Monday, 27 November 2017

The Shepherd King

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 (page 722 in our pew Bibles) God is the good shepherd and will stop at nothing to find and gather his people.
Ephesians 1: 15-end (page 976 in our pew Bibles) A glorious piece in its entirety but within it Paul prays that we may find Wisdom and revelation
Matthew 25: 31-end (page 831 in our pew Bibles) In the story of the sheep and the goats at the final judgement we may find it surprising that faith is not mentioned once, only the outworking of faith resulting in good works.  

The feast of Christ the King is a modern 20th century festival instituted by Pope Pius 11th in 1925 possibly as a counter blast to the rise of fascism in Europe at that time.

That being the context, we see that the raison d’etre for instituting such a festival was to remind people that the Kings and shepherds of this world are as clumsy, exploitative and corrupt as any of the Shepherds lambasted in Ezekiel’s book and so nothing that is happening is new or unexpected.

Then as now the festival warns us against false hope and false prophets and declares that God himself is our shepherd king.

Drawing a similarity or correlation between kingship and shepherding is a perennial feature of middle eastern culture and is found across ancient cultures including ancient Egypt, but within the fiercely monotheistic culture of the Israelites these attributes of the “Good shepherd” and the “Good and righteous king” are given to God alone.

For thus says the Lord God: Behold I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. And in verse 16…

“ I will seek the lost, and bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice”

That verse includes a warning to those who have abused their strength and power to use their power for wrong ends – something that God expands in the second half of that piece.

The Jewish people need to remember that they have one Lord and God, and that they have one servant that is David or the "Davidic line."
  
And in the Christian era there is a fusion between the servant King of the Royal line of David and God himself in Jesus Christ and the piece from Ephesians is mesmerising in its rhetorical and actual power.

In the risen Jesus we see Christ the king when God “raised Him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but in the age to come. And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all”

Inspiring, Poetic, and mesmerising words that set Christ the king in his rightful place far above all leaders and political movements here on earth.

Which brings us to Matthew’s story of the sheep and the goats at the final judgement. There are many problems that present themselves in terms of interpreting this passage but there is one thing we can say with confidence.

The first and main thing is that Christ the King identifies himself with those who suffer, and love for them is service to Him.

The only inherent danger in all this is that it could lead to a certain Christian arrogance and triumphalism towards those we judge outside the sheepfold.

The answer to this problem lies within the narrative itself of course, because this king is fully revealed in the hunger and thirst, nakedness, loneliness, imprisonment, and death of the King of the Jews who reigns from a cross.


Monday, 20 November 2017

Walk the walk!

Amos 5: 18-24 (page 768 in our pew Bibles) Amos points out that "The day of the Lord" that everybody was looking forward to would actually be a day of judgement for those Jews who worshiped God with their lips only and not in deed. Amos denounces all their religious feasts as rubbish because of their lack of integrity and authenticity.
1 Thessalonians 4: 13-18 (page 987 in our pew Bibles) Many Christians in the first century thought the end of the world was imminent and were perturbed by the deaths of Christians before Jesus returned. Paul was assuring them that whether alive or already deceased Christ leaves no-one behind. We are with Him forever. 
Matthew 25: 1-13 (page 830 in our pew Bibles). The oil in our lamps are the good deeds that flow from the Spirit, received when we put our faith in Christ. We mustn't lose hope or concentration waiting for Jesus to return as He could do so at any time.  

