Daily Inspiration

Latest posts below…. and you can check out the full back catalogue here.

John’s Gospel – Easter Season 2024

As we begin a new Sunday sermon series on the ‘I am’ statements of Jesus in John, our Daily Inspirations will likewise focus on this wonderful gospel for the next few weeks…

Tuesday 23rd April – John 8:12-20 ‘The Light of the World’

Light is one of the universal religious metaphors in our world.  Jews have Hanukkah, or festival of lights; Hindus and Sikhs have Diwali; Buddhists talk about the path to enlightenment.  Light is one of the few images to have almost universally positive connotations. 1.5 million people each year even take about 12 million trips to Blackpool for its illuminations, and other attractions, making it the second most popular single European tourist destination after St Peter’s in Rome.  Strange but true.

So, what is it about the Christian understanding of light that makes it so distinctive?  What have we got to say about it that sheds any unique, well, I have to use the word, light on the subject?  Or is today’s passage just a Christian version of something which all religions can aspire to?

It all comes down to the source: lots of religious teaching on light says: ‘this is the light’.  Only Jesus says: I am the light.  And not just for my followers, for the whole world: (v12) ‘Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’

In saying ‘I am the light,’ Jesus is not just pointing to his divine identity, he is saying some other vital things as well: first, I am the source of life.  Matter needs light to grow – the ancients didn’t have the scientific proof of photosynthesis, but they knew it all the same.  As chapter 1 of John says: ‘in Jesus was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.’  We don’t just need sunlight, we need Son-light.  Today’s word from Jesus is an invitation to life, life in all its fullness.  Where is Jesus inviting you to enter more fully into his life?

 Second, Jesus is telling us that he is the source of truth. Returning to ch1, the Light is also the Word, or as Psalm 119 famously puts it: ‘your word is a lamp to my feet and a…? light to my path.’  Light and truth are connected – think of the phrase ‘to shed light’ on things.  Jesus’ light is there to guide us, to direct our paths.  So, our second invitation from Jesus for today is: is there something in your life where you need Jesus’ light for your path?  Why not ask him to shine his light, to help you see the way ahead?

Finally, Jesus is telling us that he is the source of goodness.  This is the more challenging aspect, one which Jesus refers to in chapter 3 of John: ‘Whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.’  When we come into Jesus’ light, it both causes us to grow, but also shines a light into the dark places, it exposes things which Jesus wants to heal or to change.  So, our third invitation from Jesus for today is: is there something ‘dark’ in your life where you need Jesus’ light?

Jesus invites us, today and every day, to come into his light.  To experience his life, to shine his light on the paths of our life, and to expose the things which need to change or heal.  By God’s grace, will you accept that invitation today?  Whoever follows him will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.  Amen.

Monday 22nd April – John 7:53-8:11 ‘The divine balance’

Well, this is good way to start the week – with one of the most hotly contested passages in the whole of scripture!  The majority of the early manuscripts of the bible don’t have it, so the million-dollar question is this: was it originally part of John’s gospel but was taken out because it was too scandalous to include it?  (There were whispers that people might incorrectly conclude that Jesus appeared to be condoning adultery.)  Or was it not part of the original text but was added later – invented or otherwise – as an example of Jesus’ radical compassion?

The truth is that we can’t be sure, this side of heaven.  However, very few bibles are brave enough to leave it out altogether – it usually appears in italics or brackets!  My own personal view, for what it’s worth, is that, if the story in its original context would have shocked its readers, it’s more likely to have been taken out than put in.  Why include it otherwise?

So, if we tentatively conclude that this was a real encounter, then what do we learn?  At this point we hit the second reason why this is such a hotly contested passage: here we see Jesus as both radically compassionate and radically holy.  Sadly, our culture has too many voices which want binary answers, even in the church: we have to be either this or that, we can’t be both.  It is a particular shibboleth in our current discourse that we can’t love people and challenge them.  Compassion and holiness are put on opposite sides of an ideological chasm, with people shouting at each other across the divide.

And this is one of those passages most used as a peg for people’s hobby horses, especially in this particular debate – which is a tragedy because what we see here is one of the best examples in all of scripture of what a God who is both perfectly holy and perfectly loving actually looks like.

When faced with the woman’s accusers, Jesus responds first with compassion.  He points out their hypocrisy and abuse of power.  Much easier to point the finger than to examine our own hearts!  But he doesn’t ignore the sin which led to her accusation, either.  Having defended and protected her, he also challenges her to change the way she lives: ‘Go now and leave your life of sin.’  Great compassion and great conviction.  Radical love, radical holiness.

How we need this divine balance today!  Real discipleship involves both radical compassion and radical challenge.  Jesus’ heart always tends towards mercy – and praise God that it does!  But, having embraced us as we are, he loves us too much to leave us as we are.  We are called to a new life, which conforms to the divine blueprint the Lord has laid out for us.  So, today, if you’re aware of a part of your life that falls short of what God desires for you – first, receive his forgiveness and loving embrace.  And then, hear his voice calling you to leave it behind.  Pray for grace to keep going, and growing.  That is the way of Christ.  Amen.

Saturday 20th April – John 7:45-52 ‘Heart-warming’

The journey to faith takes many forms.  Occasionally it is instant – someone hears the good news and responds with joy.  Sometimes God intervenes miraculously – many years ago I was asked to organise a group which included a young woman who’d come to faith on an Alpha course.  This was not uncommon in our church; however, she had found out about the course in an amazing way.  Her partner had been given a flier whilst walking through the train station on the way home from work.  He’d got home and thrown it in the bin – later that evening, she too had gone to put something on the same bin and had noticed the flier.  She picked it out of the bin, decided to attend, and came to faith in Christ.  And all because her partner had thrown a flier in the bin!

Most often, however, our journey towards Christ is precisely that – a journey.  Research suggests it takes an average of four years from someone first hearing the message to putting their faith in Christ.  In today’s passage, we see part of that journey in one individual, someone we’ve already met in John’s gospel: Nicodemus.  This was the Pharisee who came to see Jesus secretly at night in chapter 3.  He wanted to know more – but he was scared to be seen doing so, and struggled to understand what Jesus was teaching.  The encounter ends and we’re left wondering what Nicodemus made of it. 

Today, we get evidence that God is very much at work in Nicodemus’ heart – while his colleagues are busy slandering Jesus (v47) and anyone who believes in him (v49), Nicodemus sticks up for Jesus and reminds them of the principles of their law (vv50-51).  Even if he is not yet ready to nail his colours to the mast, he has clearly moved towards Jesus since his late-night encounter, and has also overcome his initial fear of being seen to be doing so.

Nicodemus is on the journey – and in fact he appears one more time, in remarkable circumstances: by the cross, helping Joseph of Arimathea to take Jesus’ body down.  In three episodes – the night encounter, the defence here in chapter 7, the witness by the cross – John marvellously sketches out the journey of one man towards his Lord.

Your story may be different – but it is also a story of God at work.  Like Nicodemus there will be important episodes.  Like Nicodemus, the Lord is drawing you to himself.  As we close our week, give thanks that, like Nicodemus, you have a story.  Maybe take a few moments to reflect on that story: of how God made – and makes – himself real to you.  And wherever you are on your journey, may the Lord continue to draw you to himself. 

Friday 19th April – John 7:37-44 ‘Living water’

In the time of Jesus, the Festival of Tabernacles – or Sukkot – was essentially what we would call a Harvest Festival, taking place in the autumn.  On the last day of this festival, which was (and is) celebrated in Jerusalem every year, it was traditional to enact a water ritual, one connected with the need for rain the following year.  We need water for life, and the festival reminded every devout Jew of this truth.

