Tag Archives: Apostles

Kingdom come

Ghirlandaio, Domenico - Calling of the Apostles - 1481

Calling of the Apostles. Domenico Ghirlandaio [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A clever piece of fictitious writing about Jesus at the beginning of his ministry has him thinking about the recruitment of disciples. He compiles a short list of potential helpers and takes it for assessment to the “Jordan Management Consultants” in Jerusalem. The Agency’s response, based on computer analysis and interviews, is highly critical. “The men you are thinking about,” the report says, “do not demonstrate any true potential and you might be advised to look elsewhere.” There can be little argument that the men Jesus did propose for leadership roles were a motley crew!

Keep with the idea, extend it, and engage in another fictitious exercise involving the same Management Consultants. This time Jesus is exploring how best to proceed and succeed in his missionary task. A possible response from the Consultancy’s Public Relations Department might read, “Sir, we have reviewed your stated objectives and it is our considered judgement that to win public appeal your movement would be advised to have a single watchword or master-thought. A careful evaluation of your aims and purpose lead us to believe your most appropriate and effective slogan would be: “The kingdom of God.”

Although, astonishingly, it is given no mention in the historic Creeds of the Church, “the kingdom of God” was at the very heart of Jesus’ message. He is on record as saying, I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God, for I was sent for this purpose.” (Luke 4:43). The kingdom of God is the main theme in Jesus’ teaching: it occurs over 100 times in the gospels. Many of the parables were stories Jesus told to explain what the kingdom of God is like. The kingdom features in his very first sermon. “The appointed time has come,” he said, “The kingdom of God is here.” (Mark 1:15). It is still there in his last sermon. The Book of the Acts of the Apostles (1:3) tells us that after the resurrection of Jesus, “He spoke to them about the kingdom of God.” And he asks his followers to pray for it: in the prayer Jesus gave us on which to model all our prayers, we are to ask, “May your kingdom come; may your will be done on earth as in heaven.” Every time we say those words we are asking for the Rule of God to be recognised and accepted in the world. The hope of the visionary with whose writings the New Testament closes – the Revelation of John – is of a time of rejoicing in heaven because “the kingdoms of this world now belong to our Lord and His Christ, and he shall reign for ever and ever.” (11:15). Whatever else Jesus teaches about the kingdom of God, its fulfilment is something for which the disciples must pray.

A word of caution – a mistake is easily made if our evaluation of prayer equates it with a quick-fix God who is good at conjuring tricks. T.W. Manson, a noted theologian, had this to say, “Those who think Messiah will come and transform the world by a wave of a magic wand are mistaken.” Jesus could not be more clear; early in his ministry he launched His campaign “manifesto” (without the help of the Joint Management Consultants in Jerusalem!) He took the opportunity to do it in the Synagogue when asked to read the Scripture, a passage from the prophetic Isiah. There he made public how he saw his task (Luke 4:18-19): “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

There we have it – a ministry that was to revolve round the poor, the oppressed, the disadvantaged, the suffering and to do something practical, positive and radical about their circumstances. Not surprising then, that those early Christians were known for the way they lived, just as much as for what they believed, One of the first things Jesus did following his dramatic announcement of how he saw his task was to choose his disciples. And then it would appear he gathered them together in a series of seminars where he spelt out in detail what the kingdom was about. In the gospels, we have preserved what might be called “the manifesto of the kingdom” in the Sermon on the Mount. Here is no airy-fairy waffle. Here is a programme which is more than theory, more than academic. Here is something that deals in a realistic and practical way with a new and universal order. Jim Wallis, the American preacher and evangelist has this to say, “Here Jesus speaks to the basic stuff of human existence. He concerns himself with money, possession, power, violence, anxiety, sexuality, law, and goes on to the way we treat people, as well as with faith and religion people.” N.T. Wright in his book Who is Jesus? gives an opinion that No King but God was the revolutionary slogan of Jesus’s day and Jesus was seen as the one announcing that God was at last to become King. And for Jesus the kingdom was not purely an inward, private thing, Tom Wright says, it was essentially to do with the way in which Israel’s God was to become the Lord of the cosmos. He concludes that is the big picture the Gospel paints. That is the ambition God has for the world. That is the task in which the Church must engage. No wonder we are to pray for it. And more – live and work for it!

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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 . . . . .

Ambassadors

James Tissot: The exhortation to the apostles. Image credit: Brooklyn Museum via Wikimedia

James Tissot: The exhortation to the Apostles
Image credit: Brooklyn Museum via Wikimedia

The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch” (Acts 11: 26) but it was Jesus who called them disciples. In the gospels it is the word most commonly used for a follower of Jesus. Jesus also called them apostles. Luke in the third gospel says “Jesus called his disciples to him and chose twelve whom he named apostles” (6: 13). In the New Testament, one of the qualifications for becoming an apostle was that the person had witnessed the resurrection. In time, however, every follower of Jesus was equally recognised as an apostle and the New Testament word for apostle refers to an envoy, an ambassador.

