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.

 

Born From Above—John 3:1‒17

 

What did the Pharisee see?

Nicodemus is in the dark. The fact that Nicodemus visits Jesus at night was probably both a necessity—Nicodemus is fearful of what others may think—but it also resonates with the fact that Nicodemus is in a very real sense in the dark. We don’t expect a member of the Jewish political and religious elite to be in the dark. Most politicians and senior religious leaders by definition consider themselves to be well informed. They expect to be in the know about what is going on around them and confident that they have ‘life, the universe and everything’ sorted, understood and managed.

The very fact that Nicodemus seeks out Jesus points to the fact that Jesus had disturbed this ordered equilibrium. There was something about Jesus that did not fit with Nicodemus’ worldview.

As a Pharisee, Nicodemus was all too aware that things had gone wrong for Israel. The return from exile, centuries ago, had not really delivered on expectation. The Temple was not as good as it had been before the exile and the prophets, and by implication God himself, were all largely silent. The nation was under humiliating Roman occupation which was following close on the heels of a painful period of Greek persecution.

The people were also divided—not everyone saw the world as Nicodemus did. He knew adherence to the Law was the only way that the nation could find its place of blessing before God again. It was hard work, obedience to the Law was demanding and so it was difficult to motivate everyone to do all that was required. Whilst he delighted in the Law he knew that the majority struggled to understand it fully let alone keep it to the letter.

It was far from clear to Nicodemus how an untrained teacher and miracle worker fitted into God’s plans of redemption for Israel and the nations. There is something in the way that Nicodemus seeks out Jesus which echoes the experience of others as they start discovering Jesus—a process which we might describe as ‘faith seeking understanding’. This is an attitude we would do well to cultivate on our journey with God. On the journey of faith we grow in understanding as we continually question God from our stance of faith.

As I pray today I spend far far more time questioning God than asking for things. “Why?” is the one of the most natural words for the journey. The Psalter gives us ample permission to ask “why?”.

Born to give them second birth

Despite faith being a journey and an ongoing process there are also defining moments of discontinuity. And what Jesus explains to Nicodemus is the most fundamental one—being born again. The term ‘born again’ has had a rough time in recent decades in the UK at least. I’ve seen and heard it used disparagingly in tabloid newspapers and soap operas. ‘Born again Christian’ can in secular society be translated “nutter”.

And I’ve also experienced first-hand the discomfort of trying to explain the idea to a rather sceptical audience. It was only an audience of two but it was one of these moments when you find yourself explaining your faith and really wished you somewhere else. I remember it well though it was over 25 years ago—in fact it was September 1988. I was in the back seat of a car, a 3500cc Rover, being driven home from work by my new landlord and landlady—David and Andrea (names changed just in case!). Andrea had a PhD in Nuclear Materials and David was a Maintenance Engineer who worked with two experimental nuclear reactors.

I was explaining that I would be visiting Newbury Baptist Church at the weekend because I was a Christian and wanted to find a church I could go to each week. Their initial puzzlement about why I might want to bother to do this suddenly turned directly to the question of being born again. Two questions came in rapid succession:

“You’re not one of those born again Christians are you? How can someone be born again anyway?”

The two questions arrived with disturbing speed, one on top of the other. I was floored by how to answer the first question—what did these two sceptics understand a born again Christian to be exactly?

So I concentrated on the second question. I like to think I gave a great account of biblical imagery, a rich theology of atonement and clear articulation of the connection between ontology and metaphorical language. But the fact that I have no clear memory of what I said or how the conversation ended makes me think it did not go so well.

Nicodemus asked Jesus out of an attitude of faith seeking understanding—I was asked from an attitude of doubt seeking ridicule. Despite the tone of the questions I faced, it is not an unreasonable question—how can someone be born again?

Jesus refers to a first birth, as mother gives birth to child and the second birth by implication has some characteristics of the first—it is a fresh start in some sense. Jesus also indicates that this second birth has two elements to it: water and Spirit. This is most likely equating being born again with the NT’s twofold view of baptism. Twofold, because there is a water dynamic that we can control and Spirit dynamic which is God’s prerogative. The defining dynamic here is the Spirit. Spirit gives birth to Spirit—the new start comes from God and is affected by the Spirit.

Christians can still do different things with this idea—but ta natural way to appreciate this text is to understand that there is a critical moment in the early life of the Christian in which the Holy Spirit effects a permanent change. Being born means a fresh start—a joining of the kingdom God. We would do well to pay attention to Jesus and not put an emphasis on individual salvation at the expense of a broader concept of the kingdom of God.

A key issue here is that it is helpful to see this second birth as a being ‘born from above’. The Greek is consistent with this translation although the wider sense makes of ‘born again’ is more natural. The language of being born from above usefully deflects the modern baggage of being ‘born again’and it also captures appropriately the way the Spirit works in freedom.

This is the learning experience that Nicodemus had to go through. Devout though he is, he has embraced a theology which places hope in a person’s and a community’s efforts to live up to the Law. Jesus provides the revelation and the means by which we are born from above—it is God’s initiative. Just as the wind comes and stirs the trees unpredictably, to those who are not experts in meteorology, so it is with the Spirit—in Greek and Hebrew this is self-evident as the words for wind and Spirit are the same. Here it is pneuma as in pneumatic —operated by air—and pneumatology—the theology of the Holy Spirit.

The life that comes from being born again is a one-off work of God in which we embrace the kingdom of God. This is not to be confused with the ongoing work of the Spirit. We need to be open to the everyday possibility of the work of the Spirit in our lives.

