Saturday, 31 March 2018

Who was Mary Magdalene?

Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” - John 20:18

Who was Mary Magdalene? A prostitute? A woman once possessed by the devil? Jesus’s lover? Jesus’s wife? “The apostle to the apostles”? “The thirteenth disciple”?

I would say just one of those descriptions is good. (Feel like guessing which one?)

Whatever, two thousand years of Christian history have thrown up all these portraits of Mary: which just goes to show how obsessed people can be with improving (supposedly) on what the Bible actually says.

So... what does the Bible say?

The short answer is: very little. Her name suggests that she came from the town of Magdala, a fishing village on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. She was numbered among Jesus’s inner circle, along with the twelve disciples and “some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases” (Luke 8:2) who supported Jesus and the twelve financially.

We are told there also that “seven demons had come out of her” - but what lies behind that tantalising scrap of information we can only guess. (Given that the Bible chooses not to tell us, let’s be warned not to guess; who are we to shove our noses into things the Spirit has kept from us?)

She figures prominently in the events of Jesus’s suffering and death - she stands with other women before the cross, and, supremely, she is a witness to the events of the first Easter morning.

And that’s just about it.

Her reputation as a prostitute arose because somebody decided to identify her with the unnamed “sinful woman” of Luke 7:36-50 who anointed Jesus at the meal table, and the story caught on. There is no evidence for this, nor for the suggestion that there was any kind of romance between her and Jesus. (Keep these things in mind next time you come across a tacky “unputdownable” novel or a sensational “must-see” film.)

So... Mary was a loyal supporter of Jesus, who had had some kind of troubling spiritual affliction which he healed. That sums it up.

But there is a wonderful detail we shouldn’t miss: Mary was the first person in history to be able to utter the words “I have seen the Lord!” (John 20:18). She was the first witness to the resurrection...

The early part of John 20 is pretty breathless stuff - everyone seems to be running.

Mary, first, probably along with the other women mentioned in the other Gospels, comes in the dark of early morning and finds that the tomb of Jesus is open. She runs to tell the disciples. So Simon Peter and “the disciple Jesus loved” (probably John the son of Zebedee) run to the tomb, with Mary bringing up the rear.

John outruns Peter, but hesitates to enter the tomb until Peter catches up with him. But when he does go inside... “he saw and believed”. (Can you picture his face in that electrifying moment?) The two of them head off back to where they are staying, no doubt walking now, but no doubt also wracking their brains to take in just what has happened.

Mary lingers, no doubt in a state of shock, fear and total confusion: what is going on!

She gets into conversation with the gardener and - well, read it for yourself in John 20:11-18. The gardener (who, of course, isn’t the gardener) speaks her name: “Mary”. And her world is changed for ever.

And then?... I picture Peter and John sitting with the other disciples in their lodgings: John - the first believer! - is quivering with excitement and trying to convince Peter, and the rest, of the astounding truth: Jesus has risen from the dead. Peter is sceptically shaking his head.

The door bursts open. Everyone looks up. Mary has run like the wind. Her face is bright red; her hair is all over the place; and she is panting so hard that she can hardly get her words out. But when she finally does, there is a moment of utter, awe-struck, pin-drop silence: “I have seen the Lord!”

What a moment! Oh, what a moment!

To Mary Magdalene fell the privilege, the honour, of being the first person to bear witness to the resurrection. Not to Peter, James or John or any of the men. (Who says God has a down on women?) Which means - going back to our question at the beginning - that she is truly “the apostle to the apostles”, for the word “apostle” simply means “someone sent with a message”.

What can I say? We cannot make Mary’s claim, “I have seen the Lord”. But we can claim to know him, and seek to love and follow him. So let us too do what Mary did - be apostles, if not to the apostles, then to our unbelieving world. How can we keep this staggering, life-changing, world-changing message to ourselves?

Lord God, thank you for those brave and dedicated women who were with Jesus and the twelve in the early days, and especially for Mary Magdalene, the “apostle to the apostles”. Please grip me afresh with the wonder of what happened that first Easter Day, and help me also to be an apostle to those whom I meet. Amen.

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

How to ruin your life - and how to have it mended

When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realised that they were naked... Genesis 3:6-7

When Steve Smith is an old man he will be remembered for different things by different people, depending on the place he had in their lives. But for a very large number of people he will be remembered chiefly for just one thing - and that one thing, I’m afraid, a bad thing.

