Who are you? (8:21-30)

Again, I offer up my apologies for not being able to update this for over a week. There has been so much to take in and so much going on around us in the USA that I have been distracted from writing. Please bear with me as I find some kind of rhythm of writing again.

“Who are ya?
Who are ya?
Who are ya?”

Who are ya

I have followed English soccer for pretty much my entire life. The fortunes of my beloved Liverpool Football Club have not been great since I was around 10 years old, which, at times, has made following English soccer quite frustrating indeed. One of the great things about English soccer is the interaction of the crowds who gather at the games. On occasion a big name team will be pitted against a team of much smaller stature, and sometimes on these occasions the big team will fail to perform well and the lesser team will score a famous underdog victory. In moments like these sometimes the the crowd will break into the chant I have typed above. It is chanted as a taunt to the bigger club and their fans as the fans of the smaller club point out that they are failing to live up to their reputation. The fans of the smaller club are calling into dispute the perceived superiority of the larger, more successful club.

“Who are ya?
Who are ya?
Who are ya?”

So far in this gospel narrative, John has been at work to convince his readers that Jesus is who he says he is: Light in the darkness, God’s own Son, the Word of God made flesh. In this short passage that very identity of Jesus is being called into question again. It is a “Who are ya?” kind of moment. The Jews are grappling with the words of Jesus and wondering what it is that he means. If you are paying attention in John’s gospel you will know that this is not a new thing – remember in chapter 3 when the Pharisee Nicodemus had trouble understanding what Jesus meant when he said that if anyone wanted to see the Kingdom then he or she must be born again. Nicodemus had to grapple with the things that Jesus was saying. And here we are again in chapter 8 with the Jews again struggling with the things that Jesus says to them. In many ways this section is a microcosm of the entire story of John’s gospel – the story of Jesus declaring to the Jews (and the world) just who he is and them absolutely struggling to understand (or point blank refusing to understand sometimes.)

“Who are you?” they asked in verse 25? And Jesus replies by telling them again: “I am who I have been telling you I am since the beginning – the Word made flesh, the one sent by the Father…the Messiah”

Jesus went on to tell them that while they maybe did not get it right now, there would come a time in the future when they would get it. “When you have lifted up the Son of Man.” Of course this is a reference to what will happen later on in Jesus’ story when he will be lifted up on the cross, and it is a reference to the fact that the Jews will have a role to play in that (“When YOU have lifted up…”) Jesus has come as the Messiah for Israel; for the Jewish people and ultimately they will reject the one sent for them. Can you hear the echo of that prologue ringing: “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.” (John 1:10-11)

As Tom Wright rightly points out – this is the tragedy at the heart of the Jesus narrative: that Jesus came to redeem and restore God’s own people; that Jesus was sent by God to do that work for those people and they did not even recognize their own God among them. The tragedy is that God’s own people were unable to recognize God with them.

I am not sure that things have changed that much in the 21st century in that folks still have trouble recognizing God in the world around them. Or folks maybe do see or hear from God and they are left scratching their heads and saying: “Who are you?” SO let me close this little note out by making it quite clear (warning – you might have heard me say this before!):

Jesus is the light in the darkness.
Jesus is the Word of God made flesh.
Jesus is the Chosen One sent by God.
Jesus is the bread of life.
Jesus is the light of the world.
Jesus is God’s own Son sent so that whoever believes in him will not perish but will have everlasting life.

That’s who Jesus is for you, for me, and for all humanity.
He has come into the world not to condemn it, but so that through him we might each be saved.
He has come to do a work of reconciliation – between God and humans, and between humans and other humans.
He has come to redeem and restore all the broken things in this world.

We know longer need to have “Who are ya?” moments. Jesus has made it abundantly clear who is is and why he came to live, and eat, and breathe, and sleep, and laugh, and cry among us. So stop what you are doing now and take a moment to take that in. Jesus is all that he say he is, and Jesus is all that for you and for me and for every other human being.

This is good news worth receiving! Hallelujah!

Dirty Glory – John 1

Dirty Glory

I opened up “Dirty Glory” by Pete Grieg this morning. I have had it for a couple of months but have not been able to get it started until today. I am only at the beginning but I am already drawn in (as I usually am) by Grieg’s ability to communicate deep, penetrating truth in such engaging ways. What follows is Grieg’s take on the opening 30 or so words of John’s Gospel, which, if you have been following this blog you will know, is of particular interest to me at the minute. How I wish I had had this stuff when i was writing my opening comments on the gospel of John a couple of months back!