A young boy received a lesson about the disciples of Jesus in Sunday School. When he got home he told his mother the lesson was about Jesus’ samples! He may not have got the word right but he was as close to the truth as anyone could be. An apostle, an ambassador, represents Jesus; he or she – Christ’s samples. And the world’s opinion of Jesus may be influenced by the kind of sample we are. There is one feature of the life of an ambassador we ought to note. An ambassador can be an alien in a foreign land. When an ambassador comes to Britain to represent an African country, or the USA or Russia, he or she brings with them a different tradition, a different way of life and often a different language. They may be resident in this country but the UK is not their home and they will continue to follow their native life-styles. If they eat their dinner in a restaurant without using a knife – well, what is to stop them? They are probably American and not conditioned to our cultural code which insists by way of good manners on us eating with knife and fork!

It is a bit like that for the Christian. The environment in which we operate falls short of the picture the New Testament gives of the Kingdom of God. It is a world in which we may feel out-of-place and ill at ease as we take our stand for Christian values. There is much that gives rise to anger within us because it is contrary to the biblical concept of justice, of right and wrong. Christianity is fast becoming a minority in this country and what we stand for is increasingly opposed and challenged. If we are honest and bold enough to confess it, there are times when the grass looks greener on the other side and there is the temptation to have the best of both worlds; the temptation to compromise. Sometimes in our kind of world (not all will agree) compromise may be inevitable. It is naïve and an illusion to imagine the possibility of all and everything ever being absolutely crystal clear. Possibly the only way to avoid the conflict is to escape to the seclusion of the closed monastic life. If all of us went for that, who would work for God’s kingdom on earth? It would not be enough even if the pattern of life was to be one of intensive and consistent prayer. But an apostle is more than one who is sent as an envoy; the apostle is commissioned for a special task. And however great or humble the task we are given, it is for us personally to do something special in the interests of the kingdom of God. If we are Christ’s representatives we are commissioned to save the world from wreck and ruin. To be recognised as one of those Christ people, because our life carries with it the authority of the one who calls us and sends us to represent Him in our day-to-day life, work and witness and to be counted with the apostles…..is an honour and a privilege.

Christ has many services to be done;

Some are easy, others difficult,

Some bring honour others bring reproach

Some are suitable to our natural interests,

Others are contrary to both;

In some we may please Christ and please ourselves;

In others we cannot please Christ except by denying ourselves,

Yet the power to do all these things is given to us in Christ,

Who strengthens us.

Extracts from the Methodist Covenant service

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. . . . . . .

 

Who am I?

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s popular and long running musical asks a question more usually the concern of the theologian than the producer of a stage show – “Jesus Christ Superstar, Do you think you’re what they say you are?” Whatever the view or verdict circulating about the position of Jesus, there was never any doubt (maybe a couple of blips) in his mind about his identity; knowing who he was and all that it involved. He knew Himself to be Messiah. And, of greater significance, He knew Himself to be, in a unique, unprecedented and lonely way – the Son of God. As God’s Son, He made some stupendous, staggering, controversial claims: we name a few only. He is, as God’s Son, the sole revealer of his unseen Father in heaven – “The Father and I are one. He that has seen me has seen the Father.” He says, “If you love your father and mother more than me, you are not worthy of me” and “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words remain for ever.” When at his trial the High Priest asks him, “Are you the Christ, the son of the Blessed God?” He is unhesitating, resolute in reply, courageous, with every semblance of a one hundred per cent conviction and absolute sincerity – “I AM!” He is “the way, the truth, the life” and “No one can get to the Father except by me.” This latter, in particular, generates an understandable and lively debate in Inter-Faith circles. “Who am I?” – Jesus was the subject of widespread gossip and speculation. The authorities denounced him as an imposter, a quack and a law-breaker. An interesting observation (referred to by James S. Stewart in The Life and Teaching of Jesus Christ) that those tremendous claims of Jesus are either the ramblings of a deluded madman, or they come from one who is what he claims to be – the Christ, the Messiah.

The first sermon I ever preached asked the same question as did Jesus Christ Superstar, although from a different angle. In the Gospel record it is Jesus who is asking the questions: “Who do people say I am?” (the easy one) and the demanding, heart searching critical one, “As for you, who do you say I am?” He asks the disciples, whereas in Superstar He is the One to whom the question is put, “Who do you think you are?” At first sight we might be excused for thinking there is a hint of uncertainty about his position – else why the questions?