What am I talking about? Steve Smith? Who’s he?

Until a few days ago he was the captain of the Australia cricket team, and one of the most successful batsmen in the history of the game. But he and a couple of team-mates hatched a plan - a stupid, grubby, pathetic little plan, to be honest - to cheat in a test match. They tampered with the ball in an attempt (which turned out to be useless) to gain an advantage over their opponents.

And... they were found out.

Cue an explosion of outrage. So Smith has had to resign as Australia captain, and his up-to-now glittering career has, for the time being at least, ground to a juddering halt. Now it’s all about shame, guilt, regret, remorse. Even if he is able at some point to successfully resume his career, what he did will never be forgotten.

Am I stretching things to be reminded of Adam and Eve in Eden?

I don’t think so. Set aside questions of how literally we are supposed to take the story - the point is, as one writer puts it, “They exercised their freedom to disobey God’s command, ate the fruit, and wound up standing on the curb outside the garden with their battered suitcases lying beside them on the ground.”

Banished. Outcasts. Like Steve Smith. From unspeakable bliss to unbearable wretchedness. So much ruin! How bitter can you get?

A modern true story and an ancient, God-inspired tale. And what they have in common, of course, is that they are to do with sin. They remind us that our actions have consequences.

It’s the big sins that grip our imaginations, of course. None bigger than what happened that terrible day in Eden.

And sins that catch the headlines. Steve Smith is in good (or should I say bad?) company - think of the politician who embarks on a squalid affair, or the banker who uses inside knowledge to help himself to millions, or the vicar who exercises inappropriate power over vulnerable people. How we love reading about these stories in our papers!

But we’d better be careful. For even the seemingly tiny, unnoticed sins have a serious effect on our lives and upon the kind of people we are becoming. When I was a teenager there was a pop song with a line that has never left me: “One day, you’re gonna discover, one little wrong leads to another...”

Is it too much to say that every human being is the sum total of the things they have done, thought and said?

Choices matter; decisions matter. No wrong-doing is petty, for it contributes in ways we cannot imagine to the formation of our characters.

The question that we need to face is as basic as you could get: Do we take sin seriously? Or do we, perhaps subconsciously, gloss over it with feeble words: “Well, everyone does it”, or, “I can’t help it - it’s just the way I am”, perhaps even “I’m sure God will forgive me.” Anything rather than face reality and resolve to change.

I said earlier that what Steve Smith did will never be forgotten. And as long as there are still people living on this earth I suspect that that is true.

But it isn’t the whole truth. The good news is that God (and ultimately, of course, he is the only one who really matters) loves to forget.

At the heart of the Christian faith is a truth that can be summed up in just three words: God loves sinners. And in his Son Jesus he has made it possible for us to be forgiven and for all our sins, both great and small, to be forgotten, wiped out, obliterated.

This is the meaning of the cross; this is the message of Good Friday. Long before he died on the cross Jesus was described as the sacrificial “lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” And those words mean exactly what they say.

Yes, Steve Smith did a bad thing. But I find myself feeling rather sorry for him rather than judging him; for haven’t I done many bad things too?

The fact is... I am Adam. I am Eve. And - yes, I am Steve Smith too. (Though not, sadly, when it comes to batting).

Lord God, when I look at the cross I am made aware of how seriously you take sin. Please help me to take it as seriously, and so to appreciate better what Jesus did for me. Amen.

Saturday, 24 March 2018

A nasty piece of work?

Love does not delight in evil... 1 Corinthians 13:6

Do you ever take pleasure in badness? Come on, be honest, now!

I suspect all of us, from time to time, experience a little shiver - what I think the French call a frisson - of enjoyment when, say, we hear about something nasty happening to someone we don’t like.

Yes? Well, we need to listen to the apostle Paul as he tells his readers in Corinth not to “delight in evil”.

Is he thinking about evil in the sense of wickedness, bad things you do, or in the sense of misfortune, bad things that happen? The immediate answer is the first, wickedness.

A clue as to why he gives this rather negative command may be found earlier in 1 Corinthians, in chapter 5. Apparently there has been a grossly scandalous episode in the church in Corinth: “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate...” Paul is obviously very shocked. But even worse follows: “And you are proud!” A clear case, it would seem, of “delighting in evil”.

