Category Archives: Matthew

I’m H-A-P-P-Y

Sermon on the Mount. Carl Heinrich Bloch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Sermon on the Mount. Carl Heinrich Bloch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The second thing I want to say about happiness (as promised) is that to be happy is to do good to others. There is no prize for the right answer, but there is a question. Who said “There is no such thing as society?” Of course, it was former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The statement was part of her thesis that life is enhanced by an individual’s personal initiative and self-motivation. Many people can live with that, and do, their philosophy more political than religious. In practice looking after number one is not the same as doing good to oneself. The doctrine of looking after number one does not quite gel with the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes. Two things stand out: take the Beatitudes alone and they are all about happiness and community and the two are interrelated. To be content with our lot, we are truly blest. One example, “Happy are those who are merciful to others.” The Sermon on the Mount demonstrates clearly and bluntly how much we are bound together in the bundle of life. Take one small example, the desperate need for Food Banks and the magnificent response of so many people. And the Sermon on the Mount also makes clear that to belong to Christ is to belong to a community. A community, or society, shaped by the conviction that no one is an island. So, those first Christians shared with one another as each one had need. Happy are those who are merciful to others.

There is the third thing to be noted about our quest for happiness. We must not equate the Beatitudes with the Ten Commandments: they are not the same! The Beatitudes are not a collection of moral rules of conduct or code of ethics. They do not mean you must do those things in order to deserve and win divine approval. They have nothing to do with being well-thought of. The happiness God promises comes to those who claim no merit for themselves but, knowing their own hearts, are content to rest their need on the mercy of God. A description I have borrowed: “not so much the ethics of obedience as the ethics of grace.” The picture we are given is of a gracious giver and ourselves as humble receivers. Side by side with the teaching, there are the promises. The happiness of the Beatitudes is not the product of an alliance of human will and strength. The happiness of the Beatitudes is the promise of a living relationship with the One Christ Jesus, who not only taught them but exhibited them in his own life. And the more closely we walk in His Way, the more firmly we walk in His footsteps. The closer we are drawn into His presence, the more we become like Him, the more Blessed we become.

Epilogue: “I have spoken to you,” Jesus says “that My Way may be in you and your joy be complete.”

Happiness, Happiness, The greatest gift that I possess; I thank the Lord that I’ve been blessed with more than my share of happiness. (Ken Dodd)

I’m H-A-P-P-Y (song)

Sermon on the Mount: Matthew 5 / Luke 6

Blessed

A Methodist minister is ordained at the Church’s Annual Conference in June. It is a big day, a long day, a memorable day – although not quite as lengthy as in my day. First there is a lunch where the ordinands and their guests meet with the President of the Conference who talks to them informally and briefly, congratulating them on reaching Ordination and perhaps offering some practical advice gleaned from his/her experience in ministry. After lunch in a crowded conference auditorium they are received into what is known as ‘Full Connexion’, in my judgement of greater significance even than ordination. The President addresses them more formally about ministry. Come evening, at different venues, is the ordination by laying on of hands, the service itself always a wonderfully inspiring and humbling occasion. A Charge is given to those about to begin the work to which God has called them by an appropriate person on behalf of the whole church, a pertinent word of wise counsel and encouragement.

Three times that day an ordinand is challenged, as indeed is the entire gathering. But two things stick in my mind, neither of mind-boggling significance. At the informal session the President said, “Keep your desk tidy. It turns my stomach to see the mess in some ministers studies.” Good advice but not tremendously exciting or inspiring! At the ordination service all I remember is an extract from someone’s homily, a tit-bit of practical advice it being said, “In your ministry Saturday is the day you prepare yourself for Sunday. So, do not anything on Saturday that you ought not to be doing on Sunday.” I saw myself denied the pleasure of shouting encouragement and, now and then, (polite!) abuse at my favourite football team on a Saturday afternoon. I thought of some of the activities in which we participated at the youth club on a Saturday evening. I thought to myself – is this the code of practice to encourage and sustain in the years ahead? Am I doing the right thing? Subject to those restrictions I would certainly not be ‘a happy bunny.’

Sermon on the Mount. Carl Heinrich Bloch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Sermon on the Mount. Carl Heinrich Bloch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Turn to Matthew chapter five or Luke chapter six to what is known as the Sermon on the Mount, and which may be like an ordination charge, in this instance addressed to the twelve disciples. As I was given my charge on ordination day, likewise Jesus spoke to the disciples in similar vein, as they prepared to undertake their life’s work. My charge came in three sessions and it is virtually certain the Sermon on the Mount as it is presented in the gospel is not a single actual sermon but a summary of a number of talks given by Jesus on different occasions. The Sermon on the Mount begins with The Beatitudes – eight of them; each one begins with the words Blessed or in modern translations,’You are blessed or Happy are those’ (who) . . . .

