Monday, 24 December 2018

Child in a Manger

The angel said to Mary: "He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David." When we think of greatness, most highness and thrones, our minds immediately conjure up images of power and wealth. It's how our brains have been trained.
But that's not how God's mind works. When God thinks of greatness, most highness and thrones, he thinks of a tiny baby, sleeping in a manger because other people have been allowed the comfort of the guest room.
The striking humility of Jesus' birth, which we celebrate at Christmas, is not God taking an uncharacteristic break from his usual divine grandeur. It is articulate expression of what the creator of the universe is really like. As that tiny baby grew into a man, his style never changed. Jesus remained humble, and consistently sacrificed his own comfort for the benefit of others - right up to the agonising end.
Take a moment to reflect on that vulnerable child, lying in an animal's feed box, and wonder at the character of God. This is what God is like. And this is what God would like us to be like.
​Happy Christmas

Also by Robert Harrison
the life and loves of a disciple of Jesus

Thursday, 20 December 2018

Something's Coming

The run up to Christmas always carries with it a sense of anticipation. Something is coming. Christmas is coming. It can’t be dodged or avoided, and we need to be ready. When we were children, the anticipation of Christmas was exciting - there were parties and presents to look forward to, and there was nothing required of us but to contain our excitement. In adult life, the coming of Christmas is more complex. While we long for the innocent excitement of our childhood, we are all too aware that things need to be organised, presents need to be bought, cards need to be sent - the responsibility falls on us to be ready.
This sense of anticipation surrounds Christmas in other ways too. The traditional season of Advent focuses on the expectation of Jesus’ return as well as the expectation of his birth. Centuries before Jesus’ intriguing birth, prophets were telling their people that something was coming, God was hatching a plan and was about to do something significant.
There are numerous Old Testament expressions of this expectation, and in the centuries that followed there were countless theories about what exactly this ’something’ was which God was bringing about. Ancient Jews studied their scriptures and tried to predict God’s coming. With the same enthusiastic confidence many Christians today study the references to Jesus’ return. And try to work out what to expect.
However, when God did come - when he did do his thing - it wasn’t anything like what people were expecting. No-one was expecting a newborn child, lying in the manger of an ordinary home. No-one was expecting a bunch of shepherds and a handful of foreign mystics to be the first on the scene.
The adult Jesus reminds us that God still has more plan up his sleeve. There is another something which is coming - which we need to be ready for. But he advises us not to waste time speculating what that something will be like. God is the master fo the unexpected. We will know it when we see it, but it won’t be anything like anything we have imagined. We just have to be ready.

Just published:
by Robert Harrison
the life and loves of a disciple of Jesus

Thursday, 6 December 2018

99.6% Loving & Forgiving

We are all familiar with the world of advertising. Whether it is in print, sound or vision, businesses seek to attract us with carefully constructed messages that convey the essence of their product in a just a few words. Though the intensity of the advertising around us may be unprecedented, the idea of a short and punchy sales pitch is nothing new. God himself has done it.
Shortly after rescuing the Israelites from Egypt, God needed to introduce himself to a frightened and bewildered people. After the drama of crossing a divided sea, the Israelites needed to know what kind of a god it was who they were following. This was God’s pitch: “The Lord: a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving transgression, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation."
There is a deeply ingrained belief among Christians that the God of the Old Testament is a harsh and judgmental god, whereas the God of the New Testament is gentle and loving. This common prejudice draws our attention to the idea that God would punish children and grandchildren for the failings of their parents. We read it, and dislike what we read. But that is only a fraction of God’s self-description. He may visit the iniquity of the parents on the children to the 4th generation, but he keeps steadfast love for the 1,000th generation. In mathematical terms that means God is 250:1 loving, and plans on being so for at least the next 20,000 years.
This is God’s own understanding of himself and of his dealings with humanity. He’s not a total pushover. He has his limits. But when he handed his proverbial calling card to Moses, it read: “God: 99.6% loving and forgiving."

Just published:
by Robert Harrison
the life and loves of a disciple of Jesus

Thursday, 22 November 2018

Utterly Lovely

There’s a famous hymn which goes: “Immortal, invisible, God only wise, in light inaccessible hid from our eyes.” It’s the kind of Christian hymn that I was brought up on. It presents God as a being of unreachable grandeur - a God who is beyond understanding, beyond human reach; who is to be feared.
At the same time, as I grew up, I was reminded every Sunday that this unimaginable God expected me to love him, first and foremost, above all else. It presented me with a problem: this all powerful, all knowing and ever living God did not seem very lovable. He was frightening. How unfair that he should command me to love him!
Jesus didn’t have this problem.
Jesus didn’t have this problem because he knew a very different kind of God. Jesus knew God to be like a doting father who, when his wayward son had gone astray and got into trouble, looked longingly for his return every day, and then ran down the road in expansive delight when the young man finally returned, showering him with gifts. Jesus knew God to be like an excited woman who threw a party for her neighbours just because she’d found a coin she’d been looking for all day.
Jesus didn’t know God as a being that is ‘unresting, unhasting, and silent as light, nor wanting, nor wasting, and ruling in might.’ He knew God as the kind of person who gives big hugs and throws impromptu parties, who wears his heart on his sleeve and forgives huge offences in the blink of an eye.
Jesus knew God to be thoroughly lovable.
Underlying all Jesus’ teaching is a confident knowledge that God is utterly lovely. Once we grasp that fact, loving God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength isn’t so daunting a prospect.

