Wednesday, 27 April 2016

John 14:23-29 (NRSV)

John 14:23-29 (NRSV)
23Jesus answered him, ‘Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. 24Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.
25 ‘I have said these things to you while I am still with you. 26But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.27Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. 28You heard me say to you, “I am going away, and I am coming to you.” If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. 29And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe.

My text this morning is written in John 14:23
“… Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. …”
For John, love is the basis of everything: God loves Jesus, Jesus loves God; God loves humanity, Jesus loves humanity, humanity loves God through Jesus; humanity loves each other; all is based on love!
But once again we see another important issue: not only is everything based on love, obedience is also important, for it is “Those who keep my word …” that are especially loved. Love is proven by obedience. Barclay suggests that obedient, trusting love leads to two things:
(i)                  It leads to ultimate safety: Whatever happens in the life of the Christian, we feel safe and secure in the love God has for us;
(ii)                It leads to fuller revelation. The revelation of God is a costly thing and it is for the people who keep his commandments. No evil person can receive the revelation of God. Barclay explains: “It is only to the man who is looking for him that God reveals himself; and it is only to the man who, in spite of failure, is reaching up that God reaches down.”
John Marsh explains: “The eternal dwelling of God with men begins now. Jesus continues that the man who does not love him will not keep his word; so we may deduce, the Father cannot enter into the same relationships with him as with the loving and obedient disciple.”
There are some questions that cannot be answered simply using reason and human intellect. We can only know certain things, the most important things of life, its meaning and purpose, by allowing God to dwell within us and in our lives. This is only possible for those who love the Son, our Lord Jesus Christ and who are obedient to His teachings. Marsh continues: “It would not be possible, indeed, for the Father to dwell in the hearts and lives that did not honour the Son.”
When people totally reject God and close their hearts (and more importantly their minds) to His prompting and leading, God can do nothing for them; in fact the whole notion of God seems ridiculous to them. I am not surprised that people like Richard Dawkins and other atheists find God, and especially Jesus, ridiculous.
This is why truth is linked to the presence of the Spirit in the life of a person that must be the yardstick: people are attracted to the message of ‘good’ people, and it is only possible to be really good when the Holy Spirit enables us to live the life of Christ.
Fellowship with God and the revelation of God are dependent on love, and love is dependent upon obedience. Barclay adds: “… the person who walks in His way inevitably walks with him…”
I am reminded of some of the hymns I used to love as a young Christian: “When we walk with the Lord in the light of His word … Trust and obey, for there’s no other way, to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey …” (This seems to be a recurring theme in the lectionary because I can remember thinking of this before, quite recently).
Those who follow the ways of Jesus are given a special promise, (verse 23 continues) “… and we will come to them and make our home with them.”
God, in Christ, through the Spirit fills our lives – something we can never fathom – but we can experience it. J C Ryle writes: “… holiness [being obedient in love to our Lord’s teachings] brings eminent comfort with it, and that no man has such sensible enjoyment of his religion as the man who … walks closely with God … There is more of heaven on earth to be obtained than most Christians are aware of …”
If we are not happy, we need to ask: “Are we being holy?” This is a vital question. If we are following God in obedience to the teachings of Jesus, the Spirit will fill our lives with peace and joy, even in the midst of all the challenges that life brings. Ryle adds: “If we want to be eminently happy, we must strive to be eminently holy.”
The Holy Spirit is the presence of Christ in the here and now and also teaches us all things. This is not a one off experience that the disciples knew on the day of Pentecost, it is a continuous process, because the Holy Spirit leads us deeper and deeper into the truth of God. Barclay makes the important point that ‘… there is never any excuse in the Christian faith for the shut mind …’ The Christian who feels that he has got things sorted, and has nothing more to learn ‘… is the Christian who has not even begun to understand the doctrine of the Holy Spirit …’
