The demon-possessed man

Our Gospel reading today speaks of the encounter that Jesus had with a demon-possessed man in the region of the Gerasenes.  It is an incredibly moving and poignant account, and a story of transformation and renewal.  It is a story that one of my favourite writers Calvin Miller deftly and poetically retells in his allegorical novel ‘The Singer Trilogy’.  If you have never come across it before, it is in some ways reminiscent of another of my favourite books, The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan.  We’ll look at some extracts from Miller’s book in due course, but firstly let’s take a look at the passage itself…

In the Gospel account, Jesus travelled into this Gentile region – the region of the Gerasenes – with intent. Earlier in the chapter we are told that Jesus said to his disciples ““Let us go over to the other side of the lake.” So they got into a boat and set out.” (Luke 8:22) It was therefore a place that they sailed to on purpose.  To all intents and purposes, it must have been like travelling into a different country, with very different customs and practices.

As soon as Jesus and his disciples stepped ashore, they were met by the demon-possessed man.  We don’t know if he saw their boat approaching and waited for them to alight; but we do know that he approached Jesus as soon as he had stepped ashore.  We are then given some real insight into the extent to which the poor man had been dehumanised:

  1. He was demon-possessed, stripped therefore of his freedom and dignity;
  2. He was naked, bringing with it that sense of shame and again a further loss of dignity;
  3. He was homeless and destitute;
  4. He lived amongst the tombs and was therefore doubly unclean, firstly from being possessed (by an unclean spirit) and secondly from being amongst the tombs.

The account in Mark’s Gospel adds even more to this, telling us that this man:

  1. Was in torment and anguish, crying out
  2. Was uncontrollable, and unable to be restrained and therefore a risk to others as well as himself
  3. Would cut himself with stones

In Miller’s book, he describes the extent of the man’s torment in this way:

…within this sleeping hulk there are a thousand hating spirits from the Canyon of the Damned.  They leap at him with sounds no ears but his can hear.  They dive at him with screaming lights no other eyes can see.  And in his torment he will hold his shaggy head and whimper.  Then he rises and strains in fury against the chains to tear them from the wall.

That gives us some insight into how satan works.  He seeks to corrupt, to pervert, to dehumanise and destroy, making a mockery of everything that God has created; yet we know that everything that God created was ‘good’ and humankind was ‘very good’.  God doesn’t make mistakes!

On meeting Jesus, the man cried out and fell at his feet.  If it was the man who was ‘in control’, the words he uttered might have been very different.  Instead what the demonic forces said to Jesus through him was “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, don’t torture me!” (Luke 8:28) That one sentence speaks volumes.  Although it is clear that the demons recognised Jesus as the Son of the Most High God, and even fell at his feet, we see arrogance and rebellion “What do you want with me?”  The fact that the demons responded in the way that they did is astonishing as if they believed they had every right to possess and oppress that man and demean him and cause him to lose his very humanity. The point is this; no spirit has any right to possess or oppress the children of God.  This is something that Jesus knew, and Jesus had the authority and the power, as he does in every situation.

The demon-possessed man was unable in himself to receive help; he was trapped.  We cannot even begin to imagine the torture and torment he had to endure.  Even if in different ways, we can sometimes find that all the baggage of life traps us too and gets in the way of us listening to and receiving God.  Ecclesiastes speaks of chasing after the wind.  We can find ourselves spending so much time and energy chasing after meaningless things in life that are not of God; money, power, possessions etc.  Often, it isn’t until we are stripped away of everything, we are most ready to listen to and receive God and we find ourselves in a place of gratitude for the simple things that are actually so important.  We see something of this in the Beatitudes in Matthew’s Gospel.  In this account, it wasn’t the man himself who was resistant to God; but he was trapped and diminished by the unclean spirit.  Here we have a man who was broken and poor in spirit, here we have a man in mourning at the loss of his very humanity, here we have a man who more than most needed an encounter with a gracious and merciful God, and here we have a man who Jesus set free.

We then see the dialogue between Jesus and the spirit unfold.  Jesus begins by asking the spirit its name.  The response is one of the most desperate responses we encounter in the Bible – ““Legion”, because many demons had gone into him.”  For someone to be possessed by just one demon is an atrocity, a cruel perversion and a violation.  For someone to be possessed by many demons – in this case between 3,000 and 6,000 – is a horror beyond contemplation. I wonder, in encountering Jesus who they recognised to be the Son of the Most High God, what did the demons expect?  I don’t believe that Jesus would simply have walked on by and not shown compassion and brought restoration to that man.  Jesus did the right thing and the only thing that could be done.  Jesus spoke with authority and power and commanded the demons to leave the man.  They repeatedly begged with Jesus, firstly not to order them to go into the Abyss – a place of confinement and eternal torment – and secondly that Jesus would instead let them go into the herd of pigs that was feeding there on the hillside.  Without any argument, or even ability to resist, the evil spirit came out of the man at Jesus’ command and with Jesus’ permission they “went into the pigs, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.

Miller again paints a picture of this man’s release from torment:

With love that knew no fear, the Singer caught his torment, wrapped it all in song and gave it back to him as peace.  And soon the two men held each other.  In their long embrace of soul, the spirits cried and left.  They stood at last alone.

Emerging from that place of desperation and oppression, we see how the man found himself in a place of restoration and wholeness. We are told “they found the man from whom the demons had gone out, sitting at Jesus’ feet, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid.”  The man was:

  1. Free at last from all torment
  2. Dressed, with dignity restored
  3. Able to once again engage with society being of “right mind”
  4. Sitting at the feet of Jesus, a place of renewal and learning

The people in that region would have been very aware of the suffering of the demon-possessed man.  Their attempt to deal with it involved attempts to chain him; “he was chained hand and foot and kept under guard, he had broken his chains and had been driven by the demon into solitary places.”  That is a response driving by fear, ignorance and perhaps desperation.  It is tragic that seeing the man set free by Jesus and restored to dignity the people were afraid to the extent that “they were overcome with fear.”  Yet Jesus had again accomplished that which he set out to do.  The man was free, the man was restored and even though the man begged to go with him, instead Jesus told him to ““Return home and tell how much God has done for you.” So the man went away and told all over town how much Jesus had done for him.” The reality is that a Gentile from the region of the Gerasenes would not have been able to lead a new life in the Jewish areas.  The transformation of this man, from demon-possessed and dehumanised to free and fully human with all its dignity would have been undeniable for any that had encountered him.  There could be no doubt that a miracle had indeed taken place.  We are not told how the people responded when the man went all over town and told them how much Jesus had done for him.

In the depth of his suffering, that man’s soul must indeed have panted for or longed for God.  The words of our Psalm perhaps capture that sense with the man’s tears being his food day and night.  His bones too will have suffered mortal agony as the many demons taunted, oppressed and dehumanised him.  Even the demons who served satan knew what fate would have awaited them if they were cast into the Abyss.  The reality is that those who reject God lose out on life itself.

It may be that we have had experiences in our lives that have left us feeling diminished, dehumanised or oppressed.  It may be that we at times find ourselves chasing after the wind where we lose sight of God, and where we struggle to hear his voice.  Or it may be that we have encountered others who are broken in this way, people who have had their dignity stripped away, people who are lost, lonely, oppressed and demeaned.  Like Jesus, we need to exercise compassion.  Like Jesus, we sometimes need to remind people of their humanity and be willing to be a voice for the voiceless.  And like that man, we all need to fall on our knees before Jesus and invite him to be Lord of our life that we too might know life in all fullness, light, freedom, healing and wholeness.  Jesus said “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.” (1 John 3:8) “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8:36) Amen

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Trinity Sunday

I wanted to begin today by asking you a couple of questions; but don’t panic!  There isn’t a ‘right’ answer, so don’t feel under any pressure, it’s not a test!

