Vision and Values – Introduction, & Value 1: Loving

Vision and Values of ‘All Saints’

Loving (1 John 4: 7-12 and Matthew 22: 36-40)

Earlier this year the PCC spent some time thinking about, praying and discussing what our Vision and Values should be here at All Saints.  Then at our APCM meeting in April we shared them with everyone. 

And so now as we head into Autumn we’re going to spend some time focussing on our Vision and Values and how they shape and form us as God’s people in this community.

Let’s start by thinking a bit about Vision….

So, to get us started here are some vision statements from leading world-wide companies/organisations.

Let’s have a look at a few and see if you can guess who they belong to. 

  1. Bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete* in the world. *If you have a body, you are an athlete.  (Nike)
  2. To save the world from mediocre coffee…  (Costa Coffee)
  3. Inspire the world.  Create the future (Samsung)
  4. To be the world’s best, quick service restaurant experience.  Being the best means providing outstanding quality, service, cleanliness, and value, so that we make every customer in every restaurant smile.  (McDonalds)
  5. A just world without poverty (Oxfam)

Five quite different Vision statements… but there are several characteristics that they share.

Firstly, Vision is about the future. 

Secondly, Vision is all about having a clear picture, a picture in your mind’s eye of the way things could or should be in the days ahead. 

But Vision isn’t just a vague hope or wish or dream, rather Vision carries with it a sense of deep conviction that this must be accomplished. There is a convicting element that propels, enlivens, inspires and energizes so that the picture isn’t just a passive interest, but becomes action and accomplishment.

So, Vision shapes, it influences, it motivates, it directs and gives purpose.

Now keeping all that on the back burner, it is also worth noting that Vision is found in the Bible time and time again.   

I believe our God is a God of vision.

God called Abraham the Father of many nations long before his wife ever had her first child.

God spoke to Moses and promised deliverance for his people – even though they looked trapped in oppression and slavery. 

God saw a fresh start and new beginnings for Ruth and Naomi when they thought all had ended.

God saw a King, a leader in a young shepherd boy named David!

God saw the mother of Jesus the Messiah in a young virgin girl.

Time and time again God had a picture – a vision… and it wasn’t fanciful, but step by step that Vision became a reality.   

It shaped individuals, communities and nations. 

God’s Vision has always been about freedom, healing, and relationship with a loving heavenly Father. 

As a PCC we also had in our minds the stories Jesus told of God’s kingdom, stories of growth, mustard seeds becoming towering trees, stories of invitation and welcome, stories of change, transformation and healing, stories of acceptance and love.

And so, with all of this in our hearts and minds the PCC agreed this Vision Statement. 

Our Vision is to be a welcoming, growing, vibrant church for the community of Denmead.

And to build on that, we came up with three things that we want to be as God’s people:

KNOW God – that after all is the very heart of the Christian faith….  a people who know God, not just a head knowledge about God, not just facts, rather an active relationship with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  A relationship of worship and trust, not just at church, but daily in every part of our lives.

Then we want to be a people who GROW in our faith and discipleship through prayer, study and trust in God.  So we don’t want to be a people who are stuck in the past, rather we want to be a people who day by day are following after Christ… to be a people who are looking to become more like Jesus in our thoughts, our actions, our relationships with others, and this will happen as we pray, as we study God’s word, as we trust daily in God.

And then very importantly we want to be a people who SHOW God’s love by serving our community…in actions and compassion, but crucially in sharing the good news of Jesus in the power of the Spirit.  We have the most amazing news ever – and it changes lives, brings transformation and healing….and so we want to talk about Jesus like it really matters.

And these three go together, and in a sense feed each other.  The more we KNOW God, the more we want to GROW, and as we GROW the more we want to SHOW and share that love with others.  And in turn the more we see lives changed and transformed, the more we want to KNOW God…and GROW and so we continue.

  • It is this Vision that we’re now aiming for, working towards… It motivates, directs and inspires our decisions, our actions, our thoughts, and our prayers. 
  • It’s a Vision with a desire to help every person, whether young or old, new to faith or been around for ever, an occasional visitor or regular attender, to help each and every person encounter God.
  • It is this Vision that forms who we are… our actions, our attitudes, our relationships.
  • This Vision shapes our culture…our ethos… it is who and what we are, both as individuals and as a community.

And so, to guide us, to help form our understanding we identified eight values which we want to embrace and live out as God’s people in this place.

And top of the list was LOVE.

In all that we are and do, we will seek to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and to love our neighbours as ourselves.

It is centred on two passages from scripture, we’ve we heard earlier, and now we turn our attention to briefly.

