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.


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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

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 challenges 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 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.  

Friday, 2 April 2021

Palm Sunday in Lockdown - Luke 19:28-44

After Jesus had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. As he approached Bethpage and Bethany at the hill called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ say, ‘The Lord needs it.’”

Those who were sent ahead went and found it just as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?”
By Zambian painter, Emmanuel Nsama
They replied, “The Lord needs it.”

They brought it to Jesus, threw their cloaks on the colt and put Jesus on it. As he went along, people spread their cloaks on the road.

When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen:

“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”

Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!”
“I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.”

As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.”


It is a great joy to be back here with you, after so long. It has been a hard three months since Christmas. Hardest, of course, for those who have lost loved ones in the last year; but hard, certainly, for us all.

I remember Palm Sunday when I was a kid. The church would be packed, and there would be a donkey and palm crosses and we would process up and down the village high street behind this donkey singing hymns and waving palms. It could seem a bit goofy at times, but, boy, do I miss it now. There's something profoundly joyful about getting out of your seat and out into the fresh air, to walk together and cheer and sing. And those emotions, those simple emotions, are incredibly important, because through them we open a window to experience the Kingdom of God. I hope we are never too old or wise to let ourselves go into Joy, into Love, into rejoicing, because those things transform the earth into heaven.

When our hearts swell at the beauty of the world, at the company of our family and friends, when we worship God, and remember and appreciate what he has done for us, then we open ourselves up to God. Being human means being trapped, to some degree: trapped by our own frailty, trapped by our own weakness, by the memory of grief, and at no time more than now. So our vision of heaven through our joy and love is always like looking into "a cloudy mirror", or a blurry photo, but it is a real glimpse of heave none the less, and that is something worth remembering. 

We should remember that on Palm Sunday especially. The crowd cannot help but break out into song as Jesus approaches Jerusalem, riding on a donkey, praising God for all the things, the miracles they have seen. And by just letting it out, letting the joy run out, they are doing something incredibly important. After thousands of years of waiting God has come to his own city in person, and they get to be the ones who declare it, who welcome him in. They are speaking the truth, a truth that will change the world forever; and not just the truth of facts, but also the truth of the heart, the truth of meaning.

Some people I know have seen angels, and some people have talked about times of worship when they felt so full of the presence of God that it was like Angels were worshipping alongside them. We see that in the Bible at moments of great joy, particularly at Christmas. The shepherds were amazed and terrified because Heaven could not contain the joy, and the skies split open with Angels praising and singing at Christ's birth. When Jesus rides into Jerusalem we can be certain for every person in the crowd there was an Angel too, repeating those same words with a sound we can barely imagine.

Jesus riding into Jerusalem is the one time he was welcomed as he should be welcomed, as the King. Those people stood there and sang for all of us. But it is just a reflection of the greater joy when Jesus rose from the dead and into Heaven, bringing with him all those he saved from Hell; and it's a reflection again of the Joy when Christ will come again, and ride into the New Jerusalem; when Heaven and Earth are united and shall  be one and the same forever.

Those people two thousand years ago may not have understood all this. They knew they were doing something serious, something important. They knew what the Messiah meant for their people, but I don't know if they realised, that above and beyond they were making the world turn and the angels sing. They were only people, but they sang the same song as the angels in Heaven. Maybe the angels make a more beautiful noise, but they sing the same song, and the joy of the crowd is taken up and repeated all the way to the throne of God.

So Joy is a serious business, and worship is a serious business, and letting ourselves feel the beauty of the world and of God is a very serious business. And, my friends, that joy and beauty is all around us. There is a very famous start to a poem, that I have always loved, by William Blake, the man who wrote Jerusalem.  It says "To see the World in a Grain of Sand, And Heaven in a Wild Flower, hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, And Eternity in an hour". I'll repeat that.

We have been trapped in a narrow place, these last few months: in many cases separated from friends and family. But the beauty of God's creation is still all around us. The Bible says "the heavens declare the glory of God, and the skies show his handiwork". Now we can interpret this to mean the world is a dead thing, like a book, in which we can deduce evidence of God's Glory, like a detective looking for clues. But I think the Bible is saying something much more. The Prophet Isaiah said "you shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace; and the mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands", which has been turned into a great song.

