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Sermon: People At The Cross And The Tomb – Pontius Pilate And Power

John 18:28-19:16

Our American friends have a term for it: Lame Duck President. When a President of the United States is impotent because the opposing political party dominates both Houses of Congress – the House of Representatives and the Senate – he is a lame duck President. He cannot do anything. He is at the mercy of his opponents and rivals.

Today, we think about the lame duck politician in the Passion of Jesus: Pontius Pilate. That may surprise you. Don’t we expect the Roman official in charge of Palestinian territory to be a strong and authoritative man? Indeed, I was once part of a play on Good Friday where I had to play Pilate, and the director made me play the part with some force to bring him alive.

However, history tells us a different story about Pilate. And it’s one that makes sense of his powerlessness in the face of the demands from that part of the wealthy religious establishment that wanted to keep its cosy relationship with Rome and thus benefit in terms of finances and power.

Pilate’s problem was this. He had committed several acts of antagonism against the Jewish faith. He set up Roman standards with graven images of the emperor in Jerusalem, an act regarded as idolatry. He may well have diverted money from the Temple treasury to build an aqueduct. There had been protests to Rome about him. He had to be careful not to cause further trouble, for fear of the Emperor Tiberius taking a dim view of him.

How strange, then, that this is the man who humanly has power and authority, and whose words count far more than anybody else’s in Palestine.

And who does he encounter here? Someone claiming to the the Son of God, yet who has been arrested and is at his mercy. Another character, fatally weakened by circumstances, it seems.

So it’s not surprising that Pilate and Jesus have a conversation about power and authority. Here in this episode we see a God’s-eye perspective on these issues.

The first of these issues is kingship. Pilate asks Jesus if he is the king of the Jews (verse 33), and idea he’s clearly picked up from Jesus’ religious enemies (verses 34-35). Jesus makes his famous reply:

“My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.” (Verse 36)

In showing that his followers have not been fighting, he exposes the lies of those who have claimed he is a political rival, and should be executed for that reason. However, his general statement, ‘My kingdom is not of this world’, has been open to all sorts of poor interpretation. Jehovah’s Witnesses have taken it to mean a ban on getting involved in politics. Some Christians have seen it similarly, as restricting Jesus’ influence to personal and private matters. Thus you get the kind of Christian who behaves one way on a Sunday, and a completely different way in the office on a Monday. There are non-Christians who would like to think this were the Church’s position. When I once wrote as a minister in a local newspaper about a matter of local politics, I was criticised the next week on the letters page for bringing religion into politics. I was told to go back and concentrate on why the churches were declining today!

But Jesus cannot mean this. If he did, there is so much of the Bible we would have to jettison. The Old Testament prophets, for a start. The judges of early Israel. It doesn’t stand up.

No: Jesus’ kingdom being ‘not of this world’ is explained by his statement that his ‘kingdom is from another place’. It’s an issue of where his kingdom is from. The reign of Jesus is from heaven. Because he reigns from heaven, his kingdom covers everything, not just the personal and the private.

So politicians like Pilate, and anyone else who thinks they have ultimate authority or influence, need to hear the message of Jesus that what they do and say will be judged by him. Christians need to see that the public arena – politics, the media, entertainment and the arts – is a fit place for us to live and work with kingdom of God values. We complain about unchristian influences in these areas, but often the sad truth is that Christians have retreated from them and left a vacuum that has been filled by others. If Jesus’ kingdom comes from another place and the Pilates of this world are placed under him, then we need more politicians who are Christians, more artists and entertainers who are Christians and more communicators who are Christians.

And all of us need to realise that every area of life comes under the reign of the One whose ‘kingdom is from another place’. An old Christian adage says,

“If Jesus Christ is not Lord of all, then he is not Lord at all.”

Secondly, Jesus steers the conversation onto the subject of truth. When Pilate says, “You are a king, then!” Jesus replies:

“You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” (Verse 37)

Pilate responds with his famous words, “What is truth?” (verse 38), but Francis Bacon was wrong to call him ‘jesting Pilate’ who ‘would not stay for an answer’. Pilate was not jesting. This was serious. This is serious. Truth is a serious matter in every sphere of life, but especially when it comes to power and authority.

Why? People in power and authority – whether we’re talking about governments, multinational corporations or the media – want to control access to information and filter what you might hear as being true. It’s especially prevalent today, but it has always been the case. They will use claims about the truth to bolster their own power, and to exclude from power those they consider undesirable. No wonder Pilate is confused about what truth is: he has probably spent much of his career managing people’s perceptions of the truth.

Into this fallen landscape where truth is halved or turned on its head, Jesus says,

“The reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” (Verse 37)

How different is Jesus’ approach to truth! He does not browbeat people with the truth, he does not manipulate the truth, he does not force the truth on people. He testifies to the truth. A testimony is there to be accepted or rejected. Jesus knows who will accept his testimony to the truth: ‘everyone on the side of truth’. He’s not running a General Election campaign. He’s not advertising, nor is he cajoling. He’s presenting the truth, and simply waiting for those who will respond, because the Holy Spirit leads them to do so.

It’s not a recipé for success, is it? If Jesus were a politician, how would he ever get elected? If he were a marketing man, how would he sell his product?

And there’s the issue: the Jesus approach to truth is the opposite of the way people in power and authority try to use truth. No psychological techniques to persuade people, he relies on the Holy Spirit to do the persuading. It’s quite precarious, isn’t it?

It’s all rather impractical, heads in the cloud stuff for those who feel they have to use truth to get their own way. The kingdom of God will never win an election on Planet Earth. Jesus is not a product to be sold, but a Saviour who looks for a response of love and a Lord who seeks willing obedience.

So let us never as the church seek to coerce people with the truth; rather, like Jesus, let us testify to the truth and rely on the Holy Spirit to show people the truth. Of course, like Jesus shortly after this conversation, we may end up on a cross for our troubles. But that place of suffering witness to the truth is a more powerful place to win converts than a bludgeoning attitude to truth.

Thirdly and finally, we move to the dialogue between Jesus and Pilate after the flogging, when Pilate is trying to make one last desperate attempt to save Jesus’ life, even though he is in this politically weak position where he is afraid of the religious leaders (verse 8) who say he will be seen as no friend of Caesar (verse 12). It’s a dialogue about power.

Despite his fear, Pilate reminds Jesus that he has the judicial power to free him or crucify him (verse 10). He still wants to think he’s Mister Big Shot. He has to big himself up. “Look at me!” he seems to say to Jesus.

But is Jesus impressed? No.

“You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.” (Verse 11)

That’s his reply. Pilate, you couldn’t talk like this unless my Father had allowed this. You are weak and passive, and so you bear some responsibility for what’s about to happen, even if Caiaphas is worse, because he initiated and planned the plot that brought me here.

