Showing posts with label Religion. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Religion. Show all posts

Sunday 1 October 2023

Sermon on Moses - Hebrews 11:23-29

"By faith Moses’ parents hid him for three months after he was born, because they
saw he was no ordinary child, and they were not afraid of the king’s edict. By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward. By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the king’s anger; he persevered because he saw him who is invisible. By faith he kept the Passover and the application of blood, so that the destroyer of the firstborn would not touch the firstborn of Israel."

By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as on dry land; but when the Egyptians tried to do so, they were drowned."

Hebrews 11:1-2 “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen” 

We for some weeks now have been working through a list of Old Testament figures taken from the letter to the Hebrews. This chapter begins with the famous words,“now Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”. The list of Old Testament figures we’ve been working through then are chosen as examples of that perspective on faith. They are examples of where people took bold action in the present inspired by looking ahead to the fulfilment of God’s promises in the future, promises whose fulfilment they are would not themselves necessarily live to see. Stepping out in faith, as we often call it. 

Last week’s reading included a good example that Paul Simmonds spoke of. Joseph had a remarkable life and he kept his faith and trust in God through his troubles, great troubles. But the act that Hebrews highlights is Joseph at the end of his life, looking ahead to after his death, giving instructions that when his people left Egypt they should take his body with them. He trusted in God’s promise that he would give the Holy Land to his people, though he would not live to see it. So we need to bear that in mind, when we think about what God is saying about Moses in Hebrews. Hebrews does not start with Moses but with his parents. He was the child of faithful parents. They had faith so they put Moses in a basket in the river, not knowing what would happen but knowing, in faith, that there would be a chance for their child. 

Our faith never stands on its own but relies on those who came before us and those who will come after. Let us share it and build it, we never know what it might mean. Every great man or woman of history whose name we know, was taught or inspired by someone nobody remembers, who gets no credit, but was essential to that great person achieving what they did. You don’t know what you might achieve with God; and you don’t know who you might affect, and then what they might achieve.  

So who was Moses? What did he become? He was in some ways not a very impressive man, like many God chose he was terrified by the idea at first, he begged God to send someone else; he was not an eloquent man, he was so scared of speaking that God had to promise to send Aaron with him. He was someone whose temper sometimes got the best of him. But at the same time he was a man of remarkable courage and a great sense of justice. You can see his courage and sense of justice when he intervened to save a Hebrew being beaten by an Egyptian, but also his temper because he killed the Egyptian. After that he fled Egypt and came to Midian, where he saw a group of women, shepherdesses, being bullied away from a water well by a group of men, and again he wanted to help these women, strangers to him.

Hebrews says Moses could have stayed a Prince in Egypt, he could have wallowed in wealth and earthly pleasures (which does indeed sound nice); but he chose hardship and poverty to be faithful to God and to free his people. So often in the Bible it is not that a man was extraordinarily clever or strong or anything, but that in the end he was willing to take huge risks to stand up and do the right thing, because he had faith in God and his promise. Moses was a man who could stand against the absolute ruler of Egypt, a living god to his people, and command him, saying, God, the true God, has told you, let my people go.

And he did, he freed his people, he freed his people and led them out of Egypt into the desert, trusting that God would lead them to the Promised Land, without knowing how they would possibly get food and water for so many thousands of people, but trusting in God to provide. Later on, he would receive the Law at Mount Sinai, that would guide the Jews in how they must live and worship God; that would prepare the way for Christ by teaching his people that God is Holy, and that though again and again they would fall short, God gave them ways for their sins to be forgiven through sacrifice and prayer. These temporary sacrifices prepared them to understand the one infinite sacrifice that Christ would make to provide an eternal path to free us from our sins. 

The Law gives us the image of the Lamb of God, the sacrificial lamb that would become such a power symbol of who God is in Christ; and the 10 commandments that lie right at the heart and basis of our systems of Law and Justice. In fact, Moses was credited with writing more pages of the Bible than any other writer, the first five books, known to the Jews as the Torah, the Teaching. It is the historical core of the Old Testament, and so the whole Bible. 

