The Bible in a Year – 30 November.

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

30 November. Acts chapters 4-6

Following the day of Pentecost about which I wrote yesterday, the Church – at that time seemingly called “The Way” as a sect of Judaism – grew rapidly, with thousands of ordinary people and even some priests (6:7) following Peter and the apostles.  The picture painted here is of a communitarian ideal, everyone pooling their resources and making the best use of available talents, whether in great matters such as preaching and healing, or in the charitable work of sharing food with widows and other poor people.

The exceptions were Ananias and Sapphira, who let the community down by pretending they were sharing the whole value of their property. offence was not keeping some of it for themselves, but lying about the matter (5:4).  Whether they died of heart attack or stroke with the stress of being found out, or whether their sudden deaths were genuinely an act of God, the result was the same – the Christian church or any other religious community has to act on the basis of trust, and any deception ruins not just individual relationships but the well-being of the whole community.

The success of the new movement among ordinary people attracted opposition from the official religious leaders.  It is always so – those at the top of any organisation (including the Bishops of the churches) have so much of their time, effort and maybe even money tied up in the structures and procedures of the organisation that it is very difficult for them to adjust to new ideas or admit that anything that challenges the status quo might actually be the right way forward.  In religious organisations in particular,  the challenge “this is God’s way” is often used to justify quite opposing actions.  This is clearly seen in our own time in the endless arguments between and within Christian denominations about who may be a leader in the church – women? married people? divorced people? homosexuals?  Each “side” will find ways of justifying their position and may even claim to “know God’s will”.

So it was with the Way, the Jesus Movement.  The Apostles claimed that God was on their side, and the sheer numbers of ordinary people backing them could well have been cited in evidence, but so did the keepers of tradition.   The numbers of people backing a change is not in itself proof of the rightness of the cause (just say “1930s Germany” and you get the idea) but ultimately, if we believe God is in charge of human history, then we have to take the long view and wait for his will to be done, eventually.  In any case, arresting and killing one’s opponents is never God’s way of dealing with opposition.

One of the Jewish leaders, Gamaliel, came up with a test that applies just as well to our own arguments: “I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!” (5:38-39). It is a test well worth keeping up your sleeve.

The story of my namesake, Saint Stephen, starts in chapter 6 but continues in chapter 7 so I will look at him tomorrow

The Bible in a Year – 29 November

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

29 November. Acts chapters 1-3

Have you eve been in a situation where you had to “think on your feet” – to react with no time for preparation to an unexpected change of circumstances?  It might have been a sudden death in the family, a serious illness, or unemployment; or more positively an unexpected lottery win or someone close to you announcing their engagement when you hadn’t even known they were in love.  Or you might have been asked at work to take over someone else’s role; or to give a speech with no time to plan what you were going to say.

Whatever the circumstances, the natural human reaction to such occasions is twofold – the thrill of a challenge, brought on by a rush of adrenalin, and nervousness in case it all goes horribly wrong.  We are all made differently: for some people it is the thrill that dominates, and for others the nerves.  Or you may have found yourself oscillating between the two.  Is this my big break, or my undoing? Can I rise to the challenge, or will it defeat me?  Those who overcome tend to be those who have coped with other challenges before.

Peter had to do a lot of thinking on his feet in the weeks around Jesus’ death and resurrection.  It had not been long, perhaps a few months, since he and his closest friends had been up the mountain with Jesus and seen him transfigured into glory. Peter knew then that Jesus was the Messiah, the promised one from God.  Yet weeks later he had heard the crowds baying for blood, and seen Jesus on trial. At that time nerves got the better of him, and he denied his master three times in a matter of hours.  Later that day Jesus hung on the cross and it all seemed over.  He had witnessed the burial.

But also the empty tomb, two days later, made him think on his feet again – what had happened to the body?  And then the many appearances over forty days of his master alive again (Acts 1:3).  Had the death been an illusion?  Then, just as they were getting used to Jesus being alive, he disappeared from sight (1:9) with mysterious words about the Holy Spirit and power.  No wonder they were all confused. Gain, loss, gain, loss, – what would come next?  The rituals and rhythms of Temple prayer were a comfort to hold on to.

