Wednesday, 15 August 2018

Making 'The Cut'

In the sport of golf, at top level tournaments, the field of competing golfers is cut down at the end of the first two days’ play. Depending on the score of the leader, and the spread of scores below them, a golf score is declared to be ‘the cut’. Those who have that score or better will continue to compete in the second half of the competition. Those who cannot match the nominated score pack their bags and go home. If you are a golfer, you know exactly when this cut will be applied, and you can work out for yourself roughly what score will be needed to progress.
God’s dealings with humanity work nothing like that!
Jesus firmly believed that there will be a ‘cut’, that there will come a moment when God will separate humanity into two groups: those who make the cut (as they say in golf), and those who don’t. In Jesus’ stories, the contrast between the outcomes for these two groups is extreme. In one story, the neglected beggar, Lazarus is welcomed into Abraham’s bosom while the unnamed and uncaring rich man who never helped him is tormented by fire in Hades. In other parables the contrast is expressed within the terms of the narrative: for example, the good fish caught in the net are placed in baskets, but the useless by-catch is thrown away.
The expectation of this cut is unavoidable in Jesus’ teaching, and - unlike in golf - God is not going to give us advanced notice as to when it will take place. Jesus is quite clear on the fact that if you want to 'make the cut’ you have to be ready at any time and at every time.
This is serious business. And if we are to trust Jesus, we need to take it very seriously indeed.
The key question for all of us, then, is: what do we need to do to make this cut, to pass this test?
In many of Jesus’ parables on the subject, he is silent about such specifics. He leaves it to us to work that out. It isn’t rocket science, we should assume, and our culture and instincts should point us in the right direction.
However, Jesus did give an clue about what God is looking for in his story about the rich man and Lazarus. He follows that up more comprehensively in his parable about the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25. God’s ‘cut’, which will determine who is kept and who is discarded, boils down to how each of us care, or don’t care, for the vulnerable and needy people we encounter. There is no mention of belief, or worship, or spirituality; practical care for those in immediate need is the key.
If you want to make the cut, you know what is expected of you.

Thursday, 5 July 2018

Solar Powered

Every summer I look forward to my annual camping trip to Wales - a couple of weeks away from electrical appliances and gadgets, cooking my food over a fire, hopefully something that I have caught from my kayak during the day. There is one little gadget though, which I don’t go camping without: a small, pocket sized, solar torch. During the daytime, my trusty torch soaks in the sunlight, so that when night comes, I can lie in my sleeping bag and read. No batteries required. No winding needed. My little torch absorbs the sun’s rays and returns them to my chosen book at the flick of a switch. Fabulous!
Jesus said to the ordinary folk who gathered to hear his teaching, “You are the light of the world. No-one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket.” In today's terminology: we are torches. We are called, as human beings made in God’s image, to shine God’s light into the world around us. As usual, Jesus doesn’t define what he understands this shining our light to involve. He leaves it to each of us to work that out in our own situation.
Whatever it is that we are going to be shining into the world around us, we are going to need to get ourselves charged up on a regular basis. If we are going to shine God’s love, we need to soak in God’s love. If we are going to distribute God’s forgiveness, we need to accept God’s forgiveness. If we are going to live out Jesus’ wisdom, we need to learn Jesus’ wisdom.
Being part of a worshipping community is one way that we can recharge our batteries. When a place of worship is doing its job well, it is a place where we can experience the light of God in our own lives, in order to then shine that light for the benefit of others.
When I’m camping I can’t just toss my solar torch out of my tent in the morning and trust that it will charge from simply being outside. I have to make sure that it’s solar cells are facing towards the sun. To do that I have to prop it up at the right angle and move it round as the sun travels across the sky. In the same way, attending worship doesn’t automatically fill us with God’s light. We will recharge our lights much more effectively if we are purposeful about how we soak up God’s rays.
How are your batteries doing?