Christians have often debated the precise nature of the work of the Spirit—sometimes even fallen out over it. Clearly it’s not good to argue, but the Church seems to have become unhelpfully post-doctrine. We don’t disagree much anymore (at least locally within a fellowship), not out of love for one another, but because too few people know, or care, enough about doctrine. This is a serious concern as it makes the Church vulnerable to being led astray.

New Life

Sometimes we even use Pharisees like Nicodemus as an excuse to not be bothered. We despise the devotion to the Law of the Pharisees, we avoid discipline by labelling it legalism—we embrace the ‘60 second’ approach to the life of faith which was absent for more than 1900 years of Church History.

Jesus does not indicate that devotion to the law, God’s instruction, is a problem per se. His ability to quote Deuteronomy freely during his Desert experience (Matthew 4:1‒11) very much says otherwise.

The new life of second birth and the ongoing life of the Spirit only make sense in a context of God’s instruction (the literal meaning of torah). The Law is more story than rules and regulations.

Jesus meets Nicodemus where he is at—and where he is at is on a journey in which his heart, mind and spirit have been prepared by the Law. Familiar with the Law he sees in Jesus the extra thing that he needs—to be born from above. Jesus uses the story of the bronze serpent from Numbers 21 to teach Nicodemus. How often had Nicodemus chewed on these verses, questioned God’s judgement, been grateful for God’s mercy, wondered at the imagery of a snake, examined his own devotion to God, looked for connections elsewhere in Scripture to this episode and wondered if it had any bearing on the future messiah?

Jesus gives Nicodemus the insight that the frailty we all know from being born of Adam and Eve is addressed in the frailty Jesus showed on our behalf.

The Spirit sent by the Father to Jesus at his baptism is at work in us to renew, to cleanse, to make whole, to wipe clean, lives marred all too often by broken relationships, bad choices, and vain ambitions. The Spirit also sustains us through the difficult times that are not of our making. For we still live in-between the ages—born from above but awaiting the full reality.

The new birth that comes like the wind into our lives means that though we will die physically we will not die spiritually—more than that we will one day be physically reborn on the day of resurrection. Being born from above by the Spirit implies an ultimate physicality in the kingdom of God.

 

How Long?

The Psalmist frequently cries “How long?” or some other similar refrain which implies impatience with the way things are. At the same time they lay the blame with squarely with God. The reason I am reflecting on this terse refrain is that I have been somewhat impatient today, albeit not in an appropriate psalm-like manner. Impatience directed at others is not prayer nor is it rooted in faith. I am in danger, and I imagine I am not alone, of being quicker to buy into the impatience of consumerism rather than the spirit of the psalmist.

In the Western world of the twenty-first century, our individualism, relative wealth and cultural expectations can make us singly impatient. We can at a moment buy more variety of food, gadgets, clothes and luxuries than would have seemed imaginable even a few decades ago. This issue is especially acute at Christmas where we struggle to find gifts for those we love because so often there is very little actual need of anything material. We resort to luxuries quickly consumed, atomised or drunk. Or we resort to browsing a ‘wish list’ to find something we do not even understand as a gift. Perhaps, even more pointlessly, we might exchange gift vouchers with someone, hoping we have guessed the amount we will receive, so as to match what we will be given. I fear I am sounding like I am having a mid-life crisis or becoming an ally of Scrooge. I hope, however, that I am highlighting something that we literally buy into with all too little thought. I confess I partake of these conventions as both giver and receiver. Breaking the cycle can take one beyond echoing Scrooge to being renamed as such. And in a sense I am not even advocating even this, but pointing to the bigger issue of losing sight of the meaning of Christmas.

The abundance we experience can lessen any sense of anticipation of Christmas Day. And surely this was part of the point of Christmas? — Gifts remind us of the greatest of gifts, and anticipation of good things is a reminder of the necessity and value of waiting. The biblical concepts of Faith and Trust only make sense, and can only be honed, by waiting. Our faith is just as much about waiting as fulfillment. Abraham certainly learnt this, as did Israel in her long wait for a Messiah. Even for those of us who know the risen Christ the wait is not over. The Spirit is a down payment for both a salvation and a re-creation; a denouement that all of creation yearns for and groans for in expectation.

All of this makes the idea of Advent far more important than a singular day. In cultivating expectation and patient waiting we are reminded of our pilgrim status. Advent’s waiting also coheres with the unfashionable concept of discipleship. To await the Christ Child requires time and space; in other words discipline. The twin poles of pilgrimage and discipleship sound passé and perhaps Dickensian to a consumerist Christianity which can be as impatient for the latest album, fad or programme as the rest of our culture.

What is perhaps puzzling is that the necessary slowness of waiting is actually desirable and attractive to anyone in our culture, even to those that do not own the gospel. In an age of surplus, a slowing down to wait rather than gain is itself good news. If we can learn to be more visible in our pilgrimage and more transparent in our discipline, then we might find a local incarnation occurs as we celebrate the Incarnation.

Of course waiting does not end on the 25th December. Advent might crystallise and remind us of the patient waiting of the Psalmist and other men and women of faith. But the Psalmist and the Psalter in turn remind us that the Life of Faith is about pilgrimage and the need for discipline along the way. This side of the birth of the Messiah, the key change is that the refrain of “How Long?” has evolved into words of the same meaning but which carry greater weight and longing. Maranatha.