Now on the day of Pentecost their world is turned upside down again as the promised Holy Spirit comes in a most unexpected way.  Fire, rushing wind, and an irresistible urge to praise God that comes pouring our of their mouths in languages unknown to the speakers but understood by the foreigners in the street outside.  They accuse the disciples of being drunk at nine in the morning!  And Peter, the uneducated Galilean fisherman, finds himself thrust forwards as the spokesperson for them.   Time to think on your feet, Pete.

But this time it is not nerves that force him into denial.  No, it is the rush that compels him to speak.  Not just the rush of adrenalin in his body but the rushing wind of the Holy Spirit in his soul.  For Peter has had a revelation, like that which would seize Saul a few months later.  Jesus is the Messiah, not just for Jews but for the world.

It was just as Jesus had promised, “when they bring you to trial and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit” (Mark 13:11).  Peter found himself giving a sermon that convinced not a few, but thousands of hearers that they must repent and be baptised.   No wonder the day of Pentecost is called the “birth of the Church”. For Christians it is as important as Christmas or Easter.

Is this of any help if you or I find ourselves caught out, surprised, having to think on our feet?  Surely we can’t expect the Holy Spirit to be poured out on us like that, can we? Well, not quite like that.  But the Spirit is ever-present, and  the words of Jesus recorded at the end of Matthew’s gospel “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age”, do hold true.  The worse the predicament we think we are in, the closer he will be to us.  In desperate circumstances, some people even see angels.  And if we pray, however simply but sincerely, for guidance the Spirit will be with us to guide us to react appropriately. She may even give us words to speak, as Peter found.

That’s not to say that everything will be happily ever after for us. As Peter found, his new ministry as leader of the Christian church in Jerusalem was not without persecution. Jesus never promised an easy life.  But he did promise that his Holy Spirit would be available whenever needed.


The Bible in a Year – 28 November

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

2 November. Philippians 

I wrote yesterday how Paul used the language of cosmology (of his day) to try to explain just how great Jesus Christ is – not only for humanity but for the whole creation.  In his letter to the Philippians Paul then inverts this concept by showing how truly humble Jesus was when limited by a human body:

 “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (2:5-8)

Paul goes on to explain how this “emptying” that Jesus undertook, discarding anything of his divinity that would make him feel superior to other people while retaining the power to work miracles for the benefit of others, led to his being “exalted” or made more important in the cosmic scheme than anyone or anything else.

He also uses it to challenge his Christian readers to show humility, holiness and innocence in their own lives as Jesus did in his, and to be willing like him to be sacrifices if necessary for the greater cause of the Gospel.  Such challenges do not come easily, and I will not pretend I live up to them myself.   These verses, with their challenge to act as though dead in order to be truly alive, have been a frequent challenge to me throughout my Christian life:

“I want to know Christ, and the power of his resurrection, and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” (3:10-11)

The Bible in a Year – 27 November

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

27 November. Colossians and Philemon

The letter to Philemon is a personal one, whereas that to the Colossians is addressed to the whole church in the area, as several congregations (house churches) are mentioned. But these two books belong together, as Paul refers to several people in both of them – principally Onesimus the freed slave and Philemon his former owner, but also mentioned in passing in both letters are Timothy, Mark and Luke (well known New Testament figures) and also the lesser known Aristarchus, Archippus, Epaphras and Demas.  Clearly they all belonged to the same community.

