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

Sunday, 20 October 2019

Why Should We Pray? - Philippians 4:4-7

Philippians 4:4-7 - "Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be afraid about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."

St Ignatius of Loyola once said "You should pray for half an hour every day, except for when you are very busy, when you are very busy you should pray for a whole hour every day." But why should we do that? Why should we Pray?

We all know that Prayer is an important part of the Christian life, but it's a subject that we all struggle with at times. It's a huge subject too. Let me tell you another short story. There was once an Egyptian monk, who had dedicated his whole adult life to living out in the desert, alone with God, to have nothing to distract him from his prayers. And as he came to the end of a long life, he lay dying, surrounded by his brothers, and he said, 'how can I go to my Lord yet, when I have only just begun to understand?' At times I think I have had that feeling.

But prayer is also the simplest of things. A little child can pray, and with more honesty and directness than most accomplished of priests or theologians. We can study prayer, but only really to clear away the confusions we have created for ourselves. For really there is nothing more simple than prayer. Prayer is something we can all do. It is a shared right of all mankind, an inheritance for all peoples, of every age, race and sex. Prayer is a journey that always has more steps to take. It is a library that never runs out of books, and we learn something new on every page. 

But why should we pray?

To answer that question, I think we have to remember Who we are and Who God is. Then we can understand the relationship between ourselves and God, and understand, why we should pray.

Who are we? We are the children of God. God created every particle in our bodies from nothing, as he did the entire Universe, from his sheer generosity and joy in creating. But we are unlike the other particles of creation. We are aware, we bear in our hearts and minds and souls the very image of God, we are stamped with the imprint of God, and so we are all his special children.

But even more than that, God has blessed our humanity and made it Holy, because God the Son was born as a human child, and grew, lived, breathed, taught, knew fear and pain, loved and died in our flesh. And now he is ascended once more into Heaven still in human flesh, to sit at the right hand of the Father, until he returns, or calls us home.  But we are even more than that, for God the Holy Spirit came down and dwells in our hearts if only we accept him, making us the Body of Christ himself. So God is in us, and God is One of Us, and God is the Father of all of us.

We cannot think of ourselves as separate from God, not if we are Christians. Some people might wonder, why would God want to hear from me?  Or me from God? But for Christians even here on earth we are carried up into God, because the Spirit is within us, and the Son is alongside us, and the Father cares for us.

Fundamentally, prayer is communication, the communication of a unique relationship. Not the relationship between one person and another, but the relationship between a creature and our Creator, between the God who holds the whole Universe in the palm of his hand, and myself. And yourself, and all of us. And that may seem like a daunting, near impossible thing, But this relationship, this communication, is not something we must do on our own.   

God was before the creation of the whole Universe, and he will be forever more. Before Time existed, there was the Father and the Son and the Spirit, and there was already the most profound and intimate of relationships between them. Love we can barely imagine, an extravagant, overflowing love shining between all three, in constant diversity and unity.

From this constantly overflowing Love the creation of the Universe came, and the creation of mankind, and we are not separate from it. When we open our hearts to God, and let down our defenses, we can step into this river of God's Love, and see the love of God for God, and for the world, and we can be washed over by that river which flows for eternity, holds the whole of mankind and creation within it.

The Lord Jesus commanded us to Love God with all our heart, and to Love our neighbour as ourselves. And this may seem like a difficult command. How can we make ourselves love? Well, fortunately, there is no need for such a thing. It is not that we must love God, by our own power, or Love the World, by our own power, but rather that we must let down our barriers, and join in the Love that God has for the World, and the love the Father has for the Son, and the Son for the Spirit, and the Spirit for the Father.

God is within us, and beside us, and beyond us. Just by being alive, we are a creature of God, and we are in a relationship with God, whatever we think. The question is will it be a good relationship or a bad one. And as Christians we are in a closer, more profound relationship still. If we do not pray, we are not getting out of that relationship with God, we are sitting in a room with God, and just never saying anything. And I don't think that is ever a good relationship.

When I think of my most close and important relationships then, of course, I do not talk all the time. Of course, there are times that we can just sit in silence in peace and security, but still in constant awareness and appreciation of each other. But still, these are also the relationships where do I have the greatest flow of communication. I talk about the big things, and the little things, and nothing, because it seems important just to communicate. How much more then is this true of our relationship with God?

So how can we join in with God's love, and align ourselves with God's purposes? How can we do that? By opening our hearts and our minds in prayer and worship. And not just here in church, but everywhere, and whatever our state may be. Prayer and worship are two sides of the same coin, the awareness that God is with us, and around us, and loves us at every time.

The world wants us to be constantly looking down, anxious and terrified, weighed down with a thousand worries, and fighting always for success and status. But prayer allows us to lift up our eyes. If you love nature then go out into nature, and realise God is there loving and appreciating his Creation, from the tiniest bug, the every view and sunset with you, before you got there, and while you're there, and after you leave, and open your heart and speak out to God and you will be praying. If you love trains, or music, or knitting, or playing football, then do those things, and open your heart to God, and know that God's love is shining down. Because he sees the Good in every good thing and loves it for all its worth, and speak out to God and you will be praying.