Just published:
by Robert Harrison
the life and loves of a disciple of Jesus

Thursday, 8 November 2018

Enough is Enough

Saving up for a rainy day is a long-established human custom. We mammals have a natural instinct to save up spare resources. Squirrels get busy squirrelling away spare nuts to last them through the winter. A leopard will haul spare meat up into a tree so save it for the next day. However, we humans are the global specialists the art of hoarding. We fill our cupboards, fridges and freezers with enough food to last many days. And, since the invention of the stock market, we have taken the science of storage to a whole new level. Many people have enough saved up to feed and clothe themselves for several lifetimes, but still they keep on hoarding more.
God is not a fan of our saving habit. When he fed the ancient Israelites during their journey across the Sinai desert, he made a point of only providing enough ‘manna’ for one day at a time. Those Israelites who thought they could work the system and gather an extra helping of the mysterious food, discovered - when they got back to their tents - that they had exactly one omer per person. While those who found the daily collection a struggle, returned to their tents to find that they also had exactly one omer per person. Everyone ended up with just what they needed and no more. When some of them tried to keep some food overnight, to save themselves from having to go gathering before breakfast the next day, it turned rotten and became inedible.
God was making a point: enough is enough. You only need what you need.
This same principle features in Jesus’ teaching. In the ‘Our Father’ - the most repeated piece of Jesus’ teaching - we pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Tomorrow doesn’t get a mention. As long as we have enough for today, that is enough.
The last of God’s iconic '10 Words’ takes us onto the advanced course in godly living. "You shall not covet your neighbour’s house, or wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.”
God is challenging us. He knows it cuts across our basic animal instincts. But he wants us to face the challenge and to learn to be content.
We will know we are making progress when we can say with St Paul. “I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”

Just published:
by Robert Harrison
the life and loves of a disciple of Jesus

Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Word Power

It is well known that it takes a lot of time and space to turn around an oil tanker. Something that big doesn’t change direction easily. Sometimes, when we look at the society around us, it can feel like an oil tanker. We see things that are heading in the wrong direction but feel powerless to do anything about it.
The subject of steering large boats came up in a letter written by Jesus’ brother, James, which is preserved in the Bible. James reflected on how even a large boat is steered using a small rudder. (This feature of maritime design hasn’t really changed in 2000 years.) James observed that our tongues are rather like the rudder on a ship; they are very small but have enormous power and influence, for either good or ill.
I write this after a week in which violent hate crimes have dominated the news. We get a lot of weeks like that every year.
Across the world ‘law abiding’ people look on with horror, and wonder how anyone can get to the point of committing such atrocities. But the people who carry out those shootings, bombings and stabbings do not work in isolation. Their murderous impulse is the consequence things that other people have said. Behind every such act of violence are the words of ‘law abiding’ citizens who speak the hatred and prejudice which somebody else eventually puts into action.
Human society may feel as unsteerable as a supertanker, but it is - in fact - effectively directed by the things that ordinary people say. If we speak anger. If we speak intolerance. If we speak prejudice. If we speak hatred. Sooner or later, those words will be turned into violent action, and all of us should share the responsibility.
It works the other way too. If we speak acceptance, and forgiveness, and tolerance, and graciousness, then we are playing a key part in steering our society in a better direction. The results may not be instant, but the tanker will gradually turn.
For good, or for ill, words are powerful things. Let's use them wisely!

Just published:
by Robert Harrison
the life and loves of a disciple of Jesus

Wednesday, 24 October 2018

Property & Theft

When Jesus turned his mind to the ’10 Commandments’ his intention was not to help us to be perfect but to remind us how helplessly imperfect we all are. He said 'You have heard that it was said, “You shall not murder,” but I say to you that  if you insult a brother or sister you will be liable to judgement...You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery,” but I say to you that everyone who looks at someone with lust has already committed adultery.’ This is challenging stuff. But when Jesus turned his attention to the next of God’s iconic words, ‘You shall not steal,’ he took the challenge to another level.
If Jesus was simply keeping to his previous pattern, he would have said something along the lines of, ’do not even think of taking something that belongs to someone else.’ Instead he said, 'If anyone takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt,’ and, 'If anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.’
What Jesus is drawing our attention to is that theft is only the tip a of the proverbial iceberg of a greater problem. That greater problem is the very concept of ownership.
One day Jesus met an devout young man who had committed himself to keeping God’s law since childhood. The young man asked what else he needed to do to enter heaven. Jesus replied, ‘There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ It wasn’t the answer the young man was hoping for.
Jesus is not suggesting that 'property is theft’, but he is pointing out that property is a problem, and one that tends to separate us from God. For Jesus, caring for people is always what matters most. If we can care for someone by letting them steal our property, then we should allow them to do so. When it comes to God’s final judgement, he won’t be interested in how much we own; he will be interested in how much we’ve used it to help people in real need.

