Known, loved and called by name

About 9 years or so ago now I listened to an excellent talk in Regent chapel about the calling of Moses in Exodus 3, and in particular God’s revelation of his name to Moses. More excellent than the talk though was the bible reading before the talk. It was, I think, one of the last times that Rita Houston, the wife of Jim Houston, the founding principal of Regent, read in chapel. She was an elderly Scottish lady, with a wonderful Scots accent, and she loved to read Scripture.

What caught my attention on this occasion was the way she read God’s calling of Moses’ name: “Moses, Moses”. When she said Moses twice it felt like all her years of calling children and grandchildren by name gave a unique exposition of those words. Somehow I had the sense that it was in this way, in this tone that God called Moses all those years before – but I couldn’t put it into words – and I’ve never been able to put it into words, and even now I can’t articulate that sense fully – I know that you can’t see what I meant, because you weren’t there in chapel that day.

Then last night I read the words that explained it all. Suddenly I knew what I was trying to say, and what those words had communicated to me, all those years before. The words come from an excellent book that I’m really enjoying reading – Embracing the Body by Tara Owens (IVP USA).

It is a book that I thoroughly recommend to anyone – so often our thoughts about the body have a decidedly negative tone (at least in the relatively conservative evangelical world in the UK that I am a part of). Indeed I wonder if our neglect of thinking theologically about the body may well be at least partly behind a number of the scandals that have hit our evangelical world in recent years – perhaps there is a tendency to suppress our feelings about our bodies and physical life until they suddenly emerge in harmful or inappropriate behaviours. Whether that is so or not, Embracing the Body is definitely worth reading and the words that struck me about God’s call of Moses’ name are these:

It’s at this point that God calls Moses’ name, not once but twice. And Moses says one of the most dangerous and beautiful things in response in all of scripture … “Here I am”.

This isn’t just a statement of fact, as if God didn’t know where Moses was and might be wondering if he’d called the wrong name. There are a few things going on here (as is the case with all of Scripture).

First, Moses has heard the God of the universe call his name. If you’ve never had this experience (and most of us haven’t), imagine with me the idea of being called by name by the person who loves you most and knows you best in the world. The person who knows all of your faults and struggles, the whole of your story from beginning until this moment, who knows your joys and your dreams and the wild hopes that you only dare whisper in the dark to someone who knows you utterly. Imagine that person, who is the safest person in whose mouth your name could rest, saying your name in a way that carries with it all of the love, grace and profound acceptance you could ever hope to enjoy. Imagine them saying your name in a way that causes you to know, without doubt or confusion, that you are deeply loved for who you are right in this moment, that you couldn’t be more perfect or more cared for, that you are loved for everything that you are and everything you are not. Imagine hearing your name in that way.

Then imagine hearing it a second time, a time that builds on the first time. In that second hearing imagine the first time you heard your name being amplified. Because you have already heard, already know with every fibre of your being that you are loved beyond every measure you could come up with, that every way of gathering love into one place has been expressed in the way your name was said the first time. When you hear your name a second time, what you hear in the calling of your name is a calling forth of everything that you know that you are but want to become, a calling forth of your purpose, of what you have been uniquely crafted to be and to do, and answer to every why you’ve ever asked when it came to your purpose and presence on this planet. Imagine hearing yourself named in such a way that you resonate so deeply your soul thrums with it – a sense of a note being chimed that is the very note that your soul is meant to sound when struck with the things of this life, with your very purpose. This naming is powerful – it’s the naming of Genesis and it’s God calling Moses back to the garden.

That is just a taste of what it might be like to hear your name called by God, not once but twice. And that taste points to Moses’ response to that calling – a calling of both what is and what is to be. He was named by God (yet again) a naming that was so much more than repetition for emphasis.

Tara M Owens – Embracing the Body – p163-165

That is what I heard in the chapel that day 9 years ago as an elderly Scottish voice read God calling Moses at the bush. Reading that quote last night, in the context of having spent 3 years immersed in Exodus and the study of the words spoken between God and Moses, I saw what these words to Moses meant for Moses, and what they mean for us. This is what it means for God to name us – and have a name prepared for us (Revelation 2).

This is how God sees and us and knows us. I’m really struck by the combination of deep love and knowledge – and of complete acceptance and challenge for what is to come. I want the awareness of all of those things in my life – and for the knowledge of those things to change me.

So with Moses I want to say “Here I am”. Here I am, ready and waiting. Here I am – with all my weaknesses, all my failings, all my stumbling – yet here I am.

Unexpected Grief

Life has felt like a roller coaster these past few days. A feeling that is not unusual for this year. We’ve all had our worlds turned upside down in a myriad of ways.

Why though has this week felt different to the other times we have found ourselves on a roller coaster? Why have the tears flowed with ease? Is it just one too many roller coaster? Has there been one too many hard conversations? Has it been too long and I just want everything to be ‘normal’ again?

No, the answer came to me as I sat and held a sleeping child. I am journeying an unexpected grief. A grief I had not anticipated. A grief that in time will become an invitation to doing life differently. Right now though it is a grief that is real and unsettling, that means it feels like I am swimming in two directions. To be fully present and engage in pursuing ways forward for us to return to more face to face activities, to freely go about our days home educating without fearing we are more than 6, to get back to church gatherings of different sorts in person. The other direction, which I had not set out on, is this unexpected grief for the short time when I felt more alive than I have for a long time.

Lockdown is not what we are created for. We are made to be in relationship, to see others. The thing is that for me to do any of that means laying down being present and active at home in a full sense. Every trip out, every walk causes my blood pressure to drop to the point that it impacts everyday actions. The week before lockdown in March I had an appointment with my cardiologist who said I needed to get some tests done as soon as possible, because living like I am isn’t ideal by a long shot. He said we need a diagnosis so that we can either sort out treatment or put in place a plan of managing and controlling symptoms. Lockdown happened and those tests were stopped. Seven months on they are still not available.

Lockdown gave me an unexpected gift. The opportunity to be fully present at home; to be fully engaged with family and still have resources to bake, to garden, to create and sew, to read books. I felt so alive. There was no pressure to spend energy in ways I knew would mean that acitivites that give me life, gardening, baking, sewing would not be possible. I suddenly found myself one day thinking this must be what it feels like to feel ‘normal’. One activity did not have such a knock on effect that another one could not be done.

I want to be fully present in conversations with others, I want to see people again, I want to be out and about. I also want to have the ability to keep gardening, sewing, baking, reading. To be fully present at home if we have been out and about. It’s not that I want to stay in lockdown, but I am grieving that for me the more in person activities we do Mark and I will be having to start making constant decisions. For it is our family that take the brunt of that, Mark in particular as he keeps everything going.

