A Single Thread, a Single Sheep and a Single Coin

This week I went to the book launch of A Single Thread set in Winchester Cathedral. I was particularly keen to attend, not just because I enjoy Tracy Chevalier’s writing, but because one of my churches features in the novel.

At the launch Tracy spoke about how she looked for the feminine in the story, and how her novels always seem to have that balance between the masculine and the feminine. In this latest novel set inbetween the two World Wars when there were a million ‘surplus women’, the masculine skills that built the cathedral are set alongside the cushions and kneelers being made by the group of women that our heroine joins. The band of bellringers is balanced by the guild of broderers.

In the gospel passage from Luke, a similar thing is happening: Luke balances the male, external world of the shepherd with the female, internal world of the housewife.

Both the shepherd and the housewife have lost something of great importance to them and they seek and seek for it until it is found, and then they are so delighted and relieved to be reunited with their lost item that they celebrate with others.

The shepherd loses a single sheep. Surely this happens all the time? Sheep wander and get lost, or get picked by prowling beasts. The woman loses a single coin, a penny perhaps; who doesn’t lose coins down the back of the sofa? This too is surely an ordinary encounter. In both cases the sheep and the coin are not the only ones, they are just a single sheep from a flock of 100, a single coin from a band of 10. Yet each are valuable.

The sheep is valuable because the shepherd knows it, the shepherd has spent time with it, has identified it’s quirks and character. This is no ordinary sheep, it is his sheep.

The woman hasn’t simply lost a coin, but has lost one of the 10 silver coins she was given at her wedding. The coins would have been part of a headdress, and when a coin was ‘missing’ it would indicate something missing from the marriage, it would indicate divorce. The woman hasn’t just lost a coin but has lost her status.

In telling these stories of lost and found, Jesus is trying to help the Pharisees to understand just how valuable to God are the ‘lost’ and the ‘shamed’. The member of the flock who has gone astray, the woman who has not valued her marriage, are God’s beloved children and he will seek them out and bring them safely home; and then, because of his great love for them, will rejoice with the angels when they enter into the heavenly realms.

Jesus’ love is for all. He cannot be boxed into a holy cubby hole, and neither will his love be reserved exclusively for the good, the safe, the pious, regardless of gender.

For years, despite Jesus’ speaking out against the cultural norms of his times, women have been belittled and devalued in our readings of the gospel. In some churches and Christian circles still, the mantra ‘equal but different’ is used to keep women quietly on the tea rota and out of the pulpit. Women have been accused of ‘tainting’, making unclean, communion tables when they have fulfilled their priestly calling by celebrating at them, despite the way in which Jesus touched the unclean, male and female, and made them whole. Luke shows us how Jesus reaches out to male and female, feminine and masculine, and proclaims each worthy of a party in heaven.

We are slowly beginning to give women the same working rights as men (in the West at least), we can even have female bishops now, but what of others that are deemed ‘unclean’? How often does the phrase ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’ been used of someone who is ‘other’ than us? Perhaps this statement could be used, properly, of someone serving a prison sentence, and yet it only ever seems to be used of those whose gender identity is other than heterosexual.

If Jesus were to tell parables of the ‘lost’ now, who would feature in them? If Jesus were to be found drinking and eating with ‘the wrong people’ today, would it be because he was marching at Pride, or dancing at a gay bar, or sharing a meal with a trans woman?

The lost are only lost when nobody cares enough to seek them out, to bring them home, to restore them to a place of honour; and are only truly found when someone cares enough to rejoice over them.

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Invitation to the VIP Suite

I remember the Old Testament tutor telling us how he had met his wife. He had been studying in New York at a Jewish seminary and attended synagogue on the sabbath. In the door way were cards, placed by members of the synagogue who had space for a visitor for lunch. Anyone could take a card and simply turn up and be welcome, because nobody was a pauper on the sabbath, everyone was a prince. Of course, he picked a card and turned up to have lunch at which the beautiful daughter was also in attendence….

Jesus is invited to share a meal in the house of the Pharisees on the sabbath. Perhaps he had been invited by this same principle, perhaps they were simply including him, as a rabbi, in the discussion often held at table, and Jesus was among them as teacher and preacher for theological and philosophical discussion. Perhaps the Pharisees were interested to see what scandal would occur with Jesus as their guest, after all ‘they were watching him closely’. What they weren’t expecting was a lecture from a guest on hospitality.

