I have spent most of my professional life in education leadership. One of the roles of the school leader is to give talks in assembly. How do you communicate to young people the transforming power of the Holy Spirit? I often used to take a plastic bottle of washing up liquid and a small plastic stick with a circular hole in it (children’s party bubbles). The young people would dip the stick in the liquid and blow through the circular hole to produce many bubbles. The question then was what had transformed this greasy, slimy liquid in the bottle into those beautiful spheroids, which, in sunlight, would refract all the colours of the rainbow? The answer is a puff of breath. The Old Testament word for Spirit is the same as ‘breath’. The Holy Spirit is the breath (or wind) of God which brings about change. Specifically, He changes the ordinary into something beautiful. This gives us an insight into the work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit, who came in a special way to the believers on the day of Pentecost, is in the business of changing things for the better. He is also in the business of perfecting us into being fully the people God intended us to be. I hope and pray that the generations who heard my Pentecost assemblies captured something of this message.
STEVE’S DISCIPLESHIP BLOG
How much do we throw ourselves into our lives in this world? How much do we value our careers, possessions, homes, entertainments and even our families? How sad would we be to give it all up and move to an existence somewhere completely different? Although we are all called to be ‘salt and light’ in our communities, the Gospel passage assigned to this week reminds us that our home is elsewhere. When Jesus prays for his disciples, he notes that, they are not ‘of this world’ any more than He is of this world. The question returns. Are we too much in love with this world? It is a lingering question, which should make us continually reflect.
Why do some people in our society accept the Gospel message while others do not? This was a great historical debate between, amongst others, John Wesley and George Whitefield. John Wesley was adamant that all people could be ‘saved’ while George Whitefield had different views. In our Gospel reading this week, Jesus seems to suggest there is some mileage in the latter’s views. Jesus says “You did not choose me, but I chose you..” However, we need to consider other things that Jesus said. Jesus is on record as saying that ‘the harvest is plentiful’ and also ‘go into ALL nations baptising them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit’. Whatever our views on predestination, what is clear is that God has not chosen to reveal to us those who are pre-destined. Therefore, we proceed to proclaim the Gospel by all the means that we can to all people that we can until told otherwise. Peter captures his Lord’s sentiment on this issue when he writes: Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. It is our joy, calling and privilege to do nothing less!
One of the mantras of the modern age is that you end up enjoying the lifestyle that you have earned. Work hard and you will be successful in life. Is this true? The Gospel reading assigned for this week is the account in John’s Gospel of Jesus as the true vine. In one verse, we come across the words, ‘apart from me you can do nothing’. It is so tempting to believe that our skills, qualifications, possessions, career, status and reputation are the fruits of our hard work, dedication and ability. After all, we have made something of our lives. Here Jesus delicately reminds us all, that this is simply not the case. If we are skilled with our hands, it is a gift from God; if we are good at written exams, it is a gift from God; if we enjoy high paid jobs in a peaceful and thriving economy, it is a gift from God. Our health, our energy, our artistic, creative, analytical and social abilities are all gifts from God. The education and health services we benefit from are gifts from God. Every single ability, talent and opportunity comes from the God who knitted us together in our mother’s womb. What is our response? It is to be eternally thankful and not to boast. It is to live in a permanent state of humble gratitude to God and not to condemn or criticise others. After all, apart from God, we can do nothing!
How many wars or conflicts are caused by one group of people believing that they are different from others? In the Gospel reading assigned for this week, Jesus addresses this whole issue of exclusivity. In Ancient Israel, many of the Jewish religious leaders believed that Israel was the only nation important to God. They believed that other nations were ultimately destined for destruction. Jesus made it clear that God’s sheep are not only from Judaism but also from the non-Jewish world. True, Jesus, for practical reasons, encouraged his followers to start with the ‘lost sheep of Israel’ but then made it clear that the Church’s mission was universal. Jesus stayed and taught in Samaria, praised the Roman centurion for his faith, told a story about a good Samaritan and declared that many from the North, South, East and West will sit down in the Kingdom of God. Lord forbid that we should ever think that our Christian faith is only for us and people like us.
The Gospel reading appointed for this week is Luke’s account of Jesus’ appearance to his disciples in the upper room. Luke includes the detail of the disciples actually touching Jesus and then Jesus eating with them. What is the significance of this? Perhaps there was a heresy circulating in the early church that Jesus had not fully risen in bodily form and was just a vision. The Gospel writers are emphatic about there being a physical, bodily resurrection. Today many people, including some Christians, still dispute the reality of a physical resurrection. Perhaps their thinking is that corpses do not come back to life and not even God can do this. This is a curious view to hold of the God who created a universe 100 billion light years in diameter and formed humanity from dust. Surely, the author and sustainer of all life could easily accomplish new life from death. The wonderful reality is that just as God did this with Jesus, He can accomplish the same with all of us who are in union with Jesus. However, for me, the real wonder is even more profound. The real wonder is that God bothered with us in the first place. Why, when we had rejected Him, did God do this for us? That is the real miracle. Let us continue to ponder that, this week.