Saturday, 30 June 2018

Just Good Friends

The nature of our relationship with God lies at the heart of all religion. In the long history of organised religion this has been understood in a variety of ways. Those religions that have left the clearest mark on human history are those that have built the grandest monuments or ruled the largest empires. Those religions which have taken a lowlier path have left fewer clues for historians to note.
Christianity has certainly left its mark on the world since it joined forces with the Roman Empire in the 4th century. Western history is as thickly strewn with Christian empires as the western landscape is with Christian monuments. However, the central figure of Christianity - Jesus - does not fit this grand profile at all.
Jesus did not claim any land, rule any people, build any monuments, fight any battles or write any books. He seemed quite disinterested in politics, law and ritual. He lived a simple life, focusing on those things that leave their mark in the daily lives of ordinary people, not in physical or social landscape.
When it comes to the nature of relationship that Jesus sought to have with the people around him, he did not live an elevated or separated life. He simply lived among the people he taught, as their neighbour and their friend. Just hours before his death Jesus reminded his core followers: "I do not call you servants ... but I have called you friends.”
Friendship should rightly be the defining relationship of Christianity - friendship that spans different cultures, different beliefs and different lifestyles; friendship that unites people with their neighbours and also with their God. There is absolutely no place for hierarchy in the life and teaching of Jesus. The true mark of Christianity is good friendship.

Saturday, 23 June 2018

Spiritual Refreshment

When we feel thirsty, for those of us who live in the towns or cities of the developed world, a refreshing drink of clean water is never far away. Walking to a well to fetch water is not a feature of our lives. It is piped directly to the rooms where we need it, and readily available in plastic bottles.
Jesus lived in a society for whom the daily trek to the well and back was an essential part of life. Whether it was for food, for washing or for watering crops, everyone knew the sheer hard work of hauling water out of the ground and then carrying back to the place where it was needed. Everyone know what it felt like to be thirsty and there not be a drink within easy reach.
This was the backdrop to Jesus’ statement, "Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who trusts me drink.” He wasn’t - of course - handing out bottles of spring water at the Feast of Tabernacles. He was referring to the availability of God.
The Temple in Jerusalem marketed itself as the only reliable source of pure spiritual water in the world. Jewish people were obliged to travel great distances at considerable expense to get the required spiritual refreshment offered by the Temple priests. Jesus consciously undermined that priestly monopoly. His message was that if people would only trust him, they would find the love of God piped directly to their own homes and immediately available.
In our day and age, there is no single outlet monopolising spiritual refreshment. There is an increasingly crowded marketplace of teachings, beliefs, spiritualities and practices - all offering us spiritual refreshment (often at a price).
While some of us cling onto the familiar practices of our earlier years, and others shop around in search of a fresh buzz, Jesus’ offer still stands. Jesus offers us a direct experience of God - no mumbo-jumbo, no complex or costly rituals, no rules and regulations, and no expense - just God’s love, ready and waiting for us wherever and whenever we need it.
Jesus invites us to his well, to drink, and to be refreshed. But the process doesn’t and mustn’t end there. Once we have refreshed ourselves there is one more essential task - we must fill up our containers and carry some refreshing water back to our homes and communities so others can also be refreshed.

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Family Business

You can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family - so the saying goes. I remember some teenage angst around that theme!
In Christian communities it is common for people to talk in terms of being a family of Christians. At baptisms, the newly baptised are welcomed ‘into the Lord’s family’. In some congregations it is normal for church members to refer to each other as ‘sister’ and ‘brother’. It reinforces the sense of common identity.
How does one get to be part of this Christian family?
St Paul, in his letters, consistently refered to his fellow believers as ‘brothers’, but he didn’t only address fellow Christians in that way. He called his fellow Jews brothers, whether or not they followed Jesus. He even used the term to address those members of the Jewish council who attacked him, attempted to kill him and then campaigned to have him executed. (See the opening sentences of Acts 23).
Paul used the word 'brothers' very broadly. Jesus, on the other hand, didn’t use the term very often outside his own immediate family. On one notable occasion, however, he was teaching in a house when he was told that his mother and brothers were outside, waiting to see him. Pointing at the disciples seated around him, Jesus said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
The assumption of the baptism service is that people become part of God’s family by being baptised. But that’s not what Jesus said. The assumption of many Christian communities is that we become part of God’s family by virtue of our shared belief in Jesus. He didn’t say that either. What Jesus said was, “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” Membership of Jesus’ family comes from doing - not from rituals or beliefs, but from what we do. Anyone who does God’s will is in.
Jesus isn't asking us to talk like family, or to feel life family. Jesus wants us to be doing his family's business.

