Tag Archives: Gospels

A constant babble

Word Cloud by Anabel Marsh

Word Cloud by Anabel Marsh

For most of us today, and every day, words will feature prominently wherever we are and whatever we do: a bombardment of words, words, words, words!

Words – they come at us from radio and from television. They come at us in the home and, since the arrival of the mobile phone, whether we like it or not, we are destined, travelling on public transport or going about our own business, to hear publicly in a loud voice about the goings on of the fellow next to us. Words – even in Church we face a plethora of words in worship time. Here I plead guilty! Words – a great volume to which we will undoubtedly all contribute.

Silence may be golden, but to live in a world of total silence must be awful – beyond the imagination of those of us with our hearing and speech unimpaired. We need to remember those who don’t hear, can’t speak and, along with them, those whose sight is imperfect. Apart from any little practical help we can give, a constant prayer must be that our friend’s disability may be compensated with friends who understand and care.

Words may seem to flow from our lips readily and easily but, in spite of that we may have learned from bitter experience, it is just as easy to lose control, to join the “I wish I had never said that” syndrome. We need to remember how words influence our humble and honest attempt to live our life honestly and well, and in pursuit of that goal words will have a large role to play, influencing your life, mine and others – for good or ill.  Words can assassinate character with ease; or with a little more effort and patience restore reputation; betray and rehabilitate; wound and heal; hate and assure that love abounds; words can incite war and make peace – to name a few contrasting facts. Some of us struggle to find the right word. Others are wordsmiths whose skill and insights we cannot but envy as we listen, and read, be it poem, hymn or song book, debate, lecture, conversation or sermon. One thing is certain: our need to treat and use words carefully and to turn to them for enjoyment, instruction and inspiration.

If at one time you attended Sunday School or sang the Hymns associated with Sankey and Moody and Redemption Songs, you may remember the song with the refrain

Beautiful words, wonderful words, wonderful words of life

The words of Jesus – all in the Gospels of the New Testament – highly recommended! Words to be cherished and treasured. Have a read and enjoy a sing!

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.”