Our passage from Matthew’s gospel recounts a conversation Jesus had with an individual who was trying to catch him out.  The individual wanted to know what part of the law mattered most. 

At that time, the Pharisees prided themselves on meticulous observance of the Law.  They not only knew the Ten Commandments, but they paid rigorous attention to all the laws in the books of Moses–613 laws. 

They tried to reason out the implications of the laws, and to make sure that they avoided even the possibility of violating any of them.

But the Pharisees had lost their way….

Jesus makes clear that the very heart of the matter is loving God – every inch, so to speak, our hearts, our minds, our wills, our attitudes, complete and utter full devotion.  This says Jesus is the heartbeat of all the commandments.   

Note that it is the first commandment, but not the only one.  Jesus follows it with a second commandment to love our neighbour as yourself.  Loving God empowers us to love other people.  To see them in the right frame of mind.

Jesus loved us perfectly and gave himself for us (Galatians 2:20).  He saved us when none of us could save ourselves (Romans 5:6-10).  And now, when we put our trust in him, we are united to him, and we are transformed so that we can imitate the pattern of his love: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.  By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35 RSV). 

Through Jesus Christ we receive not only understanding of God’s will, but power and motivation to serve Him.  In receiving His love, we can, in turn, love others.

Our second passage taken from John’s letter, it reminds us that “God is love.”

Love is not just something God does, rather it is what He is, at the deepest level.

God is a Trinity of relationships and love is the very heart of the universe. 

There is nothing deeper than love. Love has eternally existed and the whole world was created out of God’s eternal love. God is the author of love and because He is love, all real love involves His very being.

So, when we have a share in this love, it is a sign that we are born of Him, belong to him in our very nature as His children.  As we love, we know Him who is love.  We are created for relationship, as He is relationship.  We are created to know ourselves in loving relationships with God and each other.

John says in v. 9 that God’s love is made manifest among us in the sending of His only Son into the world “so that we might live through him.” We learn or see this love that is God’s most clearly in the sending and coming of Jesus, His uniting Himself to our fallen nature to heal us from the inside out and give us a share in the very life He has with the Father.

Jesus is the “expiation for our sins” (v.10). By His life, death, and resurrection, He becomes the one who removes us from sin and heals and straightens out all that is broken in our lives. Now we live through Him, live in His life and receive His love.

So, in Jesus we see what true love is: love breaks down barriers, overcomes obstacles to come to the beloved. This love endures rejection and misunderstanding to bring about reconciliation, healing, peace, and life. In Christ, we see God’s great commitment to love us to perfection, to do all that is necessary to give us the fullness of love He already knows in His triune self. True love loves to perfection and perfects all that it loves. True love will not, in the end, settle for anything less than the perfection of the beloved. He accepts us where we are only to take us to where He is: the perfection of love.

So how do we love one another? Some days, if we are honest with ourselves, this can be hard to do even with those who are closest to us – husbands, wives, children, parents.   

Do we simply grit our teeth and try harder? Is it just a matter of bending our wills?

I don’t think so.

Notice John addresses his readers twice as “beloved.”

Who are we? We are the ones who are loved by God. In verse 10 John says, “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us …”

Love does not start with us. God has always been love.  He created us in love, and He sent His only son to redeem us and make us sharers in the great love of the universe that has always existed. Our love grows as we receive this love from Him, as we open our arms and hearts and let Him love us.

As we turn to God and receive again the good news of His passionate love, then we abide in His love and His love is perfected in us.   

God will enable us to grow in our ability to love as we act out of our faith in Him and in this process, He will perfect His love in us – we will indeed know a day where we live in love, moment by moment.

In the weeks ahead, we will return to our Vision and consider the other values. 

So today, can I encourage us all, to turn to God again,

to receive his love poured out for us in Jesus,

to welcome him into our hearts afresh and to ask Him for his help, 

– that we might love Him with all our hearts, minds, soul and strength and to love our neighbours as ourselves.

As we live in this way, with this value central to all we do….

It will help us to be a welcoming, growing, vibrant church for the community of Denmead. It will help us be a people who KNOW God, GROW deeper in Him and Show His love and truth to others.  Amen.

Values: 2. “Missional”

Vision and Values at All Saints

Missional (John 3: 16-21 and Matthew 5: 13-16)

We’ve just begun a new series thinking about our Vision and Values here at All Saints. 

Two weeks ago, we explored the whole idea of Vision… so just a quick reminder as we begin today….

First of all, Vision is about the future. It’s about having a clear picture, a picture in your mind’s eye of the way things could or should be in the days ahead. 

