Tag Archives: Jesus

Lord of all

Conversion of St Augustine. Fra Angelico (circa 1395–1455) and workshop [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Conversion of St Augustine. Fra Angelico (circa 1395–1455) and workshop [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It has been said that there are three conversions in a Christian man or woman’s life. First to Christ, then to the church and then back to the world. Or, put another way, there are three ways in which an alleged conversion may be incomplete and imperfect. I propose in the next two or three issues to have a look at those three facets of the conversion process as stated above.

First, a conversion is incomplete if it does not leave Jesus in the central place in our life. In fact, without him it cannot happen. I have told the story; I repeat it without apology. It takes me back to Salvation Army days when I was young and had never witnessed an altar call. I have told in an earlier edition how I missed out on a visit to the penitent form. It was not uncommon in those days for the sermon in worship to conclude with an appeal to those who were not saved to claim the gift of salvation here and now. As I recall, the first testimony given by a convert went something like this: The worse of drink one Saturday night I followed the band to its meeting place [the SA Citadel] and I heard the story of Jesus from the Major. At his invitation, I staggered to the altar and knelt there and surrendered my life to the Lord Jesus Christ, my Saviour. I have never looked back; Amen!’ The testimony of a man for whom it happened the way St Paul told the people in Rome. He said: If you confess with the mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your hearts, you shall be saved. (Romans 10:9) How we describe who Jesus is may differ from person to person, circumstances may differ, but down through the centuries women and men have told the same story. Even so, the Christian church is far from monochrome in the way it does things, the way it says things, what it believes on certain issues and its expectations of its members.

When the Second World War ended and the need for reconciliation and the restoration of broken relationships was both urgent and necessary, the first post-war Conference of World Christians was planned to convene as soon as possible. The big question, in view of the great diversity, ecclesiastically and nationally – how could this large and diverse community come together and hold together? No easy matter, in the circumstances. Jesus Christ is Lord was the banner that united all who gathered in Oslo on that historic occasion. Surprisingly, Jesus was not called Lord very often in the Gospels. But of all the titles of Jesus, the word Lord became the more commonly used. By the time of Paul, in one form or another, the Apostle refers to Jesus as Lord some two hundred times and it was Jesus the risen Lord who saved and redeemed, that convinced them he is Lord. A bishop in some branches of the church is addressed as My Lord, although no one pretends that he or she ranks alongside Jesus in status or authority. Nevertheless, it is a pity that any servant of the Church is accorded the same title given to the One whose unique authority alone merits it. Do not let us confuse the one with the other, or even compare or imagine any likeness. Jesus is Lord, the one person with the sole right to claim our full obedience.

There is no better illustration than to think of our elder forebears in the faith subjected to the authority of the Roman Empire. At the very beginning of the Jesus movement, Rome was a force to be reckoned with throughout the then known world: there were few places where the Roman Ensign was not raised. But the Roman Empire was a vast heterogeneous mass, difficult to unite and hold together. Rome looked for some unifying bond and thought it had hit on the ideal solution. Caesar worship would do the trick. Once a year anyone living under the flag of the Roman Empire was required to burn a mere pinch of incense to the godhead of the Emperor and to say Caesar is Lord. Do it, then go home and worship whichever god or gods took your fancy. A simple and innocuous ritual, but it was too much to ask of Christians. They dug in their heels: there was to be no surrender and no compromise. Jesus alone was entitled to their obedience and none other than Jesus was Lord.

Richard Holloway, a former Bishop of Edinburgh, put it like this: They heard from Him a divinely compelling demand. What Jesus stood for had an enormous intrinsic power. It compelled people, converted them, it turned them around. This is the touchstone of our Christianity, the first step in our Christian conversion – to be confronted by the wonder of Jesus that He can do for us what we can never hope to achieve by ourselves.

