Category Archives: Inspirational

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

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.

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

Words on the Word – Sunday 4th October 2020

Today’s Lectionary Readings:
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9 , 12-20
Psalm 19
Philippians 3:4b-14
Matthew: 21:33-46

You can read these Lectionary readings here.

Exodus 20

Have you ever joined a club, a society, a union – in fact almost any group of like-minded individuals? Do you remember the first days in a new school or class? Perhaps you have family conferences to discuss shared expectations? All of these come down to the ‘laying down of the law’ and the establishment of exactly what it is that defines the group in question. We love to do it. Even children, getting together to plot membership of their latest “Supergirls HQ” or “Unicorn Club”, will grab a piece of paper and scribble down an agreed list of DOs and DON’Ts. There’s an excitement and thrill of this shared understanding – a special code that unites its members. Sometimes the list of rules is short (like the necessarily punchy rules of Fight Club) and sometimes the list is long (like the 25-page FIDE official rules of Chess). Sometimes it gets silly, although the reported 26,911-word EU regulations on the sale of cabbages turns out to be a myth.

In this passage, God’s people are being re-shaped and re-moulded in their transition between slavery and Egypt and freedom in the Promised Land. What is going to make them special as God’s people? The answer to that, of course, lies in God’s Covenant to them “You will be my people and I will be your God”. The detail of this covenant is hammered out on the two stone tablets as The Ten Commandments. The ‘two-ness’ is important. Unlike the films and the pictures, where we usually see five commandments on each stone, a moment’s thought would reassure you that if God wanted to write down some rules, God would have found a stone tablet big enough to do so, or at least planned ahead enough to write small on the one Moses brought! The two-ness IS the Covenant. It’s the contract – one copy (on one tablet) for God, and the other copy (on the other tablet) for God’s people. The two-ness is even emphasised by the detail that the first set of tablets i broken and their are written out again. Repetition is a biblical theme that always shows us the absolute truth, in the divine sense, of what is happening. Truly, truly I say to you…

These Commandments, then, were all about making God’s people distinct from the neighbouring tribes who had their own belief systems. We see profoundly important details such as strict monotheism (to contrast with the polytheism of their neighbours) , a ban on idolatry (contrasting with the pagan systems which depended on idols), we see a ban on murder (contrasting with the human-sacrificial cultures of others) and a forceful compulsion to honour the marital bed (lineage and ancestry being utterly dependent on secure knowledge of one’s parentage).

Yet let us not get stuck on the Ten Commandments as a restriction of freedoms. They are not all “Thou shalt not” commands – unlike the rather ignorant popular caricatures – but rather a summary of how God and God’s people are going to live together in a distinctive and superior way to all others. God’s motivation is simply LOVE for all of God’s people, and it took all those years for Jesus to point out that actually those ten comandments can be summed up in the formula “Love God and love your neighbour”. As Christians we are not defined by the ten commandments in the same way as those wandering Israelites, again contrary to ignorant popular misceptions. Jesus has given us a new, and arguably much stronger commandment – “That you love one another as I have loved you”. That is surely what makes us, as Christians, distinctive.

Psalm 19

Die Himmel rühmen des Ewigen Ehre! If you have ever sung in a choir or choral society, you are likely to have belted out these fabulous words of Psalm 19 set by Beethoven in his Op. 48 No. 4. You may also know them as “The Heavens Are Telling” from Haydn’s Creation. Either way, we are reminded that this Psalm simply can not be read in a whisper!

The Psalmist here is expressing a delight for Creation in general, and particularly a delight for the mystery of the Sun in its apparent movement around the Earth. How Great Thou Art! we might sing something as well. Sing with me, how great is our God! This goes straight on into a song of praise for “The Law of the Lord”. Note the parallelisms we have mentoned in WOTW before, wherethe first part of a verse is repeated in a slightly different but parallel way to reinforce the point – classical Hebrew poetry. In this Psalm, however, the parallelisms are extended even further as a tumbling succession of verses seeks to put into new words the same basic idea.

