The parable of the prodigal son may be a familiar one to you. Son number 2 comes of age and asks his father for his inheritance, heads off and lives the high life of parties and frivolity. But then the money dries up, he works and even eats in the squalor of the pigsty and decides to take the emotionally difficult journey back to his father to see if his father might allow him to work for him – not as a son, but a servant.
On seeing his son on the way home, the father runs to meet him, embraces him and throws a huge party to celebrate his return. Son number 1 isn’t happy though, he feels like his brother is being rewarded for deserting them. Son 1 has done everything right, perhaps even borne extra responsibltiy as a result of his brother leaving the family firm.
Th father gets why Son 1 feels this way – but also challenges him. Everything I have s yours, he says, but this is not about the money, it’s about my love for you both. Your brother was lost, we thought he was dead – but he is alive and found.
In the money driven economy of the western world, it can be so easy for earthly riches and our societal and institutional responsibilities to become the focus of our living, activity and even our whole being. But this parable reminds us that what really matters to God is not our earthly activity, but our willingness to come to God, who is a perfect and loving parent, and find welcome and love beyond measure.
Follow Up: Luke 15 tells of 3 ‘lost’ parables – the lost Sheep, Lost Coin and Lost Son. We often look at each separately, but there can be value in looking at the whole chapter together too. What threads and themes do you notice?
Today’s reflection is also available in Worshipping Together, a monthly worship at home resource.
After some weeks of incredible football and an intense match last Sunday evening, where England played their hearts out against the team that were always tipped to win, to end up at a penalty shootout and come second in the tournament seemed to me to a pretty good result. Not only that, but even more importantly, the way the whole team have sought to live with integrity, solidarity and ownership of their decisions is an example we need to see more of.
So it has been devastating to witness yet again the systemic racism that is present, and seemingly becoming more prevalent in society. To ‘blame’ England’s loss on a trio of gifted footballs because they are black is abhorrent and should have no place in our society, I hope you would agree.
But how will we respond? How do you stand against racism in your living and daily activity in your community?
This morning I feel convicted to recognise that to do nothing, to ignore or let it pass by in the hope things will change, or that someone else might do something about it, is the collude with the racists themselves. To do nothing is to deny the truth that all people are made in the image of God.
Rooted in Christ, we can have confidence that despite worldly opinions, the invitation to God’s table is for all. So let us stand up, speak up and live with confidence in justice, dignity and solidary for all God’s people.
Last week our journey through the ending(s) to John’s gospel took us to the shore of Galilee to Peter and some of the other disciples having fun fishing on the lake, meeting the risen Jesus and enjoying fresh fish with him around a campfire. Friends enjoying breakfast together as the sun breaks on the shore.
This week we pick back up where that scene left us, because as breakfast is finished and the campfire moves from flames to glowing embers, Jesus turns to Simon Peter and asks him ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”
It feels like a change of pace in the story – we move from an intimate breakfast with friends perhaps having fun and laughter together, to an intimate and deep 1 to 1 between Jesus and Peter.
“Yes Lord, you know that I love you.” comes Peters’ reply.
I wonder how he spoke those words. What his tone and body language was? Was Peter filled with confidence and conviction, as he must have been moments before when he had jumped into the water and waded to shore. Or was he filled with remorse and guilt, his denying Jesus that night in the Jerusalem courtyard coming back to haunt him?
This conversation repeats, 3 times in total Jesus ask Peter do you love me, each time Peter responds, “yes Lord you know me, everything about me, you know, you know I love you.”
It is interesting and perhaps not surprising given how we often find numbers used within scriptures storytelling, that after Peter 3 times denied, Jesus asks him 3 times ‘do you love me’.
I wonder if, for Peter, there was something redemptive and transformative in that being asked 3 times – if it helped him to find forgives and wholeness after his 3 times denying Jesus. But let’s not get Jesus wrong, there is no suggestion here that our wrongdoing, our guilt, our sin, needs to then be corrected by actions, words and works that go in the other direction – as if we have to rebalance the scales. That’s not how Jesus’ love and care for us works.
Jesus is not reprimanding Peter. Yes, he is asking a question, but it seems to me that this conversation is a gentle, friendly, loving one between 2 friends in a corner on the beach after sharing fish sarnies.
Each time Jesus responds to Peter in a similar way.
Feed my lambs. (v15b)
Tend (or shepherd) my sheep. (v16b)
Feed by sheep. (v17b)
Different words – and there may be some significant to the nuances there, but a common thrust. In just a few small words Jesus calls Peter deeper, responding with love, acceptance, welcome, forgiveness and commissioning to serve the flock of Christ.
