Forgive us our debts

Student debt is a massive problem. Young people who go to university or college in Britain are given loans to help pay their tuition fees and living costs. Every year £16 billion is loaned to students. The value of outstanding loans is more than £105 billion. The Government forecasts the value of outstanding student loans will rise to £450 billion in the next 30 years. The average debt of a recent cohort of students, who have completed their courses, is £32,000. It is estimated that only 30% of current full-time graduates who take out loans will repay them in full.

In America the problem is even greater and has become an issue in the run up to the 2020 presidential election. The total U.S. student loan debt is more than $1.3 trillion and affects 44 million people. The average loan balance is $37,000 and increases every year because of interest charges. Today many Americans in their 20s, 30s and 40s consider themselves fortunate if their job pays them enough to make their student loan repayments. Some former students refer to their loans as a “debt sentence” which they will carry throughout their whole life.

The recent action of billionaire technology investor Robert F Smith has brought great joy to one class of students at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia. Morehouse College was established soon after the American Civil War to provide education for black male students. Martin Luther King Jnr. was a student at Morehouse. When he was at the College to receive an honorary doctorate, Robert Smith told the students in the class of 2019 that he would pay their student loans. More than 400 students will benefit from this gift which will cost tens of millions of dollars. The College President said the gift will give the students “the liberty to follow their dreams.”

The biggest problem we all face is not financial debt but the debt we owe to God because of our sins. Every day this debt grows, and we can never repay it. The greatest act of love and generosity in the whole of human history was when Jesus, God’s Son, gave his life to pay the debt of our sins. Every day millions of people pray to God, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” When we confess our sins to God, and experience his forgiveness, he sets us free to live a new life in fellowship with him; the life for which we were created.

Being rich toward God

The Sunday Times Rich List 2019 has been published which identifies the 1000 richest people in Britain. The richest people on the list have an estimated fortune of £22bn, (that’s £22,000, 000,000), which has increased by £1.3bn in the past year. Those on the list have built their fortunes in different ways including through inheritances, oil and chemical industries, designing and making vacuum cleaners, gambling, finance and banking, media and internet. Some very rich people are generous in helping others and have set up charitable trust to help the poorest people in the world.

A man once came to Jesus with a request, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” Jesus said to him, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” It is easy for us to assume that if we were very rich, we would be very happy. The sad experience of many people who have won large amounts of money on a lottery shows us that this is not always the case. Marriages and family relationships have been destroyed, long-standing friendships broken, and lives damaged through drugs and alcohol abuse.

Jesus went on to tell a story to illustrate what he had said. “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’ Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.” But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”

Jesus himself is the supreme example of a someone who was rich making a great personal sacrifice so that those who were poor might become rich. He left the amazing riches of heaven, which were his by right as God’s Son, and came to this earth to live an ordinary life and to die on the cross to pay the price of our sins. Whether we are rich or poor he offers us an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade and which is kept in heaven for us.

The Crown of Life

The widespread persecution of Christians has recently been highlighted in a report commissioned by Jeremy Hunt, the Foreign Secretary. Millions of Christians in the Middle East have been uprooted from their homes, and many have been killed, kidnapped, imprisoned and discriminated against. The Christians who are being persecuted are some of the poorest people in the world. In the Middle East the population of Christians used to be about 20%; now it’s 5%.

The report also highlights discrimination across southeast Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and in east Asia – often driven by state authoritarianism. It concludes that the overwhelming majority (80%) of persecuted religious believers are Christians. In countries such as Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Saudi Arabia the situation of Christians and other minorities has reached an alarming stage. In Saudi Arabia there are strict limitations on all forms of expression of Christianity including public acts of worship. The Arab-Israeli conflict has caused the majority of Palestinian Christians to leave their homeland. The population of Palestinian Christians has dropped from 15% to 2%.

It is good that the persecution of Christians is being recognised, but persecution is not something new for Christians. Jesus explicitly told his disciples they would face persecution. The night before he was crucified, he said, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” When he sent his apostles out into the world to proclaim the good news about him, he promised, “I will be with you always even to the end of the age.”

On a visit to a country in southeast Asia I met a leader in the underground churches. He had been arrested, imprisoned and fined because he didn’t belong to an official, state-controlled, church. The Christians in the underground churches are always being harassed by the authorities who want to close the churches down. My friend said that he had once been asked by a security official why the underground churches were growing, despite the persecution they experienced, when the official churches were not growing. One reason is that even in the fires of persecution Jesus is with his people, as he promised, and the reality of their faith shines through. Heaven is very real for Christians who experience persecution. Jesus told persecuted first-century Christians, “If you remain faithful even when facing death, I will give you the crown of life.”

Stop doubting and believe

The resurrection of Jesus is central to the Christian faith and to the message Christians proclaim to the peoples of the world. It is a message that speaks to the deepest needs of the human heart. Every day we hear news of people who have died, sometimes in tragic circumstances; a serious illness, a road accident, a plane crash, a terrorist atrocity or simply of old age. There are many things in life that are uncertain, but all of us know that one day we must face death. The resurrection of Jesus gives us reason for real hope.

The Gospel accounts of the resurrection of Jesus have an unmistakable ring of authenticity. All his disciples, both men and women, struggled to believe that their beloved Lord really was alive. Early on the resurrection morning Mary Magdalene went to the tomb taking spices to anoint Jesus’ body. When she arrived at the tomb, she saw that the stone had been removed. She assumed that Jesus’ enemies had stolen his body and immediately ran to tell Peter and John saying, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” Peter and John ran to the tomb but didn’t understand what they saw.

Mary stayed at the tomb and it was there, in the garden, that Jesus appeared to her. She ran to the disciples with the amazing news, “I have seen the Lord!” That evening, in a house in which the disciples were hiding because they were afraid of the authorities, Jesus came and stood among them. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.

One of the disciples, Thomas, wasn’t there that night. When the other disciples told him they had seen Jesus, Thomas said, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” A week later when the disciples, including Thomas, were together in the house again, Jesus came and stood among them. He said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” It truly is a blessed thing to believe in the risen Lord and his promise, “Because I live, you also will live.”

Love and life in Jesus

On Easter Sunday terror came to Sri Lanka. Coordinated bomb attacks on churches in the capital Colombo, and other towns, killed and seriously injured many people. Hotels were also attacked. The bombs were timed to go off when the churches were packed with worshippers rejoicing in the resurrection of Jesus. At least 290 people have died, and more than 500 have been injured. Those who died include people from at least 8 other nations. These bombings are the deadliest violence since the end of the civil war in 2009 and the whole country is in shock. In many churches around the world people prayed for those caught up in these atrocities.

The Easter message speaks very powerfully into the tragic events in Sri Lanka. When Jesus was dying on the cross, he prayed for those who were responsible for his death, “Father forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing.” He had taught his disciples to love their enemies and demonstrated this in the midst of his own profound sufferings. He told his disciples that they would be hated for his name’s sake but said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”

On Easter Day Christians rejoice that Jesus rose from the dead on the third day after he died. His resurrection was witnessed by many of his disciples, both men and women, and transformed them. When he died their hopes had died but when they saw their risen Lord they were filled with joy. Jesus sent them out into the world to proclaim to all people the good news of his resurrection and the forgiveness of sins through his death on the cross.

The hope that Christians have of being raised to eternal life is based on the historical fact of the resurrection of Jesus. His promise is “because I live you also will live.” He said, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” So, the Easter message of love and life in Jesus declares that evil and hatred will not ultimately triumph. As one Easter hymn proclaims, “death is dead, love has won, Christ has conquered!”

The day Jesus died

This week Christians will remember the death and resurrection of their Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. On Good Friday they will especially remember his death. During his 3-year ministry Jesus had brought great blessing to many people through his teaching and his miracles. He made blind people to see, deaf people to hear, dumb people to speak. He healed lepers, cast out evil spirits and raised back to life people who had died. Wherever he went great crowds flocked to hear him and to be healed. Just 5 days before he died, Jesus was acclaimed by thousands of people as he entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey. But he was also hated by the religious leaders and even the people turned against him and demanded that he be crucified.

The death of Jesus was a great injustice. He was a good man, the best man who has ever lived. Pilate, the Roman Governor who condemned him, said, “I find no basis for a charge against him.” One of the criminals who died alongside him said, “We are being punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” A Roman centurion who supervised the crucifixion said, “Surely this was a righteous man.”

The death of Jesus was also a great demonstration of God’s love. The Apostle Paul said, “God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners.” Religions teach us what we must do if we are to find acceptance with God. Our salvation depends on what we do. But Christianity tells us what God has done for us. We cannot stop sinning. Every day of our lives we break God’s moral law and are, therefore, guilty before him. Yet, amazingly, Jesus, God’s Son, died to take away our sins.

So Good Friday really is good because on that day we remember the best of all men who loved us so much that he died for us so that we might experience God’s forgiveness. The Apostle Paul wrote, “For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. He gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. So, we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, “Come back to God!” For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ.”

No change my heart shall fear

We live in a world of change. In the sphere of technology once state-of the art gadgets are suddenly out of date. Great changes have also taken place in the moral sphere. In Britain the absolute standards of the Ten Commandments have been set aside in favour of “British values” – democracy; the rule of law; individual liberty; and mutual respect for and tolerance of those of different faiths and beliefs and for those without faith. People do things because they believe it is “the right thing to do” rather than because it is the morally right thing to do. Relativism rules.

Change also impacts our personal lives. People who have worked for decades for the same company suddenly find themselves being made redundant because a decision has been taken “for economic reasons” to relocate production to another country. We lived in Deeside when, in 1980, the Shotton Steelworks closed putting 6500 people out of work in a single day. People’s financial future became uncertain because finding another job was very difficult. Life for many would never be the same.

Change can also suddenly come through illness or death. People experience life-changing events when they receive a diagnosis of cancer or have a heart attack or stroke. There are people now lying on hospital beds who have lost the use of an arm and leg and cannot speak. Or someone we have loved and shared our lives with dies, and we have to face the finality of death. Friends and family gather round to provide loving support, but it is not long before we must face the pain of loneliness and loss.

When life-changing events happen, we can find peace and hope as we trust in God and his Son Jesus. A well-known hymn expresses it well, “In heavenly love abiding, no change my heart shall fear; and safe is such confiding, for nothing changes here. The storm may roar without me, my heart may low be laid, but God is round about me, and can I be dismayed? Wherever He may guide me, no want shall turn me back; my Shepherd is beside me, and nothing can I lack. His wisdom ever waketh, his sight is never dim; He knows the way He taketh, and I will walk with Him. Green pastures are before me, which yet I have not seen; bright skies will soon be o’er me, where the dark clouds have been. My hope I cannot measure, my path to life is free; my Saviour has my treasure, and He will walk with me.”

Living even though we are dying

Some friends of mine have been diagnosed with cancer. It’s a serious diagnosis that takes time to come to terms with. Often there is difficult treatment to face; surgery, chemotherapy or radiotherapy. The treatment may continue over many months and there are side effects to cope with. The support of specialist nurses through organisations like McMillan and Marie Curie enables patients to be cared for at home. In a recent advert a person who was being cared for by Marie Curie nurses said, “They helped me to live even though I was dying.”

Death is the one event we must all, one day, face. Coming to terms with our mortality is important if we are to know how we should live now. Facing death makes us seek answers to vitally important questions. Is there a God? What is the meaning of life? What happens when I die? Is there life after death? If one day I must face my Maker, how should I be living? Finding the answers to these questions enables us to live even though we are dying.

The Bible tell us about the God who created all things. Our life is a gift from God and not the result of chance events. God knows each of us personally. In Psalm 139 David says, “You have searched me, O Lord, and you know me. For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” Everyone who comes to know God in the last days of their life wishes they had come to know him sooner.

The God who created us also sent his Son, Jesus, into the world to give us the gift of eternal life. Jesus said, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Trusting in Jesus we live our lives in daily fellowship him and know that, when we die, we shall go to be with him in heaven. When I was in school, we sang a hymn which is a prayer about knowing God both in living and in dying; “God be in my head, and in my understanding; God be in my eyes, and in my looking; God be in my mouth, and in my speaking; God be in my heart, and in my thinking; God be at mine end, and at my departing.”

Remembering the Great Escape

Last weekend a service of remembrance was held in Poland to mark the 75th anniversary of The Great Escape. Stalag Luft III opened in Spring 1942 and was used to hold captured air forces personnel. At its height it held 10,000 prisoners of war, covered 59 acres and had 5 miles of perimeter fencing. About 600 prisoners helped dig the three tunnels which were given the names Tom, Dick and Harry.

On the night of 24-25 March 1944 two hundred men were waiting in line to escape but the alarm was raised before most could enter tunnel Harry. Seventy-six men escaped through the tunnel which was 336 feet long and 28 feet deep. Within three days seventy-three of them were recaptured by the Germans and fifty were executed on Hitler’s orders. The camp was liberated in January 1945 by Russian forces.

Flying Officer Marcel Zillessen was last in the queue. His father was German, and Marcus had studied at the University of Berlin, so he spoke German fluently. He played a key role in planning the escape as he gained the confidence of some guards and so obtained valuable items such as paper, pens and ink to help forge travel documents for the escapees. Later he survived the Long March in 1945 and died in 1999 aged 81.

His son, Tim, visited the former site of Stalag Luft III for the first time ahead of the 75th anniversary of The Great Escape. Speaking of his father Tim said, “Much changed after the war in the sense that it freed his mind. He was no longer materialistic and didn’t worry about the things that we would today. It must have been overwhelming for him at the end to be able to walk away a free man and alive.”

Freedom is very precious. The prisoners at Stalag Luft III made great efforts to win their freedom and some died in the attempt. Those who survived really valued freedom and life itself. Although we live in what has sometimes been called “The Free World” many people are anything but free. Ours is a materialistic society and we do worry about many things. Some are prisoners to debt. Others are addicted to drink and drugs, to gambling and pornography. Jesus came to set us free from the sins that bind us and to give us true life. He said, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”

Finding faith and hope

In 2018 President Xi of China was reappointed with no time limit. His new personal power and the enhanced role of the Chinese Communist Party has led to the persecution of virtually every major religious group within China. ‘Unofficial’ church buildings have been demolished and entire Christian congregations have been arrested, Tibetan Buddhists have been forced to remove images, and up to one million Muslims from the Uighur ethnic group have been detained in ‘re-education’ camps. Religion is seen as a great challenge to the atheism taught and imposed by the Communist Party.

In recent years, however, hundreds of thousands of Chinese citizens have gone to work in Africa where they have encountered new cultures. Far from home, in strange places, some of these Chinese workers have found comfort in religion, especially amongst the many evangelical Christians in sub-Saharan Africa. Local African churches have reached out to Chinese workers, including incorporating Mandarin into services. A number of Chinese people have welcomed the sense of community and belonging that these Christian churches offer. A small but growing number of ethnically Chinese missionaries from Taiwan and other countries have been able to share the Christian gospel with Chinese nationals in Africa in a way that is not allowed in the People’s Republic. Many Chinese workers are returning home and bringing their newfound faith with them.

Christianity has been in China since the 7th century, a lot longer than communism, and today, despite persecution, the number of Christians is increasing. China is losing its fight against Christianity. It is estimated that there are 70 million Chinese Christians. Official figures show membership of the Chinese Communist Party at 90 million. If the present increase in the number of Christians in China continues there will soon be more Christians in China than in any other country in the world.

Atheism, whether espoused and propagated by political regimes or promoted by the secularism of our Western world, can never meet our deepest needs. In Africa Chinese workers have seen the difference a real and warm faith in Jesus Christ makes to people’s lives. Daily life for millions of people in Africa is desperately hard but in their churches people worship God with joy in their hearts. They love one another and help each other. Most African Christians are poor but their relationship with God through Jesus gives them “strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow.” Now that’s something we all need and neither communism nor any other political ideology can ever give us.