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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.”

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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.”

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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!”

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All the lonely people

Many people are lonely, especially in the developed world. People are living longer than ever before and see their close friends and family die. Broken relationships, between husbands and wives and parents and children, mean that many people live on their own. At our work place or college we may be surrounded by people but at the end of the day we return to our homes and are alone. Almost 50% of people in America say they feel alone or left out always or sometimes. It is not only the elderly who feel lonely, many young people are lonely. Even those who have many “friends” on social media miss meaningful human friendship and companionship.

A new pet robot called Lovot, has been designed in Japan to be a comforting presence for lonely elderly people. It uses Artificial Intelligence and facial recognition and will be on sale in the USA next year for more than $5000. It has cartoon eyes and furry arms and doesn’t speak or respond to commands. It has been designed to respond to those who talk to it and hug it and it gravitates to those who show it most love. Its designer says, “We try to train people with the power of love to be ready for loving something else.” He claims Lovot will make people “truly happy.” However, after 50 minutes activity Lovot needs to be recharged!

Human relationships are important because God is a personal God. The Bible teaches us there is only one God and that within the godhead there are three “persons”, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, who are bound together in a relationship of eternal love. God has created us as relational beings with an innate capacity to love God and one another. The greatest commands God has given us are profoundly relational. We are to love God with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our strength and also to love our neighbour as we love ourselves. When we love God and each other we experience the joy and fulfilment God created us to know.

When we pray we are talking to the living God who hears us, loves us and knows all our needs. He is always with us. Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Give us today our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we also forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from the evil one.”

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Words matter

Words matter. At the marriage of Jack Brooksbank and Princess Eugenie last week their deep love for each other was obvious. The Dean of Windsor declared them to be husband and wife because they made solemn, lifelong promises to each other. Eugenie was asked, “Eugenie, wilt thou have this Man to be thy wedded husband, to live together according to God’s law in the holy estate of Matrimony? Wilt thou love him, comfort him, honour and keep him, in sickness and in health and, forsaking all other, keep thee only unto him, so long as ye both shall live?” She replied, “I will.” Jack made a similar promise.

One media organisation hired professional lip-readers to tell them what the Royal guests were saying to each other. It seems even small talk matters! Jesus taught that our words reveal the condition of our inner self and that God will judge us for everything we say. He said, “For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. Whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be shouted from the housetops for all to hear!”

Those who heard Jesus speaking recognised the authority of his words. During a difficult time in his ministry, when some people turned away from him, Jesus asked his close disciples, “Are you also going to leave?” Simon Peter replied, “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words that give eternal life.” Jesus made wonderful promises in which we can have total confidence. One of his promises is, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

Some Christian friends of ours invited a neighbour, who is not a Christian, to a meal. After the meal the wife asked the neighbour if she could read a passage from the Bible. The neighbour agreed and the wife read one of the Psalms. As she was reading the neighbour began to cry. When the reading was finished the neighbour explained why she had cried, “In my religion we speak to God but he never speaks to us. As you were reading I felt God was speaking to me!”

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The burden of debt

Debt is a growing problem for many families in Britain. In 2017 the average annual overspend for families in Britain was £900. It is estimated that £19bn is owed for utility bills, missed council tax payments and repayment of overpaid benefits. There has also been a rapid increase in borrowing on credit cards and poorer families are increasingly looking to payday loan companies for loans to cover daily living costs. The interest charged by these companies is astronomical.

It is only too easy to be enticed into taking credit when companies offer interest-free or low interest credit for new cars, furniture, the latest technological gadgets, new bathrooms and kitchens. The cost of getting everything needed for their children to go to school at the beginning of a new academic year has recently put real pressure on many families. Children experience peer pressure to wear high-cost clothes with designer labels and to have the latest smartphone and tablet.

Debt can be crushing. I remember visiting a man who was seriously in debt. He had been injured in a car crash and could no longer work. His marriage had broken down and he had run out of money. He was afraid of the post arriving because there would be more red letters demanding payments he couldn’t make. His bank refused to lend him any more money and he was afraid that one day the bailiffs would arrive. He was imprisoned in his house and deeply depressed. He needed someone to come alongside him. Together we were able to work through his situation and find a way to address his debts. Today Christians Against Poverty is one organisation which helps people to manage their debts and to face the future with hope.

The Bible also speaks about another debt we owe because we break God’s laws. In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus encouraged his disciples to pray “Forgive us our debts.” All of us have this debt problem, whether we are rich or poor. Every day we do and say things we know are wrong and so our debt to God increases. As many people try to ignore financial debts so we may push this debt to the back of our minds. But Jesus encourages us to face up to our moral and spiritual debt and to ask God to forgive us. Jesus died on the Cross to pay the price of our sins and so through him we can experience the joy of forgiveness and the cancelling of the debt we owe to God.

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The Lord is risen!

Easter is a joyful time for Christians around the world. On Easter Day they greet one another with the words “He is risen! He is risen indeed!” The bodily resurrection of Jesus on the third day after he died is at the heart of Christian faith. After seeing Jesus die on the cross his disciples were devastated. Jesus had told them many times that he would be killed and then after three days would rise, but on the resurrection morning there was no expectation this would happen.

While it was still dark, some women went to the tomb where Jesus had been buried to anoint his body with spices and found the stone had been rolled away from the entrance to the tomb. They didn’t immediately think that Jesus had triumphed over death but thought his enemies had stolen his body. On the evening of that day Jesus appeared to his disciples. When they saw him they were overjoyed, but one of their number, Thomas, was not with them. When they 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 Jesus again appeared to his disciples and this time Thomas was with them. Jesus said to him, “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!” Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

When we first met Gladys she was a very sad person. She had been brought up in a Welsh chapel but had stopped attending because of problems she had experienced. She was dying of cancer and was very bitter against God. A Christian lady began visiting her. She read the Bible to Gladys and prayed with her and, after a little while, Gladys began coming to church. One Sunday evening God spoke to Gladys through Psalm 34 and she put her trust in Jesus as her saviour. I visited Gladys on the last night of her life. She was very ill. I asked her, “How are you?” She replied, “I’m fine, you know what I mean!” She was looking forward to going to be with her risen Lord in heaven because “those who die believing, die safely through his love.”

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Give us today our daily bread

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus taught his disciples important principles about daily living. He was preparing them for their future life’s work when they would be sent out into the Roman world to proclaim the good news about the forgiveness of sins through his death and resurrection. Daily life for them was going to be very difficult as they experienced persecution and great hardship. So, it was important for them to know how to cope with these challenges. The life principles Jesus taught his disciples are also important for us.

Jesus told them, “Do not worry saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you as well.” He reminded them how God provides for the birds every day, “They do not sow or reap or store away into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable that they?” He also spoke of how God clothes the ordinary flowers of the field whose beauty exceeds even the splendour of King Solomon’s fabulous wardrobe. The same God who clothes the flowers would also provide for the disciples as they learned to trust in him.

Worry and anxiety are common experiences for us all. Many of our worries centre around the daily necessities of life – having enough to eat and drink and clothes to wear. Parents bringing up their children worry about having food to feed them and money for their dinner in school. They worry about having enough money to buy the “designer” clothes their children feel they need if they are not to be made fun of by their friends, as well as the latest mobile phone.

Worry wears us out and wears us down. It takes the joy out of life. It’s made worse by the many authoritative voices that repeatedly tell us there is no God but that one day, maybe, we will discover life on some distant planet. How much better to listen to Jesus and to look at God’s beautiful creation that unmistakably tells us that He is and that He cares for us. Then we can tell Him all our worries and ask Him to help us as we pray, “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be your name. Give us today our daily bread.”

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On the third day he rose from the dead

The findings of the recent British Social Attitudes Survey on religion reveal a marked decline in religious affiliation in Britain today. For the first time, more people identify themselves as being of ‘no religion’ (53%) than those who profess an affiliation to a particular religion. Only 15% of adults in Britain now regard themselves as Anglicans, whereas in 2000 half the population identified themselves with the Church of England. The decline in living faith in Britain is in marked contrast to the situation in the majority world, where Christianity is growing strongly.

Some of those who identify themselves as being of ’no religion’ do, however, have some faith. For example, one in five of them a say they believe in life after death. This shows that, even if we opt out of formal religion, which can be less than inspiring, we cannot avoid the fundamental questions posed by our life in this world. Very few are committed atheists. Someone I know attended the funeral service of man who was an atheist. Nothing was said. The family sat at the front of the crematorium for a short time then stood by the coffin briefly before leaving. For an atheist death is the end, there is nothing to say.

Christians are followers of Jesus who died on a cross and rose from the dead on the third day. The apostles were eye-witnesses of the resurrection. Seeing the resurrected Jesus transformed them and they fearlessly proclaimed the good news about him everywhere they went. The early Christians were so committed to Jesus that they were prepared to suffer persecution for their faith in him and even to die for him. It is like that for some Christians today. For them, to live is Christ and to die is gain.

The apostle Paul wrote about the hope the resurrection of Jesus inspires, “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead. He is the first of a great harvest of all who have died. So you see, just as death came into the world through a man, now the resurrection from the dead has begun through another man. Just as everyone dies because we all belong to Adam, everyone who belongs to Christ will be given new life. But there is an order to this resurrection: Christ was raised as the first of the harvest; then all who belong to Christ will be raised when he comes back. For Christ must reign until he humbles all his enemies beneath his feet. And the last enemy to be destroyed is death.”

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I am with you always

Many people in the UK today live on their own. In 2016, there were 7.7 million one person households; 54% of whom were women and 46 % were men. Between 1996 and 2016 the number of one person households increased by 15% for those aged over 65 and by 51% for those aged 45-64. In contrast, during that period the number of one person households fell by 12% amongst those aged 25-44. Some younger people are living with their parents longer than in previous generations and others are sharing accommodation with friends. In wealthy societies increasing numbers of people are choosing to live alone. In Scandinavia, for example, nearly 50% of the adult population live alone.

Not everyone who lives on their own is lonely, but many are. Those who have experienced the pain of marriage breakdown and those who have been bereaved feel it acutely. For them, living alone, eating alone and returning to an empty house at the end of each day is something they never really get used to. Communicating with “friends” through social media may help, but is not the same as human companionship and sharing the ups and downs of daily life with someone we love. It is good to have to consider someone else’s needs as well as our own. An elderly widow who lived next door to us told us that living on her own meant she could be tempted to be very selfish.

Jesus experienced profound loneliness when he died on the cross. On the night before he died he told his disciples, who had been his close companions over the past 3 years, “The time is coming – indeed it’s here now – when you will be scattered, each one going his own way, leaving me alone. Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me.” Yet, the next day, as he suffered on the cross, he experienced total aloneness as he paid the price of our sins. Out of the darkness he cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” Later, as he prepared to die, he knew the Father’s presence again. His last words were, “Father, I entrust my spirit into your hands.”

One of the great promises Jesus made to his disciples, as he sent them out into a hostile world to proclaim the good news of the Gospel, was “I am with you always.” Knowing Jesus as Saviour and Lord means we are never alone because, through the Holy Spirit, he really is with us.