Monthly Archives: October 2020

To intervene or not to intervene, that is the question!

Eagle Nebula – Cosmic Creation Calls | LifeHarmonized.com

Over the last few decades the world has “grown smaller,”and has it has done so it has become increasingly evident that little miracles don’t really happen. By “little miracles,” I mean people levitating, disappearing, parting seas, or making the sun stop in the sky. If they did occur, we’d be watching them on You Tube. But they don’t. That’s a good thing, because it leaves us less distracted from the real miracles the world: that we are here, that we live in a universe governed by natural laws that explain the world around us and that we have been blessed with reason to discover those laws.

In addition to the natural, physical laws that cause the planets to rotate around their stars and the plants to photosynthesize sunlight, there are also natural, moral laws. Like the physical laws, we are able to discover these by reason. First, we gather facts that we can observe directly with our senses. We then use reason to draw conclusions from those facts.

One observation we have made is that all human beings are created equal. No, they aren’t all the same colour, height, shape, or sex. They don’t all run as fast as Usain Bolt or play the piano as well as Angela Hewitt (or Stephen Froggatt!). There is a wonderful diversity to human life in that no two human beings are exactly alike. Yet, there is nothing so different about any one human being that gives them any innate right to exercise authority over another. In that respect, we are all truly equal.

From that observation, we can draw the conclusion that comprises the most basic, fundamental moral law of nature. As John Locke put it,

““The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions…”

Reason also leads us to the conclusions that life is good, that whatever promotes life is good, and that whoever created life, the world around us and the natural laws that govern it must also be good. Some people explain the miracle from a purely scientific point of view. We are here simply because certain materials interacted with others and started a chain reaction. Where those materials came from they do not know and cannot explain, but that does not seem to bother them. As Christians we insist that creation is the work of not only a sentient being, but a loving God.

However, this means we face a philosophical dilemma. How could a loving God allow terrible things to happen to innocent people? How could he allow atrocities committed by humans, such as those by Stalin, Hitler, or Pol Pot? How could he allow natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis or Covid-19 to kill thousands of innocent people, when he has the power to prevent them?

The only answer most of us are ever given is “It’s a mystery.” Indeed it is, but that isn’t very satisfying. We’ve been endowed by God with a natural curiosity about the nature of our existence. This compels us to ask “Why?” While no one can give a definitive answer, I’d like to suggest one that fits the facts. God is a non-interventionist.

What does that mean? It means that God does not override his own natural laws in order to prevent some of their consequences. Imagine if he did? At any given time, a good percentage of the nearly 7 billion people who inhabit this planet are asking him to violate the most fundamental natural law of cause and effect. Were he to grant even a small percentage of those requests, we would live in a chaotic world that would be impossible to understand or predict. One could not even know for sure that the next step we would take will forward instead of backward. No human progress would be possible.

Similarly, God does not override the decisions of men, even if it would save lives or prevent suffering. That was the whole point of the Genesis story, wasn’t it? While Adam and Eve were in the garden, they did not know the difference between good and evil. There was no suffering, but no real joy either. God did not want robots that did his will merely because he programmed them to do it. He wanted sentient beings that would choose to do his will. However in order to choose to do his will, they had to have the ability to choose not to. That has never changed.

So, God has the power to prevent suffering, but chooses not to because to override humanity’s free will or the immutable laws of nature would be worse. He has already provided everything necessary for human beings to live in peace, happiness and prosperity.  We need only use our reason to discover the natural laws, to continue to understand them better, and to follow them.

God bless and stay safe

Alan.

Words on the Word – Sunday 25th October

The Lectionary Readings for Today:

  • Deuteronomy 34: 1-12 or Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18
  • Psalm 90: 1-6, 13-17 or Psalm 1
  • 1 Thessalonians 2: 1-8
  • Matthew 22: 34-46

You can find the Lectionary readings together online here.

Deuteronomy 34

So much of significance happens in this short passage.

First of all, Moses is shown the entire sweep of the Promised Land, and then within moments he is told that he shall not enter it himself. This follows Moses’ unfaithfulness at Meribah (Numbers 20).

