Monday, 23 April 2018

Man the lifeboats!

Genesis 7: 1-5, 11-18, 8: 6-18, 9: 8-13 (page 5 in our pew Bibles) The edited highlights of the story of Noah and the flood, ending with the sign that God would never again flood the earth, the rainbow.
Acts 4: 5-12 (page 912 in our pew Bibles) The view of St. Peter that salvation can be found nowhere else except exclusively in Jesus Christ is a scandal to some and a blessed promise and opportunity for evangelism to others.
John 10: 11-18 (page 896 in our pew Bibles) "I am the good shepherd" finds resonance in the 23rd psalm of course and is the most universally well known description of Jesus.

The flood story is significant because God created the world with the natural and moral order in perfect balance. Albeit with one destructive element, mankind.
When the moral order was overturned there were natural consequences.
In the Bible the moral and the natural orders are linked; moral decisions have natural consequences.
That this is more than a Biblical affectation is apparent as we are much more aware of that nowadays when we realise that our actions and decisions can have dire repercussions in the natural world; from extinctions of species, to plastic waste clogging the oceans, de-forestation causing flooding, and a myriad other problems.
God intervenes to try and eradicate the destructive incident, mankind, apart from one family. We are not told why Noah was “righteous” and deserved saving he just was, and only he and his family were the only ones saved out of all humanity.
In the Christian era, sometimes the church has been likened to an ark, carrying the ones destined for salvation, while everyone else perishes, and the Christian rite of baptism as being saved “through” water because originally the rite was full emersion.
Of course we are baptised into God or as it sometimes says in the New Testament baptised into Jesus and it was the name of Jesus which was the contentious factor in our story from Acts.
As I started to say last week the name of Jesus carried power. Jesus means Joshua which means God “saves” or “heals”.
Now verse 12 which ascribes absolute uniqueness to Jesus.
“There is no other name under heaven, given among men by which we must be saved”
And despite modern liberally minded Christians trying to undermine that fact, in our age of pluralism we must acknowledge that if we are to be true to the faith as the Apostles received and understood it we have to say that the church was at its inception exclusive and found salvation nowhere else.
The reality is that the world of the 1st century  was no less plural than our world is now, but the Apostles had no doubts and would go to their deaths believing that.
What drove them was the fact that Jesus was “the way, the truth and the life” and they believed that with every fibre of their being.
This man described himself in various ways but one of the most comforting, even in this technological age, divorced as we are from the countyside is when Jesus said.
“I am the good shepherd”.
Describing yourself as a shepherd was not uncommon and Kingship in general was often equated with shepherding but Jesus said “I am the good shepherd”
Underlying and making a distinction between him and others. The others were like hired hands who wouldn’t risk their lives to protect his own.
He would willingly lay down his life for his own to protect them. He knows us and we know him and we will hear and listen to his voice.
As Jesus might say “Those who have ears to hear, let them hear”

Monday, 16 April 2018

I believe in the resurrection of the body

Zephaniah 3: 14-end (page 790 in our pew Bibles) The prophet foresees the restoration and salvation of Israel 
Acts 3: 12-19 (page 911 in our pew Bibles) Peter attributes the healing of a lame man not to himself but to the saving power of Jesus' name. Of course Jesus' actual Hebrew name Joshua means "God is salvation" The root of the word salvation is "salve" heal 
Luke 24: 36-48 (page 885 in our pew Bibles) As Jesus reveals here our future hope is "resurrection of the body" not a formless purely spiritual future.

