Walking, Standing, Sitting

Walking Standing Sitting

Life is all about progression.

It’s about moving forward in a chosen direction.

The book of psalms in the Bible – the 150 psalms which functioned as the hymn book of the people of God – opens with a stark presentation of how that life progression works.

We are shown a description of the person who is blessed by God, but it is presented negatively; we are told that those who are blessed by God are those who do not…

It is as if we are being told, ‘Look, God’s desire for you is that you should be blessed, and that will always happen unless…’

Blessing us is God’s default position, but we can place ourselves outside of it through disobedience.

Of course, this is not an arithmetic process – it is not the case that those who do good are always blessed.

We only have to look at the life of Jesus to see that; or to read the book of Job in the Old Testament.

In this life it is often the case that bad stuff happens to good people.

Yet, these instances are ‘unnatural’.

There is still an underlying truth that, in the way God deals with human beings, blessing often follows obedience.

So what does the psalm teach us?

We are shown that which sets us on a downward path, which takes us outside of the orbit of God’s desire to bless us.

‘Blessed is the one
who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,’
(Psalm 1:1, NIVUK)

We are shown that going wrong is a process, a downward progression.

Firstly, we start to ‘walk in step with the wicked’ – we allow ourselves to fall into the company of those who reject God – we listen to them and we follow their advice.

Notice how casual an unintended this can be. Just walking along and, almost by chance, we find ourselves in lock-step with someone else. This leads to a conversation and before we know it, we have become connected.

How might this play out in our lives today?

We listen to the cultural influencers and leaders who reject God and we start to pay attention to them more than we do to God. We watch the movies, read the books, consume the social media that present and promote ways of thinking and living that are opposed to God and godliness.

All of these things gradually bring to bear an influence upon our values, thoughts and actions. Bit by bit we become less and less godly.

Secondly, we ‘stand in the way of sinners’. Here we have moved on from a casual ‘bumping into’ someone. Here we start to associate with, to seek out the company of, those who lives and actions are clearly opposed to God. We keep company with those whose values are not God’s.

In our contemporary context it is about going to the places where godly conduct is not only not practised but flouted. Values of holiness and purity turned on their head. Ethics and standards of behaviour ostentatiously broken.

Finally, we ‘sit in the seat of mockers’ – we firmly take sides with those who ridicule righteousness, who despise God and who see God’s people as their enemy. It is at this stage that our ‘conversion’ is complete. We have sided with the opposition. We have taken our place with those who set themselves against God and against good.

Although the end is dramatic, the process that leads us there needn’t be so.

As we saw above, the first step is accidental, unconscious even.

The rest of the process can be lived as a gentle, downwards slide.

Bit by bit, choice by choice, step by step we gradually distance ourselves further and further from God.

But although the process can be largely unconscious it is not without momentum.

We gather speed as we go.

And the further and faster we go, the harder and harder it becomes to stop and turn around.

We can find ourselves trapped in a vortex from which it feels like we cannot escape.

So, if stopping is so hard, the wisest course of action is not to start in the first place.

So how might we prevent ourselves from going astray, from starting on that downward spiral?

Helpfully, the psalm shows us how this progression is prevented – it is by reflecting, meditating, savouring the word of God.

A deep embracing of God’s word as our rule of life is the silver bullet that keeps us centred in the place where God’s blessing falls.

The psalm then presents us with the results of that blessing. It uses the image of a tree planted beside a stream. A tree that is resourced, secure against the drought that was often a part of middle-eastern life; a tree that produces both leaves and fruit.

Tree of Life

Whilst we probably get the metaphor of fruit – qualities, characteristics, attitudes, behaviours flowing out of our life with God that bring blessing to others – perhaps the metaphor of leaves is less clear.

In the ancient world, leaves were often used as medicines for healing.

So a tree that is full of leaf is one that offers healing to those around it.

So the person who dwells in the orbit of God’s blessing is a person whose life offers ‘fruit’ which enriches and blesses those around them and ‘leaves’ which bring healing to others.

This is such a beautiful image.

Remembering that you have forgotten.

