Monday, 26 February 2018

Get behind me Satan!

25th Feb. - 2nd Sunday of Lent

Genesis 17: 1-7, 15-16 (page 11 in our pew Bibles) God's covenant with Abram is marked by a name change. Abram means "exulted father" and Abraham means "father of many"
Romans 4:13-end (page 941 in our pew Bibles) Abraham's covenant with God is used by Paul to show that faith exceeded works in the economy of salvation
Mark 8: 31-end (page 844 in our pew Bibles ) Jesus rebukes Peter for trying to thwart the will of God despite being done for good intentions.

A sign of the divine initiative and grace that accompanies the new covenant is the granting of new names.
Abram- exalted Father becomes Abraham – Father of many
Sarai – which means mockery – becomes Sarah – which means princess.

But more important than the meanings of the names is the simple fact of the change that is important.

Kings adopted new names on their accession to the throne (as traditionally British monarchs have done so as well)
Their new names denote a new status and a new set of responsibilities.
Abraham and Sarah as the progenitors of “many nations” and their faith being “reckoned to them as righteousness “ by God happened way before Moses and the giving of the law.

As having faith in God led Abraham to be made righteous in God’s eyes preceded the Jews being made righteous by following the laws given through Moses, this is the basis of Paul’s argument that Christians are saved by faith in God’s Grace.

It was the re-discovery of this doctrine in the middle ages that faith is sufficient for salvation that led to the massive upheaval in the Catholic church that led to schism in the West and the start of the Protestant church, the greater emphasis on the centrality of scripture (to keep the church institution and priests in check and true to God) and of course through a series of ups and downs to the Church of England.

We believe that it is by Grace that we are saved, made effective by faith. We are not saved by being loyal to the rules of the church or doing good works to earn our salvation.
It is God alone that can save us.

And of course it is common to all Christians that God is incarnate in Jesus Christ.
So we are saved by faith in Jesus Christ.
We are made righteous by believing that all our sins are forgiven and we are made one with God through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross.

So the cross is put centre stage.

Jesus began to teach his disciples that this suffering and death was necessary but Peter out of compassion for his friend and mentor began to remonstrate with Jesus to try and persuade him out of it.

It is laudable that Peter wanted to save Jesus from this awful fate but misguided.

This was the will of God, and to stand in the way of the will of God is the work of the devil.
Jesus says to Peter “Get thee behind me satan”

And this was directly after Peter had been the only one perceptive enough to recognise Jesus as he really was when he proclaimed “You are the Christ”

This is very human of course. Able to have great insight and perception one minute and be able to get things completely wrong in the next.

How we are made one with God is a massive and complex subject. I am greatly influenced by Easter Christianity and they place a much greater emphasis on the incarnation when atonement happens. When you think about it at Christmas we celebrate the joining together of God and man in one person so in the word made flesh we see atonement (at-one-ment) there, but even while accepting that; in the picture of the cross we have something much more potent and necessary.

The clash of kingdoms, the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world, the potent symbolism of a sacrifice for sin taken from the Temple cult. The validation of everything Jesus was and embodied, the victory of Good over evil, was  given us on the third day, when the illusion of a victory on behalf of evil was decisively overturned for ever and the gates of heaven were flung open to all who had faith in the resurrection of Jesus.

Ultimately, salvation is not something that any of us has to reach up for or is forever just out of reach.
Salvation is the very ground we stand on and can confidently build our lives upon this rock. 

Monday, 12 February 2018

This is my son. Listen to him!

2 kings 2: 1-12 (page 307 in our pew Bibles) The original "Chariots of fire!" when the prophet Elijah is taken up into heaven
2 Corinthians 4: 3-6 (page 965 in our pew Bibles) The light of the gospel is veiled from many people who can't see the glory of Jesus - particularly pertinent in modern Britain perhaps?
Mark 9: 2-9 (page 844 in our pew Bibles) The Transfiguration of Jesus might fit better in Epiphany you'd think, but also brings the tragedy of the impending crucifixion into sharper focus

There are two people in the old testament who apparently don’t die and they are Enoch (Genesis 5:24) and Elijah who was taken up into heaven on a fiery chariot.

Perhaps because of this, the tradition that Elijah would return to herald the messiah grew as we explored in Advent, Jesus saw John the Baptist fulfilling that role.

Elijah also came to symbolise the entire tradition of the prophets to the Israelites which is why he appears at the Transfiguration in our gospel story today.

