Heaven is . .

Where we get our own way, where we are proved to be right, whatever we want it to be . . . ? I don’t think so, but we need to look further into John’s vision for some basis beyond opinion and hopefulness. (Revelation 21:1-6)

It’s clear that heaven is wonderful, and like the new earth, untarnished and unspoiled. It is where God will be with his people, which takes away stress, pain, and all that is wrong. On the one hand there will be re-creation, making things right, and restoring people. (That is what recreation is meant to do for us, though the version we know is more imperfect!).

But heaven will not be without challenge, at least initially. To be in the presence of God means that truth will prevail – no arguments over who did what, or deserved better. That truth will include our living with ourselves, and with others, without excuse or secrets. Perhaps that will only be possible because we shall live with God, who knows all, and loves. But it may suggest just how different, how much beyond our imagining, let alone our experience, heaven will be.

Of course God will be our focus. He is the Beginning and the End (Alpha and Omega – first and last letters of the Greek alphabet). So, rather than be “the religious bit” of our lives, to be given its place (among others), God becomes the centre – of a renewed existence, in love, and truth, and wonder. Like cool fresh water to the thirsty, God gives what is missing, what is so much needed.

It is beyond imagining – and so we need to be a little careful about letting wishful thinking replace the glimpse scripture gives us. But it is a magnificent glimpse!

Journey’s End – and God’s victory

The picture in the second part of Revelation 7 (Revelation 7:9-17) is pretty crowded, but it gives a welcome sight of the Victory of God, and of our journey’s end.

Christians can be rather inclined to self-pity, which for those of us in western countries today is rather odd – life in the first century was much harder for the faithful! Remember that Revelation is the vision given to a man living in exile. Earlier in this chapter (Revelation 7:2-4) we are told of destructive powers held back for “sealing” of 144,000. These are not the total number of Christians, but represent the martyrs. The seal does not prevent their death, but protects against “accidental” death, so that their witness (martyrdom) may be accomplished.

If that is rather sombre, we quickly move on to the multitude who are celebrating victory, their triumphant passage through persecution. They wear white robes

  • which , reinforced by their holding palm branches, are symbols of victory
  • and also symbols of purity (they are “washed . . in the blood of the Lamb”. All Saints are sinners, pure because of forgiveness and grace, gained from the sacrifice Jesus made of himself)

And who are this joyful crowd? They are the ones who have come through the “great tribulation” (“terrible persecution” in GNB) – not just hardship and death, but conflicts of loyalties: faith and family / social position / demands of the state / self interest. They have come through, and kept the faith, and their reward is appropriate, magnificent and eternal (verses 15-17). They are not only the famous figures of Christian history, but all the faithful, and as in this vision we see them in heaven, so we have the encouragement of seeing where we are going, and what will get us there.

Messiah and Good Shepherd?

[There is a reflection for Good Shepherd Sunday at “The Lord is – my tour guide?“, and there follows one for the gospel for Easter 4c]

The Festival of Dedication – Hanukkah, at Christmastime, remembered the re-dedication of the Temple by Judas Maccabeus after he threw the Greeks out of Jerusalem (John 10:22-30, especially verse 22). A time when thoughts of freedom, and God’s Messiah, came up. So – Was Jesus the Messiah – and why wouldn’t he say so?

I think you know. He was the Messiah, all that he had done pointed to it. But if he said so, it would just start an argument. People needed, not to argue, but to think for themselves – and follow up their conclusions by action.

That’s still true. Preachers tend not to shout at you much. Why? It doesn’t do anything useful. The stories are told, connections and suggestions offered. You have to take responsibility for weighing it up – and taking action. Is Jesus the Messiah, or something else? I think he’s the Messiah, and that’s the basis of my following Him. Make your own mind up – and act on the conclusion!

Then there is the difficult verse John 10:26 “but you will not believe, for you are not my sheep.”

Difficult because:

  • It divides the flock (who believe – with much more than a correct opinion) from those who do not; – a critical division. Seen clearly in the story of Jesus, we still fail to apply it in our own time. Are you part of the flock of God, or not? “Independent sheepishness” is not on offer.
  • It reminds us that faith is a gift. On the one hand, no one is prevented from following Jesus / joining the flock. On the other, faith is a gift. There is an undeniable truth in the doctrine of Predestination. There is a paradox, difficult to hold together logically. Faith is a gift, yet those who lack it are held responsible for the actions of their faithless life.

