Earlier this week I sent some words which could be used to advertise the Daily Devotions on a Church Newsletter or Flyer. Many of you have asked for a poster which could be printed off and used in your churches.
Please click on this link here to download the poster. Simply print it off and put it up!
with every good wish
Coordinator, Daily Devotions from the URC Project
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Ruth 1: 15 - 18So she said, ‘See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.’ But Ruth said,
‘Do not press me to leave you
or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go;
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God.
Where you die, I will die—
there will I be buried.
May the Lord do thus and so to me,
and more as well,
if even death parts me from you!’
When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her. Reflection Ruth’s story is one of the the most familiar of the stories in the Hebrew Scriptures, and one that has special significance for me, as my late mother read it at the blessing service for our Civil Partnership back in 2007. I think I probably first heard it while I was at primary school in the early 80s, when stories of people having to leave their homes seemed remote to me - or were perhaps untold - how unlike today when we see the war in Syria, Afghanistan and so many other places, driving people away from home and family.
In our reading today we hear Ruth’s moving words of commitment to Naomi: ‘your people shall be my people, and your God my God’; I’m almost tempted to suggest that when we next receive new members at St. Columba’s we should ask them to say these words! There is no caveat, no half-heartedness, just a simple commitment to Naomi, her people, and her God.
What would it take for us to inspire people to want to speak those words to us? I sometimes feel that some of us have more in common with Naomi, and allow ourselves to believe that people finding faith would be better off pursuing their Christian journey elsewhere rather than with in our churches with the imperfections we know so well.
Perhaps we need to start as Ruth does, with companionship - to go with the stranger, to invite the stranger to lodge with us, and to declare that their people are our people - and that we are all God’s people?
PrayerWhen we feel we have nothing to offer,
when we see our disappointments
rather than opportunities,
when we feel that other people,
and other churches, would offer more,
give us confidence:
that we can make a difference;
that our gesture of welcome
can begin a friendship;
that our encouragement
can unlock talents;
that together we can build
your Kingdom on earth.
Ruth 1: 6 - 14Then she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the Lord had had consideration for his people and given them food. So she set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah. But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, ‘Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.’ Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud. They said to her, ‘No, we will return with you to your people.’ But Naomi said, ‘Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.’ Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her. Reflection The Dutch writer Ellen van Wolde once described the Book of Ruth as a story of headscarves. These are migrant women, largely invisible – the kind of women who today might take the night bus into the city centre for their cleaning jobs, or might appear at the back of the corner shop as the nameless relations of the shopkeeper. They all have their stories, but we’re largely oblivious to them.
If these three women do make it all the way to Judah, at the best they are going meet with indifference. Naomi (meaning “Pleasant” – there’s irony) has such a chip on her shoulder that no one would want to go near her. What kind of woman tells her bereaved daughter-in-law that her own sense of loss is the greater? Orpah (spell that one right!) now sees sense and realises that she will never make a home in a new country: better to go back and make a new life in Moab. But her sister-in-law Ruth clings to this difficult and demanding woman.
In many families the relationship between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law turns out to be the most contentious. And it looks as if this will be no exception. Ruth is by no means the quiet submissive creature we may have thought her to be. Instead, she shows she has a mind of her own, and is ready to go directly against Naomi’s wishes. She is not afraid to take a risk. Life is going to be hard as a migrant and a widow in a strange land, especially as the one person who might have protected her now seems to want to be rid of her. But still she journeys on, all the way to Bethlehem. She may be as good as invisible: but there will be a story to tell!
PrayerGod of all our journeyings –
Your eyes are upon us all
and you know the stories
of the people we ignore and overlook.
Broaden our vision
and deepen our compassion
that your love may support and encourage
all who today travel on to new beginnings.
Ruth 1: 1 - 5In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons. The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion; they were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name of one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. When they had lived there for about ten years, both Mahlon and Chilion also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons or her husband. Reflection According to the United Nations, more than 65.6 million people are now living under forced displacement. A number that is larger than the population of the United Kingdom. A number that is increasing year on year. A number so huge that it means we can often forget there are individuals and families with their own stories, motivations and intentions behind it.
The Book of Ruth opens with one such story - a flashback about forced displacement and immigration. Naomi and her husband Elimelech leave their home, their family and community in Bethlehem and cross the border into Moab. A family fleeing their country to escape famine. A family fleeing with deep, gnawing hunger in their bellies. A family fleeing with fear about how they will be received and treated in their new country.
