Being washed

The night before Jesus was crucified, he taught his disciples an important lesson. He gathered with his closest friends to celebrate the Passover meal. But before the meal began, he took off his outer garments, wrapped a towel around his waist and washed their feet. It was an act that astonished and bemused those first disciples. Here was the King of Kings taking the form of a lowly servant. Here was the Mighty and Majestic One stopping down to serve. Here was the one who deserved all honour and glory seeking to honour others.

Jesus takes this amazing act of humble service and uses it to illustrate the life of a disciple. Anyone who claims to follow Jesus must follow this example. To belong to Jesus is to serve others. Since he came not to be served, but to serve, we will do the same. The life of a disciple of Christ is one of life-giving service and love for others. The church’s calendar remembers that meal as ‘Maundy’ Thursday, from the Latin for ‘command’, honouring Jesus’ command to his disciples to love one another.

Despite the powerful picture of service that Jesus acts out, there is a lesson we need to learn before that. As Jesus takes the position of a slave and washes his disciples’ feet, each are speechless by this act of humility. All of them, that is, until Peter. Peter cannot believe what he is seeing and his disbelief spills out of his mouth:

”Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” John 13:6

In fact, Peter refuses to be served by Jesus. I am sure this is out of a desire to honour and respect his Lord and Master. How can Jesus, the Messiah, go about washing the feet of his disciples? Surely it should be the other way around?

Peter doesn’t think Jesus should serve him; he thinks he should be serving Jesus. And so Jesus gently rebukes Peter, saying:

“Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” John 13:8

Here is a lesson we need to learn along with Peter. Before it is a picture of service, Jesus’ actions are a picture of being washed. It is a powerful illustration of what Jesus would go on to do the next day. As his body is broken and his blood poured out, he dies to wash us clean. As he rises to new life on Easter Sunday, he enables us to stand as new people, renewed through Jesus’ work.

This work of being made clean comes first. Peter wants to serve and Jesus will commission him to serve (after a few bumps in the road on the way). But before action comes cleansing. Before service comes being served. Before working for Jesus we need to be washed by Jesus. This is the order of the kingdom. We cannot swap things around. We need the grace of God given through the cross before we can serve others and love as Jesus loved.

Grounded guidance

The question of guidance is something that every Christian ends up grappling with at some point or another. The whole area of guidance can be a tricky thing to navigate. How do I know which way the Lord is leading me? How can I listen to God’s direction? How can I step forward with confidence?

One of the tricky areas of guidance is the balance between God’s direction and our responsibility to act. Should I simply sit and wait for God’s clear leading before taking a step forward? Or should I make plans and decisions and hope that God is in it, and that he would direct if I was heading the wrong way?

There is no easy answer to these questions, and the balance between these two things – God’s leading and our action – is a mysterious one. Yet, I was intrigued to read the following combination of verses in the Old Testament book of Numbers.

In Numbers, God has saved his people Israel from slavery in Egypt. They are on their way to the promised land, and God is leading them to where they need to go. During this period of Israel’s life, God’s direction comes to them in what appears to be the most direct way possible. So Numbers chapter nine records this statement:

At the Lord’s command the Israelites set out, and at his command they encamped.

Numbers 9:18

That’s the kind of direct leading from God that most of us would long for! In practice, this guidance from God came in the form of a cloud, which rested on the Tabernacle where the Ark of the Covenant was kept. When the cloud rose, it was time for the Israelites to move, and when the cloud rested it was time for them to stop. God guides and directs his people. It could not be clearer and plainer then that.

However, a chapter or so later, we have another intriguing verse. Here Moses is talking to his father-in-law’s son, who is planning to head back to his own country. Moses wants him to stay, so says to him these words:

Moses said, “Please do not leave us. You know where we should camp in the wilderness, and you can be our eyes.

Numbers 10:31

It’s a great argument. This man knows the area well and has great wisdom to apply to the situation. He can advise on the best places to stop and rest, and for the people to set up camp.

But it raises a question: Isn’t God guiding the people of Israel? How should Moses’ relative guide on the places to camp, if God is guiding them?

