Not Results but Effort


There is one crucial mistake that Christians often make. I was reminded recently that this has been the way of things since the very first days of the Christian movement.

This particular mistake is mentioned by St Paul, somewhat tangentially to his main point, when he chides the immature Christians in Corinth for their divisions.

Apparently there have sprung up ‘fan clubs’ for the different apostles in the church. Each group sets up its apostle as the ‘main man’ and denigrates the others.

St Paul scolds them for their immaturity; of which their division is the proof;

“For ye are yet carnal:

for whereas there is among you envying, and strife, and divisions,

are ye not carnal, and walk as men?” (1 Corinthians 3:3, KJV)

They are spiritual babies, not yet capable of living according to the spiritual nature; that nature which bears as its fruit love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness and self-control.

But, and here we come to my point, the mechanism that has given rise to their division is in the basis of their estimation of the relative worthiness of the apostles.

It seems that they have been arguing about which apostle is the best, and have based their arguments on the results of their ministries.

At first glance this might seem reasonable enough, shouldn’t people be objectively evaluated on results? Isn’t that what best practice is always about? Recognizing and rewarding excellence and thus encouraging others to strive for it too.

Whilst this may seem reasonable in the domain of human endeavour, Saint Paul moves quickly to show it is completely inadmissible in the spiritual sphere.

Taking an example from the world of farming, he shows the stupidity of such evaluations.

“I planted the seed,

Apollos watered it,

but God has been making it grow.

So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything,

but only God, who makes things grow. (1 Corinthians 3:6-7, NIV)

To whom is the harvest due – The sower who sows the seed? The one who waters and cares for the growing plants? The one who comes along at the optimal time to wield the sickle and gather the harvest in?

St Paul’s reply is that the harvest is due to none of them! Rather it is the God who has been active in each of their ministries who owns the glory of the harvest.

The workers do deserve some credit, but it is their efforts that determine their merit, not their results.

“The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose,

and they will each be rewarded according to their own labour.” (1 Corinthians 3:8, NIV)

Which is actually an example of God’s perfect justice.

Anyone who has grown crops knows that there is an inherent unpredictability in the process.

The first time I grew potatoes, I planted 75 plants and harvested enough potatoes to keep me and my family all the way through winter and well into spring. The next year I planted 100 plants yet harvested half the amount! The weather was different, pests more voracious, which made for a poorer harvest.

In the spiritual realm, St Paul reminds us that there is also an inherent unpredictability in the process.

It is God who makes spiritual life to appear and to grow.

The way in which He does this, the timing of it and the relative fruitfulness of it,

is only His to determine.

Thus equivalent levels of effort from us, God’s co-workers, will not guarantee similar results.

Thus it is an example of God’s perfect fairness and justice, that He rewards us according to our efforts, not our results.

Which is where Jesus’ famous statement,

But many who are first will be last,

and many who are last will be first. (Matthew 19:30, NIV)

starts to make real sense.

Some super-successful Christian leaders, mega-church pastors, world-famous evangelists, may actually be shown, in the final analysis, to have been rather mediocre. Perhaps they simply harvested where others had sown? Maybe they were merely a ship, swept forwards on a great wave of the prayers of the saints? Maybe they just had the fortune to be in leadership in a particular place at the particular time when God chose to act mightily?

Whilst some untiring lay-pastor, someone who has struggled his whole life to lead a tiny congregation in some remote backwater and who has little to show for his efforts, may prove to be one of God’s greats.

It’s all about effort, not results.

All of which should give us all pause for thought. For God’s fairness cuts both ways.

When we see great blessing on our ministry, we should recognize the very real possibility that it has little to do with us.

When we experience only frustration and failure, we should know that not one single instance of effort for the cause of Christ will be unmarked or unrewarded. Failure does not indicate God’s displeasure, nor His lack of interest in our work for Him.

This is why St Paul sums up his teaching as follows;

“By the grace God has given me,

I laid a foundation as a wise builder,

and someone else is building on it.

But each one should build with care.” (1 Corinthians 3:10, NIV)

Build with care…

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


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…


And up to now…


In the Confessio of Saint Patrick, written around 493 AD, the old missionary bishop reflects on his life and ministry. He identifies the key lessons he has learnt in his experience of living with God and, with great honesty, he writes them down for the benefit of those who also seek to live well with God.

