Bible · Following Jesus

Zacchaeus – A Very Little Man

I’m reading from the Gospel of Luke in the New Testament. The story of Zacchaeus.

1 Jesus entered Jericho and made his way through the town. There was a man there named Zacchaeus. He was the chief tax collector in the region, and he had become very rich. He tried to get a look at Jesus, but he was too short to see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree beside the road, for Jesus was going to pass that way.

When Jesus came by, he looked up at Zacchaeus and called him by name. “Zacchaeus!” he said. “Quick, come down! I must be a guest in your home today.”

Zacchaeus quickly climbed down and took Jesus to his house in great excitement and joy. But the people were displeased. “He has gone to be the guest of a notorious sinner,” they grumbled.

Meanwhile, Zacchaeus stood before the Lord and said, “I will give half my wealth to the poor, Lord, and if I have cheated people on their taxes, I will give them back four times as much!”

Jesus responded, “Salvation has come to this home today, for this man has shown himself to be a true son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and save those who are lost.”

When I was a child, we used to sing this little chorus:
Zacchaeus was a very little man,
and a very little man was he.
He climbed up into a sycamore tree,
for the Saviour he wanted to see.
And when the Saviour passed that way,
he looked up in the tree,
[Spoken] and said, ‘Now Zacchaeus, you come down,
for I’m coming to your house for tea.’

I’m coming to your house for tea.’

Zacchaeus worked for the occupying power – Rome. He was a Jew who taxed his fellow Jews on behalf of Rome. It was a system ripe for corruption, and Zachaeus had got rich on the proceeds. Zacchaeus represents the powers. Power that keeps people in poverty, as they are unfairly treated by the taxation system. The poor have had what was righfully theirs taken away from them in a system that has extorted an unfair burden of taxation.

In this situation, the Gospel – which means ‘Good news,’ – has an immediate economic outcome for the good of the poor that have been exploited by Zacchaeus. He turns the system that has built in economic inequality on its head as he promises to pay back those he has cheated.

Jesus’ comment is that not only has salvation come to the house of Zacchaeus, but that Zacchaeus must be considered once more as a true ‘Son of Abraham.’ In defrauding his fellow Jews, he had ‘forgotten who he was and given up his true identity for the sake of gain.’ * The transformation that resulted from his encounter with Jesus has not only benefitted the poor whom he had exploited, but has also given him back his true indentity.

As I read this passage today, it took me back to singing that chorus in my childhood, and a realisation that the heart of the story is missing from the chorus! Once again, we see that overturning injustice is at the heart of the Gospel.

When we become embroiled in systems that are intrinsically unjust, do we also lose some of our true self, and accept an identity that is less than our calling as children of God ? May we discover more of our true selves as those in the company of Jesus.

* Walter Brueggemann in ‘Gift and Task’ page 375.

faith · Following Jesus

Go In Peace And Love

We had my sister come to stay last week for a couple of days, and as we often do, we walked into the centre of Gloucester and spent some time in the cathedral.

There are some large blocks of stone as you enter the cathedral grounds, each with a different message. There are some with messages of welcome, facing you as you arrive …

and others that you see when you’re leaving. We see different things each time we go to the cathedral, and this time my wife noticed the message on one of these large blocks of stone ‘GO IN PEACE AND LOVE.’

First thing – it’s five words.
Second thing – hang on, what does that mean exactly.

Is the word ‘love’ here meant as a noun or a verb. I’m not sure ?

I’m going to take it a a verb.

Go in peace and love.

Bible · Church · faith · Following Jesus

Eating With Knives And Forks

So, I was in church this morning, and we had three readings … extracts below:

From the final words of the letter to the church in Ephesus, encouraging the community of believers to stand firm in their faith:
For our struggle is …. against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

From John’s Gospel, chapter 6, words of Jesus
It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.

And from the book of Joshua chapter 24, Joshua addressing the Israelite nation:
Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”

The thing that really struck me today was the way that God works through everyday living.

I was once in a class where we were asked this question by a visiting professor:
“What is the opposite of spiritual”

As we sat around waiting for one of us to be brave enough to respond, I think we were all asking ourselves – ‘Is this a trick question?’
Eventually someone piped up – ‘maybe the opposite of spiritual is physical ?’
The professor smiled, because someone had fallen into the trap he had laid.
No, no, no! He cried.
We waited. The rest of us who had been too cowardly to answer, feeling bad for the one who had stuck his head above the parapet, so to speak.

