Monday, 25 March 2019

For God so loved the world...

Isaiah 55: 1-9. “Come buy wine and milk, without money and without price” (V1) implies that there is a cost, but that this cost is borne by God. A wonderful poetic description of God’s Grace. The final two verses of our offering this morning describe the thoughts ways and wisdom of God that far surpass anything humans can conceive. A life lesson for us all.
1 Corinthians 10: 1-13. The message for the Corinthians (and for us) is that God’s unconditional love can breed indifference, arrogance and presumptuous ness. We are all subject to being tested and tempted, but we are assured that we won’t be tested beyond our endurance and God will also provide a way out.
Luke 13: 1-9. A passage recalling the universality of sin and the patience of God in waiting for his people to repent and bear fruit. As I have often said, the essential message of the gospel is that we should bear fruit in accordance with repentance.

Today’s readings encapsulate the entire belief system of Christianity – that we are all flawed and separated from God in our humanity – but God has brought us home to him through Jesus Christ. Jesus is the route back or “the way” back to God. It is noteworthy I think that the original name given to followers of Jesus was not “Christians” – that name (which wasn’t supposed to be altogether flattering) was applied to us first in Antioch according to the book of Acts. Before that we were called followers of “the way”, a description I prefer because it implies motion, an active not passive faith.
The way that God chose to bring us back to him we call Grace and we have a beautifully poetic description of Grace in Isaiah today.
“Come buy wine and milk, without money and without price”.
All the good things God wants to give us we can have at no cost to ourselves – we just have to learn to receive as I said last week. But that doesn’t mean there is no cost at all, but it does mean that this cost is born completely by God.
Isaiah’s description of God’s Grace is re-stated in much more stark but nonetheless still beautiful and powerful phrase in John 3:16
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life”
The free gift is eternal life; the motivation is Love; the cost, borne by God was the self-sacrifice of his son.
You cannot buy eternal life; it can only be given and gratefully received.
The message from Paul however is that God’s unconditional love may be received gratefully at first but in many people the very fact that we haven’t had to do anything to receive it, to merit it, can breed indifference, arrogance and  presumptuousness.
We are trained in life to value things that cost us a lot of money rather than things that come free, but take a moment to consider that and you’ll agree that the most important things in life are free – love, relationships, health, and the beautiful world we live in.
Grace presumed upon because it is free has been called by some, cheap grace, but this isn’t a term I like because for God it was anything but cheap. It cost Him everything – the death of his son.
And don’t forget Paul’s great description of Christ, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself” (2 Cor. 5:19)
So God Himself in some mysterious way was present in Jesus Christ as He was crucified that first Good Friday.
Don’t worry if that is a conundrum that makes your brain hurt. This is a mystery that Christians have been trying to comprehend for 2000 years. And I use that word “mystery” in the sense that there is always more to something than we can readily grasp or understand.
Remember what the prophet also said today,
“For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (55:9)
We cannot ever fully understand or comprehend the ways of God.
Going back to how God’s grace can be treated so lightly. Paul lists how in Israelite history, they too treated God’s love and care with contempt, and displeased God so we  can learn from their example that God does care about our response.
We know as human beings that in life we are always subject to tests and temptations, just as the Israelites were, but to be reminded of them is to prod us, to give us strength to resist.
Stories of how the Israelites were tested, failed, and displeased God  are supposed to be good news to us if they act rather like a smoke alarm warning us about a fire. “Don’t fall away like they did. Keep to the way of Jesus.”
The message for us is that God does care how we react to his offer of divine Grace. He wants us to flourish and have life in all its fullness. The best advert for the truth of the gospel is a full life where we reach the full potential that God has given us.
A full life is one of enhanced horizons, full of hope and expectation, in which our character and emotions and wisdom grow evermore into the likeness of Christ.

