Posted in Meeting Jesus in Mark

Meeting Jesus in Mark: What’s Wrong With This Picture?

Bible Reading: Mark 1: 16-20

Video of the sermon is here

Audio of the sermon is here

The sermon opened with a series of pictures and asked people to identify what was wrong with them (eg astronaut is on moon, so how can they be looking at the moon?)

We’re walking through the story of Jesus, as told in the Gospel of Mark. Last time I was with you, we considered the first words Jesus speaks in the Gospels. The time has come. The Kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news.

Today we come to the first thing Jesus does. Jesus is walking along beside the Sea of Galilee, when he sees a couple of fishermen. Andrew and Peter. They’re casting nets into the sea. Follow me he says and I’ll teach you to fish for people.

And they drop everything and follow.

They walk on a bit further and Jesus sees another two fishermen, James and John, mending their nets. We’re not told precisely what Jesus says to them. Maybe it’s the same words, maybe not. But it’s the same outcome. They too drop everything to follow him.

We’ve noticed in previous weeks how Mark is quite sparse in his details. Today it’s much the same. Chances are there were plenty of fishermen on that shore. Josephus tells us that at any time there were over 300 boats on the Sea of Galilee. But Mark doesn’t seem interested in why Jesus chose these 4, or why they dropped everything and followed. John’s Gospel suggests that Andrew at least had been a follower of John the Baptist. Mark doesn’t mention that.

Did the disciples know Jesus beforehand? Maybe. Mark doesn’t tell us.

Did the disciples like their work as fishermen?

Were they any good at it? Zebedee has hired men, which suggests his business was bigger than just a family thing. But other than that, we don’t know.

Did the two pairs of brothers get on before they met Jesus?

Did they work for the same company?

Were they bitter rivals?

Again, we don’t know.

All we’re told is that Jesus calls them, and they follow.

But even in the short scene as we have it, there are a couple of things which would have left those reading this story for the first time scratching their head.

So for a moment, if you can I want you to visualise that scene or to enter it. And as you do, ask what’s wrong with this picture?

The first thing that’s wrong with this picture is who is doing the calling. Later in the gospel, on the night Jesus is arrested, John tells us something interesting that Jesus says. You did not choose me, I chose you…

The context alone might well have suggested that this was simply a word of encouragement. Jesus has told them he was about to go away. He means he’s about to be arrested and killed. The disciples are understandably concerned, but Jesus wants them to know that this is not the end, and that they will continue his work even after he returns to the Father.

There’s something helpful about someone giving you that vote of confidence. Ever been in that situation where you’re thinking ‘oh, I’m not sure about this. Not sure I could handle that’ then someone says ‘do you think I’d have asked you, if I didn’t think you were up to the job?’ A vote of confidence like that, certainly from someone you trust and who knows what they’re talking about, can go a long way.

Maybe there was some of that in what Jesus said. But there was more going on here.

For it was not normal for a rabbi to issue that call to students. Not in that way anyway. It was for students or disciples to persuade a rabbi they were up to the task of being a student. Not the other way round.

Their education system was largely based around the Hebrew Scriptures. In the first stage of the education, Beit Sefer, lasted from around age 6-10. During that time they would be taught to memorise the Torah, or the first 5 books of the Bible.

If you’re thinking ‘wow, that’s tough’ you’re right. Most of them couldn’t hack it. Most never reached the end of that stage. Instead they’d go into the family business, or learn a trade. Or maybe they’d learn about looking after a household.

Only the best would go on secondary education, or Beit Talmud. Those kids who made it that far, and they were a minority, would learn to memorise the rest of the Hebrew scriptures… from Joshua to Malachi.

You can imagine, even in a culture like that, which relies far more on memory than we would, most would realise sooner or later, they’re not going to manage that. So by 14, 15 they’ve given up and taken up a trade, gone into the family business, perhaps even getting married, or at least betrothed.

But a few would make it, and would want to take it further. They would pick a rabbi and ask that rabbi to take them on as a disciple. They’d ask to be taught that rabbi’s yoke, or interpretation and application of the scriptures.

The rabbi would grill them on all sorts of aspects of the Torah, the prophets and so on, to find out if this kid had what it takes. But rabbis had a reputation to keep up. They wouldn’t just take on anybody. They only wanted to be associated with the very best. Most didn’t pass that exam. 

But the odd one would stand out. To them they rabbi would say ‘come, follow me.’ And they would leave everything and follow their rabbi.

So Jesus is walking along the edge of the sea of Galilee. He sees a couple of sets of brothers, and issues the invitation. Come. Follow me.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Well, there are a couple of things.

One is that Jesus does the calling. They don’t come seeking him out. He seeks them out.

But more important is who he seeks out.

As Jesus walks along the sea of Galilee, what are they doing? Not following another rabbi. They’re in the family trade. Which means somewhere along the line, they’ve come to think they didn’t have what it takes to do Jesus calls them to. Follow a rabbi.

We shouldn’t underestimate the disciples. Whilst they may not have been the most learned, there is no reason to think they were utterly unschooled. And they were in a decent trade.

But it’s not the best of the best whom Jesus calls. It’s not those at the top of the class.

Jesus doesn’t invite us into relationship because of our greatness.

They were just ordinary people…

…but people prepared to commit themselves to a new way of life. Prepared to admit that with Jesus all sorts of new possibilities could emerge.

That wasn’t easy. It is a costly choice, both to Jesus and to them. They are leaving behind a way of life, with a fair degree of security to follow and learn to do what Jesus does.

And for what? A calling that it ill-defined at best. When they drop everything to follow Jesus, they haven’t a clue where this is headed.

There’s a call to worship we sometimes use. It says…

This is the place and this is the time;

here and now, God waits to break into our experience:

to change our minds, to change our lives, to change our ways;

to make us see the world and the whole of life in a new light:

to fill us with hope, joy and certainty for the future.

I had that call to worship at my ordination. Carol Murray, one of my college tutors preached on that occasion and spoke of how that call to worship had been used at another occasion when she had been invited to preach. Except there was a typo on the order of service which spoke of being filled with hope, joy and uncertainty.

Carol said that far from being unfortunate, it was quite appropriate and honest. The journey of faith can be filled with uncertainty.

In some ways it would be great if faith meant having all the answers, that we could map out the journey. But it doesn’t work like that.

It won’t for these disciples. As we read along they never really get it. Jesus will constantly confuse and perplex them. Discipleship is not about having all the answers. It’s about being aware that there is always more to discover and being open to the mystery.

The journey of faith is a bit like that. Take the story of Abraham. He’s called to go from your country, your people, your father’s household… He’s called to leave behind everything… the economic system he inhabits, the worldview he’s inherited, the gods he had come to believe in… and do what… go… where? To a land I will show you…

We’re not told why God calls Abram, or why he goes.

They both just do.

Or there was another story in their tradition, of a woman called Ruth. Ruth’s mother-in-law had Israel to go to Moab. That was how Ruth met her husband, Mahlon. But both Naomi and Ruth lose their husbands. Naomi decides to return home. Ruth insists on going with her.

Naomi tries to dissuade her. There’s something wrong in this picture. Why would you want to come with me? Ruth was stepping into an unknown world, into a place where she would have no rights, lands, resources.

