Lent Day 24: Luke 13-14

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I love my family. From my wife and three teenaged kids to my mum, sister and her two small children who I don’t see as often, I love them all. They are all incredibly important to me and make me happy simply by being around.

Many of us are taught about family values from a very young age. Sadly, this isn’t the case for everyone. There are many for whom the word “family” represents pain, sadness, anger, loss and a whole load of other negative emotions. Either they have no family, have fallen out with them or have suffered in some way at their hands.

We all hear, however, from government, media and social experts that the traditional family unit is a good thing. As long as the environment is a caring, loving, responsible one then it can bring balance and stability to people’s lives. Very often you may hear this described as “Christian family values”. It’s all very happy, safe and secure.

So why, then, do we read this from Jesus,

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26 NIV)

Whoa, there! Hate your family? Really? That doesn’t sound very… Well, Christian, does it?

It’s a tough one to fathom. Why would Jesus say this? The Man who teaches us to love our neighbour wants us to hate our family? It doesn’t seem to make sense. I certainly took a  step back when I read this. I can’t imagine for a second hating any of my family, for any reason. Maybe I’m not capable of following Jesus, if this is the case. Maybe, with this, he’s asking too much of me.

Maybe not, though. Maybe he isn’t asking what I think he’s asking. Maybe I’m missing the point.

Jesus doesn’t teach us to hate. He hasn’t said here that we need to hate anyone to enter the Kingdom of God. In fact, some other translations put it in a way which seem much more compatible with his other teachings,

“Those who come to me cannot be my disciples unless they love me more than they love father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and themselves as well. (Luke 14:26 GNT)

“Anyone who comes to me but refuses to let go of father, mother, spouse, children, brothers, sisters—yes, even one’s own self!—can’t be my disciple.” (Luke 14:25-27 MSG)

What were being asked to do isn’t to hate, but to be prepared to give up for him because we put him first. He’s telling us that there is a cost to following him. It isn’t a monetary cost or the requirement to follow a set of laws which are impossible to keep. The cost is that we may be asked to give up everything which is important to us here on Earth, our friends, families and even our lives. If we are asked, we must be prepared to do it, because his way is good and because we love him more than our family or ourselves.

I’ll be honest. That’s still an incredibly difficult thing to deal with. I’ve never been asked to do it and I couldn’t say with 100% certainty that I could if the time came. What I have to do, though, is prepare myself for the possibility and train myself, with his help, into being able to meet any challenges I’m given. I’d like to think I’d do it. That I’d drop everything to follow God’s call. It wouldn’t mean that I love my family any less. Far from it, if it did mean that then there wouldn’t be much in the way of a cost. His cost, though, was far greater than I will ever be asked to pay.

What it does mean is that Jesus’ idea of family goes beyond the traditional family unit and is extended to those who give their lives to follow him. Those who are all prepared to say goodbye to those we love to serve the one we should love the most.

“Now Jesus’ mother and brothers came to see him, but they were not able to get near him because of the crowd. Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to see you.” He replied, “My mother and brothers are those who hear God’s word and put it into practice.”” (Luke 8:19-21 NIV)

This is what the Christian family is, those who hear God’s word and put it into practice. A family distinct from blood relations, but still a family. It’s a family which loves and cares, celebrates your joy, shares your pain and is as dysfunctional as any other. It is a family which has no exclusions, you come as you are; married or single, parent or childless, happy or sad, healthy or sick, rich or poor, black or white, stable or broken. Everyone has their place in it.

I hope I never need to give my own family up, it would be unbearably difficult and painful, but I must be ready for it happening. And I pray that if it ever came to it that they would understand and support me. Or, if any of my family were put in that position that they’d be ready and so would I.

Just in case. We all must.

Lent Day 23: Luke 10-12

I was looking at a discussion between a group of Christians brought about by the bringing into law of same-sex marriage in England and Wales today. Some were unhappy about the change in the law, others not so. It came to a point, though, when the argument turned into something a little like this,

“Maybe conservative Christians will stop going on about the gay issue and concentrate on fighting poverty.”

“We conservatives already do, it’s you liberals who go on about the gay issue.”

“No, you do.”

