Words – and deeds

The twelve apostles gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables…” Acts 6:2

The church has just been born. It’s growing day by day – people coming to faith in Jesus as the twelve apostles preach and teach in his name. The momentous coming of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost is still vivid in people’s memories.

Great days! – exciting, perhaps even slightly frightening, but truly wonderful.

But then… a major problem. (Yes, even that wonderful early church had its difficulties.)

What went wrong?

In essence, there was a split among these new followers of Jesus. On the one hand there were “Hebraic” Jews – that is, Jews who were deeply immersed in their ancestral culture and who spoke Aramaic, a language related to Hebrew, the language of their forefathers.

On the other hand there were “Hellenistic” Jews – that is, Jews who were more at home in the dominant Greek culture of the wider Mediterranean world, speaking the Greek language and adopting Greek customs.

Where the difficulty flared up was over the very practical matter of food for the poor. The Greek Jews  felt that their widows were not being treated on a par with the “Hebraic” Jews. So, feeling hard done by, they complained.

The apostles realised that something needed to be done. But what? Should they divert their energy and time from the business of preaching the gospel and teaching the new-born believers, and devote more of it to sorting out this problem?

Luke spells out their solution very clearly in the verse at the top. No! they said. Our business is to stay focussed on “the ministry of the word of God”, and let someone else “wait on tables”. Which is exactly what happened.

Were the apostles a bit self-important? Did they regard it as beneath their dignity to do a menial task such as “waiting on tables”?

No, not at all. They attached great importance to this new ministry – indeed, they insisted that the men appointed to do it should be of the very highest quality, “full of the Spirit and of wisdom” no less than themselves. (Just look at Stephen, one of them, in the next chapter or two. Let no-one then say these first “deacons” were just (just!?) practical men fit only for menial tasks!)

But… the fact is that the apostles were the ones who had been with Jesus in his earthly life. They were the ones who had been witnesses of his resurrection. They were the ones who, having sat at Jesus’ feet, had the best understanding of what the good news was all about. So it was right that all their energy should be poured into the ministry of God’s word.

This story could, I think, have been written for us in the twenty-first century.

Our world is full of need, both “physical” and “spiritual”. Millions of people have hungry bodies and, following the example of Jesus, it is right that the church should help to meet that need.

But millions more have hungry souls. They know nothing of the living God, nothing of how Jesus died for their sins and rose again to give them eternal life. They know nothing of how forgiveness of sins is offered to all who put their trust in Jesus.

And who is to tell them these great things if not – the church? And who within the church is best equipped to do this but the successors of the apostles – the evangelists, the pastors, the teachers?

There have been times in history when the church has stressed so much the “spiritual” side of things that it has neglected some of the more “practical” aspects – feeding the hungry, healing the sick, housing the homeless, you name it. And that isn’t good.

But is there a danger that we swing too much the other way too? Food-banks, luncheon clubs, debt-counselling services, youth work, medical missionaries… thank God for all these things.

But let’s not overlook the “ministry of the word”!

Let’s not be ashamed of the fact that we have a message to proclaim, a story to tell, good news to pass on of Jesus crucified, risen, ascended and one day coming back. We have words to speak to explain our actions.

Jesus said: “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). Do we really believe that?

And Paul wrote: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God to bring salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16). Do we really believe that?

Demonstrate to people the practical love of Jesus. Of course. Of course! But tell the story too. How else will people understand?

Lord God, thank you for the power of your gospel to change lives. May I never be embarrassed or ashamed to make it known. Amen.

A man worthy of honour

The apostles were brought in and made to appear before the Sanhedrin to be questioned by the high priest… When they [the Sanhedrin] heard the apostles, they were furious and wanted to put them to death. But a Pharisee called Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, who was honoured by all the people, stood up… Acts 5:27, 33-34

I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un are like two children in the playground as they fling their infantile and inflammatory insults at one another across the world. (“Little rocket man”, for goodness’ sake!) Only difference: incredibly, these are two world leaders, and their spat could result in destruction and horror such as you’d rather not think about. (How unutterably stupid can you get?)

Which brings me to Gamaliel…

Gamaliel? Who was he?