In the first chapter of Colossians, Paul writes excitedly about Jesus, because without him there would be no Church.  He seems to be struggling to find enough words to describe the revelation that he himself had received from Jesus in a way that would draw his readers towards the same understanding.  For Paul, it was not enough to say that Jesus was the Son of God – that suggests merely a very holy man – or even ‘God taking on human flesh’ which sounds quite a temporary arrangement, since even the resurrected Jesus did not remain in visible form for more than a few weeks.  So he tries to describe Jesus from a universal, eternal viewpoint:

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” (Colossians 1:15-20)

Any attempt at re-phrasing or interpreting that passage risks losing its power.  Every time I re-read it I am reminded of how earthbound and immediate my understanding of Jesus tends to be.  Paul’s concept of time and space was, of course, different from ours. We now know the stars to be more than lights fixed in a dome some fixed distance beyond the earth, and have concepts such as relativity, gravitational waves and the Big Bang that he could not have begun to conceive – unless they were part of his revelation when he was “caught up to the seventh heaven”?

But I think Paul would have welcomed having the language of 21st century cosmology at his disposal.  The interplay between science and religion has never been as exciting as it is now.  Physicists acknowledge they have no idea what “dark matter” or “dark energy” might be – they are just ways of saying that the universe is still unknowable.  And while mathematical models may tell us that there are many more dimensions than the three of space and one of time that we are aware of, no-one has a concept of what they might represent in reality. From that point of view, Paul’s “seventh heaven” actually makes more sense than it did when he wrote it.  Even if, another century from now, those “mysteries” are solved, there will be more.  For God, by definition being beyond anything he/she/it created, is ultimately unknowable. The very fact that somehow the creator could briefly be contained in one very specific created being is at the heart of the Christian mystery that we explore each Advent and Christmas season.

The Bible in a Year – 26 November

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

26 November. Ephesians chapters 4-6

By pure coincidence, today’s bible reading includes one of the two passages on which I preached in church this morning (Ephesians 5:21-30), so I will share here the text of that sermon.  That is why this is a rather longer blog post than usual.  The theme was “safeguarding Sunday” with a focus of the work of the Mother’s Union; the other Bible text was John’s gospel, chapter 8 verses 1-11.


Today is Safeguarding Sunday.  And if you groan inwardly when I say that, I can understand why.  Safeguarding is something we hear a lot about in church these days, and rightly so.  But it is a rather unglamorous subject for a sermon, a bit like when the lectionary comes round to the verse about God loving a cheerful giver, and the treasurer gets up and asks people to put a bit more in the plate each week.

Given what we hear in the media in the moment about certain celebrities, we can easily think that safeguarding is only about protecting children from the unwanted attention of men.  That’s part of it of course, but it’s much more.  We talk about “vulnerable adults” too. And this year, we have been asked by the Mothers Union to look at a particular aspect of safeguarding vulnerable adults.  The sixteen days each year leading up to the 10th December which is International Human Rights Day are when the MU focuses on the issue of gender-based violence.  So that’s our theme today. Gender-based violence, or GBV for short.

Let’s start by making sure we know what we are referring to.  The definition that the MU uses is “any act of violence or abuse which is directed at someone because of their gender” noting that it “most commonly affects women and girls.”  Most obviously, GBV includes the sort of relationship problems that affect people in most cultures across the world: domestic violence, stalking, sexual harassment and rape. These are nothing new. All of them can be found in the Bible, if you look in the right place.  Coming right up to date it also includes new problems such as people-trafficking for prostitution, cyber-harassment and revenge pornography.

The effects of these forms of abuse are not just scars, bruises and unwanted pregnancy.  They include mental, psychological and emotional wounds that are not visible on the outside but can take years to heal.

You might well ask, why am I as a man giving this talk when this type of violence is suffered by ten times as many women as men?  Because it affects us all, even if we ourselves are neither victims nor perpetrators.  When I did jury service, one of the cases I heard involved a man who beat his wife and daughter for not giving him the respect he thought he deserved as the head of the house.  The other was a case of sexual assault by a shopkeeper on one of his female customers.   Also, five women (not in this congregation) who have known me well enough to confide in me have told me of the violence or controlling behaviour they have suffered from their present or previous partners.  The chances are I have known many other women in a similar situation but who did not know me well enough to say anything.   This is for their sake.