The Bible doesn’t explain. It doesn’t give any answers or explanation. It is just happy with these two truths sitting side by side and both being true. God guided the Israelites from the cloud over the Tabernacle. And, at the same time, the wisdom of Moses’ relative guided them to the places to camp. Perhaps the cloud of God’s presence showed them the area to stop in, and then more specific guidance was needed about the best place to camp there? Maybe, but we simply aren’t told.

What this incident tells me is that the complexities of God’s guidance and human wisdom and action are closely intertwined. God may guide in a very visible, supernatural way, like a pillar of cloud or fire. Equally, God may guide my thinking as I carefully consider how to honour him with my options, and seek the counsel and wisdom of others. It is not as if God is in one, but not in the other. God is guiding and leading in all these different ways, and we can trust him to do so.

Our desire for guidance might look for the cloudy pillar, but we might find God directing in the wise words of others, or as we take a considered step forward for his glory.

Take and eat

The Lord’s Supper is a wonderful gift to the church. It is a reenactment of the Last Supper of Jesus with his friends. It is a reminder of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross of Good Friday. It is a declaration of the new life of forgiveness and grace. It is a longing for Jesus to return and for the kingdom to come in its fullness.

When Jesus tells us “Take and eat” he declares “this is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” Bread and wine are visual, physical, tactile reminders of the body and blood of Jesus. We are witnesses again to the drama of salvation: of a body broken for our redemption; of blood shed for our rescue. Around the Lord’s Table we see these physical things – bread and wine – and are reminded of heavenly realities – sacrifice and salvation.

But this isn’t just a meal we sit and look at. We are commanded to take and to eat. These reminders of heavenly things are not to be simply gazed upon, they are to be consumed.

God has given us a physical reminder of Jesus’ death and resurrection so that we can engage with that wonderful truth in a physical way. We are, after all, physical beings. God has created us with bodies as well as souls. Around the communion table, God invites us to engage physically with the story of redemption and take it for ourselves.

Bread and wine are symbols of Jesus’ body broken for us. We take these physical elements and feed on them. We eat them, and they become part of us. We are fed by them, in our bodies as well as our souls.

Every time we take communion, we are invited to take hold of Jesus for ourselves. He, of course, is really the one who takes hold of us. Yet he offers us this opportunity to reach out and take a symbol of his body. And in taking and eating, to be united with him.

It’s funny how something as simple as bread and wine can be infused with so much mystery and wonder. As evangelicals, we are often wary of wonder, and engage more on an intellectual level with things like the Lord’s Supper. I think that’s a shame. After all, God is a God of wonder, and he has given us a creation, and a redemption, that is shot through with wonder and mystery.

The communion table is a meal for our mind – we are meant to think upon Jesus’ sacrifice, remember it and consider it. It is also a meal for our bodies, real food and drink that sustains us. It is also a meal for our souls, a place where we stop and wonder at the salvation made available to us. It is a place where we engage with the truth that Jesus’ prayed before going to the cross: “I in them and you in me”. The act of taking and eating is an act of invitation and acceptance – that the living Christ might dwell in our hearts and be present in our lives. Wonder indeed.

Psychologising the gospel

Someone once asked me a great question: “How can we avoid ‘psychologising’ the gospel?” What they meant was this: If someone comes to us with a felt need or a specific difficulty, how do we point them to Jesus Christ without giving the idea that Jesus is simply a fix for their problems? Do we run the risk of people coming to Christianity simply to get their issues ‘fixed’ and that’s it? Can the gospel be in danger of being simply another form of therapy?

People come for therapy for a range of different reasons. Certainly some people turn to a therapist or psychologist to try and solve the problems they are having. They have a specific area of need and would like a quick fix solution to deal with it. That happens, of course, but most therapists would probably want to dig deeper than simply deal with the presenting issue.

Those who do dig deeper, or who come to therapy for broader reasons, are essentially asking some searching questions: Who am I? How do I understand the world? What part do I play in the world? Every therapist will have a particular mindset and worldview that dictates how they approach those questions. One might emphasise that the answer of ‘Who am I?’ lies in our childhood and upbringing. Another might focus on our identity shaped by our fears and desires. Still another might explore our relationships with ourselves, others and the world we live in.

