‘We Know More Than Our Pastors’. That was the title of an article written ten years ago by a former pastor who argued that Christian participants in the emerging world of social media on the Internet (at that time, largely confined to blogging) had a greater reach and a greater access to knowledge than the typical church minister.
Actually, ‘we know more than our pastors’ isn’t a recent phenomenon. There have been many occasions in church history when new vision has come not from the centre but the margins of the Christian community.
And we have one such example in today’s reading. We have spent the last few weeks caught up in the apostle Peter’s agonies over taking the Gospel beyond the Jewish community to Cornelius the Gentile Roman centurion. But today we discover that some anonymous disciples had shared the Good News of Jesus with Gentiles before he had!
Now those who had been scattered by the persecution that broke out when Stephen was killed travelled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, spreading the word only among Jews. 20 Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus.21 The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord. (Verses 19-21, italics mine)
Stephen is killed in chapter seven, and the persecution breaks out in chapter eight – all before Peter is challenged to visit Cornelius. So-called ‘ordinary Christians’ are miles ahead of the apostle here.
When that happens in our religious institutions today, the common instinct is to come up with a set of rules, many of which are about prohibitions to make sure such messy and disorderly behaviour doesn’t occur again. But thankfully, the reaction of the early church was positive. It recognised a work of God. And rather than trap people with regulations and tie them up with red tape, the dominant tone of our reading is encouragement.
And encouragement is a vital quality when it comes to Christian mission. Which makes this an appropriate reading for a service I am sharing with the church Mission Team. I think it’s fair to say that most of what our Mission Team doesn’t so much involve us in direct mission, but in encouraging others who are involved in mission. That isn’t to say we should use that as a cover for not engaging in mission ourselves, but it is to say we need to draw attention to the importance of encouragement in the sustaining of Christian mission.
So if we’re talking about encouragement, then step forward Barnabas, whose name means ‘Son of encouragement’, and who has lived up to his name earlier in Acts. How does encouragement work in relation to Christian mission in this passage? Here are three ways:
Firstly, encouragement is needed in the teaching of new disciples:
News of this reached the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch.23 When he arrived and saw what the grace of God had done, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. 24 He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord. (Verses 22-24)
The missionary task of bringing people to faith by evangelism isn’t enough. Any church that is serious about mission will also be serious about teaching the faith to the congregation, old and new. It won’t usually be in some detached, theoretical, academic style. It will be teaching with a specific purpose. And that purpose is one of discipleship. It will be teaching how to live in the ways of Jesus. After all, that’s how Barnabas encouraged the people here: he ‘encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts’ (verse 23). Christian teaching that merely tickles an intellectual fancy is a waste of time. (Which is not to deny that we should think hard about our faith.)
After all, what are we about as a church if we are not about making new disciples of Jesus Christ and growing in our discipleship? It’s why the teaching ministry is so vital – whether from the pulpit, in the home group, or one on one as mature individual Christians teach newer Christians how to walk closely with Christ. This teaching ministry takes precedence over institutional requirements, administration, socialising, and all sorts of other areas. If our church is doing too many things to squeeze this in, then we need to look at our priorities.
Furthermore, it needs to be a priority among ordinary Christians. Each one of us ought to be able to answer questions such as these: what have I done in the last twelve months in order to be more like Jesus? How have I changed? (Granted, that one might better be answered by those who know us well.) What am I doing in my life right now that is an intentional step in learning the way of Christ? If this is so important and I am not doing it, what will I give up in order to focus on being more Christ-like? What trade-off will I accept? What sacrifice will I make? Have I filled my mind with too much trivia?
In terms of the wider mission of God’s church, this is why we release church leaders such as ministers to go to areas of the country and of the world where there are new disciples of Jesus. Help is needed to establish new converts in the faith. It’s something we can support when we give to World Mission or Mission In Britain, and when we pray for it.
Secondly, encouragement is needed in the development of new leaders.
Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, 26 and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch. (Verses 25-26)
Saul still isn’t Paul. He may have begun preaching soon after his conversion, but he isn’t the hotshot apostle yet. He is someone of whom the early church leaders were understandably suspicious. But just as Barnabas vouched for him in the early days, now he encourages him again by giving him a chance to spread his wings and develop as a leader in God’s mission. Barnabas sees that potential in Saul, and recruits him. It looks like he is spot on, given both the year that the two men spend teaching in Antioch, and of course subsequent history when Saul became Paul.
The work develops – don’t just assume it’s a note of historical detail when Luke says, ‘The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch’ (verse 26). They take on a new name and a new identity. This is probably a group of Jesus followers who are a mixture of both Jews and Gentiles – remember that those who came to share the Gospel there spoke not ‘to Greeks’ but ‘to Greeks also’ (verse 20, italics mine). No longer is this merely a Jewish sect, but a group of Jews and Gentiles who, though previously enemies, have been reconciled to God and to one another through Jesus Christ. As such, they are a new entity, and they take on a new identity with a new name: ‘Christians’.
It is a rôle of Christian leaders to help disciples grow into their new identity as Christ’s followers. It is a calling, if you will, to help people ‘become who they are’ – that is, to become who they are in Christ. Jesus Christ gives us a new identity when we turn our lives over to him. We become children of God, and this is not only a new individual identity, it is also a new identity as a member of God’s pilgrim people.
It is not a rôle of Christian leaders to baptise every new and existing idea in the congregation. It is not part of the job description to turn up like Young Mister Grace in ‘Are You Being Served?’ saying, “You’ve all done very well” at any and every social function. It is not the rôle of church leaders to be managers of a building, but leaders of a movement. Nor is it the place of Christian leaders to be the ones who do all the witnessing and evangelising, as if that lets everyone else off the hook. It doesn’t.
What, then, are the practical implications for church members here? Allow (and encourage!) your leaders to concentrate on the essential tasks of leading God’s people. Let them have resources to develop themselves and so develop others – time for reading, time to go to training courses and conferences, time for sabbaticals and retreats. Support fund-raising for world mission so that leaders can be nurtured and supplied in developing churches around the globe. Support the Methodist Fund for Training in this country to provide good quality training for ministers, Local Preachers and others.
And most of all, pray for those in leadership. During my ministry, I have known of four people who have committed to pray for me every day. There may well be more than the four who have privately identified themselves to me over the years. However, two of them are now dead. Could you take it on board to pray regularly for people you know in Christian leadership? I can’t tell you what a morale-booster it is to hear that people are doing this for you.
Thirdly and finally, we move from Barnabas to Agabus. The third and final encouragement is the provision for the suffering.
During this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28 One of them, named Agabus, stood up and through the Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. (This happened during the reign of Claudius.) 29 The disciples, as each one was able, decided to provide help for the brothers and sisters living in Judea. 30 This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul. (Verses 27-30)
Agabus will turn up in one more incident later in Acts. He will have another prophetic message, when he warns Paul that suffering and imprisonment is awaiting him if he takes a particular proposed decision. He is proved right, and he is shown to be right here. We have other New Testament references to a collection for those suffering the effects of a famine, especially those in Judea. Paul’s teaching on Christian giving in 2 Corinthians 9 has this particular tragedy as its backdrop.
Of course, giving to disaster relief is one expression of Christian mission with which we are sadly too familiar. We have just had plates out in recent weeks for Christian Aid’s Iraq appeal. We are used to televised appeals from the Disasters Emergency Committee. But millions of others do the same, who do not claim the name of Christ, so what could be explicitly Christian about our acts of giving for the relief of suffering?
I guess there has to be a Christian dimension to the giving and a Christian dimension to the people using the gift. The Christian dimension to the giving is perhaps something we shall only know in our hearts. It is the concern to bring things in this world in alignment with heaven – ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven’.
The Christian dimension expressed by the people using the gift means, I think, that we are talking about giving to organisations that act in the name of Christ. It may be those that simply are Christians who engage in disaster relief (and, perhaps, some political campaigning), such as Christian Aid. To do so may bring a visible sign of encouragement to the downtrodden.
Or it may be an organisation that sees all Christian mission as a whole, and integrates disaster relief with uniting the churches in a particular area of the world and proclaiming a gospel message that calls people there to find hope in Jesus Christ and follow him. Here I am thinking of outfits such as TEAR Fund. And what better word of encouragement is there to someone than Christ? We just need to remember the words of William Booth: ‘If you want to give a tract to a hungry man, make sure it is the wrapping on a sandwich.’
So – in conclusion, let’s go back to the beginning. I began with that slogan, ‘We know better than our pastors.’ I rather feel that what I have presented to you this morning constitutes only some very basic ideas about the place of encouragement in the development of Christian mission. Giving, supporting, encouraging, praying – there is nothing new or unusual in the applications I have suggested.
Now if that’s the case, I think you can prove the virtue of ‘We know better than our pastors.’ Because you can do all of these things. And with baptised imaginations, you can dream, think, and do so much more. We haven’t even mentioned prayer, nor even the possibility of answering a call to mission ourselves.
So why not get dreaming? After all, you know more than me.
Again, blog posting has been light recently. One reason is alluded to in this week’s sermon. See the comments early on about my mother’s health, and you will know where most of my spare time has gone. What blogging time I have had has gone on my even more overtly new ‘work’ blog that I mentioned in my last post, Thinking About Mission. Please do follow that blog, too. Each day there is a short, punchy discussion starter post on an aspect of Christian mission.
But now, to this Sunday’s sermon, and an attempt to preach on one of the most difficult passages in the whole Bible.
Today’s sermon could be one of those in which a foolish minister rushes in where angelic preachers fear to tread. There has been a lively debate on the UK Methodists page of Facebook about the fact that Psalm 137 is set in this week’s Lectionary. What do we do with passages like this? I expected some shock at your hearing this psalm right the way through to the death wish expressed for Babylonian babies.
A number of us agreed that we have to think about and discuss these readings, because we know people are troubled by them. It was a matter of debate whether such thinking should be done out loud in a Sunday sermon or in a home group. Some people thought it would be better discussed informally in a fellowship group rather than raised in a sermon, and I’m sure there is merit in that thought. There would be more opportunity to thrash out issues that way.
But in the end, I decided that this kind of text can’t be ignored in Sunday worship, either. For one thing, this is a psalm – it is a piece of worship material. It appeared in Israel’s hymn book. And just because it’s worship doesn’t mean it can be prettied up with a bouncy tune, such as in the song ‘Rivers of Babylon’:
Further, I think there is a pastoral word to be said in relation to where Psalm 137 sits in relation to the rest of the Bible that is important for us all to hear.
Here is an illustration to help us see a way of understanding why such a psalm, with its frightening calls for vengeance, has a place in Holy Writ. My mother was discharged from hospital on Friday after nearly eight weeks. She had fallen and fractured her hip, and this was followed by a series of other unrelated mishaps that kept her in for longer. But come home she did, and Friday was an excellent day for that, because on that day she and Dad celebrated their fifty-fifth wedding anniversary.
However, Mum – at the age of eighty-three – is inevitably frail after these traumas, and Dad – who was eighty-six on Tuesday – is no longer strong enough to look after her without help. So it was agreed that she would come home with a care package. However, the care agency couldn’t start until tomorrow, so there had to be an emergency provision for the weekend. Originally that was going to be supplied by the hospital’s rapid response team, but in the end various of us in the family covered the necessary duties in the short term.
I want to say that Psalm 137 is a short term, rapid response, emergency reaction to the crisis that Israel finds herself in. Let’s remind ourselves what has happened. For years, prophets such as Jeremiah have warned the people of God that their sin will render them liable to God’s judgement. Always, they have thought themselves to be a special case, possessing a ‘Get out of jail free’ card that would prevent them suffering the consequences that the so-called doom merchants were predicting. But now it has come true. King Nebuchadnezzar’s armies have marched on Jerusalem and conquered God’s people. Many are murdered, a large number have been taken captive into Babylon itself, including Israel’s own Gifted and Talented stream (among whom we shall later find the likes of Daniel and his friends). Only a small number have been left at home, mostly those the triumphant army thought incapable of making a worthwhile contribution to Babylonian society.
This is a trauma of the highest magnitude for the chosen race. They had thought that Jerusalem was inviolable – but it wasn’t. They had assumed that God would not allow harm to come to his holy temple – but he did. Their faith, based so strongly on the idea of occupying the land promised to them, has been ripped to shreds.
And perhaps we have some similarities to them, at least on the metaphorical level. We Christians are no longer at the centre of our society. We live in some kind of exile, where our convictions are increasingly marginalised and ridiculed. For those who have grown up familiar with a culture in which the church and her leaders were respected, this is an alien land, our Babylon. We might just as easily cry out to God about this as we might about other things.
So what do you do when such a terrible event happens to you? Many of us scream out in pain, and perhaps even in anger, lashing out. That is certainly what the psalmist does here. As he and his people weep in Babylon and vow never to forget Jerusalem, they turn their frustrations upon their captors and call for violent revenge.
Now, at that point, you might think, “That’s all very well, it goes some way to explaining why the tribes of Judah were feeling this way, but it doesn’t explain why a text like this in the Scriptures. After all, are we not called to forgive and to love our enemies?”
Well, indeed we are, and that is one of the biggest problems with this psalm. It doesn’t seem to fit with the teaching of Jesus, does it? And if it stands alone, it would be very dangerous.
Let me suggest to you, though, that you have to feel anger before you can forgive. We can be so keen in the church to ensure that people forgive and do not become bitter that we actually abuse people who have already been hurt. If we aren’t careful and jump in immediately to ask someone who has been wronged, “Did you forgive the person who did this to you?” they will not in fact forgive, they will merely suppress their anger. And suppressed anger tends to come out again at a later date, like a Jack in the Box, in harmful forms. Sometimes it comes as rage, sometimes it mutates into depression.
For that reason, I was once horrified to hear the story of a church member who had been raped. People jumped in and asked the woman, “Have you forgiven your attacker?” without giving her permission to feel her pain and anger about the evil that had been done to her.
We rush into all sorts of things in our instant society, and in the church we seem to have included forgiveness among the things that we have powdered down and can quickly reconstitute with boiling water. But we need to allow time. I recently witnessed an unfortunate misunderstanding which I won’t spell out here, where someone was accidentally let down by another church member, and the results were distressing. A week later, the person who had been hurt was still mad at the person who had failed her, and was overheard to say, “I don’t feel very forgiving.” A well intentioned member of the congregation asked me if I would intervene, and I said I wouldn’t immediately. It needed another week to see whether this was a case of someone still feeling the pain or whether it truly was a case of nursing a grudge. Should it prove to be the latter, I said, then I would certainly speak with the person in question. But we have to give these things time.
Psalm 137, then, reminds us by even the expression of anger in an ancient hymn, that we need to feel the hurt. Not only that, it gives us permission to express that pain to God himself. If we are not careful, we make worship purely into a celebration (which in many respects it is – of course!) and nothing else. But Scriptures such as this show us that a fuller understanding of worship includes such things as bringing our laments as well as our songs of praise to God.
My observation is that some of us in the church think that we have to be prim and proper with God, being careful to say the right things before him as if he cannot cope with the heat of our tears and the fire of our fury. We think that unless we come to him full of faith and in the right spirit, he will get one of his specially prepared thunderbolts out of the cupboard and hurl it at us.
But scriptures like this tell us otherwise, just as our Gospel reading in which Jesus quotes another psalm on the Cross – Psalm 22 – does, is that God is big enough to cope with us coming to him in anguish. Somebody once said that they felt like they were beating their fists against God, and this felt so wrong, but they came to understand that they were – so to speak – beating their fists against God’s chest, but that he was holding them in his arms as they did so. Could God be better than we think he is? Could it be that the One of whom we say this most basic statement – ‘God is love’ – truly is like a Father to his children, holding them in their suffering and wiping their tears from their eyes?
And because it is a God of love in whom we believe, we can eventually come through the lashing out to the point of forgiveness. Just as we listened to Jesus crying out, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” so we remember that the same Jesus also said, “Father forgive them, they do not know what they are doing.” We need to feel the anger, but if we choose to make anger our permanent abode, then we shall degenerate into bitterness, with all the results that brings, both in the shrinking of the spiritual life because it gives us antipathy towards Jesus, and also in the physical harm that bitterness can cause to our mortal bodies.
It is worth us remembering that in the New Testament, the word translated into English as ‘to forgive’ means ‘to set free’. When we forgive somebody, we set them free. It is no accident that Jesus told parables about forgiveness in which he talked about the forgiveness of financial debts. People are set free from spiritual debt by forgiveness. Until we forgive, do we not feel like the evildoer owes us something?
But there is another side to the setting free that comes in forgiveness. It is not only the offender who is set free: the injured party is also liberated. When we choose not merely to feel our anger but to stay with it permanently, the bitterness that takes over our lives becomes like chains wrapped around us. When we forgive, not only do we set the wrongdoer free of any debt to us, we also find that the chains of resentment and animosity fall away from us.
And that’s why I said that Psalm 137 and passages like it take their place in the Scriptures as the rapid response to the sorrows and wrongs that are inflicted upon us. We need that stage, but we cannot stay there. The long term care package is forgiveness.
The pastor of a Christian Science church was talking to a member of his congregation. ‘And how is your husband today?’
‘I’m afraid he’s very ill.’
‘No, no,’ corrected the pastor, you really shouldn’t say that – you should say that he’s under the impression that he’s very ill.’
The woman nodded meekly. ‘Yes, pastor, I’ll remember next time.’
A few weeks later, the pastor saw her again.
‘And how is your husband at the moment?’
‘Well, pastor,’ she replied, ‘he’s under the impression that he’s dead.’
It isn’t long in life before a bright beginning is touched by suffering. A child is born, and discovers pain. Even Prince George will find that out. A wedding and honeymoon is followed by the reality of each partner’s frailties. Someone is converted to Christ, but then learns it isn’t a rose garden.
Meanwhile, we have people who want to play pretend about suffering. They want to act as if it doesn’t exist, or they demand it be magically removed from existence in an instant. Maybe they even try to get round it in a religious way by saying that the body doesn’t matter, it is only a shell for the real person. That isn’t a view you can take while still believing in the New Testament, with its strong emphasis on the resurrection of the body.
The first thing our Psalm of Ascent this week does is be frank about the reality of suffering.
Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord;
2 Lord, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive
to my cry for mercy. (Verses 1-2)
The Scriptures do not get into philosophical discussions about the existence of suffering and belief in a good and powerful God. They simply enter the story of suffering, and describe that narrative. Our Psalmist here is in deep suffering – he cries ‘out of the depths’. While there are great accounts of deliverance from suffering in the Bible – the Exodus, the healing miracles, and so on – we are not presented with faith as a ‘Get out of jail free’ card. Faith enters human suffering.
And so, before anything else, simplistic and obvious as it might sound to some of us, we need to embrace the reality of suffering and stop playing games. Henri Nouwen wrote,
Many people suffer because of the false suppositions on which they have based their lives. That supposition is that there should be no fear or loneliness, no confusion or doubt. But these sufferings can only be dealt with creatively when they are understood as wounds integral to our human condition. Therefore ministry is a very confronting service. it does not allow people to live with illusions of immortality and wholeness. It keeps reminding others that they are mortal and broken, but also that with the recognition of this condition, liberation starts.
Are there areas where any of us is pretending? Are there times when – much as we believe that God heals – he is in truth going to take us the long route to wholeness? We like to believe that if God works a miracle it will be a great testimony, and it certainly can be. However, are there times when we say that, but what we really want is a short cut out of our personal difficulties rather than the testimony? Could it be that God will also bring glory to his name when he takes us on what seem to be detours rather than the direct route?
For me, that was true in one particular instance. In my first year at theological college, I suffered a collapsed lung. My lung had previously collapsed three times a few years earlier, and I had only avoided surgery then when the consultant was inconveniently on holiday. But on the weekend when it happened to me at college, the father of a student friend was visiting. My friend’s Dad was known for having a healing ministry. Surely he would pray for me and I would be healed. But he had left to go home a few minutes before I got back from A and E. This time, I had to have the operation. It meant a week and a half in hospital, a month’s convalescence at home, and three months before I was back to anything like full strength. But God used that experience so that when I visit people in hospital, I have a way of identifying with them and a reason to bring them a word of hope.
That leads to the second piece of frankness in the Psalm: we hear about the reality of God. The Lord is addressed throughout the Psalm. The Psalmist cries out to him (verses 1-2); he acknowledges and relies on the Lord’s mercy and forgiveness (verses 3-4); and the Lord is the reason to wait and hope (verses 5-8).
God is there. God is present. God is even in the depths. The Old Testament describes a God who hears his people’s suffering, even if he does not always act on it as quickly as his people would desire him to do. But the cry of suffering reaches him, and he liberates his enslaved people from Israel. He brings them back from exile in Babylon.
Not only that, the same Old Testament begins to describe God as being involved in his people’s suffering, even functioning as some kind of representative or substitute. I really don’t think you can avoid reading passages such as the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 52:13-53:12 that way.
What the Old Testament doesn’t have, but which we have, is the filling out of that belief in Jesus, who came as a servant, lived among the poor and suffered death on a Cross.
Ours, then, is the God of the depths – even the depths of Hades. In Christ God stands with us in suffering and he stands for us in suffering. And in doing so, he shows supremely the divine answer to the Psalmist’s cry for mercy and the forgiveness of sins. The merciful God is the One who enters the depths of human suffering, who drinks the cup to its dregs.
As Eugene Peterson puts it,
God makes a difference. God acts positively toward his people. God is not indifferent. He is not rejecting. He is not ambivalent or dilatory. He does not act arbitrarily in fits and starts. He is not stingy, providing only for bare survival.
He goes on to say,
And this, of course, is why we are able to face, acknowledge, accept and live through suffering, for we know that it can never be ultimate, it can never constitute the bottom line. God is at the foundation and God is at the boundaries. God seeks the hurt, maimed, wandering and lost. God woos the rebellious and confused. … Because of the forgiveness we have a place to stand. We stand in confident awe before God, not in terrorized despair.
Suffering is awful, but it is not the final word. God has seen to that in Christ. At the Cross and the Empty Tomb we find that God has the last word. God has not stayed remote and sent us a philosophical answer to our suffering. Instead, he has got his hands dirty. He has come alongside us, and also in his suffering he has accomplished what we cannot do for ourselves due to our sin. He has provided for forgiveness and so we can serve him with reverence (verse 4), or ‘stand in confident awe before [him]’, as Peterson put it.
Now this leads us on to the third and final piece of honest faith in the face of suffering that the Psalmist models for us, and that is the reality of waiting. Hear how he uses words about watching, waiting and hoping:
I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits,
and in his word I put my hope.
6 I wait for the Lord
more than watchmen wait for the morning,
more than watchmen wait for the morning.
7 Israel, put your hope in the Lord,
for with the Lord is unfailing love
and with him is full redemption.
8 He himself will redeem Israel
from all their sins. (Verses 5-8)
In the Old Testament, the words ‘waiting’ and ‘hoping’ are very close. There are passages where in one Bible translation the English word used may be ‘wait’ and in another English Bible it may be ‘hope’. You could say that the faithful disciple of Old Testament days waited in hope. Certainly when we face suffering we often need to wait, and our waiting will have meaning and significance if we can wait with hope. That is what we do as New Testament Christians for sure, living in some respects between the suffering of Good Friday and the hope of Easter Day.
But what do we do while we are waiting hopefully? The Psalmist suggests we apply for the job of nightwatchman:
I wait for the Lord
more than watchmen wait for the morning,
more than watchmen wait for the morning. (Verse 6)
In my home church was a gentle, devout Jamaican Christian called Clarence. He was employed as a security guard. Anyone less likely to tour a building site at night accompanied by fierce Rottweilers you would find it hard to imagine. But for most of the time, he told us, he was able to sit in the site office. Each night he would take his Bible and his Moody and Sankey hymn book, and study his faith. He may have been the most unlikely candidate for the job, and heaven knows how he got it, but he used his waiting time fruitfully and every morning, the dawn came.
So it is for us. We are on the night watch in our faith as we wait for God who is with us in our suffering to act on our behalf. What we think should not take him a trice is something he chooses for reasons only he can see to take longer about resolving. Meanwhile, in the darkness we wait.
But … we wait knowing that the dawn is coming. Hence we wait in hope. And during that waiting, it would be good if we put the time to good use, as Clarence did.
How can we use our waiting time? We too can certainly take advantage of opportunities to deepen our faith, too. We can express our trust, even if at times it is a bemused trust, in the God for whom we are waiting. We can share our hopeful waiting with others who are also struggling, so that we may encourage them. Such people can be found both inside and outside the church.
I’ll give the final word again to Eugene Peterson:
The depths have a bottom; the heights are boundless. Knowing that, we are helped to go ahead and learn the skills of waiting and hoping by which God is given room to work out our salvation and develop our faith while we fix our attention on his ways of grace and salvation.
What did you think when you heard there was to be a reading from Revelation in the service? Many Christians switch off. Revelation is regarded as the book for the weirdoes and extremists. It is full of strange language and has been the basis for all sorts of bizarre beliefs.
But Revelation is a book worth rescuing. It is written in the way it is, because it was addressed to persecuted Christians in the late first century. For them, it made sense to communicate in an unusual style that they understood, and maybe the Roman authorities didn’t. To such Christians, the news that Jesus, crucified by the Roman authorities, had risen from the dead and was reigning, was the very best of good news. Hence Revelation begins with this big vision of the risen Jesus.
What does that do for us? We cannot claim we are being persecuted for our faith, although certain aspects of legislation and public opinion have certainly moved against us, and that is making some Christians nervous, especially as the General Election approaches. It may be that we end up further out on the margins due to our faith, and if it does, this reminder of our risen Lord will sustain us as we seek to follow him.
How does it do that?
Firstly, we have confidence based on who Jesus is. According to John, Jesus is
the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth (verse 5).
Taking those three descriptions in turn, we have each time something to fortify us in our witness if the going gets tough in society for us.
Jesus is ‘the faithful witness’. He was faithful in his witness to the kingdom of God. He was faithful, even to the point of death. Remember that the Greek word for ‘witness’ in the New Testament is the one from which we derive our word ‘martyr’. Jesus’ own life, then, showed that faithfully following the call of God is costly. It may even cost our lives, when we peaceably but firmly stand for God’s message. The early Christians, then, who faced persecution, knew they were walking in the way of their Master.
What, then, of when we face opposition? We too are called to be ‘faithful witnesses’. We hold resolutely to our faith, even when it is thought stupid, irrational or even morally wrong. We refuse to compromise. But we do not do so in some militant, aggressive way. We recognise that difficulties may come our way, including from those in political power. Jesus has not withdrawn his call to deny ourselves, take up the cross and follow him. Do you face something tough in your life because of your faith? Jesus is calling you to do what he did, to follow in his footsteps. It should not surprise us as Christians that this happens.
Is that depressing? If it is, that is where the next description of Jesus comes in. He is ‘the firstborn of the dead’. Jesus’ faithful witness led to the Cross. But it didn’t end there. He vacated the tomb when he was raised from the dead. Thus we have hope as faithful witnesses. Our witness may be costly, but evil will not have the final word. God will have that: he will vindicate his people in the resurrection and the judgment. As God raised Jesus from the dead to new life, so he will also raise us. This is our hope.
But not only is Jesus the first to be raised from death, promising the same for us in God’s great future, his title of ‘firstborn’ of the dead indicates his sovereignty. The firstborn of a king inherits the throne. Jesus is not simply back from the dead, he is reigning. So those who think they are in charge and controlling everything are mistaken. Fatally mistaken, you would have to say. The risen Lord has been given ‘all authority in heaven and on earth’ (Matthew 28:18).
And that is what leads to the third ascription: Jesus is ‘the ruler of the kings of the earth’. Who are these pretenders who think they control the destiny of an obscure religious sect two thousand years ago? They are not the ultimate rulers they think they are. They are subject to Jesus himself. If they do not submit to his rule now, they will be brought to justice. Again, it is part of the vindication God promises to his faithful people.
But more than that, it has a particular application for us during this General Election campaign. Whenever a politician proposes policies that go against the will of God or seek to marginalise his church, let us remember who rules over the kings of the earth – Jesus does. Any time one of our political leaders comes over all messianic is a time to remember that Jesus rules over the kings of the earth. Any time they start to promise heaven and earth is also a time to remember that Jesus reigns over the rulers of the earth. And any time we as an electorate look to our politicians and expect them to bring in the kingdom of God is also an occasion to recall that Jesus is king over all creation, and every human ruler must submit to him.
So this is who Jesus is. He is the faithful witness, who shows Christians that fidelity to God may well be costly, even to the point of death. However, he is also the firstborn of the dead, showing the resurrection hope of vindication in which the faithful share. And he is the ruler of the kings of the earth, to whom even the most unjust rulers will have to answer. In these respects, when we know who Jesus is, he truly is our hope when Christians are marginalised, pressurised or even persecuted.
Secondly, we have confidence based on what Jesus does. Now I will admit that a distinction between ‘who Jesus is’ and ‘what Jesus does’ is artificial, because we know who someone is by what they do. But I use the distinction between who Jesus is and what Jesus does in this sermon to match up with the different ways in which our text uses language.
And I say ‘what Jesus does’, because I want to draw attention to a series of verbs in verses 5 and 6. Sorry if this sounds like an English lesson! Here they are:
To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen. (Verses 5b-6)
He loves us, he freed us and he made us. These three assertions also give us confidence in all manner of situations, including the times we are under pressure for our faith.
Firstly, ‘he loves us’. I remember a friend telling me that nothing gave her greater security in life than knowing that her husband wanted to spend the rest of his life with her. Forty or so years later, they are still together, and the husband gave up promotions in his career to stay at an ordinary rank so he could care for his wife, who has suffered persistently from mental illness. But even in her periodically fragile state, the wife knows she is loved, and it does her the power of good.
It’s similar with Jesus. He loves us. He is committed to us. He has no intention of letting us go. His hold on us is stronger than our hold on him. He has loved us with an everlasting love, from creation through the Incarnation, the Cross and Resurrection to the present day and beyond. Whatever we face, he loves us and is with us.
More specifically, the second thing Jesus has done in this reading is that he has ‘freed us’ – ‘freed us from our sins by his blood’. Here is the most decisive example of Jesus’ committed love for us. What we most need is to be freed from our sins, for they bind us. His death on the Cross loosens the chain and we walk free in forgiveness. The Cross is not only the example Jesus sets of being the ‘faithful witness’ I talked about earlier, it is also the greatest sign of God’s love, because it took God substituting himself for us in Christ to break the curse of sin.
This isn’t just someone saying he loves us; this is someone proving it in the most costly of deeds. If that is how we are loved in Christ, we can be all the more sure of God’s commitment to us through thick and thin. We may not always be accepted by the world, but if Jesus does this much for us, he is not about to give up on us when life gets sticky.
The final example John gives of what Jesus does for us is that he has ‘made us’. Made us what? He has ‘made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father’. His love which extends as far as redemption through the Cross does not finish there. We are not simply forgiven and then wait around on a platform with our ticket for heaven. Christ’s redeeming love has a purpose: it is to make us into something now. Whatever the world thinks of us, Jesus has made us with a purpose, to be a kingdom of priests, serving God the Father.
What does that mean? For starters, it means that we all have a special dignity in that Jesus has given us a purpose in life. Rejection and mockery from the world is contrasted by acceptance and purposefulness from God. As a kingdom, we have a royal standing in the eyes of God. Those whom the world despises have immense status in the eyes of God. Whatever the world sometimes thinks of us and however we appear to the world, we are in fact royalty in disguise.
But what is the purpose? We are priests, John says. Each one of us represents people to God in prayer and represents God to people in word and deed. We may bring the needs of anyone to the merciful presence of God. While we might especially do that for our sisters and brothers in Christ, we have the privilege also of doing that for those outside the family of God. Debbie and I offer to pray for people in the school community going through troubles. Lots of Christians do things like that. We don’t simply pray secretly behind people’s backs, though – we ask if we may.
Furthermore, we have a particularly special trick up our sleeves: we can pray for our enemies. When oppressed, the true Christian response is not to lash out. It is to pray for them. It heaps burning coals on them, but does not bind us up as bitterness does when we refuse to forgive.
Then on the other side of the priestly rôle, we represent God to the world. We do this in our words and matching deeds. Whether the world likes us or not, we are priests to them. Whether they accept what we offer is up to them, but divinely appointed priests is what we are. So the world cannot do without us! The purpose Jesus gives us in making us all priests not only gives us personal dignity, it gives us a vital rôle to play in the world.
In conclusion, if we are struggling because we are being pushed to the margins of society, Jesus has good news for us. By what he is and by what he does, he gives us confidence, purpose and dignity. He gives us the inner resources to sustain us in the face of apathy or hostility. No wonder this little passage leads to a doxology from John: ‘to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen’ (verse 6). May his goodness to us lead us also to doxology.
(And another old post.)
“So how’s Debbie?”
I knew the reason for the question. Debbie was seven months pregnant with our first child. The woman who asked barely knew her, so it was a kind question.
“She’s doing well, thank you,” I replied, “there have been odd little things, but really we couldn’t have wished for a better pregnancy. She’s having the best pregnancy of all the mums-to-be in our ante-natal class.”
“Ah well, you know why that is, don’t you?”
I recognised the implication: Debbie’s model pregnancy was because we were Christians. I countered:
“But of the eight couples in the ante-natal class, we aren’t the only Christians. We are one of three Christian couples, and they haven’t been let off as lightly as we have.”
Not only that, but around that time, two other Christian women we knew gave birth to babies with major health problems. One baby had just a one in three chance of survival; the other had a hole in the heart and a bowel disorder. A colostomy bag from birth until she was strong enough for corrective surgery.
So God isn’t just some celestial insurance policy. Believe in God and life will be ‘lovely jubbly’, as Del Boy would say. It’s not like that.
A young child is reputed to have asked its mother, “Mummy, do all fairy-tales end with the words ‘And they all lived happily ever after’?”
“No,” said Mum, “some say, ‘When I became a Christian all my problems disappeared’.”
Christians live between the glory and the flame, the joy and the suffering. God’s reign has begun in Jesus, but there is still plenty of cosmic and human resistance.
I still believe in an ‘optimism of grace’, that God loves to hear and answer our prayers. I don’t know why I don’t always get what I think I need. I simply don’t have all the answers.
But I’ve seen enough of God in Jesus to believe he is trustworthy. And in the meantime I’ll pray and act in the cause of the flame giving way to glory.
Just the other day I came across a spoof news report from two years ago which claimed that the then Home Secretary Jacqui Smith wanted people to use their loyalty cards more, and for stores which didn’t have them to introduce them. This was to combat terrorism, in the light of the Glasgow bombers having bought their supplies from B & Q, which didn’t at the time have a loyalty card. According to the article, she wanted loyalty cards to replace the unpopular idea of identity cards, and for the data collected by loyalty cards to be used in intelligence gathering operations. In the article, these words are put into Jacqui Smith’s mouth:
Identity. It’s a big theme today. Identity cards and identity theft are but two major areas of concern and controversy about the identity of individuals in our society.
And identity is a central theme of our Gospel reading. It’s about the identity of Jesus, and the consequent identity of his disciples. I see this revelation of identity coming in three phases.
Firstly, we have a confession.
If you like reading stories, I wonder what kinds you prefer. Thrillers, romance, epics? If you enjoy whodunits or mysteries, you will be somewhat disappointed by Mark’s Gospel. In the very first verse, he tells us it is the Gospel of Jesus the Christ, the Son of God. Jesus is both the Christ (or Messiah) and the Son of God. At the Cross, the Roman centurion confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, and here, Peter says ‘You are the Messiah’ (verse 29), when Jesus asks the disciples who they think he is, as opposed to the opinions of people they know.
This, then, is one of the high water marks of Mark’s Gospel. Here, after all the build-up, with Jesus’ popularity among ordinary people and the opposition starting to rise from those who feel threatened by him, is a decisive confession by Peter. ‘You are the Messiah.’ Lesser options, like the ones proposed by others, will not do. Jesus is more than ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets’ (verse 28).
And it’s similar today. Lesser confessions will not do. Around the time I first became seriously interested in faith for myself, musicals like Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar had been popular. Both contain elements that are worthy of appreciation by Christians, and it’s interesting to see how people without a clear Christian faith perceive Jesus, but both fall short. Godspell is ambivalent about the Resurrection. Jesus is dead at the end, and you simply have the ambiguous song ‘Long live God.’ And Jesus Christ is more than a superstar. Indeed, his whole approach to life would critique attitudes to stardom and popularity.
Do we run the danger of making a lesser confession in the Church sometimes? Possibly. Might liberal Christians be so enamoured by the social justice implications of Jesus’ teachings that they forget the importance of salvation from our own sins? Might catholic Christians be so entranced by the power of the sacraments in remembering Jesus that they overlook the personal responsibility we have in embracing faith? Might evangelical Christians be so caught up with the personal blessings of salvation that they pass over the social implications of his message and ministry?
These are all over-simplifications, I know, but I hope I make this simple point. Encounter with Jesus leads to a full-blooded confession of him as Messiah. It involves the blessings of forgiveness, new life and salvation for us. It starts with God’s initiative towards us, and we need to respond. And it isn’t merely for our own benefit, but for sake of God’s love for the world. All these things are implied in confessing Jesus as Messiah.
So let’s make sure our confession of Jesus is not a truncated one, not restricted by the vision of the world or by our church tradition. Let’s accept that confessing Jesus as Messiah leads us to a big, inspiring vision of who he is, what he does, who he blesses and what he calls us to do.
Secondly, there is confusion. Early in my ministry, I asked a congregation how they might have imagined their new minister before I arrived. Perhaps I was married with children, with brown eyes and right-handed. At the time, I was single (without children!). My eyes are blue (please don’t say ‘red’ after the service!) and I’ve always been part of that elite minority of people who are left-handed.
Similarly, when I moved from that appointment, I obtained a profile from one circuit I was interested in, only to find buried in it a description of their ideal minister as being married with children. At the time, I was still single (and still without children!). I found it sobering to talk the other morning with our Chair of District about our move from this circuit when she said I would be a more attractive option to some circuits because I was married with kids.
People can imagine all they like what someone is like, only for reality to deal a shock to them. that’s certainly what happened to Peter when Jesus explained that as Messiah he would have to suffer and die (verse 31). You’ll remember that Peter was shocked and began to rebuke Jesus (verse 32), only to earn the response
‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’ (Verse 33)
Peter’s fantasies about the Messiah have to be exploded. No warmongering conqueror of the Roman occupying forces, but the suffering conqueror of occupying sin. We think of other Gospel stories, like James and John getting mad when a village doesn’t respond to the message of Jesus. They ask him whether calling down fire from heaven would be a good response, and Jesus declines their suggestion. No wonder they were nicknamed the Sons of Thunder.
All this is obvious to us with hindsight. We know that Jesus came as a suffering Messiah, not a military general or a freedom fighter. We know the way of the Messiah is the journey to the Cross. So you might think it would be easy for us to live without the confusion of Peter and the first disciples.
I am not so sure. We may know in our heads that the path of Jesus would take him to Calvary, but there are times when we want to call on a warlike Messiah, just like his first followers. Think about how we pray sometimes about evil. We may want God to sort it with a quick fix. We may ask God to zap evildoers, whether they are tyrants inflicting injustice on their people or folk we know who have treated us unfairly or even cruelly.
I wonder whether those are the kinds of prayers to which God answers, ‘No.’ I wonder whether heaven even says, ‘Get behind me, Satan’ to us when we pray like that. I wonder whether the way we need guiding out of our confusion about Jesus is to focus our thoughts and devotions much more solidly on the Cross. Having seen some churches ripped apart by bitterness and lack of forgiveness, I do suspect we have our fair share of Peters and Sons of Thunder in today’s church. But here, especially, and as always, the Cross is what unscrambles our confusion about Jesus.
Thirdly and finally, this passage presents us with a challenge. Many of us may find the world of the prosperity gospel preachers baffling and bizarre. If you’ve caught sight of any on satellite TV, you’ll know what I mean.
But it’s easy to understand their appeal. ‘God wants you rich’ is an attractive message in a materialistic society. ‘Jesus suffered so that you don’t have to’ plays well in a culture that spends all its time trying to avoid suffering. And while we might see through the ‘God wants you rich’ approach, I think a lot of us don’t so much think about suffering as attempt to avoid it.
But think about it we must, because the challenge of Jesus here is that just as he was to go to the Cross, so too his followers would have to face suffering because they are his disciples. ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,’ he says (verse 34).
It’s not that Jesus thinks we should go looking for suffering, but he calls us all to such an abandonment to his ways that it will bring us in the firing line of evil, just as happened to him. If that happens, then self-preservation is not an option. If I want to save my life, I will lose it, but if I surrender it for Jesus and the Gospel I will save it (verse 35).
Now that thought is one we need to apply not only to ourselves as individuals, but also to churches. How often I hear churches in these days of aging and declining congregations talk about how they are going to survive and keep open. ‘How are we going to keep our church going?’ people ask. I suggest that it is a question based on self-preservation rather than a concern for the Gospel. It’s about how we are going to save our lives, rather than a passion for other people to know the love of God in Christ. Maybe churches that talk like that are the very ones that will lose their lives.
Few people like the idea of embracing suffering head on – I certainly don’t! However, we need to remember that Jesus offers us hope with these challenging words: if we are willing to lose our lives for his sake, we will save our lives. That might be in this life, it might be in the life of the world to come. But Jesus keeps his promises. I recently read this story:
Bernard Gilpin (1517-1583) was a preacher who was taken into custody for preaching the gospel during the time when Queen Mary Tudor was persecuting Protestants. He was being taken to London to certain death, but to the amusement of the guards accompanying him he kept saying, ‘Everything is for the best.’ On the way he fell off his horse and was hurt, so they could not travel for a few days. He told the amused guards, ‘I have no doubt that even this painful accident will prove to be a blessing.’ Finally he was able to resume his journey. As they were nearing London, later than expected, they heard the church bells ringing. They asked someone why this was so. They were told, ‘Queen Mary is dead, and there will be no more burning of Protestants.’ Gilpin looked at the guards and said, ‘Ah, you see, it is all for the best.’
So let us embrace the challenge, knowing Jesus will give us life everlasting, whatever we lay down now.
 Ajith Fernando, The Call to Joy and Pain, p36, citing Tom Carter (editor), Spurgeon at his Best, pp323ff.
On a schoolday my alarm is set for 7 am. Working from home and getting the children out of the door for 8:45, that’s fine.
This morning, though, I woke at 4:45. The reason? A fierce and vicious headache. I am occasionally prone to these, although less than I used to be. Sometimes, they are connected to the neck problem I have had since I was eighteen. However, osteopathy is progressively improving that these last few years.
Other times, they are connected to my slightly-higher-than-it-should-be blood pressure. Treatment for that is also reducing the frequency of those headaches, too.
Debbie says I always get these heads after time out with her and the children, but that can’t be the explanation this time, as the school Easter break finished last weekend. How happy we were to get the monkeys back to school. They can squabble there!
I can joke about that, but so many people I encounter live as if every adversity is a punishment. How easily we say, “What have I done to deserve this?” Here are some preliminary sketches of a response.
Biblically, this is more complex thatn simple blame for our actions. There are strands in Scripture connecting moral misdemeanours with consequences. The Deuteronomic literature in the Old Testament is particularly strong on this. God is just: righteousness will be rewarded, sin will be punished. There are lists of blessings for the upright and curses for the unjust.
Yet that is only the beginning of the matter in the Old Testament. As one of my Old Testament tutors, John Bimson, memorably put it in a lecture in 1987, the forty-two chapters of Job are designed to answer one question: is there such a thing as innocent suffering? Their answer is ‘yes’. The book does not explain innocent suffering, it affirms that it exists and is mysterious.
Jesus picks up this thread in John 9, where he encounters a man born blind. His disciples ask who sinned in order that he was born blind, him or his parents. It’s a ridiculous question, as if the man himself could have sinned before birth. Jesus detonates this nonsense and makes the innocent man’s suffering the arena where God will display his glory. There is innocent suffering, yes, says Jesus, but he develops the teaching in Job by saying that God can use it redemptively.
At the same time, what happens about the cry for justice? I have always found Psalm 73 an eloquent expression of this. The author spends the first half of the psalm lamenting the luxury and ease of the wicked, while the righteous suffer. It all changes for the author when he (?) enters the sanctuary and sees things from God’s perspective. There is a long-term picture, where evil people are placed on slippery slopes by God. This is given full eschatological rein in the New Testament, not with the judgment that all seems to be telescoped into ‘this life’ in much of the Old Testament (Daniel 12 excepted?), but with a picture of final and ultimate judgment.
We also need to qualify the idea of innocent suffering. It is true in the sense that much suffering in the world is not a direct consequence of our sin. I don’t think something as mundane as my lousy headache was, nor are earthquakes and famines, despite the tendency of some parts of the Christian world to attribute blame rather quickly. We get caught in the crossfire of a broken world.
Yet in another sense none of us is innocent. All of us face God as sinners in need of grace. We simply need to resist the temptation to make easy linkage between particular suffering and certain sins. For although God will judge sin, and although sometimes, as C S Lewis said, pain is God’s megaphone to a deaf world, the basic truth is that the God of holy love is calling us to find his mercy and grace in Jesus Christ.
Meanwhile, I need to take some personal responsibility in order to avoid feeling rough tomorrow: I’m off to get some supper now before bed!
There is one line from an early school report of mine that I remember: ‘David takes simple things and makes them complicated.’
You may recognise that trait in me even today! And I have to say there is an element of it sneaking into this sermon. The Vision of the Sheep and Goats, as George Beasley-Murray called it (first complication there – it’s not really a parable!) seems to be a piece of teaching by Jesus that is very simple. Do good to the poor and you’ll receive eternal life; ignore the poor and you’ll burn in Hell.
Simple, isn’t it? No.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not about to find the get-out clause that means we don’t have to care for the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the prisoner. But there are questions of detail that readers of this vision have asked. And as we explore them, we fill out more of the meaning.
In particular, we need to think about who ‘the nations’ are that are gathered before Jesus, the Son of Man at the judgment. And we also need to think about who ‘the least of these’ are, who may receive acts of mercy. In considering these two groups in the story, I hope we’ll answer some questions that have troubled sensitive Christians about this passage.
Who are ‘the nations’ in the story? Are they everyone in history? Are they people who have never heard the Gospel, given the surprised ‘Lord, when was it we saw you …?’ responses? Do they represent Christians, or possibly the Jewish people? And why does the question matter?
It matters, because it ties into the question of salvation. Are we saved by good works? What is the relationship between good works and salvation by faith in Christ? Does God have a different way of judging those who have never heard of Jesus – would that explain the surprise?
I’m not going to bore you with academic arguments, except to say that this story comes at the end of the fifth and final block of Jesus’ teaching that we find in Matthew’s Gospel. The first block was the Sermon on the Mount, and that set a theme for teaching about discipleship. All the teaching blocks are about discipleship in one way or another. This final block in chapters 24 and 25 focusses on questions about the end of all things. It fittingly climaxes here with a story about the Last Judgment.
So I do not think we can avoid the idea that Jesus is aiming this passage at those who claim to be his disciples. It fleshes out the statement in the Sermon on the Mount that not everyone who calls him ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of his Father. Obedience to the will of God is central and critical to Christian discipleship.
However, that raises the question I mentioned a moment ago. How does that thought sit with the teaching elsewhere in the New Testament that says we are justified in the sight of God not by our good works but by our faith in Jesus Christ? Doesn’t the sheep and goats story suggest that we are justified by good deeds?
To which I would reply that justification simply isn’t the issue here. The issue is one of identity: what does a disciple look like? And Jesus tells us here that a true disciple looks like someone who has compassion for the poor and needy – not just the deserving poor, but even the undeserving poor, because there is no hint that those in prison are in there for anything other than just reasons.
If we want to know whether we are progressing in discipleship, then the first test is not what dramatic spiritual experiences we have had. Nor is it whether we can muster a high score in a test of biblical and theological knowledge. Disciples are known by their actions for the sake of those in need. In his First Letter, John says that we cannot say the love of God lives in us if we see someone in need and fail to act. Such actions are the signs of true faith.
In that sense, it is connected to the question of justification, even though that is not Jesus’ particular concern here. It is rather like what Paul says in Galatians that faith works by love, and what James says in his Letter, when he maintains that those who are justified by faith show they truly are by their compassionate deeds of mercy.
So whether we care for people such as the hungry, thirsty, strangers, the naked, the sick and the prisoners is a test of true faith. Has God broken our hearts with the things that break his heart? And are we heartbroken enough to do something about it? This is a simple test of disciples’ obedience.
Nevertheless, we can probably extend this in a certain way to another question that is not Jesus’ primary concern in this passage. The question I have in mind is also one I mentioned earlier: how does God judge those who have never heard the Gospel? Some would argue that unless one actually hears the Gospel and responds, one is destined to damnation. It is a view that those who recognise other aspects of God’s character such as his mercy (as well as his judgment) find problematical.
And I suspect that the ‘Lord, when did we see you …?’ questions do give us a glimpse of how God would regard such people. Is it not the case that in Scripture God judges people according to how they respond to whatever light from him they receive? In Genesis, the priest Melchizedek appears out of nowhere and Abraham makes an offering to him – and God approves. Joshua is pleased to use the help of the Jericho prostitute Rahab. Isaiah 45 calls the pagan king Cyrus God’s anointed.
