Monthly Archives: January 2011

The Kindle Has Landed

Well, despite the rank amateurism of the Royal Mail, my Amazon Kindle arrived yesterday. The Royal Mail lived down to their standards: we were out when they called with the day’s post, and the Kindle box was left in a stand we keep outside the front door for flower and plant seeds. No card through the door telling me where it was, no attempt to take it safely back to the sorting office. I was fortunate that Debbie noticed the box with the big Amazon logo. No temptation for opportunist thieves there, clearly. (And we’re still waiting for a digital camera for Debbie, which is also overdue, so who knows what will happen with that?)

So what’s the Kindle like? There have, of course, been numerous debates about the pros and cons of e-readers in comparison to traditional books. One good article and debate can be found here, for example. They say you can download the first chapters of books as samples. That’s not always strictly honest: you often get the foreword, preface and part of chapter 1.
But I was persuaded to part with cash for a 1993 book by my former research supervisor, Richard Bauckham, called ‘The Theology of the Book of Revelation‘. Nice light reading, you’re thinking. Well, what Richard doesn’t know about eschatology and apocalyptic isn’t worth knowing, so anything he writes on this is worth the price. He also writes fluently.

However, I had a particular reason for purchasing an electronic version rather than a physical one. Here is the text of one customer review on Amazon:

This is one of the most maddening books I’ve read recently. The author’s work cannot be faulted (five stars for the theology); the problem lies with the editing of the book. If it is intended to be used as a textbook rather than read from cover to cover like a novel, it needs a really good index. It doesn’t have one. Worse still, in my 2002 printing, there is no biblical index at all. Trying to find out what the author has to say about any particular verse or passage in Revelation is like looking for a righteous man in Babylon, or, anyway, a needle in a…. I’m sure Cambridge University Press could have done better than this, and the author deserves better from them.

The problems clearly aren’t the author’s fault, but the publisher’s. The lack of indices had held me back from buying it before. However, with an electronic version it is at least searchable for any verse, word or theme I want to research. Does Richard have an opinion on a particular passage? Hold on, let me just do a search and I’ll find out. The Kindle (or another e-reader) is ideal in these circumstances.

My one curiosity with the Kindle edition of the book – and this is what I find maddening – is that it seems to have downloaded without a contents page to tell me what the chapters are.

More generally, the Kindle reading experience is good. The e-ink screen is much more naturally like paper than a bright screen on a computer or smartphone. Moreover, I found myself reading at a good pace. It’s difficult to be sure, given the fact that you don’t get page numbers, only a percentage of how far you are through the book plus some ‘location numbers’. Yet my perception is that I was reading slightly faster than a physical book. I don’t have the gift of speed-reading, so this is an advantage for me.

So my early impressions are favourable. I think the big danger for me could be with just how easy and fast it is to download a title. I could end up spending more money than I should.

Sermon: God Is Smiling (The Beatitudes)

Matthew 5:1-12

I wonder whether you recognise this person? Those of you who remember news stories from the 1960s may do so. This is Archbishop Makarios III, a key figure in the Cypriot campaign for independence from Britain. He was well-known in my native north London, which had heavy pockets of Greek Cypriot communities. We had consecutive Greek Cypriot next-door neighbours. One family set up a thriving dry-cleaning business near Tottenham Hotspur’s football ground. They promised that if you brought your suit in before the match, it would be ready by the time you came out.

Makarios. I wonder whether you know what his name means? Blessèd. I don’t think the British authorities considered him blessèd or a blessing.

But ‘makarios’ is the word Matthew uses in the Beatitudes for the blessedness Jesus pronounces on God’s behalf here. ‘Makarios’ are the poor in spirit, the pure in heart and so on. What do we understand Jesus to mean when Jesus says that these disciples whose characteristics are so far from what many say are the priorities of life are ‘blessèd’?

