During one of the school assemblies I do for Easter, at a certain point I show them a one billion dollar bank note – genuine, of course! And, for the record, given to me as a present by my Aunt Edna to clear a historic family tax debt of several hundred million pounds. It’s a lot of fun, the kids usually get very excited about the idea of a slip of paper being worth a billion dollars, and I can talk about how God clears our ‘debts’ through the story of Easter.
The dollar bill is obviously a fake – but in other areas of life, sometimes it’s not so easy to spot a counterfeit. Sadly, fraud is the big growth crime of our age – even as I write, there are newspaper headlines about this very subject, and even wise and experienced people have been caught out by false claims.
In today’s passage, Paul gets to the heart of the issue with those who have consistently undermined his leadership. We’ve already seen how these self-appointed ‘teachers’ are divisive, arrogant and shallow, more interested in the big show than humble faith. Paul even refers in today’s passage to the fact that he has been criticised for not demanding to be paid (v7) – suggesting that these teachers have been saying something along the lines of: ‘well, if he was really any good, his flock would pay his upkeep, like people do ours.’ It’s remarkable to think that this was treated as a weakness, not a blessing!
But, important though all these observations are, they are not the heart of the problem with these ‘super-apostles’ (we don’t know if this is a term made up by Paul, or one they themselves used to describe their ministry, but it’s quite a poignant nickname) – the biggest issue of all is that they are distorting the faith itself: a different Jesus, a different Spirit, a different gospel (v4).
As a Christian leader, Paul has faced criticism and opposition for most of his life. And he can live with rivals and boasters and freeloaders – what he can’t tolerate is the beautiful message itself being distorted. We don’t know exactly what is being taught by these ‘super-apostles’, though we get glimpses in other letters: a heavy emphasis on hidden knowledge; and degrading the value of the physical world, leading many to abuse their bodies either through promiscuity or harsh practices. Jesus was also probably being taught as a ‘start point’ but not enough, and the Spirit was not taught specifically as being the Spirit of Jesus.
Paul warns his readers that these distortions are not just matters of debate – they are part of the spiritual battle. Our spiritual adversary is using this teaching to undermine the church and discredit the faith (vv13-15). It’s easy to picture the devil as a transparently evil figure; but Paul warns that his greatest weapon is far more subtle – faking goodness (‘masquerading as an angel of light’, to use Paul’s powerful image). The most destructive evil is that which is dressed up as something good.
It remains valuable teaching for us today. We live in a ‘spiritual’ age – but far too little attention is paid to where the ‘spirit’ comes from. The spiritual world, as Paul makes clear, has both good and evil sources – God and the devil. Since God is Christlike, and the only Spirit we long for more of is the Spirit of Christ – if something ‘spiritual’ is not obviously pointing to Jesus, then it can only come from somewhere else, somewhere that is not of God.
Today, let’s pray for wisdom to discern anything that is offering fake spiritual promises; let’s pray for grace to walk free from anything unhealthy; and let’s welcome the true and life-giving Spirit of Christ into our lives, confident that God is well able to bless us and protect us.
The last few chapters of Paul’s letter make for slightly harder reading – let’s admit that! – but there’s still gold to mine here, too. After the amazing reflections on generosity, Paul returns to a root problem which has been an undercurrent throughout the letter – and indeed has contributed significantly to the challenges this church in Corinth has faced – and that is the nature of leadership and authority in the church. This matters because, unless Paul can reaffirm his leadership, the risk is that all this deep wisdom he has been sharing could be undermined, or even ignored.
As we’ve seen, since Paul left Corinth after founding the church there, the Christian community has been divided by various self-appointed leaders. Influenced by the popular culture in Greece of wandering teachers and the love of academic disputes for their own sake, some of these teachers have openly questioned Paul’s fitness for leadership.
Their criticisms have been twofold: first, they object to Paul asserting that the source of his authority is rooted in the Lord (v8) – when (in their view, and according to prevailing prejudices) it ought to be determined by his public speaking ability. But Paul is having none of it: ‘You are judging by appearances.’ (v7) His ‘qualification’ is that he has been commissioned by Jesus Christ; and, further, that his role is to ‘build you up rather than tear you down’ (v8). The implication here is that it is not Paul who is the destructive influence in their church!
Second, Paul’s self-appointed rivals point to a perceived difference between Paul’s capacity to write and his skills as a speaker (v10) – even suggesting a moral weakness in this, that he can only be ‘bold’ when he’s not in the room, but is ‘timid’ when meeting people face-to-face (v1). Anyone who has looked at the life of Paul would find it hard to imagine that Paul was timid! But Paul doesn’t say that: rather he points to the fact that he is not interested in self-promotion, only in their wellbeing.
If he’s going to boast, he says, he’ll only boast about what God has done among them (vv13-14). In fact, all he’s really interested in is in giving the glory to God: ‘Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord’ (quoting Jeremiah v17).
He finishes today’s passage with a very simple yardstick, which is pretty good advice for all of us: ‘It is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends.’ (v18) We do things for The Audience of One –what God thinks of us is what really matters.
So this week, whatever else we need to be and to do, let’s resolve to be faithful to the only One whose opinion really matters – in hope and trust that he will bless our work and make our lives fruitful. May the opening words of Psalm 115 be our guide: ‘Not to us, Lord, not to us but to your name be the glory, because of your love and faithfulness.’ Amen.
Yesterday’s teaching on demolishing the strongholds in our lives is such a profound part of our spiritual journey that it’s worth another day just to pick up where we left off yesterday. If you’ve got one of those bible ‘lists of helpful scriptures’, why not look up a few more?
If your bible doesn’t have such a list, why not sit with one of these today: Ephesians 1:3-14, Ephesians 3:14-21, Colossians 3:1-17. Give thanks for who you are in Christ – whatever we tell ourselves, whatever others may tell us, this is who you are.
Our Lord Jesus said: ‘You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.’ As we finish our reflections this week, may the Spirit of God pour more of that glorious truth into our lives, that we would know greater freedom from all those ‘strongholds’ that drag us down. Amen.
The early church was almost exclusively a pacifist movement. Even in the early third century we know from Christian writings of that time that Roman soldiers who converted to Christ would not be allowed to be baptised unless they left the army. Subsequent generations of Christians have come to a greater variety of views on this subject – although Christian pacifism remains a powerful influence on many strands of church thinking – however, what we see in today’s passage are weapons that even the early church was happy to use!
It is clear, however, that these are not physical weapons: ‘We do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world.’ (vv3-4) Elsewhere in scripture we see specific references to the bible, to prayer and to prophecy as being the sort of ‘weapons’ Paul has in mind. But here, what we see is the more general sense of what these weapons are designed to do.
The “enemy” is ‘every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God’ (v5) – in other words it is misguided or ungodly thinking in all its various forms. These might be ‘arguments’, lies, or self-promoting ideas (‘pretensions’) which get in the way of our growing in obedience to Christ. And Paul gives us a powerful image of what we are to do with such thoughts: ‘we take captive every thought and make it obedient to Christ’ (v5). In other words, we take our destructive thought patterns and make them prisoners of war!
Each of us has particular thoughts which damage our spiritual well-being – they might attack our joy, our peace, our hope, our purpose, our sense of being loved by God. You’ll probably know straight away what yours are! If not, take a few moments to reflect what they might be....
The wonderful news is that we don’t have to accept these thoughts as unbeatable. We have a weapon which is more powerful: the word of God, aided and abetted by prayer. Every lie has a powerful truth to destroy it – a truth which brings us life, and draws us to Jesus.
Thankfully, many modern bibles do the hard work for us and contain lists of scriptures to address all the most common ‘strongholds’. Why not use some of those references today? Or go back to a favourite passage and let the word of God soak deep. You are loved. You are saved through Christ. You are one in whom Christ dwells, and you live in the strong and unshakable kingdom of God. And let no-one tell you otherwise!
As we finish this amazing pair of chapters (8-9) on the subject of generosity, you may think that we’d looked at it from every angle. But Paul has one last point to make, and it’s a lovely way to draw this teaching to a close: ‘This service that you perform,’ he says in v12, ‘is not only supplying the Lord’s people, but is overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God.’
In other words: if you want one more reason for why it’s a good idea to be generous – look at the gratitude it generates in a human heart. And not just towards you – it’s directed to God as well. When people are the recipients of radical generosity, they not only feel thankful towards the donor, they often become aware at a deep level that ‘someone is watching over them,’ that God has been the unseen hand in this all along.
And this overflowing of thanks to God also leads to one other thing: those who have been blessed by our generosity may well offer the one thing they can back to us: their prayers. This was the case in Paul’s fundraising campaign: ‘in their prayers for you their hearts will go out to you.’ (v14) In time, these grateful recipients may be able to offer material generosity of their own: but prayer is a great first way to respond. We give as we can, not as we can’t.
What these two chapters have ultimately reminded us is that the divine perspective on life is that all life is gift. Most of our human structures and relationship work on forms of contract: you get this, I get that. What we offer comes with strings attached, things to be paid in return. Christ calls us to something different: unconditional giving, and guilt-free receiving. It’s not a one-way street: as we’ve seen over the last couple of weeks, God always repays. Those who give generously will receive generously as well. But these are relationships not of obligation but of gift. There is no guilt or compulsion: it is something organic, something borne out of freedom and bathed in trust.
It is radically different to human systems of obligation: but how much more liberating! It’s why Paul can conclude this section with this simple exclamation of joy (v15): ‘thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!’ What is that gift? In context, I think the gift is this type of giving itself. To be part of this network of mutual, unconditional, Spirit-led and Spirit-infused love is something beyond words. It is rooted in Christ, but transforms the whole way we see the world.
So as we take a moment to turn this back to God in prayer: let God fill your heart with ‘overflowing thanks’. And may God grant us grace to grow in living all of life as gift.
‘You reap what you sow.’ This is one of those biblical phrases that has found its way into popular culture, and it might come as something of a surprise to find it goes a lot further back than, say, Shakespeare or Chaucer – in fact it goes even further back than the New Testament, all the way to one of the earliest books of Scripture more than 3,000 years ago: the book of Job.
There are several references to the idea in the Old Testament, usually negative i.e. you sow something bad, and reap accordingly. But here, Paul turns this idea on its head to something positive. Indeed, he suggests something really quite radical, which is that our generosity is paid back to us in all kinds of ways, both spiritual – ‘harvest of your righteousness’ (v10) – and material: ‘You will be enriched in every way, so that you can be generous on every occasion’ (v11).
Even more amazingly, the promise to those who are generous is that you will have ‘all that you need’ and there will be fruitful outcomes: ‘you will abound in every good work’ (v8).
This sets Paul’s encouragement to generosity, which we’ve soaked up over these last few days, in a totally new and unexpected dimension. God always repays! It turns the question ‘can we afford to be generous?’ on its head – the real question is: ‘Can we afford not to be generous?’
I these troubled times of rising prices and equally rising anxiety, is it tempting to cut back on what we give. And in human terms that seems the obvious thing to do, and I wouldn’t blame any of us for doing so. But there is a divine dimension which is affirmed in today’s passage and can only be seized by faith, and that is that those who choose sacrificial generosity will find that they will always have ‘all that they need’ – God will repay. We don’t know how, or when – but he does.
Today, we all need to pray for grace to hear this remarkable – and challenging! – word. I can’t advise you what to do in your circumstances; but I can point you to the promises of our great and generous God, the One who repays.
Enthusiasm is infectious. Just think of Mr Motivator – well, perhaps you’d prefer not to remember the various Lycra all-in-ones, but you get my drift. The hundreds of thousands who joined in Joe Wicks’ daily lockdown workouts were mostly those who hadn’t expected to find themselves stretching and whatnot in front of their screen. But Joe’s enthusiasm was relentless, and hugely effective.
We Brits have an uneasy relationship with enthusiasm. ‘The Englishman’s way of expressing deep emotion is to stare silently into the fire,’ is a quote whose author escapes me, but perfectly characterises the kind of stiff upper lip and stoic impassiveness we used to think of as quintessential to our national culture.
However, what everyone who works in marketing knows is that there’s nothing like a personal recommendation or invite to generate change. Adverts, PR, re-branding: they have their place – but if someone you like does something and recommends it, that is about ten times more effective.
Today’s passage showcases the power of enthusiasm in two ways. First, we learn that enthusiasm has a direct spiritual benefit: indeed, it is the only healthy way to give. Forced generosity is not really generosity at all, Paul says – rather, ‘God loves a cheerful giver’ (v7). There’s nothing wrong with enthusiastic giving, because it is the overflow of a heart that is itself grateful for all its blessings.
