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SHAKEN NOT STIRRED (Post-Easter 2021)

Grapefruit juice, fly-killer, enamel paint, cough mixture, window cleaning liquid, air freshener … No, I’m not delirious through overwork. Nor have I picked up Julia’s shopping list in mistake for my notes. I’m just thinking of how many household items bear the label ‘shake well before use’. Shaking has its hazards, as a college friend of mine discovered when he shook a bottle of tomato sauce without ensuring that the top was screwed on. But usually, it seems that the full flavour, the full power, the full benefit of so many things only comes out when you shake the bottle well. I wonder if we too need to be shaken before use.

We are approaching the Festival of Pentecost, that time in the Christian calendar when we celebrate that first great outpouring of God the Holy Spirit in power upon the Church (Acts 2:1-4). The Lectionary suggests that as we come towards the end of Easter we begin to focus on this wonderful gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church (Acts 1:1-11). What actually happened at Pentecost? Was this the time when those first followers of Jesus actually became ‘Christians’? When they were ‘born again of the Spirit’ (John 3:6)? The Church’s ‘birthday’ if you like? Or were those 120 or so gathered together in the Upper Room (Acts 1:15) already true believers? After all they had ‘confessed Christ’ (Matthew 16:13-20) – Peter was simply the spokesperson on behalf of them all – and they had all ‘received the Holy Spirit’ when Jesus had breathed on them earlier in that same Upper Room (John 20:22). In this case Pentecost was more of an ‘empowering for service’ (Acts 1:8) given the task of taking the Gospel out to the rest of the world Jesus entrusted to his Church (Luke 24:44-49).  

We must not take this empowering for service for granted. We must not presume that we have this power when we blatantly do not have it. One of the rules of biblical hermeneutics (the way in which we correctly interpret scripture) demands ‘an honest reading of the text’. In other words we need to hear what the Bible is actually saying, not twist a verse or passage to suit ourselves, our own views or opinions. We perhaps need to apply this same principle to ourselves – we need an honest reading of ‘the text of our own lives’. When my friend, the Evangelist William Hartley, was younger he realised that although he was a Christian he did not have God given power in his life. He took himself off to the Keswick Convention for a week. In those days (it has changed now) Keswick teaching held that you could claim the filling of the Holy Spirit simply by faith. So, at the final meeting when a call was made for those who wanted to be ‘filled with the Spirit’ to stand, and claim the gift William did just that. He felt no different but took it for granted that, in his own words, he had ‘received the Spirit’. When he got home his wife asked him if anything had happened, and William replied, ‘I’ve got it!’ A week or two later, seeing that nothing had significantly changed in her husband’s life, his wife asked him, ‘William where is it?’ You see nothing had actually happened at Keswick for William. He simply presumed that he had been filled with the Spirit when he actually hadn’t. Eventually he recognised this, and gave himself to prayer and waiting on God until one day he was indeed genuinely gloriously ‘filled with the Spirit’ just like those embryonic believers on that first day of Pentecost (Acts 2:4).

What happened at Pentecost was not a ‘one-off’, however, and we see the same thing repeated again and again as the story of the New Testament church unfolds. In Acts 4:23-31 we see one such incident. Peter and John are arrested by the Sanhedrin for preaching the gospel on the streets of Jerusalem, following the miraculous healing of the crippled beggar by the Beautiful Gate of the Temple, and told not to preach in the name of Jesus ever again (vs.1-22). On their release their response was to share the situation with the rest of the church who then gave themselves to earnest prayer over the matter. Although the text suggests that they began praying feeling somewhat cowed and deflated, as they recall the salvation history of God’s ancient people, and remember how God repeatedly intervened on their behalf, they get more and more excited and enthused, and end up praying for quite the reverse of the Sanhedrin’s demands: ‘And now, Lord, look at their threats, and grant to your servants to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus’ (vs.29,30). Luke goes on to tell us that: ‘When they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness’ (v.31). The building was shaken, the believers were shaken, and … as we see from reading on in the account … Jerusalem itself was shaken as a new phase of spiritual awakening broke out throughout the city

Pentecost was never meant to be a one off. It was always meant to simply be the first in a whole production line of believers and churches being filled with the Holy Spirit and ‘endued with power from on high’ (Luke 24:49) in order to be effective witnesses for Jesus in this needy, broken, and hurting world in which we live. When Peter spoke to the crowds on that first day of Pentecost he told them that what these embryonic followers of Jesus had received from God was not just for them but for everyone: ‘For the promises for you for, for your children, and for all who are far away [including us today], everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him (Acts 2:39).

I recall speaking on this passage in a certain church some years ago. After the Service, a lady came up to me at the door and said, ‘Oh dear! We don’t want anything supernatural in this church!’ ‘What not even God?’ I replied. On the contrary what we do really need (and not just us at Abbey) is indeed a fresh, overwhelming, infilling with the Holy Spirit, and a new enduement with power from on high, that overflows into the wider community bringing the blessing of God with it! I’m not a great fan of Martinis, but when it comes down to the Person work of the Holy Spirit, I’m with James Bond. A few spiritual ripples here and there, that fail to disturb our calm spiritual sea, is not what is required today!  We need to be shaken not stirred. But … are we brave enough to face up to our need … and brave enough to pray for God to come and do something significant among us? To pray with the late Daniel Iverson (1890-1977):

Spirit of the living God,

Fall afresh on me.

Spirit of the living God,

Fall afresh on me.

Break me, melt me, mould me, fill me.

Spirit of the living God,

Fall afresh on me.

Jim Binney

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… AND BREATHE (Post-Easter 2021)

Apparently 11 April is World Breathing Day, an annual global event that invites everyone to remember, experience and celebrate the healing and unifying power of breath. We all breathe, and we all breathe the same air, yet rarely do we stop to acknowledge how fundamentally important our breath is, or how it connects us to our planet and to each other beyond our differences. It was only after major heart surgery in June 2014 that I really appreciated the value of breath, and realised just how bad my breathing was prior to the operation. Without boring you with the details I had a congenital heart defect that actually stole oxygen from my body – particularly during extreme effort when playing various sports (which is why I never played football or cricket for England, I now realise), or times of stress – which the operation corrected. I still recall with pleasure taking those first breaths after my operation and being able to breathe really deeply for the first time in living memory.