The benefits of being in the flock are real, but not always romantic. The sheep who know the shepherd are themselves known. Those who follow the shepherd are led to food, water, and safe rest. That does not mean a selfish life – everything you want and nothing else; nor does it avoid the robust realities of getting on with the other sheep. But the difference between that, and life outside, without guidance and protection, or even hope of forgiveness and escaping the consequences of failure, are breathtaking.

The image of the Good Shepherd may be romanticised by some, but not by Jesus. He understands the division between the flock and those not included as key to the future.

Music, and dangerous things.

(There is a comment on John 21:1-19, Easter 3c gospel, in the next blog.)

Your choice of music says more about you than you might think! Whether you listen or perform, is it loud and angry, romantic fantasy, something you don’t pay attention to, or just old fashioned? Would you admit to it, or insist on it?

Much the same is true of groups of Christians. Their choice of music says a lot. Is it so loud you drown everything else? Is it so old that only people in the “in group” can sing it? Perhaps more important, can there be new songs, but also the learning of old ones? Can one set of instruments to accompany give place to another? And, do the words matter? Do they say anything significant?

Lots of questions there, and you might begin to work our my preferences – which are not really the important thing. They do, however, give us a way in to that glimpse of heaven we have in Revelation 5:11-14. The picture is of vast numbers, singing praise to the Lamb who was slain – Jesus. He is at the centre, and is worshipped for his sacrifice. There is no doubt here what matters. We don’t know the music – it is not even clear if words are said or sung – but the content is significant.

Jesus is worthy to receive a number of very dangerous things:

  • Power. We say that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. We are cynical about politicians, the rich and the famous because of the power they hold. Yet Jesus is worthy to receive power – because he has shown how he will use it, truly in love for humanity, even his enemies.
  • Wealth. Wealth brings power and freedom. Jesus has shown a new way of using both power and freedom. Not only is all wealth his by virtue of creation and redemption. He deserves it!
  • Wisdom. His life choices were indeed strange to our eyes. A simple life, voluntary suffering, setting aside many ordinary pleasures and indeed things we would call rights. His wisdom is proved by its effects, and he is indeed worthy to receive more.
  • Strength. How many people would you put in a position of control over you? There is one you can rely on never to abuse that, and more, to be worth serving and obeying always.
  • Honour, glory and praise. Let’s take three together. Each is deserved by Jesus for his service to each and to all, yet in each case, more should be given. The Lord of Calvary should be honoured, as God should always be honoured – not with pious words, but with heartfelt respect. Glory is not “glitz”, or celebrity “spin”; it is the wonder and admiration due to self-giving love. Praise is more than a condescending “well done”. It is the use of words which remind us of just what has been achieved, and help us to live in thankfulness, and imitation, and deliberate response.

Revelation 5:10 is quite an anthem! But the next verse brings an echo to the heavenly chorus from all creation. Now the figure on the throne and the Lamb are linked, and we understand God the Father and God the Son (one of those Biblical references which will be later rationalised in the doctrine of the Trinity). And they are to receive: praise and honour and glory and power. That is the last three, and the first, of those dangerous things offered to Jesus.

That response asks us if we are ready to join in. Have we taken note of the sacrifice of Good Friday and the power of the Resurrection? Are we now ready to give “praise and honour and glory and power” – not words, but actions, priorities worked out in practice day by day? It makes sense, and although these are dangerous things to hand over, there is no-one better to hold and use them.

The four living creatures said, “Amen”. They didn’t mean “Worship over, what’s next?”, but “We agree, count us in, we’re all for it”. Are we?

Can we go back now?

(for some reason, Easter 3c gospel was missed three years ago, so here is:

“Can we go back now?” You’ve just started a long walk, or you’re 10 minutes into a day’s shopping, when a little voice asks: “Can we go back now?”. But it’s not only children. Grown ups get nostalgic: we long for the “good old days”, for the time when we were young, for school or student friends, above all, for the time when the world sang our tune.

So (in John 21:1-19) – the disciples go fishing. They don’t like sitting around, they don’t like not knowing, they like fishing. It’s what they know, it’ll get them out of the house, they can do something useful … But it’s not the same, and when Jesus meets them early in the morning, there’s nothing to show for a night’s work. They’d forgotten that other time that Luke told in his gospel [chapter 5], when they fished all night, caught nothing, and Jesus showed them where to find the fish – which they caught in such numbers that they nearly sank! That had been when Peter really started with Jesus.