Jesus knew that, too – but at this particular Festival of Tabernacles, he stood up a declared a radically different interpretation, one which would change the world: (v37-38) ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink.  Whoever believes in me, as scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.’

For all that we need physical water, Jesus insists, we need spiritual water, too.  And we find this water in Jesus.  Indeed, we find more than that: once the life of Jesus flows within us, it has the capacity to flow out from us, too.  A year or two later, John experienced this for himself, gathered with the other disciples seven weeks after Jesus had risen from the dead.  The Holy Spirit – the living water – was poured out on them; and, just as Jesus had promised, not only were they filled, the ‘water’ poured out into the community as well.  New languages were given, new boldness to declare the good news flourished in their hearts, and new followers were baptised.

So, John is confident to add his interpretation to what Jesus said: (v39) ‘By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive.’  The same Spirit available to us now, and to all who confess the name of Jesus.  Hallelujah!

What is more debated is which scriptures Jesus was referring to.  Is it partly a reference to the Exodus miracle of water gushing from the rock (Exodus 17)?  Or a reference to God’s great invitation through the prophet Isaiah (55:1)?  Possibly – my own view, for what it’s worth, is that the background is found in Ezekiel 47, and the wonderful vision of water flowing from the temple.  Since Jesus ‘is’ the new temple (see John 2:19-22), then these are the streams of living water Ezekiel foresaw.  And when the Spirit comes to dwell in us – and not just with us (John 14:17) – these streams can flow from within a human soul out into our families and community, flooding the streets of our world with the grace of Christ.

The message divided people then (vv40-43) – and still does, today.  But it is our glorious reality.  The water of life is there for us to drink.  May the Lord grant us all grace to drink deeply today, and so to find grace not just for streams within, but also flowing out to the world around us.  Amen.

Thursday 18th April – John 7:25-36 ‘Identity check’

Nowadays much of life relies on proving our identity – there are many things we can’t do without it: get married, open a bank account, fly on a plane.  And we’ve mostly got used to having ‘photo ID’, like a passport or a driving licence, to demonstrate that we are who we say we are.

And that last observation goes to the heart of today’s passage – it’s full of questions (six in just twelve verses), but could be summarised with this one question: Jesus, how do we know that you are who you say you are?

Jesus’ answer picks up where we left off yesterday.  His identity as the Messiah is validated ultimately through the experience of following him: it’s a step of trust and obedience which, as he promises, will demonstrate that he is the Anointed One: (v17) ‘Anyone who chooses to do the will of God will find out whether my teaching comes from God, or whether I speak on my own.’

In contrast, the debates among the people are limited either to unscriptural myths, like the one we see in v27 – ‘when the Messiah comes, no-one will know where he is from’ – or from the excitement generated his miracles (v31).  And, of course, the miracles are important signs: they point to his identity.  But Jesus is clear that signs alone are not enough.  His authority as one sent from God (v28), his mission (v33) and his message (v26) underpin the very visible confirmation provided by the miracles.

The problem is: it is those fundamental things that are being doubted or opposed – and this explains why Jesus appears to contradict a famous verse in Luke: ‘seek and you will find’.  Here, he says the opposite to those debating with him: (v34) ‘You will look for me, but you will not find me.’  The word ‘look’ in this verse is the same as the word ‘seek’ in Luke – what’s going on?

It all comes back to trust.  Jesus’ famous promise in Luke was made after he gave his followers the Lord’s Prayer.  To those who have prayed ‘your kingdom come, your will be done’ all the wisdom and provision of heaven is available – those who seek will find.  But to those who refuse to acknowledge God’s revelation of his Anointed One (Messiah), then the door will remain closed until they take that step of trust.

Today, choose to take that step of trust – it is a daily call, whether we’ve never taken that step before, or done it thousands of times over many decades.  The promise is the same: Jesus invites you to receive all that he has for you, to seek and to find.  For the kingdom, the power and the glory are his, now and forever.  Amen.

Wednesday 17th April – John 7:14-24 ‘The right education?’

Of the 57 British Prime Ministers since Robert Walpole first served in this office in 1721, 44 studied at Oxford or Cambridge; for their schooling, 20 attended Eton, a further 26 another private school – just 11 had a non-fee-paying education.  9 attended both Eton and Christchurch College, Oxford.

However, if you think this is just an extreme example of the vagaries of the British class system, think again – this kind of link between education, privilege and power is nothing new.  Go back 2,000 years and you’ll see a similar version of it operating in Israel during the time of Jesus.  Wealthy families provided most of the rabbis, and the system self-perpetuated as other wealthy families sent their bright children (boys, inevitably) to train under the best-regarded rabbis.  It was an elite circle; not quite a closed shop, but when a rabbi with a northern accent (and Nazareth was the geographical equivalent of Sheffield) starts making waves it’s no surprise that the first thing people start asking is: (v15) ‘How did this man get such learning without having been taught?’

The question is loaded, of course: it’s not that Jesus hasn’t been taught, it’s just that he hasn’t had the right education or gone to the ‘right’ schools.  He’s an outsider, the equivalent of the academically brilliant comprehensive lad at Oxford who suffers put-downs because he doesn’t know how to hold a fish-knife or pass the cruet correctly.  And Jesus has met this attitude before – even one of his own disciples, when first hearing of Jesus, had the same instinctive response: ‘Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?’ (1:46)

Jesus’ reply addresses the question in three different ways.  First, he makes it clear that his wisdom comes direct from God (v16).  Second, he points out that this is not just something that has to be taken on trust – if they really knew the law, they would know that his teaching has divine wisdom embedded in it.  The problem is that they don’t really know their scriptures as well as they think they do.  Centuries of interpretation, layer upon layer, have blinded them to what some of their law was intended to mean – for example, they’d missed the point completely on matters of the Sabbath (vv22-24).

Third, the truth of what Jesus teaches only becomes obvious when you try to actually live it: (v17) ‘Anyone who chooses to do the will of God will find out whether my teaching comes from God.’  And again, the issue here with his critics is that ‘not one of you keeps the law’ (v19).  This is not a question of ‘interpretation’ but obedience.  Jesus calls us not just to believe but to ‘repent and believe’ – i.e. to follow, to change our lives (which is what ‘repent’ really means).  Then his wisdom becomes embedded with divine authority and blessing in our lives.

Today, give thanks that God doesn’t care what school you went to!  Jesus looks at the heart; and beyond that, to the life.  Those who follow Jesus know the true value of his teaching.  May the Lord grant us all grace to follow today, and so to find abundant life.

Tuesday 16th April – John 7:1-13 ‘A change of mind?’

Can the Son of God change his mind? 

That might sound like a fanciful question, the sort of thing that gets theologians agitated but nobody else… however, when you think about it, it is quite a significant question to answer.  How human is Jesus?  If he really is the divine Son made flesh, with (in theory) access to all the wisdom of the universe, is it possible for him to make a decision and then change his mind some time later?  Would that mean he is just a great human being after all?

It was certainly a question that vexed the scribes responsible for copying out precious portions of John’s gospel.  Here, in today’s passage, Jesus says one thing to his brothers: (v8) ‘I am not going up to this festival;’ and then, some time later, he apparently changes his mind and goes anyway (v10).  What are we to make of it?

Some theologians have suggested that Jesus knew all along that he would be going, he just wanted to do it secretly – but that would then put Jesus dangerously close to lying, since he was quite clear with his brothers that he wasn’t going.  And one thing pretty much all of us can agree on is that Jesus doesn’t lie.  That would certainly imperil his identity as the Son of God, the one sinless human being there’s ever been.