Sometimes I wonder if, as we see this encounter move from the fun and laughter of breakfast to this 1 to 1 with Jesus, we think Peter is expecting to get his comeuppance for his denying. But Peter knew Jesus, and I wonder if Peter would have been expecting the exact opposite. Expecting Jesus would forgive and love and accept him, and still call him deeper – and feeling guilt and shame because he didn’t think he was worthy of it.
I wonder if this challenges some of our assumptions as Christians about how we think about our own worth. I wonder if we too often feel guilt and shame more intensely than we should or than Jesus ever intended us to. I wonder if we expect reprimand when Jesus just wants us to receive his love, and love him too. I wonder if we have allowed the notion of sin to become a barrier in our relationship with Jesus and our responding to his call to go deeper.
Jesus says to you today: do you love me?
Friend, no matter what I love you. I forgive you and I still call you. Come deeper with me, serve me, follow me.
Week 4 in our journey through Advent reflecting on a year of interruption.
Where have you found love this year? How are you sharing love today?
Comment below with your thoughts….
2020 has been a different year to how any of us had imagined it would be back in January. And Christmas 2020 is no different – Christmas is going to be different this year.
The story is told of a Dad who called a family conference. He’d decided their Christmas was going to be different. They had been getting carried away with frivolous festivities. And so he told them, they were to be more disciplined.
Cutting down on excessive spending on gifts. they were going make sure there was a better atmosphere between visiting relatives. His speech came to a crescendo with a final rallying cry – let’s make this the best Christmas ever!
After a few moments of quiet, the youngest son nervously spoke up – “but Dad, I don’t see how we can ever improve on the first Christmas”
I think many of us are aware how we can sometimes get caught up in what we could call the culture of Christmas – the commercial call to buy as many presents as we can, to stock the kitchen to the hilt, to spend time with family and friends, eating together, playing games together…
Familiarity can sometimes breed complacency. And this year I wonder whether the fact we are having to think more carefully about how we spend Christmas might cut into the familiarity, and make us think more carefully about what Christmas is really about.
Because let’s face it, pandemic aside, we shouldn’t need an excuse to spend time with family and friends, to give gifts to one another to show our love and care for them. This should be a normal part of life as human beings, created to be in relationship with one another.
Christmas is about something more important. Something no matter of family conference can improve on. Something no restrictions can take away. Christmas is not, cannot be, cancelled.
At Christmas we celebrate the world being interrupted by a gift of love. Because God shows his love for us through the life of Jesus, who as Christians we believe demonstrates true love to us, welcoming the outcast, caring for the stranger, loving us for who we are.
Advent is a time of watching and waiting – leading us to Christmas when we celebrate the birth of Jesus. But Advent is also a time of realising what we are watching and wating for is already with us. Jesus is already here. And is a gift of limitless love for us.
I don’t know about you, but sometimes when I get a gift at Christmas, or get a Christmas card in the post, I feel a bit bad if I’ve not sent them a gift or card. I want to reciprocate – to give back – and I feel it’s not fair.
Well God’s gift of Jesus isn’t fair either – because God gives and gives, and doesn’t expect anything from us, just to receive. We call it grace. God giving when we don’t think we deserve it, and expecting nothing of us except to receive it.
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.
In this year of interruption, This Christmas interrupted, May your life be interrupted… by God’s gift of love.
Use of this service is subject to the terms and conditions printed in size 3 font on the back left wall of the store – next to the white display unit.
Alternatively you can access our Terms and Conditions through our website by finding the link somewhere on our homepage – usually in pretty small grey font, but it depends if you’re viewing our website on computer, tablet of mobile device.
Ok, so it’s not always that hard to find them, but they’re not always easy to make sense of are them. Terms and Conditions are often long, full of legal jargon, and it’s not unusual that I’m still not sure what they really mean after I’ve read them. In fact, I confess I sometimes just tick the box to say I’ve read them and move on.
Terms and Conditions are part of 21st Century life, every social media account, every purchase we make, every contract we sign comes with some sort of conditions. Rules, guidelines, commitments, legal requirements – from the provider, but also from me the receiver.
I’ve heard lots of times people saying things like ‘God doesn’t love me, I’m not good enough’. Every time it fills me with sadness because somehow the world thinks God has a long list of complicated, undecipherable terms and conditions that mean no one can ever live up to them.
But it’s just not true, this misconception.