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

Self Justification

"You shall not murder.”
Out of God’s ten famous instructions, this is probably the easiest for the majority of us to read. Most people have never murdered anyone, nor even come near to doing so. So we can give ourselves a satisfied pat of the back…at least until we start reading the New Testament.
Jesus launched a concerted campaign to stop religious people from administering satisfied pats to their own backs. Armed with a strong understanding of God’s forgiveness, Jesus made it his business to cast each and every one of us in the role of “sinner”. He said, “You’ve heard it said from way back, ‘Don’t murder’ … But I say to you: anyone who makes their brother/sister angry is liable to judgement.”
We human beings have a natural instinct to self justification. Without pausing for thought, we cover over our failures, make up excuses and point the finger of blame at other people. It’s not pretty, but we all do it.
When we consider God’s 10 instructions our natural instinct is to justify ourselves, attempting to tick as many boxes as possible to reassure ourselves that we are good people.
Jesus’ advice is: don’t bother! He wanted every person listening to his Sermon of the Mount to walk back down the hill understanding themselves as a sinner in need of forgiveness. OK, you may never have murdered anyone, but you have annoyed plenty of people, and insulted them, and spoken ill of them behind their backs. That hurts God too.
God did not give us those 10 simple instructions with the expectation that we would all live faultless lives. That was never likely to happen. God gave us 10 simple measures to help us understand how far short we consistently fall. He is not inviting us to justify ourselves, he is inviting us to turn to him for forgiveness.

Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Top of the Range

If you are familiar with Britain’s major supermarket chains, you will know that they have three levels of own-brand products: a low-cost basic range, a mid-cost range, and for those who are prepared to pay the extra there is the top of the range, ‘taste the difference' / ‘finest' range.
When God gave his ten top tips for human society, number 5 on his list was “Honour your father and your mother.” The word that we translate as ‘honour’ is an ancient Hebrew word that expresses the same thing as the labelling on the top of the range products in our supermarkets. God is asking us to consider our parents with high regard, to value them and ensure that we care for them. If we do that, he promises, we will all live longer.
When St Paul turned his mind to his particular divine instruction, he realised that it wasn’t setting parents above their children but was requesting equality. St Paul suggested that children should listen to their parents, and that parents should not exasperate their children. Extending this idea to slaves and masters, Paul requested that both slaves and masters should listen to one another. (The passage in Ephesians 6 commonly uses the term ‘obey’, but the word Paul used means ‘listen to’, which is more open ended.)
The over all picture, from Moses to Paul via Jesus, is that everyone is of value. Whether we are children too young to work, or are too old and frail to work, we are of value, we are top of the range in God’s judgement.
In all human societies, some people are valued more and some less. But this is not how God would have us be. To God, we are all of great value, whatever our age or state of employment. You, and everyone you meet today, are in the “God’s Finest” range. Value them.

Saturday, 8 September 2018

God's Name

I grew up with a wonderful great-aunt, who was called Ezal. Ezal wasn’t her actual name, it was the best my uncle could manage as a small boy, and the new name stuck. Everyone called her Ezal: my parents, me, her sister, my cousins - even the vicar. When I visited her in hospital as she was dying, with the name “Ezal” written on the board above her bed, she confided in me that she wished that someone would call her by her proper name before she died. Her name was Ethel Wash.
When God was preparing to rescue the Israelite people from Egypt, he announced a name for himself, a name by which he wished all generations to address him, for all time. It’s a fairly clear instruction. Some years later, in his 10 key instructions to the newly rescued Israelites, instruction number three was: “Don’t mistreat my name”. God’s name was important; he didn’t want his people to lose it’s value.
Tragically, God’s carefully chosen name has indeed been mistreated, and for many generations - ourselves included. We mistreat it by completely failing to use it.
When Moses asked God his name, God replied, “I am what I am. That is my name. Say to the Israelites, ‘I am’ has sent you.” Because the meaning is the key part of a Jewish name rather than the word itself, if God called himself “I am”, the people were to call him, “He is”. And that is the name that is used throughout the Old Testament - 6823 times in all. When David sung his famous 23rd Psalm, he sang, “He is, is my shepherd…”
However, after calling God by name for a thousand years, the Jewish people stopped using it, and started calling God other things instead. By the time Jesus was alive, they had the name in writing, but they never spoke it, so no-one knew how it was pronounced. Then, when the Old Testament was translated into other languages, the name was lost altogether.
In the English language tradition, we have replaced God’s name, 'He Is’, with a totally different phrase - the LORD. It's a mistake we inherited from the Romans. Some churches have reverted to the four letters of the name in Hebrew - YHWH, which no-one knows how to translate. Some have adopted the anglicised version - Jehovah. But none of these are God’s name. God’s name exists in careful translation, and it means: “He Is”.
It is our loss. We have lost the key emphasis that God himself chose to give us, that he is not above us, or greater than us, but that he simply IS, for all time and for all people. Whoever we are, wherever we are, God is right there with us.

