Sunday, 12 June 2022

Why do we believe God is a Trinity? - Acts 2:14-36

Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of
you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:

“‘In the last days, God says,
    I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
    your young men will see visions,
    your old men will dream dreams.
 Even on my servants, both men and women,
    I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
    and they will prophesy.
 I will show wonders in the heavens above
    and signs on the earth below,
    blood and fire and billows of smoke.
 The sun will be turned to darkness
    and the moon to blood
    before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord.
 And everyone who calls
    on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ (Joel 2)

“Fellow Israelites, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him. David said about him:

“‘I saw the Lord always before me.
    Because he is at my right hand,
    I will not be shaken.
 Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices;
    my body also will rest in hope,
 because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead,
    you will not let your holy one see decay.
 You have made known to me the paths of life;
    you will fill me with joy in your presence.’ (Psalm 16)

“Fellow Israelites, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day. But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. Seeing what was to come, he spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, that he was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear. For David did not ascend to heaven, and yet he said,

“‘The Lord said to my Lord:
    “Sit at my right hand
until I make your enemies
    a footstool for your feet.”’ (Psalm 110)

“Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”


Today is Trinity Sunday and our reading follows on directly from the reading for Pentecost we had last week. Last week we heard about the first Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was poured out on the Jesus' disciples and they were blessed, praising God in many languages. In response to this a crowd gathers around them wondering what is happening, and Peter addresses them as we have heard. This is perhaps the first Christian sermon, and it is rather humbling to be following in its steps today.

It is also a great reading for Trinity Sunday, because here he talks about all three persons of the Trinity: God the Father, Jesus the Son and the Holy Spirit being present and active in the events of Easter and Pentecost, and through the three persons of God we are carried up and included in God's great work, with the Spirit within us, the Son beside us, and the Father above us. Humanity is the 4th part of this, called to be part of Christ's body, and so surrounded by God.

In the Gospels, the disciples often struggle to grasp what Jesus is telling them will happen, but here after time with the resurrected Jesus following Easter, and with the Holy Spirit newly come upon them they finally understand God's plan to build his Kingdom. Here we see the very earliest Christian theology, the attempt to wrestle with the astonishing things that the Disciples had seen. And the understanding of God as a Trinity of persons is at the very centre of that from the beginning.

People sometimes struggle to understand the idea of the Trinity, and they use all kinds of odd analogies to compare God to things in our world. But while we should try to understand this idea, we must remember that we will never fully grasp the nature of God with our mortal, limited minds. But thanks to God revealing himself to us we can get a view partial of his eternal nature "as in a cloudy mirror" .

This is profound and fundamental stuff, and we should not expect it to be entirely simple, just as the world we live in, the universe we live in, can be complex and paradoxical. The more Science delves into the fundamental nature of physical reality, the more astonishing it seems to be. When I was at university, we studied Einstein's theory of Relativity: did you know that if you travel fast enough, time actually slows down, from your perspective, but not that of the people around you? Did you know that gravity also actually slows down time by distorting the fabric of space around massive objects? Did you know that at very small sizes, quantum sizes, physical matter acts like a wave and can diffract and refract the way lights does when it shines through water? Did you know that mathematicians study different sizes of infinity, and that if you add one infinity to another, it's the same size, but if you take an exponential - say two to the power of an infinity, you get a larger infinity?

Now, you may wonder why I'm getting off the topic, but I promise you all this is relevant, because, as C.S.Lewis once said, we should not expect spiritual reality to be any less complex and bizarre than physical reality; we should not expect Theology to be less wonderful than Physics. Indeed, it is from that spiritual reality, it is from God, that the complexity and beauty of the physical world originates. "The heavens declare the Glory of God, and the skies display his handiwork", as the Psalms say.

And when we are talking about the Trinity, we are talking about the Special Relativity, or the Quantum Mechanics of Theology. There's lots of things about God, lots of true things, that even a small child can understand; just like there's lots of things about the natural world, about the Sun and Moon and stars, that anyone can grasp. But with the Trinity you're getting into the heart of things, the fundamental reality that everything else comes from: and that is going to start stretching us.

So why do we describe God as a Trinity? Well, because it is the only explanation that fits the evidence. In Physics, Special Relativity and Quantum Mechanics were nobody's first guess. Nobody invented them because they seemed sensible or common sense, or because they're what you come up with if you just sit down and try to be reasonable about it. No. They are complex, counter-intuitive ideas that are demanded by the facts we have gathered through experiments.

In the same way, the Trinity is nobody's first idea of what God is like, it's not common-sense, it's not the sort of theory you come up with if you just sat down and made something up. But it is beautiful, and it is the truth. It is the understanding the Apostles, and the generations of Christians who came after them, put together because it seemed the only one that fit the facts they had experienced. So, what sort of facts are those?  When we seek to understand physical reality, we get laboratories and telescopes and a lot of equipment, but we can't do that with Spiritual reality. God is not an object to be measured and weighed, but he is a person, three persons in fact, and because we are persons too, made in God's image, we can experience him because he has revealed himself to us. This is the type of evidence that we have, it is the kind of evidence you have that someone loves you, it is the kind of evidence you have that music is beautiful; or that life is worth living: it's the experience of the heart, the spirit and the soul, of one person revealing themselves to another. It is the type of evidence that, in the end, really matters.

So what facts led to the understanding of the Trinity: that the one God, the creator of all things, exists in three persons, as Father, Son and Holy Spirit? Firstly, was the experience the Apostles had of Jesus himself, that here was a man who spoke of God as Father, as separate from him; but who also did miracles, forgave sins on his own authority, commanded the wind and waves to obey him, who fulfilled the prophecies about God coming to his people, and revealed God's Kingdom as though he knew its every detail. Here was a man who described himself as the Son of the Father, who alone reveals the Father - The Way, The Truth and the Life. And they had witnessed the Father honouring Jesus as his Son, most gloriously through his Resurrection. This was a man, but this was not just a man, this was Emmanuel - God-With-Us.

So there was God, who Jesus had revealed to the apostles as the Father, and then there was Jesus his Son, two persons of God: but there was also a third. There was the Holy Spirit that had been poured out onto them, whose power they felt moving within them, speaking to them. This was not the Father, for the Father exists infinite and eternal, beyond time and space and our physical universe; and it was not the Son, it was not Jesus, who they had seen ascend into heaven; it was a third person of God that they were all experiencing resting in them, filling them with courage and understanding. This is the reality that generation after generation of Christians have lived with, through struggles and triumphs and losses; and the reality we can only explain through the idea of the Trinity: the Father who created all things; the Son who walked on our earth and lived our life and bore our hurt; and the Spirit who dwells every day within us.

It is important to realise that this is not just a New Testament idea, either. God did not become Trinity when Jesus was born, or baptised, or resurrected. God has always been Trinity, from eternity to eternity, and that is written throughout the Bible, from beginning to end. It is easy for us to look for the Trinity in the New Testament, but as well as their own experiences, the Apostles and early Christians looked into the only Scriptures they had: the Hebrew Scriptures, that we call the Old Testament. And we can see that in the reading today: Peter makes clear what the Father has done through Jesus at that time, but to explain this to the people of Jerusalem, Peter looks back to the Old Testament scriptures they knew so well.

Firstly, he claims the promise of the Prophet Joel that God, "will pour out [his] Spirit on all people", that "sons and daughters will prophesy" and "even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit". Then he quotes from the Psalms: notice here that Peter is saying it is Christ himself speaking in that first psalm. When it says "I saw the Lord always before me, because he is at my right hand", that is Christ, the Son, talking about his Father, though David wrote the psalm. We know this because he refers to himself as the "holy one" who will not be abandoned "to the realm of the dead", but as all Jews knew, David sinned, and he died, and his tomb was known. It is Christ who was resurrected. Then in the second psalm it is not Christ speaking, but David being given a glimpse of the Father addressing the Son: "The Lord said to my Lord, sit at my right hand". David was the King of Israel, he had no Lord except God, so who are these two figures: The Lord addressing David's Lord? They are the Father and the Son.

The New Testament is not some dramatic left-turn away from the path taken by the Old Testament, rather it is a reflection on a thousand years of God's promises to his people; and whether it's the Gospel, or here in Acts, or Paul's Letters, it speaks with one voice to declare that the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament, spoke of Christ. This is one of those things that sounds strange at first, but when you know where to look, you start seeing it everywhere. Now, when I say the Old Testament speaks of Christ, that could mean two things: firstly, it could mean the Old Testament prophesied and promised that Christ would come. It certainly does that, if you've ever listened to a 'Nine Lesson and Carols' service at Christmas-time you have heard a highlight of points in the Old Testament when Christ's coming was promised; or you can read Isaiah chapter 53, the Suffering Servant, and I really challenge you to tell me that passage isn't describing Jesus, though it was written 500 years before he was born.