So in many ways this unexpected grief reveals also the grief our family live day by day with an undiagnosed neuro/cardio condition that is for the most part invisible to the outside world. A grief which we will have to pick up once more as we return to more face to face activities. I remember at one point when they were ruling out MS someone saying that it was really good news that it wasn’t MS. I get that, but I also had the words of the neurologist in my ear saying “You have an undiagnosed condition, your group of symptoms as of yet don’t have a name. The good thing is that these types of conditions don’t tend to kill you but the frustrating thing is that we have no idea how it will develop over the years and therefore what that will mean for your life”.

It seems fitting that as we seem to be moving toward more in person activities again that this week I have harvested the last of our tomatoes and started work on tidying and sorting the garden in preparation to putting it all to bed for the winter. It was during lockdown I was able to plant a mini allotment in our garden and we have enjoyed tomatoes, blackberries, broccoli, courgette, sugar snap and the occasional carrot, along with flowers and lots of wildlife including a hedgehog. As with putting a garden to rest, there is the hop and invitation of what next spring will bring. There is a time to lay bare, to consider new paths and ponder new plants. In time this unexpected grief will become an invitation for doing life differently. And maybe in time those tests will also happen.

Living Well

I heard the news that J I Packer went to be with the Lord last night. I have a huge personal appreciation for Packer’s writings and ministry. I was 17 when I first read Knowing God, on a train journey up to Durham to see the university then. A significant day, as I first absorbed the challenge of Packer’s writings and then fell in love with Durham.

That book, and especially its chapter on God’s wisdom and ours has resonated with me repeatedly at difficult and perplexing moments in life (see here:

Also vital for me was his introduction to J C Ryle’s “Holiness”. In this introduction he talks about how important Ryle and the Puritans were in his own journey, particularly in rescuing him from ideas of ‘perfectionism’ and giving him a sense of the reality and inevitability of struggle in the life of the Christian.

For me the problem was not ‘perfectionism’, instead it was a certain type of Christian youth meeting where leaders talked of how they could sense the spirit at work powerfully, while I sat not feeling anything. At points I wondered what was wrong with me, and it was reading people such as Packer, and some great positive teaching in most youth contexts I found myself that helped me to realise the problem was not with me.

Packer’s books “Among God’s giants” on the Puritans, and “Keep in Step with the Spirit” addressing life in the Spirit were also vital for me. They reminded me that genuine Christianity is about more than just the mind. In a university CU context where the emphasis was on correct doctrine and personal evangelism almost to the exclusion of any other area of the Christian life they kept reminding me that historically evangelicals were much more aware of the life of the Spirit, and a concern for all of life than the conservative evangelical world of England in the 1990s appeared to be.

I loved the graceful way that Packer presented truth – unpacking the Bible as a whole, standing firmly for truth, and yet being generous to those whose view differed. Fundamental here is the opening section of his essay on penal substitution where he robustly defends that doctrine he criticises some defenders of the doctrine with these words:

They made the word of the cross sound more like a conundrum than a confession of faith – more like a puzzle, we might say, than a gospel.

and then later on:
The passion to pack God into a conceptual box of our own making is always strong, but must be resisted. If we bear in mind that all the knowledge we can have of the atonement is of a mystery about which we can only think and speak by means of models, and which remains a mystery when all is said and done, it will keep us from rationalistic pitfalls and thus help our progress considerably.

(there is one small part of his essay where I think he falls into his own trap, but that is a discussion for another time…)…

This analysis, if correct, shows what job the word ‘penal’ does in our model. It is there, not to prompt theoretical puzzlement about the transferring of guilt, but to articulate the insight of believers who, as they look at Calvary in the light of the New Testament, are constrained to say, ‘Jesus was bearing the judgment I deserved (and deserve), the penalty for my sins, the punishment due to me’ – ‘he loved me, and gave himself for me’ (Gal 2:20 ). How it was possible for him to bear their penalty they do not claim to know, any more than they know how it was possible for him to be made man; but that he bore it is the certainty on which all their hopes rest.

JI Packer “What did the cross achieve”

For Packer theology was about worship of God, and drawing others to worship that God. He was a Puritan in the best sense of the word – and his book “Among God’s giants” is a good one to see what the best sense of that word means – especially the chapters on Marriage and Family, Work and Leisure, and Revival. I’m grateful to have heard him speak in person on Richard Baxter as part of a course in the Pastor in Historical Perspective.

While I didn’t take any courses from J I Packer when I was at Regent I count it one of the great privileges of going to Regent that I heard him give one or two lectures, and take part in a number of panels (of which this was one).

I posted these notes on this blog 4 years ago now – and they seem a fitting personal tribute. They are notes I scribbled down from a Q and A session with J I Packer one Regent lunchtime.  

It was wonderful to hear him speak (which he does in sentences as carefully crafted as his books), and sense that the writing comes from a life lived with God.  Here are the notes I took:

To be a Christian is to be fully human – rather than acting.
Watch the heart
Let God search me often
Look hard at the Lord Jesus, read the gospels.  He is our Saviour, Lord and Friend.
Keep on begging the Trinue God to make me real, spontaneous, outgoing, sharing my heart with others, vulnerable.  (I remember this striking me vividly – and it still does – I think it is a particularly good prayer for those of us who are “marginally” more introverted than average.)
Live into circumstances other than resisting.  Keep quality of covenantal relationships – family.

Spiritual Disciplines – most profound, daily practice of bible reading.  Reading scripture, so that at critical moments is direction.

Tension between academic study and personal – pray about study, pray in what is learnt, don’t let brain work outstrip personal communion with the Lord.  Praying needs to match learning.  All truth is beneficial, yet also dangerous if used wrong.   Time and space to praying around learning.

Artificial environment of theological college, lots of input, less output.  Ideas about life.  Seduction of the spirit in academy – keep the heart with all diligence.  Grace in relationships.

Doctrine not to be taught without reflection on how it should change our lives.  Teacher of doctrine must be a pastor too.  Theology in context of worship and community

Vision often leads to risk.

“To be Christian is to be fully human”.

I am so grateful for the witness of Dr JI Packer, as for so many who have gone before him – and I want in my life to live up to so much of what I jotted down in that lunchtime session.

Keep on keeping on

I’ve not blogged much recently, mostly because I’ve been working through Ecclesiastes for the Bible for Life website that I’ve contributed material for before (Joshua, Judges, Deuteronomy, 2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings – But while doing that this week I came across this quote in a commentary on Ecclesiastes.