  1. When you pray, who do you tend to pray to?  Do you pray to a Heavenly Father, do you pray to our Lord Jesus Christ, or do you pray to the Holy Spirit? 
  2. Are there times when you might pray to one rather than the other?

I tend to pray to our Heavenly Father in my most intimate moments, with that picture of a Heavenly Father in my mind perhaps with echoes of the Lord’s prayer.  In praying to Jesus, I am mindfully recognising the authority and power in Jesus’ name and what He has accomplished for us on the cross.  In praying to the Holy Spirit, my prayer might be “Come Holy Spirit, Come”, praying that He might come into a situation and bring peace and Fruit, that the Spirit might move and equip and enable. Another way to look upon it is that we might pray to our Heavenly Father through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit.

The reality though is that whether we pray to God the Father, God the Son or God the Holy Spirit we are still praying to the same one God.  And yet which of the three persons in the Trinity we pray to at any given time might shape our prayer and perhaps how at any given moment how we see ourselves relating to God.  You might think that this is strange or unusual.  Yet, in psychology it is commonly recognised that we may relate to one another as parent, adult or child – we are still relating to the same one being but the nature of how we relate might change.  Think about those times when you are with family and friends and if you recognise moments when you find yourself relating in those different ways.

When I was training in theological college, and we first began to study the Trinity we were jokingly told that once we got into curacy, it was more than likely that we as Curates would be asked to preach on Trinity Sunday because our training incumbent didn’t understand the Trinity.  After some years of reflecting on this, I am not sure that anyone has sufficient mental capacity to say that they really understand the Trinity in all fullness. We may know in part!

According to the Church father Augustine, anyone who denies the Trinity is in danger of losing their salvation, but anyone who tries to understand the Trinity is in danger of losing their mind!  Even if we cannot understand in all fullness, there is nevertheless truth that we can take hold of which encourages, equips and builds us up.

But what does the Bible teach us about the Trinity or Godhead?  The Bible teaches us that God is one; much like Judaism and Islam, Christianity professes to be a monotheistic religion.  We worship one God.  However, there are three inseparable and markedly distinct truths at the heart of Christian belief:

  • God is three persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – each distinct
  • Each person – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – is fully God
  • There is one God.

We must remember that the Holy Spirit is not an ‘it’.  We must understand that the distinctions in the Trinity or Godhead do not refer to God’s essence; they do not refer to a fragmentation or compartmentalization of the very being or essence of God.  In using the word ‘person’, it is a word that is equivalent to the term ‘subsistence’ which literally means ‘to stand under.’ Thus, we begin to get the idea that while God is one in essence, there are three subsistences, three ‘persons’, that ‘stand under’ the essence. They are part of the essence. All three have the essence of deity.  Each is distinct from the others but never acts independently. They are one in nature and purpose, much like one person relating to others as parent, adult or child.

It might be that when you think of God as Father, the image that comes up is of a stern headmaster type of person.  It might be that when you think of God as Holy Spirit, you are uncertain of how to relate and what that might even mean.  It might be that when you think of God as Son, you simply look upon Jesus as being fully man but perhaps not fully God.  If that is the case, hear these words as we take a journey through Scripture together:

According to Genesis 1:26, God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” I am sure that is a verse you are all very familiar with, but did you ever notice that it begins with the plural verb (“let us”) and includes the plural pronouns (“our”)? What does that mean? Why would God say, “Let us”?

Some have suggested that this is because they are plurals of majesty, a form of speech a king or queen would use in saying, for example, “We are pleased to grant your request.” So that is the ‘royal we’. However, in the Hebrew Scriptures there are no other examples of a monarchs using plural verbs or pronouns of himself. This idea of a ‘plural of majesty’ was also simply unknown to people of Israel. Another suggestion is that God is speaking to angels. Yet we know that angels did not participate in the creation of man, nor was man created in the image and likeness of angels, so this suggestion is not convincing either.  So we begin from the very beginning to see the Trinity at work.

Isaiah 63:10 says that God’s people “rebelled and grieved his Holy Spirit”, which suggests that the Holy Spirit is distinct from God himself (it is “His Holy Spirit”), and that this Holy Spirit can be “grieved”, thus suggesting emotional capabilities characteristic of a distinct person. (Isaiah 61:1 also distinguishes “The Spirit of the Lord” from “the Lord”).

There are many other examples, but we begin to see how the Hebrew Scriptures begin to introduce and develop our understanding of the Trinity yet without losing sight of the oneness of God, which will become more fully realised in the New Testament. I believe the reason why the Hebrew Scriptures only allude to the Holy Spirit in this way is because although He had played an active role in creation, and begun to shed light on the personhood and character of Jesus through the prophets (among many other things), He had not at that time been sent upon His people as at Pentecost. The primary role of the Holy Spirit that is apparent throughout the whole of Scripture is to bring glory to Jesus and the Father.

If we take a look at Jesus’ baptism, we are told “When Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”” Here at one moment we have all three persons of the Trinity performing three distinct activities. God the Father is speaking from heaven; God the Son is being baptized and is then spoken to from heaven by God the Father; and God the Holy Spirit is descending from heaven to rest upon and empower Jesus for His ministry.

In 1 John 2:1, we are told that Jesus continues as our High Priest and Advocate before the Father: “If anyone sins, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” In Hebrews 7:25 we read that Christ is the one who “is able to save to perfection those drawing near to God through Him, since He lives always to intercede on behalf of them.” Yet in order to intercede for us before God the Father, it is necessary that Christ be a person distinct from the Father.

Moreover the Father is not the Holy Spirit, and the Son is not the Holy Spirit. They are distinguished in several verses. Jesus says in John 14:26: “But the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” The Holy Spirit also prays or “intercedes” for us (Romans 8:27: “But the One searching the hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because He intercedes for the Saints according to God”), indicating a distinction between the Holy Spirit and God the Father to whom the intercession is made.

In Hebrews 1:3 we read that Jesus is “the express image of the essence of God”, meaning that God the Son exactly duplicates the being or nature of God the Father in every way: whatever attributes or power God the Father has, God the Son has them as well. Hebrews goes on to say in 1:10 “You, Lord, at the beginning founded the earth, and the heavens are the work of Your hands”. This is taken from Psalm 102:25.

In John 10 we read “The works which I do in the name of My Father, these bear witness about Me. But you do not believe, for you are not of My sheep, as I said to you. My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. And I give eternal life to them, and in no way shall they perish for ever, and not anyone shall pluck them out of My hand. My Father who has given them to Me is greater than all, and no one is able to pluck out of My Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.”” Only Jesus as God could forgive people for their sins, only Jesus as God could heal the leper, only Jesus as God could raise the dead.

And then our first reading today (Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31) speaks of wisdom.  There is a sense that wisdom calls out to the ‘simple ones’ and those who perhaps ‘lack understanding’, but not to the mockers or scorners.  The truth is this: we can only hear and respond to God’s voice if our hearts are open and not hardened.  If you ever encounter people who are closed to the faith that you profess, pray that God might soften their hearts!

The passage from Proverbs goes on to give us insight into how wisdom was personified, and we see that in his Son Jesus Christ with echoes in John 1:1-5:

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”  

(John 1:1-5)

The fact that the ‘Word’ (who is seen to be Christ in John 1:9-18) is ‘with’ God shows distinction from God the Father. In John 17:24, Jesus speaks to God the Father about “…my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world” thus showing distinction of persons, sharing of glory, and a relationship of love between the Father and the Son before the world was created.