Somewhat surprisingly, the first thing Saint Patrick attests is the inherent fragility of his faith.

But I do not trust myself, ‘as long as I am in this body of death’ C44: 105/6

Here, Patrick quotes Saint Paul in Romans 7:24, where, again with absolute transparency, St Paul lays bare his own struggle to live in a manner worthy of a Christian. A challenge that his own body, with its inherent tendency for sinfulness, opposes.

Saint Patrick also makes clear that his struggle is not merely against recalcitrant flesh, but also against an opposing spiritual force that works in and through this weakness,

 …he is strong who strives daily to turn me away from the faith

and from that chastity of an unfeigned religion which I have

proposed to keep to the end of my life for Christ my Lord. C44: 107-109

He acknowledges the activity of a powerful spiritual adversary who uses Patrick’s own fleshly weaknesses to try and turn him away from the faith he has embraced and the God he has vowed to serve.

The hostile flesh is always dragging towards death,

that is towards allurements to do that which is forbidden. C44: 110

Whilst he does not state specifically what these ‘allurements’ are, we can well imagine the possibilities. Patrick has been called by God to leave family, friends and homeland, to exile himself in a foreign land, to minister to those of a different language and culture and to seek to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ and establish a Christian Community amongst them.

Patrick faced opposition, which was sometimes violent. He was no doubt often lonely, tired, dispirited, discouraged. The temptations that might then be rained down upon a man are self-evident.

Patrick also identifies a more subtle struggle,

And I know in part wherein I have not lived a perfect life. C44: 112

Not only are there fleshly and demonically inspired temptations there are also the constant reminder of past failures, ever-present weaknesses. These present themselves to his mind and manifest his failure to be what he should be. He has to live with the reality of his own hypocrisy, which undermines his commitment, saps his morale.

Patrick also speaks of the opposition to his mission, sometimes even active opposition, which came from within the Church.

…many were trying to hinder my embassy.

They were even talking among themselves behind my back

and saying, ‘Why does this man throw himself into danger

among enemies who do not know God?’

Not out of malice,

but it did not seem wise to them,’ C46: 137-142

The idea of an organised mission to a pagan people was, to this point unprecedented. Many within the Church considered this ‘novelty’ unnecessary, unwise, and inappropriate.

In the light of all this, we might well ask, what is it that keeps Patrick going? In the face of these opposing forces, the inherent tendency to sin of his own body, the actions of a maleficent force opposed to his faith, the constant hardship and struggle of a difficult life in a foreign culture, the harsh reality of personal failure, even the active opposition of other church leaders who question the validity of his missionary approach; where does Patrick find the courage to carry on?

Well, fortunately Patrick reveals his secret to us. He says he can say with honesty before God,

…there grew in me the love of God and fear of him,

and up to now, with God’s grace, I have kept the faith. C44: 118/9

Patrick can look back over his life and see that he has come to love God and to live in fear before him. This fear is not a negative, servile fear, but rather the proper respect and bearing towards God that is birthed in a man or woman when they have come to glimpse something of God’s majesty and grandeur, his power and holiness. The contrast between this and our own evident weakness and sinfulness is such that it engenders a holy ‘fear’. This, in turn, becomes a motivating force in our life with God. This ‘fear’ is expressed in a life that worships God in all it does.

The reality of this love for God, and this holy fear, are evidence to Patrick of God’s grace at work in his life. He testifies that this grace has enabled him, however imperfectly, to keep the faith until now. But he is not complacent. His testimony is only, ‘up to now’. He is conscious of his utter reliance upon God to bring his life of faith to a successful conclusion.

It strikes me that this spiritual advice is as helpful now in the 21st century as it was in the 5th. The spiritual realities of human existence and not changed one iota in the intervening millennia and a half.

Like Patrick, anyone who seriously tries to respond to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, will immediately find himself / herself in the midst of an heroic struggle of epic proportions.

The spiritually twistedness of our human flesh will, like those shopping trolleys with wonky wheels, reveal immediately its unfailing tendency to shoot off in the wrong direction.