I think, though, that delighting in evil can also apply to misfortune, to plain bad luck - we quite like it, don’t we, when people we regard as bad “get their comeuppance”? Huh, serve ‘em right!

The question arises: why would anybody, Christian or not, be guilty of this unpleasant attitude? I would suggest three possible answers - and I invite each of us to look at ourselves to see what, if anything, fits.

First, some people seem to be - putting it bluntly - rotten through and through. They seem to have no conscience, no sense at all of right and wrong.

In one of Shakespeare’s least known plays, Titus Andronicus, there is a character called Aaron. To describe him as “a nasty piece of work” would be flattering him. At the end of the play, after he has been found out and is facing the prospect of torture and death, he speaks these chilling, appalling words: “If one good deed in all my life I did,/ I do repent it from my very soul.”

Well, I don’t imagine many of us are as sunk in wickedness as Aaron. But (how best to put this?) we, ahem, aren’t quite as nice as we like to make out, are we? If we take an honest look into the murky depths of our hearts we see things which are not exactly pleasant. And one of those things may very well be a tendency to “delight in evil” - to “gloat”, in fact.

Second, delighting in evil helps us to feel better about ourselves, especially if we are by nature a bit low in self-esteem: “Well, of course, I would never act in such a way,” we think. Seeing sin in other people fosters a sense of smugness and self-righteousness in us.

This, of course, can be the special curse of the “religious” man or woman - that we go around with a nose-in-the-air, “holier-than-thou” manner. How many people, I wonder, have been put off turning to Christ because we have given this kind of impression?

Third, and linked to this, delighting in evil enables us to feel deliciously judgmental and censorious. 

Please notice that word “feel”. Of course we wouldn’t give expression to what is going on in our hearts - oh no, we’re far too well trained and “civilised” for that - but the feeling is there all right.

There’s a little remark of Jesus - almost a throwaway remark - in the Sermon on the Mount: “If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children...” (Matthew 7:11). Perhaps it’s a remark we ought to take more notice of. If Shakespeare had an acute insight into human nature, how much more Jesus!

But enough of this negative stuff! To finish, let’s notice how that verse of Paul’s ends: “Love doesn’t rejoice in evil, but rejoices in the truth”. Yes! God’s truth is pure and holy - and it is in that that we should find our joy.

And here is Paul again, this time in Philippians 4:8. To me, reading these beautiful words is like taking a warm, cleansing, refreshing shower: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable - if anything is excellent or praiseworthy - think about these things.” Not about “evil”, whatever sense we take it in.

To which I hope we can all say a loud “Amen”.

The truly Christlike response to evil of any kind is sorrow, sadness, possibly anger. But never, never delight.

Dear Father, help me to see immediately if any hint of smugness, gloating or self-righteousness threatens to poison my soul - and having seen it, to stamp on it with all my heart. Amen.

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

When all seems lost

Lord, how many are my foes! How many rise up against me! Many are saying of me, “God will not deliver him.” But you, Lord, are a shield around me, my glory, the One who lifts my head high. Psalm 3:1-3

Have you ever noticed how important the little word “but” can be?

Just three letters, but they have the effect of turning things round: “We thought he wasn’t going to pull through, but the doctors did a wonderful job”. “At first she saw nothing in him, but look at them now - thirty happy years of marriage!” “It rained most of the day, but then the sun came out and we got a couple of hours’ cricket”. It was abc; but now it’s xyz.

This happens a lot in the Bible, not least in Paul’s letters. A good example is where Paul writes grimly about the spiritual deadness of everyone who is still in their sins: “Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath...” Grim indeed! But then he goes on: “But... God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ...” (Ephesians 2:1-5)

That’s surely the greatest turnaround in the Bible. (What a wonderful expression that “rich in mercy” is!)

And here it is in Psalm 3.

The psalm is traditionally linked with King David, and to a time of great trouble in his reign. And there’s no reason why that shouldn’t be so. For the full story you need to go back to 2 Samuel 13-19, but the essence of it is this...

One of David’s sons, Absalom, has rebelled against his father and wants to be king. He wages a campaign to get support from the people, both great and small, till it reaches the point where David thinks it’s all over. He says to his officials, “Come! We must flee, or none of us will escape from Absalom” (2 Samuel 15:14).

And so we get the pitiful spectacle of the great King David, no less, the triumphant man of war, scurrying out of his capital city like the proverbial rat leaving a sinking ship. Surely the lowest point in his reign.

