Superior behaviour?

“Unless your covenant behaviour is far superior to that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven.”

(Mt 5:20 NTW) 

I love that phrase ‘covenant behaviour’; an alternative rendering of a word usually translated ‘righteousness’, which we often read (and typically ignore) as merely ‘religious jargon’.

But part of me feels less comfortable with the idea of describing certain behaviour as being ‘superior’. That sounds so non-pc in 21st century western culture. After all, who are we to ‘judge’ the behaviour of others? Isn’t that arrogant, intolerant, unloving, & non-inclusive? Unless of course the behaviour in question falls within a very narrow range of categories which our society (or at least the media) has for the present deemed truly unacceptable. And these may only classified as such for this week, this month, or this year, because such things seem fluid and opinions around what qualifies appear to change. And if we ever dare to utter any word that carries the implication of ‘sin’, we are likely to incur the wrath/mockery/offense of those we are called to love and serve.

Jesus seems to have had less scruples in calling-out such behaviour, and in doing so won some admirers and some enemies; admirers among those who especially liked his critique of the religious hypocrites, and enemies among those who knew themselves to be the subject of that critique.

Knowing the subtle deceptions of my own heart, it is best to focus the challenge of Jesus firstly onto myself, rather than too quickly deflecting it onto others. #SpecsInOurEyes. It is my covenant behaviour that is the first priority. It is my conduct that needs to reflect distinctively Kingdom values; my attitudes that must reveal my different citizenship, within a society that struggles to achieve real consensus about right and wrong.

But more than this. Somehow, we need to do this, to be this, together. For we are called to model God’s alternative, age-to-come community in the middle of our increasingly broken, age-that-is-passing society. And here our behaviour matters critically. People around may not immediately discern our attitudes (though our Father does) and they may ignore our words. But what they will always see are our actions, our habits, and our behaviour.

Somehow, in a candidly humble way, we need to hold-each-other-to-account, so that – in terms of our covenant behaviour – we retain a distinctively ‘salty’ taste, without which Jesus says we are essentially pointless (Mt 5:13). Like it or not, we are a city-on-a-hill, whose counter-cultural actions people cannot fail to notice.

Spirit… Holy Spirit; form, reform & transform us. And especially me.

Not to Angels

I’ve always rather fancied encountering an angel…consciously. A few people I know have had this experience and I confess to a touch of envy. How cool must it be to see one of these impressive entities that appear in Scripture?

Except that in Scripture they don’t necessarily seem all that impressive. Some individuals met angels and thought they were just ordinary people. Others saw ordinary people and thought they were angels! And some were entirely surrounded by angels but never even noticed – which is probably a fair reflection of reality, and of most peoples’ experience.

Yet in Scripture, even when angels do feature extensively (as in Revelation), they somehow manage to remain slightly elusive and almost anonymous. A few are named, and their appearance may be striking, but mostly they seem to have only brief, ‘walk-on’ parts in the narrative; hardly ever the main character.

But there are reasons for this:

“It is not to angels that he has subjected the world to come…” (Heb 2:5).

Pause and let this sink in.

“Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?” (Heb 1:14)

Pause some more and reflect on this.

“Do you not know that we will judge angels?” (1 Cor 6:3)

Pause again, and be astounded.

Angels remain in the background because we mortals are called to be the leading players. Awesome though these heavenly beings certainly are, as far as this earth is concerned, God has ordained that they play a supporting role to his human sons and daughters; his physical image-bearers; those he has destined to be his vice-regents in creation, now and in the age-to-come. That’s you and me.

This is not to demean angels. Far from it. Rather, it is to underline the astonishing honour & authority that he has prepared for us ordinary men & women. Yet not so ‘ordinary’.

“There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit…” (CS Lewis: The Weight of Glory)

King-of-the-coming-age, help me to appreciate those around me in the light of their breath-taking destiny.

And to live each of my days in anticipation of, and preparation for, this vocation.

Wisdom Exposed

I stand amazed at the unfathomable complexity of God’s wisdom and God’s knowledge (Rom 11:33 [Phillips])

…to those who are called… Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Cor 1:24)

God’s wisdom is awesome.  Intricate and imaginative, resourceful and resolute.