In other words, divine sovereignty and human responsibility sit together, one over the other. Pilate’s power is not absolute: it is to be exercised under divine sovereignty. Pilate does not lose any responsibility for his actions, even though God in his sovereignty has permitted the betrayal of Jesus.

What does this combination of the sovereignty of God and human responsibility mean for the exercise of power? It means that everyone who exercises power is accountable to God. The world holds politicians accountable to the electorate, but Christians hold them accountable to God. When Christians hold positions of responsibility, we are accountable, not only to those who put us there but also to God. We remember the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Roman centurion whose servant was at the point of death. That centurion understood true faith when he said to Jesus,

“For I myself am a man under authority, with solders under me.” (Luke 17:8)

He got to give orders because he was a centurion, but only because he was under authority.

So it is with us. We may be entrusted with power or responsibility. It may be small-scale and private, it may be large-scale and public. But whatever it is, God has allowed us to have that measure of authority. And within his permitting us to take that up, we are accountable to him as well as whoever humanly appointed us.

In the end, Pilate chooses accountability not to God but to the mob, so that he can save his political neck. The temptation is there for all of us who exercise power or authority. Will we seek to make the decisions that please God, or is there some hidden impure motive that drives us towards compromised policies?

Indeed, what choices will we make in relation to power and authority? Will we choose to live all of life under the Lordship of Christ and his kingdom? Will we witness to the truth, rather than use it as a weapon? And will we always remember that we are accountable to God for the choices and decisions we make when we are entrusted with responsibility?

In our story, one man thought he was powerful, but was fatally weakened, and he made the wrong choices. But the other man, who came chained as a prisoner, apparently at the mercy of the other, lived with the greatest freedom and authority of all.

Will we make godly choices about power today?

Sermon: Nicodemus

I’m preaching from the Lectionary this week at my second church, and am following the Gospel reading.

John 3:1-17

Who was the only Irishman in the Bible?

Nick O’Demus.

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.

Sermon: Reasons For Self-Denial

Philippians 3:17-4:1

Have you given up anything for Lent? Some of my friends have denied themselves the usual chocolate. Another has started an annual practice of giving up Facebook.

But if you had asked this of my wife some years ago, she would have given you a strange look. She came to faith and had her early Christian formation in a Baptist church. When she met me, she found the practices of the Methodist Church strange. I must admit that as someone who has been in Methodism since the womb, I still find it strange!

And one practice Debbie had never encountered before was Lent. The day she asked me what Lent was, I couldn’t believe I was hearing what she said. Surely everybody knew what Lent was? It’s been part of my background all my life! Indeed, except for when Easter Day occurs on the very latest day in the year that it can, my birthday always falls within Lent. Thankfully, I’m allowed to feast on my birthday – according to my rules, anyway!

Now the reading from Philippians seems a good one for Lent. Not that the earliest Christians practised it, but it is a passage that explores the importance of self-discipline. Now while Debbie’s home church was lower than low – calling baptism and Holy Communion ordinances, not sacraments – I’m sure they too would have endorsed the importance of self-discipline in the Christian life. And at Lent or any other time, that is a critical part of our discipleship. It’s also – as we shall see – an area where we can be a counter-cultural witness in our world today.

Implicit in Paul’s teaching here are various core Christian reasons which provide the foundations for living a life of self-discipline to the glory of God. It’s those beliefs I want to explore today.

We begin at the Cross. Christians always have to begin at the Cross, and Paul does so here.

For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. (Verse 18)

Paul sees that a root cause of self-indulgence is not taking the Cross seriously. The Cross is not merely the place where I am forgiven – so that I can keep living however I like and then return for the next batch of forgiveness. The Cross is the model for our discipleship. What Paul teaches here is consistent with Jesus telling aspiring disciples to deny themselves, take up the Cross and follow him.

Christianity, then, is less about what I can get and more about what I can give. So much of our conversation, even in the Church, is peppered with the assumptions of consumerism. Does this church suit me? Did the worship feed me? Does it have what I need? It’s very me-centred. But the Cross says we have to take a different approach. And disciplines of self-denial and self-discipline are those which call us back to the Cross. They are not preventing ourselves becoming fat, they are about tuning ourselves into the wavelength of the Cross.

So a week ago, when there was a news story reporting the development of a new low-fat chocolate bar, where the fat particles are replaced with water, air or gels, the Daily Telegraph was wrong to call it the ‘Chocolate bar that can be eaten during Lent’. The point of self-denial isn’t about losing weight, it’s about a sign that we will walk the way of the Cross. As one person put it,

Lent is supposed to be concerned with spiritual discipline and self-denial, not a handy way of losing a bit of weight. If the new low-fat chocolate tastes as good as an old-fashioned one but doesn’t pile on the pounds, then where’s the self-denial?

So we approach Lenten disciplines of self-denial not as some kind of belated New Year’s Resolution to get ourselves in shape; we embrace them as a sign that we accept the Cross will shape the way we live.

The second Christian building-block in Paul’s teaching is worship. Hear verse 19 again:

Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things.

‘Their god is their belly.’ Who do we worship when we are self-indulgent? Ourselves. This comment of Paul’s tests what we truly believe worship to be, because it’s a question of allegiance. Does my stomach deserve my ultimate allegiance? I need to feed it, but when it becomes my god, something has gone badly wrong.

This, then, is about how we understand worship. Much as I enjoy worship with a band, featuring a lot of contemporary songs, and other people love their hymns, how dangerous it is when we end up worshipping worship. And we forget what worship is. The main New Testament word translated ‘worship’ means ‘to move towards and kiss’. However, the ‘kiss’ envisaged is the ‘kiss of homage’, like that offered to a monarch, and even still kept in a symbolic and ceremonial way in our society when a new Prime Minister or bishop is appointed. They have to go to ‘the Palace’ to ‘kiss the hands’ of the sovereign.

Worship is not in the first place about the good feelings and the positive experiences. It is about declaring our allegiance to Jesus Christ, the King of Kings and Lord or Lords. When we deny ourselves as a spiritual discipline, we do so not to torment ourselves but to affirm that God’s will comes first in our lives. We are to indulge his will, not our appetites. We ‘do not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God’, and so our worship is seen by taking God’s word seriously and putting it into practice as a priority. When we do that, our god is not our belly. Instead, we give ourselves in devotion and worship to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

As we come to our third and final foundation, you could say this is a question of past, present and future. A past event – the Cross – shapes our behaviour now. Our present activity – of worship – needs to be rightly directed to God. So thirdly and finally, that leaves a future component – the kingdom of God.

