Friday, 29 September 2017

Words - and deeds

The twelve apostles gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables...” Acts 6:2

The church has just been born. It’s growing day by day - people coming to faith in Jesus as the twelve apostles preach and teach in his name. The momentous coming of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost is still vivid in people’s memories. 

Great days! - exciting, perhaps even slightly frightening, but truly wonderful.

But then... a major problem. (Yes, even that wonderful early church had its difficulties.)

What went wrong? 

In essence, there was a split among these new followers of Jesus. On the one hand there were “Hebraic” Jews - that is, Jews who were deeply immersed in their ancestral culture and who spoke Aramaic, a language related to Hebrew, the language of their forefathers.

On the other hand there were “Hellenistic” Jews - that is, Jews who were more at home in the dominant Greek culture of the wider Mediterranean world, speaking the Greek language and adopting Greek customs. 

Where the difficulty flared up was over the very practical matter of food for the poor. The Greek Jews  felt that their widows were not being treated on a par with the “Hebraic” Jews. So, feeling hard done by, they complained.

The apostles realised that something needed to be done. But what? Should they divert their energy and time from the business of preaching the gospel and teaching the new-born believers, and devote more of it to sorting out this problem?

Luke spells out their solution very clearly in the verse at the top. No! they said. Our business is to stay focussed on “the ministry of the word of God”, and let someone else “wait on tables”. Which is exactly what happened.

Were the apostles a bit self-important? Did they regard it as beneath their dignity to do a menial task such as “waiting on tables”?

No, not at all. They attached great importance to this new ministry - indeed, they insisted that the men appointed to do it should be of the very highest quality, “full of the Spirit and of wisdom” no less than themselves. (Just look at Stephen, one of them, in the next chapter or two. Let no-one then say these first “deacons” were just (just!?) practical men fit only for menial tasks!)

But... the fact is that the apostles were the ones who had been with Jesus in his earthly life. They were the ones who had been witnesses of his resurrection. They were the ones who, having sat at Jesus’ feet, had the best understanding of what the good news was all about. So it was right that all their energy should be poured into the ministry of God’s word.

This story could, I think, have been written for us in the twenty-first century.

Our world is full of need, both “physical” and “spiritual”. 
Millions of people have hungry bodies and, following the example of Jesus, it is right that the church should help to meet that need.

But millions more have hungry souls. They know nothing of the living God, nothing of how Jesus died for their sins and rose again to give them eternal life. They know nothing of how forgiveness of sins is offered to all who put their trust in Jesus. 

And who is to tell them these great things if not - the church? And who within the church is best equipped to do this but the successors of the apostles - the evangelists, the pastors, the teachers?

There have been times in history when the church has stressed so much the “spiritual” side of things that it has neglected some of the more “practical” aspects - feeding the hungry, healing the sick, housing the homeless, you name it. And that isn’t good.

But is there a danger that we swing too much the other way too? Food-banks, luncheon clubs, debt-counselling services, youth work, medical missionaries... thank God for all these things.

But let’s not overlook the “ministry of the word”! 

Let’s not be ashamed of the fact that we have a message to proclaim, a story to tell, good news to pass on of Jesus crucified, risen, ascended and one day coming back. We have words to speak to explain our actions.

Jesus said: “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). Do we really believe that?

And Paul wrote: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God to bring salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16). Do we really believe that?

Demonstrate to people the practical love of Jesus. Of course. Of course! But tell the story too. How else will people understand?

Lord God, thank you for the power of your gospel to change lives. May I never be embarrassed or ashamed to make it known. Amen.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

A man worthy of honour

The apostles were brought in and made to appear before the Sanhedrin to be questioned by the high priest… When they [the Sanhedrin] heard the apostles, they were furious and wanted to put them to death. But a Pharisee called Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, who was honoured by all the people, stood up… Acts 5:27, 33-34

I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un are like two children in the playground as they fling their infantile and inflammatory insults at one another across the world. (“Little rocket man”, for goodness’ sake!) Only difference: incredibly, these are two world leaders, and their spat could result in destruction and horror such as you’d rather not think about. (How unutterably stupid can you get?)

Which brings me to Gamaliel…

Gamaliel? Who was he?

Well, please read the story for yourself in Acts 5:17-42. I can only say that I have always had a soft spot for him, even though he pops up just twice in the New Testament. The other place is Acts 22:3, where Paul, under arrest, says that he “studied under Gamaliel”. He was a well-known and much respected Jewish teacher.

(Interestingly, a Jewish document from about this time tells us a little more about him: “Since Rabban Gamaliel the Elder died there has been no more reverence for the Law, and purity and abstinence died out at the same time” (The Mishnah, a written version of Jewish traditions. “Rabban” means “Our teacher”, a higher title than “Rabbi, “My teacher”.))