Second, enthusiastic generosity inspires others. Over Paul’s two long letters, the Corinthians have not often been held up as models to other people, but in the area of giving they have been inspirational: ‘your enthusiasm has stirred most of [the Macedonian churches] to action.’ (v2) It’s worth bearing in mind here that the Corinthians did not promote themselves in this, just as Jesus encouraged – rather, Paul and the other leaders had recommended their example.
As long as we avoid the shameless self-promoters, there’s no harm in the Christian life seeking out inspiring examples of giving. If you regularly support a charity why not check out their website, or read their latest newsletter, to see if you can find something to inspire you? Maybe think of people you’ve known along your life journey whose generosity has stirred your soul? And may God grant us all grace to keep giving cheerfully. God loves it!
A reflection for Fathers’ Day yesterday
Those of us who’ve been parents know that it’s an impossible job. There is no such thing as a perfect human parent, most of the time you’re making up as you go along and hoping for the best. The fact of our natural selfishness also means that not only will we always have flaws as a parent, but, however good our parenting, our kids will have flaws too. That’s human nature.
Today is Father’s Day, a day which raises a huge variety of emotions. Some will be celebrating great dads, others will be reminded of pain, either emotional or literal. A few will have had abusive fathers or just absent ones. Wherever you are on that spectrum, it reminds us how mixed our experiences of parenthood are.
But the nature of parenthood is one we can’t avoid when it comes to our faith. Given that this short letter to the Thessalonians is one of the earliest – possibly the earliest – writings in the New Testament, it is significant that the very first thing we learn about God at the start of this letter (v1) is that Christians had learned to call God ‘Father’. This was the radical new understanding of our relationship to God which Jesus had both taught and modelled to his followers, and was now being absorbed into the early church. God was still majestic, awesome and glorious. He was still king of kings and the judge of the world – but God was also close, intimate, someone we can relate to as a parent.
We often take this for granted now – the words of the Lord’s Prayer are embedded so deep in our memories that we almost take it for granted that we can address the Almighty Lord of Creation as ‘Our Father’. And, whatever the failings of our own fathers, we can look to God as the ideal pattern for a perfect parent – a combination of unconditional love, patience and forgiveness, of wisdom when need it, protection too, but also willingness to give us freedom and to risk our rejection of him for the sake of love.
If we all fall short of this model – and we do – the journey of our spiritual lives is, at least in part, learning to find in God everything we need in a parent. This may not heal all the wounds of our own earthly parental relationships, but it helps us to put those deficiencies into a bigger perspective.
So as we begin this week, may we all have grace to hear the reminder today that God is the parent you always wished you had; or indeed that you did have, but who isn’t here anymore. Let God be that parent to you, that in his unconditional love and care you might find all that you need to thrive and grow – for we are indeed his beloved children. Amen.
Today’s passage fills in the human picture of the collection which Paul is organising. It’s a helpful reminder that this deep teaching on generosity, which we have feasted in this week, was not created as a set of abstract principles but in response to real needs. This was theology lived in the crucible of real life. In this case, the collection needed reliable organisers – especially those entrusted with the money!
But as I read it, I did find it begging an important question: given that Jesus emphasised how important it was not to do things to be seen by other people, what do we make of Paul’s insistence here in v21: ‘For we are taking pains to do what is right, not only in the eyes of the Lord but also in the eyes of man?’ Is that a contradiction?
Thankfully, no! What Jesus criticises the Pharisees for is seeking praise from people rather than God. They were puffing up their ego, not humbly serving their Lord. The motive here is different: when Paul is stressing how important it is to be seen to be doing right, this is about the reputation of the church and the gospel, not of individuals. Titus and Paul don’t care if they’re popular or not: what they do care about is that no-one criticises the integrity of process, and thereby makes negative conclusions about the God they love and worship.
This remains a useful principle in church life now. Sadly, we all know the damage that a lack of integrity does to the reputation of any organisation – especially the church. So we continue to do certain things quite visibly: not for our egos, but for the Lord’s reputation. That might include a visible commitment to safeguarding, or dual signatory bank accounts, or humane and generous policies about sick pay or support of volunteers, as well as the publication of annual reports about our life and practices which anyone can read. The list goes on – but the point about all of this is that it underpins the integrity and witness of the church, and therefore brings honour to Christ (v19,v23).
Many of these things are very unglamorous, and often under-appreciated. To those of you reading today who do a lot of this stuff – thank you! You are more valued than you may ever know. And to the rest of us, as we close this week’s reflections: take a few moments to pray that we continue to do these things well (and for the people who do them), that it all might bring glory to God.
One of the hardest things to do in the Christian faith is to try and listen to what God’s word actually says, rather than what we’d like it to say. Whilst we will always bring some biases of our own, as far as possible, we need to let God’s word speak for itself, and only then form our other convictions (like politics or church affiliation etc) around it. But this is easier said than done!
I’ve deliberately used a provocative title today because this passage is a classic example of one which presses all kinds of buttons. What did you think when you read it... is Paul a socialist? Is the UK government’s current policy a return to biblical ethics, or a well-meaning soundbite? Does everybody agree with this idea in theory but ignore it in practice? Do we like Paul more now, or less?!
For many years in the West we have broadly signed up to a way of thinking which supposes that self-interest (especially financial self-interest) is the most efficient way to govern a society. It has undoubtedly created lots of winners, who will inevitably say that this way of organising a society is absolutely the best! Unfortunately, there are also many who’ve lost out. In the UK we currently have more millionaires than ever... and 1 in 5 children living in poverty. Or, to put it another way, we have plenty with either too much or too little.
God’s thinking, however, is different – to say that is not a party political statement (not least because none of the main parties fundamentally object to the dominant political philosophy); but it is a political one, because God cares deeply about the ‘polis’ – the settlements of people who make up society. And one of the foundational governing principles of a healthy human society is that no-one has too little and no-one has too much. Extreme poverty and extreme wealth are both toxic to our capacity to live well, and to our spiritual flourishing.
We know this is a fundamental principle because the quote Paul uses here (v15) goes back to Israel’s time in the desert after fleeing Egypt. This is the first human society under the direct rule of God, and this quote comes just after God miraculously provides food for them. What that iconic story tells us is that God gives everyone enough; he simply doesn’t allow people to hoard or to starve.
This principle was reinforced in many ways during the Old Testament – through Sabbath and Jubilee, gleaning and tithing. It did not mean that everyone had the same: some still had ‘much’ or ‘little’. But nobody was meant to have too little or too much.
So ‘equality’ (v13) in today’s passage means both sufficiency and mutuality. Everyone has enough (v15). And also, in time, everyone is able to give to support others (v14). Fortunes fluctuate – but generous redistribution allows everyone not just to survive but to thrive. The effect of such a radical approach to living was profound: for one, it enabled tiny, fledgling churches under immense pressure to keep going, and so birth a movement which would spread across the globe.
Could we ever see the like again today? Perhaps not in secular society – but may it continue to inspire and shape our vision as a church. And may our generous God give us grace to hear it afresh today.
Faith is a practical thing. Important as it is to know what we believe, ultimately this has to become lived experience. It’s no use owning a cookbook if you never turn on the oven! Over the last three days we’ve examined our motives for giving, from various perspectives. We’ve looked at the importance of joy, of putting God first and of being inspired by Jesus’ example. Above all, we’ve seen how a life of grace underpins generosity in all its forms.
However, we still have to address the question: how (and how much) do we give? What does this motivation mean in action? Paul now turns his attention to this. There’s so much gold to mine in the next chapter or so, so what we’ll reflect on today is just the start – but it’s a very good start, and in one short paragraph (verses 10-12) we get three very useful guidelines: our ‘golden rules’.
The first is being willing to give. This might sound obvious, but the consistent teaching of the bible is that doing the right thing under compulsion is no real basis for living. (Think about the contrast between guilt and joy which we looked at on Monday.) Enthusiasm and positive intent is far better! We’ll look at this in more detail in chapter 9, but let’s not miss the value of this now. If we find generosity hard, the best place to start is simply to pray: ‘Lord, make me willing.’ Or even, ‘Lord make me willing to be willing!’
Second, turning intention to action. Even if we want to give, quite often we put off actually doing it for a while. The Corinthian church had, it seems, been notable for being among the first to give in a previous fundraising mission. St Paul reminds them not to get ‘generosity fatigue’ this time around. If the desire is still there, his advice is refreshingly candid: ‘Now finish the work, so that your eager willingness to do it may be matched by your completion of it.’ (v11)
There is, though, one further immensely important practical guideline. Verse 11 does not finish where we left it in the above paragraph, there is an extra phrase: ‘....according to your means’. Generosity is a universal command – but it is (nearly) always according to our ability. Those with greater financial resources are expected to shoulder a greater responsibility. The Corinthian church was relatively better off than some churches, but the basic principle applies: give what you can, not what you can’t.
In many ways, all of these simple principles are practical outworkings of Jesus’ famous Parable of the Talents. They are just as useful now as they were 2,000 years ago. May God continue to grant us grace to give willingly, decisively and as we can – and may he graciously multiply the fruitfulness of this, in us and in others. Amen!
On Monday I took a wedding couple through a rehearsal for their big day. This is not just a question of choreography: I’ve found over the years that it’s always a good idea to give them a taste of what the vows will feel like on the day. Even now, no matter how many times I hear the words of the vow, it still makes the hairs on my neck stand on end: ‘to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part....’
The sense of unconditional love is spine-tingling; but it’s also the sets of contrasts – sickness and health, better and worse, and also richer and poorer. Many of us will know what that feels like: there will have been seasons in our lives when money is comfortable, and others when it’s tight. Some of us may feel that we have only experienced one of those – which might put you at a disadvantage when it comes to today’s reading... but read on, anyway!
After the powerful opening paragraphs of his teaching on generosity, St Paul turns to a divine example. We often think of what Jesus gave up for us: first heaven (temporarily), then popularity, freedom and ultimately his life. But Paul goes further: ‘though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor.’ (v9) I don’t think Paul is referring just to cash here – rather, as Lord of heaven and earth, all of the world’s resources are at his disposal. It goes way beyond just money! Jesus has everything. And yet... he chose to give it up, for our benefit: ‘....that you through his poverty might become rich.’
It is the great divine transaction. Christ surrenders his limitless wealth that we might receive his riches. Without saying it explicitly, Paul is giving us another motivation for generosity. It’s not just that we follow Christ’s example, though of course it is that; it is also that Jesus is ultimately the owner of everything, and as his beneficiaries, we are stewards of his resources. We might like to think that our money is ours – but, in the divine economy, it’s only on loan to us.
Paul returns to this idea later, so we’ll explore it in more detail in a few days’ time. But today, give thanks that Jesus gave everything for you. Rejoice in all that you have received a result. And may that inspire you to live by grace – i.e. graciously! – today.
I must confess, today has been a day of mixed priorities – I’ve always loved my cricket, and with the Test match between England and New Zealand in the balance, and access to Test Match Special online through my computer, I’ve had to work hard to focus fully on my work! I may have listened to the commentary while sorting out some of my less demanding tasks today...
Joking apart, we all know that priorities matter in life. As we continue to reflect today on St Paul’s profound teaching on living generously, what we learn is that much of the key to being generous lies in our priorities, too. The Macedonian church – here held up as an example of radical generosity – ‘gave themselves first to the Lord, and then by the will of God also to us’ (v5). To be generous starts with what (or Who) gets top priority in our lives.
When we give God top priority, then everything else falls into place. We see life through God’s lenses, we gain his priorities. And, since God is radically self-giving, then (for a life devoted first to the Lord) generosity flows naturally: how could it be otherwise?
It’s helpful to observe that the Corinthian church had many other strengths and qualities – Paul names them in v7: ‘faith, speech, knowledge... earnestness and... love.’ This is both a challenge and an encouragement: a challenge because they could have all these qualities, and somehow not yet be known for being generous; encouragement because it reminds us that there are lots of ways we can grow, and God is gently at work, helping us to address the right things at the right times.
Paul concludes this powerful introduction to the topic of giving with this famous instruction: ‘see that you also excel in this grace of giving’ (v7). Since ‘grace’ could also be translated ‘gift’, I picture Paul writing this with a smile on his face – the gift of giving! And, whilst giving is mentioned as a specific spiritual gift in the New Testament (Romans 12:8), it reminds us that, in Christ, our whole life is gift. We are saved by grace (gift): we also live by grace (gift). For those in Christ, generosity is a natural outworking of all that God has freely and graciously given us.
So today, let’s be people whose lives are ‘first for the Lord’; and may the Lord fill us with all grace to excel in giving of ourselves to others. It’s all gift!
What causes us to be generous? In an age of declining revenues for charities and increasing pressure on wallets, it’s a good question to ask. I imagine that, if you were to ask it to ‘the person in the street’, the most popular answer would be ‘wealth’. It’s easy to be generous if you have plenty to be generous with.