When I first appeared in my royal blue cassock, gifted to me by family at a special time in my career, a lady in the congregation enquired if it was a new uniform for ministers! I was later to learn that a group of my colleagues actually participated in a discussion as to my motive in becoming so clad for worship. Was I trying to be different, a lookalike bishop? A sensitive subject for us! The Methodist church still refuses to countenance the appointment of some form of episcopacy into our system. Well, what was I getting up to? My friends need not have feared, I had no thoughts of grandeur, I was acting on the understanding that the Sermon on the Mount/Beatitudes consist of a promise of happiness, a call to happiness, an invitation to the happy life. Why did I choose to go blue? Ministers in the Church of Scotland dressed in the royal blue and I thought it looked well and bright – colourful. I wore it as a form of protest, an attempt to get away from the more familiar funereal black; a modest attempt to change the image of the church – to demonstrate that the party we attend on a Sunday is not a wake but a ball. So, be happy and be glad, is our Lord’s invitation and call.

To be continued . . . . . .

Live in hope : continue in faith

The Second Coming of Christ window at St. Matthew's Lutheran Church in Charleston, SC. By Cadetgray (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

The Second Coming of Christ window at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church in Charleston, SC. By Cadetgray (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), via Wikimedia Commons

No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, not even the Son, no one but the Father alone. Matthew 24: 36

Horoscopes are, or were, a popular feature in magazines and tabloid press: popular with people who believe that the stars can tell them what is going to happen in the coming week, month or year. When I was but a lad there were known ladies who could tell your future by reading tea cups, empty ones of course, to allow the pattern of tea leaves sticking to the inside of the cup to take shape tell you the good news or the bad – mostly the bad! Popular and basically harmless, some church ladies considered they were of the devil and the advent of the tea bag may have put an end to it. You and I may not resort to the gypsy lady and her crystal ball in her caravan at the fairground. However, if we are honest with ourselves, we may have to admit at some time or another to ‘star gazing’, looking beyond and ahead of ourselves in the hope of being able to predict what the future has in store. In some religious circles there are people who claim to possess powers which enable them to tell when and how the world will end, the manner and the circumstance in which Jesus will come among us again. Present them with this judgement and they call on the authority of Scripture in support of their theories. The passages which they quote are among the more obscure, consisting of pictures and imagery that do not make easy or comfortable reading. The tendency of those self-acclaimed prophets is not to promise marvel or surprise but to herald doom and gloom. Our criticism calls for a certain amount of caution.

This reflection is headed by a quotation from the Gospel of Matthew (24:36) – we should be shaking in our shoes! It is from one of those passages with which a religious speculator or crank can have a field day. All the ingredients are there: nation making war with nations, famines, earthquakes, lawlessness, distress such as the world has never known, the sun and moon eclipsed, stars tumbling from the sky, lightning and vultures. It is an odd passage which leaves us ill at ease – we are in the company of those whose hobby is to match the signs of the times with the strange end of time sayings in the Bible; bits of Scripture that may be difficult for us but which did not present the same problem to the Hebrews in the first century AD. For generations, they looked forward to that final victory by God in the conquest of the wold and its people. They called it the Day of the Lord and their prophets assured them that before it happened there would be a great outburst of evil and the sun and the moon would be darkened. A fearsome prospect, a strange way to celebrate conquest and victory, demanding that questions be answered as to credibility, opening the way for speculation.

Let us remind ourselves again that we are looking at a passage which is concerned with our Lord’s return to earth to establish and complete God’s kingdom. A time we sing about in the hymn When Satan is vanquished and Jesus is King. Matthew knew nothing of other planets or worlds. But we have this knowledge and we are trying to accept that science fiction may not always comprise the impossible or make-believe. That may be ‘heretical’ perhaps, but back to Matthew. He quotes Jesus on the subject with all the ‘horrendous’ happenings He says will herald His Second Coming and the end of time as we know it. Not easy to take in, not a simple concept. Added to which the apparent contradiction where it says people will be able to recognise that great and glorious day of the Lord. But we are also told no one knows when Jesus will return to complete his unfinished business. The angels are not privy to it; surprisingly and puzzlingly Jesus does not know, God alone knows! And when it happens, it will come suddenly like a rain storm out of a clear blue sky. What is more, it will happen in Matthew’s lifetime. One explanation is that Matthew may have inserted it, or done a little embellishment of the text, as he was wont to do.