The best-selling author, Khaled Hosseini reminds us: “Refugees are mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, children, with the same hopes and ambitions as us—except that a twist of fate has bound their lives to a global refugee crisis on an unprecedented scale. Together, in solidarity with refugees, we must demand that world leaders take collective responsibility for finding fair, lasting solutions to this crisis. Together we must ensure humanity and compassion triumph over fear and intolerance.”
Many individuals and families today flee their homes and communities. Just like Naomi and her family, there is great fear but also hope in their heart that they will find safety and compassion. For me, walking the Way of Jesus means standing in solidarity with refugees so we can offer that safety and compassion. Walking the Way by petitioning the government over unfair or unjust policies. Walking the Way by providing money, food and clothing to aid agencies. Walking the Way by raising awareness in our churches or communities. Walking the Way by offering safety and compassion?
who teaches us to welcome the stranger;
we pray for all refugees and immigrants:
those who have been displaced
those who have been displaced
through climate change,
those who have been displaced
through war and oppression.
Enable us to offer practical assistance
in terms of shelter, food and clothing.
May we demonstrate compassion
so that refugees and immigrants
can be welcomed as treasured guests.
In Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.
The Book of Ruth
Dear <<First Name>>
I hope you have found our journey through the Epistle to the Galatians useful in your spiritual journey of everyday discipleship. If you have any particular story about how these Devotions have helped you please do let us know - we love to publicise good news!
Our next series is on the Book of Ruth. This book is much loved and the famous line from Ruth accepting Naomi's God and people has her own was often used as part of the marriage liturgy.
The story of the Moabite, Ruth, David’s great grandmother is surprisingly racy It shows the difficulty in Levirate marriage where a close relation was to marry a widow to ensure the dead husband’s line continued. (An obscure practice that came to prominence in 16th Century England with Henry VIII's desire to end his first marriage.) Ruth catches the eye of her relative, Boaz, and Naomi ensures that Ruth offers herself to Moab who then wishes to marry her - a slight complication of a closer relative, is swiftly dealt with.
The book has layers of meaning - is it a political parable of welcoming the outsider to counter the policies of Ezra and Nehemiah in post exilic Israel? It it about the dignity of labour? Powerful love between women? Or, perhaps, is it about the evils of patriarchy? Perhaps there are as many layers of meaning as there are people and communities of readers. We hope you find the series useful.
If you enjoy receiving the Devotions could I ask that you tell your friends about them or ask for them to be publicised in your local church? I've taken the liberty of giving a little promotional flyer that could be used.
Every morning the United Reformed Church sends out a Daily Devotion consisting of a reading, short reflection and prayer to around 2,000 people. The reflections are written by a range of people from different places and perspectives - mainly from the URC. If you'd like to read old Devotions or sign up to receive them each morning please go to devotions.urc.org.uk
with every good wish
Coordinator, Daily Devotions from the URC Project
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Galatians 6: 11 - 18See what large letters I make when I am writing in my own hand! It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh that try to compel you to be circumcised—only that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. Even the circumcised do not themselves obey the law, but they want you to be circumcised so that they may boast about your flesh. May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything! As for those who will follow this rule—peace be upon them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God. From now on, let no one make trouble for me; for I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body. May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers and sisters. Amen. Reflection For us Jesus followers, circumcision isn’t as much of an issue now as it was ‘back in the day.’ Our fleshy showings look different. Is your church the right brand? Stunning worship band playing the ‘new sound from heaven’ pitch perfect? Serve the best coffee and cakes? Saved souls this week? How many healings? Number of people helped? Inclusive? How many justice campaigns are you fighting for? Give much to charity? How big is your building? How young is your congregation?
In the right spirit – these are valid concerns. In the wrong spirit – these concerns are fleshy shows that weigh us down.
In his BC life, Paul (then Saul) knew all about what it meant to be seen doing the righteous thing. If anyone was qualified to write in big letters about the perils of making “a good showing in the flesh”, Paul was. Instead of pointing to himself, Paul points to Jesus Christ crucified - the only one who truly made a righteously good showing in the flesh.
When you are renewed by Christ’s spirit - when made into a “new creation” – everything changes. I don’t know what that looks like for you. But for me, there’s a desperation in knowing that all my hopes, dreams and aspirations rely on a man who hangs bleeding on a cross. There’s a humility in knowing that the same man is God’s son – raised from the dead – who prays for us right now in Heaven. There’s a longing in my spirit for the Holy Spirit of God, and a prayer that His hopes and dreams become reality – “on earth as it is in heaven”.
“A new creation is everything” – it’s what Jesus lived, taught, died and was reborn for. Renewed, our motivations are brought into alignment with God’s life-saving mission.
We’ve nothing without Christ renewing us.