Well, please read the story for yourself in Acts 5:17-42. I can only say that I have always had a soft spot for him, even though he pops up just twice in the New Testament. The other place is Acts 22:3, where Paul, under arrest, says that he “studied under Gamaliel”. He was a well-known and much respected Jewish teacher.

(Interestingly, a Jewish document from about this time tells us a little more about him: “Since Rabban Gamaliel the Elder died there has been no more reverence for the Law, and purity and abstinence died out at the same time” (The Mishnah, a written version of Jewish traditions. “Rabban” means “Our teacher”, a higher title than “Rabbi, “My teacher”.))

The story in Acts 5 can be summed up like this.

The apostles of Jesus are in trouble with the Jewish leaders. They are hauled up before the Sanhedrin, or Council, and told never again to preach about Jesus. They refuse to agree: “We must obey God rather than men!” Whereupon the religious leaders “were furious and wanted to put them to death.”

A nasty situation. And this is where Gamaliel steps in. He calms the atmosphere, pointing out that the apostles aren’t the first and won’t be the last to be trouble-makers. His speech finishes with these splendid words: “…I advise you, leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”

Luke adds: “His speech persuaded them.” (Perhaps he could also have added “and everyone breathed a sigh of relief”.)

Reports spread later that Gamaliel eventually became a follower of Jesus. Unfortunately, there is no hard evidence for this. But undoubtedly his intervention at this key point saved the church from what could have proved a major crisis. Thank God for unbelievers even today who speak up for God’s people!

Gamaliel stands for us as a model of wisdom and calm. He is a pourer of oil on troubled waters – not of petrol on flames. He reminds me of that lovely little Old Testament saying: “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1). Indeed, he reminds me of Jesus himself, standing mute before his accusers before he was crucified. He reminds me of Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9).

Angry confrontation is a sad feature of our modern world – and not just among world leaders who should know better. Footballers square up to one another on the pitch. Politicians sling vitriol at one another. On-line trolls post vile messages about people they have taken a dislike to for no particular reason.

And, of course, it can happen in church life. I heard of a church where an ambulance had to be called to a meeting because one man had been “decked” by another (yes, really). It can happen in family life, where a build-up of tensions at last explodes in hurtful words and bitter recriminations. It can happen in the work-place. It can happen… oh, it can happen anywhere.

The question is: have we trained ourselves to be Gamaliels in such situations?

Even if Gamaliel never did become a Christian, he certainly spoke more than he knew at the time. He said, in effect, that in the end truth simply cannot be suppressed: if the message of the apostles is true, he said, “you will not be able to stop” it. Indeed, “you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”

You were absolutely right there, Gamaliel, absolutely right!

Let that be an encouragement to us as we survey a world of troubling political instability and a seemingly struggling and weak church. One day every knee will bow at the name of Jesus!

He is the truth. How then can he not prevail?

Lord God, help me to be a peace-maker, never a trouble-maker. Help me to show love instead of hate. Help me too to have faith in the power of the truth – that in the end it will prevail. Amen.

Money – blessing or curse?

Jesus said, “Woe to you who are rich…” Luke 6:24

Do you think of yourself as rich?

I don’t. I look back over my life, and I’m certainly grateful that I have never known great need. But rich? No, not really.

But as soon as I say that, I know I need to be careful. Deciding whether or not you are rich depends on where you are looking. If I look at Bill Gates, or some footballer who is paid hundreds of thousands of pounds every week, or some business multi-millionaire, then, no I’m certainly not rich.

But if I look at the millions of people all around the world who are starving to death, who have nowhere to live and no prospect of ever having a proper home – people who certainly have no such things as phones, computers, televisions – well, it’s rather different. I am rich indeed!

Perhaps you feel like me. In which case, Jesus’ words here in Luke 6 – “Woe to you who are rich” – need to be taken seriously.

Material wealth is both a blessing and a curse: a blessing if we use it wisely, generously, for the glory of God and the good of others; a curse if we let it rule our lives and use it only for our own pleasure.

In the “Sermon on the Plain” (Luke’s counterpart to Matthew’s “Sermon on the Mount”), Jesus speaks very crisply and briefly. So “woe to you who are rich” comes across as pretty uncompromising. It’s certainly a warning; but it needs to be seen in the context of the Bible as a whole.