What does it say to us? We are on a familiar and well-trodden track so there is little need to tell the whole story. This slender synopsis of a difficult and disturbing Gospel passage will not answer all our questions about the unknown future. Does it matter? Whatever the future, today, tomorrow or beyond, does it matter when or how it all comes about? What does matter is the promise of Jesus that, come what may, ‘I will be with you always to the end of time.’ Or Paul’s testimony, ‘Nothing can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus.’

Do not despair! Live in hope! Continue in faith!

Tears for a city

Jerusalem City from the Bible

Jerusalem, City from the Bible
By Peter van der Sluijs (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you kill the prophets and stone the messengers God has sent you! How many times have I wanted to put my arms round all your people, just as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you would not let me! (Matthew 23: 37)

The lament over Jerusalem is part of the story of Palm Sunday, incomplete without another verse that shows how much Jesus cared for the holy city: When he came to the city, he caught sight of it and wept over it. (LUKE 19: 41). Jerusalem was a big disappointment to Jesus. He accuses her of constant attempts to reject and even kill the messengers God sent. “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often have I longed to put my arms round you and you spurned me over and again!” It is not difficult to sense the pathos of it. Now it was his turn to be the target of her folly, her cruel intent. The major part of our Lord’s ministry was conducted in Galilee. Except in Nazareth, his home village, he was welcome in Galilee. The little we know of his ministry in Jerusalem tells another story. His time there is marked by a distinctively different tone and tempo. The Pharisees could be relied upon to create trouble, as part of a cunning and fierce opposition, and people were turning their backs on him. One might have expected something different in Jerusalem – the nerve centre of religious and political life. Here was built the most splendid temple to the glory of God. Here the religious elite gathered at their holy place to worship HIm. For the Judean, Jerusalem breathed a holy air. Alas, it was not to be. “O Jerusalem, how often I have longed put my arms around you – and you would not let me!” Words that tell how much Jesus loved Jerusalem, and also how deep was his disappointment.

Jesus suffered no delusions – he warned the disciples that the visit on which they had embarked would lead to suffering and death: something the disciples refused to believe, “Lord this will never happen to you!” Riding into the city on the back of a donkey challenged his opponents on their understanding of his God-given authority. This deliberate act challenged them one final time to turn around and to make their own the message which God had entrusted to Jesus, to welcome Him instead of rallying to be rid of Him. Trouble lay ahead and Jesus knew it! If the disciples had a problem (it will not happen to you) and they were his friends, what chance was there of his enemies rising to a more friendly reception? O Jerusalem, how often I have wanted to hug you and you turned away – words which tell how much Jesus loved that great city and how much it hurt to have his numerous overtures rejected, especially when much of the opposition was instigated and led by the religious, the Pharisees, who ought to have been on his side.

Some people turn on the tears as easily as they turn on the tap for water: some weep for nothing and cannot help themselves. Some weep and the onlooker may scarcely notice the quiet, gentle trickle on the cheek. I remember a friend of my parents coming to our home one evening in considerable distress with a letter received from her fiancé saying their engagement was off. Just like that – totally out of the blue! She loved him, and to say she was upset is an understatement. Although I was young at the time I have never forgotten the tears of a women jilted. As she wept the tears of unrequited love, the bed shook and her whole body trembled uncontrollably. When Jesus wept for Jerusalem it was not like turning on the tap, not a sign of emotional weakness, nor was it a whimper of self-pity. The word for weep in the story of Palm Sunday is a very strong word, one that is used for the heaving of the bosom, the sob and cry of a soul in agony – symptom of a broken heart!

When he came to the city, he caught sight of it and wept over it.

Conflict in the wilderness

Temptations of Christ (San Marco)

Temptation of Christ (mosaic in basilica di San Marco)
By anonimus [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Journey by car on the minor roads and we may still come across them. Set against a dykeside, often covered in moss with an inscription not easy to read, old-fashioned stone milestones indicating how far we have come on our journey; how far we have still to go. Likewise there are different kinds of milestones that touch on the life of every one of us, events of personal significance, highlights of our journey, thus far, along life’s highway. For some people the moment most cherished – the day they set out on a career. For another the most poignant moment – at the altar at which one stood to be wed. For another the most outstanding event – becoming a member of the church. For another being given a call to preach or to the ordained ministry. And there was the time when we made our response to the invitation from Jesus “to love him more dearly, to follow him more nearly, day by day.” In fact, for most of us, there is more than just one milestone: life is enhanced by a host of memorable occasions. It was true in the life of Jesus.

