All Manner of Things Shall be Well

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(Romans 8, 18 – 25; Matthew 6, 25-34)

 

After the Thanksgiving for Marriage service  last Sunday afternoon, I was talking with a young woman who had given birth relatively recently, and another older woman. As often happens when mothers talk together, we ended up sharing our experiences of pregnancy and birth.

 

That conversation came to mind as I read the text from Romans set for today. It is written img_0095grandma-sam-lucyin the language of pregnancy and childbearing. I find it fascinating that, although we think all our Biblical texts were written down by men, they so frequently use the analogy of giving birth to speak of God’s interaction with human beings and the created world. In spite of living in an age of hard physical labour, and frequent hand to hand warfare, they can think of no better example of great effort and enormous pain than the female experience of giving birth.

 

Paul speaks of the whole created order, the physical world and the animal kingdom as well as humanity, groaning in labour pains, as they wait for something better, more glorious, the offspring of God’s plans, to be revealed. Just as the gospel of John says “A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world.” (John 16.21) so Paul says the sufferings of the present time are not worth comparing to the glory that is about to be revealed.

 

Paul talks about the turmoil, crisis and suffering of the world in which he lived, a world in which many Christians were expecting the imminent return of Christ, and the establishment of God’s glorious kingdom on earth.

 

But his description has been true of every age since. It is true of our own age now. In our own country, we are facing deep divisions revealed by the Brexit vote. In Europe, we are dealing with terrorist attacks, the influx of refugees from the Middle East, Asia and North Africa, and the worrying rise of extreme right-wing nationalist parties. In the world, agreements to limit nuclear weapons are now potentially threatened by the election of a leader in the USA who has talked about using nuclear weapons in some circumstances; and for the world as a whole, progress towards slowing climate change are threatened by the possible intention of that same world leader to withdraw from the Paris Climate Change Agreement.

 

And in the Middle East, countries continue to be in a state of permanent warfare, with the prospect of it spilling over into a wider conflict involving the great powers; and the worrying thing is that some Christian groups, who are very influential with the present US government, think this conflict is to be encouraged, because of their literal interpretation of parts of the Book of Revelation, which sees a war in Israel/Palestine as heralding the return of Christ and the end of time.

 

Paul seems to be interpreting Genesis as actual history, describing a time when the world and human beings were perfect and there was no conflict and struggle. Then came the Fall, caused by human sin; and by God’s will, the whole created order, and human beings were subjected to pain, disaster, chaos and death. Paul is now waiting for the restoration of the original perfection in a glorious future.

 

Even if we understand Genesis as myth, expressing a longing for how we instinctively think the world should be, we can still hear Paul’s message of positive thinking. However bad things may be now and in the future, he says we can still proclaim the hope that when God’s reign is established, when we are revealed as the children of God, the world and the human race will be transformed into something glorious and eternal.

 

This last week there have been several headlines about the Church of England which have included the words chaos, turmoil and conflict. They were concerned with the decision by General Synod, by a very narrow margin, not to take note of the report of the House of Bishops on ‘Marriage and Same Sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations’. In effect, this meant that Synod, and especially the House of Clergy in which a majority voted against it, registered its dissatisfaction with the tone and content of the Report, and asked the Bishops to go away and try again!

 

This was a vote on one particular contentious issue, but one on which there are strong feelings on all sides, and which has caused people a great deal of pain. It is unlikely to be the major disaster, or to herald the dramatic change that those same newspaper headlines proclaimed. The Church of England has been here before, over the ordination of women as priests and bishops, over the remarriage of divorced people in church, and back at the beginning of the 20th century, over the Deceased Wife’s Sisters Act, which in its time was predicted to lead to the breakdown of marriage, and the end of civilization as we know it!Though those of us who believe rejection of the report was the right thing, do hope that this will be a step on the way to better things and a more glorious future – the full inclusion in the Church’s life and ministry of all people of faith and talent, regardless of their gender or sexuality – what Archbishop Tutu called ‘the Rainbow People of God’.

The well-known passage that is our Gospel reading is also urging Christian disciples to be positive. Don’t be too concerned about the future, Jesus is saying.

 

This is challenging stuff. Are we really supposed to take it literally? Is Jesus really saying we should not plan and shop for tomorrow’s meals. and not make sure that we and others have clothes to wear.

 

It is especially challenging to those of us who tend towards being perfectionists, even control freaks, who always like to think ahead, and make sure that everything is in place before we go anywhere or lead an activity.

 

In his teaching, Jesus often uses exaggeration to make us stop and take notice, as we heard last week with his command to us to gouge out our eyes, or cut off our hands if they cause us to sin. So, it is important to look closely at what he is saying to us here. He doesn’t say we shouldn’t think about these things; he is saying we shouldn’t worry about them, or get anxious about them It’s not a question of what we do, it’s about our state of mind, and the degree to which we allow concerns over wealth and dress and food, and other outward things to dominate our thoughts. That way, our concerns can become overwhelming, and lead to the black cloud of depression overcoming us.

