Meal

Meal

There are few things that I appreciate more in life than enjoying a meal with good friends and family. As an intentional way of sharing our lives with one another, it is unparalleled. But that doesn’t mean it has to be a high pressure situation. In fact it can be quite a casual act (unless you happen to being to a Michelin Starred restaurant!). We invite whom we like and spend the time in whatever way we want to.

This wasn’t the case in 1st Century Palestine during Jesus’ lifetime. In that culture sharing a meal with someone had significance that it is difficult for us to imagine today. It was not a casual act. Rules surrounding meals were deeply embedded in the religious purity system that dominated society at that time.

These rules governed not only what might be eaten and how it was to be prepared, but also with whom one might eat. Refusing to share a meal was a form of social ostracism. Pharisees (and others) would not eat with someone who was seen as religiously impure.

In Matthew chapter 9 we read the story of how Jesus called the disciple of the same name, and then was invited to his house for dinner. Now Matthew, as a tax collector, would have been a social pariah. He worked for the hated Roman occupiers, and he probably ripped off his countrymen in order to line his pockets.

No good Jew would have been seen within a mile of Matthew if they could at all avoid it. They definitely would not have eaten a meal with him. The religious culture of the day would have seen that as a tacit endorsement of the tax collector’s behaviour. It would have made them as ‘impure’ as Matthew by association.

Therefore when Jesus accepts Matthew’s invitation to his house for dinner, he was doing something no other Jewish religious teacher of that time would have done.

He was putting relationship ahead of rules. People before dogma. Love over law. He was causing scandal amongst the establishment and destroying any chance of his movement being acceptable to the status quo.

More than that, by choosing to eat with these ‘tax collectors and sinners’ Jesus was enacting a powerful message about the Kingdom of God, and indeed God himself. He was demonstrating God’s unwillingness to exclude anyone who welcomes him into their life, regardless of religious taboos or societal expectations.

He was demonstrating that love trumps law every time.

This really goes to the heart of what Jesus ministry was about. This is the inclusive Kingdom of God he taught about and demonstrated through his actions.

Are there people we as Christians in 21st Century Britain struggle to relate to? Are there social groups that we consciously or sub-consciously exclude from the Kingdom of God? Do we ever put law ahead of love when dealing with others? Are we more worried about our reputation than those in need around us?

The church needs to demonstrate the love of Christ, not the law of the Pharisees. We have the most incredible, life-changing, joyous and liberating message to share- let’s not limit it’s reach!

Plastic

Plastic

I had never heard of Henderson Island, an uninhabited paradise in the South Pacific, until this week when news broke that it is buried under 38 million pieces of plastic waste. That equates to 18 tonnes of bottle tops, cosmetics jars and six-pack rings, with a further 13,000 items washing up every day and adding to the mound covering the atoll.

I found out about this disaster through a tweet from the Guardian newspaper, and when I clicked through to the full article, the scale of this environmental tragedy genuinely shocked me.

It’s moments like this that have a capacity to shake us out of our complacency. The honest truth is that the devastating damage Henderson Island is currently facing is just a tiny example of the ecological disaster humanity has wrought on this planet, and most of the time I ignore it. I live as if it isn’t happening.

And that fact has been playing on my mind ever since.

For me as a Christian, what makes this even worse is much of the ecological mess we face today is rooted in western 19th Century Christian theology, specifically the misinterpretation of the Genesis 1:28 command to dominate the earth.

That people who claim to be the ambassadors of God’s Kingdom were first in the queue to exploit and irrevocably damage His good creation is difficult to stomach. As Brian McLaren so eloquently pus it “…industrial-era Christians have used toxic, industrial-strength beliefs to legitimise the plundering of the earth, with concern for future generations of humans, much less our fellow creatures.”

Part of being a Christian is being humble enough to recognise and acknowlegde when we’ve done things that hurt others, both individually, and collectively as the church. Our part in creating the current environmental crisis is surely worthy of such a response.

But the Christian faith is about more than owning up when we have done wrong. In Jesus teaching and example we see that life in the Kingdom of God is rooted in loving, generous, kind, life-affirming, altruistic, sacrificial service of others!

We can express this Kingdom living in how we treat the environment around us, which in turn affects how we love our neighbour. Evangelical pastor John Piper expressed this far more eloquently than I could;  “I think the best argument for environmental concern is love for people. The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. He put us here to enjoy it. So, if we mess it up we are hurting people.