Amos cannot stand the religious ceremonies of the Israelites -  people who purport to love and follow God, and all the while they condone massive injustice in the land.
“I hate, I despise your feasts and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies” he famously writes and their noise and singing of praise to God just upsets him.
This extract ends today with the words….
“Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream”
There has to be a correlation between worship of God and personal and corporate morality and ethics. 
Be as devoted to Justice and righteousness as you are to robes and religious rituals and sacrifices and God might just take you seriously.
He starts by telling them that “The day of the Lord” that everyone is looking forward to is actually going to be a very uncomfortable day of judgement for the religious establishment because of this inherent incongruity.
Their faith needs to be reflected in their deeds.
This is the strand that runs through the day and especially the parable that Jesus tells about the ten virgins.
Oil, in this parable is the oil of good works, of deeds. The bridegroom is the return of Jesus and you must have good works as a result of your faith or you have nothing to show the world.
In Matthew 5: 16 Jesus says “Let your light so shine before men, so they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven”.
That light shines because of the oil of good deeds and righteous living – exactly the thing that Amos said was missing from the Jewish people in his much older document.
In the parable the girls who didn’t have any oil couldn’t borrow any from the ones that did – a second hand faith is not valid – and they tried to get some but it was too late. The door was shut when they returned and they were locked out of the marriage feast, which is the same event known as the “Day of the Lord” in Amos’ earlier work.
Those girls were judged just as the religious establishment in Amos was judged because for all their worship and praise, they didn’t really know God for that was evident by their actions.
In Paul’s message to the Thessalonians, we see just how pressing and imminent people thought the return of Christ was to be – For that return read  “The day of the Lord” in Amos or the Marriage feast  in Jesus’ parable.
But the main thrust of this piece is not that, but is given in Paul’s opening sentence about the certainty of Christ’s death and resurrection and how our hope is invested in that fact. We are not to grieve like others who have no hope – we have a certain hope vested in a God who never forgets us and whose presence transcends life and death.
Our task is not to second guess who or how many are saved but to rejoice in the fact of that offer and offer it to others.
Remembrance offers the chance to remember the sacrifice of millions in war and in the act of remembrance we meditate on the enormity and waste of war to the end that we never underestimate the consequences of warfare making it less likely to be considered as a first option or response to provocation. This is the reason for the state occasion
Christianity offers another window to look through that talks about the ultimate destination of all those people that died.

All our readings today are underpinned not only by a belief in eternal life but also by being prepared for that prospect in this life through living a life that reflects the values of God.

Monday, 23 October 2017

Render to God what is God's

Isaiah 45: 1-7 (page 605 in our pew Bibles). The message of this piece is that God works through history, people and circumstances to create the conditions needed for His glory to be known. The people themselves, from Cyrus to Pontius Pilate don't have to know God at all - but they can still be used. 
1 Thessalonians 1: 1-10 (page 986 in our pew Bibles) The earliest Christian words recorded in the New Testament. Paul commends the lively faith of this young church that he planted. 
Matthew 22: 15-22 (page 827 in our pew Bibles) A very clever parable indeed, often misunderstood, that ascribes all things to Almighty God.

Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s”

The Pharisees sent a few of their young guns and a few followers of Herod to first flatter Jesus and then to try and trap him.

Should we pay taxes to Caesar or not? Is meant to trap him.

If he says yes, then he would lose favour with the crowd, some of whom thought it even blasphemous to handle a coin with the Emperor’s head on it, let alone pay tribute to an occupying power.

If he says no, then he is guilty of treason.

Jesus sidesteps the trap and comes up with the enigmatic phrase I started with – pay to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.

Generations of people have tried to use this as a formula to try and work out what the proper relationship should be between church and state – but misses a deeper central point.

Jesus asks whose image (icon) is on the coin and whose inscription and of course it is Caesar’s.

But fundamental to monotheism is that human beings bear the image of God

They might have to pay the tax but they do not belong to Caesar they belong to God. In fact all things ultimately belong to God – and that includes Caesar – even though he doesn’t know it.

Cyrus too in the Old Testament did not know that he belonged to God – he was a worshipper of the pagan god Marduk – but that didn’t stop him being used as a vessel through whom the one true God could act. It was ultimately through King Cyrus that the Jews were set free from their captivity. Without him, that would never have happened.

God moves in mysterious ways his wonders to perfom and what the Bible reveals to us this morning, that ultimately, at the last, God is in ultimate control and he will use who he uses in order to bring about his will.