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The body of Christ

Bartolomeo_Montagna_-_Saint_Paul_-_Google_Art_Project

St Paul: Bartolomeo Montagna [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

You are the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27 ) –  the hands to do his work, the feet to lead folk in his way, the voice to tell them how he died; for Christ has no help but our help to lead folk to his side.

So says a verse – a familiar, well-worn verse that tries to put Paul’s concept of the Church in context for us. A. J. Gossip once said that Christ’s aim for this world was to produce a race of Christs. Not a phrase I very much like, although when Jesus said I have set you an example, you are to do as I have done for you, the invitation is to be like Him. If people want to know what Jesus is like, they ought to be able to see Him in us, His body! Really! Just think of it, our body, unfit, crippled frail, slow, ageing.

It is a folly to sing of Gentle Jesus, meek and mild; folly to go to the other extreme; folly to impress on Paul’s picture an Atlas type figure. Paul presents a different image: the Church – the Body of the Risen Christ – a crucified body: the body broken for you, for me, for the world’s salvation.

Three things to remember:

First, Paul does not doubt that the contribution of the weaker parts is valued.

Second, when the church is under pressure God does not write her off.

Third, we cannot be in the company of Jesus without personal cost.

A followers prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ in our weakness may we find your strength, In our failure , your forgiveness, In success, your humility, In all things, your peace.

Forsaken

Carl Heinrich Bloch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Carl Heinrich Bloch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

At 3 o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud shout, Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani, which means, My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?

There is a mystery behind this cry of Jesus from the Cross that we have not been able to penetrate. It is almost impossible to imagine Jesus utterly forsaken by God. We ask – how could it be? Jesus, always so sure of the presence of his Father God, how could it be that he should feel so abandoned by Him, just at the moment he needed Him most? In the course of my ministry I have watched people die and sometimes not without considerable suffering. There has been on their faces a light and a peace that spoke more eloquently than any words of assurance promising that God does not forsake us even as we draw our last breath; that He may be closer to us in death than we have been aware of him in life.

We are surprised and puzzled by those words of dereliction that reach out from the Cross. Very difficult to explain. So difficult some people say those words could never have crossed the lips of Jesus, that the writer of the Gospel, to make the quotation from Psalm 22 more palatable, has deliberately inserted it in the editing of the Gospel with the intent of giving it a more dramatic ring to impress upon the reader and listener how much was the cost of our salvation to Jesus. In one early manuscript, for example, the words are altered and read Why hast thou taunted me? The explanation for this change is that the copyist took offence at the words of the orthodox translation and edited it for what he considered a more appropriate utterance. There are biblical scholars who solve the problem with the theory that, since it is impossible to think of Jesus being left in the lurch by his Father God, the quotation from Psalm 22, this cry of dereliction, was appended to the story of the Cross by the Gospel writers to underpin the sentiment encapsulated in the words of a well-known hymn: what pains He had to bear and it was for us He hung and suffered there. Well, maybe to quote from the same hymn – we may not know, we cannot tell.

You knew something was troubling my old landlady when you heard her quietly reciting the words of Psalm 23 – The Lord’s my Shepherd, a favourite passage of Scripture for her because, she explained to me, of its soothing and assuring effect, it lifted her up! Perhaps Jesus was similarly reciting the Psalm to ease the pain, the agony of it all. Who knows? Dr Vincent Taylor, Principal of Wesley College when I was a student, presented the evidence for and against the authenticity of this saying of Jesus, and said: It is improbable that tradition would have assigned to Jesus such a saying, except under warrant of past testimony. What he is saying is that, for a moment or two, as He hung on the Cross, Jesus did have a feeling of being abandoned, not only by His nation and His friends, but even by His Heavenly Father.

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!

For all

In the early days of my ministry it was my privilege to live and work in Northumberland, a beautiful and interesting part of the North East of England. Our manse and my principle charge were situated in the small, friendly town of Haltwhistle nestling in the shadow of Hadrian’s Wall, a good place for a young rookie minister, providing the learning experience so essential in shaping a long-term future pastoral ministry. There could not be a more friendly, helpful, encouraging and loving folk and their contribution to that learning experience is something for which I continue to be grateful. There was a lot to learn, in spite of three years in College and three years as a probationer minister. There was one thing I knew nothing about until I went to Haltwhistle, and it was a lesson I found difficult to execute throughout my forty-one years’ service.