Some scribes – probably monks and therefore followers of Jesus who took their sacred task very seriously indeed – came up with another solution: add the word ‘yet’ to Jesus’ conversation with his brothers; so, verse 8 is written in some surviving manuscripts as: ‘I am not yet going up to this festival.’  This conveniently resolves two problems – Jesus misinforming his brothers and/or changing his mind – but creates another: would his ‘time’ really have come so quickly after he had just said it didn’t?

It comes back again to our question: can Jesus change his mind?  For what it’s worth, this is where we need to accept that Jesus is both fully divine and fully human.  He has all the authority of the universe, but he is also subject to exactly the same limitations as the rest of us: he gets hungry, he gets tired, he cries and yes, dare I say it, he also changes his mind sometimes.  He knows the general trajectory of what he is called to do, but it is not mapped out in minute detail, so that every step is pre-planned and micro-managed.  So, he can tell his brothers he’s staying in Galilee, and then think better of it later.

Personally, I find this a great encouragement.  It makes Jesus all the more relatable.  Yes, we worship him, we stand in awe of him.  But he also calls us to follow him, and I take great heart from the fact that Jesus has to wrestle with exactly the sort of tricky decisions we do – and if need be, change his mind. 

Jesus knows what you face: our ‘normal’ challenges, with grey areas and ‘judgement calls’.  So, take these to him today.  Trust him to direct your paths.  And do that, trusting that, even in our failings and weaknesses, he can turn these things to good, for those who love him.  Amen.

Monday 15th April – John 7:1-9 ‘A change of heart’

On one of the shelves in my study, I have a woodcut of a famous drawing: ‘Praying Hands’ by Albrecht Durer.  Durer was one of the great artists of the Northern Renaissance, but this particular work has a wonderful backstory – albeit one that is not conclusively proven.  The story goes, however, that Albrecht and his brother Albert were both talented artists – however, the family business also needed help, so Albrecht pursued his dream while his brother worked with his father in the mines.  After a few years Albrecht returned home, by now a celebrated artist, and invited his brother to go and do the same.  Years of hard labour, however, had ruined his brother’s hands: he could no longer draw or paint.  In gratitude at his brother’s sacrifice on his behalf, Albrecht created this beautiful ink sketch, ‘The Praying Hands.’

Sibling relationships are complex – especially if one child is seen to achieve public success or recognition.  Albert is a wonderful example of a positive outcome, but there are many examples of relationships that go awry.  Prince Harry’s difficult relationship with his brother has dominated the news for several years now; this is not the place to comment on that, but the title of Harry’s recent autobiography – ‘Spare’ – makes it clear where the source of this resentment comes from.  An insensitive putdown from his childhood has taken root and stayed with him throughout his life.

Today’s passage highlights another tricky set of sibling relationships.  At first sight, Jesus’ brothers’ advice to their famous sibling to go to Judea looks wise: after all, they would have been aware that many had deserted Jesus (6:66 – see Saturday’s reflection), so a major festival was the perfect opportunity to put things right: (v4) ‘No-one who wants to become a public figure acts in secret… show yourself to the world.’

But John makes it clear that they had failed to grasp the heart of Jesus’ mission.  It was not about ‘appearances’ or popularity, there were deeper and more fundamental things at stake.  He concludes quite bluntly: (v5) ‘For even his own brothers did not believe in him.’  If this seems harsh, Mark says exactly the same about Jesus’ family (Mark 3:21,31-32).  They simply couldn’t get their heads around what Jesus was doing, the figure whom Jesus had become.  To start with, they were skeptical – now, they were thinking like politicians or PR advisers.  And Jesus challenges them accordingly: (v6) ‘My time is not yet here; for you, any time will do.’

There is, though, a postscript to this story.  Jesus had four half-brothers, and two of them became leaders in the early church: James chaired the important Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 and Judas – called Jude by the early church to distinguish him from the infamous disciple of the same name! – wrote one of the New Testament letters.  In other words, we know that at least two had a change of heart: they ‘got it’, they understood who Jesus really was and came to follow him, not just as their famous brother, but as their Lord and Saviour.

Today’s story reminds us, both that family relationships can be challenging, especially if not all our relatives share our faith.  However, it also encourages us that there is hope – even those who ‘don’t get it’ sometimes do.  May the stories of James and Jude inspire us to keep praying for our families – especially our siblings, parents and children – trusting that the Lord would reveal himself to them in his good time.

Saturday 13th April – John 6:60-71  ‘The source of life’

I was once told a story attributed to David Watson, the famous Christian leader, and one-time vicar of St Michael-le-Belfry in York.  After a particularly stirring service, a student approached him at the end asking to commit his life to Jesus.  Watson’s response, so the story goes, went something along the lines of: ‘Don’t be ridiculous!  You do realise what it’s going to cost you?  Go away and pray about it this week, and if you’re still ready to commit your life, come and find me next Sunday.’

A week later, the student did indeed return, and committed his life to the Lord.

Some of you may have raised an eyebrow at the minister’s response.  Accustomed as we mostly are to trying to make faith look as attractive as possible, it’s shocking to see someone apparently go out of their way to put people off! 

But the approach has good precedent.  Look closely at the gospels and you’ll see Jesus does exactly that on numerous occasions.  As someone once summarised: Jesus came to comfort the disturbed… and disturb the comfortable. 

Here in John chapter 6, just such an encounter has taken place.  Jesus knows that many of the crowd have got the wrong end of the stick about him, expecting their Messiah to be all about glory and conquest.  They even want to impose this vision on him, whether he likes it or not (v15).  So Jesus spends much of chapter 6 setting them straight.  He is indeed the key to true life, but the path to this life is through surrender not conquest (v29), through spiritual growth not physical successes (v27, vv49-50), and ultimately through his sacrificial death (v51-59).

‘This is a hard teaching,’ the crowd responds, ‘who can accept it?’ (v60)  The end result is that many give up on Jesus, disappointed that he’s not the Messiah they wanted (v66).  Something easier next time, please!

It’s unsettling to reflect on this aspect of Jesus’ teaching.  But at the same time, we can acknowledge that Jesus was led by absolute integrity, and that he was always refreshingly clear about what his mission would cost both himself and his followers.  It is the narrow path, the road less travelled, the call to surrender and to sacrifice alongside the joy, the hope, the peace and the love which accompanies it.  Indeed, what we often find is that this joy, hope, peace and love comes precisely through the surrender and sacrifice.  It sounds strange, but it is the kingdom way, God’s way.

Jesus knows this – his words are ‘Spirit and life’ (v63) – and so he calls us unashamedly to the true path of life.  Human success models ultimately can never succeed for long – which is one way of paraphrasing ‘the flesh counts for nothing’ – it is the life of the Spirit which endures.

May God grant us grace to receive these challenging words afresh today, and thus to receive the true life of God, imparted by the Spirit of Jesus.  May his joy, hope, peace and love be ours, too.  After all, as Peter cries out (v68), where else can we go to find the true source of life?

Friday 12th April – John 6:51-59  ‘Given for the life of the world’

Of all the many changes forced by the Covid-19 pandemic, not the least for many of those in the Christian community was the loss of the capacity to share bread and wine together.  Since the earliest days of the church, sharing bread and wine has been vitally important to our community life.  It was commanded by Jesus, and although the exact format of its expression varies hugely across cultures, its essence takes us back to the heart of our good news.  Jesus gave himself ‘for the life of the world’ (v51).

As Jesus continues his debate with the religious leaders – who are by this point arguing among themselves (v52), he now refers much more explicitly to the sacrifice he will be called to make.  Thus far, his references to feeding on him as the bread of life have been open to interpretation, but now he is much more blunt: his flesh and blood must be received to know the life of God within us (v53-56, repeated every verse, to ram home its importance).

