Songs of salvation #RIPAretha – Ephesians 5:10-20 and John 6:51-58

Swing low, sweet chariot
Comin’ for to carry me home
Swing low, sweet chariot
Comin’ for to carry me home

I looked over Jordan, and what did I see?
Comin’ for to carry me home
A band of angels comin’ after me
Comin’ for to carry me home

Swing low, sweet chariot…

If you get there ‘fore I do
Comin’ for to carry me home
Tell all my friends, that I comin’ there too
Comin’ for to carry me home

Swing low, sweet chariot…

The brightest day that ever I saw
Comin’ for to carry me home
When Jesus washed my sins away
Comin’ for to carry me home

Swing low, sweet chariot…

I’m sometimes up an’ sometimes down
Comin’ for to carry me home
But still my soul feels heavenly bound
Comin’ for to carry me home

Swing low, sweet chariot…

(Original words as noted in 1873 as sung by Wallace Willis)

“Be filled with the Spirit,…” writes St. Paul.

“As you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, give thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

There is something deeply appropriate about the fact that this morning, we have in our Epistle, the words of scripture that gave rise to the term ‘spiritual’ as a musical term. In fact Ephesians is thought to encapsulate within it, poetic language drawn at least in part from early Christian hymns and liturgies. In this case, the writer of Ephesians is pointing out that when we’re fighting evil, when we’re trying to shine light in the darkest places of life, when we know we’ve got an addictive personality and need to shut out the cravings, or when we’ve been taught that indeed you must make the most of every opportunity or you’re going to be deemed a failure (Eph 5:16), then actually what we really need is to rest in the presence of God, and music, will help us overcome those things and bring us to that place of healing and hope. Music, sung, played or even participated in from the comfort of your armchair, can lift our hearts to God, giving us a strength to carry on in the face of adversity, and helping us give thanks to Jesus for the good things he has given us.

Music has the power to deliver a powerful spiritual message. We know for example, that Moses and Miriam his sister led the Israelites in singing as the means of celebrating their freedom immediately after they’d walked through the parted waters of the Red Sea. Purposefully and rightfully they give the credit to God:
“Your right hand, Lord, was majestic in power.
Your right hand, Lord, shattered the enemy.”
(Exodus 15:6)

When the slaves of the British colonies of the 17th century first received and accepted the Christian faith, seeing the links between their own plight and that of the Israelites enslaved in Egypt, it was with simple songs that they too shared those scriptures, and their yearning for freedom, giving birth to what we know as “the spiritual”. There are theories as to other uses for these spiritual songs in that some people think they contained hidden references to the means of escape via the ‘underground railroad’, crossing over their ‘Jordon’ from the wilderness of slavery via the network of safe houses to the free-states and Canada; but nothing is proven. However, the very fact that those theories exist, gives us an idea of the spiritual strength gained from making sense of their own reality through singing of the difficulties which others had suffered.

That is why I would describe music is being ‘alive’, because through the experiences, words and phrases of others, it helps us to make sense of our own reality. But, it also has a life of its own which means that its use can change over time only keeping a tenuous grasp on its original meaning or context. For example, some of us will associate the song ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ with the England Rugby Union Side, but it first gained that association via a group of boys from the Benedictine school at Douai Abbey. They sang it in 1988 each time Chris Oti scored, overcoming a two-year England try-drought with a hat-trick against Ireland. In the context of rugby, the song’s use has changed dramatically; the Christian message has been lost; only the idea of overcoming difficulty and hardship to gain victory has remained. Without the message of hope being contained within the context of the salvation that sees God intervening in the lives of his people, the song has perhaps lost some of its power.

Salvation, being saved from a situation of hopelessness, sometimes of our own making, makes no sense without the flesh and blood Son of God having lived and died for us. The Jews would have found the idea abhorrent because of their strict laws about blood, but they would profit from the shedding of his blood because it was the means by which the prophecy of the Messiah bringing hope to the whole world was to be fulfilled. Like yeast being the raising agent that brings bread to life, we gain life by taking Jesus into our very souls and bodies. We can do that in the sacrament of Holy Communion this morning because the words that at the time fell on the stony ground of many hardened hearts, were treasured by those who held them safe in their memory and then understood them in the light of the cross and resurrection of Christ. Jesus’ words about his own flesh and blood did not come to life until they could be sung as the song of eternal salvation.

I’m going to finish this morning with another spiritual song, this time one adopted and adapted into the genre ‘spiritual’ from a very different back ground. This was written in 1855 by a gentleman in Canada called Jospeh Scriven, as a poem to his mother in Ireland, when news reached him that she was critically ill. Published anonymously, and only attributed to its writer after it had been made popular when someone set it to music, the spiritual ‘What a friend we have in Jesus’ was also about overcoming adversity, the adversity of illness in this case, by finding refuge in Jesus through prayer and in the promise of eternal rest with Christ. With the help of a darn good tune, the words also hold the spiritual truth that in and of itself is a memorable prayer about the hope we hold in salvation.

It seemed appropriate today to use a recording of a spiritual song sung by Aretha Franklin. If you’ve read or heard anything of Aretha’s life in the few days since her death, you may know that she was well acquainted with abuse, addiction and illness. However, despite these she appears to have continued to retain her faith in God, in the salvation that Jesus brought, and most definitely in the power that “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” have in bringing our faith alive. As she enters her eternal rest, let us pray that we can continue to sing “thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

What a friend we have in Jesus.

 

I’ve never before sung the opening to opening to a sermon as I did this Sunday, but in the context of the Epistle from Ephesians, and following the very recent death of Aretha Franklin, it seemed appropriate. Despite the less-than-perfect rendition of ‘Swing Low’ feedback was also unexpectedly positive, I think because people were moved to join in, for a variety of reasons. The unexpected testimony for whom ‘What a friend we have in Jesus’ is a special song, was a great encouragement…. sometimes music enables God to reach us in the way other people and prayers and can’t. 

If you can bear it, there’s an audio of the whole sermon (with the readings first) here.

 

 

 

 

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“Gluten-free” Jesus – John 6:35,41-51 and Ephesians 4:25-5:2

To see the broad smile our resident celiac’s face, when she received the same communion bread as everyone else this morning, made preaching a slightly ‘alternative’ sermon worth while. The gluten-free pitta bread was also popular with several others, and some suggested it should be a regular thing.

At the start of service I got the children up and talked about the selection of bread I’d got laid out on a tray:

Many of us are used to the way that Jesus describes himself in this morning’s Gospel – the “bread of life”.