We simply pray as the Psalmist prayed,
“Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and steadfast spirit
within me.” (Psalm 51:10 NRSV)
For your glory, God.
In Jesus’ name we pray
Songs of Praise on Sunday
Dear <<First Name>>
As you know Songs of Praise is featuring the Daily Devotions on Sunday. Various football matches are being screened on BBC1 which means the Songs of Praise episode will be shown on BBC2 - times vary but it seems to be starting between 1pm and 2pm - check the schedule for your TV region!
The programme looks at the Power of Prayer and features the Devotions as an example of how technology is helping people develop a discipline of daily prayer. It features the Rev'd Dr Susan Durber who both uses and writes for the Devotions and myself.
If you have friends who you think might like the Devotions you can now refer them to the URC's main website where there is now a direct link to the Devotions archive page where folk can read previous issues and sign up to receive them.
with every good wish
Coordinator, Daily Devotions from the URC Project
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Galatians 6: 7 - 10Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit. So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith. Reflection Faith, hope, patience – qualities needed by every farmer. In so many areas of life people look for instant results but such are not available, not only when sowing in garden or field but also in human character and behaviour. We receive many warnings about what bad diets and bad habits could do to our health in years to come, but it is so tempting and so easy to put off the evil day and continue to indulge ourselves.
The apostle knew that all this also applies on our spiritual journey as Christians where we also experience comparable temptations. It is so easy to slip into bad habits and then accept them as normal.
In some ways trying to unpack these words of Paul reduces their impact rather than reinforcing it but my eye fell on verse nine, “So let us not grow weary in doing what is right” and I called to mind Cowper’s line in his hymn at R&S 551, “Where is the blessedness I knew when first I saw the Lord?” Those of us whose faith journey is already quite long may remember our initial exhilaration when faith came alive, and now find that such feelings have grown weak. I write not long after the death of Billy Graham who led so many people to make a commitment to Jesus, but they later found that worldly pressures, and Church life, dulled that initial response so that weariness and worse took over and they lost the sense of blessedness.
The seeds we sow, the habits and practices that we develop may take a long time to show fruit, be it good or bad, but that harvest will come. God is not mocked: but God is also faithful, loving and just. May God give us grace and strength to stand firm and persevere.
PrayerA Prayer of Thomas Aquinas
Give us, Lord, a steadfast heart,
which no unworthy affection
may drag downwards;
give us an unconquered heart,
which no tribulation can wear out;
give us an upright heart,
which no unworthy purpose
may tempt aside.
Bestow on us also, Lord God,
understanding to know you,
diligence to seek you,
wisdom to find you,
and a faithfulness
that may finally embrace you;
through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen
Psalm 511 O my God, have mercy on me
in your steadfast love, I pray;
In your infinite compassion
my transgressions wipe away.
2 Cleanse me from iniquity;
wash my sin away from me.
3 For I know my own transgressions;
I can see my sinful plight.
4 You, you only, I’ve offended,
and done evil in your sight;
So your words are verified,
and your verdict justified.
5 From my birth I have been sinful—
such the nature I received—
Sinful from my first beginning
in my mother’s womb conceived.
6 Truth you look for in my heart;
wisdom to me you impart.
7 Cleanse with hyssop, purify me;
I’ll be whiter than the snow.
8 Let the bones you crushed be joyful;
may I joy and gladness know.
9 From my failure hide your face;
blot out all my wickedness.
10 Lord, create a pure heart in me,
and a steadfast mind renew.
11 Do not take your Spirit from me;
cast me not away from you.
12 Give me back the joy I had;
keep my willing spirit glad.
13 Then I’ll teach your ways to sinners;
rebels will turn back to you.
14 Free me from blood-guilt, my Saviour,
God most merciful and true.
Then I’ll praise your righteousness;
15 teach my lips your name to bless.
16 Sacrifice does not delight you,
else my tribute I would bring;
Nor do you take any pleasure
in a whole burnt offering.
17 Contrite heart as sacrifice
you, O God, will not despise.
18 Let your blessing rest on Zion;
build Jerus’lem’s walls again.
19 Sacrifices then will please you—
bulls upon your altar slain,
Off’rings made for your delight,
truly righteous in your sight.
You can hear a Free Church of Scotland congregation sing this, from v7, to the tune Ottawa here.
