Stand firm

(Philippians 3:17-4:1) “Hold fast!” – “Stand firm!” it sounds a bit like a battle, and so it is. You can see that in the gospel reading today (Luke 13:31-35), as Jesus refuses distraction in the work he has to do before he goes to Jerusalem to die. Paul’s words to the Philippians sound less military, but. .

“Keep on imitating me” Paul says. We might prefer “Keep on imitating Jesus”. But, then as now, many don’t know Jesus to follow, and look to us to see something of him. It’s a big responsibility – we know we fail, but that is part of it. How to fail, repent, and go on – that is very important.

“For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ” What a strange way of putting it! (We’re back to the battle) Doesn’t he mean enemies of Christ? Perhaps, but as he explains in verse 19, we see he means not only a selfish life, in opposition to Jesus teaching; but also the complete opposite of his example. Jesus gave, they take.

The enemies of Christ’s death on the cross live for themselves: food, drink, money, sex, comfort, ambition, power, ME and mine.

“Their end is destruction” – “They are going to end up in hell” – Paul’s words, but pretty blunt. We might say its a “dead end”; but we need to take seriously the consequences of going that way. There has to be an alternative, and there is.

“But our citizenship is in heaven” Simple, yet important. This – this world, this job, this text – isn’t where we have to succeed, or fail. Jesus death on the cross opens up for us a new horizon. He found reason to live for us and give for us, even to the extent of that death. As we learn to follow, we find more important things than ME and mine. God’s love is worth more than a promotion; serving with his people is worth more than comfort or power.

We don’t find it easy to teach children to share – toys, or parents, or anything else. We don’t find it easy to teach Christians, even when they say they are committed to being disciples of Jesus, that their lives must follow a different Way to the rest of the world. A better Way, but one which involves discipline and sacrifice to achieve more wonderful things on earth, and in heaven, our place as Citizens of Jesus Kingdom. It’s not just that there are one or two things we don’t do, and some little habits (like prayer and services) we add on. The Christian Way is a whole attitude to life, sometimes difficult and demanding, but worth everything.

Paul was close to the Christians in Philippi – but even there he had to remind them about Christian behaviour, and the need to “stand firm in the Lord”

Standing firm, but in the Lord, not in unchanging tradition. Philippi was a Roman colony – they would understand about being citizens of somewhere else, and the benefits of that. But being citizens of heaven was something they needed to go on learning – as we do.

Faith

After 3 years of weekly comments on the gospel readings, I am moving on to comments on readings from the New Testament letters, while also referring you to earlier posts on gospel readings.

For Luke 4:1-13, see http://www.andrewknight.org.uk/lent/

In Paul’s letter to Rome, we read 10:9 “If you confess that Jesus is Lord and believe that God raised him from death, you will be saved.” Romans 10:8-13

It is very simple. Our attempts at “being good” are never enough to win us God’s approval or get us out of trouble. We need something else – belief / faith / trust in Jesus. (We need several words because they get cliched). Just as a skier doesn’t walk up the hill – they take a cable car or ski lift. So in Christian faith, we don’t expect to get there by our own effort. It is the doctrine historically called “justification by faith”

So, all you have to do is say the words, and that’s it? No. “ For it is by our faith that we are put right with God; it is by our confession that we are saved”. Rom 10:11 The scripture says, “Whoever believes in him will not be disappointed.”
To say “Jesus is Lord” was dangerous – Caesar was Lord, in Roman terms. To “believe that God raised him [Jesus] from death” verse 9 was not a matter of opinion; it was to recognise his significance, power, and authority. This faith that saves is a basic direction in life, more significant than adoption or marriage.

Does it matter what we do, then? Of course. You can help or hurt, be a blessing or a curse. Look at Jesus in the wilderness – he is trying to get it right, working out his trust in God the Father. [Or, if you are reading Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Look at the man bringing his produce to a Harvest festival, using words to recognise God’s gift of land and food].

If you are marking the season of Lent by some special or extra activity, it should be something that removes obstacles to God’s work in and through you. If you weren’t at all bothered to let Jesus control you, your faith would be in question – “Who are you kidding! “ we would say, “you don’t trust God, you keep preventing him doing anything!”.
But you can’t work it backwards, “I’m good, so I must be Christian”, not even “I’m good, and I believe in God, so I must be OK”. Not true – Jesus and the New Testament don’t say that.. Romans 10:9 “If you confess that Jesus is Lord and believe that God raised him from death, you will be saved.”

