This is my blood

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Matthew 26:26-29; 1 Corinthians 11:17-33

In 2 Thessalonians 2, the Apostle Paul speaks of “the lie.”  It’s a deception which the human race falls for every time.  Essentially the lie is this:  We believe that the Lord is grudging.  We imagine that, if He’s gracious at all, He doles out blessings with a teaspoon.

Ever since Satan first spoke to Eve he has been peddling this same deception:  “You mean to tell me God’s withholding all this fruit from you?  What a miser!”  Eve fell for it.  Adam fell for it.  The world falls for it.  Every day.  And so do I.

The greatest battle in my Christian life is to fight “the lie.”  Every day I am tempted to view God as a distant, tight-fisted, kill-joy.  It makes me mistrust Him, shut down and close off from Him.  Then I try to manage life out of my own resources.  This lie will kill my spiritual life.

So how should I fight the lie?  With the blood of Christ.

After handing out bread at the last supper…

“Jesus took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of it; For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.”  (Matthew 26: 27-28)

It’s a shocking dramatisation of the cross.  Bread torn apart – this is my body. Red wine poured out – this is my blood.  Jesus would be utterly consumed and exhausted on the cross.  Broken and expended… for us.  That’s the whole point – it’s for us.  Jesus takes death, we get the feast.  He gives His blood, we get the banquet.

And just think of what blood means in the Bible.  In Leviticus 17 the LORD speaks of the blood of the sacrifices:

“The life of the flesh is in the blood:  and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls:  for it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul.”  (Leviticus 17:11)

To pour out blood is to pour out life.  And this is what Jesus does for us.  He gives His infinitely precious blood – the blood of God (Acts 20:28) – in atonement for our souls.

Who can look to the cross and doubt the generosity of our Lord?  Here is no grudging miser.  Here is Life expended to the very last drop.  Here is a gushing forth of self that we might live.

This God does not dispense blessings with a teaspoon.  He pours Himself out – for us and to us.  At the cross, ‘the lie’ is unmasked.  Satan is the miser.  We are the selfish ones.  God is Giver – though it cost Him everything.  And He doesn’t merely give us things, He pours out His own blood.  He expends Himself in complete self-offering.  And all we can do is gratefully receive.

This is my body

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Matthew 26:26-29; 1 Corinthians 10:14-17

The mission of Christ’s life was His death.  It was His ‘glory’, or His ‘hour’ as He kept calling it.  And on the night before He died He instituted a meal to commemorate this central act of His coming.

Incredibly, Jesus did not mainly set Himself forth as the Host of this meal (although He is – it’s the Lord’s supper after all).  But more fundamentally, Jesus offers Himself as the main course.

He takes bread, gives thanks, breaks it and gives it to His disciples saying “This is my body.”  (Matthew 26:26).

The meaning of His death is contained in this little phrase.  Jesus, torn apart like bread, is given that we might live.  He is devoured, that we might be fed.  He is broken that we might be nourished.

To be eaten up is a common way of speaking about death.  For instance, the Psalmist speaks of his deadly foes like this:

“When the wicked, even mine enemies and my foes, came upon me to eat up my flesh, they stumbled and fell.”  (Psalm 27:2)

When a person eats the flesh of another they take advantage of their death.  And so Jesus wants us to do with His death.  He wants us to take advantage of His sacrifice.  In fact the Old Testament sacrifices were eaten after they were killed.  First they turned away wrath, then they nourished and provided an occasion for fellowship.  The Passover Lamb was the same – first its blood shielded from judgement, then it sustained the people for their journey out of Egypt.

And so it is with Jesus.  He is our propitiation and our fellowship meal.  He’s given for us as our atoning sacrifice and given to us as our ongoing sustenance.  Jesus really is the Bread of life.  And it’s His death that brings us life.

Think of a loaf torn apart and handed to you.  Freely offered.  Life-giving.  Hunger-satisfying.  Fellowship-creating.  Generous.  Nourishing.  Available.  That is Jesus for you.  Because of His once-for-all death on that Friday, He says to us today:

“This is my body which is given for you.”  (Luke 22:19)

Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake it …

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Matthew 26:17-30

Every Sunday for 2000 years ministers of the gospel have been repeating this phrase.

