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Palm Sunday Sermon: Fruitfulness

Matthew 21:1-11


Location, Location, Location
. The Channel 4 programme about people trying to buy their dream home. It was one of a glut of home buying and home improvement TV shows that hit our screens a few years ago.

And ‘location, location, location’ might be a good theme for understanding the challenge of the Palm Sunday story that we’ve heard so often. Matthew starts with a detailed location report:

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives (verse 1)

Why? The prophecy of Zechariah (14:4) looks to the day when the Lord will stand on the Mount of Olives. It has notions of God fulfilling all his purposes for all time, and it is messianic.

But Bethphage? It’s a place whose name is literally translated, ‘house of unripe figs’[1]. When you remember that a few verses later Jesus curses an unripe fig tree as a prophetic sign, you might say that the challenge of Palm Sunday is that the Messiah has appeared: are we bearing fruit?

So what does a fruitful life look like? To see what the Palm Sunday story tells us about that, we’re going to look at Jesus, his disciples and the crowd.


Firstly
, Jesus. It’s not often that my wife Debbie and I get out to the see a film together, but last month we finally managed to see The King’s Speech before it left the cinemas. You will know the story, I’m sure – however relaxed the relationship between the screenplay and actual history was. Prince Bertie – later King George VI – has terrible trouble with public speaking, due to a stammer. In an early scene where he addresses a massive crowd on behalf of his father, King George V, he goes to pieces and you sense the difficulty his audience has, as well as his own agony. His authority is undermined.

There is no record of Jesus stammering, but he does undermine conventional approaches to authority. He comes into Jerusalem ‘humble, and mounted on a donkey’ (verse 5). His authority is expressed in humility. And that’s something some people find hard to understand or accept.
In the 2004 film King Arthur the Knights of the Round Table are portrayed as pagans, and Arthur as a Christian – albeit the only decent Christian, since all the other Christian figures in the film are shown to be corrupt[2]. One day, pagan Lancelot overhears Arthur praying for the safety of his men before they go on one final, dangerous mission. Lancelot says, “I don’t like anything that puts a man on his knees.” Arthur replies, “No man fears to kneel before the God he trusts. Without faith, without belief in something, what are we?”

If we want to be fruitful in the kingdom of God, then Jesus shows us that humility is a prime quality. We may or may not be given special authority (beyond the general authority every child of the King has), but we are all called to demonstrate humility.

Yet isn’t that one problem the world often has with the church? Humility is not the first quality they associate with us. Arrogant, judgmental and with an air of moral superiority are more likely the characteristics of Christians, in their estimation. I’m not suggesting we should water down our profound moral convictions – far from it – but the way we present ourselves can suggest we know little of the grace that brought us to Christ in the first place. It is remembering that grace, that undeserved merciful love of God, that leads us to live in humility.

Sometimes we even inflict that arrogance on others in the church. Again, the problem is the same: someone who does not demonstrate humility is a person who has not let the gospel of God’s grace to sinners permeate deeply into their soul. Jesus didn’t need grace – he wasn’t a sinner. Yet he showed humility as he entered Jerusalem. If he, the sinless Son of God, behaved like that, then how much more should we?

Would it not be a good idea, then, for us to reflect all the more on the fact that we are sinners saved by grace, and let that stimulate the growth of humility in us? What could be more appropriate as we journey with Jesus towards Good Friday?

Secondly, the disciples. Elsewhere the disciples come in for a bad press in the Gospels. They don’t understand Jesus, they don’t do what he wants, they let him down. And coming up in Holy Week is perhaps the biggest failure story of a disciple: Simon Peter’s denial of Jesus.

But what do we have here? We have a positive story about two of Jesus’ disciples. He sends them to the village ahead with cryptic instructions to untie a donkey and her colt, and bring them to him. We don’t know whether Jesus had prearranged a signal with the owner of the animals, or whether this is some prophetic word. Either way, though, it puts the two disciples in a strange position. They could have looked (and felt) like fools, acting on Jesus’ instruction. But the good news is, they obeyed. And that is the second sign of spiritual fruitfulness here: obedience to Christ.

However, obedience stands in contrast to certain cultural values today, especially the popular understanding of freedom. A shallow understanding of freedom is quite common, thinking that freedom is only about me being free to do what I want. I am my own master. I take no orders from anybody else – well, apart from my manager at work, and I only do that in order to draw a salary.

This, however, is a terrible misunderstanding of freedom. True freedom is not about self-indulgence, it is about being free in order to do what is right. Mostly we do not have that kind of freedom, because we are enslaved to sin. But if freedom is the possibility to do the right thing, then freedom and obedience are connected. They are not opposites.
A journalist called Tobias Jones wrote a book in 2007 called Utopian Dreams. He wanted to find out why we affluent westerners were so unhappy. He went to explore various experiments in communal living that were proposed as solutions. Eventually, he embraced Christianity, saying it ‘works because it is true’. He realised that if freedom were only about pleasing myself, then community would not be possible: we would all be doing our own thing, regardless of each other. He concluded that freedom and obedience were not opposites, but two qualities that belonged together.[3]

Now I suggest to you that the two disciples who obeyed Jesus’ strange command to bring the donkey and her colt knew that: the health of their community of disciples depended on obedience. Obedience to Jesus gave them freedom for all that was good.

And does it not make sense for this to be the second sign of fruitfulness? If we know we are sinners saved by grace and that engenders humility, then something that also leads to is obedience to Christ in gratitude for all he has done for us. With that obedience comes true freedom – not just freedom from sin, but freedom for goodness.

Thirdly and finally, the crowd. You may have noticed that I have not included one major potential hymn for Palm Sunday today – ‘My song is love unknown’. Not that it doesn’t have a lot of worthy content, but there is one aspect of the words that I find seriously misleading. It’s the way the hymn portrays the rôle of the crowd in Holy Week. It presents an idea that the same crowd that acclaimed Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is the one that also cried out for his execution. You’ll remember the words go from ‘Sometimes they strew his way’ to ‘Then “Crucify!” is all their breath’.

It’s a seriously misleading and highly unlikely scenario. Why should the same crowd be around several days later, when thousands of pilgrims descended upon Jerusalem for the Passover? And isn’t it more natural to read that the mob who bray for Jesus’ death are associated with the chief priests and teachers of the law who handed Jesus over to Pilate? Indeed, the word ‘crowds’ used there may simply mean ‘those alongside’[4].

If that is so, then all we are left with here is not a crowd that will later turn against Jesus, but simply a crowd that is trying to come to terms with him, and which isn’t quite there yet. Jerusalem is in turmoil at Jesus’ entry (verse 10), just as it was when news of his birth reached King Herod, and to the question, “Who is this?” the crowds reply, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee” (verse 11).

Of course, that doesn’t really do Jesus justice, does it? He is a prophet, but he is more than a prophet. Not until he is crucified later in the week will he be recognised for who he truly is.
How, then, do we react to people who have an incomplete picture of Jesus? It would be very easy to go into ‘telling-off mode’. We’re quite good at that, as I said when considering the humility of Jesus. Thinking back more years than I care to admit, I recall that when Jesus Christ Superstar became a popular West End musical, some Christians reacted by saying, ‘Jesus Christ is not merely a superstar. He is the Son of God. Accept no substitute!’

Now I agree with the content of what they said, but not the tone. And we have a gospel opportunity to be alongside people who have only caught a half-glimpse of Jesus. We can be the quiet voice of gentle encouragement, not the strident voice of condemnation.

What I think we’re witnessing here are the early signs of God’s work in these people, preparing them for the message of his Son. I can recall being asked to visit non-churchgoers at times, not expecting much out of the visit, and probably stereotyping them before I went and at the beginning of the meeting. But then I find they start asking deep spiritual questions, and I realise that while they don’t yet have a handle on all that Jesus is, nevertheless something is going on in their lives. Actually, I don’t so much think it’s something happening in their lives, more like someone. The Holy Spirit is preparing them for the Good News of Jesus.

In other words, it’s what John Wesley called ‘prevenient grace’: God is at work in people’s lives before we ever show up on the scene, and our task is to join in with what he is doing. And that’s exactly how Jesus saw his own ministry on earth. He said he only did what he saw his Father doing (John 5:19).

A third sign of spiritual fruitfulness, then, is to ask the Holy Spirit to show us where he is already at work, so that we can have the privilege of being God’s junior partners in the work of his mission. Let there be no doubt that the Father wants people to find his forgiving love in Jesus Christ and discover true purpose as they become disciples of him. Whatever we think about the state of the church in the Western world at present, it doesn’t change the fact that God is hard at work in the world, wooing people with his love. But he needs us to be the midwives who usher his new life into the world. Humble and obedient disciples will want to pray, “Lord, show me where you are at work so that I may be your assistant in making more disciples of your Son.”

Now that doesn’t sound like a ‘house of unripe figs’ to me. It sounds like true fruitfulness.


[1] On the Mount of Olives and Bethphage, see Donald Hagner, Matthew 14-28, p593.

[2] See http://www.damaris.org/cm/t4tquotes/743 (paid subscription required).

[3] See http://www.damaris.org/cm/t4tquotes/3029 (paid subscription required).

[4] I owe this insight to Dr Jim Fleming.

Sermon: Salt And Light

Here is the sermon for this coming Sunday, the second in our series from the Sermon on the Mount. Those who have read my sermons here in recent years may recognise one or two things I’ve quoted before, but they get a repeat here for a new church!

Matthew 5:13-16

Salt and light. The salt of the earth and the light of the world. If the Sermon on the Mount is where we learn to be disciples before the watching world, as I argued in my introduction last week, then salt and light are prime examples of this. Not only do we live our faith while the world is watching – as if we were actors in a TV show being viewed by others – we live our faith with those people and towards the world. That is, when Jesus calls us the salt of the earth and the light of the world, he is telling us we live as disciples for the blessing of the world.

There you are, done. In one minute.

But I’m going to say more, because this is so important. And while we might think we affirm the importance of being salt and light, I want to say this morning that we pay lip service to it, and the way we run our churches often undermines this essential Christian task.

How am I going to do it? Firstly by thinking about salt and secondly about – you guessed it – light.

So we begin with salt.

You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. (Verse 13)

I am sure you have heard several preachers expound on why Jesus describes as salt, and what our saltiness is meant to achieve. Some will tell you that salt is a preservative, and so Christian involvement in the world is about preventing moral degradation in society. More positively, others will say that salt is for seasoning or purifying, so Christian disciples have a rôle in improving the moral and ethical life of our culture. Another positive image of salt is to see it as fertiliser, stimulating the growth of righteousness, justice and spirituality in the world. Others interpret salt as a metaphor for wisdom, and therefore Christians provide acute moral insight to help society. This might be an argument for Christian involvement in politics, even for having bishops in the House of Lords. Then there are those who point to the use of salt in Old Testament texts about sacrifice or about God’s covenant.[1]

There’s just one problem with all these views. Jesus doesn’t ascribe to any of them.

In other words, Jesus doesn’t take his simple analogy of us as the salt of the earth and extend it into some great allegory. He just says we are the salt of the earth, full stop. We have to seek his meaning not in ancient uses of salt nor in Old Testament verses, but in what he says about the image.

And the point Jesus wants to make about being the salt of the earth is a negative one. He is concerned about his disciples not being the salt of the earth, not influencing society for good – whatever that entails:

But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. (Verse 13b)

So let’s pause and consider the problems here. I read an article on Friday by Krish Kandiah, who holds a senior position with the Evangelical Alliance. He asked, what do churches have to do in order to reach the missing young adults in their twenties and thirties? One of the problems he cited as making the church unattractive to people in that age range was the disconnect between Sunday and Monday. In your twenties and thirties, he said, you are faced with a lot of life changes. You may go through university, leave home, start a job, begin paying a mortgage, get married, have children and so on. To face such major challenges requires a lot of energy, and this shows itself in other ways. Often such people are ones who want to see the world changed for the better.

Unfortunately [says Kandiah] what 20-30s often hear in church is not encouragement to take huge steps in their faith, but to take on huge responsibilities within the church.

He quotes American pastor Tim Keller, who says that

as a pastor he was taught how to make people busy working in the churches.

What a tragedy this is! We are more concerned with filling church jobs than with encouraging people into character-building witness opportunities where they are the salt of the earth. Jesus says that salt without the saltiness, disciples who don’t influence the world for good, is

no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. (Verse 13b)

And the word translated ‘no longer good for anything’ is a word that means ‘to become or to make foolish’[2]. Not being the salt of the earth, not making it a priority for Christians to influence the world for good, is foolishness in the eyes of Jesus. We are quick to condemn when people in politics, the media or popular arts take stances that are ignorant of Christianity or hostile to it. Yet how often is it the case that Christians have vacated these areas, seeing involvement there as inferior to church work?

Indeed, we institutionalise such an approach. Kandiah reminds me in his article of a story I have heard several times before. It was told by Mark Greene, the Executive Director of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity. He speaks of a teacher who was being prayed for in church, in support of his rôle in the congregation teaching Sunday School. The man broke down in tears. Why did he only receive prayer for the one hour a week he had contact with Christian children, but no prayer at all for the forty hours a week he devoted to contact with non-church children.

Wasn’t Jesus right? Are we not fools when we give no priority to influencing the world for good as the salt of the earth?

By way of transition to talking secondly about light, let me tell you about a circuit steward from one of my previous appointments. It was always hard to get hold of him by phone or email, because he was so busy. Not only was he a circuit steward, his day job was a responsible managerial one for an international shipping company and he was also a governor at his daughter’s school. One day, I was talking with his wife about the pressures he was under.

“Yes,” she said, “we’ve had some conversations about that. He’s decided he’s going to give up his post as a school governor in order to concentrate on the more important things – like his church work.”

She was surprised when I suggested that his church work might not be the most important thing he did. Because, I argued, it meant losing another person from the front line of Christian witness in the world.

And that, positively, is Jesus’ point when he goes on to describe Christians as the light of the world:

You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. (Verses 14-16)

What we say and do is seen by the world. It is our witness, whether good or bad. But we can take this positively. We can see this as a wonderful opportunity for witness in the world. It isn’t that shining our light before others so that they see our good deeds is about us boasting or acting as if we are superior. Jesus says we can do it for a different motive: ‘that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.’ Isn’t that what we want? Don’t we want our witness to attract other people to Jesus and his Father?

So what might we do about it? Our witness is about both our words and our deeds. It isn’t that we speak about our faith and don’t match it with our actions. Nor is it that we engage in worthy deeds as a reason to avoid talking about Christ. I suggest that one thing implied here is that we so live lives of love and concern for the people in our world that it leads to questions and opportunities, so that then we can tell people the Gospel of the Saviour and Lord in whom we believe.

One of my favourite examples of this was told by the American pastor and sociologist Tony Campolo. Over the years, he has had a special concern for some of the impoverished nations in the Caribbean, such as Haïti and the Dominican Republic. He has campaigned against multinational companies that have exploited their workers in these lands, and he has taken groups of Christians from the United States on mission trips there.

In particular, he tells a story about a Christian doctor who went out to one of these nations – I think it was the Dominican Republic. That doctor set up a surgery in a poor village. By day he gave himself to providing medical care for people who otherwise would not be able to access it. By evening he would drive around the area, preaching the Gospel. People listened. With a touch of grudging admiration, a local Communist Party official said, “He has earned the right to speak.”

I believe Jesus calls us to earn the right to speak. He calls us to stop treating the church as our one-stop provider of religious services and our social life, and to get our hands dirty in the world. The moment we start treating the church as the provider of our religious services we start asking the wrong questions about whether the church is meeting our needs, and then walking out when the preaching, the music, the small groups or the children’s ministry doesn’t reach the standards we set in our minds. And when we think that our social lives should revolve around the church, we cut ourselves off from the world where we are meant to shine our light, by reflecting Christ.

No: Jesus calls us to see the church as the people of God gathering to edify one another and strengthen each other for witness in the world. We have neighbours whom we can love in the name of Christ. We have neighbourhoods, villages, towns and institutions that need the love of Christ. We are part of a world that needs to see the love of Christ demonstrated and explained.

And although some will mock, many will ‘glorify [our] Father in heaven.’ That might simply be we’ve done a good bit of PR for the faith. But it might well be part of their journey to faith in Christ themselves.

In short, cutting some ties from the institutional church and simplifying some of the ways we do church in order to release ourselves to spend more time blessing people in our communities with the love of God in word and deed is absolutely critical to our sharing in the mission of God.

Or, to put it another way, someone has put it like this. The test of a church is whether the local community would miss it if it shut.

So a good test of whether we are salt and light is whether Knaphill and the neighbouring villages would be upset if KMC closed.

What do you think?


[1] Donald Hagner, Matthew 1-13, p 99.

[2] Ibid.

Sermon: God Is Smiling (The Beatitudes)

Matthew 5:1-12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Caesar

Matthew 22:15-22

I can’t read this passage without remembering someone else’s assessment of Jesus’ teaching here. A certain Mrs M Thatcher once commented that Jesus ‘got it about right’ when he taught we should ‘render unto Caesar’. I suppose she thought Jesus would be grateful to receive her endorsement.

