Showing posts with label Christian. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Christian. Show all posts

Monday, 24 December 2018

An Advent and Christmas Reflection

I have a strong dislike of planning for Christmas and hearing Christmas songs before December. I have even been compared to Ebenezer Scrooge. But this isn’t because I hate Christmas, in fact I love Christmas and I also love Advent. The four weeks leading up to Christmas is my favourite period of the Christian Year: the New Year of the church, four Sundays before Christmas, begins a period of reflection, of watching, of waiting, of re-reading the prophecies of God’s promises, of quietly searching for the light in the darkness that can seem to be all around us.

But the preparation for Christmas I see in the society around me troubles me more each year. I see people place a lot of hope in things that don’t get them what they want. Christmas seems to start at the beginning of November and finish before Christmas Day is over. I’ve seen people open piles of presents on Christmas day only to discard them to rush to the Boxing Day sales. As many as eight million people in this country will start January in debt because of Christmas. People eat and drink far more than is good for them, and put up more and more decorations each year, searching for the perfect picture for Instagram. Others place their hope in their jobs and careers, working for longer than they need to. There seems to be little space for Advent and even for the following eleven days of Christmas. Long before the joy of Epiphany much of the world has moved on. Parliament spent Advent in uproar over Brexit, and there has been weekend after weekend of rioting in Paris, it seems many people have put their hope in power and politicians and been disappointed.

As Christians, we are hopefully less vulnerable to the worst excesses of ‘secular Christmas’ and putting our hope in the wrong places. But we still rush around, cooking, cleaning, decorating, wrapping, baking, and staying up half the night trying to create a perfect day. I’ve seen people rush around organising so many church services and singing so many Carols that they feel a disappointment when it is over, saying they did not really experience Christmas at all. The comfort that we need in the midst of pain and grief and suffering does not lie in the things around us in this world. “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned” prophesied Isaiah (9:2) seven hundred years before Jesus was born.

Christmas comes not only to the rich and well organised; it is not just for young children, or for people who already know Jesus. It comes, to the lowly and the poor. To the young Mary and Joseph, and the outcast shepherds, as well as the learned wise men, and the elderly Simeon and Anna in the temple. It comes to those like Zechariah and Elizabeth who thought their time may be past, and to a young couple in an occupied country forced to flee the persecution of Herod. It comes to John the Baptist in the wilderness and to an Innkeeper in the crowded town of Bethlehem. The Joy, Awe, Wonder, Peace and Hope of Christmas comes to all those willing to follow the star and listen to the angels - to all those who make space for the Baby who was named Jesus, who is Immanuel, God-With-Us.

The coming of the Messiah is the fulfilment of God’s promises, the proof that he has not forgotten his people and the embodiment of our Salvation. It is not a glittery, shiny, empty promise. Our mighty God with overwhelming power comes to save us as a tiny helpless baby – rejecting the worship of power, riches, control, strength and dominance - born into danger and poverty in a Manger. It is something we all need to experience every year afresh, in whatever circumstances we find ourselves. Christmas gives us an ultimate hope for the future too - as we wait this Advent; we work for the growth of God's Kingdom of hope, faith and love, and we wait for Jesus to come again in Glory.

So that brings me to the challenge of this devotion: what are you going to NOT do this Christmas? How will you remind yourself of God’s promises, and make room for Jesus, God with us?

Saturday, 6 October 2018

Sermon on Acts 4:1-22 - Peter and John arrested by the High Council

"Then they called them in and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John replied, “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You judge! As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.”" Acts 4:18-20.

These words are the core of our reading today. In the choice of the Sanhedrin, and the response of Peter and John, we see totally opposite approaches to the same facts, the same events. Two options we have today, two options our whole country, our whole world has today and in the years to come.

Peter and John healed a crippled man in the name of Jesus Christ, and preached the news of his resurrection to the crowds. For this they were thrown into prison by the Sanhedrin, the High Council or High Court, of the Jewish people at that time, the same council that had convicted Jesus, and now faced his disciples confidently preaching the news that he had risen to new life. When this High Council, sent Jesus to die they must have thought their problem was solved. Killing a man tends to stop him causing you any more trouble. And movements built around one charismatic man or woman tend to disappear when that person is dead. But months later, they are faced with Peter and John leading a growing movement, preaching and healing through that same Jesus Christ. And the response of the Council shows they are confused, "What are we going to do with these men?", they ask.

Like many politicians today that have to deal with problems all the time, but still, they have surprisingly few ways to do it.  They can't bribe Peter and John, that clearly won't work, and they don't have an excuse to kill them, so they're fresh out of ideas.  If you're a ruler in an ancient, undemocratic society, paying people off or killing them is usually the solution. So the Council tries their backup plan, they try to order them around, threaten them, intimidate them, and hope they're scared into keeping quiet. But if they hoped Peter and John would be scared into silence, they have no idea what kind of men they are dealing with.

For these are not the same men they were before. In the Gospels Peter was brash, he was enthusiastic, he always ran in first without thinking. But at the most important moment he was brittle too. When they came to arrest Jesus, Peter ran away, and when Jesus was held prisoner facing death, in fear Peter denied knowing Jesus three times. Peter talked a good talk, and when the going seemed good he was enthusiastic, but when things turned sour he flunked the real test of commitment and loyalty pretty bad.

Jesus never gave up on Peter though, not after the Resurrection, not on the Cross. "Forgive them Lord, they do not know what they do" - I wonder if that was meant for Peter too, who did not kill Jesus, but had gone back on the commitment he had promised to his friend. Indeed, often our friends abandoning us hurts more than our enemies actively trying to harm us. And after the Resurrection Jesus welcomed Peter back: Jesus practiced exactly what he preached, he forgave Peter and restored him to a position of trust, by challenging him to raise himself up through taking responsibility for Jesus' followers the way he had - Peter "take care of my sheep", he said.

Jesus knew Peter's potential despite the weakness and frailty in his personality, but in total difference to the High Council, Jesus does not seek to lead by ordering or threatening people but as a true leader, one who shows his example of integrity, compassion, and sacrifice, and so inspires and invites people to choose to follow after him. And of course, this doesn't just apply to Peter, the same Love Jesus had for Peter is the love he has for every one of us, every day. He has no wish to hold our sins against us, or our shame, our guilt, or our fear, but holds out a hand every day saying 'follow me', rise to the challenge, be a little more the person your best moments show you can be. Follow me, not on your own, never on your own, but with God's help and grace, filled with power by his trust and love.

And so Peter stood up, a bit taller, and allowed himself to be inspired to rise to the challenge and take responsibility for that community he had around him. But even all that, Good Friday and those Resurrection meetings, that's not all that transformed the old Peter, enthusiastic but uncertain, into the new Peter we see in Acts. Even in the book of Acts we see the disciples still uncertain about what is going on. Just before Jesus ascends into heaven they're asking him, "‘Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’" and for the last time on this earth he has to lovingly correct them.

But then, on Pentecost, Fire comes. Fire comes down, the Holy Spirit of God comes to live in the disciples and everyone who puts their trust in Jesus. And these people, they are not the same.

So now they are standing before the Council that condemned Jesus, being threatened and commanded, with genuine reason to fear for their lives, What are they like? Certain! Clear! In fact, totally unfazed! I'm sure they felt fear inside, they're still human after all, but their conviction was so great that it overwhelmed their fear. And so they stood utterly solid, their heads held high and their backs straight, and spoke the simple and utter truth. I-mean, what a revolutionary thing to do, no embellishment, no beating around the bush, just the plain truth - "As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard". And the Council couldn't believe it. "When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realised that they were uneducated, ordinary men, they were astonished." Astonished! But why were they astonished?

It might need fancy degrees, and training in rhetoric and debating, to come up with complex justifications for things that probably shouldn't be justified. But it does not require any training at all to speak the plain truth about what you have seen and heard, and nothing more. Jesus talked about the "wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the water rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; but it did not fall down", because its foundations were deep in that solid rock. Peter and John were those wise men that day, because they had seen and heard the truth, that Jesus is risen, and they set their foundations, their words, in the deep and solid rock.

I'm sure they still felt fear, that's a totally understandable physical response to knowing you're under threat, but they were not afraid. After all, why should they be afraid, knowing what they knew. All the High Council could do was threaten their bodies with physical violence, to beat them or even kill them. But what do those threats mean to men who have seen their Lord pass from death to life again, and know he has gone "to prepare a place" for them? And this is true in their speech - clear, direct, honest. No need to lie, or embellish, or circle round the point. What more needs adding to Jesus' words, or taking away from the truth of what God did in those 50 days from Good Friday to Pentecost, was doing through Peter and John then, and is still doing now?

