Monday, April 30, 2007

What are ewe looking at?

What are ewe looking at?
Originally uploaded by Gary McMurray.

Apologies for the groan-inducing title of the photo and blog posting! It's one of the photos from my tour of the Mournes today. The weather was brilliant, and so I travelled from Dromore to Gransha to the Windy Gap to Legananny Dolmen to Leitrim to Castlewellan to Maghera old church and round tower to Newcastle. Having walked along the promenade and back up the main street, I then drove on round the coast a bit to the Bloody Bridge then up to the Silent Valley and Spelga Dam. From there it was back by Hilltown, Rathfriland and to Banbridge for a wander round the town centre and the Outlet at Bridgewater Park.

Check out the other 60 or so photographs from today which are online! Head over to my Flickr account by clicking on the photo.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Happy birthday to me!

26 today. Hurray! And I escaped without any ill-treatment from my colleagues!

Ebenezer. 'Till now the Lord has helped us.' (1 Samuel 7:12)

Mister Noah Strikes Again!

Mr Noah has again built an ark! Primrose gave me the link to this story on the BBC News website of the Dutchman who has built a half-size replica of the ark! Fantastic!

Mr Noah built an ark, the people thought it such a lark. Mr Noah pleaded so, but into the ark they would not go. Down came the rain in torrents. (Splish splash) Down came the rain in torrents. (Splish Splash) Down came the rain in torrents, and only eight were saved.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

I KilKenny-ed!

Term has finished; all the classes are over; just the exams to go. To celebrate the end of the year, we have a college community weekend, where the families join us for a weekend of fun and fellowship.

That being so, and me having no classes on a Friday, I had all of yesterday free. So off I set for Kilkenny! I'll be in the city a lot next week, for both General Synod and also for a wedding, and I wanted to see how long it would take to get there in the car, and also to find where the various things I'll need are situated.

Having spent almost two hours driving to get there, I then realised I would need to get accommodation for the Synod days as I don't fancy driving down and up each day. So it was into the very helpful tourist office, and they fixed me up with a room for the two nights of Synod. Much better than driving for four hours each day!

I had a wander about the city centre, marvelling at the very narrow streets, and the abundance of book shops! I was very sad to discover, though, that once again, I had forgotten my camera. So the nice view of the Castle from the bridge (with the Castle reflected in the water) or the quaint streets could not be photographed. Well, on this visit anyway.

I travelled down via the M7/N9 route, and decided I fancied a change on the way back. On reaching Carlow, it was off cross-country to link up with the N81, coming back via Blessington. Forget the six counties challenge in Northern Ireland, I reckon I was in more than that yesterday!

I'm now looking forward to my return to the city, and hopefully some more exploring further south in the near future (as I've never been so far south in Ireland before!)

Friday, April 27, 2007

Jean's 80th

I know granny won't ever read this, but sure... congratulations and best wishes are due to her on reaching her 80th birthday today!

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Smiles are here to stay :)

Just a very quick update - in the prayer letter I talked about my summer plans, if everything got sorted. I got an email yesterday afternoon to say that I have been accepted onto the Smiles mission team! Hurray! Romania here I come!

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Downes in the dumps

I'm not long back into my room from the Downes Oratory Prize. Each year, a prize is offered to one person in each year group on the basis of public speaking on a topic of spiritual and moral interest. Last year, the format was a preaching competition - ten minutes to prepare a sermon from a text chosen from a selection suggested by the panel, then eight minutes to preach the message.

This year, the Downes Prize took the form of a Debate. Or rather, three debates. Our year was the least represented, with just Stephen and myself volunteering. And so it came to pass that I was debating for, and Stephen against: 'This house believes that the McDonaldisation of the world is destroying God's creation.'

Interestingly, I carried the motion, but Stephen carried the prize! But he was indeed masterful, with an angle on the debate that I could not have anticipated, and was unable to attack! So well done Stephen on your Downes triumph - it'll be something to put in your entry in the Church of Ireland Directory in years to come!

Jude the blogger?

Sometimes when I sit down to write a blog posting, I'm not quite sure where it's going to end up. You already realise this, though, as you have seen by now the random twists and turns of my mind when free to write blog postings! Or maybe I start off aiming to write about one thing, but then something else comes up, or a turn of phrase leads me to think about something else.

I've been heartened to see that it doesn't only happen to me. Check out verse 3 of Jude's Epistle:

Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.

Jude intended to write about one thing, but when he sat there with the pen and paper, he had the sense that he was instead to write about something else. And so, we end up with the epistle of Jude - inspired by the Spirit who prompted Jude to write what he did.

In some senses, the epistle is quite fearful - dwelling as much as he does on judgement and on God's wrath against those who disobey. Yet these warnings are to encourage his readers (both those first readers and also us today) to contend for the faith, to stand firm, to be built up and strengthened.

And what a great doxology of praise at the end of his epistle! Throughout the short letter he has encouraged them to keep on the right path and keep on keeping on for God. And there in verse 24, he identifies our God as:

'Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Saviour, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and for ever. Amen'

Latest Prayer Letter - in the post box and email inboxes now!

Greetings from Dublin! As I write this letter in my room in Dublin, the blossom on the trees has come and gone, and we’ve already enjoyed a blast of summer sunshine. These signs can only mean one thing – exams are on the way! We’re now into the last week of teaching before the exam period begins on 21st May.

Things have been busy since I last was in contact. All the essays have been written and handed in. I’ve continued to be involved in preaching, especially in Magheralin. I’ve passed on the leadership of College Fellowship, and I’ve become the new Senior Student in the college.

