Tag Archives: Jesus

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:”

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.

Generosity, groups and the Gospel

One of the things I value in Christianity, and in people, is generosity. Not so much a readiness to hand out money, as a kindness, a positive attitude – perhaps because I recognise an ungenerous streak in myself that I have to work on.  So it won’t be a great surprise that I enjoy Mark 9:38,39 at the start of this week’s selection (Mark 9:38-50). Unlike groups in his day, and ours too, Jesus refuses to allow a monopoly to “our group”. (It’s no use Joshua saying stop those 2 prophesying – Numbers 11:4-29).

Jesus explanation shows how it works – if they not only claim the name of Jesus, but are doing something good with his power, – then don’t stop them, they won’t be able to rubbish Jesus after that. There is nothing here about those who use other “powers”, some of which are forbidden to Christians. Remember that Jesus is the greatest spiritual power of all – a fact which is the basis of Christian healing, and indeed exorcism (when, uncommonly in British society, that is needed). Those who work as his disciples share in something great; those who will not (whatever they write on the T shirt or headed notepaper) are useless.

You might think the passage then moves away from generosity. There is a series of sayings about damaging faith – (the Greek is “causing to stumble”, a word that gives us English “scandal”). In fact, it illustrates “ungenerosity” to others, and to yourself!

So, to damage someone else’s faith is desperately serious
and to damage your own, no less so!

What could do that? Does for example you liking for sport limit the energy you put into living as a real Christian – then it’s time to give up sport! (A bit of exaggeration? Yes and no. Your ability to play sport will decline with age; even watching it will become harder. Your competence in Christian living should increase to meet the critical challenge of God’s judgement). You may be able to reduce your commitment to sport, but if not, abandon it in favour of living Christianity.

Maybe it’s not sport, but TV, or insistence on “time for yourself”, or laziness, or some sin like dishonesty, immorality, or pride . . Whatever gets in the way of living faith – give it up! It’s the seriousness of the issue we tend to avoid. It’s not about “our group” – church being nasty to sportsmen, or actors, or . . ; it’s about losing faith, and finding our chosen life in danger of destruction. (“Hell” here is the Jerusalem rubbish dump, where there were always fires smouldering to consume the waste). God’s generosity is real – he wants us to live well, and to avoid that with other priorities is not just foolish, but dangerous.

You don’t want to be counted (by the only one who matters) as “rubbish”, your chosen lifestyle down the chute? Then be serious about doing faith!

Faith is always about Jesus, not the claims of one group against another. But that is no excuse for laziness or inaction; this is more serious than your career, or your human relationships – it may direct and change both, so – get busy!

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!

 

A branch with connections?

What did Jesus mean by saying, “I am the true vine”? (John 15:1-8). It’s a saying that comes on the night of the foot-washing and (though John does not record the institution of the eucharist) the Last Supper. At the end of chapter 14, Jesus says “Rise, let us be on our way.”, but there are still 2 chapters of discourse and the prayer of chapter 17 before (beginning in chapter18) they go out across the valley to the garden of Gethsemane.

We can’t be sure, but interesting idea that, leaving the house at end chapter 14, they went to the temple, and saw the gates with their vine decoration. Psalm 80, as well as Jeremiah, Ezekiel and other prophets, had pictured Israel as a vine – thus the symbolism of the decoration. It would add force to this saying, if they were looking at the gates. Jesus would be making the point that from that time on, to belong to God’s people would be to be his – Jesus’ – followers, and not members of a nation. He had already replaced the 12 tribes, with 12 disciples.

What is so distinctive about a vine?  Although the stem is woody, and lasts, the shoots are sappy, and need support. When pruned, the shoots removed can be removed without secateurs or knife, and wither to almost nothing. It’s not flattering to be told that as branches of Jesus we have no strength, no backbone of our own. Not flattering – but we need to know.

And it might seem less than comforting to hear that God will not only remove unfruitful branches, but also prune those that do fruit! We might wince at the thought of pruning, or we might see it as explaining why difficult things happen, even to good people. Do you feel that Christians have had a hard time in the last few years? In western society generally, a move away from Christian ideas and practice – about honesty, care for weak and needy,  life and death as well as morality and family. Is some of this God pruning? Asking us to live distinctively, to show a better way because we belong to him?