From Cyrus to Pontius Pilate and beyond, to unseen and unheralded people acting in your own lives, through people and through circumstances God can and will act.

The unseen hand of God was recognised by Isaiah in regard to King Cyrus, and interestingly Pontius Pilate is recognised as Saint Pontius Pilate in the Egyptian Cristian church for his role, unsought and unacknowledged, in the death and resurrection and salvation wrought by Jesus.

We shall baptise today a child whose parents have recognised in some form or other that she bears the divine image.

She belongs to God and more specifically she shares the divine image with her brother Jesus and she will have that status confirmed today when she is baptised in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

She joins all the baptised in this new holy family, where she is born again and becomes not just the daughter of her biological parents but becomes also a child of God  with a Father in heaven.

This same belief is the same belief that energised the young church in Thessalonika. 1 Thessalonians is the very first Christian writing we have in the whole new testament, pre-dating all the gospels so is the earliest written evidence of Christianity.

It starts with an extended Thanksgiving for a faith that changed them and in turn led them to become evangelists themselves.

Fundamentally they recognised what Jesus was pointing out in his altercation with the Pharisees, that Paul recognised in the Thessalonians and what we are all collectively acknowledging in Grace. That we all belong to God, that we bear His image and we are children of the same heavenly Father.


Governments and nations and all manor of human agencies will ask for our allegiance and we will have to give it as part of living in a community, just as the Jews had to pay taxes to Caesar but ultimately we don’t belong to any of them. Our home, and our true allegiance lie elsewhere. 

Monday, 16 October 2017

Rejoice in the Lord always

Isaiah 25: 1-9 (page 586 in our pew Bibles) God is praised for his surpassing glory and then a prophesy is made that this will all be crowned by the swallowing up of death itself 
Philippians 4: 1-9 (page 982 in our pew Bibles) Paul prays that the surpassing peace of God will guard our hearts and minds and transcend the petty squabbles that divide people
Matthew 22: 1-14 (page 827 in our pew Bibles) Many are called and many respond to the invitation to the feast but the guests included a man "without a wedding garment". We must be clothed with genuine repentance to partake of the feast.

Isaiah prophesies a wonderful day, a feast day, a day of rejoicing where the veil that shields our faces from God will be removed and we shall see God face to face, when God will wipe away all our tears, and remove death for ever and the celebration that ensues will be a feast of rich food and aged fine wine.
The day of the Lord will be a day of celebration ushering in a new created order. This is the day when all things will be put right.

We are the heirs of this promise, a people bound together by this hope.

This day of the Lord would be ushered in by a Messiah, an anointed one, and the people ushered in will be drawn from all peoples and all nations.

This then is the background context for Jesus’ parable. The original guests invited to the wedding feast, the Jewish people, by and large refused to come. Some couldn’t care less and were more concerned with their daily business and others were positively malicious.

So God had to gather a new set of guests and welcome them to the feast from every land and people.
That is us the church – the newly invited guests to this feast of the Kingdom of God.

Brilliant. But before anyone gets too complacent there is a sting in the tail.

One of the invited guests isn’t wearing the appropriate wedding clothes and is thrown out of the party – so what can this mean?

The wedding clothes are symbolic of several warnings given in Matthew’s gospel at various points about being genuine. “Doing the will of my Father in heaven” (7:21) not just paying lip service to the commandments of God or “Having a righteousness that exceeds the scribes and the Pharisees”  (5:20) or “producing the fruits of the kingdom” (21:43)

These are all expressions that point out the consistency between words and deeds that is appropriate for anyone who calls Jesus “Lord”.

The wedding garment represents authentic discipleship.

That doesn’t mean we have to be perfect but we must have our heart and mind attuned to the demands of the kingdom and to sincerely want to put those commandments into action in our lives.

What that means in practice is written about by St. Paul in his letter to the Philippians. He starts by exhorting two women who have obviously fallen out over something to “agree in the Lord”.