And Vision isn’t just a vague hope or wish or dream, rather Vision carries with it a sense of deep conviction that this must be accomplished. There is a convicting element that propels, enlivens, inspires and energizes so that the picture isn’t just a passive interest, but becomes action and accomplishment.

And so, Vision shapes, it influences, it motivates, it directs and gives purpose.

And we also recognised that throughout the Bible we are introduced to a God who is a God of Vision –  humanity began with his vision, spoken into being… a wonderful created world, with relationship, love and trust between God and humanity at the heart of it…. and then time and time again as we read through Scripture God’s vision was given to individuals:

  • God called Abraham the Father of many nations long before his wife ever had her first child.
  • God spoke to Moses and promised deliverance for his people – even though they looked trapped in oppression and slavery. 
  • God saw a fresh start and new beginnings for Ruth and Naomi when they thought all had ended.
  • God saw a King, a leader in a young shepherd boy named David!
  • God saw the mother of Jesus the Messiah in a young virgin girl.

Time and time again God had a picture – a vision… and it wasn’t fanciful, but step by step that Vision became a reality.   

It shaped individuals, communities and nations. 

God’s Vision has always been about freedom, healing, and relationship with a loving heavenly Father. 

So earlier this year the PCC met, and as we discussed and prayed together, we formed this Vision for All Saints. 

Our Vision is to be a welcoming, growing, vibrant church for the community of Denmead.

And to build on that, we came up with three things that we want to be as God’s people:

KNOW God – that after all is the very heart of the Christian faith….  a people who know God, not just a head knowledge about God, not just facts, rather an active relationship with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  A relationship of worship and trust, not just at church, but daily in every part of our lives.

Then we want to be a people who GROW in our faith and discipleship through prayer, study and trust in God.  So we don’t want to be a people who are stuck in the past, rather we want to be a people who day by day are following after Christ… to be a people who are looking to become more like Jesus in our thoughts, our actions, our relationships with others, and this will happen as we pray, as we study God’s word, as we trust daily in God.

And then very importantly we want to be a people who SHOW God’s love by serving our community…in actions and compassion, but crucially in sharing the good news of Jesus in the power of the Spirit.  We have the most amazing news ever – and it changes lives, brings transformation and healing….and so we want to talk about Jesus like it really matters.

And these three go together, and in a sense feed each other.  The more we KNOW God, the more we want to GROW, and as we GROW the more we want to SHOW and share that love with others.  And in turn the more we see lives changed and transformed, the more we want to KNOW God…and GROW and so we continue.

  • It is this Vision that we’re now aiming for, working towards… It motivates, directs and inspires our decisions, our actions, our thoughts, and our prayers. 
  • It’s a Vision with a desire to help every person, whether young or old, new to faith or been around for ever, an occasional visitor or regular attender, to help each and every person encounter God.
  • It is this Vision that forms who we are… our actions, our attitudes, our relationships.
  • This Vision shapes our culture…our ethos… it is who and what we are, both as individuals and as a community.

And so, from here the PCC identified eight values which we want to embrace and live out as God’s people in this place.

The first value we identified was Love – we want to be a loving community – that as God’s people we want to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and to love our neighbours as ourselves.

And following right behind this value, in fact almost inextricably linked to loving, was a deep desire to be a missional people. 

In all that we are, and all that we do, in every area of life, individually and collectively, we will reach out to others with the love of God.

To be a people whose heart’s desire is outward… not focussed on us… but longs to share God’s love with others.

Our thinking was influenced by two passages – both of which we heard earlier. 

Our passage from John’s gospel begins with perhaps one of the best-known passages of scripture.  Jesus says

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish – but have eternal life” 

No other verse in the Bible so succinctly summarizes God’s relationship with humanity and the way of salvation.

Some consider John 3:16 as the “theme verse” for the entire Bible. John 3:16 tells us of the love God has for us and the extent of that love—so great that He sacrificed His only Son on our behalf.

John 3:16 teaches us that anyone who believes in Jesus Christ, God’s Son, will be saved.

This verse gives us the glorious hope of eternal life through the love of God and death of Jesus Christ.

This love, God’s love… for each and every person is beyond compare… it is deep, it is real, it is amazing…. The very best,

And it is this love – the good news of Jesus that we are called to share with others. 

In fact, it is our calling….  Jesus made that calling clear in his sermon on the mount.

As Jesus spoke to all his would-be followers Jesus said you are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. 

Jesus was calling his early disciples, those who wanted to follow after him to be different, to be distinctive…to make a difference, to be salt, to be light in the darkness. 