“O God make clean our hearts within us
And take not Thy Holy Spirit from us”
It is a Psalm full of contrition, self-blame, and remorse verging on despair. Its poetic language and rhythm is both seductive and masochistic. We get lost in the language and become deaf to its incoherence. Having dismissed burnt offerings and Temple ritual, it finishes up with exactly that. Having faced up to our sins and iniquities, it blames God for having conceived us this way in the womb. It can make us so full of our sins that we forget the beauty of the creator who has bestowed on us the gift of the Spirit in the first place. It can make us lose balance and forget love. It needs Jesus to restore the balance. “Whose fault is it that this man was born blind?” the disciples ask in John’s Gospel, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”” You could be forgiven for thinking that the Psalm says: ”Both – we are all conceived in sin.” Jesus says that it is neither. The man’s blindness is something to be put right so that we might all see the love of God. Our guilty hearts interpret the Psalm to say we are all blind, always. Jesus says that our shame must not blind our eyes to the beauty of our own creation, nor make us hide in a corner, consumed by shame. It is sometimes easy to be overwhelmed by our failings and forget that the light of the world shines in the darkest corners. As the blind man affirms “Whereas I was blind, now I can see”.
PrayerIn moments of near despair the doxology calls us back to the beauty of our creation. This is a prayer for the forgiven:
Praise God from whom all blessings flow;
Praise God all creatures here below;
Praise God above, you heavenly Host.
Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost….
and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
Galatians 6: 1-6My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ. For if those who are nothing think they are something, they deceive themselves. All must test their own work; then that work, rather than their neighbour’s work, will become a cause for pride. For all must carry their own loads. Those who are taught the word must share in all good things with their teacher. Reflection Paul’s admonition does not here come out of the blue. It is the implication of the life of the Spirit, as he describes it, in its power and beauty.
That’s the setting. Away with all pettiness! All self-serving! All censoriousness! What room is there for self-righteousness in the life in Christ?
We’re all on a journey. If someone strays, beckon her/him back gently. Who knows? You or I, we may need a similar service some time. You never know. Our own sense of direction can be a bit rocky from time to time.
Not that that’s an excuse for leaning on others when we should be doing the hard work ourselves. Laziness is not one of the fruits of the Spirit. Politicians are keen on giving us stark choices – it’s either individualism or the corporate state. Paul is telling us different here. The choice is actually between the works of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit. Everything then falls into place.
It doesn’t work in today’s society? We’d have a better idea if it had been tried more often. It is sad but true that many people will not now darken the door of a church because they have seen how the lives of Christians have been at variance with their profession. How they have experienced censoriousness and unwelcome at the hands of people who should have known better and lived better.
What a beautiful picture is being painted here. Can we all find a place on the canvas?
Grant us a place on the canvas,
and face us with the challenge
of being like the portrayal.
Grant us the humility
of being among the hesitant and nervous;
and the confidence of being among
the assertive and confident.
Prop us up as we shoulder
our own burdens,
and give us the patience to tolerate
those struggling with their own.
Give us the forbearance
not to chide those who stray,
and the meekness to accept the guidance
of those who seek to rescue us.
Grant us the happiness of the journey
and the joyous anticipation of its goal.
Galatians 5: 6-26Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another. Reflection This is the easiest of passages and the hardest of passages: it seems so obvious, doesn’t it? It’s all a bit Ronseal really – it does what is says on the tin! As Paul says, the works of the flesh are pretty obvious and so are the fruit of the Spirit – and we all know which should be on full display in our lives and in the lives of our churches (bearing in mind that Paul writes to churches and not to individuals) Except, are they really?
Paul is no fool – re-read that last sentence again – have we ever really desired someone else’s gift? I would love to be able to bake. It must be wonderful to be able to contribute to fetes and fairs, and even to after-church coffee. I have tried, and I watch cooking programmes, but I’m too ashamed of my offerings to contribute them– leave alone compete. I could say the same thing about flower arranging: I’m up to “stick them in a vase and hope” standard – whereas my daughter has real flair.
More seriously, do congregations “mark” preachers? As someone with an itinerant ministry, I’ve often wondered…. I do know that there can be fierce competition within a preaching team. If that drives up standards of preparation and commitment to a congregation, then done in the right Spirit then that is no bad thing, but it is all too easy for that to become corrupted. I also know that within Worship Groups, there is a serious danger of a similar dynamic developing.
Churches are composed of human beings, and being human, we all fail. It may look simple, but it’s not easy.
Help us to truly live by the Spirit
Not only to display the fruits of the Spirit
But grow them in our hearts
That our whole being may glorify you
Alone and together
InformationRichard Baxter was born at Rowton in Shropshire in 1615. In 1633 he was at the court of King James VI & I but was so disgusted with the low moral standards there that he returned home in order to study divinity. He was ordained but, after the promulgation of an infamous Oath, in 1640, which required obedience to a string of persons ending in the trite phrase 'et cetera', he rejected belief in episcopacy in its current English form and went as a curate to a poor area of the west Midlands. He opposed the Civil War and played a prominent part in the recall of Charles II, but his continuing dissatisfaction with the way episcopacy was practised led him to decline the See of Hereford. This refusal led him to be debarred from further office in the Church of England, though he continued to contribute to its life as a prolific hymn writer. He died in the year 1691.