I had a bit of a love-hate relationship with the commentary (Two Horizons, Peter Enns), I liked a lot of it, but thought he pushed his perspective on the text a little harder than the text warranted. But the final reflection chapters were really interesting and the final pages were fantastic – partly because they quoted one of my favourite bits from Silver Chair (and I think Puddleglum would get on very well with the writer of Ecclesiastes), but mainly because I think he captured something of vital importance for our discipleship. Here is the section:

At the end of the day, I think the ultimate point about Ecclesiastes is to keep moving forward, no matter what. Whatever we are going through, however we see the world around us – even if we come to the point of blaming God for the whole mess – the final biblical answer is to push forward. And we do so not by ignoring or whitewashing the pain. We are not to make believe that everything is okay and real people of faith should not be going through this. To the contrary, the admonition to “keep moving” has teeth only because of the pain. It is only moving through the pain that “fear God and keep his commandments anyway” can take hold of us in our deepest distress. It is easy to believe, easy to act as you do, when things are going well. But when they are not, this is where the real growth happens. And like a garden plant we cannot grow tall unless our roots are deep in the manure.

The admonition to “keep moving anyway” is one that takes all control out of our hands. We are stripped down to nothing and then asked, “are you going to follow or not? I understand that everything you hold dear has been taken away, and nothing that once made sense now does. I know that you hold me responsible for everything, that I am not just or good. I will not defend myself. The only matter before you is to follow or not follow. What will you do?” Those who, in the midst of such anguish, continue to follow, can be stopped by nothing else…. And if we have someone else who has gone before us, with more anguish than we can understand, who himself has emerged victorious, having conquered death itself (the very enemy Qohelet feared) – then as Gunnar said, this is truly good news….

Describing what one sees in unflinching terms is not an act of rebellion or faithlessness. It is wisdom. But even more wise is knowing that such wisdom does not explain it all. The one who is truly wise will continue to trust and follow God, even when he/she is weary and worn from trying to make sense of God. He is never more our God than when he bids us to follow, even when we have every good reason not to. And we are never more his servants than when we obey – regardless.

Peter Enns Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary – Ecclesiastes p 219

This is not OK

This is not OK. Most of the time I don’t blog about the news. But once in a while headlines converge and words just need to be said.

This week has been horrendous.

It is the brutal murder of a black man in custody by a police man and then the subsequent words and actions of the US President that have utterly horrified me. Events that bring to a head so many more deaths, so many more shootings.

And on top of that is this:

This is not OK

This is blasphemy. There is a God who in heaven who created all people in his image. All people. Black, white, Asian, Hispanic, all people.

A God who loved this world so much that he was willing to step down and become one of us to die for all people.

A God who knows what it is to suffer from brutality.

A God who holds justice and righteousness in the highest regard.

A God who tell his people not to condemn the innocent, and not to acquit the guilty.

A God who calls on the powerful to use their power for justice and righteousness.

And so, outside a place where this God is worshiped, and holding the word of this God in his hands, stands the President of the USA.

The President who has just ordered peaceful protestors to be tear gassed and shot at with rubber bullets so that he can stand there.

That is not OK.

The President who has just told states that if they don’t get tough on protests he will send in the army.

This is not OK.

The situation demands from those in power an anger about the injustice suffered by this black man and thousands of others that leads to a root and branch reform of the police.

It demands that they say “Enough. We will do whatever it takes to restore justice in our law enforcement.”

But instead we get a president who clears protestors with rubber bullets and with tear gas, just so that he can pose with a Bible in front of a place where God’s people gather before he threatens to pour more flames on an already charged situation by sending in the army.

As someone who loves the Bible, and who loves God’s people I want to say loud and clear. That is not OK.

And sadly it is what brutal tyrants have done throughout history. They have wrapped themselves in their nations flags and in pious words as cloaks for evil deeds.

And it is not OK.

My prayer in all this is that Christians in places of power would have integrity. That more would speak up, and that someone would be willing to say “no” to the President – as someone who has understood that the US have a constitution to protect them from tyranny, current events look very worrying indeed.

My prayer is that Christians in the UK would take this as a warning. The day may come soon where some of us will need to say ‘no’ to those in authority. When we will have to stand firm and resist. When we will have to speak.

Father – make us ready.
Help us stand for justice
Help us be wise in how we live
Bring peace – not simply an absence of hostility
But real peace – your shalom – wholeness, restoration and life
Help us know when to speak
And give us courage to speak

Here is a prayer by German pastor Martin Niemöller, a member of the confessing church in the 1930s opposed to Adolf Hitler who realised his mistake in initially approving (as did many Christians in Germany) of Hitler’s initial rise because he would save the country from communism.

It is set to music here:

Here are the words:

First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist

Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist

Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist

Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew

Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me

Romans Reorientation

I haven’t written a blog post on Romans for a few weeks, but I have still been reading Romans a few verses each day. I’ve thought about posts for Romans 6 and 7 but they haven’t seemed quite right.

One of the problems with Romans is that the whole context of any particular section is really important – and the whole context of any particular section is the whole letter. This means that it is easy to go in a wrong direction if you don’t keep the bigger picture in view – just as it is to go in a wrong direction out walking following a compass bearing if you don’t keep on double checking your path.

My thoughts in this post are based around the bigger picture of Romans 6-8. They start from wondering why Paul didn’t just stop after chapter 6, which seems in many ways a clear summary of the Christian life and living out our new life in Jesus.

He describes how we are no longer slaves to sin, but live under a new master. We are no longer subject to death, because we died with Christ, and we have been raised with Christ. As once we were united to Adam in death, we are united to Christ in life. We are utterly secure, and what we do is based on who we are in Christ. Paul goes on to call us to submit all of our lives to our new master, living out the reality of who we are because we are united to Christ.

We could spend a long time unpacking the wonder of Romans 6, the glory of being united to Christ, and the implications for life now of that union. And yet Paul moves from Romans 6 into Romans 7 and a discussion of law. It seems like a step backwards.

There has been much ink spilled over Paul’s discussion of law in chapter 7, and the relationship of that chapter to chapter 8. For me though, I wonder if chapters 6, 7 and 8 describe a particular type of pattern that we often find in the Christian life.

The pattern is this:

Orientation: life is fundamentally OK, and I get how most things work. There may be problems, but most things are clear. My prayers are ordered, thankful, and maybe sometimes even a little smug.

Dis-orientation: something happens, maybe someone dies, or maybe I lose my job, or perhaps I realise that the answers I’ve been told to difficult questions about my faith don’t actual work anymore, or maybe I fall into a pattern of behaviour that I thought was only something ‘other people’ did, or maybe I’m shut up in my own home for weeks on end, and am realising new things about myself that I don’t like. During this time my prayers are anguished, raw and emotional. (In the Psalms, there are a lot of prayers like this – often called lament)

Re-orientation: through the process of questioning and struggle that these times bring it is possible to come back to a place that looks somewhat like the original orientation only from a new angle, with a new perspective on life. Prayers are grateful, even relieved. There is a sense of new possibilities, and a sense of a God who is bigger than I ever realised before, and who is willing to work in ways I never imagined.