This relationship and interdependence is beautifully expressed in our first reading about a God who so lovingly crafted this world: “When he established the heavens, I was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep, 28 when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep, 29 when he assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command, when he marked out the foundations of the earth, 30 then I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, 31 rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.

We may not think about these things often, but the truth is that Jesus was with God and was God from the very beginning, as was the Holy Spirit.  “1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” (Genesis 1:1-2)

15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

(Colossians 1:15-17)

1 In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. 3 The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.

(Hebrews 1:1-3)

What we are looking at here is the very nature of God, how He expresses himself and the extraordinary lengths that He goes to to be in communion or a relationship of love with us.  In this relationship we often see very feminine qualities in God; it’s important that we recognise that and that whether male or female we can relate fully to God as ourselves, not simply thinking of God in male terms.  When the Holy Spirit hovered over the waters of creation, God is described in both masculine and feminine imagery: God (a masculine noun) creates by his Word, and life begins as the spirit (a feminine noun). The Hebrew word used suggests a mother hen gently brooding over her nest – a place of nurture and growth.    When God spoke to Moses through the burning bush, there are moments of such gentleness, again suggesting those feminine qualities of God.   Male and female alike can find their purpose, dignity, value and identity in God.

God is always an inviting God and always a sending God.  He sent the prophets, he sent the Kings, he sent of Himself through and in Jesus and then He sent His Spirit.  No one can ever truthfully say that God doesn’t go the extra mile.  The reason why he does this is because he loves his creation more than we can ever possibly imagine.  He yearns to be in fellowship with us, constantly inviting us into that place of forgiveness, grace and relationship.  He does that knowing just how we are.  Someone once said that God loves us just the way we are, but too much to let us stay that way.  In that inviting, he invites us to a place of transformation, health and wholeness.  He takes us to a place where our heart is softened to receive him if we make that step, that response to his invitation because “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

God has given us so many promises that we need to cling to through the storms of life.  “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.”  God’s truth sets us free, and God’s “word that goes out from His mouth: It will not return to Him empty, but will accomplish what He desires and achieve the purpose for which He sent it.” (Isaiah 55:11)  One day, one glorious day we will understand in all fullness and what a day that will be!

With this in mind, I hope that you take some time to think about these things and when you come before God to pray be free, be free to pray to God the Father, God the Son or God the Holy Spirit with a hope that might draw you closer to a God of grace and truth.

Amen

Pentecost

Acts 2:1-42

I think it is both important and helpful for us to try and understand the context and significance of this awesome event known as Pentecost, which some refer to as being the ‘birth of the Church’.

However, if we were to look solely at the set reading for today, we would miss out on that context because it only gives us a glimpse at part of the story or account. Therefore, I have included the remainder of the chapter so that we might be able to consider the account in all fullness.

In Jesus’ time, the Jews observed three great annual pilgrimage festivals, when many would travel to Jerusalem and worship in the Temple. These pilgrimage festivals are:

  • The Festival of Passover, comprising the spring feasts of:
    • Passover (14th day of 1st month (March / April))
    • Unleavened Bread (15th – 21st of 1st month (March / April)), and
    • First Fruits (The day following the Sabbath during the feast of Unleavened Bread (March / April))
  • The Festival of Weeks (Pentecost, 50th day after First Fruits, at the end of the grain harvest), and
  • The Festival of Booths / Tabernacles (Shelters, 15th-21st days of 7th month (September / October))

I may return to these pilgrimage festivals at some other point; what I would like us to concentrate on today is the Festival of Weeks or Pentecost.   This was celebrated on the sixth day of the third month (May/June), some seven weeks after Passover – typically on the 50th day after the feast of First Fruits. Pentecost was a pilgrimage festival. The Jews were scattered throughout the Roman Empire and we know that Jews from every nation across the empire would have been present in Jerusalem at that time, all speaking their native tongue.

On that decisive day, when the disciples and Jesus’ followers were united and expectant as they gathered for prayer, the Holy Spirit came and filled the gathered believers. It is incredible that when the Holy Spirit came upon those gathered, which from Acts 1 we can understand to be 120 people, they “began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” That is a good number of people and not surprisingly hearing the commotion “the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.

It’s interesting to see that people responded in one of two ways. We are told that “All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”” Even though God was at work in such a powerful way, sending of Himself once again, as the Holy Spirit, just as Jesus had promised, there were still some who rejected Him, just like they had rejected Jesus.

It is at this point that Peter, full of the Holy Spirit, stepped forward and addressed all who were gathered. The heart of his address is about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and how Jesus fulfilled all of the promises about the Messiah from the Hebrew Scriptures. Peter and the other apostles were eyewitnesses of that and were prepared to testify about its truth. There is a sense that Jesus fulfilled the first three feasts, in His death, burial and resurrection (Passover, Unleavened Bread and First Fruits).  The Feast of Weeks is fulfilled through the sending of the Holy Spirit to empower and equip the Church to bring the harvest of the Gospel.

We know that when those present who heard Peter’s address they were cut to the heart and then responded… “Brothers, what should we do?” There will be many times when we too might be convicted by something we hear in Scripture, and we are always invited to respond. There may be those God-given moments when we encounter someone who doesn’t know Jesus who wants to know more; we have more opportunities to share our testimony than we perhaps first realise, whether with family, friends or the wider communities we find ourselves part of. Are we perhaps ready? Are we in a position to respond to that question – “Brothers, what should we do?

The message Peter brought was simple:

Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.

We are told that “those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

There are some important points to draw out of this account:

  • When the law was given to God’s people, 3000 of them fell (Exodus 32:28), but here in this account, when the Holy Spirit was given, 3000 were saved. The law is overcome, fulfilled, or taken to its conclusion by the grace of Jesus.
  • In Genesis 11, when the people built the Tower of Babel to ‘make a name for themselves’, the LORD said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” The people had become full of pride and idolatrous, and God’s response was to confuse their language and scatter them. Yet in this account in Acts, at Pentecost, the people gathered and “each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.” It is like a great reversal or a great restoration.
  • The Holy Spirit came at Pentecost. He never left. It may be that we don’t understand the Trinity; it’s something that we can explore together on Trinity Sunday next week. It may be that we relate better to God as Father, or God as Son and less so to God as Holy Spirit. I think it is spiritually healthy to understand the Trinity and not to be hesitant about the Holy Spirit. He wants to bless us with gifts, to equip us, to ‘be’ Church and to edify God. The Church would not have come into being without the Holy Spirit being at work. And of course, in being obedient to God and embracing that enabling of the Holy Spirit we know that it leads to the Fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.” (Galatians 5:22-23)
  • I don’t know about you, but I think that is an amazing list and I would like more of that in my life. Let’s bow our heads to pray, and open our hearts to receive God in all fullness and as I bring each section of prayer to a close with “Come Holy Spirit”, let our response be “Come Holy Spirit, come”. Amen

Freedom

Acts 16:16-34

The woman we hear about in today’s reading was from the bottom of the social scale, a slave and also a woman in a patriarchal society. In those days that would have been like being close to the lowest of the lows. We are told that she was possessed by a spirit by which she predicted the future, a spirit of divination. She was, therefore, being used and doubly exploited, firstly by the spirit who had no right to possess her (or anyone else for that matter), and secondly by her owners. Her owners did not care for her or her status and condition at all; anyone genuinely concerned for her and her wellbeing would not have exploited her condition. They would have tried to help her. Instead, all her owners were interested in was their means of making money.