Scholars have long debated whether this ‘feeding’ is literal or spiritual, and certainly the connection to the physical act of sharing bread and wine, later celebrated by the church in remembrance of Jesus, is inescapable.  But in a way, the debate as to whether it is physical or spiritual is irrelevant, since Jesus as the Divine Son carries both the physical and spiritual within himself.  It is, surely, both.

Which is especially good news, if the pandemic has affected how you are able to receive Communion/the Eucharist/Mass.  Even if, for example, we can’t share a common cup, we can still ‘feed’ on Jesus spiritually and receive his life.

Ultimately the references to flesh and blood point to Jesus’ death on the cross – his life offered for us all, that we might receive God’s new life, forever (v58).  The greatest act of human history, in many ways the pivot of all history: God’s sacrifice of himself for our forgiveness and healing.

Today, take a few moments to go back to the cross.  Give thanks for what Jesus did for the world – and for you.  And receive his forgiveness, his healing, his hope, his life, again.

Thursday 11th April – John 6:41-51  ‘All taught by God’

‘I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.’  So quipped Groucho Marx, and it’s one of my favourite quotes.  I’m not much of a ‘clubbable’ person either.  But Groucho puts his finger on a deeper truth here.  There’s something in us humans that likes to create a ‘them’ and ‘us’ mentality.  We define ourselves by our ‘tribes’, and that gives us a sense of belonging and self-esteem.

It is also deeply divisive.  Some people are in, some are out.  And sadly, this mentality can also affect matters of faith.  For all that beliefs – of all things – should be dealing with universal questions, we find it hard to resist the temptation to sink into the ‘club’ mentality.

In our passage today, Jesus faces more grumbling.  At its root, the discontent stems from two very human failings.  Jesus’ message is being questioned, both because he wants to widen the club, and also he doesn’t appear to be ‘the right sort’ in the first place.  Underneath these debates lies a fundamental question: who gets access to God?  Is it only members of a particular group?

In later chapters Jesus will address the question of whether one particular human group has special access to God in more detail.  But here, the root of the grumbling is more to do with his humble background.  ‘How can he say these things,’ the leaders mutter, ‘when we know where he comes from?’ (v42)  A divine messenger couldn’t have a human mother and father, surely?  Especially not a Northern carpenter’s background!

Jesus challenges this by reminding them of God’s greater plan for all humanity.  He quotes directly from their greatest prophet, Isaiah: ‘They will all be taught by God.’ (v45)  In other words, hundreds of years before Jesus came, God’s plan was always that access to God would be available to everyone.  God’s blessing was for all nations (this goes way back to Abraham in Genesis 12), and all can now come to God the Father and know eternal life.

The ‘way in’ is Jesus: ‘I am the living bread…. Whoever eats this bread will live forever.’ (v51)  And we too are beneficiaries of this great truth!   Thanks to Jesus, we have free and full access to God.  We are no longer shut out of the club, we are part of the family now.

This is a hard section of John’s gospel, but let’s rejoice in this simple truth today.  All of us can know God now.  All of us can walk with him and draw strength in his abiding presence.  Where would you like God to teach you more today?  Why not ask him?  It’s a promise.

Wednesday 10th April – John 6:35-40 (ii)  ‘I shall lose none’

I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty good at losing things.  It can be all kinds of things, but it’s usually my glasses.  I’ll take them off temporarily while doing something else and wander off – then an hour or so later I’ll have to retrace my steps to work out where I might have put them down.  As they’ve got thin, dark frames they tend to camouflage quite easily.  I probably need some of those brightly coloured glasses that Prue Leith wears on The Great British Bake-Off, which you couldn’t miss wherever you left them.

It’s unsettling to lose something.  It reminds us that we’re not perfect or as much in control as we’d like to be.  It’s not that the item isn’t important to us, it’s just that we get distracted and make mistakes.  It’s the human condition.

It’s tempting to wonder if Jesus is like that, too.  Perhaps for many of us especially who’ve grown up with dominant images of the ‘hippy traveller’ Jesus, so popular in the 60s and 70s, wandering round Palestine in sandals with long hair and a languid expression, it’s easy to imagine that he might have the odd brain-blip…..

Not a bit of it!

Jesus is a man on a mission. And whilst his deep humanity seeps through every page of the gospels, he remains the divine Saviour throughout, a sure and certain hope for all of us.  And here in our second look at today’s passage, he sums it up in this glorious truth: ‘I shall lose none of all those [the Father] has given me’ (v39).

Jesus never ‘loses’ people.  We might sometimes loosen our grip, but he never loses hold of us. We are safe in his presence, and he has the love and the power to bring us safely home.   Thanks to Jesus, all who look to him will enjoy eternal life (v40) and God will raise us up at the end of time. This last point is so important Jesus says it twice in quick succession – in v39 and v40.  In other words, he really, really wants us to grasp the full reality of what that means!

Our present often feels uncertain.  But our future is secure.  And that means our present is actually secure too, since Jesus will never leave us or lose us.

Today, let’s look to the Son and spend a few moments dwelling on this beautiful truth.  Jesus has never lost you, Jesus doesn’t lose you now, and Jesus will never lose you.  You are safe in him, and his plan for you is abundant and eternal life.  May that truth, and that life, be yours today.

Tuesday 9th April – John 6:35-40  ‘I am…’

Who are you?  Or rather, if you were asked to describe yourself, what would you say?

Studded throughout John’s gospel are seven answers to this question: seven ways that Jesus used to describe himself.  But they’re not quite the sort of thing we might say about ourselves!  Which probably isn’t a surprise… today, however, we read the first of them: ‘I am the bread of life’ (v35). 

It’s a natural follow-on from what Jesus has been saying in the last few verses.  Life is found, Jesus has said, not just in physical sustenance, but in believing in him; in working for food that endures, eternal nourishment.  It makes sense, then, for Jesus to summarise his teaching in this famous and striking phrase: ‘I am the bread of life.’

To know life, we must ‘feed on’ Jesus.  As the church grew, this sense of feeding naturally became associated with the act of receiving bread and wine, which is variously called Communion, the Eucharist (from the word ‘to give thanks’), the Mass (the old word for ‘feast’) or the Lord’s Supper.

That’s all well and good, and it gives us a tangible ‘hook’ to interpret the phrase – but this is probably not the first meaning.  Since, from what he’s just been saying, Jesus is quite clearly drawing a distinction with the physical act of eating bread, it much more likely means a spiritual union with Jesus – to trust in him, to receive his Spirit, to be filled with his abiding presence day by day.

And let’s go a little further and note that the very phrase ‘I am’ is significant.  In Greek it’s heavily emphasised by Jesus in the words Ego eimi – I Am: capital I, capital A.  The name God gave the Israelites, the name so holy that no Jew would speak it – Yahweh – is almost impossible to transcribe, but in Greek it is usually rendered as (you guessed it) ‘I Am’. 

So, this is more than just a striking description of Jesus’ mission and purpose.  It points towards his identity at the very deepest and most profound level.  Jesus is not just a good human being, he is the divine Son, God on earth in human form. 

It follows that, as we feed on this bread of life, we are not just receiving something that leads us towards God, we are feeding on God himself.  Jesus dwells in us by his Spirit – not just for a few hours until we need to eat again, but permanently.  No wonder Jesus was able to say: ‘if you feed on me, you won’t go (spiritually) hungry again’ (v35). 

Today, let’s give thanks for this gift of the bread of life.  Let’s consciously choose to receive it again.  And let’s resolve to keep ‘feeding’ on the abiding presence of Christ, nourishing our lives every hour of every day.

Monday 8th April – John 6:30-35  ‘Bread of heaven’

No-one sings their National Anthem like the Welsh.  It remains one of my bucket list wishes to watch a Rugby match at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, just to hear ‘Land of my Fathers’ belted out by 72,000 Welsh rugby fans.  Even now, whenever Wales play at home and the national anthem begins, the volume on the TV gets turned up way too loud and the hairs on my neck stand on end – especially if the accompanying picture, as often happens, is of a grizzled 18-stone prop singing his heart out with tears streaming down his face.

