Monday, 27 May 2019

You are never alone with Christ

Easter 6
Acts 16: 9-15. I don’t know how one distinguishes between a dream and a vision, but this one prompted an immediate reaction and  on arrival in Philippi the first convert was a “God fearer” – a non-Jewish lady who was nevertheless attracted by the Jewish understanding of God and morality represented by the Jews. She was an independent businesswoman and head of her household reflecting the importance of women in Luke’s biblical accounts of the faith.
Revelation 21:10, 22 – 22:5. Speaking of visions we enter the vision to end all visions – Revelation. One can simply wallow in the magnificence and the powerful symbolism of the scene painted by John of peace, light, healing, and abundance bisected by the river of the water of life. Everything needed for life to flourish is provided by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
John 14: 23-29. Jesus prophesies the coming of his Spirit which will “make our home” with followers of the way. The conflict between the full presence of the divine present to believers as described here and notions of a “second coming” is most acute. “I am going away, and I am coming to you” (verse 28).

Physical loneliness is a terrible thing in my experience.
Having someone to talk with and share with is equally important in the good times as well as the bad times. Having someone to share with, to touch, to cry on their shoulder, to celebrate with when something good happens.
Emotional loneliness is keenly entwined of course because we are scientifically and theologically speaking a psychosomatic unity. This means that our minds and bodies are linked and cannot be separated. A simple example of this is that when our bodies hurt that causes mental trauma and mental illness has serious effects on the health of our bodies.
There is also a spiritual loneliness where one can feel that we are completely alone in a cold uncaring universe and it is this element of the Christian religion that speaks most eloquently and seriously to the human condition.
All religions try to do this but Christianity is very special because the God we believe in entered into our world to make that relationship with God that much easier. When we want to relate and get to know God and his character we have Jesus to get to know and in seeing what Jesus is like we know what God is like.
But what happens when that icon of God, that “image of the invisible God” as Paul describes Jesus (Col. 1:15) has to leave this earth as He did when he was killed on Good Friday?
We know that on Easter Sunday He was raised from the dead and appeared to his disciples but only for a limited time and in a localised form. He was a presence at a certain time in a certain place. To be present to all his followers all at the same time He knew He would have to return to His Father and ask his Father to send his Spirit to be with us all for ever.
The return of Jesus to His Father we celebrate as Ascension Day next Thursday and we celebrate the gift of His Spirit ten days later at the feast of Pentecost.
This is what Jesus is preparing His disciples for when John writes,
“My Father will love them and we will come to them and make our home with them” (V. 23)
Later in that same piece Jesus says those enigmatic words “I am going away and I am coming to you” (v.28)
Layers of spiritual meaning are held within that phrase because the simple words “I AM” are of course the name of God that was given to Moses in Exodus 3:14,
God said to Moses, "I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: 'I AM has sent me to you.'"
God makes his home with us when the Holy Spirit is welcomed into our lives.
It is God by means of His Spirit that can direct, guide and teach you and perhaps most importantly just be with you. How that actually happens is not the important thing – the important thing is that you hear and respond to God’s promptings.
In the book of Acts Paul describes God speaking to Him in a vision to change course and go to Macedonia, in a move that changed the history of Christianity as it was taken to Europe out of Asia Minor.
God can speak to you via a vision, a dream, through other people, through a gut feeling, through circumstances. The medium is not the important thing, it is the message.
Like Paul, we need to be attentive and open to what is being said to us and direct our lives accordingly – as individuals and as a community.
In answering God’s direction, Paul found Lydia who believed and was  baptized, as well as her whole household and a church was planted in Philippi, the start of many churches in Greece and eventually all over Europe.
Returning to the gospel story and its message, it is absolutely clear that we are not alone in a cold uncaring universe.
God wants us to know that we are known, loved and cherished, and whatever happens to us here on earth we have a wonderful future where we will be joined with God forever in an existence that stretches beyond physical death into an everlasting future.
God’s Spirit testifies to the fact that you are never alone with Christ.

Monday, 20 May 2019

Work out your salvation

Acts 11: 1-18. It may seem strange to us that the things we take so much for granted about not being bound by dietary laws, or the universality of Jesus, still needed to be fully accepted even by Peter, and he then had to explain to other Jewish Christians the significance of Jesus after he had been convinced in a vision. The deciding factor in convincing Peter and the others was the gift of the Holy Spirit poured out on all people.
Revelation 21: 1-6. A reading familiar from funeral services. In this vision John sees the glorious future awaiting mankind. A new heaven and a new earth and God dwelling with his people in eternal bliss. This is the music of the future. In order to dance to it now God gives us His Spirit described as “water as a gift from the spring of the water of life”
John 13: 31-35. This text is sandwiched between episodes of betrayal and denial so stands as a beacon to followers of Jesus. The command to love one another stands as a continual challenge to church communities to model this, but it should help that even though our response may be wanting, we are always recipients of unmerited love ourselves. “ Just as I have loved you..”(v34)

The way we interpret the ministry of Jesus nowadays seem to suggest that it was always obvious that Jesus overturned the Kosher food laws and that his ministry extended far beyond the Jewish people.
But that only became obvious on reflecting on what Jesus said and did. The Biblical witness was written decades later whilst discerning what the Holy Spirit was telling the church.
According to the book of Acts, Peter - post resurrection - was still adamant that the kosher food laws remained intact and was far from convinced that gentiles were included in God’s plan of salvation.
It took three visions and an accompanying voice from heaven to convince Peter that all foods were clean, and there was strong opposition from lots of Jewish Christians to the inclusion of gentiles. It was only seeing the Holy Spirit fall on them and them speaking in tongues that finally convinced most of them. 
This is important for us because it shows us that revelation and insight are ongoing and continuous because the Spirit of God is living and active.
Certain things are set in stone – the life, ministry death and resurrection of Jesus are central facts but how the Christian faith is understood, interpreted and lived is a dynamic ongoing process.
In a poignant verse in Philippians 2:12 Paul writes “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling”
What salvation looks like as lived out by you will differ to ow it looks in other people.
How we work it out is by keeping close to God in worship and prayer and desiring God’s Spirit to work within you.
The result of us all living in Christ won’t result in a monochrome culture with us all looking and sounding the same – the Spirit will enhance and work through your character and likes and dislikes – so you become a better version of yourself.
Life in all its fullness takes into account your personality, and gifts and talents, your likes and dislikes.
You become more truly “you”.
Nearly all of us wear a mask when interacting with other groups of people – we are only ever really ourselves usually with our close family, and sometimes not even then, when we can let the mask drop and just be yourself. We often wear a mask when we approach God also.
But there is no need. God knows the true “you”, the you have become adept at hiding from other people – He knows your innermost thoughts.
The process of repentance, of re-orientating our lives is an exciting sometimes painful and unsettling process which means that the church is always in a natural state of flux, of change and development – an ossified church where nothing ever changes is a church that is not connected to the Spirit of God.
The thing that does remain constant is love. This is the commandment Jesus gave us as a church to embody so that we would be an example to the world by modelling a different way of living.
Taking the commandment seriously puts us under a certain amount of pressure. I mean “do we really embody love within the congregation?” is a continual and open question.
But if that pressure makes us feel a bit guilty and nervous, that is no bad thing - the Spirit is a disturber as well as a comforter - and those feelings should inspire us to re-double our efforts and we should rest easy that no matter how weak our response we can be sure of one thing;
That God loves us regardless of our response. Of course God wants us to respond but we are not judged on our response. Our response is a state of continual correction and refining as we attempt to work out our salvation with fear and trembling, knowing that yes we are loved and yes we are saved.

Monday, 13 May 2019

God is as Jesus is.

Acts 9: 36-43. This sign is reminiscent of the raising of Lazarus by Jesus and the thrust of the message is that the power of God exhibited in Christ is now present within Christ’s body on earth – the church. The raising of Tabitha is an acted parable and we embody his authority and power on earth and can discern the difference between spiritual life and spiritual death. Tabitha is called a Disciple here in the correct feminine form. This is the only instance of this happening in the New Testament.
Revelation 7: 9-17. The near conflation of God and Christ predates orthodox Trinitarian theology here in Revelation. As is commonly supposed the book was written in a time of great persecution – the great ordeal referenced in verse 14 – but are all now in heaven, their robes washed in the blood of the lamb. After enduring the traumas on earth, they have inherited a blessed existence, free from all hunger and thirst and pain or suffering. These words are an encouragement to all Christians suffering persecution in John’s time, that no matter what they are enduring now – in the end they will be vindicated.
John 10: 22-30. The questioners demand a straight answer to a straight question but one that fits their pre-conceived notion of who or what a Messiah ought to be. Jesus transcends all those categorisations (as He does ours today) and His answer also makes it clear that discerning his status is not just a question of having the right information. Repentance requires a complete re-orientation of life. Someone must “belong to my sheep” to fully appreciate the status of Jesus. The last statement says that functionally God and Jesus act as one.  

No-one expected the Messiah, the anointed one, to be born into an ordinary family that wasn’t rich or influential; whose family had neither position or was particularly learned. Most certainly they didn’t expect Him to suffer and to die a criminal’s death as part of God’s plan.
As Isaiah prophesied about him in one of the suffering servant passages (Isaiah 53:2) “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him”
Jesus never wrote a single word in his life as far as we know, and
ever held any office, either civil or religious and there is no account of what he actually looked like.
But because of all those reasons He can represent any race, any culture, any person no matter what their social class or education. Jesus is a truly universal figure who transcends all attempts to put him into a box and classify him.
People now think it a terrible thing that we depicted Jesus with blond hair and blue eyes in some of our art – or in medieval paintings Jesus and the disciples wearing medieval clothes -  but all that was being done there is appropriating Jesus for a particular time and place and culture. People will say that Jesus couldn’t possibly be like that as he was a near Eastern Jew. But that misses the point. I’m sure you will also have seen Chinese, South Asian and black and female representations, but Jesus wasn’t South Asian, Black or Chinese or a women either. The point is, Jesus represents the human condition of any and every cultural, social and ethnic group in the world.
Just like God does.
In the reading from John today Jesus sidesteps the demand to say whether He is the Messiah because to do so would simply be an exercise in seeing whether he fitted their pre-conceived idea of what a Messiah ought to be.
It is then that He says that his followers recognise his true identity because they are a part of his flock. This means that they have undergone a transformation, a re-orientation of life that Jesus called repentance. They have been born from above just as he told Nicodemus (John 3) he must be in order to see and recognise the Kingdom of God.
It is this re-orientation of life when we start to do and say and embody the things Christ did and said that we become his body on earth.
This is the spiritual meaning of Peter raising Tabitha from the dead, just as Jesus raised Jairus’ daughter or Lazarus. His disciples are so at one with Jesus that they emulate even the most spectacular signs performed by Jesus. And they become the continuation of Jesus’ ministry on earth.
The messages contained within the readings today are that Christ can represent all and any people anywhere – He is a truly universal figure – and that anyone and everyone can be Christ in the world today - He is every man and every woman.
Another important point is that knowing Jesus is more than just head knowledge.
Knowing Jesus is being in an active ongoing relationship with God through Jesus. That relationship lives and grows in the same way as all your relationships live and grow. It is achieved through spending time together, talking to each other and getting to know each other. Prayer and worship and seeking to discern God’s will in the world, and through engaging with sacred writings, especially the Bible record.
There is no end to this process. We are all learners and we all grow at different speeds depending on many different factors. But if we want to get close to God we do so by emulating and learning from Jesus because as Jesus said in the gospel this morning “The Father and I are one”. “God is as Jesus is” as Archbishop Michael Ramsey once said.
I always encourage entering worship or any “religious” activity with a sense of anticipation that you will not escape from the encounter unmoved or unchanged. God is working here this morning. God is here and we are here to actively engage with Him. Any true engagement with anyone doesn’t leave you unchanged so how much more will an encounter with the creator of all things.

Monday, 6 May 2019

Feed my sheep.

Acts 9: 1-6. Conversions don’t come any more dramatic or unexpected than this. Saul (Paul) was a fierce opponent of Christianity and in fact oversaw the stoning of Stephen – the first Christian martyr. Spare a thought for Ananais also, who was aware of Saul’s fierce anti-Christian stance and yet was told to seek him out and lay his hands on him to restore his sight.
Revelation 5:11-14. “Apocalyptic” is a genre of writing that is most prominent in Revelation in the New Testament and draws on Old Testament imagery in books like Daniel and Ezekiel. They speak in complicated (and sometimes indecipherable) symbols and codes to convey spiritual truths often at times of great temporal/historical trauma. What they want to convey is that no matter how bad things look from our perspective, God is in control and in the end all will be well. John’s vision came to him in exile during the persecutions of Emperor Dormitian and exalts the slain lamb Jesus to the highest heaven whom the whole creation worships.
John 21: 1-19. This passage has tremendous personal resonance for me, because when I was considering my options whether or not to go into ordained ministry, my wife Alexandra, who wasn’t given to fanciful talk or experiences, exclaimed that she had heard God’s voice speaking to her after praying about the situation and clearly heard the words “Go feed my sheep”. I have been trying to do that to the best of my ability ever since.

The conversion experience of Saul on the road to Damascus is not an experience that many 21st century Christians certainly within the church of England can readily identify.
Many, perhaps most are cradle Christians. Some will have conversion experiences certainly that were not perhaps as dramatic as Paul’s but were for us equally important and life changing.
I think I speak for most of us when I say that our conversion to Christianity is an ongoing process which started for some of us with a specific event but not for others.
You could say that Saul’s conversion needed to be as dramatic as that because He was such an appalling actively aggressive opponent of what is still known at this point as “the way” – the way of life and light modelled and lived by Jesus.
It is suggested that he presided over the stoning to death of the first Christian Martyr, Stephen and was en-route to Damascus to round up Christians who were attending the Synagogues there and bring them back to Jerusalem in chains.
There are two points in Luke’s story of his conversion that Paul would have taken issue with.
Luke implies that Paul’s experience of the risen Lord was qualitatively different to that of the 11 disciples, thus excluding him from being a bona fide Apostle, but Paul always maintained that his experience was exactly the same as all the other encounters.
I think this is important for what that says about all our encounters with Christ that have happened ever since. Whatever form it takes, the important thing surely is not the specifics of any encounter itself but what that encounter means to us and how it changes our lives.
The spiritual health of our community, the body of Christ here this morning, is gauged by the quality of our response to God, which is the ongoing process of worship, prayer, meeting and ministry that we engage with.
It seems that the bigger the opponent of Christ, the bigger the experience needed to effect any change. What was most important was the change in Paul’s life, his missionary zeal, and his keen theological understanding, that provided the seeds of new growth across the Eastern Mediterranean and nurtures the church to this day with his written word.
The disciple’s encounter with the risen Jesus reaches its climax with the rehabilitation of Peter on the beach. Of course, we all remember that Peter denied Jesus three times before the cock crowed on Good Friday.
Here on the beach we have the three fold question, “Do you love me?” When each time Peter says yes, Jesus says in reply;
“Feed my Lambs”
“Tend my sheep” and
“Feed my sheep”.
As I explained on my email this has tremendous resonance for me. We are talking about encounters with the divine, and my wife Alexandra a very down to earth person if ever there was one, not prone to flights of fancy was praying on our front door step. We were wondering whether I should go into ordained ministry.
She told me that she had heard a voice speak to her and it said “Feed my sheep”
As I wrote, I have been trying to do that to the best of my ability ever since.
Encounters with the divine come in all shapes and sizes. But what is much more important is how we react to that encounter and how we try to follow Jesus in the way that leads to light and life.
Every church service is an attempt to frame an encounter with the Divine. The true success or failure of any service is gauged by how it affects someone who engaged with it.
A wise old Bishop once said of the charismatic centred churches and their exuberant spirit filled worship. “I don’t care if they fall down. It’s what they do when they get up that concerns me”
And a healthy spiritually mature church is a solvent church, fully enabled to fulfil its mission in the place it is set. How we respond as a community to make sure that we are have a secure base to work from is a spiritual matter.
To paraphrase a theologian, I quoted recently.
It isn’t how or when you heard the music of the Kingdom of God. It is how you dance to it today that counts.