THE LETTER TO THE HEBREWS

Although traditionally attributed to Paul, few scholars now believe Saint Paul wrote the Letter to the Hebrews. The author is likely to be a second-generation Greek Christian writing in the Seventh Century. His style is more polished than Paul’s and the letter reads like a sermon. The Third Century theologian Origen frankly admits, “God only knows who really wrote it!” but, whoever it was, “He is a learned man, mighty in scripture.”

The author is writing to Jewish Christians, probably in Rome (“The brothers and sisters from Italy send you their greetings” 13.24). These Christians are weakening in their faith and in danger of reverting to Judaism. For this reason the author is anxious to recall them to an understanding of the supremacy of Jesus and the superiority of the Christian faith. He makes extensive use of Old Testament scripture but reinterprets it in the light of God’s revelation in Jesus. Repeatedly, the high Priest enters the Temple sanctuary to present sacrificial offerings to God. Such sacrifices are no longer necessary. Jesus is the high priest to end all high priesthood. “He has appeared once and for all to remove sin through the sacrifice of himself.” (9.26)

Christ is the conqueror. We are on the winning side. Christians are not dualists who believe the war between good and evil has yet to be decided. We are to live as victors, confident that we journey to an eternal city. And we are encircled, as we journey, by a great cloud of witnesses (the saints). We should “run with determination the race that lies before us. Let us keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, on whom our faith depends from beginning to end.” (12.1-2)

Much has been written about Melchizedek, the man of mystery highlighted in Chapter 7, who appears in the Old Testament book Genesis, bringing bread and wine to Abraham. Melchizedek is not a regular Levitical priest, nor has he any ancestry (very important to Jews), but he nevertheless collects a tenth of the booty Abraham had won in battle. He also gives Abraham a blessing. This is extraordinary! Melchizedek is clearly seen by the author as a Jesus figure with divine authority. What (if anything) does this mysterious figure tell us about priesthood in the Church today? This is a subject for another time!

The Letter to the Hebrews has obvious relevance for us today. As in the early Church, we see a tendency to weaken in our faith. (It is reported that many churchgoers doubt the resurrection and the likelihood of eternal life.) There is also the temptation, from which we are not immune, to slip back into cynicism and despair, into a way of thinking that the victory has notbeen won and our faith is a comforting fantasy. The writer to the Hebrews is adamant that to think like this is to betray our heritage and muddy the water for future generations. We are to stand firm and not prove faithless!

SAINT PAUL’S FIRST LETTER TO THE CORINTHIANS

Having had the privilege of working with Barry, Bishop of Bristol, several years ago, I know first-hand the diverse mix of issues a Church leader has to deal with. I used to wonder how the Bishop slept at night! It was no different for Saint Paul in the first century of the Church’s existence.

Paul was asked in about AD57 by the Church in Corinth to give his opinion on various matters. His First Letter addresses these issues but he expands and deepens his response because he has much to say on his own account.

Corinth was an important port on the isthmus joining the two halves of mainland Greece. It enjoyed a liberal, cosmopolitan and prosperous lifestyle. It had the reputation of being ‘Sin City’ and Greek and Egyptian Gods were widely honoured and worshipped. The Christian community was neither upper nor lower class. It consisted largely of the aspiring middle class, educated, ready to argue the toss and keen to explore new ideas. But Paul requires greater discipline. He wants to see a clearer commitment to truth and a more fervent and single-minded love of the Lord Jesus. Religion was not a hobby; it was not the icing on the cake; it was the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Nor was the Church a club where the like-minded could play with fanciful ideas or use up its energy discussing how it should be governed; it was the Body of Christ, doing the business.

In his First Letter to the Corinthians, Paul addresses divisions within the community, the nature of true wisdom, the sacredness of the body, recreational sex, marriage and divorce, social status, over-confidence, the gifts of the Spirit and the central truth of Christ’s resurrection.

I have chosen three quotations from 1 Corinthians which capture Paul’s wisdom and his passionate nature. They are worth meditating upon.

“To shame the wise, God has chosen what the world counts folly, and to shame what is strong, God has chosen what the world counts weakness.” (1 Cor. 1.27)

“Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast – not with the old leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” (1 Cor. 5.7)

“O death, where is your sting? O grave, where is your victory?” (1 Cor. 15.55)

And, last but not least, 1 Corinthians 13 which begins, “I may speak in tongues of men and angels, but if I have no love, I am a sounding gong or a clanging cymbal….” and ends, “There are three things that last forever: faith, hope and love; and the greatest of the three is love.”