And there is freedom in that. Many times in our wider Church, our Society, our Politics, we get bogged down in too many words, tying ourselves up in complex arguments about things that actually are distracting us from what really matters. For the apostle John, who stood beside Peter, what really mattered was summed up like this- "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that all who believe in him should not perish, but have eternal life", and elsewhere he said it even more briefly, "God is Love". Not because that's the only thing that matters, but because everything that does matter connects to that. Now, at times we need more words, this sermon is not 3 words long. But the more words we pile up, inevitably the further away we get from words that really matter, and we run the risk that each additional word means less and less. Our words and thoughts are freed this when we know what really matters and we keep it at the front of our mind.

Of course this freedom doesn't just free us from needing too many words. More importantly it defines how our words can be spoken. I-mean, what emotional place our words come from. Peter and John were now living in the sure and certain hope of the Resurrection, and with that we can be powerfully changed. They knew that if they fell in this world then God would catch them. Even if they died in the flesh they would rise in the Spirit to their Lord who waited for them. So they were  not afraid, and more, they had no trace of all the terrible feelings that come out of fear, and damage us as individuals, and our wider society.

There was no bitterness in Peter and John, and the other disciples, no hatred, no deceit, no cunning, no worry, not even really any anger. Because like fear, what need do they have for those things? A few chapters later in Acts, St Stephen, my namesake, was stoned to death by an angry crowd, the first Christian to die for speaking about Jesus. But even as the stones fell his last words were "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." He had no need for bitterness too, he had seen Jesus sat at God's right hand only moments before. I'm not saying it's easy, or we can all do it instantly, most sadly not, but we can all have that knowledge before us, and over time let it slowly soften our soul.

In the end all our negative emotions are attempts to defend ourselves by forcing the world into the shape we want through sheer force of will. When people watch a football match, they often feel all sorts of fears and doubts, they get angry about a decision or an event while the match is going on, because they want to make the result go how they want it by their own sheer emotional effort. That's why we yell at the TV. But if we already know the final score, because it's a recording or whatever, if we already know the final score then none of that anger, rage and doubt are there.

Peter and John, and all of us, we know the final score of this world, proved through the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the coming of the Holy Spirit. We know, we should know, that God will catch us if we fall, and with that knowledge we can let go of the fear and tension and doubt in ourselves we hold inside. We still have to act, of course we do. But in everything we do we can let go, and let God. No need to cling to our schemes and strategies, that consciously or unconsciously we use to try to fully control the world around us. Because it won't work anyway, and we don't need it.

This can lift a heavy weight off our shoulders. Jesus said “Come to me, all you who are tired and burdened, and I will give you rest",  come to me, "For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” How could he say that? Jesus was murdered, his disciples were almost all murdered, he calls us to be willing to give everything, to devote our hearts to God and to our neighbour before ourselves. How is this a light burden?

Well, we see the answer clearly in Peter and John, because they have lost the weight of bitterness, of hate, of needing to fight to defend ourselves, of being afraid; because beyond the veil of this physical world around us they know their Lord, Our Lord, waits for them with all the power of Heaven. The Council can threaten their bodies, but that is all they can do, and with God's power filling their souls, that is not very much indeed; and with that all stripped away there is no reason left to be afraid, they are left with what is truly real - the presence of God and his Love. And that is an easy burden indeed.

So that is Peter and John, but what about the Sanhedrin, the High Council they're facing?  We see in them a mirror-image, the opposite of what we see in Peter and John, and sadly one that is all too common in our world. They threatened Peter and John, and what a waste of time that was. But what was the reason that they had dragged the Disciples before them to be imprisoned, threatened and intimidated? Peter had healed a man who had been sadly unable to walk for many years and when people demanded to know how he did this, Peter replied that it was not through their own power or holiness, but God who had done it through the name of Jesus Christ. And for this they were arrested.

The High Council knew as well that this was at least partially true. They could see the healed man standing there, an act of great kindness to that man, physically changing his life. That was a fact. They knew something incredible had happened, even if they didn't believe it was Jesus who was the true cause of it. And when we're faced with any new fact, we always have the choice, the option of learning something from it. Even if they didn't accept Jesus right then and there, they knew something very special, of goodness and power, had happened in front of them. So what did they learn from it? Nothing!

Jesus came preaching love, and 'turning the other cheek', and doing miracles of healing, and they had him killed for it, and assumed that was the end of it. Then Peter and John came healing a man crippled for many years, speaking love and truth, and the hope of salvation in Jesus' name, and they threatened them too. Jesus said "by their fruit you shall know them", but these politicians refused to learn anything from the good fruit Peter and John were producing. The High Council knew it was a miracle, but they learnt nothing from it. But why did they learn nothing from it? Because they were already sure they knew everything they needed to know. They thought they knew how God would act and who he would choose to act through, so sure that when some piece of miraculous goodness happened in front of them they could not see it.  They were so sure, they thought anyone who argued or acted differently was obviously a troublemaker up to no good. And that certainty meant they did not care if they had to use low, evil methods to get rid of them, for they believed it was ultimately in a good cause.

Does that sound to you like any problem we have in society today? My friends this is what partisanship, and tribalism, and ideological bubbles do to people throughout history. All of us can fall victim to it if we close our minds to the possibility that we could learn from someone different to ourselves. And that doesn't matter if they're different politically, or religiously, or ethnically, or different in age, or whatever.

Now in our society we don't generally go around threatening people with violence, though it does happen, but too often people go immediately into a defensive position when their side, their group, their team is challenged. We are too willing to assume bad faith in our opponents, to attack the man rather than the issue that has been raised, to automatically defend things if it means defending our side, and to attack any statement, idea or person that we see as on the wrong side, the other side. If we close our eyes and block up our ears, like the High Council did before Peter and John, then inevitably we miss part of the good that appears in front of us, and find ourselves defending or ignoring part of the evil, or responding with low and devious methods, because we believe the ends justify the means.

The answer is simple my friends - Like Peter and John we know the truth that God's infinite, eternal, over-powering Love for each and every one of us cannot be harmed or damaged by anything this world can throw at us. We know the truth that they killed Christ but he rose again and brings Resurrection to every one of us, and that turns all the threats of violence and deceit of this world into a pathetic nothing.

We know God's eye sees all good and all evil, that his word is the last and ultimate word, and that God never seeks to condemn a person because that person has a flaw within them. So we are free from any need to lash out defensively, to cling on and protect what we see as good with evasion, with bitterness, with slander, with abuse. We have no need for any of that, but can admit every fault with ourselves, or with our group, or with the world, without any trace of fear it will be used against us, and be open to see every piece of goodness wherever it may be found, in the knowledge Peter and John had, that God will catch us if we fall.

I believe that's our best hope, and the best hope for our world as well.

Amen.           


Image borrowed with thanks from http://millersportcc.com/sermons/bold-and-courageous/

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Sermon on Luke 5:17-26 - The Paralyzed Man comes in by the Roof


One day Jesus was teaching, and Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting there. They had come from every village of Galilee and from Judea and Jerusalem. And the power of the Lord was with Jesus to heal the sick. Some men came carrying a paralyzed man on a mat and tried to take him into the house to lay him before Jesus. When they could not find a way to do this because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and lowered him on his mat through the tiles into the middle of the crowd, right in front of Jesus.

When Jesus saw their faith, he said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.”

The Pharisees and the teachers of the law began thinking to themselves, “Who is this fellow who speaks blasphemy? Who can forgive sins but God alone?”

Jesus knew what they were thinking and asked, “Why are you thinking these things in your hearts? Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” So he said to the paralyzed man, “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” Immediately he stood up in front of them, took what he had been lying on and went home praising God. Everyone was amazed and gave praise to God. They were filled with awe and said, “We have seen remarkable things today.”

 Good morning everyone. Let me say what a privilege it is to be here a week after Easter Sunday. I pray that the joy of the Resurrection will be in what I say today.

I want to start by talking about the context of the wonderful story in our reading. Today's reading occurs shortly after Jesus begins his ministry of teaching and healing. To understand our reading we need to turn our minds back a few pages to the previous chapter of Luke's gospel where he records how Jesus began in the most dramatic manner. It was in Nazareth, his home town, he goes to the Synagogue on the Sabbath, like us coming to Church on a Sunday.

