Tag Archives: William Barclay

On a green hill

Image credit: Pixabay

Image credit: Pixabay

When a convicted murderer is condemned to death in the USA, or any other state for that matter, there is more than one way of doing it. When execution is by lethal injection it is supposed to be a more humane method than any other. Whether it is less barbaric than hanging or electric chair or whatever other form execution might take, are not all executions degrading and inhuman? Death by crucifixion in Jesus’ time, was the method used by Rome when slaves or the worst kind of criminals were its victims. The Romans themselves regarded it as the cruellest and most hideous of punishments. Little wonder the first evangelists ran into trouble when they preached the gospel of Christ crucified. It was absolutely ludicrous to suggest Messiah should be condemned to die nailed to a Cross with two criminals on either side of him. For him to die by crucifixion was beyond belief.

Yet, in spite of the ignominy of it, Christians down the centuries have cast a halo of beauty round the cross. In church they sing of the wondrous cross on which the prince of glory died. St Paul explains where he stands in relation to the cross. “I decided to know nothing among you,” he says, “except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” This is no attempt to add a touch of glamour to the appalling circumstances of our Lord’s demise on a green hill outside a city wall. What Paul does is to state in the strongest possible terms the centrality of the cross for us. At the heart of our preaching and faith is the good news that Christ suffered and died for our salvation. Of course, the cross in itself cannot save anyone: Jesus himself is saviour. Nonetheless, the New Testament maintains the cross was not only inevitable but essential. If Jesus had said, “Father, you ask too much, I cannot go through with it,” it would have brought the mission to a full stop, there and then. To submit to this heinous act would signal to those who schemed to get rid of him that they held the trump card! It is not easy for us to appreciate how uncertain he must have felt allowing his prosecutors and persecutors to have their way. “Prove yourself, come down and save yourself”, they taunted. And Jesus’ response, “Father, not what I want, let your will be done”. There must have been considerable turmoil within as he considered the possibility that God’s way just might be the wrong way. Think of the terrific struggle he underwent in Gethsemane! Knowing what crucifixion was like, the thought of its excruciating agony and pain, the record tells us, brought the sweat out of him, “like great drops of blood falling to the ground”! At the end of the day, and we are not telling the whole story, the green hill spectacle defies description. We would be utterly, totally arrogant if we did not feel for him.

Attempts have been made to provide a more acceptable explanation for Jesus’ desolate outburst from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” – a quotation from Psalm 22. It is difficult to see how they have transformed that agonising cry into a shout of trust and confidence! But if we are looking for further enlightenment, does this form of cosmetic surgery enable us better to kneel beneath the shadow of this instrument of cruelty and injustice? William Barclay‘s reaction to what he labels “this fanciful interpretation” – on a cross a man does not recite poetry, even the poetry of a psalm.

The Golden Rule


Bloch: Sermon on the Mount. Photo credit Wikipedia.

Bloch: Sermon on the Mount. Photo credit Wikipedia.

“Do for others what you want them to do for you.” Matthew 7: 12 (GNB).

One of the best known sayings of Jesus and, with it, the Sermon on the Mount comes to its climax; described by William Barclay as “the topmost peak of social ethics, and the Everest of all ethical teaching”. This Golden Rule – “Always treat others as you would like them to treat you” (REB) – is concerned with the distinctive attitude and behaviour expected of the disciples of Jesus. The Emperor Alexander Severus is reputedly said to have had it written in gold on his wall: a constant reminder, an example and a testimony. There were many parallels to this saying to be found in the ancient literature of religions, the religious and their teaching, but none of them adopted, or were known to quote, the precise words of the text as we have it in the Synoptic Gospels. Practically everything and everyone gave it in its negative form: Do not do to others what you yourself dislike. It isn’t difficult to find rabbinic parallels of the Golden Rule in almost everything Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, but there is no real parallel to it. What we are considering here is new teaching, no one had ever said it before and this new teaching incorporated a new view of life: a fresh, radical and demanding way of life – unselfish love in action.

