Good Friday 2021

I mentioned in my Maundy Thursday 2021 post that my music of choice on Good Friday is Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. It selects itself, and still has the power to shock and move the human spirit. 

For Good Friday this year, I simply share some of the German libretto with an English translation. See also here.

40 Chorale

Bin ich gleich von dir gewichen,
Although I have strayed from you,
Stell ich mich doch wieder ein;
Yet I turn back once again;
Hat uns doch dein Sohn verglichen
Your son has settled the account for us
Durch sein’ Angst und Todespein.
Through his anguish and death agony.
Ich verleugne nicht die Schuld;
I do not deny my guilt;
Aber deine Gnad und Huld
But your grace and favour
Ist viel größer als die Sünde,
is much greater than the sins
Die ich stets in mir befinde.
I find constantly in myself.

51 Recitative [Alto]

Erbarm es Gott!
Have mercy, God!
Hier steht der Heiland angebunden.
Here stands the saviour, bound,
O Geißelung, o Schläg, o Wunden!
O scourging,o blows, o wounds!
Ihr Henker, haltet ein!
You executioners, stop!
Erweichet euch
Are you not softened by
Der Seelen Schmerz,
The soul’s agony,
Der Anblick solches Jammers nicht?
The sight of such misery?
Ach ja! ihr habt ein Herz,
Ah yes! You have a heart
Das muss der Martersäule gleich
That must be like the post used for torture
Und noch viel härter sein.
And even far harder still.
Erbarmt euch, haltet ein!
Have mercy, stop!

65 Aria [Bass]

Mache dich, mein Herze, rein,
Make yourself pure, my heart
Ich will Jesum selbst begraben,
I want to bury Jesus himself within me,
Denn er soll nunmehr in mir
For he now within me
Für und für
Forever
Seine süße Ruhe haben.
Shall have his sweet rest.
Welt, geh aus, lass Jesum ein!
World, depart from my heart, let Jesus enter!

Maundy Thursday 2021

In the account of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane we begin to glimpse something of what he went through spiritually, mentally and emotionally before his physical suffering and death on the cross.

Bible Reading: Luke 22:39-46

But let’s go back to Palm Sunday as Jesus rode into Jerusalem in defiance of the people’s expectations, they misunderstood the nature of his coming and purpose. He came as the Prince of Peace, having previously set his face towards Jerusalem, resolved to go the way of the cross.

Jesus never took the easy way out of a situation; he wasn’t going to be turned from this final challenge. He knew the direction his life was taking, he wasn’t a weak-minded person overtaken by events, he was in full command of what was happening. This resolve was thoroughly tested in Gethsemane, but his mind had already been made up.

Holy Week is not just about the victory of Easter morning, but the victory Jesus secured when he set his face towards Jerusalem.

In Gethsemane we see both his humanity and divinity; his humanity telling him to escape the situation, his divinity telling him to obey. Luke tells us that Jesus, being in anguish, prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.

We can’t attempt to fathom the depths of his suffering at this time, as the hymn says, ‘We do not know, we cannot tell, what pains he had to bear’.

My music of choice on Good Friday is Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. It selects itself, and still has the power to shock and move the human spirit. This moment is powerfully expressed:

He is ready to taste the bitterness of death,
to drink the cup into which the sins of this world,
hideously stinking, have been poured.

Here we have the paradox of a loving God and a suffering Christ, something we can’t fully explain, yet:

We believe it was for us,
he hung and suffered there.

Jesus quoted Psalm 22 on the cross:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Sin separates us from God. As Jesus took on our sin it separated him from his heavenly Father, a moment of true abandonment. But the psalm has a positive ending, it’s victorious. It foreshadows the Resurrection, and this was why Jesus was able to say ‘your will be done’ in Gethsemane.

Note: A reworking of material from here.

A means of your peace

This is an additional resource to go with An instrument of your peace posted yesterday (Sunday 14 March 2021). It’s an expanded version of the well-known prayer from Pax Christi USA. Please read it slowly, prayerfully, and reflectively.

Lord, make me a means of your peace.

Where there is hatred caused by fear and intolerance, let me sow love, in your gentleness.

