Meet Catherine of Siena. This Tilda Swinton lookalike lived in the 14th century and, three times a day, she whipped herself with chains for an hour and a half. She managed to reduce her sleeping to about 90 minutes every other day. And of course, being so saintly, she slept on a wooden board.
Her diet was also strange. She was famous for eating only a spoonful of herbs a day (and communion, of course). Sometimes though she’d spice things up by eating the pus from a cancerous sore! It was to teach her not to be afraid of death. If she had to eat anything else she was well known for shoving twigs down her throat to bring up the food she couldn’t bear to have resting in her stomach. She was revered for such ‘holiness’ and many other aspiring saints copied her behaviour. But you won’t be surprised to learn that she died of starvation.
This is Simeon the Stylite. He was a monk of the 5th century who got into ‘fasting’ from an early age. He could hold out for the whole of Lent (46 days!) without food. In addition he would wrap palm fronds tightly around his waist until they cut into his flesh and the wounds grew over it. But aside from these acts of ‘godly devotion’, the world remembers Simeon for something even more bizarre. One day he climbed up a pillar. And he stayed there. For 37 years. Until he died. People brought him bits of flat bread and goat’s milk while he endured 37 Syrian summers and 37 winters. He never came down alive. Yet he spawned a whole movement of copycats – the Stylites!
There are so many more “holy people” I could mention, whose relationship with food and their bodies was desperately unhealthy. But there’s something else they had in common. They didn’t understand the gospel – that is, the good news at the heart of Christianity. Supposedly they performed these painful acts for God. But none of them seemed to know what God had done for them!
These days we don’t revere monks and nuns and ‘holy living.’ But we still struggle to know how to relate to food and our bodies. Self-harm and self-starvation is as common and as deadly as ever. And once again, the problem is a failure to grasp the gospel. If we really know the goodness of God and what He’s done, it will revolutionise both our lives and our culture.
Let’s unpack this good news a little bit and you can judge for yourself. It begins, of course, with God.
Now I don’t know what you think of when you think about God. But I’m guessing if you live in the West, you’re imagining a distant individual, high on power and low on personality. You’re probably not very keen on knowing such a god or getting close to him. And if that’s how you’re thinking, I don’t blame you. Because the God of the bible is completely different.
The Bible says that before the world began, there was a party happening! The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit have always been together in a perfect relationship of love and happiness. We have a name for these three Persons united in love: ‘the Trinity.’ This is who the real God is – a community of love and absolute togetherness. In fact their life together is too good to keep to themselves. They want to share it with others. So this God made something else – a world – so that we can share in this life. We exist so that we can pull up a chair at the table. The meaning of our lives is to join this Party.
But there’s a problem, and it goes back to our first parents. Humanity has always said to God: “No, I’ll make it on my own.”
God is a family of love, but we prefer our own company. God is a fountain of life but we go off and dig for mud. God is a community of light, and we slink off into darkness.
It’s so easy for us to think of God as a kill-joy. But this God is not the kill-joy, it’s us. We are offered the deepest relationship and joy possible but we have refused it. We close ourselves off and will not receive His love. This is the essence of our problem – what the bible calls ‘sin’.
Many people think that sin is about doing naughty things – as though it’s basically about what we offer or don’t offer to God. The Bible has a different take. God isn’t needy! He’s the Giver. So at the heart of it, sin is us refusing to receive from God. Do you see the difference? It’s not so much that I’m a bad offerer, I’m a bad receiver. My problem’s not so much how I perform for Him, my problem is not resting in Him.
Sin is closing ourselves off to the life of God so that now we manage out of our own resources. And so, as sinners, we’re condemned to live our lives cut off from His life.
I was taking a funeral (something I do as a minister) and I noticed all the cut flowers on the graves. It really hit me how those flowers are a picture of us. They look vibrant and alive, but only for a few days. They’ve been cut off from their life source and soon they will wilt and rot. Just like the people in the graves. And just like me and you!
A few minutes later I said these words at the graveside – they’re taken from the bible:
“As for man, his days are like grass, he flourishes like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more.” (Psalm 103:15-16)
We are just like those flowers. Flourishing for a bit, but cut off from true life. And soon we’ll be gone.
So that’s human beings – made for friendship and joy in the life of God. But instead we are cut off, closed down and running out of time.
But God desperately wants us back. And that’s the really good news.