“When God made us again, he came first to a teenage girl, and then to unwashed shepherds and later to pagan astrologers. God spoke the gospel as a dirty word into a religious culture. “The Word,” we are told by John at the start of his Gospel, became “flesh.” The Latin used here is caro , from which we get “carnivore,” “incarnation,” “carnival,” and even “carnal.” [6] God became a lump of meat, a street circus, a man like every man. John is messing with our minds. He knew perfectly well that this opening salvo was a shocking, seemingly blasphemous way to start his Gospel. Like Malcolm McLaren, Alexander McQueen, or Quentin Tarantino, he is grabbing attention, insisting upon an audience, demanding a response.

“In the beginning,” he says, echoing the opening line of the Bible, lulling us all into a false sense of religious security. At this point, I imagine John pausing mischievously, just long enough for every son of Abraham to fill in the blank incorrectly. “In the beginning,” he continues, “was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” It’s the familiar creation narrative outrageously remixed, featuring a mysterious new aspect of the divinity named, like some kind of superhero in a Marvel comic, The Word . And yet for John’s Greek readers the vast majority of Christians by the time the Gospel was written [7] the Word was not a new concept at all. For them this was the familiar Logos of domestic philosophy, that divine animating principle pervading the cosmos. The bewildering thing for their ears would have been John’s emphatic conflation of this pagan Greek notion of divinity with the Creator God of Jewish monotheism: “The Word,” he says unambiguously, “was God.” And so, in just these first thirty words of his Gospel, John has effectively both affirmed and alienated his entire audience, Greek and Jew alike. And then, like a prizefighter in the ring, while we are all still reeling from this first theological onslaught, John lands his body blow: “The Word,” he says, “became flesh .” It’s a breathtaking statement, equally appalling for the Jews, who had an elaborate set of 613 rules to help segregate holiness from worldliness, and for the Greeks, who despised the flesh with its malodorous suppurations and embarrassing, base instincts. “The Word became flesh.” Imagine the intake of breath, the furrowed brows, the wives looking at their husbands silently asking, “Did he just say what I think he said?” and the husbands glancing towards their elders wondering, “Is this OK?” It’s punk-rock theology. It’s a screaming “hello.””

F.A.Q.’s – Why does God allow Suffering

FAQ s Design Pic

The following is the sermon I preached yesterday as the starter for a series of sermons called F.A.Q.’s. Over Christmas we polled church members and visitors on their most frequently asked questions about God, faith, life, etc. The most common question was that of human suffering. Before the sermon we read John 16:16-33. This is not an expository sermon on the text. Instead the text was read to remind us that Jesus said we will always have trouble in the world, but that we can trust him because he has overcome the world. The text is written for me to preach from in the style that I speak in. It is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. I simply want to record these sermons in this space.

Peace.

I have just come through two of the hardest weeks of my life. Since Monday the 9th January I have been walking this path of personal devastation. Day after day the struggle gets greater and the misery just seems to compound. I had one moment of respite in it all last Sunday afternoon. It lifted my spirits somewhat but soon after that things returned to my new normal.

What’s been going on, I hear you ask. Well after all the food and drink of Thanksgiving and Christmas; after almost 6 weeks of holiday based over-indulgence, I made the call that something had to be done about it. So i joined Margaret on a 21 day self-inflicted suffering program…I mean body cleansing juice diet program. They say that nothing tastes as good as skinny feels and I want to tell you today that this is a lie. That steak I had last Sunday tastes much better than any pound that has been lost in the last 14 days. Yes 14 days done in a 21 day program…I have 7 more days of this to go. 7 more days of self inflicted suffering…I mean body cleansing.

The suffering is real!
The struggle is real!

Of course I am joking around with you. I am not really suffering in the midst of this and it would be wrong of me to suggest that a body cleansing juice program is a form of suffering as such. I might consider it a form of misery…but I am not suffering, friends.
We all know what suffering is, right? We each have a story or stories in our lives about suffering. Or if we don’t, we can each point to a situation in a friend or family member’s life, or a situation in the world around us which we could undeniably say is a situation of suffering. I have several of my own, for sure. Here is one

I was 22 yrs old and had just had one of the best experiences. I was young in the ministry and had been a youth worker for a couple of years. I had finally made my way across the Irish Sea with some youth ministry friends where we had attended the National Youth Workers gathering. I was inspired by what I had heard, I was rejuvenated and ready to get back to Belfast and dive in to making my youth group better based on the things I had learned. I was sitting on the boat on the way back crossing the Irish Sea one last time and I was ready to get home and get started.