This time again, Jesus shows he knows what he’s talking about. Once again they share a meal with him; many of those shared meals had been important – not just the Last Supper in Jerusalem. After the meal, Jesus calls Peter again – but it’s a different Peter now. This isn’t the “grown up” swaggering, boastful Peter. He’s grown down, deflated, with less mouth and more ear. It’s not an easy chat they have, walking along the beach. But now Peter knows there’s no going back – and its not just fishing that he’s giving up, the old Peter is gone, whatever replaces him.

So what about your attitude to faith and Church? Be clear it is not for a reminder of the “good old days”, a nostalgic trip to when we were young, and things were proper. As Peter and John discovered, there’s no going back, things are different now. No, this is no trip down memory lane. We go forward with the power of Jesus’ Resurrection, and his commission to evangelise and serve. We are all committed to a new life, and to living it with joy and thanksgiving.

It’s a Revelation!

There is also a comment on Exodus 14 and 15 here, and four on John 20:19-31 as Good Doubt, Constructive Doubt, John 20:24-, and Why.

For some people, Revelation is a book of horrors and nightmares, but I want to convince you otherwise. We have 6 readings from Revelation in the next 6 weeks, and they have some positive things to say. So Revelation 1:4-8 starts off with the offer of free gifts. Not a bad strategy, but are they worth having? – you judge:

grace and peace be yours from God” verse 4

Not just God being nice to us, although we don’t deserve it (good!), but also we are given grace. I wonder if we take that seriously enough. Peace – again, not only are we no longer in rebellion against God, but we are given peace, not to worry about everything ?! not bad, and not finished:

“by his sacrificial death he has freed us

free gifts in 8 verses – its enough to get you in the habit of Bible-Reading! But there’s more. There is a good deal here about Jesus. We tend to think of Jesus the preacher and teacher, but this is later:

“Jesus Christ, the faithful witness “

to God’s ways and nature, which we need to know about;

“first to be raised from death”

The first, not only one who will be resurrected.

“ruler of the kings”

Now in power, exercising great power, in a way we still need to learn about.

“first and last”

Alpha and Omega, the A-Z of the Greek alphabet. We might say something like “Pioneer and Last Word”.

Was . . Is . . is to come.

This is a different picture, and an important one – the Lord of power, who won the highest place by obedience in accepting the lowest.

Free Gifts, from a Lord with power and honour, and then there’s us:

“He loves us “

You can’t truly say that of many in power, but Jesus has demonstrated the point, and still does!

“made us a kingdom of priests” ?

We are all to bring people to God, and God to people; here we are told it is what we are for.

Why? “to serve his God and Father” can you think of anyone better to serve? even yourself? (do you live up to his standard?). So here we are, in Revelation, blessed with Free Gifts, given by a Risen and Powerful Lord, so that we may not live selfishly and idly, but be equipped and ready to serve God in a ministry to all the world. Surely that is worth paying attention to?

Why Resurrection?

Where does the Resurrection of Jesus fit into Christian thinking? So much seems already complete on Good Friday: Jesus had become High Priest and offered one sacrifice for all time; he has given his example, and his body and blood. Yet the resurrection is central in early preaching, for two main reasons.

First (as we see in 1 Corinthians 15:19-26) because the power of death has been broken. Someone has come back. So the perspective of this letter – and all Christians – is longer than a human lifespan. (So verse 19, “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” – but our perspective is eternal). Many people like to think their loved ones continue after death – but without any reason for their hope. Jesus gives reason, and structure, to that hope.

Secondly, the resurrection transformed the disciples, because God raised Christ. This was most dramatic for Paul. As Saul the Pharisee, he was sure Jesus was a false teacher: his attitude to the Law and Tradition; his taking authority to himself; and the claim to be Son of God – all, in Saul’s thinking, condemned him. But then Saul, persecutor of Christians, met the risen Jesus. Since he was alive, by the power of God, he must be right – and all Saul’s ideas wrong where they differed. The resurrection of Jesus is the most wholehearted affirmation of his life and work.

