A Word in Time: Saturday

This is my final contribution to the Methodist Church daily Bible study. Thanks to those who have commented on each day’s posts here.

Luke 9:46-50

True Greatness

 An argument arose among them as to which one of them was the greatest. But Jesus, aware of their inner thoughts, took a little child and put it by his side, and said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest.’

Another Exorcist

 John answered, ‘Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Do not stop him; for whoever is not against you is for you.’

 

Psalm: Psalm 76 

Background

I recall a conversation with two elderly ladies bemoaning the way children had stopped going to what they called Sunday School. Interestingly, they hadn’t been to church for years either!

Their father had once been superintendent of the town’s largest Sunday School with 400 children each week. One of the sisters said: “And every Sunday they came, sat in rows on the floor and not one of them dared move. They were completely silent because they knew what would happen if they made a peep.”

I suggested it wasn’t much fun. “It wasn’t supposed to be fun,” she said.

Another church I know realised their work with children and families had virtually died and so began afresh, concentrating on babies and parents; building from the ground up. It started with radical welcome, games, new equipment and ensuring that the families always felt at home.

Over time and with much love the work has grown until more than 100 children a month – and their families – now engage with that church and hear the gospel in new ways. And it is fun!

As the disciples argued among themselves about who was the greatest, Jesus took someone who in those days didn’t count – a child – and shamed them into understanding the upside-down values of the kingdom of God.

To welcome someone who was discounted in the eyes of society was to open the door for God. It enabled God’s just society to be built and it disabused the disciples of the need to prove themselves better than each other.

What about us? Perhaps our church doesn’t have children but we may well have other marginalised people in or near us. As Jesus said: “the least among all of you is the greatest”.

To Ponder

  • What are the issues around greatness that challenge us in our churches? How can we make a difference?
  • Is Jesus’ message about children still relevant in a denomination where many churches no longer have a Junior Church or any children connected? If so, how might you and your local church convey that message?
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A Word in Time: Friday

Luke 9:37-45

Jesus Heals a Boy with a Demon

 On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. Just then a man from the crowd shouted, ‘Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It throws him into convulsions until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.’ Jesus answered, ‘You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.’ While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. And all were astounded at the greatness of God.

Jesus Again Foretells His Death

While everyone was amazed at all that he was doing, he said to his disciples, ‘Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands.’ But they did not understand this saying; its meaning was concealed from them, so that they could not perceive it. And they were afraid to ask him about this saying.

 

Psalm: Psalm 75:1-7
Background

Following directly on from yesterday’s passage Jesus and the disciples have come down the mountain after the Transfiguration and soon he would ‘set his face to go to Jerusalem’ (Luke 9:51), where he would be forcibly taken to another hill and crucified.

As soon as they had descended Jesus was confronted with an evil spirit, a family in need, questions of faith, healing and more demands.

Some of the disciples – ones we often refer to as the inner circle – had been with Jesus at the Transfiguration. Others remained below, apparently failing to help the father who is in torment over his son.

Some had heard the voice of God say: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” (Luke 9:35). But even after the child was healed, they still didn’t get it when Jesus says: “Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands”.

It’s tempting to use that trite phrase that after every mountaintop experience you’re going to have to live in the valley. This story is about much more though.

The way of God was never going to be like a Marvel Comic movie – all blazing light and transformation into some kind of super being who strode across the world smashing down trees and mountains.

It was always going to be ‘my son, my chosen one’ speaking life and love to those in the brokenness of real life and who would then “set his face to go to Jerusalem” and that other hill.

To Ponder

  • Why do you think the disciples still found it so difficult to listen to Jesus and understand? How do we still struggle today?
  • How can we engage with people who live all their lives in the valley and never see the top of the mountain?

A Word in Time: Thursday

Luke 9:28-36

The Transfiguration

Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, ‘Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’—not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud.Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’ When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

 

Psalm: Psalm 74:13-23
Background

If Mark is the newspaper reporter of the Gospel writers – he writes in short, sharp sentences with a degree of urgency – then Peter could be the TV reporter.

He liked to capture the moment, either with an instant opinion or soundbite, and here he seemed to want to create an image to lock in their experience on the mountaintop. If they make three dwellings, or booths, then there will always be a place where he and others can come back and remember that Moses, Elijah and Jesus appeared together.

There may be difficult days to come but Peter’s dream was that these dwellings could provide them with a bolt-hole – somewhere to be able to recall this holy moment and sit together reminiscing.

What he failed to remember was his previous assertion that Jesus is “the Messiah of God” (Luke 9:20). So shortly after being certain that Jesus is the one for whom all Israel has longed, he now wants to create a memorial that would say something completely different.

To have three dwellings – or shelters as other versions of the Bible put it – suggests that Jesus is no different in status to Moses and Elijah. And Peter wanted to lock that in stone.

Then, almost as if it’s a rebuke, the voice of God reminded the disciples: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” (v. 35).

