Tag Archives: truth

Perspective

[for a comment on Luke 15:11-32, Lent 4c gospel, see this.]

How do you weigh up somebody new? The way they speak, dress, spend their leisure time? Perhaps their work, and the amount of money they seem to have and spend?

Yet Paul challenges all this, “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view” 2 Cor 5:16. (Part of this week’s epistle – 2 Corinthians 5:16-21). We need to look for faith, holiness of life and the transforming work of the Holy Spirit – because these are the things that matter in eternity. It seems that the Corinthians are rather keen on classical rhetoric, and find Paul less impressive than some competitors.

Paul will not allow us to make such purely human judgements. Anyone in Christ is a new creation, transformed, reconciled to God – and given the vital job of bringing others to reconciliation with God.

Education would be more valuable if it was about godly wisdom. Sometimes it does encourage the pursuit of truth, but too often it is the competitive grasping of qualifications. If you educate a thief, you get a clever thief. For years, education was seen as the way out of poverty, the ticket out of the coalpit – but now we need to ask – ticket to where?

Culture covers everything from fine art and classical music to table manners, the habit of saving, and polite conversation. Not many that I would like to lose, yet they are about a way of doing things, not much about deciding what is right or motivating us to obey God. Wealth, in terms of the gospel, is a great responsibility, not a sign of having arrived.

Christians will spend eternity with those who never went to school (but weren’t stupid), who knew nothing of our literature, music, clothing, or food, and owned nothing worth £10. – remember that most Christians have not been European, let alone privileged. They will be the heavenly and eternal family.

On the other hand, many of those who have been closest to us – family members, colleagues, friends made through sport or leisure activities, will have no part in that. Ignorant of Christian faith, or dismissive of it, they risk losing out, unless we can provide the vital connection. “We are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us, we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” verse 20

We are reminded today, not just that there are many people to pray for, and that God is kind to the prodigal, but of weightier and more urgent matters. Our need is not to behave a bit better and pray a bit more, but to be sure that we are indeed reconciled to God, transformed by what he alone can do. Our whole outlook must change from that of our culture to that of our God. As we recognise a strange family, we take on also the responsibility of adding to it while there is time.

King !?

Pilate faces a poor man in court, and he just cannot understand (John 18:33-37). He has condemned many would-be revolutionaries, but Jesus doesn’t fit the type. He suspects those who have handed him over.

“Are you King of the Jews?” Well yes, he is, or rather King of Kings. What Pilate, the poor politician, cannot understand is what the gospel writers have been telling us all along. Jesus is Messiah, the promised King – but his Kingdom will come as he also takes the role of Suffering Servant.

Pilate would never understand the need for the cross. Jesus wins his Kingdom not by conquest and coercion, but by taking the place of guilty humanity, and dying for each of us. Only in that way can we be set free. Only by such extreme measures can we come to a Kingdom which is not only eternal and universal, but also:
a kingdom of life and truth, of grace and holiness,
a kingdom of righteousness and justice,
of love and peace.

If you find that hard to take, look again at all 4 gospels. Each, in a different style, makes Jesus death and resurrection the climax and centre. Each makes clear that there is no mistake, no accident. Jesus is King, and chooses the path to his throne.

It involves truth – not compromise, or uneasy coalition, but truth. Pilate’s next line is, “What is truth?” It sounds very post-modern. As if what is true for you might not be true for me – but we must live in Jesus’ Kingdom, and follow his standard of truth.

In addition to Pilate’s court, our other readings give us entry to two others. Daniel’s vision (Daniel 7:9-14) sees not only the “Ancient One” take his heavenly throne, but with God the Father is “one like a human being” – in the older translations, one like a “Son of Man”. You may remember Jesus’ favourite term for himself, and see in God the Son the one given “dominion and glory and kingship” – an everlasting dominion, a Kingdom never to be destroyed. Prophecy from generations before Jesus birth.

Another vision of heaven comes from John the divine in Revelation 1:4-8. Here we see the heavenly Christ, “who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, . . “ Marvellous words, not only for the persecuted believers of the first century.

He is the Lord of 3 tenses: “who is, and who was, and who is to come”. Pilate has not only lost his grip on truth, but he has forgotten / ignored the higher court which will judge him. A drama of incomprehension is played out in Jerusalem, but a higher court will give a different verdict.

And where does that leave us?
I hope we can take warning from Pilate’s failure to understand. Jesus Kingdom will never make sense to those who value only earthly power, possessions and status. But it is truly the most wonderful Kingdom ever. It brings
life and truth, grace and holiness,
righteousness and justice, love and peace.