As we look forward, things will continue to be busy. My colleagues in Third Year will leave us to be ordained to their Curacies. A new group of students will join us in September. I’m also making arrangements for my summer placement – hopefully in Romania with CMS Ireland and the Smiles Foundation, if all works out, as well as preaching engagements in Annalong and the other Dromore in County Tyrone.

I’ve been enjoying this year at College, with the greater opportunities for preaching. It’s also been a good year both getting to know friends better, as well as making new ones in this place. Yet it’s still hard being apart from Lynsey for long periods of time, especially as the exams approach.

I hope that you will continue to pray for me. To help you in knowing what to pray for, please use the following prayer points:

- For us as we prepare for exams – that we will do our best!

- For the Third Years as they prepare for ordination – Adrian, Alan, Barry, Brian, Clare, Ian, James, Rob, Stanley, and the NSM transfers Edith and Irene.

- For my summer plans, both overseas and at home

- For Lynsey and me as we prepare for our marriage next summer, and that we will cope with long periods of separation

- For the new students preparing to come to college in the autumn

- That I would continue to labour in the Word – it can sometimes be hard do theology all day, and to keep up vital personal devotions

- For friends getting married this summer – Primrose & Dan, Lorna & Colin, Bryan & Louise, Stanley & Sarah, Steve & Clotilde

As I’ve been writing, I’ve been thinking of Paul’s word to the Philippians – ‘I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.’ (Phil 1:6) Or to put it another way – God isn’t finished with us yet!

Thank you again for all your prayers and support – it means so much to me to know that so many people are holding me before the Lord. Be assured that I am praying for you as well.

God bless,


If you would like to receive a copy of the latest prayer letters (currently three or four times per year) direct to your email inbox, or a hard copy in the post, leave a comment, or email me.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Second year coming to an end

It's hard to imagine, but this is the last week of term in my second year at college. With only 10 more teaching hours to go, we should have most of the information and inspiration for the exams - which start in four weeks time. AAAAGGGHHHH!!!

After this week, we have three weeks of 'study leave', which is free to be spent wherever we decide, and then a week and a half of exams. So by 1st June I'll be free for the summer, and also will be a final year student (almost!)

I'll probably be in Dublin quite a bit of the three study weeks - I know if I were to be at home I would get no work done at all... instead going out for random drives and stuff. That's not to say it won't happen in Dublin too, but there's less chance of it.

In the middle week we also have the excitement of the Church of Ireland General Synod, this year being held in Kilkenny. I'll be there, representing the good folk of Dromore Diocese. Then on the Saturday following, I'll be back in Kilkenny for the Leahy - Avila wedding. Can't wait!

So now I need to get a prayer letter written - it's been a while since I managed to get one out, hopefully before Late Prise in the Chapel... and a few other matters to attend to. Like revision. Maybe!

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Preaching without the Word

This morning I must confess I only woke at 11am, despite several alarms going off at earlier times. Somehow I made it into the shower, got dressed and all, and was in the Cathedral for about 11.23am. I'm glad I made it.

We had John Doherty from the Bible Society Northern Ireland speaking at the service. I've bumped into John several times before, but always at bigger mission agency events in college, where the emphasis seems to be on the social aspect of getting to know ordinands and missioners alike. This morning, he shared some news from their ongoing projects - stories from China, Albania, the Lebanon, Gaza, and another republic that I can't remember the name of (it's 400 miles east of Moscow, with 2 million people and an old lady heads the translation team).

However, the news that caused me the greatest shock and wonderment was from Uganda. He was telling us about a mission hospital that runs a pastor's conference, with pastors coming from 70 miles round about to get there for it. Amazingly, many pastors don't possess a copy of the Scriptures from which to preach about Jesus.

Imagine how difficult that must be! My own preaching seeks to stick fairly closely to the text, wrestling with it to see what it is saying. How much would I struggle if I didn't have a text to start with? Where would you start to tell others about Jesus without having a Bible to read and check your message against? We in the English-speaking world are so blessed to have multiple versions of the Bible (KJV, NKJV, NIV, TNIV, RSV, NRSV, Jersualem, GNB, ESV and so many more - check out some time!), not to mention commentaries, concordances, online study tools, and other Christian books.

What can we do to remedy the situation? The Bible Societies in Ireland are celebrating their bicentenary this year - two hundred years of Bible mission here and abroad. The original Bible Society was begun by Charles Simeon, and other men like him who knew the power of the Scriptures, and the necessity of reading it in an understandable language. [I've just finished reading a biography of Charles Simeon, a man of God in Cambridge who saw great revival and a change in the university culture and climate due to his faithful (and often persecuted) preaching of the Word.]

How can we ensure that our brothers and sisters across the world can read the Bible in their own language? Visit the Bible Society website for more news and ways to get involved for a start.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Sir Edward Carson forgotten in modern Dublin?

Stormont and Carson
Originally uploaded by Gary McMurray.

On our way into Dublin each day on the Luas, we pass the birthplace and childhood home of Lord Carson - formerly Sir Edward Carson. Carson was the leader of Irish Unionism, and then Ulster Unionism during the Home Rule crisis of 1912-14. He was also a leading barrister, involved in the famous trial of Oscar Wilde.

Up until recently, there was a Dublin Tourism plaque on the house in Harcourt Street (just off St Stephen's Green). But now it has gone. I wonder why... Let's hope it is returned to its place soon, and that an important Dubliner can be remembered in his own home!

