Monday, 25 February 2019

Would you Adam and Eve it?

Genesis 2: 4b-9, 15-end. The second and complementary creation myth in Genesis offers a different kind of truth from historical or scientific truth that speaks of our relationship to God as a unique “God-breathed being” with dominion over the animals and plants in God’s creation. In Hebrew “Adam” means dirt or dust and “Eve” means Life. We are formed from the creation itself and are animated by God’s Spirit.
Revelation 4. The relationship between this extract from Revelation and our reading from Genesis is found in the closing verse (11) that affirms that God created everything. I talked about the difficulty of articulating spiritual experiences a couple of weeks ago and John uses the imagery that he was immersed in and was particular to Jewish apocalyptic writings which uses fantastic symbolic imagery as a kind of code to convey truths that from our standpoint and culture we find it hard to relate to.
Luke 8:22-25. That Jesus, “God incarnate” should be seen as having control over what God created is not unusual. The theological message of the extract that Jesus as “Lord of all” is the calm centre in the midst of the storms and trials of life is the take home message of this piece, even while we, as did the disciples, find it very difficult to put this into practice.
Today we touch on elemental and fundamental topics like creation itself, and the divine mind behind it all and God’s authority over all things. In fact there are so many themes in this passage it could provide material for countless sermons.
First thing to understand is that the Bible is not a scientific text book. You can’t glean from Genesis a historical account of how things came into being. Genesis isn’t a book about mechanics – rather it provides a source of creation; gives a  reason for creation; and it says some very deep things about creation’s relationship to God and most particularly our human relationship to God.
The Big bang theory and evolution were both products of believers in a creator God. Georges LeMaitre, a R.C. priest and Charles Darwin, and through the scientific method they describe the mechanism of creation and how things develop and change over time.
Rather than mechanisms the Bible deals with agency – something or a person that acts or intervenes to produce a certain result.  
The Bible makes it clear that God created all things, and it also makes clear that he cares about His creation and “He saw that it was good”.
This has profound implications for our relationship with the world around us, flora and fauna, and the universe in which we are set.
This is God’s creation and we are set within it to exercise dominion over it.
According to the Bible we are an integral part of the created order – Adam is like the Hebrew word for earth – so we are made from the earth – in our flesh and blood we are part of the created order.
God breathed into his nostrils the breath of Life and it is no accident that the woman’s name was Eve which in Hebrew relates to Life.
What the story about Adam’s rib forming a woman is meant to convey, is the mutuality and complementarity of the sexes – not notions of superiority as Paul chose to interpret it (1 Timothy 2).
We are different but equal in God’s sight.
But while we are part of the natural order we have a privileged position within it. We have dominion over the world. We name the animals and birds within this created order and thus have a special relationship with the creator. In a special way we are co-workers with God, caring for and stewarding what God has made.
You could say that we are kings of creation but as was said in another sermon only last week by someone else, we don’t necessarily wear the crown very well.
But in our heightened awareness of ecological matters that has grown in recent years,  is good from a theistic standpoint because we see ourselves as looking after God’s creation in a better way than we have previously done.
Another verse that has taken on huge proportions is the one that says that a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife and they become one flesh.
This simply says that eventually a person reaches the stage when they are no longer dependent on their parents and enter into new relationships and responsibilities. Because man and woman according to the story share the same origin their coming together implies the notion of completion; of squaring the circle.
This God who made all things appeared in a vision to John in the book of revelation. John uses ancient imagery mainly from Ezekiel to describe this vision of God. The four beasts in the vision were eventually taken and used to symbolise the four evangelists – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
The only other thing I think I need to say about this revelation passage is that it was written at the time when the Roman Emperor Dormitian was insisting on being addressed as “My Lord and my God”. This is John’s powerful statement that there is only one Lord and God and it isn’t Dormitian.
The central belief of Christianity of course is that this almighty God written about in Genesis and Revelation became enfleshed in Jesus Christ and walked this earth as an example of what a human being was intended by God to be like.
The authority of God rested in him which is what Jesus calming the storm is really all about. The man who exercised authority over the waters is the man who you can trust to exercise authority in our lives.
Again, in Hebrew iconography the sea represented the forces of chaos. God is the God of order who brings order out of chaos.
I would summarise the readings today as emphasising that the awesome God of creation written about in Genesis, that John attempted to describe in his vision in Revelation, is present in Jesus Christ and putting your trust in Him will calm the storms in our lives.

