Luke wrote so many years ago ‘...everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved …’


Tuesday, 12 May 2015

The Ascension of Jesus

The Ascension of Jesus
Luke 24:44-53.
The events of that first Easter Sunday and the days that followed bewildered the disciples of Jesus. First the women had reported that the tomb was empty. Mary Magdalene had claimed to have met with Jesus. Some of the other women also made similar claims. At first the men were sceptical. But when Peter and John made similar claims, some began to believe that Jesus might well have risen from the grave. Into this gathering in the upper room burst the two men returning from Emmaus. They too gave a detailed account of their experience of the risen Christ. When Jesus appeared to the people in this room, he encountered therefore a mixture of belief and unbelief, the sad and the joyful, the confused and those whose minds had been opened. But God, through his son Jesus resolved all the confusion. He had met the women's confusion at the empty tomb with the words of his son; he met the afternoon's misery on the Emmaus Road with his word expounded in the power of the Holy Spirit. Again, he met the evening confusion with his word. On this last occasion Jesus once again unfolds the meaning of the past, present and future by expounding the Scriptures. He spoke of the crucifixion, the resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit and the spread of the gospel throughout the world. In this passage where we read of our Lord's ascension from this earth into the presence of the Father we learn a number of important truths:
I begin with a traditional exposition of this passage of Scripture.
Firstly, verses 44-45 tell of the centrality on the Scriptures in the lives of all Christians of all generations. We read:
He said to them, "This is what I told you while I was still with you. Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms." Then he opened their minds so that they could understand the Scriptures.
As Jesus revealed himself to his disciples through the Scriptures after his resurrection, so too he reveals himself to us today. But there is even more! Jesus becomes even more real to people today through the Scriptures than when he walked and talked to people on earth because he enlightens us of the deepest meaning of the Scriptures by the power of the Holy Spirit. When a person comes to Christ, the Bible is revolutionised from being a mere book and becomes the living word of God in the power of the Holy Spirit. So into confusing situations Jesus comes and provides perspective, meaning and direction to all those who come to him and his word. Wilcock writes:
During the centuries since, God's people have often found themselves again in the same state of uncertainty in which they were at the start of that memorable evening. For many Christians, today is such a time ...
More than any other time in our history, we need direction. For too long we have had to listen to the thoughts and policies of mere humans. We need direction. We need leaders who seek not so much to control others, but who desire to be controlled by God. We need leaders who do not propound human theories of what our country needs, but who are able to search the Scriptures and discern what God wants for our land and all its people.
Secondly, verse 46 reminds us of what is at the core of the scriptures. We read:
He told them, "This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, ..."
Evans, commenting on this verse, suggests, and I agree, that `The passion (suffering) and the resurrection of the Messiah are enunciated as the core of scripture'. Central to the history of humankind is the Jesus event of the Cross, Resurrection and Ascension. Central in the life of each individual person should be the same - central to every government of every country should be Jesus and his way for people to live. Jesus had said this earlier as recorded by Luke in 12:31 where Jesus said:
... seek his kingdom, and these things [here Jesus is referring to material and other practical necessities of life] will be given you as well.
Thirdly, verse 47 explains where our focus should lie. Jesus said:
... repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations ...
Jesus made it possible for people to become the sort of people God intended them to be at creation - those living in perfect harmony with each other and with their creator. When people realise their sin and experience Christ's forgiveness, they are able to forgive those who have sinned against them. Being forgiven and forgiving others was central to the teaching of Jesus. Earlier in Luke's gospel, he records the words of Jesus. In Luke 6:37b we read: `Forgive, and you will be forgiven'. Again in Luke 11:4 Jesus taught as part of the Lord's prayer: `Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us'. Matthew adds a further important dimension in 6:14-15:
... if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
Fourthly, verse 48 continues: `You are witnesses of these things'. After Jesus' ascension into the presence of the Father - after he left the physical domain of this earth, this message of transformation through repentance and forgiveness that he had proclaimed during his earthly ministry, became the message that Christians of future generations needed to proclaim in both their words and actions `because the Christ proclaims himself through his messengers'. But in order to be able to fulfil the responsibility of their mission, the disciples and all later Christians need to be able to relate to others the significance of what had happened through the Resurrection of Jesus. Miller writes:
Jesus' resurrection was no isolated event, no accident of history, taking place without relation to what had gone before and what was to come after. It was rather the culminating point to which all history had been moving. The Resurrection, therefore, gave meaning to the life and teachings of the historic Jesus. It was the climax of all that he had taught them when he was with them in the flesh.
Fifthly, this message becomes real only through the power of the Holy Spirit. We read in verse 49: `I am going to send you what my Father promised ...' One cannot know the reality of repentance and forgiveness and one cannot hope to be witnesses of this to the world if we try in our own strength. And so God promised believers the Holy Spirit and the power to know the reality of Christ living in and through us. Evans sums up the significance of this as follows. He writes:
Christianity is a movement `... which was effective and irresistible because it had its source in God ... the gift and forceful irruption of whose Spirit makes Christians, inspires their intelligent and confident speech, invests them with divine authority and directs their purposeful movements.’
