The Breath of Life: Acts 2

1. The Invisible
This post is dedicated to George Floyd who had the breath of life taken from him in horrific circumstances on 25th May 2020.

I am something of a fan of the works of J. R. R. Tolkien. For me, his book the Lord of the Rings is a masterpiece. One of the reasons for this judgement is that, like the Bible, it has a richness and depth. There is a sense that behind it lies something remarkable and mysterious. Of course, with the Lord of the Rings this is the life-long musings and imagination of its author. With the Bible it is the inspiration and providential hand of an author of a very different type—the Holy Spirit.

One of Tolkien’s most remarkable creations is the creature Gollum. He is known to many of us more recently as acted and voiced by Andy Serkis in Peter Jackson’s films. Gollum appears briefly in Tolkien’s The Hobbit. For most of his appearance he plays a game of riddles with the Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins. This is a game with serious consequences. If Bilbo wins, Gollum will lead him to safely out of the maze of dark dank tunnels beneath the Misty Mountains. If Gollum wins? Let us put it this way he won’t go hungry for quite some time.

One of the riddles from this serious game reads:

This thing all things devours:
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays king, ruins town,
And beats high mountain down.

Like all riddles when we have the answer it is obvious. The answer for this riddle is time.

A number of the riddles in The Hobbit concern things that are invisible. Reminding us that just because something is not visible it does not mean it is not real. A virus can only be seen with an electron microscope, but we knew they were real before the microscope was invented because of their effect. Some things are invisible not because of their small size but because of their very nature. Time is of course like that. We are literally in it and cannot perceive it directly although we can measure it physically with great precision, for example with the National Physical Laboratory’s atomic clock. Or we can measure it spiritually and emotionally as we number our days on this earth.

Another riddle from the Hobbit is much closer to the Pentecost story.

Voiceless it cries,
Wingless flutters,
Toothless bites,
Mouthless mutters.

The answer this time is wind. Seen not by its nature but by its effect. The half-mast flag waving in the breeze marking the tragic death of George Floyd, the scene of devastation after a tornado, or more pleasantly the slowly drifting smoke rising above the first post-lockdown family barbecue.

This is how it is with the Spirit of God. We perceive his work by consequences not because we can perceive him directly. In Acts 2 we can see the Spirit indirectly as language is employed at near breaking point. There is a wind—’a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house’. There are flames—’They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them’. We are left puzzling over how literally we understand these metaphors, which are an attempt to describe the indescribable. There are languages too as the disciples speak other tongues—another sign of the invisible Spirit.

2. A New Beginning
In reading this passage we already know it marks a new beginning for God’s people. It is the birth of the Church, although at the time it might well have felt like a renewal of Judaism.

As the birth of the Church, or the rebirth of God’s people, it echoes the birth of the biblical Israel. Their leader Moses experienced wind and fire on Mont Sinai. The whole nation saw a pillar of fire by night and a cloud by day which they followed.

It is not just the wind and flames that show this to be a new beginning—the birth of something wonderful. It is what has just happened over the previous 50 days, or so, and what happens next. The cross, the resurrection, and the ascension of Jesus have redefined the hope for a messiah. Jesus is the messiah. He fulfils the promise but redefines it too. This Jesus Christ is now seated at the right hand of God.

And what he said just before his ascension, unfolds on the Day of Pentecost:

He said to them: ‘It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’

After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.
Acts 1:7–9, NIVUK

The sermon that follows the wind and flames fulfils Jesus’ words of ten days earlier. It fulfils promises from the Book of Joel, just as Jesus’ death and resurrection fulfils the Psalms. This is all explained in Peter, the Fisher of Men’s first sermon.

So, what is this power imparted by the Holy Spirit? The word ‘power’ in our English translation is dunamis which gave its meaning to dynamite—this is serious power. What dynamite have we the Church been given as Christ pours out his Spirit?

This is a controversial topic because so often the Church has sought power of an all too earthly a nature. The first point we should note is that this power is sent by the one whose best expression of the grace we need, was surrender to death on a cross. We would do well to remember this and to be cautious that this power is not to be equated with military might. It is not coercive in any sense. It was after all, for freedom that Christ has set us free. We are no longer to be slaves to a yoke of slavery.

3. To the Ends of the Earth
The subject of the Holy Spirit is a divisive one, which for me is the saddest and most horribly ironic aspects of the worldwide church. Where Jesus’ Spirit is really at work, we would expect walls to come down. That is of course exactly what happened on that first Pentecost. Jews—the people of Israel—had been scattered across the whole of the Roman Empire because of their persecution at the hands of first the Greek Empire and then the Roman occupiers of their nation. The list in Acts 2 is comprehensive. It is as if God’s people have all been re-gathered in Jerusalem to be made one people again. The festival of Pentecost was a time when many scattered Jews made a pilgrimage to the City of Peace Jerusalem. It is God’s timing that people are in Jerusalem from the ends of the earth.

What they witness and take part in is a reconstitution of the scattered people of God. But now the rules have changed, in the freedom of Christ and the freedom of the Spirit. Now Gentiles get admitted to the people of God. This is after all the mission that Jesus gave to his disciples before he ascended:

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’
Acts 1:8, NIVUK

Here in Acts 2 we are in Jerusalem with representatives of the nations, and by the end of the Book of Acts the gospel is set firmly on its way to the ends of the earth.

Church History reveals the most remarkable divergence in how this work unfolds. And on occasions Church History reveals events in which we struggle to see God’s work being done. At one extreme there can be the deadness of dry empty institutional religion. At the other can be the theatre of the televangelist or fundamentalist personality cult. Both belittle the true power and the real life to be found in God’s word through God’s Spirit.

Closer to home it is all too easy for us to mistake our words for God’s and our desires for the prompting of God’s Spirit. May we never be a church in which anyone claims to have heard the Spirit’s voice as a trump card to stifle other voices.

4. We Are All in This Together
One thing we can note from that first Christian Pentecost is that the disciples were all in it together. The eleven of them together have had the same message from Jesus and the same Spirit poured out upon them. But they like us are still distinct individual people. Only one of their number had to preach on that day. Doubtless as they set about dealing with the three thousand new converts that day, they each used their different abilities. We can but use our imagination, think of all the conversations and practical matters that are needed to cope with 3,000 new disciples.

As Christ’s Body we are all in God’s mission together but we each have different tasks. We can depend on each other. We know that no one person exudes spirit-inspired hospitality, bakes superb cakes, has evangelistic talents for reaching 2 year-olds and the over eighties, leadership wisdom, the gift of healing, administrative excellence, talent with the flute, speaks in tongues, can calculate doses of radiation to heal people, performs worshipful dance, builds PA systems, calculates budgets, makes great coffee, casts out demons, and leads prize-worthy contemplative prayer.

We are not called to be Jesus as individuals! We are the body of Christ together. We nurture our own gifts and look to encouraging others with theirs.

5. Good News
The Gospel is a message of good news. It was Isaiah who coined the term ‘good news’ or evangelion from which we get the terms evangelism and evangelical. Isaiah’s’ words—from what some call the fifth gospel—has enormous resonance with the Pentecost story:

How beautiful on the mountains
are the feet of those who bring good news,
who proclaim peace,
who bring good tidings,
who proclaim salvation,
who say to Zion,
‘Your God reigns!’
Listen! Your watchmen lift up their voices;
together they shout for joy.
When the Lord returns to Zion,
they will see it with their own eyes.
Burst into songs of joy together,
you ruins of Jerusalem,
for the Lord has comforted his people,
he has redeemed Jerusalem.
The Lord will lay bare his holy arm
in the sight of all the nations,
and all the ends of the earth will see
the salvation of our God.
Isaiah 52:7–10, NIVUK

Peter of course tells the Good News in his Pentecost sermon.

Preaching the gospel rarely looks like this for us of course. One of the biggest challenges of the modern Western church is how to preach the good news. The days of mission tents are long gone, here in the UK. As humans we want things to be simple but reaching people today with the good news is not simple. Not simple, if by simple we mean a big organised event with immediate fruit. And yet on the other hand it can be simple. We are all free in the Spirit to dream dreams. This is the promise of the Prophet Joel, the promise of Pentecost, the good news enabled by the Spirit.

Each of us needs to understand our gifts and our priorities before God. If we honour God with our Spirit-inspired gifts and give him back some of our time we will find ways to show the gospel and to speak it. It might not look tidy and neat. And it is of course only when we work together that the good news can be heard in all its richness.

