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”.