Ephesians 3: 1 - 6This is the reason that I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles - for surely you have already heard of the commission of God’s grace that was given to me for you, and how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I wrote above in a few words, a reading of which will enable you to perceive my understanding of the mystery of Christ. In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow-heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. Reflection We don’t often think of Paul as a Mystic. He gets accused of being many things, but not often that. And yet here he is inviting us into the mystery that is Christ… The Reformers loved Paul because he seems so keen on doctrine and rules and order but at the heart of Paul’s message to the new church is the idea of mystery.
Mystery requires something of us. It needs us to be open, adventurous, creative and trusting. It demands more than a little courage because to step into a mystery is, by very definition, to step into something unknown and into something that doesn’t follow the normal rules and patterns.
Grace, the gift Paul presents to his readers, is one of those mysterious things that doesn’t follow our rational, enlightenment way of thinking. Sharing in one body, all heirs of the kingdom, doesn’t make any sense in a world ruled by a military empire, but that is exactly the mysterious promise we are invited into, to step out of the way of the world and into the mystery of God.
Beyond all knowing
And yet known in Jesus,
Beyond all our rules and doctrines
And yet willing us into relationship,
Beyond our boundaries and borders
And yet as close to us as our breath,
Help us step beyond
the comfortable and familiar
Into the expanse of your infinite love.
Ephesians 2: 11 - 21So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called ‘the uncircumcision’ by those who are called ‘the circumcision’ - a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands - remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, so that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God. Reflection I love reading the letters of the Apostles, not least for the scope they have for the imagination…what on earth was going on behind the scenes? Scholars can help us answer such questions, but we can also look to our own experience.
We’ve all been part of a group of some sort in our lives. We know how easy it is to rub each other up the wrong way.
But the early Church really had some issues to contend with; somehow the Gentiles had to unite with the Jews, once proudly separated from each other by strict rules and laws, never mind language and culture, they now had to be family.
It sounds so simple doesn’t it? "So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the Saints and also members of the household of God…” I wonder if it really felt like that, either to the Gentiles or the Jews. The rest of the letter implies that the Gentiles needed some reminding about their new life in Christ and their responsibilities within it. Was it easier to offer advice to the Gentiles on how to tow the line than it was to listen to them and be truly inclusive?
Have we become a church defined by ‘the way we do things here’? Pioneer ministers and Church Related Community Workers have built up a wealth of experience working with those ‘outside’ the Church and know that the phrase ‘You are welcome here’ is often made up of hollow words. Simply stating it is not enough.
What humility, faith and courage it must have taken in the early Church, to come together and to grow. In order to be the Jesus shaped Church we are called to be, we must be prepared to acknowledge and celebrate God’s work outside the Church. Do we too have the humility, faith and courage to listen and learn, and be changed by what we hear?
PrayerGod of Grace,
let me seek you in the other,
different and strange, but full of you.
Give me the humility
to set down my culture,
to weed out that which isn’t Christ shaped,
and to listen and learn more of you.
Give me the faith
to trust in your guidance,
to believe that you call me by name,
and to seek ways to serve you.
Give me the courage
to adventure into new territory,
to challenge others to join me,
and to act on what I learn. Amen
Ephesians 2: 1-10You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ - by grace you have been saved - and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness towards us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God - not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. Reflection Last year we celebrated the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. This passage is a key Reformed text – “by grace you have been saved through faith”. Lengthy tomes have been written on the meaning of the key terms in the phrase in English and the Greek original.
The trouble is, as anyone who speaks more than one language will know, that even more difficult than translating and explaining conceptual words such as ‘grace’, ‘save’ or ‘faith’ is translating the small words – ‘by’ and ‘through’ – each language uses them differently. As it stands in the NRSV, our salvation is achieved by grace – it’s God’s doing – and conveyed to us through faith. The English sounds very different if you say swap them round and say “through grace you have been saved by faith”. This would mean that the salvation is achieved by faith – it’s my doing – and conveyed to me through grace.
Paul is aware of the danger of misunderstanding here as he dictates (he spoke at least two languages, remember, and probably more), so he adds – “this is not your own doing – it is the gift of God”. How odd then that so many Reformation celebrations said that Luther had discovered – via Paul - that we were saved “by faith alone,” and some wrote hymns to that effect.