He looked at us intently. Clearly this was an important lesson that we needed to learn.
“The opposite of spiritual is unspiritual.”

Oh. Well yes, that seems logical. But what’s your point, we wondered.

Here I quote Eugene Peterson to explain the point that the professor made. “When we talk about something being spiritual, we are talking about something that God is doing.”

The mistake is to think of ‘spiritual things’ as things going on in the ether. Airy fairy. Things that don’t have any connection with life, but are more in the realm of ‘ideas about God.’

But if we take Eugene Peterson’s definition, then we’re talking about events, experiences and actions that are very much to do with real life.

In Christian Spirituality, there is an undestanding that the words and works of God are made apparent through the material stuff of our lives. In 21st century life, it’s sometimes hard to see this, since so much of our lives are lived in a bubble that removes us from the earthiness of life. We used to eat with our fingers, but now most of us use a knife and fork. There’s something about a connection with the basic essential of life – food that we have lost. I remember being invited to an Ethiopian friend for a meal, and being given no knife and fork, but quantities of ‘Injera’ – a soft sourdough type bread, slightly spongey, to gather up the food on my plate.

In his book ‘Run with the Horses.,’ Eugene Peterson describes that ‘earthy spirituality’ in this way:
“Biblical faith everywhere and always warns against siren voices that lead people away from specific and everyday engagements with weather and politics. Dogs and neighbors, shopping lists and job assignments. No true spiritual life can be distilled from or abstracted out of this world of chemicals and molecules, paying your bills and taking out the garbage. With the current interest in spirituality, we must be on guard not to revert to an other-worldly piety.”

To get back to the passages at the top of this post.
When Paul writes about contending with spiritual forces, we might picture among those forces the drive to make us want to produce more and more to satisfy our desire for aquisition and consumption. These forces are very real, and make themselves known in work places and board rooms. In lecture halls and classrooms. In shops and on T.V. and social media. In fact anywhere and everwhere you look.

When Jesus talks about the flesh being useless, he is talking about that side of our ‘fleshly’ human nature that is all about trying to be our own gods and goddesses – a seductive temptation that in the end leads nowhere.
He contrasts that kind of flesh with his own flesh – his physical body that he will give ‘for the life of the world.’

And in the third passage quoted, Joshua is challenging the people – not so much on what they believe, but how they will live. Again, moving the realm of the spiritual from ideas and beliefs to the lived life.

We had a wonderful example of that in our service this morning. Heather, our curate, was to be taking a baptism service after our morning communion service. She explained that at the moment of baptism, the minister pours the water of baptism using a scallop shell, which has long been a sign of baptism and the Christian journey. In recent months, as well as giving a baptism candle and a bible, we now give the baptised the shell that was used in their baptism.

What a powerful lesson to take away from this! Baptism is the beginning of a journey of faith, in which we are daily looking to see what God is doing in our lives and the lives of those around us – activity which is very real, whether it is made known in work places or board rooms. In lecture halls or classrooms. In shops or on T.V. and social media. In fact anywhere and everwhere you look. And in the life of the church – it is the everyday that speaks of God’s activity: water in baptism, bread and wine that we share around the table of reconciliation, and in the very beauty of creation all around us – all of life can speak to us of what God has done and is doing.

Grace and Peace.




Bible · community · Following Jesus

Then Moses Climbed Mount Nebo

We were round at some friends yesterday evening catching up not having seem them for a while. They were telling us about their recent short trip in South Wales. One day they went to the top of Pen-Y-Fan, hoping to enjoy the spectacular view from the top. The weather was clear when they started out, but by the time they had reached the top, it was covered in cloud !

They told us about their trip around Europe some years ago – that as they arrived at each new area, town, city, etc, they would look for a high place to be able to see the landscape around them, and to get a feel for where they were in that landscape. It might be a hill, or a tower, and anything that gave them some kind of overview. Maybe they’ll get to go back to Pen-Y-Fan one day and take in that glorious view.

There’s a hill near where we live called Robinswood Hill which rises to just under 200m metres. From the top, you can see all around – the city of Gloucester below us; the Malvern Hills to the North West; the Severn Valley to the South; Cheltenham and the Cotswolds to the East. It’s a wonderful spot.

