What makes us do the right thing? Is it fear of punishment from breaking God’s rules or is it a thirst for God’s righteousness? In our current situation, do we ‘socially distance’ because that is the Government rule or because we don’t want to transmit the disease to someone else? Of course, the answer is probably both and, in any case, the two are not mutually exclusive. Nonetheless, this is precisely the dilemma that the Apostle Paul deals with in the book of Romans in our assigned reading for this week. The early Christians were unable to break from an obsession with the Jewish law, but Paul suggests there is something better – God’s grace! All that the law can do is highlight sin. In this sense, focusing only on the law makes you a slave to sin. In contrast, Paul says you are no longer subject to the law, instead you are set free by God’s grace, and slaves to righteousness.
In the Gospel passage, Jesus spells out the positive nature of discipleship. It is not about abstaining from certain types of behaviour but, rather, demonstrating grace to everyone we come across: “And if you give even a cup of cold water to one of the least of my followers, you will surely be rewarded.” In the Old Testament, the classic example of a man living by righteousness and not by the law was Abraham. Abraham never lived by the law because the law didn’t exist at that time and yet Abraham’s faith in being willing to sacrifice his son Isaac was credited to him as righteousness. The psalmist acknowledges the source of this grace. It is God’s unfailing love, demonstrated through Jesus Christ. It is Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension which replaces everything that the law could ever be. Don’t misunderstand me, the law is not bad; the law is good, but God’s free gift of grace through Jesus Christ is so much better. This is what should spur us on to do the right thing.
Old Testament reading for this week: Genesis 22:1-14
Gospel reading for this week: Matthew 10:40-42
Epistle reading for this week: Romans 6:12-23
Psalm for this week: Psalm 13
What is real discipleship? It is true that, by God’s grace, once we are ‘saved’, this gift of God cannot be taken away from us but that doesn’t mean that some of our actions can’t be fully secular in nature. Often, without realising it, many Christians are living an atheistic lifestyle and may even be engaging in idolatry on a regular basis. What then does it mean to be a real disciple? In the Gospel passage assigned for this week, Jesus doesn’t mix his words. Jesus cannot be accused of being dishonest about what it means to be a Christian disciple. In essence, he says that unless you devote your whole life and every aspect of it to God, you cannot be a disciple. Jesus goes on to spell out what this means in practice, “If you love your father or mother more than you love me, you are not worthy of being mine.” The book of Genesis is a book of beginnings which follows a family but even here there are family splits such as the time when Hagar and Ishmael are sent away. God’s purposes, however, are still fulfilled, through Isaac.
There is no such thing as a part-time Christian or a Christian on a zero-hours contract. C S Lewis noted that either Christianity is a lie and should be rejected as worthless, or it is true and, if true, it is so remarkable that it should absorb our every conscious moment. What is clear is that it cannot be only of partial interest and elicit only partial devotion. David captures the all-consuming love of God in his psalm, “Be merciful, O Lord, for I am calling on you CONSTANTLY. Give me happiness, O Lord, for my LIFE DEPENDS ON YOU. In the Epistle reading assigned to this week, the Apostle Paul notes the end of our previous life of sin. He writes, “We are NO LONGER SLAVES TO SIN….we are DEAD TO SIN and able to live for the glory of God through Christ Jesus.” Our entire past life is subjugated to our new life in Christ which fills every part of our being. This is real discipleship.
Old Testament reading for this week: Genesis 21:8-21
Gospel reading for this week: Matthew 10:24-39
Epistle reading for this week: Romans 6:1-11
Psalm for this week: Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17
What do we mean by endurance? In a world of digital communication, we have become accustomed to instant responses. Sometimes, if we have to wait more than 24 hours, we feel that the response is too slow. In many senses this has spilled over into our church lives as well. We expect immediate replies. We may even come to expect immediate answers to our prayers. Undoubtedly God can act quickly, and sometimes does, but most times He does not. God sometimes wants to teach us endurance. The Gospel reading this week is the story of Jesus sending out the twelve Apostles. They were told to announce to the people that the Kingdom of Heaven is near. They were told not to take any money or any other possessions. No doubt they would have been met with opposition, particularly from the religious leaders of the day. Imagine doing this today in Guildford, it would not always be easy. Perhaps one of the greatest qualities that they (and we) would need is endurance. Just keep going from house to house receiving rejection after rejection until one hospitable home is found.
The ability to endure is one of the hallmarks of the Christian faith. In Genesis, Abraham and Sarah had to wait until old age before they could have a son. That did not stop Abraham from being positive and hospitable to the three men at Mamre. Little did he know that these three men, perhaps representing the Trinity, would inform him that within a year Sarah would have a son. The psalmist writing Psalm 116 knows about endurance when he writes of his troubles and how he will keep praying as long as he draws breath. In Romans, the Apostle Paul explains why God’s plan to teach us endurance is good. Endurance, he writes, develops strength of character. As a result of waiting, Abraham and Sarah greatly cherished God’s gift of Isaac. As a result of enduring rejection from some people, the early Apostles came to rely on God and so grow in their faith. As a result of enduring, we will not be disappointed by God who will use the experience to strengthen our confidence in His plan of salvation for us.