Jesus however notes the ungracious way in which the guests are vying for the best seats. Social etiquette denoted who would sit at the head of the table, who then at his (yes, his) right and left hand, and then moving down the table in lessening degrees of status. There is no humility in Jesus’ fellow diners, and each pushes to be seated at the head of the table. We are not told where Jesus has sat, whether he had been placed at the head of the table as the most interesting guest, even if not the most respected, or if he had simply seated himself at the other end of the table watching whilst diners jostle for top spot.

Either way, he sees them and their actions, and begins to tell a tale about being invited to a wedding party, which warns that in claiming the top seat guests faced the indignity of being asked to move aside for someone more important. It is far better to take the lower seat and be asked to move up, than it is to take a higher seat and be asked to move down. I wonder if any of the guests suddenly felt uncomfortable in their hard won seats?

The guests are not the only ones who face criticism, the host does too. The host is warned about being exclusive in his invitations, dining only with those who will invite him back in return, or can promote him and grace him with their favour.

Just as Jesus’ table etiquette is about humility in choosing where to sit, so is his guest list. Choose those who cannot offer hospitality to share your table. Be blessed in the presence of others and not by what they can offer in return.

Throw the banquet by all means, be lavish and generous, as Craddock comments,

Nothing for Luke can be more serious than a dining table.

Fred B Craddock

but be generous in your invitation of the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. Invite the social outcast to be included in your social gathering.

As we read this story, we cannot help but think of another banquet. One at which he who should have sat at the head of the table, instead removed his robes, knelt at the feet of his guests and bathed them, taking on the role of the lowliest member of the household. We cannot help but think of the guests that evening, friends who would run away and hide when he was in trouble, friends who would betray him, deny even knowing him… This Jesus was not speaking uncomfortable truths for everyone else to ponder upon, but lived them out. This man, this rabbi, was accused by others of eating with publicans and sinners, whilst also providing a feast of bread and fish for those who would never be able to repay the offering.

And as we reflect upon the way that Jesus lived, perhaps we also reflect upon our own version of ‘hospitality’, a custard cream and a cup of tea after church and a quick ‘how are you’, really doesn’t cut the mustard, it really pales in comparison with the synagogue lunches on offer.

How are we to become more radical in our hospitality? Perhaps we could begin by giving up our precious seat on the train when it is packed to the gills? Perhaps we could share lunch after the service and not just ‘a nice cup of tea and a biscuit’? Perhaps when meeting someone new, whether in church or elsewhere, we ask them to come dine with us, and see what relationships blossom.

Read the full story here.

A Day for Re-creation.

Jesus was a good Jewish boy. Sometimes it is hard for us to remember this, after all didn’t, the Jews kill him (actually no, the Romans did, but some Jewish leaders conspired against him)? We fall into the trap of thinking that Jesus was the first Christian, after all, those of us who follow Jesus, who name ourselves after him, refer to ourselves as Christians, but again, No. Jesus lived his life according to all the rites and rituals of the Jewish faith and none that Christians ascribe to. Jesus did not celebrate the Eucharist, he wasn’t baptised in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and he never set foot inside a church.

Jesus celebrated Passover amongst other Jewish feasts and festivals, he was circumcised not baptised, and he worshipped in the synagogue.

To be in the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was Jesus’ custom was to be at the heart of Judaism in its most prevalent and in many ways its strongest form. In Luke’s own day, Jerusalem and the temple had been destroyed, but there were synagogues in every city.

Fred B Craddock

It is in the synagogue that today’s tale takes place. Jesus and his Jewish disciples (no they weren’t Christians either), have come to worship. Also at the synagogue are other Jews, as you would expect, some who had come to fulfil roles of leadership and others who had simply come to quietly worship with their community, just as they would every Sabbath. What marks this Sabbath day out, is that Jesus had been asked, or given permission, to teach. We must assume that this was happening with the synagogue leader’s knowledge and permission, and that he knew of Jesus’ reputation. Either they were drawn to what he had to say and wanted to learn from him, or they, like other synagogues leaders in other towns, wanted to try and catch him out: what would he do this Sabbath day that was against Torah?

