What Does Discipleship Look Like?

follow%20jesus2‘Follow me’, says Jesus. In the ancient world, that didn’t just mean ‘walk after me down the road’. It meant ‘Become my disciple’. To Jesus, a disciple was an apprentice in the art of living in right relationship with God and others. It was not just about having a good time going to church, singing songs and saying prayers. It was about changing your way of life, turning away from evil and learning to do good.

What does this look like in practice? I keep asking myself that question, thinking of some of the specific things Jesus taught. Here are a few that come to mind.

Disciples have been captivated by the vision of the Kingdom of God. They believe that God is at work putting the world to rights, and that there’s a place in that plan for them. They believe that the loving rule of God is the highest possible good for the world, and so they seek first the Kingdom of God and God’s righteousness as their greatest treasure.

Disciples are the glad recipients of grace – God’s unconditional love. They know they have been forgiven and accepted by God, not because they are lovable but because God is love. They are secure in that.

Disciples are people of prayer. They have apprenticed themselves to Jesus and they say, “Lord, teach us to pray”. They have read about how their Master made prayer a daily habit; they long to go deeper in prayer and draw closer to God in this way.

Disciples are being formed by the story of God. They are growing in familiarity with the big sweep of the Bible story – creation, rebellion, Israel, Jesus and his Church, and the future fulfilment of the promise of shalom. As they read the Bible each day they are learning to see themselves as part of this story.

Disciples are people of love. Their Master teaches them that the two greatest commandments are to love God with your whole heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love your neighbour as you love yourself. They are well aware of how far they fall short in this, but each day they are trying to grow in this life of love. And this love is unconditional, reaching out even to enemies and those who hate us.

Disciples are people of simplicity and generosity. They have been taught by their Master not to store up for themselves treasures on earth, and so they are content with few possessions and are learning to find joy in giving to others, especially those who are in the direst need.

Disciples are people of their word. It is unnecessary to ask them to take an oath to tell the truth, because everyone knows that they always tell the truth. And this includes being honest about themselves. They don’t try to pretend they are better or more impressive than they actually are; they are content to be known as ordinary sinners saved by grace.

Disciples are people of faithfulness. They are doing their best each day to be faithful to the promises they have made: baptismal and confirmation promises, marriage vows, promises to care for their children and elders, and in some cases ordination vows. They are members of a local congregation which is their primary spiritual home and they are faithful to that congregation.

Disciples are people who bear witness to Jesus and his love. They have been taught by their Master that it is part of their responsibility to share with others what they have learned of the Gospel of God. So they look for opportunities to share their story, and the story of Jesus, with integrity and respect.

Disciples are people who seek to bless the world around them. They live each day with the resolve to add to the sum total of love and goodness in the world, rather than adding to the sum total of hatred, greed, anger and selfishness.

Disciples are people of hope. Because they believe in a God who never gives up on the world and the people in it, they also can never give up. They believe the promise of the Gospel that one day the Kingdom will be revealed in all its fulness, and so they continue to work toward that day. They are, in fact, quite stubborn about faith, hope, and love.

Disciples are people of joy. They are growing closer to God each day, and are finding in God a joy that nothing else can touch. This doesn’t mean that they don’t ‘weep with those who weep’; neither does it mean they never weep about the struggles and failures of their own lives too. But underneath the sadness, there is still the joy of knowing God and being loved by God.

These are the initial thoughts that come to me. What do you think?

 

Random Discipleship Thought for October 15th 2016

The context for discipleship is Jesus’ announcement that the Kingdom of God is at hand. The Kingdom of God isn’t about dying and going to heaven. Jesus taught us to pray ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven’. So God’s kingdom is about God’s will being done on earth. It is about God healing the world from evil and sin and transforming it into a place of compassion, justice, and peace.

How does this happen? In Jesus’ teaching it is not by political or military means. Coercion (legal or military) will not change the hearts and minds of ordinary people. Jesus’ strategy is to call disciples, teach them the way of life of the Kingdom, and then send them out to share his message with others. All who believe and are baptized are called to be his followers, his disciples, and their daily agenda is to learn to put his teaching and example into practice in their lives. In this way the disciple community becomes a signpost for the world of what the Kingdom of God is all about.

Fellow-disciples of Jesus, we’ve got a high calling! Heavenly Father, help us today to follow the way of Jesus and, by doing so, to further the work of God’s Kingdom in the world.

Religion or Relationship?

We’re often told these days that ‘Christianity isn’t about religion, it’s about relationship’.

I know what people mean by that, but ‘relationship’ is actually a very modern word. It only appears once in the NRSV translation of the Bible, and that’s in the Apocrypha (4 Maccabees 2:13)! But here’s what I found when I searched for ‘religion’:

‘Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.’ (James 1:27).

Three cheers for that kind of religion!