I am troubled by those who think they have it all figured out; I am disturbed by those whose arrogance leads to them publishing their own personal study bibles and who claim to have an answer for every question. I keep on saying that the greatest threat in the 21st century is certainty, because it is this that closes the door to the Spirit’s leading and teaching. Jesus explained this as recorded in Luke 11:35: “Therefore consider whether the light in you is not darkness.”
Jesus continues to speak of how the Holy Spirit reminds us of what he said. I know there are difficulties in the Scriptures, but this to me is one of their strengths. I believe the authors of the Gospels were guided by the Holy Spirit to remember what God wanted to be written of the life and teaching of Jesus. I do not believe that complete precision and so-called accuracy is what God wants, because it would lead to the very fundamentalism that is so dangerous. The things of God (the things of Jesus) have to be mysterious. We have a wonderfully diverse and rich expression of the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels and we need to help of the Holy Spirit to discern the meaning of Jesus’ message for today. Barclay adds: “… the Holy Spirit saves us from arrogance and error of thought …” In addition, it is the Holy Spirit that will keep us right in matters of conduct as well.
Once more Jesus gives the disciples the gift of peace – the Hebrew – shalom. This is much more than the absence of trouble, it means everything which makes for the highest good. Nothing can happen in the life of the Christian that ever disturbs a deep sense of inner peace – that which only the Holy Spirit can give. I remember this well when I was so ill with a pancreatic tumour. Even in my darkest time, there was a very real sense of peace.
Jesus makes it clear that his ways are not the ways of the world. He is going back to the Father and says that if the disciples really love him they would be pleased. He was going to be released from the limitations of this world and to be restored to his rightful place in glory. If we really understand this we too would be glad when those we love, go to be with God. We would be gutted with sorrow, but even in our sorrow and loneliness we ought to be glad for them, for they have gone to be with our Lord which, as St Paul puts it, is ‘better by far’.
This is so difficult. I am dealing with two people who just cannot get over their loss and while I know this theory, their pain is so acute that they cannot hear it yet. Yet on the other hand, another colleague who was devastated by the loss of his wife about two years ago now, is now delighted as he has met and fallen in love with someone new, who was also bereaved a few years ago.  It is difficult and complex.
J C Ryle suggests that this passage contains truths that ‘… no man can understand except he that receives and experiences it …’ but adds that what we can know is that ‘… eminent holiness brings eminent comfort …’ Happiness, joy and peace come from obedience to what Jesus taught because this is how we love him in practical action. We are helped in this because to try to do it alone only leads to failure; and so we are given the Holy Spirit – the Comforter – to remind us of all Jesus did and taught and inspire us to action as Ryle suggests: “He can keep in our minds the whole system of truth and duty, and make us ready for every good word and work.”
What Jesus can give us is peace – not money, worldly satisfaction or prosperity – because these are temporary. What Jesus gives the world is incapable of giving. But it is sometimes difficult to find because our humanity is so weak and frail. 
Once again this truth is not to be experienced by our trying harder and harder, because this never works; it is experienced when we try less and rest in the grace of God, as we allow the Spirit to fill us and flood us with God’s peace.
Jesus ends with an explanation that he will be going away, but only to return again to be with them and bless them in the power of his spirit and to explain that he was teaching them in this way so that they might believe, because none of these wonderful promises would be possible unless he too was obedient to the end of what he had come to do – offer himself up on the Cross so that the world might come to him.
We can know God’s peace, which is real, deep and meaningful, not the peace of the world, the ‘peace of God that passes all understanding’. We can also know joy and purpose in our lives, but it requires us to do something. We need to love Jesus, and this is not some superficial, sentimental experience, it is practical and significant – we need to be obedient to what he calls us to do. When we do this, God comes to us and makes his home within us. Jesus put it this way:
“… Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. …” (John 14:23)