There are only three times in the Gospels when the voice of God speaks out loud – at Jesus’ Baptism (Luke 3:22), here at the Transfiguration and finally in John 12:27-28 after some Greeks ask to see Jesus. Each time God speaks it is to affirm Jesus as God’s beloved son.

Here it seems to make it clear that no one else stands in the same relationship: not even the heroes of Israel – Moses and Elijah.

To Ponder

  • Do we make the mistake of trying to ‘lock in’ our experiences of God? If so, how might we prevent this?
  • Are there holy moments that still sustain you in dark times? If so, what are they?

A Word in Time: Wednesday

Luke 9:18-27

Peter’s Declaration about Jesus

 Once when Jesus was praying alone, with only the disciples near him, he asked them, ‘Who do the crowds say that I am?’ They answered, ‘John the Baptist; but others, Elijah; and still others, that one of the ancient prophets has arisen.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered, ‘The Messiah of God.’

Jesus Foretells His Death and Resurrection

 He sternly ordered and commanded them not to tell anyone, saying, ‘The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.’

Then he said to them all, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words, of them the Son of Man will be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. But truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.’

Psalm: Psalm 74:1-12

Background

What is the mark of a true follower of Christ? Is it someone who can properly identify him or the person who gets on with the business of walking out a daily pilgrimage of faith?

In a quiet moment, Luke’s Gospel appears to have Jesus ask in an almost disinterested way if the disciples have been listening to the gossip about him: “Who do the crowds say that I am?” (v. 18). Could he be John the Baptist come back to life, or the great hero Elijah? Was it possible, the crowds were wondering, that another prophet was back among them?

Peter piped up that he has the answer: they are praying alongside ‘the Messiah of God’ (v. 20).

You might expect Jesus to have congratulated them for getting it right, but instead he begins to talk about suffering, rejection and his ultimate Passion. It’s as if the revelation of who he is unlocks the ability for the disciples to now appreciate what is coming their way.

More than that, they have to be confronted by the reality of discipleship. Jesus says: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it” (vv. 23-24).

Discipleship isn’t simply about knowing that Jesus is Lord and taking up the cross isn’t about putting up with some difficult, or even very tough, things in your life. Too often we trot out the phrase “It’s a cross I have to bear” when we talk about an inconvenience.

Jesus was calling the disciples, and us, to be prepared to die daily to their own desires in order to put God and the kingdom first: even at the cost of their own lives – just as he would give up his life for the whole world.

To Ponder

  • How does the Church in the West take up its cross daily?
  • Have we cheapened the idea of taking up our cross? If so, how? And what might we do to re-address this?
  • How do we renew the idea of daily discipleship?

A Word in Time: Tuesday

Luke 9:10-17

Feeding the Five Thousand

 On their return the apostles told Jesus all they had done. He took them with him and withdrew privately to a city called Bethsaida. When the crowds found out about it, they followed him; and he welcomed them, and spoke to them about the kingdom of God, and healed those who needed to be cured.

The day was drawing to a close, and the twelve came to him and said, ‘Send the crowd away, so that they may go into the surrounding villages and countryside, to lodge and get provisions; for we are here in a deserted place.’ But he said to them, ‘You give them something to eat.’ They said, ‘We have no more than five loaves and two fish—unless we are to go and buy food for all these people.’ For there were about five thousand men. And he said to his disciples, ‘Make them sit down in groups of about fifty each.’ They did so and made them all sit down. And taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke them, and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd. And all ate and were filled. What was left over was gathered up, twelve baskets of broken pieces.

 

Psalm: Psalm 73:15-28
Background

The 12 disciples had been on work experience: preaching and healing the sick in the villages around Bethsaida (Luke 9:1-9). They risked going out with no possessions, throwing themselves on the hospitality of strangers and proclaiming the kingdom of God.

Now, tired and in need of some time alone with Jesus, they set off for a debrief. They wanted to talk about what had happened and, presumably, check out if they had done well.

Everything we read in the Gospels suggests that time with Jesus was enjoyable; the meals were fun; the conversations were challenging; so these private moments would be precious. But just as everyone was ready to settle in for a good evening the crowds turned up.

You can picture Peter, James and John (the Sons of Thunder) getting ready to turn them away but, as Luke’s Gospel tells, us, Jesus “welcomed them, and spoke to them about the kingdom of God, and healed those who needed to be cured”.

How frustrating! Just when you want some quiet time with the Rabbi, people butt in and crowd you out.

Are there moments when you hope to find a space to be alone with Christ – say in prayer or Bible study – only to find that other people’s demands or someone else’s work schedule disrupt your carefully-prepared plan?

What’s the correct response? Is it right to get frustrated because our ‘quiet time’ with Jesus has been disrupted or should we celebrate because those who had greater needs were heard and healed?

Perhaps the most challenging thing about today’s passage is that Jesus never does get to relax with the disciples – within a very short time he’s putting them back to work: challenging their faith in the feeding of thousands.