All over the world, Christ’s people gather to eat the bread and drink the wine and they hear these words:

“And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat…”  (Matthew 26:26)

Let’s consider each phrase…

As they were eating…

The Lord’s Supper is a supper.  It is a meal.  And this is how salvation is portrayed throughout the Bible.  God’s people are not promised a heavenly buffet – finger food that we can take poolside while we top up our tan.   We are called to a feast – a wedding feast with Christ as host. We are brought into the heart of the Family, to sit at table and dine with our Lord.  There could be no greater sign of our fellowship with God than that we are invited to eat with Him.

… Jesus took bread…

As we will see, Jesus says of this bread:  “This is my body.”  Here is how the feast comes about.  Before Jesus is the Host, He becomes the main course.  In history, the Son of God did indeed take a body.  He took our flesh, entering our humanity and making it His own.

… and blessed it…

Jesus lived perfectly before the Father.  And the law set out many blessings for full obedience (Deuteronomy 28:1-14).  Therefore Jesus comes into our situation and lives the blessed life in our place.  Yet now, at the end of His life, something else happens…

… and brake it…

The violence of the act is shocking.  This bread is torn apart in front of the disciples.  Here we see the cross dramatised.  Now, instead of the blessings of Christ’s obedient life, we remember the curses Jesus takes for our disobedience to the law (Galatians 3:13; Deuteronomy 28:15-29:29). The blessed One is broken.  But He is broken for us…

… and gave it to the disciples.

What is the whole purpose of Christ’s taking flesh, of living the blessed life and dying the cursed death?  That we might take and eat.  Jesus wants to feed us with His very Self.  Here is the self-giving love of Christ – to be torn apart to bring life to the world.

So then, as it says in the Book of Common Prayer:  “Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving.”

Greater love hath no man than this…

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John 15:13-27

War memorials the world over record these words from Jesus:

Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”  (John 15:13)

In the context of a war memorial we might picture a brave soldier taking a bullet for another.  Or perhaps throwing himself on a grenade, or stretchering out an injured comrade under heavy fire.  If we were the one saved, we would be eternally grateful.

But when Jesus originally spoke these words, He was telling us that we are the saved ones.  Therefore we are His friends.  And He is the one who takes the bullet.  Out of immense love, Jesus comes to the fight, joins us in our predicament and lays down His life for us.

Over the past few days we have been speaking of the eternal love of God. But in John 15 we see this love earthed into the blood, sweat and tears of our own fallen state.

And that is absolutely essential.  Because someone reading the last few posts might well object to this lofty talk about God’s love.  It’s all very well, they may protest, to speak of the life of the Trinity before the world began.  It’s all very well to speak of our mystical union with Christ.  It’s all very well to speak of our participation, through Christ, in the eternal love of God.  But how on earth does that love meet with me in my sin and suffering, my curse and condemnation?  The answer that Jesus gives is that it meets us at the cross.

This great love, about which Christ has been speaking for the last three chapters, does not and cannot remain a heavenly love.  It must descend to our situation.  Which means it enters into even our hellish cut-off-ness from the life of God.  Jesus comes into the trenches, takes up our cause and faces the fire.

Having taken us into Himself, the True Vine is consumed on the cross (Psalm 80:14-19), taking the judgement that belongs to us.  This is how He loves His friends.

To believe in an abstract love from heaven is not enough for us.  When we know the depths of our own depravity, our consciences are not placated by imagining some benign smile from above.  We need to know that God’s love is a knowing love, a divine “nevertheless”.  Before He declares His oaths, we need to know that He sees us to the bottom – that His love does not skim over but actually plumbs the depths of our sin. But this is precisely what the cross tells us.

There can be no greater love than this.  Our Heavenly Friend does not forget about our unloveliness – He enters into it, He endures it and its consequences, and He rises again to say “Even so, I have loved you with eyes wide open, I have loved you at your very worst, and I have loved you more than my own life.  Nothing can separate you from my love.”