Jesus is teaching when he sees a woman come in. Perhaps synagogue worship didn’t have a specific start time, perhaps it was usual for people to just turn up and join in whenever they could. Perhaps this woman was always late, and perhaps her lateness was because of her physical disability. Nobody else seems to notice her, so perhaps she had a reputation of coming in once the teacher had already begun.

The woman hobbles in, and Jesus stops mid sentence (I imagine), and calls her over. This woman had been crippled for 18 years. For 18 years she had not been able to walk well, nor was she able to hold her head up high and look others in the eye, she was so bent over that for 18 years she had seen more of the ground, more of her feet, than the sky, than the faces of loved ones. For 18 years she had been bent in a position of subservience; now Jesus calls her over.

Woman, you are set free from your ailment.

Luke 13:12

As Jesus touches this woman, she is able to stand straight. For the first time she can stand tall amongst her peers, within her community, for the first time in 18 years she has something she can truly praise God for and she can use her whole body to do so without pain. And she does. Alleluia! You would expect that her worshipping community who had seen her struggle for 18 years would also praise God with her, surely this is something to be celebrated? But no, instead the synagogue leader becomes indignant, and starts throwing around accusations about breaking the Sabbath commandments,

There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not the sabbath day.

Luke 13:14

It is interesting to see how the synagogue leader frames his complaints, because the woman did not come with the intention to seek healing, Jesus called to her, not the other way round. Neither did Jesus come with the intention to heal, but rather to teach. When the healing and the synagogue leader’s indignation come together though, Jesus’ teaching moves to a new level. We assume that Jesus had been teaching about the kingdom of God and how it is coming near, how Yahweh wants to mend the broken relationship with his people, and now we have the perfect illustration.

The woman has come bound by a spirit of brokenness, and Jesus sets her free to worship God; and yet the rule-keeping synagogue leader would deny her this freedom, because he himself is bound by the letter of the law, so bound that he is able to better care for his animals than members of his worshipping community, those in his spiritual care.

Interestingly, if the woman’s condition had been critical, if she had received a blow to the head, had a heart attack, or fallen and cut herself in his sight, then Torah would have permitted Jesus to have responded with life saving first aid; because the woman had been able to live with her condition for 18 years, it wasn’t critical and could wait.

Just like the woman we often remain bound when we could be healed if only we would ask. We remain bound by other people’s assumptions of us, by our not wanting to trouble anyone, and definitely not drawing attention to ourselves. We may not be bound by physical infirmities, indeed despite having ‘disabilities’ we may have freedom in ways that others don’t. Perhaps we have sought healing and been disappointed, but there is a difference between being ‘healed’ and being set free.

This woman was healed of whatever caused her to be bent over, but more than that she was released from a spirit, a disability, which prevented her from being fully able to worship God.

How do we come to God holding together the desire to be healed and to be released to worship and live our lives fully for God, when there is also a fear of disappointment? Perhaps we begin with working out just what it is that keeps us bound, it may not be an illness or a disability, it may be the attitudes of others. For the hobbling woman freedom came when one person took time to notice her, to value her and to draw her into God’s light; when the rules and laws were loosened enough to let her breathe and healing to be enacted upon her.

If we are to receive healing, and be agents of healing for others, then we need to be open to those in need, those who may shuffle in late and keep to the shadows, those who nudge us out of our comfort zones and cause us to question the way we have always done things.

Jesus calls the synagogue leader a hypocrite, for all his rule keeping in order to protect the holiness of the Sabbath has caused it to be devalued. The day for rest, restoration and re-creation is a God given day, and Jesus shows us the way to be blessed, and bless others by it.

Read the whole story here.

Teach us to pray…

The disciples ask their teacher how they should pray. They have seen their rabbi at prayer many times, they have lost him only to find him up a mountain deep in conversation with Yahweh, and they have attended synagogue with him regularly.

They are all good Jewish boys, and would have been taught the correct prayer life by their parents and in the basic schooling they received as young children. But they want more. How can they achieve the same level of devotion that Jesus has? They have seen how prayer can bring healing and release, and taken it out on their missions and experienced it for themselves. Some of them have even seen Jesus transfigured. Still they seek more.

