Clean

‘And then (Jesus) added, “It is what comes from inside that defiles you. For from within, out of a person’s heart, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, wickedness, deceit, lustful desires, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness. All these vile things come from within; they are what defile you.”’ (Mark 7.20-23 New Living Translation)

The verses immediately before this passage are a discussion about eating ritually clean and unclean foods. That doesn’t tend to be a big issue in Christianity today, but many of us still seem to believe that ritual acts can purify us.

Jesus takes a different view. What goes into the body doesn’t makes you dirty; it’s what comes out of your heart that does that. He lists all the ‘vile things’ that spew out from us into the world on a regular basis. Want to be clean? Work on changing that list!

But how do we do that? Well, we’re told in several places in the New Testament that love is the fulfilling of the law. Love is also the first fruit of the Holy Spirit and the theme of Jesus’ great commandments. As we gradually learn to centre our lives on loving God, our neighbour, and ourselves, we will find these ‘vile things’ getting weaker, and eventually shrivelling away to nothing.

So let’s work on practising love for God, our neighbour and ourselves, and let’s pray that as we do so, the Holy Spirit will cleanse the poisoned well within and transform us on the inside into people formed and shaped by love.

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The Greatest Commandment

‘Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees came together in a body, and one of them tried to catch him out with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the law?” He answered, ‘“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ That is the greatest, the first commandment. The second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ Everything in the law and the prophets hangs on these two commandments.”’ (Matthew 22.34-40 REB)

It’s interesting that Jesus doesn’t choose one of the Ten Commandments, which I suppose were regarded with special respect as having come from the finger of God. But Jesus is looking for the simplest possible overarching principle that will sum up (not replace) all the other commandments, and he finds it in love.

‘Love cannot wrong a neighbour, therefore love is the fulfillment of the Law’ (Romans 13.10). But love is much more than the fulfilment of the Law. It’s possible to imagine someone saying “I’ve obeyed the Law perfectly.” It’s not possible to imagine a spouse saying to their loved one, “I’ve loved you perfectly, so there’s nothing left for me to do.” Love has inexhaustible scope for growth. Love is wholehearted, joyful, willing.

But I’m not there yet. Sometimes my love is joyful and willing, sometimes it’s a grudging, grit my teeth and do as I’m told kind of thing. Nevertheless, I offer it to you, God, knowing that in the Bible action is love, and praying that my feelings will follow my actions in good time. Amen.

(Today’s One Year Bible Passages are Exodus 17:8 – 19:15, Matthew 22:34 – 23:12, Psalm 27:7-14, and Proverbs 6:27-35)

God meant to bring good out of it

‘But Joseph replied, “Do not be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You meant to do me harm; but God meant to bring good out of it by preserving the lives of many people, as we see today.”‘ (Genesis 50.19-20 REB)

Do me a favour — don’t quote this verse to someone going through a difficult time. They won’t find it convincing.

It’s interesting that Joseph doesn’t speak these words when he’s sold into slavery as a seventeen year old, or when Potiphar casts him in prison. He says it at the end of the story, when he’s a great leader in Egypt. At that point he can look back on his story and see how God has been at work turning the evil plans of his brothers into good. But I doubt if he would have been able to see that at the beginning of the story.

That’s often the way it is when we go through hardship. Up front, it’s difficult for us to see what God is up to. And anyway, we don’t want to think of him doing this to us. If he is, we don’t want anything to do with him! Actually, I don’t think God causes evil. But I do think God is an old hand at bringing good out of evil.

But as I said, don’t quote this verse to a person in the middle of great suffering. What they need is someone who’ll make them a cup of tea, sit with them, listen to their pain, and help them know they’re not alone. Later, they’ll be able to look back and see how God has brought good out of their troubles. Don’t try to rush that process. Leave it in God’s hands.

(Today’s One-Year Bible readings are Genesis 50:1 — Exodus 2:10, Matthew 16:13 – 17:9, Psalm 21, and Proverbs 5:1-6)

What Does Success Look Like? (a sermon for Nov. 4th on Mark 12.28-34)

If you were to make a list of the most successful people alive today, I think Bill Gates would surely be on it. He co-founded Microsoft in 1975, and forty-three years later it’s a mighty force in the world of computer software. And of course Bill Gates has done quite well out of this. As of this year his net worth was calculated at $97.9 billion, so, as the Irish say, he’s not short of two pennies to rub together!

 

It’s interesting, though, that over the past fifteen years or so Bill Gates seems to have taken a different tack altogether, as he and his wife Melinda have given vast sums of money to charitable projects in developing countries. To take just one aspect of the work of their ‘Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – the ‘Global Development Program’ – their organization is currently funding projects supporting agricultural development, financial services for the poor, water, sanitation and hygiene, libraries, and emergency response programs around the world. If all this work has come from a genuine desire to help others, then it demonstrates that even Bill Gates has discovered that business success by itself isn’t enough. Maybe he’s begun to redefine what success means to him.

 

So if we want to be successful in life, what should we aim for? How does God define success? Fortunately, Jesus hasn’t left us in the dark about this; this is exactly what today’s gospel reading is about. A scribe comes up to Jesus and asks him “Which commandment is the first of all?” (Mark 12:28), and the answer Jesus gives is a very clear picture of what success looks like in God’s eyes. He says,

“The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:29-31)

Let’s take a closer look at these verses and ask three questions about them.

 

Question One: Is this, in fact, the central Christian message?Sometimes in workshops I’ve asked people to define in one or two sentences what they think the essential message of Christianity is. I’ve noticed that many people respond with some variation on these words of Jesus, especially the second commandment he quotes, “love your neighbour”. So let’s think carefully about this; is Jesus saying that these two commandments are the central message of Christianity?

 

Look at the question Jesus was asked. It wasn’t, “What’s the essential Christian message?” It was more limited: “Which commandment is the first of all?” In his response Jesus isolates two commands from Deuteronomy and Leviticus, the commands to love God and love our neighbour.

 

But let me ask you: which comes first in the Christian life, our love for God or God’s love for us? In the first letter of John we read these words:

‘In this is love; not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another… We love because he first loved us’ (1 John 4:10-11, 19).

In the New Testament the Christian message is called the ‘Gospel’, which means the Good News. Commandments aren’t news, so commandments can’t be the Gospel. John tells us that the Good News isn’t that we love God, but that God loved us and sent Jesus to die for our sins.

 

Mark Twain once said “It’s not the things I don’t understand in the Bible that bother me; it’s the things I do!” I agree! I understand the commandments very well; my problem is I can’t seem to keep them! Every week when we come to church we all confess together our disobedience to these very commandments: ‘We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbour as ourselves’. If all Jesus is going to do for me is define the commandments more accurately, that’s not going to help me very much, is it? It doesn’t sound like good news to me.

 

No; the Good News is that Jesus came into the world as a human being to heal our broken relationship with God. On the Cross he demonstrated God’s forgiveness for our sins and gave us hope that our broken relationship with God could be healed. Through his resurrection he’s won the great victory over the forces of evil, and the New Testament tells us that God has made him ‘Lord of all’ (Acts 10:36). Now he invites everyone to come to him, put their trust in him, and receive the free gift of forgiveness and new life that he offers. And then – once our relationship with God is restored by Jesus – we can call on all God’s resources to help us obey these two great commandments – not out of fear of hell, but out of gratitude for God’s great love for us.

 

At the last supper Jesus got down from the table, put a towel around his waist and went around washing the dust off his disciples’ feet – the job of the household slave. Peter was offended; he thought it would be much more appropriate for himto wash Jesus’feet. But Jesus said to him “Unless I wash you, you have no part in me.” In other words, before we can do anything for Jesus, first of all we have to let Jesus do something for us. And before you and I attempt to obey these two great commandments, there’s a prior question we have to answer: have I come to Jesus and asked him to wash me, to restore my broken relationship with God? These two great commandments are intended for people who have received the Good News and are now asking the question “How can I show my gratitude for all the Lord has done for me?”

 

Question Two: What exactly is being commanded here? As an Englishman moving to Canada in the mid-1970s I soon discovered that even though we used the same language we didn’t always use the same dictionary. To me, a ‘napkin’ wasn’t a cloth you used at a meal to catch the crumbs on your lap; it was a baby’s diaper! The word we used for ‘napkin’ was ‘serviette’. And I very rarely used the term ‘vacuum cleaner’; we just called them all ‘hoovers’, and there was even a verb, ‘to hoover the rug’!

 

We often get into these kinds of dictionary problems when we read the Bible. It’s a very old collection of books and people had different ways of thinking when it was written. So when we hear Jesus telling us to love God and love our neighbour we assume that we know what he means by the word ‘love’. But we probably don’t. In our culture we use this word to describe an emotion, but the Greek language had other words for that: ‘storge’, which meant ‘affection’, ‘eros’, which meant passion or desire, or ‘phileo’,which meant the personal attachment we feel for family and friends. But the Greek word used in today’s passage is ‘agapé’, which is an action, not a feeling. It’s about practical, self-sacrificial care for another, whether we like them or not, whether we feel like it or not.

It would have helped me years ago to have known this. When I was a teenager I worked for a newsagent in our little village in England. One morning I went in to work and discovered there had been a terrorist bombing at a pub in London the night before. My boss said to me “I’m glad I’m not a Christian because you Christians are supposed to love your enemies. There’s no way I could love people who would do something like that”.

 

I had no answer for him at the time. However, if he said the same thing to me today, I would have replied something like this. “You’re right: no matter how hard I try, I don’t seem to be able to sit around and work up a good feeling for those people. But that’s not what Jesus is talking about. He’s telling me to actin a loving way toward them, rather than taking vengeance on them. I might not be able to feelgood toward someone who hurts me, but I can still bring them a cup of coffee when they’re tired and thirsty. That’s what Jesus is talking about”.

 

So Jesus’ two great commandments are not telling us to feelanything, but rather to love God and love our neighbour by our actions. Now: Question Three. How do I obey these commandments?What practical difference will they make to our lives?

 

It’s often been pointed out that when people are on their death beds their regrets are usually to do with relationships: their failure to love their friends and family as they would have liked, and especially their failure to spend more time with them. As the saying goes, very few people say on their death beds “I really wish I’d spent more time at the office!” Most of us understand that relationships are the central issue in life, and Jesus agrees with this. His two great commandments deal with our two fundamental relationships, with God and with our neighbours. If we get this wrong, we’ve missed the whole point of life, no matter how successful we may be in other areas. If we get this right, we’ve grasped the main issue, even if the rest of our life looks a little frayed around the edges.

 

The first great commandment gives us a description of four kinds of love we can offer to God in gratitude for what he’s done for us. These aren’t four separate watertight compartments of our personality – heart, soul, mind and strength. They’re four overlapping ways in which we offer God our love.

 

The ‘heart’ would not have meant ‘feelings’ to Jesus’ hearers as it does for us; they thought that feelings came from the bowels, not the heart! When they used ‘heart’ they meant the will– the part of us that makes choices and decisions. To love God with all our heart means to make choices that show his kingdom is my number one priority. ‘Soul’ in the Bible means ‘the whole person’; even today we sometimes say, “There were one hundred and thirty souls on board that ship” – ‘souls’ meaning ‘people’. ‘Mind’ tells us that we will have to think carefully about what this faithful life looks like. A purely emotional response isn’t good enough; we have to ask hard questions and think through the issues as well. And the word ‘strength’ shows that this won’t be easy; it will require effort and discipline and good old-fashioned stick-to-it-ive-ness!

 

In the second command we’re told to love our neighbour and Jesus gives us a guide as to how to do it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”. Remember again that Jesus isn’t using a feeling word here. He’s drawing our attention to the way we instinctively care for ourselves. When my body tells me it’s cold, I put on a sweater or turn up the thermostat. When my body tells me it’s hungry, I feed it as soon as possible. Jesus is challenging us to give this same practical care to others.

 

And note the immediacy of the word Jesus uses: ‘love your neighbour’. My neighbours are first of all the people I rub shoulders with regularly – my wife and children, the people who live on my street, the people I work with, the people who serve me coffee at my favourite coffee shop, my fellow Christians at church, and so on. How would Jesus treat them? What would he say to them? What would he do for them? I’m to follow his way of living by treating them as he would treat them.