So whether it’s choosing to recycle, picking up rubbish when we walk past it on the beach, swapping energy supplier to a green provider like Ecotricity or walking a bit more instead of driving, or writing to your local M.P. to lobby for progressive legislative change, your actions, no matter how small you think they are, make a positive difference. They enhance the life of others rather than injuring them and hurting our home.

Jesus compares the Kingdom of God to a mustard seed. It starts small, but then grows into something much larger and more significant than you would expect, given what you had at the beginning. This is how our small environmental choices, when combined with the actions of others, begin to have an impact on the crisis we are facing.

According to Jesus, the Kingdom of God is breaking loose in our midst (Luke 17:21) and that we as his followers are part of it. We can partner with God in the restoration of our planet! What an awesome thought!

Hound

Hound

There have been 3 or 4 times over the years when I have been ready to give up my faith.

I have walked away from God, not prayed, not read the bible, not gone to church.

I have made a conscious choice to live a godless life.

There have been different reasons why; life circumstances, emotional responses and intellectual questions.

This has gone on for weeks and on one occasion, months, at a time.

I share this with you because I think it’s important that as Christians we are real with one another.

It isn’t all mountain-top moments and seamless travel from glory into glory. Being a Christian can be hard, and sometimes we are left peering over the edge.

The last time this happened to me was about 3 months ago. I won’t bore you with the details, but it would be fair to say I was making pretty concrete exit plans. I even got as far as sharing how I was feeling with a couple of close friends.

It didn’t stick.

Francis Thompson called God The Hound of Heaven in his remarkable poem of the same title, and I’ve found that to be a very apt description.

Whenever I’ve decided to walk away from God, there’s always been something (or someone) pulling me back.

He’s done it through the Bible, through my friends and through my thoughts and feelings.

His grace is irresistable.

On the most recent occasion I began walking away, I experienced a God-given dream for the first time in my life. God literally jolted me out of my sleep in the middle of the night. This dream was vivid, visceral and real in a way I’ve never experienced before. I have no doubt it was God calling me back.

The skeptics among you will probably just say I convinced myself to return to faith because I was scared of the alternative, because I didn’t have the courage to follow through on my conviction, or perhaps my subconscious couldn’t cope with the change, but that wasn’t the case.

Life isn’t the same without God. Life isn’t as good without God. It isn’t complete.

Jesus said he came to bring life in all its fullness (John 10:10) and I can testify to that. 

So often the Christian faith is portrayed as an escape route from hell, and heaven to look forward to in the future, but when we read the words of Jesus, it’s so clear that he believed the Kingdom of God was for living in the here and now. 

This is why when I walked away from Him, it felt like a core part of my life was missing. My life was no longer being lived as it was intended to be. This is also why when I returned I felt joy, relief and fulfilment.

I’m sure many of you can identify with these experiences and can tell a similar story.

If, on the other hand, you have chosen to be far from God at the moment, the life-affirming, liberating truth is that he is waiting for you to return with his arms wide open. There is no judgement, no condemnation, no cold shoulder.

He loves you and He says to you…..

“…Rise, clasp My hand, and come!”

Withdraw

Withdraw

As you read the gospels, you might notice that on a number of occasions during his ministry Jesus makes the decision to ‘withdraw’ from the public limelight, and even from the company of his disciples.

He goes to a quiet place, either a mountain, a lake or the wilderness and spends some time in contemplation and prayer.

To us this might seem counter-intuitive.

His following is increasing. His reputation is on the rise. His message is reaching hundreds of people. We would want to ride that wave, make the most of the moment and keep going.

And yet….

Jesus makes it a priority to withdraw. He takes time out. He stops what he is doing. He runs the risk of losing momentum and missing out on new followers.

He must have thought solitude and prayer were significant.

One of the things I love about the Bible is it’s ability to speak to the human condition in the here and now, regardless of the fact it was written thousands of years ago.

We live in an age when the need to withdraw is greater than ever.

The tyranny of work phones, notifications and instant messaging means that we are rarely out of reach or switched off.

We are the generation of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), unable to unplug from our social media outlets in case something happens.

As Millennials, studies show many of us suffer from anxiety if we are separated from our devices for more than a couple of minutes.

