Monday, 29 April 2019

The breath of God

2nd of Easter
Acts 5: 27-32. The Apostles filled Jerusalem with Jesus’ teaching and caused quite a stir. They were witnesses, to the resurrection and to the power of the Holy Spirit.
Revelation 1: 4-8. Jesus (via John) addresses the universal body of Christians (“made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and father” – verse 6) via these seven specific congregations in Asia Minor. Remember that seven symbolises perfection or completion as in “the seven spirits before the throne” (verse 4). Jesus comes with the clouds, signifying divinity, and his rule is established for ever.
John 20: 19- 31. Jesus appears in a locked room and breathes the Holy Spirit on his followers on Easter Sunday, but Thomas was not with them. He wouldn’t believe the others until he had seen Jesus himself. Thomas is forever saddled with the moniker “doubting” Thomas but in fact is the first one who declares “My Lord and My God” and in fact went on to found the Thomist church in India which is alive and flourishing today. The significance for us of course is that if we can believe without the necessity to touch Jesus’ wounds we are blessed indeed.

The central character in today’s readings as is the central motivator, inspiration, mentor and guide of the Christian church then as now – the Holy Spirit.
God raised Jesus from the dead to live for evermore, but how is He present to the church? Answer – by his Holy Spirit.
It is His Spirit that strengthened and filled the disciples with courage that caused such a stir in Jerusalem.
It is the Spirit of Jesus speaking through the words of Revelation that binds the universal church together – that points out our deficiencies and challenges us to be better witnesses.
It is in the power of the Spirit that we will baptise Hamilton later in this service.
The Holy Spirit is the active presence of God in our lives which is why we are a church of the Holy Trinity. We believe in God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.
The essential truth of this is spelled out in that iconic gospel story of Jesus appearing to the disciples in the locked room in Jerusalem on Easter Sunday evening.
There are two main acts. The first is that Jesus commissioned the disciples to go and tell everybody the good news, and to give them the courage and joy to do that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit”.
That this was effective is evidenced by the Acts reading. The disciples were full of God’s Spirit and creating a real stir in the city.
They made a bold claim that they were following God’s orders which superseded all human authority. They said in their defence to the religious authorities that “God had exalted Jesus to his right hand as leader and saviour” (v. 31) carrying on the same crime that got Jesus killed in the first place – that followers of Jesus owe their primary allegiance to the kingdom of God before any worldly kingdom.
The second act of the gospel story is Thomas who for some reason wasn’t with the disciples at their first encounter with the risen Jesus.
At first he found it hard to believe and demanded physical evidence. He wanted to touch the wounds to his hands and sides.
In actual fact he didn’t do that, What he actually did and said recognise the divinity of Jesus straight away and exclaimed “My Lord and my God”.
Jesus follows this with a blessing on all us, his millions of disciples that have come after who wouldn’t have the risen Christ standing in front of them but believe without seeing that miraculous sight.
Thomas became in fact a wonderful disciple traveling to India and starting the church there in AD52 in Kerala which still exists and thrives today.
That anyone can move from doubt to faith, not necessarily  as quickly as Thomas, but no less dramatically is a fact of life.
When we cast our eye over modern Western society it is easy to think that Christianity is on its last legs. But the church is 2000 years old and we have been in this position before.
The very fact that we do believe in an active living God, present by his Spirit means that we never give up or lose hope.
One such sign of hope is Hamilton this morning, who will be baptised in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
God is constant. It is us that career around in our beliefs, going this way and that. God is always there, always waiting for us to find our way back to him just like the son in the story of the prodigal son.
We are accepted back with open arms and with joy without reproach and afforded every courtesy, God our Father even throwing a party for us when we do.

Monday, 22 April 2019

Alleluia. Christ is risen.