Faith, as trust in Jesus and letting him control – that’s what matters. Being Good, or less good – that doesn’t work with God, it’s just something we deal with later. Understand these words from Romans properly, and they bring great relief. What God asks of us is not that we reach a standard, but that we trust him, and let him do the work.

Seeing in a new light.

Jesus’ Transfiguration (Luke 9:28-43) is a strange story, even when compared with the miracles and unexpected events of the gospel. What does it mean? What difference does it make?

It does highlight the need to read each part of the gospel in context. Not only does this come in the middle of the gospel, It is in a chapter full of change.

The 12 have been sent out 2 by 2 on mission. Coming back, the crowd interrupted their “time off” with Jesus, and he fed 5,000. Then Jesus asks about what people are saying about him, and Peter recognises the Messiah, the promised King sent by God – but immediately Jesus talks, not of majesty, but of suffering and death.

Then comes this mountaintop experience, perhaps throwing a new light on what is happening. Jesus shows the glory of heaven. Moses, representing the Old Testament leaders, and the Law, is present as a witness, and so is Elijah, not just representing the prophets of the Old Testament, but also the forerunner promised in Malachi 4:5-6. They talk of Jesus “departure” – the Greek word is “Exodus” – which he will “bring to fulfillment in Jerusalem”.

Perhaps you see what is happening. Jesus is taking his mission in an unexpected direction. He will deliberately avoid a revolution to try and make him King, and instead offer himself as a sacrifice. Will the disciples understand? – Will we?

Peter is still thrilled by the experience, and he wants to stay. The heavenly voice has a different priority – “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.”

The journey of faith will test their loyalty. Jesus will go in directions they did not expect – and did not want. But they continued to learn to listen, trust, and follow.

That’s all very well in the first century. We might think we know better, and set off into Lent with the same routines – choosing something to “give up”. But what we need to do, especially at a time of change, is to consider the cost of Jesus’ rescue, and to “spring clean” our spiritual habits to make sure they fit the needs of faith now.

Yes, society is changing, the Church is changing; perhaps it is a time of uncertainty or transition for you, too. So we all need a new vision of Jesus, which give us confidence and the motivation.

“This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.”  – because that is specially important when things are developing rapidly, and may not be as they seem.

At the bottom of the hill, they have to face a failure to heal. The disciples need of Jesus is again clear. They are learning to reflect God’s glory, to work with the Holy Spirit and follow God’s chosen way. But they have not finished learning, and neither have we. So keep close to the Saviour, and keep listening!

Creation matters

You might wonder why Christians bother with thoughts of Creation. If so, it may help to think about alternatives to the story we have heard (in Genesis 2:4b-9 and 15-25):

  • many now seem to think the universe is an accident explained by science. It has no purpose, people have no significance, and there is no basis for love or justice unless we pretend to find one.
  • Others don’t care about causes. They just believe that “Might is Right”, and what matters is to be on top of the pile, not the bottom
  • and some think that if there is Fate or god, it is no friend, and may even be out to catch them our or get them!

So: part of the Good News we have to share is about God, who in love creates. Though we have done some damage, the universe was well and beautifully made. It shows God to be wise, powerful, and to understand and plan in ways quite beyond our little minds!

Of course, there is an element of threat in this. It means this is not my world – it does not revolve around me, my wants, my ambitions . . God the creator owns it all. Even “my” possessions. Even “my” life. That makes quite a difference to the way we see things. You may notice in John’s vision of heaven, Revelation 4, that it is not all about family reunions and eternal holiday – the throne of God is central, and worship is what is happening.

Similarly, the God who chooses to make man and woman in his own image dignifies every human – even the poor, disabled, refugee, handicapped, criminal . . It is not for us to change his priorities.

So I hope you are beginning to see that Creation – the Christian understanding of a God of power and love who chooses to make us and our surroundings – is important. We have to come to terms with not being in control, with not having owner’s rights. Yet, this is Good News, just as the disciples in the boat that stormy day (Luke 8:2-25) discovered it was wonderful to be with Jesus, who understood their panic, and was able to put things right. Just as Adam and Eve found out, when even after their rebellion (Genesis 3: “We don’t have to be told what to do by Him!”) God acts in love to provide first, clothing, and a future salvation.

