Monday, 22 December 2014

Greetings favoured one - The Lord is with you.

The annunciation, the scene where the Angel Gabriel appears to Mary to announce that she is to bear a son is surely one of the best know iconic scenes in the New Testament – or so you’d have thought.
I remember being on a bus in Israel – I’d been a Christian for about a year I suppose and was part of a group leader’s recce to the Holy Land, so the bus was full of clerics.
One of them turned to me and said how excited he was to be going to Nazareth to see the place where the annunciation took place. And I said “What’s that?”
He said “You’re joking” but it was almost immediately apparent that I wasn’t joking and this stunned high churchman just slumped back into his seat.
To be fair, my church was more concerned with discipleship, charismatic renewal and the book of Acts and we certainly never mentioned Mary unless we absolutely had to, like on Christmas day but I suppose  that is a testimony to the fact that you can be a Christian and yet have a vastly different  cultural hinterland to another Christian.
As you know I stepped out of my churchmanship comfort zone and trained at a monastery to specifically gain an insight into catholic form and belief and there I was plunged into a very different scenario where Mary was not only mentioned an awful lot, but “venerated” and the “Hail Mary” was said every day. But more than that some of the more extreme Anglo-catholic students worshipped her and gave her a title of co-redemptrix – a term which means that not only Jesus redeemed the world but Mary does too.
I remember all too well being at a service to celebrate a Marian feast where I was almost physically sick at the sight of all this Marian devotion. If I’d had more of a backbone I’d have walked out of the service I experienced such dis-ease with this anti-Christ display.
So I have experienced both ends of the spectrum with regards to Mary. I think a healthy and theologically correct and true representation of Mary which is in accordance with the Biblical evidence is this;
Mary is two things to me. First, in the annunciation she is the recipient of pure Grace and secondly in her very being she is a symbol of Christian discipleship. I’ll explain both.
In the gospel story the overriding theme is one of God’s sovereign action. God chose Mary. Mary had to say yer but the fact is God chose Mary. Why did he choose Mary and not someone else. Was it because she was better or more pure than anyone else – no. That is the point.
“Greetings favoured one, the Lord is with you”
Mary did not deserve to be the mother of God’s son any more than any other woman. Luke describes her simply as  a young girl who was engaged to be married. Luke says more about Joseph than he does Mary. Even in the case of John the baptist’s parents, Luke says they were righteous and blamesless, and they kept God’s commandments and they prayed to God (1:6-7,13), but not a word about the virtues of Mary.
Essentially this is not a story of virtue rewarded but of God’s sovereign Grace. God chooses who God chooses. So the annunciation is primarily about Grace – unmerited love.
But it is in the response of Mary that I say she is a symbol of Christian discipleship.
Mary simply says “Yes, let it be to me according to your word”
There is no quenching of the Spirit here even though saying yes could plunge her into disgrace in the eyes of her community.
Mary did not fully understand what was going on but she treasured them and pondered on what their meaning might be in her heart, but even though she did not fully understand or know where this might lead her she said yes anyway.
This is the first step in Christian discipleship. Saying yes to God and giving Him sovereignty in your life.
And after saying yes to God and allowing the Holy Spirit into her life over a period of time, nine months to be exact she eventually gave birth to Jesus physically.
When we say yes to God after a period of time, a gestation period that may take perhaps a lifetime, we are called to metaphorically give birth to Jesus in and through our life by being Christ for others.

Mary is a powerful icon, an icon of Grace received and fearlessly acted upon. She allowed herself to be used as a vessel of God’s action in the world with is the vocation of every Christian. 

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Two ways to live.

In common with the other epistles in Advent Paul is here concerned with the demand for faithful living. It is apparent that there are two ways to live. One according to the ways of the world and one according to the gospel
In Paul’s first ever letter that he wrote he is unequivocal in his instructions.
Here the demands are direct, no ifs and no buts. The assumption is that the things Paul says will be a state of affairs that suffuses our entire lives and is not reserved for Sunday mornings.
“Rejoice always” he says. Rejoice about what? Rejoice that God has made himself known to us and revealed his love and forgiveness and through Christ wants us in a personal relationship with him – for ever, which is eternal life. In John 17 Jesus says  “Now this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” So If you know and accept Christ you have the eternal life of the Father.  Our lives have meaning and purpose and we are instruments of God in the world. That is special and is something to rejoice about is it not?
This is the light that John the Baptist was testifying to in the gospel reading.
Paul then says “Pray without ceasing”. Well we can’t spend every minute of every day on our knees in a church so what can he mean by that? This points to an existence that is permanently oriented towards God, our life becomes a prayer, an existence that sees and recognises the presence of God in every situation of our lives. If prayer is an ongoing relationship, an ongoing conversation with God then prayer is not simply us talking it is us listening and trying to discern God in the everyday things of our life. .
The next instruction is "Give thanks in all circumstances". This is probably the most problematic one of all especially if you are pain, or faced with unemployment, or bereavement or any other terrible circumstance. There, I would suggest that even while you will not feel able to give thanks for those particular sets of circumstances, you may still be able to give thanks for other aspects of your life or for the knowledge of God's saving love for you even in the midst of your pain. 
And as someone who has been down to the depths of anguish, as many of you have been also, in hindsight we can acknowledge that out of the darkness light eventually did shine. You can come through these things a changed person with a depth of insight that you couldn’t have acquired any other way. That is not to say that God engineered these situations, but He can use them regardless.
“Do not quench the Spirit” and “do not despise the words of prophets” are related in my mind. The Spirit can be quenched so remaining open and listening as well as talking in our prayers for the prompting of the Spirit is vital. We should also listen to those people who say they have interpreted the word of God or been given special insight. Listen but don’t just blindly accept what they say. Test what they say in the arena of your personal circumstances, in the light of scripture and in discussions with other Christians. We need to be wise and discerning.  As Jesus said elsewhere we need to be as innocent as doves and as wise as serpents

Then right at the end in Verses 23 and 24 Paul asks that God may "sanctify us". "Holiness" is a scary word for many of us, as I wrote during the week and it conjures up images of monks and nuns or extremely strict versions of Christianity. Whilst Holiness does actually infer "separation" in the context of what Paul has already said it describes this new orientation of our life taking root and growing and tells us not to be yoked to materialism and the powers and addictions of this world. There are two ways to live, one in darkness and one in the light.

Monday, 8 December 2014

Comfort my people

With the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years are like one day.
This is a poetic way of saying that God lies outside of time – a difficult enough concept at the best of times. God is also the Alpha and the Omega – both the beginning and the end of existence and the beginning and the end of time.
We come from God and will return to God. The Christian Advent hope is that one day there will be a reckoning when there will be no more tears and no more pain and all the good will be rewarded and all the evil dealt with.
In Peter’s second letter he asks the question, as this is going to happen one day in our future what sort of person are you going to be in the meantime?
He writes “While you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace without spot or blemish.
The first order question for anyone who purports to be a Christian is then to ask ourselves that question – are we at peace with God?
If not, he says strive to be at peace with God without spot or blemish.
I looked up the word and found these two definitions of the verb “to strive”;
“To make great efforts to achieve or gain something” and
“to struggle or fight vigourously”
Both of these descriptions attest to the fact that discipleship – becoming a following of Christ and therefore trying to follow in his way is not easy and doesn’t come without great effort.
The struggle against our self interest over and above what might be God’s interests, the struggle to build Christian virtues into our lives, defined by the Catholic church as prudence, justice, restraint, courage, faith, hope and charity is a struggle and needs diligent attention.
We try and fail often. It is then good to remember that we are not Saints (in the common understanding of the word) but forgiven sinners.
We strive and fail and repent, we strive and fail and repent on a continual cycle and it is a good job that God is forgiving of all those who truly repent. Peter says that God doesn’t want anyone to perish and wants all to come to repentance but within that there is an implicit warning there to those who just presume on God’s forgiveness without true contrition and take liberties with his love, cheapening and demeaning the self-sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
He knows we all fail. Remember the woman caught in adultery. Jesus famously said “He who is without sin, let them cast the first stone. Yes we all fall short we know that. But the woman wasn’t allowed to just walk away. Jesus said to her was “Go and sin no more”. Just continuing in her lifestyle was not an option that Jesus left open to her.
The question posed by Peter to all of us today is “How hard are you trying to follow Jesus in the way?”   Are we striving, coasting or going backwards?
We aren’t on our own you know. God sent us a helper to strengthen us on our journey.
In Mark’s gospel account of John the Baptist preparing the way of the Lord, he records John saying this;
“I have baptised you with water, but he – Jesus - will baptise you with the Holy Spirit”.
To baptise means to immerse so we are to be immersed in the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is referred to as the “Comforter” amongst other things which means literally to strengthen us.
The Holy Spirit gives us strength to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and get back on the road when we get tired and jaded or just fall over, or more often metaphorically knocked off the road by some person or circumstance.
There are many different ways in which the Trinity can be approached but one of them is how it directly meets human need and I recently read this in a book written by Nicky Gumbel and the author of the Alpha course;
We need a point of reference. Who we are and where we came from and where we are going. That is God the Father.
Secondly we need a role model who shows us how a life in all its fullness can be lived. This is Jesus Christ.
Thirdly we need a facilitator, a strengthener, to help us to get there. This is the Holy Spirit.
All three are essential and a depleted understanding of the Holy Spirit leads to a depleted understanding of the Christian faith.
It is the Holy Spirit who gives life to the people of God.
It is by the Holy Spirit that Jesus becomes present in our heart.
It is the Holy Spirit I invoke at the Eucharist to transform bread and wine and ourselves into objects that can be used by God to enrich and feed us.