The story in Acts 5 can be summed up like this.

The apostles of Jesus are in trouble with the Jewish leaders. They are hauled up before the Sanhedrin, or Council, and told never again to preach about Jesus. They refuse to agree: “We must obey God rather than men!” Whereupon the religious leaders “were furious and wanted to put them to death.”

A nasty situation. And this is where Gamaliel steps in. He calms the atmosphere, pointing out that the apostles aren’t the first and won’t be the last to be trouble-makers. His speech finishes with these splendid words: “…I advise you, leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”

Luke adds: “His speech persuaded them.” (Perhaps he could also have added “and everyone breathed a sigh of relief”.)

Reports spread later that Gamaliel eventually became a follower of Jesus. Unfortunately, there is no hard evidence for this. But undoubtedly his intervention at this key point saved the church from what could have proved a major crisis. Thank God for unbelievers even today who speak up for God’s people!

Gamaliel stands for us as a model of wisdom and calm. He is a pourer of oil on troubled waters – not of petrol on flames. He reminds me of that lovely little Old Testament saying: “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1). Indeed, he reminds me of Jesus himself, standing mute before his accusers before he was crucified. He reminds me of Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9).

Angry confrontation is a sad feature of our modern world – and not just among world leaders who should know better. Footballers square up to one another on the pitch. Politicians sling vitriol at one another. On-line trolls post vile messages about people they have taken a dislike to for no particular reason.

And, of course, it can happen in church life. I heard of a church where an ambulance had to be called to a meeting because one man had been “decked” by another (yes, really). It can happen in family life, where a build-up of tensions at last explodes in hurtful words and bitter recriminations. It can happen in the work-place. It can happen… oh, it can happen anywhere.

The question is: have we trained ourselves to be Gamaliels in such situations?

Even if Gamaliel never did become a Christian, he certainly spoke more than he knew at the time. He said, in effect, that in the end truth simply cannot be suppressed: if the message of the apostles is true, he said, “you will not be able to stop” it. Indeed, “you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”

You were absolutely right there, Gamaliel, absolutely right!

Let that be an encouragement to us as we survey a world of troubling political instability and a seemingly struggling and weak church. One day every knee will bow at the name of Jesus!

He is the truth. How then can he not prevail?

Lord God, help me to be a peace-maker, never a trouble-maker. Help me to show love instead of hate. Help me too to have faith in the power of the truth – that in the end it will prevail. Amen.

Saturday, 23 September 2017

Money - blessing or curse?

Jesus said, “Woe to you who are rich…” Luke 6:24

Do you think of yourself as rich?

I don’t. I look back over my life, and I’m certainly grateful that I have never known great need. But rich? No, not really.

But as soon as I say that, I know I need to be careful. 
Deciding whether or not you are rich depends on where you are looking. If I look at Bill Gates, or some footballer who is paid hundreds of thousands of pounds every week, or some business multi-millionaire, then, no I’m certainly not rich.

But if I look at the millions of people all around the world who are starving to death, who have nowhere to live and no prospect of ever having a proper home – people who certainly have no such things as phones, computers, televisions – well, it’s rather different. I am rich indeed!

Perhaps you feel like me. In which case, Jesus’ words here in Luke 6 – “Woe to you who are rich” – need to be taken seriously.

Material wealth is both a blessing and a curse: a blessing if we use it wisely, generously, for the glory of God and the good of others; a curse if we let it rule our lives and use it only for our own pleasure.

In the “Sermon on the Plain” (Luke’s counterpart to Matthew’s “Sermon on the Mount”), Jesus speaks very crisply and briefly. So “woe to you who are rich” comes across as pretty uncompromising. It’s certainly a warning; but it needs to be seen in the context of the Bible as a whole.

There are many passages we could turn to. But Luke seems to have a particular interest in this theme, and just a few passages in his two books – his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles – provide plenty of food for thought.

Let’s highlight five passages which help us flesh out this subject.

First, two which bear out Jesus’ blunt warning.

In Luke 12:16-21 we are given the story of the rich fool. Here’s your archetypal tycoon. By virtue, perhaps, of genuine hard work, he ends up with more than he knows what to do with. So he decides to store it all up and “take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”

But God has other ideas: “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?”

Death is coming. Only a fool, says God, puts all his or her wealth in an earthly basket.

Even more thought-provoking is the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). Its special power comes from the fact that, here, the rich man is contrasted with the beggar lying at his gate, where “even the dogs came and licked his sores”.

Jesus describes the different fates of the two men – the beggar is carried by angels to “Abraham’s side”, while the rich man ends up crying out from “Hades”, the dwelling place of the dead.

While we may not have beggars lying today at our front doors, don’t we see them every night on the television news? Could we be in the same situation as that callous rich man?

