From the minister...
No doubt it’s something many of us will be familiar with:
You’re reading a passage that you think you’ve already worked out. You’ve read it so many times before and you weren’t counting on it surprising you on this occasion. But then it happens – a new insight leaps off the page and you’re reminded of the endless capacity of God to say something new to us through his word.
This happened to me two weeks ago when my Bible reading notes took me to the account of the calling of the first disciples which is found in John 1. The scene begins with John the Baptist directing two of his disciples to look to Jesus, who he describes as ‘the Lamb of God!’ The story continues with these words:
‘When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus. Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, “What do you want?” They said, “Rabbi” (which means “Teacher”), “where are you staying?” “Come,” he replied, “and you will see.”’
On one level, the question asked by the disciples seems straightforward, nothing more than a simple enquiry about Jesus’ accommodation. But the word used in the original Greek, meno, is one layered with a variety of meanings and is found over 30 times in John’s Gospel. In the later chapters of the book, it is often translated as ‘abide’: this is the word we find in John 15:10:
‘If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love’ (emphasis added), (NRSV).
Reflecting on this double-edged meaning of the word has caused me to think again about a deeper symbolism contained in that first conversation between Jesus and his followers.
‘Where are you staying?’ they ask.
When he replies, ‘Come and you will see’, is it possible that he is beckoning them towards a deeper encounter than they could ever have imagined, an invitation not just to the physical location of a house in Galilee but rather to the deepest and most intimate of meetings with God, a place to dwell and to be held by our Saviour?
I’ve been thinking about these words in early January, as we’ve begun the New Year with a move to yet another lockdown. Our scope to meet in person is restricted to just one-to-one meetings if we’re getting together to exercise (feel free to enrol me as your personal trainer!), our schools will remain closed for the foreseeable future and shopping is restricted again to essential purchases only.
And, as a church, we can only gather online. It’s understandable that many of us are feeling a sense of increasing weariness as we face the prospect of another prolonged period when fellowship and friendship can’t be shared ‘in the flesh’ in the way we all long for.
In times of crisis, a question we often ask ourselves is ‘Where is God?’ In our isolation and tiredness, it’s a comfort to remember that we can answer that question emphatically by saying: ‘God is not in church!’ He is not stuck in the sanctuary at Addington Road, waiting for us to find him there in a few months’ time, as and when the rules allow. He does not restrict himself to meeting us in particular locations.
The following chapter of John describes the occasion when Jesus drives out moneylenders from the Temple. When asked about the authority by which he does this, ‘Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days”’ (2:19). John helps us read between the lines of this scene, telling us ‘the temple he had spoken of was his body’.
What an incredible thought! Those to whom Jesus first appeared would have regarded the Temple as the place on earth where the glory of the Lord dwelt. With his coming, everything changes as God comes to us in flesh and blood, making himself known fully as Jesus teaches, heals, travels, has meals in the homes of friends, all before his glory manifests itself most fully on the cross.
And still he comes to us now, unconstrained by space, time or virus, fulfilling another promise first offered to his disciples: ‘Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them’ (John 14:23).
Reflecting on these words of Jesus has also brought to mind some words of a hymn which echo the language he uses and which have comforted God’s people in many previous moments of need:
Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, oh, abide with me.
In the coming days, even in the deepening darkness of a third lockdown, my prayer is that you will know his abiding presence,
the glory and the comfort which cannot diminished by these restrictions. May you know that he loves you, that he stays with you, that he remains with you, that he abides with you. Amen.