With that, Moses dies. Significantly, we are told, Moses dies and is buried in an unmarked grave somewhere in Moab.

The significance of Moab? Well, the Moabites and the Israelites never really saw eye-to-eye. Moab the person was the son of Lot by an incestuous relationship with his own daughter – the penalty for which sin prevented the Moabites entering the assembly of the Lord down to the tenth generation (Deuteronomy 23). The Moabites saw the Israelites as a threat.

Do you remember Balaam’s ass? Balaam had been commanded by Balak, King of Moab, to curse the Israelites, but as you will recall, Balaam blessed them instead.

Do you remember the story of Ruth? Elimelech’s family were forced to move from Bethlehem to Moab because of the famine, and one of these wives, named Ruth, returned with her Mother-in-law Naomi to Bethlehem when Elimelech died. Ruth the Moabite.

Contemporary histories tell us that Moab fell to the Assyrians in the latter part of the 8th Century BC, as featured in the oracle against Moab in Isaiah 15-16. Moab was then conquered by Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians in the 6th Century BC, before ultimately falling to Rome.

Yet despite even all this humiliation, God provides even the Moabites, via Ruth, a part to play in the history of God’s people. When Stephen Fry chose what he considered the most mocking send-up of obscure Bible references he chose “Moab is my washpot” for the title of his first autobiography. Little did he know that by selecting Psalm 60:8 (or Psalm 108:9) he was in fact choosing a pivotal verse in the history of the Royal Line of David.

We conclude with the introduction of Joshua son of Nun, who will take over from Moses, and despite his ignominious burial, a moving tribute to the great leader.

Leviticus 19

This is the passage “Be holy as I am holy”.

I can offer no finer words than the Blog post I read earlier this week and which I commend to you now. Read it here.

You may also be interested in the Methodist Holiness Journal, edited by the eminent Revd Dr Andrew Stobart. Past issues are free to download. See here.

Psalm 90

We used to sing Psalms in school, as I have previously mentioned. Psalm 90 was a strong favourite, with its thunderous tune in the minor key and its fearful words.
We were reminded in its terrifying poetry of our own mortality (“The days of our age are threescore years and ten; and though men be so strong that they come to fourscore years”), of our sinfulness and of our hopelessness in the face of God’s wrath.
Then the tune would change into a major key at verse 13, as the Psalmist begs forgiveness and mercy, trusting in the God who has been faithful and merciful before to do so again now.

There are many versions available online – here’s a fine one, albeit to another tune, sung by the Choir of Westminster Abbey. Listen to it here.

Psalm 1

BLESSED – so begins the first Psalm in the First of the Five Books of the Psalter. So too begins Jesus’s teaching in Matthew 5, more commonly called The Sermon On The Mount.

This is no mere coincidence. Time and time again, Jewish Matthew is writing to his Jewish audience about Jesus the Jew, stressing over and over again the links with the Hebrew Scriptures (which we call the Old Testament), and more specifically the first five books called the Torah or Pentateuch.

The Psalmist is not promising future blessings (nor indeed is Jesus), but is saying “You are already blessed because…”

That’s why in some translations we see the word “Happy” instead of “Blessed”. It refers to that sense of inner joy, knowing that you have not walked in the counsel of the wicked nor lingered in the way of sinners, nor sat in the seats of the scornful (Jewish repetition for emphasis there).

Note then how the Psalmist turns immediately to the polar opposite of the transgressor, by referring to the delight of the one who meditates on God’s Law.
This is a prequel to Psalm 19, which itself is a foretaste of the rapturous Psalm 119.
While there is a danger of abusing this text for a ‘prosperity gospel’ it is more to do with one’s name being fruitful – held favourably in the memories of our descendants rather than prospering in material terms.

This long-lasting memory is then contrasted again with the transience of the wicked, who like the verses in Psalm 90, are compared to dried grass which just blows away into dust.

