“Grant To Us Now Those Spiritual Graces…”

These are the words of our current church’s communion liturgy: “grant to us now those spiritual graces that we may live a godly, righteous and thoughtful life…”. Every communion Sunday I’m struck with what a distinctive wording this is, and every communion Sunday I consider once again what an interesting trio of characteristics we are asking to be made manifest in our lives.

Godly and righteous are more or less expected, of course. This is a Christian church with a mainline, Evangelical theology. Or what I take for one, anyway; I’m less than fully comfortable with the political connotations of Evangelicalism as she is practiced in the United States right now. But this isn’t about US evangelicalism, it’s about “godly, righteous and thoughtful”.

It’s that “thoughtful” that always strikes me as so unusual. You might expect “a godly, righteous and Christlike life” or “a godly, righteous and holy life” or “a godly, righteous and powerful life” or even “a godly, righteous and meaningful life”, depending on your personal theological expectations, but no; it’s “godly, righteous and thoughtful”.

The implications are interesting. “Godly” and “righteous” cover a lot of the same ground; they’re practically synonyms, in fact. So if you’re going to make it a nice, aesthetically pleasing triad, something like “Christlike” or “holy”, another near-synonym, would round out the list well. But we have “thoughtful”, which is so startlingly different that it makes me wonder what the perceived difference between godliness and righteousness is.

Godliness isn’t really a word that’s very much in my personal vocabulary. I mean, it’s not a word I actually use.

Part of this is that I find it really difficult to actually pin down: righteousness has a fairly well-defined theological meaning, involved with concepts like justification and the character of God. It includes our relationship with God being properly functional and unmarred by sin – being “right with God” through faith – and doing what is right – “living out our faith” in actions that back up the trust we claim to have in God.

“Godliness” is a lot more nebulous, but if I had to define it as distinct from righteousness I’d probably say something about growing in family resemblance to the Father of our spirits. Being like God in our attitudes and reactions, loving our neighbour as ourselves.

However I’d also say its opposite would be “godlessness”, which my Bible uses as the pithy overarching characteristic of the life of Esau, and the opposite of how I just defined godliness isn’t really the summary statement I’d make about Esau. Rash, wilfully stupid to an insane degree, having no concept of eternal values, yes, but not really failing to love his neighbour as himself or to grow like God except as incidentals.

It’s probably equally possible that I’ve misunderstood Esau or that there’s more to the idea of godliness than meets the eye, but it still seems that godliness and righteousness go together. If you are living a godly life, you cannot help but be righteous: if you are living a righteous life, it will be godly.

It may be that “righteous” is meant more in the legal sense of the Divine courtroom and the theology of justification while “godly” refers more to the process of being remade into the Divine image, but either way, they seem to go together.

And then we come to “thoughtful”.

It’s an especially interesting final component to the triad, because one of my major problems with too much of US public Christianity is the unbearable shallowness and lack of apparent thought involved.

I’ve known people who worried that their offspring were “too smart” and that their intellectual development was threatening to the development of faith.

I’ve seen the sort of drivel we sell ourselves.

I’ve listened to Christian radio.

And so when we pray that we may live a thoughtful life, a large part of me says “yes, please!”. Please let us be people who aren’t afraid to think, who can ask the difficult, squirrelly questions that don’t have easy answers. Please let us be people of enough confidence in the truth to be able to re-examine old certainties in the face of new information. Please let us stop seeming to be afraid of science and knowledge.

But somehow I doubt this is what’s meant. Most people probably aren’t going to jump straight to reason and intellect from the word “thoughtful”. After all, “thoughtful” is the descriptor we put on someone who’s attentive, who is good at putting themselves in others’ shoes and doing something to bring happiness to others. Considerate. Taking others’ feelings into account.

Funnily enough, this is also something the US Evangelical church at large often seems to be dreadful at. Don’t believe me? Go on Facebook and make a comment about how Christ commands us to love Muslims where US Evangelical-type Christians can hear you. You’d be amazed at the vitriol that such an ought-to-be-self-evident statement can provoke.

