Monthly Archives: March 2011
From James Emery White’s Church and Culture blog:
The Subway sandwich chain has surpassed McDonald’s Corporation as the world’s largest restaurant chain in terms of units. At the end of 2010, Subway had 33,749 restaurants worldwide to McDonald’s 32,737.What is even more impressive is that Subway didn’t open its first international restaurant, where growth has been most explosive for chains such as McDonald’s, Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts and Baskin-Robbins, until 1984. But by 2020, Subway expects its number of international restaurants to exceed its domestic ones.How did they do it?Subway has opened outlets in non-traditional locations such as an automobile showroom in California, an appliance store in Brazil, a ferry terminal in Seattle, a riverboat in Germany, a zoo in Taiwan, a Goodwill store in South Carolina, a high school in Detroit and a church in Buffalo, New York.“We’re continually looking at just about any opportunity for someone to buy a sandwich, wherever that might be,” says Don Fertman, Subway’s Chief Development Officer. ”The closer we can get to the customer, the better.”
Click the link above to see the two short talks I am giving this Sunday about the rôle of Caiaphas in the death of Jesus. The first talk (slides 1 to 11) is based on John 11:45-53, where Jesus is seen as a threat to the privileged status of the religious ruling classes in their cosy relationship with Rome. The second talk (slides 12 to 17) comes from Matthew 26:47, 57-66 where at the trial Jesus’ confession of deity (‘Son of Man’) leads to a display of misplaced religious zeal. So it all religious zeal wrong, or is there a better way?
The talks are necessarily short, coming as part of all age worship, and on a Sunday when we are holding our AGM after the service. I am well aware there is much more that could be said.
I’m preaching from the Lectionary this week at my second church, and am following the Gospel reading.
Who was the only Irishman in the Bible?
Sorry! I blame Graham Kendrick. I once heard him tell that joke at a concert.
Here, in John chapter three, Nicodemus makes his entry into the story of Jesus. We know that near the end of our reading we hear possibly the most famous verse in the entire Bible:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. (Verse 16)
And so we assume this is a story about whether and how people to come to faith. Which I think is about right. I’m not about to spring any surprises on you in that respect today. So let’s plunge into this familiar text and see what we learn about the journey of faith. However long we have been Christians, I pray we appreciate the elements of true Christian faith more deeply as we reflect on this passage.
Firstly, we observe that Nicodemus ‘came to Jesus by night’ (verse 2). Now you may think that’s just a casual memory of their meeting, preserved for us by John from whoever learned that fact. But in John’s Gospel there is symbolism behind a lot of the literal details. For example, after the Feeding of the Five Thousand, Jesus tells people he is the Bread of Life.
And when it comes to ‘the night’, we can be sure John uses this both literally and symbolically. A classic example would be when Judas Iscariot leaves the Last Supper to betray Jesus: John then says, ‘And it was night.’ You realise he doesn’t just mean the time of day, it is spiritually dark when Judas goes off.
What I want to suggest is this: that when Nicodemus arrives ‘by night’, it is also spiritually dark. Not in the sense of betrayal; rather, this is a man who is ‘in the dark’ spiritually about Jesus. He comes in utter sincerity to enquire of Jesus. When he opens by saying, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God’ (verse 2), there is no reason to suppose he is anything other than a seeker after truth.
We see this from the way Jesus responds, He does not write him off or call him a hypocrite. Instead, he explains spiritual truth to him, about the need to be ‘born again’ or ‘born from above’. But when Nicodemus just doesn’t understand – he says, ‘How can these things be?’ (verse 9) – Jesus replies, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?’ (verse 10) Clearly, Jesus perceives him to be ‘in the dark’. Truly, he has come ‘by night’. Nicodemus, teacher of Israel’s faith, is in spiritual darkness.