Monday, 18 February 2019

Raised to life eternal

Jeremiah 17: 5-10. This is an Old Testament version of Jesus’ parable “The true vine”. God is the source of all life, wisdom and insight so just like a plant we need the water and light that God provides to grow strong
1 Corinthians 15: 12-20. Paul explains how central Jesus’ resurrection is for our faith. For if Jesus is not raised then we cannot be raised to new life. That Jesus is fully human is central to our faith for this reason. Our resurrection and Jesus’ resurrection are linked. You cannot have one without the other.
Luke 6: 17-26. The Lukan beatitudes are not as famous as Matthew’s but they are shorter and they also include a list of woes which contrast them. The poor/the rich, the hungry/the full, those who weep/those who laugh, the hated/those who people speak well of. To be blessed (Makarios in Greek) carries connotations of happiness but in the Bible it doesn’t mean to be subjectively happy as to be regarded as righteous in God’s sight. People who appear to be prospering are not doing so in God’s sight. The message might be paraphrased as saying that “Things are not as they seem to be”.

When you die you will be raised to eternal life.
How can I be so certain? Because if we believe that Jesus was raised from the dead, that means we are too. You can’t believe one without the other.
The importance of believing that Jesus is fully human just as we are is wrapped up in that very fact. If his human flesh and blood was raised, then our human flesh and blood will be raised.
If we aren’t raised, then Jesus wasn’t raised either and our faith is in vain– that is St. Paul’s central argument in 1 Corinthians today.
This is central to our faith so if you leave here with nothing else today I want you to leave knowing that fact in your heart.
You can tell that it was cutting deeply into Paul’s heart and mind by what he wrote that some were saying something different in the Corinthian church and he wanted to put them right.
This kind of resurrection faith gives you a different perspective on life and what are the most important things to be in yourself and to focus on.
In Luke’s Beatitudes he conveys what is important to God, and he paints a picture that is largely at odds with our earth-bound sense of what is important and desirable.
In his list of conditions that Jesus articulates as being blessed in God’s sight are the poor, the hungry, those who weep, those who are hated.
None of those would make it onto our shortlist of blessings I’m sure, but we also need to understand the Biblical understanding of being Blessed.
Sure, in Greek, the word Makarios, carries strong associations with feelings of happiness but of course, no-one who s poor, hungry, weeping or hated are feeling happy about it.
Being Blessed in the Biblical understanding is not about feeling subjectively happy about any of that but is more to do with being regarded as righteous in God’s sight.
Given our society’s preoccupation with personal happiness and fulfilment that is an important distinction to make.
There is also a contrast between the present and the future. Those who weep now will laugh. Those who hunger now will be filled. The fortunes of people who are by earthly standards either fortunate or unfortunate will be reversed.
This brings me back to my first statement about having eternal life.
Paul was speaking of something that we will inherit after we die but eternal life, taking our cue from John’s gospel, is also a quality of life that we inhabit in the here and now.
A quality of life that both underpins and transcends our particular personal circumstances.
The joy of knowing that we are a new creation in Christ despite whatever parlous situations in life we find ourselves in.
The most startling evidence of this is when prisoners come to faith via perhaps an Alpha course. They are physically in prison, yes, but their hearts and souls have been set free.
Salvation is not a once for all event but the start of a process of “working out our salvation with fear and trembling” as Paul phrases it in Philippians 2:12.
That means that whatever our situation in life is or what hand life has dealt us, we can discern through meditating on God’s word in the Bible and through the Holy Spirit, what salvation looks like and will unfold in our life.
We conform our lives progressively not to what the world expects from us but what God expects from us.
What is wise and desirable in the world’s eyes is not wise or desirable in God’s eyes.  As Paul puts it in 1Corinthians 1: 25
“God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength”.
To work out our salvation with fear and trembling we need to keep close to God’s spirit, as directed by Jeremiah.
He likens us to a tree planted by water, fed by the stream of God’s living water, the Holy Spirit.
Jesus reiterates that same notion by telling us we need to be branches grafted in to the stem of the vine – Jesus Himself.
We achieve this practically by attending worship, praying regularly, seeking his will through the Bible, making our communion with God and his people.
This is how we will bear fruit. Fruit that will last, which is God’s will for us whatever station we inhabit in life.