Jesus picture is not complicated. A vine, perhaps many years old, with roots drawing water from six metres down, for the benefit of the frail branches. Without the plant, they are nothing. Only firmly connected to the knarled trunk can they fulfill their purpose and bear fruit. But the fruit is wonderful in itself, and can be made into wine, to keep its goodness and bring cheerfulness and energy for time to come.

Let’s take Jesus parable and put it into practice. We are already cleansed, or pruned, by Jesus words – as Christians, we have come to terms with our frailty, and our shared status as sinners. Let’s also make sure that we are well connected to be fruitful, for the harvest of the Kingdom.

Authority – and conflict

Speaking about God can be a dangerous thing to do, and when Jesus goes to Capernaum synagogue, it causes quite a stir. (Mark 1:21-28)
First, there’s his style. He doesn’t talk like the rabbis of the time, quoting other scholars’ comments in a learned way, claiming the authority of their study and their official position. He talks about God as if he knows directly, and tells stories of ordinary life to explain God’s love – as a shepherd searching for lost sheep, or a father finding a lost son.

The official reaction might have been to dismiss an ignorant con-man, if it had not been for the second thing. Jesus demonstrates his authority, even over unclean spirits. You can’t ignore someone who successfully heals someone who was probably known in the community. You can see the beginnings of a conflict – Jesus threatens the status quo.

[Incidentally, we sometimes wonder about “evil spirits” and mental illness. The advance of psychiatry is a great blessing, and many of those obsessed with spirits and possession need a good doctor. There is a difference in this story, in that the spirit recognises Jesus, and has knowledge beyond that of the man possessed. Despite the “Hollywood effect”, (sensationalising and sometimes trivialising,) there is a difference, but spotting it needs care and experience, and discernment by someone who is not the patient.]

The healing of the possessed man also points to a more serious conflict – Jesus is taking on, not just the vested interests of the human religious establishment, but also the evil powers enslaving humanity.

Back to talking about God. Moses had spoken to the people about God (Deuteronomy 18:15-20), and they found him less frightening than the fire on the holy mountain. Deuteronomy speaks of another prophet, to speak for God. It is a dangerous position. The words of the prophet must be listened to; but to speak as if God had given the message when he had not is to be liable to death.
Speaking about God can be a dangerous thing to do. !

But of course, there is a good deal about danger in these readings. As we come to the end of Epiphany season, we realise not only that Jesus was shown to the world, and became known, in a number of ways:

  • Baptism,
  • calling disciples,
  • miracles,
  • teaching,
  • authority . .

but also that these things brought him into conflict. Part of the conflict was with people who wanted things to stay as they were – because they did well out of the status quo, or were afraid of what might happen, or couldn’t be bothered. Another, and perhaps better way of understanding that conflict was to see Jesus challenging evil – the darkness of fallen minds and bad customs, the evil of oppressive relationships, cruel poverty – in short, challenging the devil for supremacy on earth.

The violent metaphors for Christian life – battle, struggle, temptation, victory or defeat – are not the most popular now. As we look forward to Lent, we will find that Christian life cannot do without them, though they are not the whole story.

Speaking about God can be a dangerous thing to do. Even apart from the need to get it right, it brings us into the most fundamental conflict of all!

It’s a Sign

It could have been a disaster! Yet this story (John 2:1-11) has so much to say. Jesus took his disciples to a wedding – and we imagine he was a welcome guest. A bit of a celebrity, with a stock of stories to tell . . Perhaps we forget what a welcome guest He was.

Then disaster strikes – the wine runs out. We aren’t told why – whether it was thirsty disciples, bad planning, or delivery failure simply doesn’t matter. But who wants their wedding remembered for the catering disaster? There are all sorts of symbols here of things not working:

  • 6 jars of water for ritual washing (not 7, the perfect number)
  • Jesus’ mother is gently told not to manage his ministry – the old order is moving on to the new.
  • Even the water (of washing) is about to become the wine of celebration – but that is anticipating.

