Following the fall, one of the outcomes was a form of excessive rule-following or legalism. This obsession with rules by some people permeates all human institutions, as well as the Church. That is, within the Church there are some members who are in the grip of the sin of legalism. This is as wrong today as it was in Jesus’ time when the religious authorities were more interested in following rules than they were in showing God’s love. This is a corruption of the truth and Jesus spoke sternly to these people calling them ‘hypocrites’ and a ‘brood of vipers’. Indeed, the only people that Jesus seemed to get angry with were the religious leaders – particularly as they should have known better. In the Bible reading assigned to this week, we have Jesus berating the Pharisees and teachers of religious law over this precise matter. They had arrived to confront Jesus with the fact that his disciples were not following the correct rituals of hand washing. Jesus’ response to them was to quote Isaiah – the writings of whom they claimed to follow – when he replied: “Their worship is a farce, for they replace God’s commands with their own man-made teachings.” Whose rules do we follow? Our own man-made rules or God’s commands to love God and to love our neighbours? Let us not be lured into the belief that all society’s ills can be cured by more and more legislation and more and more enforcement of rules.
Who do we turn to in times of uncertainty or crisis? Many years ago, when we lived in Devon, I remember returning late at night on the train from London. My wife picked me up at Totnes station and as we drove home we passed a young man with a pony tail walking along the road carrying a flagon of cider over his shoulder. He then stepped out into the road and the car behind us, not seeing him, ploughed straight into him and hurled him into the gutter. We stopped our car and I rushed back to cover him with my jacket to keep him warm. He was lying in a pool of blood and the only discernible words he uttered were “Jesus Christ”. Was it a prayer, was it a form of blasphemy, we did not know and wondered, in fact, how much it really mattered. This young man’s life had been ripped apart in a space of a few seconds. Who did he turn to? Who could he turn to? Who would we turn to? In a sense, the Bible reading assigned to this week captures the same question facing the disciples. Jesus had just been talking about the need to eat his flesh and drink his blood. Many of his followers found this very hard teaching and some had turned away from Him. Realising this, Jesus asks the twelve whether they were going to leave as well. Peter’s reply is remarkably insightful. He, through the power of the Holy Spirit, grasped the eternal truth that nobody else did. That truth is the same today as it was then. In times of uncertainty or crisis there is nobody else we can ultimately turn to. Or, in the words of Peter, “Lord, to whom would we go? You alone have the words that give eternal life.”
A few years ago, I took part in a fast organised by Tearfund. Over a period of one week, I lived off only a small amount of rice and oats in line with the same amount that a person from an economically poor family in Chad would have. Each night I remember being drained of energy, and listless. I struggled to get anything significant done during the day and it raised my awareness of the difficulties facing economically poor families in all countries where there are food shortages. It struck me how difficult it is in these countries to find the energy to improve the situation of poverty. In the Bible reading assigned to this week, Jesus says, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven”. Jesus goes onto say that, to have life we need to feed on this bread. The language of eating flesh and drinking blood seems offensive in our society. It is good to remember two things. Firstly, Jesus was speaking figuratively and, secondly, this sort of language was very common in the first century. However, what does this mean for us today? Bread, which was a staple diet, was necessary for life and gave energy, purpose and health to those who had it. If we are continually fed, we can devote our time to other things. We can start to be creative and we can start to help not only ourselves, but also others who are hungry in other parts of the world, including Chad. In short, we can start to be the people that God calls us to be by fully living. Jesus says, “Just as the living Father sent me, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me.” Let us therefore continue to feed on Jesus in the week ahead.
How quick are we to judge by outward appearance? When we receive a message, do we first look at the messenger before responding? Are we swayed by their manner and even background? In the Bible reading for this week, this was precisely what the Jews did with the message they received from Jesus. “Is this not the son of Joseph, the carpenter?” The Jews could not believe that the Messiah would be a Galilean tradesman. Jewish tradition held that the Messiah would appear in their midst, announced by Elijah. They knew he would come from Bethlehem but, somehow, not as a baby brought up in a family. However, in Jesus’ background, we get a further glimpse of the nature of God. Born as a baby and raised as a child, Jesus was identifying fully with being human. Frail, weak, vulnerable and immersed in the messiness of family life. This is our God. He does not suddenly appear as a king with no history of hardship and toil but rather as a human being who has trod the path of life like us. The God of the cosmos getting fully alongside us in our daily lives. What humility! What a Saviour!
Perhaps most people in our society believe that Christianity is about doing good works. Certainly, this was the belief about God in Jesus’ time. The Jews held that by living a good and moral life they could earn the favour of God. Hence, in the Bible reading assigned to this week, for example, the people ask Jesus: “What does God want us to DO!” Jesus’ reply transformed their whole way of thinking. At least, it would have done had they heeded it. Jesus says it is not about what you do. The only thing you need to ‘do’ is ‘believe’. Believe in the one that God has sent, and He will give you the true bread from heaven. What did Jesus mean? Jesus was saying that no amount of good works could ever earn God’s favour and there wasn’t a hierarchy of people who did more good works than others. God is never indebted to us for what we have done for Him. What God seeks is relationship. A relationship through the Son who is the only one who can atone for our failings. God, in Christ, offers us this relationship. It is a free gift. All we need to do is to accept what God, in Christ, has done for us. Then, once we are in this relationship with God, we will want to please God. We will want to lead pure, holy and righteous lives serving others, not because we have to, but, rather, because we want to.
