Outside In!

HealingCenturionsServant008596WM__13126.1380317115.500.659

Ordinary 9. Proper 4C         Galatians 1, 1-12; Luke 7, 1-10

 

 

Whenever there is a terrorist outrage in the UK, there is a reaction, sad to say, against the community that the terrorists are believed to belong to.

 

Three years ago there were a number of demonstrations against Islam in reaction to the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby on the streets of Woolwich. There was a march through the centre of London on Bank Holiday Monday organised by the English Defence League and also in Newcastle on Saturday and York on Sunday. These came after 10 mosques around the country had been subject to arson or graffiti attacks and there had been a further 193 anti-Muslim incidents reported to the police.

 

AnsarRobinson-thumb-500xauto-3293In Newcastle, a prominent Muslim political and social commentator, Mo Ansar, confronted the EDL leader, Tommy Robinson, but at the end of their discussion was photographed with a smile on his face, being hugged by the person whose policies he opposes. For this he was criticised both by Muslims and by anti-fascists, for compromising with the promoters of prejudice and evil.

When the leaders of a mosque in York learnt that the EDL march was targeting their York-mosque---tea-protest-008mosque, they decided to organise an open day. Helped by members of other faith communities, they served tea and cakes to the marchers, invited them into the mosque for discussions, and played an impromptu game of football with some of them. The Archbishop of York praised them for meeting anger and hatred with peace and warmth.

 

In each of these two incidents, those who followed a faith refused to treat non-believers, even those who oppressed and harassed them as ‘outsiders’ or ‘enemies’. They opened themselves up to them and invited them to become, in some sense, ‘insiders’.

 

This is the message that we are meant to hear from our Bible readings today.

 

In the reading from the letter to the Galatians, we hear one half of a correspondence between Paul and the church he established in Galatia, a church which consisted largely of Gentiles.

GalatiaMap

After he had left Galatia, it seems that some Jewish Christians visited the churches, and insisted that, before they could truly become Christians, the pagan converts had to subject themselves to Jewish ceremonial law. In the case of male converts this included being circumcised. This appalled Paul, who taught that everyone was equally welcome into the Christian community by the grace of God in Christ, regardless of their previous background, and that no action was needed from converts apart from an acknowledgement of Jesus as Lord. Hence his condemnation of the actions of the Jewish Christians as ‘perverting the Gospel of Christ’.

 

Does anyone nowadays, I wonder, pervert the Gospel of Christ, but setting entry conditions for membership or holding office which Christ would not have set?

 

The challenge to treat all people as insiders in the name of Jesus is brought out most strongly in the story of the healing of the centurion’s servant, which we heard in today’s Gospel. This was clearly an important story to the early Christian community; there are slightly different versions of it in three of the four gospels (Matthew and John, as well as Luke).

 

The centurion was in more than one way an outsider for Jesus and his companions. He was a Gentile; entering his house, eating with him, having any physical contact with him or his possessions would have rendered an observant Jew ceremonially unclean.

 

Then, he was a Roman soldier, a representative of the hated enemy that was occupying the sacred land of the Jews. There had been a large military presence in Galilee since the uprising that followed the death of Herod the Great in Jesus’ early childhood; an uprising that led to savage reprisals and multiple crucifixions, events that were still raw in the memory of many of Jesus’ fellow Galileans. The rebellion centred on Sepphoris, four miles north of Jesus’s home town of Nazareth. After the rebellion was crushed, Sepphoris was razed to the ground and its inhabitants taken into slavery. Roman legions remained in the area to deter any further rebellion, and the centurion was part of this army of occupation; it is possible the slave was a Jewish child, taken into slavery after the rebellion.

 

Any Zealot would have taken the first opportunity to kill the centurion. Many religious Jews would have seen him as a representative of the ‘principalities and powers’ against which the faithful believers should struggle.

 

Lastly, the anxiety and effort which the centurion expended over the healing of his slave implies that the relationship between them was more than that of master and servant. There was affection, maybe love. This was something that was quite accepted in Roman society; but the Jews saw such homosexual relationships as evidence of the depravity of Roman society and its alliance with evil.

 

And yet the centurion did not act like an outsider. He did not keep the usual distance between occupier and occupied. He did not automatically treat every member of the subject people as a potential terrorist.