Although we were thinking about literal high places, I wondered about another question to do with our neighbourhood, which is just under a mile from Gloucester City centre – If we imagined ourselves high above the streets where we live, what would we see, and how do we understand our place within it ?

In my reading just this morning, I read this passage from the Hebrew scriptures. It’s a part that describes the end of the life of Moses. Just before he dies, he is given the chance to look down from a high place (Mount Nebo), over the land that God has promised to Israel.

Then Moses climbed Mount Nebo from the plains of Moab to the top of Pisgah, across from Jericho. There the Lord showed him the whole land—from Gilead to Dan, all of Naphtali, the territory of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Mediterranean Sea, the Negev and the whole region from the Valley of Jericho, the City of Palms, as far as Zoar. Then the Lord said to him, “This is the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob when I said, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ I have let you see it with your eyes, but you will not cross over into it.”
Deuteronomy Chapter 34.

It’s one of those coincidences that seem to happen from time to time – when you’ve been thinking about something, and then it pops up soon afterwards from a completely different place. It seems like God is telling you to keep thinking and asking what this is all about. I’m pondering what this might mean for us …

In the early church, one of the ways that leadership was described was to do with being able to see the ‘Big Picture.’ The Greek word is Episcope.
It’s not a word we’re particularly familiar with, but we do know other related words – microscope, telescope, periscope … all intruments designed to see something – something small, something far away, something above you …

If there were such an instrument as an episcope, it would be something that would help you to see the lie of the land around you. An overview. An important aspect of leadership is to be able to so this. It might mean that you’re less likely to get caught up in distractions. You have an idea of what the task is. You have a grasp of what’s needed.

Strangely, it’s about getting a broad view, but one that helps you stay focussed.

Part of the call to follow Jesus involves ‘getting to a high place’ to see the lie of the land. The essential tool for this work is listening. Listening to others tell their stories. Finding out what is important to our friends and neighbours. Learning how to serve those around us.

One of the other passages I read this morning was from St Paul’s letter to the church in Rome – these words seem ver relevant to the call to ‘Know Jesus, and to Make Jesus Known.’
How can people call for help if they don’t know who to trust? And how can they know who to trust if they haven’t heard of the One who can be trusted? And how can they hear if nobody tells them? And how is anyone going to tell them, unless someone is sent to do it? Romans Chaprter 10.

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Activism · Bible · Church · faith · Following Jesus · Political

The River Runs Down Hill

Water is a prominent theme in both the First Testament, and the Second. I was listening earlier this week to a talk by Ched Myers, speaking about both the ecological and the theological significance of water.
Listen here. Roll Like A River

There’s a lot to digest there, but I’ll just refer to sonmething he said at the end. He’s made the point earlier that in his context in Southern California, the river Ventura that once flowed all year round is now seasonal. This is largely because the water is taken off by residential needs and industry futher up stream.
That has all sorts of ecological consequences to the environment, as well as affecting those who live down stream.

The situation is not unlike the Jordan Valley, where many people, (Palestinians in particular) have to contend with water shortages, as well as the land itself being impoverished.

Already, we are seeing water as a commodity being fought over, and who wins ? The rich. We are familiar with wars over other resources like oil, but we are now realising that the main building block of life – water – is getting scarcer in many areas, and a cause of conflict.

In Southern California and the Jordan Valley, it is the environment and the people downstream that are affected.

Ched Myers draws a parallel between the ecological and economic issues here, and the way that water is spoken of in scripture.

There are many passages that speak of the life giving properties of water – coupled with water as an image of our spiritual lives. In Psalm 1 water is a symbol of God’s way of living.

Happy are those whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night. They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper. (Psalm 1 verses 1-3)

In John’s Gospel we hear Jesus say these words:
Those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” John Chapter 4 verse 14

It’s clear that water is not only essential for our very material lives, but is also a kind of code for what we might call abundant life, where there are no winners and losers, but where everyone has their needs fully met.

The Prophet Amos says this:
I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,  I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Amos Chapter 5 verses 21-24

Water flows down hill … but by the time it reaches the communities where Ched Myers lives, or the Palestinian People in the Jordan Valley, there is not enough left for everyone.

In my last-but-one post, I said that the Christian life is about ‘Gift and Task.’ This post is definitely about ‘Task’. The task of every one of us to seek justice for those who are furthest away from the source of blessing. Those who are on the margins where the resources do not reach, as well as the land that is impoverished by lack of water.

Grace and Peace.

Church · community · Following Jesus · music · Song for Today

Song For Today #25

We had a reading in Church today from the first letter of John that included these words …
This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands. 3 In fact, this is love for God: to keep his commands. And his commands are not burdensome ….
1 John Chapter 5 verse 2

And the Gospel reading was from John’s Gospel and included these words of Jesus:
This is my commandment, that you love (and unselfishly seek the best for) one another, just as I have loved you.
John Chapter 15 verse 12 (Amplified Bible)

Mike, the preacher today, introduced the Gospel reading by showing us that the first section of John 15 (that we had last week), is about the believer’s relationship to God, the second section today is about the believer’s relationship to others in the faith community, and the third section will be about the believer’s relationship to the world.

The phrase in the reading from John’s letter tells us that what God requires of us as we relate to one another is not burdensome. Straightaway my mind locked on to the word burden. Caring for one another in the community of faith is not a burden, because they are my brothers and sisters in Christ. There’s a pretty straight line from there to the song for today:
He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother

The road is long, with many a winding turn
That lead us to (who knows) where, who knows where?
But I’m strong, strong enough to carry him – yeah
He ain’t heavy – he’s my brother

So on we go, his welfare is my concern
no burden is he to bear, we’ll get there
For I know he would not encumber me
He ain’t heavy – he’s my brother

If I’m leaving at all, if I’m leaving with sadness
that everyone’s heart isn’t filled with the gladness
of love for one another.

It’s a long, long road, from which there is no return
While we’re on the way to there, why not share?
And the load doesn’t weigh me down at all
He ain’t heavy – he’s my brother

Words and Music: Bobby Scott and Bob Russell.
Recorded by the Hollies in 1969. A classic!

Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.

Grace and Peace

Activism · Bible · faith · Following Jesus · Jesus · Political · World Affairs

In My Dream I Saw

I don’t remember my dreams very often, but I still have some snippets from a dream I had last night.
In my dream I saw a statue, standing up with something like a rod in its hand. The statue was a bit more than life size, maybe about 8 feet tall, and the rod was about 18 inches long and maybe 2 inches in diameter.

The next thing I saw was that the statue was lying down on its side, and the rod was held by two cupped hands of the statue. The hands were holding, rather than gripping the rod. Then someone was removing the rod from the cupped hands.

Then I found myself with a group of people in a room, all giving their different accounts of what the rod symbolised. Each one was describing a different angle on power

I can’t quite remember exactly what I said, but it was something to do with what happens when there’s a vacuum. There’s that saying – nature abhors a vacuum. When there’s a vacuum, something will rush in the fill that vacuum.

In the dream, the vacuum was created when the rod was removed from the hands. Suddenly, the person, or organisation that was holding the power is no longer in charge. At that point, other forces are quick to come and seize power.

In my dream, I went on to say that what was needed was an understanding of what the purpose of holding that power should be. The power should be exercised for the benefit of all. That means that everyone needs to have a say, no one should be left out.

At that point, I finished, and everyone applauded. I was surprised, but pleased that what I had said seemed to ring a bell with everyone present.

Here endeth the dream

So – a couple of reflections on the dream. We’re watching a series on Netflix at the moment called Godless. It’s set just after the American Civil war, and I think that may have been on my mind, and that somewhere deep in my unconscious is a memory of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address from November 19th 1863, in the middle of the Amercian Civil War. In that speech, he famously said ‘That government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.’ The exact wording of the speech is uncertain, and Lincoln wasn’t the first to use that idea …. of the people, by the people, for the people.

My little speech in the dream seemed to be along the same lines …

The second thought is that today – March 28th 2021 – is Palm Sunday in the Christian calendar. The Gospel reading for Palm Sunday recalls how Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. As he entered the Holy City, the crowds acclaimed him as king shouting – ‘Hosanna to the Son of David.’ Hosanna means ‘save,’ and is probably used here as a special cry of joy for the one who has come to save, to rescue.

Here’s the prophetic passage from the First Testament book of Zechariah that is clearly seen in the events of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.