It is the Holy Spirit that will enliven us, strengthen us and help us to strive for that peace that transcends all understanding.   

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Come, Lord Jesus.

Advent is a season of expectant excitement and hope.
A church that obviously lived in that Spirit of expectancy and hope was the church in Corinth to which St. Paul addresses his letter. What was the cause of this vibrancy and how may we learn from it? 
First of all Paul addresses his letter to the Corinthians “My brothers and sisters” and assures them of the Fathers’ Grace and peace, leaving them in no doubt that whatever differences they have they are family – children of God and adopted  brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ.
In the same way we gather around the banquet table of God as his valued and wanted guests all members of the same family.
The faith of the Corinthian church had seen their lives enriched but this didn’t happen by accident - it only happened because the testimony of Christ had been strengthened in them. They hadn’t slackened off, their zeal had not abated. They were a vibrant noisy church with plenty of conflict – but as a Bishop in Canterbury once said when called in to settle differences in a large charismatic church there – I’d rather have problems caused by growth rather than problems caused by decline.
For the Corinthian church the good news of their salvation has been received, read about, studied, debated, prayed about – they worshipped noisily and fervently - and as a result the gifts and fruit of the Holy Spirit have grown in them, building them up into a strong vibrant church.
Here then today’s church has a template for its own growth in depth and evangelical zeal.
Paul reminds them that the Father himself called them all personally.
If we feel jaded and at times our faith flags we need to remind ourselves that it is God the Father himself who has called you personally, by name, to be here.
He calls us all by name and you, whoever you are, are wanted and needed right here and right now in this place.
We wouldn’t be the same church if any single person were missing. No-one is surplus to requirements. To be called by God is a privilege and a great responsibility.
God wants us here. He wants us to grow into a faithful enriched community that can enrich the lives of others.
If we don’t feel up to it, he will strengthen us. Because If the light goes out in our eyes we can’t give light and hope to others so we need to pray for strength and we need to nurture and support each other. After Alex died that happened to me. The light dimmed – but God is faithful and my own faith is now renewed.
God is faithful and will answer our prayers. As a community we can grow, we can change and we can reach others and allow them too to flourish. We need that confidence in ourselves that is born out of a confidence in God.
Advent is above all a season of anticipation and hope. Hope for the healing of the whole world but in the immediate future hope invested in the power of God to work and empower, enliven our communities with His Spirit.
In particular – this community – our community.
We are to be a community of hope and belief – belief in the transforming Spirit of God. The same Spirit that indwelt Jesus, the same Spirit that we hope will transform the world is the same Spirit that will guide and strengthen and enrich us here.
This I believe is Advent hope. The Spirit breaking through into our lives, church, community and nation.

God is here so what is left for us to do is to commit our lives, and respond to the gracious God who is always calling us, always bidding us to draw near to him. Advent is an ideal opportunity to hope not just for the eventual transformation of the whole world, it is the time to hope and pray for the strengthening, the transformation and the enrichment  of ourselves and our church.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Jesus saves!

The  parable of the sheep and the goats is about salvation but let’s backtrack a little and start at the beginning.
 First of all God wants us to be sure of one thing as Christians. There is life after death. Ours is a resurrection faith, based on the fact that God raised Jesus to a new transformed mode of existence. Jesus, when debating life after death with people who did not believe in it said “You are quite wrong, you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God”
Secondly  We also know that we are all sinful to some degree and need to repent of our sins and if we do then we are absolutely  assured of forgiveness. Of this fact a Christian should be secure. We believe in a merciful and forgiving God.
Thirdly, regarding the wider purposes of God We also know (Ezekiel 18:23 & 27) that God desireth not the death of any wicked but that he should turn from his ways and live”
The eternal message of God as enshrined for us most potently in the parable of the prodigal son is “Draw near to God and he will draw near to you” no matter how estranged and distant from God and his righteousness we have strayed. Jesus himself said “I come not to judge the world but to save it so the disposition of God is absolutely clear. He doesn’t want to condemn anyone so it stands to reason that people condemn themselves.
That much is clear. We are secure. We are saved and like the penitent thief on the cross we can be sure that when we die Jesus will say “This day you shall be with me in paradise”
But that still leaves a vast ocean of people. What about people who never knew anything about Jesus, or whose exposure to Christianity was so poor that the message never had a chance to settle in their souls?
Here too, our default position is that we have to believe that God is a perfect judge – a God of Justice willing to forgive, not wanting anyone at all to perish.
This is where the parable of the sheep and the goats comes in. By what criteria are people like that conceivably judged? The answer is by by their acts of goodness and mercy
There is also of course evil people committing evil acts with the question hanging over them “So what happens to them?” What about people and systems whose unrepentant crimes are worn as a badge of honour – what happens to them? Well by the same token, by their fruits.
Simply because he is currently in the news I will ask us to consider the fate of “Jihadi John”. In our Christian worldview, what happens to him if he does not repent?
From all the Biblical evidence we can muster, I can say with confidence that he will pay for his crimes and he will suffer for the evil he has done.
And this is what I interpret the parable of the sheep and the goats to actually say to us.
We have already heard in our first reading that God’s redemptive scope is cosmic and that his presence is all in all. So in this way, our actions towards others can legitimately also be seen as actions towards Jesus himself because Christ is in all things.
“Just as you did it to the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it to me”(25: 40)
When Jihadi John decapitated Peter Kassig, a man completely under his power he was in a real Christian sense doing that to Jesus himself.
Yet the impulse of God is still to forgive John. Remember on the cross Jesus said “Father forgive them, they know not what they do”
As an act of faith I believe that in the end as Peter Kassig’s parents said, eventually there will be a healing of the whole world and our merciful God the perfect judge will transform all things and set things right and we have to believe that it is at least possible that a repentant and transformed John will have a part to play in that new heaven and new earth.
But until then I think that without wanting to second guess God the Biblical record is pretty clear that unrepentant sinners of that magnitude will experience much torment, punishment and wailing and gnashing of teeth. This punishment will not be physical of course because the physical body will have died but their soul, the essential part of them that makes them “them” and not someone else, will be separated from God, not by God himself, who desires not the death of a sinner, but condemned by their own hand – their own actions.
The final comment on this for ourselves is this; Life after death means that what we do now has eternal consequences so what we build in our life, in the shape of good deeds matters. St. Paul as ever says it much better 

Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— each one's work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.(2 Corinthians 3:12-15)