All of Christianity is impossible without the Holy Spirit - whom we will learn more about next week on Pentecost Sunday when we celebrate the birth of the Church though the wonderful outpouring of the Holy Spirit. In the context of today's lesson we are reminded that when the message of Christ is proclaimed in the power of the Holy Spirit, it becomes more than just the recitation of historical events.
And so, in verses 44-49 Luke provides his readers with a summary of what the disciples had learnt during the 40 days after the resurrection. In verses 50-53 Luke ends his Gospel with a brief account of our Lord's Ascension which brings the post-Resurrection appearances to an end and thereby closes one chapter and marks the opening of a new era. In this new stage, the power of the churches witness was not to depend on the visible appearances of the presence of the risen Christ, but rather on the presence of his Spirit in their midst. Jesus physically left the disciples while blessing them. Because Jesus continually blesses all his followers, they are enabled to serve him faithfully - they are enabled to discern the truth of the Scriptures, they are equipped with the power necessary to witness on his behalf, they have their nature's transformed so that they can become our Lord's representatives to the people of the world. In this act of Ascension, the Father made Jesus Lord. Acknowledging this, the disciples responded by worshipping and praising God. Morris writes:
Whatever their view of His Person during His ministry, the passion and resurrection and now the ascension had convinced them that [Jesus] was divine. He was worthy to be worshipped and they gave him his due.
Note also that the overwhelming feeling experienced by the disciples was not grief at the final departure of their beloved Lord, but overwhelming joy. They returned to Jerusalem where they remained `continually at the temple, praising God'.
I believe this is a faithful exposition of what the Bible reading says; but the implication is rather exclusive, and my current understanding has grown into being much more inclusive.
In today’s world this is severely challenged; in Europe it is mostly rejected – we have nurses who are suspended for openly displaying their faith by offering to pray for patients – and politicians could never get away with an overtly Christian platform. The first part of this posting some see as being radical and was the essence of a sermon I preached in South Africa at the time of the first democratic elections at Ascensiontide 1994. I think, in that context, it was wholly appropriate and the Ascended Christ did make a significant difference in that country, especially in the “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” where what I said about real and meaningful repentance and forgiveness was given true effect. But can I still say this in Europe in 2015? What about those lovely people who are of other faiths or none? I am sure that we have all met them.
I have found, sometimes, more Christian love and humanity outside the Church than from some within it; there are some from other faiths that seem to live more exemplary lives than some who claim to be Christian. I think you can get what I am trying to say. Simply put: “Is Jesus the only way?” – to real humanity, salvation, true forgiveness, fulfilment etc.? Or is Christianity merely a different cultural expression of the same ‘Ground of Being’ (i.e. God) that Tillich speaks about? Ought we therefore not to be evangelistic in our approach to others but merely those who encourage others to become better Muslims or Hindus etc.? Ought we to be rather speaking generically about God and not specifically speaking about the uniqueness of Jesus as God? Was Jesus unique and God incarnate, or was he a man in whom God dwelt most fully (as people like Marcus Borg would suggest)? To be less radical, was Jesus God incarnate – as is traditional Christian teaching (and experience) and therefore other religions are also ‘saved’ by him even if they do not openly acknowledge him? Is F C Coplestone correct in his assertion that: “If you love what is good, you love God even if you don’t know it …” and so opening the door for even so-called atheists to be ‘saved’?
As a school Chaplain I feel constrained to preach a broadly Christian message in its essence because I have always a mixed congregation, including all faiths and none. I am committed to this because my congregation has been told to be there – there is little choice – and experience makes it clear that forcing an overtly Christian message in contexts like this just puts people’s backs up. I find approaches like Coplestone and Tillich very helpful – and very Christian - as we have been reflecting recently in these pages that “God is love and all those who love dwell in God and God in them …” To speak of sin and repentance is seldom well received because too many Christians have used these words in a hateful and judgemental way and achieve the opposite effect. But to challenge those things that challenge our person dignity or ‘being’ strikes a chord.
So where do I stand? Am I just taking the easy road and compromising my faith? Am I ashamed of the Gospel – an attitude condemned by St Paul in his letter to the Romans? Am I part of the problem in the UK and the Church’s decline because I am watering down the Gospel? Is the Church in decline because too many people like me are afraid of “telling it like it is”?
I believe that Jesus is the Christ of God, unique and special and that all the fullness of the Godhead bodily dwelt in our Lord and we are complete in Him. I believe that he died – completely and utter physical death – and that he was raised on the third day. I believe that he left this physical world to return to the realm of God and by so doing was no longer constrained by time or space and that all this is a great mystery that defies expression in human language. I believe that Jesus is alive and is with us in the power of his Spirit, making his presence more real to us today than when he walked and talked with his disciples on earth. But I do not feel that this can be expressed from a school Chapel pulpit in the same way as it can be from that of a Church where people have chosen to attend. Because our congregations are captive audiences, we need to earn the right to be specifically Christian, and this we do by living the Gospel, by being like the ‘… living letters …’ that St Paul speaks about in 2 Corinthians. It has been my experience that this way leads to some young people asking the big questions and they come to a real faith. This way, young people learn to enjoy the Chapel experience where they are encouraged to think about their lives and how they relate to others – and to God.

