The cup of suffering

I think it is fair to say that any parent wants what is best for their children. In today’s Gospel reading, its perhaps no surprise then that we learn how the mother of Zebedee’s sons (James and John) came with them to Jesus and asked him if they could sit at his right and left in his kingdom.  After all, to sit at the right and left of Jesus would be to sit in a place of honour.

The thing is it can be very easy for us to become so focussed on one thing only (in this case the status of her children) and in doing so lose sight of the bigger picture.  Where, for example, would the rest of the disciples sit?  We have to remember that in the previous chapter in Matthew’s Gospel we learned how Jesus had already said to the twelve disciples that when he was on his glorious throne, they would sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel (Matthew 19:28)  They already had their promised places of honour.

Jesus had also made many references to the suffering he would have to endure and by association the suffering his disciples may have to endure too.  Jesus’ response in today’s reading speaks into the suffering that he was to endure and reminds us (as it will have reminded James and John) that in following him we are to follow his example of service and sacrifice and take up his cross.  That can be costly, and it can involve suffering.  We only need to think of the persecuted Church across the world, especially in places like North Korea, where Christians may be killed for the faith in Christ that they profess.  So, Jesus asks James and John “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?”  It is almost as if he is saying to them “Are you sure you know what you are letting yourselves in for?”

I don’t know if you have ever noticed, but when the Bible mentions something more than once it tends to be because it is important.  When I was reflecting on this morning’s Gospel reading it struck me that there are three main accounts in Matthew’s Gospel that mention a cup…each time of real significance.  We heard the first of those accounts in this morning’s reading.

The second account is one that we remember each time we approach the Lord’s Table to receive communion – the last supper.  “27Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; 28for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. 29I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” (Matthew 26:27-29)

The third time is one of the most poignant times when Jesus was in the Garden of Gethsemane “36Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” 37He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated. 38Then he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.” 39And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.”  (Matthew 26:36-39)

I ask you to hold those last two accounts in mind as we look more at our Gospel reading today as we explore what is so significant about the cups that Jesus refers to.

Throughout the Old Testament the cup is often used as a symbol of God’s wrath or judgment. The books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Zechariah all speak of a cup of wrath and judgement.  Yet we also find the Psalmist crying out, “I will take up the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the Lord” (Psalm 116:13). And of course in Psalm 23, we are all familiar with the cup of blessing and the picture of the cup overflowing in abundance.  So, the symbol of the cup carries with it pictures of both wrath and redemption, of judgment and blessing.

In Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, the cup symbolizes the pain, degradation, and death that Jesus knew was required of him. The cup that was before him then was the cup of wrath or judgement for the sins of the world.  He prayed that the cup might pass undrunk, but Jesus knew that he had to choose to metaphorically drain that cup to its dregs.  In His humanity, Jesus could wish that this cup of judgment—the one that everyone except Him deserved for the breaking of God’s covenant—would pass over Him. Yet, as the obedient Son of God, Jesus knew that the cup of blessing could only be poured out for the salvation of many if He would first drink the cup of God’s judgment on all humanity.  It is this same cup that Jesus was referring to in our reading today. No wonder then that Jesus asks James and John if they can drink the cup he was going to drink.

By drinking the cup his Heavenly Father placed before him, something astonishing was accomplished.  In Gethsemane and subsequently on the cross Jesus transformed the cup of wrath into the cup of life, salvation and blessing. It was at the Last Supper that this transformation was predicted, a place where the cup of the new covenant or salvation, is presented for all to partake of. This is something that we might be reminded of every single time we approach the Lord’s Table to receive Communion.  It is only through Jesus and what he has accomplished that we realise that God will bestow on us a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. We will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendour. (Isaiah 61:3)

There are times in life when we might find that we too have to metaphorically drink from the cup of suffering.  Today we remember St James’ day, and thinking specifically about him Jesus will have known what fate would eventually befall him.  James was put to death by the sword for being a follower of Jesus, upon the command from King Herod Agrippa I of Judaea.  Discipleship is a journey that involves learning, and James had many opportunities to learn. As one of Jesus’ inner circle, James witnessed the raising of Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:37, Luke 8:51), the Transfiguration (Mark 9:2), and Jesus’ agony in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:33, Matthew 26:37).  But the price for following Jesus and the nature of transformation and salvation were lessons James also had to learn, mindful that any present suffering he might endure would pass, that his testimony might encourage and inspire others and that ultimately he would be with Jesus in heaven.

