Friday, 18 June 2021

How not to market your church

 Let someone else praise you, and not your own mouth. Proverbs 27:2

When you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes he will say to you, “Friend, move up to a better place”. Luke 27:10

We were on holiday once when our two boys were little. Looking for a church on the Sunday morning we found one that informed the world, via its notice-board, that it was “your welcoming church!”.

Sounds good! we thought. That’ll do us just nicely. There’s nothing like a friendly welcome when you’re in a strange place, is there?

Well, nobody spoke to us – apart from the person on official “door duty”. Not a soul. Huh! we thought - some welcome!

(I might as well add that as we were driving away we discovered that our older son had a toy car in his hot little fist, presumably purloined from the creche; and that, alas, we felt not a shred of guilt or remorse, nor the remotest desire to swing round and restore it, wicked souls that we are. Oh well, if one day we get done for receiving stolen goods, we’ll just have to accept it…)

Proverbs 27:2 is talking about individuals “blowing their own trumpet”, as we sometimes say. But it applies also to churches, as we discovered. (And not just churches: I once visited a major hospital which had a massive slogan on its outer wall: “Delivering quality health care”. And I thought to myself “Hang on a minute, isn’t that what all hospitals are supposed to do as a matter of course? Is it really a cause for boasting?”)

What my gripe comes down to is one of my pet hate-words: image. The big question in many people’s minds is not “What kind of person am I?” or “Do I always aim to do what is honest, good and right?”, but “How do I appear to others?”, “What do people think of me?”, “Do I make a good impression?” We want to be admired and praised – never mind whether or not we deserve it. And if a bit of boasting helps do the trick, so be it.

Perhaps you’re honestly not like that – in which case, my apologies, and please ignore everything I say. But I have a suspicion you’re fairly rare.

Why is it wrong to draw attention to our own qualities and achievements? There are various reasons.

First, we simply aren’t capable of seeing ourselves as we truly are, so what’s the point of bigging ourselves up? In our folly, we imagine we are better, cleverer, wittier, more attractive than we really are. If only we knew what other people say behind our backs!

Second, it’s a waste of time and effort. We may at first succeed in impressing someone who doesn’t know us very well; but don’t worry, the real you or me will soon begin to show through, like grey hair when the dye is wearing off. Truth will out!

Third, it shows wrong priorities in life. If we’re Christians, what matters is how God sees us, not any fellow human being. That doesn’t mean we should be indifferent to the opinion of others; not at all. But at the end of the day, God knows every last thing about us, so why waste time and energy trying to create a good impression? I heard it said once that there are just two basic, simple rules about what it means to be a Christian: Be like Christ - and be yourself. Yup, I’ll go along with that!

Fourth, if we are Christians our main concern should be to point others to Christ, not to ourselves. I love the words of John the Baptist, when his followers were unhappy about people turning to Jesus rather than to him. Don’t worry! he told them, “He must become greater; I must become less” (or, as the King James Version puts it, “He must increase; I must decrease”).

Fifth, it can be very exhausting to be daily “keeping up appearances”. By the same token, it’s liberating to simply be who we are.

Here are two quotations from nineteenth century evangelists.

First, Englishman C H Spurgeon: “Be not proud of race, face, place or grace”.

And then American Dwight L Moody: “God sends no-one away empty except those who are full of themselves”.

I said “image” was a pet hate-word of mine. So too is the word “marketing” when applied to churches – that church we visited was in essence trying to market itself to the neighbourhood. But what a waste of time! The only marketing a church needs is a cheerful, Christlike holiness among its members. Isn’t that why Jesus called those who were to lead his church “pastors” – shepherds – not managers or CEOs?

Jesus, take me as I am,/ I can come no other way./ Take me deeper into you,/ Make my flesh-life melt away./ Make me like a precious stone,/ Crystal-clear and finely honed,/ Life of Jesus shining through,/ Giving glory back to you. Amen. Dave Bryant

Thursday, 10 June 2021

Thinking about marriage

Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as to the Lord… Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church… Ephesians 5:22-25

I suspect I wasn’t the only person, nor the only Christian, to feel sad about the break-up of the marriage of Bill and Melinda Gates.

