Category Archives: John


Easter Lilies-Lilium longiflorum

Easter Lilies by Cliff from Arlington, VA. [CC-BY-2.0 ( via Wikimedia Commons

Across the world two Sundays ago the majority of Christians gathered in churches, many of them gaily decorated with appropriate banners and, even more delightful to the eye, a gorgeous colourful display of spring flowers. Bells will have pealed their clarion chimes, with organ and voices attempting to raise the roof with their resounding songs of praise. In my earlier days of ministry it was not unusual for choir and guest soloist to perform a favourite cantata at this momentous time in the Christian year. Children played their part, they came in their new attire to celebrate the Anniversary of Sunday School. In more recent times, if you could overcome your inhibitions, you might swing a bit trying to keep up to the rhythm of the praise band. For Christians, Easter Sunday is the most glorious day of the year. A time to celebrate, Christ risen, Jesus alive – as close to us as he was to his broken mystified disciples that first Easter Day. Nowadays we tend to be more restrained in our worship at Eastertide, the format more or less the norm for an ordinary Sunday. However, drop in to any church on the great day and it could not be mistaken for anything other than Easter worship, the hymns alone would guarantee it and maybe a vase of white lilies competing with the Cross for a space on the Communion Table.

As I look back on my pilgrim way I recall occasions when I fondly imagined that living life with Jesus, side by side, face to face, in those far distant days in Palestine would have been much easier than my constant struggle. Hymns for younger people certainly encouraged that perspective; seeing him, being with him. Here is a line from one of them, “I would like to have been with him then!” James Simpson in one of his regular columns for the Church of Scotland’s magazine Life and Work, reckons that the day after the crucifixion, was a very dark one for the followers of Jesus. Peter J. Gomes, an American pastor and preacher, who died a short time ago, speaks much along the same lines; his theme the first disciples and Easter. Their Easter Day, he contends, was far less impressive than ours; their Easter Day was much duller than ours. There were no trumpets on their Easter Day, their Easter Day was far less compelling than ours and the other side of Easter saw them locked behind closed doors, afraid and utterly confused.

Now what if that was how they had remained – self acknowledged failures? What if Easter had meant the end of an exciting venture under the leadership of a charismatic and beloved brother, Jesus? Did God have some other plan? We will never know, happily no contingency plan was needed, a fact that shapes and colours our worship, not only on Easter Day. What we tend to forget is that each time we cross the threshold of our meeting place on a Sunday we are gathered to celebrate the joy and glory of Easter!

On the first day of the week, when the disciples were behind locked doors for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them “Peace be with you,” he said. (John 20: 19).


Guercino - Doubting Thomas - WGA10951

Guercino – Doubting Thomas [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

His name is legendary, Doubting Thomas” – the name-tag we give him. Really, we are being cruel to Thomas. Thomas was a sceptic, but in many ways one of the most heroic of Jesus’ disciples. The first three gospels do not tell us anything about him. John, the writer of the fourth gospel, is different. The first time John introduces us to Thomas is on the occasion when news came to Jesus about the illness of his friend, Lazarus, at his home in Bethany. This was one of the places where pilgrims lodged on their way to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover week. For Jesus to go to Bethany at that particular time was to court trouble. It was a hotbed of hostility to Jesus – he knew it; the disciples knew it. When Jesus told them Lazarus was dead and suggested they should call at the Bethany home en-route for the Holy City and Passover, the disciples were reluctant to let him do it.

From all accounts the disciples went so far as to say, “if he insists on such madness, he can count us out.” But not all of them, not Thomas! His was the voice that rose above the clamour of debate and criticism. “Let us go,” he pleaded, “that we might die with him.” Here is a cameo shot of the real Thomas – the Thomas whom Jesus chose to be a disciple. Thomas, along with his colleagues, may have seen nothing but death at the end of the road that led through Bethany, but Thomas, absolutely loyal, may have been the one who saved the situation that day, persuading his co-disciples not to leave Jesus in the lurch. Thomas has been called “the honest sceptic and the courageous pessimist.” That about sums him up. One thing is sure, it is a great comfort to find Thomas in the pages of the New Testament because there is a bit of Thomas in all of us. I do not understand those Christians who tell me: I” have never known a moment of doubt”. Take a look at Thomas – we may find the way to face our own doubts and pessimism.