There are many passages we could turn to. But Luke seems to have a particular interest in this theme, and just a few passages in his two books – his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles – provide plenty of food for thought.

Let’s highlight five passages which help us flesh out this subject.

First, two which bear out Jesus’ blunt warning.

In Luke 12:16-21 we are given the story of the rich fool. Here’s your archetypal tycoon. By virtue, perhaps, of genuine hard work, he ends up with more than he knows what to do with. So he decides to store it all up and “take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”

But God has other ideas: “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?”

Death is coming. Only a fool, says God, puts all his or her wealth in an earthly basket.

Even more thought-provoking is the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). Its special power comes from the fact that, here, the rich man is contrasted with the beggar lying at his gate, where “even the dogs came and licked his sores”.

Jesus describes the different fates of the two men – the beggar is carried by angels to “Abraham’s side”, while the rich man ends up crying out from “Hades”, the dwelling place of the dead.

While we may not have beggars lying today at our front doors, don’t we see them every night on the television news? Could we be in the same situation as that callous rich man?

The other three passages help us to see how rich people are both blessed by God and also a blessing to others.

Take Joseph of Arimathea (Luke 23:50-54). He is the man who felt moved to beg Jesus’ body from Pontius Pilate and lay it in a new tomb in his own grounds. You can’t do a thing like that unless you are pretty well off – and also deeply compassionate and generous-spirited.

Then there is that lovely man Barnabas (Acts 4:36-37). In the early, heady days of the infant church he “sold a field he owned and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet”. I imagine that must have been a serious sacrifice: was that field in effect his pension pot?

There are several female figures I could have gone for: the sinful woman in Luke 7:36-50, say, or the poor widow of Luke 21:1-4. Strictly speaking, though, neither of them was in fact “rich” in the sense we have been thinking of – all the more challenging and wonderful, then, that they should be so extravagantly generous.

But let’s finish with Lydia (Acts 16:13-15). She was a businesswoman, “a dealer in purple cloth”. Having come to Jesus by the river in Philippi, she opens her home to Paul and Barnabas, the wandering missionaries. Did her house become the first meeting-place of that church, to which Paul later wrote his letter to the Philippians?

So… two passages of strong warning; three passages of great example.

What are we going to do about them?

Lord God, thank you for the treasures in heaven to which I can look forward. Please help me to use in a Christlike way the treasures I have here on earth. Amen.

Are you decaying nicely?

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. 2 Corinthians 4:16

I imagine all of us have things in our lives which irritate us. Not, perhaps, to the extent of getting us grinding our teeth, but certainly “getting under our skin” as the saying goes. Here’s one of mine.

I’m a bit of a newspaper addict. I don’t feel my day is complete without having a leisurely read through the morning paper. So some time between six and seven in the morning you’ll find me heading for the local paper shop, a gentle walk of about a mile (feel free to be impressed).

Now, on Saturdays the paper is twice its normal size – all sorts of extra bits, colour supplements, etc.

And nearly every Saturday one of those extra bits has a major feature on physical fitness. This is what makes my heart sink: “Oh, not another article about staying young/being beautiful/eating properly/keeping fit!” I think to myself. “Is there really anything new to learn?” In the end they all come down to the same basic advice: eat well – plenty of fruit and veg, not too much fatty stuff, salt and sugar; get plenty of exercise; don’t drink to excess or smoke. And so on. Big yawn.

It’s not just the tedious regularity with which this kind of stuff is churned out that irks me; it’s the way it encourages a fixation on our physical bodies.

And I want to shout, “Listen, people! – we’re all going to die one day! Get used to it! Who cares if your hair is grey, or largely missing, and your muscles are a bit flabby? Who cares if you’re no longer the stunner you were thirty years ago?”

Not, of course, that physical fitness is unimportant. No, not at all. The Bible tells us, after all, that our bodies are temples of God’s Holy Spirit, and that means we should look after them and treat them well (1 Corinthians 6:19). There’s no getting away from that.

But to make this the be-all and end-all… oh, what a waste of time, effort and, probably, money too – once you’ve paid your gym subscription and bought your vitamin supplements, your hair colourings, your fitbit, and your speciality foods…

Does anyone share this irritation of mine?

How refreshing, then, it is to read Paul’s words to the Christians of Corinth: “Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.”