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

We have a gospel to proclaim

When I was a fresh faced young curate my training vicar took this parable very literally and every year on a certain day everyone who wanted one came to the front of the service to receive a £1 coin. The idea being that they take that coin, putting it together with other money do something novel with it to make it grow and six months later bring the money that had been made back to church in a special service.
Now I have to admire his pluck and entrepreneurial spirit but actually that is about as far away from the meaning of the parable of the talents as you can get unless you continue to use the money as a metaphor for something else.
It is admittedly a very strange parable and difficult to interpret without prior knowledge of the context and the wider Biblical canon but suffice to say here that the subject of this parable are the Pharisees. In particular the hapless third servant who hid his talent in the ground who had even what he had taken away from him.
The way of the Pharisees had resulted in a spiritual exclusivity that had resulted in the light and goodness of God that had been entrusted to them being hoarded so what had been meant as a gift for the whole of mankind lay withering on the vine.
So you can see how Jesus equated this attitude resulting in God making metaphorically "no interest on his capital". It was tantamount to defrauding God. Through their very zeal for the purity of their religion they had inadvertently sterilized it and kept God’s light from the people.  
That may have been the original context but as I noted in my weekly email the gospel only ever comes alive when we ask the question - what does God want me to hear through this passage today? 
Well once we understand the original intent it becomes rather obvious.  it means that our faith in God is to be shared and not hoarded.
As we sometimes sing “We have a gospel to proclaim” But do we? Do we, when we look honestly at our manner of life and in what we say and do proclaim the gospel to others?
I think that when all of us, myself included, ask ourselves that question and seek to answer it honestly we might be a bit embarrassed by the truth of the matter.
It is at those times that I am glad that when I became a Christian I didn’t become a Saint, I became a forgiven sinner.
We have a gospel for the whole world, not just for people who happen to come to church. God’s salvation is for all people. As St. Paul wrote "As in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive" (1 Corinthians 15: 22). We have a responsibility to share the good news and the spiritual treasure that we have been given to enrich the lives of others.
We have to sow seeds. I seem to remember a parable about that somewhere! Of course not all or even most of what we sow will result in a good crop as that parable informs us but we don’t sow anything at all then we guarantee that nothing will grow.

The parable of the talents is not about money or “talents” as we understand the word in modern English, it is about having an open evangelical heart, unashamed of  God and willing to share what we have known and experienced and believed about Him. If we don’t the church of England will certainly die.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

We will remember them.

This is an act of remembrance. “Remembrance” in the Christian tradition means far more than a simple recollection of past historical events - it means to make those events present  to us by immersing ourselves in those events and the people and their experiences  in order that they may have an impact on us today – to move us, to challenge us, to affect us emotionally and to inform and change us.
An act of remembrance such as today involves engaging with the events that took place around a hundred years ago and make them present in our hearts for a purpose.
That is a tall order, because the magnitude of those events is so huge. Trying to connect fully with the pain, suffering and sacrifice, the fear and the loss, broken bodies and broken hearts is a huge task.
And that is before we also engage with the heroism, nobility, self-sacrifice and bravery. All those are huge concepts and they can only really be engaged with when they become personal.
When all those names carved into cold stone on that war memorial have flesh put on them and they become real people with real and remarkable tales to tell. An awful lot of work has gone into the task of investigating the real lives of all those names on our war memorial and eventually I trust that all that research will soon provide a permanent exhibition of their lives here in St. Mary’s.
In a personal trip to France this Summer we visited the grave of a relative of my wife, a certain Corporal Thomas Brook who died aged 21 on 12th September 1916. His grave had as far as we know never been visited by a member of the family in all these years so it felt like a very special moment laying flowers on his grave in a beautiful little Commonwealth war cemetery near Albert on the Somme.
As we did so I couldn’t but help remember those famous words “A corner of a foreign field that is forever England.”
Standing amongst those rows and rows of tombstones  is a haunting experience – an immersiion in the enormity of it all – much like the display of poppies at the Tower of London – and is deeply affecting
Where does this act of remembrance lead us I wonder?
It leads some to pacifism. I respect their decision but the Christian church has never gone down that path.  To use what might sound like an old fashioned term to many, humanity is sinful, we know that evil exists – evil people with evil motives and so regrettably but inevitably there will be wars and there will be occasions when it will be necessary to fight to defend ourselves, our civilisation and protect all that we hold dear. 
I believe the maxim -All it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. When evil raises its head it must be confronted. And when we do - that is when we turn to the brave, heroic, sacrificial service of the men and women in our armed forces.
What our remembrance tells me is that when we ask our young men and women to risk their lives on our behalf we must be sure that the cause is just, and that our reasons for going to war are not trivial or governed by vanity and that all reasonable attempts to avert war have been taken, and if despite all those precautions we are taken into war we go regardless we go with heavy hearts but with heads held high, well trained, motivated and well equipped for the fight.
We have to go with our eyes wide open and will be saddened but not be surprised at the death and destruction that will inevitably result.  Our remembrance if it tells us nothing else tells us there is no such thing as a clean war without loss and heartache. They are inevitable.
Waste of young life, Grief, hatred and recrimination will all be there. We know that. But so will honour, nobility and bravery and mercy.
And let us not entertain for a moment the notion that this nation of ours is not worth fighting for. Our nation, our people, freedom, democracy and culture is worth defending, worth fighting for and ultimately worth dying for.

This act of remembrance should bring us face to face with the reality of war and its consequences. We should allow the reality of the sacrifice of all those names read out outside to affect us. We know that war is brutal and costly. But we also know that their backbone and resolve, their bravery and sacrifices made by countless men and women to confront the evils that we face in this dangerous world is something to be proud of and seek to emulate.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

A Christian is what a Christian does.

Cutting through all the symbolism of this parable I want to assert straight away that this parable is about integrity, and a warning against smugness and complacency in our faith. Essentially it is about “cheap grace”.
The original guests that had been invited to the wedding banquet but found every excuse under the sun not to come represent the Jews who had rejected the gospel of Christ.
In the parable the wedding guests were the ones both good and bad who had been invited to the feast in their place. These people were the young church that included many gentiles outside the original “chosen people”.
So we have been invited to join the wedding party – which is the church! We are those wedding guests and we are here by right. But just as in society with rights also comes responsibilities which is the thrust of the final part of the parable.
We may recall that one of the guests was thrown out of the wedding party because he wasn’t wearing wedding clothes.
Now on the face of it that seems an extraordinary thing to do. What does it mean? It means that it is not enough to just be invited and come to the party. We need to adopt , to metaphorically “wear the clothes” of a Christian.
We should walk the walk rather than just talk the talk. In my sermons from Matthew’s gospel  over the past few weeks have been talking about bearing the fruit of the gospel. The fruit of the gospel is our outward vesture. These are the “clothes” that we wear. It is what people see and react to.
The hard meaning of the parable is that a true disciple of Christ is one that exhibits in their life that the gospel is truly working in their life and affects the way we live and relate to God and our neighbour.
In Christianity this is achieved not by simply following the rules as presented in the Law in the Old Testament but is achieved by an inner transformation of our disposition by the Holy Spirit.
That incidentally, contrary to popular opinion, doesn’t mean a loosening of those rules. If anything the law of love is much tougher than the written law. Anyone who disputes that should consider the difference between “an eye for an eye” with Jesus’ command to “Love your enemies”. Which do you think is the harder requirement?
Jesus incidentally recognises that walking where he has walked before us is not easy. The way is narrow and few find it. People who do are those people we regard as the saints, and we remember them as an inspiration to us when we find ourselves tested.
Few may find that narrow way, but we are still asked to look for it. We must be pointing in that general direction and want to find it even if we don’t.   

To use the picture language of the parable, we should be wanting to wear the wedding clothes even if they are sometimes ill fitting, makes us feel slightly uncomfortable and we have metaphorical stains all down our lovely white shirt or dress. There is a massive difference between trying and failing and not even trying.   