In the Temple at 12 years of age came the realisation that God was his father in an extraordinary and special way. A way that did not make Joseph, his human father, redundant. Between that milestone and the next, his baptism by John in the Jordan, Jesus must have given thought to what this unique relationship meant for him. Imagine him in early youth in the market-place, in the carpenter’s shop or in the synagogue, listening to friends and neighbours and the religious teachers talking about their hopes and fears, pondering the great question, “what will happen when messiah comes?” Some anticipated a glorious day when everyone would have everything they wanted. Others pictured messiah leading the nation to battle against their oppressors. The distant voices of a variety of people proclaiming their various prophecies would ring in Jesus’ ears. Aware that all of this would have some impact on his life, as he stepped out to go public, he had to be sure that he was working in harmony within God’s scheme of things. Hence to another milestone in his life, so the writers of the gospels tell us,“Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, to be tempted by the devil.” (Matthew 4:1) They go on to tell how the devil went about his evil intent to discredit Jesus by tempting him to abandon his loyalty to the way of his father God. Instead, for him to surrender to Satan’s devious cunning, was a losing battle. Satan was not as clever as he thought and Jesus not the softie he might have imagined Him to be. “Get out of my sight, Satan” Jesus ordered. How do we know this since he was alone in the wilderness? We are informed that the only assistance to come his way was from the Angels! At some point Jesus must have told the disciples all about it. I like the language The Message ascribes to Jesus in his dismissal of the devil: “Satan, push off – Satan, beat it!” Does that not suggest our language in presenting the gospel might be a little more robust?

Even so, as it is told in the synoptic gospels, we are left to imagine the mental anguish, the physical exhaustion, the sweat, the tears, the praying – a contest fought in the heart, mind and soul. An experience of such intensity there are times when one can almost see the tempter. On one memorable occasion the vision of Satan was so real to Martin Luther, he sent his ink-pot crashing against the wall in his room when he threw it at the devil. The writer to the Hebrews (2: 18) assures us, “Because Jesus himself was tempted and suffered, he can help those who are tempted.” This is at the heart and centre of our faith – for all times.

The stagehand

Nicolas Poussin: The Baptism of Christ. Image credit: Wikimedia

Nicolas Poussin: The Baptism of Christ. Image credit: Wikimedia

I’m baptizing you here in the river, turning your old life in for a kingdom life. The main action comes next. The main character in this drama – compared to him I’m a mere stagehand – will guide the kingdom life within you, a fire within you, the Holy Spirit within you, changing you from inside out. . . Jesus appeared, arriving at the Jordan from Galilee, he wanted John to baptize him. John objected, “I’m the one who needs to be baptized, not you.” (Matthew 3 – The Message.)

John the Baptist was disappointed, or at least puzzled, when Jesus first hit the scene. His expectations for Messiah and the work he did in preparations for His coming could be wasted on Joseph’s son. Jesus when he was a young man was not exactly a Mr Nobody, he was a highly regarded village carpenter. But did he in any way show significant signs of a Messianic role? Instinctively we might find ourselves answering in the negative – but who knows? We know even less about John’s boyhood and youth than we do about that of Jesus from the sparse accounts of his early and formative years. What is often forgotten is that the Bible makes no claim to being a full and comprehensive history or biographical book. The measure of John’s concern was seen in his sending disciples to see Jesus, to find out if Jesus was the One for whom he was called to prepare the way.

He looked for a king. He saw a carpenter turned wandering preacher. In due course, any suspicion or fear John may have entertained was dispelled. It is to his credit that he kept an open mind and was prepared to change his opinion. He must have asked himself – can I be mistaken? And he was ready to admit he was mistaken – and to do something about it.

Are we as open in our approach to our task? Are our agendas rigid or flexible? Are we open and receptive to the guidance of the Spirit?

Jesus was arrested and condemned to death because there were those, unlike the Baptist, who stonewalled the overtures of the One who came in the name of the Lord proclaiming good news and bringing salvation to all people.

