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.

Transforming hearts and minds

The destruction of Metrojet Flight KGL9268 on 31 October over the northern Sinai desert seems to have been caused by an explosive device on board. The plane was carrying Russian holidaymakers returning from Sharm el-Sheikh and had reached its cruising altitude of 32000 feet when, suddenly, it disappeared from the radar. The 217 passengers and 7 crew were killed. They didn’t know the person who planted the bomb and the bomber didn’t know them. The reason they were targeted seems to be that they came from Russia. Tragically, and without warning, many families have lost loved ones and have been plunged into mourning.

Sadly, terrorism is now an established part of life in our world. The activities of the terrorists touch the lives of us all. They have a cause for which they are fighting and to which they are passionately committed. They are ready to brutalise and kill other people and, in some cases, to die themselves through suicide bombs. Security and intelligence services use highly sophisticated technology to try to track and foil terrorist plots but no one has an answer to the problem. It seems to be impossible to change the hearts and minds of terrorists so that they abandon their hateful and destructive purposes. Increasing numbers of young people are being radicalised.

Jesus had 12 disciples who spent 3 years with him. One of them was Simon the Zealot. Before he became a disciple of Jesus, Simon belonged to a radical Jewish sect known as the Zealots who were committed to opposing the Roman occupation of their country. They incited the people to rebel against Roman authority and were ready to kill to further their cause. They even killed their own people who collaborated with the Romans. Matthew was also a disciple of Jesus. Before he met Jesus, Matthew collaborated with the Romans by collecting their taxes from his own people. Simon hated men like Matthew. Yet, amazingly, Simon and Matthew were both transformed by their relationship with Jesus and became friends.

A friend of mine, Michael, grew up in the Republic of Ireland and, as a young man, became involved with terrorists. One day he was making a bomb when it exploded and he lost both his hands. Later he met some Christians and heard the good news of Jesus. He became a disciple of Jesus and a preacher of the Gospel. Michael is an example of the power of Jesus to change hearts and minds today, as no one else can.

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.”

The transforming power of God’s love

I am visiting Papua in Indonesia. Papua is the Western part of a large island north of Australia. It is an amazingly complex society. The people of Papua, who number two and a half million, speak 250 different languages. Many of the people live in remote areas amongst the mountains and valleys of this very beautiful country. In the 1950s Christian missionaries first brought the good news of Jesus to the tribal peoples of Papua. They lived amongst the people, built relationships with them and learned their languages.

The missionaries faced many challenges and dangers. In 1968 two missionaries, Stan Dale and Phil Masters, were killed by warriors from the Yali tribe. Despite this tragedy others continued the work and many of the Yali people experienced God’s love and forgiveness in Jesus. Their lives, and the life of the tribe, was transformed.

One of the first Yali men to come to faith in Jesus was Dongla Kobak. His father, Andeng, was the cult priest of the tribe and Dongla had been expected to succeed him. But Dongla’s life was decisively changed when he became a Christian and he became a leader in the church. He could not read but he learned the Bible stories the missionaries taught the people and then he taught his children those stories.

One of his sons, Otto, came to know Jesus as his Saviour and Lord and worked amongst the young people in the churches. In 1988 he joined the team translating the Bible into the Yali language. He dedicated the next 12 years of his life to this work so that the all the Yali people would be able to hear and read the Word of God in their own heart language. The complete Bible in Yali was published in 2000. Earlier this year, at the age of 50, Otto died of TB.

Otto’s experience of God’s love for him in Jesus transformed his life. Like the Apostle Paul he could say, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Otto’s whole life was committed to sharing the good news of Jesus with others and he died secure in the knowledge that Jesus is the resurrection and the life. Now he is in heaven, in the presence of God, and is experiencing his love more deeply than ever before.

A very special visit

Last Thursday we had a very special visit to our local primary school. The two day NATO summit at the Celtic Manor in Newport was the largest gathering of international leaders ever to take place in Britain. On the first day of the summit President Barak Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron visited Mount Pleasant Primary School.

The US Presidential Cavalcade of more than 20 vehicles swept at speed into our community, flanked by police motor cycle outriders. Many police men and women were on duty, some of them armed. Some of the children met the most powerful man in the world, who sat on a small chair and talked with them for a few minutes, and saw the pictures they had drawn. Then after 20 minutes the President and his cavalcade swept out and life in our community returned to normal. It was a day the children and their parents and teachers will never forget.

This special visit made me think of another very special visit a long time ago. In his account of the life of Jesus John writes, “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighbourhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes. The one-of-a kind glory; like Father, like Son. Generous inside and out, true from start to finish.” The Bible tells us that Jesus, who had always been in heaven with his Father, came into our world and became a real man. He was the best man who ever lived. For most of his short life he lived in Nazareth with his parents and brothers and sisters and shared in the life of the community. Then, at the age of 33, he was falsely accused and condemned to die on a cross. On the third day he rose from the dead.

The visit of Jesus, the eternal Son of God, to our world decisively changed things. They will never be the same again. His death in our place, and for our sins, has brought life transforming grace to millions of people from every nation in the world. He came from heaven to give us eternal life. He came that we might experience his love now and then, when we die; go to be with him forever in heaven. In one of his hymns William Walsham How wrote, “It is a thing most wonderful, almost too wonderful to be, that God’s own Son should come from heaven, and die to save a child like me.”

On the road to Damascus

After more than 3 years the civil war in Syria between government forces and the rebels continues. More than 100,000 people have been killed and 2.5 million men, women and children, have become refugees in neighbouring countries. Within Syria itself 4 million people have had to move from their homes and are now displaced. Heavy bombing has devastated the cities of Aleppo and Homs, killing and injuring thousands of people. Large parts of these, and other, cities have been virtually destroyed. There seems no prospect of an end to the conflict and the terrible suffering of the Syrian people.

Is it possible for people whose hearts are filled with hatred to be changed? Yes it is. The conversion of the apostle Paul is a great example. He was on the road to Damascus, in Syria, when he had a life changing encounter with Jesus. Paul was extremely zealous for his Jewish faith and lived according to very strict religious laws. He hated Jesus and violently persecuted Christians. He wanted to destroy the church.

He was travelling to Damascus to find followers of Jesus, both men and women, and take them back to Jerusalem as prisoners. On the Damascus Road he met the living Lord. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. Saul lost his sight and had to be led by the hand into Damascus. After 3 days the Lord sent a Christian named Ananias to visit Saul. He placed his hands on Saul and he recovered his sight, was baptised, and began proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy. Saul was a changed man and, despite great suffering, preached the good news about Jesus throughout the Roman Empire for the rest of his life.

The good news about Jesus is a life transforming message. Those who receive Jesus as their Saviour are forgiven and begin a new life. An inner, heart change takes place. Paul wrote, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” When this happens in places of conflict today, those who become Christians often find their lives are in danger from their old friends, who consider them traitors. Yet they continue faithfully to follow Jesus, whatever the cost, because he “loved them and gave himself for them” and taught them to “love their enemies.”