What is heaven like? Some Christians are concerned that it might just be one eternal Sunday morning service. Is this likely? The Bible says remarkably little about heaven given that it is the ultimate destiny of every believer. Perhaps the reason is that the reality of heaven is so mind-blowingly wonderful that no words or images can begin to capture it. One attempt to explain what heaven is like can be found in this week’s New Testament reading from the book of Revelation. The writer has a vision of God coming down to re-create the earth into a perfect world. Perhaps like the world that God made for humanity to inhabit before the fall. In this new world there will be everything that is familiar and beautiful without the tears, pain, toil, sickness and death. A perfect world where God is in charge and the devil, pride and selfishness are banished for ever. A world where all creation lives in perfect harmony with each other. This is consistent with other themes of scripture. Is this likely? Ultimately, we don’t know. Just as the day and hour of Jesus’ return is unknown, so too is how God will engineer the transition of our mortal bodies from death to eternal life. What we can be sure about is that heaven will not be a never-ending Sunday morning service.
STEVE’S DISCIPLESHIP BLOG
What or who do we listen to? News alerts as well as social media provide us with a range of information about the world we live in. Indeed, the President of the USA uses twitter to communicate with the world his thoughts without it being filtered by the media beforehand. The problem with such a vast array of information across the internet is that it is hard to discern fact from opinion or even truth from fake news. Who do we listen to? In the Bible passage this week from John’s Gospel Jesus says: “My sheep listen to my voice”. But discovering what Jesus is saying to us is sometimes difficult. If our actions are being met with opposition it may be that God is not opening doors for us or, alternatively, it may be that we are doing exactly what God wants and the devil is therefore interfering. Both these scenarios are possible. So, how do we listen to Jesus? Certainly, God may be speaking through those close to us: family, friends and church members or leaders. Then there is also the possibility that God is using our conscience to speak to us. Finally, there is what the Bible says. However, even here, the Bible says many things about many topics. So, what is the answer? The best answer is an ongoing daily relationship with the Lord, grounded in Scripture, prayer and faith in an all-powerful and all-loving God. To listen with our whole being to a God who is closer to us than we realise by all means possible remains our calling and our delight.
Who do we love above all others? For most people the answer to this question might be a husband, a wife, a mother, a father, a brother, a sister, a daughter, a son or some other relative or special person. What about us? This was the question put to Peter by Jesus beside the Sea of Galilee in our Bible passage this week: “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” What precisely did Jesus mean? Was he pointing at the time to the boat, the nets and the fish that they had just caught? Was he pointing to the other disciples? Do you love me more than your career? Do you love me more than your friends? Although, there is no mention of Andrew being there, John’s Gospel does mention two other disciples which might have included Andrew. Do you love me more than your brother? For the Christian, we are called to love the Lord before anything or anyone, including biological family. Two more things must be said. Firstly, note the grace of the Lord. Peter, who had denied Jesus three times, was given the opportunity to be fully restored by a threefold declaration of love. Secondly, following this declaration of love, Jesus gives Peter, and all of us, a task. Peter’s task was to look after other believers. Here too, we have a vital calling for it is in genuinely loving God’s people that we demonstrate our authentic love for the Lord Himself.
To whom or to what do we submit? As citizens of the United Kingdom we, quite rightly, submit to British law and, for the moment at least, to European law. It is sound Christian teaching that the Church should fit into all aspects of civil and criminal law within the country where it is based. But, what if that law contravenes God’s law? Should Christians speak out, risk imprisonment and then be rendered impotent? Or, should Christians be ‘wise as serpents’ and seek to influence things for good from within? What does the Bible speak into this? Well, of course, the Bible says many things but, in this week, the week following Easter week, the New Testament passage is highly informative. The ‘council’ (ruling authority of the day) ordered the Apostles to stop telling the people in Jerusalem about Jesus. The reply by the Apostles is simple and direct. Peter replied: “We must obey God rather than human authority.” Peter then goes on to spell out the facts, clearly and with respect to the high priest who is questioning him: “The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead after you killed him by crucifying him.” Extra-ordinary courage from Peter which incensed the high priest who wanted to kill them all. However, that was not what happened. Following the advice of a pharisee called Gamaliel, the Apostles were released. The reasoning of the Jewish council was if Christianity came to nothing, then it wasn’t worth getting angry about. If it flourished, then not even all the legal and spiritual leaders of Israel could do anything about it. Of all the weeks of the year, Easter time is when Christians in the UK can speak out, even at the risk of upsetting people, if not (yet) breaking the laws of the land.
What things are certain in our Christian lives? Perhaps different people would give slightly different answers, but for the first Christians, their faith was based on the certainty of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. In our ordered and highly planned world, we might think that the Gospels were written down in the order of which the events happened, starting with the nativity, then Jesus’ teaching and healing and then ending with the resurrection accounts. Of course, this is quite wrong. For the early Christians, the first stories to be told and written down were the resurrection narratives. This was what fuelled the church and from which all other previous stories about Jesus made sense. What is the significance of the resurrection? The answer, for the Christian, is everything! In the Epistle reading for this week, Paul puts it this way, “Without the resurrection your faith is in vain.” How does it work? God, in his sovereign wisdom has not chosen to disclose this to us. However, the Apostle Paul goes onto throw some light onto the situation. He writes, just as death came into the world through Adam, the first man, so the resurrection from death is through another man, Jesus. Jesus the perfect man has replaced the imperfect and fallen man, Adam. All who are only related to Adam will die but those who are now related to Jesus will rise to life just as Jesus did. Wonderful theology; simple, powerful and certain! Alleluia, praise God.
This week is Passion week and the Gospel reading assigned is the whole of the Passion narrative recorded in Luke’s Gospel. It is a very long reading spanning two chapters, but it is a wonderful opportunity to grasp something of the enormity of Jesus’ sacrifice and love for us. What strikes us about the whole narrative covering the last supper, the arrest, the trial, the crucifixion and the death of Jesus? The answer is more than words can tell here but, for me, two words stand out. Those two words are ‘humble obedience’. In an age when the church celebrates intellect, fluent oratory and leadership perhaps we neglect these two crucial (this word is derived from cross) qualities. Jesus had unlimited intelligence, great oratory skills and outstanding leadership qualities but He also had phenomenal humility and obedience to see him through his Passion. This Holy Week let us exercise these God-given gifts and see how our world responds. Let me leave you with the Epistle reading for this week: “Your attitude should be the same as Christ Jesus had. Though he was God, he did not demand and cling to his rights as God. He made himself nothing; he took the humble position of slave and appeared in human form. And in human form he obediently humbled himself even further by dying a criminal’s death on a cross”. AMEN.
The Bible passage assigned to this week, the week before Palm Sunday, is the story of Mary anointing Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume. In a sense this passage looks skilfully backwards and forwards. Last week was the story of the prodigal (son). Mary is the female incarnation of the father in that story. She too is filled with extravagant love. The story of Mary also looks forward. In washing Jesus’ feet, Mary is acting as a precursor to Jesus washing his disciples’ feet at the last supper. Mary, in a sense understands the role of true discipleship. The story is also rich with Easter imagery. Jesus is about to be crucified and his body placed in a tomb. The stench of a dead body, like the events involving Lazarus, is contrasted with the sweet smell of perfume that Mary brings to Jesus. However, the main point of this whole passage is the contrast that it draws between Mary and Judas. Mary’s love is extravagant, sincere and selfless. Judas’ actions are stingy, deceitful and self-serving. Yes, there is always a case for good stewardship of resources, but this should not cause us to be mean. Despite the terrible poverty in the world, I still, on occasion, buy my children an ice-cream often when they have done nothing special to deserve it. God is like that with us. Mary was like that with Jesus on this occasion and Jesus recognised in her a true disciple and that is why he commends her.
What is it in our Christian lives that makes us happiest? The Bible reading this week is the parable of the prodigal (son). This is one of Jesus’ greatest parables because in it we see the heart of the Father. The Father delights in a repentant sinner. In the charity CAP, a bell was rung in the head office every time someone came to faith through the ministry of CAP. This must be like the response in heaven as God delights in someone coming to faith. Earlier on in the Biblical narrative, the shepherd goes looking for the one sheep who went astray from the ninety-nine. God is like that. He is passionate about welcoming people into the kingdom from all walks of life, backgrounds and circumstances. Back to the question at the start about what makes us happiest? If we love God, we need to re-discover his heart in ours. His greatest joy should be our greatest joy. How wonderful for everyone, one day, to come to know God as God. We should all strive to hasten that day by every possible means. Or, in the words of the classic hymn by Arthur Campbell Ainger, “nearer and nearer draws the time, the time that shall surely be when the earth shall be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.” That, surely, above all else, should make us happiest.
The Gospel reading for this week is Luke’s account of the barren fig tree. The problem of the fig tree was that it was taking up space and not producing anything. It was taking out more than it was giving back. We are all in debt to life. We came into this world at the peril of someone else’s life and could not have survived without love and care. We also inherit a civilization and a Christian community which we did not create. While we have taken a lot out of life, what have we put back in? The calling of the Christian is to put back in more than we have taken out. However, there is something beautiful at the end of this parable. Although the fig tree has given no fruit in 3 years, the gardener wants to give it another chance. A fig tree takes 3 years to reach maturity. If it doesn’t produce fruit in 3 years it probably never will. But, with extra help and fertilizer, it may! God is the gardener and he wants to give it a fourth year – just in case. If we fail in our normal life-times, God wants to give us another opportunity to turn it around. However, there is also a warning contained in these words. Yes, we have a second chance with God but, there is a final reckoning. If we continue to reject God and do not turn our lives around then, like the fig-tree, we will be cut down. Let us seize the opportunity to bear fruit while we still have the chance.
In the Bible reading this week we have a perfect fusion of both bravery and tenderness. Some Pharisees came to warn Jesus that King Herod was out to kill him. It is an extraordinary story because it clearly shows that some of the Pharisees were on Jesus’ side. Jesus’ reply is equally remarkable. He publicly calls King Herod a fox. For the Jew, the fox was considered a worthless and destructive animal. For Jesus, the only king he sought to please was the King of Kings. But the story also shows Jesus’ tenderness. Jesus says about Jerusalem, “How often I wanted to gather together your children as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.” This tends to indicate that Jesus made many visits to Jerusalem before this point in his ministry and yet the synoptic Gospels do not record them. Once again, we are made aware that in the Gospels we have the merest sketch of Jesus’ life. It is a remarkable life of such great passion, love, courage and bravery. As we journey through Lent, it is worth forgoing all the world’s values of coercion, destruction and selfishness to focus on the person of Jesus who encapsulates courage, bravery and tenderness.