There is no coercion, no bullying, but entry for all who want to belong, to learn the new way of discipleship. It costs nothing, it costs everything. As Jesus stands on the opposite side to Pilate, who do you side with?

Is that a new commitment, or does is show clearly in your past life?

Either way, will it be clear next year to those who know you best?

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.

Motivation

When a leader talks of self-sacrifice, it makes all the difference if we know whether he gives it, or expects others to give it.  Jesus is one of the few who lead by example.

This leads us to a great division between two motives for living as a Christian.  Some rely on the fact that the Christian faith is true, that Jesus has the authority of God, and that the promise of heaven and threat of judgement need to be taken seriously.  There is not a lot wrong with that, except that as motivation, it needs a very high level of self-discipline to keep going, and can be a bit – miserable?

I think there is a stronger motive, though I struggle to describe it without using cliches.  The motive is Jesus, who is worth following just because of who he is.  It comes out in John 10:11-18, where he uses the language of shepherding a flock to explain his ministry.  He is true – not because he talks about truth, but by his actions.  He is both justice and mercy, and at the same time.  He is not caught off balance, even when tired or threatened.  I hesitate to use the word love, because it is so often misused, but he defines it.  He gives, but gives only what is good; he never forces, never manipulates.  His love pays the cost, without whining, without announcing the fact or making demands.

You may be a Christian because you hold the faith to be true and accurate and offers the only sure way to heaven, and I shall have no complaint.  But I shall follow Jesus as much for what he is, for the way he gives our salvation, and invites our partnership.

If that provides a great motivation, I am afraid it is not well understood.  It worries me that I meet people who are not ready to serve.  Somehow they haven’t understood that to follow such a Lord comes before all sorts of other (good) things, like family, career, friends and lifestyle choices . . .  Odd! and sad.

Direction

It helps to know where you are going – whether on a walk, or a career or retirement plan. Stephen as he dies ( Acts 7:55-60 ) has a vision of Jesus in heaven, and knows that he is going to join him (which infuriates his opponents and seals his fate).

In John 14:1-14, Jesus speaks of going to prepare a place for his followers, but Thomas seems confused – and I imagine he is not the only one.  Do you ever think of a door in heaven with your name on it? Think about it for a moment. Your place, ready and waiting. What do you think about that, what do you want to do as a result?

Thomas hasn’t yet understood what is going to happen to Jesus – why he must die and rise from the dead. Jesus will not push him faster than he can absorb it, but makes clear that he is central to everything, and Thomas needs to keep following.  (We know that he does, and gets there in the end – see John 20:24-29 ).

Phillip is is danger of going off at a tangent. He would like to see God. Perhaps he has some idea of being like Moses on Mt Sinai, glimpsing God passing by.  But Jesus is more important than Phillip has realised – Jesus shows God to us. Father and Son (and Spirit) work so closely together that to know one is to know the other.  Not only do you have your room in heaven, you work for God!

“those who believe in me will do what I do – yes, they will do even greater things” John 14:12. We are invited to see where we are going – how Jesus, at the centre of everything, not only gives us a place in heaven, but also involves us in his work on earth. We are told to ask. What are we meant to be doing, what is most important, what comes first?

Alongside that, What is God’s purpose for me, individually, – or for you? How does that fit in with the aim for my congregation and wider Church?  Perhaps we should be asking for particular gifts to use there in His service, or for openings to use the ones we know we already have. Perhaps we need the courage to offer them, or the energy to do it!

It helps to know where you are going – and heaven can’t be bad, and you won’t get lost by accident. Stephen knows where he’s going, but Thomas and Phillip are finding out – perhaps like us. Let’s make sure that we keep Jesus at the centre of everything, and work on realising his aims for us as individuals, and our church as his working group.

Prophets (Advent 2a)

Why is it all about Jesus? – we can imagine others asking, perhaps wonder ourselves.  Other faiths and philosophies have various teachers and leaders, but Christianity is, CHRISTianity.  It centres there, reflects in different languages and cultures but always on the teaching, personality and actions of one man.  What points so strongly there?

Christians might want to refer to the New Testament, to the way the gospels are all about Jesus, and the other writings also.  I wonder, though, if we don’t miss part of the point.  Jesus didn’t just “happen”, he wasn’t “discovered” without warning.  In fact, human history is littered with pointers and hints.  Perhaps most important among them are the prophets.