Friday, April 20, 2007

CITC v Union College: Full press coverage

Above we have a couple of photographs from the CITC v Union College football match on Wednesday. Some more are available here. Below, we hopefully have a video clip from the game. I even managed to get the fourth Union goal on the video - right at the end of the clip. Despite Barry Forde's valiant efforts to keep them out, Union manage to score on the third attempt.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Was it a martyrdom?

Just a very quick posting, as I'm leading chapel in the morning so need to be up early! For all you football fans eagerly waiting for the result, here it is:

Church of Ireland Theological College 1 - 8 Union College.

Given that it was just 2-0 at half time, the Union team played really well in the second half, taking most of their chances. I managed to get the fourth goal on video (I think - I haven't watched it back yet) and will duly post it on Youtube. Also, some pictures will be up over the weekend on Flickr - I can't upload them on our wireless network.

CITC v Union College: Match Preview

Yes folks, the day of the biggest football match of the year has arrived. Forget last Saturday's game when Linfield (sadly) claimed the Irish League at the Oval against Glentoran. Forget the FA Cup Final when Man United are going to win it again.

This afternoon, the big game is the Church of Ireland Theological College v Union College. The Anglicans against the Presbyterians. Who will win?

The match kicks off at 2.30pm at UCD Bellfield (Clonskeagh entrance). A full report and some photos will follow in due course.

I've decided not to play... as I'm not fit enough, but I'll hopefully be there to cheer on our boys (and girls).

Come on CITC!!!

Monday, April 16, 2007

Picking up the baton...

In one of my recent posts, I wrote of passing on the baton, as responsibilities are relinquished and passed on to others. So College Fellowship is now in the capable hands of Rob and Ali. Tonight I've taken up new responsibilities myself, as I was elected Senior Student in the College. It's a kind of 'Head Boy' type post... So far, what I know is that the duties include security (locking up at night), representing the student body, and chairing House Meetings. Well, here goes...

Transformation on the Road to Emmaus: A Sermon Preached in Magheralin Parish Church on 15th April 2007. Luke 24:13-35

Have you ever been disappointed with God? You thought things would all be great when you started out with Jesus. But then bad things happen. You have that meeting with the doctor as he gives you bad news. Or as you stand at the graveside of your loved one. Or perhaps other people seem to be getting on so much better than yourself. You’re disappointed with God. Annoyed that He doesn’t seem to be as close as you wish.

And yet, things can get worse as you dwell on your disappointment. It affects all that you do and think. It can also lead to disbelief. After all, if God has promised to be with us, then where is he? Why do we face these hard times? Is he not able to keep his promises, or does he not care?

The two followers of Jesus we find in our reading are disappointed. Watch them trudge along the road, gloomily talking to each other. It is the afternoon of that first Easter Day, and they’re on their way back to Emmaus. The journey is seven miles or so – a good walk that will take them a couple of hours. Roughly the distance of Magheralin to … (Portadown?) Plenty of time to think and talk.

But notice – even though it’s that first Easter Day, the day of Jesus’ resurrection, they don’t seem to have the joy of knowing that Jesus is alive as they journey. Instead, they are disappointed and disbelieving.

They’re disappointed with the way things have happened over the past week. You can see it in their body language and in what they say as they encounter the stranger on the road. Look at verse 17. ‘They stood still, their faces downcast.’ Their hearts ache, and their faces show their pain and sorrow as the stranger asks what they’re talking about.

And in their sorrow, there’s also room for some surprise. How can the stranger not know about what had happened? As Cleopas says to him, ‘Are you only a visitor to Jerusalem and do not know the things that have happened there in these days?’ (18). The force of his question is even stronger in the ESV. ‘Are you the only visitor … who does not know?’ The things that had been so important to them seemed to have passed others by. As the stranger asks what things, hear the disappointment in their voice, as the story of Jesus is told.

“He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.”

They had followed this Jesus, the teacher, the prophet. He had shown his power in both his teaching, and in his miracles. They were convinced that the kingdom of God was here. The Christ had come. And then it all seemed to go wrong. The religious leaders had decided he should die. They crucified him. And hear the disappointment coming out in this sentence – ‘but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.’

All their hopes had been pinned on this Jesus. Their hope had seemed to be well placed, because of the powerful ministry of Jesus. But then he had died on the cross. It had all gone wrong. So much for the redemption of Israel. We had hoped. But not now.

Are there things that we hope for, but circumstances (or God’s purposes) turn out to be very different? You started out on a relationship, with big plans for the future. It seemed to be the right thing. Then it all went wrong. We had hoped…

But notice, that as well as the tremendous disappointment these two are facing, they are also caught in the trap of disbelief. On that day of resurrection, they were stuck in the depths of despair. In verse 22, they tell the stranger about the experience of the disciples that day. “In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning, but didn’t find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women said, but him they did not see.” (22-24).

Into the middle of the sadness came the reports of the women who had visited the tomb and seen the angels, and of the other companions who had went to the tomb to check it out. Confusion reigns. But has their disappointment lifted? No, rather, they move from disappointment further down, to disbelief. Rather than staying to check out what they’ve heard from the others, or waiting to think about what they’ve heard and what it might mean; they have begun their long journey home. Perhaps this was even part of their disappointment – that other people seemed to be getting on much better, or other people had had these experiences of angels. They had none of that. They only had their disappointment, and then their disbelief – finding it hard to believe what their friends had said.

Could it be, though, that in not believing their friends, they were ultimately not believing God and his word? We’ll see in a minute or two.

So the two people travel along the road, speaking with the stranger. Verse 16 tells us they were kept from recognising him. Yet we know who this stranger is – none other than the Risen Jesus himself. Why does he not reveal himself straight away – stopping them immediately and telling them that they’ve no reason to be sad or confused, because he is alive?

Well, had that happened, they would have been encouraged, no doubt about that. But would they have grown in the way that they could, by going through the learning curve?

Notice that the Risen Christ is journeying with them – even though they don’t realise it, he is with them in their pain and sadness and confusion. At times we also seem to forget that Jesus is with us, especially at those times when he seems farthest away.

Notice next, that the Risen Christ teaches them from God’s word. They were ultimately disappointed and disbelieving because they had failed to understand God’s purpose in the world and failed to understand God’s word.

Hear the rebuke he had for them: ‘How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?’ (25-26).

They had been disappointed because they had though Jesus was going to redeem Israel. Then it seemed to have gone wrong with his death on the cross. But according to Jesus, it was in this death and resurrection that he did indeed redeem Israel, and all God’s people. Far from the cross being a tragic accident, rather, it was the means of accomplishing the rescue mission, according to God’s plan revealed in Scripture.

As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians (and as we echo him in the words of the Nicene Creed), ‘For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.’ (1 Cor 15:3-4). Far from being purposeless, the cross had been written and spoken about before it had ever happened.

Jesus then launches into what I imagine was the ultimate Bible study. ‘And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.’ (27) Jesus explaining his life and death and resurrection from the Hebrew Scriptures.

No wonder the disciples felt their hearts burn within them! (32). Jesus was opening up the Scriptures to them, helping them to understand what they were ultimately all about.

Do we encounter the same thrilling experience of encountering God in his word? As we read and hear the Bible read and explained, do we feel that burning? The words we hear and speak are not lifeless words – they’re not just interesting accounts of ancient life. These are the very words of God – the words of life and salvation. Living and active, and powerful words.

The travellers arrived at Emmaus, and the stranger seemed to be going on, yet he was persuaded to stay with the two. It was getting late, and he shouldn’t be travelling. Much better to stay with them for the evening. And as they came to the table, it was the stranger who took the bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them.

Was this unusual, for the guest to serve the meal? Perhaps. Yet in the unusual act, there was also something very familiar about it. Those actions – the taking, thanking, breaking and giving are the same as in the feeding of the 5000 (Luke 9:16 – ‘Taking the five loaves of bread and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke them. Then he gave them to the disciples to set before the people.’) and in the Last Supper (Luke 22:19 – ‘And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”’). Or was it as they saw the nail prints in his hands – those ‘wounds of love yet visible above in beauty glorified’?

Either way, they instantly recognised Jesus, and knew that he was alive! In that moment of recognition, he disappeared from their sight, yet they weren’t sad at their loss. Rather, through their encounter with the Risen Lord – through his word spoken, and through his presence with them, and ultimately, through remembering his sacrifice and recognising him in the breaking of the bread – they were changed and transformed!

Gone was the disappointment of Good Friday. Gone was the disbelief of their friends and of God. Gone, even was their tiredness. Now, these disciples are transformed. How can we see that?

Well, remember how they had trudged along the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus, feeling every step of the 7 miles? Now, despite the lateness of the hour, they set out back to the city. Their sadness has been transformed into joy. They must tell others about it!

So off they go, back to Jerusalem. There they find the Eleven and the others with them. There they find the transforming power of the risen Christ in the Eleven too. Notice that verse 34 is the testimony of the disciples who had stayed in Jerusalem: “It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.” They too had encountered Jesus, and had been changed.

The it is the turn of the two from Emmaus to tell their story, ‘and how Jesus was recognised by them when he broke the bread.’ (35). Together, the disciples share in the joy of the risen Lord. Nothing will be the same again.

Are there situations in which you are disappointed at how things are going? You feel that all hope is gone. Nothing can change. Your faith in God is being stretched to the limit. You think God is far away and is not interested. Take heart tonight from the experience of those disciples on the road to Emmaus.

Jesus was not far from them. He was journeying with them in their sadness. He was with them in their pain. But more than that, Jesus brought God’s word to clarify and explain; to encourage and show God’s purposes. And then, they came to recognise Jesus with them. They were transformed through their encounter with the Risen Christ.

Jesus is with you, too, in your pain. His power is sufficient for you. And as we break bread tonight, we remember his death on the cross, and his mighty resurrection – defeating sin and death, and giving us life and hope. Jesus is with us. Will you be transformed by his presence in your life?

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Passing on the baton

As you may have worked out, over the past year Clare and myself have been organising College Fellowship. College Fellowship (along with the Dearmer Society and the Marsh Society) are student-run bodies in the college. For the past couple of years, only the Fellowship has been meeting regularly. But anyway, we're coming to the end of our year in charge.

With a gap in the meetings with visiting speakers (with one more to come later in the month), we decided to have a prayer and praise night last Tuesday. One of the things we did was to pray for the new organisers - Robert and Alison. It was a special night - all immersed in prayer, as those who are remaining behind prayed for our colleagues about to get ordained and move to their new parishes; and as the leavers prayed for those left behind.

It has been thinking about the meeting since that something has struck me. As we prayed for one another, we were able to identify positive things in the people to thank God for, and to pray that they would continue in the way. As people prayed for me, it was really encouraging to hear how my colleagues viewed me... things which may not be said to your face seem to be easier said with eyes closed to God (in your hearing).

I know this is probably the case - it's our way of not wanting to give our colleagues a big head or to promote pride in them. Yet are we somehow preventing growth because we don't encourage as often as we could or should? When was the last time I thanked someone for a service led in chapel, or gave them a word of encouragement as we met in the corridors?

Derick Bingham wrote a book on Encouragement, and the original title was 'Don't leave it til he's dead.' He's getting at the notion that the only time we say good things about people are when they're lying in a box and unable to hear them.