 

What Jesus is asking us to do is to trust in God; trust that even when we cannot control what is happening, things will turn out well; asking us to put living under God’s sovereign rule in the front of our concerns, rather than our own security.

 

Two words to take from today’s readings: hope and trust.

 

lady-julian-of-norwich-009Hope and trust that, as the 14th century English mystic, Mother Julian of Norwich, assures us, even though she lived in the time of the Black Death, the Peasant’s Revolt and the Hundred Years War, “All will be well, and all will be well and all manner of things will be well’

 

I want to end by sharing with you a song based on those words, by Meg Barnhouse a pastor and songwriter from the Southern USA. I was given a link to it after the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the US, and I’ve had it on the brain ever since.

 

 

 

 

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Oh, grow up!

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(Deuteronomy 30, 15 – 20; I Corinthians 3, 1-9; Matthew 5, 21-37)

 

When I was studying social psychology, and again when I was training to be a teacher, I came across the work of a Frenchman called Jean Paiget, the man who transformed the way we understand how children think and learn. He set out 4 stages in the development of children’s thinking and learning.

 

The first lasts from birth to about 2 years old. At this stage, children acquire knowledge through feeling objects. They take time to learn that objects exist separate from themselves, and that they continue to exist even when they can’t see them. As they get to the end of this stage, they begin to build up ideas about things, and match them to their names.

 

In the second stage from about age 2 to 7, children learn by play and by acting out situations. They still struggle with logic; their understanding is still governed by what they see (so although they see the same amount of water poured from one glass into another, they will say there is more in one than another if it is a different shape and looks more) and they are still very self-centred and struggle to see someone else’s point of view.

 

In the third from age 7-11, children learn to think logically, and begin to be able to see other people’s point of view, but they are still very rigid in the way they think, and struggle with abstract concepts and hypothetical situations.

 

From age 11 into adulthood, there is an increasing ability to think logically, to understand abstract ideas and to reason. Adolescents come to see there are many solutions to a problem, not just one, and many opinions about things.

 

Lawrence Kohlberg applied these stages of to the development of morality in children, from the earliest, totally self-centred stage, through being moral through fear of punishment, to morality being based on the community’s rules, to the time when morality is based on reason and universal principles.

 

Then, when I was studying religion, I learnt about the work of James Fowler, who applied the stages to the development of faith. He talked about the intuitive stage of very small children, where fantasy and reality are mixed together, children pick up ideas from their family and society, but have strange almost magical beliefs.

 

At junior school age, children begin to move into a stage, when they understand the world in more logical ways. They learn the stories told by their faith communities, but understand them in very literal ways. Their religion tends to be about reward and punishment. Some people stay in this stage all their lives.

 

As teenagers, most people move into the synthetic /conventional stage. They are now operating in several different social circles and see belief systems as a whole. It is the time when people adopt a faith for themselves, but they tend to be very attached to their particular faith and get very upset when the authority of their chosen leader is challenged. At this stage people find it difficult to see they are inside the ‘box’ of a particular system of belief. Many people also remain at this stage.

 

As young adults, some people move to the reflective stage. They realize there are other belief systems, other ‘boxes’ which are different from their own. This is the stage when many people examine their own faith critically, and some become disillusioned with their former faith and leave. They are seen by people in stage three as ‘backsliders and some faith communities shun them.

 

In midlife, some people move into what Fowler calls Conjunctive Faith. They accept the paradoxes of life, and that all life is a mystery. They accept the limits of logic to describe faith. They return to an appreciation of the stories of their faith, but they understand them in new ways, often seeing them as symbolic. People in stage 3 often denounce them as ‘revisionists’.

 

The final stage in Fowler’s scheme is universalizing faith. Few people reach this stage, which is characteristic of the great religious leaders of history. They see that truth is to be found in many different forms of faith, and while being loyal to their own faith, appreciate insights from others and are not threatened by them. Their lives are lived without worry, trusting the divine, in service to others. Community, rather than legalism is most important to them.

 

In real life, things are probably more fluid than these schemes of development suggest. In faith, we probably all move forward and back between stages depending on our circumstances and situations. Our personalities, other people suggest, also have an influence on what we believe, and how we live out our faith. But these schemes do provide a useful tool for looking at the behaviour of individuals and faith communities at times of change.

 

Paul, writing to the Christian community in Corinth, clearly thinks it’s about time they moved on a stage. ‘You’re babies in the faith’ he says to them. ‘You’re like small children in the playground, splitting up into rival gangs, and arguing about who has the best leader. Why can’t you grow up and become more like Christ?’

