Autumn Bible Study (2 Corinthians 3:3-11; 16-18)

By Helen Lambert

What do you like best about Autumn?  For some, it is the bountiful ending of Summer – the “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”, with its ripening fruit, beautiful berries and glorious colours.  For others, it is a beginning rather than an ending – the start of a new school year, or perhaps even a new school, maybe a new job, the start of a new season.  This year, that newness is being felt even more keenly as we venture out into the “new normal” of living with COVID.  What aspects of life have you been forced to re-think as you emerge from the restrictions of the past 18 months?  Have things “gone back to normal”, or has everything changed?  Have any changes been for the better?  For Christians in general, and for those of us at St Mary’s in particular, we are challenged to consider what this might mean for the church?  Could this be a God-given opportunity to re-think what the church should look like?  Do we meet God in the security of the past, and “get back to normal” as quickly as possible?  Or do we step into whatever re-imagined future he might be wanting to lead us into, building on our traditions without being tied to them?

In this month’s reading, taken from one of Paul’s letters to the fledgling church in Corinth, Paul focuses on the “new way” versus the “old way”. 

It is a tricky passage to understand without some background:  Paul begins by talking about the Covenant, or agreement, which God made with the people of Israel, and particularly about the Law (commandments) which he gave to Moses on Mount Sinai, and which were carved on tablets of stone (v7).  This Law was God’s most precious gift to his people, for it revealed his heart and his will for them and showed them how they were to live in relationship with Him and with each other.  Moreover, it was revealed to them by Moses, who met with God “as one meets with a friend” (Exodus 33:11).  When Moses returned from meeting God, he would have to wear a veil over his face because he was so radiant (v7)! The Covenant was that if the people kept God’s Law, he would be their God and bless them.  However, as the whole story of the Old Testament reveals, God’s people were unable to live according to God’s ways, so the Law that should have brought them life and blessing, instead brought “condemnation” (v9).

So, was the “old way” (v7) good or bad?  Count how many times the word “glory” or “glorious” appears in this passage?  How many of these are associated with the “old way”?

It is clear that God’s Law was indeed “glorious” – and was intended to be life-giving to those who received it.  It was nothing less than God’s revelation of himself in written form.  However, Paul revealed to them a “new way” that was even more glorious (v9)!  What does he tell us about this new way?  Where does it come from and why is it so much more glorious?

Firstly, the new way comes from the Holy Spirit, who is the presence of God himself in our lives (v8; v17).  Like the Law, it is God’s revelation to us, but unlike the Law, it is written on our hearts (v3). Secondly, the new way “makes us right with God” (v9) in a way that the old way was unable to.  No wonder it is more glorious!  Finally, we read that the new way has replaced the old way and, in contrast to it, the new way will last for ever (v11).

So Paul honours the “old way”, acknowledging how wonderful it was, but he does not want the believers to be tied to it when the new way is so much better in every way.  Are there any lessons here for the church?  Perhaps you can share your thoughts with us!

Lest we are tempted to embrace novelty for novelty’s sake (or indeed, hold on to the past for its own sake), the final verses of chapter 3 remind us of our calling and purpose as the people of God.  Like Moses, we are to reflect the glory or God as we ourselves are changed by His Spirit to become more and more like His Son Jesus.  Moses’ radiance (see above) was a reflection of his relationship with God – may we too, as individuals and as the church, reflect God’s glory in our community.

“Whenever someone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away…so all of us who have had that veil removed can see and reflect the glory of the Lord.  And the Lord – who is the Spirit – makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image.”(v16;18)

(2 Corinthians 3:3-11; 16-18)

You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.

Such confidence we have through Christ before God. Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

Now if the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone, came with glory, so that the Israelites could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory, transitory though it was, will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious? If the ministry that brought condemnation was glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness! 10 For what was glorious has no glory now in comparison with the surpassing glory. 11 And if what was transitory came with glory, how much greater is the glory of that which lasts!

16 But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. 17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18 And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate[a] the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.

