Tenth Sunday after Pentecost – 9th August 2020

What does it mean to be saved?  In the Gospel reading for this week we have the account of Jesus walking on the water.  To his credit, Peter has enough faith to believe that he can do this too. Then, however, he became terrified at the high waves and began to sink.  Peter shouted our “Save me Lord”.  Certainly, this literal meaning of the word was part of the Jewish understanding of salvation.  God would save Israel from its enemies and for Himself.  In the reading from the book of Genesis, God used Joseph to save his father Jacob’s family from famine in Canaan. God worked out his plan early on by allowing Joseph to be sold into slavery in Egypt. Then, God used Moses and the ten plagues to save his people from their Egyptian oppressors.  In the book of psalms, the psalmist records how God warned kings on Israel’s behalf: “Do not touch these people I have chosen and do not hurt my prophets.”  Israel was a small group of people in a volatile part of the world surrounded by powerful nations – Egypt, Babylon, Assyria and ultimately Rome.  God protected his people from being wiped out.  He was in a literal sense their saviour.

But is there more to the meaning of the word saviour?  In the New Testament, the word salvation took on a new theological significance.  In the book of Romans, the Apostle Paul writes, “For anyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”  Paul grasped that God’s plan started in Genesis (before Joseph) was completely fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus would save us not only from drowning (in the case of Peter walking on the water) but would save all humanity from their sins.   All the animal sacrifices which atoned for the people’s sins as recorded in the Pentateuch (first 5 books of the Bible) were no longer relevant.  In order to be saved from ourselves, in order to be saved from our past, in order to be saved from our feelings of guilt and inadequacy, in order to be saved from our sins, we need to call on the name of Jesus.  Jesus provides total salvation.  Not just from political enemies and dangerous circumstances but salvation from every physical and spiritual experience in our past and into eternity.  What do we need to do?  Let us leave the last words to the passage from Romans: “For if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, YOU WILL BE SAVED.”

Old Testament reading for this week: Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28

Gospel reading for this week: Matthew 14:22-33

Epistle reading for this week: Romans 10:5-15

Psalm for this week: Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22, 45b

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost – 26th July 2020

Can something big happen as a result of a small group of Christians like us?  The Gospel reading appointed for this week is Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed.  Technically, this was not the smallest of all seeds since, for example, the seed of a cypress tree was still smaller, but here Jesus is using a well-known phrase in Jewish culture at the time to highlight the smallness of something.  Jesus then goes on to explain how big the final plant grows.  It was well known that mustard plants can grow as high as twelve feet and become like a small tree.  It was also true that birds liked mustard plants because they liked eating the little black seeds produced.  Moreover, in the Old Testament, one of the commonest pictures of an empire was that of a tree where birds (subject nations) find shelter.  Jesus’ meaning is crystal clear – the Kingdom of God starts from the smallest of beginnings, but in the end many nations will be gathered in.  A Christian hermit was called to go to Rome to oppose the gladiatorial games where people were dying.  Telechamus made his way into the arena to stand between the gladiators, the crowd tried to stone him, and the Prefect ordered his death, the flash of a sword in the sunlight and Telechamus was dead.  Silence then descended across the arena.  The crowd realised they had killed a holy man.  Something profound happened in Rome following that event, because there were never any more gladiatorial games from that point on.  One man had changed the views at the centre of an empire.

In the Old Testament God used small beginnings to create a ‘chosen’ people.  It was Jacob’s marriage to Rachel from which God would establish his covenant relationship with the nation of Israel.  In Psalm 105, this is reiterated by the psalmist who points out: “O descendants of Jacob, God’s chosen one”.  God’s ultimate plan for redemption of the whole of humanity started with one family.  The point of Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed is that his 12 disciples and his followers today should not be discouraged.  Each one of us starts from a small beginning from which the Kingdom of God can grow.  It will then grow and grow until the kingdoms of the earth find their home in it.  The reason for our strength is God.  It is God, through His Holy Spirit who makes the impossible, possible.  And, in the words of the Apostle Paul: “If God is for us, who can ever be against us?”