 

In the book of Deuteronomy, we see a view of history which is still very common in religion. This says that if you are good, God will reward you, but if you’re bad, you will suffer. There’s a version of this nowadays that’s found in some parts of the world, often known as ‘the Prosperity Gospel’. It says that if you are a good, Bible believing Christian (and particularly if you follow the rules set down by a particular church and contribute towards the costs of its leader) God will reward you with material riches. Unfortunately, the only person who seems to get wealthy in this sort of church is the leader!

 

Actually, that’s not what Deuteronomy is saying. If you read it carefully, it’s promising possession of the Promised Land to those who obey God’s commandments, but disaster to those who follow other codes and other values. It’s not talking about material wealth but about what the Hebrews understand as ‘Shalom’, which is about community: peace, justice, health, kindness, welcoming the stranger, supporting the weak and vulnerable, living in equity.

 

As we continue to hear passages from the Sermon on the Mount in readings from Matthew’s Gospel, we hear Jesus telling his disciples (and that includes us) how to be grown up Christians.

 

Serving God as we should is not about keeping the rules, Jesus says: it’s about a change of thinking and feeling that affects what goes on inside our hearts and minds as much as what we do and say. It’s about allowing God to capture our hearts, and give us a new one; it’s about listening to the divine word and allowing it to challenge us constantly to do better; it’s about growing more and more Christlike every day.

 

And it’s difficult! All of us will fail all the time, and we will often slide back into the easier way of sticking with our own community, and following its rules, rather than thinking and reflecting, and opening ourselves to be renewed.

 

Outward conformity is easy. It’s easy to go to church, sing hymns, say prayers, put our money in the plate or the banker’s order. It’s fairly easy not to commit major sins, to go through the list saying: “Murder, haven’t done that; adultery? no; stealing, well not anything major!” It’s much more difficult to be honest before God about our inner thoughts and actions, to look at Christ and the standards he demonstrates, and admit how far and how often we miss the mark (which is the root meaning of the Greek word for ‘sin’ used in the New Testament)

Paul and Jesus are urging us to become grown-up Christians in our own contexts. What might that look like for a 21st Century Christian? Let me suggest some ways – and I’m sure you can think of others.

 

Grown up Christians know that being faithful to Christ doesn’t always lead to personal prosperity, or lifelong good health or successful churches or growth in numbers or popularity with the political powers that be; often, it can lead to just the opposite.

 

Grown up Christians know that the Bible has to be read in context, and with some understanding of the beliefs, knowledge and circumstances of those who wrote and edited it. They understand the difference between story and command, and poetry and law, and letters written to particular people in particular circumstances. They know the Bible has always been interpreted, and that it’s not a handbook that gives easy answers to all life’s questions no matter what the circumstances.

 

Grown up Christians know that effective teachers sometimes use story, and humour, and exaggeration to make their points. It doesn’t mean everything they say has to be taken literally (which is a relief after today’s Gospel reading!)

 

Grown up Christians know that beliefs and practices and what is considered good and right change over time. They understand paradox, and that more than one point of view can be right, depending on the circumstances. They trust in the guidance of the Holy Spirit to lead them into truth – and they admit that sometimes they can get things wrong!

 

Grown up Christians don’t just follow the rules. They consider what impact following the rules has on real people, and whether that impact is what God would really want to happen.

 

Grown up Christians are prepared to listen to and learn about communities whose beliefs and practices differ from those of their own community, and appreciate the good in them. They are as critical of their own community as they are of others.

 

Above all, grown up Christians don’t spend most of their time challenging and criticising the actions of others. They see their main task as challenging themselves to grow up into maturity, measured against the full stature of the fullness of Christ.

 

And grown up Christians know they haven’t got there yet, and probably never will – but that God in Christ loves them still.

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What are we here for?

(Isaiah 58, 1-9a; Matthew 5, 13-20)

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“What are we here for?”

 

Over the last couple of weeks the Gospel readings have been telling us about the beginning of Jesus’s ministry, and the calling of his first disciples. And now, as we approach Lent, we turn to readings which set out the programme of action for his disciples, passages which begin to answer that question for them – and for us – “What are we here for?”

 

The programme of action is based on the covenant with Israel’s God set out in the Old Testament. Jesus says he has not come to do away with the Law of Moses, but to fulfil it, that is to go beyond legalism to a way of expressing the underlying intention of the Covenant Law. His programme, he says, asks his followers to go beyond what was previously demanded, to meet a higher standard of righteousness (which, as he has already taught them, encompasses not just acting in accordance with the law, but also justice, integrity, charity and a particular concern for the weak and vulnerable members of society). Unless they do even more than the teachers of the Law and the ultra-religious Pharisees, he tells them, they won’t really be under the rule of God (which is what entering the Kingdom of Heaven means).