The Christian gospel gives the ultimate answer to these fundamental questions. It tells us who we are, what the world is, and how we fit in the deepest and most profound way. Its answers are found in the God who made us and who we are designed to relate to. We are made to live in worship and relationship with God, and through him to look after the world he has created. We are his creations and his redeemed people through the Lord Jesus Christ.

Psychology, and ‘psychologising’, in a broad view, is understanding ourselves and our place in the world. The gospel, then, presents us with the most comprehensive psychology we could desire. It gives deep and lasting answers to the questions that psychology asks, and provides a framework for dealing with the most fundamental issues of the human heart and life.

Psychologising the gospel, therefore, can mean narrowing down the gospel to simply be a quick fix for my problems or situation. But in a wider sense, the gospel can be psychologised in that it presents with such a comprehensive worldview and mindset that we are changed as a result. We have our hearts and identity set in the right place, and our knees bowed before our Lord and our Saviour. There is, then, a proper psychologising of the gospel that gives hope for a psychology that finally, and truly, makes sense.

The life of imagination

When you stop to think about it, it is surprising how full the Bible is of pictures and imagery. For a book full of words, and that speaks of a God who speaks in words, those words speak of pictures. God, and his people, are described in dramatic and vivid language: rocks, storms, anchors; heat, desert, dryness; shepherds, sheep, wolves; wives, husbands and weddings.

Pictures are powerful because they stick in our memories. We can be told an abstract idea (‘God is stable’) and we might likely struggle to remember it. But when that idea is described in picture language (‘God is our rock’) that image lodges into our brain, especially when we picture the image in a vivid way.

But I think more than that, the Bible uses imagery to engage our imagination. When we have a simply stated fact (‘God cares for me’) we can assent to it, but refrain from really engaging with it. It can stay an intellectual fact that we know but not a transformational truth that we live.

On the other hand, using imagery allows us to enter the story and engage with it in our lives. ‘The Lord is my shepherd’ invites us to picture a shepherd and his sheep, and to place ourselves as one of those sheep under his care. We are drawn into the image being painted and so become one with it.

Not only that, but the image is both memorable and transformational. So, when I am feeling lonely or uncared for, the picture of the Lord as my shepherd is brought forth by my mind much quicker than the fact of ‘God cares for me’. And as I engage with the imagery of sheep and shepherds, I see how God’s care relates to my situation of loneliness and isolation, as my imagination engages with the imagery and brings it to bear on my life.

Because of all this, it is rather sad that we can often come to God’s word with a purely intellectual goal. We seek to understand the passage we are studying. Now that is good, and necessary, but I would argue it is not enough. We must also seek to engage with the passage, and enter into it with our imagination. What imagery is used? What does that convey? How does that appear in our mind’s eye? How can we bring that to bear in our daily lives?

The power of thanksgiving

Thanksgiving always strikes me as something I ought to do, but not something that blesses me. I ought to be thankful for the spiritual blessings that God has poured out on me in Christ. I ought to be thankful for the material blessing God gives to me each and every day. But would my Christian growth and discipleship really look all that different if I didn’t cultivate an attitude of thanksgiving?

First of all, thanksgiving will always be a fruit of the gospel’s work in our lives. If we really and truly grasp what God has done for us through Jesus, it will inevitably well up in our hearts and overflow in thankfulness. It has to. A lack of thankfulness in a person’s life must question the genuine nature of that person’s gospel transformation. How can it not? We will never be as thankful as we ought to be. But if we are never thankful we do need to be concerned that the gospel has yet to penetrate the hardness of our hearts.

So thankfulness is inevitable as the gospel transforms us. But thankfulness is also a powerful tool by which God works in us by his Spirit. Thanksgiving is not only expected, it is transformative.

One way that thanksgiving transforms us is in contentment. This is an area that I certainly need to grow in, and I suspect many, if not most, of us in the western world need too. We live in a society and culture of discontentment. Discontent comes from a continual need and desire for more. More money, more possessions, more status, more wealth, more stuff. Discontentment is always on the look out for ‘what’s next’ or ‘what more?’ Since it’s the air we breathe in a capitalism economy, it needs a powerful force to break it. That force is thankfulness.

