Keep it Reel: Zootopia

28 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3:28

Judy is a bunny, a cute and fluffy and very determined bunny with dreams of making the world a better place.

Her parents however, want her to settle for much less than her dreams, in order to avoid disappointment, after all, a bunny has never been police officer before. Her parents are scared of pretty much everything, and try to persuade her to stay at home on the farm and change the world ‘one carrot at a time’.

‘Jude the dude’, however, is not to be deterred, and eventually becomes the first bunny, the first small animal, to make it through police academy. Officer Hopps is given her first posting in Zootropolis, a city where all creatures are able to live together in harmony for the common good, and predator and prey live and work alongside each other.

And yet, Judy discovers that there is still an underlying prejudice and fear that leopards really can’t change their spots; that predators have a biological instinct to hunt that will never fully evolve. In the excitement of crime fighting and problem solving, Judy recognises that this prejudice lies deep down within herself too, despite her closest ally being a fox.

Whether we want to admit it or not, we all have prejudices. We may not revel in the prejudice, we may even fight to overcome it, but Jesus wants us to acknowledge that in him there is no difference between one human being and another. In the past there were those who were ‘in’ and those who were ‘out’. Israelites were God’s chosen people, which meant that every other nation were ‘less’. Women were also deemed less, as were slaves. St Paul tells us that this has to change.

Whether we are seeking Zootopia or the Kingdom of Heaven, we will only find them when we work together and recognise each individual as a treasured child of God, as a friend, a neighbour, and not the enemy.

 

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Paul and Silas

This is a story of bondage.

The slave girl is in bondage to her ‘owners’, she is also bound by a ‘spirit of divination’- she is a veritable Cassandra, whose fortune telling abilities have made quite a fortune for her owners.

Paul and Silas become bound as a consequence of their encounter with the slave girl; beaten, flogged and secured in the stocks under Roman guard.

The prison guard, a tough Roman veteran, is bound by the Roman culture of cruelty and fear, and comes close to committing suicide.

This is also a story of how to become unbound as well. This is a story of hope and freedom.

Paul and Silas have found their freedom in Jesus previously, indeed Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus is now infamous. It is because of this freedom that they are now touring with the story of Jesus, and the invitation to others to allow Jesus to release them from whatever binds them; for Paul it had been religious piety and rule keeping that had bound him up in knots and had blindfolded him from the truth about Jesus’ identity. Paul is now free and does not face the fears that he may once have had. He does however, still have the capacity to be annoyed.

The slave girl, has no control over her ‘gift’ – her ‘spirit of divination’has identified Paul and Silas as belonging to Jesus, and she speaks it loudly and often for days on end, following Paul and Silas wherever they go,

These slaves are men of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.

It is in frustration that Paul orders the spirit to come out of the girl, not love or compassion! The Lord works in mysterious ways, indeed.

The girl may have been delighted to have been released from this ‘power’, however her ‘owners’ less so. They are angry that they are no longer able to use the girl’s mentally painful situation to make money – their golden goose has been plucked. And so they seek revenge, dragging Paul and Silas before the magistrates and accusing them of all sorts of things – without reference to their healing of the girl, or their own loss of income. They are so bound with greed, that they are unable to see the truth or to admit to it. The magistrates also seem to be bound – bound by a fear of a civil uprising – and so order Paul and Silas to be severely punished.

Paul and Silas are stripped naked and beaten with rods, before being thrown into prison – the innermost, most secure, cell – and their feet fastened in the stocks. And just in case they are able to escape from all this, a jailer is given them to guard.

Paul and Silas should be bound in agony, in fear, in claustrophobia, hatred even, and yet, their freedom is the one that shines the most in this whole story. They may be in the most compromising of situations, they may not be able to move or even breathe without pain, but their hearts are free…

These men do not moan and groan, do not whimper and cry into the night scared of what will happen to them in the morning. They sing! They do not curse God for allowing them to get into this situation, or expect to have been protected as they work for Jesus: after all, Jesus himself expected no protection from such suffering, and it is through His willingness to suffer that these men have found forgiveness and freedom. So, Paul and Silas spend the night singing and praising God. They are expressing their ‘freedom’ in a way that no-one would expect; and their freedom is contagious. As they sing, all the other prisoners listen in, and when the earthquake comes which pulls down the walls of the prison and even releases their chains, all the prisoners find themselves free.

And yet, although the prisoners could have fled, they remain. Perhaps this is the most surprising part of the story. We can understand why Paul and Silas didn’t flee, after all they are Biblical heroes; but why didn’t the other prisoners take their opportunity to escape? Perhaps the praises and prayers of Paul and Silas have had such an impact upon them that they want to find out more, they they are so attracted to what inspires these two men, that they want to hang around to see what happens. Perhaps their release from the physical chains isn’t the only freedom that they have begun to experience that night in the Roman jail? The prison guard, however, is not yet free – he is still bound by fear of failure and reprisal. When he sees the prison doors wide open, he is so desperate that he draws his sword to kill himself:

…you fell on your sword so that your family would be spared any harm from your disgrace– it was thought unseemly for the Emperor to confiscate wealth from a dead man, let alone his widow and children.