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

They know not what they do

The parable of the workers in the vineyard can seem quite offensive to us who are brought up to believe and expect that you should be justly rewarded for the amount of work and effort you put in.
But I think the context of this parable is very important. Jesus wasn’t addressing the crowds or even “seekers” he was addressing his own disciples – people who naturally enough would have considered themselves as insiders.
It is a parable that seeks to tell the disciples that although they do have an important place as the people who responded first and boldly, they don’t have any special privileges for being first and working harder and longer. Those who will join them later will be receiving the same amount of generosity as they do. In terms of salvation, no-one gets more than anyone else. All who turn to the Lord are saved no matter when they turn to God.
And that phrase “when they turn” has become more important to me lately.
One of the greatest theological conundrums I have faced and had to work through over the last ten years is this notion that God forgives everyone no matter what they have done or how they feel about it. To be true to myself though I can no longer hold to that position where to cite a recent example; That is, a man cuts off the head of another man in cold blood and sees it not as a crime but a good thing. Is he automatically forgiven? No he is not - not automatically at all. To be forgiven, to seek God’s forgiveness one has to repent. In the most famous parable of God’s Grace even the prodigal son had to turn back nervously towards his Father. Of course his Father was waiting for him and rushed towards him to hug him overjoyed that he had decided to return....but the Son had to want to return.
Of course If true repentance is forthcoming, then we can be confident that the graciousness  of God will elicit God’s mercy.
What I realise after all these years is that I have been looking at “Grace” in a vacuum divorced from the righteousness of God who seeks righteousness in us.
I looked again at the words in the penitential rite I say every Sunday and the words I say are not, “Almighty God who forgives everyone no matter what”. What I say on God’s behalf is “Almighty God who forgives all who truly repent”. God forgives those who are truly sorry and who turn and want to sin no more and want to transform their lives.And then, through the merits of Jesus we are treated not according to the laws of Justice, but with mercy, and then forgiven and accepted.
Grace, if it is not to descend into what is known as “cheap grace” and perverted into a license to do whatever you like, must not be divorced from repentance and the righteousness of God. But of course not everyone by a long chalk does repent in this life.
So where does leave the Biblical hope that “For God has consigned all men to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all” (Romans 11:32)
Where I differ from many people is that I don’t believe that death is the cut off point for repentance. This is entirely Biblical. We know from Paul’s letter to the Romans that neither “death nor life” can separate us from the Love of God in Christ Jesus but easily the most startling tract from the New Testament is in  1 Peter which states boldy “For Christ who died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteousness, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the Spirit; in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formally did not obey,
when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons were saved  through water”.
Saint Peter is convinced that Jesus reached out his hand to all those people who had already been judged and killed many years ago to save them! The Spirit of God transcends time and place. Grace and mercy to the dead is also always on offer. To turn and be saved in this life is preferable obviously, as this will make this a happier more just and righteous world, but if not, God never retracts the offer of eternal life.
And even then, in death as in life, the outstretched hand needs to be sought and grabbed hold of.
Repentance has to be genuine. And for genuine repentance there will be much pain in the soul when the full realisation of the monstrous things you have done is brought to light and you are forced to face their reality in the seering light of God’s sight.
I think this is what St. Paul meant when he wrote “If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.” (1 Cor. 3:15)
In the act of retaining the relationship between Grace and repentance to avoid it becoming a cheap excuse and a licence to do whatever we like and just expect forgiveness  I am constantly reminded of the words attributed to St. Augustine and which provided the strap line to the recent film “Calvary”.
Do not despair. One of the thieves was saved.

Do not presume. One of the thieves was damned.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Forgive them Father.......

Who finds it difficult to forgive? I thought so – because so do I. We all know we are supposed to forgive. It is ingrained in everything from the Lord's prayer to passages like this one in Matthew. Our churches are full of people who know they are supposed to forgive, who know intellectually that letting go of hurts is a positive and life enhancing thing and yet find it nigh impossible to do so. In fact telling people who have been hurt and shamed and left feeling worthless that they "ought" to forgive someone can just heap guilt on to them as well as all that bitterness and hurt when they find that they cannot do it.
This parable appears, at face value, to say that those of us who cannot forgive others who have wronged us will not be forgiven by God. But is that really what it means? We possibly need to look at the parable a little closer

The first exchange between Peter and Jesus concerns the extent and nature of forgiveness. "Seventy seven times" is Jesus' way of telling Peter that forgiveness is not a commodity that can be reckoned on a calculator. Not only is it limitless but it cannot even be quantified, so the language of numbers is completely inappropriate when contemplating forgiveness. This particular point is rammed home with the absurd amount that the first servant is indebted to the king. "Ten thousand talents" represents the wages of a day labourer in Jesus’ time for 150,000 years!!
The second piece of the reading is the parable where the king forgives one servant that absurdly huge amount who is then unable to forgive another servant a reasonable debt. This heartless ogre is then justifiably imprisoned and tortured by the king. But if we look on this parable whilst reflecting on the difficulty of genuine forgiveness it takes on a different tone.

The first point to note is that human forgiveness is rooted in divine forgiveness. The king forgives the servant an incalculable amount. There is no way to measure divine forgiveness. Saying "seventy seven times" doesn't even come close.
Now when looking at the parable we note that there is an incredible gap in the parable. On hearing of his release from his obligation to pay this incalculable sum, the servant shows no appropriate response - no rejoicing, no gratitude, no celebrating with wife and children who are spared imprisonment, no reflection on the meaning of freedom. We know only that on the way out he refuses the plea of a colleague.
That "gap" in the parable has to be taken seriously. That first servant has not "discovered" forgiveness. We see that in the fact that although the debt is way beyond his capacity to pay he says "I will pay you everything"(18:20). It would be like me being presented with a bill for ten trillion trillion pounds and me saying “Oh I’ll repay that” when I won’t earn that in a hundred lifetimes.  He imagines he is dealing with the king on the basis of Justice, but what he receives but doesn't grasp is the king's mercy. The parable wants us to know that Justice and mercy are different beasts.
The first servant sees indebtedness and forgiveness as a power game. He hasn't seen himself as a "gifted" person, as a recipient of mercy so is unable to see himself as being in the same situation as the second servant. He has no empathy. The final verse (18:35) makes it clear that forgiveness is a matter of the heart, a transformation of the inner disposition of the recipient of mercy, something that first servant has not yet discovered.

"How does this passage address seriously injured persons, battling with shame and alienation? It portrays the incredible kindness of God who doesn't deal with us with justice but with mercy. It invites us, the listeners to think of ourselves as forgiven debtors - no more or less - living with and among other forgiven debtors. To be forgiven means to give up the power game of innocent versus guilty and to join a fellowship of forgiven sinners.

Only then, the parable would appear to be saying, can we even begin to start to rid ourselves of the self-destructive rage and sense of injustice that keeps historic hurts and trespasses alive and unforgiven in our hearts.

Until I or you accept ourselves as forgiven sinners we will always find it difficult to have empathy with someone who trespasses against us.

This I accept, but it still takes a lot of prayer and a lot of time...perhaps a accomplish. And does scale matter? Someone is rude to me. I can forgive them quite easily (mostly). But If a spouse cheats on you? How easy is that? How about the family of David Haines who was beheaded by Islamic state yesterday?

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Where two or three are gathered......

In Matthew’s gospel today we have very practical advice as to how disputes amongst church members, and how matters of moral conflict are to be settled.
First, you are to try and solve things privately. If that doesn’t work then you call on two or three other members of the church, probably the elders to get involved and make a decision on one side of the other. If the dispute continues then the whole community is supposed to get together and come to a judgement. If someone’s actions are condemned; they are an offense to the community they are to be shunned, excluded from the church. Now to get to that stage, the behaviour must surely be wilful and pretty awful!
The word “church” here refers directly to the local community rather than the massed ranks of Christians so can be seen as a process of damage limitation and gradual escalation but the interesting thing is that the local church has the authority “to bind or loose”.
This is a Jewish term that can apply a general prohibition to a particular action or behaviour. We can have confidence that we are acting under God’s guidance when the whole church has come to a mind on a particular thing. This confidence is built on the rock of faith in the revelation of God’s saving work in Christ.
A consequence of our faith that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself is that all Christians are to be ministers of reconciliation as far as humanly possible in situations  from the personal face off between two people right to the whole church getting involved.
As in all disputes, large amounts of give and take and forgiveness are usually required but also the backbone to name and condemn certain behaviours. This leads to a church that is meek and mild, wishy-washy and loses its cutting edge.
Of course we are a church that believes in Grace and boundless forgiveness but quite often we misuse that to mask and excuse our moral cowardice and the inability to name and shame bad behaviour.
When we are too embarrassed to face something or someone Grace can become a very convenient excuse for doing absolutely nothing. Grace then becomes a licence to whatever you like and we are straight back to St. Paul who railed against this attitude in his letter to the Roman church and I quote “What are we to say then? Are we to continue in sin so that Grace may abound? By no means”
Of course Jesus also said “Judge not lest ye be judge” . Again if we took that at face value then we would have no laws – we would have anarchy and no Christian judges or magistrates would be permissible.  I submit that what that in effect means is  “Am I willing to be judged by the same measure by God as I am using to judge someone else? And am I ready to face the consequences of that judgement?”
To use a deliberately extreme and hypothetical example: If there was a paedophile intent on preying on children in this church and  they saw nothing wrong in what they were doing and were intent on continuing  then I would have no problem in excommunicating them from this and any other congregation as well as reporting them to the police. Doing nothing out of a misguided understanding of grace and forgiveness is just not an option.
In bringing such a person out into the open and safeguarding children and making treatment for the offender more likely is the far greater act of love. As some of the hard sayings of Jesus make clear, tough love is still love. Compassion for an offender is far outweighed by the compassion for any potential victims.
Personally I don’t think that the “Live and let live” mentality is particularly Christian, it is weak and cowardly secular approach that sees all people, morality and situations as relative. Right and wrong has no place within it. Christian morality and ethics is played out within a complex but clearly defined set of checks and balances that includes love compassion and forgiveness but also has a clear sense of right and wrong, goodness and sin.
In discerning the right and wise path in any undertaking, Christians must pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit and for unity in their deliberations and judgements. 