Discovering the sacramental life

The incarnational Tradition:
Discovering the sacramental life.
When thinking about the Christian tradition, all forms of spirituality are subsumed within the sacramental tradition, because Christianity is in its very being a sacramental religion.
When you think about the definition of a sacrament that you may well have learned at Sunday school it is an outward physical sign/manifestation of an inner spiritual grace – a physical enfleshing of an invisible Spirit.
In that sense, Jesus is actually the primordial sacrament – a physical manifestation of God and is therefore the basis on which all sacramental life is based. St. Paul Col. 1: 15 “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation”
You can even take a further step back and say that creation itself is a physical manifestation of the source less source we call God.
As John writes in chapter 4:24 of his gospel “God is Spirit” so creation is itself an emanation of that Spirit.
All Sacramentality finds its source in God as Spirit being manifest – given life and flesh – in our daily lives.
This takes two forms. How this life takes form within our personal lives and in the sacramental life of the church – the church itself being a sacrament.
Let me take the sacraments of the church first. According to the protestant tradition there are two dominical sacraments – that is, ordained by Jesus himself – baptism and the Eucharist.
According to the Western Catholic tradition there are seven sacraments – Baptism, confirmation, Eucharist, reconciliation, anointing, marriage and Holy Orders.
I had my eyes opened completely when I went and lived within the Orthodox tradition in Romania between 2006 and 2009 when they laughed at us and said why on earth do you Westerners count them? Surely everything and anything can be a sacrament.
And of course, taking into account how I opened this talk they are completely right. God as creator, and Jesus as the primordial sacrament means that our puny Western attempts to codify and number what can and cannot be counted as a sacrament owes far more to our Western pre-disposition for wanting or needing forensic accuracy when dealing with the Divine.
We try and codify and box God into a corner instead of letting God be God and luxuriating in His divine mystery.
Mystery is a fundamental strand of Orthodox belief. Mystery means that there is always more than we can ever know or understand or codify.
It is no accident that the Eucharist is also known as the “Divine Mysteries” in the East.
In the West tens of thousands of people have died fighting over what does or does not happen to a piece of bread in a church service.
The Orthodox are content to say “We don’t know – or certainly don’t know or understand enough to pronounce on the subject”.
It is a mystery. And therein lies the root of the other form of sacramental life.
For while we were killing each other over what happens or not, to a piece of bread or goblet of wine we entirely missed the central point that God doesn’t care what happens to a piece of bread or goblet of wine – He cares about the only true change he wants to see – the change of heart soul and mind of the individual believer and of society as a whole.
The whole of the Biblical witness attests to this central fact, from the scandal of the empty rituals of a corrupt religion and state of Israel.
Isaiah 1:13-15
13 Stop bringing meaningless offerings!
    Your incense is detestable to me.
New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—
    I cannot bear your worthless assemblies.
14 Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals
    I hate with all my being.
They have become a burden to me;
    I am weary of bearing them.
15 When you spread out your hands in prayer,
    I hide my eyes from you;
even when you offer many prayers,
    I am not listening.
Your hands are full of blood!

Amos 5:21 “I hate, I despise your religious festivals…..”

1 Samuel 15:22 New International Version (NIV)
22 But Samuel replied:
“Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices
    as much as in obeying the Lord?
To obey is better than sacrifice,
    and to heed is better than the fat of rams.
James 1:27 New International Version (NIV)
27 Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
Just one instance of the letter of James which possibly more than any other writing in the N.T. states the case for sacramental Christianity more succinctly when he writes boldy in chapter 2
26 As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.
The entire witness of the N.T. is that we are told to go and bear fruit. Fruit that will last. Faith without works is dead.
The fruit that grows is as much to do with character as with fighting for justice for the poor. In Paul’s famous list of the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians are  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. ...
One of the most impressive and influential books I have ever read is called “Against an infinite horizon” by a catholic priest called Ronald Rolheiser where he expounds the truly sacramental life, and he writes some strong stuff about the most sacramental thing that almost everyone engages in, believer or unbeliever – the act of sex.
Sex is a sacramental act and can be abusive, which destroys the soul, casual, which trivialises the soul, or sacramental which builds up the soul.
What Fr. Ronald says about sex can be said about a sacramental sensibility as a whole. It builds up the soul when you can discern and experience God in the everyday hurly burly of life. When you can, to quote William Blake  To see a World in a Grain of Sand. And a Heaven in a Wild Flower. Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand. And Eternity in an hour.
Life infused with the infinite, with Divinity, is like making the switch from Black and White to glorious technicolour. Life and creation alive with the life and spirit of God we see the world as it is in reality, as seen through God’s eyes.
When we start to see ourselves as part of the whole and wish to manifest more of the fruit of the Spirit and see God’s reality in a piece of bread we have truly crossed over from death to life.