So “falling on your sword” was a generous and honourable act made necessary by adverse circumstances– which weren’t often fair.

Paul and Silas, are not seeking vengeance or revenge, and despite the cruel way that they have been treated, their desire is to see even their jailer find freedom in Jesus. So as they see him draw his sword they call out to him and show him that all the prisoners are still in situ. We don’t know what happened to the other prisoners as daylight threatened to break, but Paul  and Silas spend the next hour voluntarily with their jailer introducing him to the truth of Jesus. There in the rubble of the prison, the missionaries tell their own story of faith, of hope and of forgiveness, until the jailer makes it his own story. Leaving the prison in more ways than one, he then takes the men to his home. This tough Roman veteran gently washes their wounds, and while he is still wet from these nursing duties, calls his whole family to be baptised with him. Together this group of truly free-men enter into the home where a feast is laid before the prisoners by their guard.

When the morning does come, the messenger brings not a warrant for the arrest of Paul, Silas and their erstwhile guard, but instructions that they be freed. Knowing that his freedom isn’t something that the authorities can issue, rather it is a gift from God that can never be stolen from them, Paul declines. Instead he uses this opportunity to finally grant him passage to Rome.

Read the story here

Something to listen to:

Something to think about:

  • What is the most frightening situation that you have found yourself in? Who/what has rescued from it?
  • Why do you think the slave girl responded in the way she did towards Paul and Silas?
  • How does it make you feel to know that even Paul ‘lost his rag’ – and that Jesus used this to work for good?
  • What do you think made the magistrate respond so severely?
  • Are there times when you have felt trapped – physically or otherwise?
  • Who do you most identify with in this story? The slave girl, her owners, the magistrate, the other prisoners or the jailer?
  • What has been your most releasing experience?

Something to do:

Could you bring a sense of freedom to prisoners today?

Home

Something to pray:

Lord, open our eyes to the suffering of our imprisoned brothers and sisters so that, by our understanding and love, we may bring the your peace and joy. You came to set us free. May your light shine n  the captives, relive their suffering, and enable us all to grow toward true freedom in justice and harmony.  Pax Christi

 

Who are you Lord?

They don’t recognise him. Despite having spent three years side by side, eating together, sleeping together, preaching and learning together, the man on the shore might as well be a stranger. Ironically the stranger by the shore is probably the one man they wanted to see more than anyone else in the world, and yet, despite their yearnings, when they see him, he could be anyone, at first.

Peter and some other disciples have gone fishing. They probably don’t even consider themselves to be disciples, after all the one who had been discipling them had gone, been put to death in the most barbaric way; and even though they had pledged to follow their leader through thick and thin, when he had needed them most, they had run away or hidden. And now, they had laid down the nets, the tools, that Jesus had given them to catch people, and had gone back to catching fish.

Despite knowing Jesus so well,despite knowing his teachings inside and out, despite having been present at irrefutable miracles and even been given the gifted of healing themselves, these disciples no longer recognised Jesus’ presence in their lives.

It wasn’t that they didn’t believe all that Jesus had taught, or even that they now viewed those miracles as somewhat unreal. There was no denial of what had been in happier times, it was just that Jesus had now gone from their lives, and having realised that Jesus had gone, having decided that all that ‘following the way’ was in the past, they were unable to recognise his presence with them. Jesus is only a little way off, watching an waiting for them to recognise him once more, to turn their backs on their old way of life once more and return to him.

Read Peter’s story here

Peter and the other disciples didn’t recognise Jesus, and neither did Saul. But then why would he? As far as we know Saul had never met Jesus, certainly not spent time in his company. Saul had never listened to Jesus, only heard about him and recognised him as a threat to the religion he held so dear. Saul had been radicalised, a highly intelligent young man with zeal and passion for faith, that had been misdirected. Instead of being filled with God’s love, Saul was filled with religious hatred. Seeking to serve God, Yahweh, Saul was prepared to commit (righteous) murder in order to wipe out this sect of Jesus followers. So when he is confronted with Jesus, it is unsurprising that he is unable to recognise him at first.

Both Peter and Saul need to find forgiveness: Peter for having turned his back on Jesus and having denied him three times, but also for having abandoned the mission and gone back to his old way of life – gone fishing. Perhaps Peter’s story feels familiar to us? Perhaps we have had a committed relationship with Jesus in the past? A life focussed around Sunday School and Youth Group, perhaps singing in the choir and even going on youth camps. Perhaps we have lived our lives on fire for Christ, but something has happened as we have grown up – perhaps we have been disappointed by life and the Jesus we thought we knew seems to have died, or perhaps we have been disappointed with ourselves and no longer feel worthy for Jesus attention. Either way, Jesus stands on the shore waiting for us to recognise him, and make our way back to him, where he will welcome us with love, with forgiveness, and feed us too. Perhaps we have just become distracted by other events in life and our relationship with Jesus has gone cold, and we need to be warmed once more by the fire that Jesus has lit for us on that beach?