Whatever divides them at the moment, that is nothing compared to what they agree on as fellow workers with Paul and Clement for the surpassing glory of the gospel.

Rejoice in the Lord always.

Be reasonable.

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Take everything to God and trust Him to deal with it and your reward will be peace.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding. Not peace as in a temporary absence of conflict as in “North and South Korea are currently at peace” but a much deeper sense of wholeness, contentment represented by the Hebrew word shalom.


Monday, 9 October 2017

Glory glory Hallelujah!

Isaiah 5: 1-7 (page 569 in our pew Bible) Israel is God's vineyard but because Israel has forsaken God, God will remove his protection from his people and abandon them to their fate.
Philippians 3:4-14 (page 981 in our pew Bibles) Paul views his Jewish heritage as worthless when compared to the surpassing worth of knowing Jesus Christ.
Matthew 21: 33-end (page 827 in our pew Bibles). Jesus prophesies in this parable that the tenants of God's vineyard (the Israelites) will be replaced by a people gathered around Himself ("the stone that the builders rejected")

I went to a conference recently called the “Glory of God in the church” and how to communicate it, and the only way it seems to me to communicate God’s glory is to embody it – to put flesh on the bones.
Paul’s enthusiasm for the gospel, his joy, where everything he had known before he counts as rubbish, in the face of the surpassing glory of Jesus Christ filled his life.
Paul says “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord”
Glory is a very difficult concept to embody or explain – brightness, magnificence, splendour, majesty – but as a shorthand I use the word “worth” the worth or weight of something. What is God worth?
We give glory to God by giving adoring praise and thanksgiving. In doing so we reflect God’s glory back to him. 
Without ever mentioning his conversion experience Paul nevertheless now rests fair square on that revelation where he was captured by Christ.
What is truly significant it seems to me is that Paul wasn’t in any kind of spiritual crisis or doubted what he was doing according to this passage, in persecuting the church, and he doesn’t seem to having any problems keeping the law either as he calls himself “blameless” according to righteousness.
In other words, Jesus Christ was not an answer to any kind of problem, spiritual or physical, that Paul might have been happening, and that is quite a difference to the premise underlying a lot of Christian evangelism, that Jesus is the answer to your problems.
According to the text, Paul didn’t have any particular problems. He was just blown away by the surpassing glory of God who confronted, challenged and changed him so much that everything he had known before he could dismiss as “dung”
He discovered the glory of God’s Grace and a righteousness that depended on faith.
Grace and faith are the two cornerstones of the Christian faith. It is God’s grace that saves us, that heals us, that sets us free, that bestows fullness of life.
We appropriate those glorious gifts through faith in the actions of his son Jesus who revealed God’s love on the cross by dying for us.
This reveals the multi-faceted glory of God where the ultimate symbol of Love is a man willingly dying on the cross to set us free.
The revelation of the glory of God to Paul, was not any answer to unanswered questions, it was a revelation of the glory of God through the revelation of and encounter with a raised and living man, Jesus Christ. He was blown away by the resurrection of Jesus.
Far from being an answer to anyone’s questions or offering the gospel as an answer to anyone’s problems, in fact this proved to be just the start of a whole host of new questions and set him on the road to try to comprehend the new vision which “upset” his previous answers which leads us to the next part of Paul’s writing, that he now wants to get to know this Christ and the power of his resurrection.
This is a task that will stretch to the end of our physical lives and beyond.
The Westminster catechism states “that man’s chief aim is to glorify God and enjoy him for ever”
Our scripture set for today ends with Paul saying that he is not perfect by any means and hasn’t fully grasped the glory of God but he presses on to make that his goal.

The Christian church is conjoined with this mission – so that each of us in our own way and at our own speed progressively discovers – unwraps – the gift of life bestowed on each of us as Christians. We pray that our enthusiasm for this gospel will consume us and will make it easier to communicate to others.