And I am convinced that the genius of his wisdom lies not in that he knows in advance every detail about the future, existing (as is often assumed) completely outside the sequence-of-time within which we live.

What would be impressive about a god who merely watched the future unfold automatically, according to a pre-set program?  We have industrial machines that do that every day!

Yes, God has his settled purposes.  And yes, he foresees a great deal; and can plan for multiple possible scenarios.  But his wisdom is revealed in that way that, with tenacious patience and relentless love, he pursues those purposes for mankind, and for this earth, within the constraints of time, creatively incorporating the free choices of humans and of angels.

Do we feel uncomfortable speaking of ‘constraints’ on God himself, as if that somehow makes him weak?  Far from it.  The biblical narrative reveals a sovereign God who elects not to impose. God chooses to constrain himself, in order to make space for true relationship with his creation.  I suspect he made this choice long ago, when he first spoke creation (space-time) into existence.  He limits himself so that we can partner with him.  And if you doubt this, just pause to consider how he limited himself, in and as Jesus.

The deep wisdom of God utterly confounds the powers that oppose him.  “None of the rulers of this age understood [God’s wisdom]; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” (1 Cor 2:7) Coercion, control and domination is all that they understand, and all that they strain to do.

But the wisdom expressed in self-giving love is stronger by far.

And this matters.  Some days it seems like there is pain and brokenness all around me – situations that make me want to scream that ‘this is not the way God planned it, nor how God wants it to be’.   And I believe my outrage is endorsed by the Spirit.  Yet in those moments, with tearful hope, I learn to refuse the temptation to despair, and to offer my aching heart as prayer to the Father-of-all-wisdom.  He comforts me with his love, but more than this;

He finds undreamed-of ways to bring beauty out of ashes.  That is the heart of his wisdom.


Just words?

“Whatever house you enter, first say ‘Peace be to this house’.  If a person of peace is there, your peace will rest on them; but if not, it will return to you.” (Lk 10:5,6)

‘Peace [shalom] be to this house’ was a typical Jewish-style ‘blessing’, kindly meant but easily uttered, in the same way that we might say ‘God bless’.

Just words.

But not.

Jesus clearly intends that for his disciples there should be substance behind our words; a tangible experience conferred through what we declare.  The blessing that we speak over receptive people is meant to convey the reality that it expresses.  When we speak peace to a person, we should expect peace to fill the space.  When we step into troubled settings – homes and offices, classrooms and shops – we can expect our presence to change the atmosphere, at least to the degree that there is an openness among those present.

We seldom realise what we carry; what we ourselves have been given, and what we have authority to impart to others.

And note that it is our peace that we transmit, and it is our peace that – if it finds no resonance – ‘returns to us’.  Sometimes I wonder if what I impart to those around is not peace, but merely additional stress.  We can only share what we have, so we need to drink deeply, and repeatedly, for ourselves.  And then we can speak with quiet authority.

There is a lot of disquiet around us, especially at this time.  Fear, anxiety, mistrust and confusion proliferate.  Into this disquieting chaos, Jesus sends us, and tells us to ‘speak peace to this house’.  And to watch as this peace, our peace, comes to rest on those around us.





Doing Disagreement

Much as I might wish, it seems hard to escape some of the ‘debates’ that swirl around the church and the wider community at this time. Perhaps I shouldn’t even try to avoid them, though IMHO social media (or media at all, come to that) is not usually the best place to explore issues that require careful, nuanced and thorough study, partnered with sensitive and respectful dialogue. It’s far too easy to merely end up shouting opinions at each other and lobbing verbal bombs at those who we may come to view as ‘opponents’. Our society desperately needs to see disciples of Jesus modelling a better way to disagree, and it grieves me if the best we can do is to be a slightly less aggressive version of the same.

