Monday, 30 November 2015

All will be well.....

The OT reading is Jeremiah 33:14-16. Now as I wrote mid-week about this reading from Jeremiah - what is interesting about this snippet is that it is a re-worked piece from earlier in the same book and it is looking forwards to the fulfilment of all things.

In the original piece in Jeremiah 23: 5-6 the "righteous branch" obviously identified by Christians as Jesus - is given the name "The Lord is our righteousness" but in this re-worked piece we heard today, it is Jerusalem that now bears that name.
What is the significance of this change? Well Jerusalem the place is a short hand way of referring to the people of Israel and what it does is introduce a corporate element to the Advent hope, because the prophesy is looking forward to a restored and renewed community that lives under the wise and just rule of the aforesaid “righteous branch”.

And if we want to find out something of the nature of that community we look to our second reading, Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. Now 1 Thessalonians is a fascinating book because it is Paul’s first ever letter and actually is the oldest Christian text in the New testament, predating all the gospels and was written around 52 AD just 19 years after the resurrection of Jesus. So when we look at Thessalonians we are looking into the first written evidence of the young church by its foremost evangelist, Saint Paul.

So as I say this letter tells us something of the nature of that community. Its essential traits are to be Love and Holiness. There is to be both love for "one another" and "love for all".

If we take the first one. In terms of our relationships within and between different members of the church, how we relate to each other whether they be trivial or profound, peaceful or full of strife, what we can be sure of is whatever they are like, they will be a witness to others.
The question is....what kind of witness will we be?
Do we really know each other or is our knowledge of each other shallow and perfunctory? Do we know what makes each other tick? Do we really care about each other, not just in terms of “Oh Doris isn’t well this week” but do we know and care about our spiritual health and well being. How is Doris’ relationship with God? Is she sure of her salvation? Does she know that she is loved? Do you know if the person sitting next to you knows they are loved by God? Do you yourself truly know that you are loved by God?

Because knowing you are loved is first base. You should know that if you were the last person on earth, Christ would have died for you. God loves you that much. That is so important because knowing how much we are loved is the prerequisite and well spring  of the following phrase;

That we should have "Love for all".  We love others because He first loved us and this is a reminder that through us we are to exercise God’s compassion that extends beyond our boundaries.

And believe me, there are boundaries!  Because besides "Love" we are also called to "Holiness", a word that appears six times in Thessalonians. Holiness is the quality of life that distinguishes us from the world. The word "Holiness" means chosen and set apart. It implies separateness. We are to follow a clearly defined set of ethics and moral behaviour and not succumb to the norms of the world. Christian morality and ethics are different and set us apart. When churches reject the morality of the Bible as being old fashioned and no longer applicable and replaces them with the morals and ethics of secular society I firmly believe that God rejects us.

Now of course, on the wider canvas we can all fail and often but when we do it is a good thing that we have something that we are also assured of – forgiveness.

We believe in a God who forgives those who go astray but truly repent.

Many Christians have fallen in this way and we all know we fail often so it is a great thing that despite that fact by the grace of God we can always turn and be saved. God who came to us in humility at Christmas and will come again at the end of time, for everything in Thessalonians is set against the backdrop of "the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints". This is not a warning to keep the troops in line but a conclusion to the whole human story where our faithful life will come to light. The end of all things is the major theme of Advent.

And so we turn finally to Luke.

Luke 21:25-36 concerns what has already happened (the fall and destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD) and the final day of reckoning all underpinned and overseen by the "coming of the Son of man in a cloud" (refers back to Daniel). We are living in the gap as I said two weeks ago between the inauguration of God's kingdom and the final end when "heaven and earth will pass away" as it says in verse 33. What does that mean “when heaven and earth pass away?  
The Christian hope is in a renewed physical resurrection body in a renewed world where "heaven and earth" are no longer separate but one place because heaven comes down to the earth. If we want a vision of our hope in words we can do no better than refer to the book of Revelation 21: 1-4 which says;

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’

This my friends is the Good news. The Good news that started in Bethlehem when Jesus was born. Good news for all mankind.

In the end, no matter how broken and bruised we may be, how shattered and hurt by events in life. The faith we have says that in the end, all will be well and all manner of things will be well as Julian of Norwich wrote many centuries ago.