Perhaps they feel that they are missing out? Perhaps word has come from John’s disciples about the prayer life they experienced with their rabbi? Andrew, it is believed, was a disciple of John prior to following Jesus, perhaps he felt that something was missing?

Lord teach us to pray as John taught his disciples.

Luke 11:1

So how did John teach his disciples? We have no record of John’s relationship with his disciples, understandably, as the gospels focus on Jesus and John bows out shortly after Jesus’ baptism, and then of course he comes to a sticky end.

What we do know about John though, is that his way of life was more ascetic, perhaps more disciplined. John himself lived a very simple life, wearing animal skins and grazing for his own diet. His teaching was on repentance and the only ritual he held was that of baptism, of being cleansed in preparation for the one to come.

Perhaps John had given to his disciples a form of prayer that was an identifying mark to the group. We know his disciples fasted and prayed. It was not unusual for rabbis to teach specific prayers. Notice that the text treats prayer as a learned experience, not simply as a release of feelings. Discipline is clearly implied.

Fred B Craddock

What the disciples received and we have inherited is a formula for prayer that covers just about every aspect of life, but differs dramatically from the ascetic lifestyle of John. The first thing that the disciples are required to do is draw close to God, not keep him at a distance for fear that our earthliness will be an insult to God. Jesus tells them to call Yahweh ‘Daddy’.

The prayer begins surprisingly, by calling God ‘Abba’ – ‘Dear Father’.

The Jews have several names for God, and a hundred ways of avoiding his holy name. No one has ever presumed to call God ‘Daddy’. Jesus is inviting his friends to share his own intimate relationship with God. This is not like any prayer that has ever been before. This is love talk.

Andrew Knowles

The disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray as John had taught them, instead he teaches them a new intimacy with God. In what has become known as ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ there is no call to repent of our sorrows, but instead an invitation to come into the Father’s presence and to ask for what we need, with an assurance of the Father’s love and desire to give us all that is good for us.

Yes there are the words about seeking forgiveness, but they come with an assurance that sins will be forgiven, rather than a fear of not being good enough; and those words, along with a plea to be protected from temptation, come after the disciples have been invited to ask for their daily needs.

John teaches us to make ourselves ready to come into God’s presence, and Jesus welcomes us in.

The disciples asked to be taught to pray as John’s disciples had been taught, instead Jesus teaches us once more the power of love. To be accepted as worthy to be in God’s presence and to join the heavenly pursuits of love and forgiveness.

The disciples had asked the wrong question of Jesus. They wanted to be taught to pray as John’s disciples prayed, instead Jesus teaches them to pray as co-heirs of the kingdom.

Read it here.

Worried and Distracted

A friend posted this poem on their timeline today and I was reminded of Martha,

A blessing for the Exhausted

When the rhythm of the heart becomes hectic,

Time takes on the strain until it breaks;

Then all the unattended stress falls in

On the mind like an endless, increasing weight,

The light in the mind becomes dim.

Things you could take in your stride before

Now become laboursome events of will.

Weariness invades your spirit.

Gravity begins falling inside you,

Dragging down every bone.

The tide you never valued has gone out.

And you are marooned on unsure ground.

Something within you has closed down;

And you cannot push yourself back to life.

You have been forced to enter empty time.

The desire that drove you has relinquished.

There is nothing else to do now but rest

And patiently learn to receive the self

You have forsaken for the race of days.

At first your thinking will darken

And sadness take over like listless weather.

The flow of unwept tears will frighten you.

You have travelled too fast over false ground;

Now your soul has come to take you back.

Take refuge in your senses, open up

To all the small miracles you rushed through.

Become inclined to watch the way of rain

When it falls slow and free.

Imitate the habit of twilight,

Taking time to open the well of colour

That fostered the brightness of day.

Draw alongside the silence of stone

Until its calmness can claim you.

Be excessively gentle with yourself.

Stay clear of those vexed in spirit.

Learn to linger around someone of ease

Who feels they have all the time in the world.