In the ill-informed opinion of some, Christianity is for softies, an escape from the realties of life and life’s obligations. The Sermon on the Mount dispels the illusion. Pioneering stuff? Jesus set high standards! Yet, strangely, this one gives the impression of being easy. Do as you would be done by! Reasonable and simple? Or is it? It demands getting to know the person next to us. It requires us to put ourselves in the other persons place. It calls for empathy, getting under the skin of our neighbour. Doing to them as we would like them to do to us if we stood in their shoes, although as individuals we might stand poles apart, separated by different attitudes and standards, difference in politics and religion, and so on. Who are we fooling? There is an interesting and apposite American Indian proverb which says, “Suffer me never to criticise another until I have walked for three months in his moccasins.”

For some it might be a surprise and an unexpected revelation to discover that this Golden Rule is not always honoured in the Church. Discipleship can be hindered because of an inability to transcend our differences. Every bit as important is our ability to get alongside folk who make no profession of Christian faith and try to appreciate what makes life tick for them. Alas, many to whom we ought to reach out, regard us as thinking ourselves to be too good for this world and not a bit of good to them.

A concluding quote: “To obey this commandment a person must become a new person with a new centre to her/his life; and if the world was composed of people who sought to obey this rule, it would be a new world.”   William Barclay.


When I recall my first efforts as a preacher, I marvel at the tolerance of my congregations. How they suffered from the excesses of youth; I was 18 years old when I first began. There was the occasion when we sang Charles Wesley’s popular hymn, And can it be (Hymns & Psalms 216), often referred to as “The Methodist Anthem”. I got carried away at the end of it, telling the congregation that I was so moved we should be dancing down the aisle of the church. Dance does have a place in worship today but not in those far distant days! Not my cup of tea, actually it does nothing for me, but it doesn’t stop me from singing gustily and I hope tunefully, Sydney Carter’s Lord of the Dance. Anyhow I don’t and never could dance! It would be nice to think of myself as a prophet, or an early charismatic Christian. Neither would be the true “me”! My utterance that Sunday morning was simply naively over enthusiastic, and perhaps a wee bit foolish trying it out with a Scots congregation. It would be different today.

Sadly, the older I become, the more I realise how staid is much of our spirituality and discipleship. The more I reflect, the more I realise how great the need to recapture something of the zeal with which the early Christians invaded the post-Pentecostal world. The sort of enthusiasm which got them into trouble when they were accused of “turning the whole world upside down” (Acts 17: 1 – 9 AV); a statement that infers utter chaos and, in my view, a picture that loses much of its point in new translations of Acts where it is replaced with “they have caused trouble all over the world.”

It was William Barclay who said the trouble is that with the passing of the years we wrap Jesus up in so much stained glass.

God believes in us

Shell seekersIn her book The Shell Seekers, which became a best seller after it was featured on television, Rosamunde Pitcher tells of the death of Penelope, a principal character in the story. Olivia, Penelope’s daughter, is responsible for the funeral arrangements. She finds the visit of the vicar who is to conduct the service much easier than feared. She thanks him for his kindness and care, especially, as she explains, because her mother was not a religious person and possibly did not believe in God. “I wouldn’t worry too much about that,” the vicar assures Olivia, “she may not have believed in God, but I’m certain God believed in her.”

The story reminds me of a saying of William Barclay which I once found difficult to accept. He said: “Without us, and without what we can do, God is totally helpless.” I ought to have known better having read John of the 4th Gospel’s account of the post-resurrection lakeside meeting of Peter, one of the Twelve fellow travellers with Jesus. Peter’s circumstances and those of Penelope were different. Peter did believe. He was a disciple who had cause to consider himself a failure. His behaviour was despicable, unforgivable in his eyes, he had betrayed the Master. In all probability Peter could be remembering the evening when he told Jesus in no uncertain terms: “If everyone else runs away from you, I will never desert you” – but he did. Three times courage failed him; three times he denied all knowledge of his Master. In his gracious restoration by Jesus at the lakeside, not only was he restored and forgiven, he was entrusted with an important and responsible task. Here is the affirmation, the assurance that in spite of ourselves, God believes in us:

 Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”

“Yes Lord, you know that I love you.”

