The Bible in a Year – 14 December

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14 December. Hebrews chapters 11-13

These last chapters of Hebrews turn from a consideration of Jesus and what he has achieved, to a list of the great figures of the Hebrew scriptures (Old Testament) and what they achieved through faith.  Much of what is written here is not found directly in the scriptures, and is probably based on rabbinical teaching, but let’s take it as it stands.

The main thrust of the author’s argument is that having faith is not about immediate gain.  The “prosperity gospel” (“if you believe in God and pray hard enough he will make you rich”) is totally alien to this Christian doctrine.  Rather, the riches that the great heroes of the past sought were spiritual ones – the reward of finding God’s blessing in this life, or of preparing others for a life of faith.

The examples given include Abraham, who was promised a vast number of descendants through his son Isaac although he was also called by God to sacrifice Isaac, before the mission was abandoned at he last minute; also Moses, who led an entire nation to safety before his life ended within sight of the promised land; and many unnamed saints who endured physical torment for the sake of the eternal life that was their hope.

The point being made is that we should look not to be rewarded ourselves in our own lifetime, but to “store up treasures in heaven” as Jesus put it, by selflessly working for the benefit of others. This is so counter-cultural that it needs to be repeated often.  To quote Jesus again, “unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains a single grain”.  In other words, you have to put yourself out for the sake of others, before God can use you to grow his kingdom.

This Christmas, when we respond to charity appeals at the same time as feeding and giving presents to our families, let us remember that we celebrate the one who laid down his life that we might have fulness of life.

 

The Bible in a Year – 16 November

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16 November. Luke chapters 6-7

This section of the Gospel begins and ends with Jesus challenging the Pharisees, in different ways.  The Pharisees seem to get a bad press in all the versions of the Gospel, because after all they were observant Jews who thought they were doing their best for God by following all the rituals and laws of the religion.  Sometimes Jesus confronts them angrily, but in these exchanges we see him taking a gentler line, just trying to get them to understand faith his way.

In chapter 6, the issue is, not for the first time, what constitutes “Sabbath work”.  To the Pharisees, it seems that any preparation of food, even the simple act of picking grains and removing the husks, and any form of healing, counted as “work” and therefore sinful if undertaken on the “day of rest”.  Jesus contests that preparing a small amount of food because you are hungry is not “work”, and neither is helping someone in need as an act of charity. “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath”, he says, in other words, “I can determine what the Sabbath regulations mean in practice”.  He had a right to say that, if we accept his divinity; but even if not, the point is more generally valid that religious rules are intended to be interpreted according to the situation at hand – that was how the rabbis understood the Law.

In chapter 7, the Pharisee in question is one Simon who thinks Jesus is sinning by letting himself be touched by a “sinner” without looking into the details of her circumstances. Jesus’ understanding is quite different – he looks not at the fact of what she is doing, but why; and not at what she had done in the past but what she is doing now.  Her weeping shows that she has repented of whatever her sin may have been (possibly prostitution, although we don’t know – the woman’s “sin” may have been something else.)   Washing and anointing his feet with ointment is a sign of tribute to him, where the Pharisee refused Jesus even the expected courtesies of a social kiss and a bowl of water to wash his dusty feet.

When Jesus talks about faith, whether it is the faith of the woman who is brave (or desperate) enough to enter a rich man’s house weeping and interrupt the dinner party with her acts of love and kindness, or the centurion in chapter 6 who accepts Jesus’ authority over sickness as equivalent to his own military authority over his cohort, he means the sort of trust in God that breaks down social barriers and expects unusual things to happen for the common good. That is very different from the Pharisaic “faith” that is based on creeds and regulations.   The second type is easier to fall into than the first, but far less effective in encountering the living God.

 

The Bible in a Year – 8 November

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8 November. Mark chapters 8-9

It has often been remarked that Jesus’ closest disciples seem to have been particularly slow-witted men.  They are given the privilege of seeing Jesus perform many miracles, both those in public (such as the feeding of the four thousand and several healings, just in these two chapters) and those he performed just for them such as calming the storm. In addition, he took three of them with him up the mountain where he was transfigured into an angelic being alongside Moses and Elijah, and they all heard the voice of God (9:2-8).   Peter did, eventually, come out with it and say “you are the Messiah” (or Christ, 8:29).  Yet they still found it hard to accept it when Jesus performed another miracle, and when they tried and failed.