Infamously, the Good News Bible translates ‘makarios’, ‘blessèd’, as ‘happy’. So the poor in spirit, the pure in heart and the persecuted are all happy. Hmm. Maybe sometimes, but it’s not guaranteed. Take those who are persecuted for their faith. On occasion they will feel it is an honour to suffer for Christ, but at other times they will cry out for relief from that suffering. Does ‘happy’ cover it? I’m not convinced.

I think the point may not be that the disciples are happy, but that God is happy – he is happy with what they are doing. The Beatitudes describe attitudes, actions and priorities in our lives that bring joy to the heart of God. The Christian rock band Delirious had a song called ‘God is smiling’, and I think the ‘Blessèd’ of the Beatitudes may indicate that God is smiling when this is how we choose to live for him.

So the Beatitudes becomes a text for learning how we please God. There is a text in Ephesians where Paul urges his readers to ‘find out what pleases the Lord’. Well, the Beatitudes would be a good place to stop by and discover what pleases the Lord.

But before we plunge into them, there is one thing to remember about pleasing God in the Beatitudes, and it’s this. Jesus’ statement that God blesses certain things is followed by a reward. For example, ‘Blessèd are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’ What are we to make of this reward? How are we to understand the idea that God rewards us when we do what pleases him?

As a father, I’m delighted when my children do something particular in order to please me. But it’s not as though I wasn’t pleased with them before they did it. I can just go into their bedrooms at night and look at them sleeping to feel my heart leap with joy at the sight of them. When they deliberately set out to please me, it’s from an existing relationship of mutual love. It doesn’t earn my love, it simply brings my existing love for them to the surface.

It’s similar when thinking of our relationship with God. If we set out to make God smile by following the Beatitudes, it won’t earn us his love. We have his love already. He has offered it to us in Christ, and we have responded in repentance, faith and a commitment to following Jesus. If we embrace the Beatitudes, let’s do so because God already looks upon us in love, and we simply want to draw that to the surface with a heavenly smile.

Overall, then, the movement is something like this: God calls us – we respond – God rewards us.

Right – enough with the preliminaries. Let’s ask two questions about each Beatitude, then: firstly, what makes God smile? Then, secondly, how does he reward?

God smiles on ‘the poor in spirit’ (verse 3). When we so lack things that – rather than simply desire what the rest of the world lusts after – we  throw ourselves upon him in dependence and faith, then God smiles. His heart aches when he sees people in poverty, but he rejoices when those who lack what is needed trust him to provide what they need. When we are in desperate straits but we trust him, God smiles.

And it is that complete dependence upon God that means the kingdom of heaven is our reward. Faith in God through Christ is what brings us into God’s kingdom. We are in that kingdom now, because when we trust ourselves to Christ we place ourselves under his reign. That kingdom has not yet come fully, because people, institutions and other forces still oppose God’s rule. But one day God will put every enemy under his feet. In the meantime, all those whose hopeless condition causes them to put their trust in God find themselves already in the kingdom. That is the reward as God smiles on their faith, even in terrible circumstances.

The second Beatitude we often quote at funerals, usually when the minister is walking in with the coffin. Those who mourn are blessèd, because they will be comforted (verse 4) – presumably by God. I wouldn’t want to deny that our God blesses those who grieve, but I would want to expand how we traditionally understand this particular Beatitude.

How? There is a clear link in the language with Isaiah 61, the passage Jesus read out in his home synagogue at Nazareth to describe his mission. In that chapter, God promises ‘to comfort all who mourn’ (Isaiah 61:2). Why are people mourning? Because the world is not the way God wants it to be. They are mourning not merely for themselves, but for a society where things are not as God would have them be. To those who grieve that the world is not as God wants it to be, Jesus promises comfort. ‘One day,’ he says, ‘it will not be like this. Your grief and anguish in prayer will be rewarded when the Father makes all things new in heaven and upon earth.’ So do not be afraid to keep weeping and praying for the world – God is pleased that you do, and your reward will be to see the coming of his kingdom.