 

It is possible that he was a “God-fearer’, a Gentile who was attracted to the ethical teaching of Judaism, but who would not go the whole way and become a convert. Luke reports he had paid for the construction of the synagogue, and he was friendly enough with the elders to ask them to approach Jesus on his behalf. He was sensitive to Jewish religious beliefs – although he wrapped it up in comparisons between his own authority and that of Jesus, his second message was designed to avoid placing Jesus in the position of becoming unclean by entering a Gentile house.

 

And although he was a member of the occupying power, he asked for help from a Jewish holy man. He treated him with respect, using the honourable title ‘Lord’. This was an amazing act of humility – equivalent to a colonial official in the British Empire asking for help from a native traditional healer.

 

The Roman centurion didn’t act like an outsider – and Jesus didn’t treat him like one. He responded immediately to his request, and seems to have been prepared, as on other occasions, to risk making himself ritually unclean to help. Finally, he commended the ‘outsider’s’ faith as being greater than that of any insider.

 

This story anticipates the inclusion of Gentiles inside the community of the redeemed that we read about in Paul’s letters and the book of Acts. It highlights the irony that the Jewish leaders failed to recognise the authority of Jesus, by showing a Gentile outsider did, and was commended for it. In the end, the healing of the servant was not important. The important thing is the greater healing proclaimed in this miracle: the healing of the divisions between the favoured believers and a hated and excluded group, who are now included.

 

The Roman centurion would still be considered an outsider by some in our society today: he would still be the wrong religion, the wrong nationality, the wrong sexuality.

Our world today seems to revel in dividing itself into hostile groups based on many different characteristics. We love to label people according to their race, colour, religion, gender, sexuality, country of origin, location within the country, political affiliation, and so on and so on; and give that as a reason to justify competition, conflict and exclusion. And even locally, even within one faith, we can separate ourselves from others on the basis of differences of interpretation of faith and churchmanship.

 

Today the scriptures challenge us to reject the worldly way of building up our own ‘insider’ identity by hostility to those we label ‘outsiders’, both in faith communities, in our neighbourhoods and in our politics. It tells us that, to the God revealed in Jesus, there are no outsiders. God is the God of all people and all creation, both those who worship as we do, and those who don’t, those who identify themselves as believers and those who don’t. We can reject these divisions in the way we think and talk about those who are different from us: emphasising the ways they are like us, rather than their difference and strangeness. We can do it in practical ways: meeting their basic needs, for food, for medical care, for housing and security; in other words, doing to them as we would have them do to us.

The scriptures we have heard urge us to build a society based on invitation and hospitality, not separation and hostility, on inclusion and healing, not exclusion and conflict. Our Spirit inspired mission, following the example of Jesus, is to turn the world outside in, to invite the outsider in and offer acceptance and healing, knowing that in the all encompassing love of God, there are no outsiders.

 

h/t Progressive Redneck Preacher

We all give God the Blues

 

 

 

 

Posted in Sermons | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Metaphors for God

Trinity

(Proverbs 8,1-4 &22-31; Romans 5,1-5; John 16, 12-15)

Today we mark the one major festival in the Church’s year which celebrates a doctrine, rather than an event or a person.

Belief in God as Trinity is one of the cornerstones of our faith – yet it is something that most preachers find it difficult to preach about. So much so that JHR, a previous Vicar of mine, later a Bishop, once told me ‘the wise preacher always arranges to be away on holiday on Trinity Sunday’; and someone on Twitter advised the preacher on Trinity Sunday  heresykitten

Why are preachers so reluctant to preach on Trinity Sunday? Because it is almost impossible to do so without explaining it in a way that has been denounced as heretical at some time in church history. Belief in the Trinity is set out in the three Creeds – the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed, and most comprehensively, in the Athanasian Creed (which Anglicans are supposed to recite on Trinity Sunday, but rarely do nowadays!) But these creeds are felt to be too complicated for ordinary folk in the pews to understand.

So preachers resort to metaphors to try to explain it more simply. I’m sure we’ve all heard them at some time or other: God the Trinity is like a shamrock, one plant with three Trinity Shamrockleaves;

God the Trinity is like a person who plays different roles in their life (mother, daughter,sister), but is the same person;

God the Trinity is like water, which can exist as solid, liquid and gas but is still H20;

3forms

 

 

God the Trinity is like an egg, shell, yolk and white, which together make up a complete egg;

UnknownGod the Trinity is like an electric cable,which consists of positive, negative and earth cable; and so on.