You see, thankfulness breaks the cycle of discontentment by focusing our attention of what we have. We no longer look to what we can get, but at what has been given. Thankfulness helps us to stop and see the beauty of what we already have, and it moves our heart and mind back to the one who have given it. It’s very hard to be discontent while at the same time rejoicing in what we have here in front of us. Discontentment is finally broken by the force of thanksgiving.

A life of repentance

‘When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said “Repent,” he intended that the entire life of believers should be repentance.’

Martin Luther

Those words are found in the first of Martin Luther’s 95 theses, which he famously nailed to the door of Wittenberg Church to protest the medieval church. There are also wise words that sum up the Christian life very well. The entire life of believers should be one of repentance.

If we think of repentance as necessary for the Christian life (and not all do), we tend to think of repentance as a one-off event at the start of our discipleship. To follow Jesus is to turn from our old life of sin and turn to Jesus for forgiveness. That is the essence of the gospel message, and it is essential.

But it would be wrong to think of repentance as stopping there; as a one-off, unrepeatable aspect of the Christian life. Sure, when a person turns to Christ in repentance, their sins are forgiven and their guilt removed. That is true for all time. But we still live lives of repentance and faith. We need daily to turn from our sin and turn to Christ.

Indeed, I think it is evidence of the Spirit’s work in a person’s life that they want to turn away from their old life and walk with Jesus Christ. This surely is a sign of new life in that person’s heart and the transforming work of the Spirit. It would never occur to a person whom the Spirit hadn’t been at work within!

We need a daily experience of repentance. Not because we keep ‘losing’ our faith and need to recommit. But because we wander; we daily lose our way and need to be pointed back to Jesus Christ. We need to daily get a course correction (which in many ways is what repentance is) and orient ourselves back towards Jesus Christ our saviour.

All of this reminds us that repentance is relational. Repentance isn’t a transaction perform toward God (“If I do this repentance, then you will do this blessing for me.”) Repentance is a turning back toward our Lord and Saviour in faith and trust in him. It is a moment by moment decision that he is the safest and right place to be, and his way is the right path to tread. Repentance isn’t a one-off event but a continual course-correct, a decision to trust in Christ in every moment and every minute of every day. Our entire lives are to be one of repentance and faith in our Saviour Jesus Christ.

Godly discontent

Contentment is a fruit of the gospel. Paul tells the Philippians that he has “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.” (Philippians 4:11) As we learn Christ, and learn the gospel of Christ, so we learn contentment. It doesn’t appear overnight, nor does it come easily to the Christian, but over time the gospel bears fruit in our lives in contentment.

But there is also a kind of godly discontentment. While we are to be content with our material wealth and situation, we are never to become content with our spiritual growth. We are never to become content with our knowledge of God, but always hungry to know more and to go deeper into knowing Christ.

Paul tells those same Philippian Christians: “I want to know Christ” (Philippians 3:10). And he goes on, “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on…” Paul is happy to be discontent with his knowledge of Christ. He is not satisfied to stay where he is when it comes to his relationship with Jesus. Rather he presses on, runs toward, aims his life at going deeper and deeper in knowledge of Christ Jesus.

As Christians we are meant to be content. But we are also called to be discontent. We should aim to be content in our material circumstances, but discontent in our knowledge of God. The trouble is, we usually get it the other way around. We are discontent with our material wealth, and content with our spiritual growth. We have got it backwards! Let’s put things back in the correct order: content in circumstances, but discontent in godliness; wanting no more of what we have in possessions, but always wanting more of God.

Rebellious prayer

Prayer is one of the most rebellious things that a person can do.

It doesn’t seem like it though. When we think of rebellion, we probably have in mind mass uprisings and people taking to the streets. Perhaps we think of protests such as the Occupy movement or the gilet jaunes crowds in France at the moment. An individual on their knees in prayer, or a group of Christians praying quietly in church, does not seem like an obvious symbol of resistance and rebellion.