Yet she insists on going. And we’re not told why.

Only at the very end of her story do we get a hint of where this is headed, when Ruth marries Boaz, and several generations later we come to David who becomes King, and in turn Jesus comes from that family line.

That’s what faith is like. It so rarely comes as a blinding flash. It so often starts with a what if?

What if I did that?

What if I went that way?

What if I don’t just accept that’s how it is?

It’s not always easy to put words to it, to explain it, but something stirs within you, a sense that this, whatever this is, is the right way. A still, small voice calling Come, follow me.

And you don’t have all the answers. The whole path is not visible. Often we’re given just enough light for the next step, and we’re invited to take it in trust that the light will come for the step after that.

And you will sometimes be confused and perplexed. You will sometimes falter and make mistakes. As I say, it was costly for Jesus as well as for them. The results of their efforts at following were, at best, mixed. Over the rest of Mark’s Gospel, these disciples rarely match the unwavering commitment of this first episode. Their performance is rarely stellar.

But Jesus knew them through and through and still committed himself to them, as he does to us.

Last week I sent out a picture on our Whatsapp group of all different sorts of potato with the headline ‘if you can do all this with a potato, think what God can do with you.’

It was timely. Sometimes in prayer I think ‘God, you know you call me to follow you? You know what’s wrong with that picture? Me!’ And God says ‘no, what’s wrong with that picture is how you see yourself. Now come, follow me’

And I ask the what if questions, and I take the next step.

He isn’t calling us for our greatness. He isn’t looking for us to have all the answers. He is not calling us to save the world through heroic performance. He simply ask us to trust him and trust he has committed himself to us. And he calls us to take the next step, wherever it leads, and follow.

Posted in Meeting Jesus in Mark

Meeting Jesus in Mark: Spirit-Filled and Beloved

Photo by Ryan Loughlin on Unsplash

Bible Reading: Mark 1: 4-13

Video of sermon here

Audio of sermon here

A few years ago a minister friend of mine went through a really tough time in his church. It was odd, because whichever way you looked at it, his church was going really well. They were growing, people were coming to faith and being baptised, the activities and ministries were really fruitful.

But there was a vocal minority, some of whom were quite influential. They even got to the point where they wanted him out. One day I was chatting with him about what was going on and what was their actual problem. I knew the guy and most of what they were saying just seemed bizarre. But one thing he said totally threw me. He said ‘one of the criticisms is that I preach too much about grace!’ (Mindblown)

I replied ‘that’s a criticism? When I die, I’d love someone to write that on my headstone!’

Most of those who have been part of this church for a while will know that over the last few years I’ve been doing an evening course, training to be a spiritual director. It’s been a fantastic experience, sharing from people from all sorts of different traditions, with quite different spiritualities, and learning from each other.

Towards the end of the course, one of the other students pulled me to one side and asked if she could speak to me. What she said stunned me.

At first I wondered where it was going… She began ‘way back when we started this course, on the very first evening when we were doing the introductions, I looked around and tried to work out who I would get on with, and who I’d really struggle with.’ It seems I fell into the latter category. It turned out her family had quite strong Irish Republican roots. She wasn’t proud of it, but as an Ulster Protestant, she thought she’d really struggle with me. Then she added. But God had other ideas. Over the last few years I’ve developed a totally different view of God, and it’s transformed my faith.

And it’s you who introduced me to that God.

She told me that her God had been angry, strict, legalistic, never really satisfied, whereas I had introduced her to a God who really loved her, was kind, forgiving, really wanted to bless her, really wanted her to thrive…

Then she spoke of how one night she had asked me how I found that God. I’d replied ‘well, I’ve sacked a few!’

I told her it’s been a journey for me too. That I’d love to say I always lived as if my God was as she had described. But there are times when a rather more toxic, angry, hard to please taskmaster makes a comeback.

But deep down I sense that the God I’ve come to know, and I would say a large part of that journey has been during my time here, is the one to whom I introduced my friend. The reason I believe that is because he looks more like the God we meet in Jesus.

It’s a saying I’ve mentioned to you before from former Archbishop William Temple: God is Christlike and in him is no UnChristlikeness at all.

It sounds quite intellectual, but it is making a really simple point. Is your God like Jesus? If not, maybe it’s time to ask if you’ve got the right God. If your God’s not like Jesus, maybe it’s time to give that God the sack and follow one who is.

Last week we started a new series. We’re going to spend some time in the story of Jesus, as told by Mark. Last week we were introduced not so much to Jesus, as to a strange character out in the wilderness, on the edge of the Jordan.

John the Baptist.

John appears seemingly from nowhere, after hundreds of years of people waiting for God to do something. Then John turns up on the banks of the Jordan and says it’s finally about to happen. He invites people to be baptised, as a sign that they are leaving behind their old way of life and are ready to get behind what God is about to do.

John caused quite a stir and some people wondered if John might be the one they had been waiting for, the one they read about in their scriptures, whom God had promised over hundreds of years. But John says ‘no, no, no… I’m just the warm up act. I’m just preparing the way for the one God’s going to send. I’ll get you ready for the life God wants you to live. He’ll empower you to live it.

Then just as suddenly as John appeared, Jesus arrives from Galilee. No stable, angels, stars or wise men. Not even a little donkey. Mark introduces us to Jesus, aged about 30.

What follows is very sparse. Matthew includes a bit of debate between John the Baptist and Jesus about why Jesus should be baptised, and who should be baptising whom. Mark shows no interest in any of that.

Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell of Jesus leaving the scene of the baptism and spending some time in the wilderness, where he is tested or tempted. But whilst Matthew and Luke have quite vivid, dramatic accounts of those temptations, Mark just glosses over them in a couple of verses. The questions or challenges those temptations don’t concern Mark.

In much of the rest of his story, Jesus will seem quite active, very much in control. But in these scenes, Jesus is quite passive. Things just happen to him. He’s baptised, the Spirit descends on him, he’s thrust out into the wilderness.

But there are a couple of things which link the two passages.

One of them is the Spirit. The Spirit descends on Jesus and he hears the voice from heaven. Then the Spirit casts him into the wilderness. Matthew and Luke tend to soften that bit and speak of Jesus being ‘led’ into the wilderness. Mark uses quite strong language. It’s the same word that will later be used to describe what Jesus does to evil spirits, as he casts them out of people.

But the other thing is Mark’s main point in telling these stories in the first place. If last week’s passage was about John preparing the way for God to act in Jesus, this week asks the question ‘what is this God like?

That may sound like quite highbrow theological, stuff, but it’s actually a question which has a very earthy practical side, and has a bearing on how we live today. The philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau once said “God created man in his own image. And man, being a gentleman, returned the favour.”  

We have the capacity to shape our Gods. But our gods also shape us. What we believe about God can shape how we approach him and other people. If the God in whom we believe is a petty, vindictive, judgemental God, that becomes a justification for those traits in our own lives. If he is violent and vengeful it becomes much easier to justify our own violent and vengeful streaks. But if God is generous, gracious and loves us unconditionally, that calls us to a very different kind of life. That’s why it’s so important that we are guided by what God reveals about himself.