The particular effect of GBV that the Mothers Union want us to think about this year is Stigma. If it becomes known that a woman is being abused by her partner, people around her may say “I don’t understand why she stays with him”. But many women who experience domestic violence and abuse are made to feel that somehow it is their fault, or that what they are experiencing is not abuse, because it hasn’t involved physical violence.  The Mothers Union has a threefold challenge in response to this unnecessary stigma – “Break the silence, Lift the shame, Shift the blame.”  Break.   Lift.   Shift.   Let’s see what that might involve, and listen for what you might be able to do.

Why is this an issue for the Church?  Let me give you three good reasons.  Firstly, look at our Gospel story.  This could be titled “Jesus breaks the silence”. A woman caught in  adultery is brought along for him to say whether she should be stoned.  “Moses commanded us to stone such women”, say the religious leaders.   Oh no he didn’t!  Or at least, that is only a half truth.  In Leviticus it says this: “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbour, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death.”  So where is the guilty man?  Is it more likely in a male-dominated society that the woman seduced her neighbour’s husband, or that he forced himself on her?   And where is God’s concern for justice or mercy in the way these so-called guardians of morality react to this situation?

Jesus, we are told, writes something on the ground before inviting any of her accusers who is without sin to stone her.  This is one of those bits of the Bible where you really wish the writer had given us a bit more detail. Go on, John, tell us what Jesus wrote.  Was it the whole of the Leviticus verse that made the man just as deserving of death as his victim?   Was it the names of men in the community known to be two-timing their own wives? Was it all the ten commandments, meaning that no-one could claim to have kept all of them?  Whatever he wrote, it had the desired effect.  Not one of them could bring himself to cast the first stone and risk the charge of hypocrisy.  Jesus alone had the moral authority to call out men’s sexism.  And while he did not condone the woman’s part in the affair, he merely told her to sin no more.  After that experience, I’m sure she didn’t.

Secondly, Jesus also lifted the shame. The unnamed woman had faced a death sentence.  He effectively commuted that to a challenge not to be in such an inappropriate situation again.  But he did as much as he could, within the religious law that he had come to fulfil, to remove from her the stigma of being called an adulteress.  As with the other people he healed, he sent her back into the community as evidence of the transformation that his gospel of love and mercy could bring.

The Church is a channel for God’s unconditional love, a place of wholeness, healing and new beginnings. You might ask, don’t we have police, hospitals and social workers to deal with domestic violence?  Yes we do, but they can only deal with serious crime and physical wounds.   We cannot expect hard-pressed police, NHS staff or social workers to spend the time it takes getting alongside someone to help them overcome the stigma of violence and its mental and psychological scars. But the Church is – or at least should be – an army of volunteers with Christ-inspired compassion who can provide that kind of support.

The Mothers Union in England is doing good work in Christ’s name.  They support women’s refuges, provide food and clothing for women and their children who have had to flee from a violent home situation.  And they use all the available tools of democracy – lobbying, marches, conferences and social media – to raise awareness of these issues and try to influence political decisions.

The third reason why the Church should get involved is that we believe that God made men and women in God’s own image – “male and female he created them”.  God’s intention was for men and women to live as equals – maybe sharing out the duties of a home in different ways, but respecting each other as equally God’s child and an equal partner in relationship.

This is reflected in our first Bible reading, which could be titled “Paul shifts the blame”.  Certain male church leaders like to quote this verse from Ephesians: “Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord.”  They are less keen on quoting the previous one: “be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.”  Nor a few verses later, “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her”.  In other words, if Christ was prepared to die for us, you should be prepared to give up anything, even your life if necessary, for the sake of your wife.  Then, and only then, will it be appropriate for her to show the same level of submission as she would to Christ himself.   If the culture we live in does not reflect God’s intentions in this respect, if men treat women as sex objects or slaves rather than God-given equals, then it is the mission of God through his redeemed people to do something about it.

We, the Church, are the ultimate worldwide body, and the problem is a global one.  As well as the common forms of GBV that I mentioned a couple of minutes ago, there are other forms of violence prevalent in certain cultures. You may be aware of some of these. So-called ‘honour killings’; forced marriage, child marriage, FGM; and infanticide or selective abortion (where girls are killed at or before birth because only boys are valued).   These are issues among certain immigrant communities in the UK, as well as in their home countries. According to the World Health Organisation, taken together these various forms of violence affect one in three women, and globally, women under 45 are more likely to be maimed or die as a result of male violence than through cancer, malaria, traffic accidents and war combined.  For comparison it is estimated that only two or three percent of men are victims of gender based violence.

The Mothers Union is a worldwide organisation with a mission to support families.  Across the world, the MU is tackling the problem of gender based violence in two ways.  At a local level they work with women directly to provide emotional support, housing, training in employable skills, literacy and general education. For a woman who is capable of making her own living and can read and write is more likely to be able to escape from domestic violence than someone who has to rely on her husband or father or everything.

When a woman suffers violence, her children also suffer.  Here is a story of a woman they met is South Sudan, who we are calling Grace:

Grace was abducted by members of an armed group from her home at night. She was raped in front of her husband and children, taken to the bush and given as a sex slave to one of the armed group commanders and forced to stay with him for four years. During that time she bore two children by the Commander. She was eventually rescued with her two children and was initially welcomed joyfully in to her community, however after some weeks they started to despise her. Her husband would not take her back as his wife, and her family were afraid of her because of her experiences, and what she had been exposed to. The community abandoned her.

At a national and international level, the M.U. works with the United Nations and governments to tackle some of the really big issues such as FGM which require nationwide education programmes to change attitudes.

Sometimes the opportunity arises for church and secular authorities to work together.  Let me tell you a story from our own experience.  When Linda and I went to India in 2006, we attended the official opening of a new housing development. It had been built by a Christian development agency to house hundreds of people from two villages who had been made homeless by the Tsunami on Boxing Day 2004, but the local secular authorities were involved with a development on that scale.   The church leader, welcoming families to their new homes, told them that this was to be a new start in their lives. New homes were to mean a new way of living. “I want this to be a village”, he told them, “where husbands no longer beat their wives.”  And after a dramatic pause, he went on “and a village where wives no longer beat their husbands”.  That got a laugh, but it was true – domestic violence works both ways, and often it can be even harder for a man to admit to being a victim of it than for a woman.

So let’s recap on how the Mothers Union is tackling gender based violence, and what we might be able to do in our own small way.

Break the silence – when people are suffering, silence is not an option, and Jesus was willing to stand up for them.  Remember the story of the Good Samaritan – it was the person who did something, not the pious passers-by, who was commended for loving his neighbour.  The MU is acting by supporting individual victims, by education to make both women and men aware of the issues, and by campaigns at national and international level. Safeguarding policies now require us to report our suspicions that someone is being abused to an appropriate person.


 Lift the shame – let it be said again, someone who is physically or sexually assaulted or coerced into doing something they do not want to do, bears no blame but is in need of help. Nor should she have any reason to feel ashamed of what has happened.   By providing safe havens, counselling and practical help, the MU helps women to regain their dignity and lose the shame and fear. If you or I come across someone in the grip of gender based violence, we might feel helpless to help them, but we can at least point them to agencies with the expertise to help.  “I know a woman who can” should be our response.

Shift the blame – Jesus made it clear that his anger was against those who victimised the woman and let her partner in adultery off scot-free.  Laws in many parts of the world still need changing to make scandalous behaviour such as FGM and forced marriage a crime, or to enforce such laws where they already exist but are ignored.  The MU is working towards that goal.  But even in our own culture, where equality laws are much stronger, we men still need to be made more aware of our own attitudes and the effects of our actions.

In preparing this talk I realised that I cannot honestly say that I have always treated girls and women with the full respect they deserve. You may feel the same. In a few moments we will have the opportunity to confess collectively any way we may feel we have been complicit in any form of abuse.  Later in the service we will also be invited to make a commitment to take safeguarding seriously.  But before we stand to declare our common faith, an then confess our sin, let’s have a few moments of silence to reflect on what we have heard.

Full details of “16 days of activism against gender violence” can be found on the M.U. website.

“Grace’s story” is  © Mothers Union 2017

The Bible in a Year – 25 November

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

25 November. Ephesians chapters 1-3

Paul addresses this letter to a Christian congregation which, as he makes very clear, consists of Gentiles (non-Jews). For those of us in a 21st century democracy, the distinction does not seem so great.  We are used to the idea of religious diversity, of tolerance of different views, of the freedom of the individual to accept or reject the faith into which their families brought them up – or indeed any other.  Or not to be religious at all.  While some religions (especially Islam and Christianity) do claim to have the “final revelation” of God and to be the only way to him, the boundaries are still fluid – some people born into Christian families convert to Islam, or declare themselves atheists, and vice versa.

For Jews in the time of Jesus and Paul, that was not so. The Jews (in their own view) were the chosen people, the only ones blessed by the God of the universe.  Not only were the Roman and Greek gods false ones whose worship would be punished by God as idolatry, but there could be no forgiveness, no salvation for them.  Therefore the Jews separated themselves from other people, regarded them as ritually unclean, would not even share a meal with them.  I’m not talking about today’s Jews of course, but those of Bible times.

Then came the Resurrection of Jesus, the giving of the Holy Spirit, and revelations to several of the apostles including Paul himself.  Out of these grew the conviction that the Jews had got it wrong, they had misunderstood their own scriptures, they had failed to hear the true message of the prophets.  God was actually calling the whole world to be reconciled to himself. The role of the Jewish people as his chosen race was not to set themselves against the rest of the world but to be the channel through which God’s grace and favour could flow.

Thus, Paul realised that his mission was not so much to the Jews to tell them about Jesus, as to spread the message as far as possible into what others would regard as hostile territory, pagan peoples.  This was a total about-turn from what he had preached previously as a Pharisee, so it is not surprising that the Christians initially received him with suspicion.

Just look at some of the things Pauls writes in Ephesians 2:11-22:  “you were … aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, … without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. …He has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. … He came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father.”

There can therefore be no excuse for any Christian group to view the whole Christian church, let alone one denomination of it, as having exclusive access to God or being the only ones to receive his favour. Our religion is a world one, not only in its geographical spread, but in its target audience. Whoever lives on this earth is a child of God, to be called back to him by the reconciling love and sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

The Bible in a Year – 24 November

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

24 November. Luke chapters 23-24

And so we come to the end of Luke’s account of the life of Jesus, with the trial, crucifixion and resurrection. He also starts here, with the appearance of Jesus p the Emmaus Road, his account of the beginnings of the Christian church. It ends with Jesus instructing the disciples to “proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins in his name to all nations” (24:27), a task which Luke’s second volume (Acts of the Apostles) records.

From all this, the heart of the Christian Gospel, I will take the references to Christ as King, for that is the focus of Catholic and Anglican worship  this Sunday (the 5th Sunday before Christmas) .

First, the Jewish “assembly” takes Jesus before Pontius Pilate and lays charges against him, including that of claiming to be a king. Pilate asks for Jesus to respond to this charge, and Jesus says “you say so”, perhaps meaning, “if you are prepared to believe that I am a king as these people say, then I am”.  But Pilate does not consider any of the charges against Jesus to merit a death sentence, only a flogging.

Then, on the cross, the Roman soldiers also mock him “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” (23:27). Maybe they were the same people who had mocked him in the same way with a purple robe at his trial.  And finally, there was an inscription over him, attributed in John’s gospel to Pilate, ‘This is the King of the Jews.’”

It seems that this was the most controversial title for Jesus in his day.  The Jewish people had not had a king of their own since before the Exile over 500 years earlier, and the Roman Emperor represented by the governor was the head of state in his day.  It does not seem from the Gospel stories that Jesus went about calling himself King: it was a title possibly given to him by his followers out of admiration, but mainly as a controversial political claim by his enemies in order to try and provoke Pilate or Herod to try him for treason.  The fact that neither of them did so shows that they did not consider him a political threat.

In Luke’s account of the Emmaus road and the subsequent appearance to all the apostles, Jesus still does not use this title about himself, preferring “Messiah” (although as that means ‘the anointed one’ it carries much the same meaning). Christians do call Jesus the King, though – but not “King of the Jews” for we believe his reign is over not just the Jewish people or the state of Israel, but all of creation.  Jesus’s kingship really only started with the Resurrection.    When we celebrate Christ the King and then move into Advent, we remember not only the fact that he reigns invisibly on earth now, but also the centuries of waiting that preceded his coming, and the faith that he will come again in visible form to take up his rightful place among us.

The Bible in a Year – 23 November

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

23 November. Luke chapters 21-22

The best known Christian prayer is, of course the Lord’s Prayer or Our Father.   It does not appear in these chapters as such, but one of its phrases does.  The one that in the traditional English translation reads “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” and is rendered in Scottish English as “do not bring us to the time of trial, but deliver us from evil”.   I prefer that version and use it in my own prayer times.

“You are those who have stood by me in my trials”, Jesus tells his disciples (22:28). Twice, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus tells them “Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.’” (22:40, 46)   And before that, in the Temple, after predicting the destruction of the Temple and the Jewish way of life, he tells them “Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place” (21:36).

The “times of trial” that Jesus foresaw were many and varied.  From mocking and slander, to discrimination and prejudice, to persecution and martyrdom, his true followers would never have an easy life. For the people of Jerusalem as a whole, he predicted warfare, siege, looting, and fleeing in haste as refugees, never to return.  More than that, he foresaw the eventual end of human civilisation following a time of natural disaster and warfare as nation fights against nation.

Leaving aside for a moment the question of whether any of the signs of the last days are being fulfilled in our time – people have thought so before and been proved wrong – what Jesus is asking of his disciples is a commitment to follow him through these times of trial, whatever happens. They may face poverty – but he sent them out with no money before, and they were fine (22:35). They may be tempted to deny Jesus, as Peter was – and gave in – but for those who repent there is always forgiveness. They would face evil in the form of foreign armies, homelessness (with all the disease and despair associated with refugee camps) and for some, the lions of the Roman amphitheatre.  But Jesus promised to be with them in all of this. Elsewhere he explains that the words would be given to people at the right time by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

For Judas, there was to be no repentance.  He was tempted by the love of money to betray his master, and ended his own life rather than face the consequences. Don’t be like him – pray for the strength to resist temptation, stand up to evil, and turn back when you fail (22:31).

The Bible in a Year – 22 November

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

22 November. Luke chapters 19-20

This is the turning point in Luke’s story of the life of Jesus – what is called the Triumphal Entry.  Every year on Palm Sunday, churches re-enact his ride into Jerusalem on a young donkey, with crowds cheering him on with shouts of “Hosanna!” (“Please save us!”). We even keep small crosses made of palm leaves to remind us for the rest of the year both of his joyful entry to the holy city, and also his crucifixion a few days later.

After entering the city, Jesus goes straight to the temple (did he ride the donkey into it? – we don’t know) and begins to drive out “those who were selling things there” (other gospel writers say it was the money changers – probably both).   He was angry with them for turning what was supposed to be a “house of prayer” into a commercial enterprise.   This passage is sometimes used to criticise those cathedrals that charge an entry fee, although I don’t think it’s a fair comparison, as the cathedral chapter is only trying to cover its running costs from visitors who otherwise might not make a donation at all.

So we have Jesus being acclaimed by the crowd in great joy, then maybe an hour later angrily confronting the temple merchants.  What made him change his mood so swiftly?

In between these two passages are a few verses that get less attention in Holy Week observances.  “As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.” (19:41-44).

