The Bible in a Year – 29 October

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29 October. Matthew chapters 13-14

In the first of these chapters, Jesus uses several stories (parables) to try and explain what he called the “kingdom of heaven” – the new way of life with God that he came to bring.  Even his closest disciples did not understand these stories at first telling, so he had to explain the meaning of them.  The parables are intended to be mulled over by the hearer until they make sense in their own situation.  We are expected to ask ourselves, for example, “am I like the seed that is growing among thorns, letting the cares of the world choke the growth of God’s life in me?” (13:22) or “when the time of judgement comes, will I look more like a useful stalk of wheat or a useless weed in God’s kingdom? (12:40-43).

Not all the parables were about farming: others would have made sense to housewives, merchants or fishermen.   Jesus used as many ways as he could to explain his teaching to people from all walks of life.  Yet, in the last section of chapter 13, the very people who knew him best – his immediate family and other families in his home village of Nazareth – rejected him, for they thought they knew him too well.  Instead of being the famous preacher who walked into town one day and started to work miracles, he was to them just Joseph and Mary’s son, who had walked out on his family and now returned.  Unlike the prodigal son of one of his own parables, he was not welcomed back with open arms but with suspicion.

On top of that, in chapter 14 Jesus hears that his relative, the prophet John (“the Baptist”), had been killed by King Herod who now feared that Jesus was the same prophet come back to life.  Clearly Herod had not been paying attention, for John had baptised Jesus, and their approaches to proclaiming the Kingdom of Heaven were quite different.    So it is not surprising that Jesus went away by himself, badly in need of solitude to deal with this bereavement, the rejection by his own neighbours and the implied threat to his life.  Yet that is just when he found himself surrounded by crowds desperate for more of his teaching.  Their physical need for food prompted perhaps Jesus’ best known miracle, the feeding of five thousand men and their families with a small quantity of bread and fish.  Other people’s needs always came first for him, however great his own.  Only with that attitude, made possible by the Spirit of God within him, could he face the ultimate test of the Cross.

Going back to Jesus’ family, perhaps the experience of meeting the needs of the crowds with both words and food persuaded him that his ministry to others was more important than his family, for at the end of this chapter he declares in response to the statement that they are wanting to see him, “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”  From that declaration we get the idea that all of us who put our trust in Jesus can call ourselves sisters and brothers – not only of each other, but of Jesus the Son of God, thereby claiming the status of children of God for ourselves.  But it is only Jesus’ self-sacrifice that makes that possible.

The Bible in a Year – 28 October

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28 October. Matthew chapters 10-12

In these chapters, we see Jesus offering an intensive training course in evangelism to his disciples; then comparing himself with John the Baptist and with other figures in scripture such as the prophet Jonah (whose three days in a sea monster are seen as a prophecy of Jesus’ three nights in the tomb after Good Friday) and the “suffering servant” of the prophet Isaiah.

Given how much Jesus did and taught, and the relatively short length of each of the Gospels (restricted presumably by the length of the scrolls they were written on), the writers had to be economical with the material available.  So we rarely read of Jesus saying the same thing twice, though no doubt he did – any teaching is learnt best by being repeated several times.  But there is one phrase that occurs both in yesterday’s reading from chapter 9 when Jesus is criticised for eating in the house of a tax collector, and in 12:7 when he is criticised for letting his disciples pluck grain in a field on the Sabbath (and therefore “working” on the day when work was forbidden): “I desire mercy and not sacrifice”.   This is what seems to have angered him most: people who were more concerned with the detailed religious rules that had been developed over the generations, than with the broad sweeping principles on which they were based, of which God’s mercy is the greatest.   St James uses a similar phrase: “mercy triumphs over judgement”.

Just as in yesterday’s reading, we saw that Jesus brought hope to the hopeless as much as healing to the sick, so today the overall message is one of God’s mercy being behind his whole ministry of gathering and sending his disciples.   That may be another reason why he mentioned Jonah, who was angry with God when God was merciful to the people of Nineveh: Jonah would have preferred judgement over mercy, but “something greater than Jonah is here!” (12:41) – it was time for mercy to take its rightful place.