 

But all of these fall into the trap of committing one heresy or another. If you can find it, there is a funny cartoon film on the internet called “St Patrick’s Bad Analogies” in which St Patrick tries to draw simple analogies to explain the Trinity to two Irish peasants, only to be told they are all heretical; so he gives up and quotes the Athanasian Creed to them instead!

So how did we end up with a central doctrine so difficult to explain? The doctrine of the Trinity was something that developed slowly, out of the experience of the first disciples. As they reflected on their life with Jesus, and as they lived on after the Resurrection, inspired and guided by the Holy Spirit, they came to realise that both Jesus and the Spirit shared the character of the God of Israel they had been taught about in the Torah, and in the prophets like Isaiah. So all three spoke to them of ‘God’. As the New Testament was written, its authors drew on images from the Hebrew Scriptures (and later also from contemporary Greek philosophy) to try to express their experiences. For example, Proverbs speaks of Wisdom, as something which is of God and from God, but is somehow distinct from God, working alongside God in the creation of the world. Wisdom came to be identified in Christian thought with Jesus, especially in John’s Gospel as the Logos or Word; and with the Holy Spirit.

Though a developed doctrine of the Trinity is nowhere spelt out in the New Testament, there are hints of it. In his epistles, Paul speaks of being “in Christ’ as the same as being restored to the image of God, lost in the Fall. He also writes as if the experience of the Spirit is inseparable from the experience of the Father or of Christ. So Father, Son and Spirit are one. In John’s Gospel, written towards end of the first century, the writer reflects the experience of the apostles – that what the Spirit teaches follows on from what Jesus has already taught them about the Father.This recognition of a divine unity of teaching, action and purpose runs through all the New Testament writings. It was not problematic for those first believers, even though they came from a monotheistic background.

It was only when the Christian faith moved out into the Graeco-Roman world, and people who didn’t know the historical Jesus began to speculate on how exactly Jesus and the Spirit could be God; and exactly when Jesus became God; and which bits of him were divine and which bits human; and whether there was a hierarchy of divinity within the Godhead; and when philosophers began to try to define exact answers to these questions, and to insist that everyone had to believe the same things, that the doctrine of the Trinity became problematic. Which is not surprising, because such questions are unanswerable, especially several hundred years after the event.

The doctrine of the Trinity uses a metaphor to try to encapsulate the disciples’ experience of God, which is also the experience of those who lived the faith after them. Jesus taught his followers to call God ‘Abba’ – Daddy. The New Testament writers followed his lead, and used the metaphor of ‘father’ and ‘son’ to describe the relationship between Jesus and God. They were as similar to each other as family members often are – yet were different beings. The same ‘Spirit’ or breath breathed through them, and was part of them both.

The Greek speaking fathers of the church used the term ‘hypostasis’ which means being or manifestation, or underlying reality to refer to each part of God the Trinity. When the creeds and other theological documents were translated into Latin, the word used was ‘persona’, which originally meant a mask worn by an actor, and then came to mean the role played by an actor. Translated into English, the word became ‘person’, which means a human being. Hence our tendency to imagine the Trinity as three people, or two people and a bird. This can be a severe limitation on our concept of God, who is beyond all our imagination, and not to be limited by human concepts of what a person is and can do.

It is important to emphasise that the language we use about the Trinity is metaphorical. Metaphors point beyond themselves to something that is difficult to understand. That is why to explain the Trinity (a metaphor about God) with other metaphors simply makes a bigger muddle. A metaphor is not an explanation, it is something which helps us to explore, which cannot grasp the whole truth, but which encourages us to keep engaging with the mystery.

But metaphors are limited. The metaphor of the Trinity imagines God as three – persons, identities, modes of being or whatever. But the Bible, and Christian spiritual writings since speak of God in many more ways than just Father, Son, Spirit, or even Creator, Redeemer, Comforter. In the Old Testament, God is much more than creator; other names for the divine include, Lord, King, Shield, Rock, Shepherd, Redeemer, Light to the Nations, The Most High. Jesus is is not just Son; he is Saviour, Bridegroom, High Priest, Bread of Life, Head, Teacher. The Spirit also has many names and roles. The Trinity is just a shorthand for the multitude of ways that Godself is revealed to us and the infinite number of ways through which we may come to know God.