Fits like a glove

Millais: Christ in the House of his Parents. Image credit: Wikimedia

Millais: Christ in the House of his Parents.
Image credit: Wikimedia

Part of the mystery of the event so recently celebrated by us and, at the same time, part of the glory of Christmas is that Jesus hailed from Nazareth where he was the village carpenter. Nazareth, a place from which no good thing was expected to come. Nathanael, eventually to become a disciple of Jesus, when told by his friend Philip that Jesus was God’s Anointed One, simply could not believe it. “Nazareth,” the bewildered Nathanael exclaimed, “Can anything of good come from that place!” Nazareth, a village of little expectation and Jesus, son of Joseph, an artisan, not a prince – take it with a pinch of salt! Yes, village carpenter he was: good with tools; with skills that were not confined to shaping wood. A carpenter not a joiner, as we understand the term, and certainly not the odd jobs man who advertises his services in the columns of the local newspaper. A good carpenter in Palestine in Jesus’ day was a craftsman of multi-skills. (Trade Unions, as we know them, would have a field day.) If you wanted a door planed or someone to drive in a few nails, you sent for the carpenter, and if it was a chair that you wanted or a table or a coffin, a bridge, even a house or a yoke for your oxen, the carpenter was your man.

I have never driven a pair of oxen. I did drive a pair of horses, Clydesdales, once upon a time, and in some respects that is much the same. If you are a horse man, whether show jumper or, as in my case, a ploughboy, like an ox-man, you are concerned with harness and yokes with which you attach your horse to a plough, or harrows or whatever. No good if they are ill-fitting or badly made. No good if the collar chafes at the shoulder or the saddle-girth strangles the belly or the tree-chains cut into the hock. They have to fit well! In Jesus’ day, if a farmer needed a new yoke for his oxen it was much like going to the bespoke tailor on the High Street for a new suit. A yoke was made of wood and the farmer would take the beast to the carpenter, first to be measured and then to be fitted. The yoke was tailor-made!

Jesus knew all about yokes from personal experience. In the course of his ministry of teaching and pastoral care there was an occasion when he utilised that expertise to illustrate his message. “My yoke is easy,” Jesus says, and the word easy may also be translated, serviceable, good or well-fitting.My yoke is easy” was actually the motto of the family business – it hung on a sign above his workshop door. It is part of folk-lore too that it was no idle boast, for Jesus had the reputation for making the best ox-yokes in the whole of Galilee and, without exception, the yokes he made fitted like a glove, as we might say. It is Matthew (11: 28-30) who tells us of Jesus’ use of the family business motto in his teaching. But there he does not speak of those well-fitting products shaped on his work bench, Jesus is talking about people; about life. James Stewart, a pulpit giant and theologian at the time of my youth and before, wrote an excellent hand book (Life and Teaching of Jesus) for the use of Boys Brigade Bible Classes. I was greatly influenced by him. He said this: “Made by the same hands, the yoke for the oxen at the plough and the yoke for the disciples of the kingdom were alike, they were light and easy fitting.” Jesus’ invitation and promise were addressed to a devout people whose spiritual allegiance had become a burden. They were exhausted and worn out by the increasing and ludicrous number of demands and regulations their leaders and teachers persistently added to the rule book, with the hope of gaining God’s blessing. The yoke – the task to which they were committed – was nothing other than an ill fit. For a people burned out by the intensity of religious fervour, what was intended to be a blessing had become an intolerable burden. (A yoke could also be the mark of servitude or slavery.) Jesus offers something different: a better way of life, a joy and a blessing, its demands tailor-made. “Take my yoke and put it on; the yoke I give you is easy and light.” The ironic feature of this tale is the reluctance of the Hebrew people to throw in their lot with Jesus. They feared what he offered might be no different – a burden rather than a joy. There is a paraphrase of the Saying of Jesus about the yoke which fits well. It goes like this: “pulling with me is easy; pulling against me is hard.”

The conclusion to this piece is brief, and the impression may be given that it has been forgotten or of lesser significance. The truth is that no one is excluded from this challenging invitation and tremendous promise. When life is tough and hurting; when things are getting on top of us and we are feeling low, Jesus speaks to us, “Take my yoke upon you and learn of me. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” This is not an invitation to escape trial or tribulation. There is no magic wand on offer, or rocking chair in which to take our ease. It is the promise that is at the heart of the Gospel, that there is no situation that must end in failure; no search for truth or for God that inevitably leads to a cul-de-sac. It is the promise that in the strength of grace God’s enabling gift to us, our life will be moulded so that we can cope.

My yoke fits well. A promise to carry with us into the New Year 2014.

Accents

English: A section of the RVI hospital at Newc...

