Blog Archives

Sermon: Future Glory And Present Living

1 Corinthians 15:50-58

Our final section in 1 Corinthians 15 today is the passage designed for the church crèche:

We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed. (Verse 51)

More seriously, to get into Paul’s thought as he brings this glorious chapter to a conclusion, we need to appreciate something of the way the typical Hebrew mind made an argument. It was different from ours. We tend to argue in a straight line: point one leads to point two, leads to point three, et cetera, and on to a final conclusion.
But for the Hebrew you have to think less of the straight line and more of the circle. Think more of a stone being dropped in a pond, and the ripples going outwards. That is what Paul does here. His central point is – well, central. It’s in the middle of the section, and the implications are ripples around it. So rather than explore these verses from beginning to end, I’m going to start at the centre for the main point and then ripple out to the implications and eventually the conclusion.

Firstly, then, where does Paul drop the stone in the pond? I suggest to you that it comes in verses 53 and 54:

For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality.  When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’

What we have in this central pebble-drop is the image of clothing: the perishable clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. But this isn’t just any old getting dressed: to put one new set of clothes over an old set implies something bigger. It implies a particular kind of dressing up. In short, it implies an investiture. The resurrection of the body, says Paul, constitutes our investiture.

An investiture? Yes: in the resurrection of the body God confirms our royal status as his vice-regents in the kingdom of God. Just as in Genesis 1, humans bear the image of God to look after creation on his behalf, so now in the new creation we are invested with royal status to tend the new heavens and the new earth. Anyone who believes that the life of the world to come is simply one of singing around the throne of God is mistaken: there will be work to do, good work, as we care for the new creation to the glory of God.
Our receipt of a resurrection body is symbolic of this, for it is the clothing fit for the new heavens and the new earth. God has already promised us this status as his vice-regents in the new creation. Think of it as rather like the ways in which Prince Charles became Prince of Wales. He was actually created Prince of Wales by Letters Patent on 26th July 1958, but he was not invested and did not have the coronet placed on his head until the actual investiture ceremony at Caernarfon Castle on 1st July 1969. So today we already have the promise that one day we will reign with Christ in the new creation. But the day on which we receive our resurrection bodies will be our investiture. It will be the public sign that we have the authority to exercise delegated power in the kingdom of God for ever.

You may feel insignificant now. You may count yourself unworthy of the attention of Rupert Murdoch’s army of phone hackers. Hello magazine may never ask to do a photo spread of your beautiful home. Count yourself blessed! For in God’s kingdom the disciple of Jesus is the most significant human being apart from Christ in all eternity. No wonder it was that earlier in this epistle Paul told the warring Corinthians that ‘we shall judge angels’. The resurrection says that our investiture is coming.

This is where it all ripples out from, then: our clothing in our resurrection body constitutes our investiture as God’s vice-regents in his new creation. What, though, are the implications? I offer two implications, and then an important conclusion.

The first implication is that of change. Remember the crèche quote –

We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed?

Hear that reference to ‘change’ which applies to everyone, and then hear what Paul says immediately afterwards. When and how will that universal change happen?

in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. (Verse 52)

The resurrection of the body means complete, instantaneous change. Throughout our Christian lives we labour in co-operation with the work of the Holy Spirit to see our lives change, and to see our changed lives affect our world for the better. To our frustration, we do not see all the change we long for – either in ourselves, or in our world. But when we put on our resurrection body, the formal clothing of our investiture as God’s vice-regents, we are fully changed. This is the Good News of our future hope. As Paul put it in Philippians 1, God has begun a good work in us, and he will complete it on the day of Christ Jesus.
As a teenage Christian, I was bemused by a song written by the Christian singer Randy Stonehill called ‘Good News’. It said, ‘Good news, Christ is returning’, when I thought that the Good News was that Christ has died. Now I see that the promise of Christ’s return is the promise to complete the good news he has begun in us.

The story is told of the enthusiastic Christian who found himself sharing a railway carriage with a bishop. Being suspicious of these bishops – you never could be sure whether they were truly Christians – our enthusiastic friend asked this particular bishop, “Are you saved?”

Wisely, the bishop replied, “Do you mean ‘have I been saved’, ‘am I being saved’ or ‘will I be saved’? Because all are true.”

And the bishop was right. Being saved is more than the forgiveness of our sins. It is the transformation that then begins in this life but which will come to a climax in the resurrection of the body when God will complete the work he has begun in us, and when he will also transform all of creation. Salvation is comprehensive.

None of this is a reason for complacency now. Rather, it is a vision that inspires us now to see more of that change before we are clothed with our resurrection body. Let us anticipate God’s great future now, and let that be a sign to the world!

The second implication is of confirmation – confirmation, that is, of Jesus’ victory over death. Death is beaten, yes, but it isn’t just that death is conquered – it’s about who has conquered it:

When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’

‘Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?’

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (Verses 54-57)

The point is this: people have wanted to cheat death or deny death for centuries. At funerals, I sometimes get asked to read dreadful prose which contains lines such as ‘Death is nothing at all’, or ‘I did not die’. Russian Communist authorities kept treating the publicly displayed corpse of Lenin as if to suggest he was not really gone (and – ironically – to encourage veneration, despite their attacks on religion). Wealthy Westerners pay for their bodies to be cryogenically frozen, so that one day they might be cured of the disease that killed them. And it’s all rank nonsense.

Except over Jesus Christ. And because he has conquered death, we shall have victory over it too one day when our bodies are raised and clothed with immortality. Or should I say, not ‘Jesus Christ’ but the phrase Paul uses: ‘our Lord Jesus Christ’. ‘Our’ – because he is over his pilgrim people, the church. ‘Christ’ – because he is the fulfilment of Israel’s messianic hopes. And ‘Lord’ – because he is, and Caesar is not, and the whole world must bow to him. All must acknowledge him. And when we do, the fullness of God’s kingdom comes. His humble servant reign is everywhere to be experienced. The sorrows and injustices of this world will dissolve.

But it only happens with the embrace of ‘our – Lord – Jesus – Christ’, risen from the dead, who will raise us, too. No political schemes will bring in the kingdom, much as we must care about politics. No violence and superior firepower will bring in the kingdom. No pious hiding from the world will do it, either. But we anticipate our resurrection bodies, following the One who has already conquered death.

So – the pebble in the pond caused by our investiture as God’s vice-regents in the new creation as we are clothed with our resurrection bodies has led us to two significant ripples. One is then anticipation of change, in the completion of a comprehensive salvation. The other is its confirmation as the victory over death won solely by our Lord Jesus Christ means that all must bow the knee to his benevolent reign, and in this we shall see the fullness of the kingdom.

What conclusion should we draw from all this? Many Christians would end on a note of future hope of glory. Let’s look forward!

Not Paul. His conclusion, his application, is for the here and now:

Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain. (Verse 58)

The resurrection is the great doctrine of hope. Do you ever feel like jacking something in? Do you feel like giving up? This verse is for you. If you are plugging away at kingdom of God things, says Paul, then nothing is wasted. Death will not obliterate it. God will bring what you have done into his new creation, in a transformed way.

Maria Muldaur
, the singer perhaps best known for ‘Midnight at the Oasis’, once recorded a gospel album. The track I always remember from it was called ‘Is my living in vain?’ If we’re honest, some of us Christians feel like that sometimes for a variety of reasons, some of them personal, some of them public or social. It just doesn’t feel worth it. A dark cloud descends and envelops us.

But Paul says, ‘your labour in the Lord is not in vain’, and hence why he urges his readers ‘Always to give [themselves] fully to the work of the Lord’. The Resurrection is what will make it worthwhile.

And if I may speak personally, I want to tell you that this verse has been a life-saver for me. I have told some of you how my last appointment in the ministry was a terrible misfit. I wondered why God called us there. I still don’t have an answer for that. But what I do have is a promise here: ‘your labour in the Lord is not in vain.’ Whatever the reason was that God took us there, he will take it up and make it new in his kingdom. He will do the same for you as you cling on to him in your darkness.

But let me end with some beautiful words. My sermons in this series have been inspired by a book on 1 Corinthians by a favourite scholar of mine called Kenneth Bailey. In writing on this verse, he quotes a certain Bishop Bill Frey. And Frey’s words seem a fitting end to this sermon and to this series:

Hope is hearing the music of the future; faith is dancing to it today.[1]

Today’s Sermon: The Centrality Of The Resurrection

This Easter season, we are currently preaching through 1 Corinthians 15, Paul’s great chapter on the Resurrection. Here is the passage that falls to me today:

1 Corinthians 15:12-34

‘And they all lived happily ever after.’

We know that line from childhood, even if raw adult experience teaches us that it isn’t always true.

One of the problems we have at Easter is that we think ‘They all happily ever after’ is what the Resurrection means. We see the Resurrection as no more than a happy ending to the story after all the horrible stuff about Jesus dying.

But it isn’t. Do we all live happily ever after now, because Jesus has risen from the dead? No. I know that in one sense the Resurrection does point us towards a ‘happy ever after’ destination at some point in the future, but that isn’t what it means now. And the Resurrection has deep, central meanings for our faith even now, before death.

So much so that even though I initially entitled this week’s sermon ‘The Certainty of the Resurrection’ it might better be entitled ‘The Centrality of the Resurrection’. I want to show from our reading three areas of life and faith where the Resurrection is central, if not the foundation.

Firstly, the Resurrection is central to salvation. We so tie salvation into the death of Christ – ‘Jesus died for our sins’, and so on – that we overlook the place the Resurrection has in salvation. Indeed, this whole chapter has started with what Paul says is the Gospel as passed down to him – not only that Christ died, but that he was buried, raised and appeared to his disciples. The Resurrection is part of the Gospel message of salvation. But in what way?

Here’s what Paul says essentially in verses 12 to 19 of today’s reading. We affirm that Christ died for our sins. His death rescues us and we are forgiven. All well and good. But since the Bible speaks about death as the penalty for sin, death itself must be conquered if we are truly and fully to be saved from our sins. Hence why Paul says that preaching is useless without the Resurrection (verse 14), that we are liars if there is no Resurrection, because death has not been defeated (verse 15), that faith without the Resurrection is futile and leaves us still lost (verses 17-18) and that we are pitiable without that message (verse 19).

Moreover, Paul implies, everything we assume about life and salvation assumes the Resurrection. How can we affirm we are forgiven if the penalty for sin is still in force? If the Queen pardoned the offences of a criminal but he was still sent to prison, what kind of pardon would that be? It would be nonsense. So it is with sin against Almighty God, says the apostle. Say all you like about the Cross being the source of our forgiveness because Jesus died in our place, and that is true, but unless the death sentence is removed from us there is no practical benefit to that forgiveness. Hence the Resurrection is as much a part of our salvation as the Cross is.

But of course we all expect to go through death. The conquest of death for us remains in the future, when we shall be bodily raised, just as Jesus was. And it’s this future hope which is the important thing here, for there is a parallel with forgiveness. The forgiveness we receive through the Cross is an assurance that in the future, at the Last Judgement, we shall be pronounced ‘not guilty’. And our Resurrection to eternal life will be the sign that confirms the Judge’s merciful verdict on us.

One scholar, Kenneth Bailey, puts it like this:

The resurrection affirms that sin and death do not have the last word. At the cross the finest religion of the ancient world (Judaism), and the finest system of justice of the ancient world (Rome), joined to torture this good man to death. These were not evil forces. They were the best institutions the ancient world had to offer, and yet together they produced the cross. But that was not the end. After the cross came the victory of the resurrection. After the cross, no form of evil surprises us, no institutionalized brutality amazes us, because we have been to the cross and we know that beyond it is the resurrection. We have stood at the cross … and have witnessed the empty tomb …![1]

All this, then, makes the Resurrection much more than a happy ending. It makes it far more than any idea that the Cross was all bad and the Resurrection kissed everything better. When we look at the empty tomb and believe in the Risen Lord, we have the assurance of salvation. Believe in the Easter hope and know the promise of salvation.

Secondly, the Resurrection is central to the kingdom of God. In verses 20 to 28, Paul talks about Christ’s resurrection as being the first fruits of the general resurrection of the dead, leading to everything being put under God’s feet. While we wait for that time, Christ reigns until every enemy has been put under his feet.

In other words, God’s act of raising Jesus from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit shows that God reigns, because he even conquers death in his Son. However, much opposition to that reign remains. Just as a human authority can be in charge of a country despite there being opposition to that person or government, so Christ reigns over creation, despite opposition to him.

It’s within that framework that Paul uses the image of the ‘first fruits’. Judaism celebrated two harvest festivals: as well as the full ingathering of the crops around the end of the summer or beginning of the autumn which corresponds to what we understand as a harvest festival, they also celebrated the appearance of the first fruits in late spring. We have a name for that ‘first fruits’ festival: we call it Pentecost. The first fruits guarantee what is to come, the full harvest. In kingdom terms, Christ’s resurrection is the first fruits of God’s reign that promise the full victory over death in the ingathering harvest when the general resurrection of the dead happens.

Meanwhile, as we await that complete conquest, Christ reigns. Just as a Roman colony (such as Corinth) anticipated a day when the Emperor (who had the status of a god) would come and visit them, so Christians anticipate the future coming of our triumphant risen King. And just as the Roman emperor rewarded the retired soldiers who fought to win that colony for him, so our coming King will reward those who have served in the cause of his kingdom.[2]

But there are bigger implications. It’s not just that you can draw imperfect parallels between the risen King and earthly empires, it is also a matter of contrast and conflict between the kingdom of our Risen Lord and the kingdoms of this world. Kenneth Bailey again:

When Paul wrote, “We have one Lord, Jesus Christ” (8:6), he was not only confessing his faith, he was also making a political statement. If Jesus is kurios (Lord), then Caesar isn’t. In like manner, here in verse 24, even though Paul was writing about the climactic end of the age, he was at the same time de-absolutizing the rulers, authorities and powers around him. It was dangerous to even think let alone proclaim such things anywhere in the Roman Empire. But to write this kind of subversive literature and send it to the largest Roman city outside Rome was extremely risky. The apostle as much as announces that one of the goals of the resurrected Christ was the setting aside of eternal Rome. Paul was intimidated by no one, and by committing his vision to writing he surrendered control over who would discover these views.[3]

The Resurrection, then, proclaims the kingship of Jesus at the expense of the rulers of this world. Now the latter, of course, won’t like that. They expect our allegiance. The Resurrection puts us on a collision course with them and we may end up suffering, because we retain our allegiance to our Risen Lord ahead of them. We respect the earthly authorities as much as we can, but the time comes when we have to choose between obeying God and obeying human beings. It is the Resurrection that leads us to make that choice in favour of Christ. For it shows that he truly reigns and it promises that his kingdom will come in all its fullness. Furthermore, if we do suffer, then the Resurrection promise that life conquers death fortifies us in our eternal perspective.

Thirdly and finally, the Resurrection is central to our lifestyle. We’re into verses 29 to 34 here. And what on earth is all this stuff about being baptised for the dead? We can perhaps appreciate the idea of Christians such as Paul risking their lives virtually every day, because we can read the accounts of their tremendous courage in service of the Gospel. But baptism for the dead?

It has puzzled readers down the ages. There are something like forty major different explanations lying on the scholars’ table. Fear not, I won’t take you through all of them, but I will just briefly mention one famous interpretation. The Mormons have a particular take on this. Since baptism is connected with salvation, what happens to those who have died without being baptised, they ask? So Mormons volunteer for some kind of proxy baptism on behalf of the dead to assure their salvation, and they use this text to justify that practice.

However, that is almost certainly a wrong approach. Much more likely in the view of scholars I trust is this scenario: in the early years of Christianity, some followers of Jesus died, and their loved ones – who may not have embraced the faith – feared that they might not be reunited in eternity. Therefore the surviving relatives were ‘baptised for the dead’, that is, baptised for the sake of their beloved deceased family members, in the hope that such baptism would see them through to the reunion after death that they desired.

Now that may sound like a bizarre practice, but the point Paul is making is that those who went in for it could only make sense of it if there was the resurrection of the dead. If there were no resurrection, they could not be reunited with their loved ones after death. The game was up.

And similarly, and more seriously, was the courage that Paul and the other church leaders showed in the way they proclaimed the Gospel in the teeth of opposition. Why risk their lives every day? Because they knew that even if they paid with their lives, resurrection would one day be their destiny. Therefore they would not be deterred by the worst the world could throw at them. But without the promise of resurrection, such courage would make no sense. There would be no point to that kind of risk-taking, and you might as well indulge yourself to the fullest extent and be done with worrying about living in a good and godly way.

But if you want to know why Christians see a point in living ethically and in holiness, it’s the Resurrection. If you want to have a reason for Christians to do the right thing even at great cost, it’s the Resurrection. It gives meaning and purpose to right living.

I turn for one final testimony to Kenneth Bailey. He writes:

Having lived through nine years of the Lebanese civil war and through the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in the summer of 1982, I understand the affirmation “I die every day.” This is the speech of someone who goes out each day wondering if it will be his last. Included in this is the never to be forgotten feeling at a rogue checkpoint when stopped by heavily armed militiamen. On such occasions one is convinced, “I will not be alive five minutes from now.” The fall of 2009 I was privileged to meet Mr. Paul, the senior manager of “Hotel Rwanda” during the massacres that took place in Rwanda in 1994. For the three-month period of the massacres, Mr. Paul “died every day.” It was the look in the eye. We understood each other. Paul the apostle breaks into very strong language, indeed the language of oath taking, as he declares, “I die every day.”[4]

But the Christian can ‘die every day’ when we live in Resurrection hope. The Resurrection is the reason we can and do live differently from the world. The Resurrection is fundamental to our salvation. It points to the coming kingdom of our Risen Lord. It makes sense of life and faith.

Let us live in the light of the Resurrection.

[1] Kenneth Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes, p 439.

[2] See Bailey, p 444f.

[3] Op. cit., p 445.

[4] Op. cit., p 452.

Sermon: The Pharisee And The Publican

Just for once, I’m back preaching from the Lectionary this weekend. At present I don’t have a sermon series at my smaller church. Last Sunday I sat in on a Local Preacher taking the service there, because he is candidating for the ministry. He took last Sunday’s Lectionary of Luke 18:1-8, so I am following that up with this week’s passage that comes straight after that. It doesn’t make for a series, but hopefully it creates a little bit of continuity.

Luke 18:9-14

There is a nonsense abroad in Christian circles that says, ‘We all believe the same.’ Because of our unity in Christ, all the Christian denominations believe the same.

We don’t.

The local churches in my home town were mature enough to recognise this. They held public meetings to discuss the differences. One evening, the subject was baptism. An Anglican vicar , a Baptist elder and a Catholic priest each agreed to speak. The Anglican sat behind a table and gave his talk. So did the Baptist.

But when the Catholic priest had his turn, he took his chair from behind the table and set it down right in front of the first row of the audience.

“Good,” he said. “I like to see the whites of the eyes before I attack!”

I am not about to do that this morning, but our reading is a story about drawing near. How can we draw near to God? Should we draw near to God? Does God draw near to us, and if so, how? All these questions are present in the story we traditionally call ‘The Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican’.

It’s a deceptive parable. It’s almost too easy. We’ve known it for years, and it’s clear to us who the ‘goodie’ is and who the ‘baddie’ is. Jesus draws his characters as clearly as a cartoon. It’s like workmen have dug a huge hole in the road and put so many warning signs around it, we can’t fail to choose the right path around it and avoid falling in.

Or can we?

Take the Pharisee himself. We are so programmed to hear the word ‘pharisee’ and hear warning sirens in the New Testament that we are in the presence of someone who opposed Jesus. And clearly the Pharisee in this story is not one of the good guys, either.

But look at what he does. He goes to public worship. He prays. He seeks to live a virtuous life. What’s not to like? Aren’t these things we aspire to do, and to do well? After hearing last week about the need to persist in prayer, you can’t accuse this man of failing in that regard.

And he certainly wants to draw near to God. Wouldn’t he have sung ‘Bold I approach the eternal throne’ with the same vigour as a convinced Methodist? Wouldn’t he have affirmed every bit as much as the Protestant Reformers his own access to God? He could stride into the presence of God in his Temple.

Except … we know from the introduction to the parable that here is a man ‘who trusted in [himself] that [he was] righteous and regarded others with contempt’ (verse 9). When he attends this public act of worship at the Temple, he chooses to ‘[stand] by himself’ (verse 11). This is more than just sitting quietly in a pew on your own. This is someone who didn’t want to associate with the other worshippers. He despised the Jewish emphasis on the importance of community.

What’s he doing? He’s protecting his purity before God. He knows and keeps the Jewish Law – hence the reference to fasting twice a week and tithing his income (verse 12). But if he comes into contact with one of the worshippers who doesn’t do this as faithfully as he does, then he becomes unclean. So he’d better take precautions.

You  might think this is like the spiritual equivalent of when we take sensible medical precautions to prevent ourselves from catching diseases, like cleaning our hands with alcohol gel before going onto a hospital ward or not having close contact with someone having chemotherapy, so they don’t get an infection that prevents their treatment. Those kinds of measures are sensible. The Pharisee wants to prevent what he sees as spiritual infection because he has a superiority complex. He thinks he is spiritually pure, unlike those sharing space with him (and no more) in the Temple.

Does that sound like some of our attitudes? Of course, we hope not. But there may be certain kinds of people – or even specific individuals – whom we avoid for fear of ‘contamination’. I’m not referring to the kind of problem where someone is a bad influence on us, and we know we don’t have the moral strength to stop them dragging us down. The Pharisee is different. He thinks he’s superior. He doesn’t think he’s lacking in moral fibre.

And there are times when we come across like that. When the public pronouncements of the Church are only about the people, lifestyles and behaviours we condemn, then we sound like the Pharisee. When we portray ourselves as people who have got it all together, implying that others haven’t, then we join the Pharisee of this story.

What is the problem here? Luke puts it succinctly when he talks about people ‘who trusted in themselves that they were righteous’ (verse 9). Because that’s the problem. That’s a contradiction of the Gospel. That stands against everything Jesus came to achieve. The whole point of what we believe is that none of us can trust in our own righteousness to stand before God. Every one of us is a sinner. Every one of us needs grace and mercy from the love of God. Forgetting that is the most dangerous thing in the world.

Yet sometimes we do. Look at how people outside the Church perceive us, and you will realise that we do come across as people who think we are morally superior. That’s one reason why some people feel they can’t join us. We’re too good to be true, and we’re too quick to condemn.

Now you know and I know that we don’t intend to communicate that message. But it’s what people hear from us. Many people don’t want to come near to us, or come near to God, because we’ve given the impression that faith is all about being good enough for God – we are, and they aren’t.

Perhaps a test of our hearts on this one is how we react when someone falls from grace. Do we look down our noses at them? Do we gloat? Or do we ask God to be merciful to them, and say, ‘There but for the grace of God go I’?

The Pharisee in this parable, then, might be a little more uncomfortably close to us than we might like to believe sometimes.

What, then, of the Publican (or the tax collector, as our translation calls him)? Here is the very person whom the Pharisee would have treated as unclean. He didn’t keep the Jewish Law. He associated with the wicked occupying Roman forces. If anyone deserved the label ‘sinner’ it was him. Described as a thief and a rogue by the Pharisee, he too doesn’t stand with the rest of the community at the altar. He stands ‘far off’ (verse 13), because he doesn’t believe he deserves to be there. Deep down he knows exactly who he is. The Pharisee is right. He most certainly is ‘a sinner’ (verse 13).

He makes me think of various people. I think of an English teacher my sister and I had at secondary school. It was a Church of England school, and rather high up the candle. One day, this teacher was talking with my sister about why he went to a high Anglican church, full of ceremony and incense. He told my sister that he envied her ‘low church’ faith, with its easy sense of intimacy with God, but in his case he just needed to go to worship to express the fact that he was a sinner.

Or I think of several church members I have met in Methodism who reject all sense that they may draw near to God. Indeed, some use the language of ‘reverence’ to remain at a distance from him. They hardly dare draw near.

But those people don’t display the anguish of the publican.[1] He beats his chest (verse 13), a common sign even to this day in the Middle East of either intense anger or deep anguish. It is particularly a sign of extreme pain when a man, rather than a woman, does it. And by beating his chest, he is pointing to the darkness in his heart. This is a man full of remorse.

So what does he cry out? ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner’ (verse 13). That’s what our translation says, and many English versions render it similarly.

But there is a more literal translation, and it makes more sense in the context of the story. The man says, ‘God, make an atonement for me, a sinner’. And since the man is attending either the morning or the evening sacrifice at the Temple, this fits perfectly. The priests are sacrificing an animal as a sin offering for the people. The publican, who feels he cannot stand with those considered righteous, cries out, not just generally for mercy, but that the sacrifice being made at the altar might be for him. ‘God, make an atonement for me, a sinner.’

At that moment, the priests are making atonement for the people. But it won’t be very long before God himself makes atonement for this sinner and all other sinners. Jesus, the sinless Lamb of God, will go to the Cross and bear the sins of the world. In Christ, God will make atonement for the publican. The publican’s prayer will be answered.

No wonder he is the one who goes home ‘justified’ before God, according to Jesus (verse 14). He is made to be in the right with God, because God himself will atone for his sins in Jesus Christ. God will remove the sentence of guilt from him. God will take away the power of guilt from over his life. Through Christ, he will be in the right with God.

You may recall that some years ago, Cliff Richard recorded a song called ‘From a Distance’. Originally written by a songwriter called Julie Gold, the chorus says, ‘God is watching us from a distance’. Yet that is not the case here. God is drawing close to sinners. He atones for our sins at the Cross. He offers us new life at the Empty Tomb.

So if like the publican we cry out for atonement, because we are so aware we are sinners, the good news is that we no longer need stand at a distance like he did. God is not at a distance from us. He is close. He took on human flesh for us. He died for us. He rose for us.

We might be nervous about the way in which the Pharisee attempted to draw near to God, and decide we want none of that arrogant presumption. Quite right, too.

But just because we have seen bad examples of drawing near to God, does not mean we should stay at a distance from him. Even though our sins do put us far from him, God is merciful and does not intend to let that state of affairs remain. We cry out for atonement, and God himself provides it.

And therefore I pray, as we are in the early stages of our relationship as minister and congregation, we will not fall into the trap of staying far off from God. What we need to do is reject the self-righteousness of the Pharisee and embrace the humility of the publican. As we humbly cast ourselves upon the mercy of God, we find he provides all we need in the Atonement of Christ through his death. As Matt Redman has said, ‘The Cross has said it all.’

Friends, let our journey together these next few years be based on that foundation.

[1] What follows is based on Kenneth Bailey, Through Peasant Eyes, pp 153-5.

Sermon: Praying To A Good God

So here it is, my very last sermon in Chelmsford. The next sermon will appear on this blog in early September, when I begin my new appointment. In the meantime, I hope to post other items here.

Luke 11:1-13

Our children, like so many, are always sustaining bruises on their legs from accidents. They tend to have a colourful collection at most times. Right now it’s Mark who is particularly prone, and when I wash him in the bath at night he tells me to be careful around his right knee. If I’m not watchful, he will flinch with pain.

Preachers know there are certain subjects for sermons where, if we’re not careful, we will cause congregations to wince as we touch their spiritual bruises. Talk about evangelism, and people will become defensive about whether and how they share their faith with others. Preach on giving, and it’s easy to induce guilt.

Another is prayer – the subject of today’s reading. It wouldn’t take too much effort to take the theme of prayer and load heavy weights of condemnation on a congregation: “Do you pray enough?” (Well, who can reply ‘Yes’ to that question?) “Are your prayers always answered?” (You can wriggle out of that one by saying, ‘Sometimes God says ‘no’,’ but you’re left feeling it’s a cop-out.) And so on.

Yet Jesus doesn’t use guilt trips here when he teaches about prayer. Our reading collects – in my opinion – three different episodes about Jesus and prayer and edits them together. In each of them, what we have is not condemnation but encouragement in prayer. As a way of identifying each section, I am going to label each of them by a person who features in them.

The first character is the teacher. And I mean Jesus himself. ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples,’ says one of his own disciples (verse 1).

Now in some sense, Jesus is the teacher of prayer right throughout this passage, but in the first four verses this is especially in focus. This unnamed disciple asks him to teach the group how to pray – and after all, that’s what a rabbi did with his disciples: he taught them. Hence the fact that John had taught his disciples how to pray.

Furthermore, the request comes after Jesus ‘was praying in a certain place’ (verse 1). In other words, he had been praying and his disciples had been observing his practice. This was common practice for a rabbi with his disciples: the rabbi lived his life openly before his disciples, and they began to learn by watching and copying his example.

Jesus teaches prayer by example. It’s ‘Do as I do, as well as do as I say’ with him. We don’t have the privilege of observing him praying ‘in the flesh’, but we do have the testimony of four Gospels to his life, including his prayer life. He has left an example for us to follow, in both carving our special time for prayer and also spontaneously praying when the need arises. We see both the joy of his intimacy with the Father and the agony of responding to the Father’s will in Gethsemane. We see the prayer life of Jesus as one where he does not merely present a shopping list to God, but seeks to tune himself into the will of the Father and then live accordingly. In doing so, he teaches us how to pray.

Perhaps this also means it’s worth looking out for people who will teach us to pray. Jesus may be the supreme example of prayer, but throughout the centuries, the Church has known that certain people have had specific gifts both in prayer and in teaching prayer by example. It’s why one of the great gifts from the Catholic tradition to the rest of Christianity is the idea of the ‘spiritual director’ – one who can teach the spiritual life, including prayer, by example. There is much more to the work of the spiritual director than that, but it certainly includes this. Friends of mine who have spiritual directors and who meet with them every few months testify to the benefit that has on their growth in prayer.

Of course, Jesus doesn’t only teach by example, he also teaches by pattern. He gives a specific pattern here, which we have come to call ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ (verses 2-4). Some Christians call it ‘the pattern prayer’, and I think that isn’t a bad name for it. Given that we have two different forms of the Lord’s Prayer in the Gospels – a concise version here in Luke and a longer one in Matthew 6 – it would be hard to argue that the apostolic Church thought Jesus simply wanted us to repeat these words by rote, as if they were a magic incantation. And then, of course, you find that when I lead worship, I don’t use what many call the ‘traditional’ words of the Lord’s Prayer, but a modern translation!

Without going into the details of the Lord’s Prayer this morning – I don’t have time and when I have done, it has been a series of sermons – the simple point I want to make is that Jesus gives us this pattern so that we can pray in a fashion that reflects God’s priorities. How many of us have become bored with prayer when we have reduced it to a shopping list? So the name, honour and purposes of God come before we get to pray for ourselves in the second half, although God is deeply concerned for our spiritual and material needs. The pattern reminds us that prayer is not limited to a set of requests.

And that leads into the second section of teaching on prayer here. In the Parable of the Friend at Midnight, Jesus introduces us to the second key character here in understanding prayer, the neighbour.

Now here is where I want to take our conventional understanding of this parable and turn it on its head. Most preachers will tell you this parable is told to encourage persistence in prayer. They will point to typical translations of verse 8 at the end of the story as evidence of this:

I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.

Furthermore, they will link with the teaching that follows where disciples are exhorted to ask, search and knock and point out that the Greek literally means, ‘Go on asking’, ‘Go on searching’ and ‘Go on knocking’.

However, this explanation does not fit the cultural background of ancient and modern Israel-Palestine. Without boring you with all the technical details, there is a very good argument[1] to translate verse 8’s punchline differently. Rather than referring to the persistence of the man who knocks, it refers to the neighbour who is woken up. And it is the neighbour’s desire to avoid shame that Jesus highlights.

Why? Leaving aside complicated questions of translation and which Aramaic or Hebrew words might be behind the Greek of Luke’s Gospel, it would have been a scandal in the hospitable culture of the Middle East for a neighbour not to help the person who had had a friend turn up on his doorstep out of the blue. Were he to fail to help, he would bring shame on himself and heap shame on the village.

Therefore what Jesus teaches us through the neighbour is that God will respond to our needs in prayer because if he did not, it would bring shame and dishonour on his holy name. While it is good not to give up in prayer (as Jesus teaches elsewhere in Luke 18 in the Parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge), God is not someone who has to be harangued and cajoled into answering prayer. Just as we call God ‘Father’ in the Lord’s Prayer, so he listens to his children. Just as we pray that his name will be hallowed, so he will ensure that his name is not besmirched by failing to care for his children.

So we should not see the Parable of the Friend at Midnight as reason for badgering God. Rather, God is the true neighbour in prayer who will give what we need, even at great personal cost and inconvenience to himself. Even, I would suggest, the cost and ‘inconvenience’ of the Cross. Be encouraged: this is the caring, loving God in whom we put our trust. He is better than we often think he is.

And that neatly leads us to the third character here that teaches us about prayer, the Father. Isn’t it good news that God is kinder than we often portray him to be?

It is good news – for some. But others find it scandalous. As Jesus goes on to commend the idea of asking, seeking and knocking, and as he envisages human parents who will not substitute a snake for a fish or a scorpion for an egg, there is something withering here that our English partly disguises. Did you notice that reference to ‘you, then, who are evil’ (verse 13)? Put that together with the fact that Jesus introduces these words with the formula, ‘So I say to you’ (verse 9) which he sometimes uses when addressing enemies, and I think you can see that Jesus has turned from addressing disciples to confronting critics.

Let me suggest to you that here Jesus is emphasising the scandal of God’s love. He says that everyone who asks will receive, everyone who searches will find and everyone who knocks will have the door opened for them (verse 10). Jesus’ enemies didn’t like the way he threw open the kingdom of God to the disreputable, the unclean and the marginalised. So Jesus offends those critics here by telling them that God the Father’s love is so scandalously good that he doesn’t just answer the righteous, the respectable, the elite, the in-crowd: he answers the prayers of sinners! No: even his ‘evil’ critics can give good things to their children: how much more will God give what is good and even the best to ‘everyone’! Terrible! Disgusting!

Worse than that, though: the scandalous God and Father of Jesus will give of himself to wretched sinners: he will give the Holy Spirit to them if they ask (verse 13)! He does not limit the spiritual action to the priestly classes, the theologically educated and the financially privileged. He opens ‘wide the gate of glory’ to all and sundry!

So let no-one here think they are not good enough for God to listen to them. The God of grace invites prayer from anyone.

And let no-one here think that anybody we know – however outrageous their lifestyles – is beyond the potential embrace of God’s love. I have encouraged you before to offer prayer for friends outside the faith who have needs, and to let them know you are praying for them. But I would also say on the basis of this text that we can encourage those same people themselves to pray. Who knows how they might be surprised by the way God responds to the cries of their hearts?

Various friends of mine have at times gone out onto the streets and offered prayer for anyone who would like it. One of them, a vicar called Simon, once found himself and a friend surrounded by some sceptical teenagers. Rather than debate with them, they offered to pray for them. In the middle of praying, the lads started to feel what they described as some strange but wonderful sensations.

“What was that?” they asked.

“The Holy Spirit,” said Simon.

“Would you pray for us again?”

Simon did. They experienced God again.

I’m not saying it will always be that sensational – any more than it always is for us. But I am saying that Jesus here presents the daring God of outrageous grace who is not constrained by the restrictive rules of decent people. So full of fatherly love is he that his heart bursts with compassion for all of creation. Let us dare to believe in such a God, the God of Jesus. Let us dare others to believe in him, too.

Truly, God is better than we think he is.

[1] Kenneth Bailey, Poet and Peasant, pp 119-141.

Another Sermon On The Good Samaritan

I preached on tomorrow’s Lectionary Gospel three years ago in a rather similar way to what follows for tomorrow. But then, you’ll see I based both that sermon and this one on the same piece of scholarship.

Luke 10:25-37[1]

“You’ve got an attitude problem.”

How often do we hear someone say that – or say it ourselves?

And how often is it true in the church, among the community of faith? Too often, I’m afraid.

I’m not going to tell any secrets, although there are far too many examples of attitude problems I could cite from my experience as a minister. And to be honest, it isn’t just congregations. I could tell some awful stories about ministers, if I really wanted to break confidences.

The lawyer whose encounter with Jesus leads to ‘The Parable of the Good Samaritan’ is also a man with an attitude problem. Multiple attitude problems, if truth be told. For starters, he is two-faced towards Jesus. He ‘stood up to test Jesus’ (verse 25). Standing up was a sign of respect, but he then sets out to test Jesus. The respect means nothing, because of the testing. Being acquainted as I have been with Christian backstabbers, this scenario is familiar to me. To your face come the affectionate words or respectful titles, but later you discover that in their hearts they are plotting against you. That may be shocking to some, but I am afraid it is true.

The lawyer thinks a lot of himself, too. He asks Jesus, ‘Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ (Verse 25) Hang on for a moment before those familiar words zoom past you. Since when can anyone do anything in order to receive an inheritance? An inheritance is a gift. When Debbie and I wrote our wills, we made decisions on what our children would inherit. It never occurred to us that we should enter clauses in the wills to make our children’s inheritance dependent upon them doing anything. They will receive from our estate simply because they are our children.

But it’s a matter of pride for the lawyer that he should feel he has done something virtuous to receive the inheritance of eternal life. He does not want mercy, nor does he believe he needs grace. He simply wants to know what signs mark him out as one of the favoured ones. And – as we shall see in a moment – he wants the bar set pretty low so he can jump over with ease in a way that shows that he is one of the chosen people, while other less desirable types most certainly are not.

None of this is an attitude of heart that is endearing to Jesus, but the remarkable thing is, Jesus responds to him on that very territory, all the while undermining his assumptions. He goes onto the lawyer’s territory by bringing the discussion to the Law (the Jewish Law):

He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ (Verse 26)

The lawyer comes back with his answer about wholeheartedly loving and God and loving neighbour (verse 27). We’re so used to these words, but it was a remarkable answer. Chronologically in the Jewish Law, the command to love neighbour was given before the command to love God. But perhaps the reason Jesus commends the lawyer’s answer (verse 28) is because love of God leads to love of neighbour. ‘Do this and you will live,’ he says – that is, ‘Keep on doing this and you will come alive.’ If you make this a habit, you will know life like nothing else, Jesus tells him.

But that’s the point at which we discover more of the lawyer’s attitude problem. Jesus’ invitation to discover true life brings this out in him:

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ (Verse 29)

It’s always ugly when someone wants to justify themselves. I do it too often myself. When I feel I’m being criticised, I launch into a defence of my actions or motives. I want to justify myself, too. Perhaps the lawyer feels that Jesus’ invitation to life is a criticism of his current lifestyle. He wants to prove he is in the right with God – something ultimately that we cannot do for ourselves, because we are sinners. What pride lurks in our hearts when we want to show we are acceptable to God by our own efforts?

Maybe he knows in the recesses of his heart that he can’t justify himself entirely by the Law of God. However much he says he has kept the Law fully, probably he knows if he’s honest that’s a false claim. So he tries to lower the bar with his question, who is my neighbour? If he can just get an easy enough definition of neighbour, then he can believe he is justified before God. Jewish scholars debated who constituted a neighbour and who didn’t. Roughly speaking, another Jew was definitely a neighbour, a convert to Judaism might be a neighbour, but a Gentile definitely wasn’t, let alone a heretic like, say … a Samaritan.

So when Jesus launches into the parable, this isn’t a nice Sunday School story. You might just as well go into Tel Aviv today and tell the story of the Good Hezbollah Terrorist. No: Jesus launches into a subversive parable that will undermine all the lawyer is basing his life upon.

As he begins the story, the lawyer will sniff danger. The seventeen-mile descending road from Jerusalem to Jericho was known to be dangerous, and still has been in modern times. When the robbers leave the traveller stripped, beaten and half dead (verse 30), that description is important. Remember the Jewish categories of who constituted a neighbour? There were two ways in which you could tell where someone came from. One was their accent, the other was their dress. Both were very specific to particular groups. Because the traveller is stripped, no-one can tell his background from his attire. Because he is ‘half dead’ (a rabbinic expression that means ‘at the point of death’), he is unlikely to be able to speak, and hence no-one can tell from his accent, either. Big Question: does he qualify for neighbour-love or not?

As the man lies on the point of death, a priest comes ‘down’ the road (verse 31). ‘Down’ indicates he is coming from Jerusalem. If a priest was leaving Jerusalem, he has probably just finished a tour of duty at the Temple. As a member of the upper classes, he is almost certainly riding on an animal. When you remember that when the Samaritan turns up he puts the injured man on his animal, you will realise that this priest is well placed to help.

But … contact with a dead body or a Gentile would make him ritually impure, and this man could be either or both. If the priest becomes impure, it will have implications for him. First of all, when he returns to Jerusalem he will not be able to minister at first but will have to stand at the Eastern Gate with other ‘unclean’ people as a humiliation for becoming impure. This priest cannot cope with identifying with the unclean.

Secondly, if he is ritually impure, he cannot eat the food allocated to him and his family as a ‘wave offering’, a tithe of all the tithes. He will go hungry. So will his family.

Hemmed in by the purity laws which make him fear for his professional reputation and his family’s well-being, the priest makes sure he stays more than the statutory four cubits from what he supposes to be a dead body, and passes by on the other side.

The Levite presumably comes fro the same direction (‘So likewise’, verse 32). Given the contours of the road and the fact that the wounded man is close to death, I think we can assume it’s not much of a gap between him and the priest. Which means the Levite has probably watched from a distance the actions of the priest. The purity laws are less strict for him: they only applied to him when he was on duty. He isn’t now. He could help the man.

But he doesn’t. He is inferior to the priest. If he helps a man whom the priest has judged should not be assisted, then he is criticising his superior’s interpretation of the Law. And you just didn’t do that.

Moreover, being from a more humble social class, he may be walking, not riding. If so, then all he can do is offer minimal aid and wait with the man. He then puts himself at risk of attack by the robbers. Put it all together, and there’s only one thing the Levite is going to do: copying the example of the priest, he passes by on the other side.

At this point, the lawyer is expecting a third character. After a priest and a Levite, the next standard character is a pious Jewish layman. Will he help the man?

Except Jesus doesn’t do standard characters, and instead we get a heretic. The Samaritan. Now the Samaritans still recognised some of the Hebrew Scriptures, and because of that he risks ritual contamination, too. If he becomes impure, then so does his animal (or animals) and any goods he might be carrying to sell. His animals and his wares also make him a likely target for the robbers. There is no way this man is going to stop and help.

Oh. Wait a minute. It seems he just did. He is ‘moved with pity’ (verse 33), a strong expression of compassion, used at other times of Jesus. He binds up the man’s wounds and pours on oil and wine (verse 34). While in the story that describes physical first aid, the binding up of wounds is also a description of God’s salvation in the Old Testament.

Furthermore, oil and wine, while being regularly used in ancient first aid, were also sacrificial elements used in worship at the Temple. They were the items regularly used by the priest and the Levite. Except here, those who used them frequently did not do so, and a man who has no right to use them does so. An unclean Samaritan who won’t have paid the tithe uses them – and that means the responsibility for paying the tithe now falls on the injured man, who already cannot pay his hôtel bill. The lawyer would therefore have been pleased if the first aid had not been administered.

Then he leads the man – to whom he lends his own animal – to an inn (verse 34). There is an important social distinction between people who lead animals and those who ride on them. Those who lead are socially inferior to those who ride. Yet the Samaritan gives up what status he has for the sake of getting the man to an inn.

By bringing him to the inn and staying overnight (‘The next day’, verse 35), the Samaritan takes a huge risk. It is quite possible under the ugly practices of the day that the injured man’s relatives, looking for someone to blame but not finding the robbers, could have taken their vengeance on him. Such cases were not unknown. But he risks his life for the wounded man.

The next day he saves the injured man from being arrested for debt by paying two denarii to the innkeeper (verse 35). By doing this, he probably also protects the man from potential retribution from the innkeeper. People of that profession had a terrible reputation for violence and lewdness.

The Samaritan, then, is a rejected outsider who uses symbols of salvation and sacrificial worship, and who risks even his own life for the sake of the half-dead man. Who does he sound like? Pardon me if he doesn’t sound rather like the man to whom the lawyer is speaking. His name begins with ‘J’.

Who was the neighbour? It was the Christ-like Samaritan. To love one’s neighbour means loving Christ, and then loving like him. It certainly won’t be the minimal ‘what can I get away with’ definition of neighbour that the lawyer wanted. For if we truly take on board what the Samaritan-like Christ has done for us, then what will we want to do in love as a response?

As the lawyer admits, the neighbour is the one who – like Christ – showed mercy. The only worthy response is, as Jesus said, to ‘Go and do likewise’ (verse 37).

[1] This sermon owes much to Kenneth Bailey, Through Peasant Eyes, pp 33-56.

Sermon: No Excuses

Luke 9:51-62

One of the well-documented advantages of the Internet is the opportunity to buy goods at reduced prices. Not only are items frequently cheaper, there are websites and other tools that enable you to compare prices and find the best bargain. Perhaps after this last week’s Emergency Budget, with all its cuts and the forthcoming VAT rise, these things will become even more popular. We all want to reduce our costs.

And Jesus knows there is another area where we want to reduce the cost. Many want to reduce the cost of following him. In our reading, three different characters are interested in following Jesus. The first and third approach him; Jesus calls the second. But what is common to all three is their desire to reduce the cost of discipleship.

How so? When we examine the background to what they say and Jesus says, we’ll see how they are trying to lower the cost of commitment[i]. But we’ll also recognise that some of their reasons for trimming the cost are similar to ours. This being so, we shall gain a picture of what real Christian discipleship involves.

Let us listen to the first conversation Jesus has:

As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Verses 57-58)

I suppose we are used to seeing this dialogue as being one that illustrates the poverty Jesus embraced as part of his mission. He is effectively homeless. (Although there are some Gospel texts that may imply he had his own house – see Mark 9:33 and Luke 5:18.)

Being willing to give up so much is challenging enough. Yet this conversation may be about more than what lifestyle preferences we might give up in order to follow Jesus. It seems to be a dialogue about rejection. The references to foxes and birds of the air may have political overtones. ‘Foxes’ was the name Jews gave to the Ammonites, a racially similar group who were their political enemies. It’s perhaps significant that four chapters later in Luke, Jesus calls the ruler Herod Antipas ‘that fox’. He was a despised ruler from a mixed race family. ‘Foxes have holes’ might therefore be a reference to the comfort that enemies have.

Similarly, the birds of the air. In the time between the Testaments, they were a symbol of the gentile nations, and so here Jesus may be referring to the occupying Romans who are, so to speak, feathering their nests.

Put all this together and Jesus may well be saying that those who oppose the will of God will often have a comfortable life, but those who come his way will have to get used to discomfort and rejection.

How do we receive a word like that? If you grew up in a generation where Christianity was respected – even if sometimes it was only honoured in the breach – then the idea of rejection will be strange to you. More likely you will witness certain changes in our nation and protest, “But this is a Christian country!” I’m not sure what a Christian country is, or even whether such a thing can exist, but I am sure of one thing: this nation isn’t.

We have to get used to the fact that we are a minority faith in a world where faith matters very little. Read the latest edition of Radio Times and you will see an article by Alison Graham about swearing on TV. She refers to an OFCOM report, based on focus group research. While the ‘f’ word and the ‘c’ word are still kept after the watershed, ‘Jesus Christ’ is OK before 9 pm. While she rightly says we should be concerned about images of violence against women on television, it’s clear that people just don’t understand (or care?) about insulting our Lord and Saviour.

Furthermore, while many people will be willing to do things for others, a lot will be offended by the Christian insistence on resolutely putting others first – that saying ‘charity begins at home’ is really an excuse for selfishness.

So just as Jesus prepared that person who claimed they would follow him wherever he went for the likelihood of rejection, so he prepares us for a similar fate. Even if we go to a society that is sympathetic to faith, it will always be the case that if we are serious about following Jesus, that will lead to us embracing a lifestyle and values that conflict with the prevailing ones in that culture.

If you want to follow Jesus, pull out of the popularity contests.

Now let’s hear again the second conversation:

To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” (Verses 59-60)

To our ears, this sounds unbearably cruel. Would Jesus really expect a son to leave his family in the middle of mourning a belovèd father? Where is the compassion of Jesus here?

However, everything changes when we consider the Middle Eastern background. We are used to there being a gap of one to two weeks between a death and the committal at the crematorium. That didn’t happen in Palestine, and it still doesn’t in the Middle East, nor in Jewish or Muslim traditions elsewhere, as a result. The hot climate meant it was imperative to bury the body as quickly as possible. If this man’s father had just died, the son would either be keeping vigil over the body or participating in the funeral. That he wasn’t tells you that his father isn’t dead.

No: he wants to stay living at home until his parents have died, and only then follow Jesus. Now it was the normal custom to do this. It was an expression of respect for parental authority that you did so. That gives a different twist to Jesus’ challenge here: he is saying that following him ranks higher in importance than the demands of family and the customs of the community. Therefore this second dialogue is about authority.

What might that mean for us today, in our very different culture? Perhaps peer pressure is an expression of social expectations today. We know how strong peer pressure is for children and teenagers at school: you have to appear ‘cool’, and in with the right people. It isn’t that much different for adults. There are certain expectations, not all of which sit with the call of Jesus. There are certain things we are expected to say or do at work. There are particular ‘right’ opinions to hold in an office conversation around the water cooler. Given that most of us have a desire to feel accepted, there is considerable pressure upon us to go with the flow of peer pressure, even on the occasions when it is not being applied heavily.