So the Old Testament promised that Christ would come: as Emmanuel, God-With-Us, and Jesus fulfilled those prophecies. But, just as important for understanding why we have our doctrine of the Trinity, is the fact that God the Son, who has existed from eternity, and was born in Bethlehem as Jesus, Mary's Son; also appears in the Old Testament, again and again. He appears, as a separate person from God the Father; and he is recognised as God, by people in the Old Testament. In the same Old Testament that famous declares that "the LORD is our God, the LORD is one", the same Old Testament that is the source of Monotheism, our belief in One God, that we share with Jews and Muslims, and Sikhs and others.

In the Old Testament the Son appears most often as a mysterious figure identified as the 'Angel of the Lord'. Do not be fooled by the word 'angel' though, for this is no mere angel, but rather one who is sent by God to save and teach his people, who speaks as God, and is recognised as God. If I were to go through all the times this happened, I would be here all day, so I just want to briefly talk about two of the first examples in the Old Testament from the book of Genesis.

Hagar was the maidservant of Sarah, the wife of Abraham, but because Abraham and Sarah had no children, Abraham took Hagar as his wife as well, and Hagar became pregnant with a son. But Sarah then was jealous of Hagar and so mistreated her, leading to Hagar running away into the wilderness. There the Angel of the Lord found her in the wilderness and told her to go back, and promised her that God will bless her son and make him the father of a great nation. This is how she responds (in Genesis 16:13) - "She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.”" Hagar has spoken to the Angel of the Lord, but she knows she has seen God. Who is this God, who comes as the messenger from God?

Then two generations later we have Jacob, Abraham's grandson, and he had run away from his family because he was afraid of his brother Esau. Now years later he is returning to his family with his wives and children, afraid that Esau will attack him. The night beforehand though, he has a strange meeting: a man appears from nowhere and wrestles, physically grapples with Jacob through the night, until morning is about to come, then the man touches Jacob's hip and dislocates it. The man then says to Jacob "“Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with man and have overcome.”", he blesses Jacob and then disappears. Jacob is in no doubt about who he met, like Hagar he says (in Genesis 32:30) "So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”

I could quite literally go on and on like this for some time, there are so many examples, and when you realise what you're looking at, they're so clear. John's Gospel tells us that "nobody has seen the Father", except the Son. So who is this God, who comes from God the Father, who meets us face to face, who brings God's blessing to Hagar, and to Jacob, and so many others throughout the Old Testament? He is the Son, who in the fulness of time was born in Bethlehem at the first Christmas, and ever since we know as our Lord Jesus Christ, who unites our humanity with God forevermore. But God has always been Trinity from the beginning. That is what Peter is talking about in our reading today, that was what Jesus meant when he claimed that the Law and the Prophets all pointed to him, and that has been the Christian faith from the beginning.

Why does this matter though? Until we see God face-to-face in heaven none of us can fully comprehend how the three persons of the Trinity relate to each other, or how they share a Will and Purpose as One God. But this is not just a matter of abstract theology, it matters because it is at the core of what God has done for us. God became one of us and died for us; God's Holy Spirit dwells within us. That is amazing, and if we did not believe God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we could not say it was true. It was not some prophet or spirit somewhere between us and God who became man and died for us, it was God himself. It is not some mere blessing from a distant God that lies upon us, it is the Holy Spirit, God himself, who lives within us. It is this that makes the Christian faith unique.

Islam, the Muslim faith, is in many ways like Christianity, it is based on belief in One God, that is believed to be the same God described in the Old Testament. But it differs from Christianity in this one crucial point: Muslims believe that it is not possible that God could have been born as a man and died for us. Islam believes that to stoop so low, as to be born in a stable, and to die on a cross, would shame God, would make God less.

We believe that it makes God more. We believe that God is so glorious that by being born as a Man he makes humanity and our whole world holy. We believe that it proves God is even greater than we imagined, that he could face death on the cross and make it no shame. We believe God showed greater love than we could imagine, because he did not scorn our weakness. We believe that the martyr who sacrifices his own life triumphs nonetheless because the Holy Spirit within him is more powerful than any physical force or violence. It is this faith that allows Peter, in our reading today, to speak with such astonishing confidence, as he does again and again in Acts, knowing that the power of mobs and armies and kings is nothing before the power of Jesus Christ.

Christ changes everything, he changes lives, and whole societies; he is the sure and certain rock around which everything else in this world must turn, because he is God. Through the Holy Spirit there is nothing we need fear, for the power within us is greater and more enduring than any in the world, because he is God. And all this comes from the Father, who is the eternal source and creator of all things. 

And for that, Amen!

Tuesday, 15 February 2022

Sermon on Acts 6:1-7 - The First Deacons are Chosen

From the Becoming Beloved Episcopal community 
https://dsobeloved.org/acts-61-7-the-first-order-of-ministry/

Acts 6:1-7.

"In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So, the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”

This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.

So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith."


Today's reading has always been special to me, because it introduces St Stephen, my namesake, into the Bible. Every Boxing Day, after Christmas, I take pleasure in wishing people a Blessed St Stephen's Day, and take pride in my name coming from the first Christian martyr: the man who died as Jesus died, only later in this chapter, praying, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them", and so setting an example for all of us who come after. And still today, sadly, Christians around the world face martyrdom, not here in Britain, thankfully, but in Sudan, Somalia, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, China, North Korea, India, Burma, and elsewhere. And we should never forget it. When I hear how Christians in North Korea, or Pakistan, or Somalia, carry on today in the face of the danger they live with, I remember the courage Stephen showed at the end, and I know the same Holy Spirit that was with him, is still with Christians today. 

I have sometimes thought, how would I react, if I was threatened with death for my faith, the faith I have lived with these last 30 years. I don't know, I really don't know, I don't think anyone can, truly, definitely, unless they ever find themselves in that situation, and I pray we never do. But we certainly will be faced with many smaller, more mundane situations in our day-to-day lives, where it still takes courage to stand up and do what is right. I pray that when faced with these at least, I will pass the test, and so, in my small, insufficient way, be worthy of those ordinary Saints who face far greater challenges for the name of Jesus Christ, and remain faithful.

Which brings us back to our reading today: it may seem small, mundane, administrative, but it reflects the same courage that the Apostles show throughout the Book of Acts and the life of the early Church. These are people who have seen the Risen Lord Jesus Christ, and because of that, they are not afraid. I strongly believe that courage, the courage to have good principles, and stand by them, is something we must cultivate, and apply, in situations large and small. It's very hard to develop courage, to develop integrity, when you're really challenged, if you don't make it something you have already developed in situations large and small, day after day.

So, what courage did the Apostles show here? First, we must understand the situation, which isn't as easy as it could be, because the account is so short of detail. When you have a very small group, one already united around a shared cause, consensus is easier, but once that group starts growing, you start to get subgroups form, you start to have problems with communication: and that is when you start to need more structures and organisation. The believers in Christ are just reaching this point. They are still in Jerusalem, they are still almost all Jews at this point, but the community is large and diverse enough that two distinct groups are becoming visible. 

The Hebrew Jews here, would refer to those Jews who lived in the Holy Land itself, like Jesus, maybe from Galilee itself, or elsewhere. They would have come from Jewish majority areas, and lived a life immersed in Jewish religion, culture and assumptions. They would have spoken Aramaic, not Hebrew itself actually, which had become a language purely of scholarship and religious tradition at this time, like Latin in medieval Europe. They would also have taken pride in the fact they lived in the Land that God gave their ancestors, a Holy Land indeed, their homeland, the old-country.

The Hellenistic Jews were those Jews whose families had lived out in the Diaspora, the world outside the Holy Land: in Syria, in Egypt, in what is now Turkey, in Greece, and beyond, all areas, at that time, where Greek formed the shared language, and were heavily affected by Greek culture and civilisation, as well as native influences. These Jews would have grown up as a minority surrounded by Gentile culture, and so while still very much Jews and devoted to their religion, inevitably they were more influenced by Greek philosophy and ideas. You see this influence in the New Testament itself, which is written in Greek, and which, particularly in the Gospel of John, displays a fusion of ideas from Greek Philosophy and the Hebrew Old Testament. For these Jews the Holy Land was a distant idea, something they revered, but not somewhere they lived. There are many obvious comparisons to minority communities like British-Indians or Irish-Americans, or many others, who still, of course, retain an attachment to the culture, religion, food, language, etc, of their native or ancestral homeland. And there are British communities scattered abroad, as well, who remember Old Blighty, particularly in places like France or Spain or Australia.