English: A section of the RVI hospital at Newcastle upon Tyne, UK (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was my good fortune to be a resident of the City of Newcastle upon Tyne, “Geordie land”, for two periods of ministry. On the first occasion, over and above my regular pastoral ministry I was a part-time chaplain in the Royal Victoria Infirmary, a large teaching hospital associated with the University. Patients came to us from all over the North of England. When I did my ward round, I was frequently asking patients, “Where do you come from?” A reply might be “Ashington” or “Hexham” or “Blyth” or “Cullercoats” or some other town or village in the hospital’s catchment area. But that was not the answer I sought; I knew that already from the card in my hand giving notice of admission. So I would respond, “Yes, of course – but where do you hail from originally?” The response might be “Cumbria” or “Dumfries” or “Aberdeen” or “Edinburgh” or “York” or “London” or even “Toronto” or some other part of the world. Their accent gave the show away! The staff, the medics particularly, were a cosmopolitan lot, among them many Scots voices were to be heard. Apart from the initial three years as a Probationer, stationed on the Moray Firth, my entire ministry was served in the North East of England. Whether it be town or country, I would come across Scots who had “emigrated” across the border and were now occupying key positions; doctors, nurses, local government officers, Trade Union officials, policemen and even parsons (like myself), to name a few. Again and again, on some issue or other in Scotland, the representative spokespersons are not natives: the way they speak gives the show away – they are English or some other nationality. There have been times when one wondered how England would survive without the Scots! However to be fair, how would Scotland cope without the English! (Are we speaking Referendum?!)

When on occasion my pedigree has been the topic of discussion, I have been astonished to be identified as a Welshman and my wife, while shopping in England, was told from behind the counter how nice it was to hear her lovely Irish accent! Accents resist attempts to change who we are by the way we speak. The young lady, eighteen years old, left home from Scotland where the Doric was spoken for a job in the Civil Service in London. Three months later she came home with a new accent, so she thought. Within a few days her accent was a hybrid – she couldn’t help it. My wife’s Dad was born in Woolwich and moved to Scotland when he was nine years old with the families of the men employed by the Woolwich Arsenal who were transferred to the new torpedo factory in Scotland. When I knew him he spoke as one born and bred on the Scottish side of the border. I am told that when he was in the company of his siblings or fellow-workers, in spite of the passing of the years, he was a Cockney – as he was as a boy.

Peter, the Peter of Jesus’ disciple band on the night Jesus was betrayed, watched what was happening to his Master, the Master he had promised never to betray, but along with his fellow disciples, he contrived to keep out of sight. They did not want to suffer the same fate as Jesus. But Peter was recognised by two observant servant women who knew him to be one of Jesus’ men. Peter denied all knowledge of Jesus but he did not manage to hoodwink the girl whose finger pointed to him. “You are certainly one of them” she insisted, “your accent betrays you.” Let us hope and pray that at any time the way we speak of our faith may never be of betrayal.

8 week old Basset Hound

8 week old Basset Hound (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Speech is not only a means of exposing our native environs, it can reveal what our interests are; what are our ambitions; where our heart lies; the kind of things we talk about. Go to any town or city not sure of the way to where you want to be and stop a passer-by for directions; you may be told to look for a certain pub, your landmark on the way, your guide – pub person. Or you may be told to watch for certain churches to keep you from straying – your guide goes to church (?) When we had a dog (a much-loved Basset Hound), my wife walked her on the moor behind our house, to be joined there by a handful of “sister” dog walkers. I understand the main topics seldom changed: the youngest of them still at school, her ambition to be a vet, spoke of little else than dogs. Two of the women knew all about the clubs and pubs in the city centre, and so on. Above all else their speech betrayed them to be more than dog-owners, they were dog lovers. Our speech paints pictures of who we are and what we are, where we are and where we are going, even when we are failing, like Simon Peter. He could not get over the fact that in a moment of fear and cowardice he had betrayed his Lord, until post-Resurrection, the Risen Christ took him aside at the Lakeside, spoke to him and asked him, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more these?” Thus Jesus gave the errant disciple the opportunity to reveal the real Peter – not just the old Peter, but a new Peter, one who more than ever was fit for purpose. What a difference to Peter the words of Jesus made, and no doubt the way he spoke them, just as the hymn-writer wrote in another context, reassuringly in “accents clear and still.”

“Peter if you love me that much, shepherd my sheep.”

“The way you speak gives you away” (GNB Matthew 26:69-73)

“Your accent gives you away” (The Message)

The disciple is an ambassador of Christ, and what we say and how we say it when speaking on his behalf will be a potent witness and testimony to our Master and Friend.