The world God made is alive, my friends, and its beauty shouts of the Glory and Beauty of God. Jesus reflects those words of Isaiah in our reading today. The Pharisee leaders demand Jesus rebuke his disciples, telling them to keep quiet. But Jesus says "if they keep quiet, the stones themselves will cry aloud". I think he was quite serious. This moment on Palm Sunday when Jesus rides into Jerusalem as its King, is too important. If men and women keep quiet, the angels and the stones themselves will cry out. This is a moment on which the world turns. And even in Lockdown the beauty of the world around us is still declaring the Glory of God, still giving us a window to see the beauty and joy that will be complete forever when we see God not "in a cloudy mirror, but face to face".

There is beauty all around us, in our historic church that we are gathering in again today; in the fields, and grass, and skies and animals. If you walk up Dyers Lane out into the fields, you will see the young lambs bleating and dancing. I strongly recommend it. Again and again in scripture Jesus is called the 'Lamb of God'; or a Shepherd, who cares for his sheep. As William Blake said, "Heaven in a wild flower", or in a lamb.

The events from Palm Sunday, leading up to Jesus's Crucifixion, death and Resurrection a week from today, on Easter Sunday: these are the most important events in History. As a Christian I believe that the whole Cosmos, the meaning of the Universe, was changed forever by those events. Through Christ's sacrifice we have forgiveness, grace and the hope of Eternal Life; and the Kingdom of God has been spreading, person by person, from that day to this. But even in purely secular terms they are also the most important events in history, because of 2 billion Christians in the world today, and for all the historical events that have followed on from those events, and been shaped by it.

But if you'd been there, if you'd seen it, it maybe wouldn't have looked like that much actually. If you've ever been to a professional or international football match, you've probably seen a larger, louder crowd than was there on Palm Sunday, two thousand years ago.  But you haven't seen a more important one. Mark Twain once said "It's not the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog". Don't judge events by their size, or noise; or people by their rank, or status, or bank balance. "Infinity in the palm of your hand, and Eternity in an hour". What we do and what we experience, each day, is more important than we realise. Maybe some of the people went out to that Palm Sunday crowd because they went with a friend, or because it was a bright day, but they made history forever.

Even in Lockdown, even with all the restrictions we operate under, we still have the chance to embrace beauty and joy, and to love one another, and so to look upon the face of God. You matter! We all matter! How we respond to each other, and the world around us, matters! The Bible points us in the direction we should go: through Faith, Hope and Love; along the narrow road of Truth; to do Justly, Love Mercy, and walk humbly with our God. By obeying Lockdown restrictions these last months we all have saved lives, at a cost to ourselves. And that is just as true for those who have sadly lost loved ones themselves. And it is something that we should all be proud of, amid the sadness about all that we have missed.

What we do matters, and how we respond matters, which brings me to the last part of our reading today. After the glorious welcome of the crowd Jesus stops, and weeps; and offers a terrible warning over the city of Jerusalem, where most of the people would not recognise his coming; and next Friday, many would cry for his crucifixion. What happened in Jerusalem was people could not recognise a King who came in peace, riding on a donkey. A King whose Kingdom is spiritual, that is "not of this world", and taught that they should "give unto Caesar what was Caesar's, and to God what is God's". 

In years to come anger against the Romans who occupied Jerusalem grew, until it broke out into War. But the Roman Empire was too strong, and eventually Jerusalem itself was surrounded and destroyed, just as Jesus had warned. If Jerusalem had embraced the route of peace, and spiritual transformation, the city could have survived, and transformed the Roman Empire from within.

But though Jerusalem was destroyed, nothing has destroyed the importance of what happened two thousand years ago between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday. The community founded on Jesus Christ survived and grew, as it survived and grew through centuries of persecution under the Roman Empire, and it survives and grows around the world to this very day. 

When you hear about the ancient Christians surviving through years of persecution, and when you hear about Christians today in parts of the world that are very hostile to them: what stands out again and again, is the intense but simple faith, hope and love they have. Faith in Christ as King, Love for God and each other, Hope enduring, that God's Will will be done. It seems they are charged up by their experience of God's Beauty & Glory in every circumstance, even when they face hostility and hatred from human beings. Despite the ongoing challenges of our situation, may we all find that same joy in the good gifts around us.

