Mending the world: Pain comes before joy

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It’s been an eventful evening:  Jesus and his followers have celebrated the annual feast of the Passover together.  In the middle of the meal Jesus took on the clothes and the duties of a slave, and washed his students’ dusty feet.

He’s said that one of them was going to betray him to the religious authorities (who for months have been looking for an opportunity to get rid of this infuriating threat to their previously absolute influence over the Jewish population).  And Judas has slipped out to tip those religious authorities off - though the rest don’t know that yet.

Then Jesus has spent the rest of the night warning them that their confidence is about to be badly shaken.  He’s going to leave them.  But he will send the Advocate, the Spirit of Truth to them, and in fact Jesus and the Father will come and live with them, and in them.

This weekend we read John 16:16-33, where Jesus sums up – you won’t see me, then you will see me.  His disciples are confused.  He explains: you’re going to experience deep grief;  but then you will be full of joy.  Like a woman giving birth to her baby, the same event that will give you such pain will also produce the very outcome you are longing for.

The outcome of their grief will be a joyful new day – when they can speak directly to the Father in heaven, and he will do what they ask, because they love Jesus, and recognise that he came from the Father.  They will be asking in Jesus’ name, with his authorisation, in accordance with his will.

Til then, their confidence and commitment are fragile;  he assures them, and also us, that whatever trouble we face in this world, he is in charge.  No one can overcome him.

God will make his home with you

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Jesus, the ultimate leader, whose organisation is still going and still growing world-wide after nearly 2000 years, had a talk with his small group of followers just before the major upheaval: he was going away, and they couldn’t follow him.  

In fact, in John 14:23-29, it’s the night of his arrest, tomorrow he will be tried and publicly executed.

  Their commitment to him is very new, and the mission he’s given them is huge and difficult. What does he think his little band needs to hear, just now?

One of the disciples has asked: You say we’ll be able to see you, after you’ve gone; what about everyone else? His question is the opening for Jesus to explain why this conversation is relevant to you and me, nearly 2,000 years later.

Jesus says, his promise is for ANYONE who loves him.  People who love him, will obey his teaching.  So if someone obeys Jesus’ teaching, then the promise that Jesus will show himself applies to them too.  The Father will send the Holy Spirit, in the name of Jesus the Son, to live with them and in them always.  The Holy Spirit is the Advocate, Helper, Comforter, Advisor: the ‘paraclete’ in ancient Greek, one who speaks from close beside.  He will teach them everything Jesus has explained, including anything they’ve forgotten or failed to understand. New recruits won’t miss out because of Jesus not being there in the flesh;  in fact all his followers will be better off.

It was normal in first century Judea to say “Peace” to anyone you met, much as we might say “Hi”.  But Jesus says, my peace is different. It’s the peace of knowing that you are loved by God, living his way, living in harmony with him. The peace of knowing that he is with you always, his Holy Spirit has made his home with you.  If God lives in you, and you live in him, there is nothing to fear.

- Katie Peken

Tough Love

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Have you noticed how people will catch on to a ‘sound bite’?  Someone makes a sweeping statement on facebook.  They’ve done no study of the topic, but they saw half a documentary, so now they’re experts, sharing their sound-bite with other people, who haven’t even seen a news item on it, but now they’ve read a post, so they re-post and comment, for others to read and believe and share.

Sounds a bit negative and cynical, doesn’t it?  Apologies.  But it’s true that for years, a popular sound bite has been misinforming people’s understanding of God.  Here it is:  “God is love”.  The sound bite is true;  if you want to understand love, God is the best one to learn from!

But instead of looking at God, many people have assumed that the sound bite is the whole story.  And instead of asking, ‘What does God say about love?  What do God’s actions teach us about love?’  they have attached their own definitions.

This week we ask what Jesus, God who became human, says about love, as he forms his new Kingdom.  Here’s a preview:  Love your enemy;  do good to people who hate you;  lend money to people you know won’t pay you back.  Love is crazy;  unwise, foolish, dangerous.  In fact, love is when you treat other people the way you would want them to treat you.  Love is how God has treated you and me.

Jesus asks us to become like him, representing God accurately in the world, and inviting more people to become citizens of his crazy, foolish, dangerous upside-down Kingdom.  We don’t do that by guessing what love is;  we do it by following Jesus’ teaching and example.  Jesus came, to die for people who hated him, so they can blessed by the God they didn’t want.

A team approach to changing the world

How do you think you would go about improving the world?  Where would you start?  What is the thing that most needs to be changed, to get things heading in the right direction?  And what would you do, to make sure that the world kept moving in the right direction when you aren’t here any more?

