Being God’s Beloved: Day 32: The Cross and Community

Jesus is put through a trial and sentenced to death, paraded through the streets of Jerusalem, carrying his cross, battered and torn, mocked and ridiculed. He is nailed to a cross and left to die – a horrible, protracted and excruciating death. What an end to a man of peace, love and forgiveness. What an end to the Son of God, God incarnate. It is unthinkable, unimaginable, unspeakable.

Hanging there, Jesus looks at those who gathered to watch. He is not so wrapped up in his pain and anguish as to be disconnected from the world around him. John 19:25-27 tells us that Jesus looked down and saw his mother. And he saw the disciple whom he loved, John. We reflected on Day 28 on what it means when Jesus ‘sees’ people. When Jesus sees you, he really sees into you, he sees the authentic and whole you. On the cross, Jesus looks and he sees his mother and he sees John. Even at such an extreme point of his suffering and humiliation, Jesus continues to see people. He is persistently turned outwards, expressing love for those around him. Jesus transcends his own suffering and connects with the suffering of someone else.

And seeing into his mother, Mary, he sees her not just as his ‘Mum’, but as a human being, as a beloved person, as someone’s mother, as someone who will become for many the supreme example of motherhood. And so he calls her “woman”. This is not a cold or impersonal address. It is not like saying, “Hey, you”. It is Jesus speaking to the human being who is called Mary. He speaks not so much as her personal son, but as her personal Creator. And as Creator, he recognises her anguish as she witnesses the life drain out of her son. And it is to that grief that he responds with love.

It reminds me of Psalm 139 and Jeremiah 1:5, where we learn that God knew us before we were born, before we were even conceived:

O Lord, you have searched me and you know me.

For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place.
When I was woven together in the depths of the earth,
your eyes saw my unformed body.
All the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.
(Psalm 139: 1, 13, 15-16)

Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
before you were born I set you apart;
I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.
(Jeremiah 1:5)

God has a picture of us in God’s heart, God’s mind; a picture of our authentic self, much loved. We are all individuals to God, occupying a unique and sacred space in God’s heart; each one beloved.

As Jesus hangs dying on the cross, he sees this woman, who is his mother, and his heart is moved with compassion. He was there when she was knit together in her mother’s womb, preparing her for the great task of bearing the Christ in her own womb. He knew her intimately and fully as a child of God, and he loved her.

God is always present to bind up the broken hearted and to carry those who are weak. The events of Good Friday through Easter Sunday are the darkest and most horrific experiences in the life of the triune God. And yet even here, God the Son, operating in harmony with God the Father and God the Spirit, invests in the expression of love. This is because love is at the heart of God. The very fabric of God’s being is comprised of love. God can do nothing but love – love is an expression of being of God.

Let us be in no doubt that God looks at us. And when God looks at us, God sees us. And when God sees us, God still loves us. If this is true at Jesus’ lowest point, at the bottom of the kenotic U that we looked at on Day 20, how much more is it today, when Jesus is dwelling in perfection within the bosom of the Godhead? God looks, sees and loves. God cherishes and celebrates the individual that you are, a unique and beloved creature, a blessed creation emanating from the hand of God. God sees you and God loves you.

But there is more.

As Jesus looks down from the cross, as his life ebbs away, he sees also a broken community.[1] His disciples have scattered. Judas has betrayed him for a handful of coins. Peter has denied him. His movement for peace and love, for spiritual regeneration, has been shattered. His community is a fallen community. Sin, once again, impedes God’s wonderful vision for a flourishing human community.

We saw on Day 4 of our reflections that God created a community of people, people-in-relationship, rather than merely two individuals. God was interested in community, because God is a community: three-in-one. God did not wish to create merely individual persons. God’s desire was to create people in relationship with one another, with creation and with God, so that we could experience the same joy of fellowship that God had enjoyed for eternity.

On that Friday, community was once again fractured.

Community was first shattered in the Fall of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3. Both Adam and Eve were evicted from the Garden of Eden – a shattering of fellowship with God. The relationship between Adam and Eve became one of dominance and subordination – a shattering of fellowship with each other. Eve suffered in childbirth – a shattering of fellowship with one’s body. Adam had to toil to produce fruit from the ground – a shattering of fellowship with nature. The result of the Fall is, primarily, a shattering of community.

We see these results to this day in the spiritual apathy of much of the world, showing so little interest in God; in domestic violence, rape and child abuse; in psychological problems like anxiety, depression and schizophrenia; in illnesses like cancer, tuberculosis and HIV; in the prolonged wars in Africa, the Middle East and Ireland; and in the negative impact of human civilisation on climate. Sin manifests in broken community.

But Jesus, in his dying moments, works to re-create community, to turn back the effects of sin, to undo evil and death. He creates a new family.

Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Dear woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home. (John 19:25-27)

John is Jesus’ best friend. Mary is Jesus’ mother. These are the building blocks of community – friendship and family, kith and kin. And Jesus unites these two by giving his mother another son and by giving his friend a new mother. He could just as well have said, “Dear woman, dear man, you are family.”

“At the darkest moment, we see this community coming into being at the foot of the cross.”[2]

Can we think of this as part of the Great Commission? Can we consider this to be part of Jesus’ last will and testament? To re-establish communities. Can we, in our neighbourhoods and our churches and our workplaces, participate with Christ in crossing the social barriers that divide? Can Christians reach out to Muslims? Can straight Christians reach out to gay people? Can male Christians reach out to women? Can wealthy Christians reach out to those who are poor? Can white Christians reach out to black Christians and vice versa? Can Christians step across the boundaries to encounter those who are different from ourselves?

Imagine if Jesus came in the flesh to your community, and saw you and someone who is unlike you, someone you’d rather have little to do with, and said to you both, “Here is your mother. Here is your son.” Surely, if Jesus said that to you, you would, like John, take that person into your home. You would take them in as family. You would form a family. You would discover in your heart the capacity for boundary-crossing love, for free and generous love. If Jesus came in the flesh and said this, you would do it, wouldn’t you? How could you do anything else?

The truth is, Jesus has come in the flesh, and he has actually said this. He has called us to cross boundaries and to establish Christian families, where there is “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for [we] are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). This is a community that mirrors the community we see in the triune God, a community of love.

Meditation for the Day

Consider the extent of God’s love for you, even in his darkest hour. Consider that he has the same love for those whom you find unlovely. What does it mean for you that Jesus worked on the cross to re-establish community?

Prayer for the Day

My God, the reconciler, fill me today with such an excess of your love, that I cannot but love those around me. Give me courage to step across boundaries.

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[1] Radcliffe, T. (2004). Seven last words. London: Burns & Oates, pp. 33-36.

[2] Radcliffe, p. 33.

Being God’s Beloved: Day 31: The Cup of Suffering

Today we start a week of reflection on the cross. The cross is, for most Christians, the centre of their faith – the key representation and demonstration of God’s love. If we want to know what God’s love looks like, they say, look at the cross, for it is here that we see the extent to which God is willing to sacrifice on our behalf. However, the cross is also a picture of pain and suffering. It raises profound and difficult questions for all of us as to why it was necessary for Jesus to endure such agony on our behalf. Why does the Father allow the Son to suffer so? These questions are particularly poignant for those who have suffered in abusive relationships.

And so, as we start this week’s journey, I invite you to be sensitive and generous towards the range of views that there are on the meaning of the cross and the different spiritual responses that it evokes in people of genuine faith. You may not agree with everything you read this week – that’s okay. Just consider what you read, mull it over, and use it to strengthen your own understanding.

After the Last Supper, Jesus goes into the garden of Gethsemane to pray. Matthew 26:36-46 narrates this event in great detail and with much pathos. He uses a great deal of emotive language to describe Jesus’ experience, more than any other section of the Gospels: Jesus was sorrowful and troubled, overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.

Matthew does this to highlight for us as readers that this experience was among the most challenging for Jesus. It serves to guide us into a deep appreciation for the tremendous psychological and spiritual conflict that the cross evoked in Jesus. This was no walk in the park! We should think about Gethsemane as the central crisis in Jesus’ ministry. Although the cross itself was profoundly traumatic, it is in Gethsemane that Jesus must confront the horror that lies before him and choose whether or not to follow that path. Choice is often the hardest part of a difficult course – once chosen, the taking of the course is acceptable.