Saturday, 23 April 2016

Apologies for lateness as it has a been a busy first week of term!
Acts 11:1-18 (NRSV)
Peter’s Report to the Church at Jerusalem
Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, 3saying, ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’ 4Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, 5‘I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. 6As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. 7I also heard a voice saying to me, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” 8But I replied, “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” 9But a second time the voice answered from heaven, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” 10This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. 11At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 12The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, “Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; 14he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.” 15And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning.16And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” 17If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?’ 18When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’ 

In this post Easter season, the majority of Mainstream Churches throughout the world recommend that the readings from Acts take precedence even over the Gospel readings, which hint at their great importance. This particular passage is important because Luke, even though he was greatly limited in space, repeats it. At the time of writing, writers were limited to a roll of papyrus; the longest available was about 35 feet long – almost precisely the length used by Acts. Into this space, Luke would have had to face the challenge of what to leave out. Barclay adds: “He must have selected with the greatest care what he was going to preserve and set down; and yet he finds this incident of Peter and Cornelius of such paramount importance that he relates it in full twice.”
It was possible, in these early days, that Christianity would be just another small and rather minor sect within Judaism. All the first Christians were Jews and traditional Judaism would have made them keep this new revelation to themselves, as God could not have meant it for all people – especially the much despised Gentiles! Luke therefore stresses that this is not so, and that Jesus came for ALL people without exception – as Barclay concludes: “Luke gives this incident in full twice over because he sees it as a notable mile-stone on the road along which the Church was groping its way to the conception of a world for Christ.”
Strict Jews, as we know, would have nothing to do with Gentiles and would never have ever entered a Gentile house and would certainly never have shared a meal with them. By doing what Peter did caused an absolute outrage.
Peter defended himself, not by using argument; he simply stated some facts. Whatever his critics might say, the Holy Spirit had come upon these Gentiles in the most notable way – and here there was no argument.
Peter had taken six people with him so a total of seven made up his party. In Egyptian law, seven witnesses were necessary to prove a case. In Roman law, seven seals were necessary to authenticate an important document. Barclay suggests the following:
“… Peter is in effect saying, ‘I am not arguing with you. I am telling you the facts and of these facts there are seven witnesses. The case is proved.’”
The proof of Christianity lies in the facts. It is unlikely that anyone has ever been ‘argued into’ Christianity. Christianity is proven because it works – that it does change the lives of people – it makes bad people good; it brings to people the Spirit of Christ. Barclay argues convincingly that:
“… the duty of the Christian is not to talk about his faith but to demonstrate his faith. It is when a man’s deeds give the lie to his words that the gravest discredit is brought to Christianity; it is when a man’s words are guaranteed by his deeds that the world is presented with an argument for Christianity which will brook no denial.”
My own theology was transformed when those whom I thought I agreed with showed so little love and wisdom, and my then so-called opponents revealed to me the depth of insight and love and grace that made it obvious to me that they were filled with the Spirit of Christ.
I have been reading a lovely book entitled: Rebels and Reformers: Christian renewal in the 20th Century by Trevor Beeson. As you know, I am a great fan of biographies, my only book of any significance being a work of biographical studies of African leaders. Why I find them important is that I believe the Holy Spirit makes it possible for people to have their lives transformed and in the process transform the world where they are, and so make the kingdom of God a reality in the here and now.
The Church in the UK is on its knees – not in the way it should be – being one with our Lord in prayer; but dying slowly but surely. I believe this is because people cannot see the relevance of the Church anymore because – in the main – being part of the Church seems to make such little difference. In Beeson’s book, those who are included are always there because their contribution made a difference, and in them the world experienced a glimpse of what it meant to be a citizen of the Kingdom of God.
In our reading from Acts, the yard stick was the presence of the Holy Spirit in the lives of people – their lives were profoundly different – and bore witness to the fact that God was with them and within them – they were baptized with the Spirit. The following is the stunning example of George Tyrrell (1861-1909):
Tyrrell was a Roman Catholic theologian who was expelled from the Jesuit Order because of his beliefs and his criticisms of ecclesiastical authority … but I believe it was the Church that got things wrong – not Tyrrell.
Tyrrell made a sharp distinction between theology as embodied in abstract, static, doctrinal statements and theology as a dynamic, personal experience and response to divine revelation. Like the experience of Peter and the six in our Acts reading, Tyrrell believed that the truth of religious belief is to be tested by its effects on the believers’ way of life, not only in their ethical behaviour, but also in their spiritual lives. He claimed (rightly in my view) that it is a waste of time trying to fathom the intricacies of doctrine and stated that ‘… the refinements of Scholastic metaphysics on the Trinity, the Incarnation and the Real Presence were “even further from the truth than the simple faith of a peasant.”’ The truth of revelation cannot be conveyed in theological statements, but only in fact and experience and he contrasted living faith and dead theology.
It is only possible to live a godly life if one is enabled by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit; our faith is revealed – yes – but not as an intellectual assent only. Barclay reminded us earlier that few come to Christ through argument, but many are attracted to a transformed life. Earlier in our discussions I pointed out that the biblical notion of faith was not so much an intellectual assent to a set of doctrines, but a motivation to action.
We reflect on God’s Word, the Scriptures, which includes our minds, but more, it is a spiritual and not merely an intellectual exercise. It is important that we grasp things with our minds, but also that we allow God to commune with our Spirits. Jesus is alive and so speaks to us through the Word, but in the process touches us at the core of our being. Worship is real when we make contact: when the infinite God – the ground of all being – touches us at the core of who we are – our ‘being’.
We need to use our minds, of course, but in a different way. We must not commit intellectual suicide and therefore not confront the issues that come our way, because we are cerebral beings. Nothing is more off-putting than a rank mindless fundamentalism. But our minds are linked with our Spirits and we only realize true wisdom when, prayerfully, we are united with Christ in a living, vibrant relationship. When this happens, our thinking is translated into action because our believing is a cerebral thing and much, much more; it is deeply spiritual – as Tyrrell put it – it living faith and not dead theology. St Paul put it this way: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12.1-2)

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

John 10:22-30 (NRSV)

John 10:22-30 (NRSV)

Jesus Is Rejected by the Jews

22 At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, 23and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon24So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.’25Jesus answered, ‘I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; 26but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep27My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me28I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. 29What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. 30The Father and I are one.’