Footnote: This pattern is used by Walter Brueggemann in his discussion of the Psalms to describe different types of Psalms, and he in turn got the concepts from a French philosopher Paul Ricoeur who used them to talk about how readers relate to narratives (stories), in a slightly different but similar type of way.

In Romans 6-8 I think this pattern rings true – Romans 7 comes after Romans 6 because the reality of trying to live Romans 6 is that sooner or later we come face to face with the reality of failure. That isn’t because, Paul would be quick to say, there is anything wrong with Romans 6 which describes who we are now in Christ, and how we should live as a result.

The reality of failure comes because sin is still not removed from my flesh, and there is still a law which tells me I don’t measure up. This law, Paul says, is holy, righteous and good – yet all it seems to do is make me want to sin more. Paul speaks of this in vivid autobiographical terms – especially in Romans 7:14-25, yet in terms which have caused commentators lots of confusion.

 We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. 15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 18 For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature.[a] For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

21 So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23 but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. 24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? 25 Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!

So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature[b] a slave to the law of sin.

Romans 7:14-25

At one and the same time he talks of being ‘sold as a slave to sin’ – which seems to indicate he hasn’t yet become a Christian, at least if we take Romans 6 at face value – and yet simultaneously can talk about finding delight in God’s law.

I remember vividly one speaker saying it was ‘obvious’ that Paul was talking about his present experience – which made me very suspicious of the speaker as I’d already managed to read several different perspectives on the chapter already, and I knew that various respected people, even within the evangelical world held and hold different positions.

I think that the difficult in arriving at one settled position on this is because the language of the chapter keeps on driving us in different directions – at least, I find this is how it works for me. As soon as I read one position and think I have it sorted I find I read it again, and become once more unconvinced.

This happened to me fairly recently. In a sermon on Romans 7 the speaker suggested (following one of the main recent evangelical commentators on Romans) that Paul is actually recapitulating Israel’s story and experience of the law. It sounded convincing at the time, I even told him so a few days later. Yet reading Romans again recently it doesn’t feel completely satisfying.

There is something so agonisingly personal about this, that it is hard to remove it from Paul’s present lived experience. It may well be true that Romans 7 contains aspects of Israel’s history – but I don’t think that is all it is. And yet I also can’t settle on this just being about the ongoing struggle with sin in a believer – after all Paul speaks of being ‘sold as a slave to sin’ – and yet has spoken of us as being free from slavery in chapter 6.

It is at this point that I think the language of disorientation helps. There are times for everyone who trusts in Jesus where we know that Romans 6 is true, and yet we feel like we are in Romans 7:14-25 all over again.

Romans 7:14-25 are words that I think describe part of the normal Christian life – yet not all of the normal Christian life. In a sense, they could be described as Paul’s lament over sin. Here is how I think it works – at least in one sense.

These verses describe the reality of the darkness in our hearts so clearly. We are children of God – and yet we can still choose to sin. At times the pull of sin is so strong. We can be enjoying life with God, feeling fulfilled one moment, and yet suddenly the next find that we are experiencing afresh the pull of temptation in one direction or other – and we may well give in.

When that happens, and we come to our senses it is easy to feel that we have failed utterly and gone completely backwards. For me there are periods of time in my life associated with particular temptations and sin, periods of time associated with difficulty in all sorts of areas of life – and when I experience a similar pull today it is easy to think I will end up in the same sort of place.

Yet I think the reason for Romans 7 is it tells us these sort of feelings are part of the normal Christian life. It is normal for us to sometimes be in places of utter confusion. It isn’t the whole story, but it is a part of our stories.

We are fragile, broken creatures, and all sorts of different sorts of temptations will, at different times be horribly appealing. Sometimes it will be our own deliberate fault – but sometimes it will be through ignorance or weakness, and sometimes it will even be through the painful damage that someone else has inflicted on us.

Faced with this weakness I have a choice, and we have a choice. We can choose to hide, to pretend, and keep up a facade. Or we can admit our weakness and our inability, even our depravity and be driven back to dependence on God.

It is as we face this weakness that we are led into Romans 8. Not into a new and victorious higher level where we never struggle with sin again – but rather as we face our weakness we hear once again the resounding victory of the gospel – that there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

We are reminded once more of the Spirit at work in us – the Spirit who intercedes for us in our weakness, in our suffering and in our groans. He reassures us that we are indeed children of God, no longer slaves to fear. This is our new identity if we are trusting in Jesus. This is the re-orientation we can come to through the struggle of Romans 7.

And yet we are still, in Romans 8, in a world where we have to put to death our sin, where we are not to gratify the desires of the sinful nature. We are still in a world where we are at war with sin. In such a world we will still go wrong. We will still fail.

Even from the place of re-orientation we can still fall into state of disorientation. Our life is one of ups and downs, ‘the law of undulation’ as CS Lewis refers to it in the Screwtape letters. When we do, I think part of the reason we have a chapter like Romans 7 is that it encourages us that failure is not final.

Being in a place where it feels dark and where we do not know what is going on, and why we are so attracted to certain sins does not mean we have reverted to previous places of confusion. Yes, we will find ourselves in a situation where once more we realise we are not as good as we thought we were. We will sin. We will hurt others. We will be ashamed. We will want to hide. We will wonder how all this fits with the reality of what God has done in the gospel. We will wonder if we can really belong to Jesus after all.

Yet in the midst of the sin and the shame we can with Paul be driven back to Romans 8 and hear afresh that there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

And that good news will be all the more wonderful because we will know even more deeply the evil we have been delivered from, and even more fully the goodness of the God who has rescued us, and put his Spirit in us so that we might know more fully how deeply loved we are as God’s children, and how utterly true the words that there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus are.

And as we do that listen afresh to the wonder of the end of Romans 8

31 What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? 33 Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. 34 Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36 As it is written:

“For your sake we face death all day long;
    we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”[a]

37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,[b] neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 8:31-39

Outpoured love that beats shame. Super-abounding grace defeating sin.

Oddly enough after finishing Romans 4 I moved into Romans 5. The first few verses of Romans 5 are full of rich truths:

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

Romans 5:1-5

What caught my attention was v5. “Hope does not put us to shame”. In the previous version of the NIV this read “Hope does not disappoint us”, which I think sounded too weak. It sounds like the sort of thing that happens when I say “I hope it doesn’t rain this afternoon”, followed by “I’m really disappointed, it rained”.

