When Philip is near the chariot he asks, “Do you understand what you are reading?” The Ethiopian said, “How can I unless some explains it to me.” He invited Philip to join him and the passage he was reading is found in Isaiah 53. Philip started there and told this man the story of Jesus and what it meant to be saved. At some point in time, the Ethiopian saw a body of water and wanted to be baptised.
What did he do when he got back to Ethiopia though? His joy was real. His hope of salvation through Jesus changed his life, but what happened when he got home? We don’t know, but he was probably alone in his new faith in Jesus. That joy could have turned away quickly, or perhaps he could have taken his story and shared it with others.
Today, we may well feel spiritually isolated. Instead of getting better, things are getting worse. We're not able to meet face to face and break bread together as an ecclesia. I don't know how you feel but we definitely miss this. We've been joining online with Kings Heath or Bournemouth Winton on a Sunday morning but it's just not the same, is it? I even gave an online Skype exhortation for the Irvine Ecclesia. Obviously with the current situation seeming to worsen it's just not possible to meet together in the hall for a good few months. We have the joy of our hope in Christ, but lack fellowship because of the current pandemic that we face. These feelings of isolation that many may well be feeling are real, but we need to remember that the feeling of spiritual isolation is not new, even though it is new to many of us. There have been Christians around the world that have had to meet in house churches or “underground” just to be safe when they gathered. There are others, like the Apostle Paul, who were often alone spiritually throughout their lives.
In 2 Kings 5 we read of a man who was actually the commander of the army for the king of Syria; not really a friend of Israel. His name, we all know, was Naaman and he had a deadly and scary disease that was put in the general category called leprosy. How severe a case of skin disease he had, we don’t know. What we know is a young girl who was captured by the Assyrians and became his wife’s slave spoke about a man who could cure him. To make a long story short, after being told to dip seven times in the Jordan River, and finally being willing to do it, he found himself clean from the leprosy. Now this is the part where the story gets interesting.
If you heard that we came up with an instant cure for COVID-19 how excited would you be? How much would a cure be worth to the people of the world right now? If it was your spouse, child or parent who was sick to the point of death, how much would an instant cure be worth to you financially?
The interesting part is, this gift of an instant cure was offered free of charge. Here is what Naaman learned. There is no God in all the world except the God of Israel. To say that Naaman believed and was filled with joy is an understatement. But there was a problem; the king of Syria was not a believer in the God of Israel. So Naaman asked for a second gift. Two mule loads of dirt.
He had already received a cure, but here is his second request in verse 17. Here is a man who knew he would be spiritually isolated. A man who had a job in a world that didn’t believe, yet he became a believer. He didn’t want his spiritual isolation to end his relationship with God. Isn’t that where so many of us are today, with not being able to gather in a church building, praising God in hymns, sharing the emblems together as a family, reading from God's Word, approaching Him in prayer. There may even be a fear that the church won’t exist for a very long time because of COVID-19. It’s time for us then to get our two mule loads of dirt.
We know there is no other God. The creator of the heavens and earth. Through His love, His grace, His mercy we have a great hope in our lives. We’re not alone even if you are physically right now. We’re not alone, even if this time of isolation keeps us apart for several more months or longer. Let's keep affirming our faith in God.
The ground in Israel was no more holy than the ground in Syria. But Naaman knew he was going to be alone in a spiritually sinful world and didn’t want the king’s worship of idols to keep God from seeing his worship. So what did he do with all that dirt? Maybe it was to be a reminder of his cure and God. Maybe he took it back to have a place where he could worship God. He certainly must have felt that isolation.
We need to get our two mule loads of dirt. By that I mean it’s time for us to make sure we stay connected to God and as a church family. We have the opportunity online with Zoom Bible Class, Coffee mornings, fraternals, conferences and so on. Too often for ourselves we let work get in the way, we need to try harder to keep in touch with our Brothers and Sisters. Perhaps we could follow other Ecclesias and have an online Sunday Service since it may be several months yet before we can meet together?
Just because you are not in the building doesn’t mean you are isolated from God though. God will never leave you nor forsake you. Our connection right now is more through technology or a good old fashioned phone call than it is person to person. But we are never alone. We need to take our spiritual earth/soil and keep our ground holy in worship of God.