But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself. (Verses 20-21)

Jesus is coming, says Paul, and our minds are set on him rather than ‘earthly things’ (the worship point again). But Paul goes further: what Jesus will do when he comes also leads us to consider our behaviour now. When Paul says, ‘He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory’, he is making a reference to the Resurrection. Jesus’ own ‘body of humiliation’ was transformed into a ‘body of glory’ in the Resurrection. You will remember that the risen Jesus was identifiably the same man who had been crucified (once the disciples’ eyes had been opened), but his body was also somehow different (remember how he appeared in their midst in a locked room, and how he disappeared from sight after the meal at the end of the Emmaus Road journey).

So, says Paul, we are in for transformation, too. When Jesus comes again and renews heaven and earth, he will raise us up and renew our bodies, just as his was. This will be an expression of his reign in his kingdom, for he will do it ‘by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself’ (verse 21b).

If you’ve followed me thus far, one thing you will understand is that our bodies matter to God. They are important to him. The great future of God’s kingdom is a physical one. The idea often trumpeted that our body is just a shell and that the real person is the invisible soul simply doesn’t match the New Testament’s teaching. Our bodies are part of God’s good creation. Yes, they are imperfect and they decay (what Paul calls here the ‘body of humiliation’) but God does not intend to discard them, he will renew them at the resurrection of the dead.

What does all this have to do with our Lent theme of self-denial? For one thing, it reminds us that self-denial is not about self-hatred. It is about self-discipline, and that’s a whole lot different. When we deny ourselves, we are not doing so in order to torture ourselves, like Filipino Christians being nailed to crosses as acts of devotion. It is more that we are training our body for better use in the service of God. It is why in 1 Corinthians 9 Paul uses the image of an athlete training to compete in the ancient Olympics. So too our self-denial is an act of training: we are getting ready for the Great Games themselves in the Kingdom of God.

In other words, self-denial is a positive action. It is about love for God and his ways. It is part of building for God’s kingdom.

In fact, it is something we practise in other areas of life. I remember one particular aspect of our marriage preparation. We sat in the lounge of the manse where the minister friend who was to marry us lived. I recall how awkward he felt about having to ask some of the standard questions to two people he knew. I was one of his circuit colleagues!

One question in particular stuck with me. he talked about the promises in the marriage service where the man and the woman say they will honour one another with their bodies. Now I guess many couples think that when they say, ‘With my body I thee worship’ or some modern equivalent, it is really a coy, veiled reference to sex. But our friend had a different take. He looked at me and said,

“Dave, how are you going to look after your body for Debbie’s sake?”

Well, as someone who has put on a stone in weight since marriage, it may well be I haven’t honoured that as well as I should have done!

But perhaps the point stands. And perhaps it helps us see that while we naturally accept we would deny ourselves for our loved ones, how much more we might do so for the love of our God?

In conclusion, I can’t tell anyone whether they should give up anything for Lent and if so, what. But I can invite us all to examine ourselves and ask, is my life being conformed to the Cross or are there areas where I need to deny myself in order to make that more true? I can invite us to look at who or what we worship, to see whether our priorities need correcting by self-denial. And I can put before us all the hope of resurrection to enquire whether we need to deny ourselves out of love for God and his ways, by building for his kingdom.

Sermon: Jesus Of The Transfiguration

Luke 9:28-36

A neighbour of ours three doors down periodically changes her photo on Facebook. For a long time it was a snap of her with the rock singer Jon Bon Jovi. Then it became a picture of her with the Hollywood actor Johnny Depp. Michelle looks very happy and relaxed with them. They look pretty happy with her. It does rather help the matter that Michelle is quite glamorous!

Me, I’m not so sure I’d look as cool and laid back with a famous person as she does. Not that I’m terribly interested in handsome male rock stars or actors; I just have to fend off Debbie’s regular ribbing because I once commented how pretty one of the teachers at our children’s school is!

However, as I said, I don’t think I’d be as relaxed as Michelle. I think if I met a hero, or a famous beautiful woman, I think I would be a blubbering mess. How journalists keep their cool to interview well-known people, I don’t know.

All of which makes me rather like Peter at the Mount of Transfiguration. When he offers to make three dwellings – one each for Jesus, Moses and Elijah – Luke comments that he didn’t know what he was saying (verse 33). He’s overwhelmed, and he says something stupid. He’d like to preserve the moment or turn it into something he knows and can cope with – the three dwelling places he proposes are reminiscent of the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles.

But he’s missed the significance of the event as a result of his blubbering, and needs correction. That takes him into the terrifying experience in the cloud, where he hears the frightening, correcting voice of God: ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’ (Verse 35) Don’t get blubbery about Moses and Elijah: listen to Jesus!

And I want to take that as an entry point into thinking about the Transfiguration today. It’s a traditional reading for the last Sunday before Lent, and I want us to look at how it shows Jesus as being superior to Moses and Elijah.

Firstly, Jesus’ superiority to Moses. So you book your dream holiday. You pay the deposit. You renew your passports. A couple of months before going, you pay the balance. A week before the off, you return to the travel agent to pick up your tickets and your currency. A day or two beforehand, you pack your luggage. Everything is ready for your departure.

And the Transfiguration is about a departure – especially in the connection with Moses. When Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus, we read

They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. (Verse 31)

His departure. Why the Moses connection? Because there’s an Old Testament book called ‘Departure’. It’s just that we know it by its Greek name: Exodus. The story of Moses leading God’s people to freedom from Egypt. When Luke writes about Jesus’ departure here, it is in the Greek his exodos. Moses’ departure was a liberation, Jesus’ forthcoming ‘departure’ from Jerusalem will be a liberation, too. But because Jesus is superior to Moses, his liberation will be superior, too.

If it’s Jesus’ departure from Jerusalem, then clearly we’re talking about his death, resurrection and ascension. That departure brings liberation. Jesus has been pointing the way to his future suffering and has said that disciples need to take up their crosses and follow him. Now we begin to understand that what is coming is a freedom event. The Cross will bring freedom. Jesus’ departure in his death is not a tragic event, as I once heard a Methodist church steward call it in the vestry before a Good Friday service. It is sacrificial love for the blessing of the world. Yes, it is agony and injustice. But it is also true heroism.

Now if this is the case, then we have to see the Transfiguration as more than we have often interpreted it. We know that the disciples come back down from the mountain to the challenges of everyday life. Hence we say that you can’t live on ‘mountain-top experiences’ all the time, you have to get on with ordinary living again. But if the Transfiguration points to Jesus’ departure at the Cross, it isn’t about coming down from a ‘high’ to face the mundane and the routine again. Rather, it’s about Jesus being strengthened to face his coming trial.