For we may be confident that  “where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there among them”. 

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Peter's confession

“You are the Messiah” says Peter. The Hebrew word Messiah is translated into Greek as “Christ”, so Jesus Christ is Jesus the Messiah and in English they both mean “the anointed one”.
So Jesus was the anointed one, the chosen one – but chosen to do what?
In the mainstream Jewish worldview the role of the Messiah was to defeat all of Israel’s enemies and set their people free and establish a perfect and free society where all of Israel would flourish – an earthly paradise. This kingdom would necessarily have to be established by force as people like the Romans were not about to lay down their arms and leave just because someone asked them to do so.
The Christians took this concept and in Jesus saw a magnification of that initial vision that encompassed the whole world.” God was in Christ reconciling the whole world to himself” as Paul so eloquently put it in his letter to the Corinthians (2 Cor. 5:19)  
So the scope and vision was expanded from the Jewish Nation to the whole world and again Paul expands this to include the entire creation. Again in Romans (8:21-22) Paul writes “because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail until now”
So every Rock, flower, and animal is also included in this cosmic salvation. And in that same verse that talks about the world also being saved we note that the content of this salvation is also explained.
Salvation means being set free from our bondage to decay and obtaining the glorious liberty of the children of God. This is so because we believe that Jesus died and was raised to everlasting life.
The resurrection was God’s resounding “YES” to Jesus and “NO” to the powers of this world but also a promise, a sure and certain hope that because Jesus was raised we too will be raised. This overcoming of death was and is the cornerstone of the new religion.
We are set free from our bondage to decay. The limits to our lives have been lifted. Instead of existing between the parameters of birth and death we affirm the word of the Lord to Jeremiah that “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you” and in the resurrection we have the offer of everlasting life. As Jesus told the repentant thief on the cross “This day you shall be with me in paradise” Our lives are written against an infinite horizon. Our lives are bound up, linked to the living and active God who loves us as a Parent loves a child. This is freedom, real freedom, and therefore true salvation.
One of the most liberating things that one of the Monks at Mirfield ever said to me is that for us, salvation is not something always just out of reach, something you have to strive for and grasp after – salvation is the very ground on which we stand. It informs our life, our thinking and our actions. We are saved, we know it and walking on that ground we are truly free.  
Knowing that and believing that is so life changing, so liberating that Jesus coined a new phrase by likening this revelationt to being born again. Born again to a new life, a new hope, a new way of looking at the whole of creation.
And all of this was recognised, if only partially by Peter at the source of the river Jordan at Caesarea Philippi. That the revelation happened at the source of that life giving stream that gives the water of life to the nation of Israel is also highly symbolic.

The ground, the rock, on which we stand is that “sure and certain hope” and this is the base from which we live our lives as Christians.

Monday, 18 August 2014

A root out of dry ground

The trouble with stark words on a page is that we don’t know the whole story or the context or tone of voice. Did Jesus have a wry smile on his face or a grimace when he called gentiles dogs?
We simply don’t know so we are left to our imaginations but we do have the entire canon of the New Testament to set this story in context and it if it was meant seriously then it just seems so out of character. It was Jesus who after all gave us the parable of the Good Samaritan lauding the selfless service of a foreigner over and above the law bound Jews of his day.
But perhaps it points us to something far more interesting. Perhaps Jesus did in fact think he had come just to the Jews and it was only through his experience and growth, and encounters with people like this gentile woman in his life that it was revealed to him that he had a mission to the whole world and not just to his own people.
To me, the main problem with the story of the virgin birth is not the most obvious one. I see the main problem with it is that it encourages the belief that Jesus arrived on earth fully formed. He was God. So as a five year old he didn’t need to go to school – he already knew everything, because he was God. Joseph wouldn’t have needed to teach his son anything about carpentry. He would innately had the ability and skill to make the finest furniture because he was God. He didn’t need to learn to speak, to play, to be corrected or smacked, potty trained or learn the scriptures or religious ritual. In short, his life was a facade, an act.
But it just was not like that at all. Jesus, or to give him his real name, Joshua, was a little Jewish boy who grew up as any other Jewish boy would have grown up in Nazareth.    
“For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground: he had no form or comeliness that we should look at him and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, and as one from whom men hide their faces, he was despised and we esteemed him not”.  
The real and true Christian hope is invested in a real person, a real life – a fully human Jesus. That is how and why we can so easily identify with him. To think that Jesus had to learn, to have revealed to him that his mission was to the world rather than just to the people of Israel sits uneasily with some Christians.
To the measure that we was God was in how his own will, character and actions was submitted and subsumed in the will of God which we believe in Jesus’ case was a perfect obedience to the Spirit and will of God. He knew God as love, he knew God as compassion and forgiveness. He knew that following God’s will would lead to his own suffering and death and he followed that will regardless. God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. So perfect was Jesus’ obedience. So open and full of the Father’s Spirit was Jesus that Christians have always been able to concur with Jesus’ own words as reported in John’s gospel that “I and the Father are one”
But what are the implications of all this for us? Well as I often do I turn to the teachings and practices of the Orthodox church for my lead here. They are much more explicit here than we in the West about the implications for us. They are bold in saying that while it may not happen very often the goal of the Christian life is to be at one with God as Jesus was one with God. This is a process of transformation and growth called deification and the goal is called “Theosis”  the unity with God that Jesus modelled is a possibility for all Christians. The process of learning to walk the walk as well as walk the walk we know as a process called discipleship.
We are all called to be disciples of the way of Jesus, leading to oneness with the Father that Jesus modelled. WE know this is possible because Jesus like us was fully human.
In shorthand, our goal as Christians is to be like Jesus in his unity with the Father – to be as he is. That is the reason we come to worship, break bread, read the Bible and pray. To learn, to grow, to open ourselves to the Spirit just as Jesus did. Jesus himself said that this is a narrow path and few find it but that certainly doesn’t mean that we stop trying to find it. We are encouraged to seek the Kingdom of God. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened to you. WE have to be persistent. In John’s gospel  Jesus prays for all Christians. He prays for you and me and he prays like this;

“My prayer is not for my disciples alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one. I in them and you in me”  