Thomas doubted, but Thomas faced his doubts honestly, openly and bravely. In an Upper Room in the closing hours of his life, when he was trying to convince the disciples that the way of the Cross was inevitable, Jesus said, “You know where I am going and the way is known to you.” But it was a bit too much for Thomas. “Lord,” he exclaimed, “we do not know where you are going, how can we know the way?” You have got to take your hat off to Thomas. He could not live with an unasked question. He was not prepared to allow what he did not understand to pass without grappling with it and he refused to believe what he did not understand. We have got to admire his honesty. Transfer him to present times and we might find Thomas unable to sit in the pew and let the preacher get away with it! Follow in Thomas’ footsteps and note, from his example, that the way to deal with doubts is not to stifle them, but to bring them out into the open – to look at them as through a microscope with Jesus our mentor. “Thomas,” Jesus addressed him, “you may not understand, but you have me: I am the way, the truth, the life.” And there came a day when Thomas did understand. When Thomas was told that the Risen Christ had visited his friends he said “unless I see in the hands of Jesus the mark of the nails and can touch the wound on his side, I will never believe it”. Then Jesus came to Thomas as he had come to those who needed him most in those bewildering and exciting post-resurrection days. And Jesus did exactly as Thomas required. “Here I am,” Jesus said, “Do with me as you wish.” Thomas looked and realised there was no need for this kind of testing. In next to no time, his heart bursting with love and overflowing in devotion, the greatest confession of faith any man or woman can make was on his lips: “My Lord and my God.” (John 20: 20-29)

Who dares call this man “Doubting Thomas”?

What a friend

James Tissot: Jesus discourses with his disciples. Image credit: Brooklyn Museum via Wikimedia

James Tissot: Jesus discourses with his disciples.
Image credit: Brooklyn Museum via Wikimedia

The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch”; but it was Jesus who named them disciples and he named some of them apostles and he called them Friends. Jesus said, “No longer do I call you servants . . . .instead I call you friends.” (John 15: 15)

A saying with a greater significance for those who actually heard Jesus say it than for us. In those days to be a servant of God was a great privilege – a title of honour. But Jesus says “there is something greater still for those who follow me, you are my friends.” And I think he is telling us in the same breath that friendship with him brings us closer to God or more accurately, brings God nearer to us. A God who is no remote, distant potentate, away far beyond the human scene – up there alone with the stars. There is a relationship with God that is denied us with the Queen. If you are of the privileged few invited to a Palace Garden Party, you cannot reciprocate as you would with an ordinary acquaintance and invite the Queen to come to your house for tea and scones. On the other hand, God in Christ is our companion on the journey.

When you think of the motley crew Jesus chose to be his friends, God is no snob. Jesus mixed with all kinds of people. If others looked down their noses at any of them, Jesus certainly did not. There is no evidence of hurt or annoyance on his part as his contemporaries accused him of being a socialite, a party-goer, the friend of outsiders with whom no decent person would have anything to do. Or, as the gospel puts it, “a glutton and a wine drinker, friend of corrupt tax-men and outcasts”. What may be more difficult to accept is that if we are friends of Jesus, his friends become our friends – the scruffy, smelly, homeless alcoholics straight from a night’s refuge under the bridge down by the riverside; getting in the way as you try to pass them on the pavement, waiting for the off-licence to open to become even more helpless or repulsive. There are others of like ilk, you will have little difficulty in identifying them, Jesus’ friends. In the course of ministry I have been privileged to be the friend of truly, saintly folk. Alas ministry has brought me into contact some odd characters, who would not consider themselves to be friends of Jesus. I have to confess that whatever Jesus said on the friendship scene, I have found it difficult, nigh impossible to envisage then becoming my friends! A real test of faith, a test of vocation and a challenge to discipleship. Following Jesus would be easier if one could ignore the maxim that He came not to bolster the ego of the pious and self-righteous, but for the despised and rejected. We cannot ignore one important word of Jesus, “You are my friends if you do what I command you.”

A true story . . . . A church was engaged in a mission to the community, conducted by a visiting preacher. One afternoon the missioner and the local pastor set out on a house to house canvas, by car. The visitor noted from the map that there were three housing estates adjacent to the main road on which they were travelling. On the completion of their visit to the first community they drove on in the direction of the second estate, only to pass by it at speed to do the rounds of the third community. To the astonishment of the evangelist there was no suggestion of a return to the neglected area and no explanation given,. So the visiting preacher asked the pastor why they had not visited – and, the reply? “Oh! They are not our kind of people!”

No comment . . . . .