 

Living in God’s Kingdom Now (a sermon on Luke 10:25-37)

One Sunday afternoon in winter in the early 1980’s I was driving on a gravel road toward a small First Nations reserve where I was going to lead a service. On the way into the reserve I saw a car in the ditch, with a couple of people trying to push it out again. I was already late for the service, and I knew that if I stopped I would be even later. I was about to go on by when I remembered the story of the Good Samaritan! Was I going to be yet another example of the priest and the Levite who ‘passed by on the other side’? I quickly pulled over, snarling a bit about God’s sense of humour, and helped the people to push their car out of the ditch. I was twenty minutes late for the service, but the people seemed to understand when I told them what I’d been doing!

As we heard in our gospel reading, the parable of the Good Samaritan is part of Jesus’ answer to a series of questions put to him by a lawyer. We find those questions in Luke 10:25-28:

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher”, he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself”. And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live”.

As we begin to think about this text, the first thing we have to be clear about is the question that the lawyer was asking Jesus. When the lawyer said to Jesus “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”, what did he mean? What is eternal life?’ Older translations of the Bible used the phrase ‘everlasting life’, and so generations of Christians have grown up thinking that the main characteristic of eternal life is simply that it never ends – like Super Mario, only worse! So ‘eternal life becomes chiefly a matter of going to heaven when you die and living there forever. In fact, to some Christians, that’s the main thing salvation does for you: it assures you that you’ll live forever in heaven when you die.

But in the original language of the New Testament, Jesus says nothing at all about the duration of life and nothing at all about heaven. The phrase he uses in the original language can be translated literally ‘the life of the age’, and the word ‘age’ means the new age, the age of the kingdom of God. Let’s explore this idea for a minute.

In the time of Jesus, Jewish people believed that the world’s rebellion against its creator would not last forever. God would intervene; God would send the Messiah to end injustice and oppression and bring in peace and prosperity. God would reward his faithful people and punish the wicked – not in some future, non-physical existence, but in the physical world of time and space.

But some people asked “What about those who were faithful to God and died without seeing this happen? Have they missed out on their chance to participate in the kingdom of God when it finally comes?” “Not at all”, was the reply; “they will be raised to life again so that they too can share the joy of God’s kingdom”.

The next question, obviously, was “How can I be sure I’m going to be one of those who participate in the new age to come, the age of God’s kingdom?” The usual Jewish answer in Jesus’ time was “By faithfully observing God’s laws, including keeping the Sabbath, avoiding unclean foods, offering right sacrifices and so on”.

We can tell from the things Jesus said that he firmly believed in the idea of the coming of the kingdom of God, but he modified it in a couple of ways. Firstly, most people in his day believed there would be a clean break; the old age would end and the new age would begin. But Jesus acted on the assumption that there would be an overlap period; the new age of the kingdom of God began with his life, death and resurrection, but the old age of evil is continuing in parallel with it until he returns and his kingdom is finally established forever; as we say in the Nicene Creed, ‘He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end’.

The second difference is that most of Jesus’ contemporaries saw the new age of the kingdom of God being established by military force. In contrast, Jesus told parables about yeast gradually working its way through the whole loaf, and about a tiny mustard seed growing into the largest of plants. To him, the kingdom would be spread by the power of God working through disciples who lived the lifestyle of the kingdom in their daily lives. And what are the characteristics of that lifestyle? Love for God, and love for one’s neighbour.

So you see the difference between Jesus and the lawyer who questioned him. To the lawyer, ‘eternal life’ is future, and the question he’s asking is “What’s the pass mark? What do I have to do to get in?” He understands the two commandments – loving God and loving your neighbour – as qualifications he has to have in order to enter the kingdom and receive eternal life. But to Jesus eternal life is already present, and the two great commandments are not qualifications for eternal life; they are eternal life. It’s not “Do this, and you will receive eternal life as a reward”, but rather “Do this, because this is what eternal life looks like”.

There are two things we modern Christians need to notice here.

The first is that these two great commandments are not the price of entry into the kingdom of God. If they were we’d be in trouble, because they’re way out of our reach. Can you love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength – wholeheartedly, with no reservations, with every fibre of your being given to God and nothing given to evil at all? Can you love your neighbour as yourself every moment of the day? I know I can’t do it. If this is the entrance exam for the kingdom, I fail every day. But the good news is that God reaches out to people who fail and accepts them by his grace. So the first step into the kingdom of God is to put our faith in Jesus and accept his love as a free gift of grace.

The second thing we modern Christians need to remember is that once we’ve received the gift of the life of the kingdom of God, we will spend the rest of our lives learning to live out these two commandments. Everything else is just clarification. All the services we attend, all the Bible studies in which we participate, all the sacraments we receive – all these things are just resources to help us become people who love God with our whole heart and love our neighbour as ourselves. According to God, that’s the meaning of life; everything else is window-dressing.