The biggest challenge for Church Leaders is to enable us to nurture the loving organic relationships which is where so often the Spirit blows and fires up hearts.

How can we achieve together appropriate space and time in which the gospel can be heard and responded too?

Pray for your friends and the Spirit’s leading. Pray for your church leaders and the Spirit’s leading.

I will finish by praying Psalm 126 (The Message version) which has long been my prayer for our church. Maybe it could be a prayer for yours too?

It seemed like a dream, too good to be true,
when God returned Zion’s exiles.
We laughed, we sang,
we couldn’t believe our good fortune.
We were the talk of the nations—
“God was wonderful to them!”
God was wonderful to us;
we are one happy people.

And now, God, do it again—
bring rains to our drought-stricken lives
So those who planted their crops in despair
will shout hurrahs at the harvest,
So those who went off with heavy hearts
will come home laughing, with armloads of blessing.

Life Understood Backwards

Looking Back
The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard claimed that “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

The experience of the two disciples on the Road to Emmaus was something like this. How could they understand Jesus’ life at its end? Even at the end did it make sense? Cleopas and the other, unnamed disciple have not understood Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection. We do not know how much time they spent with Jesus—it is clear they are not among the eleven disciples. But they certainly knew enough to be disappointed. He was not the deliverer they had hoped for. They, like many, wanted a Messiah who was a military redeemer. A messiah like David in every sense. An anointed leader who would defeat the occupying Romans just as David had tackled Goliath and the Philistines.

The one they had begun to think might be God’s anointed ruler had died shamefully on a cross. A remarkable man in many ways, but in the end as frail as any other. And now the women claimed his body was gone. More than that, they also said they had seen angels announcing that he was alive.

These events lived forwards made no sense to these two followers. Jesus was a man who taught with authority, healed the sick, and cast out demons. Jesus was welcomed into Jerusalem like a king. And then it all turned sour. These two disciples had apparently given up on the one they had been following. They had left Jerusalem for Emmaus and presumably were returning to their old lives.

But they encounter the risen Jesus, although they do not know this at first. This meeting is a revelation—a revealing in two stages. They experience a progressive understanding of who Jesus is. They will come to understand Jesus’ life.

First Jesus makes them look back as they journey together. They simultaneously look back on the life of Jesus and the work of God in the Old Testament. The Risen Jesus does the most remarkable thing. He combines his story with the story of the Hebrew Scriptures. Read through Jesus, the Hebrew Scriptures become the First Testament to his life, his death, and his resurrection. Jesus is the fulfilment of the Hebrew scriptures.

The second stage of unveiling is a more personal encounter that goes beyond explanation. It is an opening of their eyes. They literally see the risen Christ. They had started out lost on the road, but now were found. They had been blind but now they could see.

Our Conversion
We are unlikely to have had the same type of encounter with the risen Christ as the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. But there is likely to be some similarity. I remember at the age of seventeen finding out more about Jesus and the Bible. I had seen lots of the bits and pieces of the gospel but struggled to put it all together. I still needed my eyes to be opened. I can remember two distinct moments when Jesus suddenly made more sense. The first was a bit like the two disciples on the road having things explained to them. My Emmaus road was a tent, in Margate, where the crucifixion was explained in rather graphic detail to me, and several hundred others. This converted my brain and my conscience. I went forward knowing that my life was never going to be the same again.

Just a few days later I had the second step of eye opening—only possible because of the first. I was reading the Parable of the Tenants in Mark 12 and my heart was converted. My heart burned at that moment like the experience of those two disciples. I understood at a heart level just what it meant that God had sent prophets to speak of him. Prophets who were beaten and killed. I understood at the heart level that he sent his own Son that we might know him. Only for him to suffer the same fate. It was as though Jesus was there with me, unpacking the Law and the Prophets—refreshing me as the bread of life with a meal.

Knowing Jesus in this way does not mean that the rest of our lives suddenly make complete sense. But it is a start. Much still happens in my life that I do not understand. Things have happened to me and my family which I wish had not. But in Christ I trust that in the end it will make sense. The times of pain and trial will be found to have some benefit or important consequence. If we have met Jesus on our Road to Emmaus we can find him too in our Valley of the Shadow of Death. The poet B M Franklin puts is this way:

My life is but a weaving
Between my Lord and me;
I cannot choose the colors
He worketh steadily.

Oft times He weaveth sorrow
And I, in foolish pride,
Forget He sees the upper,
And I the under side.

Not til the loom is silent
And the shuttles cease to fly,
Shall God unroll the canvas
And explain the reason why.

The dark threads are as needful
In the Weaver’s skillful hand,
As the threads of gold and silver
In the pattern He has planned.

Our Ongoing Experience of Christ
In the Emmaus story the two disciples do something simple. They have a meal with Jesus—they break bread with him. It is no surprise that it was at the breaking of bread that their eyes were opened, and they recognised that the man before them is the risen Lord Jesus. Less than a week earlier Jesus has broken bread and explained that his body must be broken. These two disciples would surely have heard about this odd teaching.

Almighty God does not fix his broken creation and broken relationships with a display of power and might. He does the unthinkable—Jesus lays down his life for his friends. One of the most frustrating things about our distance from one another because of Covid-19 is the fact that we cannot gather, and worse still that we cannot eat bread and drink wine, and remember Christ together. As the body of Christ, we are meant to meet together.

In our distance from each other let’s be reminded of the privilege of meeting together so that we can make the best of that day when we join one another again. Let’s remember that puzzle that we are in a mysterious sense the body of Christ.

Scattered we might be, but we are still united in Christ.

A Call to Passion for Christ
The two disciples have their hearts kindled by Jesus. A mixture of joy that he was not dead and a revelation of what he had accomplished in the twin events of cross and resurrection.

How can we kindle that flame afresh—that same passion and conviction in Christ that we have tasted before? There are obvious answers of course, such as prayer and Bible reading. But in the spirit of the gospel, and to keep the light alive in us, reaching out to our fellow disciples is vital. As members of his body our concern should be with the health of all.

Jesus came that we might have life and have it to the full. Circumstances prevent us meeting to celebrate together. This does not mean we retreat and just wait for a better time. A crisis like this, it tests our depth in Christ. Being united and encouraged in Christ can be as simple as a phone call, a text message, a card, or a good old-fashioned letter. Some of us might be called to heroics if we are on the front-line but for most of us we need to do the small things that show love and concern. George Eliot expresses it will in her novel Middlemarch:

“..for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

Many of the blessings we can bring to one another, even at this time, are unremarkable. But these things not only achieve good now they echo in eternity as the lives of disciples of Jesus lived well. A crisis is just the time when we need some gospel purpose, when we need to show love, kindness, and generosity. Encouraging one another, listening to one another, taking time to do something for one another is part of living the gospel—it is the ongoing re-creation of proper relationships in Christ Jesus.

It is not just our fellow Christians that need encouragement. In these odd times all sorts of questions are in people’s minds. Many people are asking questions about life and death, not so different to those asked by Cleopas and his friend.

Our lives do not make much sense lived forward. How much more is this the case for those who do not know Christ? There are likely to be people you know who are lonely. If nothing else, you can remedy this for a few minutes. There are almost certainly people you know who are fearful. Well, you can listen. There are very likely people you know who are asking questions. Your effort to reach out to them might be the only answer they get.

We believe in the priesthood of all believers we can all use this time to connect with others.

Loving One Another Makes Sense
The act of reaching out to someone is a small step in making sense of life. The strengthening of relationships is a natural consequence of the gospel. Simple acts of love will strengthen both parties and strengthen the body, the fellowship of believers.

The one certainty of understanding our lives is that where there is love this is where they most readily make sense.

The ‘Corona test’ asks of us all how much we love. If we have not love we are, as the Apostle Paul says, a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. Love sings a better song. Don’t wait for someone else to connect.