He goes to the synagogue, marches up to the front, stands up in front of basically his entire community, and reads the words of the Prophet Isaiah, written 500 years before:

"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
and to proclaim the Lord's Jubilee”
.

And the Bible says "the eyes of all the people were fixed on him".  From the response I don't think that was the planned reading. And they're all looking at Jesus, thinking  'What is he doing, what did that mean?' And Jesus doesn't make them wait “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” I imagine there was stunned silence, followed by everyone talking at once. "And the crowd went wild" as they say in sports.

After this dramatic episode in Luke Chapter 4, Jesus immediately begins to make good on his words. He heals the sick: people with fevers, with leprosy, and other diseases, he frees people from demons and now, in our reading today, forgives and heals a paralysed man.

This is one of the most memorable stories of Jesus' healing miracles. Jesus is preaching in a house, and a great crowd has gathered to hear him. Four men come late, carrying their paralyzed friend on a mat, one at each corner. But because of the crowd, and the close space of the house, they cannot get near enough to see Jesus. But the man's friends refuse to be deterred. They climb up on the roof, and physically dig through the roof: they pull up the tiles, they dig out the mud and reeds that would have been below and they break through. And they don't just make a small hole, they pull up an area large enough to lower a man lying on a mat, down through the roof seven, eight, nine feet right at the feet of Jesus. But Jesus is not fazed for a minute. "when Jesus saw their faith, he said, "Friend, your sins are forgiven". And the Pharisees and scribes accuse him of blasphemy, because they know only God can forgive sins, and by doing so in front of a large crowd Jesus is claiming to speak with God's power and authority, even to be God himself.

So what was the purpose behind this burst of healing and miracles that we hear described by Luke. Well, with the start of Jesus' ministry we see an incredible outburst of the Kingdom of Heaven onto earth. As Jesus said "today this scripture has been fulfilled", and it is God's very nature that creation and healing and life in all its fullness will break out wherever God is powerfully present.

First and foremost he is creator and sustainer, who made everything we have and are. He is also Justice for the poor and oppressed, and, in Christ the Son particularly, is redeemer, healer, forgiver, rebuilding creation and life wherever it is damaged and distressed. And this is as true today as it ever was. With God the manifesto never changes. When we look back through history, and the world today, we can know and see where Christ is truly present, where the Father is truly present, where the Spirit is powerfully moving.

Where are people proclaiming good news to the poor, relief from fear, debt, and worry?
Where are people struggling to release those imprisoned by evil govts, by tyrannical families, oppressive social customs, by criminal gangs, by loneliness, and poverty?
Where are people working for new ways to free people from physical blindness, and disease, malnutrition, pain, and mental ill-health?
Where are people being freed from spiritual blindness, from emotional blindness, being freed to see themselves with dignity, and self-respect?
Where are the oppressed of every kind having their heavy burdens lifted from their shoulders, by generous and imaginative action, and brought to realise they are loved, valued, forgiven children of God, with the rich potential that God sees in all of us, and delights in?

These are where God is breaking through and building the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth. And if Jesus is truly present in a place we will see these things happening today. Maybe in small and quiet ways, maybe in large, unmissable ways, but always it will be there. And this is what we see in our reading today with the paralysed man. Jesus gives him new life twice over. But we should not just jump to the healing. Again and again Jesus heals those who come to him. But this man could not come to Jesus by his own power, he was paralysed. Instead we have the wonderful news of his four friends, who brought this man to Jesus.

I assume when they left the house that morning, those four men carrying the fifth, their friend, they had no idea what they would be getting up to. They knew what they had to do, they had to set their friend before Jesus, but presumably they had no idea how. You can imagine their mixture of hope for their friend, determination to carry him, maybe some of their doubts. Their friend lay paralyzed, unable to stand. Would this Jesus really be able to help them? But they were determined to try. They probably thought it would be a simple operation. Carry their friend to the house and set him before Jesus. But when they get there they are dismayed, the crowd is so large and dense, and Jesus is surrounded by the building, that there is no hope of Jesus seeing their friend. At that point some people might have given up and thought "well, we tried".

But not these friends, they refuse to be defeated. They immediately set their imagination to work and conceived a way they could bring their friend to Jesus, by hook or crook, where there's a will, there's a way. It wasn't the usual way, it wasn't the standard way, but they thought of a way to bring their friend to God. I pray that we might never be caught clueless if the usual way won't work. I hope we won't give up on bringing people to Life in all its fullness, to that easy burden, and light yoke, the cool, refreshing water that is truly knowing Jesus Christ. The world is changing every day. One day there is a clear passage into the house, and the next day the way is blocked by a crowd. One day people are living in close communities their whole life where everyone knows their neighbour, the next day people are travelling and working in six different places by the time they're thirty and spending half their life on social media.

But with God's Grace there will always be a roof available, another way to bring people to Jesus, to healing, to knowing they are profoundly loved and wanted by God; if we have the imagination to come up with new ideas, if we're prepared to take the risks to try them out. This story reminds me that we must always be willing to try something different, to understand our situation and then to adapt to it, if we are to do what we need to do, to bring people to Jesus.

I wonder which man came up with the idea of breaking through the roof? He may have thought it, then thought, no that's crazy! But still he had the courage to speak up. Please, if anyone here has a new idea about how we can serve our community better, to help love and support people. Don't keep it to yourself! Speak up! You never know when you might have the idea we all need. Don't let a good idea God has given you die in your mind, because you never share it with anyone.

And then we have the other three men. Once that first friend had spoken saying, "if we can't go through the door, let's go in by the roof", they could easily have dismissed it straight away as a stupid idea.  But they clearly didn't, they clearly listened and were willing to try.  I pray that we will listen, really listen to each other, when someone speaks up with a new idea, or just when they really need someone to talk to. I hope we won't reject an idea out of hand just because we've never done it before, or it seems different or difficult, even if there's a solid wall or roof in the way. I hope we will encourage and support our friend, be willing to say, yes I'm with you. I'll share the work, I'll take the risk alongside you, and with God's grace, whether big or small, we'll make your vision a reality.

It must have been a risk as well. I've never tried to carry a man lying on a stretcher onto the roof of a house, with or without help, but it doesn't sound easy.  I'd guess it needed all four men to get him up there safely and then to open up the roof. The paralyzed man on his own could never have got himself to Jesus for healing. I think it's highly likely that even with one or two friends he couldn't have got there, but with four working together, despite crowds and walls, they achieved their goal.

It's a pretty obvious cliché to say that when we work together we can do more than we can alone.  But it's still worth saying. It's not just working along-side one another either. I work alongside people in my office, but I do my work at my desk, and they do their work at theirs, largely separate. The four men in our Gospel were lifting together, at the same time, for the same aim, united by a shared love and determination. And they must have been communicating constantly, paying close attention to each other, or they would certainly have tipped their paralyzed friend out of his bed entirely. Anyone whose ever lifted a sofa with other people, or a wardrobe or a bath will know the truth of that. It is when we are joined in heart and mind with the same goal, and the same aim, when we are paying attention to each other and lifting together that community really becomes powerful, that we can do great things.

Four men in the Gospel were enough to bring their paralyzed friend to Jesus, and through their faith and hard work see him healed. There are a hundred people in our church community, and to be honest, I think we do a great deal already, and we should be proud of that But I'm sure that through the power of the Holy Spirit we could do even better, in love and faith.  The lesson here is not necessarily about just doing more. It's about working together, in smoother harmony, it's lifting together, and so managing to do what we do better. Though I believe the more we become an even deeper community, a loving, trusting co-ordinated community, we will find ourselves becoming a bigger community too. Four friends were enough to carry one man to Jesus and do it right, despite obstacles in their way. If they'd tried to carry two men to Jesus, why, they might not have had enough strength to get there at all.

We shouldn't just be thinking about our church community here either. There are perhaps fifty thousand Christians of all kinds across Coventry and Warwickshire. Around 3 million in our country, and 2 billion across the whole world! If we waste our energy bickering and arguing then we get nowhere. If we join together in love with a common goal, and trust and listen to each other; if we lift together, then through the Grace of our Lord there is no limit to the miracles we can see achieved.

We can't just stop disagreeing, and we shouldn't. Different ideas and viewpoints are good, but we can be even more determined to try to understand where each other are coming from, to have sympathy with their motives and aims, to really listen with the hope of learning, in a word, to love one another as parts of the same body of Christ.

