Is God moving in our nation in our time? The Bible passage this week records the coming of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. Two things strike me about this passage from the book of the Acts of the Apostles. Firstly, the Holy Spirit came to the believers when they were together. God not only comes in power to individuals but also to us corporately, the Church. In the New Testament the Greek word ‘you’ is mainly used in the plural. This is similar to ‘vous’ in French as opposed to ‘tu’. God’s relationship is not only with us as individuals but mainly with us as a church together. Secondly, the Holy Spirit is like a mighty wind. A strong wind will move things around and change the scenery. As a church we need to be prepared for God to shake us up sometimes. Yes, we celebrate the wisdom of the ages and the traditions of the past but sometimes God wants to over-turn all of this and start something new. Something that changes the whole landscape. Is God moving in our nation at this time? The biggest provider of youth work, food banks and non-State education in the United Kingdom is the church. Atheism is said to be declining. Yes, God is moving but there is so much more He wants to do through us if only we work together and are prepared to be shaken up.
Do we have the courage of our convictions? Pontius Pilate, the prefect of the Roman province of Judaea from AD25- AD37, had a notorious contempt for Jewish customs and traditions. This is highlighted in this week’s Gospel reading concerning the trial of Jesus, where he says to Jesus, in effect, don’t ask me to understand your Jewish religion. Despite this contempt for the Jewish leaders, Pilate has an interest in what Jesus stands for, even a respect. He is interested in the source of Jesus’ authority as a king – a kingdom not of this world. He certainly finds no reason to kill Jesus. However, there is something, sadly, that is even more important to Pilate. He knows he has not been a particularly good prefect and he knows that he could be summoned back to Rome for judgement before Caesar unless he improves his relationship with the people in Judaea. So, despite his interest in what Jesus stands for, he takes the easy option and ultimately succumbs to the wishes of the Jewish leaders and the mob by having Jesus crucified. In the final analysis, he was more concerned about his own job than he was about the truth. What about us? Do we take the easy way out or stand up for the truth? Pilate famously asked, what is truth? Ironically, he was the one man in history who had the opportunity to accept the truth that was talking to him and exercise the courage of his convictions. Alas, he didn’t, and history moved on. Let us not miss our chance.
The Gospel reading this week involves two stories. The first is Jesus’ warning about the teachers of religious law who take pride in their religious robes and the fact that people bow to them as they walk by. The second story is the account of the widow’s mite. For us, there is a challenge in both stories. Are we obsessed with our religious status? Christians are most vulnerable when people tell them that they have done something great for the Kingdom, such as preach a powerful sermon. It is here that our ‘puffed up’ pride can cause us to fall. Next, the story of the widow’s mite reminds us about real giving. Our giving to the work of God should be, above all else, sacrificial. If we simply give what we have left each month then that is not really giving at all. Rather, our giving should cause us to give up something fundamental to our lives each week or month. Our giving should cause us to go without. In a sense both these stories are linked. Here, Jesus is painting a picture of the Kingdom of Heaven. Being a Christian is not about obtaining status, reputation and resources, rather it is about emptying ourselves of all these things. Being a Christian is quintessentially not about receiving but about giving.
A well-known educationalist once said, we often end up valuing what we can measure rather than attempting to measure what is of real value. This practice spills over into church life as we strive to quantify spiritual standards by how pious we have been. This religiosity or legalism was no less prevalent in Jesus’ day. The sacrificial system was based on performing certain religious practices with a certain quantity of bulls, rams, doves or other elements of sacrifice. Today, some in the church delight in measuring spiritual worthiness by our ability to keep the rules and follow the laws. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that there is no place for order, spiritual discipline and even religion but I fear we often go too far, because there is something much more important. The Gospel passage this week is the account of the conversation between Jesus and the inquiring religious law teacher. Jesus commends the religious teacher for his understanding of love. Jesus confirms that loving God and loving our neighbour is more important than all the sacrifices (old and new) required in the law. This is not a licence to do anything; far from it. Rather it is a life of action and deeds which is borne out of love rather than a sense of failure if we don’t follow all the pre-determined man-made rules.
All the blessings of this life and the wonders of this world pale into insignificance when compared with the all surpassing gift of our eternal salvation through Jesus Christ. The cry of humanity should therefore be: “What must we do to be saved?” In the Gospel passage appointed for this week we find the answer in the life of a blind beggar called Bartimaeus. Bartimaeus did three vital things to receive eternal life. Firstly, he confessed his utter need of God: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” Next, when Jesus summoned him, he immediately jumped up and came to Jesus with an earnest request: “Teacher, I want to see.” Finally, after all this, he followed Jesus down the road as a completely changed man. The most beautiful gift in the universe is ours through these three simple steps. Praise God!
How important are hierarchies to us? Do we continually look up to people who hold positions of great status and / or power? Or, if we are one of these people, do we have a smug sense of superiority when we are asked what job we do? However, the most important question is what did Jesus think of hierarchies? The Gospel reading for this week is the account of James and John asking for a special privileged place with Jesus in heaven. Why did James and John think that they deserved this, above the other disciples? Perhaps it was their family connections. The fact that we know their father’s name suggests that he was a man of influence. Perhaps it was because they were part of what some scholars have called Jesus’ inner circle, along with Peter. For example, it was Peter, James and John who were present at the transfiguration and none of the others. We don’t know their motives but what we do know is Jesus’ response. In effect, Jesus says it is not about hierarchies at all. He cites those Gentile rulers who ‘lord it over’ their subjects as an example of the wrong way for his followers to behave. Instead says Jesus, ‘whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant and whoever wants to be first must become the slave of all’. Of course, Jesus not only said these words but modelled them in his own life and death where he came ‘not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many’. Although these words are well known, I wonder how often we take them to heart? If we are serious about being a disciple of Jesus Christ we have to shed all forms of self-importance and start serving others.