LED BY THE SPIRIT

 20-peters-vision_adam-anderson

EASTER 5. Yr. C  Acts 11,1-18; Rev. 21, 1-6; John 13, 31-35

 

Many of you will have been saddened, as I was, by the news of the death of the entertainer, Victoria Wood. So much of her work as an actor, and writer of comedies and songs, has brought me joy over the years.

 

Some years ago, I watched a programme about her visiting parts of the British Empire. When she was in Hong Kong, she had a conversation with a dog beautician, who told her that one way rich residents demonstrated their wealth was to buy expensive and rare breeds of dogs as pets – and then serve them up as gourmet meals to their friends. When she visited Borneo, she was presented with another gourmet meal of bird’s nest soup, which she did not enjoy because she had previously visited the caves where the ingredients of the soup were collected, one of which was bird spit.

 

The expressions of disgust and horror I can see on the faces of some of you must be very like the reactions of members of the Jewish Christian community in Jerusalem when they heard the description of what Peter had been ordered to eat in his vision. (Acts 11, 1-18) All the foods in the sheet that was lowered – birds of prey, reptiles, and insects – were unclean according to Jewish dietary rules, and observant Jews were forbidden to eat them.

 

Many religions, like Judaism, have rules about what their members may or may not eat. As Peter’s experience shows, it is a discipline, but also a way of keeping a holy people separate from nonbelievers, since you can only socialise in a limited way with people you cannot share meals with. The food laws were one important strand in defining who was Jewish and who was Gentile, and keeping them apart so that the Jewish religion was not watered down or compromised.

 

Most societies have conventions about food – for instance the French eat horse-meat, which we tend not to; and they eat snails, which we don’t although we do eat whelks. Many of these are breaking down as societies become multi-cultural, and restrictive food laws are often the first things to be jettisoned when a religion undergoes a liberal reformation.

 

 

This is what happened after the death and resurrection of Jesus. It ushered in a new era, in which the restrictions and regulations of Old Testament Judaism were no longer appropriate. The fact that this event is described in more or less detail three times in Chapters 10 and 11 of Acts, shows how important a decision it was. The Book of Acts shows the disciples struggling with the implications of the new age. This particular extract seems to show that the inclusion of the Gentiles was accepted once and for all after Peter’s explanation. But further reading in the Book of Acts and in the Epistles show that the issue continued to cause division in the Early Church, especially after St. Paul’s missionary journeys brought many more Gentile converts into the church. It took a long time to decide whether those Gentiles who wanted to become Christians had to keep all the food laws or just some of them, had to undergo circumcision if they were men, and had to observe Jewish religious festivals.

 

We tend to think that deep and bitter divisions about what is essential and what is peripheral to the Christian faith are a relatively modern phenomenon. A careful reading of the New Testament soon demonstrates that divisions were part of the Christian experience from the very beginning.

 

 

The food we eat is no longer a major cause of dispute within the Christian Church. But then, it was not really the issue at stake for Peter and Paul in their missionary activities. What was really in dispute was who could be admitted as full members of the covenant community, and that continues to divide Christians. In the past people have been denied full participation (which includes full participation in worship and sacraments and being able to occupy positions of leadership and authority) on the grounds of their race or ethnic origin, on the basis of their age, and on the basis of their gender. Now the burning issue on which some parts of the church wish to exclude others is the issue of sexuality.

 

The church is both a divine and a human institution, so it is not surprising that sometimes human limitations take over. But God has no such limitations, and the Spirit (as the reading shows) is constantly breaking through those barriers which human beings construct around themselves to make themselves feel safe or comfortable. As faithful Christians we will find ourselves constantly being challenged (as Peter was) to follow the Spirit’s lead to situations and places we would rather not go, and our minds constantly being opened to new possibilities of inclusion in our fellowship.

 

 

If we take on board fully the implications of this story, perhaps we will feel afraid. It makes it abundantly clear that the Spirit of God is free to bring about the will of God for the world and  to transform it into a new heaven and earth, in unlooked for ways. It makes it clear that we cannot use our conventional short cut of categorising people by race, gender or sexuality in making decisions about them. It makes it very plain that the life and death of Jesus brought about salvation for everyone, and all sorts of people who we may not like, or approve of, are going to be grafted into our community whether we like it or not. It shows that to discriminate against those to whom God has given the gifts of the Spirit is to oppose God, the worst of sins.

 

It is hard for human beings to keep up with God. And though we may believe that we will follow wherever the Spirit leads, putting this into practice is not always easy to do. We need always to be asking ourselves, “Do we put limits on God’s offer of salvation? Are there groups of people that we regard as ‘impure’ and unworthy to be part of our fellowship? How can we tell if it is truly the Spirit leading us, and not our own desires, or human fashion?”

 

 

God does not leave us without guidance, however, The gospel reading, taken from John’s account of the Last Supper, gives us one means of judging whether people are truly Jesus’ disciples or not. The guidance is placed just after the moment in the story where Judas leaves to betray Jesus and the others to the authorities, thus demonstrating that people who betray their friends are not true disciples. Jesus warns his disciples of his imminent death, and gives them a new commandment – to love one another as he has loved them; then he adds that they can tell if others are his disciples by the quality of their love for each other.

 

This is a very practical yardstick for us to use. It means we have to judge each person individually, rather than relying on human categories. It is also a yardstick by which we know we all fall short: for none of us is able to show the boundless, sacrificial, all-inclusive love which Jesus did when chose to die on the cross rather than resist with violence. So we are all included in the community of the Church by grace, and we have to be very, very careful about excluding others without good reason.

 

 

Inevitably, Christians will continue to be divided, as the Jerusalem Church was divided, over where the limits of inclusion and exclusion should be set. The story from Acts gives us some guidance about how we should deal with those divisions. Peter didn’t indulge in a long discourse about the theory behind the dietary laws and how things had changed; he didn’t bandy passages of Scripture with those who challenged his actions. He was honest about his own reservations, but detailed clearly how, after prayer and being open to the Spirit’s leading, a new and unexpected experience had changed his deeply held opinions.