A contrast

Image: Claire Bernadette S Gonzales via Wikimedia

Image: Claire Bernadette S Gonzales via Wikimedia

I give you a new commandment: love one another; as I have loved you, so you are to love one another. If there is this love among you, then everyone will know that you are my disciple. John 13: 34–35

On the most recent occasion of reading it, this familiar saying of Jesus leaped out of the page like it had not done before. I have read it many, many times, and I am well aware of what it says, yet somehow I felt compelled to read it again and reflect on the significance of what Jesus says. He does not say “love your neighbour” or “you must love one another.” However he does clearly indicate to a teacher of the Law, that to love our neighbour is of paramount importance, a saying that penetrates the conscience with considerable force: “You must love your neighbour as you love yourself.” (Luke 10: 26-27)

But here in John (above) he says, “You must love one another as I have loved you.” And he says it in the context of preparing the disciples for his betrayal, Peter’s denial and the Cross. He says it just before those who were scheming to get rid of him came to arrest, beat and humiliate him. Here Jesus asks for a love that is open to crucifixion. It is this which struck me with such force,

I thought immediately of how poverty-stricken is my discipleship. How grudging is my commitment. How forgetful I am that the example I am given to follow is the example of one who surrenders himself for others – without thought of the ultimate cost.

We really have it easy, don’t we?

Second fiddle

Eastern Orthodox icon John the Baptist — the A...

Eastern Orthodox icon: John the Baptist (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The picture the New Testament gives of John the Baptist is very much about someone happily accepting the role of Second Fiddle. (Acts of the Apostles 13:25 REB) “I am not the one you think I am. No, after me comes one whose sandals I am not worthy to unfasten”. And the way John the Evangelist tells the story in the 4th Gospel suggests there were probably contemporaries who thought John the Baptist to be mistaken in the role he undertook for himself; avid supporters of the Baptist. Possibly they campaigned to secure a greater prominence in the Jesus “set-up”. And part of the purpose of John, the writer of the Gospel, it would seem, was to ensure that John the Baptist is kept in his rightful place. The Evangelist keeps rubbing it in that John the Baptist is only a witness; he is not the light that shines in the darkness, only a witness to it. (John 1: 6 & 8) The Evangelist tells us more than once that the Baptist makes no claim to be the Christ; that he saw himself simply as a prophet, a voice calling in the desert preparing the way for one still to come, whose shoes he is not worthy to tie! All the time the 4th Gospel is saying, make no mistake the role of John the Baptist is that of Second Fiddle.

From a human standpoint this may not have been easy to accept. Country and people looked forward hopefully and expectantly for Messiah to come and deliver them. And maybe as the Baptist became more aware of a special destiny for himself, and discerned within himself the feeling of being somebody special, he would have wondered if the golden crown was for him. J.B’s message was not a popular one but there were those who warmed to him, gathered to him, elevated him to a position of prominence, people for whom baptism into faith by John was paramount. Luke reports even Jesus submitted to baptism by him. Perhaps there was some greater future for him than making do with clothes made of camel’s hair. But if he held any such notion, it was not to be.

It would have been easy to resent his subordinate role, to rebel against God’s wishes for him. The great thing is – John resisted whatever temptation came his way, to claim for himself more than he was due. For want of anything better to do in a relaxed moment I watched on TV a repeat of Keeping up Appearances – the episode in which Mrs Bucket was upset and furious because she only came second in a Cookery competition. “I will not be outdone by that Mrs So & So” (the one who got 1st prize), she tells her poor long-suffering husband, Richard, and immediately sets about to redress the situation in a most ridiculous way, having Richard drive her around in a borrowed Rolls Royce! Only an entertaining sit-com, yet not entirely unreal. I’m reminded of a boyhood friend – he had a real football and was very popular in the park! But when he was not made captain of the team or allowed to play centre forward (a striker to those younger than I am) he would pick up his ball and go home: “It’s ma baw!” Not so John the Baptist: although Jesus is junior to him in age and in spite of being first on the field, he is more than ready to step aside, listen to the voice of God and respond to it – more than ready to step aside and give Jesus centre stage; even if it is second fiddle, I’m not worthy to untie his shoes.

