A love that changes us

When you read the Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus you are struck by the number of individuals he met and helped. He responded to people of all kinds and always had time for them. No-one was unimportant to Jesus. An encounter with Jesus was a life-changing experience. Jesus visited the house of Zacchaeus, a covetous tax collector, and that day Zacchaeus became a changed man. A woman, who had lived a very sad life, talked to Jesus at a well and, for the first time, met someone who truly loved her.

The transforming love of Jesus is still being experienced by people today. We know a young lady who has had a very sad life. She grew up in a very unhappy home and in her teens moved into a hostel where she was, humanly speaking, alone. There was no-one to love and support her. Later, she had to leave the town in which she lived to find a place of safety for herself and her children. She has been a wonderful mother but, during a time of very great stress, all her children were taken into care. She, and they, were heartbroken.

On Christmas Day last year, she went to an evening service at the church she had been attending. She was feeling very low, but that night God showed her that the story of Jesus is true and she experienced God’s love in a way she had never known before. She knew a real peace in her heart and was transformed. She was a new person. She still had to face all the problems she had before, but the love of Jesus had transformed her and given her new life. Everyone who knows her can see the change knowing Jesus has brought to her life.

When she was baptised she told her story. She said, “Since I have known Jesus as my Saviour I have found peace in my life. I still experience hard times but have learned how to deal with them. I listen to hymns and sing along with them. I read my Bible and pray to God and he gives me the strength to cope and to come through the hard times. I find strength and great encouragement in God’s promises. I know that in the future there will be other hard times but I know that because my saviour Jesus Christ is with me I will be able to face them and deal with them. I can do everything through Jesus who gives me strength.”

The love that transforms

At the World Athletics’ Championships two great athletes completed outstanding careers. Usain Bolt is the first person to hold both the 100 metres and 200 metres world records. He has won 8 Olympic gold medals and 11 World Championships. He is the only sprinter to win gold medals in both the 100 metres and 200 metres in three consecutive Olympics. Mo Farah is the most successful British track athlete in modern Olympic history, winning gold medals in both the 5,000 and 10,000 metres in the 2012 and 2016 Olympics. Between 2011 and 2017 he won 10 successive global finals. It has been a delight to watch both men run.

At this World Championships, however, Usain won a bronze medal in the 100 metres and Mo won a silver medal in the 5,000 metres. Both were disappointed and the sports’ commentators spoke as if they were “failures” when they had won world championship medals; something most athletes only dream of doing. After completing a lap of honour, Usain said, “It’s really sad, I’m saying goodbye to everything.” From now on Mo wants to be known as Mohamed. He said, “I just feel like Mo is done. I need to forget about what I achieved and what I’ve done.”

The story of South African long jumper, Luvo Manyonga, is remarkable and encouraging. He won the gold medal at the World Championships. Just 3 years ago his life was very different. Luvo grew up in poverty in Mbekweni township. His mother, a domestic cleaner, raised him on her own. Luvo was an outstanding young athlete winning the world junior championship in 2010 and the All-Africa Games’ in 2011. However, the prize money disrupted his life. He started using tik, a recreational drug commonly used in the townships, and as a result gave a positive drug test in competition. He described his drug-taking as “hooking up with the devil.” He admitted taking the drug for non-performance-enhancing reasons and was suspended from competition for 18 months. The lower sentence was based on his “exceptional social circumstances.” Luvo underwent drug rehabilitation and was greatly helped by two new coaches.

After winning the World Championship gold medal, Luvo knelt by the side of the long jump pit and gave thanks to God. When he was interviewed by Gabby Logan, he told her he was a Christian and that Jesus had changed his life. What a wonderful encouragement this is. When we fail, as we all do, we can find new life and hope through experiencing the transforming love of Jesus.

The story of the little girl in the picture

Many people, who do not recognise the name Phan Thi Kim Phuc, remember the photograph of her taken in 1972 when, as a 9-year-old little girl, she ran from her village in Vietnam after a napalm attack. Kim Phuc is now 52 years old and lives in Toronto. She is a wife and mother of 2 boys and a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations. Phuc has established a charity that helps children suffering from war. She says that the terrified little girl in the picture is “not running any more, she’s flying!”

In 1972 Phuc was living in the village of Trang Bang, north of Saigon. She and family were sheltering in a temple when they heard planes overhead. They ran outside to find safety, just as bombs detonated containing napalm, a flammable liquid that clings to skin, causing horrific burns. Phuc remembers the intense heat and excruciating pain. She pulled burning clothes from her body. Then she ran and, as she ran, Nick Ut, a 21-year-old photographer, took a photograph that became a symbol of the horrors of that war.

Phuc spent more than a year in hospital. Her family were afraid she wouldn’t survive. After many skin grafts, and other operations, she recovered from her physical injuries. Yet she could not find peace. She wanted to disappear, and even to die. She thought if she died she wouldn’t have to suffer mentally, physically and emotionally. She began seeking answers and, when she was 19 years old, she a trusted Jesus Christ as her Saviour and found new life and peace. She says, “When I became Christian, I had a wonderful connection – the relationship between me, and Jesus, and God.” Phuc asked God for help to move on and says, “From that point I learned to forgive.”

Today Phuc radiates an unmistakeable poise and peace when she tells her story. She sees that famous picture as just one of many blessings. She says, “I really want to thank God that he spared my life when I was a little girl. Whatever happened to me, I have another opportunity to be alive, to be healthy, to be a blessing and to help honour other people. I still have the pain, I still have the scars, and I still have the memories, but my heart is healed. My message to people when they see that picture today is try not to see her as crying out in pain and fear, try not to see her as a symbol of war, but try to see her as a symbol of peace.”

Peace with God

Easter is a special time for Christians all over the world as we remember the death and resurrection of our Saviour, Jesus Christ. We know that the death of Jesus, on a Roman cross, has reconciled us to God, and his resurrection, on the third day, has given us a sure hope for the future. The message of Easter speaks to our sad and troubled world as much as it ever has. Every day evil people perpetrate their wicked deeds. Personal integrity is at a low ebb in every part of society. Millions of people face a very uncertain future. We all need to experience forgiveness and to find hope for the future.

Jesus died when it seemed his popularity was at its height. Just a few days before he died, thousands of people in Jerusalem hailed him as their King. It was the culmination of his remarkable ministry. For three years he had travelled throughout Israel teaching the people, healing the sick, casting out evil spirits and raising the dead. He had transformed the lives of many people. Yet his life ended in rejection and seeming disgrace. The fickle crowd turned against him because he had not fulfilled their hopes for a military and political leader. However, his death was not a defeat but a glorious triumph.

Jesus, the eternal Son of God, came from heaven to deal with our biggest problem – our sin. On the Cross he paid the price of our sins when he suffered the punishment we deserve. Through the centuries people had offered animal sacrifices for the forgiveness of their sins. Hundreds of thousands of sacrifices had been made. Jesus came to offer one final sacrifice. On the Cross he became “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” Down through history people from every nation have found forgiveness and peace with God through Jesus.

In Jesus we can all find forgiveness for our sins, whatever we have done. When we face up to the truth that we have broken God’s laws and need his forgiveness, there is always hope. A man, who was crucified on the same day as Jesus, found forgiveness even as he was dying. He knew that he was being justly punished and was getting what his deeds deserved. He also knew that Jesus had done nothing wrong. So he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”

The God of second chances

On 11 June Vincent Uzomah, a supply science teacher at a school in Bradford, was stabbed with a kitchen knife by a 14 year old pupil. Vincent was very seriously injured and was afraid he was going to die. The boy had racially abused Vincent and had told his school friends he was going to kill him. After the attack the boy put a post on Facebook saying what he had done and 69 people said they “liked” his post. The boy has been given an 11-year sentence and Vincent may never return to a classroom.

After the trial Vincent said, “As a Christian I have forgiven this boy who has inflicted this trauma and pain on me and my family. Our prayer for him is that he will make use of the opportunities and support that will be provided to him to become a changed person who will make a positive contribution to society.” People like Vincent shine light into our dark world.

Why could Vincent speak of forgiving a young man who so obviously hates him? Hatred and revenge are the normal human responses to those who mistreat us; forgiveness is rare. Vincent is able to forgive the boy because he himself has experienced God’s forgiveness. He became a Christian when he realised his own sinfulness before a holy God and acknowledged that God could justly condemn him for all the sins he has committed. He confessed his sin to God and asked for forgiveness. He also put his trust in Jesus Christ, God’s Son, who died on the cross to pay the price of his sins. Vincent experienced the amazing love of God and found forgiveness and new life in Jesus. Every day Vincent continues to need forgiveness and prays, “Forgive us our trespasses and we forgive those who trespass against us.”

Vincent’s experience of God’s love and grace in Jesus has also taught him that God is a God of second chances and new beginnings. No matter what we have done, God is able to change us from the inside and give us a new heart. That is why Vincent and his wife are praying for the boy during his time in custody. He, too, can experience God’s forgiveness and find new life in Jesus. This offers real hope to us all in our daily struggle with our sinful hearts and ways. God’s promise in Jesus is, “I will forgive their wickedness and I will never again remember their sins.”

When the Holy Spirit comes

Christian churches around the world have just celebrated Pentecost. Six weeks after the death and resurrection of Jesus the Holy Spirit came to the early Christians who were gathered in a small room in Jerusalem. There were just 120 of them and they were living in a very hostile environment, but when the Holy Spirit came to them they received power to proclaim the good news of Jesus without fear. The Holy Spirit enabled Peter to speak to the crowd in Jerusalem in the people’s own heart- languages. The crowd came from many nations including what are now Italy, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Libya, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. On that one day 3000 people believed in Jesus and the Christian church was born.

Today nearly one third of the people of the world, 2.18 billion, profess to be Christians. The spread of the Gospel message, and the growth of the church, are the result of the work of the Holy Spirit of God. In the early centuries Christians faced severe persecution, especially from the Roman Empire, yet still many people put their faith in Jesus. Christianity has always been at its best and strongest when it has not been recognised by political powers as the “official” religion. T.S. Eliot said that when the church and the state are in conflict there is something wrong with the state, but when they get on too well there is something wrong with the church.

In the past 100 years the number of Christians in the world has grown significantly in South America, Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. Today most Christians live in the Global South and in these places the churches are dynamic. The overwhelming number of people in these countries who are becoming Christians are ordinary people. Their faith in Jesus has brought them into a new relationship with God. He gives them strength in their daily lives and a certain hope for the future..

The continuing growth in the number of Christians around the world is evidence of the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit. People from every culture and language, in mega cities and remote rural communities, are experiencing God’s love in Jesus and finding new hope in him. The Holy Spirit can transform anyone. The hymn of Daniel Iverson is a prayer that many people have prayed, “Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me, break me, melt me, mould me, fill me, Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.”

It is a thing most wonderful!

The death of Jesus Christ on a Roman cross was both a tragedy and a triumph. It was tragic that after the remarkable events of his 3 year ministry, Jesus was rejected by the religious leaders and people. Jesus had taught great crowds who came gladly to hear him. He had healed many people from all kinds of diseases and afflictions; the blind, the deaf, the dumb, cripples, lepers, and those possessed by evil spirits. He had even raised to life some who had died. But his teaching challenged those who had power and they determined to destroy him and silence him.

Yet the death of Jesus was not a defeat but a triumph. The cross was not the end of Jesus, but the glorious climax to God’s great plan of salvation for all nations. From his betrayal in the garden of Gethsemane to the moment of his death at Golgotha it is clear that Jesus was not overcome by events, but was in control. As he was arrested, falsely accused, mocked, viciously beaten and nailed to the cross there was an amazing calmness in how he behaved and spoke.

Seven hundred years before Jesus was born, the prophet Isaiah had spoken in detail of his sufferings. “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering.” Isaiah also explained the significance of Jesus’ sufferings and death. “Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”

We all struggle to come to terms with our sinfulness. We “go astray” and “turn to our own way.” Human sinfulness is the cause of all the personal and communal misery in this world. Through Jesus’ death on the cross forgiveness and new life is offered to all because “the punishment that brings us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.” As William Walsham How reflected on the cross of Jesus he wrote, “It is a thing most wonderful, almost to wonderful to be, that God’s own Son should come from heaven, and die to save a child like me.”

Lessons from the Banking Scandal

The latest banking scandal, involving Barclays Bank, has led to the resignation of its Chairman. Their Chief Executive is also under pressure to resign. The scandal involves inter-bank lending rate-fixing, something few of us fully understand. The Bank has been fined £290m and has promised a root and branch review of its flawed past practices and a zero-tolerance policy to anything that damages its reputation. Politicians and leaders in the world of finance and business have condemned what has happened. Other banks are also being investigated.

It is strange that we should expect integrity in some sections of our society at a time when there has been a general rejection of almost all foundational moral principles. The Ten Commandments are not arbitrary rules which God has laid down, but establish the essential basis for personal morality and a healthy society. In recent years every one of those commandments has been undermined. God is no longer honoured and his Name and special day are treated with disdain. Honour and respect for parents is not taught or practised. The sanctity of life and of the marriage relationship has been set aside in favour of new moral “progressive” views. So why should we be surprised that some people steal what belongs to others, tell lies and covet money and possessions?

The systematic dismantling of moral standards in our society is very serious for us all. Some seem to believe that making more laws is the answer, but clearly it is not. We have never had so many new laws. Others appeal to the innate goodness of every human being and believe that education will solve all our problems. However, those involved in the banking scandal are highly intelligent and have enjoyed the best education, but still they acted dishonestly for their own gain.

The Bible presents a much more credible explanation of the problem we all face and of its solution. From the very beginning the Bible tells us that we are all flawed. We find it easier to break God’s laws than to keep them. We are not sinners because we commit sin, but commit sin because we have a sinful nature. For this reason God sent his Son, Jesus, into the world to be the Saviour of sinful people like us. He died, not for his own sins, but for ours. Through trusting in him all of us can find the forgiveness we need and the power to live a new life.

Nicky’s Story

Last week my wife and I went to a wedding in Killarney. It was a joyful occasion as the families and friends gathered to share the day with the happy couple. On the Sunday we went to a small church in a nearby town. Towards the end of the service a man told us how he had recently become a Christian. Nicky, who is now in his 40’s, was born with a serious physical handicap. He has never been able to walk and has limited use of his hands. He has always needed a wheel chair and now has an electric wheel chair which gives him the freedom to go to get around on his own.

Nicky told us that his early life had been very difficult because he was treated badly and was never able to do the things his friends did. In order to survive these experiences he became hard and told himself that it didn’t matter what other people thought of him. His life continued to be a difficult. Inside he was hurt and angry. He had attended church from time to time, but God meant nothing to him.

A few months ago he met a Christian who spoke to him about Jesus Christ and told him that through Jesus he could be forgiven and start a new life. Nicky started thinking about what the Christian had told him but continued his old life. Then 3 weeks ago he realised he needed to know God and went to talk to the Christian. That day he prayed and received Jesus Christ as his Saviour and Lord. He said, “For the first time in my life I knew that if I died that day I would go to heaven!”

Nicky has begun a new life. He knows that there are many things that still have to change. He still needs his wheel chair and daily life is not easy, but inside he has become a new man. The anger has gone. He knows real joy and peace because he has experienced God’s love for him in Jesus. He reads the Bible every day and is learning more about God. He knows that his future is certain. One day he will see God in heaven and will live forever in his presence. Then he will have a new body and an overwhelming sense of God’s love for him.