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Reach out your hand

“Peter answered him “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water”.
He said “Come”. So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus”
Having faith or trust in times of great distress is a very hard thing to maintain. I know this all too well and so does anyone here who has endured loss and sadness and loneliness.
By a sheer act of will and keeping our eyes on God it is often possible for a while. For a while it is possible to keep afloat and ride over the storms and rough waters of life, but only for a while...
If the storms are strong enough and last long enough our doubt and fear gets the better of us and we succumb to the rising waters that threaten to engulf us and we start to sink. We lose sight of God, and give ourselves up to the waves. In the parable of the sower this is the seed that fell among thorns and was choked by the worries of the world.
In extreme conditions all seems black, and there seems no end and no hope in our troubles. The Christian faith takes these times absolutely seriously. The Christian religion is built upon a man in whom we believe God was reconciling the world to himself. This man suffered and died and felt lost alone and abandoned. It was Jesus who when hanging on a cross waiting to die uttered the words “My God my God, why have you forsaken me?” So how can we not take the storms of life seriously or rebuke ourselves when our faith and trust grow faint or even disappears entirely?
Matthew continues, “But when he noticed the strong wind, Peter became frightened and began to sink, he cried out “Lord save me!”. Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”
The cornerstone of the Christian religion is that even out of his loneliness, abandonment and death, God reached out and raised Jesus to life to show to us that even through all our trials, even in that dark finality that is death, God is always there, mostly unseen and unnoticed or acknowledged, but his hand outstretched to save us is always available and always able to reach us and grab hold of us to lift us to be with him.
In the image of Jesus reaching out to pull Peter out of the water I am reminded of a common icon that you see in many Orthodox churches of a gaping hole that leads down into the abyss. Across that hole the cross is laid and Jesus is standing on the cross using it as a platform and he is helping people up out of the darkness by stretching out his hand and helping people out one by one.
Once saved, with the others in the boat the wind ceased and they worshipped him saying “Truly you are the Son of God”. Truly God is in you reconciling the world to himself.  
In all of our lives, there will be storms, and there will be times when our faith holds and our faith gives out under pressure. Through all the storms of life God is there. God is there also at that final darkness, that greatest separation that is death. His hand is always stretched out to hold on to ours and pull us towards him.


Monday, 4 August 2014

Panis Angelicus

The miracle of the feeding of the 5000 is rich in symbolism, with echoes of the Eucharist, Passover, and the messianic feast at the end of time in the kingdom of heaven.
The underlying theme of the feeding of the 5000 is super-abundance. There is more than enough to go around. From just five loaves and two fish, the 5000 men there were satisfied, as well we assume were the equal number of women and children there. Not only were they all satisfied but there were 12 baskets of food left over.
With God, so it is with the “plenteous redemption” we sing about, so it is with forgiveness and love.
One message we may comfortably draw from this event is that in the hands of God, our meagre resources offered to God, blessed, broken and distributed can be multiplied many times over.
It should think that it is fairly common amongst Christians to imagine that we haven’t much to offer to God. But if whatever is given is given in faith then the lesson of this event is that God can do so much with it that we would be amazed.
So what if we were to give our whole life, our gifts and fruit, however meagre we think that might be? That is what Jesus did. His was a life offered, broken and shared out. The self-sacrifice of Jesus is played out in the story of the miraculous feeding and mirrored in our own sharing of bread and wine in our Communion service.
By some mystery, the bread and wine become for us the body and blood of a life outpoured, a life blessed, broken and shared by all present at this special meal. From Sunday school you might remember that the definition of a sacrament is an outward sign of and inner grace. A sacrament is where the lines between sign and symbol and reality blur and merge.
In the story in Matthew the raw materials for the feast have to be provided by the disciples themselves, just as we provide the bread and wine ourselves. But with the bread and wine we also offer ourselves as raw materials to be changed. Within the liturgy, the offering is blessed, broken and shared out amongst all those present.
I am sometimes asked what I think happens to the bread and wine when it is blessed. I think the question is misdirected.
I think the more pertinent question might be “What changes in us?” when we commune
In the feeding of the 5000, the people were full – they were satisfied; complete; at peace. The physical fullness they experienced is also a metaphor for the spiritual fullness, the peace and contentment intended for us by the sharing of bread and wine representing communion between us and God and each other. Holy Communion is a physical representation of atonement where all is complete and all is satisfied, all is healed and all is forgiven.
When we share bread and wine again this morning, we are sharing in the abundant, love and forgiveness and very being of God represented by a tiny piece of bread and a sip of wine. These are “the bread of heaven in Christ Jesus” and “the cup of life in Christ Jesus” and will be the words of distribution we will be using today. 

When we share the bread and wine this morning we share with God and each other, with Harry, with Joyce and the entire communion of saints because as St. Paul says so eloquently. “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord”.  

Monday, 14 July 2014

You can't beat experience.

You could say that the parable of the sower in Matthew is a gift to a preacher because the parable is then explained to us just after it is delivered. It is how people receive the gospel when it is preached to them.
But the states of reception, understanding and fulfilling of the word of the kingdom differ according to our own state of mind, and our personal circumstances .
And because our state of mind and personal circumstances change then we can experience one or more of these conditions in our life more than once.
Who here hasn’t had their faith tested to breaking point by money worries or bereavement or loneliness or desperate disappointment. Who hasn’t sidelined their faith in pursuit of some other goal.  Who at some point has admitted to themselves that actually I just don’t understand, find it all so confusing and the words and ideas just don’t resonate at all sometimes?
At the breakfast club Claire described her faith in terms of a journey. And on any journey there will be different landscapes amidst which you will be travelling, and these different landscapes, the backdrops and circumstances against which you live your life will affect your faith.
Which is why at some point in your life you also need a deep experience to carry you through. And by experience I don’t necessarily mean a vision or revelation (though it doesn’t exclude those things). By experience I mean the support of people around you, an experience of kindness, friendship, forgiveness, a helping hand when you are making heavy weather of life, experience of love, an experience of Grace. An experience of peace or oneness whether at the Eucharist or standing in awe of natural beauty, or being comforted by a favourite verse of the Bible.
We are each other’s travelling companions along the way, so we are all a part of the travelling experience of those sitting around us.
Ideas can be challenged and changed but an experience is a constant companion etched deep into our souls. I am convinced that Christianity has to be experienced rather than just taught for it to become a part of our souls.
This places a certain burden of responsibility on all of our shoulders – but if we claim the right to be children of God then this comes with responsibilities.
Just as in society  as a whole, if the culture of rights is elevated far beyond any sense of responsibility, then the rot sets in.
If we need help to fulfil our responsibilities as a child of God we have our fellow Christians who are part of the same body as us because we are bound together by the spirit of God.
That same spirit dwells in our hearts also, encouraging and strengthening us, unseen and unheralded. For as Paul said this morning;
“If the spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead, dwells in you, then he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to us through that same spirit that dwells in your heart”.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

The eternal invitation

Jesus recognised that many people are contrary and will see what they want to see.
It hardly mattered what Jesus and John the Baptist were saying - the former was dismissed as a glutton and a drunkard because he loved life and parties and the latter was dismissed as demon possessed because he was an ascetic.
Jesus described them like children squabbling in a playground because they can’t agree whether to play “funerals” with John and mourn over their sins or “weddings” with Jesus and celebrate the dawning kingdom of God.
But Jesus said “Yet Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds”. Spiritually both mourning and a wedding are needed. Mourning our separation from God and acknowledging our need of him gives us humility and knowing that gap between ourselves and God has been bridged by Jesus (because God was in him reaching out to touch us) gives us joy. Both are necessary and complement each other. Both John the baptist and Jesus have been vindicated by their deeds not just their words.
After criticising childish behaviour in one respect Jesus then commends other positive virtues attributed to children like sincerity and honesty and innocence, contrasting those with the too clever by half so called “wise and intelligent” who imagine they can undermine anything and everything with their cleverly constructed arguments and cynicism. 
Last week I was involved in a very deep and honest discussion about death, grief and love with people who like me had all lost someone very close to them. It wasn’t a debate using lots of clever clever arguments – it was a disclosure of true experience of love and loss.  It became clear to me that Loving Relationship is at the heart of life. It is fundamental and necessary. It is what makes us fully functioning persons and it is then that it dawned on me why Christianity is true and will never die.
It is because Christianity is fundamentally at its heart a relationship; a relationship with God who is revealed in the person Jesus Christ. Loving relationship lies at the centre of creation, between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. When all is said and done, when all pretence and image and vanity are shed, when all our defences are lowered that is all that is left – the love – a lovethat binds us.
Loving relationship stands at the centre of our lives and so two things are needed to experience fullness of life; Close personal relationship with God and each other.  The Father is revealed in the Son so we can enter in to that most primal of relationships – that spiritual relationship between ourselves and our creator that you can call salvation or eternal life. But human beings, because we are enfleshed and not just disembodied spirits need more. We also crave and need deep personal relationships with each other if we are to flourish.
For Matthew the gospel of the healing relationship with God through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus cannot be separated from patient learning, and obedience to the “wisdom” of God revealed through Jesus Christ.
Jesus invites us to turn our lives towards God by following him on the way. It is a personal invitation with everlasting validity. This invitation is current and addressed to every single one of us.;

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls, for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Catch the vision!

