Choose Life

 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5.19).

What do ‘the commandments’ mean for Christians?

They are not simply a spiritual health check.

The Pharisees could tick all the boxes using the Decalogue questionnaire and answer a lot of more detailed questions as well. This did not put them in the clear (Matthew 5.20), any more than a clean bill of health at the doctor’s surgery can save us from death. It may also be possible to hide a condition or avoid having the doctor ask too many questions. Spiritual disease too may go unrecognised, hidden under religious observance, and human laws, important though they are in preventing the destructive effects of sin, are still only a means of treating the symptoms (Matthew 5.21-27).

The heart may not always be the best guide.

untitledIn our individualistic world God’s commandments are often regarded as prescriptive, repressive and even psychologically harmful. The blueprint for living as intended by the Creator is rejected, while, ironically, short-lived health regimes may be readily accepted. Christians may find themselves conforming. Fearful of somehow losing, denying or stifling love, we may choose, mistakenly, to ‘listen to our hearts’ and trust the wrong impulses. In failing to discern or in ignoring the signposts we have been given, we wander from the very source and supply of love, a love lasting and healing and as necessary to life as water.

Obedience to God’s commandments is essential for a healthy life in Christ.

Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5.21-37 shows how God’s commandments provide challenging lifestyle choices for the Christian. These choices, such as that of reconciliation over anger, need to be exercised. They are not life-sapping legalism but life-promoting. One choice may be to undergo some ‘pruning’ of otherwise natural desires in order to encourage healthy growth (verses 29-30). Yes, we are approaching Lent.

The newly-called disciples had already made the fundamental decision to follow Jesus and had been given a sign in the turning of water into wine, a token of an abundance of life. The response now could not be to ‘tick all the right boxes,’ but instead to go on following daily in the power that would be given to them. Obedience to God is not repression but allows God to transform. Choose life!

Choose life, so that you and your descendants may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him. (Deuteronomy 30.19).

The salt of the earth

You are the salt of the earth (Matthew 5.3)

Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven (Matthew 5.16)

Looking back on his many years working in hospitals, our Chaplain recalled how just one patient could life the mood of a ward or, alternatively, sour it. This did not appear to be related to the severity of the patient’s medical condition.

I too have been struck by the effect of contentment or discontent. As a young ‘Meals-on-Wheels’ volunteer in Croydon I had to deliver hot (although by present standards not exactly appetising) meals to the elderly and housebound. The atmosphere in one house or, more often, small flat, was frequently in complete contrast to the next one visited. All those elderly people had known hardship and probably loss, having survived wartime conditions, yet one would greet me with pleasure, cheerfulness and gratitude, while another would find in my appearance a pretext to grumble at everything. Who can guess what experiences lay behind their obvious discontent? It was clearly not dependant on their physical condition. This memory has served as a warning!

Is this another case of optimism and pessimism (see last week’s blog), personality or family legacy? A hidden worm, eating away at the personality over many years? Perhaps. In some ways a sense of injustice may generate hopelessness that is as hard to bear as chronic disease.

Last week’s Gospel reading told of abundant hope, of God’s mercy, infinite grace and love, as revealed in the ‘sign’ of the turning of the water into wine. It was not just ‘enough’ for the feast but more than enough. The ‘good works’ of the followers of Jesus are, after all, also the grateful overflowing of his love into the lives of others. The effect on us of those whose lives are beacons of humility, contentment and joy testify to this.

The Chaplain’s visit to us on a rather gloomy February evening was, in fact, an illustration in itself.

Not by halves

Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now. (John 2.10).

Disappointment. Who does not at some time experience this with regard to pfo59191situations, people, the Church or ourselves? Our expectations constantly exceed reality and there is a falling off, whether sudden or gradual, a fading into greyness and boredom. This may turn to bitter cynicism or even depression and despair.

The often cited ‘glass half full’ against ‘glass half empty’ approaches do not help, representing as they do optimism and pessimism respectively, states of mind that are often without basis, although they may make the present more or less bearable for a short time.

Christian hope is, in contrast, realistic, the resources are unlimited and it is forward-looking. In the story of the marriage feast at Cana (John 2.1-11) this is illustrated by Jesus’ mother. Her hope was grounded on her relationship with Jesus. She knew him!

They have no wine.

Whether a ‘lack’ or a ‘need,’ the situation can be brought to Jesus in the knowledge that it is in his power to change it without trying to tell him how this should be done

Do whatever he tells you.

  • Acceptance of God’s timing (Jesus had replied ‘My hour has not yet come’). Individual events are part of an eternal plan, a bigger picture, which we may not be able to comprehend.
  • Acceptance that we have no claim of our own and cannot force God to act as we wish. This applied to his mother too! Are we sure of God’s power and mercy or of our own entitlement?
  • Trust and obedience. Mary’s response recalls her earlier acceptance ‘Let it be to me according to your word’ (Luke 1.38). Nor should we forget the effect of her trust on the servants, who took the contents of a water jar to the chief steward! Trust is not a passive matter.

It is a picture of the creative abundance of God, and points to the nature of Jesus as God himself,’ writes Archbishop Justin Welby in his new book Dethroning Mammon, referring to this story.

The best is yet to come.