Jesus tells a parable in Matthew’s gospel which tells us how our lives will make sense in the end when we meet him face-to-face:

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

Matthew 25:34–40, NIV

An Enarratio of Psalm 1: Behold the Man

The enarratio (exposition or setting forth) of Psalm 1, below, is not an effort at modern exegesis. It does not progress from distinct and careful assessment of textual, canonical, or theological context and then move on to drawing some spiritual lessons for today. It is of the same ilk as Augustine’s Enarrationes in Psalmos, or Expositions of the Psalms. The psalm is read wilfully in the light of Christ and the Rule of Faith—recognising that we are ‘his body’, the Church, and he is ‘our head’. It is also read by using Scripture to understand Scripture. In this way, the meditation is not afraid to recognise that if the Scriptures are inspired by the one Spirit then they have an illuminating and meaningful intertextuality. This echo of Augustine is presented as an experiment—a case that asks us the questions: What have we gained in modern exegesis? And, more importantly what have we lost? The NKJV has been chosen in order to ensure the use of ‘man’ in verse 1—most contemporary translations use inclusive language obscure the word. I normally welcome inclusive translation, but here there is a danger of losing some of the remarkable theological potential of this psalm if the Hebrew word ha’ish is not rendered ‘man’ but as ‘the one’ (as in the NIV), ‘those’ (so the NRSV), or similar.

An Enarratio of Psalm 1: Behold the Man

Blessed is the man. Who is this man we meet at the beginning of the Psalter? In this beginning, this opening of the Book of Psalms, there are rivers and a tree. A choice is presented between obeying God or ungodly council. Is this an echo of the Eden story? Is this man Adam? Or, perhaps we have here the Second Adam? A man presented boldly at the outset of the Psalter—itself a great work of the words of life and salvation. Who better than Jesus Christ, our saviour, to set us on the path ahead? As we start our journey is he the man we should behold? Or do we find ourselves here? Christ came to live the life of every-man, and in Adam all men find their mould. Is this man the first Adam, the Second Adam, and every Adam fashioned from the earth? For we know from the Apostle Paul that all men, and women, are united in both Adams (Rom. 5:12–17; 1 Cor. 15:45). In one we have tasted sin and death, and in the other we are put to death so that we might have life. This psalm most certainly concerns two possibilities: the way of nature in the First Adam, and the way of grace in the Second Adam.

And yet, is this not the Book of David? Even though there is no title mentioning David, is this not his book? But, the Second Adam is the Son of David. And so, we have all these men at work. The first Adam in which we died, David who had a heart that God loved and yet a sinner, and the Second Adam who defines being blessed as being sinless and passing on this blessing to others. It is in him that we are made whole.

Who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stands in the path of sinners, nor sits in the seat of the scornful; . . . In that glorious garden, named Eden, Adam received the counsel of the ungodly. The ancient serpent counselled Eve directly against God’s instruction: “You will not surely die. For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Adam lamely followed the deceiver’s counsel, through his wife, without hesitation according to the Scriptures. In a moment, in the blinking of an eye, the first man becomes a sinner set on a new path. This path would take him from Edenic blessing into a world were all his progeny would have to choose who to walk with, who to stand with, and who to take to their table. In this fractured world, journeying away from God can happen without even the effort of placing one foot in front of another. Yet God in his mercy still allows for a path on which he accompanies anyone who would know him—the way of grace. But how can man decide between grace and his own nature? What can help us keep to the path?

But his delight is in the law of the Lord, . . . It is God’s instruction, his torah or law, in which we can see the proper path. The first Adam strayed from this path. He had but one prohibitive instruction and yet could not obey it. His delight strayed from God’s instruction to a piece of fruit, a fruit we tend to imagine as an apple, at least in the Western world. Who has not put more delight in ‘other fruit’ than God’s torah? Augustine famously tells us of how it was pears that lead him astray. He, together with other youths, stole the fruit not out of hunger but just because they wanted to taste forbidden fruit. Just as Adam had Eve for company, as a companion in disobedience so we too go astray with others. Terrence Malick tells a story in the Tree of Life, of another youth—Jack O’Brien—who leads his fellows astray. They break things in their neighbourhood including a window. Only frail humanity would break the very things that let light in. Jack has made the wrong choice, the way of nature he has learnt from his Father, rather the way of grace by which his Mother lives. Only the Second Adam consistently found delight in the instruction of his Father, The Father of all humankind.

And in His instruction he meditates day and night. From the lips of Jesus, we hear words shaped not only by prayerful listening but attentive meditation on the law. Jesus found this law in The Law, and the words of the Prophets, and in the other Hebrew writings. He meditated and from his heart these words spilled out and gave rise in turn to new God-given wisdom and instruction. He would rise early to listen (Mk. 1:25), and when needs must he stayed awake into the night chewing over God’s promises (Mk. 14:32–42) and plans. And the result of such meditation by day and night?

He shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, . . . Cause and effect plain and simple. The first Adam distracted by one tree lost sight of the Tree of Life. He lost the chance to be a tree, fed by the Spirit’s water. He wandered away from God, though God hoped for him to remain rooted in paradise where he had placed him. It is the way of humanity’s nature that we stray like sheep. Sometimes we not only walk away from God, we run (Jonah 1:3; Luke 15:13). Why would we reject the gracious refreshing waters given to us by God? Only one man has remained planted firmly were God wanted him. The second Adam remained planted in God’s plan though it took him to another tree. A terrible tree of agony, suffering, and death. He was himself a faithful planted tree, his hands had shaped wood in life, but were now nailed to the cruellest of trees.

That brings forth its fruit in its season, whose leaf also shall not wither; and whatever he does shall prosper. Where is the fruit in dying on a tree? Did not the second Adam wither? In what sense can this be named prosperity? And yet the Second Adam said for all to hear: “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain. He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” (John 12:24–25). In this way the First Adam lost his life and the Second Adam bore much fruit, bringing others eternal life. We too, both men and women, can gain our lives. But only in him as we join one another to be his body. Like Jack in the Tree of Life we can turn from the wrong path. The way of grace remains open to us all, that is the nature of grace. As for Jack in the film, the Tree of Life is always available, it pops up everywhere. This is the nature of grace. It is on our doorstep. It can be found even in the wilderness. The way of grace is knowing that we can be a fruitful tree by being grafted into a bigger tree that goes by the name of the Church. For we are the body and the Second Adam, he is our head (Acts 9:4; Eph. 5:21–33; Col. 1:24).

The ungodly are not so but are like the chaff which the wind drives away. Some want to see the ungodly’s step-by-step journey away from God as synonymous with being blown away. And yet this humbling image seems to cohere with a sadder fate on the path away from God. For we know that chaff speaks of the Day of Days (Hosea 13:3), the Day of the Lord.

Therefore the ungodly shall not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous. What is more tragic than a creature who does not know their Creator and so never lives the full life that was put before them? Those that do not join the blessed man, who are not flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone, bear not the fruit of forgiveness; sin and death are still theirs as they live in union with the First Adam, a legacy that cannot be healed other than by the Second.

For the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the ungodly shall perish. So, it is confirmed there are two paths though an infinite number of twists and turns on these two ways. Those who know the Lord taste his way of grace. Those that are strangers to him can only follow nature’s instruction. In this way a psalm that opens with the word blessed must close with the word perish. And this a reminder that we should praise the one in who we are found, the blessed man who carries us home so we will not be carried hither and thither on the wind in this life or the next.

Discipleship in an Age of Corona

One Situation
Many of us will have more time available to read the Bible and to pray in our present situation. I appreciate that this is not true of everyone, of course. We are also likely to need to make more effort to nurture our own souls due to the difficulty in having face-to-face fellowship at the current time. Even more soberingly, we all face an increased probability of someone we know falling seriously ill or dying. There is, in the midst of, a pandemic a mixture of need and opportunity. Seizing on the truth of Paul’s words to the Romans seems sensible: And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28). So, let’s put ourselves in God’s hands by doing something.

Where can we go for solid food? What parts of Scripture are well placed to sustain us? Where can we find comfort? Of course, all Scripture can do these things, but two parts in particular are the basic milk of our faith. Over two thousand years the testimony of Christians from many traditions has been that in times of challenge and when personal spiritual growth is a necessity then the Gospels and the Psalms are of special value.

Two Answers
The gospels bring us close to Jesus in that they tell us of his incarnation, birth, ministry, miracles, death, resurrection, and ascension. How can you get closer to Jesus than this? So why the psalms too? The Psalms have been understood by some as the inner life of Jesus. Jesus would have prayed all of the Psalms countless times in his life. His teaching reflects time-and-again on the Psalms, directly and indirectly. It’s quite likely that he knew them all by heart—not because he was God but because he was a faithful man.