A reading I did during the meeting also seems to build on this idea - or rather, was probably the ground of my thinking. 'And let us consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another - and all the more as you see the Day approaching.' (Hebrews 10:24-25)

The baton has been passed. The new leadership take over as they plan for the new year of meetings. Can I ensure that I'll be encouraging for the new leaders, and also for the new members in the coming year?

Friday, April 13, 2007

Isn't it ironic?

I came across this cartoon from AsboJesus. Some very funny ones on offer there, and hopefully more to come!

Mystery plant

Mystery plant
Originally uploaded by Gary McMurray.

Have you any ideas what this plant is? We saw it growing on the edge of the lake in Hillsborough Forest Park last Sunday. Come on you green-fingered readers!

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Encountering the miraculous

On Sunday morning as we returned to Dromara from the Easter services, there was a discussion on Radio Ulster's Sunday Sequence. The question was whether miracles ever happened, and if they can still happen today. The reason I'm writing about it is because as I was thinking about it earlier, several threads came together in my brain.

The first was a discussion of Bultmann's hermeneutics in class today. Bultmann's approach to the Bible (greatly paraphrased, and maybe not strictly accurate), seems to me that he thought the truth contained within was lost within a mass of culturally-bound details. The message had to be reinterpreted for the modern generation, with all references to supernatural, or to the pre-modern worldview. So things like demon possession, angels and such like all had to go. So too, did miracles. They weren't compatible with modern life at all, according to Bultmann.

The second thread was a discussion I had with a few friends the other week. We were talking about driving and such like, when we came on to near misses. I'm not going to name names, but each of us had stories of times when, naturally speaking, we should have been gonners. Scary situations, yet our lives were preserved. God is obviously not finished with us yet. So for our tiny miracles, when humanly speaking, disaster should have happened, but God intervened in his mercy, we gave thanks and praised his glorious name!

Did miracles occur in Jesus' day? Yes, I absolutely affirm it. God showed his power to announce the kingdom, and to authenticate the message of his apostles. Do miracles happen now? Yes, in small, and sometimes even big ways, miracles happen. Should we always expect them? Maybe not - if we're out for the big miraculous thing all the time, our faith can fail - if we're looking for things that God has not promised. But God does break in on our world, and show his power in supernatural, amazing ways. I know it, or I wouldn't be sitting here right now, in Dublin, typing this blog posting!

Monday, April 09, 2007

Easter holidays over

Well, we only had two days of holidays - Good Friday and today, Easter Monday, but it's drawing to a close, and it's almost time for me to head back south again. Over the long weekend we had a surprise party for mum, who has retired due to a 'special' birthday. Never have I seen mum without words before! It was an ok night, with a band playing from Belfast.

We've also had the Easter celebrations, and then today we went on a mystery tour for the family... ended up having lunch in Larne then back by Carrickfergus.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Easter Observances

Today is, of course, Easter Sunday, the day when we especially recall the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Although, we rightly remember Jesus' resurrection every Sunday - hence why it is known as the Lord's Day. Anyway, this morning I began a new way of observing Easter - although others have been doing it for a long time.

No, not stuffing myself with chocolate - that will probably come later! No, shortly after dawn this morning, I joined my brothers and sisters from the churches in Dromore on top of Dromore Mound (Motte and Bailey). The service began at 7am, in the faint light, and as we sang of the resurrection, the sunlight became brighter! We sang three hymns, prayed together, and heard a Bible reading (Luke 24) and a short sermon. Rather special, something I'm glad I did.

The service was hosted by Banbridge Road Presbyterian Church, so we went back to the Bann Road halls afterwards for breakfast - bacon butties all round! I reckon there were at least 100 people at it in total.

Then, in a move from the informal and outdoor service, we went to the 'early' Communion service in the Cathedral. The service was Communion 1, so it was conducted in the language of 1662. Because the Communion services in College are mostly in contemporary language, it was nice to be back to the old familiar words (well, the ones that I got right anyways - I made a few mistakes!), and the intimate service in the Chancel of the Cathedral.

For my third Easter morning service, it was back to the Cathedral again, where we had the joint Easter Celebration - as the 10am and 11.30am congregations combined for the service. The choir did the anthem 'Blessed be the God and Father' by SS Wesley, which is made up of words from 1 Peter 1. I then assisted with the Chalice at Communion.

And so ends a busy Easter morning. Now I'm just waiting on the big turkey dinner! (No lamb in our house). Sadly, though, Lyns has returned to Scotland again this afternoon, as her Easter holidays have ended. :(

The Lord is Risen

He is risen indeed. Hallelujah!

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Dying Thief Finds Life

Just another quick reflection on the Passion Narratives, arising from their dramatic reading in College Chapel this week. This morning Tom's group presented Luke's Passion, with the innovative feature of getting the congregation to say the crowd scenes... thus adding to the intensity of the 'Crucify him' at the appropriate moment.

Anyway, as the Passion was read, we heard of the two thieves crucified with Jesus. So what, you might be thinking - they're mentioned in all four gospels. But it is Luke who records the salvation of the dying thief. In the place of horror and death, the repentant thief finds life and the promise of peace. Amazing grace, indeed!

As I say, all four Gospels mention the thieves crucified, one on the left and the other on the right. But the other gospels only pick up on the insults they heaped on Jesus. One, however seems to have a change of opinion. But we're going to think about both of them for a moment.

'One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him saying, "Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!" But the other rebuked him, saying, "Do you not fear God, since you are underthe same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong." And he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." And he said to him, "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise."' (Luke 23:39-43).