I am neither Biblical scholar nor theological historian. For what it’s worth, I don’t think that Luther believed we are saved BY faith. It would have made ecumenical discussions so much easier if others had not imputed this belief to him. It would also have avoided much guilt amongst Protestants who came to attribute all kinds of ills to their own lack of faith – the lack of salvation, or assurance of it, was their fault. All because of one little word.
I worry that I don’t believe enough
or I don’t believe the right things
or I don’t have faith enough
to move mountains
or that my mustard seed of faith
has got lost.
Help me to hear Paul’s words afresh,
to know that my salvation is wrought
not by my faith, but by your grace
and so depends not on my feeble efforts
or my fickle understanding
but on your unchanging love. Amen.
Ephesians 1: 15 - 23I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love towards all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. Reflection The first verse of this passage has special resonance for me as it was written in my Bible by a friend at University when I was leaving. So often we concentrate on the “conversion” of non-believers, or the criticism of those who are not following the way as well as they should, that sometimes we forget to praise those who are doing well. Paul criticises many for their lack of faith, or their failure of duty, or their selfishness, so here it is refreshing to read that he thanks God for the people of Ephesus who are faithful in their duties and asks for God’s wisdom for them. May we remember to encourage those who are faithful on their journey that we may build up our community of faith to support each other as we learn to follow Christ.
so often we bring our “shopping list”
of needs we forget
to thank you for all our gifts.
So let us take time now
to say thank you
for all we receive from you….
so often we criticise others
for how they are Not like you,
so let us take time now
to remind ourselves of all those
who Are like you,
who inspire us
to be more like you ourselves…..
inspire us so that we can recognise
the good in others,
the faithfulness in others,
and be so moved
to be faithful ourselves…..
Ephesians 1:13-14In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance towards redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory. Reflection It’s astonishing how much richness and depth can be found in a mere two verses of scripture. Here the writer of Ephesians, (most probably not Paul), packs in an array of scriptural and material allusions to offer us tremendous reassurance and an immense challenge.
Scripturally, reference to ‘the promised Holy Spirit’ takes us back to the final night of Jesus’ earthly life when he comforted the disciples by promising the Holy Spirit would come to them following his departure (John 14:16-17; 16:12). We are reassured by the knowledge that having responded positively to the good news, the presence of the Spirit in our lives is the sign of God’s possession of us, the ‘seal.’
Materially, the language of ‘seal’, ‘pledge’, ‘inheritance’ and ‘redemption’ provides us with a vivid image from the financial world of the process of salvation. Faith in Christ leads to the Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives, the ‘pledge’ or down payment of our eternal inheritance. The sense of ‘now but not yet’ is clear: redemption, when God takes full possession, lies in the future.
The challenge concerns our response. The initial choice, in verse 13, is whether we respond to the ‘word of truth’ in faith. The ongoing choice is whether we will keep on responding positively and continue to walk in step with the Holy Spirit.
PrayerGod our Creator,
thank you for calling us
to be your people.
Christ our Redeemer,
forgive us when we falter.
Spirit our Sustainer,
inspire us to persevere.
So may our lives be lived
to the glory of God
today, tomorrow and evermore. Amen.
Ephesians 1: 7-12In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. Reflection Perhaps it is fitting that I wrote these reflections on Trinity Sunday. The long opening blessing of Ephesians focuses on the three persons of the Trinity, one after another. It starts with the heavenly purpose of God, stretching forward from the dawn of time (1:3-6). It ends with the Church’s experience of the Spirit, pointing towards greater glory ahead (1:13-14). And this middle section (1:7-12) is the centre and heartbeat of the whole. It’s about Jesus Christ, who anchored God’s work in the life of earth. ‘In Christ’ – either explicitly stated, or implied by the words ‘in him’ – are rich blessings and mighty deeds of goodness.
In Christ, God’s people have forgiveness, ‘through his blood’. The cross is a place of grace and gift, enabling Christians to live in freedom, confidence and pardon, rather than in the misery and mess of our own selfishness and mistakes.
In Christ, God’s pleasure and plan are declared to the world and set into action, and in Christ the full story of time will be brought together, in wholeness and joy.
In Christ, the Church travels in a mood of hope and promise, secure in the knowledge that the life we now share with Christ will grow into glory and will last in love.
Christ is the pivot around which God’s eternal purpose finds grip and power in this world of time and touch. Christ is the lens through which we see the reality of God in the story of earth. Christ is the partner in whom we link arms with the majesty and mercy of heaven. Christ is the presence who brings the life of God into our living, and the pilot who steers our journey home, into the life of God.