So if Jesus is being strengthened to face the trial of the Cross here, perhaps this event is similar to one or two others in the Gospels. It might be like the powerful spiritual experience he had at his baptism with the Holy Spirit coming down on him like a dove and – again – a voice from heaven affirming him, immediately before the Spirit leads him to the wilderness to fast and conquer temptation. It might be like the way he was mysteriously strengthened in the Garden of Gethsemane as he wrestled with his forthcoming betrayal and suffering. No wonder we read this on the last Sunday before Lent.

Isn’t it wonderful, then, that Jesus needed to be strengthened before he faced trials, including the greatest of all? And if that’s the case, then perhaps we might interpret our own ‘mountain-top experiences’ differently. They may not simply  be a boost before we get back to the grind; they may be God’s way of equipping us for whatever difficulties are coming our way, particularly those where we end up in a painful place because of our faith. Perhaps God has a blessing for us in Christ that will give us the fortitude to face our trials, or perhaps we can look back at problematic times in our lives and see that before then God prepared us with a blessing. He may have given us our own mini-transfigurations. Not in the sense of exalting who we are – he only does that for Jesus – but in empowering and encouraging us.

Secondly, Jesus’ superiority to Elijah. How does Elijah connect with Jesus’ departure? The Moses connection is quite easy to see when you think of the word ‘exodus’, but it’s less easy to see why Elijah should be hanging out with Jesus now, and the particular way in which Jesus is superior to him.

However, there is a link between Jesus’ departure at Jerusalem and Elijah, and it goes like this. For Jews, Elijah was the great prophet of the end-time deliverance. He was the one who was expected to appear before God’s Messiah. You may recall there was a hoo-hah in the Gospels as to whether John the Baptist was Elijah come back from the dead to precede the Messiah. All this means that Elijah was the figure of hope. He signified to Jewish minds that God would make all things right, just and whole in his kingdom. Hence the theme of hope.

That may well have been why Peter almost thoughtlessly suggested the building of three booths, like the Feast of Tabernacles, as I said, because that festival was also known as the Feast of Ingathering, and looked forward to the fullness of God’s kingdom on earth. Peter’s mistake was just to see Jesus as an equal with Moses and Elijah.

But the voice from heaven says, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’ (verse 35), because Jesus is superior even to Elijah. So we must infer that Jesus brings a superior hope at his departure.

I suggest we find that in his resurrection and ascension. Jesus will be raised physically from the dead. His body will be restored to him in a new way. Jesus’ resurrection body is the beginning of God’s new creation. God will make all things new, and he begins with his own Son. Elijah might be a sign or symbol of hope, but Jesus is more than that: his own resurrection body embodies our hope, even guarantees our hope of a new heaven and a new earth.

So death may and will come, but it doesn’t get the last laugh. God does. We wait in heaven, in what looks from earth like the sleep of death, but one day the Great Surprise will happen when God raises us from the dead and renews his creation. Elijah can teach us much, but only the Son of God can teach us all this. The Christian who dies trusting in Christ does so in peace, because Jesus fills her with hope in ways no-one else can.

And then there’s the ascension, Jesus’ final bodily departure from Jerusalem, reminiscent of the way Elijah left this world yet – again – superior to it. He ascends to the Father’s right hand, where he will reign until everything has been put under his feet. This is the part of hope that sustains us until God makes all things new, when the new Jerusalem descends and all creation is renewed.

It’s easy to lose hope and think that God is not reigning in heaven when we see evil in the world, in the church and in ourselves. No wonder I read yesterday that John Stott apparently once said,

The Christian’s chief occupational hazards are depression and discouragement.

But the Ascension reminds us that Jesus is reigning, even while rebellion takes place against his rule. Battles may be won or lost, but in the final analysis Christ is on the throne. To say that Christ is not reigning because there is still sin in the world would be like saying there cannot be a government in power because crime is still being committed.

In conclusion, then, Jesus at the Transfiguration offers us awesome hope. The liberation of the Cross, the hope in the Resurrection of God’s new creation and the assurance of his reign through the Ascension. Moses and Elijah may have been good, but Jesus outranks them everywhere.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, ‘Any study of Christ must begin in silence.’ No wonder we read that

When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen. (Verse 36)

Sometimes I’m all for the response to a sermon being in words and deeds after the service. Today, maybe like Peter, James and John, our best response might just be awed silence at the majesty of Christ.

Sermon: How Many Times Do I Have To Tell You?

Mark 9:30-37

“How many times do I have to tell you?”

It’s a familiar cry of exasperation from parents to their children. No matter how many times you have asked them to do something – or, more likely, not to do something – it just doesn’t sink in.

It isn’t limited to things not sinking in with children. We might lose our rag and say the same to another adult: “How many times do I have to tell you?” Did the other person not hear? Or did they not listen? Do they not care? Are they dense?

“How many times do I have to tell you?”

Jesus could have said that to his disciples. The fact that he got frustrated and said things like, “Do you still not understand?” gives me hope when I, his very imperfect follower, feel I need to repeat a theme in a sermon.

This passage falls into the “How many times do I have to tell you?” category. It is the second of three ‘passion predictions’ in Mark’s Gospel – passages where Jesus prophesies his forthcoming betrayal, suffering, death and resurrection. Last week’s Lectionary gave us the first prediction.

That first passion prediction last week was followed by the first misunderstanding of the disciples – when Peter told Jesus the Messiah shouldn’t suffer and Jesus retorted, “Get behind me, Satan.” So too this second prediction is followed by a second misunderstanding. So you see there is a similar pattern to this week’s reading, compared with last Sunday’s.

But of course the content isn’t entirely parallel. I thought we’d look at this week’s prediction and this week’s misunderstanding in a way that compares and contrasts with the first prediction and the first misunderstanding from last week. By saying ‘compare and contrast’ I do not mean this to be like an exam essay question! In fact, rather than this being a dry exercise in theoretical Bible study, I believe it will speak to us about discipleship. After all, that’s what Mark does throughout his Gospel.

Firstly, at greater length, the Prediction.
(i) The location and the journey are important factors in this prediction of Jesus’ passion:

They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it (verse 30).

It’s the last reference to Galilee, the former centre of Jesus’ operations, until the Resurrection. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem now. His focus is resolutely on the Father’s will in facing the Cross. The suffering he is about to prophesy again is no accident or coincidence. He is committed to the Father’s will, whatever the cost.

Yes, a terrible struggle over this awaits him in Gethsemane, but the discipleship Jesus models for us is one far removed from that which we often see in churches today. To listen to some churchgoers you might think religion was only about what was in it for them – the blessings and the benefits. It’s like consumerism: what’s in it for me? But Jesus’ attitude is, what’s in it for the Father? He will do the right thing, whether it benefits him or not. He is determined to go the right way, whether that means popularity or pain. Not for him the courting of votes; rather, a fixation on the will of God, whatever it costs.

