Monday, 18 September 2017


Genesis 50: 15-21(page 44 in our pew Bibles) Everyone likes a happy ending. Jacob dies and instead of then turning on his brothers now that the old man is out of the picture Joseph is reconciled to his brothers and interprets the evil they did to him in a wider context that led to good.
Romans 14: 1-12 (page 948 in our pew Bibles) Paul tells us that these second order differences between fellow Christians such as when and what we eat or whether one observes a Sunday or saints day as more Holy than others, are peripheral and should not cause divisions amongst us as long as we are convinced that we are serving God by doing so and recognise the Lordship of Christ.
Matthew 18: 21-35 (page 823 in our pew Bibles) We all know we ought to forgive others but sometimes that seems all but impossible and knowing we ought to just heaps guilt on top of us. This parable is complex but roots all of our own potential forgiving in God's prior forgiveness of ourselves.

The Bible repeatedly tells us to forgive those who have injured us. We know that. The greatest prayer in Christendom – The Lord’s prayer tells us  “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us”

This church will be full of people who know that intellectually there is much to commend forgiveness, in that the letting go of hurts and grudges has enormous mental health benefits, and that we should forgive others. Forgiveness draws a line so we can move on with our lives

And yet we do find it well nigh impossible to do so. Forgiveness is so very hard.

If you have been cheated on by a spouse, or double crossed by a friend or business partner, that leaves you feeling angry, cheated, shamed, defeated, or is terrible,

To then be told that you ought to forgive them, and you just can’t then just adds guilt  to the whole situation which makes everything worse. Burning coals are heaped on your head. 

It is in this context that we should view today’s gospel reading about forgiveness.

In that opening exchange between Jesus and Peter, Jesus says that you should forgive your brother not seven times but seventy seven times. What Jesus is trying to say is that forgiveness is not a commodity that can be calculated on a calculator, and so the language of numbers in inappropriate.

That numbers are inappropriate is illustrated in the parable that Jesus tells;

The king forgives a man who owed him 10,000 talents. We lose the force of this in our modern English translations. That amount is the equivalent to the wages of a day labourer in Palestine for 150,000 years – an absurdly enormous amount. The king represents God and that first servant represents every one of us.

God forgiveness of us is based not in numbers or any kind of justice, but based in mercy - unlimited mercy.

And that servant, us, after being forgiven so much then goes out and can’t even find it within him to forgive a piffling amount.

So what is happening here? Well for one thing the servant is quite deluded because he says to the king, “Oh have patience with me, I’ll repay everything in full” which of course he could never do because, as we have seen it was such a huge sum – his wages for 150,000 years! He imagines he is dealing with the king on the basis of Justice, but he is dealing with mercy.

But also there is a huge gap in this story that we must consider. He was forgiven an extraordinary amount and yet there was no rejoicing, no gratitude and no celebrating with his wife and family, and no reflection on being set free from such a crippling debt.

He hadn’t changed. He hadn’t discovered or appropriated God’s mercy really. He had been given mercy but he hadn’t “received” it. He still thought he was dealing with Justice, numbers, a commodity, so when he came across the other servant who owed him a few Denarii he dealt with him in exactly the same way as he would have before he had been forgiven.

He hadn’t come to see himself as a truly gifted person, a recipient of God’s mercy.
And don’t forget that Jesus is pointing the finger at all of us in this parable.

For one thing, most people see themselves as quite OK really with not much to forgive. We are good people. And just like the servant, we delude ourselves that what we owe is payable and not much is owed anyway. But near the core of the Christian faith is the belief that if we say we have no sin we delude ourselves.

So how does any of this help anyone struggling to forgive others?

As with another seemingly intractable problem like suffering, Christians are not given a pat answer.
We are given instead a dramatic story that portrays the incredible  kindness of God to all of us. We are given a story that shows God dealing with people not by using the scales of justice, even though that is what we want, but deals with people by showing mercy.

Unlike the servant who didn’t appropriate God’s mercy, we are invited to receive and show gratitude for God’s great kindness towards us and let that fact start to soften and change us.

Our forgiveness of others is based in God’s forgiveness of us, which when appropriated produces a sense of gratitude and rejoicing and greater magnanimity .