Wednesday, 29 August 2018

Useless Things

What are the things that you regularly devote time, energy or money to which serve no useful purpose to you or to the people around you? In 21st century urban life we have more spare time and money than almost any generation that has gone before us. We also have a wider range of choice of what to do with that time and money than any generation that has gone before us. Given such spare capacity and broad possibility, most of us engage in a remarkable amount of useless things.
Back in the days of the Old Testament the most popular form of social uselessness was religion. People collected hand crafted images of different deities. They saved up their money to take part in vibrant and colourful festivals. They travelled to distant cities to visit magnificent buildings and share exotic experiences. There was often food, music, dancing and sex involved. Religion was a booming industry which swallowed up people’s time, energy and money - even when they couldn’t afford it. The problem was that the gods which were being worshipped were useless. In fact, they were worse than useless; they didn’t exist.
The people of past millennia were not stupid. If you could sit most of them down for a straight conversation, they would admit that their supposed deities didn’t necessarily exist. What people bought into was the fun, the thrill, the fear and - more than all those - the tradition passed down through generations. They worshipped those gods because they had always worshipped those gods, and everyone around them worshipped those gods. It is the very same reasoning that leads us to engage in our portfolio of useless things.
In God’s top ten top tips for human society (traditionally known as the 10 commandments), he advises us not to devote our time, energy and money to useless things. We may like to commend yourself regarding the second commandment, claiming that we don’t prostrate ourselves before carved images of other gods. However, whenever we devote ourselves to useless things which serve no loving purpose to us or to the people around us, we make the very same mistake that our distant ancestors made when they worshipped idols.
Devote your time, effort and energy to useful things instead.

Wednesday, 22 August 2018

10 Commandments - or not

There is a considerable difference between a command and some advice. In our system of road signs we have both categories. There are circular signs which establish specific rules that must be obeyed, and there are triangular signs which give warnings or advice. If you pass a circular sign saying “30”, it is informing you of a mandatory speed limit. If you exceed that speed limit you are liable to prosecution. A triangular sign saying “30” is advising you that you are coming up to a hazard that needs to be taken slowly. If you exceed the suggested speed, you are not liable to prosecution, but you are in danger of ending up in a ditch.
The '10 Commandments’ are one of the most recognised features of Jewish/Christian faith. Almost everyone knows that God gave ten fundamental commands to his people. Most people would agree that they are a good selection, and are worthy of respect. So you may be surprised to learn that the Bible text doesn’t actually refer to the “ten commandments” at any point. The idea that God gave 10 mandatory ‘commands' came into our religious tradition much later, some time after the Old Testament was completed (which happened 1000 years after Moses’ famous trip to Mount Sinai). According to the language of the Old Testament, God spoke ten “words”, not “commandments". There is a world of difference between a “word” and a “commandment”.
Despite it not being a Biblical term, the idea of there being 10 fundamental commandments has weighed heavily on both Jews and Christians for many centuries. This tragic mistranslation has led us to imagine God as a divine traffic cop, lurking round every corner of our lives armed with a speed radar in order to catch and punish anyone who doesn’t keep his law. That is not an image that God ever intended to burden us with.
God’s “Ten Words”, are intended as triangular signs, not round ones. God is not looking to catch us out and punish us; he is looking to give us essential advice to help us avoid spinning off life’s road and hurting someone.
I have just returned from a holiday in rural Wales where there are a lot of tight bends on single track roads. In that setting, advisory road signs are a great help. The gloomy reality of council expenditure leads me to assume that those corners which are adorned with a sign are the ones where serious accidents most often happen. A similar understanding can be applied to God’s “Ten Words”. They were not given to identify traps that God is expecting to catch us in, they are there to highlight the damaging errors that we are most likely to make.
It is worth looking afresh at God’s chosen “words" (Exodus 20). God is not setting himself as your judge, but as your friend.

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.

Thursday, 17 May 2018

Humans are Awesome

If you were to give the human race marks out of ten, what score would you give to our species? If you watch or read the news a lot, you may be inclined to give us a fairly low score. God would disagree with you. Indeed, the writers of Genesis were keen to remind us that when God saw what kind of a job he had done in creating the human race, he was very pleased with the outcome. Surely that warrants a high score?
There is a strand of Christian teaching which replies: ‘Yes, but then it all went horribly wrong because Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit!’ Don’t be so hasty! God knew what Adam and Eve were like. He had made them, after all. He put that tree, laden with forbidden fruit, right in the middle of their garden, knowing that it looked very appealing to his new creation. It was a test; a choice; a decision which God offered us, that had both positive and negative consequences. We chose to take the knowledge of good and evil, and that has affected the path of human history ever since. But it doesn’t stop the human race from being awesome. And it doesn’t stop God from loving his handiwork.
Jesus told Nicodemus that the very reason why God gave his own son to the tool-making inhabitants of Planet Earth was that he loves us so much. We still get a high score from God.
It has become common practice for us to look down our collective nose at our own species. So let’s pause and take in a different perspective - God’s perspective. Human beings are wonderful creatures, made - in some significant way - in the pattern of God himself. We humans are awesome, and well worth loving. In God’s mind, even those people who you find very irritating are well eminently lovable.

Saturday, 12 May 2018

Learning with Jesus

At the age of thirty, Jesus presented himself to the world as a teacher. To be a teacher - then as now - you need two things: some pupils and a subject.
For pupils, Jesus gathered an assortment of inquisitive men and women who lived near his new home in the bustling Galilean town of Capernaum. They were ordinary working folk who showed an active interest in Jesus’ specialist subject - the coming together of heaven with everyday life.
Jesus’ teaching quickly gained popularity. It wasn’t a high-brow, ivory tower education, with noses in books and heads in the clouds. Jesus taught people at their place of work, with examples taken from the everyday realities of farming, fishing and financial affairs.
If you were to attend one of Jesus’ lessons, this is the sort of thing you would learn:

  • Everyone knows there’s a law against murder, but I say to you, don’t even insult people or be rude to them. God cares about that just as much.
  • There’s no need to make oaths, simply be honest in everything you say.
  • If someone does something bad to you, don’t take revenge, let it pass. That’s what God is like.
  • Anyone can be friendly and generous to their friends or to people who will pay them back. Be different. Be friendly to your enemies and generous to people who can never pay you back.
  • Don’t try to impress other people with your religion. They may be impressed, but God won’t be.
  • Don’t worry about the future. Trust the future to God and focus on today. That’s quite enough to be worrying about!
  • All in all - treat other people the way you would want them to treat you.

A great deal of religious teaching is about the things you supposedly need to do in order to get into heaven. Jesus’ teaching was different. He tells us about the things we need to do to bring heaven into our everyday lives.

Thursday, 26 April 2018


When James Bond sets off to save the world, he usually does it on his own. There is a romantic appeal in a lone hero overcoming the complex forces of evil singlehanded. In the real world, however, there is only so much that a solitary person can achieve on their own.
In the familiar iconography of Christianity, Jesus is usually presented as a lone figure. Artists put a distance between him and any people around him; they dress him in contrasting clothes which exaggerate his separateness. The Jesus of popular culture is an isolated figure, saving the world singlehandedly - like James Bond does (but without the gun fights or miraculous gadgets supplied by Q Branch).
This solitary image of Jesus is inaccurate. All four Gospels inform us that the first thing he did when he began his ministry was to assemble a team. Three years later, they tell us - in some detail - how the very last thing Jesus did before being handed over to death, was to get that same team together for a big supper. At that supper Jesus emphasised the importance of teamwork, urging his team to continue to work together. “If you love one another, then people will know that you are my disciples.”
Jesus’ clear decision of working with a team was closely copied by those who carried on his work. When Paul split off from team-Barnabas, he quickly assembled team-Paul - first picking Silas, then Timothy and then Luke. Paul, who is also portrayed as something of a loner, was as much a team player as Jesus.
Twenty centuries later our image of Jesus and Paul as solitary operators misdirects our expectations of church life. It is quite common for people to arrive at church, worship, and leave, without particularly engaging with any of the people around them. This is not the way of doing things that Jesus gave us.
If we are to have any chance of saving the world, we are going to need to teamwork.

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Brute Force & God's Blessing

In the age of computers, brute force is a commodity who’s general value is in decline. We live in an age in which celebrity comes from a skill with smart and sassy one-liners, not from wielding a basic weapon to devastating effect.
Samson lived in a very different age to our own. With his violent temper, his rudely blunt way of talking, his weakness for prostitutes, and his love of killing, he doesn’t fit comfortably into our idea of a man (or woman) of God.
The story of Samson covers four chapters of our Bible. It follows him from his miraculous conception to his murderous death. His career of destruction spanned at least three disastrous relationships with women he fancied but never managed to love, and brought a violent end to thousands of human lives. Samson was rude. He was arrogant. He was stupid. And yet he was God’s chosen agent in that place and at that time.
Faith communities the world over tend to have very particular ideas about the kind of man or woman who makes a godly leader. There is a certain level of intelligence expected, a certain morality demanded, a certain social skilfulness required. We like our faith leaders to be clean-cut, polite, and pastorally sensitive. Samson was none of these things, and yet he was God’s chosen agent in that place and at that time.
God is the creator of the entire universe. He is the loving heavenly father of the entire human race. God does not travel along the same narrow pathways that we chose to tread, often consciously following where other generations have gone before us - mistakes included.
The brutal story of Samson is a reminder that God does not always pick the good people or the nice people. Samson’s talent was brute force. He excelled at it. And in that place and at that time it was precisely the skill-set that God required.
This is not an encouragement to grab the nearest fresh jawbone of an ass and slaughter as many people as you can. It is an encouragement to look again at the people who you don’t like, or don’t trust. God loves those people dearly, and in a certain place and a certain time, they may be just what he needs in this world.

Thursday, 12 April 2018

Faith in Doubt

In the world of religion, doubt is generally seen as a bad thing. Religious groups run much more comfortably when all the members share a common set of beliefs. When someone questions those accepted beliefs, or expresses an alternative understanding, they tend to be seen as a problem that needs to be solved. Through the long and tangled history of religion (and politics), very many people have been exiled, tortured or killed for expressing doubt. It is, unsurprisingly, a common feature of human culture that we keep our doubts to ourselves. It’s safer that way.

