Prayer As Erotic Language

The very heart of true prayer is desire, love. In the language of the Fathers this desire is called eros. Modern usage has corrupted the meaning of “erotic” to only mean sexual desire – but it is a profound word, without substitute in the language of the Church.

I offer a quote from Dr. Timothy Patitsas of Holy Cross in Brookline:

By eros we mean the love that makes us forget ourselves entirely and run towards the other without any regard for ourselves. Allan Bloom described eros as “love’s mad self-forgetting.” (from Road to Emmaus, Vol. XV, No. 2, Spring, 2014). 

Patitsas, in the same interview, offers this observation on St. Maximus’ thought:

St. Maximus says that God was so good that His goodness could not be contained within Himself. It poured forth “outside” Himself in a cosmic Theophany over against the face of darkness [nothingness]. The appearing of this ultimate Beauty caused non-being itself to forget itself, to renounce itself, to leave behind its own “self” – non-being – and come to be. All of creation is thus marked by this eros, this movement of doxology, liturgy, love, and repentance out of chaos and into the light of existence. Creation is repenting from its first moment, for repentance does not require the perquisite of sin. It simply means to put our attention still more deeply upon Christ to love Him much, much more than we have before. Of course, compared to that “more deeply,” the prior state looks like sin – but this is partly relative for us.

This is a profound summary of the work of creation, particularly in its use of Maximus’ imagery and thought. But this account of creation , almost scandalous in its “erotic” content, goes to the heart of worship, prayer and repentance. The language of prayer in Orthodoxy is frequently deeply “penitential” and filled with extreme expressions. We describe ourselves as the “worst of sinners,” etc. St. Basil’s language is typical:

Although I have completely subjected myself to sin and am unworthy of heaven, of earth and of this passing life, even though I am a slave to delights and have disgraced Your image, yet I still do not lose hope in salvation, wretched as I am, for You have made and fashioned me. I place my hope in Your boundless mercy and approach You…

We pray with such extreme language, reflecting not a vision of legal condemnation: rather, it is the recognition of Beauty itself, in Whose Presence we appear broken, soiled, with nothing to recommend us. It is the language of repentance – but not of morbid self-hatred. It is the language of self-forgetting of leaving the self behind, of finding nothing within the self to cling to.

There is another word for this self-forgetting: ecstasy. Again, this word has been abused in modern language and now means an extreme emotional state. But its Greek root means to “stand outside of oneself.” Thus the Fathers will speak of God’s ecstasy – His going forth to us. But there is also our ecstasy, as we forget ourselves and rush towards Him.

It could be argued that the language of self-deprecation in liturgical prayers is very much a “remembering” and “dwelling” on the self. Within a legal metaphor this might be quite true. But we must listen to the whole of the prayers.

O Lord, I know that my transgressions have mounted higher than my head, but the greatness of Your compassion is incomparable and the mercy of Your bounty is indescribable and free of malice. There is no sin which surpasses Your love for mankind. Therefore, wondrous King and all gracious Lord, show Your wondrous mercy to me a sinner; show me the power of Your goodness; show me the strength of Your long-suffering mercy, and receive me a sinner as I turn to You. (St. Simeon the Translator)

We see that our sins have driven us back towards non-being and nothingness. But God in His great mercy continues to call us into existence and to raise us up from the emptiness of our sin. 

I want to say a few words about evil and non-being. Non-being is not evil. It is not anything. We cannot say it is good nor can we say it is neutral. It is nothing. The Fathers recognized a trinity of existence: Being, Well-Being, Eternal Being. They also recognized another trinity: Beauty, Goodness, Truth. 

It is the teaching of the Fathers that being, existence, is inherently good. It is the gift of the good God, who alone has true Being (“Being Beyond All Being”). But we are created with a direction or movement (kinesis). That movement is from being towards well-being and eternal being. Eternal Being is true union with Christ (theosis). 

Our call into existence is brought forth as we behold the Beauty of God. Drawn towards Him, we see that He is not only Beautiful, but that He is loving, self-emptying for the sake of all – that is – we see that He is Good. As we pursue His Goodness we move ever towards our End in Christ who is the Truth. 

I have taken a few moments to set these things in their proper perspective and order because we use these words casually, without care for their proper meaning. Only in this context do we understand sin as an “ontological” problem (having to do with being).

Sin is a movement away from being, well-being, and eternal being. It is a distorted direction (hamartia: “missing the mark”). It is equally the refusal of Beauty and Goodness, without participation in the Truth. 

I will try to put this into practical terms. A man sees someone else in genuine need and has plenty to spare. But he considers the matter and turns away. He has “increased” or “preserved” his wealth, but he has impoverished his soul, diminished his own existence since his existence depends utterly on his movement towards well-being and eternal-being. This he could pursue by following the commandments and the example of Christ (which is already the movement of grace within him). Christ’s self-emptying towards all of creation is the perfection of generosity. To act on generosity is union with Christ, a movement towards well-being. 

When someone asks: “Is it a sin to withhold help from someone in need?” The answer is yes – but not in a merely legal sense. It is a sin – a movement towards non-existence – a movement away from the proper direction of our lives.

And it is from the depths of our non-existence that we cry out to God for mercy. Seeing His Beauty we forget ourselves (and our money, etc.) and we call out to the One who has called out to us. In our longing for His Beauty we love Him and are drawn to His Goodness. We give to the one who has need: “my brother is my life.” 

I would add, in light of an earlier comment, that this forgetting of ourselves in the face of His beauty is true shame (not the toxic form). It is the confessing of our emptiness, our non-existence, in the face of true existence (which is Beautiful). Such a pure-hearted confession is ecstatic, a movement out of the self towards the Other. 

I will also add as an aside that all of this should shed much light on the importance of beauty in Orthodox liturgy and Churches, iconography, etc. It is essential – not a decoration or an afterthought. Much of the modern world sees beauty as a luxury (which it so rarely affords). I grieve deeply when I hear the modern sentiment directed towards a beautiful Church “that money should have been given to the poor.” These are the words of Judas. And those who say such things rarely give anything themselves. Beauty is not a contradiction of generosity. The movement towards Beauty is a movement towards Goodness (which contains generosity at its core). 

The apprehension of Beauty is at the very heart of the preaching of the gospel. It is that which first touches the heart and draws us towards Truth. In our over-rationalized world we tend to think that it is reasoning and arguments that draw people to Christ. But this is something that comes much later. First the heart must be drawn – and this happens primarily through Beauty in its broadest sense. Many things serve this role.

For C.S.Lewis it was a picture in a book of Norse Mythology and the line, “Balder the Beautiful is Dead.” Mysteriously, it pierced his young heart and remained with him until he much later perceived Christ. I have always treasured Muggeridge’s book on Mother Teresa titled, Something Beautiful for God. If you cannot share the beauty of the gospel, then you have likely not understood it and clearly lack the requisite gifts as of yet. This is why St. Porphyrios said, “Whoever wants to become a Christian must first become a poet.”

These are the thoughts of the Fathers, and the doorways into greater perception of the mystery of the gospel. It is the absence of such depth that reveals the poverty of legal imagery – as well as its lack of beauty. 

Father Stephen Freeman is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, serving as Rector of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.

The photo shows, “A Woman Praying,” by John Phillip, painted ca. 1860s.

Love And Obedience

Both love and obedience can be clearly understood, when John wrote this letter; but it is another matter entirely whether our society today genuinely wants to hear such absolute commands today.

Any absolutes which formed the bedrock of western society for generations are now going in the same direction as the Dodo. We have built a world based on free choices, not obedience. We have viewed love as attraction, which, when the feeling passes, may be directed elsewhere on a whim.