Haltwhistle lies on one of the main routes between the City of Durham and the Scottish border – why highlight Durham? There is a prison in Durham and there are always guests of Her Majesty who are Scots. On release from their internment, some will head for Haltwhistle and some were chronic con men anxious to prove that their skills were not in need of repair. I never realised how many of the boys’ grannies were dying and the poor lad did not have enough money left to get to her quickly. Like some other discharges they had come out of jail the day before and spent the evening in a pub and, becoming a bit tipsy, they were robbed. They were begging for their fare, a story oft-repeated. Many a time I felt guilty when I thought of some of the Teachings of Jesus. There was another reason for stopping at Haltwhistle: two blocks up the street from our church there was a doss-house, used by some of the Durham men, but more so by men who had made a wreck of their lives, mainly from the abuse of alcohol. They lost their allowance chitty or their pension books. They had to go to Carlisle to sort things out but did not have their fare. As I think of this pastor’s dilemma I can only recall one occasion when, unwittingly, I turned down a genuine case of need. I did not sleep well for a bit!

By Sidney Paget (1860 - 1908) (Strand Magazine) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Sidney Paget (1860 – 1908) (Strand Magazine) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

He came into the church, bearded, dirty and dishevelled – a gentleman of the road. He bowed facing the communion table, genuflected and selected a pew. Brother, you have come to the wrong place, I thought to myself as I continued with my sermon. In all probability he had already visited the Roman Catholic chapel before he decided to present himself as a Methodist. Success at last, the missionary minded member of the congregation fondly imagined! Alas, before I had finished saying the benediction he was out of the door (he forgot to genuflect) and, as I imagined, I had misjudged his motive for the visit. However my imagining was short-lived. There he was standing outside by the door with cap in hand. Within minutes, the caretaker appeared on the scene holding a bucket of hot water with a liberal dash of disinfectant, and proceeded to wash the pew on which our visitor had sat. We do not want to have to mix with his kind again, the gesture seemed unmistakably to imply. He was like the disciples of Jesus who decided there were people who belonged to the wrong set and who were to be prevented from meeting Jesus, or from whom they must protect him – undesirable people. They had still to understand the purpose of Jesus’ mission; still to learn, as Charles Wesley did, that it is For all; for all, the Saviour died. People pointed at Jesus because of the company he kept – this man welcomes outcasts and even eats with sinners, they protested. To which Jesus replied, I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners. Search the Scriptures, and we will search in vain – we will not find any mention of hot water or disinfectant.

No argument

Albrecht Dürer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Albrecht Dürer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Master, teach us how to pray. When the disciples of Jesus confront him with their request that he teach them how to pray, we are told that they had just emerged from a certain place where Jesus engaged in prayer. Luke may have been content to leave it like that, but I do wish that in setting the scene he had been a little more specific. What kind of meeting place was it – a sacred place, a synagogue perhaps, or maybe a cell group meeting in someone’s house, or a garden even? One wonders, apart from their encounter with John the Baptist’s group, what prompted them to ask this particular question at this particular time. Might it have been something said in that time of prayer, something that pierced the heart and exposed the poverty of their own prayer life? Or, might it be more likely the sight of the Master at prayer? That is, if they were actually within that certain place alongside Jesus; another minor point of interest to the enquiring mind. At first sight, the question may have been asked spontaneously. On the other hand, it was the regular practice of a religious leader to teach his disciples a simple prayer that they might habitually use. Perhaps Luke is reporting a teaching moment and the question is one disciple’s response to a teaching session on the subject of prayer. The Gospel record of the event does not enlighten.

