Tag Archives: Paul

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.

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.

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!

The fullness of time

English: Jerusalem, Dome of the rock, in the b...

English: Jerusalem, Dome of the rock, in the background the Church of the Holy Sepulchre Deutsch: Jerusalem, Felsendom, im Hintergrund die Grabeskirche (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have never been to the Holy Land on holiday or pilgrimage. For some strange reason, there has been no ambition on my part to visit the land on which Christianity was born or to walk where Jesus walked. Am I a peculiar brand of Jesus follower? Am I deprived at all? Is my discipleship impaired by not having visited the sites and places that are part of the Jesus story? Has it made the slightest difference that Nazareth, Bethlehem, Calvary and Jerusalem, recognised as the cradle of the Christian faith, have never featured in my travelogue? Questions I cannot answer for myself, others must do that. One site I probably would have visited, had I ventured to such exotic places, is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Legend has it that there is one spot there which is actually the centre of the world. If this is fact, and not legend, it must occupy a large and significant chapter in the history of Christianity. The centre of the world – there could be no better place for the launching of a world religion. No better place and no better time!

St Paul in his letter to the Church in Galatia writes, “When the fullness of time came God sent forth His Son” (RV). It is interesting to take a look at how some other New Testament writers begin the verse – it adds to the picture.

  • When the right time finally came (GNB)
  • When the appointed time came (REB)
  • When the time arrived that was set by God (The Message).

“The fullness of time” – that is to say, it was when world conditions were exactly ripe for it that God’s supreme revelation of himself came. It was when all the factors were absolutely right – social, economic, moral, religious – that the early Christians heard “The glad tidings of great joy to all mankind, to whom is born a Saviour – Christ the Lord.” Shakespeare says “There is a tide in the affairs of men.” The Christian can cap that and say there is a tide in the affairs of God, when all is done, waiting, getting ready for the prophets’ dream to come true. When that tide reaches the flood, God will act in a new way and the sound of a new name will be heard, the name of Jesus. The Bible of this God tells us that He had done His homework and got it right. Jesus came to the world at the exact time in history where all the conditions signalled “now is the hour.” Someone describes it as the one psychological moment.

When Jesus came, it was the fullness of time politically. Caesar’s legacy must credit the Emperor with the nigh impossible task of establishing the unification of the world: he did it! And alongside it the world benefitted from the Roman Peace. Jesus came to our planet when the Roman Peace held the world together; the barriers were down, the frontiers open; the Roman Empire described as one big friendly neighbourhood. An achievement, so far, still beyond the capabilities of the United Nations and European Union. Another factor that contributed to the unity of the world and the fullness of time was the roads. From one end of the Empire to the other was the great highway that made it possible to travel across the land easily and swiftly. The movement of the military, the logistics of trade, the spread of the Gospel, each benefitted from the vision, the ambition, the skills of the Romans. For six years I lived within the shadow of Hadrian’s Wall and marvelled at the expertise of Roman engineering. Then there was the fact of a common language, a great blessing to the missionaries who travelled along those roads. Unlike those who went out from this country to save souls and win them for Christ, the early evangelists in Roman times did not have to learn a new language. Everywhere the people were bilingual and knew Greek. No need to labour the point!

Furthermore, it was the fullness of time economically and morally. I make no comment, merely draw attention to the fact that in their own way they had a part in preparing the way for the birth of Jesus. My final point – when Jesus first came, it was the right time religiously. The old gods had had their day and were either dead or dying. To fill the gap, two expedients were tried. On the one hand they imported a whole plethora of deities, principally from the East, many of them a bit of a joke. They failed! The next bit of farce was the elevation of Caesar himself to be god and every citizen required to worship him. Give him his due, he saw to it that it was not too difficult to fulfil that requisite; a small pinch of incense annually might do the trick. It also failed! The emperor-god had nothing to say to a man or woman with a broken heart.

“When everything was done that could be done, the hungry hearts of women and men, were hungry still!” But there was an intense and exciting expectation that God was about to do something better, something new; hope was alive and reasonably well. Indeed, they were approaching a time when God was to send his only Son into the world, that the world through Him might be saved. When John the Baptist came folk were hopefully asking, “Is this the Messiah now?” No! But he helped to clear the way for their prayers to be answered, their hope to mature, their dream to come true: the Redeemer came. So, we can sing with Charles Wesley:

Our God contracted to a span; Incomprehensively made man.

Friends

Friendship Image by Tiago Ribiero via Wikimedia

Friendship
Image by Tiago Ribiero via Wikimedia

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

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

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

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

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

Friendships make lives brighter. . . . .