When the Psalter was edited and compiled into its current form, it was decided that there would be 150 Psalms. They were arranged into five ‘Books’ – precisely to echo the five-fold structure of the Torah or ‘Law’ (the Pentateuch = the first five books of our Bible), ending respectively with Psalms 41, 72, 89, 106 and 150. In a sense, then, the whole Psalter is a ‘delight in the Law of the Lord’. This Psalm, Psalm 19, acts as a Prologue, a foretaste, to the greatest of all the Psalms, Psalm 119, which is of course placed to be exactly 100 Psalms away. As you read through this Psalm, you may well comes across particularly well-known verses – this has been a source for many songs, prayers and liturgical responses right through the centuries.

All the time, the Psalmist is rhapsodising on the Law of the Lord, not because it is restrictive, but because it binds – through the Law, through the Covenant, the Psalmist is reminded of that great intimacy with God, the Creator of the universe no less.

Philippians 3

Looking forwards and pressing on, not looking back. This is the famous ‘filthy rags’ speech by Paul, and let the reader understand that most translations use extremely euphemistic versions of what Paul actually says in the Greek…

As you know, a great deal of what I do involves working with the bereaved and doing funeral visits – they used to be in the home but more often now they are over Zoom. The hardest such visits are to those families who have no real links with the church themselves, but “Nan’s sister used to go to the Chapel” and they want to give the deceased the best chance of “going to heaven” by having a Christian funeral. As other ministers have pointed out, there are rarely any deathbed conversions to atheism!

I mention that, because I frequently have to listen to the same attempts at point scoring that Paul is parodying here. When asked to expand on the Christian faith of the deceased, the relatives are often left desperately clutching straws. “He was basically a nice person” “He didn’t drink, apart from a sherry at Christmas, and a glass of wine with the evening meal, and a pint with the lads at the weekend” “She loved animals”. Even church members – living ones! – seek to tell me how involved they have been at the church, how long they have been attending, how many roles they have had, how generous they have been in the collection plate, and even how involved their parents were. IT’S ALL FILTHY RAGS. IT’S ALL JUST RUBBISH. NONE OF IT MATTERS.

Really the only necessary statement of Christian faith is “She knew that Jesus loved her”.

In this passage Paul is telling the Philippians that he could have boasted of any number of “points” (which he lists) but ends it all by saying that the only thing of any value is his desire to know Christ more. Furthermore, this is for Paul the ONLY meaning and goal of his life, so Christian discipleship for him is just about ‘pressing on towards that goal’.

Knowing Christ. Not scoring points.

Matthew 21

Possibly the most gory and shocking of Jesus’ parables, this story of the tenants in the vineyard is still a hard read for us today. The reference to vines and vineyards is important though – it’s a well-established Old Testament theme, and the readings paired with this one in the ‘related’ version of the Lectionary readings for today are Isaiah 5 and Psalm 80, although there would have been many other passages that would have been just as suitable. It is well worth looking them up before re-reading the Gospel passage for today. (They can be found in the Lectionary Link at the top of the page.)

Jesus tells a story to highlight the shocking treatment of the prophets before him, and the appalling treatment he himself would endure, even as far as describing his own death outside the city walls (“threw him out of the vineyard and killed him”). God continually calls the people of God back into Covenant, but the people reject that call via the prophets time after time. Even when God incarnate in Jesus comes to speak to them, he too is killed.

Did you not understand the prophecy of the Cornerstone? asks Jesus. You are bringing the consequences upon yourselves. The kingdom of God is enjoyed by those who respond to Jesus, but for those who reject it, the kingdom of God is not part of them. How comfortable are we with the idea of the choice to reject the kingdom of God? Do we may a choice between “heaven” and “hell” or is it more subtly the distinction between living life to the full in the kingdom of God, and living a dminished life which ultimately leads to annihilation by our own choice?

Do post your thoughts in the Comments.

