Category Archives: Comment

Salt and Light – Isaiah 58:1-12 and Matthew 5:13-20

During this past week we have celebrated Candlemas, the Feast of the Presentation. It is a point of change int he church’s year. Mary and Joseph take Jesus to the Temple to receive God’s blessing.  There they meet Simeon and Anna, two old people who had been faithfully waiting for God to break into their world.  When they saw Jesus they realised that this was who they had been waiting for – in Simeon’s words; “my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” But Simeon also says to Mary, “and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

Just as Mary’s thoughts are disturbed by Simeon’s words, so at Candlemas, we mark the end of the season of Epiphany and start our journey towards the Cross and Good Friday, through Lent and Holy Week and on to Easter.  Candlemas is often celebrated surrounded by candles, the theme of light is important The reading set for the 4th Sunday Before Lent continue this theme.

In the Old Testment reading, Isaiah talked about what God looks for in his faithful people – let me remind you of his words…..

“When you share your food with the hungry
    and provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked and clothe them,
    and do not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
    and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
    and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
    you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.”

“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
    with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
    and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,”

Isaiah reminds us that shining with the light of God’s love in the word around us is about caring for those who lack food, shelter and things to wear and caring for those who are oppressed.  He also reminds us to take care with the way we communicate – that if we point our finger and indulge in malicious talk then we are not letting our light shine.   The challenge is clear … “let your light rise in the darkness,” says Isaiah. Challenging stuff indeed!

Matthew uses two images to help us understand what it means for us to draw people closer to God.  “As Christians,” he says, you are called to be salt and light to the world.  To be ‘the light of the world…… letting our light shine before others, so that they may see the good we do and praise God.’  To be the ‘salt of the earth’.

Both salt and light make a great difference.  Salt not only preserves and disinfects but it brings out the full flavour of other ingredients.  Light allows everyone to see clearly what’s around them.  So, we are called to do those things that let God’s light shine out from us, we are called to make a difference in the lives of those we meet.  In all we say, think and do, God asks us to reflect his values, his love, his life, his light.

However, if light and salt are not used carefully they can destroy rather than enhance. When you are cooking, adding the right amount of salt is critical to producing a dish that has a good flavour.  Too much and you’ve ruined the dish, all you will taste is salt and no-one will want to eat it.  Just the right amount, and you won’t actually taste the salt but the dish will be delicious – all the other flavours will be enhanced.  Used well, salt is helpful, used in a way that dominates, it is overpowering and destroys!discerned_saltandlight

We also have to be careful with light.  … Have you noticed how when people drive towards you in the dark, often your eyes get pulled towards their headlights and you get distracted from the road in front of you. … or if someone has shone a bright light straight at you, you’ll know how you are blinded and can’t see anything.  For light to be useful, it has to be carefully directed and its level balanced.  Too bright and in the wrong direction and no-one can see anything.  But just the right level of brightness and shining at what we want people to see, then it makes all the difference in the world.

Matthew prompts us to think about whether we are salt and light, but he also prompts us to consider how we are salt and light.

Things had gone wrong for the people Isaiah was talking to.  They had made their adherence to their religion a show – something to boast about. They were being heavy handed with the salt and shining the light too brightly into the eyes of others, so that all anyone could see was them carefully following religious practices. Their behaviour hid the reality of God’s love.  They didn’t make a difference in the lives of others and so were not working with God but against him.

1d5e83e00422b659f2c4a4a8dddb2678What about us?  What do people see when they look at us? Do we obscure the light? Or do others see people who are different, who are making a difference?  Do they see people who reveal God’s love, God’s peace, God’s joy and God’s hope?  Do they see people who are salt and light to the world?

What might we do to ensure that we are both salt and light in our world? I think Isaiah is very clear, and we could do a lot worse than listening to his agenda for mission:

“When you share your food with the hungry
    and provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked and clothe them,
    and do not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
    and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
    and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
    you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.”

“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
    with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
    and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness.”




