Tuesday, 14 April 2015

1 John 3:1-7 (NRSV) The Epistle for next Sunday ...

1 John 3:1-7 (NRSV)

1See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 2Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he* is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. 3And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure. 4 Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. 5You know that he was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. 6No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him. 7Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.

I am indebted to the works of Barclay and Price Love for this reflection on the Epistle for next Sunday.

My text is written in 1 John 3.2:

2Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he* is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.

We are not only called God’s children we ‘are’ God’s children. By nature we are not, we are mere creatures of God – created by Him – but by God’s grace – we are adopted as his children. Barclay makes the distinction between ‘paternity’ and ‘fatherhood’: paternity refers to our genes, our physical existence; fatherhood describes an intimate, loving relationship. In the sense of paternity, all people are children of God, but in the sense of fatherhood we are God’s children when He ‘… makes his gracious approach to people and they respond …’

We have the great honour of being called children of God which means that Christians have a unique relationship with God made possible by Jesus. This is part of the image of being born of God. This status is possible because the Spirit of God enables Christians to live in a different way – in the ways of God rather than the ways of the world – and this is why we often feel like strangers in the world.

It seems so important to stress this in today’s world: the mere sexual act that leads to conception and physical birth is just a tiny part of the situation; what is needed for any child are not parents, but a mother and a father. Some of my students have asked: “When is one ready for a sexual relationship?” My response is always, when you are ready to be a mother and father with all the love and commitment that this involves. Sadly, I believe we live in a world where, in some instances, there are parents and children but there are not enough mothers and fathers!

One of the ways where we see this is in the glorious gift of adoption; something sadly frowned upon in today’s world. Most of the girls I have taught over the years say that they would prefer to have an abortion than give up a child for adoption. I have to say that I find this very difficult. There is a waiting list miles long, of couples who would do almost anything to adopt a child, any child; we even have people going overseas to adopt a child. Some young people think that they would hate to know that they were adopted, because they would feel unwanted. Nothing could be further from the truth – in my view. A mother taking her pregnancy to full term to give life to her child and then being willing to give the child to another mother and father who will give the child everything they need, must be both extremely difficult nut also incredibly loving. Adopted children ought to feel special because of what their biological mothers have done for them – given them life and the chance to flourish.

Christians ought also to feel as special because we are ‘adopted’ children of God.

Previously, the relationship between God and humanity was one of covenant, sealed by complex laws that need fulfilment. Now Jesus has given us a new way – a deliberate act of God – inviting us to become part of a new family.

Christian experience is as much about present reality as it is about future hope. We are called children of God now because this is real now – we are children of God already. Barclay explains: “By nature we are creatures of God, by God’s grace we become children of God.” We don’t need to wait for the next world to find out what this means, we know it now. As children feel completely at home with their parents, as Price Love explains, “... so we feel if we recognise God as truly our Father. ... We are content that we shall see him as he is.” (verse 2b)

But being children has certain responsibilities. Verse 3 reminds us that we have a need to purify ourselves. We all know that we are declared right with God by His grace taking the initiative and doing everything for us. The Reformers spoke of the wonderful doctrine of “Justification by Faith” apart from the works of the Law, lest anyone should boast. Being declared right with God is the most wonderfully liberating understanding. I remember when it first dawned on me: I was able to accept myself for the first time ever, because I knew I was forgiven. But for so long, many of us thought that this was it – this is the Gospel - and it is, but only part of it. God gives us His Spirit so that we can be made into what we have being declared to be. We do not have to be satisfied with our lives as they are, we can change, and we do change, when we allow God to work his miracle of purification within our lives. But, as always, there is a need for us to take some of the responsibility. We also need to make a conscious and deliberate decision of the will to “purify ourselves” following the example of our Lord – we need to abide in Christ.

When we abide in Christ – we do not sin. John implies that sin is a deliberate breaking of the law and to obey oneself instead of God. Sin undoes the work of Christ because Jesus came to take away sin. To sin is to bring back what Jesus came to abolish. Sin results from failing to abide in Christ. Barclay then makes a wonderful comment:

“… so long as we remember the continual presence of Jesus, we will not sin; it is when we forget that presence that we sin …”

These verses have been much debated: some cry ‘impossible!’ others have devoted themselves to perfectionism and separated themselves to try to achieve it. In order to understand what the author is saying here, it is important to remember the paradigm he has established when he introduced the theme way back in chapter 1:8. He cannot be claiming a sinless perfection because he has clearly stated that to make this claim is self-deceit and an insult to God (making him out to be a liar). We also need to look forward to chapter 5:16-17 where he makes a distinction between sins that are mortal and those that are not (mortal sins are those that are deliberate). This gives us an important clue to the thinking of the author: there are two types of children – those of God and those of the devil. Children of the devil find sin natural.

This is our challenge: How comfortable are we with our sin? God is able to keep us from mortal sin, so when we don’t sin, it is because of God’s grace; and so there is no place for pride or feelings of superiority. When we see others fall where we have not, we should say with the greatest sincerity and gratitude: “There but for the grace of God go I!”

Being children of God means living in love. Price Love explains: “To be children of God means to live rightly and to love truly.”[1] The opposite is the way of Cain, who failed to love his brother because his own deeds were evil and those of his brother were good. Lack of love is the consequence of bad living, because bad living produces the jealousy that grows into the worst sins of hate and murder. Not to love is to remain in death, but when we love we gain the assurance that we have already passed from death to life.

2Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he* is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.

[1] Price Love, Layman’s, p. 22.

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

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 Spirit. 23If 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.

To begin with, and with the aid of Barclay and Ryle 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 – and this 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 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.”

Thursday, 2 April 2015

A sermon for Easter Day 2015

I hope this helps in you in the midst of this busy Holy Week.

Mark 16.1-8 (NRSV)
The Resurrection of Jesus
When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 2And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3They had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’4When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. 5As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. 6But he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 7But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’ 8So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. 
My text for today is written in Mark 16.7:

7But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’ 

The Resurrection of Jesus, according to St Paul, is the cornerstone of our faith, and it is also a simple historical fact that, if Jesus had not risen we would not be here today. At the time of Jesus, there were many people who claimed to be the messiah, and the rule was, if you followed one and he was killed, you were following the wrong one. Realising this, we can imagine how the disciples must have felt – especially Peter – who was gutted by his unfaithfulness and denial, and who probably thought that even if Jesus was not whom they all expected him to be, he had been a good friend and they should have supported him to the end because they all loved him. All the disciples would therefore have felt regret, because they had deserted Jesus in his time of need, even if they had not denied him as Peter had done. The women had proved the most faithful; they had remained with him at the Cross and had been there when he had been taken down to be buried.

So as early as they could, the women had got up at sunrise and were going to anoint and care for the body of Jesus in a way that they had wanted to do when he had died, but had been prevented from doing, because of the Sabbath beginning. This was nothing out of the ordinary, but something women would have done as a matter of course on the death of a loved one. It was also perfectly natural for this to happen up to three days after a death. But they were totally unprepared for what they found. When they discovered the empty tomb and the messenger they were shocked – amazed – and terrified.

I always find it wonderful that our Lord, right from the start, breaks into our everyday ordinariness and blesses us. What is required is faithfulness; when we faithfully go about of daily tasks, and when we are open to his presence, he breaks in and touches us with his love and encouragement.

Notice also the authenticity of this account. Some have suggested that the Gospel accounts have been edited by later writers to fit in with the teachings of the Church, and to prove that Jesus was who he claimed to be. If this was the case, they would have edited out the fact that the first people to witness the truth of the resurrection were women, because at the time, the testimony of women did not count legally; it was considered unreliable and untrustworthy! But the truth matters and so Mark wrote his account as it was reported to him and as he experienced it for himself. The whole of Mark’s Gospel has this flavour; he always tries to tone down the miracles because Jesus never intended them to prove who he was. Mark even tones down some of the teachings, because it would be a mistake to think that Jesus proved his Messiahship by what he taught or did. As Donald English explains:

Jesus refuses to convince by displays of earthly power, or convincing argument. They will find the truth only as they look through the evident circumstances and by faith perceive the hidden realities. (p. 240)

This seems obvious: many people experienced the miracles and his teachings, yet at the time of his death, Jesus only had a handful of followers. But when we enter into a relationship with the Jesus, his presence with us by the Holy Spirit, then the truth becomes real. And we do this when we follow his example in obedient service. Our discipleship is never in the spectacular, or even in success. Jesus warned his disciples and he warns us that true fulfilment, flourishing as a human being, comes when we too take up our crosses and follow him.

Notice how the angelic messenger gets the women to do something: they must ‘go’ to Galilee and ‘tell’. This is our daily task, to go to where the Lord is, and then go out and live for others. We do this when we reflect on Jesus and his teachings and actions. The difference is that our reading and reflecting is not only an intellectual exercise – although reason plays an important part. We are not meant to leave our rational minds behind as we open the Bible to read. But it is also the Spirit of Jesus that inspires and blesses us as we read and prayerfully consider the meaning of his message for us today. We need to steep ourselves in the Scriptures in this rational and spiritual way. In acts 2.42 we are given the way to so this. This verse reads:

And they came together for the Apostles teaching, for the fellowship for the breaking of bread and for prayer.