As one of the very earliest Christian hymns, so early it actually makes it into the New Testament, puts it, He, that’s Jesus, is the image of the invisible God. In the introduction the Gospel of John we read no-one has ever seen God, but His one and only Son (that’s Jesus) has made him known.

God is Christlike and in him is no Unchristlikness at all. If we want the clearest picture, the best place to look is at Jesus.

What’s going on in the two little scenes we‘ve read together this morning? As Mark begins to tell the story of Jesus, he’s been setting the scene. Last week, by linking the story back the Old Testament scriptures, Mark was highlighting how the arrival of Jesus is not just another random event in the chain. It’s about God fulfilling promises he’s made from way back.

Today Mark completes the scene-setting by showing us something of what the God who’s about to be revealed in Jesus is like. In many ways these passages are more about the Father and the Spirit than Jesus. Mark isn’t especially bothered about questions like why Jesus is baptised. He’s more interested in the sky opening, the Spirit falling and the voice from heaven.

He’s not especially interested in the nature of the temptations, what they say about how Jesus will fulfil his calling, or even how Jesus overcomes temptation. He’s more interested in the Spirit taking him into the wilderness, and God’s care of Jesus even in the danger.

So we read of Jesus coming from Nazareth and being baptised by John in the Jordan. Then, as he rises from the water, Jesus sees the heaven’s opened, the Spirit descending on him like a dove, and he hears the voice from heaven ‘You’re my son. I love you. I’m pleased with you.’

How many children long to hear words like that from a parent? How many long to know a love that’s unconditional? How much damage is caused by that sense of love and approval as things which have to be earned?

And how often do we feel that way about God? How many of us carry around a sense of a Heavenly parent who’s angry, strict, legalistic, who’s never really satisfied… ?

A few nights ago I dosed off listening to an audiobook called The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything by James Martin. Maybe there was a reason I woke when I did. Because as I woke I heard him speak of an image of God as a stern traffic cop, concerned only with enforcing the law, or as a parole officer. He asked how many children who grew up in church concluded that the spiritual life was not an invitation to a relationship from a loving God, but a series of complicated rules from a tyrant God. He talks of how in years of providing spiritual direction, he has noted that virtually every person he has directed has at some point been stuck with a childhood image of God to see him either as a judge, or, even worse as an evil genius.

Perhaps so-called Catholic guilt isn’t just limited to Catholics. I remember Chris Ellis, one of our former Baptist College principals and a former President of the Baptist Union coming to speak to us at College and saying that decades of sitting in ministers’ gatherings he had come to the conclusion most of us preach a Gospel of grace, but live as if we’re different. We have to earn God’s love, acceptance, affection.

That’s why it’s important to Mark that Jesus hears these words right at the start, before Jesus has done anything, before he has spoken a single word he hears these words ‘you’re my son, I love you, I’m thrilled with you.’

He hasn’t healed a single person, told a single parable, bamboozled a single scribe or Pharisee. But’s he’s still loved with a love that is utterly unconditional.

Yes, I know Jesus has been around for 30 years, Luke records one incident from his childhood and we could make all sorts of assumptions about how his life has panned out thus far. Mark would have known all that too.

But for him it wasn’t the point. If he wanted to make the point that Jesus had done something to earn God’s love and approval he’d have told us. Mark wants us to know that God’s love for us is unconditional.

That God is a God who looks upon each of us and says what he says to Jesus. You are my dear, dear child. I love you. I’m thrilled with you.

I’ve put those words on the screen. I invite you to read them slowly to yourself. Add your own name to the front, reflect on God saying those words to you.

We need those words. Because life will thrust us into situations in which we’d rather not find ourselves, that we would not choose for ourselves. Jesus doesn’t rise from the wilderness to some sort of charmed life. He finds himself thrust into the wilderness. Into trial and Temptation.

So it is for us. Yes, there are high points on the journey. But there are dark, difficult paths. There will be temptation, there will be times when we are tested in all sorts of ways.

How we view God in those times will make a difference. If we set out thinking of God as a bully, an angry, threatening parent, who has to be appeased, and will give up on us if we let him down, we’ll struggle to trust him when trouble comes. We might live with a load of false guilt as we assume that what we face is the result of God having a go at us for our failure.

But if we face it, knowing that we are loved with a love that is unconditional and will never let us go, well, that’s a whole new world.

The path of faith doesn’t bypass the wilderness. It’s not without its struggles. It’s not about the quick fix, the path around the trouble. It’s about knowing we are not forgotten as we go through it. It was true of Jesus and it is true of us. Jesus faced the dangers of the wilderness, and of all that followed, all the way to the cross, but God did not forget him. God loved him, God acted through him, God’s Spirit empowered him and enabled him to face it all, because through that Spirit he was reminded that he was loved.

Just as the same Spirit, if we look to him, God’s Spirit will be planted within us, and will whisper those same words of love into our hearts. You’re loved. You’re precious. Not because we’re earned it. Simply because God loves with an everlasting love that never lets us go.

That’s the God we encounter in Jesus. In Jesus we get the most complete picture of that God. For God is Christlike and in him is no Unchristlikeness at all. And in Jesus we see a God who looks upon us with love. Unconditional love. And a God who is committed to us, so that whatever we face, we don’t face it alone. He is with us through it all. Speaking the words of love. Speaking the words of life.

Posted in Meeting Jesus in Mark

Meeting Jesus in Mark: The First Words

Photo by Ozark Drones on Unsplash

Bible Reading: Mark 1: 14-20

Video of sermon here

Audio of sermon here

Josephus was a Jewish historian in the first century. He’s a key source for a lot of the background information we have about Jewish life in Judea and Galilee around the time of the Gospels.

In AD66 Josephus met with a gang of Judean revolutionaries who were planning to overthrow their Roman oppressors. They were small in number, but what they lacked in numbers they made up for in enthusiasm. They were willing to die for the cause.

Unfortunately, if they tried anything, that was precisely what would happen. No amount of willingness and enthusiasm could make up for the fact that there were only a handful of them, utterly underprepared, with virtually no resources. They would simply get slaughtered.

So at great risk to his own life Josephus went to Galilee to persuade the rebels that their way would only end in disaster and he had a better, alternative strategy they should pursue. The precise words he used are interesting.

He said ‘Repent and believe in me.’

Josephus wasn’t claiming to be any kind of Messianic figure. He certainly wasn’t claiming to be divine. He wasn’t even pointing out their moral failures and asking them to clean up their act. He was saying ‘your way isn’t working and it’s never going to work. I’m offering you another way. Choose that.’

We’re walking through the story of Jesus, as told in the Gospel of Mark. So far we’ve been introduced to John the Baptist, who prepared the way for Jesus.

Then Jesus comes from Galilee and is baptised by John, before disappearing into the wilderness, where he faces trial or temptation.

Today we read the first words Jesus speaks in the Gospel. The time has come. The Kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news.

Chances are these words were more of a headline, or summary statement of what Jesus said over a period of time. It’d have been a very short sermon otherwise.

Repent.

What comes into your mind when you hear those words?

What tone do you hear them in?

How comfortably does it sit with the words Good News?

This morning I want to look at these words from three different angles.

I want to think about the timing – when Jesus says them. Mark doesn’t waste many words, but he tells us when Jesus announces this message. What’s significant about that?