22nd January – Matthew 4:12-33

There is a saying about leopards – I guess you know the one I mean … “Leopards never change their spots”. We use it to talk about someone who has been in prison, or someone who we have caught lying, or someone who has offended us. We can’t believe it when they seem to have changed. And we are convinced that their motives must be odd or that eventually their true base character will show through.

There are other similar phrases:

“Truth will out:” I guess this means that the truth will become known eventually, you can’t hide who you really are for ever. The phrase comes from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice – Launcelot says:

“it is a wise father that knows his own child. Well, old man, I will tell you news of your son: give me your blessing: truth will come to light; murder cannot be hid long; a man’s son may, but at the length truth will out.”

The hidden things we have done and the parts of who we are that we want to hide will always eventually come to the surface and become known.

“Once a thief, always a thief:” … or  Once a cheat, always a cheat. These suggest that once you have learned to behave in a particular way you will always revert to type!

I have heard the same formula used in a different way. … “Once a priest, always a priest,” and: “Once a bishop, always a bishop.” … I’ll leave you to decide whether those are positive or negative! … However, what they share is a conviction that a person who’s done a certain kind of job will always have the characteristics of people who do that job, even after he or she no longer does that kind of work.

Is this right? Are we defined by our past?

the-ugly-duckling-storyHans Christian Anderson tells a very familiar story whose main point is  that ugly ducklings can become beautiful swans. We know that ugly caterpillars can become amazing butterflies, tadpoles do become frogs and toads. Things do change.

In our Gospel reading today we hear the story of people being called by Jesus. He chooses them to follow him. James and John, Andrew and Simon Peter.

They encounter Jesus and in so doing are changed for ever.

We don’t know that much about Jesus disciples. We do know quite a bit about Peter. We know that, like James, John and Andrew, he was a fisherman. But we know more than that. What was Peter like?

… Hot-tempered, always making mistakes, a rough diamond, not someone to suffer fools gladly, someone who lived a hard life, a no-nonsense kind of guy. … Perhaps a typical country fisherman.

And then Peter meets Jesus. Something in this person, Jesus, changes Peter for ever. It doesn’t all happen in an instant, but it starts to happen as Peter listens to Jesus speak and when he sees Jesus’ miracles. He is changed as he follows Jesus.

“Peter, I have a job for you, follow me,” Jesus says. Peter I can see the potential in you, I can see who you will become. Peter I want you to be my fisherman now – only you’ll be catching not fish but men and women to be my followers.

And we know how the story ends – this ugly ducking of a man becomes a Swan – he becomes one of Jesus most faithful followers and eventual becomes the leader of the church.

In our Gospel, Jesus does not just call Peter – he calls Andrew, James and John to be his followers. And in just the same way he calls each of us to follow him. Rough diamonds that we are, self-deprecating or over confident, angry or depressed, rude and negative, fearful or fearless, strong or weak, trapped in difficult relationships. All of us called to be his followers, his ambassadors.

And you know, just like Peter, there is potential for change in each of us. Jesus can take me, he can take you, and he can transform us. We no longer need to feel that we are no good – just like Peter we can admit to God our weakness and our failings and then God urltakes us as we are and makes something special.

Please forgive all the mixed metaphors. … We no longer need to feel like the Ugly Ducking, for God in Jesus sees the Swan that we really are – and as we give ourselves to God – he draws out all the good that is in us. It really is a case for us that a leopard’s spots can change!

15th January 2017 – John 1:29-42

Over the last few weeks, our lectionary readings have contained a series of revelations about Jesus.

On Christmas Day, we heard John’s revelation of Jesus as “the Word, who from the very beginning was with God and was God but also the Word made flesh living among us.”

At Epiphany, we heard of the wise men and their gifts, showing Jesus to be a king, worthy of worship and one destined to die.

Last week, at Christ’s Baptism we heard God’s revelation: “This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

These revelations actually took place over a period of thirty years. But for us, heard in the space of four weeks, they are rather more intense.  Each week, learn more of Jesus’ being and purpose. Today is no different.