The earliest disciples were no different to us; they were not more disposed to faith than we are; faith and discipleship was not easier for them. Is this not also a source of deep encouragement for us? What was true for them can be true for us. Being a disciple today, like the women, requires courage. Jesus had been despised and rejected, and today once more, he is despised and rejected. The women were rightly fearful and filled with uncertainty – they even had the practical problem of not knowing how they were going to get the stone removed from the front of the tomb, but they set out early, knowing what they needed to do, and they were faithfully willing to do it – and they were blessed – eventually. Notice how the passage ends – and the most reliable manuscripts suggest that this is where the original gospel ended – in mid-air – “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Blessing does not always come obviously and immediately. In a sense the women seemed to be too scared even to follow the instructions they had been given. But, in time, it became clear for them and they rejoiced. We too need time to make sense of things that happen to us, struggle with things sometimes even wrestle with them, but the meaning will become apparent and real.

But then notice the simple, yet wonderful message they were all to receive: “But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”
To be told that Jesus was alive – by itself – might have led to feelings of embarrassment, even fear. They had all – other than the women – deserted him in is hour of need; Peter had blown it even more, he had publicly denied Jesus. And so the message of forgiveness and restoration would have been clear and liberating – the mention specifically of Peter’s name would have meant much – not only to Peter – but all of them. They were forgiven, accepted and restored. This truth was probably behind Mary Magdalene’s faithfulness. Earlier in the Gospel we read of how she loved much because she had been forgiven much. Now all the disciples were to be restored. As J C Ryle explains:

“There were to be no exceptions in the deed of grace. All were pardoned.”

Here to we find encouragement and a challenge. We, like our Lord, ought to delight in being merciful, and we will find this easier when we realise how much we have been forgiven. As Ryle continues:

“If Christ is so ready to forgive us, so ought we to be ready to forgive others.”

And we are reminded of this every day as we say the Lord’s Prayer:

“Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.”

There are wonderful consequences that result from the truth of the resurrection. Jesus is not merely a person of history – although this is an uncontested fact even acknowledged by those who reject him. Jesus is a living presence whom we can meet each day as his spirit touches us as study the Scriptures which inspire us in the way that we relate to others in love. Jesus is therefore much more than a mere memory. Barclay reminds us that memories fade, even our dearest ones. The memory of Jesus would have faded if he hadn’t been and still is a living presence in our lives. Barclay writes: “Jesus is not someone we discuss, he is someone we meet.” Being a Christian is not knowing lots and lots about Jesus; it is about knowing Jesus personally. Barclay adds:

“The greatest scholar in the world, the man who knows everything about Jesus, is less than the humblest Christian who knows him every day.”

We too are left with the challenge: “Go, tell …” We too have the message that God loves us and forgives us, and we can tell others that he loves them and is ready to forgive them as well. As the angel said to the women:

7But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’ 

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

The Epistle for Palm Sunday

Philippians 2.5-11 (NRSV)
5Let the same mind be in you that was* in Christ Jesus,
6who, though he was in the form of God,
   did not regard equality with God
   as something to be exploited,
7but emptied himself,
   taking the form of a slave,
   being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8   he humbled himself
   and became obedient to the point of death—
   even death on a cross.

9Therefore God also highly exalted him
   and gave him the name
   that is above every name,
10so that at the name of Jesus
   every knee should bend,
   in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11and every tongue should confess
   that Jesus Christ is Lord,
   to the glory of God the Father.

Barclay reminds us that Paul’s theology was always meant to be practical and not just theoretical, philosophical ponderings. What one believes has a huge impact on the way one lives. Paul wanted to persuade the Philippians to live a life that reflected the life of Jesus, the Messiah and so, in this passage, reminds them of the example of Jesus.

He was humble, obedient to the point of death and lived in a selfless way. He did not desire to dominate others, in fact he was willing to ‘… set aside his majesty …’ and served all. He did not desire to get his own way, but only to live God’s way; he did not want to exalt himself at all but rather to lift others up.

Easy words to type – difficult words to live!

Imagine if the people in the Church were to live this way; selfless and serving each other. I reckon that Churches would begin to fill up again. But all too often, even in the Church, we see self-seeking and ambitious and, as Barclay so aptly puts it, “Selfishness, self-seeking and self-display destroy our likeness to Christ and our fellowship with each other.”

Jesus won the hearts of people, not by good argument, persuasive speaking or force, but by love – by ‘… showing them a love, a self-sacrifice, a self-renunciation, which cannot but move the heart.’ It is always selfless love that becomes irresistibly attractive.