Then we move to the London Underground, to the famous graffiti: ‘The meek will inherit the earth – so long as the rest of you don’t mind.’ The meek ‘are not persons who are submissive, mild and unassertive’[1], but those who have been humbled. Psalm 37 promised that such people would ‘inherit the land’, and the inheritance of the land was of course a powerful thought for Jewish people. (It still is, with arguments over territories and one state or two with the Palestinians.) But Jesus doesn’t limit this to the land of Israel: the whole land, the earth itself, is for those who have been humbled. God does not grant his new creation to the powerful, the wealthy or the violent, but to those of no account, those disregarded and trampled upon in the world. And many of the early disciples were just that. Beaten down, because they confessed Christ as Lord. To such people, and not to the emperors and armies, Jesus ‘promised the earth’. God would be pleased with their courageous, sacrificial witness, and he would reward their humble bravery at the end.

When we come to God’s delight in ‘those who hunger and thirst for righteousness’, we are into the area of multiple meanings. You will know the old saying, ‘The Greeks had a word for it,’ meaning that the Greek language had many words to encompass different shades of meaning – for example, the several different words for the various kinds of love. However, it’s also true that individual words also carried a range of meanings, just as we look up a word in a dictionary and see several varying definitions.

That is true of the word ‘righteousness’ here. When we hear ‘righteousness’ in English, we tend to think of personal, individual qualities of right living. But the Greek word Matthew uses is one that has not only an individual meaning, it also has a social meaning – that is, ‘justice’. Jesus says that God delights in those who care so much for justice that they are hungry and thirsty (literally). They may be hungry and thirsty for justice, because they themselves have been denied it. But they will not keep quiet, they will not be denied, even at the cost of diet, nutrition and hydration.

Yet they will not be empty always, ‘they will be filled’ – that will be God’s reward. God is pleased when people do not sit down, lie back and accept injustice. He is thrilled by people who make his justice their mission in life, even at great cost.

But the ‘righteousness’ element isn’t lost in the concentration on justice. It is those who are righteous in God’s sight – vindicated by him through Christ – who will enjoy the justice of God’s kingdom rule. The person who pleases God and calls forth his reward is the one who wants to be right with him in Christ and who also then is restless for justice, to the point of personal sacrifice.

The fifth Beatitude is where we learn of God’s pleasure in the merciful, who themselves will be shown mercy. In a world which all too routinely says that certain things are ‘unforgivable’, and which calls for ‘no mercy’ to be shown to undesirables, Jesus extols mercy. Mercy isn’t the province of do-gooders, of bleeding-heart liberals who excuse the inexcusable. Mercy knows that sin is always unjustified, but it forgivers.

The other day, a friend of mine from Essex put these slogans about mercy from the American pastor Rob Bell on his Facebook wall:

Revenge doesn’t work
Bitterness is Unfulfilled Revenge
To forgive is to set someone free and then find out it’s you.
To not forgive is to let someone rent free space in your head.
Why let the wrong they did determine your joy?

When we show mercy, we not only set the sinner free, we set ourselves free – free from the chains of bitterness. The God of mercy looks with delight on those who have learned mercy from him. To understand the forgiveness of God is so to receive it that when we consider how much we have been forgiven, we have to extend that to others. God blesses that.

What, next, of the way God smiles on ‘the pure in heart’ who ‘will see God’ as their reward? I once had a conversation with a Muslim imam about this. He said that the inner person, the heart and the motives, didn’t matter. All that mattered was outward action. I don’t know how representative his view would be of Islamic teaching, but I beg to differ. Jesus knew that our inner life affected our outward action, hence his stress on the pure in heart. It was something the psalmists had proclaimed, too. According to Psalm 24, only those with clean hands and pure hearts (outward and inward life) would see God.

Of course, who can be completely sure of their motives and their integrity? But it is critical that we pay attention to them. I once read the testimony of a minister who had become enslaved to pornography. He tried various strategies to get free of his addiction. Eventually, it was this verse that set him free. The knowledge that he wanted to see God one day led him to purify his heart. When his heart was pure, he lost his desire for porn. The reward drove him to seek God’s pleasure.

