He is risen!

The angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: “He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.” Now I have told you.’

Matthew 28:5-7

Sometimes no matter how many times someone tells you something you can’t believe them. Perhaps you’ve had a conversation with one of your friends and they’ve told you something significant, maybe that they’ve got a big promotion at work, or they’re getting married, or they’re expecting a baby. Maybe you thought they were pulling your leg and responded, “seriously? No, seriously? Really? Surely not!” Their news has come out of the blue and taken you completely by surprise. You think that they’re telling you a joke.

Maybe you’ve responded in this way when you’ve read something that Jesus has said. “Seriously? I can’t believe it!” There is no doubt that Jesus’ disciples often thought this when Jesus told them something. Jesus predicted his death and resurrection throughout his earthly ministry (see for instance Matthew 16:21, Mark 10:34, and John 2:18-22), but when he was killed on the cross, the disciples fled in fear. They did not seem particularly confident that Jesus would rise from the dead.

Yet rise he did, and today, Easter Sunday, Christians around the world unite in celebrating the resurrection of Christ. Jesus was killed. He went to the grave. And then he rose again. Death was not the end for Jesus. And thanks to him, death is not the end for us. Jesus defeated death and rose again so that we too might rise again. He opened the way to heaven for us.

In the above passage Matthew recounts an angel giving this incredible news to Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary.” The two Marys went to the tomb to embalm Jesus’ body, but it wasn’t there. “He is not here,” the angel told them. “He has risen, just as he said.” In rising again Jesus had fulfilled one of his key – and perhaps most outlandish – promises. He had said that he would rise again, and he had.

The Marys were straight away given a task. They were told to go and tell Jesus’ disciples about the resurrection of their Lord. Two women, regarded as second class citizens based solely on their gender. Mary Magdalene, probably regarded as a third class citizen because of previous issues and difficulties in her life. Two messengers entrusted with carrying the most important news of humanity to Jesus’ other disciples.

On this Easter Sunday rejoice in the resurrection of Christ. Reflect also on how Jesus is entirely faithful in his promises. And consider how you, too, have been called on by Christ to share news of his resurrection with the world. You might consider yourself a poor evangelist but if Jesus entrusted the Mary Magdalene to share the Gospel, I have no doubt that he entrusts us all.

He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

We have redemption through his blood

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and understanding, he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment —to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.

Ephesians 1:7-10

Did you manage to catch the Oscar-winning movie, Twelve Years A Slave? One of the biggest hits of the last twelve months it was at times a very hard watch because it exposed some of the sheer horrors of the system of slavery found in the United States. It really brought home to me the brutality that slaves were forced to endure.

The Bible often speaks of slavery. Paul himself spoke of humans being ‘slaves to sin’ (Romans 6:20). In our sinful lives we find ourselves slaves to all that is bad in the world and endure a painful, pointless existence and a bleak future of eternal separation from God. Yet it doesn’t have to be this way. As Paul tells us in this passage in his letter to the Ephesians, ‘we have redemption through his blood’. As a consequence of Christ’s death on the cross we have been redeemed from our slavery to sin. The redemption penalty, or fee, or price of our sinfulness has been paid for Christ on our behalf. We are no longer slaves. Our sins have been forgiven. This is not the result of anything that we have done but because God has lavished his grace on us.

Paul also tells us that Christ’s death has also ensured that God’s ultimate plan will become a reality ‘when the times reach their fulfilment’. What is this plan? It is the plan that God has always had, to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ’s headship. Jesus will rule over the whole of God’s creation and everything on earth and in God’s heavenly realm will fall down and worship him. There will no longer be divisions but unity in the name of Christ.

Paul certainly knew how to pack big, heavyweight theology into just a few sentences and these verses from Ephesians are no exception! What joy to know that God has history marked out before us, and to know that he has a end point in sight. What a delight to know that he is in control. And what an amazing blessing to know that God has lavished his grace on us and redeemed us from our slavery to find freedom in Christ. Let’s be joyful today and give thanks for God’s great master plan, for his grace, and for granting us freedom!

He predestined us for adoption

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.

Ephesians 1:3-6

I can’t believe that I’m in the final week of my holiday! Luckily when I do start back at work on Tuesday it is only four and a half weeks until my next holiday. Mind you, I’ve been so busy this holiday that I feel like I’ll be going back to work for a bit of a break! I’ve published my new book (The Shepherd God: Finding Peace, Worth and Happiness in a Busy World, available from Amazon.com in paperback and for Kindle, and also from Amazon.co.uk in paperback  and for Kindle), and also been hard at work preparing resources for a busy term of teaching history. Often people think that we teachers just turn up in our classrooms and make stuff up, but actually for most of us a great deal of preparation goes into our lessons. I have already determined in advance of term starting exactly what I’m going to teach, and when, to whomever happens to turn up in my classroom.