It is interesting to consider why she felt prompted to follow Paul and Silas. Was she prompted to do so by the spirit, perhaps seeking to undermine and interrupt their ministry? Was she prompted to do so by God, since He would have known that bringing her into the presence of Paul and Silas would result in an opportunity for her being liberated as they were guided by the Holy Spirit? Perhaps some part of her recognised that God was working through Paul and Silas. Whatever the reason, we do know that she followed them for many days, calling out “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.”

This too throws up questions. Was what the spirit caused her to call out untrue? What was the focus of her statement? We also don’t know how it was said. Was it perhaps tinged with sarcasm or said in a mocking way? I think there is wisdom to be sought here and a warning. In theory what the woman said seems ok. However, if we dig a little deeper, we realise that to someone living in Philippi ‘Most High God’ wouldn’t necessarily mean the God that we know. It could have meant either Zeus or whoever people thought of as the top god in the local pantheon. And ‘salvation’ wouldn’t mean what it meant to a Jew or a Christian, entry into the world of God’s new creation, overcoming corruption, sin and death. It would mean ‘health’ or ‘prosperity’ or ‘rescue’ from some kind of disaster.

In addition, when we consider the subject or focus of her statement it is “these men” and not the “Most High God”. In contrast the message brought by the apostles was God-focussed. It is always good to ask ourselves what is the focus, the most important thing. Unless the focus is on God, it should raise alarm bells and we must exercise discernment. Is it all about us, or all about God? To dig deeper, it helps if we turn to the account of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness in Matthew 4 or Luke 4. We may learn from those accounts the ways in which the devil works. It is no surprise that even the devil knows Scripture, but the devil seeks to twist, misuse and distort truth and the very word of God. The devil challenges Jesus and the truth “…if you are the son of God” and presented Jesus with a passage from Scripture, beginning “…for it is written.” We must read Scripture in the power of the Holy Spirit, with a right heart and mind attitude – the mind of Christ – to avoid reading into it something that quite simply isn’t there. We know that “the Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8b), and we know “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

Was it wrong for Paul to command the spirit to come out of her? I don’t think Paul acted in anger. It took him days before he responded. Perhaps not surprisingly, Paul reached the end of his patience. For any person to be possessed and in captivity is appalling. God brings freedom and abundance of life. Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:34-36). Jesus also said “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10) In commanding the spirit to come out of the woman, a number of things happened:

  1. The woman was freed from the spirit
  2. The woman was freed from servitude
  3. The woman was free to live and live freely, to perhaps seek employment that wasn’t exploitative and make a new life

The focus rapidly shifts from the woman, who we don’t hear of again, to how her owners react to her being freed. They seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to face the authorities. Their accusations were manipulative in the extreme:

  1. They resorted to racial bias (these Jews)
  2. They appealed to the Philippians’ pride (us Romans; the Philippians prided themselves on being Roman citizens of a Roman colony)
  3. They accused them of engaging in customs that are illegal: By law, Jews were not permitted to make converts of Romans.

Their punishment was brutal. Paul and Silas were beaten with rods and given a severe flogging – and even the crowd joined in attacking them. They were then incarcerated and placed in the stocks. The reaction is disproportionate to what happened and unjust in the extreme.

It is incredible that despite their ordeal they were praying and singing hymns to God and evangelising. Amazing faith, amazing grace, people of God fully reliant on God. And then the earthquake happened during which the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors had opened wide. He drew his sword and was about to kill himself since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. He clearly knew that his life could be forfeited if the prisoners for whom he was responsible escaped. Paul and Silas could so easily have fled and escaped, but instead, they remained there and gave assurance to the jailer who recognised that God was at work in them and responded. Paul & Silas told him “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” We can see, in stark contrast to the message given by the woman at the start of the reading, how the focus here is as it should be – on the Lord Jesus. The jailer washed their wounds first and then he and his entire family were baptised and the fruit was freedom and joy: “he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.

This passage speaks to us about the nature of discernment and God’s desire that we are free to be the people he created us to be. It may be that there are areas of our life that are in chains. It may be that there are areas of our life which we have yet to invite Christ into. Jesus came that we may have life, new life and have that life abundantly. Jesus came to destroy the works of the devil. Jesus came to set us free.

It also speaks about faith sustained even in adversity; it’s so amazing that Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God in their experience. They experienced such faith and God’s grace that kept on giving.

Let’s bow our heads in prayer now and invite Jesus to set us free, to be Lord in every area of our lives, to lead us in life and light and to bless us with faith that would enable us to pray and sing songs even in times of adversity. Amen

Sometimes we upset people

Stephen was one of the seven, appointed as a Deacon in the early Church.  We are told that he was full of the Spirit and wisdom and in addition described as being full of faith.  In this passage he is described further as being “full of grace and power.”  So, there are 5 aspects of Stephen’s life and ministry: the Holy Spirit, wisdom, faith, grace, and power.  The source of his power was his relationship with God and the faith that he practised and professed.

Have you ever noticed that God’s power, manifest through truth is almost always accompanied by grace?  We see this in Jesus: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.  Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”

I think it is very easy for us to lose sight of that; we may become fervently convinced about the truth, but speak it (at least as we see it) in an absence of grace.  When you have been convinced that you are speaking the truth, has it always been accompanied by grace? Think about times when you have spoken the truth as you see it but in an ungracious way.  If you have, then there is a clear need and call for repentance.

Grace is transformative.  It is the redemptive love of God reaching out to the lost and bringing them to conversion. It is manifest when we show love to those we struggle to love, when we seek to journey with people we disagree with or have little in common with.  We have all fallen short, but God gives us grace and power to accomplish His will.  And when we think about a hallmark of God’s truth we should remember that God’s truth sets us free.

When advocates of error are defeated in discussion and don’t get their own way, they often resort to slander, or to violence. They tried both against Stephen.  In the face of malicious persecution and back biting, it would have been very easy for Stephen to respond in an ungracious way that would have been unedifying to the Church and to God.  Stephen responded to persecution by forgiving his enemies.

If we enter in to a discussion with people, we should not try to ungraciously beat them into submission with words that undermine or ridicule.  We should seek to exercise grace and truth and bring out transformation and freedom.

All Stephen wanted to do was bring glory to God and invite people into a relationship with his Lord, Saviour and Redeemer.  He wanted to help people. He was living in obedience to Jesus and was sharing the good news of God’s forgiveness with everyone he could. Unfortunately, he was falsely accused, just like Jesus was.  Unfortunately, he upset the people he was seeking to serve.  It wasn’t because he said things in a deliberately provocative way, it wasn’t because he said the wrong things, or that he was ungraciously trying to undermine people; it was more because the receivers of his message felt threatened by what he shared.  Their response, rather than listening and seeking to understand his heart, was to make false accusations against him.