I’ll also admit that this sense of thoughtful is something I fall down on. It’s not that I refuse to help others, or that I deliberately try to offend; it’s that I just don’t think. I tend to need it announced with trumpets that someone else has a need I might be able to meet, and I can occasionally be hurtful just because I didn’t stop to consider how it might make another feel. Showing mercy doesn’t really show up as one of mine on any spiritual gift inventory, but that’s no excuse, just like the fact that I’m not an evangelist does not exempt me from fulfilling the Great Commission, or the fact that I’m not endowed with gifts of healing that I know about doesn’t mean I can’t ask God to bring miraculous healing to a sick person. Who gives the gifts, anyway? Thoughtfulness in that sense is definitely something I need more grace for.

I don’t know which, if either, of these our liturgical formula means when it invites us to pray that we might live a thoughtful life. Either way, “thoughtful” seems a timely and needful thing to pray for grace to achieve. After all, how many people would give that description if you asked them what Christians are like?

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The Righteousness of the Pharisees

In Matthew 5:20, Jesus makes the statement that “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven”.

It’s difficult sometimes for us 2000 years in the future to grasp how shocking this was.

The Pharisees were the strictest division of the Jewish faith, famous for their piety. This was the group that produced those who, walking down the street, would close their eyes when a woman walked past, lest they be tempted to lust. The resultant bodily injuries as they crashed into walls and things earned them the nickname “bleeding Pharisees”. These were the people who tithed not only their flocks, herds and fields, but their kitchen herbs and spices. These were the people who were known by the unwieldy length of the tassels required by the Mosaic Law to be on their garments. These were the people who were known for long, showy prayers in public, of the sort that made everyone take notice and think “wow, this person can really pray”.

And Jesus says that we have to be more righteous than that? Impossible! It’s like being more conservative than Glenn Beck.

With 2000 years of historic Christianity and Jesus’ teaching about praying and fasting in secret, not announcing your giving, focusing on the inward and not the outward, it’s sometimes hard for us to identify the Pharisees’ outward expressions as righteous, but by the standards of the day, this was what righteousness was considered to be. Doing what the Law required. Even going beyond, just to make sure you had it covered. This is rounding up the amount of tax you owe, and paying it. This is down-to-the-letter adherence to the Law God gave His people.

And Jesus says we have to do more even than that.

Or does he?

The immediate context of the passage is “Do not think I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them”. But then He goes on to start with the Law – “You have heard it said…” – and then say “But I say to you…”

The Law says one thing. And Jesus overturns it or modifies it so radically as to result in a new commandment.

Was the Law somehow imperfect? Were the commandments God gave His people not, then, what He actually meant? If what God always intended was what Jesus said, why not say that in the first place?

God isn’t a liar, nor does He change His mind. Nor does He change His standards.

Something else must be going on here.

What Jesus is doing in this block of teaching, of course, is relocating the issue of sin and righteousness from the actions to the heart. The Pharisees saw sin and righteousness purely in terms of what you do: obey the whole Law and you’re righteous and God will accept you; fail to keep the whole Law and you’re a sinner.

Jesus is basically saying “no; your actions show what’s in your heart”. If you’re a sinner, you will commit sins. If you’re righteous, you won’t. Adultery is not merely the physical act; it begins with the choice of the heart to lust. Murder begins with the choice of the heart to entertain hatred. “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off…” But is it your right hand that causes you to sin, or does sin reside somewhere else? If all it took to be rid of sin was maiming yourself, those who have lost limbs would be completely righteous from that point on.

No; sin resides in the heart. God’s remedy is not an amputation but a transplant: “I will take away your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh”. This is accomplished when we agree with God about the problem and its solution, trust Him, and follow His Son.

Or, as we like to say, when we repent, confess our sins, have faith in Him and become His people.

Jesus, then, isn’t calling us to do more in order to be righteous, but to appropriate the remedy He died to provide! To be rid of sin, we must get our hearts changed. The work of Christ on the Cross was once for all. Doing more has never equalled righteousness.