English: John the Baptist baptizing Christ

English: John the Baptist baptizing Christ (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What does this make of discipleship? Does not submission, subservience, subordination, second fiddle create a situation of Upstairs Downstairs – not just servants but slaves? Who remembers the early 50s? Harry Belafonte’s good looks and silky vocal style helped popularise calypso music. My favourite was Island in the sun. Those attributes and charisma led him to the brink of a major movie. His pleasure at making such a break turned to anger when he realised that as a black man he would be expected for ever to play Second Fiddle to his white co-stars. Times have changed – thank God; the doors of opportunity open to those who in my early days would have found it difficult to rise even to the heights of Second Fiddle. Much as I enjoy following the antics in Downton Abbey, it rankles with me to think that to a lesser degree the attitude of “upstairs” to “downstairs” is bred of discrimination: certainly not First Fiddle; scarcely Second Fiddle. But, hold on! Second Fiddle in an orchestra is no less important than that of the leading violinist. It is crucial for Second Fiddle to play in harmony with the leader of the orchestra, the one enhances the other. To play Second Fiddle to Jesus requires us to be in a close, personal and dependent relationship with Him, reflecting the light that He brings as it shines on us and through us. Alas, sometimes Christians are more concerned with their own image and direct the spotlight on themselves rather than on Jesus. In the words of Paul, they are the ones who think too highly of themselves. Consigned to playing Second Fiddle is not good enough for them, so they set about lobbying for status and positions of power; their ambition – the mantle of star performer. There was a time when I operated close to a form of ecclesiastical politicking – fortunately I did not have to be part of it. The ambition of discipleship is eloquently summed up by St. Paul when he says, “For me to live is Christ, so that it is not I but Christ who lives in me.” (Galatians 2:20)

Advent is upon us once again and John the Baptist is part of the scene – John the forerunner, committed and content to be Second Fiddle. And it is part of his story that Jesus pays him a tremendous tribute. “I tell you,” He says, “among those born of women there is no one greater than John.” And then He says, “Yet, the one who is least in the Kingdom of God is greater than he.” (Luke 7:28)


Friendship Image by Tiago Ribiero via Wikimedia

Image by Tiago Ribiero via Wikimedia

It has been “that kind of day” – sometimes a happy time when things have gone well and there have been some surprises. We feel good, reminisce with a song, What a day it has been, What a rare mood I’m in, And I think I am falling in love! Although I suspect my blog reading friends may have fallen long ago! But you get the idea. More often than not, I imagine, it could be a different story. We’ve had a bad day, a miserable week. In spite of everything the preacher promises (or the blogger!) or how earnestly we try to hold on to our faith, “trust in the Lord and don’t despair” and all that, we cannot see the bright side. What a day – we all have them and I am no exception: pessimistic thoughts, irritating doubts, faith under threat and all too often behaving like there is no bright side. Forgive, if I appear to boast! It is not meant to be. It is testimony to what is known as Saving Grace that I continue to be who I am and what I am.

It would be dishonest to pretend I enjoyed every minute of my forty-one years of active ministry. I remember all too well a time around the “middle years’ crisis” when I had actually composed in my mind my resignation from the ministry. I was so fed-up for a spell with what I was doing, perhaps more accurate to say, with what I was not able to do. Praises be! My crisis moments chose not to last too long. When I turned my gaze away from inner self and focused on those loving people committed to my pastoral care, their faithfulness to church and Lord and their love for one another, allowing me to share their hopes and fears and showing me love and friendship, I could not walk away. Testing times, frustrating times, unhappy moments, but I have never regretted being “called and sent.” “My people” as much as anything else have kept me on “the straight and narrow.”

A saying to remember (quote on fridge magnet): A friend will joyfully sing with you at the mountain-top and silently walk beside you through the valley.

The evening before our departure from one of the four churches I was privileged to serve in the USA, albeit for six weeks only in each venue, we were presented with a small framed piece of cross-stitch which I have kept and cherished. On it, the stitched saying reads, Don’t forget – let this remind you – you left a lot of friends behind you. We did, not only in Kansas but in Michigan, Alabama and Nebraska, and the truth of it was to be confirmed in subsequent holiday visits to the friends we left behind. We were welcomed and treated like we were one of them, one of the family. Although separated by thousands of miles and unlikely to meet again, the friendships survive. The same might be said, even more emphatically, of my experience here at home. For over 40 years, moving from one appointment to another, we made countless friends and although many have gone to “a better place”, there are many homes into which we could go and know we will be received with love and affection, with whom we might spend a happy hour of intimate and warm fellowship. As Christian disciples we belong to a Church committed from early days to a ministry of hospitality. Friendship should be second-nature to us.