My text this morning is John 10. 27:
Jesus said 27My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. 
William Barclay is always useful in helping us to understand the historical context of the scriptures, and I believe it is this context that often helps us to discern the meaning of a text for us today.

The Festival of Dedication is the Jewish festival of lights called Hanukkah and falls very near to our Christmas and is still observed by the Jewish community. The origins of this festival go back to the time when the King of Syria – Antiochus Epiphanes – reigned from 175-164 BC. He loved all things Greek and decided that he was going to eliminate the Jewish religion and introduce Greek thought and ways into Palestine. In 170 BC, Antiochus attacked Jerusalem; 80,000 Jews perished and many were captured and sold into slavery and a vast sum of money was stolen from the Temple treasury. It became a capital offence to possess a copy of the Torah or to circumcise a male child. The Temple courts were profaned and the Temple chambers were turned into brothels. Antiochus also turned the great altar of the burnt offering into an altar to Zeus where he made offerings of pig flesh. Nothing more could be done that could be more offensive to any Jew.

From among the Jews arose Judas Maccabaeus. In 164 BC, he was victorious. The Temple was cleansed and purified and the altar rebuilt. It was to commemorate all this restoration that the Feast of the Dedication was instituted. It is referred to as the Festival of Lights because there were great illuminations in the cleansed Temple as well as in every home beginning with eight lights and then reduced by one for each day of the festival until on the last day only one remained.

As Jesus was walking in Solomon’s portico some Jews, probably religious leaders, came to him and asked: ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.’ But did they really want to know the answer to this question? As a teacher, I know that there are a variety of motives for knowing, and the one that is least significant is just so that one can earn a good grade in an examination. This can lead to knowledge but certainly not to wisdom. I am probably naive, but I still think teaching and learning ought to be about searching for truth. There were probably some of those who were listening to Jesus who sincerely wanted to know the truth. But we also know by this time, that there were a growing body of opponents who were bent on trying to trap Jesus – especially so that they could lay a charge of blasphemy against him, and so get rid of him. If Jesus claimed to be the Messiah, this would get him into trouble, not only with his people, but also with the Roman authorities, because they could make this into a charge of insurrection. And what better time that at the Feast of Dedication, when there was a recollection of a Jewish insurrection and overthrow of a foreign power. However, A M Hunter suggests that even a plain “Yes!” in answer to their question would still not have ended the issue. It would have at best been misleading because all it would have done would be to cause further argument. If they wanted a clear answer, it would have to come in a different way. What was unambiguous, were his actions, and so Jesus points to them!

His ‘learned’ audience, who supposedly knew the Scriptures well, should have been able to see for themselves that he was the fulfilment of ancient prophecy – especially with reference to Isaiah 35.5-6 where we read:

5Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
   and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
6then the lame shall leap like a deer,
   and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
   and streams in the desert …

Every one of Jesus’ miracles was a claim that Jesus was the long promised Messiah.

It was the deeds and the words of Jesus that made who he really was real to those who sincerely sought the truth about him. Everything about Jesus was evidence that he was someone extraordinary: the tone of his message, the way he changed the sacred Jewish law putting his own teaching in its place – everything - was a claim that God was speaking in and through him. But the majority did not accept Jesus.

John then goes on to show Jesus using the image of sheep with a shepherd. In Palestine sheep knew the voice of their shepherd and followed him. It would appear that – despite the evidence – people deliberately chose not to take heed of the voice of Jesus. People can close their minds, so that even when what is obvious stares them in the face, they refuse to accept it.

I have enjoyed the wonders of YouTube where I have been able to watch the various debates between Richard Dawkins and some of the great religious thinkers of our day. I was especially taken by the debate between Dawkins and the Chief Rabbi – Dr Jonathan Sacks Dawkins just cannot bring himself to accept that God is intellectually as well as rationally, and in every other respect philosophically, more than probable, but possible. This point is well made by the emeritus Oxford Philosophy professor, Richard Swinburne, who keeps good company with countless others. But we also know, that more important than anything intellectual, is our actual ‘experience’ of the reality of God in our own lives, as Jesus becomes real for us in the power of the Holy Spirit .

This week I decided to return to one of my favourite devotional texts, The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis. In his chapter entitled On the teaching of Truth he writes:

A humble knowledge of oneself is a surer road to God than a deep searching of the sciences. Yet learning itself is not to be blamed, nor is the simple knowledge of anything whatsoever to be despised, for true learning is good in itself and ordained by God; but a good conscience and a holy life are always to be preferred. But because many are more eager to acquire much learning than to live well, they often go astray, and bear little or no fruit. ... On the Day of Judgement, we shall not be asked what we have read, but what we have done; not how eloquently we have spoken, but how holily we have lived.