Thomas was one of Jesus’ core group of pupils, and the only one of that group who was not present when a surprisingly alive Jesus joined his disciples for supper just two days after his execution. It must have been very difficult for Thomas. While he was working through the first phases of grief following Jesus’ brutal demise, his best friends were bouncing around with unprecedented joy, claiming that they had seen Jesus alive. Thomas’s doubt is entirely understandable. His friends’ story was absurd. People do not calmly turn up to supper two days after their own (very public) death. It was a reasonable doubt.
I suspect that for the whole of the following week, Thomas was repeatedly criticised by his friends for not understanding things the way that they did. Since then, centuries of Christian tradition has looked down its collective nose at 'Doubting Thomas'. Jesus, however, did not criticise or reprimand Thomas for doubting; he simply showed his nail-pierced hands and feet and allowed Thomas time to recalibrate his understanding of reality.
There is nothing wrong with doubt. Doubt is a fundamental part of faith. It is what separates faith from certainty. And that is good, because certainty is brittle, whereas faith is robust.
Thomas wasn’t the only one of Jesus’ disciples to doubt the story of the resurrection. Matthew’s Gospel informs us that others did too. What marks Thomas out is that he was the one who was honest about his doubt. 
Most of us, like Matthew’s unnamed doubters, keep our questions and uncertainties to ourselves. We are secret doubters, afraid of how others will react if we admit the points on which our grasp of things is different from the prevailing trend. That is a weakness - both in us and in the communities to which we belong. It would be so much better if we learned to trust our uncertainties, if we could have faith in our doubts, and in the doubts of the people around us.

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

God's Style Statement

Projecting the right image is sometimes important. Some of us spend longer standing in front of our wardrobes than others, but all of us know that at certain times we need to take control of how others see us. Jesus had one of those moments on the day he arrived in Jerusalem, five days before his death.
The city was awash with rumours and theories about the unconventional rabbi from Nazareth. Some were saying that he was sent by God; others believed he was inspired by the devil. The more energetically the first group dreamed of making Jesus their king, the more carefully the latter group planned his execution. Jesus needed to make a statement that would direct people’s minds away from their pre-set fears and fantasies, and focus their attention on the priorities of God.
Jesus had spent a few years trying to tell people, and show them, what God is like, but they had consistently failed to shift from their deeply ingrained assumptions. It was time for a different approach. Rather than talk to people, he decided to show them the kind of Messiah that God had raised up. To achieve this, he chose to enter Jerusalem riding on a donkey.
I highly recommend doing an internet image search for “man riding donkey” (there is a small sample in the attached picture). Apart from the occasional paying tourist or comedy stunt, there is a certain consistency of style among the donkey riders of the world. Again and again you see low status, hard working people going about the dull routines of their lives. This was Jesus’ style statement. This is the kind of man he was, and that he intended to be. If Jesus was indeed God’s Messiah, God’s anointed one, then this is the kind of God Jesus represented.
A second internet image search for “religious leaders” brings a very different set of images, featuring a remarkable array of long robes and strange hats, with the occasional tailored suit. It would have been much the same in Jesus’ day, and Jesus deliberately chose a strongly contrasting image.
He decided to make a style statement - a message without words. He was the one appointed and anointed by God to reveal to the world what God is really like. He chose to do that by riding a donkey.

Thursday, 22 March 2018

Good Instincts

We all know the experience of going about our business - coping with the familiar stresses and strains of life - when something unexpected happens, which pressurises and challenges us. At moments like that we tend to reveal our true colours. The usual internal mechanisms that strive to project a positive image to the world do not have the chance to adapt. Caught off balance, our deeper instincts take over, and the world gets a glimpse of what we are really like under the surface.
This happened to Jesus one day when he was travelling with his followers. Unexpectedly, a man with leprosy came right up to him and begged him to make him better.
In those days leprosy was thought to be highly contagious; it was also understood to be a divine punishment for sin. Someone who had leprosy was not permitted to enter a town or village for fear of physical contact. Anyone who touched someone with leprosy immediately became ritually unclean, and could not return to normal life until they had performed a complex set of religious cleansing rituals. No wonder leprosy was greatly feared!
Most people, guided by social convention, would have backed off from the infected man. They would do so to protect themselves, claiming - in their defence - that they were following the requirements of law and custom. Jesus was not that sort of a person.
In that off-guard moment when Jesus reacted on instinct, his instinct was to reach out and to care. He touched the untouchable man. That’s the kind of person Jesus was. His impulse was not directed by personal fear, social habit or religious law, but by pity (arguably even anger) for the wretched circumstance that society had put the man in.
In the 21st century we also have our own social conventions that make us shy away from people in real need. We easily justify our lack of compassion citing something that we have seen on television, or been told by some expert of the other.
Jesus demonstrates that humanity can be better than that. We can become people whose primary instinct - like his - is to care and to help.

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Found in the Crowd

Crowds are powerful things. Whether it is travelling at rush hour, shopping in the sales, enjoying a festival, or attending a demonstration, crowds affect us. They undermine our individuality. They suck us into communal behaviour. When we are in a crowd, whether we like it of not, we become part of that crowd. This can be a wonderful experience (at a party, a concert or a festival); it can also be terrifying.
Jesus, it seems, had a remarkable resistance to the draw of mob mentality. Even when jostled and shoved by those tightly packed around him in ancient Palestine’s narrow streets, he was able to maintain his own focus and be attentive to unique individuals around him.
On one notable day, Jesus was approaching the city of Jericho with a crowd of excited Galileans, who wrongly believed that their hero was travelling to Jerusalem to proclaim himself as king of the Jewish people. Just as this animated crowd were squeezing their way through the city gates, Jesus stopped. Above all the noise of the crowd he had heard a voice calling out for help. The voice belonged to a blind beggar called Bartimaeus. Jesus talked with him, cured him of his blindness, reassured him of the high value of his faith in God, and then resumed his journey.
A few minutes later, when the same crowd was squashed into the tightly packed streets of the city, Jesus stopped for another needy individual in the crowd. This wasn’t a handicapped beggar, but one of the richest (and possibly loneliest) individuals in Jericho: the chief tax-collector, Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus - a man famous for his finances, not his faith - was so keen to see Jesus that he climbed a tree to get a better look. Nobody else cared, but Jesus noticed, and invited himself to eat at Zacchaeus’ home.
I don’t know how Jesus picked out those two, contrasting, yet equally needy individuals from all the noise and bustle of that excited crowd. But he did. That’s the kind of person he was. That is what God is like.