1 Thessalonians 2

The preaching of the Gospel is never motivated by a desire to appeal to worldly vanities or the approval of mortals. It cannot be suppressed by threats of oppression – indeed such opposition paradoxically only fans the flames and makes them burn brighter – but is emboldened by the Holy Spirit.

Paul and his companions (Silas and Timothy) wanted to preach to the Thessalonians simply because they loved them, and were determined not to let anything get in their way.

Notice how Paul uses the rhetorical device of “litotes” – using a negative in order to affirm something strongly postive. Just like we would say “It’s not bad” when we actually mean something is very good.

THE ESV Study Bible Notes help to bring this out more clearly:

Paul states his thesis in general terms before demonstrating it with specific regard to the Thessalonian mission. Negatively, Paul insists that the missionaries were not characterised by a faulty message, impure motives, or dubious methods. Positively, he states that they preached the gospel as those approved by God and as those committed to speaking in order not to please their human audience but to please God who tests our hearts. Not only did God sanction the missionaries to proclaim his gospel; God continues to approve of their inner motives and integrity. Similarly, negatively, Paul asserts that he and his fellow missionaries had not spoken as charlatans or false prophets in order to gratify their own vanity, line their own pockets, or gain (even legitimate) honour. Positively, he stresses the missionaries’ sincerity and selfless and profound devotion toward the Thessalonian believers, extending beyond the call of duty.

Matthew 22

What is the Law? It was a question at the very heart of what it meant to be Jewish.
Matthew deliberately organised his Gospel as a commentary on Torah / Law, even down to grouping Jesus’ teaching into five (compare with the Pentateuch!) extended blocks of teaching.

Writing to Jews, his emphasis was primarily on Jesus as the fulfilling / interpretation / embodiment of the Law, as well as Messianic fulfilment of OT prophecies.
What question could they ask Jesus? Are you on the side of the Law or not?

Again a trap is in the balance. If Jesus says “I’m on the side of the Law” then these Pharisees will challenge him for all the breaches of the 613 individual laws that made up their legal code. If he says “I’m not on the side of the Law” then he is admitting that the Law doesn’t apply to him and they’ll get him anyway.

So Jesus begins by reciting the Shema : “Hear, O Israel, The Lord your God is One God. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your mind and with all your strength” thus proving his Jewishness if such proof was needed.

Then he goes straight into the Golden Rule – Love your neighbour as yourself. Within those two laws, he says, the whole Torah is contained. Brilliant! Never has the lawyer’s flabber been so gasted, as Frankie Howerd would say.

Thus we become aware of the link with Psalm 1 (delight in God’s Law), and with Leviticus 199 (the holiness of God).

The ground prepared, Jesus asks them about their understanding of the Messiah.
The light goes on, but these Pharisees aren’t brave enough to step away from the shadows.

Grace and peace,

Stephen Froggatt

Surprising Joy

What will your 2020 yearbook look like? I suspect it might be a pretty thin volume! There will little to record and precious little to be joyful about. Yet joy is what we need in our lives at the moment. 

I want to be clear, joy is not the same as happiness. Happiness are the pleasurable feeling we get when life is going well. Joy, on the other hand, has a mysterious capacity to be felt alongside sorrow and even ― sometimes, most especially ― in the midst of suffering. This is because joy is what we feel deep in our bones when we realize and feel connected to others ― and to what is genuinely good, beautiful and meaningful ― which is possible even in pain. Whereas happiness is generally the effect of evaluating our circumstances and being satisfied with our lives, joy does not depend on good circumstances.

Joy in times of difficulty can act as illumination in the darkness of our present circumstances.  My father died very suddenly in hospital, sadly we were too late to be with him but after we had been to say our farewells the family left the hospital at around 3:00am. It was a very clear August night and I was struck at the number of stars we could see and despite the grief of loss for a moment I felt my father(‘)s reassuring presence.

Nel Noddings, Stanford Professor of Child Education, describes joy as a feeling that “accompanies a realisation of our relatedness.” What Noddings meant by relatedness was the special feeling we get from caring about other people.