In conclusion, we miss you all. Online gatherings can be a great source of strength and connection but let us not forget that God’s message of salvation was not meant to be kept in isolation.
Perhaps now is the time for us to offer help to others, perhaps now is the time to be reaching out to our neighbours or family and friends who have not come to know God and the Lord Jesus as we have. Share your story and perhaps they'll come to realise that there is something missing in their lives.
God be with you until we meet again.
I’ve spoken to you before about my bike riding, haven’t I? Well, during lockdown, I’ve made the most of the extra time because of not having to commute into the office, and have done quite a lot of cycling. In the past I’ve attempted to wear earphones but have never liked the feeling of not being able to hear my surroundings, but I’ve bought myself some ‘bone conducting’ headphones that allow me to listen to recordings but also to be able to hear the passing traffic, and as a result I feel much safer. Since then, I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts, mostly of a religious nature, and there is a wealth of really interesting content on the internet. I’m going to share just a very small amount of this with you now…
If I was to say “O.M.G.” or “Oh my God” to you, what would your reaction be? As Christians, I think we can have quite strong feelings about phrases such as this. I’ve been brought up from a young child not to say this sort of thing. It’s ingrained in me!
I work in IT, so I would be lying if I said I didn’t sometimes come out with a few choice words, things my mother wouldn’t approve of! But I would never say “Oh my God”. This, of course, has its roots in the 10 Commandments. Exodus 20:7 says:
“You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.”
So I don’t say God or Jesus in any sort of a phrase that brings them down to my level. And that’s clearly a good thing. But in doing this, are we actually obeying the 3rd Commandment in full?
What does taking God’s name in vain actually mean? As Christians, we have taken on the name of Jesus in baptism. And in the time of Moses, the Jews did something similar: in the previous chapter they accepted God’s covenant. They took on the name of God. Right from the first chapter of Genesis. Firstly to bear God’s image and then to take on his name is an immense responsibility. It’s much more than just promising not to say “O.M.G.” or such like, it means to show God (and Jesus, of course) in the best possible light to all those whom we come into contact with.
Thinking about things in this way, this commandment isn’t just about not doing something: it’s not something we can tick a box for and then just tut at the people on TV and around us who say things we don’t like. Instead, we are seen by God as ambassadors for his Kingdom. This is an immense responsibility, and we will inevitably fail, but by the grace of God and because of the obedience of Jesus, we have the hope of eternal life.
So finally, what’s the opposite of “in vain”? Well, just to take a few words from the dozens suggested by an online thesaurus, let’s all take the name of God in a profitable, powerful and fruitful way.
Recently we have been proofreading a book on the work of Edinburgh Direct Aid which started in the early 1990s helping war victims in Bosnia. We were struck again by the horror of war as we read the different chapters on the start of the war, the convoys and the danger they were in. We read a particularly telling account of one of the refugees. She lived through terrible times, soldiers took over her village, her husband had to flee and was eventually captured and murdered. She had two children to care for, living in ruined houses and then escaping through woods at night with soldiers shooting the refugees or the transport they were in. She eventually got to safety and to this country, and we now know her quite well. Some of those doing the killing, raping, torturing were neighbours, the school teacher and former friends! When we read about what she suffered and others like her, I think we can understand those who want retribution and those who want revenge. The reasons for war are varied and complex but seeking revenge is often one of the reasons why conflict continues and continues. But that is not the Christlike way. We can see from this how vital an attribute being peace-loving is and yet we wonder what we can do to help.
War is not just something that happened in the 1990s. We know that throughout the centuries there have been many, many wars and we know that there are a number of wars going on at the moment. We ponder what we can do? Help the victims. Perhaps we can help the charities that work to give aid. It is a start.
But what about ourselves. I read this on one of the discussions on “Peace” on the internet.
No Jesus, no peace.
Know Jesus, know peace.