Sometimes when we think about the cross, we split the human and divine natures that coexist in the person of Jesus Christ. We may say, for example, that it was Jesus’ human nature that suffered or doubted, while his divine nature was protected from suffering and not vulnerable to doubt. But this creates an artificial split in the whole person of Jesus Christ that is at odds with our belief that the two natures are fully present and indivisibly connected in the one person. Think of the crisis as involving Jesus’ whole person and then one gets some sense of the awful bridge that he faced and had to cross.

In this passage, Jesus speaks about a “cup”, which we should understand as a metaphor for the suffering that he must endure. It is the Cup of Suffering. Three times he prays about it. First, in verse 39, he asks God to take it away from him. The second time, in verse 42, he asks that if it is not possible for it to be taken away, that God’s will might be done through it. What we are seeing in these two brief verses is a summary of an extended and heart-wrenching grappling with God. Jesus here is fighting with God much like Jacob did with the angel at  Peniel (Genesis 32:22-32). Initially Jesus wants to be utterly rid of the cup. Yet he recognizes that God’s will for the redemption of humanity is somehow tied up in the dreadful cup. And so he continues to grapple. Later, he reaches a point of recognizing that the cup is inevitable and necessary and prays that his drinking of it will be worthwhile and effective. Yet, still he prays the same thing for a third time. This is no easy prayer, and acceptance of the path of suffering is hard in coming.

What does Jesus see as he looks into the cup?

He sees the dregs of humanity. Everything about us that is wrong is in that cup – the cup of suffering. It is full of our hatred, our unbelief, our selfishness, our pride, our arrogance, our apathy, our anger, our petty mindedness, our stigma of and discrimination against those who are different from us, our quickness to judge and belittle, our fear, our lust and greed, our tendency to turn away from God rather than towards God. The Cup of Suffering is a Cup of Sin.

Jesus looks into this Cup of Suffering. He does not want to drink it. It fills him with horror! It fills him with terror, shock, despair. This Cup of Suffering is the most awful thing he has ever encountered. He wants to get as far from this Cup as he possibly can.

Let us remember that Jesus was without sin. He had never sinned. Of course, he had lived his whole life in the midst of sin – his parents, his brothers and sisters, his friends, his disciples and those he ministered to were all sinful human beings, just like me and you. Jesus was not unaware of or protected from sin. But he had never experienced sin in his own body, in his self. Drinking this Cup of Suffering entailed a personal encounter with sin. For the first time he would know sin – really know sin. He would take that sin, our sins, into himself, onto himself, and experience it first hand. It terrifies and horrifies him.

“My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. … My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.”

Eventually, Jesus, realising and sharing the Father’s will, looks into the Cup of Suffering. He stares into the depths of human depravity, brokenness and sin. It is ugly.

But as he gazes, he begins to recognise that the Cup of Suffering is not just a cup of sin in the abstract. Rather, it is a cup of the sins of people: people with lives, with histories, with relationships, with hopes and fears, with conflicting and contradictory feelings, thoughts and behaviors. People with names. People he loves. Jesus starts to recognize names: Adrian, Trina, Erin, Anne, Michael, Theo, Nancy, John, Marianne, Cathy, Keith… He recognizes me. He recognizes you!

This Cup of Suffering is not merely a cup of horror. It is also a cup of people! It is not just a cup of sin. It is also a cup of love! These are God’s beloved. These are Jesus’ beloved. These are the ones he came to earth for in the first place.

These are the beloved. That changes everything!

It does not make the cup any easier to drink. It does not take away the horror. But it provides meaning and purpose. And meaning and purpose provide motivation. And motivation generates resolve. “May your will be done.”

Jesus decides to drink the Cup of Suffering.

The cross is a drinking of the Cup of Suffering. On the cross, Christ drinks the dregs of humanity. He drinks the dregs of me. He drinks the dregs of you. He drinks because he loves. He loves me. He loves you. And so he drinks. Were there another way, he’d have seized it with both hands. This was a deep and bitter cup. But realizing there was no other way and embracing his love for you and me, he drinks, to the bottom.

“Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”

And then a remarkable thing happens! A miracle!

The Cup of Suffering is transformed into the Cup of Salvation.

It seems impossible, but it happens. By God’s grace and mercy, by the triune God’s extravagant and unmerited love, a love that is willing to risk everything, the Cup of Suffering becomes the Cup of Salvation.

This shocking event that we call ‘the cross’, which was intended to destroy – to annihilate – the Son of God, becomes the preeminent means of grace. The horror of the cross is transformed into the path of redemption. This place of hatred becomes, by God’s generosity, a place of supreme love.

It is the triune God who works this miracle for us. The cross itself is inherently an object of suffering and death. There is nothing glorious about it. It is not to be admired. It is a symbol of shame, of the worst that humanity can dish up. But God redeems this symbol, showing God’s capacity to redeem even the very worst of humanity, to transform what is most ugly into what is most beautiful. The Cup of Salvation!

The cross can and should evoke in us conflicted responses. On the one hand, we should shudder with disgust and shame, we should flinch away from the terrible thing that we did to God’s one and only, God’s delight, God’s Son. But on the other hand, we should be amazed at the profound expression of love, demonstrated by Jesus, in drinking the Cup of Suffering. And we should be in awe of God’s ability to transform evil into good, shame into glory, death into life.

This Gethsemane partnership between Jesus and his parent, God, establishes a model or a path that we experience as we journey in faith with God. God, our parent, takes everything that is broken about us, and transforms it into something beautiful and whole. Those many aspects of our own lives that are wrong, turned away from God, even evil, are able to be changed into something good, something that honours God, something divine. If God was able to transform the Cup of Suffering into a Cup of Salvation, surely God can transform one individual, transform you!

Meditation for the Day

Reflect on the Cup of Suffering that confronted Christ Jesus. What sins of yours were in that cup? Take ownership of your own contribution to Jesus’ ordeal. How could Jesus’ transformation of the cup be evidenced in His transformation of you?

Prayer for the Day

Precious Saviour, I am sorry for my sin that you chose to drink on the cross. Please forgive me. Thank you for your amazing demonstration of love in both drinking and transforming the Cup of Suffering. Please transform me.

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Being God’s Beloved: Day 30: Jesus Loved Him

Being God’s Beloved: Reflections on God’s Love.

A young man runs up to Jesus, falls on his knees and asks, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17). What a good, wonderful and open-hearted question! Even his behaviour – running and falling – points to a youthful and sincere eagerness. This was a genuine question, unlike the manipulative question we read about yesterday in John 8.

He was a good boy – he had kept the Ten Commandments since his youth (Mark 10:19). We need not detect any pride or haughtiness in his response. He really was a good person – sincere of faith and upright in his behaviour.

And then we read these beautiful words, “Jesus looked at him and loved him” (Mark 10:21a).

Jesus looked at him and loved him.

Jesus then tells him that there is something he lacks. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (Mark 10:21b). We know that the man had much wealth, so he was not lacking in money. From Jesus’ instruction, we can perhaps conclude that he lacked treasure in heaven.

This was a hard teaching for the young man. His face fell, and “he went away sad, because he had great wealth” (Mark 10:22).

Jesus then teaches those who remained behind about the dangers of wealth, which can make a relationship with God (i.e. entering the kingdom of God) very difficult – more difficult than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.

Our reflection, however, is not on wealth or on what we must do to inherit eternal life. Rather, it is on that brief phrase, “Jesus loved him”. A couple of days ago we reflected on the phrase “Jesus looked at him” – we saw how often in the Gospels we are told that Jesus looked at people, really saw people, really connected with people. Here again, Jesus looks at – looks into – the young man and sees his heart. And in response to that looking, Jesus loves him.

Although this story is told in all three Gospels (Matthew 19:16-30 and Luke 18:18-30), Mark is the only one to have this short sentence. Scholars believe that Mark’s Gospel came first, and Matthew and Luke drew on Mark’s account in writing their Gospels. So, it is likely that Jesus’ looking and loving is authentic, and that Matthew and Luke decided to omit it from their account. How blessed we are that Mark included it!