The verses we’re considering today, from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, have proven problematic for many Christians (and non-Christians) over the years. Paul tells us that God ‘predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ’. Surely, some say, if God has already chosen who will follow him he has already consigned many to hell. How can this be fair? How can this be the mark of a loving God? How can this concept of predestination possibly sit alongside the idea of freewill? These are difficult questions, but my personal belief, with regard to this particular passage, is that God predestined people to adoption in a similar way to how I have already determined the content of next term’s lessons. My lessons are planned, and whoever turns up to them has in a sense been predestined to benefit from my knowledge and teaching. Perhaps God has predestined that all of those who follow Christ will be adopted as sonship without specifically predestining us by name. Maybe this is an inclusive predestination, in the sense that God has already decided that all those who follow Christ will be adopted by him as his sons and daughters through the work that Jesus has done for us all on the cross. This is in contrast to an exclusive predestination whereby God has already decided before their births that Robert, William, Sarah and Amy will be adopted as his children, whereas James, Brian, Rachel and Louise have not been predestined and therefore will not ever find Christ in their lifetimes.

Whatever the answer to the difficult idea of predestination might be, we have much to be thankful to God for, which is the overarching point that Paul is trying to make in this passage. Through Christ God has showered spiritual blessings on us and opened the way to heaven. He has done this out of love for all of his people. He has shown us all grace and ensured that we are saved because of his love for us, not as a consequence of anything that we do or do not do. Let’s all resolve to thank God today for his many blessings, and pray for his continued guidance as we strive to understand his word in the Bible.

The Fruit of the Spirit

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self- control. Against such things there is no law.

Galatians 5:22-23

On Wednesday I had a great day out in Paris with my friend Clive. We caught an early Eurostar and on arrival in Paris we headed straight for the Eiffel Tower. From there we walked through the Rive Gauche, crossing the Seine at Notre Dame, then through the Rive Droite to the Arc de Triomphe. We finished our day with a lovely meal in Montmartre. All in all a great day. Until we got on the train. We arrived in Ebbsfleet and sat there for about three hours whilst the police tried to find some children playing in the tunnels. By this point I was tired, fed up and very, very annoyed. I knew that I would miss the last train home and so was really not very happy. The thoughts running through my head were not thoughts of joy and happiness, but of exasperation and murder.

Today’s verses are well known. We’ve seen in Galatians 5 how Paul understands the ways of the flesh (sexual immorality, impurity, debauchery etc) lead to disinheritance from the kingdom of God. Anyone who choses to live in this way has turned their back on God and has sealed their fate. Here, in verses 22 and 23 Paul talks about the opposite way of living – living in a way that honours God. If we have renounced evil and turned our back on our sinful ways we will demonstrate love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. What is important to note, though, is that these traits are “the fruit of the Spirit.” If we have the Holy Spirit within us, if we follow Christ, our lives will demonstrate these elements. If we allow the Holy Spirit to take root in our lives we will naturally bear this fruit. It is the Holy Spirit that causes us to act in this way.

Of course, there will be times when we struggle to see this fruit in our lives. Certainly when I was stuck at Ebbsfleet I would not have recognised much goodness or forbearance in my attitude, let alone any kindness or joy. This is the reality of living in a sinful world. We can struggle to accommodate the Spirit in our lives, we can find ourselves pushing it out as we revert to our old, sinful ways. We need to continually feed the Spirit, to nurture it, and to allow it to occupy our hearts, our minds and our bodies. We need to constantly try to walk with the Spirit so that we don’t gratify the desires of the flesh (as we saw in Galatians 5:16-17). We need to ask God to take away our hearts of stone and replace them with hearts of flesh, and allow God to put his Spirit into us (as we saw in Ezekiel 36:26-27).

If we allow God’s Spirit the opportunity to take root in our hearts then our lives will be transformed. We will be able to live as free citizens of God’s kingdom and walk by his Spirit so that our lives will demonstrate the Spirit’s fruit. Let’s pray today that God would transform our lives, help us to put aside earthly thoughts and actions, and ask him to equip us to bear his spiritual fruit.

I will give you a new heart

I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.

Ezekiel 36:26-27

Many years ago I wrote a novel for children called Beyond the Door. As soon as I finished it I began writing a sequel which I slogged over for many months. After a while, though, I gave up because my heart wasn’t in it.

It’s a strange expression that, isn’t it, “my heart wasn’t in it.” It means that you’re not interested in or enthusiastic about something, and it’s a surprisingly common phrase. You often hear people talking about a task they had to do, or even a job they once had, which they stopped doing because their heart wasn’t in it. It suggests that there is connection between enthusiasm and passion and our heart, as if in order to find something worth doing there needs to be some deep and unseen connection with our heart.