Anyone who watches the programme Love Island will soon realise that the word love does not actually mean what it is meant to mean. In fact, it means just about the opposite of what it is meant to mean. We rarely hear calls for obedience and love as work. In each case such calls may cost me my freedom. They may limit my spontaneity. They may put boundaries and restrictions around what I can and cannot do.

The groom of a couple in America who recently got married, said to the chaplain after he took the vows; sure, I’ll love my wife; but I don’t want love taking away my freedom’. I wonder if they are still married.

This attitude that flees from obedience and sees love as a passing affection is widespread today and sadly it is corrupting the minds of many young people.

It’s very difficult to get John’s message across that true freedom comes from disciplined obedience. Its like a pilot in training. A pilot is told that there are certain things they cannot do, certain things they cannot drink or smoke, what they must wear. Where they are allowed to walk. How long they are allowed to fly.

 You have to obey these rules because if you don’t you can get killed and you can kill others. It’s obedience to the rules that makes flying possible, that makes you complete your mission. But the word obey generally has negative connotations for many. Some people who have grown up in very conservative churches where obedience and righteousness were pounded home so often feel suffocated by them.

Obey we say; but God loves me; so let me simply enjoy him and live. Quite often to make the church look more grace filled, the church uses the idea of obedience in a negative way; the synagogue versus the church; Jesus versus Moses.

 Paul versus the Jerusalem legalists; grace versus law. When Jesus said; that he had fulfilled scripture, he did not mean that the ten commandments are to be now discarded and ignored. It means that all of the law has now been fulfilled and brought together in Jesus. In other words, Jesus becomes a walking and talking version of what is in the bible. What you read about in the bible; you see lived out in Jesus.

Jesus went on to say; ‘do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have not come to abolish them, but to fulfil them.’

But who or what should we Obey. Naturally we will say that we obey the Lord. Which is correct; but how. We obey the teachings of Jesus found today in the bible which should be the basis of our obedience. It is the perfect place to begin. Why do we obey God? We obey God’s law to help us live happier, contented, healthier lives. We also receive God’s blessings as we do so. Obedience to God is linked with blessing.

Is the world a place today where we might be aware of God’s blessing?

 We can read in the OT how this combination of Obedience and Blessing affected the children of Israel. We can read time and time again that when the people obeyed God they were blessed, and when they refused things went against them. It came as no shock to them because God told them through Moses what exactly would happen.

 A point of warning. We need to be careful of those in authority like the Pharisees and certain Christian leaders even today, who claim that their interpretation of scripture or their application of it in the church becomes God’s rule, and absolute conformity is demanded and expected.

There is a delicate balance here with obedience that each of us must find ourselves. On the one hand we dare not compromise the doctrine of God’s grace freely given; and yet there must be a call to what it means to be a follower of Jesus that show’s his grace, has transformed a person’s life. One Absolute command that Jesus calls us to do; is to Love. This is a Christian absolute; a Christian must. It is not negotiable.

However, sometimes we speak of it so often that we have become dulled from hearing afresh its demands on us. Of course, we’re loving we say, we’re Christians aren’t we. We can use the word Love to mean the same as when we say, I love stewed prunes, or, I love burnt toast.

 But we will only understand what love means when we understand that love, light, and life all work together. You cannot take love in isolation from everything else and expect it to flourish.

Christian love is affected by light and darkness. A Christian who is walking in the light which simply means they are obeying God, is going to love his brother or sister Christian. Further on in John chapter 3 we are told that Christian love is a matter of life and death. To live in hatred is to live in spiritual death. If we know God’s love towards us, we in turn should show God’s love towards others. God has commanded us to love. He first revealed his love to us.

The commandment to love one another is not an appendix to our Christian experience or some insignificant after thought. No. It is placed in our hearts from the very beginning of our faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus said; ‘by this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another’.

Christian love has been described in the following way;

Silence; when your words would hurt.

Patience; when your neighbour is sharp.

Deafness; when the scandal flows.

Thoughtfulness; for another’s woes.

Promptness; when duty calls.

Courage; when misfortune falls.

To love one another is a command from Jesus and something we are to do rather than think about to do. Christian love is not a shallow sentimental emotion that Christian’s try to work.; so that they can get along with one another. It is a matter of the will to choose to love someone, rather than an emotion. It is a matter of determining, of making up your mind that you will allow God’s love to reach others through you; and then of acting toward them in loving ways.

A man was complaining to a missionary about missions in Africa. ‘How can you go to Africa and preach to those people about love when there is so much injustice in your own country’, he demanded. The mission leader replied; ‘we don’t go in and preach to them about love. We go in and love them’.

But a word of warning and some clarification. Do not confuse Christian love with becoming a door mat for others to walk over and use. Christians are to have humility yes; but we should never be naive about those who would hurt us or seek to dominate us.

John distinguishes carefully later on between those who are deceivers who belong to the world and Christians who belong to the family of God. In Second John v 10 he explicitly states that such people are not to be welcomed into our lives.

This teaching requires reflection and discernment since, in the interests of mission, we are called to go into the world. But at the same time, we must be warned that the world holds dangers.

What are these dangers? There are Intellectual dangers, which lure us into patterns of thinking that rob us of the simplicity and reality of Jesus.

 There are Moral dangers, lifestyles and attitudes that deal with everything from corrupt obsessions, to destructive views of sexuality. There are Religious dangers, charlatans, charismatic leaders who can out gun and out fox many a Christian minister. There are Theological dangers, ideas and ways that do not promote Jesus Christ, but rather promote doctrines and practices designed to deceive and manipulate. There are dangers everywhere and even though we should be generously open and loving, we must also be shrewdly discerning and wise.

When Jesus was sending the disciples out to proclaim the Kingdom of God he said this to them aware of those dangers; ‘I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore, be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. Be on your guard against men.’ On this point by way of clarification I would say this. We are commanded to love our neighbour as ourselves.  As we do so many think that we should somehow leave our Christian teaching our Christian values, our Christian standards on the doorstep as we enter the house of our neighbour, or when we rub shoulders with them.

  Jesus never forgot for one second who he was and why he came into the world. He did not water down his message or make it easier for people to accept. He maintained his true calling to a fallen world of many people, of many races, and many faiths. He mingled and mixed with all faiths and none yet remained true to who he was.

One of the ways today in which the church especially in the west in North America and Europe has been greatly weakened has been when the church and Christians have allowed other faiths, other trends, other minority groups, and other ideologies to take centre ground as it were. A bit like the cuckoo chick that pushes the other chicks out of the nest.

Loving others does Not mean that Christian values and the Christian faith somehow takes second place or becomes irrelevant. And that because of our love and acceptance of other races and other faiths they, then become dominant. Christians are not meant to be so subservient they abandon their faith thereby giving the impression they are then unloving. You can still love and hold firmly to the faith. Jesus told his disciples and he tells us to, ‘stand firm’.

This requires discernment. Sadly, many Christian churches have keeled over in their pursuit to love the stranger in a wreckless manner, and in doing so have abandoned their love for Christ and his teachings. This attitude does not bode well for what it means to be a Christian.

 Love for Christ, loving him with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind, must always come first in the life of a Christian. All other things come after. Jesus himself is the greatest example of this commandment. He says to us follow my example. Jesus illustrated love by the very life that he lived. He never showed hatred or malice. He hated all sin, deceit, malice, and disobedience. But he never hated the people who committed such sins.

He hated the sin, but not the person. I have heard Godly people say that there have been times where God has called them to love the unlovable. A person who really is despicable. They in themselves have been unable to do it until they realise that that person despite their terrible sin is made in the image of God. And that God so loved the world that he went to the cross for them. It’s a sobering thought.