But prayer is not just for Good times and rejoicing. God is with us always, so there is no time or state of mind that is bad for prayer. We can open our hearts to God when we are heartbroken, and when we are raging, when we are frustrated and when we are tired. When we speak to God our words are always enough. The language does not matter, nor do the particular words. It is the honesty that matters. If we open up our hearts in honesty to God then we will offer a true and worthwhile prayer.

In St Paul's letter to the Thessalonians he famously tells us to "pray without ceasing". How could we do such a thing? If that meant speaking out loud all the time that would make it very hard to concentrate on anything else. No, but it does mean becoming increasingly aware of God's presence at all times, though if we manage that we will naturally end up speaking to God more and more. If we are to "pray without ceasing", that means we will be praying when we're grieving, and angry, and confused, and happy and joyful, because we are human, and we will experience all those emotions from time to time, and we shouldn't cease our prayers until those times are over. 

So in prayer we have a chance to be completely honest with ourselves, in our joy and our pain, because God already sees us to the marrow of our bones, and the depths of our heart. And that is a precious gift, and it is just as precious because it is open to all of us. In the economic world for something to be precious it has to be rare, if there's lots of it then it's not worth much. But God's gifts are nothing like that. Everyone can see a sunset, but it's just as beautiful. Love, indeed, is the gift that just grows in value with the sharing of it. Like light into a mirror it shines and reflects and shines back again.   

We can't hurt God by saying the wrong thing, or using the wrong words, or being too awkward. I think we can only hurt God by not speaking to him at all.

To pray is to take time out of the constant flow of tiny problems and annoyances, and chores and distractions the World throws at us. It can help keep our eyes raised on what is truly important, and what is eternal, and that can be a source of great peace and focus, making us better able to do the little things we must do in the world, but without being consumed by them.

You hear a lot these days about mindfulness, and meditation, and directing our thoughts. Let me put it this way, prayer is a form of Christian meditation and mindfulness, and directing our thoughts. Now, I know some types of prayer can be more meditative and calmer than others. And that's good, like I said, sometimes we need to rage at God. To express our frustration and pain. And don't be afraid, God can take it. But other times prayer can be a great time of meditation and peace, either for extended periods, or in moments of the busy day.

My wife and I have struggled these last months to get into the habit of saying Grace at our evening meals. I've never done it before recently, and if you don't do it I'd really recommend it. I appreciate it every time we do manage it, after a busy day at work, and then cooking dinner, and often with more chores later in the evening. It's a brief moment to be thankful, to remember those people we need to remember, to pause in our hearts. And, you know what? Because I pause every day, or most days, to say that grace, I remember things I should be thankful for, or people that I should remember, that I would otherwise forget. And I'm that little bit more joyful.

I really believe that the more we pray the more we will discover the riches of God, not in the wealth and power of this world, but that treasure in Heaven, "the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding", which can endure through this world and its troubles. When St Paul speaks of this he knew that gift, he had been beaten, he was imprisoned, and still he spoke with the total confidence that comes from personal experience, of the reassurance that comes from prayer to our God. His wounds still hurt, his chains were still heavy, but his heart and soul were strengthened by having his sight beyond all those things, at what truly lasts forever.

Before I finish I want to address a couple more of questions, that I think people often have about prayer.

Firstly, doesn't God already know? Why should we speak to God, he already knows everything about us, he already knows what we want and need? Of course he does! God doesn't need to hear from us because he needs information from us, he wants to hear from us because he loves us. He wants us to be fellow-workers and allies alongside him in building the Kingdom of God, for the good of all mankind. If you have someone you love you want to spend time with them, you want to hear from them, to rejoice with them in their achievements and cry with them in their losses. God wants this with us, and I hope we want this with God. Pray then.

Yes, we should ask God for what we need. "Give us today our daily bread", our Lord taught us to pray. We should ask for ourselves, for our families, our friends, and the whole world. "In every situation", St Paul said, "by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God". We should always be happy to ask, knowing God is always happy to listen. Never worry you are asking too much, maybe just try ti ensure that the more you ask, the more you also give thanks, praise and the more you find some beautiful place, wherever that is for you, and just spend time being with God.

I talk about God wanting to hear from us, and I profoundly believe that is true. We should not start thinking, though, that God needs anything from us. We have nothing God needs, though in his love he loves to hear from us. But God has everything we need. He is the Creator, we are such small creatures. The things God encourages us to do, whether it is to pray or worship, are not for his benefit, but for our own. In prayer and worship we align ourselves with God's purposes, which are the foundations of everything that exists. We align ourselves with our own true and complete nature, where our hope and meaning, our shelter, our mental, emotional and spiritual fuel was always meant come from.

The second and final question I want to address is this: When you talk about prayer, when you talk about praying in response to a situation, then people say, Why pray, why not just act, just do something? Isn't action better than prayers and well-wishes? And, it is right that prayer should never be an alternative to action. In the Bible it never is. Prayer is not the alternative to action, prayer is the fuel and source and inspiration of action. How can you act without reflection? How can you act without hope, without a source of personal strength and conviction, how can you act without support? All these things can come through prayer.