So eternal life is not so much about how long we live but how well we live. It’s about the power of the Holy Spirit living in us now, so that we can become the kind of people who love to live by these two great commandments of Jesus.

But what does this mean in our daily lives? Like a good member of parliament, the lawyer asks a supplementary question, and we could understand it as asking ‘What does eternal life look like on a daily basis?

The actual question the lawyer asks is in verse 29: ‘And who is my neighbour?’ The thing I want you to notice is that nowhere in this parable does Jesus answer that question; rather, he tells us how to be a neighbour to those in need.

Why doesn’t he answer the question? Because it’s the wrong question to be asking. The lawyer still hasn’t understood. He still thinks of the two great commandments as the entrance exam into the kingdom. “Who is my neighbour?” really means “What’s the least I can get away with? Exactly who do I have to love? After all, if I live in a village of fifty people and only twenty-five of them turn out to be my neighbours, why would I want to waste time loving the ones who won’t bring me eternal life?” This is the lawyer’s attitude. Jesus’ story of the good Samaritan, on the other hand, shows that the life of the kingdom of God is all about showing mercy to those who are in need, whether we get rewarded or not.

In his story, Jesus doesn’t spell out exactly why the priest and Levite didn’t help the man; the point is simply that they saw a need and did nothing. Perhaps they didn’t even really see him. In the 1999 movie At First Sight, a blind man whose sight has been restored by surgery discovers that sighted people don’t see everything. He and his girlfriend walk past a beggar on the street and she doesn’t even notice. Perhaps the priest and the Levite were in that kind of space.

What about the Samaritans? Who were they? They were the descendants of foreign nations brought in by the King of Assyria when he destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel in the 8th century B.C. They had adopted some aspects of the worship of the God of Israel, but the Jews considered them to be heretics who had perverted the true faith, and they would have little to do with them. The irony in Jesus’ story is that the priest and the Levite knew the law of God but didn’t practice it; the Samaritan’s beliefs may have been questionable, but he was the one who actually practised the law of God!

Of course, the Samaritan could have used all kinds of excuses for not helping the man. He could have said “Maybe the bandits are still around, waiting for me to stop and help so they can rob me too”. He could have said “It’s his own fault” or “It’s not my responsibility to help the needy – the government should do it”. He could have said “I can’t afford two days’ wages to pay for his medical treatment” or “I’m too busy with my business to take the time to help this man properly”. He could even have said “I think the church should help people like this; I’m going to call Rabbi Jacob and get him down here as fast as possible!” But he made none of these excuses. He saw the need and he responded with the love of God. He loved his neighbour as himself.

Let me make two observations in how we might apply this story to our own lives.

First, this story shows us that Christian living is not out of our reach. You don’t have to go to the ends of the earth to serve people. All you have to do is move through your normal day with your eyes open. Back in the 1960s a Texas oilman named Keith Miller was learning to live as a new Christian in an oil company office. He made a decision that every time he went for a drink from the water fountain he would pray for the other people in his office. However, he found that he didn’t know enough about them to pray for them. So he started inviting them out for coffee and listening to them, and gradually as they got to know and trust him they opened up to him about their lives and their struggles. He soon discovered that there was a Christian mission field right there in his oil company office!

The chances are that in your office, or on your block, there is someone whose marriage is ending, or someone who is struggling to make ends meet, or someone who has an illness that causes them a lot of trouble, or someone with an addiction problem of some kind. Living the life of the kingdom of God simply means noticing these things, and doing what we can to help. That’s what the Samaritan did.

But I also need to point out to you that this picture is incomplete. Luke chapter ten has five more verses, which we will read next week! In them we will read about two sisters, Martha and Mary. Martha was busy preparing supper and organising things for Jesus, and scolded her sister Mary who simply sat at Jesus’ feet and listened to him. But Jesus defended Mary, saying that ‘Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her’ (v.42). In other words, in order to keep a proper balance in our Christian lives there are times when we need to stop working and simply sit in God’s presence, listening for the word of Christ.

There’s one more thing I need to say before I’m through. Sometimes when you’re in a really deep sleep and are dreaming hard, you think you’ve woken up, but eventually you discover that it’s just part of your dream. Something like that can too easily happen to us as Christians. It’s easy for us to fall into the trap of thinking that because we’ve talked about something we’ve actually done it. We think we’ve woken up to the Word of Christ, but in fact we’re still dreaming.

In John 5:39-40 Jesus gives us a warning: “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life…yet you refuse to come to me to have life”. That’s what the lawyer was doing. He asked about the commandments, but in fact he already knew the answers to his questions. His problem wasn’t lack of information; his problem was that he wasn’t practising what he already knew. And so often that’s true of us too. We know what Jesus is calling us to do. We’re well aware of these two great commandments. All that remains is for us to ask for the help of the Holy Spirit and then go about our day with our eyes wide open to human need and our hearts full of the love of Jesus, taking every opportunity we can to make a difference. Talking is good, but if talking doesn’t lead to doing, it’s just so much hot air. As Jesus said to his disciples in another context: “If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them” (John 13:17).