I can’t say I turned to her for scholarly help in preparing for today’s sermon – can’t think why – but I do want to say that there is more to this passage than just isolating Jesus’ ‘Render unto Caesar’ saying. I think we have to talk about the opponents and Jesus before we consider Caesar and God. Which means there are four elements to our thoughts today.

Opponents
What a motley crew the opposition was. An unholy alliance between two parties that thought little of each other. The working-class Pharisees and the ruling-class Herodians. Perhaps their distaste for each other is why the Pharisees send their disciples along to do the dirty work in partnership with people they detested as religious compromisers. Their common cause is hatred of Jesus. For the Pharisees, he is undermining their view of pure faith. For the Herodians, his teaching about the kingdom of God threatens their privileged place in society, next to the hated Romans. For very different reasons, Jesus has to go. Principles will be put aside for the sake of this common cause.

So they become unscrupulous and cynical in their approach to Jesus: “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.” (Verse 16) Like they truly acknowledge Jesus as a true teacher. And in saying he shows no deference and has no partiality, they are saying, “Go on Jesus, be bold, be careless – incriminate yourself.”

What does this have to do with us? It provides a warning against those times when we are more concerned to scheme for our own purposes than to seek the will of Christ. It happens from time to time in large-scale and small ways in church life. Sometimes we opt for politicking to get our own way, rather than prayer to find God’s way. Just occasionally, it’s more sinister.

That’s what happened to me in my first appointment. I’ve talked before about running into a serious problem with unsuitable children’s workers. In today’s climate, with plenty of ‘Safe From Harm’ procedures in place, it never would have got into the pickle it was. But sixteen years ago, things were different. Of the three troublesome people, one was known to be a Freemason. I’m always suspicious of Freemasonry in the church – not just because of the secrecy concerns, but because there are so-called ‘Christian degrees’ of Freemasonry that say the Cross of Christ was a mistake. This Freemason was clearly in league with one of the church organists, whom I also believed to be a mason. They were caught having private meetings before church committees, where they were discussing tactics. Socially, they had little in common as people, but it wasn’t their claimed Christianity that united them. It was their membership of the Lodge.

At that level of seriousness, this is the kind of problem I’ve only encountered rarely in church life. But it does exist. And even if none of us plumbs the depths of those Freemasons, let all of us examine our hearts that we avoid manipulation for our own causes in favour of an over-riding concern to walk in the ways of Jesus.

Jesus
Oh, the irony. Jesus is sincere. He does teach the way of God in accordance with truth. He does show deference to no one and regard nobody with partiality. He is all the things his opponents say about him so insincerely, so slyly, so cynically.

But there’s a shock coming for his inquisitors. Instead of holding nothing back with regard to Caesar, he shows no deference to them! This is one of those times when we would say someone lets fire with both barrels. He has his opponents in his sights, and shoots. He is aware of their malice and labels them ‘hypocrites’ (verse 18).

And I wonder whether this is why some of us are reticent to get close to Jesus. We know he doesn’t merely teach the truth, he is the truth – pure truth, the truth of God. We know he is unbiased. And we know we are so very different. Instead of truth, we have our subtle manipulations of the facts. We are good at ‘lies, damned lies and statistics’. We know how to present ourselves in the best light, rather than the true light. Unlike Jesus, we are biased – mostly in favour of ourselves. Sometimes we favour ourselves so much that it is even at the expense of those we love. Deep down, we know that a close encounter with Jesus would expose our deceit. So we come just near enough to about be considered Christians, but come no further in case his light exposes our darkness.

However, surely we are called to come closer to him – just not in the self-serving way his opponents do in this story. I’m not saying he’ll ignore our sins, but I am saying he’ll treat them in a different way from those he calls hypocrites here. The hypocrites are those who want to catch Jesus out or use him for their own ends. We approach him, I trust, for different reasons. And yes, as we draw nearer to the light of the world, more of that light will shine into our darkness. But it will not be accompanied by condemnation of our motives. Jesus will expose our darkness to evoke our repentance and thus make us more like him.

Might we dare come closer in prayer, Bible reading and other spiritual disciplines? As Paul says in Romans, it is God’s kindness that leads us to repentance – not his anger.