In verse 30 Jesus John claims that Jesus said: “The Father and I are one”.  This is the mystery of our faith but not one that ought to launch us into deep philosophical probing, because, if we explore the Scriptures, we will find the answer. John 17 recorded Jesus praying: “Holy Father, keep them in my name, which thou hast given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.”

It is all about love – the greatest mystery of all. Jesus and the Father are one in divine love; we are one with each other and God because of divine love. And we know this when we keep Jesus’ command to ‘… love one another as I have loved you…’ which is beautifully explained in John’s first epistle: ‘… you know you have passed from death to life if you love one another …’ and ‘ God is love!’  Barclay comments:

“Here is the essence of the matter. The bond of unity is love; the proof of love is obedience. Christians are one with each other when they are bound by love, and obey the words of Christ. Jesus is one with God, because as no other ever did, he obeyed and loved him. His unity with God is a unity of perfect love, issuing in perfect obedience.”

Jesus had power that came from God the Father, but this power was made manifest in works of love. But even though this fits in with everything a person can know about God, the religious leaders still could not get it, because they – as Jesus explained - ‘… do not belong to my sheep …’ How can Jesus be so unambiguous about this? Because what is true of the Father, is also true of the Son for Jesus said: “The Father and I are one.” T W Manson puts it this way: ‘The Son thinks the Father’s thoughts, and wills the Father’s purpose, and acts in the Father’s power.’ This claim was unambiguous and was blasphemy in the eyes of the religious leaders.

When Jesus said that he and the Father are one, he was therefore not speaking philosophically; he was speaking of the world of personal relationships. Jesus’ unity with the Father is a result of perfect love and perfect obedience. Barclay writes: “[Jesus] was one with God because he loved and obeyed him perfectly; and he came to this world to make us what he is.”

By God’s grace we belong to Christ. We know this to be real because it is part of our own personal experience as well as being based on the facts of history. We sometimes hear his voice – and follow him – and all goes well even in the midst of difficulties, pain and all the rest that makes this human toil a struggle at times. When we stop listening, we go astray. But even in these times our Shepherd calls all the louder and we eventually hear and return to the fold. As John explains, Jesus said: 27My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. 

Thursday, 7 April 2016

Acts 9:1-20 (NRSV) The Conversion of Saul

Acts 9:1-20 (NRSV)
The Conversion of Saul
1Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’5He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’ 7The men who were travelling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one8Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. 9For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
10 Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, ‘Ananias.’ He answered, ‘Here I am, Lord.’ 11The Lord said to him, ‘Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, 12and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.’ 13But Ananias answered, ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; 14and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.’ 15But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel16I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.’ 17So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ 18And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, 19and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
Saul Preaches in Damascus
For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, 20and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’

(I am indebted to Professor William Barclay for this reflection).
My text is written in Acts 9:10:
10 Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, ‘Ananias.’ He answered, ‘Here I am, Lord.’
I think Paul’s experience of the execution of Stephen must have had a huge impact on him. The vehemence with which he set out to silence the Christians in Damascus would suggest that, as often is the case, one’s opposition to something can be the result of one’s realising that there must be some truth in what one is opposing. The more this truth seems convincing, the more strenuous become the opposition. Albert Winn writes:
“Unable to forget Stephen, Saul transferred his guilt into hostility against all the disciples of the Lord and tried to silence his conscience by feverish activity.”
Saul was also steeped in the Scriptures and so he would have known – deep down – that Jesus did in fact fit the Biblical prophecies of the Messiah. Paul’s experience took place about three years after the Resurrection and so he certainly would have had time to ponder all that had happened since then.
And then he is granted permission to go on his mission of getting rid of the Christians. The journey would have taken a few days and this would have given Saul time to think. And suddenly he has this amazing experience – the culmination of everything – and a great turning point in his life. Not all conversions need to be as dramatic as this.
Secondly, this part of the retelling of the Conversion of Paul introduces us to an interesting and gracious character: Ananias, an ordinary Christian used by God for great purpose. Barclay comments:
“If it is true that the Church owes Paul to the Prayer of Stephen, it is also true that the Church owes Paul to the brotherliness of Ananias.”
I love the intimacy he had with our Lord. I am amazed at his response: “Here I am Lord” – which echoes the experience of Samuel in the Temple. But there is also the challenge, the discussion, the questioning of what our Lord asked him to do. Again, Barclay paraphrases the incident well:
“Go and help the man who came here to throw you into prison and who would have liked to murder you.” He might so well have approached Paul with suspicion, as one who was doing an unpleasant task; he might so well have begun with recriminations and blame; but no; his first words are “Brother Saul.”
This is one of the finest examples of Christian love and forgiveness that characterises the Christian life; it is the sort of forgiveness that can only result from the outpouring and infilling of the Holy Spirit – for it is not something that either comes naturally nor can be summoned up through a deliberate act of the human will. We see this throughout the history of the Church.
“…be filled with the Holy Spirit …” Ananias says to Saul. What joy! In one important sense, are not our ‘infillings’ just another way of referring to kairoi moments? But, how often do we ask: “Lord, fill me again with your Holy Spirit?” in my case, not nearly enough!
There seems to be little doubting Paul’s enthusiasm as “… immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’”
This is the essence of all Christian teaching. We take note of Jesus because he was no mere mortal, no mere ethical teacher, no mere great and profound philosopher: ‘He is the Son of God.’ Paul’s message caused amazement because his reputation had gone before him; he was well known as an opponent of The Way and the people would have known that he had travelled to Damascus in order to silence this new Jewish sect and return them to the ‘truth’ of their faith. Even more, they also knew that Paul felt so strongly about this that he was willing to go to extreme measures to stop this ‘heresy’ – he had been part to the execution of Stephen after all. Now he was espousing their teachings!
I can just imagine his conviction, and the forcefulness of his argument. He was convinced and he would have made this very clear. His argument would have been – to him at least – watertight, and probably, like my early Christian days, not far from the bombastic verging on the arrogant. And so, instead of winning many over for the Lord, they were alienated and plotted to kill him and he had to escape by night by being lowered down in a basket through an opening in the wall.
This is one of the many examples of the fact that, because we read something in Scripture, and because a saint performed such things, it does not necessarily mean that we should always follow their example. I believe that in Paul’s early ministry here, he got things wrong (and from reading Galatians 1:15-24 where Paul gives his own account, I believe he would agree that he had).
On leaving Damascus he went to Arabia where he collected his thoughts and reflected on what had happened and was able to find both perspective and direction for the way forward. Barclay writes:
Into Paul’s life there had come this shattering change and just for a little time he had to be alone with God. Before him there stretched a new and different life. Therefore first of all Paul sought God.
And over the years, he got what he needed in bucket loads. Don’t you simply love the clarity of his thought as revealed in his letters to the Churches? He originally spoke of Jesus as ‘… the Son of God …’ but this became
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in* him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in* him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1:15-20)
It is almost as if God chose Paul, the great theologian of the Scriptures, to provide us with the first systematic theology; to be the one who would make sense out of the life, ministry, death and Resurrection of our Lord, Jesus Christ. For indeed, if we understand Paul, we understand what Jesus is all about. Some have gone so far as to suggest that his letter to the Romans is the key that unlocks all of Scripture.
Entering into debates is not the best way of getting people to come to know our Lord, no matter how good we think our arguments are. We need clarity of thought and we need to be taught and to teach others so that we can grow in our faith; but we need to earn the right to speak. Eventually Paul came to this understanding and the power of the effective Christian witness preached – not through words – but through holiness of life before words spoken or written. Writing his second letter to the Church in Corinth he states:
Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Surely we do not need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you or from you, do we? You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all; and you show that you are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. (2 Corinthians 3:1-2)
I am so grateful that Our Lord plucked me from the fire; I am so grateful that I have been given the privilege of a direct and intimate relationship with God, that the creator and sustainer of the universe knows and loves little, imperfect and insignificant me. And what is more He is there for all who would receive Him.
We need to live lives that are so holy and filled with God’s love that people want to know what it is about us that makes us different. While being filled with a deep sense of joy as I write these words, I am also convicted by the fact that my life so often falls short. But I also know that God is able to do more than we can ever ask or think and so I go forward in hope and renewed and forgiven to live and work to His praise and Glory.

Friday, 1 April 2016

John 20:19-end (NRSV)

John 20:19-end (NRSV)
Jesus Appears to the Disciples
19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’
Jesus and Thomas
24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin*), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’
26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ 27Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ 28Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ 29Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’
The Purpose of This Book
30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But these are written so that you may come to believe* that Jesus is the Messiah,* the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

This week (with the aid of William Barclay, J C Ryle, John Suggit and John Marsh) I reflect on verses 19-23; Jesus appears to his disciples:
To the modern reader, these opening verses present some difficulty. John takes care to include the detail that the doors were closed and securely locked and Jesus was still able to enter. Ryle comments:
“Like all the events which followed our Lord’s resurrection, there is much in the facts before us which is mysterious, and requires reverent handling.”
To try to explain them – according to Ryle – leads to ‘… unprofitable speculation. … We shall find it safer and wiser to confine our attention to points which are plain and instructive …’
The disciples returned to the upper room where they had shared the Last Supper with Jesus. Now, however, they were terrified because they knew that the Jewish authorities were on the warpath to eliminate even the memory of Jesus. Would it be the rest of them next? Barclay writes:
“So, they were meeting in terror, listening fearfully for every step on the stair and for every knock at the door, lest the emissaries of the Sanhedrin should come to arrest them too.”
Into their midst Jesus suddenly appeared and greeted them with the words: “Peace be with you …”
These would have been loaded with meaning for the disciples gathered here. Ryle comments:
“He spoke, we may be sure, with special reference to the events of the last few days, and with special reference to their future ministry. ‘Peace’ and not blame, - ‘peace’ and not fault-finding, - ‘peace’ and not rebuke, - was the first word which this little company heard from their Master’s lips, after He left the tomb.’
This is entirely in keeping with our Lord’s ministry. ‘Peace on earth’  was the song sung at Jesus’ birth, and peace and rest for the human soul was the essence of what Jesus had taught over the past three years of the disciples’ experience. Ryle suggests that it is ‘peace’ that Jesus intended to be the key-note to the Christian ministry and Jesus wanted this to be central to the Christian message of the Gospel.
The Apostle Paul reminds us that what Jesus came to earth to give is peace between humankind and God as he wrote in the opening verses of chapter 5 of his letter to the Romans:
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
This is indeed the essence of the Gospel. We, like the disciples who met in the Upper Room on this occasion, so often get things terribly wrong and we find ourselves fearful and full of guilt as a result. Just as Jesus entered into their presence in a miraculous way on this occasion, so he miraculously comes to meet us where we are and gives us the same message. “It’s okay, I forgive you, peace be with you…”
It is interesting to note how Jesus provided this gathering with excellent evidence that it was in fact he who had risen from the dead: he showed them his hands and his side. He invited them to see with their own eyes that he had a real, material body and that he was no ghost or spirit. Ryle comments:
“… great … was the principle which He established for the use of His Church in every age until He returns. That principle is; that our Master requires us to believe nothing that is contrary to our senses. Things above our reason we must expect to find in a religion that comes from God, but not things contrary to reason.”
And then Jesus commissioned them: “As the father sent me, so I send you …” And he equipped them for the task as he breathes on them and said: “Receive the Holy Spirit …”
The Church is now the presence of Jesus in the world – as Paul explains in Ephesians 1:23 and 1 Corinthians 12:12) - we are ‘… the Body of Christ …’ It is our task to take the message of peace to all people. The Church is the mouth of God to speak and reveal God’s message to the peoples of the world. But we need to remain united with Christ for without this we have no power, no support, no strength. We need to nurture our relationship with God through the study of the Word and the faithful offering of the Sacraments. It is this relationship that matters and here it requires obedience and perfect love. Barclay writes:
“The Church must never be out to propagate her message; she must be out to propagate the message of Christ. She must never be out to follow man-made policies; she must be out to follow the will of Christ.”
To fulfil our commission we must always rely on the witness and testimony of the Holy Spirit which is that which makes us – transforms us – into the image of Christ, both as individuals and as a gathering of the Church.
John reminds us that at creation what gave humankind the image of God was God breathing into them (Genesis 2:7) Ezekiel (37:9) saw the  same thing in the valley of the dead, dry bones until God breathes life into them. The coming of the Holy Spirit is like the wakening of life from the dead and when it fills the Church she is recreated and equipped for her task. Without it, the Church simply does her own work and dies.
We have the lovely message of peace and with it comes the essential message of forgiveness. Only God can forgive sins, but we are given the power and authority to act as God’s agents and thus able to say to those who are truly penitent: “Your sins are forgiven!” Barclay concludes: “This sentence lays down the duty of the Church to convey forgiveness to the penitent in heart and to warn the impenitent that they are forfeiting the mercy of God.”
For Thomas, the Cross was what he expected. When Jesus had mentioned that they were going to Bethany after the raising of Lazarus, remember what Thomas had said: “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (John 11:16). He was not lacking in courage; he probably just considered himself to be a realist (and a pessimist). There was no doubt that he loved Jesus because he was willing to go with him to Jerusalem and die, even when the other disciples expressed their reluctance. What happened was just as he expected and he was broken-hearted, to such an extent that he felt the need to be alone with his grief. So, when Jesus appeared in the Upper Room, Thomas was not there. When he was given the news, he refused to believe it because it seemed to be too good to be true and he needed more, because he probably could not cope with having false hopes dashed yet again.
A week passed and Jesus appeared again – this time – Thomas was there. Jesus knew just what Thomas needed and repeated the words that Thomas had used himself, inviting him to do as he wanted: ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’(verse 27)Thomas was thrilled and exclaimed: ‘My Lord, and my God.’(Verse 28)
Barclay suggests that we can learn the following from the experience of Thomas:
(i)                  He made the mistake of withdrawing from the Christian fellowship and as a result missed meeting with Jesus. There are certain things that we can only experience when we are an integral part of the Christian fellowship. The modern notion of not needing to go to church to be a Christian is a folly. We can only know God’s blessing when we are part of his body here on earth. Barclay comments: “… we should seek the fellowship of Christ’s people for it is there that we are likeliest of all to meet him face to face.”
(ii)                Thomas was a man of virtue: He refused to claim to understand when he did not and this sort of honesty is good. Lord Tennyson wrote: “There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds.” And when he was sure, he went the whole way exclaiming “My Lord and my God.” Thomas doubted in order to be sure. Barclay comments: “… When a man fights his way through his doubts to the conviction that Jesus is Lord, he has attained to a certainty that the man who unthinkingly accepts can never reach.”
I believe the Lord inspired John to include this because Thomas reflects the experiences of so many. Thomas thought he needed physical evidence, but it is plain from John’s account that he did not accept the offer to touch the wounds of Jesus. As John Marsh explains: “He had learnt in the mere ‘seeing’ of the glorified Lord that sense and sight were not the sufficient things he supposed. In a strangely paradoxical way he had found through seeing that seeing was not believing.” So often people today think that if Jesus were to become physically present to them, it would be easier for them to believe. This is not so, because the only way that belief is possible is through the work of the Holy Spirit. There were no real advantages for the disciples in seeing Jesus because (as Marsh adds) “… physical seeing can be as seriously questioned as any other experience of sense …” This is why Jesus concludes with the words: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” (verse 29b)
Verses 30 and 31 are crucial in our understanding of the Gospel, because they give us insight into the paradigm of the Gospel writers – their philosophy – as it were. It seems very clear that John (and the others) did not set out to provide a detailed account of the life and ministry of Jesus. They are selective, choosing what for them are some of the things that will give us a deep and significant insight into who Jesus was, what he was like and the sort of things Jesus said and did. The Gospels are not meant to be biographies of Jesus, but documents designed to encourage people to faith – or Barclay puts it – ‘… Their aim was, not to give information, but to give life …’ Their bias is clear and honest. Barclay continues:
It was to paint such a picture of Jesus that the reader would be bound to see that the person who could speak and teach and act and heal like this could be none other than the Son of God; and that in that belief he might find the secret of real life.
This means that, if we approach the Gospels, expecting to find biography or history, we ‘… approach them in the wrong spirit …’ Rather we must come to them seeking God. This does not mean that they are worthless as historical or biographical works, because they are filled with important information and increasingly, people are finding them to be works of massive literary importance as well. All this remains true – but they are also much, much more.
There were many other signs which Jesus did, but John had made a selection to help the reader and informs his readers of the basis of his choice. Marsh suggests that it is highly probable that John knew of the existence of the Synoptic Gospels or at least a source used by the synoptic writers – probably a source of his own as well. He wanted to help people – all people – even those who find belief difficult (the Thomas’ of this world) – to be able to come to faith in Jesus. He wants this to happen because it has been his experience (and the experience of others) that to believe means to have life in Jesus name. John has spoken of praying in Jesus’ name. This means much more than just ending a prayer “In Jesus’ name we pray…” it means ‘… offering prayer in Jesus Christ, as if the believer were his Lord, and his prayer the prayer of his Lord.’ So, to have life in Jesus’ name is to share his life, to become identified with him to the extent that Jesus’ eternal life becomes the life of the believer as well.  Life becomes sharing the life of God – as Marsh puts it – ‘… in his eternal felicity and bliss …’
The events as recorded in John’s Gospel all happened. I do not believe that the Gospel writers simply made them up. But they are not meant to be taken exclusively literally. John Suggit writes:
“The signs – words and narratives – used in the scriptures are what constitute poetry, in the widest sense of the term, not of course in the sense that they are untrue, but because they enable believers to receive the word not simply as an opportunity to participate in it, to become creative (poiesis – creation) in giving it meaning for themselves and for others so as to be changed and transformed by it.”