PrayerLord Jesus Christ,
lover and Lord and life-giver,
the dirt and pain of your cross
pardon our sin and shame,
the life of your resurrection
quickens our pilgrim journey,
the hope of your kingdom
beckons our desire and delight.
In you we live and move,
in you we rejoice and trust,
to you we look and on you we depend.
Praise and glory be to you,
now and always. Amen.
Psalm 591 From foes and all who threaten me,
O God, be my defence.
2 Save me from evildoers’ hands
and men of violence.
3 See how they lie in wait for me!
Ferocious men combine
Against me, LORD, for no offence
or sinful deed of mine.
4 I have not done them any wrong,
yet they prepare to fight.
Arise to help me in my need;
take notice of my plight.
5 LORD God Almighty, rouse yourself;
come, God of Israel,
To judge the nations, and spare none
who wickedly rebel.
6 At evening they return again;
they snarl like dogs at bay.
They prowl about the city gates,
still hungry for their prey.
7 See what they spew out from their mouths!
Look! from their lips come swords!
With evil mind they laugh and say,
“Who now can hear our words?”
8 But you, O LORD, will laugh at them;
those nations you deride.
9 I watch for you, my loving God,
my Strength, in whom I hide.
10 My God will come and give me help;
in triumph I will sing
Before all those who slander me,
O Lord, our shield and king.
11 But lest my people should forget,
slay not my foes outright.
Cause them to wander aimlessly;
defeat them by your might.
12 Reward the evil of their lips,
the words of their own mouths;
Let them be captured by their pride,
their curses and untruths.
13 Consume them till they are no more;
in anger lay them low.
That God rules over Israel
all distant lands will know.
14 At evening they return again;
like dogs they snarl and growl.
15 They roam about the town for food
and, finding none, they howl.
16 But in the morning I will praise
your strength and loving care,
Because you are my strong defence,
my refuge from despair.
17 O God, you are my only strength;
to you I will sing praise.
You are my fortress and my rock,
my loving God always.
The tune Dundee, which you can hear here is suggested for this Psalm.
Psalm 59 is ascribed to David about the time that Saul sent men to watch David's house in order to kill him. (1 Samuel 19.11ff)
David was having a difficult time going from having been part of royal court and friend of Saul’s son, to be on the run, living in fear of being killed. His vocation to be king had been revealed by Samuel yet here he was still waiting for his time to come.
In these words he appeals to God for protection - ultimately he will become king of his persecutors but the memory of this time will be forgotten if they are killed. David wants them to be around so their current action can be proved wrong. He wants to be vindicated in sight of enemies at home and before other nations.
The description of his plight is interspersed with bursts of praise in verses 9-10 and 17, where he speaks of God as tower, shield and refuge (NIV). In the face of danger he longs for God to act and affirms God as his fortress three times.
This is a song of struggle, of hope against the odds, of faithful praise when almost overwhelmed by fear and bitterness of his current situation.
Hymns based on this psalm are often sung in Remembrance-tide e.g. O God our hope in ages past.
PrayerThank you Lord
that even in the darkest days
you are my shield, my fortress
and my refuge.
Thank you Lord that in your service
you turn every circumstance
to your advantage.
Forgive us when we doubt
your power to deliver and protect us.
Forgive us when we doubt
your wisdom and power to bring peace out of chaos.
Teach our hearts to sing your praises like David when life is dark & bleak.
Keep us safe till morning comes and your glory is revealed.
St Clare of AssisiBorn in 1193 in Assisi of a wealthy family, Clare caught the joy of a new vision of the gospel from Francis' preaching. Escaping from home, first to the Benedictines and then to a Béguine-style group, she chose a contemplative way of life when she founded her own community, which lived in corporate poverty understood as dependence on God, with a fresh, democratic lifestyle. Clare became the first woman to write a religious Rule for women, and in it showed great liberty of spirit in dealing with earlier prescriptions. During the long years after Francis' death, she supported his earlier companions in their desire to remain faithful to his vision, as she did. Some of her last words were: "Blessèd be God, for having created me."
2 Corinthians 4. 6-10It is the God who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. Reflection How do you respond to adversity? Are you one of these people who take whatever life throws at them on the chin? Or are you, what our culture scathingly calls, a bit of a snowflake: do you melt at the least bit of heat? My guess is that often we find ourselves somewhere in between or wavering from one to the other.