"Peace in Heaven and Glory in the Highest!"

"Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord"

Amen

Wednesday, 25 November 2020

Sermon on Luke 17:11-19 - Jesus Heals Ten Men with Leprosy

 Luke 17:11-19 - Jesus Heals Ten Men with Leprosy

Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus travelled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!”

When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed.

One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him — and he was a Samaritan.

Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”


Something that always strikes me about the Gospels is that you have all these stories, and they're all drawn from ordinary life and the real people Jesus met: farmers, and housewives, and sowers, and merchants, and weddings guests, and shepherds, and travellers, and many more; and yet taken together, they describe the most profound reality about our lives, our world, and our society; the Good News about the Kingdom of God. Every single parable and episode is teaching the same truth, but with each story, each parable, you get a slightly different perspective, a different nuance, that builds up that rich, complex insight into God's Love and Purpose for our world.

The encounter we have heard today is a brief one on the page, but it tells us something about the Good News of the Kingdom of God. Certainly, in the middle of Lockdown, we can do with some Good News. In the reading, Jesus is crossing over the border from Galilee, where he grew up and did much of his teaching, into Samaria, the land of the Samaritans, so he can travel on to Jerusalem where he died and rose again. The Samaritans were the most closely related people to the Jews, but there was fierce hatred between the two groups. They say that fights within families can be the most bitter fights, and Civil Wars are the worst wars, and despite their close history and similar beliefs, this was true between Jews and Samaritans. We see this still in the world today, when we think of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, or in Northern Ireland between Unionists and Nationalists. These are all people who live basically as neighbours with each other, but are divided by fear and distrust.

As Jesus enters a village he's travelling through, he meets ten men with leprosy. Now, leprosy in the Bible refers anyone suffering from a disease that disfigures the skin and produce boils and sores that could be spread by infectious contact. People with these diseases were required to live away from all other people - even family or friends - to avoid spreading these infections. As such they were often reliant on generosity from other people to survive, and would shout and ring bells to warn other people of their coming, and hopefully attract charitable gifts.

Well, at least part of that will be suddenly familiar to all of us this year. Of course, we are mostly lucky that we are forced to keep away from each other, not because we have a disease, but to avoid getting one. But at least temporarily, we are all feeling the stress that comes from being separated from our family and friends, without the human contact that is what normally makes life worth living. We are so blessed we can still meet through the wonders of technology, and we look forward with hope to a vaccine that will allow us to resume ordinary life. But we are reminded by this great trial, just how reliant we are on each other, both for practical help and support, and the emotional nourishment we need to live happy and fulfilled lives. 

Again and again, the Bible talks about Jesus as a healer of the sick, he brings fullness of life not just to the body but also the mind and the spirit. The plague of Covid threatens our bodies, but the fear of Covid, and all the restrictions we now live under, threaten our mental wellbeing, and the isolation from our communities and the loss of our shared worship of God can sap our spirit.

As part of our church service we often give thanks to God for the gifts we have received with the words, "all things come from you, and of your own do we give to you". Now, this may seem like an odd time to count our blessings, but that means this is exactly the time we should be counting our blessings. Because that is the way we will maintain hope, and we will protect our hearts from being overwhelmed by this situation.

The Book of Job in the Old Testament of the Bible is a profound parable that grapples with the question of how bad things can happen to good people who believe in God. It's quite long, but there are two famous quotes that sum up how Job responds to the terrible things that have happened to him. He says, "The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord". Which means he recognises that all the Good things he enjoyed came from God, without God he would not have had life, or joy, or blessings; so how could he curse God when he does not have some of those blessings anymore.

Amid the chaos around us we must still reflect on the fact that God is the creator of every good thing in our bodies, our minds and our souls; both the ones we've had in the past, the ones we still have today, and those we hope for in the future. In our modern society we are justly proud of the wonders mankind has produced, but we should always be aware that both the Physical Material of the world that we manipulate into construction and technology; and the gifts of intelligence and insight that allow us to discover new Science and Knowledge, all those things come from God.

We don't know how long the ten men who met Jesus had been suffering from Leprosy: for some it may not have been long, for some it could have been many years. They were suffering, and they were isolated. But they had not lost hope, they had not lost the will to do what they could to change their situation; and in Jesus they saw someone who had the power to change their situation: "Jesus, Master, have pity on us". 