Is he so unlike some of the people in our churches? I think of the church steward who prayed with me before a Good Friday morning service, in which he referred to the Cross of Christ as a disaster. I wouldn’t have minded if he were referring to a sorrow that our sins led to Christ dying for us, but he seemed to think the whole thing was a mistake. Surely that steward came ‘by night’.
But whichever other people I think of, the person I most think of as having come ‘by night’ is myself. Growing up in a Christian home – in fact, my sister worked out that she and I were fifth generation, same congregation – I picked up all the wrong signals about what Christian faith was. I heard people asked whether they were Christians, and their reply was, ‘I’m trying to be a Christian.’ It all depended on them, and their efforts. No wonder that I, the keen mathematician, I expressed my understanding of Christianity in terms of an equation: Christianity equals believing in God plus doing good things. I was completely confused when a teenage Baptist friend took me to a youth event at his church and someone greeted me, saying, ‘Am I shaking hands with a born-again Christian?’ I hadn’t heard that language, but assuming I was a Christian, I offered my hand. I could see my friend Andy looking on with doubt.
Finally, it was the confirmation service, specifically the promises and professions of faith, in the old Methodist Service Book that brought me up short. The first question asked whether I repented of my sins. The second asked me whether I put my trust in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. And the third question – only after the question of faith and trust – asked me whether I would obey Christ and serve him in the world.
So because of my own experience, I am never surprised to meet people in our churches who come ‘by night’, who think they know Jesus and faith, but don’t. Let’s all make sure this morning that we’re not in the dark.
All this mention of being ‘born again’ leads me into the second element to consider about Nicodemus. That second element is the prominence Jesus gives to the Holy Spirit. We talk generally about God, and we refer to Jesus, but Jesus himself draws attention to the work of the Spirit in bringing us to new birth:
Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. (Verse 5)
Here’s the point: while we are right to emphasise the importance of personal decisions to follow Christ and our free will to decide whether to do so or not, it still remains the fact that none of that would be possible unless the Holy Spirit had not already been working in our lives to reveal Jesus Christ and his Gospel to us.
That fact has a number of implications for us. One is that it takes the pressure off us in our witness for Christ. Sometimes we think that we have to get our witness just right for him, answering every question and doubt that our friends have. We don’t. Instead, we discharge our responsibility to be a witness to Christ in word and deed, but we rely on the Holy Spirit to reveal Jesus to our friends. We do what we can, as obediently as we can, but then we leave it and pray.
Another implication is that the prime rôle of the Holy Spirit punctures our pride. We cannot claim that by our cleverness or good deeds we worked out the importance of responding to Jesus Christ. Of course, the fact of needing the Cross should do this, but when we realise that we cannot come to Christ unaided, then we can only respond and live humbly. Our pride must go. It is another reminder that we are completely dependent upon the grace of God in order to know his love and walk in his ways. The superiority complex that some outside the Church detect in us is something we have to leave behind, because we could not find faith without the Holy Spirit.
One other implication: Jesus says something else about the centrality of the Holy Spirit’s work in the life of faith. In verse 8 he says,
The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.
You expect him to continue something like this: ‘So it is with the Spirit.’ But he says something else instead:
So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit. (Italics mine)
The sovereign, unpredictable work of the Spirit is taken for granted. But it initiates us into a life of openness to where the wind of the Spirit blows us. Any notion of safety, predictability or comfort comes into question when the Holy Spirit leads your life. Yet that is what many of us settle for. But the Holy Spirit not only takes the initiative in making Christ known to us and keeping us humble, the Spirit then takes us on a wild journey of faith. The life of faith is one where Jesus says, ‘Follow me,’ and we don’t know where that will lead. I venture to suggest that churches which implement things like five-year visions and targets have very little sense of the blustery gale of the Spirit.
Some of the Celtic saints took this very literally. They set out in their coracles on the open sea, deciding they would trust that wherever the wind blew them, that was where God wanted them to go. We may not take things as literally as that, but the challenge is there: are we willing to let the wind of the Spirit blow us to new places in the life of faith, following Jesus?