1Today John announces to the crowd gathered around him at the Jordan “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” A few sentences later he says that Jesus is “the one who baptises with the Holy Spirit.”   And he goes on to remind everyone that Jesus is God’s son.   Then Andrew tells his brother that the Messiah, the Anointed has been found.

Jesus’ appearances seem to come thick and fast, quicker and quicker. Chapters 1 and 2 of John’s Gospel seem to emphasise this. So, in today’s reading: v29: the next day John saw Jesus coming; v35: the next day John watched Jesus walk by; then v43: the next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee; and Chapter 2 v 1: On the next day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee!

It is almost as though John, the writer of the Gospel is feeling a great deal of intensity as he writes. “I must get this across,” he says to himself, “I must.” He seems desperate to make sure that his readers know Jesus’ credentials as fully and as quickly as he can relay them.

Indeed, after the opening of the gospel it seems to markedly slow down, the intensity drops and the reader has more time to reflect on who Jesus is – through stories and accounts of Jesus’ conversations.

Next week, we return to Matthew’s gospel for a number of weeks and get chance to see how Jesus’s ministry progresses. It’s also an opportunity to see whether he actually lives up to the titles that have been revealed to us over the last few weeks.  So it is almost as though our Gospel reading is asking us to take stock of the names, and roles, that have been showered on Jesus.  We are invited to take all this information that we have been given about Jesus, make sure we understand what it means and then use this in the coming weeks to help us understand the unfolding story of the next three years of Jesus= life.

In this blog, we can only scratch the surface of what John, the Gospel writer, hopes we will understand about Jesus.

Lamb of God.”  John the Baptist expected his listeners to recall pictures from the Old Testament; the lamb provided by God for Abraham to slaughter, the lamb of Isaiah 53, led to the slaughter for the sins of God=s people; the Passover Lamb from Exodus.  The word ‘lamb’, for John’s listeners connected strongly with words like ‘sin’ or ‘atonement’ – the way in which we can be reconciled with God despite our wrongdoing.

This Lamb is given by God – a gift from him. We can’t provide for our own atonement, instead God reaches out to us to draw us back to him.

The Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the whole world,” says John the Baptist. Jesus will take away all sin, everyone’s sin. There is nothing exclusive or limited. Nothing narrow. No sin too heinous, no wickedness too terrible! Listen to the words of Isaac Watts’ hymn:

    Not all the blood of beasts, on Jewish altars slain,

   Could give the guilty conscience peace

   Or wash away its stain.

   But Christ the heavenly Lamb, Takes all our sin away;

   A sacrifice of nobler name, And richer blood than they                   

   Believing, we rejoice, To see the curse remove;

   We bless the Lamb with cheerful voice, And sing his wondrous love.

Baptiser with the Spirit.”   John the Baptist baptised people into a readiness for the coming of the Messiah. In the early church, baptism initiated people into the family of God.  Jesus, however, welcomes us into God’s kingdom by giving the Holy Spirit.  Jesus gives us the same gift as he received at his baptism – God’s spirit to guide us and lead us. And this is particularly important every time we baptise someone in our churches. When we baptise we incorporate people into the same family as Jesus, they become children of God, children of the Holy Spirit.

Son of God.” Jesus’ relationship with God was made explicit at his Baptism. He is loved by God – he is ‘the beloved’.   At Jesus baptism we are shown something of the closeness and intimacy between God and Jesus. It is only the one loved by God. The one who was with God, who was God. Only that one can secure salvation – no other.

Messiah.” At the beginning of the first century, there was intense speculation about the Messiah, the ‘anointed one’.  In the Old Testament, anointing was used to describe the way in which people were appointed for special tasks, and given God’s spirit to enable them to carry out this task.   People were waiting for a Messiah – a kingly figure embodying God’s rule.  Andrew calls Jesus, ‘Messiah’. He recognises Jesus as the long awaited king who would fulfil the Old Testament prophecies and bring about God’s reign on earth.