At this time in Acts, before the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, Hellenistic Jews would still have tried to travel to Jerusalem to the Temple for the major festivals when they could, in a similar way that Muslims today go on pilgrimage to Mecca. And indeed, some having grown up in the Diaspora would move back to the Holy Land permanently, hoping to die and be buried there, which, if you still follow me, is how we find a community of Hellenistic Jews, by culture and background and language, but living back in Jerusalem, and becoming part of the community of the very first Christians.

The problem then is that there was clearly still a cultural divide between Jews of the two different backgrounds, which even the fact they had both come to faith in Christ, had not resolved. This first Christian community is inspirational, but it still faced problems, squabbles, divisions, like we do, because it was made of human beings, like us. And though we must always struggle to do better, to learn, to change, we will not be made perfect until we come before Christ in his Kingdom. That this first Christian community had problems like this is not surprising then, but what is inspirational, what is a lesson for us today, is the courage with which they faced up to it.

When there are problems and divisions in a community, and there will be, it is easy to try to ignore them, to sweep it under the carpet. It is easy to pretend it isn't there, and to hope it goes away; after all, who needs another problem. And it might go away on its own, sometimes it does. But if we take that route there is a risk that the problem will fester, and worsen, and because of that, people become discouraged and disheartened. They may even drift away. After all, who wants to be part of a community that does not listen to their problems, that does not take their concerns seriously? That's not good in a family, it's not good in a marriage, and it's not good in a community.

It takes courage, just to speak up about a problem. It takes courage to challenge those in positions of authority and leadership, rather than just sitting on an unhappiness, or maybe drifting away without ever speaking out. And it takes courage for leaders to listen, to try to understand rather than just becoming defensive, to give the situation the consideration it deserves, and to respond. It can always be tempting to barrel on with what we already think is important, and so miss the concerns and warnings around us, but if we do that we build our house on sand.

The Apostles are faced by complaints of an unhappiness, an injustice, and they act decisively to solve it. And they don't just say, "well, stop doing that then, stop overlooking those widows", they act imaginatively, creatively, to change and adapt the structures of their community to solve the problem permanently, and ensure all the people are being served. They prioritise, they don't give up their position of leadership, they don't allow themselves to get distracted from the most important work they have: sharing the good news of Jesus Christ with anyone who will listen, but neither do they hoard power or responsibility. 

They immediately widen the circle of leadership (on a secondary level); they don't even keep the right to select the men who will be placed in charge of this important ministry. No, they trust their community: they empower the people who are unhappy, and the rest of the community as well, to select people to put the situation right. That takes courage, real courage, giving control always does, but it can be rewarding, if it empowers new ideas and new individuals in a community; it can release a lot of energy. It is how communities grow and develop, and raise up new leaders who then have the chance to excel themselves.

I think this is also the point to remember the cultural divide that I described earlier, between the Hellenistic and Hebrew Jews. This isn't my thought, I read it online, but I thought it was very insightful. You've got to remember the Twelve Apostles were all, or almost all, Galileans like Jesus. That made them Hebrew Jews, the community who dominated leadership up until now, and who were being complained about, basically. The men picked by the community as Deacons, the first Deacons, all have Greek names, they were probably all Hellenistic Jews, the community who were complaining they were being treated unfairly. 

It would have been easy for the Twelve Apostles to have taken umbrage on behalf of their sub-community. They could have said that Jesus was a Hebrew Jew, that he appointed Hebrew Jews as Apostles, that the Hellenistic Jews were lucky to even be accepted into their community. But they didn't. They didn't just hand away power and responsibility by accepting other leaders, they didn't just give the choice of those leaders away to the community; they put people of the unhappy, discriminated-against sub-community, in charge of putting it right. That takes even more courage, and indeed leadership.

When you put trust in more people you give those people the chance to repay that trust, with interest, and Stephen certainly did: his dignity in the face of death, his grace towards his persecutors, was an eloquent testimony to the power of the Holy Spirit that had set him free, and still sets people free today. Trust people in small things and they may go on to great things. Of course, these lessons do not only apply to people in formal leadership in churches, but everywhere: at work, at home, at school, in our charities and our community groups. Leadership is not just something for a few people at the top, but something for everyone to show in small ways. If you propose a new idea, if you speak out on behalf of other people who are unhappy, if you take initiative to support even one person who is struggling or being treated unfairly, that is leadership. The people complaining in this passage are anonymous, but being the first person to point out something isn't right, to put your head above the parapet, that takes real leadership, and courage too.    

It takes courage to give away responsibility to others, and it also takes courage to take on responsibility, to put yourself forward, to lead and serve your community. Courage is best rewarded by more courage in response. When people raise a complaint, listen to them fairly, really listen, and consider what they have to say. It doesn't mean you have to agree with them, but you owe them a decent explanation. When existing leaders ask for help, step forward, take responsibility, like Stephen and the other Deacons in our passage today; give whatever you have to give. God gave us all something: some strength, some skill, some energy, and you only know what you're capable of, if you have the courage to stretch yourself, and risk failing.

The Apostles were faced with a problem in their community, a complaint, an unhappiness. They could have denied it was a problem, they could have been defensive about their identity, they could have prioritised hoarding power, decision-making or responsibility. But they didn't: they dealt with it rapidly, openly, structurally and generously. And in doing so, they unleased the energy of their community to go from strength to strength, to reach more people, and "so the word of God spread". This is a great passage here; I wish I could take it to work, and hold a Bible study with all my layers of managers and bosses, then we might really see some progress. 

I pray we will have the same courage to adapt and change to the new challenges we face as the world, and our community, change ever more rapidly around us. I pray we will continue to prioritise reaching people with the word of God, in all the different ways we can imagine; but that we will also ensure we are serving the physical, mundane needs of our community, making sure nobody feels left behind. I pray that we will have the courage to step forward to take responsibility for our community, to offer our gifts of time, money and dedication, and lessen the burden by sharing it around. I pray for all these things through the same Holy Spirit who dwelt in the Apostles, and in Stephen; who dwells in our Brothers and Sisters facing danger around the world today, who will dwell in us if we will just let him; and through our Lord Jesus Christ, who was Lord then and is Lord now, and will share his courage, if you ask him.

Amen.

Friday, 26 November 2021

John 18:33-37 - "My Kingdom is not of this World!"

What is Truth by Nikolai Nikolaevich
John 18:33-37

So Pilate entered the Judgement Hall again and called Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”

Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?”

Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?”

Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would fight, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.”

Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.”

 

This reading gives us one of the most famous moments in the Bible. Jesus stands before Pilate and defines his Kingdom, and so, what is unique about the Christian Faith. It may seem familiar, from repeated exposure, but when we look closely, it is astonishing how it still challenges our politics and our spiritual assumptions. Jesus is on trial for his life, he knows that. We cannot forget the terrible emotion of this moment: Christ's agony in the garden of gethsemane, the profound betrayal by Judas, one of his twelve chosen disciples; Peter panicking and denying Jesus three times by the courtyard fire; Christ standing alone before Pilate. I wonder if each of us can remember moments when it felt like our whole life hung in the balance, though hopefully not as literally, as for Jesus in this moment. But still Jesus remains calm, though he must have been wracked by emotion, he even challenges the mighty Pilate, not to insult or criticise him, but to be clear about what Pilate is asking.

"Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it about me?".

If Pilate speaks for himself he is asking if Jesus is a King by Roman Eyes, a political leader; or if others have said this, then it is the Judean leaders, who would be saying he claims to be God's Messiah. Either way, Jesus does not deny his Kingship, he cannot because he is the King, but he does not affirm it either. That would leave Pilate no choice, given how he understands it, but to have Jesus killed.

There is a very deliberate choice in Jesus' actions during his trial and execution. He will not deny who he is to save himself, but neither will he give his accusers an excuse to kill him. They must make that choice, that an innocent man must die to keep the peace. Little do they know how futile that action is. At the same time, on the cross, Jesus speaks out calling on the Father to forgive those who killed him. No bitterness, or hatred, must spoil or mar this sacrifice, as God himself goes to the Cross on behalf of Mankind.