And that calling remains true for us today…

We are called to be salt, to be light, to be distinctive, to be different…

to reach out to others with the love of God.

Our calling, to share God’s love impacts every of life, both as individuals and as a community of faith in this place. 


Now one of the ways we can do this collectively is to work in partnership with charities and mission organisations to share God’s love with those in need.

In recent years All Saints has supported many, many different missionary groups and charities… sending them money each year – about 7% of our income, and occasionally exchanging news. 

Now this was, and has been good, but it was rather hard to remember who we were working with… and to form any meaningful relationships/partnerships in which news and prayers requests were exchanged… as there were in a sense too many.

And so, the Mission team have made the decision to work in much closer partnership with 5 main groups, in the hope that with time, we will develop and form stronger and deeper partnerships – partnerships which aren’t just about us sending financial support (all though we will of course continue to do this) but partnerships in which news is exchanged, prayers are shared, friendships formed, projects and initiatives are supported, the voice of the marginalised championed and as a result God’s love is shared in very real practical ways.

So I’m just going to introduce us to each mission partner…

The Children’s Society

The Children’s Society are a national charity that works with the country’s most vulnerable children and young people. They seek to listen, support and act – because no child should feel alone.

Last year they worked with over 11,000 vulnerable children and young people, while their policy changes will improve the lives of more than half a million children.

Already at All Saints we hold a Christingle Service each Advent in support of the Children’s Society and many of our members collect loose change at home to donate at the Box Opening each year.  But we are looking to build this relationship to perhaps support other projects. 

Friends Without Borders

The mission group was aware that we are close to Portsmouth – an area that has many asylum seekers, refugees and immigrants.  And so, the mission group was keen to partner with a charity that works on their behalf. 

Friends Without Borders provides a drop-in project giving clients a safe place to meet and professionally access advice and advocacy.  They provide specially trained Access to Justice Volunteers who give free legal advice to those who need it.

Today we have Michael Wooley with us, the Chair of Friends Without Borders.

Church Mission Society

Now the Church Mission Society works all around the world enabling, facilitating, training Christians to make a difference and join in God’s mission both abroad and in local contexts. 

We’re just forming a link and beginning to support a young family, Doug and Jacqui Marshall who work in Malta supporting and caring for Asylum Seekers. 

We really hope that this link will grow and that perhaps next year they might be able to visit us, and that we can really develop a friendship with, and be supportive to Doug and Jacqui and their family.

Mission Aviation Fellowship. 

This is what MAF say:

In today’s ‘connected world’, the irony is that never have so many people been so isolated. Flying onto desert and jungle airstrips, lakes and rivers, tracks and roads, MAF’s light aircraft and their mission pilots go the extra miles to provide a lifeline. 

Working in partnership with hundreds of other Christian and relief organisations, MAF enables practical help, physical healing, and spiritual hope to be delivered to many of the most remote and inaccessible communities on the planet.   For 70 years, MAF has been flying for life.

We have supported MAF on and off over the years – we now want to work harder at forming a close partnership with them, supporting their projects, praying for their work and raising awareness.

IDWAL

IDWAL stands for the Inter Diocesan West Africa Link that Portsmouth diocese encourages.  It is a link All Saints have supported very closely over several years, and we didn’t want to lose this link. Our Deanery Havant is linked with Diocese of Koforidua, Ghana.

And as a church we are linked to St Paul’s, Tafo.  Over the years we have worked in close partnership with several visits taking place.  Last year we had a special week focussed on our partnership with St Paul’s. 

We want to do whatever we can to encourage and develop this link – and the sharing of new and prayer requests.


As we move into next year, we really want to encourage these links, we hope each month to focus on one of our mission links, to share news, to share prayer requests, to raise awareness. 

Each day at Morning Prayer – starting tomorrow we will pray for our mission links… A different link each day. 

And we’ve also updated our noticeboards at the back of church and our website with a whole section focussed on our mission links… we will use these spaces to post up news, share prayer requests.

So, let’s just take a moment to be still – to reflect on all that we’ve heard…and then I’ll lead us in prayer.

Father God

Thank you for sending Jesus to die for each of us, so that we could know eternal life.

Help us to be salt and light… to be distinctive, to make a difference to share your love and truth with others. 

Lead us together, as we seek to work in partnership with others to share your love locally and further afield. 

We pray in Jesus name, Amen.


As we live in this way, with this value central to all we do….

It will help us to be a welcoming, growing, vibrant church for the community of Denmead. It will help us be a people who KNOW God, GROW deeper in Him and SHOW His love and truth to others.  Amen.