As a side issue, when Elisha requests a double portion or double share of his Spirit that isn’t being greedy; what is meant by that is that he wants the two thirds share in the estate that is inherited by the eldest son from his father  (Deut 21:17). What this means is that Elisha wants to be Elijah’s successor, his heir to this pre-eminent prophetic role.
But today it is not the prophetic tradition or the law that is being focussed on, it is the glory of God shining out from the face of Jesus Christ.

When Paul and his gospel are being questioned or derided, he returns to that gospel with increased fervour. He says of his and his helpers’ ministry
“For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake”

When Paul talks about the gospel being veiled from People let’s not forget he was talking out of his own experience. Paul or Saul as was known originally knew enough about Jesus to persecute the young church and it needed a tremendous religious experience or encounter with God to persuade him otherwise. The power and magnitude of that experience, forcing Paul to make a decision is what affected George Appleby and at his funeral on Friday Paul’s conversion story was read at his funeral.
Which brings us nicely to another mysterious but powerful God event known in the trade as a theophany.

In the transfiguration, the miracle happens to Jesus rather than being done by Him.

There are other places in Mark where three or four of the disciples are taken apart from the twelve for an event that reveals something about Jesus but what is being revealed here?

Who Jesus actually is in relation to God and the entire Jewish tradition is being revealed here.

Jesus is not one of three, Elijah representing prophesy and Moses the law, for whom Peter has to build three shelters; Jesus is greater than both of them.
His demeanour was dazzling white and then appeared a cloud, which is biblical code for the presence of God and out of the cloud comes the voice of God,
“This is my son, the beloved, listen to Him”

And to stress that point Moses and Elijah disappear leaving only Jesus.
There is a strong contrast being made.

Jesus exceeds all others and is not to be placed alongside any of them. – he is not one rabbi among many.

Faith in Jesus exceeds all other kind of faith in the limitlessness of its demands.

He will die for everybody and what he requires of his followers is the willingness to give him complete assent.

Monday, 5 February 2018

God's untiring care for his creation

Proverbs 8: 1, 22-31(page 532 in our pew Bibles) A beautiful description on the role of "Wisdom" alongside God in the act of creation described as a person just like "the word made flesh"
Colossians 1: 15-20 (page 983 in our pew Bibles) A wonderful counterpart to John's prologue written by Paul describing Jesus as "the firstborn of all creation" 
John 1:1-14 (page 886 in our pew Bibles) Jesus is the "word made flesh" the famous piece unambiguously ascribing divinity to Jesus. 

We start with a lovely light touch description of the creation with God and a female companion “Wisdom” working together to create the world.
The presence of wisdom and her delight in the human race ensure that the creation is far more than a machine that is left to run on its own once it has been made.
The figure of wisdom personifies God’s continual ongoing untiring care for his creation, including care for us, even though we can be so destructive of what God has made. It is this reason that Jews have connected Wisdom with the law (Torah) and why Christians have also connected it with the divine Logos in John’s gospel.
But before we go there I’d like to dwell a while on what Paul wrote in Colossians because this is also a colossal and profound piece of writing.
One of the main problems of the Colossian church, which Paul had heard about but never visited, was syncretism or blending Christianity with other religious beliefs and practices and so a major role of this letter was to explain the absolute comprehensive uniqueness and sufficiency of Christ. Nothing and no one else is needed.
Completeness is the goal of this piece with culminates in the all-encompassing universalist declaration;
“and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things whether on earth or in heaven by making peace through the blood of Christ”
In this piece Paul asserts that “all things in heaven and earth were created” so you see how the word of God and Holy Wisdom are coming very close in function and meaning.
I always say at this point that the greatest church in all Christendom until it was overrun by the Muslims was the Haghia Sophia in Istanbul which I’m sure many of us here have visited.
It is dedicated to Jesus Christ the word made flesh and was called the Haghia Sophia which means the “Holy Wisdom”.
Jesus is God’s overwhelming concern and care for wayward humankind made flesh – like Wisdom in Proverbs “delighting in the human race” and “rejoicing in our world”.

It is because cares and has always cared about us that Jesus was sent to save us.
And so we turn to that central and well known prologue of John’s gospel and the other central motif – that of light.
A light shining in the darkness, a light that enlightens everyone was sent into the world, but not sent as an Angel or a human King with orders for us to kneel before our God but as a  human being who shares all our frailties, is subject to the same temptations, hurts and suffers and can be grieved just like us, will die just as we will die, but was also born just as we are born.
The human face of God is what sets our religion apart from all others. God chose to identify totally with us which demonstrates how much he values and cares for us.
He identifies with us, suffers with us and dies with us, and the greatest gift that he could give us is that because this human being was raised, we will all be raised with Him.