St Mark 4: 1-9Jesus began to teach beside the sea. Such a very large crowd gathered around him that he got into a boat on the sea and sat there, while the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. He began to teach them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.’ And he said, ‘Let anyone with ears to hear listen!’ Reflection Richard Baxter had a long and busy life, allowing mini-biographies to be highly selective. He is commemorated today in the Anglican calendar with justifications such as that printed here. However, he is probably the only Englishman in that calendar who also has a United Reformed Church named after him, which is in Kidderminster where many saw him as a Presbyterian champion. His exasperation with the priorities and narrowness of the Church of England meant the second half of his life was a model of what today might be called pioneering ecumenism.
Whatever the ways in which his legacy has been adopted by different churches, Baxter himself was not a party man. That does not mean he favoured woolly compromise: he would not have been put in prison several times if that were the case. He did believe that those who named Jesus as Lord had a fundamental unity as Christians and the institutional Church should not make that hard to see. He worked tirelessly to establish forums where Christians of different traditions could meet to discover that unity. As the Church Secretary of a united URC-CofE congregation, I would gladly have Baxter as our patron saint.
The parable of the sower reminds us that the legacy of our work is unpredictable. Sometimes seeds stay dormant in the ground for a long period before new life appears. It took the Anglican and Nonconformist churches of Kidderminster two centuries before they were ready to unite in raising funds for a statue of Baxter. If you are one of those members of the United Reformed Church who still believe that when Jesus prayed that his people should be one he meant it, don’t despair. As Baxter’s hymn Ye holy angels bright reminds us, the Church on earth is not on its own in facilitating God’s purposes.
It is better to fail in a cause that will ultimately succeed than to succeed in a cause that will ultimately fail.
that your people should be one,
prick us with the pain of division;
remind us of the saints
who have lived for a better vision;
refresh our commitment
to the unity of the Church on earth;
for the unity of the Church in heaven.
Galatians 5: 7 - 15You were running well; who prevented you from obeying the truth? Such persuasion does not come from the one who calls you. A little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough. I am confident about you in the Lord that you will not think otherwise. But whoever it is that is confusing you will pay the penalty. But my friends, why am I still being persecuted if I am still preaching circumcision? In that case the offence of the cross has been removed. I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves! For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another. Reflection My goodness, there’s some loaded and strong language here! Sensitive ears are offended by verse 12 but with such open and bold speech Paul would have been at home in my Lancashire mill town where broad and bold speech is the order of the day. Paul clearly feels very strongly and he does so because he loves. The clue is in verse 14. The language is loaded too. “A little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough.” Does that remind you of anything? These are words quoted from Jesus, which is interesting, since the smart money says that Galatians was written about the early 50s before the final version of Mark’s gospel had been written. Jesus was talking about legalism; “the yeast of the Pharisees” and here we have a one time Pharisee now speaking out against the same thing. Paul is desperately saddened that, so early on in their life as a church, they had turned away from the Gospel. They had, seemingly, forgotten that all that is needed to reconcile us to God is the work of Jesus Christ on the Cross which in turn leads to a life of obedience to God fulfilling the Law of Love. Can you imagine, being Paul, freed from legalism, gloriously free, preaching this Gospel only to find some of the Christian communities you’ve birthed by God’s grace falling astray? Those churches had been persuaded by those who teach that God’s grace is not what reconciles you to God, but in fact the old understanding of the Law of Moses is necessary too. “The Apostle of the Free Spirit” ( as F.F. Bruce named him) was distressed and with the Galatians we too are reminded not to make our rules “the thing” but God’s love in Jesus. You are loved; now live it! ( As Paul might have said!)
PrayerGod of vigorous life and love,
we praise you!
You have set us free
along with the Galatian Christians
to live and love strongly
in the Way of Jesus of Nazareth.
May passion for the Gospel of your Son,
gentleness and determination
to stay the course,
mark us out in the eyes of all,
so that we may bless others
with what we ourselves
have been blessed with.