Three Psalms
Psalm 22 above all the psalms connects us with Jesus because of his articulation of the first part of the its first verse from the cross (Matt. 27:46; Mark 15:34). Here’s the whole of the first verse:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish?

The New Testament picks up on other verses that seem to prophecy the crucifixion of the Son of God. For example, all four Gospels refer to verse 18:

They divide my clothes among them
and cast lots for my garment.

As Christians we can testify to living out the final verse of this psalm in the light of Jesus’ death on the cross and vindication in his resurrection:

They will proclaim his righteousness,
declaring to a people yet unborn:
He has done it!

We not only have this, and other psalms of lament, to point to Jesus who took our sin, guilt, and pain to the cross. They also exist to provide words to express our own anguish so that we too can bring pain to God in difficult moments on our pilgrimage with him.

Most days, in God’s mercy, we don’t need such extreme words. Psalm 23 is ideal when things are relatively normal to express our abiding trust in God no matter what there is in store for us. I have found its calm attitude of trust a perfect prayer in all sorts of situations. Why not memorise this psalm in your favourite translation? You really can’t go wrong with this psalm, even in the Valley of the Shadow of Death.

The next psalm, Psalm 24, is one of those psalms that captures the buzz and excitement of gathering together to be God’s people and worship him. Read it, and cherish the day when we gather once again. Not, of course, in the splendour of Jerusalem’s Temple but as the Body of Christ his church. On that day we will let the King of Glory in, just as we let him into our lives daily at this time of scattering.

Milk and Exotic Vegetable Curry
These three psalms are milk. Sometimes we look to the Bible and we look to God and we only want milk. We hope for the quick fix. And then we notice that 90% of the Bible is not milk, its an exotic vegetable curry, with fruit and spices we’ve never tasted before, and if we are honest, we don’t immediately like the taste or the texture.

Sometimes people have distilled the Bible into a shorter story or a list of ideas. Then it’s no longer God-breathed. If we don’t take it as it is, we are slighting the surest most dependable testimony that there is to Jesus. And let’s be clear it’s Jesus that’s the key, not the Bible. But nevertheless, the Bible is the way to know him better. The Bible helps us grown in him. The same Spirit that gave us life, the same Spirit that departed Jesus’ lips on the cross, the same Spirit that raised him to resurrection life, breathed the Scriptures.

The Old Testament strains forward testifying to him in the future. The New Testament looks back on him in the past. We read both to know him, and be nourished by him, in the fullness of his Incarnation, his Life, his death, his resurrection, and his second coming.

The Old Testament isn’t what it used to be. As Christians we can, and in fact, must read it through Christ. This helps us with the difficult psalms. The ones that require chewing and sometimes leaving until tomorrow for a second meal. Let’s turn to a more difficult psalm. This one seems made for the moment in some ways, but it also raises some serious questions.

Psalm 91 reads:

1 You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,

2 will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress;
my God, in whom I trust.”
3 For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
and from the deadly pestilence;
4 he will cover you with his pinions,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
5 You will not fear the terror of the night,
or the arrow that flies by day,
6 or the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
or the destruction that wastes at noonday.

7 A thousand may fall at your side,
ten thousand at your right hand,
but it will not come near you.
8 You will only look with your eyes
and see the punishment of the wicked.

9 Because you have made the Lord your refuge,
the Most High your dwelling place,
10 no evil shall befall you,
no scourge come near your tent.

11 For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways.
12 On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.
13 You will tread on the lion and the adder,
the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot.

14 Those who love me, I will deliver;
I will protect those who know my name.
15 When they call to me, I will answer them;
I will be with them in trouble,
I will rescue them and honour them.

16 With long life I will satisfy them,
and show them my salvation.

Taken at face value verses 3 to 7 in particular might seem to promise that in God we are immune to plague and pestilence. Unfortunately, we already know this is not true from bitter and tragic experience. So, is this psalm wrong? No, because it is not meant as a blanket promise for protection here and now. This is a Wisdom Psalm not so much promising the humanly best outcome but that we are wise to trust in God. It is also a Royal Psalm; its words once meant something closer to ‘God Save the King’ than being a get out of peril free card. It also speaks of Jesus. Most importantly of all, of course, in Christ we are safe eternally, for as Paul knew from the theology of the Psalms: in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

Palm Sunday 2020: Gathered though Scattered

Given the challenging events of the past days and weeks perhaps some of us have forgotten which day of the week it is. Palm Sunday is the day we remember Jesus arriving in Jerusalem at Passover, less than a week before he would be executed by the Romans. The name Palm Sunday arises from the gospel accounts in which Jesus arrives on a Donkey. The crowds acknowledge his arrival, celebrating in various ways including waving palm leaves in a party atmosphere. In doing this they practice the words of verse 27 of the Passover festival’s Psalm 118.

Today we are looking at the testimony of Luke of events just ahead of that triumphal entry. Events in which Jesus is feeling anything but triumphant. We read from Luke Chapter 13 verse 31:

31 At that time some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, ‘Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you.’

32 He replied, ‘Go and tell that fox, “I will keep on driving out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.” 33 In any case, I must press on today and tomorrow and the next day – for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!

34 ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. 35 Look, your house is left to you desolate. I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”’

Luke 13: 31–35, UKNIV

In the context of the Covid pandemic many of us have a wish to hunker down. We want to gather those we love and protect them from harm. We might want to gather our children and protect them. What could be more natural than this? We might want to gather our elderly parents and try and look after them? Some of us might wish we could gather the homeless and the vulnerable to help them weather the storm.

To want to gather and protect is a basic human instinct. Jesus wants to gather the children of Israel and protect them. In spite of their fickleness in waving palm leaves one day and approving of his death almost the next. His natural human inclination is to protect and gather those who are his people.

Of course, he is not only a man. He is God incarnate. Lest we imagine that there is a tension between his humanity and his deity we should note that Jesus is identifying with God. Six times in the psalms the Psalmist sees God as a hen protecting her brood with her wings.

What an image—a hen gathering her chicks. This is God and his people. Jesus wanting to gather even those who will abandon him—his desire is to protect them. The imagery is not only powerful it is remarkable. Remarkable not only in its tenderness but in its motherliness. For it is mothers who best exemplify the level of care offered by the God-Man Jesus. Jesus the Mother hen!

In our best moments we share the wish to protect. But we don’t have the ability to succeed as Jesus did. Sometimes the more we close our loving wings the more we struggle to hold everything together. In the cosy West we tell ourselves the lie that all is under our control. And often it looks like this is the case. Deep down, of course, we know this is not true. We know that day-to-day, apparent blind chance rolls the dice in accidents, in disease, in mental illness, in fire and in flood. If nothing else, we must learn to put our hope in the one who is one hundred percent faithful.

Jesus wished to shield his people. He wanted to spread wide his arms to embrace them and ward off evil. He couldn’t do it in those days before Easter Week, but later that week he did. He let others spread his wings and fix them to a beam. Lashed and nailed to a tree, those wings gave the best protection ever devised by man or by God.

Those spread-wide arms can ward off any ill, even a newly minted virus. And whilst there is no guarantee of this anti-viral effect there is a guarantee that those outstretched arms can cure sin and death.

This world is desperate for a vaccine to the pestilence name Covid-19 but we have something better. Jesus spread his wings for us—having learnt from the Father who sent him. In doing this he has cured us all. Sin and death will be no more.

And we recognise the profound truth of Jesus’ words: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”.

Humility in the Time of Corona — Romans 12:1–3

What? — Defining Humility
God calls us to future perfection in Christ but for now we are to attempt to lead a good life. This is not about an attempt to earn salvation. Our future with Christ, and our loving Father, is established in Christ’s death and Christ’s resurrection. We will one day be made good, once and for all because Christ himself is wholly good. In the present we should live a good life because we follow a God who defines goodness. Goodness is arguably the most fundamental characteristic of God. His glory, his wisdom, his love, his grace, they are all intertwined with his fundamental goodness.

Of course, the very concept of goodness, as well as humility more specifically, is not a priority in the modern world. Humility is not typically a topic in self-help manuals—I am not commending self-help manuals but simply pointing out that humility is not a modern preoccupation, nor in many eyes a desirable trait. Humility is not generally a theme in secular management training. Humility is arguably not the best attribute for getting to the top in business, politics, law, performing arts, science, or anything else.