Perhaps Paul did too. He knew a thing or two about the hard knocks of life. In his second letter to the Corinthians he lays it all out. He has endured overwork, imprisonment, flogging, stoning, getting lost at sea, dangers everywhere and from anyone, hunger, sleeplessness, cold, anxiety and threat of death (ch. 11). He tells the Corinthians this because they too have treated him badly. Having visited there to address false apostles, he finds himself rejected and publicly humiliated. His visit ends in failure. And so he writes to them to tell them about all he has suffered but also to let them know that he is not broken by it.
Clare of Assisi, whose saint’s day it is today, likewise was no stranger to suffering. Living a life of contemplation and prayer, she chose poverty and service to others, at great personal cost. For the last 27 years of her life, she suffered ill health. And yet, in all of it she kept her resolve and blessed God.
As did Paul. We are afflicted in every way, he said, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.
Both Paul and Clare of Assisi knew that it was by the grace of God that they could endure whatever came their way. Through their vulnerability God’s light, love and mercy could shine.
whatever comes my way today,
may I not lose heart.
When I feel afflicted, perplexed,
persecuted or struck down,
may I too know myself
loved, cherished and held by you,
so that through me
your light may shine
and Christ’s life be made visible.
Ephesians 1: 1 - 6Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To the saints who are in Ephesus and are faithful in Christ Jesus: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved Reflection Were this series to be called Daily Scholarship it may be interesting to study the much debated question of whether or not Paul wrote the letter to the Ephesians, but it’s Daily Devotions, so that question is for another time and place.
Perhaps you have been on the London Eye? You may well have seen it, or a picture of it. It looks like a giant ferris wheel, rising to 450 feet above the ground. There are thirty-two capsules, each taking up to twenty people. It takes about half an hour to rotate, so slow that it almost looks, from a distance, like it isn’t moving. From it, on a clear day, there is an amazing view of all the landmarks and historic buildings and spaces of London (and all the rubbish, too); and the Eye itself is a wonderful view.
The point that I want to make is that the letter to the Ephesians is to to the rest of Paul’s (we’ll call the author that, whoever you think it was) letters rather like the London Eye is to London. Ephesians is not the longest letter, not the first letter, and nor is it fullest letter, but from the letter to the Ephesians we get an awe-inspiring view of all the features of the letters, all the themes of the earliest Christian tradition in turn: God, Jesus, the Church, the world, salvation, how Christians should behave, and so on.
So, before we travel through this letter in coming days, pause and take stock of the landscape, and as you do ponder a faithful God, a loving heavenly Father, a God who came close to us in Jesus and lifts us closer to himself and adopts us as part of the Christian family. As you ponder these things, hold them before God until you are ready to pray.
PrayerLoving heavenly Father,
ever-living source of all that is good,
keep me faithful in serving you.
Help me to drink of Christ's truth,
and fill my heart with his love
so that I may serve you
in faith and love
and reach eternal life.
Keep me in your presence.
Let me never be separated from you,
and help me to do your will;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The Epistle to the Ephesians
Dear <<First Name>>
I hope you've found our working through the Apostles' Creed interesting and useful. Between now and early September we will be reading though the Epistle to the Ephesians.
Until the late 18th Century this epistle was universally thought to have been written by the Apostle Paul. Opinion is now divided between those who believe that Paul wrote it and those who believe it was written by a disciple of his in his style.
The main themes of the letter are casting a model of Church as the body of Christ and urging Christians to recognise the unity that we have due to our relationship with Christ. The final part of the letter gives practical advice on how to live a holy life.
We hope you find this a help to you in your journey of everyday discipleship.
with every good wish
Coordinator, Daily Devotions from the URC Project
Want to change how you receive these emails?
You can update your preferences or unsubscribe from this list
The Apostles Creed
...and the life everlasting. Amen
St John 10: 7 - 10So again Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. Reflection The Life Everlasting – that’s a big concept!
What do you imagine when you think about ‘everlasting’? A huge sky filled with innumerable stars? An endless ocean stretching to the horizon and beyond?
These images of vastness can help us to ponder God’s awesome nature, but that’s not really what the Apostles’ Creed means when it talks about the Life Everlasting. Jesus called it abundant life, or “life in all its fullness”, or “life, and far more life than before”. If you’re a Star Trek fan, “It’s life, Jim, but not as we know it”.
