Monday, 20 March 2017

Come to me and drink.

Exodus 17: 1-7 (page 59 in our pew Bibles) God provides water in the wilderness for his unruly and quarrelsome people.
Romans 5: 1-11 (page 942 in our pew Bibles) We have peace with God and access to God's Grace through faith so we can rejoice at all times, even when we are suffering. In fact suffering produces endurance, character and hope.
John 4: 5-42 (page 888 in our pew Bibles) Jesus offers everyone who comes to him in our metaphorical "spiritual wilderness" living water that wells up to eternal life.

The reason for putting the Exodus reading alongside John 4 is perfectly obvious.
When the Jews – God’s people were wandering in the wilderness and feeling increasingly remote and distrustful of God, through Moses, God provided them with water to drink and slake their thirst.
Wind forward 1,500 years and Jesus offers everyone who feels that they too are walking in the wilderness spiritual water that doesn’t just slake our immediate thirst but is a present continuous gift that never leaves us. We are incorporated into the Kingdom of God and this gift goes with us wherever we are and in whatever circumstances we find ourselves. The story of the woman at the well is a fantastic parable with so much depth but I’ll return to some of those insights a little later.
Because  the results of possessing that spiritual water is exactly what Paul is writing about in his letter to the Romans. Building on what Paul said last week, and written again here – we have access to God’s Grace through faith –  Paul is interested in how this works in a human life – how does it improve your life? Paul says that the natural outcome of faith is that is it produces a sense of peace. Peace in all circumstances.
Peace is a state of mind and being that we possess despite our circumstances. Whether we are happy or sad, whether we have just encountered success or failure, a new birth or a death, we always have at the very centre of our being, the spirit of God who guarantees our present and future incorporation in the Kingdom of God. We have the “peace” that we celebrate in every Eucharist and will celebrate again today.
Peace is a product  of the permanence of the Spirit of God, and the knowledge and trust in our state of possessing eternal life in a glorious re-creation that enables us to rejoice in whatever position we find ourselves.
In good times or bad times – it doesn’t matter - we still possess the presence of God, our guarantor of eternal life, we know we are loved and that is why we can rejoice in bad times as well as the good times.
I used to watch TV shows when prisoners would say that their conversion to Christianity gave them Freedom and I used to wonder what they meant. But even while they were caged behind bars, inside they were free. Despite their circumstances, they knew they were forgiven, loved by God, and had eternal life.
In fact Paul goes one step further and says that actually the bad times can be wonderful learning experiences and can be used to build endurance, character and hope.
Another important facet that Jesus tells us through his encounter with this Samaritan woman is that where you go to worship God is not the right question. John 4:23 Jesus tells us that true worshippers of the Father will do so in Spirit and truth. It is not a question of where, but how!
You can have a scenario where a prisoner in prison can have truer worship than a cardinal in the Sistine chapel if the cardinal is half hearted and hiding something, or feeling proud and pleased with himself, rather than a prisoner who admits the truth and reality of his situation, seeks forgiveness and approaches God in sincerity, humility and truth.
In another place Jesus tells us a parable about just that scenario in his parable (Luke 18:9-14) about the tax collector and the Pharisee.
It is one of the few occasions when Jesus unambiguously announces that He is the promised Messiah 4:26) and not just for the Jews but for all people because of course this woman was not Jewish.
Jesus says (John 10:10) when asked why he had come, he answered “That they may have fullness of life”. One of the meanings of this short saying is that Jesus wants the possession of the water of Life, God’s spirit to improve our present life;
To gain a new perspective on life in general and your own life in particular;
To gain Peace – Peace with God, peace with others and peace within yourself based on the assurance we have in God’s promise of forgiveness and eternal life.
To gain Endurance, character and hopeful outlook on life.

Jesus offers us the water of life. All we have to do is echo the words of this Samaritan woman and say “Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty”.

Monday, 13 March 2017

Amazing Grace!