Saul needs not just forgiveness but a whole new start in life. As Saul looks upon the ‘blasphemous’ character he had thought was dead, he is blinded. He needs to look afresh at all that he has thought he has understood. As his eyesight is restored, Saul is given a newness of life – he is reborn. Even his name is changed, from the Hebrew Saul to the Greek Paul – an indication that he is to live and work among the Gentiles, teaching them the truth of Jesus and his love for everyone. A clear statement too, that he is turning his back upon the violence and aggression of his former way of life. Saul, Paul, has not lost his passion for God, his energy, his intellect, but he is learning forgiveness, compassion, love and mercy. Too often we see the kind of zeal that Saul had within religious life. We see it all too clearly in the genocidal actions of Islamic State against  Christians in Middle Eastern countries and ‘Christian’ nations in the West. Perhaps we see it also, to a lesser extent, amongst our own churches, where the way we do things becomes more important than the God we love and Jesus’ compassion, mercy and grace get lost among the rotas and meetings.

Read Saul/Paul’s story here

Saul asked ‘Who are you Lord?’, the disciples did not realise that the man on the shore was Jesus.

Something to watch:

Something to think about:

Something to pray:

http://prayercast.com/islamic-state.html

Ephesians: Being equipped for the spiritual battle.

I wonder if you remember ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire?’  – the programme in which if you answered enough questions correctly you could win a £1,000,000, however if you got the questions wrong you could lose everything. The real skill seemed to be in knowing when to stop and walk away with your winnings so far. I imagine it could be lonely sitting in the spotlight with Chris Tarrant asking ‘Are you sure?’ and the dramatic music pushing you to make a decision. Perhaps that is why the programme included the opportunity to seek help, to ask the audience for their opinion, to ask the computer to reduce the options, or even to phone a friend. At the end of the day though, the decision could only be made by the contestant.

For the Ephesians, they too had been forced to make a decision. Would they accept the wholesome spirituality that Paul was offering in Jesus or would they stick with their old  spiritual practices – witchcraft and spiritualism and other occult activities. The Ephesians had chosen the Holy Spirit and to prove it had burned thousands of pounds worth of expensive spell craft books.

The trouble is, as Paul explains in his letter, turning to Jesus and away from occult practices isn’t a one off decision. There is a constant battle going on in the Spiritual World – Satan wants  his people back, and even though they now belong to Jesus, they need to be on their guard, and so do we. We need to protect ourselves from the things that may drag us away from the heart of Jesus. The witchcraft of the Ephesian world may seem  quite archaic to us, but there are modern day evils which are much more subtle.

This summer two stories have dominated the news (or at least my news feed): the immigrant crisis at Calais and the milk crisis here in the UK.

The Bible teaches us to love the widow, the orphan the alien in our midst, yet there is so much hatred regarding those who are seeking asylum; there is selfishness and greed and pointing the finger. Everything that is wrong with this country is down to the ‘foreigners’ who have invaded it. The unholy spirit works within us to spread fear which in turns lead to anger.

The Bible also teaches us to give thanks for all that the land provides, and Paul himself taught that everyone who works deserves to be paid a fair wage. So why are we allowing the supermarkets to engage in price wars that cheat our farmers? We are allowing the spirit of ‘anything for a bargain’ rule our hearts rather than acting as loving and responsible members of a community. Which is even more shocking considering that we live in a rural area and have friends who farm.

Then of course there’s the perennial issue of taxes. I get excited as much as anyone when I am offered a tax rebate – an unexpected windfall to be celebrated. It means that I have, in good faith paid too much, and that excess is now being returned. However, there is always a temptation to pay as little tax as possible, and it seems that those with the highest incomes are able to find the tax loopholes more easily than anyone else. The concept of tithing in the Bible is there to enable everyone to give towards God’s work – 10% should have the same impact on those with little and those with less, but as someone once commented to me, ‘when you have as much as we do, 10% is rather a lot of money to give away’. It’s not just individuals either – large, successful corporations are happy to take our money and to grow their profits without giving anything back. When we continue to give our money to Starbucks, Cafe Nero, Amazon… because we like their product or because they are easy to use, then we are self seeking and not acting righteously. When we then, having turned a blind eye to the large scale tax dodgers who are robbing our country in order to point the finger at benefit cheats, perhaps we are allowing ourselves to be influenced by an evil spirit? Perhaps we are turning a blind eye, a cold heart towards the Hoy Spirit?

So what should we do, if we are to faithfully serve Jesus?

Paul suggests that we clothe ourselves in armour to protect us in this Spiritual Battle, and prepare ourselves to fight for the good. At the time of writing Paul was imprisoned, possibly even chained to a Roman Soldier.

The belt of truth is what holds everything together: we need to not just speak the truth but seek the truth and see it for what it is, not turn a blind eye because we can’t handle it or want to be inconvenienced by it.

The breastplate of righteousness protects our vital organs, our hearts and lungs which enable us to love as Jesus loves and to breathe justice in all that we do.

The shoes of a Roman soldier had soles which could grip or could graft – good for marching and for standing firm. There will be times when we are called to take Jesus’ words into places that may not want them to be spoken; there will be times when we will need to stand firm until that truth is heard, no matter how uncomfortable it may feel. These are not Hush-Puppies with cushioned soles.

The shield of faith is not the gladiator’s small round one for use in one on one battle, but the large rectangular shield of the Roman Legions, that could be locked together to form a wall of protection, all around and overhead too. Standing by our convictions can be hard to do on our own, we need to spend time with other like-minded people – let’s call it fellowship, or church, or homegroups – so that we can protect and strengthen each other in our resolve to serve Jesus and to put him first in our lives.

The helmet of salvation protects our heads and our necks – there will be times of question and doubt, they are both a natural part of faith – but if we are protected we may find ourselves convicted to such an extent that we are willing to stick out our necks and speak up for what is right.

And then Paul gives us a weapon: the word of God. How dull do we let this ‘sword of the spirit’ become? And yet this sword is what cuts between what is true and what is false.

In the Gospel reading for today, Jesus is dealing with the fall out from all the miraculous feedings and talk of bread, his body being the bread which we are to feed on. People are turning away from him, not able to commit after all. Jesus asks the 12 closest to him whether they also wish to turn away, after all, ‘this teaching is difficult’. The 12 decide to stay. Peter’s heart and soul have hit the nail on the head once more – ‘where else would we go – only you have the words of eternal life’. However, we know that Judas’ heart was already being turned away. Peter wearing that helmet of Salvation was fighting faithfully on towards the goal. Judas had already begun to lose the spiritual battle.

I wonder where we are today as we consider these words, and this challenge? Some of us may never have fully committed our lives to Jesus, despite having been baptised and confirmed. Some of us may feel battered and bruised by the spiritual battle that is raging around us without even recognising the battle for what it is. We need to make the decision, just as the disciples had to – will we stick with Jesus or wander away – and we need to make that decision for ourselves. We can seek advice from others, ‘phone a friend’, but at the end of the day the commitment we make to Jesus is ours and ours alone. So what will it be?

Paul began this letter by telling the Ephesians that he never ceases in praying for them, and now he reminds them to keep praying for all things at all times, and he asks them to pray for him. So I pray for you as you consider these words, that you will don the spiritual armour, sharpen your spiritual weapon, and commit to loving God and loving your neighbour in every possible way.

Read Paul’s description of the ‘heavenly armour’Ephesians 6: 10-20

2 Corinthians: Happy Father’s Day

One of my favourite Monty Python sketches is this one, in which each of the 4 Yorkshire Men seek to out do each other with how tough life was for them growing up.  A favourite admonishment of mine when people start moaning and groaning with no real cause, is to mutter the words ‘Carboard box in’t middle o’ road’. Of course those who haven’t seen the sketch simply think I’m bonkers.

A first reading of this section of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians suggests that he is having as good a gripe as any of the Pythonesque Yorkshire men:

[You think you’ve had it tough….I’ve suffered] afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labours, sleepless nights, hunger;   2Corinthians 6:4-5

and still he was grateful, responding in patience and kindness, holiness of spirit and genuine love.

However in Corinth at the time, to admit to such abuse would not have given Paul a halo and raised him in the kudos levels of the churches he was writing to. To show such vulnerability would question why Paul, if he was a true Apostle of Jesus, of God, wasn’t having blessing upon blessing poured upon him. To hear that following Jesus would be costly, dangerous even, was not a message that the Corinthian Christians wanted to hear. For us they may come as a challenge – are we willing to give of ourselves so completely in order to serve Jesus. Do we have a passion for God’s gospel that we woud quite literally guve everything in order that others may have the opportunity simply to hear how much God loves them.

Probably not.

Most of us struggle to strike up a conversation with the people who know us and loves us; most of us balk at the awkwardness of being found in a position where we have to defend our faith. Paul gives his all.

Today’s passage opens with him claiming that we have been called ‘to work together with him’ – him we can assume is God. If  we are to work together with God then we can expect to receive the same treatment as Jesus did. Which sounds fine and dashing and heroic on paper, but in reality, I’m not sure I am ready for that.

In fact when I first read this passage, I thought it rather reminiscent of the ‘suffering’ that a parent of a new born goes through – the labour, the sleepless nights, the sense of imprisonment when having to constantly think of another being who needs so much paraphernalia, that as soon as you are ready to leave the house, they need feeding again…

And then I felt rather small as I remembered how Christians in other parts of the world do indeed suffer beatings and imprisonment and other forms of torture, simply because they held true to who Jesus really us; and they are going through this today.

