Monthly Archives: May 2009


Just found this wonderful video of Eddi Reader singing a song I didn’t know by Si Kahn called ‘What You Do with What You’ve Got’, thanks to an email from Tia Cox on the Boo Hewerdine email discussion group.

There are lyrics here. I loved

It’s not how big your share is
It’s how much you can share


What’s the use of the finest voice if you’ve nothing good to say

The wonderful Boo Hewerdine himself is on guitar, and Thomas Dolby is on piano.

UPDATE: WordPress won’t post this video, because it’s not compatible with their ‘shortcodes’. However, click here to see this glorious performance of this beautiful song.

UPDATE #2: Found a version of the video on YouTube, to make it easier for you all …

MPs’ Expenses

I’ve shied away from this topic so far. So many of the obvious things have already been said. It’s easy to jump on the bandwagon. It’s easy to be carried along with a public tide of anger and bloodlust.

But today, I’ve caved in. The relentless daily reporting of the affair by the Telegraph has today hit on something that makes me hopping mad. It’s not another claim for cleaning a moat or a duck home, or another of life’s little essentials. No. The Chancellor of the Exchequer can’t do his own tax return. In fact, he is one of nine Cabinet members who have claimed accountancy fees back from the (now infamous) Fees Office.

Why does this touch a raw nerve with me? Because once again, they are doing something I can’t. My wife and I both have to endure the nasty process that is self-assessment of income tax. In my case, although the majority of my income is my stipend, paid through PAYE, I get the occasional (very occasional, here!) additional fees, and I can set a number of things against that as legitimate and honest business expenses. My wife is not in paid employment, but we have held onto her house, ready for retirement. In the meantime, we rent it out through a letting agent. That income has to be declared for tax purposes, and again certain things such as repairs, can be set against that income as a business expense. While she was still paying a mortgage on the property, that mortgage was not an allowable expense, even though a major reason for letting was to cover that cost.

Oh – and guess what – neither of us is allowed to claim our accountant’s fees as a business expense. Do you see why I’m angry? MPs have agreed to a system on the timeless principles of ‘One rule for you, one rule for me’; ‘Do as I say, not as I do’.

It’s not as if this is the only example. This Parliament passed legislation that made it more difficult for religious organisations to employ exclusively people of their faith. Jobs within a religious company now have to pass a ‘Genuine Occupational Requirement’ test if the organisation is to insist on employing someone who shares their faith. Guess which category of organisation was exempted from this legislation? Political parties.

So the first reason to be mad at the politicians is the old favourite of double standards. Politicians have faced a standard charge of hypocrisy for years; the expenses scandal is hard evidence. The politicians we will trust will be those who display transparency.

We also need representatives who will to some extent identify with their constituents. I do not mean that they should not receive a good income for doing a demanding and responsible job, nor that they should not be properly reimbursed for all genuine expenses, but the problem shows that several have lost touch with reality. We saw this last August when Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg announced that he and his wife were switching their shopping from Ocado to Sainsbury’s. Poor dears: they have to survive on his parliamentary salary and her pay as a lawyer. It must be tough keeping that £1.3 million house in Putney going. If this is how detached from ordinary life a party leader has become, then we’re all in trouble, and the expenses row only underlines that.

For as a Christian, I find myself using the words ‘representation’ and ‘identification’ closely. Not in a political sense,  but in talking about the life of Jesus. The incarnation and Cross both show his identification with humankind. Without them, he could not represent us and in any sense be a substitute in his atoning death. From a faith point of view, then, identification and representation have to be brought together. They have been forced wide apart in some Parliamentary circles, and the expenses stories only bring into focus an existing dangerous situation. MPs cannot truly represent us if they do not identify with us. For some, that ought to mean actually living (well, their main residences) in their constituencies. I notice in this scandal that a few don’t even do that.

But in the midst of this, something encourages me. It has been a common refrain among some of those exposed by the reporting to claim that everything they did was ‘within the rules’. I find it heartening that the public generally has not swallowed this as a reasonable defence. If the rules allowed such extravagant claims, then the rules are wrong. As I read what is going on here, the promising sign is that our society will not accept a defence on the grounds that MPs fulfilled the letter of the law. People are looking for an attitude that keeps the spirit of the law. Often I think our society is pretty sick: that strikes me as a healthy sign. If we follow this through, we shall seek not only reform of MPs but of the Fees Office, given that some have reported how it encouraged MPs to see the Additional Costs Allowance as an allowance to bolster their paltry £64,000 salary, rather than a limit of allowable expenses.