Genesis 12: 1-4 (page 8 in our pew Bibles) Abram is the Father of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, a man from Mesopotamia (current day Iraq) who obeys God's instruction without question to set off for the land of Canaan. Abram means "Exalted Father" but after God confirms the covenant with Abram by way of circumcision he renames him "Abraham" which means "Father of a multitude."   
Romans 4: 1-5, 13-17 (page 941 in our pew Bibles) Paul uses the example of Abraham to explain why Grace (the free gift of God) is superior and came long before the law of Moses. Paul quotes from Genesis 15:6 "Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness" to explain that Grace made effective by Faith is superior to following the law.
John 3: 1-17 (page 887 in our pew Bibles) We must be born again by the Holy Spirit says Jesus to see the Kingdom of God. Otherwise we display the dead hand of legalism and intellectualism alone. The Spirit is part of the three fold being of God so without the Spirit our faith is dead (detached from the living reality of God) comes alive in God.(A spring of living water welling up to eternal life - John 4:14)  

Grace is a word we all know if only through the cliché “There but for the Grace of God go I” or through the words of the Hymn “Amazing Grace”, and it is central to understanding Christianity so I feel it needs a working definition.

Grace is the completely free and unmerited favour and love of God.

“Free and unmerited” are very important words for they mean that it costs you nothing at the point of need – just like the NHS in fact, but just like the NHS it doesn’t cost nothing to provide it free at the point of need, it costs the country billions and Grace cost the self-sacrifice of Jesus Christ to provide Grace free to you at the point of need.
It is God’s Grace that saves us but that Grace is only made effective in someone’s life if we can appropriate God’s grace and we do that through faith.
When we believe in God’s unmerited love for us – it is then that we reap the benefits in our lives.

This is the big idea behind Paul’s writings, the very foundation of Christianity and was the fuel that fed the protestant reformation of which we, the Church of England are an integral part.

Following the Spirit of the law is a great thing, a necessary response to Grace, but it doesn’t save you in and of itself.

This is the central idea preached by Paul and retrieved by the reformers and is the motor of true Christianity. Paul uses the example of Abraham and Moses to emphasise the point. Abraham came well before the law was given to Moses so Paul says, being made right with God through faith was always the first and original idea that preceded following the law which the Jewish religion had come to rely on as the prime way of pleasing God.

Believing in what God has done for you in Jesus is the only way to please God, to be made righteous in God’s eyes and to be given eternal life.

In the beginning of John’s gospel John has already said that believing in Jesus is what gives us the right become God’s children (John 1:12) and it is this and the resulting gift of the Holy Spirit that we all need.

Nicodemus needed it; Nicodemus was a very religious man, a religious leader who knew the scriptures backwards, yet Nicodemus had missed, despite his great learning the very heart of the faith.
Jesus said those immortal words “You will never enter the kingdom of God unless you are born again” says Jesus.

You might be able to quote the entire Bible from memory and attend every service but until the Spirit of God comes a living reality in your heart, your religion will remain dull, lifeless, and unexciting and devoid of the only thing really worth having – which is God himself – living in our hearts and minds by his Spirit.

That was true for Nicodemus and I’m sure true for a lot of Christians ever since as well.
It is a situation that we can fall into time and again which is why Paul says we should pray to keep being filled with the Holy Spirit

Is our religion dull and lifeless and operates along rusty rail tracks or living and active and as fluid and surprising and refreshing as the wind?  That is not me asking you the question, that is Jesus asking us (as his church) the question.  

Is Jesus for us a living connection with God or just a man who died about 2,000 years ago who we follow as a great moral teacher, at a distance.

A solution to us becoming personally and corporately closer to God is prayer – both privately and corporately.

And instead of just leaving it there hanging in the air, I want to invite everyone to close their eyes, find as much inner peace as you can muster and pray with me;

Come Holy Spirit, come blow into my life like the wind.
Prompt and move me to move closer to our Father. Set me in the stream of your Spirit to cleanse and refresh me.
Help me to grow into the person you want me to be and an instrument of your love.