The wine runs out. Jesus takes charge – the provision he will make involves some hard work, without people understanding what is going on. But the servants fill the jars with water, and draw it out to take to the master of ceremonies. And, to his surprise, its the best!

God provides; we don’t always see how (as here), and can’t often predict what is planned. Yet He makes the best of the situation – that’s worth remembering. Here is a wedding gone wrong, but

  • Jesus, who refuses to do tricks to make himself look good, is shown to be kind (saving embarrassment) and affirms the importance of marriage by his presence and action.
  • Jesus works a creation miracle, showing his power over the world he created. Not just good with people, is he?
  • Jesus performs the first of 7 signs which John will carefully note in his gospel. Each reveals something important about Jesus, and so moves the disciples on in their understanding and commitment.

There are all sorts of sub-plots, in fact you can probably find some more for yourself:

  • Here is The Bridegroom (Old Testament picture for God) at a Wedding, to start a new family
  • Here is a human celebration running out of steam, but finding a greater celebration which works and keeps going..
  • Here is wine, which the Rabbis made a symbol of Torah – Old Testament law, replaced by better from Jesus

You could get lost in the detail, all the symbolism, but this story is about a God who provides (though we don’t always understand how or why), and who provides the best. It is a sign of what is still to come – in gospel and in life – but one meant to encourage disciples. Even us!

(There is another comment on John 2:1-11 last year: The (first) sign, January 2017).

Obedience

One of the issues not often talked about in Christian discussion is obedience. Who is Jesus, that I should obey!?

The story of Jesus’ baptism (Mark 1:4-11) gives us some answers. This is the start of the Epiphany season – looking at how Jesus was “shown” to the world: first the Wise Men, then Jesus’ baptism, later miracles, healings, calling disciples . . But let’s go back to obedience. A lot of people will do some religious things – they don’t mind a bit of church, moral teaching, things to think about. That’s all very well for a start, but it isn’t Christian commitment, because that’s about obeying Christ. (Yes, I know there are questions about how your orders are delivered, but the first issue is whether you are going to obey orders, or simply think about them).

What makes you – what would make you – pledge obedience to anyone? For me, it would have to be someone very special, and someone who didn’t have a big head, or a threatening manner, or an urge to manipulate me for his/her profit . .   So look at what Mark tells us about the start of Jesus ministry. Does he burst onto the scene and say “I’m the greatest” “You’ve must look at me, take notice of me, do what I tell you!” – No, he doesn’t. Does he come and say “Follow me or go to hell” “I’m the only one who can save you from eternal punishment” ? No again.

Mark tells us how it starts (missing out the childhood bits). It starts with a messenger of God, preaching in the desert places – and it isn’t Jesus. Only when John has set the scene does Jesus appear. And what happens then? Jesus joins the movement that has already been started. He is baptised, showing his acceptance of what John has been doing, recognising that God is behind it.

And that’s the point. Just as John wasn’t out to make a reputation, so Jesus is not concerned with his “career development” and his “rating in the polls”. He is about what God is doing, and he knows what it means to obey. That’s very important.

If you have any doubt, see how, after he is baptised, (and has the dove and the heavenly voice), he follows the direction of the holy Spirit and goes off into the desert to be tempted / tested. Nobody’s idea of a fun time, no holiday, but Jesus isn’t committed to having fun. He is committed to doing what God wants, even needs, doing. He obeys

What would it take to make you pledge obedience, not just interest, and being influenced, and wanting to hear more. But – obedience? Would it be a saviour who is able to join what someone else has started, who takes orders himself (even when it means struggle and difficulty). Would it be Jesus, who is able to command your life – time, money, relationships, job, spare time activity?  Perhaps you are already there, and just value the reminder. Perhaps you haven’t thought of it like that, and need to look again at this saviour who is being shown to the world. Do – he bears a close examination. But have no doubt that what he asks of you is nothing less than the committed, obedient service – that he himself gave.

The story of Jesus’ baptism is not about self-advertisement or super-stardom. It shows even Jesus being obedient, and so calling for our loyalty.