 

The reading from Isaiah shows that the sort of life Jesus is asking his followers to live was already being spoken of as God’s will by the prophets of the Old Testament. It is from the prophecy of Third Isaiah, writing to the Jews who have returned to Judea after the exile in Babylon. Isaiah observes that they are trying to earn God’s approval by being ultra scrupulous about ritual and fasting – making a great fuss about being seen to follow all the  rules. But, Isaiah tells them, this is not what God actually wants. The sort of ‘discipline’ God actually wants them to follow is not just about worship, but also about their everyday lives. It’s about what we now call ‘social justice’ – feeding the hungry and poor, providing shelter for the homeless, and freeing those who are oppressed by the structures of society, ensuring justice for all.

 

When we hear this passage, we inevitably hear echoes of the agenda for his ministry which Jesus proclaimed in the synagogue at Nazareth, recounted in the Gospel of Luke; and with the story of the Last Judgement, the separating of the Sheep and Goats, in Matthew 25. This again confirms that the gospel of social justice is not a trendy modern invention. It is what Third Isaiah said discipleship was all about in the 8th century BC; it is what Jesus said discipleship was all about in the 1st century AD. It is still what Christian discipleship is all about.

It is the answer to the question “What are we here for?”

 

We are often told there is a hunger for spirituality in today’s world. These passages tell us Christian spirituality is not to be discovered in withdrawal from the world, but in daily engagement with its realities. Christian discipleship is about politics and economics, about healing and housing human bodies, and removing the ‘yoke’ from the shoulders of the oppressed, whether that yoke be poverty, sickness or prejudice. It means working to oppose anything which prevents human flourishing.

 

So, our discipleship is to be lived out in service to the community. But how are we to carry out that service?

 

Jesus answers using two metaphors – light and salt. Both are ordinary common substances, both are God-given, not of human manufacture, both can be used to transform what surrounds them, to bring out the colour or flavour that is already there.

 

We have heard a lot about light in the readings over the last couple of months. It is a major theme of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. Light stands for vision, showing the right way, for promoting growth and health, even when it is not obvious how that can be done.

 

Our attitude towards light hasn’t changed much in the years since these words were spoken by Jesus, but our attitude to salt may have done. In a world before refrigerators and antibiotics, salt was important for flavouring food, but also for preserving it, and as an agent of purification and healing. Salt was a common substance then, but at the same time so valuable that Roman soldiers were paid with it. Nowadays it is still a common substance, but with little value, and we are very much aware that too much of it can not only spoil the taste of food, but also damage our health.

 

Nevertheless, the metaphor of salt warns Christian disciples to keep their faith sharp and alive. It also indicates the values of their faith may have a different taste, which contrasts with those of the world around. For us today, that might mean that Christians value the small rather than the big, the spiritual as well as the material, but also value community cohesion above individual satisfaction, and watch out for the vulnerable rather than having increasing personal wealth as their highest ambition. A comment made on the last day of the football transfer window highlights this: “I live in a world where £35 million is paid for a footballer, yet 60 disabled people lose their day centre because it costs £200K to run”. That is not a world where Christian salt is being effective.

 

But the metaphors of salt and light also warn Christian disciples that their values should permeate society, rather than dominating it. Too much salt makes food inedible. Too much light means that plants die, rather than flourish, and human beings cannot sleep. Christian dominance of society has not always proved beneficial either for society or for Christian discipleship. Particularly in today’s world, to insist that so called Christian values should be the only guide to law making and enforcement, to the exclusion of other values which people think are important, actually damages the Kingdom of Heaven rather than helping it to grow. Just as in cooking, the balance between adding to little salt and adding too much is a difficult judgement, so in community life, we need much prayer and wisdom to decide how far our Christian beliefs and practices need to be defended or even worse, imposed by law, or whether their best defence is the difference they make to society.

 

Christ summarised the Covenant Law in two simple phrases – love God and love your neighbour as yourself. Keeping this summary in mind should keep all of us from turning the Sermon on the Mount, or our commitment to social justice, or our devotion to certain paths of Christian discipleship into just another tick list of standards by which we judge people to be inside or outside the Kingdom or justify separating ourselves from those who make different judgements. Christ’s living out of the values of the Sermon on the Mount involved offering love and forgiveness to everyone, even to those who thought differently from him, and even to those who opposed and persecuted him. No matter what, the light of God shone through him, and showed up the limitations of legalism and separation. It is that different quality of life this passage urges us to seek.

 

Ultimately, it is up to each of us, both as individuals and in community, to decide how we can best be disciples of Jesus who bring the salt and light of God’s rule to whatever situations we find ourselves in.

 

Because that, today’s readings tell us, is what we are here for.

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What does the Lord require of you?

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(Micah 6, 1-8; Matthew 5,1-12)

 

We very rarely watch TV programmes live on any of the commercial channels. We tend to record them, then watch them at a time convenient to us.

 

One great advantage to doing things this way is that you don’t have to watch the advertisements! I find I get more and more annoyed by ads. which imply that if only I use the right washing powder, or drive a particular car, or have a particular vacuum cleaner, or holiday in a particular place, I will be forever happy, and my life will feel fulfilled.