Have you ever considered how debilitating intense fear is? Our brain responds to this type of fear in one of two ways: fight or flight. That is, attack or run away. Once this part of the ‘reptilian’ brain ‘takes over’, all higher order functions of the brain close down and we cannot show love, compassion or kindness to others. It is the antithesis of the Gospel. What is behind such intense fear? Who, or what, is so opposed to the Gospel if not Satan? This is why Jesus so frequently urged his disciples to overcome fear. Following the resurrection, Jesus’ first words to his followers were once again in this vein when he said, ‘Peace be with you’. In the near Eastern world, this greeting meant much more than, ‘do not worry’. The Greek word from the New Testament was similar to the Hebrew word ‘Shalom’. This was understood as a foretaste of the Kingdom of God where peace, wholeness, reconciliation, justice and love predominate. These ‘Kingdom’ values drive out timidity, worry and intense fear. In this season of Easter, we celebrate the fact that sin and death are eternally defeated. We have nothing to fear. Let us therefore be bold in proclaiming the Gospel to everyone we come across.
I wonder what we are most passionate about. Who, or what, is it that fires our desire and devotion? On the very first Easter morning, there could be no doubt about the answer to this question for Mary when she was at the tomb. Her obsession that morning was with Jesus’ dead body and that was all that concerned her. When she discovered his body was missing, she wept so much that it clouded her vision and she could not see around her. When she spoke to a person she believed to be the gardener, she did not even explain that she was looking for Jesus – she just used the word ‘Him’. Such was her pre-occupation with Jesus she did not entertain the possibility that the word ‘Him’ could refer to anyone else. Finally, in John’s Gospel we read that when the ‘gardener’ said, “Mary”, she actually turned to face him. Why? Because she was probably so engrossed with the empty tomb where Jesus had been, that she could not take her eyes off it. Then, amidst this deep sorrow and pain, Mary discovers that the gardener is in fact the risen Jesus, and her joy is overwhelming. Are we, like Mary, totally passionate about Jesus? If we are, then we too will be overwhelmed with joy this Easter.
The world is riddled with injustice. On an international level, rich countries throw away the same amount of food that would feed the entire population of poor countries where there is starvation. Billions of pounds are spent on cosmetic surgery while millions of people die from not having clean water. War rages in countries using military equipment and munitions manufactured in rich countries where the only beneficiaries are the shareholders of the arms manufacturers. I could, of course, go on. Similarly, there are injustices in our own communities. There is harassment, prejudice and unfair dismissal in our own work places, almost daily. We may well have been the subject of injustice in the past or now and if not, we can be sure that it will come one day. How as Christians do we make sense of all of this and what hope do we give to those to whom we minister who find themselves in the midst of such injustice? The passion narrative which we reflect on during this Holy week is quintessentially about injustice. Whatever injustice we have experienced, it cannot compare with the injustice that Jesus experienced for our sake. And yet it was obedience, humility and love which drove Jesus to the heights of self-sacrifice. Nothing but admiration can fill our hearts and from this, hopefully, the ability to keep going with the injustices we face every day.
A work colleague in the Middle East said to me earlier on this week that as he travels the world and meets new people, he has reached the conclusion that all people from all nations are basically good. Is he right? It is very tempting to sometimes think that. Does the devil want us to think that because it reduces the need for the cross? Of course, we only need to consider the plight of persecuted minorities (including Christians) around the world today to realise that not everyone is good. But is there also something fundamentally wrong with all of us? In the Bible passage from John’s Gospel assigned to this week, Jesus tackles this question head on. He says, “Now is the time for judgement on this world.” Clearly there would be no need for judgement if everything and everyone was indeed ‘good’. If we are too much in love with ‘this world’ with its shallow values, corruption and injustices, then Jesus’ warning to us is a stark reminder to change. As citizens of heaven our eternal home is elsewhere, and we should focus on those values, not ‘worldly’ values. However, as always with Jesus, there is hope, even in this corrupted world. He goes onto say that when he is lifted up (onto a cross), all people will be drawn to him. Praise God for this indescribable sacrifice. The power of the cross is as strong as ever and while people are not basically good, in Christ, they can become so.