They also failed to understand Jesus’ “servant heart”.   He has just told them about having to “take up one’s cross” to follow him, and becoming great by being humble.  “For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” (8:36) is one of my favourite Bible verses, because it always challenges me to ask myself what I am giving up in order to serve God (the answer, usually, is “not enough”).  But only a short while later he has to reprimand them for arguing about which of them was the greatest (9:34) when he was trying to get them to work together as a team and be examples to others of self-sacrifice.

Jesus’ frustration with his disciples is echoed by the frustration felt by church leaders and preachers when most of the congregation seem to find it so hard to take on board the basic principles of the faith.  Like those whom Paul chides for being like infants who only want milk when they should have been weaned onto solid food, many who come to church seem to be unable or unwilling to even try and live Jesus’ way the rest of the week.  Those of us who do try, know that we never succeed completely, or much at all; but at least we are trying.

Jesus has a stern warning just after the “taking up the cross” challenge: “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” (8:38).   He is not asking to find people perfect when he returns, just to be “unashamed of me and my words”, in other words to be openly practising their faith and making enough of a difference in the world to be known as Christians.  The cry of the father of a troubled child might be ours too: “I believe; help my unbelief!” (9:24)

The Bible in a Year – 7 November

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7 November. Mark chapters 6-7

In these chapters we see Jesus giving his closest disciples – “the Twelve” – an intensive training course.  For some time (months? Possibly a year or two?) they have been following him and watching him preach and heal. Now it is their turn.  They are sent out in pairs (still good practice, both for ‘safeguarding’ and as an encouragement to each other, but for Jesus it may have had more to do with the Jewish rule about the testimony of two witnesses being required to be valid).  They are told to take no food or money, and minimal clothing (6:7-11).  I have come across one missionary organisation working within Britain that applies this rule literally to their own volunteers – they must not use any of their own money, and must stay with host families and accept hospitality from them.  It’s not necessary, of course – St Paul took completely the opposite view and insisted on working for a living alongside preaching and pastoring, so as not to be a burden on his hosts.  But for these disciples, it was right, as they had to learn to live by faith.  The test of whether a village or household was willing to bear the cost of feeding and clothing these travelling preachers was a good indicator of whether they would accept their teaching too.

When they returned, tired from their ministry, Jesus took them away for a ‘debriefing’ and also rest and relaxation (6:30-32).  But it was just at that point that they found themselves followed by the great crowd of 5000 men (and women and children).  In feeding them miraculously, Jesus again gets the disciples to work – “no, I won’t feed them – you will”. By this, and the healings they had performed in the villages,  he shows them that his power can be at work in them even though he was not physically with them.  But it was not an easy lesson to learn – that same night when they were in difficulty in stormy weather on the lake, it was only when Jesus appeared that the storm was calmed – although he had probably knowingly sent them out on a stormy night as a test of their faith, and they failed.

When it comes to healing, though, faith is required in both the healer and the recipient, as Jesus found when he could perform few miracles in his own town where people did not believe that someone they had known well as a boy could be so extraordinary as an adult.

The power of Jesus is still available to those who believe – and yet the vast majority of his followers today, most of the time, do not use it.  I include myself there.  I, and most other Christians, are reluctant to try praying for people to be healed because I doubt that it will “work”. I think those who do exercise this gift must know in some intuitive way that God’s power is within them, and so must those who are healed.

The Bible in a Year – 4 November

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4 November. Matthew chapters 27-28

These last two chapters of the Gospel cover Matthew’s version of the most important events of the whole Bible – the death and resurrection of Jesus.  What can I add to the volumes that have been written about those world-changing three days?

Let’s consider the attitudes towards Jesus of the people who encountered him. Firstly those who responded negatively. Firstly, the “chief priests and elders” (27:20) who whipped up the emotions of the crowd to have Jesus crucified, even though Pilate was minded to release him.  Those same priests and elders panicked, if Matthew’s account is to be believed, on Easter day when the report of the resurrection reached them: like most politicians whose judgements have been proved wrong, rather than admitting  their mistake they turned to bribery and false reporting in order to suppress the truth (28:12-14).

Then there were the soldiers who mocked him, made him (and Simon) carry the cross, gambled for his clothing as he hung dying. And the two bandits hung alongside him who, along with the soldiers and passers-by, taunted him to perform one last miracle by coning down from the cross – just as he had been tempted by the Devil in the desert to perform miracles for the sake of his own health and popularity. And of course the crowd, who would go along with whatever the religious leaders said.

Two key players changed their mind in all the confusion of the proceedings of Holy Week: Pilate who seemed to believe Jesus was innocent, but was not prepared to risk his own reputation in Rome by letting a riot begin because of it; and Judas, who repented of his betrayal. But for him it was too late.