Then my cell phone rang. It was my mum. She proceeded to tell me some bad news. My best childhood friend had been involved in a car wreck the night before and he had not made it.

I was devastated. Absolutely and completely devastated. The news had shocked me to my core. You see I had had my own brush with death in a car accident just a few short years before, but I had made it. It did’t take me long to start asking the questions that grief can can so quickly bring to our minds: Why?

Why God?
Why did you do this?
Why him and not me?
He was in his prime. He was a good person. He was in a relationship with a great young woman. Why do his parents have to go through this and now live with this?
Why?

What age were you? What is your story with the suffering question? Like I said already, we all know what suffering is. We know it on a world scale and also on some kind of personal scale too. We all have some kind of suffering story. We all have that moment when we have encountered very deeply and very personally the reality of human suffering in the world.

Maybe it was 9/11. Did you know that churches reported a spike in attendances in the 5 weeks after 9/11? People were coming to churches and they were seeking some kind of comfort from God; maybe some kind of answers to their questions:

Why?
Why can it happen in our world that thousands of people simply get up and catch a flight, or get up and go to work, and do not come home?

Or maybe you are watching the news these days and you have the same questions about what is going on in Syria:

How?
How can this be happening in our world?
How can it be allowed that bombs are dropped on a city inhabited by thousands of innocent and unassuming people.

The Holocaust?

How can 6 million Jews be allowed to suffer and be wiped out in the way they were?

Famine in Africa. Ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, or Rwanda, or in the Killing Fields of Cambodia. The AIDs pandemic. Cancer. Mass shootings Sandy Hook, Paris or Orlando:

How?
How can a good and loving God allow such suffering in the world God created?

This is the question on pretty much everyone’s lips at some point in their journey through life. I have found that to be true everywhere I have travelled, and in every conversation I have had with friends old and new as we talk about the Christian faith. I have found that non-Christian people ask this question and I have found that Christian people ask this question. I have found that young people ask it and older people ask it too. White Europeans ask it and African American’s ask it. Men ask it and women ask it too. Questions around human suffering are questions that we all have.

So how can we answer them?

The first and most important thing to say is that there is no definitive answer to this question. The question of suffering in our world will always be permeated with subjective circumstances. What do I mean by that? I mean that a generic answer to a big question like this will not always answer the specifics of your particular situation.

I guess we have got to start with our understanding of God. Back in September i spoke about this in a sermon and I want to hit on some of that stuff again. If we start with our image of God as some kind of cosmic game player who is in control of every move, then we are going to keep coming back to this question again and again and no answer will ever, ever satisfy. If we start with an image of God as some kind of Santa Claus God who gives everything wanted to those who do things right and make it on the nice list, then we are going to come back to this questions again and again. And if we start with an image of the Absent Landlord God, well, we may not come back to the question so much because we think that God simply does not care and remains disinterested in the world that God has created. In September I argued that these are the images that we most commonly like to attach to God and i challenged them with the idea of the incarnate God, who we will come back to later on this morning.

Before we go there i want to think some more on who God is and what it is that we classically say about God. What are the classic attributes of God?

God is Omniscient: God knows everything.
God is Omnipresent: God is everywhere.
God is Omnipotent: God is all powerful.

Of course we also say that God is all loving because God is, in God’s very essence, love.

These are the classic attributes of God and it is in these attributes that we ultimately have the problem of this question. If God is omnipresent and is in all places at all times; if God is omniscient and knows all things from everlasting to everlasting; and if God is all powerful and all loving then how can an all loving God who is everywhere and knows everything and has the power to do anything sit idly by and watch a world in immense pain and suffering? How can God choose to sit by and do nothing?

The answer to that comes back to the all loving part.

Think about it. In the times when you have experienced love at its very best and in it s very truest form, what do you have? You have freedom to choose, and move, and love back. As soon as that freedom to move and to choose and to love back is taken away, or replaced with some kind of coercive forcefulness that refuses you those freedoms, it can no longer be described as love.

