God’s Shocking Preference for Mercy

I heard Larry Randolph recently describe someone being helped through a low patch by memorizing scripture. Ever up for a challenge, I started with Ephesians, having heard it set alight by fantastic teaching from Alfred Pinnington in my church about the links between the Roman adoption process and the images in Ephesians 1, (ref. William Barclay). I love growing in God’s understanding of my identity, because I always seem to access hope and joy that way.

Some Bible passages are so full of big concepts and tightly written that it’s easy to gloss over the words, as if they are an indigestible wad of food that’s too rich for me.

Memorizing seems to overcome this, and it becomes an act of interacting with someone who has had an extraordinary experience of God, which then enriches my own.

So the letter to the church of Ephesus opens with the announcement of the author, as letters did back then:

“Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, to the saints in Ephesus…”

As I walked along through sunny streets chewing on these words, I started thinking about how Paul is writing this in prison, and how he chooses to focus on God’s will in making him an apostle.

Memorizing forced me to slow down and repeat my reading until I a saw the choices the writer had made, and started fully engaging with his meaning. Since I’ve found it hard to memorize more than the first few verses, I’ve wanted to start at the beginning again and I’ve discovered new angles every few times. It’s really cool. What rich writing!

So it occurred to me that Paul’s choice of words implies that he’s still very conscious that God was prepared and willing to choose him as his representative, even though he once persecuted Christians. When God met him on that road to Damascus and challenged him, that in breathing murderous threats against Christians, he was actually persecuting the one who was showing up on that road as God himself.

Why do I keep coming back to Paul’s story? Why start with Ephesians, when the gospels hold more direct stories about Jesus? For one thing, I’m encouraged that Paul was discovering Jesus and interacting with him as we do: through prayer, meditation on the word and was intentional about using the testimonies of the disciples who had been privileged to walk with Jesus during his bodily lifetime on the earth.

For another, I think I still have a long way to go in really appreciating God’s grace, and leaving behind a desire to earn it. God is so incredibly kind and merciful. Every time I feel like I should be so much further along in my walk with him by now (or some such harsh judgment) he sends me someone to encourage me and remind me that God’s love doesn’t see me in those impatient terms. In such a week, I will find myself having several conversations with friends, or reading passages, or having experiences, that show me that God is a lot less ‘Religious’ and mean than my self-criticism suggests he is. How come I still fear he’s like that after apparently knowing him so long? Perhaps I need to do as Paul does, connect the dots and give thanks for how far he’s brought me, instead of worrying how far I have to go to some imaginary ‘pass’ mark. He’s brought me a long way out of shyness, of looking for approval from others, and so much else. For the record, I didn’t used to kill Christians. But every time I give myself a hard time for not being a better x y z, I am killing a little part of me, a Christian whom God is trying to encourage and teach and help grow, not shrink. Sorry God. There are more interesting things to think about!

Paul’s letters always go to thankful praise. What can you thank him for today? Let me also count the ways.

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Mark 2:1-12

‘…3 Some men came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them.Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus by digging through it and then lowered the mat the man was lying on. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralysed man, “Son, your sins are forgiven..”.’

This passage is from a visually striking passage that is sometimes quoted to show how God is moved by our faith to act. Today I’m struck that this little episode show us so much about who Jesus was to them and to us. He was a life-changing person to be around, and our reactions to what he does are the same today as they were then.

We can learn lots from this passage, but I’m interested in what we can glean from how the crowd reacted to him.

For many people – many in those large crowds – Jesus was the source of amazement and delight. They wanted to travel to inconvenient places just to be near him. They brought their little ones to be blessed by him. They brought their sick. They brought their questions: some of the Jewish leaders came, waiting until the Sabbath was over so they didn’t break the law of Moses; but they were drawn because Jesus had something that they had not seen before.

I love the relative sparsity of the writing of the New Testament. It invites us in to pore over those words that describe a moment in a day. Through them we can glimpse this extraordinary Jesus at the centre of the amazed crowds.

This passage about the paralysed man with his friends is particularly eloquent, or inviting. Allow your imagination to place you in the scene. Where are you? On the roof top concerned about the logistics of the situation but glad of the cooler breeze up here on the roof? Perhaps you’re digging away the roof surface…with what? Your hands? Did you bring tools?

Perhaps you are in the room, standing right next to Jesus, with little lumps of ceiling starting to fall on your head as you try to concentrate on what Jesus has been saying. What happens next?

Maybe you’re the one on the stretcher. How long have you been paralysed? Where did you first hear that Jesus has been meeting the needs of the sick in extraordinary ways? When did you hear that he has not been judging them but healing them? Which of your four friends has been most excited about coming?

Believe it or not, Jesus still heals today –  his spirit is at work as believers obey his command to heal the sick and do all that he taught his disciples to do. Where are you at in today’s picture? Is this all quite challenging, as it was for some people then? Do want to ask him about something else that’s been bothering you? Would you like to seek him out somewhere a bit quieter once he leaves the house? Go after him.

Jesus was amazing to the crowds then, and he still is. His actions can still affront the intellectualism in us that wants to explain something away. Human nature doesn’t change very much: as we read the faces of those crowds described in the gospel accounts of Jesus, we find ourselves face to face with people like us.

The Wellspring of Life – John 4:11-15

Still life with water, Lunigiana, 2013

Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”

11 “Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?”

13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” John 4:11-15

As we read this story I think we need to get over something very obvious: this woman can be forgiven for thinking Jesus means literal water. In the course of the conversation Jesus leads her to understand that he is talking about supernatural spiritual sustenance, rather than special drinking water that won’t need collecting from the well. We are reading it as scripture, knowing that John must have included this episode in Jesus’s life because it reveals something important. We know something else must be going on. Jesus is purposely drawing out her curiosity. She is also probably hot, thirsty, and aside from his shocking lack of knowledge of local etiquette, she has no reason to believe he is not talking about magic replenishing water at this point.

Living water was also another way of saying ‘running water’. Throughout the Bible, water is used as an analogy of God’s provision for his people, as an image of the presence of God with his cleansing and life-giving properties.

What is Jesus really talking about? He clearly states that he can offer to meet an appetite or basic need in a way that will be satisfying. Yet this does beg a question, to my mind. In church meetings we often talk about being filled with the Spirit, and we acknowledge St Paul’s guidance to ‘go on being filled with the Holy Spirit’. Is that because we haven’t received Jesus’s water that will become in us a spring?

I think Jesus must be talking about the bigger picture here. Once we ask Jesus to be Lord in our lives, we can trust that his spirit will be the spring in our lives: it, or rather he, will now be permanently at work in us. That’s not to say the disciples didn’t need refilling with God; we need the same. But once he is at work, we will no longer need to consider God as being located far away.

The Samaritans and Jews were locked in an ideological battle over where God was located, and hence where worship should take place.

“The animosity toward the Samaritans was greatly intensified about twenty years before Jesus’ ministry when some Samaritans defiled the temple in Jerusalem by scattering human bones in the courtyard during Passover (Josephus Antiquities of the Jews 18.30). This conflict at the temple highlights one of the fundamental differences between the Samaritans and the Jews, namely, the question of where God has centered his worship.” – IVP New Testament Commentary Series

Jesus would soon promise his disciples that whoever believed in him as being God from God, that God himself would come and dwell in them (John 14) and that they would have eternal life, i.e. that believers would not die in a spiritual sense. That is a radical departure from a world in which you might be excluded from the location of God because it was in territory where you were not welcome. Jesus makes himself available to a gentile woman as much as to his disciple. He also makes the grace of God available to all who would accept it.