Monday, 19 June 2017

Hope springs eternal

Exodus 19:2-8 (page 60 in our pew Bibles) "You are a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" a verse describing the Jewish people and appropriated by Saint Peter (1 Peter 2:9) and re-applied to the church
Romans 5:1-8 (page 942 in our pew Bibles) Classic Saint Paul and a cornerstone of Protestant belief that it is through faith that we enter into God's Grace and reap the reward that is peace with God.
Matthew 9:35 - 10:8 (page 814 in our pew Bibles) The calling of the twelve disciples as His inner circle often thought to symbolise the twelve tribes of Israel. The phrase "The harvest is plentiful and the labourers few" is an inversion of the dire economic realities of 1st century Palestine.

The shock and deep horror of the fire at the tower block in West London is a sharp reminder of how terrible life events can be.
Lives ended in unimaginable pain – the fire making no distinction between men women or children – whole families killed – leaving those spared traumatised and in despair.

In such circumstances, any faith in God could seem hopelessly irrelevant and inadequate.
Sometimes it may seem so, but take God out of the equation, the situation won’t change – all we have removed from the situation is hope.

Hope for a better, glorious future where tragedy, suffering and death are no more, and the whole creation lives in a wonderful creative peace with God is such a vision that can comfort, sustain, and inspire a person to keep going even when things are dark.

But I would say that it is just at these times and in the face of such tragedy that faith in a loving God, who cares and holds us in his arms is needed more than ever lest hope is squeezed out of our lives and the light in our eyes get that much dimmer.

It was faith and hope, often shaky and uncertain, that eventually led the Jewish people through 40 years in the desolate wilderness to the promised land.

So many survivors of that fire are now going through their own period of desolation that may last just as long or more, but the hope of a new dawn at some point, where loved ones are raised and reunited has the ability to sustain on that sometimes long lonely trudge through life that would otherwise seem lonely, sad and directionless.

I attended my first humanist funeral on Friday and was taken by just how one dimensional it was. Stripped of the context of human life being loved and supported from a higher being, stripped of prayer and all liturgy, stripped of any hope of anything more, all that was left was the eulogy itself.

God tells the Jewish people in our Exodus passage today that despite what they are going through they are not abandoned or worthless, of no worth to anyone; they are instead a kingdom of priests and a holy nation – they have dignity and purpose – and God’s blessing leading them onwards towards their glorious future.

Through the troubles of the early church,which was small and persecuted,  Peter takes that phrase and applies it to the new Christian believers who were also feeling like they were trudging aimlessly in the wilderness to give them, and through his words us, hope. 

Hope meaning not a vague wish, as in “I hope it doesn’t rain later” but hope in its Biblical understanding as a certain expectation based on thousands of years of fulfilled promises, culminating in the sending of Jesus Christ to save us.

Proclaiming hope in times when all seems black is surely the message of the gospel. The message is contained within the central image of Jesus, an innocent man who came through unimaginable suffering and death of the cross to be raised by God to eternal life in paradise.Out of darkness there came light.

God knows and relates to the suffering in that Tower block because his own son was subject to the same fate in a different manner. He lost His only Son, who had only ever done good, yet was subjected to such ignominy.

We have no easy answers to suffering and death, and it would be wrong to say that we do, but we offer a God is certainly not aloof from death and suffering. We offer a God who in Jesus knew deep darkness but who is also a living hope.

Monday, 12 June 2017

The truth revealed.

Isaiah 40: 12-17, 27-31 (page 600 in our pew Bibles) The primal and overriding majesty and glory of God espoused in lovely poetic terms. 
2 Corinthians 13: 11-14 (page 971 in our pew Bibles) The very end of this letter that includes what we all know and say in many situations and services called "The Grace", obviously because of its Trinitarian nature.
Matthew 28: 16-20 (page 835 in our pew Bibles) The end of Matthew's gospel called "the great commission" because we are called to baptise in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit!