This is underlined by the fact that the journey is secret: ‘He did not want anyone to know it’ (verse 30b). Why? Secrets usually require good reasons. This last week we booked a secret journey for the children. They won’t know about it until we get underway. If they discover what it is, they’ll go hyper. So we have to keep it a secret.

And I’m not going to tell you either what it is!

But Jesus keeps his journey and his movements secret for a good reason:

for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, ‘The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.’ (Verse 31)

Here’s one time he doesn’t want to do crowds. He is here to spend private time with his disciples, focussing their minds on this central truth of his life and ministry, the one thing they must grasp, which they misunderstood earlier and will do so again now: “How many times must I tell you?”

And here he ups the ante in this second passion prediction. Like the first time, he tells them that he must suffer, be killed and be raised from the dead. However, he changes one important detail. In chapter 8, he concentrates on the murderous role of the Jewish leadership. He shocks the disciples not only with the news of a suffering Messiah, but with the prediction that the religious leaders themselves will be responsible for his death. He leaves a warning for later generations that those of us who count ourselves faithful may well end up as the enemies of God.

But there is a twist in this second prediction. No longer is the blame placed merely on the Jewish authorities, it is placed on the whole human race:

‘The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.’ (Verse 31b)

You can’t pin later Christian anti-Semitism on Jesus. Everyone – ‘human hands’ – is responsible for his execution. Whatever the savage truth of religious guilt is, the bottom line Jesus gives us is that his death is due to the sins of the whole world.

But more than that, he is ‘betrayed into human hands’. We probably associate that word ‘betrayed’ with Judas Iscariot, but it means ‘handed over’. In a sense, that is what Judas did. But you could also say that God handed Jesus over. Biblical writers sometimes used a form of Greek grammar to allude to God doing something without actually naming him[1]. If so, then although human beings are not absolved from their responsibility for executing Jesus, it stresses the idea that Jesus died not only because of the sins of the world, he died for the sins of the world. It is in God’s plan. It is the fulfilment of Isaiah 53, the prophecy of the Suffering Servant.

And that’s remarkable when you factor in who Mark’s first readers probably were. The likeliest theory is that they were Roman Christians facing persecution under the Emperor Nero. Mark is telling them that their Jesus was not only crucified by sinful human beings – that would make sense to them, given the suffering they were undergoing – but also for those same sinners. Not only does the Gospel bring the good news of sins forgiven for us, it brings the challenge that if Jesus forgives us, he offers the same to our enemies, and that must change the way we regard those who cause trouble for us.

Jesus, then, in this prophecy of his Passion, is showing how committed he is to the painful but necessary plan of the Father that will lead him to the Cross. He is doing so, because that path will take him not only into the firing line of all sinners where he will die as a consequence of their sins, he will also die for their (and our) sins. It is the message at the heart of the Good News. It took some establishing with his disciples. It still does with us, at times. But once we know this is true, then it can come out of its secret lair and be unleashed on the world with a message of forgiveness and forgiving for all.

Secondly, more briefly, the Misunderstanding. And again, we’re back to “How many times must I tell you?” Wouldn’t you think that just after Jesus has been talking about humiliation and suffering the last thing his disciples should be talking about is, ‘Who is the greatest?’? And this will be something the disciples again find incredibly hard to accept. For when it comes to the third passion prediction (10:35-45), the context is James and John eyeing up the best seats at the top table in the kingdom of God! Maybe the call to humility is something we find hard to grasp, too. We might prefer our place in the limelight.

What we can’t doubt is that Mark portrays this as highly important teaching by Jesus. It takes place in ‘the house’ (Peter’s house, possibly) in Capernaum. When Jesus teaches the insiders from among his following in a private location in Mark’s Gospel, it’s usually something significant. The call to humility certainly isn’t a passing minor aspect of Jesus’ doctrines. It’s a central one in response to the way of the Cross.

So no wonder Jesus shames the disciples into a silence of guilt and shame when he asks them what they were talking about on the road, and they keep quiet (verses 33-34). They are in the same boat as the Pharisees when faced with the truth of God. Hard hearts, and the silent shame of guilt.

Yet in terms of their culture, the disciples’ attitude is hardly surprising:

Rabbinic writings frequently comment on the seating order in Paradise, for example, and argue that the just would sit nearer to the throne of God than even the angels. Earthly orders of seating at worship and meals, or authority within the community, or dealings with inferiors or superiors were seen as preparation for the eternal order to come.[2]

It’s not so very far from our obsessions with class and status, is it? But Jesus says, “How many times must I tell you?”

So that’s what he does. He tells them again – and not for the last time. Put yourselves last, not first, he says (verse 35). Be the servant of all, he continues (verse 35). And as someone once said, it’s all right being a servant until you are treated like one. With sentiments some of us might guiltily recognise, the Greek philosopher Plato said,

“How can a man be happy when he has to serve someone?”[3]

A relative of mine told his children, “Work hard so that you are the one giving the orders, not taking the orders.” In a sense, I know what he meant, because he wanted his children to fulfil their potential and do well in their careers. He didn’t want them to end up failing to meet their potential as a result of laziness. But – Jesus says, put yourself last in the queue (which isn’t a British ‘After you – no, after you, I insist’) and be a servant.

To drive home his point, he enacts his message, drawing a small child to himself (verse 36). He doesn’t call his disciples here to behave in childlike ways, he calls them to welcome one like a child.

The point is that children held a very low status in first century Palestinian society:

We are mistaken if we imagine that Greek and Jewish society extolled the virtues of childhood as do modern societies in general. Societies with high infant mortality rates and great demand for human labour cannot afford to be sentimental about infants and youth. In Judaism, children and women were largely auxiliary members of society whose connection to the social mainstream depended on men (either as fathers or husbands). Children, in particular, were thought of as “not having arrived.” They were good illustrations of “the very last” (v. 35).[4]

So the call is not to be like the child but like Jesus. Be like Jesus, who embraces the last and the least of society. If we walk the way to the Cross with Jesus who dies due to the sin of the world and for the sin of the world, if we have received his forgiveness and are forgiving others, then we shall also reject worldly obsessions with status and position.  Our priority will be to put ourselves with those who matter least in our society. It’s neither attractive nor glamorous to our normal instincts and preferences. But it’s where the Jesus of the Cross calls us.

The question is, how many times will he have to tell us?

[1] The ‘divine passive’ voice.

[2] James R Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, p286.

[3] Op. cit., p287.

[4] Op. cit., p287f.

Sermon: Offended By Jesus

John 6:56-69

I want to introduce you to a new religion. It will involve cannibalism, vampires and the overthrow of cherished ancient traditions. Are you interested?

Or are you shocked? Because that is what the first followers of Jesus thought he was proposing. ‘Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them,’ he said (verse 56). They were offended, and many on the fringes of belief turned away from him in this reading. They were scandalised by his claims.