“But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.  Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him. For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life.”  (Romans 5:8-10)

I am the Vine, ye are the branches

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John 15:1-12

Last time we saw the incomparable enormity of Jesus.  He is the Way, the Truth and the Life.  If we want to see God we must look no further but only at Jesus.  For, as He says, “The Father is in me and I am in the Father.” (John 14:10)

While we are still reeling from this truth, Jesus hits us with another.  And this time it’s personal.

In John 15 verse 9 Jesus makes the most astonishing claim:

“As the Father hath loved me, so have I loved you.”

Ask yourself – how has the Father loved the Son?

He has loved Him perfectly, unbreakably, begininglessly and endlessly. Remember from John 14 that Jesus is so much one with the Father that they are in each other.  As we have seen, Jesus is “in the bosom of the Father” (John 1:18).  Their love is the original love that both predated and produced the universe.  And now Jesus says that this love overflows to me. How is that possible?

It’s possible only because of “union with Christ.”  We share in the eternal love of God because we share in Christ Himself.  The believer is one with Jesus, even as Jesus is one with the Father.  And perhaps the most evocative description of this one-ness is in John 15:1-8.  Here Jesus says:

I am the vine, ye are the branches” (John 15:5)

Throughout the Old Testament Israel is pictured as a vine.  But for the most part it is a fruitless vine.  Now it’s true that some trees have a use apart from their fruitfulness – perhaps they are good for furniture or timber.  But not vines.  If a vine is fruitless, it is useful only as firewood. This is our natural state, cut off from the life of God, fruitless before him and good for nothing.

But step forward Jesus.  He is the true Vine.  He is the true people of God, the true humanity.  Unlike natural man, Jesus has a connection to the ultimate Life-source and brings forth much fruit.  And the good news is this:  we are grafted in to the fruitful Vine and we have life in Him. Now that we are in Jesus we are in on the beloved Son as He stands in the Niagara of the Father’s love.

Just think of how close the believer is to Jesus.  He doesn’t simply say “I am the root structure, you are the vine.”  Or “I am the trunk, you are the branches.”  Jesus is the whole vine and we are branches within that vine. Jesus comprehends His people in a remarkable way.  He incorporates us into Himself such that we are a part of Him.

We are one with Jesus like a bride with her groom, like a body with its head, like a branch with its vine.  We do not have a separate existence from Jesus.  We cannot pursue our life, our identity, our flourishing apart from Jesus.  And for His part, Jesus cannot reject us, abandon us or deny us any more than He can reject, abandon or deny Himself.

Who He is, we become.  Where He is, we dwell.  What He has, we inherit. What He’s done, we possess.  We are one with Jesus and He is one with the Father.  Therefore it really is true what He says: “As the Father hath loved me, so have I loved you.”

Is this the reality you dwell upon day to day?  Jesus tells us, 10 times in 7 verses to “abide” in Him.  We are to make our home in Jesus.  To remain in this love, this truth, this Vine, this Jesus.  A thousand things will distract us in our day.  A thousand competing abodes will offer a sense of security and identity.  But none of them compare to Christ.

“Abide in me, and I in you.  As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me.  I am the vine, ye are the branches:  He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit.”   (John 15:4-5)

I am the Way, the Truth and the Life

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John 14:5-31

–  “That’s the way.”

–  “Ain’t that the truth.”

–  “This is the life.”

How do we tend to speak of the way, the truth and the life?

For us, ‘the way’ is usually a technique or learned habit.  In the ‘religious realm’ we might think of lengthy pilgrimages and ritualised approaches to God.

For us, ‘the truth’ is information or compelling logic.  In the ‘religious realm’ we might think of the mysteries of the faith or catechisms which must be taught.

For us, ‘the life’ is ordering drinks poolside on our summer holiday, or walking through breath-taking scenery.  In the ‘religious realm’ we might think of the life as something far-off – an eternal reward for those who get ‘the way’ and ‘the truth’ right.

The trouble with our thinking is that we leave Jesus out of it.  And the results are disastrous.