Who? you might ask.  Start with Moses, who speaks for God to an unlikely group of enslaved people, leads them, and gives them God’s instructions for being a people to let the world know about God.  Go on to Elijah, again uncompromisingly for God when compromise and corruption was the fashion of the day.  Then there is Elisha, and Isaiah, whose promises of a coming King feature in every carol service.  Hosea and Amos, Haggai and Zechariah, many more – all spoke for God, sometimes of the future planned, sometimes of the heavenly view on what was happening around them.  All the prophets are different – different people (there are women as well as men), different times – but they all prepared the way, and many left promises to be remembered and recognised later as clues to authenticity.

So, as we run up to Christmas, we read Isaiah 11:1-10, looking to the promise of a coming King whose rule will be everything we hope for.  We read Romans 15:4-13, of the Old Testament encouragement and guidance to recognise and follow the one who was promised and has now arrived, and we read Matthew 3:1-12, of a new prophet after a long gap.  John the Baptist is just like Elijah, and he appears (as Malachi had foretold) to prepare and warn everyone to be ready for Jesus, who has not yet begun his ministry.

The prophets are important, for their pointing the way and preparing.  They don’t want the spotlight for themselves, but for God who is active, caring, and understands exactly what is happening.

 

Distraction – and focus on the important (Kingdom 2c)

Religious people have a sad reputation for arguing over trivialities.  I wish I could claim it was undeserved, but too often religion has been seen as trivialising, competitive, irrelevant – and the criticism has sometimes been just.

It’s a relief, then, that when Jesus is approached by a group of Sadducees, who did not believe in the resurrection or afterlife, with a trick question about relationships in heaven, he is not distracted.  Luke 20:27-38 has a basis in Deuteronomy 25:5-, regulations designed to safeguard families and their property.  The Sadducees had been foiled earlier in chapter 20.  Demanding to know about Jesus’ authority, they had been unable to answer his counter-question about the authority of John the Baptist.  Now, they want to make Jesus, with his belief in resurrection, look silly, or simply to distract him into a pointless speculation.

Jesus gives an answer which is straightforward and helpful.  Heaven will be different.  People raised to eternity will have different relationships, and surely a clearer focus on God and his plans.  He goes on to use the book of Exodus (part of the 1st 5 books of our Old Testament, which the Sadducees accepted as authoritative) to suggest afterlife.  If God can introduce himself to Moses at the Burning Bush as “God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob”, then they must still be alive in some way.  He IS their God, not WAS.  It is not an argument we might have thought of, but very much in the logic of this group. (see Exodus 3)

So, can we avoid the trivial, time-wasting and meaningless?  Perhaps.  But will we be able to focus clearly and sympathetically on what is really relevant and important, in God’s terms?  That is the challenge of Christian life in any age.  Jesus is a strong example and motivation.  Not only will he not be distracted in this exchange, but he will shortly go to his death.  All the gospel writers make that the climax and focus of their story.  Whether it will also figure in our story and conversation is a matter of daily decision, and focus.

I am grateful for Paul’s words (2 Thess 2:16f): “Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.”

Explosion (Pentecost)

You might be forgiven for not realising that this Sunday is the third great feast of the Christian year – Pentecost. The story is told in Acts 2, read today.

During his ministry, Jesus had assembled a group – 12 men, and others including women. At first they listened and watched, then they were sent on mission, to practice and learn how God could use them.  More learning followed, especially at the  Passion, with some shock as God’s plan worked out, and they all failed rather badly – which was part of learning to trust God, not least his forgiveness. Jesus is raised from the dead. It takes a while to sink in, but they come to terms with the new reality.

But then comes the Ascension – the Son of God returns to heaven, and they are told to wait.  50 days after Easter, on the Jewish feast of Pentecost, there comes an EXPLOSIVE change. A violent wind – fire. The group which had hidden away in fear bursts out; Peter preaches a public sermon through which 3000 people are converted and baptised.  The Holy Spirit, known before as a welcome occasional visitor, has come to stay with believers. In time they would learn the full wonder of his character, including a gentler, transforming side. But the first impact, causing the birth of the Church, can rightly be called dramatic, powerful, even violent.

Now, as then, Christians have to learn to live with the Holy Spirit. In some ways it is a continuation of having Jesus close by – he still directs operations and gives authority – but it is different. The Holy Spirit is everywhere, but not quite like a person. The Spirit guides and makes Jesus known, but, as the gospel (John 14:15-17 + 25-27) says, he can only be received or consulted or drawn on by Christians – because others don’t see or recognise him.