Have you ever seen the film the “Blues brothers”. The whole premise of the film is their attempts to raise money for the “penguin” - the chief nun who runs the catholic orphanage they went to as children.
They used to say that “they were on a mission from God”.
That is what you call getting “the big picture” if ever there was one.
Expanding our own vision of what we are doing is something that would help us all.
We can all be very dismissive of our own roles and contributions to church life. We see them all as so little and ordinary
“Oh, I just do this or I just do that. I just make tea or I just help prepare the altar. But everyone and every contribution is needed to make a church community run. The more people get actively involved the church starts to not just “run” but thrives and prospers.
In the Blues brothers, everything they did was seen in the context of the big vision – the mission from God.
That is true for all Christians. We are all on a mission from God. That is the Big vision and catching hold of that vision and holding on to it is the best motivating force we have.
Proverbs 29:18 in the KJV says “Where there is no vision the people perish”. Everything is reduced to the lowest common denominator, trivialised and easily dismissed. But with vision we raise our sights, do what we do with greater clarity and are motivated to do much more.
Why did we bother to raise money for our repairs? Well, there are at least two answers to that question. One set of answers would be. So we can keep dry or turn the lights on without being electrocuted. But in the context of the Christian vision we are doing these things for the glory of God to provide a house where the gospel of Christ can be effectively preached, where God can be worshipped where the Kingdom of God can be proclaimed and people’s lives enriched by hearing the good news.  It helps us further our mission to bring the Christian faith to the people.
Our vision should flow from the vision of Jesus Christ. For Jesus, his preaching, his parables all concerned the “Kingdom of God”.  Everything he did and preached about was to that end. He held his vision always before him and every aspect of his life was a reflection of the kingdom.
Seeing ourselves as emissaries from God – people on a mission from God is the highest calling anyone could ever aspire to and Jesus tells us that anyone who welcomes us as a Christian or receives a cup of cold water from us when they are thirsty are actually welcoming Him and the Father – they are being helped by us, who is also Jesus helping, who is also the Father helping them.
In talking about and proclaiming our faith, and in helping others in his name we are doing God’s work. We are on a mission from God.

Jesus said to the twelve: whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one that sent me. Whoever becomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward. And whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple – truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

The miracle of miracles

Amongst the clergy, Trinity Sunday is traditionally the day when they would rather not preach.  And If you were lucky enough to have a curate then you’d give them the task!
The reason is that on the face of it the idea that one can be three and three can be one is so complicated and counter intuitive that it is beyond rational explanation.  Well I’m paid to have a go in any case so here goes. God may be beyond all adequate explanation......
........But then so is a human being! And as it says in Genesis that we are made in the image of God then perhaps we can look at ourselves to get some insight.
We all of us have consciousness. We are alive. We are something rather than nothing. Where does that life force come from and what is it? This first fact about our very existance is beyond scientific study. Consciousness is still a mystery.
The former professor of theoretical physics at Cambridge university John Polkinghorne, now an Anglican priest wrote once that “about 11 billion years ago all creation, us included, was nothing but a chemical soup. The greatest miracle in the universe is that billions of years later a part of that soup came alive, became conscious, and gained an intelligence so great that we could examine the universe in which we find ourselves and know that we were all once chemical soup!” This is the miracle of miracles.
This consciousness of ours is not disembodied. We have a physical presence in the world. Our consciousness is embodied. We have hands and feet and eyes and ears.
And what links those two things together is our will, our intelligence – that which guides and directs these bodies of ours as to how to act.  We are one but we have three aspects to our existance
So with God.
The Father is the sourceless source of all things, the creator, the first cause, the source of all life and consciousness. It is to this source that all our prayers are directed, as Jesus taught us....”Our Father, who art in heaven”
Physical creation is the result, the outworking of that primal consciousness
And the Spirit was the creative wisdom, the word, that was there with the Father in the beginning that caused this physical universe to come into being.
Christians believe that Jesus was the “word made flesh.”  The Greek word Logos which which we translate “Word” can mean simply “word” or it can mean “wisdom” or it can also encompass “meaning” We can say Jesus was the “word made flesh” because we believe that in Jesus we have the perfect human response to  the Father’s Spirit. His body, his will and his actions were in perfect accord with God so he attracted the title “Son of God”.
Our job as Christians is to do likewise, to seek the Spirit of God and so grow into a Christ-like response to his spirit as modelled for us by Jesus Christ.
This is what we are doing here. Opening our hearts to the guiding Spirit of God who speaks to us in many and various ways. He speaks as a still small voice within, he can speak to us through scripture, He can speak to us through music, beauty, science, He can speak to us through sacraments and prayer.  He can speak to us through other people and he can speak through the life, death and resurrection of Christ.
In order to hear, we need to be listening. Let’s resolve to open our ears and our hearts to God’s prompting. Let us try to see and hear God in nature, in each other this morning, in scripture, in communion, and in the life of Jesus.

In the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Monday, 9 June 2014

I believe in the Holy Spirit.

“We believe in the Holy Spirit, the giver of life”
We say this every Sunday. For us the Holy Spirit is not “out there” it is very much “in here”.
As Jesus said “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water” – The Spirit comes from within.....the heart.
Christians are alive to God, alive to possibilities, optimistic, have hope and trust in the future. All that animates, excites, motivates and changes us for the better is from the Holy Spirit.
We are fairly au ait with the fact that the fruit that grows in us – gentleness, patience kindness etc grow from the seed of that Spirit, but seeds need watering and nurturing. They grow as they are used. Neglected plants will most likely wither and die or be overcome with weeds – I feel a parable coming on........ 
The Spirit also gives us gifts. Paul highlights the gifts of wisdom, faith, prophesy, healing , and speaking in tongue (or other languages). Not an exhaustive list and not everyone receives all of them, but in the same way as the fruit of the Spirit needs to be nurtured to grow the Gifts of the Spirit need to be opened and used.
If you give a child a toy and it remains in the box, sitting on the shelf, just being looked at, the gift is being wasted. Gifts need to be unwrapped, played with, enjoyed, and allowed to add value to our lives which in turn adds value to all life. The child will be thankful for that gift that was given in love.
That is true of the greatest gift any of us ever received which is the gift of life itself and true of the more specific gifts and fruit of the Spirit.
They have to be nurtured. We have to nurtured, and we also have to take responsibility for nurturing the fruit and gifts around us. We all have gifts. We all have a special gift that has been given to us by God unless we want to say that Jesus and the Father were lying to us.
Those gifts need to be discerned, nurtured so they will grow. There reason Paul gives for God giving us spiritual gifts is so that we build up the body of the church. We strengthen ourselves and so the whole body is strengthened.
It doesn’t matter how old or young you are – we all have a special role to play here. It is discerning what that is. We all have something special to offer. It may not be spectacular that being a prophet. It might be having the ability to cheer everyone up with your sunny personality and optimism. It may be you can use your physical strength, your organisational abilities, sewing, baking, compassion, your wise counsel.
This is exciting. It has enormous knock on effects when you understand the church community not as a number of people passively sitting in serried ranks but as a living breathing body with each part valuable with an important part to play. It changes our consciousness. We are a body of people each with a vital part to play in the life of this body. Worship becomes not something that you attend as a spectator, it becomes a participation sport. We worship together in Spirit and in truth.
All this is possible when we learn to trust and believe God’s will and commandments. I know that our church, the quality and depth of our worship, the quality and depth of our engagement with God, our world and each other can be transformed.
I know it and I trust it because;

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life.  