Martin Luther King jr prayed constantly, and led the Black American community to victory over institutionalised discrimination in the South. William Wilberforce prayed and led the campaign that abolished the Atlantic Slave Trade, and went on to end legal slavery around the world. Isaac Newton prayed and discovered the fundamental laws of motion that govern our Universe, everything from kicking a football to the orbits of planets. 

St Paul prayed and travelled, it has been calculated, 10,000 miles by dirty roads and leaking ships, to spread the message of Christian Hope, around the whole Mediterranean.  And I could give a thousand other examples. In our own time and country Christians prayed and acted to found Christians Against Poverty, which helps thousands of people around the country in debt and fear. Christians prayed and founded the Trussel Trust, which supports and co-ordinates Food Banks all around the country. When I look at our parish and all the groups, and ministries, and volunteers, we have, for the old and the young, for the sick and the whole, I see prayer leading to action.

Our God is The Living God, his Will, his Work, and his Spirit are constantly in Action. Our prayer should never be an alternative to action, but an inspiration to action. Though also, I don't forget the importance of prayer when there is nothing you can do. There will be times in life when there's nothing you can do, for a certain situation. Then, I humbly suggest, when there's nothing you can do, you can always still pray. And I know, certainly in my life, there are times when that has been a source of enormous comfort.

Why should we pray? There are so many reasons, and I hope you manage to find yours.

Amen.
 

Monday, 5 August 2019

Sermon on Matthew 7:12 - The Golden Rule

“So everything you wish that others would do for you, do also for them, for this is the Law and the Prophets."
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Approaching this sermon, I felt very challenged in two completely different ways. Firstly, it's such a short reading, only 20 words long. How to find enough to speak about from so few words of Scripture? But then straightaway I had the opposite problem. This verse is famously known as the Golden Rule, because it beautifully sums up the attitude that should define our morality and our spirituality. But it can be applied in so many different situations, how do you explain it in any way in only ten minutes.So right at the start my hands are both too empty and too full. I'm struck with a degree of humility, and fear and trembling as I approach this task.

I take comfort though from the fact this reflects life itself. The sheer bewildering vastness of life and its choices is, I imagine, enough to make us all feel a touch of fear and trembling sometimes. Especially in this modern world there seem to be so many opportunities and choices, and maybe it's just me, but I sometimes feel with so many choices, I'm just that more terrified I'm going to make the wrong one.

I work for a major, well-known corporation that shall remain anonymous. It's a great company, there's lots of opportunities, and they have this real focus on personal development. This is good, we all want to develop, but at times it is exhausting. If you're not careful you can feel like you're never good enough, you're up on the side of a mountain and you have to step up, and up, and just as soon as you become vaguely comfortable with where you are, you've got to climb a bit higher again, and so you've always got this slight sense of vertigo, like you might just fall off if you put a foot in the wrong place.

And it's not just work, it's social occasions, it's dealing with family, and friends; it's politics, it's the constant never-ending messy confusion of being alive. And the choices are endless, and some of them don't matter at all, but a lot of them do, even if just in a small way, and you can feel like at any moment you could make the wrong choice and screw up, maybe embarrass yourself, maybe miss some opportunity, maybe hurt someone you don't mean to hurt. 

So, what do you do?

I think, fundamentally, there are two types of approach. You can have a list of rules. You can have a list of rules about what you do in each type of situation. So, maybe the rule is "Always say yes to an opportunity", or it's "Don't steal" or it's "Always be polite". But in the complexity of life there will be times when these rules should not apply because they don't take account of the context of the situation we're in. And this will be true however many rules you have, because there will always be some situation that doesn't fit into the rules we already know.

The Law of the Old Testament was a system of rules, designed to cover almost every situation. The Rabbis added up all the 'do's and 'do not's in the Law of Moses and found there were 613 in total. 613! And the Rabbis added many more rules to the list, to create what they called 'a fence around the Law' to prevent anyone breaking the core commandments. They didn't do this to be a pain in the backside, they did it to try to create a comprehensive guide to life, that would allow people to walk in the right path without tripping and falling down. Orthodox Jews today still guide their lives by this code, and Islamic 'Sharia' Law is meant to be a similar theological guide for Muslims and Islamic society.

Our modern secular world seems to be trying to go down the same path too. Anyone who runs a business or a charity, or a school, or who just deals with the Government or the Local council, will know that the rules and bureaucracy seem to be multiplying year after year, sometimes it feels like, before your very eyes. Online as well, in any social media, people are creating an increasing and bewildering number of rules about what you’re allowed to say, and what opinions you’re allowed to hold, to avoid being sternly condemned by well-meaning busybodies. Once again the idea seems to be that if we shape the rules precisely enough, just right, it will be possible to exactly and clearly define what righteousness is.  