Introduction to ‘Encounters with Jesus’

Encounters-with-JesusThrough the summer months, we have been looking at several different encounters Jesus had with men, women and children recorded in the Gospels.

As we looked at each story we have seen the amazing way in which Jesus changed lives – the way he healed people, welcomed people, loved people, spoke truth to people and encouraged them to follow him.

So do read some – or all – of these, and perhaps ask the question: “how can Jesus affect and change our lives?”

 

Mary Magdalene

Mary Magdalene meets Jesus

Luke 8:1-3, John 20:1-18

‘Brief Encounter’ is the name of a 1945 romantic drama by Noel Coward in which two people meet unexpectedly at a railway station and fall in love with unexpected consequences.

‘Strange Encounter’ is the name of a 1995 detective and science fiction story by Edgar Jacobs.

This morning concludes our Denmead summer series of ‘Encounters with Jesus’.

What does the word ‘encounter’ conjure up for you? Certainly a meeting – perhaps brief or extended, maybe sudden, unexpected, and likely significant, not just any old meeting.

Mary Magdalene’s first encounter with Jesus was likely dramatic and life-changing, at a low and needy point of her life. And it led to faithful and significant ministry by her. Strangely, now people seem to spend more time hazarding guesses about her previous character than drawing inferences from her subsequent discipleship. More anon. Then finally, she had a further, unique and privileged encounter with Jesus on his resurrection morning.

Her encounters with the One who came to give us life were transforming and unforgettable:

  • freedom from personal bondage – One from whom seven demons had been cast out, says Dr Luke
  • also as a member of a support group to Jesus and the twelve disciples
  • finally, as first to meet the risen Christ face to face

Our knowledge of her is confined in the gospels to Luke 8 and the Easter morning narratives, one of which we read today from John 20.

LUKE speaks of ‘Mary, called Magdalene’, naturally leading us to presume that she was from the Galilean town of Magdala; and to help distinguish her from other Marys in the New Testament, of whom there may be up five apart from Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Mary Magdalene is spoken of with others as providing for the material needs of Jesus and the twelve disciples, as they travelled proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And surely Mary must also have been a significant witness on these road-trips, to the power and love of Jesus, seeing the freedom and healing she had received from him. Quite a story to tell!

JOHN tells of her glorious Easter morning encounter when, before first light, she goes to Jesus’ tomb, discovers the stone door securing the tomb has been moved, runs to tell Peter and John, and after their discovery that the tomb is empty (and going home for breakfast!), she is left alone in grief and confronted with two angels and the risen Lord himself.

‘Mary’, says Jesus. ‘Teacher’, she replies in stunned amazement.
‘Don’t hold on to me’, He says.

Going back to the disciples as Jesus instructed her, she says, ‘I have seen the Lord’ – surely five of the most significant words ever uttered, announcing the resurrection of Christ which the others were at first so slow to believe. Though she didn’t fully know it she testified to the triumph of Jesus over sin and death; their dominance eternally destroyed.

Some of the encounters we have reviewed in previous weeks were brief like those of the rich man and the centurion. Others like Nicodemus’s and Mary’s were ongoing. Some were public, some private; some dramatic, some low-key. But all were significant and most transforming. An obvious exception seems to be the rich man who ‘went away sad’ because he was not ready to give Jesus pride of place in his life and his living.

Mary, however, strikes me as a devoted and practical disciple of Christ:

She gave of her time and money as she lived out faith and gratitude (resources)

She likely told her story of what Christ had done for her, freeing her from powers of darkness in her old life. Why wouldn’t she?

She remained faithful in her commitment and devotion to him, even in the face of danger and death as a close associate of Jesus at the end of his earthly life.

She showed conviction, commitment, faithfulness and risk.

At the present time, our church, we are learning, is in need of resources – people, you and me, to give of ourselves – our prayer, our time, our money.
Insofar as we have encountered Christ and want to live as his disciples we will respond from our resources. Like Mary Magdalene, we have opportunity to give of what God has given us – life, skills, time, prayers and material resources.

First among them is need for consistent prayer for church and society, alongside whatever else we may give:

Think back to our recent DABS week. It was sustained by work and by prayer. Prayer should precede everything else we do, so that we consciously invoke God’s Spirit on our service rather than mistakenly think that deeds of the flesh can accomplish the work of the Spirit.

And soon the Alpha course will begin here, organised in partnership with the Baptist church. Around eighteen people so far have asked to attend. As well as commending Alpha to you – it’s not too late to join and benefit from the meeting, the teaching and the discussion – there’s a need for many to be willing to pray for it; that it may be beneficial and effective in the work of God’s kingdom.

