2018 RLT #18: Together

‘When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place’ (Acts 2:1).

A couple of days ago I shared my witness about how I first came to conscious faith in Christ – the day I gave my life to Jesus as a young teenager.

Our parish at the time – St. Leonard’s, Southminster, in Essex – was going through a very joyful time of charismatic renewal. People were experiencing the Holy Spirit in very vivid ways. New people were coming to faith. God seemed to be very present in people’s lives; there were stories of guidance, of healing, of answered prayers. We were learning new worship songs (many of them ‘Scripture in Song’ choruses – King James scriptures, easy, catchy, folk-style tunes – or songs by ‘The Fisherfolk’ from the Community of Celebration). It was a very joyful time to be a new Christian.

The word ‘together’ stands out very strongly for me from that time.

When I first committed my life to Christ my dad had been attending a little midweek Pentecostal prayer meeting, so I started going along with him. In this group I first encountered extemporary prayer (some of it very long!), charismatic gifts, informal Bible teaching etc. After a while our Anglican church started ‘home meetings’, as they were then called – home based groups for study and prayer – and I started going to one of them. By then I was playing guitar and it wasn’t long until I was roped in to play for the time of singing that was always part of our meetings. In those days we had no song books; the songs were short and easily memorable, or we might print off little chorus sheets (using the good old Gestetner duplicator!) to pass around.

Toward the end of my time in Southminster (we moved to Canada in December 1975) I became part of the Thursday night home meeting that met at Ken and Kath’s house. 8.00 p.m. Thursday night became a very special time for me. I would get up in the morning and go to school with a sense of excitement – ‘Tonight’s the night!’ I knew I would meet God there when God’s people were gathered ‘together in one place’.

There might have been ten or twelve of us, including one or two teenagers like me. There would be singing, there would be teaching, and there would be extended times of prayer – half an hour, forty-five minutes. Sometimes during those times of prayer someone would sense that God had given them a word to speak to someone else, and they would share it. Someone might speak in a strange language, and another would be given the interpretation of what had been said. There would be prayers for healing, perhaps with laying on of hands. And the sense of God’s presence was strong.

Ever since that time I’ve viewed these midweek groups – whether you call them prayer meetings, Bible Study groups, or whatever you want to call them – as vital and central to Christian growth. Simply put, my observation has been that those who make time to participate in groups like this grow exponentially in their faith.

And I still believe that today, even though today’s schedules make it far more challenging for people to commit to these groups. Whether they meet early in the morning, over lunch hour, afternoon, or evening or weekend, I would strongly encourage everyone who wants to grow as a Christian to find a group like this and join it. Actually, you don’t need to find one – you can start one! Do you work in a downtown office tower? Why not find out if there are other Christians in your office tower who might be interested in a lunchtime prayer and study group? There are lots of resources out there to help you; you don’t need a priest or professional minister to lead it.

What should be part of it? Well, there are no rules, but I think it’s good if the group has something for the Head, something for the Heart, and something for the Hands.

Something for the Head: a time of study, probably Bible study. This can be the simple reading of a Bible passage and the discussion of a few questions to help people understand it. Resources for this sort of thing are easily available (I would highly recommend the ‘Serendipity Bible’ which has study questions in the margin for every single passage in the Bible – it’s out of print, but used copies are easy to find online).

Something for the Heart: the relational component. We express joy in our relationship with God through prayer and praise. We express love to one another as we pray for each other, listen to each other’s stories, and bear each other’s burdens.

Something for the Hands: our lives need to be changed because of our meeting together. The point is to grow as followers of Jesus, finding new ways of loving God and loving our neighbour in action. So it’s good to ask each other ‘What am I going to do differently this week as a result of our meeting?’ – and then to pray for each other as we go out and put it into practice.

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them’ (Acts 2:1-4 NIV).

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2018 RLT #17: Lent in Community

A few years ago I read an interesting statement on a friend’s blog. I’m quoting from memory, but I think what she said was that in times past (i.e. several hundred years ago) our modern church question “What are you giving up for Lent?” would have been meaningless. Lenten disciplines were set by the church and followed by all its members. For instance, no meat was to be eaten during Lent (this was actually a bigger sacrifice for the rich, since the poor could only afford to eat meat once a week anyway!). Everyone was making the same sacrifices and observing the same disciplines, and so they could support and encourage one another.

Nowadays we live in a much more individualistic age; everyone has heard Polonius’ advice (from ‘Hamlet’): ‘This one thing more – to thine own self be true’. And in many ways I rejoice in the freedom this gives me. I can think through the sort of Lenten practice thats meaningful for me, and leave you to do the same for yourself.