String-tied-on-finger

There is a fantastic film called Memento. In it the central character is seeking to avenge his murdered girlfriend – so far, so formulaic. The twist in this film is that the man suffers from short-term memory loss, so every time he wakes up he has forgotten everything that happened the day before.

His strategy for coping with this handicap is the use of a notebook, Polaroid photographs and tattoos. When he awakes he looks at the marks on his body which re-tell his story, he looks through his Polaroids and his notes and he works out where he is in his quest and then seeks to move forward.

The plot gets even more complex as things go on, but suffice to say, it is one of those films you need to watch again and again, it is such a brilliantly clever film.

As I thought about this film, and it does make you think, it struck me that there are many resonances between this film and the life of Christian discipleship.

Like the character in the film we are on a quest – not for vengeance but for the re-establishment of the rule of the rightful King over His Creation; we are fifth columnists fighting against an evil usurper, working for his overthrow and the coming of the King.

Unfortunately, like the character in the film, we all too apt to forget about our quest.

I wrote in one of my recent running blogs about how a two word greeting, ‘How do’, triggered a whole flood of memories about my beloved and long-departed grandad. Such unlooked for ‘memory triggers’ are a grace, and quite rare.

If we are not to forget the quest that is the meaning of our lives, we need – like the character in Memento – a strategy to help us remember.

It strikes me that the first stage in remembering is the realization that there is something that you’ve forgotten.

The classic ruse of tying a piece of string around your finger will probably work for helping you remember simple things, like to buy a loaf of bread on the way home from work. However, more complex memories such as the meaning of the universe, your place in it and your task and engagement in the work of deposing the usurper and re-establishing the rightful King on his throne, require a more complex system.

It is for this reason that gathering together is a vital part of Christian discipleship. At these times we help each other remember the meaning of our lives by telling each other the story so far, re-stating the goal of our quest, recounting past battles won and lost, the deeds done.

At our times of gathering the King Himself walks amongst us, dispensing words here and there of encouragement, exhortation, rebuke, challenge, and appreciation. In a real and physical way we meet Him and are strengthened by His presence.

Our King has also left us a manuscript in which He sets out his goals and His means, His battle plan. Our duty as faithful warriors, who want to be as prepared as they can to fight well, is to read and study this text- it is our Bushido text (The Way of the Warrior).

Our King has also given us a system of instantaneous and unlimited communication, through which we have unfiltered and unrestricted access to Him. We can turn to Him at any and every moment, during our communication with Him we attune our thoughts and priorities to His, we attune ourselves to Him.

It is through these three activities of gathering, study and communication that our King is able to enthuse us with His Spirit and to embolden us for the fight.

No successful conclusion to our life of quest will be possible without the disciplined use of these three helps.

The Strange Appeal of Cucumbers and Garlic

cucumbers_garlic

Henry Blackaby, a man I have never met, has had a profound effect upon my Christian spirituality. Today as I listened to his talk from unit 8 of his course, “Experiencing God – Knowing and doing the will of God” (download available here HERE), Henry once again said something that made me stop short.

Referring to the Old Testament incident recounted in Numbers 11, where the people of Israel, newly delivered from 400 years of Egyptian slavery by God through Moses and on their way to the Promised Land, complain against God … about the food.

“We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost – also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic.” Numbers 11:5 NIVUK

This is almost unbelievable. These people have been crying out to God for centuries for Him to deliver them from Egyptian oppression.

“The Lord said, ‘I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering.” Exodus 3:7 NIVUK

Yet now, in very short order, they start to hanker back to their time in slavery, and all over the food?!

What are they complaining about? In fact, they are complaining about the daily miracle of God’s provision! They are complaining about the ‘Manna’;  this strange food that God made appear every day, which they could freely gather and which provided for their nutritional needs.

But they were fed up of it; so fed up that they even began to hanker back to life as an oppressed slave.

Seems surprising doesn’t it? We might feel like scorning them for their lack of back-bone, we might feel superior. But actually this is a phenomenon common to most Christians.

One of the Devil’s greatest strategies against us is to constantly remind us of the cost of our obedience to God. What have we missed out on by responding to God?