I believe that Jesus is the only way – but that it is God’s business to deal with who is saved and who is not. The New Testament teaches that “… you will know them by their fruit …” I do see ‘fruit’ in the lives of many who do not profess my beliefs – and I rejoice that God is working in their lives. Did Jesus not use parables to suggest that exclusiveness is not appropriate by championing the life of Samaritans? Does he not make the same point? 

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

1 John 5:1-6 (NRSV)

1 John 5:1-6 (NRSV)

1Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ* has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child. 2By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. 3For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, 4for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. 5Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? 6 This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth.

John, in verse 1, harkens back to the Gospel and the words of our Lord, where Jesus speaks of being ‘born from above’ or ‘being born again’. We believe that Jesus is God’s Messiah, not just another religious leader, but the revelation of God to the world, a one-off event, and this reflects the fact that we have experienced a re-birth into a new family. We have been filled with the love of God in the power of the Spirit of God and as Barclay explains, “… the love of God and the love of man are inseparable parts of the same experience …” This is why Jesus said that the greatest commandments are “Love God … and love your neighbour …”

It becomes the natural thing for us, siblings of God through re-birth, like human siblings, we will naturally love those who are part of our new family with God as our Father. Jesus put it quite starkly (as recorded in Mark 3:35): “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” If we love God, then we ought to love all the other children whom God has begotten – it is all part of the same love. C S Lewis suggested that the purpose of life is: “To love and be loved.” He was not alone. A E Brooke is more specific and wrote: “Everyone who has been born of God must love those who have been similarly ennobled.”

Desmond Tutu takes this idea radically forward. While acknowledging the singularity of Jesus as the Christ of God, Tutu claims that ‘all’ are God’s children, even those who do not accept Jesus as Lord in this life. Tutu’s views give a real dignity to all and this inspired him to treat, even those who did repugnant things during the Apartheid era in South Africa, with the same love. This seems to depart from what John is saying here – but could it mean that those who belong to the household of faith should display a special love for each other? This does not preclude them from loving all – without exception? I think Desmond is on to something. Did not Jesus speak about his house as having many mansions? What about the ‘Good Samaritan’? What about Paul’s reference to those who obey the law ‘instinctively’ (Romans 2:14)? I include the passage below for your reflection:

14When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. 15They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them 16on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all.”

In verses 3-4a, we are reminded that obedience is part of love; that being obedient to Christ and His command to love is central to our faith. As we know, this is difficult to achieve, because Jesus commands us not only to love the lovely, but also those who persecute us and make our lives miserable, even our enemies. I have to confess I often struggle with this.

But verse 3 also reminds us that ‘… his commands are not burdensome …’ they are not like the laws of man – like those of the Scribes and the Pharisees of Jesus’ day - which can be intolerable. John is probably remembering the words of Jesus when he said “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:30)

But we also know that Jesus never commands us to ever do anything without also equipping us with the ability and the strength to do it. We are reminded that a word used for the Holy Spirit is the ‘paraclete’ which literally means the friend (cleitos) that is along-side us (para – parallel). When we struggle it is because we are trying to achieve things in our own strength. Jesus probably reminded his disciples on countless occasions that “What is impossible for man, is possible with God.” Jesus lives deep within us in the power of his Holy Spirit.