Not all will be happy

I was the visiting preacher conducting worship in a church where I was not much known. At the end of the service, as the congregation left for home, I was surprised to hear so many of them say, “I did enjoy the hymns.” No mention of the sermon!

In the vestibule of the church a small group of worshippers were busily engaged in conversation. I joined them – they were discussing the service. One of the ladies turned to me and said, “We get so many hymns we don’t know and don’t greatly like, it’s good to have someone who gives us a good old-fashioned sing.” I was quite chuffed; whether or not I should regard those comments as a compliment, I’m not sure – probably not! Maybe I’m an old fuddy-duddy standing in the way of progress by, in the current context, sticking with those old-fashioned hymns, to the neglect of new songs and choruses. “Ah!” I exclaimed to the group, “it would be different if I was here every week; you would probably get some really difficult and unfamiliar ones!” As a visiting preacher, not knowing the congregation’s tastes, I would play safe and choose hymns (songs too!) that are certain to be known, even at the expense of some I considered more suitable. “You just go on playing safe”, one lady said, “especially when you come here. Come again soon.”

English: Charles Wesley

English: Charles Wesley (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hymns are dicey anyway. From the pulpit you can see those who don’t like the “modern stuff”. They stand tight-lipped and silent. On the other hand, I’ve seen enthusiasm unbounded accompanying modern religious songs, swaying, clapping hands stretching to the ceiling, but when asked to sing a good Charles Wesley, or an Isaac Watts hymn it’s their turn to stand silent, hymn book superfluous. Hymns or whatever – the most we can hope for is to please some of the people, some of the time. If anyone could have succeeded in pleasing everybody, surely it was Jesus. But not even He achieved such fame. He displeased the religious Pharisees and Sadducees so much that they formed an unusual coalition to get rid of him. The man or woman able to please everybody hasn’t been born yet. It is unlikely there ever will be such a superhuman; questionable if it is even desirable. What kind of world would it be if everyone shared the same likes and dislikes? The variety and the character would vanish from life.

In almost every church (and community) I’ve known, at some time or other there has been a difference of opinion in the fellowship. Sadly, the cause may be trivial but, on the other hand, serious enough to threaten the harmony and joy of discipleship with folk taking sides, people getting hurt, taking offence and becoming disillusioned. You cannot please or even agree with everyone; no one should expect it; life would lose some of its interest and colour. A favourite hymn of mine has the line, Didst thou not make us one, that we might one remain.

We cannot please everybody all of the time but we should always try to please God. When the Apostle Paul was writing to the church at Rome about the ethical requirements of Christian faith that ought to be the hall-mark of the Christian life, he was anxious that the Christian should be distinctive. “Being a Christian”, he said, “means being able to discern what God wills for us that our life may be lived to please Him”. (Romans 12:2). Well, what should our mantra be? An Old Testament one comes to mind, from the Book of the prophet Micah (6:8):

He has shown you what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

It hurts

I have never been so humiliated! Who hasn’t felt like that, sometime? How common the experience is, is reflected In the variety of ways we can describe our embarrassment – nonplussed; crestfallen; having to eat humble pie; looking foolish; feeling small; being red in the face! It can mean a loss of dignity – something we don’t much like – it hurts. When it is unwarranted it can be the cause of resentment.

St Paul by El Greco. Photo credit Wikimedia

St Paul by El Greco. (Photo credit: Wikimedia)

If it is of any comfort to us, albeit a crumb, we’re not alone. Some notable people have suffered the same fate. The Apostle Paul knew how to be abased; knew what it was to be humiliated. In his letter to the early Philippian church, he relates to his Christian friends a catalogue of deprivations he had to undergo in the course of his peripatetic ministry. He wasn’t bemoaning the fact as one who had learned to grin and bear it! He is saying – I know how to handle it. It is not human resolve alone that enables him to ride and conquer the storm:

I am able to face anything through him who gives me strength. Philippians 4: 13.

John Wesley, founder father of Methodism, knew humiliation too. He began his ministry in Savannah, Georgia, as a chaplain with the ambition to convert the native Indians. His time there was short-lived. He returned from his missionary assignment in America a failure and it might not be too much of an exaggeration to name him a broken man; certainly bewildered and unhappy having made a bit of a fool of himself in his pastoral dealings with a young female parishioner and without the slightest impact on the Native Indians. It was too much

Statue of John Wesley in Reynolds Square

Statue of John Wesley in Reynolds Square, Savannah, Georgia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

for him and he was ready to give in. What the world would have missed if Wesley had not met Peter Boehler, a Moravian pastor, on the journey home, who helped keep him on track, urged him to keep on preaching faith until faith found him. What the world might have missed if Mr. Wesley had not learned to be abased prior to the night of the 24th May, 1738. It all happened for him that night and for those of us who follow in his succession. He recounts it in his Journal:

“I went very unwillingly to a meeting of a religious society. . .. someone was reading Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. At about a quarter before nine I felt my heart strangely warm, I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation.”