In thinking about the cup of suffering, the Dutch Catholic Priest, professor, writer and theologian Henri Nouwen said “Can we hold our cups and claim them as our own?  Can we lift our cups to offer blessings to others, and can we drink our cups to the bottom as cups that bring us salvation?  Keeping this question alive in us is one of the most demanding spiritual exercises we can practice.”  The life, testimony and martyrdom of James makes it clear that in his case the answer was yes; he was prepared to take up his cross and give his all for Christ.  He had learned the lessons and learned them well.  We can too.

Whatever challenges you may face in life I pray that every time you approach the Lord’s Table you might be reminded and encouraged by what Jesus accomplished, and of the great faith of James who in giving his life for Christ went on to take hold of that cup and claimed it as his own.  In taking up our cup, we are not alone and through Christ we might enter into a deeper place of grace, transformation and growth.

There are two main barriers to us being prepared to take up that cup.  The first is pride.  James and John wanted to sit at Jesus’ left and right hand in heaven.  They wanted status and power and at its root there must have been pride.  That’s why the reading ends with Jesus saying “It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, 27and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; 28just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” 

The second is fear.  Fear of letting go, fear of trusting in God, fear of stepping out in faith.  Part of that involves putting others first.  We are called to live self-sacrificial lives.  We are called to drink those cups of hardship to the dregs, that in God’s grace and mercy become for us the cups that bring us salvation.  It is part of dying to self.  It is embarking on that path of humility.  It is saying to God “I am prepared to pay the price.  I know that no matter what I am struggling with, you never leave me and heaven is my true home.

Can we lift our cup to bring blessings to others, and can we drink our cup to the bottom as a cup that brings us salvation?  When you drink from the cup in Communion, remember the transformation that Christ accomplished.

James was unswerving in his faith, even to the end.  Whatever hardships he had to endure he will have remembered Jesus’ words.  In his life, and testimony we can see in Christ that transformation from suffering to salvation.  Let us hold fast together, and like James keep our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.

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The one thing

Two of the greatest challenges that people face today are anxiety and uncertainty.  The root causes can be many and varied,  perhaps because of illness, dealing with bereavement and loss, loneliness, difficult and complex relationship issues, an unstable job situation, job pressures, growing older, dealing with life events, or perhaps some money problems.  There seems to be more uncertainty now than ever before, and I am sure the ongoing political discussions about Brexit aren’t helping.  Businesses are having to plan for every eventuality, and people seem to be busier than ever before almost as if we can somehow distract ourselves in our business and busy-ness.

Throughout history people have always had to deal with anxiety and uncertainty; it might not make it any easier for us, but these challenges are nothing new.  When I read about people in the Bible, in some way I find it comforting to know that the people then, all those centuries ago, will have faced many of the challenges of life that we face today – even if our contexts and cultures are different.  At the end of the day, people are people.

The account of Mary and Martha in our Gospel reading reminds us how the people Jesus lived among and ministered to were basically no different from us, were subject to the same pressures and concerns, and had the same needs and yearnings. Two millennia have not changed the human race. We can all be just like Martha, anxious and troubled about many things and that can often cause us to stumble and not be at our best.  It is very easy for us to become so caught up with the doing and lose sight of being – and yet we are created as human beings and not human doings.  Our ‘being’ must inform and speak into our ‘doing’. 

This makes me think what it is in life that defines us.  Do we define ourselves solely by what we do OR do we define ourselves solely by what we are? It is like so many things in life – there needs to be balance. It is like when we are getting ready for Church on a Sunday – there is so much that needs to be done for Church to happen.  The seats set out and the hall arranged, the bread and the wine prepared, candles to be lit, robes to be put on, prayers to be prayed and so on.  And that’s before the service has even started!  Like Martha, we want it to be ‘just right’ don’t we?  When we gather together in fellowship though, as nice and important as all of those things are, the most important aspect of that is that we are simply together in our being.  We are reminded of that in Hebrews when it says  “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Hebrews 10:23-25)  It is in the being together that we can find hope and encouragement.  We see that at other times in life too.