Excitement!

Mark begins his gospel (Mark 1:1-8) with an excitement, which I hope has not worn off. To him religion and the message he has to deliver is not only important, and therefore serious, but also exciting and good. Losing that sense of excitement can be one reason why religion becomes boring – and that is the death of motivation!

The good news – the gospel – is of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Again, something we lose sight of at our peril. Jesus is not only God’s gift, through whom we can see the invisible God, and understand what the incomprehensible Deity is like. Jesus is also the way we are brought back to God, forgiven and freed. Mark doesn’t waste time or paper – this is the first line of his gospel!

So, how does it start? With an Old Testament prophet, Isaiah, and his announcement of a messenger to prepare the way. As Mark will make clear, the whole Old Testament has been unfolding God’s plan, and preparing the way for the coming Messiah, the great King. As we shall discover, the King was rather different to what was expected, and so preparation was needed. The prophecies of Isaiah’s book play a part (they feature in Carol Service readings!), not least by creating hope and expectation – an important element.

Then there is John the Baptist. verse 4. Mark understands him to be the messenger Isaiah was talking about, and he comments on his dress and prophetic style. Prophecy had died some hundreds of years before, but its sudden rebirth is a sign of something happening. John calls people to repentance, as part of making ready for his successor. The message is for rich and poor, religious and secularised, and is uncompromising and straightforward: You need to be forgiven, and before my successor comes!

There’s a buzz about all of this. Excitement, urgency, something more than personal preparation. Now is the time to face up to things we have been avoiding. Now we can sort out and put right. Now we can get ourselves right with God, other people and ourselves. It had better be now, because something new is coming which will take our time, effort and attention, but needs us to be ready.

“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. . . .

Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”

For example – Peter

Peter’s great recognition of Jesus as the long-promised and expected King (Messiah) is a turning point in each of the first three gospels (Matthew 16:13-20).  It brings into the open – though only for the disciples at first – the most important truth.  For us, who sometimes think “Christ” is Jesus surname, we wonder at the significance.  (Christ is actually the Greek form of the Hebrew “Messiah”, literally anointed one, so King).

We might see its importance for us by looking at Peter.  Peter was a tough fisherman, who took time to take Jesus seriously, and then personally. Luke tells us how (Luke 5:1-10), after Peter lent his boat for Jesus to preach from, a big catch of fish taken by following Jesus’ instructions led to Peter’s admission of sin and failure. Jesus doesn’t go away as Peter suggests, but commissions him as a fisher of men.  Freed from the guilt of his past failure, Peter is also freed from being “just a Galilean fisherman”. He becomes a leader of apostles.

Many Christians have found the freedom of faith liberated them. Some were aware that guilt crippled them, and forgiveness made new life possible. Others concentrated more on the acceptance and dignity that God gave to lives lived in difficult or demanding circumstances. No one else might know or care what happened to them, but if God did, they could walk on, and walk tall.

Peter’s trust in Jesus wasn’t just an escape from guilt and a limited life. It brought his a freedom to serve.  At Caesarea Philippi, he recognises Jesus as the promised Messiah, the fulfilment of what the OT looked forward to – and he has the courage to say it.  (Of course, he hasn’t become infallible – his next line will be mistakenly telling Jesus that he doesn’t need to suffer!).  This is the pivot of the gospel because it makes clear that Jesus is Lord.  Not just a teacher, explaining a theory, nor just a miracle worker.

Again, after Jesus Resurrection and Ascension, Peter has seen James arrested and executed.  But he is set free by an angel (Acts 12:1-12). He won’t escape execution for ever, but he has years of service to give first, travelling, teaching, telling the world about Jesus.

Perhaps the freedom to serve is something we are not so good at.  We want to be free from things that limit and diminish us, but are not so good at understanding what use to make of our freedom. Peter shows us how a life in Jesus’ service might indeed be the intended use of freedom.  If the picture we get from Peter is freedom from sin, guilt and the limitations of a small life, it is also of freedom to serve, grow, and for him to be a leader and pioneer.  Peter is a good example of Christian life!