If we are to react healthily, though, we must ensure that not all MPs are tarred with same brush. Church leaders know all about that problem. To many in the outside world, I am either fleecing the flock (have they seen my tattered ten-year-old car?) or interfering with children. We have to keep level heads and not assume that ‘they are all at it’. My own MP, Simon Burns, has made large claims but nowhere has it been suggested that he has lacked integrity. (Contrast that with neighbouring MP Sir Alan Haselhurst, a deputy Speaker and possible replacement for Michael Martin as Speaker. His garden upkeep has cost £11,000.)

And integrity is a watchword for both public and Parliament at this time. Every case must be judged according to the evidence, not according to a desire for revenge or to meet a political agenda. It’s not about either party meeting a minimum standard, but longing to be the best people we can possibly be, as Rowan Williams said in a commentary in The Times.

Yet if that is to be the case, one big unanswered question for me is to wonder about the motives of the Daily Telegraph in reporting this day by day. They are known as a Conservative newspaper, yet having started by picking out Labour politicians, they have exposed Tories as well. Is that evidence of neutrality in the pursuit of truth? It would be good if it were. Is it just a professional desire to sell papers? Or is it something else? I don’t know.

However, I do notice that one MP who has been aggrieved by their coverage, the Conservative Nadine Dorries, has raised particular suspicions against the Barclay brothers who own the Telegraph. No sooner has she made allegations about them and the UK Independence Party than her blog disappears, with fingers pointed at the Telegraph. Tim Montgomerie reproduced the offending paragraph at Conservative Home on Friday. A Plaid Cymru blogger has suggested that timing is everything in this row. These expenses would have been reported publicly in July. Why report now? There are elections (including European ones) in June. If the Barclay brothers are as fiercely Eurosceptic as some have claimed, and if it’s also true they don’t consider the mainline parties Eurosceptic enough, you can see why Dorries would make her point about securing support for UKIP or the evil BNP. Certainly there has been widespread opinion expressed that disgust at the expenses scandal will lead to protest votes in favour of the smaller parties.

(In this respect, mainstream politicians should take comfort both from Rowan Williams’ Times article linked to above, where he calls us to move on, and his joint statement with John Sentamu, where he urges people not to vote for the BNP. And – in case you hadn’t gathered by now – I refuse to link to the BNP.)

Whether Dorries is right, I do not know. It is all based on circumstantial evidence, and I don’t really buy the shtick that used to appear on her blog along the lines of “I’m just a Scouser” or “I’m just a former nurse”. If that were all she were, she wouldn’t have made it to Parliament. Will she end up on Celebrity Big Brother? But for so long as the Telegraph and the Barclay brothers stay mum, suspicions will remain. The Telegraph is right to call for transparency from MPs, but that means it should itself be transparent.

Which means there is a right and proper place in this debate to consider not only the integrity of MPs and – as I have argued – the public, but also of the press. A fortnight ago, Bishop Nick Baines called for journalists to reveal their expenses, receipts and diary records. He said:

They might not be ‘public servants’, paid from the public purse, but they wield enormous power and don’t usually disclose their influences.

Don’t hold your breath.

And he has a point. It’s the integrity question again. If you accuse somebody of a misdemeanour, you’d better be sure you’re not guilty of it yourself. It has been only too easy, as I’ve shown above, to establish a case that some MPs have behaved hypocritically. Unpopular as it may seem, then, a Christian message at this time is not only to denounce injustice, but for all parties (not just political ones) to examine themselves. Logs and specks in the eye, that sort of thing. ‘Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner’ should be central in all our thinking at all times, but especially now.

UPDATE, Tuesday 26th May: I now gather that Nadine Dorries’ blog is back, minus the controversial post. Thanks to David Keen. She remains deeply critical of the Telegraph, and not just from her own personal experience. However, the more this particular individual incident goes on, the more you wonder whether the Barclay brothers are aping Mark Brewer and Nadine Dorries gets the Dave Walker rôle.