‘Reading and Meditating on the Word of God’ (2016 Lent sermon series #6)

For the past five weeks we’ve been on a Lenten journey together. We’ve been thinking about how we can experience for ourselves what Jesus says in Revelation 3:20: “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me”. As we think about how to open the door to Jesus, we’ve been guided by some words from the Ash Wednesday service in the B.A.S.: ‘I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Lord, to observe a holy Lent, by self-examination, penitence, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, and by reading and meditating on the word of God’.

So we’ve been thinking about these six practices we can build into our lives as a way of deepening our relationship with Christ. This week, the last Sunday in Lent, we’re going to turn our attention to the sixth habit: ‘reading and meditating on the Word of God’. So this is not going to be a traditional Palm Sunday sermon, thinking about the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on a donkey. Instead we’re going to be thinking about the entry of the Word of God into our hearts and lives as we read and meditate on the Scriptures.

Let’s think for a minute about this phrase ‘the Word of God’. Nowadays when Christians use that phrase we tend to think immediately of the Bible. But I would argue that we need to be careful about making a hard and fast identification between the written words of the Bible and the living Word of God.

What do I mean by that? Am I meaning disrespect for the written Scriptures? Not at all; I love the Scriptures, I thank God for giving them to us, and I read them every day. But I also know that as Christians we don’t read them ‘flat’, giving every book the same authority. We don’t, for instance, refuse to profit from our pension plans because they are based on the lending of money at interest, even though this practice is forbidden in parts of the Old Testament. We don’t see it as a compulsory religious duty to circumcise our sons, and we don’t punish sons who curse their fathers by putting them to death. Neither do we believe that God calls people today to wipe out the entire populations of cities, including women, children, and helpless babies, as the people did in the Old Testament book of Joshua.

We also know that, in the Bible, the title ‘The Word of God’ is applied first and foremost to Jesus himself; as the B.A.S. says, “He is your living word, through whom you have created all things”. In the famous words of John’s Gospel:

‘And the word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth’ (John 1:14).

So as faithful followers of Jesus we pray for God’s help to read the Bible through the eyes of Jesus. We know that Jesus stood in continuity with the Old Testament, but at the same time he felt quite free to modify some of its ideas; in the Sermon on the Mount he says several times “You have heard that it was said…but I say to you…” This is particularly clear with the command to love our enemies; Old Testament people felt quite free to hate their enemies and even commit acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing, but Jesus does away with that for his followers:

“But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:44-45).

So yes: as Christians, we read the Bible through the eyes of Jesus. We interpret everything else written in the scriptures according to his teaching and example. St. Paul certainly knew this. In 1 Corinthians chapter 7 he is giving some guidance to the Corinthian Christians about matters of marriage, divorce, celibacy and so on. Several times in the passage he clearly distinguishes between commands he is issuing on his own authority as an apostle, and commands he has received from Jesus in the tradition that was later written down in the gospels. He says things like ‘To the married I give this command – not I, but the Lord’ (meaning ‘the Lord Jesus’) (1 Corinthians 7:10), and ‘to the rest I say – I and not the Lord’ (7:12). He obviously feels he’s on much firmer ground when he has a recorded command of Jesus on which to base his teaching.

As so often, C.S. Lewis has wise things to say on this subject. In a letter written to one of his many correspondents in 1952, he says, ‘It is Christ Himself, not the Bible, who is the true Word of God. The Bible, read in the right spirit and with the guidance of good teachers will bring us to Him’. And Martin Luther, in a beautiful image, says, “Scripture is the manger in which the Christ lies. As a mother goes to a cradle to find her baby so the Christian goes to the Bible to find Jesus. Don’t let us inspect the cradle and forget to worship the baby.”

To sum up then, for us followers of Jesus ‘reading and meditating on the Word of God’ means reading and meditating on the Scriptures in the light of the things that Jesus said and did. If we read the Scriptures in this way, we will not be so easily led astray.

Now, how can we do this? Let me offer you some suggestions.

First, let’s always remember that the book we call ‘the Bible’ is not actually one book; it’s a library of books, written over a period of at least thirteen hundred years, in languages that no one speaks any more. If you went down to your local library and borrowed some books from the shelves, you’d pay careful attention to the genre of those books. Let’s suppose you borrowed a copy of Dante’s Inferno (which was first written in Italian in the 14th century), a novel, a biography, a book of letters by a famous person, a history of the first settlers to come to Canada, a copy of the criminal code, a book of poetry written by Wordsworth in the 19th century, and a book by Stephen Hawking about the origins of the universe.