We may not want to pay the price of being left out of the gang, or the mockery. Yet the question for us as Christians is about remembering the price Jesus paid for us. Often he is asking us to pay a much lower price than he did. Yes, for some Christians it will end up being the same terrible cost – the price of a life – but in the ordinary turns of daily life, can we not, with the help of the Holy Spirit, choose to follow him when it is to our disadvantage, and be honoured that he has asked us to do that for him?

Finally, let’s turn to the third conversation:

Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Verses 61-62)

Again, to our ears, Jesus sounds like he’s being unreasonable. Surely you should be able to say goodbye before venturing off, who knows where, following him? It made me think about someone I know whose brother is giving up his job, house and possessions to become a Franciscan monk. He has taken great trouble to spend time with his relatives and friends before entering the monastery permanently. Would Jesus condemn him for half-heartedness?

But rather than ‘say farewell to those at my home’, a better translation might be ‘take my leave of those at my home’. The distinction is important. When you take your leave of someone, you ask their permission for you to go. Even today in the Middle East, middle-aged professionals ask their parents’ permission to make major life decisions. The man in the story here is not saying, “Let me just nip home to say goodbye before I join you,” he is saying, “I will follow you – if my parents give me permission!”

In response to this, Jesus claims higher authority than the man’s parents. He responds with the image of ploughing a field. To use a first century Palestinian plough required full concentration as you co-ordinated the use of hands and eyes. Failing to give the task your undivided attention led to crooked furrows, and depending on what part of the process you were involved in, you could ruin the drainage of water or the covering of the seed.

What does this say to us? Parental authority is much diminished in our culture. However, there are plenty of other replacements. Perhaps most notable is the idea that I am my own highest authority. What I want, goes. But if we exalt ourselves, Jesus says, you can only come with me if you accept that I have supreme authority. Whatever we elevate to the highest position in our lives has to bow before Jesus. Nothing else is true discipleship.

Why? Because Jesus wants our undivided attention. Tilling the soil of God’s kingdom involves concentrated effort, even if we do undertake it in the power of the Holy Spirit. One of the unfortunate misunderstandings in our society is the idea that the church is a ‘voluntary society’. People can opt in or opt out, depending on their mood and whether or not they like what’s going on. As I’ve often observed, if there are religious advertisements in a local newspaper, they will usually be found in the leisure section.

Jesus is here to tell us that following him is not a leisure activity. The illustration I often use of this is one I borrowed from the late John Wimber. In one of his books, he described the expectations of some Christians as like turning up at the docks to board a ship. Arriving at the quayside expecting to find a luxury cruise liner, we discover instead that rather than boarding a sleek, white boat, ours is gun-metal grey. It is a battleship.

You may or may not like the military image, but the point is clear. Signing up with Jesus is not about taking up a hobby or joining a club – even if some churchgoers do treat church as a club. We have committed ourselves unreservedly to the cause of building for his kingdom. That means unswerving dedication, not opting in and out as the mood suits us. It means we don’t accept our society’s assessment of where true authority lies – because our fundamental allegiance is to Jesus. It means we will resist peer pressure, even if that means reduced popularity, or even rejection.

Why? Jesus, whom we follow, ‘set his face to go to Jerusalem’ (verse 51), where he knew what he would face. His total dedication to the will of the Father, even at the cost of ultimate human rejection – the Cross – is our model. In normal terms, it may not be an attractive model. But it is the way God extends the kingdom. May the Holy Spirit help us when we need to walk the narrow way.

[i] What follows is based on Kenneth Bailey, Through Peasant Eyes, pp22-32.

Some Half-Baked Journalism About The Bethlehem Star And Jesus’ Date Of Birth

(Yes, I’m ditching the one-word post titles.)

There’s usually a story like this every December. This year, the Daily Telegraph reports that Australian astronomer Dave Reneke has calculated that Jesus was born on 17th June, 2 BC. I expect the science is all right, but what I do know is that the integration with the Bible – much vaunted in the article – is flawed.

Like Reneke, I don’t see this as undermining faith, but as boosting it – if only the theological side were right. It has long been suggested that the star the Magi followed was some kind of planetary conjunction, so to posit such an event between Venus and Jupiter in the night skies over Palestine at around the right time is nothing new.

My problem comes in making an assumption about dating Jesus’ birth from it. The article claims (without substantiation) that the best guesses for Jesus’ birth are in the 3 BC to 1 AD region. This surprised me, but perhaps scholarship has moved on from what I previously learnt, where a date nearer 6 BC was thought likely. However, the real fault is using the appearance of the star as a marker for the actual birth.

Why? Well, it’s interesting that Mr Reneke claims to work from Matthew’s Gospel, which tells the story of the Magi. He wrongly assumes they arrive (just like children’s nativity plays) at the time of the birth, along with the shepherds. You’ve seen the tableaux of a crowded manger scene, you know what I mean.

However, there is clear evidence in Matthew 2 that the Magi arrive later. First of all, in the Greek Jesus is no longer described as a baby but as a young child – a toddler, perhaps. Moreover, when Herod the Great hears about the birth of a new ‘King of the Jews’, his psychopathic order is to slaughter all boys in Bethlehem under the age of two. It fits with the thought that Jesus had not been born in the immediately preceding time to the Magi’s arrival.

Others add further evidence that I don’t find convincing. They point out that in Matthew, Jesus, Mary and Joseph are now living in a house, not at the back of an inn, as when he was born, according to Luke. This implies they have moved on to a home, probably belonging to one of Joseph’s relatives. This evidence is unnecessary and also flawed. As Kenneth Bailey pointed out many years ago, Luke doesn’t use the Greek word for ‘inn’ in chapter 2 of his Gospel – he uses that later, when he recounts the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The word in chapter 2 isn’t the normal one for ‘house’ either, but it is more likely meant to be that, given the importance of hospitality in the culture. It would have been unthinkable for Joseph’s family not to put up him and his pregnant wife, even if it meant sharing the space with the family animals. It then appears from Matthew 2 that they remain there for a considerable season after the birth, rather than moving in with the relatives from a commercial inn. I suspect the KJV translators were too enamoured with the coaching inns of their day, and it became a traditional English translation.

But either way, I am convinced Jesus was more like a toddler by the time the Magi arrived. Dave Reneke may put the conjunction at 17 June 2 BC, but that theologically presupposes a birth a year or two earlier than that. If the science is right, then my old 6 BC date is out of the window – although one would need to bear in mind what we know about the regularity of the Roman taxation census every fourteen years, so I’m not ready to ditch it completely yet.

The real problem with the findings and the reporting of the research is a failure of dialogue between science and theology. The last thing I would do is question Reneke’s credibility as an astronomer, and I have no problem whatsoever with his motives. However, a little conversation with a New Testament scholar would have got us away from sensational claims about finding Jesus’ date of birth. We know it wasn’t 25th December, but Reneke’s research brings us no nearer knowing the actual date.

Worse than this – and this is not Reneke’s fault – is a glaring example of dumbing-down in the Telegraph. It’s a newspaper that usually rails against such attitudes, but the article contains a terrible example of it. Paragraph 3 reads:

If the team is correct, it would mean Jesus was a Gemini, not a Capricorn as previously believed.

Oh, spare me. Not only does this pander to contemporary credulity about astrology, it also risks the popular idiocy of muddling astronomy and astrology. My father reads the Telegraph. He is a member of the British Astronomical Association. If he has seen this piece, he will suddenly find himself in need of medication for hypertension.