Oh! the cucumbers and garlic we could have enjoyed!

When actually the really important question, the really, really important question, is what would disobedience to God cost us?

The people of Israel stood at the cusp of a glorious new future. They were to be settled into a homeland for the very first time in their history. They were going to be able to live with God and worship Him in freedom and liberty. They were going to be made a light for the nations, an arena for the demonstration of the glory and power of God. That was what God was about to do in them and through their history.

But all they could think of was cucumbers.

In my life I can look back at times when God called me to make what seemed like significant sacrifices – to give up a safe career in the civil service, to sell our home, to leave our home country and to go and live in a foreign culture, to leave family and friends behind.

However, looking back over the past 20 years, I can honestly say I do not regret any single instance of sacrifice. In fact, such has been the blessing I have experienced and the enriching I have received through what God has done in response to my obedience, actually they do not even feel like sacrifices.

If I was given the chance to live my life again, I would not make any other choice than to obey God.

God does not ask us to make sacrifices in order to diminish our lives, but to enrich them – perhaps in ways that are different to what we would choose, or imagine. But He loves us and wants the best for us and He knows better than us what Best looks like.

God has always eternity in mind, not time. His best always has eternal dimensions.

Can we accept God’s choice of what is best? Or will we stay fixated on cucumbers?

Can we not give up piffling trifles in exchange for eternal blessedness?

As for me, you can keep the garlic.

Stop Crying, Rise up!, Be Reunited

widowofnain

I was reading the lectionary for today and the gospel reading was the incident known as the raising of the widow of Nain’s son (Luke 7).

Jesus, arriving at the town gates, sees a funeral procession in progress.

Whilst funerals are always sorrowful events, this particular one has a real element of tragedy to it.

A woman who has already buried her husband, is now in the process of burying her only son.

This would be tragic even in our day, but in Bible times, with no state provision of care for the elderly, no life insurance policies, no guaranteed pension, this woman finds herself in a situation that is both tragic and terrifying. Who will look after her in her old age? Who will protect her from abuse and oppression? Her life has been cruelly stripped of all joy, all hope, all security.

Jesus is confronted by this situation and he does three things;

  • Firstly he says to the woman “Stop crying”.
  • Secondly he approaches the funeral bier and commands the dead body to get up.
  • Thirdly he gives the resuscitated boy back to his mother.

I was struck by the manner in which this story encapsulates the whole of the gospel message.

God comes to us in our existential distress. How could we not be distressed? We face the certainty of death, which will entail the nullification of all of our hopes, dreams, plans and projects. It will also mean a full and final separation from all that we hold dear. Who would not be distressed at that awful prospect?

The first thing that God does is an expression of his Compassion. He comes to us and tells us “Don’t cry”. There is hope. There is one who both cares and can do something about the situation.

The second thing God does is an expression of His Capability. He gives us life. He makes us – the spiritually dead – to share in His life – an eternal life, an unending life, an indestructible life.

The final thing God does is an expression of His Concern, what He wants to happen in the World. Newly raised to life, he gives us back to our fellows, to our families, to our friends. We are to be reunited in order that we can, in our turn, help others to receive the real life that only God can give.

All of which is summed up wonderfully by the crowd’s reaction to Jesus action that day at Nain.

“They were all filled with awe and praised God.

‘A great prophet has appeared among us,’ they said.

‘God has come to help his people.’” (Luke 7:16, NIV)

I find in my life a constant temptation in these three areas.

Firstly, I am tempted to doubt God’s Compassion. Does God really care about me and my infinitely small life and circumstances? Do they really have any significance to the awesome God who controls the universe?

Secondly, I am tempted to doubt God’s Capability. Can God really bring new life in this situation that seems reeking of death? Is life even possible here?

Thirdly, I am tempted to forget God’s Concern. That God has sent me back into the world, as a wholly living being, in order to share with others the glorious possibility of life that God offers.

Compassion – Capability – Concern

The whole of the gospel.