Would you read all those books in exactly the same way? Of course not! Many things in the Criminal Code would not be relevant to you. The novel might well contain truth, but it would be a different kind of truth than the history book, and different again from the poetry. Dante’s poetry from the 14th century would be very different from Wordsworth’s from the 19th. In other words, you would pay careful attention to the genre of the books, and adjust your reading expectations accordingly.

The Bible is like that. It begins with what looks very much like a poem or hymn about the creation of the universe, written in seven verses with a common refrain at the end of each verse. There are stories about famous heroes from Israel’s past, sermons from great Old Testament preachers who we call ‘the prophets’, usually collected without giving us much background information about the original occasions when they were preached. There’s a hymn book – the Book of Psalms – collected and used by the Jewish people before the time of Jesus. There are four biographies of Jesus, each written from a different point of view, and there are letters written by early Christian leaders to guide churches they had started. These are just a few examples of the kind of thing we’ll find in the library we call ‘the Holy Scriptures’.

The library has two floors. There’s a ground floor, that most Christians call ‘the Old Testament’; it was written in Hebrew and Aramaic, and it collects together books written about God’s dealings with the people of Israel from ancient times up to a couple of hundred years before the coming of Jesus. Then there’s an upstairs floor, the New Testament, written in Greek, that tells the story of Jesus and of the early Christians who followed him and spread his message around the Mediterranean world after his resurrection and ascension into heaven. Some Bibles also contain a sort of stairwell between the two floors, a collection of books called ‘the Apocrypha’, written between the end of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New; not all Christians are agreed about the authority of those books – but that’s a subject for another day!

So how shall we explore this library? How shall we ‘read and meditate on the Word of God’ that comes to us through these books? Let me give three suggestions, based around the three words ‘read’, ‘study’, and ‘meditate’.

First, read. I think this is the most pressing need among Anglican Christians today when it comes to Bible knowledge: familiarity with the big picture. If I were to ask you how many of you have read the Bible all the way through, from start to finish, I suspect that only a very small minority would be able to say that you had.

When I was the rector of St. Anne’s Church in Valleyview, I mentioned this in a sermon one day, and one of the people present took me up on it. He wasn’t an especially scholarly guy, but he decided he would read the Bible through from start to finish. He had a Good News Bible, which is a fairly easy translation to read, and he decided to start at the beginning and read every night for fifteen or twenty minutes until he was done. His Bible included the Apocrypha so it was a bit longer than some, and it took him eight months to get through it.

I was actually a little surprised that he stuck with it; a lot of people start out and then give up in Leviticus or Numbers, which are pretty heavy going. But my friend kept on going. I remember that when he was about half way through, he and I went out for coffee, and he confessed to me that he was a little disappointed in the Bible. “I thought it was going to be full of inspiring and uplifting stories”, he said, “but it’s full of awful people who do awful things to each other, and thousands and thousands of animals getting slaughtered in sacrifices. And all those wars!”

Yes, I replied – the books of the Bible are about sinners just like us! Sinners are the only people God’s got to work with! The people in the Bible were tempted like we are, they gave in to temptation like we do, they misunderstood God and got things wrong just like we do. The big picture of the story of the Bible is the story of a God who doesn’t give up on us when we go wrong: he keeps trying to guide and teach his people, and eventually he comes among us as one of us to live and die and rise again for our salvation.

We need to know this big picture a lot better than we do. I think many Anglicans know a few passages of the Bible quite well; we’ve heard them read in church as isolated passages, but we don’t have much idea about where they come from, what comes before and after them, and how they fit into the big picture of the story of the Bible. No wonder we feel so nervous about guiding our kids in their Christian education! No wonder we feel so badly equipped to share our faith with others!

So I would encourage all of you, if you haven’t done so already, just to read the Bible through. Make no mistake – if you do, you’ll hit some passages that are hard to understand, and some passages that annoy you intensely. Don’t worry about that. Just keep on reading. Fifteen minutes a day will take you through the whole Bible in six to eight months, depending on how fast a reader you are. If you come across passages you want to find answers about, or verses you want to meditate on at your leisure, just mark them so you know where to find them. And then carry on reading.

So that’s the first word – read. The second word is study. Studying is our attempt to come to a better understanding of what an individual passage means. In fact, you could say that in these three words – read, study, and meditate – we’re asking three questions: ‘What does it say?’ ‘What does it mean?’ and ‘What does it mean to me?’

In the modern English-speaking world, there are some incredibly helpful resources to help us understand what the Bible means. The most important one, I suggest, is a good study Bible. Study Bibles are simply editions of the Bible with supplementary notes prepared by good Bible scholars. There will be introductions to the books, to tell you when the individual books were written, what we think the historical context was, who the author was (if we know), what we know about him – or them – and what we know about the process by which the book was written. Then at the bottom of each page there will be notes explaining difficult passages, or pointing out allusions to other places in the Bible, and stuff like that. Talk to me afterwards if you want some recommendations for good study Bibles; I’ve got a few!