Not only can it sound a bit weak, it is also too detached from me. I can be disappointed in something outside myself, and that disappointment does not impact on my identity. Yet the word used in the Greek is much more likely to relate to the idea of shame – and that is how the current version of the NIV translates it.

Shame is a much more powerful, and personal concept – and especially so in Paul’s day and culture which was so fundamentally shaped around the ideas of honour and shame. But it resonates today too. A hope that will never put us to shame is a hope that will not ultimately make us look foolish.

Imagine a scientist heading up trials for a vaccine for a deadly virus. When he comes to put his name to the final paper writing up the results he wants to know that everything about this trial has been done correctly – he wants to know that putting his name to the paper will mean he is associated for ever with the cure, rather than forever associated with a wrong idea. He does not want to be put to shame.

Paul says that boasting in our sufferings leads to a hope that will never be put to shame. As I thought about this I puzzled over this concept that we can boast in our suffering because our hope will never put us to shame.

You see in many ways I so easily feel that the story of the last four years has been one of shame – a fruitless job search, until the day when the right opportunity appeared to present itself – followed by excitement and energy and moving, the joy of a new start and fulfilment of hopes.

But then the unraveling. Health issues. Questions around my fit to the job, and our fit to the position. Questions that led to leaving. Questions that led to moving on. Questions that led to dashed hopes. Hopes that disappointed, and hopes that felt like shame as we moved to yet another new start.

Does not our experience suggest exactly that hope very often makes us ashamed. Hopes come crashing down, and because we invested our lives in those hopes we feel that crushing sense of shame and unworthiness.

My usual way to deal with this is to put hope in a box marked ‘future’. Hope does not put us to shame because one day we will be with Jesus.

Now that is wonderfully and gloriously true, but the problem, for me at least is that it ends up meaning that now doesn’t really matter. Now life might well be quite grim, but I simply press on, with a determination that is more stoic than Christian to endure now, knowing that one day it will be different.

Then my mind went back to the text, and you’ll notice that it doesn’t say hope does not disappoint us because we will be in heaven. Instead it says this:

And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

Hope does not put us to shame because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts.

Notice the present tense – hope does not disappoint, combined with a perfect tense (a past action, with an ongoing impact) – God’s love has been poured into our hearts, through the Holy Spirit given to us. The Holy Spirit living in us has poured out his love, and that love goes on being poured out into our lives.

That “pouring out” is not to be imagined as the Holy Spirit gently pouring out a cup of tea into a dainty tea cup at a tea party. No, it means a rushing out, a torrent of rushing water pouring over the edge of the cliff, a fountain gushing out with water. That is God’s love poured out in us. That is why hope does not disappoint – because we know that God loves us.

But all too often it doesn’t feel like that. All too often I forget the love and wallow in the shame. As I mulled that over in my mind I realised that shame, for me at least, comes from the expectations I have for myself (basically that I need to be absolutely correct 100% of the time), and the expectations I imagine others have of me (obviously they also expect that I need to get things right all the time). I don’t have these expectations of anyone else, so why I imagine that I am an exception I don’t really know.

Except that the last sentence there is not really quite true. I get these expectations from a slightly warped picking up on comments others make, not necessarily about me, but in my hearing, and from the actions of others, and then I worry about why I don’t match up. I have a sense that I need to get things exactly right to avoid this sense of shame, of not matching up.

But that means I am looking in the wrong place for vindication and how to be unashamed. If God’s love has been poured out into my heart, then I know that God approves of me. Hebrews tells me that Jesus is not ashamed to call me his brother.

It is so easy in this life to feel shame on our behalf, or on behalf of others. To want to hide away in embarrassment because of the actions of someone else. God does not do that with us. Jesus never puts his head in his hands and he never feels like denying we belong to him. He is not ashamed – no, he is glad with all his heart that we are part of his family (that last half of the sentence echoes in my head from something John Piper wrote about the parable of the Prodigal Son).

And that is why hope does not put us to shame. Because God does not look on the last four years of my life and feel shame. God does not look on my weaknesses, and my sin, or on my weirdness and feel shame.

When I am tempted to think that time has been wasted, that I have been made to look foolish, or that there is no hope left for how life will work out then I need to turn to the God who loves me and know that whatever issues need to be worked out between him and me they are done on the basis of a God who is not embarrassed to call me his, of a God who is glad with all his heart that I belong to him.

In the midst of things that make me feel shame, I need to call to mind, and call to my heart the reality that God loves me. That God loves me enough to send his son to die in my place.

Out of that reality I need to ask God to make me more and more aware of his love. I need to come back to these words of Paul and ask that I might know more and more of the reality that the Spirit of God has poured out all over my life the love of God, and that he goes on pouring it out, a never ending fountain of love.

This love is displayed most profoundly at the cross – and you can read Romans 5:6-11 to see more of the wonder of what it means for Jesus to choose to die in our place – the one perfect righteous man for sinners such as you and me. Read too in Romans 5:6-11 to see the wonder of Jesus raised to life for us and the guarantee that gives of life.

Then in Romans 5:12-21 Paul contrasts the death that comes to all as a result of Adam’s sin with the life that is available to all as a result of Jesus’ death. Adam chose life on his own that ended in death for all. Jesus chose death for himself that resulted in life for all. We get to choose – will we stay united to Adam in death, or turn to Christ and in him find life. (see for a great summary of the good news based around this truth)

Yesterday I reached the last verses of Romans 5:

20 The law was brought in so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, 21 so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Romans 5:20-21

I was really struck by the comparison. Sin abounds, yet grace abounds even more. So much has gone wrong with our world, so much sin and mess, yet God’s grace is stronger, and will overcome. Sin increased, yet grace super-increased. Whatever sin and death can accomplish, grace will overcome.

Grace will reign through righteousness to bring eternal life. That eternal life is not just about me and my own future – although that would be wonderful enough. Paul is talking about the whole world. The whole world will be liberated, and brought into God’s new life as the entire universe is recreated and transformed.

We need that hope on a large scale right now at the point where all our illusions of control and prosperity are being stripped away. At a time when the strongest can fall suddenly ill, and when those already stretched can fall into financial disaster and have to rely on the generosity of strangers to feed their families.

In the midst of all that, God’s grace is stronger. God is still at work in the ruin and the mess of our world to bring about eternal life through Christ Jesus. We may not see how. We may well be mystified. But he is at work, and one day we will see.

And at my individual level it is a reminder of where I began this post. When I feel deeply the shame of my sin, the shame of my weakness, and the shame of my oddness, I am to remember God’s love for me, and I am to remember that his grace is stronger than any sin I can imagine.