Pride, of course, is the opposite of humility. The self-confidence, the self-reliance, the self-belief that can lead to pride, they are more often celebrated as keys to success. In contrast to self-confidence, self-reliance, and self-belief, humility can be perceived as weakness. Even in Church circles it is questionable whether humility is anywhere on the list of attributes we normally look for in our ministers and leaders.

And yet the Bible celebrates and champions humility. We have the near-paradox of an almighty God being revealed best in a humble man who set aside power and glory. For Jesus Christ—the best of us, the only perfect human to have graced creation—was humble. As Paul put it in his letter to the Church in Philippi:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Philippians 2:5–8, NIV

Perhaps Jesus Christ is the place to start to define humility? What happens when we do this? We can note that his humility is not the one-dimensional passivity we sometimes equate with humility. The same Jesus who surrendered himself to death, even death on a cross, overturned traders’ tables. The same Jesus who wept over Jerusalem, confronted, without fear, cold-hearted religious leaders and proud authorities. The same Jesus who did not raise a hand, or a voice, in the face of violence to his person rebuked his disciples in the boldest terms.

Romans 12:3 defines this sort of humility without even mentioning the word:

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.

For Paul, our humility is a static underpinning reality. We should exhibit humility. We should see ourselves as creatures before God our creator. This requires sober judgement. As both creatures and broken humans we are brought down to size. In Christ we are mercifully made whole again. This is our dependence on God which leads to humility. But humility is also a dynamic thing. The nature of our humility will change. It is according to the measure of our faith. As our faith deepens so our humility changes. The greater our faith in what Jesus Christ has done for us the greater our dependence on him the more we can boast in him.

How? — A Renewed Mind
Our ability to show humility brings to mind the maxim that used to be found on school reports in days gone by—a phrase that would be frowned upon today I think:

“Could do better.”

When it comes to humility, we could arguable all do better. This means different things for different people. For most of us we need to take verse 3 in its simplest sense and think of ourselves less highly than comes naturally. For a few of us we might need to transform a broken meekness, grounded in a feeling of lack of self-worth, into wholesome humility by thinking of ourselves in Christ more highly. But either way, how can we display humility as seen in the life of Jesus? How can we be good by being humbler? How?

Romans 12:2 provides an answer to this question:

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Humility, as the opposite to pride, is also the opposite to conforming to the world. It was pride that set the ball-rolling in Genesis 3. It was pride that is captured so powerfully in the vanity project called the Tower of Babel a few chapters later. Pride rears its ugly head in wider society, time and again as well as continually in us as individuals. Moral theologians often suggest that pride—the opposite of humility—is the foundation of all sin. So, if we are already wired this way—conformed to a pattern of thinking that is the natural way of human flesh—how are we to be transformed?

We have already defined humility through Jesus. But the meaning of the word in English is also a help to us. The word humility has the same origin as humus, or earth. Humility is about being earthy, lowly. It’s about being grounded. It’s about remembering where we came from. The Bible tells as that we were made from earth. In Hebrew adamah means earth, hence Adam:

. . . then the Lord God formed adam from the adamah, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the adam became a living being.
Genesis 2:7

Being humble means remembering where we came from and where we are, in one sense at least, going. As Ecclesiastes says:

All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again.
Ecclesiastes 3:20, NIV

Such sobriety before God is the foundation of a healthy spirituality. Being grounded in this way means recognising our earthiness is not a firm foundation. It is God our rock, it is the teaching of Jesus Christ, that we should build upon. Humility makes room for the grace that we so desperately need in our lives—this is the grounding we need.

Humility means standing on the earth from which God made us and looking to him in all his majesty. Unless we do these basics, we return to our Eden factory settings, one hour at a time. There is grace that comes through being together in fellowship. Never underestimate the grace that we can show to one another. In the face of Corona, and limited gatherings and self-isolation, let’s work hard to find ways to be available.

If some of us do get more time at home over the next few weeks and months, use your imagination to find ways to improve your time with God. Store up treasure for life after Corona. Be transformed by the grace of God. Humility should be a foundation for disciplined dependence—a realisation of our need to pray and listen to God’s word.

Why? — Being Living Sacrifices
Humility is the foundation of other virtues. It is the foundation of the good life lived before God. How can we serve God unless we understand ourselves in relationship to him?

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.
Romans 12:1, NIV

Don’t miss Paul’s point here, spiritual worship has real physical consequences. Paul knows nothing of a distinction between the physical and the spiritual. In a time of pandemic, we can show Christ to those around us. The simple acts of avoiding the excesses of panic buying, stockpiling at the expense of others, and  the discipline of washing our hands. These are a start, but only a start.

Washing your hands in the current context is a remarkable picture of humility. Each time you wash our hands you have no idea whether this is preventing the spread of disease. In most cases it won’t make that difference. But its only by doing it regularly and frequently that it works—it is a discipline. Persistence is everything in this as in spiritual disciplines. So, see each 20-second hand wash as a necessary step of humility putting the needs of our healthcare system and the frailer members of society ahead of yourself. Such a frequent discipline will on occasions make an unseen difference. But, on every occasion it can be a celebration of our collective frailty—our dependence on a loving God. Like any discipline each and every occasion can help shape us, change us, and transform us.

Life in the time of Corona can remind us of our lack of control—our dependence on God—the very basis for humility. In a time of pandemic we can make a difference. We have the love of God that eclipses fear. Humility enables us to be living sacrifices for God.

Over the next few days and weeks let’s be creative and attentive to how we can support one another and minister to our neighbours. Let’s do what Christ always makes possible—the turning of darkness into a place where his light shines all the brighter.

Surely our faith in Christ, our trust in our Father, can make a real difference in the time of Corona?

 

On Kindness—Job 6:14

Introduction

Is kindness a high priority in our lives? It is not difficult to know what kindness is, but for many of us it is something we hope to experience, rather than something we prioritise doing. Kindness does not come naturally. It is a virtue. It needs to be taught. It needs to be nurtured. It needs to be given time.

I can remember being encouraged by my mother to be kind. My mother was always keen for me to befriend children who she thought needed my friendship. At Infant School there was Robert (not his real name like the others mentioned in this post), the only black boy in my class, and David who by today’s standards had a number of educational needs. At Junior School there was Graham whose parents were very religious. My kindness in the playground extended to being Robin as he wanted to be Batman. I’m not convinced we were a ‘dynamic duo’—we were both rather skinny—but we had fun.

For my all my efforts to be kind by befriending those my mother pointed out to me. The only times I ever got in trouble at Infant School was because of my association with them. But the lasting point is that I was taught, and hopefully learned, something about kindness. As I discovered there’s little reward in being kind and of course that’s not the point. Or perhaps this is exactly the point?

As Karen Swallow Prior, in her amazing book On Reading Well, points out no one envies the kind. She also notes that it is all too easy to muddle kindness with niceness. Confusing the two is a bad move because the agreeableness that comes with niceness shows no discernment. Niceness is a disposition not a virtue. Kindness, unlike niceness, is underpinned by a concern with the truth. Kindness knows nothing of the ‘white lie’ told so as to not hurt someone’s feelings, or the minor untruth to keep the peace.

Kindness has the same origin as the word kin. To be kind is to treat someone as though they are family. The kindness that treats people as family is more robust than niceness. Sometimes it can mean departing from being nice. According to Karen Swallow Prior:

To see and celebrate the good for others is to treat them as family. This is what it means to be kind.

But what does the Bible have to say about kindness? Both the First Testament and the Second Testament are at one as we shall see. Although we’ll also see that Jesus, as is so often the case, has the last and disturbingly challenging word.

On the Ropes with Job

 Anyone who withholds kindness from a friend forsakes the fear of the Almighty.

Care is needed with any one verse so let’s put it in context. The Book of Job starts with the famous wager between God and Satan over Job’s fear of God. Terrible things happen to Job as a consequence. In Chapter 1 we read:

13 One day when Job’s sons and daughters were feasting and drinking wine at the eldest brother’s house, 14 a messenger came to Job and said, ‘The oxen were ploughing and the donkeys were grazing nearby, 15 and the Sabeans attacked and made off with them. They put the servants to the sword, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!’

16 While he was still speaking, another messenger came and said, ‘The fire of God fell from the heavens and burned up the sheep and the servants, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!’

17 While he was still speaking, another messenger came and said, ‘The Chaldeans formed three raiding parties and swept down on your camels and made off with them. They put the servants to the sword, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!’