UPDATE #2, Wednesday 27th May: The BBC reports this morning that HM Revenue and Customs are to investigate those ministers who claimed personal accounting costs against tax, to see whether the law has been broken.

A Revenue and Customs spokesman told the BBC: “It’s a general principle of tax law that accountancy fees incurred in connection with the completion of a personal tax return are not deductible.

“This is because the costs of complying with the law are not an allowable expense against tax. This rule applies across the board.”

Exactly what I was saying above.

Furthermore, David Grossman of the BBC television programme Newsnight undertook some investigations. One quote from the piece regarding his work:

Mr Grossman said representatives of Foreign Secretary David Miliband had given a “confused” reply to the claims.

It suggested that because he had paid accountancy fees out of his taxed income, before receiving the money back from the Commons authorities, “there was no liablility”.

“We put that point of view to a tax economist who, quite frankly, just laughed,” Mr Grossman added.

It stinks.

Worshipping At Home

As I said yesterday, I determined that since I would be housebound today I would find other resources for worship. I’ve never been happy with Songs Of Praise because a series of hymns does not of themselves make an act of worship. Likewise, the Sunday service on Radio 4 has never connected much with me. It always contained more elements of worship, but has always felt liked a précis to me.

I thought this would be a good discipline for myself to find some worship. I also thought it would be good, given the number of elderly church members who end up being temporarily or permanently housebound and reliant on whatever the airwaves bring.

Having said that, given that I was eschewing Songs Of Praise and the Sunday Service, I was looking at other delivery methods: digital TV and Internet streaming. 

This morning, I opted for TV, knowing that most of the streamed Internet sources I’d found were from North America, and time zones meant they woulnd’t be viewable until tea-time. So, going through the ‘religion’ section on the Sky TV electronic programme guide, I avoided the obvious prosperity filth from Kenneth Copeland. Likewise, I steered clear of glossy Hillsong pep talks from Brian and Bobbie Houston, and I didn’t go near Ed Young, the man who infamously put out a video complaining about sheep-stealing pastors when he sets up new churches in an area without checking with the existing ministers.

But there was something British on UCB TV, and I opted for that. AT 10 am they were showing ‘Days Of Wonder’ from New Life Church, Hull, with Jarrod Cooper. Cooper wrote the popular worship song ‘King of kings, majesty‘, which I have found a helpful, humble and orthodox piece for services.

The opening credits showed Cooper walking (around Hull?), whilst linking the programme to the church, giving a subliminal hint that New Life Church equals Jarrod Cooper. He is the senior pastor, but I’d hope he wouldn’t want to give out a message like that. There may have been an intention to communicate something else, but I have to say that is a ‘viewer response’ reading.

Then Cooper introduced the show briefly, and I thought he said we were then going over live to worship at the church. However, that clearly wasn’t the case. We went straight into his message, which was video edited for the length of the programme.

The skeleton of his talk was fine and worthy, but I was concerned by some applications. It was a sermon about the supremacy of Christ, and although he referred to biblical passages as he went along, I didn’t hear an opening passage he was expounding. Colossians 1 would have fitted nicely. He preached about the supremacy of Christ in four areas: over the church, over creation, over wisdom, and I’m afraid I’ve forgotten the fourth point.

In supremacy over the church, he was uncontroversial but what he said needs hearing. Christ is head of the church, not the Pope, not the pastor and not the trustees.

As to supremacy over creation, this is where it all started going hyper-charismatic. He only – as I recall – illustrated this from the miraculous: the feeding of the five thousand, the translation of Philip in Acts 8 etc. He spoke of a five hour car journey taking two hours. Now I don’t have any theological problem with the miraculous, but I have a pastoral concern here about balance. I am all for expanding people’s faith – often the problem I encounter in myself and others is an insufficient level of expectation about what God can do. However, if you only accent the miraculous in talking about the supremacy of Christ over creation, you are setting up other believers for a fall, when not everything works out in the Christian paperback blockbuster way they’d hoped. Furthermore, Christ’s supremacy over creation is about ongoing issues like the upholding ogf the universe by the word of his power. I have to admit, something could have been edited out, but I was left with this concern about balance from what was shown.