There are also big fat Bible commentaries, or smaller commentaries on individual books of the Bible. But in my opinion, the best way to start studying is just to get a really good study Bible and become familiar with it.

Also – don’t forget the benefit of studying with others. Some of us in this church belong to Bible study groups. Years ago, a lot more Christians were part of groups like that. Not many years ago, actually; my last church, St. Anne’s Valleyview, had an average Sunday attendance of less than thirty, and it wasn’t unusual for us to get ten or twelve people out to a midweek Bible study group – some of them parents with school age children. Nowadays people seem to have lots of other things to do, and of course our life is busy and stressful. But I think we miss out on something good if we don’t take advantage of opportunities to come together with other Christians to study the Bible.

So we read, we study, and then the last word is ‘meditate’. This is when we ask ‘What does this passage mean to me?’ In other words, how is my life going to be changed by reading it? Personally, I find it helpful to do meditation with a pen in my hand, so that I can write down my thoughts. I’m not good at thinking inside my head; I find it a lot easier to think with my pen.

Here are some helpful questions we can ask the passage we’re reading. What’s the main theme of this passage? Have I learned anything new about God, about Jesus, about the Holy Spirit, about the world, about myself? What surprised me? What shocked me? What annoyed me? Was there a command for me to put into practice, and if so, what would it look like if I tried to live by it today? Was there a good example for me to follow, or a bad example for me to avoid? Was there someone in the story I identified with? If so, why? Was there something that puzzled me, that I’d like to ask someone about?

These are just a few questions that can help us apply a passage of the Bible to our own lives. As we meditate on it, we receive the Word of God into our hearts and we begin to live it out in our daily lives. And that will bring transformation.

Let me close with a word of personal testimony. I’ve been reading the Bible daily since I was about thirteen. A lot of people assume that the reason ministers know so much about the Bible is because they’ve been to seminary to study it. Well, I can’t speak for my clergy colleagues, but I’d have to say that for me, it wasn’t like that. The most important factor in my own Bible knowledge wasn’t studying it in college; it happened long before that. It was when my parents bought me a copy of The Living Bible, one of the early paraphrases, or easy to understand versions of the Bible. I don’t remember exactly when that happened but I’m guessing I would have been about fourteen.

Nowadays I don’t really recommend The Living Bible, because it’s not too accurate, although there is a modern version of it, The New Living Translation, that’s a lot better. But what The Living Bible did for me was to encourage me to read it through, just like a book. I’m sure I read it all the way through two or three times before I was out of my teens. And that’s what laid the foundation for all my Bible study since then.

So – let’s read it, let’s study it, let’s meditate on it and put it into practice in our lives. If we do that, the living word of God will transform us, and that will make all the difference.

The Greatest is Love (a sermon on 1 Corinthians 13:1-13)

I read a great quote about love a few months ago in a book written by a friend. The quote came from a sermon preached by Dr. Haddon Robinson at a pastors’ conference, and the text was our epistle for today, 1 Corinthians 13.1-13. Toward the end of his sermon, Dr. Robinson said this: “Love is that thing which, if a church has it, it doesn’t really need much else, and if it doesn’t have it, whatever else it has doesn’t really matter very much”.

I think this is exactly what Paul is trying to get at in our epistle for today. Before we dive right into it, let’s remind ourselves of two things. First, the meaning of the word ‘love’. It has many different meanings in the English language, but nowadays we mostly use it to describe an emotion. Paul, however, was writing in Greek, not English, and Greek is richer when it comes to words for love. There’s ‘eros’, which refers to what today we would call romantic or sexual love – love that is a response to beauty or goodness in the beloved. There’s ‘phileo’, from which we get our word ‘philanthropy’; in Greek its meaning is close to what we would today call ‘friendship’. There’s ‘storge’, which carries the sense of ‘love of the familiar’ – the love we have for family members or people we’ve known all our lives.

But Paul doesn’t use any of those words, and neither do most of the writers of the New Testament. Instead they use a word that they may have invented themselves; it certainly doesn’t appear in any earlier Greek literature. The word is ‘agapé’, and it doesn’t describe an emotion at all. Agapé isn’t based on affection or approval; it’s totally unconditional, coming as a free gift, not because the beloved deserves it but because the lover chooses to give it. It’s a decision of the will to act in the other person’s best interests, whether we feel like it or not. It’s getting down at the supper table and washing your disciples’ feet. It’s being willing to lay down your life to save people who don’t even care about you. It’s the way God loves us, and the way God calls us to act toward others as well.