Now with holy ingenuity, hard work, and quite a bit of digging the four men overcame their obstacles and brought their friend down right at the feet of Jesus. For the people listening to Jesus it must have been quite a sight as the roof suddenly began to vanish above them, and quite a shock as this man appeared down, as if from a very dusty heaven. But Jesus wasn't fazed, with God's sight he alone must've known the man was coming, he must have seen them up on the roof and smiled, even while he continued to teach. Can you imagine the look on people's faces when the roof literally came crumbling in, Jesus must have struggled not to laugh out loud.

So the men are peering through the hole, their paralyzed friend is lying there on the ground and Jesus takes charge of the situation. "When Jesus saw their faith, he said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.”" Nothing more was needed. He knew why they were there, and he acted immediately. They had shown their faith by their action, by their willingness to take a risk, not just from climbing up onto the roof, but also presumably there being an angry owner of the roof. May we all be at least as willing to take a risk on our faith in Jesus.

It is very interesting as well, isn't it. When he saw THEIR faith, he said "friend, your sins are forgiven". We tend to take a rather individualistic view of faith, if I can put it that way. Of course it is true that your faith is all you need to be saved, all you need for a deep and loving relationship with God.  As was very wisely said in a previous sermon in this church only recently, even a mustard seed of faith is enough. God delights in taking our mustard seed, our crumb of faith, and, if we let him, using it to move mountains.  But this does not mean our faith has to live and die entirely on its own. No, rather we gain from the faith of other people around us. We can lean on our brother or our sisters' faith and be strengthened. We all need some faith, but as St Paul says in his letter to the Corinthians, some people have a special gift of faith from the Holy Spirit. I'm sure you must know someone like that, someone who seems to find faith easy, someone who seems to have a special, remarkable overflow of faith, especially in trouble and difficult times.

Well it is good for the rest of us to take inspiration from that person, to feel, 'well, I'm struggling a bit right now but I'm going to be encouraged by that person's faith, I'm going to be inspired by that gift right in front of me', and by hanging on to their faith, hopefully in time I'll be able to see what they see, and my faith will feel more solid too. That is a good and natural thing in a Christian life, it's part of being not just an earthly, but a heavenly and a spiritual community; to share, not just food and drink and heat and a building, but our spiritual, holy gifts as well. And I'll be sure that while I may not have that gift of remarkable faith right now, I'll certainly have another gift of the Spirit, and so does everyone here, that we can share and that other person can lean on and benefit from. And so we all benefit from the spiritual diversity among us, and I thank God for that, because it's a wonderful thing. We're not alone , and we don't have to do it alone, not in physical things, not in spiritual things. "When he saw THEIR faith, he said "friend your sins are forgiven".

In another sense that's a curious thing for Jesus to say first: "Friend, your sins are forgiven". The man didn't come to have his sins forgiven, at least not mainly, he came to be physically healed. And Jesus does heal his body too, but he heals his soul as well. Because Jesus knows that we are not just our physical nature, and we're not just a spiritual nature. We are both and more, we are body, mind, heart and soul all together. God isn't just interested in a bit of you, he's interested in all of you. When he talks about life in all its fullness, he means that healing and forgiveness, use and growth, of body, and mind, and heart and soul, are all in God's plans.  And the Christian Church must never forget it either.  We can't heal people's souls but leave them freezing and starving. That's not the Gospel!  And we can't just feed and clothe them, but leave them without God's forgiveness and love for their heart and soul.  That's not the Gospel either!

So Jesus forgives the man's sins, and heals his body. He does this because it is God's very own nature and being to create, to give, to forgive, to bring joy and to heal. That is the Kingdom of God on earth. He also does it because there's a large crowd there, of both ordinary people and the learned scribes and Pharisees, who had come to to see what this preacher and teacher was about, and it is important that they see that "the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins".

And of course anyone can claim to forgive sins, though it was blasphemy under Jewish law, but by the power of his healing Jesus proved that he was indeed master of both body and soul with the power and authority of God. And he proved that the faith those four friends had in him was justified.  And, though he did not openly claim it yet, he pointed to the fact that he is indeed God himself, full of grace and truth. He probably thought the people had enough astonishing things happen that day without making the full claim of who he was. And indeed "Everyone was amazed and gave praise to God. They were filled with awe and said, “We have seen remarkable things today.”" I wonder which was more unexpected, the paralyzed man coming in by the roof, or the same man walking out by the door on his own two feet, praising God as he went.

Thank you, and Amen.


Thanks to http://www.intothedeepblog.net/2018/01/the-last-ditch-effort.html for the wonderful image showing the dramatic moment from this reading.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Understanding Adam - A Sermon

Genesis 2:7-9, 15-25.
Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.
Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. [...]

The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”

The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”
Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals.

But for Adam no suitable helper was found. So the Lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and then closed up the place with flesh. Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.

The man said,
“This is now bone of my bones
    and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called ‘woman,’
    for she was taken out of man.”

That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.
Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.

Did you know that there are more than 1,000 named persons in the complete Bible? And more than 2,000 individuals, including those without names, specifically referred to at one time or another?

That's an awful lot of people. Of all those people obviously some are mentioned more often and some less often; Some stand out as memorable character, and others are just a name. And some we find easier to identify with and relate to, and some we find harder.  I hope you all have a person from the Bible who you find really easy to relate to, to understand, of whom you feel, yeah, I get where they're coming from.

There's Thomas, doubting Thomas; we've surely all been able to relate to him at one time or another: needing more proof before we can believe. Surely we've all wanted to place our hand in Jesus' side, to have that ultimate and clear proof of God's glory. Or Peter: passionate, devoted Peter, always rushing in before he's really thought, the first to declare Jesus the Messiah, but then to declare that surely he cannot die, so Jesus has to rebuke him. Then the first to declare he will never leave Christ, but he denies him three times. Then the first to run to the tomb that Easter morning because he had to see, he had to know. We're all Peter sometimes I hope. Or maybe it's Martha, of Mary and Martha, good old Martha, who hasn't sympathised with her? It's all very well sitting around listening to teaching but the work still has to get done. Or maybe it's David, or Saul, Jonah, Job, or Paul, or whoever else.

One thing I think I can reasonably bet, is that for most people it won't be Adam. We hear too little from him to really understand him, his world is too different to our own, too ancient, too simple, too symbolic. His experience and relationship with God walking in the garden of Eden is seemingly too unlike our own for him to really be like us. Well, my aim today is to make Adam a bit more relatable. He may still not be your favourite Bible character, but hopefully we will all understand him a little bit better, and understand his role for us in God's story of salvation a little more.

When I read again those very first few chapters in Genesis I am struck by their beauty and clarity, by the phrases that ring down through history: 'In the Beginning God created the Heavens and the Earth', 'Let there be Light', 'therefore a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh', and finally 'from dust you came, to dust you shall return'. In these chapters we see the meaning and value of all the created, natural world in God and through God, and the value and meaning of Mankind, in God and through God.

Who are Adam and Eve? Well, God 'created mankind in his own image, male and female he created them', and that is Adam and Eve, and it is each and every one of us, who also bear God's own image. God gave them all the beauty of the world he created: the sun and stars, the trees and grass, the air and water, and he gave all that beauty and opportunity to us too. He gave them responsibility for ordering and stewarding the world he created, and he gives us that responsibility too.

God asked Adam and Eve to walk with him, who created them from nothing, to trust that his wisdom would bring them greater joy and peace than they could achieve on their own, and he asks us to do that too. And when they sinned he warned them of the grief and suffering that would inevitably follow, as he warns us too; but still he cared for them, making them clothing to protect them, and reaching out to them still, to teach and guide them, just as he still cares for us and each person in the world, whether they know Christ or not.

Who are Adam and Eve like then? Well they're just like you and me. Adam is the ultimate everyman, and Eve the everywoman. They represent each and every one of us, and every man and woman in the world! Their relationship, their experience, their position relative to God and the world he created is the same one we naturally have, but for one crucial fact.  Like Adam and Eve we are all sinners, and like Adam and Eve God keeps caring for all of us in our sin. And like Adam and Eve we have terrible burdens to bear, problems and grief.

Every day we are faced with the temptation of sin, and eventually like Adam and Eve we give in to the temptation we know we should resist. And often like them, we'll also try to blame someone else, for our weakness. Adam and Eve are Humanity, boiled down to the core features of our relationship to God and the world. We should all relate to them, because they are all of us.