“No, you do.”

(Repeat until the end of time)

There were others, including myself, who let out an exasperated sigh. I’m not entirely sure I remember the part of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus blesses the conservatives or liberals and says woe unto the other group. These are labels we put upon ourselves which do little but cause internal divisions which end up driving the Church apart. It saddens me.

The homosexuality issue has had this effect on a congregation local to myself. The Church of Scotland have been debating the issue of allowing people in gay relationships to enter the ministry. After much debate the decision was taken to allow churches to opt out of the Church policy that marriage should be between a man and a woman. This decision was seen as a step too far by some in the Church, including my nearest parish church, which saw the minister and many in the congregation leave to set up a new church. This has, obviously, caused a lot of heartbreak and pain for a lot of people and has saddened those of us looking on from other congregations.

It’s happened a lot down the years. If it’s not gay ministers or marriage it’s women priests. Or infant baptism. Or married priests. Or Bibles in native tongues. Or many other issues which have divided the Church down the ages.

Of course, many will say that this is God’s will. After all, Jesus said this

“I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!  But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed!  Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.  From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three.  They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” (Luke 12:49-53 NIV)

Jesus came to divide us. It was part of his purpose, his plan. He wants to split us so only the righteous, those who are right on every issue, are saved.

I read it differently. I don’t think Jesus is saying that division is his aim, but simply the inevitable consequence of his ministry and actions. He had just spoken about selling your possessions and giving to the poor. He had been preaching against the hypocrisy of the religious leaders of the time. He had said that, in order to get entry to God’s kingdom then you simply need to knock at the door and it will be opened. These will have been incredibly divisive messages at the time, going against the accepted religious order of things. These things will have caused argument between those who accepted what he was saying and those who stuck with the status quo. In fact, they caused great division to the point of persecution for Jesus’ followers.

They still do cause great division. His message to us and his salvation are difficult messages to hear in today’s material, self driven world and do still divide this who believe and don’t. His message still leads to persecution and death for his followers in many parts of the world.

But for his followers to be divided by our own readings of issues which Jesus himself never actually spoke of is ridiculous. What divides us is important. We do need debate and discussion over all of these issues, in the way homosexuality and women bishops have been debated recently. But to divide ourselves into camps such as liberal and conservative, evangelical and emerging, traditional and progressive is self destructive. It leads to the situation we have in places where some Christians refuse to worship with others because of their beliefs on one issue rather than share fellowship because of their common ground on so many others.

I’m not saying that we need to give ground if we genuinely believe that we are following God’s will, but I am saying that we should understand three things:

Firstly, those who disagree with us probably believe, just as strongly, that they too are following God’s will.

Secondly, nobody is perfect. We are all wrong on some issues and we need to accept that. Just because the person who disagrees with us on a particular issue may be wide of the mark doesn’t mean that they are further from God than them. We are missing another point somewhere just as badly.

Thirdly, none of these issues are the main, most important thing. Jesus is. This is,

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind and love your neighbour as yourself.” (Adapted from Luke 10:27 NIV)

Loving God, loving those around us and helping the poor are the important things. And so is the fact that Jesus died and rose again so that we could forgive and be forgiven. These things all of us in the Church agree on. These things we should all unite around.

We are followers of Jesus. That is enough. It’s all we need to be.

Lent Day 22: Luke 7-9

For centuries the Church has been a patriarchy. Men have ruled the roost in Church and in the home thanks to certain interpretations of scripture which seem to suggest that we should be the ones with all the authority.

Thankfully, this view is increasingly breaking down in light of more contextual readings of the verses which were used for years to force women into submission. There’s still a long way to go before true equality is finally realised, but it looks so much more possible than it even did 30 or 40 years ago.

However, there are still a lot of men who cling to the belief that they should be the main breadwinner in the household. Those with a strict complementarian view see the men as providers with women in the support roles. The fact that there were 12 male apostles is often used to back this up. They were the ones doing all the donkey work whilst the women were there to lend a hand and support.

However, there was more, much more to it than that.

“After this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.” (Luke 8:1-3 NIV)

Not only are these women important and prominent enough amongst Jesus’ many followers to be named and to have a short backstory included by Luke, but they were supporting them “by their own means”. Financially.