There is also a tendency for people to confuse the metaphor with the reality. So, because we speak of two of the persons of the Trinity as Father and Son, some people imagine that they can only be spoken of in masculine terms, and represented by males. To speak of God or Jesus as Mother, and feeding us with milk from herself, makes some people uncomfortable, as does referring to any part of the Trinity as ‘she’. But God is not a being, and so is beyond gender, so it should not do.

Perhaps it might be better not to use words, but to use pictures or diagrams. In some churches you will find triangles, representing the Trinity. I like the Rublev icon, known as the Hospitality of Abraham, which represents the Trinity as three androgynous figures, gazing at each other; but it perhaps falls into the trap of making God seem like three human persons.

Rublev_OT_TrinityAnother representation I find it helpful to meditate on is this ancient Irish symbol, where a continuous line unites the three parts, without ever ending.Irish Trinity

 

The Greek fathers spoke of the relationship between the persons of the Trinity as ‘perichoresis’ or indwelling – a relationship of perfect unity of will and harmony of action. Some modern scholars have proposed a social doctrine of the Trinity, which reflects perichoresis, in that the unity of the Trinity consists in loving relationships. This implies that the doctrine of the Trinity is really all about relationships: the relationships within the Godhead and the relationships between the divine and the human. Within the Godhead there is difference (reflected by the theological language about ‘persons’) but a perfect unity. It speaks against the individualism of our culture and for the importance to human flourishing of life in community.

So, perhaps we are just called to accept that the Trinity is part of the mystery that is God, and simply to live it. And that means working out how to reflect, in our individual and church lives, a God who reveals the divine through the Spirit, through the life of Jesus and through the created world.

If we are to live in accordance with our belief in God who is a Trinity of perfect love, unity and co-operation, then we need to find a way of being church that reflects God’s love unity and co-operation. Since we are not divine, we will not be able to mirror exactly the unity of the Godhead. Since we are human, we will never be able be able to understand the infinite mystery of God’s being. Since we are finite corporate beings, living in different environments and with different personalities, we will all experience God in different ways, and will tend to think that our way of knowing God is best.

Trinity Sunday is a yearly reminder to us that if we want to be true to our faith in our lives and our church, then we need to minimise the differences between us and other Christians and concentrate on the relationship with God we share, a relationship of love, of self-sacrifice, of unity of purpose.

If we concentrate on that, then perhaps neither the complicated theological arguments about the doctrine of the Trinity, nor the inadequate metaphors which try to help us understand the doctrine need worry us too much.

 

 

Posted in Sermons | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pentecost for Introverts?

 

How-Introverts-Can-Succeed-and-Be-Leaders-in-the-Workplace

Pentecost 2016. Yr C

Acts 2, 1-21; John 14, 8-17 & 25-27

 

 

Do you see yourself as more of an introvert or an extravert?

 

Those of us who have been on lots of diocesan courses will almost certainly have taken

a Myers-Briggs personality test at some time, and ended up with a label consisting of an series of letters, telling us whether we are introverted or extraverted, thinkers or feelers, judgers or perceivers, and rely most on our senses or intuition. And if you go online, you can find lots of lots of do it yourself tests (like https://www.16personalities.com/free-personality-test ) which will give you a series of questions to determine much the same thing.

images

But you probably have a fair idea where you are on the introversion/extroversion spectrum from your own experience. You know if you’re the first up when the karaoke machine is switched on, or dread being asked to perform in public? You know whether you like going to noisy parties, or prefer a quiet celebration with a few people you know well; you know whether you need to be alone often to recharge your batteries, or feel lonely and insecure if you haven’t got people around you; you know whether you find it easy to make new friends, or tend to stick to the friends you’ve known most of your life.

party

I suspect that Luke, who wrote the Gospel featured in the lectionary this year, and also wrote the Book of Acts from which our first reading came, was more of an extravert than an introvert. His account of the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is full of noise, activity and interaction.

 

The Holy Spirit comes upon the followers of Jesus as an irresistible, terrifying force; it is experienced as a driving wind, as tongues of flame. The whole group begins to speak aloud, all at the same time, all in different languages. When they rush outside to share their experiences, they are so loud that people assume they have been drinking, even though it’s early in the morning.