 

Our Gospel reading today is the Christian equivalent of those advertisements. If the Sermon on the Mount contains the essence of Christian life and faith, then verses 1-12 of chapter 5 (usually known as the Beatitudes) contain the essence of the Sermon on the Mount, and give a definitive statement of what being a Christian is all about.

 

And, just in case we fail to appreciate this, Matthew signals its importance with three phrases in the introduction to the passage. He tells us that Jesus sat down; that is, he took up the characteristic position of a Jewish rabbi who was giving official teaching. He says that Jesus ‘opened his mouth to speak’ which seems obvious, but which is a phrase that signals that this is a formal, weighty utterance, where nothing is kept back; and when he says ‘he taught them’ he uses the imperfect tense, which speaks of something that continues, signally that Jesus taught here what he always taught.

 

So, I f you want to know what your baptism promises committed you to; if you want to understand what you are taking on when you are confirmed or take membership; if you worry about why the Covenant service is so demanding, then come back to the Beatitudes.

 

The Authorised Version of the bible begins each Beatitude with the words “Blessed are”; some modern versions say “happy are they”. As so often is the case with words that have been translated, the actual meaning is somewhere in between. The Greek of the New Testament reproduces a Hebrew exclamation found often in the Old Testament which means something like “O the bliss of those who…”

 

‘Bliss” is not a word we hear used much nowadays. It is a combination of happiness and holiness. It talks of a state of intimacy with God, of knowing oneself to be in God’s presence, and to share God’s purposes. And the Beatitudes and Micah tell us that the way into bliss is not the way the world expects. It’s not about separating ourselves from the impure and the nasty side of life. It’s not about engaging in spiritual exercises or making lavish gifts to religious institutions. It’s not about getting ourselves ready for another, better world to come.  It’s about following Jesus in engaging more deeply in the sorrows and injustices in this world, and working to conform this world to the standards of the Kingdom. Against all human reason, that is where we will find ourselves in the divine presence.

 

Micah tells us we need to walk humbly with our God. The Beatitudes spell out how we find God in order to do that.

 

First we will find God among the poor. The word used can mean both those without material possessions, and also those who do not rely on wealth for status or power; but it is a word also used in the Bible for the humble, faithful believers who put their whole trust in God, rather than in human structures or institutions.

 

Second we will find God among the broken-hearted, those who mourn with the devastation of those who have lost their closest companions, those who feel in the depths of their being (in their bowels, as the Greek puts it) compassion for others in torment. We will encounter God not only in our own tragedies, but also as we empathise and stand alongside others in their tragedies and losses.

The third group who know bliss (as Micah indicates) are the gentle or meek or humble. This word doesn’t indicate people who are cringing or feeble; rather those who have strength, but use it with self-discipline and restraint, to defend the rights of others, rather than advance their own self-interest: those who listen to God, and submit to God’s guidance.

 

Fourth on Jesus’ list of those who are blessed are those who long for righteousness to prevail; those who await with the hunger of the starving or the thirst of a person lost in the desert, for the rule of God to come on earth. These are the ones who work and pray for justice in society and between nations, for good relationships between themselves and everyone in their society, no matter what the cost to themselves. This is a demanding task; in effect, it says you will only encounter God if you follow Jesus in the way of the cross.

 

Bliss is also found when we are merciful; this is also a demand we hear through Micah’s prophecy. The Hebrew word for mercy “chesed” is impossible to translate with one English word. It means love, kindness, faithfulness, mercy, faithfulness, steadfastness, forgiveness. In the Bible, is is one of the most constantly emphasised attributes of God. So this Beatitude tells us that blessing is found when people act as God acts towards other people – and especially towards those we regard as sinful. To be merciful is to identify with the heart and mind of God.

 

The word that is translated as ‘pure in heart’ in the 6th Beatitude comes from the same root as our word ‘cathartic’. In contrast with the external purity which some faithful Jews thought was the way to approach God, involving sacrifice, ritual washing, and avoiding contact with unclean food and people, Jesus tells us we will only be close to God when our hearts, thoughts and minds are clean, wholly aligned to what God wants.

 

The seventh group who will know the bliss of God are the peacemakers. You may know that the Hebrew word for peace, ‘shalom’, means more than an absence of war. It also covers right personal relationships, prosperity and justice for all, and especially the welfare of the underprivileged. This Beatitude promises bliss not to those who enjoy this situation for themselves, but rather to those who actively struggle to achieve it for others. It is relatively easy to be a peaceful person, and to live in peace, whilst ignoring the things that make this impossible for others less fortunate than ourselves. It is easy to do nothing for the sake of peace. What this Beatitude says, however, is that we should be ready to face the difficultly, the unpopularity, the unpleasantness and the trouble that being involved in difficult situations brings, in order to bring about the resolution that can only come when the underlying problems are honestly faced. These problems may be within the self, in families or neighbourhoods, between Christians with different interpretations of the faith, or between races, genders ethnic groups or nations. In all these cases, someone who will put themself at risk to break down the barriers is the person who brings God into the situation..