The Bible in a Year – 27 October

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27 October. Matthew chapters 8-9

In these two chapters we see Jesus doing what he was, in his lifetime, best known for – healing people.  In the course of what might have been only a few days, he heals eleven specific people from a range of conditions – leprosy, paralysis, fever, haemorrhage, blindness, dumbness, demon possession and even death (or a death-like trance).  It is clear that there were many more such miracles, too many to be recounted individually.  The impact he had on the towns and villages around the lake of Galilee/Capharnaum must have been tremendous.    These stories of healing also provide the setting for other developments in the story of Jesus told in between them – the calling of disciples (including Matthew himself), stilling the storm on the lake with a spoken word, and at the end of chapter 9, the command to “send labourers into the harvest”, that is to share in his work of bringing good news.

What was the good news, and how did it relate to these physical and spiritual healings?  I have just been reading a newsletter from one of the charities we support – CAP, Christians Against Poverty.  Their work is primarily helping people trapped in unsustainable debt to get out of the hole that they have dug themselves into. Or, in many cases, which has been dug for them – domestic abuse, unemployment, mental health problems or physical handicap is frequently the trigger for a downward spiral that leaves people with not only no money and no means of paying off what they borrow, but also no hope.  So CAP see their ministry as also one of bringing hope.  By acting as agents to negotiating settlements with creditors on their behalf, by challenging unfair benefit decisions by government agencies, by helping people to budget what money they do have, and overall by befriending them and introducing them to the fellowship of the local church. In all these ways, they show people who have lost hope that it is possible to regain it.

Jesus also seems to have been a bringer of hope.  That is why he rarely simply healed a physical illness and moved on, but engaged with people’s deeper need.   The leper and the bleeding woman, outcast from Jewish society, were cleansed and reintroduced to their religious community; the centurion (Roman soldier) was told that he was ahead of the Jews in the queue to meet God; a paralysed man was assured of forgiveness for sin, before being made able to walk again.

When Jesus is criticised for eating and drinking while John the Baptist and the Pharisees were telling their followers to fast, his reply is in the form of a short parable about clothing and wineskins.   He explains, “The wedding guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they?” (9:15).  His ministry was one characterised by activity, joy and hope, and it rubbed off on most of those whom he met.  To those in the darkness of depression, debt or anything else that robs people of hope, Jesus comes to restore it.  The call to labour in his harvest field is also a call to share in this life-changing gift of hope.

The Bible in a Year – 26 October

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26 October. Matthew chapters 5-7

These chapters comprise the “Sermon on the Mount”, the fullest account we have of the direct teaching of Jesus about how to live a holy and fulfilled life.  It is presented as a single set of teachings, although it may actually be a summary of his teachings on many occasions. Any one of the short passages among them would be the basis for a sermon.  Indeed, a couple of years ago I wrote a series of Lent reflections for my London parish just on the Beatitudes (the first eleven verses of chapter 5). So I will revisit the introduction I gave then.

The opening verse of the “sermon” tells us “When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them.” That gives us the correct order of things.  First Jesus was present (and people knew it), secondly his disciples made time to come to him, and thirdly he spoke, and they learnt from him.   Learning from Jesus requires these three things us of us: to believe in him, to come to where he is (whether that is in a church meeting, or in our own quiet times at home) and to be ready to listen and learn.  And that means having the humility of the true scholar, of knowing that we have much to learn. In the words of an old hymn –

Come to my heart, O Thou wonderful love, come and abide,
Lifting my life, till it rises above envy and falsehood and pride,
Seeking to be: lowly and humble, a learner of Thee.
Robert Walmsley (1831-1905)

Before we go any further, we need to be clear what we mean by being “blessed”. The word “beatitude” comes from the Latin word for it (beatus).  The original Greek word is “makarios”.  Some modern versions of the Bible translate the word as “happy” but that can sound rather shallow – a feeling of happiness can be easily caused by all sorts of small things in life, and just as easily shattered when bad things happen.

The happiness that Jesus promises is something much more profound, and has little to do with the pleasures of life.  The sort of happiness we are looking at here is not the contentment of having all the material things we need, but the satisfaction of knowing that we are living God’s way and building right relationships with other people.  Turning away from the sort of behaviour that harms oneself or others, and living in a way that builds community.  Being at peace with God because we know we have put things right in some way.