Claire my daughter spent a great deal of her life in and around church and she often used to ask me "What's your sermon about this week Dad?"
It became a bit of a family in-joke that I would always say "God".
Well this week is cartainly about the being of God but it made me think about what it was about on another level and what this week is really all about is revelation!
As I wrote on my email- No-one wanting to start a new religion, especially a monotheistic one would have come up with the notion of the "Trinity" by choice. We have had the notion of the three fold nature of one God revealed to us.
Do I fully understand the Trinity? No, but God has revealed himself in this way so I accept it and offer the maxim of Anselm of Canterbury - Credo ut Intelligam - I believe so that I may understand.
The Fathers of the church had it revealed to them through scripture and the Spirit speaking through the church community after much argument. The notion of the Trinity did not come easily -  They discerned this spiritually.
In psalm 42 it says “Deep speaks to deep” and the deep of God’s nature and purpose spoke to the deep of the church’s consciousness and revealed to us in this way.
It was Anselm of Canterbury who noted that I don’t need to understand before I can believe – I believe in order that I might understand.
Through the Trinity we can look at Jesus, his character, action and service and know that this is what God is like. Jesus revealed him to us.
When we experience a movement of the Spirit in our lives, we know that Jesus is with us, animated by the same spirit that led Jesus.
The Trinity is therefore a very practical concept and not an obscure theological construct. In prayer we pray to God the Father – Jesus taught us to pray to “our” Father – the creator and sourceless source of all things.
We pray through Jesus Christ who sits at the right hand of the Father and intercedes for us, who knows our human faults and frailties so can represent us perfectly.
We pray in the mysterious power of the Holy Spirit, the active spirit of God who is our link between our soul, through Jesus to the Father.
In Paul’s words “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19) so we know that God’s will is redemptive and reconciling, and done our of his nature which s essentially loving. Love in the Bible is essentially “self sacrificial” rather than pink hearts and flowers.
Love is practical and down to earth – it achieves something.
Finally, Matthew’s gospel begins and ends with God’s presence and the means of that presence is Jesus who Matthew describes as Emmanuel or “God with us” and at the end of his gospel has Jesus tell us that He will be with us to the end of the age.
So Jesus is with us now, but how? He is here by his Spirit, which is sent by the Father which is also the spirit of Jesus.
What are we to do with this knowledge? We are to go to the nations and baptise people in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit says Matthew.
God above us, God beside us, and God within us. The God who is all in all.
The Holy Trinity is God revealed to us by Himself. 

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

The Spirit lives to set us free!

Acts 2: 1-21 (page 910 in our pew Bibles) The coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is the fulfilment of the prophesy in Joel 2: 28-32. The promise is that God's spirit instead of just being for certain people for specific tasks is now available to anyone who believes. 
1 Corinthians 12: 3-13 (page 959 in our pew Bibles). There is one Spirit but many gifts. None of us have all of them which is why we need each other to make ourselves whole. The gifts are for the common good.
John 20: 19-23 (page 906) John's version of the giving of the Spirit & John 7: 37-39 (page 893) Jesus promising the Holy Spirit make clear that while the Spirit comes from the Father, it flows out through Jesus. The whole Trinity is involved.

New Life. Sudden, unmerited, irresistible new life. That is what the Pentecost narrative transmits.
All the stops are pulled out for this one – a heavenly sound like a rushing wind, descending fire, speaking different languages, all try and convey the new birth of the church.

The day is highly symbolic as well. The feast of Pentecost, or weeks, comes at the end of the spring harvest, symbolising the great harvest of souls this event was to usher in, and at least for some Jews this festival had come to celebrate a renewal of the covenant – in the Jewish religion, the giving of the law, but now marking the giving of the new covenant – the law that would be written on our hearts.

A highly poignant symbolic occasion then. It is a birthing, a moving forward. It is both an end and a beginning.
The meaning of Pentecost is new life for the church. New life for individuals within the church. New life through the Spirit of God for each and everyone. No one is excluded.

Some mocked, some tried to attribute the occasion to alcohol but some will always react like that.