But among other observers were individuals who bucked the trend, who had the courage to ignore popular opinion and believe that Jesus was worth respect, who had at least the common humanity which cannot ignore another person in distress.  These few made all the difference.

There was Pilate’s wife, who because of a presumably God-given  dream (what was it, we wonder?) was convinced of Jesus’ innocence (27:19) – but her word was not enough to turn Pontius from his course. There were the unnamed bystanders who twice offered him wine (presumably as a feeble attempt at anaesthetising his pain – which he refused). There were his own mother, the mothers of some of his disciples and “many other women” who endured the mental torment of watching him and the two thieves die in agony, because they believed in Jesus to the end. Hats off to Joseph of Arimathea: he had the courage to believe in Jesus’ right to a respectful burial, to ask for his bloodied body, and to risk ritual uncleanness by handling it.  The two Marys (Magdalen, and the mother of James and Joseph) also were willing to start embalming the body, and to come back at first light after the Sabbath to continue despite knowing the sealed tombstone would be almost impossible to move.  If they had not done so, would they have witnessed the most incredible sight ever?

Maybe these people had been in the crowd when Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan, and remembered that showing mercy to someone in great difficulty (irrespective of their gender, ethnicity, beliefs or what got them into difficulty) is a sign of love for God as well a neighbour.  Maybe they were also there when he said “blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy”.  For it is easy – I will admit to it myself – to walk past when someone is in trouble, especially if they are not like us.  It is not difficult to agree with the principle that we are all brothers and sisters in this life and we need to help each other.  But it is far more difficult to put it into practice.  Thank God for those who do, and especially for those who helped Jesus and showed him respect in both life and death.

The Bible in a Year – 1 November

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1 November. Matthew chapters 21-22

Today’s reading starts with the “triumphal entry”, as Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, followed by overturning the tables of the moneychangers.  In the Christian calendar this is usually read at the start of Holy Week, leading up to Easter.  That last week or so of Jesus’ life was marked by increasing conflict with the Temple authorities. Many of the parables in these chapters were told in the Temple, making reference to its activities, and were (as Matthew explicitly says) told against the Pharisees and Sadducees.   He seems to have set these two rival groups against each other, as first one and then the other tests him to see if they can catch him out.

But they cannot.  Jesus’s wise answers leaves them dumbfounded.  You can’t say that the popular prophet John was sent from God without accepting that I am too, he tells them.  It’s OK to pay taxes to the Romans as long as you also honour God and give to the work of the Temple or church.  Heaven is a completely new kind of existence where concepts such as marriage and parenthood have no meaning. The most important thing to do is love God – but it’s equally important to love other people as much as yourself. And finally, Jesus himself was greater than David, the king who everyone remembered as being God’s favourite.    No-one could contradict him on those points, although his interpretation of the Jewish scriptures was radically different from accepted teachings.

All through this time, these Jewish leaders were criticising Jesus, not praising him.  But the ordinary people praised him, and most of all the children.  As we saw yesterday, the faith of children is something precious and special, to be protected.   Jesus saw in their enthusiastic response to his teaching and healing a fulfilment of a verse from the Psalms – “Out of the mouths of infants and babies you have prepared praise for yourself” (21:1, based on Psalm 8:2).  It was in those children that Jesus saw his Kingdom starting to grow.

The Bible in a Year – 31 October.

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31 October. Matthew chapters 18-20

The section headings in some modern Bibles are not part of the original text, but a good guide. In the NRSV chapter 18 is headed “True Greatness”.   That sounds like the title of a self-help book. What is the secret of being “truly great”?  Obviously we are not talking about “Making America great again” or similar political claims.  But what makes a great person?

As Shakespeare wrote, “some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.”  But his character was thinking in human terms – greatness as fame, or wealth, or power.  Some adults devote all their energies to achieving at least one of these, and few of us are completely immune to their temptations.

Jesus’ example of true greatness is that of young children. He does not immediately go on to explain that, but maybe he was contrasting children, presumably at an age (and in a culture without TV celebrities) when fame and wealth and power were of no concern to them, with the anxieties that drive adults to seek greatness in the wrong form.  But he does go to great lengths to stress the enormity of the sin of “causing [a child] who believes in me to stumble”.  That might include what we would now call child abuse, but Jesus was probably intending rather the sin of making a child aware too soon of the temptations of the world, including those of fame and power.

Further on in this reading (19:13-15) he repeats this in a different form: “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs”.  That verse (with its older translation “Suffer the little children…”) is carved into many a Victorian church font.  But the Victorian clergy marshalled the little children into Sunday School classes, taught them the Bible by rote, and in many cases probably also taught them to seek wealth and status in society.  They may well have been just the stumbling blocks that Jesus warned about.