The peacemakers bring pleasure to the Father, and will be called sons of God. Now that’s polemical in Jesus’ day. Who called themselves the sons of God in those times? The Zealots, the political terrorists who wanted to bring God’s kingdom by violence. But the kingdom comes not by causing violence but by suffering to bring peace – supremely in the Cross of Christ. It is the way of the Cross that God blesses – not only so that we may be forgiven, it is also the shape of our discipleship. Later, Jesus would say that his followers needed to take up their cross.

We’re near the end now. The last two beatitudes have similar themes. Both express God’s pleasure at those who bear persecution, the first group ‘because of righteousness’ (verse 10), the second ‘because of [Jesus]’  (verse 11). Is God sadistic in wanting to see people suffer? No: he is heartened by those who are brave to stand for what is right and for his Son, even when it costs them. He will not let their persecutors have the final say. So the kingdom of heaven is theirs (verse 10), and their reward will be great in heaven (verse 12).

Why? These are people who will not fight on the world’s terms, but in kingdom ways, and so they are rewarded according to God’s kingdom. Their attitude could be encapsulated in some words of Martin Luther King that an American friend of mine posted on Facebook in response to yesterday’s assassination attempt on an Arizona politician:

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

How, then, might we conclude these reflections on the Beatitudes? They show God’s pleasure when the disciples of Christ follow him radically, even at the risk of sacrifice, because they go against the grain of the world. This brings such joy to his heart that it overflows in reward – not always in the here and now; sometimes it is a promise for the future.

But this joy of God – the smile on his face that says ‘Blessèd’ – comes from the fact that he already loves us unconditionally as his children. We take these brave actions of discipleship not in order to win his love but because we are loved.

So let God’s love for us draw out courageous discipleship from us in response. And may that lead to his blessing and reward – which leads us to further joyful service. May our life of love with Christ, therefore, be not a vicious circle but a virtuous circle.

[1] Donald Hagner, Matthew 1-13, p 92.

A Brief Introduction To The Sermon On The Mount

We’re starting a sermon series on the Sermon on the Mount at Knaphill in the morning. During the service, I’m giving a five-minute introduction to the whole ‘sermon’, which I reproduce below. The next post on the blog will be the initial sermon from the series, which is on the Beatitudes.

Matthew 5:1-12

Before we get into today’s first sermon in the new series in a few minutes’ time, I want to offer a brief introduction to the Sermon on the Mount. It’s not a complete explanation of it, and the themes, but I hope what I can do in this little slot is a modest amount of scene-setting for the next few weeks, without stealing the thunder of any other preacher.

I want to do this by looking at those introductory two verses that come before the Beatitudes, which we’ll think about in the sermon proper later. Here are verses 1 and 2 again:

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.

Did you notice that contrast between the disciples and the crowds? Jesus sees the crowds, but tries to get his disciples away from them for some teaching. However, if you were to skip to the end of Matthew 5-7, you will find the crowds still there, roaring their approval of Jesus’ teaching.

So who is this teaching for – the disciples or the crowds? I think it is for the disciples, but Matthew reminds us that we shall always have to live out Jesus’ teaching before the crowds. The Sermon on the Mount is instruction for Christian disciples, but however much we may want to do things in quiet isolation, the world will always be watching us. As we ‘come apart from the crowds’ on a Sunday morning, then, we are doing so to ready ourselves for living out the teaching of Jesus in full view of the world.

Next, I invite you to notice the mountain. Jesus goes up a mountainside – hence ‘the Sermon on the Mount’. Whenever Jesus goes up a mountain in Matthew’s Gospel, something important happens. There is a revelation of Jesus. The climax of the temptations is when the devil takes Jesus up a high mountain (4:8). On another occasion, he heals people (15:29). The Transfiguration happens on a mountain (17:1ff). And after the Resurrection, Jesus gives the Great Commission on a mountain (28:16ff). So when we read here that Jesus went up a mountainside, we should be ready for something important, something close to the heart of Jesus. We are not about something incidental or trivial here. What Jesus is about to teach is serious and important.