When he got onto the supremacy of Christ over wisdom, I got more than concerned. Don’t misunderstand me: the basic point is both sound and important. As someone who enjoys the intellectual side of faith (but sees that as an opportunity for worship), I wholeheartedly agree that all our thinking must be submitted to Christ. Yet what we got in this section of the sermon was just some bashing of left wing stereotypes. “The feminists [they’re all the same, aren’t they?] have a problem with Ephesians,” he announced. Onto the usual stuff about headship and submission and that the male/Christ headship is based on sacrificial love. Well, yes, but what is headship? Didn’t Paul say that the great mystery he was speaking about here was about Christ and the Church, in which case he’s using an illustration from the marriage patterns of his day rather than making male headship normative? Has Cooper ever read any egalitarians? Yet he sees fit to bash them.

A little while later, he announced that “Global warming is the latest religion of the Left”. Well, apart from the sloppy language – the point is, nobody adores global warming, they are devoted to reversing climate change – I thought, oh no, he sounds like the American Christians who deny the overwhelming scientific evidence. But we shouldn’t be bothered, he said, because one day God is going to roll up this planet like a blanket. If I’d had my copy of Tom Wright‘s ‘Surprised By Hope‘ to hand, I swear I would have thrown it at the TV screen. I had hoped that British evangelical-charismatics were better informed on this one, thanks to the efforts of TEAR Fund and others, but the message isn’t getting through to some of the troops.

The service ended by cutting to brief footage of prayer ministry time at the end of the service. Cooper was praying with a man who was deaf in one ear. After prayer, the man said he could hear now in that ear. I do hope and pray that is still the case. I remain convinced that it is important we ‘show ourselves to the priests’ and offer evidence to society of healings. I do believe God heals today, but we have to think about how we present those claims.

Finally, the broadcast concluded with “Buy my CD, please!” A long commercial for Cooper’s current CD. It was no different from the adverts at the end of the Brian and Bobbie Houston or Ed Young shows, it just came with an English accent, not an Australian or American one. 

What about tonight? I watched a whole Sunday service online from Saddleback in California. I was much more favourably disposed towards this, although it wasn’t without its problems. The major issue I had with it is that – like Songs Of Praise – it really didn’t contain several critical elements of worship. The order of service went as follows:

Opening worship song
Notices – these included plugs for a church classic car event and the Saddleback Comedy Connection. Huh?
Two more worship songs 
Rick Warren‘s sermon
Post-sermon prayer
Mention of where resources were available to help with follow-up to sermon
Closing song, which didn’t seem to be for congregational participation.

What’s missing? Plenty. Let’s start with prayer. No adoration – well, you could say that was included in the songs. But no confession and assurance of forgiveness – I think that’s pastorally essential. How many people are coming to worship with burdens and need that assurance? Also, no intercession, so the church didn’t function in her priestly rôle. Finally, no Bible reading before the sermon. There were plenty of individual verses in the sermon. It was a topical sermon, rather than an expository one.

The worship songs were mainstream typical ones from the likes of Tim Hughes and Joel Houston. It was a bit liked watching a truncated version of Spring Harvest big top worship. Charismatic songs without the display of charismatic gifts. 

What about the sermon? I was much more comfortable here, even if I disagreed with the occasional comment and it was too long, around seventy-plus minutes. Worshippers get a sermon outline and it was available on the website, so that helped in following what Warren had to say. He is an engaging, warm speaker with a genuine pastoral heart. The issue was less with the seventy minutes than the seven (or eight, if you count the conclusion) points he made. There was too much to take in. Yes, again you could take it away with you, but it was a lot to work on. It was the third in a series called ‘The Jesus Model’ (what kind of model, I don’t know). This one focussed on Jesus as a model for stress management, making for a timely and relevant subject. Some will talk about ‘the curse of relevance’, but I think Warren wanted the people to apply their faith to life for it to make a difference. I took some notes ready for this blog post (and for my own personal benefit, I’d like to think), and so what follows is a summary of the thoughts that struck me from the sermon.