Where there is vengefulness caused by injustice, let me sow forgiveness, which brings reconciliation.

Where there are doubts about the power of love over weapons in resolving conflicts, let me sow the faith that comes with knowing that you, who are mightier than all things, are love itself.

Where there is despair of being able to do anything to turn human hearts away from war, let me sow the hope that comes with realisation that we are not alone, for you are working with us and through us.

Where there is the darkness caused by the shadow of war, and where there is sadness caused by death let me sow the light of your wisdom that illuminates for us the way of peace.

In violence and conflicts, let me sow the joy of your promise of new and eternal life.

Father, we can do these things if you help us to realise that it is in giving them to others that we, in turn, receive them too, that it is in pardoning others who harm or upset us that we are pardoned by you. And that it is in giving our whole lives to you, be to spent bringing your message of love and peace for all people, and not just your friends – in short, dying to ourselves, that we are given eternal life in your kingdom.

Temptation 2 (Lent 3)

This devotional post follows on from last Sunday’s post. You might like to read it before continuing this post, it can be found by clicking here. Although I use a photo of food again, temptations are much deeper than just craving chocolate.

Bible Readings: Mark 1:9-13 and Matthew 4:1-11

Lent is traditionally a time of fasting, but spiritually it might better be considered a time to feast. A time to feed our souls by reflecting on the events leading up to Good Friday and Easter.

Jesus resisted temptation with exactly the same resources that are available to us: namely the Word of God, prayer, self-discipline, obedience and faith. This comes as a great encouragement to us.

This wilderness experience of Jesus has much to teach us, more than might be immediately apparent, especially as the account can only have come to us from Jesus himself. He clearly wanted us to know about it.

The first thing we learn is that it’s not a sin to be tempted. Temptation isn’t the same thing as sin. If Jesus was tempted, it follows that we’re not immune. So the moment the inappropriate thought comes into our head we have a choice to accept or reject it, to act on it or dismiss it. Jesus was at his weakest, the time when temptations often come, yet he was prepared.

Temptations often come to us when we are at our weakest, and they can sometimes take us by surprise. As Christians, temptations are bound to come, we should expect them and be prepared for them.

And the nearer we are to God, the closer our walk with him, the more likely we are to be tempted. C. S. Lewis wrote: There is a silly idea about that good people don’t know what temptation means.

The second thing to learn is that temptation often comes after a spiritual high point. This was the case with Jesus. He’d just been baptised in the River Jordan, been owned by a voice from heaven, and experienced perfect communion with his heavenly Father.

After being especially aware of God’s presence in our lives is often the time when we are thrown into a wilderness experience: when doubts, fears and temptations can come flooding in. What was true for Jesus is true for us.

The third thing to learn is that it’s not the Spirit who tempts. The Spirit led Jesus into the desert, but it wasn’t the Spirit who tempted. God may allow us to be tempted, but he never tempts. The fact that Jesus was tempted alerts us to the fact that it can serve a useful purpose.

Someone has said that our character is not usually developed by drifting along in the calm waters of tranquillity.

Speaking of trials and temptations, Peter writes: These have come so that your faith – of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire – may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed. 1 Peter 1:7

Our trials and temptations are God’s opportunities. Opportunities to be filled with the same Holy Spirit that descended on Jesus. The dove that made him gentle also made him strong.

In conclusion, Jesus was tempted to turn from the way of the cross, but he was victorious for us. His Kingdom was established and his mission fulfilled. This is perfectly expressed in Song 74 of the Salvation Army Songbook, based on Philippians 2:5-11 that I’ve written about recently.

At the name of Jesus
Every knee shall bow,
Every tongue confess him
King of Glory now;
’Tis the Father’s pleasure
We should call him Lord,
Who from the beginning
Was the mighty Word.

At his voice creation
Sprang at once to sight,
All the angel faces,
All the hosts of light,
Thrones and dominations,
Stars upon their way,
All the heavenly orders
In their great array.

Humbled for a season,
To receive a name
From the lips of sinners
Unto whom he came,
Faithfully he bore it
Spotless to the last,
Brought it back victorious
When from death he passed.

