Sunday, 26 July 2015

The feeding of the 5000

In his letter to the Ephesians Paul prays that “we might have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that we may be filled with all the fullness of God”
That is a powerful prayer and our gospel reading today leads us some way to actually grasping, if only momentarily the enormity of God’s power and love. The feeding of the 5000 and Jesus walking on water are so familiar to Christians that I suspect we have lost the impact they were intended to make.
In verse 4 John writes that “the Passover was near”. Now this provides us with our context and a strong lead as to the significance of what is to follow. He cites the Passover as a signpost to the deeper aspects of what is taking place here. The Passover was a celebration of God’s great rescue plan for the Jewish people in bondage in Egypt.
So here John is alluding to the fact that in Jesus God’s great rescue plan for the entire creation is taking place before our eyes. In John’s view, God’s promises, his covenant that the world will be forgiven, saved and transformed is being inaugurated right here, right now.
John may well have written “Those who have ears, let them hear”.
The feeding of the 5000 demonstrates power but also love and compassion for people with real needs. It also demonstrates God’s intention to follow through and make good on promises made throughout scripture, especially Isaiah. The love and compassion of God is so bountiful that even after the entire crowd were satisfied, there were 12 basketfuls of food left over. 
So overwhelmed were the crowd that they tried to take Jesus by force and make him king but Jesus wouldn’t play ball. Not because he wasn’t a king but because his true coronation was still to come.
Jesus was crowned king when God raise him from the dead. That was his coronation. His kingdom was not the tiny geographical country of Israel. His kingdom was of a different order and magnitude and magnificence entirely. His kingdom corresponds to His Love, God’s saving and transforming Love, for the whole creation and it is that sheer, magnitude that Paul prays that we may comprehend.
The gospel story then tells of Jesus walking on the water and this too is one of John’s famous signs that points to something far greater than itself. It is a demonstration of God’s authority and power over all things. In the Hebrew worldview water symbolised the forces of disorder and chaos and walking on water is a demonstration of God’s power and dominion over all creation.
When the terrified disciples saw Him walking towards the boat Jesus said. “It is I. Don’t be afraid”. The phrase translated in English as “It is I” is literally “I AM” which is also an invocation of the name of God “YHWH”.
For the true significance of this event we need to turn back to the first chapter of Genesis and to read that in the beginning God’s Spirit hovered over the waters to create order out of chaos. In Jesus dwelt the creator of the universe.
In the coming of Jesus Christ we see the action of God who had come to redeem and transform the world. All the signs in John ultimately point towards the cross and resurrection.
Christianity is not just another religion, to set alongside Islam or Hinduism or Buddhism. The coming of Jesus and the resurrection of Jesus is a definitive and unique act that releases the whole world from bondage to death and decay and is released into new life.  The new era, long heralded and hoped for by the Jewish people had happened. It really happened. This is the good news.
With the power of faith in that good news Paul says that Christ is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.
We can do great things together when we allow the good news of what Christ has done to transform us into a temple to the living God.

It is our privilege to be living in the period between the event through which God inaugurated the “new Creation” in Christ and the final consummation when God will be all in all – to work for that Kingdom now. The church is the place where heaven and earth meet symbolised by the partaking of bread and wine symbolising the body and blood of our saviour and king. 

Monday, 20 July 2015

House rules

“You are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.”  This is being a Christian is all about
We can see very clearly there in that quote the corporate nature of Christianity. We find out who we are, and grow and find fulfilment in relationships with each other. Relationships bring with them responsibilities, and also necessitates fostering virtues like patience and compassion.
It is one of the basic premises of Christianity that it is in obedience to God we find Freedom. That nowadays would seem like a paradox to modern ears. Obedience and Freedom are incompatible to the modern Western mind.
There was a very interesting opinion piece in the Church Times  this week that noted that “Freedom” is always portrayed in our culture as an individual “alone”, unfettered by people and their needs and demands and having no responsibilities to anyone or anything, either moral or social.
The author, Hugh Rayment-Pickard notes that Freedom is equated with isolation, and is most often pictured as individuals silhouetted against open skies and cites a recent Volkswagon ad. where you have a put- upon dad sullenly trailing around with his wife and children, until at last he can motor off alone in an empty car and a satisfied smile on his face.
But this individualistic caricature of freedom is essentially a fantasy.  A fantasy of no expectations, no responsibilities, no laws or duties, no one to tell us what to do.
The reality is that this leads us to total isolation, and loneliness, which just happens to be a good definition of one Christian understanding of hell. 
The Christian community is radically opposed to such fantasies. Because individualism like that also leads us to spiritual misery.
I love Paul’s description of the church we find here in Ephesians which is so counter cultural.
“Members of the household of God, built upon the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is held together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord. We are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God”
To understand yourself in that context is empowering. Paul is talking about us! Individual Christians who find ourselves and our meaning and purpose as joined together mystically as the house of God.
These stones around us are not the house of God. We are the house of God.
When people relate to each other and form a body there are rules and rights and responsibilities that enable us to rub along together and grow together. These are provided by God himself and in obedience to these rules we find true freedom.
These rules or guidelines for living and relating to each other (whether outward law or as a response to an inner Grace) are given not to imprison us, but God knows us better than we know ourselves and are there to help us lead a full life.
The absence of rules, order and law and responsibility  is not “freedom” as modern advertising culture would have us believe but chaos. Ask any citizen of a failed state from Libya to Iraq.