This death is not the evil deed of a few men, but it is the inevitable result of a world infected by Sin. At the start of the Bible, the book of Genesis describes how Adam & Eve's sin, of taking the fruit, descends rapidly into the terrible crime of Cain murdering Abel. The lesson here is that always the large sins come out of the small ones. Mistrust, dishonesty, self-obsession, greed, thoughtlessness, fear: these combine and in larger doses can prove fatal. At the root of every great evil in the world, we find people infected by these smaller, personal sins. The Love of God shown in Jesus Christ, his challenge to the powers and laws of this world, was an irresistible force that met the immovable object, the world's fear and determination to hold onto its own power.

We should not assume Pilate, or the Jewish leaders were particularly bad people. On the Jewish side, they had terrible responsibilities; on the Roman side, they were just doing their duty. They represent the blindness of bureaucracy, the inertia of a system of government that does not care about one individual, but sees only a problem to be solved by any means available, and is prepared to destroy a person to solve it.

In John chapter 11, the High Priest expresses his fear, that if lots of people turn to Jesus and believe he is a King then the Romans will destroy Jerusalem and the Jewish nation with it. And he's not wrong, that is exactly what the Romans would do. That is what the Romans did do in 70AD, 40 years after Jesus' death and resurrection. But what the Jewish Leaders miss is that they have other options. They don't talk to Jesus to realise he has no wish to politically challenge the Romans. He will lead no army: his challenge is moral, it is spiritual. And that means it can be universal: It applies to Kings and Shepherds, to Queens and little girls, to you and me.

The High Priest uses a remarkable phrase, "Do you not realize that it is better that one man should die for the people, than that the whole nation should perish"? He means that Jesus should be killed, to prevent the risk that the Romans will destroy Jerusalem and the Jewish Nation. And we condemn him for it, but doesn't it sound so much like our own Christian confession? We believe Jesus died for all mankind, rather than we should each suffer for our sins.

So what is the difference? The difference is about choice - Christ chose to give himself as a sacrifice for all mankind. He made clear to the Disciples that he knew what would happen. It is very easy to require other people to makes sacrifices, it is very hard to make sacrifices ourselves. The High Priest was prepared to sacrifice an innocent man to save the nation, Jesus was prepared to sacrifice himself to save mankind.

You might ask, why does that matter? Either way, a man dies. But it matters a great deal, because each of us is responsible for our own choices. Even if Jesus makes no political challenge to Rome, it's probable that the Romans would have killed him eventually, because he was becoming a nuisance. That is just how the Romans did things. But the Jewish leaders did not have to be involved, Pilate did not have to be involved. Sin is everywhere, but we make our own choices, and we can refuse to be part of it, as long as there is breath in our bodies. Each of us can be justly condemned only for our own choices, and that is a relief and a burden, because there are usually more choices than we imagine.

And these choices are important. Again and again, Christ speaks in parables, he answers a question with a question, because he wants to leave us with choices. He does not want to give us a rule to follow like a machine, he wants to give us a challenge to rise to. That requires us to use our own mind and our own heart to take the step and make the right choice. God made us, he knows what we can accomplish but he doesn't want to beat us over the head with it! He wants to encourage us along, like an inspirational teacher or an Olympic trainer, drawing new depths out of their student.

This is what his Kingdom is about. In parable after parable Jesus describes the Kingdom of God, as a mustard seed that grows and provides shade for birds and beasts, as a coin we search the whole house for and celebrate when we find it, as a beautiful treasure worth selling everything we have to buy, as an employer who pays a day's wages even for a single hour of work. The Kingdom of God is about an overflowing of God's grace and creative power that can burn away the evil we are trapped in, if we let go of our fear and need for control and let it. And every flower that blooms, and every beautiful thing we make, and every time the sun shines out from behind a cloud, and every heart we touch, testifies to the Kingdom of God that is growing around us.

It is about honesty, even in the face of dishonesty; about kindness, even in the face of ingratitude; about forgiveness, even for those who do not deserve it. Because these things do not come from our own resources of grace and energy but from God's overflowing resources. And that well has no bottom, it will never run dry. That is why Christ can tell us to "Turn the other cheek, and go the extra mile, and give to the one who asks from you", it's the same reason Christ could go to the Cross in calm and confidence, asking the Father to forgive the people who murdered him. Because the bitterness of this world is limited, but God draws from infinite resources, and pours them out on the world and on us, through the gift of the Holy Spirit, and the example and sacrifice of Christ.

When Christ says "my Kingdom is not of this World", or when he says "give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, give to God what belongs to God" he is not saying that his Kingdom has no practical impact on this world. Far from it. He is challenging us to realise that God's power is filling and transforming the world, and everything must be reimagined and reshaped by that awesome reality. He is saying God's power operates everywhere, but in a way that is totally different to human law.

We are hopefully used to thinking that we are stewards of God's World. This means we are deputies, we have a responsibility given to us to take care of the World, but remembering always that truly and utterly is belongs to God who created it. I think we should extend this metaphor to own bodies, our own lives as well. And to all the institutions of our World. I recently bought a house and after several months of messing around with lawyers and others it is now my possession, according to all the laws of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and most other countries in the world would accept that ownership. But that is all rubbish! It belongs to God, and in everything I do I must act in light of his ownership and purpose. The same with my money and my body and my time, and my heart.

Christ's Kingdom is a spiritual kingdom: It does not seek to write its own laws, issue its own passports, collect its own taxes, lock up its criminals, fight its wars; it doesn't want to make priests into politicians or judges. Though there have been times when Christians have tried all those things, generally with disastrous results. If it did those things it would inevitably be limited. Maybe it would work, for a while, in one place. But as time changed, and technology changed, as peoples and borders changed, it would become out-of-date and corrupt and destructive.

Different times and places, and peoples and cultures, and levels of technology will have different laws and customs and forms of politics, that suit them. But the Kingdom of God overshadows them all. Christ does not seek to dictate a law and a constitution, because such things are temporary, but God is eternal. Rather in every circumstance, we must fill our political and social institutions with the meaning that comes from God, by making sure in every choice we are working his purposes out, year by year: his purposes of creation and forgiveness and generosity. His Kingdom is a kingdom of the heart, and it is just as relevant whether you live in a Monarchy or a Republic, whatever party you vote for, whatever government you live under.

Because Christ's Kingdom is a spiritual kingdom it is universal, it is relevant to people of every time and place and culture, because it speaks to what is most fundamental about being human, our relationship to the God who created us; not only us, but the whole Universe around us. Because God's kingdom is spiritual it can exist in one loving heart, even where nobody else recognises its authority. It can grow in every family who believe, in every act of love, in every faithful heart; and it can grow until it transforms communities and nations and the whole world. Because Christ's Kingdom is Spiritual, Christ is always its King, the only person who deserves to be a King.

No other King knows you as an individual and now teaches and encourages you; No other King has gone ahead of you to sacrifice and death, and now calls you home. No other Kingdom includes people of every tribe and nation, every country and culture, united by the same hope and faith and love, by their same individual relationship with that King. No other Kingdom exists without walls or borders, but invites everyone in; No other Kingdom has endured for two thousand years, and will endure until "there is no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away". Because this Kingdom is not of this world, it can transform this whole world, and unite all mankind. Politics cannot save us, because it cannot transform the heart. But the Kingdom of God transforms the heart, and the whole world into the bargain.

Amen.

Monday, 11 October 2021

Days that Pass

England, my England, its land and people,
Luxurious greens, thick with life, under grey summer skies, 
The rolling earth, ancient and strong, mapped by country fields
Patchwork of gold, ruby, cyan waves in the wind, 
Weathered stone, electric lights, and burnt timbers looming down
Over metalled streams flowing into rivers, into concrete seas 

Bare hills, swept by sheets of silver tears, 
Oak and birch and ash and elm, 
seen feet go past and stars whirl, carts roll past, 
and stars whirl, engines rumble in sunken lanes,
Ale, roast beef, lamb, bacon, boiled, baked, oats and barley.
Crowds cheer, then pass in soaked streets, patient and waiting.

But my faith lies far away, in a strange grammar,
Olive trees, parched vines, thin yellowed grass.
Under fierce sun, mud bricks bake in the heat, 
Fishermen on inland seas, dusty roads past wild sands.
Ancient Law, in older towns and cities. 
Hills and mountains haunted by still, calm air that rustles the cedars,
Gold coins stacked in tax collector's booths, where merchants bargain,
young men, awake and dreaming; old men, bent over beloved scrolls, 

And such dreams, that reach out across sea and sky, beyond land and language, that move mountains, 

Even those rolling fields I love, such they take new shape, with open arms, 
and bells now Ring, while generations rise and pass, until soil and stone echo,
More true than before, into deeper, richer sound than their original notes alone.