The differences between us all is slight, just as the difference between the two servants was slight. We do not want to get into the game of playing innocent versus guilty in our personal relationships because that is really not what it is about, but knowing that when we join a Christian community, our base line is that we join a community of forgiven sinners, whose defining characteristic is gratitude, rejoicing and joy.  

Monday, 11 September 2017

Building a healthy church

Ezekiel 33: 7-11 (page 721 in our pew Bibles) Confronted by people who object to the message of coming judgement, the prophet replies that he is like a watchman who has seen the enemy approaching and is issuing a warning to alert the people. If he were to fail in that calling he would be culpable.
Romans 13: 8-14 (page 948 in our pew Bibles) Paul writes "Love does no wrong to a neighbour therefore love is the fulfilling of the law" Works do not save us but we, as Christians are still to fulfill the commandments.
Matthew 18: 15-20 (page 823 in our pew Bibles) The formula for settling disputes are for the greater good of producing a united and coherent community and this results in more effective prayer when we are more united.

How do we deal with disputes within our own church congregation? Well there are guidelines for how to do it in Matthew this morning but what underpins the formula is a very specific understanding of the local church community as a “body” where the cohesiveness of all of our constituent parts is of the highest importance.

And when we talk of “coming to” church rather than “being” church, we betray the fact that in our minds the church is something “other” and outside of ourselves rather being intrinsic to who we are.

The plain fact of the matter is that this building is not the real church – this building houses the church which is all of us gathered together.

The danger of course is that we confuse the two things and end up caring far more about the physical state of the building than we care about the spiritual health of the congregation.

And the formula for settling disputes between ourselves is that we talk to each other first and if then there is still a dispute we get a couple more people involved and eventually the whole church has to make a decision.

It is natural that we try and limit arguments because we have the general spiritual health of the whole church to consider – but why?

Because the church as I’ve said is not this building, it is an organic living breathing entity with a corporate life that must be nurtured otherwise it withers and dies.

We need to be built up in three main ways, spiritually, theologically, and socially.
All need attention and the social side speaks for itself and is the reason we hold dinner clubs and Tynemouth walks and the MU and W3 hold various social events though the year.

Spiritual and theological nurture is more complex but each service is a part of the whole but also courses like Alpha and Christianity explored, and home groups like Dorothy’s group and the various groups I have led are a part of the whole thing.

What underpins all of that is a devotion to God’s truth no matter where that leads us.

Ezekiel was confronted by people who didn’t like God’s truth being prophesied by him and we heard Jeremiah complaining about just the same sort of thing happening to him last Sunday.

It is a lesson for us that God’s truth, however much it might run counter to the prevailing culture, must be preached no matter what and no matter how unpopular that may be.

The sort of God preached in some churches nowadays is just a big soft formless pink blancmange who never has a bad word to say about anyone or anything and offers no transformation , challenge or life.

And this does matter. The most recent British social attitudes survey makes grim reading that in just one year the amount of people professing religious belief has dived decisively below the 50% mark from 52 – 47 and alongside that, the statistics make worse reading for the C of E, in that against our decline, there is one group that has bucked the trend and has actually increased its share of the population and that is the independent evangelical churches who now make up 17% and growing of the total. This gradual long term shift of power is I think in part due to our neglect of the theological and spiritual. We have left a vacuum that others will fill.

But no matter what we do or say it must be done in love – genuine love and Paul reminds us of that this morning.

Whether that be in personal disputes or preaching, we must want the best for everyone, and that best is God’s truth..

When a community starts to coalesce around the central idea that we are a sacrament of God – that we are bearers of the Holy Spirit – and God’s light in a darkened world and not just a collection of diverse people who happen to meet once a week in church we fulfil our vocation.

Being strengthened by the Spirit through the Eucharist helps form us. As we will say later in this liturgy “Though we are many, we are one body because we all share in one bread”

Monday, 4 September 2017

In this world you will have trouble, but.....

Jeremiah 15: 15-21(page 643 in our pew Bibles) An intense and personal dialogue between God and Jeremiah. Following God has brought Joy but also intense pain and anguish and led to isolation and suffering. Being caught up in the mystery of human redemption involves pain.
Romans 12: 9 - 21 (page 948 in our pew Bibles) Short pithy sayings concerning how Christians should deal with each other even in times of suffering and how best to respond to persecution.
Matthew 16:21 - 28 (page 822 in our pew Bibles) Jesus rebukes Peter for trying to shield Jesus from suffering and death, saying that he has set his mind on the things of man and not the things of God.The mystery of divine suffering spoken of by Jeremiah reaches its climax on the cross.