Old Testament reading for this week: Genesis 18:1-15
Gospel reading for this week: Matthew 9:35-10:8
Epistle reading for this week: Romans 5:1-8
Psalm for this week: Psalm 116:1-19
What is the significance of Ascension Day? 40 days after Passover and 10 days before Pentecost, is the ascension of Jesus into heaven. This is only recorded by Luke, who refers to it both at the end of his Gospel and at the start of the book of Acts. What happened, and why did it need to happen? Jesus tells his disciples that the Holy Spirit will shortly come upon them in great power and then they will be His “witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Jesus then leaves His disciples on the Mount of Olives by ascending into heaven so that all this could happen, and the next phase of God’s plan could be fulfilled. That is, Jesus would no longer be with them in a physical sense but, rather, in a spiritual sense. Jesus would be able to live inside them so that they could achieve even greater things than Jesus did. Why? Because Jesus would be working through not one physical body but the whole body of believers, all over the world, the Church. Jesus had to ascend to mark this transition in a tangible way. The 40 days of resurrection appearances had to come to a definite end and the ascension to heaven was the way that this was done. At the time of writing, everyone thought that heaven was above the clouds and that is why Jesus went up into the clouds to show his disciples where He was going, to be with his Heavenly Father, in glory. No doubt, Jesus’ plan was to prove, once again, to them his divinity and underline the fact that he would return one day. In this way he would allay their worries, fears and sorrows. This clearly was the case, as the disciples returned to Jerusalem rejoicing.
God living above the earth was part of Jewish understanding. In Psalm 47 we read “God has ASCENDED amid shouts of Joy.” In Ephesians, the Apostle Paul emphasizes the way that the ascension demonstrates the divinity of Christ, “[God] raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far ABOVE all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the age to come.”
What is the significance of Ascension Day? It is the fulfillment of God’s remarkable plan of salvation. It is therefore a cause of great joy and celebration where we can join in the happiness of the first disciples. Luke records, “Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with GREAT JOY.”
New Testament reading for this day: Acts 1:1-11
Gospel reading for this day: Luke 24:44-53
Epistle reading for this day: Ephesians 1:15-23
Psalm for this day: 47
What leaving gift would you give to your friends and family? For many people they would leave something physical, some item of memorabilia. For others they would leave them with amusing or poignant stories and happy memories of times spent together. The Gospel story for this week is an account of what Jesus left for his followers. No doubt Peter, James, John and all the disciples would have had many treasured memories of Jesus, but Jesus left them so much more. The amazing truth is that this is also true for us, his latter-day disciples. Yes, we have great stories of Jesus to read. We have all the Scriptures to read. We have the traditions of the church as well as faith and reason to draw us closer to Jesus, but we have much much more besides. Jesus left us Himself, through the Holy Spirit, the Counselor. Jesus says, “the Father will give you another Counselor, who will never leave you. He is the Holy Spirit….He lives with you now and later will be in you.” To understand this complex teaching, we must look at what came before and what came after.
In the Old Testament, there was an unshakable belief that God was with his people corporately and individually. The psalmist writes, “GOD DID NOT WITHDRAW HIS UNFAILING LOVE FROM ME.” As we journey into the book of Acts, the Apostle Paul begins to unpick what Jesus meant: “All nations should seek God and feel their way toward him….For IN HIM WE LIVE AND MOVE AND EXIST.” In the Epistle reading for this week this is further emphasized. Peter writes, “If people speak evil against you, they will be ashamed when they see what a good life you live BECAUSE YOU BELONG TO CHRIST. The message of Scripture is that God is with us. He lives in us by the power of His Spirit who constantly reveals Jesus to us. Wow! I am reminded of that great prayer from St Patrick’s breastplate. Because of the gift of the Holy Spirit we can declare: Christ be with me, Christ within me; Christ behind me, Christ before me; Christ beside me, Christ to win me; Christ to comfort and restore me; Christ beneath me, Christ above me; Christ in quiet, Christ in danger; Christ in hearts of all that love me; Christ in mouth of friend and stranger. AMEN.
New Testament reading for this week: Acts 17:22-31
Gospel reading for this week: John 14:15-21
Epistle reading for this week: 1 Peter 3:13-22
Psalm for this week: 66:8-20
What is the depth of the relationship between us and our nearest and dearest? In the Bible reading for this week, we have the story of Jesus’ passion which includes the account of the Last Supper which Jesus shares with his disciples. As he hands around the cup, Jesus says, “this is my blood of the (new) covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” The word covenant was crucial to the people of Israel and it is crucial to all Christians too. Jesus, by his life and, crucially, death, made possible a new relationship between God and man. In effect, Jesus was saying, you have seen me and, in seeing me, you have seen the heart of God. Jesus by his teachings, healings, compassion, passion and death has revealed to humanity what God is like. Jesus was the personification of God’s love for humanity. Because of Jesus’ suffering and death, the way is now open for humanity to have a relationship with the living God. In these dark times of the corona virus, we need to hold onto the truth of Holy Week which proves that God is on our side. God is for us; God is with us; God will not desert us, especially through these troubling times. Perhaps we can join with the hymn writer: “Because He lives, I can face tomorrow.”