Don’t forget too that Moses was known for receiving revelation on a mountain – Sinai. But here, Jesus gives revelation on a mountainside. This is one hint about the stature of Jesus, particularly that he is the ‘one greater than Moses’ who was prophesied in Deuteronomy to come. Another hint of this comes in the fact that the Sermon on the Mount is the first of five big blocks of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew’s Gospel. This is all building up Jesus’ authority. He’s more important than the person who shaped the Israelite nation. No wonder there will be passages in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says, ‘You have heard it said … but I say to you.’ He is outranking Moses and all the teachers of his day. He is claiming a higher authority than all of them.

And then he sits down to teach. This was the posture of an authoritative rabbi. In our culture, someone stands to deliver important teaching. Not in first century Judaism. Everything here is screaming that we had better take notice of this man and what he is going to teach.

So I invite you to embrace these coming weeks in this spirit. Anything Jesus teaches is important, but this seems to hold a special status, even among his teaching. He is telling us how to be disciples in the sight of a watching world.

That has to be important, doesn’t it?

Amazon And The Royal Mail: A Parable Of Customer Service

So I did what I said I’d do with my Christmas money. I put it all together and ordered an Amazon Kindle e-reader. I placed the order on 28th December. Amazon emailed me that day with the good news that they had dispatched it that very day. Not being in a desperate rush for it, I opted for their free Super Saver Delivery, and they said it would be with me by 5th January at the very latest. That is, yesterday.
Enter the Royal Mail, entrusted by Amazon to deliver the Kindle to me. No sign of it by today. All we do know is they are in the habit of leaving various packages on our doorstep without bothering to ring the doorbell. With no Kindle having appeared by today, the day after the deadline, I wondered what to do.

Amazon’s website asks you to check with your local delivery office that it isn’t waiting there. When I finally got through to them, I basically got the “No, guv, not possible, everything that comes in here goes out. Goodbye” response.

Ringing Amazon was totally different. Their representative apologised, and told me that if the Kindle hadn’t turned up by the 13th I could ring again and they could then treat it as a lost package. They would then send out a replacement and upgrade my delivery, free of charge.

Which company impressed me? I think you can guess. The Royal Mail employee disdainfully said, “Amazon shouldn’t have told you to ring us, they know there are delays.” Not our fault, no chance, we’re not even going to consider it, we won’t offer to check, no criticism of us is ever justified.

Amazon were quite different. That’s £109-worth of kit (well, £111 with the VAT increase this week) they are willing to replace, just like that. My one gripe is that they use a service like the Royal Mail where you can’t track a package. I’m seriously considering upgrading to their Amazon Prime service, although I feel too mean to pay the annual £49 fee. Maybe you get what you pay for.

An unwillingness to be self-reflective and accept criticism, as it seems was the Royal Mail’s attitude, is something we display as individuals as well as institutions. It can be because we fear the acid tongue of the critic, who may take advantage of our error and crush us. So we try to wriggle out, justify ourselves and defend the indefensible. I’m rather good at that. Maybe you are, too.

And while automatically accepting the criticism and trying to put something right may also not always be wise – it can be done for the sake of a quiet life – it may be more Christlike. He ‘took the blame’ and put things right for the human race, if not all creation. While some elements of Amazon’s business may not always be that moral, on this occasion it seems to me they were the more Christlike.

Introducing Development Issues To Children

My six-year-old son Mark has an ambition in life. At one stage, he wanted to be a famous author. At other times, he has quite fancied being a professional footballer, helping Tottenham Hotspur thrash Arsenal.

But his abiding ambition is even more noble. He wants ‘to save Africa’. In his simple analysis, he wants to open supermarkets across Africa, so that people can buy enough food to live. When faced with the question, “Where will they get the money?” he has a simple reply: “I’ll build money shops as well.”

