Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Breaking down barriers

Now the context for Peter’s vision we heard today was the Holy Spirit falling on gentiles as well as Jews which you will see there at the end of chapter 10. God breaking down barriers.
The Holy Spirit was poured out on the non Jews before they were baptised. In fact it was this fact that the Holy Spirit had been given to non Jews that lead Peter to exclaim “How can anyone withhold baptism from these people for they have received the Holy Spirit just as we have”
From this thrilling encounter with God who was demonstrating to Peter that He shows no partiality Peter then has to travel to Jerusalem and is forced to defend himself from the charge that he ate with non Jews. Most if not almost all Christians at that time were Jews and many still held on to these prohibitions. They hadn’t fully assimilated all the implications of the Jesus event.
So in his defence he then recounts this extraordinary vision given to him by God. With Peter too, Three times God had to tell him “Get up, kill and eat”, so ingrained were the Jewish food laws, including eating with outsiders so even God had to repeat himself three times before Peter understood that the old order was being turned over, and a new way, a new dawn was breaking.
People who were once separated were being brought together. Old Israel, the chosen people, were being replace by a new chosen people, a new Israel, constituted not by what race or creed you were born into, but constituted by the Holy Spirit who knows no partiality.
A new Kingdom, the Kingdom of God, was near and the people who were to be members of this Kingdom were being gathered together as children of God. You see from this reading this morning that the church is truly Pentecostal in its nature. We are formed and bound by the Holy Spirit.
That same Spirit which confirmed Jesus as God’s beloved son and inspired his nature and character and gave us an example of how to live was passed onto us in Jesus’ life by his teaching and his very being, to us.
And in John’s version of the last supper we get a particularly poignant piece of his teaching. “A New Commandment I give to you, to love one another as I have loved you”
He gives this instruction the very night before he was going to demonstrate the supreme concrete living expression of what love in action looks like . Not soft, not sentimental but one of service. Love in Christ was not demonstrated by sending cards and presents, it was demonstrated by laying down his life for you.
It is a sobering thought that the greatest expression of love for Christians is a man hanging from a cross in agony as his life slowly ebbs away. Loving and sacrificial service even to the point of death is the love that Jesus wants us to show to each other. It is that love that he refers to when he says to us “Love one another as I have loved you”
That’s the depth of love that he is referring to in that phrase. Feeling not up to the task? No, nor me either. But that is still our goal and it is still what we should be working towards in our own journey of faith.
We have been set such a high standard we can reach out and try, and with God’s help we must have that as our standard even if we do fail for Love is the ultimate standard.
In order to keep us going, even when things might seem impossible we have the Spirit to strengthen us but also fantastic, Spirit inspired visions to inspire us and beckon us forwards
One such is the vision we heard today from the Revelation of John. As well as being our vision to inspire us we also receive instruction on the character traits that lie outside of the kingdom of God – things we are to turn our backs on from cowardice and faithlessness and sexual immorality through to lying and much else in between; You could say that all of them  betray a lack of Love and such detestable things will be burned up for they can have no place in the life to come, for as the Apostle John says in one of his letters “God is Love” That is his nature so all that is contrary to his nature has no place in the order to come.
And the vision of the life to come is of a wonderful vision where heaven and earth pass away to be replaced by a future vision where God’s sphere – heaven – and our sphere (earth) are brought together and God will live in our midst.
I started by talking about God breaking down barriers between people and making them one. Here on the cosmic scale he breaks down the dividing wall between heaven and earth and makes them one. Our ultimate future is a resurrection body in a new creation. It is the return to Eden.
We yearn for this future and pray for it every time we pray “The kingdom come, thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven”

“Behold the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people and God himself will be with them as their God.” (4)   

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

I and the Father are one.