So, the Resurrection shows life beyond death, giving a new perspective to human life. It proves Jesus’ authority to be that of God the Father. And so it reminds us that Christianity is Christ – we are his followers, he is our Lord.

Good Friday – the Passion in New Testament letters

This is an alternative pattern for a one hour “Meditation on the Passion”, delivered 2-3pm on Good Friday. There is an alternative reflection on Luke’s Passion narrative at Good Friday with Luke 23

Even if you are not following this as a worship service, it may help to follow the pattern: hymn, comment and reading of scripture, silence, prayer, – and on to the next hymn, three times.

1st hymn – we sang “There is a green hill”

2. There are many ways of spending an hour on Good Friday, including reflections on Jesus “Seven Last Words”, gathered from the different gospels, and on the Passion story from the gospel featured in the lectionary year. But as I was preparing this year, a different approach occurred to me. I hope it is not too eccentric, and you will find it helpful. It seemed to me that we were less like those who gathered in sight of the crosses at Calvary, since it is a long time ago and we have heard the story many times. Rather, we might see ourselves as those gathered on the anniversary of that traumatic death. Some of the impact has softened with time, but we are still affected by it, and wanting to make sense, and to share our different reactions. In that case, I hope it will be helpful to hear, not the gospel writer/s, but some of those who wrote the New Testament letters. We will ask them what they made of the death of Jesus, and reflect on their answers.

3. To begin, we must hear from Peter. The impulsive fisherman was one of Jesus’s disciples, indeed their leader by Jesus’ appointment. It was Peter who recognised Jesus as Messiah, and saw him in heavenly glory at the Transfiguration. It was also Peter who promised not to deny Jesus, but who disowned him three times the night of his arrest. Forgiven and reinstated after breakfast on the seashore, he led the early Church. The New Testament has 2 letters bearing his name, and it is to the first 2 chapters of the 1st letter we shall turn. So, Peter, we are glad to have you through the words of your letter. What can you tell us about Jesus Passion and death?

1Peter 1:15 But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; 16  for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.” 17  Since you call on a Father who judges each person’s work impartially, live out your time as foreigners here in reverent fear. 18  For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, 19  but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. 20  He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake. 21  Through him you believe in God, who raised him from the dead and glorified him, and so your faith and hope are in God. 22  Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for each other, love one another deeply, from the heart. 23  For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. 24  For, “All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, 25  but the word of the Lord endures forever.” And this is the word that was preached to you.

Peter is clear that Jesus death is the motivation for our Christian life – a holy life. There is more in chapter 2:21 on:

But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. 21  To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. 22  “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” 23  When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. “He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.” 25  For “you were like sheep going astray,” but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.

Thank you, Peter. You have made it clear that we were bought – at great cost, the cost of Jesus life – for a life of holiness. This was no accident – he was chosen before the creation of the world. Clearly those you wrote to were in danger of suffering for their faith, and you pointed to Jesus example, as “he himself bore our sins in his body on the cross”. Our debt to Jesus – your debt too – is enormous.

Lets take several minutes in silence to think and pray.

Prayer: Holy Lord, whose life was given willingly as the cost of our freedom: free our minds to understand your death, and our lives to live for your glory. Amen

2nd Hymn – we sang My song is love unknown.

Peter has told us something of why Jesus death made sense – at least what it achieved. Now we must ask the other leading apostle.

Saul the Pharisee may never have met Jesus during his earthly ministry. We know that he was at the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7:58), but as an opponent of the Christians. Wonderfully converted when on the way to Damascus to persecute the Church, he became the great missionary to the Gentiles – though always going first to the Jews of any town he visited. Although his letters do not tell us stories of Jesus, it is clear that his message was very much about him: so 1 Corinthians 15:1-4

Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 2  By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. 3  For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4  that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,  . . .(and he continues to note the various resurrection appearances)

1 Corinthians 15:1-4

You might think this is just an introduction, but it is central. The (NIV) heading added to 1 Corinthians 1:18f is “Christ crucified is God’s power and wisdom”.

1Corinthians 1:18  For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19  For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.” 20  Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21  For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22  Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23  but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24  but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25  For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

Thank you, Paul. We could have gone further, to read in Romans 6 how our Baptism is a dying with Christ to sin, to rise with him to new life – but enough. It is not difficult to understand that some would have been more impressed if Jesus had directed legions of angels in terrible reprisal against his enemies, or even done some action so amazing as to crush all opposition. There are still those who want “success” above all. “Success” because the Cross is God’s greatest success – just one we find hard to credit, accept, and live by. It is easy to see how others would prefer Christian faith to be academic, theoretical and debatable, like the philosophies of the Greek thinkers.