Sorted. Now take over 10 and 11 Downing Street, Mark. You can do it.

I thought I’d encourage his thinking about world issues. You can’t start them too young when they already care about the poor, can you? So Mark and I set about this afternoon going around the websites of various Christian relief and development agencies, in search of suitable resources to stimulate his interest.

We gathered only slightly more than zilch.

World Vision, nothing. Christian Aid, zero. Methodist Relief and Development Fund, nada. Compassion, you can sponsor a child but I couldn’t find anything for children who are interested in their projects. Nil points.

Only TEAR Fund had anything, and it wasn’t much. It took some devious searching to find a page of ‘children’s resources’, and it hadn’t been updated since 23rd June. All of these organisations had plenty for teenagers. Apparently, you only care when you get into the church youth group.

So come on, Christian relief and development charities, where is your material to inspire primary age children? Mark and Rebekah’s school supports a charity working in Uganda, Chilli Children. Is it that you have resources but they are buried under centuries of rubble on your sites? Or don’t you think six-year-olds know that Jesus cares about the poor?

Maybe someone reading this can point me to what I’ve missed, because  Mark and I would dearly like to find some good Christian educational material for primary-age children. It must be there, but where is it?


UPDATE: following a conversation on Facebook, I have now been made aware that the Methodist Relief and Development Fund (possibly the smallest of the agencies I mentioned, except for Chilli Children) has a sister site, World AIMS.  I found this site earlier, but was put off by the specific reference to Methodist schools (many of which are fee-paying). However, if you click on ‘Resources’, you can find various items of educational material, classified according to Key Stage. (For non-Brits reading this, the Key Stages are used in the British education system, and roughly correspond as follows: KS1 is ages 5 to 7; KS2, ages 7 to 11; KS3, ages 11 to 14; KS4, ages 14 to 16.) It could be easier to find, and the name of the website put me off the scent.

Latest Music Reviews

A little sideline I have is to write a few music reviews for the Cross Rhythms website. I have just written reviews on another four, and thought I would take a moment to highlight two of them. Christian music gets slated in some circles for being inferior to the mainstream, and there is some justification for this criticism. Art gets reduced to propaganda, and an ‘it will do’ attitude sometimes has to prevail for budgetary reasons. However, the two releases I am about to mention stand worthy comparison with anything I have heard anywhere in the last year. No bones about it.

The Redemption Center‘s album Land Of Plenty is top-class Americana. It has joy and melancholy, personal devotion and social concern. If you like the Jayhawks, Steve Earle, the Vigilantes of Love or Lost Dogs, this is for you. Go to their listening room to hear the album.

The other album is vastly different – from The Redemption Center, from anything else I’ve ever heard. Jason Carter is a virtuoso guitarist, particularly known for playing a baroque instrument, the harp guitar. Along with his twin neck acoustic classical guitar, he adds looping and sampling from around the world. So his CD Falling has influences from Germany, Finland (professional female funeral singers), Afghanistan and the North Korean Military Orchestra and Choir. Yes, really. The more western stuff can sound a little like Phil Keaggy‘s instrumental albums, but it’s largely quite demanding stuff to listen to – I think one track had fourteen beats to the bar, for example. So it is very surprising when he ends with a reading of Abide With Me!

Here is the relatively conventional You Shine

and here is the more demanding Pühajärve


Covenant Service Sermon: Jumping Into The Arms Of The Father

John 15:1-17

In one of his books, Brennan Manning tells this story from a Catholic priest in the Bahamas:

A two-storey house caught fire. The family – father, mother, several children – were on their way out when the smallest boy became terrified and ran back upstairs. Seconds later he appeared at a smoke-filled window. His father, outside, shouted at him: “Jump, son, jump! I’ll catch you.” The boy cried, “But, Daddy, I can’t see you.” “I know,” his father called, “I know. But I can see you.”[1]

I wonder whether Covenant Sunday is a day when some of us Methodists are afraid of jumping. Afraid of jumping into our Father’s hands. We are afraid of the solemn covenant promises. Making those promises is like jumping out of a window, and fearing what will happen.