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Suffering for Christ

Sometimes you just feel impelled to talk about something or someone. We have just returned from a serene week on Holy Island but I couldn’t get one person out of my mind. That person is  a Christian woman in Sudan called Meriam who was sentenced to death when eight months pregnant for giving up the Muslim faith – a faith she never held – and a further 100 lashes for having sexual relations with a non-Muslim – her husband.
Meriam gave birth to a baby girl on Tuesday morning in prison chained to the floor. Her first son Martin, 20 months old is also in prison with her.
Because she has had a baby Islamic law says that the death sentence should be delayed for two years to wean the child. Reports on the news say that the Sudanese Government has caved in to intense international pressure and says they will release her. We’ll wait and see about that but that something like this can happen at all beggars belief.
The death sentence was served after Meriam refused to give up her Christian faith in a four day “grace” period.
All she had to do to save her life was say “I’m a Muslim” but she refused.
Think about that. What would we do in a similar situation?
Rotting in a third world hellhole prison waiting to be executed and all you had to do was renounce Christianity and declare “I’m a muslim” to save yourself but you refuse to do so. I wouldn’t have blamed her if she had have done. I wouldn’t blame her is she still does give in, but in not doing so she has become an example of courage to the whole world.
Meriam’s Christian faith is not just a formality, not just a form of words, not an abstract set of rituals, her faith is a part of her. Denying her faith would be denying her very self. Her faith has literally become a life or death issue.
It brought me up sharp as I’m sure it brings us all up sharp. We in Britain were born in freedom and we exercise our religion freely. It is hard to imagine what Meriam is going through but unfortunately it is not unique.
According to the International Society for Human Rights, a secular observatory based in Frankfurt, Germany, 80 per cent of all acts of religious discrimination in the world today are directed at Christians. Statistically speaking, that makes Christians by far the most persecuted religious body on the planet.
According to the Pew Forum, between 2006 and 2010 Christians faced some form of discrimination, either de jure or de facto, in a staggering total of 139 nations, which is almost three-quarters of all the countries on earth. According to the Centre for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts, an average of 100,000 Christians have been killed in what the centre calls a ‘situation of witness’ each year for the past decade. That works out to 11 Christians killed somewhere in the world every hour, seven days a week and 365 days a year, for reasons related to their faith.
I could go on forever documenting the persecution.
For example, of the 65 Christian churches in Baghdad, 40 have been bombed at least once since the beginning of the 2003 US-led invasion. The thriving Christian population of 1.5 million is now numbered in thousands
India’s northeastern state of Orissa was the scene of the most violent anti-Christian pogrom of the early 21st century. In 2008, a series of riots ended with as many as 500 Christians killed, many hacked to death; thousands more were injured and at least 50,000 left homeless.
The abducted Christian girls in Nigeria are just the latest in a catalogue of barbaric acts carried out against Christians in Nigeria with monotonous regularity.
When we sing and pray and break bread together today in freedom and safety let us bear in mind the people who are actually being killed for their faith throughout the world.
Let’s break bread in solidarity with people like Meriam, languishing in her cell today with two children under the age of two waiting to be executed for being a Christian.
It is shocking and disturbing but also inspiring and challenging. Let us feed off her courage. Let her strength be our strength. Let her resolve be our resolve.


Monday, 12 May 2014

"I am the gate".

He calls his sheep and his sheep follow him because they know his voice.
How do we recognise the call of Jesus as the call of God and decide to follow him? What convinces us of the truth of his claims?
Where do we find and locate authority in a world where authority is so mis-trusted
At the centre of our faith in the revealed character and will of God lies Jesus the person who revealed that will to the world.
In the parable today Jesus describes himself as the gateway to God. His way is the path we must walk to participate in the life of God.
Jesus as a gate or a door is not half as romantic as “Jesus the good shepherd” or “Jesus the light of the world” or “Jesus the bread of life” and so imagining Jesus as a door has never caught the imagination of Christians in quite the same way as all those other descriptions but if you imagine Jesus as an open door and that door leads out of a dark room or a prison and is the doorway to God and freedom and light then the metaphor can come alive.
We either accept his authority or we don’t. To accept his way and words as authoritative is in classicly Christian language “to accept Jesus as our personal Lord and saviour”. Scary sounding words but when you boil them down they mean, “whose authority do you accept?”
Lots of people, movements and institutions claim and exercise authority in our lives. Parliaments, both European and British, the law, monarchy, teachers, parents, police, but whatever legitimate authority they may have in their rightful sphere, the mark of the Christian is that one authority usurps all of them.
The final claim on our lives comes from God and Jesus as the revealer of the kind of God we give that authority – loving, merciful, faithful and just. All other authorities are contingent. 
So if we accept God as revealed in the life death and resurrection of Christ as the final arbiter in our lives hadn’t we better find out exactly what is required of us?
This is no easy task. The plethora of denominations and different understandings of what it means to follow Christ within those denominations makes a confusing picture – not one that can easily be undertaken alone. All those different expressions of Christianity are just providing the framework. The rest is down to us as the body of Christ. We need to meet, to study, to discuss, to argue, to discern and to pray to be guided along the right path.

If we seek the guidance of the Spirit and trust the words of Jesus in the Bible then we will be guided into all truth, and we must do it together. 

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Spirit of the living God Fall afresh on me.

In the gospels we have two different accounts of “the giving of the Spirit”. The most familiar one, because it lends itself more easily to a church calendar of services is the one placed by Luke (who wrote the book of Acts) on the feast of Pentecost. The less familiar one is from John’s gospel where the Spirit is breathed on the disciples on Easter Sunday.
The meaning that Luke means to convey by placing this event on the Jewish feast of Pentecost is nowadays lost on most modern Christians but by the time Luke was writing the feast had also gained a significance as a festival celebrating the giving of the law to the Jewish people.
Luke wanted to say load and clear that the New Covenant (the new law) is to be written on our hearts, and is available to all people. By placing the giving of the Spirit at Pentecost Luke is saying The New Covenant surpasses (or fulfils) the old covenant.
The version that comes to us in John’s gospel is much more Christological. In John’s gospel the Spirit of God is breathed through Jesus to the disciples whereas in Luke’s account there is a sound from heaven like a rushing wind followed by tongues of fire.
But in both, the Spirit is the Spirit of God, an immediate presence, a counsellor , a comforter. To use picture language, If the Father is God outside of us, Jesus is God beside us, then The Holy Spirit is God within us.
We are to listen to the promptings of the Spirit of God who will guide us into all truth. Discerning the voice of God in our life is the true work of the Christian. Why? Because that is what Jesus did.
He prayed with others, he prayed on his own, and constantly sought the will of God in any situation. As he prayed in the garden of Gethsemene “Yet not my will but yours”.
Jesus interpreted the commandments in the light of the Spirit of God prompting him to do so. Instead of making the commandments looser, it made them even stronger. For example,  hating someone in your heart became as bad as murder in an individual’s soul because both things were caused by the same impulse!
Praying for yourself or someone else to receive the Spirit of God is the highest spiritual work you can do. A prayer like that is like a voice crying out in the wilderness to make straight the way of God, to carve out of the moral, social, political and personal wildernesses that we find ourselves  a place for God, for his will and character to be worked out through us, to build God’s kingdom on earth, to continue the work started by Jesus 2000 years ago.
That is our work. Both individually and as part of the corporate entity we call the church. That is our mission.  In choosing to listen to and be directed by God’s Spirit, discerned through prayer and attentive and insightful attention to scripture, we become agents of God’s will in the world, just as Jesus was a vessel used to reveal God’s character and will in the world.
This is what I mean when I say that all Christian witness must be “Pentecostal” to be truly Christian.  Pentecostal is understood as being led by the Spirit of God.
Given that I’ve already said that praying for either ourselves or others to receive the Spirit of God is the highest spiritual work any of us can do it would be odd if that wasn’t exactly what we are going to do now.
So let us pray.
First let us still ourselves and consciously open ourselves to the possibility of God making himself known to you and to others in our lives and allowing ourselves to be changed by that encounter, to become spiritually alive to the Spirit of God;
Ask God to show you who to pray for. It might be yourself, you might want to name a friend or family member, you might want to pray for people in your street, or this village; make your request known, and as we sit in openness and anticipation let me pray this familiar, ancient, catholic yet thoroughly Pentecostal prayer on behalf of us all.

Almighty God   
Unto whom all hearts are open,
All desires known, and no secrets are hidden.
Cleanse the thought of our hearts
By the inspiration of your Holy Spirit
That we may perfectly love you
And worthily magnify your Holy name
Through Jesus Christ our Lord.