Here we see doctrine raised to poetic heights. Sometimes Paul can be wordy and overbearing but here he expresses the fullness of faith. We thank God for Saint Paul and pray for Christian leaders today who experience both the heights and sometimes the heartbreak of Church life.

Nehemiah – a tale of repentance unity and determination

Nehemiah is written last of all the Old testament books, it sets out the story of the third significant return of exiles form their slavery in the nations that originally conquered them. It is likely written by Nehemiah himself as much of the narrative is in the first person. It is interesting to note that the story begins with an emotional prayer. It is a prayer of repentance for the wrongdoing of the whole of the Jewish nation, not just Nehemiah himself and this demonstrates the united, communal understanding both Nehemiah and the Jewish nation as a whole had of their identity and still have now. It is this unity that may well have acted as the catalyst for the return of the exiles. At the end of the first chapter we are told that Nehemiah is cupbearer to the king and this is significant because it shows he holds a position of respect and authority and yet is willing to give this all up to build up God’s people and God’s kingdom (as the Isrealites understood it at the time). Nehemiah’s vision for rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem forms the basis of this book and he galvanises everyone into action, but not without some significant opposition to surrounding nations and communities. This must have been a burden to carry and yet Nehemiah remains focused on the mission he believes God has given him and encourages others to do the same. Once again we see that prayer forms an important part of his strategy – nothing will be accomplished by strength alone but by the combining of our strength with Gods strength. There is no doubt the rebuilding of the wall was difficult, spriritualy as well as physically because the wall of the city of Jerusalem represents much more than physical safety but God’s promise to protect and hold together his people; the Israelites.

Once the wall is completed a deeper work of rebuidling begins and Nehemiah, together with Ezra undertake the work of rebuilding the faith of the people through prayer and bible study. In chapter 8 the people listen to the scriptures being read and explained for a whole day! That puts our sermon times into persepective. The people show tremendous commitment to this return to adhering to religious and spiritual expectations but, as the story goes on we see a familiar pattern, again and again Nehemiah is seen to be urging those who fail to observe religious expectation to begin and again and do so. The reality is that only around a third of the exiles actually returned to Jerusalem for this great rebuilding the walls never returned to their former height and needed constant guarding not being tall enough to protect the city – a physical example of the spiritual weakness of the returning exiles perhaps.

This is not, however a story of failure. It may be a story where the ‘success’ is somewhat exaggerated but at the heart of the message is is the importance of prayerful intent; to seek and serve God as he asks us to. Like the Israelites we are called to dedicate ourselves to prayer both in confession and in desire of God’s strength to complete the task of faithful service. The Israelites who returned with Nehemiah may have looked out on those rebuilt walls and wondered why God had not helped them rebuild them fully but we have the blessing of understanding that if those walls had been complete the Isrealites would have assumed God had done all he was going to do in redeeming them and where would the space have been for the coming of the Jesus the Son of God with a message that God’s Kingdom is and can be built everywhere and in everyone

We learn that as Gods people we honour him when we see ourselves as united in one body even if we worship in different places, churches, countries and languages – we are one community.

“Oh Lord of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps his covenant of love with those who love and obey his commands”

James

The letter of James is addressed "to the twelve tribes scattered among the nations, and is thought to have been written around 60AD" The term "twelve tribes" is reminiscent of the 12 tribes of Israel, but when reading it, it is apparent that this letter applies to all followers of Christ, and the variety of ‘conditions’ in which they find themselves, and not just to those at the time of writing but now! There has been much debate as to who James was, and a popular belief is he was the brother of Jesus. He allegedly carried with him a nick name, ‘Old Camel knees’ which purported to refer to the build -up of callouses on his knees due to many hours of prayer. He states his absolute commitment to prayer in the final chapter.

The letter can be basically summarised as -The Value of Trials and Temptation (1:2–18),Exhortations and Warnings (1:19–5:12), and The Power of Prayer (5:13–20)

Set out in a general theme of patience and perseverance during trials and temptations, James writes to encourage believers to live consistently with what they have learned in Christ. He wants his readers to mature in their faith in Christ by living what they say they really believe. He condemns various sins, including pride, hypocrisy, favouritism, and slander. He encourages believers to humbly live by godly rather than worldly wisdom and to pray in all situations. Martin Luther was a critic of James as James views of ‘faith demands action’ (chapter 2, vs. 17 and 26) didn’t wholly fit with Luther’s view of ‘only faith’.