Barclay also reminds us that our response to God must always be the response of love, ‘… and for love no duty is too hard and task too great …’ He illustrates this with a lovely example:

Someone once met a young boy going to school before the days of public transport. He was carrying on his back, a smaller boy who was crippled and unable to walk. The stranger said to the boy: “Do you carry him to school every day?” “Yes,” replied the boy. “That’s a heavy burden for you to carry,” said the stranger. “He’s no burden,” said the boy, “He’s my brother!”

Reminds one of the song that was popular when we were teenagers: “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother …”

Increasing I look for the ineffable in the ordinary – and thanks be to God, I find it more and more often. Patricia Long, in her book “Partners and Friends” writes:

“In a beautiful sermon entitled "The Power of Love," Paul Tillich, one of the great theological minds of the twentieth century, writes of a Swedish woman who aided prisoners and orphans during the first World War. She ended up in a concentration camp herself because she gave aid and comfort. Tillich writes, "It is a rare gift to meet a human being in whom love—this means God–is so overwhelmingly manifest. It undercuts theological arrogance as well as pious isolation. It is more than justice and greater than faith or hope. It is the very presence of God in the form of a human being. For God is love. In every moment of genuine love we are dwelling in God and God in us.”

In verses 4b-5 John explains that the faith that conquers the world is belief in the incarnation, the belief that God entered our world and became human like one of us. Barclay explains that, if God did indeed do this, it means that he ‘cared’ enough for humankind to take upon himself the limitations of human life and this is an act of love that passes all understanding. This also means that he ‘shared’ in our human experience and so knows, intimately, the varied trials and temptations as well as the sorrows of this world. This means that God understands everything that happens to us and Barclay concludes: “Faith in the incarnation is the conviction that God shares and God cares.” Once we share this faith, certain things follow:

1. We have a defence to resist the infections of the world. There are pressures to conform to worldly standards, there are fascinations that come with the wrong things and makes them seem so delightful. But when we are aware of the presence of Christ with us in the present (for his incarnation is real for us today as the Holy Spirit moves in our lives) then we have an inoculation against temptation. Barclay explains: “… goodness is easier in the company of good people; and if we believe in the incarnation, we have the continual presence of God in Jesus Christ …”

2. We are given the strength to endure the attacks and temptations of the world. Our experience is full of things that would dilute our faith or even take it away: sorrows, the perplexities of life, disappointments, frustrations, failures and discouragements, to mention but a few. But believing in the incarnation reminds us that God himself went through all this too even to the Cross and this same God can help us through all these things.

3. We also have the hope of a final victory. The world did its worst to Jesus – and it failed – because after the Cross came the resurrection. Barclay adds:

“This is the Jesus who is with us, the one who saw life at its grimmest, to whom life did its worst, who died, who conquered death, and who offers us a share in that victory which was his. If we believe that Jesus is the Son of God, we have with us always Christ the Victor to make us victorious.”

It is lovely to reflect on the fact that when we pray, we make contact with Almighty God, who is greater than anything our minds can comprehend, but who also knows and understands intimately and personally what our experience is like, because He took the trouble to find out first hand. I love Barclay’s phrase but I alter it a little to read:

God can care because he shared our human life in the incarnation; indeed God can care, because the incarnation is a present reality as well as a past fact. Jesus is with us in the power of his Spirit, he is with us as we gather together with the people of God in worship, study and fellowship, he is with us as we seek to be his presence to other people. Mother Teresa used to say that she contemplated Jesus in her prayers and then went out to seek him in the poor and destitute in Calcutta.

God cares because he shares …

This verse is seen by some as one of the most perplexing in the New Testament and many suggest that we can only guess at its meaning. At one level it seems to refer to the waters of Jesus Baptism and the blood of Christ, shed on the Cross, but we also know that John often had deeper meanings in his writings. It probably also refers to the challenge of Gnosticism and the belief that the body is not important, but only the Spirit. Some thought that Jesus was just an ordinary person but that God’s Spirit entered him at his Baptism. But we also know that, for John, the humanity of the Christ as well as his death are central in Jesus being the Messiah of God.

It is important to add the other dimension mentioned in this verse – the witness of the Spirit. Yes, the Spirit of God did descend upon Jesus in a very special way at his Baptism, but this does not mean that he was not the incarnate Son of God before then. It is also important to be reminded that, on that occasion, it was promised that Jesus would Baptise his followers with the Holy Spirit and this was realised in history that first Pentecost.