Except that we do miss some of the communal aspects of it. Have you ever noticed how many times the phrase ‘one another’ appears in the letters in the New Testament? ‘Love one another’, “encourage one another’, ‘bear with one another’, ‘be kind to one another’, ‘teach and admonish one another’. Individualistic Christianity would have been nonsense to the believers in New Testament times. Discipleship was something they did together.

In our church this Lent a number of people have signed on to read through the Gospel of Mark on a daily schedule (in fact it’s taking us half way through the Easter season as well – we’re using quite short daily readings). A smaller number have also joined a Google group where we can share our ideas and questions. I think people get a sense of support and community from the idea that others are reading and reflecting on the same verses as them, on the same day.

I don’t want to go back to the days when the church commanded Lenten observances and everyone had to follow them. But I wonder if we could encourage church members to covenant together to follow certain Lenten disciplines and practices in common? Those practices would not need to be many, or particularly onerous, but I believe we would get a deepened sense of fellowship in our Lord through sharing in them together.

And of course, we would also make ourselves accountable to one another. Accountability is another ‘no-no’ in this world of ‘Octopus’ Garden’ spirituality (‘We would be so happy, you and me, with no one there to tell us what to do!’). But I have a nasty suspicion that without some sort of accountability, discipleship becomes much harder. When St. Paul encouraged his first readers to ‘encourage one another’ and ‘admonish one another’, I don’t think he was expecting that the recipients of that admonition would reply with an angry ‘Mind you own business!’ I think he expected them to receive it in the spirit it was offered – a spirit of love and concern – and to be thankful for the opportunity to make progress together in the Way of Jesus.

What do you think?

Listen to Jesus (a sermon on Mark 9:2-9)

I want to begin my sermon today by asking you this question: who do you listen to? Why do you listen to them? And what might cause you to stop listening to them?

Currently, a lot of people are listening to Donald J. Trump. I checked on Twitter and it says he has 47.5 million people following him. Of course, not all of them are actually listening to him, in the sense of seeing him as a reliable guide; in fact, I’d guess that a good number of those people are doing quite the opposite; they’re following his every tweet so they can catch him out when he says ridiculous things. But nevertheless, 47.5 million is a lot of people. It’s a lot more than the people Trump himself is listening to. Do you know how many people he follows on Twitter? Forty-five!

Sometimes we listen to people we’d be well-advised not to take too seriously, and sometimes we listen to people for the wrong reasons. But most of us have also made some very good choices about who we listen to. We’ve got friends we respect and trust, and we know they’ll give us good and thoughtful advice. We’d got spiritual leaders and mentors, maybe some favourite writers who have guided us well in the past. When we’re asking big questions about the direction we’re taking in our lives, it’s natural that we should consult them. Two of the authors I really look up to and respect are C.S. Lewis and Eugene Peterson; I don’t agree with them on absolutely everything, but I see them as wise and reliable spiritual guides and I take their advice very, very seriously.

In the time of Jesus, it would have been natural for Peter and James and John to look on Moses and Elijah in this way. Moses was the great founding leader of the nation of Israel. Moses was the one who had led Israel out of slavery in Egypt, through their forty-year desert pilgrimage to the edge of their promised land. God had spoken to the Israelites through him, and through him had come the Torah, the Law, which later grew into what are now sometimes called the Five Books of Moses – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy – which are pretty much the constitution of the people of Israel. It would be very hard for the first disciples of Jesus to imagine that anyone could be greater than Moses.

Elijah came hundreds of years later; he was the first great prophet of the kingdom of Israel. He was the one who stood up against the wicked Queen Jezebel and her husband Ahab and all the prophets of the false god Baal. Many prophets had since followed in Elijah’s footsteps but he was widely regarded in the time of Jesus as the greatest of the prophets, and people said that before the Day of the Lord came God would send Elijah back to them again. So yes: he was right up there with Moses. It would be natural for people to ‘listen to him’.

That’s part of the background to our gospel reading today. But we also need to read it in context of the passage that comes immediately before it. In the first sentence of today’s gospel Mark directs us back to what came before; he says, ‘Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves’ (Mark 9:2). Mark very rarely gives us time references in his gospel, and so when he does, we can be sure they’re significant. So the first question we should ask ourselves is ‘six days after what?’ The obvious answer is, six days after the events of the previous passage.