The first thief latches onto the idea that Jesus is the Christ, but then gets it horribly wrong. Yes, Jesus is the Christ. Yes, Jesus is bringing salvation, he is the one who saves. But not in the manner the first thief imagines. "Save yourself and us" was his cry. In following the insults and mocking of the chief priests and elders, the thief is asking Jesus to save himself and them by coming down off the cross. Salvation for him was about the temporary relief from the pain of crucifixion. Salvation was saving his life.

And yet, there we have the catch of the cross. Yes, Jesus is the Saviour. But to be the Saviour, Jesus must die the horrible death of the cross. If he came down off the cross (which he could have done), he would not have saved anyone! Salvation wasn't putting off death until another day - salvation was about paying for the sins of his people, and that needed the full completion of his suffering.

The second thief, though, is different. What was it that led to the change in him? He had seen how Jesus bore the pains of the cross - praying for the people who nailed him to the cross (Luke 23:34). He had perhaps been a witness to the mistrial and miscarriage of justice as Pilate sentenced Jesus. He had seen the intense hatred the Jewish leaders had for Jesus. He had maybe even seen the sign bearing the 'charge' against Jesus which was nailed over his head - 'This is the King of the Jews' (Luke 23:38).

First, he takes the other thief to task. He asks him does he not fear God - has he no sense of justice or of the judgement to come? After all, the thieves were getting their just desserts for their crimes. Jesus hadn't done anything wrong. Here, he recognises the sinlessness of Jesus - that moral perfection of a life perfectly lived in submission to God. He knows that Jesus doesn't deserve the death of the cross. And in this, he also acknowledges his own sins and failings. Jesus doesn't deserve the cross and the punishment for sin, but the dying thief did!

He then makes an amazing plea. "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." (Luke 23:42). Commentators have noted that this is the only direct request made to Jesus using his own name - other approaches are to 'Teacher' or 'Master' or 'Lord'. Yet the dying thief cries out the name of Jesus. What boldness! What desperation! What confidence!

Perhaps having seen the sign above Jesus' head, which tells of his kingship, the thief then asks that he be remembered when Jesus comes into his kingdom. This shows the faith of the dying man - that Jesus was indeed a king, and would come in power.

And Jesus, even on the cross, racked with pain and bearing our sin - and that of the dying thief - gives him the promise of life and peace. "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise." (Luke 23:43). Note the timeliness. Yes, they both are dying in extreme pain. Yet the dying thief will be with Jesus in Paradise 'today'! He'll not die and float around the ether waiting for the Last Day and the judgement before he goes to heaven. He'll not die and wait on the resurrection of his body. No, 'today' he will be in Paradise. And what is paradise? Being with Jesus is Paradise. How can he go to Paradise? Because Jesus has died for his sins!

The dying thief was not baptised, but he will be in Paradise. He had no future, earthly speaking. Once on the cross, the end was in sight, and a painful end at that. The Romans made sure they had a 100% kill rate on the cross. Yet the dying thief receives the hope of eternity with Christ, and the full salvation from his sins. He even engages in some apologetics!

Someone once said that the example of the dying thief is included in the Bible to give us hope that we can be saved at the very end of our life; but that only one of the thieves finds salvation, to show that we must not be presumptuous. Here, at the cross of Christ we find division. Like the parable of Matthew 25, the King is the great divider - with the sheep on one hand, and the goats on the other.

I'll close with an old hymn by William Cowper.

There is a fountain filled with blood
Drawn from Immanuel's veins,
And sinners plunged beneath that flood
Lose all their guilty stains.

The dying thief rejoiced to see
That fountain in his day;
And there have I, as vile as he,
Washed all my sins away.
Have you found the promise of life, the promise of Paradise with the Saviour? Come to King Jesus, and confess your sins!

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Peter's Denials and the Gospel Hope

It’s funny the way things work out. This morning in Chapel it was our tutor group’s turn to present the dramatic Passion reading, from the Gospel of Mark. Among the many voices I provided, I was Peter, and I was mulling over a blog posting on the change in Peter through the day. Then at dinner, Alison said that she was going over to Dun Laoghire for a Holy Week service to hear Bishop Ken Clarke preaching. I decided to go too, and was blown away when he announced he was going to preach on Peter’s denial! Strange coincidence, or God trying to say something?

When you read the Gospels, Peter seems to be the one who puts his mouth in gear before his brain. He’s what you might call him round Dromore, a big slabber. He’s got a big mouth. All action before he realises what he’s doing. Think, for example, of when Jesus arranges the miraculous catch of fish. Peter just comes out with what he’s thinking: “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” (Luke 5:8). Or when Jesus appears, walking on the water; Peter’s out of the boat wanting to do it too! “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” (Matthew 14:28).

Perhaps the prime examples, though come together, when Peter gets things so right, and then so wrong. Jesus is asking them who the crowds think he is, and then who they think Jesus is. Peter is straight in there. “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” (Matt 16:16). But straight after that, when Jesus tells them about the way of the cross, Peter jumps in so vehemently opposed to the cross that Jesus calls him Satan (Matt 16:23).

So when we come to the Passion story, we’re not surprised to find Peter with the big mouth in operation. Jesus warns them that ‘You will all fall away.’ (Mark 14:27). And in goes Peter. “Even though they all fall away, I will not.” “If I must die with you, I will not deny you.” (Mark 14:29, 31). Do you see what Peter’s saying here? He’s affirming that even though the rest will fall away (not a great opinion of the rest of the disciples), he’s going to be firm. He’ll not disappoint Jesus. He’ll abandon Jesus over his dead body.

Yet Jesus knows him better than he knows himself. “Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.” It’s unthinkable to Peter. Surely he wouldn’t deny Jesus!

But when we move a few verses and a few hours later in the events of that Thursday night, we find a different story. Peter the big man first uses force (Mark 14:47 – parallel in John 18:10), drawing a sword to cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant; then abandoning Jesus with the other disciples. So much for not falling away.

But credit where it is due. Mark 14:54 tells us that Peter followed at a distance, and came into the courtyard of the high priest. In the light from the fire, Peter slipped into denial. Having attacked one of the servants of the high priest in Gethsemane, another of the servants now recognise Peter, and says, “You also were with the Nazarene, Jesus.” (Mark 14:67). Lies follow – “I neither know nor understand what you mean.” (Mark 14:68). Peter is falling. Was it fear of being arrested? Was it fear of standing out? Was it the fear of the unknown? Was he afraid of this servant girl?

Again the girl accuses him, and again he denies it. Having spoken several times, the people standing about accuse him, recognising his accent as being from Galilee. ‘But he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, “I do not know this man of whom you speak.” (Mark 14:71). Three denials, as Jesus had predicted. Then the second cock crowed, and Peter remembered Jesus’ words.

How Peter wept as he broke down. He who had been so bold and always to the fore was now lying and cursing himself as he denied all knowledge of his Master. He who had travelled with Jesus for three years, and shared so much with Jesus; especially as he was a member of the inner three – having seen the delights on the mount of Transfiguration. Yet he denies Jesus.

Are there times and ways that we have failed Jesus? Do we deny we know our Master? Maybe not spoken, but by how we live our lives? Does our attitude or conduct show that Jesus is not really our Lord? Do we pretend that we don’t know Jesus when it is uncomfortable for us? Or inconvenient for us?

The good news is that the story isn’t finished. As I mentioned in yesterday’s posting on Judas, Judas wasn’t the only one to fail Jesus. Peter was down there too, in the depths of despair. But unlike Judas, Peter finds restoration and life from Jesus. On Good Friday, Jesus died on the cross. But on Easter Sunday, he gloriously rose again. Check out the message of the angel to the women at the tomb: “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.” (Mark 16:6-7).

In the good news of the resurrection, there is a special mention for Peter, for the one who had most failed his Master just a few days before. In this there is hope – that the gospel is for those who fail – that God uses those who fail, and mess things up. And when the disciples went to Galilee, we find that scene on the beach after breakfast where Jesus asks Peter three times ‘Do you love me?’ (John 21:15-19). And when Peter replied three times that he loves him, reversing those painful denials, Jesus reaffirms his call – ‘Follow me.’ (John 21:19).

To look at Peter on that Thursday night was to see a broken, fallen man who had failed and denied his Lord. Yet just seven weeks later, we find the same man, changed, restored and fulfilling his call as he preaches with passion and power to the crowd assembled in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost. This truly is the Gospel – that God calls us who are weak, and uses us for his glory. The cross brings forgiveness and restoration, and sends us out for service, to share this glorious news of new and changed lives!

Later, Peter would call on the Christians he wrote his first epistle to, to stand firm in the midst of trials. Peter would never again deny his Lord, gladly being martyred for him who died for his sin.

Bishop Ken summarised the life of Peter in three sentences – maybe a good way to remember his message: Peter by the fire. Peter in the fire. Peter on fire. May we be on fire for God as we recall the story of Peter, and the change which comes through the cross of Christ.

Monday, April 02, 2007

The Fate of Judas

This morning we heard the Passion narrative from Matthew’s Gospel read in Chapel. Each of the tutor groups are taking a Gospel each morning, and doing a dramatic reading of the story of the crucifixion. And it was during the reading that my mind was jolted by a phrase in the middle of the reading.

‘When Judas, his betrayer, saw that he was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders, saying, “I have sinned in betraying innocent blood.”’ (Matthew 27:3-4 RSV).

Judas repented, according to the RSV text. Did he? So that made me wonder about Judas, and to explore the Biblical texts again to see about him. First, we’ll check the same verse in other versions, before looking at other texts concerning him. Was he saved? Or what was his fate?

First, on the repenting verse, the NIV says that Judas ‘seized with remorse’, and the ESV says that he ‘changed his mind.’ So was this a repentance, a turning from sin to life? Given his words, it may appear that he was indeed repenting – he acknowledges his sin, and you could say he confesses it.

But was this enough? Will we meet Judas in heaven? Some would argue that we will, because Judas had played the role that was expected (or even predestined) for him – chosen to be the betrayer, which was essential to the plan of salvation. Further, with the evidence of repenting that we’ve already seen, was he right with God?

Using my concordance, there are 31 references to ‘Judas’ in the New Testament, but some of these refer to ‘Judas called Barsabbas’, who travelled from Jerusalem to Antioch after the so-called Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15. This is probably also why Judas the betrayer is referred to as ‘Judas called Iscariot’.

The references include him among the twelve that Jesus picked to be ‘apostles’ (Matt 10:4, Mark 3:19, Luke 6:16). But after that, the references all tell the story of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus – taking the initiative to go to the chief priests and offering to betray Jesus to them. Luke attributes this action to Satan (Luke 22:3), as does John (John 13:2), although from John’s account, it appears that Satan has put the thought of betrayal into Judas’ heart earlier, but only enters him at the Last Supper when Jesus identifies Judas as the betrayer (John 13:27). Indeed, the other disciples thought that the thing he was going to do quickly was an act of charity or of urgent supplies for the feast.

So Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss, a symbol of closeness, a sign of friendship tarnished and degraded by the act of betrayal. In doing what he did, Judas fulfilled the Scripture written of him – ‘He who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me’ (Ps 41:9 quoted in John 13:18). The friend became the servant of the devil, in advancing the wicked scheme of silence and kill Jesus.

So where is Judas now? Is he in heaven or hell? Some would argue that, because he had fulfilled Scripture, he must have been doing the will of God – that Jesus couldn’t have died unless Judas had done the deed. But surely this does not excuse the act of sin, or the guilt pertaining to it? There must still be the personal responsibility for his actions. Or you might wonder why Jesus picked Judas to be a disciple if he knew Judas would betray him. Again, the plan of God had to be fulfilled, yet Judas is responsible for his own choices. Just because Satan tempted him does not mean he would have to fall. Just because Satan knocks on the door doesn’t mean we have to let him in!

It seems that Judas was quite happy to invite Satan in, being greedy and with an eye to his own profit. So, we find that in Matthew’s account, Judas says to the chief priests “What will you give me if I deliver him over to you?” (Matt 26:15) Further, John tells us that Judas’ indignation about the costly sacrifice of the expensive ointment was not because of the impact it could have had on the poor, but rather ‘because he was a thief, and having charge of the money bag he used to help himself to what was put into it.’(John 12:6) The other Gospels tell that he was delighted when the chief priests offered him money for the betrayal.

So what of his end? Did Judas repent? He certainly was overcome by remorse, seeing Jesus condemned despite being innocent, but did he direct it in the proper channel? He went back to the chief priests and certainly tried to make amends. He confessed his sin to the priests, not that they were particularly interested or bothered. He threw the money back at them, which they then piously used to buy a field because they could not put their own blood money into the temple treasury.

But did Judas confess to God? While trying to sort the horizontal relationships, did he sort the vertical? Did he find salvation on that Good Friday? No doubt another criminal and thief did – the dying thief on the cross beside Jesus found grace and salvation. But what about Judas?

In an earlier time, the church would have said that Satan was obviously in hell because he committed suicide. On that, I’m not sure. But let’s look at the Scriptures. Judas wasn’t the only one to fail Jesus on that Thursday night. The other disciples fled from Gethsemane and abandoned him. Peter, the big man, went one stage further, and called down curses on himself to strongly deny knowing Jesus.

Yet Jesus wasn’t finished with Peter, who was restored to fellowship by the risen Jesus. Peter in the days between the ascension and Pentecost chaired the meeting that picked the new ‘twelfth man’ to fill Judas’ place. At that meeting, the church prayed that they would know whether Joseph or Matthias should be appointed, and said “You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” (Acts 1:24-25). Judas turned aside to go to his own place. Where was that place? Would it be the paradise promised to the dying thief?

Jesus spoke of the one who would betray him in strong words. “The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born.” (Matt 26:24). How could not being born be better than being in paradise? It would suggest that Judas had not been right with God when he died – nor indeed at any time. Earlier in John’s Gospel, Jesus had called him ‘a devil’ (John 6:71) and ‘the son of destruction’ (John 17:12). So, using 2 Corinthians 7, which says that ‘For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death’ (2 Cor 7:1), we must conclude that Judas’ sorrow was that worldly grief that only produced death.

One more thing before we leave Judas and the betrayal, though. And this is perhaps the most fearful thing of all. At the Last Supper when Jesus said that one of the Twelve would betray him, they didn’t all turn round and point at Judas. They didn’t expect it to be him. Rather, ‘The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he spoke’ (John 13:22). Indeed, as the passage goes on, even when Jesus identifies him, the disciples still don’t realise what is going on, thinking that he is away to buy something or give money to the poor (John 13:28-30).

The disciples didn’t imagine it would be Judas. Rather, they were all taken by a guilty conscience, or a godly fear. ‘And they were very sorrowful and began to say to him one after another, “Is it I, Lord?”’ (Matt 26:22). We’re used to those words being used in the chorus of the hymn ‘I the Lord of sea and sky’ – ‘Here I am Lord, Is it I Lord, I have heard you calling in the night’. Yet here the disciples ask ‘is it I’ out of fear that they are the betrayer! And if the disciples, those who had spent the three years with Jesus, could have such doubt about their own faithfulness, then do we also need to take care about our walk with Jesus? Could I turn to be a betrayer? Is there a danger that I might betray my Lord, or deny the faith?

Thankfully, we have the promise of Jesus: ‘All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.’ ‘I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me.’ (John 6:37; 10:14)

Sunday, April 01, 2007

The holidays are over, Holy Week begins

Where have the last three weeks gone? I'm back sitting in my room in Dublin, ready and waiting to start the final term of Second Year! Amazing! It seems that the holiday weeks pass very quickly - let's hope the term weeks do as well. Now we have just four weeks of term, three weeks study leave, then a week and half of exams - and that's second year in Dublin completed. Then the holidays begin!

We're one third of the way through 2007 already - where is the time going? What have I achieved thus far? Well, I've gained the 10 positive feedbacks star in Ebay; I've read 27 books; and preached a few sermons. I was challenged tonight by the sermon at Banbridge Road Presbyterian Church - Gary the minister was asking us if we were progressing in our faith - were we loving God and our neighbour more now than when we first believed? Are we growing in our faith?Please God that I am, but I make it more difficult for myself than it needs to be sometimes.

Here's to the rest of 2007 and growing in grace, in faith and in love. Not a bad aim on this Palm Sunday, as we prepare to think again about the Passion, and the week leading up to Jesus' death on the cross of Calvary.