 

Peter’s experience is a real challenge to many in the Church, who seek to keep themselves in little enclaves of orthodoxy and supposed purity, and refuse to allow themselves to be open to the ministry of those – be they women, or gays, or whoever – whom they seek to exclude.

 

Of course, being open to the leading of the Spirit is not without risks: but risk-taking love is what Jesus was all about.

 

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Who’s Calling You?

Good Shepherd, African 1

(Easter 4.  Yr C.            Acts 9, 36-43; John 10, 22-30)

 Have you noticed how bossy our equipment has become these days?

Once upon a time, we humans were in charge. We decided when to set our equipment going, and when to stop. Now almost everything has a timed programme – your oven, your washing machine, your dishwasher – and when it is ready it beeps at you – and keeps on beeping until you pay it attention.

 

Are you sureOr there are lights that flash at you to tell you to do something, especially on your computer, or questioning your decisions (Do you want to switch off your computer? Yes, I do!) – and in the worst scenario, the equipment (like your printer!) stops working all together until you obey its instructions.

 

Then there are modern cars, with lights to tell you if you haven’t closed the doors, or put your seat belt on; and worst of all, the sat navs, telling you where and when to turn – and going into a sulk if you use your own local knowledge to take a better route, and continually repeating instructions to take you back onto their prescribed route.

 

At least with sat navs you can change the voice, to choose something which is a little less irritating.

In the Gospel reading today, John is reflecting on the image of Jesus as a Shepherd, and speaking about the way those who belong to Jesus recognise and respond to his voice.

 

Earlier in this chapter, John’s Jesus says of himself that he is the Good Shepherd, and the good-shepherd-2gate for the sheep. This imagery is unique to John, though Luke has echoes of it in his parable of the lost sheep.

 

This picture of Jesus probably doesn’t have as much impact on us as it would have done on the people of John’s time. He was speaking to a pastoral people, for whom sheep represented both wealth, and a clean animal which could be used for sacrifices to God and for food. So, Jesus is saying that those who follow him, who hear and respond to his voice, are ‘clean’ in God’s eyes.

 

But those who read these words would have been reminded of other meanings from their Scriptures. The prophet Ezekiel spoke of Israel’s leaders of his time as ‘wicked shepherds’, who exploited the sheep, neglected the weak lambs, and allowed the flock to be scattered by ravening wild animals. His message was that God would replace the wicked shepherds and come, or send a ‘Good Shepherd’, to gather the scattered sheep together again, to feed them, and to give them peace and safety. This is what those who originally read these words would have understood by Jesus’ claim to be the Good Shepherd, and when he said ‘The Father and I are one’.

 

5895870951_ae4c5006aa_bThey would also have been reminded of the 23rd Psalm, a version of which we sang as our first hymn; traditionally held to have been written by David, the shepherd boy who became God’s chosen king, and who freed the Jews from the threat of domination by the Philistines. That psalm promises the people of Israel that they will enjoy God’s guidance, protection, assurance and presence all the days of their lives and beyond, so long as they follow their true shepherd in the paths in which he leads them.

 

In the passage we heard, Jesus is rejecting the contemporary leaders of the Jewish nation. They are not of his flock, he says, because they do not accept the works he does as God’s works, and the words he says as God’s words. They do not listen and obey his voice. They are not the good shepherds of the 23rd Psalm, they are the wicked shepherds of Ezekiel.

 

In New Testament times, as you may know, sheep were not driven along by their shepherds or by sheepdogs. They were led by their shepherd, recognising and trusting his voice, and following him in the way he had trodden before them. That is what all Jesus’ disciples, including us, are meant to do. We are meant to follow in the Way to which God calls us, through Jesus.

 

The Book of Acts provides us with many stories of disciples doing just that, which is why we hear readings from it during this Easter season. The coming of the Messiah established a new community, following the voice of Jesus. That community had different leaders from the religious community that had gone before, leaders who didn’t fit the established pattern of who was thought competent to lead.

 

In the passage set for today we hear about Peter, a fisherman who has become a preacher, carrying on Jesus’ ministry of evangelism, prayer and healing. And we hear the story of Tabitha or Dorcas, a poor widow who carried out a ministry of charity among the poor of Joppa.

I’ve known the story of Dorcas since I was at school, because our school held an annual event named after her. Like Dorcas, we were all encouraged to sew or knit garments for 578395f120be204b0152993f53a93640small children, which were collected and given to families in need in this country and overseas.

Dorcas, one of the poorest and least privileged in society, heard the voice of Jesus calling her to work to relieve the poverty of those among whom she lived. She was called from being a recipient of charity to be a leader and a disciple (and is notable that she is the only female to be called a disciple in the New Testament). Her death caused a crisis among the other widows she cared for, and threatened the collapse of the ministry of care she established.

 

When Peter came and prayed over her, his command to her to ‘Get up’ uses the same verb in Greek as is used of the resurrection. The Holy Spirit, working through Peter, restored life to her, and enabled her to continue to bring new life to the community she served.

 

In John’s Gospel, the Son and the Father are one, because they speak and act in concert. Jesus prayed that his disciples might hear his voice and act as he did in order that they too may be ‘one with the Father’; that is, at one in thought and action with God. Thus Peter and Dorcas are united with God because they live In Jesus through the Holy Spirit, and carry out God’s work in their communities.

 

Today is sometimes called “Good Shepherd Sunday’ in the church, but is also kept as 1-410-70.shepherd‘Vocations Sunday’, because of the theme of hearing the voice of God calling us, and responding.

 

How do we hear the voice of God? Some of us may hear actual voices speaking to us, as we heard last week that Paul did; but maybe only a minority will have that sort of experience. The traditional ways in which we as Anglicans expect to hear God are through the Scriptures; through the wisdom of the Christian Tradition, in the writing of faithful followers of Christ through the ages, and in the liturgy; and through the use of our God-given reason, applying our knowledge of the world and of human beings, given to us through science and the arts, to the scriptures and the tradition. To these three, Methodists add experience, which I think is valuable, because we should listen for God with our emotions as well as our intellect, our hearts as well as our heads.

 

However, in this world of noise in which we live, there are many voices claiming to speak for God. So how do we judge which is actually God speaking to us, and calling us to follow the Way of Jesus?

Peter Vardy, who lectures in the philosophy of religion, wrote a book called “Good and Bad Religion’ which gives some guidelines to judge whether we are truly hearing the voice of God. Good religion, he says, transforms the individual rather than just making them conform to the group; it is not afraid of science or rational scrutiny; it promotes justice and respects human freedom; good religion promotes human flourishing, without distinctions of gender, race or sexuality; good religion exercises humility in its claims, acknowledges it may sometimes be in error, and admits there may be a variety of legitimate interpretations of truth.

 

I hope that the readings we heard today will encourage you to listen for the voice of God, whether it comes to you through reading the scriptures or other Christian literature, through worship and song, or through your daily life and what is going on in the world around you.

 

And that, having listened, you will hear God calling you to the vocation – the particular role in the communities in which you live – that you have already been equipped as a disciple to carry out.

 

And I hope that the readings will also reassure you that you don’t have to be particularly religious, or feel a call to ordination, or be very intellectual in order to be called as a disciple of the Good Shepherd; Dorcas wasn’t, and neither was Peter.

All that is necessary is for you to hear God’s voice, and to follow faithfully, and you will be raised, as our collect asks, to find those things which are from above.

 

Let us pray:

 

*Day by day, God leads us:

to the deep, deep pools of peace,

to the green, lush lawns of grace.

Day by day, Jesus calls us:

to pour out ourselves in service,

to anoint the stranger with hope.

Day by day, the Holy Spirit shows us:

the community we could be,

the family we are called to become.

 

Day by day, may we hear God’s voice

And follow in the way God is calling us to go.

Amen.

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*Adapted from a call to worship  written by Thom Shuman on Lectionary Liturgies.

 

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Doubting Thomas?

 

Thomas

(John 20, 19-31. Easter 2, Yr C)

How do you feel about the apostle Thomas, whose story we have just heard from the Gospel according to John?

Do you identify with him?

Or do you condemn him, as the Christian Church has tended to do for most of its history, as ‘Doubting Thomas’?

Jesus gave some of his disciples additional names: Simon became Peter, the Rock, and James and John were called Boanerges, the Sons of Thunder; but we don’t usually remember the meaning of these nowadays. We don’t remember any other of the disciples by a name that commemorates one incident in their lives. Simon Peter is not remembered as “the Denier” or James and John as “those who asked for the best positions”. The name of Judas has become a synonym for betrayal; but only slightly less reprehensible than being a ‘Judas’, it seems, is to be a ‘Doubting Thomas’.

The reading we had today contains was two of the four ‘resurrection appearances’ of Jesus recorded in the Gospel according to John. Each of the four gospels has a very different record of the ‘appearances’ of Jesus after his death and burial, and St Paul gives yet another account in his letters.

This makes it clear that what we are dealing with here is not historical fact, but myth or parable – stories which are meant to convey meaning and truth. The truth of a parable does not depend on whether the story describes something that really happened. So we should leave aside the question of whether what John the Evangelist describes actually occurred. The question we need to ask is “What is he trying to convey through this story?”

In John’s account, the first appearance is to Mary Magdalene, in the garden beside the tomb. She doesn’t recognise Jesus until he calls her name. She is forbidden to touch him because ‘he has not yet ascended to the Father’. For John, resurrection, ascension and coming in glory are not events separated in calendar time; they all happen on Easter Day.

So, the appearances in the locked room in Jerusalem are of the ascended and glorified Jesus, although a Jesus who still bears the visible scars of crucifixion. He shows the disciples the marks on his hands and side. John’s resurrection parable tells us very strongly that it is the crucified Jesus who is raised to glory and whose life and death are vindicated by God. Resurrection does not cancel out the crucifixion.

Then Jesus commissions the disciples to continue his mission, to go to teach the world as he taught the world. As he was the agent of the Father in his earthly ministry, the disciples, and those who will come to belief through their witness, become the agents of God in their turn, speaking the message of new birth, new life and hope by the Spirit to those who are broken and fearful, hiding behind locked doors in their particular world.

Having revealed his glorified self to them, and commissioned them to continue his ministry, Jesus then empowers them for the task, by breathing the Holy Spirit on them. Again, the sequence of events in John’s account is very different from the synoptic gospel accounts, where the gift of the Holy Spirit comes later. John’s resurrection narrative has many echoes of the second creation narrative in Genesis: new life begins in a garden; God breathes into human beings to give them life.

In other places in the Old Testament, God gives life through breath or spirit, for instance in the valley of dry bones which represent Israel in Ezekiel. Although John’s Gospel speaks of several different ways of entering new life (through rebirth to Nicodemus and through living water, perhaps meaning baptism, at the Festival of Shelters), the gift of new life through the Holy Spirit is particularly significant. In his farewell discourses at the last supper, John’s Jesus says he will be away from the disciples and they will not see him for a little while. Then after a little while they will see him. He promises he will come again to them, and give them another advocate to replace himself, who will lead them into all truth. The gift of the Spirit fulfils these promises.

It is only after the gift of the Holy Spirit that Jesus gives the disciples the authority to forgive sins. John teaches that is only those who are united by the Spirit with the God of love revealed through Jesus who know the truth, and can judge what is sinful and what is not. It is only those who are at one with God through the Spirit, as Jesus was, who have the authority to act in God’s name.

Sunday evening was  time when Christian communities in the Apostolic Age gathered to share worship and eat a fellowship meal together. So the messages in these two appearances, a week apart, are clearly directed to the communities for which John is writing. The statement by Thomas that he will not believe until he has seen the marks of the nails and put his hand into the spear wound in Jesus’s side leads into the second appearance.

‘Believe’ is a very rich word in the gospels, and had quite a different meaning then from the way it is usually used in religious circles today. As Marcus Borg points out, it does not mean signing up to  a whole lot of statements about God and Jesus, such as those contained in the creeds. It comes from the old English words ‘be love’ and is more about love, trust, faithfulness and commitment, than intellectual assent to a number of propositions. It is more about ‘believing in’ than ‘belief’.

Thomas is not prepared to make his commitment to the Risen Son at second hand. But note what he asks to see: the marks of the nails and the spear, the wounds. He is clear that ‘belief’ involves identifying with the crucified Lord in his suffering. He is not one of those disciples who wants the glory without the suffering, Easter without Good Friday.

Jesus grants Thomas his wish by appearing the next Sunday evening. John makes clear that the appearances in Jerusalem are not of a physical body: it can appear and disappear at will through solid walls. And although invited to touch, Thomas doesn’t need to. Once he has seen the wounds, he pronounces the standard Christian confession of faith: ‘My Lord and my God’.

Jesus’s response to his declaration is usually translated as a question, and as accusatory. “Have you believed because you have seen?” But the Greek in which the gospel was written does not reverse word order in order to indicate a question, nor did it have punctuation marks. Just as Jesus’s response to Pilate’s question “Are you the King of the Jews?” can be translated “I am” or “Am I?” so these words of Jesus can also be translated not as a question, but a statement. “You have believed because you saw me. Blessed are those who have not seen, yet come to believe.”

This combination of statements gives equal affirmation to those who believe because they have visions in which they see, hear or touch Christ, as the first apostles did, and several years later,  Paul says he also did; and to those who believe because of the witness of others, as most of us will have done. The first witnesses have no privileged place over those who follow.

In John’s account, Thomas, like the other disciples, is now transformed: joyful where before he was fearful; and at peace, whereas before he was disturbed by the apparent failure of Jesus’s mission.

The final sentences of our reading (which most scholars believe was the original end of John’s Gospel) explain that the account of the signs has been written to inspire belief and commitment to Jesus as Messiah and Son of God. It implies that John’s communities of Christians will be ‘people of the book’. They will no longer rely on visions, nor on the oral tradition, but on John’s account of the signs and his explanations of their meaning to know the truth.

Thomas, the account shows us, was not a doubter. He knew what had happened to Jesus on the cross and that he was dead. He didn’t want a happy ending, but evidence that God had approved and glorified Jesus for the path of service and suffering he had followed. Once he was assured of that, he was a faithful disciple, passing on through word and his own example that the way to be at one with God was through the path of service to others, and non-violent resistance to the forces of domination and oppression.

John’s account of the resurrection challenges us in turn, people who have come to faith through the witness of those who wrote the gospel accounts and the other books of the New Testament, to have faith in that same path. It tells us that the opposite to faith,  belief as commitment, is not doubt, but fear, cynicism and despair. It tells us we are called to be communities of hope, committed to Jesus and the way of life he taught.

We are called to bring that hope to places and people where it is absent – even to those who don’t share our particular way of commitment to God. We are called to move out of our comfort zones, out of the familiar and the safe, out from behind locked doors, to follow our Lord and God into the new life he promises, accompanied by the Holy Spirit, who is our Comforter and Advocate.

May we hear and respond to this message of the Resurrection, as Thomas did.

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I believe in Resurrection

Dawn 2

Sermon for Easter

(Acts 10, 34-43; Luke 24, 1-12)

 

Today we are celebrating the Resurrection, the central belief of the Christian faith. Whenever we say a creed we proclaim our belief that Christ was raised from the dead, and that we look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.

 

But what are we really saying; and what difference does it make?

 

We may be saying that we believe in the mighty act of God in raising Jesus Christ from death to glory in Palestine two thousand years ago. But what we believe about what actually happened will differ from Christian to Christian. The Gospels recount the experience of different followers of Jesus, some named and some not. Acts gives different accounts and Paul, in his letters, his own very different experience of the risen Christ, which does not fit into the Gospel pattern of 40 days of appearances before Ascension to Heaven.

 

The Bible accounts show us that the resurrection appearances of Jesus were not straightforward affairs, events that could be recorded by a camera or a video. Often Christ was not immediately recognisable; it was through some words or actions that his presence was recognised. Was it a physical resurrection, or a spiritual one?

 

What Scripture shows us is that these early followers had a overwhelming personal experience of the presence of Christ, which convinced them that God had raised Jesus from death to share in the divine glory; and that these experiences transformed their lives, giving them peace and hope, and the strength to face the worst that life could bring them, even physical death. That belief changed the way those followers lived their lives; but does it make any difference to the way we live our lives today?

 

In the creeds, we also state our belief in ‘the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come’. Generally, that ‘resurrection’ is now taken as something that happens after physical death; and again our beliefs about it are not something we can prove in any scientific sense. When we talk about resurrection after death, all we can use is picture language; whether that is the mediaeval writings and paintings, showing the bliss of the righteous in Heaven and the torments of the unrighteous in Hell; or less serious talk about harps and wings and sitting on clouds for all eternity.

Heaven-Earth-HellAgain, there may be different beliefs among Christians about what the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come really means, and no-one can be certain about it. Are the pictures of Heaven and Hell biblical, or inventions of the Church to scare us into behaving properly in this life? Is that the only way that belief in the resurrection affects the way we live our lives now?

 

My own beliefs about resurrection and what it means were very influenced by the writing of an Anglican monk of the Community of the Resurrection at Mirfield called Harry Williams, and in particular by a book he wrote in the 1970s called ‘True Resurrection’. In it, he questioned the tendency of Christians to push ‘resurrection’ away from their everyday experience, into the past of 2000 years ago, or into the future after physical death. That, he says, is to turn our relationship with the living Christ into a cult-idol; and the thing about idols, as Second Isaiah points out, is that they are powerless. ‘They don’t disturb our institutional, religious and personal status quo, they don’t demand anything of us. Most important, they can’t ask that we should live a new life; they leave us perfectly free to carry on as before, insulated from the life-transforming glory of true resurrection’.

 

In the book, he describes how we are called to experience resurrection in the here and now: resurrection in our bodies, raised to live the sort of lives Christ taught us to live, of restraint and service to others, so that our bodies reveal God to the world; resurrection in our minds, so that we think and feel with the mind of Christ; resurrection in our institutions, and particularly in our religious institutions, so that they have new life breathed into them, and become vehicles for sharing the love of God with the world; and most importantly, resurrection in our spiritual lives, so that we move from the living death of sin and self-centredness to a new life which is completely open to the love of God and the message of the living Word.

 

And yet, this vision of experiencing the resurrection in our own lives, in the here and now, is not one that is very much talked about. Why not? Why is it that we prefer to think about resurrection only in the past or the future?

 

Perhaps because we are frightened of what we will have to go through before we can experience resurrection. As the story of Holy Week that we have heard this last week reminds us, before he was raised up, Christ had to suffer the worst that human life had to offer: betrayal by a friend, a mockery of a trial, torture and death. He was stripped of Carrying Cross imageseverything that gave his life meaning: his role as a teacher and healer, his identity as a free human being, his clothing, his dignity, even, so Mark tells us, his belief in the supportive presence of God. Only in that total nakedness was he able to reveal the Eternal Word. Only through that utter darkness was he able to come to resurrection.

 

Most of us would rather not do that. All our instincts incline us to do everything we can to preserve ourselves from physical hurt; and we protect our social lives, our emotional stability, our economic status, our intellectual superiority, our cherished beliefs and the traditions of our religious organisations with equal tenacity – because it is all these things which give us security.

 

However, if we cling on to all those things, if we cannot let go in faith and trust, as Jesus did, then we will not experience resurrection. We leave no opening for God’s grace in Christ to work in us.

 

Many, perhaps most people will at some time experience suffering, despair, emptiness, the loss of security, bereavement, failure. They appear to shrivel up, and seem destroyed by the experience. They are marked indelibly with the scars of it. Yet, some come through the experience with a better understanding of themselves, a deeper relationship with God, and a new way of living. That is resurrection.

 

We may experience resurrection and not know it, just as the disciples on the Emmaus road, Mary in the garden, and Peter and the others by the lakeside met the risen Christ, and did not recognise him. This may be because we demand that resurrection should be something dramatic, something in which the normal physical, social and psychological laws of God’s world are suspended. Christ warned us against demanding such ‘signs’ and told the disciple Thomas that those who believed without ‘seeing’ such things were more blessed.

 

Harry Williams said: “Resurrection occurs to us as we are, and its coming is generally quiet and unobtrusive, and we may hardly be aware of its creative power. It is only later that we realise that, in some way or another, we have been raised to newness of life, and so have heard the voice of the Eternal Word”.

 

What does resurrection in the here and now look like?

 

In his sermon at the Blessing of the Oils Service at St Albans on Maundy Thursday, Michael Bishop of Hertford spoke of his pride in the work that people in parishes across the diocese are doing to transform their communities, and especially to meet the needs of those who are suffering most from changes in our society and benefits provision. He spoke about it in terms of Living God’s Love – but that is living the resurrection. We have an example of it in our own community, in the activities housed in our local  Methodist Church – a church whose regular congregation had shrunk to the extent that there were plans to close the building; but which now houses activities which give support, food and friendship to those who need them, activities like the Food Bank, Debt Advice, the Credit Union and access to the CAB.

jademain_280x390_761371aSome of you may remember a young woman called Jade Goody, a ‘star’ after her appearances on various reality TV shows. Her life appeared to be totally pointless and self-centred – until she was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2008. Instead of hiding away during her treatment she chose to appear in public and be photographed without her hair after chemotherapy, showing the ravages of the disease, in order to alert other young women like herself to its dangers, and to persuade them to be tested and seek treatment early. As a result of this, numbers seeking screening increased and NHS policy was changed to offer it to younger women. That is living the resurrection.

 

During the last month there were a number of terrorist attacks – those in Brussels and Instanbul and Ankara that made headlines in our papers, and others we heard little about – in Mali, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Ivory Coast. Some people’s reaction was to turn on Muslims in their community, blaming them and their religion for the attacks. Others, like the shopkeeper in Glasgow who was killed, apparently because he tweeted Easter greetings to his Christian customers, reacted by trying to build community across religious and racial lines.

 

From America, a pastor called John Pavlovitz, published an open letter to the terrorists on the internet, entitled ‘Dear Terrorist, You Lose!’You can read the whole blog here http://johnpavlovitz.com/2016/03/24/dear-terrorist-lose/

 

In it he said: “Yes, I can imagine at certain times you might begin to believe the lie that you have the upper hand. In the middle of the fresh carnage this is understandable. I confess that in the madness of the moment I sometimes feel that way too. For a second the shock and sadness and loss of life overwhelm me. I briefly allow fear to have the run of my heart and I yield to the chaos, but I always come to my senses and find a peace that once again slows my pulse and steadies my knees.

That’s because almost immediately upon that which you design, straight in the face of that abject horror, something else kicks in.

It’s that beautiful force that propels people into harms way to help strangers, that moves them to the fray to care for others without regard for themself, that finds affinity in another simply because they are hurting—and responds.

This humanity is courage you’ll never know.


It is character you can’t comprehend.


It’s compassion that is counterintuitive to you.


It’s love that is foreign to your heart.

This is why you will always ultimately fail. 

Always.

Every time you seem to succeed, no matter how terrifying the immediate result of your efforts, there is always a coming response from good people which you can’t control or anticipate or destroy. It is not one that meets force with force, or hatred with hatred, or bloodshed with bloodshed. This would be playing your game.

What we come with is something that cannot be killed or destroyed or chased into the darkness. We come armed with Hope.

I’m sorry to break it to you, but these are simply the facts.

Terror is never the final answer.

It may speak first and loudly, but Love always gets the last, beautiful word.


You will never, ever win.

We who love—have already won.”

 

That is living the resurrection.

That is what we believe.

That is our Easter faith: that what destroys has been overcome by the creative power of God; what hurts has been healed by the loving hands of God; what has been divided is reunited in Christ; and that death and suffering and evil will never have the last word.

That is what we celebrate today.

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Receive children: receive me.

 

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Reflection for WWDP 2016

 

The service today asks us to look at children, and see in them an image, an ikon of God, and of Christ and of God’s sovereign rule.

 

That’s surprising.

It’s not what we usually do. We’re expected to approach our faith in a grown up way, to use our minds and our experience, to grow in spiritual maturity as we advance in years. We expect to be the ones who teach our children what it means to know God and follow Christ, not the other way around!

 

But however surprising we find those statements, they would have been even more surprising when Jesus made them. In Mark 9.37 he is quoted as saying “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name, welcomes me’. In our society, children are generally welcomed and valued. They have rights, and society will intervene to protect them if they are mistreated by their parents, or other people, or if they are neglected, if their health is suffering, or if they are not being provided with education.

In Jesus’ society, things were different. The only people who had rights were adult, free men. Children could be mistreated by their fathers, could be forced to support the family by working from a young age, and could be sold as slaves to supplement the family income.

Children, like women, were ‘non-persons’.

So to say ”Whoever receives a child receives me” is telling us that as Christians we not only have to receive, and welcome, and learn from children, but also from the least important and influential people in our society if we are to hope to receive God in Christ.

 

So, while we reflect on how we treat children, we need also to widen our thoughts, and to consider who are the despised and neglected, the unimportant and excluded people in our society and our churches at the moment?

 

But let’s think about children, because, although they are generally well treated in our time, things are not get as good as they could be for many of them. Our own children tend to be important to us; but what about other people’s children?

Let’s reflect first on the situation in our churches.

The statistics say (and we can all see) that the membership of our churches is getting older and older with each new generation. Children and teenagers just don’t seem to feel welcome. I’m sure you have frequent complaints in your churches about noisy children who prevent people from hearing the sermon or the prayers, or just spoil the atmosphere of quiet and reflection that older people have come to church to enjoy. While we may provide activities for very small children that they enjoy, as they grow up, many become bored by worship, or disillusioned with church activities and church teaching and leave – and if they leave, their children are unlikely to attend.

Jesus said ”Whoever welcome one such child in my name, welcomes me.” How can we make our churches places where the children of this and future generations feel welcome?

Then in society: most of our children are better off now than they have ever been. But though they have more possessions than any other generation before them, their parents often have to work long hours to provide them with what advertising leads them to expect, or even with the basics of food, clothing and shelter. They feel pressure at school, and don’t have the freedom to roam on the streets and in the countryside that many of us enjoyed when we were growing up. Surveys indicate British children are among the unhappiest in the world. And a recent report, The Enough Campaign,  by a coalition of churches on the Welfare Reform and Work Bill declares that these reforms will fail to provide enough income for some families – even those in work but on low incomes – to provide their basic needs; so children’s health and education will suffer.

Jesus said ‘Anyone who welcomes on such child in my name, welcomes me” We wouldn’t welcome Christ with inadequate food, clothing or shelter; how can we ensure we welcome children in our society as we would welcome Jesus?

And then in the world: in many places, children suffer from hunger, drought or diseases. Others are victims of child trafficking, which sees them either sold by or stolen from their parents, and used to work in slave conditions, badly treat or sexually abused. Some are abandoned by their parents, and become street children; or are forced into early marriage, so their health and education suffer. Others have been driven from their homes because of war, and left to drown in dangerous craft on the sea, or languish in inhuman conditions in refugee encampments, or are interned with their parents or alone.

If we ignore their plight, we are ignoring Christ in them, because he said, ”Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me”. What should we be doing to welcome them as we would welcome Christ?

 

In the hymn we shall sing next, we will affirm our commitment to ‘a place at the table’ for everyone, women and men, children and adults, native and foreigner, just and unjust. How are we as individuals and churches going to do that?

 

In our Gospel passage, we heard how Jesus was indignant with his disciples when they prevented children (and, presumably, their mothers and grandmothers who brought them to him) from coming to him, because he said the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to them, and we need to learn from them how to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

 

‘The Kingdom of Heaven’, better translated as ‘God’s Sovereign Rule’, is not something we only encounter after physical death, any more than we can only be with Jesus after we die. We are expected to acknowledge God’s sovereign rule, and work with Christ, and one another through the Holy Spirit, to put it into effect here and now. Jesus said in order to do that, we have to accept God’s rule (and God’s rules) as a child does. Think what he is saying by that, both in terms of the children of his world, and of ours.

He is saying we accept God’s rule as a non-person – a person with no rights of our own to protect us, no property of our own to defend, no discrimination or prejudice against others (since children don’t discriminate until they are taught to) and no right to judge each other.

We accept God’s rules in absolute trust that the way Christ showed us, of servant ministry, of unconditional love, of humility, of faithfulness even to death, will build the Kingdom of Heaven on earth.

 

That is the challenge the women of Cuba are presenting us with today.

 

This is the prayer they are asking us to pray:

 

Lord Jesus, we have gathered round

To hear you teach your friends

The truths about the love you bring,

That love which never ends.

We look to the children in our midst

For they have much and more to say,

And join with them to follow you,

To live and walk your way.

Amen.

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Mothering Sunday God

img004When my mother was alive, I used to spend a lot of time in card shops at this time of year. She was a lifelong traditional Anglican, and to her this Sunday was Mothering Sunday, not Mothers’ Day, so that is what her card had to say; and there are not a lot of them about!

And that set me thinking: “What is the difference between Mothers’ Day and Mothering Sunday?”

I came to the conclusion that Mothers’ Day is about our own human mothers and what they do for us; and of course there is nothing wrong with a special day to celebrate human mothering and say thank you to our own particular mothers. But Mothering Sunday is a church festival and there needs to be something more to a Christian festival than simply celebrating something good about human life; it has to teach us something about God.

For me, Mothering Sunday reminds us that mothering is an attribute of God.

One of the great joys, when you have small children, or small grandchildren, is to receive card on this day which they have made themselves, especially if this includes an attempt to draw their mother or their grandmother – sometimes not a flattering picture to adult eyes, but done with love! And  usually the figure is recognisably female. But if you ask most people to draw God, whether a child or an adult, if they draw a human like figure, it will almost always be obviously male – often old, and with a beard, just to avoid any doubt.

Yet Genesis 1 says that God created humankind both male and female, in the image of God. God is not male or female, this passage says, God encompasses both male and female. The writers of the Old Testament, Jesus in the Gospels, and Paul in his letters all use images of mothers,  birds, animals, and human, to describe aspects of God’s care for us, and the pain and struggle of bringing us into newness of life.

Mother Julian of Norwich wrote in the 14th century: Just as God is our Father, so God is also our Mother. Who showed me this truth in all things, but especially in those sweet words: “It is I”.

As if to say, I am the power and the Goodness of the Father, I am the Wisdom of the Mother, I am the Light and the Grace which is blessed love, I am the Trinity, I am the Unity, I am the supreme Goodness of all kind of things, I am the One who makes you love, I am the One who makes you desire, I am the never-ending fulfilment of all true desires.

 

Marcus Borg, who died recently, wrote in his book “The God we never knew” of how his picture of God changed during the years. As a child he saw God as distant, stern, and constantly judging and reproving him. The image he carried of God was based on the minister of his church, an unsmiling man with grey hair, dressed in a long black robe, who shook his finger at the congregation when he preached and even when he pronounced the forgiveness of sins. But as Marcus Borg studied, and read the scriptures and some of the classics of the Christian faith, and prayed, his idea of God changed. Instead of a distant, powerful, king-like God, he came to believe more and more in a God who was close and all encompassing, who was within us as well as beyond us, who dominant characteristic was forgiving and loving and affirming; and the image that matched that best for him was of a woman minister, bending down at the communion rail to hand bread to a small child.

Two contrasting images of God – a male authority figure, shaking his finger at us; and a loving woman, bending down to feed us.

In spite of the fact that seeing God as Mother as well as Father is not a new insight, but goes back to the Bible and to the spirituality of the Middle Ages, many people still feel uncomfortable about it. And, if you are one of those people, I apologise. But I think it’s important to struggle with the idea, because it helps us to have a more complete understanding of the mystery which is God; and Mothering Sunday is a good day to do that.

What we know about human mothering tells us that it is incredibly important, especially to the smallest and most vulnerable among us. For the newborn baby, a mother gives everything – food, warmth, safety, company, comfort, education. Psychologists tell us that to the newborn, the person who gives them day by day care is their whole world. From them the child learns the beginnings of speech, and learns to interact and have empathy with other people, and to trust other people. Child psychologists also tell us that children who are not mothered grow up to have great difficulty in relating in a loving and trusting way to others. That’s an insight of modern scientific research – but it’s an insight also found in the scriptures, in the first letter of John; but there it is talking about our relationship with God. John writes “We love, because God first loved us”. God’s love, he says, the love that is like that of a mother for her infant child, is what enables us to love one another.

And mothering is not just important at the beginning of our lives. If we are to grow into the people God wants us to be, we will continue to need mothering throughout our entire lives. That mothering will not always come from our natural mothers; it will come also from our fathers, and our friends, our wider family and our spouses, and from everyone else who supports us with the unconditional, affirming, sacrificial love that mirrors God’s motherly love for us. And if we’re extremely lucky, we may even receive it from the church community!

It is the task of the church to reveal God to the world, through its words and also through its example. Mothering Sunday is a good occasion to remind the world, and ourselves that God is not just the transcendent King, Creator and Father, but also the immanent Mother, life-giver and source of love.

So, on Mothering Sunday, we celebrate and give thanks for not only our own mothers, but all those who, in whatever way, reveal to us the mothering of God – and they could be male or female, young or old, married or single, clergy or lay. And it’s a day when we remind ourselves of our commission to live God’s maternal love in the world, and pray for grace to do so.

So, if you’ve ever been inspired by the example of Jesus and the saints, and strengthened by the Holy Spirit to live out this vocation of nurturing, unconditional, sacrificial, motherly love, walk tall today! You have been privileged to play a small part in the revelation of God!

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Facing the Fox

 

Sermon for Lent 2. Year C.

Genesis 15, 1-12, 17-18; Luke 13, 31-35

 Fox-Hen

Our garden backs onto woodland, so it is visited by a variety of wildlife, including foxes. We did have anxieties about the foxes, especially when we had kittens, but we always made sure they were safely locked in at night, and during the day all the animals seemed to co-exist peacefully, and we rather enjoyed seeing foxes sunning themselves on our lawn on warm days.

 

That is, until the time when the muntjac deer, who spent a lot of time in our shrub border, produced a fawn. We first saw it as a new-born, tottering onto the lawn in the late afternoon, and we were looking forward to seeing it again in the morning. But, the next day, we were woken around dawn by the magpies screaming, and the mother deer howling – and we looked out to see the fox disappearing into the woods with a small creature in its mouth. We never saw the fawn again, and I’ve never felt quite the same about foxes.Fox-to-Guard-the-Hen-House

 

But I couldn’t imagine ever harming the foxes who visit the garden, unlike some of my friends and acquaintances who keep chickens. Some of them that have had a fox rampage through their hen-houses, killing everything that moves, would willingly kill any fox they found on their property.

 

Jesus uses the contrasting images of fox and hen in the story we hear in the Gospel reading for today. When he is warned that Herod, the puppet king of Galilee, is out to kill him, he sends back a defiant answer, calling Herod a ‘fox’. I wonder what particular characteristic of foxes he was thinking of? The most obvious is the habit of foxes of killing without reason. Herod had already killed John the Baptist (Jesus’ cousin in Luke’s Gospel) for criticising his behaviour. In spite of the fact that Jesus poses no direct threat to him, the Pharisees are now saying he is plotting the same fate for Jesus, and are warning him to leave Galilee quickly.

 

It’s a strange scenario for those of us who are used to the Pharisees being the enemies of Jesus’ mission, as they are so often portrayed in the Gospels; but Luke generally has a kinder view of the Pharisees than other Gospel writers. So perhaps this warning came from those who approved of Jesus’ teaching – or at the very least, disliked Herod as a puppet ruler who served the Romans more than they disliked Jesus as a wandering prophet who challenged their interpretation of the law.

 

Then again, it could just have been a ploy to get Jesus to move out of Galilee into Judea, away from their part of the country. According to Luke, he has just told them that in the Kingdom of Heaven things will be different: those who are now first, will come last, and those who are at the back of the queue now, will be first – not a message they are likely to welcome.

 

Jesus is already on that journey towards Jerusalem. His reply makes it clear that threats from religious or political opponents are not going to make any difference to his plans. He is going to follow his own timetable, fully aware of all the dangers that await him in the capital city. He speaks of the way that Jerusalem (which stands for the political and religious leadership of the Jewish people) has treated those prophets who came before him, who stood up to them, and warned them of the dire consequences of the paths they were following. We hear in the Old Testament how Uriah and Jeremiah suffered death, or were threatened with it, in Jerusalem because of their unwelcome messages. In parables and pronouncements, the gospel writers show Jesus speaking again and again of Jerusalem’s rejection of the messengers of God. He knows full well he may be going there to die.

 

But surprisingly, Jesus doesn’t go on to denounce the people of Jerusalem. Instead he talks of his longing to protect them from the horrors that are to come – the destruction of the Temple and desolation of the city. He speaks of himself as a mother hen, protecting the people of Jerusalem as a hen protects her chicks.Luke 13, 34

In several places, writers in the Old Testament compare God to a female animal, feeding and protecting her young; but these are usually strong and fierce animals, like an eagle or a bear, equipped to fight off predators. Jesus’ symbolism is different. How can a hen protect her young against a predatory animal like a fox?

 

I read an account once of a farmer in the USA, who woke one morning to find his hen house had caught fire during the night, and burnt to the ground. When he went to clear away the debris, it looked as though nothing was left alive; but when he lifted the carcass of a hen, her feathers scorched and her neck limp, from near where the door of the hen-house had been, there was movement, and her four chicks emerged from underneath her wings. She had used her body, and given her own life to shield her young from the fire.

 

We have probably all seen instances on nature programmes on TV, where mother birds will pretend to be injured and flap along the ground to draw predators away from the nests where there are vulnerable eggs or nestlings. Jesus uses the mother hen image to declare that is the way he will protect even his enemies against the horrors to come.

 

Our Old Testament lesson, one of several accounts in Genesis of the making of a covenant between Abraham and God, seems to be promising that so long as we have faith in God, all will be well. God promises to be our ‘shield’ (like the mother hen) and we will prosper and dominate our enemies. This view of faith as guaranteeing a good life to those who believe is a common one. But it is often problematic. If you hold this view and then something bad happens to you. If you lose your job, or your marriage breaks down, or you or somebody close to you gets seriously ill, how do you cope with it? Some people blame themselves and put themselves through the hoops, trying to strengthen their faith and prove that they are really deserving of God’s favour. Others put the blame on other people, members of their family or their community, who don’t share their faith, and have thereby brought punishment on all the members of the family or the group. Or it can destroy faith: “I kept my part of the bargain. I’ve believed everything just as I should have done, I’ve made sure every member of my family and my community toed the line, but still bad things have happened. I won’t believe in God, if God doesn’t keep God’s part of the bargain.”

 

Interestingly, the compilers of the lectionary left out four verses which modify the ‘trust God and all will be well with you’ message of this passage. In verses 13-16, Abraham is shown the future of his descendants, a time when they will be exiled into a foreign land, and will not return to the Promised Land for four generations. By the time that these sagas were being written down, the theologians and prophets were already beginning to question the ‘have faith and all will go well with you’ approach.

 

The Gospel story shows us another approach to faith. Jesus went to Jerusalem, anticipating opposition and death, and that is what came. Stephen and Paul and the other apostles found the same, and suffered martyrdom. Last week we remembered two saints of the Christian church who both died because of their faith: Valentine in the 3rd century and Janani Luwum in the 20th. Next week we will remember Polycarp who was martyred in the 2nd century. Their faith didn’t guarantee them a life of prosperity and a peaceful end.

 

What their faith did give them, and can give us, is the strength to face whatever the world throws at us without our trust in God, or our love of our fellow beings, or our commitment to the way of love and forgiveness, being destroyed. That is what Jesus as portrayed by Luke’s Gospel shows us. In spite of the hostility and cruelty of those who arrest, try, torture and execute him, Jesus’ attitude of love and forgiveness and his trust in God, never falters. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus’ words from the cross ask for forgiveness for those who hammer in the nails, and promise peace in Paradise to the thief executed beside him. At the end he commits his spirit into the hands of God, in total trust that his death is not the end of the story.

 

Jesus wasn’t being naïve or falsely optimistic. He was well aware of the destructive force and cruelty of the regimes and systems he faced. He knew that the call to proclaim God’s Kingdom did not guarantee a life free from pain and struggle. But he had  faith  that, despite appearances, God’s will would ultimately triumph. That was the protection his faith gave him; and the protection following in his way offers us.

As Mother Julian of Norwich said “He did not say, ‘You shall not be tempest-tossed, you shall not be work-weary, you shall not be discomforted.’ But he said, ‘You shall not be overcome.’ God wants us to heed these words so that we shall always be strong in trust, both in sorrow and in joy.”

 

chicksTrusting in God’s ultimate protection, Jesus was faithful to death, and gave his life to protect  his own, not only his chicks, but also the fox cubs, the young of those who sought to destroy him. As we follow him, we seek to grow in faith, so that we too may not turn on foxcubsthose who threaten us, and  use our power to destroy them but pour out our lives in their service and be inspired extend our protective wings to all, even to our enemies, in the name of Christ.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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