Zechariah chapter 9 verses 9 – 10.
Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you,righteous and victorious,lowly and riding on a donkey,on a colt, the foal of a donkey. 10 I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the warhorses from Jerusalem,and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations.His rule will extend from sea to seaand from the River to the ends of the earth.

In my dream, someone came and took the rod representing power from the statue. Whatever part of my subconscious that dream came from, the removal of the rod of power is something to do with a non-violent expression of a different quality of power to the oppressive displays of power that dominate our world.

For example, I’m thinking today of the non-violent demonstrations in Myanmar at the brute force and violence shown by the army.

I’m thinking of the non-violent demonstrations in our own city of Bristol, sadly hijacked by violent protesters.

I’m thinking of the peaceful protests against violence done to women after the murder of Sarah Everard, that ironically resulted in a police over reaction and more violence shown to the mostly women protesters.

I’m thinking of the peaceful civil disobedience of the protests of Extinction Rebellion back in 2019.

And I’m thinking of Jesus, riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, not a war horse, to announce God’s kingdom of peace. Jesus comes to demonstrate his power, that is so different to the power of the elite in Jerusalem, and to the imperial might of Rome. He comes to challenge the powers of his day. From the backwater of Galilee, Jesus now enters as it were, the Lion’s Den.

As I imagine the picture of Jesus on a donkey, I see that event as an act of non-violent resistance. The words of the ancient prophets are brought to life, and their words still speak today.

The words of Zechariah conjure up a vision not far from my dream in which I saw the symbol of power taken from the statue – I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the warhorses from Jerusalem,and the battle bow will be broken.

It is a vision of peace that comes against all kinds of oppression – through the economy, through race, gender and sexuality.
Wherever such protests are made, the forces of power will rise to try and silence the voices of peace.

A prayer for today

God of ancient prophets, we thank you for your timeless utterances of truthfulness. Give us good ears to hear the reverberation of those old words as new voices ring out in our day. In his name. Amen.

Prayer by Walter Brueggemann (slightly altered)

Church · community · faith · Following Jesus · Theology · Worship

Re-Imagining Eucharist

OK, so this is two words. Having five word titles is a challenge I set myself, as well as being a web address (fiveshortwords.com) that was available! I think it’s time to allow myself to break the rule if I need to. Plus, as this is a post about rule-breaking, it seems appropriate.

So to Eucharist. The central act of weekly worship in many Christian churches. Eucharist was not a word I was familiar with when I was growing up. For the Christian community of my childhood it was known as The Lord’s Supper. Also known as Breaking of Bread. In other traditions it’s known as Communion, Mass and Eucharist. I’m using Eucharist here because it seems to be the word that is most used these days in a lot of Church of England circles. It’s the act of worship where we remember Jesus’ Last Supper, and his command to remember him by eating bread and drinking wine, just as they would have done at that meal.

In another post, I have written about the ‘High Hedge’ that separates those who are ‘in’, with those who are ‘out,’ in some churches. The highest hedge would mean someone had to be baptised, and confirmed in order to receive the bread and the wine.

None of the words that are used to describe this central act of worship suggest this high hedge. The Lord’s Supper suggests a meal, as does The Breaking of Bread. Communion suggests fellowship and intimacy. The word Mass (from the Latin Mittere, to send) is to do with being sent to be the God’s People For God’s World. Eucharist is from the Greek word meaning thanksgiving.

Maybe if we were being honest we should rename this family meal as Phractis – Greek for hedge. The word phractis itself sounds like fraction, which is when something is split into parts – in the case of Eucharist, those who receive and those who don’t.

A few years ago I heard Sarah Miles tell her story of coming to faith in Jesus. She had never been to church. She had never been taken by her parents. She was from a non-religious background. But one day she was passing a church and felt compelled to go in. When it came to the time for communion, she knew instinctively that this was something she wanted, and needed. As she held her hands out in expectation, someone put the bread into her hands. This was the start of her journey of faith.

As I read the Gospels, I see Jesus sharing meals with people without any restrictions. He eats with ‘tax collectors and sinners,’ people who were on the outside of the religious community. He knew that when you eat with people, connections are made. People share, not only their food, but themselves. The best meals are where we get beyond polite conversation to reflect on the big questions that our lives are asking us. Not every time we share a meal, for sure, do we ask these questions, but if we never ask them, then we’re not really sharing our lives.
What makes your heart sing ? What’s the best thing in your life at the moment ? Did you see the sunset yesterday ? How do I bring up my kids in this crazy world ? How do I put bread on the table when I’m out of work ? How can I look after my elderly parent as well as everything else I’m supposed to do ? How do I live with myself, when I know all the bad stuff that others don’t see ? ….. (you add your own question)

There is a ‘high hedge’ in the Gospels, but it seems to be all about following Jesus. That in the end is what divided people – into those who were willing to take a risk and see where it led, and those who decided to stick with what they knew. If there is a holy act that expresses this desire to be a follower, then it’s baptism. That’s the hedge.

But certainly in the established church in this country we got it the wrong way round. We made baptism available to everyone and anyone without fully explaining that this was a serious life choice.
And at the same time we said that you weren’t supposed to share in the family meal. There was a limit to the hospitality that we could offer.

It’s like if you invited some friends round for the evening. Come at 7, you said. So they arrive at 7 just as you are sitting down to your evening meal. And you ‘welcome’ them into the same room where you are eating, but you went on and ate your meal while they waited for you to finish.

What am I saying ? Throw out hundreds of years of church practice ? Pretend I know better ?

Just think how it would be if there was another way to share bread and wine. A meal that would be just as holy, just as mystical, just as life changing. A meal that just as clearly had Jesus at the centre, but which didn’t bar anyone from joining in. A meal that could happen anywhere, anytime, for anyone.

I wonder how many preachers, church leaders, priests and pastors would say Yes to this ? It might be threatening. It might be risky. It might be difficult to square with your theology.

And then again, it might be wonderful.

Grace and peace.

Bible · Church · faith · Following Jesus · Jesus · Theology

New Light On St Paul

OK. It’s been a while. I’ve had so many ideas but never got round to getting it down. Here’s a few thoughts from Tom Wright, otherwise known as N.T. Wright. He was Bishop of Durham for a while, but is best known as an academic whose whole adult life has been spent studying the life and writings of St Paul.

He wrote a book about the life of St Paul that came out three years ago. I haven’t read it, but heard him talk about it on the Nomad Podacst.

To start with, his name is originally Saul. He comes from a conservative tradition in Judaism, and as the book of Acts describes, will do anything to protect Judaism from what he sees as unhealthy, misguided influences. One of those ‘way out’ movements is of course, what he would see as the cult of Jesus. Saul is basically a fundamentalist, and will track down followers of Jesus, and condone killing them for the cause of religious purity. Hence the stoning of Stephen, one of the prominent members of what we would call the early church. Saul is at this point a violent man, determined to put a stop to this abberation of the faith that he treasures.

But to call it the early church is slightly misleading – at this early point in the evolution of the Jesus movement, we’re talking about a community that is mostly made up of Jews before the word Christian has even been uttered. When we read the word ‘church’ in our English translations, the original Greek word is better translated by ‘gathering,’ ‘assembly, ‘ or ‘company.’

Tom Wright reminds us how important it is to understand the first century context of the words that we read. Another example of where we might have been reading this wrongly is to do with what we might have called the ‘conversion’ of Saul. Growing up, I had the impression that on the road to Damascus, when Saul has his experience of Jesus, it is at that point that he ‘becomes a Christian.’
(You can read the account in Acts chapter 9)

But at that point in time, there was no such thing as a Christian. There was no separate religion called Christianity. Saul was a Jew who had such a profound and mystical experience of the risen Christ, that he suddenly sees that he has been mistaken, and that Jesus is in fact, the Messiah of God. He doesn’t stop being a faithful Jew, and would in all likelihood continue in exactly the same way as he had done before regarding his religious observance, but now seeing that the promised Messiah has in fact come – in the person of Jesus Christ.

After this life changing encounter, at some point early on, Saul disappears off to Arabia for three years. It’s not clear exactly where he went or what he did during these three years, but Tom Wright has a theory … first a bit of background:

Back in the First Testament, * the prophet Elijah is at a turning point in his life. He had just defeated the 400 prophets of Baal, and was on the run from king Ahab and his wife Jezebel. At this time of great stress in his life, where does he go ? To mount Horeb. Mount Horeb is essentially the same as Mount Sinai, where Moses received the Ten Commandments. So Elijah is going back to the place where it all started. The place where God made it clear that the children of Israel were a ‘set apart people.’ They had a call to be God’s people for the nations. At Mount Horeb, God meets with Elijah and he gets the commissioning and strength that he needs for the next phase in his ministry. God tells Elijah that he is to ‘Go back the way you came, to Damascus.’ Once there, he was to anoint Jehu as the new king of Israel.