There is one Friend who complies more than any other, who matches completely the criteria of friendship. We used to sing Jesus friend of little children be a friend to me; Take my hand and ever keep me, close to Thee. Saint Paul assures us in his letter to the Church in Rome, “There is nothing in the whole of life that will separate us from the love of Christ.” What a friend we have in Jesus, Jesus the best friend, Jesus the friend of all. Jesus who said, “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (John 13; 34) And there is John Wesley’s oft quoted mantra, “I am the friend of all and the enemy of none.”

Friendships make lives brighter. . . . .

The best medicine

“For everything its season, and for every activity under heaven its time……a time to weep and a time to laugh.” Ecclesiastes 3: 1 & 4.  (Revised English Bible)

Ecclesiastes contains the thoughts of the “Philosopher”, a man who was puzzled by the ways of God who controls human destiny. “Life is useless” he concludes. Yet, in spite of this, he urges people to enjoy the gifts of God, and for as long as they could. He is not the cheeriest of souls and many of his thoughts appear negative and even depressing, but don’t close the book, it is worth holding onto for verses one to eight in chapter 3. I invite you especially to ponder with me the cheerier half of verse 4: a time to laugh.

There was a time when preachers knelt down in the pulpit in prayer just before the sermon. A young daughter of the manse sitting beside her mother asked her Mum,”Why does daddy kneel down while we sing the hymn before the sermon?” “Oh,” replied her Mum, “he is asking God to make it good sermon.” “Then why doesn’t He?”

Several University studies have found that laughter increases our pain threshold, boosts cardiac health and increases the blood flow; proof that laughter is the Best Medicine. Early in my ministry I was told off because I told a funny story that gained a laugh, particularly with the younger members of choir! I was told church was not the place for such hilarity. In my innocence I had no idea I was guilty of sacrilege. What I did know was the unhappy fact that many folk thought the church to be dull, boring, irrelevant and its members to be a bit odd!

A young lad was asked by his father if he would go to the railway station and meet the gentleman, a preacher who was to conduct the special services that week-end in the local church. Arriving at the station he realised he’d forgotten to ask for a description. However he wasn’t greatly perturbed, it wouldn’t be terribly difficult to pick him out in the crowd. The crucial moment arrived and there was a man carrying a case, sombrely dressed, a man of miserable looking countenance. No bother! “Are you the visiting preacher at our church?” the welcoming escort enquired. “No – I’m sorry son, it’s my indigestion makes me look like this.”

While I was engaged in giving some shape to the embryo of this post, in addition to the reference above, four other pieces of relevance to our theme came to my attention.

  1. Our central London congregation, giving notice of the Sunday service, announced that instead of the usual format of worship, they would participate in “The Gathering: Tricks ‘n’ Laughs.”
  2. The Church of Scotland’s Magazine Life & Work, introducing a new website, promised to publish weekly on a Monday a “fun section”.
  3. A church advertising for a new minister is seeking someone with a sense of humour.
  4. A preacher began his service by telling a joke. Proof that laughter is not forbidden in church!

Eric Linklater, the Scots author took home from school his report card in which the teacher wrote, “Eric, on the whole is doing fairly well, but is handicapped by a sense of humour.” Far from a handicap, it is good thing to laugh, a blessing rather than a handicap. Someone once said, “Laughter is nothing else but sudden glory.” Another saying handed down to us is that of Haydn who said, “God will forgive me, if I serve Him cheerfully.”

A little girl was arguing with her teacher about whales. The teacher said it was impossible for a whale to swallow a human; the girl said a whale had swallowed Jonah. The teacher insisted she was right, and the girl said, “When I get to Heaven I’ll ask Jonah.” “What if Jonah went to hell?” asked the teacher. The girl replied, “Then you can ask him!”

“I don’t care what other people say, I like your sermons!”

Of course there are times when laughter is totally unacceptable. The wrong kind of laughter, the cheap and the vulgar; the bitter laughter of the cynic; laughing someone’s faith away; the list is by no means exhausted.

I have kept a note of three pertinent questions relating to the impact of laughter in our personal life.

  1. Can we make others laugh? You don’t need to be a Ken Dodd or Les Dawson. And, if you have responsibility for Christian worship, remember, you’re not on stage at the London Palladium.
  2. Can you bear being laughed at? No one has the entitlement seriously to mock us, abuse us, and make fools of us. There are people who have no sense of humour, we need to be understanding, respectful and kindly.
  3. Can you laugh at yourself? It was Robert Burns who said, “O, wad some pow’r the giftie gie us to see oursels as others see us.” To ask that is more than some can bear. Yet, in many ways, to be able to laugh at ourselves is one of life’s greatest gifts. Alas there is a tendency to take ourselves too seriously; if we could see and acknowledge how silly we look sometimes; if we could stand back and take a good look at ourselves, instead of getting into a needless tizzy about some trifling thing; if we can laugh at ourselves, we could move on with “a light in our eye and a spring in our step” – surely a Christian virtue!