Jesus said to him, Take care of my sheep”. (John 21:15–17)

When I am gone take care of my flock: for Peter this would turn out to be a life of continuous care for Christ’s sheep. What a privilege; what a responsibility, a clear signal that God believes in us.


The good life

A salubrious fashionable suburb; a good neighbourhood; nice houses; respectable neighbours; very desirable! Well – until that young couple got the idea of going green, becoming self-sufficient, digging up the modestly sized rear garden, converting it into an experimental agricultural smallholding – much to the consternation of the snooty next door neighbour. The promise of all sorts of vegetables was bad enough – but a pig on the other side of the fence: that was going beyond a joke. Goodness gracious, it was bound to lower the tone of the neighbourhood and bring down the value of property. Who would want to live in such close proximity to the noise and smell and dirt?

It could never happen, of course, it’s only make-believe and I exaggerate a little. You will have recognised by now that it proved to be excellent material for an extremely successful TV comedy sitcom, The Good Life, with Penelope Keith as the very posh Margo and Paul Eddington as her long-suffering husband. Tom and Barbara Good, played by Richard Briers and Felicity Kendall as slightly eccentric idealists living an “all-green” agenda in pursuit of the good life, were a bit naive perhaps, but great fun. Although we may have watched the numerous repeats on “the box” it doesn’t age with the passing of time or fail to raise a laugh!

The good life is something the majority of folk aim to achieve, although I suspect those who follow the Tom and Barbara agenda are comparatively small – infinitesimal really. Alas, more frequently, the good life is associated with money and the accumulation of wealth. Hence the popularity of TV programmes such as Who wants to be a millionaire? and Pointless. It explains why on a Wednesday and Saturday it takes a longer time than usual to get served when I go for my daily newspaper at the same checkout as those who are lined up to buy their lottery tickets and scratch cards, hoping to capture the good life, or as much of a good life as possible.

If I were asked to give a short definition of the Christian life, I would describe it as a way of life dedicated to the highest good, treading in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, whose example and teaching exemplify the good life. Open my New Testament for assurance, and I’m left in no doubt that to call the life that Jesus offers simply “the good life” does not say it all. The New Testament speaks of it as “Eternal Life”, but the good life is near enough.

Here is what it says in John 3:16: “God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not die but have eternal life.” (Authorised Version)

And in John 10:10:  “I am come that they might have life and that they might have it more abundantly.” (AV)

“I have come in order that you might have life – life in all its fullness.” (GNB)

“I came so that they can have real and eternal life, more and better life than they ever dreamed of.” (The Message)

Tom and Barbara’s good life was never intended to be more than a vehicle of entertainment, comedy and fun. But a brief excursion into the Old Testament, to the first book in the Bible, and to the story of Creation, we read, “The Lord God placed the man in the Garden of Eden to cultivate it and guard / manage it.” (Genesis 2:16) The ecological environment in that day was “green” – how God chose it and made it to be. How Barbara and Tom chose it to be – a better life, the good life, a choice we all face to manage our little patch well when all around us despoil God’s creation, ignoring the consequences and adding to causes of global warming. Were Tom and Barbara blazing a trail? Or do I stretch the imagination too far?

In conclusion – back to where we were before the ecological diversion and to the claim of Jesus that he came that men and women might have life and might have it more abundantly. In his Daily Study Bible, Dr. William Barclay of Glasgow University fame, academic, writer, teacher and preacher, tells us that the Greek phrase used for “having it more abundantly” means to have a superabundance of a thing. “To be a follower of Jesus,” he says, “to know who he is and what he means. When we walk with Jesus there comes a new vitality, a superabundance of life.”

A fitting conclusion!