Some thoughts shared with a few friends on Friday, 3 February, 2017.

‘Grace’ – our English equivalent of the Greek charis – was one of Paul’s favourite words. Of its 155 appearances in the New Testament, 100 came from his pen, while a further twenty-four are attributable to Luke, Paul’s fellow traveller on his second and third missionary journeys and his constant companion during Paul’s two-year imprisonment in Rome. But what did Paul and Luke mean by the word? I imagine that, if we have taken on board what has generally been taught from the pulpit, our answer will be, ‘The unmerited favour of God’; or, if we are still clinging to the rather twee acronym we were given in Sunday School, ‘God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense’. But did grace – does grace – ever really mean that?

The word charis has a shared origin with chara – ‘joy’ – so its basic meaning is, ‘that which gives joy’. But that really doesn’t get us very far because there are many things that can give us joy. Does the Septuagint – the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible – help? Well, yes, to some extent.  The scholars who made that Hebrew-Greek translation in around the third century before Christ always used the word charis to represent the Hebrew word chen, and that Hebrew word undoubtedly meant ‘favour’ and almost always occurred in the phrase ‘found favour in the eyes of’ someone or other, usually the Lord. ‘So,’ you say, ‘doesn’t that actually support the meaning for charis – “grace” – that you seem to be challenging?’

Well, yes and no. We might note, first, that in the Hebrew Bible (our Old Testament) chen did not particularly signify unmerited favour. Indeed, the first person to ‘find favour in the eyes of’ the Lord’ was Noah (Gen. 6:8), and the implication of the following verse is that he found favour precisely because he did merit it … ‘Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation [and] walked with God’ (Gen. 6.9). Be that as it may, it is clear, when we look at all the instances of the word charis in the New Testament, that in the writings of Paul and Luke in particular (and, as we shall see, of Peter too) it was being given a depth of meaning and a significance that went well beyond the sense of ‘favour’ that it continued to have in ordinary, everyday speech.

A way of discovering what that significance was, is, of course, to search the writings of Paul and Luke for occurrences of the word charis in a context which itself gives a clear indication of what they understood by the word and intended it to mean; and there are several to be found. The most important is, perhaps, Paul’s record of what the Lord said to him when refusing to grant his request that his troublesome ‘thorn in the flesh’ be removed.  ‘My grace (charis) is sufficient for you,’ says Jesus, ‘for my power (dunamis) is made perfect in weakness’ (2 Cor. 12:9). In this place, certainly, says Ralph P Martin in his commentary on this verse, ‘ it is right to take dunamis and charis as synonyms’ (1). Grace, then, is not only to do with God’s favour; it is also, it seems, to do with God’s power … in particular, the power of Jesus in us.

Interesting! But do other occurrences of charis in a descriptive context bear that out? Well, yes, they do. Take 1 Corinthians 3:10. There, Paul says that, despite the fact that he himself does not amount to ‘anything’ (1 Cor. 3:7), ‘by the grace (charis) God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it.’ Grace, he is saying, empowered him to build the foundations of the church.

And what about this from Luke. ‘Stephen, full of grace (charis) and power (dunamis), did great wonders and signs among the people’ (Acts 6:8). There, power is linked to, but somehow distinguished from, grace. There, Luke seems to understand grace as that which brings power and makes it accessible to us. So also in Acts 14:2 … ‘So they [Paul and Barnabas] remained for a long time, speaking boldly for the Lord, who testified to the word of his grace (charis)by granting signs and wonders to be done through them.’ When Paul and Barnabas spoke the words they were graced with, power was released. Commenting on the term ‘words of grace’ that are found in Luke 4:22 (‘All spoke well of him [Jesus] and were amazed at the gracious words [literally, “the words of grace”] that came from his mouth’), John Nolland in his commentary on Luke says that ‘words of grace’ are ‘not winsome words … or words about God’s mercy or grace … but words endued with the power of God’s grace. Luke uses charis, “grace,” as a quasi-substantial power, especially as resident in or on people … charis is the divine influence which is present in the words and which gives the words their quite tangible impact’ (2).

All this must surely lead us to conclude that the generally taught and accepted idea of grace is, at best, inadequate. As Paul and Luke use the word, charis – ‘grace’ – is clearly more than just another divine attribute – a favourable disposition on the part of God towards undeserving humanity. It is also (and maybe predominantly) a word denoting the empowering or enabling presence of God in a human being. Handley G C Moule memorably expressed something of this when he wrote in his commentary on Romans: ‘Grace is God for us, grace is God in us’ (3). Grace has a two-fold force: it is both God’s favourable attitude towards us and his enabling presence within us.

Once we accept that this is what grace really is, we shall, of course, see many a text in quite a different light. What about Gabriel’s opening words to Mary, ‘Greetings, favoured one [literally, ‘one having received grace’]! The Lord is with you’ (Luke 1:28). What Mary had received was not just God’s favour but his empowering presence within her that would enable her to ‘conceive and bear a son’ (Luke 1:31) without the intervention of Joseph. ‘But wait a moment,’  you say, ‘Surely the conception of Jesus was the work, not of grace, but of the Holy Spirit?’ Yes, but as James Dunn says in his commentary on Romans, grace ‘overlaps in meaning’ with Spirit (4). Indeed, as a comparison of Romans 6:14 and Galatians 5:18 reveals, ‘grace’ and ‘Spirit’ are, in Paul’s thinking, almost synonymous (5). So no wonder Paul begins his letters by praying for grace to be given to all the believers in all the churches to which he writes (Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:3; 2 Cor. 1:2; Gal. 1:3; Eph. 1:2; Phil. 1:2; Col. 1:2; 1 Thes. 1:1; 2 Thes. 1:2, Philemon 1:3) and ends them by praying: ‘The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you’ (Rom. 16:20, 24; 1 Cor. 16:23; 2 Cor. 8:9; Gal. 6:18; Phil. 4:23; 1 Thes. 5:28; 2 Thes. 3:18, Philemon 1:25). Paul wants everyone to receive grace because it is not just something that gives us the warm glow of knowing that God loves us and accepts us, but is what actually empowers God’s people to be effective in doing God’s will in God’s way and in God’s good time. It is the Spirit of Jesus empowering us from within.

And speaking of the Spirit in this connection, what about spiritual gifts? The word Paul uses for such gifts in Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12 is charismata, the plural of charisma – ‘gift’.  But that word in both its singular and plural form is derived from charis – ‘grace’ – so, in the light of our new understanding of what that word really means, we can see that charismata are not merely tokens of God’s unmerited favour towards us  but rather specific empowerings to do various things under the authority of God present in us by his Spirit. Am I being fanciful? No, because Paul specifically connects the two words in Romans 12:6: ‘ We have gifts (charismata) that differ according to the grace (charis) given to us,’ he says, ‘prophecy… ministry… teaching … exhortation…’ And he makes the same connection but in a different way in 1 Corinthians 12:4-7:  ‘Now there are varieties of gifts (charismata),’ he says, ‘but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates [energeo … energizes, empowers] all of them in everyone.  To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.’ Then, finally, we need to look at 1 Peter 4:10: ‘As each has received a gift (charisma),’ he says, ‘use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace (charis). In other words, the empowering presence of God that is the essence of grace is there in his people to energise different forms of service in different members of his church.

How encouraging is all of this! Grace is the empowering presence of the Spirit of Jesus in our lives. The Spirit is within us not just to assure us of the Father’s love – though he so wonderfully does that – but also to keep fully-charged the power tools he has put in our hands to serve the church and world, and to extend his kingdom. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ – his empowering presence in me – is sufficient for me too – just as it was for Paul; for his power is and will continue to be made perfect – to achieve its ends – in my weakness. Thanks be to God.

1. Ralph P Martin, Word Biblical Commentary: 2 Corinthians (Word, 1986), 419.
2. John Nolans, Word Biblical Commentary: Luke 1-9:20 (Word, 1989), 198-9.
3. Handley G C Moule, Epistle of Paul to the Romans (Leopold Classics, 2016), 22.
4. James D G Dunn, Word Biblical Commentary: Romans 1-8 (Word, 1988), 17.
5. Ibid, 340.