So Jesus had a sense of humour? The gospel evidence is slender except for two references quoted in support of an affirmative “Yes.”

  1. The humour in the story He told of the man with a plank in his eye gravely trying to remove a speck of sawdust from someone else’s eye! (Matt. 7:3)
  2. How the disciples must have chuckled when He nicknamed two of them, James and John, “Boanerges” (sons of thunder). Mark 3:17 – both ambitious and possessed of a temper!

Handicapped by a sense of humour? Never! And I make no apology; Jesus did say, “I have spoken to you, so that my joy may be in you, and your joy complete.” (John 15:11)

Unlikely lads

Ghirlandaio: Calling of the Apostles Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Ghirlandaio: Calling of the Apostles
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Jesus spent the whole night praying to God, When day came, he called his disciples to him and chose 12 of them, whom he named apostles. Luke 6: 12-16 (GNB).

When Jesus called the Twelve he had at least a twin purpose in mind: he invited them to go with him and He chose them for friendship. Most of us, I suspect, have come to value the companionship and influence of friends – friends and friendships are an integral part of life. In choosing the Twelve, Jesus was hoping to insure the future of the mission and ministry He exercised by divine appointment; a movement that was to become the early Christian Church. The story begins in the New Testament – Acts of the Apostles. A movement of the Spirit of God described as turning the world upside down. A movement in which those whom Jesus named apostles would be close to the heart of it. I hazard a guess but I think, and may not be far out in suggesting, that many who actually knew the Master’s men wondered what Jesus was thinking about when He recruited those Twelve. When Philip, one of the chosen, the new recruit, set out to find Nathanael to tell him all about it, Nathanael’s response was far from encouraging or complimentary – ‘Nazareth’ he exclaimed, ‘can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ I think it quite possible that when it became known who were to be specially close to Jesus the cynic might have been heard to say, ‘it’s a funny selection but it’s what you might expect from a Nazarene?’ And might there not be others, more sensitive and less prejudiced, who would be asking, ‘What on earth was He thinking of when He appointed this small ‘covey’ of unlikely lads?’

There is another side to the story and it is interesting to note how they acquired the reputation of being a motley crew and, more importantly, why He chose this odd assortment of human characters. Let’s take a closer look at one or two of them and let us begin with Peter.

Four of them were fishermen, one of them being Peter: rough, strong, hard working and, maybe not unused to a bit of colourful language; Peter, impetuous, a rough diamond..

There is Matthew, a tax collector, a cheat and a quisling and much hated. Simon was a Zealot, a fanatical nationalist pledged to kill any quisling or any Roman he set eyes on – probably a terrorist.

John, the disciple Jesus loved (John 21:20). Did Jesus just love one; have a favourite and was he treated thus? Does not our Lord love us all equally – with a generous and undeserving love? Warts and all? John – a likely lad?

Then there is Judas Iscariot who betrayed his Master for 30 silver coins. There is Thomas, realist and feet on the ground and Simon, brother of Peter; the two other brothers James and John, sons of Zebedee nicknamed by Jesus, Boanerges (sons of thunder) lads with a temper! We’ll let the others speak for themselves! No famous or brilliant or obvious leadership talent, just ordinary folk.

When I was about to take on an appointment with extended responsibility I had a telephone call from a wise and respected senior minister. He rang to wish me well and said something for which I was grateful and have never forgotten, ‘ Be yourself; don’t try to emulate your popular predecessors, it is you who have been chosen – chosen for who you are and for what gifts God has given you and the Church believes to be right for the job.’ Another source of encouragement over the years – words of the Apostle Paul. “The folly of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. My friends, think what sort of people you are, whom God has called. Few of you are wise by any human standard, few powerful or noble birth. Yet, to shame the wise, God has chosen what the world counts folly, and to shame what is strong, God has chosen what the world counts weakness.” So no place is left for human pride in the presence of God. 1 Corinthians 1:25-29 (REB).

Encouraging isn’t it, when we think of the colossal task the Lord has chosen to share with us?

