Friday, 24 May 2019

A bad habit we need to break

Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing... Hebrews 10:25

One of the pleasures of church life is welcoming new people. This isn’t so that we can pounce on them in the hope that they might be able to serve in some particular way. No, it’s simply good to see fresh faces - perhaps Christians who will strengthen the fellowship and even become lifelong friends, perhaps not-yet-Christians who we are going to have the privilege of leading to faith in Christ.

I do hope this happens fairly regularly in your church.
The down-side, of course, is when the opposite happens - when those who used to be regularly with us are not any more. We find ourselves saying to one another “We don’t seem to have seen so-and-so much recently?” or “Do you know what’s become of so-and-so?”

People go missing from church life for all sorts of reasons.
There might be a problem - a disagreement, a personality clash, a misunderstanding, practical difficulties like transport or changes in a work routine, perhaps just a feeling of not being entirely happy with the way the church is going. Sometimes - don’t forget this - there may be a spiritual crisis going on in somebody’s heart.

But in my experience it’s very likely to be simply a matter of what I call spiritual drift. We just get out of the habit. Other pressures come crowding in and threaten to squeeze God out. Somebody I once hadn’t seen for a bit responded to my enquiry with an embarrassed laugh: “Oh, I’ve been finding it hard to get out of bed recently!”

The fact is that initial enthusiasm can fade. As the New Testament puts it, we can lose our “spiritual fervour” (Romans 12:11).

If it’s any consolation, Hebrews 10:25 tells us that the same problem existed in the early days of the church. We are tempted to imagine that in those far-off days everyone was bursting with red-hot zeal for God. But not so: there were apparently those who were “giving up meeting together” (possibly for fear of persecution - which at least would be an understandable excuse). And this is a danger we can fall into.

You’ve probably heard the standard sermon illustration... The church can be compared to an old-fashioned wood fire. If you take a stick off a roaring fire it will carry on burning for a time, but very soon it will die out and become just a bit of cold, charred wood.

And we are like that. If we get separated from the church we won’t suddenly stop being Christians: no - but little by little the glow will fade until there is nothing left. Sad!

Do you ever find yourself thinking “Perhaps I’ll give church a miss today”? Or that some television programme is more attractive than a mid-week prayer-meeting or house-group? 

Of course you do! We all do. We’re only human, and our faith is far - very far in many cases! - from perfection.

But it’s at times like that that we need to be careful. And this is where Hebrews 10:25 is the jolt we need. (Bear in mind also that often, having made the effort in spite of our lukewarm feelings, we end up saying, “Well, I certainly didn’t feel like going to the meeting today - but I’m so glad now that I did!”)

We’re heading for the summer holiday season. Here’s a direct question. If you are planning to go away for a week or two, will you make a point of being in worship on the Sundays? Or do you think of holiday time as a holiday from church?

That can’t be right! It can in fact be refreshing to go along to a church other than the one where you feel familiar and comfortable - perhaps a church with a completely different style of worship and spirituality. Not to mention the encouragement you can bring to that church by making yourself known and even bringing greetings from your own church.

See it not as a duty to be carried out, but as a positive area of service and an opportunity to grow and learn. You won’t regret it.

One last thought. It may be that you are in fact one of those who has gone missing - who has “given up meeting together”.

What can I say? Just this: It would be great to see you back. The church needs you. And, believe it or not, you need the church!

Lord, it is my chief complaint/ That my love is weak and faint./ Yet I love Thee and adore;/ O for grace to love Thee more. Amen. (William Cowper (1731-1800)

Father, I remember how Jesus went regularly to the synagogue in his time on earth. Help me to be like him, in this as in all things. Amen.

Wednesday, 22 May 2019

Ascension Day? What's that?

After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.” Acts 1:9-11

I would guess that most ordinary Christians barely give a thought to the “ascension” of Jesus - the occasion when he was “taken up” (or “ascended”) into heaven.

There are probably two main reasons for this.