Jesus taught us, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in Heaven” (Matthew 5:44). I question whether I could do that but it is what many Christians over the centuries have done and it is Jesus’ way and the way of peace. The Apostle Paul in Philippi was flogged and imprisoned and put in chains, but he praised God, saved the jailor’s life and taught him and his family about Jesus. He experienced opposition but without retaliation. The Apostle Paul said in Romans 12:18, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone”. So far I have not had to deal with war, violence and imprisonment, abuse of any kind. Anything I have had to deal with has been on a much smaller scale. There are times when we feel annoyed when we sense an injustice or people are rude or unkind. What do we do? Do we want to retaliate or do we turn the other cheek as Jesus tells us to? In Matthew 5 we are told that anyone who is angry will be subject to judgement. We know from Proverbs 15:1 “A gentle answer turns away wrath but a harsh word stirs up anger”. But it is not easy. We are told in the Sermon on the Mount “Blessed are the peace-makers for they will be called children of God”. That is what we want to be, we want to be “children of God” and we think the only way to work towards this is with God’s help. Pray for patience to be able to cope with difficulties but not just pray for ourselves but for the victims of abuse and injustice and for a change of heart of the perpetrators. When the opportunity arises we can be a non-judgmental listening ear. This is “knowing Jesus”.
Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” What did Jesus mean by his peace? I don’t think that in this context it means stopping war or violence, or preventing people from being rude or unkind, but I think it means peace with God, peace because we are working with God and Jesus in the purpose they have for human beings. Jesus gives us the confidence to try to heal broken relationships, or do as much as we can to work towards that, giving us the courage to stand up for right, to support the oppressed and to see God’s activity in the world through people who try to be peace-loving.
So, Jesus’s peace means we try to be peace-makers. It is frequently not easy and we are in danger of failing. God is a loving God and understands our failures, either when we are angry or when we do not manage to make peace with others. We need to turn to him, ask for help and to try again. Jesus suffered violence and a cruel death but he said, “Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing”. We pray to develop understanding and forgiveness like that. And if we do, it should help us to be peace-makers.
“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:4-7)
A fuller, audio version of this talk will be published as a special episode of the four cubits and a span podcast, and will be available at https://bit.ly/4QS-LS3 (or wherever you get your podcasts). All scripture quotations from the Revised English Bible, copyright © Cambridge University Press and Oxford University Press 1989. All rights reserved.
We live in a changing world. Truly I don’t think there’s a time when the world is not changing, but it can be unsettling to live through times like these when so many aspects of our social landscape seem to be shifting. Our society here in the Western world is shifting, moved by tides that have been building for many years. As Christians we look to scripture during unsettling times, and our faith tradition can be comforting and reassuring.
But when we come to the Bible, we are coming to a collection of books written by and for a particular people, in a particular time, and in a particular place. How many ways has society changed since then? How different is our context from the context of our sacred scriptures? And how often do we think about this when we come to it, looking for guidance on navigating change? Are we looking for an instruction book, a manual for life? Navigating times and places so different to our own is challenging, and - just like navigating change - it may not be easy to do.
But the Bible can guide us if we allow it to. Scripture itself expects us to experience change, because change leads to growth. To a community struggling to accept new ideas, the writer of Hebrews has this criticism:
About Melchizedek we have much to say, much that is difficult to explain to you, now that you have proved so slow to learn. By this time you ought to be teachers, but instead you need someone to teach you the ABC of God’s oracles over again. It comes to this: you need milk instead of solid food. Anyone who lives on milk is still an infant, with no experience of what is right. Solid food is for adults, whose perceptions have been trained by long use to discriminate between good and evil. Let us stop discussing the rudiments of Christianity. We ought not to be laying the foundation all over again: repentance from the deadness of our former ways and faith in God, by means of instruction about cleansing rites and the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgement. Instead, let us advance towards maturity; and so we shall, if God permits.
Hebrews 5:11 – 6:3
The writer clearly expected the believers to grow in maturity on a personal level, to learn more and allow their perspective to change as they did so. But Christianity is not just about individuals, not just about people who follow God; it’s about community, a people (group) of God. Scripture expects communal growth as well. Here’s what Paul writes to the church in Ephesus, as followers of God in Christ:
And it is he who has given some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip God’s people for work in his service, for the building up of the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity inherent in our faith and in our knowledge of the Son of God — to mature manhood, measured by nothing less than the full stature of Christ. We are no longer to be children, tossed about by the waves and whirled around by every fresh gust of teaching, dupes of cunning rogues and their deceitful schemes. Rather we are to maintain the truth in a spirit of love; so shall we fully grow up into Christ. He is the head, and on him the whole body depends. Bonded and held together by every constituent joint, the whole frame grows through the proper functioning of each part, and builds itself up in love.
Change leads to growth. In new times and new circumstances we are confronted with new perspectives and ideas. We can choose to resist change, or we can choose to learn, grow, and respond with a Christian conscience; we can exercise the mind of Christ. Scripture encourages us to confront these tensions and learn more about following God. As our examples, to guide us into wisdom, we have both the people in the scriptures and the people of the scriptures.
Take the story in Genesis 22, where God commands father Abraham to take his son of promise, Isaac, and sacrifice him on a mountain top. In the Christian tradition, we usually refer to this as ‘the sacrifice of Isaac’. This is a story from an ancient time where sacrifices were a way of life. The earliest stories of Genesis describe blood sacrifice as one of the first practices of human culture. And as Christians we can easily read this story as a story about resurrection. We can see Jesus in this story, the beloved son of the father who goes to sacrifice and lives by an act of God’s deliverance.
But our Jewish cousins have a very different view of this story. It’s one of the most debated stories of the Hebrew Bible, the subject of thousands of years of Jewish commentary. In Jewish tradition, it’s (more accurately) known as ‘the binding of Isaac’, or simply ‘Akedah’ (the Hebrew word for "binding"). It’s a story that forces the reader to ask the most uncomfortable questions.
Why did God make this demand of Abraham? Child sacrifice is an abomination throughout the Hebrew Bible. Sacrificing children to Molok is one of the behaviours of the Canaanite nations given in Torah as reason for the Israelites to prosecute a genocide. In 2 Kings, the great sin of King Manasseh of Judah was sacrificing his own children to Molok, and his sin is so abominable that Judah falls to Babylon. It’s the ultimate act of idolatry and immorality in the Hebrew Bible. So why did God issue that command?
Indeed, why did Abraham follow it without question? Just a few chapters earlier, Abraham withstood God and, at least in the narrative of the story, changed God’s mind. Announcing the destruction of the cities of the plain to Abraham, God allows Abraham not only to object but to barter with God, to argue and bargain with God. And no wonder: the sanctity of life is at the core of the Hebrew Bible. It’s enshrined in the first law code in Genesis, the Noahide laws in Genesis 9. So why did Abraham follow God’s command without question?
These are the most obvious questions to ask, and yet the text passes no judgement and offers no answers in either case. So perhaps it is not the answer that’s important, but the act of asking the question. Abraham learns something about God. He learns that this God that he followed out of his homeland is not like the gods of his homeland. He grows and his perspective changes, even as God stays his hand and literally forces him to change his point of view to see the ram caught in the bush.
And this is not the last thing that the people of God have to learn about sacrifice. The Law given to Moses frames the sacrificial system as something more than atonement by blood. In Leviticus 5 we read that the act of offering reparation to God for sin is more important than the method. It enshrines economic justice: those who could not afford to bring an expensive animal to sacrifice could bring less valuable animals; those who could not afford that, could bring flour.
In Leviticus 6 we see one of the most significant strands of Torah sacrifice: uniting the people of God around a system of justice.
When any person sins by false use of the LORD’s name, whether the person lies to a fellow-countryman about a deposit or contract, or a theft, or wrongs him by extortion, or finds lost property and then lies about it, and swears a false oath in regard to any sin of this sort that he commits — if he does this and realizes his guilt, he must restore what he has stolen or gained by extortion, or the deposit entrusted to him, or the lost property which he found, or anything at all concerning which he swore a false oath. He must make full restitution, adding one fifth of the value to it, and give it back to the aggrieved party on the day when he realizes his guilt. He must bring to the priest as his reparation-offering to the LORD a ram without blemish from the flock, valued by you, as a reparation-offering. When the priest makes expiation for his guilt before the LORD, he will be forgiven for any act for which he has realized his guilt.
This is about reparation. One can’t be reconciled to God until one has addressed the harm that one has done to others. Later scriptures go even further, focusing even more on the underlying aspects of community and justice.
“O Israel and Judah, what should I do with you?” asks the LORD. “For your love vanishes like the morning mist and disappears like dew in the sunlight. I sent my prophets to cut you to pieces— to slaughter you with my words, with judgments as inescapable as light. I want you to show love, not offer sacrifices. I want you to know me more than I want burnt offerings."