Monday, 18 September 2017

Forgiveness

Genesis 50: 15-21(page 44 in our pew Bibles) Everyone likes a happy ending. Jacob dies and instead of then turning on his brothers now that the old man is out of the picture Joseph is reconciled to his brothers and interprets the evil they did to him in a wider context that led to good.
Romans 14: 1-12 (page 948 in our pew Bibles) Paul tells us that these second order differences between fellow Christians such as when and what we eat or whether one observes a Sunday or saints day as more Holy than others, are peripheral and should not cause divisions amongst us as long as we are convinced that we are serving God by doing so and recognise the Lordship of Christ.
Matthew 18: 21-35 (page 823 in our pew Bibles) We all know we ought to forgive others but sometimes that seems all but impossible and knowing we ought to just heaps guilt on top of us. This parable is complex but roots all of our own potential forgiving in God's prior forgiveness of ourselves.

The Bible repeatedly tells us to forgive those who have injured us. We know that. The greatest prayer in Christendom – The Lord’s prayer tells us  “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us”

This church will be full of people who know that intellectually there is much to commend forgiveness, in that the letting go of hurts and grudges has enormous mental health benefits, and that we should forgive others. Forgiveness draws a line so we can move on with our lives

And yet we do find it well nigh impossible to do so. Forgiveness is so very hard.

If you have been cheated on by a spouse, or double crossed by a friend or business partner, that leaves you feeling angry, cheated, shamed, defeated, or is terrible,

To then be told that you ought to forgive them, and you just can’t then just adds guilt  to the whole situation which makes everything worse. Burning coals are heaped on your head. 

It is in this context that we should view today’s gospel reading about forgiveness.

In that opening exchange between Jesus and Peter, Jesus says that you should forgive your brother not seven times but seventy seven times. What Jesus is trying to say is that forgiveness is not a commodity that can be calculated on a calculator, and so the language of numbers in inappropriate.

That numbers are inappropriate is illustrated in the parable that Jesus tells;

The king forgives a man who owed him 10,000 talents. We lose the force of this in our modern English translations. That amount is the equivalent to the wages of a day labourer in Palestine for 150,000 years – an absurdly enormous amount. The king represents God and that first servant represents every one of us.

God forgiveness of us is based not in numbers or any kind of justice, but based in mercy - unlimited mercy.

And that servant, us, after being forgiven so much then goes out and can’t even find it within him to forgive a piffling amount.

So what is happening here? Well for one thing the servant is quite deluded because he says to the king, “Oh have patience with me, I’ll repay everything in full” which of course he could never do because, as we have seen it was such a huge sum – his wages for 150,000 years! He imagines he is dealing with the king on the basis of Justice, but he is dealing with mercy.

But also there is a huge gap in this story that we must consider. He was forgiven an extraordinary amount and yet there was no rejoicing, no gratitude and no celebrating with his wife and family, and no reflection on being set free from such a crippling debt.

He hadn’t changed. He hadn’t discovered or appropriated God’s mercy really. He had been given mercy but he hadn’t “received” it. He still thought he was dealing with Justice, numbers, a commodity, so when he came across the other servant who owed him a few Denarii he dealt with him in exactly the same way as he would have before he had been forgiven.

He hadn’t come to see himself as a truly gifted person, a recipient of God’s mercy.
And don’t forget that Jesus is pointing the finger at all of us in this parable.

For one thing, most people see themselves as quite OK really with not much to forgive. We are good people. And just like the servant, we delude ourselves that what we owe is payable and not much is owed anyway. But near the core of the Christian faith is the belief that if we say we have no sin we delude ourselves.

So how does any of this help anyone struggling to forgive others?

As with another seemingly intractable problem like suffering, Christians are not given a pat answer.
We are given instead a dramatic story that portrays the incredible  kindness of God to all of us. We are given a story that shows God dealing with people not by using the scales of justice, even though that is what we want, but deals with people by showing mercy.

Unlike the servant who didn’t appropriate God’s mercy, we are invited to receive and show gratitude for God’s great kindness towards us and let that fact start to soften and change us.