Caesar
So let’s get around to the substance of Jesus’ reply to his critics. Little do we realise how extraordinary this exchange is, when Jesus asks them to show him a coin, and they produce a Roman one with Caesar’s image on it. To Jews, that image of Caesar was idolatrous. More specifically, this story seems to happen in the Temple (21:23). What a place to bring the image of an idol! These were the same people who had protested to Rome about Pontius Pilate setting up idolatrous images in the Temple – and which made Pilate so politically weak a few days later when they demanded Jesus’ execution!

Hence when Jesus tells them to ‘render unto Caesar’, it’s a bit more than saying, ‘pay your taxes’. As the late Professor F F Bruce pointed out, he is saying that for a Jew it is appropriate to get rid of a coin with an offensive human image on it.

If we only interpret this passage as a call to be law-abiding citizens (and I’m sure that’s why Margaret Thatcher liked it), we miss the power of what Jesus said. Stop bringing your idols to worship, he says. Throw away your idols. It’s a radical call to evaluate how serious we are about true worship. No wonder his enemies were wrong-footed by his answer. It puts them on the spot.

And it confronts us, too. What thrills our heart more than Jesus? Is that our idol? What do we spend most of our time daydreaming about? Could that be our idol? The recent financial crises have exposed a lot of contemporary idolatry, but there is more to idol-worship than money. Who or what do we love most? If the answer isn’t Jesus, then we’re in idol territory. 

What needs relegating in our lives, because we have promoted it above Christ? What needs disposing of, because it is as unclean in the sight of God as taking into the Jewish Temple the image of a Roman emperor who claimed deity? Will we let the Holy Spirit show us?

God
What might it mean, then, to ‘render to God the things that are God’s’? Surely we can’t say that some things belong to Caesar and other things belong to God. That would imply that not everything in the world belongs to God, and that conclusion makes no sense from a Christian perspective.

It comes back to the question of image. Caesar’s image and inscription may have been on the coin, but what is on us? We are made in the image of God. The image of God is upon us. He has inscribed himself upon us. [So C H Giblin.] We owe him everything – our lives, our very selves.

This is the point at which Jesus’ opponents walk away (verse 22). Devout as the Pharisees are and respectable pillars of society as the Herodians are, they cannot stomach Jesus’ radical call for total commitment to God and his kingdom. This isn’t religion on their terms: this is faith and discipleship on God’s terms. It’s the point at which the rich young ruler also walked away. He couldn’t take the ‘giving to God what was God’s’ in his case.

There is a story told from the Soviet occupation of the former Czechoslovakia in 1968. A Russian soldier entered a church building during worship, brandishing a weapon. ‘Leave now if  you’re not prepared to die for your faith,’ he shouted. Some of the worshippers left, others stayed. Then the soldier laid down his gun. ‘I am a Christian, too,’ he announced, ‘And I knew I would only be safe with those who were willing to lay down their lives for Christ.’

So who are we like? Jesus’ enemies were devoutly religious and well read on the one hand. And they were the sort of people who made society run smoothly and who would be top of your list as dinner guests on the other hand. Yet, when it came to the crunch, religion and respectability were found wanting for one fundamental reason. They had not given over their hearts and affections to God and his kingdom, only to a picture of God and the religious life they had devised for themselves, and which suited their own inclinations and circumstances. Religious externals, however Christian or even Methodist they look, do not wash with Jesus. They mean nothing without the heart.

Maybe the Soviet soldier is the model Jesus calls us to emulate. Not that I suggest we burst into church next Sunday with an AK-47! But he was sold out to Christ and the kingdom of God. And that is what Jesus calls us to when he says we need to render to God the things that are God’s.

For what belongs to God, if not our entire lives? We are made in the image of God. The image has been disfigured by sin, but Jesus is the perfect image of God, and salvation is about remaking that image of God in us. 

So if we’re strictly honest, the model to follow isn’t even that member of the Russian army. It’s Jesus himself. As the perfect image of God, he models what it is to ‘render unto God the things that are God’s’. If we want to know what true faith is, it’s to imitate him.  Whatever the word ‘Christian’ means to many today, it originally meant ‘little Christ’. True ‘rendering unto God’ involves growing into little Christs under the influence of the Holy Spirit. Today’s Caesars can have their pathetic taxes, but God can have his little Christs.

Are we included?