In Mark 8:27 – 9:1, we have a body of teaching that Jesus gives his disciples near the town of Caesarea Philippi. It begins with him asking the question, “Who do people say that I am?” They reply, “John the Baptist, or Elijah, or one of the other prophets”. “What about you?” he asks them; “Who do you say that I am?” Peter replies, “You’re the Messiah” – in other words, “You’re the King God has sent to set us free, the one like David, the one who will make our nation great again”.

In the tradition of the day, the coming Messiah was seen as a glorious figure, a conquering hero like David. But what Jesus says next completely rewrites that script. He says that the Son of Man – another title for the Messiah – must suffer and be rejected by the religious establishment, and be killed, and then after three days rise again. Peter, the very one who has just had a moment of revelation that Jesus is the Messiah, takes Jesus aside and begins to rebuke him. But Jesus in his turn rebukes Peter: “Get behind me, Satan!” he says, “for your mind is on human things, not the things of God”. He then calls the crowd and his disciples together and says, “If any want to be my followers, they need to deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. If anyone tries to hang onto their life, they’ll lose it, but if they give it up for me and the gospel, they’ll save it”.

This is a hard word, and obviously causes Peter to rethink whether or not he wants to ‘listen to Jesus’. I think today we often misunderstand this passage. We think that ‘taking up the cross’ refers to going through suffering in general, so whatever my suffering might be, that’s my cross: it could be my difficult friend, my incurable illness, or even my domineering mother-in-law!

But that’s not what it meant in the time of Jesus. A person carrying a cross was a person who was going out to be crucified, and crucifixion was a punishment that the Romans used for rebels against the empire. Jesus was saying to his disciples, “I know you think I’m going to conquer the Romans, but I’m not. Quite the opposite, in fact; the Romans are going to conquer me! And if you want to follow me, you’ve got to be prepared be seen as a dangerous rebel, and to carry the cross as I’m going to carry it, and let the Romans conquer you as well!” In other words, instead of killing his enemies, Jesus was going to love his enemies to the point of death, and he was calling his disciples to walk the same road with him.

So this is the background to today’s passage. Can you imagine the confusion in the minds of the disciples? They’ve gradually come to understand that Jesus is more than just a wise human teacher or a prophet; he’s the Messiah, the Son of the living God. But now he seems to them to be taking a disastrous course. How could he be the Messiah if he was planning to be killed by his enemies? It couldn’t possibly be true. But if he was the Messiah, could he be wrong about this? Well, maybe he wasn’t the Messiah after all? Should they be listening to a man who might be a false Messiah? What should they do?

So now Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up a high mountain. When they reached the top, Jesus’ appearance was transformed, or transfigured, before them: his clothes, like Moses’ face, became dazzling bright – Mark adds the little detail that it was ‘brighter than any laundry you can imagine could ever bleach them!’ And suddenly Moses and Elijah appeared there, talking with Jesus.

The disciples, of course, were terrified, as you would be if you saw a friend of yours suddenly transformed into a figure of dazzling light and talking with two people you knew to be dead! Peter blurted out the first thing that came into his mind: “Rabbi, it’s good for us to be here; let’s make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah!” Mark comments that ‘he didn’t know what he was saying’.

And then comes another Old Testament resonance. In the story of Moses going up the mountain to meet God, God himself came down on the mountain in a cloud; later, when God led his people through the desert to the promised land, we read that he travelled with them as ‘a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night’. Now the cloud comes down over the three figures, including the one that looks like a pillar of fire, and they hear a voice from the cloud saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” And then the cloud fades away, and the disciples see that Moses and Elijah are gone, and only Jesus is there with them.

So what did these three disciples get out of this amazing experience? And what is Mark trying to tell his readers?

Many scholars believe that Mark wrote his gospel in Rome, in the mid-sixties of the first century A.D. During that time Nero was the Roman emperor, and he was the one who launched the first great persecution of Christians. It happened after the great fire of Rome; the rumour went around that Nero had started the fire for his own amusement, and he needed a convenient scapegoat, so he blamed the Christians. “You know those Christians”, he said; “They’re always telling us that the world is going to end in fire! They’re the ones who did it!” And so began a terrible time for the church in Rome. Christians were hung on poles, covered in pitch and set on fire as torches to light Nero’s processions. They were crucified, as Jesus had been crucified. They were thrown into the arena to be torn apart by lions. It seems likely that Peter and Paul both died in this persecution.

Mark wrote his gospel in the context of this time of great suffering. Part of his job in writing the story of Jesus must have been to make sense of what the Christians were going through. We can be sure that many of them were tempted to lose their faith. Why was God letting the Romans do this to them? Was Jesus really Lord, or was he powerless to help them? And shouldn’t they take up the sword and defend themselves?