Truth to tell, all of us have one life that we can use to make that kind of difference.  Some people try;  and some make an impressive go of it, while others crash and burn, or fizzle out more quietly.  But one man has arguably made more difference to this world than any other.  That man is Jesus.  So how did he do it?

The gospel writer Luke tracks Jesus’ strategy for changing the world, and in Luke 6:12-26, he says that Jesus first took time out to consult with God.  Then he chose twelve men to be his ‘apostles’ – the ones he would send – before sitting down on a level place with a crowd of his ‘disciples’ – his students – to explain what they were signing up for.

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He told them that if they threw their lot in with him, they could expect to experience poverty, hunger, grief, and rejection – even to have people think they were evil.  If they suffered because of Jesus and his message, they could be confident of God’s eternal blessing.

But if they chose to turn their back on him, to put comfort, and full stomachs and popularity and good times ahead of him, then they could assume they had already received all the blessing they were going to.

Jesus sets the same choice in front of us now:  Are we willing to put him and his mission above our comfort, popularity, and happiness?    No?  Then be aware that the good times have a use-by date. Yes?  Then be joyful, be confident, because he has given you life to the fullest, life that will never end..

Why does Jesus keep breaking the rules?

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Over the past weeks we’ve been working our way through Luke’s gospel, and seen that when Jesus spoke, evil spirits and all kinds of diseases did what he said.  Even people who were surely under God’s judgement for dreadful sin were cured with a touch and word.

And Jesus even claimed that he could forgive people’s sins.  That really shocked people, because they knew that only God can forgive sin.  By definition, sin is about defying God, ignoring him, insulting, or disobeying him;  so how can a third party forgive it?  And yet all the evidence was stacking up, pointing to Jesus being a truth-teller.

This week, in Luke 5:27-6:11, Jesus invites someone to join his team – but he chooses a man most people wouldn’t have considered – a traitor to his country, who made his riches out of his own people’s misery.  When Jesus goes to his home for a meal, the ‘good’ people are scandalised.  Jesus was meant to be a model of religious correctness – what was he thinking? And Jesus and his followers don’t look the least bit holy – they don’t spend hours on their knees, or say no to a schooner at the pub;  they don’t even observe the Sabbath (meant to be a day of complete rest), because they harvest grain for their dinner that day.

To cap it all off, Jesus heals a man’s shrivelled arm on the Sabbath, in the synagogue (the Jewish equivalent of church) – he did the work of a doctor, right in front of them!  How could such a disrespectful man possibly have been sent by God?

Jesus answers that they have misunderstood his mission, and who he is. He came to rescue people who need rescuing, not the ones who are already fine. He is the God who defines goodness and badness, the One who made the rules; he is not bound by human ideas of right and wrong.

Jesus: light for every race and nation

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It’s an extraordinary thing that what began as a tiny rag-tag group in an insignificant country swallowed up within the Roman empire, should have grown and persisted to the point that more than 2000 years later, all across the world, people set aside time to celebrate the birth of its founder.

Extraordinary from the perspective of people using psychology, sociology, logic, economics and so on to explain it;  but promised by God, centuries before.  In Isaiah 49, God speaks to his Servant, whose mission is to bring the people of Israel back into proper relationship with their God.  God says, “it is too small a thing for you … to bring back those of Israel … I will also make you a light for the Gentiles (the non-Jewish nations), that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”

Forty days after Jesus birth his parents take him to the temple in Jerusalem to present him to the Lord, which is what God’s law required.  His mother must be purified, and the baby must be consecrated to the Lord, because he is the first-born son.  That same day the Holy Spirit has prompted Simeon to go to the temple;  Simeon recognises that this baby is the One he has waited his whole life for:  he is God’s salvation, who will not only gather the people of Israel back to their God, but also be a light to every nation.

The shepherds told everyone what the angel had said about this baby;the Holy Spirit prompted Simeon to announce who it was who had suddenly come to the temple;if you and I know who Jesus is, we also have a responsibility to let people know.It is too small a thing, for Jesus to be worshipped by our little congregation!

The book of Job: What does God know about suffering?

God… may I ask a question?

God… may I ask a question?

You try to do the right thing.  You give money to a child who begs when you visit a third world country - but your kind action encourages a helpless, begging culture.  You visit a third world orphanage, unaware that those children are a perverted kind of tourist attraction run by a fat pimp.  The sewing machines your donation paid for rust in the rain for want of training and materials to maintain them.  Or the child you sponsor turns out to be hated by their community for being the ‘have’ in a village of have-nots.

I’m not trying to depress you, and I don’t want you to stop caring about people in need.  Be generous - do whatever you can to relieve suffering.  My point is that our knowledge is limited.  Life is so very complicated.  We can only see a small slice of what’s going on.