Grace and peace,

Stephen

Words on the Word – Sunday 27th September

Words on the Word for Sunday 27th September

Today’s Readings
Ezekiel 18: 1-4, 25-32
Psalm 25: 1-9
Philippians 2:1-13
Matthew 21:23-32

Ezekiel 18
What is the thought behind the proverb:
“The parents have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge”?
It is a proverb about consequences. It surprises us.
If you have ever eaten sour grapes then you know full well that you will be dancing about with your mouth all tightened up like you’ve just eaten, well, sour grapes!
You certainly wouldn’t expect your CHILDREN to feel the effects of your action.
Ezekiel is challenging the people about their belief that this proverb applies to sin. The people of Israel were assuming that any punishments coming their way were the result of the sins of their ancestors.
This comes dangerously close to a current incorrect belief in “original sin” – which perpetuates the lie that we are all born sinners because of the sins of previous generations, back to Adam and Eve. Are we, really?
God speaks to us all through Ezekiel: “It is only the person who sins that shall die” – in other words your sins are your own, and belong to no-one else.
That is then where the Gospel of Jesus comes in – it is for OUR sins that Jesus died, and those sins are only those for which we are directly responsible.
We can look at passages like this and ask, “Does God really promise death to those who sin?”
A helpful way to explore this question might be to unpack what we mean by “death” – those who sin are indeed dead, for they do not have the true fulness of life that comes from knowing Christ.
If we sin (“commit iniquity”) then we condemn ourselves to a living death, a going-through-the-motions existence which could never in all honesty be described as life in all its fulness.
When the righteous turn from their righteousness and commit iniquity, they shall die for it.
When the wicked turn away from their wickedness and do what is right they shall save their life.
Is this unfair?
Listen, says God, Repent and turn from your transgressions, and get yourself a new heart and a new spirit!
I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God. Turn, then, and live!
That word “turn” is what we mean when we say “repent” of course.
This is a call to confession and repentance, to turning from sin / wickedness/ iniquity.
This is a call to righteousness.
This is a call to life.

Psalm 25
There is a stumbling sort of rhythm through this Psalm, with a rather disjointed structure of thought from verse to verse.
It is not surprising, therefore, to find that this Psalm is another Acrostic Poem, where each verse begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet (or strictly, the Aleph-Bet!)
Nevertheless, despite the restrictions that such literary devices impose, there is a coherence within this Psalm which makes its study worthwhile.
We begin with the entreaty of the Psalmist’s prayer, arms raised and head bowed as he prays aloud.
The Psalmist asks God for help against the treachery of his enemies, and this is a request borne out of deep trust in God.
Next we have a section in which the Psalmist tells God his heart’s desires – there are three at least:
1) Show me your ways
2) Teach me your paths
3) Lead me in your truth
All of which tell of the Psalmist’s love of God’s Law, a theme which we have seen many times.
The next section is fascinating, as the Psalmist begs God to remember one thing but not another!
Remember your compassionate and loving character, O God, but do not remember my sins and my transgressions! Remember me simply because you are loving and good!
The Psalm rounds off in this excerpt with a meditation on the character of God.
Which of these four sections would fit most naturally into your own prayers?

Philippians 2
One camping holiday I attended an evening prayer meeting on the site (it was a Christian-run campsite), trying to keep a low profile.
In the course of the conversations, the inevitable “What do you do for a living?” came out and I had to admit to being a Methodist Minister!
Immediately I was invited to lead the following morning’s Bible Study, so with no time for preparation, this was the passage I chose.
What Bible passage would you have chosen in similar circumstances?
I had strong memories of course of having studied this letter in great depth at College, and had been in the Advanced Greek class where we studied this passage in the original language too.
Yet perhaps the memory which served me longest was my love, since childhood, of the hymn “At the name of Jesus”, whose tune “CAMBERWELL” by John Michael Brierley quickly became a favourite of mine to play on the piano.
It was a passage I selected for my Local Preachers Admission Service, and a passage I had also previously studied with a Wesley Guild meeting. I was not coming at this passage completely cold, at least.
It is possible to go very deep in one’s study of these few verses – indeed I have seen in the Bible Commentaries section of St John’s Durham Theological Library, where there is a whole shelf dedicated just to commentaries on Philippians, a book which has been written just on Phil 2:6-11, so not even on all the verses in this reading!
For those who love a good bit of theological jargon, we talk about “Kenosis” in this passage – a word that means “emptying” – the emptying by Christ of all his glory and status until he becomes as empty as emptiness itself: a dead servant hanging on a cross.
Verses 6 to 11 in Chapter 2 were not written by Paul. They come from an ancient Christian hymn we call The Song Of Christ. Paul is simply saying, in his usual rather elaborate way, “Be like Christ”.
Let the same mind be in in you that was in Christ Jesus. “Think like Christ”
It is God who is at work in you. “Live like Christ”.