You can be sure that when Mark reminded his first readers of the words of Jesus about denying yourself, taking up your cross and following Jesus, he had their suffering in mind. He knew that many of them were in danger of losing their lives for the sake of Jesus and the gospel. He was reminding them that Jesus walked the way of the Cross, the way of loving your enemies, and he had called his followers to do the same thing, because we believe in a God who loves his enemies and causes the sun and rain to fall on the good and bad alike.

So what is this story teaching us about who Jesus is, and what he is asking of us who follow him?

Here we have Moses and Elijah, these two revered figures from Israel’s past, standing on the mountain with Jesus. These disciples loved their Master, but I’m pretty sure that until now it had never entered their mind that he could possibly be greater than Moses and Elijah. To put it another way, they would not have expected the voice from heaven to say, ‘This is my Beloved Son; listen to him’, but rather, ‘Here are the Law and the Prophets; listen to them!’

Nonetheless, the voice from heaven points not to Moses and Elijah, but to Jesus. Mark wants us to understand that he is the one the Law and the Prophets have been pointing to. In his life and teaching he fulfils the Law, and the Prophets foretold his coming. The Old Testament scriptures told the story of God’s people, and he is the climax the story has been leading to. So honour Moses and Elijah, yes, and the scriptures they represent, but ‘listen to him’ – listen to Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God.

We Christians believe that Jesus is not just one great religious leader among many. We believe that he is the incarnate Son of God – that in him God has come among us in a unique way. We don’t believe that every other religious figure in the world is wrong about everything – in fact, we believe that God has spoken in many and various ways to people down through the ages. But we do believe that because Jesus is the unique Son of God, he is God’s highest and most accurate Word to us. Above all other, we should ‘Listen to him’.

We believe this in theory, but here’s the million-dollar question: Do we in fact ‘listen to him’?

For us today, we don’t very often hear the voice of Jesus speaking to us in an audible way. A few individuals do have this experience, and I’m sure it’s a very wonderful thing, but most of us don’t. Some people find that a problem. I had a woman ask me once, “So now I’ve given my life to Jesus, I don’t really know what I’m supposed to do next!”

Fortunately for us, ninety percent of the will of God for us is the same for everyone. Jesus has come among us and spoken his word. He’s explained the Old Testament scriptures to us and applied them to our lives. He’s given us a clear picture of what God is like, and he’s also given us a clear picture of God’s will for us as human beings.

You don’t need me to tell you what that’s all about; you hear the gospels read every week, and I hope you read them for yourselves too. Jesus told us to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. He told us to love our neighbours as ourselves, to love our enemies and pray for those who hate us, to forgive those who sin against us, even as much as seventy times seven. He told us not to accumulate possessions but to live simply and give to the poor. He told us that when we have something against a brother or sister we’re not to gossip about them but to go straight to them and talk it over. He told us that when we give a dinner party we shouldn’t only invite our friends and rich neighbours, but the poor and needy as well.

And it’s not just Jesus’ words; it’s his actions as well. The Book of Common Prayer tells us to bring the ‘teaching and example of Christ into our everyday life’. I think about the way he treated women and children as his equals. I think about the way he ignored barriers telling him who he should spend time with and who he shouldn’t. I think about the way he made prayer the centre of his life, sometimes even taking whole nights in prayer with his heavenly Father, and being willing to go on long fasts as he as seeking God’s guidance.

My friends, I don’t need a special, private word from Jesus telling me what to do. I could spend the rest of my life working on the things he’s already told us, and never get to the end of it!

I must admit – because I’m a sinner like anyone else – that there are times when I’m tempted to stop listening to Jesus. If you have two coats, give one of them away to someone who doesn’t have one. Does that apply to my two cars? My two very nice guitars? And how do I sell my possessions and give to the poor in a freezing cold province like Alberta? So it’s not always easy to know how to apply Jesus’ teaching, and this is where we really do need to pray and listen to the guidance of the Holy Spirit – which will often come as we talk these things out together.

This Lent we’re going to try very hard to listen to Jesus as a parish. I’ve sent out a list of Bible readings, five days a week, that will take us through the Gospel of Mark in the season of Lent and the first part of Easter. Along with the list of readings, I’ve given some suggestions as to how we might spend a daily time of Bible reading in such a way that we don’t just skim through the text, but really take time to listen to what God might be saying to us in it. I hope that, if you don’t already have a daily discipline of Bible reading, you might join us in this journey through Mark. If your email address is on our parish list you would have received the list of readings a few days ago, and there are some paper copies on the table in the foyer.