When the New Testament mentions eternal life, the root word is αἰών (aion), which gives us our word eon. In geology, eons denote the different types of life on earth. Algae belong to one eon, humans to another. Our life is not just algae-life that carries on for a long time, it’s a totally different sort of life.
And so it is with the Life Everlasting. It’s not merely the same old life lived for ever and ever, but a different type of living, an Everlasting type of living. Living with a capital L. That’s what Jesus was getting at when he spoke of abundant life, in all its fullness, life eternal - now.
It’s not only about after we die. The Nicene Creed puts it as “the life of the world to come”. Not life in the world to come (although that’s true), but life of the world to come. Right here. Right now. Heaven on earth in a very real sense.
Eternal life is not about duration, but quality. We say, “I believe in the Life Everlasting”, how will you live it today?
PrayerGod of all creation,
You have set eternity in our hearts
that we might have a foretaste
of the life of the world to come.
Help us to live the Life Everlasting
in the abundance
promised by Christ our Lord
while we wait for his coming in glory.
The Apostles Creed
...the resurrection of the body,...
1 Corinthians 15: 51-54Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ Reflection
©W Hamond, UFS, with apologies to Eric Clapton (“Tears in Heaven”)
Most of us actually believe in the immortality of the soul: when we die, our souls – the “real us” – live on in heaven with God. That’s not resurrection. It’s giving up on the world: God can’t save the world, so opts instead to rescue the (relatively few) people who are somehow salvageable.
It’s not Biblical and it’s not Jesus. The Big Story in the Bible is God saving all that has been made. It begins with creation (Genesis) and ends with God “pitching tent” on a resurrected earth (Revelation 21: 1-5a). This is the answer to Jesus’ prayer: “Your Kingdom come; your will be done on earth”.
Getting from the world we humans have made to the place of Life and flourishing that God always intended is a risky, costly business for God! The Bible calls it “salvation”. It’s Christmas and Easter: God taking human flesh in Jesus, and suffering and dying on a cross on our behalf.
“Sin” is the Biblical world for all that is wrong with the world. It means “a world made in opposition to God”; all the “sins” we see and commit are symptoms of this underlying disease. Its deadliest effect is to unleash powers that trap humanity in unbreakable chains, so that despair and death always manage to have the Last Word.
It cannot be repaired or reformed. It needs to die, and God’s world needs to be born in its place. Paul calls it the New Creation, and it happens in Jesus. It’s the Easter process: the old dies in Christ, and the new world is born out of his resurrection.
Resurrection of the body is a promise for us: we will be there to share it! It gives us what we need to commit ourselves to Jesus’ mission of changing the world, whatever the opposition and cost. It is the faith we need to take up our cross and follow him.
PrayerDeliver us from the need to survive, Resurrection God,
so that we may begin to live
that count for your Kingdom!
The Apostles Creed
...the forgiveness of sins,...
St John 20: 22-23When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’ Reflection Broken hands on broken ploughs,
Broken treaties, broken vows,
Broken bodies, broken bones,
Broken voices on broken phones
Broken words never meant to be spoken,
Everything is broken
Forgiveness means that brokenness doesn’t have the Last Word. It’s a resurrection term: forgiveness is what enables something new to rise out of the ashes when relationships have been broken beyond repair; when there is no means of undoing what has been done.
“I believe in the forgiveness of sins” is a commitment to practice forgiveness. Forgiveness is the lifeblood of the Church. Churches ought to be communities of forgiveness – places where renewed and restored relationships are a daily reality and experience.
We don’t do that very well. It’s hardly surprising: forgiveness is hugely costly. It means choosing to bear the pain and cost of what other people to do to us. It means offering them a free pass. It means allowing love to triumph over hurt and anger. It means being Christ to the very people who least deserve it.
So, when someone says, “I’m sorry”, our usual response is to say, “Oh, that’s okay – it doesn’t matter”. Of course it matters! Forgiveness isn’t for the “little things” – the “forgivable things”. It’s for the big things that crucify and kill relationships.
It isn’t accidental that Jesus speaks about forgiveness after giving his disciples the Holy Spirit: forgiveness is the overflow of God-life. It isn’t something we can do in our own strength. Jesus isn’t giving them the power to hold people in a state of unforgiveness: he is reminding them that forgiveness is always mutual and conditional. “Forgive our sins in the same way that we forgive one another”, he taught us to pray.
What would happen if we made confession a time of forgiving others, as well as confessing our own sins …?