Like our Sunday Summer series, Alpha speaks of encountering Christ. We do so in many ways as God has his unique dealings with us. The stories of many others tell us that Alpha is one such valuable way.

Mary Magdalene modelled whole-hearted faithfulness and devotion to Christ. Taking faithful support and prayer as a practical lesson from her example, and being committed to pray for Alpha, would be a valuable way of responding to her story before you forget it and move on to the next thing!

The Rich Man

The Rich Man

Luke 18:18-30

May God grant us the grace we need to hear His word and the faith we need to respond. Amen.

This passage is a troubling one. It was troubling for the disciples, for the wealthy  ruler, and it is for us. It seems too radical, too abrupt, too … well, too immoderate to suit our tastes. But it’s easy to miss the truth when it is delivered in moderation. The truth, however, can be unmistakable when delivered unvarnished, undiluted. And that is the kind of powerful truth-telling Jesus is known for.

Luke places this event in the midst of a series of incidents and parables designed to indicate the character of discipleship

“A certain ruler asked him, ‘Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ ”

The word translated “ruler” is from a Greek word generally meaning, one who has administrative authority, ‘leader, official.’ ” It is used of various Jewish leaders, including those in charge of a synagogue and members of the Sanhedrin.

Luke tells us “he was very rich.” pertaining to having an abundance of earthly possessions that exceeds normal experience. And so we have an earnest man, probably because of his wealth and earnestness about spiritual matters, a person entrusted with governance in the synagogue, a ruler, a respected person in the community.

Most of the wealthy, religious people who asked Jesus public questions were trying to trick him into some imprudent statement. But this man’s question was no trick. It was a sincere question to which he needed to know the answer — how to inherit eternal life.

The question tells us several things about the man

He must be feeling inadequate in his spiritual preparation somehow or he probably wouldn’t ask the question.

He sides with the Pharisees rather than the Sadducees (another religious party in First Century Judaism) because the Sadducees didn’t believe in life after death. And this question clearly implies that he does. He believes that eternal life is something that one earns or merits by what he does.

He addresses Jesus as “good teacher,” a somewhat improper way to address a Rabbi, and Jesus rebukes him concerning his careless address:

‘Why do you call me good?’ Jesus answered. ‘No one is good — except God alone.’

The man can’t understand anything else Jesus will tell him unless he grasps that our relative standards of goodness are so much different than God’s absolute goodness and God’s standards of righteousness.

After pointing out his inadequate understanding of “goodness,” Jesus proceeds to inquire more of this man’s — and his culture’s — measure of righteousness.

The man’s response is immediate. He has kept all the commandments, but still senses a lack, an incompleteness, or else he wouldn’t have come to Jesus in the first place. Now Jesus speaks to the young man’s point of need:

Jesus said to him, ‘You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’

It is an ironic exchange that Jesus proposes — exchanging fabulous wealth here on earth for fabulous wealth in the Kingdom of God. Many in history have tried to buy their way into God’s good graces — many of the world’s beautiful cathedrals, temples, and mosques are inscribed with the names of generous benefactors. But Jesus is not proposing buying anything or doing anything glorious. He isn’t proposing a massive contribution to the Jesus Christ Evangelistic Association that will spread the Gospel in perpetuity.

Jesus proposes the man selling all his property and giving the proceeds to those who are least able to reciprocate

Money, however, isn’t the only thing that Jesus asks the man to give up:

  • Possessions, what money will buy,
  • Status and influence that wealth affords.
  • Power. Wealth is power. It buys influence.
  • Community leadership. The man isn’t very likely to continue as a respected ruler without his wealth.
  • Family. The man probably comes from a wealthy family. But if he disposes of a huge chunk of the family wealth, will his siblings understand and accept it? Will his wife and family? His father or mother if they are still living?

But Jesus’ words don’t just upset the rich ruler. They also upset us. I have heard many times the response to this passage: “That doesn’t mean everyone should sell what they have, does it? If everyone did that it would result in chaos.”

Obviously. But why are we even worried with the question? Do we, too, feel possessive of what we have? Do we fear that Jesus may require us to do something that would cost us too much? What are we afraid of?

The story of the rich ruler exposes a raw nerve in us that causes a reaction. But disposing of wealth was not all that Jesus asked the man to do.

However, I don’t think that the following Jesus invites this man to do is just figurative.  I think he is inviting the man to join him on his journeys, to become one of the disciples who enjoy the immense and unspeakable privilege of spending time with Jesus and learning from him on a day-by-day basis. What a wonderful invitation!