If this were not bad enough the situation is worsened by a spiritual adversary who will stoop to any base level, try any underhand trick, in order to knock us off course. One of his favourites being to simply remind us of our imperfection, of our manifest hypocrisy, that we are not the perfect Christians we try to be and know we should be.

We may well also encounter, alas, opposition from within the Church itself, people who don’t understand our calling and who cast doubt on our work for God.

There is only one thing that will keep us on track and help us bear up in the face of such trials – the reality of a love for God and a holy fear of God that is growing, however slowly, in our hearts through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit of God.

None of us can ever say more than,

‘And up to now, with God’s grace, I have kept the faith’ C44: 119



Leaving in order to be more present


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

Surgery in Scripture


There are two parallel stories of surgery in the Bible.

In the first surgical procedure, God causes Adam to fall into a deep sleep; He then opens up Adam’s side and, from one of Adam’s ribs, forms Eve.

Eve is a divine gift that completes Adam. Eve enables Adam to achieve his full human potential. In partnership with her, Adam is now capable of fulfilling the rôle God called him to – to care for and develop the Earth.

The second biblical example of surgery is when Jesus hangs dead on the cross. Jesus was understood as fulfilling the original calling of the first Adam. Whereas Adam failed in his calling, he was weak, he sinned, he also brought sin into the lives of all Mankind, and was therefore the cause of a separation between God and Man, Jesus  – the last Adam – comes to reverse all this.

The last Adam comes to succeed, not fail. The last Adam will stay faithful to the end. The last Adam will reverse the consequences of the first Adam’s failure. By His sacrificial death the last Adam will obtain for humankind the forgiveness of sin and therefore make possible a reconciliation between Man and God.

“For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ!” (Romans 5:17 NIV)


“For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.” (1 Corinthians 15:21-22 NIV)


“So it is written: ‘The first man Adam became a living being’; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. The first man was of the dust of the earth; the second man is of heaven. As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the heavenly man, so also are those who are of heaven. And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man.” (1 Corinthians 15:45-48 NIV)

So while Jesus – the last Adam – is “asleep” on the cross, His side is also pierced. Not by God but by a Roman spear. This time what is taken from Him is not a rib, but instead water and blood are seen to flow out of the wound.

The early Christians saw here a striking reference to the water of baptism and the blood of the Eucharist.

All of which is highly significant. For it is through baptism we are brought into the Church; and it is through the blood of the Eucharist we partake of the life of Christ – a blood that cleanses us from sin, and gives new life.

So the water and the blood which flow from the side of Christ symbolize the Church – the Bride of Christ.

“For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour… Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” (Ephesians 5:23, 26-27 NIV)


“I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.” (Revelation 21:2 NIV)


“I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy. I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him.” (2 Corinthians 11:2 NIV)

Like Eve, taken from the side of the first Adam, the Church the Bride of Christ, flows out of the side of the Last Adam. Like Eve, the Bride is to be a partner for the Last Adam. Someone who will work with Him in the mission of establishing the Kingdom of God in the world.

Two Adams. Two surgeries. Two new, cherished partners who result. All doing well.

The Surgeon seems to be on top of His game.


Which ‘Son of the Father’ Do You Want ?


There is a very interesting moment during the trial of Jesus by Pontius Pilate.

Pilate offers the crowd a choice. He intends to grace a Jewish prisoner in honour of the Passover Feast and asks them who do they want?

They can have Barabbas or Jesus.

Barabbas was a political terrorist, someone who was fighting to overthrow the Roman army of occupation.

Interestingly, Barrabas means “Son of the Father”, it is a Messianic title.

So in this choice, the Jews – the Old Testament people of God – are being offered either a leader who uses violence and the weapons of power to try to bring about the kingdom of God, or one who comes only with the weapons of truth and sacrificial love.

Who do they want?

They choose Barabbas.

In some ways this is a choice that continues to confront the Church – the New Testament people of God – down through the ages.

Will we choose the true “Son of the Father” whose way is the way of peace, powerlessness, self-giving; or do we want a leader who will wield worldly power, Jesus or Barabbas?

The success of the Church is measured by the degree to which she eschews power and embraces powerlessness; when she comes with only the weapons of truth and love. The truth that is expressed fully in the one who said,

“I am the way, the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father but by me.”