Going back to Psalm 3 (this time using The Message translation), he is overwhelmed by a sense of utter helplessness: “God! Look! Enemies past counting! Enemies sprouting like mushrooms...”  He has to endure their cruel mockery: “Hah! No help for him from God!” You’re finished, David!

But then comes the but... “But you, Lord, are a shield around me, my glory, the one who lifts my head high.” That’s verse 3 - and it’s a verse worth reading over and over again, a verse, as I once heard it put, worth sucking slowly like a sweet.

How has this transformation come about? We aren’t told. But David has certainly been praying, and he gets a wonderful assurance that his prayers are not wasted.

Look at the three aspects of this assurance.

First, God is his protection - “a shield around me”. Yes, he has felt outnumbered and fatally exposed; but now he sees that his loving God is far greater than all his enemies.

We too as Christians sometimes feel that we are outnumbered by our spiritual enemy, the devil. The church seems so feeble and small. Our faith is dismissed, if not actually mocked, by clever unbelievers. How good it is, then, to know that God is in fact a shield around us. He will protect and keep us as we hold on to him.

Second, God is his “glory”. You can take that in different ways. One commentary says: “My glory is an expression to ponder; it indicates the honour of serving such a master; perhaps, too, the radiance he imparts.”

Personally, I like that second thought; it links beautifully with another psalm attributed to David: “Those who look to him are radiant; their faces are never covered with shame” (Psalm 34:5). David has reason to reflect that, for all the shallow glory of his earthly kingship, his true glory is what God imparts.

And it’s a deeply humbling thought for us, too, that as we go about our business day by day we can actually reflect the glory of God.

Lord, make me a mirror of your splendour!

Third, God is “the one who lifts my head high”. That’s a great expression! - especially if you compare it with 2 Samuel 15:30: “David continued up the Mount of Olives, weeping as he went; his head was covered (was he hiding his face?) and he was barefoot.” A picture of humiliation, if ever there was one - tears; bowed head; bare feet.

And God will, in time, “lift the heads” of all his suffering, humiliated, outnumbered, downtrodden people.

Are you going through a particularly tough time? All I can say is: pray - of course; read those chapters from 2 Samuel; read these beautiful verses.

And then look out for that wonderful “but”!

O Lord, in your kindness and mercy be my shield, my glory, and the lifter of my head. Amen.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

Build me up, don't crush me!

When the uproar had ended, Paul sent for the disciples and, after encouraging them, said goodbye and set out for Macedonia. He travelled through that area, speaking many words of encouragement to the people... Acts 20:1-2

When Paul was on his missionary journeys he didn’t usually stay very long in one place. His method was to preach Christ to his fellow-Jews in the local synagogue, and of course to anyone else who would listen, to gather around him a group of new believers, and then to move on to the next place.

But he made an exception for the big, bustling city of Ephesus, a focal point of political, economic and religious power. We learn in Acts 19 that he stayed there for over two years; and his stay was anything but uneventful, to put it mildly. To cap it all, the city erupted into a riot - what Luke calls “uproar” - triggered by the preaching of the gospel, and Paul decided it was time he was on his way.

But before he left there was something he was keen to do. Luke tells us that he “sent for the disciples” and “encouraged” them. He then tells us that, after leaving, Paul “travelled through that area, speaking many words of encouragement to the people”.

Encouragement: that is the key word in these verses from Acts 20.

Remember, Paul is among people who haven’t been followers of Jesus for all that long, people who live in an area dominated by dark forces such as the worship of the goddess Artemis (or Diana) of the Ephesians, people whose society is corrupted by all kinds of immorality. If these infant Christians are to thrive after his departure - well, they need all the encouragement they can get!

If that was true then, it’s also true today. Whether you look at the “developed” or the “undeveloped” world, the powers of darkness, ignorance, superstition and sheer wickedness sometimes seem overwhelming. How can the people Jesus called his “little flock” (Luke 12:32) possibly survive, never mind thrive? Sheep among wolves indeed.

Encouragement is vital.

But what is encouragement? What does this quite common word in fact mean?

It’s an elastic word - you can stretch it in different directions. At its simplest: to encourage someone is to give them a boost. And this can be done in various ways... A simple word of thanks for something done. An arm literally or metaphorically round the shoulder. A word of advice, guidance or rebuke. Even perhaps bit of a scold (as long, of course, as it’s a loving scold). A practical gift to meet a particular need.