Moses has a crucial role in the achievement of the Exodus, the giving of the Law, and the institution of the Passover. And all three are crucial to understanding Biblical faith. Moses’ achievements are still at the heart of Jewish religion and identity today. The annual celebration of the Passover, remembering how through Moses God rescued his people from Egypt, is the most important ritual in the Jewish year. A liturgy carried out around the family table, as Jews have done for three thousand years, with the foods of the Passover story: the lamb and the flat unleavened bread. Flat bread because there was no time for the dough to rise before the Hebrews had to leave their homes and flee from Egypt. 

The Passover is our story as well. The night before he died, Jesus held the last supper with his disciples. This was a Passover meal, where they remembered the Exodus and broke the bread, and ate the lamb and drank the wine. Incredibly, there Jesus took the Passover bread and wine and said, this is my body, this is my blood. He was saying I am God’s salvation, as through Moses God saved his people from slavery in Egypt, so through Jesus, God would save all the world from slavery to sin and death, if we will let him, if we choose to be his people. That is what we remember every time we take Communion, this is what we share: The bread and wine of Passover, the body and blood of Jesus, our Passover lamb.

One thing to note in our reading is how it says Moses “regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasurers of Egypt”. “Disgrace for the sake of Christ”? That might sound strange to us. How did Moses know Christ? We often forget that Hebrews and all the books of the New Testament take for granted that Christ is God and that he was an active presence in the Old Testament, and that the Old Testament Prophets spoke of Christ and believed in him. 

At Christmas time, we read the opening to John’s Gospel ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God, which is of course places Christ Jesus, the Son of God, right there at the start of Genesis on the first page of the Bible. And he’s there in the Exodus according to this reading from Hebrews.  Across the New Testament, particularly in Matthew, in Acts, in Paul’s letters and here in Hebrews, they are saying that the Old Testament speaks of Christ, and Christ was there and known in the Old Testament, in Psalms and Isaiah and everywhere throughout the history of God’s people. This is why you can’t take the Old Testament out of the Bible, because if you did you wouldn’t have a New Testament left. And I don’t just mean that one historically led to the other, I mean that if you removed all the parts of the New Testament that are talking about the Old Testament you would be left with a lot of empty pages. 

The Exodus itself, has always been of special importance to people suffering oppression and slavery. That God heard the cry of the slaves, named them his people and brought them out of slavery to the Promised Land. In particular, it was profoundly important to the black slaves of America. Taken from Africa and introduced to the Bible by their captors, still they found in the story of Moses a promise of freedom that defied the men who held them prisoner, and brought meaning and hope that God was with them. Denied education or freedom to meet and organise, they expressed themselves through music, songs sung in fields and simple homes, shared orally and passed down through generations. After slavery was abolished in America in the 1860s these songs were written down and shared widely. In our hymnbooks they used to be called negro spirituals. And Spiritual they certainly are. And it’s an incredible thing that the story of what Moses did could mean so much, thousands of years later and thousands of miles away, to a people in the face of such suffering. 

Moses is described as special: in both Exodus and Numbers it is said uniquely that God spoke to Moses not in dreams or riddles but face-to-face, face to face. This is the amazing thing about Jesus, everyone who saw him saw God face-to-face. All the Apostles, all the people who followed Jesus, had a relationship with God as special as this one unique person in the whole Old Testament, and through the Holy Spirit within us, we can say the same. We have a faith passed down from the Patriarchs to Moses, preserved by his parents, lived through his courage; that brought his people into the Promised Land, that was and is always looking to Christ, and to this day is inspiring those suffering oppression to strive for a more just and Christ-like world: the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.  I pray we will all embrace that faith. It has done mighty things in the past, and with God, it can do mighty things in the future still.  Amen.

Sermon for King Charles III's Coronation - The Kingdom of Heaven

Mark 4:26-29

Jesus said to them, “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground.  Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how.  All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head.  As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.”

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-46

He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field.  Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”

He told them still another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.”

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.”

Yesterday we saw the coronation of King Charles III, the first coronation in this country for 70 years,

and today I am speaking to you about the Kingdom of God. We have two different kingdoms before us then: the Kingdom of God, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. How then, do these Kingdoms relate to each other?

The Coronation expresses an ideal of service through historic traditions and ceremonies, that in this country have always been rooted in a Christian, Biblical understanding of service and sacrifice. Our King was crowned in Westminster Abbey, by our own Archbishop, and in the most sacred part of the coronation, the King was anointed with holy oil, made from olives grown on Mt Gethsemane in Jerusalem, the garden where Jesus prayed on the night before he was crucified. This anointing follows a Biblical tradition far older even than Christ, going back to the Prophet Samuel and King Saul over 3000 years ago. 