Have you ever been falsely accused of something? How did that make you feel? People generally feel indignant when they are accused of something they did not do. It is a difficult thing to deal with when you are misunderstood and misjudged

How should we deal with false accusations? How we deal with faults in other people and face our own faults reveals our character and whether we have the mind of Christ.  Different situations may call for different reactions, but I believe we can find some principles to guide us as we look more closely at the verses we read. We should seek to:

  1. Maintain our integrity;
  2. Be faithful to keep on doing what we genuinely believe God has called us to do;
  3. Be discerning; is the accusation from someone who clearly has issues and does not speak in grace and truth? The people who Stephen brought his message to “stirred up the people” against him, and engaged in back biting and false and malicious allegations.  The way in which people make accusations or handles a disagreement is in itself a clear indicator of where they are in their faith and in their heart.  We know that “the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them”;
  4. Rebase ourselves by always coming to the foot of the cross and to be refilled with the Holy Spirit;
  5. Keep our eyes focussed on God
  6. Be willing at all times to forgive those who wrong us

Maybe we’ve had trouble forgiving someone for something they’ve done to us in the past. Maybe it is still going on, so we really don’t feel like forgiving them. But let me share something with you which I have learned in life and ministry; our lack of forgiveness probably doesn’t affect them all that much, but it will destroy us. If we continue to allow bitterness to have a hold in our life, it will ruin our life. Bitterness and unforgiveness will eat away at our spirit until there is nothing left but the shell of who we were.  That is precisely why we are invited to be in unity and to make our peace with one another in a way that brings glory to God.  Again, grace and truth at work.

Even though Stephen was full of wisdom and the power of the Spirit, it did not keep opposition or false accusations away. What his tremendous faith and conviction achieved helped him to remain constant and true to focus on what the Lord wanted him to do.

We will face times when people hurt us, misunderstand us, mistreat us, falsely accuse us, and so on. How should we live in response? Live with integrity. Be faithful to keep on doing what God has called you to do. Ask God to give you wisdom and to fill you with His Holy Spirit. Entrust your future with the One who holds tomorrow, because nobody can lay a hand on you without God knowing. And finally, forgive those who hurt you.

Maybe God is talking to you about one or more of these areas. If you are feeling like you need His help with something we’ve talked about, would you ask God to help you? Be honest with Him and let Him know how you feel, but submit yourself to Him, and tell Him you want to do things His way. Ask the Lord what He wants you to do about the area He is talking to you about. Ask the Lord to bless you with His grace and power.  Then, step out in faith and do it. Obey the Lord.

Do not lose heart

Have you ever felt like giving up?  You know those times when everything just becomes too much?  Sometimes, and especially when we are under great pressure or stress, in times of great challenge and adversity, we may feel like giving up, especially when the source of that adversity is from people we might least expect.

St Paul had invested a huge amount of time in building up the church in Corinth; he remained with them for over a year and a half, had been in dialogue with them for around three years; he had invested of himself, exercising apostolic oversight, pastoral care, leadership and nurture.  And now in our reading today we learn how he finds himself in bitter conflict with those who had become his opponents in Corinth.

People who Paul had cared for and loved accused Paul of giving up on them and losing heart, despite his visits and his letters and all his efforts.  I don’t know about you, but if I had been Paul I would have been so tempted to have said in a huff “Fine then, you’re on your own!”  I would probably have given up.

But sometimes, sometimes we can’t walk away.  Sometimes we shouldn’t walk away, and I say that as one who does not like using words like shouldn’t, or ought not!  We always need to step back and remember why we do what we do, why we are what we are and actually who we really are.  You see, we don’t exercise ministry or try in our brokenness to live out our Christian faith for ourselves.  It is not about us; it never is.  We exercise ministry, albeit with faltering steps, in the hope that somehow in God’s grace He might be glorified, and when we stumble and fall, that yes, in his grace He might even be glorified by that too!

Paul remembers that it is by God’s mercy and God’s mercy alone that he exercises the ministry he is called to.  If you are confident in your calling and faith in God’s mercy, no matter how the world might buffet you with storms, you may be able not to lose heart.  Have you ever met someone who has lost heart?  Have you ever lost heart yourself?  Try and remember what you might have said to them and perhaps what people said to you if you have found yourself in that place.  Have courage, do not lose heart, God is with you and will not leave you.

And then Paul sets out some of the areas which the church in Corinth was in error and had drifted away doctrinally.  They became arrogant and proud and began to align themselves with false teachers and false prophets, and they called into question with Paul the very things that they themselves were guilty of.  They projected their own issues onto Paul rather than acknowledging or accepting that those issues were their own:

  1. a) They engaged in secret and shameful ways
  2. b) They used deception
  3. c) They distorted the word of God

Furthermore, some members of the Corinthian church that Paul was dealing with had, like Paul, come from a Judaic background – but unlike Paul they had not had a Damascus road experience.  They had not had that revelation of or encounter with Christ and I want to be clear here that Paul did not simply have a vision – his writing makes it clear that he was a direct witness to Christ – he had gazed into the face of Christ himself.  We too need to gaze into the face of Christ and embrace that light and glory of God.

Paul wanted the Corinthians to hold fast to Gospel truth…and to declare it plainly.  Paul wanted them to see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.  If you want to see God, look at Christ.  No wonder God the Father said to his son “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!”  Paul wanted them to have that light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.  In what we say as preachers and pastors, are we faithful to Gospel truth, hard sometimes as that truth might be to hear?  We are to exercise a ministry of righteousness that comes from God, a ministry of reconciliation, and a ministry in the Spirit. If we commend ourselves that commending should point to God and God alone, and not to us.  Paul has a spirit of openness, transparency and honesty.  He declares that he is their slave for Jesus’ sake. Paul’s apostolic work required that he should share in his Lord’s humiliation in the confidence that he will also share in his triumphant life.

Christ’s messengers are consigned to a life of humiliation and risk but knowing that whatever may be thrown at them they are not alone and Christ is with them. Christ is with you.  And this is in order to leave the unmistakable impression that the power of the message we proclaim does not derive from the ingenuity and skill of the pleaders but comes solely from the inherent truth of the message as God’s word.  There is nothing in myself that commends you to this; but may you know the grace and mercy of the Lord in my life that you might believe.

So do not lose heart.  It isn’t simply about some far off distant hope; it is the reality of Christ being with us right here and right now.  Our troubles, heavy as they may seem, are light and momentary.  They will pass.  Sometimes the fear and anxiety we feel outweighs the worst possible outcome we might face.  I have had the privilege of walking with people in their faith as they have approached death and for many I have been humbled by the joy and the expectancy that they have shown – they were ready to meet their maker and that veil between heaven and earth was so very thin.  So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

And now for a moment, I would like to invite you all to close your eyes and imagine if you will that we stand together and journey slowly to the foot of the cross of Christ.  You can feel the ground beneath your feet, and you can feel the wind on your face.  Eventually we reach the cross and there we kneel.  We can reach down and run our hands through the earth which holds the cross.  And slowly we lift our eyes up to the cross, and there is a momentary shock because our Lord is not there.  But we are aware of his presence and suddenly we see him there beside us.  He stops by each one of us in turn, places his hand on our shoulder, and we feel compelled to gaze into his face.  As we gaze into his face, he speaks something to each of us.  They are his words for you…his truth.  A truth to hold, a truth to carry with you.  Finally he has stopped with each person and then as we all gaze at him he says “Do not lose heart.  I will be with you to the end of the age.”  So come Lord Jesus…come into our lives, come into our hearts, and may we shine with your light.

As you have come before the face of Christ, gazed into the face of Christ and heard the words of Christ, hold on to whatever those words were that were said to you and for you.  And remember that we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body.

For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.  Amen

The Canaanite Woman

When Jesus first sent out his disciples, he told them “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel” (Matthew 10:5-6).  We can clearly see from that instruction given by him at the beginning of his ministry, that his initial focus was on the lost sheep of the house of Israel, the people of God.  The reason why the Israelites were the initial focus of Jesus’ ministry was because it was always part of God’s plan that they would be a light to the nations.  We see that in Isaiah: “I have a greater task for you, my servant. Not only will you restore to greatness the people of Israel who have survived, but I will also make you a light to the nations – so that all the world may be saved.” (Isaiah 49:6)  Jesus wanted the Israelites to present the message of salvation to the rest of the world.