Peter knew exactly what was happening and why. This was God fulfilling his promises made in the Bible and promised by Jesus as well and he quotes Joel 2: 28-33. This was God unleashing his Spirit, but with one major change.

In Joel the outpouring of the Spirit was a prelude to destruction but on Peter’s lips this is transformed into the prelude to new life and its purpose, fulfilled in Jesus Christ was the redemption of all humanity.

After his sermon, some who had either mocked or said they were drunk were “cut to the heart” and converted.
“Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved”

Now there is one spirit but many gifts and these gifts, are for the common good. All Christians have a role to play in the church.
Wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophesy, tongues, and interpretation of tongues.
These are all spiritual gifts, but practical gifts of service as well, and there are many gifts of service but one Lord says Paul.

Then Paul goes on to make his famous analogy that the church is an organic body and each of us has a role to play – all included.
We each have a role because each one of us who proclaims Jesus Christ as Lord has the Spirit in our hearts.

It occurs to me that in our current position at Holy Saviours, that is just so true.

As I sit near clueless in front of the church computer I am reminded that whatever other gifts I may have, administration is certainly not one of them.

But we all have gifts. As I am standing here in front of a multi-talented, educated and erudite congregation, many with great skills in diverse fields, all that stops us is having your gift identified and named and the confidence and license to use them.

Now no-one could say there is not a tension between the day of Pentecost and Jesus giving the spirit to his disciples in John’s gospel, but the manor and timing of the giving of the spirit are surely not as important as the fact of the spirit being given and John gives us a new perspective. The reality of the spirit is the main focus of this celebration not the chronology of when it was given.

John says that Jesus breathes the spirit onto the disciples on Easter Sunday after hs had just risen from the dead making the link between Jesus and the spirit much more direct and personal.

Many commentators have tried to give rational reasons for the rapid rise of Christianity throughout the world, claiming social and phychological conditions were just right for the emergence of a new faith and certainly these will have played a part, just as the moral vacuum that exists in China has helped pave the way for the explosive growth of Christianity in China in the 21st century but the gospel writers, whatever their perspective are united on this fact,

They are united in saying that the rapid growth of Christianity is due to God’s spirit being powerfully at work in the young church.

The spirit is a permanent gift and what was true then is true now.

Monday, 22 May 2017

The Promise

Acts 17: 22-31(page 926 in our pew Bibles) A skillful piece of writing that takes us from acknowledging the universal quest for God (who Paul says is closer than we all think) to saying that this God has been definitively revealed to us through the raising from the dead of the man Jesus Christ. 
1 Peter 3:13-22 (page 1016 in our pew Bibles) A piece hopefully next to the hearts of all of us. "For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that is God's will, than for doing evil"
John 14: 15-21(page 901 in our pew Bibles). Jesus promises the Holy Spirit, sent by the Father to be with us forever. God Himself, the Spirit of Jesus to be with us. We are not orphans, we are children of God.