First, to be fair, the New Testament barely mentions it. Of the Gospel writers, only Luke describes it - here, in Acts 1, and, even more briefly, at the very end of Luke 24. Apart from that, there are just brief references to it scattered in the various New Testament letters.

Second, it didn’t take place on a Sunday. So while churches very naturally celebrate Easter Sunday for Jesus’ resurrection, and Whit Sunday, or Pentecost, for the coming of the Holy Spirit, the Ascension is rather tucked away: on a Thursday, in fact - forty days after Easter, and eleven days before Pentecost. Easy to miss.

So let’s not feel too guilty if we have given little thought to the Ascension! But the fact is that - well, it happened, so it can only be good to reflect on it.

Let’s ask the question: What does this strange and supernatural event mean, and what difference does it make?

Here are a handful of answers to that question.

First, it signifies that Jesus’ work on earth was over.

As he died on the cross Jesus shouted “It is finished”. By paying the price for our sins he had completed the work of reconciling humankind to God.

But Jesus remained on earth - or, at least, appeared on earth - for some six weeks after his death and resurrection, and he still had work to do - especially in giving final teaching to his apostles.

Ascension Day marks the fact that that work too was finished - and never from that day to this has Jesus ever been seen on earth. A whole era was over and a new one began - history turned on a massive hinge.

Second, it confirms that, as Paul said later, “we walk by faith and not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7).

Our eyes haven’t seen Jesus, nor have our ears heard him. But we are called to believe in him and trust him every minute of every day, and it is in so doing that we find him to be a living reality.

Third, it comforts us with the hope of one day joining him.

Before he went to the cross Jesus spent time reassuring his disciples, who were understandably troubled. Among the many things he said were these words about “my Father’s house”: “I am going there to prepare a place for you” (John 14:2). He left the disciples not in order to abandon them, but in order to pave the way for them - a great assurance for us when we think about death.

Fourth, it opened up a whole new ministry for Jesus.
It’s natural for us to ask “What exactly is Jesus doing in heaven?”

Well, the writer to the Hebrews tells us that “he sat down at the right hand of God” (Hebrews 10:12). Metaphorical language, of course, akin to the Book of Revelation.

But it conveys the fact that Jesus really is Lord, and reigns with his heavenly Father over the whole of creation. The suffering, crucified Jesus is Lord of all! - and a day is coming when every knee will bow to him (Philippians 2:10).

There is another ministry too in which the ascended Jesus is engaged. Stressing his priestly role, the writer to the Hebrews says: “he always lives to intercede” for us (Hebrews 7:25).

I must admit that I’m not very clear exactly how to imagine this. But who cares! - the message is that in Jesus we have an eternal, heavenly high priest who prays to God the Father on our behalf. He is on our side! - let’s remember that when we are feeling low.

The Ascension, then, brings to mind these four great truths - plus others there is no time to mention.

Why not take a few minutes to pray through them?

But I’ve left till last one other vital thing: Jesus’ ascension makes possible the coming of the Holy Spirit on the infant church.

Here is more of his farewell teaching to the apostles: “It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate [that is, the Holy Spirit] will not come to you; but if I go I will send him to you” (John 16:7).

“It is for your good that I am going away”! Jesus blesses us by “leaving” us! The apostles are being encouraged to look forward to the coming of the Spirit.

And shouldn't we do the same?

So... when Ascension Day comes (Thursday 30 May this year), take time to reflect on this pivotal event - and let it whet your appetite for the awesome events of 9 June, Holy Spirit Sunday.

Heavenly Father, thank you that, before he returned to heaven, Jesus gave his disciples such rich and wonderful promises. Much as I would love to have seen the earthly Jesus, help me to understand that, because of the gift of the Holy Spirit, I am in fact better off without his physical presence. Amen.

Friday, 17 May 2019

Feet of clay...?

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he [God] is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 1 John 1:8-9

I wrote last time about the mixed nature of the church - it is a community of saved sinners and sinful saints. Each of us is both of those things.