Last week I talked about how Jesus said to us “Follow me!”.
Well here we see Peter following Jesus in the most dramatic way. Just as Jesus raised a girl from the dead so does Peter.
Just as Jesus mixed with the ritually unclean like tax collectors and prostitutes so Peter mixes with the ritually unclean like gentiles and tanners (who were ritually unclean because they handled the skins of dead animals.)
You’ll notice that after Peter raised Tabitha (Aramaic) or Dorcas, both of which mean “Gazelle”, in verse 41 he immediately calls the “saints and widows” to come and see that Tabitha is now alive. Why would he do that? Surely not out of vanity or pride as in “Look what I did”. It was to demonstrate that the power and presence of God was with them, that the name of Jesus carried power.
He wanted them to see to enthuse, encourage and strengthen them. Because people NEED encouragement, if they are to flourish, and be enthusiastic about their faith and want to pass it on. 
The New Testament had not been written at this point and Jesus never wrote a book. In fact Jesus never wrote a single word as far as we know, except a scribble in the sand while he was waiting for the crowd to disperse after challenging the crowd to cast the first stone at the woman caught in adultery.
What he consciously did leave is a community - his followers who would spread the good news.
This community was filled with a supernatural force that changed their life and infused their preaching and they also gained strength through demonstrations of God’s power to show that the same Spirit that empowered Jesus also dwelt in the church.
They were also bolstered by seeing remarkable acts of word and deed and they didn’t come any more remarkable than raising the dead!!!
So powerful was this witness, so enthused were the early church that the message became almost unstoppable and Christianity spread like wildfire. Within 300 years Christianity went from being a small Jewish sect from a dusty outpost of the Roman Empire to being the official religion of Rome which when you think about it is so improbable as to be laughable.  That is in itself a testimony to the power of God and how He showed himself in and through that community
People need encouragement and to hear things that pep them up. Built up and encouraged in such a way, people became the difference they wanted to see, a witness to the Christian faith.
And that encouragement comes in many different ways, from raising the dead to hearing  Claire’s testimony about Christianity growing in the prisons last week. It all helps and it connects us to life as it is lived.
And in the flow of history, especially in the early years of the church these disciples willing to testify and encourage and embolden and evangelise by being witnesses to Christ Jesus ran into serious opposition for exactly the same reason that Jesus did. Their insistence that they belonged to another kingdom (the kingdom of God) with another King (Jesus) brought them into sharp confrontation with Caesar and Rome. They shared the same fate as Jesus did. In the periodic persecutions that came their way these witnesses were killed for their faith.
But their refusal to deny their faith even in the face of death became yet another powerful witness to the church
The word for a witness in Greek translates as the word Martyr, (A martyr is literally a martyr) and we turn to our reading from the book of Revelation today where we read of Christian witnesses from every tribe people and language worshipping God, who had been cut down, slaughtered for their efforts but here they are in this mysterious scene from Revelation;
Cleansed, raised, now at peace with the lamb of God as their shepherd, where all tears are wiped from their eyes and at one with the Spirit.
This is a vision of vindication, of hope, that all those who stand up as a witness to Christ even or perhaps especially those who lay down their lives, will enjoy a blessed future.
If we step out in faith, stand against the crowd, proclaim Jesus as Lord, our future is assured and our reward in heaven will be great.
For when we emulate Jesus in large or small ways, we know we are doing what Jesus wants, and know if any reassurance were needed that what Jesus wants is what God wants, because as Jesus says
“I and the Father are one”.
Some young evangelicals wear a wristband to remind them of this fact. It has the letters WWJD on them which stand for “What would Jesus do?” in any given situation. 
Communities can ask themselves that same question and we did on our away day and should be doing so all the time. We asked ourselves what God wanted for our church and as Jesus makes clear in that statement “I and the Father are one” what God wants is what Jesus wants.  Jesus said “Follow me – be my witnesses to the world in word and deed.

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Feed my sheep

I get very emotional when I read that passage from John’s gospel because a long time ago, living on the South coast at the time, and trying to discern whether to go into ordained ministry or not, my wife was praying about it, sitting on our front step looking out over the French coastline and God spoke to her.
The words God gave Alex were “Feed my sheep”
That was all we needed to hear. And that is what I have endeavoured to do ever since, to heed those words and to respond to the words Jesus spoke to Peter at that time;
“Follow me”.
It is a curious thing and a bit startling for some Christians to hear but Jesus never says once “Worship me” but the command to follow him occurs many times.
In that itself there is a parable. That is not to say that we shouldn’t worship Jesus – as God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself – but Jesus never demanded worship – he was in fact one of the most humble of men – but  the emphasis was on getting up and following where he led.
Why should we follow? Well because Jesus invited us to, and because it is the universal witness of the church that when Jesus asks, it is actually God Himself who is doing the asking.
The Revelation of John is easily the hardest book to get our heads around in the New Testament but in last week’s reading from Revelation we heard the phrase the seven Spirits of God who is the Holy Spirit being described as the eyes of Jesus and today in an equally dense and opaque piece from Revelation we have Jesus depicted as the only person in the universe who was qualified to open the scroll that God, the ancient of days, was holding in his hand.
He was described as the Lion of Judah, the root of David who had conquered. Yet when this conquering Lion of Judah was revealed it was in the form of a lamb, and not just a lamb, but a slaughtered lamb.
This slaughtered lamb, symbolising Jesus, was the only one worthy or able or had the authority to open the scroll.
Jesus is a paradox.
He is the conquering lion and also the slaughtered lamb.
He is both carpenter and king
He is meek and compassionate and mighty and courageous.
He is a priest of God and knows what it is like to be forsaken.
He is friend and brother and yet judge and saviour.
It is this combination of extraordinary contrasts that led Thomas to exclaim, almost despite himself, “My Lord and my God” when invited to put his hands into the wounds received when he had been killed.
Our Christian concept of God is unlike any other religion in the world. And in Revelation this slain lamb is offered worship.
When the Spirit speaks to us through worship, through preaching, through scripture, through divine revelation to the writer of revelation, to Alex, sitting on our front door step, we have a definite choice to make – to follow God or not to follow God.
Jesus’ rehabilitation of Peter into the fold was gentle and profound. His threefold denial of Jesus would have cut Jesus to the quick but He knew that Peter was just a frail and flawed person and he re-integrated Peter into the fold by asking him three times – Peter do you love me?
But for others God knew a much more dramatic confrontation was required.
Saul’s conversion to Christianity is the most dramatic, talked about and most important conversion the church ever had. It is reported in the Bible three times in Acts.
It came without warning or any softening up. No period of doubt guilt over the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr whose death Saul had approved.
It was a bolt from the blue, an overwhelming religious experience that left Saul blind. Led to a house in Damascus, it was a member of the Christian community called Ananais that was told in a vision to go and lay hands on Saul for him to receive his sight.
The Christian community is a healing community and it is significant that one otherwise insignificant  Christian man laid his hands on Saul and his sight was restored.
The Christian community is a healing community because we are the embodiment of Jesus on earth, bound and constituted by the Holy Spirit.
Being healed of blindness is in itself an acted parable of the transition from darkness to light, from death to live, from being lost to being found.
From that day on, Saul followed Jesus and became Paul, the greatest evangelist the church has ever known. God chose a murderous anti-Christian to become our greatest evangelist. God’s arms are never too short to embrace, no matter what we have previously believed or done.  That is true anyone here who has not yet given their life to Christ. Forgivenes and salvation are not far away. The kingdom of God is near.