He called people to eat his flesh – well, who wants cannibalism? And he said they were to drink his blood. Remember that Jews never drank the blood from a dead animal, because it was thought to contain the life of the creature.

Vampires? OK, actually no. I just wanted to underline the shocking nature of Jesus’ words about drinking his blood. But maybe you get a feeling for how Jesus’ first hearers felt scandalised by his teaching. We may find it hard to appreciate that, because two thousand years of familiarity have changed our perceptions. But in its original context, the person and message of Jesus were offensive.

And today, for all our familiarity with Jesus, it is just as possible to be offended by him, his words and his deeds. If we look at what upset those early disciples, we might get some clues to some issues today. Who knows? We might be the ones who need to change. Let’s see.

Firstly, Jesus himself and his teaching is offensive:

When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’ (Verse 60)

You might think that gentle Jesus, meek and mild would respond with a word of gentle explanation, but no:

But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, ‘Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?’ (Verses 61-62)

What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? This is not only about the Ascension itself, but also about what leads up to it, for in John’s Gospel, Jesus ascends to the Cross. This is therefore about the Cross, the Resurrection and the Ascension. This is about the deity of Jesus, and what he accomplished in his atoning death and resurrection before he returned to the Father’s right hand.

How is that offensive? Let me recount a story.

In one past church, an elderly couple joined the congregation. They began worshipping with us every week. After a while, I visited them and they raised the question of church membership. In the past, they had been active members of a Baptist church, but must have lapsed for a period of years. Having plied me with tea and cakes, they asked, “Are we good enough to join your church?”

That is a question that can only be asked by people who don’t understand the Cross, or who find the Cross offensive. Like a fool, I paid insufficient attention to it and chose to explain it away. I brought them into church membership, and it was a terrible mistake. The husband in particular spent every week’s home group ripping to shreds the previous Sunday’s preacher. Week after week, until the two leaders of the group could take it no more and resigned. We ended up having to close the group.

All because I didn’t pay attention to a couple who didn’t understand the Cross, and who later showed in their behaviour that they didn’t appreciate grace. I should have let them be offended by the Gospel.

The trouble is, a Jesus ascended on a Cross humbles us. We have to lay aside the pride of our respectable lives, and kneel before him as sinners needing forgiveness.

I’ve seen it not only in the respectable but also in the intellectual. People want to find God by their own cleverness, but God will not have that. I have seen such people harbour all kinds of destructive behaviour, all because they will not kneel at the Cross.

Those who are merely interested in Jesus may well fall away, like the crowds here. Those who are willing to meet him at the Cross are those who will be his true disciples.

Secondly, the work of the Holy Spirit is offensive to some. Jesus goes on to say:

‘It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.’ (Verses 63-64a)

We may only come to know God through the work of the Holy Spirit, who makes the presence of God real to us and the Word of God alive to us. Normal human abilities – ‘the flesh’ – are ‘useless’, says Jesus.

This too is an affront to many people. We have lived through several centuries of scientific discoveries, breakthroughs and advances. Human society has benefitted hugely from many of these things. The idea has arisen that the human mind will ultimately solve all problems. Thus today, leading atheists like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and others mock the thought of anything that cannot be perceived by human reason. If it does not originate from reason, then it is superstition.

But these ideas are false. Yes, society has seen great wonders, not least in medicine. But the same human reason is fallen through sin, and science has given us nuclear weapons and climate change. Ultimately, the thought that reason can solve everything is pure arrogance and idolatry. God is not against the use of the mind at all – in fact it can be properly used to his glory – but he knows how we idolise our reason and so,  in the words of John Arnott, ‘God offends our minds to reveal our hearts.’

And indeed the Gospel is not merely available to intellectuals – thank God! It is revealed by the Holy Spirit, whose work is available to all.

In our tradition of Christianity, we are so used to emphasising human free will (and I’m not saying we should ditch that!), but sometimes we stress it so much that we forget the life of faith is impossible without the prior work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit draws people to Christ; only then do we make response.

Listen for reference to that work of the Spirit in part of a testimony from a friend of mine:

‘I wasn’t raised in a Christian household, I was saved in a summer camp when I was 14….one night afterwards, I was dialing my radio around and found a Christian radio station. As I listened, I could feel the Spirit inside me awakening, and that station was basically how God “fed me” while I was at home. When I got old enough to drive myself, I was able to go to church myself.’

Once again, we see that it is our pride that gets offended – this time by the need to rely on the Holy Spirit for life in Christ. But also, this has implications for our evangelism. The prime need in our outreach is not the latest techniques, but prayer – prayer that the Holy Spirit will go ahead of us, working in people’s lives before we get there. Let us be released from having to think up new clever (and possibly manipulative) schemes, and instead remember that the Holy Spirit does the spadework. Let us call on the Spirit in prayer to do that in the lives of those who need Christ.

Well, if we’ve talked about the Cross of Christ and the ministry of the Spirit in the first two points, it won’t take a brain surgeon to work out that the third and final area in which people find the teaching of Jesus offensive is in what he says about God the Father.

And he said, ‘For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.’ (Verse 65)

Now again, that’s the kind of verse to make those of us in the Wesleyan Arminian tradition, who believe in the importance of human free will, to get rather nervous. It gladdens the hearts of Calvinists, who believe that some people are predestined by God to salvation, while he predestines the rest to damnation. But all it really stresses is another version of what we’ve just said about the Holy Spirit – namely that the first move in salvation is God’s.

It has always been the case. The first missionary in the Bible was God, walking in the Garden of Eden in the cool of the evening, calling, ‘Adam, where are you?’ God called Abraham and the patriarchs as he formed a people for himself. He called Moses, the Judges and the prophets. Finally, he sent his Son.

And how good it is that God has always made the first move. For as Leon Morris has put it, writing on this verse:

‘Left to himself, the sinner prefers his sin. Conversion is always a work of grace.’[1]

It is God’s work to bring us to the possibility of salvation. It does not mean he is capricious: he wants all to be saved. But remembering what we have already learned about the need for humility, that comes into play here again, for if God makes the first move, we must pay attention. John Wesley thus commented on this verse:

Unless it be given – And it is given to those only who will receive it on God’s own terms.’[2]

The Good News is that God sets out to rescue those who, by their own instincts, would always prefer to remain in sin. The Good Challenge is that we must accept God’s remedy. We must come on God’s own terms. Therefore that means not only welcoming Christ as God’s Saviour, but also bowing before him as Lord. If we can only come to Christ because God the Father makes the first move, then we end up coming to God not only for the blessings, but also for the obligations.