But the invitation implicit to us is no less wonderful. We, too, are invited to come to Jesus, and then to follow him on a spiritual life journey. To enjoy his company, his presence. To be taught along the way by his Word and Spirit. To become part of his great extended family, the Body of Christ throughout the world. And to be filled with hope in the closing days of our journey as we know his promises and feel his comfort with us.

“Come, follow me,” is the invitation Jesus extends to you and me.

But the challenge for disciples remains.  Is there anything, any hindrance, that you are unwilling to give up to follow Jesus? You may not be wealthy, but if there is something you possess, or that possesses you, laying it down is a vital part of following Jesus. He must have your all. And he calls gently to you: “Come, follow me.”

Prayer

Dear Father, Jesus’ words have a way of piercing our hearts and defences we have built up against you and doing things your way. Make us tender-hearted. Gently expose the reservations of our hearts, as you did for that wealthy man those many centuries ago. But give us grace to be able to obey you. Forgive us, Lord, for clinging to the remnants of a life independent of you, and make us wholly yours. In Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.

The Woman ‘caught in adultery’

The Woman Caught in Adultery (John 8:1-11)

Through the written word and the spoken word, may we encounter and know your Living Word, Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen.

Who is the shadow in the middle? American artist Daniel Bonnell painted an image of today’s scripture reading; here is a link (https://www.artpal.com/daniel_bonnell?i=8106-37). It shows Jesus comforting the woman caught in adultery, with the menacing shadows of her accusers in the foreground. English priest, human rights campaigner and songwriter Garth Hewitt wrote a song, describing this painting, called ‘The Shadow in the Middle’; it asks us to reflect on how slow we are to listen to other people’s stories and how quick we are to judge.

But first, it is impossible to overstate the serious nature of sexual misdemeanours, within the Jewish community of first century Palestine; they were ranked amongst the gravest of sins, alongside murder and apostasy, and there were severe penalties prescribed for anyone caught offending. That community was based on a shame-pride culture, so fathers and husbands would be anxious to make sure that their daughters and wives did not transgress in the slightest way and thus bring shame and dishonour upon the family. The system was also heavily stacked in favour of men; Judaism almost always viewed women as the instigators of sexual sin; the passions of adolescent males were attributed to and excused by the seductive attractions of women.

This is the background to this morning’s reading, in which Jesus teaches in the temple, surrounded by an interested crowd, when a party of scribes and Pharisees brings before them a woman they claim to have caught in the very act of adultery. They remind Jesus that the penalty under Mosaic law is death by stoning and ask Jesus to give his views on the matter; this was no hypothetical legal conundrum for Jesus, a woman’s life was at stake.

Clearly these men are not anxious to see justice done and the law upheld so much as to trap Jesus. If Jesus shows the compassion and mercy for which he has become known and forgives the woman, he will be denying God’s law and setting himself above that law and level with God. On the other hand, if Jesus confirms the sentence of death on the woman, he will be destroying his credibility as friend and champion of outcasts and sinners and risking confrontation with the Romans, who didn’t permit the Jews to sanction the death penalty themselves. Game, set and match to the Pharisees, it appears.

But wait! What is Jesus up to? He seems to be writing in the dust. We know neither why he did this nor what he wrote but it does give Jesus time to reflect and to consider his response, whilst leaving an awkward silence in which tension builds and which the Pharisees eventually feel compelled to break by repeating their question, determined to drive home their assumed advantage over Jesus.

Then we hear one of Jesus most well-known sayings, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Jesus cleverly saves the woman’s life whilst also apparently upholding the law and its deadly sentence. For the witnesses to the sin are required by law to begin the stoning, but they are also required to be honest witnesses, who neither connived in the sinning nor failed to try to prevent it. The scribes and Pharisees know that they are not sinless, in this and in other matters. They look to the oldest in their group, as was the custom, and when they turn away and leave, their hypocrisy revealed, the rest of them do likewise, followed by the crowd; Jesus writes in the dust again, neither watching nor delighting in their public humiliation.

For the first time, Jesus then addresses the woman, “Woman, where are they? Has no-one condemned you?” She says, “No-one, sir.” Jesus releases her with the words, “Neither do I condemn you.” These are words which troubled many first century Jews, and possibly are the reason why this story is absent from most original manuscripts of John’s gospel, for they may have been taken to condone her adultery when the prevailing culture was to demand punishment, penance and restitution. However, Jesus concludes the encounter with the words, “Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” Forgiveness does not mean that the sin, its consequences and the effects on its victims, do not matter; on the contrary, it means that they really do matter but that, by the grace of God, they have been set aside.