It is so easy to be critical of Martha and commend Mary, after all Mary sat at the Lord’s feet and listened and learned – Mary chose what was best in that moment.  We must not lose sight of the fact that Martha’s actions were well meaning and demonstrated care and loyalty to Jesus. Put yourself in Martha’s situation for a moment; she had any homemaker’s joyous problem; she probably had a house full of guests since Jesus rarely travelled alone, and, best of all, she may well have felt some pressure because of her main guest being Jesus, who was widely held by many to be the promised and expected Messiah. It is certainly not an ordinary occasion and she probably felt compelled to pull out all the stops to do what she felt was the right thing.

If that isn’t pressure enough, how on earth do you prepare for someone who could turn water into wine and feed five thousand men besides women and children? How do you provide for someone who taught, “Do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ … for your heavenly Father knows you need all these things. But seek first His Kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be provided”?

So not surprisingly, Martha had lost that balance and had become ‘antsy’, to the point of telling Jesus off – “…don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”  In contrast to the many things on Martha’s mind, Jesus assured her, only “few things are needed—or indeed only one.” Perhaps to her surprise, Jesus sets up her sister as an example to follow. He explains how she “has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.

Martha is an example of a believer who is choked up with the anxieties and uncertainties of life. She was overwhelmed and stifled and not able to be at her best.  When we find ourselves in a similar situation it is very easy to get frustrated with each other, with our family and friends and with God.  We allow the worries of this world to overwhelm us and get too caught up in the doing and not the being.  Mary, on the other hand, illustrates how important it is for us to step back at times and regain balance and perspective.  Jesus is telling Martha not to worry, but instead to seek first the Kingdom of God, and to regain perspective.  I find it really encouraging that Jesus invites us to come to him just as we are.

I said to someone recently that the Bible does not promise that we will have an easy life.  In the worst moments of anxiety and uncertainty, it can even sometimes be hard to see where God is and to know His peace.  It’s often the external things that disturb our peace and cause that storm to rage within.  Being in fellowship helps; we come alongside people who can pray, reassure, give perspective, truth-tell and encourage.  How often have you heard people say “it’s not THAT bad, you can come through this” when at the time you felt lost and desperate?  It helps immeasurably if we guard our hearts, and that gives a sense of constancy, consistency:

Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it. Keep your mouth free of perversity; keep corrupt talk far from your lips. Let your eyes look straight ahead; fix your gaze directly before you. Give careful thought to the paths for your feet and be steadfast in all your ways. Do not turn to the right or the left; keep your foot from evil.” (Proverbs 4:23-27)

The only antidotes to anxiety and uncertainty that I know are faith, hope and love. The author Dan Millman said “Faith means living with uncertainty – feeling your way through life, letting your heart guide you like a lantern in the dark.”  The Bible does promise us that we are not alone – God is with us, and He has a plan for us.  When we feel anxious or uncertain it is good to remember this, and that God is in control.  “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. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

Through what Christ accomplished on the cross, we have been reconciled to God and that reconciliation allows us to be presented to God as holy in His sight, without blemish and free from accusation— if we continue in our faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel.  If we feel anxious and uncertain the truth we need to say over and over again is that we are loved by God and we are presented to Him as holy.

I know sometimes I am just like Martha; I get so caught up in the doing.  Then the faith I have, the hope I know and knowing simply that God loves me somehow draw me back, helping me to be a Mary again. If you feel anxious and uncertain, I invite you to bring your worries and concerns to the best place I know and come and sit at the feet of our Saviour.  Share your heart with him; all hat concerns you, all that you are, and all that you hope for.  Ask him to remind you constantly of his presence, his comfort, his reassurance and his love.  Amen

A life worthy of the Lord

Colossians 1:1-14

Luke 10:25-37

I think it’s a really good thing to spend time thinking about why we do what we do, and what our motives in life are.  Our 2 readings give us some insight into that.

Our first reading tells us that the faith and love that we profess springs from the hope stored up for us in heaven.  Just take a moment to think about that.  How does that fit with what we may have thought about where our faith and love come from?