‘Listen to him’. But sometimes, sadly, it’s true that (in the words of Paul Simon) ‘A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest’. I confess to you, my brothers and sisters, that there are times when I’ve treated the words of Jesus in that way: I’ve heard what I wanted to hear and disregarded the rest.

So this Lent, I’m going to try to remind myself who Jesus is: ‘the word became flesh and lived among us’ (John 1:14). I’m going to ask him to help me really listen to him, with my whole heart, and to put into practice the things that I hear. I hope you’ll do the same.

Spirituality and Discipleship: Definitions

walking-349991_640What is spirituality? To me, spirituality is a pattern of habits that helps us experience the love of God through conscious contact with God’s presence, and helps us share that love with our neighbours.

What is discipleship? I learned a new definition of this from Bishop Jane Alexander last night: Discipleship is living and sharing the Jesus-shaped life.

I think those two pretty well cover the most important parts of being a Christian.

Steering into the Skid (a sermon on Matthew 16:21-28)

Looking around the congregation this morning I see that quite a few of you are old enough to have learned to drive on a car with rear-wheel drive. Could you just raise your hand if you learned to drive on a rear-wheel drive car? Thank you. Do you remember what it was like the first time you drove a front-wheel drive car? Everything was in the same place, but somehow it felt different when you were driving, didn’t it?

There was one particular area of driving where it not only felt different – it was very different. Those of you who learned to drive on a rear-wheel drive car: do you remember what they told us to do when we got into a skid? We were supposed to steer into it! This of course felt completely wrong and counter-intuitive; if you’d lost control of your car and it was sliding toward the ditch, the natural thing to do was to steer away from the ditch, not toward it! But given that the back wheels were the driving wheels and the front wheels were the steering wheels, what was necessary was to get the front and back wheels in line with each other again, so as to bring the car under control. That’s why they told us to steer into the skid; it was a better way to regain control of your car.

Or so my driving instructor told me! I must say that the few times I ever went into a skid, I don’t think I did as I was told! Natural instinct was to steer away from the skid, and when you lose control of a car, it’s usually natural instinct that takes over. It’s so difficult to do the things we know in our head will work, when they just feel completely wrong.

This is a problem Christians have to face all the time. So often in our walk with Jesus we run into paradoxes: things that don’t seem to make sense, but that Jesus seems to think are right at the centre of Christian life. The first will be last. If you want to be the first in the kingdom, then be the servant of all the others. The tax collectors and prostitutes are getting into the kingdom before the religious leaders. The wisdom of God is foolishness to the world. And, in today’s gospel reading, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25). What’s this all about?

This week’s gospel reading follows hard on the heels of last week’s. Last week we read about Jesus gathering his disciples together and asking them a question: “Who do people say I am?” They replied, “Some say you’re John the Baptist, or Elijah or Jeremiah or one of the other prophets”. “What about you?” he asked them; “Who do you say that I am?” Peter replied, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God”. Jesus affirmed that this was the right answer and he told Peter that it was God who had revealed this truth to him.

Remember: in the time of Jesus the word ‘Messiah’ or ‘Christ’ was not just a religious word; it was a political word too. Israel lived under Roman rule, aided by corrupt Jewish leaders who were doing quite well out of the Roman occupation. That couldn’t be right, people thought; they were God’s chosen people and God would surely liberate them. God would send a king like good old King David in the past; he would drive out their enemies and set up a good and honest government in Jerusalem. He would protect the poor and the widow and the orphan and restore peace and justice to Israel. That was the Messiah’s job description.

So if Jesus is the Messiah, what’s the plan? Surely the next move is to develop a strategy for taking over the government. We should march on Jerusalem, pick up some more supporters on the way, choose our moment carefully, pray for God’s help, then stage a surprise attack, take over the Temple and have Jesus crowned as King of Israel in the royal line of David. Jesus is the true Messiah, so God will vindicate him by giving him victory over his enemies; Herod and Pontius Pilate will get what they deserve, and we’ll have peace and justice forever. This is how God’s kingdom will come. This is how we will ‘gain the whole world’ (v.26).

But Jesus has a different idea. Yes, he’s going to go to Jerusalem, but the visit will be very different from what Peter and the others have in mind:

‘From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and the chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised’ (v.21).

This is really ‘steering into the skid’, isn’t it! Jesus is talking dangerous nonsense, and Peter thinks he needs to set him straight: “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you” (v.24). But then Jesus says the harshest words he ever said to a human being – and he says them to his closest friend and the leader of his disciples: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (vv.22-23).

What a terrible thing to say to his friend: ‘The Devil is speaking through you!’ Why was Jesus so harsh?

I think it was because it wasn’t the first time he had heard this temptation. Way back in the desert when he was tempted after his baptism, the Devil had told him, “I’ll give you all the kingdoms of the world if you bow down and worship me”. This wasn’t just about praying to the devil. This was about becoming like the one we worship. To worship the devil would have been to imitate his way of doing things – violence, coercion, oppression, killing, and all for the love of power. And this was a real temptation for Jesus, because everyone expected this was how the Messiah would win! David did it, Judas Maccabeus did it, the Zealots did it, so what would be wrong with Jesus doing it too?

The reason it would be wrong is that the Kingdom Jesus came to announce isn’t founded on violence and coercion. It’s about love from start to finish – God’s love for us, our love for God, our love for our neighbours, for the poor and needy, and even for our enemies. Setting up the Kingdom by violence wouldn’t change anything other than the name on the crown: ‘welcome to the new boss, same as the old boss’. Jesus had come to show something different: that if you’re faithful to the Father’s love even to the point of death, God will vindicate you. ‘And on the third day, he will be raised’. In effect Jesus was saying, “Trust me, people; steer into the skid, and God will make it come out right”.

This is the challenging thing for us today as followers of Jesus. Jesus not only took this road himself: he called us to follow after him. And so we read,

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?” (vv.24-26).

Crucifixion was a punishment that the Romans reserved for rebels against the Empire. They didn’t crucify embezzlers and petty thieves and religious fanatics. So when the people of occupied Judea saw a man carrying a cross out to a nearby hill with Roman soldiers around him, they knew what was coming: he was about to be executed. This is the bad news that Jesus is giving his followers. He was going to be executed by the Romans because they saw him as a threat to their authority, despite the fact that he’d never breathed a word of rebellion. He was going to respond as he had taught his followers, by loving his enemies and praying for them, not resisting and striking them down. “And you must do the same”, he told the disciples. “You must be totally committed to this Kingdom-of-God movement we’re starting, to the point of being willing to give your life and still love those who murder you. That’s what it means to be one of my disciples”.

It sounds like bad news but in fact it’s good news: Jesus is saying “This is the way to really find life”. You think you’ll find life by taking the easy way, the less challenging road? You won’t. Steer away from the skid and you’ll end up in the ditch. Steer into the skid – even though it feels totally wrong to do so – and to your surprise things will turn out right: “those who lose their life for my sake will find it”.

This is what it means to be a baptized Christian. When we’re baptized, or when we bring children to be baptized, this is what we’re signing up for. Paul says in his letter to the Romans, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (6:3).  It’s a wonderful thing to be baptized, to be washed from sin and evil and to be adopted as a child of God. But it’s also a difficult thing: it’s a total identification with Jesus and all he stands for. It’s a ‘no’ to the easy life, a ‘no’ to compromise, a ‘no’ to spending your whole life trying to be popular. It’s a ‘yes’ to following Jesus, a ‘yes’ to the way of love, a ‘yes’ to being faithful even when no one else goes with you.

How do we practice this in our daily lives? We’re not likely to be crucified for our allegiance to Jesus, so what does it mean for us to take up our cross and follow him?

I think two things. First, it means not being ashamed of him. It means not being ashamed to identify ourselves as his followers, not being ashamed to say “Yes, I’m a Christian, a follower of Jesus”.

Personally, I think it’s important to go further than just identifying ourselves as churchgoers. The Church is an institution, but Jesus is the Son of God, the one we follow as our Saviour and Lord. He’s the one who has revealed God to us. I think it’s important for us to identify with him personally. I’m not a Church-follower; I’m a Jesus-follower, someone who’s learning to see life as Jesus sees it, and to live life as he taught it.

Secondly, it means that if we get into trouble because of our loyalty to Jesus, we respond with love, not belligerence. There’s a lot of belligerence out there these days, especially in social media. It’s not just the new atheists; there seem to be many people who are angry at the Church, at organized religion, at the people they see as ‘hypocrites’ who go to church but don’t practice what they preach. Identify yourself as a follower of Jesus, and sooner or later these folks will come out of the woodwork.

It doesn’t help for us to respond in kind, and it doesn’t remind people of the Jesus we’re claiming to follow. Jesus has told us clearly how to respond: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27-28). That’s what it means to take up your cross and follow Jesus. Take it up; don’t throw it back at them. As Paul puts it in today’s epistle, ‘Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good’ (Romans 12:21).