Then  I want to say something about the content of the message. What is Jesus actually saying here?

Finally, what’s the response he’s looking for?

But before we go there, a little background.

Mark never really explains what Jesus means by this Kingdom of God which has come near. He assumes people will know.

Unfortunately, because we come from a different time and place, it is not so obvious to us. Also, because Matthew tends to talk of the Kingdom of Heaven rather than Kingdom of God, people often assume Mark and Jesus were talking about the afterlife.  Somewhere we go when we die.

That’s not what’s going on here.

The Kingdom of God has less to do with location than whose rule it is. We talk about the Victorian Era or The Thatcher Years. There is something of that here. Jesus isn’t pointing to a particular place from which God will reign. In a sense he’s saying the Egyptians have had their time. So have the Assyrians, Babylonians, Medes and Persians, Greeks and Romans…

Now it’s time for God to rule. It’s the era of God.

And that takes us on to the second thing. It wasn’t otherworldly. It was very earthy. Those 4 words The Kingdom of God, they summed up all the hopes and aspirations of the people amongst whom Jesus walked.

They recognised our messed up world could not be the way a good God intended it to be. But down through the generations, Israel carried a hope that God would break into our world, do something new, setting right a world gone wrong. They believed they had a central place in God’s plans.

Their founding story had been about blessing Abraham and, through his descendants, the whole world. Their prophets spoke of other nations being so impressed by their way of life and their relationship with God, that everyone would want in on their secret. They’d be a light to the world, showing other nations what was possible.

Unfortunately generations of disappointment stunted and stifled those hopes and aspirations. Now they just wanted to run their own country, rebuild their temple and see their enemies crushed. The blessing thing dropped off the radar.

For the most part they kept alive the hope that it would happen. A good God wouldn’t let a situation where the evil ruled and the good guys got trampled last indefinitely.

What they disagreed on was how it would come about.

There were 4 main groups of people with different views on this. The Zealots had one answer. Revolution. The reason they were oppressed was they were wimps. They took it. They wouldn’t fight back. If they stood up for themselves, God was bound to help them.

Others had an entirely different view. People like Herodians, Sadducees and chief priests. They thought zealots were mad. Any attempt to use violence to fight Rome was pointless. You’d lose. You can’t beat them, so join them. Josephus tended towards that position. In an odd way they have something is common with tax collectors. They’re both making the best of a bad situation.

Then there were the Essenes. They knew violence would not work, but were appalled by compromise. They withdrew into the desert, lived in alternative communities, like the one in Qumran who collected the Dead Sea Scrolls. They waited for a day when God would again assert his rule and would recognise them as his true people, over and above everyone else.

Finally there were the Pharisees. As they saw it, it was clear what God wanted them to do. He’d told them in the Torah. If they were overrun by pagans, it was because they were too sinful for God to help. If people just did what God wanted God would respond to their faithfulness and the Kingdom would come. One influential group of Pharisees believed that if all Israel kept God’s law for just one day, they would see the Kingdom of God.

In their own ways, all these groups had a couple of things in common. They were all seeking the life they believed God intended for them.

But they were also all trying to work out just what they needed to do to make it happen. What they had to do to get God to break into their world…

That’s the background to these words of Jesus.

After John was arrested Jesus arrived in Galilee preaching the time has come. The Kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news.

There was something important about the timing of these words of Jesus. Mark tells us it is after John is put in prison that Jesus arrives in Galilee with his announcement.

Why is that important?

For a brief moment hope had been stirred up, when John the Baptist had appeared in the wilderness, when he had called people to repentance. When people flocked out of Jersualem and Judea to be baptised, to hear about what God was about to do and sign up to the part of it. Finally God was going to do something.

But just as quickly as that flicker of hope was ignited, so it seemed to have been snuffed out. John was arrested. We’re not given any details right now. We’ll come to that somewhere down the line. But it must have felt like a crushing blow. Hopes had been built up, only to be snatched away again. There must have been a sense of how can God allow this? How could this happen?

Yet just when it seemed all over, and everything might be lost – that’s when Jesus arrives with a very different message. This is the moment. The time is ripe. God’s era is about to begin. God is stepping into history. Now is the time to receive him.

Even the language Mark uses to describe what happens is telling. Our Bibles speak of John being arrested. Mark actually says John is handed over. It’s the same phrase that will be used later for Jesus when the Jewish leaders hand him over to Pilate and Pilate hands Jesus over to be crucified.

There’s a sense of things seem to be just happening at random, but God is fully aware and he’s got this.

It’s just at the moment when the one sent by God seems to have been silenced that Jesus arrives saying rumours of the decline of God’s Kingdom have been greatly exaggerated. God’s reign is about to break in.

Life can feel a bit like that. We can feel tossed about by circumstances. It can feel quite random, mysterious, it doesn’t make sense. You catch a glimmer of hope, only for it to feel snuffed out. You can feel God’s forgotten you. Hope can be dimmed.

I don’t have all the reasons why. Anyone who says they do probably hasn’t really thought it through enough. Maybe we need to hear that message this morning. This isn’t over. God’s not finished yet. The last word hasn’t been spoken.

Yes, things might feel messed up right now. But here’s the Gospel. Just when it all seems messed up, there is still hope. God’s not finished yet. There is still another chapter to be written. And with God that chapter is good news.

In some ways the arrest of John was the signal that inspired Jesus to act. It looked like a movement towards God had been snuffed out. Jesus seizes the moment. He acts before the momentum disappears. When the hope seemed gone, God wasn’t finished. He was just turning the page.

But there’s also something about the content. The time is fulfilled. The Kingdom of God is about to break in. Everything is ready. Everything’s in place.

But how Jesus? I assume you didn’t get the news out in the wilderness. You haven’t heard about John. The Kingdom’s further away now than when you left.

Besides, how can everything be in place? We’ve all had our different ideas of what we needed to get into place for God to act. And none of them have happened.

But Jesus message challenges all those assumptions. It’s as if he says it was never about that in the first place. You had all these different ideas about what you needed to do to get God to act, to get God on your side.

But what you wanted wasn’t anywhere near as good as what God intended, and it never was about you making it happen. It never was about what you had to do to earn it.

Which can I just say is good news? Cos none of them were really working for you anyway.

And maybe that too is a message we need to hear. How many of us live with that sense of never being good enough? How many live with that sense of guilt that God feels far off. If only we could do something to bring God nearer. If only I were better.

I talked a little last week of that sense of thinking of God’s love as conditional. That if we just do this, then God will do that. Over time those stories might have changed, but they’re still variations on the same old themes. There’s still the same old rules and if we keep them, then God might help us.

And we try. Boy, do we try. But we fall in the same old ways again and again.

Maybe we need to hear those words. It’s never been about you making it happen. It never was about you earning it. It was always all about God and what he had done.

It’s said a sign of madness is trying the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

The invitation to repentance is to lay aside that madness. It’s an invitation to just stop. To set it down. To acknowledge your way wasn’t working. And in a sense that’s ok. It was never going to. It was never supposed to.

Yes, that may challenge us about the choices we make going forward, and how we live. But not to win God’s favour. It’s simply that the life he calls you to is a better one. The one you were created to live.