But where is the Holy Spirit taking us in leading us out of darkness on the wild journey of faith? The answer comes in the third and final reflection. Our journey out of the night takes us on a strange journey to an unexpected place. It takes us to somewhere that Jesus, the Son of Man, will be lifted up (verse 14). Now ‘lifting up’ sounds like an exalted place, it perhaps sounds like a throne for a king. And in one sense it is.
But ‘lifted up’ is more of that symbolic language in John. There is more to it than meets the eye. Later in the Gospel, in chapter twelve, we discover that John uses it to indicate a place where Jesus was physically lifted from the ground. The Cross. This is the central location for the journey of faith.
For one thing, we see this in the fact that this is where God brings us to faith through Christ. It is when he is lifted up ‘that whoever believes in him may have eternal life’ (verse 15). We have already noticed how our need of the Spirit’s work makes us humbly dependent upon God’s grace: here is further evidence. We rely on the fact that God gave his only Son so that whoever believes in him may not perish but have eternal life (verse 16). Any message that downplays God’s reconciliation of us through the Cross of Christ is not the Christian message.
But the Spirit blows us to a strange place. A place of suffering and rejection. Yet here, in the plans of God, we find forgiveness, healing and acceptance. Here is where God pledges his commitment to us, and where we commit ourselves to him in response to his self-giving love in Christ.
But the eternal life promised there is not merely a ticket for heaven. In John’s Gospel, eternal life doesn’t wait. It starts now. When Jesus prays in chapter seventeen, he says, ‘Eternal life is knowing you’ (my italics). So if the Cross gives us eternal life, it shapes our ‘now’ as well as our future. The gift of eternal life is not only received through the death of Christ, the Cross also gives shape to the relationship of eternal life with God that we have since begun. That life of eternity is one marked by dying – we die to ourselves by rejecting self-indulgence to put Christ and others first, and we are willing to pay the price of following Jesus in a society where it is not and never will be popular.
This, then, in summary, is the life of faith. It is the call out of darkness to follow the wind of the Spirit who leads us to Christ and then on the wild journey of faith that is based on the Cross, where we find forgiveness and the shape of our new, eternal life.
But whatever happened to Nicodemus? He shows up twice more in John’s Gospel. In chapter seven, he defends Jesus against the criticisms his fellow Pharisees levelled. That was a brave thing to do. In chapter nineteen, he accompanies Joseph of Arimathea, the secret disciple who asks Pilate to give him the body of Jesus. Nicodemus helps with anointing the body for burial. Again, what would the other Pharisees have thought of him?
For me, these hints point towards the thought that while Nicodemus may have been in the dark when he met Jesus in chapter three, ultimately he was willing to live the life of faith.
Our question is whether we will.
This weekend, we start a new sermon series for Lent and Easter, in which we meditate on the characters who inhabit the Passion and Easter stories. I get to begin with Judas Iscariot.
Miss Duffell was my English teacher. Despite my goody-goody image at school, she was the only teacher I ever wanted to wind up. It wasn’t the way she tipped her cigarette ash into her coffee cup when having a discussion with pupils at break time, it was the fact that she taught English Literature. To my teenage male way of thinking, that was the most useless, irrelevant subject in the curriculum. Especially if you favoured the sciences, as I did.
It was only when I reached adulthood that I saw the worth of all those essays where we had to write character studies of people in the plays we were studying – Bluntschli in ‘Arms and the Man’, Falstaff in ‘Henry IV Part 1’, and so on. When I began to understand the power of the narrative in the Bible, then I started to appreciate the value in appreciating the characters. I learned that we might identify with a person or see ourselves in opposition to them, and through either reaction be caught up more in what the message the author of the story had for us. I might also end up going further than the original author intended, of course!