It is within our grasp. All we have to do is to let God take hold of our hand and guide us, to follow in his way, a way that leads to fullness of life, to peace, and the privilege of being to call God our Father and Jesus our friend and brother.  

Monday, 4 April 2016

Breathe on me breath of God

The cross of Christ, shorthand for the sacrifice of Jesus for the sins of the world is tremendously important but it is not the whole of Easter.
The resurrection of Jesus on Sunday is also tremendously important, an event without which Christianity would not exist and in which we see God’s vindication of Jesus and the future of all creation, but that too is not the whole of Easter.
The completion of the Easter event is accomplished through the giving of the Holy Spirit so that the Easter event is given legs in the church to carry the transforming message of Easter to the whole world.
The whole Easter event can be described by the shorthand of Cross, Resurrection, and Pentecost.
And in the Bible there are two stories that describe the giving of the Spirit. One is Pentecost inself, which you will find in the book of Acts and the other we heard in John’s gospel this morning when Jesus breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit”
This happens in John’s gospel  on Easter Sunday. The two different stories fulfill different functions. 
Pentecost in Jesus’ time had become a time when they celebrated the gift of the Torah, also known as the “Law of Moses”. One of the emphasis of Judaism of course was that one day that law would be written on our hearts so having the giving of the Spirit on that day carried enormous significance and also carried with it universal nature of the Spirit symbolised by all the different nationalities present hearing the same message in their own language at the same time.
The giving of the Spirit in John emphasises the connection with Easter and also the moral dimension of the church that “if we forgive the sins of any they are forgiven and if we retain the sins of any, they are retained.
The emphasis given by Luke in Acts and in John’s gospel cannot be separated from eachother. One is not right and the other wrong. We need both.
And this little extract from Acts is a perfect little creedal statement that binds the cross, the resurrection and the preaching in the power of the Holy Spirit together, and is also a lovely Trinitarian statement that binds Father Son and Holy Spirit together. There is no doctrine of the Holy Trinity in the New Testament but these few lines from Acts come as close as you can get.
The completion of Easter is conveyed in verse 32 when the Apostles state;
“And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those that obey him.”
In Revelation the Holy Spirit is described as the “seven spirits” before the throne of God. Seven in the book of Revelation means completeness or perfection, and in the same way John’s revelation is addressed to the seven churches of Asia. Now of course there were more than seven churches in Asia but here symbolically Revelation is being addressed to the whole church as well as individual churches and that includes us of course.
In the messages in Revelation to the seven different churches you can see all the different kinds of churches, their virtues and their deficiencies and we can learn from them because in a way they are simultaneously also being addressed to us.
Even more specifically those letter are addressed to the “angel” of those particulachurches. The Angel of the church embodies the character and general state and health of the church.
Possibly the most interesting exercise on our away day to Alnmouth was trying to discern the character of the Angel of this church, Holy Saviours Tynemouth. The most common image that came through was the image of a wounded angel.
The images chosen depicted hobbling angels, disgruntled angels, angry angels. It is important to note that the character of an angel in not fixed but is just a reflection of the current state because all the message to the churches in Revelation carry an exhortation to change.
Holy Saviours Tynemouth needs to be nursed back to Spiritual health. Recuperation is never a short process, it takes time, and sometimes a patient doesn’t like the medicine, but the medicine has to be taken if the recovery is to be as quick as it can be.
The alternative is to stay on the sickbed and refuse the healing that Jesus offers.
I would characterise Thomas in John’s gospel in that light. A journey from Unbelief to belief, from fragmentation to wholeness, from spiritual death to life, a journey to a place where Thomas could say “My Lord and my God”.
Thomas’ journey is our journey.  Instead of the resurrected body to put our fingers into we have the Holy Spirit to directly experience instead.  This is our inheritance of faith to which we must be true. 
Robert Warren was asked what the church needed to do to survive and thrive and he gave a very interesting answer. Most of all We had to be true to our inheritance of faith. They were named as scripture and the Holy Spirit.

This my friends is how our angel will be nursed back to health.  Through serious engagement with scripture and the Holy Spirit.