On the other hand, if you were to ask the average charity recruitment agent on the same street – they would likely tell you that the best motivator is guilt. If people are made to be aware of their sense of privilege, that often makes them commit money, even if for somewhat negative reasons.
Today we begin a key section of this amazing letter: two chapters devoted entirely to the theme of generosity. It’s the most detailed and extensive teaching on this subject anywhere in the bible, and, as always in the New Testament letters, the content is inspired by a very real situation. Many churches (and individual Christians) were suffering severe persecution and discrimination, and as a result were desperately poor. Jobs were denied them; and relief which would usually be provided by other bodies was likewise in short supply, owing to opposition towards their beliefs.
So, from very early on, churches organised collections for distribution to other Christians in need. St Paul often co-ordinated these himself, as someone who knew all the churches and travelled extensively (when he wasn’t in prison for his faith). There had been a recent such collection, where the Macedonian church had been particularly generous. What are extraordinary, though, are the reasons Paul gives for their generosity: ‘overflowing joy and extreme poverty’ (v2).
Both are strikingly different – almost polar opposites – to the answers we considered earlier. In contrast to many charity marketing agencies, what we find is that the source of generosity – and the best motivator – is not guilt, but joy. This joy was based on their faith, and allowed them to see what they were offering as a privilege (v4), despite the persecution they themselves were experiencing.
Even more remarkable is the second motivator. It turns out that, for the Macedonian church at least, it was not their wealth but their poverty that ‘welled up in rich generosity.’ Perhaps Paul is being deliberately provocative here; but, on the other hand, it accords closely with Jesus’ own teaching, and indeed with many recent studies of giving behaviour. Time and again, such studies show that the poor give proportionately more than the rich. Wealth, it turns out, rarely makes people generous – rather the opposite. Something Paul (and Jesus) knew 2,000 years ago!
As we start this week, spend a few moments reflecting on your generosity. Most of us probably feel we could be more generous: pray for God to fill your heart with overflowing joy, that you too would have grace (v1) to live a generous life (in every dimension) this week.
I wonder what refreshes your spirit? Perhaps it’s time away, or the beauty of nature. Perhaps it’s curling up with a good book, or letting off steam in the gym. Perhaps it’s time with people – especially particular people.
We are relational beings. It’s how we’re wired. We bear the image of the God who is relationship – a perfect trinity of love (something we’ll be celebrating in the church’s year tomorrow). And so it’s no surprise that healthy relationships are good for us. The opposite is true, of course – and sadly most of us know what that means, at least at some level.
As we conclude our week’s reflections in this lovely letter, what struck me about this passage, which might otherwise feel like a bit of ‘filler’, is that simple observation which Paul makes that his friend Titus’ spirit was ‘refreshed by all of you’ (v13). Titus had gone to Corinth with some difficult pastoral issues to navigate – and yet, despite that, he had found his spirit refreshed.
Church communities can be many kinds of things, not all of them positive – but at its heart, what holds churches together is the capacity for people to find their spirits refreshed. We may not get on with everyone, but there will be some people that we find inspiring, or encouraging (to use another key word from today’s passage): people who refresh our spirits.
Who might those people be for you? Perhaps they are not in your immediate church family... yet. Perhaps they are further away. Why not take a moment this weekend to make contact with someone you know who refreshes your spirit? You may not meet them this weekend, or even for a while – but it’s good to connect.
God longs for each of us to find the encouragement to keep going: let’s all resolve to be encouragers for each other. And may our great God grant us grace to become, ever more completely, communities where people can find their spirits refreshed.
The aftermath of any fall-out is not always what we’d like it to be. I’m sure you can think of times when you messed up, and conflict came about as a result. You probably felt sadness afterwards – and perhaps other emotions, too: shame, guilt, a desire to put things right. Or maybe (sometimes) a sense of injustice or wounded pride! We’re human, and complex.
As you know by now, this letter was occasioned by some painful stuff going on in the church in Corinth. St Paul has addressed this in numerous ways – but now he gets to what you might call ‘the spiritual aftershocks’ of the affair. He has had to bluntly challenge some unacceptable behaviour – and now he talks about the consequences in terms of what’s been going on in the hearts and souls of his readers.
He acknowledges quite openly that what he had to say has caused sorrow (v8); but at this point he draws a very helpful distinction between two types of sorrow. The first is the self-pitying kind – the sort that feels less like ‘I’m sorry’ than ‘I’m sorry I got caught’ or ‘I’m sorry you didn’t like it.’ Paul calls this ‘worldly sorrow’ (v9b) because it ultimately isn’t really being sorry at all – it certainly hasn’t taken on board what has happened, or intends to change as a result. This kind of sorrow is self-destructive: there is no growth, no repentance, no opportunity for God to bring healing and transformation.
Thankfully, there is another option: what Paul calls ‘godly sorrow’ (v9a). The key difference here is that it leads to change. The word ‘repent’ literally means ‘turn around’ – a helpful modern translation would mean ‘change your life’. The sorrow that most of the church in Corinth felt was of this kind: genuine self-reflection, which produced a change in attitudes and behaviours.
The great thing about this kind of sorrow is that it ‘leads to salvation’ and – amazingly – ‘leaves no regret’. God is able to transform the situation so miraculously that, however bad it seemed at the time, in future years even the regret we might have felt has been washed away.
I love the promises contained in this passage. How liberating to know that our mess-ups are not the end! Not even the beginning of the end – instead, with the right attitude, God can use them for healing and transformation. So if you carry regret for some past misdemeanour, take it to God. Let your ‘godly sorrow’ bring positive change. And may God deliver you to such a sense of restoration that even regret fades, too.
Many years ago, when our kids were little, I remember putting them to bed at their usual hour. Our youngest would have been about 3 years old and as I said goodnight he suddenly looked up at me and said: ‘Daddy, are you proud of me?’ It seemed to come from nowhere, and to be honest I’ve no idea what prompted it that day. I wouldn’t even have known that ‘pride’ was a concept he had already lodged in his mind. ‘Of course! I’m very proud of you,’ was my reply – but, as I went downstairs, parenting inevitably felt a bigger responsibility than ever...
We all need someone, or people, who are proud of us. And not just when we’re children, either: the great American singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile – not to be confused with Belinda! (though who doesn’t love ‘Heaven is a place on earth’?) – recorded a haunting song in her mid-20s about coming to terms with the death of her father when she was just 12. The chorus ends with this heartfelt cry: ‘Do I make you proud? Do you get me now? Am I your pride and joy?’
As we’ve seen throughout this series, the church in Corinth had been going through a tough time: largely of its own making, but nevertheless, the scars were deep. Their founder and mentor, St Paul, had had to say some hard things to them – but now, in today’s passage, he wants to remind them of how much he loves them. And more than that, like any loving parent, he wants to tell them how proud he is of them: ‘I take great pride in you!’ he says in v4. When he discovers from Titus (v6) how much they wanted to be reconciled to him (most of them, anyway), he is moved to share in v7: ‘my joy was greater than ever.’
This young church, for all its faults, was Paul’s pride and joy. He didn’t just care for them, or support them, or teach them – he took pride in them, he found great joy in them. I think there’s something here for us in our church communities. We may or may not be in a position of leadership like Paul, but I don’t think that matters, we can still cheer our fellow believers on. When they do something good for Christ, or make progress in something, why not tell them that you’re proud of them, or that their achievement brings you joy too?
As an aside, we might find that finding our pride and joy in others might make us less prone to selfish pride in ourselves; and also make it more likely that others will encourage us in return. That’s the way the kingdom works – praise God!
So maybe today, take a moment to encourage someone – even if it wouldn’t yet be right to say that they are your pride and joy, an outpouring of encouragement can only serve to create communities which can truly be just that: our pride and joy.
It’s amazing how easy it is to accumulate stuff without noticing. Alise and I have noticed with some alarm over the years how every time we move, the removal lorry we need gets larger. That’s partly because our kids have grown – but the more unsettling truth is that we own more than we used to. When we moved into our current house almost nine years ago everything fitted comfortably; now we look around at piles in corners and wonder how we didn’t notice! It’s time for us to have a clear out, to make some room again.
What’s true for houses, it turns out, is also true for our spiritual lives. It’s easy for them to get ‘cluttered’ – clogged up by baggage of various sorts. The reasons are numerous: doubts which nag away at us; bad experiences which shake our faith; times when God seems distant; sometimes it’s just wilful distraction – the journey of faith seems too hard and we try to justify a bit of ‘time off’ to ourselves.
The result is a cluttered inner life. Our hearts get full of other things, and the Lord – and our day-to-day walk with our Lord – gets squeezed. The church in Corinth was certainly battling with a bit of this ‘cluttering’. They were beset by divisions and unhealthy life choices: St Paul had called them out on it, and instead of heeding his advice they had continued down a destructive path, turning on themselves and even on Paul himself.
In the end, a certain amount of order had been restored – but there were still scars, and some who still wanted to ‘shoot the messenger’, feeling a lingering resentment toward Paul. To these, in today’s passage Paul offers a heartfelt plea: ‘Make room for us in your hearts.’ (v2) We haven’t wronged, corrupted or exploited anyone, he says. I only ever wanted what was best for you: your healing and flourishing as individual believers and as a Christian community.
The remedy he suggests is actually in the verse before (and this is where subdivisions in the text added by translators can be unhelpful). He has just been advocating a spiritual clear-out: a re-dedication of their lives to God (v1). This renewal of purity will not only restore their relationships with God and each other, and maybe their credibility to those looking in – it will also ‘create space’ to renew their friendship with Paul. So verse 1 leads naturally to verse 2.
As we look at our own lives, what ‘clearing out’ is needed? What is cluttering our lives and our relationship to God? And, as we re-dedicate ourselves, is there anyone we need to make room for again? Take a few moments today to give yourself a little ‘spiritual spring clean’ – and as we do that, take heart that ‘we have these promises’ (v1) always to cling on to. Our great God is cheering us on.
When our kids were much younger I remember hiring a couple of pedalo boats when we were on holiday. Alise and I paired off with one of our children and enjoyed a fun half hour going round in circles! The problem with pedaloes is that you need roughly equal pedal power to go anywhere: if one side pushes harder than the other, you veer off course. Pair an adult with a 6 year old and what happens next is enormous fun, but a total disaster in terms of making any progress!
After a break for Pentecost, our reflections in 2 Corinthians are back with a bang today: this is one of those tough passages which has had an enormous impact on the church’s life, but makes for uncomfortable reading. It seems to draw the lines between Christians and everyone else very sharply indeed. What are we to make of it 2,000 years later?
First, let’s acknowledge that this is a very young church in a very venal culture. Corinth was a byword for moral excess, even then: to ‘Corinthianise’ was a slang term in Greek culture for licentious or immoral behaviour. First century Corinth makes modern-day Las Vegas look prudish and strict by comparison.
The challenges faced by this tiny group of believers, then, were extreme. And if we go back to Paul’s first letter, we find him reminding them that their commitment to holiness did not mean they had to withdraw completely from the world (1 Cor 5:9-11). So we can reasonably infer that his more hardline advice in today’s passage is given because they did not listen to his previous advice, and the problems of moral compromise had only got worse.
It is helpful to see the fundamental question of how much Christians should ‘live apart’ from the world as a spectrum or continuum, rather than two ‘camps’. At one end of this spectrum is complete separation from the world in every respect; at the other is complete integration, so that the church looks no different to the rest of the world. All of us have to work out where on this spectrum to be, in order to be both spiritually healthy and effective in mission and witness. Clearly, at the time of this letter, the Corinthian church was too far toward one end of the spectrum – so their pedalo was going round in circles? – and needed to reset their perspective.
Another helpful way to evaluate this conundrum is to think of flow. The point of the church is that the values of Jesus’ kingdom flow from it out to the rest of the world. On the other hand, if the flow reverses, and the values of a godless world flow into the church, then we need to worry. What St Paul is ultimately challenging his readers in Corinth to do is to reverse the flow. They needed to renew their own personal holiness (and the word holy means ‘set apart’), so that Jesus’ kingdom values of mutual love, grace, unity, hope and, yes, purity would flow into the culture around them.
As we sit with this teaching today, why not take a few minutes to ask yourself: which way is the flow working in my life? Is anything unhealthy from my relationship with the world around me flowing into my life? How can the Christlike things I hold dear flow out towards others? As we reflect, let’s take heart that we are sons and daughters of the living God (v18): this loving, divine Parent will graciously help us in whatever we resolve.
A reflection for Pentecost, and the Platinum Jubilee
We’ve gathered this weekend to celebrate many things about our Queen: her faith, her steadfastness, her humility, her wisdom. But I want to suggest that what we’ve also gathered to celebrate is that promise which the young princess made 75 years ago, in a radio broadcast to the nation and Commonwealth on her 21st birthday in 1947: ‘I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service... God help me to make good my vow, and God bless all of you who are willing to share in it.’ This is the promise which she has spent the rest of her life fulfilling.