Today’s Gospel reading comes later and is one of several that serve as a stepping stone in the way in which Jesus’ ministry subsequently develops.  It points to the outreach of the Gospel beyond Judaism; God’s people had had an opportunity to hear the Good News.  Now it was the turn of the Gentiles – the other nations.  The reading provides us with a glimpse of the Gentile mission which would soon prove so widespread and so successful – a mission which ultimately would be summarised by “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)

In the reading, Jesus and his disciples were miles away from Jewish land – in Tyre and Sidon – a Gentile area.  It would have been unlikely that Jesus would even have been heard of in this area, and perhaps that was one of the reasons why he went.  Jesus had to step down into darkness, to bring about transformation and show the disciples the way.

It is here that a Canaanite woman approaches him and begins to cry out.  To do this she had to overcome three barriers that would have very much placed her on the fringe or even beyond the society in which Jesus lived.  These barriers were:

  1. She was a Gentile, someone who coming into contact with would make an Israelite unclean or defiled;
  2. She was a Canaanite, a people who historically had led God’s people astray, who in addition the Israelites had been told to wipe out!;
  3. She was a woman.

The woman in our reading demonstrated courage, self-sacrificial love and a willingness to push through barriers which were not of her choice or making.  Her motivation was simple – that of the deep love a mother has for a child, and a heartfelt desire of a mother yearning to see her daughter healed – in this case, her daughter who was “tormented by a demon.”  There are few other motivations that can be more powerful than the love a parent knows for a child.  I think that the woman also recognised deep down that the barriers she faced were quite simply wrong.  We can sometimes find ourselves held back in life and even oppressed by inappropriate barriers caused by prejudice, misunderstanding and discrimination.  We too need to have the courage to break through those barriers to be all that we are created to be.

The woman overcame these barriers in four astonishing ways – probably without even consciously thinking of how:

  1. She went ‘against the grain’ in approaching Jesus
  2. She acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah
  3. She acknowledged Jesus as her King and Master by calling him Lord
  4. She poured out her heart and threw herself upon Jesus’ mercy

It is important to recognise that the Canaanite woman did something quite unusual in pushing through those barriers.  Her words suggest that despite being a Gentile, she had some familiarity with Judaism – her opening words are typically Jewish “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me!”  We know that the title “Son of David” was a Jewish title reserved for the one who was the Messiah, and three times she calls Jesus “Lord”.  We are not told how she had become familiar with Judaism.

Her act was driven by profound need and that incredibly powerful love a parent has for a child.  The woman was filled with deep concern – she was trying hard to capture Jesus’ attention by crying out for mercy with sincerity.  She refused to give up.

I am not sure how I would have reacted if someone I had never met before came up to me and said “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession.”  I am not sure how I would have responded at that time and in that context, with an encounter with a Gentile, a Canaanite at that and a woman.

Jesus responded in three very different challenging ways.  Perhaps surprisingly Jesus, we are told, at first simply gave no answer. “Jesus did not answer a word.”  I want you to imagine for a moment how you would feel if you were that woman, and you had cried out in desperation and got no response.  I want you to think about times you have prayed when you have not sensed a response.  I wonder if you have ever encountered someone who was distressed and desperate and in confronting you, at first you remain silent?  Don’t you find that people can say a lot by simply not replying?  What was Jesus trying to achieve by his lack of a reply?  I wonder who it was that had to come to faith – the woman, or Jesus’ disciples?  Jesus broke through the Jew/Gentile wall of division. Jesus dealt with Jews and Gentiles alike, shattering the “caste” system of His day—and shocking His Jewish brothers.  What Jesus was about to do would be an anathema to his disciples…they had to be in a place where they could accept what he was about to do.

And yet this absence of a response did not dissuade the woman.  She persisted and kept crying out after him – she was impassioned by the circumstances of her daughter.  Her faith was unwavering and constant.

In speaking to his disciples and also perhaps to the woman, Jesus then makes clear the initial focus of his mission and purpose “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”  Was this statement a half question rather than a statement of closure, along the lines of ‘Was I sent only to the lost sheep of Israel?’  His statement invites further dialogue rather than closes it.

How the woman responds to this rebuff is nothing short of remarkable.  She began to worship Jesus as she came before him and knelt before him saying “Lord, help me!”  She was without any doubt, and knew that Jesus was the Messiah.  She presented herself to him humbled with an empty hand of need, from a position of selflessness and integrity.

Jesus’ third response was to say “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs” which reflected the Jews’ universal assumption that the Kingdom of God was their exclusive right and preserve only, although some also expected that the overflow of God’s bounty would be made available to ‘righteous’ gentiles who kept the law.

Her response – “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table” – reminds me of the Prayer of Humble Access from our communion services:

We do not presume

to come to this your table, merciful Lord,

trusting in our own righteousness,

but in your manifold and great mercies.

We are not worthy

so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table.

But you are the same Lord

whose nature is always to have mercy.

Grant us therefore, gracious Lord,

so to eat the flesh of your dear Son Jesus Christ

and to drink his blood,

that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body

and our souls washed through his most precious blood,

and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us.

Amen.

It seems that the woman was aware of this overflow and wanted to claim that truth for her daughter’s sake, and also the word ‘dogs’ literally means ‘puppies’ so we must ask ourselves is Jesus’ response really half-affectionate?  Jesus is then moved with compassion by the constancy and persistence of the woman’s faith ““Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

I may not be a Gentile, a Canaanite or a woman of that time – but I know I am a sinner in need of God’s forgiveness, grace and redemption.  This encounter tells us something about the nature of intercessory prayer and the persistence which we too may show as we come before the Lord burdened and aching for him to act.  We do that coming just as we are, mindful that all have fallen short of the glory of God.  We must ask ourselves, are our desires for an outcome in prayer sincere, impassioned, and filled with selflessness and integrity? Or do we come before God with a completely different agenda?

This encounter also serves to remind us that we too are to be willing to have encounters in places outside of our comfort zone, as we seek to be Jesus’ hands and feet in serving our community.  Like the Israelites, we too are to be a light to the nations; in our communities, and our places of work.

We KNOW Jesus is the Messiah, we KNOW he is the Lord; we know what Jesus accomplished on the cross.  So let us come before the Lord just as that woman did; with hope and expectancy, with persistence and faith and with all that we are.  Let us pour out our heart in silent prayer and throw ourselves on his mercy.

Let us take a few moments in silence to offer up our own prayers to the Lord now.  Come just as you are, and share with him what is on your heart. Amen.

Parable of the sower

One of the most well-known stories that Jesus shared is the parable of the sower.  I am sure some of us will have heard it many times before; but maybe this morning it’s your first time at Church ever, or even for a long time.  Maybe for you it’s the first time you’ve heard this story. Whatever the case, it’s great to see you here today for this special service of baptism, and I hope that these words I share with you give you food for thought.

We often find in life that when people – perhaps friends or family – share some advice with us – some words of wisdom – we have a choice.  We can either accept that advice and take on board those words of wisdom, or we can decide to reject that advice and do our own thing.  I know when I was a teenager, at times I was quite headstrong and rebellious and I often wanted to do my own thing – even if at times I had to learn the hard way by the consequences of my actions, particularly where my choices didn’t turn out so well.