What About Suffering?

Sermon preached at St James’ Church, Bolton, Bradford on 16 October 2016

Psalm 22:1-22

One lovely, sunny Sunday afternoon, 40 years ago, Yvonne and I were walking hand in hand through a wood in Derbyshire when her left leg suddenly collapsed for no apparent reason. She was at University at that time and I managed to get her back to my car and from there to her flat in Nottingham. But then, as she tried to do some reading for an essay she had to write, she found that her sight had become distorted and the print on the page seemed to be flashing. I took her to the Clinic on campus and … well, to cut a long story short, within a few weeks she was back home in Bradford and some months later, while still aged just twenty, she was diagnosed as having multiple sclerosis. Many people – family and friends – distraught and shocked, were asking ‘Why?’

Fast forward to a Monday morning, 17 years later in 1993. Yvonne and I were then married – had been for 15 years – and we were just back from a holiday in Italy. I stepped into the garage, suited and booted and ready for my first day back at the office in Leeds, and went to open my car. But as I did so a massive pain shot through my chest, then another and another, and I staggered back into the house and shouted for Yvonne. Within an hour I was in the back of an ambulance being treated for the first of my heart attacks. And then came major open heart surgery, more blocked arteries, stenting, by-pass re-dos, early retirement, heart failure and so on – and all with a disabled wife to look after. So again there were those who were asking ‘Why?’

Everyone can tell these kind of stories or, if they can’t, they know plenty of others who can, so no wonder that one of the very first questions we get thrown at us if we start to talk to anyone in the big wide world about God is: ‘Yes, but what about suffering? Why? Why do people get MS, cancer, brain tumours, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, heart disease? Why are thousands of children being maimed and injured in Syria? Why do people who already have very little, lose everything in a hurricane in Haiti? Why are millions of refugees living in abject poverty and misery in holding camps? Why are children and young women trafficked across borders to be abused and enslaved? Why? Why? Why?’

Suffering takes many shapes and forms. Whenever we enter a time of pain, or distress, or hardship of any kind, we are suffering. And put that way, few, if any of us, are exempt. And the question remains. Why?

It is, of course, a question that needs a bit of unpacking. What do people mean exactly when they say ‘What about suffering?’ They may mean, ‘If God is as all-loving and all-powerful as you Christians believe that he is then why does he allow suffering at all? Why doesn’t he just stop it?’ Or their question may be much narrower. They may mean, ‘Why does this all-loving, all-powerful God of yours allow bad things to happen to good people?’ In other words, they don’t have a problem with supposedly ‘bad’ people suffering, ‘They’re just getting what was coming to them, aren’t they?’ But they do have a problem with ‘good’ people like their Auntie Nellie getting cancer because, as they put it, ‘She’s a lovely old dear who would never hurt a fly.’

Now if you think about it, that second question raises a different issue from the first one. The first question – why does God allow suffering at all? – is a question about God’s power and even more about his concern for humankind. Does he really love us? Is he even interested in us?

But the second – why does God allow ‘good’ people to suffer? – is a question about what suffering is. It assumes that God is interested in us but that suffering is a kind of punishment that he doles out to us, and what the questioner is asking is why is it so indiscriminate? Here are all the ‘bad’ people. Are they suffering? Yes, some of them are, Well, good, that’s ok. They’re getting what they deserve. And here are all the ‘good’ people. Are they suffering too? Yes, lots of them are. But why? They shouldn’t be. They’ve done nothing to deserve it, so that’s not ok.

Now, I know that my brief this morning is to come up with an explanation that we might be able to use in dealing with both those kinds of question; and that is something I shall try to do. But, to be honest, I want to get past that bit as quickly as I can and get to what I see as a far more important question – which is what we can do about suffering. You see, I know for a fact that there are people here this morning who are suffering – whatever kind of a brave face they are putting on it. Suffering is part of the human condition. Job said, ‘Man is born for trouble as the sparks fly upward’. Jesus said, ‘In this world you will have trouble’, and C S Lewis said, ‘We were promised sufferings. They are part of the programme. And,’ he added, ‘I accept it.’ Well, so do I. And so, of course, must all of us. Not accepting suffering won’t make it go away, and all the reasons in the world we might find as to why God allows it won’t make it any easier to bear.

But what can make it easier to bear and what can indeed transform it, is the way we deal with our suffering. As I said the other day to a young friend of mine who’s going through a very difficult time, ‘It’s not so much what happens to you that’s important; it’s what you do with what happens to you.’ And what you do with suffering is what I’m eager to get round to and to focus on this morning.

But first the question: Why does God allow suffering to exist? And why do even ‘good’ people suffer? Is it because God hasn’t the power to stop it? No! Is it because he doesn’t really care enough about us to stop it? No! Is it then his way of punishing us for our sins? Absolutely not! So why? Is there an answer?

Yes there is. We may not like it, but there is … and it comes in two parts. The first part is that suffering exists and God allows it because it is the price we have to pay for living in what God sees as the best of all possible worlds. That is to say, it is the price of living in a world where we all have the freedom to run our own lives. God has created a universe which operates in accordance with natural and moral laws that no one can alter. But, on planet earth, he has given to human kind the task of managing his creation, and to that end he has given each and every one of us the freedom to make our own choices. Wise choices, poor choices, good choices, bad choices. Choices bathed in prayer. Choices made without giving God a second thought. Choices that cooperate and harmonise and work with the grain of the natural and moral laws of the universe, or choices that conflict with, and try to defy and to cut across, those natural and moral laws. But if we make wrong choices, choices that transgress the natural and moral laws of the universe, pain and suffering will inevitably result and their effect is felt on anyone, good or bad, who happens to be standing in the way as the bad choices work themselves out.

We might think of the inbuilt moral law of the universe as a bit like the Highway Code. And as we all know full well, if you drive your car down the wrong side of a motorway then sooner or later you will injure, maim or kill some other road users. Those other road users may be drug dealers or they may be aid workers – bad people or good people. Your car – and the Highway Code that it’s transgressing – simply doesn’t know the difference.

And so it is on a global scale. Make the bad choice of spraying crops with powerful insecticides so as to maximise profits and you put carcinogens in the food stream that will ultimately give cancer to tens of thousands of people – good people, bad people, the carcinogens don’t know the difference. Make the bad choice of tipping millions of cubic meters of spoil on an unstable mountainside above Aberfan in Wales and just 50 years ago today you had 116 children suffocated in slurry – good children, bad children, the waste didn’t know the difference. Make the bad choice of neglecting the routine maintenance of vehicles you’re supposed to be servicing and the next thing you know there’s a coach down an embankment of the M1 and passengers within it with life-changing injuries – good people, bad people, the coach and its failed brakes don’t know the difference.

The greater part of all human suffering can be traced back to someone, somewhere making bad choices. Even many so-called ‘natural’ disasters can be laid at the door of global warming which is something that has been hugely accelerated by the bad choice of businesses great and small not to cut back sufficiently on their emission of greenhouse gasses. And that is the world we have been given to live in – a world where such bad choices are possible. So why does God think it’s a good world?

Because a world where bad choices are not possible would be a world where good and loving and wise and kind choices would not be possible either. And God does not want that kind of world. He believes that a world in which humankind can choose good – even though that means they can also choose evil – is a better world than one in which human beings are simply his robots living their lives according to some program he places on their hard drives. God’s free choice when he created the universe was to give us freedom of choice too – in all we think and speak and do; and a world in which God was intervening at every end and turn to prevent anyone choosing evil – which is what some of us might like – would, of course, be a world without any choice at all.

But all this, of course, raises another question. Why do so many human beings choose evil rather than good? Why are there so many times when we ourselves do just that? Well that‘s a topic for another sermon, but the short answer from Scripture, from Jesus himself, from the church throughout the centuries, and indeed from many eminent thinkers today, is quite simply that we live in a fallen world; a world that is not as God created it to be. However unsophisticated it might sound to many 21st century ears; we live in a world that has been invaded by a dark power opposed to God, someone we call the devil or Satan. Someone we see most exposed perhaps in the face of ISIS but someone who is ceaselessly working to bend and distort and skew everything he can, so as to turn it away from God and towards the evil that he himself embodies. And he works not only in the hearts and minds of people. Cancer cells are ‘bent’ cells that divide and multiply wrongly. Disease is a disorder of what was once ordered and good. MS is a disorder of the body’s good immune system. Parkinson’s is a disorder if the body’s good nervous system.