God is love, and the longing of God’s heart is that you and I enter into fully loving relationship with God. God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life. God loves you and me and God longs for you and me to love God back so that we can each walk through all of life (the best and the worst) in loving relationship. That is the biggest desire of God’s heart. Now we just said that God is all powerful though, so if that is true, and God loves us, and God wants us so much then why doesn’t God just zap us so that we love him the way he wants.

Because that’s not love.

Doing that would simply make us all robots.

In the fulness of love, which is God’s very essence, God has given human beings this thing we call free will; choice. We do not love God because we have been forced to love God – we love God because we have made a choice to respond to the fact that God first loved us. We have been given the choice and the ability to choose God.

But there is a cost that comes with choice. When God gives humanity the freedom to choose God’s way or another way, there will be times, and there indeed have been times when the choices that are made will not be good choices; there will be times when the choices that are made will cast long shadows, causing darkness in the lives of others, sometimes many hundreds or thousands of others all because a choice has been made somewhere at some time.

God loves you and me so much that God has given us the free will to choose to love God back, and that free will, when fully exercised can mean that those shadow casting choices will sometimes be made by some people, and in the shadows of those choices suffering will be experienced. Sometimes suffering will be the intent of the choice made, and other times the choice will have been made innocently, with no intention of suffering…but the suffering still comes about.

What am I trying to say as I explain all this? I am trying to say that I don’t think God explicitly allows suffering. I think God’s love is so deep that it means that God can do nothing but give his beloved the freedom to choose to love God back.

Does that mean that God doesn’t then care about human suffering?

Certainly not. In fact, God has done and continues to do something very very special in the midst of human suffering.

God joins us and is at work among us and God is always doing everything possible to transform death and destruction and suffering into something brand new; into abundant life. In the midst of our suffering, in the midst of human pain, God says “I am with you.” In the midst of human suffering, in the midst of human pain God says, “Trust me. I am with you and I can redeem all things, and I can make all things new.”

In the midst of the atrocity in Aleppo, Syria, there are a group of local people who make it their mission to rescue their neighbors when bombs have been dropped. They are called the “White Helmets” of Aleppo, and you can watch a great documentary about them on Netflix. When the bombs drop, they in turn drop everything that they are doing to run to the aid of their neighbors. in the documentary they each testify to how they sense called by God to come to the rescue of their neighbors; how it is the most important thing they can do with their lives at that moment.

God joins us in our suffering.

On 9/11 we all remember the actions of New York’s finest and all the other fire fighters who joined them in the days after. We remember how they worked tirelessly to come to the rescue in the midst of that terrible human suffering.

God joins us in our suffering.

Where I come from in Northern Ireland, when bombs were exploding, shots were being fired and lives were being lost; when divisions were at their height, there were clergy like my friend, Father Gerry Reynolds who worked tirelessly to build bridges and be models of reconciliation. When a tragic loss was experienced on the other side of the divide, Father Gerry would go to the home of the deceased and knock on their door in an effort to minister to the hurting and broken.

God joins us in our suffering.

Whether it is through the bravery of first responders in Syria or New York City, whether it is the reconciling heart of a pastor who longs to build bridges of hope, whether it is in the visit from a neighbor or friend in your time of greatest need – God joins us in our suffering and says I am with you.

It is not that God allows suffering. In as much as we can explain it, many times suffering happens in the world because choices sometimes cast long shadows. And I know we don’t do well with not having clear answers, but other times suffering remains unexplainable. Sometimes a choice has not been made. Sometimes things just go wrong.

But in all times, in every single circumstance of suffering throughout the world; those known to us and those unknown to us, God says: “I am there already. I am with you. Trust me, because I can and I am making all things new. I am the beginning and the end, the Alpha and the Omega. I breathe life into dead bones. I bring light into the darkness. Where there are dry deserts, I bring streams of living water. I am making all things new. So trust me – I am with you.”

In our text today Jesus said, “In the world you will face persecution (and suffering), But take courage; I have conquered the world.”

Later on the New testament, the disciple Peter writes these words:

Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. Discipline yourselves, keep alert.[d] Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters[e] in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you.  To him be the power forever and ever. Amen.