We can ask ‘What’s in it for me?’ and the answer will be about salvation from the penalty of sin, the practice of sin and the presence of sin. But to ask that question alone is to indulge in religious consumerism. Because the Father makes the first move there is another question: ‘What’s in it for God?’ And the answer involves him incorporating us into the People of God, because his desire has always been to form a people for himself, a new community that lives under his kingly reign. And therefore we must rise to the challenge and make the Church just such a community, instead of fighting and plotting against one another, and settling for cliques instead of community.

In Conclusion, then, God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit takes the initiative in saving the human race. This brings us to humility at the foot of the Cross and in dependence upon the grace of the Father and the power of the Spirit. We lay aside everything we trumpet about our respectability and intellect. But this news frees us from other tyrannies. No longer need we rack our brains for new methods of evangelism, when instead we begin in prayer for the Holy Spirit to move. And in the converted life, the Father who has graciously reached out to a world of persistent sinners not only saves us but makes us his subjects. Our only proper response is grateful obedience.

May we have the grace not to be offended, but to become God’s loyal servants and friends.

[1] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, p387. Exclusive language unchanged from the source.

[2] John Wesley, Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament, p330.

Sabbatical, Day 77: Of Sausages And Crosses

Today, I’d like to apologise to the entire German nation. Every single one of you. By common consent, you make the finest sausages in the known universe. And I’m sure you agree.

But my kids don’t. They think I’m a liar when I tell them that German sausages are the best, and that nothing beats a bratwurst.

Why? Because today, we visited Cressing Temple for its annual St George’s Joust event. It is a wonderful celebration of all things medieval, including crafts, early musical instruments, falconry displays, York versus Lancaster battle re-enactments, and the famous joust with witty script and terrific stuntmen riding the horses. (Oh, and that other medieval theme, the Napoleonic Wars.) 

Having paid our entrance fee, we walked through the gift shop, out into the grounds and there we were greeted first of all by a series of catering concessions. I noted the existence of The German Sausage Company. I pointed it out to the children, and Debbie realised I had set my heart on a snack from there, even though we had brought a picnic. We made it our last call before leaving a highly enjoyable day.

Well, if I’m feeling charitable I have to say we might have caught them on a bad day. I also have to admit that we didn’t complain. But bratwurst doesn’t usually have the texture of half-cooked rubber. I have never seen Mark give up on a sausage so quickly. He could live on a diet of them, if we let him.

And if you ask to have bacon well done, you don’t expect it to pale pink. Because Debbie likes everything well done. She’d have ice cream toasted, if she could. The first time she met my family was for a meal in a French restaurant. She ordered a steak. When the waitress asked how she would like it cooked, she replied in one word my family has never forgotten: “Cremated.”

To add insult, Debbie recognised the brand of orange juice I had been given. “How much did you pay?” was her question.

“A pound,” I said.

“You can get six of those for 99p in Lidl,”she withered. Profit margin is one thing, but that’s – what shall we say? Optimistic? (A little research suggests it might actually be five for £1.29, but it’s still a steep mark-up.)

Now I have to say that – being British, not German (but so were they) – I of course didn’t complain at the time. Perhaps I should have done, but since all the sausages came out of the same container, I don’t think anyone else got a better brattie than we did. So, dear German friends, I am sorry my children now have the wrong impression of your great delicacy. 

It was a disappointing end to a fun day. Rebekah and Mark talked to a woman demonstrating weaving on a medieval loom. We found a company selling dried meat, mushroom and fruit snacks. Their website doesn’t mention the fruit, but we can recommend the dried strawberry and the dried blackberry and apple. 


Fighting between Yorkists and Lancastrians in battle re-enactment

Fighting between Yorkists and Lancastrians in battle re-enactment

Furthermore, the afore-mentioned battle re-enactment was not only lively and fun, it was presented with an educational slant. Along the way, we learned all sorts of things about the nature of medieval warfare that were possibly surprising to many hearers.


Lancastrian archers in the re-enactment by the Medieval Siege Society

Lancastrian archers in the re-enactment by the Medieval Siege Society





To our surprise, Rebekah and Mark had their attention kept all through the half-hour presentation. We had to reasure Mark that the soldiers lying on the ground weren’t really dead – we’ve had a lot of death talk from him since Good Friday. But apart from that – and there’s nothing the re-enactors could have done about that – it was superb.


Sir Odious the Black Knight and his Swedish counterpart in the joust

Sir Odious the Black Knight and his Swedish counterpart in the joust



As for the joust itself, that was pure entertainment. Some might not like the fact that the baddie was dubbed the Black Knight, but it seemed not to be about race and more about a pun on ‘black night’. Or it could have been to do with the Black Country, since his punishment when he finally lost was to be sent to Birmingham. Nothing worse, surely.



A small falcon flies high above the falconer in the falconry display

A small falcon flies high above the falconer in the falconry display


Seeing a falconry display gave me an opportunity to educate the children as to the origins of our surname, which was originally something like Falconer. We were the plebs who looked after the falcons on the Laird’s estate in Aberdeenshire. The name is first found in that county around the 1200s. Medieval times, indeed.

My father has long been convinced (through a story his grandfather told him) that we came from Scotland in recent generations. To that end, Dad supports the Scotland rugby and football teams. Trouble is, we come from a part of the Auld Country called … Lincolnshire. All the way back to the early eighteenth century, there is no sign of the tartan, still less of ‘our’ clan, the Keiths.


Mark dressed for his photo in front of a painted backdrop of a castle

Mark dressed for his photo in front of a painted backdrop of a castle

If I can be serious about one final thing, though, it was the tragic reminder of seeing the Cross everywhere as a symbol not of suffering love but of violence and oppression. Mark and Rebekah posed in borrowed costumes for pictures in a photographer’s tent (and very good they were, too, for the price). Here, you can see Mark in knight’s garments, with his cross. I thought about the wickedness of the Crusades, their perpetration of Christendom by cruelty, and what they did to peoples who should have been shown the love of God in Christ. 

Then I thought there were hundreds, if not thousands of people at the show, and only few of them would have had that thought. Of the few who did, a good number of them would have seen it as further evidence to prove the wickedness of Christianity.

Most of the rest, though, who would have given no thought to the symbol of the cross at all. Like someone who works for our local Schools and Youth Ministries charity said at a meeting last year, most young people haven’t rejected religion. It just isn’t on their radar in the first place.

And that may be the biggest challenge facing the British church today.

Sabbatical Day 69, Good Friday: Jesus Is Crucified

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Here is the Damaris Trust video for Good Friday. Andrew White talks about the importance of Jesus’ death on the cross on our behalf. He discusses what this means for his ministry of reconciliation in Iraq.

We went into town this morning for the annual open-air united service in Chelmsford High Street. A band from the church where we are worshipping led the music, and the choir from our children’s school dazzlingly performed a selection of songs from a musical entitled Resurrection Rock.