PrayerMake us Christ-like, O God,
not merely people
who name the name of Jesus.
Give us your Holy Spirit
so that we, too, may take up our cross,
bear within ourselves the cost of sin,
and allow new relationships
and a new world to be born -
by forgiving others,
even as we ask them and you
to forgive us. Amen.
The Apostles Creed
...the communion of saints,...
Hebrews 12: 1-2Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. Reflection As I write this reflection (June 2018), the General Assembly of the URC’s sister denomination, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI), resolved to cease offering or accepting invitations from either ourselves, or the Church of Scotland, due to the decisions of both of those churches to explore and enable same sex couples to marry.
This is a sad development. We have been going to each other’s Assemblies since 1844. It leads me to ponder anew what it means to have wounds in the Body of Christ and indeed in the Communion of Saints. It is particularly painful when it feels like we are inflicting wounds upon ourselves; attempting to cut off our own limbs.
Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, Never let me go is set in a present, or near-future, dystopian version of Britain where people are cloned and raised to be organ donors; cloned people are a community apart from the rest of society. Donations eventually result in death once the clone no longer has the organs needed to survive. Not all organs are removed at once, so a clone lives a life marked by illness and pain while they wait to make their final donation. Those in the wider community debate whether the clones are people at all.
In the Communion of Saints how much can be cut off before the body dies? We are talking about the resurrected Body of Christ which surely cannot die in the same way that any other sort of body can, but continuous wounding and, at times removal of key parts, must have an impact. I give thanks that resurrection is an ongoing process. The Body of Christ is continuously being raised from the dead, often against all of the odds. But the scars remain. We are reminded that we belong to one another; whatever decisions any General Assembly, or other Council of the Church, makes we are still held together as the Body of Christ by the Holy Spirit. We are called to run the race set before us … together.
we are each part of your Body,
the communion of saints.
We pray for situations
where your Body is wounded;
where there is disagreement and conflict.
Help us to remember that,
as you call us to be your disciples,
we belong to one another.
Remind us the work of peace building
starts with us.
May your Body
be healed and transformed,
that we are ready to bring about
your Kingdom in our world.
Psalm 581 You rulers, do you know what justice is?
Among mankind do you judge uprightly?
2 No, you devise injustice in your hearts
And on the earth you mete out cruelty.
3 Even from birth the wicked go astray
And from the womb untruthfully they speak;
Their wayward thoughts well up within their hearts
And havoc with their lying words they wreak.
4 Their poison’s like the venom of a snake;
They’re like a cobra that has closed its ear—
5 However great the charmer’s skill may be,
It pays no heed because it does not hear.
6 Destroy, O God, the teeth within their mouths;
LORD, smite the lion’s jaw a mighty blow.
7 Make them disperse as water flows away,
And blunt their arrows when they draw the bow.
8 May they be like the snail that melts away,
Or like a stillborn child that sees no sun.
9 Before a pot can boil on burning thorns,
So swiftly shall the wicked be undone.
10 The just will tread the blood of wicked men;
When they’re avenged, the righteous will be glad.
11 Then all will say, “The just have their reward
Surely the judge of all the earth is God.”
The tune Song 24 is suggested for this Psalm - you can hear it here.
Whatever our political persuasion, we can probably all relate to a time when we have felt like that about either our own or another country’s government. Injustice rightly turns our stomach.
From this familiar starting point, Psalm 54 quickly becomes very disturbing. The Psalmists have no qualms about expressing their disgust in the strongest language, and demanding blood-thirsty retribution from God. This is an uncomfortable Psalm to sing!
To claim that anyone is wicked from birth, and to wish them born dead, is extreme and at odds with our calling to nurture precious new life. Surely this has no place in our worship, particularly all-age settings? Yet it is this raw honesty that makes this vital - to admit to ourselves and to God (who knows us better than we know ourselves) that we sometimes hate more deeply than we love. There is no ‘political correctness’ here. In being this honest we open ourselves up to being transformed by the loving presence of God who sends sun and rain on both the wicked and the righteous, and calls us to equally radical love. There is no place for injustice in the Kingdom - but equally no place for all-consuming hate.