Lamb of God, Baptiser with the Spirit, Son of God, Messiah – John, the Gospel writer’s names for Jesus. John wants us to carry these names with us as we read his Gospel. It is as though he says to us, “You will only understand my message fully if you realise that this is what I want to show you. Here is the one who by his life and death fulfils these roles and in doing so brings hope.”

As we read the Gospels lets use these names to inform our reading and to help us understand for ourselves just who Jesus is: Lamb of God, Baptiser with the Spirit, Son of God, Messiah.

The Servant of the Lord – Isaiah 42:1-9 and Matthew 3:13-17

The apostle Paul writes in I Corinthians 1:27 – “But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.”

Travel with me in your imagination, back to another time and place. … You might want to close your eyes. … It’s an unbelievable place. It has a sense of heavy quietness about it. You might know what I mean. I suppose, it’s like a cathedral. People are talking to each other in hushed tones. … Yet it still feels quiet.

Countless people from every nation under the sun are here. Some splendidly dressed in their finery, some carrying the tools of their trade – blacksmiths, … jewellers, … carpenters. Others, clearly with little money, have made every effort to look their best. It is the 5th Century BC and as we scan the room we can see people of authority and power; Kings of Babylon, Media, Persia and Egypt stand erect and tall with their courtiers in attendance. Other kings and queens from unknown parts of the world are also here – Incas, Aztecs, Chinese, Indian and Ceylonese – everyone is here, with their monarchs standing proud in front of them.

This is no ordinary cathedral, it’s too grand and large for that. The walls – too far away to see, the roof – higher and wider than anything we’ve ever seen. No columns hinder the view. The splendour of the room is beyond telling – it’s as though everything is covered in gold, and silver, and precious jewels. … Yet despite all this beauty everything in the room seems to point to its centre.

On a raised platform is a magnificent throne. It’s like looking at the sun –  seemingly all of the light in the room comes from that throne – … it is dazzlingly bright. It seems that wherever you are in the room the throne dominates your view.

Suddenly everyone is aware of someone on the throne – the hushed conversation draws quiet. This is the moment we’re waiting for. … As our host stands up and moves forward the brightness which had seemed to come from the throne moves too. No one needs to say anything – everyone just knows who this is. The whole room is first on its knees, and then flat on its face before GOD.

Our invitation to the heavenly court, says that GOD will be announcing his plans. Plans that mean declaring a chosen nation who will know God, and who’ll make his character known throughout the world. … All of the kings and queens are ready – jealously wondering which of them GOD will choose. …………………. One word from God and everyone is standing again; eagerly straining to see who it is. … Who has GOD chosen? ………….. From the back of the hall, somewhere behind the King of Babylon, a scruffy beggar stands and walks unsteadily forward to the throne. Some in the crowd look the other way as he passes, others try to stop him. It is only the voice of GOD which holds them still.

GOD welcomes the beggar and crowns him … ‘The Servant of the Lord‘. … It turns out that he is Israel, one of the small nations that have been conquered by Babylon. Insignificant, unimportant and of no consequence. What is God doing, choosing this non-entity, this tiny country, Israel? ….

As you think about that question, take a moment to adjust back to being here, wherever you are now, reading this blog …………….

servant-songsThis is the picture that chapters 40 to 55 of Isaiah want us to see. Israel was a nation on its knees. Its people were in exile, depressed, defeated and angry; … God must have deserted them for ever – or so it seemed. A once proud nation, they were now snivelling with self-pity, full of shame and guilt. … In Isaiah 40 and 41 it is almost as though God whispers words of encouragement to this beggar Israel as he walks forward through the jealous and condemning ranks of the nations. Listen to his words:

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for.

My people, I took you from the ends of the earth, from its farthest corners I called you. I said, “You are my servant”; I have chosen you and have not rejected you.

So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.

In Isaiah 42, God presents Israel to the nations as his servant. God confirms his love and protection of Israel and commissions Israel to serve him again.

