Monthly Archives: January 2021

War!

Readers of these comments probably know that they follow the New Testament reading (having compelted the gospel cycle) for each Sunday from the Revised Common Lectionary, used by many churches to choose their weekly readings. This week Revelation 12:1-5a might not seem a preferred text for comment, not least because it has many parallels in pagan myths of the ancient world.

Yet, as so often in scripture, there is something valuable here to note and ponder. If John is aware of the “other” stories – and it seems very likely – he nevertheless gives Christian point to this version, and makes it encouraging.

The battle between good and evil in the world we live in is an ancient story. Here the woman, unlike the woman of chapter 17, has true glory in the sun and moon. While we might think the one who gives birth to the male child is Mary, mother of Jesus, the crown of twelve stars suggests a wider reference. She represents the people of God, with the twelve tribes of Israel as a crown. (And the twelve apostles will take forward this people into a new covenant).

Of course the destruction of the son, the Messiah, is the aim of the evil one. We are reminded it did not, and does not, happen. Despite all the show of strength, evil cannot prevail. There is conflict, and there are those hurt in the struggle who carry their wounds for a time. Here is the encouragement. Not in false promises of a world without the conflict between good and evil, the need for struggle to confront temptation, avoid distraction and do good. The hope we are given does not avoid reality, nor minimise cost, but looks to assured victory not of our own making.

I wonder if you like metaphors of conflict in Christian life? Some prefer to avoid them, offended by their violence and occasional bloodthirstiness or desire for revenge. I suspect those who have suffered most, and over years, will find more help. There is a violence in the attack on the faithful, and any holy life. It may be more hidden in the diverse and liberal societies of the west – though it may also be hidden where the faithful are compromised, and their witness represents no threat to the other side. It still seems to be true that any congregation which makes energetic efforts to live the gospel will find opposition, perhaps from unexpected directions. At the same time, those content to comfort themselves by traditions they find pleasant, without looking further, may understand nothing of the war devastating other places. John does have something of value in telling this!

Hallelujah!

“Hallelujah!” rings out in heaven. We may be surprised to find this is the only place the command (meaning “Praise God”) is found in the New Testament, but know it from the Psalms, and many Christian songs. But what is going on in Revelation 19 (we read Revelation 19:6-10)?

Christians have been taught of the victory won by Jesus and his death, demonstrated by his resurrection. Their life is lived in thanksgiving and imitation of their Lord. They find a victory through the power of the Spirit even though there is temptation, suffering, and all is clearly not yet what is meant to be.

In the book of Revelation “Babylon” is a code for the oppression of Rome, and more widely for all that tempts and misleads those who are attracted by the truth in Jesus. In our twenty first century, we are aware of some Christians who face direct, life-threatening persecution. Yet for many of us our experience is apparently milder. There is the marginalisation of faith as a “personal matter”, the constant distraction of the media and now social media with non-Christian ambitions and values, and the lure of possessions. Sorting out the good things created for our use and delight from their selfish misuse and camouflaged invitation to evil is difficult.

Thus there is proper joy, and an opportunity for praise, when the evils of “Babylon” are finally seen for what they are, and condemned to destruction. Only then can the faithful be finally made one with their Lord – the image of the marriage of the bride (church). We know the church as a group of imperfect sinners, relying on constant forgiveness – as is highlighted from time to time when particular failures and abuses are exposed. But the church is given holiness. The fine linen, even though “the righteous acts of God’s holy people”, has been crafted by the Spirit, and given, not achieved.

Looking to this time, and continuing to struggle with the temptations and distractions which confuse us, we are pointed forward. “Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!” It is good to know that there will be a time when all is clear, but that is a strong reason to get it right now. The temptations that “it will always be like this” and “it doesn’t matter” or even “it’s only reasonable to compromise” are – just temptations. However hard it may be to follow the leading of the Spirit in the steps of Jesus through confusion and difficulty, our destination is clear.

The Lamb.

Revelation takes us to heaven – a good idea – where we meet the Lion of the tribe of Judah – the powerful King of the worldly jungle. The metaphor is mixed, because we then discover that the Lion is a Lamb – in fact the power and authority of this figure come from his sacrifice (today we read Revelation 5:1-10, and this is verse 9: )

And they sang a new song, saying:
“You are worthy to take the scroll
    and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
    and with your blood you purchased for God
    persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.

Revelation 5:9

This chapter, with John the Baptist’s identification of Jesus in John 1, is the origin of the Lamb and Flag emblem (not unknown as a the name for a pub!), and of the title “Lamb of God” (which we sing about in the “Agnus Dei” ). But it is not just that we celebrate the victory Jesus wins by offering himself in this way, powerful and effective that is in changing everything.

The idea of the scroll is that it is God’s plan – his plan of love and mercy for a world gone wrong. No wonder John cries bitterly when there is no-one worthy to open it! – opening it is not just to read the words and understand what is planned, it is actually to put it into operation. Who can sort out the mess, who has the power, the determination, the authority, the competence? Only the lamb of God, sinless – without blemish as a sacrificial lamb had to be – and willing.

That’s quite something, but not all. We read of this cosmic drama, but mustn’t miss the ending.

. . because you were slain,
    and with your blood you purchased for God
    persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.
10 You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
    and they will reign on the earth.’

