On Being Provoked (Hebrews 10)

Those of you who have ever done any bible study with me will know that I often say as a first question – what jumps out at you, what makes you go hmm?

For me, in this passage, it is the interesting verb in verse 24, how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, or as an alternative translation suggests, love and beautiful work. The response to the sacrifice that Jesus has made for us, the ridding us of the shame and guilt of sin, the faithful promise that we are considered holy and clean in his sight, the response to that gift is a life of love and good works, meeting together and encouraging each other.

But provoke, it seems a hard word to be associated with gentle actions such as love and good deeds. Normally we might see provoke as something negative – eg don’t provoke your brother. Indeed, the word, paroxusmos, appears in Acts 15:39 to describe exactly that – a disagreement between Paul and Barnabas so sharp, cut so deeply, that it made them go their separate ways.

We might translate paroxusmus as provoke, cut sharply, stir up, stimulate, agitate. And I wonder why the author of Hebrews chooses it in relation to good works and love? Perhaps to emphasise how important these actions are to us as Christians. They aren’t an optional extra, but they are the things that should be stirred up, provoked, agitated in us as a response to the sacrifice Jesus has made for us. V 12 “But when Christ has offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God and since then has been waiting until his enemies would be made a footstool for his feet.” Our action in a response to Christ’s loving action for us is to love others. What a perfect way to defeat enemies, with love and good deeds.

As we watch our country’s’ leadership dissolve into confusion and as we hear of the UN envoy reporting on the dire poverty he found in our country, it should provoke us to action. We are confident that the work of salvation has been achieved once for all in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Our response is the work of the Kingdom now. We must love our neighbours and love God and be provoked to action that is transformative, provoked to love and beautiful deeds.

It is our response to the saving power of Christ that provokes us to staff the food bank, collect food and distribute it to those who are hungry. Even in a town like Beaminster people are hungry now, today?

It is our response to Jesus’ sacrifice that provokes us to donate money to Broadwindsor school to buy new books for the library because there is no money in the school budget, cut repeatedly, year after year, to buy books?

It is Jesus’ love that provokes us to take a deep breath before responding to an email from a church treasurer who declares that the focus on prayer during our year of sabbatical is just an excuse for doing nothing?

It is Jesus’ love that provokes us to teach and pray about stewardship when members of a PCC refuse to agree to give any church money away to support other charities?

It is just as well that Christ has offered the sacrifice for my sin because this week I have sinned many times because I am angry at a government that punishes the poorest in society, I am angry at repeated funding cuts to local services, I am angry that I am accused of doing nothing in my work, I am angry that fellow brothers and sisters in Christ are so selfish that they will not share resources to help others. I have not thought good things about any of those people. Yet despite my sinful thoughts and sinful conversations I will pick up again, I will make my confession, I will approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with my heart sprinkled clean from an evil conscience. I will hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.

We are saved from our sin because of what Jesus has done for us. The curtain of the temple has been torn in two, we have confidence to enter into the holiest place. We are set free from the burden of sin, shame and guilt. We don’t need to constantly make sacrifices for our sin, we instead respond to the one sacrifice made on our behalf.  Our response is to be provoked to love and good deeds, to encouraging one another and meeting together. We must do this not because we have always done it, or because we want to preserve the Church of England, or because if we don’t do it we are afraid no one else will, or because it makes us look good. We do it because our hearts and lives are transformed by the saving love and action of Jesus Christ. He is patiently waiting for his enemies to be made a footstool under his feet. We must get to work, provoked to love and good deeds, revealing God’s Kingdom: a place of love, forgiveness, beauty, peace, justice, equality and joy.

Hebrews 10: 11-25 – read the text at The Bible Gateway.

Touching Christmas Adverts

There’s a relatively new Phenomenon on the telly in these days before Christmas. Have you noticed over the last few years, there has begun to be an informal competition for the most clever/touching/dramatic narrative Christmas advert? Two penguins competes with an extensive Christmas table from a budget supermarket and a chain stores marauding fairies and a carrot driving an articulated lorry (where have the Christmas angels gone?). There are stories to tug at the heart strings and hint at the Christmas that everybody wants: A cosy treacly family time where everyone gets the present they want, the food is plenteous at the table, the logs are burning on the fire and all’s well with the world.

Could anyone dare criticise this sort of sentimentality without risking the accusation of being Scrooge like? Well, I suppose one could point out that it won’t be the Christmas experience of many in the world, even in our own country, this year. And What I think we have to pinch ourselves and bear in mind is that all adverts have only one goal really: the stores want to make money out of us this Christmas. The point about Dicken’s A Christmas Carol was not that there should be no brakes on the generosity, for He who had all things gave them up for our sake.

