Monthly Archives: May 2018

Different!

When Nicodemus goes to have a private chat with Jesus (John 3:1-17), he goes as a Jew who knows the importance of belief in one God.  His people had experienced the Egyptian, Greek and other stories of many gods, with rivalries, conflict, deceit and so on.  They rejected these – we might think of teenagers trying to play one parent off against the other, or choosing a favourite celebrity.  Judaism, (Christianity and Islam) hold firmly to one supreme being, who is trustworthy, good, and separate from all human failings.  It was central to Jewish daily prayer, quoting Deuteronomy 6:4 “Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.” (different translations have “the Lord is one” and “the Lord alone“).

Nicodemus brings a number of questions.  He has much respect for Jesus – “we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God”.  But alongside Jesus healings and exorcisms, there is the popular teaching, which does not follow traditional lines.  Jesus seems to assume authority in himself!  If he hoped for discussion and answers, he may have been disappointed.  The idea of being “born again” or “born from above” confuses Nicodemus.  In time, he will understand that the Christian Way is no academic theory, but God’s gift of new attitudes in response to the love shown – yes, in Jesus.  It won’t fully make sense until after the sacrifice of the cross, the resurrection, (and perhaps ascension and Pentecost too!).  Nicodemus will be back, to bury Jesus (John 19:39), and then we guess to rejoice at his resurrection.

Christians would take time, knowing that Jesus was neither bad, nor mad, to realise that his actions (forgiving, healing, teaching) carried the authority of God.  Not the delegated authority of a prophet or “estate manager”, but the full authority of God.  In the same way, the Holy Spirit is no mere “power”, but carries this full healing and directing force of God.

Does this take us back to many gods, who can argue or be manipulated against one another?  No.  There is a distinction of three persons, but they are so close, so totally united in love, that they act always as one.  One God, three persons.

It is unique, and beyond any other experience we might compare it with.  Mind bending might be the word.  But it offers the best “fit” with the facts.  The God you thought amazing is totally awesome – and many other things, too.  Beyond our full understanding, but we need to hold on to what we do know, and never lose our enthusiasm, and our thanks.

Glory – to the Father
and to the Son
and to the Holy Spirit.   Amen!

 

Impact!

For Jesus first disciples, the arrival of the Holy Spirit was a moment of impact – confusion, transformation, power, awe. Fire and wind symbolise power, with an edge of dangerous uncontrollability.

But Jesus had warned them! (Only then, as now, it was one thing to hear the words, and quite another to experience the reality!). First (John 15:26-27) was the point about “testifying”. The Spirit gives evidence for God, and God’s activity in Jesus. It is so obvious in the change in the disciples that day. Peter made a great start on the Day of Pentecost. But today’s Christian disciples are also to give evidence by what they say, and what they do. Perhaps we are sometimes too hesitant.

There is more in John 16:4b-15. Jesus had to leave – among other reasons, to stop disciples wanting to find and ask him personally, rather than the Holy Spirit who could be in contact everywhere. The Holy Spirit has some important corrections to make to our understanding:

  • about sin – interestingly, about the refusal to accept and trust God in Christ. We are more hung up on morality and standards of behaviour. Without ignoring them, should we focus more on allowing a fuller and wider trust of God. What might follow from that?
  • about righteousness – Jesus returns to heaven vindicated and victorious. Against all those who said his way was not practical, not politically viable, not realistic, or just wrong, he parades the Father’s affirmation and approval of his way of life, teaching, and choice of the cross.
  • about judgement – because the “ruler of this world” (that’s Satan, representing all evil) has been condemned, the Kingdom of God starts here. There is judgement, but with a focus on sweeping away the false, rather than finding individuals to condemn (they have a warning and a little more time).

So the Holy Spirit brings truth, exposing the corruption and compromise of “worldly” fashion and wisdom. God is glorified, as his love in restoring what ought to be, and healing what is, is seen in action.

The arrival of the Holy Spirit had an enormous impact. It still does, when lives are changed, and communities opened to liberating truth.

Out of this world!

Where do you fit? Do you belong? It’s difficult if you feel you don’t. Yet Christians don’t entirely, and need to be at ease with that. Let me pick up some words from Jesus in today’s gospel (John 17:6-19)
John 17:6 “I have made you known to those you gave me out of the world”
and a few verses later
John 17:9 “I do not pray for the world ”
which is odd, not only because we do pray for the world and its needs, but that Jesus disciples were given out of the world.

Of course, we live in the world, have responsibilities in the world, encourage people to work for the good of their communities. But traditionally Christians have talked of not being “worldly” – not being formed by secular values, not being just followers of fashion, success, whatever everyone wants and is talking about. Jesus took his disciples, and taught them a way of life, a set of values – that would set them at odds with many in their communities. In John 17, as he prepares to leave them, he underlines that.