But as Christians we have one beautiful, powerful advantage over Adam and Eve, with their purely natural relation to God and the world. We have a source of hope greater and more eternal than the limited, provisional hope that comes from the battered, damaged beauty of the world around us. We have Christ! Sin separates us from God, as Adam and Eve found, building a spiritual barrier, creating a spiritual distance between us, and causing pain and grief to ourselves and to others.

But God crossed the distance, God tore down the barrier and God rolled the stone away! God was born as one of us, Mary's Son, so by taking on our humanity that humanity would be blessed and filled with his infinite grace, holiness and power. Genesis tells us he crafted skins from animals to cover Adam and Eve, but he covers us with his own body and Holy Spirit, so when the grenade of sin goes off it is God himself who absorbs the damage and grief.

Christ's great incarnation and terrible sacrifice is sometimes described as though its purpose is to return us to the state Adam is described as enjoying before he brought sin and evil into the world. And that's right as far as it is, but the truth goes far beyond that. We know God in Christ, we have heard his words and felt his love and presence, we are united with him in Christ's human birth, more than Adam ever could be. We have the Holy Spirit dwelling within us, God himself making his home in our hearts, something Adam never had.

My friends, through the power of the Holy Spirit it is not the Father's will just that Christ should repair Adam (meaning all of us and all Mankind), but that Adam should grow towards Christ and into Christ! Adam and Eve were innocent in the beginning but they were still like Children, child-like, yes, but also to a degree, Childish and simple. Our lives are made more difficult by the complexity of our world, and the society we live in, but they are also enriched by all the beauty, the art, the music, that human souls have created over the millennia, the bravery men and women have shown, the courage through struggles we have seen.

This is our heritage too, and through this And the teaching of the Gospel, And the example of Christ, And the power of the Holy Spirit, we can become true spiritual adults, mature and rich beyond anything anything Adam & Eve, beyond anything merely natural man could hope to achieve. After all, it is Christ who is whole, perfect, complete; and Adam who is partial, limited and still growing and developing.

This hope, this power, this fire, 'this treasure in jars of clay' is not just for us who are lucky enough to be born after Christ came and have heard his message. It has always been the firm belief of the Church that on Easter Saturday, after Christ's death, while his disciples mourned here on earth, Christ 'descended into Hell', as stated in the full Nicene Creed, and he destroyed the Gates of Hell and lead all those good women and men who died before Christ back up into the joy of Heaven: Abraham, Moses, Elijah, Isaiah, John the Baptist, and all the rest, right back to the least and first.

So Adam and Eve were saved too, for it is the plan of God not just that some might be saved, but that in the end All who are willing should be saved.

That in the end, as Isaiah said 'all the nations shall flow to [Zion]', and say: 'Let us go up to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.”  and the nations 'shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks', 'and they shall not learn war any more'. The Kingdom of God will spread until we see the beautiful vision of the New Heaven and the New Earth described in Revelations, at the very end of the Bible, once God has wiped 'away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more', and truly Christ's reign is acknowledged by all.

So what should we learn from Adam? That God does not abandon even the least and the first of sinners. Adam and Eve are like you and me, they stand for all mankind and our relationship to God. If they can be saved, anyone and everyone can be saved, and if saved then transformed, and if transformed then 'changed from glory into glory'. So always it is with God.

He does not look at what we're not, but always at what we are, and even better, what with his grace, we have the potential to be. With God no gift or strength is too small. With the mustard seed of faith he moves mountains, with a few loaves and fishes he feeds five thousand, the widow's mite he glorifies, and 'a contrite and humble heart [he] will not despise'.

I will leave you with one final thought. I've always been struck by the thought of God 'walking in the garden in the cool of the evening', one last close and perfectly peaceful moment, just before the darkness of sin was revealed for the first time, and paradise was ruined. Maybe it's because I love gardens. Do you know in the Bible when the next time is that God walks in the garden in the cool of the evening beside mankind?

It's in Gethsemane, where God prayed, sweated, and prepared himself to die. It's like time ran in reverse on that fateful day. Just as God walked in the garden at the beginning of things, one last time before he explained how sin brought death and ruin, so Christ walked in Gethsemane in the evening before he gave himself up to death to bring us Life forever. At the end, returning to the beginning, so God may once more walk beside us 'in the garden in the cool of the evening'.

Amen.   

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Ascension Day - My Sermon

Last Thursday (and again last Sunday) Christians around the world celebrated Ascension Day, the anniversary of Jesus Christ ascending bodily into heaven, beyond all our physical universe, until he comes again in Glory.

My church in Wolston was so moved by this event it took leave of its senses/very generously trusted me to preach a sermon for the first time in church. Feel free to steal liberally for your own sermon/talks/inspiration. The reading was Acts 1:6-11.

"Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”

He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.

They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”

For a long time I have found the Ascension one of the most perplexing bits of the Bible. I think I've decided that is because the Ascension can be confusing, and it can feel like a loss. It can be confusing because, what does it mean that Jesus ascended into Heaven? On the most naive, physical interpretation he rose into the sky and then vanished. That makes it sound a bit Star Trek. But, what is important is not how it physically happened, it is one of the great and otherworldly miracles of God - a True Mystery,  that we can never fully understand with our limited, mortal perspective. And like all miracles its true importance is spiritual. We must understand why it happened, and what it means for our deepest spiritual life, our hearts and our souls.

Anyway, Jesus isn't described shooting upward and away like a rocket taking off, he rises above them, before being enveloped by a Cloud, and disappearing entirely from this world. At many times in the Bible God is described as being manifest in the world as in a great cloud, at the same time vast and powerful but hidden - when God descended on Mount Sinai to speak with Moses and the Israelites face-to-face, at the Transfiguration when the Father directly claimed Jesus as his Son, and more. A fine way for God's glory to be revealed, in part, to Man in a way our minds can at least begin to understand.

But Heaven is not physically above us, Heaven, like God, is in every direction and no direction. It is all around us and it is nowhere in this physical world. It lies in a totally different dimension, reached along a totally different axis to any in our material universe. It is a spiritual direction and axis that lies entirely beyond physical description. And straightaway the angels redirect the disciples' view back to earth.

And we know it is true, because there is no place where Jesus's body rests on earth. There is a tomb, but it is empty. You can go and see it in Jerusalem, there's no body there. We know where Muhammed's body lies, it's in Mecca, we know where Buddha's body lies, it's in India, we know where Marx and Lenin's bodies are, in London and Moscow. But though we know where Jesus was born, and we know where he was killed, and we know where he was buried, his body is not there anymore, it is risen, and it is ascended into Heaven.  

And the Ascension can feel like a loss as well, for that very reason, because how clear things would be if Jesus had never left, if he was still here in the flesh to lead us. We wouldn't have to make difficult decisions about priorities and strategies and plans. We could just follow, like sheep after their shepherd, knowing he would lead us the right way.

What a weight off our shoulders that would be!

It would be too easy though. We would never truly grow and take responsibility for ourselves and for the whole world, to fulfill our potential and become the free people Jesus wanted us to be. And with Jesus here in physical person he could never be with as many people as he needed to be, as he could be in the Spirit, as deserved to have Christ as a real presence in their lives. In his ministry on this Earth only a lucky few, such a lucky few, could sit and eat with him, could stand and hear him, could see him face to face.

But Jesus' ascension meant his ministry could become universal, as it must always be. It was not enough that Jesus could be with the disciples in the person. But he must be in heaven, and so able to be with us all, everywhere in the world at the same time through the Holy Spirit, where and when we need him.  With Stephen when he was being stoned evilly, with Paul on the road to Damascus, with us here in this building now, and at the same time with other Christians, and non-Christians, all around the world.

He had to ascend so he could take his throne and rule over all the world, and still be here with unlimited people through the Spirit. The Son was born as a human being, so he could be a brother and speak to us as a brother to his sister, as a friend to a friend. That is a personal and direct experience and relationship to God that no other method could replace. But through the Spirit, God does not only came next to us as a neighbour, but also lives in us and joins with our souls, filling us with grace and forgiveness so we can start afresh, with new opportunities, day after day. We should not mourn the departure of Jesus. We should be glad, because the departure of Jesus, means the coming of the Spirit, and the increase to Infinity of Jesus' capacity to be with not just a privileged few, in the right place, at the right time, but with all women and men and children across the whole world forever.