Jesus and the twelve were, at least in part, being supported financially by women. The women were the breadwinners (I assume that “by their own means” means it was their money, not their husbands). Jesus was happy to do this, to be provided for by women.

Now, it doesn’t go into what other roles the women fulfilled. It doesn’t say that they were involved in teaching, although many men of the time would not have thought to listen to a woman teacher, so this shouldn’t be a surprise. It does, however, point to a prominence which women simply would not have been used to at the time. Jesus was showing them that they could break out of the male dominated shackles and make decisions for themselves.

This process has gone on, slowly, for the last 2000 years. Sadly, the Church has been even slower, keeping women from leading roles until very recently, and still shutting them out altogether in some denominations.

It’s time this ended. Gender roles are becoming increasingly blurred in society and the Church needs to do the same. I strongly believe the change has been Spirit led, but the resistance to change is entirely human and power based.

These women Luke mentions; Mary, Joanna and Susanna, should be the starting point for progress, not the end point as some people would still like to see them. We are all called for a purpose, regardless of gender. Let’s live and enable others to living  for that purpose as God intends.

Lent Day 22: Luke 7-9

For centuries the Church has been a patriarchy. Men have ruled the roost in Church and in the home thanks to certain interpretations of scripture which seem to suggest that we should be the ones with all the authority.

Thankfully, this view is increasingly breaking down in light of more contextual readings of the verses which were used for years to force women into submission. There’s still a long way to go before true equality is finally realised, but it looks so much more possible than it even did 30 or 40 years ago.

However, there are still a lot of men who cling to the belief that they should be the main breadwinner in the household. Those with a strict complementarian view see the men as providers with women in the support roles. The fact that there were 12 male apostles is often used to back this up. They were the ones doing all the donkey work whilst the women were there to lend a hand and support.

However, there was more, much more to it than that.

“After this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.” (Luke 8:1-3 NIV)

Not only are these women important and prominent enough amongst Jesus’ many followers to be named and to have a short backstory included by Luke, but they were supporting them “by their own means”. Financially.

Jesus and the twelve were, at least in part, being supported financially by women. The women were the breadwinners (I assume that “by their own means” means it was their money, not their husbands). Jesus was happy to do this, to be provided for by women.

Now, it doesn’t go into what other roles the women fulfilled. It doesn’t say that they were involved in teaching, although many men of the time would not have thought to listen to a woman teacher, so this shouldn’t be a surprise. It does, however, point to a prominence which women simply would not have been used to at the time. Jesus was showing them that they could break out of the male dominated shackles and make decisions for themselves.

This process has gone on, slowly, for the last 2000 years. Sadly, the Church has been even slower, keeping women from leading roles until very recently, and still shutting them out altogether in some denominations.

It’s time this ended. Gender roles are becoming increasingly blurred in society and the Church needs to do the same. I strongly believe the change has been Spirit led, but the resistance to change is entirely human and power based.

These women Luke mentions; Mary, Joanna and Susanna, should be the starting point for progress, not the end point as some people would still like to see them. We are all called for a purpose, regardless of gender. Let’s live and enable others to living  for that purpose as God intends.

Lent Day 21: Luke 4-6

I got into a bit of an argument online recently (I wrote a bit about it earlier). I objected to an MP verbally abusing someone and it didn’t go down too well.

Two or three others, also Christians, came to my defence over the matter. All of my comments (I think) and theirs were reasonable, calm, without hatred and none of them mentioned God in any way.

However, we were all described as “religious haters”, hiding behind religion to mask our true natures. I was called a “mad Christian Socialist”, despite my faith and political beliefs not coming into the discussion at all.

How did it come to this? How are we at the point that having a belief in God marks you out as some sort of disaffected, angry mad man or woman? When did a belief in God become a weapon to use against you?

Well, around 2000 years ago, it seems. The reasons for doing it have changed, but the disdain has always been there.

“Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man.” (Luke 6:22 NIV)

Jesus knew this would happen to his followers and is very open about it from the start. In his time, and in many parts of the world today, this involves real persecution, imprisonment, torture and even death. There are places in this world where just owning a Bible carries a death sentence, converting to Christianity leads to honour killings and Christian gatherings take place in secret for fear of violent reprisals. It’s almost like things haven’t changed in 2000 years.

Here we are blessed. In the UK, and the rest of the western world, Christianity is the majority religion. We can meet, worship and share our faith openly. In some countries the Church still has a role in the affairs of state (not that I’m really happy with that, but that’s another matter). We are free.

But, we are ridiculed as an anachronism. Out of touch idiots who believe in a big sky fairy who tells us what we can and can’t do. A lot of people won’t or can’t take us seriously as people because of it. We must be weak or deluded or both. We cling to religion as a crutch or a way of justifying our prejudices and outdated values.

How has this happened? In a country where our education system, legal system, democracy, health care and so much more have been founded around Christian values, how are we seen as the bad guys?

“But woe to you who are rich,    for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.” (Luke 6:24-26 NIV)

Why, if you live in one of the world’s richest countries, would you want to hear something like that? You’re well off, well fed, have many possessions, friends, influence within the world, so what’s there to be woeful about? You don’t need God to be telling you that! In fact, you don’t need God at all. You’re doing pretty nicely, thank you. You know best.

And that is why faith is ridiculed. That is also why Jesus said what he said. You are not going to experience pain and sadness because you have money, possessions and food, but you will because of the complacency they lead to. Life without God is, ultimately, empty. Once you start telling yourself that you know best, where do you stop? Who makes the rules, the boundaries? At what point do we go from living for others to living for our own selfish needs.

Just look at the way the vulnerable are viewed and treated today. Not as people needing help, but as people who are to be divided into the “deserving and undeserving”. Even worse, there is a default position that they are undeserving and need to prove otherwise. We jealously guard our resources from those who have little or none, unless we are forced, either emotionally or legally, to do otherwise.

The poor and hungry are blessed in spirit. It’s time the rich and well fed realise that and get closer to them, in order to get closer to God. The world is broken. We need to fix it.

I’m not a religious hater. I’m not mad and angry.

I am a Christian Socialist though, guilty as charged. And I’m not ashamed of it.

Lent Day 20: Luke 1-3

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Well, I’m half way there now. This is post 20 out of 40 at lent and the start of the third of four Gospels.

I’ll be honest with you, it’s a bit difficult to know what to write about with this. I mean, I’ve written about the nativity story once already and Jesus’ baptism twice, so I don’t have much to say that I haven’t said already.

Not only that, but this is probably the most read Bible passage of all (except, maybe, 1 Corinthians 13, which gets trotted out at loads of weddings. Including my own.), so it’s one which everyone is so familiar with that there’s nothing particularly new that I can bring to it.

But, that’s kind of the point now. We are so familiar with this that the story is woven into our traditions. Sure, most are familiar with it within the sanitised environment of school nativity plays, where Joseph, Mary and Jesus are almost pushed into the background by sheep, horses, llamas and Spiderman, but we know the basis of it so well that it’s a part of us. We could recite the events to anyone. It’s a supernatural story, but it’s normal.

And so are those in the story. Zechariah and Elizabeth are normal people living with the cultural shame of childlessness. Joseph and Mary are normal Jewish people of the time, planning a life together, going on pilgrimages, taking their new born son to be circumcised. The shepherds are normal people, working at night in a harsh, dangerous environment.

This is what Jesus comes into. Normality. The everyday, mundane world we all live in. And, by coming, he makes it magical, alive, full of hope.

Look at the reaction of John, not even born, but excited. Look at children at Christmas, or remember how you felt. It was amazing and wondrous. You couldn’t wait.

That’s what he did to the adults whom he encountered, even as a baby. From Elizabeth to Simeon to the people the 12 year old Jesus spoke with in the Temple, they were all astonished, joyful and alive to new possibility.

That’s what he does now. He comes into our normal, everyday lives and turns them into lives bursting with potential and hope. He turns us from cynical, world weary people to that wide eyed child again, expectantly waiting on the gifts we know we’re going to get.

The gifts aren’t just  for a day, though. They’re for life. Now, and forever.