Saint Paul’s audience was perhaps little different to a modern audience. In Britain polls consistently reveal a high rate of belief in God and that most people pray if only occasionally, but adherence to a specific faith appears to be far less important in the living of their daily lives.
Paul’s audience shared some similarities in that belief in God was very widespread but no-one could pin down exactly what this God was like or what He expected from them. God existed but no one was clear what He was like. They even had an altar with the inscription “To the unknown God”.
Paul’s line of argument is that God is nearer to all of us than we realise for in him we live and move and have our being – that’s everyone from celebrity atheists like Richard Dawkins or Ricky Gervais or Stephen Fry to the followers of other faiths.
Paul contends that if you want to discover the truth about God’s character, will and nature, you only have to look in one place. Look at how He has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ. And the guarantee that this is so is that Jesus was raised from the dead.
The resurrection of Jesus and all that fact contains is absolutely central to the faith. We don’t say we know what God is like because we’ve come up with a clever formula, or we’ve speant hours in philosophical debate.
We know what God is like because we know that Jesus, a human being was raised from the dead by God. Jesus was seen and experienced by people after he had died. Our faith works outwards from this one central fact.
If the resurrection did not happen then our faith is worthless. Jesus is true not just for people who choose to believe in him as one option amongst many. Jesus is true for all people at all times in all places.
Many of those people listening just mocked as many people today just mock, but Jesus and his resurrection is an objective fact  that has a bearing on every single life whether it is believed or not.
That is why Easter is the centre of the Christian faith. We will all die but He gives his children eternal life
We are still in the Easter season, our Easter Garden is still up, we still wear white stoles – when does this season end?
It only ends when the complete Easter event draws to its climax, and when is that? It is Pentecost. We acknowledge in our liturgy and observing of the liturgical seasons that the whole movement through Lent, Good Friday, Easter Sunday, Ascension day, is only completed when the whole series of events is crowned by the Giving of the Holy Spirit that we celebrate on the fourth of June this year.
Because Jesus is not just a historical event but a living reality. Jesus is alive
Jesus Himself promises the Holy Spirit, so that even though Jesus couldn’t be with us physically for ever God’s Spirit will be with us forever.
He says I will not leave you as Orphans. You know him for he dwells with you and will be in you.
Because I live, you will live and the seal or guarantor that this is true is the giving of the Holy Spirit which is given by the Father. He gives himself, his own Spirit, which is the same Spirit that rested on Jesus at his baptism.

God makes his home with us and we listen to his voice. No matter where that takes us – it took Jesus to his death – we follow because it is right and just and true. 

Monday, 24 April 2017

Christ has no body but OURS

Acts 2: 14a, 22-32 (Page 910 in our pew Bibles) Peter’s speech on the day of Pentecost says that everything, even Jesus’ death was according to God’s plan as revealed in scripture
1 Peter 1: 3-9 (page 1014 in our pew Bibles) The recipients of this letter were Jews of the dispersion which had no first hand witness experience of the resurrection, so were just like us! Peter is at pains to say that Jesus is not just a past event, or expects him in the future but is a present, transforming living hope. They have been born again!
John 20: 19-31 (page 906 in our pew Bibles) The resurrection of Jesus is not completed until the gift of the Holy Spirit is breathed on them in the same manner as God breathed life into Adam in Genesis 2:7. The incident with Thomas seems to be there in order for Jesus to bless all future believers.

Which out of all the information we have just heard is the most important message for us today?
In my view it is from Peter’s letter. There is important contextual stuff in both John and Peter’s own speech in the book of Acts, but the MOST important message it seems to me is this;
Everything that happened in the past is great, but it is all still just history. Everything we look forward to is great, but it hasn’t happened yet.
But we live in the here and now, not in the past or the future.
The most important thing that Peter says in my view is that Jesus, is a present transforming reality. The Spirit of the living God transforms our present. We are born again to a living hope says Peter. Jesus is alive and the Father has sent his Spirit to inspire, strengthen, transform our present.
What really distinguishes churches that are just coasting and those which are vital and truly exciting and alive is when that fact, that experience becomes embedded in the culture and informs everything we are and do.
That sense is conveyed fully in Acts when the healing of a leper, something Jesus would have done, was done by Peter in Jesus’ name. The restorative healing power of God that dwelt in Jesus has been made manifest and exercised through Peter.
The life giving power of Jesus is made available through his disciples by means of the Holy Spirit breathed out on the disciples.
Jesus’ life giving and life enhancing Spirit was breathed on the disciples in much the same way that in the Garden of Eden – God breathed life into Adam.
The only evidence that Jesus really has been raised and the evidence that the Spirit has been given is us – Jesus’ modern disciples.
How we are and how we treat each other is the only credible evidence that any of this is true to an outsider.
If we have peace of mind, if we can keep the narrow way, if we can heal our troubled spirits, and act as a coherent body, and can be a blessing to everyone we meet, if we can be examples of a changed life; then that is the evidence that speaks far louder than anything else.
God wants to bless our lives – which appears to be the point of recounting the episode with Thomas, who couldn’t believe until he had put his fingers in the wounds in his hands and his side.   He didn’t need to do so actually, just seeing Jesus was enough but gave Jesus the opportunity to bless all future generations who would believe even though they had not seen his risen body in person.
But the point of the church is that people might be able to catch a glimpse of his body through a transformed community that Paul calls – the body of Christ. I want to end this sermon by saying the prayer of St. Theresa which sums up perfectly what I am trying to say;

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but OURS.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

He is risen!

