The Bible in a Year – 31 December

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

The last four sections of the Bible in a Year blog, covering the whole of the Book of Revelation, are being uploaded together (just because I was without Internet access this week).

31 December. Revelation chapters 19-22

According to chapter 20, after all forms of evil are finally defeated, Christ returns to reign with his martyrs (but not the rest of humanity) for a symbolic period of a thousand years, after which all the dead are resurrected to be judged, and either live in paradise (described as the new Jerusalem – a magnificent and vast jewelled city with eternal light) or be thrown into the lake of fire (from which the popular idea of Hell arises).

But on what basis is this ultimate judgement made?  Jesus says here: “To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur, which is the second death” (21:6-8).   The contrast is between, on the one hand,  those who are “thirsty” (that is, longing for God’s presence and help) and those who “conquer” (that is, overcome temptation, and persist in faith during trials and persecutions); and on the other hand those who continue to live in ignorance or defiance of God’s directions for life – as I noted on 29 December, the list of sins here is very similar to the prohibited acts in the Ten Commandments.

The danger in interpreting John’s visions is twofold – trying to apply them directly to today’s world when the vision was initially given to 1st or 2nd century Christians; and reading them in isolation from the rest of the New Testament.    Here Jesus was specifically encouraging persecuted Christians to stand firm in their faith, by means of these visions, whereas in his direct teaching his emphasis was on showing love for God and neighbour in practical ways.

So at the end of the year we reach the end of the Bible, and the end of earthly time, in the way that John describes his vision.  To consider together the whole of Christian scripture – all 66 books of it written down over a period of over 1000 years, the last of it nearly 2000 years ago, and covering a longer period of time than that – is the work of a lifetime.  No-one can claim to fully understand either the original meaning or most appropriate interpretation of every part of it. Bible study is both essential and fascinating, with a good guide.

More importantly, it has always been regarded by Christians as a “living book” – when we speak of the “Word of God” we mean not just the written words of the Bible but Jesus himself.  As John understood it, “His name is called The Word of God. And the armies of heaven, wearing fine linen, white and pure (the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints) were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations” (19:8, 13-15).  That “sword” is usually understood as the combination of written scripture and the continual witness of the Holy Spirit through the gift of prophecy in all ages.  It is that combination – received teaching and the ongoing inspiration of Jesus and the Holy Spirit  – which will keep Christians faithful until Jesus returns in person, and eventually overcomes evil.  With the saints throughout the ages we can echo the last verses of the Bible – “Come, Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.” (22:20-21).

The Bible in a Year – 30 December

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

The last four sections of the Bible in a Year blog, covering the whole of the Book of Revelation, are being uploaded together (just because I was without Internet access this week).

30 December. Revelation chapters 12-18

I suggested yesterday that in reading Revelation we should focus on the references to humanity rather than to the symbolic or mystical beasts.  In these chapters the references to humanity include several specifically to the followers of Christ.  There are many references to those who have died as martyrs and are shown among the angels worshipping God.  But there are also references to those still on earth in the times of persecution during which the book is set.

In 12:17, “those who keep God’s commands and hold fast to their testimony about Jesus” are opposed by the dragon that had previously opposed the “woman crowned with twelve stars” who probably represents Judaism.  In 13:7 another beast is given power to conquer God’s holy people. In 17:6 the “prostitute called Babylon” (whose seven heads represent seven hills, and therefore is traditionally identified with the city of Rome) symbolically gets drunk on the blood of those who were killed for their testimony about Jesus.  Clearly the Church is faced with persecution, not only from Rome but from the other and less easily identified foes.  And that persecution continues today – just this week there has been another attack on a Christian church in Egypt where Christians are a minority, and it continues unwitnessed in many places around the world.  The same is true, of course, of followers of other religions, as with the Rohingya Muslims now being driven out of Burma.

What the book of Revelation portrays is a world in which, due to the normally unseen forces of evil behind visible events, those who believe in God and try to live his way will always be at risk of attack from those forces of evil for which God, Jesus and those who belong to them will always be seen as enemies.

But it also portrays a world in which, sooner or later, those who do not believe in God or do not try and live his way will eventually find both God and the forces of evil turning on them, and they will suffer even more.  The lucky ones in all this are those who know God and are rescued by him from the worst of the suffering and taken to heaven.  Everyone else is shown suffering unbelievable torment, not in hell but on earth.

The Bible in a Year – 29 December

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

The last four sections of the Bible in a Year blog, covering the whole of the Book of Revelation, are being uploaded together (just because I was without Internet access this week).

29 December. Revelation chapters 6-11

The book of Revelation famously includes all kinds of fantastic scenes involving heaven and hell, angels, demons, imaginary beasts, plagues, natural disasters and divine punishments.  Few people would take it all literally, but among all these visions there is clearly a message to be found.  I think we need to look at those verses that refer to ordinary humans, for the overall aim of the revelation seems to be to encourage people to see God at work in otherwise unbearable circumstances.

Within today’s reading the first clear reference to the people of the earth is in 6:15-17, where “the kings of the earth, the princes, generals, the rich, the mighty, and everyone else both slave and free, hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains”. In other words, the plagues affected all people equally, and neither wealth nor status could have protected people from them.   The other clear reference to life on earth is this : “The rest of mankind who were not killed by plagues still did not repent of the work of their hands: they did not stop worshipping demons, and idols of gold, silver, bronze, stone and wood … nor did they repent of their murders, magic arts, sexual immorality or thefts” (9:20-21).  That word “still” implies that the plagues, torture and other forms of suffering were intended as signs to persuade people to repent; signs that were ignored.

In these passages we see nothing different from the message of much of the Bible: that in God’s eyes, everyone is equal, whether powerful or slave, rich or poor; and that idolatry, theft, murder and sexual immorality (generally meaning adultery and promiscuity) are the sins that particularly incur God’s wrath.   These are among the sins condemned in the Ten Commandments, and therefore there is no new theology here.

The visions in Revelation might be taken either as referring to some future calamity that is yet to occur, or to events that happened nearer the writer’s time in the Roman empire, but either way, there is clearly intended to be a connection between these events and the lives of ordinary people.  High or low, rich or poor, the word of God comes to us equally: when sin becomes so rampant that God has to intervene, everyone suffers, but those who come out of the suffering with God’s favour are those who kept his commandments and suffered innocently. It is a message for all time.


The Bible in a Year – 28 December

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

The last four sections of the Bible in a Year blog, covering the whole of the Book of Revelation, are being uploaded together (just because I was without Internet access this week).

28 December. Revelation chapters 1-5

The book of Revelation or Apocalypse is notoriously difficult to understand, since it contains so much symbolism that people at the time of writing may have understood but which is obscure to us two thousand years later.

What is clear enough from the first three chapters is that the vision of Jesus that was given to John, was intended for the seven local church congregations listed at the start of the book.   And each of them receives a particular message from Jesus, which both (in most cases) praises and (in most cases) criticises them, before offering a promise for those who stay faithful in the face of persecution.   The praises, the criticisms, and the promises are specific to each place, because Jesus always knows that each person and each church community faces particular challenges and has particular strengths.

The praises, if we take them together, includes “deeds, hard work and perseverance” (2:2 and similarly in 2:19), “keeping my word and not denying my name” (3:8), and “remaining true to my name” (2:13 and similarly in 3:4). The emphasis here is on facing persecution, not necessarily by becoming martyrs (though some did) but by being true to the Christian worldview (or as we saw John calling it yesterday, “the truth”) even when to do so requires hard work and perseverance when the world is going in other directions.

The criticisms include “forsaking the love you had at first” (2:4), being “dead though appearing alive” (3:1) and “being lukewarm, neither hot nor cold” (3:16). What those have in common is lacking the outward zeal and inner joy that characterise true Christian faith.  We cannot regain those by our own efforts but have to ask Jesus to send his Spirit on us again. Another criticism is claiming to be spiritually rich when one is spiritually poor (3:17); the opposite of that is holding onto faith in affliction and poverty, which makes one spiritually rich (2:9).   That reminds us of the Beatitudes, where those who are poor in spirit and who suffer for the sake of Jesus are declared blessed.

The promises are expressed symbolically – “eating from the tree of life” (2:7), “not being hurt by the second death” (2:11), “hidden manna and a secret name” (2:17); “authority over the nations” (2:26); “being dressed in white” (3:5), “being a pillar in the temple of God” (3:12), and “the right to sit with Jesus on his throne” (3:21).  None of these relate to our present life but all look forward to eternal life.   One of the threads running through the New Testament is the idea that our rewards for living faithfully in this life will be given us in the next.  The symbolism of chapters 4 and 5 is also about eternal life, in which all creatures in earth and heaven will worship God unceasingly.

Put all these together – the praises, criticisms and promises – and we have an encouragement to seek from Jesus the Spirit who gives us true love, life and warmth to strengthen us with joy in living the Christian life in the face of persecution, in order to attain eternal life which will be filled with praise and worship.  It is of course impossible to really know what such existence will be like, but the Revelation reminds us to look beyond the troubles of this life and stick with Jesus along the way.

The Bible in a Year – 27 December

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

27 December. 2 John (also see 3 John, same day)

If John’s first letter was focussed on the need for love, this much shorter second one is about truth.  He refers to his readers as those whom he and all who know the truth love in the truth, “because of the truth that abides in us” (1,2); likewise he professes himself delighted that some of his disciples “walk in the truth” (4).  He says much the same in his third letter, addressed to one Gaius.

Pontius Pilate famously responded to Jesus’ statement “I came into the world, to testify to the truth” with the question “what is truth?” (John 18:37,38).  But as soon as we get away from simple questions of scientific fact, truth becomes subjective.  Religions often revolve around questions about the existence and nature of God, appropriate ways to worship God, and appropriate ways to behave to each other. It is easy to claim to “know the truth” in these matters, to know objectively what is right and wrong, either by claiming direct revelation or quoting from accepted holy texts and revered holy people.  But the fact is that God is a mystery, bigger than all of us, and human life so complex that no one set of rules will ever suffice for all circumstances.  So what does John mean by the truth?

In the third letter, John contrasts two men in one church congregation: Diotrephes, who opposes John and certain other people and even expels his opponents from the church (10), and Demetrius, about whom he writes “Everyone has testified favourably about Demetrius, and so has the truth itself.”

Truth in this context seems to mean something like “an attitude of humility and love that welcomes honesty, openness and differences”.  Where Diotrephes wanders from the truth is in claiming to have the truth himself and opposing anyone who thinks differently.  So the truth is not something fixed, one incontrovertible set of doctrines or rules.  In fact, the more we think that we know the truth (and therefore someone else doesn’t), the further we are from this understanding of truth.  It is more fluid than knowledge and rules, something that “abides in us” (going back to the start of the second letter), an internal guide.  You may just call it conscience, but that is too impersonal.  The Christian understanding of truth is inseparably connected to Jesus Christ himself who called himself “the Way, the Truth and the Life”.  To have Jesus abiding in you is to have the truth within you – but so may someone else who disagrees with you on matters of religious belief, practice and morals.

John records something else important that Jesus said about truth: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:31-32).   Free, that is, from being too closely bound to rules and regulations.  Free to live a life of love for the sake of other people.  Free to make truth come true.

The Bible in a Year – 26 December

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26 December. 1 John chapters 1-5

There is so much in this deeply spiritual writing that it is impossible to summarise it neatly, and it reads more like an unscripted but passionate sermon than like one of Paul’s carefully argued theological letters.  The one unifying theme is love: the love of God for those who believe in Jesus, the importance of us loving God more than the “world”, and of loving our “brothers and sisters” (other Christians) even if we disagree with them.

There is also a second strand running through the book, that of sin and grace. John does not actually use the word ‘grace’ but describes it in other ways. He says that if we confess our sins and repent, Jesus will “cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1:9); and describes those who truly believe in Jesus as having “God’s seed abiding in them” and being “born of God” (3:9) to prevent them from sinning.

What John is trying to get at, although it is such a deep mystery that even he struggles to convey it in simple language, is that since Jesus Christ came into the world there is now a clear division between people, greater than any division caused by barriers of race, language and even religious background.  On the one hand are those who have come to him, described as “walking in the light and having fellowship with one another” (1:7), who obey the commandments of Jesus, particularly those regarding loving others (2:3), do the will of God (2:17) and are called his children (3:2), no longer commit sin (3:9) – although the epilogue at the end of chapter 5 admits that this is not quite true – and have the Holy Spirit (4:13).  The opposite is true of those who do not yet walk in the light but remain in darkness: they do not obey God or Jesus, cannot be called his children, live in sin and do not have the Spirit in them. They “love the world and the things in the world” (2:15).  The distinction is summed up starkly at the end of the letter: “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.” (5:12).

The good news is that the only way to move from darkness to light is to believe in Jesus – not simply in assenting that he lived and died, or that he was a good teacher, but in wanting to become part of him and be open to the Holy Spirit.  Only in that way can we share in the light that comes from God the Father.

There are no doubt many better summaries of John’s teaching than mine.  But the message is clear – anyone can become part of God’s family, but Jesus is the only way in.

The Bible in a Year – 25 December

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

25 December John chapters 19-21

I am sure it cannot be coincidence that the reading for Christmas Day is the last three chapters of John’s gospel, which cover the death and resurrection of Christ.  The people who planned this year-long programme of Bible readings must have arranged it like that, and for a good reason.

Our priest at this morning’s Christmas communion service started his sermon by talking about the Yorkshire tradition of eating cheese with sweet foods – salty blue Stilton with mince pies, creamy Wensleydale with Christmas fruit cake.   He linked this odd, but actually very tasty,  combination of tastes to the fact that within the last week before Christmas, when the church is looking forward to the joy of the Nativity, and the world is celebrating in its own pleasure-seeking way, the church leaders and musicians have been planning the music for services in Lent and Holy Week.

It may seem strange reading about the death and resurrection of Christ, or planning solemn music for the season when we particularly remember those events, just when the focus should be on his birth.  But there are good reasons for doing so.

We cannot understand the birth of Jesus into the world unless we think also of the crucifixion. Nor can we understand the crucifixion without believing in the resurrection.  For that was the whole point of his birth.  The way God rescues us from the consequences of our own sin is to take those sins upon himself and suffer the consequences – separation from God, mental agony, physical torture, and death.  But that was not the end of the story – the resurrection proved that the sinless  one was stronger than sin and death and would live for ever.

Even at the time Jesus was dedicated as a baby, it was prophesied about him that he would be the cause of the “falling and rising of many in Israel”, and of Mary his mother it was said “a sword will pierce your own heart also”.  Throughout the last year or so of his life, Jesus had tried many times to explain to the disciples that his death – and subsequent resurrection – were absolutely part of God’s plan for him, and could not be avoided without wrecking the plan.

There is a line in a Christmas carol that says “man shall live for evermore because of Christmas Day”.  It sounds good, but it is not good theology.  It would be more accurate – if less poetic – to say “man shall live for evermore because of Christmas Day, Good Friday and Easter Day”.  But we can make a concession – as the timeless God came into our world in the form of a time-bound human being, birth had to come before death.  Without Christmas there could be no Easter.  And without Mary’s willing acceptance of God’s will there could have been no Christmas.  Therefore we say with her, “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour”.

Merry Christmas to all readers.


Ready or Not – a Christmas message

This is the text of my sermon on Christmas Eve 2017.

10 … 9 … 8 … 7 … 6 … 5 … 4 .. 3 . 2. 1 … READY OR NOT, I’M COMING!!!

How many times as a child have you heard, or shouted, those words?  Ready or Not, I’m coming!   The game of Hide and Seek is common to most cultures.  It teaches children valuable skills – counting of course, plus looking and listening, planning (where to hide) and also keeping quiet and still when necessary!

We grow out of childhood games. But to be honest there are times in our adult lives when we seem to hear that call “Ready or not, I’m coming”.  Usually it’s when we are going to be inspected.  The Landlord is coming to inspect your flat.  OFSTED is coming to check out the school.  The Archdeacon is coming to check up on the Vicar and Churchwarden. The date was set long ago, and you can’t put them off because you haven’t finished preparation.

But sometimes the expected visitor is welcome.  You have invited friends for a meal and they turn up, even if the house isn’t spotlessly clean yet.  The party is about to start and you realise you forgot to get the food out of the freezer. Too late, guests are starting to arrive.  Will you turn them away?  Of course not. Ready or not, they are welcome.  I leave it to you to decide which of those categories – inspector or welcome guest – you put your mother-in-law in when she turns up for Christmas.

Today is the fourth and last Sunday of Advent.  We have looked, as we do each year, at the Patriarchs, at the Prophets, and particularly at John the Baptist.  In the last – and this time very short – week we look at Mary the mother of Jesus.  Our reading is the Annunciation when she is told that she would conceive Jesus.  That was her first “Ready or Not” experience – she was a young unmarried girl, not in the least thinking of pregnancy!  Neither was Elizabeth who had thought years ago she was past having children.

And now here is Mary on Christmas Eve, expecting her first baby to arrive.  Is she ready? I hope that Elizabeth, and Anna – Mary’s mother – had helped her to prepare by telling her what to expect and how to feed the newborn. She may have come equipped with blankets and swaddling clothes.  No painkillers in those days of course.  Joseph would have gone to call the Bethlehem midwife when she went into labour.  But is any woman really prepared for her first birth?  You who are mothers, did you have a sense of your baby saying “Ready or not, I’m coming”?

If “Ready or Not, I’m coming” is one message of the Christmas story, so is its equal, “Ready or Not, we’re going!”  That was what Joseph had said a few days earlier as he loaded up the donkey in Nazareth.  Mary may have begged for them to stay until the baby had been born, but Joseph knew he would be in trouble if he failed to turn up to register for the census.  The only question was, would he be registering two names or three?  Ready or Not, we’re going!

The Shepherds were quietly looking after their sheep – probably one on watch and the others sleeping – when the angelic host disturbed their night with the divine command that they run up the hill into the town to see this newborn baby.  They weren’t ready for that either – sleepy, no torches, no exact address to head for. But Ready or Not, we’re going!

Meanwhile further east, the magi thought it was not very wise to set off on a long journey across the desert with little time to prepare.  Quick trip to the bazaar to buy gold, frankincense and myrrh (no time to haggle, just give him what he wants!). Pack a bag with whatever food you have to hand, fill your water bottles, saddle the camels and off we go. No accommodation booked, no road map, only that blinking star to follow. But the ancient wisdom tells us that this star means a king is about to be born, and we want to be among the first to see him.  Ready or Not, we’re going!

At the end of the Christmas story we are told that another angel appeared to Joseph, as the magi were leaving, saying that Herod was seeking to kill Jesus.  So once again they had to be up and on the road, probably in the middle of the night. Never mind the regulations about child seats on donkeys, just hold him on your lap. No, I’ve never been to Egypt either, but it’s somewhere south of here. Ready or Not, we’re going!

I could say the same about the Spirit driving Jesus out into the desert at his baptism with no food or water. Or Jesus sending out the twelve disciples, then the seventy, with no equipment and minimal clothing.  Or Easter and Pentecost when the church exploded out into the world through unprepared apostles.  Again and again we see the same pattern –When God says go, Ready or Not, you go.

So, what about our own lives? There may have been one or more times in your life when circumstances changed dramatically, perhaps forcing you to give up your job, move house or end a relationship, with a sense of “Ready or not, I have to go”.  If it hasn’t happened yet, it might still happen, and you don’t know when.  Where is Jesus in those moments?

I suggest that at those moments, he is actually very close.  Merely a prayer away.  For what seems to the unprepared human eye to be unexpected and unplanned is known by the one who is before all time and above all things.

We have looked this morning at two aspects of really the same story, of knowing when to recognise Jesus, in his appearing or in his moving on. Jesus says, on this eve of Christmas, “Ready or Not, I am coming”. That is not a threat, it is a promise.  Those who recognise the signs of his coming, who receive him into their lives, have as John puts it, “the power to become children of God”. Nothing can surprise Jesus, who is with us at all times and in all places, and at all times, he says, “Ready or Not, I am here.”  The times when we find ourselves unprepared and beyond the limits of our own resources can be the times when we discover his strength.

As we look into the new year ahead, there may be times when he says, “Ready or Not, we’re going”.  Not “you are going” but “we.” For he is Immanuel – “God with us”.  When the unexpected happens, we can turn to Jesus in prayer, knowing that, as Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.”

Those who hear his call to go, to change their lives for his sake, are those who to outsiders may appear to be unprepared and in difficult circumstances.  But actually they are the blessed ones, the ones who stay close to Jesus, the ones who become the children of God.

If you see Jesus this Christmas, welcome him.  If you hear him call, follow him.  And may the coming year with him be a blessed one, wherever he calls you to go with him.


The Bible in a Year – 24 December

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

24 December. John chapters 16-18

Chapters 17 and 18 are the conclusion of Jesus’ last speech to his disciples.  They are immediately followed by the betrayal in Gethsemane and the trial by the two high priests and Pontius Pilate.  These are the readings of Holy Week (the approach to Easter).  So what can they say to us at Christmas?

One word you hear a lot in church at this time of year is “glory”.   It occurs thirteen times in the Bible readings and liturgy for Christmas Eve.  The angels at Bethlehem called out “Glory to God on high, and on earth peace to men of goodwill”.  The opening of John’s gospel that will be read at midnight services around the world tells us that “The Word became flesh and lived among us; we have seen his glory, the glory of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

It is easy to talk about glory when we celebrate a miraculous birth. But what did Jesus say about glory as he was about to die? “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.” (17:1-5).

It may seem counter-intuitive, as does much of Christianity when you think about it carefully, that someone about to be crucified can talk about his death bringing glory.  ‘Glory’ as a concept is closely related to ‘honour’, which itself is something less important in our society than it often was in the past or still is in other cultures.  Someone may be honoured for having an important role in society, or for doing something brave or selfless, or for bringing about justice.  No-one is honoured by receiving a death sentence, are they?  But if you think about it, Jesus’ death was a brave and selfless one as he accepted an unjust death sentence in order to start bringing about God’s rule of justice over the whole earth; and far from being the unimportant radical preacher that the Romans imagined, he gained supreme importance when he was resurrected as the eternal Son of God.

So it is that Jesus could speak of God the Father glorifying (honouring) him in his death, as he had glorified (honoured) the Father in his work on earth.  Understanding that makes it easier to understand why the angels sang of glory at Jesus’ birth, for at that time only they knew what would come of it.


The Bible in a Year – 23 December

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

23 December. John chapters 13-15

Here we have Jesus’ final speech to his disciples, in the course of which he washes their feet to demonstrate that his way of loving and saving people begins with serving their practical needs.    There is much that could be said about any small part of this important speech, but I will start with one verse – “Very truly, I tell you, whoever receives one whom I send receives me; and whoever receives me receives him who sent me” (13:20).

It reminds me at this Christmas season of another verse from the beginning of John’s Gospel which is traditionally read on Christmas Eve – “To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God” (1:12).  Put the logic of those verses together in the right order, and whoever “receives one whom I send” (any Christian proclaiming Jesus) can “become a child of God”.

What makes Christianity different from many other religions and philosophies is that it is not really about believing certain things about God and the world, and even less about how we behave (although neither of those is unimportant).  Principally, to be a Christian is to receive Jesus, who became flesh for us, in our bodies as well as our minds,  and this is never something done in isolation, it is equally about becoming part of the community of other believers, which started with the eleven faithful disciples at the Last Supper, and now numbers hundreds of millions around the world.

The act of receiving Jesus has variously been expressed in different ways – “inviting Jesus into your life”, “turning to Jesus”, “being born again” (see my blog for 18 December).  It is symbolised in the one-off act of being baptised, and is also part of the repeated symbolism of the Eucharist or Mass, in which some people will share at Christmas if at no other time of year. By eating a piece of the broken and shared bread that represents Jesus’ body offered in sacrifice for us, we become part of the “body” of Christians.  Even if, with most protestant/evangelical Christians, you don’t believe that the bread literally becomes Christ’s flesh, it is still a reminder of that holy and sinless body that first appeared on earth about 2020 years ago in Bethlehem.

This dual emphasis on both the physicality of Jesus’ incarnation and our relationship with him, and on the act of serving others as the proof of sharing in his love, is why at this time of year individual Christians and congregations often make more effort than usual to attend to the needs of those around them.  It might be inviting lonely people for a festive meal, singing carols in care homes, opening the church building as a shelter for homeless people on winter nights, or giving food and clothing through local foodbanks and charities that work with people living in poverty.  Of course people of other religions or none do the same – compassion is a human instinct. But where these acts of charity and compassion are motivated by the love of Jesus, there is also the offer to those being served of becoming part of the Body of Christ themselves.  “whoever receives one whom I send receives me; and whoever receives me receives him who sent me”.