In Your Anger Do Not Sin

There’s a teaching in some circles that Christians should never get angry. The Bible instructs us to rid ourselves of anger and fits of rage, and if we do get angry, some would tell us that it’s because we felt like we were entitled to something and didn’t get it. The solution is to “surrender our rights” to God, thus removing the cause for anger, and remain calm and cheerful with a good Christian smile on our face no matter what. If we’re angry, it obviously means we’re doing it wrong.

I first came across this idea as a teen. There was a news report back then about a Jehovah’s Witness family that were refusing to allow their child to get a life-saving medical treatment because it involved getting a blood transfusion, and JWs have a weird perspective on Acts 15:29 that makes them opposed to blood transfusions.

The thought that a mother and father could be so callous as to refuse life-saving treatment for their own child angered me, and I mentioned this to an older Christian in my church.

Their reaction surprised me. Rather than agree that this was indeed an injustice, they rebuked me for getting upset about it and told me “Don’t be angry”.

I was particularly not good at talking to people as a child, even into my teens, and to this day I don’t react quickly when surprised. I couldn’t put the words together to say what I was actually thinking, and didn’t even fully grasp what their objection to how I was reacting really was, but even then I felt like this whole train of thought was heading in the wrong direction.

Since then I’ve encountered the same idea in other spheres of life. Christians shouldn’t get angry.

Quite what these people make of the cleansing of the Temple I don’t know. Apparently even then, Jesus can’t really have been angry, because we know anger is sinful, right?

Ok, what if they’re right, and Jesus wasn’t really angry even then? Picture the scene: the Son of Man kicking over tables and chasing out the money changers with a whip, and all with a serene, beatific smile on His face. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I find that image actively scary. The natural reaction is that either He’s buzzed on something potent and illegal, or there’s something seriously psychotic in His makeup. Either way, He’s hardly the merciful Saviour we know and love.

Anger is a natural human reaction. Because we are told in the Bible on occasion that God Himself gets angry, we do not have a leg to stand on if we insist that anger is always sinful or that Christians should not get angry. For example, in Numbers 11 we read that “the Lord became exceedingly angry” at the ungrateful, complaining attitude of His people when they grumbled about the manna He provided for them and wanted meat instead.

We read also of other occasions on which God gets angry; it’s a mistake to try to paint this as His normal emotional state, but He does, on occasion, get angry. Even in His self-declaration to Moses, He proclaims that He is slow to anger, not incapable of it.

The human capacity for anger, then, is not a result of the Fall but an intrinsic part of the Divine image in us. Had the Fall not happened, there might not have been reason for anger, but there would still have been the capacity for it.

This is because anger is a response to a situation which says “I feel that a wrong has been done”.

The problem we have with anger is not the intrinsic capacity for it, but the appropriateness of when and how we express it.

Because of both His character and His omniscience, God’s anger is always appropriate. He always has all of the facts, He loves everyone, and He is completely righteous and incorruptible even by His own desires. When He gets angry, it is in fact because a wrong has been done, not merely because He feels that to be the case.

Moreover, He is completely righteous in His expression of anger, neither punishing more severely than the situation calls for, and straying into injustice on that side, nor being more lenient than is warranted and straying into injustice on the other side.

Human anger is a bit more fallen in nature. As fallen descendents of Adam and Eve, we no longer instinctively align ourselves with God’s view of things. We get angry about the wrong things, fail to get angry about the right things and express our anger in fallen, destructive ways. That we get angry is not the problem. If you can be grievously wronged – like being raped or beaten – without getting angry about it, it’s a sign that you’re not dealing with the situation. Anger in this sort of situation is healthy and good, because it shows that your moral compass is working. A wrong has indeed been done, and anger is the correct response to that. It is, to coin a phrase, What Jesus Would Do. As Christians, we are called not to remain in anger but to rise above it and forgive, but if a wrong has been done to you or someone you love, getting angry about it can be a good thing.

This, after all, is why God gets angry about sin: it hurts people He loves. He is so incensed about it that He was prepared to die in order to make an end of it once and for all. He can feel wrath – destructive anger – in perfect love. He’s the only One who can, because He alone has all the facts and is not a slave to His anger but Master of it.