When we look at all that is spoiled and ruined in this world we will do well to agree with Jesus that ‘an enemy has done this’ and that is the other half of the answer to ‘Why suffering?’ In a world of free choice, a dark power is at work to bend and distort everything, including our freedom to choose what is good. C S Lewis once said, ‘We live in enemy-occupied territory’, and he was right. We know, of course, that on the cross, the Lord Jesus dealt the enemy a death-blow from which he cannot recover, but because he is doomed he presently fights all the harder, wanting to take all that he can down with him. So our job is to work in the light of Christ and for the Light who is Christ against the Prince of Darkness; and that, of course, is where the issue of how we deal with suffering takes centre stage. Suffering is one of Satan’s weapons but you need to know this: we have been given the power to turn it against him, to make it God’s weapon and thus to help hasten Satan’s end.

Let me explain how by reminding you of the story of Joseph.

Now there was a young man who could tell you something about suffering! Remember what happened to him? Sold to Midianite traders by his brothers, carted off to Egypt, bought as a slave by one of Pharaoh’s top advisers, accused of rape by his master’s wife, thrown into prison and forgotten about for years. Until finally, because he could interpret Pharaoh’s dreams when no one else could, he was raised to high office himself and placed in charge of Egypt’s famine relief program. The famine brought his brothers down from Canaan to buy grain and eventually Joseph reveals to them just who he is. He treats them kindly, but when his father dies, his brothers are afraid. ‘Now that dad’s gone,’ they say, ‘he’s bound to take his revenge on us.’ But not so. Here is what Joseph says to them in Genesis 50 – and it is foundational to the way in which we should approach all our suffering. ‘You plotted evil against me,’ says Joseph, ‘but God turned it into good …’ The treachery, the slavery, the false accusation, the imprisonment – all the suffering – God turned it into good. And in the New Testament Paul picks up on that. ‘We know,’ he says, ‘We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him’ – Romans 8:28.

All things. As someone has said, ‘all means all’ … and that includes our suffering. Look … this is the promise of God; that the moment any kind of pain, distress, hardship, difficulty – suffering of any sort – comes crashing into your life, God will, if you allow him, instantly get to work to transform the suffering from the evil that it is into something good. It is a promise I have been standing on for well over forty years and have proved the truth of time and time again.

But it is only the foundation. It is only half of the answer to suffering. On that foundation we need to build something else, and, believe me, that something else is very counter-intuitive. It goes against all our natural inclinations. When Job was suffering, his wife said to him, ‘Still holding on to your precious integrity, are you? Curse God and be done with it!’ That’s our natural inclination – to get bitter, frustrated, to feel badly done to, to get angry with God and to rail against him. That’s the road that King David had started to go down in those first 22 verses of Psalm 22 we heard earlier. ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer …’ David was angry and upset at what was happening to him – particularly because, as he pointed out to God, ‘from my mother’s womb you have been my God’.

But the key to handling suffering is the exact opposite of that kind of self-pitying, complaining stance towards God. It is to develop what we might call ‘an attitude of gratitude’ and a ‘posture of praise’. It is what David came to in the end. His final words in the section of the psalm we had read to us are, ‘I will praise you’. It is what St Paul is talking about when he tells us to ‘sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything.’ And when he says ‘Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances … ‘

‘Give thanks make music in your heart to God’. Develop an attitude of gratitude and a posture of praise. And I say ‘develop’ because it is by no means easy to praise God and to give thanks to him when we’re suffering, and we do need to work at it. Indeed, giving thanks and praise is hardly possible at all until you get to the point where you actually start to believe that in all things – including the particular suffering you’re going through at the time – God is truly working for good. To give thanks and praise is, in fact, a vote of confidence in God’s love for you, in the fact that he’s in control, and that he is ceaselessly working to bless you in whatever it is that life has chucked at you.

Listen, I’ve been through some pretty high-end suffering in my time – maybe not as high-end as yours but high-end all the same – and I know two things about it. The first is that suffering is very demanding. ‘Feel me,’ it screams. ‘Am I not terrible? Am I not the worst thing you’ve ever had to deal with?’ And that is true whether what is causing your suffering is toothache, a financial crisis, a broken relationship, a bullying boss, a difficult child, or a bereavement. Suffering never lets up. Try to ignore it, and it drags your focus back. It will have you think of nothing else. It insists that you give it ever last bit of your attention.

And the second thing I know about suffering is that it makes you unutterably weary. It saps your strength. It makes you weak. It drains your batteries and robs you of your energy. And working together these two aspects of suffering are able to render you helpless and almost incapable of doing anything else but curl up in your own private ball of misery until the suffering eventually goes away … If, of course, it ever does.

But that is where Paul comes storming in and says, ‘No! Stop it! Tear your eyes away from your pain. Look up and start praising and giving thanks. Because that is the powerful key that will redeem your suffering and set you free from its slavery.’

‘Huh!’ you say. ‘What did Paul know about it?’

Well let me take you to a place called Philippi in Eastern Macedonia. That’s where in about AD 50, Paul and Silas were thrown into gaol for upsetting the locals. First they were stripped, beaten with rods, and given a severe flogging. And only then, when the skin on their backs was in ribbons were they placed in the underground cell, in total darkness, chained and shackled flat on their torn and bleeding backs on the rough and rocky floor. Can you imagine how they were feeling – their teeth chattering with the cold, waves of pain crashing through them every time they tried to move? The story is in Acts 16. Does it tell us what they thought or said? Oh yes … in just one sentence. ‘About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them.’ What? Singing hymns to God! How could that be?

Because Paul and Silas practiced what they preached. Because Paul and Silas knew that God was working for good in their beatings and floggings and imprisonment. Because Paul and Silas knew that an attitude of gratitude and a posture of praise is the key that redeems suffering and sets you free of it, from the inside out. And, my word, did it set Paul and Silas free! ‘Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened.’ That’s the power of praise for you. That’s what an attitude of gratitude can do for you. That’s what happens when you shift your gaze from your suffering to the God who is busily turning that suffering into good.

Will the key of thanksgiving and praise open prison doors for you? Well whether it will open physical doors or not, I don’t know – though it has opened them for me on more than one occasion in the past. But it will certainly open the inner doors – the doors of your soul and your spirit – and set you free inside. As Charles Wesley put it in his hymn based on the story of Paul and Silas in prison in Philippi: ‘My chains fell off, my heart was free ..’

So how do you develop an attitude of gratitude? How do you tap into the power of praise? In my experience, you start where it’s easiest and go on from there. We all have the capacity for thanksgiving. As A A Milne wrote in Winnie-the-Pooh, ‘Piglet noticed that even though he had a very small heart, it could hold a rather large amount of gratitude.’ Well, so can your heart and so can mine. We simply need to get the thanksgiving pump working. It’s so easy to let self-pity, despair and misery clog it up. So … ‘Thank you, Lord, for bringing me safely to the beginning of this day. Thank you for this home of mine; for food and clothing; for friends and family; for people who love me. Thank you for all the blessings of the past. Thank you for …’. And then be specific. I think of the old hymn my grandma used to sing:

When upon life’s billows you are tempest-tossed,
When you are discouraged, thinking all is lost,
Count your many blessings, name them one by one,
And it will surprise you what the Lord has done.

Count your blessings, then, once you’ve finished counting your blessings and your thanksgiving pump has become unblocked, move on to your suffering and add that to your flow of praise. ‘And thank you, Lord, for these present difficulties of mine. Thank you for your unbreakable promise that you are turning them into good. Thank you that you will never leave me or forsake me. Thank you that by going to the cross in Jesus you have shown me that you know and understand and share my pain, and that you will redeem it.’

Do you recall the first Eucharistic prayer in our Communion Services? It begins like this:

‘Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.

It is right to give him thanks and praise.

It is indeed right, it is our duty and our joy, at all times and in all places to give you thanks and praise, holy Father, heavenly King, almighty and eternal God, through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord.’