But what Jesus taught us is what we inevitably see in life, that this approach never fully works. There are too many choices in life, and people are too unique, and different, for any list of rules to always tell us what is the answer. And that's before you get the issue of people deliberately trying to subvert and get around the rules. However well designed any system of governance is, if people are out to make mischief, they will find a way to get around it and subvert it. You just have to look at the actions going on in parliament at the moment to see people on both sides trying to game the rules to get their way. People really struggle to believe this though. They always seem to think that if they phrase the rules just right, then they will be fool-proof, and then everything is simple. Well, I can only say the history of mankind is the history of the fools winning that one.

What is the alternative though?

The alternative is Jesus's teaching here in the Gospels, the alternative to the Letter of the Laws, is the Spirit and Grace of God; the alternative to and never-ending list of rules is just one - The Golden Rule. “So everything you wish that others would do for you, do also for them, for this is the Law and the Prophets."

But why is this so different? Isn't that just another rule?

No, because it does not dictate the answer to a specific situation, it gives us the key so we can understand and decide any situation for ourselves. It helps guide our thinking, but it requires us to think. That was what Jesus did again and again. That's why he taught in parables: because he wanted us to consider and learn. Think of the story of the Good Samaritan - Jesus tells this parable after a rich, young man comes and asks him first, "Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life", and then "Who is my neighbour?". Clearly this man just wants Jesus to give him the answer, maybe in some form of list.

Instead Jesus gives him a parable that he has to take and consider and apply anew in every situation. Jesus knows that no set of rules can be a replacement for a kind and loving heart. Yes, it matters to have the right rules in a society, or a workplace, or in ethics. Jesus says he has not come to abolish the law, but to fulfil it. And that can only be done by those who judge and think for themselves, but not people who judge and think in any random way, but people whose hearts are guided by loving the Lord God with all their mind and strength, and guided by loving their neighbour as themselves. Only when we take decisions guided by the Spirit of God, who is love, mercy, generosity and peace, rather than by the letter of the law, only then will we judge rightly. 

For this sermon I kind of wish it wasn't popularly known as the Golden Rule, because it's not a rule in the manner I've talked about. It's so different, it's not a law to follow, but a principle that can guide our thinking and our hearts. “So everything you wish that others would do for you, do also for them, for this is the Law and the Prophets." 

What kind of principle is it?

The first thing to say, is to make sense of it we can't apply the Golden Rule in a manner that is too immediate and literal. Just because you like bananas doesn't mean the Golden Rule is telling you to give everyone a banana. And it's easy to think of ever sillier examples. We have to take a step back from that kind of narrowness, and think about it more at an emotional level, what is the way we would like other to approach us, and then let that guide us back into specific actions.  

And if we do that this Golden Principle opens up for us. It becomes one that leads us to think about ourselves and the weaknesses we feel and the challenges we face.  To think about ourselves and all the times and ways we wish we had a helping hand, wish we had someone to turn to. And then it guides us, not to dwell in that forever, but to take all our vulnerability and look to the person sitting next to us, or the person walking by us in the street, or the person opposite us on the bus, and to think about how they might be vulnerable and in need in the same way, and to devote ourselves to them.

Because it assumes that other people are like us. It tells me that I can know something about others, that I can know that they have complex, multiple needs, and motivations, and cares like me. And it tells me even more than this, it tells me I must act to do something about it. When Jesus was asked "Lord, who is my neighbour?" he told the story of the Good Samaritan, with the message that our neighbour is anyone in need, and we act like a neighbour when we step in and help them. And we know that we are in need, so we better believe our neighbour is also in need. And we better do something about it. This is the statement of our common humanity, not as a legal or theoretical assumption, but in the messy, practical reality of all the things and cares that make up our lives.

There is a related saying to the Golden Rule, it is sometimes called the Silver Rule - "Do not do anything to others, that you wouldn't want them to do to you". Did you catch the difference? - "Do not do anything to others, that you wouldn't want them to do to you". Now that is an important principle as well. I'd suggest we all keep it. But it is not as important as the Golden Rule. It is also more common. Many religious traditions have the Silver Rule, but Jesus takes the rare step of turning it into Gold. Silver means second place, and there’s nothing shameful about that, but Gold means first. Why? Gold has always been considered more precious, more beautiful. Gold is always valuable, Silver tarnishes, but Gold keeps its shine. 

"Do not do anything to others, that you wouldn't want them to do to you". The difference is this - You can keep that principle by doing nothing. And that is why it would never be enough. The Good News of Jesus Christ is that the work has begun and is ongoing of creating a New Heaven and a New Earth, the Kingdom of Heaven, and that means standing up and acting. Maybe in small ways, maybe in large ways, and with the Grace and Spirit of God.

Just before this verse in Matthew 7:7 we have another famous reading, Jesus says “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you". Ask! Seek! Knock! And today, Do!

If we think about it, we all know how we'd like to be treated. We all want to people to be considerate, to pay attention to us, and not leave us abandoned, to approach us as unique individuals, to extend a helping hand, to appreciate us for who we are, to stick by us despite our flaws and errors, we want people to never condemn us on the basis of some stereotype or assumption. In other words, we want to be approached as an individual person who needs understanding, rather than as an object to be fit into some rigid structure of laws or assumptions. By no coincidence these are all the ways God's Love see us, and the ways his forgiveness approaches us. And in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus makes it clear that, however many rules and laws we have, we will never have the good world we want to see until we approach everyone around us with that same Grace, that we would want for ourselves.     

Amen.

Sunday, 13 January 2019

The Coming of the Wise Men - An Epiphany Sermon

"A Cold Coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of year
For a journey, and such a long journey
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of Winter"


That’s how T.S.Eliot imagined the Wise Men beginning to look back and describing their journey. I feel those words describe a few journeys I've all been on as well. Perhaps some Christmas journeys, or winter  commutes, when the car is iced over and then the engine won’t start.

The Wise Men, or Magi, who we sometimes call Kings, came from the East. There's not much to the east of Jerusalem once you leave the Holy Land itself. Not until you cross the Arabian desert and come to what we now call Iraq. That's almost certainly where the Magi came from. In those days Babylon, and its other cities, were still great centres of civilisation, with many astronomers who paid close attention to the stars. They were probably Zoroastrian scholars, that was the religion of Iraq, Iran and Armenia in those days, a religion worshipping one God whose rituals were centred around fire burning, and studying the stars.

It's 700 miles from the rivers of Iraq to Jerusalem, on foot and on camel. In this modern day I know that because I looked it up on Google Maps. Google gives an option for journeys on foot, but sadly not yet camel. But I assume it was the same length. That's a long journey though, on foot or camel, and mostly through desert, in a land with no good roads, no police force, across a hostile border. But still they came. We don't know how many magi, wise men, there were, though they are recorded bringing three gifts - Gold, Frankincence, and Myrrh. Pretty strange gifts, I imagine they didn't know exactly what they would find when they came. But rich gifts to be sure. Gifts worthy of a King: Gold and rare perfumes and incenses. Generous gifts, to haul 700 miles, for someone they'd never met. But still they came.

And the first thing the Wise Men did was make their way to Jerusalem, the capital of Judea, to the Palace of the King, and ask to see the New King of the Jews. We can only presume they thought it would be Herod's son, in some nursery in the Palace, whose star they had seen rising. They asked for "the King of the Jews" but they were clearly expecting more than a King, for they said they had come to worship him. In other words, they knew they were looking for the Messiah, God's anointed, who is both King and God. They must have made quite an entrance when they reached the Gates of Herod's Palace - exotic foreigners, who many Jews would have considered Pagan wizards, fresh with dust from the road, arrive in a caravan demanding to see God's messiah. And nobody at Herod's court or in the Priests of the Temple could tell them anything! 

When I think about this I almost laugh. You have to imagine the chaos and confusion this would have caused Herod and his court. The advisers running around like headless chickens and Herod screaming for answers. You have to the shock passing over their faces. These wise men from the East turned up at the centre of political power in the Holy Land to say not only that there is another King, which would make him a threat to Herod's authority, but that he is God's Messiah, meaning he would totally outranks Herod's authority, and if is widely recognised Jews will flock to him. Well that's one thing, and it's not a reassuring message in the middle of winter if you're Herod. But worse than that, some foreigners had come 700 miles and they knew all about it, but not one person in Jerusalem, the Capital, knew anything. Not in the Temple, not in the Palace. This is a failure of government intelligence on a massive scale. Herod's government would've had contacts with soldiers, bureaucrats, local leaders, with other governments, and with their own spies and informers, and not one of them knew a thing.

The old King James Version of the Bible says Herod was "troubled", and the NIV says he was "disturbed". I bet he was! In fact, I imagine both of those are quite polite ways of putting it. No wonder they scrambled around dragging in Chief Priests and scribes, trying to work out if anyone knew anything about this. Well no, they didn't specifically know anything, but they did know that Centuries before one of God's prophets had said the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. So they sent the Magi to Bethlehem with instructions to find this new-born King, and come back to report.

Now this was Herod trying to be subtle. Once he’d got over the shock, he must've realised that if nobody knew about this new King, this Messiah, then either not many supported him yet, or the Magi had got it wrong and he wasn’t there. I mean, people don't usually travel several hundred miles on foot, unless they're pretty certain, but still, it was possible. Bethlehem was a small place, a village, and Herod was obviously prepared to send soldiers to kill everyone who looked suspicious, because we know that's what he did in the end. But it would be a lot neater and quieter for Herod, if he could find exactly where this King was, if the Magi found anything, and kill him quietly.

The Wise Men knew none of this though. I'm sure Herod kept his scheming from them completely. They must have just been baffled by the whole thing. The Wise men had travelled all that way to see the King of the Jews, predicted by the prophets Centuries before, and these people had failed to notice the birth of their own Messiah. Pretty careless. But still, having been redirected on they went, and they came those last few miles, onward to Bethlehem. It can't have been what they were expecting, they had clearly imagined something like Herod's Palace. They were expecting a King. And what they got was a small, ordinary child, living with his Mother, and his apparent Father, in an ordinary house in a small village. But still when they saw the place "they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy", and when they saw Jesus with Mary "they fell down and worshipped him", and gave their gifts of "gold, frankincence and myrhh".