Father I know this is true
Help my unbelief
Father help me live in this knowledge
Secure in the love
you have poured into my heart
Filled with your Spirit
Free to act and speak
and work and think for You
To gain approval from You
To know that there is no shame in You
To know that the sin
which rightly makes me feel shame
Is forgiven because of your grace
Dealt with at the cross
And I am free
Free to live
Free to speak
Free to trust
Free to hope
Free to love
Free to be who you have made me
And may I always remember
That your grace is stronger
Than all the powers of sin and death
May your Spirit once more remind me
That I am loved beyond measure
By the God who gives grace upon grace
To help me live head held high
In the name of Jesus who died and rose
To secure this grace

Life Changing faith?

I’ve been reading Romans recently, and last week I reached chapter 4. In his closely compressed and argued paragraph in 3:21-26 Paul has argued that everyone, Jew and Gentile without exception, has sinned and that everyone, Jew and Gentile without exception can receive God’s free gift of eternal life through faith in Jesus’ faithfulness which led Jesus to die on the cross in our place.

In Romans 4 Paul uses Abraham as a kind of model of what it means to be justified by faith. He does that first of all to answer his key question, and the key question we must always reckon with: “What do the Scriptures say?” His answer appeals to Jewish readers, for whom Abraham was the father of their race. It also appeals to Gentiles, because, as Paul is quick to point out, Abraham was justified before he was circumcised.

The verses that grabbed my attention however are these:

16 Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring—not only to those who are of the law but also to those who have the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all. 17 As it is written: “I have made you a father of many nations.”[c] He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed—the God who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not.

Romans 4:16-17

The promise comes by faith – so that it may be based on grace. God’s promise to us is a gift – and it comes to all who have Abraham’s faith. What does it mean to have Abraham’s faith? Ultimately Paul’s answer is that we believe in the same God as Abraham.

Paul tells us two things about the God we believe that we need to believe too. He is the God who gives life to the dead, and the God who calls into existence things that don’t exist. I felt as if God emphasised those words to me as I read them the other morning.

I think they are utterly radical and life changing. Too often I feel like my faith can be confined to my head. I know what I believe and why. I can explain it to others. I can be very helpful in setting things out clearly, and avoiding errors. That is great – but it is not enough.

Too often I feel like our churches are too much like this too. We can explain what we believe and why. But when people become Christians we have no answer to how their faith should affect here and now. We do not seem to be able to articulate what it means to serve God in the here and now beyond supporting Sunday morning church and ‘mission’ work.

If you’ve read any of NT/Tom Wright (he uses NT for scholarly work, Tom for more popular level) you may well know that he has caused some controversy at both academic and popular level in his views on Paul, and especially what he thinks Paul meant by justification by faith. If you read my posts on Romans from a week or so back really carefully you will be able to guess that I’m definitely influenced by NT Wright, basically sympathetic, but with some reservations.

Whatever your views on the rights or wrongs of Wright’s overall project on Paul it is undeniable that he is massively influenced by the issue of what difference our faith makes to all of life, and by the sad way in which certain types of churches have failed to answer the question “What do I do now?” to those who have become Christians.

Paul’s words about God here remind us that our faith is not simply something we define, describe and sign up to. It is a life changing reality. Having faith changes our lives. Not because faith in itself has power – but because the God in whom we have faith is the God who raises the dead and calls ‘no-things’ into reality.

That encouraged me to pray with fresh energy. I prayed for someone known to me who is critically ill in intensive care because it gave me fresh energy to pray realising that God could really do something about that situation – so I joined my prayers to many, many others praying for that individual (and I’m so impressed by the prayer going on at their church right now, not just in relation to them, but in relation to all that their church does).

I know God doesn’t always answer these prayers – yet I’ve seen enough times when he does. In a sense those answers puzzle me more. Why them? Why now? What makes them different to prayers that don’t get answered? Why was it not them? Why not then? It is hard to live with that kind of unexplainedness in reality – and yet that is what we live with when we believe in a God who can raise the dead – but doesn’t always.

Moving in a sense closer to home I was encouraged to pray more for my life. For our hopes and dreams as a family. For things that right now seem dead. Hopeless.

My work right now feels hum drum and pointless – and I don’t really understand what I am doing in that place, or what I really contribute, especially now that I sit behind a desk alone at home communicating online rather than in person – and yet the God who raises the dead calls me to pray that my role and presence and personality would show something of him to others and signpost them to his reality.

There’s a page on this blog about our hopes and dreams for what we might do, and about Joshua’s Tree. None of that is happening right now. Humanly speaking those dreams and ideas and hopes for fulfilled passions are dead. And yet I am called to faith in a God who raises the dead. Faith in a God who brings things out of non-existence. So I need to pray, and continue to plead with God in relation to those things.

We’ve lived for three years now with massive unexplained questions over Roz’s health. There are good days, and their is medication that helps, but still the big questions over what is causing the issues remain. Still at each point we live with the reality that one day of great health and family fun together can be followed by a day of pain. We don’t have the answers and it feels like another kind of death.

And each day there are a myriad of smaller things where it doesn’t feel like there is much hope. And where it is tempting to retreat away from hurt and into a comfortable theological box where the world can’t get to me. But God’s word breaks in. He is a God who raises the dead. A God who brings things into life that don’t exist.

He is unstoppable. He is unfathomable. He cannot be contained or controlled. Why he chooses to act in certain ways is a mystery. It was a mystery for Abraham – who waited 25 years to see the start of God’s promises being fulfilled. It was a mystery to many Bible characters, who endured a lot of silence and a lot of confusion.

So in the midst of our lives right now, in the midst of an epidemic where we have leaders who don’t seem to know what to do, in the midst of economic catastrophe where we do not know how many lives will be ruined we have a God who raises the dead, and a God who can create out of nothing. Nothing can stop this God who is at work. We live right now in the middle of the story – our ‘middled’ and ‘muddled’ perspectives as someone has put it.

Faith is not simply about assent to doctrine, not simply about believing in a set of facts, it is about a living trust in the God who gives life to the dead. It is a reliance on this God for all of life and death. It is a trust that means we involve him in all of our lives – or rather we get involved in all that he is doing in all the parts of this world in which we live and move and have our being.

Faith is a trust that as I log on to the office tomorrow God is there already. He is working in the lives of my colleagues. He is working in the university. He is on a mission that I get to be a part of. And so I need to pray to have open eyes to what God wants me to say and to be and to do as part of that team. Whether that affects the work of the team directly, or how the team works together, or is something in regard to a particular individual. I need open eyes. I need God.

Faith is a trust that in the midst of this chaotic and confusing world, God is at work in the midst of my own journey, and that of our family. That as I sort through the ways that he has led us here, I trust that his plans and purposes are good, and I listen for his nudging and direction to move me forward on the journey. Humanly speaking certain doors seem unlikely to open – and yet God can raise the dead.