And I know – I really know – from first-hand experience, that as you do persevere in praise and thanksgiving – that as you do make it your duty and joy, at all times and in all places, to give God thanks and praise – everything will change. Your suffering and pain will be transformed.

And that is so, so necessary – not just for ourselves but for those around us. Remember this … Hurting-people hurt people. Or as Richard Rohr has said, ‘If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it. … If we cannot find a way to make our wounds into sacred wounds we invariably become negative or bitter. All suffering is potentially redemptive; all wounds are potentially sacred wounds. It depends on what you do with them. Can you find God in them or not?’

Well, can we? Yes we can … but only when we choose to develop an attitude of gratitude and a posture of praise, right in the very midst of our sufferings. That is when the chain-breaking, prison-shaking power of God is released and the transformation of our sufferings will begin.

Thanks to Jenny Medley for giving me permission to reproduce below a fine sermon which she preached at the church to which we both belong – St James Church, Bolton, Bradford – on 24 July 2016.

At the beginning of this month, on July 1, Britain commemorated 100 years since the battle of the Somme in the First World War. This battle which lasted from July to November is infamous for the use of tanks for the first time and for the number of men killed. 420,000 British soldiers died – 19,240 on the first day. Did you see the commemorations on the TV? I found them very moving. There was the two minutes silence leading up to 7.30 in the morning ending with a whistle – the signal for the men to leave the trenches and go over the top; the vigil around the grave of the unknown warrior; and the service at Thieval, in France. I was in tears more than once that day.

But my favourite (if you are allowed to say that) was the actors dressed in WWI uniforms who appeared in many of our cities around the country. They silently walked around, mingling with the people, a ghostly presence of a generation lost. If anyone approached them they were given a card with the name and age of one of the actual men killed in that terrible battle, a shocking reminder of the consequences of war, from these ‘resurrected’ souls.

And that is my contrived introduction to our theme this morning. We are at the last part of our study of the Creed and our theme is ‘I believe in the resurrection of the body and life everlasting’. But before we look at the resurrection we must first look at death.

The one thing we can be sure of in life is that we will all die sooner or later, so why do we feel uncomfortable talking about it? Why do we feel it’s a taboo subject not to be mentioned in polite company? Why are we reluctant to even say the word ‘death’, preferring to sweeten our experience by saying someone has ‘passed away’ or has’ been lost’?

Even though people have died since the beginning of time I put it to you that death as we know it – the painful, scary, separation from loved ones – doesn’t feel right to us because it wasn’t what God intended. God created the heavens and the earth for us to live in and he saw that it was good, We don’t know whether when God created man he was meant to live for ever or whether he was given a span of life and then died – a bit like the changing of the seasons; but death wasn’t intended to be the fearful thing it is now. It was only when man sinned and moved away from God that the full horror of evil, death and decay permeated all of creation.

But since that time God has been working to put things right, firstly through the law and secondly by sending his Son Jesus Christ to defeat death. Jesus died on the cross on Good Friday and then we tend to leap to Sunday and the resurrection, but Easter Saturday is important as well. From the moment of his death until the morning of his resurrection, Jesus identified with humanity at the lowest point of our fallenness. He identified with us in our deadness, in our complete helplessness, in our utter dependence upon God for any future whatsoever. His love did not just bring him to walk with us around sunny Galilee; it brought him to lie inert alongside us on the sunless shelf of the grave. And because of this, the grave is no longer a place of despair but a bed of hope. Death has been transformed not just because Jesus died but also because the Father raised him to a full and free life on the other side of death; and what he did for Jesus He promised he will do for us too if we believe in him

As we’ve heard already in our study of the Creed we believe Jesus rose from the dead. But the resurrection appearances can be confusing. Mary didn’t recognise Jesus, thinking he was a gardener, and was then asked by Jesus not to hold on to him ‘as he had not yet ascended to the Father’ (John 21:17). St Luke states that all the doors were locked when Jesus appeared to the disciples and they were afraid thinking he was a ghost (Luke 24). So what was his body like?

It is possible to read the accounts of the resurrection appearances and come to the conclusion that, if Jesus could appear in rooms where the doors are locked and disappear from view at will, then his body must be insubstantial and non-physical. But Jesus himself insists that he is not a ghost. He eats fish and lets Thomas touch his scars to prove his physicality. So Jesus’ new body is physical and spiritual It is not that he is so insubstantial that he can walk through walls: it is that he is so substantial and so real that the walls are insubstantial and unreal in comparison.

This is what God has planned from the beginning: a physical life but with a spiritual existence with God. When we are resurrected, God will preserve, heal, recreate and transform us. He will renew our otherness … and by that I mean our distinctiveness from one another and from God. We shall not lose who we truly are. Indeed it is God’s intended destiny for us that we remain human and yet be in perfect union with him. But note that our bodies will be transformed as well as being preserved and healed. There will be new dimensions to explore, new capabilities to exploit, new glory to revel in, new beauty to radiate. We shall be more than physical, but not less.

First our relationship with God will be healed and transformed ‘now we see through a glass darkly, then we will see face to face’ (1 Corinthians 13:12). We will see God as he is and know him as we are known. No selfishness or shame shall cloud our vision the way it does now. Our hearts and minds will be pure.

People often think of eternal life as heaven, with angels floating on clouds playing harps and continuous worship of God – not something that I feel I would enjoy for eternity. But earth will not be replaced by heaven. We are promised there will be a new heaven and a new earth and a new Jerusalem. In Jesus’ words the final victory of God is the renewal of all things. Creation is old and tired and finite and distorted and corrupt; it needs renewing. When that happens wrongs will be righted, hurts will be healed, sacrifices will be made up for, distortions will be straightened out, that which is the wrong way round will be put the right way up, that which is finite will put on eternity, that which is tired will be reinvigorated and that which is dull will shine.That sounds more exciting! That sounds something to look forward to instead of dreading. That sounds like heaven.

In John 11:25 Jesus says ‘I am the resurrection and the life He who believes in me will live even though he dies and whoever lives and believes in me will never die’ and in John3:16 Jesus said to Nicodemus ‘God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life’. Do you believe this? This is the foundation of our faith – the knowledge that when we die, we will be resurrected like Jesus and live with God for eternity. Good news indeed. And if you do believe this, then it should alter your life and your lifestyle now. We should be living our life for God, loving one another, battling temptations and sharing the good news with everyone, because the day is coming when the godly way of life will be the only way of life and we will live together with him forever.

Christ the King

Sermon preached at St James’ Church, Bolton, Bradford on 22 November 2015

John 18.33-37

One late afternoon in 1980, someone rang our front door-bell and Yvonne went to answer it. We lived in Derwent Road back then. The two men on the doorstep said they were police detectives and they wanted to speak to a Mr Neil Booth. ‘Oh,’ said Yvonne. ‘That’s my husband. He isn’t back from the office yet. Do you want to come in and have a cup of tea while you wait?’ ‘No,’ they said. ‘We’ll come back later’ … And they did. They wanted to know where I had been on a particular evening and if I could produce an alibi for my whereabouts. Fortunately I could — which was just as well, because at that time I was slim and had dark hair and a dark beard, and the two public-spirited ladies who lived next door to us had been in touch with the police to say they were pretty sure I wasn’t quite who everyone thought I was. Oh no. I was really — wait for it — the Yorkshire Ripper.

Bless them, they were wrong. It was a case of mistaken identity. I wasn’t who they thought I was. But it’s not my identity I want us to think about this morning, but the identity of Jesus. Who is he? Who do we think he is? And might we be just as mistaken about him as the ladies of Derwent Road were about me? Who is Jesus? It’s a very important question. Get that answer wrong and we’ll get most other things wrong.

Now, next Sunday is Advent Sunday — the start of the new church year — and over the course of the four weeks that will begin then, the answer coming loud and clear to the question ‘Who is Jesus?’ will be: the baby born in Bethlehem … Mary’s boy-child … ‘infant holy, infant lowly’ … ‘away in a manger no crib for a bed’.