What is it that Jesus sees? He sees both true faith and the failure of faith. He sees a complex person who has elements of faith and elements of faithlessness. And it is that mixture that Jesus loves. Jesus loves him while knowing that he lacks something. Jesus’ love is not contingent on the perfection of his faith, and Jesus’ love is not blind to the imperfections of his faith. Jesus loves the whole man – with his faith and his faithlessness.

Many of us who are doing this reflection today are like the rich young man. We are earnest in our faith – that is evidenced, if nothing else, by the fact that we are reading this. We believe in Jesus, we seek to follow him, we desire intimacy of fellowship with him, we yearn to be like him. Jesus sees and appreciates that about us. Jesus loves us.

But at the same time, there are things that hold us back in our faith. For this man it was his money. For you it may also be money. Or status. Or education. Or some secret (or not so secret) sin. Or an aspect of doctrine. Or doubt. Or fear. Or resentment or anger. Or lack of self-esteem. Or being too busy. There is, in the midst of faith, something that works against faith. Something holds us back from immersing ourselves fully into our faith in Christ.

Jesus looks at you and loves you.

Of course, Jesus desires complete faith and total surrender. He knows that this would make us truly happy and fulfilled. He is, like God, jealous – he wants us for himself.

But, still, he sees us and he loves us.

The way of faith is not easy. It is a journey, and like most journeys, there are easier sections and harder sections, valleys to freewheel into and hills to crawl up, straight smooth sections to glide along and rough, curvy, gravely sections to cautiously navigate. Faith is not a straight line. It is much more a squiggle, or even a scrawl!

I sometimes wish I could look back on my own faith journey and describe it as a smooth and consistent development over the 30 years since I was saved. But, in fact, it has not been. There have been times, sometimes extended periods of years, when my faith has been largely dead. I have continued to attend and minister in church – I’ve never been able to completely abandon the faith. But it has been more of a social gathering than a spiritual communion for me. I enjoyed the friendships, the activities and the emphasis on values and integrity, more than my relationship with God. My faith lacked.

And then, by God’s grace, it rains. Sooner or later, and sometimes it was years later, the Spirit of God would break through my barrenness and I would rediscover the presence of God and the authenticity of faith and the peace of God. I would be reminded, once again, that God has never stopped loving me or journeying beside me. God has been consistently there – I have just been blind to it. God has consistently loved me – I just could not recognise it. God has been consistently speaking to me – I just could not hear God’s voice.

When our faith is weak, when we cannot follow God along the path we are called to, Jesus looks at us and loves us.

It takes a generosity of love to wait patiently for someone to realise that they are truly loved. Unrequited love can easily wane or become resentful. But Jesus’ love for us is infinite and patient. As eager as he is for us to respond to him, as much as he desires our wholehearted commitment, he is willing to wait patiently as we grapple with ourselves, as we journey slowly towards him. Even as we walk away, downcast, as this young man did, he continues to love us, to wait patiently.

It reminds us of the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15:11-32. The younger son was not ready to embrace his father’s love – he wanted to go his own way, do his own thing. He was not a bad son – he was just not ready to be a full son to his father. And so he takes his inheritance and sows his wild oats and spends all he has and winds up destitute. He reaches rock bottom living with pigs – an unclean animal for Jewish people.

But his father had never stopped loving him. Jesus does not say it explicitly, but the father remains always on the lookout for his son. He looks for his son, waits hopefully and patiently for his son’s return, prays and trusts for his son’s well-being. Why? Because he loves his son. Despite all the boy’s waywardness, he is still his son, still his beloved. Love is patient, love is persistent, love is long-suffering.

One day, the son turns and returns. “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him” (Luke 15:20). That he was still a long way off when the father saw him tells us that the father had been looking out for him. Every day, the father was watching and waiting – looking.

And his first response when he spots his son is to be “filled with compassion”. Love. Love is the immediate response. Not anger, resentment, frustration, cold-shouldering. But love! He runs, he throws his arms around him, he kisses him, he robes him, he gifts him, he invites his friends, he throws a party for him, he celebrates his return, he defends him. He loves him.

This is how Jesus was with the rich young man. This is how God was with Israel throughout the Old Testament. This is how God is with us.

When our faith wanes, even when our faith dies, we can hold on to the truth, revealed in Jesus’ actions and teaching, that God never, never, never gives up on us. God continues to watch, to wait, to hope, to love. And when we are awakened from our spiritual sleep by the call of the Spirit, we can hold onto the certainty that God will always welcome us back with open arms and a warm heart. It is never too late to come home.

Meditation for the Day

Where are you in your faith? What do you lack? How far have you journeyed away from God? How ready are you to journey closer to God?

Prayer for the Day

Oh God, my Parent, thank that you wait patiently for me to turn towards you. Thank you that see me and love me, with all my inadequacies. Please send your Spirit onto me to stir my faith in response to your call.

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Being God’s Beloved: Day 29: Jesus and Judgement

Being God’s Beloved: Reflections on God’s Love.

On Day 17, when we reflected on God’s Love and God’s Standards, we saw how Jesus, in fulfilling the Law, actually raised the standards by requiring not merely outward compliance with Law, but a whole-hearted, authentic expression of Love. This culminated in his command for us to be perfect as God is perfect (Matthew 5:48). Given these tremendously high standards, where there is no place to hide, we might expect Jesus to be perpetually disappointed in us and quick to judge. After all, with such high standards, we all wind up failing much of the time. Yet, Jesus’ ministry frequently combines judgement and forgiveness, high standards and generous love.

The narrative that perhaps most strongly juxtaposes judgement and forgiveness is the story in John 7:53-8:11 of the woman caught in adultery. This narrative was incorporated rather late into our Bibles, and most Bible scholars are in agreement that it was not written by John.[1] However, most scholars are also convinced that it is an authentic account of Jesus’ ministry and therefore it has been accepted in our Bible. We can, I believe, have full confidence in the veracity of this story as reflecting Jesus’ ministry and voice.

Here Jesus presents himself as the forgiveness of sins – “Neither do I condemn you” (John 8:11a). But he also requires and empowers the woman to change – “Go now and leave your life of sin” (John 8:11b).

This woman is brought by the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees to trap Jesus. They present him with a seemingly impossible challenge – if he says they should not stone her, he violates the Law; if he agrees that she must be stoned, he violates his principle of Love. It was a clever ploy.

In doing this, however, they perpetrate a terrible crime against this woman. They dehumanise her. They disregard the fact that she is created in the Image of God. “They made her stand before the group” (John 8:3) suggests that she was standing in the middle of a circle of men – Jesus, perhaps some of Jesus’ disciples and the teachers and Pharisees, with probably a gathering circle of onlookers around them. This in itself is profoundly humiliating – she has no place to hide, no support, no dignity. And we may rightly ask, as many have, where was the adulterous man? It takes two to commit adultery. Why just the woman? This story has therefore been seen as a key example of patriarchy and misogyny in the Bible – of the subjugation of women by men.

Let us be clear, that the Old Testament takes a strong stand against adultery, something contemporary society has all but abandoned. Deuteronomy 22:22 says, “If a man is found sleeping with another man’s wife, both the man who slept with her and the woman must die. You must purge the evil from Israel” (see also Leviticus 20:10). But note that the judgement is against both the man and the woman. So the teachers and Pharisees’ statement, “In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women” (John 8:5), is a half-quote, which further points to their exploitation of her – their objectification of her – to achieve their own purposes.

Jesus is thus faced with two human problems, both deserving of judgement: the woman has committed adultery and the men have dehumanised one of God’s beloved.

Jesus chooses to address the men’s sin first, and then the woman’s.

“Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger” (John 8:6b).

What is this writing about? There have been many theories,[2] though in truth, of course, we don’t know. If we physically act out the scene, however, we find a possible explanation.

The Pharisees arrived full of zeal and bluster, angry at the woman, eager to trip Jesus up and fully expecting to succeed. But having presented to Jesus their case, there is a moment of silence – they hold their breathe to hear what he has to say; she is standing in the middle, clutching her robe and wishing to die; the crowds are drawing closer in anticipation of something exciting. And Jesus bends down and starts to write in the ground.