Christ’s love was broad enough to include every person on this planet, because every person is a sinner. In Christ we have a new illustration of the old truth that God is love, and that the life of love is the life of joy and victory.

Rev. Alan Wilson is a Presbyterian Minister in Northern Ireland, where he serves a large congregation, supported by his wife. Before he took up the call to serve Christ, he was in the Royal Ulster Constabulary for 30-years. He has two children and two grandchildren and enjoys soccer, gardening, zoology, politics and reading. He voted for Brexit in the hope that the stranglehold of Brussels might finally be broken. He welcomes any that might wish to correspond with him through the Contact Page of The Postil.

The photo shows, “The Raising of Jairus’ Daughter,” by George Percy Jacomb-Hood, painted in 1895.

The Question Of Sin

Have you ever thought what the world would be like if sin were absent? No armies, no wars, no police, no courts, no jails, no locks, no passwords, no scams, no weapons. Life would be Absolute Bliss.

The Apostle John speaks here about the age-old problem of sin. In these few verses John mentions the word, sin nine times. Why? Because it’s such a problem and it’s something that affects every person. It affects us in such a way which is detrimental to our well-being.

By speaking of sin nine times John is highlighting the fact that we cannot brush it under the carpet as if it doesn’t really matter. He brings it out into the open by talking about it.

We all live in a world where every living creature has an enemy. A caterpillar must watch out for the birds; the frog has to watch out for the snake, the antelope must watch out for the lion. The tuna has to watch for the shark.

What about people? People have any enemy as well. The enemy is real, it’s not imagined. It’s like a virus which affects everyone; and the enemy is called Sin.

As John highlights public enemy number 1; he also introduces the theme of saying and doing. A person’s Christian life is to amount to more than mere talk; we must also walk the walk, living out what we believe.

If we are in fellowship with God, if we are walking in the light, our lives will back up what our lips are saying. But if we are living in sin, walking in darkness, then our lives will contradict what our lips are saying, making us hypocrites.

The Bible calls the Christian life a walk. This walk begins with a step of faith when we trust Christ as our Saviour. But salvation is not the end it is only the beginning of a spiritual walk. Walking involves progress, and Christians are supposed to advance in the spiritual life.

Just as a child must learn to walk and must overcome many difficulties in doing so, a Christian must learn to walk in the light. God’s light. But the fundamental difficulty is the matter of, you’ve guessed it, sin.

Sin, tries to stop completely, or interrupts our walk with God. Our sin causes us to stumble and fall and sometimes not get up at all.

Of course, sin is not simply outward disobedience, sin is also inner rebellion or desire. In the second chapter of this letter we are warned about 3 things. The desires of the flesh; desires of the eyes, and about the pride of life, all of which are sinful. Sin is also the breaking of God’s law and refusal to submit to the law of God. Living in independence of God’s law is the very essence of sin.

Suzannah Wesley was the mother of John and Charles Wesley and she had 17 other children. She herself came from a family of 29. She had a huge impact on the lives of both John and Charles.

One day as a young man, John asked his mother this question; he asked her; ‘can you give me a definition of sin’? Not many children ask their parents that.

This was her answer; ‘whatever weakens your reasoning; impairs the tenderness of your conscience; obscures your sense of God, takes away your relish for spiritual things; or increases the power of flesh over the spirit; that becomes sin’. Fairly comprehensive. There is no better definition I know. If we only ever pinpoint sin; I don’t commit adultery so I’m OK; or I don’t steal so I’m OK; I’m not a jealous person so I’m OK; I don’t gossip so I’m OK. Then we become Pharisaic in our outlook.

But when we look at the big picture of how we live out our lives like Suzannah Wesley did it leaves no wriggle room. Our problem today is that we have lost the ability to define things for what they are and what they were. There are now in Western Society very few absolutes in a world instead defined by relativism. But the bible speaks of absolutes and always has. There is a clash then with what the bible says and what the world wants and desires.

Governments and people deal with issues today without any idea of definition. Because concerning the definition of a moral issue you have to draw on something or somebody from which to give you the moral compass you need.

You cannot just decide to make up a moral code, which of course is what is happening today. Today there are very few things that are labelled wrong or bad. Society today is re defining what sin is. It is being made up as it goes along and it’s a road that leads to disaster. One of the things I love about the bible is that it tells us the way it is. It doesn’t conceal bad behaviour even by the saints.

The mighty Abraham the friend of God, who had great faith; became weak in his faith when he went down to Egypt and told a series of lies to the pagan Pharaoh that his wife Sarah, was his sister. And then foolishly through his impatience married the slave Hagar in order to have a child from her. In both cases God forgave Abraham his sin, but Abraham had to reap what he sowed.

God will remove our sins, we know this because of what Jesus did, but he does NOT change the result, as many of us I’m sure can testify. No one can unscramble an egg. Moses killed an Egyptian soldier in a fit of rage; and then had to live many years of his life on the run. God forgave him his sin, but he still lived in fear. You can easily trace King David’s gradual downfall from when he had his illicit affair with Bathsheba who was married to another man. God forgave him, but his family soon after started to disintegrate. The kingdom started to break up.

The fact that Christian’s sin bothers a lot of people. They forget the fact that their receiving the new nature does not eliminate the old nature they were born with. The old nature which originates in us, beginning inside our mother’s womb fights against the new spiritual nature, which we receive once we trust in Jesus.

No amount of self-discipline, no amount of man-made rules, and no amount of self-help programmes can control this old nature. It holds to us like a limpet on a rock. Only God’s Holy Spirit can enable us to put to death the old nature and produce the Spirit’s fruit in us through the new nature.

Sinning Christians like Peter, woman at the well, Moses, Abraham, David, Sarah, Jacob, are not mentioned in the Bible to discourage us, but to warn us.

Why do you keep preaching to us Christians, about sin, an angry church member said to the minister? After all, sin in the life of a Christian is different from sin in the life of an unsaved person. Yes, indeed said the minister, it is different it’s much worse. All of us therefore, must deal with our sins if we are to enjoy the life that is real. And how do we do that you may say?

Well. we do a couple of things. One is we can decide to cover our sins. Mark Twain said; ‘we are all like the moon. We all have a dark side, we want no one else to see’. The trouble with little sins is that they don’t stay little. Light produces life and growth and beauty, but sin is darkness; and darkness and light cannot exist in the same place. If we are walking in the light, the darkness has to go. If we are holding to sin, then the light goes. That is the reality.

How do Christians try to cover up their sins; the answer is by telling lies. We want our Christian friends to think we are spiritual people so we lie about our lives and try to make a favourable impression on them. We want them to think that we are walking in the light, though in reality that is not the case.

Once a person begins to lie to others, they will sooner or later start to lie to themselves and verse 8 deals with this. The problem now is not deceiving others, but deceiving ourselves.

The scary thing is that it is possible for a believer to live in sin, yet convince himself or herself that everything is fine in their relationship with God. The classic example is of King David and his adulterous affair with Bathsheba where he foolishly thought everything was fine with God and with life afterwards. He would continue on tending his royal vineyards as if nothing much had happened. You can read about that in the book of Second Samuel.

God cannot be mocked. But the spiritual decline becomes still worse. The next step is trying to LIE to God verse 10. We have made ourselves liars; now we try to make God a liar. We contradict his word, which says, ‘that all have sinned’; and yet we maintain that we are the exceptions to the rule. We apply God’s word to others but not to ourselves. We believe the message is for someone else in the pew behind us, not ourselves. Many who lean strongly to the left in politics hold to this view.