John Donohue

Martha is busy in the kitchen preparing a meal for the guest of honour, while her sister, Mary, is doing nothing. It all seems so unfair, why should her sister get to lounge around ‘entertaining’ their guest whilst Mary does all the hard work? This is not a story of unfair workloads, although it may feel like that, rather of unnecessary burdens.

When Martha gets to breaking point and asks Jesus to intervene, his response is not what is expected. He doesn’t tell Mary that she’s needed in the kitchen and that he can do without her company, he instead speaks gently to Martha,

Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things…

Luke 10:41

Martha is burdened. She may well be burdened by a variety of pots bubbling away, of herbs and vegetables needing to be chopped, and sauces to be mixed. The amount of dirty pots and pans may be taking over the kitchen sides. The heat in the kitchen may just be too much.

Perhaps the burden isn’t the amount of work which she has set for herself, after all, Martha may enjoy cooking and baking and serving delicious food for people. Jesus says that Martha is worried by many things, so what is concerning her?

Well, for a start, there is a man in her house. For a single woman to entertain a man without a male chaperone just wasn’t done. If people were to find out aspersions would be cast, and their reputations would be ruined. Despite first appearances, Martha has stepped outside of her cultural comfort zone, but Mary has taken a step further. Mary is sitting at Jesus’ feet. Mary is taking on the role, and physical position, of a disciple, something else which women just didn’t do; and as the two single women are separated from each other by their chores, they can’t even be vaguely accountable for each other as chaperones. Martha isn’t simply annoyed, she is worried.

Jesus identifies this overwhelming concern of Martha’s which has been bubbling up in the kitchen alongside those pots and pans, and he sees that it is distracting her.

Martha it seems is distracted by so many things. Perhaps she is a ‘born worrier’, perhaps she struggles with anxiety, perhaps she is understandably shaken by this new relationship she and her sister have struck up with the rabbi who seems to b changing everything; who brings hope, but also danger?

Theologian Fred B. Craddock points out that Jesus has recognised that Martha’s concerns have become an ‘obstacle to learning’. Mary on the other hand, has a much simpler approach to life it seems, is able to shake off any cultural expectations of gender or hospitality and simply sits at Jesus’ feet soaking up everything Jesus has to say. Jesus not only allows this, but encourages it, and his response to Martha’s complaint is not to rebuke her sister, but to challenge her busyness. Mary has become

a woman so busy serving she does not hear the word

Fred B. Craddock

Jesus doesn’t tell Mary to pull her weight, he tells Martha to join them. She is encouraged to leave the chores behind, and to ‘sit down, listen, and learn’.

We live in a world which is full of ‘things to do’, life has become one long list. How often do we ask someone how they are and they either brush aside the question not expecting you to have the time to really listen, or, almost with a sense of pride tell you how busy they are. Even in, maybe especially in, church circles. Our lives are unbalanced and we forget that the burden Jesus promises us is a light one. Just as he invites Martha to leave her pinny behind and come and sit with him, he calls all those who are weary and burdened to come and rest in his presence.

There is a time to go and do; there is a time to listen and reflect. Knowing which and when is a matter of spiritual discernment.

Andrew Knowles

The churches in which I serve are coming into a time of ‘interregnum’ – our Team Rector has retired and will not be replaced. There were 2.5 full time clergy, now there are 1.5. In addition there is a probability that we will be asked to take care of more churches whose vicar is moving on. The workload could easily make us weary, and with the burdens of the souls we carry we could soon become heavy laden. Not just the clergy, but lay ministers too, and everyone who has a role to play in the life of the church.

If we are to prevent this happening, we need to tune into that spiritual discernment of when to stop. When to risk tea being late or the pans boiling over, in order that we ourselves are refreshed by the Spirit and able to learn from the Lord.

We also need to remember to be kind. Kind to each other and kind to ourselves. When we don’t look after ourselves, our souls, we can easily allow our weariness to boil over into frustration at others, and end up adding to their burdens.

Let us be wary of becoming overburdened, too busy, worried and distracted by many things, and instead find time to sit at Jesus’ feet where we can not only rest, but listen and learn too.

Read Martha’s story here.

The Good Samaritan: A Holy Game of Would you Rather?