Perhaps my thoughts swung to those first ‘difficult’ weeks, months, years of parenthood, because this Sunday is also Father’s Day in he UK? Or perhaps because Paul refers to the Christians at Corinth as ‘children’. Paul speaks to these wayward members of the church at Corinth as though they were his own sons and daughters. He opens up his heart to them, even though they have bad mouthed him and turned to others for ‘parental support’. Paul still loves the members of this church, unconditionally, and he pleads to them to open up their hearts to him too – to truly hear what he has to say, even if he isn’t as handsome and attractive as the false teachers who have tried to fill his shoes; even if he offers a message which, although truthful, isn’t sugar coated.

2 Corinthians: Nudity and New Creations

The summer reading in our lectionaries this year takes us through Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. It seems odd to be starting with the second letter, but as many view both letters as a combination of fragments form a variety of letters, perhaps continuity is not the biggest concern.

As with Galatians, Paul writes from a place of hurt and pain. The church in Corinth which was founded by Paul, seems now to have rejected him in favour of other teachers. Although Paul is naturally upset, he writes in love, indeed the letter has been described as:

a love letter. Paul loves the Corinthian Christians so much that he has been in great pain. It is a heart to heart talk about their relationship, with its joys, complaints and misunderstandings.                                                                                                            Andrew Knowles

In writing this letter Paul is addressing some of the false teaching of ‘super apostles’ – charismatic teachers who have been selling a cheap and glitzy gospel. We may imagine these ‘super-apostles’ as something akin to the handsome, smartly dressed tele-evangelists of the 80s who became rich from offering false hope and promises of healing by touching the television screens. These ‘super-apostles’ demanded both money and attention. In contrast, Paul suffered much for the sake of the gospel – he gave everything and demanded nothing, in order that everyone could hear the truth of God’s love for them and the life that is available in Jesus, the Messiah.

Paul has been described as:

a short man with a bald head and bandy legs; a poor speaker who suffered from  fevers and an illness which may have been epilepsy.

As we read today’s portion of the letter, and Paul’s teaching on being a ‘new creation’ we can understand his longing to be shed from his earthly garments and re-clothed in heavenly ones.

Before we begin today’s passage, Paul has been describing our physical bodies as as earthly tent, he speaks of how we groan under the burden of these bodies, and yet we fear being unclothed, being naked. Within the Jewish community there was indeed an abhorrence of nudity, and part of the shame that Jesus suffered as he hung from the cross was that of having been stripped naked. In the Greek and Roman worlds there was also a fear of being stripped naked in death, of being stripped of our human bodies; both Philo and Hadrian spoke of this stripping of the body, and Plato wrote:

It seems to me that in many ways men are mistaken about the power of this god [Hades] and that it is not right to fear him. For they are afraid, because, when once any of us dies, he is always there [with Hades], and because the soul, stripped of the body goes to be with him, of this they too are afraid.

Paul is keen to give a different perspective on what happens to our bodies when we die, and to calm the fear of death that the Corinthian church is surrounded by.

Paul speaks of being a ‘new creation’ – all those who are in Christ, who have accepted Jesus as God, resurrected from the dead and now ascended into heaven, have been recreated. As we die to our old lives and allow Jesus to forgive us our sins and past misdoings, our hearts are renewed, restored, and the essence of who we are is re-created. We are already ‘new creations’. And yet, as Paul with his physical ailments can testify, this re-creation work is not yet complete. I grew up with an understanding that when we die we lose our broken, physical bodies, the ones that cause us to creak and groan. I understood that we would be free from bodies and gravity and our ‘essence’ our soul would be free-floating with God, and the angels. And yet, when God the Holy Trinity created humanity, God looked upon us, bodies and all, and said, ‘it is good’. The decision to create humanity was made in order to have a creature made in God’s image. The idea of free-floating spirit’s isn’t biblical. The image I had grown up with was a false one.

Whilst we are on this earth we inhabit broken and breakable bodies. Our hearts and souls within them being restored and renewed as we come closer to God, allowing the Holy Spirit to dance within us, and as we seek to follow where Jesus calls us. But God is not finished with us. God’s re-creation involves the stripping away of our old bodies and creating new ones for us: new physical bodies, heavenly bodies that can touch and be touched.

How wonderful! But as each question posed is given an answer a new one comes to light: when will be given our new bodies? There seem to be two trains of thought on this one. We will either be given new bodies the moment our old ones are stripped away – the moment we die, or else we have to wait until the parousia the ‘second coming’ when all will be resurrected from the dead, following in Jesus’ footsteps, and when each of us will face judgement.

Paul speaks of the Judgement Seat. This was an actual place in Corinth, approached by walking up the main, shop-lined road to the Forum. There the Roman Governor would sit in full view of the general public to pronounce judgement. Paul tells the Corinthian church that everyone will have to appear before Jesus in this way and

receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.

I shrink from the thought of this and shudder at the publicity of it all, pleading clemency and forgiveness, after all, hasn’t Jesus washed away our sins? Perhaps judgement will be only for those offences we haven’t dealt with whilst still inhabiting our old earthly bodies? It can be difficult tying together forgiveness and judgement. Tom Wright points out that

forgiveness does not mean moral indifference…forgiveness is not mere tolerance…God doesn’t tolerate evil.