But why did they come all that way? Seven hundred miles from Babylon to Bethlehem. A long, hard journey, in "the very dead of winter". They weren't Jews. It wasn't the King of their people, it wasn't the Messiah promised to their people, they weren't suffering under Roman occupation. It wasn't even the God of their people, the God their fathers worshipped. But still they came, and they were filled with joy, and worship, and gave generous, royal gifts. Why? Because God had touched their hearts. They lived in a distant land, among a different people, but still when the time came for Jesus Christ to be born their hearts were moved. Moved enough to travel a long way in the middle of winter to find another people's King. It's not certain how they even knew about the coming of the Messiah.

The Jews had spent 80 years in exile in Babylon after Jerusalem was destroyed in around 600BC. And there were still many Jews who lived in what is now Iraq. Maybe these Magi had got to know some of the Jewish community there, maybe they had read their Prophets there and had heard about the Messiah that way. Second or Third hand, so to speak. Well for these few people that was enough. It was enough to move them to make a great journey, in the faith that it would lead to God's Messiah, to Saving grace.

And not just Saving grace, but grace that included them. God's saving grace that extends to anyone who is willing to turn to God. Nobody was expecting the Magi when they turned up. Not Herod, not Mary, nobody, only God. They came from God only knows for certain where, because something had happened, that meant when God reached out with a sign, the Star, they were able to see it for what it truly was, what it truly meant, and to respond. With hearts that still rejoiced even when God took them to an unexpected place and a simple, common home.

May our hearts be the same. The Wise Men remind us of the eternal lesson that it doesn’t matter who you are, what matters is how you respond. God sends joy and wonders in the most unexpected people and the most unexpected places, if only we are open to go and to appreciate them. But the Magi would never have come, if they hadn’t already had some contact with God's people before they saw the Star. They can't have been the only ones who saw it, but they were the only ones who knew it was a sign of God's grace. They must have already been waiting for this King of the Jews, for them to risk the journey. And have known with more than just book knowledge, something must have moved their hearts.

Maybe it was somebody they had known, perhaps a wise Jew living in Babylon, who had opened the scriptures for them. It is often a specific relationship with someone, sometimes for long time, sometimes just a chance encounter, that can put people on the road to God and a better life. Or maybe someone had just given them a copy of the scriptures to read and discover for themselves, and they had found God written plain on the pages of the Prophets and the heroes of Old. Sometimes left alone with God's words, people can find inspiration all by themselves, but still someone must've taken the step to have given them a copy of the Scriptures, and that was a lot more difficult in those days when they had to be copied out by hand. We never know how our kinds deeds and words may affect other people. We never know how taking an opportunity to speak to people about God, and the faith we have, might nudge them on the right path, to one day reach his loving arms. We also never know who God might call, or who might have their heart open to his presence.

That can be a challenge to us, because we must have no preconceptions about what God's people might look like. They can be familiar, or they can be strange. We can have no prejudices about who is worth speaking to about God, because it could be anyone whose heart is already open, just needing kind, truthful words to fall on their fertile ground.

The Wise Men were the first gentiles, Non-Jews to recognise Jesus as the Messiah, but they were not the last. One of the remarkable things about the New Testament is just how open it is to anyone. Jesus in his ministry made a point of including all the peoples in the immediate vicinity around Israel, as well as Jews of every sex, and rank and wealth. We are speaking today about the Magi, who probably came from Babylon. The Gospels also talk about Jesus being recognised by and blessing a Samaritan man, a Phoenician woman, a Samaritan woman, a Gedarene man (the one whose demons went into a herd of pigs), and a Roman Centurion. Do let me know if you can think of any I have missed.

In each of these cases Jesus preached to these Gentiles, healed these gentiles, praised the faith and commitment of these gentiles. And the early Apostles followed and built on this multi-national nature of Jesus' own ministry. From the first day of Pentecost when God made the disciples speak in many tongues, God began to gather many peoples into his Kingdom. The Ethiopian Philip met on the road, the Roman Centurion who, with his family, was the first Gentile to receive the Holy Spirit! At that point God was going ahead, even of the Apostles, shocking them with the reality that the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, had come on Gentiles. The Apostles could only try to keep up! Within 20 years there were Christian communities all the way from Rome to Jerusalem. In 300 years there were Christians from India in the East to Britain in the West, and in 600 years there were Christians in every country from China to Ireland.

In all these countries there were people whose hearts were open in Faith, Hope and Love, to the Good News of Jesus, and received the Holy Spirit, despite all the incredible differences in language, culture, and nationality. Today there are Christians in every country in the world, even ones like North Korea and Saudi Arabia, where Christian faith is completely illegal and so Christians are in terrible danger. And what an amazing thing that is. Still these days despite the many advances we have made in science and technology, our world seems as divided and fearful as ever. But our God has no tribe or nation, and the Good News of Jesus Christ, has no culture or race or language or colour. It touches the hearts of people in every time and place, because all people are God's children, who he seeks to gather into his Kingdom.

The Kingdom of God is a community open to all who wish to belong. And for all of us who are not Jews, but are part of God's Kingdom, we should look back on those Wise Men with great respect and admiration. For they were the first.