I offer two observations that I would encourage us all to keep in our minds & our hearts whenever we disagree:

  • “Heresy is theology done on our own.” It’s great that we are each able to read Scripture and grapple personally with issues in the light of what we read. But none of us have a monopoly on understanding, and we usually carry our own biases, frequently unrecognised. Strident & stubborn individuality is rarely a helpful starting point when we are seeking to discern truth. We belong together and the Spirit of truth guides us together into all truth. So as we wrestle with issues, we do well to humbly listen to each other, and eagerly seek to learn from those in the wider church – wise voices both from this generation and from the past. We are probably not the first to have thought about these questions.

And for this listening to happen we need to guard our attitudes.

  • In relating together, love for one another – understood in the quite distinct and ‘bracing’ New Testament sense – is fundamental. “…if I can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge…but do not have love, I am nothing.” (1 Cor 13) It is sacrificial love above all that most truly reflects the character of our Father, and hence we are to strive to keep the unity of the Spirit, until we all reach unity in the faith… (Eph 4) Truth certainly does matter, for grace and truth came through Jesus (John 1), and truth liberates us. But we need to remember: the biggest ‘heresy’ of all is not what we may view as a mistaken understanding of specific doctrines, but rather a failure to demonstrate ‘agape-type’ love to one other in our attitudes, words and actions. This grieves the Spirit most of all.

O Helper of my heart, may I delight you – in the truth I come to believe, in the way I come to believe it, and in my love for those with whom I may differ.

Badly Mistaken

Mark 12:13-27

‘You are wrong because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God’ (vs 24)

The Pharisees – who prided themselves on their detailed knowledge of the minutiae of Scripture – were no doubt appalled by the suggestion that they had completely missed something fundamental.  But as Jesus says elsewhere, they had perfected the art of ‘straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel’.  Now to be fair, the Old Testament doesn’t explicitly refer to resurrection all that often.  But as Jesus points out, if you look deeper than just a superficial reading, it is clearly implicit & foundational to the whole narrative; YHWH is not the God of the dead, but of the living (vs 27).

It’s easy to get so focussed on knowing all the details of Scripture that we miss the forest-for-the-trees.  We risk losing sight of the far bigger picture of God’s intentions for the whole creation; of how the individual parts fit together into the whole.

Holy Spirit, help me to read Scripture with an awareness of the overarching framework of your purposes.  And my place – our place – within them.

Meanwhile the Sadducees were the ‘liberals’ of the day.  Sceptics, they much preferred to view YHWH as remote & uninvolved; certainly not a God who would actually intervene in powerful ways, miraculous ways, upsetting their status quo.  Maybe God had done such things in the distant past, but surely not in the here-and-now.

We can so absorb the prevailing ‘naturalistic’ worldview of our culture that we end up domesticating God, reducing him to a distant & detached concept.  Safe.  Any suggestion that he might ‘interfere’ in the physical world, or indeed completely upend it by raising the dead, seems fanciful and naïve.

Holy Spirit, help me to hunger for, invite, recognise, and embrace your interrupting power.  Around me, in me, through me.

Father, I know I can be badly mistaken about many things.  But guard me from these errors.

I want to understand the Scriptures.

I want to comprehend your power.

And recognise you, Master, in both.

All about the grapes

Mk 12:1-12

As Jesus pointedly taught (Mk 12:2)) and vividly demonstrated (Mk 11:12-14, 20), God intends his people to ‘bear fruit’ and when, despite his overwhelming grace, they consistently and stubbornly fail to do so, there comes a point when he has no option but to call ‘time’.

Though he does so with tears in his eyes. (Mt 23:37)

This much we see from Jesus’ strong words of judgement to the Jewish leaders.

But what we can easily forget is that he says something uncomfortably similar to his own disciples (Jn 15:1-8).  There is a difference: under the new covenant, bearing fruit is not simply a calling; it is a promise.  In fact, it is an unavoidable consequence, for if we remain joined to him, we will be fruitful, for his own life will flow through us.  Nevertheless, the warning is clear, because if our lives are unfruitful it exposes the fact that we are no longer properly connected to Jesus.

But what does ‘fruitfulness’ look like?

As with the first couple he created, and the first nation he called, it fundamentally means reflecting the true character of the much-maligned Father into the world that he loves.  Hence the truest reflection is Jesus.