It was very important for Luke to emphasise that Jesus’ resurrected body was very real.
“Touch me” he says “for a Spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have”
There are major points of continuity as well as discontinuity between the earthly and the risen Jesus but Luke is keen to show that Jesus is the fulfilment of old testament prophesy and not just a fluke. And because he is fully human he is the only example we have of someone "risen from the dead" with which to work
God’s restored creation, like the original creation, is physical and material.
The continuity and the discontinuity can perhaps be best described by St. Paul when he wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:42 of a rather ambiguous term “Spiritual bodies”. As Paul says also, “we see through a glass darkly”
But this is not just an unimportant academic question. What this means for us is important.
For it says to us that our future is an embodied, and personal one. Our resurrected selves are the whole of ourselves but a new perfected version of ourselves in a perfect re-creation. A new heaven and a new earth as Revelation puts it.
That personhood survives death is important. The Eastern notion of Nirvana has us all as individuals dissolving into the great soul, the one true reality that Is Brahma. Not so in Christianity.
If I were asked whether we would recognise ourselves or each other after death in this new heaven and new earth I would have to say yes. Of course, because Jesus is the prototype and despite some discontinuity he was very much recognisable.
It is important to understand also that there is no pain and suffering or death either. Although he certainly carried the scars of his crucifixion, so what happened on earth was not irradicated as though they had never happened but they were transformed and transcended.
As a sign or symbol of this ultimate re-creation, are the healings carried out by Jesus himself in the gospels and by his disciples in his name.
Names carry power in the Bible – they are seldom incidental.
All the Apostles heal people and Peter of course in today’s story in Acts  heals a lame man, but Peter is not claiming the power to heal himself. It is Jesus’ name that heals.
Jesus is a Greek translation of Jesus’ actual Jewish name of course which is Joshua. And Joshua means “God is salvation”. So the ultimate healer is God the Father, working through his Son, and invoked by Peter to heal and save people.
Salvation of course is not a fashionable word that is used over much except in a religious context. Which is why I find it helpful to think of the root word of salvation which is “to salve” or to heal.
Salvation means the great healing. Jesus came to heal us and set us free. Being made whole is another good way of describing it which is why all the physical healings that Jesus did during his ministry are signs and symbols of that great ultimate healing that awaits all of us in Christ.
It is a great healing and restoration written about and looked forward to by Zephaniah in our Old testament reading that prophesies the messiah;
As with all prophesy and in fact all things pertaining to us as human beings it is best to hear words like them as though they had been written with just you, in mind, so hear them spoken to you personally as I read God’s word to you….
"Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
The Lord has taken away the judgements against you;
He has cleared away your enemies
The king of Israel, The Lord is in your midst;
You shall never again fear evil."


Monday, 9 April 2018

Spirit of the living God fall afresh on me.

Exodus 14: 10-end, 15:20-21 (page 56 in our pew Bibles) God parts the sea for the Israelites so letting them cross in safety.
Acts 4: 32-35 (page 912 in our pew Bibles). An idealised vision of the early church holding everything in common.
John 20: 19-end (page 906 in our pew Bibles). The famous story of “doubting” Thomas. Whatever his original misgivings Thomas went on to India and in AD52 founded the “Mar Thoma” church, which is today two million strong.

It must be really galling to the apostle Thomas, who founded the 2 million strong Mar Thoma church in India that he is forever saddled with the adjective “doubting”.

In fact his words to Jesus when asked to put his hands in Jesus’ hands and his side “My Lord and my God” are the most explicit confirmation of faith in the divinity of Jesus you’ll find in the entire new testament.

Interestingly the text doesn’t say that he actually did touch Jesus at all; just hearing Jesus’ voice addressing him seemed to be all he needed, just like Mary Magdalene in the garden last week.

It seems to be true that the line between honest doubt and deep faith is thinly drawn.

Jesus goes on to say how blessed his future church is for believing while not actually having him standing there in front on them as some kind of “proof”.

What proof do we need to see to believe? What proof do others outside the church need in order to believe?

The answer to that is also given in our short passage we heard today.

The example of the changed and intentional lives of the apostles is the proof that people saw and experienced, that overcame their doubts. And so we need to ask, how were their lives changed?

Remember this is still Easter Sunday in John’s account and when he first met the disciples he sent them out into the world and breathed on them and said “Receive the Holy Spirit”

John’s account does not have Pentecost. Luke’s story of the giving of the HoIy Spirit at Pentecost is well known because it suits the liturgical needs of the church but in John’s gospel the disciples received all the tools they needed for transformation growth and evangelism in that one act on Easter Sunday.

The church is a spirit filled body of people.

I remember being at a conference in Mirfield many years ago when there were representatives from different denominations each expressing their claims to be ancient in origin and the Pentecostal minister got up and said “we are the most traditional church here because our origins spring direct from the Holy Spirit in AD 33.”

He was speaking for effect but he had put his finger on something fundamental.

Any church that is not Pentecostal or charismatic has no connection with the spirit of God which is the very source of our power and the most convincing “proof” that anyone can get.