Acts 10:34-43 (page 919 in our pew Bibles) Peter gives as thorough and concise an overview of the Christian message as you will ever hear. The result of which was that the non-Jews had the Holy Spirit fall on them as they heard the word.
Colossians 3: 1-4 (page 984 in our pew Bibles) When that happens our lives are hidden in Christ so that what happened to him also happens to us. We will die like Jesus, but we will also be raised.
John 20: 1-18 (page 906 in our pew Bibles) John's version of the resurrection is based on the progressive experience of one woman, Mary Magdalene whose grief turns first to bewilderment, then to calling Jesus "Teacher" and finally she refers to Jesus as "Lord"

Mary Magdalene. Now there is a name to conjure with and many people have over the centuries, weaving myths and tall tales and confusing here with other Biblical characters, from being a repentant prostitute to being Jesus’ wife or lover.
The Biblical evidence supports none of this of course.

And John’s gospel centres his story of the raising of Jesus from the dead on the progressive revelation  to that one person, Mary Magdalene
We do know that she was a prominent female follower of Jesus, a group that supported Him in his ministry (Luke 8: 1-3) out of their own means.

Jesus had healed her of a presumably severe psychiatric disorder as “Seven demons” had been cast out of her and in her gratitude she became a fervent disciple.

Mary was the first witness to an event that we believe lies at the centre of world history. We even measure time in terms of the “Jesus event” everything that happened before Jesus and everything that happened after Jesus – B.C. and A.D.

Mary witnessed a man who was raised to a new order of life. Jesus wasn’t raised to a life only to die again like Lazarus.

Jesus was not resuscitated – He was resurrected to eternal life.

We, as Christians are privileged to have seen the future. Jesus is the future – our future – which has broken into historical time – to show us what lays in store for us.
The importance of the belief that says that Jesus is fully human as well as fully divine is that what happened to Jesus will also happen to us – his brothers and sisters. We have seen our future.

Yes we will die, as Jesus did, but we will also be raised just as Jesus is raised. We have a Golden future and that Golden future had to be communicated  and the pivotal figure in communicating that message was Mary Magdalene who was called by the early church – The apostle to the apostles.

Now Mary’s dawning understanding of the full importance of this event can fairly mirror our own.

At first she was just wracked with grief over a loved one’s death as we are. Then a dawning bewilderment over what might have taken place, incomprehension, believing of course that resurrection was a thing completely unknown and unexpected.

The person she encountered couldn’t be Jesus, because Jesus had died and people don’t come back from the dead and she mistakes the person in front of her for the gardener

The full import of what had taken place only came about when Jesus called her by name. “Mary”. 

Then a dawning realisation that something wonderful and earth shattering may have taken place as she recognises her friend and leader and she calls Jesus “Teacher”.

The full import and understanding came when Jesus explained that he had yet to ascend to “my Father and your Father”. And when Mary ran to tell the other disciples Jesus is referred to as “the Lord”.

It is the same for us. At first hearing that a man has been raised to everlasting life we may treat that news with scepticism or bewilderment.

It is only when in some mystical way we hear Jesus call us personally that we understand the full import of what has happened and we are personally wrapped up in what happened.

The God of Jesus is our God also. Jesus’ Father is our Father also. Jesus’ death we will share.
But we will all share in His resurrection also.

That personal relationship with God through Jesus is ours to have and enjoy now. We have eternal life as a personal possession.

Close your eyes and hear your name being called by the Lord of Life.You have a wonderful future and that will transform your present.