Warren began by referring to the new film ‘Terminator Salvation‘. The synopsis says that the grown-up John Connor. in fighting the machines as part of the resistance, has a ‘purpose-driven life’ (yes, really!) and has the weight of the world on his shoulders. However, said Warren, only one person has ever truly had the weight of the entire world on his shoulders, and that was Jesus on the cross. (Brilliant illustration! If only my people knew what Terminator was!) Because of that, he above all knows how to help us with stress.

1. Identification – know who you are. If you don’t know who you are, then society will try to label you. Don’t take your identity from brand names. (Warren meets Naomi Klein?) Don’t fall into the twin traps of either copying or comparing. He could have said a little more about our identity being in Christ as beloved children, I guess, but great start. 

2. Motivation – know who you are living for. You’ll always disappoint someone. Whoever you’re dependent upon for your happiness is your god. ‘Nobody can pressure me without my permission,’ he said – not quite sure that’s right, although I can see what he’s getting at. 

3. Vocation – know your calling. He used the familiar Saddleback SHAPE analysis to emphasise that everyone has a calling to ministry of one form or another. If you don’t clarify your calling, you’ll fall victim to the tyranny of the urgent, rather than getting on with the important. 

4. Concentration – focus on what matters most. If Satan can’t make you bad, he’ll make you busy. ‘You can fill your life with good things, or you can waste your life on good things.’ ‘This one thing I do, or these forty things I dabble in?’ ‘Is what I’m doing right now fulfilling my calling?’

5. Meditation – listen to God. A quiet time, yes, but more. Warren stresed the importance of extended silence. We have to strip away to give God a chance to speak to us. He talked about meditation as being like a worrying away at a biblical text. 

6. Collaboration – join a small group.  You were never intended to handle stress by yourself. To say you don’t need a small group is either arrogance or fear. Jesus needed a small group, and he was perfect! 

7. Recreation – take time to recharge. Sabbath-keeping is in the Ten Commandments for a reason, and remember Jesus said the Sabbath was made for humans, not the other way around. When Psalm 23 says ‘He makes me lie down in green pastures’, remember that if you don’t take sabbaths, God may well make you lie down for your own good, but it mgiht take something serious like an illness to slow you down to do it. 

His conclusion was about salvation in terms of Jesus’ invitation to take hiseasy  yoke upon us and discover that his burden is light.

links for 2009-05-24

links for 2009-05-23

Streaming Nose, Streaming Worship

I continue to convalesce. Doctors and nurses warned me my nose would most likely feel blocked for up to two weeks, and I was not to blow it in the normal way. Thus I retain the bunged-up feeling almost permanently. Not only did I fail to sleep at all on Tuesday night in hospital, I am finding it difficult to sleep at home. Gernally, I get off to sleep but when I wake in the middle of the night, I can’t get back to sleep because I can’t breathe t00 easily. Three hours a night is about what I’m managing. It’s all very frustrating, and it had better be worth it in the end!

I was told to rest and stay away from large groups of people for two weeks. A major reason for this was infection control. Specifically, I have to avoid people with coughs and colds. So what did I bring home with me from hospital? A cold.

Now this raises a dilemma for tomorrow, and the following Sunday. Since I cannot attend an act of public worship, I thought I might see whether there was some streamed worship I could watch on the web. I realise such services are only likely to be broadcast from larger churches and might display some of the megachurch tendencies with which I’m uncomfortable. But I still want to find a way to observe Sunday as a day of worship, albeint on my own, and Songs Of Praise just won’t do.

So I thought I would ask whether anybody knows any sources of streamed worship they would recommend? We have broadband, but it’s not the most lightning-fast. Please leave any ideas in the comments. I’ve done some initial Googling  and found an American site with links to all sorts of services.However, there is a time difference to allow for of anything up to eight hours. (I might still watch one later in the day, though.) Personal recommendations, though, are always worth so much. Hopefully I’ll have something to report back on tomorrow.

links for 2009-05-21

Back Home

I’m back from hospital, and now have two weeks’ convalescence where I must not mix with many people for infection control reasons. I have been ordering Bob Dylan CDs from the library to keep me occupied, along with my books. 