Job, too, in his own suffering was not just resigned that 'easy come and easy go', his faith in God was that in the future still to come, God would restore him and bring joy out of sadness, justice out of suffering, and new hope from loss. He said, "I know that my Saviour lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth. And even if my skin is destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him, with my own eyes". 

Because God is the Creator of all things, we should still be grateful for all the blessings we have had, and still have, even in Lockdown; but because Jesus Christ is our Saviour, we know we have hope that endures through and beyond everything we have lost this past year. That we will see life and joy again; even those people we have lost from this life; and we will be together again. 

With the ten lepers, as on so many occasions, Jesus, when faced with the someone reaching out in hope, did not wait to respond, but reacted immediately to send them to the priests, the people who could certify that they were no longer at risk of spreading infection. But they were not yet healed, they went, in faith and obedience to the instruction they had received, and it was in going, they were healed. Following that instruction took a remarkable trust in Jesus, after years of being trapped by their condition, and it was by taking action in faith, in the face of a seemingly impossible situation, that they changed their lives.

It is when we retain hope despite difficulty, when we step out in faith that we can change both our own lives, and the world around us. Every great achievement and journey begins because someone takes a step in faith, with a new idea, or a new invention, or to a new job, or a new place. The world is not changed any other way. And very often God prompts us, but he doesn't show us every step we have to take, it is by keeping hope, and having the courage to take the first step, that God equips us with the strength and gifts to take the next step, and the next.   

All ten of those men were healed through their faith, but one of them went further, he came back to Jesus, and shouting and singing out in praise of God. That must have taken great presence of mind, because although they had already been healed, the ten men could not return to their lives and their families until that had been officially confirmed by the priest. And that's where Jesus sent them. And as they went, they must have seen everything they had before them in their lives. But still, one man turned back to give thanks to God first. He stopped in the midst of the most important thing imaginable for him, to be grateful and to express that, to someone who had helped him, before he rushed on with his life. And that is an amazing thing. When we show our gratitude to someone, when we say thank you, we bless them and ourselves. A thankless burden is a heavier one, but a grateful word makes it easier to bear, and it's completely free. 

So, in this short reading we have hope and faith in the face of suffering. We have the love that Jesus showed, which transformed their lives, and we have the gratitude shown by one man in response.

And who was that man? He was a Samaritan, a foreigner, someone a Jew would not normally have trusted. But time and time again the New Testament emphasises the fact that it is not our background that determines what kind of people we are, but the hope, faith, love and gratitude that we display in response to the challenges we experience.

News of vaccines comes ever closer, but it will still be some months before our lives can really return to normal; and we don't even know what will happen with Christmas. It is an incredibly challenging time for everyone, but perhaps it may help to remember when Jesus met ten men with leprosy on the outskirts of a small village, and how hope, faith, love and gratitude can give us the strength to carry on.

Amen.

Saturday, 10 October 2020

Sermon on John the Baptist - Luke 3:1-16

"In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet:

“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
 make straight paths for him.
 Every valley shall be filled in,
 every mountain and hill made low.
 The crooked roads shall become straight,
 the rough ways smooth.
 And all people will see God’s salvation.’”

John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

“What should we do then?” the crowd asked.
John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”

Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?” 
“Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.

Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, 
“Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”

The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire."

Before I start talking about John the Baptist today, I want you to have two images in your head. Imagine a door fixed on a hinge, the whole door swings around that hinge, and imagine you can open it fully one way, and then swing it right round 180 degrees until it's open the other way. John the Baptist is like that hinge for the whole Bible, as you swing it right round from the Old Testament to the New. Or think of a running river with a bridge arching over it, joining the two banks together. John the Baptist is like that bridge.

John the Baptist is an almost unique figure in the Bible in that way, because more than anyone else he connects the world of the Old Testament and Covenant with the people of Israel, and the New Testament and Covenant with the whole world. John appears solely in the New Testament, in the Gospels, but he is an Old Testament prophet, last of a long line going back a thousand years. At the same time John the Baptist, was just a prophet, he was not the Saviour himself, but one who pointed to Christ.     