It seems that before we are finally shed of our old bodies we will have to deal with all that we have done whilst wearing them. We need to be concerned of how we use these bodies, which are, after all, a gift from God and need to be treated as such; need to be treated with respect and put to good use. As with any other gift God gives us, we will be held to account for how we have used them. Yes God loves us, and yes, in Jesus’ death our sins were forgiven, but it isn’t as simple as that. Jesus’ death was about life, life lived and loved to the full, and as we find ourselves stripped of our old bodies in death, and re-clothed as new-creations, it is in order that we are fit to live with Jesus eternally in his newly re-created world too.

For now though, we have a duty to use these earthly bodies as best we can for God. Paul speaks of ‘home’ and ‘away’, and I am reminded the different strips football teams play in when home and away. Underneath, however they are the same team, with the same gifts and skills. Whether we are home or away, whether we are kitted out in our earthly bodies or newly re-clothed in heavenly ones, our hearts and souls are the same. We need to love and serve Jesus now, not wait until some future after-life, and if we aren’t willing to do so, then we will be held to account when Jesus sits upon that Judgement Seat.

Epiphany: The Conversion of Paul

I am a huge fan of CS Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles.

One of my favourite moments comes from The Voyage of the Dawntreader when Eustace Scrubb, the unbearable cousin of Lucy, Edmund, Susan and Peter, who ‘almost deserved his name’ is turned into a dragon. or maybe even more so the moment he is released from his dragon skin by Aslan.

As I read through the description of Saul’s conversion to Paul, I was reminded of this moment in Lewis’ story. Just like the dragon scales Eustace is trapped within, so Paul is blinded by scales that cover his eyes.

Eustace, was a rather unbearable brat of a child. He believed that he was always in the right and that logic and knowledge took precedence over story and faith in that which cannot be seen.

Once he is ‘dragoned’ he has to face up to the person he truly is, but he is not left alone to do so. Reepicheep, the bravest, most courageous and noble mouse befriends him. Up to this point the two seem to have been enemies, and yet a friendship grows between them. Please do read the book if you haven’t already.

Saul is also a rather unreasonable young man. He is unwavering in his beliefs that the Jewish Law is to be upheld at all costs and that anyone who speaks anything other is not only blasphemous, but deserves to be punished with the full weight of the religious legal system. Saul was present when Stephen was stoned to death. Saul had gained written permission to seek out anyone who spoke Jesus’ name, anyone who had faith in Jesus as the Son of God, who followed Him rather than Yahweh.

Saul was murderous in his convictions,’breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord’; the only thing which could persuade him otherwise was a direct encounter with Jesus himself. By this point however, Jesus had ascended to heaven. As Paul is travelling to Damascus on his way to seek out the troublesome blasphemers, he finds that he is blinded by a light from heaven, as a voice questions him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’

Saul is humbled before God. He is weak and vulnerable and needs help even to walk, but Something else is happening within his heart and soul as he is forced to question everything that had been motivating him.

Saul’s help comes from the most unusual of sources. Ananias a ‘follower of The Way’, a Christian, is sent to release Saul from the scales that blind him, and to accompany him as he begins his new life as Paul, the Apostle. Ananias is visited by Jesus in a dream and sent to be with Saul. Ananias is understandably concerned: Saul is, after all, the man with a reputation for violence towards others who follow Jesus. And yet, Ananias’ response is ‘Here I am, Lord’. Just as Reepicheep, the bravest, and smallest. of the Dawntreader’s crew, accompanies and befriends Eustace, Ananias befriends Paul.

Ananias is called to find within him such confidence in Jesus, and such courage, that he is able to do what is asked of him. It is through Ananias’ courage that Saul becomes Paul, that Saul becomes the person that God had created him to be: the teacher and preacher with such passion and conviction that he plants new churches wherever he goes, and continues to love and pray for each of them even when he is at a distance from them, even writing from prison to encourage and nurture and continue to teach.

Sometimes we need to be humbled before God. We think we know who God is, we think we know what God wants and how we can serve him best, but actually we are only serving our own personalised image of God. We need to allow him to draw us closer into his true identity, to experience our own moment of epiphany when God’s true heart is revealed. We need also to be willing to recognise when we are wrong, when the false filters that we have worn and through which we have viewed the world need to be removed, even if the process is a painful one.

Sometimes we need to act with courage as Ananias did. It can be hard enough responding to a dream or a voice from God. How can we test the message that we have heard? How do we know what is simply a foolish dream and what is a vision? We know when we feel convicted deep down and the dream doesn’t fade. Knowing and responding are completely different matters though. When God reveals himself to us, when he calls us into something amazing and wonderful and quite frankly scary, are we ready to respond? When God brings us to our knees and reflects back to us the true image of ourselves that we would rather not see, are we able to repent and be washed clean?