Bore it up triumphant
With its human light,
Through all ranks of creatures
To the central height,
To the throne of Godhead,
To the Father’s breast;
Filled it with the glory
Of that perfect rest.

In your hearts enthrone him;
There let him subdue
All that is not holy,
All that is not true;
Crown him as your captain
In temptation’s hour;
Let his will enfold you
In its light and power.

See also: The Essence of Lent

Temptation 1 (Lent 2)

Lent is a time of giving up things, and in the Salvation Army it’s a time when we think about our Self-Denial Altar Service. In the Christian year it’s associated with the time Jesus spent being tempted in the desert.

Lent is traditionally a time of fasting, but spiritually it might better be considered a time to feast. A time to feed our souls by reflecting on the events leading up to Good Friday and Easter.

Bible Readings: Mark 1:9-13 and Matthew 4:1-11

The time of temptation in the desert comes at the start of the earthly ministry of Jesus, and it was a time of real challenge to him. Had Jesus been diverted from his task at such an early stage, Satan would have won a great victory. Jesus would have fallen at the first hurdle.

He faced three very specific temptations, three very real challenges, and three very desirable shortcuts to popularity and power. What was common to each of these challenges was the temptation to doubt, If you are the Son of God…

Jesus was reflecting and agonising on the direction of his ministry, and these three shortcuts to popularity and power came in the form of economic, religious and political challenges.

  • When Jesus was tempted to use his power to turn stones into bread, it wasn’t merely for his own physical need. He was being shown one way that he might achieve popularity, by meeting people’s economic needs.
  • When Jesus was tempted to throw himself off the Temple, it wasn’t merely a test of his divine status. It was another way of gaining recognition, by proving to the religious leaders that he was God’s Son, by satisfying a religious need.
  • When Jesus was tempted with all the kingdoms of the world, Satan was not merely appealing to his ego. Satan was dangling before him the carrot of political power, the opportunity of using dubious methods to exercise power over people.

So three temptations, three shortcuts to popularity and power: economic, religious and political.

  • The first was resisted because it was the wrong way to recruit followers and the wrong approach to human need: It was a way that avoided the cross.
  • The second was resisted because recognition that came by flaunting divine power would be shallow: It was contrary to God’s character.
  • The third was resisted because Jesus could never rule by force: It was contrary to God’s will.

These were real challenges, different – yet not so different from the ones we face every day of our lives.

Temptations are actually about ways of satisfying our own needs inappropriately, masking our true selves by showing off and making ourselves look better than we really are, or forcing ourselves onto other people against their will. They’re much deeper than just craving chocolate!

As the writer to the Hebrews says:
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to feel sympathy for our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet he did not sin. Hebrews 4:15

Use this week in Lent to reflect on the Bible readings above, and on Christ’s experience in the desert.

Continued here.

See also: The Essence of Lent

Living Life in God’s Love

Love it or loathe it, you’ll know that today (14 February) is St Valentine’s Day. It’s a Christian festival, but also a huge marketing opportunity for shops and online retailers. While I was a corps officer and leading worship, it was always helpful when this day fell on a Sunday, and this year (2021) it does just that.

Although there was a Saint Valentine, there are several after whom the day may have been named. I’ll focus on the traditional attribution, but you can find out more here.

Legend has it that the emperor was dismayed that the men of Rome were not enlisting for the army, because they loved their wives and families too much to become soldiers. So he decreed that engagements and marriages were against the law. Valentine was a priest and doctor in Rome, and he refused to obey. He went on marrying young men and women because he believed that was God’s way. He got dragged before the authorities in Rome on 14 February 270 (actual date not known) and, having refused to change his ways, paid the price.

We’ll never know how true the legend is, but Saint Valentine has been associated with this lovers’ festival for many centuries. As Christians, the one love story that we especially celebrate is that of the Lord Jesus Christ. Because of his great love for us, he was prepared to sacrifice himself in life and on the cross.

Bible Reading: Ephesians 5:1-20

Paul wrote: […] live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God

The love expressed on Valentine’s Day might be deep and meaningful, it might just be shallow and expected, and it might even be it might be a joke or a bit of fun. But the one thing we can be sure of is that we are all loved with the very love of Jesus. No one deserves it and no one is left out.