So let’s remember this: when Paul says that love is the more excellent way, he’s not talking about storge or eros or phileo ; he’s talking about agapé. Secondly, let’s remember who this letter was written to. Corinth was a city in ancient Greece, famous throughout the world for its sexual immorality. It was also a place where the Greek mystery religions were very popular. Those religions went in for spiritual experience in a big way; the people who participated in them were used to being moved by powerful supernatural forces. They might go into a trance, or experience a powerful emotion like ecstasy, or be transported out of the body, or carry out some other strange course of action. This sort of thing was regarded as normal in the mystery religions; not only that, it was the way you knew that you were encountering something real. If you didn’t experience any of this, there wasn’t much point in being involved in that particular cult or religion.

So the Corinthian Christians liked dramatic spiritual experiences. They loved supernatural gifts like speaking in tongues and miracles and healings. But they were rather self-indulgent about them, and Paul had a suspicion that sometimes there wasn’t a lot of love in the way they used those gifts. So in last week’s passage Paul reminded them that the church is like a body, the Body of Christ. Each organ and limb has an essential part to play in the life of the body. So it is with the church; each of us has been given spiritual gifts, but we’re to use them in love, to build up the whole Body of Christ, not to show off or chase after spiritual thrills.

And so we come to this great chapter on love in 1 Corinthians 13. Let’s look at it in three parts. First, in verses 1-3, Paul teaches us that love is essential to the life of the church.

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Knowing what we do about the Corinthian Christians, we can understand why Paul is using these examples. These are the things they valued the most in their spiritual lives – speaking in tongues, prophecy, understanding mysteries, having enough faith to do spectacular things. And they loved the ‘grand gesture’. There’s a story about young Francesco Bernadone, who later became St. Francis of Assisi. As a young man he had a powerful conversion experience, and in obedience to the gospel call he proceeded to start giving away his possessions. Except that they weren’t his possessions, they were his father’s! His father was a wealthy cloth merchant, and when he saw what his son was doing, he dragged him before the Bishop of Assisi in the town square and demanded that the Bishop tell his son to stop giving away things that didn’t belong to him. In response, Francis stripped himself naked in front of everyone, handed his clothes to his father, and said, “There – now you have everything that belongs to you”. He then went off to live as a hermit in literal obedience to the gospel call of Jesus.

The Corinthians would have loved this story; they loved the grand gesture – ‘If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast’ (v.3). But Paul is reminding them that all of this – using miraculous gifts, performing dramatic acts of faith and so on – is worth absolutely zero if it’s not all about agapé love for others.

Well, it’s easy for us to sit in judgement on the Corinthians; after all, most Anglicans aren’t tempted by speaking in tongues or displays of religious emotion. But what would Paul say to us today? How about this:

‘If we have the most beautiful liturgy ever designed by human beings, performed by people in the most splendid robes, with music from the best possible choir, but do not have love, we are a noisy gong and a clanging cymbal. And if we have the most beautiful church building, with a gorgeous sanctuary and lots of program space, and fancy offices and plush carpets, but don’t have love, we are nothing. If we produce excellent ministry plans and offer a multitude of different programs – if we have multiple services aimed at different kinds of people – if we have a high profile in the city and people are talking about our church – but don’t have love, we gain nothing’.

Yes, I think that is what Paul would say to us. Remember again the wise words of Haddon Robinson: “Love is that thing which, if a church has it, it doesn’t really need much else, and if it doesn’t have it, whatever else it has doesn’t really matter very much”. That’s exactly what Paul is trying to say in this passage. We aren’t going to be questioned about our splendid liturgy and impressive list of programs. We’re going to be questioned about love.

So Paul starts by telling us that love is essential to the life of the church. Secondly, in verses 4-6 he describes to us what love is and what it does.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

As I was reading this passage over in preparation for this sermon, it became very clear to me that all the positive statements in this passage could be applied to God, and all the negative ones could be applied to me. God is patient, God is kind. God rejoices in the truth. God bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. But me? I’m envious, and boastful, and arrogant, and rude! I insist on my own way, I’m irritable and resentful, and far too often, I rejoice in wrongdoing! So I have a long way to go – as do we all.

Paul tells us that those who love are patient with one another. In modern English, ‘patient’ can mean we’re not in a hurry, but it can also mean we bear with one another’s weaknesses and make allowances for one another. It’s the second meaning that Paul is using here. Those who love, know themselves well; they know we all grow slowly, fail many times, and need healthy dollops of forgiveness. This is how God acts toward us – he is infinitely patient with us – and those who are growing in love are learning to treat others in the same way.

Those who love are kind to one another. They treat each other gently and considerately, do good things for one another, give freely to one another, and treat each other as valued human beings. They always remember Jesus’ golden rule: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12), and they do their best to practice it.