There’s a game, ‘Would you Rather’, which challenges it’s players to choose between two equally un-enticing options: Would you rather live without books or music?   Would you rather eat an egg with a half-formed chicken inside or eat ten cooked grasshoppers? Would you rather live in a cave or live in a tree house? Would you rather thirty butterflies instantly appear from nowhere every time you sneeze or one very angry squirrel appear from nowhere every time you cough?

The Lawyer and the Priest in the story of the Good Samaritan are faced with a ‘Would you Rather?’ dilemma. They come across a person desperately in need of help, but if they do stop and help they will become spiritually unclean and unable to help others. Their duty to the injured man conflicts with their religious duties. They cannot do both. The story tells us that they choose to remain clean and carry out their ceremonial duties and ignore the injured man. In many ways it is a ‘no-brainer’ – by remaining clean they also remain safe. This is bandit country after all, and look what happened to the traveller?

The Samaritan though, doesn’t have to play this game of ‘Would you Rather’, because he is already unclean:

Samaritans were descendants of a mixed population occupying the land following the conquest by Assyria in 722BC. They opposed rebuilding the temple and Jerusalem and constructed their own place of worship on Mount Gerazim. Ceremonially unclean, socially outcast, and religiously a heretic, the Samaritan was the very opposite of the …priest and the Levite.

Fred B.Craddock

The Samaritan’s options were narrowed – should he help this fellow traveller? The human answer of course, is yes. And so he does.

Jesus tells this story in response to a lawyer who asked him

What must I do to inherit eternal life?

Luke 10:25

Jesus asks him a question which refers to the religious laws at the heart of the Jewish faith, and the lawyer answers corrrectly:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.

Luke 10:27

This is of course, the correct answer. The Legal answer, the religious answer. But the Lawyer is looking for more, he is looking to secure his place in heaven, his holy status, and so, ‘wanting to justify himself’, he asks Jesus who his neighbour is.

The Lawyer wants to narrow down the option to a manageable amount of loving others; Jesus opens it up and expands it.

Jesus has turned the question around. It is no longer ‘who is my neighbour?’ but, ‘to whom can I be a neighbour’

Andrew Knowles

This is all very clever of Jesus,and we have learned to be more humanitarian, to put others first, and that it pleases God to care for his creation more than it pleases him to care for rules and rituals. What strikes me, though, is the motives of the Lawyer who approaches Jesus in the first place. The man asks Jesus a question that he knows he can answer, with the expectation that he will be justified as a good and holy person. This is not necessarily the case, and if the lawyer is asking the question with ‘no intention of implementing answers’ (Craddock), he is placing himself in a very dangerous spiritual position. As are we.

If we come to church, or fellowship group, or even read out Bibles in our own study and prayer time, with no expectation to be challenged and to have to respond to these challenges, then our faith is spiritually hollow. If we attend ‘holy meetings’ in order to justify ourselves, we are actually placing ourselves in a dangerous position.

This morning, allow yourself to walk down the dangerous highway, one in which we may be accosted by bandits, but even more disturbingly, may come face to face with our own broken humanity. Would we rather face up to our own human inconsistencies and lose our social standing? Or would we rather keep to the religious rules and stay safe in our own little boxes?

Read the whole story here, or if you would rather, watch it here.

The Kingdom of God has come near!

How do we know when the kingdom of God has come near? Is it when we feel that lovely holy tingle? When our favourite hymn is sung and we can really bellow it out? Has the kingdom of God come near when everyone who is on a church rota turns up on ‘their’ Sunday, fully prepared? Has the Kingdom of God come near when there are (quiet) children in church and ‘grannies’ too? Has the Kingdom of God come near when someone asks if they can be baptised, or confirmed, or speak to you because they think God is calling them into ordained ministry?

Maybe.

How do we know when the Kingdom of God has come near? When we are prepared to move away from our safe spaces and venture out into the big bad world where there are ‘lions and tigers and bears – oh my’ (The Wizard of Oz).

Jesus sent his disciples out with this very message, but it wasn’t so much the words they used that delivered the message, but their very beings. Jesus sent his followers out unarmed, unprepared, unprotected, and warned them that they were being sent out like

lambs in the midst of wolves

Luke 10:3

They had no money to pay their way, but were to rely on the generosity of others. They had no money, but they did carry with them God’s blessing.