My friends, like I said at the start of the sermon today, there is no definitive answer to the question of human suffering except this one:

Though in this world we will each encounter suffering, we may take courage because the God of all faithfulness; the God of the resurrection, who brings forth life where there is death, is with you in the very midst of the struggle, and will remain with you for all eternity as you wrestle and lament, as you sow seeds of sadness and suffering with tears and ultimately reap with shouts of joy.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I am the Light of the world (8:12-20)

Between 2003 and 2006 my wife and I lived for three very happy years in a town called Port Saint Lucie in Florida. I had been hired as the Youth and Children’s Ministry Director there and enjoyed great fellowship and some real fruitfulness in ministry too. One of the lasting memories of that time for me is how we would welcome new people and visitors to the church. At each service those who were visiting our church for the very first time would be invited to stand up and introduce themselves. They would tell us their names and where they were visiting from and one of the ushers in the service would scurry towards them with a little welcome pack that included some information regarding the life of our church, some candy, a mug and a candle. The candle was the centerpiece of the gift. After everyone had introduced themselves, Renee, our Pastor would explain what had just been given to them and would leave the explanation of the candle to the end. She would say a few words about Jesus being the light and would always finish that little section of what she was saying with these words: “We give you this candle because…” And right on cue the entire congregation would reply by saying: “Jesus is the Light of the world.” I don’t know if anyone was ever overly impressed, or if that little act of the congregation ever changed anyone’s life, but i know that those words have absolutely stuck with me ever since. Light was the theme of Renee’s ministry. We gave the candles out to new visitors and for those who chose to drive by on Prima Vista Blvd. we erected a lighthouse on the corner of our property – another way of stating that Jesus is the light of the world.

In John 8:12 John records the second of the “I Am…” sayings that are included in his gospel. In chapter 6 Jesus said, “I am the bread of life.” Here Jesus says: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” Of course, if we have been paying attention since the beginning of the book we will know that light is a prominent description of Jesus in the prologue (“In him was life and that life was the light to all mankind…The light shines in the darkness…The true light that gives light to everyone in the world was coming.”)

The idea of light in darkness is one which always grabs us. Imagine for a moment that you are trapped in a room with no natural light. In that circumstance you are completely lost as to knowing what is around you. Sure, you can feel your way and fumble around to try and work things out but ultimately the first thing you want and need is some form of light. When the light comes in to that dark space everything around you is exposed and illumined. You can see everything that is going on in that space: the places of beauty and comfort and safety, and the places of danger and risk too. When John is describing Jesus as the true light, John is saying that the presence of Jesus in the world is the presence which will expose and illumine everything that is going on in the world.

When Jesus describes himself as the light of the world he is also saying that he has come to expose and illumine everything that is going on in the world. He has come to be the Messiah of Israel, but the presence of light in that darkness is exposing Israel’s shortcomings – they have not and are not living up to that which God called them to. As Tom Wright says: “They had forgotten who their God really was. Their behavior, their attitude, and their ambitions indicated that they didn’t know the one Jesus called ‘Father,’ and that was why they couldn’t recognize him as having come from the Father.” Jesus came to bring light to the world so that all humans could see the world and escape the darkness. How would this come about? Simply, by following Jesus: “Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” By staying close to Christ, we will always be walking in the light, and the darkness will always be exposed.

We all need light. We need light around us to show us the way and to expose everything that lies in the darkness, which might cause us to stumble or fall, and we need light within us too; to expose all the darkness which lies in the corners of our own hearts. Maybe it is time for you to invite the light into your life today. By doing so you will never walk in darkness again.

MLK’s Continuing Impact

I came across these words today. They are taken from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s sermon, “A Knock at Midnight,” based on Luke 11:5-6, preached in August of 1967:

“The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority. If the church does not participate actively in the struggle for peace and for economic and racial justice, it will forfeit the loyalty of millions and cause [people] everywhere to say that it has atrophied its will. But if the church will free itself from the shackles of a deadening status quo, and, recovering its great historic mission, will speak and act fearlessly and insistently in terms of justice and peace, it will enkindle the imagination of [humankind] and fire the souls of [all people], imbuing them with a glowing and ardent love for truth, justice, and peace. [All people] far and near will know the church as a great fellowship of love that provides light and bread for lonely travellers at midnight.”