Thomas : the doubter

Doubting Thomas

 

Poor St Thomas – We know very little about him, the New Testament hardly mentions him; in fact, almost the only thing we know of him is that he could not believe the other apostles when they told him that they had met the risen Jesus.

 

What bad luck! For 2,000 years he has become a symbol of distrust, of a lack of good faith, of doubt and disbelief. But does he really deserve that?

Put yourself in his place. Put your imagination to work.

You have spent three years with Jesus. You have seen his miracles and heard his teachings. Finally you have come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah of God, the one who will usher in the Kingdom of God on earth. Imagine your dreams, your hopes for the future.

But disaster! Within hours, Jesus is betrayed, condemned, tortured, humiliated, nailed to a cross and dies. Everything you dreamed, everything you hoped, has been shattered. What a catastrophe, what a disappointment!

Imagine the emotional, psychological, spiritual trauma of St Thomas. Upset by this event you do not know what to think. You are lost, disoriented, blown away.

A few days later you and the other disciples are still trying to cope with this huge disappointment, to rebuild your lives.

And then one day you go out, and when you return you find the other apostles are in total uproar, it’s mayhem! Some are crying, others are laughing, some are singing songs of praise! It is a cacophony! Everyone runs towards you, all talking to you at the same time, everyone is excited.

Finally some peace settles and you ask them “what happened?” They tell you “We saw Jesus!” “He came among us”. “He spoke with us”. “He has risen”.

How would you react?

Perhaps the easiest thing would be to let yourself be carried along by the excitement of all the others. To tell them, “Yes, very well, I believe you, hallelujah!” but without being really convinced, with second thoughts, but not wanting to create a scene.

This is why I prefer to call Thomas “honest” rather than “doubting”. He refused the easy route. He preferred to be honest, to be true to himself, to say what he really thought.

When he expressed his genuine doubt and disbelief, one can imagine that it led to a heated exchange between him and the other apostles. His final words seem a bit abrupt, a little violent, perhaps they make sense only after such an exchange and pressure has being exerted on him. But Thomas did not give in, he is tough, courageous, he does not fold.

I think there are many people who need to follow the model of St. Thomas. They have heard what their parents, catechists, priests, pastors have said about the Good News of Jesus Christ. They have heard others tell of their personal experiences with the risen Christ. But they find that all that is still not entirely convincing. There is something they still lack. Like St. Thomas, they need a personal encounter, a face to face meeting with Jesus Christ.

If we look in the New Testament we see that there are plenty of different models for how different people come to faith.

  • St John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, entered the empty tomb, saw the burial cloths that had covered Jesus’ body and he believed immediately, without any need for anything more.
  • The Apostles and St Thomas himself, needed to experience the direct presence of the risen Jesus before believing.
  • For St. Paul it took God to knock him off his horse on the road to Damascus, and to be blinded for three days and then miraculously healed, before he could believe in the risen Jesus.

 

In my life as a Christian I have seen all of these models. I have met people who as soon as you share with them the good news of Jesus Christ, they respond directly “I believe, count me in!” For other people it’s much more complicated. Their journey to faith is often long and sometimes painful. Some even need God “to knock them off their horse” – that to bring them into some difficult, painful experience that disrupts their lives – illness, relational problem, redundancy – in order for God to get their attention, break through their cocoon, to open them up to His love for them.

To me these examples show us that God respects us in our individuality, in our difference and in our doubts; as we are. For those who need proof, God is more than willing to give them such proof as they need. Jesus did not leave St Thomas in his unbelief and in his doubt. He wanted to bring him to faith. If St. Thomas needed to meet Jesus, Jesus is ready to show himself to him. If Saint Paul needs to be knocked off his horse, Jesus is ready to do that for him. Jesus has not changed. He still has the same desire to help us come to faith – the way in which we get there is of no importance.

And you, where are you today? Maybe like Saint Thomas you do not yet believe. You are still missing something. You need that personal meeting, that face to face encounter with Jesus.

What help can you find in the story of St Thomas?

First, you need to be reassured, if you feel a desire for God that is already an infallible sign that the Holy Spirit is at work in you. Any desire for God is created by God. And God is not evil, he does not playing “hide and seek” with us. If God gives you the desire for himself, it is because he wants to satisfy that desire.