18 While he was still speaking, yet another messenger came and said, ‘Your sons and daughters were feasting and drinking wine at the eldest brother’s house, 19 when suddenly a mighty wind swept in from the desert and struck the four corners of the house. It collapsed on them and they are dead, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!’

20 At this, Job got up and tore his robe and shaved his head. Then he fell to the ground in worship 21 and said:

‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
and naked I shall depart.
The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away;
may the name of the Lord be praised.’

22 In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing.

A little later, of course, Job is additionally afflicted with a horrible disease.

As Job attempts to come to terms with what has happened and why, he debates with three friends. These debates take up around forty chapters of the Bible, with a fourth mysterious dialogue partner joining later in the book. Whatever the historical origin of Job’s story the debate he has with his friends appear to be highly crafted poems.

Our verse today (Job 6:14) mentions Fear of the Lord as does the second verse of the Book of Job where we find out that Job fears God. The Book of Job is a theological argument over what it means to fear God. It reveals that even those that fear God will know trial and hardship in the life of faith.

In Job 6:14, Job is warning his friends—he argues that there is a link between right behaviour and our relationship with God. Putting it more positively for us, as those that fear the Almighty and are in relationship with him through Christ, we should actively demonstrate kindness to our friends. We should treat our friends as well as we treat those who are related to us by blood.

In context Job is going further with a clear rebuke. More than, that there is a degree of menace. Could it be that withholding kindness when a friend is in acute need might really jeopardise our relationship with God? I think we know the truth of this in its broadest sense—continual actions that conflict with a relationship with God mean that someone walks step by step, mile by mile, away from the living God.

For us as faithful disciples of Jesus, walking with him will mean acting appropriately—yes, we make mistakes—but these are stumbles on the path not wholesale choices of a new direction.

Yet there is more to this verse than it first appears. The word translated as kindness in virtually all English translations has a more profound depth. In Hebrew the word has connotations of kindness in the context of a covenant relationship. Job and his friends are bound to each other by a promise or commitment, just as we are bound to each other through our fellowship in Christ Jesus.

This verse is also something of a foretaste of some of Jesus’ most remarkable teaching.

On the Rock Named Jesus

Jesus famously distils the Law of Moses to come to a fresh expression of Job 6:14. Let’s hear Mark’s account of this:

28 One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, ‘Of all the commandments, which is the most important?’

29 ‘The most important one,’ answered Jesus, ‘is this: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” 31 The second is this: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no commandment greater than these.’

Mark 12:28–31, NIVUK

Here in Mark’s Gospel Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy 6:4–5 and Leviticus 19:18. This twofold summary mirrors Job 6:14, as a generalisation of Job’s specific point about the risk his friends are taking. Jesus, of course, goes further than Job and further than popular interpretations of the Law in his time. Famously in Luke’s gospel when Jesus summarises the law in the same way, on a different occasion, someone asks, “Who is my neighbour?”—surely there must be a legal limit to what can be expected? For Job showing kindness to friends in covenant with him was the necessary way of honouring commitment to God. The Law extended this to the community of faith as a whole nation. Then Jesus extends the call to the people of faith showing kindness to all of humanity through the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

Jesus goes to the extreme of treating as family even those that world would count as enemies.

On the Road with Bananarama

Being kind can be a struggle as it rarely seems a priority. Being kind can be challenging because we muddle it with niceness. Sometimes we struggle with knowing how to be kind. We can probably all remember a time when we tried to be kind, but this was not received well. We have that feeling that if only we knew how.

As Bananarama put it so well: Tain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it. Trying to be kind only works when we do it in the right way. Sometimes we have to be careful to avoid offending. Sometimes we have to avoid being patronising. Sometimes we have to avoid creating dependency. Sometimes in the cause of being really kind we might have to risk offence or even run with it. Because at its best kindness is genuinely life changing and transformative.

Martin Scorsese most famous for some rather gritty films, directed a film that beautifully illustrates the transformative potential of kindness. In this film Hugo, the 12 year old Hugo Cabret, lives in a Paris train station—he has no choice after the death of his loving father. He has an abusive alcoholic uncle who teaches him how to keep the station’s clocks working. After his Uncle disappears Hugo continues to wind the various clocks and survives by stealing food. He is good at fixing things. He also has a hope of fixing people, as he explains:

“Maybe that’s why a broken machine always makes me a little sad, because it isn’t able to do what it was meant to do… Maybe it’s the same with people. If you lose your purpose… it’s like you’re broken”

Hugo observes numerous broken people around the railway station. There is the Station Inspector who is socially awkward thanks to a leg injured in the war. Hugo is afraid of him since he has seen him take other stray boys and send them away to an orphanage.

But the most formidable and broken person in the station is the mysterious Georges Melies who runs an old toy shop. When he catches Hugo and accuses him of stealing mechanical parts from him, the boy is terrified.

Hugo becomes friends with Isabelle, the goddaughter of Melies and his wife, Mama Jeanne. They eventually discover George Melies’ amazing past as a pioneering film maker. Through various means he forces George Melies to face all the pain of what went wrong in his past. He shows kindness at great personal risk and cost. Melies was a bitter and cynical man when Hugo first knew him, but he becomes reconciled with his past as a pioneering filmmaker.

That’s a fable of course. A beautiful one but a fable, nevertheless.

The two most common ways of understanding the life of faith are as pilgrimage and discipleship. Pilgrimage is the journey of life towards the heavenly city where God dwells. It’s not an individual journey. It’s a journey with others. Discipleship is the following of Jesus Christ day-by-day. It’s also not an individual thing. You can’t be a good disciple on your own. It’s a journey, a walk, with others.

Both our pilgrimage and our discipleship benefit from being seen in this corporate sense. Prioritising kindness on our journey challenges the worst excesses of misconstruing pilgrimage and discipleship as self-actualisation. Cultivating kindness enables the gospel-driven transformation of those around us and the by-product is our own sanctification.

Living in Hope: Hebrews 11

1. Losing Virtue
Increasingly in the West virtue is an alien word. Worse than this the pursuit of virtues is something alien. The idea that virtue should be desired and pursued, that it is a high priority in the lives of individuals and communities is simple not a contemporary agenda.

There is a suspicion about the pursuit of goodness and of wanting to be good. Virtue and goodness depend on moral certainty and absolutes which are not popular in our culture. The closest we come to virtue in secular discussion in terms of other categories, such as values and rights. These are not the same as virtues. Values and rights are, however, seen as more neutral, ‘democratic’ and self-evident than the pursuit of goodness.

This has not always been the case as much of Western culture has celebrated virtue. Until a hundred years ago the idea of virtue was a popular concept and the pursuit of goodness was not only acceptable but was seen as desirable.

In the Church, virtue is also an unusual word today. In our Church tradition there can be a number of concerns which have undermined the pursuit of virtue and the goal of being good:

1. The theology of salvation by grace alone can cast a shadow over pursuing virtue.
2. The Church has been caught out too often as its members have claimed virtue whilst practicing vice.
3. Perhaps we think it’s not biblical. But if we translate virtues as another window on the fruit of the Spirit and the pursuit of goodness as sanctification, we can see that virtue is biblical.

In Hebrews 11 we find two of the so-called theological virtues, faith and hope, worked out in the lives of the ancient heroes of First Testament faith. The implication is that the best of the people of God display hope and cultivate right behaviour—and we too are called to do the same.

The basis of Hebrews 11 and its fixation on the future hope is incredibly counter cultural. In our culture we are taught to see an end horizon marked by our physical demise. Hebrews 11—the gospel of Jesus Christ—sees beyond an end horizon beyond this, the heavenly city.

Because of this:

  • Hope in God will mean that we know we are foreigners and behave as strangers in this world.
  • Hope in God will mean we will struggle at times with God.
  • And finally, and perhaps less surprisingly, such a hope means fixing our eyes upon Jesus.

2. Strangers to Vice
Both our hope in God and our faithfulness to him are easy to misunderstand. The promises we have ‘hope in’ and the God to whom we are faithful, are longer term prospects than anything else in our lives. What we put our hope in outlasts us in our mortality. Such hope and faith in God go beyond the more human hope and faith we place in our spouses, partners, or close friends.

All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth.
Hebrews 11:13, NIV

In the world’s eyes this sounds like those of faith, hope, and trust have been deceived. What is the point of a life of hope in which what is promised is not to be found? Why would anyone be faithful for a lifetime, only to die without receiving what is hoped for?