 

In Luke’s version of this story Jesus gives a concrete example of neighbour love, in the parable of the Good Samaritan. A man gets beaten up and left for dead by the roadside on the way to Jericho; a priest and a Levite both see him, but they do nothing to help. But a man from Samaria sees him, stops and helps him, puts him on his donkey and takes him to where he can get proper medical care. That’s how to be a neighbour: it means keeping your eyes open to the needs of ordinary people in your daily life, and doing what you can to help them.

 

So let’s sum up what we’ve learned. These two great commandments aren’t the Gospel: the Gospel is the good news that Jesus has lived and died and risen again to heal our broken relationship with God. All people are invited to put their faith in him and come to God through him, as a free gift. When we’ve done that, then these two great commandments will guide us about how to live in gratitude to the one who has loved us so absolutely. They don’t refer to feelings,but loving actionsby which we serve God and serve our neighbours. And they concern the fundamental issue of life: relationships, with God and with other people.

 

Let me conclude by saying again that this is ‘success’ in God’s eyes. Harold Percy says that when some people die, God will have to write this epitaph for them: ‘Brilliant performance, but he missed the whole point.’ The most important questions in life don’t deal with how successful my business is, or how rich or poor I am, or how fat or thin I am, or how pretty or plain I am. In Anthony Burgess’ novel about the Book of Acts he has the disciples saying over and over again “The time is coming when we will be questioned about love.” That’s the main issue.

 

Have I joyfully accepted the unconditional love of God from the hands of Jesus? And am I living out my gratitude for that love by loving God with my whole heart, soul, mind and strength, and my neighbour as myself? In the end, these are the only two questions that will matter. Everything else will be irrelevant. As the saying goes, the important thing is to keep the important thing the important thing! And Jesus is absolutely clear what the important thing is.

2018 Random Lent Thought #34: God’s Love for Us Always Comes First

We began Lent this year on Valentine’s Day, which seemed appropriate, since Lent is about discipleship and discipleship is all about love.

But let’s remember that the fundamental love is not our love for God; it’s God’s love for us. Long before we ever thought of loving God, God loved us with an indestructible love.

So let’s close these Random Lent Thoughts for 2018 with a passage of scripture that sums it all up:

‘Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

‘This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit.And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.

‘God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

‘We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister’. (1 John 4:7-21 NIV)

2018 Random Lent Thought #11: Neighbours and Foreigners

Sometimes our Lent disciplines can be overly individualistic. We think about our own prayer, our own fasting, our own self-denial, our own individual relationship with God. But God has a different vision. To God, holiness is social as well as personal.

This morning in my ‘One Year Bible’ readings I read Leviticus 19-20, the so-called ‘holiness code’. It begins with the famous words “Be holy, because I, Yahweh your God, am holy” (19:2). But it immediately begins to define holiness in social terms: respect your father and mother; keep the Sabbath (in modern Judaism, that is very much a community discipline, and I expect the same was true in ancient times); don’t harvest your field or vineyard so thoroughly that you don’t leave something behind for the poor; don’t steal, lie, deceive one another; don’t defraud your neighbour; don’t hold back the wages of a day-labourer overnight; don’t pervert justice by showing partiality in court to either rich or poor; don’t slander your neighbour or endanger their life; love your neighbour as yourself (this is just a selection from 19:3-18).

The one that really struck me was this one: ‘When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God’ (Leviticus 19:33-34).

So they were commanded not only to love their neighbour as themselves, but the foreigner living among them – the immigrant, the refugee – as well. So all the commands about how you treat your neighbour also applied to how you treated the foreigner.

“Isn’t it awful – refugees and immigrants who haven’t paid taxes here get just the same benefits as us!” Well, in Leviticus God apparently disagrees with that sentiment. ‘The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born’.

We must not avoid thinking about these things during Lent. The way I treat my neighbour is an integral part of my relationship with God. This is not just about warm feelings and kind words; it’s about basic honesty, justice, and respect.

On Ash Wednesday we read from Isaiah 58, in which God rebukes the Israelites for following the prescribed fasts but not caring about their neighbours. ‘Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter – when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?’ (Isaiah 58:6-7; the whole chapter is worth a re-read today).

Lent is not just about ‘me and God’, because holiness is not just about ‘me and God’. Both are social. After all, Jesus has told us that the way we treat people in need is the way we treat him (Matthew 25:31-46).

How will we treat our Lord today when he comes to us in our neighbour?