This is why the Bible instructs us to get rid of wrath. In our fallenness, wrath is a state we cannot safely enter, because we don’t automatically track with God’s view of the situation and we don’t express our anger with perfect justice and perfect love.

Mostly, though, what the Bible tells us to be rid of is destructive, fallen anger of the kind that enables sin. Fits of rage – flying off the handle over minor infractions, especially the consuming anger that just wants to destroy. Bitterness, which is anger turned inward rather than given vent in any healthy way. Anger directed at the wrong object.

But anger itself is not the problem. We’re in a fallen world, which means that injustices happen. As Christians, we ought to be angry about that, angry not at God because we apparently can do a better job than He and would never have allowed this to happen, but angry at the injustice itself. We should be galvanised by God’s anger at injustice, enough to do something to put a stop to it. Not one of the great reformers of the past – Shaftesbury, Wilberforce, Martin Luther King Jr, or any of the others – ever did anything to fix the abuses of this broken world without getting angry about them, I guarantee it.

An Aggressive Purity

There’s a certain school of thought in parts of the church that not only should we avoid obvious and evident sins, but that we should also avoid anything that might lead to sin, anything that might have the appearance of sin, anything that might be tangentially associated with (someone else’s) practice of sin.

My own personal first encounter with this was as a teenager listening to youth evangelists talk about sex and Christian purity.

As a Christian teen, there’s a certain amount of vested interest in knowing what you can and can’t do with a girl. We know that the Bible says that sex outside of a marriage relationship is wrong, but what about groping? What about full-body hugs? What about necking? Can I kiss her, even? I wanted to know which precise behaviours were sin and which were ok.

There was a tendency among the youth evangelists I remember hearing to respond to this sort of thought process by asking things like “If the line is ‘no sex before marriage’, is it more pleasing to God to see how close to the line you can come, or to stay as far away from the line as you can?”

Though I didn’t recognise it at the time, I can see now how this unconsciously validates the whole notion of defining sin in purely behavioural terms. If you don’t have one, don’t play with someone else’s. You can be alone in a room with her, but only if you have the door open and there’s someone else in the house. You can kiss for a maximum of six seconds at a time. Looking back on it, a lot of it seems vaguely Pharisee-like. Sin and righteousness are purely a matter of what you can and can’t do.

Some of this is no doubt fairly wise among teens who are, if I remember my teenage years right, a rampaging mass of hormones and hungers. I’m particularly fond of “if you don’t have one, don’t play with someone else’s” as a guiding rule for physical touch between teen couples.

But the truth is a bit more complicated. Really, the idea that sin is just a matter of what you do is actually more like Islam than Christianity. Jesus took the command to not commit adultery and said that if anyone looks at a woman with lust in his heart, he’s already committed adultery.

The point is not that even looking is as bad as the act itself, otherwise you might as well go on and sleep with the woman once you’ve looked. Might as well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb, and all that. The point is that sin resides in the heart, not the actions. I could rigorously hold to a precise standard of outward behaviour toward another man’s wife, but if I’m lusting after her while I’m doing it, I have sin in my heart. The idea that you can set a line between “actions that are sinful” and “actions that are righteous” is what Jesus condemned the Pharisees for.

I’ve noticed in recent years that it’s not just youth evangelists and hormonal teenagers who have this sort of thinking, though. And I’m not saying that I think those youth evangelists were Pharisees; they were just trying to keep unruly teens from doing something irrevocable and were a little fuzzy on the implications.

There are sections of the church whose primary driving focus seems to be on avoiding contamination. Hollywood is evil and if you go to movies you are probably subjecting yourself to demonic influence. TV is likewise evil. Drinking wine is at the very least worldly and probably an outright sin. Having gay friends is inviting the spirit of the antichrist. Reading the Qur’an will inevitably make you a Muslim.

The whole idea seems to revolve around a set of rigidly-defined behaviours that are “righteous” and the avoidance of everything else as “worldliness”, which then becomes equivalent to, if not worse than, actual sin.