Monday, 23 November 2015

The feeding of the 5000

A reflection on the feeding of the 5000 and (John 6: 1-15) and Daniel 5 – The writing on the wall.
John’s gospel does not have miracles – John always describes them as signs. That is very important because what does a sign do? It points you to something else.
Do don’t stand mesmerised by the sign itself, you look to see where it leads.
The first and greatest sign, the keynote sign of John’s gospel in the turning of water into wine. The essence of that sign is that it is the gospel in miniature. The water of our existence – our lives - are transformed by the Spirit of God into something much richer and intoxicating by the gospel of Jesus Christ.
And all the signs in John’s gospel relate back to that foundational keynote sign.
John and of course Jesus wants us to look through and beyond the actual sign itself to see something more. Of course, many have no insight and don’t see beyond the event itself and Jesus rebuked those who after the feeding of the 5000 followed him just because they thought they might get another free meal rather than any notion of getting an insight into God.
And this is one of the tie-ins with the story of the writing on the wall in the book of Daniel. Understanding and interpreting the sign was in the gift of Daniel, a man who walked closely with God. The reason God withdrew his favour from the King was basically for idolatry. The definition of idolatry is worshipping that which is not God. Worshipping the creation instead of the creator.
That can be a stone or wood idol as in the case of the king in that story or it could be an addiction to pride and self sufficiency (making ourselves God), or the love of money, or position, or possessions.    
God is Lord and creator of all. He gives and sustains all life and redeems it also. He is the final arbiter. Everything we have is a gift from God. In the realms of science and technology, nothing is created. We discover things. Things that were already here and have always been here since the creation of the world. We manipulate things and piece things together. We make wonderful things that make life more comfortable. We manipulate and fashion things out of what was already here using our God-given ingenuity.
What doesn’t change is the human condition. We are not innately cleverer than our forebears – we stand on others shoulders. In fact for all our technology and comfort nowadays we are unhappier with our lot than ever before. The social fabric disintegrates as the family collapses, we lead selfish, greedy, ultimately unfulfilling lives. Stress and stress related illnesses and depression are rampant.
Life for many is empty and pointless. There is a gaping void in their lives which of course they try and fill and dull with drugs, alcohol, promiscuous sex, novelty or various obsessions . The reason given in the Bible is that we live short-circuited lives because we don’t know, recognise or acknowledge the giver of life itself as the creator and importantly the sustainer of all things. God sustains as well as creates.

The shorthand symbol for that sustenance in the Bible is bread, the meal. The shared meal is the way of restoring and nurturing relationships both between humans and between humanity and God. And the favoured way of describing the fulfilment of all things is the heavenly banquet where we will eat with God as the host, which is why the shared meal is the central act of Christian worship, which is based in part on the wider message of the feeding of the 5000. God is in ultimate control and in and through Christ he will feed us and fill us abundantly. In that story, if you remember, afterwards there was so much left over that they could fill twelve basketfuls with food.  This means He has more than enough love to go around for us and for everyone else.  

Christ the King.

When you listen to Jesus speak in the gospels you will have heard him refer to himself as “the Son of Man”. In fact that was his favourite way of referring to himself as in....”Foxes have holes and birds have nests but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20). Now, unless you know the Biblical reference all the connotations wrapped up that phrase will pass you by.
Jesus is referring to, and identifying with, a character that appears in the book of Daniel in this wonderful prophetic vision  which starts with God himself, referred to as the “ancient of days”. The white clothing and white hair denotes eternity and wisdom, the fire denotes purity and holiness.
The climax of this vision is when one like a “Son of Man” or “like a human being”(NRSV translation) is presented to God and this “Son of man” is given dominion and glory and kingship.
Jesus is quite definitely taking upon himself this persona, this mantle, when he uses this phrase.
So when Daniel writes about this kingship being everlasting and indestructible, he is prophesying the everlasting indestructible kingship of the risen Jesus. And today this Sunday is denoted “Christ the King”
The book of Daniel is written in a particular Hebrew idiom called “Apocalyptic” and the most well known piece of apocalyptic literature in the New Testament is the book of revelation. It is impossible to understand Revelation without reference to the book of Daniel and Revelation takes this image and expands it and boldly states that this everlasting kingdom is the slain and risen Jesus, the first-born from the dead.
The first-born note. He is the first of many to follow, and we the saints will follow and be in that number, as the famous hymn says;
The first-born from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth and has freed us from our sins by his blood. And then revelation says something rather interesting which refers back to my sermon last week. Verse 6, says “he made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father”. Reference to a common priesthood yet again note, and not a separate caste.
And this picks up a yet more extraordinary sentence in the book of Daniel. It isn’t in our piece we heard today but if you read on in verse 27 it says this;
The Dominion given to Jesus in verse 14 of Daniel, in verse 27 that dominion is given to “the people of the Holy ones of the most high” That is us! Quite extraordinary; Jesus reigns through us!
This chimes with Saint Paul’s description of the church as the “body of Christ”. How is Christ’s dominion exercised on earth? Christ’s dominion is exercised through his body on earth, the church. He works and exercises his rule and power through us by his Holy Spirit. How is Christ present to us here today, now. He is present by his Holy Spirit, the eternal Spirit, the same Spirit that rested on Jesus when he was baptised by John. The Spirit that guided Jesus is the same spirit that dwells in us and when we attune ourselves to the Holy Spirit we do Christ’s work.
I am reminded of that great prayer written by St. Theresa of Avila.
Christ has no body now, but yours.
No hands, no feet on earth, but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which he looks
With compassion on this world.
What a responsibility and privilege we have because we can do the work of Christ ourselves.
And now we turn to the gospel passage itself. That Jesus was crucified with the charge against him fixed to the cross “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” is one of the best attested facts in the ancient world.
It is good to realise at this point that crucifixion, although common was not the punishment for any old misdemeanour. Crucifixion, a particularly cruel and unusual punishment was reserved for sedition, for enemies of the state, so that even the so-called thieves on the cross would also have been involved in anti-Roman activities.
Jesus was crucified as an enemy of the state, perceived as a political rival to the Roman empire and particularly the Roman state.
For the early Christian church, we nowadays have little idea how dangerous it was to proclaim Christ as “King” for to proclaim Christ as King meant that you owed your allegiance to Him and not to Caesar. To proclaim Christ as king is a political statement, and indicates whose authority you recognise and who you obey, and if properly understood can be as dangerous today as it was then and just as potent. Consider Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu or the liberation theologies in South America.
With those people in mind it is time to consider the nature of this kingdom to which when we acknowledge Christ as King we belong.  
The authority of Jesus comes not from the world but from his intimacy with the Father, and so by default so must ours.
Jesus was a witness to the truth about ourselves and about God and he testified to the truth not only by his words but by his acts and his death. He suffered for the truth and if we listen to his voice we will be on the same road and must expect opposition. But our comfort is to be found in the knowledge that in testifying, and contending for truth we are continuing His work in building the Kingdom of God.
Going back to where we started in the book of Daniel, the beasts that emerged from the sea, who represented the evil kingdoms of the earth (modern purveyors of evil like Islamic state are just one of scores of examples past and present) will be subject to divine judgement and on earth they will be overcome ultimately not by a similar and opposite force, but by faithfulness to goodness and truth.