Usually some time before we get to the crescendo of the national anthems, there will also be a rendition of ‘Guide me O thou great Jehovah’ – and no doubt when you read the title for today, many of you immediately thought of the classic hymn.  The words were written in the 18th century by William Williams – you can probably guess the land of his birth – but it wasn’t until the words were set to the rousing tune Cwm Rhondda in 1904 by John Hughes that it became the unofficial soundtrack to the Welsh Revival and came to prominence.

The theology of the first verse comes straight from our passage today.  As Jesus draws the parallel with God’s miraculous provision of manna in the desert after the Exodus (you can read the story in Exodus 16), so now he is the ‘bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world’ (v33).  This is eternal sustenance, and Jesus summarises it perfectly in the iconic phrase of v35: ‘I am the bread of life’.   Eternal, abundant life – the true life which God means for all of us to enjoy.

No wonder the crowd’s imagination is stirred – heavenly bread?  ‘”Sir”, they said, “always give us this bread.”’ (v34)  Feed us now and evermore – this is what we want!

As it happens, most of them eventually don’t want it, once they realise the implications – a sad reality which dawns as the gospel goes on. But today, let’s recapture the excitement of the crowd, and claim their first response as ours. 

Where do you hunger today?  Let the bread of heaven feed you – now and evermore.  And may the words of William William’s hymn be our prayer today:

Guide me, O thou great Redeemer, pilgrim through this barren land;
I am weak, but thou art mighty, hold me with thy powerful hand;
Bread of heaven, bread of heaven
Feed me now and ever more; feed me now and ever more.

Easter Week Reflections 2024

Saturday 6th April – John 17,1-7,20-23  ‘That they may be one…’

Let’s ask ourselves a cheeky question for a few moments: if Jesus was to visit earth for a while this year, which church would he join?  Would he be a charismatic or a Catholic, an evangelical or a liberal?   Is he secretly an Anglican or a Baptist or a Pentecostal?  Would his requirements be very specific?  Where we used to live in Clapham Junction, we regularly walked past a church called, and I kid you not: ‘The Ransom African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church’.  Now there’s a church whose name is its doctrinal statement!

I’m sure most of us will be thinking two answers to my question. The one we’ll say aloud with a beatific smile on our face is: ‘Jesus would be happy to join lots of churches.’  The one we’ll be thinking is: ‘but I’m sure he’d prefer my church to the other lot round here.’  And from one perspective, that’s fine: to be honest, if we don’t think Jesus would want to join our church we’re in the wrong church.

But although we joke about it, there’s a real issue here.  On one level, a huge movement like the church is going to have lots of faces, and we should celebrate that.  On the other hand, the fragmentation and divisions should make us weep.  It’s not what Jesus planned – look at what he prays in our passage for today – ‘That they may be one, as we are one.’  Jesus loves diversity, but not division.  His desire is for us to be one.

As most of you know – but some may not – we are an ecumenical church.  What that means is that several types of church – Anglican, Baptist, Methodist, Reformed and Catholic – have partnered together to be one church.  It’s our little way of saying that what divides us is way less than what unites us.  We will all disagree over some stuff, but being together as one community of Jesus is much more important.

And today’s passage reminds me why I want to be a minister leading that kind of church.  It’s what Jesus wants for us.  We might not always do it very well, and I’m sure there’s loads I could do better, but, as best we can, we’re trying to be faithful to what Jesus prayed for us: to be one, a community of love which in turn reflects his love to the world.

But this is not some wishy-washy ‘love is all you need’ type of message.  It is based supremely in one act.  ‘Glorify your Son,’ Jesus prays, and what he means is: glorify him as he gives his life on a cross.  This is how we know what love is, St John reflects elsewhere – Jesus laid down his life for us.  True love is selfless service: and as Jesus loved us, so we offer that to each other and to the world. 

So, today, let’s celebrate that we are one; but let’s also remember that this one-ness calls us to offer ourselves for the good of others, wherever we are.  Then the world will know that God sent Jesus and has loved us, even as God loved him.  Amen.

Friday 5th April – Acts 17:16-28  ‘God in our hearts’

I wonder what is the greatest city you’ve visited?  In our modern world, there are many such cities.  I myself have lived most of my life in London, and I’ve been fortunate to visit some of the other great cities of the world.

In today’s passage, we find St. Paul in Athens: at the time the second greatest city on earth behind Rome, and unquestionably its greatest in terms of learning and culture.  But I’m fascinated by Paul’s response to this experience: what he saw, what he did and what he felt.  What Paul saw was not a city full of extraordinary buildings and unparalleled learning, but a city full of idols.  What he felt was not awe at its grandeur, but distress at its spiritual ignorance.  What he did was dedicate himself to sharing the good news of Jesus.

Paul saw through Athens’ impressive facade to its real heart: idolatrous and looking for wisdom in the wrong places.  We human beings tend to create god or gods in our image, not the other way round – and St Paul is having none of it.  His God, our God, the one true God, is not like this.  He’s not small or only concerned with a part of our lives.  Notice how he begins the key section of his sermon: ‘The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth.’  Our God is a great big God – he made the whole world, the whole universe is suffused with his presence. 

And notice the three radical implications of this statement which immediately follow: first, ‘God does not live in temples built by human hands.’  How could he?  How could any building be big enough to house this God?  We humans have certainly tried, and who can fail to be awe-inspired by some of those buildings?  But God is bigger than all of them; he’s not limited to certain places on earth or in our lives.  There is no place on earth where Jesus can’t say: ‘This is mine.’

Second, God doesn’t need anything.  Or as Paul says: ‘He is not served by human hands.’  He doesn’t need our libations or rituals to appease him or impress him. He is complete and whole within himself.  We do all that stuff to try and make ourselves feel better, not God. And third, it is this God whose breath fills our lives: ‘He gives everyone life and breath and everything else.’

The true God is not limited to certain places or rituals or buildings, to certain boxes and compartments in our lives.  He fills the whole universe, and all of our lives matter to him – every breath, every thought, everything that matters to us matters to Him as well.  Or as Paul summarises beautifully later in his speech: ‘In him we live and move and have our being.’

Imagine a life where every moment is filled with God’s presence. We can bring every worry to him, we can cry every tear with him, we can share every joy with him, we can celebrate every blessing knowing that he is smiling with us.  This is not fiction or pie in the sky: it is the reality of what Jesus came to bring us.  God’s Spirit – in other words his very breath, his presence – comes to dwell in us.  It is what you might call the with-God life.

And one prayer we can all pray for the church in this nation is that it would rise up again in our generation with this truth etched into every moment of our lives, wherever we are: ‘In him we live and move and have our being.’  Amen.

Thursday 4th April – John 14:1-6,27  ‘Jesus Our Way and Peace’

Receiving peace is one of the foundational themes of the New Testament.  St Paul introduced all of his letters with the greeting: ‘Grace and Peace’.  Grace is what enables us to know salvation and the zoe life of God within us; peace is the first and greatest outcome of this new life.

Peace is designed to be the hallmark of every dimension of our relationships.  Peace with God, peace with others, peace with ourselves.  We are called to peace.  In Colossians 3:15, Paul writes: ‘Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace.’  Peace is not merely the absence of strife; it is the presence of harmony. 

And peace is not merely a concept, such as not harming someone.  Notice what Paul wrote: ‘Let the peace of Christ rule…’  The idea of peace is not what solves conflict; it is the peace of Jesus that provides the power to live and work in harmony.