Which means, among other things, that we shouldn’t put Christians we admire on a pedestal. We may be perfectly right to admire them - but we need to keep in mind that they aren’t perfect, any more than we are.

No sooner had I posted this blog than I read - with quite some shock - about a clear example of this truth. An obituary in the paper outlined the life of a man who was well-known in Christian circles as an academic theologian, a writer of both popular and heavyweight books, and a sparkling speaker and enthusiastic evangelist.

I heard him speak on a number of occasions, and had a chat with him once or twice. He was a man you instinctively looked up to and admired.

So what was it that shocked me? Well, it seems that at one stage of his life he and his wife experienced serious marriage problems. To quote the paper: “... his lack of attention and understanding and her anger led to ‘stormy years’... including physical scuffles between the pair.”

“Physical scuffles”! Goodness me! I found that really quite difficult to believe of this man that I had looked up to. (On the good side, the article went on to say that they attended counselling sessions and learned to love one another again.)
Reflecting on this, I felt that there were various lessons we as Christians can draw.

First, and most important, let Christ alone be the focus of our worship and adoration.

As I said earlier, there’s nothing wrong with admiring fine Christians who have influenced us. The writer to the Hebrews, indeed, tells his readers to respect those “who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith” (13:7). That’s fine. But he then immediately adds: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever” - as if to say, But never let them take the place of Jesus!

Do you have a favourite preacher or pastor? A favourite Christian musician, perhaps? A favourite writer? Even, if you’re the egg-head sort, a pet theologian? Or just somebody in your church who can do no wrong in your eyes? That’s fine - but don’t be naive; they are sinners too! Expect, at some point, to be disappointed...

Second, I felt encouraged by the thought: So God uses sinful people, then!

This wasn’t exactly a new revelation. Of course, I knew perfectly well that God uses sinners! - when you stop and think about it, he hasn’t got a lot of choice, has he?

This doesn’t mean he condones or turns a blind eye to our sins. Of course not. But given that we are all imperfect, the plain fact is that he has to work with (how shall I put this?) some pretty ropy raw material. Think, for just a couple of examples, of King David in the Old Testament and the apostle Peter in the New.

What it does mean, though, is that he wants to use you and me as well.

Never say “I am not good enough to be used by God!” No: if your heart is sincere, and if you truly hate your sins and weaknesses (David and Peter again), then God can make you an instrument of his usefulness. Just work out what he wants you to do, then roll up your sleeves and get on with it.

Third, after the shock had worn off a bit, I felt a sense of real admiration.

For one thing, this couple had had the wisdom and humility to seek counselling. None of this stiff-upper-lip-we-can-manage-perfectly-well-by-ourselves-thank-you-very-much stuff. They recognised that they needed help, and they went looking for it.

Is that a word to some of us?

And I couldn’t help admiring also that they had obviously been willing to make their difficulties known even beyond the counselling room. That, I am sure, can’t have been easy. But it’s as if they were wanting to make the very point I started with: “We aren’t Mr and Mrs Perfect! We are sinners too! So don’t put us on a pedestal.”

Let’s go back to those great words of John that I quoted at the beginning: “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he [God] is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”

Plenty to ponder there, I think, as we look at others - and as we look at ourselves...

Our Father in heaven, thank you that you are a God who loves and uses sinners. Give me, please, the wisdom to value godly Christians without idolising them, and the humility to hate the sins within my own soul. Amen.

Tuesday, 14 May 2019

Saved sinners - and sinful saints

So when you are assembled... hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord. 1 Corinthians 5:4-5

What should a church do when one of its members is guilty of a particularly bad sin? Somebody commits a crime, say? Or falls into sexual immorality? Or gets heavily into drugs or alcohol? What about men (it’s usually men) who are exposed as addicted to pornography?

It happens. Let’s not fool ourselves that all Christians live above-reproach lives, only ever guilty of trivial failings. No: in spite of outward appearances, this may very well not be the case, for we learn to be skilled actors.