Old Testament reading for this week: Genesis 29:15-28

Gospel reading for this week: Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Epistle reading for this week: Romans 8:26-39

Psalm for this week: Psalm 105:1-11, 45b

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost – 19th July 2020

Can we ever escape from God?  In the Psalm appointed for this week, the psalmist is adamant that we can never escape from God’s Spirit.  Whether we plumb to the deepest ocean or scale the highest mountain, God’s presence is there with us.  In August 2000 the Russian submarine Kursk was stranded at the bottom of the sea cut off from the rest of the world and yet God was there with the 23 crew as they waited in vain to be rescued.  The same can be said for the Chilean miners temporarily trapped underground in August 2010 and countless others who find themselves in the remotest parts of the earth seemingly separated from everyone and everything – everyone except God!  In 1953 when Sir Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norgay were the first to reach the summit of Everest, God was there with them.  The psalmist is adamant that God is everywhere we go so that we can never escape from His Spirit.

In our Old Testament reading for this week we read the story of Jacob isolated and alone near Luz as he leaves his home in Beersheba.  In his apparent inaccessibility, God appears to Jacob and says, “I will be with you wherever you go.”  The Gospel account for this week is the parable of the wheat and the weeds.  Jesus is clear that all who belong to him will be rescued from whatever place they find themselves in.  In the Epistle reading for this week, the Apostle writes, “All creation anticipates the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay.”  There is nothing and nowhere within God’s created universe from which God cannot rescue us.  As the author and owner of creation, there is nowhere we can go where God has not been before and where He currently reigns.  As such, we can never escape from God’s Spirit; what a glorious thought and a great encouragement when we find ourselves in difficult places and difficult times.

Old Testament reading for this week: Genesis 28:10-19

Gospel reading for this week: Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Epistle reading for this week: Romans 8:12-25

Psalm for this week: Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost – 12th July 2020

Is someone trying to snatch your life?  Is there something that you have been working for that someone else is trying to take from you?  Is it a work colleague, a neighbour, a family member or even HMRC?  The Gospel reading for this week is the familiar story of the sower.  This is one of Jesus’ most famous parables and has been called the parable of parables.  The seed is the word of God which brings life and sustains growth.  However, we read that sometimes this life-giving seed falls on the hard path and the devil comes and snatches the seed away.  I have been given six brand new Bibles which are sitting on my desk at work.  Perhaps naively, I asked two colleagues if they would like a new hard-back Bible, for free, to take home.  Both refused.  I later reflected on this and the fact that if I offered them a new free book on gardening, cooking, philosophy or even capitalism they would probably gratefully accept, so why not a Bible?  Had this desire been ‘snatched away’ from them.

The Old Testament reading for this week is the story of Jacob and Esau.  Jacob snatched Esau’s birthright.  Jacob manipulated Esau and later deceived his father Isaac with a lie.  The words snatch, manipulation, deceit and lies are associated with the devil.  What should be our response to ensure that our lives are not snatched from us by the devil?  I will suggest two.  Firstly, cling to every guiding principle in the word of God.  The psalmist writes: “Happy are people of integrity, who FOLLOW THE LAW OF THE LORD.  Secondly, drench your lives in the Holy Spirit.  The Apostle Paul writes: “For the POWER OF THE LIFE-GIVING SPIRIT has freed you through Christ Jesus from the power of sin that leads to death.”  In this way, our lives will not be snatched from us by the devil and we will abide in eternity with the God who Himself rose from the dead by the power of this same Spirit.

Old Testament reading for this week: Genesis 25:19-34

Gospel reading for this week: Matthew 13:1-9; 18-23

Epistle reading for this week: Romans 8:1-11

Psalm for this week: Psalm 119:105-112

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost – 28th June 2020

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

Third Sunday after Pentecost – 21st June 2020

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