It’s with that experience in mind that I begin this new sermon series about the people we encounter in the gospel stories of Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection. If reflecting on a character in a novel or play can have a powerful effect, how much more so when we dwell on those we find in the Holy Spirit-supervised words of Scripture? Especially when we also believe that the same Holy Spirit is here to help us hear, understand, believe and respond.
So this morning I have not given myself an easy task by starting with Judas Iscariot. As with several people in this series, there were several Bible passages I could have picked. But these verses from John 13 get us to the core of what I want to share about him.
The first reference to Judas in this account comes in verse 2:
The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus.
Our first reflection, then, is on Judas and the devil. Nothing like starting with a difficult and contentious theme, then!
There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors, and hail a materialist or magician with the same delight.
Although I know it is difficult for some people to believe in ‘the devil’, I cannot disbelieve in ‘his’ existence, given Jesus’ belief in him. I cannot reduce Jesus merely to a child of his time, however much he constrained himself in the Incarnation. He is still Lord, and what he says, goes. So rejection of the reference to the devil prompting Judas Iscariot is out for me.
But on the other hand, I know too many Christians who make too much of the devil. One Anglican rector friend of mine used to put every mishap and setback down to ‘the devil’, as if by a reflex reaction.
So when we read John’s careful words that ‘the devil had already prompted Judas’ (my emphasis), let us take particular note of that word ‘prompted’. It is not that the devil made Judas do what he did, but that he had sown thoughts in his head. Judas could then choose what he did about those promptings. Although John clearly portrays demonic activity at work here, human responsibility is still in play. We cannot absolve ourselves of our actions by saying, “The devil made me do it.” Neither could Judas.
We may find ourselves under pressure to sin through persistent temptation. In one respect, we can do nothing about that. It is the lot of all people. Being tempted is not a sin: Jesus was, especially in the wilderness. But in another respect, we sometimes lay ourselves open to those promptings, those temptations. We put ourselves in situations where we know we could be vulnerable to our weaknesses. The devil will exploit that. We deliberately sail close to the wind. The devil will exploit that. Later in this sermon, we’ll see how Judas did precisely that. But for now, let’s simply note that while yes, the devil prompts us with temptation, we still have a responsibility for our actions and we need to do what we can to put ourselves at a distance from circumstances where we know we are weak.
The second reference to Judas comes in the second half of the reading, in the conversation Jesus has with his disciples which begins with him saying,
I am not referring to all of you; I know those I have chosen. But this is to fulfil this passage of Scripture: ‘He who shared my bread has turned against me.’ (Verse 18)
It continues with Jesus’ troubled admission that one of the Twelve will betray him, and when pressed about who that will be says,
It is the one to whom I will give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish. (Verse 26)
So this second reflection is about the astonishing fact that Jesus shared table fellowship with his betrayer.
I have often heard people observe, then, that Jesus even gave the bread to Judas at the meal where he instituted the Lord’s Supper. They then take it that we should not be judgmental (fair enough, in one sense) and that there should be no boundaries at the Lord’s table. However, that last statement is patently incorrect from a biblical point of view. Paul was at pains in 1 Corinthians 11 to remind his readers that self-examination was important before taking the bread and wine. Lax discipline at Holy Communion is not good practice.
I would rather see Jesus’ sharing of table fellowship with Judas this way. My current reading is the memoirs of a man who has written more profound books in recent years on what it means to be a pastor than anyone else I have come across. His name is Eugene Peterson, and he is better known for the popular paraphrase of the Bible called The Message. In his latest book, The Pastor: A Memoir, he talks about how when he began the Presbyterian church in Maryland that he went on to lead for thirty years, his early vision was to gather together a group of visionary Christians who were all passionate for what it really meant to be disciples and to be church in a New Testament sense. Instead, he found himself with a rabble, rather as David did at Ziklag when he was on the run from King Saul.
And I observe that I have seen some friends fall away from faith over the years. Each time, they have been those whom I might consider the least likely. In at least two cases, it was weakness to sexual temptation that began their decline. It reminds me that Paul warned his readers in 1 Corinthians 10 that any of us who believe we are ‘standing’ in faith should beware lest we fall. It could be you. It could be me.