This reminds both the King and ourselves, that we stand in a line of tradition, an inheritance, that goes back far before us, and will be here long after us. We are part of that inheritance, but it is greater and larger than us, a higher standard by which we will be judged, as servants to other people and to God. Our laws are largely secular, they are not written with God first in mind, though there are thoughtful Christians in all our institutions, from the parish council right up to parliament. 

Our laws are decided democratically, but the people can be wrong: we must ultimately judge these laws by whether they reflect God's law: his will for justice, love and peace; respect for the image of God in other men and women, and respect for God's creation. In governing our society, politicians and others often fall short of those high standards. At times in our history, we have failed as a whole society, whether during the years when Britain was involved in the Slave Trade, or in the tolerance of dreadful poverty in the past and today.

We are residents of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but we are also citizens of the Kingdom of God, which is a greater and higher loyalty. The Bible calls us to obey the laws of whatever land we live in, except where those laws profoundly contradict God's higher law. First, we must campaign and argue against unjust laws, but then sometimes we must make the difficult choice to break those laws, in order to keep faith with God. 

How we do that still matters. In ancient times, Christians peacefully refused to engage in the pagan worship of the Roman Emperors, and they were condemned to death for it. In modern times in America, the Reverend Martin Luther King, a Baptist Christian Minister, led black and white Christians in a peaceful movement of civil disobedience that challenged the profoundly unjust, racist laws of the southern US States. Today, as well, around the world, in unjust countries like China, Iran and Russia, Christians wrestle with their consciences, and brave men and women of God face imprisonment and worse for standing up and putting obedience to God ahead of obedience to the state they live in.

It would perhaps be easy to say that the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world should be kept completely separate. Some Christians lean in this direction, arguing that Christians should have nothing to do with politics; while many atheists insist laws should be entirely secular, with no spiritual input at all. But while the Kingdom of God is not of this world, the Gospels tell us the Kingdom of God is bleeding into this world: soaking it, transforming it, making it a new and better creation; a hope for all mankind, and all nature. This transformation comes through Jesus Christ, the King of Kings, the one and only man truly worthy to be a King, the one and only man in whom we can always place our trust. From the very first Christmas, when God came into this world as a baby, his Kingdom is here and present and growing: from the start of Jesus' ministry in Galilee it explodes outward.

This means there are three different layers of reality that we must distinguish. On the one hand, we have the realities of what power and politics looks like now, in this world, which is often a disappointing affair of hypocrisy, division, hatred and short-sighted greed. Then there is the presence of God in heaven, where God is everything and evil and sin have no hold. In between though, there is a process, a changing reality as the Kingdom of God soaks into this world and transforms it. The Bible makes clear that ultimately, in the end, this world will be transformed entirely: the ugliness and greed of politics will pass away and the Kingdom of God will be all in all, forever and ever. It is God and his Kingdom that is truly real and eternal, while evil and misery is passing away and will be gone. 

We see that completed Kingdom of God now as an ideal, a vision: when we read the Bible, and in moments of worship and liturgy, like the Coronation itself, but it is becoming reality. For now the world falls short of the ideal: in our churches, our politics, our economy, our ordinary life; but day by day, through every small act of love, hospitality and service, through every work of beauty, through every time we stand up for truth; that Kingdom is becoming more real than the shadows cast by sin and evil. On a rainy day, everything looks dark, but eventually the rain stops, the clouds burn away, the sun comes out, and then everything is filled with light. As St Paul said, "for now we see as in a cloudy mirror, but then we shall see face to face". We are already citizens of the Kingdom of God, but this is a Kingdom still under construction here on earth. As our Lord Jesus said, "The Kingdom of God is within you", and every day, inspired by our Lord, and supported by the Holy Spirit, we have the opportunity to build that Kingdom into reality. 

To build God's Kingdom here on earth, we need to understand that Kingdom better. What is it like? What can we learn about it from the parables we heard today? I love these short, simple parables. There is not any complicated story, but each gives us an image and feeling that defines the Kingdom of God. In the parables of the scattered seed, the mustard seed, and the yeast, we have powerful image of life and growth, a set of images for just this time of year, as spring takes hold and new growth is everywhere. The Kingdom is a surging force, that spreads from person to person, that starts with tiny beginnngs and grows and grows in every aspect of life. It spreads throughout people's lives and whole societies like yeast in dough, making it rise and ferment; if we embrace the new opportunities to do good we see around us.

