Sunday, 27 January 2013


At the moment I am reading my way through Romans accompanied by James Dunn’s little commentary on that letter which is part of ‘the People’s Bible Commentary series’ – Romans by James D G Dunn, 2001, Bible Reading Fellowship.  A couple of days ago I was reading the first few verses of chapter 11 and particularly noting the comments on ‘grace’.  For instance, verse 6 says: “God’s choice is based on his grace, not on what they have done.  For if God’s choice were based on what people do, then his grace would not be real grace.”  God’s grace is not dependent on anything that we might do.  It is just there for us.  Whenever I think of God’s grace, I tend to think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s writing on the subject.  Bonhoeffer distinguishes between ‘cheap’ grace and ‘costly’ grace.  Cheap grace is such because it doesn’t have an impact.  Costly grace is the real grace that, when we recognise it, will provoke a response in us.  “Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man (sic) will gladly go and sell all that he has.  It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, SCM, 1959, p. 36). 

I also like Dunn’s little prayer reflection at the end of his comment on these few verses – “’Grace’ – that word again.  A word to rest in when all else is puzzle and confusion.  A fact to rely on when embarrassment and shame threaten to overwhelm.  Thanks be to God for his uncalculating and uncomputable grace.”

Saturday, 26 January 2013

1 Peter 2

One of the most interesting chapters for me on the whole question of what the church should be like is 1 Peter 2.  In verse 5 there is the image of being living stones – come as living stones, and let yourselves be used in building the spiritual temple ….  When we talk about the church, often the first thing that comes into our minds is the building.  Our buildings are incredibly useful and a valuable resource – but it is always good to remember that the church isn’t really the building.  It’s the people.  You can have a church without a building, but you can’t have a church without people.  We are the church.  That’s why I like this idea of living stones.  It, in part, serves as a reminder of the value of the building as it uses a building as a description, or image, of the church.  But it is the living stones, you and me, who make up the real church.
Staying with 1 Peter 2, in verse 9 there are four descriptions of the church placed in a list – but you are the chosen race, the King’s priests, the holy nation, God’s own people, chosen to proclaim the wonderful acts of God …  Four descriptions and a task.  The first of these descriptions identifies us as chosen.  That is important.  We often talk about discipleship and see it as being called to make a choice to follow the way of Jesus.  That is absolutely fine, and it is good that we make choices about following Jesus.  But we must not forget that, in the first place, it is God who chooses us.  We are a chosen race. 
Then we are the King’s priests.  I think there are two big things to say here.  One is that we are the King’s.  The King is Jesus.  A King reigns or rules.  Here is a reminder to let Jesus reign over our lives.  A simpler way to put that is to say that Jesus, and his reign, his call, should constantly be influencing our decisions and our way of living.  But then we are the King’s priests.  A priest is someone who acts on behalf of God, someone who has access to God, someone who is in relationship with God.  In the Old Testament they thought that they needed special people to provide that link for the ordinary people.  Even today we sometimes use the title priest instead of minister – and a priest, or minister, can be very helpful in enabling our links with God.  But in our tradition we recognise very clearly that we don’t need anyone else.  We each have direct access to God.  That is when we mean when we sometimes talk about the priesthood of all believers.  Particular people can have different roles that can be helpful but, in the end, we are all priests.  We all have the opportunity and the responsibility of direct contact with God.  Prayer is the name that we usually give to that though, when we say that, we need to remember that prayer is a lot more than saying your prayers, though it does include that.
Third, in this great verse of descriptions we are called the holy nation.  The important word here is the word holy, and this is again a reminder of how we are linked to God.  Holy things are God’s things – how fantastic to be called a holy nation!
And the last description – God’s own people.  It sums it up.  We are people – and we are God’s.  At the point of his baptism God says of Jesus, You are my own dear Son.  I am pleased with you.  We might not manage to deserve that level of commendation, but we can know that we belong to God, that we matter to God, that God cares for us. 
I am going to leave verse 9 there, though I could go on to say, as the verse does, something about being chosen to proclaim the wonderful acts of God and I could also, like this verse, go on to say something about being called out of darkness into his own marvellous light but, as I said, I am going to leave verse 9 there.  However, I am not quite ready to leave the chapter, as I want to move on a couple of verses and  look at the first part of verse 11.  There Peter says: I appeal to you, my friends, as strangers and refugees in this world!  Here is a slightly less likely image, but one that is also important.  (Part of the point is that none of these images give the whole story.  It is like taking a photograph from different angles.  We get different views, different perspectives, but they all valuable, all worth having.)  Here is the challenge to be that bit different, as strangers and refugees.  Here is the reminder that we mustn’t just fit in with the world.  God calls us to be different, to do different things.  Jesus explained the sort of thing that this means when he talked about walking about second miles and giving away second coats or, to push it a bit further, about loving our enemies – because, actually, I don’t want to love my enemy.  I want to get them back.  I want to hate them.  Here is the reminder that we are challenged to live a radically different way. 

Friday, 11 January 2013

Small Can Be Hopeful

We tend to think that big is best.  Most churches certainly aspire to grow – and there can be nothing wrong with that.  However, smallness also has a lot to commend it.  CWM (Council for World Mission) Europe is doing some work on small and hopeful congregations.  As their website ( points out: A small congregation can be light on its feet, quick to respond to the changes in its community. The members are likely to know each other well, and care for each other, in ways that, in a large church, have to be found in small groups within the church.”  Of course, there is nothing wrong with big churches, but they work best if they are broken down into smaller units.  Jesus began with a group of twelve – and look where that got the church!  One of a number of new mugs arrived in our home at Christmas bearing the caption ‘Size Matters’.  It is a large mug, so I think the message was about the value of bigness.  Size does matter, but what matters is being the right size, the size we are called to be, the size that God has in mind for us.  If God wants us to be a big church, ‘great’ – but if God wants us to be a small church, that, too is ‘great’!

Thursday, 10 January 2013

What Kind of King?

Some reject the portrayal of Christ the king.  They have difficulty with this idea, suggesting that the metaphor is too hierarchical and distant for the loving shepherd.  They want to emphasise a different view of Jesus.  Perhaps, if Jesus had fitted the traditional profile, the criticisms would be merited.  But Jesus is not an ordinary king.  He is vested not in fine silks and jewels, but in garments of humility and suffering.  He is concerned not with power, but with liberation.  The traditional king doesn’t fit the bill.  But the idea of a shepherd king, or a servant king, touches a deep chord in us.  There is a rightness of balance, a wholesome combination of authority and practical caring, which rings true and speaks of safety and security.  And the tradition is already there in David, the shepherd boy made king, a tradition that is now given an even more powerful meaning.