Churches tend to opt for one of three main responses: turn a blind eye and hope the problem will go away; wag a scolding finger and hope the individual in question will mend their ways; kick the offending person out of the church altogether.

About 300 years after Jesus, a grouping of Christians called Donatists sprang up in North Africa (named after a leader called Donatus Magnus). They were extreme hard-liners - and not only when it came to moral failure. They felt that severe measures were necessary for church members who had buckled under persecution and denied Christ; in particular, church leaders who had done this should only be re-admitted to the church after undergoing humiliating punishment.

To be fair, the persecution the church in North Africa had suffered was grim, so it is understandable that those who had remained faithful to Christ should not look too kindly on those who hadn’t. The dispute between the Donatists and the mainstream church rumbled on for some 400 years before Donatism faded away. But questions of church discipline never go away, even if we tend to meet them mainly at local level.

The basic question is: How “pure” should we expect the church to be? Or, putting it the other way around, to what extent should we accept that it is “mixed”?

When I was a new, teenage Christian there was something of a scandal in the church I belonged to. One of the leaders, a taxi-driver, was found guilty of fiddling his fares. This got into the local paper - just the kind of thing non-Christians love to read about. What should the church do? My recollection (many years on!) is that he was removed from his leadership position, but not thrown out of the church. I suspect this was probably about right, assuming that he expressed sincere repentance.

In my own time as a pastor there was a situation where one of the deacons got into a wrong relationship with the non-Christian husband of a fellow church member. She was quite brazen about this, and the relationship continued.

What should we do? We felt we had to ask her to leave. Did we do right?

Of course the church should be pure. It is, after all, “the body of Christ” on earth (1 Corinthians 12:27), and its members are called to be holy.

But, hang on a minute, Christians are sinners as well as saints! - saved sinners, of course, but sinners all the same. I once saw a witty wall-poster in a church hall: “Be patient with me: God hasn’t finished with me yet!” Very good!

The church in Corinth was, in various respects, a total shambles. Just read Paul’s first letter to them and you end up shaking your head - members were taking one another to court on various issues; people were using the communion service to eat and drink to excess; the worship services were often chaotic, with an abuse of the “spiritual gifts”.

So Paul has some severe things to say to them.

But it’s interesting that nowhere does he suggest they should all be thrown out of the church, or even that they aren’t true Christians. No, he seems to accept them as brothers and sisters in Christ, warts and all.

In only one case - the “immoral man” of chapter 5 - does he recommend expulsion. And even here it’s important to notice that he expects the man to be restored as a result - “that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord” (5:5).

Repentance is the key word in all this. If somebody who has “gone astray” remains fixed in their sin, then, yes, perhaps (after time spent praying to God and pleading with the individual) they have to go. But our hearts should be filled with pain, and the hope must be that they will come back.

In the meantime, it’s up to the rest of us to examine our own habits and feelings - and those hidden inner lives we all have. Are we perfect? Are we worthy to belong to the church of Jesus Christ?

Never forget the old saying: If you ever find the perfect church, whatever you do, don’t join it. You’ll only spoil it.

Thank you, Lord God, for the great privilege and joy of belonging to your church, sinner though I am. Help me by your Holy Spirit to strive towards true Christlikeness, and to be a challenge, a help and a comfort to others who fall short. Amen.

Friday, 10 May 2019

Anyone for a laugh?

A cheerful heart is good medicine. Proverbs 17:22

I read recently about a man who, since 2007, has kept a record of every time he sneezes. “He logs them by location, strength and activity when it happened,” it said in The Times. Apparently Sneeze Number 5126 was recorded as: “Bathroom, moderate to strong, cleaning teeth.” (Aren’t you just glad you know that?)

And don’t you just love people with a wacky sense of humour? Like the man who decided his house address was a bit boring, having only a number and street name: 44 Acacia Avenue or whatever. It ought to have a name to itself! he declared. Something to distinguish it! So after deep thought he came up with... Ocean View.

