Tuesday, 17 December 2013

The least in the kingdom

John the Baptist is now in prison and his confidence is shaken. In Last Sunday’s reading he was the confident man in the wilderness denouncing the Pharisees and proclaiming one to come who will “baptise with water and with fire”.
Today we meet him again, but this time speaking from his prison cell, and we hear a man suddenly full of doubts. 
Doubt is of course a natural thing and I think that it would have been entirely natural that sitting in chains, a prisoner of a murderous erratic king like Herod fears and doubts would come crowding in on anyone. Of course we know that John was soon beheaded and his head served up on a silver platter  - so any fears he had were well founded (!) – but knowing something drastic might happen at any time he needed to know for sure about Jesus.
But there was another reason implied in the text. John like most Jews was expecting a very particular kind of messiah. They were expecting a political figure, a warrior king who would fight and defeat the Romans and re-establish an independent Israel by force. His rule would be fierce – a cleansing fire that would burn through not just Rome but all the rich corrupt political and religious Jewish hierarchy as well. Anyone not bearing good fruit would be cut down with an axe. As John foretold and expected the messiah would baptise with water and with fire.
But Jesus’ ministry wasn’t like that at all. Of course he was a challenge to the establishment – that is why eventually they felt they had to crucify him – but his challenge was a peaceful one. He challenged people’s perception of what a Messiah might look like as well as challenging the Status Quo, challenging people’s personal morality and challenging their understanding of God.
He reaches out to the margins of society to heal rifts, he brings healing to those who need it in the widest possible sense. The message he gives to John’s disciples to take back to John to try and convince him that yes, he really is the one is a quote from Isaiah that illustrates just those kinds of qualities.
After John’s disciples had gone when addressing the crowd, Jesus says plainly that John the Baptist is indeed a great man in Israel’s present scene – a necessary precursor to what was going to happen next but the very least in the kingdom of God ( new order of understanding and revelation) was greater than John.
You see at that point, Jesus is saying that John the Baptist stands outside the Kingdom of God.   I always used to have great trouble in understanding this.  This great icon and necessary ingredient in the Christian story lying outside the Kingdom of God.
The only way I have been able to understand this is to understand that to be inside the kingdom of God is about the quality and nature of our relationship with God, and the nature of the God we know and the perception of God’s presence and character.
To be born again to a different understanding of God, his purposes and our relationship to him puts someone in the kingdom of God. It also entailed coming to a different understanding of the nature of the Messiah to the Jews of the 1st century.
Probably my greatest objection to the idea of a literal second coming is that the Jesus that is expected is exactly the same kind of Messiah that John was expecting in the first place. The avenging angel, saving the faithful, taking an axe to the root of those who don’t bear good fruit, toppling the kingdoms of this world and reigning as king in their place.
But that kind of messiah God did not provide. I believe that the way of Jesus is the decisive revelation of the character and will of God. God has already revealed in the life death and resurrection of Jesus, the revelation of the first coming, that what the Jews (including John) were expecting was not what God would provide.  That might be what you desire, but it isn’t what you are going to get.
What we got wasn’t a warrior king, but a man of peace who rode into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. Not a man who would defeat the armies of Rome, but a man who suffered and died at their hands. His victory is of a very different order revealed in the mystery of the resurrection.
There was nothing deficient in the first coming. There is nothing left to be completed. Everything that needed to be done was done. The rest, as I never tire of repeating, is down to us.

If we want God’s kingdom to come we have to, in God’s help and strength, bring that kingdom in ourselves as God’s agents, the body of Christ using Jesus’ methods and his example.

Monday, 9 December 2013

Born again

Are we bearing good fruit worthy of repentance or a brood of vipers ? And what exactly is that good fruit?
Helpfully in Galatians Paul famously comes up with a list. He writes “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy peace,  patience,  kindness,  goodness,  faithfulness,  gentleness and self-control.
He goes on to say “If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. Let us have no self-conceit, no provoking of one another, no envy of one another”.
Walking by the Spirit means how we actually relate to and deal with one another. Both John the Baptist and Jesus are agreed that the only sure way of knowing whether someone is living out of God’s Spirit is in the way we live and act.
You can have as many hard core Christian beliefs as you like – but believing them doesn’t make you a follower of Jesus. How you speak and act make you a follower of Jesus. Jesus says “By their fruit you shall know them”
We all have know that it is possible to have all the right beliefs and still be a cold, unhelpful impatient person – a mass of fears and anxieties. The Pharisees were like that. We are all a bit like them at times.
Common sense tells us then that just holding right beliefs is not enough – through our own experience. But we have Jesus’ seal of approval on that as well.
Nicodemus had all the right beliefs and was very drawn by Jesus and came to meet with him in secret. Jesus even acknowledges him as a “teacher of Israel” – a very learned man when it came to religion (as were all the scribes and the Pharisees) yet he is missing the most important ingredient of all and he tells Nicodemus that he must be born again from above.
Now I more than most am aware that the phrase “born again Christian” has been hijacked and misused and come to be associated with a very particular and not very attractive kind of Christian. But this just means that we have to take the phrase back and make it our own again and apply it more commonly than they might allow.
The phrase “born again” is not the property of a particular kind of Christianity that comes with a particular set of beliefs. “Born again is biblical and is placed on the tongue of Jesus himself. To be born again is a normative state for a follower of Jesus.
The fact is that holding a right set of beliefs has surprisingly little effect on how we act. It has some, but actually the effect on our behaviour can actually be counter- productive as well as positive. 
We may even know ourselves lovely people who on “becoming religious” have changed but not in a good way. They may have become judgemental, harsh, drawn in on themselves, exclusive. In fact they exhibit qualities quite far removed from Paul’s list of the fruits of the Spirit. They have become religious believers yes, but more of a pharisaical kind than a Christian kind. Religion has the potential for both kinds of change.
The change heralded by John the Baptist and Jesus involves a change of heart as much as a change in belief. It is so easy to forget that Jesus was a Jew who came not to start a brand new rival religion but to fulfil the one that was already there by appealing to the Spirit of Judaism, by re-emphasising certain aspects of their faith, by negating and fulfilling other aspects of Judaism – in short by asking Jews to look deeply  into the letter of the law to discern the Spirit of the Jewish religion.
Paul knew this. He would I think be appalled by some of the ways that his letters to young church congregations are now used to supplant one version of the law with a new law. He recognised the dangers all too well when he wrote himself about the way we approach the written word. “The letter kills, it is the Spirit that gives life” he writes in 2 Corinthians. (2 Corinthians 3:6).
In his greatest theological treatise the letter to the Romans, especially in the 8th chapter we have a tract that explores Paul’s understanding of what it means to walk in the Spirit of God.
“For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of sonship or daughtership. When we cry “Abba Father” it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our Spirit that we are children of God”
There is the biggest clue of all to what living in the Spirit is and how it is different from law. It is about “relationship” as between a Father and his son or daughter. This is God to you.
When you can call God Father and not just with your head but with your heart and know his presence within you by his Spirit.
Being born again is realising that you have another Father other than your biological earthly Father. Your other Father is in heaven. When you can believe this in your heart you are born again. To be a Christian is to be born again. It is about your internal relationship with God. You are born again when you know you are loved by a heavenly Father whose love knows no bounds and is present to you by his Spirit.
To be a Christian is to be born again to a relationship with a Father whose love for us is described like this at the end of that chapter 8 in Romans;.

“For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate  us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Monday, 2 December 2013

The gift that keeps on giving

It is December the 1st and the anticipation and excitement is growing. The Christmas season get’s longer and longer. Last Saturday – the 23rd November I was in B & Q and what what was playing over the tannoy...
“And here it is merry Christmas everybody’s having fun.....” The dulcet tones of Saint Noddy Holder of Walsall.
Now obviously commercial businesses use the excitement and anticipation of Christmas just to sell things but they wouldn’t do it at all if there was no excitement and anticipation there to tap into in the first place.
Christmas is the nation’s favourite Christian festival by a million miles.
Who is looking forward to Christmas? It is exciting.
Today we will send off Mary and Joseph on their journey around the village. Over 2000 years ago they would have been very excited as well. Looking forward to the birth of their first child.
But Christians look forward to something else as well. Of course we look forward to the celebration of Jesus’ birth as much as anyone but we also look forward to a better, happier world.
Of course Christians aren’t the only ones to look forwards to an end to hunger, thirst, war, and hate but in this special season of Advent we are given the opportunity to think about it more than others.
But Christians have not just been given a special time to think and hope for a better world. We have been given much much more.
We have also been given the instructions, and the means to actually bring this better world about.
The New Testament of the Bible is a record of one extraordinary man’s vision of what the world could be. And in the way Jesus lived and the guidance he left with us, we have something to copy.
His advice to us was simple. Be the change you want to see in the world yourself. There is no point is sitting back and hoping that things will get better as if by magic. We can change the world one person at a time and we must start with ourselves.
And from that change in yourself the change ripples outwards because you will affect other people by that change.
Of course you don’t have to hold any specific faith to want to help people but the fact is that even today the voluntary and charitable sector that underpins our society would collapse if it wasn’t for the involvement of tens of thousands of Christians giving their time and energy to help people.
They do it because their faith has changed them. That is what we want. That is what we are looking forward to – but not just hoping or praying for change but being that change.
Being able to change things for the better is what excites us and motivates us and fills us with hope – the hope of a better tomorrow for all of the people of the world.
This hope, this excitement, this anticipation for Christians is not just crammed into a month before Christmas but is a constant presence with us.
And that is why we constantly invite people to join us. We call it a fancy name – evangelism – but it is simply an invitation to join us in something life enhancing and life giving. It is like giving someone a gift  because with an active faith you gain something, and it is free. You gain a sense of love and compassion, a sense of acceptance and forgiveness, but also you gain that sense of hope and excitement and anticipation that is a constant companion. We call that the Spirit of God.
Anyone can have this gift for free if they really want it.
Be the hope,
Be the anticipation,

Be the change.