Certainly there are actions that the Bible always talks about as sinful. I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m prepared to take God’s word for it when He says that adultery is always sinful, because I cannot think of a circumstance in which sleeping with someone else’s wife is a loving thing to do to either my own wife or the other couple. I’m going to trust that He knows what He’s talking about when He says that humans can’t do these things and not sin.

But sin resides in the heart, not in our behaviour. Behaviour is just the symptoms; sin itself is the disease. The urge to say “this action is ok, that is wrong” sets us up for a Pharisaical judgmentalism because we don’t do this particular set of “sins”, ie behaviours.

It’s been around a long time, ever since the Pharisees called Jesus a sinner because He healed people on the Sabbath. And probably before that.

And into this context of the behavioural view of sin comes the New Testament account of Jesus and the woman with the issue of blood.

By the Levitical law, the woman who had the flow of blood was ritually unclean. Levitical law was strong on the subject: anyone who had a bodily discharge was unclean, and anyone touching someone who was unclean became themselves unclean. Even the cloth that an unclean person had sat on became unclean and could make you unclean if you touched it.

And here comes this woman with a neverending flow of blood, determined to touch even the hem of Jesus’ robe because she knows He has the power to heal her.

The crowd is jostling around, but somehow she manages it.

And Jesus stops and says “who touched Me?”

The disciples are incredulous. The crowd is touching You. Everyone is pushing everyone else. How can You ask “who touched Me?” The whole world touched you!

He keeps asking, until trembling, the woman comes forward.

I can just see the crowd of men drawing back as she announces what her problem was. Hard faces recoiling from the presence of contamination. Hard eyes calculating the steps they would have to go through to restore their own ritual purity, desperately trying to remember if she’d brushed up against them. This is a bit like coming out as gay in front of the Islamic Council of Iran.

By any normal rules, uncleanness was contagious. If something pure touched something unclean, the pure became contaminated. But this is the other way around. Shockingly, Jesus’ purity reaches out and contagiously purifies the woman, using her faith as its agent and catalyst. Similarly, when Jesus touches lepers, they don’t contaminate Him; He decontaminates them.

If this same Jesus lives in us, I don’t think we need to worry quite as much about being “contaminated” by “worldliness” as we sometimes do.

Yes, of course we need to avoid actual sin. But we sometimes get the idea that if the line past which we are in sin is over here, we really ought to be way to crap over there five miles away or else we’re “compromising with the world” or “in danger of worldliness”.

This is Pharisaism. God said to honour the sabbath day and keep it holy. The Pharisees said that in order to make sure you were doing that, you could only walk a certain number of steps, you couldn’t pick an ear of corn and eat it because that was reaping, you couldn’t cook your breakfast even if you found cooking relaxing, you couldn’t even heal someone if you went about healing by the power of God during the week. Hedging about the commands of God with your own “clarifying” ideas and “so that we stay as far away from sin as possible” extra rules. Specifying in ever-narrower circles exactly what we can get away with and what we can’t.  Sin purely as a matter of actions, not a heart issue.

Maybe one day we can perhaps all agree to let sin be sin. Nothing more, nothing less. Maybe if we all see clearly, we might be able to act a little more like the Saviour.  Less afraid of being contaminated and more convinced of the power of God.

The Plumb Line: A study in Law and Grace

My job, as I may have mentioned, is as a grade checker for an excavation company.

What this means is that I follow the earth-moving machines around and use a construction GPS unit to check that they have cut down or filled in the right amount of earth. “Grade”, for construction purposes, means the level the ground is supposed to be at at any given point.

In effect, I’m like a high-tech human plumb line.

Source:Shutterstock

A plumb line is another construction tool; one of the simplest and most ancient still in use. Ancestrally a lead weight on a string, it gives a perfect vertical line to check what you are building against. It was certainly in use in ancient Israel, because one of the prophets mentions God “bringing a plumb line against the house of Israel”; in other words, showing for all the world whether or not they measure up to His standard.