And love is a more powerful and certainly more joyful motivator for life than fear. You are called to that life by a God who loves  you, loves his world and will give anything to win it back.

Repentance is about more than saying sorry for your misdemeanours. It’s about where you’re leaning your weight. It’s about trusting that God is as Jesus describes, waiting arms outstretched to welcome you however you come. That he’s not waiting for you to come up to some kind of mark, that you’ll never really reach anyway.

But the good news is it was never about you making it happen, or earning it. It’s about accepting a way that isn’t working, was never going to work and being invited to embrace the alternative. It’s near. It’s held out to you God’s holding it out to you and inviting you to trust him.

Posted in Advent 2020

Advent Reflections 1: Hopeful Waiting

Photo by Adrien Delforge on Unsplash

Audio of this talk can be found here

Video of this talk can be found here

Reading: Psalm 130

My soul waits for the Lord, more than the watchmen waits for the morning.

More than the watchmen waits for the morning

In many ways 2020 has been a year of waiting.

Waiting for decisions to be taken on lockdowns,

waiting for the entire duration of a rugby match for the Prime Minister to come out and deliver a Press Conference,

waiting, even after the announcement to find out what it means in practice…

then there has been waiting to be allowed into shops,

waiting in queues that seem that little bit longer because they are socially distanced.

Waiting to be called up to the till.

Waiting for your home delivery.

Waiting for a vaccine.

Waiting to return to something resembling even a new normality.


Waiting isn’t easy. Earlier in the year we spent some time talking about the Fruit of the Spirit. Probably the one which most of us found ourselves more easily or safely able to admit that we struggle with was patience.

It’s been one of the struggles I have faced over the last 8, 9 months or so. The sense that for much of the time there has not seemed to be an end in sight.

That’s why  a couple of weeks ago, when it was announced that there was the possibility of a vaccine, it was like a shaft of light had broken into the gloom of the last few months of the second wave. Now other possibilities are beginning to emerge.

But we’re not there yet. Still we must wait…
…for trials to be completed,
…for licences to be issued,
… for vaccines to be rolled out…

And some of us are a long way down the priority list and will be waiting a while yet.

That’s why our more usually exuberant, optimistic PM was on the telly that evening. Tes, announcing the hopeful news, but tempering expectation. We don’t want people thinking ‘oh, it’s alright, there’s going to be a vaccine’ and changing their behaviour too soon. We need people to wait. We need people to keep doing the things they have been doing to keep themselves and others safe.

If the first lockdown, with its sense of isolation and the panic buying, the fear of going without, was appropriate to the season of Lent, maybe where we find ourselves now, that sense of waiting, that sense of when will this end, but with the glimmer of light and hope, maybe it’s quite appropriate for the Advent season we are approaching.

Advent is a season of waiting. In a couple of weeks I will start lighting my Advent Candle and as it burns down, we are getting closer and closer to Christmas. Children, and big children like me, will open doors on Advent Calendars, each chocolate bringing us closer and closer to the big day.

But at Advent we remember a story of waiting. A story of our waiting… and God’s.

Of the long winding road of the Old Testament, from Exodus, through bloody conquest, constantly faltering Judges, the mostly downward spiral of Kings and exile, then return, but that sense of disappointment at the reality and waiting for fulfilment… awaiting the birth of a Messiah.

And in a little over a month we will celebrate God’s fulfilment of that promise, by sending Jesus into the world.

But it’s also the season when we look forward. We remember that we too are waiting, and the waiting seems to be a long time with no end in sight. It’s our longing for God to complete what he started; for a day when there will be no more sorrow, or crying or pain, for the old things will pass away and all things will be made new. Our hope is the God who kept his promise once will do it again.

Our waiting can be anxious, fretful, impatient. But there is another kind of waiting. A hoping in the Lord, that the one who has begun a good work in us will bring it to completion. And throughout the scriptures, unlike the PM’s recent press conference, those hopes are not played down. We are encouraged to change our behaviour now, to live in the light of that promise now, to live lives that reflect the future God has for us.

Right now, at all sorts of levels we are in a season of waiting. We have no choice but to wait,

whether it be for lockdown to end,

vaccines to be sorted,

or whether it be the cosmic waiting, for God to finish what he started.

We have no choice but to wait.

But we do have a choice of how we wait.

More the morning to come.

As we have been promised it will.

As we enter this Advent season in the next few weeks, may we learn something more about Godly waiting, waiting with hope in the Lord who will complete what he has started.

Let’s pray

Loving God

Teach us to wait on you

To wait with our whole being

Physically, soulfully, spiritually

Teach us patience

Teach us longing

Teach us to pray Come, Lord Jesus.

These reflections are inspired by Worship in the Waiting: Personal Devotions – An Advent Journey by Sara and Sam Hargreaves; Engage Worship 2020

Posted in Meeting Jesus in Mark

Meeting Jesus in Mark: An Introduction

For video of this talk, go here

For audio, go here

It’s a bit of an understatement to say that 2020 has been an odd year. I imagine in years to come people who are young children now will tell their grandchildren about 2020, and I hope, for their sake, it feels as weird and alien to them as, say, life during the blitz feels to me.

But often dark, difficult times can make for good humour. In the last 6 months I’ve had loads of jokey memes and pictures sent to me. Like this one, that I saw this week… If 2020 were a scented candle… and then a picture of some portable toilets on fire, to give you a sense of what it would smell like.

Others that have amused me have been the one where Doc Brown, the inventor of the time machine in Back to the Future, tells the young Marty McFly, Marty, whatever happens don’t go to 2020!

Or this one about how, for a long time, it felt just turning on the news in the morning. It does feel more and more, when I turn on the Today programme, it’s with a certain amount of ‘what now???’

Or I quite liked this one… You could feel justified in wanting to have the restart option for 2020, like this meme suggests.

I notice ITV are advertising their new season schedules with the title 2020 Reboot. I’ve had a few people suggest to me that they wouldn’t mind just cutting to Christmas and writing off the rest of the year!

I had a laugh when I looked at my planned preaching schedule for the latter part of this year and saw that I planned to start a series on Revelation around now. In some ways after the last six months, that might have felt quite appropriate. But somehow it didn’t feel quite right for this season when we start to think of moving towards public worship.

I felt we could do with some time just looking at Jesus. In the year we’ve had I thought we could do with a dose of good news. That’s what I want to do over the next while. We’re going to work our way through the story of Jesus as we find it in the Gospel, or Good News of Jesus, as found in Mark.

Mark begins in quite a fascinating way. The beginning of the Gospel, or Good News, of, or concerning, Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

What’s so interesting about that? Well, to explain that I need to tell you about someone else. Someone you’ll have heard of.

Caesar Augustus.

You know, the one who every Christmas issues a decree that all the world should be taxed, forcing Joseph and his pregnant fiancée, Mary, to make the long trek from Nazareth to Bethlehem.

Caesar Augustus was the sole leader of the Roman Empire for around 40 years, from 27BC to 14AD. He, perhaps more than any other, was responsible for turning Rome into the greatest and most famous empire their world had known. What he took over, Rome was a fairly rocky republic. It was under his rule that the empire became what we think of when we hear of the Roman empire today.