So what is the peace of Jesus?  It is “the peace that belongs to his kingdom by virtue of his sovereignty.”  Jesus rules and reigns over everything: all creation, all humanity and all history.  When we step into his reign (in other words, when we step into the kingdom of God), we step into his peace.  We can now live in constant interaction with Jesus, and because of his protection, guidance and provision, we have nothing to fear; we can live with real confidence.  In the kingdom of God we are safe, secure, valued and assured that God is with us.

And this assurance enables us to receive the peace of Christ, a peace that, as Jesus says the world cannot give; or as St Paul puts it elsewhere, a peace that surpasses all understanding.

It’s why Jesus is so emphatic when it comes to issues of worry, fear or anxiety.  Have you noticed that Jesus never talks about these things in terms of advice or encouragement, but instead as a command?  He doesn’t say: try not to worry, try not to fear, try not to be troubled…  He commands it: ‘Do not worry, do not fear, do not be troubled.’

Of course we all face temptations to worry and fear, to un-peace as you might say.  And Jesus knows that. But he also knows that the solution is not human effort or technique.  The key to peace is found in him, and through him.  He is the Way.  Our peace is found in a person, one who has all the power and resources of the universe at his disposal.  His perfect love casts out our fear.

And so he says to his disciples: Do not be troubled, because I am the way.  All other worldviews, all other religious teachers, say: this is the way.  Only Jesus says: ‘I am the way.’  The key to life is not a set of moral values or guidelines or principles, it’s a relationship.  It’s a deep union of love with Jesus.

‘…and when you know that, you’ll know the right way to live, because I am the Truth.  And you’ll have abundant life, because I am the Life.’

And so we can affirm these great words again today, and claim the peace that Jesus promises his followers.  In these troubled times, we are surrounded by the shadow of death.  And yet, we can also affirm, with hope and even joy, that peace is possible, a real peace, a peace that only Jesus can give, because he is the Way, the Truth and the Life.  Amen.

Wednesday 3rd April – John 10:7-18  ‘The Good Shepherd’

Seven years ago, on the second Sunday of 2017, we were about to start the 9.30am service at St Mary’s, when one of our welcomers came and found me urgently.  ‘Come outside, you’ll want to see this,’ they said.  So I hustled out and watched one of the more unusual sights I’ve seen in my 9 years here.  Running along the road, and just passing the churchyard gate, were about 50 sheep.

We had no idea where they had come from or where they were going. I don’t think they had any idea where they were going either!  There was great excitement – some wag commented that our flock had swelled considerably that day.  But anyway we delayed the start of our service to work out what on earth we were going to do with them.  It took quite some time… but eventually, by lunchtime, the sheep were safely back in a nearby field.

What’s the moral of this story?  ‘Never leave your gate open’ would be one of them.  But more simply, sheep need a shepherd.  Look what happens when a large flock is left to its own devices.

Jesus tells us today: ‘I am the good shepherd.’   Or to make it more personal: ‘I am your good shepherd.  I know you and you know me.  You know my voice, you know that life is better with me, because my life is dedicated to you.’

In these times we need the reassurance of that voice perhaps now more than ever.  To know that we have a good shepherd leading us through the chaos and uncertainty, one who is totally dedicated to us, who walks with us and will never leave us, who comes to meet us where we are.

And our shepherd ultimately means to give us life – life in all its fullness.  The Greeks had two different words for ‘life’ – bios and zoe.  ‘Bios’ means physical existence – simply being alive, breathing.  ‘Zoe’ is real life – spiritual life, wellbeing, wholeness.  This is the word Jesus uses here when he says that his purpose for us is abundant life – abundant zoe

We are wired for zoe life.  It’s built into our DNA, because we are made in God’s image, so therefore we long for the same things God already has within himself.  Even those who would not profess our faith long for deep relationship, strong community, fruitful lives and to rejoice in the beauty of our world. 

But to really know this kind of wholeness, this abundant zoe life, we need to receive it from the one who made it – the Good Shepherd himself, Jesus Christ.  By God’s grace we can all experience it in part: but the fullness is only found in Christ.  He is the gate, he’s the way to know this true life, he’s the one who can plant it deep in our hearts.  Without him, we get the temporary ‘hired hands’ version, not the real thing.

So today, let’s give thanks for our Good Shepherd.  Let’s acknowledge our need for him, let’s invite him to lead us again.  And let’s do that confident of this great truth: that his plan for us is true life, zoe life, life in all its fullness.  Amen.

Tuesday 2nd April – Luke 24:13-35  ‘Emmaus’

I wonder if any of you have ever had the experience of talking with someone you didn’t recognise, and then later discovering that they were famous?  In 2015 Cristiano Ronaldo, the world’s most famous footballer, disguised himself and went out to play football in one of Madrid’s central plazas for an hour.  Almost no-one gave him the time of day.  Most walked by quickly, embarrassed at the thought they might be asked for money by someone who looked more or less like a tramp.  Eventually one little boy joined in properly, and passed the ball around with this stranger and tried to tackle him.  After a while, the stranger picked up his ball, asked the boy’s name, signed the ball… and then took off the disguise bit by bit.

As you can imagine, at that point pandemonium broke out.  The last scene on the secretly-filmed video was of Ronaldo walking out of the square surrounded by a great entourage of dozens of fans.  Unlike Jesus, not even Ronaldo could disappear from their sight!

The image that stayed with me, though, was the face of the little lad just after he realised what he’d done, that he’d actually not just met one of the world’s most famous people, but played 1-on-1 and even tackled him.  He was overcome with emotion and buried his face in his mum’s coat.

That sense of overwhelming emotion was probably just a fraction of what would have been experienced by Cleopas and his friend.  Can you imagine suddenly realising that you’d just spent the day with God himself, their Lord and friend Jesus?  And they hadn’t even realised!

The road to Emmaus is such a wonderful story, and there’s so much we could say about it.  How Jesus opened their hearts to the Scriptures and showed them how his coming was written throughout the ages of the Old Testament.  How Jesus met them in the breaking of bread and everything that tells us about both hospitality and sharing communion.  How we can rejoice in further evidence of the resurrection as Jesus widens the circle of people he appears to, people who will witness to the glorious truth of our faith in the years to come.

All of those are great to reflect on – but I just want to pick up on one simple point that the story tells me today.  And it’s this – when we know and love Jesus, when we follow him, we are never alone.  Jesus walks with us every step of the way.  We never walk alone.

Like the disciples, we might not always recognise him.  There are times in our lives, tough times, when it seems like there is just one set of footprints in the sand, as the famous story goes.  But the point is not that God has left us, rather that we haven’t recognised his presence at that point.  He is still there, still whispering truth into our ears, still breaking bread with us.

That is a message which encourages me in this challenging season.  Many of you may have asked yourselves the question this year: where is Jesus?  Or maybe others have voiced it to you.  Perhaps it’s something that has affected you in the past, or that you fear in the future. 

The story of Emmaus tells me that Jesus is right there with us.  He has never left us.  He walks with us, he guides us, he shares with us.  It was an extraordinary coincidence – or God-incidence – that in 2020 on the day the church told this story, the song at the top of the charts has this as its chorus – and could there be a better word from God to us today: Walk on, walk on, with hope in your hearts.  And you’ll never walk alone.  You will never walk alone.  Amen.

Monday 1st April – John 20:19-31  ‘Thomas’

Poor old Thomas.  Imagine being the one character of history who gets the nickname ‘doubting’.  Other famous people get tagged with ‘The Brave’ or ‘The Wise’ or ‘The Just’.  And Thomas was at least two of those things: by reputation he later founded the church in India, which is quite a brave and wise thing to do.  But no, for all that he did before and after, he’s forever known as the Doubter.