It has always been thus from the very beginning. In Genesis, the very act of creation itself was to bring  order out of chaos.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Praise the Lord!

The word “blessing” has a twofold meaning in Greek. It is both the act of bestowing a gift and also the act of thanksgiving and praise, so God is to be praised for all the gifts he has showered on mankind.
The most important one being the gift of being his adopted children in Jesus Christ. Paul writes that we have been chosen. Now the term “chosen people” was very emotive and powerful – it had galvanised the Jewish people for centuries and was written to galvanise the young Christian churches and by extension to strengthen us. We are chosen. We are privileged. We have been given firsthand insight into the character and nature and wisdom of God, an insight denied to everyone born before the revelation of Jesus Christ.
We have redemption, forgiveness, and an insight into the will of God that is cosmic in its scope. We have this inheritance of faith and the first and proper response and responsibility is that we should praise God for everything that he has given us.
For Western Christians like us, reading an Eastern text there are two things that run counter to our deeply held cultural values.  
First of all, passages like this insist over and over again that we are utterly dependent on God. God creates, God destines, God wills, God reveals, God accomplishes. Human beings in and of themselves achieve nothing, except in cooperation with God. This is a direct assault on our Western sense of independence and autonomy. In our culture we have almost totally lost that sense of dependence and need to re-learn it.
The second thing that cuts against the grain of so much modern Christianity is the insistence that our first obligation is praise and thanksgiving. You will notice of course that this is dependent on our first problem – our sense of independence.
We are modern pragmatic people who have our emotions under control and our first response is to ask “What should we do?” in a practical sense.
Paul says, your first response is gratitude and your responsibility to praise God. Think about doing things afterwards.
To most modern people that seems like so very little response at all but on such a response everything else that we associate with Christianity rests.
Let me end with a bit of history.....
In 1647 there was a meeting in London between English and Scottish theologians and lay people who wanted a shared document that would bring the Church of England and the Church of Scotland. What came out of that process was the Westminster catechism.
Catechism is a way af teaching the faith in a question and answer style and the first question is;  What is the chief and highest end of man?

The answer is;   The chief and highest end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.

Monday, 6 July 2015

Shake the dust from your feet

When pious Jews left gentile cities and areas they might symbolically “shake the dust from their sandals and feet” as a sign of being separate from the people they had been mixing with.
Jesus takes this practice and commands the disciples to use this same sign when a household refuses to listen and accept their testimony that the “kingdom of God has come near”. It shows that the disciples are separate from the Jews and the people who rejected the testimony of Jesus had made a wrong choice.
Christians have a hard job. We are supposed to be “in” the world but not “of” the world. We are supposed to be separate. The Hebrew word for “Holy” is derived from the word for separate, different.
This is what led Peter to write “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct” (1 Peter 1:14-15)
It is a hard thing to do of course and our example is Jesus himself. He never shunned anyone, or thought of people as too unclean or too far from the kingdom of God to mix with. He was famous after all for dining with prostitutes and tax collectors – a stick that was used to beat him with by his opponents.
But he was never corrupted by them. He was the salt and light that he commands us to be like. Instead of being made dirty by the company he kept, his light and goodness affected the people he mixed with.
In the world – in the sense that we are here to positively affect the people we meet and can influence, but certainly not “of” the world.
It is so easy to be a kind of chameleon Christian, adopting the language, morality, and attitudes of the company we keep, so we are Christian amongst Christians but not amongst our secular friends.
Another thing to note is that to be amongst antagonistic non believers for any length of time sapped the energy of even Jesus. His power was diminished amongst the people of his home town Nazareth. Not obliterated, but seriously impaired.
Shared belief and expectation and engagement amplified His power and message. That is so true today. Christians, who don’t spend much time with fellow Christians, find, after a while that the fire dims and can even go out completely. Mutual re-enforcement, encouragement and challenge are needed to keep fanning the flame of faith. Christianity is always corporate and not a private thing.

How true is that of our own life? Are we in the world but not of the world, or simply in the world. Has our salt lost its saltiness. Has our light gone out?