That Jesus dies for us is embarrassing, painful, a reminder of the depth of our failure. “For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”

Lets take several minutes in silence to think and pray.

Prayer: Almighty Father, we thank you that Jesus did not crush his enemies with overwhelming force, despite their violence, nor leave us some abstract but irrefutable teaching. Help us to follow the Saviour who chose the Cross, and to live as his disciples, whatever the cost. Amen

5. 3rd Hymn – we sang We sing the praise.

Peter and Paul have both pointed us to Jesus, and his death, as central to faith. It was difficult for Jews to accept – and non-Jews found the exclusive claims of Jesus just as difficult as some modern sceptics. Who else might we invite as the final contributor to our memorial gathering?

The writer of the letter to Hebrews has not left a clear identity (though there have been many guesses!). He (?) is clearly familiar with Jewish belief and practice, but also desperate to prevent Jewish believers – that is, Christians – from relapsing to a Jewish faith without Christ, which would give them an easier life and less danger of persecution. Like both Peter and Paul, there is a clear focus on Jesus:

Hebrews 1:1 In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2  but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. 3  The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. 4  So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs.

But Jesus is important for more than his status. This Jewish writer wants to talk about the greatest High Priest, who offers himself as the final sacrifice.

Hebrews 4:14  Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. 15  For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. 16  Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.

This High Priest is sympathetic, because of his suffering, and much greater that any other.

Hebrews 9:11  But when Christ came as high priest of the good things that are now already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not made with human hands, that is to say, is not a part of this creation. 12  He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. 13  The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. 14  How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God! 15  For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant.

Hebrews 10:11  Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. 12  But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, 13  and since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool. 14  For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.

Jesus the High Priest – the one who brings us back to God – who offers himself as a sacrifice, a perfect sacrifice offered once for all time. These may not be easy ideas, – we are more used to politicians telling us of the sacrifices we must make because . . . But here we are told of a sacrifice made for us.

Three writers. Different personalities, styles and approaches. Yet all clear that Jesus does something of vital and eternal importance, and does it by his death. Perhaps for us hearing them in this context helps explain – explain why the violence, hatred, injustice, evil, is not the last word. Why the faults and failures of people like us matter, matter terribly, yet can be forgiven.

As we remember the great High Priest, reconciling us with Almighty God by the perfect sacrifice of his own life,

Lets take several minutes in silence to think and pray.

Prayer: God of your Ancient People, the Jews, and of all humankind, whom they called Gentiles; God of the religious and the secular, the good and the bad, remind us of our need of forgiveness and direction, and take us forward into the life you have made possible. Amen

Go into God’s world in peace. Remember all that has been done for you – the sacrificial death of a Saviour, the victory over evil, the gift of life, and the blessing of God who planned our rescue, of his Son, who paid the price of our forgiveness, and of the Spirit, who directs us in new life and discipleship, be with you now and for ever. Amen

Final 4th Hymn we sang When I survey.

Attitude

There is a comment on the gospel for Lent 6c titledFailure and Success” here.

“The attitude you should have is the one that Christ Jesus had:” – says Paul. (In today’s reading from Philippians 2:5-14). Having heard an account of the Passion, it strikes home even harder. This is our pattern, our example. this is the route that has been pioneered for us, and left for us to follow.

Scholars suggest that Paul was adopting a hymn here. It makes no difference, for whatever follows “The attitude you should have is the one that Christ Jesus had:” is going to be a hard act to follow. There is also a question whether Paul was tactfully skating round failures in the leadership at Philippi. Were relationships there not so good? was there disunity, boasting, ambition and selfishness? Again, the answer is not essential to our understanding. Churches are not perfect – each is a congregation of sinners. But we need to know where we are heading, and what we are supposed to imitate, how we are to work towards our goals. Again

“The attitude you should have is the one that Christ Jesus had:”

This Holy Week we have more opportunities than any other week in the year. Of course it is easy to see how things can go wrong. Of course we can see many other patterns of leadership and service. But we are committed to this difficult example. Think again:

“The attitude you should have is the one that Christ Jesus had:”