Belief in a Creator God does not mean we don’t have to bother about the way we treat the Earth and leave it for future generations. The knowledge that we are managers, or stewards – of the universe, as well as our lives and possessions – puts us in a good place. We have a responsible job, and excellent support!

Upside down world

How good you are at the High Jump? You must at least have seen athletes on TV – a short run (but not straight at the bar), at the last minute they seem to turn away, and then jump with a curious swing of the legs. Somehow, it’s not an obvious way of doing it – and you will understand I don’t try.

I won’t even think about pole vaulting!

That seems a good way in to Jesus’ comments. (Luke 6:17-26). He had chosen 12 apostles, and gathered them, with others who had been following him, and a crowd of local onlookers. He was healing people, but, as always, teaching as well.

And it is his teaching which seems strange:

Blessed are you who are poor

Blessed are you who hunger now

Blessed are you who weep now

Blessed are you when people hate you Luke 6:20-22 part

There’s nothing happy about poverty – it is limiting, often uncomfortable, insecure. The same thing with hunger; we’re not talking about effective dieting, but about starvation, weakness, the risk of illness and inability to work or even move about freely. Crying, being hated – the same applies.

What can Jesus be talking about?

In part, he may be talking about spiritual poverty. (Matthew 5:3 reads “Blessed are the poor in spirit”) – but not entirely. Read carefully, and you see that Jesus is talking about people who are not entirely happy with the way things are now, on earth. They are not so heavily invested in the status quo that they aren’t actively looking for something better.

The poor will find the Kingdom of God because they know something is badly wrong with life here and now. The hungry will value the bread Jesus offers – not just at the feeding miracles. The hated have the nerve to be loyal to a Saviour unpopular with the establishment.

For those who don’t want to be disturbed, it gets worse. Luke adds verses Matthew’s “Sermon on the Mount” lacks:

“But woe to you who are rich, . .

Woe to you who are well fed now, . .

Woe to you who laugh now, . .

Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, . .

We see that the same sort of explanation applies. A minority of Jesus followers were wealthy, and able to provide for their needy brothers and sisters. Jesus isn’t cursing them, but taking very seriously the dangers of complacency, of the wrong sort of contentment. (“I’m all right Jack, keep off what’s mine”). The well fed may be drowsy rather than alert to the need for justice. The laughers may scorn the abused. The popular may not have passed on the words of God, which sometimes warn or redirect.

Things are not what they seem. Those who appear to have done well – are in real danger. If you want to live well, you have to approach life, well, like a high jumper. A curious technique, which seems impossible until it works.

We aren’t poor, not by global standards. Nobody here is starving, and if some are sad and others have been the subject of gossip, it is the ordinary events of life, not critical destitution, we are speaking of.

Can we, then, find the motivation to live as Christians? Do we understand how lightly we must sit to wealth, posessions, even good times and good reputation?

Those who follow Jesus must go where he goes, see as he sees, and only then reach the promised glory. Perhaps we should talk more of the sinners in heaven, and less of our earthly success?

Lifechanging

Simon was a fisherman on the Sea of Galilee. We don’t know a great deal about his earlier life, but he appears in a story about Jesus as the owner of a fishing boat which will be very useful. Jesus asks if, by putting the boat a little distance on the lake, Simon will help him speak to a large number of people without interruption (and with his voice carrying better over the water). Luke 5:1-11.

Simon agrees. We don’t know if he is just being helpful, or how much he agrees with what is being said. I sometimes imagine that he saw himself as the practical man helping a good, but rather “other worldly”, teacher.

But then the teacher and carpenter shows the fisherman how to fish! Something about that unlikely catch deeply affects Simon. His relationship with Jesus is changed. He is committed – perhaps not even knowing clearly yet the terms of his commitment. Now he is “with” Jesus. He will be a disciple, learning all his master can teach. Fishing, family and anything else will have to take second place.

What happened to Simon has been repeated in different ways many times. Jesus attracts interest, by his actions and his teaching. Some are impressed, others entertained. Then there are those of us who come, in a sudden move or a slower development, to accept a different and unequal relationship. Jesus is Lord – in charge – and we are disciples, learners under instruction. We don’t stop thinking, asking questions, working through doubts and misunderstandings. But there is a commitment, and it takes first importance.

No doubt people have to start by relating to Jesus in different ways. Some may want to try and patronise his teaching, or to suggest that we would now develop it differently, or improve on some details . . But Christian faith is not defined by starting from Jesus ideas, but by accepting Jesus as Lord – having the authority of God come to us in human life, being the only one to set us free, and to shape our freedom in a way of life lived to his glory.