God is a creator first of all. He is the source of all things, the Father who gave life to us all. In his Kingdom, his nature grows into our mundane world in a new and deeper way, through Christ, who brings God and Mankind together. King Charles III inherited his kingdom from his mother Queen Elizabeth, and it is a kingdom defined by borders of land and sea. Christ is a King who creates his Kingdom wherether he goes, by bringing life in all its fullness, inspiring art, music, beauty, community, charitable love and joy.

If growth and life are the image of the first set of this parables, then joy is at the core of the second set. You see this across so many of Jesus' parables, they so often end in a party, or a person rejoicing. Look at the parable of the treasure hidden in a field, or the merchant's pearl. Here is joy, the joy of a sudden, life changing surprise, of finding the thing you've always been looking for.

These are very short parables, but because they are stories about people, they always have an edge to them, this is no saccharine, perfectly safe world. There is uncertainty, there is the risk that we face in all our decisions and chances. The man who finds the treasure doesn't know who else may find it, he doesn't know if the owner of the field will sell, for a while he must take a risk and live with uncertainty, the suspense between making the decision and actually securing the prize. 

The man who bought the field, and the merchant who bought the pearl, had to risk everything they had, to get something greater still. And that kind of risk is both exhilarating and terrifying. I'm sure at some point in your life you will have taken a risk on a job, or a business idea, or moving home, or on Love. I remember when I was planning to ask my wife to go on our first date, or when I was plotting to propose marriage. The fear and excitement were like nothing else, I honestly don't think I've ever felt so alive. And that is what I think Jesus wants us to understand here about the Kingdom of God.

In all these stories, the Kingdom of God is like the ordinary things of this world: a seed, a grain, a tree, a pearl, like the world God has already made, but not just as they are, as they could and should be. C.S.Lewis described heaven this way, as containing every good and beautiful thing the world contains but even more so: the grass is greener, the light is clearer, the air is purer, the food more delicious, the water more refreshing and the laughter is longer and deeper.

This all sounds like a dream. It is a dream, but with two essential additions. First, every great idea starts with a dream, they have to be a dream, before they can be reality. Second, God made all these good things, they already exist. The Sun and water, the seed, the coin, the joy and laughter we have now, these are the deposit, the downpayment, for the more wonderful things God is still doing. And we know he can complete them because he began them. The difference is now God calls us to work with him and through him, alongside Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit. Look at these parables again: the Kingdom is like yeast that a woman mixes through a lot of flour; a merchant sees a pearl and sells all they own to have it, a man finds treasure in a field. In each case a person is involved and active. We are that woman, that man, that merchant and through God's power, we build his kingdom here on earth.

God's Kingdom is unique, it is not defined by borders and laws, but by every loving heart, every act of faith and hope, every song of worship and prayer, every work of art and beauty. It spreads in the heart, and in each community, as well as in institutions and nations. Its territory is every aspect of life, and every part of the human heart. It can unite people of all nations, races, languages, ages and culture because it includes every good thing God creates. Politics so-often fails to build a better world because it relies on promoting division, hating enemies, appealing to greed, pride, fear, spin and propaganda, so its house is built on sand. Only by transforming our hearts with faith, hope and love can we then transform our institutions and nations on solid foundations.  

God's Kingdom grows in enemy territory without force or violence, every time a man, woman or child chooses to turn to Jesus Christ. Whether in China or Iran or Russia or North Korea, human power can threaten and spy and intimidate, but it cannot prevent people turning in their hearts towards Jesus, the One True King over all. That is why in every dictatorship, from the ancient Romans, to the 20th Century Communists, to the high-tech totalitarianism of today, independent churches focussed on Christ are treated as a threat to the State, because they answer to a higher power and create a community with values that defy the authority around them. At the same time they are never isolated or alone. They are outposts of God's Kingdom in which we are all citizens, united in prayer with millions, even billions of saints in heaven who have gone before us.