In essence, the person on the receiving end of encouragement will feel that they have somebody standing with them - somebody who loves and cares and who has power to help them. In the New Testament the ultimate encourager is the Holy Spirit himself: in John 14:26 Jesus calls him “the Advocate” (New International Version): but that word could be translated “Encourager”.

I’m afraid that in some Christian circles encouragement is in pretty short supply. A man turned to me once at the end of a service where the sermon had been basically a message of encouragement and said, “You know, it’s really refreshing to hear this kind of message. All these ‘challenging’ and ‘hard-hitting’ sermons we keep getting are all very well, but so often you just end up reeling, feeling guilty and a failure.”

Just as flowers blossom in the sunshine, so Christians blossom under encouragement.

Of course it’s not only preachers who can give encouragement in their sermons; in fact, they may be the people who need it most! - it can seem a thankless task preaching your heart out to what sometimes seems like a brick wall.

The fact is that encouragement should be like a perfume that fills the whole church, among ones and twos as well as throughout a congregation.

Just one word of warning, though: be careful not to confuse encouragement with flattery.

Flattery, at its worst, can be described as false praise, given in order to ingratiate yourself with someone so as to get something from them. That is obviously wrong.

But well-meaning Christians can also be guilty of false praise. Why? Because we don’t like hurting people’s feelings by being honest, so we imagine that by offering syrupy words of praise we are avoiding the problem and somehow doing them good.

This too is wrong. We need to learn how to speak the truth in kind and loving ways, ways that allow scope for further talk and, hopefully, solid building up.

I love the wise words of Proverbs 27:6 - that “wounds inflicted by a friend” can in fact be “trusted”; whereas the person who “multiplies kisses” is an “enemy”.

Worth thinking about, that!

Christian, make up your mind to be a Spirit-like encourager!

Father, help me always to speak the truth in love - and always for the good and growth of the person I am speaking to. Amen.

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Good for a laugh?

A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones. Proverbs 17:22

I heard about an old man who was never anything but bright and happy. When someone wanted to know his secret he said, “Every morning when I wake up I ask myself a question. Am I going to be cheerful today, or am I going to be miserable? And I make the decision to be cheerful.”

Easier said than done, you might think. Indeed, somebody might well say, “You wouldn’t talk like that if you were going through what I’m going through...”

Fair enough. Cheerfulness isn’t just a tap you can turn on at will - any more than anxiety is a tap you can turn off just because of Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:25. Things aren’t quite as simple as that.

And yet... what that man said is worth thinking about. The fact is that we do have it within our power to take at least some control of our moods; we can adopt a basically positive or a basically negative attitude.

Some people seem to delight in being miserable. I have a friend who was breezing down the high street one day when he met someone he knew just a little and had always got on with all right. Being a cheery sort of soul he greeted him: “Morning! How are you today?” To which came the never-to-be-forgotten answer, “What’s it got to do with you?”

CS Lewis also tells the story somewhere about being on a train and asking a fellow-passenger if he knew what time they were due to get to Liverpool. The merry response was, “Ask the guard - it’s not my job to give you information.”

Oh well, they say it takes all sorts...

The Book of Proverbs is a fascinating part of the Bible. In the Good News Bible translation of 17:22 it reads: “Being cheerful keeps you healthy. It is slow death to be gloomy all the time.” The Message translation has: “A cheerful disposition is good for your health; gloom and doom leave you bone-tired.”

Whichever translation you prefer, the verse raises a question (one which, in fact, applies to many verses in Proverbs): Is it simply a statement of fact, an observation, or is it intended to be a challenge to the reader? In other words: are we supposed to respond by shrugging our shoulders and saying, “Yes, that’s true, that’s the way it is”, or by perking up and saying “Yes! It’s time I stopped being such a misery-guts!”

It isn’t clear. But if you are a Christian you will surely want to take something positive from it - something to make you a better person.

Anyone who can make us smile is a real tonic. Just yesterday the death of the British comedian Ken Dodd was announced, and all the tributes being paid were along the same lines: he was “life-enhancing”; it was impossible to be gloomy in his presence. (Apparently he claimed never to reply to letters from the Inland Revenue, on the grounds that (wait for it) he lived by the sea-side. Geddit...?)