Christ's ascension was the last and essential part of his earthly ministry where God combined himself, united himself, with out material reality. In the words of the Prophet Isaiah, who lived five hundred years before Jesus, but still through God's grace saw Jesus' life, and described it in his Servant Songs like a man who was right there.

"He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
    and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
    nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.

He was despised and rejected by mankind,
    a man of sorrows, who knew pain well.
Like a man people turn away from,
    he was hated, and we held him in contempt." and the prophet goes on. But now I want to focus on these words,

"He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
    and like a root out of dry ground."


God Almighty, the Holy Lord, the One who holds the whole Universe with its spiralling galaxies in the palm of his hand; he, himself, grew up from our ground, like the tender shoots we have growing in our gardens. He grew from our world, and he grew into our world, eating our food, drinking our water, breathing our air, beneath a blue sky just like the one outside.

And so he joined our mundane world with God's infinite, holy being. And his whole life that holy power burst out of him touching and transforming the lives of people around him. People couldn't help but be seized by his personality, his integrity, his love, his insight and wisdom, that we benefit from still today. But that was just the beginning. Being united with a sinful world carries a terrible price, Christ came to bear the whole world within him, so just as the world suffers pain and death, Christ suffered pain and death, murdered by fearful, sinful men.

And when they killed him, Christ's enemies thought they were done, they thought they had won, and the problem they had was solved forever. How wrong could any person be? But as we so rightly celebrated this Easter he rose again, proving that sin and death will not have the final victory. Will never have the final victory.

Please excuse that slight divergence from the Ascension itself, but I think it's impossible to properly appreciate this wonderful event, without refreshing the incredible passage of Jesus' life and ministry. Jesus' conception and birth, was the essential, beautiful moment of bringing Almighty God, the Holy One of Israel, into our physical, material world, and thus blessing it, making it holy forever. Jesus' mortal growth, and life and ministry, was the deepening of God's infinite and eternal joining with our small and passing nature, and the spilling out of his love and wisdom to fill our minds and souls with the light of a better and more hopeful way. His death, the sad but inevitable consequence of taking on our sinful, painful, world. His resurrection the inevitable result of God's overflowing, never-ending, inexhaustible power and love.

And finally his Ascension, the cherry on top of the icing on top of the cake, the one thing that is left in this glorious story, to carry Christ's mortal body, the body which grew inside the young woman Mary from a single human cell; that fed at her breasts, that grew up and grew strong on bread and olives and cheese and meat, that was beaten and broken on Good Friday, and carried the wounds on his hands and his feet, and his side where the spear pierced him, but then had risen again!

That body that had carried our sin, and carried the pain of a human life with its scars and its suffering Ascended!

Ascended bodily into heaven and carried our  physical, mundane humanity to the glory of God the Father, heavenly and eternal, to sit on God's throne forever. Just as Christmas brought God down to grow up in the  earth in our human nature, so the Ascension carried our Humanity to be forever at the right hand of God the Father, to be glorified and worshipped by the Angels and the Saints for eternity. So a human being should be seated at the centre of everything that is and could possibly be, and so forever we have someone who knows and understands our weakness and our pain, because he has experienced it, and bears the scars still today.

And not just for this. Christ ascended into heaven bodily because he had already died and passed through resurrection, he could not die again, but he returned to our earth for a while to ensure the disciples knew and truly understood this glorious news, and to say goodbye for now to the people he loved, the goodbye he never had to time to say amid the confusion and terror of Good Friday. After this his ascension was the completion of the next stage of the Resurrection, but still, not its total and final completion.

For St Paul calls Christ's rising from the dead, and then his ascension into Heaven, the 'First Fruits' of the Resurrection. But First Fruits are only distinguished as the 'first' because there are second, and third, and fourth, and more and more until there is a complete and rolling harvest.

And we are that harvest!

Jesus said "I go and prepare a place for you", and that is what he is doing. As St Athanasius said, who helped write the Nicene Creed, the creed of the Church that unites Christians all round the world for the last 1700 years. As he said, "God became man, so man may become God". Not literally, in terms of his essence, there is only one God, this is no easy new-age trick, but in a very real sense nonetheless.

Through the Resurrection and then the Ascension Jesus' entirely human body is gone to sit on the very throne of God Almighty, creator and sustainer of all reality, at the very heart of all things; but not so Jesus himself could be there for his own sake, but to puncture a hole in the barrier of sin and darkness that separates us from the full and true presence and knowledge of God. So every one of us, and every person in the world as well, could have the chance to follow where he led, the chance for our humanity to be transformed into Glory, and leave behind fear and hatred and bitterness and envy, and all the evils that drag us down inside.

For Jesus the Resurrection and the Ascension happened close together, forty days apart, so the understanding of what was happening could be transmitted to the Apostles in human terms and from them through many generations to us. But for us it may actually happen as a much longer process, with more stages, but still truly all as part of the one same glorious "upward call of God in Christ".

What do I mean by that?

Well, for us resurrection begins not after our first bodily death, but, through Christ's grace, before it, as we first come to know and love and place our trust in Jesus; whether that happens as a child or an adult, all in one blinding flash of grace, or with a light that slowly grows from a tiny glimmer until it outshines the sun. That growing of God's love within us allows us to overcome fear and pain and guilt and grief, not all at once, but as time goes by and we discover and move deeper into love, not just our Love of God, but more importantly God's love for himself, and God's love for us, and God's love for the world.

That is how 'Man becomes God', as 'God became man', by joining in the stream of his love: never ending, never fading, never running out, through the Grace that is open to us thanks to Christ's descent to earth, and ascension again into Heaven. And you're never too young, and you're never too old, and there's a new chance each and every day to go deeper, and there's no bottom to that Well, it's as infinite as God himself, there is always just the chance for more and more riches of love and peace and joy and confidence.

And maybe you don't feel like any of those things right now. Maybe you feel angry, and hurt and sad, but that's alright. While we're still in this material world our resurrection and ascension can only be partial, there will still be ups and downs and griefs and pains, sometimes terrible. But still each and every new day there is the opportunity to be washed clean and hand our pain and grief and bitterness to God, and he will take them far away, so without that terrible weight we can dive even deeper into His love, that can bring us more and more peace. For we too, like Christ, must pass through mortal death before we can come to that complete and total ascension into God's glory and presence, and then we will be truly ascended, in harmony and at peace. But in this world it continues as well, and it isn't easy, but still it is powerful.    

How Powerful? Well, I remember Kevin, our vicar, saying once: 'I sometimes think, how must the disciples have felt coming down that hill after the Ascension and turning to each other and saying, 'Right, so what do we do now?'" And what a shower of reprobates they were! How many times did Jesus have to correct them and rebuke them, and still after three years they ran away on Good Friday, and still they didn't understand after the resurrection, but eventually when the Spirit came they did.

And after that history knows what they did. In their lifetime they took the Good News that God had come in our humanity, and he'd been killed, and he'd risen again and taken our humanity ascended into heaven, so the power of the Spirit came, so Men may be free of fear and guilt and hatred; and they took it from Rome in the West to India in the east, full of joy and hope, and founded a worldwide community that means we're here today, and they changed the whole world forever like nothing else. And if they can do it we can do it too! Through the power of the same Holy Spirit and with the presence of the same Ascended Lord Jesus Christ among us all.

Amen.         

Saturday, 20 May 2017

The Dream of the Rood

The latest in my occasional series of Great Poems I love, and in honour of Easter, albeit a bit late, this is The Dream of the Rood. It's a beautiful, epic poem, well over a thousand years old, originally written in Old English by an Anglo-Saxon monk sometime between the 8th-10th Centuries. It is in the characteristic style of Old English epic poems, with the extensive use of alliteration on lines with two stressed halves, rather than the rhyme used in modern English to achieve the poetic flow.

Rood was the Old and Middle English word meaning a wooden stake or cross, but The Rood was always the One True Cross on which Christ was crucified. In this poem the Cross itself appears in a dream and tells of Christ's death and resurrection.

The poem is a fascinating mix of both Christian (originally Hebrew and Greek) values and aesthetic with its spiritual but fundamentally optimistic focus, and the Germanic and Scandinavian heroic, epic (originally pagan) tradition that was essentially pessimistic about the world and its future. Christ is a strong, powerful young Lord, who leaps eagerly onto the Cross to do battle with Death and the Devil through the crucifixion. The disciples are his thanes, the men who had sworn themselves to their lord and would accompany him into battle. The Cross itself is a loyal retainer, fearful of what it must do in the Battle, but knowing it must hold its courage and do the duty its Lord has embraced.