Therefore, when we too come to eat bread with Jesus this morning, let us pray that we will, in the words of Charles Wesley’s hymn ‘Soldiers of Christ, arise’ ‘leave no unguarded place’. Let us not simply be aware of our weaknesses so that we do not put ourselves in places where the devil might prompt us with temptation. Let us also positively ‘put on the full armour of God’, those godly qualities that are the very opposite of sin.
So what was Judas’ particular weakness? We get a hint later in the story, and this is my third reflection on him. After Jesus tells him, “What you are about to do, do quickly,” (verse 27), we read how the disciples misunderstood (verse 28) that statement:
Since Judas had charge of the money, some thought Jesus was telling him to buy what was needed for the festival, or to give something to the poor. (Verse 29)
Anyone who has read John’s Gospel cover to cover rather than in short segments will go back to chapter 12, when Mary anoints Jesus with a pint of expensive nard. There, Judas objected that the perfume would have been better used if it had been sold and the money given to the poor, but John reports that Judas didn’t care about the poor: he looked after the disciples’ common purse and wanted to dip his hands into the cash (John 12:4-6).
Judas’ weakness, then, was money. Here is where he failed to guard himself against the devil’s promptings to temptation. Here is where he thought he could stand in faith, but fell. No wonder his reward from the enemies of Jesus was thirty pieces of silver. That would have attracted him.
When the great contemporary spiritual writer Richard Foster wanted to publish a book about the major sins, is it any accident that he wrote about the ‘big three’? He called his book, Money, Sex and Power. These, he said, were the areas of human life with the greatest power to bless or to curse. Perhaps it is no surprise that monastic orders have taken vows of poverty, celibacy and obedience – in direct contrast to these three great temptations.
And perhaps for some of us the way to avoid our weakness will be by a strategy of avoidance. A friend of mine knows that he is incapable of drinking alcohol in moderation. If he has one drink, he will end up having a lot, and getting drunk. So his strategy is to be teetotal. In doing so, those who choose to avoid weaknesses can also be witnesses to a world that believes you can’t be happy unless you’re smashed out of your mind, sleeping around, buying all the latest consumer goods or climbing the greasy pole at work.
However, avoiding our besetting sins is not always possible. And we can also be good witnesses by facing temptation and avoiding it. That, though, requires not a spiritual gung-ho attitude but prayer, dependence upon the Holy Spirit and fellowship. And by ‘fellowship’ here, I mean deep Christian relationships where we regularly hold ourselves accountable to one another. It’s exactly what some of John Wesley’s small groups did. They talked each week about which sins they had been struggling with.
There are similar approaches today. We can form ‘accountability groups’. We can do it in other ways, too. One way that people facing the temptation of internet pornography cope with it is to install a program on their computer called Covenant Eyes which reports to a friend the details of every website the person looks at.
Fellowship is more than camaraderie at the Christmas Bazaar. It’s a vital tool in avoiding the trap that snared Judas.
But, of course, all of this is to some extent rather gloomy. Temptation, sin, avoidance. All necessary to consider for Christians, but is there any good news here? I believe there is, and it comes in the fourth and final reflection. Allow me to introduce it with an illustration.
When I was young and suffering bullying at school, my Dad tried to teach me some Judo. He had learned it in the RAF, and had kept his instruction manual. He argued that the virtue of Judo was that it was not itself violent, but you used your opponent’s strength against them in order to win.
In the light of that, consider Jesus’ words at the end of our reading:
Now the Son of Man is glorified and God is glorified in him. (Verse 31)
Isn’t this what is going on here? Even the evil power at work as Judas gives in to his weakness and responds to the devil’s prompting is something God uses against his enemy for good, to win the victory over sin and death. Judas does not have the last word. Jesus does – in the forgiveness of sins through the Cross, and in the new life of the Resurrection.