But then, once Christmas has been and gone, and the three kings of Epiphany have disappeared back into the east, we will start the countdown to Easter — 27 March in 2016, in case you were wondering — and over the course of those ten weeks the answer to the question ‘Who is Jesus?’ will change. It will increasingly become: ‘the man upon the cross, my sin upon his shoulders’ … the one ‘led like a lamb to the slaughter in silence and shame’. That’s who Jesus is: the Crucified One of Calvary.

Except that then, within three days, the answer will change to become: the Resurrected One; then (forty days later) the Ascended One, then … Well for the remainder of the church year until it all begins again, we fill the gap by looking at the life of Jesus between his birth and his ascension, and we come up with a variety of answers to the question ‘Who is Jesus?’ Jesus is the Teacher. He is the Healer. He is the Miracle Worker. He is ‘The man who lived in Galilee unlike all men before’.

And all that is fine. With every fresh focus through the passing weeks of the church year we are given new and different answers to the question ‘Who is Jesus?’ And they’re all true. They’re all true. But the trouble is that, even taken together, they are inadequate. Or perhaps it’s better to say they are incomplete. Who is Jesus? All of the above, yes … but so much more.

And so it was that, in 1925, to correct the deficiency, Pope Pius XI of the Roman Catholic Church, instituted a Feast day — a Festival — to encourage God’s people to contemplate what the ‘so-much-more’ about who Jesus is might be. And that Festival is today. It’s the day we celebrate … what? Well, Steve has already told us it is the Feast of ‘Christ the King’. But, sadly, you know, that is a rather watered-down version of what the feast day started out by being and what it really is. It is really ‘The Feast of Jesus Christ the King of the Universe’. And today, on the last Sunday of the Church’s Year, as we turn our eyes upon Jesus, that is the Jesus we are meant to see … ‘Jesus Christ the King of the Universe’.

That is the missing answer to the question ‘Who is Jesus?’ And it is, I believe, the one answer that alone makes sense of all the other answers and gives true meaning to Jesus’ birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension, and gives us a proper perspective for our faith.

The Feast of Jesus Christ, the King of the Universe. Now you can see why we had that reading from John’s gospel. Because in it and the verses that follow it, Pilate asks Jesus in a variety of ways: ‘Are you a king?’ And in a way, this morning, we are invited to stand alongside Pilate and ask Jesus that very same question. We’re invited to search our minds and hearts and to take a long hard look at the Jesus we follow and worship, and to ask ourselves ‘Is that who Jesus really is to me? Is he a king … and if so, the king of what? The King of the Jews? Or more than that  … The King of the Universe? Is that what I truly believe?’ I would suggest that if we can be brought to the point of answering in complete honesty ‘Yes’, it will profoundly change our lives.

Canon J B Philips once wrote a book called ‘Your God is Too Small’. And you know what, he was right; our God is too small. And I’m absolutely certain that, in the estimation of all of us, without exception, our Jesus is  too small. I tell you this. There is not a single member of this congregation who, when he or she gets to see Jesus as he really is, will turn to the person next to them and say: ‘Really? That’s Jesus. What a let-down. What a disappointment. He’s not nearly as awesome and wonderful as I thought he was going to be.’

Quite the contrary. Jesus’ best friend John — the disciple whom Jesus loved, the one who was at his right hand at the Last Supper and lay his head on his breast, the one who was in the inner circle of Jesus’ friends and knew the human Jesus better than anyone else … That John, the apostle John, when he was in exile on the island of Patmos near the end of his life, had a glimpse of Jesus as he really is in eternity, and do you know how it affected him? ‘I fell at his feet,’ he said ‘as though I was dead’. That’s how the reality of who Jesus is affected him. But how about us?

What is it we see when we think of Jesus, or speak of him, or pray to him, or sing about him? A Robert Powell look-alike from Jesus of Nazareth? A Jim Caviezal look-alike from The Passion of the Christ? Or the man in the watercolour painting I remember from my Sunday School wall in West Hartlepool: the man with long golden hair and blue eyes and a spotless white robe ‘suffering the little children to come to him’ as they gather round his feet and sit in his lap?

Even if we try to stretch our imagination to see beyond that man from Galilee and to think of the ascended and glorified Jesus at the Father’s right hand in heaven, all we generally manage to do is add some shining robes and some special halo effects to our normal visualisation. Well, I’m sorry, but that Jesus is still too small. Way too small. And my job this morning, on this particular Sunday, is to try to throw out some thoughts and ideas that will hopefully enable the Holy Spirit to draw back the curtain for you on Jesus as he really is, right now — the King of the Universe.

To do that, I first need to take you back in time. Back before the birth in Bethlehem, back before King David, back before Moses, back before Abraham, back before Adam and Eve, back before the dinosaurs, back before the earth was formed, back before there was a universe at all. In fact, I need to take you back to what the author of the book of Genesis and the author of the Gospel of John both call ‘the Beginning’.

In the 17th century, James Ussher, the Archbishop of Armagh, calculated that ‘the Beginning’ took place on Saturday, October 22, in 4004 BC … but he couldn’t, of course, have got it more wrong if he’d tried. For we now know with great certainty just how old creation is — though the numbers involved are absolutely mind-blowing. In fact, the Beginning that the book of Genesis talks about took place 13.8 billion years ago. That is when, according to the book of Genesis, God created the heavens and the earth.

But the writer of the Gospel of John has something even more mind-boggling and stupendous to add to that. ‘In the beginning,’ he tells us, ‘was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.’

So who is this ‘he’, this ‘him’, this ‘Word’? A few verses later John tells us. The Word is the One who, 2,000 years ago, ‘became flesh and dwelt among us.’ He is Jesus.

Let’s just stick with that for a minute. We normally have this reading from John’s Gospel at the end of the Christmas Carol service, and because of that, any awesome thoughts that it might spark off in us are quickly snuffed out by ‘O Come all ye faithful’ (wonderful carol though it is) and the mince pies and the mulled wine which literally bring us right back down to earth. But just let’s stick with it now and let’s try to grasp the enormity of it.

What John is saying is that, before there was anything that we would recognise as existence, there was a kind of Fellowship of Love called ‘God’ … and it consisted of the Father, his son, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. And in the heart of this triune God there arose the idea of the universe and of creatures who could be drawn into the life of the Trinity itself to share in the love and joy that Father, Son and Spirit already eternally shared together.

There was then a ‘let’s do it’ moment in the mind of God and the decision that the creation would take place though Jesus. He would be the architect and builder of the universe and of every last thing in it. Every atom and molecule would have its origin in him. Every planet and star and constellation and nebula. His would be the hands that, as Graham Kendrick puts it ‘flung stars into space’. And more than that, he would hold those stars and all other created things together.

Hear how Paul puts it in his letter to the Colossians: ‘In him — in Jesus — all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers — all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.’

Think what that means. You don’t have to be a quantum physicist nowadays to know that nothing is as solid as it looks. Just one tiny grain of sand is made up of 17 million, million, million molecules. That is 17 with 18 zeros after it! Just one grain of sand! And everything in the material universe is made up of molecules. But molecules aren’t solid. Each molecule is made up of atoms. At the centre of each atom are neutrons and protons surrounded by electrons. And in each neutron and electron are even smaller particles called quarks. And everything — quarks, neutrons, protons, electrons, atoms, molecules — effectively float in nothing. They’re not attached to each other; they are simply held together in a kind of dance that makes them what they are — a sand dance, a water dance, an iron dance.

And what holds them in place — in what one physicist has called ‘the astounding interconnectedness of the universe’ — is some kind of … energy. But what energy? Where does it come from? What is it that holds everything together and connects everything together? Well the answer to that, folks, whether you believe it or not, is the Word, Jesus Christ, the King of the Universe. ‘All things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.’

What Paul is saying is that if Jesus lets it all go … loses his grip … even for a nanosecond, everything, absolutely everything that is, will cease to be. The universe will simply vanish.

The universe. Let’s talk about the universe. We’ve talked about ‘small’ — the grain of sand with its 17 million, million, million molecules — so let’s talk about ‘big’ for a moment. We all know you measure distances in space in light years. That, as you might expect, is the distance that light travels in a year. In terms of miles, it’s 6 million, million miles a year. But even if you could travel at that speed, the speed of light, do you know how long it would take you to reach the edge of just the known universe. 46 billion years! And there may be even more universe or universes that are still undetected. Wow!

