Daily Inspiration

Thursday 26th May – 2 Corinthians 6:3-13 ‘Nothing – and everything’

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.

Wednesday 25th May – 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2 ‘Now is the time’

‘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.

Tuesday 24th May – 2 Corinthians 5:17-20 ‘Reconciliation’

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.

Monday 23rd May – 2 Corinthians 5:15-17 ‘New creations!’

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.

Saturday 21st May – John 1:43-46  ‘Anything good?’

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.

Friday 20th May – John 1:35-42  ‘Seeing beyond’

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.

Thursday 19th May – 2 Corinthians 5:11-15 ‘The power of the unseen’

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.

Wednesday 18th May – 2 Corinthians 5:6-10 ‘Home and away’

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!

Tuesday 17th May – 2 Corinthians 5:1-5 ‘Our heavenly dwelling’

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.

Monday 16th May – 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 ‘Inwardly renewed’

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.

Saturday 14th May – 2 Corinthians 4:13-15 ‘The spirit of faith’

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.

Friday 13th May – 2 Corinthians 4:7-12 ‘Treasure in clay jars’

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!

Thursday 12th May – 2 Corinthians 4:3-6 ‘Blind to the light’

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!

Wednesday 11th May – 2 Corinthians 4:1-2 ‘Plain truth’

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.

Tuesday 10th May – 2 Corinthians 3:16-18 ‘True freedom’

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!

Monday 9th May – 2 Corinthians 3:12-16 ‘The veil removed’

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.

Saturday 7th May – 2 Corinthians 3:6-11 ‘Spiritual ink’

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.

Friday 6th May – 2 Corinthians 3:1-6 ‘A letter from God’

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.

Thursday 5th May – 2 Corinthians 2:12-17  ‘The aroma of Christ’

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.

Wednesday 4th May – 2 Corinthians 1:23-2:11 ‘Tough love, tender 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.

Tuesday 3rd May – John 1:35-42 ‘One simple act’

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.

Monday 2nd May – John 1:29-34 ‘Deeply dipped’

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.

Saturday 30th April – John 1:24-28  ‘The unknown One among us’

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.

Friday 29th April – John 1:19-23  ‘Knowing who you are’

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.

Thursday 28th April – 2 Corinthians 1:12-22 ‘All “yes” in Christ’

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.

Wednesday 27th April – 2 Corinthians 1:8-11 ‘Relying on God’

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.

Tuesday 26th April – 2 Corinthians 1:3-7 ‘God of all consolation’

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?

Monday 25th April – 2 Corinthians 1:1-3 ‘The Father of mercies’

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, Philippians, Daniel, Esther, Hebrews, Hidden in Christ, Thy Kingdom Come, and more besides!