Tom Wright’s theory is that Arabia was the region that included Mount Sinai. Where would Saul go to think through the experience that he had on the road to Damascus ? Maybe back to where it all started – to Mount Sinai. Saul’s roots are in the ancient story of Israel’s deliverance from slavery; the journeying through the wilderness; the call to live as the people of God. So Saul goes to Sinai, to learn what this new call to follow Jesus will mean. And at the end of those three years, where does he go ? Back the way he came, to Damascus. And once there he will share the news that a new king has been anointed – Jesus. And that this good news of Jesus is for all people, both Jew and Greek, men and women, slave and free. And that this new community will be different from any community previously known, because it will not be according to your ethnic group, or whether you were a man or a woman, or a slave or a free person. This new community will break all the rules and be for all.

I feel like I should read the book !

And, as I was pondering on this alternative, radical new community that we see in the book of Acts, it made me think about my own experience of the church, and to what extent the churches I have been a part of have been ethnically diverse, with men and women both accepted fully, with class, background, education and social status not being an issue. Sadly, it seems that churches by default become fairly monocultural, not at all the vision that Paul had … 2000 years later it’s still a work in progress. Additionally, there are movements within the church that see the growth of the church being most effective when this mono approach is used – because like attracts like. This is in sharp contrast to the kingdom vision of a diverse community, which although it is often a more challenging environment, has within it the possibility of fully enacting the principles of love. Such a Christian community is truly a thing of great beauty.

* Christians have generally called the first part of the Bible ‘The Old Testament.’ But there are dangers in that. It might lead us to think that we can leave all of that behind. Now we have the New, we don’t need the Old. The New Testament gives us everything we need. In a sense that is true, but we are greatly impoverished in our undertanding of Jesus if we do not understand his roots, which lie in the work of God through Israel. If we only know the New Testament, we don’t know the New Testament! There is so much richness in the books of Moses, the history books, the wisdom and the prophets that we need to attend to. There has been a move to call these writings ‘The Hebrew Bible,’ but others are more inclined to use the phrase ‘First Testament,’ which gives those writings a more exalted place than ‘Old Testament,’ and unlike the phrase Hebrew Bible gives them their righful place within the whole revelation of God’s love and purposes.

Grace and Peace

Bible · Following Jesus · Political · World Affairs

There Is None So Blind

A lyric from an old song “Everything is Beautiful” by Ray Stevens goes like this “there is none so blind, as those who will not see.”
In this form of a proverb, it might date back to 1546, but it probably has its roots in the Bible.

I was reading in John Gospel chapter 9 this morning. It’s the account of the healing of a man born blind. Now, because it happened on the Sabbath, when it was against the Jewish Law to work, an argument follows the healing – if Jesus was really from God, would he have done such an outrageous thing ?

As well as the physical healing, which enabled the man to see for the first time, there’s also the question of a different kind of seeing, which is to do with seeing the truth about how things really are, and making an appropriate response.

One of Jesus’ claims is to be ‘The Light of the World,’ which is about revealing how things really are. Enabling people to ‘see.’
The religious leaders take exception to this claim, and ask Jesus …. ‘Are you saying that we’re blind ?’

Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ (John 9:40)

Jesus’ response is perhaps surprising:

41 Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see”, your sin remains. (John 9:41)

What he is saying in essence is this: they are not blind – they can see perfectly well. ‘If they were blind, they would have an excuse for not seeing the evidence of Jesus’ power. They are guilty because they have seen, and should have known better than to refuse the power of God.’ *
* Walter Brueggemann in ‘Gift and Task’ a year of daily readings and reflections.

In the Gospel, the religious leaders are more interested in preserving the status quo, and their position of influence. Jesus is a big threat to that power.

It made me think of current situations where people in power might see quite clearly where there is a need for change, but that change would threaten to take away their influence, so they hold on to their power. They should know better.

As always, the challenge is there for me too. Where should I know better ?