So might it just be that here in Matthew 25, we get an indirect view of how God will treat those who know that mercy to the poor and the weak is what matters? I can’t be certain, but I think it’s possible.
The Least Of These
So the judgment of the nations makes us realise that compassion for the needy, whether they are ‘deserving’ or not, is a valid test of discipleship. It may also show a way in which God judges those who have never heard the Gospel.
But what about those described as ‘the least of these’ in the passage – namely, those who are hungry, thirsty, aliens, naked, sick or prisoners? Who are they? Some would argue they stand for anyone who is poor and in need in the world. Other say this expression ‘the least of these’ is similar to other terms Matthew uses in his Gospel to describe oppressed Christians or Christian missionaries facing hardship. There are some similarities of language, but they are not conclusive. In any case, if God only judges people on how they treat the Church, doesn’t that make God’s people into some narrow-minded sect, where it’s only what we receive (and not others) that counts?
So I suspect that the vulnerable people in need in this story, whom Jesus labels ‘the least of these’, stand for anyone in the world who may be suffering these or similar conditions. God does not simply call us to look after our own. Let’s assume, then, that God gives us a brief that covers the whole world in demonstrating his love to those in need.
But does the passage make an even larger claim than that? Some Christians think so. The first time I ever heard Tony Campolo speak, he told a story about a trip he paid to the Dominican Republic, where he witnessed terrible poverty. As he was about to board his plane back to the USA, a mother tried to give him her child. The child would stand a far better chance in terms of health, education and prospects in the States. Campolo felt he couldn’t. But as his plane accelerated down the runway, he could see the mother and child still there. On the basis of this passage, he had an awful realisation: he hadn’t left a child in the Dominican Republic, he had left Jesus there. ‘Just as you did [not do] to the least of these, you did [not do it] to me.’
Similarly, the great German theologian Jürgen Moltmann has invoked the old Latin phrase ubi Christi, ibi ecclesia: ‘where Christ is, there is the Church’ from this text. He takes it to mean that if whatever we do to the poor we do to Christ, then Christ is present in the poor.
So does this teach that Christ lives in the poor? Does Christ perhaps even live in everyone, rather like the Quaker belief that there is an inner light within all people?
No, I don’t think the passage means that. It is a very heightened metaphorical way of speaking that Jewish people employed. ‘This is my body’ and ‘This is my blood’ would be of the same order. ‘Just as you did to the least of these, it is as if you did it to me’ might be a paraphrase that brings this out.
This, I think, would be more consistent with the rest of Scripture, which sees the Spirit of God as being directly involved in the creation of humankind but who only resides within people when they become disciples of Jesus. The idea that the divine is resident in all people is closer to the mystical beliefs of some New Age philosophies than Christianity. If we all have God within, there’s very little need for salvation.
Nevertheless, we still have incredibly strong reasons for serving all who are in need with the love of Christ. We do not do it simply as robots obeying a command programmed by our Master. We do so, because when he, as the agent of God’s creation, and in partnership with the Holy Spirit, made the human race, he made them ‘in the image of God’. Our lives and relationships are meant to mirror something about God, and God’s love.
There is no greater dignity anything in all creation has than to be made in God’s image. When the image-bearers of God are made to suffer, that is an attempt to obscure the image of God, and it is an affront to the God who made people with such a high status. Affording dignity, respect and healing to those who are suffering is about making the image of God more visible in creation.
So – it’s a clear test of discipleship whether we meet the practical needs of the poor and struggling. It may even be an indicator of how God judges those who have no genuine opportunity to hear the Gospel.
Not only that, we have an imperative to do so, because all people are made in the image of God, however much it has been damaged by sin. That means our call to love and serve those in need cannot just be a paternalistic ‘doing good’ to those who passively, but gratefully, receive all the good things we have to give. It must also mean that in affirming their special dignity we give power back to those who have become powerless.
We may have had to take some complex diversions to arrive at these conclusions. You may well think that school teacher was right to say I am the sort of person who makes simple things complicated. At the end, however, we do come back to some simple challenges. We may not be able to meet all the needs that a satellite television and broadband Internet world flashes before our eyes. But we can ask ourselves this: what time, money and possessions have I given up in order to practise God’s love for the poor?
My status as a disciple requires positive evidence in response to this question. So does my commitment to God’s revelation in Scripture. If I want to be a biblical disciple, then, I will know that I have responded to those who are suffering, and I continue to care for the suffering.
Can I answer yes?
God must be relieved! Read ‘Legal case against God dismissed‘. The plaintiff – a state senator for thirty-eight years! – claimed that since God is omniscient, he knows of the case against him. The judge dismissed the case, because there was no address at which God could be served with the papers. That’s a question of (a) not being able to deliver papers to Heaven; or (b) recognising that although God is omnipresent, he’s hard to pin down!
They forget the problem of how God would defend himself in such a case. Who would be his appointed representatives? How would that work in the USA, with its clear separation of Church and State? In the UK, the Church of England would be at the front of the queue – if they were brave enough! Would any representatives be self-appointed, as some in the religious world are?
Even that begs the question of whether God would want to defend himself. He felt no need to do so in the story of Job. Or, indeed, whether he already has defended himself.
Which brings me to the old story ‘The Long Silence’, which I first found in Bob Moffett’s book ‘Crowdmakers‘ from 1985. I could quote some theodicy arguments from theologians such as Moltmann, but try this instead:
At the end of time, billions of people were scattered on a great plain before God’s throne. Most shrank from the brilliant light before them. But some groups near the front talked heatedly – not with cringing shame but with belligerence.
‘Can God judge us? How can he know about suffering?’ snapped a pert young brunette. She ripped open a sleeve to reveal a tattooed number from a Nazi concentration camp. ‘We endured terror, beatings, torture, death.’
In another group a black boy lowered his collar. ‘What about this?’ he demanded, showing an ugly rope burn: ‘Lynched for no other crime than being black!’
In another crowd was a pregnant schoolgirl with sullen eyes. ‘Why should I suffer?’ she murmured. ‘It wasn’t my fault.’
Far out across the plain were hundreds of such groups. Each had a complaint against God for the eveil and suffering he had permitted in this world. ‘How lucky God was to live in heaven where all was sweetness and light, where there was no weeping or fear, no hunger or hatred! What did God know of all that we had been forced to endure in this world? For God leads a pretty sheltered life,’ they said.
So each of these groups sent forth their leader, chosen because he or she had suffered most. A Jew, a black, a person from Hiroshima, a horribly deformed arthritic an a thalidomide child. In the centre of the plain they consulted with each other. At last they were ready to present their case. It was rather clever.
Before God could be qualified t be their judge, he must endure what they had endured. Their decision was that God should be sentenced to live on earth – as a man.
Let him be born a Jew. Let the legitimacy of his birth be doubted. Give him work so difficult that even his family will think him out of his mind when he tries to do it. Let him be betrayed by his closest friends. Let him face false charges. Be tried by a prejudiced judge. Let him be tortured.
At last let him see what it means to be terribly alone. Then let him die. Let him die so that there can be no doubt that he died. Let there be a whole host of witnesses to verify it. As each leader announced his portion of the sentence loud murmurs of approval went up from the throng of people assembled.
When the last had finished pronouncing sentence there was a long silence.
No one uttered another word. No one moved.
For suddenly all knew that God had already served his sentence.