This is the function of God’s Law: showing the world what Righteousness looks like. So I suppose in a way, that my job is an embodiment of Law.

It can mould those of us whose work is in this area. I’ve met people in my or a related line of work who will not tolerate the slightest deviation from the absolute, and will fly into a rage at the operator if they get it wrong. Never mind that the bulldozer we’re working with can’t get any closer than plus or minus a couple of inches even with the best operator in history; they want it right!

I recognise, if I’m painfully honest, this tendency in myself. Not so much with my job, but theologically. I don’t have a lot of patience for established Christians who make basic theological errors: witness my ongoing personal war against the muddled theologies of a lot of modern Christian music.

The challenge in being an embodiment of Law is to do so with grace. Not a grace that means you bend the Law or allow it to be broken without consequence, but a grace which helps and makes it possible for someone on the wrong side of Law to be made right.

Construction-wise, this means me being both firm and gentle in bringing needed corrections. I’m not omniscient; I have to assume that the operator isn’t going out of their way to get it wrong. But I have to help them get it right, because (apart from the machines that have their own GPS) they don’t have anything except me to tell them as they do it whether it’s right or wrong.

It reminds me, in fact, of what the Bible says about the Law not being made for the righteous, but sinners. Those who are righteous are those who are in right standing with God, and the way you get there is by trusting in Jesus the Messiah and His finished work of rescue. If you’re in that situation, you’re like a bulldozer or motor grader that has its own GPS. The Holy Spirit dwells within you, not only telling you when you’re doing something contrary to the commands and character of God, but enabling you to do right. Most of my job is more like the function of the Law for one not having the Holy Spirit. All I can do is tell them when it’s right and when it still isn’t there.

There are some lessons for us here. Many of us like to grab hold of this idea that the Law is meant for unbelievers and more or less preach Law at them. “You [fill in your particular sin of choice]ers are breaking God’s Law! You need to straighten up and fly right before God brings a judgement against you!”

We would do well to remember that, like me with my construction crew, we’re not omniscient. We have to assume that they aren’t deliberately setting out to do wrong, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are on the same page as us when it comes to what real righteousness and goodness looks like. In this situation (which is very common now as the hold of religious Christianity grows weaker on the wider society), we need to patiently and gently explain and demonstrate what righteousness and goodness looks like. When so many people quite simply don’t understand why such-and-such should be so wrong, we need to come alongside and gently explain rather than leaping to condemn.

We could do with remembering that we do have the internal GPS of the Holy Spirit: God Himself dwelling within to enable us to live lives that reflect His character, and most of those around us do not. Most of the operators I work with aren’t even given a plan showing what is expected; I lay out flags and stakes as signposts, and that helps some, but when I get them down out of their machines and show them the plans and talk them through it, then they understand what’s required. They have to see it.

Our words are all very well. Like my flags and stakes, they are signposts for those who already have some idea of the shape of what is required. But most do not, and it’s not until they see it lived out in our lives that they really get it. What are our lives like? Are we living lives that please God, or are we selfish, lazy, greedy, full of rage, gossip, slander and accusation? Until they see it lived out, how can we expect them to understand?

But in this construction metaphor, I’m noticing another thing.

I’ve likened my job to an embodiment of Law, and said that the challenge was to do so with grace. I do have a model, though. Jesus was the embodiment of the Law, in that He perfectly lived out what it means to be in right standing with God and fully in tune with His character. And yet the Bible’s most common description of Him is that He was “full of grace and truth”.

The embodiment of Law, lived out with grace. Just like my Saviour.

Down to Earth

Of all of the various “Life of Christ” films that have been made over the years, I think one of my favourites has to be The Miracle Maker. If you’re unfamiliar with it, it’s an older film, an animated production that’s mostly claymation with some traditional cartoon-style animation, designed (I guess) mostly for kids.

So how does an evident kids’ film rate so highly on my personal ranking of “Lives of Christ”?

One of the unique and refreshing things about the film is its portrayal of the interactions between Jesus and the disciples (and others). It’s not all tingly music and light-of-glory, it’s a bunch of guys hanging out. Jesus isn’t some kind of demigod or unearthly figure; He laughs, He shares a joke, He gets hungry and tired. I’ve never seen anything quite like it in any other film about Jesus, and it really earths the character of Christ in a way nothing else seems to even attempt.

As an example, there’s a scene that takes place at the home of Martha, Mary and Lazarus shortly after Jesus’ baptism. Jesus has evidently been telling His friends about His ministry just beginning. Lazarus says something like “It’s a big change, Jesus. I mean, last time You were here You were just fixing the door!”

Jesus’ response is perfect: “And it still works, doesn’t it?” And it suddenly becomes fully real, that oh yeah, Jesus had a “real” job for at least twelve years (assuming He started His carpentry at age 18), working with His hands to do something as mundane as fixing doors and making tables.

Just like one of us.

Or again, when He’s calling the Twelve. He walks through the crowd of His disciples, choosing those who will become the Apostles, renaming some to alternating wonder and hilarity. Peter’s new name (“I’m going to build on this rock”) provokes a kind of awe, like Thomas’ calling (“You really want… me?”), while the nickname He gives to James and John – the Sons of Thunder – provokes a general laughing agreement: “Aye, that’s them alright!”.

And it suddenly becomes fully real that Jesus was with these guys all the time for three years of travel and togetherness. Undoubtedly it wasn’t all seriousness and solemnity; there would have been lighter moments, sitting round the campfire laughing at one of the Twelve’s silly stories (because there is always one like that in any group of people).

And The Miracle Maker manages to achieve all of this without ever crossing the line into irreverence. It’s the film version of the life of Christ which really seems to “get” more than any other the idea that Jesus is Immanuel.

Part of the way it achieves this is it’s smaller scale. Many “Life of Christ” films take place on a much bigger canvas. Jerusalem of the First Century is reimagined on the scale of a modern city, even if not a megacity like New York or Tokyo. The Miracle Maker sets most of the story in its proper Galilean context, and it happens on the scale of a village, not a city. Everyone knows, or knows of, everyone else. Mary Magdalene prior to Jesus’ casting out of her demons appears in the background every so often as “crazy Mary”. Jairus and Cleopas rub shoulders as colleagues and friends. Matthew is introduced as Peter and Andrew’s local tax collector.

The deliberately small scale of the film’s clay canvas brings Jesus, appropriately, down to earth. The Son of God becomes a being of clay, in this case literal clay; though in actuality as well in His taking on of Adam’s flesh.

And yet it’s reverently done. The respect with which the Son of God is treated may be earthy and humble, the more lowly honour a man pays his friend rather than the high homage and obesiance due a king, but it is no less real for all that.

It’s an expression of an important truth. Jesus, our Immanuel. As the book of Hebrews puts it, “We do not have a High Priest who is unable to sympathise with our weakness, but one who has been tempted in every way just as we are, yet was without sin.”

And if Jesus really was one of us, then righteousness really is possible. Jesus walked the road we walk, faced the struggles we face, the temptations to bend the truth, justify ourselves, get proud or boastful, get greedy or lustful. He did it as a real live human, a being of clay, yet didn’t sin once.

And it’s His Spirit that lives in each one of us, if we are trusting and following Him. Righteousness isn’t just required; it’s possible.

Not that living a righteous life is what saves us and brings us into right relationship with God, but that righteousness is a consequence of being saved. I do righteousness because I am a follower of Christ, not in order to be one.

But if I am a follower of Christ, God requires that I act like one. And while it may not be possible in my own strength and power, we have the Spirit of Jesus living within.

He did it, therefore so can we. The truth of Immanuel is God coming among us in a body of clay like ours, to show us what the Father is like in terms we can see and feel and touch.

There’s a relatively new hymn that expresses it well:

King of Heaven now the Friend of sinners

Humble servant in the Father’s hand

Filled with power and the Holy Spirit

Filled with mercy for the broken man

Yes, He walked my road and He felt my pain

Joys and sorrows that I know so well

Yet His righteous steps give me hope again

I will follow my Immanuel.