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Bishop Richard's Weekly Video Message - Transcript 7/1/2021

Hello everyone and welcome to the first video of 2021. I wish all of you a happy, healthy and peaceful New Year. However, it does seem like new year, new lockdown. Many of you will be exhausted and thoroughly fed up with the whole thing by now. You may even be questioning whether you have the emotional and psychological resources to deal with another few weeks of restrictions. Fortunately, the New Testament is full of helpful teaching to address these states of mind. The recipients of these letters knew what is was like to experience relentless pressure year after year. As a result of their new-found faith in Jesus they would have known exclusion from their families, economic hardship, imprisonment and even death. Our brothers and sisters in many countries continue to experience that every day. Taken out of context and put on a soft-focus posters this encouragement can seem a bit glib. But these letters were not written to people who experienced mild disappointment that the church fete had been rained off. These were people who had seen their relatives torn to pieces in the arena for public entertainment. This was a spirituality tried and tested in the fire of persecution.

We find Paul at the start of his first letter to the Thessalonians thanking God for them and commending them for three great spiritual virtues that pop up in a number of his letters: faith, hope and love. In every case, they produce just the sort of faithful endurance that we need at a time like this. John Calvin, the great reformer, described them as ‘a brief definition of true Christianity’. It was the quality of endurance that commended Paul to his churches. He always led them through example and invitation, never coercion and control. This capacity for endurance is a fruit of discipleship. At a time like this, it’s important that we model not just doing different things, but doing things differently.

I Thessalonians 1: 3 talks about the work of faith, the labour of love and the endurance of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. Now these things, work, labour and endurance should be generated by our relationship with Jesus Christ but they can be generated in other ways too.

You could envisage work generated by stubborn, cussed, independent single-mindedness. Labour could be generated, not by love, but by manipulative charm. Actions that appear to be loving could be driven to elicit a response from others to meet our emotional needs, or as cynical attempts to get others to do what we want. Endurance could be mere stoicism, or the blind optimism that 2021 couldn’t be any worse that 2020! We can just keep going for a little bit longer until the vaccine sorts everything out.

But that wasn’t the Thessalonians way they had demonstrated in their coping with adversity. Their work of faith was a looking back to all that Christ had done for them. They saw their place in the great unfolding story of God’s love. They had experienced the transforming power of the Gospel and most especially the Holy Spirit living within them. In the same way that Jesus did the remarkable things he did in the Spirit’s power, so they had seen extraordinary resources released into their lives to do what they thought couldn’t be done. They didn’t see the things they did as badges of honour to gain spiritual brownie points, or earn their way into heaven. Their actions in the moment were response of gratitude to the grace that they had received.

Their labour of love was a manifestation of that, but directed outward. This was not a love that was mere sentimentality. It was the same self-giving love demonstrated by Jesus. Their labour above and beyond was a living out of the reality of their faith, loving and serving even those who meant them harm.

There was popular song back in the 80’s, ‘Things can only get better’. It became an anthem for New Labour’s first election campaign under Tony Blair. The bands keyboard player was Brian Cox, now a well know science professor and TV presenter. It had a very catchy chorus which seemed to inspire people. Christian hope is much more than that. It’s a hope that endures, even if circumstances don’t get better. Its hope based on a confidence that God has come into the world in a new way in Jesus Christ, a confidence that trusts God is therefore working his purposes out through the unfolding of history. Its not ‘things can only get better’ (even though we’ve read the end of the story and it really does end very well), its that there is a redemptive possibility in every moment, good and bad. As the psalmist said in Psalm 84:6, Blessed are those whose strength is in you, whose heart is set on pilgrimage. As they pass through the Valley of Baka, they make it a place of springs.

I’m sure we are all praying that this thing will be over soon, and that the vaccine will roll out successfully and allow some of the restrictions to be lifted. We’ll be grappling with the wisdom or otherwise of continuing to meet in person for worship, given the increased risks. But as we (hopefully) approach the end of the tunnel, I’ll be praying for deeper faith, more steadfast love and more patient endurance fuelled by true, Christian hope, both in myself and for all of us.

May God bless you with the felt reality of his presence in the challenging days ahead.

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