 

The last group of the blessed are the strangest of all to modern minds: those who are reviled, persecuted and even martyred for following the Way of Christ. This Beatitude follows from all the others, because only the person whose life shows the humility, empathy, gentleness, longing for righteousness, mercy, pureness of heart and commitment to peace that Christ showed is likely to be persecuted in the way that he was.

 

I think it is important to remember that the Beatitudes don’t say that the people who follow this path with be blessed in the future. So much of Christian teaching has tended to be what Brian McLaren called ‘evacuation theology’ – you should live in this way in the present, in order to reap rewards in the future, in the world to come. Rather, the Beatitudes say that people who live this way will know bliss in this world, because they will know the presence of God in the here and now as they work to transform it into the Kingdom of God.

Jesus didn’t just open his mouth to teach his disciples about the way of the Cross. If he had done that, he probably wouldn’t have been crucified. He dies because he lived it, every day. He didn’t just speak the truth; he was it. He didn’t just promise eternal life; he demonstrated it. And he continued to do that, even when the religious authorities accused him of getting God’s will wrong, and the political powers saw him as a threat to good order and economic stability and even  when his family thought him mad.

 

The world will not listen to us present day Christians until we too are willing to take the risk of living out the Beatitudes in our personal, social, economic, political and religious lives. Today’s world is not interested in theology or the niceties of belief; but many are searching for a way of life that doesn’t destroy our planet, that treats all people with love and respect and that brings them inner peace.

 

I pray today that in the strength of the Spirit, we may all do what the Lord requires of us: live the Beatitudes, seek justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God.

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Come and See!

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(1 Cor. 1-9; John 1, 29-42)

 

Soon after our present Bishop came to the diocese in 2009, he introduced a programme entitled ‘Living God’s Love’, which has just been reviewed and renewed. The vision behind the programme is to see God’s Kingdom grow in the world through flourishing, Christ-centred communities, inspiring people of all ages and backgrounds to discover God, grow in their relationship with God, and respond to God’s transforming love through serving others.

 

One strand of that programme is entitled ‘Making new disciples’.

 

In the passage from the Gospel of John we heard this morning, we are given John’s account of the calling of the first disciples by Jesus. It is very different from the accounts given in the three other gospels: it takes place by the Jordan, rather than Galilee, and the disciples are not called from their regular work, but are already followers of John the Baptist. They are pointed towards Jesus, rather than being directly called by him.

 

But there is a pattern to their becoming disciples, a pattern which modern research has shown is still the most effective way of making new converts today.

First, someone who has already had a life-changing encounter with Jesus speaks about it, and points the way to where he can be found.

Second, the potential disciple makes the decision to go and see for themselves, and has their own encounter with Christ.

Third, they share the details of their experience with others who are close to them and trust them – and so the process continues and the company of disciples grows.

Jesus is the first and the supreme example of one who hears God’s call, responds to it, and is so committed to that call that he is willing to sacrifice everything for the sake of the Kingdom of God. John the Baptist witnesses that Jesus is the one who baptises with the Holy Spirit; that is the one who can lead you into a life-changing encounter with God. He proclaims that Jesus is the Son of God, the one who is so close to God, so like God, so dear to God, that he is like a Son of the Father. He testifies that Jesus is the Lamb of God; that is, the one who sacrifices himself for all people. Andrew proclaims him as the Messiah, the anointed representative of God for whom the Jews had been waiting.

Like those first disciples, we also are being called; we need to respond; we need to commit ourselves to following Christ’s self-sacrificing way.

We will not all encounter God in Jesus in the same place. For some of us that encounter will take place in prayer or in worship. For some it will be in reading and study – and not necessarily in the study of theology or the scriptures: for some people their study of the arts or of science may bring an encounter with the God revealed by Jesus. For some the encounter will come in service to the lonely, the bereaved, the hungry, the sick or refugees. Others may encounter God in the glories of nature.

 

Many people, though, will encounter God in Christ through relationships, and in particular relationships with people like us, who have heard the call, had our own life-changing encounter with God, and are now, like those first disciples, sharing our experience of God’s anointed one with the world, through our words and our actions.

 

That is not just something for a limited group of people, like clergy, theologians or lay ministers. Jesus’ ministry of proclaiming the Kingdom started at his baptism; our call to proclaim the Kingdom of God was given to us at our baptism. And just as Jesus was strengthened and empowered for his task through the gift of the Holy Spirit at his baptism, so God equips us for our task of proclaiming the Kingdom through that same Spirit, if we will open our hearts and minds to receive her. It is through the actions of everyone who is called that the Kingdom will be established on earth.

 

Every Christian individual and organisation who hears Christ’s call to ‘Come and see’ needs to help in addressing the challenges we face as a world, and be willing to make the necessary sacrifices to meet them.