I need to use this time of lockdown, this time when doors are very firmly to shut to pray that he would open up the right doors, for the right ministry opportunities at the right time. I need to pray for boldness to speak of what is on my heart with others, to be ready to speak of my passions, to be ready to share what I think is needed – to not worry about approval, but know I am loved by the king.

This is what living by faith is all about. For Paul faith is about a trust that changes life – all of life – because life is no longer about me and governed by my ability – instead life is governed by God – by God’s abilities and power and strength and love.

As I type this I wonder if it is really true that I can live like this. Can I move forwards in this love? Can all of my life reflect that I trust God with all of it? That doesn’t mean perfection here and now – Abraham, Paul’s example in chapter 4, was far from perfect – but it does mean a willingness to risk everything trusting in the God who raises the dead. It means be willing to get it wrong – another challenge to the needing to get thing right part of me.

If it is really true that God is a God who raises the dead, and a God who makes things out of what is not then it means all the constraints I put on myself, and all the limits I place on what God may or may not do are just that – constraints that I don’t need.

This era of lockdown has meant that a lot of assumptions about the way we work, and the way we do church have had to change. I had the chance to go to a job interview for an organisation it would have been great to work for. Sadly the job was too far away, and only a short term position, so it was not feasible to make the move for such a job, even if a day or two could have been done from home – so I decided that I couldn’t in all honesty pursue it any further.

Somewhat ironically I’m now working from home for a job based 10 minutes away on a full time basis – and I suspect that whoever took the job I didn’t go for will be doing much the same. My point is that things we once took for granted about what it takes to do a job, and how much face to face contact is required, are now utterly changed. Limits we once placed on what is possible and not possible have been transformed.

How much more should that be true for us who say we believe in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Surely that should change everything – in fact that has been the strapline on our church Easter events: ‘this changes everything’. The question I must face is: does it?

God is the God who raised Jesus from death. He is the God who raises the dead, and the God who makes out of nothing. Nothing is impossible with this God. Will my prayers reflect that this week? Will I pray for the impossible? Will I trust that God can work in my life in a way that is beyond what I could ask or imagine?

Lord I believe – help my unbelief
Help me this week to live this life of faith
Help me to trust you –
the God who gives life to the dead
The God who brings existence out of nothing
Open my eyes to you
The one who can do more than I can ask or imagine


Resurrection Reflections: Known by Name

I love this next stage of John’s account of that first Easter Morning. From Peter and John’s race to the empty tomb we stand with Mary crying outside the tomb.

11 Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb 12 and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.

13 They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”

“They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” 

John 20:11-14

The empty tomb on its own does not bring joy or hope. For Mary it brought only confusion and more sorrow. She was alone, separated from her friends, perhaps by her rush to go and find Peter – and then she was abandoned by Peter and John. Alone in the garden. Her Lord was dead, yet his body was gone. Not only had they killed this man, they had also stolen his body.

I was struck this year hearing Luke’s account of that first morning in Luke 24. Luke makes it quite clear that the angels expected the women to have heard Jesus’ teaching and to have learnt from it. Mary was one of the women who had been with Jesus on his travels. Mary and the other women had heard the same teaching as Jesus disciples.

That is hugely radical for its day, and sadly, fairly radical for today too. Jesus treated women as individuals, and taught them just as he did men. No wonder Mary is devastated as she stands at the tomb. This man is different from any she has ever met, and now someone has stolen his body.

The two angels ask who she is seeking, and she blurts out her sorrow to them – but then they fade from the story:

14 At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realise that it was Jesus.

15 He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”

Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”

John 20:14-15

She turns and sees another man. But she doesn’t realise who it is. It seems like she looks, and then turns away (see v16 when she turns back towards him), perhaps because she does not want to see this man observing her grief.

Once more she is asked “Why are you crying?” and then “Who are you seeking?” Notice Jesus asks questions. He doesn’t assume. He doesn’t overwhelm Mary with his presence. He asks questions. Right through John’s gospel this is how Jesus draws people to him. At the start he asks Peter and Andrew when they leave John the Baptist “What are you seeking?”. Here at the end he asks Mary “Who are you seeking?”

What, or perhaps more importantly, who do you want? Who are you searching for? Mary wants above all else at that moment to know where Jesus body is. She thinks this man is the gardener, so she asks directly if he knows.

We who read the gospel know her mistake. But it is worth pausing on the idea of the garden. Right back at the beginning God planted a garden. In that garden he placed a man to look after it. That man failed. That man rebelled. But in this garden, standing before Mary, stands the man who did not fail. The man who resisted and stood firm to the end.

The man who does what Adam failed to do, that Adam’s children might one day return to God’s garden city. Jesus is the gardener of the new creation. Jesus risen body is the firstfruits of a whole new world.

Jesus standing in the garden is the down payment that tells us that everything sad is now coming untrue. Jesus’ beating heart tells us that death has started working backwards.

We don’t see that yet, and, in a world of viruses and ventilators, a world of death and despair, a world of chaos and confusion, it is hard to appreciate and believe.

Which is why we need to come back to the garden, and we need to see the gardener as he begins the work of sowing, as he tills the earth and prepares it. Roz is the gardener in our family (closely followed at most points of the process by our youngest), and part of her work can be seen now, in the soil broken up, in the seedlings coming through in their pots, and in the arrangement of plants. But it is not until summer that we will see the harvest, when we will see tomatoes, carrots, raspberries, strawberries and other fruit and vegetables.

Jesus’ resurrection, and the Father’s tender care is the guarantee of harvest to come – but before then we have cold frost, strong winds and heavy rain to walk through. Jesus is the gardener, and he is tending his garden.

But he is not a remote impersonal figure. He didn’t walk away leaving Mary in confusion and despair. The conversation continues:

16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.”

She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”).

17 Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

18 Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.

John 20:16-18

One word changes everything: “Mary”. In that word is recognition. Mary knows how Jesus says her name. There is only one voice that speaks her name in such a way. Only one voice that makes her feel whole, one voice that treats her as the person she is made to be. One voice that speaking one word can make her back into who she truly is.

It is that voice we need to hear so desperately this day. I remember vividly a chapel at Regent College. The reading for the day was Exodus 3:1-15. The reading was read by Rita Houston, wife of Jim Houston, the college founder. I think that was the last time she read before illness prevented further reading of scripture.

To this day I can hear her lilting soft scottish accent reading the words “Moses, Moses” from that Exodus passage. It felt as if years of mothering and grandmothering were distilled into those two words. I felt that in her personality reading those words I had a glimpse into the heart of a God who knows exactly how to name us.

