O Changeless Christ

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is ‘O Changeless Christ, forever new’ by Timothy Dudley-Smith. Unusually for one of his hymns it is set to an old (early 19th century) tune.

The changelessness of Christ is invoked in the first verse to ‘draw our hearts as once you drew the hearts of other days’ and in the last to ‘bring us home, to taste at last the timeless joys of heaven’. Other verses ask him to teach us as he taught the people of his own day, still troubled hearts as he stilled the storm, heal today as he did then, and to make himself known in the bread and wine of Communion.  

While there is truth in saying that Christ is changeless, that can all too often be used as an excuse to resist change in the Church.  The ways that the ‘Early Church’ (or for that matter the Church of 17th century England) taught and worshipped don’t have to remain unchanged. The often-asked question ‘What would Jesus do?’ appeals to the changeless elements of his teaching (love God, love your neighbour, bring hope and healing in his name) but should not be used to oppose those who seek change in patterns of worship or more acceptance of people whose lifestyles diverge from what is seen as the Christian ideal.  We have to work out the application of Scripture in our own generation while not losing sight of the core of the Gospel message. 

Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me

Church of St Mary, Hawksworth Wood, Leeds. Built 1935 in a traditional style (see text below)

Today’s song from Sing Praise is “Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me” by Daniel Iverson.  The words are simple – that phrase is repeated in the second and fourth lines, the third being “break me, melt me, mould me, fill me”.

This song, then, is an invocation of the Spirit to come and change us. Not just slightly but completely, broken and recast in a new shape like recycled pottery or glass. It fitted very well the ecumenical and charismatic atmosphere of the Christian Union when I was at university in the early 1980s so it isn’t surprising that the song was popular then. What is surprising is to see that it was written in 1935, at a dark time in history with depression and the threat of war, a time when the Church was not associated with radical change (you only have to look at the architecture of most 1930s church buildings to see this). When the world emerged from war a decade later, some church congregations settled back into their old ways, but others let the Spirit remould them into a new form.

That process of recycling or remoulding needs to be repeated, whenever we get settled into too easy a path in the Christian life or find ourselves resistant to change. Maybe the present time of emerging from pandemic will be an opportunity for such radical change.  This Pentecost let us sing these hymns with every expectation that our sung prayers will be answered.

The Bible in a Year – 21 December

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

21 December. John Chapters 9-10

It is clear from these chapters that Jesus was not worried about causing divisions. In fact he seems to have regarded it as inevitable that his ministry would cause division, attracting some people and making enemies of others.  Many (though not all) of the ordinary people believed in him, because they looked at his “works” (healing, teaching, feeding, showing love and compassion).  Many (though not all) of the religious and political leaders became his enemies because they looked at how his actions fitted into their “laws” – or rather, did not fit.  This is clear from the story of the blind man.  What mattered to him and his friends was that he had been healed, and not surprisingly, worshiped the man who had healed him.  What mattered to the Pharisees was that it had happened on a Sabbath. They would not have been surprised, for Jesus had healed on the Sabbath many times – they just could not get the point that healing should not be counted as “work”.

Laws, whether of religion or state (and in some societies, it amounts to the same thing), are a necessary construct for society to function.  We all need to know what is expected of us.  But no system of laws stays unchanged for ever – both religious and secular law changes in small ways all the time, and occasionally needs major reform.  Like an earthquake zone, frequent small movements cause less damage than rare large ones.  Jesus, when he was in Jerusalem, found himself in a fossilised religious environment that had not changed substantially for centuries – in fact, the layers of interpretation added to the original “laws of Moses” (intended originally for a desert people) had made them almost impossible to change.  Jesus was the earthquake that was about to hit the Jewish religion in a devastating way, and the warning tremors had been happening for some time.  Little wonder that on Good Friday, an earthquake was one of the signs that something very important was happening.

We see the same in the way people come to believe in Jesus today.  He turns no-one away, not even people whose lives are already generally well-adjusted and people-centred.  Such people may find faith in Jesus but their lives do not need to change very much.  On the other hand there are those whose lives are totally broken, whether by disease, stress, guilt,  addiction, or being victims of violence and persecution – or the cause of them.  Such people, if they find Jesus and his accepting love and transforming forgiveness, are (in a very positive way) the ones caught up in an earthquake, as the tension that has built up in their lives is suddenly released.  The metaphor of an earthquake may not be the best one – do tell me if you can think of a better one – but the point is, that whether your need is for another slight change in your life or a desperately overdue major one, Jesus will do it, if you let him.  If you only have eyes to see.

The Bible in a Year – 1 December

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

1 December. Acts chapters 7-8

Carrying over from yesterday’s reading to today’s is the story of Stephen, known as the first Christian martyr.  Given that is my first name, I feel an association with him, though of course I hope I will not suffer the same fate.

It is well known that Stephen was stoned to death for blasphemy as he claimed to see Jesus standing at the right hand of God in heaven.  What is less well known is the speech he gave in his defence to the first, trumped-up charge of “saying that Jesus will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us.” (6:14).   That was the key word – “change”. Religious people don’t like change, they much prefer to stick with the customs they know, whether those customs were started by Moses a thousand years earlier or by the last-but-one vicar twenty years ago.

So Stephen, inspired by the same Holy Spirit who had empowered this church administrator to perform miracles of healing (6:8), gave a long and detailed account of the life of Moses, to demonstrate that Moses himself was open to change in very radical ways.  Here was a man adopted as an infant by a princess and forced to serve the oppressors of his people (presumably a reference to the Romans is implied here), then at the age of forty forced to flee the country and become a nomad for having made a mess of trying to bring about justice, then forty years later at the age of eighty  having a vision of God that drove him back to Egypt to confront the political powers, and finally spending the last forty years of his long life leading millions of refugees out of Egypt to the brink of the promised land.  Moses would have been the first to say that listening to God’s call and obeying it, however much that may disrupt your routine, is far more important than sticking with the routine for its own sake.   “It’s about time you changed, because that’s what God is telling you” was the theme of his sermon.  They did not like it one bit.  And thus ended the ministry of this promising church leader, but like Jesus calling out for forgiveness for his persecutors as he died.

If Stephen is my inspiration, that means that I too have to be willing to change.  Twice I have changed careers, and moved several times, in response to God’s call.  But I am still in middle age and he may call me to change again.  Those who get too attached to a particular way of doing things are likely to be left behind when God moves on with his followers, and I don’t want to miss the boat.