The Bible in a Year – 25 October

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25 October. Matthew chapters 1-4

Well, there’s a surprise! As I have mentioned before, I am following an online Bible reading plan that’s supposed to be in the order the books of the Bible were written.  They don’t tell you in advance what the next day’s reading will be.  Suddenly we have moved from the letters to the Gospels.

But not for the first time, the good folks at Bible Gateway have got it wrong.  Every commentary I have seen or sermon heard that compares the gospels agrees that Mark was the first to be written, and that Matthew and Luke copied most of what Mark wrote, edited it a bit and added their own material.  So why we are getting Matthew first, I don’t know.  But here goes…

Matthew, it is widely believed, belonged to a community of Jewish Christians – those Jews who had accepted that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah or Christ.  Therefore in these opening chapters, and elsewhere in the book, Matthew appeals to the Jewish scriptures for evidence to support this.  To begin with, he produces a genealogy of Jesus that identifies him as the 42nd generation from Abraham in the male line, consisting of 14 generations from Abraham to David, 14 generations of kings to Jeconiah, and another 14 after the Babylonian exile.  This is suspiciously neat and symbolic (3 x 2 x 7) and the last third seems to include names not known from other Bible books, but the point is made: Jesus (or rather his father Joseph, for it is Matthew who gives us the legend of the virgin birth) is a direct descendant in the royal line.

Matthew it is who also gives us the stories of the Magi, Flight to Egypt and Massacre of the Holy Innocents, the stories we hear at Christmas time. At the end of this, we find Joseph, Mary and Jesus settling as returning refugees in Nazareth in Galilee without any suggestion that they had originally come from there. They would have had to make a new home and establish a place in a community.  Maybe that is why it was another 30 years or so before Jesus felt called to start his ministry, as he had to be accepted among the people before he could bring God’s word and power to them.

What is the application of that?  When I felt called to be a Reader (lay minister) in a church in London, I was fairly new to that community.  The Rector (parish priest) warned me that it would take ten years before the congregation fully accepted me as one of their leaders.  As it was, I moved to Yorkshire five years later, and after two years getting to know the congregation in a church here, I was licensed by the Bishop of Leeds as a Reader here.  Not quite the same as seeing the heavens opened and hearing the voice of God, but then Jesus was unique.    Will it take ten years for people to accept me as a leader?  Hopefully not – I think the priest in London was exaggerating – but even in the three years of Jesus’ amazing ministry of preaching and healing, after nearly thirty years living in Galilee, he met with opposition as much as praise.  I am aware that not everything I say will please all the people all the time, but I do try to listen to what God is saying, and pass that on.

The Bible in a Year – 24 October

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24 October. Romans chapters 14-16

Paul’s emphasis in this final section of his teaching to the Roman Christians is on avoiding causing offence.  The sort of things that he suggests could easily cause offence are observing holy days (14:5), or eating meat or drinking wine (14:21) when other Christians think that doing one of these things is wrong.

Those particular differences do still exist within Christianity, although perhaps not for the same reasons. Some denominations such as Jehovah’s Witnesses do not celebrate Christmas or Easter, believing that all days are equally holy; some believers refrain from all drugs including alcohol; many are vegetarian or vegan, but for reasons of health or animal welfare rather than the reason for avoiding meat in Paul’s day, which was to do with ritual sacrifice.

In addition, you will find differing approaches to the acceptability of such actions as lending money at interest (does the scriptural ban on ‘usury’ refer to any interest charge, or only excessive rates?), or buying raffle tickets (does that constitute gambling, or not?). Not to mention the never-ending arguments about human sexuality, abortion, the role of women in church, etc.   When Christian friendships, individually or between churches, are put under strain over such issues, we know that something has gone wrong and we are far from the ideal of loving each other as sisters and brothers.  As anyone who has (literal) brothers or sisters knows, we cannot expect our siblings to think or act exactly like us, and so getting along as a family has to involve accepting difference.

The principles that Paul lays down are ones that can be applied to these, or any other question of ethics.  Firstly, our actions should all be intended to “honour the Lord” (14:6) and we do not honour him if we show hypocrisy by criticising in others the actions that we find ourselves doing. Secondly, it is God’s role to judge people, through Jesus, and so while we might offer other people the benefit of our thinking on such an issue we must not condemn them for thinking differently (14:10). Thirdly, all our words and actions must be intended to work towards peace and harmony, not conflict (14:16-19). Fourthly, we should act in accordance with our own conscience, for it is more of a sin to believe something is wrong and yet do it, than it is to believe it to be acceptable in the first place (14:22-23). Finally, we should strive to please others and not ourselves (15:1-3).