According to the hymnwriter James Montgomery (1771-1854), ‘Prayer is the Christian’s vital breath, the Christian’s native air’. I wonder just how true this actually is in our personal experience. Is prayer as vitally important to us as the actual air that we breathe? A recent Bible Society survey suggests that the ‘average Christian’ spends just 60 seconds a day in prayer? As you would expect, the same survey revealed that members of the clergy fared much better. Seemingly the ‘average cleric’ spends 90 seconds a day in prayer. Whilst it is true, of course, that quality is more important than quantity, the measure of a man or woman can undoubtedly be gauged by the depth of their prayer life. As the godly Church of Scotland Minister, Robert Murray M’Cheyne (1813-43), once penetratingly observed, ‘What a man is on his knees before God, that he is … and nothing more!’

The Lectionary suggests that during this Post-Easter period in the life of the Church we give some time to reflecting on John 17. The whole of John 17 is taken up with a single prayer offered by Jesus. It is often referred to as Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer or Consecration Prayer. The four Gospels contain quite a number of the prayers which Jesus prayed in the hearing of other people, but nearly all of them are remarkably brief. They were to the point and incisive. For example, when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead (John 11) he prayed aloud for the benefit of those who were witnessing the event. But it was a very short, simple prayer. Even the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:5-15), which Jesus gave us as a model for the way we should pray, is very brief. But it is crammed with important things, and says to God just about everything we need to say to him.

The length of the prayers we pray is not a measure of our spirituality. In fact, Jesus condemned the Pharisees for praying long public prayers in order to give people the impression that they were devout. It is a good rule to pray long prayers in private and brief prayers in public. The only time when a long prayer is of spiritual value is when we are praying in private, when we are spending time alone with God, trying to find out what his will is and to know what his thoughts are, or interceding for others. Jesus was able to pray short, powerful prayers in public because he prayed so much in private; he had a very strong relationship with his Father. Often he would go off alone, getting away from his disciples and the crowds of followers, and would spend time with God, seeking his face. His public prayer was incisive and effective because it was supported by a great deal of private prayer.

But why did Jesus spend so much time in prayer? After all he was God in his own right, co-equal with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. Surely, he already knew what was going to happen? Surely he had already willed future events. What we fail to recognise is that because of his Incarnation Jesus laid aside many of his divine attributes and exercised his earthly ministry primarily in the power of the Third Person of the Trinity (rather than in his own inherent power). As the Apostle Paul tells us, ‘Jesus has always been as God is. But He did not hold to His rights as God. He put aside everything that belonged to Him and made Himself the same as a servant who is owned by someone. He became human by being born as a man. After He became a man, He gave up His important place and obeyed by dying on a cross (Philippians 2:6-8 New Life Version). Thus, prayer was of vital importance to Jesus – as vital as the air he breathed! Now, if Jesus needed to be a man of prayer … how much more so do we need to be men and women of prayer?

Can I encourage you (if necessary) to make a fresh start with your prayer life. Set aside a specific time each day for personal prayer (even if it is just a few minutes). If you are married to a fellow Christian (or have a close Christian friend) make time each day (or each week if each day is too difficult) to spend some time praying together (even if it is again only for a few minutes to begin with). Make the effort to attend the weekly Church Prayer Meeting (and if the time is not convenient for you either change your schedule or get together with a few others at a more suitable time each week to pray with them). Corporate prayer is just as vital for a local church as prayer is for the individual. There is a good argument to suggest that the Church Prayer Meeting is a better place for making corporate decisions than either the Deacons’ Meeting or the Church Business Meeting (unless both of these latter meetings are themselves ‘soaked’ in prayer). There was good reason why our Baptist forefathers held their Church Business Meetings either following on from the mid-week Church Prayer Meeting or from the Sunday Morning Worship Meeting.

‘I’m not one for sunbathing,’ Dr Rowan Williams told Radio 2 listeners recently, ‘too much lying around and I get fidgety and a bit guilty. But there is something about sunbathing that tells us more about what prayer is like than any amount of religious jargon.’ So what is Dr Williams saying here? That prayer is like a former Archbishop of Canterbury in Speedos lying around on a deckchair? No! As Dr Williams went on to explain, ‘You’re not going to get a better tan by screwing up your eyes and concentrating … you simply have to be there where the light can get at you!’

Prayer is the Christian’s vital breath,
the Christian’s native air,
his watchword at the gates of death:
he enters heaven with prayer.

O Thou by whom we come to God,
the Life, the Truth, the Way,
the path of prayer thyself hast trod:
Lord, teach us how to pray!

~ James Montgomery

Jim Binney

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QUESTION MARK MINDS? (Post-Easter 2021)

When it comes to the resurrection stories of Jesus everybody’s favourite character is Thomas – Doubting Thomas – although few will admit it. We love Thomas because we find it easy to identify with him, and the fact that he eventually found his way to vital faith encourages us all. Thomas was ‘a man with a question mark mind’ (Lindsay Glegg). To Thomas, the cross was only what he expected. When Jesus (having received the news of his friend Lazarus’ serious illness) proposed going to Bethany (a very dangerous decision since the Jewish authorities were looking for an opportunity to dispose of Jesus) Thomas’ reaction was predictable: ‘Let us also go so that we may die with him’ (John 11:16). Thomas never lacked courage, but Thomas was also a natural pessimist. There can never be any doubt that Thomas loved Jesus. He loved him enough to go to Jerusalem to die with him when the other disciples had been hesitant and afraid.

What Thomas had expected had eventually happened (albeit later on) and when it happened Thomas was broken hearted. So broken hearted that all Thomas wanted was to be alone with his grief. So when the risen Jesus appeared to his disciples Thomas was not there (John 20:19-24) and the news that Jesus was alive seemed far too good to be true, and he refused to believe it! Belligerent in his pessimism, he said that he would never believe that Jesus had risen from the dead until he had seen and handled the print of the nails in Jesus his hands and thrust his hand into the wound the spear had made in Jesus side (v.25). Another week elapsed and Jesus appeared again to the disciples and this time Thomas was with them (v.26). Jesus repeats Thomas’ own words back to him and invites him to fulfil the tests he had demanded (v.27). Thomas is wrecked! All he can do is fall on his knees. All he can say is: ‘My Lord and my God!’ (v.28).

We love Thomas because many of us also have ‘question mark minds’. We must not let our empathy for Thomas cloud the truth of the situation, however. There is an old saying that still has merit, ‘Hate the sin, but love the sinner!’ We love Thomas but he had feet of clay. By nature he appears to have been a pessimist. He always expected the worst to happen. He was rather like my late father-in-law whose favourite saying was, ‘Behind every silver lining there is a dark cloud!’ He was like Puddleglum the Marshwiggle (in C S Lewis’ Narnia stories) who always expects the sky to fall on his head at any given moment. Everything changed for Thomas, however, when he finally came face-to-face with the risen Christ. According to Christian tradition Thomas became the first of the Apostles to take the Gospel outside the boundaries of the Roman Empire becoming the first Christian missionary to India, and even possibly China, such was the strength of his new-found faith! If Thomas were here with us today, no doubt he would encourage us to stop doubting and start believing! So what can we learn from John’s account of Jesus and Thomas?

A Common Mistake: Thomas made a huge mistake when he withdrew from Christian fellowship. John tells us here that ‘Thomas … one of the Twelve was not with the disciples when Jesus came’ (v.24). Thomas sought isolation rather than togetherness, and because he was not there with his fellow Christians he missed that first coming of Jesus to the upper room. We miss a great deal when we separate ourselves from Christian fellowship, and when we try to go it alone. There are times, when like Jesus, we need to retreat, but real danger comes when life becomes a total retreat from church.  We all have times (even when we are Christians) when sorrow or doubt or despair threaten to envelop us, and escaping to isolation seems to be the way to go. May I suggest that this is the very time when, in spite of how we are feeling, we need to seek the fellowship of Christ’s people for it is there that we are most likely to find loving support, come face-to-face with Christ himself, and experience the renewal of hope and even faith itself. Which is why, of course, the Writer to the Hebrews encourages us to ‘not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but [rather] encourage one another [by continuing to meet together] … all the more so as you sense the Day [of Christ’s return] approaching’ (Hebrews 10:25). A Pastor went to visit a church member who had not been near the church for months. They sat together in front of an open fire as the Pastor listened to the man explain that you didn’t have to go to church to be a Christian, etc., etc. The Pastor knew it was pointless to argue. All he did was to take hold of the tongs and remove a glowing coal from the fire and place it in the hearth. Together they watched the coal smoke and cool and finally go out. The Pastor then took the same coal and placed it back on the fire where, in the company of other burning coals, it caught fire again. The Pastor made no comment before leaving. Next Sunday the man was back in church again!

An Uncompromising Honesty: Despite his disparaging nickname, Thomas had two great virtues. Firstly, he absolutely refused to say that he believed when he didn’t believe. When the other disciples told him they had seen the Lord, Thomas refused to believe without seeing the Lord for himself (v.25). Thomas would never say that he understood what he did not understand, or that he believed what he did not believe. There is an uncompromising honesty about Thomas. Thomas would never still his doubts by pretending that they did not exist. Thomas was not the sort to rattle off a creed without understanding what it was all about. Thomas had to be sure. ‘There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds’ (Alfred Lord Tennyson). There is more ultimate faith in the person who insists on being sure than in the person who glibly repeats things which they have never thought out and which they do not really believe. Thomas was what we might call an ‘honest doubter’. Unlike what we might call a ’dishonest doubter’, Thomas wanted genuine answers to genuine questions rather than simply excuses not to believe, not to respond, not to take any meaningful action.

A Whole-Hearted Commitment: Thomas’ other great virtue was that when he was sure, he went the whole way! There was no halfway house with Thomas. Thomas was not airing his doubts just for the sake of mental aerobatics. Thomas doubted in order to be sure. He asked questions in order to find genuine answers. And when he did become sure, his surrender to certainty was complete. When Thomas confesses Jesus Christ as ‘My Lord and my God!’ (v.28) the Greek word translated ‘Lord’ (kurios) means ‘master, owner’ – the word by which a bond-servant or slave would acknowledge their master – signifying Thomas’ total allegiance to Jesus Christ. In passing, we should note (in the light of Thomas’ earlier mistake) that this kind of commitment went much farther than just going back to church on a Sunday. Let me encourage you to be more than merely a ‘Sunday Morning Christian’. Those early Christians ‘joined with the other believers in regular attendance at the apostles’ teaching sessions and at the Communion servicesand prayer meetings’ (Acts 2:42 LB).  If someone fights their way through their doubts to the conviction that Jesus Christ is Lord, they have attained a certainty that the person who unthinkingly accepts things can never reach. ‘The person who has fought their way through doubt is the surest person in Christendom!’ (William Barclay). 

There is an old legend about Thomas that, sometime after this experience in the upper room, Thomas fell into doubt once again. He went to see Peter, James and John but they were all too busy to help him. He found his way to Dorcas, who was also busy stitching away when Thomas came in. ‘Dorcas, I’m full of doubt again,’ Thomas blurted out, ‘can you help me?’  ‘Look here Thomas’ replied Dorcas, ‘go out and do something! Go and tell somebody that Christ died for their sins and rose again according to the scriptures!’ And Thomas went out, and said to the first man he met, ‘Do you know that Christ lives? He died for our sins but he rose again for you and for me!’ And right there and then, so the story goes, Thomas and the stranger went down on their knees together … and both rose up triumphant in faith!

Jim Binney

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KEEP IN STEP WITH THE SPIRIT (Post-Easter 2021)

When I was a lad I was a Cub Scout (for a short while … more about that later). We met every Wednesday evening in the big hall (which was actually quite little) in Betham Infants School just along the road from the British Legion in Greenford where we lived at the time (that’s another story in itself). My father (being an ex-military man) was keen for me to join a uniformed organisation, hence why I was forced to join the scouts. I hated it! Too much discipline, and (in my eyes) suspect male leadership … although Akela was OK (perhaps because she was a nice lady like my mum).

On my first Church Parade Sunday (we had them once every month) we all had to march past the British Legion on the way to Holy Cross Church. There was quite a crowd of adoring parents en route to watch us march by and (so the story goes) my mother turned to my father, as I marched by, and said, ‘Why is everybody out of step except our Jimmy?’

Today we are thinking about that post-resurrection appearance of Jesus to his disciples in the Upper Room, recorded by the Apostle John in the Fourth Gospel (John 20:19-23), where Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit into his disciples (v.22). Some commentators see this action as pre-figuring the events of the first Day of Pentecost (the Johannine version of Pentecost, if you like) but the Greek text suggests that a tangible impartation of the Holy Spirit actually took place in that moment. Whichever way we look at it, what is clear is that what makes someone a Christian involves a moment (known or unknown) when God the Holy Spirit enters into our hearts and lives, and imparts new spiritual or divine life to us. This, of course, is what Jesus was getting at when he bluntly told Nicodemus (the top Jewish theologian of the day) that he needed to be ‘born of water and the Spirit’ (John 3:5). Just as he had needed to be born physically in order to receive the gift of life, so he needed to be born spiritually in order to receive the gift of divine life! Nicodemus may have known a lot of theology but he didn’t know God in a real, intimate, personal way until that moment. The fact that Nicodemus appears again in the Gospel story – playing a significant part with Joseph of Arimathea in Jesus’ burial (John 19:38-42) – suggests that this initial meeting with Jesus proved to be a significant turning point in Nicodemus’ life.

The Apostle Paul takes this a step further, however, when he tells the Galatian Church (and us today) that it is not enough simply to be ‘made alive by the Spirit’ (Galatians 5:25a) we also need to ‘keep in step with the Spirit’ (Galatians 5:25b NIV). We are back to the analogy of the cub scout (or the soldier) marching in step, not just with his or her fellows, but with God. Learning to keep in time with ‘the unforced rhythms of grace’ as Jesus put it in Matthew 11:28-30 (The Message). This, of course, requires a sensitivity to the leading of the Holy Spirit. Some of us are instinctively uninhibited by nature. We get an idea, see an opportunity, which we believe God is in … and we want to ‘go for it’ immediately. Sometimes this is right, but sometimes we get ahead of the game, and instead of ‘keeping in step with the Spirit’ we go rushing in ‘where angels fear to tread’ (Alexander Pope). Others of us are reticent by nature. As soon as anyone suggests a new idea, a different way forward, our natural inclination is to resist. We immediately look for the problems rather than the possibilities. We advocate ‘taking more time’ in order to be sure, and although we do need to be wise, we must be careful not to lag behind where God is going, and end up ‘resisting the Spirit’ (Acts 7:51) or even ‘quenching the Spirit’ (1 Thessalonians 5:19). If we are to ‘keep in step with the Spirit’ however, we need to be sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit. We need to be prayerful. We need to listen to God. Above all we need to be obedient, and willing to walk by faith and not by sight – whether that means taking more time or getting on with the task God is putting before us. As a general principle I would suggest that we always try and do the positive thing even if it means making the harder choice. In Greek when faced (as we are sometimes) by two alternative translations – for example should Mark 9:29 simply be limited to ‘prayer’ or should it include ‘prayer and fasting’ – the ‘rule of thumb’ is always opt for the harder reading (in this case include ‘fasting’). So, when faced with a choice as to how God wants us to respond to whatever it is that he is putting before us … probably the harder choice is the right one! It was Robert Kennedy who suggested that when faced with a challenging choice ‘Many people ask “Why?” I ask, “Why not?”’

In writing this, I am mindful of the story of the twelve ‘spies’ Moses (on God’s initiative) sent into Canaan to ‘suss out’ the Promised Land (Numbers 13). Two of them (Joshua and Caleb) came back thrilled and excited about this land God had promised them – a land ‘flowing with milk and honey’ (v.27) – and encouraged the people to ‘go up at once and occupy it’ (v.30). But the other 10 ‘brought an unfavourable report’ (v.32a) seeing only problems ahead – ‘a land full of giants’ (v.32b) that were impossible to overcome. Cutting a long story short we see in the next chapter that the people held a ‘church meeting’ and rejected Joshua and Caleb’s call … and as a result they spent the next 40 years wandering in the wilderness before they finally came back to the same place and finally crossed over into the Promised Land (Joshua 3,4). What can we learn from this? If you are not certain about a path being advocated, but don’t strongly feel one way or another, then I recommend you follow the direction being suggested by those who clearly have a God-given ‘gift of leadership’ (Romans 12:8 NIV). This is why, of course, we call certain people to primary leadership (Ephesians 4:11,12) in the local church. Every Minister is, to some degree an ‘apostle’ (with a small ‘a’) – a ‘sent one’, sent (alongside the other aspects of ministry indicated in Ephesians 4:11), to ‘lead’ the church, to give a renewed sense of direction, a way forward.

So why did I eventually leave the Cubs? I know you are longing to find out. Well … I didn’t actually leave, I got thrown out for fighting! I had to hand back my itchy green jumper, my cap, my scarf, and my woggle (I loved that woggle). As church we too are called to ‘fight the good fight’ (Ephesians 6:10-20) but that fight needs to be ‘out there’ on the battlefield, not ‘in here’ in the barracks! As Jesus repeatedly says to his Church: ‘Let anyone who has an ear, listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches’ (Revelation 3:6 et al).

He came to you, for in His gentle voice,

He’d much that He would say …

You ears were turned to earth’s discordant note,

And so … He went away.

He came, and in His hand He had a task,

That He would have you do.

But you were occupied with other things,

And so you missed that too.

He would have touched you, and His touch could thrill,

And give you quickening power,

But earthly things enveloped, and you could

Not feel Him in that hour.

Jim Binney

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EMMAUS ROAD: BURNING HEARTS (Post-Easter 2021)

When I was the Pastor of the Assemblies of God Church in Newbridge (in the late 1970s) there was an elderly lady, Mrs Pullen, who had been converted during the 1904 Welsh Revival. During open times of prayer and worship in the Sunday Morning Breaking of Bread Service she was the first one up to pray. She sat in the front pew and, even though she was only 5’ nothing, would stand tall, and always begin her prayer the same way: ‘Lord, I thank you that I was born in the fire …’ (and then slowly turning to face the rest of the congregation would carry on) ‘… not in the smoke!’ She clearly thought the rest of us were somewhat lacking in terms of spiritual zeal for the Lord and his work.

For most of us the story of the two on the Emmaus Road (Luke 24:13-35) is a favourite account amongst the post-resurrection encounters with the Risen Christ recorded in the Bible. The two forlorn figures, their hopes and dreams shattered, trudging wearily home from Jerusalem to Emmaus, who are joined by a stranger on their journey. A familiar journey for Mr and Mrs Cleopas – a road well-travelled – that becomes for them a journey like no other. A journey of discovery as, slowly but surely, revelation dawns on them as to who this ‘Stranger’ actually is. The empathy with which he listens to their troubles (vs.13-24). The wonderful way in which he opens up the Scriptures for them so that they can understand that what is happening is not contrary to the will of God but right at the heart of it (vs.25-27).  The unintrusive way in which he accepts their invitation to enter their home (vs.28,29). The way in which he makes himself known to them through the breaking of bread (vs.30,31). We could learn a lot from reflecting at length on each of these facets which would help us both in understanding how Jesus can help us personally, and how we can minister effectively to others by following Jesus’ example.

What particularly struck me, however, as I re-read this familiar post-Easter passage (and what I would like us to especially think of now) is Mr and Mrs Cleopas’ particular response as they themselves reflect on this remarkable encounter with the Risen Christ. What was it that predominantly stood out to them? We can picture the scene in our mind’s eye as Luke describes them turning to each other and (in a moment of realisation) saying almost in unison: ‘Did not our hearts burn within us, whilst on the road, he opened up the Scriptures for us?’ (v.32).  It was not the empathy Jesus displayed in listening to their shattered dreams, nor the fact that he accepted their invitation to come and stay with them, nor even the fact that they recognised him in the sacramental act of breaking the bread, that left a lasting impression on them (as important all of these are). It was the personal experience of their hearts bursting into flame in response to Jesus opening up the Scriptures for them! 

In passing, it is important for us to note that it was the exposition of Scripture (more than anything else) that ignited the flame that started to burn in their hearts. For the Apostle Paul, it is the Scriptures that (under God) are our authority in all matters of faith and conduct, belief and behaviour. As he tells his young protégé Timothy: ‘There’s nothing like the written Word of God for showing you the way to salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. Every part of Scripture is God-breathed and useful one way or another – showing us truth, exposing our rebellion, correcting our mistakes, training us to live God’s way. Through the Word we are put together and shaped up for the tasks God has for us’ (2 Timothy 3:16,17 The Message). According to what we learn here, it is Scripture that uniquely has the inherent power to ignite zeal for God and his ways, within us – rather than empathic pastoral care, or ‘inviting Jesus into our hearts’, or even (dare I say it) the Sacraments, as important as all these things are – as long as we read Scripture and put its teachings into practice, of course.

But what does it mean to have a burning heart? The Greek word Luke uses here (kaiō) means ‘to set fire to’ and is used here metaphorically of the human heart being set on fire for God. It means more than simply being ‘enlightened’. It means being ‘set ablaze’ with understanding of, and enthusiasm for, God and the things of God. We are reminded of John Wesley’s testimony to his conversion on the 24 May 1738: ‘In the evening I went, very unwillingly, to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.’ It was Jim Elliot (a Christian missionary killed by Auca Indians in 1956) who asked himself (and us) the question: ‘Am I ignitable? God deliver me from the dread asbestos of “other things”. Saturate me with the oil of the Spirit that I may be a flame.’ Jesus came not simply to save us from the power of satan, sin, and death … but to set our hearts on fire for God. John the Baptist proclaimed that whereas he (John) baptised in water, Jesus came to ‘baptise us with the Holy Spirit and fire’ (Luke 3:16). A W Tozer once said, ‘Some fundamentalists know much about the doctrine of the Holy Spirit and too little about the dynamic of the Holy Spirit. Though every believer has the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit does not have every believer. In steering clear of “wildfire” fanaticism many of God’s children have only the “no fire” of formalism.’ John Wesley is reputed to have advised his fellow Methodists to ‘Light yourself on fire with passion, and people will come from miles to watch you burn!’

A Minister was roused from his sleep one night by the police with the news that his church had caught fire. Hurrying to the scene he found the fire brigade quickly bringing the fire under control. Apparently more serious damage had been averted by the prompt and zealous action of a man who lived just across from the church. He had spotted the fire, phoned the police and fire brigade, and also managed to put out a good proportion of the fire by the time the fire brigade arrived. Visiting the man a few days later, to thank him for his invaluable help and assistance, the Minister inquired as to why he had not seen the man in church before since he lived so close. ‘Well.’ the man replied, ‘the church has never been on fire before!’

Take a few moments to prayerfully reflect on what you have just read. Then use the verses of the following hymn (written by General William Booth of the Salvation Army, many years ago) as a prayer. Don’t rush through them … pray through each verse thoughtfully and with meaning.

Thou Christ of burning, cleansing flame,
Send the fire!
Thy blood-bought gift today we claim,
Send the fire!
Look down and see this waiting host,
Give us the promised Holy Ghost,
We want another Pentecost,
Send the fire!

God of Elijah, hear our cry:
Send the fire!
To make us fit to live or die,
Send the fire!
To burn up every trace of sin,
To bring the light and glory in,
The revolution now begin,
Send the fire!

‘Tis fire we want, for fire we plead,
Send the fire!
The fire will meet our every need,
Send the fire!
For strength to ever do the right,
For grace to conquer in the fight,
For power to walk the world in white,
Send the fire!

To make our weak hearts strong and brave,
Send the fire!
To live a dying world to save,
Send the fire!
O see us on thy altar lay
Our lives, our all, this very day,
To crown the offering now we pray,
Send the fire!

~ William Booth (1829-1912)

Jim Binney

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EASTER PEOPLE LIVING IN A GOOD FRIDAY WORLD

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Easter Peoeple Easter People

John Foster tells how an enquirer from Hinduism approached an Indian Bishop. Unaided he had read the New Testament, and the story had fascinated him. In particular he was gripped by the person of Jesus Christ. He felt he had entered a new world. In the Gospels it was all about Jesus … his works, his suffering. In the Book of Acts it was all about the disciples of Christ … what they did, what they taught. They had taken the place Christ had occupied. The Church continued where Jesus left off. ‘Therefore’ this man said to the Bishop, ‘I must belong to the Church that carries on the life of Christ!’

During the last 2,000 years there have been times when the Church has undoubtedly lived up to being this kind of Church. Even today there are parts of the world where the Church is growing phenomenally…

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THE HARROWING OF HELL (Holy Saturday)

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The Harrowing of Hell The Harrowing of Hell

Two of my grandsons were discussing the meaning of Easter. Their conversation went something like this. George (age 5): ‘Luke, do you know that Easter time is when Jesus died on the cross?’ Luke (age 3)  ‘Yeah … then he fell down a big hole!’ Now in some ways that is not a bad answer. What are we to make of Easter Saturday? The Western Church has a lot to say about the events of Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday … but little is said of Easter Saturday. Easter Saturday seems a puzzle to many Christians.

Interestingly, Orthodox Easter icons do not portray the empty tomb which is the typical representation in Western Christianity. Rather, the Easter icons of the Orthodox Church depict what is known as ‘the harrowing of hell’. The harrowing of hell refers to the events between Jesus’ death…

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IT’S NOT ABOUT THE BUNNY (Easter 2021)

The schoolteacher was completely nonplussed. It was her first Easter with her new class (she had only started at this particular school in the January) and she had innocently asked her children who the person at the heart of the Easter Story was. ‘The Easter Bunny!’ one little boy had replied instantly. ‘What about Jesus?’ the schoolteacher responded. The small boy looked at her cluelessly – he obviously had no idea as to who this ‘Jesus’ was – and repeated his answer with absolute certainty. ‘Easter is about the Easter Bunny! He brings us all Easter eggs! My Nanna told me about him, and my Nanna is always right … about everything!’

The Easter Bunny (sometimes called the Easter Rabbit or the Easter Hare) is a figure from folklore depicted as a rabbit bringing Easter eggs. Originating among German Lutherans, the Easter Bunny originally played the role of a judge, deciding whether or not children had been good enough during Eastertide to receive an Easter egg.  In legend, the bunny brings coloured eggs in a basket, sweets, and sometimes also toys, to the homes of children, and as such shows similarities to Santa Claus in as much as they both bring gifts to children on the night before their respective festivals.

We smile at the bewilderment of the young schoolteacher (and know that she will have other perplexing moments to come). We recognise the naivety of a child and his total faith in his Nanna (but trust he will become wiser over the years, whilst still loving his Nanna). We are saddened by the thought that probably too many children today know little or nothing about Jesus (but encouraged to hear that Religious Education is being given a higher status in the school curriculum these days because the pandemic/lockdown has apparently revealed ‘a renewed spiritual need’). We hope that believing the central character in the Easter Story to be the Easter Bunny (and the like) is limited to childhood … but somehow we doubt it.  As G K Chesterton once said, ‘When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything!’

Writing about race and racism, Francis Bridger, suggests they are rooted in ‘the folk or everyday concept’ of race, rather than any genuine ‘analytical or scientific sense’. By this he means values and attitudes rooted essentially in the genre of folk tales (stories originating in popular culture typically passed on by word of mouth), folk beliefs, myths, doctrines, even folk religion. Widely accepted assumptions that may, or may not, have some kind of validity are largely based on what is known as ‘the illusory truth effect’ – the idea that if something is repeated often enough, people will slowly start to believe it to be true. If ‘Trumpism’ in the USA has taught us anything it is surely a timely warning of the damaging effects of being gripped by ‘conspiracy theories’ of one kind and another which are not rooted in solid fact. And before you tell me that believing in Jesus Christ is ‘not based on fact’ let me tell you that there is actually a lot more factual evidence for the existence of Jesus Christ, his teachings, and his claims upon your life and mine, than there is for a lot of other so called ‘historical facts’ we seemingly accept without question.

Easter, however, is not about the bunny … it’s about the Lamb! When Jesus first appeared on the public scene, at his baptism in the Jordan, John the Baptist declared ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’ (John 1:29). We cannot (we must not) separate the events of Easter Sunday from those of Good Friday. They are the head and tails of the same coin. When Julia and I lived in Beckenham, Churches Together in Beckenham, held a silent march of witness through the streets on Good Friday. It was one of the highlights of Easter for me. Several hundred people walking in silence through the town to the Green where a short public service was held. It was a powerful and effective witness to the events of that first Good Friday. In contrast the churches in nearby Penge held a noisy, flag-waving, whistle-blowing, tambourine-banging, shouting and singing, march of witness on Good Friday. If it had been on Palm Sunday or Easter Sunday I would have had no complaint … but for me, it seemed totally inappropriate for Good Friday. It was as if they couldn’t get to Easter Sunday fast enough … even if that meant ignoring the key event of Good Friday. We cannot, we must not, do that, however. It was through his sacrificial death on the cross that Jesus atoned for our sins and opened a way back to God for sinful people like us! No wonder that the Apostle Paul exhorts the Galatian Christians, ‘God forbid that I should glory in anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (Galatians 6:14). Easter is not about the bunny … it’s about the Lamb!

Conversely, however, we must not stop at the cross (which is why our symbol is an empty cross not a crucifix, by the way). As Annie Johnson Flint puts it: ‘If the Christ who died had stopped at the cross, his work had been incomplete. If the Christ who was buried had stayed in the tomb, he had only known defeat, but the way of the cross never stops at the cross, and the way of the tomb leads on, to victorious grace in the heavenly place where the Risen Lord has gone!’ The German theologian Jurgen Moltmann expresses the same thought in a single sentence, covering the great span of Good Friday to Easter Day: ‘God weeps with us so that we may someday laugh with him!’

In 1930 Albert Henry Ross, a religious sceptic, set out to write a book – which he planned to call Jesus: the Last Phase – in which he determined to analyse the various sources behind the resurrection of Jesus to demonstrate that it was all a myth. However, in compiling his notes, he became convinced of the truth of the resurrection, and set out his reasoning in the book (which was so proficient people thought he must be a lawyer) which was published under Ross’ pseudonym, Frank Morison. The book was called Who Moved the Stone? It has subsequently become one of the most influential Christian books of all time affecting numerous people, since its publication for God and for good. Ultimately, however, the most compelling proof that Jesus is alive is our own personal experience of coming to know him for ourselves. As the Apostle Paul himself once put it: ‘I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that He is able to keep that which I have committed to Him until that Day’ (2 Timothy 1:12).

I serve a risen Saviour, He’s in the world today,
I know that He is living, whatever men may say,
I see His hand of mercy, I hear His voice of cheer,
And just the time I need Him He’s always near.

He lives, He lives, Christ Jesus lives today!
He walks with me and talks with me,
Along life’s narrow way.
He lives, He lives, Salvation to impart.
You ask me how I know He lives?
He lives within my heart!

~ Alfred Henry Ackley (1887-1960)

Jim Binney

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IN SPIRIT AND TRUTH (Palm Sunday 2021)

Reflecting this week on the events of that first Palm Sunday, and particularly the hollow praises of the majority of the people who witnessed Jesus’ so-called ‘Triumphal Entry’ into Jerusalem (Matthew 21:1-11), reminded me of another incident forever etched on my memory from my student days at Spurgeon’s College back in the 1960s. [NB. It is a sure sign of old age when stories from one’s youth are amazingly clear, but what I did yesterday is exceedingly hazy].

There was a very ‘sound’ church, just a short bus ride away from the college, popularly known as the ‘coffin’ church because it was coffin-shaped in structure (I don’t think it is there anymore), who were having a visit one Sunday from a very well-known fundamentalist preacher of the day (I forget who). Anyway, a few of us decided to go and hear him. I recall the Church Service well for two specific reasons. Firstly, the Children’s Talk (do you remember those days?) was on ‘the abomination of desolation’ (Matthew 24:15,16 KJV). I don’t think any of us adults understood a word of it, leave alone the children. Secondly, there was a man in the congregation who vociferously and enthusiastically (rather like the crowd on Palm Sunday) greeted virtually every sentence the famous preacher uttered with a loud ‘Amen!’ or ‘Hallelujah!’ or ‘Praise the Lord!’. This went on for a good 20 minutes – it was like listening to a radio play in stereo – ‘Amen!’ Hallelujah!’ ‘Praise the Lord!’. And then he knocked his hymn book off the pew on to his foot ‘D%*#£*%*n!’ he shouted with equal vociferousness! We were still laughing when we got back to college an hour or two later!

In conversation with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well (John 4:1-42) about ‘worship’, Jesus reminds her that the only kind of worship God wants from us is worship that is ‘in spirit and truth’ (v.23). What does this mean? Well, the word ‘worship’ essentially means to ‘declare the worth of something or someone’, in this case declaring God’s worth or value! Although the Greek word for ‘spirit’ (pneuma) is capable of signifying ‘Spirit’ with a capital ‘S’, that is, the Holy Spirit, I don’t think that is what it means here. I would suggest that it is a reference to the human spirit. What Jesus is saying here is that when we worship God, the kind of worship God wants from us is that which comes right from the heart. Worship that is genuine, and which aligns itself with God’s ‘truth’ – the sincerity God wants to see in us. More ‘Hosanna!’ and ‘Hallelujah!’ than ‘D%*#£*%*n!’

The worship offered to Jesus that first Palm Sunday was vociferous, enthusiastic, seemingly wholehearted … but just a few days later those same voices that were shouting ‘Hosanna!’ (Matthew 21:9) were crying out ‘Crucify!’ (Matthew 27:22,23). What Jesus is looking for in us is fervent faith not fickle faith! Not ‘easy believe-ism’ but dedicated discipleship. As William MacDonald reminds us: ‘The Saviour is not looking for men and women who will give their spare evenings to Him, or their weekends, or their years of retirement. Rather He seeks those who will give Him first place in their lives.’ At first sight this seems very demanding but in reality, to hand our lives over to God ‘lock, stock and barrel’ so to speak, is actually very releasing. I recall overhearing an evangelist friend of mine, William Hartley praying one day (he had been given a car by some friends, and the tyres had become worn), ‘Father … your car needs new tyres!’ This car was not his car but God’s car. Hartley was a man of great faith who lived by faith … and sure enough a few days later the four new tyres were fitted to the car (donated by an anonymous doner who, without knowing the need, felt led by God to give William some money ‘for work to be done on his car’). A committed life is a releasing life! As Paul reminds us, ‘In absolutely everything God is working for the good of those who love him, those who seek to live out his plans and purposes’ (Romans 8:28).

Moreover, true worship is not just about what we do for an hour or so in church on a Sunday – singing hymns, saying prayers, listening to sermons.  True worship is also about what we do every day of week – the selfless service we offer to God and others – whether inside the church building or even more so outside the church building. As Evan Hopkins suggests, Jesus ‘looks today, as he has ever looked, not for crowds drifting aimlessly in his track, but for individual men and women whose undying allegiance will spring from their having recognized that he wants those who are prepared to follow the path of self-renunciation which he trod before them!’

When Jesus mounted that donkey, and rode into Jerusalem that first Palm Sunday, accepting the adulation of the crowds however fickle or faithful it may have been, he knew full well what he was doing. He knew that the shouts of praise would turn to calls of condemnation. He knew that what lay ahead of him was not a throne but a cross! Do we know what we are doing? With our words? With our lives? With Jesus?

When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

~ Isaac Watts (1674-1748)

~ Jim Binney

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CUT LOOSE (Views from the Abbey 23)

Someone sent me a short film clip recently of a barn owl caught up in a barbed wire fence. Now, I love barn owls – perhaps it has something to do with living in rural Dorsetshire for five years, or perhaps it is their cute faces – although if I were a small vole or field mouse I probably would not be so keen on them! There was something incredibly sad about such a magnificent creature seemingly so hopelessly bound, unable to get free, unable to fly as it was meant to! Fortunately, the story had a happy ending because a farmer, discovering the owl’s plight, was able to cut it loose and set it free to fly as it was meant to!

This incident reminds me of the Raising of Lazarus (John 11:1-44).  Jesus, in response to the news that his friend Lazarus is gravely ill, travels to Bethany only to discover that Lazarus is already dead. Miraculously, Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, despite the fact that he has been dead for four days already. It is an amazing story which draws the reader right in – the unforced delay in going to Lazarus’ aid (vs. 6,7): the anger of Martha at her brother’s death (v. 21); the heartfelt compassionate tears of Jesus (v. 35); the authority with which Jesus speaks into the tomb – ‘Lazarus, come forth!’ (v. 43). Indeed Jesus spoke with such authority here that (as someone once suggested) it was a good job he named Lazarus … otherwise the whole cemetery would have risen from the dead!

The thing that strikes me about this story however – and the thing I would like us to take to heart now – is something that often escapes us but which is vitally important! When Lazarus emerged from the tomb he was alive but remained ‘wrapped in burial clothes binding his hands and feet, with a cloth over his face’ (v.43a). He may have been alive but he couldn’t walk, he couldn’t use his hands, he couldn’t speak, and he couldn’t see where he was going. In my mind I have a picture of Lazarus wrapped in bandages (rather like an Egyptian mummy) hopping out of the tomb! Jesus has to tell his disciples to ‘Cut him loose, and let him go!’ (v.43b).

Sadly, this state of affairs could describe many Christians today. We have been ‘born again’ of God’s Spirit (John 3:3). We have been ‘made alive’ in Christ (Ephesians 2:5). But too many of us, like Lazarus, remain bound by the trappings of death that hold us back from truly following Christ in the liberty and power of the Holy Spirit (2 Timothy 1:7). Too many of us are bound by ‘stuff’ that prevents us going anywhere in God, doing anything significant for God, speaking out the good news of the Gospel, seeing the plans and purposes God has for us.

What is this ‘stuff’ that binds us? We are familiar with the old adage that the Christian’s three great enemies are ‘the world, the flesh, and the devil’ and there is some truth in that. Even as Christians we can still allow the ways of this world to ‘squeeze [us] into its own mould’ (Romans 12:1,2 J B Philips). We can still be slaves to the flesh life – addicted to pornography or gambling or gossip, and the like. We can still ‘play devil’s advocate’ sowing seeds of dissension and chaos in both church and community (in Christ’s name, of course) without acknowledging the true source of our actions or words.

For the Apostle Peter, however, the thing that he is most grateful to God for saving him from is none of the above, but saving him from ‘an empty or wasted way of life’ (1 Peter 1:18). Peter is thinking here of the ‘emptiness’ of being genuinely religious but possessing (or being possessed by) just an empty Jewish religious tradition. The kind of thing the Apostle Paul (who before he was set free in Christ also suffered from) described as ‘holding an outward form of religion but without God’s real power’ (2 Timothy 3:5). How many of us, I wonder, are bound by our religious traditions (even Baptist tradition) failing to distinguish between what is a godly heritage (a good thing) and what is mere tradition (a bad thing)! As has been often pointed out, the last seven words of a dying church are, ‘We’ve never done it that way before!’

Take a moment to think about your own life? Take another moment to think about our own church? Is there anything that is binding us? Anything stopping us from going the way God wants us to go? Doing the things God wants us to do? Seeing the things God wants us to see? Saying the things God wants us to say? Being the people God wants us to be? Jesus came to set us free from all the ‘stuff’ that binds us, that holds us back, from being the people God wants us to be. Jesus said, ‘If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed!’ (John 8:36). The Apostle Paul tells us that ‘Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom!’ (2 Corinthians 3:17). But Jesus also told us that, if we want to enjoy this kind of freedom, we need to face up to the truth – ‘the truth shall set you free’ (John 8:32) – the truth about the dangers of falling foul of the ‘Lazarus syndrome’, the truth about ourselves maybe, and the truth that we need Christ himself to truly set us free!

In the film clip about the barn owl caught in the fence, the kindly farmer was able to set the owl free – but it was not without a struggle. Even though the farmer was trying to free the owl, the owl fought him all the way, attempting to claw him and peck him viciously at times. Just like us with Jesus perhaps, when he puts his finger on something in our lives, and wants to set us free … but we make it a fight instead of welcoming the freedom.

Some years ago I knew a man called Albert Rose. He was a large man, somewhat rotund, a Pentecostal-Christian, who always wore his Sunday-best three-piece suit to church complete with a button-up-the-front waistcoat. His favourite hymn was Charles Wesley’s And can it be which Albert always sung with great enthusiasm.  I remember him for two particular reasons, both associated with this particular hymn. Firstly (remember his surname was Rose), when it came to the verse that ends with the line ‘I rose, went forth, and followed Thee’, he would turn round and face the rest of the congregation (not being a Baptist he always sat in the front row) and point to himself as he sung that line – ‘I Rose … went forth, and followed Thee’. Secondly, he had a fondness for repeating this particular verse of the hymn. The special occasion I especially recall – it is eternally sketched on my memory – is the time when he did this and, singing with such gusto in his tight-fitting waistcoat, got to the line ‘My chains fell off, my heart was free’, and suddenly all the buttons on his waistcoat burst off rather like bullets from a machine gun, and Albert Rose’s corpulent stomach was truly set free in that moment!

We smile at Albert Rose being finally set free from his tight-fitting waistcoat. We reflect of Lazarus’ need (despite the gift of new life) to also be set completely free. And we ask ourselves if there is anything we too need to be set free from in order to be truly free in Christ in order to serve God and our generation? 

Long my imprisoned spirit lay,

Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;

Thine eye diffused a quickening ray – 

I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;

My chains fell off, my heart was free,

I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.

~ Charles Wesley (1707-88)

Jim Binney

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