The whole process starts out with the believer telling lies and ends up with them becoming a confirmed liar. It begins as a role they play; then it becomes a longer role and then, the very essence of their lives. Eventually their character becomes eroded. Sin is lethal. Even the smallest dose is lethal. What do we do? We can try to cover our sins or we can confess our sins.

God is light. He is pure, perfect and Holy. Therefore, it is impossible for him to close his eyes to even the smallest sin. That smallest sin has to be dealt with because it’s wrong and it offends God’s holiness. But God is love too. He wants to save sinners and fill them with his love and grace and truth. How then can a holy God uphold his own justice and still forgive sinners?

The answer is in the sacrifice of Christ. At the cross God in his holiness judged sin. But God in his love offers Jesus Christ to the world as a sacrifice to atone for our sin and become our Saviour.

God was just in that he punished sin, but he is also loving in that he offers forgiveness through what Jesus did at Calvary. Jesus finished his work on earth; the work of giving his life as a sacrifice for sin; that’s why He cried out from the cross; ‘it is finished’. But he has an Unfinished work in heaven. For he represents us before God’s throne.

As an Advocate he intercedes for us and helps us when we sin. When we confess our sins to God, because of what Jesus does for us in heaven, God forgives us. When we get to heaven we will need someone to speak up for us. Someone who is on our side. That’s what an advocate does. Because Christ our advocate lives for us at God’s right hand, he can apply his sacrifice to our need’s day by day, hour by hour.

This is where the Cross and Resurrection dovetail perfectly together. The cross is dead without the resurrection. The resurrection is meaningless without the cross. All he asks is that when we have failed, we do Not try to cover sin up. Instead in faith we confess our sins. To confess sin means much more than simply to admit them. To confess sin, means to say the same thing about it that God says about it.

Confessing is not simply praying a lovely wee prayer, or making pious excuses. True confession is naming sin; calling it by name for what it is. It’s simply being honest with ourselves, acknowledging that we are all steeped in sin from our birth and falling on God’s infinite mercy.

Rev. Alan Wilson is a Presbyterian Minister in Northern Ireland, where he serves a large congregation, supported by his wife. Before he took up the call to serve Christ, he was in the Royal Ulster Constabulary for 30-years. He has two children and two grandchildren and enjoys soccer, gardening, zoology, politics and reading. He voted for Brexit in the hope that the stranglehold of Brussels might finally be broken. He welcomes any that might wish to correspond with him through the Contact Page of The Postil.

The photo shows, “Christ and the Adulteress Woman,” by Domenico Morelli, painted in 1969.

Identity In Jesus

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete. (I John 1: 1-4)

We live in a culture that is eager for religious experience without being too Christian.

In the United States of America over 80 per cent of the population believes in a God or gods that have power over the universe. When asked further; if all the worlds religions essentially prayed to the same God, 65 per cent of the adult public agreed.

In the Christian church among those who called themselves evangelicals, 46 per cent agreed and among those who labelled themselves as being ‘born again’ 48 per cent agreed that all of the worlds religions essentially prayed to the same God. This is quite astonishing.

Within the pews of American churches, two thirds of the people do not believe in the exclusive character of the Christian message, and almost half of all evangelicals say the same.

In light of these findings both inside and outside the church, who or what is our faith based on?

At the centre and core of our faith is the entrance of Jesus Christ into world history as the complete revelation of God. This is an event which happened in the town of Bethlehem over 2000 years ago.

It is an event that cannot be thrown away. It cannot be redefined as a myth or compared with the religious revelations offered by others such as Mohammed or Joseph Smith.

Throughout the world Christians are often tempted to forge new alliances in order to achieve noble ends. This is particularly true in countries where multiple faiths coexist side by side.

In the hills of the West Bank in Israel moderate Palestinian Muslims and Palestinian Christians have services in close proximity to one another and wonder what sort of unity they might build in order to construct a unified front for justice.

The same questions arise here in the West. There is difficulty when we find ourselves in interfaith dialogues that try to build unity particularly for commendable social and welfare programmes for; the homeless, or the fight against drugs and crime.

Chaplains in the services have to protect the distinctives of each faith tradition so that each worshipping community need not compromise what is essential to its beliefs.

Yet is it possible to conduct ourselves as Christians and exclude the place of Jesus Christ. Should we abstain from any such involvements?

If Christ is offensive to some, do we continue on in our ministry and deny the central event of our faith. Or do we hold fast to the scandal of what we affirm.
John who wrote this letter would say that there is no Christianity if Jesus Christ is not at the centre.

But perhaps there is another issue here for us; the more pressing question of whether it is appropriate for Christians to be silent about Jesus when meeting people of other faiths and persuasions. Roman Catholics, JW’s, humanists, Muslims.

When the time is right, when trust is secure, then the central theme of our faith, Jesus will be heard.

A college professor in a theological seminary in America chose this option recently when the University’s centre for Islamic Studies hosted a dialogue with a circle of invited Islamic leaders. Things went pear shaped when half way through; the Muslims politely dismissed themselves so that they could go out into the hall and pray towards Mecca.

The difficulty of course arises when that silence becomes no strategy at all; but a quiet concession to secularism, pc correctness, and tolerance. This is something we all need to carefully ponder.

The next question we need to consider is; should theological distinctives that is the really important parts; be set aside for the unity of the church?

Evangelical Christians often find themselves in main stream denominations or local congregations where adherence to particular orthodox doctrines brings tension. At what point does right and correct belief become more important than church unity? It’s a good question.

In June of this year The Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI) at their General Assembly in Belfast received criticism from people outside the church and from within, over their stance taken for those who are in same sex relationships.
The resolution passed by a clear majority; ‘those in a same sex relationship cannot be full members of the church. The children from same sex couples cannot be communicant members.’

These verses in John 1 tell us that any Christian who does not embrace the true reality Of Jesus Christ in world history, his teaching, and why he entered into the world; has departed hugely from the faith of the early church.

But someone might say what about the other issues that can cause difficulty among Christians and at the same time help to define Christian identity; like charismatic gifts, infant baptism, ordination of women, style of worship. Should the church sanction diversity within its ranks on these issues and others for the sake of a larger unity?

Whatever we make of these important points John would have our starting point with; Jesus. All these concerns and others are legitimate and important. But they are NOT central. They are not Biblical imperatives. John reminds us that the person of Jesus Christ the Word of Life is at the centre of our theological identity.

Sadly, many theologians and Christians enter into dialogue with those who uphold the trends of modern secular society. And what happens is that the church often loses sight of the larger question of Jesus Christ who straddles both the church and the world that he made. He is largely cast aside for a so called more tolerant approach. Although tolerance is usually one way.

This of course is nothing new. The identity of Jesus Christ is still the same scandal of Christianity that sets us apart from the world. Jesus is the one theme we cannot jettison, no matter what the benefit may seem, or what the temptation.

Which takes us to the third and final question. What does it mean to see, hear, touch, Jesus today? Can it happen?

John in his writing suggests that there will be a continuity of Jesus for all generations not just the first one.

In the fourth gospel John 14; Jesus promises that he will never leave his followers as ‘orphans’ and that those who love him and are obedient will become Christ’s new dwelling place.

In other words, John does not see Christ’s Ascension where he ascended into heaven as the termination of his presence among us. His spirit given to his followers is his own spirit. First John 3 says; ‘and this is how we know that he lives in us. We know it by the spirit he gave us.’

Is this a mystical experience or figment of the imagination running around inside our heads? No, John says that Jesus is real. We have heard, we have seen with our eyes, and our hands have touched him.

He goes to great lengths to let us know that Jesus is not a myth. John and his fellow disciples can say as witnesses that they lived with Jesus and studied him closely even touching him. They knew that Jesus was real not a phantom, not a vision, but God in human form.

