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.

Monday, 3 April 2017

The Spirit lives to set us free.

Ezekiel 37:1-14 (page 724 in our pew Bibles) The Valley of dry bones. The Lord of creation breathes life into the scattered bones of the dead. God is the God of the living, not of the dead (Mark 12:27) says Jesus. Our lives are secure in His hands.
Romans 8: 6-11 (page 944 in our pew Bibles) The same Spirit that raised the dead in the valley of dry bones is the same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead and is the same Spirit that dwells in our hearts
John 11: 1-45 (page 897 in our pew Bibles) The raising of Lazarus. Jesus says that "I am the resurrection and the Life". The Spirit of God in Christ raises his friend from the grave. Lazarus was raised only to die again but we are all to die to be raised to eternal life. 

The theme of today’s readings is unmistakeable. God is the Life giver.
He is the source of all life – he promises New Life.
He is also the source of Full life.

Wonderful but what is our link to this Life giver – who creates, sustains, fulfils and brings new life even out of death?  Our link is the Spirit of God.

Even mention of The Holy Spirit can frighten some people because even the mention of the word “Spirit” conjures up images of “Ghoulies and ghosties and long legged beasties and things that go bump in the night” but there is really no need to be afraid, for God is wholly Good. There is no darkness at all in God so any encounter with the Spirit of God is always for our benefit, always life giving and life enhancing.

The Holy Spirit is essential for the Christian faith. When Christians say things like they have Jesus in their heart, or God is with them, what do they mean?
What they actually mean is that the Spirit of God or the Spirit of Jesus lives in them.
The Spirit of God is the Spirit that convinces people that Jesus is true; it is the Spirit of God that works in you when you pray; it is the Spirit of God that worked through Jesus to raise his friend Lazarus from the dead; It is the Spirit of God that raised the dry bones of a dead people in the Old Testament; and it is the same Spirit that dwells in our hearts through faith.

It is the same Spirit that will be active, in the baptisms of Sean and Bobby. From the moment of their baptism, regardless of whether they feel anything or not, the Spirit of God will be a constant companion from now on. How they nurture God’s presence with them in their lives is down to them – God never forces anyone to do anything, but the Spirit of God is always willing and active and available.

The Spirit of God that raised Lazarus back to life was just the preamble to the main event.
Lazarus was raised back to this life, only to grow old and die again, a natural death when he got old.
What we celebrate on every Sunday and especially on Easter Sunday is a completely different order of bringing back to life.

That resurrection, that we claim as Christians, is a raising from the dead to a completely different order of life – eternal life – a life that never ends.

That is our personal possession that we all have as people who put our faith in Jesus.

Jesus knows first hand our hopes and fears. When it was clear that Lazarus had died and He was led to the tomb, the reality of death truly hit him and Jesus cried. It is the shortest verse in the whole Bible and yet says so much.  “Jesus wept”. Jesus was weeping over all our deaths – weeping over death itself – the final enemy.

Jesus offered his own life so that those bitter tears that we all shed over the death of loved ones is not the final word.

The final word to us is Jesus himself – God’s word made flesh and blood which speaks to us of new life, new possibilities, new relationships.

The new relationship that we enjoy between ourselves, with life, with our families and work colleagues is all based on that fundamental new relationship that we all enjoy with God the Father, when his Spirit comes to live within our hearts.

Monday, 20 March 2017

Come to me and drink.

Exodus 17: 1-7 (page 59 in our pew Bibles) God provides water in the wilderness for his unruly and quarrelsome people.
Romans 5: 1-11 (page 942 in our pew Bibles) We have peace with God and access to God's Grace through faith so we can rejoice at all times, even when we are suffering. In fact suffering produces endurance, character and hope.
John 4: 5-42 (page 888 in our pew Bibles) Jesus offers everyone who comes to him in our metaphorical "spiritual wilderness" living water that wells up to eternal life.

The reason for putting the Exodus reading alongside John 4 is perfectly obvious.
When the Jews – God’s people were wandering in the wilderness and feeling increasingly remote and distrustful of God, through Moses, God provided them with water to drink and slake their thirst.
Wind forward 1,500 years and Jesus offers everyone who feels that they too are walking in the wilderness spiritual water that doesn’t just slake our immediate thirst but is a present continuous gift that never leaves us. We are incorporated into the Kingdom of God and this gift goes with us wherever we are and in whatever circumstances we find ourselves. The story of the woman at the well is a fantastic parable with so much depth but I’ll return to some of those insights a little later.
Because  the results of possessing that spiritual water is exactly what Paul is writing about in his letter to the Romans. Building on what Paul said last week, and written again here – we have access to God’s Grace through faith –  Paul is interested in how this works in a human life – how does it improve your life? Paul says that the natural outcome of faith is that is it produces a sense of peace. Peace in all circumstances.
Peace is a state of mind and being that we possess despite our circumstances. Whether we are happy or sad, whether we have just encountered success or failure, a new birth or a death, we always have at the very centre of our being, the spirit of God who guarantees our present and future incorporation in the Kingdom of God. We have the “peace” that we celebrate in every Eucharist and will celebrate again today.
Peace is a product  of the permanence of the Spirit of God, and the knowledge and trust in our state of possessing eternal life in a glorious re-creation that enables us to rejoice in whatever position we find ourselves.
In good times or bad times – it doesn’t matter - we still possess the presence of God, our guarantor of eternal life, we know we are loved and that is why we can rejoice in bad times as well as the good times.
I used to watch TV shows when prisoners would say that their conversion to Christianity gave them Freedom and I used to wonder what they meant. But even while they were caged behind bars, inside they were free. Despite their circumstances, they knew they were forgiven, loved by God, and had eternal life.
In fact Paul goes one step further and says that actually the bad times can be wonderful learning experiences and can be used to build endurance, character and hope.
Another important facet that Jesus tells us through his encounter with this Samaritan woman is that where you go to worship God is not the right question. John 4:23 Jesus tells us that true worshippers of the Father will do so in Spirit and truth. It is not a question of where, but how!
You can have a scenario where a prisoner in prison can have truer worship than a cardinal in the Sistine chapel if the cardinal is half hearted and hiding something, or feeling proud and pleased with himself, rather than a prisoner who admits the truth and reality of his situation, seeks forgiveness and approaches God in sincerity, humility and truth.
In another place Jesus tells us a parable about just that scenario in his parable (Luke 18:9-14) about the tax collector and the Pharisee.
It is one of the few occasions when Jesus unambiguously announces that He is the promised Messiah 4:26) and not just for the Jews but for all people because of course this woman was not Jewish.
Jesus says (John 10:10) when asked why he had come, he answered “That they may have fullness of life”. One of the meanings of this short saying is that Jesus wants the possession of the water of Life, God’s spirit to improve our present life;
To gain a new perspective on life in general and your own life in particular;
To gain Peace – Peace with God, peace with others and peace within yourself based on the assurance we have in God’s promise of forgiveness and eternal life.
To gain Endurance, character and hopeful outlook on life.