Things began well yesterday morning. I was one of the earlier patients taken to theatre. The modern anaesthetics are amazing. One moment I was talking to the anaesthetist and his assistant, the next I was waking up bright as a button in the recovery suite. I have suffered no pain or nausea after the surgery, either. 

Not everything was straightforward, though. The bleeding from my nose took longer to halt than expected. The nurses decided this was connected with the fact that my blood pressure was misbehaving. So instead of coming home last night, I was kept in, just in case a nasty nose bleed started up. 

As it happens, all that occurred was that I didn’t get a single second of sleep. The operation leaves patients with highly bunged up noses, largely with congealed blood. You are not allowed to try to remove it, because you could expose the work of the surgeons underneath. It would be like a child picking a scab on a knee before the new skin had formed. This left me finding it hard to breathe sufficiently deeply for sleep. Breathing through my mouth didn’t work either, because I had a sore throat from the tube that had been placed down it during the surgery. 

However, at least the blood pressure was a little more co-operative this morning. Combined with the fact that the only bleeding I had in the night was the result of a sneezing fit, my discharge today became routine. 

So I phoned Debbie and arranged that she would pick me up outside the main building at the drop-off point. We agreed on 9:15 am. Come 9:20, she still wasn’t there. My mobile vibrated in my pocket. “Where are you,” she asked, “I’ve driven past the entrance and you’re not there.”

“I’m outside the pick up and drop off point.”

“But I’ve been past A and E and didn’t see you.”

A and E? St John’s Hospital doesn’t have one. She had gone to Broomfield Hospital, eight miles away.

But before I leave this topic, I must include praise for all the staff on the ward. Their advice and care was first class. The NHS may be far from perfect, but give me that system ahead of a national private insurance scheme any day. 

The rest of the day has included some joys at the children’s achievements. Mark won a special effort sticker in assembly today for always getting on with his work straight away, and at swimming after school he swam a width without armbands for the first time. We have promised a family meal out when he managed that, and with Friday being a non-pupil day at the school, that will probably be our day. Rebekah, too, has done well, going up another stage on the reading scheme today.

It will be an early night tonight. Goodnight, all.

Personal Update

Just thought I’d include a quick personal update, because blogging over the next two or three days is going to be tricky. Tomorrow sees another trip to the vet for the new cats, an ECG at the GP surgery as part of the background checking on my blood pressure situation, a family haircut crammed in between the end of school and Rebekah’s weekly Rainbows, then out early evening to Bishops Stortford for a meeting in the Methodist District for those ministers and circuits where a minister’s current invitation runs out next year (as mine does). Then it will be up early Tuesday morning for admission to hospital and the nasal op I keep droning on about. 

So with that in mind, if I don’t get to post tomorrow and Tuesday, please understand! (I think you will.) 

Today also has been one of those times where The Two Ronnies would have said, ‘In a packed show tonight’. On the surface, not a demanding day: two communion services, one at 11 am, the other at 6:30 pm. However, we always try to do something with the children on a Sunday afternoon, to maintain some pretence that Sunday is a family day. So when I arrived home around 1:15 pm, Debbie had sandwiches ready, they had to be gobbled, and it was off to town with the little monkeys.

Mark (who is still storming ahead at home and school with his reading skills) had been given a book by his teacher on Friday about art. He had got into the notion of ‘public art’. That seemed to mean – er – graffiti, and I don’t mean Banksy. So he and Rebekah were excitedly pointing out all sorts of public art as we walked along the river into the town centre. Thankfully, they didn’t notice the ‘art’ I saw which featured words beginning with ‘f’.

Rebekah bought a Princess Diana doll at the church May Fayre yesterday, and we found her a cheap book to help her understand who she was. (Diana died 1997, Becky was born 2003.)

BBs didn’t have any ice cream so our usual treat was out – the kids opted for combined red and blue slush puppies instead, and we took some bread to feed the ducks. 

Back home for me to cook, Debbie to have a bath, and when I’d gobbled my pasta, salad and garlic bread, it was time for evening service. Back home afterwards, it was all domestic tasks for an hour or so before finally sitting down.

I’m typing this while wifey watches the double-episode season-closer of Lost.

I guess it’s been a typical minister’s Sunday?