Yes, that’s the way it is, folks; we’re slowly but surely “decaying” (as those words “wasting away” could be translated).

Ah, but “inwardly we are being renewed day by day”.

We mustn’t misunderstand what Paul means here. He is not saying that there are two parts of us: your soul, which is good but invisible, infinitely renewable, and therefore destined to be eternal; and your body, which is bad and (as a Christian friend once put it to me) “just an envelope” for the soul. Not at all. No, our bodies are good, and when we rise from the dead to be with Christ, we will rise in our bodies, even though then they will be gloriously different.

The contrast Paul is drawing is between the “now”, temporal, me, and the “future”, eternal, me. Just as Jesus himself was put to death in his earthly body but raised to life in that same – albeit transformed – body, so will we. And what matters is the real us, the us becoming daily more like Jesus, whatever may be happening to our outward form.

Hamlet, in Shakespeare’s play, comes across a couple of grave-diggers busy doing their job. With his friend Horatio he notices a skull lying at the bottom of the new grave, presumably having toppled over from the neighbouring one. “Who is this?” he asks. They tell him Yorick, who was once the king’s jester. “Yorick!” he exclaims – “I knew him well, Horatio…” Apparently when he was a small boy Yorick used to get down on the floor and play games with him.

Hamlet picks up the skull, stares at it and then talks to it: “Now get you to my lady’s chamber and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come…” Stinging words!

The challenge is unavoidable: which me do I focus on, the outward me which is slowly decaying, or the inward me which is gradually becoming more like Jesus, and therefore more fitted for the glories of eternal life?

“We do not lose heart,” says Paul. He means: we’re still working cheerfully away, aiming to do God’s work, whatever the state of our bodies.

Hopefully we can echo Paul’s words, even if we are getting a bit creaky, wrinkly, saggy and baggy. Who cares! – we are never, literally never, past our use-by date.

So… Don’t lose heart!

Lord God, thank you for the gift of the body. Help me to look after it well, as the dwelling-place of the Holy Spirit, so that I can serve you till the day I die – but to remember too that one day it will be transformed to be perfect and eternal. Amen.

When godly people do godless things (part 2)

As he was about to enter Egypt, Abram said to his wife Sarai, “I know what a beautiful woman you are. When the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife’. Then they will kill me but will let you live. Say that you are my sister, so that I will be treated well for your sake and my life will be spared because of you.” Genesis 12:11-13

Last time we thought about how a good man like Abram could be guilty of such cruel and dishonest behaviour. My answer was simple: no child of God, then or now, is above the danger of lapsing into shameful actions; we are still prey to temptation.

So we should take it as a warning – as Paul puts it in1 Corinthians 10:12: “If you think you are standing, be careful that you don’t fall!”

But the episode also prompted a second question: Could Sarai have done more?

The writer of Genesis doesn’t say that Sarai objected to Abram’s request. She may have done, of course; but if she did, we aren’t told. Wouldn’t it be good, though, if verse 13 had some extra words? – something like: “But Sarai said, ‘No, my husband, no! Don’t force me to do something we both know is wrong’.”

Could Sarai have done that?

I just don’t know. In the world of that time men were in charge, and women were expected to obey. So even if she had mustered the courage to protest, no doubt Abram could have over-ridden her. She is in a pretty hopeless position.

However, we do know that marriages in the ancient world were not necessarily loveless or forced. In Genesis 24 we read about Isaac and Rebekah. Certainly, their marriage was arranged. But Rebekah was given the right to say no (verses 8 and 57-58). And the chapter ends with the simple and rather beautiful words: “she became his wife, and he loved her” (verse 67).

A little later, in chapter 29, we read about the marriage of Jacob and Rachel. “Jacob was in love with Rachel,” says verse 18 – so much so that he offered to work for seven years for her father Laban.

We’re told nothing about how Abram and Sarai came to be married, but quite possibly there was genuine love – and therefore a genuine relationship. In which case, why shouldn’t Sarai have raised a protest when Abram made his suggestion?

Well, it’s not for me to criticise Sarai – of course not. I wouldn’t like to have been in her shoes.

Whatever, there are a couple of positive and challenging points we can take from her part in the story.

First… Even if it was impossible for her to take a stand against wrong, it isn’t for most of us! – especially those of us who live in countries where we have freedom of speech.