Matthew 21
The question about Jesus’ authority features in all the Synoptic Gospels. Each Gospel writer explores the sense in which Jesus had an authority which was completely new.
It was not an authority that had been conferred upon him by human action. It was not an authority that had been earned through years of education or training. It was an authority which just ‘was’. It was as unfathomable as it was unquestionable.
Not that people didn’t challenge Jesus’ authority. The Chief Priests and Elders find themselves trapped by their own question as Jesus bounces it back in reference to John the Baptist.
What is most extraordinary is that Jesus’ authority comes from his attitude of Servant-leader, the likes of course were unknown before, but which set the pattern for all Christ’s disciples to come.
Jesus does not ask us to claim any authority in earthly terms, but only ‘to do the will of my Father who sent me’. That too is our calling.
The parable of the two sons, which follows, is an interesting read. To use Matthew Henry’s phrasing, we have one son who “proves better than he promises” and the second son who “promises better than he proves”.
We can hear the Chief Priests and Elders of the Law, still smarting from their earlier rebuttal about the question of Jesus’ authority, being forced to admit, through gritted teeth, “the first” – effectively killing themselves with their own words since they realise they have been like the second brother.
Which is better for God – the oafish loudmouth who repents and then does Kingdom work, or the pious pew-filler who is all talk and potential, but never gets round to practicalities?
By his final remark, Jesus then skilfully connects the parable with the original question about the work of John the Baptist.
It’s brilliant.

Grace and peace,
Stephen

Words on the Word – Sunday 20th September

The Lectionary Readings for today:
Exodus 16:2-15
Jonah 3:10-4:11
Psalms 105 and 145
Philippians 1:21-30
Matthew 20:1-16

These readings can be found together online.

The Outrageous Gospel of Grace

In 1997 Philip Yancey published the now classic book, What’s So Amazing About Grace?
If you’ve never read it, buy a copy now. It is filled with story after story exploring examples of grace that catch people completely off their guard. One of the most powerfully moving books on grace ever written. You’re goin’ to need a bigger box of tissues…

Grace is the story that can never be told too often. Grace is the treasure that needs to be seen in churches far more than it is. Grace is the character that demonstrates the transformation we receive when we become Christians, and shows others what God is like. Grace is amazing, radical, outrageous. It flies in the face of the way the rest of the world works. Grace does not use language like “deserves”, “earns”, “worth”, “merit” or even “expected”. Grace is wasteful, prodigal, unconditional, unquestioning.

I want to start today by looking at the Parable of Jonah. What was the truth being conveyed by this story? The truth is, simply, that God is gracious, merciful and slow to anger. The parable provides a helpful and fun way to understand this deeper truth. Jonah is absolutely furious that God desires to forgive Nineveh. Jonah doesn’t want them to repent and be forgiven, he wants them to get the punishment he feels they deserve. The Jews hated the people of Nineveh (see Nahum 2). But God shows that ‘the punishment they deserve’ is precisely what is going to be erased by grace. Jonah’s fierce objection is represented by his going in the opposite direction and by his constant complaining. His sermon is probably the worst ever preached: “In forty days, Nineveh will be overthrown!” – that’s the whole sermon, yet God uses it mightily to convict the people of Nineveh to repent, and they are forgiven after all.

Is there grace in the story of the Exodus? Of course! In this week’s passage we hear more complaining, whining and moaning. The whole congregation of Israelites tries to make the case that they were better off as slaves in Egypt, where at least they had food; indeed, they claim that they would have been better off dying in Egypt than wasting away here in the wilderness. Yet God does not punish them for their petulance. God does not send them back to Egypt in anger. God showers upon them blessings of food in the form of quail and “what-is-it?” (= “manna”), and God commands Moses to strike the rock at Horeb so that they have clean fresh water to drink. Everything in abundance. It’s all grace.

The two psalms set for today recount the story of God’s grace as a call to worship. The God who led our ancestors through the desert is the God we worship today. The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love! Give thanks to the Lord! Praise the Lord!

Paul urges the Philippians to show grace, even to their opponents. After all, he explains, this is what Christ Jesus showed to his opponents. Father, forgive them. So live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.

Finally, then, we open our gospel reading to find an example of grace so shocking that it continues to anger Christians today. Even church folk say, “It’s not fair!” but this parable, like those in Luke 15, opens up our eyes to the possibilities of God’s grace far exceeding our assumptions of rewards in proportion to effort. Everyone receives what they were promised when they were hired – is that not fair? No-one receives less than the salary agreed. So think instead of the workers in the story. Think of it, if you will, like those dreadful team-picking ordeals at school, where being picked last was only out of grudging duty. Who are the labourers picked first? Why, the healthy, the young and the strong. These people represent the righteous and the ‘religious’ – yes, they get their reward. So who is picked last? Well now it is the weak, the elderly, the infirm. These people represent the ‘outcasts and sinners’. Does the owner of the vineyard treat them the same – oh yes!

What is Jesus saying in this parable? Clearly, that it matters not what ‘points’ you have accrued in your lifetime by the long list of your good works, your church service and your religious behaviour (whatever that means!) – is this becoming a laboured point? I hope so! Whether you have been a Christian all your life, or whether you turn to Christ with your dying breath like the thief on the cross, the reward is the same.

That’s grace. And it really is amazing.

WOTW – Sunday 13th September

Words On The Word this week are based on these lectionary passages:

  • Genesis 50:15-21
  • Psalm 103:(1-7), 8-13
  • Romans 14:1-12
  • Matthew 18:21-35

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Year A

Genesis 50:15-21 – Does Joseph Bear A Grudge?
The story of Joseph is the longest narrative in Genesis. If you have ever taken part in the glorious production “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat” then you will probably know the story well. It bears repeating.
Joseph, the Dreamer, upsets his brothers in Canaan who sell him off to some passing Slave Traders heading for Egypt, pretending to their Father that he has been killed. They never expected to see him again – indeed, they all lived as though Joseph was no longer alive.
Meanwhile, Joseph has worked his way up, by a succession of ‘God-incidences’ to become the right-hand man of Pharaoh himself, from which position he oversees to storage of surplus grain for the approaching period of famine.
When the famine hits Canaan, Joseph’s brothers come with their begging bowls to Egypt, where they do not recognise Joseph until he makes himself known to them privately. He forgives them, and says that God has brought him through it all.
Joseph is reunited with his father – itself a ‘return from the dead’ story not unlike the story of the Prodigal Son – who is finally able to die a happy man, in Egypt where his family are treated like royalty.
Nevertheless, Joseph remembers his father’s wish for his bones to be buried back home in Canaan, so he makes the trip with his brothers back to Canaan before returning to Egypt again.
It is on the way back that the brothers realise that now Jacob (Israel) is dead and buried, Joseph could well assume the Patriarch role and turn on his brothers for their earlier betrayal of him.
That is how, here in Chapter 50, we find the brothers needing to hear from Joseph whether his forgiveness offered way back in Chapter 45 was truly meant.
And of course, we hear that the forgiveness was indeed real. No grudges. All in the past.
Joseph weeps. The brothers weep. It is a beautiful, sacred moment.

Psalm 103:(1-7), 8-13 – Bless The Lord O My Soul
Matt Redman’s anthemic song “10,000 Reasons” rightly continues to top the Christian music charts, not just for its use in church worship contexts, but also in personal devotions. It is a powerful song, loved by young and old alike. And it came out just too late to be included in Singing The Faith!
Its refrain “Bless The Lord, O My Soul” is taken directly from Psalm 103 (and also Psalm 104), where it is a phrase of almost ecstatic joy and worship.
Contrast, then, the exuberance of Matt Redman’s music, with the far more reflective Taizé chant of the same words.
But why the praise? What has God done that the Psalmist is so thankful to God?
The answers tumble out in the Psalmist’s words, phrase cascading upon phrase – the “10,000 Reasons” of the song’s title. Even the Taizé version sums them all up in its simple phrase “He leads me into life”.
The “life” of course is nothing less than God’s loving mercy. One commentator describes this Psalm as having through it all “A heartbeat of God’s forgiveness, mercy and love”. A heartbeat that keeps calling us back to who God is. A heartbeat that desires to beat the same way in our lives, so that others might see the Divine is us too.

Romans 14:1-12 – It’s Not All About You
Let us not use this passage to have a go at meat-eaters, vegetarians or vegans in our congregations, please! This is no proof-text for any dietary preference, of course, but rather a lesson in judging others generally.
The passage could equally be applied to those who believe their view of Scripture is better than another’s, or that their grasp of politics is more ‘right’, or those who agree with them on the chairs/pews battlefield are ‘correct’ and the others are wrong. For all such categorisations, the passage here is applicable.
Who are you to pass judgment? asks Paul. Who are you to think that the you are numbered amongst the ‘godly’ and others are not? Indeed, it is not about us at all.
“We do not live to ourselves… – we live to the Lord!”
How does this fit in with our theme this week of forgiveness?
Can you see yourself amongst those whose ears are burning at Paul’s words? Is there someone – not like you – from whom you need to seek forgiveness?

Matthew 18:21-35 – Forgive, Forgive And Forgive Again
Picture it – a new app on the iPhone App Store (other smartphones are available) called “Matthew18”. It’s great. Every time someone sins against you, you simply tap on their name and their count goes up by one. As soon as they get to 77, you don’t have to forgive them any more!
Is that really what Jesus had in mind here? Of course not! This is not a literal number, so pedantic discussions about whether the true text is “Seventy-seven times” or “Seventy times seven” become immaterial. Jesus was simply saying “over and over again”. For those who care about such things, “Seven” was in those days a number which had a sense of ‘completeness’, so “70+7” and “70×7” both meant “a completeness of completenesses” or simply “never ending”.
Forgiveness is at the very heart of what it means to be church. For if a church is to offer anything different from the world, it must reveal Christ. Where two or three are gathered together in Jesus’ Name, there is bound to be a disagreement! Therefore forgiveness is essential, and where there is forgiveness, so there is the presence of Jesus in their midst.
What do you understand by forgiveness? What, indeed, do you understand by sin?
Perhaps one understanding of forgiveness is the sense of letting go, especially of a sin against you. If someone has sinned against you, what is needed for you to let go of it? This is not saying that forgiving is the same as ignoring or forgetting – far from it; for the sake of good order, some sins (most sins?) will have consequences which must be addressed, but once dealt with, moving onwards is important in order to repair the relationship.
Why do we love to keep tabs on how people have wronged us? Why do we take pride in warming to our theme of judgment of a person by saying “And here’s another thing”? Why do we, even as Christians, continue to hold grudges, even years after an event?
Forgiveness is not about seeking power, or gaining the upper hand, it is about restoring right relationships. Indeed, forgiveness is less an act but more a process. A process that requires serious commitment. Perhaps we could translate “Seventy-seven times” as “Seven days a week”.
Forgiveness is therefore a sign of church, a sacred sign – in some churches the rite of confession and absolution is even called a sacrament.
That is why, in every church service, gathered together or dispersed online, we need to include confession, forgiveness and sharing in the peace. As God’s forgiven people, we can better worship God as the united Body of Christ.

Grace and peace,

Stephen

WOTW Sunday 6th September 2020

Lectionary Readings this week:

Exodus 12:1-14
Psalm 149
Ezekiel 33: 7-11
Romans 13:8-14

Matthew 18:15-20

These can all be read online using today’s Lectionary Page.

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Exodus 12: The Passover Lamb

In terms of its significance, this passage is HUGE. The story of the Passover is the story of the escape from slavery in Egypt. It is the story of God’s faithfulness, it is the story of new beginnings, and it sets the scene for the whole New Testament. It’s huge.

In this passage we read about the death of the first born son, and the freedom from bondage which follows. Jesus claims this story for himself, especially in John’s Gospel. For John, Jesus is clearly the first born of God (the ‘only-begotten’ son of 3:16). The death of Jesus (“the first born of God”) brings escape from slavery (to sin) for God’s people. John makes a further Passover connection by making Jesus the ‘Lamb of God‘ and setting the Crucifixion on the day of the Passover, thus making Jesus the Lamb slain with the other Passover lambs.

What must die in order to bring life? In this Post-COVID Era, might even the Church be required to die that it might be born again?

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Psalm 149: A Victor’s Praise Song

What was it like to hear that the war had been won? Many in our Sutton Park Circuit can recall the end of WW2, and many more the news of Victory in the Falklands Conflict of 1982.

Was the victory in each case ascribed to God? There certainly were many joyful church services in England, with church bells ringing out their victory peals. I wonder if German or Argentine Christians ascribed their defeat to God too?

God’s people emerged from their oppression under the Egyptians (see the Exodus reading) with much thanksgiving of the kind recorded in this Psalm. “God is on our side!” was their rallying cry. They felt invincible. But then, slowly, they ascribed their fortunes less to God and more to their own strength – God became sidelined and then they suffered defeat. “God has deserted us!” they cried.

Those of a more mature faith will praise God not only when victory is being celebrated but also in the very depths of despair. Indeed, in despair, faith is the only thing which can be grasped. It is the only possible expression of hope.

Extremism is dangerous – not just for its acts of terror but also for its warped sense of doctrine. I am talking not just about Islamic extremists, but also Christian extremists. Crying “God is great!” in either English or Arabic before marching out with weapons aloft is essentially suggesting that God requires murder in order to bring about peace. Really?

Walter Brueggemann, always a worthy read, offers this thought in his reflections on this Psalm:

This ready juxtaposition of praise to YHWH and exaltation of military power is a recurring liturgical-ideological practice when a nation is at war. The purpose of such a ready juxtaposition is to legitimate military action and to identify such action with the purposes of God. This temptation is a palpable one, of course, in the Old Testament, where “church and state,” “temple and monarchy,” were so closely intertwined. In a directly derivative way, the same practice reappears in the contemporary United States, where chauvinism regularly and readily identifies national purpose with divine intention. Thus, in World War II, it was “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.” In more recent U.S. military adventurism in the Mideast, it is recurringly “God Bless America,” a compelling echo of Israel’s ancient and theo-military claim.

Brueggemann, Walter. Psalms (New Cambridge Bible Commentary) (p. 617). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.

Do we also tend to confuse national purpose with divine intervention? If not on a national scale, do we not tend to muddy the waters between our choices and “God’s plan for my life”? How can we explore the interface between the two with integrity?

Yet perhaps we began all this discussion on completely the wrong foot. Reading this Psalm through Christian eyes, rather than through the eyes of God’s post-Exodus people, maybe we misunderstood the very basic word ‘victory’. For surely fighting against ‘flesh and blood’ is not what we are about any more. Just read Ephesians 6. Maybe the only context for which we should be reflecting on ‘flesh’ and ‘blood’ is in the context of Holy Communion, where our meal together represents the flesh (bread) and blood (wine) of Christ, the living body, the Church.

Maybe instead, the real meaning of ‘victory’ is actually ‘salvation’. Maybe, after all, the victory is indeed ours in Jesus Christ. When we re-read this Psalm with a praise song in our mouth because we are victorious over sin and death through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ – then we take this Psalm to a whole new level. Even the double-edged sword of Psalm 149:6 is actually a reference to the Word of God.

To God be the glory, great things he has done!
So loved he the world that he gave us his Son,
Who yielded his life in atonement for sin,
Who opened the life-gate that all may go in:

Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord! Let the earth hear his voice!
Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord! Let the people rejoice!
O come to the Father, through Jesus the Son;
And give him the glory—great things he has done!

O perfect redemption, the purchase of blood,
To every believer the promise of God!
And every offender who truly believes,
That moment from Jesus a pardon receives:
Chorus

Great things he has taught us, great things he has done,
And great our rejoicing through Jesus the Son;
But purer, and higher, and greater will be
Our wonder, our rapture, when Jesus we see:
Chorus

Frances Jane van Alstyne (Fanny Crosby) (1820–1915) Public domain text

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Ezekiel 33: The Prophet Must Call For Repentance

“Don’t say I didn’t warn you” my mother used to call after us as we rushed off on yet another ill-advised scheme. Another favourite was the paradoxical “If you break a leg don’t come running to me!”

“You proceed at your own risk” warn the stark signs by the weather-worn coastal footpaths. In other words, don’t sue us. OK. We get it.

Stay safe! has become the new sign-off in emails. The risk of COVID-19 transmission is real and we have had to rely on experts to help us reduce the risk of contagion as much as practically possible. We are all better off because of the advice heeded.

In other areas I wonder if we are increasingly risk-averse. Of course we want to be safe and to keep our loved ones from unnecessary danger, but to my mind a few grazed knees and the occasional bloodied nose are better teachers of risk for children than the cushioned asphalt and soft bark in today’s playgrounds. Indeed, it has been demonstrated that men, in particular, need a certain level of risk to be stimulated – if one risk is minimised (for example the forced use of seatbelts in a car) then they will look for ways of increasing risk elsewhere (for example by driving faster). And who doesn’t love the thrill of the chase in the latest James Bond movie?

We are hopeless about calculating relative probabilities of risk anyway – we may be up in arms about the perceived risk of a new mobile phone mast near our home, while blissfully carrying on smoking or sunbathing – each carrying far higher risks than the most powerful mobile phone mast.

Can this be taken too far? Warnings are still important of course. In this passage we find Ezekiel being summoned to warn the people of God or face God’s wrath himself. Caught between a rock and a hard place, Ezekiel warns the people, but it does no good. God’s people chose to ignore the warnings and so ended up taking full responsibility for what followed.

And that, my friends, is how the story of the Exile begins.

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Romans 13: Love Is The Fulfilling Of The Law

Let’s get this straight. Again. Being a Christian does not mean “Keeping the 10 Commandments”. Paul had plenty to say against that sort of teaching (known as “legalism”). Being a Christian is following Jesus into fullness of life, a life he named as “The Kingdom of God” – a life of justice, joy, peace and love. This is the passage in Romans which explains why Love has effectively abolished the 10 Commandments.

Love, says Paul, is what you are supposed to be doing. It’s not some wishy-washy gooey feeling, it’s meant to be hard work. Love is patient, kind – all of that – yet it remains a conscious choice and one which we must cultivate. When we love, says Paul, that’s when we are fulfilling the Law. In fact, “Love God, Love your neighbour” is absolutely the same as your prohibitions and exhortations of the Commandments of Moses. For if you loved God, you wouldn’t set up false images or profane God’s name. If you truly loved your neighbour, you wouldn’t murder them, steal from them or sleep with them outside marriage. Love does no wrong, so love is the Law of God.

It’s as clear as day is from night, urges Paul. Live in the day, live in the light.

Wake up, live, and love.

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Matthew 18: Unity Within The Church

Every sermon I’ve heard on this passage, and probably every sermon I have preached too, has started with the phrase “If another member of the church sins against you”. It struck me this week that perhaps we have been getting it wrong all the time.

You see, it’s so easy to define the church from our position. To start with the premise that we are “in” and then to go on to justify our in-ness and then define what “others” have to do in order to be counted as “in” as well. To put it bluntly, we often say, “I’m saved/redeemed/doctrinally-sound and this is what you have to do, poor you, in order that you can be too”.

The stark picture from Scripture, however, is that wherever we draw the circle around ourself and our friends, and call the circle “church”, we find Jesus not inside the circle but outside it with the “outcasts and sinners“. Let’s just get rid of the circle altogether, and remind ourselves of John Wesley’s “Four Alls”. No-one is beyond the reach of God’s love. And that, only by God’s amazing grace and mercy, even includes us.

So look at this passage again. Perhaps you’ve been attending your church for years. Now read the opening words of Jesus in this reading as though they are addressed, not to you, but to someone else. Maybe even to one of those ‘outsiders’ who has only joined the church recently. Jesus is saying to them, “Has somebody grieved your Spirit? Then speak to them and point out their fault.”

And maybe that person at fault is actually you, and it is you who are being summoned. Then, maybe, because you find it all so preposterous, they are obliged to bring others along, and eventually the whole church. If you still can’t be reconciled with them, then perhaps it is you who has to leave, not them.

Yet this passage is not about creating division but about working for unity. It is absolutely not a proof text for forcing others to change to be like us, nor even for others to force us to be like them. It is, however, a call to love. A call to forgive. A call to reconciliation.

The church that reconciles itself amongst its own members is a better beacon for God’s love than a church with any number of grand words or costly outreach programs. And there, then, gently within its midst, where the church is gathered not in the name of bruised egos but in the name of the risen Jesus, there Christ is among them.

Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.

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Grace and peace,
Stephen