Those who love are not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. Envy, boasting, arrogance and rudeness are all about competition – I’m in competition with your wealth, your popularity, your success, your good looks, your spiritual gifts, your experience of God. Deep down inside, these folks are insecure; they believe there’s only so much love and success and good fortune to go around, and if I’m not careful, someone’s going to cheat me out of my fair share. But those who love are not in competition with each other; they rejoice in each other’s blessings without wishing to have them for themselves.

Those who love do not insist on their own way. They understand that, as someone one said, ‘Everyone is an “I”’ – in other words, everyone I meet has a life of their own. They don’t see themselves as supporting actors in my play; they’re the lead actors in their own play. And gradually, as we grow together, we all learn to see ourselves as supporting actors in God’s play. It’s not about me, so I don’t always have to get what I want.

Those who love are not irritable or resentful. They don’t get easily upset or offended by others; in fact, they choose not to take offence. They don’t hold grudges and hang on to past hurts. They’re learning that if you do that, you bind yourself to the past with chains of iron. They want to be free, so they’re learning to let go of pride and anger and embrace the way of forgiveness and grace.

Those who love don’t rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoice in the truth. In other words, their love isn’t an easygoing love. When they see people doing wrong and hurting others, they don’t just stand by and let it happen. When a word of truth needs to be spoken, they’re ready to speak it – but out of love, not out of a need to judge or control others.

Those who love bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, and endure all things. In other words, they don’t give up on people. Their love for one another is stubborn; it’s what the Old Testament calls in Hebrew ‘chesed’, which is translated in our NRSV as ‘steadfast love’. Eugene Peterson’s ‘Message’ translation of the Bible says, ‘Love…puts up with anything, trusts God always, always looks for the best, never looks back, but keeps going to the end’.

So this is what Paul means by love. Of course, it’s a tall order. I can see why some churches would rather work on splendid liturgies or efficient organization! It’s so much easier to have a brilliant website or a service for every taste than it is to put yourself out to truly love people as Paul describes it here, not holding anything back, never giving up hope, remaining faithful to the end. I have to confess, all I can think of is how far I fall short. But at the same time, the passage inspires me and challenges me: this truly ought to be our goal as a Christian community!

So Paul has told us that love is essential to the life of the church, and he’s described for us what love is and what is does. Finally, in verses 8-13 he tells us that love is the only thing that will last forever.

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

Many of us have probably heard this passage from 1 Corinthians read at weddings, but I have to tell you that in recent years I’ve also used it at funeral services, and people seem to appreciate it. Paul is asking his friends in Corinth is, “What’s going to last? On that day when we see God face to face, what will really be important?” Will it be our reputation for wisdom or knowledge or supernatural experiences? No – in fact, on that day, we’ll be brought face to face with the truth of how little we really knew! We might think we have a good understanding of God and the way God works in the world, but one day we’ll look back and think, “How could I have been so blind?” All our inspired speech and glorious miracles and splendid liturgies and sophisticated programming – on the day we see God face to face, it’ll all just be like child’s play to us then.

So many people, when they come to the end of their lives, regret all the time and energy they’ve spent on things that mean absolutely nothing to them on their deathbeds. Some people set great store by accumulating possessions and money; some people spend their lives trying to be a success in all they do. Some people live for the good opinion of others; their greatest desire is to impress others and to be popular and well-liked. But in the end, Paul would say to us, none of that’s going to last; it’s all going to pass away.

What will last? Only three things, says Paul – faith, hope, and love – and the greatest of these is love. Or, as Eugene Peterson puts it in ‘The Message’:

But for right now, until that completeness, we have three things to do to lead us toward that consummation: Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of these is love.

So, my brothers and sisters, let’s never let ourselves settle for less than this. Let’s never forget that this is the most important thing we can work on, because without it, everything else is just noise and busywork. So let’s end as we began, with these wise words of Dr. Haddon Robinson: “Love is that thing which, if a church has it, it doesn’t really need much else, and if it doesn’t have it, whatever else it has doesn’t really matter very much”.

Amen.

A few things to be working on for the new year

‘Renounce yourself in order to follow Christ; discipline your body; do not pamper yourself, but love fasting. You must relieve the lot of the poor, clothe the naked, visit the sick, and bury the dead. Go to help the troubled and console the sorrowing.

‘Your way of acting should be different from the world’s way; the love of Christ must come before all else. You are not to act in anger or nurse a grudge. Rid your heart of all deceit. Never give a hollow greeting of peace or turn away when someone needs your love. Bind yourself to no oath lest it prove false, but speak the truth with heart and tongue.

‘Do not repay one bad turn with another. Do not injure anyone, but bear injuries patiently. Love your enemies. If people curse you, do not curse them back but bless them instead. Endure persecution for the sake of justice’.

Rule of St. Benedict, chapter 4.

There’s a lot more where this came from, but this is enough for now, I think!