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Embracing God in/as the stranger.

Jesus told a parable in Matthew 25 about when we feed the hungry we feed him, and the writer of the epistle to the Hebrews “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers , for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Hebrew.13.2).

In Genesis 18 we read: “The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground.”

The Lord appearing to Abraham as three strangers, and Abraham responds by offering immediate hospitality to the three men, inviting them to rest under a tree and preparing a feast for them. Indeed scripture does not elaborate on God appearing to Abraham in this way but instead the conversation they have is quoted as “the Lord says”.

In Abraham’s culture offering hospitality to strangers was of supreme importance -and not to do so would be considered shameful,, which is so very different from our culture that believes ‘an Englishman’s home is his castle’ and we treat the stranger with suspicion, although superficially friendly, often we hold people at arm’s length, maybe chatting over the fence but never invited across the threshold!

Indeed much of our western relationships are filled with fear, the phrase “stranger danger” is drummed into us from childhood, despite the fact that normally the people most likely to harm you are the people we already know. I prefer to think (glass half full?) of a stranger as being a friend I’ve not met yet.

In my previous parish we planted a church “all souls -the idea of a church where everyone was welcome- and our tag-line was “where strangers become friends and friends meet with Jesus”.

In meeting strangers we encounter God, the interruptions and disturbances to our normal routines are often those moments of breakthrough and growth.

In encountering new people, people not like us we are changed -and often vice versa, yet too often we raise the walls in inhospitality not allowing ourselves to be known or be changed, the hospitality of the heart allows us to be known, and to be transformed as we grow together, and in growing together we are changed.

Too often we mistake polite greeting and acknowledgement superficial friendliness for hospitality -a pale insipid counterfeit of the real thing-. A friend moved to a new area and tried to find a new church community and said: “I don’t want to go to a friendly Church, but rather one I can make friends in”. In this statement he unearthed the nub of what hospitality is and is not, a real community wanting to share life (and food) with you rather than just empty smokes a polite chit chat.

Within the Church I believe one of our greatest obstacles to mission, discipleship and Kingdom living is the way we can keep ourselves to ourselves, live in hermetically sealed bubbles and operate in impenetrable cliques, we never allow strangers to meaningfully interact with us which leaves the church and the world depleted, the work of Christ frustrated, depriving us of meeting with God through other people.

Our Churches have become like meals in posh restaurants where everyone had a place specially set for them how they like it, but impenetrable for those who feel uninvited, where as a more Biblical model of Church is like a old fashioned feast with long tables and benches where we can say “budge up there is room for another one”.

Hospitality begins, I believe, is about a heart attitude than welcomes the stranger and treats them like a brother or sister, as ultimate the message of Genesis is that is who we are, brothers and sisters who belong together.

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Dinner together with God.

At an Alpha Course in my last parish a woman said of her journey of faith ‘I didn’t mind Jesus in the porch but realized now I have to let him into the rest of the house”.

At a concert the best possible backstage pass has AAA on it which means access all areas, welcome to go anywhere! Yet the only people to get such a pass are VIP’s and only the people closest to the stars get this privileged access, most of us plebs have to wait by the stage door.

Yet the call of Christ is to welcome him into every part of our lives, giving him privileged access all areas. Yet Jesus says on one occasion picking up a little child -powerless and without influence unable to return or reciprocate the favour- and says “anyone who welcomes such as these welcomes me”.

Some of us are good at “hospitality” when networking, prioritising those we can get something out of, cosying up to power, valuing people for what we can get out of them… Yet, the hospitality of Christ is to give without the expectation of reward/return or reciprocating, where hospitality is given without favour of bias (although perhaps a bias towards the poor, marginalised, disenfranchised and the ostracised).

What we think of Christ is reflected in how we treat other people, especially the weak and the vulnerable, the broken, hurting, lonely and the stranger.

Our cultural reticence or ‘dis-ease’ to embrace the costly and risky challenge of opening ourselves to one another can also extend to our relationship with God, our inhospitality to others will spill out into an inhospitality to the Spirit of God.

Hospitality when we say to someone make yourself at home here, just as when we surrender to the Holy Spirit and welcome him into our lives and say to him “make yourself at home”.

The idea of inviting Christ in, offering hospitality and fellowship is what the famous passage where the risen Christ says: “behold I stand at the door and knock if anyone hears my voice and opens the door I will come in and eat with them” (Rev.3.20). The artist Holman Hunt painted this verse in pictorial form with Jesus knocking at a door (the door representing our hearts and lives) but the handle is on the other side of the door, in other words the choice, the invitation and response, is ours, it is up to us.

The idea of Christ himself coming and eating with us is not just a nice piece of phraseology, but for the Jewish culture sharing food together with someone is the most intimate display of friendship, to eat together is a display of acceptance and an end to hostilities, it is somewhat sacramental displaying being welcomed into the family.

Hospitality is a welcome into the family, it is making oneself vulnerable and is an action of both reaching out and welcoming in.

In sharing food together we grow together as we meet each other with our guard down, in eating together there is vulnerability as we come to eat unguarded and our hand free from weapons. As we share food with one another it is a sign and symbol of trust that the other person is not trying to poison you and they are trusted to eat with you. Animals will not eat with their predators -it would be suicide too.

Communion is at its heart a family meal together with Jesus before we turned it into a religious ceremony with the elements distilled into some form of religious canapé. It is symbol of surrender, trust, restoration and reconciliation with God and with one another.

Yet too often we downgrade hospitality to a cup of cheap and nasty coffee and a stale biscuit, which robs us from truly seeing hospitality in all its beauty.

I wonder if a celebrity were to come to our home, or to our Church, whether we would make an effort sprues the place up, bake a cake and go the extra-mile? In the Church we planted by the skate park in Bristol we had many local kids in and they ate loads of the food we had and often left again soon after, someone said “why don’t you just buy cheap biscuits for the kids?” my reply was that in welcoming and valuing these young people we are also welcoming Jesus, the King of Kings, and we are not going to fob him off with cheap and nasty but rather we will give the best we have.

So, a call to sit and eat with Christ, and with each other, learning to lead a life of hospitality as we follow Jesus.

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Jacob’s Well.

In Genesis 33 we read of Jacob settling at Shecam where (according to John 4) he built a well.

At this well Jesus, Jacob’s descendant, revealed that he was the fulfilment of Abraham’s promise, the long awaited Messiah. Jesus asked this woman for a drink before talking of the offer of living water -the water of life- (himself) a drink that satisfies and quenches our thirst -do much so we won’t thirst again.

But none of this could be foreseen by Jacob digging the well, but within the economy and mission of God, our simple efforts and actions can be used beyond our expectations and even our wildest dreams. A truth that is encouraging when we do not necessarily see the fullness of faithfulness in our lifetime.

So, Jacob digging a well, enabling uninhabitable wilderness to thrive and sustain life. A well can change a desert into an Oasis, a place of death into a place of life. Discovering and accessing water is utterly transformative for an area.

With the early pioneer-settlers their first job was to find and ensure that the people can access safe, clean drinking water.

Perhaps this is the call for us as Christians when we come to a new land or community to find where God is at work? Where are the streams/springs/wells of living water, where the Holy Spirit is at working in your land? And as one beggar sharing with another beggar where is the source of life and invite others to share with us in coming, tasting, seeing and drinking from the well of God.

As I thought further about wells I discovered that in western farming we put up fences to keep the livestock together and safe. Yet in many remote locations like the area where Jacobs well was -or in the Australian outback- where the land mass is too vast to fence off they keep the animals together by digging wells and the sheep and goats will not wander far from the water.

As I thought of this picture I began to wonder if perhaps I had spent too much of my life and ministry building fences -who’s in and who’s out- rather than digging wells?

Let’s find water of life where the spirit is outpouring and start digging more wells to bring life and transformation to our lives and the communities we serve.

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And on the Seventh Day God Rested.

And on the Seventh day God rested.
And on the Seventh Day Fod Rested..

As I thought about this I began to wonder why did God need to rest when he is God of infinite resources and nothing is too difficult for him? Indeed the Psalmist talks of the God who watches over Israel neither ‘slumbers or sleeps’ (Ps.121), so why does God need to rest? I think that God is gifting his creation with he gift of rest, refreshment and recuperation.

God has placed the need for Sabbath is deeply woven into not just our DNA but that of the whole planet, livestock need rest to recover and fields need to be laid fallow in order to prosper and flourish.

Jesus himself talks of this when he said ‘people weren’t made for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath for people’. It is a gift is a wonderful gift, made for a life to enjoy, we are worth so much more than just our productivity and achievements.

Created as human-beings rather than just doings, something that has become massively counter-cultural as we as humans has become obsessed with and glorify “busy”. Busy says we are important, needed, worth while and productive. “I’m so busy” we cry subtly boasting of our own greatness, forgetting that Jesus never used this phrase to describe his life.

We read of God modelling rest in and with his creation in Genesis, re-emphasizing it again in the 10 commandments, and living it out in word and action in the person of Jesus Christ.

Within the ten commandments we rightly don’t go around murdering people or committing adultery but we see to overlook that the call to Sabbath rest is also a command of God.

Yet Jesus did get up early and pray in the hills before engaging in ministry. Jesus not only understood how to live life as God intended but put it into practice to. He understood that when we leads faithful lives of obedience we give out, and so we need time to receive and to replenish. He walked away from demanding crowds with expectations on him. As one who has crashed and burned myself out I realise afresh the power, the beauty and the goodness of our need of Sabbath rest, of God wanting to bless, restore and replenish us.

Too often we give out too much and receive too little. We forget that to “love our neighbour as ourselves” works both ways, and to receive from God the gift and the call of self care and Sabbath is I believe key in receiving what Jesus promised about “coming to give us life and life to the full”.

A challenge for us all to give up the relentless boast of business and instead to look at our lives afresh as we seek to live lives God’s way, in Christ we are promised that “his yoke is easy and his burden light”, the way of God is life, liberty and liberation.

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An Orthopraxis Revolution.

A friend of mine once said he would rather have a congregation whose faith made a statement than being yet another Church with a statement of faith on their website.

Growing up in the culture of evangelicalism there was a huge emphasis on studying the Bible, but I came to realise that the Churches big challenge is not lack of teaching but rather a lack of putting it into practice, a lack of application, obese on spiritual food that should be the fuel to propel us into world to transform it in Jesus name.

Church history is crammed full of the fight over Orthodoxy (right belief) but I long to see an orthopraxis revolution -right living and right behaving!

Too often we have this limited view of Godly living as not doing stuff (drinking, swearing, gambling or sex) but surely being a Christian is more than a list of prohibitions but rather about the positive things we are called to do and kind of person we are called to be.

I’m tired of Churches being theologically sound but in practical terms sound asleep.

Jesus himself says “why do you call me Lord,Lord and yet don’t do what I say!”

The Christian message is not just to ‘get to heaven when we die’ but a life where eternity starts now, Jesus talks of “life in its abundance” (In.10.10), a transformed revolutionary Kingdom-life.

Recently I have joined a new missional community and alongside us are some wonderful travellers who aren’t Christians yet but have been attracted to us as a community by the different way of life; sharing our food with the hungry and homeless, cleaning beaches and living sustainably and engaged with protest and campaigning for justice.

As I have journeyed with these new friends I have discovered afresh that engaging in living this different life is actually the call of Christ, the longing and groaning of creation and the very heartbeat of God. The life we should be living.

Within the Christian world I worry that we have spiritualised our faith when it was intended to be intensely practical. We talk about being Christ’s ambassadors and ‘salt and light’ but often we need to match our rhetoric with actions, Christianity was never meant to be a hypothetical religion.

Too often people think the Christian life -and the church- is dull, boring and irrelevant because we have not lived out our calling to see God’s kingdom come on earth as in heaven, shining out like stars in the universe and holding out the word that gives life!

The call of Christ is a call for a revolution living, not to passive listening but for action, a call not to blend in with the world around us but stand out by radiating Christ in our lives.

So, let’s accept Christ’s challenge to live for him, following where he leads, learning to live our lives his way, letting Christ be our Lord, and Lord of all.

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A friend of mine once said he would rather have a congregation whose faith made a statement than being yet another Church with a statement of faith on their website. Growing up in the culture of evangelicalism there was a huge emphasis on studying the Bible, but I came to realise that the Churches big challenge is not lack of teaching but rather a lack of putting it into practice, a lack of application, obese on spiritual food that should be the fuel to propel us into world to transform it in Jesus name. Church history is crammed full of the fight over Orthodoxy (right belief) but I long to see an orthopraxis revolution -right living and right behaving! Too often we have this limited view of Godly living as not doing stuff (drinking, swearing, gambling or sex) but surely being a Christian is more than a list of prohibitions but rather about the positive things we are called to do and kind of person we are called to be. I’m tired of Churches being theologically sound but in practical terms sound asleep. Jesus himself says “why do you call me Lord,Lord and yet don’t do what I say!” The Christian message is not just to ‘get to heaven when we die’ but a life where eternity starts now, Jesus talks of “life in its abundance” (In.10.10), a transformed revolutionary Kingdom-life. Recently I have joined a new missional community and alongside us are some wonderful travellers who aren’t Christians yet but have been attracted to us as a community by the different way of life; sharing our food with the hungry and homeless, cleaning beaches and living sustainably and engaged with protest and campaigning for justice. As I have journeyed with these new friends I have discovered afresh that engaging in living this different life is actually the call of Christ, the longing and groaning of creation and the very heartbeat of God. The life we should be living. Within the Christian world I worry that we have spiritualised our faith when it was intended to be intensely practical. We talk about being Christ’s ambassadors and ‘salt and light’ but often we need to match our rhetoric with actions, Christianity was never meant to be a hypothetical religion. Too often people think the Christian life -and the church- is dull, boring and irrelevant because we have not lived out our calling to see God’s kingdom come on earth as in heaven, shining out like stars in the universe and holding out the word that gives life! The call of Christ is a call for a revolution living, not to passive listening but for action, a call not to blend in with the world around us but stand out by radiating Christ in our lives. So, let’s accept Christ’s challenge to live for him, following where he leads, learning to live our lives his way, letting Christ be our Lord, and Lord of all.

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Namaste and Malchezedek.

‘Namaste’ is a word I discovered the other day, it is an Indian term for “I honour the Holy One inside you!”, the recognition of God’s presence in the other person. In his book “Irresistible Revolution” Shane Claiborne tells a wonderful story of dressing to wounds of a suffer of leprosy who said “Namaste” to him to which Shane replied “Jesus”. It is -as Paul wrote- “Christ in us the hope of glory”.
Too often the problem is we think it is the “us in us” that is the attractive thing rather than bowing down and surrendering so Christ can be made visible in us.
Another picture I love is that of the treasure of the Kingdom being stored in us as clay vestals, ordinary people filled with an extra-ordinary God who shines out from us, indeed where we are cracked and broken that is often where people can see the treasure.
An image I found helpful when thinking about God’s glory revealed -celebrated even- in my weakness is the Japanese art of Kintsugi, whereby smashed up and broken pots are mended with gold making what was cracked and ruined now has new life, and its beauty and greatest value is where it has fractured and fallen apart.
What of us are we prepared to let Christ the healer come into us into the most sacred parts of our life and restore us and shine through us, even in the parts that seem beyond repair?
My big question when I look in the mirror is “is Christ visible in me, or do I just look like everyone else!?” -true I have had long hair and beard, so I probably look more Jesus-y than the average, but joking aside I want Christ to be seen by the way I live. Could my bank-manager tell that I was a Christian? When I talk and interact with people is Jesus revealed in my relationships and how I am with people? Sadly too often I look more like a chameleon than Christ -indeed Christian actually means little Christ.
Abraham meets God in the character of Melchizedek, a pre-Jesus incarnation of God, and he sees God in him and responds to him in a way that at the time -being blessed- seems nice but when we read the epistle to the Hebrews we realise that this momentary encounter ordained a whole new priest-hood in the order of Melchizedek when meant Christ could be for us, both the lamb that was slain and our great high priest.
A momentary encounter that echoed in eternity, a brief moment of blessing that changed the world, a moment that seemed insignificant became probably one of the most significant -arguably the most significant- thing in Abraham’s life.
This encounter could have been seen by Abraham as an interruption or and inconvenience rather than an opportunity for a divine appointment, what of us, do we miss seeing those opportunities where something of heaven touches earth because we see these as distractions rather than Kingdom Catalysts.
Are we expectatant that God will use us to encounter others through us?
Are we expectant that we might meet God in other people, to hear what he wants to say to us, to hear what he wants to say to us, and to feel what he wants us to feel?
What of us and our encounters with people, do they see Christ in us? Do we see Christ in them?
Are we open to learn and be shaped by our interaction with one another in the guidance of the Holy Spirit?

Whilst on the Arrow Course a lecturer challenged us to see every relationship and conversation as an potential opportunity for the Kingdom of God to touch, bless and transform lives. She told us that she had issued this challenge to some students on a study week at the Bible College she worked in, they set to work at the lunchbreak on the Monday morning chatting to the catering staff serving their food, and learned their names, at the end of the study week they bought them some chocolates and some flowers. The catering manager burst into tears and said she had worked at this Bible college for a number of years and had never even had a thank you card and was blown away by these few students showing love and interest in the people around them -the people often invisibly serve us.
When we love and serve people would they say ‘Namaste’ to us?
Do they see within us enough of Jesus to want him for themselves? Too often people say of Christians ‘they are good people’ but I want people to say: “I want what they’ve got!” -I want Jesus!
I once was talking to a homeless guy in Kingswood and he opened up a bit and he asked “is Jesus like Dave Mitchell (Dave led the largest Church in Bristol)?” -I wasn’t sure how to answer this, so I asked why he asked the question, “because I’d like Jesus to be like Dave Mitchell” was the reply and talked of how he had been helped and encouraged by Dave and the guys from Woodlands Church. I gently said “I’m not dissing Dave, but maybe it is the other way around, maybe Dave is like Jesus? What you are seeing in Dave -love, compassion and kindness- stem from him wanting to be like Jesus”.
We in English don’t have a word “Namsate” but we can still personify the word so the world may see Christ through me and you.

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