John (1) – Loved

John the Disciple who Jesus lovedWith all the story tellers in this book, we can only wonder about what else they could tell us and John is no different.

Please read John 20:30-31 & John 21:25

The disciple John and his brother, James were the sons of a well-to-do fisherman, Zebedee and his wife, Salome, thought by many to be the sister of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and companion of Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna and other followers. Cousins of Jesus and called ‘the Sons of Thunder’ because of, at times, their impetuous behaviour (Luke 9:49, 54) and outlandish requests (Mark 10:35-45), John and James were key figures among the central group of twelve.

Together with Simon Peter, John and James were often to be found with Jesus, but without the other disciples: at the healing of the daughter of Jairus as we’ve seen; on the mountain at the time of the Transfiguration and then again in the Garden at Gethsemane. It was John who ran to the tomb with Simon Peter at the behest of Mary Magdalene that first Easter morning.

The authorship of the three New Testament letters that bear John’s name and that of the Fourth Gospel has been subject to debate for centuries. If John, ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’, wasn’t the actual writer then he was almost certainly very closely associated with it. Similar debate has surrounded the issue of whether or not John is in fact ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’. Apart from a brief reference to the sons of Zebedee (John 21:2), John is not actually named in the eponymous Gospel so if he was the author then it would seem not unnatural to refer to himself in the third person (in the same way perhaps that the author of Mark’s Gospel appears to do so [Mark 14:51-2]).

As the writer of this website is no academic theologian, for the purposes of this story, and for simplicity’s sake, we will assume the potentially incorrect approach that John was the author and also the beloved disciple. There again, as we consider what we can learn from this particular story, the uncertainty over the exact identity also begins to pale in to insignificance.

John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, is not saying in his writings that Jesus loved him more than the other disciples. If we are learn at least one thing from this particular storyteller, it is that he knew he was loved.

John knew he was loved by another person. He was secure in that love. He felt valued because of it. He knew he was loved because he was called. He knew he was loved because he was listened to – even when he was wrong. He knew he was loved because he changed. He changed from a ‘son of thunder’ to ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’. He knew he was loved because he was allowed to be present at significant events. He knew he was loved because from the Cross he was entrusted to care for Mary, the mother of Jesus. They were all signs that John knew he was loved by another person.

We may experience, give and receive such love in many different ways. It’s well recognised that, by looking at the Greek, the Bible indicates four different types of love:

  • Eros: sensual or romantic love.
  • Storge: family love, the affectionate bond that develops naturally between parents and children, and brothers and sisters.
  • Phileo: love for and from fellow humans: care, respect and compassion for other people.
  • Agape: divine love that comes from God. Agape love is perfect, unconditional, sacrificial, and pure.

For John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, the Greek has the word agape on four of the five occasions that that sobriquet is used: John 13:23-25, 19:26, 21:7, 21:20; whereas in John 20:2, phileo is used. It’s partly a stylistic approach but is perhaps also a further indication that John knew he was loved by other people and, as we will see later, that he was also loved by God.

Expressions of love based on eros are felt most strongly within loving, sexual relationships, which we should acknowledge are not experienced by everyone. Arguably, the vast majority of people will both give and receive love which stems from storge and phileo, although they are not without complications at times either. As we will see later, agape love is that which is perfected in God but there are times when it is given and received from other people also.

What’s happened in the last week that showed you that you are loved by other people?

Using storge, phileo, eros as headings, write lists of the ways in which you receive and give these different types of love.

 

 

When you’re ready, move on to Part 2 of this story.

John (2) – Beloved

John the disciple who Jesus lovedJohn knew he was loved by other people. John knew he was loved by God.

Please read 1 John 4:7-12, 16

This is the God who loved Mary and Joseph. This is the God who loved the daughter of Jairus, the woman from Samaria and the man from the Gerasenes. The God who loved Judas, Mary Magdalene, Martha and Mary, John, Nicodemus and Thomas. And, yes, Pontius Pilate too.

Agape. This is the God who loves you.

In the above passage from John’s first letter, in the Greek, the love that is talked about is agape love. We are to love, agape, one another. God’s love for us is agape love. Love that is perfect, unconditional, sacrificial, and pure.

So, how do we really know we are loved by God?

We can trip the familiar words off the tongue, can’t we: ‘God is love’… ‘God so loved the world…’ ‘God showed his love for us in that while we still sinners Christ died for us’… ‘(nothing) can separate us from the love of God’. There are so many affirmations of the truth and what reassuring and comforting words they are.

It can often be easier to acknowledge God’s love for us when life is going well. Times when his love for us is tangibly demonstrated through answers to prayer, unexpected blessings, love from others – again, so many ways: and how reassuring and comforting they are too.

With practice, as we reflect on through Mary and Joseph and also Martha and Mary, we can see God’s love for us in all the ordinary things of life. Those moments of blessing. Those glimpses of glory. A sunset, a bunch of flowers, children playing, older people laughing, a dog running in to the sea. Those times when God says: ‘Look. That’s for you.’ When the peace of God passes all understanding.

But what was it like for John walking with the distressed and agitated Jesus to the Garden at Gethsemane (Mark 14:33)? And standing at the foot of the Cross helplessly watching the helpless Messiah whom he loved and who loved him. Standing alongside Jesus’ own mother and others contagiously grieving their own sorrow and distress (John 19:25b-27)?

While it may have been the case during the preceding three years and was definitely so later in John’s life, at this precise moment, standing at the foot of the cross, in the midst of the trauma and pain, there is no room or energy or desire to reflect on God loving him so much that he sent his son to die for him.

In the reality of our lives, how do we know we are loved by God, truly know, deep down inside, when life is tough and horrible?

Ah, if only there was a simple answer.

And there isn’t. And maybe accepting that fact is helpful in itself. Knowing God’s love and his presence in difficult times is in itself difficult.

The person you are is the person God loves and wants you to be. Think back to the first Easter morning and all that was encapsulated in that one word, that calling of a name: ‘Mary’. Jesus calls your name, for you are his, and that is who you are.

We, like Mary and like John can know the love of God simply through the calling of our name – and thankfully God’s love is much bigger than that too.

Returning to your lists from part 1, write down the ways in which you receive God’s agape love.

Judas Iscariot (1) – Betrayal

The Story of Judas Iscariot“You’ve given me the confidence to feel I can go out with someone else,” she told me on Valentine’s Day. Nearly 40 years on (and after over 30 with my wife) I can laugh at the back-handed compliment from a former girlfriend as she left me for another man. But at the time it felt like betrayal.

Please read Luke 22:4-6 & Luke 22:47-48

Judas has always had a bad press. Always the last of the Twelve to be mentioned. Often portrayed wearing black. His name used to denounce others. A victim, then? Maybe, but partly of his own making. Vulnerable to the rich and powerful? Pretty much undoubtedly.

Betrayal. Often deliberate. Always hurtful. Sometimes breaking confidence or trust. The object of the betrayal may be a specific person (such as Jesus) or towards a cause (as when Judas showed the chief priests where they could find him). It happens in times of war (and peace, for that matter) or by betraying a nation. It happens in workplaces and churches. And potentially most hurtfully in personal relationships. Being betrayed is a very painful loss. A loss of trust. And often the loss of a person we once trusted.

Judas also betrayed himself, though. Maybe he did it for the money and because he thought it would help him to be part of the ‘in-crowd’. To feel accepted and lauded as the one who dealt with a troublemaker. He sniffed fame and fortune and it smelt good. But he soon felt the consequences and it cost him his life.

We too can betray ourselves. We can make choices and decisions because we think that’s what others want us to do rather than staying true to ourselves or listening to God. We might live to the false self we portray to others because we want to feel accepted: or to fulfil an inbuilt need to know we are ‘as good as’ other people.

The desire for such acceptance, while quite natural (and important) can sometimes be at the price of who we really are – and at the cost of who God wants us to be. It can be at the loss of our true self. The loss of who we are as a person made in God’s image.

In fact, it takes a lot less effort simply to be oneself than to try to be like someone else. To just be the person who we are. If we can focus on being ourself – our true self – then we can be more fully equipped to address (and, as necessary, to change) the parts which make us feel we are ‘not acceptable’.

‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ Jesus described those words as one of the greatest commandments.

Probably most people feel comfortable with the ‘love your neighbour’ bit. “Yep, I can do that. That bit’s OK.” It will be difficult to love those who have betrayed us, of course, and we can probably accept that there will always be some people we don’t like that much or get on with. But, pretty much, the act of loving our neighbour (however one chooses to define that word) can often be fairly straightforward and comparatively easy to do, especially if we have some choice about the friends we keep or do not keep, for example.

But what about ‘as yourself’? To love ourself in the same way as we love our neighbour? So many people find it difficult to love themselves.

The Gospel writers only tell us the bad bits about Judas. We don’t have a balanced view of him. Loving ourselves involves having a balanced view. For many people, for a lot of the time, the focus can be on the bad bits. The mistakes. The wrong words. The difficult memories. The hurts. The times when we got it wrong. The times when we felt betrayed.

But there are also good bits. True, sometimes it’s more difficult to focus on them but they are there. The things we got right. The successes (they don’t have to be huge and noticeable). The compliments we receive (even when we struggle to accept they might be true). Recognising our good bits is not about boastfulness (or the fear that doing so is somehow ‘sinful’). Knowing our good bits is about recognising and acknowledging that which God in his grace has given us and made good within us.

Knowing our good bits and having a balanced view of ourselves is crucial towards knowing our true self and loving ourselves. And by loving ourselves, not only can we love our neighbours more effectively as well, but we come to fully know the love that God has for us.

We topic of love is also considered in the story of another of the central group of twelve disciples, John.

In what ways might you be betraying your true self?

In what ways do you love yourself?

 

 

When you’re ready, move on to Part 2 of this story.

Man from the Gerasenes (1) – Healing

The man from the GerasenesHaving arrived in the country of the Gerasenes after a stormy trip across Lake Galilee, Jesus is faced with a challenging situation. There’s a man who’s ‘Mad, bad and dangerous to know’… and there’s no time for a risk assessment. (Please be aware this entry considers the sensitive topic of deliverance ministry.)

Please read Mark 5:2-9

This man was somebody’s son. He’d been a child who sat on his mother’s knee. A boy who splashed in the waters on the Western shores of Lake Galilee. And now look at him. He didn’t live with the living: he lived with the dead. Whatever happened? Whatever went wrong?

Today, we’d have a name for ‘people like him’. A nice, politically correct name:

Excluded    Marginalised    Vulnerable

He’s named by his situation not by who he is. The anonymous outcast becomes known by the name of that which possessed him: Legion.

Demon possession is not just the stuff of horror films and ancient history. Exorcism isn’t about spiritually cauterising the victim until they writhe on the floor, screaming unintelligent sounds and foaming at the mouth. Deliverance ministry is highly specialised. It’s to be undertaken only by people who have been specifically trained and who operate under the authority of and accountable to a recognised and well-established church. Carried out in the context of prayer, with no publicity, in collaboration with appropriate healthcare support, and with continuing pastoral care for the person concerned.

The role of deliverance ministry, which is how Jesus’ encounter with the man from the Gerasenes could be described, is essentially one of providing a cure not a punishment (those who are possessed are never described as sinful). In Biblical times, there was a belief that demons would be free to roam the earth until the Judgment Day came and they did this by taking possession of people.

This possession was often associated with disease, because in those times – note, in those times – disease was often seen as the consequence of sin and a sign of being in Satan’s power. Thankfully our understanding of disease has changed and improved considerably but this also helps explain why when Jesus expels a demon there is often a cure as well. This is healing is for the whole person.

The man from the Gerasenes was an outcast – literally cast out of the city.

Abused    Ostracised    Rejected

So used was he to being badly treated by other people, when he sees Jesus coming towards him he is frightened: ‘What have you to do with me… do not torment me.’ Yet, in his running towards and bowing down before the Lord, he grasped the opportunity to get the help he knew he needed. Like so many people before and since, he reached out to Jesus – even though he was afraid of doing so.

Jesus deals with the fears too. Before stepping ashore in to the Gentile-inhabited land of the Gerasenes on the Western shore of Lake Galilee, he had been asleep in a boat with his disciples (Mark 4:35-41). A storm blew up and, woken by frightened followers, he calmed the storm and in doing so calmed their fears also. And now (and yes, it’s a pity about the pigs) Jesus uses that same power to calm the storm that is the life of this man from the country of the Gerasenes.

Think back to a time in your life when you felt as if you were ‘living in the tombs’. A time when life was tough. Perhaps due to illness, difficulties in home or at work, estrangement from family, the ending of a relationship, for example. In what ways did you run towards Jesus? How did he calm your fears and bring healing and wholeness?

 

 

When you’re ready, move on to Part 2 of this story.

Man from the Gerasenes (2) – Wholeness

The man from the Gerasenes - mental illness & recoveryPlease read Mark 5:14b-20

After Jesus’ intervention, the man from the Gerasenes is described as being ‘in his right mind’. (Please be aware this entry considers the sensitive topic of mental ill health.)

Many have described the man from the Gerasenes as being mentally ill. He may well have been: Mark’s account does include a reference to self-harm (verse 5). Whereas demon possession is one of spiritual distress, mental ill health is often more affected and influenced by psychological, sociological and biological factors.

Today, we’d have names for ‘people like that’ too.

Nutter   Psycho   Loony

Stigma about mental illness has always existed: we can read that in to the attitude of the crowd in the country of the Gerasenes. Perhaps that was why the man was ostracised and, even when healed, why he was still afraid and wanted to go with Jesus in the boat? (v18).

Thankfully, attitudes towards mental illness have improved considerably – in particular over the last two decades. Many more people now speak openly about their experience of depression, anxiety or other more severe and enduring conditions such as bi-polar disorder or psychosis. But there are still difficulties for those who experience mental ill health, not least, alas, in some areas of the church.

Although misunderstandings still exist, with one in four of us seeking help from a doctor about a mental health problem at some point in life, it is encouraging to see the increased recognition of the importance of looking after our mental wellbeing.

Being mentally unwell is not a weakness. In fact, it is often those who are the most conscientious and dedicated who experience such difficulties. Depression, for example, has been called ‘the curse of the strong’. Yes, the word ‘stress’ can be used too lightly but there are times when the pressures we all face, both in work and outside of work, outweigh our ability to cope with them – and everyone copes with stress differently.

Feeling anxious or depressed at certain times is perfectly normal. We’re bound to feel anxious if we’re facing an important exam or a relative is in hospital, for example. It’s natural to feel down or low, say, after a bereavement or the break up of a relationship. Indeed, those emotions and responses are a necessary part of who we are as human beings – and integral to our ability to cope with difficult situations.

But it is right to be concerned when those feelings or symptoms affect our ability to function. When work, sleep, family life and other everyday matters are increasingly affected, help needs to be sought.

As a general guide, if someone is experiencing feelings of depression or anxiety most of the day, every day for a fortnight then that’s the time to go to the doctor. Talk early, don’t let it get worse.

The difficulty is that a lot of people don’t seek help that quickly. We feel we ‘ought’ or ‘should’ be able to cope. We might tell ourselves ‘not to be so stupid’. Others might tell us to ‘pull ourselves together’. We might hope that if we ‘bury our head in the sand’ it’ll go away – the only thing that happens when we bury our head in the sand is we can’t breathe… we become ‘suffocated’ by whatever is causing the difficulties. Talk early, don’t let it get worse.

Asking for help is not a sign of failure. But, like with the man from the Gerasenes, paradoxically, although not unusually, the act, or even the very thought, of seeking help may feel a bit frightening at first. We may be scared of ‘what will come out’ or worried about ‘what’s wrong’ or concerned about what other people will think (especially in some church circles, sadly).

Asking for help is a sign of strength. But it is important to be realistic. If things have become difficult, it may get tougher before it’s gets easier. It’s easy to slip in to a pattern of negative thinking – and it takes time to change one’s thoughts. Medication may help but isn’t always necessary. However, it will take time and effort – which is in itself part of the reason why so many people end up struggling for so long: simply because it takes so much time and so much effort.

The good news is that people do get better. Recovery can and does happen. Unlike many physical health conditions, recovery from a period of mental ill health may not mean the complete absence of symptoms but it will see the return to a more comfortable level of day to day functioning.

What do you do to look after your mental wellbeing?

Martha & Mary (2) – Devotion

Martha & MaryJesus, Mary and Martha are together once again in Bethany. And this time there’s an altogether different atmosphere:

Please read John 12:1-7

Jesus may well have found stability and security in the friendship and hospitality of Martha, Mary and Lazarus. These were people he was able to be himself with. Amidst all the crowds, the demands and the ever-increasing threats, what a precious gift that must have been. And how valuable such people and places are to us too. Those special friends with whom we can simply be. Those places to which we can go in order to be ourself. Life is the poorer without them.

Who are your special people? Where are your special places?

Not long before this occasion, Jesus had raised Lazarus, Martha and Mary’s beloved brother, from the dead (John 11). So, this is a meal of celebration and how different it is from the last occasion we considered. This time, Martha’s serving springs out of a heart full of love and gratitude. The atmosphere is so full of joy and thanksgiving that it seemed right and natural for Mary to fetch her most precious possession, a box of spikenard (sometimes called nard) ointment, which she poured over the feet of Jesus as the greatest gift she can give.

But how did Jesus feel about this extravagant act? Wasn’t it just a tiny bit embarrassing? ‘Oh, Mary, you shouldn’t have.’ Couldn’t he have asked her to stop – or even agreed with Judas that it was a waste of good perfume? But, of course, he knew the significance of it – even if Mary didn’t.

The fragrance of the perfume permeates the whole house: its scent reaching through the light and airy parts and on in to the darker, hidden corners. This is in itself symbolic and representative of the spreading of the story of Christ. The scent of this most precious possession being the Gospel message of hope and salvation for all. The house representing the world. The guests representing the people of all the nations. The fragrance symbolising the story of Christ, saviour, priest and king, affecting everyone it touches.

At a deeper, personal level, it is symbolically representative of God’s love, reaching and filling our lives. His love permeating not only the light and airy bits – the good and pleasant parts of who we are – but also the darker, hidden corners, the bits others never see, the parts even we ourselves avoid looking at.

Whether pleasant or unpleasant, a smell often lingers in the air long after the source of it has disappeared. A smell can so attach itself to us that we can go to a different place and other people will smell it. Drawing a parallel between the Gospel message and our own Christian witness, other people will experience that which the fragrance symbolises and represents.

Or as Bishop Tom Wright once put it, it can be, ‘worth taking a minute…to reflect on what smell we’re giving off.’

In what ways is your life spreading the fragrance of the love of God to other people?

What can you learn from your past which opens up the future?

Mary Magdalene (2) – Fact

Mary Magdalene at the Garden TombWhile not named, Mary was probably among other women who gathered for the Last Supper and then moved on to the Garden at Gethsemane – and she was certainly involved in what followed.

Please read Matt 27:55-57,61 and John 20:1, 11-18

Like many of us after a death, Mary Magdalene visited the place where her loved one was laid. It was night. She knew she could go there in peace to pay her respects, to mourn, to talk to the one she had lost, to be in that person’s presence even though they are dead: there is something reassuring about being able to do so, isn’t there – it keeps that deep emotional connection.

But on that first Easter morning, as the sun was rising upon the darkened land, Mary didn’t find what she expecting. The stone carefully placed over the entrance to the tomb by Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, whom she had watched, had been moved. The body had gone. What loss – and then this.

No doubt, as she sat weeping, Mary recalled Jesus’ teaching about his death and resurrection. And yet the body had gone. Even the appearance of angels did not bring consolation. A gardener came and she poured out her distress to him. What on earth was going on?

And then one word changed everything. A word charged with emotion. A word which encapsulated all she was, covered all her confusion and distress, and brought together all her faith and hope.

‘Mary.’

In this one word, the simple utterance of her name, Mary has found the Lord. And her Lord has found her. In the deep heartfelt calling of her name, Mary had found the true fulfilment of who God had made her to be. She hears her name and says his in reply.

The 16th Century Italian artist, Giovanni Girolamo Savoldo (1480-1548) captures the moment beautifully in his painting, Mary Magdalene. Mary is turning and understanding.

When someone calls our name, it attracts our attention. We turn to face them. We respond to the voice. We recognise the person who says it. Hearing our name spoken makes us turn in the right direction. And if we are looking for someone we’ve lost, we might call out their name. And such is the joy when we find them – and such is the joy of the person who has been found.

Through the resurrection, Jesus calls each one of us by name.

Through the resurrection, each one of us has found what we are looking for.

Take a few minutes to listen to the voice of Jesus calling your name.

Write down what you feel when you turn and understand.

Woman from Samaria (2) – Pride

The woman at the wellThey stand at the well.

And they talk.

Please read John 4:7b-15

Continuing as it does to verse 28, this is the longest recorded conversation between a woman and Jesus in the whole of the Gospels. Initially, it has a feel of jolly repartee to it as if the woman is jesting, flirting even. After all, she has had five husbands! ‘Sir, you have no bucket… the well is deep… so where do you get this living water… are you greater than Jacob?’ (Nudge, nudge. Wink, wink.) But the very fact she engages in conversation reflects her deep need for love, acceptance and respect.

Initially, Jesus responds in a calm, pragmatic way: ‘Everyone who drinks of this water (in the well) will be thirsty again.’ But see how effortlessly he turns from the practical to the spiritual – ‘but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty.’ Jesus addresses her thirst. A thirst for acceptance. A thirst for love. She’s a mess. She’s had five husbands. She’s living with someone. She’s been excluded. Life is not good. Life is dry and she is thirsty.

Here, now, in the heat of the midday sun, stands a man, perhaps the first man, who accepts her for who she is and who loves her because she is to be loved. Through meeting Jesus, she finds her pride has been restored.

So what do we learn from her story in the day to day reality of our life and faith?

As with the woman from Samaria, the issues we face and the difficulties we have may not go away. The woman did not go to a wishing well to find a magic wand: and Jesus didn’t give her one in return for her efforts. And neither will he do so for us. But it is by going to the source of this living water, by reaching beneath the surface to the place of deep refreshment that will provide a different perspective.

We might think of ourselves as coming to the well in the heat of the different aspects of our lives. Thirsty for acceptance. Thirsty for love. Bringing the parts of our lives which are dry.

Jesus offers each of us the gift of living water. He offers water to quench our thirst, to refresh the dry areas of our life. The water Jesus speaks of is everlasting. It’s constant and continually flowing. It will never dry up. And, like the woman at the well, we have a choice about whether to drink from it.

Or think of it another way: are you a fountain or a spring?

A fountain is dramatic. Everyone watches the water as it plays out in different shapes and forms. Yet fountains recycle the same water all the time. They don’t need much depth to operate. They can be switched on and off. Some people have fountain-like faith – church on Sundays, everyone sees them, they say the right words and sing the right hymns, they get up and sit down at the right times. They sit on committees. But the tap gets turned off when no one else is looking.

A spring is different. Often quieter. Sometimes unnoticed. Spring water is always fresh, always changing, a constant flow 24 hours every day. Springs rise up from the depths. They feed in to the well of those of who draw upon them. People who are like springs have a stability and security in their faith: drawing on deep refreshment. There is a depth often marked by wisdom and a love for others – and themselves.

This water dwells deep within us. The woman from Samaria and Nicodemus encountered these depths of the love of God by taking the time to be present in his presence, listening to him and talking to him. Alongside setting aside the time, setting aside the place is also important. For the woman it became the well. For Jesus it was the mountains and other places where he could be alone. Putting aside time and having a specific place within one’s home can help: a place set apart for prayer, Bible study, worship or whichever way enables the drawing up of water from the well. A place free from other distraction. A place set aside for you and God to meet.

Which aspects of your faith and your life are like fountains and which are like springs?

In what ways do you feel the water of eternal life gushing up inside of you?