Let us look more closely at the woman. She may not be married but rather betrothed to a man; arranged marriages were common and girls would often be engaged to men they didn’t really know and be expected to keep themselves for their intended husbands. She has been caught in adultery and she knows that she will be punished, whilst the man with whom she committed the act has been allowed to escape. She has been arrested by men proud to be zealous enforcers of the law which, in this case, requires an execution by stoning, a humiliating, brutal and painful death, she is given no opportunity to tell her own story and is made to stand alone and exposed in the middle of a crowd of onlookers to await her fate, so she fears the worst and must be terrified; Jesus is a scholar of the law and will surely uphold sentence of death? What might have been our decision in his place, I wonder?

The tension and her fear rise as Jesus writes in the dust. When Jesus speaks, he talks of people casting stones at her. But something in the words of Jesus causes the scribes and Pharisees to turn and to leave and the crowd follows. She is left alone with Jesus and he sets her free. She must be overwhelmed with emotion, having moved quickly from the joyful embrace of her lover to the confusion of arrest and the fear of imminent death, then to the unexpected realization of freedom, filled with relief and with gratitude. She has been restored to the life she thought was lost and has been given another chance. And Jesus’ release is not conditional; he simply shows that he believes in her ability to respond to his gracious compassion and mercy by reforming herself and living a righteous life and empowers that with his love. She must have been walking on cloud nine as she went on her way and we can only hope that she did grasp this second chance.

And what of the scribes and Pharisees? I have, so far, painted a picture of wicked men, who perverted God’s law so as to make themselves look righteous rather than use it to glorify God; men so intent on plotting to silence a troublemaker, who threatened their comfortable lives, that they were prepared to abuse and to sacrifice a vulnerable woman to achieve their ends. But how might we have acted in their place? These men saw Jesus as a threat, certainly to their own agreeable situation, but also to the whole culture of that religious community. In their eyes Jesus was spreading sedition and heresy, overturning centuries of tradition and understanding and it was their duty to defend tradition and to uphold the law. Some of them at least may simply have been trying to serve God as best they could, even if they couldn’t see that their thinking was seriously flawed and their priorities terribly wrong.

In this encounter, Jesus again condemns the sins but not the sinners; he did not accuse the scribes and Pharisees of anything, but simply asked them to reflect on their own motives and actions and to pass judgement on themselves, rather than on the defenceless woman they had brought before him. For most, sadly, the experience probably only hardened their hearts and made them even more determined to find another, fool-proof, way to destroy Jesus, but there may have been someone among their number who did reflect, consider Jesus’ words more carefully and find their life changed for good.

And for ourselves, what might be our response to our own encounter with Jesus, through the words of this story? I should like to highlight just three areas – priorities, judgement and forgiveness:

  1. Let us make time to reflect and to question our priorities. To guard against becoming caught up in tradition, custom and practice to the point where we lose sight of what really matters: when we put our faith in rituals rather than in God; when we don’t value but use other people, particularly the vulnerable, to gain our own objectives and justify this by claiming that we are doing God’s will.
  1. Let us resist the universal human temptation to justify or to make light of our own sins by claiming that others also sin and that their sins may be worse than ours: when we misquote Jesus to excuse the unrepentant guilty rather than to forgive the humbly penitent; when we self-righteously demand standards of behaviour from others without listening impartially to their stories and without honestly judging ourselves likewise; when we’re tempted to look for vengeance rather than for justice.

Consider the words of Garth Hewitt:

We always know the guilty ones, we’re so quick to criticize. But who is quick to listen, and to ask the question ‘why?’ Looking through another’s eyes, I remember what you’d say. As I see you writing in the dust, and you turn your face away. Who is the shadow in the middle? Who will be the first to point the blame? You turn and look at the shadow in the middle; I see the shadow in the middle bears my name.   (‘The Shadow in the Middle’ from the Album ‘The Road Home’ © 2003 Garth Hewitt / Amos Music  http://www.garthhewitt.org/product/the-road-home/ )

And finally:

  1. Let us take hope from the fact that Jesus condemns sin but not the sinner and that, until the day of final judgement, there is always the promise of redemption; a promise for which he laid down his life. ‘God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.’ Jesus knows what is in our hearts, and if we look to him and listen to him we shall know the absolute joy of his unmerited forgiveness for our sins, which will surely change our lives; if not yet, then I pray that the Holy Spirit will continue to work in us until it does.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.   Amen.