As far as I am aware, they don’t profess to be Christians; but somehow, in a moral environment where divorce has become almost routine, where, indeed, marriage itself has begun to look seriously outdated, they gave an impression of stability in an increasingly unstable world.

Not Christians, perhaps; but, to use an old-fashioned word, they came across as wholesome, living a solid family life and devoting a lot of time and energy – not to mention money, of course – to worthwhile causes. And then – oh dear! - it all turned out to be hollow and blighted.

The thought that came to my mind was this: If such an event has the effect of causing millions of people to shake their heads in sadness, how much power does a solid, truly durable Christian marriage have in order to be a blessing and encouragement to many people who barely know the couple involved?

I hesitate to write this, because I know that talk of marriage can be very painful – for people who aren’t married but wish they were, or who are married but wish they weren’t, or have been married but are now on their own, for whatever reason. I’m directing these thoughts, really, to those of us who have been blessed with happy marriages (though not by any means perfect, of course!).

Putting it another way, the Gates break-up made me very aware that a marriage doesn’t exist just for the couple themselves and their families, but for the wider community to which they belong.

The book I used to use when conducting a wedding has a paragraph which describes “the purpose of marriage” in fairly conventional terms, starting off, naturally enough, with the bride and groom. But it finishes with this sentence: “It was ordained for companionship, health and strength between husband and wife and for the welfare of society as a whole”.

“The welfare of society as a whole…” Really? I wonder how seriously we take that? Can our marriage really be a blessing to the people down the road that we hardly know? To the people at my work-place? To people with whom I share an interest through a club or society?

Answer: Yes! Yes, it can. For this world in which we live is unstable – politically, economically, socially - often quite frighteningly so. To borrow the words of the prophet Isaiah, the very foundations often seem to be shaking (Isaiah 24:18). And people who convey a sense of stability and calm bring reassurance to those around them. (So, of course, can unmarried people – I’m not forgetting that; but the married couple does so in a very special way.)

There are various ways this might happen. Couples (or singles) uncertain about their future, or troubled by problems, might feel moved to seek advice as well as example. The gift of hospitality, whether a full-on meal or just a coffee, can be massively helpful - my wife, as a stroppy teenager, remained in her local church largely because of couples who opened their homes to the young people; never mind that it was the biscuits and coffee rather than anything else (nothing “spiritual”! – oh no) that kept her going, the fact was that they were happy homes, and that meant a lot to her.

And, of course, the solid couple who have weathered a few storms and gained a few battle-scars (let’s be honest!) will have much to offer to those just starting out who are struggling with what seems like a major crisis. And as for the horrors – sorry, joys – of child-rearing…

You sometimes hear it said of a couple that “they just live for one another” or “they always do everything together”. Which sounds wonderful. But I’m not sure it is. Just as a church which is mainly inward-looking is unhealthy and likely to shrivel, so a marriage that is all about just “us” is heading for trouble. It needs a purpose beyond itself.

My wife and I aren’t particularly romantic, but after forty years of marriage we tend to hold hands if we’re out for a walk. A few years ago we were on holiday, strolling through a west country village. An old chap on an elderly bike went by. As he passed he shouted out to us with a cheery smile, “I wish I had somebody to hold hands with!”

And we realised afresh that in our marriage, which has certainly been far from perfect, we have something wonderfully precious. Precious for us, of course; but hopefully, too, precious for other people we may or may not know.

How each couple chooses to interpret the words from Ephesians – controversial words in today’s world – that I’ve put at the top, well, that’s for each couple to decide under God.

But whatever, it can only be healthy if we make up our minds afresh that, whatever our marriage is about, it isn’t just “us”!

Heavenly Father, whether I am single or married, widowed or divorced, please help me to live my life in such a way as to shine something of the light of Jesus to others, and so to make this hurting world a better place. Amen.