We are taking a brief look at the prayer life of Jesus, and there are one or two other points that are worthy of notice. For instance, there is the striking fact that Jesus never argued for the validity of prayer any more than he argued for the existence of God. You do not prove the existence of God by argument. God is simply there, the beginning and end of experience. Just as we cannot prove God by argument, likewise prayer is not proved by argument. We may not understand it but to quote the hymn-writer, James Montgomery – Prayer is the Christian’s vital breath, The Christian’s native air. Defined by one commentator, prayer was our instinctive tendency, wrought into the very constitution of our nature. Hence Jesus never argued the matter. There was no need to argue, the praying Christ is the supreme argument for prayer. Prayer was not only an important part of his life, it was his life, the very breath of his being. This would possibly have stirred the conscience of the disciples, more than anything else, and prompted the enquiring mind to ask – Lord, teach us. And he did, superbly (an understatement) in the first great prayer he taught the disciples, Jesus said to them, when you pray say this, Our Father …. The first two words of the prayer we still pray more than any other and love, the Lord’s Prayer (often misnaming it the family prayer.) Jesus deliberately encourages us to use it.

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A prayer when grieving

Jesus, stand among us in your risen power

When the storms of life threaten to overcome us

When the angry waves rage and our little boat is small

When the crowds are overcast and dark

Be with us, Lord

When we journey on a desert path

When the way is weary and unending

When our strength is weak

Stand with us, Lord

When death comes

Like a thief in the night

To rob us of ones we love

Come to us, Lord

When we demand a reason

When no words can explain

In our anger

Speak your word of peace.

_____________________________

Come to our hearts, possess them, liberate them…….

To set us free to serve and praise you

At all times . . . . . In every way . . . . . . . For your love’s sake

Lord, to you be the glory

Amen.

Prayer request

Albrecht Dürer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Albrecht Dürer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Master, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples. Luke 11:1 (NEB)

I cannot imagine that, before this request, the disciples had never prayed and now they sought enlightenment. In this case, ignorance was not bliss – and they were sure the Master had the remedy. Lord, teach us to pray as John taught his disciples. They were not disappointed. Part of Jesus’ response was to give us what is known as the Lord’s Prayer:

Our Father in heaven, Hallowed be your name …

It is more than likely that, as opportunities arose, Jesus took his disciples aside and shared with them his understanding of the Life of Faith and, within that context, the life of prayer would certainly feature.

The name Roland Walls was unknown to me until some years ago I found him on the shelves of my local library by chance. (Biography is my favourite reading.) I had forgotten all about him until I read a review of the recent publication of the book A simple life: Roland Walls and the Community of the Transfiguration. John Miller, the author, writes “Roland taught a generation how to pray and how to live both simply and joyfully.” It was not just what he said but how he lived the kind of life that convinced his students and friends that he was not just an academic but of being spiritual, a man of dedicated prayer. When I think of Roland Walls, I find it easy to transfer my thoughts to Jesus and his response to his disciples’ prayer request. Living with him every day, watching him in all sorts of situation, listening to his private talk, being admitted to sharing his dreams and hopes, they would gradually come to see things as Jesus saw them. In the fellowship of that small disciple band they would be witness to Jesus at prayer; at times listening in to some of Jesus’ intimate conversations with the Father and so learning the art of prayer. It seems to me there might be two ways of understanding what Jesus’ men were asking when they based their request on the witness/testimony of John’s followers, viz. the obvious impact of prayer determining the commitment and the shape of a dedicated life style, to treat it simply as a matter of reporting a historic fact. On the other hand might there not be more to it? Namely, the disciples were impressed by the astonishing impact and the remarkable influence of prayer. And they did not wish to miss out. Hence, teach us to pray like John did with his flock.