Now, isn’t that beautiful? You can almost see the sun sparkling on the waves, the gulls wheeling overhead, the boats sailing by on the horizon, the children paddling in the water. Beautiful.

Never mind that he happened to live in the suburbs of Wolverhampton. (In case you’re not familiar with the geography of England, let me just say that there are few places in the country more distant from the coast.) Hats off to that man, I say!

Or the football fan who refused to admit that his team had lost. “No,” he said, “we didn’t lose, we just ran out of time while we were temporarily behind.” (All right, have it your own way...)

I could go on. What about the person who has made himself an authority on the history of tomato ketchup? Or shipping containers? Or... whatever?

Where would we be without jokes and laughter, banter and leg-pulling? In a pretty bad way, that’s where. Humour is a wired-in part of human nature: after all, a new-born baby doesn’t have to be taught to either cry or laugh. We need light-heartedness: an adult who is never downright silly is a sorry specimen.

Of course, “religious” people have sometimes tended to be suspicious of humour. And that has included Christians - or, at least, the kind of Christians who see God mainly as hard and stern.

You can understand them to some extent. Much humour derives its effectiveness from being either cruel - making somebody else feel bad about themself - or crude. (There are some television programmes which seem to me simply disgusting, and I find it hard to understand how any Christian can enjoy them. I’m not sure who to feel sadder about - the people up front peddling this stuff, or the people in the audience howling their heads off as crudity follows crudity. I know that feeling this way exposes me to the danger of seeming self-righteous, but - well, so be it.)

A lack of humour can be a sign of danger. “Those whom the gods would make bigots, they first deprive of humour,” said James Gillis. True, there are good people who just don’t see the funny side of things, and that’s fine; but it can be genuinely worrying when even innocent humour is regarded as suspect. I doubt if there are many belly-laughs among religious extremists who believe that it’s right to kill in the name of their god.

As I look back on the bad old days of soviet communism, and picture those granite-faced men who rose to the top of the political ladder, it’s hard to remember any of them smiling, never mind laughing.

The Bible doesn’t have much to say about humour. But it does tell us to be good-humoured and cheerful. Ecclesiastes 3:4 says that there is “a time to weep and a time to laugh”. The Book of Proverbs - a lot of good earthy sense there - says that “a cheerful look brings joy to the heart” (15:30), and “a cheerful heart is good medicine” (17:22). I think modern psychology would go along with that.

Down through the centuries Christians have testified to the God-given nature of humour...

“God cannot be solemn, or he would not have blessed man with the incalculable gift of laughter”, wrote Sydney Harris.

Martin Luther went so far as to say, “If you’re not allowed to laugh in heaven, I don’t want to go there.”

And Richard Baxter (1615-1691), who belonged to that grouping of Christians who became known as “Puritans”, wrote, “Keep company with the more cheerful sort of the Godly; there is no mirth like the mirth of believers.”

Yes! I used to help out with “mag-packing” for a missionary society - retired people like me were roped in to get magazines ready for posting. It could be a tedious task. But one of our number had this marvellous gift of reeling off wisecrack after wisecrack to keep us entertained as we toiled. He had us almost falling about - and I think that Baxter’s dictum was well borne out.

The message has to be: Christian, cultivate holy humour and godly laughter! You will feel better yourself. And you will make this world a better place.

Loving Father, help me to take an innocent and joyful delight in the many good things I enjoy from your generous hand. And help me to lighten the heaviness of others by my good nature and appropriate cheerfulness. Amen.

Tuesday, 7 May 2019

The forgotten person of the Trinity

Jesus said, “John baptised with water, but in a few days you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit”. Acts 1:5

They said, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit”. Acts 19:2

Sermon-class was nearly over - and I had been the preacher. Now it was time for “constructive feed-back”, when everyone in chapel could pile in and comment on how I had done.

The college principal gave me a severe look and said “I’m sorry, Mr Sedgwick (things were a lot more formal all those years ago), but I’m afraid you are a binitarian.”