 

In Luke’s account the giving of the Holy Spirit to the disciples comes 50 days after Easter, on the Feast of Pentecost. This was a festival which marked the end of the spring harvest in the Jewish calendar, and was associated with the renewal of the covenant with God. In Luke’s account the coming of the Holy Spirit is promised at the Ascension, and it is a gift of power. His account links the coming of the Spirit with new life, unity and renewal. As the people from all those difficult to pronounce places hear the disciples speaking in their own languages, the divisions symbolised by the Tower of Babel are healed. All human limitations are overcome. In his speech to the people, Peter quotes from the prophet Joel, who prophesied that when the Spirit was poured out, daughters as well as sons would prophesy, young and old would see visions and dream dreams, and slaves as well as free citizens would be empowered. Peter’s speech implies that when the Spirit is given, God’s Kingdom is coming.

 

The writer of John’s Gospel comes across as much more introverted. In his account, the gift of the Spirit is promised in Jesus’ farewell discourses to his disciples during the Last Supper; and the Spirit is given to the disciples on the evening of Easter Day, when the risen Christ appears to them in the Upper Room. There is no noise or strange happenings in his account Jesus simply breathes the Spirit into them, as God breathed life into Adam.

 

This is the Spirit coming as a ‘still small voice of calm’ rather than with a fanfare of trumpets.

John gives the Spirit the name Paraclete, which is translated into English in various ways: Advocate, Counsellor, Helper, and in the English of the Prayer Book, Comforter. These words speak of  God’s nurturing and strengthening presence. The Spirit is the Spirit of Truth, and will teach the disciples about God, just as Jesus has taught them. At the end of  today’s Gospel reading, Jesus promises that the greatest gift of the Spirit will be peace, a peace which the world cannot give, which will free his disciples from worry and fear.

 

In John, the Spirit also brings the gift of unity, but it is supremely the unity between God, Jesus, and those who follow Jesus. The Spirit is a gift from the Father, and has the character of the Father, just as Jesus has. It brings power, but it is the power to continue the work that Jesus has begun, and to keep the commandments which Jesus has given.

 

But the Spirit also separates. Just as the world is about to reject Jesus, so the world cannot receive the Holy Spirit. By implication, when the Spirit lives within Jesus’ disciples and inspires their actions, it will separate them from the prevailing culture, and from the values which govern the actions of the powerful in the world, and mean that the world is likely to reject them too.

 

During the last week, from the Sunday after Ascension to Pentecost, we in the Church of England have been asked by the Archbishops to join in a time of prayer for renewed confidence among church members in sharing their faith. I must admit, as I read the publicity material for this week, my heart sank.

 

Talk of “all of us having confidence to share the Gospel” and “Praying for the Holy Spirit to come upon us in a renewed way, that we may witness to Jesus Christ” painted pictures in my mind of people coming to my door with pamphlets and tracts, or Bibles with passages highlighted in different colours; and of street preachers, shouting at passers by about the terrors that await them unless they change their ways. Fine for real extraverts, but not really my style!

 

But what the publicity for the Week of Prayer has done is to prompt me to look more deeply at the Lord’s Prayer, and to read commentaries on it and poetry inspired by it, and to see how it can be interpreted in a new and radical way. And that can be done in a quiet and contemplative way.

 

Many of those commentaries reminded me that the Lord’s Prayer is not about me and my relationship with God, but about us and our relationship. We ask God to give us not me our daily bread, and we ask God to forgive us our sins, and to save us from temptation and evil.

 

It reminded me that praying for God’s Kingdom to come and God’s will to be done is not simply about changing my way of living or about me signing up to certain beliefs, it is about everybody else in the world, and especially those on the edge of society; it is not just about religious belief, it is about peace and justice and equality for all

 

It also reminded me that the gift of the Holy Spirit was not  something new that was given to those first disciples, whether on Easter Day or Pentecost. Pentecost is about the recognition that the Spirit of God has been active in the world since its beginning, outside religious organisations as much as within them; and what we pray for at Pentecost is that we may recognise the Spirit in us and other people, already  at work in our world, and join our efforts with the Spirit’s efforts to create the Kingdom and do God’s will on earth.

 

And as I thought about further about this, and about introversion and extraversion, I was reminded of some words attributed to St Francis of Assisi: “Preach the Gospel at all times; when necessary use words.”

Yes, we can work to bring in God’s Kingdom or spread the Gospel in extravert ways, through large scale mission events, like those being advertised as ‘beacon events’ to end the week of prayer today; or we can work for justice and equality through demonstrations and marches. But equally, we can work quietly to bring people to a new awareness of what Jesus taught; and can demonstrate what it means in our lives and our own context through  the way we live. We don’t all have to build the kingdom noisily: some of us can grow the kingdom, seed by seed, sheep by sheep. All of us  relying on the gifts of the Spirit that empower and inspire the introvert as well as those that appeal to the extravert.

 

I finish with a poem, published for this Week of Prayer by Malcolm Guite, which reveals the challenge of both Pentecost and the Lord’s Prayer:

 

Thy kingdom come thy will be done on earth

Can we imagine what we’re asking for?

When all we know and all we think we’re worth

As vanity might vanish, disappear,

Fading before the splendours you reveal:

The beggars crowned with glory, all the meek

Exalted even as the mighty fall,

And everywhere the triumph of the weak.

 

 

And we, who have been first, will be the last

And queue for mercy like the refugees

Whom only moments earlier we passed

By on the other side. For now the seas

That separated are no more. The Sun

Is risen like justice, and his will is done.

 

 

Posted in Sermons | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lord’s Prayer Prayers.

 

 

Bidding: Thy Kingdom Come

Response: Thy will be done

 Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name………….

O God of love, Creator of all that is, Ground of our Being, we praise you for all that we have been given: our lives, our loving relationships, our beautiful world and the vision of heaven you showed us through the life and teaching of Jesus Christ.

 

Help us to know that you are close to us in times of joy and in times of trouble, that heaven is not far away but around us and within us. Help us in this congregation, and in all your Church, to share your heavenly presence with those we meet, through worship, through prayer, through loving service, and through action for peace and justice, and so draw all people into community with you.

 

Bidding: Thy Kingdom Come

Response: Thy will be done

 

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as in heaven……….

God, your kingship is not like any earthly king’s, for you come among us as one who serves. Help us to serve you and each other as Christ taught us to. Teach us to keep your kingdom values in the forefront of our minds when we vote, when we read our newspapers and when we express our opinions on political and social matters. May we put our own interests to one side, and consider what will help to build your heavenly kingdom on earth.

 

We pray for the values of your kingdom to inspire not only us, but also the leaders of the nations, and our local communities, especially those recently elected to serve on local councils and as mayors and police commissioners. Through people like them and people like us, may

 

Bidding: Thy Kingdom Come

Response: Thy will be done

 

Give us this day our daily bread…………….

Give us each day what we need, and teach us to limit what we demand to what we really need. Help us to live more simply, that others may have their basic needs met.

 

We pray for those who work to meet the basic needs of your people, in this country and overseas. For aid agencies, food banks, credit unions, and those who campaign for freedom, peace, equality and justice.

 

We pray for those who meet the daily needs of people for health, for peace of mind, housing and companionship. May they know they are working to bring in your kingdom. In a moment of silence we pray for those we know are in need, especially those who are named on our notice sheet:…….. Teach us to share in the work of providing for everyone.

 

Bidding: Thy Kingdom Come

Response: Thy will be done

 

 

And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those that trespass against us………

Loving God, through Jesus we know we are loved and forgiven, no matter who we are or what we may have done. Help us to receive that forgiveness, and so be ready to forgive and accept others who have hurt and wronged us. Help us to admit when we are wrong, as individuals, as communities, as countries, and help us to rebuild relationships which have gone wrong. Teach us not to hang on to the hurts of the past, but to transform them into openings for new life

Bidding: Thy Kingdom Come

Response: Thy will be done

 

Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil……….

God of justice, sometimes it is hard to do your will, and we encounter opposition or indifference. Help us to persevere, and not give in to the temptation to take the easy way and follow the crowd. Give us the courage to keep faith when things are difficult, and strengthen us with your love. Be with those who face persecution, loss of employment, estrangement from families and even death for the sake of your kingdom, especially in parts of Africa, the Middle East, China and the Indian sub-continent.

 

Bidding: Thy Kingdom Come

Response: Thy will be done

 

For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory………….

Lord, we thank you for the people of the past who have lived your kingdom values, revealed the power of your love and the glory of heaven on earth. We thank you especially for those we love but see no longer; for those who guided us on the path of faith; and for your saints, particularly Mother Julian of Norwich, whose feast day we celebrate today.

Like her, may we know ourselves enfolded in your love, and keep the faith that all will be well,

for ever and ever.   Amen.

Posted in Prayers | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

 

Posted in Sermons, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

the-good-shepherd-cross-necklace-212-p

 

 

 

 

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

 

Posted in Sermons | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Sermons | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment