Wednesday, 24 November 2021

The voice of Jesus

The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep… He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice… Jesus said, I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep… I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me… John 10:2-4, 11, 14

I have a cousin who is a dairy-farmer. His farm is a one-man business, and that can present problems when he needs to take a break for a few days. Certainly, he can get people to stand in for him, but if he does he finds that the milk-yield of the cows is seriously depleted – it’s almost as if they go on strike until he returns.

Which seems strange. Nearly all modern milking, including his, is done by mechanical means, so what difference should it make who actually attaches the equipment to the cows? But apparently it does.

I use the illustration of the farmer and his cows rather than the shepherd and his sheep because… well, I don’t happen to know any sheep-farmers! But if you read John 10 right down to verse 20 you won’t have any problem seeing the connexion. Jesus describes himself as both the shepherd of the sheep and the gate by which they go in and out, but if he had chosen to talk about cows and their farmer the same essential truths would emerge.

What’s it all about? Trust, that’s what! And trust is at the heart of all good and healthy relationships, so it’s about that too. Lacking it, the cows don’t give their milk, and the sheep don’t follow.

The idea of sheep and shepherds is strong in the Old Testament to describe the relationship between the king and his people.

Moses is recorded as praying that God would appoint for his people a leader “who will lead them out and bring them in, so that the Lord’s people will not be like sheep without a shepherd” (Numbers 27:16-17). (Compare that with Matthew 9:36, where the heart of the good shepherd is moved with “compassion” – that is, pity and deep sadness – for the big, swarming crowds “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd”.)

Go to Ezekiel 34 and you find the prophet condemning false leaders as being like worthless shepherds who are only concerned for themselves. And it’s surely no accident that Israel’s greatest king – David - was, in his youth, a shepherd-boy (1 Samuel 16). In adulthood he simply swopped one type of flock for another…

So it’s a very natural parable that Jesus makes use of. What I find particularly striking about it is that four times in verses1-18 Jesus speaks about the shepherd’s voice.

Once when I was a small boy the head-teacher spoke during the assembly about the beauty of human eyes. To prove his point he told us, “There are many things you probably can’t remember today about your mother. But one thing I’m sure of – if I asked you what colour her eyes are, you would answer straight away.”

And I felt bad! Rightly or wrongly, I didn’t have a clue about the colour of my mother’s eyes. I had simply never noticed. Ah, but the sound of her voice – that was a different matter. Eyes, after all, are just there; but a voice is something you relate to. I would be able to pick that out in a roomful of noisy people.

And so it is with the voice of Jesus, our good shepherd; it is more precious to us than we can say.

But… how exactly do we hear it? Not, after all, with our physical ears. There may be times when in fact we don’t seem to hear it at all, perhaps because we have wandered away from him, or because it is crowded out by the many troubles, distractions and noises of our daily lives. But he is always speaking, even when we are not listening, or when our circumstances are such that we cannot hear.

This is where another memory of my early life comes in: as a child in Sunday School, and even more as a young convert, I was encouraged each day to have a “quiet time” of prayer and Bible-reading. That expression has, I think, fallen out of use over the years – people think it sounds a bit twee.

Well, perhaps. But I still think it has a real value, and I am not at all embarrassed to say that even all these years later I still try to make it my practice, and I’m still happy to recommend it to others.

In fact, the modern popularity of “mindfulness”, for us as Christians, is really just a recognition of our need to “be still, and know that God is God” (Psalm 46:10). To find such a time may be difficult in the busyness of our lives. But it needn’t be lengthy; it need only be sincere and determined. A few minutes with a focussed heart and an open Bible can make all the difference.

So… Is it time you set aside a few minutes in your life to be still in the presence of Jesus and to allow him to speak? A few minutes to deepen that relationship I spoke about earlier? Everything good and wholesome springs from that, just as the sheep learns to confidently follow the shepherd and (if you don’t mind me comparing you to a cow) the cow produces rich, foaming, frothy, health-giving milk.

May God bless us all as we learn to listen for the voice of Jesus!

Lord Jesus, please train my ear through scripture and the Holy Spirit so that it becomes attuned to the sound of your voice, and so that I learn the secret of guidance, obedience – and peace. Amen.

Saturday, 20 November 2021

Something to think about

We maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law. Romans 3:28

 

Paul was very clear about “justification by faith”. Here are two statements you might like to think about…

1 We are justified by faith. We are not justified by believing in justification by faith.

2 Justification by faith is not a doctrine you believe in, it’s a discovery you make.

 

And two questions which you might like to discuss with your friends…

1 Are these two statements true?

2 If they are, what follows?

 

I would love to hear what conclusions you come to.

 

Thank you, Father, that my salvation comes purely as a gift of your kindness, mercy and grace. Please bring home to my mind the sheer wonder of that truth, and then help me to express it in my daily living. Amen.

Wednesday, 17 November 2021

Who on earth was Cyrus? (2)

In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfil the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah, the Lord moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to make a proclamation throughout his realm and also to put it in writing: This is what Cyrus king of Persia says… Ezra 1:1-2

Last time we saw how there are events described in the Bible which echo the writings of other ancient documents; and the words inscribed on the “Cyrus Cylinder”, discovered at Babylon in 1879, are a case in point. Reading the closing verses of 2 Chronicles and the opening verses of Ezra alongside the words on the Cylinder (you can find it on the internet) is very illuminating!

The big lesson from all this technical stuff was clear: God is in control of history.

The application to 2021 is obvious: as we look around us at modern day events, grim and even heart-breaking as they sometimes are – as we look around us at Afghanistan and China, at Myanmar and Russia, at Nigeria and America, at Poland and Belarus, at the coronavirus and at global warming – how can we not take a serious and prayerful interest in unfolding events? Isn’t it just a matter of Christ-like compassion to do so?

Christian, read your paper alongside your Bible!

Though we can be confident that the end is sure, we must never be complacent – saying, or perhaps just thinking, “Oh well, God is in control, so we don’t need to bother too much”. No! God’s heart must ache over the sorrows that he sees; shouldn’t ours, then, do the same?

But if that is the main lesson of these passages, there are others too that came to mind…

First, the accuracy of the Bible.

King Cyrus didn’t see the events described on his Cylinder in quite the same way as the Bible writers did; it would have surprised him, for example, to learn that “the Lord” had “moved his heart”! – he, no doubt, saw his enlightened policy as purely his own idea. But the two accounts dovetail together well, and that reminds us that, in general, we can trust the essential accuracy of what the Bible says.

Not that there aren’t difficulties and problems in reconciling some biblical accounts with other, secular, accounts: there certainly are, and plenty. Even Bible scholars who hold most strongly to the inspiration of scripture recognise that not all the “contradictions” can be easily explained. But we can be assured that the Bible is, in essence, trustworthy.

Second, God has all sorts of things up his sleeve.

Who, in those dark days five hundred years before Jesus, would have guessed that the liberty of Israel would come about through an idol-worshipping, pagan king! Yet so it was.

True, the prophets of God knew better. If you turn to Isaiah 44:24-45:13 you find Cyrus (yes, the very same man) described as God’s “shepherd” (44:28) and even as his “anointed” (45:1), a title which belongs ultimately to Jesus the “Messiah” (that’s what “anointed” means). But how far that truth had penetrated through to “ordinary” Israelites we cannot know.

The point is that God is a great springer of surprises, and we never know when he might do something that takes our breath away. Isn’t this one reason why we stubbornly persist in prayer, even when God has seemed for a long time deaf to our cries?

God has all the resources of the universe at his finger-tips, so… let’s pray to him… let’s plead with him… let’s shout at him if that’s how we honestly feel (he knows anyway, doesn’t he?)… let’s ask him to wake up (Psalm 44:23-26)… let’s pester him (Luke 18:1-8)… let’s say with wrestling Jacob “I will not let you go unless you bless me” (Genesis 32:22-32), even if we have to say it through gritted teeth.

Our prayers are never in vain, even the “unanswered” ones.

Leading on from that, a third truth: God often gives his people unexpected friends.

As we saw earlier, Cyrus was a worshipper of a Babylonian god called Marduk. In Isaiah 45:5 God makes clear that he is under no illusions about this (God under illusions? what a crazy thought!): “I am the Lord, and there is no other; apart from me there is no God. I will strengthen you [Cyrus], though you have not acknowledged me…”

As if to say: Cyrus, you may be a died-in-the-wool pagan, but you are going to be my instrument, a friend to my suffering people.

The idea that all the world hates us because we are followers of Jesus is just plain wrong. Didn’t Jesus himself tell his stern and over-zealous disciples - suspicious because someone using Jesus’ name was “not one of us” - that “whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40)?

Yes, all men and women are sinners in the sight of God and subject to his holy judgment. But in this messy world in which we live, with so many greys as well as blacks and whites, God sometimes in his sovereign grace chooses to use those we might naturally think of as enemies. And I can’t think of a better example of that than King Cyrus the Great of Persia. Can you?

Our God is always faithful. But don’t let anyone ever say that he is predictable…!

Loving Father, please help me always to hold on to you, even when you seem far away. And help me, too, never to tie you down to only what my feeble imagination can conceive. Amen.

Saturday, 13 November 2021

Who on earth is Cyrus?

In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfil the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah, the Lord moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to make a proclamation throughout his realm and also to put it in writing: This is what Cyrus king of Persia says… Ezra 1:1-2

In 1879 an Iraqi archaeologist called Hormuzd Rassam found a clay object (broken into several pieces) while he was excavating the ruins of ancient Babylon. Once it had been very carefully put together again it turned out to be rather like a miniature barrel, about 9 inches long, and covered in cuneiform writing – that is, wedge-shaped “letters” picked out in the clay.

It is widely known as the “Cyrus Cylinder”, and is one of the most important discoveries in the history of archaeology (you can see it today in the British Museum in London). It gives details of the achievements of one of the great monarchs of the ancient world.

Cyrus – Cyrus II, or Cyrus the Great, to give him his full titles - was the King of Persia from 559-530BC. In 539 he defeated the mighty Babylonians, thus adding to his growing empire various smaller nations previously ruled by them.

One of those nations was poor little Judah, the kingdom of the Jewish nation, the chosen people of God.

So what? You might think that God’s people were simply transferred from one brutal tyranny to another. But no: King Cyrus had other ideas, policies that today might be called “enlightened”. Here are some of his words taken from the Cylinder, speaking about the various defeated nations now under his control…

I returned to these sacred cities…, the sanctuaries of which have been in ruins for a long time, the images which used to live in them, and I established for them permanent sanctuaries. I also gathered all their former inhabitants and returned them to their homes…

In plain English, I made a decree that our subject peoples should be free to go back to their ancestral homes, to rebuild their sacred buildings, and to re-settle in their homelands.

Cyrus himself worshipped the Babylonian god Marduk, but he insisted that the people returning home should be free to worship their own gods, and indeed he requested that prayer should be offered to those gods for him as emperor.

Who would have predicted such an extraordinary turn of events!

True, the Cyrus Cylinder makes no mention of Judah or the Jewish people, but obviously its decree included them in its scope. Go back to the quotation at the top from Ezra 1 and see exactly what it was that “Cyrus the king of Persia says…”

The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah. Any of his people among you may go up to Jerusalem in Judah and build the temple of the Lord, the God of Israel, the God who is in Jerusalem, and may their God be with them. And in any locality where survivors may now be living, the people are to provide them with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with freewill offerings for the temple of God in Jerusalem.

Incredible! Kings and emperors at that time just didn’t act that way! No, they ruled by force and terror; they kept their subject peoples well under their cruel heel. No wonder the Cyrus Cylinder has been called one of the world’s earliest codes of civil rights.

Whether Cyrus really was as enlightened as these events suggest is questioned by the more sceptical. More likely, they say, he was acting out of self-interest: he was sensible enough to see that the best way to keep his empire united and happy, given all its variety of languages, races and religions, was to allow this kind of liberty.

Well, God alone knows the motivations of the human heart. But what we know is what actually happened – just read on in Ezra and Nehemiah. After the pain and horrors of “the Exile” (vividly brought to life in Psalm 137) the return is now under way!

Yes, the process will be hard, and it will take another 500 years and more, but it will climax in the coming of Israel’s long-predicted King, the descendant of their greatest king, David: it will climax in the coming of Jesus of Nazareth.

Forgive me if history isn’t your thing and if this is all rather boring. But there is a lot of history in the Bible! So at some point anyone who is serious about the Bible needs to get to grips with it. And in this case, surely, it is fascinating to see how Bible history and “secular” history dovetail together.

What can we make of the Cyrus story? The most basic truth is simple: God is the Lord of history. He made the world; he created a special people whose destiny is embedded in the history of the world and therefore intertwined with the destinies of other nations; he loves the world he has made, and its peoples; and his intention is to bring to fulfilment his purposes for the world. And nothing can or will change this.