In the Old Testament God spoke to his people through a long-line of prophets, men and women filled with the Holy Spirit who spoke the truth to their people with God's own insight. These men and women taught, they warned, they begged and they raged, depending on what was needed in different times and places. They were particularly called to speak in defence of the poor, and the vulnerable, the widows and the orphans. They rang out in condemnation of unjust societies that allowed the poor to be exploited, and declared that even the most diligent religious rituals were worthless in the eyes of God unless there was justice and compassion, for the poor and the weak. They warned God's People not to turn away from the God who created the whole Universe and brought their people out of Egypt, warned them not to worship the false gods of the neighbouring peoples, whose worship included the human sacrifice of children, and women being forced to act as prostitutes in the temples. They called God's People to loving and faithful devotion to God and his Law, rather than seeking glory in power and military might.

Now at that time the people of Israel were a small people surrounded by these huge powerful Empires - Egypt, Babylonia, Persia - huge Empires, and they were like this little boat tossing and turning in a great political storm. But the prophets did not just talk about what was happening then, they looked far into the future, and saw at time when God would come in person to his people, and when he would reveal his salvation to all peoples, and begin the process of gathering all peoples in to worship him in peace and brotherhood. In the Old Testament you get snatches of this vision here and there, spread throughout the prophets, and then things go quiet.

The Old Testament ends with the words of the Prophet Malachi, who brings God's words promising that the "Surely the day is coming [...] for those who honour my name, when the Sun of Righteousness will rise will rise with healing in its wings", and very finally "See, I will send the Prophet Elijah to you before that great and terrible day of the Lord comes". And then silence. And for an awfully long time, for 400 years, there were no more prophets who came to the people of God with God's word, there were no more visions of the coming Messiah, God's Saviour.

But then John came.  And once again there was a prophet in Israel, speaking with the power of the Holy Spirit. Always the Holy Spirit had called the Prophets to challenge the people of their time, particularly those holding wealth and power. By John's time that meant the power of the Temple Priesthood, who held great authority in Israel working with the Roman Authorities; and the Pharisees, who were recognised as the experts in Jewish Law in the synagogues and communities. Just like the prophet Amos and others, we see John challenging the people not to trust merely in their blood descent as Jews, but warning them that it is faithfulness to God's message and will that is what makes them a chosen people, Abraham's children. This message is repeated many times in the Bible, in both the Old Testament and the teaching of our Lord Jesus. 

When he is asked about what this means John is equally clear, and echoing the line of Prophets before him, going back a thousand years: those with lots of possessions must make sure others have what they need as well, those in positions of legal and financial authority must not use it to exploit the people beneath them, and those with physical or military power must not take advantage of the weak. John lived out that message through his simple lifestyle, deliberately avoiding the temptations of wealth and power, and living out in the wilderness where he would be free to speak God's truth without having power over anyone.

And John also takes up the other great theme of the Prophets, the coming Messiah. The "one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie." But this is no longer a vision of the distant future, it is now 5 minutes to midnight and the Messiah is coming now! "I baptize you with water, [...] he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit!" In other words some of those same people who John baptised with water would be baptised with the Holy Spirit in their own lifetimes. And so it was.

Apart from the Lord Jesus himself, his life and death, and resurrection, only 2 other people and one event in the New Testament were prophecied in the Old Testament. That was the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the Virgin Mary, Mother of Jesus, and the coming of John the Baptist. Because it was his important role to swing open the door, from the Old Testament into the New Testament. Because once he began his teaching the time was almost ready for Jesus Christ to appear. John the Baptist was honest, dedicated and brave. He abandoned all luxury and ordinary life, and physically left behind civilisation to go out into the Wilderness and call the people out to repent. He feared nobody, and he spoke the same to ordinary people, to leaders and authorities like the Pharisees and Priests, and to the King himself, even though speaking honestly to the King cost him his life. But he was not the Messiah.

Prophets were God's messengers, filled with his Holy Spirit, but they were just messengers, delivering God's words, they were never God himself, they could only point people to repent and turn to God. But at last John the Baptist is fulfilling the words of Scripture, "prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for our God [...] and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed". These words are clear, it is God himself who is coming, and it is Jesus Christ who came. He is not just a messenger, or a servant, a man who has been given the words of God, he is God himself, come as a Man among Men.