Jesus the Worm


The Early Church Fathers had some really imaginative ways of re-reading Old Testament stories. They saw in them some wonderful pictures that from a New Testament perspective take on a completely deeper meaning. Perhaps one of the most unusual is in the story of Jonah, where Jesus is seen as a worm.

“Jonah had gone out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city. Then the Lord God provided a leafy plant[a] and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the plant. But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the plant so that it withered.” (Jonah 4:5-7 NIV)

In reflecting upon this event the Early Church Fathers interpreted the story in the following manner.

The shelter that Jonah builds represents the Jewish religion of the Old Testament. Something which was of the nature of a temporary and provisional dwelling and which would ultimately be replaced by the eternal Church of Christ.

The plant that God caused to grow up over this shelter was understood as representing the promises of the Old Testament; promises that gave the Jews hope and allowed them to stand firm under the ‘burning heat’ of persecutions and calamities. The ‘shelter’ these promises provided was what St Paul would term, ‘shadows of the things to come’ (Colossians 2:16-17) .

Under this same image therefore and somewhat shockingly, Jesus is seen in the symbol of the worm.  Jesus, in preaching the Kingdom of God and in calling all nations – Jew and Gentile – to it, ‘bites’ the hopes and dreams of earthly glory which had comforted the Jews. He ‘dried them up’ and brought to an end this temporary consolation; for this lesser glory was to be replaced by the greater glory of the One New Man – Jew and Gentile united in the glorious, everlasting Kingdom of God.


Can it be possible, that we should see Jesus in the rather unflattering image of a worm?

Actually, Jesus Himself seems to point to the acceptability of this.

Dying on the cross, Jesus quotes psalm 22. He quotes the beginning of the psalm,

‘My God, my God why have you forsaken me?’

And Jesus also quotes the end of the psalm,

‘he has done it’

Which can be equally translated, ‘it is finished’.

In so citing the beginning and the end of this psalm at this crucial moment, Jesus seems thereby to infer that this psalm has a particular reference to Himself.

And what do we find in the middle of this psalm?

But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by men and despised by the people. (Psalm 22:6 NIV)

There is also a spiritual application that we can make from this.

Dom Jean de Monléon reminds us that Jesus, ‘the divine worm’ comes to bite and to dry up all that is in us that is earthly, fleshly, all that attaches us to the world below, all that would hold us back from the greater, eternal glory of participation in God’s everlasting Kingdom[1].


[1] de Monléon Dom J. « Commentaire sur le Prophète Jonas », Clermont Ferrand : Editions de la Source, 1970, p114

The Scariest Verse in the Bible


“But he did not know that the Lord had left him” (Judges 16:20c, NIV)


Samson’s birth had been announced by an angel and was miraculous in the sense that his mother was a barren woman and unable to have children.

He was set apart for God from his birth. Consecrated  as a Nazarite, an Israelite who expressed their devotion to God in a particular ascetic discipline of life.

Samson grew up in this way and the Spirit of God came upon him, but in an unusual manner. The Spirit of God gave Samson extraordinary physical strength and fighting prowess. Over a period of 20 years he performed some truly amazing exploits against the perennial enemies of Israel, the Philistines.

Yet Samson’s physical strength was alloyed with an almost pathetic moral weakness, particularly in the area of sexual morality – he went with prostitutes, he had affairs.

Finally Samson broke his Nazarite vow about not cutting his hair and his divinely gifted strength was taken from him.

Yet Samson did not perceive the loss.

The Spirit of God had been withdrawn from him – yet Samson did not notice.

This is perhaps one of the scariest verses in the Bible.

It shows us that it is entirely possible for people who have lived lives of consecration to God, been used as channels of God’s Spirit in amazing ways, yet not be able to perceive when that Spirit is withdrawn from them.

How can this be possible?

The Bible teaches us that sin acts as a form of progressive spiritual blindness.

The more we sin, the more we grow incapable of perceiving spiritual truth.

In effect sin is really nothing less than paying homage and giving obedience to the one who is called in the Bible the Deceiver and the Father of Lies.

It is therefore not surprising that such activity leads to increasing spiritual confusion and deception.

Ultimately we get so far in our sin that God withdraws His Spirit completely and leaves us to our self-chosen deception.