 

It is easier in our generation to ‘come and see’ those challenges than it has ever been before: TV and the Internet bring us daily evidence of the destruction of animal habitats, the pollution of the oceans, the melting of glaciers and the Arctic ice caps and other results of global warming.

 

They bring pictures into our living rooms of starving children in the Yemen and elsewhere, of the destruction of cities like Aleppo, of terrorist attacks in Europe and the Middle East, and of refugees freezing on the streets of Paris and in the camps of Lesbos and Syria.

 

They face us daily with the challenge to consider what it might mean for us to proclaim Christ in today’s political and economic world; to consider what it might mean for the choices we make when we vote in local and national elections and when we shop, and for our interactions online and in person with our friends, neighbours and those who represent us in Parliament and councils.

 

If we choose to proclaim Christ when we do those things, it may mean that we will be mocked and threatened as Jesus was, by those whose power and prosperity is threatened by what we say. Or, it may just lead to us being thought odd, and maybe rejected by our family and friends, just as Jesus was.

This first chapter of John’s Gospel shows us the process of becoming a disciple of Christ, of hearing about him, having a personal encounter with him, committing yourself to him, and then proclaiming him to others. Many Christians talk about the encounter with Christ, often called conversion or baptism in the Spirit, as a once in a lifetime event. But though there may, for some people, be a specific once in a lifetime event when this commitment began, it is in reality something that continues throughout our lives, as we follow the Lamb of God in sacrificing ourselves in the decisions we make every day.

 

It is also often spoken of as something that happens to us as individuals. But following Christ is not just an individual thing, as everything that we do has an impact on the communities we belong to. This is especially so in the call to ‘come and see’ the Lamb of God and imitating him in living our lives sacrificially. Our transformed lives have the potential also to transform communities, another of the strands of ‘Living God’s Love’.

 

I am sure many of us feel overwhelmed sometimes by the enormous scope of the changes that are needed to transform our world so that it comes closer to being the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. We question what we can do as individuals.

 

Earlier in the week I was listening with admiration to President Obama’s farewell address to the American people. He spoke about his early career in Chicago, where he ‘witnessed the power of faith,’ and ‘learned that change only happens when ordinary people get involved, get engaged, and come together to demand it.’ He reminded them that change isn’t always for good, that progress needs to be worked for, and can be reversed, and made his last request to the American people as President in these words “My last ask is the same as my first. I am asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change – but in yours. I am asking you to hold fast to that faith written into our founding documents; that idea whispered by slaves and abolitionists; that spirit sung by immigrants and homesteaders and those who marched for justice:

Yes We Can.

Yes We Did.

Yes We Can.”

 

‘Yes we can’. That was a secular political message – but it was a message that grew out of his Christian faith, his encounter with Christ and his commitment to follow him. As we allow the Holy Spirit to empower and equip us to do the same, together we can change the world. We can become, like Peter, stones who together are built into the place where others will encounter God in Jesus. Our very being and our communities and workplaces will become the places where Jesus is staying. Through us the Kingdom can be established, as we too invite people to come and meet Christ and to live sacrificially in his name.

 

A prayer by John Van de Laar:

 

The struggles of our world feel overwhelming, Jesus;

beyond our ability to understand, let alone solve.

We do not have the capacity

to silence the justifications,

to heal the addictions,

to restore the brokenness,

to repair the destruction,

or to reverse the trajectories

of our self-centred, short-sighted weakness,

our heartless, dehumanising aggression.

 

But, we do not face these struggles alone, Jesus;

You have aligned yourself with us,

in taking on flesh,

in going through the waters,

in laying down your life;

And you have invited us to partner with you,

in proclaiming Good News,

in freeing the imprisoned,

in restoring the broken,

in uniting the divided;

 

And you have given us the capacity,

the divine Spirit,

to be co-workers with God.

 

For this, we are eternally grateful.

Amen.

 

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Christmas in the Real World…

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Hebrews 2, 10-18; Matthew 2,13-23

 

On Christmas Eve at Midnight we were with John the Divine, contemplating the mystery of the Incarnation, the Word made flesh, the light that shines in the darkness.

 

On Christmas morning we went with Luke to the manger and worshipped with the rustic shepherds.

 

But this morning we are back in the real world, with Matthew. This is the part of the story that is never depicted on Christmas cards and is never acted out in children’s nativity plays, because, as T S Eliot said,  human beings cannot bear too much reality. It doesn’t even even get into modern TV nativities – the ones that are supposed to be as real as Eastenders! For many people, Christians and non-Christians alike, Christmas is a short escape from the harsh world of reality, and they would prefer to forget this part of Matthew’s story, lest it spoil that escape.