This  illustration from the experience of the China and Inland Mission (CIM) makes this point. Sadly, I cannot recall the exact details or the reference, but the essence of it is that a young man felt drawn to a particular area in China while praying with a map in front of him. He persuaded the CIM authorities that this was what God had called him for, and after due preparation, he was sent out. He was welcomed by the people, but after a short while, was told by the chief that he was very welcome to remain with the people, but he was to cease preaching. So convinced was he of God’s call to be with these people that he remained until his death and never preached another word. On the death of the chief, his heir wrote to CIM and requested a replacement missionary because all the people were curious to find out more of what the missionary had been forbidden to preach about. When the replacement arrived, he began telling the people about Jesus, but was stopped by the people because they said: “You keep talking about the missionary who has died; we know about his life, tell us of the God he followed!”

And there was revival!

Barclay adds to this by a lovely blend of phrases:

“A man does not say ‘I cannot resist a might like that.’ He says, ‘Love so amazing so divine, demands my soul my life, my all.’ A man does not say, ‘I am battered into surrender.’ He says ‘I am lost on wonder, love and praise.’ … Worship is based not on fear, but on love.”

No one comes to Jesus in a really meaningful way until they come because of His love. Preaching hell fire and brimstone I believe is wrong, because it defaces the image of Christ. People will seldom come to Christ as a result of a debate or argument – so it is fruitless for people like George Carey to appear on popular television programmes trying to argue with those who have already decided that Christianity makes no sense to them; but people are attracted to Christ and come to faith, and lasting faith, when they are drawn to a life that is filled with divine, agape love. It works all the time.

And so, God gave Jesus another name …

Renaming someone when something dramatic has happened has always been part of biblical tradition: Abram became Abraham; Jacob became Israel. For Jesus, it became ‘Lord’ derived from the Greek ‘kurios’ which originally meant master and so a title demanding respect. It became the official title of the Roman emperors in its Latin form ‘dominus’ and it is the Greek form of Jahweh plus Adonai which in the Old Testament refers to God as Lord.

Jesus is the ‘King of kings and Lord of Lords’, nothing less than divine.

In this passage Paul reveals the mind of God in verse 11 – that ‘… every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord …’ Barclay suggests that these words form the first Christian Creed.

This is the essence of our faith. We cannot explain it; it has been the cause of countless debates and even arguments, but what matters is that people can say that ‘for me’, Jesus Christ is Lord. This should be all that is required. John Wesley in his famous sermon on the Catholic Spirit stated that as Jehu said to Jehosophat in the Old Testament: “Is thine heart right as mine is with our Lord? if it be so, give me thine hand …” so should we!

This ought to be the basis of Christian fellowship, that for ‘me’ Jesus is unique, and if our hearts are filled with love, then we are Christian. Barclay explains: ‘… Christianity consists less in the mind’s understanding that it does in the heart’s love.’

The day will come when all people will call Jesus Christ Lord because they will do so ‘… to the glory of God the Father …’ And by not doing so now, they miss out on what life really is all about.

Everything Jesus did, was not for his own glory, but the glory of the Father. Jesus draws people to himself so that they can come to God and find life. At the heart of the Gospel is the sacrificial service of others by Jesus, the Messiah who calls us to follow his example.

Indeed, human and divine meet in the Eucharist and I believe that, in a heavenly moment, God reaches out to us and touches us in the most intimate way as we share this sacrament together. I too believe that it includes a dimension of remembering – as our Lord Himself commanded – ‘Do this in remembrance of me …’ It does indeed recall the sacrifice of our Lord, but I struggle to think that it is repeated as time is something created and the ‘one off’ of the Cross is unique.

It is this most wonderful and intimate of sacraments that can be a source of the greatest blessing but also has been the source of some of the most horrendous travesties. People have been slaughtered at worst and made to feel excluded and worthless and everything in between because of it – and this is a great shame. In Paul’s day, some were excluded, which led to his strong words of rebuke to the Corinthian Christians.

To pick up the theme of the earlier part of this reflection; I am not concerned what people believe about this because what matters is that it inspires us to love others with Christ’s divine, sacrificial love (agape). I am of the view that, like the Incarnation, we will never be able to understand the mystery of the Eucharist and indeed I am delighted that this is so, because if we could, then much of its beauty and intimacy would be lost. ‘You know that you have passed from death to life because you love one another,’ the Apostle John writes. And this is the miracle, that the Sacrament inspires us to love the loveless and the lovely.

We fall short of Christ’s call when we exclude others, especially from the intimacy of fellowship with God and one another at Holy Communion. This is what it really means to be Catholic (and sadly where Roman Catholics fall short by excluding others from this sacrament and by the attitude that only they have the right way to God.)

And so we return to the ‘all’ of the Gospel. Jesus died for ‘all’ – so that ‘all’ might live. It is just a pity that so many in Europe reject our Lord and that so many Christians drive others away who might otherwise come, because of the barriers they place in the way.