And not just my forests and skies, with hope on many lips,
Eyes that look over strange hills and valleys, different suns and grasses,
Colours I do not know, but that same love in arteries and veins, 
Each more true, each looks out, across years and miles,
from all nations, to him.


-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

This is my own composition, and I don't place it under my 'Great Poems' tag out of any vast delusions of grandeur, but just for lacking any other obvious place to put it.

Still, I'd like to say a few words about the motivations behind this poem, and you can judge whether I succeeded.

This poem is motivated by my reflections on what it feels like to be British, which means rooted in a particular part of north-western Europe; and a Christian, which means a culture and faith that is rooted, however distantly, in the Ancient Middle East.

Of course, British culture has been Christian so long that it's not possible to separate the two out. And it is the wonder of Christian faith that is it is embraced by people in every country in the world, from every background and culture, who feel the message of Jesus Christ, given in the Bible, speaks to them and enriches them and their culture. A universal appeal, transcending its specific origins in the Ancient Middle East, that is itself a kind of miracle. 

Monday, 27 September 2021

Sermon on Mark 9:38-50 – Working for Good and Evil

Mark 9:38-50
“Teacher,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.”

“Do not stop him,” Jesus said. “For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us. Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward.

If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where

‘the worms that eat them do not die,
    and the fire is not quenched.’

 Everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again? Have salt among yourselves, and be at peace with each other.”

Today's reading is challenging, because it warns us about a stark contrast between those who are working for good and those who are working for evil. And on both sides Jesus uses dramatic, hyperbolic language to challenge us to expand our understanding and shake us out of our complacency. There are times, though, when we need shaking up and being faced with the importance of the choices we can make for good or bad. Let us remember the words of the Gospel, that “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save”, so let us take this challenge and learn from it, and grow from it, and not despair. 

The disciples come to Jesus to complain about a person who was not a recognised disciple calling on the name of Jesus to drive out demons. And Jesus corrects them, saying "for no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment speak against me, for whoever is not against us is for us". Jesus is expanding the boundaries, of who can be called a disciple, saying God is not bounded by our organisations and categories, but reaches out to all those who want to put their faith in him.

And the Church has not always been good at remembering this verse. The Spirit goes ahead of us, finding those people with a heart turned towards God. Too often though, the Church has rejected people seeking to act outside the current accepted structures, out of fear and concern about what people might say or do, out of a desire to keep the mission of God under control. But God is not under our control or command. Always the Holy Spirit is going ahead of us and inspiring new people, in different ages and place and ways. Perhaps we should see our mission more as going out and finding those people the Spirit is inspiring and offering our help.

Let me tell you a true story. 300 years ago, the Church in England was in a bad state. Personal faith and commitment were rare among ordinary people, clergy were not appointed for their spirituality and dedication to God, but because they were sons of minor gentry who didn't have another job; the government and aristocracy saw the Church as a means of controlling society and ensuring the poor and working people did not get the wrong ideas. Then within this environment came a man called John Wesley, who went on to found the Methodist movement. Wesley was a remarkable man. By upbringing and training he was a stiff high-churchman, a Tory and a conservative, who believed church should be conducted by the book, by rules and order. But then one day at a church service in Aldersgate London the Holy Spirit moved in him and from then on he was a different man. 

He began preaching outside of physical church buildings, something that was unheard of and basically illegal at the time. He preached in fields and in graveyards, and on the street and at factories, anywhere people would stop and listen. He preached about the Love and Forgiveness of God that could change the life of any man or woman or child. He inspired people to seek a life of genuine holiness, giving up violence and drunkenness, and hatred and bitterness, and embracing a Christian life of love and faith. He encouraged groups of working-class people to form their own religious communities, he encouraged ordinary people to preach and teach without clergy being involved, he cast aside every High-Church principle he had treasured of what respectable conduct looked like to reach people with the message of God.

He and his followers suffered abuse and persecution: they were barred from churches, dragged before magistrates and rejected by polite society. They carried on day after day, for 50 years. He spoke out condemning slavery, long before that was a popular position, and he supported women in preaching and leading, many years before that became accepted across society. When he died, he left behind 140,000 people dedicating their lives to the Good News of Jesus Christ, 500 largely working class lay preachers, and not a penny to his name. The tens of millions of Methodists worldwide are today a testament to his selfless love of Jesus Christ.

John Wesley was faithful to the Church of England his whole life. He never rejected the Church, he never wanted the movement he started to be separate from the Church of England, but he would not, he could not allow the constraining rules of the Church in his day to stop him from carrying out the mission of God's Spirit. Caught between his loyalty to the Church and his loyalty to God, he chose God. But what of the Church? By turning its back on the Methodist movement, by refusing to judge a tree by its fruit, by refusing to see what God's Spirit was doing, the Church of England lost out on a great opportunity to be renewed and revived, and after John Wesley died Methodists and Anglicans in Britain and around the world became more divided, and sadly that divide is still with us today. How much energy and hope and blessing has been squandered in this country because Church leaders were not willing to accept that God was going ahead of them? And the lesson was there in the Gospel the whole time - “For whoever is not against us is for us."

At least then do not let us make the same mistake. I think to some degree we have finally learned the lesson. I hope and expect there is not anyone here today who would say you have to be an Anglican, or a Methodist, or a Baptist, to be a Christian. No, rather the one who has faith in God through Jesus Christ, and does what the Lord Jesus, commanded, in faith, hope and love, that person is truly a Christian. Let us always be open and humble, willing to consider new ideas, new ways that God might be moving, and inspiring people: to set up a ministry, a Christian community group, a charity, a YouTube channel, an entire church. Let us always be open to help where we can, for "by their fruit you shall know them".

At the same time, we should not abandon our scepticism, we should always be willing to ask questions, about plans, intentions; and we should always be willing to answer them humbly and peacefully. If we asking people to give us their money, their time, their trust, then we should welcome the chance to reasonably justify ourselves. Scrutiny is not persecution, we should welcome the chance to demonstrate that we act from the right motives, and with ideas that can work. We should be willing to consider that I myself, might be wrong, not just some other person.

Because, in the second half of our reading, we see what it can mean, at the worst, when we are not humble enough to accept that we might be wrong, where we reject scrutiny, and fail in our responsibility to be accountable to one another. "“If anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble, it would be better for them if an enormous rock were tied around their neck and they were thrown into the sea." I cannot hear those words without thinking of the terrible scandals of abuse of children and adults that have taken place in many of the institutions of our society: the BBC, Football Clubs, Social Services, the Police, Schools, and in Churches. Lives have been devastated. People who trusted in Church ministers and leaders to protect them and nurture them, have been betrayed in the most appalling way; and when victims have come forward to warn people about the predators in our midst, wolves in sheep's clothing, often they have been ignored or side-lined, and more innocent people have been victimised.

It would be better for those predators, and better for those people who enabled them, better for those people who allowed abuse to continue, if they had enormous rocks tied around their necks, and they threw themselves into the sea. Every time we discuss Safeguarding at church meetings, I hear those words. God's anger and wrath burns against the evil done to his children. How do these things happen though? There are a small minority of wolves in sheep's clothing, of predators, and they are very good at hiding themselves, and they could be anywhere. They are priests and school teachers and social workers and doctors and parents and university professors and policemen and a hundred other things. They can appear anywhere, but they are very few in number. But for each predator there must be many people who do not ask questions, who do not keep their eyes open, who do not scrutinise what is happening around them, who give in to inertia, and so become accomplices to evil.

And I suspect we would be terrified by how easy a thing it is to do. You're a busy person, incredibly busy, you're constantly swapping between a dozen different things: work, family, social events, community groups. You've got a list of people you need to speak to, another list to email, text, WhatsApp, Facebook messenger, all going off throughout the day; and at the same time, you're trying to remember to post a birthday card, and a dozen items to pick up from the shops. Amid all that you receive one message asking to meet and talk about something, some kind of complaint about a person you know. You know the person, you've known them for years, they've always been reliable, cheerful, and caring. They are a friend, and you feel loyalty to them, warmth, trust. You don't know the details, you can't believe it, and you don't know what you should or could do, so you put it to one side for now. And before you realise there's another email, another meeting, another responsibility, and without ever meaning it, the message, the allegation, the warning, is forgotten and the chance is missed.