The best promises usually take time to come to pass. It’s easy for any of us to make a promise we’ve no intention of keeping, or one which we can make good on very quickly. But to honour something which you vowed a long time ago – that is the kind of promise worth celebrating.
And at Pentecost, we celebrate and give thanks for that kind of promise. The Day of Pentecost was an event centuries in the making. The Holy Spirit has been around since the beginning of time: it was brooding over the waters (to use that great phrase) when the world as we knew it didn’t even exist. Then it came powerfully on certain individuals: think of Moses, or Gideon or some of the great kings and prophets.
But at some point there had to be more; there had to come a moment when God’s Spirit would be freely available, enabling any human being to grow into the image of God that we all bear, but which is often so badly damaged. This pouring out was promised first by Joel about 800 years before Jesus, in the passage which Peter quotes to the crowd; it was reiterated two or three centuries later, first by Jeremiah and then by Ezekiel.
And then.... nothing. Or apparently nothing. Israel was conquered, the prophets died out, the generations passed. The odd mini revival, the odd fake Messiah.... would the promise ever come to pass? Had God forgotten?
Not a bit of it. What struck me last week as I prepared is that God keeps his promises. The Day of Pentecost is no accident: it was promised centuries ago, and came almost as soon as Jesus went back to heaven – just as he promised. We may not always understand God’s timing, but we can trust his goodness and faithfulness. Our great God keeps his promises. The Spirit was poured out – and keeps being poured out today.
Since Pentecost, the Spirit is able to dwell in any heart who will receive him: the divine presence filling each of us with love and joy, peace and purpose. A fire which burns up the bad stuff in our lives; a healing spring of life which soothes our wounds; and a wind which blows us to the world, taking God’s love and message with us. This is what we celebrate at Pentecost – and still celebrate, even in 2022.
The promised Holy Spirit is still available now: today, let’s take God at his word and invite this Spirit into our lives afresh. As generation upon generation has cried out, may we cry out again today: Come Holy Spirit!
Friday 27th May - Sunday 5th June: for the period between Ascension Day and Pentecost, we're encouraging people to sign up for one (or both) of these resources: The Bible Society's Pentecost Reflection, which provides a free daily email to your inbox. Alternatively, visit the Thy Kingdom Come website for a prayer journal or daily 'Novena' reflections.
Today is Ascension Day – one of the great but somewhat overlooked festivals of the Christian year. It’s that moment when we celebrate Jesus ascending into heaven forty days after his resurrection, returning to his Father after his time on earth. And at sight, today’s passage might seem to be an odd fit for a day like today. It jars a little, doesn’t it? What has Paul’s very candid description of what his life looks like as a witness for Christ got to do with the glory of Jesus’ ascension?
More than we might think! The answer lies in what the angels say to the disciples after Jesus has returned to heaven: ‘Why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.’ (Acts 1:11)
In other words, you could paraphrase what the angels say to Jesus’ friends as: ‘don’t just stand there – Jesus has given you a job to do, now get on and do it before he comes back!’
It turns out that this job for many of the first generation of Jesus’ followers looked a lot like what Paul describes here in today’s passage. A life of humble service and severe opposition – just, indeed, like their Lord’s. Many understood what it meant for Jesus to call them to ‘take up their cross and follow him’ in sadly all too literal ways.
And yet, despite the hardship, despite the opposition, despite all the obstacles and challenges, this small band of 120 who waited and prayed for the Holy Spirit after Jesus ascended had, by a reasonable estimate, seen 10% of the population of the Roman Empire come to follow this same Jesus by the time the Emperor Constantine made it all more respectable in 312AD – that would be approximately 20 million people, or 167,000 times more souls than when the church started 300 years previously.
It is a quite extraordinary achievement, and Paul testifies to what made it possible: ‘in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; in truthful speech and in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness in the right hand in the left’ (vv6-7); and through unconditional commitment in every circumstance: ‘through glory and dishonour, bad report and good report’ (v8).
This was not ultimately a work of the human spirit – though it did need the heroism of humans willing to co-operate with God – it is a work of the Spirit of Christ, promised at the Ascension and poured out on all believers at Pentecost. Paul may have had little idea just how big, how global this movement would become, but he certainly knew something of that anointing of the Spirit – hence he could conclude this remarkable monologue (and one can sense here a little riposte to those who arrogantly said he wasn’t much good with words – just look at this soaring text!) by testifying that he is ‘sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor yet making many rich; having nothing and yet possessing everything.’
So as we worship our ascended Lord today, give thanks for the courage of those people like Paul who have spread our Lord’s good news throughout the world; and above all, give thanks (and keep praying) for the gift of the Spirit that empowered his – and our – lives. By the grace of Christ, we still possess everything.
‘Come, now is the time to worship...’ This is one of my favourite worship songs – but it’s somewhat polarising. I know some people who object to its theology: surely it’s always time to worship, and therefore it’s a meaningless phrase to sing? Does it in fact encourage a false view that, because we sing it in church, somehow we worship God more in certain places than in the rest of our lives?
At one level it’s a fair argument to make; but it also misses the counter-point: precisely because this moment – ‘now’ – is always the time to worship, then we can always sing it truthfully, and lift our hearts to God. We can sing it in church – but also in our kitchen or even in the shower! Because now is the time to worship – to honour God and yield our hearts to him.
St Paul makes a similar case today. As a ‘minister of reconciliation’ he is always calling people back to the Lord, to worship Jesus. That’s his job title, his calling: he can’t help himself, even with people he knows are largely reconciled to God – he says it again to them quite directly (v20). It is, no doubt a message he has shared many, many times with them.
But he knows there’s also a bigger thing at play here. Yes, the Corinthian Christians have been reconciled to God: but this letter is written in a context when, currently, they are not reconciled either to him or to each other. There are people badmouthing Paul and his ministry, and the church is still hurting from a very painful pastoral situation which Paul spent much of the first part of the letter trying to address and to heal.
So his message is not just: ‘be reconciled to God’ (v20); it’s also ‘we urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain’ (v1). In other words: being reconciled to God is absolutely amazing, but it’s just the start. God’s grace is meant to seep into all your other relationships. We are to be people of reconciliation – as far as we can be, anyway.
Grace is not just a one-time gift: it is an ongoing process of renewal. We live from grace, yes – but also in grace and through grace. Grace does not just secure our destinies, it also shapes our lives. That doesn’t mean that sometimes we don’t have hard tasks to do, or hard things to say – as Paul has had to do here with the church in Corinth – but in the end, grace always wins.
And because grace is a daily gift of God, an ongoing presence in our lives, Paul can finish this section of his letter by reminding them that ‘now is the time of God’s favour, now is the day of salvation.’ You may have received grace long ago; you may have struggled with parts of your life recently; you may be battling with unanswered prayer or challenging relationships. Take heart: now is the time of God’s favour – because in the kingdom of God, grace is always available to us now. Not just in the past, nor just in the glorious future that awaits us. But now.
Come, now is the time to worship. Come, now is the time to give your heart. Come, just as you are to worship. Come, just as you are before your God. Come.
As we continue to bask in the glorious verse where we ended yesterday – this amazing truth that in Christ we are new creations – Paul switches tack today. If it was Jesus’ resurrection that ultimately led to us becoming new creations (following in Jesus’ footsteps), Paul now goes a step further back by thinking about what Jesus’ death effected for us.
In essence: to use the language of a conflict, if the resurrection is the ‘rebuilding plan’ after the conflict, the cross is the peace treaty which ended it. Our selfishness has always been the thing that acts as a barrier between us and God – we have ‘sins which count against us’ and these need to be dealt with. Here Paul doesn’t go into how Jesus death does this – he touches on it tomorrow and in much more detail elsewhere – he simply observes that this peace with God has been achieved through Christ, such that whatever existed as a barrier between us and God, whatever ‘counted against us’, has been removed.
In other words, thanks to Jesus, we are reconciled to God! There are few things in life as wonderful as a successful reconciliation. Whatever caused the rift in the first place, such rifts cause us to feel all kinds of negative emotions: fear, anxiety, perhaps a little self-righteousness too. We want to make up, but are not sure how. Who makes the first move? Who says what, and when?
Thankfully, when it comes to our relationship to God, the gloriously liberating news is that it is God who always makes the first move. He is always more keen to be reconciled to us than we are to him, whatever the cost to him. Like the father waiting on the edge of his land for the prodigal child to come home, God longs for our company like a lovesick parent, desperately waiting and hoping with the helplessness of deep and abiding love.
This is the heart of our gospel. And it is a continuing process: note the use of the word ‘reconciling’ in v19 – it remains an ongoing process. God raises up people to keep sharing this message in every generation. In the first century AD St Paul was one of those ‘ministers of reconciliation’ (v18 – and what a lovely job title!). But the task is as important as ever today: how the world needs more reconciliation – not just between people, but also with the Lord, too.
In our small ways, we too are ambassadors for Christ (v20). We represent him to the world. So today, give thanks that, because of Jesus, you are wonderfully reconciled to God! And pray for grace to represent Jesus well to those around you – to be an ambassador, a minister of reconciliation.
When I was growing up, turning on a television set and making it work was a much more demanding experience than it is now. I remember that we had an old Ferguson (remember them) black and white model that required tuning in the TV channels on a dial, and also had a circular wire aerial which had to be moved around on its base to get the best reception. If there was a thunderstorm, you had no chance... I don’t expect anyone misses those days – though it had to be said that there was a sense of achievement when you got a good picture!
One thing that often came with old TV sets was a series of dials – not just volume, but brightness and contrast. Most TVs still have these, but hardly any of us use them, as the automatic settings do the job for us. It’s the contrast one that’s relevant for us today. A good TV picture should not just be in focus, and bright enough to watch in the daytime – the image also needs a good contrast, so that all the elements of the image are clearly distinguished from one another.
Over the last two chapters, Paul’s letter has largely been about a series of contrasts. He began by thinking about the Old and New Covenants in ch3, and what he terms the critical contrast between the age of the law (or letter) and the age of the Spirit. He then develops this idea to describe the contrast between the fragility of our humanity (both our bodies and souls) and the powerful life-giving message we carry inside of us (ch4 vs1-12). This in turn leads him to draw the contrast between what we see now and the unseen glory that awaits us (4:16-5:10). Since we have to keep trusting in the realities that are to come, ‘we live by faith, not by sight’.
All these contrasts are powerful ways of describing the nature of the spiritual life, and how we reconcile our life here on earth with what is to come. I hope you’ve found each of these helpful over the last couple of weeks. But at this point in the text, Paul gets to the very heart of the matter: the source of all of these contrasts. All of these ‘before and after’ contrasts rest ultimately on one pivotal event in history: the resurrection of Jesus (v15). The age of the Spirit is only possible after the resurrection, since Christ is now alive and can pour out his Spirit to all who trust in him. The life-giving light which shines in our hearts does so because Jesus has been raised from the dead, conquering the darkness of sin and death. The glories of what is to come are possible because Christ offers all those who follow him the gift of eternal life, with resurrected bodies.
When we come to Christ we join with him in both his death (v14) and his resurrection (v15). So our old self (and its sin) has died with him; our new selves are raised with him. All of which leads to this glorious summary in v17: ‘If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: the old has gone, the new is here!’ The ultimate contrast: in Christ we are made new. Renewed by the gospel, renewed by the Spirit, the indwelling presence of Christ; renewed for eternity and fullness of resurrection life.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t always feel like a new creation! But take heart – whatever you feel, seize this amazing truth today: thanks to Jesus you are a new creation. Keep reminding yourself of it, and let it sink deep into your soul. And may God grant us all grace to live, ‘not for ourselves but for him’ (v15) this week.
We are used in our culture to fame and success being connected to where we were born and brought up, the privileges (or otherwise) that we enjoyed. We hear the phrases even now in our supposedly meritocratic society: ‘the old boys’ network’, ‘not what you know but who you know’, the Bullingdon Club, the Chipping Norton set, etc etc.
Some places are in and some places are, well, you know, out. Sometimes when a certain well-known person achieves great fame, their hometown is mentioned with the sort of surprise that such success could possibly have started there. We might like to think that this sort of snobbery started a couple of hundred years ago: but this attitude is not new. It’s right here in our passage. It’s always been there – snobbery and prejudice is as old as the hills.
When Jesus starts making waves, it becomes known that his home town is Nazareth. This is something of a surprise to many, not least Nathanael: ‘Nazareth!’ he sniggers contemptuously. ‘Can anything good come from there?’ (v46) Perhaps those of us who’ve made our home in Milton Keynes will immediately resonate with this kind of attitude. As someone who lived in Bristol for five years – a city that almost everyone purrs over – before moving to MK nine years ago, the contrast was quite marked.