You might say he was good but he knew it. He wasn’t one for false modesty. An inscription found on a government building in Priene in modern day Turkey from around 6BC offers this self-assessment… Divine Augustus Caesar, son of god, imperator of land and sea, imperator and saviour of the whole world, has brought you peace.

Roman emperors had a particular word they used for these kinds of announcements, where they declared news of a great victory, or a cause for celebration. That word was Euangelion. It’s a word which has survived right down into the present day. It translates as Gospel.

But as we turn to the opening words of Mark, the opening line of that inscription about Caesar Augustus is quite telling. The birthday of Augustus has been for the whole world the beginning of the Euangelion (Gospel) concerning him.

Early in the second half of the first century, probably mid 60s, right in the heart of the empire, most likely in Rome itself, a man called Mark puts pen to papyrus and starts to write, and as he does so, he opens with the words… The beginning of the euangelion, Gospel, good news concerning Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

That’s not an accident. Mark is deliberately ripping off Roman rhetoric.

Mark’s saying they talk about good news? I’ll show you good news.

They talk up great victories. This is what God’s victory looks like.

They talk about bringing peace. Well, let me show you another great king who really brings peace..

But he’s not talking about a Roman emperor. He’s not even talking about a military leader. This Jesus Christ, whom he’s talking about couldn’t be more different from Caesar Augustus. He not only lived in a relatively obscure backwater of the empire. As we read on in the story we find he is crucified by the Romans. A punishment normally reserved for the worst of criminals.

And chances are these were no ordinary times. Mark is a known associate of two of the key figures in the movement which bears Jesus’ name – Peter and Paul. Both of whom have recently been executed for their faith. In fact, if relatively early church tradition is to be believed, what we’re about to read over the next little while, is the story of Jesus as told by Peter, who was probably the closest disciple of Jesus.  Mark was part of the church since its very beginning, – the Jerusalem church met in his house, But with the possible exception of one event towards the end, he was not an eyewitness to the events he describes. Many believe that after Peter’s death, Mark brought together the content of Peter’s teaching to preserve it.

And certainly there are good reasons to think that someone close to the events described is involved in this. Although the material Mark includes is more limited than, say, Matthew or Luke, often he adds little details which give the sense of someone who was there.

Although it is the shortest of our four Gospels, you could argue it is the most important. Not only does it potentially come from the closest of eye-witnesses. It is most likely the earliest of our 4 Gospels. The earliest surviving account of the life of Jesus.

There is also good reason to believe that both Matthew and Luke used it as a key source for their Gospels. The 20th Century writer William Barclay even went so far as to say that Mark could be the most important book in the world!

So this is a book, written in the heart of the empire, to a community of people who are going through a tough time at the hands of that empire. It’s a story which climaxes in the founder of that community being killed, by that empire, written at a time when two of their key figures have been killed, by that empire. Yet he blatantly steals from the victory language of their persecutors to describe what’s going on here. In that sense it’s quite a subversive book.

Much of what we will read and encounter will be very familiar to many of you, especially those who have been around the faith for a long time. But the great thing about Jesus is that there is always more to explore. My prayer is that we will all see something afresh or new as we take a walk through the good news concerning Jesus, as told by Mark. I pray that we discover that this Gospel of Jesus is truly euangelion, or good news.

Posted in Meeting Jesus in Mark

Meeting Jesus in Mark: Beginning the Story

Henrietta

Bible Reading: Mark 1: 1-8

Video of sermon here

Audio of sermon here

This morning I have someone to introduce to you.

Meet Henrietta.

Yes, some of you have seen her already. She’s a bit classier than some of the ducks you’ve met over the last few months.

There are a few really good things about Henrietta.

One is that Henrietta was a present. Jools bought her for me a while ago. She knows me well!

Another is that she is recycled, or use the trendy term these days, upcycled. Henrietta is made from old oil barrels.

The other is that when Jools bought her, the profits went to a good cause. Although Henrietta came to us from Aberystwyth, it was for a charity called Love Zimbabwe, a Welsh charity which promotes education, sanitation, health, food production and equality for disabled people in Zimbabwe communities.

So someone has given a new life to an old oil drum, creating something pretty amazing, if you ask me, which in turn brings a blessing to others.

That is the possibility held out to the people of Israel by John the Baptist in this morning’s reading. We’re starting a new preaching season today, spending a bit of time on the story of Jesus, as told by Mark.

One of the odd things about our Gospels is that none of them really start with Jesus. It seems to get to Jesus, you have to go through a strange character out in the wilderness, by the edge of the River Jordan.

John the Baptist.

And what might surprise some of you is that within 1st Century writings outside our Bible, there’s more about John the Baptist than Jesus. If you’ve read the Gospels before, you’ll be aware of the ways in which John himself and the writers of the Gospels make a point of John pointing towards Jesus, of Jesus being the more important figure.

But John was a big deal. Which is kind of odd. From the descriptions given of him in the Gospels, he sounds like the kind of guy we’d probably try to avoid, or hurry past, trying not catch his eye.  Yet people went out of their way to hear him. We read of people flocking to him from Jerusalem and Judea. That wasn’t an insignificant journey. Especially before modern transport. It was probably about 20 miles.

But what was it about John?

John was someone who held out the possibility of a different future. He woke them up to the possibility that despite all they had been through, they could find new life, that God could create something amazing out of them, which, in turn would enable them to fulfil what God had promised thousands of years earlier to their Father Abraham, that they could be a blessing to all the nations of the world.

John appears when the people of Israel are in a trough. God felt very remote. It had been several hundred years since there had been a prophet worth the name. This was a people who were colonised by one power after another. During that time there had been several heroes rise up claiming they would rescue them. It always ended in blood, tears and defeat. They so wanted God to help them, but the sky seemed shut and silent.

That’s why John stirred up some excitement. Finally, after all these years, it seemed God was up to something.

A new beginning was possible. God was a God of new beginnings.

It’s interesting that all 4 Gospels turn to the same part of the Old Testament to talk about John. Isaiah 40 – the voice calling in the wilderness, to make straight the paths for God to act. It was an image of people getting everything ready for the visit of royalty. It’s often joked that the Queen must think the entire country smells of fresh paint, because everywhere she goes people feel the need to redecorate and get things looking just right. Likewise, it’s claimed that when Bill Clinton visited Birmingham in 1998, the council paid to have grass painted green!

Why Isaiah 40? Was it just the reference to the wilderness? In part, yes, but this was a passage from another low point in Israel’s history. When they were in exile in Babylon, when they thought God was finished with them, when they thought they were finished as a people and God had forgotten them. When they thought God had given up on them, because they had turned away from God.

Isaiah was a passage of comfort, which spoke about how God hadn’t forgotten them or given up on them. A new beginning was possible. It was opening to a whole series of promises, which they longed to see fulfilled.

They thought they might be when they returned home after Cyrus conquered Babylon. But reality never really lived up to the expectation. Although they were back in their own land, they were never really in control of anything. With the exception of a short period in the second century BC, they really just passed between whatever empire happened to be on top at that moment. Rome was just the latest.

Although they were ‘at home’, they still in some sense felt in exile.  They had a saying that if they could just keep the Torah for a single day, they would see the Kingdom of God. But the fact that it hadn’t happened showed just how helpless they were.