Bible Gateway site is available here: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=2+Corinthians+3&version=NIV

Bible Study: Belonging (Isaiah 43:1-5)

By Helen Lambert

Where do you belong? Is it where you are from, the town or country where you were born? Is it your family or your friendship group? Perhaps you belong to a club or a team? Do you sometimes feel you belong to your work?

We talk about having a “sense of belonging”, or “feeling we belong”, as things that make us feel safe and secure. Where we belong gives us a sense of identity and affects how we behave. What aspects of your life (or even your identity) are affected by where you belong?

Conversely, it can be really hard to feel we don’t belong – whether to the “in” group, our community, the prevailing culture, or perhaps life in general.

Where does today’s Bible verse tell us we belong? The narrative of the Bible, from beginning to end, is that the God who created the world, and created us, also chose us to belong to him. Amazingly, the God who created the universe and everything in it, knows us so personally that he calls us by name (v1). He tells us, through the prophet Isaiah, that we are his. 

What are the implications of this deep and personal relationship with our creator God? This verse makes clear to us that belonging to God is a safe place to be. Why do you think this is so? 

Firstly, we are safe because we are known. The One who created us knows us better than we know ourselves, and so we do not need to hide away, or pretend to be someone we are not – as we may have to do to “fit in” with some of other the groups we want to belong to.  Not only are we known, but we are loved (yes – in spite of being known!) Further into this passage it says that we are infinitely precious to God (v4). 

Secondly, we are safe because God promises to look after us through the storms and terrors of life (though note that he does not say he will remove all these challenges). The promise is to be with us when we walk through “deep waters” (v2) so that they do not overwhelm us. What deep waters do you feel threatened by at the moment? Ask God to walk with you so that you are not overwhelmed.

Thirdly, we can feel safe because we have been chosen by God – we have nothing to prove! The Bible tells us that God chose us to belong to him even before the beginning of the world (Ephesians 1:4), and that this is made possible by Jesus Christ. It is not our own doing.

Finally, we can feel safe because our belonging to God gives us an identity and a purpose: “You did not choose me, I chose you and appointed you to go and bear much fruit…” (John 15:16)

So, God’s love, acceptance and choosing does not depend on who we are, what we have done, or even our choosing to follow him.  It is there for us, and has been since “before the world was made” (Ephesians 1:4).  We do, however, have a choice about whether we want to live in that place of safety, to accept the offer of belonging, to choose to explore and discover the relationship that is offered to us.  This in turn leads us to make choices about the way we live.  Earlier, we considered how where we belong affects the way that we live.  If we accept that we belong to God, this will inevitably inform the choices we make about our life, our behaviour and our priorities. How might they change for you?

I write this in the week that COVID restrictions have been lifted. Many are celebrating, but others have great fear.  Whether this is true of you, or whether other fears threaten to overwhelm you, or if you struggle with the fear of being an “outsider” – of not truly feeling you belong – be encouraged by these verses which are “bookended” by, and centred on, the promise of God to save, protect and accompany, all will a deeply personal love. “Do not be afraid – I will save you” (v1); “Do not be afraid – I am with you” (v5); “I am the Lord your God who saves you” (v3);  “I will…save your life, because you are precious to me and because I love you…”(v4). 

Know that you too belong and are welcome in the place of safety that is the Father’s love: 

“I have called you by name – you are mine!”

43 But now, this is what the Lord says—
    he who created you, Jacob,
    he who formed you, Israel:
“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
    I have summoned you by name; you are mine.
When you pass through the waters,
    I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
    they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
    you will not be burned;
    the flames will not set you ablaze.
For I am the Lord your God,
    the Holy One of Israel, your Savior;
I give Egypt for your ransom,
    Cush[a] and Seba in your stead.
Since you are precious and honored in my sight,
    and because I love you,
I will give people in exchange for you,
    nations in exchange for your life.
Do not be afraid, for I am with you;
    I will bring your children from the east
    and gather you from the west.