With hindsight, we know that Israel never lived up to its calling. As Christians we see these passages of Isaiah pointing forward to another Servant of the Lord, to Jesus. The one who through death and resurrection brings healing to the distressed, binds up the wounded and releases all sorts of captives from prison. In our Gospel reading Jesus receives the same kind of blessing from God:thisismybelovedsonlistentoh

“This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

But even with Jesus this passage has not been fully fulfilled. Jesus once said: “As the Father sent me so I send you.” Jesus passes on to us both the privileges and responsibilities of being the Servant of the Lord. We are called to bring justice, to be a light to the nations. Ultimately, it is us that God is speaking to in the Isaiah passage. He wants us to hear his encouragement as he picks us up, dusts us down and sets us on our way again.

God knows that we so easily see ourselves as Israel saw itself – depressed and defeated – often struggling with self-pity, and full of shame and guilt. Or at times we see ourselves as right when others are wrong, we seek to build ourselves up at others expense, we cannot hear God’s love for us because we are so busy trying to establish our own reputation against that of others.

And we are no different to Israel. Weak, mis-understood, seemingly at the end of ourselves, seemingly without answers to the problems of our day and if we are not very careful, seeing everyone else as the problems rather than ourselves. Whether it be our lack of numbers, the suffering and injustice of our world or the disregard of spiritual things by so many people, we have no overwhelmingly obvious, argument settling answers to the difficulties that life brings. Yet God speaks to us in the same way as he spoke to Israel. “You are my servants,” he says. God speaks to us in the same way that he spoke to Jesus ….

“My son, my daughter, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

God wants us to hear his words of comfort, to hold onto them as our own. To listen to his challenge to bring justice, to bring his assurance and to shed his light into the lives of those outside of the church community. God wants us to be those who show love and compassion, who because we are loved by God give space for others to flourish, God wants us to be those who because we are loved do not need to compete for affection and status, a people who build others up rather than tear them down.url

The truth is that it is our recognition of our own weakness that’ll mean that God can work through us to bring healing to our world.

I Corinthians 1:27 – But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.

St. Zacchaeus – Luke 19: 1-10

Sometimes someone will say to me – I’d like to come to church but I=m really just not good enough. I don’t have enough faith. Some people think that you are not acceptable in church unless you meet some sort of list of requirements.

Any church that gives you that kind of impression, has, somewhere along the line, got something very wrong; for Jesus would have no truck with those kinds of ideas. Jesus was always to be found among those who thought they were beyond the reach of God’s love.

Jesus’ willingness to be with those rejected by society extended even to the quislings of the day, the stooges of the Roman occupying powers – the tax collectors. Our Gospel reading tells the story of Zacchaeus and his encounter with Jesus. Zacchaeus is desperate to meet with Jesus and equally Jesus is delighted to meet with Zacchaeus, very happy to risk the scorn of the crowd for the sake of a man who clearly knows his own need to be changed.

Love, in Jesus, reaches out to this outcast and love changes him completely. All Zacchaeus did was to look out for Jesus and then welcome him when he came his way. That, ultimately, is what Christianity is all about – it is not about being good, although that may well result from an encounter with Jesus – for Zacchaeus was changed completely by his encounter with Jesus. No, being a Christian is not ultimately about being good. It’s not even about attending Church religiously every Sunday, although that is a real help to many – for it is good to be among people who are just as aware of their own shortcomings and their need of God’s love. And we really do all have shortcomings and we really do need God’s love and forgiveness, and each other’s love and forgiveness too.

No, being a Christian is not about being good, not about attending Church every Sunday – being a Christian is all about being real with ourselves and about meeting with God in Jesus. Zacchaeus was befriended by Jesus. As a result he saw himself as he really was and he was changed. In our churches each week, in those who make up our congregations, there’s a group of people who just like Zacchaeus have begun to see themselves as they really are and who have begun to acknowledge that they need God’s love in their lives. And on All Saints Sunday, we remind ourselves that people like this are called Saints.