The slime trail of slugs and snails is not them dissolving (wishful thinking by the Psalmist!). I used to wage a one-woman war – going out every evening to collect a couple of hundred (yes really!) from my garden to protect my tender plants. I became obsessed with destroying my enemy. Then I moved – and made my piece with my fellow creature who is both duck and hedgehog fodder and helpful decomposer of vegetation. May a shift in perspective help me to love my other enemies.
give us the courage
to face our deepest fears and emotion,
give us safe places
to express the ugliest of our thoughts,
give us grace to receive your love,
and give us an abundance of love –
enough for even our enemies
that we might pray for those
who persecute us and others
and find ways bless all your children. Amen
The Apostles Creed...the holy catholic Church,...
Galatians 3: 27-38As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. Reflection The United Reformed Church was created by three church unions in 1972, 1981 and 2000. That simple statement does not mention the earlier unions that had created the churches that eventually united to become the URC. This is a living demonstration of the way as members of the URC we do believe in “the holy catholic church”.
Why are we part of “the holy catholic church”? Paul explains that the important thing is how we have been changed by being baptized into Christ. He tells how for the Christians at that time the major divisions in society were removed. Jewish and Greek Christians were all together in Christ. Slave and free were no longer divided but were united in Christ.
The divisions that society made between male and female were removed by belonging to Jesus. As members of the URC we celebrated the centenary of the ordination of Constance Coltman in September last year. We are part of the first mainstream church to ordain a woman and in doing so we demonstrated that being in Christ removes barriers between male and female.
We in the URC are part of the wider church that is together in Christ. We live in a world where people are divided by their wealth, their colour, their gender and/or the country they were born in. There are many stories of United Reformed Churches working hard to help immigrants and others to claim what is their right despite opposition from some parts of society. We should not reinforce these divisions, but must see every person in Christ as our brother or sister and our equal in Jesus. Let us praise God that in Christ there should be no divisions in His Church.
I thank you
that you made me
and through Christ
You have transformed me
to be the person I am today.
I thank you that I am part of your family,
part of your great and universal Church.
Help me to work for You
to bring equality and fairness
into this world today
The Apostles Creed
...I believe in the Holy Spirit,...
St John 15:26Jesus said: ‘When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf." Reflection Recently we enjoyed an afternoon tea in the Blackpool Tower Ballroom. We watched couples of all shapes, sizes and ages glide around the ballroom to music and I remembered the Civil Service Christmas dances Mum and Dad used to take us to. Dad loved to dance and spent the evening dancing with mum, myself and my sister. He taught us by having us stand on his toes so we were able to glide around the floor feeling very grown up and in control. We weren’t of course, Dad was in control, and sometimes he took steps which were too long and we fell off – dissolving into giggles.
So what has this to do with the Holy Spirit?
Ballroom dancing couples are a great analogy for the relationship we can have with the Holy Spirit. Firstly it reminds us that the Holy Spirit is a person, not an ‘it’. You can have a relationship with a person, but not with an ‘it’ and that relationship can be superficial or it can be close; it can be a one-way relationship or it can be two-way. Secondly, it reminds us that in order for the dancing couple to negotiate the dancing space without crashing into other couples, standing on each other’s toes, or pulling away into different directions, one partner needs to keep an eye on the bigger picture, to know which direction and which steps will fit best and the other needs to be able to feel, hear or sense the hints and actions to enable them to follow the leading.
If we choose the Holy Spirit as our life-dance partner, he/she will be our comforter - when times are hard we can “stand on his/her toes” and close our eyes and know we will be taken the right way. The Holy Spirit will also be our teacher and our guide, he/she will teach, guide and help us walk the way and live the life of Jesus today.
You give us the gift of your Holy Spirit
and yet we find it hard
to relinquish control of our lives
and our churches. Forgive us.
Help us to step onto the dance floor of life,
help us to follow the leading
of your Holy Spirit
so that our life-dance
reflects the life-dance of Jesus
and will draw those dancing alone
to accept the invitation to join in.
The Apostles Creed
...and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
St Matthew 25: 31 - 33‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Reflection This is a text that is difficult to approach without suggesting judgement and condemnation. I think, though, that a lot of the judgement is due to how we read, rather than the letter of, the text.
We focus on separation, we always have. God creates humanity, and we focus on separation by gender and sex. God provides us with a garden, and we focus on separation from God by the relentless search for knowledge. God provides us with an opportunity for reconciliation, and we respond by blaming each other for all that is wrong.
The same can be said for approaches to this text. We focus on the difference between sheep and goats, one good, the other bad. We focus on the apocalyptic message, and forget about the message for today. We focus on blame and punishment, forgetting about mercy and love.