But there is a warning: church institutions can also be captured and subverted by nationalism or greed or force. A particularly sad example today is the Russian Orthodox Church: a church with a long and noble history of mystics, monks and saints, and devoted faith over centuries. Today though, the Patriarch of Moscow, its most important Bishop and leader, is a paid lackey of Putin. In the Communist era, the KGB, the Soviet Secret Police, tried to make sure the Church did not cause trouble by having their own men elected as bishops and Patriarchs. The current Patriarch is just such a stooge, a man whose first loyalty is to Vladmir Putin, not Jesus Christ.

This is why the Bible tells us that God's Kingdom is not limited to any one institution or organisation or nation, but is found wherever people are faithful to Jesus, before everything else. In the coronation, King Charles promised to uphold the values of God's Kingdom, in a ceremony influenced by a thousand years of Christian faith in Britain, but that ,eans nothing if he and we do not put it into action. We must love our country, but realise that it too must be changed and transformed. We must love our churches, while realising that they are groups of fallible sinners, still being transformed. We must love ourselves, knowing that God is still working in our hearts to change and inspire us. Let us be forever grateful that God uses fallible human beings like us to do his work and build his enduring Kingdom.

As Christians, let us contribute to our United Kingdom in every positive way we can: supporting our schools, our parish councils, our charities, serving as magistrates, or just voting in elections. But our true loyalty and citizenship lies in the Kingdom of God. That means while we serve this world we are not limited by it. Our faith does not distract us from doing good, but inspires us to go further. We are united across language and nation and class, not by abstract statements of values, or an accident of birth, but by the love we share for our Lord Jesus and one another. Inspired by our Lord, and strengthened by the Holy Spirit, we have a hope that endures, and offers a better way for us as individuals and our whole world. By placing our faith in Jesus Christ we can all be part of building that Kingdom, and I pray we all will.

Monday 19 September 2022

The Spectator - The Moral Inspiration of Tolkien’s Universe

Very grateful to The Spectator for publishing an essay of mine on the moral ideas that define Tolkien's
Middle Earth, and why accusations of racism massively miss the point.  

I talk about the way he approaches death, war, suffering, self-sacrifice, nobility and beauty, all with a remarkable nuance and subtlety, shaped by his personal war experiences and his profound Christian faith, that is sometimes not recognised.

The Moral Inspiration of Tolkien's Universe 

Tuesday 9 August 2022

Sermon on John 11:17-27 - I am the Resurrection and the Life

Getty Images
On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home.

“Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”

Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”

Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

“Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”

Today we continue our series of sermons on the 'I AM' sayings of Jesus from John's Gospel. As most of you will now know, these are a series of powerful statements in which Jesus reveals different aspects of who he really is, and what it means for him to be the Son of God.

More than that, in each of these statements he identifies himself with God in a profound way. He echoes the great declaration God made from the Burning Bush to Moses before God rescued the Israelites from Egypt. Moses asked, what was the name of God that he should give to the people of Israel, and from the Burning Bush God answers “I AM WHO I AM". This is what you must say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me.’” In the Burning Bush, God revealed himself to Moses in a new way, as the One who would stand in a Covenant with the people of Israel; and now in these 'I AM' statements Jesus is revealing himself in a series of new ways. He's giving pieces of detail about who God is and what he means to us.

Today we are looking at the statement - "I am the Resurrection and the Life" - and the context of this statement involves the death of Lazarus: Jesus' friend, and the brother of Mary and Martha, who appear a number of times in the Gospels. Lazarus has fallen sick and then died, and Jesus travels to visit Mary and Martha in their grief. When Martha hears Jesus is coming she runs out to meet him, she has probably been waiting for him, wondering when he would turn up. When she sees him she is clear about her faith in him, she addresses him as Lord, but her statement of faith carries a sharp edge. "If you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask". You can hear the criticism in her words, it's implicit, but that doesn't take away the sting. 

"But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask", there's a request there as well, and like the rebuke it's implicit, but pretty obvious. Jesus does not take offence at either her rebuke, or her request. He knows the grief and pain she is speaking from. God wants us to speak to him honestly and openly in our grief. God is big enough to handle it; he only asks that we trust in him to answer. 

Martha had faith that Jesus could yet save her brother, though she did not understand why Jesus had waited. We have all lost loved-ones at some point in our life, we have all been in Martha's place, and like her we must have faith in God's purpose. Sometimes the answer to our prayers comes in this life, and in other times we must wait and have faith that beyond the veil of physical death God will bring healing and justice to all our loss.