Monday, 10 April 2017

For thine is the Kingdom.

Isaiah 50: 4-9 (page 611 in our pew Bibles) The word "servant" is not used here but this is often called the third servant song and is the most intensely personal. Parts of the body mentioned are tongue, ears, back, cheeks, beard and face - a forceful reminder that God uses real human beings for his purposes. His word always has to become flesh.
Philippians 2: 5-11(page 980 in our pew Bibles) Sometimes said to be an early Christian Hymn, it chronicles Christ's pre-existent nature, his self abasement to earthly life and death and exaltation to universal Lordship, 
Matthew 21: 1-11 (page 826 in our pew Bibles) "The clash of two opposing Kingdoms" is how the theologian Marcus J. Borg described Palm Sunday which has retained its grip on my symbolic imagination ever since and is certainly what I shall be concentrating on today!

Isaiah is full of beautiful prophetic poetry and none more so than the celebrated “Servant songs” which from the very beginning Christians have applied to Jesus Christ.
This particular piece we heard to today is the most intensely personal of them and mentions parts of a human body like the tongue, ears, back, cheeks, beard and face and is a great reminder that God works through Human beings to fulfil his purposes, which includes us of course, but none more so than his unique son, Jesus Christ.
He worked through and revealed his unique character and will, through the actions of Jesus Christ.
So what did he reveal through Jesus on Palm Sunday?
What Jesus was introducing on this day was the essential differences between all the kingdoms  of this world and comparing them with the Kingdom of God.
Because the truth is there would have been two great processions entering Jerusalem before the Passover feast.
Pontius Pilate did not live in Jerusalem. He lived by the seaside at Caesarea Maratime on the coast. For Pontius Pilate to be present at the feast he need to get from the coast to Jerusalem so entering the city of Jerusalem on the West side was the procession of Pilate.
What a magnificent sight that would have been. Soldiers and horsemen in full gleaming armour, accompanied by trumpets and banners, and Pilate carried aloft in a bier or carriage – showing off the full spectacle of Roman power.
It was meant to impress and frighten. It was intended to send the message – this is where real power lies in this country and don’t you forget it. And if there is to be any trouble we will deal with it with overwhelming force!
This was representative of how all power works in this world. This was representing all the worldly kingdoms.
That was on the west side. On the East side of the city, over the mount of Olives came a man representing the kingdom of God. A man wearing the ordinary working clothes of a carpenter, riding on a donkey, a sign of peace. He came not with armour or swords or spears, but lauded by yhe ordinary people who  strew his way with palm leaves.
You could say that Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem was a parody of what was happening in the west of the city. Today who might call this a counter demonstration.
It was an acted parable of the essential difference between the kingdoms of this world, built on power, coercion, vanity and force and the kingdom of God based on peace, love and mutuality.
To emphasise the difference between the new way and the old, the very next thing he did was cleanse the temple of the money changers to drive home just how corrupted religion had become by getting too close to the centres of earthly power.
And he really wanted people to note what he did. In Mark’s gospel he didn’t cleanse the temple straight away after entering Jerusalem. He went home and came back the next day to do so. Why was that I wonder.
Well Jesus didn’t do it that evening because it was already late (Mark 11:11), and there wouldn’t have been many people there to see it. This was all pre-planned for maximum impact – both the entry and the cleansing. He returned the next day when there were crowds of people and plenty of Pharisees, scribes and Sadducees would have been there as well as hoards of money changers and then he made his symbolic gesture for maximum impact.
In a lesson for us nowadays, Jesus said ( in Matthew 10:16)we have to be as innocent as doves but as wise as snakes – just like He was in this instance.
Our palm crosses, this palm Sunday are a stark reminder that we are involved in a Spiritual war. We are soldiers in the Kingdom of God fighting against the corrupt powers of this world. But our weapons, are not violent like the Roman army’s were.

Our weapons are (Ephesians 6:10 -) prayer, truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, and the spirit working through the word of God.