Saturday, 5 June 2021

Thinking about mirrors

Now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. 1 Corinthians 13:12

Most of us use a mirror several times a day without so much as thinking about it; it’s just part of everyday life. But if we do think about it, we realise that it really is a very clever invention. You can hold up this piece of glass and see a near-perfect reflection of your own face (though, of course, you may prefer not to!). Amazing!

Well, I don’t know when such glass mirrors were invented, but I’m pretty sure that generations of human beings would have been amazed to see such a thing.

In New Testament times mirrors would have been made of polished brass or some other metal, which would leave you peering a little awkwardly to get even a half-good view of yourself. And it’s that kind of mirror Paul is talking about in this verse. He’s not talking about seeing ourselves physically, of course, but of how we “see” life in general, including God and matters of “religion” - and saying that our view is at best clouded and partial.

To be honest, I don’t think the NIV Bible, from which I have quoted, is quite right, because the words Paul uses - literally, “through a mirror, in a riddle” - convey the essential idea of something that’s obscure and unsatisfactory. The old King James Bible says we see “through a glass, darkly” (I still like that!); N T Wright talks about seeing “puzzling reflections in a mirror”: the Good News Bible has “a dim image in a mirror”; and The Message paraphrase goes the whole hog and chooses to alter the metaphor altogether: “We don’t yet see things clearly; we’re squinting in a fog, peering in a mist” (I like that too!).

Whatever, what Paul is saying is that our understanding of things – even biblical, Christian things – is a long, long, long way from being perfect.

But – not for ever!Now”, he goes on to say, we see in this very unsatisfactory way; but “then” we shall see “face to face”. “Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known”. “Now”… and “then” - the difference between the two will be beyond description.

In a nutshell, Christian, you’re heading for perfection, but you aren’t there yet!

If this is so, it should stir up at least two feelings in our hearts – and, as it happens, they both begin with h.

First, hope.

Last time, under the heading Waiting for God, I wrote about the fact that God often keeps his people waiting. We thought about Martha and Mary of Bethany (John 11), following the death of their brother Lazarus. After sending for Jesus, he delayed two whole days before coming to them, which must have seemed an age. And every Christian knows the experience of praying – and praying – and praying – and…

Paul’s words here remind us that this applies too to the whole big picture of God’s dealings with the human race, and not least with us, his people. Here we are, living two thousand years after the earthly life of Jesus – and still he hasn’t come back!

But if Christianity is about anything, it’s about hope. The Bible repeatedly assures us that God is going to wind up the affairs of this troubled world and bring it to a perfect and glorious climax, when all sin and evil, pain and sorrow, will be finally banished. Just soak your mind in the last two chapters of Revelation, at the end of the Bible, and you can’t be in any doubt about that…

“God will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21: 4). Words I love to read at a funeral; but words that are perfect for every ordinary day as well.

May God help us to live as men and women of hope and optimism, rejoicing each day in the wonderful future to which we can look!

But now the second h… humility.

If our grasp of spiritual things really is as obscure as Paul suggests, we’d better be careful not to be too sure of ourselves. No arrogance, please.

Yes, we have God’s word in the Bible – but much of that is difficult to understand (as the Bible itself recognises: 2 Peter 3:16). And yes, we have the Holy Spirit living within us – but the sin that still clouds our souls also has the effect of clouding our vision. Yes, we perhaps have a good church, good preachers and teachers, good Christian books to read.

Yes. Good. But even if all this is true, the fact remains that our understanding is extremely limited, and we know only a millionth part of what there is to know.

So… humility is called for! We could be wrong, even on the things we’re most sure of. That wonderfully convincing author or preacher could be wrong.

Stick to the essentials – Christ crucified, risen, ascended, and one day coming back. For the rest, let’s temper strong convictions with humble teachability. And let’s look forward to the day when that cloudy mirror will be gone, and we shall see Jesus face to face!