God the Father sent His Son into the world. Jesus came down from the heavenly party, empowered by the Holy Spirit. And He came as one of us. He didn’t float six inches off the ground, He earthed Himself to our planet. He didn’t despise bodily life, not at all. He came as a single cell growing in Mary’s womb. He grew into a wriggling baby and then a toddler and a child and a teenager and an adult. He shared in our life in every way. Why would He do that?
Well you probably know the phrase: ‘If you want a job done well, do it yourself.’ Basically Jesus looked down and saw us doing human life all wrong. So He came to live out a different kind of life – not cut-off-life. He came to live Spirit-filled-life – life in connection with God. In all His eating and drinking and preaching and praying and loving and crying and laughing and singing, Jesus lived out true human life.
To return to our picture of cut flowers – Jesus came to establish a new kind of plant. And He says to wilting flowers like us – come and get grafted into me!
So Jesus came to rescue us from cut-off-life, to establish a new kind of life and to invite us in. When we trust in Him we come into His kind of life – we join the Feast!
But when Jesus came He found something that was very peculiar but absolutely universal. He found a human race refusing to receive God’s life. Instead we all try to make it happen on our own.
People do this in one of two ways.
On one hand there are “sinners” – these people love freedom and throwing off the shackles and trying to be happy. On the other hand there are “slaves” – these people play by the rules, do their bit and try to be good. Are you a “Be Happy” person, or more of a “Be Good” type?
Well to help us think it through, Jesus tells a story. Perhaps you know it as “the Parable of the Prodigal Son”? That’s not the title Jesus gave it. Jesus said it was a story about “two sons” (Luke 15:11) and you can read it here.
As we think about it, ask yourself who you relate to the most.
The younger son was into freedom and self-discovery. He took his father’s money and ran. He just wanted to throw off the shackles and be happy. But he ended up flat broke, starving and slumped in a pigsty. He wanted freedom and joy, but apart from his loving dad, he wound up miserable.
…more forgiving and loving than anyone could have dreamed. He received the miserable wretch back into the family and there was feasting and joy. What a picture of God’s rescue – a sinner welcomed to the party by Jesus!
But – and this is where the story gets interesting – how was the older brother going to react? You see the older brother was not a wild child. He wasn’t into freedom and happiness. His motto was hard work and self-improvement. He wasn’t a rebel, he was righteous. Self-righteous! He wasn’t a ‘sinner’, he was a ‘slave’. And he would rather die than celebrate someone like his brother.
So there he was, slaving away in the field, and then the barbecue fires up and the music plays and there’s dancing and laughter in the family home. And there he is, in the dark, standing on his rights, furiously working, huffing and puffing, getting more and more bitter.
The father comes out and begs him to join them. The father makes it clear, the older son is just as loved, just as welcome as his brother – please will he come inside and join the joy.
But the older brother explodes in anger and refuses to go in. He’s been known all his life as the good boy, but when he meets the real goodness of his generous father he snaps. He actually becomes a real rebel to his father and shames him in front of all the guests. The good boy turns into the villain.
The story ends with the young ‘sinner’ receiving forgiveness and love at a party to end all parties. Meanwhile the ‘slave’ angrily cuts himself off from the feast. He prefers the outer darkness.
Remember, these sons represent two options for people trying to live apart from God. Some try to get free, throw caution to the wind and pursue happiness. But the irony is they end up enslaved and miserable. By himself, the younger brother just ends up in the pigsty.
Others decide to work the system and be a “good boy” or a “good girl”. But they end up full of anger, self-will and self-righteousness. By himself, the older brother ends up estranged from his dad, lost and bitter.
What about you?
Some of you reading this could be younger brother types. And maybe you’ve fallen on your face in a pigsty. You’ve tried for freedom and you’ve gotten enslaved. Well you know where true freedom is found… in the arms of the father. Maybe you thought you needed to escape his arms to be free. But I tell you, that boy was never more free than when he was wrapped in his father’s embrace. Look again to Jesus. He’s not a kill-joy is He? We’re the kill-joys. We end up in the pigsty. He invites us to the feast. Come home to His love.
But here’s my guess. I reckon if you’re reading this, you’re more likely to be an older brother type. Just a hunch, but since you’re on this website, I’m wondering whether you’re a ‘good girl’ or a ‘good boy’. And you’re definitely not feeling like you’re in the party. You feel shut out and cut off. And deep down you’re angry.