Amen.

Saturday, 15 December 2018

Why is Max Scheler's 'Value Ethics' better than all the others?


When you say you've done a PhD there are only two responses. Some people change the subject, and the rest ask what your PhD was about. Once you're past that, they usually ask why? Sometimes what you're doing is obviously sexy, like curing Cancer, or inventing solar panels, but usually it's a trickier question. Well, my PhD was in Philosophy, more specifically in Ethics, and most specifically the remarkable Theory of Ethics of Max Scheler (1874-1928). That answers the first question, but what about the second. Why did I do it? And was it worth doing?

Ethics is all around us all the time. Questions of what is valuable and important are a constant issue in our personal lives, our professional lives, and our politics. It never stops and it's part of all the arguments that plague our society. Despite this few people consider what basic ethical principles and theories should guide these constant decisions. We would consider it crazy if people constructed buildings without reference to physics, or grew food without thinking about biology, or manufactured materials without chemistry. But there is no comparable reliance on ethical theory: it isn't taught rigorously in schools, and is barely discussed even by those professionally engaged in areas like Politics.

Now one of the reasons for this is the confused, disjointed state of theoretical ethics itself. Every physicist agrees on Newton's laws but in Ethics there are multiple fundamental theories about what defines the 'Good' and 'Evil', each of which contradicts the other. Deontology, Utilitarianism, and Virtue Ethics, are roughly the main schools of thought: focused on fixed moral principles, outcomes of actions, and personal virtues, respectively; Or in other words: means, ends, and virtues. Each of these has many subdivisions and adjusted theories, and the details and issues with them fill libraries, but the basic problem with each is that they are infuriatingly partial.

None are just rubbish, but each grabs hold of an important ethical principle and clings to it like it's the only valuable thing in the world. They then judge our complex experience of things as meaningful and valuable by that singular principle, not the other way round, discarding bits of experience that don't fit like someone chopping off their toes to fit into their shoes. This inevitably results in absurd consequences eventually. Classic Kantian deontology famously opposes telling a lie to save someone's life from a murderer, classic Utilitarianism suggests torturing a totally innocent person forever would be morally correct if enough people enjoyed it enough. These are just simple examples, but the problems with these theories in many areas run deep.

That's why there are multiple such theories, because each leaves a big part of the ethical territory un-colonised, leaving a space then inevitably filled by another theory that intuitively focuses on that vacant ground. What is needed is a theory that tries to accurately describes the whole range of our experience of meaning and value and builds itself around that, rather than insisting experience should fit the straitjacket of a simplistic theory.

This is what Scheler's Ethics does so well. Its depth lies in its attention to the broadest possible range of our ethical experience: of events, of intentions, of objects, of actions, of people; and distinguishing, describing, and analysing as many of the different Values involved as possible. Phenomenology, the method Scheler's uses, prioritises analysis, in the sense of breaking experience down to identify the nuances of values that defines our ethical life, and trying to describe them as accurately as possible, before then asking how they fit together. Where other theories are rationalistic: taking one principle of what can be morally good and then trying to force experience to fit that; Scheler's approach is empirical: It approaches ethical experiences and asks, what do we experience, and how do we experience it? We can then apply this understanding in practical cases where these values arise and must be weighed against each other.  

The idea of 'Values' is the primary building block of Scheler's ethics, described in his greatest work--Formalism in Ethics and Material Ethics of Values. This covers all our concepts that primarily describe a type of positive or negative worth. Scheler's analysis includes an incredible, complex, multi-dimensional range of Values we experience: contingent values of the useful, values of comfort and agreeable sensory experiences; values of life, health and vitality; values of the mind, of truth, personal moral goodness and artistic beauty; of intellectual discovery, justice; and religion, holiness and the meaning and purpose of life. By sticking as closely to experience as possible we minimise the risk of ethical theory wandering off into the absurd. Ethics can never be a science, its material is not physical after all, but this approach is far closer to the scientific (and a science like Botany at that) than the overly rationalistic alternatives that risk being carried away with their own ideas. Scheler's theory is defined both by the breadth of values it considers and its detail. An ethical situation may involve many values, and the more we distinguish and understand, the more rigorously we understand that situation.  

Scheler approaches the question of how we experience and discover ethical values with a commendable neutrality as well. His theory is true to the reality that we are all capable of ethical awareness, understanding and discovery outside any rational argumentation. New ethical insights are not discovered by abstract reason, or philosophical research, but by flashes of insight profoundly felt by people as they discover some new value of persons, objects or acts. 

He argues that philosophy has displayed a rationalistic bias and so misses the fact that the experience of value, which is the basis of ethics, occurs through both reason and feeling. It is through value feeling that we discover ethical worth of all different types: whether the beauty of objects, or the importance of health and joy, or the wonder of a scientific discovery, or the life-changing impact of a child's birth. We do not discover values just through emotion, but different diverse forms of feeling structured by reason, in the same way that our knowledge of objects is based on experiences of the senses shaped and categorised by reason. Scheler correctly recognises that acts of feeling and will are the eyes of the heart, and this opens up new answers to questions about how we can have ethical knowledge, and how ethical insight can also motivate and affect us.