Joy is also the feeling that can arise from sensing kinship with others, experiencing harmony between what we are doing and our values, or seeing the significance in an action, a place, a conversation or even an inanimate object.

We cannot put joy on our to-do lists; it does not work that way. But there are ways we can prepare ourselves for joy. There are “gateways” to joy that help us to become more open to it. One of these gateways is gratitude.

Gratitude involves bringing to mind the good that is in the world, which makes rejoicing possible. The feeling that follows contemplating nature or art that we find inspiring is often joy, as these are experiences that help people feel connected to something beyond themselves, whether to the natural world or to others’ feelings or experiences. Since “hope,” as theologian Jürgen Moltmann has said, is “the anticipation of joy,” writing out our hopes helps us to expect joy.

The commentator Angela Gorell identifies multiple kinds of joy that can be expressed even in today’s troubled times.

Retrospective joy comes in vividly recalling a previous experience of unspeakable joy. For example, we can imagine in our minds an occasion when we helped someone else, or someone unexpectedly helped us, a time we felt deeply loved. We can close our eyes and meditate on the memory, even walk through the details with someone else or in a journal and, often, experience that joy again, sometimes even more acutely.

Resurrection joy is the feeling that follows when things that are broken getting repaired, things that we thought were dead coming back to life. This kind of joy can be found in apologizing to someone we have hurt, or the feeling that follows recommitting ourselves to sobriety, a marriage or a dream we feel called to.

Futuristic joy comes from rejoicing that we will again glimpse meaning, beauty or goodness, and seemingly against all odds feel that they are connected to our very life. This type of joy can be found, for example, through singing in a religious service, gathering at a protest demanding change or imagining a hope we have being realized.

In the midst of a year in which it is not difficult to stumble onto suffering, the good news is that we can also stumble onto joy. There is no imprisoned mind, heartbreaking time or deafening silence that joy cannot break through.

Joy can always find you. 

God bless and stay safe,

Alan.

Words on the Word – Sunday 18th October 2020

Lectionary Readings for today, Year A Proper 24:

  • Exodus 33:12-23
  • Psalm 99
  • 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
  • Matthew 22:15-22

These readings can also be read online here.

Exodus 33

Those Israelites! In Chapter 32 we read of their disgraceful behaviour when they begged Aaron to fashion a golden calf so they could worship it while they waited for Moses. We read of Moses’ violent anger, but in this chapter it threatens to get much, much worse.

Up until now, God’s presence has been with them as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, resting visibly in their midst when they camped, and going on before them when they travelled. God’s presence was the reason for their identity. God’s presence fashioned them out of “nobodies” into “Israelites”. Now they realise that if God deserts them, their very existence hangs in the balance. They could become “nobodies” again and simply vanish into history. “Go on ahead!” says God to the people in v3 of this chapter, “but I will not go with you”. They are crestfallen and mourn bitterly.

Notice too how in their act of mourning they strip themselves of all their jewellery (v6) – the very items which they had previously taken to fashion the golden calf. Strip them off lest we are tempted that way again, they think to themselves. God’s chosen people are about to become a People With No Name. Can Moses help them again?

Moses goes into the Tent of Meeting for a ‘face to face’ meeting with God. What is the state of the Covenant? Is it broken for ever? No, says God, but things will be different now. From here on we have the re-written stone tablets, the renewal of the Covenant (never broken anyway by God, only broken by God’s people) and the establishment of the Tabernacle in place of the Tent of Meeting.

Show me your glory! Moses pleads with God. This is almost blasphemous in itself, for no-one can see God and live. [Yet still this phrase bizarrely makes its way into several of our contemporary worship songs…] God does not respond with more righteous fury, but rather offers a compromise – God’s glory will appear and pass by Moses while Moses has his back turned, so that Moses might live. 1 Kings 19 tells a similar story about Elijah.

The story continues. There will come a time when we shall see God’s glory.

And the name of God’s glory is Jesus (John 1.14). Full of grace and truth.