It has happened, you have become an enabler of evil, and "it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea." There are other ways this can happen as well. Perhaps you do not receive a message about potential abuse, perhaps you just notice something out-of-place, something that makes you uncomfortable, and you brush it off and never mention it to anyone. That too can be a way we fail in our duty to provide a safe and loving environment, for children, for vulnerable adults, for everyone. You may never be in that situation, but if you are, if you notice something, if you are told something, you may be the only one, which is why it is so important that you know how to act, and you do. That is why we have safeguarding procedures, and training, and a safeguarding officer - currently Josie Gadsby - so in the rare event we can act to prevent evil happening among us, we know what to do, and we do it. We must all be prepared; and we must make clear, that if you notice anything inappropriate, or if you are suffering anything that is wrong, this is a safe environment to come forward and speak out, knowing it will be taken seriously and acted upon.

The terrible evil of personal abuse, is, certainly, not the only form of sin, though it is one of the most terrible. Often sin comes in smaller, more mundane forms: anger, greed, self-obsession, bitterness, thoughtlessness, dishonesty. In small doses these make up the everyday failures which mark our lives, alongside, of course, all the good we do. But the bad does not wash out the good, nor the good the bad. Still, we harm and do injustice to those around us, often in ways we are not even aware of, but the effect is the same. And smaller doses combine into doses that may then be fatal. All the evils of our world, up to the big lies that poison whole nations, originate in these same mundane sins, that combine and grow.

I was reminded of this again recently, when I came to church to see the 'Camino to COP' walkers, who are walking from London to Glasgow to beg Global Leaders gathering there to take serious action against the threat of Global Warming. I have to say I was deeply moved by their pilgrimage, by their description of walking and singing and laughing and hoping together on this great journey across our country. It was also a reminder that the damage done by Global Warming, which we are seeing in increased wildfires, and flooding, retreating polar icecaps, and other symptoms in recent years, and which threatens both humans and animal species. I think of not just Global Warming, but the Plastic Pollution problem, the destruction of the Rainforests, the devastation of fishing stocks, of air pollution and all the forms of damage we have done and are doing to our Environment.

The church service I grew up with, Common Worship, had some wonderful words in the Confession of our sins that stick with me today: through negligence, through weakness, through our own deliberate fault. Sometimes you hear people talk about sins of commission and omission: that's what you do, and what you don't do; what you say, and what you don't say. Each kind is as important as the other, and environmental problems are an important example of how they can also come mixed together. Nobody gets up in the morning and says, "Today I'm going to screw the planet", but at the same time, we all contribute, through the consumption and lifestyles we lead, the plastic we throw away, the cars we drive, the flights we take, the palm oil in the food we eat, etc. We don't do it to do harm, but we all do it, and we do cause harm.

"If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter Eternal Life maimed than with two hands go into hell. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better to enter Eternal Life crippled than have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. Better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell"

Strong words, words designed to shock and startle us, that would have been just as horrifying to Jesus' original audience. But not words meant to be taken literally. Often Jesus talks in parables and metaphors to provoke deeper thought and reflection, and that is what he's doing here. But only because it is not the hand, or the foot, or the eye that causes you to stumble: it is the heart, it is me, or you. If I curse someone is it my mouth who sins? No, it is me. If I kick someone in anger, is it my foot that has sinned? No, of course, it is me. And though with God's grace I try to fight sin in one part of my heart and my life, it is still there in another, and another. 

Maybe, then, I should conclude these words are just windy rhetoric, which can be easily ignored. No, they most certainly are not. They are incredibly, deadly serious. Well then, maybe there is nothing left to do but despair, since sin is everywhere. No, my friends, not that either. We cannot ignore evil, and we cannot minimise it, and we cannot give in to despair because of it. We have another option, because we are not alone. We could never free ourselves from the grip of sin by our own power, but we do not need to.

Jesus Christ, who is God of God, was born a man, lived and died as one of us, and because he is God himself, rose again free of sin and death and shame; and through Jesus Christ we have the gift of forgiveness, grace and freedom from our sins. We are joined with the very Power of God, and the Holy Spirit comes to live within us. We have a terrible responsibility, to fight against sin and evil every day in our own lives, but never alone, with the Grace and Power of God who walks alongside us every step of the way, knowing he sees us as we really are and loves us anyway, enough to die for us that we may live.

Jesus Christ, my Master and my Friend, walks alongside us but we have help from another source too. The Holy Spirit is moving around us and ahead of us, stirring people up, and if we can keep up with the Spirit then we are in for a remarkable adventure. I spoke earlier about John Wesley and the incredible life he had, one that still touches tens of millions of people, Methodists and others, around the world today. He was not the first, the man in our reading today, who was exorcising demons, he probably wasn't even the first, and neither will either of them be the last. The Holy Spirit is moving today, and so I still have hope, no matter what you read in the papers, what you read on Facebook, what you read online, thanks be to God, there is always hope. The powers of sin and death and evil and fear in our own lives and in our world are terrible, but they are nothing against the power of Jesus Christ.

Amen.





Image borrowed with thanks from: https://catholic-daily-reflections.com/2020/06/11/avoidance-of-sin-2/       

Sunday, 25 July 2021

Sermon on the Parable of the Good Samaritan - Luke 10:25-37

"On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’”

“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?”

In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked byrobbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 

By Balthasar van Cortbemde (1647)
But a Samaritan, as he travelled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

Then Jesus said, “which of those three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

The lawyer replied, “The one who took care of him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”


The parable of the Good Samaritan is probably the most famous of Jesus' parables. Even people who never go into a church, who know very little about the Bible, will understand who a 'Good Samaritan' is: a person who makes the choice to help someone else, particularly a stranger. You have hopefully heard of the charity called 'Samaritans', where people volunteer to speak, by phone or email or text, to anyone who calls, particularly people who are suicidal or depressed. The Samaritans were founded by a vicar of the Church of England in 1953, after a young girl in his parish committed suicide, and the name was given in a newspaper reporting on his work. 

It has led to a worldwide network of organisations that provide someone to listen, for people who have nobody else. On my phone today, I have an app called GoodSam, which was used during the Lockdowns to connect NHS volunteer responders with people who needed help, whether with collecting prescriptions, getting shopping, or whatever. GoodSam is slightly snappier, as names go, but you can see where it comes from.

The name of the Good Samaritan is so recognisable after 2000 years because this short parable gives such a clear and challenging view of what it means to serve others, amid the reality that it is something we must actively choose, when it is so easy to find reasons not to. And, if that was not enough, it challenges us to confront our prejudices about who may be in need, and who might turn to help. Jesus tells this parable to answer a question from an expert in the Jewish Law. This lawyer has correctly recognised the two most important commandments in the Old Testament Law: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind"; and, "Love your neighbour as yourself". 

He thinks he knows who God is, but he is left with one crucial question, "who is my neighbour?". Of course, the man isn't asking who lives next door to me? He is asking who is near to my heart, who do I need to care for? Who should I love? Who is my neighbour? Now that is a question that still obsesses us today, it defines our politics and our international relations. Where do we draw the line for who we support through our healthcare and welfare system, and how generously do we support them? Do we regard lives in other countries as precious as our own, if they are threatened by poverty or war? 

These are not easy questions. And Jesus does not try to give us a precise answer in each and every situation. How could he? Not in a thousand pages. Rather, with a few words he gives us a clear illustration of the principles and values that must guide us, and he leaves us to use our judgement and our conscience, I hope with the help of God's Holy Spirit, to decide what we must do in our own lives. I pray we will take that responsibility seriously, and approach it with care, each and every day, because we never know the impact we can have, for good or bad, in small ways and large ones, as we make our choices.

"A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers". Now, when Jesus said the man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, he means it quite literally, because to travel from Jerusalem up on Mt Zion to Jericho by the Dead Sea involves descending by about 1000m in altitude over a 20 miles journey. That's quite a long way down. And for 20 miles the road passes through land that is steep, rocky, barren and deserted. It was also well-known for being a dangerous route, where robbers often did strike in remote places. A man attacked and beaten here would be far from help, unless a kind soul came upon him along the road and took pity on him. Otherwise, naked and hurt out in the desert, he would surely die.

The man is unspecified, he could be anyone, though since Jesus is talking to a crowd of Jews, I think we are meant to assume he is a Jew. But it is important we know nothing about him, he stands then, for anyone in trouble, anyone in need. And there are times when we are all in need; times when we have all been set upon by troubles, not for all, by armed robbers, but certainly times when we are in deep need of the kindness of others. This man, beaten and alone, is us, in our worst moments, and we are him. 