The following passage refers not to children but to young adults, in particular the young man who wanted to follow Jesus but felt unable to comply with Jesus’ instruction to “go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (19:21).  In this respect, Jesus is not telling everyone they have to make themselves poor to be his followers.  He is acting more like a wise spiritual director who discerns what is really going on in someone’s life – in this instance, a love of money preventing him from really engaging with  Jesus’ teaching and ministry.  Someone had, at some stage in this young man’s upbringing, “caused him to stumble” by giving him the impression that maturity is about seeking wealth and fame, rather than about finding who you really are and seeking God’s will for your life.

So for those of us who minister in churches that include children in the congregation (and a church that has none is in real trouble!) our task is to draw them to “come to Jesus” without being “stumbling blocks”. That will involve helping each child to find his or her own identity as a person and guide them along their own path to maturity and spiritual awakening.  Along the way they will inevitably encounter the temptations to seek greatness in the world’s ways, but a Christian education is about equipping young people to seek a better path in life.   It’s a tall order, but as Jesus warned, if we fail, it is we who will bear the burden of guilt.

The Bible in a Year – 22 October.

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22 October. Romans chapters 8-10

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

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

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

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

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

The Bible in a Year – 8 October

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8 October. Galatians chapters 1-3

The first of St Paul’s letters or epistles that we are covering is that to the Christians in Galatia.  Paul is concerned that they, whom he has previously taught the ‘gospel’, are now listening to others with different ideas about how to live as a Christian.  His use of the word gospel is interesting, since his letters were written before the biographies of Jesus that we call “the Gospels”.  The word simply means ‘good news’. It refers here to the teaching that Jesus came, not simply as a rabbi or healer, but as God in human form to reconcile all people to God.

I mentioned in yesterday’s post (on the letter of James) that whereas James insisted on the importance of ‘works’ (right living according to ethical principles), Paul stressed equally strongly that only faith in Jesus matters, and that trying to make oneself right with God by obeying the Law (religious rules) actually fights against all that Jesus came for.   How can these two contemporaries, who knew and largely respected each other, offer in the earliest surviving Christian writings two such opposed views?

For one thing, as Paul explains towards the end of his autobiography that occupies the first chapter and a half of the letter, his calling by God was to bring the gospel to the gentiles (non-Jews) who might be used to hearing all kinds of different religions with their various rituals, whereas James, along with Peter (Cephas) and others, were called to bring it to Jewish believers.

There is a very telling verse here: “for until certain people came from James, he [Cephas/Peter] used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction” (2:12).  It seems that James, who was concerned that his Jewish Christian hearers should not lose sight of the high moral standards that Jews were expected to follow, insisted on the new converts being circumcised. They might therefore have assumed that they had to obey the regulations too. Paul however felt that he had to emphasise that both circumcision, and keeping the regulations, were quite unnecessary for someone who had not grown up in the Jewish culture.

Few new Christians today come from Judaism (though there are a few, who style themselves ‘Messianic Jews’). For most, they will need more to take in Paul’s teaching that unlike all other religions, Christianity is not about conforming to rules, it is about being conformed by the Holy Spirit to the likeness of Jesus in the way that we live.  He showed that loving God and your neighbour is not optional; but it is not achieved by the keeping of many regulations.

The Bible in a Yer. 11 September

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11 September. Nehemiah chapters 12-13

In these chapters Nehemiah establishes the pattern of Temple worship and the Sabbath observance. He leads a great procession around the city walls to bless the rebuilt city. But he treats badly those who continued to buy, sell or work on the Sabbath day, those who have failed to give the required tithe to pay the temple servants, and Tobiah who had set up a home or office in the temple store, thus defying its purpose.

As with my comments yesterday about the condemnation of intermarriage (which is repeated here in chapter 13) it seems that this re-establishing of the patterns of a religious life was Nehemiah’s overriding concern.   People would naturally start and grown their businesses – farming, shopkeeping or whatever – but they needed encouragement (sometimes of a rather forceful kind) to build religious community.

It is no different today.  As a lay reader in the Church my role is largely to encourage “ordinary” Christians in church attendance and in relating faith to everyday life.  This is not easy. The many secular activities that we all get involved in make it difficult to establish or keep patterns of prayer and worship. The hectic, technological and rapidly changing pace of life around us makes it increasingly difficult to see the relevance either of an “unchanging” faith or of ancient books.  But we must try, or we will quickly lose touch with the spiritual side of life.