I have long been convinced that a way to approach the renewal of our covenant with God is to appreciate first the nature of the God into whose arms we jump. That, like the father in Brennan Manning’s story, he says to us, “I can see you”, and stretches out sure, strong arms to catch us and to keep us safe when we jump.

How are we going to do that? I want to take our Gospel reading. It is challenging and quite open about the fact that being a disciple of Jesus is not always an easy or comfortable experience. But at the same time, I believe we also find in the passage the Father who can see us, and whose arms are outstretched to catch us.

Firstly, Jesus talks about pruning. Whenever this passage comes up, I am fond of observing that I am no gardener. The only value of a garden centre is if it has a good café with decent coffee and cakes. Gardens hold little pleasure for me, hard as that may be for some of you to understand. But then you may not appreciate my love of cricket and computing! Debbie keeps the manse garden tidy, thankfully.

But for all my lack of interest in gardening, I do know that pruning is something that looks unpleasant. I have seen the implements, and they look like instruments of torture. If Jesus uses an image of pruning for the Father’s work in our lives, then that sounds painful to me. The removal of unfruitful branches and the cutting back of others – no, I don’t fancy being first in the queue for that. It’s like the little boy’s fears as his father calls him to jump from the window – he thinks he will break bones.

However, in a detail we easily miss in English, Jesus says any pruning the Father does is not for the first time. He says,

You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. (Verse 3)

‘Cleansed’ sounds all right, doesn’t it? A nice, refreshing bath or shower? Except that in the Greek, ‘cleansed’ comes from the same source as ‘pruned’. Jesus effectively says that his word has already pruned us.

That’s what the Gospel does. It prunes us. We know that the call to follow Jesus involves not only faith but also repentance, where we change our minds about the way we lead our lives, where we perform a u-turn in order to go his way. That repentance is a pruning. Certain things go from our lives. The Gospel message of Jesus cuts them away.

So when Jesus tells his disciples here that the Father will continue the pruning process, he is telling us something about the ongoing nature of Christian discipleship. He does not call us to an act of repentance when we come to faith. Rather, he calls us to a life of repentance. Our salvation is more than forgiveness. To sign up to Jesus’ project is to enlist in a process of transformation. To be a disciple is like the road sign, ‘Danger: men at work’, except that in our case it reads, ‘Danger: God at work.’ Or, as the t-shirt puts it, ‘Please be patient with me: God hasn’t finished with me yet.’

To reinforce it further, the apostle Paul had a positive take on this process of transformation. He told the Philippians,

I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. (Philippians 1:6)

Or, as the worship song puts it,

Jesus, You are changing me
By Your Spirit You’re making me like You
Jesus, You’re transforming me
That Your loveliness may be seen in all I do
You are the potter and I am the clay
Help me to be willing to let You have Your way
Jesus, You are changing me
As I let You reign supreme within my heart[2]

So, to mix metaphors, is the ‘pruning’ worth the ‘leap’ out of the building? Marilyn Baker, the author of those song words, says ‘yes’. She says that Jesus is changing her so ‘that your loveliness may be seen in all I do’.

And that is similar to what Jesus says here, when he says that the Father prunes us so that we ‘bear more fruit’ (verse 2). Is it not our longing to be more ‘fruitful’ in the life of faith? If so, we have to recognise that God will want to cut certain things away from our lives. Some will be obvious sins. Others will be good things that we have idolised. Others might be good, but not God’s best for us. The call to repentance is not a diatribe from a severe God who wants to paint a grey coating of misery on our lives. It is, as Paul tells the Romans, his ‘kindness’ that leads to repentance. It is because he has good plans for us in his kingdom purposes.

Is it worth submitting to God’s pruning? Is it worth saying ‘yes’ to that as we renew our solemn promises today? What do you think?

Secondly, Jesus calls us to abide in him as he does in us. ‘Abide in me as I abide in you,’ he says (verse 4). What is this about?