And then who comes along the way, a priest and then a Levite, who both "walk by on the other side". I know there have been times also, when I have been that priest, or Levite, and walked by on the other side. Times I'm not proud of, maybe I was too busy, or too afraid, or somewhere I didn't know, or maybe I was hurrying to some other good deed, but I thought I saw someone in need, and I walked by on the other side. Jesus does not say it, but the priest and the Levite surely too have good excuses for not helping the man lying half-dead. The priest is coming from Jerusalem to Jericho, maybe he has served his term in the Temple, and now is returning to his family, who will be waiting anxiously for him. The Levite maybe fears that the robbers are still around and threaten him, or maybe even that the man is merely pretending to be in need, to trap him. 

Either way, they make their choice, and hurry on, and the man is still lying hurt and in need. Their choice is made more stark, by the important roles they hold. A priest and a Levite are the religious and moral leaders of their day. I have a beautifully illustrated children's version of this parable, for my daughter, let's say, and in that version, it is a Bishop and a Judge who walk by. Today it could be another person as well: maybe a member of parliament, or a local councillor; maybe a doctor or a charity worker; anyway, a person in a position of trust and moral authority, who walks by on the other side. As sadly people in positions of trust and authority sometimes do, because it's always more easy to talk about doing good, than it is to actually do it. I felt very aware of that as I sat and wrote this sermon, I thought, if anyone asks me for help now, I will have to say yes, there's a limit to how much of my own hypocrisy I can live with.

So the priest and the Levite walked by on the other side, but now the Samaritan comes along, "and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him". The first thing to notice is the man's needs are very concrete, and so is the care the Samaritan gives him. One of the huge problems with Politics, is it can leave us so caught up in theoretical, ideological discussions, about who is responsible, and who is to blame, and who should pay, and why, that we lose track of real and concrete needs. I consider myself a patriot, I love my country, its people, its history and its land, but people can't eat patriotism. 

The more abstract issues may matter in their own time, but we cannot lose track of the fact hungry people need feeding, and the sick need care, and people who are cold need heat, and once we have attended to those needs, we can argue about the theoretical issues. Jesus makes this point again and again, such as in the parable of the sheep and the goats. At the end of time, at the end of our lives, Jesus draws this distinction between good and evil: when I was hungry did you give me something to eat? When I was thirsty did you give me something to drink? When I was a stranger did you invite me in? When I needed clothes did you clothe me? Justifications and excuses are not enough.

The Samaritan crosses the road to tend to the stranger, he chooses to make himself involved; he puts the beaten man on his donkey while he walks, and he takes the man to an inn. At that point the Samaritan could have considered that he had done his good deed, he had completed his job, he had discharged his obligation, but he doesn't. He takes his involvement a step further, and says "Look after him, [...] and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have." He chooses to make an ongoing commitment to the man who was attacked. He sees it as his responsibility as long as there remains a need. He has given his time, his effort, he has already given money, and now he gives his ongoing commitment. 

Jesus is making a point here. Any help is better than none, but many problems do not have an easy and immediate solution. Often the most important choices we make are not when we help someone once, but when we make a commitment to be there to help them again and again, for as long as they need. Now, that is a difficult commitment to make, and it's not something we can do every day, or need to do every day, but it is one of the most noble things a person can do.

Who is this Samaritan then, and why did Jesus pick him as the example of what it means to be a neighbour? Well, in our society this parable is so well-known that, as I said, a Samaritan just means someone who chooses to help a stranger. But the Samaritans were, and still are, a religious community in the Middle-East closely related to the Jews. Today there are sadly very few of them left, only 850, in Israel and the West Bank, but when Jesus was preaching, they were a thriving community. The Samaritans were closely related to the Jews, they lived in Samaria, which is now known as the West Bank, and their religion is very similar to Judaism. But the two communities separated hundreds of years before Jesus was born, and now there was a long-standing bitterness and hatred between them. 

This was a type of division that is all too common in our world: a civil war, a lingering, smouldering conflict between people who lived right beside one another, and have almost everything in common, but sadly, hate each other all the more because of it. Many of the worse conflicts of our modern world are like this: in Northern Ireland, in Syria, in Bosnia, in Israel and Palestine, in the Congo, and elsewhere. In smaller, thankfully less violent ways, we suffer from polarisation like this in our society as well, for the last 5 years between Brexiters and Remainers; or in America over the rumbling culture war between conservatives and liberals.

As humankind we are so prone to these kinds of divisions, we seek them out, like the voice of the Devil whispering constantly in our ear, encouraging us to seek splits and divisions wherever we can. The narcissism of small differences, as it's sometimes called, where we obsess about our differences despite the fact we have so much in common, can be our greatest threat. These kinds of divisions can come in communities of any size, within churches even, or families; sometimes grievances linger for decades, even after the original reason has been forgotten. If we let these linger, before long it stops even being about the original grievance, it becomes about the things you did to me and I did to you, in all the years in between. And that can go on forever.

Responding to an expert in the Jewish Law, probably in front of a crowd of Jews, Jesus is making a very powerful point by having a Samaritan as the hero of his story, in contrast to the choices of the Priest and the Levite. We are prone to stereotypes and prejudices, that often involve us thinking we are better and smarter and kinder than some group we label as Other than us. But goodness does not involve belonging to a tribe or a side or a party, it is defined by the way we choose to act; by the love we show to our fellow men and women. The individual is not defined by their group: people we think of as Us, like the Priest and Levite, may fail when it comes to the test; and people we regard as Them, like the Samaritan, may surprise us with their pity and compassion. We all bear the image of God, and we all have the potential for good and evil. But when we let stereotypes and prejudices do our thinking for us, we make ourselves stupid, and we risk ignoring the good among people who are different to us, as well as missing the evil lurking on our own side. 

This doesn't mean there aren't real rights and wrongs between groups or nations or in politics, there are. Before Jesus's time Jews had killed Samaritans, and Samaritans had killed Jews. His audience might have expected a Samaritan to not just ignore the man, but to attack him again. But Jesus went the other way. We cannot assume our prejudices about the group, define the individual; each person deserves the right to prove themselves, and to define themselves. 

After the recent European Cup final there was, quite rightly, outrage about racist abuse directed at Black England player online. And as a community we should take pride in the fact 3 of those players: Bukayo Saka, Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling, have spoken out about their Christian faith. I don't doubt that they will have read this parable, they will have reflected on this parable, they will have heard sermons on this parable. And I wonder what impact that has had on their campaigning as role models for poor and marginalised people in this country. Racism is evil because it doesn't care about the choices a person makes, but defines them as good or evil based on what race they belong to. Martin Luther King, the great Baptist minister, a man drenched in the Bible, described this beautifully in his famous phrase, when he said he wanted his children to "live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character".

Too often, though, people who called themselves Christians have been responsible for encouraging racism, rather than defeating it. But I cannot open my Bible and possibly understand what book they were reading; as I cannot when people call themselves Christians but ignore their obligation to the poor and vulnerable. I think these cases are clear examples of when people have allowed their desire to protect their positions of wealth and power blind them to what God is saying in the Bible on page after page. The parable of the Good Samaritan tells us that we have a choice, we can choose to blind ourselves to our responsibility and walk by on the other side, or we can choose to prove what it really means to love the Lord our God, with all our heart, and to love our neighbour as ourself. 

I believe that the Christian faith has a unique contribution to make in overcoming racism and prejudice in our world. We have a story, stretching back 3000 years to right to the present day, that can help all people see that they can be, and must be, brothers and sisters to one other. The Bible says that the entire human race are one widespread family, spiritual children of the same parents, Adam & Eve, created directly by God in his image. Centuries before Jesus was born the prophet Isaiah spoke movingly about a day when all the peoples of the world will stream to Jerusalem, united in worship of God, and Mt Zion in Jerusalem "will be called a house of prayer for all nations". The Gospels describe how Jesus sent his disciples out to the ends of the earth, "to make disciples of all nations". At Pentecost the first miracle of the Holy Spirit was to give the Disciples the power to speak in the many languages of all the people there. And, St Paul confirmed in his famous words, "there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus"

The result of this is a Christian Church that is today the largest and most diverse community in the entire world. A community that is real because it is based on sharing the most profound and important of things, a life defined by love and faith in Christ; not on belonging to a race or nationality or language or sex or age, and so a community uniquely open to all people to join.