Not a memory – a presence

 If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father and He will give you another Comforter, to be with you for ever. John 14: 15-16 (AV)

The Gospel of John is greatly loved by Christians. Cherished because it succeeds, more than any other, to shape our thinking about the Person and Work of the Holy Spirit; concerned not just with what Jesus said and did. John unfolds and shares his understanding of what Jesus in the Spirit has always been and always will be – a contemporary Jesus. A lot of teaching about the Holy Spirit has been a little vague and undefined. The coming of the Spirit to the disciples at Pentecost IS a bit of a mystery. Much easier to understand and to speak of God when we call Him “Father” – although this is a problem for some. Easier still to put a face on Jesus. We are given vivid pictures in the gospels to make Jesus come alive before our eyes. But with the Holy Spirit it is not so easy and our thoughts verge on the vague and nebulous. Perhaps it is because we still hear in some parts of the church the Spirit spoken of as the “Holy Ghost” – a wee bit spooky! This is no ghost story and it is about time that concept was eliminated from traditional liturgies.

The great lesson of Pentecost is that Jesus is not a memory but a presence. With us now in the Spirit: God’s gift available to us all and not the privilege accorded to some believing Christians and not to others. Something some Christians have forgotten – I was well aware of this in the second half of the last century with an exodus of members departing mainstream denominations because they were persuaded they would be blessed by the Spirit, (“anointing” was a word in vogue) in a more congenial environment. Those days are past, I hope – a work of the Holy Spirit effecting healing and reconciliation. The verse quoted in the heading above indicates how significant is the gift of the Spirit in our midst that John has his own distinctive name for the Spirit – Parakletos – the Greek word which the AV of the Bible translates as “the Comforter.”

Looking ahead to post-Easter, post-Pentecost, Jesus promises his disciples “another Comforter” as the AV translates it. But this word Comforter, hallowed by time and usage, at first glance may leave us with a somewhat inadequate and erroneous impression of what the Holy Spirit is about. A baby’s dummy is a “comforter.” Is this how we regard the Spirit, narrowing the scope of the Spirit’s activity to that of a “soother”- something to keep us quiet, sleepy even? The promise is a good deal greater. As we endeavour to unwrap the potential of Parakletos we will discover that biblical scholarship presents us with a choice of English words to describe it. The Revised Version of the Bible sides with the AV’s preference for “Comforter”; the Revised Standard Version plumps for “Counsellor”; Dr Moffat goes for “Helper”, as does the Good News Bible; J.B. Phillips, not content with one word, goes for “Someone who will stand by you”; the New English Bible has the support of a fairly wide number of more recent translations with its choice of “Advocate.” John’s vision of the Holy Spirit may even be paraphrased as “Friend” or as “One who will befriend you.” Such is the extent and variety of the ’Parakletos’ blessing – almost untranslatable. Who is right? It would take a brave woman or man to rule any one translation to be wrong! A story could be told about all, each one is relevant to our understanding of the Pentecostal blessing (not a reference to what is known as “the second blessing” about which I have little to say!)

At this juncture we go back to John’s preferred description of the gift the Holy Spirit bestows – in the words of Jesus:

“I will ask the Father and he will give you another COMFORTER.”

How did this word “Comforter” get into the English translation of Scripture? Answer the question and simultaneously we will find ourselves in the process of teasing out what the Holy Spirit – the Comforter – can and will do for us. John Wycliffe, the great English reformer, is credited with being the first to translate the whole Bible into vernacular English from the Latin Vulgate – a task completed in 1382. At least six other versions followed and eventually our Authorised Version arrived on the scene in 1611, the forerunner of numerous productions, particularly translating and paraphrasing the New Testament principally from Greek. And in New Testament Greek Parakletos is someone who is called in to help when we are facing personal crisis; someone to help us cope with life’s adverse and testing circumstances. And here is the interesting bit. The word “comfort” in English comes from the Latin word fortis, which means brave and was used of someone who puts courage into you.

Biblical scholars have not found it easy to come up with a single word in our language to equate with John’s Parakletos. On a rare occasion it does mean “comfort” as we understand it, but not the kind of comfort that encourages us to sit back and passively accept whatever fate has in store. Both words, Parakletos and “Comforter” have a common root which in English spells “dynamite” and provides us with a perfect picture of the Holy Spirit at work among us. What Jesus is saying to us is this – The Christian life and the Christian way are no sinecure; it is tough, it is demanding; follow me and you will find yourselves in places where you never dreamed of venturing; doing the kind things that will have you shaking in your boots. But I will send you another Comforter, another Counsellor; another Helper; an Advocate; a Friend; the Parakletos, someone with a power like spiritual dynamite; someone who gives us power and enables us to cope with life; helps folk to stand on their own two feet and face life four-square. God’s gracious and generous gift of the Holy Spirit, Not a Memory – a Presence.  