It’s a lovely image isn’t it; Jesus being one of the most simple and ubiquitous sources of nourishment and therefore health and well-being that the world has. Bread. We could live on bread and water if there was nothing else. Might help to have a few vegetables to keep us in perfect working order, but we would survive.

When Jesus shared a meal with 5000+ hungry folk, he used 5 loaves of bread (as well as 2 fish). That’s all. 5000 people, 5 loaves, oh, and God’s power at work through him. The people’s physical hunger was fed, so they were able to stay near Jesus, and have their spiritual hunger nourished. It was the miracle that sparked off this conversation Jesus was having about bread – with that many witnesses, word had got around as to what he had done; Jesus knew that.

The Jews knew their history, and they knew that someone else had provided miraculous bread for their ancestors in the past. When wandering in a desert for 40 years, the Israelites had called that miraculous bread, manna. In that case, through Moses, God told the people what to do with it, and gave them just the right amount to feed them each day (in that case with quail not fish). It gave them the energy they needed to continue their physical journey, whilst they learnt the patience and obedience required for them to enter the Promised Land.

In the bit of the Bible we heard this morning, Jesus is talking about himself being a bread that helps us on our journey’s, that helps us be patient and do as he tells us, that nourishes us spiritually by being a point of contact between ourselves and God. Jesus is the sort of bread that ‘teaches’ (v45), encourages, and builds us up so that we can be more like the people God really wants us to be (Eph 4:29).

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This was my tray of breads, after one of the children had eaten one communion wafer and most of a slice of gluten free bread!

I then asked the children to come and look at the bread again, and why they though I might have laid out two different versions of each sort of bread, and got round to one lot being ‘gluten free’. Then we talked about gluten making some people ill, but that without it, bread has a habit of falling apart, so to cook it, people often use something called Xanthem Gum. I also let the children eat some of the bread if they wanted it.

If I gave ordinary bread to people who I know are made ill by the gluten found in wheat and barley grains, would that be a good thing? No! It would be unkind, hurtful and upsetting for them. It could make them very ill indeed. Equally, it would also be wrong if I didn’t give them anything at all. In both cases, it excludes them from sharing in a meal we could otherwise share together. Often, if we know someone who can’t eat gluten we give them their own special bread, or they may bring their own. However, the ideal would be to all share the same sort of bread, the gluten free sort, so that everyone receives the same, that way everyone feels included in the meal.

Jesus was “Gluten-free”. There was nothing in him, or that he did, that exuded them, turned them away, or made them ill. When people came to him, they all received the same love, the same understanding, of what was deep inside them. Whatever the people who approached him were like, sad, angry, hurt, obstructive, ill, confused, hopeless, they received the same love from Jesus, even if it was served in different ways…. the angry and obstructive would be challenged to change so that they could live more like God wanted them to, the ill and the confused would be comforted and healed. We might describe the love of God that he shared as being the Xanthan Gum that held our Gluten-free Jesus together.

We are used to hearing the church described as the body of Christ (a phrase that comes out of various teachings of St. Paul in 1 Cor 12), and by coming to share in hearing the bible, in prayer and worship, and in the wine and bread, we are doing just that, we are trying to be the body of Jesus in the world today. Being the body of Christ or all members of one body (Eph 4:25) as this mornings passage in Ephesians puts it, is also about how we live our lives, how we relate to other people, whether we’re being a good example of who Jesus was and what he came to do.

In our Gospel, Jesus is challenging those who are deliberately picking holes in what he is saying, and not looking at and listening to who he is saying he is and what he is doing to prove it. The Jews were past masters at arguing with each other, sharing what they thought, rather than listening to what others might be telling or showing them of what God was doing. That’s what had landed the Israelites in wilderness needing manna from heaven, and little had changed.

By the time St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians the problem had transferred into the Christian community. We can all think of situations where those difficulties are visible in our own families, friendships, and even dare I say it here in our church community. Why? Because being fond of our own views, getting angry, bitter or resentful when others offer alternative views or ways of approaching things, are the bits of being human that are not part of the way God made us. Local or familial disagreements are small, but they are not that far removed to many of the situations that we are so often eager to decry around the world today.

If we’ve got things in us that are simply unpalatable to others, make them physically, mentally or spiritually ill, and if we aren’t looking and listening to what God is doing, then we’re not showing people grace (Eph 4:29), or living in love (Eph 5:1). Therefore we’re not showing ourselves to be God’s beloved children. If there are things about the way that we behave that mean people can’t ‘stomach us’, we’re not holding together as good bread should, and we need more of the Xanthan Gum of grace and love.

This morning I’ve set aside enough gluten free pitta-bread on the altar for us to all share in one bread; gluten-free Jesus-bread. When we share in bread and wine, it is meant to be a unifying symbol that binds us together, because we are all sharing in the body of Christ, to enable us to be the body of Christ. As we take and eat it, safe in the knowledge that there’s nothing in it that can make us ill, we will also be reminded of the fact that it’s held together because it contains Xanthan Gum, and that we too need to act in all our relationships with the gum of grace and love that binds us together as the body of Christ, to him who is the bread of life.

 

 

 

 

Exam subject: LOVE  Pass/Fail? John 15.9-17 and Acts 10.44-end

 

20180506_112148cBack at St. Barnabas this week, with the sun streaming in through the window, and God’s presence very much present, quietly at work among those who need to feel his touch. One or two commented afterwards they wanted to ‘listen again’ so the link is here. For those who prefer to read things back, here’s the text of my sermon:

It’s May now, and there’s a sense in which we may be feeling that we’ve left Easter far behind us. The world has moved on from chocolate eggs and fluffy chicks. Many children and young people have entered the season of revision and exams, or in our case, the delights of dissertation writing, due consideration of future employment and the need for a place to live. We might encourage, suggest and hopefully even have modelled how to do these things well, and we can tell them how they might approach what they’re facing, but each has to understand and apply for themselves the skills and knowledge they’ve been taught by us or others. Whether we are parents, friends, teachers, or even if we feel like by-standers, the only examination we have to pass is whether we are willing to continue to love them, unconditionally, whatever fruit their efforts produce in the way of results, careers and jobs.

Yet, as Christians, the context of that unconditional love is very much still set within the Easter Season, especially as we prepare to remember Jesus’ Ascension to his Father, and the work his disciples were commissioned for through the power of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. When Jesus was using the allegory of the vine, with himself as the rootstock of God’s love, he very clearly had his own journey to Jerusalem and the Cross in mind. He too had taught his followers by word and example all he could about the love of God for all people, and that was propelling him toward the Cross so that he, not they, took most difficult examination of them all.