Imagined power

The mother of the Zebedee brothers came with her two sons and knelt before Jesus with a request. She said, “Give your word that these two sons of mine will be awarded the highest places of honour in your kingdom, one at your right hand, one at your left hand.” Jesus responded, “You have no idea what you are asking…..awarding places of honour is not my business. My Father is taking care of that. Matthew 20: 20-24 (The Message)

Did mother and sons imagine their ambitious plot would secure for her boys a special place at Jesus’ side – were they power seekers? Jesus assured them that what they had in mind did not come within the orbit of his God-given role. He tells them that he does not consider that they have understood the consequences of heading for Jerusalem. He asks if they are able to share with him his “cup of suffering”. Their expectation was a victor’s crown!

Regular readers will recall our earlier encounter with the two ambitious smart guys when we asked what was wrong with ambition. The question now is – What is wrong with power? Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely (Lord Acton). History is littered with despots and all sorts misusing and abusing power. Think Hitler, Mugabe, Assad and you get the picture. What’s wrong with power? Like ambition, there is nothing wrong with power of the right kind.

The Temptation of Christ, 1854

The Temptation of Christ, 1854 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Jesus had to face the attraction, the lure, of power and come to terms with it. He chose a desert place at the outset of his ministry “away from the maddening maze of things” to sort it out. There he sought to know what his ministry would be; what his method would be; what the consequences were likely to be. For 40 days, led by the Spirit, Jesus lived alone in this wilderness and it was as though a devil tempted him. As usual, we don’t know everything that happened or all that was said during the time Jesus engaged in battle with the power of evil – only a summary. And it is about power: Jesus contemplating how to manage power. “If you are the Son of God”, the Tempter mockingly addressed Jesus, “then you have been given a place of privilege in the work of your God’s kingdom and with it the gift of a special power”. Jesus knew that and for 40 days he was seeking to shape his ministry accordingly, And despite the allure of the Tempter He chose not to use his God-given power to alleviate hunger by turning stones into bread; rejected using his power to bring the kingdoms of the world under his control and the glory that goes with it; and he was not going to be a stunt man performing spectacular circus feats to win the applause and approval of the masses. What a difference it would have made had he succumbed to the Devil’s guile and charm! But it was a misuse of power.

Back we go our two “mummy’s boys”. Could it be that James and John harboured in their minds, and by their behaviour (canvassing Jesus,) a tentative hope and a prayer that they were marching to Jerusalem as a mighty army to conquer in the pursuit of God’s kingdom? If they could “bend his ear” they could be at the head of it ; the Master leading, his trusted and loyal lieutenants at his side; if only Jesus would listen and not be so stubbornly opposed to the fulfilment of their dreams (top places). What an opportunity – a big crowd was there to welcome him, to go with him. That would be an encouraging sight for James and John. But much to the mob’s consternation and anger, in spite of their attempt to take him by force and compel him to use the power he rejected, he was not for turning. Their idea of the role of Messiah was very different from the way he was to shape his ministry and mission. The bold duo, or maybe they were not so bold, hence their mother’s part in the interview with Jesus, would be disappointed with Jesus’ response: “You do not know what you ask. You’re not up to it yet! Can you drink the cup I must drink?”

Disappointed and deflated they might have been – the amazing thing is, that at the end of day they still believed in Jesus. The remarkable thing is they still followed and remained loyal to the Galilean carpenter who was facing imminent execution. Misguided as James and John may be, their hearts were in the right place and we have a story that takes us back to the time of Jesus; a story that reveals something of the character of two of Jesus’ friends and not in very good light! Above all, a story to encourage and assure us it was with people like ourselves, with our doubts, our failures and our misunderstandings, that Jesus set out to change the world – and did!

They fancied their chances

 

“When you sit on your throne in your glorious Kingdom, we want you to let us sit with you, one on your right and one on your left” Mark 10:37

Marco Basaiti: Call of the sons of Zebedee. Picture credit: Wikimedia

Marco Basaiti: Call of the sons of Zebedee. Picture credit: Wikimedia

The tale of two ambitious young men who fancied their chances: the sons of Zebedee and disciples of Jesus. They wanted the highest place of honour, the place closest to Jesus when the Master attained his day of influence and power, “Teacher,” they said to Jesus, “We have something we want you to do for us. Arrange it so that we will be rewarded the highest places of honour in your glory – one on your right, the other on your left.” (The Message – Petersen) Two young men, neither shy in currying favour with Jesus – their ambition to be given the most prominent places in Jesus’ glorious kingdom!