Monday, 18 March 2019

Amazing Grace!

The second Sunday of Lent
Genesis 15: 1-12, 17-18
Phil. 3:17 – 4:1
Luke 13: 31-end
How hard it is for human beings to accept that God is going to do something for them, for nothing, purely because He loves us.
Abraham, or Abram as he was still known – Abram means “exulted Father” but Abraham means “Father of many” had been given God’s assurance that his offspring would inherit a great nation already but Abram is still not convinced.
He needs another stronger vision to further convince him and we then have this vision of this strange ritual where animals are cut in two and then in a deep sleep Abram sees God in the form of a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch pass between the severed animals.
The origin of this vision probably lies within the Hebrew idiom that states that a covenant – an agreement  -  is cut between two parties with the implied threat that if either of the party’s reneges on the agreement they will be cut in two.
This is all very strange to us from a different culture and context but does serve to emphasise that for human beings; receiving things from God is not quite so easy as it seems. Two things seem to get in the way
There is of course the huge power imbalance between us and God and human pride prefers to be in the dominant position dictating proceedings. It takes a certain humility to simply receive something.
Also, nagging human doubts over things that seem just too good to be true kick in as well. In our general experience nothing is ever just given – we have to earn things, so we imagine we have to earn our salvation by God.
The re-discovery of the primacy of Grace – unmerited love – over law is what underpinned the great protestant revolution – a re-discovery that was eventually also accepted by the Roman church but not until so much blood was spilled.
Pride and doubt are the twin poles that affect us all today when we talk about accepting God’s grace, and eternal life just given to us because God loves us seems sometimes just too good to be true. Many Christians today still instinctively feel that they have to work to earn their salvation by being good or doing great service to others or whatever by the greatest gift of the reformation is that we are simply saved by God’s Grace made effective in our lives by faith.
It was too good to be true for many people obviously in and around the church in Philippi to whom Paul was writing.
Most people, then as now were just intent on fulfilling their own worldly interests and desires but Christians are different.
The people Paul is writing to might be living in Phillipi, and be Roman citizens but their real citizenship, as Paul reminds them is in heaven.
Likewise for us, we might be living in London or Paris or consider ourselves British or European or whatever, but actually our primary real citizenship is in heaven. We are children in the Kingdom of God.
We play by a different set of rules and values. Not only that but we live with a certain expectancy that what we have now is not all.
We can look forward to being changed into the likeness of Jesus’ resurrection body – again, a gift just given because God can just give it by divine Grace.
Are we convinced or does our pride, lack of humility, and belief that it sounds too good to be true stop the power of that truth being truly effective in our lives.
Do we, like Abram need a grander, more definite jolt to convince us to truly believe?
That great event, sign or symbol that was given to us is the cross and resurrection.
In the gospel story Jesus is warned to keep away from Jerusalem because Herod wants to kill him.
Reflecting on the fact that his citizenship is also in heaven and despite what worldly torments He must endure He knows He must go to Jerusalem to fulfil God’s will.
In a beautiful allusion to God’s people He refers to us as a brood of chicks being sheltered under a hen’s wings, and Jesus is the hen using a striking piece of female imagery.
But the people of Jerusalem would not be willing to be gathered in that way and would be baying for his death before the story reaches its climax.
Living as we do, post cross and resurrection, we have that huge jolt that Abram would have been looking for, a vision of divine love and sacrifice that encourages us to come to Jesus as the way the truth and the life. It is the events of Good Friday and Easter Sunday that seeks to puncture our pride and unwillingness to believe that God loves us so much that he gave his only son that whoever believes in Him shall have eternal life. No strings attached.