See you soon.

Tomorrow’s Sermon: Covenant Love

John 15:9-17

My name is David, and I am an addict.

A book addict. I can’t stop buying them. I can’t stop reading them. The statutory thirty yards of bookshelves in my study have been complaining about my habit for years. Every now and again, I reluctantly dispose of some old titles, to make room for newer ones. But really, I don’t want to live in a manse, I want to live in a library.

One of my biggest addictions has been to Bible commentaries. Thirty years ago, I started off with a one-volume commentary on the entire Bible. But it just wasn’t enough. I needed bigger thrills. I began to collect commentaries on individual books of the Bible. Many years ago, I achieved my ambition of a commentary on every book. But now, I have to have more commentaries on each book.

And when it comes to the Gospel according to John, I have ten commentaries. You may think that’s excessive. I can’t understand why.

For when I began to explore today’s Lectionary reading, it was one of those ten commentaries on John that I hadn’t pulled down from the shelf for a long time that gave me a fresh way of seeing these famous verses.

What is that fresh way? Covenant. It’s to see this passage as being about Jesus establishing the New Covenant with his people. I think if we explore John 15 in terms of Covenant, we may see not only old and familiar things, but gain new insight into the odd difficulty some people have with these verses. Stay with me, and see whether this helps you, as it has me.

God Makes The First Move
‘As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you,’ says Jesus (verse 9).

Everything starts with God’s love. The Father’s love for Jesus; his love in Christ for us. Always in salvation, God makes the first move. If we track this through the Bible, we’ll see this.

God is love, and out of that love between the members of the Trinity comes an action of love, creation. Love is expressed beyond the Trinity to something else.

Then – who’s the first missionary in the Bible? God. God comes walking in the Garden of Eden after Adam and Eve’s sin. Later, God takes the initiative to call Abram when he wants to start forming a people for himself. God hears the cries of the Israelites in Egypt and sends Moses. God sends the prophets.

Finally, at the right time, God sends his Son (Galatians 4:4). Or put it like this: ‘While we were still sinners, Christ died for us’ (Romans 5:8). No approach from the human race. Yet because of our sin, a loving God makes overtures to his creation. It all starts with God.

Why is this important? It affects a number of things. First of all, it means that the love of God humbles us. We can take no pride in knowing God through Jesus Christ. It is not down to us. It is entirely a matter of God’s grace and mercy. We owe everything to the grace of God. Knowing God does not make us superior. There is nothing in knowing God that means we are worthy of that honour. It is a matter of sheer love.

We glimpse a little of this in ordinary human relationships. Parents conceive children out of love. They delight in their children. Even when their offspring pain them by their behaviour and they have to impose discipline, they long that the relationship be fully restored. One parent goes up to the bedroom where the child is sulking, in the hope of bringing harmony back to the home.

For some of us, we need to be humbled by knowing that the whole spiritual life begins with God, not us. We need to be brought low from our pride.

But for others of us, the news that life in the Spirit starts with God is good news, if not a relief. We know we’re not worthy of God’s love, and so it is the most wonderful, liberating news to learn that for all our unworthiness, God has set out from the very beginning to woo us with his love.

Yes, whether we think too much of ourselves or too little of ourselves, it is essential good news to understand that God makes the first move in establishing a covenant relationship with us, with the world and with creation.

But this good news that God moves first is not only for us. If it is for us, it is for others, too. If God makes the first move, then it affects how we view sharing our faith.

We heap a lot of guilt on ourselves and other Christians when we talk about the importance of sharing our faith with others. We make it sound as if it all depends on us. Now I’m not about to argue against the importance of talking about Christ to people who don’t know him – it’s essential. But it doesn’t all depend on us. Not if God makes the first move.

In spreading the Good News, we should remember that God always moves first. God will go ahead of us. It has often been said that mission is finding out what God is doing, and joining in.

I’ve given you an outline of God doing this in the Bible already, from creation to the Fall to making a people for himself and ultimately sending Jesus. One Gospel story that brings this out for me comes in Luke 10, where Jesus sends out followers in pairs ahead of him to various villages. He gives various instructions to them, but I find one of them particularly interesting: he tells them to look for ‘anyone who shares in peace’ (Luke 10:6) [or ‘man of peace’ in older translations]. What is such a person if they are not someone in whom God has already begun to work? I think Jesus is telling his disciples to look for where God is already at work, and to concentrate their efforts there.

