Nothing can ever come between us

Today’s song from Sing Praise is ‘Nothing can ever come between us and the love of God’, another chant from the Taizé community.

The title is the first line of the chorus, the second line being ‘… revealed to us in Jesus Christ’.  I’ve discovered this week that there is now a tradition of a ‘gender reveal party’ where a baby’s gender is disclosed, not only to friends but to the parents themselves who have not previously been given the information (you may well call me slow on the uptake here, as apparently the idea started in America ten years ago, but I don’t have children myself!)  The point is that to reveal something is not only to share factual knowledge, but to make an event of it, to add drama to that passing on of information.  So when the Bible says that God reveals himself to us (and a concordance tells me the word is used 81 times in the Bible) it is more than simply telling us that he exists, it is intended to make a sudden and dramatic change in our understanding, one that will change our lives radically in the same way that people’s lives are changed by having a baby.

The verses, or rather chants to be sung by a solo cantor, are verses from Psalm 56 and Romans chapter 8. They are all about trust in God, and God as the Father who have us his son who died, rose again and prays for us. As a result, to quote the last one, “neither death, nor life, nor things present or to come, nothing can ever keep us from God’s love”.  That love once revealed never leaves us, like the love of a mother for her child.

Advent hope 

A reflection for the first Sunday in Advent – written for the online service from St Peter’s church, Bramley 

Bible Reading: Romans 15:7-13 (New International Readers Version)

Christ has accepted you. So accept one another in order to bring praise to God.

I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews. He teaches us that God is true. He shows us that God will keep the promises he made to the founders of our nation.  Jesus became a servant of the Jews so that people who are not Jews could give glory to God for his mercy. It is written, “I will praise you among those who aren’t Jews. I will sing praises to you.” Again it says, “You non-Jews, be full of joy. Be joyful together with God’s people.” And again it says, “All you non-Jews, praise the Lord. All you nations, sing praises to him.” And Isaiah says, “The Root of Jesse will grow up quickly. He will rule over the nations. Those who aren’t Jews will put their hope in him.”

May the God who gives hope fill you with great joy. May you have perfect peace as you trust in him. May the power of the Holy Spirit fill you with hope.            ____________________________________________

Today is the first day of Advent, the season when we prepare to welcome Jesus. Our parish has a one-word theme each week, and this week’s word is HOPE. Hope, in the way the way Christians use the word, is more than just wishful thinking, it’s trusting that God has a plan for our lives and that his promises of restoration and rebuilding will come true.

At the start of Advent the Church looks back to a time before Jesus, when God’s people were without hope. They were living in exile, separated from family and unable to communicate with them, grieving for those who had been killed in war, unable to do their usual jobs.   Doesn’t that sound familiar, as we spend this advent still reeling from the effects of the virus?

Like them, we may feel we have nothing to hope for. But God sent prophets with a message of hope, that he would rescue his people and take them back to where they belonged, restoring relationships and building communities.

The words of the prophets did come true – God restored the Jews to their land.  But there was more, a greater hope that God would one day come himself to reconcile his people – not only the Jews, but all people on earth, even those most excluded from society.  That’s why in this reading St Paul tells his readers to “accept one another” or in other translations, “welcome each other”– he was talking to Jewish and non-Jewish Christians, but the same applies wherever there is division in society.

This call to welcome others is especially relevant today, when we see so much division, so much inequality, so much discrimination in our world.  Never forget, Paul says, that God’s promise of hope is to all people, but most of all to the excluded.

Indian-fishermen

What does this look like in practice?  Take these fishermen. They live in a village called MGR Thittu in Tamil Nadu, south India which we visited in 20o6 with Tearfund.  They are Dalits, those below the bottom tier of the caste system.  They were cut off from society, poor, despised, uneducated, unable to work in the towns. Then the 2004 tsunami hit them, destroyed their boats and their homes.  They had no hope.  But Indian Christians from an organisation called EFICOR (with financial support from Tearfund in the UK), and Christian Aid, came to their rescue with a practical message of hope.  They built new homes, gave them new boats, and opened a computer teaching centre so that they could learn to use the Internet, get jobs in the city and become part of mainstream society. Above all, the Christians brought a message of God’s unconditional love.  Several of the Dalits turned to Christ and now there is a local church in their village.

That’s what Advent hope looks like in India.  But who are the excluded people who God is calling you to welcome? Who are the people God is calling you to bring hope to, this Advent?

[Postscript: since I drafted this earlier this week, Tearfund have asked for prayer for the Tamil Nadu region as it has been hit by a severe cyclone, with large numbers of people evacuated from the coastal areas.  Pray that once again, they may be given hope for the future].

The Bible in a Year – 24 October

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

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

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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.

The Bible in a Year. 3 August.

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this, and also my introduction to the Proverbs.

3 August. Proverbs chapters 24-26

From today’s reading I will take one saying found in 24:10-12:

“If you faint in the day of adversity, your strength being small; if you hold back from rescuing those taken away to death, those who go staggering to the slaughter; if you say, ‘Look, we did not know this’—does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who keeps watch over your soul know it? And will he not repay all according to their deeds?”

In this interconnected world of ours, we have no excuse these days of “we did not know this”.  Every day our screens show us some of the worst things that are happening in the world, whether it is a ‘natural’ famine or flood (which is probably exacerbated by human-induced climate change anyway), or wars or terrorism, or political decisions such as oppression of minorities.  For every one brought to us by the BBC or Facebook, there are many more that we can find out about easily, if we want to, through the humanitarian agencies who do their bit to alleviate human suffering.

But in the words of Harari, “there are no longer any natural famines, only political ones”.  In other words, humanity has the power to feed the world, to virtually eradicate most diseases, to put down weapons and invest in peace.  It is only the sin of human pride that spends money instead on armaments and vanity projects.

It is not only at a national level that this applies.  St Paul was quoting Proverbs 25:21-22 when he wrote to the Romans “If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat; and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink; for you will heap coals of fire on their heads.”  If it is no excuse to say “we did not know”, it is also no excuse to say of those suffering close to home “they are not ours”.  For we are all God’s children, and whatever we have is given to us to help others.