How often do we meet God in our own workplace? In the Bible reading assigned to this week we have John’s account of Jesus walking on the water to come and meet John and his colleagues in their fishing boat on the Sea of Galilee. What actually happened that night? After the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus told his disciples to set sail without him while he went into the hills to pray. However, a storm blew up and, doubtless, they were concerned for their safety. It was then that they saw someone walking on the water and they were terrified until they discovered it was Jesus. As with most of John’s Gospel, there are two layers to his writing. There is the historical layer and the spiritual layer. Jesus must have been looking down from the hills to see his friends in trouble. Jesus was watching over his disciples. Next, He immediately responded and came to meet them to tell them not to be afraid and to bring them to a safe haven on the seashore. In spiritual terms, we can see the significance of these events in our own personal lives as God watches over us comes to us and commands us not to be afraid. However, there is also the more ‘earthy’ reality that this was a fisherman’s experience about a boat and a stormy sea where God came to him in a familiar setting. The old fisherman turned evangelist found the full wealth of Christ in his own workplace.
The Bible reading for this week is the account in Mark’s Gospel of the feeding of the five thousand. This miracle had a profound impact on the disciples as it is the only one in which there is mention in all four Gospels. The Gospel records that the people sat on the ‘green grass’. Peter, probably narrating to Mark, no doubt is seeing all the events in his mind’s eye as someone who was there at the time. Twelve baskets of leftovers were collected at the end. This may well be due to the fact that each of the disciples, like all good Jews, had their own baskets with them to do this. However, despite the fascinating authenticity of all these historical accounts, this story also has important spiritual significance. Fundamentally, Jesus asks his followers to, ‘Bring me what you’ve got – however small you perceive it to be’. Once we do this, Jesus has the marvellous power to transform our meagre offerings into something special. God has all the resources of the universe at his disposal. However, what he asks for is our offering. If we give all that we have to Him, then something beautiful can happen.
I wonder if we ever make rash promises or rash oaths. Certainly, Jesus warned against this by saying do not swear by anything but, rather, let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no’. In the book of Judges, Jephthah made a rash promise with fatal consequences for his daughter. In the book of 1 Samuel, something similar almost happened with Saul’s son Jonathan. In the Gospel passage assigned to this week we have a similar story. King Herod respected John the Baptist and yet promised the daughter of Herodias anything she wanted after her dancing performance. After consulting with her mother, she asked for the head of John the Baptist. Although greatly distressed, King Herod had backed himself into a corner in front of his court and didn’t have the courage to spare the life of John. We should all be careful in what we promise others. Once again we should heed the words of our Lord: ‘Do not swear an oath at all!
The Gospel reading for this week is Mark’s account of Jesus sending out the twelve disciples with instructions for mission. Can we draw any parallels between then and now? Is there anything we can learn from Jesus’ words then, about how we carry out mission today? I think we can and we should. Jesus fully expected his disciples to meet apathy and even active opposition. He says: “If any place will not welcome you or listen to you, shake the dust off your feet when you leave.” Here Jesus seems to be saying that you should have nothing more to do with them. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says there will be judgement on that town worse than that which befell Sodom and Gomorrah! What are the lessons for us? Firstly, Jesus places no restriction as to where the disciples should go – at least not in Mark’s account. The Gospel is to be preached everywhere and to everyone. Secondly however, if people reject it, don’t waste time on them but simply move on to someone else who will not reject it. For us, in 2018, the principle still holds. We preach the Gospel by our lives, words and example wherever we go. However, if people will not accept it, we should not ‘beat ourselves up’ and feel inadequate. We should simply move on to sharing the Gospel with someone else. It is a simple but powerful teaching. Let’s practise it this week.
The Bible reading for this week is the account of Jesus stopping to heal a woman with haemorrhaging whilst he was on his way to attend to Jairus’ daughter. A twelve year old is dying and yet Jesus stops to talk to a woman who has been bleeding for 12 years. Why? Once again, we are struck by the fact that Jesus was not in a hurry. Like the account of Lazarus, Jesus does not rush around; even to get to a dying person. He is Lord of time and considers there to be something much more important to address than meeting deadlines. Jesus wanted to meet, engage with and heal broken relationships. The woman had been labelled as an ‘outcast’ for the past 12 years because of her medical condition. No doubt, she was referred to by a range of derogatory terms by the people who saw her. Jesus changes all of that. Jesus gives her a new name: ‘daughter’. For Jesus, the overriding concern was to restore people, all people, to full dignity in God. Similarly, he wants to do the same with us. He wants to restore all of us by giving us the title of ‘children of God’. To Him, this was much more important than rushing around meeting deadlines.