Monday, 11 February 2019

Don't be afraid

Isaiah 6: 1-8. Divine encounters are almost impossible to put into words and will reflect the symbols, language and context of their time. So we are not to take literally that God sits on a throne wearing a robe, or that heavenly beings speak Hebrew, or a seraph placed an actual hot coal on Isaiah’s lips. Isaiah is rather contrasting the dead earthly king with the eternal splendour of God and how worthless he felt in his awesome presence. But God acted to remove this sense of unworthiness to prepare him for his prophetic role.
1 Corinthians 15: 1-11. Paul asserts the truth of the resurrection as he has received them and what this means “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures”. Paul uses this fact to insist that all believers will also be raised to eternal life (a fact some in Corinth were disputing). It is worth noting that Paul’s mysterious encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus is deemed qualitatively exactly the same as the earlier appearances to the apostles.
Luke 5: 1-11. Peter’s response to the realisation that he was in the presence of Divinity was exactly the same as Isaiah in our earlier reading. He felt worthless and unworthy (verse 8). The coal placed on Peter’s lips is Jesus telling him “Do not be afraid from now on you will be catching people” bringing him alongside to share in His mission.

Describing a spiritual or religious experience is almost impossible using conventional language, it falls short.
It is like when St. Paul trying to describe Jesus calls Him “the image of the invisible God”. That doesn’t make sense actually because things that are invisible don’t have an image and yet…..we kind of grasp what he is trying to say.
But if you do try to describe a spiritual encounter with God, you end up using images and symbols and language that you are familiar with, just like Isaiah.
We do not understand that God literally is a man who sits on a giant throne who wears robes and whose hem fills the Temple or that seraphs speak Hebrew, or literally placed a hot coal on Isaiah’s lips.
What we do understand is that this encounter was so profound that nothing for Isaiah would ever be the same again.
Isaiah’s encounter with God shares something with Peter’s encounter with Jesus in the gospel passage. Both experienced a profound sense of unworthiness in God’s presence resulting in fear, certainly within Peter who blurts out..
“Go away from me Lord for I am a sinful man” echoing Isaiah who says,
“Woe is me for I am lost, and a man of unclean lips”
But something happened to convince Isaiah that actually He was made worthy in God’s eyes. He uses the image of a hot coal being placed on his lips, to make clear that he had been cleansed and that from now on He would be uttering the pure desires and designs of God.
In the gospel Jesus dispels Peter’s fear and sense of unworthiness by simply telling him, as a fellow human being,
“Do not be afraid”. From now on you will be catching people.
Jesus affirms Peter and then places his trust in him to work with him in spreading the good news that God thinks each and every one of us is worthy of his love and concern. And he trusts us to follow like Peter and go and spread the gospel in our time.
Every Christian is a minister. The gift you can pass on to others is the knowledge of God’s love for us. Our task is to pass on that realisation, that  light to others.
If you were the last person on earth, God would die for you. That is the significance of the cross of Christ.
The significance of Easter Sunday is that if you were the last person on earth, God would rise for you and take you with him to be with God forever.
In the Corinthian church there were some who had forgotten that or simply rejected it. Perhaps there are people here who don’t believe it, or don’t or can’t feel that within themselves.
But truth, if it is to have the power of truth in your life has to be true for you.
You need to know it to be true in your heart, beyond all the symbols and rituals, and meetings and concerns about the building and the cost of repairs.
Paul tries to convince them by stating who Jesus had appeared to in order to try and convince them. Peter, the disciples, James, 500 people at one time (in an incident we have no other knowledge about) and then his appearance to Paul himself or Saul as he was known then.
What is remarkable is that Paul’s experience of God, the voice from heaven, the blinding light, “being caught up into the third heaven” as he once described it is written about as being exactly on the same level as the appearances to Peter, James and the disciples.
Paul counts his religious experience on the road to Damascus was a resurrection appearance of the risen Jesus Christ.
It follows that any and every spiritual experience is an encounter with God.
However small or insignificant it might appear to be at first, there is only one God, Father Son and Holy Spirit so He is the source not only of life and love but all spiritual encounters as well.
Spiritual experiences can never be taken away from you, even while they are almost impossible to describe.
They can bolster you and convince you of the existence  of God even when there might be copious reasons and pressure to discount or discard God.
Spiritual experiences come in all shapes and sizes and can occur anywhere.
God can reveal Himself to you in a sunset or a word or a person, with clanging cymbals to a small still voice.
Don’t box God into a corner and try to say that He couldn’t appear to you like that. God is God and we aren’t and he works in mysterious ways.
After the service, instead of talking about the weather, or an ailment or Brexit I would encourage you to open up to someone when God became much more real to you. Encourage someone with a story that in fact the rumours of God being alive and active are true.