Amidst all the pressure and pain around me (and sometimes within me), I am to reflect him.

As I speak, and act, and react; as I celebrate, and suffer, and persevere.

And to the extent that I represent my Father as he genuinely is, full of grace & truth, to that extent he delights to pronounce me fruitful.

Fruitfulness is first & foremost about character.  Reproducing disciples, and replicating good works – these are secondary.  It’s not so much what we do, but who we become (© Dallas Willard), and who we look like in the process.

Sometimes, when the clouds gather, simply standing silently as his true image-bearers, is fruit enough.

Worshipping Water?

We sing of rivers, fountains, oceans, wells, rising tides and currents, overflowing floods & bursting springs – and that’s just one song! I suspect that the language we use in worship must seem distinctly odd to those who’ve not been fully ‘immersed’ (see what I did there) in christian language and metaphor.

What on earth do we mean? And – to venture a larger question – does it even matter whether we understand what we’re singing?

I suggest that sometimes is does matter, and sometimes it doesn’t, and the clue to distinguishing lies – perhaps surprisingly – in Paul’s teaching on spiritual gifts.

The gift of tongues is a Spirit-prompted way of expressing our hearts to God in prayer & worship. If we have ever used this gift, then we should almost certainly use it far more, because it strengthens us. One key benefit of this gift is precisely that it by-passes our conscious minds, and for some of us the ability to freely express our hearts to God gets constricted by always being audited and filtered by our minds. Hence speaking or singing in tongues is deeply helpful for us as we interact with God.

But it is not necessarily so helpful to guests who may be visiting. They can’t understand what is being said, and so may be left thinking we are all simply odd (or worse). What’s the way through this dilemma? Paul suggests that in public meetings where guests are likely to be present, it is best to either refrain from using tongues, or to explain in plain English what is being expressed (the gift of interpreting tongues).

How does this relate to the metaphorical language we sometimes use in our worship (such as all the references to water, oceans and springs)? If we’re merely a group of believers, then it’s OK because either we have a reasonable understanding of what is meant (see John 7 for Jesus’ own use of this metaphor), or we can simply surrender ourselves in worship to the King, irrespective of our comprehension of the lyrics.

On the other hand, if we know there are guests & visitors present for whom some things may seem entirely incomprehensible, then it can be helpful to explain obscure lyrics in terms that they can understand; akin to ‘interpreting tongues’. And doing this sensitively, so that the whole sense of corporate worship is not derailed, is a skill in itself.

As the writer of Ecclesiastes might have said (but didn’t), “There’s a time to use metaphors, and a time to speak plainly.” Holy Spirit, help me to recognise which is which.

Edges Mk 10:1-12

‘The edges of his ways’: this phrase – the title of a devotional book by Amy Carmichael, drawn from the book of Job – captures well the way Jesus always viewed Old Testament Law.  He consistently calls us back to the central heart & purpose of the commandments; the spirit of the law.  The ‘Pharisees disease’ (which can infect us all) obsesses about the letter of the law, and ends up straining out gnats while swallowing camels (Mt 23:24).

The crash barriers on a motorway are there for a good reason, but we are fools if we imagine that the purpose of driving is to constantly see how close we can get.  Or how hard we can hit them before we completely crash.

I want to swim in the fierce, central current of God’s heart, not bumping along the bank, stuck in eddies at the edge, drifting around in circles.  God has better things for us; a higher calling, a more significant vocation.

As Sarah taught recently, Jesus wants to talk about the covenant commitment of marriage; we settle for a debate about divorce.

He wants to talk about sacrificial love; we want to discuss our supposed ‘rights’.

He wants to lead us into the freedom that grows out of forgiveness; we ask how many times we are obliged to forgive.

The challenge we face is much more than simply avoiding sin (though not less).  It is embracing, embodying and growing up into the new life into which we have been birthed.  This life to which he calls us is not a narrow, constricted thing; it is a vast, expansive space, full of potential and full of delight.  Too often I spend my days on the margins, checking where the fences have been set.

But I want to echo the Narnian cry: “Further up and further in.”