That is why there is a real sense of urgency in our Gospel this morning: just like any parent or teacher who finds themselves repeating the same instructions and encouragements time (and time, and time), again. Jesus didn’t have much more time left before that final exam in which to get the message across: “Love one another”; as God has loved you in my existence, for goodness sake go out and “love one another”; to find the real joy that is the fruit of what I am about to do, he says, take down all the barriers that exist between yourselves, your Father God, and each other, and “love one another”. That, is why he calls them friends.

Peter, bless him, is only just putting the message into practice when we reach the point of our Epistle this morning. Peter has been called to the home of Cornelius, by a vision that tore down the barriers that had been created between the so-called ‘clean and the unclean’, Jew and Gentile, one group of humans and another. There he proclaims the revelation of God’s story, God’s love, revealed in Jesus in the preceding weeks; Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension, Pentecost and all. Before this reading, Peter’s account of all that has apparently been brief, and notably Cornelius has not even had the chance to respond with words of faith and belief in the forgiveness Jesus offers, before the Holy Spirit steps in again, enabling him to praise God for what he has done in Jesus. That outpouring of the Spirit was as much for Peter’s benefit as for Cornelius and his family, confirming for Peter that these uncircumcised people were regarded by God as fit vessels for his love, his presence and his voice.

Looked at together these two readings emphasise the unconditional love that Peter, and we as his fellow disciples, are called to put into action as a response to God’s love in Jesus, dwelling in us through the Holy Spirit. They also underline that to make that love visible, to enable the joy of that love to infect the whole world, the barriers that exist between those who serve and those who lead, and between one social or faith grouping and another, must come down. Nothing must stand in the way of the waters of baptism being poured out.

We might like to think that the concept of servants and masters is dead and buried in the western world, and yet we have probably heard whispers of the woes of those trafficked into servitude and then illegally hidden, or abandoned to the iniquities of our immigration system. Elections too, however local, also highlight the muddy waters of who serves who in a democracy: we who elect people to serve our local interests have a habit of receiving commands or consequences from higher up the food-chain of politics that are not apparently motivated by the love and equality that might have been the ideals with which politicians were voted into their positions.

We’re probably not so blinkered as to think that there are no barriers between the social and faith groupings of both our country and the world, even within a single faith or between its denominations or sects. Yet, does the love we have for others make us hungry enough to be open to seeing and acting upon a vision of a different world, where at the very least the testimony of God’s love can be seen and heard, so that his Holy Spirit can be given space to work? In the light of today’s readings, we might like to consider whether we might be culturally or theologically prone to excluding others from the love of God, the waters of baptism, the work of the Holy Spirit, and the call to shared ministry in Jesus’ name.

Archbishop Angaelos of the Coptic Church in London spoke at a conference of Anglican clergy in Oxford Diocese – I wasn’t there but friends were, and YouTube has its uses! Among the important truths he shared about Christians in the Middle East was the fact that they present a reconciling picture. Talking of the fear that Christianity will disappear in some places (but not in his view completely from the region), he said that “in places where Christians do disappear there will be greater disruption and conflict because the Christians are a buffer, and reconcilers, and they present a loving example” of how to live at peace with their neighbours. That is a huge challenge to those of us who live in safer political climates. If we turn what he said into a question, how much do we live as a buffer to disruption and conflict, as reconcilers and at peace with our neighbours?

What lies at the heart of Jesus’ command to abide, dwell, and be rooted in his love, is the desire that we unconditionally love one another. The complete joy of which we are invited to partake, comes from sharing in God’s mission of love. Jesus kept his Father’s commandment to love all the way through his self-sacrifice on the Cross to the Resurrection. If the forgiveness and pruning of our sinful desires that we experience because of his actions means anything to us at all (as we probably considered last week with the first part of this image of the vine), we also have to accept that the Cross and Resurrection are proof of God’s love for all of humanity. Indeed we cannot experience the fullness of our own humanity and God’s authority in our lives, unless we do so in relationship with others, all others, not just people who we might deem as being ‘like us’.

There is in effect an examination that as Christians we all have to pass, and it is an examination of the quality of our love. Each of us has to understand and apply for ourselves the skills and knowledge we’ve been taught by our Father God, and his Son our teacher Jesus, and provide living examples of our willingness to respond to the prompting of the Holy Spirit in applying it in the most difficult, and/or unexpected of circumstances. Words are not enough, for “the sound of our faith has more power if it is heard through works of righteousness” (Maximus the Confessor, quoted by Archbishop Angaelos) and those works must be works of love.

 

 

 

 

 

Whose voice are we listening to? John 10:11-18

My sermon this week, reflects the nature of our calling as Christians to listen to Jesus, and those who live, love and speak truth in his name, even, perhaps especially, when it’s counter to what is peddled by political leaders and news-mongers. 

This afternoon at the St. George’s Day Parade service, I’m going to (and did) briefly touch on the fact that St. George – the real one, no dragons here – had a Greek father, and a mother who was a Christian from the large Roman province of Syria Palestine. He lived out his soldiering career as a Christian, possibly protecting and releasing those who were falsely imprisoned, neither of which would have made him popular. He was martyred for his unwillingness to denounce his Christian faith. The thought-provoking irony of having a Christian Syrian Palestinian soldier as our Patron Saint should not be lost on us in the next few days.

There is a priest in the Greek Orthodox Church in Aleppo, called Ghassan Ward.

“[His] bishop was kidnapped in April 2013, [his] church was destroyed, and [his] house was bombed. [His] two sons left the country, [his] wife died of cancer and [he] lost two… close family members because of the bombings.” But despite all this, Ghassan chose to stay in Syria, and care for his hurting community. “Many of my parish were rich before, now they are poor. They have no work, no income and all the savings are spent during the years of war,” he says. “The role of the church is not only having the services – we welcome the people and we try to help solve their problems. God gave us the love. It’s not easy to do this… The needs of the people are very big; we’re trying to meet their needs… We also help non-Christians. They are our neighbours, we live with them, and we cannot neglect a person who is hungry. When we give them a loaf of bread, the love of Christ is written on it.”

This story was told this week by the Open Doors charity, that serves and supports persecuted Christians. I have had it verified directly via one of the clergy and peers travelling in Syria this week, as typical of the work churches in the region are undertaking.

So what have these two people, St. George and a contemporary Syrian clergyman, got to do with this morning’s very famous, and deceptively simple parable?

Jesus is making some important points about who he is, but also about us. They are based round a claim that he fulfills the Old Testament prophesy of Ezekiel 34, where the Lord says he will rescue sheep “from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness” (Ezek 34:12) and that he will “place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd.”