In John 14, Jesus has just redefined the afterlife for His followers.  The essence of our future hope is that we will be where Jesus is.  The future is not a paradise of pleasures so much as the presence of Jesus.

Jesus will similarly personalise our concepts of way and truth and life as He continues…

“And whither I go ye know, and the way ye know.  Thomas saith unto him, Lord, we know not whither thou goest; and how can we know the way?  Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life:  no man cometh unto the Father, but by me. If ye had known me, ye should have known my Father also:  and from henceforth ye know him, and have seen him.  Philip saith unto him, Lord, show us the Father, and it sufficeth us.  Jesus saith unto him, Have I been so long time with you, and yet hast thou not known me, Philip? He that hath seen me hath seen the Father; and how sayest thou then, Show us the Father?  Believest thou not that I am in the Father, and the Father in me?”       (John 14:4-10)

What is the way to God?

It is not a long ascent to heaven through deeds and rituals.  The way is Jesus.  And therefore it is a way that has come down to us!  The way is not our approach to God.  The way is Christ’s approach to God and He is given freely to us.

This means if we ask ourselves “Am I on the way to God?” we are really asking the question “Am I in Jesus?”  And if we are in Jesus, we are not just on the way – we have arrived!  Jesus does not show us the way and leave us to get on with it.  Jesus blazes the trail and invites us directly to the destination.

What is the truth of God?

It is not an impersonal logic that we have to piece together through information gathered ‘on the ground.’  The truth is Jesus.  Therefore, again, the truth has come down to us and told us what we didn’t already know.

This means if we ask ourselves “Do I know God?” we are really asking the question “Do I see Jesus for who He is?”  This is how He speaks to Philip.  When Philip wants to see God, Jesus insists “Look at me!”  Jesus does not show us truths about God, He puts Himself in our eye-line and says “Keep looking.”  Truth does not assess the claims of Jesus.  Jesus is the Truth who assesses everything else!

What is the life of God?

It is not an abstract ethical programme or spiritual state or future bliss. The life of God is Jesus.  The Son constitutes (in fact eternally constitutes) the Father as Father.  And life is to be drawn into Christ, to share in His life with God.  As Jesus prays in John 17:3:

“This is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.”

Jesus does not simply get us to God or get us to truth or get us to eternal life.  He is those things.  Those things – even the Father and the Spirit! – are in Jesus.  He contains, within Himself, God on the one hand and all creation on the other.

How do you think of Jesus?

You cannot think too highly of Him.  He is incomparable and all-encompassing.

How do you think of God and the world?

You cannot think of them Christ-lessly.  He’s got the whole world in His hands!

In my Father’s house are many mansions

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John 14:1-4; 17:20-26

What lies beyond death?

The Hindu might claim reincarnation.  The Muslim seeks a paradise, with Allah conspicuous by his absence.  The atheist asserts there is nothing. What is the Christian hope?

In words that are read out at funerals the world over, Jesus says this:

“Let not your heart be troubled:  ye believe in God, believe also in me.  In my Father’s house are many mansions:  if it were not so, I would have told you.  I go to prepare a place for you.  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also.” (John 14:1-3)

First let’s examine two phrases that can send people on wild goose chases of interpretation.  The word for “mansions” is difficult to translate.  It occurs only one other time in the Bible – in this very chapter:  “If a man love me, he will keep my words:  and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him.”  (John 14:23)  Perhaps, therefore, it’s best to understand verse 2 as something like “In my Father’s household, there are many abodes.”  Jesus’ point is not about the architecture of our eternal habitation (extensions necessitated after every conversion!).  He is telling us about the roominess of the Father’s household.  Always space for more!

The other phrase that can give the wrong impression is in verse 3:  “I go and prepare a place.”  This does not refer to some celestial renovations Jesus has to make before our rooms are ready.  Our place is not prepared by a team of angelic property developers.  No, it is the going of Jesus that prepares our place.  Jesus is speaking of the cross.  His departure is His death on Calvary.  That’s what secures our place.

So now that we have cleared the ground, what do we positively learn about our eternal hope?  Just this:  our hope is Christ Himself:

“I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also.” (John 14:3)

Here is the whole purpose of Christ’s coming.  He is the One who was “with God in the beginning” (John 1:2).  The Greek puts it more literally that Christ was towards the Father from eternity.  He faces His Father and is ever drawn to Him, seeing His face (John 6:46) and resting in His bosom (John 1:18).

What then is salvation?  It is being drawn by the Spirit of God into the Son of God, that He might bring us to where He is.  As He prays in John 17:24:

“Father, I will that they also, whom thou hast given me, be with me where I am; that they may behold my glory, which thou hast given me:  for thou lovedst me before the foundation of the world.”

Eternal life is something that begins the minute we trust Christ, but it will be consummated in face-to-face fullness when we see Him.  This destiny is to be with Jesus and therefore to participate in His life of loving fellowship with the Father and by the Spirit.

What will that look like?  Well John 13 gives us a picture…

It was a good meal, good friends, good wine.  People were relaxing around the table. One man seemed even more relaxed than the rest.  We are told:

“Now there was leaning on Jesus’ bosom one of his disciples, whom Jesus loved… He then lying on Jesus’ breast [asked him a question]” (John 13:23-25)

Here, we assume, is John himself – the author of this Gospel.  As he tells the story he remembers leaning back against Jesus.  Hearing His heart-beat.  Listening to His breathing.  John was one of the younger if not the youngest disciple.  And he calls himself “the beloved disciple.”  Clearly he felt completely at ease with Jesus – leaning back on his chest.  Jesus had just washed their feet. He was teaching them about His Father and because it was Passover they would have been singing hymns around the dinner table.  We can imagine, throughout, Jesus’ arm around His young friend as John leant back on Jesus.

John knew he could find rest, peace and welcome in the bosom of Jesus. And Jesus is the One who has eternal rest, peace and welcome in the bosom of the Father.  Those few minutes around the dinner table are a picture of our everlasting hope.  Those beloved of Jesus are invited into His arms as He rests secure in the Father’s.

No other view of the afterlife comes close to the personal hope of the Christian.  Other religions may go into detail about the pleasures of paradise, but for Christians the focus is different.  Christ is our life and He is our hope.  Whatever else the future holds, this is the heart of it – warm, personal, feasting joy in the company of Christ, the Heavenly Bridegroom. Therefore, “Let not your heart be troubled”.

Foot washing

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John 13:1-38

How are you known by those around you?  What would they describe you?

Busy?  Easy-going?   Nice?  Withdrawn?  Driven?  Glum?

What about your church?  How is it known in your area?

The night before Jesus died He spoke of one mark by which His followers are to be identified in the world.  One word should spring to mind when the world thinks about Christians.  Loving.

“A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another.  By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.”  (John 13:34-35)

The distinguishing mark of the Christian is not a dress code, not an institutional configuration, not even primarily a doctrinal or moral or religious code.  The ultimate, distinguishing mark of the Christ-follower is love.

This is not simply Jesus’ last request.  Jesus calls it a new command.  ‘New’ because it is to be taken up afresh in every generation.  But this is not a suggestion from Jesus.  It’s a command:  As He has loved us, so we love one another.

This speaks of manner, of order and of movement.

Manner:  We are to love in the same manner as Christ has loved us.

Order:  We are to love having been loved by Christ.

Movement:  We are not to “return the favour” to Jesus but to “pass it on.”

All of this is taught in the foot washing which provides the backdrop to this teaching.

In John 13 it is the night before Jesus’ death.  And just when you might expect Jesus to be comforted and supported by His followers, it is Jesus who pours Himself out for them:

“When Jesus knew that his hour was come that he should depart out of this world unto the Father, having loved his own which were in the world, he loved them unto the end… Jesus knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he was come from God, and went to God; He riseth from supper, and laid aside his garments; and took a towel, and girded himself. After that he poureth water into a bason, and began to wash the disciples’ feet…”  (John 13:1,3-5)

Here is Jesus ‘loving unto the end.’  And the foot washing parallels His own history as Son of God.  Just as He left the Father’s side to love us in costly, sacrificial service, so He leaves His place at the table, trades His robe for a towel and washes His disciples.

And once He had washed and dried their feet, He took up the robe again and returned to His place.  In verse 12 He asks, “Know ye what I have done to you?”

Do they?  And do we?  This foot washing is a picture of something far deeper.  Jesus had come from God, was returning to God, and the route which He trod took Him to the utter depths of the cross.  We must never forget that these hands which lovingly washed His friends’ feet would, in a matter of hours, be nailed to a Roman cross.  We cannot forget this because the washing is meant to picture Christ’s love shown at the cross.

And what a picture!  The ruler of the universe, stooping and serving His followers.

John writes about it recalling every last detail.  Verse 5:

“After that he poureth water into a bason, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith he was girded.”

As John writes about it, he is carried back to the moment it happened.  John was there.  He’d had his own feet personally washed and padded dry by the LORD of all creation.

How would you feel as Jesus came around the table to you?

I was once in India, staying with a very respectable family in Indian society.  The father was a Nawab – the equivalent of a Maharajah or the British equivalent of a Lord.  And while I was there, my hosts were insisting that I had a pedicure.  I flatly refused – no way was I going to let someone poke around my carbuncled monstrosities.  I didn’t want to stand over another human being while they fussed over my dirty feet.  No person should have to do that.  It is such an awkward thing, to have someone hold your naked feet, to wash water over them and towel them dry while all you can do is sit there and watch.  There is something very uncomfortable about allowing someone to serve you to that level.

But I was uncomfortable having one of the household servants do it.  It is unthinkable to imagine my host – this Lord – taking off his royal robes, wrapping a towel around his waist and kneeling at my stinking feet.

That is inconceivable for us.  But what about this?  In John 13, the Lord of the universe does this very thing.

This is how Jesus has loved His disciples.  He loves them in action.  He loves in concrete service.  He addresses their needs.  He loves in humility. He gives up His rights and privileges.  He loves in a costly way.  He loves even under pressure – the cross was just hours away!  He loves unconditionally – these men would, by the end of the night, betray Him, desert Him or deny Him.  Yet He lovingly washes all their feet, even Judas’.  And He loves in self-forgetfulness – He doesn’t care that He loses face.  He is not concerned for His own self-image.

How do we measure up to Christ’s new command?

I can kid myself that I’m loving… until it means inconvenience, or a loss of face, or until my love is not returned in kind.  And how often does our love evaporate when we’re under pressure from other quarters?

But notice again the order – as Christ has loved us, so we love others. There’s an order in which we are to obey the new command.  First be loved.  Then love.  First receive Jesus’ love.  Then pass it on.  First know, realise, appreciate – then do.  First understand, then act.  That’s the order.

In fact this order is one that Jesus Himself follows.  Did you notice that very strange line in verse 3?  In verse 3 we get a rare psychological commentary on the thought-life of Jesus:

“Jesus knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he was come from God, and went to God; He riseth from supper…”  (John 13:3)

Jesus loved the world out of the security He already had from His Father. He first received love and then passed it on.  If that’s the order for the Son of God, we certainly cannot short-circuit the process.

Peter thinks he can.  Peter wants to put his own doing ahead of Christ’s love.  As Jesus comes around with the bowl Peter protests:

“Thou shalt never wash my feet.”  (John 13:8)

Later on Peter commits the same error.  In verse 37 he boldly proclaims:

“I will lay down my life for thy sake.”

He has things backwards:  “Don’t wash my feet, I’ll wash yours…  Don’t die for me, I’ll die for you.”

Jesus has to burst his bubble in v38.  Peter has no resources to play the part of Jesus.  He will deny Christ before the night is out.  That’s a shocking turn-around for a man who sounds so spiritual, so committed. But actually Peter’s words in the upper room are full of the same independent self-assuredness which lead him to deny Jesus.

Peter’s mistake in a nut-shell was this:  he trusted in his own love for Jesus rather than Jesus’ love for him.  He reversed the order.  He put his own acts of love ahead of Christ’s.  And when the crunch came, of course his own love failed.

Will we submit to the humbling, sacrificial love of Christ?  He stoops not just to our feet but to a cross.  But through it, we are cleansed and ready to serve.

The sheep and the goats

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Matthew 25:31-46

The gospel according to Jesus is a little different to the gospel according to me.  The gospel according to me tells of a God who is, generally, far off, but when he does involve Himself it mainly concerns me, my loved ones and the success of Australian sports teams.  Therefore, when Christ announces His news for the world, I am constantly taken off guard.

In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus tells the parable of the sheep and the goats.  It speaks of the end of history as we know it.  Here is a truly earth-shattering event “when the Son of man shall come in his glory and all the holy angels with him.”  On that day the world will be split in two.

On His right there are the sheep (v33), who are blessed by His Father (v34) and called righteous (v37).

On His left there are the goats (v33), who are cursed and will share in the devil’s fate (v41).

The sheep will inherit eternal life, the goats will go to eternal punishment (v46).

And there is no third category.  This is not a menagerie – sheep, goats, cows, chickens.  There is one Judge at the end – Jesus.  And there are only two kinds of person.  All humanity will find itself either as a sheep or a goat.  The fates of these two groups are eternal and, on that day, irrevocable.

This is the news Jesus announces and it wakes us up to eternal realities. We spend our time ruminating over other divisions – right-wing or left-wing politics, public or private education, Blackberry or iPhone.  But this is the division of eternal significance – sheep or goat.  Which are we?

Well let’s first notice the asymmetry between the two.

The sheep come. The goats depart.

The sheep are blessed by the Father.  The goats are simply cursed.

The sheep inherit the kingdom.  The goats just ‘go away.’

The kingdom is prepared for the sheep.  Eternal punishment is prepared for the devil and his angels.

From this passage it is clear that heaven is for people, hell is for devils. The only reason people end up in hell is that, insanely, they follow the devil to his fate.  Hell is not for people.  It is the greatest tragedy in the world that people end up there.  But they do end up there.  And so Christ warns us.

It is important to notice this asymmetrical nature to the blessing and cursing.  The Father personally blesses the sheep.  The goats simply are cursed.  And standing in between them is Jesus.  He defines the future. Eternity pivots on Christ – it is ‘coming to’ or ‘departing from’ Him that carries eternal significance.

Before we examine the characteristics of the sheep and goats, let’s note one more fact about them.  They are sheep and goats before Jesus describes any of their actions.  They are on the right and left before He points to any of their deeds.  Their actions merely demonstrate their nature.  There is nothing that the sheep or goats did in order to become sheep or goats. Indeed both the sheep and the goats were entirely unaware of what they were doing or failing to do.  Neither grouping acted to become sheep or goats.  They simply couldn’t help acting as sheep and goats.

So what are these groups like?  Jesus says to the sheep:

“I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat:  I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink:  I was a stranger, and ye took me in:  Naked, and ye clothed me:  I was sick, and ye visited me:  I was in prison, and ye came unto me.”  (Matthew 25:35-36)

They are such Christ-like acts.  Feeding, sheltering, healing, comforting. These sheep are very like their Shepherd.  Yet Jesus does not say they did it “like me” or “for the sake of me.”  He says they did it “to me.”  How is that possible?  That’s the question the sheep ask:

“Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?  Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?  And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”  (Matthew 25:37-40)

Christ is hidden in the least of His brethren.  Acts of Christ-like mercy directed to the family of Jesus are kindnesses to Christ Himself.  Just as He takes the persecution of His people personally (Acts 9:4), so He takes the care of His people personally.

It is a wonderful thought that the smallest acts of mercy – acts that we have long forgotten – are remembered by Jesus the Judge.  On the other hand the goats are characterised by their callous indifference to the needs of Christ’s people.

Jesus says to them:

“I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat:  I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink:  I was a stranger, and ye took me not in:  naked, and ye clothed me not:  sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not.  Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee?  Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.”  (Matthew 25:42-45)

Here is perhaps the most striking difference between the sheep and the goats:  the sheep can’t remember when they did any good, the goats can’t remember when they didn’t!  The sheep are entirely forgetful of the works they have performed.  It is the goats that are mindful of their deeds (and indignant that they should be found wanting).  The sheep have found righteousness in their Shepherd and unthinkingly express it to His brethren.  The goats assert their righteousness to the Shepherd yet are unthinking towards His people.

Jesus is not laying out a programme of works for those who would earn heaven.  Those who end up in the kingdom seem blissfully unaware of any “merit”.   And the works that are mentioned have nothing “religious” about them.  Those trying to climb the ladder to impress the Judge have forgotten what the Judge has done.  He has stooped down to the very depths.  He comes to us in grace, transforms us into little christs, then puts Himself into our neighbours and says, “Come away from the ladder, come out into the world, that’s where I am.  I am always coming down. And my love is for spreading!”  His life of self-emptying love is contagious.  And wonderfully – according to this parable – it is the life of the eternal kingdom.

Well done, good and faithful servant

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Matthew 25:14-30

We’ve seen the danger and the opportunity of “talents”.  Whether it’s the monetary unit or the God-given ability, we’re tempted to abuse our talents in one of two ways – self-indulgence or cowardly retreat.  We either show off our talents in self-promoting ostentation or we bury our talents and keep them from the world.  Neither option is Christ’s intention.  He wants us to be servants - using our talents for the blessing of others.  But how will we be motivated to move out of our natural responses driven by pride or fear?

The answer from Matthew 25:14-30 is to get a true vision for our Master.

Let’s recap the story… one servant is given five talents and makes five more.  Another is given two talents and makes two more.  The last servant is given one talent and “he went and digged in the earth, and hid his lord’s money.” (v18)  And the reason for his tight-fisted parsimony?

“Then he which had received the one talent came and said, Lord, I knew thee that thou art an hard man, reaping where thou hast not sown, and gathering where thou hast not strawed:  And I was afraid, and went and hid thy talent in the earth:  lo, there thou hast that is thine.”  (Matthew 25:24-25)

This is such a contrast to the way the Lord is portrayed in his dealings with the good servants:

Well done, thou good and faithful servant:  thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things:  enter thou into the joy of thy lord.”  (Matthew 25:21)

The amount which they make their master is not important – whether five talents or two – faithful service of this lord is what counts.  After all, both good servants are told that their talents are merely “a few things” when compared to the “many things” he has in store for them.  This lord is no grudging miser.  He exalts servants to thrones, making them rulers.  And not simply rulers, they are intended for the life and love of this lord – entering into his joy.

Again let us compare this to the allegations of the third servant.  “A hard man, reaping where [he] hast not sown”?  An object of dread?  One who makes his servants shut down and close off?  It is amazing to think that this servant is describing the same lord.

And yet, in response to this meanness, the lord displays exactly the hardness that the servant fears:

“His lord answered and said unto him, Thou wicked and slothful servant, thou knewest that I reap where I sowed not, and gather where I have not strawed:  Thou oughtest therefore to have put my money to the exchangers, and then at my coming I should have received mine own with usury.  Take therefore the talent from him, and give it unto him which hath ten talents.  For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance:  but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.  And cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness:  there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 25:26-30)

Judgement is repeatedly presented in the Bible as a handing over to the person’s mad desires.  Everyone gets the lord they trust in.  Forever.

Here again we see that the wicked servant gets exactly the kind of lord he looked to.  To imagine the Lord of heaven as a harsh task-master will create a certain kind of grudging service, which in turn will result in a certain judgement.   On the other hand, trusting a generous Lord to be the One who raises servants to be kings, this produces open-hearted spend-thrifts.

It all turns on how we see the Lord.  And how should we see Him?  In the next chapter He tears apart bread and says “This is my body”.  He pours out wine and says “This is my blood.”  He gives His very Self to the world in love and as we look on, how can we not thrill to the invitation “enter into the joy of thy Lord”?  It’s that vision that creates “Good and faithful servants.”