We get to the place where we can no longer discern God’s presence, God’s truth, God’s activity.

We become like Samson – he did not even realize that God’s Spirit had left him.


Perhaps we should consider the recent changes in Christian thinking and behaviour in this light?

In recent times divorce and remarriage have become accepted in Christian circles, even though the Bible makes it clear that this is not God’s will.

We see that churches largely accept Christian couples living together outside of marriage.

There is a strong move within Christian churches to accept homosexual activity as compatible with holiness and Christian faith.


Are these radical changes in our thinking and behaving driven by a movement to become more holy, more pure, to more radically bring our lives into line with the purity God commands of us, because He is holy?

Or are they rather a consequence of an increasing sinfulness within the Church, occasioned by a cultural context which is moving further away from Christian values as is dragging the Church along.

Has our increasingly sinful behaviour resulted in an increasing spiritual blindness and inability to discern what is good and pure and true amongst the people of God?


“Have mercy on me, O God,

according to your unfailing love;

according to your great compassion

blot out my transgressions.

Wash away all my iniquity

and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions,

and my sin is always before me.

Against you, you only, have I sinned

and done what is evil in your sight;

so you are right in your verdict

and justified when you judge.

Surely I was sinful at birth,

sinful from the time my mother conceived me.

Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb;

you taught me wisdom in that secret place.

Cleanse me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;

wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

Let me hear joy and gladness;

let the bones you have crushed rejoice.

Hide your face from my sins

and blot out all my iniquity.

Create in me a pure heart, O God,

and renew a steadfast spirit within me.

Do not cast me from your presence

or take your Holy Spirit from me.”

(Psalm 51:1-11, NIV)



The Gay Floods ?

Recently, (January 2014), an otherwise unknown and unremarked local town councillor gained brief notoriety because he wrote to the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, to tell him that the recent severe floods in the south of England were divine punishment for his having legalised gay marriage.

This was the cause of much hilarity and much lampooning in the press. The councillor’s political party took pains to distance themselves from him, his local council are undertaking disciplinary measures against him, and even the councillor’s own church were quick to step back from his position.

All of which, due to my contrary nature, encouraged me to think about whether the man could be right? Does God still do that kind of stuff? Do nations nowadays have to pay a price for flouting the divine will? Is blasting and pestilence still the divine response to human wickedness?

The Old Testament contains quite a lot of that sort of thing. Although, it must be noted that the people of God are the prime concern of God, the surrounding nations seem to be less targeted. Which is only logical. Only Israel was in a covenant relationship with God and this covenant specified very clearly that there were certain blessings to be expected for obedience to the divine will and that certain curses would be the divine chastening response for acts of disobedience, and all these were to be experienced at a national level (Leviticus 26).

The surrounding nations seem to be a target for divine judgement more in view of how their behaviour impacted upon Israel, which, again, has a certain logic in the divine history of revelation and redemption.

In general terms blessing and cursing seem to be both the natural consequences of certain actions and also a divine response that goes beyond what might be expected. The Levitical regulations for social organisation contain directives about access to justice, limitations on the powerful, protections for the weakest members of society. One might naturally expect that a society which embodies these positive values might be harmonious and thrive – which would be a natural blessing for obedience to God’s will. However it is clear from the list of blessings that they go beyond this naturalistic effect.

Similarly a society that embodies all the various behaviours that God condemns would be riven with dishonesty, injustice, oppressive and one might well expect it to implode socially, politically and economically. However, once again the divine curses for this kind of behaviour go beyond this.

Thus there are clearly two interrelated mechanisms in operation – a naturalistic cause and effect and also an over-arching divine response which amplifies, or goes beyond what is simply natural.

It must also be noted that the cursing / blessing mechanism contains many anomalies. The book of Jonah recounts the clearest of these. The violent, oppressive and bloodthirsty nation of Assyria is not to be destroyed as would be expected, but rather to be the recipient of a divine invitation to repent.

Even within Israel, the blessing / cursing system seems to be somewhat inconsistent in application. Indeed many of the psalms are based upon the painful experience of this. The psalmist cries out to God asking why he, a devout, God-fearing man, is experiencing disaster and shame whilst the wicked prosper (Psalm 73)?

It is these texts that give us the key to the problem, as the psalmist finishes by remembering that he has not yet seen the end of the story. That justice will be done ultimately, even if not in this life-time.

“When I tried to understand all this, it was oppressive to me,
till I entered the sanctuary of God;
then I understood their final destiny” (Psalm 73:16-17, NIV)

It is this idea of present incompleteness that Galatians 6 picks up on.

“Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.
The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction;
the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.
Let us not become weary in doing good,
for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” (Galatians 6:7-9, NIV)

But where does this leave us regarding our current problem?

We note that the New Testament is devoid of divine activity at a national level. Jesus was ambivalent towards the occupying (and brutal) Roman army (Matthew 22:21), much to the chagrin of the messianic currents in contemporary Judaism. We have no prophetic words in the New Testament addressed to nations warning them of the consequences of rejecting the divine ordinances for behaviour.

Judgment is strictly limited to the people of God – the Church. We see many instances where divine blessing and divine cursing is directed towards congregations and towards individual Christians (Acts 5, 1 Corinthians 11:30, Revelations 2-3).

This is what we would logically expect if the Church has indeed become the locus of divine activity in the same way that the Jewish nation was under the old covenant.

Now it is the Church, individual congregations, Christians who are the focus of God’s activity. It is we who represent him on earth, it is we who are charged with accomplishing his will, it is we therefore who are under his discipline and will experience his gracious blessing on our obedience and his fatherly chastisement when we go astray.

Again, as in the Old Testament, this will not be experienced in a mechanistic idealised manner. God is gracious and gives us time to repent, therefore wrong decisions, or actions do not release an immediate response. Also God often works in our lives through hardship and difficulty. Thus not all negative experience is a result of divine displeasure. (It must also be noted that neither can success and ease be correlated in a simple manner to divine blessing).

So what about the issue of the “Gay Floods”? Can we now make some definitive statement about that?

I think the first thing to say is to repeat the oft-quoted phrase that judgment starts with the house of God.

For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household;
and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? (1 Peter 4:17, NIV)

It is the Church that is God’s primary locus of action, it is the Church and churches that will therefore be the first to experience God’s blessing and cursing upon their actions.

When prophets rise up to condemn wickedness, it is the Church that they address first and foremost. It is the people of God, we who have sworn ourselves to God’s worship and service, who have chosen to join ourselves unbreakably to him and for eternity, it is we whose behaviour is under divine scrutiny.

That said, to the question “Do nations still experience curses for their disobedience to divine ordinances?” I would reply “Absolutely”.

The naturalistic effects of choosing to operate in a way that is opposed to God’s will must always bring negative consequences.

One can look at the rejection of marriage as a permanent institution and see that the consequences have been negative – for the individuals concerned (studies show that long-term people are no happier and that they are economically impoverished by divorce) , children (studies show they tend to do less well in terms of schooling, studies and their own relationships tend to follow the model of their parents), society (a large proportion of households have to be supported by the state due to the impoverishment that occurs – particularly for women).

We can look at the connected issue of sexual morality and see that the social consequences have been disastrous – teenage pregnancy and the concomitant effects in terms of economic and personal achievement that often follow; an explosion in sexual disease and the infertility issues that can result.

We can look at the rejection of honesty and integrity as essential elements in business life, political life, and general social interaction and see that the results have been disastrous. There is no longer any element of trust or confidence in anything other than legally binding agreements; politicians are scorned and treated with contempt as their words are almost never trustworthy, we have even invented a new form of lying called “spinning” especially for this. We are having to try to bring in more and more legal regulation of areas of economic and political life in order to thwart such behaviour e.g. politician’s expenses, banker’s salaries and bonuses.

The moot question is therefore not do we experience cursing for disobedience – we certainly do and are – but rather does God act beyond these naturalistic effects?

This I think is less clear. Nations do not seem to be the main locus of divine action – the Church is.

Certainly God can and does control the fate of humankind and the nations form part of this and, as such, they rise and fall at his command.

I can’t help wondering that if God were to decide to punish a nation for disobedience, what would that look process look like?

God would certainly send a prophet to warn the nation beforehand.

From the experience of Old Testament history, those prophets would certainly be mocked, derided and held up for widespread contempt.

Rather like what happened to a certain town councillor.