By Chapter 32 of the book of Job, Job’s friends have finally stopped trying to convince him that he must have sinned, to be suffering so terribly.  He is utterly convinced that he hasn’t.  In Chapter 32-38 another listener pipes up, a young man named Elihu, who has respectfully waited until his elders finished talking.

Elihu is a caricature of youth, full of passion, over-confidence, and black-and-white bluster.  Elihu offers himself as a messenger who speaks for God, and he’ll pray on Job’s behalf to God for forgiveness - if Job will only admit that he sinned.  Elihu accuses Job of being evil because he refuses to accept that the suffering God has inflicted on him is fair;  and he defends God, saying it’s unthinkable that God would do wrong.  Of course, Elihu is correct;  it is unthinkable that God would do wrong;  but Elihu forgets that there’s more going on than we can see; however comfortable it might be, there isn’t a simple one-to-one correspondence between action and outcome.

- Katie Peken

The Book of Job: A fly on the wall of God's operation centre

If you watch the news – or just live for a while – you have probably asked, how can a good and loving and all-powerful God allow such suffering?  Where is God, when my world collapses?  Why doesn’t God prevent these terrible things – the atrocities that people commit, natural disasters like tsunamis, earthquakes, landslides?  Random tragedies like people being under the wrong gumtree when it drops a massive branch?

How can we trust God, in the face of such suffering and such injustice?  How can we believe in his goodness and his power?

This week we begin a four week series looking at the Old Testament book of Job (pronounced like ‘stone’, not like ‘odd’).  There the barrier between heaven and earth dissolves for a moment, and we can see behind the scenes, into the universe’s engine room.  We listen as God discusses suffering and faith with Satan;  then back on earth we listen as ‘religious’ people try to explain why Job’s happy, successful life suddenly went completely pear-shaped.

Is Job a very bad person, who deserves to lose his home, livelihood, family and health?  Or is God unfair?  Is he capricious, playing games with human lives for his own amusement?  Is he asleep?  Does he not care? 

Finally, God who is the same, yesterday, today and forever, gives his answer.  Our questions are the same ones that have been asked for thousands of years;  the insights in the ancient book of Job don’t answer all our questions, but they provide truths that comfort us today, as they have since ancient times.

- Katie Peken

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Don't churches just want my money?

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Church ministers often feel uncomfortable talking about money.  It’s not surprising;  the salary of the paid staff is usually the biggest item on a church’s list of expenses.  If they encourage members to give money, they feel as if they are saying, ‘Don’t forget to pay me!’

But the Bible says a lot about money.  It talks about good stewardship, fair wages, the ethics of borrowing and lending, fraud, theft, bribery, compensation for theft or loss or injury, money and politics, savings, taxes, greed, generosity, profit, investment, thrift, extravagance, value for money, heritance, welfare, and budgeting.  And I’ve probably missed a few.

Jesus had no hesitation talking about money.  He called a spade a spade:  “No one can serve two masters.  Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other.  You cannot serve both God and money.”  He didn’t say “you should be poor”;  but he did say that ‘the deceitfulness of wealth’ is one of the main things that stops Christians from productively following Jesus;  and being rich makes it very hard for someone to accept God’s love and blessing.

Jesus’ advice on a healthy attitude towards money is revolutionary.  He sees it as a tool to be used in actioning God’s master plan.  The amount you have is unimportant;  what matters is your relationship with it.  The person with nothing is wealthy if they are generous with what they have.  And a person who spends money to make lots of friends is wiser than a person who dies with a big bank balance.

- Katie Peken

Fathers Matter

My father didn’t believe in Fathers’ Day.  I know;  it’s an excuse for retailers to sell us greeting cards, socks, power tools, and pub meals. 

But fathers do matter.  Think about yours.  What’s your fondest memory?  What did you learn from him?  What do you wish you hadn’t learned?  Maybe there was no father in your childhood;  a man who lost his father in the second world war often talks about how grateful he is to a friend of the family who did make it back, and undertook to be the father he didn’t have any more.

Maybe you’re a father.  What’s been your happiest experience, as a father?  What would you do over, if only you had known then what you know now?  What advice would you give a young father, approaching the birth of his first child? 

Some people approach Fathers’ Day with resentment, because they had an inadequate father, or their relationship is deeply hurtful, or because their beloved father is gone, or because they longed for fatherhood but aren’t, or they are but their experience hasn’t matched the sunny lovely family life in the ads.

I think the strength of our feelings about Fathers’ Day tells us how much that relationship matters.  How we long for dads to be reliable, and interested, and caring, and strong, and worthy models.  How precious the opportunity to be a father is.  How much we long to be a good father.

This weekend in Luke 15:11-32 we take advice from the Father of us all;  what can we learn from his approach to fatherhood?  And what advice and comfort would he offer those of us who are smarting from our less glorious attempts?

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