Revelation 5:9b,10

God works out his plan in Jesus, and in choosing to use people like the disciples, and like you and me. They are not just to run errands and blindly follow instructions, but to be partners in the work God continues. Nathanael is to see angels – God’s messengers. Samuel is to be a prophet. We are to be a kingdom of priests to serve our God. Priests aren’t mindless slaves; they are meant to know what they are doing, to be professional

Yes, today is about disciples, and about our call and commitment to follow Jesus and be his people. But it is also a reminder that we are meant to know God well enough to recognise his voice, to be partners in what he is doing. We are meant to use mind, body, energy in service.

The Lamb of God is worthy – and he has made us a kingdom of priests to serve him – intelligently, energetically, creatively.

Vital spark

Does the Holy Spirit work in you? That’s a dangerous question. An extravert will tend to answer YES, and introvert will be less sure, and an Anglican like me may be more hesitant. What if we ask: “Would your friends recognise something of God in you?” – it is still difficult, clouded by personality. But it matters as we see in Acts 19:1-7. Paul, arriving in Ephesus, asks a group he finds there. They are disciples, but of John the Baptist; they have commitment and some understanding, but like Apollos (see the end of end Acts 18), not full understanding or attachment to Christ.

The confusion is still with us. The title of “Christian” can mean “a nice person”, or “caring” – not always a disciple of Jesus. These men in Ephesus had repented – turned away from evil and wrong, as John the Baptist had taught. Repentance, a change of direction and focus, away from evil and self, is still basic to conversion and Christian life.

But with turning away from is turning to – do you remember the question asked in Baptism? “Do you turn to ___ ?”
Yes, Christ. Jesus, as showing us God, and the right way. [If you read Genesis 1, did you notice God separating darkness and light at the very beginning?]

Today’s gospel tells of Jesus, baptised by John at the very start of his ministry. It is then that the Holy Spirit comes on him, and from that time that he heals, performs miracles and teaches. This, the time of Baptism and the coming of the HS, is the start.

For us, too, Christian baptism is important, and the Holy Spirit who gives gifts. There are all sorts of gifts; the spectacular are not necessarily the most important. But Does the Holy Spirit work in you?

If you are a baptised Christian, looking to live as a follower of Jesus, then the possibility is there. It would be good to look for the Spirit, welcome signs of his activity, ask for his presence, guidance and strength. The Spirit makes the difference between the well-meaning and those who share in God’s work in God’s way.

A new normal

Christmas is over; reluctantly we return to the “normal” – but our readings will take us by a different route, and to a version of normal we would do well to study. Ephesians (we read Ephesians 1:3-14) begins by reminding us of our blessings – but not to follow it with some stern admonition to get back to work! (even socially distanced work!). Jesus was chosen, and we are chosen also to be adopted as children. This is part of God’s grace (for it doesn’t arise from anything else), something to be sung about and celebrated.

Then we hit verse 7 with surprise: “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace”. Somehow we don’t expect to be talking about the sacrifice of Jesus, his death as the price of our forgiveness, at Christmas. It almost seems in bad taste, but let’s be careful. Whose agenda are we following here? Doesn’t the story of Christmas lead on? Apparently not, in the secular / supermarket / primary school version.

And why not? It doesn’t fit with a sentamentalised version of the story. But why should it? Surely our purpose is to tell the story of what God has done, not the story we have re-written for children (what we think they would like) or our own amusement (leaving out the difficult bits). God’s story has a harder edge – bloodthirsty rulers and, yes, a baby born to die. Sacrifice – voluntary self-sacrifice – is always part of it, as is conflict, and disinterest, and struggle.

Our becoming God’s children is to be seen in this way, too. Yes, there is a genuinely and importantly emotional aspect of it. We are accepted, we belong, we find our true identity. And we are to grow up, to understand “the mystery of his will”; to know God and his plan, and to make it known. Our aim is not the easy life, but life “for the praise of his glory”.

Yes, we are leaving Christmas and going back to normal routine. But while the world leaves a fairytale, ruined by reality, we take with us the strength gained from the story of God’s coming. We know that his coming is just the first part, and there is more to understand and celebrate. We know that, just as the gospel story will make demands on Jesus life, so we are asked to do more than stand and watch. We are to be drawn in, to growing commitment, to service, and to life as God’s children in reality, not in fiction.

“In [Christ] we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, 12 in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory.” A rather different, and much better, understanding of normal life, for those who will live it.

Fellowship

I want to talk about fellowship – because it is a key thing that makes Christian groups different. It is often confused with friendship, or with a cosy atmosphere, fellowship is both more and less. Friendship involves knowing people, choosing to spend time together, or at least in communication (perhaps by social media), because of things in common – activities, interests, attitudes, taste in music, food, . . . Fellowship is not about liking another person or group – it is about sharing faith, or in Christian terms, commitment to Christ. So I may have fellowship with those of very different backgrounds, cultures, experience, and may not even share a language. But I share a common obedience, and will share heaven!

So Jesus calls disciples, not just to do the work (be sent out), but to be with him: learning, including learning from being together as disciples. Today (we read 1 John 1) the writer talks about the experience of faith “ so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ”.

The word comes again, as we realise fellowship is not something to be turned on and off: “ If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true” verse 6 and the answer: 1 John 1:7 “but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.”

What makes a Christian group different? There is nothing wrong with other groups, for work, sport, social action – but a Christian starts with Christian fellowship, and goes on with the direction and strength of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes that happens formally, sometimes it is much hidden. Fellowship is not a “natural” thing, like the attraction felt by some friends. We have to work at it, with people not like us, for the sake of our shared loyalty to one Lord, Jesus Christ, and our owing everything to him.