In John 16:33 Jesus says “In this world you will have trouble but take heart I have overcome the world”

Pain and suffering and opposition and trouble incurred in the process of following God are revealed to be a certainty.

And this is certainly the case for Jeremiah who we heard complaining in our first reading this morning.

For Jeremiah the joy of following and prophesying the will of God was offset by great pain and suffering and lead to his social isolation. He berates God for misleading him and leading him down a blind alley, though caught up in the mystery of God he has no option but to carry on.

The knowledge that he has to go on preaching imminent judgement to a largely deaf audience is like a pain that cannot be dulled.

And in Jesus, the redemption of the whole world was achieved through the suffering and death of Jesus Christ. So central is this to our belief system that we forget how scandalous this sounds.

To Muslims for example, part of their rejection of Jesus on the cross is their refusal to countenance the fact that God could suffer in any kind of way.

In modern society, pain and suffering and of course death are seen as entirely negative things to be stopped by any means and in a general sense that is true. The only place where attitude is modified is in sport where the adage “No pain no gain” has general consent.

We are speaking here of the pain directly incurred as a result of doing God’s will of course and probably the most emotive liturgical service in the Christian calendar is Good Friday – the clue is in the title – that we elevate the personal suffering of Jesus to the level of

Good in the sense that without the suffering the salvation and forgiveness that was
wouldn’t have been achieved without it because He was involved in the eternal spiritual war between good and evil.
We might not like it, but it is the fact of the matter.

But then Jesus says something much more challenging than that.

He speaks to us all directly through his conversation with Peter in the Bible;

For merely supposing that Jesus could or should be shielded from pain and death, Jesus calls Peter Satan. Can you imagine how hurt and confused Peter would have been to be told that?

The Christian way is a hard way, not free from opposition or far from trouble or being isolated or shunned because of what you believe and proclaim. This is normal and while we have been blessed in this country for a long time, those days perhaps may be returning.

And the killer blow comes when Jesus says that if anyone wants to follow Jesus he must take up his cross and follow him.

And it is Important to realise here that the cross was not a shorthand for generalised suffering as in “we all have our cross to bear” in 1st century Palestine. It had a very specific meaning. The cross was a punishment reserved for sedition, for opposition to the state, opposition to the worldly power structures of the day.

If we are to take up our cross it means not being afraid to confront injustice, ungodliness and corruption which undermines dehumanises and controls  whether it is wielded by the state or non-governmental bodies, like the church for example…..

We are called to join in that spiritual struggle for right against wrong wherever that may take us. It may lead us to be ridiculed or sidelined, made fun of perhaps or worse, but Jesus commands us to go on regardless

Our loyalty, my loyalty, is first to God and his gospel as recorded in the Bible. His will and truth come first.
For anyone who does and preaches God’s will and runs up against sanction and retribution we are only feeling a fraction of what Jesus did and we are blessed in the doing.

The Christ event is primarily a clash of kingdoms – the kingdoms of this world versus the kingdom of God which met on a cross on a hillside outside Jerusalem.

On Good Friday it appeared that the worldly powers had won – but that supposed victory was turned around on Easter Sunday

Jesus commands us to embody and pursue the kingdom of God against all worldly systems.

When you do that, Jesus promises that you will provoke opposition often leading to pain, sorrow and death. It is natural that this will happen when we directly oppose the powers of our enemies, because as Paul reminded us in a many chapters on this subject we are in a spiritual war. And we need to be armed.

The Spiritual armour that comforts me most from Paul’s words this morning… is that we don’t go looking for trouble. As long as it has anything to do with you,(he says) live peaceably with all but we should at the same time be zealous, be fervent in spirit, rejoice in hope and be patient when trouble comes and most of all be constant in prayer.   

In prayer we are joined to the Source, the Spirit that promised through Jesus that yes, you will have trouble in this world, but take heart and be strengthened by the fact that I have overcome the world.