John is at pains to try and convince us that Jesus is the Word of life and through him eternal life may be gained. If it wasn’t for people like John, Paul, Peter and others who committed their findings to paper for us to read in early manuscripts and later in the bible; possibly none of us would be here this morning.

John wants us his readers to hear this news because then we may have fellowship, both with him and with the Father and the Holy Spirit.
In effect John is a witness who testifies to these things. As we all know witnesses have a powerful effect on people. In a court of law for example the witnesses are key to a hearing.

If witnesses cannot be produced the case is often dropped. Hearing a story told by a person who was there holds much more weight than reading or hearing something second hand. It is why John is so keen for us to know that he was there, that he saw, and heard for himself.

We may not be first hand witnesses to Jesus life, death, and resurrection; but we can read from the first-hand accounts, and we are witnesses to what he continues to do in the world and in our lives today. He is still real and still alive.
Many I have no doubt can reflect on things that have happened in their own lives as a result of Jesus’s intervention.

Like the young lady who once prayed; ‘Lord, I am not going to pray for myself today. I am going to pray for others. But at the end of her prayers she added; and give my mother a handsome son in law’.

What about words from scripture that have spoken directly into my situation; a word that has helped reassure me about something; a word that has corrected my attitude. A word that has helped clear the clutter in my life.

A word that has guided me in a particular direction.

Jesus is the written word of the Bible and he is the one who lives out what is written here. He shows John and ourselves what this word looks like in reality. He is showing us what God is like in human flesh.

I have to say it’s a very good idea God came up with. I would never have dreamed up something like that.

What about reflecting on people getting Healed from sickness. The malady they had is no longer; and doctors can only conclude, I don’t understand this.

Or reflecting on lives of people that have been completely transformed. I was reading recently in the Gideon’s magazine of a former, 3 A’s person; she was angry, alcoholic, and an atheist. Now she is living for Christ with her demons behind her. How is this possible?

Or Angola; Angola is the name of the State penitentiary in Louisiana America. Its staggering to hear about what happened in that jail a number of years ago with the inmates and how hundreds of lives have been changed through the word of God.

One of the founders of Communism Karl Marx wrote; ‘the first requisite for the people’s happiness is the abolition of religion’………… John writes; ‘faith in Jesus Christ gives you a joy that can never be duplicated by the world.’ Two very different ideas of how we understand joy.

John simply but powerfully writes this letter to share Jesus with us and to testify that he has appeared as the word of life; to offer us fellowship, eternal life, and true joy.

Rev. Alan Wilson is a Presbyterian Minister in Northern Ireland, where he serves a large congregation, supported by his wife. Before he took up the call to serve Christ, he was in the Royal Ulster Constabulary for 30-years. He has two children and two grandchildren and enjoys soccer, gardening, zoology, politics and reading. He voted for Brexit in the hope that the stranglehold of Brussels might finally be broken. He welcomes any that might wish to correspond with him through the Contact Page of The Postil.
The photo shows, “Flevit super illam” (He wept over it), by Enrique Simonet, painted in 1892.

How Should We Read And Interpret The Bible?

How should one interpret the Bible? What rules should govern our exegesis? One approach is to tow the party line, a kind of exegetical “be true to your school” approach. This approach looks not primarily to the Biblical text itself, but to one’s ecclesiastical confession, and then reads what that confession says into the text.

For example, a Lutheran might approach the Biblical text of Romans through the confessional lens of the Augsburg Confession and conclude that Paul is there teaching justification by faith alone, exactly (and coincidentally) like Martin Luther would later teach.

Scholars today are unanimous that this is not an adequate or respectful way of dealing with Holy Scripture. Of course one believes what one’s church teaches and of course nothing like complete objectivity is possible. But one should nonetheless strive as best one can to set aside or at least turn down the volume of (say) the Augsburg Confession while one is exegeting the Biblical text and try to read the text on its own terms.

When reading Romans, one listens for the voice of St. Paul, not for the voice of Martin Luther. It is important to realize that “reading the text on its own terms” involves reading the text in its original cultural context. Thus one reads Romans knowing that it was written by a first-century Jew, not a sixteenth-century Catholic.

The task of turning down the volume of one’s confessional statements while exegeting the Bible is easy if one has no such confessional allegiance to those documents. The task is correspondingly difficult the more one gives one’s allegiance to those documents and confessions.

In the case of Orthodoxy, it can be difficult indeed, because our documents and confessions—the Church Fathers, or the consensus patrum—are the lens through which we read the Scriptures. This does not mean that we cannot or should not try to read the Scriptures on their own terms. It just means that for us the exegetical task is more complicated.

For some people, fidelity to the Fathers seems to mean effectively junking the idea of a scholarly reading the Scriptures in their original context and taking the “be true to your (patristic) school” approach. It is certainly an easy way to go. It saves one the work of investigating the cultural background in which the Scriptures were set and allows one to jump straight to the patristic conclusion.

I don’t need to determine how ancient Israelites would have read the text; I just need to read what St. Basil wrote (or perhaps Seraphim Rose’s take on what St. Basil wrote). But fidelity to the Fathers means more than simply agreeing with their exegetical conclusions.

It also means participating in their spirit and phronema, and reading the Scriptures with the same trembling respect that they did. It is this trembling respect that we bring to our exegesis when we insist on reading the Bible in its original cultural context.

Perhaps an example might be helpful. Take what is arguably one of the most famous lines in the Bible, “And God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness’” (Genesis 1:26). One asks, “Given the monotheism presupposed in the Book of Genesis, why the plurals? Why did God say, ‘Let us make man in our image’ rather than ‘Let me make man in my image?’ What do such plurals mean in the Old Testament?”

If we read Scripture on its own terms, we must begin by asking the question, “How would the original readers/ hearers of this passage have understood by it?” A refusal to ask this italicized question constitutes a refusal to situate the Scriptures in its own cultural context. It is true that for Christians this context cannot be the place we finish (Christ is where we finish, since He is the telos of the Law; Romans 10:4), but it must be the place from which we start.

As Orthodox in our exegesis we must end with Christ and the Fathers, but we cannot begin there. Exegetically we begin with the original hearers of the texts.

So, beginning in the time in which Genesis was written and read, we must ask, “How would the original readers of this text have understood the plurals? Are there any other times when God found Himself (as it were) not alone in heaven?”

There are indeed a few instances of such plural usage. In Isaiah 6:8, Isaiah “heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’” (The Greek Septuagint was apparently a little embarrassed at the plural, for it rendered it, “Whom shall I send, and who will go to this people?”) Who was God addressing here? Was it simply that He was using what is called “the plural of majesty”, as Queen Elizabeth once did when she famously said, “We are not amused”?

We can begin to find an answer by looking at other passages in the Old Testament. In 1 Kings 22, the prophet Micaiah said that he “saw Yahweh sitting on this throne, and all the host of heaven standing beside him on his right hand and on his left, and Yahweh said, ‘Who will entice Ahab that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?’”

This reference to Yahweh’s divine council is reflected in other Old Testament passages as well. In Job 1:6 we read of the “sons of God” (i.e. the angels) coming to present themselves before Yahweh and Yahweh conversing with them, and in Job 38:7 we read of the sons of God cheering when He first made the world. These “sons of God” are exhorted to ascribe glory and strength to Yahweh in Psalm 29:1.