At Pentecost, some of the crowd thought the excitement was drunkenness, but others heard in their own languages the praise of God’s deeds of power.  That is where we start. Not in a private party, giving rise to sneers about how we have celebrated, but in making known the God who is good, and sharing what we know of his plans for our community and our time.  Maybe it still needs an explosion -?

Good Friday with Luke 23

Reading Luke’s account of Jesus death suggests several points of contact with life today.

Luke 23:1-5
Jesus is brought to Pilate, Roman governor, and we notice that truth is the first casualty in the campaign to get rid of him. ‘We found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and saying that he himself is the Messiah, a king.’ 23:2 Yet Jesus had answered differently on taxes – “ give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” 20:25 and he had been careful not to claim Kingship, knowing that it would be misunderstood – Messiah was a different kind of king.
We might think about truth. How the truth about ourselves and those around us is important in an age of PR, spin, and confrontational presentations. Pilate was cynical “What is truth?” John 18:38, but Jesus had earlier suggested ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’ John 8:31,32

Are we ready to see the world, and ourselves, as God sees?

“Father, help us to care about the truth, the reality you see. Show us the world from your perspective, and help us to understand Jesus, ourselves, and your priorities.”

Luke 23:6-12

Herod had his own agenda, and Jesus didn’t fit. He is not going to make the effort to listen or understand – it is much easier to mock. The soldiers join in. Like so many people, they realise that Jesus is dangerous – taken seriously he might challenge their assumptions and prejudices, might make them want something different and better. Don’t listen, poke fun, victimise.
We wouldn’t do that – would we? In theory all Christians are followers of Jesus, bound to obey and serve him above all. Yet service has not always been our main reputation, and obedience is difficult.
Put it another way, many of us, just like Herod, have our own agendas. I don’t mind being church as long as . . but I must keep time for . . I’ll do that, but don’t ask me to . . The mockery of Jesus comes because he doesn’t fit in their list of priorities.

Are we ready to change our priorities to fit in with Jesus?

“Lord, forgive all those things which mock your direction of my life. My own agenda of what I want, my laziness, my pride. Remembering a Lord who gave all for me, help me to learn his way in everything.”

Luke 23:13-25

Pilate as governor has the responsibility of administering justice. The Roman occupation was not always popular, but if it was fair, it would win acceptance, and if not, opposition would grow.
He knows what is happening – he says Jesus is not guilty, but is too weak to find a way not to listen to the crowd (no doubt carefully manipulated). Is he stupid, not up to the job? He must know that his credibility, as well as Jesus life, is at stake. But he is driven by the mob voice.
We would think someone who claimed “the voices made me do it” was a case for psychiatric help. But how often do we say, “It’s not right, but it’s how you have to do it at work”; “None of my friends would think twice about that”; “it’s how things are”. And how often do we deliberately support someone trying to do right when it is criticised or unpopular?

“Father, help us to practise justice. Not rules and judgements, but standing out for right, supporting those who take the way of caring, not cheating, not causing pain and wrong. Let our voices be those that speak what is good, true, right, pure, lovely and honourable. (cp Phil 4:8)”

Luke 23:26-46

So they take Jesus and crucify him with a batch of criminals, and that’s – not the end of it at all. There are all sorts of consequences, and that’s why we read and ponder.
Some of them are quite minor – a visitor is conscripted to carry the cross, the soldiers share some clothing. Some are strange and unexpected – darkness, a curtain torn and opened.
But the most important go two ways. Jesus warns the weeping women of greater loss of life to come. Jerusalem will suffer siege and defeat – it happened in AD70, after the rebellion. Is this the inevitable consequence of rejecting the opportunity Jesus offered? Will taking the way he does not lead always carry great danger?
Jesus is not looking for revenge. He asks forgiveness for those who crucify him. He makes a promise of hope to the penitent thief. One consequence of his death is the way of forgiveness, reconciliation, service and peace.
But the choice is not forced. We have to make it, and go on making it. Words are easy, but faith has to show in daily life, truth telling, agendas, justice. The consequences of Jesus death were not at all what his enemies expected. They bring hope, and perhaps also danger. What do they bring you?

“Lord, as we have spent a little time reading again the story of Jesus’ death, let us go to take full advantage of its consequences. Teach us to accept forgiveness, and to offer it. Give us the hope he won, and the readiness to explain it to any who ask, as we live as his disciples.”  (cp 1 Pet 3:15)