Sunday, 3 March 2019

I am the light of the world.

Exodus 34: 29-35. In Eastern Christendom God is known as the “sourceless source” and the “uncreated light” and this is the light that glowed in Moses’ face long after his encounters with God. But he chose to veil his shining face from the Israelite people.
2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2. The reason, Paul concludes (in verse 13) for Moses veiling his face is to hide the fading of God’s glory over time until his next encounter with God. The contrast Paul wishes to make is that the Glory of God in the new covenant never fades so is superior to the old covenant. This is because the Holy Spirit “which is the Lord” is with us constantly changing us into Christ’s likeness.
Luke 9: 28-36. The “Transfiguration” of Christ when Jesus whole being glows with the uncreated light of God is one of the central revelations of Jesus’ affinity and identification with God. In this vision Moses representing the old covenant (the law) and Elijah (representing the prophets) are both subordinate to Jesus who is the fulfilment of both the law and the prophets.

“I am the light of the world” said Jesus
The divine light of God lies at the heart of all three readings today – the light that shines through and unites both the old and new testaments and shines most brightly through the person of Jesus Christ Himself and when we come to believe it we start to shine with that same light through the Holy Spirit.
The first two readings complement each other because Paul refers to the one from Exodus and offers his interpretation of it to explain how this new revelation, this new covenant established through Jesus Christ exceeds in every way the first revelation of the law.
In essence he says that Moses had to wear a veil to hide the fact that God’s glory slowly faded away in-between encounters with God.
This sets the scene for this marvellous revelation that we call the transfiguration of Christ. In a sense this could belong more properly in the season of Epiphany but coming just before we enter Lent when we mark the  privation and temptations in the wilderness that the earthly Jesus was to suffer, it serves to reinforce the fact that whatever the earthly Jesus would suffer, ending ultimately with the crucifixion – He was enduring these things as God’s Son.
One of my favourite sayings from Paul (2 Corinthians 5:19) is that
“God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” and this is ultimately what we need to remember as we prepare to enter Lent.
In the Transfiguration Jesus shines with the uncreated light of God  and in this vision, just to make things very clear that Jesus transcends and fulfils everything that has gone before, we have Moses representing the law and Elijah representing the prophets, present at this event and out of the cloud (which represents the presence of God) comes the voice of God repeating the same words that  accompanied Jesus’ Baptism in the river Jordan,
“This is my son, the beloved” and then, “listen to Him”.
The vision couldn’t be more clear. Jesus fulfils everything that had gone before. The law and all prophesy finds its fulfilment in Jesus Christ.
Peter, in probably equal terms frightened and confused, misses the point and asks whether he should build three dwelling places, but after God’s voice had spoken, Jesus was found to be alone.
Paul makes it equally clear that the Holy Spirit which is the same Spirit that shone out from Jesus is present to the Christians in the church. The same Spirit that shone out of Jesus is present to us in East Devon today.
This is the same light that enlightens us believers who have been given the power to become children of God.
This is the inner light that guides us, comforts us, and directs our lives and worship today.
This is why we cannot and must not fail in our task to follow in his steps and do his will here on earth.
The church is not just a collection of disparate individuals. We are a body – the body of Christ. It is the light of Christ, the Holy Spirit that forms us into that body and we are always a part of it whether we are together as we are this morning or apart during the rest of the week.
It is who we are. Children of the God of light revealed as dwelling completely within Jesus Christ.
I will end by quoting the last two sentences of what Paul wrote in today’s reading because it is a rallying cry for us to keep together, to be open and pure and keep our eyes on the prize by becoming a sign of the Kingdom of God.
Present Weakness and Resurrection Life
Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.