Galatians 5: 2 - 6Listen! I, Paul, am telling you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you. Once again I testify to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obliged to obey the entire law. You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love. Reflection Ouch! Paul is getting pretty would up by this point. His own journey from being enslaved by the Mosaic Law (Torah) to breathing the fresh air of the Spirit of Christ, was such a momentous experience that the last thing he want is for the fledgling friends of Jesus in Galatia URC to go backwards way. Clearly someone in the congregation was wanting them to revert to life in confinement. Paul says….”No No No. Don’t go back to those dark places where observing the intricacies of the Law ruled your actions and words. Keep calm and trust the Spirit of Christ.” Circumcision was the big debating point. But Paul says : “Move on. Insisting on circumcision will “cut you off” from Christ. (This is a “cutting” remark!) But Paul is in full flow. “Choose the Spirit’s path. There is only one way to enjoy being a friend of Jesus: ‘faith working through love’. “
Paul believes that faith is “made effective” by love. Paul had made discoveries about the Christian life which we can all embrace even though we may not have shared his dramatic journey slavery to freedom, from Saul to Paul, from Law to Love.. Yes… the greatest of these is Love. Trust it. When it hard to love, trust it. When the world prefers violence, trust it. When pain is all around, trust it. When you have runout of all options, trust it.
PrayerWe thank you God,
for the power of love
which melts bitterness and hatred;
for the patience of love
which outlasts prejudice and dogmatism;
for the courage to love
which transforms impossible situations;
for the freedom to love
which opens doors in decision-making;
for the persona of Love
who is Jesus Christ
source, guide and goal of our journey.
Galatians 5:1For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. Reflection Working in journalism, I always admire a well-crafted headline – especially when it is paired with an arresting first paragraph. You just want to read on and find out more. Today’s passage does just that.
Paul warns readers not to return to submission to the Mosaic Law and the various beliefs and practices they’d bolted onto it.
For contemporary Christians, these words may relate to any number of issues – but they all boil down to the fundamentally right relationship between God and humanity. Whilst such freedom is an act of grace, unearned by us – we are called upon to do something.
Because of God’s love of freedom from sin, S/He has liberated us from all that had us in its thrall. Christ’s death and resurrection has sealed that deal.
At an individual level, it might have been an addiction, an unpleasant personality trait that upset others or something which resulted in direct and serious harm.
At a corporate level, it might be the conquering of what William Beveridge called the five "giant evils" in society: squalor, ignorance, want, idleness, and disease or it might be national liberation movements that defy a foreign, imperialist power.
We are called to ‘stand firm’. We have a role to play in securing those gains of liberation as individually, and collectively, by showing the commitment required to maintain freedom as well as to resist sliding back into slavery.
As Paul says in Romans 6: 1-2 “What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it?”
We know how hard this is to achieve, whether as an individual desperate not to reoffend, or a society which is witnessing unparalleled levels of poverty and social despair and seems to be sliding back into the nineteenth century.
But Christ is on our side throughout. And that is the best news around.
PrayerDear God you are a God
of liberation and salvation!
Your love is shown in freeing us from sin,
through the utter negation of death.
Help us be resolute and confident
in everything we do
and ensure that all humankind
is free from every slavery forever.
Psalm 501 The LORD, the Mighty One, is God alone.
He speaks and summons all the earth abroad
From rising of the sun to where it sets.
2 From Zion’s perfect beauty shines our God.
3 Our God will not be silent—he will come;
Before him fire will burn and tempest rage.
4 He summons all the earth and heaven above,
That he may judge his folk, his heritage.
5 “Now bring to me my consecrated ones,
Those who by sacrifice are pledged to me.”
6 The heavens will proclaim his righteousness,
For God himself is judge and none but he.
7 “Hear, O my people, listen while I speak;
Against you, Isr’el, I will testify:
You are my people; I am God, your God.
Hear me as I address you from on high.
8 “I will not blame you for your offerings,
The sacrifices which you give to me.
9 I have no need of cattle from your stalls,
Or of the goats you bring me constantly.
10 “Mine are the cattle on a thousand hills,
The forest animals are all my own.
11 The creatures of the field belong to me;
To me the mountain birds are all well known.
12 “I would not tell you if I needed food,
Because the world and all its wealth are mine.
13 Do I require to drink the blood of goats?
On flesh of bulls do I delight to dine?
14 “But sacrifice thank-offerings to God;
Fulfil the vows you made to the Most High.
15 Call on me in the day when trouble comes;
I’ll save you, and my name you’ll glorify.”
16 But of the wicked God will then demand:
“What right have you to speak about my laws
Or take my covènant upon your lips?
17 You hate my word and spurn it without cause.
18 “You see a thief and then you join with him,
And with adulterers you love to meet.
19 You use your mouth for evil purposes;
Your tongue you harness to promote deceit.