One of the most attractive features of Scheleran ethics is how it does justice to both the objectivity and pluralism of ethics. Within the full, ordered universe of values and nuances of values, different individuals and societies have discovered different portions of the whole, and hence have different, consistent moral rules that reflect the values they have experienced and prioritised. These moral laws can vary considerably but all reflect the underlying insight into values achieved by those people. And then historical moments of ethical advance happen when a minority of individuals, or just one prophet, achieve a new glimpse into values that go beyond those already understood by their society. But this is not a proof of relativism but a testimony to the sheer scale of the universe of values, which always offers more to discover.

This pluralism is not just a matter of moral shortcoming either. It is an essential, positive feature of the diversity of gifts in individuals and whole cultures, which give them unique, profound access to different forms of beauty, or art, music, courage, compassion, and other values. We each peer into the wider universe of values from a different vantage point, with subtly different eyes, and we need each other to reveal the fullness of values. No individual can entirely replace the insight of another, no culture is fully replaceable with another, as shown by the unique pieces of beauty they create. It is only together, with the contribution of all peoples and cultures, that we can build a true symphony of values and gain the greatest and most complete view into the Good we have the potential to achieve. The objective demand of ethics is fundamental to our striving for a better world. The diversity of value and cultures is an equally fundamental fact of experience. Scheler shows there is no need to abandon either of these for relativism or a mono-cultural absolutism that condemns without understanding any ethical vision different to our own.

Scheler's theory explains how there can be such divergence between the goodness of a person and their seeming knowledge of ethics. Of course it is possible to teach people to be better, and to encourage goodness, but fundamentally it is people's native inclination towards love, kindness and other positive values, the clarity of moral vision that their capacity for feeling gives them, that predominately defines their goodness. All the study of Ethics in the world cannot give goodness if they don't experience and feel values for themselves. Indeed it is more likely to lead one astray, like a scientist theorising without all the evidence before them. The relation between goodness and ethics is like that between seeing and optics, or running and the science of sport.

This investigation into the breadth of ethical experience also gives insight into the relation between morality, and ethics, and other, wider, important elements of value experience. By morality we commonly means something like how we act towards other persons. But this is intensely related to other experiences of value of a qualitatively different type: questions of aesthetics, art and beauty; of religion, holiness and the meaning and purpose of life; and the more mundane issues of human comfort, enjoyment, and prosperity. By putting these into the context of each other Scheler gives a clearer view of their defining features, their differences and similarities, both in the values themselves and how we access them; and so offers a framework to coherently consider how all these areas relate to each other. 

Values are multi-dimensional, rationally ordered and complex, and so people are as well, hence, they can be good in many ways and bad in many ways, something that so often confuses us in politics and personal life. Individuals, cultures, states, political movements, and religions can all be analysed and contrasted in terms of the values they acknowledge and prioritise. This perspective is increasingly relevant in recent years as we become more and more aware of how many of the deep political divides we face reflect not just technical disputes about effective means, but fundamental differences in values. 

I could go on and on. In philosophical terms, Scheler's phenomenological theory covers meta-ethics and epistemology, as well as frameworks for normative and applied ethics. In layperson's terms it offers fresh perspectives on everything from integrating the values of natural and artistic beauty and religion into an ethical whole, to doing justice to how animals, babies, things, and adults all have and experience different types of values. For example, the sense you get that your dog inspires you, and your dog appreciates you is correct, because your dog can emotionally and rationally experience agreeable sensory values of comfort, etc, and vital values of health, energy, loyalty to pack and joy at running in the air. Your dog experiences The Good, and at that level your dog is good.

But to return to my starting point, the richness and neutrality of description Scheler uses gives the potential to construct an over-arching theory of Values covering the territory of multiple current Ethical theories, while understanding and including the insight of each of them in a greater whole. This offers new answers to previously insoluble paradoxes, both issues that neither deontology, utilitarianism, nor virtue theory can answer, and questions which they answer in equally plausible but opposite ways. There is no need to mutilate our ethical experience to fit it into some prearranged theory. Rather it is by paying analytical, descriptive attention to the breadth and range of human value experience that we can answer these questions. Then we may have an ethical theory that includes all our experienced values on consistent principles, and so can weigh them, and usefully apply them to the practical problems we face: in business, in politics, our personal lives, and so many other areas.

This is only a brief introduction to the remarkable fruit of Scheler's theory. If you're interested in reading more take a look at my academia.edu page, which includes a more detailed chapter length introduction to Scheler's Metaethics and Epistemology, or my PhD Thesis which relates Scheler's Ethics do developments in philosophy since, including its relation to Emmanuel Levinas' phenomenological ethics. It also has Guides to some of Scheler's major works.

Sunday, 8 April 2018

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you, and Amen.


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

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Understanding Adam - A Sermon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.   

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Ascension Day - My Sermon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a weight off our shoulders that would be!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And we are that harvest!

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

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

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

What do I mean by that?

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.