That hope, realised in our Lord, Saviour and Redeemer Jesus Christ is the very source of the faith and love we have.  It is so important to have hope and to be hopeful people. I’ve shared before that great quote by Miroslav Wolf “Our hopes are a measure of a greatness.” In this passage we encounter the picture of faith and love springing from the hope stored up in heaven.  The Bible often uses illustrations of springs and water, and when we think of faith and love springing from that hope it reminds me of when Jesus said, “Whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life.” (John 4:14)

It can be very easy, can’t it, for us to seek purpose and definition by the ‘here and now’ of our present life and circumstances?  That’s like all of those things by which we might seek to define ourselves; job, family, belongings etc. Yet our first reading makes it very clear that our purpose and definition comes from the hope stored up for us in heaven – and we aren’t even there yet!  However, being mindful of that hope and always holding that hope before us, the fruit is realised in faith and love. 

What serves to remind us of that hope is Scripture.  That’s one of the many reasons why it is so important for us to spend time reading the Bible; it helps to root and ground us in all truth and to have a good and Godly perspective on life.  It is something that enables us to clear out the weeds and dead branches and that clearing and pruning helps us to grow in our faith and love.  What is clear is that the point that this begins to happen in our journey of faith is when we have heard and truly understood God’s grace.  Let me say this; if we are not gracious with other people and ourselves, I would suggest we haven’t truly understood God’s grace.  Pray that you might because it is hugely important.  Yes, we must have faith; yes, we must have love, but we must also have grace. You see, in and of ourselves we cannot life a life worthy of the Lord “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” (Romans 3:23-24)

When we begin to understand and embrace this truth, filled with the knowledge of God’s will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, we may then live a life worthy of the LORD and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work.  Don’t ever think you have fathomed the depth and breadth and awesomeness of the love and grace of God; and don’t ever stop seeking to be hopeful, faithful, loving and gracious people.  In beginning our journey of faith and discipleship, we begin a journey of growth and transformation, growing daily in the knowledge of God. 

When I think about this, I sometimes imagine that I am wearing an ‘L’ plate or sign on my back to signify that I am a learner.  When I’ve led Christian nurture courses it’s been wonderful to see people of faith of many year’s standing having those light-bulb moments and revelations as they’ve realised something they never realised before about God.  Likewise it’s been wonderful to see people embarking on their journey of faith discovering treasures along the way.  I’ve had those moments too; it is great when that happens in fellowship and the Body of Christ.  In faith we can awakened by grace, filled with hope and surrounded by love.

However old we might be, however many years of faith we profess, we can all appreciate the importance of learning and how transformative it can be in life; we only need to see children being helped to fulfil their potential in schools to see that.  It’s good to remind ourselves that we all have something more to learn.  That learning strengthens and equips us with all power according to his glorious might so that we may have great endurance and patience and giving joyful thanks to the Father.  I don’t know about you, but that makes me excited to learn.  We certainly need endurance and patience in life.  As that old chorus goes, I would like more of that love, more of that power, more of God in my life.  Do we even begin to comprehend that God has qualified US to share in the inheritance of his people in the kingdom of light?  God has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. That is truly amazing!

With these thoughts in mind, we turn to our second reading in which the expert of the law stands up to test Jesus.  Immediately that tells me that he had poor motives; firstly, he wanted to test Jesus, and secondly, he wanted to justify himself and his behaviours.  It seems to me that he was looking for a ‘get out clause’ and wanted to interpret the law on his own terms, in ways that would be convenient to him.  Have you ever found yourself doing that?

The man’s initial response to Jesus’ question about what was written in the law, is to “‘Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’”  It always comes down to love. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear involves punishment. The one who fears has not been perfected in love. We love because He first loved us” (1 John 4:18-19).  That has to be what remains when everything else is stripped away.  If you find yourself in a relationship in which you know fear, then it really isn’t loving.

This does not mean, however, that we get to choose who to love, or even when to love.  We are quite simply to love everyone, at all times and unconditionally – although I would add a caveat – provided it does not result in us or anyone else being harmed. Perhaps this is why the man wanted to justify himself, because his love was not unconditional; he was being selective and it was on his terms.  In response to this, Jesus tells him the story of the Good Samaritan.  It is such a well-known story.  Let’s remind ourselves of it.