In that naming we are remade. The one who made the world begins his remaking by his calling: “Mary”. Revelation reminds us that Jesus has a name for each of us. One day we will receive our true names, encapsulating who we were born to be. In our name truly spoken we recognise the one who speaks it.

As I ponder my own life, with its twists and turns, with its false starts, and with its frankly currently unanswered questions, muddle and confusion I am reminded by this story that I need to sit and hear Jesus saying “Mark”. And as I do to know that in him I am being remade, and as I pause before him each day, can be led into becoming the person that he is making me – my real self – if only I will stop and hear his naming of me above the voices all around.

And Mary turns to Jesus, and wants to hold him to her. To cling on. To keep that moment. There is a rightness in that desire – and yet it is not for that moment. There are other things to do. Mary is sent on a mission. She is to go to the disciples and tell that Jesus is going to go back to the Father – who is now their Father too.

There are times when we want to hold the moment – I think of Peter and John at the transfiguration. Times when we want to press pause and not move on. Jesus’ words to Mary reminds us too that there are times when we are not to cling to what is past. Times when we need to move forward. Jesus deals with us each individually, and we need to be sensitive to those promptings.

In Mary’s encounter with the risen Christ we see the joy of new life, the certainty that one day all will be made whole – yet we also receive the food we need to live now in the knowledge that we do not yet live in that wholeness. We live now knowing and seeing in part – yet knowing that the part we do see is enough to know that the whole is secure.

In that knowing is joy. We can take heart as we hear Mary running to us to announce “I have seen the Lord”. In her words Jesus moves from being ‘sir’ when she thought he was the gardener, to “Rabboni” (teacher) to ‘the Lord’ – in the light of the rest of John’s gospel we should remember that Lord is how the OT name for God, Yahweh, was usually rendered in Greek.

Mary has seen Yahweh. John reminds us in 1:1-18 that no one has ever seen God – and yet the Word has become flesh and lived among us. Mary is the first to see the risen Lord – Yahweh victorious over death is making all things new. That making all things new begins now, and will culminate when the risen Lord returns to bring about full transformation.

And so we hold on to this central reality:
Christ has died,
Christ is risen,
Christ will come again.

And this Easter, this Easter of isolation, we are perhaps more aware than ever of that desire for all things to be new. And we need to let that desire stir us to longing for the day when we will see Jesus, and when he will turn to us and speak our names and every tear will be wiped away. It is that desire that communion is meant to awaken in us – and so I’ll leave you with this song to listen to:

Do just go online and buy the album now (Resurrection Letters vol I – Andrew Peterson) – I really am utterly spoilt for choice in songs to link you to.

Resurrection: Empty Tomb

I love Easter, I always have. I love the chance to reflect more deeply on Good Friday, and I love the joy of Easter Morning. During my teenage years I remember doing a debate in our 11-14 group at church where I had to provide the evidence for Jesus really having risen from the dead. I loved reading up on the evidence for the resurrection and became convinced of the truth of the resurrection in a way that has never left me.

I was reflecting earlier that it was a shame to have such a perfect Easter morning without any opportunity for a sunrise service. I have fond memories of cycling across to a hill just outside Guildford for sunrise services as a teenager, with a morning service to follow, then an afternoon at the Crusader group and then the evening service at church full of joyful songs, and always culminating with Thine Be The Glory.

For me Easter has always been a celebration, so this year has been slightly odd – but we have had a good family day of celebration and remembering. I’ve let the words of Andrew Peterson’s album Resurrection Letters I soak deep into my soul as the album has played on loop today. Go buy it now, it is beautiful biblical truth and real world faith in all its different shades all woven together with rich lyrics and soothing music – balm for a weary soul.

I want to write something about the end of John’s gospel. I love the resurrection appearances in John, and the story begins here:

20 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”

John 20:1-2

It is worth saying first of all here that this looks different to the other gospels where Mary Magdalene goes with other women to the tomb, and they are met by an angel (or two). If this is something you find troubling, then it is worth reading a book like Easter Enigma by John Wenham, or similar, which tries to set out an overall picture of events that first Easter taking all 4 gospels together.

Wenham suggests that Mary Magdalene did go with the other women, but that as soon as she saw the stone had been moved she ran to find Peter and the others – notice the ‘we’ here in v2. That first Easter morning there was plenty of scope for confusion and movement – the women converging on the tomb from one place, the men from another, and the women going to find the men.

Wenham helpfully points out that each gospel writer selects particular material from a complex situation to make particular points about the risen Christ. When we read John it is good first of all to pay attention to what John notes. Here we should notice, that like the other gospels, the first witness of the empty tomb is a woman. Jesus’ respect for and valuing of women is seen clearly here. John continues the story here:

So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen. Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.) 10 Then the disciples went back to where they were staying.

John 20:3-10

This section contains a detail I love. John runs (I’m assuming that ‘the disciple Jesus loved = John = the writer of the gospel) to the tomb and gets their first. But he doesn’t go in, he stands looking from outside. Then Peter reaches the tomb, and he dives straight in. It is like the moment in the boat in the next chapter where John sees Jesus, and tells Peter, who takes action.

I love this detail because I find it so easy to identify with John. I’m that person who sees the answer, or who reaches the next stage first, but who doesn’t jump on ahead until someone else is ready to confirm it, or take the action I might fear to take.

I can see myself at the tomb, peering in, seeing the linen, thinking about what would have happened, what could have happened, and wondering what to do next. I’d be relieved to have Peter there to dive in and take a closer look, and only then would I also enter.

I love the glimpse of John ‘finally’ entering, looking at what remained in the tomb, seeing and believing – although still, apparently, not fully realising from scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.

This first part of the story shows us that the tomb was empty – but it doesn’t show us Jesus yet. We stand at the tomb with Mary and the disciples, seeing that Jesus has gone, wondering if he could really be alive, thinking about what he has said.

We need to take a good look at the empty tomb. The empty tomb shows us that Jesus is risen – there is no other good explanation for the tomb being empty. It was guarded – so the body wasn’t stolen. It was guarded by the Jewish authorities with Roman permission – so either set of those authorities could have produced the body later on and saved a lot of trouble.

We need to take a good look at the empty tomb whether we are a reflective character like John, or a jumping in with both feet forward like Peter. And like Peter and John if we fit either of those categories we need to go together – I need Peter characters around me to prod me forward, and move me beyond my comfort zone.

Yet the empty tomb on its own is not enough. It is great to be convinced of the resurrection. But we may well remain uncertain. We may remain confused. We can remain, with John still not fully ‘getting it’.

We need to read on in John’s gospel and stand with Mary and the disciples as they encounter the risen Christ. So, perhaps I’ll be able to think about those encounters in another post.