But such is the life of faith—at least to some extent. The life of faith in Christ is about something bigger than us—this is the ultimate in counterculture. We are called to a faithfulness in a God who is even more faithful to us. We know the truth of his faithfulness in the beautiful gift of Jesus Christ:

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Romans 5:8

The guarantee, or taste, of the fruit of faithfulness is known here and now but the fullness of that fruit is yet to come in the inheritance of God’s Kingdom in the age to come. We are like the heroes of faith in Hebrews 11:

they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth.

And yet we also have more than ‘the ancients’—we have knowledge of Christ and we are in Christ by the power and grace of the Spirit of God. What we await in patient faithfulness comes after death, or the return of Christ. In this life of faith and hope, we are strangers on earth. What a challenge and what a remarkable call.

How can we be distinctive—salt and light—rather than just peculiar?

We of course share the same promises as the heroes of faith:

People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country – a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.
Hebrews 11:14–16, NIV

God has prepared city for us.

3. Struggling
Verse 21 of Hebrews 11 says this:

By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of Joseph’s sons, and worshipped as he leaned on the top of his staff.

Perhaps the implication is that Jacob leans upon his staff as he is old and in need of total hip replacement. But it’s quite likely that the author of Hebrews also has something else in mind. For like all people of faith, Jacob had wrestled with God—more so than most in fact. It all came to a head in Genesis 32. In this life, most people of faith will at some points wrestle with God.

We might suppose that struggling with God about anything is a denial of our hope in him. But this is not the case. The wrestling with God that Jacob experienced like that of many people of faith is entirely faithful and hopeful—it is the complex working out of how we achieve what God has called us to do.

What is the right way to go about finding blessing? Jacob had attempted to find blessing by deceiving his brother. It is as he is about to meet his brother, Esau, who he assumes will be very angry, that he wrestles with the angel of the Lord. That wrestling with God is not wrong is evident from the Psalms. One third of the biblical psalms are psalms of complaint or lament—a rich vocabulary given to us to complain to our God. More pragmatically we can note that:

“A faith that never feels challenged is most likely dead.”
Karen Swallow Prior, On Reading Well

To be truly faithful to God means wrestling with him—complaining to him—about how things are in this broken world. Many of those named in Hebrews 11 contended with God. When done for the right reasons and in the right way this is hope in action. Hope in God is not fatalism it’s about a real relationship with the living God. If we don’t in fact question God, and wrestle with him, we risk one of the two alternatives to hope.

On the one hand there is the risk of presumption. We presume all is well with ourselves without checking in with our Creator. We assume that because Jesus died once for all we are the finished article. But no, our hope in our future with God should be transforming us. Day-by-day, month-by-month, year-by-year, we should be better disciples. Bearing the fruit of goodness in both character and deed.

On the other hand, another alternative to hope is despair. Events can take their toll on us and the hope of dwelling with God can become too much to hope for. This is when we need our brothers and sisters in Christ. Who are those you can look to in your hour of need?

We live in a society where those around us do not have gospel hope. They have variously chosen presumption (putting their hope in something other than Jesus Christ) or despair (finding no hope).

4. Fixing (12:2)
We are of course in a different relationship with the living God than the heroes of Hebrews 11. They knew Yahweh the God of Israel and indeed they often experienced him first-hand. And yet despite this blessing we are fortunate to surpass the revelation they had.

These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.
Hebrews 11:39–40

For we know the Father through, and in, Christ. The Incarnation of the Son of God, his ministry, his death, and his resurrection provide the fuller revelation of the very heart of God. This is not just knowledge but is part of the fabric of reality—we are the body of Christ and he is the head.

We are a body in which the very Spirit of Christ is at work. Virtues are the fruit of the Spirit. We are sanctified, made virtuous, through the work of the living God in the Church his body.

The call to fix our eyes upon Jesus is a better one, than to fix our eyes on the heavenly city as those in Hebrews 11 did. As wanderers and pilgrims, they knew of the heavenly city that was the reward of their faith and faithfulness. For us this heavenly city is home to Jesus Christ seated at the right hand of the Father.

In Jesus Christ we have a redeemer who also founds a new creation- a new heaven and a new earth.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy that was set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

Hebrew 12:1–3

Standing Firm: Philippians 4:1–3

1. Joy
How might we ensure we stand firm in our faith? Such a question seems a sensible one when we see some around us drifting away from their faith. There are of course many answers. One way, I suggest lies at the heart of Paul’s Letter to the Philippians and is mentioned in Philippians 4:1–3. How about cultivating joy, and more specifically a joy in the gospel?

Philippians 4 vv 1 to 3 17th Feb 2019

Paul sees the Philippians as his brothers and sisters. He loves them and longs to see them. For they are his joy and his crown. They are a crown in the sense that in his striving for the gospel of Jesus Christ he founded them as a church. They would not exist as a local embodiment of Christ were it not for his efforts to preach in their city. They would not be in Christ if he had not preached first to Jew and then to Gentile, and won enough people over to the gospel, to plant a congregation in Philippi. They testify continually to his missionary calling and action. In this sense they are his crown—just like the expression we might make today about some achievement being our crowning glory. This is no immodesty on Paul’s part. He knows that the church in Philippi is ultimately God’s work. Yet he also knows, just as surely as he has co-workers, that he is a co-worker with God (see 2 Corinthians 6:1).

Paul also sees them as his joy. Some people sadly suck the joy out of Christianity. But for Paul, and for us, for all who perceive the glory of what Jesus has done, joy should be at its very heart. What greater joy could there be than people finding out that God loves them in Christ and that they are called to be his community here on earth—called to be his hands and feet in furthering the gospel.

There is joy in being Christ’s body, of continuing his work. Knowing his incarnation as we realise, we are his hands and his feet. Knowing his death as we die to sin and death. Knowing his resurrection as we perceive the glory to come. Knowing his ascension to heaven as we trust in his faithfulness. Let us not become so serious in the task of being Christ’s body that we lose sight of the joy—the joy of seeing God at work in those around us.

The joy of the gospel starts with God himself. We all know that wonderful picture in The Parable of the Prodigal Son —the Father running to greet his wayward child, breaking with middle-eastern convention by hoisting his clothing and running—both seriously embarrassing for a respectable figure.

If that’s not joy, I don’t know what is. But the joy was gospel-focused for Jesus too:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

Hebrews 12:1–2 (NIV)

There are stages to this race—this life of faith—there are hills to traverse, there are dark valleys to wander in, there are mountain top experiences, the analogues are endless. There are however three basic experiences in the midst of this infinite variety: disorientation, reorientation, and orientation.

Joy can come with reorientation. The experience of God putting things right. The joy of knowing Christ as a fresh experience. A recovery from illness, the getting over a bad relationship, the discovery of a good place after serious hardship.

2. Division
Standing firm can also be aided by avoiding division. There are many pitfall and diversions along the way. Loss of unity amongst brothers and sisters in Christ is an especially painful one. When fellowship in Jesus goes wrong, we all have a problem on our journey at the same moment.

Unity is of fundamental importance to remaining a healthy community of God’s people. But we all know that unity is not always a straightforward goal.

Sometimes we learn the hard way the truth and profundity of Psalm 133 which opens:

How good and pleasant it is
when God’s people live together in unity!

Psalm 133:1 (NIV)

This is so self-evident when we have experienced serious disunity, that the illustrations that follow in verses 2 and 3 about beards, oil, mountains, and dew are poetic details that are almost unnecessary.

How do we commit to unity? How do we avoid division? No one sets out to create it at the outset and yet it can rear its ugly head in a moment. One way to avoid it, and it is but one way, is to be more open to the joy that we have in Christ and in serving him. When we have genuine joy in Christ, we take ourselves as individuals a little less seriously, we are fixing our eyes in the right place—we are humble servants of Jesus Christ. The lightness in our spirits that comes from joy is also less prone to take offence, on the one hand, and less hasty in judging others on the other.

Division at the end of the day is serious—it is about undoing the very work of Jesus. The body that Jesus has made whole through being broken on the cross, is denied in division. The walls that Jesus broke down are rebuilt. Division is the very opposite of the reconciliation that Jesus died for.

Indeed, so serious is the ground we walk on in joining division that we are likely to be walking off without Jesus by our side. Or perhaps he’s still there but we become myopic? Whatever the reality of Jesus’ presence, it is no coincidence that so many people at the centre of division leave behind their faith in Christ.