Psalm 99

This short Psalm serves as a Prologue for Psalm 100, that great Psalm of praise “Be joyful to the Lord, all you lands!”. Why should all the lands be joyful to the Lord? Simply because God is holy, and this Psalm echoes with that loud refrain.

Choose a couple of different translations of this Psalm and note that whichever version we use, this Psalm is filled with great words of power and awe. Obviously it is a commentary on the Exodus narrative, and as with other Psalms, it gives song to the ancient histories of God’s people so that they will never be forgotten.

You can almost hear the unspoken warning – never again must you dare make a golden calf (in whatever form your idolatry may take). God is holy. Bow down before God’s throne – in fact God is so holy, just bow down before God’s footstool.

1 Thessalonians 1

With any of Paul’s letters, it’s good to pause on the opening words. There’s a three part structure, typical of letters at that time:

  • Sender
  • Recipient
  • Greetings

Note that Paul has already started to ‘Christianise’ the opening of this letter, even before he has finished with the greeting. Indeed, sme writers suggest that this greeting never really ends, and is still going in Chapter 3!

The work of threes continues. Paul says that he and his co-workers Silvanus and Timothy are:

  • Giving God thanks
  • Remembering the Thessalonians before God
  • Mentioning them in their prayers

before commending the Thessalonians for their

  • Work of faith
  • Labour of love
  • Steadfastness of hope

Faith, hope and love – have we seen that somewhere else?

Matthew 22

Now these Pharisees and Herodians didn’t exactly get along. The Jewish people were under Roman occupation: The Pharisees, being Jewish, hated the Romansl the Herodians; being on Herod’s side, supported the Romans. The only thing they had in common, then, was their hatred of Jesus. So here they are, in a rare moment of agreement, plotting to put to Jesus a question so well crafted that whatever way Jesus replies, they will have grounds for a riot.

The tax to the Emperor was money given to support the Roman Occupation. Not only that, it had to be paid using Roman coinage, which was untouchable to the Jews. If Jesus said it had to be paid, then he would be supporting the Romans (and inciting the Jews against him). If Jesus said it shouldn’t be paid then he would be charged with sedition and have the weight of Rome bearing down on him.

The Roman coin in question, we are told, is a Denarius. It would have had an image of Caesar (most likely Tiberius) with the inscription “Caesar Augustus Tiberius, Son of the Divine Augustus”. Remembering that “Caesar” means the same as “Lord” or “King”, this is saying:

Tiberius is Lord. Tiberius is the Son of God.

Jews would see this as double blasphemy – the graven image and the idolatry. Incidentally, you can see now how seditious it was for Christians to cry:

Jesus is Lord. Jesus is the Son of God.

You hypocrites, says Jesus, to the Jews who have been carrying this doubly-blasphemous coin in their robes while accusing others of blasphemy.

Jesus gets straight to the point and once again confounds his opponents. The trap has failed. The coin already belongs to Caesar, so give it back to Caesar. But when you do that, remember that everything of God should be given to God.

It is all the Pharisees and Herodians can do but walk away empty-handed again.

Congratulations Sister Phyllis!

It has come to our attention that 19th October marks a very significant milestone. It was on that date, back in 1949, that a young Phyllis Thorne was accredited as a Local Preacher in the Methodist Church. This year, 2020, she celebrates 71 years as a Local Preacher!

Our huge congratulations go to Sister Phyllis on this remarkable anniversary, and we thank God for her long years of ministry.

Although she is not currently preaching, Phyllis continues to write and have ‘deep conversations’. You can find some of her recent writing here on this Blog.

Reading in Lockdown

Here are three recent reads which my be of interest to you and can be recommended as lockdown continues.

An Introduction to the Bible by Christine Hayes

This is an introduction, not so much to the bible as to the Old Testament. Professor Hayes has a confident command of all the commentary and scholarship on this extraordinary Library both Christian and Jewish from the earliest times to the present day. She has sections or chapters on every book in our Old Testament but the apocrypha is not discussed. Skilfully and fluently she weaves her way through the questions of authorship, theology, dating and historical background for every book. This is not simply a commentary but it could be used alongside commentaries on particular books to supplement them. It is an attractively written and accessible text and held my attention from the first page to the last (402).

