Thursday, 28 March 2019

Called to be normal

There’s a big gap in the story of Jesus’ life - a gap that stretches for eighteen years. At the age of twelve, he decided to stay in Jerusalem after Passover in order to learn at the feet of Israel’s most famous rabbis. His plan didn’t last long. Mary and Joseph tracked him down and insisted that he return with them to Nazareth. Next we hear, Jesus was thirty years old as he began his public work as a rabbi. What had he been doing for eighteen years?
A few months into his teaching ministry, Jesus returned to Nazareth, where - as far as we can tell - he had spent those eighteen years. Nazareth was a tiny village, the sort of place where everyone knows everyone. His old neighbours were astounded to see what, for them, was a totally new aspect of Jesus. They said, "Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?”
It seems that for the first eighteen years of his adult life, Jesus’ primary calling was to be ordinary. It seems that for those eighteen years, the neighbours who saw him every day didn’t notice anything exceptional about him.
The writer of the letter to the Hebrews reflected on this: “He had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God.”
If normal life was a calling for Jesus, then it can be a calling for us too. We easily undervalue our daily existence, but human life is - in fact - remarkable. Even the every day routines of cooking and washing up are remarkable. There is no other known creature in the universe that does anything like it.
God honoured and sanctified the day to day routines of our lives when he chose to live them out for eighteen years in an obscure hillside village on the edge of the Roman Empire. So, next time you stand at the sink or the washing line, doing what has to be done, pause to reflect that God’s call reaches us even there. Do it well!

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

Thursday, 21 March 2019

Looking at the heart

We all make judgements about people. We make them instantly. The moment we see someone, we make judgements about them. We can’t help it. Within a fraction of a second we assess someone’s age, gender, race, social class, relative wealth, general health and prevailing mood. We are remarkably good at it. It is a key skill for our survival.
However, it is a skill that is nonetheless flawed and limited. As we grow up, we learn to make value judgements about different kinds of people. We adopt common generalisations, and come to value some people more than others. This is an entirely natural way of processing information, but it is also a fertile seedbed for racism, sexism and all manner of unhelpful isms.
Three thousand years ago, the prophet Samuel was tasked with anointing a new king for the ancient nation of Israel. The first king had gone off the rails and God was preparing to bring on a substitute. Samuel went, as directed, to the now-famous town of Bethlehem and announced to a man called Jesse that one of his sons would be the next king. Jesse's eldest son was quickly introduced to the prophet. Samuel was impressed. From his perspective as a seasoned political leader, Samuel saw in Eliab an ideal candidate - tall, distinguished, steady, and and experienced soldier - qualities needed in a king. God did not agree. God said to Samuel, "Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature. I do not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but I look on the heart.”
One by one, six more of Jesse’s sons were brought to Samuel and each one of them got the divine thumbs down. Somewhat confused, Samuel asked the old man if he had any more sons. Jesse’s reply was dismissive: “There’s the youngest. He’s only a shepherd.” Samuel insisted the youth was summoned. As soon as he saw David, Samuel understood what it is that God looks for in a person. David was different from his older, wealthier brothers. He was bright eyed, and - more to the point - his heart was in the right place. 
When we rely on our natural instincts to assess people, the assumptions of our upbringing and the prejudices of our community distract us. Like Samuel, we need to learn to look beyond people’s outward appearance. We need to look through the windows of their eyes into the state of their heart. When we learn to do that, we will begin to notice all sorts of things that God is doing in our world.

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

Wednesday, 6 March 2019

Following Judas

In most Christian tradition, Judas is seen as an archetypal baddie. In Dante’s ‘Inferno’, Judas occupies the innermost circle of hell. We have a long tradition of rejecting and condemning the man who handed Jesus over to the Jewish authorities. But, for a moment, let’s put all that cultural negativity to one side and remember that Judas was called by Jesus to be one of his disciples. He was then further called to be one of the twelve apostles. He was sent out to proclaim Jesus’ message and to heal those who were sick. He was there at the last supper; Jesus washed his feet, and shared broken bread with him. It was at this moment that Judas received his most challenging calling - Jesus leaned across the table, handed Judas a piece of bread and said to him, "Do quickly what you are going to do.” Judas was specifically called by Jesus to hand him over.
Because our minds are weighed down with assumptions of Judas’ guilt, we imagine Jesus’ instruction to have been deeply ironic. But irony wasn’t Jesus’ style. Also, if it was ironic, none of the others round that table noticed it. John reports, "No one at the table knew why Jesus said this to Judas. Some thought that Jesus was telling him to give something to the poor.”
The defence of Judas begins to gain ground when you realise that the word “betray”, which is applied to him 38 times, doesn’t actually mean “betray”. The word used by all four Gospel writers means “to hand over”. It is exactly the same word they use for Caiaphas handing Jesus over to Pilate, for Pilate handing Jesus over to be crucified, and for Jesus handing over his own spirit to death. In all the many times this word appears in the Bible, it is consistently translated as “hand over”, except when applied to Judas. Judas has been stitched up by the translators.
The narrative itself tells a different story. Jesus instructed Judas to do what he needed to do, knowing that Judas would guide the authorities to the Garden of Gethsemane. An hour or so later, Jesus knowingly led the rest of his disciples to that very spot, where he anxiously waited for Judas to arrive. Jesus had arranged with Judas for him to effect the first in a series of handovers, which would lead to Jesus’ death. That was God’s plan. Judas wasn’t betraying Jesus. Jesus was in on the plan. Judas was fulfilling the mission that Jesus had called him to.
There may be times, for any of us, when we are called by God into Judas’ company, when we are called by God to do something that will be misunderstood and condemned by others, but which is, nonetheless, fundamentally part of God’s plan. These are the toughest callings. Jeremiah discovered just how tough they can be. Are you ready to follow Judas?

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