A nun from a local community spoke. Hers was a serious address where she spoke of Bad Friday and Good Friday. Today is only Good Friday because it is about redemptive suffering. Anything else would be Bad Friday. Suffering isn’t good for its own sake. She spoke passionately as one who had spent years in the Democratic Republic of Congo, serving women and young girls who had been raped by HIV positive men, young boys who had been brutalised into becoming child soldiers and mothers who had watched children die from diseases we find easily preventable in the West.

And from that, she made a connection between Good Friday and Easter Day. For whenever we, who believe in Christ’s redemptive suffering and conquest of death, minister to those in need or work for justice, we are doing Resurrection work. In that sense, she asked, is the Resurrection happening today?

Later, Rebekah – who had understandably described that part of the service as ‘longer than church’ – posed again the question, “Why do we call it ‘Good Friday’ and not ‘Bad Friday’?” I tried to explain how God took the Bad that was done to Jesus and turned it for Good. She found that hard to grasp.

In the back of my mind I was thinking of Tim Keller‘s The Reason For God, and his chapter on the Cross. He explains how forgiveness and love inevitably involve both substitution and exchange. When we forgive someone, it always comes at a cost. If I forgive you a debt, I take on that debt. He doesn’t get into the question of Pauline language and whether to speak of penal substitution, just that forgiveness must in some sense involve the substituting of the debt, and that this consitutes and exchange. The notion of exchange, he says, is fundamental to love. If I love my children, I will exchange my freedom for their well-being. I will not only give them attention when it is convenient to me, for if I do that they will only grow up physically. Love means I will attend to them when it is inconvenient. I give up my freedom to serve them in love. This, says Keller, is like what Christ does for the world on the Cross.

I shall be interested to plug those thoughts into those from a book that is on its way from Amazon: Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision by Tom Wright. I’d like to see how this compares and contrasts with Wright’s more cosmic vision of salvation. The Reformation tradition has tended to take Luther’s question of “How can I find a gracious God?” and insert the word ‘personally’ after ‘I’. That is critical, but I know that in this book, Wright is saying that such a question makes the sun orbit around us rather than vice-versa. We’ll see …

Sabbatical, Day 57: Lee Abbey Photography Course, Part 2


The Three Crosses at Lee Abbey: view from below

The Three Crosses at Lee Abbey: view from below

Wednesday’s expedition in search of photos saw me consulting a map of the Lee Abbey estate in order to find the location of the famous three crosses the community erected many years ago. They were not difficult to find. Unsurprisingly, several of us on the photography course took pictures of them, although nobody was there at the same time I was. I simply needed to let a group of pilgrims who were following some guided prayers around the land finish ahead of me.

For this first shot, I deliberately took the image from below, in order to include in the foreground the cow pat on the left and the treacherous hole in the ground on the right. Crosses are ugly and dirty, not shiny happy jewellery.


The Three Crosses at Lee Abbey set against a background of sky

The Three Crosses at Lee Abbey set against a background of sky

For the second photo I have included here, my aim was a little more pragmatic. You will see that again I am below the crosses with a wide-angle lens, but I have included a large amount of featureless cloudy sky. This was one of several pictures I took, thinking they might be useful as backgrounds for PowerPoint or SongPro slides. On the surface, that may not be the most spiritual reason, although I would like to think that if this is used in public worship, it will play a small part in enhancing people’s devotion. However, I castigated myself for moving on all too quickly from the crosses in order to take more images. I think I share the general weakness for moving on as quickly as I can from the foot of the Cross. I certainly did so last week.


Lost sheep among saplings in putative orchard

Lost sheep among saplings in putative orchard

This third shot is one I might use as a metaphor sometime. The sheep shown should not be in this field. It has escaped from the rest of the flock, and is roaming in a field planted with saplings that will eventually become an orchard. Next time I want a ‘lost sheep’ image, I may pull this one out.

The week was not all about the photography, though. On Thursday morning, one of the host team, Chris, recognised my name on my badge. I had thought he looked familiar, but he didn’t prove to be who I thought he was. Chris turned out to be the son of two people I had known in an ecumenical church in my last circuit. When I knew him, he was about eleven. Now he was eighteen, and spending a year in community while offering for the Anglican ministry. I must say, he looked a natural up in front of a large group of people from different backgrounds and generations. I gave him my email address before leaving, and asked him to tell me how he gets on.

Sabbatical, Day 36: Getting Old And Wet In Lent

St Andrew’s has become our default church for the sabbatical. The children are happier visiting a church where they know some people, rather than every face being strange or forgotten.

Today, Lee, the curate (our next door neighbour) preached. He took the classic Lenten passage from Mark 8 featuring Jesus’ call to deny ourselves, take up our crosses and follow him. He said that for someone who enjoys preaching about God’s love, such a stern passage seemed difficult, but this was about the love of God, too. For love is a two-way street, and taking up the cross is a way we respond in love to God’s love.

He passed round a cross he keeps at home. He had asked a blacksmith to make it for him before he began training for the ministry. The blacksmith made three nails, and then made the cross from those nails. I couldn’t pass it on quickly when it came to me. I had to examine it and feel it. What a powerful piece of art it was. It reminded me of when I once had nails given out to worshippers at a Good Friday service, and another when I let people know in advance that someone would hammer nails into a cross during the service. Some church members objected. It made me wonder about their faith. I am glad nothing like that happened to Lee today.

He also made a simple, telling point about what it might mean to carry one’s cross. Taking up the cross, he said, can happen when we have to choose between the easy way to do something and the right way. On a day when a pastor has been shot dead in Illinois, I find this poignant. It is of course only too common in many other countries. 

St Andrew’s service begins at 10 am, so even with communion and an after-service coffee it’s possible to arrive home early enough to do something worthwhile as a family for the rest of the day. We headed for the Great Notley Discovery Centre. Sunshine and blue skies beckoned us to take a picnic.

Arriving around 1 pm, we settled straight down for the picnic. It didn’t surprise us to eat in blustery conditions: the adventure park is open and exposed. The children got to swing and climb on all sorts of outdoor activities, not worrying that grey clouds were infiltrating the blue. 

Except that they got cold, and so we headed back to the café, where we ordered hot chocolates and despite the much reduced temperatures, they insisted on ice creams. Finding the last spare table inside, we sat down. And noticed the arrival outside of horizontal rain. We supped slowly before heading back to the car during a break in the meteorological assault. 

I’ll close tonight with some music. In view of various scurrilous comments on Facebook about my age since my birthday last Wednesday, I thought I’d post this clip of the mighty Little Feat performing Old Folks’ Boogie. Sing with me:

Don’t you know
That you’re over the hill
When your mind makes a promise
That your body can’t fill