This is the commitment we make as Christians; this is the price we pay for our allegiance to Jesus. We don’t tend to talk much about this in churchland, because we don’t want to frighten off the customers! But I don’t think we do people any favours by not talking about it. And incidentally, it doesn’t usually attract faithful customers either. Statistics have shown over and over again that churches that aren’t afraid to challenge their members – to call them to commitment – tend to be the ones that grow.

Why? Because people respond to a challenge. People want a cause, something worthwhile to live for, even if it involves hardship. How many times have I heard family members of soldiers who died in Afghanistan say “He died doing what he believed in. He thought it was really important, and that’s why he was there”. That’s the sort of commitment Jesus is calling for. His kingdom-of-God movement is going to change the world in a revolution of love. Yes, it’s going to involve suffering and hardship, but the final goal will be well worth the effort. Jesus is looking for people who are willing to pay that price and make that commitment. He has a name for them: ‘disciples’. We call them ‘Christians’.

I once heard my Dad say, “Some people take their Christianity like a vaccination: they inject themselves with a little bit of it in order to protect themselves against the real thing”. And it’s true: some people do treat church like that. Yes, let’s go on Sunday once or twice a month; that way when someone asks us we can say, “Yes, we’re religious, we believe in God, we go to church”. That should be enough for God, surely! But we don’t like this talk about total commitment. After all, we’re not fanatics or fundamentalists, you know!

In today’s gospel, Jesus is telling us that following him will cost everything and give everything. His call to us this morning is simply this: ‘Steer into the skid’. It feels like the stupidest thing to do, doesn’t it? “Come and follow me in the way of the Cross”. Be totally committed to this Kingdom movement, to the point that there is nothing you wouldn’t do for God and for his Son Jesus Christ. No matter what people say about you, no matter what they do to you, keep on following Jesus. If you do this, Jesus says, you won’t regret it. On the contrary: you’ll find your true life.

You can’t enjoy the view without climbing the mountain. You can’t be a great jazz improviser without practicing your scales. You can’t win the marathon without the pain of daily training and a willingness to stick with it when your legs and your lungs are screaming out “Stop!” And you can’t find the true joy of being a Christian without taking up your Cross and following Jesus. So let’s take up the challenge and walk the way of the Cross with Jesus. He assures us that we will find it to be the way of life and blessing, so let’s put our trust in him and do as he says.

Who is my neighbour?

When I was young I understood the word ‘neighbour’ to have a very specific meaning: the person who lives next door.

Occasionally it would be extended a bit. In a small village of a few hundred people, many of them related to each other, the term ‘neighbour’ might reasonably be applied to everyone in the community. Or in the inner-city (like Woodland Road in Leicester, where I spent the first few years of my life), it might mean other people who lived on the same street. 

But ‘neighbour’ always implied proximity. And usually (although this was rarely spelled out) it also involved similarity: neighbours are people like us.

Jesus, however, had a different definition. Let me quote it to you in full:

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.’

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’ (Luke 10:25-37, NRSV)

Let me point out two things about this passage.

First, Jesus refuses to answer the lawyer’s question, ‘Who is my neighbour?’. That’s because it’s the wrong question. The lawyer thinks the commandments are an entrance exam he has to pass in order to receive eternal life. He wants to know what the pass mark is: what’s the least he can get away with? That being the case, if there are fifty people in his village and only twenty of them qualify as his ‘neighbours’, why would he waste time loving the other thirty? There’s nothing in it for him!

Jesus, however, sees things differently. To him, the commandments are not an entrance exam, they are a description of what eternal life looks like. Growing in joyful obedience to those commandments is what our life is going to be about, now and forever, until we are reshaped into people who obey them not out of obligation, but out of delight. They aren’t an exam that we will complete: they are our new way of life.

So Jesus refuses to answer the lawyer’s question because he doesn’t accept the premise it’s based on. And this leads to the second thing: Jesus’ redefinition of the word  ‘neighbour’. ‘Neighbour’ isn’t a description of a person who lives near us and who looks like us; it’s a description of the relationship between a person in need and the person who stops to help them. A person in need, whether I know them or not, is my neighbour. When I stop to help them, I am behaving like a true neighbour to them.

And it’s not an accident that Jesus chooses to make this an inter-racial story. The Samaritans were mixed-bloods, with centuries of animosity between them and the ‘pure’ Jews of Judea. But a Samaritan was the one who stopped to help this (presumably Jewish) victim of a mugging, while the priest and the Levite (also Jewish) refused to do so. They refused to be neighbours to the man in need; the Samaritan chose to be a neighbour.