I wish I had read this book forty years ago at the time of my local preacher training but it was only published in 2012. It’s one of a series promoted and published by Yale University as part of a programme to bring the best academic study to the attention of the general reader and first year students.

Another book in the same series is Epidemics and Society from the Black Death to the Present by Frank Snowden. Professor Snowden is a social historian rather than an epidemiologist and his story actually begins well before the Black Death of 1348. The account offered as to how medicine, politics and the church have addressed the challenges posed by infectious diseases is absolutely fascinating albeit grim reading. It is a big book (502 pages) and Covid -19 only receives attention in the introduction but it does help to put our present problems into their proper context. The truth is that our present problems have been heading our way for some time and we’ve had some lucky escapes in recent years. The final chapter on Ebola makes that very clear.

There have been a number of publications about the pandemic published this year but this one is undoubtedly the best. To read it is a real education. My book of the year!

My third recommendation is “Defining Jesus-the earthly the biblical the historical and the real Jesus and how not to confuse them” by Richard Soulen. Richard Soulen is a Methodist Minister in the United States, a theologian and the father of another Methodist Scholar and theologian; R Kendall Soulen.

This is quite a short book described by the author as an essay which was written to address the questions that arise in people’s minds when they are addressed by popular authors and TV documentaries that purport to confidently explain what Jesus was “really like” and who he might be for us today. As Soulen’s title shows this is quite a complicated matter and it’s easy to be misled and to mislead others. The literature is vast and many of you will be aware of the distinction between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith. But even that distinction is a bit simplistic as Soulen explains in this short but quite dense little book.

If you read this you will find your faith in the ever present and living Lord Jesus strengthened and you will be further empowered to bring others to faith in him. Do not imagine that scholarly books about the quest for the historical Jesus whether from Albert Schweitzer or Marcus Borg are necessarily unsettling or the final word on the matter. They can be challenging but what Richard Soulen’s book does is to sort out all the difficulties and the different scholarly approaches so that the reader can respect the scholars and at the same time find their faith renewed and confirmed.

This book published in 2015 can be recommended to all local preachers and indeed Presbyters and Deacons

Words on the Word – Sunday 11th October 2020

Lectionary Readings for today:

Exodus 32:1-14
Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23
Philippians 4:1-9
Matthew 22:1-14

These readings can all be read online here.

Exodus 32

We have just come to the end of seven straight chapters of God’s instruction to Moses about the construction of the Tabernacle – the famed dwelling place of the presence of God in a tangible way via the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy Place. The two copies of this Covenant are inscribed on tablets of stone and are to be kept in the Ark (What else was to be placed in the Ark of the Covenant?). The tabernacle was to be that thin place where God’s presence touched the ordinariness of earth. It was the tabernacle referred to at the beginning of John when John says this had happened again in Jesus – “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” – literally, the Word became flesh and TABERNACLED amongst us. Tabernacle theology is huge and worthy of of its own study, but perhaps that’s for another day!

Moses, their beloved leader, has been away on Sinai now for 40 days and 40 nights (surely that rings a bell somewhere too…). The people are keen to worship God and so they ask Aaron to help them. This golden calf is not so much a turning away from God as a clueless attempt to sidestep the long instructions about tabernacle construction and create something on their own terms. Aaron would have fashioned the collected gold into a calf because that was a common image for the Divine in the Ancient Near East. The tragedy is that they lost all that Egyptian gold, the spoils of their escape from Pharoah’s power. God’s anger, expressed through Moses, is focused on that phrase “stiff-necked people” – will they never learn that they are being called to be radically different from the surrounding cultures, not to keep falling back into ways of surrounding tribes? God is calling them to be set apart for God’s service – the very meaning of the word holy.

Psalm 106

One of the purposes of the Psalms was to set to music verses which could then be sung to assist God’s people in telling their story. In Psalm 106 the singers recount the Exodus 32 narrative, but all under the thumping refrain that calls the people to give thanks to the Lord “for he is good, for his mercy endures for ever”.