Yet it is. As Christians we have an obligation to pray for those in leadership and authority. We also have an obligation to pray for the reform and renewal of unjust regimes, systems of oppression and leadership that exploits or ignores the poor and needy. We may indeed pray for a change of government in certain countries. Yet, while that might seem like an act of rebellion, it’s not the rebellious prayer that I am thinking about.

The essence of Christian prayer is shown by Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. There, on the night before his crucifixion, Jesus prays:

“Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”

Luke 22:42

At its core, prayer is saying as Jesus did to his Father, “not my will, but yours be done.” Prayer is much richer and more complex than this, of course; we do not just say “your will be done” and that’s it. Yet, at its heart, prayer always has this dynamic: coming to our Father in heaven and saying ‘your will, not mine’.

This is a fundamental act of rebellion. It is declaring that God is in charge and that he is in control. Prayer is a proclamation of regime change: saying that God rules and that we want to see his rule and will be done in each and every situation. Prayer is an act of laying down our rule, our leadership, our will and dependently asking for our Father to take control. It is a profound act of rebellion against ourselves.

Prayer puts to death self-rule. It is an act of confession, saying that we cannot run the world ourselves, nor would it be a good thing if we could. It asks God to overthrow our desire to run things ourselves and let him take the lead.

Prayer meetings might not seem like a rebellious act. There isn’t (usually) a lot of shouting. There aren’t slogans and placards and storming of palaces. A Christian on their knees does not look like a rebel. Yet they are rebels in one of the deepest ways possible. They are rebels against themselves, overthrowing their own power and authority and voluntarily giving that power over to Almighty God. Prayer rebels against ourselves and asks God to rule over us. In that way, it is a fundamental part of what it means to be a Christian.

Only one thing

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one.”

Luke 10:41,42

I have always been fascinated by the story of Mary and Martha. It’s an episode that only takes a few verses in Luke’s gospel yet it is a source of great insight and wisdom, and a passage that bears continual study and reflection.

The story is a very human one. One sister carrying the burden of all the work and chores that need to be done; another sister who is seemingly goofing off, ignoring the practicalities of life to sit and listen at Jesus’ feet. There are real human emotions on display too. You can feel the frustration and irritation in Martha’s voice as she complains to Jesus about her sister’s neglect of her duties. There is no struggle to identify with Martha and her worries, we relate to them easily.

But it seems to me the most fascinating thing about this episode are Jesus’ words to Martha. He sees right to the core of her struggles, that she is worried and upset about many things. Jesus’ solution to Martha’s worry is to help her to see that “few things are needed—or indeed only one” (Luke 10:42).

Only one thing is needed. That’s the truth that lies at the heart of this story. It’s the truth that Mary has grasped and that Jesus wants Martha to understand. Yet it’s the truth that I find it hardest, perhaps even impossible, to get my head around.

The reason we can identify so easily with Martha is that we, like her, have so many things to attend to. Our lives are full of distractions, worries, concerns and responsibilities. However much we want to simplify our lives, we find ourselves juggling a range of different duties.

Into this situation steps Jesus and tells us that only one thing is needed – and instantly I push back. “Surely you don’t really mean that Jesus? Don’t you know what my life is like? I have a lot of things to look after. How can I only need to focus on one thing?”

Of course, Jesus is fully aware of the complexity of my life, and of yours, just as he was aware of the many concerns of Martha. Yet he still claims only one thing is truly needed. That one thing is what Mary got right: to sit at the feet of Jesus. And this one things brings all the other things into perspective.

You see, I don’t think Jesus was commending Mary because she represented some monastic withdrawal from the world and its worries. Mary still carried on with life after Jesus had visited, and no doubt helped with cooking, cleaning and household chores too. But what Jesus commends is that she gets her priorities right. The one thing that is needed above all is to seek the Lord. The other concerns and complexities of life can wait. Before all else, we come to sit at Jesus’ feet.

Eventually, we will need to pick up the tasks and responsibility of everyday life once again. But if we have gone after the one thing first – Jesus – then we will have the right attitude and perspective to all the other things that need to be done. There are plenty of things that clamour for our action and attention. But one thing is needed before and above all else: to sit and listen at Jesus’ feet.