In recent years a new term has come into our language – FOMO.  It’s an acronym, it stands for Fear Of Missing Out, and modern psychologists have concluded that this is one of the great drivers of our current Western society.  Largely driven by the way technology has crept into every part of our lives, we hate to miss out on things more than ever before.  It’s why so many people are always checking their social media, or the news, or their phones every few minutes – as a society many of us have developed FOMO: a deep fear of missing out. 

And when we look at Thomas we can see why – if anyone should get a case of FOMO it would be Thomas.  He didn’t just miss the latest celebrity news, or the latest video of dogs which look uncannily like Winston Churchill, he missed the resurrection of the Son of God!  He missed seeing his friend and leader do something which had never been done in the whole of human history – come back from the dead.

So maybe we can feel some sympathy.  Thomas reacted as most of us do when we miss something really great, our sadness tends to turn into petulance.  It’s a natural response fuelled by hurt: it’s a way of saying: ‘Jesus needs to make it up to me, because it’s not fair that I’ve missed out.’  And maybe that’s something we all feel at points in our lives, when things don’t work out as we think they should. 

We hold these two great things in tension – God is sovereign, he’s in charge; and yet he also gives us free will, so most of the time we can get on with things.  The problem I’ve observed with most of the answers to difficult events is that they tend to focus on one of these extremes or the other: it’s either all us, or all God.  And so we shout at God, or we shout at our leaders or some other scapegoat.

The story of Thomas tells me that God’s answer is different.  Jesus doesn’t reason with us, or argue it out: he comes to meet us where we areJesus’ answer to Thomas’ hurt is simply his presence.  ‘Put your hands here, and here…’ Just like Job in the Old Testament, God’s answer to the difficult questions is the gift of his presence.  Here I am: ‘your Lord and your God’.

And the great truth of our faith is that he still comes to meet us.  He breathes the breath of His Spirit on us just as he breathed on his disciples, and utters those glorious words: ‘Peace be with you.’

My prayer is that the warmth of Jesus’ presence will come to each one of us today, and this week, and throughout this season.  And I encourage us to invite that presence every day, to offer a simple prayer: ‘Jesus I need you, come close to me, come dwell with me today’ – that we might too receive the blessing of Jesus that he gave to his disciples: ‘blessed are you who have not seen and yet have believed…  Peace be with you.’

Holy Week Reflections 2024

Saturday 30th March – Mark 15:37-47 ‘Mary and Joseph’

It’s a strange coincidence in the gospel narrative that Jesus’ earthly life starts with a Mary and a Joseph, and ends with a Mary and a Joseph – just a different pair.  It’s true that Jesus’ mother is also in Jerusalem in Holy Week and John’s gospel records her as being by the cross when Jesus dies.  But a different Mary takes centre stage here: Mary Magdalene.

This was the Mary who had been healed and restored by Jesus (Luke 8:2) and who afterwards became one of Jesus’ most faithful friends.  This faithfulness was rewarded by the extraordinary privilege of being the first to meet Jesus after his resurrection (John 20:14).  But in today’s passage we see her supporting Jesus, watching and waiting both at the cross (v40) and at the tomb (v47).

This suggests strongly that she followed Jesus wherever he went that day – even his lifeless body, quickly carried to the tomb by Joseph (and others) as sunset drew nigh.  All of Jesus’ twelve closest (male) friends had disappeared: but Mary, and several other women, were still there.

Joseph of Arimathea’s story is different. If Mary had likely been a social outcast before she met Jesus, Joseph was wealthy and powerful, ‘a prominent member of the Council’ (v43).  But he had been no less impacted by Jesus – we don’t know exactly how, but the text tells us that he was ‘himself waiting for the kingdom of God.’  This is shorthand for a devout faith, but the fact that he took this bold step of caring for Jesus’ body when so many others had fled suggests that he saw in Jesus the fulfilment of God’s purposes for his kingdom.

And so these two unlikely characters, from opposite ends of society, come to play a key role in the story of God at this climactic moment.  As Holy Week draws to its dramatic and joyful conclusion, it reminds us that Jesus’ message – and his kingdom – are for everyone; and everyone is able to play their part in God’s purposes.  Mary’s is a story of healing and presence, Joseph’s a story of boldness and influence; Mary’s friendship with Jesus lasted years, Joseph only appears in the narrative now; but they have one thing in common – they are faithful friends to Jesus.

Holy Week is ultimately about Jesus’ faithfulness to God and to us.  But this extraordinary love demands a response.  Jesus is our most faithful friend: will we be a faithful friend in return?  The way that we express that might be different, unique: but our calling is the same.  ‘Surely this man is the Son of God!’  How will we respond?

Lord Jesus, thank you for all that you did for me.  Thank you for the examples of Mary and Joseph, touched by you, and faithful in their love.  Help me to be faithful to you, my most faithful friend.  Amen.

Good Friday, 29th March

No reflection today – instead, let the power of the story speak for itself: read Mark 15:1-39 and spend some time at the foot of the cross.

Thursday 28th March – Mark 14:43-72 ‘Witness statements’

I’ve never yet been asked to give evidence in a court room.  Once I almost did: I’d submitted written testimony and was expecting to be cross-examined.  It was only a civil case, not a criminal one, but even so, I was so nervous I forgot to put a belt on when getting ready at home, only realising when I was halfway along the street.  I had to dive into a shop near the train station and buy one on the way, or I would have had to keep my hands in my trouser pockets throughout to stop a clothing malfunction!  Not a good look before a judge….

Thankfully my written evidence was accepted without dispute, and my trousers stayed secure: but it was a sobering reminder of the power of a witness statement.  In today’s passage Jesus is surrounded by many witnesses, one after the other – however none of them were the sort you’d want on your side at your time of need.  Each witness gave their own ‘testimony’:

A kiss – from his friend Judas.

A sword – to win Jesus’ freedom through terror.

A club – from those crowding round to arrest him.

A garment – left by the young man who fled.  Many have often wondered if this was Mark himself, quietly admitting his own failure of nerve.

A lie – from those recruited by Jesus’ enemies to try and smear his name.

A rip – from the High Priest as Jesus quoted Daniel before him, a gloriously true prophecy which sealed his fate.

A denial – from his best friend Peter.  Or rather three denials, before the rooster declares his cowardice.

As we reflect on the enormity of Jesus’ sacrifice, we hold in our minds Jesus’ call for each of us to be witnesses.  And yet, so often we may feel like one or more of these people, offering faulty testimony.  A denial here, a betrayal there….

It is hard to read today’s passage without being humbled.  But in the midst of the storm, we also claim this truth: Jesus knows.  No failure of ours is new to him: he saw it all in Holy Week, indeed in this one night.  And still he loves.  Still he forgives.  Still he speaks a word of reassurance to us, just as he did to Peter.

We will never plumb the depths of his love: but we can marvel in it, and receive it afresh today.

Faithful Lord, thank you that no failure of ours puts us beyond your love.  You were let down in every way: and still you were faithful to your calling.  Give us grace to receive your astonishing forgiveness, and to be empowered to be your witnesses, for your precious sake.  Amen.

Wednesday 27th March – Mark 14:32-42  ‘Not what I will’

The will – it’s a strange and slightly mysterious thing, isn’t it?  We first start to see it when a child is just a few months old, newly weaned – turning their nose up at one mouthful of food only to embrace another. 

Wills famously start to assert themselves strongly as toddlers.  The battles all of us parents will remember!  Usually over little things, but nonetheless important, as ultimately it’s about who’s in charge.  And this sense of the will lives on in those who are described as ‘strong-willed’, which is often a euphemism for people who like to get their own way!

The will is a statement not just of authority but of intent.  When couples get married they don’t say ‘I do’ (sorry to disappoint you), but ‘I will’.  Even our last wishes are declared by – you guessed it – a will.