I think the advice he offers is very relevant to our own society today, particularly that of how we speak to one another and about one another. Chapter 3 could be entitled ‘careless words cost lives’. We have an old adage that tells us that ‘The Pen is mightier than the Sword’ I think James would want to add, but the tongue can do most damage.

The prophet Amos has been called the Patron saint of Trades Unions, but I think that when you read chapter 5 you will see that James too has a claim on the title of the champion of the oppressed with some very strong words for those who have but don’t share.

However for me, the overriding advice from James is prayer and the call to reach out to those who have drifted from the faith to return. But don’t just read this short note, read the Letter of James in its’ entirety, it won’t take you long but it will be worth it!

There is also an absence from the letter of themes that Paul always seems to include in his writings, when you have read it let me know what you think.

To quote from the NIV chapter 5 verses 16 -20 -. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. Elijah was a human being, even as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops. My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, remember this: whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.

Acts – Disciples on the move with the gospel

Acts is one of my favourite books in the bible; it is dynamic and full of action, but it is also challenges and inspires us over the extent to which we might see the power of the Holy Spirit at work today. We catch perhaps our best glimpse of the early church –and its not a quiet life. From the uncontrolled havoc of shipwreck [Acts 27] to a mystical teleportation [Acts 8:40] God moves in dramatic and mysterious ways. In a twist which is difficult not to see as slightly comedic Eutychus nods off during one of Paul’s lengthy sermons (whilst precariously sitting on the 2nd floor window sill) and falls to his death! Fortunately by God’s power he is raised him to life again, although apparently the sermon still continued on afterwards!

Acts is full of stories which chart the path of the church’s expansion out of Jerusalem [the centre of Judaism] to Rome [the centre of the civilised world]. It is full of lots of tales and stories initially describing the events following Jesus’ death, but soon emerging in to an account of how Christianity came to involve the Gentiles [non Jews].

As well as dramatic accounts, there is much about the early church and it is encouraging and instructive to hear that Jesus followers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. This ethos continues to underpin our collective life together in our church and benefice community. We also begin to see some of the very early structures of the church itself as it wrestled with the practicalities of collective worship and life together.

Gods word though never fails to prompt a response. As Jesus’ followers we are encouraged that :

“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." [Acts 1:8]

For me that stands as an encouragement and challenge. As I read Acts I am challenged to ask myself, how is the Holy Spirit involved in my life and through me in the lives of the community around. Do I really allow Jesus to work in power through me so that I am an effective ambassador for him? But I also take encouragement that God chose to work powerfully through all different types of people in the early church, and that he will still do so today in us all, if we only ask him to.

Saint John the Evangelist

Saint John’s account of the life of Jesus was probably written about AD90. So, unlike the three earlier Gospels, quite a time has elapsed since Jesus walked the hills of Galilee. It would be as if you or I were to write about events which happened in the 1960s.

By the end of the First Century, followers of ‘The Way’ have been expelled from Jewish synagogues and a distinctive and self-aware Christian community has emerged. The Roman authorities are finding the Church a threat -and vice-versa.

Saint John, ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’, is often associated with the eagle, the bird which flies highest in the sky and nearest to God.

John is keen to establish Jesus’ DNA. He is God’s Son, pre-existent with the Father. He is the word made flesh. He is in charge and will be glorified as and when He chooses. The miracles Jesus performs are not stand-alone events, but ‘signs’ that point to the Father’s eternal presence. Jesus stands over against ‘the world’. He is the true bread. Jesus’ crucifixion is not a disaster. On the contrary, it is the grand finale which opens the gates of glory. Suffering and death lead to eternal life. They are not to be avoided. Obedience is the key.

The world fails to understand Jesus. He operates on a level people find hard to grasp. The Pharisees, the disciples, the man cured of blindness are all wrong-footed. They recognise Jesus has power but it is not power as they know it. At the Last Supper, Peter is likewise confused: one minute he objects to having his feet washed, the next he’s up for total immersion!

But, above all, Jesus is in charge. On the night before His death, He carries a bowl of water to wash the disciples’ feet, an action which requires supreme, unhurried focus. Later, in the Garden of Gethsemane, the arresting officers fall down at Jesus’ approach. They might have the weapons, but Jesus has the moral authority. It’s His agenda.