Of course it is not easy to follow all these principles all the time.  The temptation to judge others whose actions we disagree with is a strong one.  Words of criticism slip out of our mouths all too easily. And at the heart of what we mean by sin is the will to please ourselves rather than others.  But if we can use as our guide these five principles of avoiding hypocrisy, not judging people, working for peace, acting according to conscience, and pleasing others, then we will not go far wrong.


The Bible in a Year – 23 October

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23 October. Romans chapters 11-13

Chapter 11 is a rather convoluted argument (to Western readers) about God’s favour and his anger towards both Jews and Gentiles according to their attitudes, and how one groups seems to be played off against the other.  But the image he uses of a cultivated olive tree – nourished from its ancient roots and able to sustain both natural and grafted branches – is a helpful one.  There is always a danger in religious practice of considering one’s own beliefs (in this metaphor, a single olive) or one’s own church grouping (the branch) as being all that matters.  In fact what matters most is staying connected to the whole tree (all those who believe), and through it to the roots (God’s sustaining love) without which the whole tree would die.

Chapter 12 is written in plainer language. It’s also a favourite of mine as it is the reading that my wife and I chose to have read at our wedding. Paul speaks here of the importance of love – not as a romantic feeling, but as treating everyone as equals, even as betters.  “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. … Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (12:9, 10, 14) is intended as guidance for church congregations, but applies equally to making a happy marriage.  Likewise the opening verse, “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (12:1) is also a good starting point for sexual intimacy, where our bodies are not for our own pleasure, but for building up the relationship.  This reflection on love is summed up in the next, with “love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” (13:10).

The Bible in a Year – 22 October.

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22 October. Romans chapters 8-10

In yesterday’s post I pointed out Paul’s brief reference to the Holy Spirit in chapter 5.  He returns to the subject more extensively in chapter 8.  If Romans is at the heart of Christian theology, then this chapter is at the heart of the letter.

It was the experience of Jesus that Paul (formerly Saul) had on the Damascus Road that transformed him from being a legalistic Jew to an ardent Christian believer in God’s offer of salvation to all people – as we shall see when we get to the book of Acts.  This understanding that we are reconciled to God, not by ‘doing good’ nor even just by confessing our faults, but by trusting in the death and resurrection of Jesus, is behind Paul’s writing to the Romans. And a sudden understanding of it through reading this book, or a commentary on it, was instrumental for two of the great men of Protestant Christianity – Luther and Wesley – in their own spiritual lives. Their understanding of this doctrine of ‘salvation by faith’ sparked both the Reformation in 16th century Europe (the 500th anniversary of Luther’s ‘conversion’ is being celebrated this month across the world), and the Methodist revival in 18th century Britain.

Paul points out in this chapter three things that the Holy Spirit does in our lives. She* brings a sense of peace to our lives as we turn from a self-focussed worldview (“the flesh”) to a spiritual one (8:6); she creates within us a sense of being children of God (8:16); and she helps us to pray, even without words (8:27).  Each one of these statements deserves a sermon in itself!

For Paul, the Spirit is always “the Spirit of Christ” – never working on her own but always with him. For that reason the Catholic church and its derivatives say in the creed that the Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son”, although the Orthodox church still uses the simpler statement “proceeds from the Father”. Fortunately, wars are no longer started over such a small difference in theology.  The important thing is to be open to the working of the Spirit so that you too may have the revelation that changed the lives of Saul, Luther and Wesley: that having Christ and his Spirit within you, giving you faith in them, is all that you need to be right with God.  Nothing you can do by your own goodness can bring that about, nor can any sin, once confessed, prevent it.

* Lest anyone question my use of “she” and “her” to refer to the Spirit, let me explain.  Conventionally all the persons of God, Creator, Redeemer and Spirit, are referred to by male pronouns.  But a God who created man and woman in God’s own image, and who calls both men and women equally to be part of his family, cannot be restricted to one gender.  Personally I experience the presence of God, on the occasions that I do, as more of a feminine presence than a masculine one.  And given that the Hebrew word used for the spirit is feminine (so I am told), that is my preference when writing about her. The Spirit can, of course, equally be seen as having masculine qualities of power and strength. But please never say “it” for this most personal manifestation of God.