Wills matter.  The great spiritual writer Watchman Nee defined the soul as the combination of the mind, the emotions and the will.  It differs from the other two precisely because it defines where (and to whom) our gaze is directed.  If the mind gives us the what and why, and the emotions the how, the will focuses us on the where and to whom.  In matters of life and faith, whose will prevails?

All of which leads perfectly onto the heart of this passage today.  Here we see two battles of the will, both within a person or people.  For the disciples, the tussle is relatively straightforward: their spiritual desire to support their friend Jesus versus their physical desire to sleep on a warm, dark evening after a large meal.

For Jesus, the battle is much more intense, life (and death) defining even.  Jesus’ destiny hangs in the balance: he knows what lies ahead, and he faces the ultimate test of the will: his own, human will to avoid it, clashing with what he knows his Father’s will to be. 

The struggle is immense: he describes himself to his friends as ‘overwhelmed with sorrow’; in Luke’s account, his anguish is so intense it bursts blood vessels near the skin surface, so he literally sweats blood.  Whose will will prevail?

As we observed earlier, it all comes down to authority and intent.  Ultimately Jesus was completely obedient to one authority, and one alone – his Father’s.  And this determined his intention.  After hours of wrestling, he comes to the earth-shattering, earth-changing decision: ‘Yet not what I will, but what you will.’  Nine words which change the universe, the course of history, the future of humanity.

The contrast with the disciples is so stark, it’s almost tragically funny.  Jesus wrestles for his life while they wrestle with their eyelids.  How like us!  How wonderful, then, to know that our future rests in Jesus’ perfect obedience rather than ours.

And may that hope of a secure future, thanks to Jesus’ costly obedience, also give us inspiration and courage to surrender to God’s will in the little – and not-so-little – callings of our lives.

Courageous God, I am in awe of your obedience.  Thank you, thank you that you said ‘Not what I will.’  Help me to will as you will, because I know that you are good.  Amen.

Tuesday 26th March – Mark 14:12-31  ‘All fall away’

The journey of Jesus through Holy Week is, among many things, a journey from crowds to loneliness.  The great throng of Palm Sunday becomes the large crowd in the temple; then the smaller gathering at Bethany, moving on to the Last Supper with his disciples; then just Peter, James and John in Gethsemane, until finally Jesus is arrested and is completely alone.  Listeners left, followers gone, friends fled.

The narrative becomes more intense, claustrophobic.  Today Jesus prepares to eat the Passover (v13), then at the celebration itself talks of betrayal (v18) and his own shed blood (v24).  He finishes the meal with an evening walk where he finally comes clean: ‘you will all fall away.’ (v27)

It is a stark and sobering admission, and not surprisingly his friends, buoyed not just by wine and conversation, but an evening reflecting on God’s sovereign activity in history, don’t agree.  A tight-knit huddle, they’ve weathered all storms – literal and spiritual – for three years.  They’re just not the ‘falling away’ types – especially not gung-ho, have-a-go Peter.  ‘Even if all fall away, I will not.’

We all know what happens next, and we’ll reflect some more on it over the coming days.  But I’m always struck by the disconnect between words and deeds.  Between brave declarations, and craven response.  Between intention and action.  Or as Jesus puts it shortly: ‘The Spirit is willing’ – it usually is – ‘but the flesh is weak.’

And as we gaze back at these iconic scenes with 2,000 years’ perspective – two millennia of knowledge and experience – it strikes me that the only honest response is simply this: there but for the grace of God go I.  Go any of us.  The disciples are just like us: true of heart and easily scattered.  How many times has the rooster crowed for each of us? 

And yet… and yet…. Jesus is still Jesus.  Still full of compassion and mercy, still slow to anger and of great goodness.  Still able to welcome us back with our blushing, tear-stained cheeks.  And in this famous meal he gives us, this simple but glorious act of remembrance, we are able each time to acknowledge our weakness, and praise his strength; to lament our faithlessness and rejoice in his faithfulness; to receive mercy and forgiveness again.  Every time we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim the Lord’s saving death until he comes.

Even as they gather to celebrate the Passover, Jesus knows they will all desert him within hours – and yet he gives them this wonderful sign of his love anyway.  That is grace – and it is grace we remember today.  As the old hymn puts it so well: ‘When Satan tempts me to despair, and tells me of the guilt within: upwards I look and see him there, who made an end of all my sin.’  Amen, thank you Jesus.

Loving Lord, there but for your grace I would have gone so many times.  Thank you for your mercy and love.  Make my weak knees strong, and stand by my side always.  Amen.

Monday 25th March – Mark 14:1-11  ‘Extravagant love’

We’re blessed to be able to worship in a beautiful, inspiring building.  Despite being made with wooden scaffolds, rudimentary tools and makeshift mortar, it has stood for hundreds of years, and is likely to for hundreds more.  Most of us sucked in our breath and felt a sense of thrill when we first stepped inside it.  Many of us do even now.  Imagine what it must have been like for the mediaeval peasant folk who lived around it in timber dwellings?  Imagine the awe, the sense of glory and mystery – all pointing to the great God in whose name it was built.

The church is really the people, of course it is – and we must beware idolatry of bricks and mortar.  But all the same, a glorious building not only inspires worship, but represents an act of worship in itself.  It’s not often that we think of the cost of building it.  How on earth does a poor agrarian subsistence economy finance such luxury?  What did it cost each peasant family to pay their taxes over decades to see it built?  Yes, it certainly provided much needed employment and a focus for the identity of the village – but I wonder how many times a family went hungry or made some other sacrifice to see it built?   What poverty might have been alleviated if the money hadn’t been spent on a building at least ten times larger than anything around it, whose sole purpose was for worship?

When we start to ask these questions, we get to the heart of today’s famous but unsettling story. We love the image of the woman anointing Jesus’ head with this very expensive perfume, but many of us no doubt share the disciples’ sentiments.  Jesus had just challenged the financial corruption of the temple officials, and yet here he was a few days later, apparently condoning an act of wasteful, reckless extravagance.  Surely there are better ways to spend money wisely?

But Jesus is having none of it.  Yes, we should always care for those who need it, as Jesus advises – but he also reminds us that the first and primary object of our attention is Jesus himself.  Jesus’ own love for us is extravagant, reckless even – the end of this week proves it, beyond a shadow of a doubt – and so, too, he commends extravagant love returned.  This woman’s costly worship, done for no other reason than to demonstrate her adoration of her Lord, is ‘a beautiful thing’. 

The woman could never have known that Jesus’ prediction would come true: ‘wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.’  Just as the poor mediaeval families who made sacrifices for decades to pay for and build our church building could never have known that 700 or 800 years later, people would still be gasping as they enter, people would still be offering their worship to God with hearts and hands raised in adoration – that their offering of extravagant love would remain powerful, inspiring, enduring.  It is a beautiful thing.

As Holy Week begins, take time to reflect on the reckless, extravagant love of God for you – yes, you! The love that led to extraordinary sacrifice.  Let’s acknowledge that too often we become people who know ‘the price of everything and the value of nothing.’  Let’s recommit ourselves to extravagant worship, reflecting the wild, reckless love of our Creator.  It is a beautiful thing.

Loving Jesus, thank you for your extravagant love for me.  My love for you so often has limits.  Help me to love you as you love me.  Open my eyes to see what the woman at Bethany saw.  Thank you.  Amen.

Previous series

Head over to our Archive page to find previous series in the Psalms, the gospels of Mark, Luke and John, the Holy Spirit, Acts, 2 Corinthians, Philippians, Colossians, Hebrews, Isaiah, Daniel, Esther, Joshua, Deuteronomy, seasonal series for Advent, Easter, Remembrance, and more besides!