Saints are people who are growing in their awareness that they need God’s love in their lives. Love that searches us out. Love that asks only that we come to him as we are, that we do not pretend that we are better than we are. Love, that by its very nature draws the best out of us. Love that transforms us. Love that chooses to call a sinner a saint, not because of some unreasonable blindness to their faults, but because that love is so strong, so overpowering, love unto death, that nothing can stand in its way.

catholic-cross-drawing-clipart-panda-free-clipart-images-x0wdhb-clipartHere is love, says the Bible, not that we first loved God but that God first loved us and sent his Son to die for us. The love of God comes to us at a cost – the death of Jesus. Come as you are, says Jesus and reaches out his arms wide on the cross. God dies at Easter so as to make reconciliation possible. We can come as we are because all that gets in the way between us and God was defeated in the death of Jesus. This is love, real vulnerable love, love which bore shame and rejection so as to bring reconciliation.

All we have to do is say, ‘Thank you, Jesus’. Jesus replies, ‘You’re welcome. You are welcome. Come as you are. Come just as you are.’

Luke 18: 9-14 – A Pharisee and a Tax Collector went to the Temple to Pray …..

Pharisees have really had bad press. To call someone a Pharisee is to suggest that they’re stuck-up, sanctimonious, hypocritical, self-righteous, unable to bend. That they think that they’re always right.

And indeed this is the impression we get from reading the Gospels. Today’s Gospel a case in point – the Pharisee seems to be hard & self-righteous, not someone we’d want to spend time with – whereas the tax collector, by his very confession of guilt, is the warm approachable character, the one that we’d like to be associated with – a character that provokes our empathy.

Elsewhere Jesus reserves some of his most vitriolic language for the Pharisees. He calls them ‘white-washed sepulchres’, ‘hypocrites’

With the benefit of 2000 years of reading the Gospel story – almost anyone, non-churchgoers included will tell you that to call someone a Pharisee is to insult them.

Because of this we lose the real impact of the Gospel story. We’ve already type cast the characters and we know what the story is about. We associate with the tax collector and we encourage ourselves to greater personal repentance and humility – or we may even allow ourselves to think we behave in the same humble, self-deprecating way. ‘Lord, I thank you that I am not like this Pharisee,’ we might pray!

If we really want to hear what Jesus was talking about, we need to try to understand how Pharisees and tax collectors were seen by the people to whom Jesus was speaking. So, for a moment, lets try to do that.

The Pharisees were part of a group in Israel called the ‘Hasidaeans’, which translates as ‘God’s loyal ones’, a group that tried really hard to follow the teaching of the OT. The name Pharisee means ‘the separated ones’, separate because of their desire to follow the OT teaching as faithfully as they could. There was a period when they were the dominant political force in Israel, but by the time of Jesus they had suffered persecution under Herod and had concluded that spiritual ends could not be attained by political means.

They were a group who believed that Israel had gone into exile in OT times because it had failed to keep God’s law, the Torah. They believed strongly in the unity and holiness of God and the absolute authority of the Torah. They stressed tithing, had very high ethical standards.

When seen like this, Pharisees are not the unattractive people that we believe them to be. In fact, dare I say it, we might even feel that it would be good if the Church was like them, maintaining high ethical standards in our society, giving at a level that means that God=s work is not constrained by resources. Perhaps we have something to learn from the Pharisees!!

When it comes to tax collectors we’ve perhaps a greater understanding. We still have a sense that the tax man takes from us what is rightfully ours. The feeling against tax collectors in Jesus’ time was a bit stronger. They were the quislings, the people who aided & abetted the occupying power, often using their position for personal gain. Roman stooges, worthy of contempt.

Now if this is what Pharisees were like, if this was how tax collectors were seen, what effect might Jesus’ story have had on his listeners? It would have been difficult for Jesus to find more distinctly opposite characters. The Pharisee loyal to Israel, persecuted, at times, by the Romans, faithful to the Torah … versus the tax collector, the bogie-man.

It is unlikely that people would have seen the Pharisee’s words in the story as presumptuous. Everything he said about himself was true. People would have believed that he was the one close to God. He was the faithful church attender of his day, he was the highest Sunday giver in the Church, he had great integrity in his business dealing, he didn’t fiddle his tax, he was to be commended above anyone else as an example of a truly religious person. We might say, A ‘good Christian!’

But Jesus makes it clear that the penitent tax collector is accepted by God when the faithful Pharisee is not.  We are not supposed to see ourselves in this story, in the person of the humble tax collector, but in the Pharisee, secure in his faith.

Just as Jesus warns the committed religious people of his day against complacency, so he challenges us, the faithful ones, the ones who go to church on a cold Sunday morning.

There’s no room, Jesus says, for sitting on our laurels, believing that we have got life sorted, believing that there is no more we need to do. For if we do this, the shocking challenge of the Gospel is that we may well watch the drug addict, the prostitute, the alcoholic, the gambler, the thief, … even a modern day tax collector, show evidence of real repentance and be accepted by God when we are left out in the cold.

Faith or Faithfulness? Luke 17: 5-10

What does it mean to ‘have faith’?

Jesus says, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this tree, ‘Be uprooted and plated in the sea’, and it would obey you.”

Jesus seems to be saying: “If you can screw up enough faith, if you pray hard enough, if you really believe, then you’ll be able to do powerful things. You’ll be in control of life and God will be able to work through you! If you are just prepared to leap across that chasm believing that I will miraculously get you to the other side, then you are my disciple!  ”

But is he really? ……  Or is it rather the case that we hear him saying what we think he is saying rather than listen to him properly. After all, what do we say when things go wrong for us? …… “What have I done to deserve this?” “Why is this illness happening to me?” … It is as though we do really believe that we have the power to make our circumstances right, just be being better people, by having more faith?

And so, when we hear the word ‘faith’ we so often think of something rather like the flexing of spiritual muscles, or determinedly screwing ourselves up to believe. “If only I had more faith,” we say. “If only I really believed.” … And so many of us fail to achieve this … and as a result so many turn their back on ‘faith’: “It does not work,” they say.

And so when we hear those verses in Luke 17 we hear Jesus saying something, perhaps quite sarcastic: “Faith, don’t talk to me about your faith, you have not even got enough to fill a mustard seed, if you had you’d be doing all sorts of marvellous things in my name.”

But when we do so, we miss the point.

called_chosen_-faithful_part3-680x300What Jesus is actually saying is something much more like this: “Faith is about trusting in an all powerful God, it is about living faithfully to what you believe, it is about faithful service. Just a tiny little bit of that kind of faithful living will change the world.”

Where is the evidence for reading the Gospel this way?

Firstly, there is the whole of the reading above. In the first two verses Jesus talks about faith – but then he goes on to talk about masters and slaves. He could be talking about the way in which the physical world should obey its masters, those masters being his followers who have faith. But I don’t think he is. Let’s just focus on Luke 17:10 which tells us so much about ‘faith’ …

Jesus says: “So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’”

‘Faith’  is all about being ‘faithful’. We are slaves, servants of our master, and the greatest and the best thing that we can say of ourselves is that we have lived faithful to that calling – we have served our master, we have lived faith-fully.

Second, there is that word ‘faith’; ‘pisteo‘ in the Greek. It is used consistently through the Greek version of the bible for being faithful, trustworthy, sure and true. Just here in Luke:

Luke 12:42                faithful and prudentfruitosp_faithfulness

Luke 16:10-12          faithful, faithful, faithful

Luke 19:17                trustworthy

In each of these cases, and throughout the New testament, it is the same root word,  ‘pisteo‘. So when Jesus uses the word ‘faith’, he is not asking us to screw ourselves up to believe, but he is asking us to live faithfully to what we believe, to be his trustworthy followers. To be faithful and prudent. “Those who live this way,” says Jesus, “Are people of faith. … And, (in the figurative language that he is using) it won’t just be a mulberry tree that is uprooted, even the gates of hell will not prevail against them.”gar-19