Jesus: captivate my shrunken imagination; enlarge my impoverished perspective.

Atonement; a narrative

The boy and his father walked happily together, hand in hand, the father gently guiding his son, pointing out all the fascinating items along their route. All the good things to see, to touch, to handle, to smell, to taste…

And one thing to be wary of.  For as they walked, they passed a deadly area of quicksand.

And from that direction, an unfamiliar & distorted whisper intruded on their tranquil conversation. Powerful, it stirred in the boy a rebellious yearning.  Snatching his hand away from the loving grip of his father, and in knowing defiance of his warning, the boy launched himself onto the dangerously appealing surface.

And immediately sank up to his waist. 

Unable to free himself, and now beyond the reach of his father, the boy slowly looked around, seeking something, anything, to provide some comfort in place of his father’s reassuring but absent grasp.  Or at least some distraction.

And he began to notice various items close by; close enough for him to reach.  They seemed alluring; somewhat familiar, even fascinating.  Different shapes & textures and colours.  So he grabbed one.  Strangely, as he took it in his hands, the colour gradually changed to a dull grey, the shape became indistinct, and the texture took on a sticky quality, attaching itself to the boy such that whatever he did, he couldn’t remove it.  And he became aware of its surprising weight, though at first it was barely noticeable.

He reached out for other colourful and interesting items around him.  And each time he held one, it gradually began to lose its attractiveness, and always the items clung to him, and he couldn’t shake them loose.  And now he felt the weight building with each thing that he grasped.  And it slowly dawned on him that, under the growing weight of the rapidly accumulating detritus, he was sinking deeper into the quicksand.  But he had to grasp at something, for what else was there?

And now the weight was becoming stifling, constricting him, and under the heavy load he was sinking in the quicksand, down and down, deeper & deeper.  He struggled, but his mouth began to clog with the deadly sand, and his senses seemed dulled and passive.  Then he glimpsed his father, the father he had deserted, gazing lovingly at him from the pathway.  Out of reach.  Helpless, almost hopeless, yet stubborn and almost afraid to speak, the boy could just barely mouth the word ‘Help’, before his head was pulled down beneath the surface by the weight of everything clinging to him.

Blackness began to close in.

Suddenly what seemed like earthquake shook the quicksand.  The enveloping silt shifted and the boy was hurled back to the surface, into the light.  Looking around, he saw he was not alone.  Another figure was close, waist deep in the quicksand.  And as the boy watched, all the clinging weight of the things he had so eagerly (and so fatally) seized, shifted off from him, and – as if drawn by some immense magnetic force – greedily raced to attach themselves to the other figure.  That figure did not struggle.  In fact, he seemed to open his arms to receive the deadly mass, to embrace it, drawing onto himself every lethal thing.  And not merely from the boy.  Now, from all around, debris rushed onto the other figure; truly the weight of the world seemed hungry to cling to him.  Or perhaps he to it.  And he began to sink under the impossible burden.  The boy caught a faint echo of the earlier, perverted whisper; a snarling and heartless laugh. Glancing around, the boy looked back toward the path, looking for his father, but he was not there.  The quicksand sucked the figure down and down, deeper and deeper, loaded with every weight that had – just moments before – clung to the boy.  And for a final brief instant he looked into the drowning figure’s eyes.

And in those eyes he suddenly recognised…his father.  And then those eyes, so full of longing love, were lost beneath the devouring quicksand.

There was a pregnant silence.

Loaded down with the lethal, clinging mass, the overburdened figure sank far below the surface.  Yet as he was devoured by the quicksand, it seemed like the deadly quicksand itself imploded, and was consumed along with him.  Or by him.  And then, to his surprise, the boy discovered he was no longer trapped.  His feet rested on solid ground, and he found himself back on the familiar path.

Looking back, the ground that had been deadly quicksand was convulsed, and the boy heard again the unfamiliar and distorted voice, but this time no longer a whisper, nor a laugh.  It was an anguished and hateful scream, devoid of its previous power, and knowing it.

And then with a thrill that ignited his whole being, the boy felt a gentle hand on his shoulder, and heard again the father’s familiar voice.