Personally I like the negativity – those of us who live here in MK know that it’s a great place to live, and don’t mind at all that most people who’ve never been here think it’s dull or soulless or whatever. It’s our secret! And we’re happy to keep it that way.
And today we remind ourselves that we worship a Saviour who came from a similar background. This area of northern Israel was known as the Decapolis, an area of 10 relatively new settlements colonised and invested in by the Romans. In other words, an ancient version of MK, and equally treated with various forms of contempt by the posher places down south.
If Jesus had been born in 21st century Britain would he have been born in MK? I don’t know and there’s little point in speculating. But today we can take heart knowing that we follow a Saviour like us, who knows what prejudice and snobbery were like, and who overcame everything for our sake. Can anything good come from there? Absolutely. And praise God that it did.
Perhaps today give thanks for our city, and for your home town. Pray for God to bless it: it’s the sort of place God loves. And God is at work in it still.
One of our largest pub chains in the UK is JD Wetherspoon. Personally I’ve always liked them – reliable food, no loud music you have to shout over, and fine ale. The name, too, is important. Wetherspoon, apparently, is the name of a certain teacher who taught Tim Martin – the founder and owner of the business – and told the young lad that he would never amount to anything. A multi-million pound business was Tim Martin’s riposte. I have occasionally wondered whether Mr Wetherspoon drives past the hundreds of buildings that bear his name, and what that must feel like. Or indeed whether Tim Martin has found peace in his spectacular success, or if the harsh word of his teacher remains a painful wound in his life.
So often what is spoken over us when we are young sticks to our souls. Even people who know us well can, either wittingly or unwittingly, reinforce a sense of our flaws and limitations as human beings.
But Jesus sees beyond. Jesus sees what we are capable of, our God-given potential. He created us, so he knows – it’s as simple as that. Andrew’s brother Simon was a young fisherman. Already married, settled to a quiet life by the shores of Galilee. His name is related to the Hebrew word for ‘reed’. Nothing unusual in that – but Jesus sees something greater, a future of enormous possibility. ‘You will be called Cephas’ (v42), meaning ‘Rock’ – i.e. Reedy, you’re going to be Rocky.
There were times, of course, in the future when Peter’s fragility (‘reed-iness’?) came to the surface – when Jesus was arrested and he denied knowing his friend; or when as leader of the church he came under pressure to water down the gospel and Paul had to put him straight. But Jesus saw a different future for this young man; and, taught by the Master and empowered by the Spirit, that future came to pass. What began as a simple encounter here at the start of the gospel led to a world-changing life.
Jesus sees our potential, too – the people we were made to be, the people by God’s grace that we are becoming. He is no hard taskmaster, but the constant encourager of our souls. Patient, kind, generous and ever-hopeful. Once Jesus enters our world, the task of our lives is simply to become what we already are, the person that Jesus sees and loves.
Today, take time to reflect on how Jesus sees you. What name might he have for you? What gifts is he growing? What grace is he offering you? Resolve to live as Jesus sees you, the precious, talented person that you are.
I can’t see the wind, but I can its effects. After the drama of the big storms over the winter (and two massive boughs crashing in the churchyard right by our wall), over the last few weeks the energy of the wind has been at work in more gentle ways: as I’ve sat at my desk, I’ve enjoyed all kinds of blossoms and various plant seeds and pollen drifting in gentle snow across my vision, and occasionally glistening and glittering in the sunlight.
The idea that what is unseen powers what is seen lies at the heart of our passage today. In fact, Paul has been meditating on the contrast between ‘seen’ and ‘unseen’ for much of the last dozen or more verses, and the importance of keeping our eyes fixed on the powerful spiritual realities which are unseen; but in verses 11-15 he fixes his attention on this ‘unseen vs seen’ theme in two specific ways.
The first you might call the wrong focus. Paul has critics – especially in Corinth – and these critics are quick to point out that Paul’s public speaking skills are not that impressive by the (high) standard of Greek oratory. (As an aside, it’s quite a thought that the greatest evangelist the church has ever had wasn’t much of a public speaker!) These critics want more flourishes, more pizzazz, they want to see a better show.... and Paul is having none of it. ‘They take pride in what is seen,’ he says (v12) – but what matters is what is in the heart. Paul’s ministry is powerful and effective because of what is going on inside him: the heart of love and passion for Christ which fuels everything he does, and which God in turn blesses. What is unseen is what matters.
This then can be applied to Paul’s ministry more generally, as he references twice in this passage. What is unseen is what powers the ‘seen’ in Paul’s life and mission: his reverence for God energises him to ‘persuade’ people of the gospel (v11); later, he says that it is Christ’s love which ‘compels’ him – and what an insightful word that is, too – to preach that Christ died for all and was raised again (vv14-15).
Paul is a very visible figure in the church – even today. But what empowers him is what’s deep inside his heart: Christ’s love, and his reverence for God in return. We may not be Pauls, but it’s not a bad pair of values to sit inside our hearts too. May Christ’s love fill our hearts with reverence and passion for him, and may that flow out into our lives in all kinds of ways – that what is unseen may shape and transform what is seen in us today.
As I write this, tonight my football team plays in a huge play-off game, the winner of which will play at Wembley at the end of May. By the time you read this, I’ll either be eating my breakfast toast with a big, smug grin on my face or will be staring wistfully into my early morning cuppa!
It’s the second part of a tie played over two legs: on Saturday we were away, and tonight we’re at home. Received wisdom is that the home team has an advantage, so we are strong favourites to progress, because being at home is usually better than being away. Though that never gives a football fan much cause for optimism!
St Paul knew nothing about football, but he did use the home and away image to great effect in this passage, and with the same idea at the back of his mind: being home is better than being away. But where is our real home? At the moment, our temporary home is here on earth – which means that we don’t yet have the full reality of what it will mean to be ‘away’ with the Lord forever (v6). However, if this is the first leg of the play-off tie, there is a second leg to come, when we will be at home with the Lord (v8), which is much, much better. And, in this play-off, the first leg on earth is considerably shorter than the second in glory, which thankfully stretches for eternity.
We all live with this tension between the ‘now’ and the ‘not yet’ of our spiritual lives. Even at its best, what we have now can only be a foretaste of what is to come. It’s easy to lose sight of that: to imagine that what we have now is as good as it can be, like the child at a restaurant who gets excited by the starter and forgets that not only the main course, but the unlimited ice-cream sundae machine, is yet to come!
So how do we live with this tension? St Paul gives us two very simple but practical bits of advice: first, we live by faith, not by sight (v7). Our home here is temporary: we might not see the eternal home yet, but we’ve exchanged binding contracts. The fact that we haven’t moved there yet doesn’t make it any less real, or permanent.
Second, wherever we are, we make it our goal to please the Lord (v9). We keep the main thing the main thing: Jesus first, and trust God for the rest. This is what gives us confidence in our faith (and Paul is so keen to encourage us to be confident he emphasises this twice – v6 and v8), and enables us live ‘home and away’. And may God grant us all grace for the away leg, in hope of the glorious home leg to come. Amen!
As many of you know, we Trendalls have long enjoyed camping. As I get older, increasingly I’m not sure why! The body doesn’t cope as well with the outdoor life as it used to.... but looking back to the golden days – and nostalgia isn’t what it used to be, is it – when the sun shone in an early summer’s evening, and we were sat in our chairs outside the tent enjoying a glass of wine while the kids played and the birdsong caressed the treetops, there really is nothing like it.
That said, our first ever trip as a family didn’t start well. The first night we pitched a tent it rained solidly from midnight. At 9am we were shivering at a bus stop desperately waiting for a bus to Corfe Castle and wondering why on earth we’d decided to bring a 4- and 2-year old on this mad escapade. Similarly there was a notorious week in 2009 when it rained for most of 5 days and on the 6th night the chap pitched next to us was digging a trench round his tent. We agreed that if the water got inside ours (it hadn’t... yet) it was game over and we would go home a day early. No pain, no gain.
And that’s the point, really. The fragility of camping is both its great challenge and its joy. A tent compared to a house is a totally different beast. It moves with every gust of wind, and even light rain patters loudly on the fabric structure. At the end of ch4, St Paul started reflecting on the difference between life now and the life we’re heading for in heaven. Today he develops that theme to reflect honestly on our bodies: what they are like now and what they will become in glory.
And the comparison he makes is between a tent and a house. Our bodies here he describes as an ‘earthly tent’ (v1). As images go, it’s a good one – our bodies carry that same fragility: the seams leak, they struggle with extremes, basically they wear out. In heaven it will be different: our resurrected bodies are described by Paul as ‘an eternal house... a heavenly dwelling.’ What was once weak will be strong (for more detail, flick back to 1 Corinthians 15:42-49) – to use a fabulous phrase in this passage, all our frailties and limitations will be ‘swallowed up by life’ (v4). Life wins. And this vibrant, electric, eternal life will course endlessly through our renewed and perfected veins.
It interesting that Paul at this point reminds us that the Spirit is the down-payment on all this (as he did in 1:22) – and it’s fitting that he does, because the Spirit leads us towards things that never fade or perish: love, joy, peace, hope, faith. Such things might appear intangible, but deep down we all know that in this life they are the only things that really matter, that are really real. Possessions come and go, health is often inconsistent – but these virtues are eternal. And they pave the way for that eternal reality, that ‘eternal house’ we will one day eventually enjoy.
So today, give thanks that we have this hope to look forward to. And pray for more of eternity – love, joy, peace, hope faith – to fill your earthly life today.
One of the great privileges of my work is being able to visit people who are near to the end of their lives. This might sound morbid, but to be given the opportunity to spend time with someone who does not have much time is something to be treasured. Sometimes those visits are very demanding – at other times, I feel as if I have been the one blessed by the occasion, not the other way round.
This is particularly true of the visits I have made to some of our very elderly saints: wonderful women and men who have walked with the Lord for most of their lives. We have been blessed to have a number of 90-somethings in our congregations, many of whom we have lost in recent years. With some of these amazing people I have been particularly conscious of the contrast St Paul makes here between our outward physical circumstances and our inner lives. I have sat beside a very frail body which is quite literally shrinking with every visit – and yet also looked into eyes which radiated light, peace and joy. The body may be wasting away, but the spirit is as bright and brilliant as ever – and ready for what lies beyond.
Although this sharp contrast between our physical and spiritual realities is most obvious near the end of our lives, it is a universal truth for all of humanity. Our bodies don’t last for ever – little by little they wear out. But this is not the whole picture: we are made for eternity, for fullness of life; and so, in Christ, our spirits reflect a different reality. God is gently flooding them with his life and love – renewing us day by day.
This places a very different perspective on the trajectory of our lives. It is not ‘all downhill from here’. Whilst that might be true in the physical sense, there is something else happening at the same time. Our spirits are growing, thanks to the activity of God in our lives. We are slowly learning how to live in heaven before we die.
This puts the difficulties of our lives in perspective: what Paul lived with were far from ‘light and momentary troubles’ (v17 : see chapter 6, verses 3-10 for his summary) – but, in view of his eternal future, he knew that this was not the whole story; indeed these challenges were shaping him for eternal glory.
So, today and this week, let’s take Paul’s advice and fix our eyes on the prize (v18), and pray that God’s beautiful Spirit might refresh us and renew us day by day (v16). And may that daily renewing enable us to live joyfully and peacefully in the strong and unshakeable kingdom of God this week.
Christians are usually called ‘people of faith’. Faith lies at the heart of who we are. But it’s easily misunderstood: so often faith is reduced to something that lives in our head – acknowledgement of a set of principles or beliefs.
Not so with Paul – in today’s passage he makes two striking comments, which form a great way to end our week. The first is that, for him, faith is something he can’t keep quiet about: ‘we believe, and therefore speak’ (v13). The ‘therefore’ is interesting, isn’t it? The one follows the other. Faith is something he has to pass on.
Now, you might say that he is called to preach: so that’s something for him, but maybe not for everyone? Perhaps so – but what is healthy about this mentality is the sense that faith is active – it leads somewhere. For Paul, to believe is to live, to communicate, to enable others to be blessed by it, that ‘thanksgiving [might] overflow to the glory of God’ (v17).
The second striking thing about this short text is that, whilst Paul is talking about the spirit of faith, what he says in v14 is that ‘we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus’. For Paul, faith is not just wishful thinking, but something firm, concrete: a solid foundation for real hope.
And what a hope! Jesus’ resurrection was not a one-off, but the first of a countless number of resurrections, which all of his followers will also enjoy. We will be raised with Jesus! Hallelujah!
As we finish a week of deep teaching from this letter, let this simple truth lift your heart today: however you feel, whatever life is throwing at the moment, you will be raised with Jesus. And may that cause thanksgiving to overflow in your heart, too.
Early in 1947 two young Bedouin shepherds were idling away the hours in a remote part of the north shore of the Dead Sea in Israel. They were throwing stones into caves to enjoy the sound they made when clattering into the empty caverns. Throwing into one cave, they noticed that the sound made was more of a dull thud.
Intrigued, they climbed up to explore the cave, and found some old jars – which is what the stones must have been hitting. These jars appeared to have some old manuscripts in them. The shepherds didn’t know what to do with them, so they took them back to their family and hung the scrolls out on tent poles while they decided. Their tribe couldn’t agree either, but after a while they were persuaded to try and sell them to a local dealer. The first one they approached in Bethlehem told them they were worthless and returned them. The second paid a few dollars for some of the scrolls, before then re-selling them: and eventually they caught the eye of a scholar, who recognised an ancient text on one of them... and the rest, as they say, is history.
It turns out that these ‘worthless’ items were in fact the (now world-famous) Dead Sea Scrolls. They contain some of the oldest manuscripts of biblical books, as well as other writings from the period, and are now considered to be one of the most important archaeological finds in history. Treasure in jars of clay, indeed.
...all of which segues neatly to today’s passage. The image which forms the heart of the text is one of the most loved in the New Testament, because it captures perfectly what many of us instinctively know to be true. The gospel is the greatest treasure in the world, something whose light we carry around with us in our hearts (as we saw yesterday). This gospel is not just beautiful and true, it is also unbreakable; however, we ourselves are constantly aware of how fragile we are. Like jars of clay, we might look strong on the outside, but we are easily broken.
It is a powerful metaphor for the ‘now and not yet’ of the Christian life. We are already citizens of heaven; we have a hope and a guaranteed future. But life is hard: we are often hard-pressed or perplexed, occasionally even persecuted. We often wish that our lives were stronger: if only we were steel jars, not clay ones! But, Paul says, there’s a reason for our fragility – it reminds us that the saving power is all God’s, not ours (v7). We don’t rely on ourselves, but on our unshakeable, unbreakable God.
Consequently, we can overcome the challenges we face (vv8-9) because it’s not all about us We don’t face them alone, or try to defeat them in our own strength, but rather we rest on the all-surpassing strength of God, who enables us not to be crushed, abandoned or left in despair. Life is always at work in us!
Today, give thanks for this treasure that lives in your heart. And pray for any on your heart – others or yourself – to know the truth of these verses. By God’s grace (and God’s alone), we will overcome!
About 20 years ago I remember standing on Blackfriars Bridge watching a full solar eclipse. Such things happen very rarely in our country, and I remember at the time it was the cause of much excitement. Almost everyone filed out of the office and onto the bridge; and even though it was the middle of the day, it was distinctly eerie watching the land go dark. For a few minutes, a summer’s day felt like dusk – before becoming summer again. (As an aside, I didn’t give myself proper eye protection, and had spots in my vision for hours – naughty boy!)
A full eclipse is a brilliant image for today’s passage: only this time the brilliant light is that of the Son, not the sun. This divine light shines in the face of Christ (v6) which in turns shines into our hearts (also v6). It is a light which was there from the beginning of time, and is now revealed to all people.
However, not everyone ‘sees’ it. Many people, Paul acknowledges, remain ‘blind’ to it (v4). This is not just random, or accidental: we have a spiritual enemy, whose primary purpose is to try and make this happen. Paul calls him ‘the god of this age’, which is shorthand for the devil – so-called because his power is limited, both in terms of extent (small ‘g’!) and time (this age only).
Where does the devil try to work? Primarily in our minds (v4). This is about truth – and indeed about the opposite of truth. Sadly, we humans are prone to believing lies – about God, about ourselves, about Jesus. Such things sink into our minds, and act like an eclipse: they get in the way of the Son, so we cannot see his brilliant glory. In short, they block the light.
But let’s notice that the light still shines. Even if people might be blind to it, it is not any less brilliant. I might draw the curtains on a sunny day, but it doesn’t mean the sun isn’t shining! An eclipse makes things darker, but not pitch-black. And so, too, even those we might think are ‘blind’ to the light and love of Jesus are never totally beyond hope, or change.
That’s why Paul is so committed to ‘setting forth the truth plainly’, as we saw yesterday, and thereby ‘commending ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.’ Truth matters. Truth has power. Indeed, as Jesus says, it is the truth that sets us free. But prayer also helps – prayer unlocks hearts and minds: just as it did for Paul’s original readers, so it still does. Why not pray today for someone you know and love who tends to resist Jesus – that the light would keep shining, and that eventually that veil would melt away!
They say that truth is the first casualty of war. I recently watched a fascinating documentary about the origins of fake news – so prevalent in our consciousness nowadays. Perhaps not surprisingly, it’s been around a lot longer than we think; and it was noticeable that times of conflict were often the places where stories were most often embellished, exaggerated, or just plain invented to fuel the success of the mission. It is a common feeling that in exceptional times, the ends justify the means.
But what about the spiritual battle? Do the ends justify the means, when what’s at stake is the kingdom of God? Every age faces a contest of ideas, such that the good news of Jesus is always ‘competing’ with lots of other claims... and bear in mind that the first generation of Christians expected Jesus to return in their lifetime: given the urgency, surely a few (what we would call) sales techniques are acceptable? Don’t we want heaven to be as full as possible?
The clear answer of the New Testament is ‘no’ – how we do things ultimately matters more than the outcome it achieves. Jesus’ moral teaching always focuses on the heart – our motives, our integrity – and so perceived success in external areas is no substitute for what’s going on inside us. Indeed many of the images Jesus uses for the kingdom are designed to make it look as insignificant as possible: the mustard seed, the yeast, the narrow path, the eye of a needle. Words like ‘success’ tend to sound a bit hollow when viewed through these lenses.
This kind of teaching is undoubtedly very much in Paul’s mind when he begins chapter 4 in our passage today. Still thinking about those wandering teachers (2:17), he contrasts what a real Christ-centred teaching ministry looks like. Its ultimate goal is simply to ‘set forth the truth plainly’ (v2).
It avoids temptations which are still just as appealing nowadays: to lead a double life, preaching one thing but living another (‘secret and shameful ways’); to lie about the benefits of following Jesus (‘deception’) – of which there are many, but we can always add a few to make it even more appealing! And finally, to twist any bits in the gospel we don’t like so it fits more smoothly with the sort of easy faith or lifestyle we’d like, or indeed so that it excludes other people we don’t like (‘distorting the Word of God’).
This text carries a deep sense of awe for me personally. Every time I sit down to write a Daily Inspiration (or a Sunday sermon or any piece of Christian communication) my goal is to try and live out Paul’s benchmark: to teach ‘plain truth’ as honestly and as openly as I can. To lift hearts without cutting corners; to reveal the beauty and glory of Jesus without getting in the way myself.
On behalf of all who dare to try and communicate the immense love of Christ to our world, can I ask for your prayers to stay true to this calling, to keep Paul’s vision of ‘plain truth’ alive? And as you pray for us (and thank you to all of you who do!), let’s all pray for ourselves, to be those whose hearts remain open to the full revelation of Jesus’ beautiful good news.
What is freedom? It’s a good question to ask: and it’s one which, in our culture, is currently skewed heavily towards the idea of individualism. Google it and you’ll find the Cambridge English Dictionary defines it primarily as: ‘the condition or right of being able or allowed to do, say, think, etc. whatever you want to, without being controlled or limited’. Wikipedia adds a dimension of self-fulfilment: ‘Freedom is understood as either having the ability to act or change without constraint, or to possess the power and resources to fulfil one's purposes.’
It’s interesting that many newspapers tried to label the ending of Covid restrictions last year as ‘Freedom Day’ – which, given the definitions noted above, fits exactly into the dominant strain of ‘freedom thinking’ in our culture, which is essentially freedom to...
But this is quite a limited view of freedom, especially if my freedom interferes with someone else’s. ‘Freedom to’ might work well for me – but in doing so, it might act as a constraint on others. My freedom to jump a queue is someone else’s constraint to wait longer!
Today’s passage gets to grips with the biblical idea of freedom, and begins with the assertion that true freedom is found in the Spirit: ‘where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.’ (v17) What does this freedom look like?
In the bible, you’ll find two other sorts of freedoms emphasised much more heavily: one is freedom from.... guilt, shame, the weight of our or others’ expectations, the fear of death, the fear of failure, the need to earn our salvation – and more! Here, this ‘freedom from’ is expressed in even more fundamental terms: freedom from the fear of meeting God face-to-face. Before Christ, this is something no human could risk – but now, thanks to Jesus, we can all come directly into God’s presence: ‘with unveiled faces’ as the text puts it (v18). The Spirit is God’s down-payment in our lives; and, safe in the knowledge that God is already with us – even in us – we no longer have any barriers to access. How amazing is that?
But there’s another freedom, just as vital, perhaps even more so – freedom for... We are set free by Jesus for transformation into his image, to become the humans we were always designed to be. This comes about partly simply by giving time to be with the Lord (as the first half of v18 makes clear) – but it is also an active process of co-operating with the Spirit. As the freedom-giving Spirit works in our lives, so we become more like Jesus. This process happens ‘with ever increasing glory’.
As you got out of bed today, or looked at yourself in the mirror, you probably didn’t feel increasing glory – I didn’t either! But it is the true spiritual reality. Today, pray for God to help you live in true freedom: from all that blocks your peace, joy and spiritual growth, and for a transformed life which blesses others. And pray it with confidence, because it’s what the Lord desires for all of us!
Given the subject matter, the start of yesterday’s sermon seems appropriate... Back when Alise and I used to work for the same company, one of the highlights of the year was the Company Sports Day. Before you get notions of some sort of serious competition, this was more It’s a Knockout than Diamond League Athletics. Events included the Space Hopper Relay, welly wanging, egg and spoon race, you get the idea!
The last event each year was the biggest and most chaotic of all. It was a relay race, where all participants had to run to the end of the course, put a blindfold on, spin on a stick ten times and then try to run back to their team. The team would help them find their way back by shouting out – so each participant had to listen carefully for the voice which enabled them to get home. As you can imagine the fun was in the fact that people were so dizzy they usually ran off at an angle of 45 degrees before falling over in comic fashion. One particularly memorable year Alise ran very fast at an oblique angle straight into the managing director, knocking him into the sandpit. But I digress.
Thankfully I don’t remember anyone actually getting hurt – but in a way I think that race feels a lot like life to most of us. The first decade feels pretty straightforward; then from secondary school and on through our adult lives, it all gets much trickier. We feel disorientated, bewildered at the complexity of life, which seems to keep spinning us round. Many of us have no idea where we’re going most of the time – and even if we do, if can feel daunting trying to get there, like running blindfold and dizzy in a crowd of other blindfolded dizzy people....
Yesterday, we used this image to think about the importance of which voice to listen to (that would be Jesus’). Today, however, our focus switches to the blindfold – or, as the passage says, the veil. This veil is like a covering of spiritual blindness. St Paul indicates that this veil applies to many of his compatriots who were still in thrall to the Old Covenant – trying to keep a law which time and again had proved beyond them (v14). Indeed, this is not a new problem: more than a thousand years previously, Moses’ own face had to be veiled after he had seen God, as it carried the unfiltered glory of the Divine Presence (v13).
What was the answer? As you might expect, it is Jesus! Jesus is the one who gives us access to God’s presence. Jesus can do what even Moses can’t, because by his death he has atoned for everything that separates us from God; and by his resurrection, he has won new life – a second chance; even a new ‘birth’, as John’s gospel describes – for all who put their trust in him. It is Jesus who reveals God’s presence to us: so the veil is taken away in both senses – we are no longer unable to approach God (v16), nor left in the dark about who God is (v14).
Today, give thanks that Jesus allows you to see God as he is – that our veils have been taken away. And pray for grace to keep seeing Jesus clearly this week, and to live in the glorious light of his presence.
Whenever I have to write or sign anything relating to a marriage, I have to use what is called ‘Registrar’s Ink’. It’s pretty scary stuff: leave it too long in a fountain pen and it corrodes the metal all by itself. But that’s because it’s designed to be indelible: for example, there is a marriage register at All Saints which goes back to 1837, and almost 200 years later you can read the details of the first entries because the ink hasn’t faded much. Every time I fill the pen, I manage to get some on my hands – and you’ll see me rushing to the sink to try and wash it off quickly!
As St Paul started talking about letters yesterday, it got him thinking about the ink which is used to write them. He made the point that his ‘legacy’ could not be defined by getting ink written on papyrus: rather for Christians, it’s what God writes on our hearts. Christian ink, if you like, is the Spirit, writing God’s love into the very fibres of our being.
This prompts him to draw another contrast, which addresses one of the hot topics of the early Church: namely, how following Christ relates to the Jewish law, which historically defined the way God’s people lived in obedience to God. And he draws the same comparison: just as changed lives are a much better reference than written letters of recommendation, so living life in the Spirit is a much better way of living out our relationship to God than defining ourselves by how well we obey the law.
It’s worth clarifying at this point something which might seem odd: why is the Jewish Law described as ‘the letter [which] kills’ (v6) and ‘the ministry that brought death’ (v7)? Paul doesn’t explain it here, but he does elsewhere: basically the Law shows us how far we fall short. The history of God’s people makes it clear that none of us can actually keep the whole law – so although the law is good and right, what it ends up demonstrating is that we can’t obey it, and therefore bring ourselves under condemnation (v9). The consequence, in other words, is separation from God i.e. death.
The good news of Christ is that he deals with all of that: he fulfils the sacrificial law by his one perfect sacrifice on the cross, sets us free from the requirements of the ceremonial and food laws, and by his Spirit dwelling in our hearts enables us to develop the virtues (or qualities, or to use the bible’s word, fruit) which enable us to live out the moral law. So love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control are the heart of the law – and Paul can say in that famous verse in Galatians: ‘against such things there is no law.’
No surprise then, that this ministry of the Spirit is glorious! Indeed, if Moses’ encounter with God was glorious, then what we all experience now, as God puts his Spirit in our hearts, is ‘surpassing glory’ (v10), glory which ultimately lasts forever (v11).
Wow! What an amazing thought to end our week. Glory is shorthand for the manifest presence of God – and, thanks to Christ, this presence is now in our hearts, bringing us life, and growing these beautiful qualities in us. Today, why not pray for those qualities to keep growing in you – and for grace to keep tasting God’s glory at work in your life.
As part of my job I often get asked to write references – something I’m only too glad to do for people I know well. In effect, what these forms are asking me is: ‘Can we trust that this person is who they say they are, and are they up to the job?’ To which hopefully I can reply: ‘As far as I can tell – yes!’
Today’s passage picks up the theme of references in a slightly unusual way. As the gospel spread around the world in the years after Jesus’ resurrection, the growing number of converts and churches also led to a particular cultural expression which was causing some difficulty. Wandering teachers were a part of the culture of that time, especially in Greece: some were authentic, others were bogus – but all of them were essentially trying to earn a living by their ‘knowledge’ and capacity to teach.
These teachers used to arrive with letters of recommendation to support their credentials – and it didn’t take long for such teachers to consider churches to be a good type of community to ‘get in with’: groups of people hungry to learn and welcoming to outsiders. It is clear that the church in Corinth had received a number of such visitors, and this had led indirectly to a number of problems.
Paul picked up on some of these problems in his first letter: in particular the divisions they created, as people ‘followed’ particular individuals; as well as false teaching which encouraged various practices incompatible with Spirit-filled faith. However, in this letter the issue is more personal. One of the things Paul wants them to understand is that some of these ‘teachers’ were charlatans, who simply wanted to make a quick buck – he refers to them in yesterday’s passage (2:17).
It also appears that this increasing use of letters of recommendation was causing some to mutter why Paul himself doesn’t bring such letters with him, to validate his own credentials. To which Paul replies in today’s passage: ‘You want a reference? You are my reference!’ (v2) In other words, if you want an example of Paul’s ministry, look at yourselves, and the way Christ has been at work in you: ‘You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God.’ (v3)
In the end, ministry is always about people – whatever else we achieve, the only true test of God’s work is changed lives. Are people drawing closer to Jesus, showing more of Jesus in their lives, with hearts more filled with love, joy, hope, purpose, peace, patience, mercy and kindness?
Today, take a moment to give thanks for those people who at various points in your life have helped you towards Jesus and enabled you to grow – you are their reference! But also pray to be that ‘reference’ to others, wherever God has placed you – that all of us might be people who bring the transforming light and love of Christ to those around us.
We live by our senses. Touch, taste, sight, smell and sound. And what is true of physical life is true in the spiritual life, too. Throughout Scripture you’ll find references to seeing and hearing, to people being touched by Jesus and even the injunction to ‘taste and see that the Lord is good’. Today, we complete the set, as it were: the central image of our passage is one of smell.
What does the kingdom of God smell like? That might sound like a stupid question, but I remember a friend of mine beginning a sermon like that a few years ago, at which point he gave the surprising answer: ‘It smells like dogs in church.’ Some of you at this point will be cheering inwardly, others grimacing, depending on your view of dogs – but the point he was making referred to a ministry his church had recently grown among the homeless of their area. A number of rough sleepers had connected with their church and wanted to come and worship on Sunday mornings – to make them feel welcome, the church had agreed that their dogs (essentially their most precious, perhaps only, possession) could come, too. So every Sunday, on the back row, God was meeting and blessing a group of people so often shut out from the rest of society. What a great story!
Smell is probably the least obvious of our senses, and yet so vital, too: it can warn us of danger, as in a fire or gas leak; it shapes our sense of self and how we present to others – the world spends an extraordinary £40 billion on perfumes per year; it also reminds us of key things in our lives – our home, a person. John Lewis pipes the enticing smell of a roast into its kitchen section because it sells more goods when it does.
And St Paul tells us today that we are to smell of Jesus in our relationships and conversations with others. It’s a great image, because the smell of something tells you a lot about what it is, and we often make decisions based on how something smells – both literally (is food edible or has it gone off) but also metaphorically – we admit suspicion by saying something ‘smells fishy’. So we are ‘the aroma of Christ’ (v15) to the world around us.
Paul is candid that some will like this fragrance; others will react against it (v16). As long as we’re giving off the right ‘smell’ that’s not our fault, by the way: God’s good news is embraced by some and rejected by others. That’s the bit which is out of our hands, and which we have to trust to God – as he admits, representing Christ to the world is an awesome task, and who is equal to it? (v16). Thanks be to God, he declares, that it is Christ who has already triumphed (v14), so we simply follow him and leave the rest in his loving hands.
So today, let’s resolve to ‘smell good’ – not our perfume, but our lives! May God grant us all grace to be a rich aroma to those around us, drawing them towards his beautiful love.
Being ‘bad cop’ is never easy. Certainly I don’t like it, and find situations where I have to say something hard to someone very difficult. That’s probably a good thing – the day it doesn’t bother me is probably a good day to question my motives!
In today’s passage we learn that St Paul has had to play ‘bad cop’ very recently with the church in Corinth. We know from his first letter to the Corinthians that the young church there was very much a mixed bag – they were very passionate spiritually and exercised many amazing gifts; but they were also arrogant, divided and prone to some major moral blind spots.
Paul tackled some of these directly in that first letter: the aftermath – as far as we can piece it together from this passage – probably went as follows: (1) Paul has to make a ‘painful visit’ in person (this is probably the visit on the way to Macedonia referred to in 1:16) to try and rectify what presumably the church didn’t act upon as a result of his first letter; (2) despite this visit, a core part of the church remains unrepentant (bear in mind that churches were tiny, this core might only have been a handful of people), so Paul has to write another letter (now lost), more direct in confronting the issues (v3); (3) one particular person still refuses to acknowledge what Paul is saying (v5), and perhaps becomes personally abusive towards Paul (v5, v10); (4) this person is disciplined by the majority of the rest of the church (v6) – which probably meant being put out of the fellowship for a season.
This has obviously been an incredibly painful season for everyone involved – so difficult, in fact, that Paul decided he wouldn’t come back for his return visit to Corinth yet because he couldn’t face having to make ‘another painful visit’ (v1) i.e. having to play bad cop yet again. So he sent (or left) his friend Titus who would then come and report back to him what had happened – this is referred to in our passage tomorrow (v13).
Although, sadly, such things still happen in church communities today, it is thankfully rare that they get to this level of seriousness. That said, what is striking here is how Paul balances tough action with tender love. It’s clear that he finds having to do this excruciating, and he is at pains to stress how much he loves the people he is forced to confront (v4). He also is keen to extend forgiveness, even if he has been personally degraded by the person causing the trouble (v10) and now encourages the rest of the church to forgive this person, too (v7).
There’s so much in this text we could pray into today, let the Lord direct you towards any of the following: firstly, prayer for church communities to practise both unity and grace – it’s so vital! Second, prayer for courage to address issues – problems usually get buried alive – but to do so with the sort of love and compassion which we see modelled here. And finally, grace for all of us to forgive, and to allow the Lord to bind our wounds.
Andrew is one of the ‘forgotten’ disciples. He may be the patron saint of Scotland, but in the gospels he gets very little airtime. Second fiddle to his brother Simon, who becomes Peter, the leader of the disciples and the early church. Likewise, of the four fishermen called by Jesus at the lake, the other three – Simon, James and John – become Jesus’ inner circle.
Other disciples too loom larger in our consciousness. We all know about Matthew – the tax collector turned gospel writer – Doubting Thomas and of course Judas Iscariot. Even later disciples like Jesus’ brother James and Philip (not the one in John 1) have a bigger role in the Book of Acts and the leadership of the early church.
But Andrew does one earth-changing thing. One simple act that alters the course of history. And we find it here. He brought his brother Simon to Jesus (v42). In Andrew’s one recorded piece of speech in the gospels, just five words in English – ‘We have found the Messiah’ (v41) – he reveals himself to be the first of the twelve disciples to understand who Jesus was.
And more than that, he acted on what he found. He told his brother, and introduced him to the Messiah.
One simple act. And John records it for us, I think, to show the power of simple acts. We may not have great gifts of oratory – Andrew, it appears, certainly didn’t. We may be quiet people, not particularly brave or keen to share the limelight. But this passage reminds the Andrews of this world – and that is probably most of us – that everyone matters in the kingdom, everyone has a part to play. We can all do one simple thing. We can point the people we love to Jesus. Perhaps by a simple word, perhaps by a Christlike act, perhaps by what we don’t do in their company – gossip, swear, badmouth people.
Those of us who have family and friends who don’t believe know that what Andrew did is much harder than it looks. Often we hit an impasse and run out of words. We’ve rehearsed the same conversations so many times that we feel we can’t say anything more. But let’s be inspired by Andrew’s example and seize faith to believe that no-one is beyond God’s love; that opportunities to point people whom we love to Jesus will come round again; and that there is great power in one simple act.
Every so often an innovation comes along which changes the game. The product remains the same, but once this innovation is launched, what was once perfectly acceptable is no longer adequate. Think graphite tennis rackets replacing wooden ones at the end of the 70s/early 80s. Think the iphone being launched in 2007. It’s still the same thing, but at the same time entirely different.
In the journey of faith, the coming of Christ produces the same effect. It’s still the same God we worship – yesterday, today and forever – but the New Covenant gives us direct access to this God in a new way. And the sign and seal of this deeper, more intimate relationship with God is baptism. The word means ‘dipped’, but as the passage makes clear we need two ‘dippings’. John baptism was with water (v26, v31, v33) – a baptism of cleansing and repentance. An external sign of an inward attitude – profound, yes; important, certainly; but with no power in itself to change the heart. It relied on human effort to achieve the intention.
Jesus comes, though, with a game-changer. Jesus will baptise – ‘dip’ – us with the Spirit (v33). In other words, the presence of God coming into our hearts, the power of His love transforming us from the inside out. It’s a game-changer.
And what held true then still holds true today. We all need both baptisms – of water and Spirit – but it is the latter which empowers us day by day. Water baptism is about initiation. Spirit baptism is about intimacy. And the great news is that this intimacy is available to all believers, everywhere, every day. It’s not a one-off, but a continuous flow of the water of life into our hearts.
It also casts us back to God’s grace. It’s so easy for us to try and rely solely on our efforts and good intentions. But even one of the great holy people – John the Baptist – knew that it wasn’t enough. We need to be deeply dipped in God’s Spirit.
So today, give thanks that you are not alone, your walk with God does not depend all on your own efforts. What a relief! And pray to be filled – dipped – again in the love, presence and power of God by the Holy Spirit.
Many of you will know the famous story of the work of Bletchley Park during the Second World War. Their remarkable work shortened the conflict by an estimated 2 years and saved up to 2 million lives. Somehow 10,000 people worked there – round the clock, every day of the year – and their work was kept a secret... I’ve always thought there was something deeply providential in that.
Less well known is the fact that Bletchley Park had several outstations doing some of the work. One of those was Wavendon House in our parish – a large home which used to be owned by the Hoare family and whose outbuildings were converted into a de-coding unit, working with messages sent via Enigma machines. What was fascinating about this was that – unlike the heavy security surrounding Bletchley Park – there was no security at all protecting this unit. There was at least one Enigma machine on-site, but the place just looked like a non-descript barn. Those who worked there and their incredibly important work were simply hiding in plain sight.
John the Baptist alluded to a similar situation in today’s reading. Someone much greater than him was already among them – but was, like Outstation X, currently hiding in plain sight. His time would soon come, of course – but, as yet, he remained ‘one you do not know’ (v26).
It reminds us that God’s work must be done in God’s way – and the way of God is not always ours. The leaders of the day expected God’s appointed rescuer to come with a fanfare, or at least with physical power and prowess. They wanted shock and awe, unmistakable proof. But God comes to them – and us – in humility. Where we look for thunder and lightning, instead we get a gentle whisper. Where we want glory and majesty, instead Jesus wraps a towel around his waist and washes our feet.
Recognising the gentle, humble work of God in us and among us can sometimes be tricky. Part of the journey of the spiritual life is to attune ourselves to listen well, to reflect deeply, that we might hear the gentle whisper, and see what God is up to. So many of those around us sadly miss it – Jesus is ever-present, but remains ‘one they do not know’. But by the grace of God, He is so patient, and slowly but surely we can discern and truly know ‘the One we did not know’.
Take a few moments today to listen, and reflect – Jesus stands among us as surely as He did in the days of John. Can you see him? Where is He at work in you? What is He whispering to you? And pray for more grace to see Him and all that He is doing, in you and through you.
Who are you? That’s an interesting question to ask, isn’t it? How we answer gives away a lot about how we see life. Do we just think of our name; or maybe our nationality; perhaps our job; or a key relationship which defines us – mother, father, carer; perhaps our main attributes and qualities?
So much of life is about identity. The big crime of the moment is identity theft. I don’t know about you but I get endless emails telling me how to recognise it – hopefully most of the emails themselves are genuine! Who knows?
But it seems to me that a lot of us struggle with identity theft at a much deeper level than offshore criminals trying to get our passwords and credit card details. Our culture gives far too much meaning to money and possessions, to success and image – and those of us who find ourselves lacking in any of these areas may feel unsure of who we are.
Similarly, we may suddenly find an identity crisis after losing a job, or watching a close relationship turn sour. Who are we, really?
The bible gives us wonderful answers to that question. And it points us ultimately to Christ, in whom we can find all the security in our identity that this world affords. As James Bryan Smith says, when asked the question who are you?’, every follower of Jesus can say: ‘I am [your name] in whom Christ dwells, and I live in the strong and unshakeable kingdom of God.’
Just let that sink in for a moment. You are a precious child of God, uniquely loved and valuable – so precious, in fact, that the Son of God Himself dwells in you. And you live in the strongest and most secure location there is – the realm of the Almighty Lord of the Universe.
Your income, your status, your image – none of that matters to God. It doesn’t affect your position in the kingdom, your forgiveness, salvation, eternal future or your access to God. To paraphrase L’Oreal: You are worth it.
In our reading today, John the Baptist has a similar clarity. As we saw yesterday, he knows very well who he isn’t. But he also knows who he is: his identity as God’s voice, and his role as God’s herald of the in-breaking kingdom (v23). His identity directed his life and gave him great confidence to live in obedience to his calling. May that be ours, too!
Today, spend a few moments letting your identity in Christ sink in again. You are ___ in whom Christ dwells, and you live in the strong and unshakeable kingdom of God. Repeat. Repeat again (!). And let the indwelling Christ give you strength to live out your identity today.
Today’s passage is the first part of a ‘content sandwich’. We learn that part of the motivation for Paul to write this letter is that he needs to explain to his friends in Corinth why he did not come back for a second visit, something which had obviously caused them some concern: so the two slices of bread in this sandwich are verses 12-17 and then verse 23 onwards, where he outlines his reasons for not visiting them after his trip to Macedonia. We’ll look at this in more detail tomorrow.
But as he writes all this down he decides to put a gourmet ‘filling’ into his letter. He is just pre-empting the accusation in verse 17 that he is fickle, someone who says yes when he means no, and he’s prompted to add in a wonderfully inspired tangent. One of the amazing things about Paul is that he can never stop talking about Jesus for long, never go without praising or glorifying him for long, either. (As an aside, I want to have this kind of faith, maybe you do too!)
So as he thinks about his own yeses and nos, he is moved to declare (I paraphrase here): ‘Whatever we humans are like, with Jesus it’s all “yes”!’ Or to put it Paul’s way: ‘No matter how many promises God has made, they are “yes” in Christ.’ (v20)
Jesus is God’s big ‘yes’ to humanity. Our response is simply to say ‘yes’ in return: ‘And so through him the “Amen” is spoken by us to the glory of God.’ We can do this confidently because God is active in our lives from the point that we receive Jesus, in other words from the point that we say this ‘yes’: he declares his favour towards us (anoints us, v21), calls us his children (the seal of ownership, v22) and gives us the Spirit as a heavenly downpayment, a guarantee of eternity.
This helps us to stand firm: whatever ‘no’s the world speaks to us, God keeps saying ‘yes’ to us in Jesus. This is not just true for Paul’s friends in Corinth, but for us too – God’s well never runs dry. However you feel today as you read this, whatever challenges you face, let’s not be discouraged. Jesus is God’s big ‘yes’ to you. Keep saying yes to him, and pray for grace to keep receiving that anointing, the gift of the Holy Spirit.
The spring of 1993 was quite a dark time in my life. It was my final year at college, and everything was going wrong. My mum was being treated for cancer, my first serious girlfriend had just ended our relationship, and my own health wasn’t good: I was struggling with what was then called ‘post-viral fatigue’ – which put extra pressure on what revision I was able to do for Finals, since without a high mark I would not get the funding for the course I was hoping to do the following year. Day after day felt like wading through treacle – I tried to work as much as I could, but needed 10 hours in bed every night and wondered if I would have the strength to sit seven 3-hour exams in five days.
And then, a week before the exams started, something amazing happened. I was tossing and turning in bed in the early hours, desperately needing to sleep but too anxious to do so, when the Lord spoke. Just two words, but they had a profound effect: ‘trust me’. It wasn’t an audible voice, but I was as sure as I could be that it was the Lord, and it was the one thing I needed to hear. I felt this wave of calm seeping through my bones: what I would now look back and say was ‘the peace that transcends understanding’.
The next two weeks were still hard, but I no longer feared either the exams or the future. I felt in my heart that whatever happened, I did indeed trust God.
As it happened, there was a ‘happy ending’: my mum got the all clear, I did get the mark I needed for the course funding and over the summer my health slowly recovered. But that wasn’t the point: what had changed for me was that somehow I knew that, however things turned out, it would be OK; God had my back. He knew what was best; he was totally trustworthy.
If you’re anything like me, you’ll wish that you could learn all the spiritual lessons you need from the good times. That every upturn and blessing would lodge deeply in your brain and your heart, and you could thereby avoid having to learn anything the hard way. But, as most of us know, it doesn’t really work like that. Many of the most precious things we learn come under trial, while conversely, we can be remarkably ‘deaf’ towards God when things are going well.
St Paul talks openly about this today: he refers to recent, great challenges in his life – probably far beyond anything we have faced, given his enormous capacity for suffering – but testifies that this had one golden purpose, ‘that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.’ This one lesson is so valuable, so precious, he weighs that against everything and still praises God. Moreover, he also recognises that many others who were praying for him will have a testimony of answered prayer.
Ultimately, he uses one great phrase that we can hold onto today: ‘ON him we have set our hope.’ Not just put or placed our hope, as something that sits loosely on top of a pile of life. No, we set our hope, as if we are digging down and pouring loose concrete around the base, so that this hope is fixed, unshakeable in every storm. Whatever you face at present, take heart: God is with you, you can rely on him – he’s got your back. And may the Lord give us all grace to set our hope on him.
Consolation is one of those words which has lost the full force of its meaning in modern times. Nowadays we use consolation to describe something that gives us a little lift when the main battle has been lost. A losing team scores a consolation goal. Someone wins a consolation prize after all the main gongs have been awarded. It’s a comfort of sorts – but only a small one.
It’s a shame because ‘consolation’ in the bible is a much bigger (and more beautiful) word than that! And here, in today’s passage, we get a positive cornucopia of consolations – the word appears ten times in a just a few verses. The NIV translation of the bible – perhaps aware of the normal usage of ‘consolation prizes’ – prefers the word comfort, which is fine. Comfort is a good word – but it’s a bit more passive, dare I say it, than ‘consolation’, which is the translation preferred by the NRSV and others.
Ignatian spirituality – derived from the teachings of St Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order – attaches huge importance to the concepts of ‘consolation’ and ‘desolation’. For Ignatius, these concepts are dynamic: they define whether someone is moving towards, or away from the active presence of God in the world. Therefore, to be in a state of consolation is to be moving towards God: finding his life at work in ours, his love in unexpected places.
So when St Paul describes our Lord as the ‘God of all consolation’, he is describing a God who desires that we should keep moving towards him. Seasons of suffering often cause us to question God’s goodness or love or authority in our lives: doubts which may lead to us moving further away from beautiful intimacy with our Lord. But, as Paul insists, God doesn’t leave us like that: ‘where suffering overflows, so also consolation (comfort) overflows’ (to paraphrase v5 slightly).
Indeed the word we translate as consolation or comfort here is derived from the same word Jesus uses to describe the Holy Spirit in John 14-16 – it literally means ‘someone who walks alongside’: the ultimate consoler, comforter, encourager, advocate.
God is, in his very nature, one who consoles, who draws us alongside. And therefore, wherever we find this kind of consolation (even in tough times) so we too can pass this on: ‘we can comfort (console) those in any trouble with the comfort (consolation) we ourselves receive from God.’ (v4)
So as we reflect on this wonderfully encouraging passage today, let’s ask ourselves two simple questions: firstly what is consoling you? Where are your encouragements, what is drawing you closer to God?
Rest in that a while... and then ask: who can I console – lift up, draw closer to God – today?
As we begin our journey in this letter, I want very simply to point us towards the true inspiration for, not just this letter, but all that we are and all that we do. Every New Testament letter has three audiences: the first two are the ones we expect – the original readers, and then all those who now read it as part of the witness of scripture. But St Paul never forgets that there is a third person always in view: the Lord himself. This is not just human interaction, but there is One who sits behind – or perhaps above – it all, and to whom all the glory is given.
Not surprisingly, the letter starts with praise to this glorious God, setting the God-bathed tone for everything which follows. And how St Paul describes this God is significant: in the NIV, verse 3 is translated ‘the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort.’ This is good, but in this case I think the NRSV translation is perhaps even better: ‘the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation.’
Who is God? This is a fundamental question which underscores all of existence. And what St Paul wants to remind us here, at the very start, is that God is both a loving parent, and also that mercy (or compassion) is at the very heart of his being. He is, to his very essence, the Father of mercies.
The puritan devotional writer Thomas Goodwin offers a wonderful reflection on this, which I cannot improve, and which deserves an extended quotation:
‘God has a multitude of all kinds of mercies. As our hearts and the devil are the father of variety of sins, so God is the father of variety of mercies. There is no sin or misery but God has a mercy for it. He has a multitude of mercies of every kind... a treasury of all sorts of mercies, divided into several promises in the Scripture, which are but as so many boxes of this treasure, the caskets of variety of mercies.
‘If your heart be hard, his mercies are tender.
If your heart be dead, he has mercy to liven it.
If you be sick, he has mercy to heal you.
If you be sinful, he has mercies to sanctify and cleanse you.
‘As large and various as are our wants, so large and various are his mercies. So we may come boldly to find grace and mercy to help us in time of need, a mercy for every need.’
So, whatever need you have today, come to the Lord’s treasury: open the casket and find a beautiful ‘mercy’ which tends to your soul. The Father of mercies is ready, and willing.
On Monday 25th April we began a new series of Daily Inspirations in St Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians – usually abbreviated in your bibles as ‘2 Corinthians’. Less-well known than the other long biblical letters of Romans, 1 Corinthians and Hebrews, it’s a jewel with so much wisdom to share: about the new life that Christ offers, about generosity, about humility and the transforming work of the Spirit.
Above all, it reflects deeply on the tension we live with as Christians day-to-day: suffering and comfort, joy and trouble, spiritual treasures held ‘in jars of clay’, as St Paul so evocatively puts it. May this heartfelt letter to a church which Paul had himself founded and whom he loves deeply touch our hearts and lives in this Easter season.
Previous series: head over to our Archive page to find previous series in the Psalms, the gospels of Mark and John, the Holy Spirit, Acts, Daniel, Esther, Hebrews, Philippians, Colossians, Hidden in Christ, Thy Kingdom Come, and more besides!
9.30am Family Communion with Childrens' Church
9.30am Simple Sunday Service with Children's Church
9.30am Family Communion
9.30am Simple Sunday Service
5th Sundays (when appropriate)
9.30am Simple Sunday Service
To get full details about what's going on in St. Mary's for this month, please click here.