But, here’s the thing, good girls and boys aren’t supposed to be angry, are they? But they are. Dangerously angry. Maybe you’re not quite aware of what’s going on inside you, but occasionally you surprise yourself by how sharp and determined you can be, driven along by an iron will you don’t really understand. You’re a strange mix of good kid and angry rebel. Does that describe you at all? Well, if it does, you’re an older brother. You and billions of others!
And you need what everyone needs – older brothers and younger brothers. You need to see Jesus again for who He really is. That’s what will soften your heart so you’ll join the joy. Let me tell you who He is.
The Question is: Who is Jesus?
Jesus is God’s beauty shining out at full strength (verses). He is the visible image of God’s true nature (verses). He is everything God wants to say to the world (verse). All the fullness of God is found in Jesus (verses).
You want to know who God really is – not the kill-joy we imagine Him to be – but the real God? Look to Jesus. See Him coming to us, born among us, living alongside us, filled with compassion, healing, teaching, forgiving, raising the dead, dealing with enemies, dealing with friends, washing their feet, stooping, suffering, bleeding, dying! See that and you’ve seen God!
There was an army chaplain during the second world war called Tom Torrance. He was surrounded by soldiers who faced death every day. And they would ask him one question more than any other: “Is God really like Jesus?” Tom would turn to verse after verse in the bible and reassure them, Yes – He is exactly like Jesus. With death and danger all around them, that’s what they needed to know. Because if God’s really like Jesus then ultimately it’s going to be ok. Ultimately I can trust Him, even with bullets flying.
Well the bible says Jesus is the Son of God, full of the Spirit. He was there in the beginning, a member of the great Party of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And when He came to earth He opened up that Life and said: “Look! The Party really is that good. And you really are invited. Join the joy.”
A couple of times in the bible the Lord says, “All day long I’ve held out my arms to a stubborn people” (verses). This is the Lord’s invitation to the party. He stretches out His arms all day to hard-hearted people. Remind you of anything?
It’s the cross isn’t it? The cross is Christ’s invitation to the feast. The Lord of all is pleading with the world to come in. It’s a free invite for us. But it cost Him everything. On that cross, He is wounded and cut and bleeding, He is parched and stripped and emaciated, He is abandoned and lonely and cut off. He’s in the darkness facing the punishment we deserve. He’s entered into our cut-off-life, He’s suffered its consequences and He’s taken the whole sorry lot of it down into death where it belongs.
But friends – He went through that so that you never have to. He experienced the cut-off-ness so that you can have life to the full.
Catherine of Siena died starving herself “to atone for the sins of the church.” When I hear that I want to travel back in time and tell her – No! Christ has suffered for our sins. And He did it perfectly. There’s nothing more for us to add. He’s put all that stuff to death, we don’t need to. Come out from the darkness. Come out from the isolation. Come out from the shame. Jesus rose from that grave and says come, join the joy. That’s the good news.
If we understand Jesus and His cross it won’t make us whip ourselves, it’ll make us beam with the sheer goodness of our God. When He was born Jesus showed us He can handle our messiness. He’s not arms-length from our suffering – He enters in. When He died on that cross He took care of all our guilt and shame – that stuff’s dead and buried. When He rose again He burst through into new life, beyond all that nonsense. There is a Life of feasting and joy and Jesus invites us in. He invites us now, even in all our darkness and sin.
He doesn’t want our good works or our religious practices. He doesn’t want our excuses or promises to ‘do better.’ He just wants us. It’s all He’s ever wanted.
Jesus said, “whoever comes to me I will never drive away.” (John 6:37)
Join the joy.
Here’s a prayer you might like to pray if you want to respond to Jesus’ invitation. The words aren’t magic, make it your own. But these might be the sorts of things you want to say to God…
I’m sorry for thinking dark thoughts about you and for refusing your love. I see where all my cut-off-living has led and I’m sick of it. My sins are far bigger than me and I can’t deal with them. I’d like to tell you I’ll clean up my act, but I’m not sure I can. All I can do is turn to Jesus. Thank You for Him. I see who You really are when I look at Him. Thank You that He died to deal with all my sin and shame. Thank You that He rose to invite me into Your loving family. I have nothing to offer, but I claim that promise of Jesus: “whoever comes to me I will never drive away.” So I come trusting in Jesus. Please receive another sinner into your feast.
If you’ve prayed something like this prayer or just want to find more, please do get in contact.