Gulp. What on earth was a binitarian? Was he accusing me of being some kind of heretic, like the Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses?

In fact, he wasn’t being entirely serious. No, this was his way of pointing out that throughout the whole service there hadn’t been so much as a mention of the Holy Spirit. Not in the hymns I had chosen, nor in any of the readings; not in the prayers or in the sermon. Mmm.

In terms of doctrine, Christians are trinitarians - that is, we believe that in God there are three (“tri-") persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We are certainly not unitarians, believing that God is simply one (“uni-") person.

So what the principal was telling me was that I was guilty of believing in only two (“bi-") persons in God, the Father and the Son. But not the Holy Spirit.

This happened some fifty years ago, when I was callow, brown-haired and luxuriously bearded. But I suspect that for many genuine Christians not much has changed. If you were to ask them “Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit?” they would be horrified: “Of course! - I’m a sound, orthodox Christian!” But for all practical purposes they are binitarians (not much different from those “disciples” in Acts 19). The Holy Spirit barely figures in their thinking at all.

May I ask: What about you? Could it be that you are a binitarian?

I suspect there are two main reasons for this sorry state of affairs.

First, it’s not easy to put into words or pictures who the Holy Spirit is, so we tend to neglect him.

Everyone has at least some idea of what a “father” is. And of course it’s not difficult to imagine God the Son - Jesus is wonderfully pictured for us in the Gospels.

But the Holy Spirit? How should we think of him? The breath of God? The supernatural life of God? The comforter? The peace-giver? A dove? The Holy Spirit is very hard to pin down! - like trying to grab a beautiful aroma with your fingers.

And, in fairness, many churches in those far-off days probably failed to give much teaching concerning him: he was acknowledged in principle, but not really in practice. (So perhaps I could be excused for my failing.)

The second reason for our neglect of the Holy Spirit can be summed up in a single word: fear.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s the church suddenly woke up to the Holy Spirit through what became known as the charismatic movement. And, putting it bluntly, it frightened many people. Puzzling questions were being asked, like, “Have you been baptised in the Holy Spirit?” or “Are you filled with the Holy Spirit?”

Disturbing things started happening - things which previously we had only associated with those strange “Pentecostals” who, as everyone knew, were, ahem, slightly dodgy. People were claiming miracles and healings. People were “speaking in tongues” (or “gabbling”, as someone expressed it). Meetings and services were getting out of control, sometimes highly emotional.

All very alarming. It was, as some saw it, Pentecostalism spilling out of Pentecostal churches and into the more “mainstream” churches - Anglican, Baptist, even Roman Catholic. And so the shutters went up in many circles - as if a cursor had been placed over the Holy Spirit and the delete button pressed.

The last fifty years has taught us that yes, indeed, the charismatic movement brought with it many excesses, and there is no doubt that lives have been damaged by it. But the church as a whole has succeeded in absorbing what started out seeming wild and dangerous and which has now become mainstream.

But that nervousness remains in many quarters - deep down, we like things comfortable and predictable, don’t we, nicely pinned down? And so mention of the Holy Spirit can still make us jittery.

Which is tragic! - if indeed the Spirit really is as vitally important as the Gospels, Acts and the letters of the New Testament make clear.

Well, it will soon be Whitsun - that time in the Christian calendar when churches all round the world will be celebrating the wonderful events described in Acts 2. The first Christian Pentecost! - the events promised by John the Baptist: “I baptise you with water, but he (that is, Jesus) will baptise you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:8).

I am no Pentecostal or charismatic: I think important aspects of the theology are wrong. But there’s no doubt in my mind that, however sound our doctrine might be in theory, a bit of self-examination might be in order for some of us: am I - are you - to all intents and purposes a binitarian?

Loving Father, we cry out to you that, even as Whitsun approaches, you would fill your church with the love of your Son - and baptise it with the power of your Spirit. Amen!

Saturday, 4 May 2019

A woman it would be nice to know

After this, Jesus travelled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means. Luke 8:1-3

Jesus had many prominent female disciples.