Now Jesus often sounds like a prophet, he fulfills all the functions that a Prophet fulfills, but he is also a High Priest, who represents us to God the Father, and he is the infinite Sacrifice himself, that covers over and washes away all our sins, and he is the Rabbi, the teacher who guides us in God's own ways. He is all this and more because he is the only Son of the Father, God himself. A prophet is someone who speaks the words God has given him and points to God outside himself, whereas Jesus Christ points to himself. Across the Gospels he forgives sins, and heals, and fulfills the prophecies of the coming of God, all in his own name. John the Baptist knows this, and he knows the difference.

John was a brave man, eventually his brave and honest speech got him arrested, and thrown in prison by King Herod. His preaching and teaching abruptly cut short, John must have been near despair. Was he wrong about his calling from God? Had God abandoned him? And he sends messengers to Jesus, asking him if he is the Messiah? Or has John made a terrible mistake? And Jesus answers them saying, "Go back and tell John what you have seen: The blind can see, the lame walk, those with leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and good news is proclaimed to the poor. In other words, Jesus is also fulfilling prophecy, the greater prophecies of the Messiah, and through Jesus Christ the Kingdom of God is becoming a reality in the world wherever he goes.

And once that starts it does not stop. They killed Jesus to prevent the Good News he was spreading, but through his death and resurrection he brought the forgiveness of sins and the start of a glorious new life for all people. They could not stop him. And God's Holy Spirit and Kingdom continue to spread among all those who give their hearts to God in Jesus Christ, and today there are more than 2 billion Christians in the world. After John there were no more prophets like John or all the prophets who came before him, who pointed into the future, to the coming of God's Messiah. Because Jesus came, and that changes everything. Every time we have Communion, and particularly every Easter we say, Christ has died, Christ is Risen, Christ will come again. Since Pentecost, recorded in the Book of Acts, the Holy Spirit is present with us. 

So we do still look to the future when God will be All-in-All, but we also look to the past when Jesus walked on earth, and we know in the present that God's Holy Spirit is among all of us. The prophets until John glimpsed into the distant future and "saw only like a reflection in a cloudy mirror", but through Jesus walking among us we have seen God "face to face". That is why Jesus said, "among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he". We are the Kingdom of God if we have faith in Jesus Christ, and so welcome the Holy Spirit into our hearts. Then we have the power to be greater than John the Baptist. How is that possible? 

Well, John was a prophet, and that means he called for justice. And Justice is always important, justice is one of the great themes of the Bible, and the cry for justice rightly continues today, here in this country and many countries across the world. But the wisdom of the Gospels is that Justice alone can be brittle and hard. If Justice just means one person demanding something from another, the wrong may be real, and the demand entirely correct and right, but if that is the only focus you can get trapped in a destructive cycle of grievances. You get societies like Northern Ireland or Israel-Palestine where both sides have lists of wrongs going back centuries, and people can never agree on how the wrongs can be righted. If we only call for justice, it will slip through our hands again and again. It is love and forgiveness and sacrifice for one another that creates the space to leave pain behind and heal wounds, and so create a true, living justice which lasts. That is why when the Messiah finally came, he did not come as a stern Judge, but as a loving Servant. 

But how can we love our neighbours, and our enemies, and everyone in-between, sometimes it can feel like that is just piling on a burden we cannot bear. The answer is we cannot do these things through our own power, but because God became Man, we as men and women can join in and draw on God's own infinite love and forgiveness for our neighbour, and our enemy and the whole world. Not through our own strength, but by his power, and that is a depth of love that cannot be exhausted.

Jesus is the Christ, the most Mighty One, and we know this because he made himself the least and most humble, even to death on a cross, but that did not defeat him. Jesus is unique among leaders because everything he taught, he did himself first, and that makes him worth following. John could teach about justice, but he could not bring justice. Jesus Christ taught about God's love, forgiveness and sacrifice, and he lived it, and he showed it. And because he is God, through his own death and resurrection he brings us the power to join in God's love and forgiveness and sacrifice; which is the meaning of God's Kingdom on Earth.    

John at the end of his life sent men to Jesus to ask, "‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?" That's a good question, but we know the answer. Yes, Jesus is the Christ, and we know this because he did not just point to the future Kingdom of God, he brings the Kingdom that is spreading to this day, and we can be a part of, because he is the King, now and forever. One we can all rely on.

Amen.