Euodia and Syntyche in our short passage have experienced lack of unity. And Paul urges them ‘to be of the same mind’. This is a rich idea, as members of the local body of Christ they should have his one mind on key matters.

As Paul says elsewhere:

I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.

1 Corinthians 1:10 (NIV)

We don’t know all the details about this situation. We do know they are Paul’s co-workers, and though he’s exhorting them to sort the problem out he is clearly tender to them, they are not the people he has harsh words for elsewhere in this letter.

Lack of unity is painful. It is one of the many events in the life of faith that is difficult. We need to do all we can humanly and prayerfully to avoid it. It is one of the causes of Disorientation, the difficult steep upward slog on the marathon or pilgrimage.

3. New Order
Another way of standing firm is embracing God’s new order. Paul repeatedly speaks of the age to come—here it’s the mention of the Book of Life. A reminder of that goal for all who follow Jesus Christ.

Both discipleship and pilgrimage are about the journey and the destination:

  1. We walk with Christ and he is our destination.
  2. We walk with the Father and he is our destination.
  3. We journey with the life-giving Spirit and he is the very breath of God that breathes life into our bones at the resurrection.

 

4. Closing Prayer

O soul, are you weary and troubled?
No light in the darkness you see?
There’s light for a look at the Saviour,
And life more abundant and free.

Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of His glory and grace.

‘Turn your eyes upon Jesus’
Helen Howarth Lemmel (1863–1961)

Perceiving, Proclaiming and Partaking of the Cross

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’   Mark 8:31–33

1. Perceiving the Cross

I have lost count of the number of times I have correctly predicted the future. Please don’t be anxious this is not a claim to be a clairvoyant or a confession of divination. Simply the acknowledgement that I am a parent.

I recall all three of my children running around in circles in our house. My words proclaimed wisely: “If you don’t calm down someone’s going to get hurt”. The sentence was barely finished and we were weighing-up whether go to take a child to hospital, as a swelling grew before our eyes on their forehead.

I also recall making the comment: “If you drag him round by his arms like that you will dislocate something”. The uncontrollable crying was only silenced two hours later in hospital as a doctor fixed an elbow joint with a dull click.

More recently by knowledge of the world had me observe: “If you keep kicking the ball that hard you’ll break a pane of glass in the greenhouse”. This time I hadn’t quite foreseen what would happen. There were three broken panes.

This is no prescience, or anything unnatural, this is cause and effect. Years of observing how the world works and inferring what will happen next. This is what the Bible calls wisdom. Jesus has often been labelled as a Sage, a biblical wise man in the tradition of Solomon and in the tradition of the Books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Job. Many of his words recorded in the gospels echo the wise way of looking at the world and at life, for example:

And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.   Matthew 6:28–29

As Jesus discovered his mission, to preach and teach about God’s Kingdom, and grew in his understanding of the scope of what he was doing and teaching; as he realised he was the Son, as he worked out what this meant—he didn’t need to be the wisest sage to put two and two together—to realise he would come into massive conflict with the authorities.

As hostility grew with the religious leaders, to his words and deeds, it would have become painfully clear to Jesus that there was not going to be a happy conclusion to his ministry on earth.

As the best teacher of his day, as the wisest sage, as the most remarkable worker of miracles he was not destined to become ‘Professor of the Kingdom’, at the University of Jerusalem, but rather he was so bugging the scribes, the elders, the chief priests, that a conflict was inevitable. And when the Romans eventually noticed, well, others had done less—and been less—and been silenced by execution.

In this way Jesus perceived that death was the outcome of his words and actions. But wisdom and reason only get anyone so far. Although Jesus gave up the attributes of deity prior to his Incarnation, as a man he was still able to receive from God—he was still able to experience revelation.

That he was not only proclaiming a message but was the message, didn’t come from being wise—this could only come from revelation.

Whilst reason pointed to his death at the hands of Jews and Romans in an unholy alliance to silence an inconvenient truth, only revelation can point to the significance of that death. Human wisdom points to cause and effect. It is only revelation that can truly explain.

And it was a vicious cycle as Jesus recognised who he was—Son of God and Messiah—so he upset the authorities more and more. There was an inevitability that he would die because of his words and deeds. Our passage does not mention the cross. We read this back into this episode. But Jesus was probably all too aware of the likely nature of his death.

As Jesus wrestled with God the Father in prayer; perhaps in those profound moments of baptism and transfiguration, he received an answer:

the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again

 Through wisdom Jesus saw his death; through revelation he understood its significance and glimpsed resurrection too.

2. Proclaiming the Cross

As Jesus understood his death and resurrection—as he reasoned and as God revealed—he became the first to proclaim the cross. And what a result. If healing, miracles and inspired preaching caused hostility, the preaching of the cross inspired disbelief and fear. So off-the-mark is Peter that Jesus sees the hand of the deceiver, of Satan, at work.

From Peter’s perspective, so unwelcome and so unexpected was Jesus’ proclamation that he simply saw it as wrong. In his mind it went again everything he had learnt. That your Rabbi should die would surely mean they were a failed teacher. That a Messiah should die was unthinkable. It did not stand to reason. Jesus’ death as Son of God, as Messiah requires new knowledge—revelation, first to Jesus, then to the Jews and then to the Gentiles.

Peter was so bewildered by the thought of Jesus’ death, that in all likelihood he couldn’t see beyond this to remotely comprehend Jesus rising again.

Jesus, of course, had to start with his disciples—a constant education by drip-feeding information. They might not understand his death and resurrection before they happened, but they needed to afterwards.

The drip-feed education is seen in two further episodes in Mark, for example in the second one we read:

They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, ‘The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.’ But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.   Mark 9:30–32

The thought of Death and Resurrection caused Peter to disbelieve and to fear. The proclamation of Jesus’ death and resurrection always has a result. Its meaning provokes response. Disbelief is perhaps the normal first response. Fear is perhaps the natural step beyond disbelief. An emotional response of fear is a belief of sorts.

We can expect similar responses as we share the gospel. Some will simply disbelieve. Some will make a more significant move and be fearful. Such people are only a hair-breadth away from the belief that inspires fear to the belief that inspires faith.

3. Partaking of the Cross

The disciples journeyed with Jesus, but they were also on a different sort of journey—a journey of discovery as to who Jesus was. This journey can only end when the significance of both his death and resurrection are understood. The disciples had already partaken of the First Covenant—they were circumcised—and each year they remembered the Covenant during Passover. Each and every Sabbath they heard the Law of the Covenant read. This First Covenant came as Revelation, as God revealed himself in mighty acts and in his Word. The disciples needed fresh revelation to understand the New Covenant. They had partaken of a First Covenant that knew its foundation in the blood of a lamb. They were soon to experience the Last Supper at Passover.

The disciples some forty, or so, days after that Passover would understand John’s baptism afresh in the light of Jesus’ death and resurrection. They would understand that baptism marked the start of partaking in the gospel. A step into water, being submerged and coming up out of the water, marks the journey from old life to new life. It marks the entry into a new covenant with God.

Hearing the gospel is a way of receiving the gospel, of receiving grace. Sharing bread and wine is a way of receiving the gospel and receiving grace. Being baptised in water as obedience to Jesus; being baptised by Spirit by the laying of hands, such a baptism is a way of receiving the gospel and receiving grace.

We would do well to remember that the gospel of Jesus Christ is not a self-help gospel. The good news of new life only comes through grace—through God’s undeserved favour. Representing the Gospel as a lifestyle choice—a self-help gospel—like all the other lifestyle choices is one of the reasons for the frailty of the Western Church.

In the film ‘Saving Private Ryan’, Captain Miller and others, give their lives, as the film’s title reveals, to save private Ryan from death in combat. As Miller dies, having given his own life, he tells Private Ryan to “Earn this”.

In contrast, the cross does not speak of earning. We cannot earn it, we can only receive it. We can partake, in what is a remarkable gift of new covenant, new relationship, new life. The normal Christian birth comes, first through hearing the Word, then through baptism in Spirit and Water, and then is regularly renewed, remembered and celebrated through Bread and Wine.

So, carry on receiving this gospel—listen, be filled, be cleansed, be fed—imbibe the very water of life. All these things are what it means to perceive the cross, proclaim the cross and partake of the cross.