It’s easy for us to overlook that fact, given that the world in which he lived was entirely male-dominated, and that this was bound to be reflected in the ministry he exercised.

But it’s true. In this tiny passage we read the names of three such women: Mary Magdalene, Joanna the wife of Chuza, and Susanna. But Luke also mentions “many others”. He tells us two significant things about them: first, they “were with him”, along with the apostles; and second, they “were helping to support” Jesus and the twelve “out of their own means”.

Mary Magdalene and Joanna are mentioned again by Luke in 24:10 as part of a wider group who stood at the foot of the cross as he died, and then, on Easter Day, as being the first to bring to the twelve the news of his rising.

These women obviously mattered to Jesus; they mattered very much. (To them, after all, was entrusted the greatest news the world has ever heard!) The obvious implication is that godly woman should matter very much to the church today as well. What this implies for questions of female leadership and ministry is a big topic, but that’s not what I want to focus on today.

No, I want to think in particular about just one of these women: Joanna, who is described as “the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household”. (Far too much has already been written about Mary Magdalene, much of it nonsense which has no basis in the Bible.)

When you think about Jesus’ early followers, do you tend to have in mind the poor people - the “ordinary people” - from the villages and small towns: the sort of people who flocked in large crowds to “listen to him with delight” (Mark 12:37)? I must admit I do.

But, wonderful though that is, it isn’t the whole picture, for Joanna and her companions were obviously pretty well-to-do, and probably quite cultured and educated: how else could they support him “out of their own means”?

Joanna’s wealthy status probably arose from the fact that her husband Chuza was a prominent official, “the manager of Herod’s household”, no less.

Who was Herod?

The Herod family was a dynasty of Jewish rulers who came after Herod the Great, the man responsible for building the temple that we read about in the Gospels. (They ruled totally under the thumb of the Romans, of course.)

The Herod we meet here was one of his sons, Herod Antipas, who governed the region of Galilee. It was he who reluctantly and stupidly killed John the Baptist, probably while he was full of drink (Mark 6:14-29) - and it was he to whom Jesus once referred as “that fox” (Luke 13:31-32)!

It is striking that Joanna’s husband should be in the employment of this powerful man. No doubt the couple had a very nice house in the region of Galilee (Capernaum perhaps?), complete with plenty of slaves and all mod cons.

It raises interesting questions: did Chuza know that his wife was a follower of Jesus? Or did she have to keep it secret because it might get him into difficulty with his boss?

Or was Chuza perhaps a follower of Jesus himself? It has been suggested that he might be the “certain royal official” mentioned in John 4:46-54, whose son was healed by Jesus. John tells us that “he and his whole household believed”, and also that they lived in Capernaum. True, the only healing that Luke mentions is that of Joanna herself, not of any son; but it’s an intriguing possibility.

We can only speculate. But, true or not, it’s clear that there were people from the higher ranks of society who believed in Jesus. And this puts a new light on his ministry.

I don’t imagine that Joanna and her friends travelled around with Jesus anything like as much as the apostles; perhaps they simply made a point of turning out when he was in their vicinity. But the fact is that he was obviously glad to welcome their presence and their support, even at risk of causing scandal among the strict rabbis - who would never so much as dream of having female disciples in their entourage!

Joanna is certainly a woman I would like to have met. If nothing else, what little we know about her prompts important questions for us today.

First, are women in our churches recognised and valued for the roles they play? Second, are their gifts and talents fully used? And third, do we aim to build churches that are thoroughly mixed in terms of sex, social status and educational background?

Happy is that church which is “multi-generational”, both male and female, and a genuine cross-section of its local community!

Lord, thank you for unsung heroes like Joanna. Thank you for all those who love and serve Jesus in quiet and unobtrusive ways. And if that is my role in the life of the church, help me to fulfil it cheerfully and reliably. Amen.