Life can be tough for us sometimes. People have no right to make us look foolish – they do! Unkind words cut to the core; cynical actions wound deeply; we let ourselves down. There are times when through ignorance or folly we have ended with egg on our face. Times when great has been our fall through the failure of well-intentioned but immodest ambition. It hurts…..

Do not despair, there was no greater humiliation than that which Jesus was required to suffer – spat upon; beaten; treated like a criminal; nailed to a Cross. No wonder he asked the Father if there was no other way – and ALL for us.

Welcome Eastertide

Judy Garland – remember her?  If you are a certain age, you will!  And – the song?  “Put on your Easter bonnet, with all the ribbons on it …. and join the Easter Parade.”   Easter is special in the song; the occasion for a grand parade.  Join the crowd, follow the band, dress up with your Easter Bonnet and all the ribbons on it.  But that was a film made in Hollywood!  When do you see women in hats with ribbons these days?  Or, for that matter, without ribbons?  At a wedding – maybe – but at Easter!  Well, hat or no hat, Easter is a happy festival occasion, a time for celebration in Church.  A time for ”euphonium, trombone and big bass drum”.  Although I didn’t always appreciate it when I was rudely aroused from my slumbers at 7 a.m. on Easter Sunday morning; woken by the Findochty Salvation Army band parading past my bedroom window, flag a-flying, big drum beating, heralding the event, proclaiming the good news,” Christ the Lord is Risen today, Alleluia!”

The Way of the Cross at SunsetSource: Wikimedia Commons

The Way of the Cross at Sunset
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Fred Pratt Green, the Methodist 20th Century hymn-writer gives his hymn, ‘This joyful Eastertide’  the refrain: Come, share our Easter joy, That death could not imprison,  Nor any power destroy, Our Lord who is arisen.’  But it wasn’t much like that at the dawn of the first Easter morning.  When news of the Resurrection broke, we can only imagine the anger and consternation it must have caused those who engineered the events of Good Friday. Even the close friends of Jesus were disturbed and perturbed by it.  Their response to the news that Christ was risen was slow, almost reluctant.  The women who visited the tomb were distressed, terrified, completely at a loss.  Mary was in tears.  There were many bizarre ways to explain the disappearance of a dead body – resurrection the least likely.  Thomas, the disciple, was not with his friends when the Risen Jesus was with them.  When given the news, it was all too fantastic for words – to be taken with a pinch of salt.  Later still, the Apostle Paul doing a stint of open-air preaching on Mars Hill in Athens must have been disappointed if he expected a rapturous reception.  The crowd listened respectfully at first – until he mentioned the resurrection, then a section of his hearers began to mock him.  Paul also found it difficult to convince the Church of the mystery and glory of the resurrection.  But, preach it he must; he is convinced that, “ If Christ has not been raised from death, then we have nothing to preach and you have nothing to believe.”  (strong stuff! 1 Corinthians, 15.14)

Good News BiblePaul, anxious to communicate and share the joy and assurance of Easter, acknowledging the need of some further explanation, writes in his correspondence with the church at Colossae – if you think of your baptism you will begin to understand the significance of resurrection and penetrate its mystery. ( Colossians 2.12; cf also Romans 6.4.)  In Paul’s day baptism would probably be mostly by total immersion in water The candidate would step into the water, probably a river and an Apostle (or some other) would plunge the convert completely under the water. In fact ‘to baptise’ is the translation of a Greek word meaning ‘to plunge.’  Paul’s linking of baptism with resurrection is simply that, apart from it being the rite of admission to the church, baptism was symbolically like dying and rising again. To be plunged under water was like being buried In the grave; when you rose out of the water – like rising from the grave.

What Paul is saying directs us to the very heart of the Easter message; when we are baptised we die with Christ and we are raised to new life with Him!  We are not meant to take it literally – we cannot go back in time or go through the awful pain and agony of crucifixion or put ourselves in the shoes of Jesus’ friends standing at the entrance to an empty tomb that first Easter morning. One more thing that ties the two together – baptism and resurrection:  in the first days of Christendom baptism was usually associated with a personal confession of faith.  Interesting as it may be to speculate, to debate, to posses a shelf full of theological tomes, the Easter message is to be believed rather than talked about.   Easter faith is not the preserve of one day in the year only, it is the faith in which Christians daily live. We are the Easter people.  Let us rejoice as Fred Pratt Green’s hymn  invites . . . . . . . . .  share our Easter joy!