I know that humour can be a tricky thing: so often it depends on either cruelty or crudity; either it invites you to enjoy somebody else’s misery, or to wallow in what is coarse and vulgar. But a wholesome humour is truly a gift of God.

There have been times in history when Christians have been renowned for their sombreness. The novelist Robert Louis Stevenson, the man who wrote Treasure Island, once recorded in his diary: “Went to church this morning - and was not depressed!” - as if it was the most amazing thing in the world. This, surely, cannot be right. Doesn’t Paul list joy at number two in his description of the fruit of the Holy Spirit? Isn’t a joyless church, or a joyless Christian, an absolute contradiction in terms?

Here are one or two quotes which, I think, could well be described as proverbs...

Keep company with the more cheerful sort of the Godly; there is no mirth like the mirth of believers. (The Puritan writer Richard Baxter, 1615-1691)

If you’re not allowed to laugh in heaven, I don’t want to go there. (Martin Luther, 1483-1546) (Mind you, I’m not quite sure where he might have preferred to go...)

The person who is always laughing is a fool; the person who never laughs is a knave. (Spanish saying) (Yes, over the years I have learned to be very wary of people who never smile or laugh; they often seem to point to trouble ahead.)

On balance I think I’ll aim to learn from that cheerful old man we started with. What about you?

Lord God, your word tells us that there is a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance. Help me always to know the difference! And thank you for those lovely Christians who lift my spirits by their cheerful faith. Amen.

Saturday, 10 March 2018

Living word - or dead letter?

Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of scripture, to preaching and to teaching. 1Timothy 4:13

There have been times when I have sat in church and been more than usually gripped by what was going on up front. A particularly powerful sermon? Yes, of course, that sometimes happens; but that’s not what I’m thinking of. Music of exceptional quality? Yes, that too; but that also isn’t what I’m thinking of. A specially Spirit-led prayer? Again, yes; but...

No: what I’m thinking of is something so routine and ordinary that we hardly even think about it: what Paul calls “the public reading of scripture”. (Actually, to be strictly accurate, he simply wrote “reading”, and so could possibly be encouraging Timothy to take study seriously; but it’s pretty certain that he is talking in the context of corporate worship.)

I remember one occasion when the reading was delivered with such clarity, understanding and penetration that I would almost say that I was transfixed as I listened; the hair on the back of my neck went prickly.

An obvious question arises: do we take seriously the fact that the Bible is God’s word to us, and that therefore the reading of it should be treated as a key element in our worship services? Putting it in a more negative way, do we, perhaps subconsciously, regard it as just something we need to “do” in the service, almost as a duty? Have we let it become little more than a preliminary to the real business, the meaty stuff: what Paul calls the “preaching and teaching”?

I fear we have. So I want to remind us that the simple reading of God’s word has power to change lives; just by listening we can be instructed, comforted, challenged, rebuked, scolded, and plenty more besides.

To me this seems obvious. But it raises a slightly delicate question: who should be invited to read the scriptures in our services? Is it something anyone who can read should be encouraged to do? Or should it be kept for those with a special gift for it?

Over my many years as a pastor there has been a trend against the idea of the minister as a “one-man band” - that is (in the context of worship) that only he or she is qualified to lift up their voice to lead the congregation (apart, of course, from the notices; mustn’t forget that...).

I think this trend is, in essence, good: surely we want to encourage participation as much as we can.

But it can raise problems. The fact is that not everybody has the ability to read in the kind of way I have been suggesting. They may be perfectly literate, indeed, very intelligent; but for various reasons they just don’t have what it takes to put the reading across convincingly. In such circumstances a vital opportunity to hear God’s word is simply lost - the Bible passage might just as well not have been read at all, and so the living word is reduced to a dead letter.

Yes, it’s good to encourage participation in every aspect of church life; but, quite sensibly, we do look for certain “qualifications” before anyone is let loose, so to speak.

Or we should...

Many years ago I got involved with a church which didn’t have a minister. The music was led by a small and enthusiastic singing group, which sounds great. But unfortunately one of its members simply couldn’t sing. Oh yes, she was enthusiastic all right; ten out of ten for that. It wasn’t only that she didn’t have a particularly good voice; no, she just couldn’t sing in tune - and of course she was blissfully unaware of the fact and belted it out at top volume. It made your toes curl, like when someone runs their finger-nail up a blackboard. And everybody was so wonderfully Christian that they couldn’t bear to take her aside... Oh dear...