None of us are perfect, none of us deserve this love, because we are all flawed human beings. Sometimes we don’t recognise our collective failings, thus making it difficult to cope with human weakness, both in ourselves and others. Sometimes we ascribe sinfulness to others and not to ourselves, it’s the oldest human failing.

Of course, there’s clearly goodness in individuals, but we are all flawed because of our basic humanity. This is a big subject, and the discussion of inherent evil or inherent good is for another time and place.

Christian teaching shows us that we are insignificant and worthless in relation to the universe, but significant and of infinite value to God, even though flawed and without any claim on grace.

Edward Norman has written: The supreme loveliness of the life of Christ exhibited the sacrifice of God himself for creatures who were undeserving. It was not because men and women were good that Christ died for them. How can it have been? On the hills of Galilee and in the desert places of Judea the Saviour had loved those whose lives encouraged no love and inspired no pity. Nothing in human nature has changed, and it is not going to. Jesus came into the world precisely because we were not good, and because we are not capable of self-correction. People today will begin to cope with the evils of existence if only they will bring themselves to accept that their own natures are inherently flawed. And the hand of God himself extends from the cross to lift and save those who reach out to him.

Accepting responsibility for our own sinfulness can open the floodgates of God’s mercy and love in Jesus, and we can be transformed. We can also better accept the sinfulness of others. Although we don’t deserve it, God offers us love through Jesus, and he challenges us to live a life of love in response, loving him, others, and ourselves.

Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. Ephesians 5:1-2

Be very careful, then, how you live – not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Ephesians 5:15-20

On this Valentine’s Day, do we need to give more of ourselves to God? Giving ourselves to him as a fragrant offering and sacrifice? As Rick Warren has written, let’s move from smelling the odour of waste to the bouquet of grace.

The Letter of Joy (Chapter 4)

The Letter of Paul to the Philippians in the Bible is characterised by joy, it contains the word (in its various forms) some 16 times within its four chapters. I’m featuring it in my Sunday devotionals through January 2021. You can read my introduction here with other links.

You can read Chapter 4 by clicking here.

In this final chapter of his letter to the Philippian church, Paul makes a closing appeal for steadfastness and unity: Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends!

Having spoken generally in Chapter 2 about humbly having the mind of Christ, he pleads specifically with Euodia and Syntyche to be reconciled after an argument.

I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you, my true companion, help these women since they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. Philippians 4:2-3

This is followed by one of my favourite Bible passages, one I often use in pastoral ministry: Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:4-7

Paul goes on: Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. Philippians 4:8-9

These verses always make me smile when I read them, because Paul comes across as a little boastful about his Christian life. Clearly, this isn’t the case, especially because he’s been writing about humility and only boasting in the Lord in this very letter. It does remind us, though, that we have to be careful how we come across to others – arrogant, judgemental, and ‘holier than thou’ Christians do not serve Jesus well, they turn people off God.

In verses 11-13 Paul shows he’s learnt some important life lessons, that we should take on board: […] I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.

In his final greetings, Paul thanks the Christians for their gifts. He speaks of them as a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God. He reminds them God will meet all their needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus.

In conclusion, we are reminded that we can make a gift of our lives to God and others, a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen.

The Letter of Joy (Introduction)

The Letter of Joy (Chapter 1)

The Letter of Joy (Chapter 2)

The Letter of Joy (Chapter 3)

The Letter of Joy (Chapter 3)

The Letter of Paul to the Philippians in the Bible is characterised by joy, it contains the word (in its various forms) some 16 times within its four chapters. I’m featuring it in my Sunday devotionals through January 2021. You can read my introduction here with other links.

Chapter 3 (click on the link to read) is about joy in believing and having no confidence in rituals for salvation or living the Christian life. Rituals are important in our worship, but they point to something else. They are symbols of deeper truths, and can be very powerful, but it’s the spiritual experience they represent that’s vitally important.

The ritual that Paul refers to is circumcision, because Christianity is rooted in Judaism. He’s countering the argument of those who suggested that Gentile Christians needed to submit to the Old Testament Jewish laws to obtain salvation.

He powerfully reminds his readers that our salvation is based on the work of our Saviour and Lord Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit. Put no confidence in the flesh he says. It’s not the ritual that’s important, it’s the experience in the heart that matters.

He goes on to point out that, because of his background in Judaism, he has more reason that most to boast in the ritual – but he counts it as loss for what he has gained.

I myself have reasons for such confidence. If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless. But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.

What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ – the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. I want to know Christ – yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.

Having said that though, he’s quick to point out that he hasn’t fully achieved it yet, he presses on. There’s no place for arrogance in the Christian experience. We humbly accept our nature as imperfect Christians striving towards a goal – in God’s strength, not ours. He’s effectively echoing his own words in Chapter 2 about the humility of Jesus.

I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus.

In conclusion, here’s a helpful prayer and reflection based on this chapter, I encourage you to spend some quiet time going through it.

The good news therefore is this:
In Jesus Christ we are accepted,
we are loved, we are forgiven.
Thanks be to God!

The Letter of Joy (Introduction)

The Letter of Joy (Chapter 1)

The Letter of Joy (Chapter 2)

The Letter of Joy (Chapter 4)

The Letter of Joy (Chapter 2)

The Letter of Paul to the Philippians in the Bible is characterised by joy, it contains the word (in its various forms) some 16 times within its four chapters. I’m featuring it in my Sunday devotionals through January 2021. You can read my introduction here with other links.

Chapter 2 contains one of the most profound passages in the New Testament (which may be an early Christian hymn). Paul’s purpose is to call the church to unity on the basis of the humility and servanthood of Jesus, and teach theology along the way. Take a few moments to read it through thoughtfully and prayerfully, maybe twice or more.

See below (or click on the link) Philippians 2:1-11

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death –
even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

This passage is central to Christian belief and practice. To be ‘united with Christ’ goes to the very heart of salvation and what it means to be a Christian. It’s a relationship with Christ as Saviour and Lord, one which places on us the joy of following and the responsibility of living like Jesus. Loving God and loving others in Jesus’ name, with no discrimination or favouritism.

We should be like-minded with Christ, and like-minded with each other. We will (of course) have our differing likes and views, but because we are ‘united with Christ’ there is an expectation that we will respect each other and seek to serve the common good.

Is there a relationship you need to mend? Is there a bridge you need to build towards others in your community? How can you reach out to groups you might consider ‘different’ from you in some way?

Heavenly Father, help us to live our lives with humble hearts, reaching out to our neighbours in love, and ready to serve suffering humanity. Amen.

The Letter of Joy (Introduction)

The Letter of Joy (Chapter 1)

The Letter of Joy (Chapter 3)

The Letter of Joy (Chapter 4)

The Letter of Joy (Chapter 1)

The Letter of Paul to the Philippians in the Bible is characterised by joy, it contains the word (in its various forms) some 16 times within its four chapters. I’m featuring it in my Sunday devotionals through January 2021. You can read my introduction here.

Happiness is fleeting, it depends on circumstances. Joy is something far deeper, it’s not subject to our changing circumstances, it’s rooted in a quiet confidence in God. This is central to Paul’s letter to the Philippians, along with humility, unity and self-sacrificial Christian living.

Chapter 1 begins with a warm greeting to the Philippian church: Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all God’s holy people in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. Philippians 1:1-6

Verses 12-14 are key verses in the chapter, and relate to the overall theme of joy in all circumstances. Paul relates how his suffering became an opportunity to share the message of Jesus: Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. And because of my chains, most of the brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord and dare all the more to proclaim the gospel without fear.

There are so many things that can cause us to become bitter or give up, Paul saw his circumstances as an opportunity. His circumstances weren’t important, how he used them was. He turned a bad situation into a good one, reaching out to those around him.

What are the circumstances causing to concern right now? They may be personal challenges, or ones facing all of us in the world today. Whatever they are, they can be opportunities: to share your faith and to serve others in humility, following the example of Jesus.

Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Philippians 1:27a

The Letter of Joy (Introduction)

The Letter of Joy (Chapter 2)

The Letter of Joy (Chapter 3)

The Letter of Joy (Chapter 4)