But here’s the thing. Jesus Christ is King of it all. In Hebrews 1, he’s called the one ‘through whom God made the universe’ and ‘who sustains it by his powerful word.’ That’s why I’ve put some science in the sermon this morning! Jesus is King of everything from the inconceivably big to the inconceivably small. He is king of every molecule in every grain of sand and he is king of every star and every planet, whether it’s on our doorstep in the Milky Way or at the outer edge of the universe 276 thousand million, million, million miles away. And my question for each of us this morning is: Is that what we truly believe?

You see, I suspect there are some of you looking back at me now who don’t even want to face that question. I can almost hear you silently shouting: ‘Stop it, Neil. Please, just stop it. I don’t want to know … Such ideas of bigness and smallness frighten the living daylights out of me. I just want to stick with the Jesus I’m used to: the one who’s my saviour and friend. If I go along with what you’re saying, he can’t be my friend any more. Nobody that big, that important, and that powerful could ever even notice me let alone listen to me when I talk to him.’

Really? Why not? You see there’s another truth about Jesus that we choose to neglect almost as much as the truth that Jesus is the creator and sustainer of the universe itself and everything in it. And Paul tells us what it is in Ephesians chapter 1 …

Even before the world was made,’ he says, ‘God had already chosen us to be his through our union with Christ, so that we would be holy and without fault before him. Because of his love God had already decided that through Jesus Christ he would make us his children — this was his pleasure and purpose.’

His purpose, please note. That is what creation was all about.

‘In all his wisdom and insight,’ Paul goes on, ‘God did what he had purposed, and made known to us the secret plan he had already decided to complete by means of Christ. This plan, which God will complete when the time is right, is to bring all creation together, everything in heaven and on earth, with Christ as head.’

There are a dozen sermons in those verses but the key point we need to grasp is this. At the same ‘time before time’, when the Trinity of Love decided to create the universe through Jesus, they had already decided it was to be the home of the human race. That was the very purpose of creation. The human race wasn’t an after-thought. And the Trinity of Love had already decided that each member of that human race — you and me included — would, through his or her union with Jesus, become sons and daughters of the heavenly Father. That was all part of the package. ‘Even before the world was made,’ says Paul, ‘God had already chosen us to be his children!’

How wonderful is that! If only we could all get hold of that and take it to heart. How many Christians are there who are striving to work, pray, and believe their way into something they are already in if only they knew it. God chose you specifically, by name, before the first star became a raging furnace of life and light. You already belong to him and with him. You are already family! All he asks of you is that you wake up, smell the coffee, and come to the table. Wake up to what is already yours in Christ.

Oh, yes, you say. But that was before we went and ruined everything. What about sin and evil and the almighty mess we’ve made of Planet Earth? Well, let me tell you, the Trinity of Love knew all about that too before the universe came into being. In the Book of Revelation, Jesus is called ‘the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.’ And do you know why he’s called that? Because, before the universe was even created through him, Jesus said to the Father and the Spirit: ‘We all know what’s going to happen, don’t we? They’re going to mess up. They’re going to mess up big time. They’re going to alienate themselves from us. They’re going to turn their backs on us and choose darkness rather than light. They’re going to embrace their own destruction. But we can fix it; and here is how …

‘I’ll go down there into the muck and mess. I’ll go down deep. I’ll go down into death and hell itself and I’ll defeat them and destroy the darkness. And then I’ll trust you Father and Holy Spirit to pull me back up and when you do I’ll bring the whole human race with me. However long it takes I’ll rescue them from the dump. I’ll clean them up and make them new and I’ll set them free to be one with us and to share and enjoy with me every blessing that is mine …

‘Here, in eternity, before we even light the blue touch-paper and make the Big Bang … before you, Father, say “Let there be light” … I, Jesus, willingly bind myself in love and friendship and blessing to every human being there will ever be and I swear to bring every last one of them here, into this, our fellowship of the Trinity, that we may all love and delight in one another for ever and ever. Amen.’

And that, by the way, is the Gospel. You may have heard it differently. You may have been told that the Gospel is that you can receive Jesus into your life. No. The Gospel is that Jesus has already received you into his life … and that he did so before he created the universe.

The bigness of Jesus isn’t a problem, you see. It isn’t a problem because the greatness of his power and his majesty is entirely matched, measure for measure, by the greatness of his love. And the two together mean that he not only wants you in his life and wants to spend eternity with you, but that he has the power — the almighty power — to make that happen. Indeed, he has already made it happen in eternity — and is unstoppable in his commitment to remove every hindrance, every barrier that you yourself or all the powers of darkness combined might, here in time, try to put in the way.

That’s why you really don’t want or need a little Jesus, a provincial Jesus of the kind we are all too often willing to settle for … a Jesus who is not much more than an invisible version of the man from Galilee.

The real Jesus, the true Jesus — the one we celebrate today — is so much bigger than that. He is indeed the King of the Universe. And please hear this — he loves you. He really does. You! Specifically you! He chose you and decided to die for you before all worlds were made.

People talk of Jesus taking on flesh and going to the cross, you know, as if it were God’s Plan B after God’s Garden-of-Eden-y Plan A had gone horribly wrong. No. There never was a Plan B. The Incarnation and the Cross were always part of Plan A. When Jesus died and rose again and ascended to the Father, you died and were raised in him and carried with him to the Father’s arms. It’s all there in Ephesians 2 — ‘But God … out of the great love with which he loved us … made us alive together with Christ … and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.’ Note the tense of the verbs. Made … raised … seated … past tense! Perfect tense! It has already happened. It’s a done deal and it’ s the real deal.

That is the glory of the gospel. He is yours and you are his for all eternity. And nothing … nothing whatsoever … can ever alter 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.’ That is the truth and it is true because Jesus Christ is the King of all creation … the King of the Universe … and he has ordained it to be so and has made it so. He is the lover of your soul, the one in whom you live and move and have your being, and the one who has decreed that he will never, ever let you go. Amen

The Good Samaritan

Sermon preached at St James’ Church, Bolton, Bradford on 30 August 2015

Luke 10:25-37

Words are strange things aren’t they? Little bundles of sound that are right now leaving my mouth and floating through the air to enter your ears where, hopefully, they have the same meaning for you as they have for me as I’m speaking them. Unfortunately, though, they don’t always do that, do they? Words that are spoken, or written, can mean one thing to the person who speaks or writes them and something entirely different to the person who hears or reads them …

Anyone seen that delightful film ‘Paddington’? Yes? Then you’ll recall the hilarious moment where the little bear from the Andes, still adapting to life in Britain, is about to descend into the London Underground when he suddenly spots a sign saying “Dogs Must Be Carried on the Escalator.” Oh no! He doesn’t have a dog! What is he to do? Well he rushes off and finds one, doesn’t he, so that he will not be breaking the law by going down to the platform empty-handed.

But even when the sense is clear, a word can have different meanings, can’t it? At Crown Court recently, there was a young chap on trial, charged with dangerous driving. ‘Will you tell the Court what gear you were in at the time of the collision?’ asked the barrister. ‘Just the usual,’ said the young man, ‘jeans, trainers and a sweat-shirt’. ‘Gear’, you see, has more than one meaning. And so, of course, do lots of other words.

As some of you know, before I retired (long time ago now) I was a tax specialist – an expert in tax law. Which meant I had to spend a great deal of time ferreting out from tax cases and Hansard and so forth precisely what particular words and phrases used in the various Finance Acts actually meant: what they included … and, usually more to the point, what they didn’t include. The law said something or other was taxable … but what exactly was that something or other? My job was to find out.