Jesus offers us the water of life. All we have to do is echo the words of this Samaritan woman and say “Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty”.

Monday, 13 March 2017

Amazing Grace!

Genesis 12: 1-4 (page 8 in our pew Bibles) Abram is the Father of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, a man from Mesopotamia (current day Iraq) who obeys God's instruction without question to set off for the land of Canaan. Abram means "Exalted Father" but after God confirms the covenant with Abram by way of circumcision he renames him "Abraham" which means "Father of a multitude."   
Romans 4: 1-5, 13-17 (page 941 in our pew Bibles) Paul uses the example of Abraham to explain why Grace (the free gift of God) is superior and came long before the law of Moses. Paul quotes from Genesis 15:6 "Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness" to explain that Grace made effective by Faith is superior to following the law.
John 3: 1-17 (page 887 in our pew Bibles) We must be born again by the Holy Spirit says Jesus to see the Kingdom of God. Otherwise we display the dead hand of legalism and intellectualism alone. The Spirit is part of the three fold being of God so without the Spirit our faith is dead (detached from the living reality of God) comes alive in God.(A spring of living water welling up to eternal life - John 4:14)  

Grace is a word we all know if only through the cliché “There but for the Grace of God go I” or through the words of the Hymn “Amazing Grace”, and it is central to understanding Christianity so I feel it needs a working definition.

Grace is the completely free and unmerited favour and love of God.

“Free and unmerited” are very important words for they mean that it costs you nothing at the point of need – just like the NHS in fact, but just like the NHS it doesn’t cost nothing to provide it free at the point of need, it costs the country billions and Grace cost the self-sacrifice of Jesus Christ to provide Grace free to you at the point of need.
It is God’s Grace that saves us but that Grace is only made effective in someone’s life if we can appropriate God’s grace and we do that through faith.
When we believe in God’s unmerited love for us – it is then that we reap the benefits in our lives.

This is the big idea behind Paul’s writings, the very foundation of Christianity and was the fuel that fed the protestant reformation of which we, the Church of England are an integral part.

Following the Spirit of the law is a great thing, a necessary response to Grace, but it doesn’t save you in and of itself.

This is the central idea preached by Paul and retrieved by the reformers and is the motor of true Christianity. Paul uses the example of Abraham and Moses to emphasise the point. Abraham came well before the law was given to Moses so Paul says, being made right with God through faith was always the first and original idea that preceded following the law which the Jewish religion had come to rely on as the prime way of pleasing God.

Believing in what God has done for you in Jesus is the only way to please God, to be made righteous in God’s eyes and to be given eternal life.

In the beginning of John’s gospel John has already said that believing in Jesus is what gives us the right become God’s children (John 1:12) and it is this and the resulting gift of the Holy Spirit that we all need.

Nicodemus needed it; Nicodemus was a very religious man, a religious leader who knew the scriptures backwards, yet Nicodemus had missed, despite his great learning the very heart of the faith.
Jesus said those immortal words “You will never enter the kingdom of God unless you are born again” says Jesus.

You might be able to quote the entire Bible from memory and attend every service but until the Spirit of God comes a living reality in your heart, your religion will remain dull, lifeless, and unexciting and devoid of the only thing really worth having – which is God himself – living in our hearts and minds by his Spirit.

That was true for Nicodemus and I’m sure true for a lot of Christians ever since as well.
It is a situation that we can fall into time and again which is why Paul says we should pray to keep being filled with the Holy Spirit

Is our religion dull and lifeless and operates along rusty rail tracks or living and active and as fluid and surprising and refreshing as the wind?  That is not me asking you the question, that is Jesus asking us (as his church) the question.  

Is Jesus for us a living connection with God or just a man who died about 2,000 years ago who we follow as a great moral teacher, at a distance.

A solution to us becoming personally and corporately closer to God is prayer – both privately and corporately.

And instead of just leaving it there hanging in the air, I want to invite everyone to close their eyes, find as much inner peace as you can muster and pray with me;

Come Holy Spirit, come blow into my life like the wind.
Prompt and move me to move closer to our Father. Set me in the stream of your Spirit to cleanse and refresh me.
Help me to grow into the person you want me to be and an instrument of your love.