In recent weeks we have seen shocking racial hatred, especially today in Charlottesville, Virginia. This hatred is antithetical to the message of Jesus Christ. Jesus recognizes no boundaries; he crosses borders, reaches out to all people, treats Samaritans and Roman soldiers (and women, children, tax collectors and prostitutes) with respect, and tells us that we are even required to love our enemies. There is no escape from the command to love, because it is the nature of the God we believe in, a God who loves his enemies.

I want to say as clearly as I can that any kind of racism – against aboriginal people, against black folks, against Asians, against Jewish people or Muslims (although ‘Muslim’ is a religion, not a race) or anyone else – is totally antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The God Jesus taught us about is the God who created everyone and loves everyone. The Church must stand clearly for the message, and live it out in its daily life. 

I would be the first to admit that we in the Church have often fallen short of this. We have allowed our governments to tells us it’s okay to hate and kill people it calls our enemies. We have colluded with the state in the sinfully misguided and wicked institution of the Residential Schools. And we continue to drag our feet on recognizing the rights of the original inhabitants of this country. So yes, we have a lot to repent of.

But let’s not fail to name the goal we’re aiming for. Let’s be clear: Jesus calls us to be neighbours to one another, to love one another, to help those in need whether they are ‘like us’ or not. One of his early followers, Saul of Tarsus, taught that in Christ ‘there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:28). 

All one. The Church is called to demonstrate before the watching world what a reconciled humanity looks like. The Church is called to live this love, and then to share it with others and invite them into it. And we cannot do that if we allow ourselves to be divided along lines of race. To allow that would be a complete betrayal of our message.

We are one family. So let us do our best to live as one family, and refuse to let the power of evil divide us.

Random Lent Thought for Maundy Thursday: Humble Service

washing-feet-ghislaine howard

The word ‘Maundy’ comes from the Latin word ‘maundatum’, which means ‘commandment’ (we get the word ‘mandatory’ from ‘maundatum).

In the Upper Room, at the Last Supper, after washing his disciples’ feet, Jesus said to them: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35, NIV 2011).

It has often been pointed out that ‘love one another’ was not a new command; something very like it appears several times in the Old Testament, and Jesus had previously given it to his disciples.

What is new is the description of the love: ‘As I have loved you’. The disciples are instructed to imitate Jesus in loving one another.

What specific acts of Jesus are in view here?

At the beginning of the chapter John says of Jesus, ‘Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end’ (John 13:1). This is clearly looking forward to the story of the cross. So we can say without hesitation that we’re called to imitate the love Jesus showed for us in the cross. This is sacrificial love, not ‘feeling’ love. Jesus doesn’t show the disciples his feeling of love by dying on the cross for them. The dying is the act of love. ‘Grater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends’ (John 15:13).

So we’re called to be ready and willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for one another. Am I ready to do that? Probably not. Maybe I need to pray on that.

But I suspect there’s something more pressing for me to pray on. The other way Jesus loved his disciples was to wash their feet. This was the slave’s job, but for some reason no slave had done it that night. Consequently, after spending the day walking the dusty streets of Jerusalem in open sandals, Jesus and his disciples were now reclining on low couches around a table, their feet literally in each other’s faces. The omission would have been painfully obvious.

Apparently no one was willing to do the slave’s job, so Jesus got up and did it. When he was done, he said, “Do you understand what I have done for you? You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord’, and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you” (John 13:12-15, NIV 2011).

Many churches (ours included) will remember this action of Jesus tonight by having foot washing services. I love this custom, but let’s not kid ourselves that this is real obedience to Jesus’ command. Foot washing today is unusual and exotic, but in the time of Jesus it was a mundane task of humble service.

What are the tasks like that today? The simple, humble tasks we do for others as ways of loving them? We make each other cups of tea and coffee. We prepare meals and clean up after them. We change smelly diapers. We clean up messy houses. We care for aged relatives as they lose control over their bodily functions. We support organizations working in refugee camps. We sit with difficult people and listen to their problems, for the forty-seventh time.

We used to have a saying in the college i attended: “I’ll die for you, but I won’t run up to the third floor to fetch your sweater for you”. It’s highly unlikely that I will be called on to die for my fellow Christians (though it may happen). But it’s absolutely certain that today and every day I will be called on to die to selfishness and self-centredness by performing humble acts of service for my sisters and brothers in Christ.

I am not very good at this. Lord, have mercy, and help me follow the footsteps of Christ.

(Painting by Ghislaine Howard. For more of her work see ghislainehoward.com)

(This will be my last RLT this year. Thanks to all who have read and commented, here and on Facebook!)