The Bible tells us that God’s word – what we read in the Bible – is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path.  It can help us to make good choices in life and shed some light on where we find ourselves in life and faith.  I think for me, reading the Bible can sometimes be like holding up a mirror to ourselves, giving us an opportunity to see things clearly.  It can bring hope and healing, comfort and challenge.  And in the middle of that, God always presents us with an invitation and a choice – to accept Him or reject Him. Jesus comes alongside us and always extends an invitation, an invitation to come to know him, to walk with him and to be his friend.  Earlier in the service, I said “we all wander far from God and lose our way; Christ comes to us and welcomes us home.  In baptism, we respond to his call.” And in this reading today, we see different ways in which people might choose to respond to that call.

  1. Jesus begins by saying “Some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up.” This illustrates people who hear Jesus’ call and the new life and blessings that he offers but either don’t understand or choose not to understand.  That lack of response gives no opportunity for the seed – that invitation – to bear any fruit.
  2. He then says “Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away.” This illustrates people who hear Jesus’ invitation and at first say all the right things, but don’t follow through.  I did that with my parents when I was a teenager.  I said, ok, I’ve learned – I won’t do it again.  But then a few weeks later, I was back just where I started.  The seed falls on rocky ground without much soil, and when the busy-ness of life and other distractions kick in, the seed withers away.  It is the easiest thing in the world to find excuses not to respond to Jesus’ invitation. At the end of the day, you can’t have a friendship by not investing yourself in that in friendship.
  3. In Jesus third example, he says “Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them.” This is an illustration of people who are quite simply battered by the brokenness of this world and life events, perhaps won over by the false promises that the world can often present to us, or distracted by the lure of wealth. The seed – Jesus’ invitation – falls among thorns, and circumstances of life prevent that seed from ever bearing fruit.

To give you an example, some time ago I had a long conversation with a man who very openly spoke about challenges and issues he had in life associated with substance abuse and addictions.  He clearly had talents, but he found himself in a place where he was surrounded by “thorns” of life and he was struggling to get free.  I spoke to him about various organisations that could help, and I spoke to him about how I would be prepared to support him pastorally, practically and spiritually.  I extended a hand of friendship and give him that invitation.

If you think about recovery programmes for addictions, and especially those that follow the 12-step programme developed by the AA, the very first step is for people to admit that they are powerless over the substance they are addicted to and that their lives had become unmanageable.  The second step is for people to come to believe that a power greater than themselves could restore them to sanity.  The third step is where people make a decision to turn their will and their lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.  The tragic thing was that this man was unable to embrace these initial steps and reach out.  The thorns of life choked the seeds, and he couldn’t accept that invitation.

  1. In Jesus’ final illustration, he says “Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.” This speaks thankfully of those times when the seed that we might scatter falls on good soil and bears fruit in an incredible way – a hundredfold, some sixty, or some thirty.

I believe wholeheartedly that we are hard wired to bear fruit in life.  It is tragic when we see people who have such potential and yet are unable to live that potential.  The most precious thing we can give to each other is ourself; God did precisely that in sending his son Jesus.  I believe that God’s truth is something that can set us free, it is something that can cut away the thorns of life, it is something that can strip out the rocks from the rocky ground of our life.  It may well take time, but God promises to be with us, we heard some of those promises in the words of this service today.  And it comes back down to a choice.  Do we accept or reject his invitation?  How do we respond to his call?

In coming along to this baptism, inevitably we find ourselves encountering that invitation and making a choice.  We find ourselves hearing about God’s promises, and how he yearns to know us, and for us to be his friend.

Where do you find yourself this morning?  It is a question that God asked in the very beginning of creation…where are you?  Are you like the path, the rocky ground, surrounded and choked by thorns or are you open to hearing God’s call and accepting his invitation?

What does love look like?

Deep down I think that all of us feel a need to belong.  When we are at school and through adolescence we can experience incredible pressure from our peers – whether it is about the latest fashions, clothes, mobile phones, games and accessories, or makeup.  In some respects that pressure continues into adulthood – have you heard that expression ‘keeping up with the Jones’?

Many years ago now, when I was planning on moving across the Pennines with work I went to check out some houses that were for sale in different areas around Warrington.  One house was located on a leafy estate and as I pulled up outside, I noticed that almost every house on the estate looked practically the same and every house had a BMW in the drive.  It was a little disconcerting; but what was most disconcerting was how at practically the same time several of the owners of these houses came out and started to wash their cars.  It felt like we were in a clone village.  It seemed a little like keeping up with the Jones’ taken to an extreme.

Another illustration would be to consider how we are defined by where we were born.  Sometimes people might ask us where we come from.  With years of being away, it has been fascinating for me to see how people responded when I said I was from Yorkshire.  Even though the period of the War of the Roses dates back to the 15th century, for some people there is still an odd tension with those ‘from across the Pennines’ – and it wasn’t until I moved to the North West that I heard how some people consider Yorkshire folk to be tight.  On the other hand, I would say that some of the most generous hearted, loving and giving people I have ever known are from Yorkshire.

Thinking about these illustrations, it seems to me that it all comes down to what defines and shapes us, and our identity, and what we feel a need to conform to.  There are some things that we could well do without – such as living in a clone village, or the tremendous peer pressure we can all experience.  We are not called to be like a chameleon which takes its colour from its surroundings.  We can sometimes pay too great a price to ‘belong’.  I think Paul speaks into this in our passage from Romans which sets out for us the basis for Christian living, the marks of a true Christian and what should be central in what defines us – LOVE.

Sometimes people pay such a price to belong, to conform, that they lose sight of their very identity and personhood, and they lose sight of God.  No wonder Paul urges us, because of God’s mercy, to offer ourselves as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God.  And in that there is a double bonus.  God delights in us making that sacrifice AND in being all that we are created to be, and we realise our true worth – which is not defined by this world in which we live in.  Instead it is defined by God’s love.

We are not to conform to the pattern of this world, but rather be transformed by the renewing of our mind.  Christ himself is both the pattern and source of this renewal and transformation, Christ who can help us to see the world through his Father’s eyes.  One author wrote “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God remould your minds from within.”   You see, it isn’t until we are able to see the world through the Father’s eyes that we are able to “test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Today’s passage (Romans 12:9-21) is a tough passage, a big “ask” and at first reading it is easy for us to feel inadequate.  But these challenges should be what we genuinely aspire to.  It raises the question…when the rubber hits the road, what should love look like?  How do we live out our faith and work out our salvation?