In fact, this is the attitude of the rabbis towards Torah that shaped the Jewish world in which Jesus lived and taught, A minor tractate of the Talmud preserves words attributed to a leading Rabbi just 40 years after the time of Jesus’ ministry. When the temple in Jerusalem is destroyed, the centre of liturgical Jewish religion ceases to exist. There can be no more sacrifice and no more priesthood, on which a significant majority of the ritual, religious law relies. It’s a cataclysmic and sudden change, but this is how the Jewish tradition adapts to it:
It happened once that Rabban Johanan b. Zakkai was coming out of Jerusalem, followed by R. Joshua, and he beheld the Temple in ruins. "Woe to us," cried R. Joshua, "for this house that lies in ruins, the place where atonement was made for the sins of Israel!" Rabban Johanan said to him, "My son, be not grieved, for we have another means of atonement which is as effective, and that is, the practice of lovingkindness, as it is stated, ‘For I desire lovingkindness and not sacrifice.’"
from Avot Rabbi Nathan (5)
That’s the quotation from Hosea 6:6, there at the end of that passage. What do you do when your temple is destroyed and your entire society changes irrevocably, but your religion is still vibrant, and meaningful, and connects you to God? You change your perspective. You don’t read Torah without Hosea, or Isaiah, or Jeremiah, or Amos. You reframe your worldview, in continuity with your tradition.
So why did I tell you this big long story about Jewish scripture, interpretation, sacrificial systems? Because we are a part of this story, and these stories are a part of our faith heritage. As Christians, we’re part of that same tradition of following the trajectories of our scriptural heritage, the practice of growing, and changing, and finding new meaning.
The famous 13th century Jewish writer, Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (also known as Maimonides, or simply Rambam) explicitly taught that sacrifices were always supposed to have been a temporary provision for a particular time to lead God’s people away from sacrificial systems. If Jesus remains away, where will our faith tradition be in a thousand years?
Change is important, new ideas and new situations are important, because it pushes us to examine our faith and change our behaviours.
Teacher and writer Jared Byas has a snappy phrase. He says, “All theology has an adjective.” What he means is that we find it very easy to label and box different views/perspectives that are different to ours, without realising that we live within our own box. In talking about what it means to be a Christian, we could talk about Black theology, feminist theology, womanist theology, queer theology, liberation theology; about other Christian communities and worship practice. But more than that, Jared’s quip challenges me to ask what adjective describes my Christian faith. My white, Western (and very male) theology is not more significant, or even more historical.
We all have a lot to learn, from each other, and from people whose experiences of life and faith are different to ours: whether economically or socially, or by race, gender, nationality, or any other aspect that makes up the diversity of a humanity made in the image of God. Just like Abraham and the ancient Israelites, just like the priests and prophets of the Old Testament, we will face conflicting thoughts/ideas. We have a choice about how we focus our faith tradition, how we worship God, how we continue the story of the people of God.
We may find we need to radically change our focus or even repent, as we try to heed the apostle's call to grow together, as individuals and a community, into the fullness of Christ. Dr James Cone, was a 20th century Black theology writer and teacher, and a civil rights activist from the 1960s until his death just a few years ago. Cone was a Christian leader too, and here’s what he writes about the power of the gospel.
I believe that Christian theology achieves its distinctive identity when it takes on the issues of those who are struggling to be human in an oppressive world. Christians believe that their faith has something to say about this world and about the human beings in it – something that can make a decisive difference in the quality of life. It is therefore the task of theology to demonstrate the difference that the gospel can and does make in human lives, using the resources of the scriptures and traditions of the churches as well as other modern tools of social, historical, cultural, economic, and philosophical analysis.
James Cone, For My People (1984)
I can’t read this without thinking of the words of the apostle Paul, back in Ephesians 4 where we started. I can’t help but believe that this expansive vision of Christian community, and its responsibility to shine into this world the light of the gospel of life in Jesus Christ, exhorts us continually to grow through change.
...you must be renewed in mind and spirit, and put on the new nature created in God’s likeness, which shows itself in the upright and devout life called for by the truth.