Monday, 30 April 2018

I am the true vine

Genesis 22: 1-18 (page 16 in our pew Bibles) In an incident that "proves" the love of Abraham for God, and in a foreshadowing of the sacrifice of Jesus, the "sacrifice of Isaac" is a very important story.
Acts 8: 26-end (page 917 in our pew Bibles) In a picture of evangelical preaching the scriptures need to be opened and explained by spirit led ministers of the gospel.
John 15: 1-8 (page 901 in our pew Bibles) Another of the "I am" sayings from John's gospel. "I am" is also the name of God given in Exodus 3:14 translated into English as "Yahweh".

Let us just imagine for a moment what the media in 21st century Britain would make of a father who set out to kill his own son  on the grounds that God had told him to do it. The sacrifice of Isaac story or the binding of Isaac story (because of course the sacrifice didn’t take place) is at one level highly offensive.

But the story is told to demonstrate a very difficult message to convey; the absolute priority of God’s demands on your life, beyond all normal human duties even to your own family.

It shocks people into taking notice, which is its raison d’etre.

Of course we have a Christian parallel in the sacrifice of Jesus. In the story in Genesis Isaac is old enough and strong enough to carry the wood himself but offers no resistance to Abraham at any point. The parallel with Jesus is stark as Jesus carried his own cross and offered no resistance, but at least in the crucifixion story there are human agents who did it to him. In this story it is at the hands of his own father.

The importance of this story in the tradition of Judaism, Christianity and Islam is evidenced by the Golden Dome of the Rock which is not a mosque but a shrine. Any present day visitor to Jerusalem will know that the site of the land of Moriah, the rock on which this near sacrifice was to have taken place is the rock over which “the dome of the Rock” was built, the most famous Jerusalem landmark, which was also one traditional site of the “Holy of Holies” in the  Jerusalem Temple.

Now it was the Jerusalem Temple that the Ethiopian eunuch had been worshipping and was now returning to Ethiopia.
This story is an integral part of the story of growth and as an Ethiopian represents the far away and exotic though because he was worshipping at Jerusalem and reading Isaiah, he was at least a “god-fearer”, a non Jew attracted to the morality and holiness of Judaism.

As a eunuch he would have not have been accepted in Jewish worship but nothing at all is made of this.
Philip needs to interpret the scriptures, in an early example of evangelical preaching leading to conversion and the receiving of the Holy Spirit, which is the Christian model to this day.

Jesus, speaking in the Spirit in John’s gospel has a number of “I am” sayings such as

The True vine, the good shepherd, the light of the world.

“I am” in this context means a lot more than on the surface.

In Exodus, chapter 3:14 Moses asks God his name and God says “I am who I am. Tell them “I am” has sent you.

So we have deeper layers of meaning here. When Jesus says I am the true vine, he is also saying that God is the true vine and that he is identifying himself with God.

But there is also the comparison with vines themselves. Vines grow slowly and could take about three years to bear any fruit, but in the mean time they need careful tending.

Jesus says he is like the stem of the vine and we, his disciples are the branches.
We can do nothing without abiding in the stem.

Of course, tending the vine also includes pruning. If any part of the branches doesn’t bear fruit, they are pruned, cut off from the stem.
This was also a difference of opinion I had with my training vicar in Margate.

He used to say to me, that we weren’t called to be successful just faithful.

I differed slightly. Taking the gospel imperatives as a whole, we are not just called to be faithful. We are called to bear fruit in accordance with repentance.

Monday, 23 April 2018

Man the lifeboats!

Genesis 7: 1-5, 11-18, 8: 6-18, 9: 8-13 (page 5 in our pew Bibles) The edited highlights of the story of Noah and the flood, ending with the sign that God would never again flood the earth, the rainbow.
Acts 4: 5-12 (page 912 in our pew Bibles) The view of St. Peter that salvation can be found nowhere else except exclusively in Jesus Christ is a scandal to some and a blessed promise and opportunity for evangelism to others.
John 10: 11-18 (page 896 in our pew Bibles) "I am the good shepherd" finds resonance in the 23rd psalm of course and is the most universally well known description of Jesus.