What if this Gospel message is all about redemption? What if it is about bringing people together, rather than separating us? God brings us together, left and right, we are gathered around. Rather than worrying about division, perhaps we should heed Christ's words and work together for justice.
If we want to ensure the salvation of all people, the focus on individual ethics is misguided. We can't merely feed the hungry and look after the sick. Rather, we must work together to end the conditions of their hunger and sickness. We can't merely give to charity or help our oppressed neighbour. Rather, we must work together to break the institutional chains which bind and oppress. We can't merely welcome and include the other. Rather, we must work together to tear apart our prejudices. Then, perhaps, we will all live in God's realm as one. May it be so.
we pray for all people
on pedestals of power,
that they might learn humility,
and for ourselves,
that we might be humble.
We pray for all people
in chains of oppression,
that they might learn boldness,
and for ourselves,
that we might speak out.
help us to move together as one,
to shatter oppression
and break down injustice.
in your merciful name.
The Apostles Creed
...he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
Hebrews 2: 1-4Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs. Reflection Who would we call our ‘right-hand’ person and why? As far as I am concerned, it could be someone who has demonstrated their faithfulness to me in difficult times; someone, who has demonstrated that he/she respects me, values me above much else; someone whose faithfulness to me is costly and who also shares my heart, my values and my priorities. I suspect that you must wonder whether a real human being can really tick all those boxes. For many, it might be a best friend, a spouse or a partner.
Jesus has certainly won the right to sit at God’s right hand. He has managed to humbly reflect God’s heart and glory on earth, through a ‘critical fidelity’ (costly faithfulness). Jesus succeeded where angels and prophets did fail for millennia, however anointed they were. Ultimately, Jesus showed that he could be trusted with God’s supreme power, hidden not only in the frailty of human nature, but also in the suffering and vulnerability of the Cross.
The questions we may ask ourselves this morning is: can God trust us with such supreme power? How have we, and the Church, been Christ-like stewards of that supreme power over the centuries? Is God entrusting more responsibilities and souls to believers/churches who are more trustworthy to use God’s supreme power well?
Has God been training and challenging us to be more trustworthy with power by allowing some aspects of our lives to be cross-like? This should be much easier now, as we have a compassionate great High Priest before God’s throne: a priest who knows how hard it is for humans to be critically faithful in this generation. He not only journeys with us through his Spirit but also intercedes for us, according to the depths of his love and riches of his glory.
how awesome it is
that we can now boldly approach
Grant us the faithfulness,
which makes the Father proud of us.
Renew, reform us and refocus us today,
so that God’s will becomes naturally ours.
Help us dream your dreams
and enact your visions.
Grant us the grace to be
good stewards of the power and authority,
so generously made available to us
and to your Church. Amen
The Apostles Creed
...he ascended into heaven,
St Luke 25: 51While Jesus was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. Reflection In the Ascension Chapel at Walsingham, a sculpted cloud on the ceiling has two feet hanging from it. Two wounded feet are seen in frozen animation, held there in the sculpture while the rest of the body is hidden from view. With the scars of the wounds on the feet, the observer is left in no doubt that these are the feet of the crucified and risen Christ, the physical body of Christ no longer present as he has ascended – or is ascending – to heaven.
The thought of Jesus as ‘ascended’ can cause us some difficulties. The term comes into our Christian vocabulary through the Anglicization of the Latin version of the Bible, the Vulgate, while in the Greek both Luke and Acts suggest Jesus was ‘carried’ or ‘lifted’ up to heaven. Perhaps we hear the echo of John’s gospel (3.14 & 12.32) where Christ will be lifted up – glorified – so that all people may see God’s work in the world. Ascension transports Jesus to the place of glory where, lifted up, the wounded human body becomes at one with the divine.
But without motion, it’s unclear whether the feet in the sculpture are going up or coming down. Is Jesus disappearing from view, never to be seen again, or returning to be among us? Or are we, as observers, to be reminded that the ascension of Christ to heaven does not absent us from the duties of Christian discipleship? Perhaps instead of being the last sight of a saviour who has left humanity behind, they remind us of the journey our feet need to take as we walk the way of Christ’s disciples, that we too may live as crucified with him, our risen and ascended Lord.
PrayerGod of the world,
as you were lifted up to heaven,
help us not to look for you in the clouds
but to live as your faithful disciples.
Give us the courage to walk your way
and to be crucified for your sake,
as we look towards the glory of your divinity around us,
in the Church and the world. Amen.