Here’s a question (which, of course, I put to myself as much as to anyone else): Have you ever stood by in silence when some clear wrong was being done? Perhaps a lie was being told, and you didn’t have the courage to speak up? Perhaps, in your place of work, some sharp practice was going on and everyone else was turning a blind eye – so you did the same?

It’s said that evil prospers when good people do nothing; and it’s true. Thank God for those brave people – “whistle-blowers” they call them – who are prepared to risk their jobs, perhaps even their very lives, for what they see as right. They are often dismissed as trouble-makers or attention-seekers, and there may sometimes be truth in that. But not always.

God give us courage to do what may well have been impossible for Sarai – to stand up for what is right and true; to stand against what is false and wrong!

Second… I think that Sarai can be for us a symbol of victimhood.

In the ancient world women were indeed often exploited and treated merely as property. And we say, quite rightly, how terrible that is. But wait a minute! – in many parts of the world very little has changed. Girls and women – not to mention children – are often forced into the sex-trade or other degrading activities.

And it’s not only girls and women. Just this week, here in Britain, we have seen news reports of men treated virtually as slaves by unscrupulous “employers” – living in filthy, squalid conditions, fed very little, and paid next to nothing.

If nothing else, Sarai can stand as a reminder to us of the millions of people all over the world – women, men and children – who have been robbed of their rights, their dignity and their freedom.

As Christians it is our duty – not to say our privilege – to speak up on behalf of such people. To borrow the tag-line of the human rights charity Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), we can be “a voice for the voiceless”.

We must pray, of course; that goes without saying. But how about also joining and supporting one of the various organisations like CSW that are trying to make a practical difference?

If we are Christians, standing by and doing nothing just isn’t an option. Let’s pray – and act – on behalf of the millions of Sarais in this world!

Lord God, grant us the courage to stand up against evil when we see it around us – and also the compassion to act on behalf of those who have no power. Amen.

When godly people do godless things

As he was about to enter Egypt, Abram said to his wife Sarai, “I know what a beautiful woman you are. When the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife’. Then they will kill me but will let you live. Say that you are my sister, so that I will be treated well for your sake and my life will be spared because of you.” Genesis 12:11-13

I imagine that in every marriage there are times when husband and wife have to have a rather difficult conversation.

And I imagine that this was the case between Abram and Sarai when (along with their wider family, servants and livestock) they decided to visit Egypt to escape famine in Canaan.

Abram begins to see a snag in what at first seemed a great idea…

“Er, Sarai, I’m beginning to have second thoughts about going into Egypt. The Egyptian kings are very powerful men, you know, and they like to have lots of wives. Now, you’re a very beautiful woman, so I’m afraid the king might want to take you into his harem, and to get me out of the way I might be killed. I’ll tell you what – let’s pretend that you’re my sister, not my wife; then the king can have you as an unmarried woman, and there’ll be no reason to kill me. Are you happy with that?”

(We aren’t told what Sarai’s reply was…)

To my mind this episode prompts two big questions.

First, how on earth could Abram stoop to such shabby, shameful behaviour?

Remember, this is the man chosen by God to be the founding father of his people on earth. He was a man of great faith, impressively obedient to God’s call to leave everything he knew and to step out into the unknown (see Genesis 12:1-5).

Yet suddenly now, as he stands at the border of Egypt, he is gripped with fear and plain cowardice. Where is his faith now!

Fear leads to lies – he gets Sarai to agree to practice deception in order to save his skin. And, in the process, he treats her with total contempt, with a complete disregard for her dignity as a person. In effect, he plans to sell her off – and to pick up a pretty handsome bride-price as a result (verse 16).

Nice work, Abram!

So back to the question: How could this happen?

The simple answer is this. Both the Bible and Christian history demonstrate only too clearly the sad truth: very godly people can do very godless things.

Moses “killed the Egyptian and buried his body in the sand” (Exodus 2:12). David committed adultery with Bathsheba and arranged the death of her husband (2 Samuel 11). Simon Peter, having sworn undying allegiance to Jesus, ended up cursing and swearing in a very different way as he denied all knowledge of him (Matthew 26).

There can be no excuses, of course; but the fact is… it happens.