So when we set out to share our faith, let us start cultivating an attitude that looks for signs of where God has already made the first move. Let us ask him to open our eyes to where he has already been preparing people to receive his love.

I have to cop out to some extent here and say that how God shows us he is making the first move ahead of us in people’s lives requires a whole sermon to itself, so at this point I have to confine myself to saying that we simply pray and seek God’s guidance. Let’s be open to the leading of the Spirit – the leading, I say, of the Spirit, because – God moves first.

We Respond To God
Back to verse 9: ‘As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.’ Abiding in God’s love is what we are called to do in response to God making his overtures of love towards us.

‘Abiding’ (or ‘remaining’ in some translations) is a word that communicates a sense of permanence. The covenant between God and ourselves is rather like the covenant of marriage. It comes as a lifetime commitment. God has made a ‘lifetime commitment’ to us; he calls us to respond in the same way. In fact, in the light of the Resurrection it’s more than lifetime: this cannot be limited to ‘till death do us part’. This is a commitment for ever. Because God has shown such remarkable love to us, we make a radical commitment to him. Ours will be an abiding love.

And if it is an abiding love we offer to God through Jesus Christ, it is one that will not depend on our feelings. Sometimes our faith gives us great feelings, but our level of commitment to Christ cannot depend on them, any more than a marriage can depend on the times of ecstasy. Sometimes it’s not so much that love keeps a marriage alive, more that marriage keeps love alive. The commitment is primary, and it’s great when the feelings follow, but they don’t always.

And I think it’s in that light we can understand the difficult language of this passage where Jesus makes love into a commandment. Keeping his commandments is a sign of love (verse 10). He commands us to love one another (verse 12). And we are his friends if we do what he commands us (verse 14). How can love and commandment go together?

But isn’t this a peculiarly modern problem? We think that love is about how I feel. But it isn’t. People say, ‘Our marriage didn’t work’, or ‘Marriage doesn’t work’, as if ‘marriage’ is some separate entity to blame when things go wrong. But before love is a feeling, love is a commitment. Even when love is not a feeling, it is still a commitment. Why? Because it is a covenant. It’s why I tell wedding couples they won’t say ‘I do’, they’ll say ‘I will’. It’s about promise and commitment to that promise.

God has poured out his blessings to us, supremely in Christ and his Cross, and we respond to his commitment to us with a commitment of our own to him.

So in that sense, Jesus can command us to love him and love others. He’s telling us what the nature of the covenant commitment is. Turning love into a command isn’t bullying, because the One who commands us to love is the One who laid down his own life for his friends as the greatest love of all (verse 13) – words that are sandwiched right into the context.

And so love isn’t ‘I do’: it’s ‘I will’, even when I don’t feel like it. And maybe the times when we don’t feel like it are when we prove that our response to Christ is real. Because we’ll respond out of love, even if we feel nothing and even if there’s nothing in it for us.

Actually, the bride and groom say, ‘With God’s help I will’, because they cannot do so alone. And again, it’s similar when it comes to God’s covenant with us. Obeying by showing love to Christ and others is a tough call. It challenges the self-centredness that is at the heart of sin. Remember that old saying that sin is a little word with ‘I’ in the middle?

So as we respond to God’s love for us in Christ with our own covenant commitment to love others and obey Jesus, we find it’s remarkably difficult to do. But for us, too, like the couple getting married, it’s ‘With God’s help I do’. For Jesus does not leave us helpless when he shows us that the right response to God’s first move of love is a radical commitment. He promises the Holy Spirit. And though the Holy Spirit is not specifically mentioned in these verses, Jesus name-checks the Spirit over and over again in this section of John’s Gospel.

So when we rejoice in God making the first move of love towards us (and his whole broken creation); when we consider the appropriate response of love to him; and when we realise that response is likely to be a major and at times demanding commitment; let us rejoice, not only in God’s love, but in the gift of his Spirit, through whom God enables us to make that response and live a life of commanded love.