Maybe we are in one of these places today. Maybe we are in a similar situation to Saul and need to start afresh with a clean sheet? Maybe we are being called as Ananias was, to step out of our comfort zones into something really quite frightening, but which will bring blessings to many? The question is, once we recognise where we are, are we ready to respond to God’s prompting, with the words, ‘Here I am’? Because God isn’t willing to leave us in this place where we are only half alive, when he can bring us, through the love of Jesus, into a place that is brimming with adventure and affirmation.

Some Questions for small groups:

You may wish to begin by watching the clip of Eustace being released from his scales in the film The Voyage of the Dawntreader, or read it from the novel.

  • If you have watched or read any of the Narnia chronicles, how do you understand the character of Aslan? What stands out for you?
  • Why do you think Jesus revealed himself to Saul in the way that he did?
  • Would you have responded to Jesus in the way that Ananias did?
  • Are there people in our groups and churches like Eustace and even Paul who we can befriend? How do we find the courage to do so?

A Prayer:

Father God, help us to see you in others. Helps us to see people as you created them to be, help us to see each other as we shall be once we have allowed your healing into our lives. Help us to be courageous and willing as Ananias was to help others in our service of you; and help us to be humble, as Saul was, when we recognise failings and shortfallings in our lives and in our worship of you. In Jesus’ name…

We seek to know Christ better by growing in faith, worship and prayer.

We seek to know Christ better and to make him better known, by loving and serving our communities, and by growing in faith, worship and prayer.

Today’s Gospel reading reads a bit like a script for a Tarentino film, or maybe even something out of The Godfather. Jesus tells a story about a vineyard. It is a beautiful vineyard, fruit bearing and loved and protected by its owner with fences and watchtowers, and when he has to go away he leases it out to tenants. As harvest comes, the owner sends his slaves to collect his produce, but the slaves are met with aggression and violence: one is beaten, one is killed and another is stoned. This behaviour is repeated with even more zeal when the owner sends more slaves. So the owner sends his son, expecting him to be given the respect he is due, however, the tenants recognising that the son is the heir of the vineyard kill him to planning to seize the inheritance.

Jesus asks his listeners to finish the story for him – what will happen when the owner of the vineyard returns?

The story is not really about a vineyard – parables are never what they seem to be. The symbolism of the vineyard would have been well known to the Jewish listeners: the vineyard represents God’s people and the fence that protected it was the Torah, the holy writings and laws given by God to Moses. Indeed Pharisees, the teachers of the law, would often refer to building fences around the fence to keep the Torah protected – this resulted in rules around rules which produced very little fruit and limited access to the true Torah. The High Priests, the Pharisees, the religious leaders, were, of course, the tenants, and the slaves who they tortured and murdered where the prophets who had been ignored, and worse. The fruit, the harvest, are the people that these religious leaders should have been nurturing spiritually, and bringing home to God.

Danebury Vineyard Harvest
Danebury Vineyard Harvest

The really sad thing, isn’t just that the religious leaders have gone astray, or even that they failed in their task to reveal God’s truth and love to others, but they had never bothered to get to know God, and when Christ came, they murdered him instead of getting to know him. By fencing off the main contact they had with God they deprived themselves an others spiritually.

As a team of churches, we have a vision of being the complete opposite of this parable. We seek, instead of turning Christ away and of denying God’s authority, to know Christ better. This we can do by spending time in prayer and worship. But what are prayer and worship.

Prayer is simply spending time with Jesus and focussing on him; but finding time to set aside for something as ethereal as prayer is something we find really difficult to do. Arrow prayers – the instant emergency type prayer that we may send up when we have lost the kids at the beach, or an ambulance passes by, or maybe even when we are moved to thank God for something good, the birth of a child, a beautiful view, a tax rebate, are all good and worthy, but are too short for really building a relationship.

Prayer isn’t necessarily beautiful words strung together meaningfully. The prayers of intercession in church can be beautiful examples of this, and help us to grow as a community, and as we pray for our community to reach out to them too. Sometimes the best conversations we have with friends are full of laughter and in jokes and half spoken sentences because we know each other so well. Prayer can be like this. Sometimes the time spent with a friend is time crying on a shoulder and words aren’t needed at all. This too can be prayer. Sometimes time together can be spent in silence. Sometimes we really need to be told that our (spiritual)bum really does look big in ‘that’! There are times when we sit and chat (or not), there are times when we do things together, go for a walk, dig the garden, eat, drink, and guess what, this can be times of prayer too. Intentionally spending time with someone is what builds a friendship, and that’s true with God too. The more time we spend wit his son, the more of himself he will reveal to us.