Heavenly Father, please keep me hoping, even when the waiting seems long. And please keep me humble, even when I’m most sure I’m right. Amen.

Wednesday, 2 June 2021

Waiting for God

A man named Lazarus was ill… Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days… John 11:1-6

Hang on a minute! Isn’t there something wrong with that bit of scripture? Hasn’t somebody made a mess of the translation? Surely that word “So” should be “But” or “Yet”?

Yes, indeed! If “so” is right, we would expect John to finish the sentence  something like this: “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he immediately sent a message: ‘Tell them I’m on my way…!’ and started on the journey”.

But no: Jesus “stayed where he was two more days”! How very strange.

The translation is correct. True, some Bible versions do have “but” or “yet”, but the best experts are all agreed that they are mistaken: John wrote “So” because… he meant “So”. Which means that he leaves us to figure out for ourselves why Jesus should act in such a peculiar way. If he really loved Mary and Martha, why would he subject them to such a cruel wait?

We can only speculate. It can’t have been because of any doubt or uncertainty on his part about what would happen – he had, after all, raised people from death before, sometimes even from a distance.

Was he testing their faith? Hardly; they had already demonstrated their faith by calling for him in the first place, so what more might he expect?

He knew, of course, that his own death was now very close, so perhaps he wanted the miracle of Lazarus’ rising to be a preparation for the even greater thing that was to come: a message to people that “Yes, this man Jesus really does have power over death itself!”.

Certainly, the lengthy interval between Lazarus’ death and his re-emergence from the tomb (four days, according to verse 17) would thwart any danger of people suggesting that he was never really dead at all. No: what happened with Lazarus was no hoax or trick but sheer, unadulterated miracle. But Martha and Mary were asked to pay a heavy price in terms of grief and wretchedness – “Why, oh why, doesn’t he come!”

Perhaps there isn’t a lot more we can say.

But there is a truth here which Christians have proved again and again down the centuries: God does often seem to keep his people waiting. And if that is so, it isn’t out of indifference or cruelty, but for some good reason.

The more we stop and think about it, the more we realise that waiting is in fact a very important part of Christian faith: as one writer puts it, Christians are by nature “people-in-waiting”. Paul often stresses this: to give just one example, in 1 Corinthians 1:7 he says that we “eagerly await for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed”. It’s part of the essence of Christianity.

I said that I didn’t think Jesus was simply testing the faith of Martha and Mary. But sometimes, for us, testing may be one of the reasons why waiting is called for: do we have sufficient faith to trust in Jesus through gritted teeth, or are we just “fair weather Christians”? And, of course, in a period of waiting we often learn important lessons that otherwise we might miss. Just ask any mature Christian of many years’ standing! Perhaps just look back over your own experience!

The trouble with waiting, of course, is simple: it can be so hard, so agonisingly hard. Mary isn’t afraid to reproach Jesus for his delay: “Lord… if you had been here my brother would not have died” (verse 21). And at other times – waiting for news of a loved one, waiting for the birth of a baby, waiting for the result of a job interview, even just sitting in a traffic jam or waiting for a delivery to come – we can feel driven to distraction.

But whether we think of such personal circumstances or the big picture Paul is talking about, the Lazarus story assures us that the wait is for a reason, and one day we will see it as worthwhile.

I’ve quoted Paul. But he isn’t alone in the New Testament to have this very forward-looking, future-oriented attitude. Here is John (I John 3:2) “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is”.

And here is a beautiful line from a hymn by William Cowper (1731-1800): “The bud may have a bitter taste,/ But sweet will be the flower”.

Or, as an American president once assured the world: now that he was in charge, “you ain’t seen nothin’ yet”.

A sentiment there that I think Martha and Mary would have identified with… So, Christian, hang on in there – truly, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!

Father God, I confess that there are times I am simply unable to understand the mystery of your timing, and especially why you seem to keep us waiting. But help me to keep trusting and believing, and so bring me to that place, like Martha and Mary, of breath-taking amazement and joy. Amen.