Acts 5: 27-32. This could act as a creed at any time or place summarising what we believe about Jesus. He is Lord of all; He came preaching Peace; full of the Holy Spirit; He did good and healed people; put to death; raised on the third day by God; appeared to the ones chosen to be his witnesses; and commanded them to preach about him to the world that anyone who believes in him receives forgiveness and declared righteous by God.
1 Corinthians 15: 19-26. Paul’s defence of resurrection reaches its climax, for as Christ has been raised, that means that we are all also raised. Jesus’ humanity is central to this argument. Because Jesus’ human body was raised, our human bodies will be raised. Jesus is the “first fruits” of a completely new thing that God has initiated. The resurrection means that the world is now filled with new life and hope.
John 20: 1-18. There are different stories that attempt to tell us what happened on that first Easter morning, but none are more beautiful and personal as this story about Mary Magdalene. Mary is transformed from being distraught to being filled with joy when she recognises Jesus when he speaks her name. Hearing your name; knowing that God knows and cares for you is the point when we too are transformed from death to life.

The central affirmation of the gospels is that Jesus Lives! He is a figure of the present, not a figure locked away in the past. The person that the disciples knew before the crucifixion was experienced by them after Easter as a living presence.
You cannot prove that the resurrection happened. You cannot even construct a coherent story from the different gospels that hangs together completely because they all say slightly different things.
But the proof if proof were needed lies in the countless millions of people who have lived since and experienced Jesus as a living presence and influence in their lives. That is the experience that guided the gospel writers to write down their accounts of the life and death of Jesus for our benefit. Because the Jesus story didn’t stop at his life and death. What followed was the resurrection and the empowerment of his followers with the Holy Spirit.
While the gospels differ on details, the central claim that led them to write anything at all – the claim that unites them is that Jesus lives! And that Jesus was vindicated by God. It was a giant No – a giant thumbs down for the powers that put Jesus to death – and a giant vindication of the Kingdom of God.
We are the living proof that Jesus lives! We are as the Bible tells us, all saints, which means we are “witnesses”. That’s what the word saint means actually - a witness – but a witness to what? A witness to the fact that Jesus lives and our lives are influenced and shaped by the spirit of a man who lived about 2000 years ago.
Peter’s address in the house of the Roman centurion Cornelius, stands as a testimony to fundamental Christian belief and it was while Peter was giving this address that the Holy Spirit came upon everyone who heard him speak which amazed the Jewish followers because it was proof positive that the message of Jesus was for the whole world and not just for the Jews.
That Jesus was raised from the dead was presumably the basic belief of the Corinthian church as well of course but some couldn’t then make that leap and understand that in his humanity Jesus had drawn back the veil and revealed that because God had raised Him, he had actually revealed the future of humanity also – namely that we are raised to life too.
In whatever way we understand the divinity of Christ we must never lose sight of the fact that Jesus was a human being just like me or you. His human body was raised. It was certainly different and held different properties. He was no longer a figure of flesh and blood confined to time and space, but was a reality that could enter locked rooms, travel with his followers unrecognised, be experienced in both Galilee and Jerusalem, vanish at the moment of recognition and be with his followers always “unto the end of the age”.
Of all the accounts of the resurrection, I like this one from John’s gospel that we heard today of the meeting between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. It is beautifully told. Mary arrives at the tomb and discovers it empty. After telling Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved (presumably John) and them leaving the scene she breaks down sobbing and looking into the tomb she is confronted by two angels who ask her why she is weeping. It is at this point that she turns around and sees someone standing there who also asks why she is crying?
She didn’t apparently recognise either his face or his voice at first until that is, he spoke her name – “Mary”.
This is personal. Jesus knew and spoke to Mary by name, and he knows and speaks to each one of us by name as well.
Hearing your name spoken by the son of God, is a metaphor of course.
It is a metaphor for that personally felt and believed knowledge that Jesus died and was raised for you. As well as for everyone else. People often find it easier to speak of the grand gesture, acknowledging that of course Jesus died for the whole world, “for those who are near and for those who are far off” without personalising that knowledge and applying it directly to themselves.
Making that transition from understanding that Jesus died and was raised for us to Jesus died and was raised for me.
I pray that each one of us hears their name on the lips of Jesus, the living reality and knows that because Jesus was raised and is alive for ever, that is our destiny too.  