Read online: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Isaiah+43&version=NIV

Pentecost Bible Study

By Helen Lambert

We have been waiting a long time – waiting for lockdown to end, waiting to go out, waiting to go away, waiting to hug, waiting for our jabs, waiting for test results, just waiting for COVID to go away and life to “get back to normal” (whatever that was!)  For many, the waiting has been painful – for those in other parts of the world, it remains so, and the cries of anguish still resound.

What are you waiting for with the greatest anticipation?  As with childbirth (v22) we know that the time is coming when we will experience the joy of these hopes being fulfilled – indeed, the signs are already here.  This scripture passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans tells us that “Creation” is also waiting – groaning even – for something that is on its way, but not yet quite fulfilled.

What is it that the world is longing for?  Are you longing too?  We can see from these verses that all of us, somewhere, have an inbuilt desire for “something” that is beyond us, for a kind of fulfilment that is beyond that which our daily lives, and the world around us, have to offer.  We might call this a “search for meaning”, a “spiritual awareness” or even a “God-shaped hole” – and we might have decided to ignore it, or we may be on a path to find it.

Paradoxically, for Christians, this longing does not disappear – in some ways it becomes more acute!  What do these verses say that we are waiting for (v23,24)?  And why, perhaps, do we feel this so keenly (v23)?

We have just celebrated the Feast of Pentecost – the day when God returned to fill the lives of his followers.  Jesus had died and risen again, and many had seen him subsequently (as we celebrated at Easter) and then he had “ascended” back to his Father in heaven.  On Pentecost, God returned in the form of the Holy Spirit – and made himself present in the lives of those who were waiting for him, as he does in our lives today.  Although we do not fully understand this “mystery” of the Trinity, this experience of God’s presence in our lives through the Holy Spirit is the everyday experience of Christians throughout history and throughout the world.  This is the “foretaste” of v23 – this experience of God, without complete knowledge, which directs the rest of our lives.  Tantalising!

Here we are told that there will come a time when we will no longer be subject to the troubles of this life – whether through sickness, our own wrong choices, or anything else.  We look forward to this full freedom in the future, when we leave this world (the hope” of v24).  However, we do not have to wait until we die to begin to experience all that God has to offer – “our full rights as adopted children” (v24) even now, as we wait (v25). 

As we begin to experience the Holy Spirit in our lives, our strength and vision are renewed and transformed (v26).  What does he help us to do (v26-27)?  Our experience with God is based in relationship, and relationship flourishes on communication.  We often feel so inadequate in our communication with God – but here we are reassured that we do not need to know what to say, or how to express how we feel.  As we make ourselves available to God’s Holy Spirit, he himself will enable this communication.  We will not need to “pretend” to be other than what we are, for he knows our hearts (v27).  More than that, he changes our hearts, so that eventually our prayers will reflect the heartbeat of God too.

Bible verses: Romans 8:22-17

For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. And we believers also groan, even though we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, for we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering. We, too, wait with eager hope for the day when God will give us our full rights as his adopted children including the new bodies he has promised us. We were given this hope when we were saved. (If we already have something, we don’t need to hope for it. But if we look forward to something we don’t yet have, we must wait patiently and confidently.)

And the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. For example, we don’t know what God wants us to pray for. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words. And the Father who knows all hearts knows what the Spirit is saying, for the Spirit pleads for us believers in harmony with God’s own will.

If you would like to read the bible online there are lots of websites to choose from. One of them is Bible Gateway: https://www.biblegateway.com/

Easter Bible Study – Hebrews 12:1-4 (NLT)

By Helen Lambert

Jesus – the Initiator and Perfecter of our faith!

Does faith seem hard at the moment?  In fact does life seem hard?  It is often said that life is a marathon, not a sprint – and there are times in a marathon where it feels almost impossible to take the next step towards the finish.  The image of a race is one that is used in Scripture to describe our journey of faith – and in today’s Bible reading, the writer acknowledges that it is an endurance race! Not only that, but Jesus has run it before us…

The writer of this letter highlights three ways in which we can be encouraged during this strange time when all is changing, but sometimes it feels as if nothing has changed.  The first of these is set out immediately in v1.

We are surrounded

Whether we live on our own or with others, many have experienced the kindness, neighbourliness and a sense of community that has grown throughout this year.  Coming on to our doorsteps to encourage the NHS, or to remember those whose lives have been lost, has somehow bound us together. Who, in particular, does this verse say “surrounds” us (v1)?  At St Mary’s, many have known the importance of “fellowship” – that “togetherness” that we experience through the Holy Spirit in our lives – as we have continued to meet and worship, albeit remotely, through the wonderful technology of Zoom.  How wonderful that our God is not limited by physical walls and distances!  There are times when running a long race when it is only the encouragement of the crowds lining the road – “You can do this!” – that keeps us going.  Let us not stop encouraging one another in these (hopefully) last stages of beating the pandemic.

Strip off the weight

For an endurance athlete, the balance between weight and strength is an important one, and it is essential that they are not carrying any unnecessary weight on race day that would slow them down.  Whilst God does not mind what physical shape or size we are, he does want us to run this “race” of our Christian life unhindered.  What are the things that might slow us down, or even “trip us up” (v1)?  As we reflect on the past year, can we use the opportunity to consider what might be preventing us from living life as God intended?  We may not have been out much – but are there aspects of our attitudes, relationships and behaviours that we have hidden away, but we know need to change?  “Strip off every weight that slows us down” – use this time to commit to change!

Eyes on Jesus

If the challenges just mentioned seem hard, we are now told how to do it (v2) – what is the secret? All successful athletes have a trainer – the one who commits to seeing them succeed, from beginning to end.  The athlete can only succeed if they follow the trainer, who will themselves have been a successful athlete who has won many races – a true “champion”.  Who do these verses say is our “champion”, and what is his role (v2)?  The secret is that we are not meant to run this race alone.  The “crown of witnesses” (v1) can support and encourage us, but is it Jesus himself, our champion, who enables and empowers us.  Note that he is both the “initiator” (some versions say “author”) and “perfecter” of our faith.  We so often feel guilty that we are not trying hard enough to believe, or not trying hard enough to live the right way.  The world tells us that we need to rely on our own inner resources.  The Bible tells us that it is Jesus himself who, by his Holy Spirit living in us, is our inner resource.  He sows the seed of faith within us, he shows us the way forward, and he gives us the strength and ability to live according to what he has shown us – to “run the race”. 

We know we can trust him to do this because he has run it before us (v2b). This coming week we will remember how Jesus went to the cross (v2) and died for all our sakes (v4) in order for us to be able to live our present lives in relationship with him, free of all that slows us down (v1).  We have this “strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow” * because this death was not the end – Easter is a celebration, not a mourning, because Jesus rose again and “is seated in the place of honour beside God’s throne” (v2).

And so, this Easter, if you are tempted to “become weary and give up” (v3), “fix your eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith”!   

1Great is Thy Faithfulness.  Thomas Obediah Chisolm 1923

Hebrews 12: 1-4 (NLT)           

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith.Because of the joy awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame. Now he is seated in the place of honor beside God’s throne. Think of all the hostility he endured from sinful people; then you won’t become weary and give up. After all, you have not yet given your lives in your struggle against sin.

Bible passage source: Bible Gateway online: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Hebrews%2012%3A1-4&version=NLT 

Bible Study for a New Year : 2 Corinthians 5:15-18

By Helen Lambert

New Year, new you!  New Year’s resolutions.  New “normal”.  New cases.  New vaccine. New variant. New rules.  New lockdown.  Do you ever wish things would stop being quite so new?  2020 was a whole new experience for everyone – not just in Ash Vale, not just in the UK, but on the whole planet.  But what about you?  Do you feel renewed?  Or just wrung out?  The “new” has become “old” and we would all like to move on, but times remain uncertain and precarious.

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Saving Christmas: Matthew 1:18-23; Luke 2:8-14

By Helen Lambert

The pandemic that has dominated our lives for most of this year has challenged many people to re-evaluate their priorities. This has not been exclusively negative – it has, at times, enabled us to catch a glimpse of what could be, perhaps even what should be, in a re-imagined world.   Whether you have had to respond to loss or hardship, or have perhaps simply had more enforced time for reflection, are there things that you view differently now than you did at the start of the year?

As we approach Christmas, what do you hope for?  What do you fear?  Amidst the uncertainties that surround our plans, could this be a long-awaited opportunity to understand anew what Christmas is all about?  All around us, there is talk of “saving Christmas” – but the Bible makes clear that we have got this all wrong, for Christmas is all about the dawning of God’s great plan to save us!

These two readings from the Christmas story make this clear to us, both in messages brought by angels.  Through their familiar words we hear of the identity and the life-purpose of the child Jesus who was about to be born that first Christmas.

What does the angel tell Joseph will be Jesus’ purpose in life (Matthew 1:21)?  And how do the angels describe the role he will have to the terrified shepherds in that awesome encounter on the night of Jesus’ birth (Luke 2:11)?  As Matthew makes clear to us, the meaning of the name “Jesus” is “the one who saves”!  This is really what we celebrate at Christmas – that we have a Saviour, one who was born for the sole purpose of rescuing us! 

A few lines earlier in the book of Luke, we read that this was part of God’s plan from long ago as he had been telling his people through the Old Testament prophets:  “Praise the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has visited and redeemed his people. He has sent us a mighty Saviour from the royal line of his servant David, just as he promised through his holy prophets long ago.” (Luke 1:68-70).

What does the idea of Jesus as a Saviour mean to you?  From the beginning of time, God has been revealing himself to humanity, desiring all people to live in relationship with him, wanting to pour out his love on them, and showing us how to live in ways that bring about good.  We too are invited to know this revelation, love and way of life.  However, since the beginning of time, we have thought we knew best, have preferred our own ways and independence from God – even chosen to follow other “gods”.  We see the results of these choices in the world around us, with our news pages dominated by stories of hate, injustice, violence, envy and broken relationships.  As we turn our gaze away from our screens and inwards towards ourselves, we see that our lives are also far from perfect – and yet we know in our hearts that another way must be possible.

Christmas reminds us of the invitation to choose a different life, to seek the forgiveness and empowerment that comes from following Jesus, the One who came to make it possible.  We do not have to be stuck in the world as we see it, the “Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6) has come save us into a different life with different priorities, to enable us to have peace with God and with one another. 

Amazingly, this invitation extends to us all, however we see ourselves.  It does not depend on anything we have done, or not done, but on the love that God has for each one of us.  This is why the angels call Jesus the Saviour – for he came for the sole purpose of bringing us back to God and each other.  As the apostle Paul tells Titus, “When the goodness and loving kindness of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy…” (Titus 3:5)

So, whatever restrictions and compromises we may face over the coming weeks, what a relief that we don’t have to worry about “saving Christmas” – Jesus has already done it all!

Matthew 1:18-23

18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. 20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).

Luke 2:8-14

 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,  and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.”

https://www.biblegateway.com (NIV translation)

Transforming Generosity – Bible Study

A new season of Bible studies based on the Gospel of Luke

An invitation from Guildford Diocese Stewardship team: Would you like to join us this October for Transforming Generosity? Over the month we will look together at the Gospel of Luke, seeking a deeper understanding of God’s abundant generosity, reflecting on generous giving as part of our discipleship and worship, and responding by continuing to build generous churches.

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Bible Study (Gal 5:22-23, with Matt 11:28-30 and 13:1-8)

As we turn our thoughts to what the French call “la rentrée” (the September mass return to school, work and “normal” life after a long Summer), we find ourselves in a very different situation to previous years.  Many of us are desperate for a return to some semblance of “normality”, others are less certain – anxious, even – and would prefer things to continue as they are for now.  For yet others, everything has changed, and there will be no “return to normality”.

Continue reading “Bible Study (Gal 5:22-23, with Matt 11:28-30 and 13:1-8)”