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he travelled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

When we think about that account, it wasn’t as if the passers by could come to any harm by helping the man. He was, after all, “half dead”.  That poor man was clearly in need. 

Many years ago, when I was a teenager I encountered someone who was begging for money.  He told me a story about how he had just got out of prison, how he was trying to raise money to travel to stay with family.  In compassion I emptied my pockets and gave him all that I had on me.  My father was with me at the time and realising what I had done he rebuked me.  I asked him what I had done wrong.  My father said, “Didn’t you smell the methylated spirits on him?”  The poor man was a ‘meths drinker’.  Now, it may well have been his story was genuine, and that the money I gave him would indeed help him to get to his family.  But it may also have been just a story to illicit money to feed his addiction.  That experience really distressed me.

In my country we sometimes have rough sleepers stood on street corners selling a magazine called “The Big Issue”. This magazine exists to dismantle poverty by creating opportunity.  Vendors buy The Big Issue magazine for £1.25 and sell it for £2.50, meaning each seller is a micro-entrepreneur who is working, not begging. Therefore, it is vitally important that buyers take their copy of the magazine when they pay for it.  We also have rough sleepers begging outside mini-markets and supermarkets.

The truth is, these people are all our neighbours. It can be all too easy for us to simply walk by and ignore these people, just like the priest and the Levite did.  We are not to judge these people who for a huge variety of reasons have fallen on hard times.  What I now tend to do is try to spend some time with each of these people, listening to their story and then I tend to buy them a meal and a hot drink.  I also know a variety of places locally where people can get free hot meals as well as help and advice, and I pass this information on too.

There may also be times when we find ourselves in need.  Perhaps we have had experiences in life that have left us feeling ‘beaten up and humiliated’?  Who has helped us in these times?  Was it always the people we expected?  I know that when I’ve gone through very challenging times in life, I have been doubly surprised – both by the people who have stayed constant and true friends, and by people I thought were friends who faded away and vanished – people who crossed over the road to avoid me in those times.

We must be prepared to journey with people where they are in life.  We must be willing to share with them love and grace because of the love and grace that we have been shown by God.  That means journeying with people even if at times it is messy, unconfortable or inconvenient.  The Samaritan spared no expense and took time out of his journey to help that man.  Are we really so busy and so impoverished in life that we can’t take time out too?

Jesus said “Which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”  I would hope that you, like me, would want to live a life worthy of the Lord.  Oh that I always got that right; sometimes I spectacularly fail!  But what keeps me going is the hope that I have in Christ, an awareness of his great love and a knowledge of his grace.  These things fuel my faith. So Lord, open our eyes and give us compassionate hearts for our neighbours in their times of need.  Amen

Succession

Our Old Testament reading from the book of Kings tells the story of the last events in the life and ministry of Elijah and the succession of his servant and follower, Elisha. In this account, Elijah and Elisha were about to travel together from Gilgal (which was a town near Jericho). They were clearly very close. 

At first Elijah asked Elisha to stay in Gilgal, because God had told him to go to Bethel, which means the house of God. Elisha replied, “As surely as the LORD lives and as you live, I will not leave you.” They then travelled to Bethel together.  Once they had reached Bethel, Elijah asked Elisha to stay there, because God had told him to go to Jericho.  Elisha replied again, “As surely as the LORD lives and as you live, I will not leave you.”  So they then travelled to Jericho together.  Once they had reached Jericho, Elijah asked Elisha to stay there, because God had told him to go to the Jordan.  Elisha replied again, “As surely as the LORD lives and as you live, I will not leave you.”  In some ways this reminds me of three other accounts in Scripture:

  • The faithfulness and dedication of Ruth when she said to Naomi “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.  Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD punish me, and ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me” (Ruth 1:16-17).
  • Parallels with this passage and the account of Moses and Joshua in Numbers 27:18-23.  Joshua was chosen as successor to Moses (Numbers 27:12–23) and, as a result of his ‘ordination’ by Moses, is ‘full of the spirit of wisdom’ (Deuteronomy 34:9). Joshua performs actions similar to those of Moses (Exodus 14; Joshua 3–4) and Elisha performs actions similar to those of Elijah (vv 9–14).
  • The threefold test of Peter, when asked by Jesus “Do you love me?”  Perhaps in wanting to appoint his successor, Elijah wanted to see how committed Elisha was.

There’s further evidence of that closeness when Elisha said to Elijah “Let me inherit a double portion of your spirit”, perhaps with echoes from instruction in Deuteronomy about the right of a firstborn son of a man with an unloved wife.  “He must acknowledge the son of his unloved wife as the firstborn by giving him a double share of all he has. That son is the first sign of his father’s strength. The right of the firstborn belongs to him” (Deuteronomy 21:17).  Elisha knew that Elijah’s time was nearly upon him and wanted to spend as much time with him as possible; his love, commitment and dedication could not be doubted.

I think it is significant that on their travels, the ‘company of the prophets’ at Bethel and Jericho could clearly see that Elisha was with Elijah and the ‘company of prophets’ at the Jordan were witnesses to Elisha parting the water just as Elijah had done and said “The spirit of Elijah is resting on Elisha.” They could see and acknowledge that Elisha was indeed the rightful successor of Elijah.

I don’t think we often find ‘succession’ in ministry as such these days.  But there are some values and qualities in this passage that do stand out and speak into our contexts today.

  1. The Bible tells us “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35).  Much like Elisha had with Elijah, there should be love, commitment and dedication to each other in our Churches.  We should not be self-serving, but willing to journey with people – just as Elisha did with Elijah, and just as Ruth did with Naomi.  If that love, commitment and dedication is not apparent, it is something that WE in our churches need to work on. 
  2. When people express a calling into a form of ministry, it is right and appropriate that their calling is recognised by the congregation.  We are part of the Body of Christ.  It’s no good if a toe wants to be an eye.  We should be discerning about our giftings and calling and be true to what that calling might be rather than holding an aspiration to be something that we are not.  Elisha was walking in Elijah’s footsteps and much like Joshua with Moses was performing similar miracles as Elijah had done.  It wasn’t surprising that Elisha’s calling and ministry was recognised by the company of prophets.
  3. When people are appointed into specific ministry roles, I think it is really important that they are recognised and affirmed (and supported).  I’ve seen occasions when that hasn’t happened, and some people have not acknowledged or accepted their ministry.
  4. We should celebrate the legacy of those who exercised ministry before us.  There are times of prayer in one of my churches when I am humbled in thinking about the people over the 150 years that the church has been in existence who have prayed and exercised various forms of ministry in that place. We are where we are because of that legacy.

The harvest is plentiful

Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

Earlier in Luke’s gospel, in the previous Chapter, we are told how Jesus sent out the 12.  This is what it says:

1 When Jesus had called the Twelve together, he gave them power and authority to drive out all demons and to cure diseases, 2 and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal the sick. 3 He told them: “Take nothing for the journey—no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra shirt. 4 Whatever house you enter, stay there until you leave that town. 5 If people do not welcome you, shake the dust off your feet when you leave their town, as a testimony against them.” 6 So they set out and went from village to village, proclaiming the good news and healing people everywhere.” (Luke 9:1-6)

This pattern continues here in this account, with Jesus now sending out the 72 and we are told that he sent them ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go.  Jesus is very direct and in today’s passage makes it clear that he is sending them out like lambs among wolves.  It can be easy to love when we are among other lambs can’t it?  Can we still express that love though when we are among wolves?  In this we need to remember Jesus’ words from Matthew’s Gospel, “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” (Matthew 10:16)

There are a number of key points to bring out from this passage:

  • Whether with the 12 or with the 72, they were told to travel light – “Take nothing for the journey—no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra shirt” and “Do not take a purse or bag or sandals; and do not greet anyone on the road.”  I don’t know about you, but much like the words of the Scouting motto, I tend to like to “be prepared.”  Later in the year, I am travelling to Germany to visit some friends and naturally I’ll be packing a case to take with me with everything I will need for my stay.  In this context though, I think that Jesus meant that the disciples and the followers would have to live by faith, relying upon the hospitality of those who received them, and they would have little time for comfort and pleasure.  They were to be focussed specifically on that which they were there to do – to bring peace, to heal the sick and to proclaim that the Kingdom of God had come near.  They were to be free of any distractions.
  • We are to seek out people of peace in our communities, people who are responsive to the Good News.  The only way we can find such people is to be part of that community. That means being there in the good times and the bad, whatever the “season”.
  • The reality is that some people would not give them a warm and hospitable welcome.  Yes, the disciples could be sure of being received by some people, but Jesus also told them to expect places where they would not be welcomed and the proclamation of the kingdom of God would be rejected. Jesus’ instructions when having that latter experience in a town was that as the disciples were leaving, they were to shake the dust off [their] feet as a testimony against them. Shaking the dust of unaccepting towns from their feet had deep cultural implications; it would show extreme contempt for an area and its people, as well as the determination not to have any further involvement with them. It wasn’t an unusual practice: pious Jews would do this after passing through Gentile cities to show their separation from Gentile practices. If the disciples shook the dust of a Jewish town from their feet, it would show their separation from Jews who rejected their Messiah. What do we think about that?  How do we feel about the lost who we might encounter in our life and ministry?  How do we feel about those who do not welcome us?  How do we feel about dusting off our feet and walking away from the lost?  The action of Jesus’ followers showed that they were not responsible for how the people responded to the message they brought. 

We must remember that in this it wasn’t the followers who were being rejected; it was Jesus himself and the kingdom of God that had come near to them.  Rejection means the kingdom has come, but the people rejecting have chosen the road that leads away from the kingdom. God lets people do that, but they must suffer the consequences of their choice and actions.  God will not force people to follow him and believe; God will present opportunities and bring people into an encounter with His kingdom.  He does that every time you meet someone who doesn’t know Jesus; we are part of the Body of Christ.  That is precisely why Jesus said, “Whoever listens to you listens to me; whoever rejects you rejects me; but whoever rejects me rejects him who sent me.”  We must not take it personally if people reject the Good News that we bring.  The trouble with rejecting the message of grace and mercy is that we are rejecting the One who sent us to deliver that message.  Another way of thinking about this is to think of ourselves as being Ambassadors.  If another country rejects or throws out an Ambassador, it is a significant insult to the country that the Ambassador represents.  At an extreme, it is akin to declaring war but a war that the country knowingly enters into; any country throwing out Ambassadors does it knowing full well of the diplomatic consequences.

I think about conversations about life and faith I’ve had with people in my parishes.  We can seek to be faithful in proclaiming the Good News and sharing testimony about God being active in our life and the life of other Christians.  We can invite people to attend Christian nurture courses like Start!, Pilgrim, Christianity Explored or Alpha.  At the end of the day, we are to be faithful to our call and as it says in 1 Peter “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behaviour in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.” (1 Peter 3:15-16) It is up to people whether they accept or reject that message and come to faith in Christ.