It is as if time is suspended. The men are in shocked disbelief. The woman is so dissociated she is oblivious to what is going on. The crowds are whispering to each other, “What’s going on? What is he doing?” Indeed, what is he doing? Some of the men come up behind Jesus to peer over his shoulder, to see what he is writing. Is he writing down the Law of Moses? Is he writing down the woman’s sin? Is he writing down their own sins? What is he writing? They can’t make out what he is writing, so they stoop down themselves, to get a better look, screwing up their eyes to make it out.

Jesus has created a pocket of suspended time; a moment of stillness in the midst of the fervour. The woman is, for now, forgotten, saved from the hostile glares – Jesus’ writing is now the centre. The peering men lose confidence in their assumption that they will beat Jesus, and begin to experience doubt and uncertainty. Inevitably, they begin to fear that Jesus is writing something about them. Perhaps they too have some sin that is worthy of stoning. Perhaps they, like her, will be publically humiliated. What if he knows what they are hiding in their hearts, their secrets?

Some of the men continue to question Jesus. He suddenly stands up and says the famous words, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7b). And then he stoops down again and continues to write on the ground (John 8:8).

Jesus’ doodling in the dust[3] has prepared the soil for the confrontation, not of the woman, but of the men. They are ready now to recognise their own sin, the injustice of their actions, their ill-treatment of the woman. In the face of such an invitation, how could they stone her? Perhaps, they think, this is a good time to abandon this ploy and get away. Fortunately, Jesus has gone back to his doodling, so they can escape without him watching, judging – a moment of grace. The older ones are the first to recognise that they have no legs to stand on; the younger ones take a little longer to let go of their pride and self-assurance, but even they do, until they have all dispersed.

By this point, Jesus has saved the woman from public humiliation by drawing attention off her, confronted the men with their own sin by his doodling and statement (which is a form of judgement), and invited them to repent by not watching as they give up on their ploy go home (which is a form of forgiveness). All who are now left are Jesus and the woman.

He stands up, and asks her two questions: “Woman, where are they?” and “Has no one condemned you?” (John 8:10). He speaks to her with dignity, “Woman”. He does not judge or attack. He asks her questions, in order to engage with her as a human being. Jesus is humanising her again – recognising her worth as a person, her dignity as a creature of God, her value as a woman.

She says, “No one, Sir”; and he says, “Then neither do I condemn you” (John 8:11a). Jesus was the only one there who was without sin – he was the only one with the right to stone her. And yet, he withholds judgement. He could condemn her, because he is sinless and because she has indeed sinned by committing adultery. But he elects to not condemn. This is a statement of forgiveness. Even though he does not say it straight, “I forgive you your sin”, these words of forgiveness are inevitably implied in his words.[4],[5]

And finally he says, “Go now and leave your life of sin” (John 8:11b). He does not pretend that she is sinless. Forgiveness is not about acting as if someone has not sinned. She was, indeed, deserving of judgement. Nevertheless, notwithstanding her sin, Jesus forgives. In the tension between judgement and forgiveness, condemnation and grace, love always wins, because love is at the heart of God.

“Jesus does not condone her sin – he specifically calls it ‘sin’ – but he does forgive it, and as all forgiven Christians know, this free, undeserved pardon is the single greatest incentive for new and improved behaviour.”[6] Jesus’ words convey a sense of empowering her to not sin – it is more than just an exhortation or instruction; it is also an equipping for a life of purity.

Judgement is present when we sin. Jesus in no way condones, permits or even tolerates sin. Sin is everything that goes contrary to God’s desire and vision for us. But it is also entrenched in the character and values of God to reconcile, to forgive and to empower. In this story, we see Jesus doing all of this with both the men and the woman. All are convicted of their sin, and in this way judge themselves. And all are forgiven and given a chance to live a life that is worthy of God’s love for us.

We are all God’s beloved ones. God finds creative ways to mediate between offenders and victims that remind all of us that we are sinners in need of grace, and that we are loved-ones in need of forgiveness.

Meditation for the Day

Think of those times that you have relied on God’s forgiveness – where judgement was warranted, but you still asked for and accepted forgiveness. Think also of those times when you have been reluctant to forgive someone else – where judgement has had the upper hand.

Prayer for the Day

Merciful God. Thank you that you are always willing to forgive, even when I am deserving of judgement. Infiltrate my heart and mind with a culture of forgiveness and generosity.

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[1] Bruner, pp. 507-508.

[2] Bruner, pp. 505-506.

[3] I am of the view that he was just doodling, not writing. His doodling was intended to draw attention off the woman and onto the men, and to invite introspection and doubt.

[4] Bruner, p. 509.

[5] I am reminded of a beautiful song, by Michael Card, called Forgiving eyes, sung from the perspective of this woman, recounting her experience of this encounter. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=laPFkFnHGlM

[6] Bruner, p. 507.

Being God’s Beloved: Day 28: Jesus Sees You

Being God’s Beloved: Reflections on God’s Love.

There are numerous passages in the Gospels where we are told that Jesus “saw” or “looked at” someone. At one level, this is hardly surprising or significant – Jesus had eyes and was able to see and thus likely to see people. There is nothing significant in seeing people. But in several places the seeing and looking conveys a greater sense of seeing into or looking into another person, as if Jesus sees their heart and truly knows them. And this is part of a larger category of connections that Jesus makes with people – he connects with people at a deeper level than a mere social connection.

I am reminded of a phrase that comes up frequently in James Cameron’s movie Avatar, a Sci-Fi film from 2009, about a race of tall, blue-skinned people, called the Na’vi, living on a planet far from earth, who have a deep, spiritual connection with nature. They use the phrase, “I see you,” as a greeting. But it is not used in a merely flippant sense of, “I can see that you are standing there”. Rather, it implies that I see the authentic you or I see you authentically. It speaks to a deeper and real spiritual connection. A human, Jake Sully, winds up living with the Na’vi and is repeatedly told that he is “blind” – he cannot truly see the spirit of the world. Only after spending a great deal of time with the Na’vi, does Jake learn to “see”.[1]

In many of the Gospel passages, Jesus’ seeing or looking at people conveys a similar depth of sight, or rather, insight – Jesus sees people for who they are, with their strengths and weaknesses, as glorious ruins. One example, which we will look at in greater depth in a couple of days, is from Mark 10:21, where Jesus encounters a rich young ruler who desires to follow Jesus, but is constrained by his love of his wealth. Mark tells us, “Jesus looked at him and loved him.” Presumably, Jesus had been looking at him the whole time – they had been talking together and it is highly unlikely that Jesus had been looking elsewhere or closing his eyes during their conversation. So, when Mark tells us that “Jesus looked at him”, he must be speaking of a greater-than-normal ‘look’. Within the context of this story, it is reasonable to interpret that this ‘looking’ was more incisive, more insightful, more penetrating, deeper. To convey this deeper looking, it may be helpful to replace ‘at’ with ‘into’, thus “Jesus looked into him”. It is in the context of Jesus looking into this young man, with both his earnest faith and his holding onto his wealth, that we learn that Jesus loved him. Jesus saw him as he was – and loved him.

In Luke 19:1-10, Jesus is walking through Jericho in the middle of a great crowd. But on reaching a sycamore-fig tree, he stops and looks up. Quite what made Jesus stop at that place or look up, we cannot know for sure. Perhaps he sensed something or someone. Jesus “looked up” at Zacchaeus, the much-unloved tax collector. Jesus looks up and sees Zacchaeus. It seems as if Jesus immediately knows him, for he calls him by name and invites himself to his house. Jesus uses strong words – “immediately” and “must” – leaving no room for debate. Jesus is under no illusions about who Zacchaeus is or what he has done. Jesus knows he is a tax collector, knows he has abused his position, knows he has exploited the people, knows that he is a ‘sinner’. But he also knows that here is a man who is receptive and open to hearing the Good News. Jesus saw him as he was and loved him.

In John 4:4-26, Jesus and the disciples are travelling through Samaria. The disciples go off to buy food, leaving Jesus alone at a well. A Samaritan woman comes to draw water in the middle of the day. Jesus asks her for a drink. We are not told that Jesus ‘looked’ at her or ‘saw’ her, but clearly, he does – he notices her and engages with her. This was remarkable for several reasons. First, she was a woman, and Jewish men, particularly Jewish rabbis, did not speak with women in public. Second, she was a Samaritan, and Jewish people thought of Samaritans in less than friendly ways. Third, she was not accepted in her own community, probably because of some sin that left her marginalised and outcast. Jesus knows all these things – later, in verses 17-18, he says to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband.” But he also knows that here is a person who is spiritually open and hungry, with whom he can engage on some serious spiritual matters, who could become the first female evangelist. Jesus saw her as she was and loved her.