Since moving to USA I have had more and more opportunity to learn about MLK. In October 2014 I visited the newly opened Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, GA. On the same day I also toured Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King was baptized as a child and where he became co-pastor with his father between 1960 and 1968. Last year in 2016 I began my doctoral studies and had to read “Stride Towards Freedom” as a core text for one of my classes. This summer (2017) I hope to take a class which will immerse me again in the MLK story as I visit MLK/Civil Rights Movement sites in Montgomery and Selma. Movies have also helped me engage the narrative of this time in history, the most recent one being “Hidden Figures,” which I watched on Saturday. It charts the groundbreaking work of 3 African American ladies in NASA at a time when inequality and segregation was rampant. If you have not seen it I would recommend it.

Perhaps it is my childhood in Northern Ireland that spurs the interest in the Civil Rights Movement. Northern Ireland fell victim to it’s own divisions (and still struggles with them) in the past, and much of my adult life has been lived in a time of reconciliation and peace building that seeks to bring people together and build a better society where every person has the same opportunity. Perhaps it is the fact that I am a church leader who longs to see the church take an active role in embodying peace and justice in society (like King was) that spurs my interest. Or perhaps it is simply the fact that I am a man who desires to make a difference in the world, like King did. Maybe it is a mixture of all three. I don’t know. But I do know this: Whenever I read anything by King; whenever I see one of the movies that portray the struggle of the African American people in their pursuit of justice and equality; whenever I study the Civil Rights Movement and how it carried itself and went about seeking justice I am simply in awe and long to be better at what I do so that I can make moves toward making some kind of lasting significant change in the lives of the people around me and even the world.

That’s what the words quoted above do to me.

I read them and think to myself that I am a leader in a church which, in many ways, has become ‘an irrelevant social club‘ in larger society. I am a leader in a church which seems, in large part, to sit idly by and allow injustice to continue in our society and it not say a word. Of course I am speaking in generalities here. There are, of course, many churches, many Christians, and many church leaders who are outspoken in their pursuit of justice and equality; who are quite brilliant at lobbying the powers that be in their world to see change brought about at legislative level.

But I fear they are too few and far between. I still fear that a large portion of US churches are quite happy to be disengaged from the wider issues of society; from the struggle for peace, and economic and racial justice. I still fear that a majority of US churches are happy in their status quo and are taking a journey which is far from what the church was birthed for and is commissioned to do.

I fear that I too am part of this large portion of the church that i talk about, but there is one difference that I can note for sure: I am not happy about it. This means that I have some re-shaping of ministry to do. This means that I have some courage to find. This means that it is time to alter my leadership in such a way that it begins to chart a new course for the church. Personally, I don’t think I have a problem with making this happen in my own life and leadership.

MLK’s call to prophetic leadership continues to haunt relatively new leaders like me to this day.

I am haunted by these words now, as I should be, and I hope that my fellow church leaders will also be haunted by them when I share MLK’s words with them tonight.

If you are reading this, how do these words impact you? If you are a church leader, do you find yourself haunted by them? I’d be interested to know- please comment if you wish.

Let the one without sin cast the first stone (7:53-8:11)

Woman Caught In Adultery

It has been said many times that one should be careful when pointing the finger at another in judgement because each time one finger is pointed there are three pointing right back. In a sense, this is part of the lesson Jesus was teaching in this passage.

The first seven chapters of John’s Gospel have been about Jesus beginning to reveal who he is to those who are following him and those who are challenging him. We have seen a mixture of responses ranging from complete rejection of Jesus and his claims through to acceptance of his claims and willingness to follow him. All the way along John has written in order to convince people that Jesus is exactly who he says he is – light in the darkness, Son of God, Word of God made flesh, but in chapter 8 John is going to take a turn. Having beard witness to who Jesus is, John is now going to begin to bear witness to why it is that Jesus has come; why it is that humanity needs Jesus.

Jesus has returned to the Temple Courts (where the tables had been previously over turned) and was teaching there. In the middle of the lesson the ‘teachers of the Law and the Pharisees’ brought a woman who had been caught in adultery. These men were bringing this woman for no other reason that to try and catch Jesus out. They were not interested in seeing the religious law observed, or even in seeing the woman punished for breaking it. They were simply bringing her there to see what Jesus would do, and they were hoping that Jesus would tell her that her sins were forgiven. Had Jesus done so the teachers of the law and the Pharisees would have been well within their rights to have seized Jesus there and then for his blatant ignoring of the Law of Moses. This action was a devious trap and the woman was being used as a pawn in the bigger mission of these zealous religious leaders.