  • Jesus was very clear in the instructions he gave the 72.  Yet he said nothing about the followers measuring their success.  There is a lesson for us in this; we live in times when so much attention is paid to the “numbers game” and yet our focus has to be on being obedient to being and doing what we are called to do.  We are to rely on Jesus’ power and equipping, and not our own, when we go out to serve him. However, we still tend to assume that ‘commitment’ means ‘achievement’; as if being followers and heralds of Jesus is something we have to accomplish, instead of something we simply have to be.  Much like if people rejected the message, it wasn’t the followers who were being rejected but Jesus himself, we might also say that whether people accept or reject the Good News is between that person and God.  That doesn’t mean to say that we don’t care or have compassion.  If we know God’s heart, we know that he would rather that no one was lost.  We should always be prepared to pray for and intercede for the lost.
  • Just as Jesus had sent the Twelve, and now seventy-two more, he told them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the LORD of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”  These workers should pray for more workers—pray for more people to be willing to work in the harvest. In Christian service and ministry, there is no unemployment. ALL of us as part of the Body of Christ have a role to play.  God has work enough for everyone. No believer should sit back, and watch others work because the harvest is great.  Some years ago, I used to regularly visit an elderly couple and I took Communion with them.  This couple had limited mobility and struggled to get to church.  They often said that their time was ‘done and over’; there was nothing that they could do.  And yet, every time I visited, they spoke about their diligence and faithfulness in prayer.  Every morning, without fail, they prayed.  Every evening, without fail, they prayed. It was very humbling. One day, being mindful of this, I asked them a question.  I asked, “Is your time REALLY done and over?”  They were quite taken aback at first.  But then I said “It seems to me that your faithfulness in prayer is really significant and never wasted and the church that you are still part of values those prayers more than you can ever imagine.  Please don’t underestimate how important those prayers are.” 
  • I once attended a Pentecostal church for a number of years before moving with work elsewhere in the country.  The Pastor of the Church had a huge heart and passion for outreach.  Every week, without fail, come rain or shine, he would go out ‘door-knocking’ in the local community.  He had been doing this for many years and it had met with limited success.  Being mindful of this I once asked him why he bothered.  I asked this for two reasons – firstly, I felt inadequate at evangelism and secondly after so many years with little success I wondered if it was even worth it.  The pastor replied with tears in his eyes, and he very graciously said “If these people don’t hear the Good News from me, who will they hear it from?  They have to have an opportunity to respond.”  I was convicted in my heart and I said “I want to support you in that, but I do not feel gifted as an Evangelist.  What I can do though is organise a prayer meeting that prayers for you and the team as you are out ‘door-knocking’.”  It was a really fruitful time; it allowed everyone in the Church to play their part.  The outreach team felt better supported.  The Church drew closer together. 
  • We are not to keep the light that we have hidden.  I have a motto; I don’t go to parties I am not invited to i.e. I will not ‘Bible bash’ people. However, if people want to know more, I am always ready to give an answer.  I was once talking with someone who was seeking, but also resistant to the Gospel.  They said, “I suppose you are going to share your testimony with me?” I replied, “No, why would I do that?  I am not sure you really want to hear it.”  We spoke on many occasions, and eventually I did indeed share my testimony, but the person was in a place where they were genuinely interested in finding out more.  Sometimes we need to be prepared to journey with people where they are at in life.  Sometimes we need to be prepared to walk that extra mile.  Often we need to exercise patience, not only with the person we are speaking to, but also with ourselves and remind ourselves WHY we do what we do.  At the end of the day, everybody has a role in the Body of Christ, and we all have different gifts.
  • The numbers 12 and 72 are also significant.   12 could be taken as representing the tribes of Israel, the patriarchs of Israel as well as the 12 apostles.  According to Genesis 10, in the Greek version of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint, 72 was the traditional number of nations in the world.   72 could therefore be taken as representing the whole world, perhaps an allusion to the seventy elders of Israel on whom the Spirit descended in the wilderness (Numbers 11:24, 25) or quite simply the people of Israel and the church in general. By choosing and sending out seventy-two disciples, Jesus was symbolically showing that all nations in the world would one day hear the message from all believers. This would include the Gentiles—an important point for Luke’s Gentile audience.

The success of the seventy-two is acknowledged to be because of Jesus and Jesus’ power and authority – “LORD, even the demons submit to us in your name.”  We too need to be mindful of the power and authority of Christ, and the power in His name.  Despite that success, Jesus again shifts their perspective… “Do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”  If we dedicate our lives to following Jesus and being faithful to what he asks us to do, we will find reward in service and in eternal life.  Ultimately, God’s will will be accomplished.  Think about that a moment. Yes, we might live in turbulent times, but it certainly gives me some comfort and consolation to remember that. God is in control.

Not everyone is called to be an evangelist.  The Bible tells us:

 “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” (Ephesians 4:11-13)

There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same LORD. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines.” (1 Corinthians 12:4-11)

Yet we all are “in community” and likely we are known as people of faith, and people who attend church.  When we meet people – even strangers – and the topic of church crops up in conversation (as it well might since it is a significant part of our lives) are we ready to talk about it?  People might ask “why do you go to Church?”  What would our answer be?  Not everyone is called to go into different towns and evangelise.  But we are called to be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks us to give the reason for the hope that we have. Let’s think about people of peace me might know, people of peace we might encounter and pray that they might recognise in us the kingdom of God drawing near, whether through our acts of service, or what we might say.  Let’s pray that we might be faithful in using the gifts that God has blessed us with as the Body of Christ.  Amen

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

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.