Now I enjoy a good advert like the rest of us, and I certainly don’t want to give this reflection a “Bah humbug” headline; but if I was to single out one aspect of a Christian Christmas that might be distinctive, then it might be to reflect upon our generosity. I have no doubt that we’ll all be generous to family and friends; but what about generosity to the unlovely and the “undeserving”? When preaching about generosity, Jesus said “For if you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same?” Matthew 5.46) “Freely, freely you have received; freely, freely give” (Matthew 10.8)

I want us all to have thoroughly enjoyable Christmas: good cheer all round. Nonetheless, perhaps we who remember that Christ was given freely by God to the world can also think: What gifts can I give this year, which are generous and freely given, to those who are in need, and without any strings attached at all? For this is truly to honour the Christ Child and the spirit of Christmas.

We will be honouring the Christ Child through the many church based activities in the run up to Christmas across our church communities. We would love to share this with you all and would love to welcome you especially at our Christmas Carol, and Nativity services and at services on Christmas Eve for Midnight Mass and on Christmas Day.

May I wish every blessing for the coming Holy Season.

Remembrance Sunday 2018

Like an innocent child wandering by itself into the kitchen and pressing the switches that will set the house on fire, some biblical texts have been taken out of their original setting and used in ways that would have horrified the original speaker or writer. Here in this passage we have one with exactly that history.

‘No one’, said Jesus, ‘has a love greater than this, to lay down your life for your friends’. That is true, gloriously true. Indeed, Jesus was on his way to his own execution as the most dramatic example of the point. The cross is clearly in in view here, when Jesus says that laying down your life for your friends is the highest form of love, and then says ‘and you, of course are my friends.’ But during the First World War, this text was used again and again, in sermons and lectures, set to music and sung by great choirs, with one single meaning: therefore you, young man – they were mostly young men – must go off to the front line, do what you are told and if necessary die for your country.

They did, in their tens of thousands. God honours, I believe, the self-sacrifice and dedication of those who sincerely and devoutly believed they were doing their duty. But i also believe God judges those who use texts like this as a convenient rhetorical trick to put moral pressure on other people, when what they needed was a bit of moral pressure on themselves to ask: Why are we doing this at all? If we must have a war, is this really the best way of fighting it? Are these sacrifices which is another convenient religious word; people spoke of ‘the final sacrifice’, forgetting that in the bible human sacrifice was condemned over and over again the best way both of winning the war and of preparing ourselves for the world that will need rebuilding after it’s all over?

The easy identification of ‘our’ side with God’s side has been a major problem ever since Christianity became the official religion of the Roman state in the fourth century. Ironically, as Western Europe has become less and less Christian in terms of its practise, its leaders seem to have made this identification more and more, so that both sides in major world wars of the twentieth were staffed, as we have already noted, by Christian chaplains praying for victory.

This sits uneasily alongside a passage like this one in John’s Gospel, where the talk is of love, not war. In a world of danger and wickedness, It won’t do for everyone to pretend there are no hard decisions to be made. But precisely one of the great dangers, and great wickedness, of the world is the very common belief that fighting is a fine thing, that war is a useful way of settling disputes, and that to, to put it crudely, might is right. One of the reasons human civilisation has struggled to promote justice is the recognition that things aren’t that easy. And justice, at its best, knows that it has only a negative function: to clear the decks and leave the world open for people to love one another.

You can’t legislate for love; but God, through Jesus, can command you to love. Discovering the difference between what law cannot achieve and what God can and does achieve is one of the greatest arts of being human, and of being Christian. In the present passage we are brought in on the secret of it all.

The command to love is given by one who has himself done everything that love can do. When a mother loves a child, she creates the context in which a child is free to love her in return. When a ruler really does love his or her subjects, and when this becomes clear by generous and warm-hearted actions, he or she creates a context in which the subjects can and will love them in return. The parody of this, seen with awesome clarity in George Orwell’s book Nineteen Eighty-Four, is when the totalitarian ruler (‘Big Brother’), who has done nothing but oppress and terrify his subjects, nevertheless orders them to love him. And the devastating climax, after the initially resisting subjects have been brainwashed, is that it works. At the end of the book, the hero is, in a sense, happy. ‘He loved Big Brother.’ And the reader knows that at this moment the hero has ceased to be truly human.

Jesus though, issues the command that we are to love one another, and so to remain in his love, because he has acted out, and will act out, the greatest thing that love can do. He has come to make us more human, not less. He has come to give us freedom and joy, not slavery and a semi-human stupor. He has come so that we can bear fruit that will last, whether in terms of a single life changed because we loved somebody as Jesus loved us, or in terms of a single decision that we had to take, a single task we had to perform, through which, though we couldn’t see it at the time, the world became a different place. Love makes both the lover and the beloved more truly human.

At the heart of it all is the humility that comes from knowing who’s in charge. ‘You didn’t choose me; I chose you’. I was once asked, on the radio, which religion I would choose if I could. I pointed out that the idea of ‘choosing your religion’ was a mistake in the first place. Religions are not items on the supermarket shelf that we can pick and choose – though many today try to live their lives that way. Or, if they are, you’d have to say that following Jesus wasn’t a ‘religion’. It is a personal relationship of love and loyalty to the one who has loved us more than we can begin to imagine. And the test of that love and loyalty remains the simple, profound, dangerous and difficult command: love one another.