An abode is a dwelling place, a home, a residence. We sometimes say that homeless people are of ‘no fixed abode’. Jesus, however, abides in us. He has taken up residence in our lives. He has not come for a holiday, he has not come as part of a house-swap or to be a house-sitter. He has come to live in us.

So if we are called to abide in Jesus, we are called to live permanently with him. Not only permanently, but in close relationship. He draws near to us; we draw near to him. This mutual abiding is the spiritual version of living in each other’s pockets. That may sound wonderful to some people, and terrifying to others. What might it involve? I can’t cover everything, but here are a couple of areas.

Firstly, abiding in Christ means the disciplines of staying close to him. The most important thing in church life is not the property, it is not the finances or anything like that. The most critical aspect of Christian life is staying close to Jesus. Our property and finance can be in perfect order, but if we are not walking with Christ, we are wasting our time.

Therefore, if we are to heed the call to abide in Christ, we shall want to practise those disciplines which draw us close to his presence and his voice. So, yes, we renew our commitment to worship and fellowship, to personal prayer and Bible reading, to Holy Communion and fasting. All of these matter far more than the typical business preoccupations of many congregations.

But to say that we should renew our commitment to things like prayer and Bible study is to sound rather like I am asking us to make a New Year’s Resolution. And we know how easily we break those. If we just treat these things like that, we shall fail quickly and be discouraged.

I want to say, therefore, that the call to draw close to Jesus with spiritual disciplines is one we do out of response to his love for us. It is not something we do as an ‘ought’ or a ‘must’ or a ‘should’; it is something we do because Jesus has already drawn near to us, to abide in us. It is in gratitude for the love he extends to us.

Of course, we shall fail along the way. But instead of being discouraged that we have not reached the mark, we shall instead feel his abiding love in us that encourages us to get up again, dust ourselves down and keep on going. These things do not always come naturally. We can be like a toddler learning to walk. We fall down, but we get up again and have another go, because we are loved. On the way, I can offer you help with plans for Bible reading and approaches to prayer, but do not be afraid to try and fall down. Just get up and keep going again as you learn to draw closer to Christ.

The other thing I want to say about abiding in Christ is that being so close to him, we want to do what he says. That’s why Jesus links abiding in his love with keeping his commandments (verse 10). If you are close to someone, not only do you want to spend time with them (spiritual disciplines, in the case of our relationship with Jesus), you also want to please them. Abiding in Christ will mean a desire to obey him.

And that’s where the fear of jumping out of the building looms large again. What will he want me to do? What will I have to give up? What dark and strange place does he want to send me to?

But again, the promise is that if we jump, he will catch us. The promise, too, is that he will enable us to obey because he is with us. We are not dependent upon our own strength to do these things.

However, he kicks us off with a commandment that is simple to state, and highly important to take seriously:

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. (Verses 12-13)

So let’s get going with that one – loving one another. We can take some simple steps straightaway. We can say that we shall no longer treat someone else in the church like they are our servant, but as a valued child of God We can commit ourselves to stop assuming that someone’s motives are wrong and seek to believe the best about them. If we jumped into such a love for one another that disowned the backbiting, backstabbing and character assassination that is too often seen in our society, what kind of witness would that be? Remember what was said of the early Christians:

See how these Christians love one another.

Let’s forget every other distraction and concern for a season. Let’s be known as a community of love. What importance do all our other debates, business items and ideas have in comparison to Jesus’ call to love one another?

Go back to that young boy at the smoke-filled window. Hear the call of the father again. “Jump, son, jump. I’ll catch you.” Is today the day to jump – and find ourselves held in the arms of God? What if we were to risk letting him prune us in repentance? What if we were to risk getting closer to Christ in devotion and obedience, specifically in loving one another?

What if …

What if we jumped?

[1] Brennan Manning, Lion And Lamb: The relentless tenderness of Jesus, p 64.

[2] Marilyn Baker, © 1981 Word’s Spirit of Praise Music.