In Matthew 9:20-22, Jesus is on his way to raise a young girl to life, when a woman, who had been bleeding for 12 years, touches the edge of his cloak. She is certain that this will bring her healing. Luke (8:43-48) and Mark (5:25-34) tell us that as she touches his cloak, she is immediately healed: “Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering” (Mark 5:29). Jesus feels the power of healing going out of him, but he seems not to know who it is who has touched him. So he stops and asks who it was. The disciples think he’s crazy, because there is such a big crowd around him, so he is being touched all the time. How can he possibly know that someone has specifically touched him for healing? But Jesus knows because he sees, even without his eyes. In Luke and Mark, the woman finally owns up; but Matthew says, “Jesus turned and saw her. ‘Take heart, daughter,’ he said, ‘your faith has healed you.’” Jesus sees the woman. Although she has already been healed, Jesus still wants to see her, to know her, to talk with her. He knows her illness, he knows her faith. Jesus saw her as she was and loved her.

Although God already knows us intimately – after all, God created us – God still wants to see us, to know us. It takes us back to Day 3 and Day 4, where we learned that the most essential quality of God is relationship and that love is at the heart of God, and that God created the cosmos to be in fellowship with us and know us, and that knowing us is God’s great delight.

God desires that you engage with God, sharing your thoughts and feelings, your hopes and fears, your triumphs and failures. Just as Jesus wanted to know the rich young ruler, Zacchaeus, the Samaritan woman at the well and the woman who was bleeding, Jesus desires to know you. Jesus wants to fellowship with you, to learn to know you, to hear you, to feel with you, to partner with you, to share with you. Truthfully, Jesus already knows you intimately – there is nothing that is hidden from Him. But He particularly wants you to share all of that with him of your own accord – to open up to Him. Jesus wants to see you, because to see you is to love you.

Jesus sees you as you are and loves you.

Meditation for the Day

Reflect on those parts of your life that you keep hidden from God, that you prefer not to share with God. Reflect on the fact that Jesus already sees those parts and loves you, that Jesus loves the whole of you. What would happen if you shared those parts with Him?

Prayer for the Day

Sweet Jesus, you already know everything about me; even the parts I try so hard to hide from you. Thank you that you see me and love me. Give me the courage to share the whole of myself with you.

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[1] Here is a clip from the film, Avatar, in which Jake sees Neytiri, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cUy606vRWI8

Being God’s Beloved: Day 27: Jesus is Moved

Being God’s Beloved: Reflections on God’s Love.

“The gospel writers paint their portraits of Jesus using a kaleidoscope of brilliant ‘emotional’ colors. Jesus felt compassion; he was angry, indignant, and consumed with zeal; he was troubled, greatly distressed, very sorrowful, depressed, deeply moved, and grieved; he sighed; he wept and sobbed; he groaned; he was in agony; he was surprised and amazed; he rejoiced very greatly and was full of joy; he greatly desired, and he loved.”[1]

This is such a lovely opening paragraph from an article on the emotions of Jesus. The author, Walter Hansen, gives us a quick thumbnail sketch of the rich and varied emotional life of Jesus Christ. The emotions give evidence of the full humanity of Jesus – he felt just like we feel. But there is sometimes a tendency for us to associate such emotions with Jesus’ human nature rather than with his divine nature. This would, however, be incorrect – they are rather a reflection of the whole person Jesus Christ, fully human and fully God.[2] In fact, we could go through the Old Testament and locate passages where all of these emotions are attributed to God.

We feel emotion because God feels emotion. Jesus feels emotion because he is both God and human. Emotion is not a human weakness or deficit – it is part of how God created us, it is part of the image of God, it part of God. It is something important enough in the life of the Triune God for God to impart it to us. Emotions are not the antithesis of faith, nor a distraction from faith, nor a sign of a weak faith. They are simply part of what it means to be alive and to be God’s creatures. Even in heaven, we can expect to continue to experience emotion.

I have suffered, on and off, from depression, reaching back into my childhood. In my mid-twenties I was hospitalised for a month in a psychiatric ward due to a major depressive episode. Although this was the darkest period of my life, I retained a sense, albeit a very tiny sense, of God’s presence. Truthfully, at the time, I was barely conscious of this and it brought little comfort. But it was like a spider’s thread – almost invisible and fragile, yet curiously strong. As I journeyed out of depression, a chapter of a book became meaningful to me: Gifts of Depression.[3] This time of intense and life-destroying emotion is one of the touchstones of my faith – I look back and see God journeying with me in the hospital, experiencing my despair alongside me, never abandoning me.

One of the most powerful passages that reveals the depths of Jesus’ emotion is found in John 11 in Jesus’ encounter with the death of his friend, Lazarus. Jesus’ friend Lazarus was ill and died. Jesus comforts and reassures Lazarus’ sister, Martha, and then goes to the graveside. Mary, Lazarus’ other sister, is there, together with a crowd. Mary and crowd are upset with Jesus – had he come sooner, he could have saved Lazarus. Three times we are told of Jesus’ emotions; in two of these John says that he was “deeply moved”.

“When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled” (John 11:32-33).

In this first passage, Jesus’ emotions are reported as being “deeply moved in spirit and troubled”. John relates these emotions to Jesus’ witnessing Mary’s and her companions’ “weeping”. Because ‘deeply moved’ can also be translated as ‘indignation’, some commentators have suggested that Jesus was disturbed by Mary’s lack of faith in his ability to handle this situation (in comparison with Martha’s greater faith).[4] However, this does not accord with what we know of Jesus overall, and it seems better to interpret him as experiencing a deep hurt that he shares with Mary and the other.

If there is anger in Jesus’ response, it more probably stems from his empathy for those who are bereaved – an anger at death, which resulted from the Fall, and which has ruled in the earthly realm ever since. Death is not part of God’s intention for us and not part of God’s future vision for us. Jesus rails against it as the enemy of God and of all humanity. Most probably, he felt a mixture of anger and grief, rage and anguish.[5]

“‘Where have you laid him?’ [Jesus] asked. ‘Come and see, Lord,’ they replied. Jesus wept.” (John 11:34-35).

“Jesus wept.” One translator says, “Jesus bawled.”[6] Though this term may not connect with you, it implies that there was more to Jesus’ weeping than a polite, restrained shedding of a tear. It tells us of an intense and overwhelming expression of grief, revealed in tears and crying noises. We may say that Jesus was heartbroken:

“The world’s certainty that the ultimate reality is death breaks Jesus’ heart. The world’s (and the Church’s) anguish in the experience of death breaks Jesus’ heart. The deep pain that death and the devil (who uses death so mercilessly) both bring to human hearts breaks Jesus’ heart.”

It is helpful to think of these tears as not only Jesus’ tears, but also as God’s tears. As we said at the start of today’s reflection, Jesus’ emotional life is a reflection of God’s emotional life. God, too, experiences sorrow. Potamius of Lisbon, writing in AD 350, said of this verse, “God wept, moved by the tears of mortals.” Perhaps Potamius is over-interpreting here, but perhaps not. Perhaps when Jesus weeps, God weeps too. Perhaps when we weep, God weeps with us.

“Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. ‘Take away the stone,’ he said. … Jesus called in a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’” (John 11:38-39, 43).

For the third time in six verses, Jesus’ emotions are stated; this “deeply moved” is the same Greek verb as in verse 33, emphasising the intensity of his emotion – his pain, grief and empathy. But this time it is followed by action, to unravel the power of death and restore Lazarus to life. This seems to support the idea that if there was anger or indignation in Jesus, it was directed at Death. And here he engages in battle against Death, as he will again shortly in the grave.