Simon seems to have found it confusing at first. But that day’s decision shaped his life in a way he never turned back from.

“Redemption” ?

Luke 2:22-40 What do you make of that story? Only Luke tells it – so is it less interesting, or less relevant? It starts as a bit of ritual. Jesus was brought up as a Jew, so circumcised a week after his birth, and then at 40 days old taken with his mother to the Temple. Mary presents him in the Temple, and makes a sacrifice – the 2 pigeon option allowed for the poor – in a ceremony required by the Old Testament.

So far, not very helpful you might think. But hold on. That ceremony came from the Exodus and the Passover. You remember how the slaves in Egypt escaped after a series of plagues, and the last and worst of the plagues was – the death of the firstborn. And Exodus 13 explains how all the firstborn of the Israelites belonged in a special way to God. There is more detail, but it makes sense – Jesus belonging specially to God; a small fee paid to ransom him and return him to his family . .

Then the excitement grows again. Simeon appears. How can he tell one baby from another? Somehow the Holy Spirit makes it possible. He has been promised (and, since God keeps his promises) now understands he is seeing the promised Messiah.

He speaks of a light for the Gentiles – all the world!

And of glory for God’s people

and he warns Mary of suffering, as Jesus will bring some people down, as well as raising others up.

If you feel excited (and perhaps you should), Mary and Joseph are amazed. They haven’t forgotten the earlier messages and promises, angels, shepherds – but how does Simeon know? This Holy Spirit has something.

To reinforce the importance and transforming power of the Holy Spirit, Anna arrives – and she is a prophet. Whether she accepts Simeon’s word, or knows by her own spiritual insight – she now also give thanks to God, and talks about Jesus to all who were still looking for God to do something.

It started with a bit of Jewish ritual. It gained significance as we found a connection with the Passover (don’t forget the Last Supper was a Passover meal, and the Christian eucharist depends on it). God’s people were set free at the Exodus, as they will be again more lastingly by Jesus and his death. The idea of Redemption is interesting.

Then there is the excitement of the Holy Spirit giving revelations and warnings – the same Spirit who will be active in Jesus ministry, the same Spirit who guides and empowers Christians today. It is beginning to happen, and it is good, and we know it hasn’t stopped. Where is the Spirit active today? Who are the Simeons and Annas, praying, understanding, talking about God?

Even at 40 days old, Jesus is exciting, making things happen.

What is Jesus all about?

The story of Jesus in his home synagogue (Luke 4:14-21) is an announcement of what Jesus is all about, and it demands attention. Jesus quotes Isaiah 61:1,2, but he’s talking about the fulfillment of the greatest hopes of a people. I’m not sure if we have such clear and unified national hopes now – we don’t even talk easily about our personal hopes – but the Jewish people of the first century knew what they wanted. They wanted freedom, and the life that God had promised – a good life, a life of wholeness and plenty and right – right relations and right order – to happen in their time.

And Jesus comes to his home synagogue and says “Yes, its happening now.” And we blink, thinking, have I missed something, what happened next? Look back, and you will see that in Nazareth they took offence, and he narrowly escaped violence. Jesus had stopped quoting Is with “the time has come when the Lord will save his people” it continues “and defeat their enemies”. Perhaps Jesus didn’t need to speak of that, because it was shown to be happening.

So we are set up by Luke to ask if we recognise these things in the gospel story – both the story he tells, and the story our lives re-tell. Jesus as the bringer of good news: not always happiness, sometimes hard work (but never pointless). Good news which includes being set free – not free of all constraint, but free of evil, free to learn to live with other people as difficult as we are ourselves.

Then there’s recovery of sight. Jesus did heal some blind people, but more than that, he has made it possible for many of us to see –

  • to see something of God, his character, his activity, and purpose
  • to see in people not just what they are, but what they might be, and how God might view them.
  • to see the collection of Christians not as grumpy, quarrelsome bunch, but as the potential citizens of a new kingdom.

Some of the oppressed are free, and some of those who profited from their oppression are quite annoyed. We see a struggle developing, and already we are involved. Do you think Jesus should have known his place and kept quiet in his home town? Or are you hearing what he says and saying, even without quite getting all the significance, “Yes!”

Luke is only beginning. But he warns us that this is no story that we can read and analyse like an instruction book or technical specification. We are drawn in; right away we either rejoice that freedom is announced and healing practised, or we worry that we may lose out if things change too much.