People sometimes say Chaucer (14th Century) is 'the Father of English Literature', but this is complete rubbish. A proud, creative English literary tradition of epic poetry, both religious and secular, history, songs, spirituality, law, etc, goes right back into the darkest, Anglo-Saxon times of the so-called 'Dark Ages'. The past only seems so 'dark' because we have lost or forgotten about the traditions, festivals, songs, stories, poetry, and factual and fictional prose that were widespread at the time.

Travel back with me a thousand years and more, to hear the story, through Old English hearts, of those events another thousand years and more ago. . .

"Listen! I will speak of the sweetest dream,
which came to me in the middle of the night,
when speech-bearers slept in their rest.
It seemed that I saw a most wondrous tree
raised on high, circled round with light,
the brightest of beams. All that beacon
was covered in gold; gems stood
fair at the earth’s corners, and five there were
up on the cross-beam. All creation, eternally fair,
beheld the Lord’s messenger there; that was no shameful lynching tree,
but holy spirits beheld him there,
men over the earth and all this glorious creation.
Wondrous was the victory-tree, and I was fouled by sins,
wounded with guilt; I saw the tree of glory
honored in garments, shining with joys,
bedecked with gold; gems had
covered worthily the Creator’s tree.
And yet beneath that gold I began to see
an old wretched struggle, when it first began
to bleed on the right side. I was all beset with sorrows,
fearful for that fair vision; I saw that eager beacon
change garments and colors – now it was drenched,
stained with blood, now bedecked with treasure.
 And yet, lying there a long while,
I beheld in sorrow the Savior’s tree,
until I heard it utter a sound;
that best of woods began to speak words:
“It was so long ago – I remember it still —
that I was felled from the forest’s edge,
ripped up from my roots.
Strong enemies seized me there,
made me their spectacle, made me bear their criminals;
they bore me on their shoulders and then set me on a hill,
 enemies enough fixed me fast. Then I saw the Lord of mankind
hasten eagerly, when he wanted to ascend onto me.
There I dared not bow down or break,
against the Lord’s word, when I saw
the ends of the earth tremble. Easily I might
have felled all those enemies, and yet I stood fast.
Then the young hero made ready — that was God almighty —
strong and resolute; he ascended on the high gallows,
brave in the sight of many, when he wanted to ransom mankind.
I trembled when he embraced me, but I dared not bow to the ground,
or fall to the earth’s corners – I had to stand fast.
I was reared as a cross: I raised up the mighty King,
the Lord of heaven; I dared not lie down.
They drove dark nails through me; the scars are still visible,
open wounds of hate; I dared not harm any of them.
They mocked us both together; I was all drenched with blood
flowing from that man’s side after he had sent forth his spirit.
 Much have I endured on that hill of hostile fates:
I saw the God of hosts cruelly stretched out. Darkness had covered
with its clouds the Ruler’s corpse,
that shining radiance. Shadows spread
grey under the clouds; all creation wept,
mourned the King’s fall: Christ on the cross.
And yet from afar eager ones came
to that noble one; I watched it all.
I was all beset with sorrow, yet I sank into their hands,
humbly, eagerly. There they took almighty God,
 lifted him from his heavy torment; the warriors then left me
standing drenched in blood, all shot through with arrows.
They laid him down, bone-weary, and stood by his body’s head;
they watched the Lord of heaven there, who rested a while,
weary from his mighty battle. They began to build a tomb for him
in the sight of his slayer; they carved it from bright stone,
and set within the Lord of victories. They began to sing a dirge for him,
wretched at evening, when they wished to travel hence,
weary, from the glorious Lord – he rested there with little company.
And as we stood there, weeping, a long while
fixed in our station, the song ascended
from those warriors. The corpse grew cold,
the fair life-house. Then they began to fell us
all to the earth – a terrible fate!
They threw us in a deep pit, yet the Lord’s thanes,
friends sought me out … adorned me with gold and silver.
Now you might hear, my dear hero,
that I have endured the work of evil-doers,
harsh sorrows. Now the time has come
that far and wide they will honor me,
men over the earth and all this glorious creation,
and pray to this sign. On me the Son of God
suffered for a time; and so, glorious now
I rise up under the heavens, and am able to heal
each of those who is in awe of me.
Once I was made into the worst of torments, most hateful to all people,
before I opened the true way of life for speech-bearers.
Listen! the King of glory, Guardian of heaven’s kingdom
honoured me over all the trees of the forest,
just as he has also, almighty God,
honoured his mother, Mary herself,
above all womankind for the sake of all men.
 Now I bid you, my beloved hero,
that you reveal this vision to men,
tell them in words that it is the tree of glory
on which almighty God suffered for mankind’s many sins
and Adam’s ancient deeds.
Death He tasted there, yet the Lord rose again
with his great might to help mankind.
He ascended into heaven. He will come again
to this middle-earth to seek mankind.
on doomsday, almighty God,
the Lord himself and his angels with him,
and he will judge — he has the power of judgment —
each one of them as they have earned
beforehand here in this loaned life.
No one there may be unafraid
at the words which the Ruler will speak:
he will ask before the multitude where the man might be
who for the Lord’s name would taste bitter death,
as he has done on that tree.
But they will tremble, and little think
what they might even begin to say to Christ.
But no one there need be very afraid
who has borne in his breast the best of beacons;
but through the cross we shall seek the kingdom,
every soul from this earthly way,
whoever thinks to rest with the Ruler.”
 Then I prayed to the tree with a happy heart,
eagerly, there where I was alone with little company.
My spirit longed for the journey forth; it has felt
so much of longing. It is now my life’s hope
that I might seek the tree of victory
alone, more often than all men,
and honor it well. I wish for that
with all my heart, and my hope of protection
is fixed on the cross. I have few wealthy friends on earth;
but they all have gone forth,
fled from worldly joys and sought the King of glory; t
hey live now in heaven with the High Father,
and dwell in glory, and each day I look forward
to the time when the cross of the Lord,
on which I have looked while here on this earth,
will fetch me from this loaned life,
and bring me where there is great bliss,
joy in heaven, where the Lord’s host
is seated at the feast, with ceaseless bliss;
 and then set me where I might afterwards
dwell in glory, share joy
fully with the saints. May the Lord be my friend,
He who here on earth has suffered
on the hanging-tree for human sin;
He ransomed us and gave us life,
a heavenly home. Hope was renewed
with cheer and bliss for those who were burning there.
The Son was successful in that journey,
mighty and victorious, when he came with a multitude,
a great host of souls, into God’s kingdom,
the one Ruler almighty, the angels rejoicing
and all the saints already in heaven
dwelling in glory, when almighty God,
their Ruler, returned to his rightful home."


Author: Unknown
Source: the Exeter Book,
Translation: R. M. Liuzza.
Thanks to @ClerkOfOxford for making me aware of this epic poem.
Image borrowed with thanks from: http://employees.oneonta.edu/farberas/arth/arth212/liturgical_objects/dream_of_the_rood.html

Friday, 14 April 2017

A Good Friday Reflection - 2017

After a long wait we finally enter Easter through Good Friday.  This is the most emotionally powerful day in the whole of the Christian calendar, the culmination of Jesus’ life and ministry, and the whole story of the Bible: the day they murdered my Lord, and everything changed.

I have often been struck by the simple beauty of the traditional English name for this day - Good Friday. How can it be good, they day they crucified my Lord? But it is right because it is a perfect example of how words can fail us, how the most profound and important of days cannot be properly described, do not need to be described. No more words could do better, so leave them aside. All the better to truly experience.

It was Good, Christ knew, when he prayed that the cup would pass, but he went forward anyway, knowing what must be done. That he would unite God with creation in its suffering, as he had in its birth, and its life. As creation suffers, he would suffer, because God bears creation within him, but through God's power transform and redeem it as well. Salvation comes through the Resurrection, through the bursting forth of God's power to overcome the old enemies: Sin, Death and the Devil, so that holy power could flow through our veins forevermore.

But without Good Friday there could be no Easter Sunday. So it is a good friday, but never have joy and sorrow been so mixed. For he was my friend, and my brother, even though he is my King. And they beat him and humiliated him, they tortured him and murdered him, and all alone, abandoned and forsaken by those whom he has loved, cherished and taught. Another unseen victim of casual brutality and oppression.