Jesus’ grief and anger at the tomb of Lazarus is important for us in our daily Christian walk. It assures us that God knows what it is like to be human. God, in Christ, has experienced death both as the bereaved (as in this case) and as the deceased (Christ’s own death on the cross, which we come to next week). God knows the pain and suffering of grief and loss, and by inference God knows a wide range of painful human emotions – fear, loneliness, depression, anxiety, rejection and so on. The doctrine of the impassibility of God says that “God is not moved by emotions”.[7] But this does not mean that God is not moved at all. Rather, it means that God is not given to wild, out of control, emotive outbursts, like the pagan gods at the time of the early church. God feels with us. In modern English, God empathises.

However, while God is moved by our life experiences, God does not merely empathise. Counsellors sometimes do little more than empathise. I have at times been able to do nothing for a client other than empathise with them. This stems from lacking the power or the wisdom to do anything constructive – in the absence of being able to do anything, I fall back on being emotionally present. That is the least I can do and something I must do. But God is not disempowered, thus God’s empathy is combined with God taking a stand.

God stands with those who suffer – with those who are oppressed, marginalised, silenced, abused, poor. (We reflected on this on Day 16.) As Jesus stood by the tomb of Lazarus, he wept in empathy with those who grieved and raged against Death and Satan. And when he had wept and raged, he acted. He raised Lazarus to life. Jesus does the same for us. Sometimes we experience this immediately in divine intervention; other times we see it only in subtle signs that may appear only later. One day we will see if fully when Jesus returns to restore the heavens and the earth.

This is the hope that we have – the hope that the story of Lazarus gives us. We hope because we know that God feels with us, which tells us that God cares for us, which tells us that God loves us deeply. We hope because we know that God has worked on our behalf, that God continues to work on our behalf, and that God will one day work out everything on our behalf. We hope because we can see an emotionally engaged God standing up for us. We hope because we are God’s Beloved.

Meditation for the Day

Recall about the painful feelings that you have experienced over the past few months. Try to describe what it was like to feel those feelings. Reflect on the fact that God shares those feelings with you.

Prayer for the Day

Lord Jesus Christ, you have grieved with us and suffered with us. Please be present with me when I go through hard times. Please stand up for me always. Give me the assurance that you are always by my side.

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[1] Hansen, G. W. (1997). The emotions of Jesus. Christianity Today, February 3.

[2] Bruner, p. 677.

[3] Moore, T. (1992). Care of the soul: A guided for cultivating depth and sacredness in everyday life. New York: HarperPerennial, p. 137.

[4] Bruner, pp. 676-679.

[5] Hansen.

[6] Bruner, pp. 676-680.

[7] Hansen.

Being God’s Beloved: Day 26: Jesus Touched

Being God’s Beloved: Reflections on God’s Love.

Ten times in the Gospels we are told that Jesus “touched” people in the context of healing:

  • People suffering from leprosy (Matthew 8:3, Mark 1:41, Luke 5:13).
  • People with a fever (Matthew 8:15).
  • People who were blind (Matthew 9:29, 20:34, Mark 8:22).
  • People who were deaf (Luke 22:51).
  • People who were mute (Mark 7:33).
  • Dead people (Luke 7:14).

In nine passages, other people “touched” Jesus to obtain healing:

  • The woman who had been bleeding for 12 years (Matthew 9:20, Mark 5:27-31, Luke 8:44-47).
  • Many who were sick (Matthew 14:36, Mark 3:10, 6:56, Luke 6:19).
  • Children, though these appear to be more related to blessing than healing (Mark 10:13, Luke 18:15).

In addition Jesus “touched” the disciples during the transfiguration when they had fallen to the ground, saying, “Do not be afraid” (Matthew 17:7). And Jesus invited the disciples to “touch” his resurrected body as proof that he was not a ghost (Luke 24:39).

There are also other passages where touch is clearly implied even though the word “touch” is not used, for example in John 9:6-15, Jesus heals a blind man by making mud from saliva and dust and putting it on the man’s eyes.

Given that the Gospels are a selective presentation of Jesus’ actions, it is likely that these were typical of how he interacted with those in need. Jesus frequently, even typically, touched people in the process of healing them. I am always struck by how tactile Jesus was – the extent to which he wanted to be in physical contact with those he healed.

John 9:6 is evocative in its meaning: “[Jesus] spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes.” It reminds me of God creating Adam in the Genesis 2:7 narrative, which we studied on Day 4: “The Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” There is a similar use of mud and a similar use of one’s physical self (breath or saliva) and a similar result (life or sight). It suggests that Jesus’ healings were works of creation; that in healing someone of some illness, he was re-creating them, restoring them to the original design of God the Creator. It is as if Jesus remembers that illness and suffering were never part of God’s plan for humanity – these resulted from the Fall – and repeatedly desires to return us to our original state of wholeness and perfection. Healing as re-creation.

In my training of social work students in the skills and processes of counselling, I caution them about touch. Touch is a most powerful action, but unpredictable – comforting for some but traumatising for others. For those who have experienced abuse, a touch, no matter how well-intentioned, can evoke traumatic memories and elicit visceral reactions. The person may cry out in terror, lash out in rage, respond sexually or emotionally disintegrate. It is terribly hard to judge what kind of reaction you might get when you touch a vulnerable person. Particularly for young and inexperienced counsellors, and particularly when counselling someone of the gender to whom you are attracted, touch can cross a professional boundary and rapidly become sexualised rather than therapeutic. So for undergraduate students who are in the early stages of learning our craft, the rule is “no physical contact other than a handshake”.

But those in the medical profession will testify that physical contact, which is appropriate and inevitable in their trade, is seldom traumatising and most often comforting and encouraging. A doctor or nurse will press your body and ask, “Does this hurt? And how about here?” Their touch is evidence of their competence and of their caring. It conveys a sense of closeness and human connection. It evokes memories of being mothered, cuddled, caressed, nurtured. And so we commonly speak of someone as having a “healing touch”, because we easily associate touch with healing. A doctor who will not touch her or his patients might be considered no doctor at all – that is how closely we associate healing and touch.

We can imagine that Jesus’ touch was not experienced as traumatising for the people Jesus’ encountered, but rather that it was experienced as healing. We see this most clearly by the fact that half of the healing-touch references are initiated by the patients and not by Jesus. Everyone wanted to touch Jesus to get healed.

The most vivid of these is the woman who had been haemorrhaging for 12 years. Mark says of her, “She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse. When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, because she thought, ‘If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.’ Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering” (Mark 5:26-29). After innumerable and probably expensive but ineffective treatments at the hands of many doctors, she becomes convinced that Jesus’ touch will cure her. Her conviction was probably based on witnessing or hearing testimony from others who had been healed by Jesus’ touch. So convinced is she, that she is sure that she does not even need to touch his body and he does not even need to know he was touching her – the power in him would flow into her at the slightest contact, even indirect contact – through his clothing. Of course, she was right!

That Jesus felt the power go out of him (Mark 5:30) suggests that physical touch was more than a psychological demonstration of caring, but that there was in fact healing in his touch. In touching people, Jesus becomes a bridge or a conduit that crosses a gap between the sick person and God. It is a “thin place”[1] in which God comes particularly close to a human being and healing is experienced. If we believe that the fullness of God dwells in Christ in bodily form (Colossians 2:9), then in fact touching Christ brings the “toucher” in direct contact with the Divine – Jesus is not so much a bridge to God, but God in the flesh.

The healing of this woman seems to have become widely known and many people drew the same conclusion I have and thus sought Jesus out: “Wherever [Jesus] went – into villages, towns or countryside – they placed the sick in the marketplaces. They begged him to let them touch even the edge of his cloak, and all who touched him were healed” (Mark 6:56).

In addition to all of this, there is something beautifully intimate and delicate in Jesus’ touching those who are ill. We believe that God is Spirit, not corporeal. Thus God has no hands or body with which to touch humans. After aeons of imagining humanity and thousands of years of interacting with humanity, God finally has the opportunity actually touch humanity – to not only experience life from within the human body, but also to interact with others physically. Each touch between Jesus and another person is another unique experience for God.

Such touches are dual edged. Initially, such a touch brings God into contact with human pain and suffering, with the fragility of human life and the vulnerability of our bodies and minds. Those of us who work in the human services know that regular contact with suffering takes its toll on us – we experience the pain of those we serve and can become overwhelmed by it, to the extent that we can no longer separate our own pain from those around us. We call this ‘burnout’. Jesus’ initial touch, then, is a further expression of the immanence of God, which we have encountered several times before – on Day 7 in relation to God’s seeing, hearing, concerning and coming down to the people of Israel suffering in Egypt and on Day 19 in relation to the incarnation as God’s immersion into the experience of humanity. We will come to it again when we reflect on the cross.