The other three passages help us to see how rich people are both blessed by God and also a blessing to others.

Take Joseph of Arimathea (Luke 23:50-54). He is the man who felt moved to beg Jesus’ body from Pontius Pilate and lay it in a new tomb in his own grounds. You can’t do a thing like that unless you are pretty well off – and also deeply compassionate and generous-spirited.

Then there is that lovely man Barnabas (Acts 4:36-37). In the early, heady days of the infant church he “sold a field he owned and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet”. I imagine that must have been a serious sacrifice: was that field in effect his pension pot?

There are several female figures I could have gone for: the sinful woman in Luke 7:36-50, say, or the poor widow of Luke 21:1-4. Strictly speaking, though, neither of them was in fact “rich” in the sense we have been thinking of – all the more challenging and wonderful, then, that they should be so extravagantly generous.

But let’s finish with Lydia (Acts 16:13-15). She was a businesswoman, “a dealer in purple cloth”. Having come to Jesus by the river in Philippi, she opens her home to Paul and Barnabas, the wandering missionaries. Did her house become the first meeting-place of that church, to which Paul later wrote his letter to the Philippians?

So… two passages of strong warning; three passages of great example.

What are we going to do about them?

Lord God, thank you for the treasures in heaven to which I can look forward. Please help me to use in a Christlike way the treasures I have here on earth. Amen.

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Are you decaying well?

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. 2 Corinthians 4:16

I imagine all of us have things in our lives which irritate us. Not, perhaps, to the extent of getting us grinding our teeth, but certainly “getting under our skin” as the saying goes. Here’s one of mine.

I’m a bit of a newspaper addict. I don’t feel my day is complete without having a leisurely read through the morning paper. So some time between six and seven in the morning you’ll find me heading for the local paper shop, a gentle walk of about a mile (feel free to be impressed).

Now, on Saturdays the paper is twice its normal size - all sorts of extra bits, colour supplements, etc.

And nearly every Saturday one of those extra bits has a major feature on physical fitness. This is what makes my heart sink: “Oh, not another article about staying young/being beautiful/eating properly/keeping fit!” I think to myself. “Is there really anything new to learn?” In the end they all come down to the same basic advice: eat well - plenty of fruit and veg, not too much fatty stuff, salt and sugar; get plenty of exercise; don’t drink to excess or smoke. And so on. Big yawn.

It’s not just the tedious regularity with which this kind of stuff is churned out that irks me; it’s the way it encourages a fixation on our physical bodies.

And I want to shout, “Listen, people! - we’re all going to die one day! Get used to it! Who cares if your hair is grey, or largely missing, and your muscles are a bit flabby? Who cares if you’re no longer the stunner you were thirty years ago?”

Not, of course, that physical fitness is unimportant. No, not at all. The Bible tells us, after all, that our bodies are temples of God’s Holy Spirit, and that means we should look after them and treat them well (1 Corinthians 6:19). There’s no getting away from that. 

But to make this the be-all and end-all... oh, what a waste of time, effort and, probably, money too - once you’ve paid your gym subscription and bought your vitamin supplements, your hair colourings, your fitbit, and your speciality foods...

Does anyone share this irritation of mine?

How refreshing, then, it is to read Paul’s words to the Christians of Corinth: “Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.”

Yes, that’s the way it is, folks; we’re slowly but surely “decaying” (as those words “wasting away” could be translated). 

Ah, but “inwardly we are being renewed day by day”.

We mustn’t misunderstand what Paul means here. He is not saying that there are two parts of us: your soul, which is good but invisible, infinitely renewable, and therefore destined to be eternal; and your body, which is bad and (as a Christian friend once put it to me) “just an envelope” for the soul. Not at all. No, our bodies are good, and when we rise from the dead to be with Christ, we will rise in our bodies, even though then they will be gloriously different.

The contrast Paul is drawing is between the “now”, temporal, me, and the “future”, eternal, me. Just as Jesus himself was put to death in his earthly body but raised to life in that same - albeit transformed - body, so will we. And what matters is the real us, the us becoming daily more like Jesus, whatever may be happening to our outward form.

Hamlet, in Shakespeare’s play, comes across a couple of grave-diggers busy doing their job. With his friend Horatio he notices a skull lying at the bottom of the new grave, presumably having toppled over from the neighbouring one. 
“Who is this?” he asks. They tell him Yorick, who was once the king’s jester. “Yorick!” he exclaims - “I knew him well, Horatio...” Apparently when he was a small boy Yorick used to get down on the floor and play games with him.

Hamlet picks up the skull, stares at it and then talks to it: “Now get you to my lady’s chamber and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come...” Stinging words!

The challenge is unavoidable: which me do I focus on, the outward me which is slowly decaying, or the inward me which is gradually becoming more like Jesus, and therefore more fitted for the glories of eternal life?