Tuesday, 25 May 2021

Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus travelled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!” When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed.

One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan. Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.” Luke 17:11-19

“Are you better?” you say to a friend. And they reply “Well, better than I was”, implying, “Not fully well, but at least improved”.

Whether or not we’re “well” covers a vast range – from desperately ill to bursting with health and vitality; and you might be anywhere on that spectrum.

We’ve been reflecting on the story of the ten men with leprosy who were healed by Jesus. Its main theme is gratitude – only one of the ten (and he a Samaritan!) stopped to give thanks to God, and Jesus is disappointed.

But there’s another point of interest. Luke, like the whole of the New Testament, is written in Greek. And even though the story is only nine verses long, about 135 words, three different Greek words are used to describe what happened to those men. I’ve underlined them in order to pick them out.

In verses 14 and 17 they are described as “cleansed” – which, given the nature of leprosy, is understandable: a leprous skin, while not necessarily dirty, might certainly look in need of cleansing. Then, in verse 15, the word is “healed”, a general word meaning pretty much the same as “cured”. And then, in verse 19, Jesus tells the Samarian that his faith has “made him well”. Three different words to describe the same thing.

So what, you yawn. And yes, it could be that there is no particular significance in this use of different words. But then again…

The really interesting one is the one in verse 19. Most Bible translations, like the NIV that I have used, give it as “your faith has made you well”. But the word used by Luke occurs elsewhere in the New Testament to mean “saved”. In fact, it is the standard word to describe what Jesus came to earth to achieve - in John 3:17, for example, we are told that God sent his Son “to save the world through him”; in Ephesians 2:5 Paul tells us that “it is by grace that we are saved”.

In that sense, to be saved means to be made not just physically well, but to be put right with God, to have your sins forgiven.

So… when Jesus told the grateful Samaritan that he was “saved”, was he suggesting that, unlike the other nine, he was not only “healed” or “cleansed” or “cured”, but also in a right relationship with God? (The Message Bible hedges its bets – if you’ll pardon the expression – by translating “your faith has healed and saved you”.)

Well, we’ll never know. I suppose that just conceivably when we get to heaven we might be able to button-hole Luke and ask him outright what was in his mind when he recorded Jesus’ words in this particular way. (Though I somehow doubt it: we will have weightier matters on our minds…)

Forgive me if all this has got a bit technical. But there is a serious and very practical point behind it.

We belong to a society which is preoccupied with physical health. I read once about a very rich man who got angry with his doctor when told, “I’m afraid there is nothing more we can do for you”. “What do you mean?” he protested. “I can pay you whatever you ask! I’ve hired you because you are the top person in your field. Of course you can cure me…!” But, sadly, he was wrong.

Physical well-being is, of course, a wonderful, precious thing; mental well-being perhaps even more so. But you may be as fit as the proverbial fiddle – yet what is the good of that if you are a stranger to God, living under the cloud of darkness and sin? What is the good of that if you still need to be saved?

By the way, while we’re being a bit technical, Luke 17:19 contains another word which can mean more than one thing. When Jesus told the Samaritan to “Rise and go”, that word “rise” is related to the word used in the New Testament for… the resurrection.

So… Could it be that Luke wanted his readers to understand that Jesus, on that wonderful day, called that man not only to be physically healed, and not only to be “saved”, but also to rise up to a whole new life at peace with Almighty God? After all, the Bible describes anyone who trusts in Christ as already “raised” (Colossians 3:1).

Again, we don’t know. But what we do know is that Jesus calls each one of us to do just that: to trust and follow him, and in so doing to rise up to eternal life.

Have you done that yet? If not, why not today?

Heavenly Father, thank you for the measure of physical and mental well-being I enjoy; please help me to cherish and safeguard it. But thank you even more that in Jesus I am saved and raised up to eternal life; please help me to live as one raised from the dead! Amen.

Friday, 21 May 2021

"Jesus, master, have pity on us!"

Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus travelled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!” When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed.