Thursday, 1 March 2018

Making Life Easier

When Jesus thought about the role that religion played in the lives of the people around him, he came up with the image of an ox, fitted with a cumbersome wooden yoke, trudging along, pulling a heavy load behind it. It is not an inspiring image.
We live in an age which is increasingly sceptical of organised religion. Many of the people around us would share Jesus’ impression. All too often, religion weighs people down and ties them up them up in its rules. What should be a liberating influence in their lives, becomes an additional complication, an additional expense - an additional burden to carry.
What Jesus observed was that for all the extra demand that religion put on people’s lives, it still didn’t bring them any closer to God. His life’s work was to show people that they could come to God and experience his love without any of the paraphernalia of religion, and without the heavy load of guilt that a law-based faith imposed on anyone who tried to follow it.
"Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Sadly, the Christian religion has repeatedly failed to follow Jesus’ lead. Christianity has defined its own laws, and established its own set of religious rituals; it has repeatedly made heavy demands on people’s finances, and imposed tight controls on their personal lives. Christianity has placed on its followers the very same burdens of guilt and fear that Jesus was seeking to alleviate.
We need to follow Jesus’ lead. Our role, as carriers of his beautiful message, is to lighten the load of people who feel weighed down by the complications of life, and assure them that close relationship with God is easy, not difficult. Our role is to release people from guilt, and remind them that the only law that matters is the call to love God and neighbour.
If we are not making life easier for people, if our yoke is not easy and our burden not light, then we are not doing the work of Jesus.

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Jesus' Gender Politics

Gender equality is a big issue around the world today: from equal pay for Hollywood superstars to educational bias in schools. We know it’s only fair for men and women to be treated equally, but society finds it strangely difficult to put into practice.
The Christian Church has been a bastion of male domination for centuries. One brief comment by St Paul, backed up by the fact that Jesus’ 12 apostles were all men, has been been enough to justify extremely unequal treatment of women.
The historical context of Jesus’ life, however, tells a very different story. Jesus was, in fact, a trailblazer for the inclusion of women.
St Luke tells us that when Jesus went on tour with his disciples, the group included a number of women - who he names. The world of 1st century rabbis and disciples was an exclusively male province. Wives and girlfriends were left at home. Luke isn’t telling us that Jesus took his own domestic staff with him; he is telling us that Jesus’ mission team was made up of both men and women.
Luke also tells us the wonderful story of Mary and Martha. While Martha was busy cooking dinner, her sister, Mary, was ‘sitting at Jesus feet, listening to what he was saying’. We imagine Mary sat on the floor like a child or a pet, but that is completely the wrong image. Rabbis would sit on the floor with their most senior disciples sitting directly in front of them. Lesser disciples sat in rows behind, and those who were just listening to their teaching would stand around the edge and at the back. But Mary was sitting at Jesus’ feet which places her right at the front with Jesus’ core group of most valued disciples. Martha struggled to accept that Mary should be sitting with the men, but Jesus robustly defended her right to be there.
Some time later, Mary showed that her place in Jesus’ front row was well deserved. She was the one who anointed Jesus with expensive perfume, expressing her understanding and acceptance of his decision to let the authorities arrest and kill him. Jesus’ male disciples all struggled to grasp his intention to die, but front-row-Mary clearly understood.
Jesus’ female followers were not his support crew; they were the ones who best understood his mission. They were the ones who were still there at his death, when all but one of their male colleagues had run away.
Jesus understood the importance and distinctive value of women. He broke deeply established conventions to have women in his team. As we struggle with the gender challenges of our day, we would do well to follow his example.

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Being Yourself - Sunday 11th February 2018

There is an intriguing story from the final days of Jesus’ life, that relates a moment when one of the many Marys anointed his feet using some staggeringly expensive perfume, causing a embarrassed debate amongst his disciples. John’s account of the incident states that the perfume was worth a year’s wages, and identifies Judas as the disciple who questioned whether it would have been better for the perfume to be sold and the proceeds given to the poor.
I find myself to be firmly on Judas’ side in this. Surely, to pour such an extravagance over Jesus’ feet was a pointless waste of resources which could have been used to much better effect elsewhere.
Jesus, however, defended Mary - boldly and strongly. And so I find my own attitude to be lovingly rebuked, along with Judas.
The story shows Jesus to be a man who is very comfortable in his own skin. Most of us would be hideously embarrassed to have someone attending to our feet in the middle of a dinner party, but Jesus seems untroubled.
Despite the moral outrage being expressed, Jesus allowed Mary to be herself, and to proceed with the action that she, in her own wisdom, had chosen. He made no attempt to control her, or correct or redirect her actions.
This is a consistent theme throughout Jesus' life. He did not attempt to control people, or tell them how they should behave. He allowed people to follow the paths that they have chosen, and continued to love them. Even on the last day of his life, Jesus did not interfere with the actions of the high priests, Pontius Pilate or Herod. He let them be themselves, even though that would lead to his death.
The history of religion (including Christianity) is very much a history of control. Religion regulates and restricts people’s lives, telling them what they may or may not do. Yet Jesus does not. He defended Mary’s choice - outrageously extravagant though it was - and commended her for it.
Our religions seek to limit and control our choices in so many ways, but God - it seems - loves for us to be lovingly and generously ourselves.