Coping with grief

“Mary stood crying outside the tomb.” The Gospel of John 20.11

Mary Magdalene by Bellini Image credit: Yorck Project

Mary Magdalene by Bellini
Image credit: Yorck Project

Many clergy will not forget the first funeral at which they officiated. I remember mine and how ill-equipped I was to deal with it. Granted I was young and my life story scarcely begun. A young woman was widowed in tragic circumstances. The death of her husband was tragic and unexpected and she was angry; angry at the injustice of it; angry with God. It grieved me to watch her hurting. At the time, I did not appreciate that God allows for our anger. I spent time talking to her, reasoning with her, assuring her of faith’s promise to us when we find ourselves trying to negotiate the journey through “the valley of the shadow”; trying to remember what I was taught in theological college about the pastoral care of my “flock” who were broken-hearted and sorely grieving – to no avail. On reflection she had ample cause to be angry with me.

“The patience of Job” is a saying in vogue more likely by the elderly than any others, many of whom would be surprised that Job is not always as patient as the saying makes him out to be. I hazard a guess; there might be surprise to be informed that the story of Job is to be found in the Old Testament. The story of a man’s desperate cry for relief; a man for whom life had ceased to have meaning. Stricken with physical and mental anguish he could find no reason for his fate. He wishes he were dead. Instead of giving birth to him, he wishes his mother had miscarried or that he had been still-born. “Why did I not die at birth, come forth from the womb and expire?” (Job 3: 11 -12) Job had friends who, hearing him curse the day he was born and the night of his conception, tried to help him – to comfort him. Job was asking: why is God doing this to me? The friends thought it would help best to explain why God was doing it. That was their mistake. It was also mine! Like Job, my friend was not ready for, or interested in, a theological rationalisation of her dilemma. In those early years of ministry I learned that, to share another’s grief, words are often futile and unnecessary. A quiet, caring presence can be more therapeutic, more of a blessing than a well-intentioned homily.

Among the close friends of Jesus there was more than one Mary. His mother was Mary AND there was the interesting and enigmatic character – Mary Magdalene (Mary Magdala). From a historical point of view the information about Mary Magdalene (as indeed for the other Marys too) is slender. Who was she? What was her background? How did she become the close, intimate friend of Jesus? What role did she have in the disciple group? Interesting questions and equally fascinating suggestions, some of which were listed in a report in the Methodist Recorder of a BBC television documentary focussing on the life of Mary and hosted by Melvyn Bragg. Questions were asked; answers sought. Was she a prostitute? Was she a wealthy widow of independent means? Did she have a mental illness? Did she wash Jesus’ feet with her tears? Which of the speculative answers circulating throughout the centuries are fact rather than fiction, if any? Truth is, we cannot be certain – Mary remains somewhat of a mystery! Once upon a time I was perfectly content to hold to the idea that she was both a one-time prostitute and the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. Today? I don’t know – it’s a topic about which I keep an open mind. Biblical scholars assure me of one thing about of which I can be certain: to Mary belongs the glory of being the first person to see the Risen Christ.

On the first Easter Morning, Mary goes to the garden and the tomb where Jesus was laid to pay her respects to her Master and Friend. She stands outside the tomb weeping. The tomb – empty! Jesus – absent! The scene preserved in the gospel portrays her as bewildered, distraught, broken-hearted, afraid. The full story of the Resurrection told by the Gospel writers indicates unmistakably how much, and how deeply, she would grieve for him. We are able also, reading between the lines and using our imagination, to monitor Mary coping with her grief. And some minor certainties emerge from Mary’s story. They can help us cope when it is our turn to grieve.

What are they? There is no shame in grief. Questions lead to answers. Doubt can pave the way to faith. Fear is not sin. Tears are allowed. And the major one? Mary Magdalene came to her disciple friends with her glorious news and testimony: “I have seen the Lord” she said. Mary was anxious to have a factual explanation of what happened to Jesus whom she mourned deeply. Mary stood weeping outside at the tomb – there stood with her One who conquered death and turns the night of mourning into the morning of gladness. The Risen, Living Lord, who doesn’t argue or even preach – who says, “PEACE BE WITH YOU.”