Monday, 6 March 2017

Christ brings life and freedom

Genesis 2: 15-17, 3: 1-7 (page 2 in our pew Bibles) Attainment of the knowledge of good and evil makes humankind like God, and as far as we know, no other creature possesses this awareness. But while we are like God in this respect, that doesn't mean that we are able to cope with good and evil. In the narrative in Genesis, this actually culminates in such chaos and evil that God decides to destroy the world in a universal flood. Only the eternal God and not limited humanity can bring it to a resolution.
Romans 5: 12-19 (page 942 in our pew Bibles) Paul's main point here is to compare and contrast the impact of Adam's disobedience with Christ's obedience with the emphasis on "how much more" are the positive effects of Christ's act of righteousness compared to Adam's sin. Though Paul never articulates a universal salvation and actually differentiates between those who are being saved and those who are perishing (1 Corinthians 1:18) the logic of his theology pushes in that direction. Certainly the only assurance we can have of our personal salvation is to believe the gospel.  
Matthew 4: 1-11 (page 809 in our pew Bibles) The purpose of the passage is to explain Jesus' rejection of the temptation to depart from God's will in contrast to the people of Israel's departure from God's will in their 40 years in the wilderness between the exodus and their entry into the promised land. The replies of Jesus are all from Deuteronomy (8:3, 6:16, 6:13) and refer to the manna, and the golden calf. Jesus wins through where the Israelites failed.

The themes highlighted in each of today’s readings demand a book written on each one so condensing each of them into one cohesive whole is a major task.

One of the themes highlighted in Genesis is our ability, unique to humankind as far as we know, to discern and make moral choices, and our inability to cope with that responsibility, until Jesus thousands of years later does so in his life.
In Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness we have a direct comparison with how the Israelites fared and failed in their wanderings in the wilderness after the exodus. To ram home the contrast, Jesus’ replies to the Devil are all taken from Deuteronomy which refer to the Israelites where they failed in the wilderness, particularly to their reaction to the manna and the making of the Golden calf.

Where the Israelites tried and failed to live in a perfect relationship with God, Jesus triumphed. The whole of what God was trying to achieve through the Israelites – to be a light to the gentiles and a way to God – was now to pass to a single human being, Jesus, the embodiment of a “perfect Israel” in a single person.   

What do we mean when we say that Jesus was without sin? It means that Jesus shared a perfect unbroken relationship with God, where Sin is understood as a broken relationship with God.
This was demonstrated in the first prompting of the Holy Spirit. Jesus had just been baptised and at his baptism the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form and the words of God said “This is my son, the beloved, with him I am well pleased”

But the first act of the Holy Spirit was to drive Jesus out into the wilderness! If you read the text (verse 1) it was God’s Spirit that drove Jesus into the wilderness, to prove his worth, to be tested. And where Israel had been found wanting, Jesus was found to be unshakable and rejected the temptation to use his relationship with God for his own personal gain or for power.
Jesus followed God’s will all the way to the cross. He didn’t want to die but as you remember he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Yet not my will but yours”

As the first person to actually remain in perfect communion with his Father without rebelling, and exuded the same ability to make perfect moral choices as the Father himself, the “Jesus event” effectively reversed the Sin of all humanity that was introduced and explained by the Biblical story of Adam and Eve.
Sin came into the world through one man – Adam – and was taken away from the world by one man – Jesus.

This is explained by Paul in our reading from his letter to the Romans this morning. The text can be a little dense but in verse 18 he makes it clear that “as one trespass (Adam) led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness (Jesus) leads to justification and life for all men.

God’s offer of new life, eternal life, to all, is an offer made freely and can be received freely by all people everywhere without exception. It is made effective in our lives through faith, so life is not just life after death but fullness of life before death.