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.
New Testament Reading for Today: Acts 4:32-35
Psalm for Today: Psalm 133
Epistle Reading for Today: 1 John 1:1 – 2:2
Gospel Reading for Today: John 20: 19-31
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 and, in many ways these injustices are exacerbated by Covid. 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 once said to me 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.
It was John Newton, the famous 18th century hymn writer, who once said that he remembered only two things: firstly, that he is a great sinner and, secondly, that Christ is a great saviour. It is precisely this tension that lies at the heart of the Christian faith. Only when we realise our own sinfulness can we begin to grasp the breath-taking nature of God’s love for us. This is precisely the message of this week’s Bible passage from John’s Gospel, chapter 3. In this, the fourth Sunday of Lent, we see part of this love as Jesus wrestled with temptation for our sakes in the desert. Although it is not always culturally acceptable to talk about our sinful natures, the message from the Gospels is unequivocal. Men and women have chosen darkness and condemnation if they reject the light of Christ. Perhaps in our modern age we do not dwell enough on our sinful natures. Perhaps in our preaching and worship today we only focus on the love of God and not the wrath of God. Therefore, it is good to sometimes read old Christian books and sing old hymns so that we don’t get caught in the blind spots of our present culture. The amazing reality is that, because of God’s grace, we do not need to perish or stand condemned. Of course, it was John Newton who captured this truth so eloquently in his most famous hymn, ‘Amazing Grace’. This is a marvellous basis for reflection as we continue to journey through Lent.
Bible readings this week:
Psalm 107: 1-3, 17-22
John 3: 14-21
As Christians, is it ever right to be angry? Is it ever right to show hatred? In truth, most Christians shy away from these character traits. Perhaps, as children, we have been overly influenced by Sunday school messages of ‘Gentle Jesus, meek and mild’. In our churches, we emphasise love, forgiveness and ‘turning the other cheek’. Anger and hatred do not seem to be a feature of the modern church. Nevertheless, is there a place for anger and hatred in our Christian ministry? The Bible passage for this week, the third week in Lent, is the account of Jesus overturning the tables of the money lenders in the temple. This is one of the times in Jesus’ life where he demonstrates anger – profound anger. I wonder whether we, as modern day followers of Jesus, should be more angry. Angry at the injustices of poverty, homelessness, sex trafficking and countless other ills that confront our world. In a society where the gap between rich and poor is growing ever wider, shouldn’t we vent our righteous anger by speaking up against these divisions in our society? What about hatred? If we are simply passive towards social injustice then we will not be sufficiently motivated to act. If we hate injustice, we will have a greater incentive to put right the wrongs. Therefore, in answer to the question posed at the beginning, yes, I believe it can be right to be angry and to hate injustice. More importantly, this was precisely the attitude shown by Jesus as he confronted the social ills of his day where the bankers were ‘fleecing’ the poor people in the name of religion.