Lent Day 19: Mark 15-16

Desmond Tutu recently wrote this piece in the Guardian about forgiveness. As a man who grew up witnessing his father abusing his mother, who explains the story of putting his father off of a conversation until the following day only to find that he died overnight, ans who lived through the brutal Apartheid regime in South Africa, he knows a lot about the subject. So when he writes the following, we need to take note,

“Retaliation gives, at best, only momentary respite from our pain. The only way to experience healing and peace is to forgive. Until we can forgive, we remain locked in our pain and locked out of the possibility of experiencing healing and freedom, locked out of the possibility of being at peace.”

Forgiveness is at the heart of emotional healing. It is the key to giving us peace and it is the cornerstone of Jesus’ actions at the cross.

Many of the new atheists see this as a vile thought. Richard Dawkins, speaking on the Premier Christian Radio show ‘Unbelievable?’ said that the idea that God could only forgive our sins by torturing himself was “revolting”. Others state that it’s ridiculous to suggest that God feels the need to do this to save us from himself.

All of this is to miss the point about forgiveness. This is the ultimate act of forgiveness, not only because it allows for everyone to be forgiven everything, but on the many levels that forgiveness happens.

The one thing everyone thinks of is God forgiving us. That is, of course, the main thing. Jesus took the punishment we were all due so that we could come to him and ask for forgiveness. He is our proxy and our way to the father. It is an amazing act of self sacrifice that was  needed because sin had, and has, such a hold in this world that only a massive act would break it’s power. We can all be forgiven, if we ask.

But being forgiven and seeing the power of sin broken don’t just mean that. It also gives us the power to forgive. Jesus is our example in this. He didn’t think about the personal cost, he knew that this forgiveness was God’s will and he obeyed. We now have a new way.

Jesus quotes this passage in Exodus,

“Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.” (Exodus 21:24-25 NIV)

This is what people of the time will have seen as their moral code; retribution and revenge. Jesus turns it round, though,

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” (Matthew 5:38-39 NIV)

Forgiveness of others is at the heart of his action. Not just forgiveness of the little things, either, but of evil. He knows it’s hard, look at the agony he has gone through to show us, but it is God’s will, so we should follow. If we want forgiveness, we should always be willing to forgive as well.

This isn’t a natural thing for us to do. If it was then we wouldn’t see extremism sprouting up in the face of injustice. If it was then we wouldn’t see baying mobs outside courts where suspected killers or paedophiles were being tried. If it was then we wouldn’t see so much conflict in the world.

On 8 November 1989, during a Remembrance parade in the Northern Ireland town of Enniskillen, an IRA bomb went off and killed 12 people. One of those was a young nurse called Marie Wilson.

Her father, Gordon, was with her, but survived. You would expect and understand if he wants revenge. If he was consumed with hatred and a desire for retribution. I can’t say that I wouldn’t be if I were in his shoes. He said, however,

“I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge.”

He forgave the bombers, prayed fir them, then strove and worked fir peace in Northern Ireland until his death in 1995.

That is forgiveness! That is God’s will and the example of Jesus.

There is still more to it than that, though. Being forgiven by God and by others is amazing. Forgiving others is freeing and healing. But how hard is it for us to forgive ourselves?

Many of us spend our lives tearing ourselves apart over things we have dine in the past. We see ourselves as worthless, weak, evil, dirty. We dwell on those thoughts until they consume us and affect the way we live our lives.

Jesus says stop. He has forgiven us, the father has forgiven us. We are clean. We are right again. We need to see that in ourselves.

Coming to the cross is not a way to ease our conscience, rather it is a way for us to truly change. It allows us to move on from the past, from the person we have been, and to move forward with a clean slate. Our past sins aren’t forgotten, but they are forgiven. They are lessons, to ourselves and others, in what to avoid, how to avoid and how to move on.

If we can’t get past our own failings, how can we expect others to? How can we expect to be able to truly forgive others?

Jesus died so that we are all forgiven. By God, by others and by ourselves.

He died so that we all forgive both others and ourselves.

He died so that we can learn and move on together.

That’s not revolting! It’s the most amazing thing you’ll ever hear.