Paul realised that following God isn’t a matter of living a righteous lifestyle, ticking all the boxes and keeping all the rules. He had tried that, and was very good at it. Paul was a Pharisee himself with a powerful Jewish heritage, but it wasn’t enough. God isn’t a religion, but a person to emulate and know, a relationship to be had, and once he stopped persecuting Jesus’ followers, he was free to pray properly and to worship fully and to know Christ better. Paul writes to the church at Philippi 

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him

Another way of considering ‘worship’ is worth-ship – to give to God what is worthy of him. To recognise him as the creator and sustainer of the universe, the one who is love, the one who desires to know and be known by us. To be ‘Almighty’ and ‘all matey’ at the same time is pretty awesome. The Greek word for worship is προσκυνέω (proskuneo) which literally means ‘ to come towards with a kiss’ – this could be more smoothly translated as ‘to kiss the ground before [a superior]’.

Worship at Spring Harvest
Worship at Spring Harvest

We worship when we come to God with the whole of our beings, when we bodily as well as mentally lay ourselves before him. There’s the doing (the kissing of the ground – or even blowing kisses to according to some Egyptian sources), and the coming (the bringing ourselves to a place where we can meet God). For many this will be in a place of worship, a church, a gathering, a Christian holiday even, for others it will be a way of life, bringing everything we do as an offering of love.

With both prayer and worship, it can be argued that we can meet with God on our own – which is both true and right to do; but we also need to meet together to support and nurture each other, to party together in God’s presence and build our shared life with him.

Our vision speaks of growing in faith in such a way that it pours out into our communities – and this can only be done when we meet together.

Romans: Belonging to God

And now for the good news…..

We have finally reached chapter 8 the gold at the heart of St Paul’s letter to the Romans. Over the past few weeks we have endured some quite tricky and at times quite solemn teaching on law and sin, now we achieve God’s grace. Hoorah! This part of the letter is full of verses which have been quoted and held onto when times are difficult and it seems as if we are clinging onto hope by our fingernails:

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus… we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words…We know that all things work together for good for those who love God…If God is for us, who is against us?

and of course the passage that is often spoken at funerals as the coffin is brought into the church,

 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers,  nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

There is such good news here. Although we know that we fall short of God’s perfect Law, although we know that we get things wrong, that we fail and fall time and again, and even though we know that we have to make amends, to seek forgiveness, we are never  and will never be, condemned by God. Instead, we are forgiven, made whole, given a new start. As Biblical Scholar Andrew Knowles says, ‘We are no longer on the dreary religious treadmill of knowing the right and doing the wrong’.

As we accept Jesus into our lives and make that decision to follow him and to live according to his desires and will, we are formed into new creations. The old is left behind and the new emerges, as a butterfly leaves its caterpillar skin behind we are no longer creatures that crawl along the ground, but those who fly close to heaven.

We will not always get things right. We are made righteous by faith, not by getting top marks – even Abraham, if we remember, got things wrong, sometimes making some really quite terrible mistakes, but he never gave up on following God. We will not always get things right, but God’s spirit, the Holy Spirit, will be with us to help us. I am so encouraged by the promise that the Holy Spirit will help us to pray with groans and sighs that are unintelligible. Prayer is so difficult for many of us – knowing the right words to say, finding the right space and time, even knowing whether to sit or kneel or maybe even stand in His presence. Here we are given permission to be ourselves in prayer; when we are moved to tears, we are praying, when we cry out loud at injustice, we are praying, when we are struck dumb, struck numb, we are praying. God sees into our hearts and the Spirit translates. Even more incredible is that we are not alone – we are told that the whole of creation, all of God’s created beings are groaning in prayer as we wait for God to restore his beautiful and broken garden to what he intended it to be.

So much good news for us to cling on to, in this inbetween time. But there is even more, even better news to come. We are not just redeemed members of God’s creation, we are not just welcomed into his family, but we have been adopted as his sons. Wow!

In our culture adoption often means assimilation, we leave the past behind and become new people with new names, new parents, new homes. Adoption is what happens to unwanted children by parents who cannot have children of their own. Adoption can be the bringing together of two lost and vulnerable parts of a jigsaw to make a new picture. Not so in Roman times.

In Roman times having children was expensive, education for boys, dowry for girls, and a male heir was required. In order to ensure a male heir, a son would be chosen from another family and adopted in to become the successor, the one who would inherit the name, the wealth, the status, the political bearing. To be an adopted son was an honour. Daughters tended not to be adopted as they were already thought of as superfluous! Not so with God. With God we are all adopted as his sons: regardless of gender we all have full right to call God our Father – Abba – the family name for a loving parent.  Elsewhere Paul states that there is no male or female, we are all welcomed into his family with the honoured status of sons, with full rights to inherit his Kingdom.

So we consider the highlight of the letter: God is winning. He is reversing the effects of the fall, and recreating his creation. He is transforming us from sinners into children. We have come to the end of our summer exploration, and we leave behind St Paul’s letter to the Romans, for now. And yet, all that we have explored and discovered and been challenged by, demands a response. Are we filled by God’s Holy Spirit? Have we chosen to follow Jesus and allowed our ‘old selves’ to be put to death alongside his crucifixion? Are we seeking to live resurrection lives? Do we need to revisit our baptisms and the promises made there either by ourselves or by others on our behalves? Are we ready to be adopted as God’s ‘sons’, are we living lives that belong to children of God?

 

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