Even the greatest men and women of God are still far from perfect, and therefore subject to lapses. Perhaps it’s all the more likely to happen when someone has been on a spiritual high and, in reaction, lets their guard down. Remember how the prophet Elijah collapsed into a great quivering heap of self-pity immediately after his miraculous victory over the powers of darkness (1 Kings 18-19).

Christian history is littered with examples of fine, Spirit-filled people who – perhaps in a moment of weakness, perhaps in a moment of madness, perhaps at a time of special stress or difficulty – act as weakly or as despicably as Abram.

But what really matters is… it can happen to us too – yes, even to us who are permanently indwelt by God’s Holy Spirit.

We can of course draw comfort from the fact that Abram was forgiven by God. As were David and Moses and Elijah and Peter and all the rest. But be careful! The message still stands: no complacency! God can be appealed to, but he is not to be presumed upon.

Paul sums it up perfectly in 1 Corinthians 10:12: “If you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall.” Yes, the battle against sin and temptation will last until the day we die. Putting it more light-heartedly: we are all works in progress, not yet the finished article. As the wall-poster says: “Be patient; God hasn’t finished with me yet!”

Abram acted in a way which, I suspect (and hope!), he later hated himself for. Is this a warning you or I need as we reflect today on his sad fall?

Father God, thank you for the honesty of your word, and for the way it portrays great people of faith with all their faults and failings. Help me to take these warnings seriously, and not to fall into the same trap. Amen.

(I said the story of Abram and Sarai prompted two questions in my mind, but I’ve only had space to open up one. So I’ll keep the other one till next time: Could Sarai have done more?)

Distant God, or loving Father?

The Spirit you received brought about your adoption. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father”. The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Romans 8:15-16

I wonder what it’s like to learn that you were adopted as a baby?

Hopefully you had a secure and happy childhood, and it never so much as dawned on you that your parents were anything but – well, your parents, just like everyone else’s. But then a day came, perhaps in your early teens, when they took you aside and said “We need to tell you something…”

I can only imagine. It’s not a place where I have stood – but I have known one or two people who have. Perhaps you have too (in which case I would love to hear from you).

I imagine your first reaction might simply be one of shock, because the whole landscape of your life has suddenly changed. Then you might feel confused, hurt and even angry. But I hope that once it has all sunk in the main feeling is one of gratitude.

After all, to take the step of adopting someone else’s child is a wonderful thing to do. Even if you go through the rest of your life wondering what might have been, the fact is that someone – probably a total stranger – demonstrated extraordinary love and compassion, all at real cost.

Well, Paul tells us here in Romans that when we put our faith in Jesus, God adopts us into his family. He becomes our Father.

Many years ago I picked up a little paperback. It was written by a Muslim, and the title was I dared to call him ‘Father’. I don’t remember much about it now, but the writer described her conversion to Christ out of Islam. And the clinching moment, as far as I can remember, was when she took a deep breath and did something no Muslim would ever normally think of doing: she addressed God – yes, Allah himself! – as “Father”. Her life was never the same again.

May I ask: Do you think of God as your Father? Do you call him Father?

To know you are adopted by God changes everything.

First, it gives you a status.

We should never boast about being God’s children; this is not something we have earned or deserved. We become his children not because of anything we do, but because of what Jesus did in dying and rising for us.

But even though this status is not something we have deserved, it is a status nonetheless. It sets us apart. Paul goes on in the next verse to say that, as well as being God’s children, we become also “co-heirs with Christ.” Jesus, in other words, is in effect our brother, and so we share in the eternal destiny he has won. We are massively privileged.

Do you live day by day conscious of your privileged status?

Second, it gives you an assurance.

Many people have only the vaguest idea of what will happen to them after death. Their ideas may well be full of superstition – perhaps just “hoping for the best.”

But Paul adds a little further on that we will “share in Christ’s glory.”

A day is coming when the affairs of this world will be wound up once and for all. Jesus will return not as the-Saviour-to-be-crucified but as the-Lord-to-be-glorified. And that eternal glory of heaven itself will belong also to us, because we belong to him.

So… we can anticipate this future with complete confidence. As John puts it, “We shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1John 3:3). The heavenly Father who adopted us is not going to “un-adopt” us! Let’s stress again, this isn’t because we have made ourselves good enough by what we have done, but because Jesus has done all that is needed.

Do you have real assurance about your eternal salvation?

Third, it gives you a responsibility.

Families have a likeness – and this is true even in God’s adopted family. And what is the family likeness of God’s family? In one word: holiness. God is a perfect and holy God, pure and sinless.

So if we are his children, nothing less than this should be our aim day by day. True, we will never reach perfection in this earthly life, but we should be preparing for that day when we will indeed “be like him.” Sometimes that will be hard, but let’s make no mistake – it is in fact our deepest joy and fulfilment.

Do you aim to be like Jesus in all you do and say and think?

To sum up… We are God’s adopted children! So let’s enjoy the status, let’s find peace in the assurance, and let’s measure up to the responsibility!

Heavenly Father, thank you for adopting me as your child. May the beauty of Jesus be seen in me more and more each day. Amen.

What a performance…!

David went to bring up the ark of God from the house of Obed-Edom to the City of David with rejoicing… Wearing a linen ephod, he was dancing before the Lord with all his might… As the ark of the Lord was entering the city of David, Michal daughter of Saul watched from a window. And when she saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord, she despised him in her heart. 2 Samuel 6:12-16

Here’s a straight question that calls for an honest answer: Do you ever despise people from your heart?

One particular example: do you ever despise them because of the way they choose to express their love of God?

Think of two extremes in Christian worship. At one end of the spectrum is the full-on, uninhibited “happy-clappy”. His or her worship might be quite wildly uncontrolled, involving tongues-speaking, dancing, falling on the floor, you name it. At the other end is very controlled “liturgical” worship. This involves people dressed in robes and vestments, with processions, incense, chanting and, again, you name it.

Eyeing one another over a wide gulf, each group is tempted to consider itself superior to the other: and that is where the danger of despising the other group arises.

2 Samuel 6 tells us that Michal, David’s first wife, “despised him in her heart” (verse 16). Why? Well, he was heading a triumphant procession to bring the sacred chest, the “ark of the Lord”, up to his new capital city of Jerusalem. And she saw him from her window, wearing only some kind of light linen garment, and “leaping and dancing before the Lord”.

As far as Michal was concerned he was, to use an old-fashioned expression, making an exhibition of himself. Later, when they’re alone, she delivers a scathing, sarcastic blast: “How the king of Israel has distinguished himself today, going around half-naked in full view of the slave-girls of his servants as any vulgar fellow would!” (verse 20).

David hits back – and hard: he strongly defends his behaviour, and bitingly tells her that it was God he was wanting to please, not her, so he’ll take no lessons from her, thank you very much. The writer then tells us that Michal “had no children till the day of her death” – presumably because she never again shared his bed.

Michal despised David. David rejected Michal. Which raises the question: who was right and who was wrong?

The Bible gives no clear answer to that question; but there can be little doubt that it is basically on David’s side. For all his many faults he was a passionate lover of God, and though he sometimes expressed this love in ways that might seem rather exaggerated, his heart was right.

We should bear in mind too that the event described in 2 Samuel 6 was no routine act of worship, which I am sure would have been much more sedate.

No, it was an act of national celebration – we might compare it to a royal wedding, or the euphoria when peace is declared at the end of a war. The ark of the Lord, the sacred box at the very heart of Israel’s identity, has been through various dangerous and humiliating adventures –  but now at last it is back where it belongs! So some serious rejoicing is in order.

But perhaps we can also feel a touch of sympathy for Michal. She clearly had – what shall I call it? – a sense of decorum, which is surely a good thing. (Perhaps sometimes we could do with a bit more of it?) Michal felt that things should be done in a fitting manner, and – yes, well, having the king prancing about publicly in little more than his underwear does perhaps seem a touch “over the top”.

Indeed, had Michal been able to look a thousand years into the future, she might have felt she could quote scripture in her support. Can one imagine Christ himself – “great David’s greater Son”, as the hymn describes him – acting in this way? Doesn’t Paul, writing to the unruly Christians of Corinth, scold them and tell them that “everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way” (1 Corinthians 14:40)?