He says much the same a few verses later: John 17:15 “I do not ask you to take them out of the world, but I do ask you to keep them safe from the Evil One.”
John 17:16 “Just as I do not belong to the world, they do not belong to the world.”

Not belonging to the world, being kept safe from evil – these are still important. Still things to pray, for ourselves and others. It might help to look at Acts 1 (Acts 1:15-17 and Acts 1:21-26 are the readings this Sunday as well) also. The context is that funny time between Jesus leaving the disciples as he ascended to heaven, and the feast of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came to the believers, and equipped them for mission. In Acts 1, we hear of Judas fate (though it is left out of the recommended reading – don’t we like the warning it contains?) and of the choice of a replacement. Why did they need a replacement for Judas? Because the number 12 was important – 12 apostles in parallel with 12 tribes of Israel, becoming the new people of God, (not by race, or by “observance”, but by faith). You remember how Jacob was given the new name Israel, and his sons (well, including Joseph’s two sons) gave their names to the 12 tribes, each associated with a part of the Promised land? Well, now Jesus is re-making the people of God, with a new Covenant. But they are down to 11, so . .

What qualifications were required of any new candidate? That they had been with Jesus, and could be witnesses to his life, death and resurrection. (and they would also talk about the Holy Spirit once he arrived!).

That fits well. We are not to “belong” to the world. The early Christians are “growing out of” just being in Jewish religion. A new identity forms, a new people, but not a nation. For us, we live in a nation, and play a positive part in the community, but importantly are formed by the teaching of Jesus, and powered by the Holy Spirit he sent, rather than just by our own abilities, greed, or ambition. Our direction – our ambition – will seem strange to outsiders, because it isn’t just what we choose for ourselves.

Our fellowship will sometimes arouse envy, but many will not understand that it is more than good manners or common background, and comes from sharing an obedience to one Lord, and discipline in his service.

“out of this world” ? – not quite, but not belonging to it, –

belonging instead to one Lord, and one another. We have his mission to prioritise.

The best gift

When Jesus commands us to love one another, (John 15:9-17) we are rather inclined to hear it as an instruction to “be nice”. Being nice is what you are supposed to do – you help old ladies cross the road, and lend your neighbour a pair of shears across the garden fence. And it’s not at all what Jesus was talking about. We read these verses often on Remembrance Sunday, because of verse 13 about laying down one’s life for one’s friends. That is rather more serious; it brings memories or thoughts of war, hardship, and yes, of death. But Jesus wasn’t a soldier, and while his words may have encouraged acts of heroism, he wasn’t thinking of falling on a grenade or crawling under fire into no man’s land.

CS Lewis made a useful comment when he pointed out that you can’t feel warm affection for someone just because you are told to. Very sensibly he said that if you are commanded to love someone, the answer is not “But I don’t even like them!” so much as “What would I do if I wanted the best for them?”

Jesus defines love in terms of what he has done for the disciples. As far as we know, he never bought flowers for anybody, sang songs, or cooked dinner. In fact he was often hard on his friends; he expected a lot of them, pushed them into situations they would rather not have faced. He wanted the best for them, and the best was faith and discipleship. And he never asked more than he gave.

So what does it mean for us to love one another? Not just kindness and sympathy, but much more. Jesus gave his disciples the opportunity to know God. His life, and death, and resurrection, were for a purpose – and it wasn’t something he just fancied doing, or some ambition that he could achieve to feel good about it. He lived for us, died for us, rose so that we might find our way to heaven as his disciples.

To love someone would be to want the best for them. And what would be the best?

  • – well, it wouldn’t be to have to endure our bad temper, tantrum, or dented ego
  • – but neither would it be “anything for a quiet life”
  • – the best thing we could give anyone would be God, or at least a knowledge of God, a true understanding, a ticket to heaven.

So why don’t we see love in terms of giving faith? We know, of course, that we can’t force people and must not try. But Jesus didn’t do that either. We know that it’s difficult, because it means acting unselfishly, and that doesn’t come easily. But Jesus had some temptations about that in the desert. We think we’re not going to find the words, which ought to make us more determined to get our example right. But somehow we worry about that too.

Jesus was kind to people, he healed some, was gentle with others who were frightened. But he had no doubt that what was important in his life was teaching, and dying, and rising.

We are commanded – not advised, encouraged, or persuaded – commanded to love in the way he loves. That means we must want the best for other people, and the best is to share faith in him. That’s daunting. It means changing our behaviour and our conversation, adjusting our priorities. And that’s why we are allowed the rest of our lives to work it out.