Yes, here, in the murky, shabby story of Judas God the Father works his Gospel. He does not inflict violence, but he uses the violence and betrayal rendered against his only begotten Son to bring the salvation of the world. It is the truth of which Paul was to write,
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28)
In ‘all things’, even the treachery of Judas, God works for good. In ‘all things’, even the darkness of Calvary, God works for good.
And in all things today, God still works for good. The friends or acquaintances who betray us – God can turn it for good. The evil that affects us – God can even use that for good, as he uses the enemy’s force against him.
Allow me to conclude with a story. Members of the Church Council have already heard this, so I hope they will excuse hearing it again. Tomorrow, I return to a previous circuit to conduct a funeral. Sid was a proud Welshman – and his pride was not always his most attractive feature. He was married to Rita, an East German Lutheran Christian, whose response to Sid’s fierce Methodism was to vow never to become a Methodist, otherwise Sid would have won, in her words.
When I arrived in the circuit, he had just retired from a career in the Army and then some years in Civvy Street. That army background made him stiff and – yes – regimented. On one occasion when I had prepared an act of all age worship only to find the Junior Church not ready for it and going out after the second hymn, I received a stern lecture!
One thing Sid had never done, despite a lifetime in Methodism, was make a personal commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. I told him that one day he would have to get off the fence.
Well, one Saturday night he did. Sid and Rita attended a concert by a Christian band and choir. He heard one of the musicians give a testimony, and he suddenly thought, “If it can be true for him, it can be true for me.”
The next morning at church, he took Holy Communion for the first time. The look of joy on his face as he knelt at the rail and looked at me is an image that will remain with me for ever.
In the wake of that commitment, he started to soften. He lightened up. He began to forgive, and to become more humble.
In January, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and his health declined fast. Yet during his hospitalisation and treatment, he renewed his commitment to Christ, thanks to the witness of another Christian patient at the hospital.
Tragically, he had become alienated from one of his two daughters a few years ago, due to a terrible misunderstanding in a phone conversation. While he was in hospital, his other daughter said to him, “Dad, if you’re a Christian you’ve got to put things right with my sister.” The daughter in question lived in Germany, and Sid picked up a hospital phone and rang Germany. On his knees he sought reconciliation.
Sid’s suffering and death also led to another reconciliation – between his wife and the next door neighbours. When I visited, one of them was in the house, offering comfort.
The last sentence Sid uttered to his family was this. “You’re not going to like what I’m about to say, but I’m glad I’ve got cancer.”
I don’t know if I could ever say that, but I will say this. That is the testimony of a man who knows that the Judas in his life – in his case, a terminal disease – was something that God was using to overcome evil with good.
For the Judases of this world and the devils do not get the last word. God does.
I’m not big into saints’ days – in fact not at all, really. But today I am taking assemblies at our children’s school and as it’s a church school I’ve been asked to speak about St David.
So I’ve had to do some research. Shortness of time has meant the Internet, and I was impressed by the careful article on Wikipedia – it cautiously avoided hagiography. And what I read made me think he is ‘a saint for today’. That is, not merely for the First of March, but for our times.
Here is a famous quote from the great man:
Be joyful, and keep your faith and your creed. Do the little things that you have seen me do and heard about. I will walk the path that our fathers have trod before us.
This man who recommended joy lived a simple lifestyle. Monastic to the point of extremes – a diet of water only to drink and bread and herbs (bread and watercress) only to eat. No technology – his monks had to plough the fields without the help of animals. Emphasis on doing ‘the little things’, despite the miracles associated with him. A sort of sixth century Amish, in a way.
It was all rather radical, and yes, as I said, extreme. But this man clearly knew what brought true joy. Not money, possessions, comfort, adulation or anything else: his joy was connected with ‘[his] faith and [his] creed’. Is it reasonable to assume that David’s deep joy came from Christ alone?