  • Love must be genuine and sincere. One translation says “Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them.” How do we know if love is genuine?  How do you know I love you?  How do you know God loves you?  We know if someone really loves us by the “being” and the “doing” – the things they say, the things they do and in that there is consistency and constancy.  Genuine love is self-sacrificial.
  • We must outdo one another in showing honour. What does honour look like?  It seems to me that we don’t hear much about honour any more.  It features in the marriage service though…the groom is asked “Will you love her, comfort her, honour and protect her, and, forsaking all others, be faithful to her as long as you both shall live?”  The Bible tell us we are to honour our parents, honour those in authority, honour our Church leaders, honour one another and of course honour God.  There is a difference between honour and respect.  In a worldly sense, honour is often given on the basis of position, status, or wealth, but it can also be granted on the basis of character.  For me to honour someone goes beyond that…it is to acknowledge that they are created in the image and likeness of God and worthy of dignity and value.  We give weight to someone’s presence and existence.
  • We are to be patient in suffering. Put your hand up if you are gifted at being patient in suffering.  I am anything but patient in suffering, as those who know me well recognise.  And I think that in those times we begin to lose patience, we need friends who come alongside us and remind us that we are not alone and God is with us.
  • We are to bless those who persecute us; and not curse them. The response from the child in me to this is “It’s not fair.  Why should I bless those who persecute me?”  If you have ever fallen out with someone, did you feel like blessing them at the time?  I think in the brokenness of this world, we often want revenge or payback.  We see it all the time, and often when people want to impose their sense of justice and be satisfied – like a tit for tat.  The question is, if we are mean to someone as I am sure at times we will have been, would we like to be blessed or cursed?  If we cannot practice grace and mercy, how can we possibly expect to receive grace and mercy?  If we are truly honest with ourselves, would we like to be judged by our own standards?
  • This is emphasised still further when we are told “We are not to repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.” And “We are never to avenge ourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”  And finally, “We must not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”  It seems clear that the reason why so much emphasis is placed upon this, is because it is really important.  How many times are we called to forgive?  We must not bear grudges.  We have to let go.  That might mean that every single day we give the person who has wronged us to God.  It is costly. But in it is freedom. I say again “We are not to conform to the pattern of this world, but rather be transformed by the renewing of our mind.”  Our imperative must be to overcome evil with good, and that is precisely what Christ did.
  • Last of all, we are not to be haughty, but associate with the lowly. We are not to claim to be wiser than we are. For me that means we must acknowledge our dependence on God and our interdependence on one another.  In acknowledging our dependence on God, we are saying we cannot do this alone.  And in that dependence there is no space for pride and no space for haughtiness.  We are beggars seeking to lead other beggars to find the bread.

It might be that you have found yourself struggling, struggling to love, struggling to forgive, and struggling not to be conformed to the pattern of this world.  It’s ok to acknowledge these struggles and invite God into the middle of them.

God’s intentions for human relationships and community

A man and his wife were having some problems at home and were giving each other the “silent treatment”.  Suddenly, the man realized that the next day, he would need his wife to wake him at 5:00am for an early morning business flight. Not wanting to be the first to break the silence (and LOSE), he wrote on a piece of paper, “Please wake me at 5:00am.” He left it in a prominent place where he knew she would find it.

The next morning, the man woke up, only to discover it was 9:00am and he had missed his flight.  Furious, he was about to go and see why his wife hadn’t wakened him, when he noticed a piece of paper by the bed. The paper said, “It is 5:00am. Wake up.”

Men are not equipped for these kinds of contests!!

Although that may be a funny illustration, for some people it may be a reality, a little close to home.  When we become dysfunctional in a relationship, it can be incredibly hard to get ourselves out of the rut we find ourselves in.  I recognise that not all of us are married, but even if that is the case we are all in a relationship of one form or another.  We all have relationships in common.

So what is “God’s intentions for human relationships and community.”  The two passages from Genesis that we have heard today speak firstly into how we as human beings are created to be in relationship with God, secondly how we called to relate to one another and in community, and thirdly into the nature of a loving relationship between a man and a woman.

I love the book of Genesis.  There is something about it that speaks into the very core of my being and somehow it restores in me a hope for humanity.  It speaks into where we are, and where in God’s grace we will be.  Every time I pick up the Bible and turn to it, I just see a loving God with such an incredible desire to bless us and be in relationship with us.  Genesis reminds us of how we are created to be.

Some things perhaps emerge from this.  As we were originally created, and before the Fall, we had no knowledge of good and evil.  That must be our starting point of understanding how we are called to be.  Being created in God’s image and likeness means that:

  1. We are created with the ability to do good, and to do the right things
  2. Within this, we have free will and the ability to make choices, our own choices
  3. Of all of God’s creation, we are unique and set apart with a specific purpose
  4. We are created to be in fellowship and relationship with God. That is the primary reason for our existence
  5. We are created to be in fellowship and relationship with one another. That is a consequence of the primary reason of our existence.  We are hard wired to be in community.
  6. It is God’s desire for us to be fruitful, to live our potential, to be all that we were created to be in Christ.
  7. We all share a common origin and a shared humanity.

It all began to go wrong as a consequence of the Fall, and after lengthy reflection I think there are two key causes that typically lie at the root of this. These causes are power (which is often linked to pride) and fear (which is often linked to shame).  I can probably count on one hand the number of people I have met in life who have been able to wield power and authority well and in a Godly way:

  1. We fail to see ourselves through God’s eyes; we don’t live in the knowledge that we are children of God, and loved unconditionally by God. You see this in the creation account when Adam and Eve experienced shame for the first time.
  2. We fail to see one another through God’s eyes; we are more caught up in me, me, me rather than God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Pride gets in the way of many things in life.
  3. We fail to acknowledge that all of us are created in God’s image and likeness. Even in the 21st century, it is abhorrent that we still live with slavery, oppression of women, and oppression of minorities – the list goes on.  These all have in common an abuse of power and often an unrealistic fear.
  4. We fail to even understand the implications of that and what it means to be in God’s image and likeness and with the responsibility that that imposes on us. It is almost as if we live in denial.
  5. We struggle to wield power and authority in a Godly way, and don’t properly understand what it means to have dominion over something. There is a fine line between leadership and coercion, between a right use of power and abuse.
  6. We live with fear; fear that we are good enough, fear that others are good enough and so on
  7. We live under the consequences of the Fall, rather than in the light of Christ and the New Life that he invites us into

All of these can result in broken and fragmented relationships – with God, with one another and in how we perceive ourselves.  The solution to this is love: “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” And love involves sacrifice, leaving no space for pride and power struggles, instead opening the door for grace.  Love also involves accountability.  We have an accountability first and foremost to God, but we also have an accountability to one another.

I want you to think about some of the things that you might have said to someone you simply might not like or get along with, whether in anger, or frustration.  I would like to invite you to ask yourself three simple questions and be prepared to answer honestly.

  • When you said whatever it was that you said, did you look upon the person you were speaking to in the knowledge that they are created in God’s image and likeness?
  • Could you imagine Christ saying what you said and in the way that you said it?
  • After you had said it, did you give any consideration to the impact that what you said had on that other person or were you so focussed on getting your point across?

Sometimes we say something with little regard for the damage that those words might have. If you couldn’t imagine Christ saying what you said, and if the reality is that what you said left that other person upset, and distressed…do you think that you were looking upon that person through God’s eyes?  Did you see before you someone who is worthy of dignity and respect because they are created in God’s image and likeness and a child of God?  Or did you lose sight of this reality in the words that you said?

It might be that the root cause of this is because you are struggling with some unresolved issue and have a need for spiritual healing.  It might be that you struggle to deal with power and authority – neither of which are a right, but a privilege and a privilege to be used wisely and to the glory of God.  It might be that you hold a fear and that you subconsciously project that fear onto others.

If we lose sight of that, we often find that we abuse power and subconsciously appoint ourselves as judge, jury and executioner.  God’s truth does not cause people to become bound and in chains; God’s truth sets people free to be all that they are called to be in Christ.  We must live in the knowledge of God’s truth, secure in the reality of his love and grace.

All of us need to be honest about where we hide behind roles in a bid for security, to allay fear or hold onto them as a means of power and control. Neither does us credit.

Christ didn’t come simply to restore the balance.  Christ came to set us free from sin and death, to bring wholeness and healing, dignity and value and restore in us a vision of us being created in God’s image and likeness.  We may experience dysfunctionality in our relationships with one another – our friends, our loved ones, and our brothers and sisters in Christ; but also in our relationship with God.  If you are struggling with a relationship in whatever context, I invite you to bring it to the foot of the cross, bring it to the Lord in prayer.

Let’s take a few moments of silence as we think about these words.