 

When, in a meeting of our house group before Christmas, we looked at the two versions of Christ’s birth  the one in Luke’s Gospel and the very different one in Matthew’s Gospel, someone remarked they much preferred Luke’s story to Matthew. In Luke’s story there are problems before the birth, as Mary has to travel a long distance when she’s heavily pregnant, and isn’t given a private place to give birth. But after the joyful shepherds have visited, everything is normal and peaceful. Mary and Joseph name their child, take him to Jerusalem to present him in the Temple, then go peacefully back home to Nazareth.

 

Matthew’s tale is much darker. Trouble looms from the moment the wise men stop to ask Herod where the royal baby is to be born. He hatches a plan to let them lead him to the threat to his dynasty.

 

As our reading takes up the story, the exotic magi have gone home by another way, warned in a dream not to return to Herod, leaving Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus to face an uncertain future. Herod has realized Plan A is not going to work, and has put plan B into action – kill all the babies and toddlers in Bethlehem in an effort to destroy the one among them who may grow up to be a threat to his power.

 

So, like many families the world over, Mary and Joseph are forced to take their baby away from their home, and become refugees in a foreign land, camping out there until the threat to their child seems to have gone; but even then, they continue to take precautions, keeping away from areas near the capital, and setting up home in a Northern backwater, while their son grows to maturity.

 

Politics and plots, massacres, flight and life in a refugee camp: it’s just like the news we see year after year in the media. Not very Christmassy, is it?

 

But it is Christmassy. Christ’s Mass is not about making the world a fairy tale place, with only sweet smelling straw, starlight and candlelight, cuddly animals and foreign visitors who bring rich and exotic gifts. It’s about living on in the real world, a world where tyrants do send their soldiers to slaughter whole populations including woman and children.

 

A world where families do have to leave their homes and face insecurity to escape persecution.

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A world where fathers do have to think carefully about where they choose to live, in order that their wives and children may be reasonably safe.

A world where women like Rachel continue to weep for their children who are no more.

 

But yet it’s about living in the real world transformed, because of Immanuel, God with us. It’s about a world where we need no longer feel ourselves alone or powerless in the face of such evil. It’s about a world where we know God’s presence alongside us, experiencing the worst that life can throw at us, but never defeated, nor destroyed. It’s about living in our fallen world with the hope that there is a better way, and that ultimately, in spite of all appearances, that better way will triumph.

 

Matthew’s Christmas story was written to show us that everything we might have to suffer, everything that his ancestors suffered, Jesus also suffered. That is what the name he was given by the angel means: Emmanuel, God with us, going through everything we have to go through.ACC02433GRE

 

Christmas is not just about the children, it’s not just about December 25th, it’s not about the 12 Days of Christmas, it’s not even just about the extended church season of Christmas that extends to Candlemas at the beginning of February. It’s about how we live through the whole year and every year, in the faith that God is with us, no matter what our trouble or distress, and that the divine presence will support us and save us no matter what we have to face on our journey through life.

 

So happy continuing Christmas to you all. Happy New Year.

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Christmas Word

 

(John 1, 1-14)

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The Word was with God in the beginning; and the Word took on flesh, and lived among us, and we have seen his glory – the glory of the only Son of the Father.

 

So says the writer of John’s Gospel in his meditation on the meaning of the Incarnation.

 

What was the word?

Think for a moment: what word, for you, is at the heart of the meaning of Christmas?

 

When you came into the service this morning, you were given a star. On one side of it are things which represent Christmas. If you have some time over the Christmas period, perhaps you’d like to spend some time relaxing by colouring them in.

 

On the other side, would you like to write the word that sums up for you the meaning of Christmas.

Maybe you found it difficult to bring it down to one word.

 

Here are three that I thought I might put on my star.

First: ’Communication’.

 

At Christmas, through the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, God  communicates to us what God is really like. And that continued through the life and teaching and death of Jesus, and through the Holy Spirit, which continues to lead us in God’s ways.

 

Which prompts a question: how does our celebration of Christmas communicate that to the world? Are we celebrating something that happened long, long ago, in a far away country? Or are we celebrating something that happens now, here, and every day?

 

My second word would be ‘Life’.

 

John says that the Word was God’s agent in creation (and God said “let there be light’) and that the Word is the source of the life that illuminates everything and every one who is born into the world. In celebrating the birth of the Word made flesh, we are celebrating the new life that the coming of Jesus offers to everyone who accepts his teaching and lives as he lived.

 

Which prompts the question: how does our celebration of Christmas bring life and light to others?

 

My third word would be ‘Mystery’.

John says that when the Word came, the world did not recognize him; and his own people did not receive him. What the Word means to different people and in different times is not obvious. It cannot easily be summed up in other words. It is something that those of us who have found life through following his light need to struggle with throughout our lives, if we are to continue to see God’s grace and truth and glory through his story.

 

Many people nowadays do not recognize and receive the Word. How can we share the mystery of the Christmas event with them so that they too can become God’s children and live in the life and light and Glory of the Word?

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