Whatever, the fact is that some forms of worship (and I’m not speaking here only of the strongly liturgical type) have the effect of killing stone dead any sense of joy or emotion in the presence of God. All very orderly… all very correct… all very proper. But – where is the living God? It is, as David said, him that we are seeking to please. Isn’t there, then, a place for letting our spiritual hair down?

The main point to take from the sad story of Michal is simple: whatever our own preference when it comes to styles of worship, we are not to despise our fellow-Christians or secretly view them with contempt.

If you feel like digesting a truly challenging word, try Philippians 2:3 for size: “…in humility regard others as better than yourselves.” Even better, the words of Jesus himself: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged” (Matthew 7:1).

Always think the best, not the worst!

Lord God, help me, by your Spirit, to love, worship and enjoy you with all my heart – whatever form that might take. Amen.

“It is the Lord!”

Then the disciple Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” John 21:7

How would you feel if one day you’re doing your job – a job you’ve been doing for many years and which you’re very good at – and some stranger comes along and starts giving you advice about it?

Say you’re a car mechanic with your head in the bonnet struggling to make a tricky adjustment, and somebody wanders into your garage and says, “Mmm, that carburettor looks a bit dodgy, don’t you think?” Or you’re a cardiac surgeon rummaging around inside somebody’s heart and someone drifts into the operating theatre and comments on the way you’re dealing with a particular artery?

You probably wouldn’t feel, as they say, best pleased. You might even tell them to, er, go away.

And who could blame you?

The disciples of Jesus had a strange waiting period of forty days between his resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Oh, they knew he was alive, all right – in fact from time to time he appeared to them. But nothing very much seemed to be happening. What did he want of them? When could they expect to start their great task of “going and making disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19)?

A moment came when a handful of them decided to go back to what they knew, and what they had spent their lives doing: “I’m going out to fish,” said Peter. “We’ll go with you,” said the others (John 21:2-3).

And after fishing all night… they have caught nothing. Not so much as a sprat. I imagine they’re pretty cold, pretty hungry, and seriously fed up.

It’s at this point that they get some unasked for advice from a stranger standing on the shore. His voice comes to them across the water: “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you’ll find some fish.”

Huh! Who does he think he is? What business does he have telling them how to do their job?

But – perhaps from where he is standing he can see something they can’t. So, even if a bit grumpily, they follow his suggestion; and “when they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish” (John 21:6).

It’s at this point that one of them – “the disciple whom Jesus loved” – suddenly understood. “It is the Lord!” he says. Did he shout those words in sheer excitement? Or whisper them in sheer wonderment? We aren’t told; but it must have been one of those spine-tingling moments that came with the miracle of Jesus risen from the dead.

I suspect that all of us, from time to time, have “It is the Lord” moments.

All right, they won’t be as dramatic, thrilling and heart-stirring as that moment in the boat. But moments nonetheless when we sense a special presence with us of the living God.

It may happen when we are praying, or sharing in worship with others. It may be when we hear news of answered prayer. It may be in the middle of an ordinary day, just going about our business, perhaps trawling through a load of emails or changing a nappy; and there is that sudden stab of peace and joy. Or perhaps we are enjoying some special treat – a walk on a sunny day, or time with loved ones and friends – and the feeling that “all is well” is overwhelming. Persecuted Christians sometimes testify to such an experience even while cooped up in their prison cell.

Yes, it is the Lord!

The poet William Wordsworth described a fleeting moment when he was “surprised by joy” – a phrase C S Lewis famously borrowed to describe his experience of God.

Another poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, said of God: “I greet him the days I meet him, and bless when I understand”. Well, hopefully we can “meet” God, and therefore also “greet” him, every day. But I think I know what Hopkins means. There are special moments…

I said earlier that we all sometimes have “It is the Lord” moments. But on second thoughts, I’m not so sure. How often do such moments come… and we miss them? Our minds and lives are so crowded with noise and activity, we are so obsessed with the shallow and the trivial, that, though he is there, we just don’t see him; though he is speaking, we just don’t hear him.

We mustn’t go looking for such moments, of course – the whole point is that they come out of the blue, as on that day on the Sea of Galilee.

But let’s at least be open and alert to their possibility. Let’s make sure that, day by day, our spiritual antennae are fully operational…

Lord Jesus, help me to hunger and thirst after righteousness so eagerly that I develop a deep sensitivity to your presence and your voice. Amen.