The setting is a get-together at a place called Caesarea Philippi, a remote and secluded spot, providing the quiet and privacy Jesus needed to bring the disciples face to face with the certainty that the end of his Galilean ministry, given Him by the Father, was shortly to culminate in his death at Calvary and that the work of the Kingdom undertaken by Him in obedience to God’s Will would be Jesus’ legacy to them. There was a danger that the disciples, hopefully to inherit our Lord’s “portfolio” for mission, might not be sufficiently convinced that they should do anything other than declare themselves redundant and make a hasty retreat back to the fishing. On the contrary, it was vitally important and urgent that Jesus could confidently hand over to them, that they should see themselves not as conscripts but as “called and sent.” The episode at Caesarea Philippi has been described as “the watershed of the Gospel”. Certainly it was a critical and crucial moment. The whole thing, right from His birth, could blow up in his face. What if he’d failed to hold the disciples with him? What of the Kingdom?

A well-known story, and somewhat hackneyed, tells of Jesus at the gates of Heaven being interviewed by Heaven’s immigration officer. Jesus is asked what plans he has made for his work to continue on earth. “Well, there are Peter & John & Andrew & James & the other disciples.” “But if they fail you,” Jesus is asked, “what other plans have you made?” “I have no other plans,” Jesus replied, “I’m counting on them!” A question – are you to be counted with the reliable? Will I convince heaven’s immigration officer? It could depend on how we answer His probing question, “Who do you think I am?”

Who is JesusOne feature of what was involved, Jesus may have teased out with the disciples during their Caesarea Philippi retreat – the unwrapping of his promise (remember the Cross) that what the opposition did to him, they would do to the disciples likewise. How right he was! There is the great roll of the martyrs recorded in “the Lamb’s book of life.” We may not feel any threat of violence or persecution – as our brothers and sisters do in India and Nigeria, for example. Nonetheless we are under a form of threat. It is a matter of concern to me that the leadership, if not the membership, of the British Humanist Society takes every opportunity to denigrate all things Christian (other Faiths too) and are intent on removing the influence of religious legitimacy in society. Could they; have they gone so far as to attach to Christ the reputation of the deluded madman? Whatever, we would certainly not expect Richard Dawkins or, in his lifetime, Christopher Hitchens, if Jesus’ question, “Who am I?” was put to them, to respond in other than unfriendly, unsympathetic, derisory, critical terms. In Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic: Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make emotional sense (worth a read), he writes in response to the Dawkins’ controversy, “When I see one of those passionate denunciations of religion which treat Christianity as the great gratuitous cause of all our sorrows, I mainly think: read more history, mate.” Another worthwhile and excellent read, whether or not we agree on all points, is NT Wright’s Who was Jesus? and the extended volume Simply Jesus.

One thing to remember, knowing Jesus for ourselves matters more than knowing about Jesus! The big question is not “who do people say I am?’ The big question is “what about you; who do YOU say I am?”

To read: Matthew 16: 13 – 21  

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?

Consensus

The detective in the crime novel fell foul of his superiors. His downfall was due to his brutish harassment of suspects and to his intransigence in what he believed to be right and wrong. The arrogance and lack of compassion in the man resulted from his insistence that everything be measured strictly in terms of black and white. What is wrong with that? A reasonable question for a Christian to ask. It’s how many of us understand it, and there certainly are passages in the Bible which rule out compromise. Little wonder there is so much bigotry attached to religion.

Apart from there being grey areas in our pursuit of morality, the varied opinions of so many different people inevitably prevent a common mind in all things. In the course of my ministry I have presided over hundreds of meetings of one sort or other and know well how messy and difficult it can be in church business meetings to obtain and maintain a consensus. Rabbi Blue the well-known and popular writer and broadcaster, in one of his inimitable pieces, speaks of the problem of doing what is right and following conscience, yet being bound to a majority vote.

I wonder if the strange, but not unusual, Hebraic custom of deciding by casting lots, the method adopted by the apostles in the appointment of Judas Iscariot’s successor (Acts 1:26), was an acknowledgement of the difficulty of obtaining a common mind: a safeguard against human prejudice. Our acceptance of a compromise solution, and our loyalty to a majority decision with which we do not agree, may reflect a healthier spirituality than that of the absolute authoritarianism so much in vogue. When things we believe in and hold dear are rejected and we are convinced that the path favoured by our opponents, albeit it by a reasonable majority, is at a cost to our particular cause,  it is almost inevitable that the proponents of the minority cause will be disappointed, angry, hurt, resentful, even tempted to throw in the towel. It happens in all walks of life – the church is no exception.

There is another way, to respond to the challenge of achieving togetherness, whatever side of the fence we stand, generously and graciously respecting one another’s integrity. In the biblical and Christian vocabulary ……….GRACE!

Prayer: Lord, give us grace to keep our word, especially when our view is a minority one and we must abide by a majority decision, when we do not understand the way you are leading when you lead us along the path we resent having to take. Amen