They blessed those who welcomed them into their homes, with peace, and they blessed towns that welcomed them into their market places with healing.

How do we know that the Kingdom of God has drawn near? When people who are usually too busy, too tired, too scared, are willing to carry the kingdom within them to new places.

That’s all well and good for the 12 disciples – they had Jesus at hand to teach them and give them authority to cast out that which is not holy. These disciples were Saints with a capital S. We are so much less than they. But this is not a story about the Apostles, this is a story about 72 unnamed people who stepped out in faith. Who picked up the message and carried it wherever it would be received. These are ordinary people.These are saints (with a small s) just like you and me.

The harvest is plentiful but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.

Luke 10:2

How do we know when the Kingdom of God is near? When ordinary people are filled with the courage to speak of God’s love even in places where it isn’t the done thing; when ordinary people are willing to risk rejection to speak of Jesus’ compassion for others; when ordinary people put their faith into action.

Is the Kingdom of Heaven near?

Read more here.

Sailing into the unknown

The story of ‘Legion’ or the Gerasene Demoniac is fairly well known: a man so haunted by demons that he cannot speak sensibly, act safely, or even keep clothes on his back, is released by the power of Jesus. There are a few cases of Jesus casting out demons within the Gospel narratives, and this one follows a similar pattern: the demons within the person recognise Jesus and are fearful, Jesus ‘casts them out’ of the troubled human, the human gives thanks and praise to Jesus. It’s pretty amazing stuff if we stop to think about it, but for those of us brought up on Sunday School stories, it all feels so ‘ordinary’. I read the passage through and thought, ‘what new thing can I say about this?’

Then a question came to me,

Why was Jesus in Gerasa in the first place?

Gerasa was a Roman city founded by Alexander the Great, thirty three miles from the sea of Galilee and located in the mountains of Gilead, a place of hippodromes, theatres and pagan temples: a place of gentiles. What was Jesus doing in a place of outsiders, when he had previously stated that his mission was primarily to God’s chosen people, the Jews?

Perhaps this was one of those occasions when Jesus wanted to take the disciples to a quiet place so that they could all rest, and he could give them his undivided attention and some quality time? Jesus had invited the disciples to ‘go across to the other side of the lake’ (Luke 8:22), but not given them any clues as to what they would be doing when they got there. To be fair, Jesus had fallen asleep pretty much as soon as they had got into the boat, which suggests that rest was his main concern, but then they’d had a little trouble with some wind and waves and Jesus had been called upon to calm the storm. Perhaps Jesus had some in depth, undisturbed teaching in mind for the twelve regarding their lack of faith. Perhaps the encounter with the demoniac was the teaching: a reminder that Jesus, creator, had authority over all of creation, including the demons under the waters and in our minds?

It could of course have been something completely different. Jesus could have headed towards Gerasa to claim Gentile territory as belonging to God too. This may have been the beginning of the mission which Peter and Paul would head up following Jesus’ ascension, as Christ’s church began to grow. The cleansing of the demoniac was symbolic of God’s love for everyone, and his healing power to cleanse and restore.

There are also future echoes here of the story of the Prodigal Son: the son who is profligate with his inheritance ends up feeding swine: dirty, unclean creatures according to Jewish teaching. Here Jesus sends the demons into the swine and rescues the destitute man.

Another possibility could simply be that the storm had blown them off course, and Jesus and co had originally been heading for a different shore.

Why was Jesus in Gerasa?

The other question that came to me was regarding the end of the tale. Jesus and his friends prepare to return back to Jewish territory; as they are getting into the boat the demoniac-no-more begs to be allowed to go with them. And who wouldn’t? This man had been hounded by demons and by neighbours alike: both had bound him, although the human chains could not hold him. His story was quite unbelievable and he would have to start his life all again with a rather unusual and distinctive reputation. However, Jesus denies him a new start in a new place, there is no witness relocation program for him. Instead Jesus challenges the man to become a missionary in his home town.

Return to your home town and declare how much God has done for you.

Luke 8:39

This is quite a big ask. A huge one. This man, now in his right mind, has previously been cast out and cast aside by family, friends and neighbours. Those who had formerly loved him had come to fear him. Now he was to approach them and tell them his story. Not just that, he was to tell people with a pagan faith (if any) what God – the Jewish God – had done for him. It’s a big ask, but this is what Jesus asks of him, so why does the Gerasene tell everyone about Jesus instead?