John has an eye for the dramatic detail. When Judas leaves the Last Supper to betray Jesus, the reader is told, “And it was night”. It’s like a stage direction.

The Jesus in John’s Gospel compels our attention. He is the still centre. In Chapter 6 we read, “Jesus knew from the very beginning who were the ones that would not believe and which one would betray Him.” He rules. He is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. He will not be side-tracked. He prays for the unity of his followers, that they will be steadfast in the face of the world.

By writing later, John is able to take the long view and he is in no doubt that no power on earth will put out the light who has come into the world; and He comes, not to condemn the world, but to save it.

Holy Spirit

The Holy Spirit causes much misunderstanding and confusion amongst Christians, and of the three elements of the Trinity it is probably the least discussed. It is often deliberately avoided and I have heard it said that the ‘Spirit’ ought to come with a warning like that on cigarette packets,’ be careful this can severely affect your life!’

There are many, many references to the Spirit in the Bible and the Holy Spirit plays many roles.

These passages may help us understand the role of the Spirit in our lives. In John 14, for example, Jesus says the Holy Spirit will comfort us when we’re hurting. "I will not leave you as orphans," Jesus says (14:18), promising that the Spirit will bring us peace (14:15-27, Jesus also says the Spirit will help us recall the things we’ve learned about God (14:26)—which also means the Spirit will help us when we tell others about our faith.

In John 16, Jesus refers to the Spirit as a "Councillor" who will guide us in our everyday lives, and there are many, many other references.

Many branches of the Christian church focus on the ‘Word’, whilst others focus on ‘experiencing’ the Holy Spirit. Two renowned theologians, John Stott and R.T. Kendall make the point that fullness lives in Word and Spirit.

There have been many attempts to describe The Spirit, one of my favourites is quoted by Liz Babbs, when she says The Spirit is like the touch paper activating our faith and causing it to ignite. The basis for this is that the Greek translation for the word Jesus used in Acts 1, vs. 8 for the Holy Spirit is Dunamis, from which we also get Dynamite!

The early church was certainly ignited on the first Pentecost, so much so that the Christian church is still spreading and growing.

Romans 8, verse 11 (The Message Translation.) -It stands to reason, doesn’t it, that if the alive-and-present God who raised Jesus from the dead moves into your life, he’ll do the same thing in you that he did in Jesus, bringing you alive to himself? When God lives and breathes in you (and he does, as surely as he did in Jesus), you are delivered from that dead life. With his Spirit living in you, your body will be as alive as Christ’s!

Go forth and spread the word.

The Book of Leviticus : Read the small print !

Voted “the least favourite book of the Bible” [Bible Society] Leviticus is in many ways the small print of the 10 Commandments, which focuses on people’s relationship with God and people’s relationships with each other. Material originating from Moses, passed down by word of mouth, was put together in a “book” by scribes around 700 BC.

In a time when people were very aware of the “holy” and the “profane” the book gives instructions on sacrifice [meaning : “to make sacred”] for people to show their appreciation of God and to make amends when people failed to follow His Commandments. This sacrificial worship provided a ritual “bridge” between the sacred and the profane. Guidance is given for the appointment of a priesthood to enable the sacrificial worship. The book continues with instructions on ritual cleanness and uncleanness – in some ways, rules for health and hygiene as understood at the time – in which blood is seen quite clearly as “life” [17 v 14]. Directions are given for festivals [still followed today in Jewish communities],an annual Day of Atonement, a Year of Jubilee, and a Sabbath Year for the earth to have a rest. The latter two must warm the hearts of those concerned about social justice and ecology.

Whilst many of the requirements of Leviticus were jettisoned by Jesus and the Apostles, Leviticus is still important today. It helps us to understand :

the Jewish faith and practice of Jesus’ time;

the sacrificial theology which is used in the New Testament to describe who Jesus is [eg “Lamb of God”] and the language describing how He won salvation on the cross;

the ritual of this period still influences Christian ritual and worship today;

and how “blood” = “life” and how this relates to the Eucharist, Kosher and Halal foods,

Leviticus can be divided up into the following sections:

1] Rules about sacrifices and offerings : Chapters 1-7 [repetitive!]