And his pain was not his pain alone, but the pain of the whole world forever, that God bears within him. So today is a good day to weep and to mourn. For the whole year round in suffering we must cling to hope, and the faith that evil never has the last word. But today we can give ourselves to grief for the whole world and its hurts and let it all out, for Syria, for Chechnya, for all the evil men and women do, and the suffering they cause to us and we cause to them.

But not forever, for now it's Friday, and time to weep, but Sunday is coming. . .



Monday, 23 February 2015

The Journey Of The Magi

'A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.'
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling and running away, and wanting their liquor and women, And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for Birth or Death?
There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt.
I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

By T.S.Eliot



I was introduced to this poem about a year ago by a friend up a ski-lift in France (of all the places). It struck me at once.  Maybe it's easier to feel the force when you're freezing amidst unending snow in the dead of winter. Maybe the grumbling but heartfelt tone makes it chime more with my own sense. Even if you're an optimist sitting by a warm beach, the clarity and strength of the images is enough to put anyone right there hearing the old Wise Man, feeling the chill in your bones, and also, in the end, the unconquerable unease that follows the Nativity.

After the birth of Christ the whole world was changed forever, as History records, although it would take many years for the world to know it. In a staggeringly individual sense for both me and T.S.Eliot the world changed forever in our own age. My life will be (and his was) forever haunted by the birth, the life, the death and the resurrection of Christ. Like the Magus, after a long and hard journey, I can never be complacently at ease again in a world of everyday pleasure that does not have Him at its centre. However strange the world may find that.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

I'm Proud of my Church in 2014


We've seen food banks become increasingly high profile. It is little known, but the Trussell Trust, by far the largest organiser of UK food banks, is a Christian Charity. Churches across the country have been key to helping organise many food banks for years, in Coventry since at least 2007.

Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, made a high-profile attack on Wonga (exploitative payday lender) threatening to "compete them out of business" and raising the issue repeatedly in parliament. Churches up and down the country have begun promoting credit unions as an ethical alternative. Since then Wonga has been forced to write off £220 million of debt and overhaul its business model, halving its profits in a year. 

This December the Church of England, along with others founded their own nationwide credit union, which in a few years will hopefully be open to all churchgoers, providing an ethical, compassionate alternative to current banks and lenders for churches, charities and millions of people.

In Coventry itself Anglican churches have organised their own homeless night shelter over winter for the 2nd year. It is housed in different church buildings and staffed by volunteers, to make sure that there is definitely a warm, safe bed available for every potential rough sleeper in Coventry this winter.

It's really good to see the Church making a difference on important issues. Here's to even more in 2015. ‘For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ Matthew 25:35-36

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

What are Church Services For?

First I want to draw attention to how artificial our church services are in a way.

We gather together for an hour a week, generally, in order to worship God, carry out our liturgies, and celebrate the eucharist. And then we go out back to our lives.

But we all recognise that God's call, and particularly Christ's call in the Gospels, is a call about our whole lives. We are meant to be first transformed by the grace and power of the Holy Spirit, and then also grow in  holiness throughout our lives, not just on a Sunday.

In fact God makes it very clear that the details of our worship are irrelevant, almost worse than useless if we don't have love and faith and sincerity in our hearts generally.  

 And sometimes what we do in church every week can seem detached from how we live our lives, especially when we spend so much of our time surrounded by people who aren't Christian and don't necessarily know or understand anything about our faith.

Now, to be honest, this s already quite a common topic for Christians.  I'm sure we've all sat through at least one sermon about not just being Sunday Christians, or Christians for one hour each week.  But I'm just going to share some thoughts about it that I've found useful.
 Today in many churches, whether Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, URC the basic service can be divided into two main sections: The Liturgy of the Word, and the Liturgy of the Sacrament.  

Basically the first is based around offering prayers, reading the Bible, and discussing it in a Sermon, which is taken from the traditional Jewish Synagogue service (which was based around the Torah).

The Second is based around Eucharist, re-creating the last Supper as Jesus commanded "Do this as often as you eat and drink it in remembrance of me".

In more Protestant churches there has generally been an emphasis on the first part, preaching the Word, in more Catholic and Orthodox churches over the centuries there has been a growing emphasis on the 2nd part:  The Eucharist.

What is clear is that this basic form comes from the earliest days of the Church.  The quote below is from Justin Martyr, one of the earliest of the Church fathers, writing only 70 years or so after the writing of last of the New Testament books, and giving a description that must be familiar to any Christian today.

The two main differences is that this describes a relatively simple structure compared to some liturgies today, and that it obviously dates from a time when there was no set liturgy or text for the service. This came later, when instead of relying on the president to make up the prayers set texts were given both to give the ‘best’ prayers, to ensure that correct doctrine (Ortho-doxy in Greek) was taught and just to save the presiding person from always having to come up with something.
Fundamentally, though, this is the same structure we all use today and reflects the essential features of Christian worship and community. 

Historically what happened to the liturgy/service was a steady trend of making the central communion service more and more elaborate and mystical, with embellishments and more prayers and sections, until the time of the Reformation, when in reformation churches steps were taken to simplify it.

In some churches such as among the Quakers this led to totally abandoning formal, structured worship or liturgy, and in evangelical churches it led to a dramatically reduced form of liturgy.
In the Catholic church it led to one stable form of the Mass being adopted that endured for 500 years from the 1580's before it was simplifed slightly (and translated out of Latin) following the 2nd Vatican Council In 1960's.

What is astonishing to me though is how similar the liturgies and services still are, not just in general structure but right down to individual bits of vocabulary.  Below are selections from the current Anglican common worship, and a translation of the Latin Mass set in 1580, itself derived directly from forms of the Medieval Catholic Mass. 
 Services in Western Christianity (Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Lutheran etc) contain a very similar basic structure dating back to the medieval Catholic service containing many or all of the elements I list below, and at least many of these should be familiar to any Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Lutheran and many other western Christians. 

Eastern Orthodox churches are slightly different and date back even earlier, but contain most of these same features in a slightly less instantly recognisable form.
 Some more protestant services have a considerably more simple structure, especially if they don't necessarily involve communion.

A common evangelical approach is known affectionately as the Sandwich:  'Worship'-Prayers/testimony-Sermon done.

 Some evangelicals at least claim that they don't like liturgy, they say it's boring and fake and meaningless, but what they generally mean is they prefer a minimalistic liturgy. But the evangelical churches I've been to are definitely using a liturgy of a type even if they don't know it. Whether it's a better or worse liturgy is a very good question. And it can be just as boring and repetitive as any full Catholic-orthodox traditional liturgy.

But the evangelicals do have a good point, I don't think there is any point to church services or liturgy if we are just mumbling through the words every week, or just sitting there feeling bored, however complex or simple our liturgy may be. There is very little to be gained whatever form we use if it is not helping us grow in holiness throughout the week and the year and over our whole lives.

(Slight disclaimer: ‘catholic’ Christians such as myself who believe in the Real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist believe there is a real spiritual, blessed benefit to taking that Eucharist more or less regardless of what else we get from the service. I think what I say here is still strongly relevant in addition to that value though).

Some bits of the liturgy just don't seem to make much sense as we commonly perform them. My favourite example is the confession, which sounds a bit like this:  
 Now certainly in churches I have visited this is read out by the priest and then there is a two second delay before he pronounces God’s forgiveness for our sins. Now I don’t know about you but I need more time than that to confess my sins for the week.  In fact I’ve usually only got to about Monday lunchtime. 
And that’s not the only thing.  If we really, truly confessed our sins, in full realisation of what that meant, of Jesus’ sacrifice for us, the Love of God, and the darkness of sin then we would only ever need to confess them once and never again.  And again, I don’t know about you but I find myself coming back week after week and confessing more or less the same sins.
So what is the point of this?  Is it just bad, lazy religion?   

I think the answer is no. I do really value the liturgy and structure to our services, I really think that there is a lot that is really beautiful and valuable in these bits of liturgy that have come down to us and have been treasured by centuries of Christians.
So I want to try to think of how we can think about our liturgies and services to make them useful to our whole lives:
And my idea is basically this: Our services and liturgies offer us a model in concentrated form of what we should be trying to think about and follow for the rest of our week.  They don't do the job on their own, though they are particularly valuable as you are doing them.  But their main value is in acting as a model of spiritual discipline and the things we should be thinking about all the way through the week. In order to help us reflect on those ideas and grow in holiness.