The proof for others can only be changed lives. And lives are changed by the Holy Spirit.

When people say they have Jesus in their heart, or that Jesus is present in the Eucharist what they are really saying is that God’s spirit is present, for it is the Spirit that makes Christ present.

It was Jesus himself who said that he had to go away but he would send someone else to be with us forever.

It is God’s spirit that leads a church.

The clearest statement that this is true comes at the start of the Eucharistc prayer when I say;
“The Lord (Jesus) is here” and everyone replies…
“His Spirit is with us”.

The whole Eucharist is addressed to the Father, through the Son, and in the power of the Holy Spirit.

 Seeking the Spirit is not confined to one particular brand or type of service.

As our own Bishop Mark has highlighted, a quiet reflective service with incense and candles can be just as charismatic as noisy, overtly evangelical ones.

The form is far less important than the substance.   And it is the substance of our faith that needs to be encouraged.

I shall end with Paul’s powerful prayer for every one of us in Ephesians  which can be appropriated by all Christians

“I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to measure of all the fullness of God.” Ephesians 3: 16-19

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Christ is risen!

Easter Sunday

Isaiah 25: 6-9 (page 586 in our pew Bibles). Isaiah prophesies a time of huge joy when God swallows up death forever and all tears are wiped away.
Acts 10: 34-43 (page 919 in our pew Bibles). Peter details the facts of the good news of Jesus' death resurrection and many appearances to witnesses, who ate and drank with him.
John 20: 1-18 (page 906 in our pew Bibles). A beautiful and touching account of Mary Magdalene meeting the risen Jesus but mistaking him for the gardener. The point of recognition comes when Jesus addresses Mary by name.

Christ is Risen!

This is the cornerstone of our faith.

All the tens of thousands of churches, the New Testament, modern history and art as we know it today – none of it would exist at all if it wasn’t for that one central basic belief.

Christ is risen.

In that one little phrase all the hopes and joys contained in the words of Isaiah that God would one day swallow up death for ever and wipe away all our tears  come to fruition.

These are massive concepts but they all happen on the very human scale. They have to because Jesus was fully human.

The pain and suffering he had to go through was very real. His body was whipped and beaten, bruised, pierced and killed.

His tomb was visited by a some women and a couple of the twelve disciples.
Nothing was immediately apparent. The enormity of what happened unfolded bit by bit before them and in John’s gospel the full majesty of what had taken place is revealed initially to just one woman, Mary Magdalene in the garden.

Overcome by grief that her friend had been cruelly killed, and apparently even his body had been stolen, a man appears before her and asks her why she is crying?
She, knowing that Jesus is dead, and peering through her tear stained eyes, doesn’t recognize Jesus at all.  In fact she thinks he might be the one who might have taken the body.

The point where she recognizes Jesus is the point at which he mentions her name.

“Mary” and on hearing her name the scales must have fallen from her eyes and the joy rose in her heart.

Eventually she ran to the rest of the disciples with the simple message,

“I have seen the Lord” 

Christianity is a very human, personal faith. It doesn’t become real and active in our hearts because we learn it in a book or even at church. It doesn’t become real and effective in our hearts until we hear our own names on the lips of Jesus.

Christianity becomes true for us when we can say with our own mouth, reflecting what has happened in our hearts  that “Jesus is risen”

And Jesus is my Lord.

Monday, 26 March 2018

The clash of Kingdoms

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.

Monday, 12 March 2018

God is love.

God is Love! Says John and today we celebrate a particular aspect of love and nurture that most people experience from their mothers.
Not every woman is or can be a mother but one thing I am sure of is that everybody in this church has a mother.
Fatherhood is important too of course and I believe necessary for the healthy development of a child but motherhood is special and the bond people have with their mothers is often so powerful, and they exert a huge influence on most people’s lives.
And in this service we honour that role and simply say “Thank you”.
Just as Moses was found in that basket, we use this basket to symbolise God’s loving care for us all. This love holds us, just as Moses, as a baby was held.
If you can imagine each strand of this basket that has been woven together,  as one of us, it can show that all of us woven together as the body of Christ can hold people in both our good times and our bad times, just like a mother.
Humanity was made in the image of God and in Genesis it says - “male and female he created them” so both male and female aspects complete the picture of God and indeed of humanity.
Today we concentrate on the mothering, nurturing side of both God and human mothers. The mothering, nurturing side of God is a part of the Godhead (the completeness of God) even though we tend to talk about God in male terms.
Mainly of course we do that because that’s how Jesus referred to God – as Father. And Jesus was God incarnate. But the whole picture of God would be incomplete without these feminine, mothering attributes.
Mothering Sunday is the time where we can remember our own mothers;
We can say thank you to God for our relationship with her.
And even if that relationship was less than perfect, was perhaps difficult and testing, as I’m sure some of us might have experienced it, We can ask forgiveness and healing for our mother’s shortcomings and the part we might have played in sometimes fractious and difficult relationships.
We can say thank you for the protection, the nurture, and the boundaries we learnt from our mothers
We can say thank you most of all for all the love that we received.

And as we started we remember that God is love and that therefore Love is God.

Monday, 26 February 2018

Get behind me Satan!

25th Feb. - 2nd Sunday of Lent

Genesis 17: 1-7, 15-16 (page 11 in our pew Bibles) God's covenant with Abram is marked by a name change. Abram means "exulted father" and Abraham means "father of many"
Romans 4:13-end (page 941 in our pew Bibles) Abraham's covenant with God is used by Paul to show that faith exceeded works in the economy of salvation
Mark 8: 31-end (page 844 in our pew Bibles ) Jesus rebukes Peter for trying to thwart the will of God despite being done for good intentions.

A sign of the divine initiative and grace that accompanies the new covenant is the granting of new names.
Abram- exalted Father becomes Abraham – Father of many
Sarai – which means mockery – becomes Sarah – which means princess.

But more important than the meanings of the names is the simple fact of the change that is important.

Kings adopted new names on their accession to the throne (as traditionally British monarchs have done so as well)
Their new names denote a new status and a new set of responsibilities.
Abraham and Sarah as the progenitors of “many nations” and their faith being “reckoned to them as righteousness “ by God happened way before Moses and the giving of the law.

As having faith in God led Abraham to be made righteous in God’s eyes preceded the Jews being made righteous by following the laws given through Moses, this is the basis of Paul’s argument that Christians are saved by faith in God’s Grace.

It was the re-discovery of this doctrine in the middle ages that faith is sufficient for salvation that led to the massive upheaval in the Catholic church that led to schism in the West and the start of the Protestant church, the greater emphasis on the centrality of scripture (to keep the church institution and priests in check and true to God) and of course through a series of ups and downs to the Church of England.

We believe that it is by Grace that we are saved, made effective by faith. We are not saved by being loyal to the rules of the church or doing good works to earn our salvation.
It is God alone that can save us.

And of course it is common to all Christians that God is incarnate in Jesus Christ.
So we are saved by faith in Jesus Christ.
We are made righteous by believing that all our sins are forgiven and we are made one with God through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross.

So the cross is put centre stage.

Jesus began to teach his disciples that this suffering and death was necessary but Peter out of compassion for his friend and mentor began to remonstrate with Jesus to try and persuade him out of it.

It is laudable that Peter wanted to save Jesus from this awful fate but misguided.

This was the will of God, and to stand in the way of the will of God is the work of the devil.
Jesus says to Peter “Get thee behind me satan”

And this was directly after Peter had been the only one perceptive enough to recognise Jesus as he really was when he proclaimed “You are the Christ”

This is very human of course. Able to have great insight and perception one minute and be able to get things completely wrong in the next.

How we are made one with God is a massive and complex subject. I am greatly influenced by Easter Christianity and they place a much greater emphasis on the incarnation when atonement happens. When you think about it at Christmas we celebrate the joining together of God and man in one person so in the word made flesh we see atonement (at-one-ment) there, but even while accepting that; in the picture of the cross we have something much more potent and necessary.

The clash of kingdoms, the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world, the potent symbolism of a sacrifice for sin taken from the Temple cult. The validation of everything Jesus was and embodied, the victory of Good over evil, was  given us on the third day, when the illusion of a victory on behalf of evil was decisively overturned for ever and the gates of heaven were flung open to all who had faith in the resurrection of Jesus.

Ultimately, salvation is not something that any of us has to reach up for or is forever just out of reach.
Salvation is the very ground we stand on and can confidently build our lives upon this rock.