Monday, 15 April 2019

Your Kingdom Come

Isaiah 50: 4-9. This reading prophesies the fate of Jesus whose sustaining words as a teacher will be rejected and scorned but He will stand firm and remain true to his God.
Philippians 2: 5-11. It is thought that these may be the words of an early Christian hymn used by Paul. It summarises his pre-existent status, his self-limiting to become human, and his exultation to universal Lordship.
Luke 19: 28-40. No palms or shouts of Hosanna in Luke’s version. They belong to a separate tradition but the essential elements of a procession into Jerusalem are there. This was a pre-planned and very deliberate act which sought to distinguish Jesus’ understanding of the values of the Kingdom of God compared with the Roman empire.
There were two processions that would have entered Jerusalem in the week before Passover.
The Jesus procession we heard about this morning and the one by Pontius Pilate. For you see Pilate didn’t live in Jerusalem, he lived at Caesarea on the Mediterranean coast, but he liked to be in Jerusalem for major Jewish festivals in order to show who was actually in control here – a show of force.
The procession from Caesarea to Jerusalem would have been a magnificent affair designed to demonstrate grandeur and force of arms. There would have been war horses, gleaming armour, heavily armed foot soldiers and cavalry. Banners proclaiming Roman imperial power and in the midst of it all, Pilate himself as the personal representation of Roman power. It was a spectacle designed to impress and instil fear and respect. They would have entered Jerusalem on the western side, the side that faced the coast.
On the Eastern side of the city, from the mount of Olives a very different procession took place. A man riding not on a war horse but a Donkey, a symbol of peace. Followers, instead of cowering in fear spread their cloaks on the ground before Him and in other gospel accounts palms, which is why we call this Palm Sunday. People were praising God joyfully and again in other accounts shouted “Hosanna!” which means “Save us”.
Significantly they said “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord”.
To proclaim that someone else is king rather than Caesar is regarded as treason, an act of sedition by the Romans.
Remember the sign that was nailed to the cross at his crucifixion – the reason for his crucifixion?  “This is the King of the Jews”
Palm Sunday was setting the scene for everything that would take place that week, leading to his execution. By the way, crucifixion was not a normal punishment. It was used especially for sedition and the bodies hung there to act as a deterrent to anyone else who thought they might oppose Roman rule.
Palm Sunday is a clash of kingdoms.
The Kingdoms of this world represented here by Rome characterised by brute force, coercion and kept in power by military might, characterised by injustice and inequality, and the Kingdom of God, characterised by consent, love and Justice and freedom for all.
Jesus’ procession was pre-planned. The Donkey had been pre-arranged with a set of words agreed to procure it on the day. He knew what He was doing, and He also knew how it would end.
How the story develops and ends is what we call Holy Week leading up to the crucifixion on Friday.
The prophesy of Isaiah about the beatings, the insults and the spitting that He would have to endure wouldn’t have been far from his mind. He would endure it as a man, a human being (a Paul makes clear) and represents all the metaphorical and actual torments endured by all people everywhere as victims of the Kingdoms of this world.
This clash of Kingdoms, of ways of seeing and doing society and ways of relating to people, different ways of seeing power and understanding our place in the world is a clash that still reverberates today.
This clash of kingdoms informs all that we are as Christians. Whatever we are a part of, or support politically, whatever structures we are part of, we still pray as we were instructed to pray by Jesus,
“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done”.
When you pray the Lord’s prayer I wonder how many of us realise how subversive it is to pray those words. “Your Kingdom come”.
For Jesus’ whole content of his preaching was based on ushering in the Kingdom of God. In fact the very first account we have of his preaching – what you were likely to have heard if you went to hear him speak -  in Mark’s gospel is summarised by Mark as “Repent for the Kingdom of God is near”.
Those two processions are walking still. Do we abide by the rules of God or the received wisdom of the world?
The question hanging over all of us is today, which procession are we in? Who rules in our hearts? Who or what directs our actions?

Monday, 8 April 2019

I am the way the truth and the life.

Isaiah 43: 26-21. If the sea represents the forces of chaos in Hebrew iconography, a path or way through it - the “new thing” prophesied in verse 19 – should resonate with Christians as being the way of Christ – the water in the desert, “the well springing up to eternal life” (John 4:14)
Philippians 3: 4-14. Paul explains how knowing the power of Christ’s resurrection has made everything he once prized “rubbish” in comparison and provides the impetus propelling him forwards in his ministry.
John 12: 1-8. In an act of extreme gratitude for the raising of her brother Lazarus, Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with extremely expensive perfume. There is a parallel here with the foot washing at the last supper indicating loving service and gratitude towards Jesus outweighing present concerns for the poor voiced by Judas. The gospel is at pains to point out that this concern was actually self-interest because he stole from the common purse rather than any genuine concern for poor people.

Putting on our spiritual glasses it becomes easier to understand this passage because both the sea and the desert wilderness represent the chaos and barrenness of life as it is experienced by all too many of us.
The sea has symbolised the forces of chaos in the Bible. The creation story for example is of God hovering over the waters and bringing life and order out of it by dividing the waters. Similarly Jesus walking on the water symbolises God’s power and authority over the world’s unruly and chaotic appearance; And the desert wilderness speaks for itself as a dry and inhospitable place for people to inhabit.
But the message from both scenarios is the same. God will do a new thing by providing a way or a path through the sea and the desert and in the desert,  God will be as refreshing water that keeps us alive and refreshed. Water transfigured from something dangerous and threatening to something life giving and essential to life.
This reminds me of Jesus talking with the Samaritan woman at the well in John’s gospel where He offers her water that will become in them “a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (John 4:14)
In that same exchange Jesus says those immortal words “God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must do so in Spirit and in truth” (V. 24)
Words which I think fairly describe Paul’s understanding of faith and order in our second reading. Everything Paul had known before is reduced to what the NRSV describes as rubbish but actually Paul uses the word “dung”.
His whole religious life had been turned upside sown by the earth shattering revelation that this man who had been crucified on Good Friday had appeared to him in a vision on the road to Damascus and Paul understood with every fibre of his being that this was the new way, the path through everything that life could throw at us and would lead you through the wilderness to an oasis that would connect you directly with God.
Paul had met with the reality of God on that road and he came to see that Grace was the defining feature of God’s relationship with humanity. He no longer had to earn God’s love and neither do we.
The only qualification needful to make God’s grace effective in our lives was faith. Not circumcision, and not slavishly following every dotted “I” and crossed “T” . Paul had found freedom in Christ. He had been overtaken by his reality, which he describes as the “Power of his resurrection”.
The power of that resurrection is the living water that gushes up to eternal life made present to us by God’s Holy Spirit and Paul wants to know more of it.
For here’s the thing. Often Christianity is preached as the answer to all of our problems and questions. Paul doesn’t see it that way. Actually it upset everything he had ever known and believed and set a completely new set of questions in front of him.
And that is just the same for us. Christianity provides some specific insights into the nature of God and the nature of humanity and our future after death but that opens up a completely new set of questions about how we can and should respond and about some of the deeper questions of disease, wars and disasters etc.
Rather than answer the questions we have about life it simply changes them.
It is just before this extract we have today that Paul says in Philippians “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling for it is God that is at work in you, enabling you to will and to work for his good pleasure” (2: 12-13)
One major response to the power of resurrection life is exhibited by Mary, the sister of Lazarus, who Jesus raised from the dead. Not the same resurrection as Jesus because Lazarus was in a sense just resuscitated only to die again, but God had demonstrated his command over life and death as a prelude to the miracle of raising his Son to eternal life as an eternal sign and source of power for us all.
Mary responds in what is a mixture of devoted worship and loving service reminiscent of Jesus washing his disciple’s feet when she anointed his feet with oil and dried it with her hair.
This is as fine an image of true discipleship that you will find anywhere. Humility, Love, Devotion and Service.
And there is always an honoured place for that even as Jesus points out a truth we all know that in fact the poor will always be with us, even if in just a relative sense, and Jesus knew he was near the point of being crucified so the devoted love was being directed to the right place.
In a conversation with Trevor Jones yesterday he noted that we are always being asked to be generous with our time money and talents but generosity only emerges from first being grateful. When you are truly grateful you can be truly generous.
Our show our gratitude today in worship and communion with the God who has provided a way through the choppy waters of life, through the desert of emotional and spiritual desolation to find our peace with God.  

Monday, 1 April 2019

Mum's the word.

Mothering Sunday
Exodus 2: 1-10. Moses as a baby cast adrift in the Papyrus basket and found by Pharaoh’s daughter is a testament to the mothering instinct no matter who is the actual biological mother.  
Colossians 3: 12-17. How Christians of either sex are required to live. The qualities listed might be regarded by some as typically feminine qualities and seen by some as being signs of weakness. But to have the capacity to act differently and yet choose to be humble, and forgiving requires great strength and is characteristic of Jesus himself.
Luke 2: 33-35. The pain of seeing your children suffer in any way is characteristic also of both mothers and fathers, but the maternal link tends to mean that the pain finds greater traction in women.

In the exodus story we read about the miraculous deliverance of a future leader of the Hebrew people within the context that every baby Hebrew boy was supposed to be killed;
But it is the way he was saved and who saved him that is pertinent to us today because jt was down to the determined and resourceful action of particular women; his mother and sister and even the daughter of Pharaoh who flatly disobeyed her father to raise a foreign child.
This story sets the scene for mothering Sunday – celebrating that primal bond between mothers and their children. Now I know that the church’s traditional understanding of Mothering Sunday was a day when you visited your Mother church, but frankly we lost that particular cultural battle many moons ago and to all and sundry this is Mother’s Day, when we celebrate mothers in particular but women more generally.
For obviously not all woman are blessed with children.  For many that is a huge sadness on an epic scale and is not of their choosing; some choose not to have children; but without exception everyone of us has a mother.
None of the characteristics listed by Paul in Colossians is exclusive to women of course, but on the whole society has generally seen them perhaps as dominant in women rather than men.
Theologically of course men and women are created equal but different and complimentary. We are together made in the image of God so it is together that we complete that image.
Characteristics and virtues traditionally attributed to either sex find their fulness when combined as in Jesus – our example of a perfect human being. Perfect not least because he is the complete deal.
Compassion, kindness, humility and patience and forgiveness are for everyone just as traditional male virtues of strength, courage, honour, loyalty and prudence are for everyone, not just men.
Jesus Christ, our exemplar, combined the whole range of virtues attributed to both men and women, in a single person.  
But we are not perfect. Though we aim to be the best version of ourselves that we can possibly be – bearing fruit in accordance with repentance – fruit by its nature doesn’t just appear overnight. Fruit grows over time and grows better in good soil with good nutrition, well-watered and with adequate sunlight.
For our fruit to grow I have heard the soil likened to the word of God, watered by the Spirit, and nurtured by the light of Christ.
Simeon with great insight saw what was before him, when Jesus as a baby was presented in the Temple.
He could see that if Jesus were to follow God’s will tragedy would befall him and if there is something that no one would wish on their worst enemy it would be to witness their children suffering or dying.
I do know that there are people in this congregation now who have had to do that and my heart goes out to you.
You know something of the pain that Mary would have suffered on Good Friday when she had to witness her son, her little boy, tortured and murdered.
For whatever happens in the relationship between a mother and her children, she never stops being your mother and you never stop being her son or daughter.
And we have to be realistic. Some relationships can be tense. If your relationship with your mother was difficult; pray for forgiveness for both of you or even reconciliation if that is still possible in this life.
If your relationship was good; Give thanks to God
For solid quality relationship lies at the heart of the Christian faith. Christianity is at its root a relationship with God through Jesus the Son.
A good healthy relationship with your mother and father is a natural corollary of that basic relationship.
In Christianity that good healthy relationship with your biological mother and father is to be extended to everyone around you, especially to others in the church. Jesus has some very hard sayings on that subject, but those hard sayings find their finest expression when from the cross Jesus says to his mother “Woman here is your son” referring to John and to John he says “Here is your mother”.
We are asked to break through the barriers of biological kinship and extend our scope to include others in a spiritual relationship undergirded by Love.
Undergirding all our relationships is Love, which today we find expression in the role of mothers.
As Paul says today;
“Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony”