We are in the season of Epiphany – epiphany meaning, God’s revelation of God’s self to the world.
John 2:1-11tells the story of Jesus’ first miracle according to John: turning water into wine in Cana. I unpack this under three headings:
Gifting. In this story, Jesus seems, perhaps, uncertain about his gifts. But his mother, Mary, is much more certain. She prompts Jesus to do something about the wedding banquet running out of wine. And even though Jesus is reluctant to get involved, she tells the servants to “do whatever he tells you”. She has confidence in Jesus, she recognised his gifting, and she prompts him to exercise his gifts.
Common good. You’d think Jesus’ first miracle would be spectacular. A extraordinary miracle would help establish his brand as the Messiah. But instead, his first miracle, while exceptional (he made around 600l of choice wine), was rather everyday and ordinary – common. He addressed the rather domestic needs of a couple who had just got married. I really love Jesus for this miracle for the common good – it reminds us that he is interested in and willing to intervene in our daily lives.
God’s revelation. John concludes this passage in v11 by saying, “What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.” God’s glory is revealed through this miracle – the epiphany! And as a result of that, his disciples believed in him.
As Jesus exercised his gifting, for the common good, God was revealed and people believed.
1 Corinthians 12:1-11tells us about the gifts of the Spirit, and is part of a larger chapter about the church – the body of Christ – being made up of many parts, each of which is vitally important to the whole. I unpack this under the same three headings:
Gifting. Paul tells us that Holy Spirit gives a gift or gifts to every believer. Every Christian receives one or more gifts, Gifts of the Spirit, according to the good judgement of Holy Spirit. Whether we recognise our gifts or not, whether we recognise them as gifts of the Spirit or just natural talents, we have gifts from Holy Spirit. People often don’t recognise their gifts – often others recognise them first, like Mary did with Jesus. In those cases, we may need to prompt someone else to recognise their gift.
Common good. Paul tells us that the gifts are given not for personal use and benefit, but for building up the common good. Here ‘common’ refers not to the ordinary, but to the ‘collective’. The gifts are for the benefit of the community of believers, and indeed for the world. They are not intended to benefit us, but rather to help us benefit others. The only way we can contribute to the common or collective good is to exercise the gifts we have.
God’s revelation. As we exercise the Gifts of the Spirit, God is revealed and people can come to believe in God. Our exercising of our gifts reveals the character and values of God, and shows people who God is and what interests and concerns God, and that reveals God and can draw people to God. We, as the collective – the church – need to reveal God, and we do this best when we exercise the gifts God the Spirit has given us.
And so, when we recognise, accept and exercise our gifts, we contribute to the good of the collective, and God is revealed to the world and people may come to believe.
Last week we learned some Advent yoga – reaching back and seizing hold of the promises God made and fulfilled in Christ, which God has fulfilled, which feeds our faith; and reaching forward and grasping at the promises God has made that still will be fulfilled in Christ, which gives us hope. Today we focus forwards towards the hope of things yet to come. Central among this is Jesus’ second coming.
Our readings today (Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 1:68-79; Philippians 1:3-11 and Luke 3:1-6) all speak about the anticipation of Christ’s coming, including his second coming. Malachi (and Jesus) speaks about the second coming as being sudden, unexpected, which gives us a fright. We don’t know when to expect him. Malachi also says, when the Lord comes, the messenger we long for, the Son of Man, who will be able to stand? It will be daunting. (Though Jesus prays in Luke 21:36 that at the end times “you may be able to stand before the Son of Man”.)
Malachi, John the Baptist, Jesus and Paul all tell us we need to prepare for the coming of Christ. We must be ready. We must repent of our sins and receive God’s forgiveness, then we are made right God, and ready to receive Christ. Malachi speaks about purification – metal purified by fire and clothing cleansed with launderer’s soap.
There will be a sifting, a separation. Malachi calls it a sifting – of flour from chaff and sand and stones. Jesus speaks about it as a separation of sheep and goats, of pruning away and discarding unproductive branches off a fruit tree.
But it is not all challenge and judgement. It is also about hope. HOPE! The hope that comes through Jesus Christ and the great work he has done for us. Zechariah, praying over his new-born son, John (the Baptist), uses words of hope like: salvation, mercy, rescue, forgiveness, peace, covenant, righteousness, tender mercy, sunshine, rising sun. And Paul, writing to the Philippians, speaks of love that may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight.
Let us prepare for Christ’s return. And let us hope for what he will accomplish in and around us. Let us articulate and pray for what we hope for – our lives, our world as a better place, as redeemed and sanctified. Let us pray with hope for the world we desire God to make real for us.
There are times in our life when things are desperate. These two years of Covid, and the losses, restrictions and challenges it has brought us, have given us additional reasons to feel desperate. There are times when life is exceptionally hard and we feel that the world is pitted against us – that even God is pitted against us.
Psalm 22 knows something about this:
1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish? 2 My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest. 6 But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by everyone, despised by the people. 7 All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads. 8 “He trusts in the Lord,” they say, “let the Lord rescue him. Let him deliver him, since he delights in him.” 14 I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart has turned to wax; it has melted within me. 15 My mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death.
Jesus uses this Psalm to express his desperation and despair as he hangs dying on the cross. He feels God-forsaken, utterly desolate. Where is God in all of this? Why am I abandoned?
The Psalmist shows a flicker of faith – just a flicker, though:
9 Yet you brought me out of the womb; you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast. 10 From birth I was cast on you; from my mother’s womb you have been my God.
And he cries out with a desperate, but muted plea:
11 Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.
Job knows something about desperate times, having lost everything, despite being a righteous man of deep faith. He loses everything – everything – and grapples to make sense of what feels like God’s abandonment of him. Instead of imploding in despair like the Psalmist above, Job explodes outwards in anger and wants to confront God (Job 23):
2 “Even today my complaint is bitter; his hand is heavy in spite of my groaning. 3 If only I knew where to find him; if only I could go to his dwelling! 4 I would state my case before him and fill my mouth with arguments. 5 I would find out what he would answer me, and consider what he would say to me.
Job pushes towards God, seeking confrontation, to put his case to God, to demand to know why God would let him struggle like this. Job is desperate, and his desperation evokes anger and outrage at God.
Yet God makes himself unfindable:
8 “But if I go to the east, he is not there; if I go to the west, I do not find him. 9 When he is at work in the north, I do not see him; when he turns to the south, I catch no glimpse of him.
How frustrating it is when the person we want to confront is unavailable, inaccessible. God disappears and Job is left both desperate and angry, with nowhere to vent his anger. And yet, Job is also afraid of God – God is dangerous, and a confrontation with God could be a disaster for Job:
13 “But he stands alone, and who can oppose him? He does whatever he pleases. 14 He carries out his decree against me, and many such plans he still has in store. 15 That is why I am terrified before him; when I think of all this, I fear him. 16 God has made my heart faint; the Almighty has terrified me.
In the end, Job does not offer up a muted plea like the Psalmist. Instead, he shakes his fist at God:
17 Yet I am not silenced by the darkness, by the thick darkness that covers my face.
23 “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! 24 … Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
The disciples also experience similar desperate times with Jesus. While we think and teach about Jesus as always available, receptive and loving, sometimes he is not. We know the story in Mark 10 of a young man who rushes up to Jesus, falling on his knees and asking what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus seems, from the get-go, to treat him harshly, eventually telling him to give away everything he has, and the young man is crestfallen and “went away sad”. Jesus then turns to the disciples and says:
The disciples are amazed and shocked – presumably at both Jesus’ response to the earnest young man and Jesus’ words about how impossible it is to saved. Peter cries out in desperation:
26 Who then can be saved? [and] 28 But we have left everything to follow you!
You can hear Peter’s despair. He has left everything – family, work, home, community, his place in society, everything – to follow Jesus, and now Jesus says that it is impossible for man to be saved and how hard it will be for anyone to be saved. It seems to Peter and the disciples that everything they have sacrificed is for nothing.
This is a low point for Peter. He hits rock bottom as it seems to him that he has lost everything. His sense of purpose is fracturing.
Sometimes, we find ourselves in similar places to the Psalmist, to Job and to Peter. Our world seems to be falling apart, the challenges of life pile up and seem unduly heavy, God seems to have abandoned us, where is he to be found?, we feel alone and desperate. It as this lowest point that transformation can come.
Peter missed something that Mark noticed. In Mark 10:21a, Mark writes, “Jesus looked at him [the rich young man] and love him.” Jesus looked at him and he loved him. Jesus looked at her and he loved her. Jesus looked at me and he loved me. Jesus looks at you and he loves you.
The writer of Hebrews helps us understand that a fundamental change occurs in the life of God, through Christ’s experience here on earth. Before the incarnation, God could see what human life was like, but could not feel what it was like. But with Jesus’ coming into this world in human form, God now knew first hard what human desperation feels like. Hebrews 4
14 Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.
And because Jesus understands fully what it is like to be human, and because he truly understands what it is like to be desperate, and because he loves us utterly and to the very end, the writer to the Hebrews invites us to come to God:
16 Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
We can come to the throne of God, not with a muted plea, not with anger, not in desperation, but in confidence, knowing that at that throne we will find grace and mercy to help us in our time of need. We can be confident to wrestle with God, to plead with God, to challenge God, to lean into God. Because he love us and because he knows first hand how hard this life can be. Jesus (in Mark 10:29-31) does not promise an easy life – he promises both reward and persecution.
But he does promise that we can always have direct access to the throne of grace and mercy. Such is the love the Father has for us. God is always accessible, always nearby, always connected, always empathic, always in the midst of adversity with us.
We complete our five-part series on the Bread of Heaven, this week focusing on John 6:56-69. Over the past four weeks, Jesus has been consistently redirecting us to himself and presenting himself to us as the source of life. Among other things, he has show that:
He cares about us.
He feeds us, meets our physical needs, abundantly.
He redirects us from earthly things to heavenly spiritual things.
He directs us towards himself.
He invites us repeatedly into a relationship with him.
He says he is the bread of life, come down from heaven
He invites us to feast on him.
He offers us and the world eternal life.
Now the question is: How will you respond to all this?
There are two sets of responses in our reading: the response of the larger group of Jesus’ disciples and then the response of the 12 disciples, voiced by Peter.
The response of Jesus’ disciples
Today’s reading indicates that Jesus’ teachings are hard – who can accept them? What is it about Jesus’ teaching in John 6 that is hard to accept, offensive? In part, it is his claim that he came down from heaven (John 6:42) and in part that he invites us to eat his flesh and drink his blood (John 6:52). On the one hand, he is too heavenly and on the other hand he is too earthly and fleshy. He is too high and too low!
Jesus responds to the first point by asking how they will feel when they see him ascending back into heaven (John 6:61-62). If his claim to have come down from heaven is hard to accept, how much more witnessing him ascending back into heaven! And he respond to the second point by saying they should forget about earthly flesh and concentrate on spiritual flesh and words, which are full of Spirit and life (John 6:63).
But, recognising that his teachings are hard to understand, Jesus acknowledges that some do not believe and some who believe will fall away. It is our choice whether or not we believe in him. Yet, it is important for us also to know that God the Father enables our faith, enables us to believe and even to accept hard, difficult teachings. Indeed, three times in this chapter, Jesus emphasises that it is the Father who inspires and enables our belief:
The Father enables us to come to Christ (John 6:65).
God is sovereign. God does the drawing of our hearts towards Jesus. We rely and depend on God to enable and inspire our faith. And so we pray to him when our faith frays.
Nevertheless, many of Jesus disciples turn away and leave him. God does not force them to stay or force them to believe. We have free well to listen to God’s call and to follow him. God may give, draw and enable our faith, but he does not coerce – we still choose.
The response of Peter
Finally, Jesus turns to the 12 disciples – they are not among those who turned away and left. He asks them, “You do not want to leave too, do you?” (John 6:67). The phrasing of the Greek implies a ‘no’ answer. Jesus is hoping that they will not join the others who have turned away.
Peter’s reply is wonderful:
“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life!” (John 6:68) Peter knows the options out there, and concludes that they are all wanting. Even if Jesus’ teaching is hard to fathom, he can think of no better options. And besides, despite the difficult of Jesus’ teachings, he recognises that these are words of eternal life. Not words about eternal life, but the words of eternal life! Jesus very words are Life itself! As Jesus said earlier (v63), “the words I have spoken are full of the Spirit and of life.”
“We have come to believe to know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:69) Here Peter describes a process – the same process that we have been following these past five weeks: there is a process (“we have come”) of learning to trust Jesus and to entrust ourselves into Jesus (“to believe”) that leads to knowledge about who Jesus is and what he means to us (“and to know that you are the Holy One of God”). There is a process of trusting Jesus that leads to us knowing him.
All of this (this entire chapter 6 in John’s Gospel) has been about drawing us closer into a trusting relationship with Jesus, redirecting us from the things of the world to himself, and learning to trust that he himself, as the bread that has come down from heaven, is the source of all the nourishment that we need, of life, of Spirit.
Again, the question is: How will you respond to all this?
We continue with our series on the Bread of Heaven, this week focusing on John 6:35-51. Last week (Part 2) we saw how Jesus persisted in redirecting people from worldly work and food to heavenly work and food, from our actions to Christ’s actions, from our small vision to God’s grand agenda, and from bread to Christ. Everything was focused on getting us to redirect ourselves towards Christ, to orientate ourselves towards him.
Our passage today continues that theme, as Jesus unpacks what it means to orientate ourselves to him and how he takes the leading in enabling us to do that. I’ll be extracting five word themes from the passage. We’ll see that Jesus is once again persistent in using the same phrases over and over to drive home his message.
Christ’s invitation – come to me
First, Jesus repeatedly uses language that speaks to us coming to him, believing in him, eating of him, looking to him. Eleven times in 14 verses he uses these terms. He issues us an invitation, an open and generous invitation, to come to him. It is the central message of today’s text – come to me!
35 Whoever comes to me will never go hungry 37 All those the Father gives me will come to me 37 whoever comes to me I will never drive away 44 No one can come to me unless the father draws them 45 Everyone who has heard the Father comes to me 35 whoever believes in me will never be thirsty 40 everyone who believes in him shall have eternal life 47 the one who believes has eternal life 50 anyone may eat and not die 50 Whoever eats this bread will live forever 40 everyone who looks to the Son shall have eternal life
God’s grace – the Father’s will
Our ability to come to Christ is, however, by God’s grace. It is through the will of Father, and not through our own efforts or initiative that we can come to God. Only by grace, through faith in Christ. Six times, Jesus emphasises that it is through the work of the Father that we can come.
37 All those the Father gives me will come to me 39 this is the will of him who sent me 40 For my Father’s will is that 44 the Father who sent me draws them 45 They will all be taught by God 45 heard the Father and learned from him
Christ’s initiative – Christ comes down
As much as our capacity to come to Christ is through the grace and will of God, Christ himself also assists in coming down to us. We don’t have to go far to find him – he has already come to us. In the three places where Jesus refers to his coming down from heaven, he uses three different tenses: I have come, I am coming right now, I came. This suggests that his coming is timeless: yesterday, today and tomorrow, Christ is coming down from heaven.
38 I have come down from heaven 50 here is the bread that is coming down right now from heaven 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven
Christ’s inclusivity – each one and everyone
Jesus conveys his inclusivity in the way he refers to people in both the singular (9 times) and plural (8 times). It seems that he wants us to think of ourselves as being of special importance – just me, every single person, you the individual. And he also wants us to appreciate that he includes everyone, a radical inclusion that, in the last verse, encompasses the whole world!
35 whoever comes to me 35 whoever believes in me 38 whoever comes to me 39 I shall lose not one 44 No one can come to me 46 Not one has seen the Father 47 the one who believes has eternal life 50 any one may eat and not die 51 Whoever eats this bread will live forever
37 All those the Father gives 39 raise them up 40 my Father’s will is that everyone 40 raise them up 44 raise them up 45 They will all be taught by God 45 Everyone who has heard the Father 51 for the life of the world
Christ – the Bread of Life
And finally, Jesus repeatedly refers to himself as The Bread. Six times he calls himself the bread. In Parts 1 and 2 of our series, we encountered this only once – in the same verse that opens today’s reading. But here, he drives home that the bread we hunger after, the bread that sustains life, the bread that fills us up, is indeed Christ himself. If we are hungry and thirsty for something, Jesus is the one who satisfies us.
35 I am the bread of life 48 I am the bread of life 50 here is the bread that comes down from heaven 51 I am the living bread 51 Whoever eats this bread will live forever 51 This bread is my flesh
Today’s reading emphasises, repeatedly, that Jesus is the one we are after, that he is the one who, with the support of the Father, initiates the invitation for us to come to him and makes it easier by coming to us, so that each and everyone of us and all of us together can feast on the bread of life that has, is and continues to come down from heaven.
We continue with our series on the Bread of Heaven, this week focusing on John 6:24-35. Last week (Part 1) we read about Jesus’ feeding of the 5000 men (plus children and women) with just five small barley loaves and 2 little fish. We recognised that there were two levels to the story – on the ground floor, this is a story about Jesus caring about people being hungry and doing something about it; on the first floor up, this story is an invitation to have faith in Jesus, that he is more than capable of taking care of our needs. This week (in Part 2 of our series), we add on a third floor, which is to faith in Jesus, who is the Bread from Heaven, the Bread of Life.
Today’s passage involves four interactions between the crowd (who had followed Jesus after his feeding them) and Jesus: they as a question and Jesus answers. With each Q&A, Jesus seeks to redirect the people from focusing on the things of this world, on things of the past and on ourselves, and to rather focus on him.
Redirection from worldly work and food to heavenly work and food
The crowds ask Jesus, “Rabbi, when did you get here?” Jesus is quite critical of them, saying they are just chasing miracles and food for their tummies. The then urges them, “Do not work for food that spoils, but rather work for food that endures to eternal life.” Note Jesus’ emphasis both on work and food, contrasting work and food that are temporal and can go off and have to be discarded, versus work and food that are enduring, even to eternity.
This reminds me of Jesus speaking to the Samaritan woman at the well, just two chapters earlier, where he said, “Everyone who drinks this water [from the well] will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:13-14).
Jesus is redirecting us from the things of this world – from food and water and even miracles – towards the things that are of eternal significance – towards faith, towards heaven and (we shall soon see) towards himself.
Redirection from our actions to Christ’s
The crowd seem to be getting with the programme, so they ask, “What must we do to do the works God requires?” This is a laudable question – they want to do the works of God, they want to meet God’s requirements, so they want to know what they should do. It is hard to fault them for wanting to do the work of God! But Jesus gives two redirections.
First, he shifts the focus from that they must do to what God does. The tells them what they must do by referring to the “work of God“, not ‘your work’. This is a huge hint towards the centrality of salvation through faith in Christ. Jesus says that the work we must do is in fact the work of God. This reminds me of Phil 2:12-13, where Paul writes, “[you] work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfil his good purpose.” He gives what sounds like a contradiction! You work out your salvation because it is God who is working in you…” We cannot do anything, except what God does in us. We are dependent on God for everything that we do.
Second, he shifts from “the works God requires” to the “work of God” – from plural to singular. The crowds were thinking in terms of the many things they needed to do as signs of faith, but Jesus says, ‘No! There is just one work of God. Just one thing is required. And that is to believe in the one God has sent’. That’s it: to believe, or have faith. Faith alone is what God requires. And this faith is almost a falling into Christ, like a relaxing into him, reclining into him, resting in him. It is hardly ‘work’ at all!
Jesus is redirecting us from a focus on the many things we think we need to do to satisfy God’s expectations, towards a simple (yet also hard) just trusting in God to enable our faith in Christ.
Redirection from a small vision to God’s grand agenda
The crowds now get cocky and impertinent, asking Jesus what sign he will given them to prove that they should deign to listen to him. They seem to have entirely forgotten that he just fed thousands of people from a small lunch box! They refer back to Moses, when they were wandering in the desert, centuries before, who gave them bread from heaven (manna).
But in Jesus’ response, he contradicts everything they have said (and in the process, declines to give them a ‘sign’):
It is not about Moses, but about my Father.
It is not what was given to them (in the distant past), but what the Father gives them right now.
It is not about bread from heaven (manna, which lasted only one day), but The True Bread from heaven.
It is not just for you, but for the whole world.
Jesus directs them from a rather small and long-gone longing for manna from Moses towards a far greater, more enduring and more inclusive bread that is True and from Heaven.
Redirection from bread to Christ
Finally, it seems they get it! Instead of referring to Jesus as “Rabbi” as in the start of this passage, they now refer to him as “Lord” (or “Sir”). And they now ask, “always give us this bread”. They recognise that everything they had been setting their eyes and hearts on was quite worthless. But this True Bread that Jesus was talking about now – that was bread worth having! This is like the Samaritan woman, who says “Lord, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”
And Jesus replies,
I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
Jesus has completely redirected them away from bread to himself. Jesus IS the bread of life. He does not give them the bread of life; he is the very bread itself! If we want bread, we want Christ.
In Ephesians 1:3-14, Paul sets out in great depth and compact detail, his views on God and God’s relationship with us. This message is so timely in these days when we feel beset by Covid, together with the many other challenges we face in society. In a time like this, we need these words in Ephesians to take root in our hearts, where they grow and flourish. Paul’s writing is dense and compact, so I’ve extracted the words and phrases he uses and clustered them under three headings as follows:
The generous love of God
Blessed us, in the spiritual realm, very spiritual blessing, in Christ, in love, according to God’s pleasure, he has freely given us, redemption, forgiveness of sins, riches of God’s grace, bring unity to all things, under Christ, he lavished on us, according to his good pleasure.
These words speak about the extravagant, lavish, abundant, never-ending love of God that God pours out in a continuous and faithful stream into our lives. We are washed, saturated and soaked in the love of God. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, that can separate us from this love.
God’s plan and God’s sovereignty
He chose us, before creation, he predestined us, according to his will, all wisdom, all understanding, he purposed, when the times reach their fulfilment, predestined, according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will.
God is King. God is in charge. God has a plan, God’s will shall deliver on that plan, God is sovereign. Sometimes it may feel that God has lost control and we are floating free in the ocean, battered by the storms of life. But God is always in control, and we are always in the palm of God’s hand, even (perhaps especially) when it doesn’t feel that way.
Our place as God’s beloved
You also were included, you were marked in him, with a seal, (the sign of Christ), a deposit, a guarantee, an inheritance, God’s possession, adopted, sonship.
God holds us firm. God has marked us with the seal of the Spirit. We were marked at our baptism with a cross, the sign of Christ – that sign does not fade or dissolve. God can spot us in the largest, densest crowd. God knows those who are his own – he does not lose sight of us. He has adopted us as ‘sons’ – as those who receive the full and complete inheritance of God, even though we are not God’s own offspring. We are utterly precious and valuable to God.
Our English translation ‘thorn’ could be a thorn/splinter, or a stake/spike/pole, or anything pointed – differing views on which is more likely – a stake implies something shattering and devastating, while a thorn implies a low grade but constant irritation/infection
Could be ‘in the flesh’ or ‘for the flesh’, i.e. ‘for the inconvenience of the flesh’
‘Flesh’ can mean the physical body, in which case the thorn would be some physical malady, e.g., his poor eyesight, possible epilepsy, maybe malaria, migraines. Paul seems generally strong, resilient, tough, so a physical ailment seems unlikely.
Paul’s appearance – some disfigurement that made him ugly.
Flesh also means our human nature, particularly in Paul’s writings, so this could be some aspect of his human nature, mostly probably pride.
‘Sins of the flesh’ are almost always understood to be sexual sins, so this could be a sexual sin or temptation that Paul grappled with. But it would not have to be so narrowly defined – it could refer to any and all sins or temptations to sin.
It could the persecutions Paul suffered – the repeated attacks on his ministry, which could well have felt like a thorn in the flesh. Numbers 33:55 has a parallel: “But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land, those you allow to remain will become barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides. They will give you trouble in the land where you will live.”
The thorn as a ‘messenger of Satan’ might best support the thorn as persecution. Other passages speak of Satan impeding God’s work: 1 Thes 2:18 – “For we wanted to come to you—certainly I, Paul, did, again and again—but Satan blocked our way.”
“To torment [or buffet] me” suggests this was a long-term issue, not just a temporary one. The Greek word means “to strike a blow with the fist” or “to maltreat” in a way that brings shame, humiliation and indignation. Jesus was himself humiliated by the beatings he endured before the crucifixion.
He later refers to his ‘weaknesses’ – it the thorn the weakness, or does the thorn cause weakness?
We really don’t know what the thorn was and whether it was a thorn or a stake. If it was important that we know, Paul would presumably have told us. Let’s consider than any and all of these could have been his thorn or stake, and that for us, it can be any or all or others.
How did Paul handle or make sense of his thorn?
Paul prayed for its removal, three times, but it was not removed. God declined his repeated request. God does not always give us what we want.
But the response he got from God seems to inspire him, not discourage him.
God’s response – ‘he said to me’ – is in the perfect tense, it is a past tense that is definitive – what God said was definitive at the time, and remains definitive in the future, that “God’s grace is sufficient”. It was almost tattooed on his hands.
He is unworthy, unnecessary, dispensable = our human condition
Yet, God chooses to work with, in and through him because God chooses to do so = grace
The more dependent he is on God (i.e. the weaker he is) the more God is free to shape and use him (i.e. grace) and so he ‘boasts’ and ‘delights’ in his weakness, so that Christ’s power will rest on him. ‘Rest on him’ is shekinah in Hebrew: literally, “may pitch his tent upon me” or “may tabernacle on him”
This is not a masochistic spirituality! It is a recognition that Christ can and does work in and through his frailties and keeps at bay any pride/boasting: Any delight Paul gains is ‘for the sake of Christ’, not for the challenges themselves.
‘Then I am strong’ implies ‘strong in the Lord’, not ‘strong in myself’. He is ‘weak in himself, but strong in the Lord’.
Towards the end of John’s Gospel, Jesus prays for his disciples, “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one” (John 17:15). It seems that Jesus wants his disciples to be immersed in the world. Indeed, he reinforces this in verse 18, when he prays, “As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world”, with his double use of “into the world”. Christians, therefore, cannot stand apart from the world. We need to be invested in and participate in the world.
But in his prayer, Jesus also prays that we may be protected “from the evil one”. I suggest that he is praying that we don’t get co-opted into the ways and values of the world, whose master is the evil one. Jesus wants us in the world, but not of the world; active in the world, but not colluding with the values of the world, that is, the values of Satan.
It reminds us of the Lord’s Prayer, where Jesus prays both “thy kingdom come on earth as in heaven” and “deliver us from evil”.
John 8:2-11 provides us with an example of how Jesus implements this. A woman who was caught in the act of adultery is brought to Jesus by a group of men (teachers of the law and Pharisees). We don’t hear about the man who was engaged in adultery with her, which already tells us something is not right. They want Jesus’ opinion on what should be done. Jesus doodles in the dust – we’re not sure what he is writing. Perhaps he is weighing up the sins of the woman and the sins of each of the men.
When he stands up it is clear from his responses to the men (“Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her”) and the woman (“Go now and leave your life of sin”) that both the men and the women were sinful. Jesus then appears to lift up and suspend their sin – it is something they have in common – all are sinners. And what is left once their sin is lifted away?
A massive power differential. The men, as a group, as leaders and as men in a patriarchal society, have far greater power than the woman, as an individual and as a woman in a patriarchal society. The degrees of power between them are enormously disparate.
In light of that, Jesus opts to stand with the woman. He stands in solidarity with the one who is less powerful, more marginalised, more poor. This is Jesus’ pattern throughout his ministry. Scholars have come to call this Jesus’ “option for the poor“, because he repeatedly opts to stand with the poor. Not because they are less sinful than anyone else, but because they are less powerful, more vulnerable.
In the world right now, we are deeply disturbed by the escalating violence in the Middle East, between Palestine and Israel. This is a fraught situation, with a long history going back decades and even centuries. There are no easy answers. And whatever one says, one may be judged to be wrong. Nevertheless, let us attempt to apply Jesus’ method to this situation.
Both Israel and Palestine (and Hamas) have used and are currently using violence against each other. Each side blames the other for their use of violence, making it hard or even impossible to say who started it. Let us, then, like Jesus recognise that both sides use violence and lift or suspend that, for now. Not for ever, just for now. What is left once violence is lifted away?
A massive power differential. Israel, compared to Palestine, is wealthy, has powerful allies, has large amounts of land, has tremendous resources to protect itself. Palestine is impoverished, lacking in infrastructure, with very little access to the world, with few powerful allies and with increasingly little land and freedom. The degrees of power between them are enormously disparate.
In light of that, where would Jesus stand? He would stand in solidarity with the one who is less powerful, more marginalised, more poor. He would stand with Palestine. Not because Palestine is less sinful than Israel, but because they are less powerful, more vulnerable. This is Jesus’ option for the poor. He opts to stand with the poor.
And so we too should stand with the poor and not collude with the evil one who would prefer us to stand with the powerful. While it is good to pray for peace in that region of the world, it is better to pray for justice. Once the violence stops, the problems that fuel the violence will still not be resolved. These problems have existed for decades. They are fundamentally about justice for Palestine. Let us pray for justice for Palestine that leads to peace with Israel.
For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.
This follows probably the most well-known verse in the Bible, John 3:16, where Jesus says,
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
In both passages, there is a pattern of speaking from Jesus: not this, but this:
Not to condemn, but to save
Not perish, but eternal life
This ‘not-but’ pattern helps to make Jesus’ mission in the world – or rather, God’s mission for Jesus in the world – clear. Jesus’ mission is NOT about condemnation, judgement and death, BUT rather about salvation, health (in the Greek, the word for ‘save’ also means ‘heal’) and life (eternal and abundant).
A first implication of this is about our own thinking. Often we get caught up in spirals of negative thinking, where we focus excessively on the negative things about this world. While there are, of course, many negative things around us, dwelling or ruminating on these does not lead us towards salvation, health and life, but rather towards condemnation and death. In our obsession with negativity, we overlook or miss the many good things that there are in this world, the many gifts and blessings from God.
In the same way that Jesus’ mission is oriented towards salvation, health and eternal life – in a world that is full of darkness, corruption and despair – so should our thinking about the world be oriented towards salvation, health and eternal life.
A second implication of this ‘not-but’ pattern concerns what we stand for as Christians in this modern secular world. Too often, when Christians decide to stand up for something in our faith and to speak into the world, we stand up to condemn something – gays, trans, premarital sex, abortion, and so on. And our standing up for the things of God is often expressed in angry, judgemental, condemnatory and even hateful ways. All the things that Jesus says he did NOT come for.
Instead, let us stand for salvation, for health and for life abundant. For example, let us stand for access to health care, for quality and free education, for decent housing, for a higher minimum wage, for expanded social services. Let us stand for the sustainability of our planet, for building human fellowship and compassion, let us stand for the poor, let us stand for life. These are the things Jesus stood for. As Christians we should be standing for the same things.
For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.