That is who are and will be, a community bound together by the Hoy Spirit and faithful to the goodness and truth revealed in Jesus Christ, the man whose authority and leadership we recognise, our King Jesus Christ. 

Monday, 16 November 2015

The wheat and the Tares

The parable of the wheat and the tares or weeds is deceptively simple.
The word of God has been sown in the world – this tremendous energy has been released and Jesus apparently just says, stand back and watch the kingdom grow.
But the word has been sown into a sinful world and it is a fact of life that within as well as without the world, saints and sinners co-exist.
Bad, sinful and hypocritical people will stand alongside the faithful in any church assembly. Wheat and tares apparently look very similar, and this parable is a warning against too much weeding. Although this must be seen in the light of other parts of the New Testament where there are warnings against the influence of evil men and women and what to do about it when they try to malignly influence the assembly of the faithful. The difference appears to be that the people to be challenged and in the end judged and excommunicated are overtly sinful and most importantly obviously and blatantly unrepentant. So, seen in that light this parable would appear to be aimed against the not so obvious sinner, the secret sinner if you will.
The message of this parable is that God knows the secrets of our hearts and on the day of judgement we will have to give a full account of ourselves and everything will be brought into the light. So we interpret the parable in the light of the wonderful words of psalm 95 that sees God as creator and redeemer and judge of the whole world. We, however are not fine tuned enough to make such a perfect judgement in ambiguous cases. In these cases, Leave that to God, says this parable
And anyway, there is always the hope that any weed can also turn and be saved as well along the way for God’s arms are never too short to save.
So essentially, we can’t know the secrets of anyone’s heart (unless they directly start working against the interests of the body of Christ of course, which leaves us in no doubt) so, if in doubt, hold fire, for judgement belongs to God.  
What we do instead is build people up and encourage people and exhort people to grow in faith and commitment without judgement and through our good works and good example encourage people to look deep within themselves to see their need of God and to turn to him in faith. That is our role as a Christian family – to love and serve people in the hope that through our faith and good works people will be moved to respond positively, after all there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than 99 people who don’t need to repent..

So I invite us to pray for the family of Holy Saviour church that we grow together, and support each other and nurture each other to repentence.