This man who has encountered Jesus and the healing and restoration that Jesus delivered, tells everyone about him. Jesus always directs us to God, he doesn’t demand worship or praise for himself, but always gives the glory to God in Heaven; but because God is in heaven, and Jesus is here on earth, tangibly making a difference to his life, the man from Gerasa tells everyone, throughout the city, about what Jesus has done. And in a sense, he is doing what he has been told, because, as Jesus is to declare later, the Father and the Son are one.

Alongside these two questions, there is a challenge for us here: are we to get back in the boat and hide away with Jesus and his holy huddle, or are we going to have the courage to tell everyone (let’s start with someone, anyone) about what Jesus has done for us? Our story may not be as dramatic as the man from Gerasa, but it is our story, and it is precious , and it will speak to others. From sharing our encounters with Jesus, no matter how small we may think they are, others will come to know God. Maybe not everyone, but I bet someone will be touched by the love that Jesus has shown you and seek that out for themselves too. And if not, well, they will have come to know something more about you, and your friendship will deepen because of it.

Read the full story here.

Delighting in the Human Race

It rarely seems as if there is anything to be delighted about, when we look to news coverage and social media. ‘Jokes’ about acid attacks and rape, bickering politicians, homophobic attacks in public places….. but still God delights in the human race.

Let’s get this straight, God doesn’t delight in the bickering, the verbal and physical abuse, God doesn’t delight in the narrow minded approaches to gender and sexuality, or to bigoted ideals of purity. I think it breaks God’s heart to see what is supposed to be the crown of creation, humanity made in God’s own image, acting in such ungodly ways.

But broken, arrogant, wayward humanity is still God’s delight, and on Father’s day let us celebrate that.

Father’s Day, a day to be thankful for the father figures in our lives, to encourage and nurture men in their parenting roles and as role models: John speaks of the special relationship between Father and Son (although fathers and daughters can also have a special bond). For God the Father/Son relationship was that between himself and Jesus. As we read through the gospels we see Jesus, time and again, going off to spend some special alone time with his Father.

One to one time is precious for any parent and child. A time to be alone to share what really matters and to get to know each other as individuals. It is a time to be loved and valued and identified. Jesus took that time and we need to be able to take that time too, whether with our own fathers, or with our children.

We also read of Jesus, especially in John, telling his disciples that he and the Father are one. The bond between these two is more than that of a parent/child relationship, Jesus is more than just a chip off the old block, he and the block are one!

It is almost impossible for us to get our heads around, indeed Jesus tells his disciples

I have many things to tell you, but you cannot bear them now.

John 16:12

Jesus promises that the Spirit of Truth will come to help them, and us, to understand. This is interesting because the Spirit of Truth, has been given many titles over the millennia, we know her best by the title of Holy Spirit, and we also know her best as male (!). Yet in Proverbs, which predates any New Testament writing, the Holy Spirit was known as Wisdom (in Greek Sophia) and was female.

Does not Wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice?

Proverbs 8:1

We also learn that Wisdom, Sophia, the Spirit of Truth, was part of creation, there before the beginning of the earth, there when God established the heavens, beside him like a master worker. It is Wisdom who speaks of delight, of being God’s delight, and also delighting in not just the works of creation, but specifically in the human race.

Trinity Sunday, as today is also known, is a day in which we are invited to become a part of the delighting. We may not fully understand the ability of God to be one and yet three (after all we are mere mortals), but it is because of the mutual delight and rejoicing and love of Father, Jesus and Wisdom, that we were called into being in the first place. Humanity was loved into being, rejoiced into our own creation, and delighted into existence. When we look at it that way is it any surprise that our own act of creation stems in what can be the most loving, joyful and delightful experience of sexual union?

Today, whether we are parents or not, male or other, we are called into this joyful celebration of loving each other, of rejoicing in the very being of our friends and neighbours, of delighting with God in humanity. Perhaps we are also called to become more delightful to each other too, and fully embrace our identity as children of God, as chips off the old block?

Read the Bible passages in full here.

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