Prayer is the Christian’s vital breath, the Christian’s native air

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Lord, we welcome you into our lives, we want to point our fellow men and women to you, fill us with your Spirit, set our hearts aflame with a passion to do the works of your kingdom  – but, be gentle with us, go slowly with us, do not ask for anything too radical. You know what we mean, you understand, you came to comfort not to discomfort. What is that you say? If you are with me, deny yourself, take up your cross and follow. Lord, you got a handful when you chose us. Do not let it stop you from using us – minds and hearts are open. Amen.

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God, there are valleys in life into which we may stray where there do not appear to be any promises of sunlight after rain. It is dark – we tremble with fear. Faith does not appear strong enough to hold us. How silly we are; we have been here before: come out of it, found you because you have never left us. God, light shines again – we are unscathed: relief, deliverance, gratitude. God, time marches on – all is well, we forget. How mysterious, are your thoughts to me, how vast in number they are – your goodness and love unfailingly follow me, keep us ever praising.

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Praying some sayings of Jesus – follow each saying with the response: Lord, this is your word. Make us to be like you.

Jesus said: I did not come to invite righteous people, but sinners.

Jesus said: What does one gain by winning the whole world at cost to one’s true self?

Jesus said: Whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.

Jesus said: Anyone who wishes to be a follower of mine must leave self behind, take up his cross, and come with me.

Jesus said: Father, all things are possible to you, take this cup away from me. Yet not my will but yours.

Father help us to follow your good example in humility and obedience. Amen.

 

Grace

File"-Saint Paul Writing His Epistles" by Valentin de Boulogne

Saint Paul Writing His Epistles by Valentin de Boulogne [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It riles me a bit when at the end of a service of worship we are invited to say the grace and we respond in the words with which Paul ends his 2nd Letter to the Church at Corinth: The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. What is my problem? It is this – when “The Grace” is announced (an almost universal custom these days) at the end of a meeting or worship, the words that spring to my mind are not those of Paul. Instead, I find myself wanting to say: for what we are about to receive may the Lord make us truly thankful. To speak of those words of Paul simply as “the grace” is to diminish the extent of a three-fold blessing from God to us: a benediction that promises more than the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ; more than the fellowship of the Holy Spirit; more than the love of God. It is the blessing of God who gives himself totally as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. That is the language of the doctrine of the Trinity; the doctrine of the Triune God and one of the most difficult facts of Christian doctrine. The hymn writer gets to the heart of it in the line God in three persons, blessed Trinity. Brief, succinct, maybe – but allow me to make my confession: I have often wished at the appropriate season I did not have to preach it, a tough concept to get round. But because the doctrine of the Trinity is an essential expression of believers’ faith, and although one finds it difficult to make sense of it, give up on the Trinity and our God is too small.

A father came home from work to find his young son busily drawing. “What are you drawing?” father asked. “God”, said the budding artist. “You cannot draw God”, said father, “no one knows what God looks like”. “They will soon”, the lad replied, “I have nearly finished”. The doctrine of the Trinity paints the big picture of God, shows us what God is like. Whatever: we cannot say what we mean by God unless we say, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is not my intent here to attempt a commentary on the verse with which Paul concludes his letter to the Church at Corinth. As it stands, the verse is not making a case for the doctrine of the Trinity – the Apostle had another purpose in mind. What he does is set out those three roles of the Trinity alongside each other, highlighting in each one of the ways in which God functions. Let us, by way of example, take a look at the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Grace: a chameleon-like word in common parlance. The boxer Mohammad Ali (formerly Cassius Clay) was said to be fabled for his grace in the ring, the implication being that he moved about the ring like a ballet dancer. However it not what we mean when we speak about Jesus. We talk about accepting something with grace; of showing bad grace although, if it is to do with “elegance” or “goodwill”, there can be no such thing as bad grace. Grace is a title we give to an archbishop or a duke. With no disrespect to either of them, Jesus does not come across as a duke or an archbishop. We speak of the means of grace when referring to an act of worship or either of our sacraments. We speak of channels of grace – kindly influences benefitting our good – and there is the table blessing, the grace before meals. John Newton gave us the hymn, Amazing Grace. Eugene H. Peterson (The Message) goes along with that in his paraphrase of 2 Corinthians 13, The Amazing Grace.