Endings and beginnings

Endings are always also necessarily  beginnings and they can be traumatic.
This is pertinent to me personally in the trauma of leaving one place and starting another and is true for  this church in particular. In both cases, whatever has gone before is finished – over. So what is going to happen next is a question that quite naturally will be looming large in your minds.
A new man, a new ministry, a new way of thinking and doing things will happen, though perhaps not immediately. I did note that at the rehearsal our Archdeacon prayed that I be gentle and I did take that on board. But whatever I bring that might be deemed new be assured that what underpins them will be timeless and unchanging. I will be building upon the unchanging solid rock of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
We will be a Christ centred Spirit led church. And that good news of Jesus Christ is what is being articulated here so clearly in the letter to the Hebrews that we heard this morning;
Hebrews is talking about the High priesthood of Christ - our one mediator needed between humanity and God.
So let me make one first thing perfectly clear. You don’t need me to gain access to God. I am not your mediator, Christ is. We are the priesthood of all believers because as a Christian we have our great high priest living in our hearts. That is how we have access to God. When I was ordained I did not become a priest. I, like all Christians shared in that common priesthood already. When I was ordained I was designated a catalyst, leader and teacher of the faith. Seeing things through the lens of proper Biblical theology rather than the traditions of men will always set you on the right track. Those who have ears...let them hear.
With the Spirit of Christ living within us we have unbroken unmediated access to God at all times. As the writer of Hebrews says we have confidence to enter the sanctuary of God through his very flesh. Notice the use of the carnal word flesh, rather than the word body.
The use of the word “flesh” is meant to underline the full humanity of Jesus.  This is very important, for if Jesus was not human in every single way he was not really one of us, and therefore he didn’t really suffer, and he really didn’t die. But he did truly suffer and he did truly die. He travelled the same path that every human being must tread.
And therein lies the true glory of the good news. Jesus the man, who suffered and died, was raised from the dead. This earth shattering event is the pivot around which all history revolves. But the glory came, and only could come through pain and suffering and death. To borrow the final phrase from our reading from Mark today – this was just the beginning of the birth pangs. Jesus’ end was also a new beginning.
The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the cornerstone and guarantor of our faith. Without the resurrection we have no faith, but faith in the resurrection is our guarantee that we will all share that glorious future if we repent and believe the good news. We have eternal life asour personal possession right now. We are saved, we are born again. We also have the pleasure and pain of doing God’s will no matter where that leads us and we look forward to a future where there will be no more pain, no more tears, where justice is done, where everything is put right.  
We, the church believe that we are living in that time between the resurrection of Christ when our future was actually revealed to us in historical time, and the final end, the Day of the Lord when all things will be made new, when there will be a new heaven and a new earth and we will be given resurrection bodies that will never decay.
So we are living in that gap. Christians don’t need a De Lorean car in which to travel forward in time. We have seen the future. We know our ultimate future. Which leaves the question....what now? What are we supposed to do we do with this privileged insight into our end and the end of all things?
Well the Bible is perfectly clear about what we do in the mean time. In the power of God’s Spirit we work to bring in the kingdom whenever and however we can. We are to repent of our sins and become disciples of Christ. Lifelong learners and perfecters of  God’s will as revealed to us in the life, death, teaching and resurrection of Jesus, in the Bible through the same Holy Spirit that rested on Jesus at his baptism.
Christ lives in our hearts by faith by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. A Spiritless church is worse than useless. Jesus had a phrase for such people and things – he called them whitewashed tombs. Looks great on the outside, all shiny and new and impressive on the outside , but just like a tomb, is dead on the inside.
Every church has the implicit choice to make between being a Christ- centred, Spirit led church that makes disciples of its members and being a whitewashed tomb. And understanding this is vital for our flourishing.
Let me start with some uncomfortable truths.
The Church of England is dying. And our dying is going to accelerate because tThe demographic time bomb that most church of England members are pretty aged  means that in about twenty years, the C of E will pretty much cease to exist.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. At the same time that the church as a whole has been in steep decline, parts of the church of England have grown enormously, bucking the trend entirely. Outside of the C of E, in the North East alone 125 new churches have started and are flourishing. What do those parts of the C of E that are growing and those new churches have in common. They are evangelical and Pentecostal in nature.  What does that mean? They are Christ centred, Spirit led, and adhere to Biblical authority. They take discipleship and commitment seriously. They study and discuss God’s word.  They offer lively contemporary worship.
That leaves us with some interesting options doesn’t it?
Will we choose life or death?
I have a vision for this church where we have to put on extra services because people can’t all fit in at once. A place where people from 5 to 95 flock to experience the presence of Christ and to grow in the faith – a place where God is known through His son Jesus Christ, for there is salvation in no other.
That doesn’t mean throwing out babies with the bathwater. I have already seen all that is good and true and worthwhile happening here. We can justly rejoice in everything that is already happening and sustaining people’s faith, but if we are not moving forward we are going backwards. We build on some things, alter the balance of some other things, we start new things and we do it together.
People of God, friends, can we catch that vision together to grow this church in both depth and in numbers? I know and can see the potential with my own eyes.
I am really excited by the potential in this church. I’m sure that I can feel and detect the excitement in many people here. We need to validate, nurture and set free all that potential.  run with it, make it happen. Together we make Holy Saviour a church fit for purpose for the 21st century?  Corporately can we go forward as God’s family. Can we, as Hebrews extols us, provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another as we mach on towards our glorious future.  

I am sure that with God’s help we can and we will.