Why it is that Jesus is in the position to be both the Lord God and King David, and thus the Good Shepherd of all God’s sheep, is one of those things that this parable seeks to explain, and leads up to at the end of John 10. There Jesus declares “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). Everything Jesus says and does, is based on, and returns to, his relationship with his Father; that is the means by which he has the willingness, love and authority to both lay down his life, and take it up again.

Jesus is also reminding his listeners, Jews like himself, children of God’s covenant with Moses, that God has always been interested in bringing more than just them into a relationship with him. This is being fulfilled in him, because it is through his death and resurrection that God reaches beyond the old covenant to the rest of the sheep in the world, a world that 3-4 centuries later would boast a Christian martyred soldier of Greek and Syrian heritage, and today includes a beleaguered Syrian priest with nothing left but his faith, funding from Open Doors, a team of like-minded survivors, and his desire to love all those in his community. Jesus came to create one single universal flock of people who know and love God, and have the freedom to do so.

The bond between the sheep and the shepherd, as well as the Father and the Son, is one of trust and love. When he styles himself as the “Good” Shepherd, there’s a lot more depth to the meaning than the bland little English word “good” suggests. It is more emphasising that the trust and love that Jesus offers people is attractive – it is what motivates people like Ghassan to be risking their lives in places like Aleppo. We, and more importantly those who’ve not encountered Jesus before, should see something beautiful, inspiring and ultimately counter-cultural in who he is revealed to be, and through what he calls us to do. When Jesus says, ‘My own know me… [and] listen to my voice’ (John 10:14 and 16), he is demanding our willingness to trust and love him, as he did his Father, and at the very least, to be willing to be obedient to the example that he sets us, through the inspiration of his voice, in this parable as among many others he told.

This was completely revolutionary and counter cultural to Jesus’ world, filled as it was with hatred and suspicion, violence and counter-violence… a world that perhaps sounds all too similar to our own?! In the context of his conversation with and in front of the Pharisees, Jesus is saying, stop listening only to your traditions, your senior religious figures, whether what they are saying sounds good or not. Instead, Jesus is saying, start listening direct to God, to a vision of a world that is different, where people share what they have with their neighbour without worrying about where they fit in any particular religious or political picture or ideal.

Do we want to be ‘good’? Do we want to be beautiful? Do we want to be shepherds, shepherds who welcome all-comers to the fold? Do we want to listen to the voice of Jesus, the voice of truth, the voice of love?

There are two levels, two areas of the world stage, on which we are invited today to respond to those questions; there’s the macro level, and rather closer to home, the micro.

On the macro-level, where is the beautiful love of Jesus for all God’s people, most visible? One place it would seem, is Aleppo where Ghassan Ward works bravely and painstakingly with other churches of many denominations to feed Jesus’ sheep. That, I hope you agree, is beautiful. The same could be said for the work of the Open Doors organization which supports him, supports vulnerable Christians in Egypt, India, Iran, and nearly 50 other countries where it is dangerous to be a Christian. If that work and those places are where the love of God for his people, and the love of his people for Jesus is most visible, perhaps theirs are the voices we need to take most care to listen to.

Still on a macro-level, perhaps we need to start questioning more carefully what we’re told by our political and dare I say it, our religious leaders, and certainly by today’s mainstream press. Where are we reading the counter-cultural voices, the stories of love, the hidden truths – even if they’re unpalatable or unpopular and don’t fit the current zeitgeist? Jesus says false shepherds flee the sheep in their care, and so we see those with authority playing fast and loose with the security and welfare of our neighbours, because their paperwork isn’t complete or they can’t contribute financially to society because of their disabilities. Sometimes even not knowing who to believe about the reality of whether a chemical attack happened or not, is better than believing the stories of either side without question. What would Jesus have us listen to and believe?

Which brings things rather closer to home, closer to the micro-level of our own parish and benefice, perhaps pertinently on this the day of our Annual Parochial Church Meeting, with St. Barnabas’s to follow on Wednesday. I’m sure you will want to listen later to Rev’d Lerys, as our Priest-in-Charge, but collectively we need to listen to how Jesus wants us to care for his flock, to look at the neighbouring ‘folds’ or parishes, to see where they need help to do the same, or where they might be able to help us.

And what about the other sheep, those that walk past the church in the sunshine, ride down the lane into the forest, stand at the school gate, sit at home and knit, sew or garden, and use the village shop and pubs? They need to know that Jesus is attractive, beautiful and good too, and that can only be done through what we say, and do.

Jesus had a two-fold vocation: to save the sheep currently in his care, and to enlarge the flock considerably by bringing in a whole lot of very different sheep (John10:16). That vocation is ours, because we already know Jesus. Our responsibility now, is to listen to his voice, so that we know where and how to seek the other sheep that he wants brought into his fold.

 

 

 

 

Getting out from under the fig tree – John 1:43-51 and Rev 5:1-10

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I was grateful when after several attempts I located some figs late Saturday afternoon – else my introduction was going to have to be changed!

 

Service intro:

I’ve got a puzzle… I’m going to describe something to you, and I want you to tell me if you think you know what it might be.

It’s a bit bigger than a ping-pong ball, but a shape that is something of a cross between a football and a rugby ball, so one end is round-ish, and one end is oval-ish. The oval-ish end has a small stick in it. The round-ish end possibly has a slight hole in the middle, like a miniature cave disappearing inside. The whole thing is a green-ish, purple-ish, brown-ish colour.

Any ideas? (Hopefully blank looks.) Even vague ideas?

Get out a fig. Shhhhh, if you know what it is! Go through the description again.

Do the words make any more sense when you can see what I’m talking about? Yes, great. No, take the blame for poor description.

Any ideas now what it is? Hopefully someone, child or adult, might know it’s a fig.

There’s a big difference between just hearing something said, and actually seeing it. There’s a bigger difference still when we can eat and taste the thing… but that will have to wait until after the service. [Pray for us all to both hear and see Jesus this morning.]

Sermon:

Nathaniel had been watched.

It was perfectly sensible to sit in the shade of a spreading fig tree. You might sit there on your own, making the most of the peace and quiet for meditation and prayer. You might sit there with friends or a teacher, for a quiet discussion. It was perfectly normal in the climate and culture of the time, and would have excited no comment at all.

Yet, Nathaniel, under a fig tree, was being watched.

The story of the law and the prophets that he had heard read from the scroll in the Temple or Synagogue, might well have been explained to Nathaniel under a fig tree by the rabbi of his community. It was also quite possibly a place where he’d have learnt the prejudices of his elders, listening to their stories of the rivalry that existed between villages. Nathaniel had heard, and learnt, many things, about God, about his religion, and about his community, whilst sat under a fig tree.

But whilst he was sat under a fig tree listening to others, he was being watched… By Jesus.

Of course, Nathaniel didn’t know that. All he knew was that today his friend Philip was full to bursting with a bit of news. Philip and his friends thought they’d found the person who would fulfil the prophesies of Isaiah, the promised ruler for King David’s throne, the Messiah (Is 9:6-7 and Is 11:1-5) But it was just that, news. Something else to listen to.  And the fact that Philip said this person came from Nazareth fed all the prejudices that Nathaniel had learnt; Philip’s excitement was just words, easily dismissed,… until Philip said “Come and see”.

Sitting under a fig tree listening to others was no help. Getting up and discovering that the man Philip spoke of had been watching and listening to him without him being aware, made a significant difference.

It was only when Nathaniel had been drawn away from his place of safety under the fig tree, the place where his hearing senses dominated, that he is able to actually see the truth of Philip’s words, and use his natural abilities as a down-to-earth Israelite to recognise Jesus as the Son of God, the Messiah. There was no point just using words with Nathaniel, he had to see for himself.

In some senses Jesus was just like him, a down-to-earth, blunt-talking Israelite who knew his scriptures. But Israel’s purpose as God’s people had been to provide the means of bridging the gap between heaven and earth, repairing God’s broken creation, initiating God’s rescue plan among people’s who were intent on destroying God’s handiwork. Unfortunately Israel was a little too hung-up in it’s old prejudices, rather more intent on reciting scripture than getting out and looking to be it’s fulfilment. Until he got out from under the fig-tree, Nathaniel was a good representation of an Israel too fractured and hidebound by tradition to be able to break the seals on God’s rescue plan.

Jesus was the image of what Israel should have been, had indeed been created for. What Nathaniel saw in Jesus in those first moments of personal engagement, and the realisation that Jesus had been watching over and listening to him for a significant period, was the power of Israel’s royalty, combined with a gentle vulnerability that enabled people to encounter him on their own terms. Jesus: the lion and the lamb, something to be spoken about, and something to be seen for yourself; a true Israelite of the house of David and the ‘lion-cub’ tribe of Judah (Gen 29:9), and the slaughtered sacrificial lamb of Passover, through whom Israel was saved, and by whom all the people’s of the world would now be bought the opportunity of new life. Jesus was a piece of news worth getting out of the shade of a fig tree for.

  • Only Jesus could show Nathaniel that he was visible and listened to by God.
  • Only Jesus could be both the lion and the lamb of Israel’s people.
  • Only Jesus could provide from Israel the fulfilment of God’s original creative intention to heal the world and it’s people of the broken-ness which had become endemic.
  • Only Jesus could bring about a new covenant and a new kingdom that would start to bring earth and heaven together.
  • Only Jesus could enable us to sing a new song to God as the priesthood of all believers.

We are being watched.

It’s perfectly appropriate to have places of meditation and prayer where we feel at peace. It’s perfectly reasonable to sit in the shade of a metaphorical fig-tree, listening to and discussing what it is that scripture says about the future. It’s indeed not uncommon for those discussions to wander off and feed our own prejudices about different elements of the community we live in.

But it’s worth remembering that we are being watched, and listened to, by Jesus.

If we haven’t already, soon we’re going to have to leave listening and talking behind, get out from under our fig-tree, and go and meet the Jesus who has been watching and listening to us, and knows us through and through, prejudices and all. Are we ready to see more? Are we ready to encounter the power of the lion and the sacrifice of the lamb?

Some of us have got out from under the fig tree before. We’ve recognised that through those that come and talk to us, we hear news about what God is doing that is worth going out and seeing for ourselves. But when the fig tree provides plenty of shade from the heat of the sun, and life wears us to a frazzle, a little comfort and company can do wonders for our energy levels. However, then we have to remember it’s not necessarily where we’re going to encounter Jesus. We have to get up and go meet the next piece of good news.

I can’t necessarily tell you where we must go to find Jesus, but it means knowing we are being listened to and seen by Jesus as we work out where we go, and will involve listening to and seeing others. Part of that starts over the next ten days as our two PCCs coming together to listen to each other and God as to the direction we go in making sure Jesus is seen in our communities, our mission and our worship. A small group of us are also going to listen and help Jesus and this church be seen at the wedding fair at Warbrook House next Sunday.

There will be other things. It might be sitting and listening to children read in school, seeing whether the school want people to return to gardening for them, or joining the Open The Book team so that the children meet Jesus. It may be that we have to spend time finding a non-threatening way to tell the people who come and sit under the local trees about Jesus, like the horse-riders who frequent Church Green, or the families who use the play area. It could be that in encouraging the community to recycle things the council won’t accept, and finding a site and a mechanism for doing so, we might be more like Jesus himself, bringing healing to God’s creation. Whatever the things are that we do, they will be a new song, a song that lives and celebrates the power and the sacrifice of Jesus, if we not only listen to what people say, but also go out and meet Jesus, the lion and the lamb.

Using God’s jigsaw pieces for a new beginning – Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-end and John 1:6-8,19-28

Introduction with the children before they go out:

Who like’s doing puzzles?
What sort of puzzles?

Jigsaw puzzles, 3D puzzles, I’m guessing we might have some Sudoku and crossword fans in the congregation.

Our readings this morning in this part of church give us a bit of a puzzle, a puzzle about who we are. Not our names, but what our purpose is, the sort of people we are called to be. God has put us in a place or a time of confusion, and we have to puzzle out what it is that we need to do in his name.

So I want you to give out some puzzle pieces in a moment when we’ve prayed for each other, and then at the end of the service, you’re going to collect them in again, and help me put the pieces together…

 

Puzzle pieces:   (Holy) Spirit    –     Bind Up (Heal)      –      Renew    –      Good News    –      Freedom    –    Build Up   –    Justice Comfort    –    Beauty Praise/Joy   –    Baptise    –   Serve Jesus

Sermon:

The chances are, they knew who he was.

John, the son of Zechariah, the priest descended from Aaron, Moses’ brother and spokesperson (Luke 1:5); the priest who in his later years had been struck dumb because he didn’t believe the angel who visited him whilst on duty at the Temple (Luke 1:11-20).

John, the son of Elizabeth, who was well past child-bearing age, and that same elderly priest Zechariah whose lips, unsealed by John’s birth, then prophesied that he would be the prophet who would prepare the way for God’s mercy and love to be revealed to the world.

John, who could by line and lineage have been a priest himself and worn the fine linens of the Temple, offering the sacrifices of others, and who chose instead to wander around in the desert in rough clothing, eating locusts and honey, and saying that the Jewish people needed to prepare for the coming of the Messiah, by literally being converted back in to the Jewish faith in which they were rooted.