In these verses we see the Psalmist interceding for the people in a new context. Fully cognisant of their sin, they make this appeal to the steadfastness of God, to the God who is faithful and merciful. “Remember, O Lord” is a theme which occurs in several other Psalms (Pss 25, 74, 89, 115, 119, 132, 137 in a quick survey) as the Psalmist appeals to the very character of God which is of course unchanging. Since God is unchanging and steadfast, goes the reasoning, then surely God will act the same way now. The Psalmist is seeking to establish case law based on legal precedence!

Surely our sins are not as great as those of Israel at Horeb? In which case, let me be like Moses and appeal to God to turn aside God’s wrath.

I wonder if our own confessions are as heartfelt. Do we appeal to God’s mercy like the Psalmist, or do we simply shrug off our sins “because God forgives me anyway”? Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned strongly against such “cheap grace” in “The Cost Of Discipleship”. Grace, yes, but look again at the cross to remind yourself that your forgiveness was far from cheap.

Philippians 4

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice! If you are a singer of modest experience then at least one tune will be running through your head right now! This whole chapter is a joy, and it would make a fitting reading to close any act of Christian worship.

Rejoice in the Lord though. Not just rejoice in all circumstances like a fool. Rejoice in the Lord always, rather than look to rejoice in things of the world, which are only temporary anyway. Rejoice in the Lord, who is eternal. Rejoice in the Lord always – let your joy always come from your thanksgiving for God’s love in Jesus, who … (and then re-read Chapter 2 again).

Jesus as the source of your joy. Your gentleness is the calmness of one who sees the presence of God in all things, to such an extent that others notice it in you. Brother Lawrence described this gentleness in his little book ‘The Practice Of The Presence Of God’ which I highly recommend. Taking up Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount about not worrying, Paul goes on to provide the consequence: as one who is not worrying, God’s peace will guard your heart instead.

I love the ‘Think on those things’ section towards the end. Delight in all that is true. Stand up for all that is honourable. Pursue justice. Make purity your goal. Seek all that is pleasing. Strive for what is commendable. Aim for excellence. Enjoy all that is worthy of praise. There is a delightful simplicity in this, which modern reflective practitioners are rediscovering today. ‘SImple pleasures’ – a walk after the rain; the smell of home-baked bread; the glow after a morning run; the crunch of a home-grown apple. One of the habits of a truly lived-in Christianity is a recognition of the divine in all things; an appreciation of which contributes to the ‘fullness of life’ to which Jesus refers in John 10.

Think on these things. Rejoice Always. Be at peace.

Matthew 22

A parable, rich in detail, and most likely one which would have set on edge the teeth of the Chief Priests and Pharisees who first heard it. That’s not how the story should go! You don’t invite people like that to a wedding!

Matthew, as ever, talks about ‘the kingdom of heaven’ rather than ‘the kingdom of God’ as he would have adopted the Jewish euphemism of his day. We need to put together all Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom of God from the Gospel accounts in order to understand it properly – each parable like this only ever gives us a glimpse of the whole.

There is little point in fussing over every detail, for example by having an evening’s Bible study given over to what Jesus really meant by “burned their city” or “one to his farm”. The point is, of course, that the normal rules just don’t apply. As they say in the only joke in a modern book of etiquette, “How do you turn down a request to a Royal Banquet?” Answer – you don’t! Here these people are, though, finding better things to do than attend this royal wedding. You can feel the shock rippling through the crowd. You can’t do that! Even when summoned again, they STILL do not come. This is outrageous!

Only when those originally invited are refusedentry and their places given to the ordinary people of the streets do the Pharisees and Chief Priests realise that they are those former guests and the story is being told against them.

So we see salvation offered to all, for that is the meaning of the parable. Yet there remains that one tantalising detail over the guest who wears the wrong robes. We could let this pass, as we have rightly glossed over some of the other details, but here robes signify the new robes of baptism (remember ‘clothed in Christ’?) so there is a clear expectation that while all are definitely welcome, those who accept the invitation are required to make the most basic commitment of faith.