The Bible in a Year – 21 October

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21 October. Romans chapters 4 to 7

After a long explanation in the first four chapters of what makes Christian faith so special (see yesterday’s reading), Paul sums up like this, and here I quote the Good News Bible which uses simpler language: “Now that we have been put right with God through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (5:1)

Peace is not a word that Paul uses often, but it is an important one, as is the [Holy] Spirit – another word that Paul introduces in chapter 5 for the first time in this letter. Many of us long for a sense of peace in our lives.  Not only because we live in such a complicated, pressurised world these days.  But because even if we count ourselves as ordinary decent people, there is still that nagging sense of guilt, of things we have done badly and ways we could have been better people.  We feel we need to be “put right”.  Now the good news is, God can deal with all that.  How? This is where the idea of the Trinity can begin to make sense.

The word Trinity does not appear anywhere in the Bible, as it is a concept developed by Christians several generations later, and still forms the basis of belief of most (but not all) Christian churches.  The relationship between the father (creator), son and spirit can the thought of like this:

Through the death of Jesus, who in his love took away our guilt on the cross, and with the gift of the Holy Spirit who brings us the benefits of Jesus rising from the dead, we can approach God the Father with confidence.  As Saint Paul puts it at the end of this short passage, “God has poured out his love into our hearts by means of the Holy Spirit, who is God’s gift to us” (5:5, GNB). So if Jesus brought a new way of being right with God (as I explained yesterday), the Spirit brings a new way of being at peace with God.

(based on part of a sermon preached on Trinity Sunday 2013 at Christ Church, East Greenwich).

The Bible in a Year – 20 October

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20 October. Romans chapters 1-3

The letter to the Romans deserves its reputation for being both probably the most important of the New Testament letters for an understanding of Christian belief, and at the same time the most difficult to follow.  For it consists of one long philosophical argument with many interwoven strands. It is written in long and complex sentences and uses may technical theological terms such as ‘law’, ‘sin’, ‘justified’ and ‘righteous’. Each of these may mean something quite different from their common English usage, and need careful explanation. Therefore a brief ‘thought’ on a long excerpt of this work can never do justice to all the themes that appear in it. Today, I will try to explain in my own words what Paul is aiming for in his writing to the Christians in Rome. This covers all these opening chapters, but especially chapter 3.

The church in Rome consisted of both Jewish Christians and converts from paganism, or agnostics.  Wherever that happened in the early church there was a tendency for the Jewish Christians to think themselves better, because they knew the jewish scriptures – the “Law” – and their men were circumcised in accordance with the tradition started by Abraham over a thousand years earlier.  In some places they even tried to insist that the converts should also be circumcised if they were going to follow Christ (who, let it not be forgotten, was a Jewish rabbi who probably did not intend to found a new and different religion).

Paul, although a Jewish rabbi himself (as he had explained to the Corinthians), was thoroughly convinced that in Jesus the distinction between Jews and Gentiles had been abolished. Until now, he says, the Jews have had the Law to show them how to live rightly in relation to God and other people; but that did not ‘justify’ them unless they actually kept the Law, and in practice no-one ever did, for (as Paul puts it in one of the most famous verses of the Bible), “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23).

It was always true, Paul says, that anyone could have been righteous (i.e. in an unblemished loving relationship with God) by living in a way compatible with Jewish laws, even if they were unaware of them, “for it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified” (2:13).  The second half of his argument is that the sacrificial death and resurrection of Jesus, unique in human history, have opened the way to a completely new understanding.  Anyone, whether or not they are Jews by family descent or circumcision, whether or not they know the details of the Law, can be declared righteous simply by having faith in Jesus.

The problem with that is, that as soon as you tell anyone that they don’t have to obey the rules, they won’t bother.  That is human nature, at every level of our lives. So Paul also has to explain that while failing to keep the Law does not stop you from being righteous, deliberately not bothering even to try to keep it does break that righteous relationship with God.  Love for God, as with love for another person, must include at least the intention to act in a loving way, even if we sometimes fail.