One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan. Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.” Luke 17:11-19

Last time I shared two reflections which the little story of Jesus and the men with leprosy brought to my mind: first, the claims of the desperate and needy, to which we so often turn blind eyes and against which we so often harden our hearts; second, the sheer power of Jesus, with the reminder that through the Holy Spirit something of that power should belong to us.

But the more you think about the story the more it stirs up. So here are three further reflections.

Third, the beauty of simple faith.

Preachers, I think, often hold the solitary Samaritan up for praise, and shake their heads disapprovingly at the nine who failed to give thanks. But perhaps that isn’t entirely fair – for, after all, all ten showed enough faith to obey Jesus’ command to “Go!” and visit the priests. (The priests formed a kind of inspectorate of health; only they could officially declare the men “clean”.)

Jesus didn’t come close to them; he didn’t touch them; but, never mind, off they went like a shot - “and as they went, they were cleansed”. That’s fairly impressive faith, I would say!

There is a strong link between childlike faith and implicit obedience. As when we talked about our sharing in Jesus’ awesome power, there is a mystery here, for we know that often people of great faith – fine, rock-solid Christians – don’t in fact see answers to their pleas. There is no easy explanation for that – though both scripture and experience warn us against people who say, “The reason you aren’t healed is because you don’t have enough faith”. (Such people should be avoided!)

No, often the best demonstration of faith is to go on trusting precisely when we don’t see an answer. But that needn’t stop us praying for the gift of child-like faith.

Fourth, the beauty of gratitude.

The poet George Herbert (1593-1633), many of whose poems got turned into hymns, prayed a simple prayer: “Thou hast given so much to me… Give me one thing more: a grateful heart”.

The Samaritan in the story certainly had that, didn’t he! There was no stinting on his thanks: he “came back, praising God in a loud voice” and “threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him”. Can you see him? Can you hear him!

Have you ever noticed that people who are quick to give thanks – both to God and to other people – tend to be positive, cheerful, happy people? Why? Because they appreciate life; they don’t take it for granted; they have no sense of automatic entitlement.

We all know too how much a simple word of thanks can mean to other people: it brings sunshine into a gloomy day – or hope into the middle of a pandemic. We don’t ask for it; we certainly don’t do a good deed because we expect it. But oh the difference it makes! And even God himself enjoys our gratitude.

Fifth, the sadness of prejudice.

Why did Luke choose to add those four words at the end of verse 16: “…he was a Samaritan”? There must surely have been many fellow-Jews of Jesus who also had grateful hearts; so why pick out this particular detail about this particular man? It can’t have been by accident.

The experts tell us that there was bitter enmity between Jews and Samaritans (go to the Bible-encyclopaedias if you want to find out why – and perhaps take a look at Luke 9:51-56). Jesus referred to the man in the story as “this foreigner” (verse 18) – and if even that sounds a little off-hand, let’s not forget that one of his own greatest stories features “the good Samaritan” (Luke 10:25-37). Jesus warmed to this man rather than his fellow-Jews; that’s the point.

All over the world there are groups of people with what you can only call hatred for other groups; sometime this has a religious basis, others times political; often a mix of both. Even supporters of different football teams can hate opposing fans.

Jesus would have none of that: he was for all people. And the good news he proclaimed held out the hope that one day all such enmities would be ended. Just see what the apostle John saw: “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no-one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the lamb…” (Revelation 7:9). (Where the word “every” actually means “every”!)

One touching aspect of the story is that the ten lepers seem to have had a good relationship with each other; they were united in their misery, whether Jew or Samaritan. Yes, in the face of terrible suffering, who cares about such differences!

But the question remains for us: What nasty shards of prejudice disfigure my heart? If I call myself a follower of Jesus, they’ve just got to go. No ifs, no buts… They’ve got to go!

Heavenly Father, grant me as I walk with Jesus a compassionate heart, generous hands, a childlike faith, a powerful spirit, and deep love for you and for all my fellow-men and women. Amen.