In the Bible there’s a letter that Paul writes where he talks about this sense of being cut off from God. I’m putting into my own words here – you can look it up for yourself if you want, it’s Colossians 1:21-22.
once you were cut off from God because of your evil deeds, but now you are reconciled because of Jesus, made holy and blameless and no longer cut off.
In the gospel of John we read Jesus saying:
“anyone who comes to me I will never drive away”
A relationship with God doesn’t need to start with terms and conditions of us being perfect or thinking we’re good enough. There are no legal requirements.
Relationship with God starts with accepting the wonderful, amazing fact that God loves us for who we are and will drive no one away.
If you haven’t already, start a relationship with God today – he’s ready and waiting to hear from you, and accept you with open, loving arms.
Throughout August I will be encouraging us to reflect on things we have learn and are learning through lockdown about self, God and being Christian community.
On the 1st September 2016 we moved to Queens Foundation, Birmingham where I was to begin my training. As we’d only got a small, 2nd floor flat for the 4 of us, college had offered us a garage, and, at first, we parked the car in it.
On the 2nd September 2016 we took a trip to the supermarket. We got back, unloaded and I shut the garage door – it was quite stiff to shut, but I kept pushing, thinking, I must get some WD40 for that… until I realised I never locked the car…or shut the boot. I went to re-open the garage door to discover that the boot and garage door were now hitting each other – I couldn’t open the garage door beyond a few inches.
I spent about an hour trying to work out how to solve the puzzle. In that time, I met various other students and members of college staff, their first introduction to me was seeing a stranger trying to break into a garage…thinking back I’m not surprised those conversations started with some suspicious looks.
Eventually, I managed to reach through the top gap of the garage door get some rope tied to the car boot, then reach through the bottom gap and pull it down to get the garage door open. The car boot had a few scratches, but at least I’d got access.
Before lockdown, my experience of church communities is that our default way of people accessing ‘church’ was by attending a church building. Within these buildings we hold services of worship, community drop-in’s and coffee mornings, prayer groups and bible studies, toddler groups and quiz nights.
As lockdown came in access to all these things was stopped. Our buildings we’re locked as part of the nationwide effort to reduce physical gathering and push down the spread of COVID-19.
So during lockdown, our default way of accessing ‘church’ – by gathering in a church building – was suddenly blocked from us – just like my car was when I foolishly shut the garage door.
This led to two things – firstly – creativity. Utilising post, email, phone, blog posts, YouTube, video and telephone conferencing and more. Creatively developing lots of different ways for people to engage with church without the building. – to be a scattered church
Secondly – it led to greater self-responsibility. What do I mean?
Well I mean that because accessing ‘church’ has not been about gathering in a building, individuals have had much more responsibility themselves as scattered church for nurturing their faith and relationship with God. The format moved from what could perhaps slightly crassly be described a passive attendance to active engagement. People had their own space and freedom to choose how to engage, how to be church.
Not only that, but people who for one reason or other were much more cut off from the worshiping community, for example living in care homes, working on Sundays or caring for relatives, feel they are included and connected to the worshiping and spiritual life of the church community in ways they never did before.
In the gospels we read the familiar story of people bringing children to Jesus for him to bless them. The disciples try to stop it – children, it seemed didn’t matter. But Jesus rebukes them and says let them come to me – the kingdom of God belongs to them too.
It is a passage that’s often used within infant baptism, that vulnerable, innocent children are welcomed by Jesus.
But I wonder, if we take a step back from the story itself, and see it in light of Jesus wider ministry, healing the blind and crippled, spending time with tax collectors and zealots, the excluded and the vulnerable, this passage may take on even more meaning for us.
I wonder if this passage might challenge us as worshipping communities to reflect ourselves on where we might, intentionally, or un-intentionally, be excluding people from being a greater part of the community.
Developing an attitude of access
Lockdown has forced me to look differently at our church communities and makes me wonder if we may have fallen into the trap of letting buildings become too central to our common life together. It makes me wonder how passive we’ve allowed that life to become – and how it unhelpfully and unfairly excludes those who for one reason or other, cannot access it.
But it’s also show me that there are simple ways to begin to redress that balance and build a more accessible and inclusive community. That there are ways access can be achieved for those who are excluded – in part by having a little less focus on buildings, and a little more on discerning how best to connect with people where they are, not where they are not, with our focus on the kingdom of God.
And it’s also shown me the fruit that is borne when individuals have more active self-responsibility for their worshiping and spiritual life.
What may all this mean for the future?