Jesus answers the question that she has not asked and assures her, saying "your brother will rise again", but she doesn't entirely understand. She replies saying, "“I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” Now, as Christians when we talk about the Resurrection we usually mean, first and foremost, Christ's Resurrection after the Crucifixion, which we particularly celebrate every year at Easter. But Martha here is speaking within the Jewish tradition she is familiar with. 

In this tradition the Resurrection was a great and terrible event that would happen at the end of the World, at the Apocalypse. At the end of time, the Jews believed that all people would be judged by God according to their actions. The righteous dead would rise from their graves to live with God forever, and evil people would be destroyed. This, by the way, is still basically the understanding of what the Resurrection means in Islam, it is repeated again and again in the Quran.

In Martha's Jewish understanding at the time, this is strictly a future event. She has faith that Lazarus will be raised at the end of time, when God brings an end to the whole universe and judges the wicked and the righteous, but until then she can only wait; hence her grief that Jesus was not there in time to preserve Lazarus alive here and now. Jesus' reply transforms this traditional understanding of Resurrection. "I am the Resurrection and the Life", he says. Instead of being a hoped-for act of God in some distant future, Jesus is telling her that the Resurrection is here and now, standing in front of her. 

"I am the Resurrection and the Life". He is personalising this great final act of God, he is saying it is in himself and through himself that Resurrection comes, right now. He demonstrates this by raising Lazarus from the dead, immediately after this reading, though he'd been dead for four days, though he was starting to rot. Almost nothing could make a more dramatic example of what it means for the Resurrection to be here and now. Jesus goes on to explain what Resurrection and Life in him and through him will mean. "The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.” There are two different deaths Jesus is speaking of here. At first we will die, yet live; and then we shall never die. 

At first he is talking about our physical death in this age, we know that we still suffer physical death: St Peter died, and St Paul died, and every one of the Saints down to our own family and loved ones have still died. But in Christ death has lost its sting, for this death is not the end, it is merely another step along the climb to greater Life, more enduring, eternal Life; "Life in all its fullness".  We cannot now fully appreciate and understand what this will mean, but we can approach it. In our music and worship, when we feel the love and fellowship of friends and family, or out in Nature; anywhere we feel the presence of God, we gain a glimpse of what that life will be like, when we will live in God's clear and direct presence forevermore. In moments of surpassing beauty and peace, when briefly it seems our cares have fallen away, we get a glimpse of what that life is like. 

Have you ever been looking forward to going somewhere on holiday, and then you go and it's even better than you expected, more joyful, more carefree, more beautiful? Have you ever been waiting at a train station or a bus station for a loved one to return after a long absence? Have you ever sat there surrounded by concrete and dinge, waiting for someone you love more than life itself, and then finally they appear, and you run to hug them and hold them, and its like the sun comes out and the air is clear, and for a moment there is nothing but joy and safety and relief.  These things reveal to us in part the Life that God is giving us. Saints and Mystics have experienced it too in another way, as sheer bliss, indescribable bliss, that comes from seeing God with the mist between us totally fallen away. Even for mystics, in this life, that perfectly clear vision last only for moments; but Jesus makes clear that through him that true life is destined to endure, saying "whoever lives by believing in me shall never die".

We must realise though that this Life, with a capital L, this Resurrection, is not just something that happens after we die, or at the end of the Universe. No, Jesus says, "I am the Resurrection and the Life". The Resurrection was there standing and speaking with Martha, in a village outside Jerusalem. From the moment of Jesus' birth in Bethlehem, and then more so once his ministry began in Galilee, the Resurrection and the Life was happening and is happening still. Jesus does not point us to the Resurrection, and the Life, he does not point us towards God; he is God, he is the Resurrection and the Life, and through him we can be part of that Resurrection today and everyday.

We grow as children and teenagers, and our bodies and minds develop, and we think that we are done growing and developing. But with God we are still children, however old we get, and if we have faith in Jesus, if we follow where he leads, then every day we can grow, we can experience resurrection and enter into new and deeper life. The Resurrection is happening all around us, if we follow Jesus, if we put our trust in him, then we can grow and grow.