Wednesday, 19 May 2021

Who cares?

Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus travelled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!” When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed.

One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan. Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.” Luke 17:11-19

This little story runs to just nine verses, not much more than a hundred words. Yet it conjures up a whole world, if only we will read it slowly, and use our imaginations. (Why not take a minute do that right now…?)

Jesus, with his disciples, is heading for Jerusalem, where he knows he will die. Suddenly he hears his name being shouted out: “Jesus, master, have pity on us!” Lepers! – standing at a distance, as the law required them to do, but determined that he would notice them.

And notice them he does! And so a wonderful miracle story unfolds…

These nine verses speak to us of many things. Here are a few that came to my mind…

First, the claims of the needy.

That huddle of men with leprosy, wretched, bedraggled and ragged, cry out for pity and there were few people in the world where Jesus lived who were more truly pitiful.

Leprosy was probably not the same disease then as the one known by that name today. But whatever precise form it took, it was pretty much a living death: because of its infectious nature, sufferers had to bid farewell to their families and the only communities they had ever known, and survive as best they could on their own or in the kind of groups we read about in this story. They depended on the kindness of others, quite possibly strangers, to leave them food. Talk about “social distancing”!

In the western world today such sights are mercifully rare, though from my many years in London I can’t help thinking of the beggars sitting outside the tube stations pleading for a few coins. Pitiful is indeed the word. In other parts of the world, sadly, this is common.

But even in the prosperous parts of the world the needy cry out to us for pity, and we see them vividly on our television screens and in the charity literature which drops through our letter-boxes or into our inboxes.

Which raises the question: Jesus noticed them and responded to their cry. Jesus cared. So what about me?

On the Day of Judgment our lives will be scrutinised by God. We need have no fear for our salvation if our trust is in Jesus for, as Paul puts it, there is “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). But as we recall not just the many bad things that we did, but, even more, the many good things we didn’t do, I wonder how we will feel? – the stretched out hands of the needy which we never noticed, or which we noticed but ignored? the cries of the suffering to which we turned deaf ears?

O Lord, give us compassionate hearts! Amen.

Second, the sheer power of Jesus.

Sometimes, when he healed, Jesus made physical contact with the sick person – he put mud on the eyes of the blind; he even touched those with leprosy. But other times a shout of command was enough, as here: “‘Go, show yourselves to the priests’. And as they went, they were cleansed”.

We marvel at the power of his word. It reminds us of the beginning of creation, when Almighty God spoke the very universe into existence: “‘Let there be light!’ And there was light” (Genesis 1:1). It reminds us too of that electrifying moment when Jesus stood at the tomb of Lazarus and called him back from the dead: “‘Lazarus, come out!’ And the dead man came out…” (John 11:43-44).

Power! How Jesus had it! And how sadly we lack it. Yet he tells his followers a little later that they were destined to be channels of that very power: “Whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater works than these (!)… I will do whatever you ask in my name…” (John 14:12-13).

After a lifetime of reading the Bible I still have no clear idea of exactly what he meant. But I do know that the apostles in Acts were empowered to do amazing things, and that we stand in the same line, for have we too not received the gift of the Holy Spirit? And doesn’t the same promise belong to us as to them: “You will receive power after the Holy Spirit comes on you…”? (Acts 1:8).

I suspect that sometimes we subconsciously expect to be ineffective, weak and defeated – yes, we who are called to be “more than conquerors” (not just ordinary, bog-standard conquerors, note!) through him who loves us” (Romans 8:37). Do we need a complete re-think of our expectations…?

Lord Jesus Christ, give us, we pray, just a little of your awesome power! Amen.

I’ve shared two of the thoughts that reflecting on this story brought to my mind. But there’s still more! So please join me again next time…

Soften my heart, Lord,/ Soften my heart./ From all indifference/ Set me apart,/ To feel your compassion,/ To weep with your tears;/ Come soften my heart, O Lord,/ Soften my heart. Amen.

Graham Kendrick