Oh yes, the Levites and priests who came from Jerusalem, would have known very well what his name was, whose son he was, and what the stories were that surrounded him. But that didn’t answer their question: “Who are you?”

They wanted to fit him into their ordered way of defining their history and way of life through the prophets of their past. By pigeon-holing John into what they thought they understood of Elijah and Moses, they thought they could understand him, make him fit into their traditions.

But asking the question from that blinkered point of view, was completely missing the significance of where John was, what he was saying, and what he was doing. John might have looked and sounded like an Old Testament prophet, but he was very much doing a new thing, heralding the new way that God was going to be active not just among the Jewish community, but in the whole world.

John was in the wilderness because God’s people had lost their way – a fact amply demonstrated by the Levites and priests needing to ask their question in the first place. They had all the tools, the jigsaw pieces if you like, with which to recognise and take part in this new thing that God was doing, but they’d got so lost, especially around the Temple worship of Jerusalem, that they couldn’t recognise it. They couldn’t even see that other prophets of the past had prepared them for this when Israel had previously found itself with the opportunity to start a new era, a new way of living, a new relationship with God.

The words of Isaiah 61 would have been familiar to the priests and their assistants the Levites, but perhaps they had forgotten its’ context, and failed to recognise as so often happens, that history was sort of repeating itself, but with an extra twist of significance. Isaiah 61 falls in the last part of the prophesies grouped together in that name, a series of visions that spoke into two periods of Israel’s history. The first was the point where the first Israelites returned from Exile in Babylon but had few resources to rebuild the Temple, and limited self-rule to make new beginnings as a nation in the ‘between-times’ before the rest of this scattered people returned. The second point to which Isaiah 61 prophesies is another ‘between-time’, this one standing at the cusp of the old covenant and a new one, a time again when Israel was under restricted self-rule, this time anticipating the arrival of the long-promised Messiah.

John, was doing something that was normally only offered to those outside the Jewish faith and who wished to accept that Israel’s God was the one true God of all people; he was baptising people. But he was baptising his fellow Jews, something that should not have been needed. Yet, as the priests and Levites were amply demonstrating, they had lost their purpose and the vision of Isaiah’s prophesies, and therefore their understanding of what was going on around them had become lost in a wilderness of their own creation. The sins from which John was demonstrating people needed to be washed clean, were the ones that obliterated their view of what God was doing in their immediate vicinity, stopped them from setting the right example not just to their communities, but to those gentiles among whom they lived. The people who would be among the first to recognise the Messiah who already stood among them, would be those who understood that God’s anointed Messiah would bring with him those things prophesied in Isaiah. It was the people who were already gathered around John, who saw the opportunities of a life more fully focused on what God wants to reveal in the world, rather than the wilderness that bewildered their leaders, that would become the first disciples of the Messiah.

There is a very strong sense in which we too live in a period which we might be forgiven for thinking is a wilderness, where our leaders are bewildered by what it is they see, and seem unable to recognise it as an opportunity for a new beginning, or understand what it is they should be doing with that opportunity.  What we as Christians need to do, is to show them the tools at their disposal, the jig-saw pieces that mean that we can live as God intended us to. In the scriptures of the old covenant, as in Isaiah 61, and in the example and teaching of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, as well as John the Baptist, we hold those tools, those jigsaw pieces. Quite literally.

Please can all those who were given a jigsaw piece by the children hold them up please? That’s quite a lot of pieces, and there are plenty more! (Please put them down.) These few are all words or ideas within our scriptures this morning, and we can go through them briefly – please hold up the relevant jigsaw piece as I mention it:

(Holy) Spirit – The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon me (Is 61:1). That’s the suffering servant, the Messiah himself speaking. That spirit would dwell in Jesus, and be offered to us through faith in him, as at Pentecost. It is the Holy Spirit of God that we must have dwelling within us if we are to find a way out from the wilderness that the nations find themselves in.

Good News ­
– The Messiah came to bring good news to the poor (Is 61:1), the poor of spirit, the financially poor, those made homeless (physically or spiritually) by the systems of the world; as those who believe in him that we are called to do likewise.

With the ideas of Binding Up (Healing) and Freedom (Is 61:1)­ we remember the healings that Jesus undertook, those he freed from physically or spiritually dark places, and we remember that this world needs us to seek the hidden darknesses of people’s lives where the light of the Messiah needs to be shone.

Vengeance/Justice (Is 61:2,8) The Messiah for whom John prepared Israel was he who challenged the corruption and structures of the time, turned over the tables of the money-changers in the Temple, released people from debt through forgiveness not extortion; if we do or enable likewise, we offer new beginnings and new opportunities for those living in the wilderness of social injustice and exclusion, the hope of Christ.

We know we need to Comfort those who mourn not just the death of a loved one, but the loss of mobility and companionship, providing practical support as well as a hug or a kind word (Is 61:2-3).

We also seek Beauty (Is 61:3) not only in God’s creation but among the ashes of people’s broken lives when they’ve become the shell of the person they once were because of the wilderness of their lives and yet are loved, as they are, by God.

God calls us to find opportunities for Praise and Joy (Is 61:3) among the ashes of our lives as well as that of others; the things for which we are thankful, friends, family, our faith in Jesus.

These are jigsaw pieces of living out our faith with which we are called to Build Up and Renew (Is 61:4) not just our church and local community, but the nations of the world. If we do not speak for freedom, justice and healing in the name of Jesus, to those in authority, how can God’s love be seen and heard?

John came and Baptised with water (John 1:26), but now through faith in Jesus, the forgiveness he offered, and the power of the Holy Spirit which enabled both the birth of John the Baptist and Jesus the Messiah, we baptise people into the body of Christ, the church, the means by which we seek to Serve Jesus, in all these ways even though we are not worthy so much as untie even his laces (John 1:27).      (Thank you).

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The jigsaw pieces that take us on a journey towards Jesus.

After we have remembered, recognised and received Christ the Servant-Messiah who stands among us in our Holy Communion this morning, we will use our jigsaw pieces with the children to make a straight path. It will serve to remind us that though we may feel we live in a spiritual wilderness, we have the jigsaw pieces of our faith, ready at our disposal to create a clear path out. The key is to remember where those pieces come from, the God from whom they come, the Messiah toward whom they point, and to seek the opportunities for new beginnings, that will show the world who we are as Christians.

During the notices, before the final hymn: I got the children to collect in the jig-saw pieces and work out how to lay them, making a straight path, pointing to the Joseph and Mary journeying to Bethlehem (in the Lord’s Table).

Sound-bites… or sacrifice? A sermon for ‘Pip and Jim’ at Winchester Cathedral – Isaiah 40:27-end John 12:20-26

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In the vestments of Winchester Cathedral (photo courtesy Graham Hartland)

The Dean and Chapter of Winchester Cathedral offer the curates of Winchester Diocese the wonderful opportunity of preaching at Cathedral Evensong towards the end of the curacy. It’s a daunting thing, but a huge privilege, and today it was my turn. Normally, this would be undertaken in ‘choir dress’, but since tonight was the first Evensong of the Feast of St. Philip and St. James tomorrow, they got some of their gorgeous robes out and of course, I had to fit in.

There was also a serious message to share as well, and one I felt was timely in this ‘election’ season:

It is all too common in the media frenzied world we live in, that when some key moment in history is being played out, like the announcement of a General Election, those who live by a well-poised microphone, seek an interview with the key players. Sound-bites are demanded to enable us who feed on the all-consuming media-machine, to discern the so-called truth. The media wants to know ‘who?’, and ‘what?’, and ‘why?’, so they can be first with the relevant ‘scoop’, grab reflections from the most note-worthy analysts, and massage our minds with ‘breaking news’.

The little group of Greeks who plagued the most approachable of Jesus’ followers for an interview with the wandering rabbi who’d just been greeted in Jerusalem like a conquering hero, could well have been the early equivalent of today’s political editors. One might imagine that the ‘who’, ‘what’ and ‘why’ of a political leader on a donkey would make good copy!

However, despite the tendency of those who saw their world in ruins and yearned for freedom from the tyranny of occupation to wish it otherwise, Jesus was no conquering hero, or political leader. He was however someone who sensed the change in the tide, as the welcoming Jews who were fascinated by the miracle of Lazarus’s resurrection fell away at the sound of Pharisaical sarcasm, and were replaced by these curious Greeks. Jesus, the Son of Man, knew that what lay next for him was as much of consequence for these gentiles as for his fellow Jews; so they might as well get their click-bait sound-bite, then they could go away and analyse it as the events that revealed its truth unfolded in the week to come. It obviously worked, otherwise we wouldn’t still be reading it today!

“The hour has come…” sounds like political rhetoric worthy of Winston Churchill; less so a discourse on the germination of a grain of wheat. Yet it is that image that holds the kernel of the message that Christ’s impending death and resurrection represented. The pun is intended, for the kernel of a seed is packed with energy and the building blocks like starch, protein and fat, which allow it to grow through the soil until it reaches the sunlight to make its own food and reproduce. Christ would die to bear much fruit; the fruit of the Kingdom of God that would form from a single, sacrificed grain of hope.

For the exiled people of Israel, reading in Babylon the words prophesied by Isaiah decades earlier, the seeds of their hope lay in the traditions of their faith. Their complaint is that God is ignoring the right of his people to see in their generation the fulfilment of the promises made to the patriarchs. They dimly remember that they were called to be a great nation, as numerous as the dust of the earth (Gen 12:2-3), and a blessing to all peoples (Gen 28:13-15). Yet defeat and deportation have left them too numb to grasp the truth that the power of their creator God extends from their past, through this present suffering, well into the future, in which lies the fulfilment of those promises.  Like the writer of Psalm 25, they are asked to wait for the Lord, not in the insidious doubt that breeds despair, but in the sort of confident expectation that breeds hope.

The exiles in Babylon would eventually find that hope in the restoration of their lands and temple. But their future leaders would again become so hidebound to an understanding of God which they created in their own flawed image, that they would fail to recognise the means by which they would indeed become a blessing to all peoples, and so they crucified their flawless Saviour. It was to this sacrifice that Jesus refers in his response to the eager plea of the Greeks for an interview. It would in fact be they who, at Pentecost and because of his resurrection, would be among the peoples to whom God’s new covenant with all people would be inaugurated.

How much are we like the Pharisees, forming our image of God on the basis of our own flaws? How much are we like the exiles in Babylon, prey to insidious doubts that God perhaps has forgotten us? If it is not us for whom we are concerned, perhaps it is the defeated souls who wash up on the shores of the wealthy west, almost as devoid of hope as they are of the money that bought them a dangerous passage, powerless to battle the bureaucracy of borders? Or perhaps it is the young for whom we are concerned; especially those faint and weary from the constant expectation that everyone can be above average, who fall exhausted into an epidemic of depression?

Have we not known? Have we not heard? That our faith is in the everlastingly faithful creator who has revealed himself to us in Jesus? That it is we who are called to be the grains of wheat who by sacrificing ourselves, our time, our effort, our money, even our political differences, on behalf of others, will be serving Jesus?

The chances are we do know, and we have heard, but making a life of sacrifice and service a reality is much harder than perhaps we would wish. We yearn to change a world that at times seems in ruins, and free it from the tyranny of injustice, yet the work can seem fruitless. Subsuming our own needs and desires into the sometimes unpopular, awkward, perhaps even isolating work of serving others, is tough. Which is why we too need to catch hold of more than the sound-bites of Jesus’ ministry, and pick up again the seed of hope he holds for each of us.

Christ’s death and resurrection, in obedience to his Father’s will, gives everyone the opportunity for a relationship with God that guarantees his presence with us through the power of the Holy Spirit. However much of a struggle it is, if we have faith in Jesus and follow his example, we will find that he is with us. If we wait in confident expectation of his presence among the tasks we do at his command, then we will find our strength renewed for the work we do to serve others, and our lives bearing much fruit in the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord.

 

Let us pray:

We give thanks to you our risen Lord, that in your death and resurrection you offer all people the seed of hope. Help us to be this seed, and growing through acts of love, sacrifice and service, bear the fruit of your Kingdom.

Faithful creator, incarnate through the power of the Holy Spirit, inspire in us the courage to act responsibly towards your creation, that we might not remove the seeds of hope for future generations through our careless abuse of the world’s resources.

Remembering that in your flawless humility you suffered for us, Jesus, work in the words, actions and policies of our leaders and media to offer a fresh vision of truth, justice and the renewal of hope for all people.

We remember from our Diocesan cycle of prayer those who are refugees and asylum seekers, and all who find themselves struggling for hope in the face of bureaucracy, injustice and exploitation. Loving Jesus, give us the courage to work for the right of all people to safety, security and freedom, as we serve others in your name.

Lord Jesus, we know ourselves to be fragile, and many for whom we care to be faint and weary from the cares the world places on them. We remember in a moment of silence those known to us who need to know your comfort, healing, presence and peace…………… and strengthen those who share their own journey to wholeness in support of others.