The result of never switching off? Stress. Burn out. Exhaustion.

There is huge value in taking time to be still, to meditate, to centre ourselves, to spend time with God.

It gives us space to recharge, to refocus, to listen to what our heavenly father might be saying to us.

Jesus wanted to empower his disciples in the art of quiet attentiveness; “Here’s what I want you to do: Find a quiet, secluded place so you won’t be tempted to role-play before God. Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense his grace.

Sensing God’s grace instead of anxiously waiting for ‘likes’ is what we need.

Why not carve out some time to withdraw?

Listen for the whisper of the divine.

Be still.

Tribe

 

Tribe

‘#OurBloodIsBlack’

So says the sticker on the boot of my car. It identifies me as part of a tribe. I’m a supporter of Ospreys rugby union team. Every other week I head down to the Liberty Stadium with 6,000 other people to watch gentlemen play a ruffian’s game.

I will shout, complain, throw every ball and live every scrum during those 80 minutes. I will support my team whatever the outcome.

If other people see the sticker, they know I am part of a tribe. That means we can have knowing conversations or some friendly banter depending on their affiliations. My sticker and my choice of team are one way of identifying myself to others. They could draw specific conclusions about me as a result of this information.

I’m a member of other tribes too;

Apple users. I have an iPhone, iPod, iPad and a Macbook.

I’m British. My mum is Scottish, my dad is English and I live in Wales.

I like black coffee. Lattes are an offence to humanity.

…… what conclusions you choose to draw are up to you!

Being part of a tribe can be great. Until our very recent history it was essential for our survival. In the 21st Century being linked with other people is still a vital part of our society and personhood. It can bring security, common purpose and a safe space to grow. The feeling of being involved in a team of people, all moving with cohesive purpose can be intoxicating. When the Ospreys score a try, the noise and emotion of 6,000 fans all celebrating at once is hugely emotive.

But it isn’t all good. Being part of a tribe can cause problems. Tribes by their very nature are exclusive. They have the potential to create division and limit our horizons. At their worst, tribal attitudes create an ‘us verses them’ approach that damages others and ourselves.

It is fair to say the church doesn’t have the best record in this department, which is tragic when you consider our main aim should be growing in love for God and for others.

When we indulge in an ‘us verse them’ attitude in faith, it damages our unity, and therefore our ability to represent the Kingdom as Jesus would want us to. God exists in perfect unity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Community, flow and love. In the gospel of John, we see Jesus prayed that his followers would be united like this as well.

“The goal is for all of them to become one heart and mind—

Just as you, Father, are in me and I in you,

So they might be one heart and mind with us.

Then the world might believe that you, in fact, sent me.”

We cannot become ‘one in heart and mind’ if we are constantly splintering off from one another. Valuing our differences more highly than what unites us limits our capacity for love, inhibits our ability to be a positive influence in the world and stops us from reaching our potential in Christ.

Secondly, and more significantly, an ‘us verses them’ attitude keeps others out of the Kingdom. When we create an exclusive, inward-looking faith, it disregards others. It makes us a club, not a movement. It makes it harder for people to believe Jesus’ message.

Let’s not look to create barriers between ourselves and other believers. So we have different views about end times, gifts of the spirit or the atonement. Surely it isn’t worth dividing the Kingdom over?

Showing love for one another despite our differences is a far more powerful demonstration of God’s grace than endlessly dividing over points of doctrine that no-one beyond the four walls of our church knows or cares about.

Most importantly let’s not exclude people from the fullness of life that comes from knowing Jesus because they don’t fit our pre-conceived ideas about who belongs in the Kingdom.

God’s love is unconditional and his Kingdom is inclusive. Jesus demonstrated this clearly during his life. He shocked religious types by welcoming ‘unclean’, ‘unsuitable’ people into his movement and ultimately into his Kingdom.

Let’s then be filled with grace, united with each other and united with God, in order that the world might believe

Heart

Heart

It’s Good Friday today, and all across the world Christians are going to church to remember the death of Jesus.

To the uninitiated this might seem back to front. If Christians really believe Jesus was God, why focus on his death, instead of his life? Why not celebrate his teachings and ministry, instead of his most wretched day?

Jesus taught “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” and he meant it.

He did it.