But in terms of Jesus touching people, each touch is a coming close to us in our suffering, of God exposing Godself to our fallenness. This points to God’s courage, God’s love, God’s presence, God’s empathy. God is not remote in a safe, protected heaven. God is not unmoved by our suffering. Rather, God is fully present and both emotionally and physically connected to us.

The other side of the dual edge of Christ’s touch is that after connecting with and experiencing our suffering, Christ heals. Once Christ has shared in our suffering, we can share in Christ’s wholeness – His joy, completeness, fullness, peace and love. Like the woman who bled, when we allow Christ to touch us or when reach out to touch Him, we may experience the healing presence of Christ, an outpouring of His power into ourselves. Although not every touch of Christ is so distinctively powerful and even when we are not miraculously healed like the bleeding woman, we can trust in Him to impart healing to us. We trust, because we have seen that touching and healing is habitual and second nature to Jesus, and that this reflects the character of God, who loves us and who longs to touch and heal.

Meditation for the Day

Recall a time when someone’s touch brought comfort and healing to you. What was it about that touch that was helpful? What was it about the relationship with that person that was helpful? Recall a time when you felt touched by God. How did that come about?

Prayer for the Day

Healing Lord, please touch me today in those places in my life that are wounded and sick. Bring healing and comfort, that I may rise up to love and serve you.

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[1] Borg, M. J. (2003). The heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a life of faith. New York: HarperCollins, p. 149.

Being God’s Beloved: Talk 4: Jesus Christ: Embodiment of Divine Love

This is the fourth in the five-part series on “Being God’s Beloved”, delivered at St Martins Anglican Church in Irene, South Africa, on 2 April 2014. In this talk we focus on Jesus Christ as the embodiment of Divine Love, giving attention to his life (incarnation), ministry and teaching.

Click here to follow the link to YouTube

Being God’s Beloved: Day 25: The Wedding at Cana

Being God’s Beloved: Reflections on God’s Love.

Over the last six days we reflected on some of the deep theologies of Christ’s incarnation and teaching. This was, at times, rather heavy conceptual stuff! While there is, of course, much teaching and theological depth in the Gospels, much of what we read is how Jesus lived his life on earth – his ministry, his relationships, his activities. There is much that we can and should learn about God’s love for us and about our Being God’s Beloved from these stories.

Because Jesus is the embodiment of God – Jesus is the Second Person of the Trinity come in human form – what we see in Christ is a reflection of God. Jesus says this clearly when Philip asks, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.” Jesus responds, with what sounds likes a note of exasperation, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. …I am in the Father and the Father is in me” (John 14:8-10). It may be hard for us to imagine what God is like and what God thinks about us. But it is much easier to see what Jesus is like and what Jesus thinks of people. When we see Jesus, we see God. We can trust that Jesus accurately reveals God to us.

And so we start with Jesus’ first sign in the Gospel according to St John – the turning of water into wine at the wedding of Cana (John 2:1-11). On the surface, this is just a miracle story: Jesus does something that no-one else has been able to do – he changes a simple chemical compound (hydrogen and oxygen molecules) into wine. There are numerous very deep theological and spiritual meanings attributed to this passage, which all probably have elements of truth.[1]

But I’d like us to reflect today on the kinds of values of Jesus that we can infer from this story. In other words, what do we learn about who God is and what is important to God from this story?

It is surely significant that Jesus performed a miracle involving wine at a wedding. And it is surely also significant that John places this miracle as first in his version of the Gospel story. Would not a loftier miracle have been more appropriate to inaugurate his ministry? For example, a healing from leprosy or raising someone from the dead or restoring sight to the blind? These kinds of miracles would surely have been much more in keeping with the Lukan Manifesto that we studied on Day 22. And much more suitable for dignity of the Son of God.

But perhaps the unexpectedness of such a miracle, even the inappropriateness of it, is exactly why this is important to John and to us, and to Jesus and to God. Jesus chooses to participate in a very human event – a wedding. It is a time of joyous celebration, a time of joining two individuals and two families together, a time to anticipate the birth of children and the start of a new generation. A wedding is, in many important ways, essentially human – a key event in the lives of individuals, families and communities.

Jesus places himself at the centre of human living by performing his first miracle at such an event. He shows himself to be interested in and willing to participate actively in and concerned for the centre of human life and love. Jesus is not here only to preach and teach. He is also not here only to die on a cross. He is also here to participate in the full life of humanity – to be human. Similarly, he is interested and willing to participate in our lives, in your own life. And because Jesus embodies God, we know that it is also God’s desire to participate fully in our human lives.

Sometimes we have this feeling that we should not bother God with the mundane trivialities of our lives. In the midweek fellowship group that I belong to, when we pray for each other, people sometimes say, “No, I’ve got nothing important that needs prayer.” We say things like this because at some level we believe that God is interested only in big things – our need for a better night’s sleep or our hope that a relationship at work might improve seem too small and trivial to bother God about. We feel that God has more important things to attend to, and we shouldn’t intrude with our petty troubles.

But Jesus’ presence at the wedding and his decision to address a very practical, down-to-earth problem – “They have no more wine” (John 2:3) – tells us that Jesus is indeed interested, very interested, in our everyday lives. He is interested in the ‘ordinary’ – our day-to-day concerns and worries. And, moreover, he is willing to get involved in the ordinary – to invest in helping us with the ordinary. There is nothing that we cannot take to God, nothing that God would dismiss as trivial. God is not one to say, “Oh, get over yourself” or “Don’t have a pity party”. God wants very much to be part of every facet of our lives.

Jesus expands on this interest in the ordinary by transforming the ordinary into the exceptional. Ordinary water is changed into “choice wine” – “the best” (John 2:10). And not only the best wine, but also a great quantity of wine – roughly 600 litres of it! We are reminded of Jesus’ words, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10) or “have it abundantly” (NRSV & NASB).

God is interested in the ordinariness of our lives, but God is also interested in helping us transform our lives into something exceptional. While God does accept us as we are, unconditionally, God also desires us to become more than who we are. It is not that God wants to change us into something other than what we are; rather, God wants to us become everything that we were created to be, to actualise all the potential that lies sleeping within us. It is as though we were acorns, which is a wonderful thing to be; but God is eager for us to become oak trees, which is even more wonderful! Every acorn contains the image of the oak tree, waiting to be actualised.[2]

We experience this kind of transformation regularly in the Holy Eucharist.[3] At the start of the service, there is a bottle of wine and a container of communion wafers at the entrance of the church. These are things that we have made. Of course, we have made the bread and wine out the things that God created – wheat and grapes. We took what God created and made something ordinary out of them. These ordinary human artefacts signify our ordinary lives that we bring to church.

During the Eucharist service, these ordinary things are brought into the sanctuary and transformed into the body and blood of Christ. And so, as we participate in the communion, we are not just consuming bread and wine, but also participating spiritually in the body and blood of our Saviour. This transformation signifies what God does to us as humans – we become infused with the Spirit of God and transformed into the image of God. Even if you don’t accept that the communion produces actual sanctification, the Eucharist is a metaphor for this transformation – we act out in the communion service what God does by the Holy Spirit.

In our daily lives, God intends that we should be transformed into the likeness of the Son. God intends that the ordinary should become extraordinary. God intends that we should become everything that God created us to be.

This points to another important insight into God’s heart. God has an image of each of us in God’s heart. When God intends us to be transformed into the image of the Son, that does not mean we all become the same. No! Instead, each of us is unique and distinct, created individually as God’s Beloved. When God, metaphorically, closes His eyes and thinks about you, he has a distinct person in mind – a person with a name and a history, with strengths and vulnerabilities, with potential and aspirations, with past, present and future, with emotions and desires. God holds you in mind and heart, both as you are and as you could be. God knows you!