20 “You speak against your brother constantly,
Perversely slandering your mother’s son;
21 You thought that I was just the same as you,
Since I kept silent at the things you’ve done.
“But now I will accuse you to your face,
I will admonish you, as is your due.
22 Consider this, you that forget the Lord,
Lest I destroy and none can rescue you.
23 “The one who brings thank-offerings to me—
He gives me honour and prepares the way
So that I may reveal myself to him
And the salvation of his God display.”
You can hear a Free Church of Scotland congregation sing this to the lovely tune Eventide here.
Some commentaries make the point that culture at the time this was written had moved beyond thinking God needed to be actually fed real food or that it is possible to bargain with God. Odd that, when we still hear statements on the lines “so I prayed that if God did this then I would always do that”. Others think the point is to try moving Jewish society beyond the thought that God has such Baal-like needs.
God’s, YHWH’s, response is “you thought I was one just like yourself” (v.21). Long before the accusations of “you make God in your own image” God has already turned it back on itself by effectively saying ”you make yourself and me in the way you’d like to be thought of and seen”.
As Angela Rigby wrote on January 20th: Amos seems to be saying, “Look, mate, how you live day to day should reflect the God you worship. And from the way you lot are living, your god’s nowt like the real God!”
The end of the second and third sections of the psalm (vv 14 and 23) say how to honour God by bringing the sacrifice of thanksgiving properly. It was a party - read Lev 7: 11-21 - unleavened cakes with oil and leavened bread and cooked meat and it was all to be eaten, not saving leftovers to eat for the rest of the week. God is generous, so honour that generosity by making yourself like God - be generous in sharing the thanksgiving to all around.
May we worship you wholeheartedly,
bring praise sincerely
and share energetically.
Galatians 4: 21-31Tell me, you who desire to be subject to the law, will you not listen to the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and the other by a free woman. One, the child of the slave, was born according to the flesh; the other, the child of the free woman, was born through the promise. Now this is an allegory: these women are two covenants. One woman, in fact, is Hagar, from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the other woman corresponds to the Jerusalem above; she is free, and she is our mother. For it is written,
‘Rejoice, you childless one, you who bear no children,
burst into song and shout, you who endure no birth pangs;
for the children of the desolate woman are more numerous
than the children of the one who is married.’
Now you, my friends, are children of the promise, like Isaac. But just as at that time the child who was born according to the flesh persecuted the child who was born according to the Spirit, so it is now also. But what does the scripture say? ‘Drive out the slave and her child; for the child of the slave will not share the inheritance with the child of the free woman.’ So then, friends, we are children, not of the slave but of the free woman. Reflection Paul is urging his readers to claim the freedom that God is giving them as heirs of God’s promises, as the children not of slavery, but of promise. And this passage builds up to the verse, that we shall read tomorrow, that is surely one of the most stunning in the whole of the New Testament. But these verses are not so easy to read as chapter 5 verse 1. After Margaret Atwood’s astonishing and chilling book, The Handmaid’s Tale, Paul’s argument and the story he recounts may stir in us a sense of anxiety and fear. The story of Sarah and Hagar is one full of sorrow and tragedy, of abuse and threat. While it is true that one woman finds joy in a miraculous pregnancy, another is first pressed into service to provide a child for another and when no longer needed, she and her child are discarded. And the whole form and structure of the story seems to assume that if one person is to be free, another must be enslaved. Paul is writing to a people who, he thinks, are choosing a form of slavery rather than the freedom that God is giving them. ‘No’ he wants to say, ‘God has set you free.’
As someone who enjoys many freedoms, not least among them the freedom of faith, the freedom that comes from forgiveness and grace, when I read the story of Hagar I cannot simply identify myself with Sarah. I cannot be free unless Hagar is free too. I cannot be free unless all women (and men) are free. I cannot be free unless slavery, abuse and exploitation are being. If I am truly free, then I am bound, to give myself to finding Hagar and setting her free too.
PrayerO God of Abraham and Sarah,
O God of Abraham and Hagar,
O God of Ishmael and Isaac,
O God of Paul and the Galatians,
O God who is my creator and redeemer,
give me courage to live
the freedom you grant
and grace to call for freedom for all.