2] Ordination instructions : Chapters 8-10

3] Rules about ritual cleanness and uncleanness : Chapters 11-15

4] Day of Atonement : Chapter 16

5] Rules about holiness in life, worship and festivals : Chapters 17-27

Try reading : Chapter 17 “Slaughter of animals”[NB 17 v 14] [re-read where appropriate substituting the word “life” for “blood”]; Chapter 19 v 18 “you shall love your neighbour as yourself”; Chapter 23 “Festivals”; Chapter 25 “The Sabbatical Year” & “Year of Jubilee”; Chapter 26 v 11-13 “God’s vision for His people” & “a prophecy of the coming Messiah” ?

The Book of Ruth

The short, and readable book of Ruth comes early in the Old Testament after Judges and is from the same time historically. The date is not known, but it was during the time that the Israelite nation was run by the Judges, rather than ruled by the later monarchy. Someone has written that it reads like a Thomas Hardy novel.

Elimelech, a native of Bethlehem, and where there had been a famine, emigrated to Moab with his wife Naomi and his two sons, both of whom married Moabite women. The father and both sons died in Moab, and Naomi and her daughter in law Ruth returned to Bethlehem.

There, Ruth met Boaz, who was a relative of her husband’s family, and they married. As a result, she, a Moabite woman, became the great grandmother of King David. The book is so short that I will not give you much more of the story: you can read it at your pleasure!

It “gives a series of intimate glimpses into the private lives of the members of an Israelite family: a delightful account of the remnant of true faith and piety in the period of the Judges.”

According to Jewish tradition, the main theme of Ruth is loyalty, or faithfulness (chesed) to do with caring, and commitment. Chesed is a Hebrew term used to describe God’s relationship to Israel as well as the relationship among members of a family or community.

Family continuity is also a theme. Male members would be expected to perpetuate this, but here, they are all dead. It is through the women, Naomi, and Ruth a non-Israelite, that family continuity is achieved. Boaz also has a part to play here as a kinsman of Naomi. He does his duty as an Israelite and in my opinion he is a fortunate man for doing that! He becomes a kinsman –redeemer: a male member of Jewish society who helps someone in time of need.

Verse: Blessed be the Lord……He shall be to you a restorer of life.

Judges – A history of struggle (and don’t we all?)

The Book of Judges follows Joshua in the Bible. Although not written down until about 1000BC it records the history of the Israelites from about 1220 to 1050BC,

Joshua was now dead and the tribes of Israel established themselves in Canaan. Life was hard, cruel and violent, a time of struggle as the Israelite tribes fought to maintain their fragile hold of their new land, hard pressed by people who resented their presence and the threat they posed. The individual tribes had also drifted apart as they began life in their allotted territories, remaining united in only one thing, their often faltering faith and loyalty to God.

The local Canaanites had various “gods” of their own so the Israelites’ unique faith in God set them apart. The Book of Judges unfortunately paints a depressing and repetitive pattern of infidelity to God. Time and again they turned away from the one true God, sometimes switching their allegiance to other local gods. It brought weakness and division upon them.

Well that was the bad news! The better news was that during the “down” times God raised up a number of “Judges”. They were not Judges in quite the modern sense, i.e. dispensers of justice (although no doubt some of Israel’s judges would have judged internal disputes), but instead were charismatic local military leaders who were able to rally, unite and inspire the nation or tribe(s) to become loyal to God again. 12 Judges are mentioned in the book, the most familiar being Gideon, and Samson. They were far from perfect but nevertheless successful in recalling the tribes to return to the ways of God at least for a time. When this happened they enjoyed a time of victory, prosperity and stability.

Unfortunately I did not find the Book of Judges to be very forthcoming with golden nuggets of verses to quote. However, try thinking about Judges 14:14 “…. out of the strong came forth sweetness” (King James Bible). Interesting fact: You will still find this verse quoted on the Lyle Golden Syrup containers. I checked it myself!

This verse, although ripped mercilessly out of context, might provide a focus for reflection. We, like those Israelite people, tend to ebb and flow in our faith. Throughout life we too repeat this familiar pattern of the Israelites in the time of the Judges – sometimes we draw closer to God, at other times we withdraw. But God is always there, giving us repeated opportunities to repent, be forgiven, and to start again. He is our utterly dependable, secure, restorer, and inspiration to start again. In the weeks of this Easter season try to reflect upon, and give thanks to God, who out of his love for us sent his Son our Lord Jesus Christ overcoming the powers of darkness in order to bring us into the sweetness of new life. Give thanks also to God for those people who throughout your life, have helped bring you back to the “sweetness” of faith.