At the end of the Wedding at Cana story, John tells us that “his disciples put their faith in him” (2:11) – they “entrusted themselves to him”.[4] This was, no doubt, because they had witnessed an amazing miracle. But for us, perhaps it was also because we see that Jesus, as the Son of God, was also interested in everyday human life, keen to participate in ordinary human life, able to transform ordinary human life and with an individualised image of ordinary human life. This was a man who really cared about ordinary human life. This was a man who loved ordinary humans. This was a man who helped people. This was a man who loved.

Meditation for the Day

Identify those facets of your life that you avoid ‘bothering’ God with – those ordinary, seemingly trivial things. Make a decision to bother God with them today.

Prayer for the Day

Generous God, in the same what that you transformed ordinary water into extraordinary wine, transform me into something extraordinary. Continue to work out your purposes in me, to become everything that you have created me to be.

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[1] Bruner, F. D. (2012). The Gospel of John: A commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, pp. 125-142.

[2] The metaphor of acorns is inspired by Hillman, J. (1997). The soul’s code: In search of character and calling. New York: Warner Books.

[3] The Eucharist (Holy Communion, Mass, Divine Service, Lord’s Supper) is understood differently by different Christian traditions. I’m writing as an Anglican who believes in the ‘real presence’ of Christ in the elements. In other words, the bread and wine remain bread and wine, but Christ is spiritual present, in a real and meaningful way, in the elements.

[4] Bruner, p. 133.

Being God’s Beloved: Day 24: The Great Commission

Being God’s Beloved: Reflections on God’s Love.

Yesterday and the day before we looked at two central messages of Jesus. The first, from Luke 4, spoke of God’s special love and concern for those who are poor and vulnerable, God’s desire for those who are rich and powerful to align with God’s mission and God’s rejection of vengeance. The second, from Matthew 22 and Mark 12, spoke of the deep Will of God, that we should love – love God and love each other.

Today we look at a third central message of Jesus, which is found in Matthew 28 – the last few verses of Matthew’s Gospel account of the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth. He writes:

“Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age’” (Matthew 28:16-20).

This wonderful passage is called the ‘Great Commission’ and has served for many generations as the primary text mobilising evangelical missionary work.

A somewhat similar commission is found in Acts 1:8:

“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Jesus opens and closes this brief passage with grand statements about Himself. The opening words speak to tremendous cosmic power and authority that God the Father has delegated to Him. And the closing words speak to his omnipresence and eternity – His ability to be everywhere forever. Together, these remind us of the Kenotic U that we reflected on earlier this week, and specifically the top right corner of the U, which we talked about as Christ’s glorification. Having been raised from the dead and blessed by God, Jesus is now once again the King of kings and Lord of lords.

In this passage, Jesus speaks not as just the man of God that he had been during his brief time on earth, but as the Son of God. He is, indeed, a King. And he is King of the Kingdom of God or, to use Matthew’s terminology, the Kingdom of Heaven. The Greek word for ‘kingdom’, basileia, is used 51 times in Matthew, compared with just 18 times in Mark.[1] Some scholars prefer to translate basileia as ‘reign’, to emphasise not so much a territory (which ‘kingdom’ may evoke for many of us), but rather the King who reigns. For Jesus, the Kingdom of Heaven was both in the future (something towards which we yearn and strive) and the present (something that is ‘near’ because Jesus is present). Wherever we find Jesus, we find the Kingdom. And because Jesus is present in Christians by the Spirit, wherever we are God’s Kingdom is present. And so we pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).

The Great Commission then, although not mentioning the term basileia, is nevertheless set against an extensive backdrop of the Kingdom of Heaven, which Matthew has developed over the previous 28 chapters and which Jesus’ words about authority and eternal presence reinforce. Jesus is commissioning the disciples, as He commissions us, to work in and for the Kingdom of God. This is a present work in the present Kingdom that centres on the person of Jesus Christ, but it is also work for the future, for that great and glorious Day of the Lord, when God will restore the heavens and the earth and all who dwell therein.

What is this work that Jesus commissions the disciples to do? It is to gather all people together in God’s Kingdom. Jesus commissions the disciples to populate God’s Kingdom with people of God.

Both grammatically and theologically, the central imperative verb – the primary command – is to “make disciples”. Although the word “go” comes first and appears to be an imperative just like “make disciples”, it is better understood as subordinate to “make disciples”[2] and could perhaps be translated, “As you go…” or “While you are going…” The focus is squarely on “make disciples!”

A disciple is one who follows Jesus. A disciple submits to Jesus. A disciple adopts Jesus’ values, priorities and methods. A disciple seeks to further Jesus’ mission. A disciple ultimately seeks to become like Jesus.

Jesus’ twelve disciples did not, of course, embody such idealised aspirations. However, this was their aspiration and it was towards this that Jesus mentored and guided them.

So, to make disciples means to assist and support others in their journey of becoming a follower of Christ. And Jesus provides two methods to assist in achieving this: baptising them and teaching them. For today’s reflection, I wish to focus only on teaching. It is, however, important to note that the baptism incorporates a reference to the Trinity – “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” – showing that the disciple-making work involves all the persons of the Trinity. It is important work!

The teaching that Jesus speaks of is “teaching them to obey all I have commanded you.” Sometimes we think of teaching as the imparting of intellectual knowledge – teaching leads to knowing. But in Matthew’s Gospel, teaching is far more. “Jesus teaching is an appeal to his listeners’ will, not primarily to their intellect; it is a call for a concrete decision to follow him and to submit to God’s will.”[3] The Will of God is something we reflected on yesterday, in relation to the Great Commandment. There we said that the Will of God, which is expressed in the Law, is for us to love – to love God and to love each other. Jesus said that all the Law and Prophets hang on this command (Matthew 22:40).

The Will of God appears many times in Matthew.[4] We recall it in the Lord’s Prayer: “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). Jesus says of the Day of Judgement, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). Matthew 18:14 expresses what is not God’s Will: “So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost” (NSRV). In Matthew 21:28-32, two sons are contrasted. Once the father has expressed his will that they should go and work in the vineyard, the one says, “I will not” and the other, “I will, Sir”.

Being a disciple means adopting the Will of God and putting it into practice. The Will of God is for us to love God and to love others, including the unlovely. Jesus is thus commissioning the disciples and us to cultivate a Kingdom in which everyone loves God and each other, not only in the privacy of their hearts, but also in their actions and interactions. Yesterday, we saw the correspondence between God’s love for us and our love for God and each other. Today, we see that Jesus wants us to spread this message to everyone.

This ‘everyone’ is expressed in the Great Commission as to “all nations”. Jesus really does mean all nations. This is good news for everyone. It is not just good news for the Jews, as it was in the Old Testament and, to some degree, even in Jesus’ ministry. It is also not good news just for Gentiles, as if the Jews have been cut off and forgotten. Rather, it is good news for every person and every community of people.

We recall God’s passion for all peoples in the commissioning of Abraham in our reflections on Day 6. The Great Commission is not a new commission. It is merely a re-commissioning. God had previously commissioned Abraham to bring God’s light to all peoples. Then this commission was passed on to all Israel. And now to all followers of Christ. God’s love has always been and will always be universal. God desires the salvation of the entire human population. And so Peter writes, “[The Lord] is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9b).

Today and over the previous two days we have reflected on three central messages of Jesus, perhaps even the three central passages that speak to Jesus’ mission. And we have seen a common thread through all of them. The Lukan Manifesto recounts God’s love for the poor and vulnerable, the Great Commandment concerns God’s intention that we should love God and love each other, and the Great Commission is a call to guide all people into a loving relationship with God.

It is no coincidence that all three messages centre on God’s love and our consequent love for God and each other. The messages all centre on God’s love, because love is at the centre of God. More specifically, love is the centre of God’s Will. It is God’s good desire and intention to love us and for us to love God and for us to love each other. And so, whenever Jesus speaks about what is most important, it will be about love.

Meditation for the Day

As a lover of God, we are called to draw other people into the love of God. It is God’s will that all should know God’s love. How are you doing in participating with God in this mission?

Prayer for the Day

Your love for me is wonderful, O Lord my God. Help me to shine forth this love in the way I interact with people around me. Help me to draw them to you, making them followers of your Son.

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[1] Bosch, p. 70.

[2] France, pp. 1114-1115.

[3] Bosch, p. 66.

[4] These examples were identified by Bosch, p. 67.