It seems that as he approached the city walls, he was given a prophetic insight into the spiritual truth behind the immediate events around him.  He saw the Roman army marching against the city, laying siege, conquering, looting and setting fire to it.  His own act of driving profiteering merchants from the temple court was nothing to the sacking of the city that the Romans would accomplish a generation later, driving all the Jewish people from the city. It would be nearly 2000 years before the city was once again the City of David, and even then the temple site would be in the control of others.

Jesus also understood that this would happen because his own people had rejected him, rejected his peaceful path, passed up an opportunity to turn back to God.  Instead their desire for independence and their love of money and power would lead to their destruction, where he offered salvation.  No wonder he wept.

Probably only those closest to Jesus in the crowd noticed his weeping, as the praise continued around him. Sometimes we find our own emotions at odds with the people around, when we are aware of circumstances beyond the immediate events that give us concern. We might wish that those who are rejoicing at some trivial matter would share our understanding that there are deeper and graver issues at stake.  But like Jesus, we find ourselves alone.  In such circumstances, take heart, for he is with you, and he understands.  Jesus weeps with those who weep, and mourns with those who mourn.

The Bible in a Year – 21 November

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

21 November. Luke chapters 17-18

People are always fascinated by the idea of the Apocalypse.  Or something like it.  A time when human society with its conflicts between good and evil, with all its joys and sufferings, will be transformed into something vastly different, and usually better (at least for “good” people).  It is a desire born of the frustration that even the best human leaders are far from perfect, and even the best systems of government leave many injustices unrighted.

There has rarely been a time in human history without at least one person who claims either to be the key figure in that transformation – the Messiah, the final prophet, the enlightened one, the immortal one – or at least to know exactly when that day will come.   The fact that no-one who has predicted the date of the Apocalypse has (yet!) been right, and that no-one other than Jesus has ever lived up to claims of immortality, does not stop many people from believing the next man who comes along with such a claim (and it does always seem to be a man).

In Jesus’ day there seem to have been lots of self-proclaimed messiah figures and prophets.  John the Baptist had been the most recent, and in Jesus’ estimation, the greatest, because he called people not to “get rich quick” but to a simple life and to repentance.  But John himself had been quick to point to Jesus as “the One who was to come”.

So it was, that people were asking Jesus such questions.  In chapter 17 it was the Pharisees. Their question was phrased as “when [is] the kingdom of God coming?”   Jesus told them that “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed … the kingdom of God is among you.” It sounds as if they have missed out on its coming.  But a few verses later Jesus describes what was clearly to be a future event, as unmissable as when “the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other”, which he calls ‘the day of the Son of Man’.

Are those answers contradictory?  No.  Jesus is talking about two things.  For him, “the Kingdom of God” meant any situation in which God’s will was truly done, as he was doing it.  His disciples, indeed anyone who tried then or tries now to follow him, would be able to experience something of the Kingdom.  “The day of the Son of Man”, as he described it, was something else, and closer to what the Pharisees had in mind – the time when God’s rule on earth would overthrow imperfect human rule.  But he warns that it would not be something for most people to look forward to.  It would be as catastrophic as Noah’s flood, he says, or the destruction of Sodom – both of which were seen as God’s punishment of human sin and evil.

“One will be taken and another left” on the day of the Son of Man. It is not clear whether that means the righteous would be taken away to heaven and the unrighteous left to suffer destruction, or the righteous would be left to enjoy life on earth while the unrighteous are carted off to hell.  It probably does not matter, for apocalyptic language like this is not intended to be taken literally.

What does matter is that we learn from the parables that follow in chapter 18. We should be like the widow who never ceases asking God for justice, like the tax-collector who continually seeks God’s mercy, like Simon Peter who was willing to leave his wife, home ad business to follow Jesus, and like the blind beggar who asked Jesus to make him see – metaphorically, to see the Kingdom of God that is already all around us, if only we will look with the eyes of faith.