Martha and the Jews were expecting the Resurrection and the coming of the Messiah, as some future event where God would flip the world upside down, overthrow their enemies, condemn the wicked, and make everything right. They thought they just needed to stay as righteous as possible by the Law, and keep out of trouble until that day.  But Jesus was telling them, No, the Resurrection is in me! It is standing in front of you. It is among you, here and now, with God's own terrifying power, and that power will spread from Jesus to every willing heart that trusts enough to follow where he led. Our Resurrection means that we are called, one individual soul at a time, to walk his journey of service and sacrifice, and so spread new life from soul to soul. 

And we know how this was done: Christ shared in our death, even so we could share in his Resurrection. Remember what he says in this reading, "The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die." Martha may not have understood this at the time, but she, like the other disciples, understood after Christ's own Resurrection. Christ lives, even though he died, and now he shall never die.  But this was not a piece of divine showing-off, God was not doing this to prove he could, but as the first step in spreading resurrection to us all. In the words of St Paul, Jesus is "the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep", the evidence of the greater harvest to come, so through him we may enter into true life, that does not start after we've died, but from when we first accept Christ, and grows whenever we turn to him.

The Bible makes clear that one day Christ will return in the same way he left us, and there will be a final Judgement, and it will be great and terrible. So why does God delay? Only God knows for certain when and why. But we do know that "God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but so through him the world might be saved". God does not want to destroy the world, he wants to save it. So I suspect God delays so the Good News may grow and spread, that more people may have a chance to know Jesus of their own free choice and be saved; that people on continents and in countries that Martha could not have imagined may first experience the Good News of Resurrection in their own lives. God's Kingdom is like a seed that falls to the ground and is buried, but then it sprouts. That means it grows inch by inch, first a fragile seedling, then a slender sapling, and finally a mighty tree, whose branches and leaves grow and spread. Sometimes frost or drought or disease may delay the growth, but through the power of God the final result is certain. 

At the end of his astonishing statement, Jesus challenges Martha, "Do you believe this?", and she responds in glorious style, "“Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.” Amen to that. Martha's statement is an amazing declaration of faith, but faith only begins with the mouth; if it means anything it needs to carry on throughout the body, into the brain and the thoughts we have, into the heart and the love we have for others, into our hands and feet, and the work we will do to serve and support the people around us. 

In any community, one of the greatest dangers is complacency and inertia. Do we become static, sedentary and sluggish, or are we being filled each day with new energy through the Holy Spirit? Resurrection means new and transformed life, if we are brave enough to embrace it, if we are willing to rely on God's strength, that is so much greater than our own. 

So what risks are we prepared to take? Which new people are we prepared to trust? What new ideas are we prepared to embrace? Do not be afraid. Though we face uncertainty and danger in this world, the victory of God is certain, so there is no need to be afraid. But also, we must not be complacent. God gives us time, so beauty and love may grow and spread, but not so we can waste it. Let us never hesitate from doing good, but embrace the chance; let us not delay in reaching out to people with the Good News that God offers, but speak out today. In every thing we do let us bring our best efforts to God, knowing he deserves nothing less; and knowing that God will bless the gift, however humble it may be.


Sunday 12 June 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And for that, Amen!

Tuesday 15 February 2022

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

From the Becoming Beloved Episcopal community

Acts 6:1-7.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hebrew Jews here, would refer to those Jews who lived in the Holy Land itself, like Jesus, maybe from Galilee itself, or elsewhere. They would have come from Jewish majority areas, and lived a life immersed in Jewish religion, culture and assumptions. They would have spoken Aramaic, the common language of the middle east at this time. Hebrew itself had become a language purely of scholarship and religious tradition when Jesus lived, like Latin in medieval Europe. They would also have taken pride in the fact they lived in the Land that God gave their ancestors, a Holy Land indeed, their homeland, the old-country.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is also the time to remember the cultural divide that I described earlier, between the Hellenistic and Hebrew Jews. You've got to remember the Twelve Apostles were all, or almost all, Galileans like Jesus. That made them Hebrew Jews, the community who dominated leadership up until now, and who were being complained about, basically. The men picked by the community as Deacons, the first Deacons, all have Greek names: they were probably all Hellenistic Jews, the community complaining they were being treated unfairly. 

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

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

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

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

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


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.


Monday 11 October 2021

Days that Pass

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Monday 27 September 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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