Then John arrives, and talks of new life, new possibilities. That God was ready to act, if only they were ready to see it. God could take them, and remake them into something beautiful, which in turn could see them fulfil their destiny. Even when things felt a right mess and they felt that they were simply at the mercy of events, with God new things were possible, because God was a God of new beginnings.

Sometimes it can feel like we are simply at the mercy of events, that we’re tossed about by circumstances, sometimes good, sometimes bad. I’m sure the early Christians for whom Mark was writing in the imperial capital of Rome felt that way too.

But right at the start of his Gospel Mark wants to remind us that Jesus wasn’t just one more random event in the chain. Through that long and winding story that makes up our Old Testament, and through all the silent years, God was still at work, God was taking us somewhere. Leading us somewhere. None of it would be wasted. God had made his promises and had both the intention and the capability of fulfilling them.

John is very careful about his role in all this. He can’t make it happen. He’s just waking them up to the possibility. He extending the invitation to be part of it. John can prepare them for the possibility of a new start, but the one who can empower them to live it out was still to come.

The one he was pointing to was Jesus. In Jesus God shows us that he is the God of new beginnings.

Today we’re at the start of some new beginnings. Back in March, when we moved into lockdown, I did a sermon on Youtube about going into exile. Today, the first time with a small handful of us back in the building, is the beginning of emerging from that. There is a certain amount of today is about levelling the path, preparing the way for a new beginning, when we can all be back together.

Over the last number of months we may have felt even more than usual a sense that we are at the mercy of events. How many of us have turned on the news with a sense of ‘what now???’ When the world feels very strange and the new normal feels anything but normal. And it may take some time before anything resembling a normal begins to take shape. It may never really look like it did before, and perhaps that’s ok.

But right at the start of Mark, and as we start this new season, we’re reminded that God is the God of new beginnings, and he can be trusted with those. However unsettled and messy things feel right now, God is not thrown by any of it, he still has every intention and capability of keeping his promises. God can still make something new out of us, and use us to bless one another and others in our community.

If we have any reason to doubt that, we’re invited to share in this simple ritual that Jesus left us to remind us of how when it all feels messed up and completely out of control, God is not finished. We’re invited to take bread and remember his broken body. We’re invited to drink wine and remember his blood that was shed. When Jesus bowed his head and breathed his last, it seemed like the end, like everything had finally spiralled out of control. But it was really just a beginning.

Because God is the God of the new beginnings, and if we trust him, he will empower us to step into and live out the new beginning that awaits us.

Posted in One offs

An Appeal from the Bishop: A Narrative Sermon

Bible Reading: Philemon

Got a bit behind. This is the sermon from 16 August 2020 at Harrow Baptist Church. It is a narrative sermon based on the story of Onesimus and Philemon.

Audio link for the sermon is…

https://anchor.fm/dashboard/episode/ei3585

Video Link for the sermon is…

FORTY YEARS LATER…

Paul’s letters were first collected together at Ephesus 40 – 50 years after the Letter to Philemon was written.

No-one really knows much about the discussions which led to their collation… until now!

What follows is a reconstruction of  an appeal which may have been made in Ephesus during those discussions…

Brothers and sisters, it’s been a massive privilege for the church, here at Ephesus, to be asked to collect together the letters of Paul. It’s an extremely important job. You may have heard how quite recently our brother John, beloved disciple of the Lord, who spent many years at one time here in Ephesus, was called home to the Lord.

He was the last of the original apostles, indeed one of the last of that early Jerusalem community. If we’re honest, even with the apostles around, the church hasn’t always brilliant at avoiding false teaching. If we’re to preserve their teaching and protect the church from heresy, we really need to gather together their teaching quite quickly.

It’s a privilege for Ephesus to be involved in this particular part of the work, but entirely appropriate. Paul spent more time in and around Ephesus than anywhere else on his travels. So we’re as good a place as any to collect together his various letters for posterity. I’m sure you’re well suited to the task – as John once said, you’re known for hard work, perseverance and the defence of sound practice and doctrine.

I commend your desire to make a good a job of it. But I understand that you’ve some concerns about this little letter I offered for inclusion.

What was that? Yes, you’re right – it doesn’t deal with any great heresy like Galatians… just as some of you have pointed out it does not outline any great doctrine. It is a personal letter, not to a church as such. But I don’t think you can deny that it has a strong teaching element, can you?

Ok, ok, I hold my hands up. I declare a personal interest…

Although to be honest I never thought I would see the day when I’d argue to preserve anything associated with Philemon. There was a time when I hated the man. I despised the fact that he owned me. He could tell me to do what he liked, and could do with me what he liked.

Not that that got him what he wanted, mind. In fact I always did as little as possible – just enough to avoid a beating. There were times when I deliberately got things wrong just to spite him. I’d get pleasure from watching him flare up and then he’d shout at me,

‘And to think Onesimus means useful. Why would anyone give a worthless piece of dirt like you a name like that? Useful? Useless, more like.’

I still remember the day Philemon came back from that business trip. Whilst he’d been away I’d been giving Archippus, Philemon’s son, the runaround. He liked to try to throw his weight around, but he just didn’t carry any authority. He’d threatened me that he’d tell Philemon on his return.

But before Archippus got a chance Philemon introduced us to a guy called Epaphras, who would be stopping for a few days. He  talked about some bloke called Paul. Philemon, I heard, had become a follower of something called The Way. I didn’t know much this ‘Way’, but I knew one thing. When he said that from now on they would meet in Philemon’s house, I knew what that meant – more work for me.

Epaphras tried being nice to me. But I didn’t want to know. Soon afterwards Philemon had all his new friends over. I never made it through the first feast. I hated him so much I couldn’t stand to see him happy. It was bad enough looking after his rich cronies, but most of this lot, they were slaves like me! I found myself thinking why should I have to look after them???

I knew where Philemon kept some money, a good stash of it, and whilst they were all partying, I did a runner. I made it all the way to Rome. I remember that initial thrill – the sounds from the Colosseum, the smells of cooking. And a little of old Phil’s money to enjoy it. I’d count it and think ‘ha! who’s useless now?’

Anyone could get lost in a city of a million people. And for a while it was great, until I ran out of money. But run out I did. Soon I was stealing and begging, just to make enough to live. Suddenly freedom wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.

Then one day I tried to rob this young bloke – but he caught me. That was it, I thought. I’ve had it. Rome doesn’t take law-breaking lightly. But rather than get me arrested, this guy, Mark, his name was, took me to a house and led me into a room. ‘I caught this man trying to steal from me.’

I found myself staring at a small, frail, unimpressive sort of a man. Not that he needed to be impressive. He’d caught me stealing from him. He could hand me over to the guards. Right now he had as much power over me as Philemon ever had.

He spoke with a stammer. ‘What’s your name, son.’ I told him. Onesimus. Then to my surprise he asked Mark to fix me some food. ‘Your accent’, said Paul ‘you’re not from Rome are you? I’d guess Laodicean or Colossian?’

I told him I was Colossian. I was surprised he recognised the accent. ‘ Oh, I’ve travelled a bit’ he said. He told me he knew some people from my area.