The heart is often referenced in scripture; the verses from Ezekiel above are certainly not exceptional in this respect. In these verses, God gives Ezekiel a message for the Israelites. God tells Ezekiel to tell the Israelites that he will “give them a new heart” to follow him. God will give them a new passion for him and a new desire to follow his teachings. He will replace their hearts of stone which were closed to his word and instead give them hearts of flesh so that they will be receptive to all that he says to them. God also promises the Israelites that he will put his Holy Spirit in them and through the Spirit he will give them new enthusiasm for following his teachings and living to serve, honour and glorify him.

We find here, in the Old Testament, an indication of how we might “walk by the Spirit,” as Paul urged us to do in Galatians 5:16-17. Let us pray to God and ask that, as he promised the Israelites, he will take away our hearts of stone and replace them with hearts of flesh, so that we might be willing to listen and receptive to the teachings of his word. Let us thank him for sending us the Holy Spirit that dwells within us and ask that the Spirit will move us to live according to God’s plans for us. Let’s pray that our hearts would be in following God, and that we would do so with passion an enthusiasm.

Walk by the Spirit

So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want.

Galatians 5:16-17

One of my new year resolutions this year was to try and limit the amount of sugar that I consume. There’s been a great deal in the press in recent months about the impact that sugar has on heath, and in particular, on the obesity epidemic that is sweeping the western world. Fat, we’ve been told by some scientists, is not the enemy. In fact it is sugar. So I began the year by cutting fruit juices out of my diet and replacing them with fruit, and trying to minimise the amount of sweets that I eat. It has to be said that I have had limited success. Particularly after a long day at work I find myself craving sugar, and I’m ashamed to admit that on too many occasions I give in to those cravings. If I am to succeed, I am aware that I need to try to build new, healthier habits.

Paul writes of the importance of building healthy habits in the verses from his letter to the Galatians above. He has been telling his readers that they need to avoid “indulging the flesh,” that is, following the desires and temptations that lead them to sin. Instead, Paul has told his readers that they should love one another and serve each other. In the verses above he makes it clear that the desires that lead us to sin are in direct conflict with a Godly life. If we give into sinful desires, we will find it very difficult to lead a Godly life. In contrast, if we “walk by the Spirit,” and follow God’s ways, we will find it very difficult to sin. For Paul the answer is simple, therefore. We need to “walk by the Spirit,” since then we will not find ourselves drawn to sin. We are not, therefore, to do whatever we want, but aspire instead to what God wants us to do.

This prompts the question: how do we walk by the Spirit? I think that part of this is embedding positive habits into our lives so that we allow ourselves to be led by the Holy Spirit. If we prayerfully consider what God’s word says to us in the Bible, if we strive to love God, and if we aim to love our neighbour, then we will be walking by the Spirit. Doing so allows the Spirit room in our lives to guide us, and to lead us, in accordance with God’s plan for our lives. And what could possibly be more exciting than that!

You were called to be free

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh ; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbour as yourself.”

Galatians 5:13-14

I’m so old now that I can’t remember how I spent my eighteenth birthday. I suspect that I celebrated at our little place on the beach, probably with family, a few close friends, a barbecue and plenty of sailing. I suspect that that is not the typical way to celebrate an eighteenth birthday, however! I know of lots of people, who, having been freed from the law that forbade them to drink, headed to pubs, bars and night clubs and drank to excess. In some ways I can’t blame them. A typical eighteen year old, freed from the restrictions associated with being a child, wants to get our and enjoy their new found freedom as much as they can.

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul has had much to say on the law of the Old Testament. He began chapter five with the bold statement, “it is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” Those who follow Christ are no longer obliged to follow the law of the Old Testament in order to gain their salvation. Their salvation is secure because of Christ’s death and resurrection. There is nothing that we can do to win favour with God or that will result in is losing our salvation, because Jesus has paid the price for us to enter God’s kingdom.

Does that mean, then, that we can run wild and do whatever we want? No, of course not! Paul urges that we do not use our new-found freedom to “indulge the flesh,” that is, seeking out earthly pleasures. Instead we must make the focus of our energies “serving one another humbly in love.” Just as Jesus came as a servant king and washed the feet of his disciples, we must aspire to humility and service to others. We must do so “in love,” not resenting others who do seek out the pleasures of the flesh, or who take advantage of our goodness, or who mock us for our humility. If we do this then, in fact, we fulfil the spirit of the law, which is that we must strive to “love our neighbour as ourselves.”

Let us today renounce our sin and apologise to God for all that we have done wrong and let’s aspire to love all those whom we meet. We will probably need to pray to ask God to help us fulfil this order, since some people can be very hard to love!