In Psalm 82:1 the Psalmist says that God has taken His place “in the congregation of God [Hebrew el], in the midst of the gods [Hebrew elohim] He holds judgment”. These “gods” (Hebrew elohim) were clearly His angels, the “sons of God” (Hebrew bene ha-elohim) Job 1:6. In Psalm 89:5-7, we read the same thing: “Let the heavens praise Your wonders, O Yahweh, Your faithfulness in the assembly of the holy ones! For who in the sky can be compared to Yahweh? Who among the sons of gods [Hebrew bene elim] is like Yahweh, a God [Hebrew el] feared in the council of the holy ones?”

The idea that a god acted in council and concert with the other gods was common in Mesopotamia. What we have here in the Old Testament is the monotheistic transformation of that cultural commonplace. There is no other deity except Yahweh. His council consists not of fellow-deities, but simply of lesser beings, angels, “sons of gods”.

But the idea that the king always has his council, whether an earthly king or Yahweh the King of heaven, was assumed in both pagan Mesopotamia and monotheistic Israel. It seems clear that it was to this council that Yahweh spoke and referred when making momentous decisions, whether those decisions involved enticing Ahab, sending a prophet like Isaiah to Judah, or creating man in His own image.

The picture of the divine counsel offering input is anthropomorphic, to be sure, as are pictures of Yahweh baring His arm in the sight of the nations, rolling up His divine sleeves before working to redeem Israel (Isaiah 52:10). It constitutes more a cultural backdrop to Yahweh’s acts than it does Scripture’s main message. But it is just this cultural backdrop that we find in Genesis 1:26.

That is where we must begin our exegesis, for that is how the original hearers, long familiar with the concept of Yahweh addressing His council, would have heard it. But although we begin there, we do not end there. All the teaching of the Old Testament forms a pedagogical trajectory, for the Law was a pedagogue to bring us to Christ (Galatians 3:24).

Taught by our Trinitarian experience of the grace of Christ, we ask about the sensus plenior, the deeper hidden meaning of the text. Why did the Hebrew Scriptures preserve such images as God’s divine council, with the resultant use of plurals? Historically this was clearly a cultural vestige of the common Middle Eastern picture of deity. But prophetically it serves as a foreshadowing of the tri-personal God.

The richness of reality that led the ancient authors to speak of a divine council (and in Israel to also use a plural name for God, viz. Elohim) would eventually find fulfillment in our understanding of God as Trinity. If one follows this trajectory of divine majesty it leads us in the end to the insights of the Fathers—in other words, it leads us to Christ.

The ancient instinct was that Yahweh was too great, powerful, and transcendent to be a solitary Monad in the Middle Eastern sky. Just as a king must have his council to be a true king, so Yahweh was too glorious not to be attended by the council of His holy ones. This is why the Old Testament texts spoke of other gods (Hebrew elim) even when they asserted Yahweh’s unique monotheistic status. And this instinct was not wrong.

Later on we discovered that God is indeed too great, powerful, and transcendent to be a solitary Monad. He was Trinity, bursting the bonds of solitary personhood in the effulgence of tri-personal deity. And the roots of this concept found initial and faint adumbration in those Old Testament plurals, as well as in the mysterious references to “the angel of Yahweh”.

One need not therefore toe the party line and shrink from reading the Old Testament in its cultural context. Such a cultural reading is not preferring “Jewish interpretations” to Christian ones as some might think. It is only recognizing that Judaism came before Christianity and the Old Testament before the New.

It is also preferring scholarship to partisanship, for the scholars who recognize that the plurals of Genesis 1:26 refer to Yahweh’s divine council are Christians (e.g. John Walton who teaches at Wheaton, and the authors of the Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible). It might be a Jewish interpretation if we stopped in the Old Testament and refused to see that interpretation as one stage in a trajectory that leads ultimately to Christ or denied the Holy Trinity.

But in fact we do not stop there, but go on from the Old Testament interpretation to find the richer sensus plenior in all the Old Testament. This fuller meaning of the text, so well expressed by the Fathers, is its highest meaning, and that which is of most use to us in our walk with God.

In this sense we must begin with the Fathers, in that they reveal Scriptures fullest meaning and the destination to which the Old Testament trajectories are leading.

But the highest does not stand without the lowest, and we must first understand the Old Testament as the message of God to Israel before we can understand it as the message of God to His Church.

If we insist on beginning at the end of our exegetical journey and confuse the sensus plenior for the original sensus, we are poor scholars and show unintentional disrespect for the Scriptures. Exegetical anachronism is not the way to go. If the Fathers teach us anything, they teach us that we must hear what the Scriptures have to say and that we must read them on our knees.

Fr. Lawrence Farley serves as pastor of St. Herman’s Orthodox Church in Langley, British Columbia, Canada. He is also author of the Orthodox Bible Companion Series along with a number of other publications.
The photo shows, “The Magdalene Reading,” by Rogier van der Weyden, painted before 1438.

Harvest And Thanksgiving

Immediately after Adam and Eve disobeyed God in the garden, God said to Adam; ‘Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it, all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you.’ God wasn’t joking when he said that; as many can testify (Genesis 1: 26 – 27, & 2: 4 – 9).

Fighting the weeds is a perennial problem. I was reading recently where a charity worker and his wife moved out of their one bed flat in London in search of more space. They dreamt of having a garden to explore, digging up worms and generally getting their hands dirty. No harm in that. This couple had found a terraced house in a nearby leafy suburb with a small garden. But there was a major problem.

It had a major Bindweed (Convolvulus) infestation. For the non-gardeners Bindweed is the Terminator of the weed world. It mercilessly smothers other plants twisting itself around their stems with a vice like grip. It has a pretty little trumpet shaped white flower but that is just to deceive you.

Its roots can penetrate up to 5 meters into the ground and if even a few centimetres of the root system is left in the soil it will thrive and grow. With the roots being so long it is practically impossible to dig all the root system out and practically impossible to destroy. Anyway, this couple decided to dig the whole garden up with the intention of removing the dreaded bindweed.

After a month of toil, the couple were eventually able to sow a lawn, plant fragrant flowers, roses, and apple trees. The garden was now like, what it should have been. After this major dig the guy said; that it was the first time in his life he had ever got his hands dirty with soil.

His experience is not a one off, for we live in the most sanitised civilization in history making sure we don’t get our hands dirty. However, we tend to forget that God was the first person to get his hands dirty by forming the first human being out of dirt. ‘The Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.’

We are all familiar I’m sure with how God created the heavens and the earth.

In Genesis we are told that on the first day God spoke, he said, let there be light, and there was light. On the second day God spoke, he said, ‘let there be sky above the earth’, and it was so.

On the third day God spoke, he said, let dry land appear and it happened, and so on; until the sixth day. On the sixth day God spoke, and said, ‘let the land produce living creatures and wild animals’. Also, on the sixth day God spoke, and said, ‘let us make man in our image, so God created man in his own image’. God simply spoke and everything appeared. But with human kind you and me, it was different. God Created man. He didn’t just speak and it happened as with the other days of creation. When he created man, God got his hands dirty.

Nothing else in all of creation required God to get his hands dirty, except man. Nothing else in all of creation called for that degree of fine tuning and attention to detail, that depth of involvement and artistry by God. Man was the only created being on earth that was formed by God. Man was the only created being made in the image of God. Animals, or plants or fish or birds or insects were not made in the image of God.

Evolutionists teach in our schools and colleges that there is no divine in man, just dirt. They tell us that man gradually evolved from some primeval form millions of years ago. And that we are a random collection of cells and flesh. What utter nonsense. There is no scientific evidence to support such a claim. Only giant leaps and bounds of scientific imaginations. How on earth can a blue whale come from a fish. Where is the biological evidence? Because you and I are made in the image of God, each person has intrinsic value, worth, and purpose.  Each person is Not a random evolved collection of cells and flesh. Each person has a living soul.

Have you ever wondered why we are made in the image of God and why did God bother in the first place, putting us on this planet? Sometimes we may feel like the man who said; ‘I’ve got a clock that tells me when to get up; but sometimes I need one to tell me, why I need to get up’.

If people think that all there is in this life, is the material world, they will give themselves over to it and in the end all you have is yourself. It was the author GK Chesterton who said; ‘when you abandon belief in the creator God, people do not begin to believe in nothing, they begin to believe in anything’.

The Bible says there is more to life than just you or us. In fact, we are the product of a very creative and loving God.

In short, we are to reflect God’s image. That is the why bit. Why am I here; I am created by God to reflect his image. Humanity alone is made in the image of God. We are made for intimacy with him. We are to be his mind, his attitude, his hands, his heart, his feet.

Amazingly we can communicate with the God of this universe and God can communicate with us. This is why God cares More about who you are, and what you are becoming, than you do. To be made in the image of God means that we possess some of the features and qualities of the God who made us. Like kindness, love, forgiveness, peace, joy and goodness.

Yet because we are all like pools of muddy water because of our sin; instead of naturally reflecting these qualities and relating to God and loving him for who he is, and loving others, we relate much better to possessions and the material world around us. We tend to love things and use people, instead of loving people and using things. We have a tendency to find meaning in every created thing; instead of the Creator. We become what we love. We reflect what we love and serve.

God in his wisdom has made us constantly restless, in order that we can find him and reflect him to the world; which is why we are here in the first place. We can know what it means to be made in the Image of God; the responsibility and privilege that it carries. There is no greater accolade than to be known by God and to serve him. Yet, of the many downsides in the world we see today concerns that of; Self Image. Self-Image is huge; whether its connected with advertising, or celebrities, reality TV programmes or social media; its ultimately all about self; the persona of ‘Me’.

Sin in its many forms has deformed the image of God in each person. Instead of being clean, pure, unpolluted water, we are more like a muddy pool where the sediment settles and then it’s kicked up once more. Sin has deformed the image of God in each person so that we either sinfully think too highly of ourselves, or, we think too lowly of ourselves, which is also a sin. The power is always in the balance. We are both depraved and possess dignity at the same time.

On the one hand if you think highly of yourself and value yourself above others in pride, you do not love your neighbour as you should, since you don’t think they are worth loving. On the other hand, if you have a low self-image, you also will not love your neighbour, since you feel like you have nothing to give. We can elevate our dignity in sinful pride, or elevate our depravity also in sinful pride. Both are in the end; forms of pride and sin which deforms the image of God in us. And All of this is connected to self-image; who we think we are.

Some of you may have seen a bird attack its own reflection against a window pane. Time and time again the bird throws itself against the glass as if it dosnt like the image it sees. And then discovers too late, that all it was seeing was itself.

These are some of the comments taken from a female website where women can anonymously share how they feel about their bodies.

‘I hate everything about my body’.

‘I constantly compare myself to other women’.

‘I eat when I’m depressed and then I get more depressed’.

‘Sometimes when I see a woman fatter than me, I’m glad, she’s making me feel better’.

‘I don’t know how to feel comfortable in my own skin’.

(incidentally, men say the same thing)

What do you see when you look in the mirror? The image of God in each person is marred. Thankfully it is marred but not destroyed. However, the gospel made known to us through Jesus Christ allows us to be humble and confident at the same time. On the one hand the gospel tells us we are sinful and the sins we know about ourselves are just the tip of the iceberg. This humbles us, which is good. At the same time, the gospel says, we are loved and the love we know of Christ is just the tip of the iceberg. Which is very good?

Not only did God hand make us from the dirt of the ground, but he paid the price to redeem us on the cross at Calvary when we decided to live for ourselves instead of him. To know we are accepted, loved, and his love is what makes us beautiful again, gives us hope and confidence in Christ and within ourselves. When that collision, between the recognition of My sin AND the understanding of how Jesus has dealt with my sin on the cross occurs.

A new beginning happens. We can begin to properly reflect and grow in practising the image of God which we were always designed to do.

Thanksgiving is a time of giving thanks to God for his material blessings, for the harvest, the crops, the fruit, the vegetables and so much more and for the farmers and others who make the harvest possible. Despite modern agricultural advances and inventions, we are still wholly dependant on God to provide the weather and the conditions for the seed to germinate and grow and be fruitful.

We are also thankful to God for his spiritual blessings which at times we can easily forget about. There is no greater supernatural blessing than the way in which he can transform a lost life. To know God’s peace, his wisdom, and the hope of eternal life are blessings this world can never deliver. God in his mercy reached down from heaven and got his hands dirty with us.  He knew exactly what he was doing but he wanted more than anything else to talk to us, to invest in us, and have a relationship with us.

The Bindweed in the garden is a picture of the damage sin does in our lives, both on the surface, and with the roots that go deep inside. But God got his hands dirty by pulling that bindweed out of our lives and by replanting the goodness of his love and mercy in us. God is saying your self-image matters to me. You are of great worth, and you are highly valued.

An old lady was very poor. She had absolutely nothing. No shelter, no food, no nothing. She prayed to God and God gave her 10 apples. This was wonderful. Now I can get the things I need she said. She was so hungry of course that she ate the first three apples. The next three apples she traded to rent a small shelter so she could keep dry when it rained.

She exchanged the next three apples for some new clothes, so she was no longer cold at night. But then she discovered she had only one apple left over.

‘Why did you give me one apple more than I needed’, she asked God?  God replied; ‘so you can have something with which to thank me for’. All of us have a lot more than one apple left. We thank God for his provision.

Rev. Alan Wilson is a Presbyterian Minister in Northern Ireland, where he serves a large congregation, supported by his wife. Before he took up the call to serve Christ, he was in the Royal Ulster Constabulary for 30-years. He has two children and two grandchildren and enjoys soccer, gardening, zoology, politics and reading. He voted for Brexit in the hope that the stranglehold of Brussels might finally be broken. He welcomes any that might wish to correspond with him through the Contact Page of The Postil.
The photo shows, “Afternoon Prayer During Harvest,” by Theodor Christoph Schüz, painted in 1861.

Jesus The Teacher

We heard recently the way Jesus shatters our illusions in how we see life and how we live it out. Where we skilfully over many years erect various types of spiritual illusions to safeguard ourselves from the real truth that Jesus confronts us with. Shattering our false illusions is part of Jesus job to get us to see past ourselves and to focus our attention on him.

Great teachers not only dispel myths and shatter illusions; great teachers make you think; whether you want to or not.

One of the qualities that many of us tend to gloss over when we think about Jesus is the fact that he was a truly great teacher.

In fact he was the greatest teacher who ever lived. He taught in ways no one had ever heard before. And what he said touched people deeply. If we cast our minds back to primary school or secondary school days whether its 5 years ago or 65 years ago I have no doubt that we can all remember a teacher who impacts upon us for good or for ill through their teaching.

In my experience some were excellent and some; well they could do much better.

In Belfast we had a French teacher who would be lying down on top of his desk with a pillow under his head, casually staring up at the ceiling, and greeted each one of us in French as we entered the room. ‘Bonjour Alain, Bonjour Henri’, and so on. Then he would go outside for a quick smoke and proceed to teach us as he inhaled on some Russian cheroot.

Or some of the art teachers. Art was great fun; because some of the teachers just let you go ahead and express what you feel on canvas. So it was all a bit random without any structure.

We had a maths teacher Mr Steele and when I think back he was more of a philosopher than a maths teacher.

Any way one day the class was misbehaving and by way of punishment he got a glass bowl filled it with water and put a pen in the bowl.

Then he told us for the rest of the period to write down 20 observations of the bowl, the water and the pen.

 

Well you can imagine for a 14 year old it was mental torture.

I have no idea how many observations I noted down. But the one thing I learnt much later on was that a persons Mind is influenced by how much they observe and understand truth.

In order for us to function effectively as Christian’s and think clearly, our Minds must be Cleansed, refreshed, and renewed so that we can receive deeper transforming truth. Jesus as the greatest teacher who ever lived was a master at mind renewal.

He knew that the mind is the gateway through which we process and apply truth. But truth is accessible only to the receptive mind. The key being; A person must be willing to learn. In other words they must be open to the truth.

An old Chinese proverb states: when the person is ready, the teacher appears.

But how do we know if we really want to learn.

Are we ready for the mysteries of God’s kingdom and what it means to love the Lord with all your heart, soul and mind.

Like youngsters learning to read; when will we be done with basic picture books and be instead ready for things that will stretch and challenge our minds spiritually. For many Christians we go a certain distance and then we put the blockers on and go no further.

Jesus as a great teacher used parables as mind renewing tools to stretch and challenge our thinking.

He used parables to make people think differently about God’s kingdom and to test whether they wanted to enter into his kingdom.

He knew exactly what he was saying, how he would say it, when he would say it and to whom he would say it and he could literally read a person’s mind.

He knew their thoughts and he knows our thoughts of each person in church this morning. So when Jesus spoke to the people he did so for a reason; not to confuse them; but to get them to use their minds; their logic; their powers of reasoning.

Test and see what I am saying. He said; ‘The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked through the dough’.

‘The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field’.

‘Again the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.’

These sayings brought light and insight to the eyes of those seeking God; but cast a veil of darkness and mystery over critics and cynics. Nothing has changed. For many people their minds became dull; because their hearts have become hard.

They miss the opportunity to look beyond themselves and the obvious.

Jesus goes on to say why he speaks to people in parables.

‘This is why I speak to them in parables otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts; and turn, and I would heal them. But blessed are your eyes because they see and your ears because they hear.’

Words spoken by the great teacher in Matthew 13.

There you have Jesus message of the good news in three words;

Firstly To Understand, To Turn and be To be Healed. This is the process of how change generally speaking comes in a person’s life.

Salvation comes to those who allow their minds to be open in the first place; in order to change their heart so that they understand the message; and who turn away from their misguided illusions, to God.

So first you must ask yourself this question; am I ready for such a turning away from myself, to God?

Because when all is said and done Salvation involves belief in God and a heart felt turning away from sin.

And the point where we must all start from is being totally honest with yourself and know your failings and sinfulness.

When we do not love God with all our heart mind and soul we sin. Which means that I constantly sin against God because I do not love him with all my heart mind and soul.

I want to but I can’t, because there is still part of me that wants to do my own thing; without God. Maybe others feel the same way.

And who of us can honestly say that we love our neighbours as ourselves.

 

Is my mind prepared to be Open and then pierce through the layers of illusion, confusion, doubt and cynicism, like stripping away the layers of skin around an onion.//////

There is only one way to find out. Through your mind think carefully to what Jesus is saying; is the hidden truth breaking through.

If so will you allow it to shape your thoughts and renew your mind? And If the truth does Not appear before you and remains difficult to find; all is not lost; unless you give up the search.

My advice to you is; don’t give up the search. With Jesus treasure hunters become treasure finders.

The seeker is rewarded; but the cynic goes home empty handed.

One difficulty that people encounter is that they claim they cannot find God.

They say: I want to find him, but I can’t; or he simply isn’t there.

Well, we are told in the bible that God is omnipresent; meaning he is everywhere. So if he is everywhere why can I not find him? God of course can hide himself from us if he wants to and one of the reasons he does that is because of our sins. So we need to get that sorted out. Our sins get in the way of us growing in our faith. It doesn’t mean however that God has disappeared.

David tells us in Psalm 66; if I has cherished sin in my heart the Lord would not have listened.’ Cherished here means to aim for sin and to look forward to it. It doesn’t mean the actual presence of sin in our lives, because sin is always present in our lives at some point.

But there is a huge difference a gulf, between the element of sin and actually looking forward to sinning; cherishing and holding on to it.

Proverbs 8 tell us; those who seek me find me.

And Jeremiah in chapter 29 puts it well when he says; you will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. ‘I will be found by you’, declares the Lord.

Sometimes our search for God may grow cold and we think that, that’s it. The search has ended. But then something miraculous happens. One day God taps us on the shoulder and he says; its me. I’m here now.

You were looking for me and now I’m here. So what are you going to do.?

The reality is of course that God was always there but he has chosen to come to us at this particular point and time in our lives. This happened with countless people in the bible when God turns up unexpectantly.

One such incident happened with Mary the teenage mother of Jesus.

The angel Gabriel was sent to Nazareth to speak to her when she was engaged to be married to Joseph. Gabriel knew her name; do not be afraid Mary you have found favour with God.

You will be with child and give birth to a son and you are to give him the name Jesus.

After listening to all this, what was Mary’s reaction when God turns up right before her eyes.

She said, I am the Lord’s servant, may it be to me as you have said. God appears taps Mary on the shoulder using an angel. Mary had no idea this would happen or the full consequences of what Gabriel had outlined. God turned up unexpectedly with Mary, but always at the right time in a person’s life.

She was a good virtuous Jewish girl although she wasn’t necessarily seeking God.

As a good Jewish girl she knew of the existence of God. She knew that he was omnipresent. She knew that he was the maker of heaven and earth; but She didn’t expect him to turn up in the way he did.

This can be a very sobering moment in a persons life; God turning up and whispering your name; and you know that its him. But what happens next? What did Mary do? She accepted God at his word and believed it to happen.

She had the opportunity to keep her mind shut and convince herself that this was all a bad dream and things like this don’t really happen. But she didn’t.

In submission to God she turned to him not away from him.

Or little Zacchaeus who climbed up the sycamore fig tree to see Jesus passing through.

His situation was different from Mary’s in that he was looking for Jesus although perhaps not in a deep spiritual way; more in a casual way.

He went looking for him among the crowd of on lookers and found him. How did he react when he found Jesus; he told everyone that he would give back the money he acquired to the poor in fact he would give back four times he needed to.

I have no doubt that Zacchaeus was a happier man giving money to the poor that taking it from them; because Jesus in those few moments with Zacchaeus had turned his life around.

Both Zacchaeus and Mary had allowed the great teacher to open their minds and heart and turn towards him. The truth was in front of them; they could see it and they knew it to be true.

So whether we are seeking God like Zacchaeus or not expecting God like Mary what will be your response?

You see the scary thing is that God is still around. I think we all know that and accept that.

But what happens if and when he turns up in our lives and we know and hear him speaking the truth. Jesus speaks the truth and we know deep down he is right.

Jesus can turn up most unexpectantly. Are you prepared to allow your mind and heart to be changed by him? He may turn up just the once and give you that one opportunity.

Who is teaching you how to live your life rightly? Yourself; your boss, your friends, your family. Can they be trusted? Can they be always trusted to have your interests at heart?

Alan Wilson is a Presbyterian Minister in Northern Ireland, where he serves a large congregation, supported by his wife. Before he took up the call to serve Christ, he was in the Royal Ulster Constabulary for 30-years. He has two children and two grandchildren and enjoys soccer, gardening, zoology, politics and reading. He voted for Brexit in the hope that the stranglehold of Brussels might finally be broken. He welcomes any that might wish to correspond with him through the Contact Page of The Postil.
The photo shows, “Christ and Nicodemus,” by Fritz von Uhde, painted ca. 1896.