I had that sinking feeling it would be the same people I knew. Those feelings were confirmed, when he told me his name was Paul and as he went off on a long ramble about Jesus and the church. I’m not sure if he noticed the terror etched on my face, or whether he assumed it was because I was frightened of what he was going to do to me. Either way, he just ignored it.

He asked me where I was staying and when I said I had nowhere he offered me the chance to stay at the house. Just then, Mark returned with the food. I asked Paul why he was being so nice to me, when I had tried to steal from him.

‘Yes’ he said, ‘You have wronged me. But I’ve learned from experience that just because someone has let you down, it doesn’t mean that God can’t use them to be a real blessing. Isn’t that right, Mark?’ he said to the bloke who brought food. They exchanged a knowing look.

Paul, it transpired, was under house arrest, which was slightly ironic. I was a criminal being protected in a prison. But I stayed with Paul some time. At first it was because I’d nowhere else to go. When you’re a slave, you’re not a person, you’re nothing but a tool. And well, he could have had me killed – he had my life in his hands. Yet Paul treated me with dignity and love. He told me that Christ taught him there was no difference between Jews and Gentiles and between slaves and free people. Divisions between us were unimportant to God.

I told him I wished the rest of the world behaved like that. Then Paul said that Jesus had come so that the world might indeed one day be like that.

Paul’s God was so different from anything I knew. Gods are supposed to be all-powerful over us, just like first Philemon, then Paul were to me. But Paul’s God showed his love for us, by dying for us, in Jesus, even when we had wronged him and were his enemies. And this Jesus came back from the dead, ascended into heaven and now continues his work in the life of the church.

Paul said for him to live was Christ, so his part in God’s plan was to show Christ’s love for me. I learnt of Christ’s love simply through the way Paul loved me. That’s how I came to know Christ for myself.

I didn’t get it all straight away. But I came to see how love had an ability to achieve things that power never could. Whereas before I’d have done anything to get out of working for Philemon, now I couldn’t get enough of helping Paul. Whereas before Philemon called me useless, Paul joked ‘Onesimus by name, Onesimus by nature.’

Oh, of course, I felt guilty that I hadn’t come clean about my past, but I thought there was no way I could go back. If life as a slave was bad, life as a returned fugitive was much worse – I could be made to work in chains, beaten with a rod, a lash or a knot, or all three. I could be branded. Worse, because I had stolen when I ran away, I qualified for crucifixion. There were 60,000,000 slaves in the empire – it wouldn’t do to let any of them away with anything. Common sense dictated that not even Paul’s God could stop Philemon enforcing his rights. Going back was suicide.

I knew this couldn’t last. Then one of the churches, out of concern for Paul, sent Epaphras to help him. I was out on an errand when Epaphras arrived. He was chatting with Paul when I came home. The way he looked at me, I knew the game was up. The whole sorry story came out.

I hoped the fact that I was a new man, part of the church, would persuade Paul not to send me back. But Paul explained Christ came to deal with our past, not simply to help us escape it. Besides, I knew he couldn’t go on harbouring the escaped slave of a Christian brother like Philemon.

But, he said, Epaphras had brought him encouraging news about the Colossian church. Paul would be writing to them and he would add another letter pleading my case to Philemon. It would be delivered by a man called Tychius and I would go with him. My only hope now was that Paul’s opinion would carry some weight.

Days past and the letters were soon completed. Packing didn’t take long – I didn’t have much. Before I left, Paul read the letter to me.

I had hoped he would be more forceful. Maybe even demand my release. But there was none of that. I shouldn’t have been surprised I know, after all the time I spent with Paul. But rather than using his position in the church to get what he wanted, this letter was packed with that hope that love could achieve what power never could.

Paul didn’t pull rank. Unlike the letter to the church at Colossae, he didn’t refer to himself as an apostle. He called himself a prisoner. He could, he argued, have tried to tell what Philemon what to do. He had the authority. But he spoke of refusing to do anything without Philemon’s consent. Instead he appealed on the basis of love. It was as if, like Jesus, he was saying ‘if you love me, do what I ask.’

Paul’s words were truly lovely. When I think of where I’d come from and what I was when I met Paul, to have him call me his very heart, to hear him say how he had accepted me as his child – that  was precious. And it was there again, that little play on my name. ‘You thought he was useless, but now he is truly Onesimus.’

But still the full extent of Paul’s love hadn’t been revealed… until towards the end ‘if he has done you any wrong, let it fall on me….’ He was prepared to pay for my wrong! You know, everything I learned about God, Christ and the Gospel, I learned from Paul. Not just by listening but in the way he loved me, accepted me as his child, and was prepared to pay the debt for my wrongs. When Paul said for him to live was Christ he meant it.

However, I couldn’t believe it when Paul asked Philemon to receive me, not as a slave, but as a brother. It didn’t mean I wouldn’t be a slave – he was just asking that I not face harm on my return. Surely, I said to Paul, he couldn’t know what he was asking – it was scandalous. Philemon would be a laughing stock if he didn’t enforce his rights!

Paul admitted he was taking a risk, sending one he called son into a place where he might face beating or even crucifixion, in the hope of a response born out of love. ‘I’m sending you’ he said ‘in the hope that although you have sinned against him and are under a sentence of death, and although he had the power to enforce that sentence, I send you in the hope that his love will limit that power. And I believe that can work. It’s what the Gospel’s all about.’

Paul appealed to love – could Philemon have resisted?

I trembled as I sat outside Philemon’s chamber, the day Tychius delivered the letter. He seemed to be in there for an age. Then he emerged. He looked stern as he said ‘As the Good Lord once almost said … I no longer call you servant…’ then he smiled, ‘today I call you friend.’ We embraced and wept together. The Gospel reconciled us not just to God, but to each other.

From that day on I served Philemon and Paul. The love of Christ achieved what power never could. Through that love Paul accepted me as his own child. Through that love Philemon treated one over whom he had absolute power, not as a slave, but as a friend. Christ had even transformed Archippus – the wimpy boy with no authority that I had once known was now fronting the Colossian church.

As for me, well, Philemon sent me back to Rome to assist Paul in his work. Through the love of Christ, I served Paul, and Philemon my master, as I would serve Christ. The love of Christ impacted on us all – it made us partners in the Gospel. Years later, when Philemon went to be with the Lord, I asked for this letter. It reminded me of what Christ had done for me. It’s remained with me ever since.

So yes, brothers and sisters. This letter may not refute heresy. It may not contain great doctrine. But this letter tells what God has done, of his power to transform lives, of love’s ability to do what power never could, and of the way grace achieves what law never could. Can you think of a better summary Paul’s Gospel?

And so I ask you to count it amongst the others.

I could of course, as your Bishop, be bold enough and order you to include it, yet I appeal to you on the basis of love, and, as one without whom I would not be standing here once said, I am confident of your obedience, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.

FORTY YEARS LATER…

Paul’s letters were first collected together at Ephesus 40 – 50 years after the Letter to Philemon was written.

At around this time a Christian called Ignatius was sentenced to death and taken from Antioch to Rome.

En route Ignatius wrote to the church at Ephesus, and to their Bishop.

In the letter he makes the same play on the Bishop’s name as Paul.

‘Useful by name, useful by nature.’

The Bishop’s name was Onesimus.