Our forgiveness of others is based in God’s forgiveness of us, which when appropriated produces a sense of gratitude and rejoicing and greater magnanimity .

The differences between us all is slight, just as the difference between the two servants was slight. We do not want to get into the game of playing innocent versus guilty in our personal relationships because that is really not what it is about, but knowing that when we join a Christian community, our base line is that we join a community of forgiven sinners, whose defining characteristic is gratitude, rejoicing and joy.  




Monday, 11 September 2017

Building a healthy church

Ezekiel 33: 7-11 (page 721 in our pew Bibles) Confronted by people who object to the message of coming judgement, the prophet replies that he is like a watchman who has seen the enemy approaching and is issuing a warning to alert the people. If he were to fail in that calling he would be culpable.
Romans 13: 8-14 (page 948 in our pew Bibles) Paul writes "Love does no wrong to a neighbour therefore love is the fulfilling of the law" Works do not save us but we, as Christians are still to fulfill the commandments.
Matthew 18: 15-20 (page 823 in our pew Bibles) The formula for settling disputes are for the greater good of producing a united and coherent community and this results in more effective prayer when we are more united.

How do we deal with disputes within our own church congregation? Well there are guidelines for how to do it in Matthew this morning but what underpins the formula is a very specific understanding of the local church community as a “body” where the cohesiveness of all of our constituent parts is of the highest importance.

And when we talk of “coming to” church rather than “being” church, we betray the fact that in our minds the church is something “other” and outside of ourselves rather being intrinsic to who we are.

The plain fact of the matter is that this building is not the real church – this building houses the church which is all of us gathered together.

The danger of course is that we confuse the two things and end up caring far more about the physical state of the building than we care about the spiritual health of the congregation.

And the formula for settling disputes between ourselves is that we talk to each other first and if then there is still a dispute we get a couple more people involved and eventually the whole church has to make a decision.

It is natural that we try and limit arguments because we have the general spiritual health of the whole church to consider – but why?

Because the church as I’ve said is not this building, it is an organic living breathing entity with a corporate life that must be nurtured otherwise it withers and dies.

We need to be built up in three main ways, spiritually, theologically, and socially.
All need attention and the social side speaks for itself and is the reason we hold dinner clubs and Tynemouth walks and the MU and W3 hold various social events though the year.

Spiritual and theological nurture is more complex but each service is a part of the whole but also courses like Alpha and Christianity explored, and home groups like Dorothy’s group and the various groups I have led are a part of the whole thing.

What underpins all of that is a devotion to God’s truth no matter where that leads us.

Ezekiel was confronted by people who didn’t like God’s truth being prophesied by him and we heard Jeremiah complaining about just the same sort of thing happening to him last Sunday.

It is a lesson for us that God’s truth, however much it might run counter to the prevailing culture, must be preached no matter what and no matter how unpopular that may be.

The sort of God preached in some churches nowadays is just a big soft formless pink blancmange who never has a bad word to say about anyone or anything and offers no transformation , challenge or life.

And this does matter. The most recent British social attitudes survey makes grim reading that in just one year the amount of people professing religious belief has dived decisively below the 50% mark from 52 – 47 and alongside that, the statistics make worse reading for the C of E, in that against our decline, there is one group that has bucked the trend and has actually increased its share of the population and that is the independent evangelical churches who now make up 17% and growing of the total. This gradual long term shift of power is I think in part due to our neglect of the theological and spiritual. We have left a vacuum that others will fill.

But no matter what we do or say it must be done in love – genuine love and Paul reminds us of that this morning.

Whether that be in personal disputes or preaching, we must want the best for everyone, and that best is God’s truth..

When a community starts to coalesce around the central idea that we are a sacrament of God – that we are bearers of the Holy Spirit – and God’s light in a darkened world and not just a collection of diverse people who happen to meet once a week in church we fulfil our vocation.

Being strengthened by the Spirit through the Eucharist helps form us. As we will say later in this liturgy “Though we are many, we are one body because we all share in one bread”