That much is clear enough.

But I think there is more besides, for which I have no space. So please join me next time…

Great is the darkness that covers the earth,/ Oppression, injustice and pain./ Nations are slipping in hopeless despair,/ Though many have come in your name,/ Watching while sanity dies,/ Touched by the madness and lies./ Come, Lord Jesus, come Lord Jesus,/ Pour out your Spirit, we pray./ Come, Lord Jesus, come, Lord Jesus,/ Pour out your Spirit on us today. Amen.

Gerald Coates and Noel Richards

Tuesday, 9 November 2021

Keep on keeping on!

Tell Archippus: See to it that you complete the ministry you have received in the Lord. Colossians 4:17

Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, to Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker - also to Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier - and to the church that meets in your home: grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Philemon 1-3

I wonder who Archippus was? He crops up in the New Testament just twice, in the verses above. He was clearly a member of the church in the town of Colosse, a church that met in the home of Philemon (remember, there were no such things as special church buildings in those early days). Could it be that Philemon and Apphia were husband and wife, and that Archippus was their son?

More to the point, I wonder why the apostle Paul, who wrote these two short letters, saw fit to send him a particular message: make sure you complete the ministry you have received in the Lord. Had Archippus proved unreliable? Did he have a reputation for starting things but failing to finish them? Or did Paul simply want to give him an encouraging little prod, perhaps because he was still young and short of confidence?

We don’t know. But Paul’s words remind us of a simple fact: it’s all very well to start out on an initiative or a venture, but what matters in the long run is to finish it.

I don’t know much about Sir Francis Drake (1540-1596) except that he was renowned as a sailor. I don’t know how deep or real his faith was (both piracy and slave-trading appear on his cv, which does make one wonder). But he is credited with a prayer in which we ask God to keep us going in any work we undertake for him, remembering that “it is not the beginning, but the continuing of the same, until it be thoroughly finished, that yieldeth the true glory”. I think Paul would have said a loud Amen to that.

I doubt if Paul did have any serious doubts about Archippus; he is happy to describe him as “our fellow-soldier”, after all. But I do wonder if, lurking in the depths of his mind, there might have been a memory of an unhappy event in his evangelistic work – what he saw as the desertion of young John Mark from his first missionary journey.

According to Acts 13, Paul and Barnabas were commissioned by the church in Antioch to head off to preach the gospel, and they took John Mark with them, presumably as a kind of apprentice. They sailed for the island of Cyprus, where their ministry was fruitful (Acts 13:1-12), but no sooner had they sailed on to mainland Europe than “John left them to return to Jerusalem” (Acts 13:13).

Luke, the writer of Acts, records that as a simple fact, with no criticism of John implied. But if you turn on to Acts15:36-41, it is clear that in fact Paul felt seriously angry about John Mark – “because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work” - so much so that it caused a rift with his friend and colleague Barnabas.

From all we know of Paul, he had the very highest standards of commitment for himself, and presumably expected the same from those he worked with. So I can’t help wondering if perhaps he had heard a rumour about Archippus losing a bit of his initial enthusiasm for the ministry he had been given, and - still feeling sore about the John Mark episode - decided to add this little message to try and ensure there would be no repetition with Archippus.

Well, whether that’s right or not, the question for us stands out clearly: am I a determined finisher as well as an enthusiastic starter?

There’s a New Testament word that doesn’t sound very exciting, and which perhaps we tend to gloss over; but it’s quite common, some twenty-five occurrences, and in fact very important. Depending on which  translation you’re using, it’s endurance or perseverance. (My own preferred translation is stickability – though I’m not sure you’ll find that in the dictionary.)

The Bible makes clear that the Christian life is a marathon rather than a sprint (the word occurs in the famous “run the race” passage, Hebrews 12:1-3). And what is true of the Christian life as a whole is particularly true of the various “ministries” to which we are all called.

All this is worth thinking about. But we need to add one other vital thing in case of misunderstanding: it doesn’t mean there is never a time to lay down a responsibility.

Paul urges Archippus to “complete the ministry he has received”. That’s fine. But… how do you know when that time of “completion” has come? It doesn’t necessarily mean death! The faithful children’s worker of twenty years’ standing, for example, may reach a point in their middle years where they are called to pass on the responsibility to others. (A retired pastor once took me aside and asked me to let him know if and when I felt it would be better for him to step down from preaching engagements. He was a wise and humble man.)

We can only make the right decisions by seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

But it’s a moot point which is worse: to give up while you still have a God-given job to do? or to keep stubbornly plugging away long after God has called you to move on to something else?

Lord, help me to get it right! Amen.

Wednesday, 3 November 2021

Books, books, and more books

Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body. Ecclesiastes 12:12

Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. John 8:6

I can’t remember a time in my life when I couldn’t read. There must have been one, of course, but books have been such a key part of my existence that I find it hard to imagine. I tremble to think how many books I have read in my life… How many were really worthwhile?

A famous footballer claimed some years ago that he had never, ever read a book – for which, of course, I wouldn’t dream of criticising or judging him; scoring goals was his thing, after all, so good luck to him. A  perhaps rather surprising number of people even in countries with developed educational systems have simply never mastered the art of reading. This, by the way, is something we church people, who tend to be very literate, need to be aware of, and sensitive to their needs: let’s never forget that most of the first Christians probably couldn’t read.

But for me… no, it’s simply unimaginable!

I first read Ecclesiastes at school, and that rather haunting, poetic twelfth chapter became part of my mental furniture, including verse 12. It’s just a comment, an observation, really; the writer isn’t making a particular point. But it does sound a warning: it can be dangerous to let your life become dominated by books. (Anyone starting to feel a little uncomfortable?)

It strikes me that one very important thing we need to notice about books is… Jesus never wrote one…

Oh, millions have been written about him, of course. But in contrast to the great majority of people who have had a big effect on human history, he never wrote a single one.

Indeed, it almost seems comical that the only time we read of him writing is in the incident with the woman caught committing adultery, when he wrote “on the ground with his finger” (John 8:6).

How fascinating is that!

Why did he write?…to cover an awkward silence?...to show his contempt for the people who were humiliating the woman in order to catch him out? What did he write?... Some such Bible verse as Exodus 23:1, aimed at “malicious witnesses”? Or was it just a doodle? Why did nobody think to jot down his words so that we could all know?

These are questions we can only guess at; obviously God, in inspiring the Bible, saw fit to leave it a mystery. But the simple fact – Jesus never wrote a book – does in reality make a vital point: no, but he did something infinitely greater – he lived a life, and he died a death. And that has done more to change our world than all the books ever written put together.

I read recently that the kind of fairly heavyweight books I sometimes read are likely to have a print-run of some 500. Many probably end up in college and university libraries, where they are read by other people who are like fish swimming in the same little pool, and some of whom will feel the need to respond to the book by… yes, of course, writing one of their own, which will also have a print-run of about 500 and which will probably end up… (I’ll leave you to finish the sentence.) “Of making many books there is no end”, indeed!

Does this mean we need scripture and nothing more? No: even though scripture is inspired by the Holy Spirit, it can still be difficult to understand (as Peter recognises in 2 Peter 3:16). We need expert help. But it does mean that we need to be careful not to let our faith become primarily a thing of the mind.

Perhaps we can put it like this. The Word of God comes to us in two main forms. On the one hand, there is the written Word, as summed up by Paul in 2 Timothy 3:16: the word “breathed out by God”. And then there is the living Word, as summed up in John1, where we read the extraordinary statement that “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:1-2 and 14).

Of course, if we didn’t have the written Word, we would know nothing about the living Word; we mustn’t set them over against one another. But the ultimate point of the written Word is to point to, and to make known, the living Word - that, and nothing more. It is he, rather than it, that really matters.

So… whether we are those who “make many books” or those who “study” them (going back to Ecclesiastes 12), let’s ask ourselves a serious question: Is there a danger that the written Word has become more important to me than the living Word? – that I’ve come to know the Bible pretty well, but I’ve lost sight of the Person to whom it witnesses? – that my faith is more theory than practice? – that while my knowledge has grown, my relationship with Christ has withered away?

Oh Father, please save me from ever allowing my faith to become dry, mechanical and theoretical. Lord Jesus, you are the living Word – please always live and breathe in my heart. Amen.

Wednesday, 27 October 2021

A love deep and lasting

But Timothy has just now come to us from you and has brought good news about your faith and love. He has told us that you always have pleasant memories of us and that you long to see us, just as we also long to see you. Therefore, brothers and sisters, in all our distress and persecution we were encouraged about you because of your faith. For now we really live, since you are standing firm in the Lord. 1Thessalonians 3:6-8

It dawned on me a few days ago (I’m not very good at consciously remembering anniversaries and things) that this summer marked fifty years since I was ordained into Christian ministry. In fact this month of October, 1971, saw me inducted into my first pastorate. Wonderful memories of Scunthorpe, North Lincolnshire!

Fifty years is a long time… By pure coincidence (as far as I know) I today received a Facebook “friend” request. I must have met the would-be friend almost exactly fifty years ago, for my induction was the occasion I became her pastor. I subsequently conducted her and her husband’s wedding. Did I also baptise them? I think I must have done though, to my shame, I can’t now be absolutely sure (but if not me, then I can’t think who else).

By another coincidence I attended, last week, a conference for ministers beginning to prepare for retirement. That didn’t include me, of course; no, I was there as one of the old hands who know everything there is to know about retirement (ha very ha) and whose job it was to pass on the benefit of their wisdom to these young sixty-somethings still on their way. It was, I think, a lively, happy occasion, though not without its serious side.

One topic we discussed was how close a pastor might, or should, remain to a church he or she has left. Should they remain in the membership? or head for the Outer Hebrides? or join another church a mile down the road? or what?

The feeling was that, as a general rule, it was probably unwise to stay in the same congregation. To do so is unfair to your successor; one sometimes hears horror stories about how a former minister turns out to be an absolute menace by staying on. But to move on is far from easy - the word “bereavement” cropped up more than once. In any reasonably happy pastorate strong relationships get formed which don’t dissolve simply because you’re no longer in day-to-day contact. Love, after all, isn’t something you can turn off like a tap; and isn’t love - that and nothing less - what we’re talking about when it comes to “pastor and people”?

Certainly, tact and sensitivity are vital if we maintain friendships with former church members. But, as that out-of-the-blue Facebook request demonstrated, the bonds we form in Christ can be amazingly durable. Which, surely, is exactly how it should be?

It’s all in the Bible, of course – not least in the ministry of the apostle Paul, though he was never simply a “local minister”. His two short letters to the church in Thessalonica simply ooze care and affection. An earlier separation from them was like being “orphaned” or “bereaved” (2:17), such was his feeling of “intense longing” for them. He describes them as his “glory and joy” (2:20). A point was reached when he “could stand it no longer” (3:1, and again in 3:5).

So when, at long last, Timothy turned up from Thessalonica (3:6), I can imagine Paul jumping out of his chair, grabbing hold of him by the throat, still sweaty and dusty from the journey though he was, and demanding, “So how are they?” And the massive sigh of relief and pleasure when Timothy told his news (3:6-9): they are “standing firm in the Lord”. Let no-one imagine that Paul was a dry, crusty old theologian; more like a besotted parent, or a mooning lover!

What in particular was it that bound Paul so emotionally to the Thessalonians? It isn’t, after all, only Christians - or Christian ministers - who feel deep and lasting love for people they no longer see.

The answer comes across clearly in the first three chapters of the letter: in essence, the church in Thessalonica was the fruit of his evangelistic ministry (1:5 and 2:2). He had shared their lives (1:5 again); he saw himself as having cared for them “like a nursing mother” (2:7-8) and also as a loving father (2:11; he obviously wasn’t too bothered about mixing his metaphors!).

In a word, his very existence had become intertwined with theirs in a way that physical absence couldn’t possibly disentangle.

It’s true, of course, that this is the case across the whole spectrum of Christian fellowship, not just “pastor and people”. There’s an old hymn which captures it beautifully…

Blest be the tie that binds/ Our hearts in Christian love;/ The fellowship of kindred minds/ Is like to that above… When for a while we part,/ This thought will soothe our pain,/ That we shall still be joined in heart,/ And hope to meet again… From sorrow, toil and pain,/ And sin we shall be free:/ And perfect love and friendship reign/ Through all eternity.

Yes, that’s true of all Christian fellowship. But there is a particularly strong bond with those for whom we have served as spiritual mid-wife. This is something my wife and I certainly found when eventually, and painfully, we moved on from Scunthorpe – only to find exactly the same thing in north-west London. Wonderful memories too of Lindsay Park, Kenton!

Thank you, Father, for the heavenly love that binds your people together. Help me to cherish and delight in it, and to eagerly anticipate the day when it will be perfected in your immediate presence. Amen.