But we deny that potential if, like the Priest and the Levite, we walk by on the other side from the troubles of our brothers and sisters both near and far, of every creed and colour and name.

“Which of those three [the Priest, Levite and Samaritan] do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

The lawyer replied, “The one who took care of him.”

Then Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

Wednesday, 9 June 2021

Sermon on Colossians 4:2-18 - Why do Christians spread their Faith?

"Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. And pray for us, too, that God may open a
door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should. Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.

Tychicus will tell you all the news about me. He is a dear brother, a faithful minister and fellow servant in the Lord. I am sending him to you for the express purpose that you may know about our circumstances and that he may encourage your hearts. He is coming with Onesimus, our faithful and dear brother, who is one of you. They will tell you everything that is happening here.

My fellow prisoner Aristarchus sends you his greetings, as does Mark, the cousin of Barnabas. (You have received instructions about him; if he comes to you, welcome him.) Jesus, who is called Justus, also sends greetings. These are the only Jews among my co-workers for the kingdom of God, and they have proved a comfort to me. Epaphras, who is one of you and a servant of Christ Jesus, sends greetings. He is always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured. I vouch for him that he is working hard for you and for those at Laodicea and Hierapolis. Our dear friend Luke, the doctor, and Demas send greetings. Give my greetings to the brothers and sisters at Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house.

After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea.

Tell Archippus: “See to it that you complete the ministry you have received in the Lord.” 

I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand. Remember my chains. Grace be with you."


Earlier in Colossians Paul expressed his thankfulness for the faith and love of the people of Colossae. He expressed in clear, dramatic language who Jesus is, "the Son of the Invisible God, the firstborn over all Creation. For in him all things were created". And he speaks of Christ's great mission, "to reconcile to himself all things".  For we received Christ, so we must live on him.  Because he is the "Fullness of God", he has the power to redeem us, to transform us.  And since we have that power let us "put to death" what is evil in us, "greed, rage, lies, bitterness, jealousy". Instead, we clothe ourselves with "compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience", all of which spring from Love.

That is a brief summary of the last three chapters, and today we look at St Paul's final words in this letter.  His last instruction to Colossae is brief, but important, and it’s about prayer and evangelism. Paul reminds church in Colossae to "remain faithful in prayer, being watchful and thankful". Thankful for what? Well, for the gifts of peace, reconciliation and belonging with God, that he has described again in the previous chapters. And watchful, for what? For opportunities to share these gifts with others.

People often wonder why Christians are so determined to spread their faith to others. Why do we put so much emphasis on conversion, on mission, on evangelism? What we have heard in this letter of Colossians answers that question.  We have the most amazing gift of the Kingdom of God. Through the Holy Spirit we are united with the one through whom "all things were created", who shall "reconcile all things", and all "thrones, powers, rulers and authorities" fall under him. We have so much. Even when in this life we face suffering. Paul wrote those words of Colossians in chains, in prison, regarding Christ who was crucified. Never let anyone think Paul's words were cheap. When he said in another letter, "we are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; persecuted but not abandoned, struck down but not destroyed", he spoke from experience, of the power he had received, through Christ, and in Christ. And that power is ours as well, through the Holy Spirit. 

And the fruit of those gifts is "compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience", gifts we all need. We have so much, and it is in that awareness that we go out to share our faith with others. Jesus commanded us to be salt and light. Now, salt adds flavour to food, but before refrigerators its more important use was for preserving food. You don't keep salt in a box, you take it and rub it all over your joint of meat or fish, and that means it keeps good and nourishing, it preserves life. Jesus called us light, and light cannot help but shine out, unless we deliberately hide it. And so our evangelism, our Good News, that we have been blessed, should just spill out of us in every way. 

There is no division either between work of charity and love, and evangelism. You bring someone food, you feed their body; you bring them faith in Christ, you feed their soul. The Bible never divides the two. Jesus heals people's bodies, and forgives their sins; he feeds thousands, and he dies for the salvation of all. St Paul doesn't know any division between the two either. He preaches Christ, and he gathers a collection for the starving. Now some people will feel more called to preach, and others to works of charity, and that's fine; as long as between us we are covering both. For both ways are the Light within us spilling out to others, both are inspired in us by the same source, the gift of Christ. Our Mission is to feed and support bodies and souls, the whole person, inspired by the Love Christ showed us.

If our prayer and evangelism and charity is an attempt to fill an emptiness in ourselves it will deserve to fail, but if it means the richness we have spilling out and being shared with other people, it will deserve to succeed. That, I believe, is why Paul has this instruction at the end of his letter, after he's described again the riches we have in Christ. Because we have this gift, in "jars of clay", we have something worth sharing with others. And the richness of Christ is not just what we share, it defines how we share. We have no need of defensiveness or fear. We don't need to trick people or browbeat them. We need to be honest about the gifts we receive through faith. Gifts of community, of patience, of hope and purpose in our lives, all grounded and made certain by being rooted in Christ, "the Son of the Invisible God, Firstborn over all Creation", "the Fullness of God".

The rest of this chapter, the final section of Colossians, emphasises one important gift in particular that is so important, and that is Community. St Paul knows the importance of community, he knows that his ministry, his mission, could never have succeeded without the community around him. And he never forgets to remember and thank each person who has been important in helping him. The people Paul thanks at the end of his letters give us a fascinating cross-section of the early Christian community: Men and Women, Jews and Gentiles. We also spot some famous names, Mark, and Luke, who wrote two of the Gospels we have today. 

Now, community is one of the things that is declining across our modern world: and by that I mean the institutions of closely connected family and life that support and encourage us. And this last year of Lockdown has accelerated that decline. We are not meant to live life alone, and while seeing people through screens is better than nothing, it's not the same. There's an old saying, "it takes a village to raise a child", but not just a child, it takes a village to live a life. But often these days, because people move so much for work, as fewer people get married, as fewer have children, as fewer join clubs and community groups, we become more isolated. And that can be fine, when life is good, when you're young. But when you face challenges, it's so much harder on your own. We're just not meant for it. A recent survey in America found that 30% of young adults said they did not have a single friend: Zero, not even one. And the proportion was far higher among young adults than older ones. And that kind of statistic has an inevitable impact on mental and physical health and wellbeing down the line.   

One of the things Church has always been is community, and that is valuable. Don't get me wrong, when community goes wrong it can be controlling and oppressive, but when it's right, when it's based on those Gospel principles of "compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience", it gives life. And Churches endure as communities as well, in a way that's special, in the face of persecution and change, because they are not randomly thrown together. Our community is based on a shared faith, a shared love, a shared joy. That is important, because community also requires people to put in a lot of work. Our faith and experience that we are one family in God, motivates us to put in the commitment: in time and money and care, that makes our community work.

We live in a world of constant change, uncertainty and confusion about our lives: where we're going as individuals and a society, how we should guide ourselves in politics, and to face huge challenges like Climate Change, or the Covid Pandemic. Through the Gospel, the teachings of Christ, and the Apostles, we have truth from God that has endured for 2000 years, because it speaks to what is most fundamental about our human nature, our spiritual nature. And that does not change. Jesus said living by his teaching is to build our lives on solid rock, not shifting sands. That is the basis that makes for a strong community, one we can all benefit from.

The thing about that teaching as well, is that it too comes to us through a community, the community of the Church. The Bible itself is a reflection of the experience of the earliest Christian community that Christ had risen from the dead, and he had empowered his followers with the Holy Spirit. And our community, and all the communities of Christians around the world are a direct descendant of that first community. The word theology just means the 'knowledge of God', and true and good knowledge of God can only exist where the texts of theology like the Bible are understood in the Spirit of faith, hope and love.

A Church community should be special, because it should be open and welcoming to everyone. And while no community is perfect, here at Wolston my family and I certainly felt welcomed from the start. If we are true to Christ, then anyone must be welcome to come in and join us. We are not united by race, or age, or sex, or nationality, by where we went to school, or whether we went to University, we are united by faith in Christ. And that means any man or woman or child can be my brother or sister. In fact, you don't even need to have faith yet, if your mind is open and searching, you're welcome. I talked earlier about evangelism and as Christians we often think of that as going out and spreading the Word. But equally it has to be about how you treat people when they come in. There's no point going out and telling people about Christ, if when they come into Church they are not welcomed and supported.

Let our love be plain and obvious to see, let our "compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience" be clear and unmistakeable, and people will appreciate the reality we know, that the "Fullness of God" is in Christ, and Christ lives and moves in us.

Amen.