One of the more famous tax cases I remember concerned the humble Jaffa cake. Was it cake – as its name suggested – or was it a biscuit? Huge sums of money were at stake. Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs claimed it was a biscuit and so should attract VAT at the standard rate. McVities – who I understand still produce 2,000 Jaffa cakes a minute – argued no, it was indeed a cake and should therefore be zero-rated. The Tribunal who heard the case weighed up the pros and cons. The product’s name was, they thought, neither here nor there. But it was a fact that, if you went shopping for Jaffa cakes, you would find them on the biscuit counter and not on the cake counter. However, a Jaffa cake was, they discovered, made from a thin batter rather than the thicker dough usually used for biscuits; and because of its spongy texture it could be bent, whereas a biscuit was usually crisp and could be snapped. Not only that, but they found that when Jaffa cakes went stale they became hard like a cake rather than going soft like a biscuit. So what were they? All things considered, the Tribunal decided a Jaffa cake was indeed a cake after all. Result … McVities 1, Revenue 0. And it all came down to definition.

Definition and law belong together. Wherever there are laws there are people and things to which the law applies and people and things to which it doesn’t apply. But which are which? You need definitions to decide. And that applied just as much to the Law which God had given the Jews as it did to any other kind of law. God’s law said, for instance, that you mustn’t work on the Sabbath. But what was work? The law itself didn’t say. So the Jews had legal specialists – experts in the law who were known as scribes – who tried to interpret the law and set the definitions. The law was the law and had to be obeyed. If you were a Jew, your relationship with God depended on it. Obey it and God loved you; break it and you were out in the cold … or down in the heat perhaps. But you had to know what the law was if you were going to obey it or break it – and that’s where these lawyers came in. Their business was to tell you. And it was one of those lawyers who popped up in this morning’s reading. He was there in the crowd around Jesus.

Now it says he was wanting to test Jesus but that doesn’t mean we must think of him as a bad man or as someone out to get Jesus. No, not at all. He would have been passionate about the law and it was no doubt his passion that took him to Jesus that day. Knowing that Jesus was claiming to speak on behalf of God himself, he had a very important question to put to him. One to which he genuinely wanted God’s own answer. ‘What,’ he asked Jesus, ‘must I do to inherit eternal life?’ In other words: ‘Which parts of God’s law are so essential that they encompass all the rest of the law and will, if obeyed, unlock the very gate to God’s kingdom?’

‘Well … you tell me,’ says Jesus. ‘You’re the lawyer. What do you think?’

‘Hmn. Well, first must be the command we recite every morning and evening – You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and strength and mind,’ says the lawyer. ‘And I would add to that the command: Love your neighbour as yourself.’

‘Couldn’t agree more,’ says Jesus. ‘So … why not go and do it?!’

Maybe there was a little laughter from the crowd at this point. They liked to see a lawyer being put in his place, and that’s what Jesus – in the nicest way possible – had just done. The lawyer was beginning to look rather foolish. So ‘seeking to justify himself’ the Bible says … in other words, seeking to show that he wasn’t being quite as stupid as the crowd seemed to think he was … the lawyer whacks the ball back into Jesus’ court with another question – a question of definition. ‘That’s all well and good,’ he says. ‘But who is my neighbour?’

He knows (as does everyone else) that ‘a neighbour’ includes one’s family and presumably the people one shares a pew with in the synagogue on Saturday; but who else? It’s not an easy question to answer. The Hebrew word for neighbour, you see, had a wide range of meanings. One of them was ‘friend’, another was ‘workmate’, but yet another was ‘fellow citizen’. So, the scribe is saying to Jesus: ‘When God commands me to love my neighbour, who is it exactly that he’s commanding me to love. Is it just my family and friends? Or does it extend to my workmates whether I’m friends with them or not. Or might it even extend to all other Jews? And if it does extend to all other Jews, is it only ‘good’ Jews or all Jews? It’s an important question, Jesus. I really want to know. Loving can be costly. I don’t want to go spending love on people who don’t fall within the definition. Where do I draw the line? What are the limits? Where are the boundaries?’

So Jesus tells him – and the crowd around him – a story. A parable. You know what a parable is, don’t you It’s just a story; but a story with a twist in the tale. A story that’s designed to make a point and to make it in a memorable and unexpected and even shocking way. So Jesus tells this parable, this story, of a man who sets off from Jerusalem on his donkey to travel the long and winding road to Jericho in the Jordan valley bottom far below. Seventeen rocky and very dangerous miles that – despite the pictures in Bible Stories for children – nobody in their right mind would ever travel on foot. If you valued your life, you went down the Jericho road on a donkey as fast as you possibly could. That’s because it was notorious in Jesus’ day for the bands of robbers that lurked in its nooks and crannies and behind its rock-falls, just waiting to set upon anyone who turned the corner and strayed within their range. And in Jesus’ story it was just such a band that fell upon the man the story seems to be about – beating him up, stripping him of his clothes, stealing his money, his donkey – everything he had – and leaving him there at the roadside, slowly bleeding to death.

By now the crowd are hooked. They’ve heard such tales. They know all about that road. They dread ever having to travel on it themselves. The poor devil! What’s going to happen to him now?

‘Well, what happens,’ says Jesus, ‘is that there’s a clip-clop in the distance, getting closer and closer, and around the corner comes … a priest!’

‘A priest, eh? Well thank goodness for that. Let’s hope he’s in time. Let’s hope he can do something to save the poor guy lying at the roadside.’

‘Alas, no,’ says Jesus … ‘The priest could help but he doesn’t. He takes one look at the dying man, digs his heels in the donkey’s side and gallops off. I mean, who knows? The robbers might still be around! Self-preservation! You’ve got to save your own skin while you’ve got the chance.’

The crowd shake their heads in disgust. ‘Cor. Typical!’ says someone.

‘Ah, but wait,’ says Jesus. ‘There’s someone else coming. Clip-clop. Clip-clop. It’s a Levite on his donkey.’ (You can think of Levites as being like church wardens or readers. They’re not Priests but they’re still very religious and do a lot of stuff in the temple.) So here round the corner comes a Levite.

‘Oh, thank heavens for that. So he stops, does he?’

‘No. Not a bit of it. He takes a look, but then he too takes off in a cloud of dust, galloping down the road after the priest.’

‘Oh, heck. So is that it? Is the man in the gutter doomed to die?’

‘Perhaps. Perhaps not. Can you hear? Clip-clop, clip-clop. There’s someone else coming.’

‘Ah …’ The crowd have got the hang of it now. They can see where this is going. It’s an ‘Englishman, Irishman, Scotsman’ story isn’t it? They’ve had the priest – the religious professional. They’ve had the Levite – the half-and-half. And now they’re expecting the real ordinary bloke, salt of the earth – just like one of themselves, coming round the corner; and at last there’ll be someone to do something for the poor devil lying in the pool of blood with the vultures circling overhead.

‘But no,’ says Jesus, ‘Coming round the corner is a … wait for it … clip-clop, clip-clop … a SAMARITAN!

‘Nooo! Samaritans are the pits. They something you scrape off the bottom of your sandal. The only good Samaritan is a dead Samaritan. What’s a Samaritan doing in the story?’

‘Well,’ says Jesus, ‘this one is coming to do what the priest and Levite failed to do. Having come round the corner he sees the half-dead Jew and in an instant, without a thought for his own safety, he’s off his donkey and running to help him. Moved with compassion, he applies first aid – uses oil and wine to clean and sterilise the wounds – bandages him up (presumably by tearing his turban or some of his own garments into strips) – puts him on his donkey and gets him to the nearest inn on the outskirts of Jericho. Not only that, but he gives the inn-keeper enough money to look after the man for over three weeks. “And don’t worry if it costs more,” he says, “I’ll sort it out when I return.”’

The crowd are silent. Stunned. Speechless. Jesus turns to the lawyer. ‘So,’ he says, ‘the question I want to ask you is not whether the man who fell among thieves falls within the legal definition of “neighbour” for any of those who encountered him on the Jericho road; but which of those who encountered him on that road him showed a true spirit of neighbourliness towards him?’

There can, of course, be only one answer and the lawyer gives it. ‘The one who showed him mercy,’ he says, grudgingly. He cannot even bring himself to utter the word ‘Samaritan’.

‘Yes,’ says Jesus. ‘So now you go and do the same.’