“We do not lose heart,” says Paul. He means: we’re still working cheerfully away, aiming to do God’s work, whatever the state of our bodies.

Hopefully we can echo Paul’s words, even if we are getting a bit creaky, wrinkly, saggy and baggy. Who cares! - we are never, literally never, past our use-by date. 

So... Don’t lose heart!

Lord God, thank you for the gift of the body. Help me to look after it well, as the dwelling-place of the Holy Spirit, so that I can serve you till the day I die - but to remember too that one day it will be transformed to be perfect and eternal. Amen.

Saturday, 16 September 2017

When godly people do godless things (part 2)

As he was about to enter Egypt, Abram said to his wife Sarai, “I know what a beautiful woman you are. When the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife’. Then they will kill me but will let you live. Say that you are my sister, so that I will be treated well for your sake and my life will be spared because of you.” Genesis 12:11-13

Last time we thought about how a good man like Abram could be guilty of such cruel and dishonest behaviour. My answer was simple: no child of God, then or now, is above the danger of lapsing into shameful actions; we are still prey to temptation. 

So we should take it as a warning - as Paul puts it in1 Corinthians 10:12: “If you think you are standing, be careful that you don’t fall!”

But the episode also prompted a second question: Could Sarai have done more?

The writer of Genesis doesn’t say that Sarai objected to Abram’s request. She may have done, of course; but if she did, we aren’t told. Wouldn’t it be good, though, if verse 13 had some extra words? - something like: “But Sarai said, ‘No, my husband, no! Don’t force me to do something we both know is wrong’.”
Could Sarai have done that?

I just don’t know. In the world of that time men were in charge, and women were expected to obey. So even if she had mustered the courage to protest, no doubt Abram could have over-ridden her. She is in a pretty hopeless position.

However, we do know that marriages in the ancient world were not necessarily loveless or forced. In Genesis 24 we read about Isaac and Rebekah. Certainly, their marriage was arranged. But Rebekah was given the right to say no (verses 8 and 57-58). And the chapter ends with the simple and rather beautiful words: “she became his wife, and he loved her” (verse 67).

A little later, in chapter 29, we read about the marriage of Jacob and Rachel. “Jacob was in love with Rachel,” says verse 18 - so much so that he offered to work for seven years for her father Laban.

We’re told nothing about how Abram and Sarai came to be married, but quite possibly there was genuine love - and therefore a genuine relationship. In which case, why shouldn’t Sarai have raised a protest when Abram made his suggestion?

Well, it’s not for me to criticise Sarai - of course not. I wouldn’t like to have been in her shoes. 

Whatever, there are a couple of positive and challenging points we can take from her part in the story.

First... Even if it was impossible for her to take a stand against wrong, it isn’t for most of us! - especially those of us who live in countries where we have freedom of speech.

Here’s a question (which, of course, I put to myself as much as to anyone else): Have you ever stood by in silence when some clear wrong was being done? Perhaps a lie was being told, and you didn’t have the courage to speak up? Perhaps, in your place of work, some sharp practice was going on and everyone else was turning a blind eye - so you did the same?

It’s said that evil prospers when good people do nothing; and it’s true. Thank God for those brave people - “whistle-blowers” they call them - who are prepared to risk their jobs, perhaps even their very lives, for what they see as right. They are often dismissed as trouble-makers or attention-seekers, and there may sometimes be truth in that. But not always.

God give us courage to do what may well have been impossible for Sarai - to stand up for what is right and true; to stand against what is false and wrong!

Second... I think that Sarai can be for us a symbol of victimhood.

In the ancient world women were indeed often exploited and treated merely as property. And we say, quite rightly, how terrible that is. But wait a minute! - in many parts of the world very little has changed. Girls and women - not to mention children - are often forced into the sex-trade or other degrading activities. 

And it’s not only girls and women. Just this week, here in Britain, we have seen news reports of men treated virtually as slaves by unscrupulous “employers” - living in filthy, squalid conditions, fed very little, and paid next to nothing.

If nothing else, Sarai can stand as a reminder to us of the millions of people all over the world - women, men and children - who have been robbed of their rights, their dignity and their freedom.

As Christians it is our duty - not to say our privilege - to speak up on behalf of such people. To borrow the tag-line of the human rights charity Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), we can be “a voice for the voiceless”.

We must pray, of course; that goes without saying. But how about also joining and supporting one of the various organisations like CSW that are trying to make a practical difference?

If we are Christians, standing by and doing nothing just isn’t an option. Let’s pray - and act - on behalf of the millions of Sarais in this world!

Lord God, grant us the courage to stand up against evil when we see it around us - and also the compassion to act on behalf of those who have no power. Amen.