I sense a strong challenge from God – challenging us to not build up ours walls in a way that they keep people out, but to build up one another in a way that allows us to bring people in.
What walls may we need to allow God to break down so that we can grow into a more inclusive and active community that keeps the kingdom of God at the centre?
As part of Bible Month 2020 we are unpacking the short story of Ruth, a story of finding hope and finding home in the midst of vulnerability and loss. Find out more here.
Growing up one of my favourite films was Toy Story. I loved the idea that my toys lived in a world of their own every time I left the room.
In the first film, Buzz is a new toy who enters Andy’s toybox community as an outsider. Buzz believes he is a real space ranger, not a toy, and believes he can fly. Throughout the film Buzz is on a journey of discovering who he really is, while the rest of the toys are on their own journey of learning to welcome difference into their community.
In Ruth 3, we found Ruth visiting Boaz at night, hoping he would give her a home, long term security and survival for her and Naomi.
Naomi and Ruth had lost much, their husbands, their security, safety. They were grieving. They were struggling for hope. The nature of the culture of the day meant they were vulnerable to the nth degree.
But Boaz is not the immediate next-of-kin. There is someone else who is a closer kinsman, and in keeping with the culture, has first rights to act as next-of-kin to Naomi and Ruth.
At the start of Ruth 4, Boaz takes centre stage. It’s his turn to take action. He speaks to the closer next-of-kin who does have first rights to act.
Now Boaz, perhaps, pulls a bit of a sly move here. I think as readers of the story we’re encouraged to see Boaz in a positive light, but it could also be said he’s possibly a bit manipulative here, or self-seeking.
Maybe he really did like Ruth and wanted her to be his wife, and twisted things in his favour. Or maybe he saw an opportunity to obtain land and so did what he had to do to get it.
So Boaz meets this closer next-of-kin, at the city gates, in public, with 10 of the city elders with them. He says to this man, – “hey, you know Naomi, she’s back, and she’s selling the land that belonging to our kinsman, Elimelech. So, I thought I’d tell you about it here and now in front of all these witnesses. If you will redeem it, do, but if not, tell me and I will redeem it.“
The unexpected discovery that Naomi own’s some land is a surprise, it was Elimelech’s, perhaps left during the famine and never returned to. The fact she’s selling the land is probably a sign that Naomi has lost all other hope, and selling the land, that would, one would think, offer long-term fruitfulness, is the only way for her to survive in the short term.
The man says to Boaz “yes – I will redeem it”. Then Boaz goes on, and claims that by taking the land, he must also take Ruth, the Moabite, and maintain the dead man’s name. This would mean any children they had would be named for Ruth’s dead husband… and that they would, in the end, inherit the land.
The man says – “I can’t redeem, it will; damage my own inheritance. You redeem it.” Does Boaz use Ruth’s foreigner status to his advantage? Or does he use this to overcome the fact that there was a prohibition against marrying a foreigner – because by becoming next-of-kin he can legal marry Ruth despite that.
They have a son, Obed, who Naomi cares for – in some ways he becomes a son to Ruth, Boaz and Naomi – Obed becomes symbol of the restoration of hope – because there can now be descendants.
No longer is Ruth an outsider, she’s found hope. She’s found home. And not just with Boaz, but with the community.
Ruth and Boaz marry, all the people and elders are at the marriage, and bless Ruth – ‘may she build up the house of Israel’ they say (Ruth 4:11). Ruth is now seen as a member of the Israelite community.
And that’s where Buzz and Toy Story come in. In life we often encounter people who are strangers to us. People different from ourselves.
As Churches – Christian communities, I believe God call us to be a community that reaches out in love to all. To welcome in the name of Christ those we perceive to be, and not be, like us. Cowboys or Space Rangers. Slinky Dogs or Potato heads. Barbie dolls or dinosaurs.
To help each other discover who we are – made in the image of God – to work out if we are real or just a toy, if we can fly, or fall with style (if you don’t understand the references – do watch the film).
To make space for all people to find hope, through faith in the God who is a God for all.
To discover that the community of faith is the place in which all people, no matter background or belief or race or gender or sexuality or ethnicity or self-confidence – can find home and belong.
Church – God’s challenge to us, regardless of lockdown, regardless of what gathered community is going to look like in the coming weeks and months, is to make sure that this call from God is the reality found among us. A community of hope. A community that points to the home that can be found when we discover we belong to God. A community that reaches in love to all.
God works through the unexpected. God works through the stranger. We are never without Hope. In God, we find home.