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Welcome Eastertide
Source: Wikimedia Commons

An inestimable privilege

If I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting.  For necessity is laid upon me.  Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel. 1 Corinthians  9. 16  (RSV)

Sermon on the Mount (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is boring; it puts you to sleep;  it is – THE SERMON!  In 65 years preaching, I will undoubtedly have bored a fair number of folk and those nodding heads in front of me tell their own story.  I am amazed that I cannot recall hearing one snore! There was a time when, in the tradition in which I was nurtured, preaching  was one of the most important activities that happens within  Church worship. The pulpit was placed conspicuously at the front and centre, “the preacher six-foot above contradiction”.  The sermon, the climax of the service although the AMEN was deferred until the final rousing hymn, attempted to raise the roof – our response to the message in the preaching.

I recall a story that did the rounds once upon a time, a story about one of the great scholars and preachers of a former generation (annoyingly I have forgotten which one it is), a tale he told against himself. He arrived at the church where he was to be the visiting preacher that morning; a church with a steep climb of  steps from pavement to church porch.  An elderly lady was stood at the bottom perturbed by the prospect of the ascent.  The preacher, true gentleman, hastened to her aid and helped her up the steps. At the top she  thanked her “Good Samaritan” and asked him who  was preaching that morning: “ Dr. So-and-So” he told  her. “Oh dear,” she said, “would you kindly help me down those steps!”

In student days, whenever opportunity occurred, my pals and I were a bit choosy about where we worshipped on Sunday, our goal: the church with the  good preacher. There were some around, not all of them among  the “star” performers. Those were the so-called good old days and unlikely to return. The traditional sermon doesn’t feature as highly in training curriculums. They don’t preach any more as once they did. In many churches the pulpit is either removed or standing redundant, a step taken to lessen the gap between preacher and congregation and create a more friendly and intimate relationship within fellowship. At the same time, it is an indication of the status now accorded the traditional sermon.  Now we  speak of “The Message” rather than “The Sermon”.  In what is known as “Fresh Expressions of being Church” we aim to make Church more attractive and relevant – new ways for a new generation of Jesus followers.

Like the Apostle Paul, quoted above, our Calling is to share the Gospel of Jesus.  It is all too evident today that change is inevitable, and surely no preacher will deny that or think themselves excluded, his/her gifts no longer required.  Granted, there are times when all the signs are that PowerPoint, and the like have taken over entirely from the pulpit.  The method and style of proclaiming the Good News of the Gospel may of necessity change with the times; shorter sermons, story telling rather than erudite essays, drama, visual aids, video, dialogue, whatever. There are many ways of doing it.  Among the books about preaching on my shelves, one by Dr. H.H. Farmer entitled Servant of the Word pleads for “the rediscovery of preaching” as long ago as 1941. I would hope and pray that “New Ways of being Church” will lead to a rediscovery of preaching in its remit.  I believe there is still a place within the overall ministry of a church for the type of sermon I, as a Servant of the Word, was called to preach all those years ago. I hold firmly to the view that God still works through what Saint Paul calls “the foolishness of preaching.”  It happens in those places where there is renewal and growth, that a prominent place is given to testimony and the preaching of The Word. I return to Paul – he sees the task of preacher as of divine appointment and the passionate discharge of a trust.  More than that, and because of that, it is an inestimable privilege.  I like the way the Revised English Version translates 1 Corinthians 9.16; “It would be agony for me not to preach.”  The Message is equally interesting, “If I proclaim the Message, it is not to get something out of it for myself, I am compelled to do it, and doomed if I don’t.” You cannot think of this immense privilege without reference to the awesome responsibility that goes with it – can’t have one without the other. Remember Paul was not addressing himself to preachers and evangelists alone. He has concerns over happenings in Corinth, he writes, “To the church of God which is in Corinth, to all who are called to be God’s holy people, who belong to him in union with Christ Jesus, together with all people everywhere who worship the Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours.”

Who said it?  Memory fails me!  But I have never forgotten the saying which defines our task, yours and mine, as “one poor beggar telling another where to find bread.” A tremendous  responsibility ….. an inestimable privilege!

Who, having been called to be a preacher, would stoop for a King? (Thomas Carlyle)