Wednesday, 30 May 2018

Risky Business

I believe in God. That’s not a very challenging or informative statement. Commonly, it expresses that I believe that God exists; you may also infer that I consider God to be generally a good thing.
In English translations of the New Testament, there is a lot of talk about believing. Jesus repeatedly encouraged people to 'believe in' him. But Jesus wasn’t asking people to believe that he existed - that would hardly have been difficult for them - or even to believe that is was the Christ or the Son of God - those ideas were only just beginning to be associated with him. Jesus was asking people to trust him - thats the meaning of the word he was using.
Trust is subtly different from belief. Trust is specific. You may be willing to trust me with a small amount of money, or trust that I am a generally well-meaning person. But you would be unwise to trust me to style your hair, and utterly foolish to trust me to perform routine surgery on you. We trust specific people to do specific things. The same needs to apply to our relationship with God.
What are we trusting God for?
Often, talk about trusting God is unhelpfully vague. Trust is a decision to embark on a particular action when the outcome of that action is, at least in part, beyond our control. I get a mechanic to service my car because I don’t understand how my car works. When I next drive my car, I put my trust in the mechanic’s understanding and integrity.
So what do we actually trust God for?
Trust requires action, and it involves risk. When I sit on a chair, I trust that it will hold my weight. If it doesn’t, I will end up on the floor. We trust God when we perform certain actions which rely of him in a way that is beyond our control - actions that we would not perform if we didn’t trust God.
Jesus asks us to trust him. He asks us to live differently in this world, trusting that his way is a better way, even though it may be costly for us.
How often to you really trust God?

Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Explosive Forgiveness

Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. This is not a philosophical comment about human behaviour; it is one of the fundamental principles of the physical universe as described by Isaac Newton in 1687. It is known as Newton’s 3rd Law. The ground on which you are standing, or the chair on which you are sitting, is pushing you upwards with exactly the same force that your weight is pressing down. If it isn’t, then you are either sinking or taking off. It applies to all physical forces everywhere in the universe. They always work both ways.
Jesus was not a physicist. His genius was in the things of God and the things of human relationship. When unfolding his model for everyday prayer -  the ‘Our Father’ or ‘Lord’s Prayer’ - Jesus drew attention to the fact that forgiveness, just like physical force, is fundamentally a two way process.
"Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us" does not set out a contractural arrangement of conditional forgiveness. Jesus was describing the very nature of forgiveness. To mimic Newton’s 3rd Law: every act of forgiving as an equal and opposite act of being forgiven. Forgiveness does not, and cannot, operate in just one direction.
This was clearly important to Jesus; he stressed the point immediately after the prayer. "For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” He isn’t telling us that God is picky about who he forgives. God’s not like that. Jesus is stating a universal principle about forgiveness. If you are not forgiving, you cannot be forgiven. And, to look at it from the other end, if you are truly forgiven, you cannot help forgiving.
Jesus observed this same principle when a prostitute interrupted a dinner party in order to cry over his feet. He said to the embarrassed guests, “Her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”
Forgiveness cannot be hoarded up. It is explosive. If you choose to forgive someone this week, you will cause a chain reaction which cannot be stopped. Someone else, somewhere else, is going to end up being forgiven too. That’s how forgiveness works.