I always find the next verses a little bit humorous as I imagine the scene playing out. Jesus has been teaching in the Temple Courts, all this commotion has started up around him, and the religious leaders are there questioning him and trying to catch him out…and Jesus just bends down and starts drawing in the sand. No one knows what he was drawing – many speculations have been made, but no-one really knows. The religious leaders are not put off by Jesus’s refusal to pay them any attention and they keep on questioning him:

The Law of Moses says we can stone her! Now what do you say?
The Law of Moses says we can stone her! Now what do you say?
The Law of Moses says we can stone her! Now what do you say?

Finally Jesus stands up and says to them:

“Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

And then he crouched down again. Slowly, one by one, they each disappeared until none of them was left, only Jesus and the woman. Jesus asks her if any of them condemned her. She replied saying that none had, and then Jesus said that neither did he and that she should go and leave her life of sin behind.

Of course, if we take the woman caught in adultery as the subject of the tale, we see an amazing act of grace and mercy in her life as Jesus refuses to condemn her and send her off to live a new life. But remember, John is taking a turn here. He is beginning to reveal what it is in humanity that needed Jesus the Son of God; the Light in the darkness; the Word made flesh to come in the first place. With being the case then it is not the woman who we need to fix our eyes on in this story, it is the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees who were willing to drag this woman to Jesus, using her to set a trap, hoping that Jesus would fall for it.

Jesus didn’t.

Instead, Jesus took the pointing fingers of these religious leaders and simply reminded them that there were three other fingers pointing back at them. Jesus was not saying that sin is unimportant, far from it. As Tom Wright says: “[Jesus] hasn’t said the Law of Moses was wrong; only that if we’re going to get serious about it, we should all find ourselves guilty.”

Wright goes on:

“…sin does matter…And the sin that matters even more…is the deep-rooted sin which uses the God given law as a means of making oneself out to be righteous, when in fact it is meant to shine the light of God’s judgment into the dark places of the heart.”

You see it? Jesus is pointing to the fact that ALL fall short when it comes to the Law of Moses. ALL have need for sin to be forgiven. ALL have need for a new life. ALL are in the same boat hence ALL ought to be careful about pointing the finger.

As I imagine this scene being played out, I try to imagine which role I would take. If I am honest, more often than not I probably find myself in the group of finger pointing men. If that is true then I am convinced even more of my need for Jesus today and every day in life.

Which role do you see yourself in? Do you have some fingers pointing back at you too?

As we each learn that we are all in the same boat when it comes to sin and the Law, maybe we need to hear those words of Jesus to the woman again:

“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

Remembering our Baptism

Baptism

Today was one of those moments in the life of ministry where you just wish you could capture and bottle whatever it is that brings a moment to life.

It his ‘Baptism of our Lord’ Sunday, the Sunday after Epiphany when we remember the baptism of Jesus. Today’s reading was taking from Matthew 3:13-17 and the focus of the service and sermon was on declaring Jesus’s baptism as a huge “I love you” from God the Father to God the Son, and also declaring it as a launchpad from which Jesus’s public life and ministry took off. I invited a response to the sermon in the form of having our people to remember their own baptisms by coming forward during the singing of our closing song and dipping their hands in the baptismal font in our church. Before transitioning fully into the final song, I paused for a moment and was struck by the thought that there might be some folks there who had never been baptized before. In a quite uncharacteristic moment (I would normally like to prepare a person for baptism a little more than what happened this morning) I opened the invitation up and offered to baptize anyone who came forward and made their request known.

5 people came forward for baptism. A family of 4 (Dad and three children – Mom had already been baptized) and another lady who has been a Christian for years but had never been baptized. I asked each of them if they had heard and known for themselves that they are loved by God, just as they are, and then I asked if they would give themselves, from this moment, to following Christ’s call on their lives. All answered affirmatively and just like that we had baptized five adults at our regular Sunday morning service.

It was not planned. It just happened.

Sometimes that is just how the Holy Spirit works – and I am glad that i serve in a ministry where I get to see that happening.

In a world in which seems to dictate that I am so often blogging about the atrocities that have taken place, and how things just don’t seem to be right, it is just completely and absolutely lovely to be able to write briefly about this.

God is at God’s work in the world. Sometimes we see that from a distance, and other times we see it up close. I saw it up close today – and it was good!