Ambition: nothing wrong with ambition – depends on what motivates it and how it is pursued. The Talmud (the Jewish Bible) lists seven types of Pharisee and it puts at the top of the list the “what do I get out of it” Pharisee. They may not be religious, but for some time now the media has regularly drawn to our attention, people (mainly men) being awarded, or awarding themselves, colossal sums of money, salaries, ultra-generous bonuses, excessive settlement payments and, in some cases, what appears to be rewards for failure. Despite the adverse publicity and condemnation, there would appear to be still around those whose ambition is of the “what do I get out of it” variety and, in many cases, an ambition fuelled by greed. But ambition can be, and is, much healthier and above-board.

She made history when appointed Speaker’s Chaplain at Parliament: Rose Hudson-Wilkin is a Church of England priest. An interesting character, her story the more remarkable because she is the first woman to hold this appointment and she is a black woman. Those who know her are sure she is “going places” in the church and she is widely tipped as the first Church of England women bishop. When asked if she had any desire to climb the ecclesiastical ladder, she said this was most certainly not an ambition she cherished. “And that is truth” she said. She went on to say that she had two ambitions in life after ordination. One was to meet Desmond Tutu and the other was to meet Nelson Mandela. “I have achieved my ambitions” she said. “I have no other ambition, I’ve done it.” Away from her duties in Parliament, Rose is happily and contentedly caring pastorally in two East End parishes – all she wanted to do from an early age. Her story – the story of a different, more acceptable ambition. A bit different from that which I imagine to have driven the sons of Zebedee to ask their favour of Jesus.

Have I grounds for describing the ambition of James and John in the way I do? Am I being fair to them since neither Mark nor Matthew go into that kind of detail? Well, I have to admit it’s only an unsubstantiated idea of mine. However, reading between the lines may provide a clue. What should I be looking for? First, is it possible for the ambition of those two disciples to be in any way like the “what do I get out of it” kind? Imagine the scene, the occasion!

James and John in a party on the way to Jerusalem; Jesus walking ahead of them, the disciples – bewildered and afraid. Jesus had warned them of what awaited them there: intense hostility, arrest, trial, death. Nevertheless, the disciples did not understand what was happening. They certainly were aware that Jesus was not exaggerating when He warned how He would be treated. What distressed them was the Master’s insistence that the journey to Jerusalem was to culminate in the Cross. Their ambition for Him was more in accord with Handel’s MessiahKing of kings and Lord of lords”. And this is what may have got the ambitious duo to thinking, here may be our last chance to take our dream to Him and secure our place at the top table. Better get our request in now, before it’s too late. I have a feeling, I hope I’m not doing anyone an injustice, that somehow or other they managed to get Jesus to themselves, away from his friends – without them knowing. And, with a bit of flattery to create a better impression, they dispense a bit of verbal garnish to their pleading, instead of referring simply to “Your kingdom” they speak of “Your glorious kingdom”. To achieve their inflated and selfish interests the Twins were prepared to be a wee bit sneaky. As for the Kingdom – it ran second.

Hans Süß von Kulmbach: Mary Salome and Zebedee with their sons James and John. Photo credit: Wikimedia

Hans Süß von Kulmbach: Mary Salome and Zebedee with their sons James and John. Photo credit: Wikimedia

There is an additional and intriguing aspect to this tale. Matthew in telling this story puts a different slant on it. With Matthew it’s not the lads who went to Jesus but their mother: “The wife of Zebedee came to Jesus with her two sons, bowed (further flattery?) before Him and asked her favour.” “Promise me she asked,” that these two sons of mine will sit on your right and your left when you are King.” (Matthew 20:20-21). She obviously thought her lads were worthy of such recognition and that she had the better chance of succeeding – perhaps her charm would do the trick! On the other hand, it has been suggested, and it might be correct, that Matthew was of the opinion that the Zebedee family’s action was unworthy of an apostle and to save the reputation of James and John he attributed it to the natural ambition of a mother for her offspring. When they got to Jesus, she did the talking, but her sons were with her. However we read it and whoever wrote it years after the event, the other disciples were vexed and indignant with the behaviour of their two colleagues – with good cause. I think we may well be talking about two aspirants to fame, of the “what can I get out of it” syndrome. Nothing wrong with ambition, the right kind, but we have to ask – did those two imagine that acquiring the chief places next to Jesus when He was King in His glorious kingdom would invest them with power as well as place? That’s the next question.

To be continued. . . . . . .