Wednesday, 1 May 2019

In praise of a sweet tooth

Eat honey... for it is good; honey from the comb is sweet to your taste. Proverbs 24:13

I once dropped a slice of toast and honey (yum yum) on the floor - and you’ll never guess what happened. It landed honey side up. Wahay! I thought, this really is my lucky day.

Well, I don’t know if you like honey. But I hope you do, because the Bible says you should eat it. (Mind you, I can’t quite believe that on the Day of Judgment God is going to look disapprovingly at anyone and say, “Well, I’m sorry, but as I scrutinise your earthly life I can’t help noticing that you didn’t eat honey regularly. Would you care to explain this disobedience on your part?” No. I suspect that he may be more interested in such little matters as pride, greed, anger, honesty, moral purity, don’t you?)

I find the Book of Proverbs intriguing. It’s great for dipping into: there are some profound and thought-provoking verses - and some others which, if I am to be completely honest, seem odd, even a bit wacky. And this is one: why would God tell us to “eat honey”, of all things?

One thing is certain: this isn’t a text which should be taken literally - though I have a nasty feeling that somewhere in the world there is a church called “The Church of the Faithful Honey-Eaters”, or some such thing. (A bit like those crazy churches which release venomous snakes into their services, on the basis of Mark 16:18, a verse which probably isn’t part of the original Bible anyway. Yes, such churches really do exist.)

No, this is a verse intended to spark off a train of thought. Let me share one or two of mine. The first is, I must admit, a bit of a stretch; the second is at least plausible; and the third gets us to the heart of it.

First, is it meant to get us thinking about our diet? Honey is a health-giving food, so this command can prompt the question, Am I a healthy eater?

Many of us live in parts of the world where junk food is everywhere available - and very tempting. Obesity is reaching epidemic proportions. How many of us are risking damage to our health through bad eating habits? The New Testament tells us that if we are Christians our bodies are “temples of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:19). So shouldn’t we take care to look after them well?

Many Christians are very strict when it comes to drugs, alcohol and tobacco. Which is good. But there are plenty of other health-damaging habits we can get into, aren’t there?

Second, perhaps this verse speaks to us about enjoying the good things of life. Honey, after all, is sweet and energising.

In 1 Samuel 14 Jonathan and his troops are fainting for lack of food in the midst of battle. But they find honey in the woods, so Jonathan “dipped his staff” into the honeycomb and “raised it to his mouth”, whereupon “his eyes brightened”.

So could God be suggesting to us that there is nothing wrong with an occasional treat? Life is pretty grey if we never have special things to look forward to.

Jesus wasn’t ashamed to go to dinner-parties. Indeed, according to Matthew 11:19 he was accused of over-indulging in alcohol. Of course we mustn’t take anything to excess (see Proverbs 25:16 for an important companion verse to this one), but God doesn’t expect his people to be sour and stone-faced. He wants us to enjoy the good things he has provided.

Third, and this is surely the main point, this verse speaks about wisdom.

We have focussed on Proverbs 24:13 - but what about the next verse? “Know also that wisdom is like honey for you; if you find it there is a future hope for you...”

Ah! - it seems that the writer is using honey as a metaphor for wisdom. Just as honey is good for your body and your spirits, so wisdom is good for your soul. Convincing? I think so.

But... how do we get wisdom? In essence, by giving God time in our lives - time to pray, to think, to talk with wise fellow-Christians, to read his word and to reflect on it.

Wise people are desperately needed in our troubled and restless world, which is so awash with shallowness, lies, fake news, sensationalism, celebrity-worship, coarseness and vulgarity, you name it. But such people are in short supply. Where are they ultimately to be found if not among the people of God? And that means - yes - you and me.

Perhaps you can come up with some other applications for this funny little verse. Please let me know if you do. But if we resolve to become men and women soaked with God-given wisdom, I think we will have got a vital truth from it.

Lord God, thank you for filling this beautiful world with good and enjoyable things. Help me to make use of them in a Christ-like way. And, most of all, may I grow in wisdom day by day.