Tag Archives: change

Change

“Look, Teacher! What wonderful stones and buildings!” (from today’s reading Mark 13:1-8) Jesus disciples are impressed by the Jerusalem temple – it was both large and magnificent, but Jesus answered, “You see these great buildings? . . every one of them will be thrown down.” It was a prophecy that would be fulfilled some 40 years after he spoke.

We don’t always enjoy change, and try to resist, forgetting that it is part – and a necessary part – of life. Whether you look at an individual person and the changes that come with time; or at their education, career and retirement, or at family structure – in each change is clear.

The disciples knew this of course, but if they thought religion might be a buttress against change, they were to learn differently. It is true that God does not change with the fashions, swapping his favourite virtues from generation to generation, or updating the 10 commandments for fear of seeming old-fashioned.

But the practice of Christian faith changes. Let me give you an example. Early Methodists lived at a time of gin shops – cheap oblivion to poor social conditions. Their response was teetotalism; Christians were not to drink, but to spend on their families, and help those in need. It is an advertisement for Christianity in Nepal today – drunkenness is a social problem, so again the Church is teetotal, and popular for it.

In Britain a century later, what had been a Christian virtue was sometimes an eccentricity. Now, I am happy to drink in moderation – but if I was a student? I’m less sure. I’m glad to see Street Pastors caring for the drunk.

It’s not that the Christian standard – avoiding drunkenness – changes, but its expression depends on social conditions. To say that God does not change is true and important. But to be faithful Christians, it is never enough to live in the same pattern as our ancestors in faith. Society changes; the key issues vary. The way we live has to express the love and purpose of God to the people around us.

A key issue is the question of security. The disciples may have seen the massive temple stones as an indication of permanence – which they were not. Jesus wants to give them, not a system or a ritual, but an education in spiritual reality which will make them secure, firmly based for the difficulties to come. He knows, and they must learn, that the only true foundation is God himself.

As we come to Christmas, I know someone will say to me, “I do love the traditional carols (or . . ) they’re what Christmas is about” – and I will struggle to know how to say. “No, it’s not carols, it’s God living with us that gives us the security to adapt our lives to serve him in every generation.”

Jesus knew there would be problems – false teachers, wars. More important, he knew that security was not in changelessness, but in God himself.

Change, Promise and Worship

This Sunday, many will celebrate the “Nativity of John the Baptist”, looking again at the way Luke begins his gospel.  He has a story of change to tell – radical change, as Jesus brings a new way of finding God, living life fully, and belonging to his people and his world.  Yet the story begins with an elderly couple, not known as especially important, with worship (even at its most traditional, in the temple in Jerusalem), and the fulfillment of promises.

Zechariah the priest is no celebrity.  He does his turn of duty in the temple, and may have been surprised to be chosen to offer the incense.  He was certainly surprised to meet an angel with a message for him! But the experience was not all celebration – he is dumb for a time.  (This is all part of Luke 1, though before the reading set which is Luke 1:57-66, 80). The angel’s promise comes true, and a boy is born.  We shall know him as John the Baptist, a cousin of Jesus, and the “forerunner”, who prepares the way for Jesus’ ministry.

Strange, isn’t it, how radical change begins with a relatively elderly couple, faithful to the old ways of worship and living, and works through promises, both old and new?  Perhaps it’s not so strange.  Our God does new things, but with a sense of continuity.  The promises of the scripture give pointers and reassurance to those who want to keep up.  We celebrate the Nativity of John (and perhaps also his beheading, in August), knowing that both we beyond his immediate control, as God let his life and death be a sign for those watching.  That would be quite something for use to be given, too!

Why?

There are many ways of asking “Why?”.  The small child who endlessly repeats the question to each attempt at answer infuriates, and raises suspicions that attention is more important than an answer.  Yet for Christians, it is a sign of success when someone without faith starts to ask “Why are you bothering? Why are you doing this for me?”.  It is also a good question for Christians to ask at Eastertime: “Why is this happening? Why do others care about what I think or do?”

John’s gospel gives us an insight into the life and ministry of Jesus.  He takes us through both the success of his teaching and healing, and the pain of his passion and death.  But it is only in chapter 20 that he comes to the question “Why?”, with a clear answer, “these [signs] are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name”.

John 20:19-31 has shown us the disciples receiving both new hope and authority, then Thomas finding answers to his doubt, and the gospel writer summing up his purpose in writing.  The hope is that we who read the gospel now will see Jesus as the one promised to bring life to a climax, and that not in a merely intellectual way, but as the recipe for life as it is meant to be.

Like the repeated question of the small child, that needs us to do more than find the right words.  We have to pay attention, to engage, to change.  It is much easier to find an excuse not to – but then we miss out.

April Fool Easter?

It’s not often Easter falls on 1st April. (Yes, I looked it up! It has happened once before in my lifetime – 1956, and will come again in 2029,2040, but not then till 2108). I mention it because it seems to fit with Mark 16:1-8 – a funny end to the gospel, as the women run from the tomb, afraid? We almost want to ask, “Are you serious?” (Yes, verse 8 is the end, although there are 2 other endings given in most bibles, they are not in the best manuscripts, and look like attempts to “round off the story” from other gospels).

We can suggest all sorts of things:

  • Mark wanted to explain how unexpected this was, adding to the authenticity. If you were going to invent a story – be more plausible!
  • Better: He continues the theme of the failure of Jesus followers (the men are no better!) – which emphasises what God does, and the hope for imperfect believers (yes, like us!) later.
  • And perhaps: This is the end of part 1. Part 2 is being written by the believers for whom Mk wrote – they know about the spread of the Church (it has reached them in Rome), about the importance of the Resurrection, and the power of the risen Christ. What Mk is saying – to us as well – is “Now, write the next chapter”

Fear of the unknown is real in today’s Church, too. As we face changes, there will be voices that cover the fear with cynicism or ignorance. Perhaps we can go back to the good old days? Perhaps the changes we don’t like thinking about will never happen? But no, what is past brings us to our present. The present we need to face with faith.

“We just have to carry on as we have in the past”. No. The past contains some big mistakes. In Wales we have failed to engage with younger people, or indeed to evangelise their parents and grandparents, for half a century now, and unless we find the courage to do so, the Church will die out in Wales with us – and we will have to answer for failure, complacency, and unfaithfulness. (There may be other fears and failures where you are – something to think about).

And that is why it is important that the women were afraid, and that they got over their fear. If you look at Acts 10:34-43, you will see how Peter felt all sorts of doubts about going to a Gentile – it took a dream, and a summons to show him God’s way, but the result was vital.  He went beyond his fears.  If you look at 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 (another reading set for Easter Sunday) Paul was not surprised his friends in Corinth were daunted when some of their congregation died, and they wondered if they had somehow missed out, or made a basic mistake in the meaning of the gospel. He had faced death himself, more than once, and could sympathise, but also remind them that the Christian Good News was, in 2 words, “Jesus, and Resurrection”.

Peter and Paul are both clear that the Christian faith stands, and faces fear, on the Resurrection of Jesus. That did 2 things:

  • it meant life had to be lived with a new perspective and horizon, no longer just for 70 years (more or less), but for life and eternity. It challenged fear of death, and of illness.
  • It meant Jesus was right. God raised him, and underlined all that he had taught and done. Fear of the unknown is now limited – God knows. We have reason to learn to trust Jesus.

What we face is not new, except in detail. The shadow of death, the fear – of the unknown, the unexpected, or just of not coping, is still real. It is a fear that needs to be faced, with a risen Lord.

Agency – but no Franchise!

Todays gospel speaks of receiving the Holy Spirit, but the story is really in Acts 2:1-21.  And a strange story it is – with the powerful images of wind and fire; we know how much energy they have.  But what are we to make of it?

Strange things happening around religious people and events are not new. When (I think it was John Wesley, the Methodist) preached, crowds came, and strange behaviour was sometimes seen – people fainted, shook, cried, even made strange noises. Wesley was asked about this, and wisely replied that if it led on to a changed and Godly life, good. If not, it was of no value.

So what does the Holy Spirit do? Is it about making us good?  NO, not “good”. Good can be boring.  So is the Holy Spirit about character change?  Maybe partly, but this still sounds a bit negative.  I would prefer to say the Holy Spirit is about making us GOD’S AGENTS.

There’s nothing automatic about this. The Spirit can change us, but you have to want it, and keep allowing a transformation that can be uncomfortable.  Do that, and HS will both give gifts, for benefit of other Christians (see the list in 1 Corinthians 12, and other New Testament lists), and produce the fruit of good character – not a boring “goodness”, but a sometimes provocative joy, a peace despite stress, and a self-control when others are losing it.

The Holy Spirit leads us into exciting service for God – secret agents without the secret!  We are not all leaders, but all have an important, and individual, part to play. (1 Cor 12:7 “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good”)

See how it works in Acts.  A group of frightened, puzzled, insecure disciples (hiding behind locked doors) burst out, and become a force that takes the world for God.  They are still themselves, making mistakes, getting it wrong sometimes. But Peter’s sermon converts 3,000, and the gospel travels the known world (and beyond!).

So, are you signing up as an agent, or becoming an obstacle?

Evangelism Masterclass

Jesus has had a hard day.  Walking in the hot sun, he is glad to sit and rest, even without a drink.  Yet, tired and thirsty, he can find the energy for a conversation. (John 4:1-42).  His disciples will be surprised to find him talking to a Samaritan woman, and one who came to the well at midday to avoid company.  Soon she finds his perception hard – these are things she didn’t want to talk about, but still does.

People coming to new faith may face up to things otherwise forgotten by choice.  Christians coming closer to God as they turn away from all that is wrong may also find the process challenging.  Though they cannot begin again, each day brings the choice of going on, or not.

Jesus didn’t want the effort, but took the opportunity.  The woman didn’t like being so well understood, and created a distraction (the proper place to worship – the Samaritan or Jewish centre), but Jesus avoids it.  The conversation continues until the woman leaves to bring others.  They begin in curiosity, but as Jesus stays, they gain a faith of their own which no longer depends on second hand reports.

Jesus has taught us three things about being changed – converted.  First, we have to face facts, even hard ones.  Second, we need to avoid distractions.  Third, the experience has to be their own for each person; second hand won’t do.  This is true for our own conversion, but also for our going on in faith day by day, year by year.  It is equally true for evangelism, as we try, with courtesy and urgency, to share faith with others around us.

Perhaps the twinning of this story with Exodus 17:1-7 (and its echo in Psalm 95) is fortunate.  We don’t easily face up to hard facts about ourselves and our faith (or lack of it).  Evangelism, and repentance, are for many a hard place.  But when we find God there, the benefits flow like water in the desert.