Jesus told a story about a man who planned a great feast (it could have been a wedding banquet). Invitations went out but, for one reason or another, the invitations were declined. When the tables were set there was no one to sit at them. So the host sent his servants out on the streets and lanes of the town to invite the most unlikely people, described in the gospels as the poor, the maimed, the lame, all they could find, both good and bad; folk more used to humble fare, with never a thought of sitting at table in such grand surroundings. In other circumstances the host would never have contemplated giving hospitality to that kind of person, He was not obliged and no one compelled him to share his table with any of them but he did, an act of open-hearted, generous hospitality. It is said, it was grace which offered the invitation and grace which gathered those people in. The story illustrates something of how we understand and what we mean by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. In the story, God is the host, the banquet is the feast we share in God’s kingdom – the random guests, the likes of us who, when we come to that heart-searching moment sat before the Table set for the Lord’s Supper, can only say “we are not worthy so much as to gather the crumbs under your table. But you are the same Lord whose nature is always to have mercy.” Words I can seldom say without a lump in my throat.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ – a prayer; a promise; a benediction.

A tremendous dive

StPaul ElGreco

El Greco: St Paul. By Remiel at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons


It is not beyond possibility that John, author of the Fourth Gospel, found it hard to lay down his pen and finish the record of the life and teaching of Jesus. There is so much to tell, he claims, the world would not hold all the books that could be written. Many books have been written and many words spoken since John’s day, and it is likely that many more will follow.

The subject is inexhaustible. We can never stop trying to understand Jesus more fully. C.S. Lewis described the coming of Jesus to our planet to share our life as that most tremendous dive – another way of saying what Paul says in his Letter to the Church at Philippi (2: 6-7):

…who, being in the form of God, counted it not a prize to be on an equality with God. But emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men. (RV).

It might help get to the heart of this great text with a glimpse at the way some other translations are given:

He always had the nature of God, but he did not think that by force he should try to remain equal with God. He became like a human being and appeared in human likeness. (GNB).

When the time came he (Jesus) set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became a slave. (The Message).

Time and again, the New Testament portrays the supreme humility of Jesus. It begins, in the words of Martin Luther, with “a new born babe of lowly birth.” It is there when Jesus comes to John the Baptist to be baptized, identifying in the baptism of repentance with sinners. It shines through the handling of the devil in the wilderness of temptation. Instead of trying to impress by doing the spectacular thing and turning the glare of the spotlight on himself, he refuses absolutely to entertain the idea of gaining the reputation of having in his possession a box load of conjuring tricks. He turns his back upon Satan and chooses a way that leads to a cross. Between those points the gospels tell of a ministry in small things, like giving the cup of cold water, caring for people such as the elderly and the vulnerable: the unglamorous, humble, mundane, simple act.

In this record of Paul’s correspondence with the church at Philippi, he tells of Jesus humbling himself, taking on the mantle of a servant and becoming obedient to death: the death of a cross. Two of the outstanding characteristics of Christ’s life were obedience and self-renunciation. He had no wish to boss people, only to come to their aid. He did not set out to get his own way, he sought and followed in God’s way. He was never a prisoner to pride, He was quite prepared to renounce any of the glory that might be His, the Son of God. It becomes clear in our reading of the gospels that it is those who humble themselves who will be exalted. Apply this to ourselves and the ironic thing is – if we are tempted to see ourselves at the top of the league in respect of our own perceived humility, we probably do not have it to boast about anyway! Like the obnoxious character who played the part of the archdeacon in the TV programme Rev whose testimony, his boast, was “I am the best of the best at humility” (or words to that effect). He was utterly deluded!

If Jesus humbled himself, and humility, obedience and self-renunciation became the hallmarks of his life, they also must feature in the lives of you and me and all who follow Him. It is not easy being Christian!

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!