Free my brothers and my sisters,
all those who are enslaved
by outer or inner chains,
and set me free
to be a freedom fighter in your kingdom. Amen
Galatians 4: 12 - 20Friends,I beg you, become as I am, for I also have become as you are. You have done me no wrong. You know that it was because of a physical infirmity that I first announced the gospel to you; though my condition put you to the test, you did not scorn or despise me, but welcomed me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus. What has become of the goodwill you felt? For I testify that, had it been possible, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me. Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth? They make much of you, but for no good purpose; they want to exclude you, so that you may make much of them. It is good to be made much of for a good purpose at all times, and not only when I am present with you. My little children, for whom I am again in the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in you, I wish I were present with you now and could change my tone, for I am perplexed about you. Reflection Paul has finally broken free of the Jewish laws that bound him to his previous life as Saul. He feels free, has become like a Gentile and now acknowledges, encourages and affirms the Galatians.
But there is a cloud of anxiety attached to these verses. He reminds them how they cared for him during his illness, but now he feels they are straying from the truth of the Gospel he shared with them, and urges them to stay strong. He cautions them to watch out for people who say they are friends, but have sinister intentions. Paul cannot understand and is frustrated why they should befriend ‘these’ people, who hold different views to his own.
When we feel passionate and enthusiastic about issues close to our heart, it can be a painful experience when other people cannot capture that vision we hold. We sometimes get frustrated like Paul, and our voices raise higher.
We must always remember that in our concerns and differences, within a variety of conversations and situations, God is the true mediator, opening our hearts and minds to the movement of the Holy Spirit which points the way the truth in Jesus Christ, Our Lord.
PrayerIn the tensions and frustrations,
we pray for patience;
In the heated words
and potential arguments;
we pray tolerance.
In the misunderstandings and confusion;
we pray for Wisdom.
Lord, the bearer of Truth and Justice
liberally pour your Holy Spirt upon us,
till our hearts are overflowing
with your grace. Amen
Genesis 38.6-27Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to beings that by nature are not gods. Now, however, that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits? How can you want to be enslaved to them again? You are observing special days, and months, and seasons, and years. I am afraid that my work for you may have been wasted. Reflection I can’t remember the last time I got a handwritten letter. Letters from my bank manager, insurance company, Church House…yes, I get them, but they’re all typed with maybe even the signature an image. No pen has actually touched paper.
Occasionally (very occasionally) I’ll get a ‘thank you’ card from a church, or maybe from a person, thanking me for something. But a letter? A proper, full letter? Nope, can’t remember.
So I’d look forward to getting a full letter. A few words of encouragement, perhaps, or a catch up with what’s going on. But I wouldn’t want to get this one. Not exactly a ‘thank you’ note, is it? More of a “You useless worm, I don’t know why I even bother” sort of letter.
And what had the Galatians done to deserve this? They’d been human, that’s what. Fancy observing special days, months, seasons and years? Pentecost, Advent and any year that ends in a 0… I’ve done ‘em all.
I’m sorry, Paul, if you think I’ve wasted your time. But, y’know, I’m human.
Forgive me when I don’t
match up to your expectations.
Forgive me when
I get bitter about people
who seem to be better followers
of your Son than I am.
But don’t stop loving me.
Galatians 4: 1-7
My point is this: heirs, as long as they are minors, are no better than slaves, though they are the owners of all the property; but they remain under guardians and trustees until the date set by the father. So with us; while we were minors, we were enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.
Do you ever watch the quiz show 'Pointless'? If you do, you'll know that occasionally they have a round based on the names of the chemical elements in the Periodic Table. Sometimes it's clear that the contestants have attempted to learn the more obscure ones in preparation, and come out with answers such as Livermorium or Oganesson (and yes, I had to look those up.)
It used to be thought that these elements are the most fundamental building blocks of the world, and cannot be split up into anything smaller. But ever since Ernest Rutherford proved the existence of the atomic nucleus in 1911 we know now that this isn't true.
Going further back in time, in the ancient world there were considered to be just four elements - earth, air, fire and water - and it was believed these in combination accounted for everything in the universe. This might be what Paul refers to when he writes of 'the elemental spirits of the world'. For Paul, these things enslave us. Only in Christ are we are no longer slaves, or children controlled by a guardian. Nothing is more fundamental than our identity as Christians.
Therefore, to be free we must move beyond the idea that the word is divided into fundamental elements or categories. As he has already said, in Christ there is no Jew or Greek, no slave or free, no male or female. We need to move beyond dividing people into such categories, or thinking that our cultural constructs are truly fundamental. Being free in Christ means looking past what we sometimes think is fundamental to see there is a new world beyond them, just as beyond the elements there is a mind-boggling sub-atomic world of tiny particles which behave in peculiar and confusing ways.
we thank you for the freedom
that you give us,
freeing us from the things
that divide us from from you
and from each other.
Help us to see that you are
the true 'elemental spirit' of the Universe,
and help us not to value
our assumptions about the world
above your all encompassing love.