Notice that Jesus never spells out for the lawyer who a ‘neighbour’ is. He never actually answers the lawyer’s question. Nor will he answer our question today if we’re asking him whether, for example, those refugees and asylum seekers stacked up now in ‘the Jungle’ in Calais and longing to get into Britain, are our ‘neighbours’. And that’s for the very good reason that the question is unanswerable, and should never be asked. It should never be asked because love doesn’t define neighbours, it discovers them. If you are looking for limits before you start to show love, you have no love in your heart to show and it’s impossible for you to love your neighbour anyway. If you do have love in your heart, it will show you who your neighbours are without your ever having to define them. That’s why one newspaper got it absolutely right when it said this last week that Britain doesn’t have a problem with immigrants, it has a problem with compassion. The Samaritan was ‘moved with compassion’ and that’s what caused him to recognise the injured Jew as his neighbour.

Now I suppose we could leave it there. We’ve discovered the point of Jesus’ parable. That love discovers neighbours; it doesn’t define them. That they’re just there – the people, whoever they are, who fall within the circle of mercy and compassion that is created by our love. That the bigger our love, the wider the circle and the more ‘neighbours’ we shall find it to include.

But I cannot leave it there without pointing out something that you may not yet have realised. That on a very deep and meaningful and personal level, this story is actually about Jesus himself … and us. A great many of Jesus’ stories are.

In the Gospel of John – chapter 8 – the religious leaders come to Jesus and set about insulting him in the worst way they know how. ‘Are you not a Samaritan,’ they say, ‘and demon-possessed?’

‘No, I am not demon-possessed,’ Jesus replies. But please note, he doesn’t say, ‘I am not a Samaritan.’ Why? Because he’s happy to be called a Samaritan. He’s happy to be the Good Samaritan. He’s happy to be the one who – though despised and rejected of men – becomes their saviour and the saviour of all the world.

And we, of course – you and I – each one of us – is the man at the roadside. We have all fallen among thieves. We have all been robbed of the riches that were our birth-right as children of God. We have all been beaten up by the circumstances and traumas of our lives. We have all been left for dead at one time or another. And indeed there are perhaps those of you here who are feeling half-dead and abandoned even now.

Not that you’re going to let anyone see it, of course. No more than I am. Because we cover up, don’t we? It’s what we do – we’re British. Stiff upper lip and all that. Laugh and the world laughs with you. Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag and smile, smile, smile. Put on a brave face. Big boys don’t cry.

But none of it fools Jesus, thank God. He is on his donkey – he likes riding donkeys – and he’s coming down your Jericho road and mine; just as he has been for the last two thousand years. He is the Good Samaritan after all – so where else would he be. He’s looking for beaten up people like you and me. And when he sees us, he stops and moved with compassion* he comes to us. He comes to us this morning. This is a healing service and, if we are willing, Jesus will come to us right here, in this place, to bind up our wounds; to put us on his donkey; and to carry us to safety. His love is so great that the circle of his mercy and compassion is without limit, so there is no-one here who is not his neighbour. And he loves his neighbour. He loves you. The only question is: Will you let him be your good Samaritan this morning?

In a moment we’re going to play some gentle music and I’m going to invite you to come to the Communion rail here, if you wish to do so, and receive an anointing with oil – just as the man at the roadside was anointed with oil by the good Samaritan. You can come for yourself or for another. It’s all very simple … just come, be anointed, go back, and pray. But before we do that, let me pray for all of us …

Lord Jesus, Good Samaritan to us all. Draw close to each one of us now in your mercy and compassion. Stoop to bind up our wounds of body, mind and spirit. Heal us by your grace; and to take us to the inn of your abiding presence where we can find comfort, sustenance, shelter and peace, and be made whole again. For your kingdom’s sake. Amen.

*  The Greek verb for ‘to be moved with compassion’ is splagchnizomai and, apart from here, is only ever used of Jesus himself in the Gospels.

A poem which may be sung as a hymn to the tune Westminster or any other ‘My God how wonderful thou art’ tune.

Not to appease an angry God
Nor satisfy his wrath
Did Jesus Cross-ward set his face
And tread his lonely path.

His sacrifice – like that of lambs
Slain in the temple court –
Was not of penalty but praise,
And no forgiveness bought.

Forgiveness from his Father flowed,
As ever, full and free;
But that we might its sweetness taste
He brought us to the Tree.

Repentance there – the Father’s gift
To every love-washed soul –
Unstops our hearts and ushers in
The life that makes us whole.

Christ died to carry into God
Our fear and pain and woe
That God in Christ hung on the Cross
Humanity might know.

Christ’s heart in God thus ever beats
With understanding grace
So naught but arms of welcome can
Await the human race.

One day, within those loving arms,
All stumbling souls will find
The Father of their heart’s desire,
All merciful and kind.

Then – when God’s love has had it’s way –
And all the lost are found,
We’ll join together in his feast
And joy will know no bounds.

(c) Neil D Booth 2014

Always Enough of Everything

The point is this:the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work. 2 Corinthians 9.6-8.

On British television, the BBC regularly shows repeats of Dad’s Army – a sitcom first broadcast from 1968 to 1977 about the Home Guard (local defence volunteers) during the Second World War. An episode that I watched last night had a scene in which we saw Corporal Jones going about his daily business as the local butcher in Walmington-on-Sea. There was a long queue of women in his shop and the woman at the front handed over her ration books.

jones‘Oh dear, Mrs Peters,’ says Jones, ‘You haven’t got much there. Only a shilling on each.’

‘Is that all I’ve got?’ she asks.

‘I’m afraid so,’ says Jones. ‘I can let you have three little lamb chops and a bit of corned beef.’

Mrs Fox, the lady next in the queue, fares a little better, but none of them get all that they need, for those were days of great hardship and austerity. Food was in short supply and by 1942 almost everything apart from vegetables and bread was being rationed.

Back then, in the UK, you lived out of the insufficiency of your ration book.

Well that little episode must still have been in my mind this morning, I suppose, when I read the passage set out above from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians; for its last sentence really made me sit up with a jolt. What was it that Paul was saying? God is able to provide me with every blessing in abundance? He can see to it that I always have enough of everything? Really? Well if that is so, why do I so often live out of what I see as the insufficiency of my ration book?

I began to think of the kind of things I say that betray my ‘poverty’ mentality:

I’m running out of sympathy.
My patience is exhausted.
It’s way beyond my means.
My compassion’s wearing a bit thin.
I simply don’t have the time.
I’ve nothing left to give.

The trouble is that in church on Sunday I pay lip service to a very different way of going on. I happily sing Don Moen’s lovely song (based on Joel 3.10 KJV) ‘Give thanks with a grateful heart’ and bellow out along with the rest:

And now let the weak say “I am strong.”
Let the poor say “I am rich
because of what the Lord has done for us.”

But the reality is that I live as if I am weak and poor and incapable of meeting most of the needs I would encounter if I truly engaged with those around me. If what Paul says is true, however, then I can afford to be generous with time, with money, with grace, mercy, compassion, patience … everything.

There really is no ration book. I’m not going to run out of anything.

For the fact is that I am no longer living in the pig sty of the far country where I have nothing. I am now in the Father’s house. I have the best robe on me. I have a ring on my finger and shoes on my feet. And my Father is rich beyond all imagining. Psalm 50.10 says he owns the cattle on a thousand hills (so forget about meat rationing, Mr Jones.) And the promise is that he will ‘fully satisfy every need’ of mine according to those riches – ‘his riches in glory in Christ Jesus’ (Philippians 4.9).

It has ever been so for those who belong to God and recognise his ownership. ‘The Lord is my shepherd: I shall not want,’ said David. Or as the hymn puts it:

The King of Love my shepherd is;
his goodness faileth never.
I nothing lack if I am his
and he is mine for ever.

That is the truth. The truth I need to be living in and living out of today. The truth that I will ‘always have enough of everything.’ Wow!

And this, of course, finally makes sense of a verse that has often puzzled me: Luke 8.18 ‘For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who do not have, even what they seem to have will be taken away.’ In other words; when I recognise the abundance that is mine in Christ and begin to live out of that abundance, the well will never run dry. The five loaves and two fishes will continue to multiply. But if I choose to deny the abundance I have and resolve to live as one who has nothing to spare and nothing to give, the abundance itself that truly was mine will, sadly, be lost to me.