Matthew is advising his Christian readers – don’t sit there feeling smug at the fate of those who spurned the original invitation; what evidence is there that you have put on new robes?

Christ’s Resurrection – by Deacon Phyllis Thorne

Do you believe in the Resurrection? I guess you have many questions you would like answered. How can anyone experience death and yet live? A new life?

The Resurrection of Jesus makes all the difference. Life is the same, but different.

The death and new life of Jesus spells it out for us. The wonder for us is that He is Alive here and now, sharing with us, loving and empowering us today.

The death of someone we love hits us hard. Grief is natural. For the Christian , coupled with grief, is a sense of peace, because our loved one is experiencing a new life with Christ Jesus.

One day our turn will come, we don’t know when, but we do know we will not be alone. The Risen Jesus will be with us as we leave this life and enter the new life with Him.

Sister Phyllis

Holy Disagreement!

Familiarity breeds contempt, the old saying goes, but to my mind the greater and more dangerous occasion of familiarity is indifference.  When we come to a text and we have read it so many times or heard so many sermons preached on it, that we lose not only the freshness of the text but its edge, its blessing, as well as its judgment.

Part of the task of preaching or teaching is to shake the dust of familiarity off the text, to open a reader or listener’s ears and let a text speak again. Matthew 16: 21-28 is such a text in point, we know (part) of it well “If any one would come after me, they must deny themselves and take up  the cross and follow me” but do we allow the edginess of Jesus words fill our lives? And how do we react to the angry exchange between Jesus and Peter?

Over the past few years I have led a membership class each year and used the Methodist Church’s membership material. As I have done so I have become more and more disillusioned by the course. Yes it does what its says ‘on the tin’ it makes people members but does it make them disciples? Are we so focused on membership of a nice cosy organisation, so concerned about not putting people off lest our membership numbers drop even further,  that we forget to begin peoples journey of discipleship with its many challenges – deny, take up, follow.

As a young student I attended the Hall of Residence bible study group when we studied this passage from Matthew someone said, “I don’t like the conflict, and I don’t mean between Jesus and the authorities, the rulers and such. I don’t like the conflict between Jesus and Peter, the argument between Jesus and the disciples.” 

Indeed, it is most uncomfortable to read of Peter speaking harshly to Jesus, and of Jesus speaking harshly to Peter, to see them on different sides of an issue. Just moments before all their words were blessing words, each for the other: “Thou art the Christ,” Peter said to Jesus; “Thou art the Rock,” Jesus said in return. Now the blessing has become cursing, a mutual rebuke, Peter barking at Jesus, “You don’t know what you are saying!” and Jesus barking right back, “You don’t know how you are thinking!” 

Jesus is often at odds with his followers, of course. That is another aspect of discipleship we don’t often advertise. Sometimes, because of overfamiliarity with our texts, our traditions and practices, we don’t realize that we, too, have our minds set on earthly things. We don’t always see how we, who are called to help convert worldly culture, are instead converted by that culture and so much so that we do not talk about crosses or suffering or the evil powers of this world. 

In our churches we can be so seduced by the theology of glory (which is a part of the gospel, but only a part, lest it become triumphalism) or, failing that, the theology of success (one writer notes that many churches study and master their ABC’s—attendance, buildings, cash—and nothing else) that we are as reluctant as Peter to embrace the cross. But when we empty discipleship of the cross we empty the cross of its power and thereby exchange discipleship with membership in our church. Jesus speaks sharply to those of us who set our minds not on heavenly things.

I, too, find it very uncomfortable to see Jesus and Peter at odds, and to know that Peter represents me, all of us, in the church, but how wonderful that although Peter misunderstands, Jesus does not abandon him. Yes, they are at odds, but they are still friends. Jesus corrects Peter; he does not excommunicate him. Having loved him, having called him—having loved and called us—Jesus will keep us in the fold, keep correcting and teaching, keep showing us the way till our minds are finally, fully, always set on heavenly things.

God bless and stay safe.

Alan.