Something hinges on how we view our Sunday gatherings. If we see them as, in essence, “in house” occasions designed for those of us who “belong”, no major problem. As in any healthy family, we cheerfully accept and tolerate one another’s foibles.

But if we see them as “public” events - as, in effect, the church’s shop window for the world outside, the occasion when we are likely to welcome outsiders, unbelievers, perhaps even sceptics - then that’s rather different.

When we read Paul telling Timothy to “devote himself to the public reading of scripture” we certainly get the impression that he expected this particular component of worship to be done with great care and - dare I say it? - even expertise. 
Now, how we translate that to our particular circumstances I’m really not sure. But is it something we need to think about?

Let’s take the public reading of scripture with real seriousness!

Lord God, help me to see in a new way the value of your written word - whether studied in private or read in public. Amen.

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Rotten to the core?

As it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one;
     there is no one who understands;
    there is no one who seeks God.
 All have turned away,
    they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
    not even one.”
 “Their throats are open graves;
    their tongues practice deceit.”
“The poison of vipers is on their lips.”
     “Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”
 “Their feet are swift to shed blood;
     ruin and misery mark their ways,
 and the way of peace they do not know.”
     “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
Romans 3:10-18

It always happens at times like this - and it’s always reassuring and heart-warming.

What times am I talking about? Crisis times, that’s what. Over the last few days in Britain the weather has been unusually severe, with cars stuck on motorways, houses without water or electricity, and people falling on the ice and breaking bones. Even, sadly, some deaths.

But set against this are the lovely stories of selflessness and heroism - like the doctor who walked ten miles through the snow (and presumably ten miles back) to get to the hospital where he worked. Or people giving out hot drinks and sandwiches to motorists stranded in their cars. Beautiful stories: and you think “There’s a lot of good in people after all!” 

And then you read the verses above. 

Sorry about the unusually long quote, but it all hangs together, and it’s not until you read it right through that you get the full impact. It’s basically a string of Old Testament verses, mostly from the Psalms, that Paul uses to illustrate the essential sinfulness and corruption of human nature.

And you feel like saying, “Hang on a minute, Paul! Aren’t you going a bit over the top? Even when things are pretty normal, I still find that, well, the way you describe people just isn’t the way I usually find them. Most of the people I rub shoulders with day by day are pleasant, friendly and helpful. So when you say that ‘no-one does good’, that ‘the poison of vipers is on their lips’, that ‘their throats are open graves’ and that ‘their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness’ - well, I’m sorry, Paul, but I find it hard not to feel that you’re guilty of serious exaggeration, to put it mildly. Is human nature really that bad?”

If we are Christians, we believe that the Bible is in some sense God’s inspired word - which means that when Paul wrote these words he did so under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. But what, then, are we to do when it seems so alien to our day-to-day experience? We don’t want to question God’s word. But at the same time we have to be honest with ourselves. We have a problem...

Various possible solutions come to mind.

First, let’s grant that Paul is using rhetoric here. And rhetoric (defined as “The art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing, especially the exploitation of figures of speech and other compositional techniques”) involves exaggeration for maximum impact. Paul wants his readers to sit up and pay attention - and I suspect this passage is pretty successful in that respect!

Second, it’s right to recognise that each of these damning quotes belonged originally to a particular time, place and situation. For all we know, things really were extremely dire when these words were originally written, and as Paul looked around him at the rottenness of the Roman Empire, he simply felt that they were indeed a good match for how things were.

Third, in order to get the full picture, remember that the Bible recognises in other places a certain “natural goodness” (sometimes referred to by theologians as “common grace”) which many people possess even though they have no knowledge of God. It’s been said that we in the western world are living on the diminishing capital of our Christian past - which means that many of us still act relatively “Christianly” even without a living faith in Christ.

(The unnamed centurion of Luke 7:1-10 is a good example of what you might call a “godly pagan”: he has earned a reputation for good deeds, and he shows wonderful humility and faith.)

These three considerations are worth bearing in mind when we read Paul’s ferocious words.

But having said all that, by far the most important things is this: God alone knows the truth about each of our hearts.

The basic point Paul wants to make in these early chapters of his letter to the church in Rome is that every human being is sinful. And that applied equally to Jews, the earthly people of God, and to Gentiles or “pagans”. As he puts it in Romans 3:23: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”.

Most of us are pretty skilled at putting on an appearance of goodness: we know how to be “civilised”. But when we come to look into the depths of our own hearts... ah, what we see may be very different. It’s at times like that that we feel the force of the words of the Old Testament writer: “The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).

Jesus too doesn’t have a very high opinion of human nature: in what seems pretty much a throwaway remark, he addresses his hearers with the words “If you then, though you are evil...” (Matthew 7:11).

A long, honest look into our own hearts may help convince us that perhaps Paul’s scorching indictment is - well, not quite so over the top as we first imagined...

Search me, oh God, and know my heart. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. Amen.

Saturday, 3 March 2018

Are you a good team-player?

I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel... Philippians 1:3-5

Did you hear about the mountaineer who decided to go it alone?

He was with a group who had planned to do a winter climb of K2, the world’s second highest mountain. This meant they had to complete the ascent by the end of February - and if you think weather conditions in Britain over the last few days have been difficult, well, I dread to think what they must have been like on that mountainside.

Unfortunately, there were various delays - nobody’s fault in particular - time was running out and they had barely got going. Disagreements and tensions flared up about what they ought to do. Whereupon the go-it-alone climber decided to do just that - to go it alone. He didn’t discuss it with his team-mates; in fact, he didn’t even tell them what he intended to do. He just went.

Did he make it to the top? No. Did he make it back to the camp where the others were? Yes. Did he apologise for his action? No. Did he stay with the team for another try? No. He headed back down the mountain - and I don’t think his colleagues were sorry to see him go.

The reaction from the mountaineering community as a whole was largely critical. Most climbers felt he had been reckless and selfish, and had let the team down. I doubt if he will receive too many invitations to join climbing parties in the future. You can admire his bravery, of course; but it’s hard to feel any great sympathy.

If you’re part of a team, you must function as part of that team - that is, as they say, the bottom line. And this principle is vital when the New Testament talks about the church. You can define the church in various ways - as a body, as an army, as a family, for example - but the idea of a team is also good.

Paul had a very soft spot for the church in Philippi; his letter to them is full of affection and appreciation. And he hits that note right at the start, telling them how he thanks God for “your partnership in the gospel”. The Greek word he uses is koinonia, which is often translated “fellowship”, and which certainly includes the idea of team-work. It’s obvious that he greatly valued the support and co-operation of the Philippi church.

This implies that if we are Christians, God expects us to be good team-players. Does that describe you? If not, I suggest that you need to do some serious thinking.

The Bible simply knows nothing - either New Testament or Old - of solitary believers: either you were part of the community of Israel, or of the community of the church. No loose cannons, no prima donnas, no individualists. It’s no accident that when Jesus sent out the twelve to preach the gospel, he sent them out in twos; we never read of him sending out anyone alone.

Two thoughts occur to me, one negative, one positive.

The negative thought first: the church is a community of people who don’t necessarily like one another. What matters is that they are joined together in a task they all care about and believe in. Yes, hopefully they will all get on well, and there will be much Christ-like love. But there are bound also to be differences of opinion and tensions, and the key thing is not to pretend they aren’t there, but to handle them in a gracious, mature and loving manner.

I read somewhere that Gilbert and Sullivan, the composers who wrote those massively successful comic operas in the Victorian age, couldn’t stand the sight of one another in their personal lives. The same has been said of footballers who form a brilliant goal-scoring combination. Both of which examples show what can be done. Let not the church fail where the “world” can succeed!

The positive thought is this: when Christians do succeed in working lovingly and harmoniously together, the sense of achievement is one of the most fulfilling things you could ever imagine. It may be the “spiritual” work of faithfully praying together or leading a children’s group; or it may be the “practical” work of running a food-bank or doing the cleaning - whatever the work is, it joins us together in a deep and satisfying relationship.

Speaking personally, I can only say what joy I have known over my life as a Christian - plenty of fun and laughter as well as the more serious stuff - through the people it’s been my privilege to work with.

I can’t help feeling sorry for that go-it-alone mountaineer, however irresponsibly he acted. I wonder if, deep down, he already regrets what he did. But I feel even more sorry for the solitary Christian: how much joy he or she misses!

Make no mistake, any Christian who opts to go it alone will one day regret it bitterly. Just make sure it’s not you!

Lord Jesus, teach me to be a loyal, responsible and enthusiastic member of the team you have gathered about yourself, loving my fellow team members, and rejoicing in the task you have called us to. Amen.