In addition, note the place where Jesus appeared to the disciples – it was in the midst of the Christian community gathered together. So at the heart of the Christian community is the best place for an encounter with Jesus – at church, at an ALPHA course, at gatherings for prayer and praise. If you have the desire to meet Jesus, these places are the most favorable times. Put yourself in the places where such encounters with God most often happen – amongst his people gathered together.

And for those of us who believe. For those who have received the grace to believe in Jesus, what does the story of St Thomas tell us?

I ask you to imagine how the community of disciples reacted to the disbelief of St Thomas? Do you think they left him alone with his doubts? Do you think they said, “Okay, you have made your choice, now get out of here, you have no place amongst us true believers. If ever you do come to faith, then you can come back to us.”

No, I think it is much more likely that they helped their brother St Thomas with their prayers. I am sure that they prayed to God with insistence during those eight long days, “Lord Jesus, show yourself to our brother so that he can believe!”

Imagine their delight when they finally heard St Thomas exclaim, “My Lord and my God!” What a party they must have held that night!

So for us believers, we should take up the challenge to pray for those who do not yet believe – and I emphasize the word ‘yet’. This is our duty and our privilege. Pray asking God to do whatever is necessary in order that our brothers might come to believe. And what a party we shall haven on that day when we can say together, “My Lord and my God!”

“You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.

I will be found by you, says the Lord” Jeremiah 29:13

God bless you. Amen.

Stephen J. March

Sermon, 2nd Sunday of Easter 2011, preached at ​​Vitteaux and Sombernon.

Fallen Stones – Rebuilt

BeforeandAfterChapelleSainteBarbe

When we first arrived in Villy en Auxois, our new friends soon showed us a ruined chapel in the woods above the village. No-one seemed to know much about it, although some said it was dated to the 15th century and possibly associated with a leper colony.

There really wasn’t much to see. The roof was gone, the walls mostly collapsed, in a few more decades it would disappear totally.

However, after a couple of years, a small group of people started to talk about the possibility of restoring it.

To be honest, I wasn’t that hopeful. The chapel didn’t have any great architectural interest – it was after all, just a modest 15th century funerary chapel for a local leper community (at least that was the understanding).

However, research was done and it transpired that the chapel was a lot older than previously thought. In fact the unearthed lintel showed an inscription which stated that Jean de Vienne, Amiral de France, Seigneur de Franche-Comté, had restored the chapel in 1346  – so its origins were pushed backwards dramatically. Indeed it seems most likely that it was originally constructed between 500 and 800 !

So instead of a chapel that had stood for 500 years, we had one that had stood for 1,500!

This discovery prompted feasibility studies and grant applications, and finally the colossal amount necessary to restore the chapel 300,000 € was granted.

Work went on and was finally completed in 2013. An inaugural re-dedication mass was finally held on Saturday 16th August 2014.

My wife and I were present at that mass. Indeed, my wife had been asked to organize the mass and lead the singing. I ended up operating the sound system.

Two Protestant Evangelicals present and intimately involved, in a Catholic community’s re-dedication mass of a chapel that had been ruined and unused for around 300 years!

I cannot tell you how significant that felt for us, two people who have felt God’s call to come to France to offer ourselves in humble service to our Catholic brothers and sisters in Christ.

We can only pray that it is a prophetic sign that God is about to restore and revive the spiritual ruin of this nation.

There is a passage in the Bible that has become very precious to me.

“The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me to and fro among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. He asked me, ‘Son of man, can these bones live?’” Ezekiel 37:1-3 NIV

God has brought my wife and I to this ‘valley of dry bones’ – local churches are struggling due to a lack of priests, they have ageing congregations and little in the way of resources.

God’s question is moot, ‘Can these bones live?’

Ezekiel’s response to God was wonderful,

I said, ‘Sovereign Lord, you alone know.’

This is the only possible response a human being can make. For all things are possible for God, but we cannot presume to know His specific will, we can only pray, trust and hope.

God tells Ezekiel that He is going to bring these bones back to life and instructs him to prophesy to these bones, to tell them what God is going to do to them!

As Ezekiel does this he starts to hear a rattling sound, bones moving together, re-assembling.  Tendons, attach, flesh grows, finally skin covers these bodies, but they are still cadavers, still lifeless.

Then God says to Ezekiel to prophesy breath to these cadavers.

So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet – a vast army.

Perhaps on Saturday 14th August 2014 we heard a rattling sound. Perhaps we saw tendons, flesh and skin appearing. And it was wonderful. But we await the coming of the breath. We await the coming of the life of God, the reviving Spirit; the One who will cause a new people of God to come to life, to stand up, to begin to love and serve the Lord.

Well, that’s what I’m praying for…

 IMAG1042

Finding the Lost Ark

ArkoftheCovenant

The Ark of the Covenant, that ancient repository of Israel’s religious treasures, has always incited interest. It disappeared from view in the destruction of the Temple by Nebuzaradan, which took place on 14th August 586 B.C. (2 Kings 25:8-10).

The mystery of its possible survival / current location has fascinated scholars and adventurers ever since. Indeed, the Lost Ark has become a part of our cultural mythology e.g. ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’.

In the book of Revelation, Christians find an important indication about how we should think about the Lost Ark.

The final verse of Revelation chapter 11 would have been a shock to Jewish Christians. The location of the Ark of the Covenant, lost for some six centuries, is given,

‘Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and within his temple was seen the Ark of the Covenant. And there came flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, a, earthquake and a great hailstorm.’ (Rev 11:19 NIV)

We can imagine the first Christians reading this with bated breath; the Ark isn’t lost! We can imagine them rushing on to find out more.

Fascinatingly, the next verse, the opening of chapter 12, seems at first glance to change subject completely.

‘A great and wondrous sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth … She gave birth to a son, a male child, who will rule all the nations with an iron sceptre.’ (Rev 12:1-2, 5a NIV)

Which seems, for all the world, like a reference to Mary, the Mother of Jesus.

What is going on? Has Saint John changed subject completely, or is there a link between chapter 11 and the Ark and chapter 12 and Mary?

Hebrew 9:4 tells us that in the Ark.  It is striking to see the parallels with Mary.

  • The Ark contained the tablets of stone on which Moses had written the 10 commandments. Mary bore Jesus the Incarnate Word of God.
  • The Ark contained a pot of Manna – God’s miraculous provision of food for the Israelites in their desert wanderings. Mary bore Jesus, the Living Bread. He who said ‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live for ever… Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink.’ (John 6:51-55 NIV).
  • The Ark contained the rod of the first High Priest Aaron. Mary bore Jesus, the Eternal High Priest (Hebrews 4:14).

But can this be correct? Are we to understand that in Christian symbolism Mary has become the Ark?

Well, we find strong support in Luke 1 for this understanding. Here Mary, the dwelling place of Yahweh, is also presented as the new Ark of the Covenant.

The passage (Luke 1:39-56) presents an account of a pregnant Mary’s visit to her older cousin Elizabeth, who is also pregnant with a boy who will be John the Baptist. This is presented as a parallel of 2 Samuel 6:9-15) where the Ark of the Covenant is brought to Jerusalem by King David.

  • David and the people rejoiced in the presence of the Ark. Elizabeth and her unborn child rejoice in the presence of Mary.
  • David leaped and danced for joy before the Ark. John the Baptist leaps in his mother’s womb.
  • David exclaims ‘How can the Ark of the Lord ever come to me?’ Elizabeth exclaims, ‘But why am I so favoured that the mother of my Lord should come to me?’
  • The Ark remained for 3 months in the house of Obed-Edom. Mary stays for 3 months with Elizabeth.

So, for Christians at least, the location of the Ark of the Covenant is of only archaeological interest. We don’t need it. The New Testament Ark was not a permanent location for the presence of God, but merely a place of transit. Mary would bring forth her son, who would then leave the ‘Ark’. Firstly, His presence was geographically limited – he travelled around Palestine. But following His ascension to Heaven, the Spirit of Jesus would dwell inside each Christian. In effect we become Arks ourselves!

Peter replied, ‘Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (Acts 2:38 NIV)

An Oak Tree – Just a nut that held its ground

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It is a fact of Christian faith, that perseverance is the only path to glory.

“You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God you will receive what he has promised” (Hebrews 10:36 NIV)

In other words,

Perseverance is the bridge you must cross in the will of God in order to reach the promises of God.

As such it is a Christian virtue and, as such, a goal in and of itself.

The dictionary defines it as,

“continued steady belief or efforts, withstanding discouragement or difficulty”

Not very sexy, or attractive, few “How To” manuals will promote or laud it, but it you want your life to be crowned by God with glory, there is no other way.

Leaving in order to be more present

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At the end of St Luke’s gospel there is a surprising statement regarding the disciples’ reaction to Jesus’ ascension into heaven. We are told,

 “Then they worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy” (Luke 24:52 NIV)

 

What is totally unexpected is the disciples’ emotional reaction “with great joy”.

 

They have just lost their Lord, their leader, their companion. They have been commissioned to undertake the seemingly impossible mission of taking the message of Jesus to the world,

 

“The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem” (Luke 24:46b-47 NIV)

 

And yet when their beloved leader disappears from view they are filled with a great joy? How can this be?

 

It is true that some people have such a negative presence that when they leave we can feel relief, a lightening of the atmosphere; to quote the well-used phrase, some people can brighten a room just by leaving it!

 

But that it exactly the opposite of what people experienced around Jesus. Crowds flocked to hear him, people followed him, little children loved to be around him.

 

The natural human reaction to separation from those we love is not joy but sadness. So why were the disciples joyful at Jesus’ departure?

 

The answer to this conundrum is given in St John’s gospel. Jesus announcing that he is going to return to the Father states,

 

“I am going away and I am coming back to you.” (John 14:28 NIV)

 

These two actions, going and coming back, are not opposites but intrinsically part of the same event.

 

Jesus has to leave in order to be present in a new, greater and, deeper way.

 

The ascension event is not the departure of Jesus to some remote corner of the universe, but rather His moving to a new state of existence whereby He is eternally present, everywhere.

 

“Ascension does not mean departure into a remote corner of the cosmos but, rather, the continuing closeness that the disciples experience so strongly that it becomes a source of lasting joy”[1]

 

“(Jesus) presence is not spatial, but divine. ‘Sitting at God’s right hand’ means participating in this dominion over space”[2]

 

“Now, through his power over space, he is now present and accessible to all – throughout history and in every place”[3]

 

It is in sensing this new closeness of Jesus that leads the disciples to worship and joy.

 

Indeed, the mission of the disciples (and the Church) is rooted in and flows from this new experience of Jesus. This experience of the inner closeness of Jesus has as its consequence, a bearing witness to the world. It is an experience that will only have its fullness when the Spirit of Jesus is poured out at Pentecost.

 

An incident in the life of Jesus gives us a helpful picture of this new reality.

 

After having performed the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves Jesus sends his disciples away in the boat whilst he goes “up on the mountain” to pray.

 

A storm comes up and the disciples are terrified and it seems the boat is about to sink.

 

Jesus, with his Father on the mountain is able to see their predicament and so comes to them, walking on the water, he joins them in the boat, he calms the storm and with him they continue to their destination (Mark 6:45-52).

 

This is a picture of Jesus and the Church. From his ascension perspective at the ‘right hand of the Father’, Jesus is able to watch over his church, able to come to our aide at any moment.

 

“I will go away, and I will come to you – that is the essence of Christian trust, the reason for our joy.”[4]

 

 

[1] Ratzinger J. Jesus of Nazareth – vol. 2, p281

[2] ibid., p283

[3] ibid., p284

[4] ibid., p285

He Ate Salt With Them

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Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances are summarised at the beginning of the first chapter of the book of Acts. There are some very interesting aspects to this summary and there are some which are hidden in most English translations of the Greek text.

“After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: ‘Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptised with water, but in a few days you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit.’” (Acts 1:3-5 NIV)

The first thing to note that there were three proofs that Jesus gave to His disciples, to confirm His resurrection ;

  • He appeared to them
  • He taught them
  • He ate with them

The first two are logical and expected, however the third is somewhat surprising.

Why was it necessary for Jesus to eat with His disciples in order to prove His resurrection?

We know from other passages that eating food was a means of proving physical reality, that what they were seeing was not an incorporeal spirit but a real physical person. By eating with the disciples Jesus reassured them that He was not a ghost but a real living person.

However the specific vocabulary used by Luke gives us a deeper insight into what Jesus was doing.

The word translated “eating with them” is the Greek word συναλιζομενος (synalizomenos) which means literally “eating salt with them”.

Why does Luke choose this word to describe Jesus’ eating with the disciples?

There are some clues in texts in the Old Testament which speak about the creation of covenants – binding agreements – between God and Man.

“Whatever is set aside from the holy offerings the Israelites present to the Lord I give to you and your sons and daughters as your perpetual share. It is an everlasting covenant of salt before the Lord for both you and your offspring.’” (Numbers 18:19 NIV)

 

Don’t you know that the Lord, the God of Israel, has given the kingship of Israel to David and his descendants for ever by a covenant of salt? (2 Chronicles 13:5 NIV)

 

Season all your grain offerings with salt. Do not leave the salt of the covenant of your God out of your grain offerings; add salt to all your offerings. (Leviticus 2:13 NIV)

 

We see that covenants are often symbolised by salt and the reasons for this are obvious.

In the ancient world salt was the most common agent of purification, to prevent spoiling and decay. It was also used as a preservative.

Therefore linking salt to the creation of covenants symbolised both their incorruptibility and permanence.

Speaking of the Jewish tradition, Rabbi Koniuchowsky  has written,

“All salt covenants then are eternal, and eternally binding on the sons and daughters of Yisrael … Salt was also used to seal a bond of friendship forever. Brethren at an Israelite table would seal their friendship by the sharing of salt. Salt was a means in Yisrael by which friends solidified and preserved their commitment to each other by a covenant of shared salt at a table of shared community.”[1]

Thus the act of eating salt together was a symbol of the re-affirmation of friendship and mutual commitment – it was a bonding ceremony.

By eating salt with His disciples Jesus thereby affirmed the everlasting nature of the new covenant He had established between Man and God.

By eating salt with them, Jesus makes clear this new covenant is eternal, it cannot be altered or cancelled.

By eating salt with them Jesus confirms His friendship with them and commitment to them – He will never leave them.

‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.’ (Hebrews 3:5b NIV)

However there is another aspect to salt – the purification of sacrifices.

In the Christian religion we don’t just bring sacrifices to God – we ARE sacrifices.

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship.” (Romans 12:1 NIV)

To be acceptable these sacrifices need to be purified – from wrong motivations, imperfect execution.

Jesus made this clear when He told His disciples,

“Everyone will be salted with fire. ‘Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again? Have salt among yourselves, and be at peace with each other.’” (Mark 9:49-50 NIV)

Right actions need to flow from right motivations and expressed in right relations. Something the apostles took to heart.

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” (Colossians 4:6 NIV)

By eating salt with His disciples Jesus reminds them of their constant need to purify their offerings (themselves and their lives) in order that they might be acceptable to God.

All of the above meaning of “eating salt together” is neatly summarized in the following quote,

“So different meanings come together here: covenant renewal, the gift of life, and purification of one’s own being for self-offering to God”[2]

And we mustn’t forget that Jesus continues to join His disciples for table fellowship.

In the Eucharist we make an offering (of ourselves), we receive Christ’s body and blood (the bread and the wine).

By so doing we are purified and also strengthened with divine power in order to express the everlasting and incorruptible “covenant of salt” in our lives.

 

[1] Rabbi Moshe Yoseph Koniuchowsky visited online at http://www.hebroots.org/hebrootsarchive/0209/0209b.html on 03/06/14

[2] Ratzinger J. “Jesus of Nazareth – Vol 2”, p272