To Ponder

  • How do you respond when your quiet time is disrupted?
  • Do you ever feel pushed out of the presence of Jesus?

A Word in Time: Monday

Day 2 of this week’s Methodist Church online Bible studies, which you can also find here.

Luke 9:1-9

The Mission of the Twelve

Then Jesus called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal. He said to them, ‘Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money—not even an extra tunic. Whatever house you enter, stay there, and leave from there.Wherever they do not welcome you, as you are leaving that town shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.’ They departed and went through the villages, bringing the good news and curing diseases everywhere.

Herod’s Perplexity

 Now Herod the ruler heard about all that had taken place, and he was perplexed, because it was said by some that John had been raised from the dead, by some that Elijah had appeared, and by others that one of the ancient prophets had arisen. Herod said, ‘John I beheaded; but who is this about whom I hear such things?’ And he tried to see him.

Psalm: Psalm 73:1-14

Background

Work experience will have been a really commonplace experience for many people in the past 30 years or so. They’ve listened to the theory, had some input from an expert and now’s the time to try it out. And that’s exactly where the 12 disciples are in this passage. Jesus sends them out to “proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal”. Behind these few verses must lurk a ton of questions about how, when, where, what …

In a previous career, I spent ten years training newspaper reporters and can still recall the look of horror when the first day came to send them out into the nearby town with one simple instruction: come back with six story ideas.

They were armed with a notebook, a pen, a good mind and the ability to ask the right questions. I also knew there were any number of good stories waiting out there.

The disciples were sent apparently with nothing. Well, they had the power to preach, to heal and to cast out demons. Apart from that, they took no possessions. Why? Because they needed to rely on the power of the story they took with them and also the generosity of those to whom they went.

Hospitality was a feature of life in biblical times and to go with too much wealth would be to tempt the disciples to shop around for the most comfortable lodgings. To travel light allowed them to be guests and know generosity.

Perhaps, as bearers of the story of Jesus, we need to relearn how to be guests in other people’s lives; to go with faith and a willingness to share rather than an insistence that only we have all the riches.

To Ponder

  • Where are you being asked to go and proclaim the kingdom of God?
  • And what do you need to leave behind?

A Word in Time: Sunday

This week I am providing the Bible studies on the Methodist Church’s website. You can find it at A Word In Time. Each day this week I’ll post the daily study with the main reading.

Mark 2:23 – 3:6 (NRSVA)

Pronouncement about the Sabbath

 One sabbath he was going through the cornfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, ‘Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?’ And he said to them, ‘Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.’ Then he said to them, ‘The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.’

The Man with a Withered Hand

Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, ‘Come forward.’ Then he said to them, ‘Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?’ But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.

 

Psalm: Psalm 139
Background

Growing up as a ‘chapel kid’ in the Welsh Valleys in the 1960s, it was fascinating to see the range of approaches to Sunday – the Sabbath.

Some households were incredibly strict: no TV, the vegetables were prepped on Saturday, no gardening – just chapel. Others were much less strict and went out for meals; even, horror of horrors, going dancing!

If I want to claim any kind of sporting success I could say that I turned down a trial with Bristol Rovers as a teenager. The truth is that they invited the whole club I played for to Bristol for a mass run-out. I couldn’t go because it was a Sunday and my parents expected me to be at worship.

The two incidents in today’s passage – disciples picking heads of grain and the healing of a man – are part of Mark’s Gospel building up the opposition towards Jesus. Mark chapter 2 is a series of stories that show how Jesus’ actions persuaded his opponents they needed to act against him.

Both of today’s incidents are Sabbath stories. The Pharisees would have been hot on anything they could pin on him. While it’s the disciples who are at fault in the first story, Jesus is blamed for their actions. As their Rabbi, Jesus seems not just willing to accept that but positively eager to take on the Pharisees’ challenge and turn the story into a theological joust.

Suddenly it’s the Pharisees who are made to look out of step. It is as if Jesus is saying to them,  “Don’t you know our story? Don’t you remember what (King) David did? How can you be so petty?”

For the Pharisees, the Sabbath is something to be marked by obeying the rules. For Jesus, it was something joyful to bless people as they honoured God. It was a time for re-creation in the presence of their creator.

Then Jesus points to himself as Lord of the Sabbath, but do the Pharisees understand his enigmatic description of the Son of Man?

To Ponder

  • How can you honour the Sabbath in a 24/7 culture?
  • Is a Sabbath truly possible anymore? What do you think could be done to restore some sense of the Sabbath?
  • Should Christians push for Sunday to be a no-shopping day? Why?

From the mystery …

IMG_7306

The hidden depths of a chrysalis conceal what breaks out as the beauty of a butterfly.

Today, at Romsey Methodist Church, we used butterflies as an image to help us understand the resurrection of Jesus Christ. After the crucifixion and a period of death Jesus appeared alive and transformed by God into our risen Saviour.

At the end of the service we fixed our butterflies to the front railing of the church as a signal to the town that new life has emerged.

… and I'm looking for the key