People often view God as an angry old man in the sky, waiting for the opportunity to smite or judge. Yet on Good Friday, as Jesus hangs, dying, on a twisted implement of torture we see God exposed. At his most vulnerable. Arguably the truest reflection of himself.

Faced with the viciousness of men, Jesus did not resist or take the path of violence; instead he showed us a better way. He broke the cycle of animosity by refusing to respond in kind. He liberated us from the power of hatred and retribution. In doing so, he showed us the heart of God

Author and activist Parker Palmer wrote “It was on the cross that God’s heart was broken for the sake of mankind, broken open into a love that Christ’s followers are called to emulate. In its simple physical form, the cross embodies the notion that tension can pull the heart open. Its cross-beams stretch out four ways, pulling against each other left and right, up and down. But those arms converge in a centre, a heart, that can be pulled open by that stretching, by the tensions of life- a heart that can be opened so fully it can hold everything from despair to ecstasy. And that, of course, is how Jesus held his excruciating experience, as an opening into the heart of God.

This is why we remember the cross, why this particular Friday is ‘good’, despite the awful and inhumane events that took place.

God revealed the depths of his love to humanity.

For you. For me. For all of us.

“God is love”, said the apostle John in his letters to the early church. How did he know? Because he met Jesus, he lived with Jesus and he saw Jesus die. He saw Jesus pray forgiveness over those who were tortmenting him.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if as his disciples, we could display the open heart of God in how we live. Point people to the cross by our self-sacrificial actions. Show and receive grace abundantly. Love extravagantly. Forgive generously.

This, I think, is the movement Jesus had in mind when he spoke about the Kingdom of God.

Few have embodied this Jesus way of living more authentically that Martin Luther King Jr, and it’s with a quote from his appropriately named ‘Love in Action’ sermon series that I’d like to finish;

Jesus eloquently affirmed from the cross a higher law. He knew that the old eye for an eye philosophy would end up leaving everybody blind. He did not seek to overcome evil with evil. He overcame evil with good. Although crucified by hate, he responded with a radical love.”

Buycott

Justice matters. Fairness matters. Ethics matters.

How we treat people matters.

We live in a global economy, where consumer choices we make in our hometown can effect people on the other side of the world.

How we shop, how we consume matters. It is a reflection of our values, whether conscious or unconscious.

This is a message that comes through loud and clear throughout the bible;

And if you make a sale to your neighbor or buy from your neighbour, you shall not wrong one another.”

Better is a little with righteousness, than great revenues with injustice.”

Don’t abuse a laborer who is destitute and needy…. Pay him at the end of each workday; he’s living from hand to mouth and needs it now. If you hold back his pay, he’ll protest to God and you’ll have sin on your books.”

The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern.”

So often as Christians, we are seen to react to things negatively, to be against things.

It’s so much better to be known for what we are FOR

Justice

Fairness

Ethics

 

Love

This is why we need to BUYcott, as well as boycott

Instead of making noise about what we are against and what we refuse to buy, how about making a conscious choice to promote companies and products that embody progressive biblical principles.

If enough people vote positively with their wallets, companies that promote ethical trading practices will grow, more people will be lifted out of poverty, the environment will benefit and we as consumers will not be complicit with exploitation.

God’s Kingdom is about his love being brought to a damaged, hurting world. It’s about overthrowing corrupt and exploitative systems and replacing them with ones that further the common good.

The Common Kingdom is intensely practical. It’s not ethereal, ivory-tower pontificating. It’s about identifying with those who need help, who need support, who need strengthening and empowering.

You can make a difference.

If you are going to buy chocolate, instead of just not buying Nestle, buy chocolate with the Fairtrade mark.

If you are going to buy clothes, instead of just avoiding fast fashion, see if you can find ethically produced outfits or buy second hand.

If you are going to buy cleaning products, instead of avoiding the most toxic, seek the most environmentally friendly.

If you are going to buy a book, why not see if you can find it from a charity shop.

Buycotting is a simple, intentional choice that demonstrates the values of the Kingdom.

As a closing thought, here’s Micah, a Jewish prophet from 700 BC with some timely advice….

But he’s already made it plain how to live, what to do,

    what God is looking for in men and women.

It’s quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor,

    be compassionate and loyal in your love,

And don’t take yourself too seriously—

    take God seriously.