Monday, 4 February 2019

The ultimate sacrifice.

Malachi 3: 1-5. Messenger and angel are the same word in Greek and this messenger comes to prepare the way for the Lord. In fact this prophesy might better be applied to the cleansing of the Temple than "the presentation". This prophesies a cleansing first of the religion of the day, and then a cleansing of the social sphere
Hebrews 2: 14-18. Jesus can help human beings precisely because he is a human being like us in every way (save being beyond temptation and enjoying an unbroken relationship with God) Because Jesus (flesh and blood) was raised, we (also flesh and blood) can be raised to eternal life.
Luke 2: 22-40. Luke confuses the presentation of the first born (which demands no visit to the Temple) with Mary's purification which demands a sacrifice. But his concern is not primarily with the details of the ritual but setting Jesus squarely in the context of old Israel. New and decisive though Jesus is, He is no bolt from the blue and is the promised Jewish Messiah.

Candlemas, so-called because the church used to bless all the candles they were going to use that year at this service has many themes, light, presentation, and purification but more than these there is a bitter-sweet nature to this day.
Candlemas is a watershed feast that marks the culmination of the Christmas and Epiphany season and looks forwards to the cross
The revelation of the person of Jesus to Simeon and Anna is a cause to rejoice, and fits with Epiphany, but in the prophetic words of Simeon talking of the falling and rising of many and of a sword that will pierce we have words that lead us downhill to the crucifixion.
Actually, the Old Testament reading from Malachi isn’t a very good fit with the theme of the day as it is far more suited to Jesus turning over the tables in the Temple because Malachi writes of the cleansing of the Temple as well as the cleansing of society.
It is a reminder to everyone that God is not just Lord of the church but is Lord of all life.
A pure religious cult that puts up with inequality and injustice is anathema to God just as much as a society that forgets that God is the source of all things and ignores Him.
Jesus came to cleanse and purify both religion and society. He is the light of the world.
When you shine a light it exposes all the dirt, dust and grime – all the things we’d rather keep hidden – hidden in the church, hidden in society and hidden in our lives.  Everything is revealed and what is revealed can be truly shocking.
“True religion” Jesus once said is to look after widows and orphans which blurred the lines wonderfully between the two.
The main way Jesus purified religion was to remove forever the need for priests and sacrifices of course.
Here too He embodies both things at the same time. He is both High Priest and eternal once for all sacrifice.
Our access to God, life and freedom is through his perfect Son who sacrificed Himself to win forgiveness for the sins of the whole world.
So what a High Priest used to do – sacrifice animals in the Temple and offer them to God to enact forgiveness is no longer needed.
Jesus in his body does that.
He both offers the sacrifice on our behalf and also IS the sacrifice Himself.
But a more fundamental question occurred in the Jacques household when we were reading Hebrews as part of our Bible reading discipline.
Why was any sacrifice needed at all? Whether Jesus or an animal – why did anyone ever think that this is what God wants?
The nature of sacrifice has always been an offering to God in gratitude for all the things we have and enjoy, because God is the creator of all things and so the giver of all things.
Gratitude offerings were originally of anything that was valuable to you, agricultural produce, fruit or wheat or Barley perhaps.
The greatest gift you could give to God was life itself. Life is represented by blood, so a blood sacrifice was the greatest offering you could give to God out of gratitude, yes, but also to eat the meat of an animal after it had been offered as a sacrifice to God reminds people of the divine source of life. Sacrifices were also feasts where everyone including the poor shared in a communal meal. Sacrifices were feasts and festivals not gloomy or fearful occasions.
I hope you have already made a connection now between those sacrificial feasts and the Eucharist where we symbolically share in the communal meal of Christ’s body and blood.
So the primary motive for sacrifice was actually love. A response of love to the source of love. The animal in the Temple cult represented a person or people. In offering the animal to God, it represented the offering of the self, and in eating the sacrificed animal it represented the receiving back a renewed self.
Jesus’ sacrifice was made out of God’s love for the whole creation – to bring it back into a loving relationship with him.
It is tempting to think that Simeon, looking into the eyes of Mary could foresee all this and felt obliged to warn her of impending tragedy for her, but at the same time, joy for the whole world because it freed us from fear of death and suffering.
It was a bitter-sweet day for Mary as well as a bitter sweet feast day for us.
But the light of the world was here recognised in the very place which sought through their sacrificial cult, to bring humanity and God together.
Jesus was truly in his Father’s house.