Christian unity: personally speaking (first posted in January last year)

My grandmother 18th September 1905

16th January was the birthday of my grandmother, born when Victoria was still on the throne into a family of Congregationalist lay preachers. Her own grandfather (1818-1881) had spent a lifetime of service in chapels in Berkshire, Yorkshire and Lancashire, before settling in the Polesworth area of North Warwickshire, where he remained, ‘teaching three times each Sabbath and twice during the week until his death’ (The Congregational Year Book 1881). The writer George Eliot immortalised this era in her novels, when every village had both a church and a chapel, a division which at the time often sprang from and reinforced social divisions.

The Congregational Church does not have bishops but is led by elders and deacons. Women served as elders long before they were admitted to positions of leadership in other churches, and my grandmother was an elder of Albert Street Congregational Church, Rugby, where my parents were married and I was baptised as a baby (without godparents – Congregationalists regard the children of believers as members of the church and responsibility rests with the parents). Unfortunately, this church is no longer in existence, although I possess a plate stamped with the name, which appears each year for the opłatek when we celebrate Wigilia here in Poland.

After a Congregationalist early childhood I was later confirmed in our local Anglican church. This I regarded as personally ratifying the baptismal commitment made at the beginning of my life through my parents. I was actually confirmed by Archbishop Michael Ramsey, whose historic meeting with Pope Paul VI in 1966 was recently commemorated by Pope Francis and Archbishop Justin Welby).

In my working life I have spent time in different places and worshipped in different churches, mainly Anglican, but also Baptist. Early in my career I taught for several years in a Moravian school and learnt much about this church, historically linked to the Bracia Czescy. I have been enriched by all and am thankful for them all.

Almost half my life now has been spent in the mainly Roman Catholic environment of Poland, where I have learnt and shared with Catholic Christians. It has been saddening, however, when occasionally someone has assumed that by not being a member of the Catholic church I am somehow not a Christian! All need to be realistic about divisions but still to rejoice in the diversity of the Church, as has historically been the case in Gdańsk. We have been able to reflect recently on this heritage as our Lutheran brothers and sisters have celebrated the 500th anniversary of the Reformation and their long history in this city. I hope that the reinstatement of the Anglican Church here may also have a part to play, however small, in the enrichment of the Church in this area.

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4.4-6)

Unity and Division

map-of-achaia-colorMid-first-century Corinth was apparently a dynamic place: busy, cosmopolitan, oriented to work and money, competitive and individualistic. Not surprisingly, some of these attributes found their way into the church in the form of arrogance and abuse of Christian freedom. Quarrels arose concerning matters such as leadership, worship, morality and beliefs concerning death.

To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (I Corinthians 1.2-3)

To the church of God that is in Corinth

The church belongs to God (not to an individual, organisation or state!)

to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints

While it is individuals who are called and make up the church, the church itself is a people, set apart and, in the power of the Holy Spirit, on a journey to holiness; it is in this way an ‘alternative community.’

together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours

There may be churches in homes, in localities and in cities, but these are part of the worldwide Church, defined as all those who accept Jesus as both King/Messiah and, most stunningly, Lord and God.

grace to you and peace

All in the church depend on God’s free and undeserved gift and have no grounds for boasting or excuse for arrogance

from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ

All in the church are united in their faith in God, whom they call Father by their adoption as children through Jesus the Son.

Nothing can alter this basis for unity, despite the need for divisions to be faced, errors to be corrected and arrogance and sin repented of. On this basis differences resulting from the reality of a gospel which is for ‘every nation and tribe and language and people’ (Revelation 14.6) can be tolerated. In this light, the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity may be a celebration and an opportunity for much neglected thanksgiving.

Epiphany: knowledge, wonder and a search

The wise men from the East were astronomers, scientists and scholars but they did not make an idol of knowledge. They observed, they wondered and they embarked on a personal quest to find the One under whose rule they would commit their lives:

For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage. (Matthew 2.2)

How easy it is to make knowledge a goal in itself! How sad it would be to think you had arrived at your destination when in fact you had hardly set foot outside the door!

I was greatly encouraged to read the account given in ‘Eurobishop’ (see ‘links’) by Rt Rev. David Hamid, suffragan bishop of the Diocese in Europe, of his participation in a programme entitled “Equipping Christian Leaders in an Age of Science.”

Christian leaders were encouraged to turn their gaze on the stars and contemplate the meaning for Christians of SETI, the search for extra terrestrial intelligence. The lecturer was astrophysicist and theologian Revd Professor David Wilkinson of St John’s College Durham, who is, it seems, to be a speaker at the Readers’ Conference this year. I can’t wait!

Further topics for exploration by Bishop David and his colleagues included issues raised by research into artificial intelligence. Such thinking is vital for Christian theology and ethics and is not simply a matter of being in possession of facts, but of engagement in the Christian search for their meaning.

I was also pleased to learn recently that Canon Joanna Penberthy, Bishop elect of St David’s in Wales is currently studying for a PhD in quantum physics. Excellent preparation for a bishop!

In following the example of the wise men, such searching cannot be conducted in a vague, circular or random manner. It involves trust, the leading of the Holy Spirit and a clear statement of the goal: to find and worship the King.

J.R.R.Tolkien’s inquisitive character of Gollum and his fate is indeed a warning to us:

…he ceased to look up at the hill-tops, or the leaves on the trees, or the flowers opening in the air: his head and his eyes were downward

Let us not forget the wonder!