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

A Beautiful Message - Sunday 14th January 2018

We all know something beautiful when we come across it. Although each of us has a unique taste for beauty, there is a surprising consensus across the whole human race when it comes to identifying something as beautiful.
In English speaking Christianity, we are familiar with the word ‘Gospel’, but it is a word that has no independent meaning in our language outside its New Testament context, so it makes little impact on us. The word that St Paul used (on 60 different occasions) was a word that had immediate meaning to his readers - it meant ‘beautiful message’.
During Paul’s 30 year mission, the growth in Jesus’ followers across the Roman empire was enormous. One of the key factors to that exponential growth was the fact that Paul’s message was a beautiful one. Paul had a message that delighted people’s hearts, that eased their guilt, that guided their lives. Almost everywhere Paul travelled, there was an instant response to the simple beauty of Jesus’ message.
In the centuries that have followed, Christianity’s message has not always been beautiful. The church has repeatedly condemned and accused, threatening people with punishment rather than showing them divine love. Christian leaders have been quick to forbid, but slow to forgive.
The message of Jesus was beautiful, and immediately recognisable as being so. We human beings love to be encouraged, affirmed, loved and forgiven; we dislike being criticised, judged, threatened or condemned. Today, we are the messengers of the ‘Gospel’; we are the ambassadors of Jesus. If our message as a church or as individual Christians is not recognisably beautiful, then it is not ‘Gospel’.
Say something beautiful to someone this week.

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Good for the Universe - Sunday 7th January 2018

God exists in the universe with good purpose, and that good purpose extends to planet Earth and to the human race. The life and teaching of Jesus was, and remains, an eloquent expression of God’s good purpose. If you want to know how God engages with his universe and with humanity in particular, then the life of Jesus is an expression of that in terms of reference that we minuscule humans can grasp.
The life and teaching of Jesus is just as pertinent today where we live, as it was in Galilee two thousand years ago, though the immediate example of Jesus himself is no longer there. But we needn’t panic; God has a plan for that. God has a plan for there to be a living example of his good purposes, this very week right where you are. That plan is you.
We would all be wise, at this point, to remind ourselves that there is no way that any one of us can be the living continuation of Jesus. We can’t. But we can be the living continuation of one small but significant part of what Jesus did and represented. And then, if we link together with other people who represent other aspects of Jesus’ life, God’s good plan is still in business.
St Paul understood the effectiveness of godly people as being akin to a human body. Each one of us is like a particular limb or organ. Each one of us has a significant part to play. And each one of us needs the others around us to play their different, significant parts for the whole organism to operate effectively.
God exists in the universe with good purpose, and that good purpose involves you. When each of us does what we can of Jesus’ work, in active partnership with one another, God’s universe is a better place.

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Ready for the Future - Sunday 31st December 2017

Each of us has hopes and expectations for the year ahead. We hope - of course - that our lives will be fruitful and comfortable, but we don’t actually know what awaits us on our journey through 2018.
Anyone with a basic knowledge of the Bible's story knows that God doesn't promise an easy path for his people. Jesus said on the matter, “The gate that leads to life is narrow, and the road is hard.” So please forgive me for pointing out this obvious truth: there will be challenges and difficulties in the coming year.
When Jesus was a small tot, his mother, Mary, had been through a tough year. In addition to the usual discomforts and indignities of pregnancy, she had seen her proposed marriage teeter on the verge of divorce; she had been forced to relocate to an unfamiliar town, 100 miles from home; and she had ended up laying her newborn son in an animals’ food trough because there was no space anywhere else. She must have been hoping that the coming year would be a bit easier. Little did Mary know that the paranoid ruler of Judea, Herod the Great, was about to order the execution of every baby boy in Bethlehem.
God doesn’t promise an easy path for his people. Not even for his own son.
However, God doesn’t simply abandon us to disaster. He may not protect us from difficulty, but he does provide for us when it comes. The day before Mary was forced to flee, a group of wealthy priest/magicians turned up at their home. These unlikely visitors affirmed Mary in the importance of her little child. They also provided her with valuable trading goods (frankincense & myrrh, along with gold). Little did Mary know, as she received those unexpected gifts, how useful they would be in the very near future.
God was not going to spare his loved ones from life’s difficulties, but he did ensure that they were suitably provided for as they fled to Egypt in the middle of the night.
We have no idea what lies ahead of us in this new year; it won’t all be easy, for sure. God won’t insulate us from difficulties, that’s not his way, but he will ensure that we have what we need to get through them.