The flood story is significant because God created the world with the natural and moral order in perfect balance. Albeit with one destructive element, mankind.
When the moral order was overturned there were natural consequences.
In the Bible the moral and the natural orders are linked; moral decisions have natural consequences.
That this is more than a Biblical affectation is apparent as we are much more aware of that nowadays when we realise that our actions and decisions can have dire repercussions in the natural world; from extinctions of species, to plastic waste clogging the oceans, de-forestation causing flooding, and a myriad other problems.
God intervenes to try and eradicate the destructive incident, mankind, apart from one family. We are not told why Noah was “righteous” and deserved saving he just was, and only he and his family were the only ones saved out of all humanity.
In the Christian era, sometimes the church has been likened to an ark, carrying the ones destined for salvation, while everyone else perishes, and the Christian rite of baptism as being saved “through” water because originally the rite was full emersion.
Of course we are baptised into God or as it sometimes says in the New Testament baptised into Jesus and it was the name of Jesus which was the contentious factor in our story from Acts.
As I started to say last week the name of Jesus carried power. Jesus means Joshua which means God “saves” or “heals”.
Now verse 12 which ascribes absolute uniqueness to Jesus.
“There is no other name under heaven, given among men by which we must be saved”
And despite modern liberally minded Christians trying to undermine that fact, in our age of pluralism we must acknowledge that if we are to be true to the faith as the Apostles received and understood it we have to say that the church was at its inception exclusive and found salvation nowhere else.
The reality is that the world of the 1st century  was no less plural than our world is now, but the Apostles had no doubts and would go to their deaths believing that.
What drove them was the fact that Jesus was “the way, the truth and the life” and they believed that with every fibre of their being.
This man described himself in various ways but one of the most comforting, even in this technological age, divorced as we are from the countyside is when Jesus said.
“I am the good shepherd”.
Describing yourself as a shepherd was not uncommon and Kingship in general was often equated with shepherding but Jesus said “I am the good shepherd”
Underlying and making a distinction between him and others. The others were like hired hands who wouldn’t risk their lives to protect his own.
He would willingly lay down his life for his own to protect them. He knows us and we know him and we will hear and listen to his voice.
As Jesus might say “Those who have ears to hear, let them hear”

Monday, 16 April 2018

I believe in the resurrection of the body

Zephaniah 3: 14-end (page 790 in our pew Bibles) The prophet foresees the restoration and salvation of Israel 
Acts 3: 12-19 (page 911 in our pew Bibles) Peter attributes the healing of a lame man not to himself but to the saving power of Jesus' name. Of course Jesus' actual Hebrew name Joshua means "God is salvation" The root of the word salvation is "salve" heal 
Luke 24: 36-48 (page 885 in our pew Bibles) As Jesus reveals here our future hope is "resurrection of the body" not a formless purely spiritual future.

It was very important for Luke to emphasise that Jesus’ resurrected body was very real.
“Touch me” he says “for a Spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have”
There are major points of continuity as well as discontinuity between the earthly and the risen Jesus but Luke is keen to show that Jesus is the fulfilment of old testament prophesy and not just a fluke. And because he is fully human he is the only example we have of someone "risen from the dead" with which to work
God’s restored creation, like the original creation, is physical and material.
The continuity and the discontinuity can perhaps be best described by St. Paul when he wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:42 of a rather ambiguous term “Spiritual bodies”. As Paul says also, “we see through a glass darkly”
But this is not just an unimportant academic question. What this means for us is important.
For it says to us that our future is an embodied, and personal one. Our resurrected selves are the whole of ourselves but a new perfected version of ourselves in a perfect re-creation. A new heaven and a new earth as Revelation puts it.
That personhood survives death is important. The Eastern notion of Nirvana has us all as individuals dissolving into the great soul, the one true reality that Is Brahma. Not so in Christianity.
If I were asked whether we would recognise ourselves or each other after death in this new heaven and new earth I would have to say yes. Of course, because Jesus is the prototype and despite some discontinuity he was very much recognisable.
It is important to understand also that there is no pain and suffering or death either. Although he certainly carried the scars of his crucifixion, so what happened on earth was not irradicated as though they had never happened but they were transformed and transcended.
As a sign or symbol of this ultimate re-creation, are the healings carried out by Jesus himself in the gospels and by his disciples in his name.
Names carry power in the Bible – they are seldom incidental.
All the Apostles heal people and Peter of course in today’s story in Acts  heals a lame man, but Peter is not claiming the power to heal himself. It is Jesus’ name that heals.
Jesus is a Greek translation of Jesus’ actual Jewish name of course which is Joshua. And Joshua means “God is salvation”. So the ultimate healer is God the Father, working through his Son, and invoked by Peter to heal and save people.
Salvation of course is not a fashionable word that is used over much except in a religious context. Which is why I find it helpful to think of the root word of salvation which is “to salve” or to heal.
Salvation means the great healing. Jesus came to heal us and set us free. Being made whole is another good way of describing it which is why all the physical healings that Jesus did during his ministry are signs and symbols of that great ultimate healing that awaits all of us in Christ.
It is a great healing and restoration written about and looked forward to by Zephaniah in our Old testament reading that prophesies the messiah;
As with all prophesy and in fact all things pertaining to us as human beings it is best to hear words like them as though they had been written with just you, in mind, so hear them spoken to you personally as I read God’s word to you….
"Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
The Lord has taken away the judgements against you;
He has cleared away your enemies
The king of Israel, The Lord is in your midst;
You shall never again fear evil."


Monday, 9 April 2018

Spirit of the living God fall afresh on me.

Exodus 14: 10-end, 15:20-21 (page 56 in our pew Bibles) God parts the sea for the Israelites so letting them cross in safety.
Acts 4: 32-35 (page 912 in our pew Bibles). An idealised vision of the early church holding everything in common.
John 20: 19-end (page 906 in our pew Bibles). The famous story of “doubting” Thomas. Whatever his original misgivings Thomas went on to India and in AD52 founded the “Mar Thoma” church, which is today two million strong.

It must be really galling to the apostle Thomas, who founded the 2 million strong Mar Thoma church in India that he is forever saddled with the adjective “doubting”.

In fact his words to Jesus when asked to put his hands in Jesus’ hands and his side “My Lord and my God” are the most explicit confirmation of faith in the divinity of Jesus you’ll find in the entire new testament.

Interestingly the text doesn’t say that he actually did touch Jesus at all; just hearing Jesus’ voice addressing him seemed to be all he needed, just like Mary Magdalene in the garden last week.

It seems to be true that the line between honest doubt and deep faith is thinly drawn.

Jesus goes on to say how blessed his future church is for believing while not actually having him standing there in front on them as some kind of “proof”.

What proof do we need to see to believe? What proof do others outside the church need in order to believe?

The answer to that is also given in our short passage we heard today.

The example of the changed and intentional lives of the apostles is the proof that people saw and experienced, that overcame their doubts. And so we need to ask, how were their lives changed?

Remember this is still Easter Sunday in John’s account and when he first met the disciples he sent them out into the world and breathed on them and said “Receive the Holy Spirit”

John’s account does not have Pentecost. Luke’s story of the giving of the HoIy Spirit at Pentecost is well known because it suits the liturgical needs of the church but in John’s gospel the disciples received all the tools they needed for transformation growth and evangelism in that one act on Easter Sunday.

The church is a spirit filled body of people.

I remember being at a conference in Mirfield many years ago when there were representatives from different denominations each expressing their claims to be ancient in origin and the Pentecostal minister got up and said “we are the most traditional church here because our origins spring direct from the Holy Spirit in AD 33.”

He was speaking for effect but he had put his finger on something fundamental.

Any church that is not Pentecostal or charismatic has no connection with the spirit of God which is the very source of our power and the most convincing “proof” that anyone can get.

The proof for others can only be changed lives. And lives are changed by the Holy Spirit.

When people say they have Jesus in their heart, or that Jesus is present in the Eucharist what they are really saying is that God’s spirit is present, for it is the Spirit that makes Christ present.

It was Jesus himself who said that he had to go away but he would send someone else to be with us forever.

It is God’s spirit that leads a church.

The clearest statement that this is true comes at the start of the Eucharistc prayer when I say;
“The Lord (Jesus) is here” and everyone replies…
“His Spirit is with us”.

The whole Eucharist is addressed to the Father, through the Son, and in the power of the Holy Spirit.

 Seeking the Spirit is not confined to one particular brand or type of service.

As our own Bishop Mark has highlighted, a quiet reflective service with incense and candles can be just as charismatic as noisy, overtly evangelical ones.

The form is far less important than the substance.   And it is the substance of our faith that needs to be encouraged.

I shall end with Paul’s powerful prayer for every one of us in Ephesians  which can be appropriated by all Christians

“I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to measure of all the fullness of God.” Ephesians 3: 16-19

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Christ is risen!

Easter Sunday

Isaiah 25: 6-9 (page 586 in our pew Bibles). Isaiah prophesies a time of huge joy when God swallows up death forever and all tears are wiped away.
Acts 10: 34-43 (page 919 in our pew Bibles). Peter details the facts of the good news of Jesus' death resurrection and many appearances to witnesses, who ate and drank with him.
John 20: 1-18 (page 906 in our pew Bibles). A beautiful and touching account of Mary Magdalene meeting the risen Jesus but mistaking him for the gardener. The point of recognition comes when Jesus addresses Mary by name.

Christ is Risen!

This is the cornerstone of our faith.

All the tens of thousands of churches, the New Testament, modern history and art as we know it today – none of it would exist at all if it wasn’t for that one central basic belief.

Christ is risen.

In that one little phrase all the hopes and joys contained in the words of Isaiah that God would one day swallow up death for ever and wipe away all our tears  come to fruition.

These are massive concepts but they all happen on the very human scale. They have to because Jesus was fully human.

The pain and suffering he had to go through was very real. His body was whipped and beaten, bruised, pierced and killed.

His tomb was visited by a some women and a couple of the twelve disciples.
Nothing was immediately apparent. The enormity of what happened unfolded bit by bit before them and in John’s gospel the full majesty of what had taken place is revealed initially to just one woman, Mary Magdalene in the garden.

Overcome by grief that her friend had been cruelly killed, and apparently even his body had been stolen, a man appears before her and asks her why she is crying?
She, knowing that Jesus is dead, and peering through her tear stained eyes, doesn’t recognize Jesus at all.  In fact she thinks he might be the one who might have taken the body.

The point where she recognizes Jesus is the point at which he mentions her name.

“Mary” and on hearing her name the scales must have fallen from her eyes and the joy rose in her heart.

Eventually she ran to the rest of the disciples with the simple message,

“I have seen the Lord” 

Christianity is a very human, personal faith. It doesn’t become real and active in our hearts because we learn it in a book or even at church. It doesn’t become real and effective in our hearts until we hear our own names on the lips of Jesus.

Christianity becomes true for us when we can say with our own mouth, reflecting what has happened in our hearts  that “Jesus is risen”

And Jesus is my Lord.