God is in charge, the Holy Spirit is leading a new wave of history – and it continues for us. As we read on, where will your sympathies be, who will you support, what will you do?

“The Spirit of the Lord is on Jesus, because he has chosen him to bring good news to the poor. He has sent him to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free the oppressed, and announce that the time has come when the Lord will save his people”

Yes?

Good God!

Jesus makes some wine, but it’s a sign – the first of a series in John’s gospel. (John 2:1-11) But what is a sign? We shall see. Let’s start at the end. verse 11 Jesus performed this first miracle in Cana in Galilee; there he revealed his glory, and his disciples believed in him. Other translations use the word “sign” for miracle. The signs are more than odd or unexplained events, they are clues, if you like, to what is happening. And all the signs point to Jesus:

  • not because he is looking for publicity (in every case there is a good and compassionate reason for the miracle. Here, the embarrassment of the family hosting the wedding.)
  • often they point to Jesus as the answer to a need, even spiritual bankruptcy. Here there are details
  1. 6 jars for water – not the perfect number 7
  2. The “wine” of Jewish celebration runs out
  3. The “mother” must no longer dictate action

Again, all the “signs” in John point to what God and his Kingdom are like (John 10:10)
Again, marriage is endorsed here. It is sad that many now find that politically unacceptable. Marriage is good, a gift of God to people who need it and benefit from it
More widely, as we see in other signs, Jesus sets about restoring and improving relationships. The signs point away from manipulation and control to freedom and responsibility.

Many signs point to God’s provision. This one in particular:

  • Here wine is provided, in quantity (perhaps 900 bottles), and of a notable quality
  • Here Jesus action (quietly done) means a feast can continue without embarrassment.
  • Jesus and his disciples (who may have contributed to the shortage of wine!) are welcome guests, not a burden to be shouldered – symbolically important.

As so often in John, there is a great deal to look at, and symbolic detail to ponder. Let’s not get lost though; Jesus was a welcome guest who transformed a party. It was a sign of what he was doing, and pointed to a God with a generous understanding of people, a willingness to give what was good, and to help repair what was damaged or disordered.

Natural development – and more

While much of the world has moved from Christmas back to work and dreams of holidays, Christians have, I hope, more to ask. “How did people get to know about Jesus?”, What was the route from “Baby of Bethlehem” to “Saviour of the World”? Perhaps by mapping it out, week by week, we can learn, and apply it for our own faith, and for our sharing faith with other people.

It starts at the Epiphany with the visit of the Wise Men, then goes on to Jesus’ baptism. But Luke 3:15-22 doesn’t say much about the baptism. Why? he was not interested in details (which day, time, how wet, exactly where . .). Luke wants us to understand that (verse 22) the Holy Spirit came down on Jesus; John the Baptist had said (verse 16) “He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Now Jesus is baptised, and the Spirit descends on him, as a vital preparation for his ministry. (So in Acts 8:16,17, also read this Sunday, Peter and John expect Christians to receive the Holy Spirit for their Christian life.)

Some versions of faith make the most of the natural. Scripture records God the creator, and expects us to receive and use our “natural” / God given general abilities. There is advice (even commands) about learning, manners, “self development” – some of the things we don’t like: discipline, diligence. – look in the Wisdom tradition, Proverbs, but also eg Ruth. Loyalty, the providence of God (and hard work) feature more than miracles.

Luke is not dismissing or denying that. But he wants to make very clear that Christian life combines both the natural and the supernatural. The Holy Spirit who empowered Jesus is also to give us strength and direction, gifts and fruit.

The story of Jesus will tell of God rescuing us from sin and chaos. But Luke won’t stop there. He will also make clear, from the beginning, the way that humans might join in God’s work. The Holy Spirit is important in both, for the Holy Spirit who descended on Jesus at his baptism was the same Holy Spirit received by the believers Peter and John prayed for – the same Holy Spirit Christians pray for.

Jesus baptism wasn’t important to Luke because of its ritual, but because of the arrival of the Spirit and the beginning of the Ministry. The two go together. As we begin to ask “How did people get to know about Jesus?” The most important part of the answer, then and now, was the role played by the Holy Spirit. We mustn’t neglect our “natural” abilities and skills, but as Christians we need to use them with the power and direction of the Holy Spirit to be fully effective in responding to God’s love by living in his service.