May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God,
and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all, evermore. Amen.

Living by the rules, or ruled by the Spirit? John 3:1-17

High Altar Lent Array
St. Mary’s in Lent Array

Back preaching in my curacy parish this week, and it’s Lent, a time to take stock of how we live by holding the mirror of Jesus’ teaching to our lives, and seeing whether we meet his expectations. The Gospel this week is the story of Nicodemus’ deliberate encounter with Jesus in John 3:1-17 but I’ve drawn from both the other lectionary readings too: Genesis 12:1-4a, and Romans 4:1-5 with 13-17.

I wonder how many of us, when we were younger, were taken on ‘duty’ visits to see relatives? You know the type of visit, the one where the parent say, “we know we struggle to find anything in common with Great Aunty Flo who will expect you to sit nicely at table, and Uncle Sam will spend the whole time talking about how to grow giant onions, but it’s Christmas and they do like to see the children.” Perhaps, we’ve even done that to our own children!

This sort of thing has a lot to do with family, and rules, spoken and unspoken; those invisible laws about how we should behave with and relate to our ‘elders’. It doesn’t necessarily have a lot to do with love, or grace, or spontaneous gifts, Christmas, birthdays… or whatever.

Nicodemus, as a Pharisee, was quite good on rules; how people’s relationship with God worked should, in his eyes, have been based on abiding by them. He wasn’t so blind that he couldn’t see that God was at work somehow in the miracles that Jesus was doing, but when Jesus started to relate his abilities to people – not just him – “being born from above” Nicodemus is utterly flummoxed. He doesn’t seem to know a rule that allows people to be born twice, and when Jesus explains the difference between physical and spiritual birth to him, he’s still mystified. The Pharisees had got so wrapped up in their rule book that they’d forgotten where the Jewish people actually came from, and how!

God called Abram (Genesis 12:1-4). There were no ‘people of God’ before Abram, and importantly, there were no Ten Commandments until well after him. There’s a lot else that happens in the story of the people of Israel between Abram and Moses; for starters they multiply from a family to a much bigger family – a nation of people. The Law, as those commandments and the man-made sub-clauses created around them, was not the defining symbol of the people of Israel. Nor was circumcision, which was something that Abram was instructed to do (Genesis 17) as a sign of this covenant relationship whereby he believed himself and his family to be called by God (Romans 4:3), something we call faith. That little iceberg word ‘faith’ is the crux of the issue; the nation of Israel were a people of faith whom God called, and not defined by circumcision, or the Ten Commandments and the Law. Their covenant was born of the Spirit of God (John 3:8), the same breath or wind that had moved over the waters of creation (Genesis 1:2).

As a Pharisee and student of Jewish scripture in which the law was contained, Nicodemus should have known and remembered this, and it is this that Jesus rather sternly reminds him of. The Pharisees’ focus on the Law had straight-jacketed them, and the people of Israel, into forgetting that they were a people of faith, and that faith is a living, breathing thing, a relationship built on love, and grace, and spontaneous gifts as the wind of the Spirit blows. Judaism had become a religion of rules, where what family you were born into defined who you would be, and what you would be able to do in life.

Whilst Jesus had been born of the royal line and lineage of David, who and what he was called to be and do was defined by his relationship with God his Father, his calling as God made man, the Messiah, God with us. God’s relationship with us the people of the world, was never designed to be limited to the people of Israel in the long-term, as Abram’s original calling and his covenant with God testified: “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed (Gen 12:3), and “I have made you the father of many nations” (Genesis 17:5).

Ordinary birth into the extended family of the people of Israel, or even a specific family within that, wasn’t enough to convey membership of the new covenant and Kingdom of God that Jesus was initiating. It is God’s loving initiative in sending Jesus, and people’s belief, their faith, that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,…”, conveyed through baptism by water and the Holy Spirit, that initiates our inclusion in the Kingdom of God.

So what of the Ten Commandments which we in Lent are prone to recite, and the other rules in which Nicodemus was well schooled? The function of the Law at it’s original and best, could perhaps be described as a mirror, which the people of Israel could hold up in front of themselves, and in which they should see every spot and pimple in their own lives. The Ten Commandments didn’t define the people of Israel, but highlighted where they fell short of the ideal of a faith-filled relationship with God. They were a means to the end game of a covenant relationship, not the end in and of itself. The Commandments, distilled into the two that Jesus taught – love God, and love thy neighbour as thyself – are a mirror by which we explore the extent to which we are managing to live out our faith in God, our relationship with Jesus; the extent to which our baptism in water and the Holy Spirit are bearing fruit.

But the additional rules that had accreted around them weren’t even achieving that! When the people, the family of God, start making the rules their god instead, the family becomes closed to its expansion to and inclusion of others in the world, the very purpose for which God breathed and called them into existence. It’s as true now, as it was then.

Jesus is helping Nicodemus to understand that what Jesus is doing actually comes through his relationship with God, helping Nicodemus return to a properly Abrahamic belief in God. We don’t see it in our Gospel today, but these words must have struck home, because later Nicodemus will speak up for Jesus’ right to a fair hearing under the Law (John 7:51) using it as a tool, not an end or judgement in itself. Later still when we come to Good Friday, we will see Nicodemus respond to the Jesus whom his compatriots have crucified, by accompanying Joseph of Aramathea in the preparation of Jesus’ body for burial (John 19:39-42). The Law now forgotten, the relationship with Jesus is all important, exemplified in loving care and compassion even at the time of his death.

But Jesus is speaking to our time too. Where in the world, and in what context in this country, are we seeing rules becoming the thing to be lived by, rather than the love, care and compassion that those of us who are baptised Christians are called to live by? We can’t just stand idly by when this happens, we are called to speak out just as Jesus spoke to Nicodemus. Are we living by a set of rules, or ruled by the Spirit of God? In recent weeks our own family, the dear old Church of England, has given us some glaring examples of what happens when relationships are confined or defined by a set of human rules through which the Holy Spirit has not necessarily been allowed to blow. Have we remembered that as co-inheritors of the promises made to Abram for the whole world, we are called to live as a faith-filled mirror of God’s inclusive love for all?

Perhaps Jesus is saying to us today that if we’re not careful Great Aunt Flo and Uncle Sam will recognise that our duty visit is only paying lip-service to a loving relationship, and they may well make the fact that we’ve been rumbled abundantly clear, to the discomfort of all concerned! Relationships that work only by a set of rules are prone to cracks, and pain, and family breakdown; and there needs to be honesty, repentance and then forgiveness when that is the case, so that duty is set aside, and relationships of love are rekindled as a testament to our love for God in Jesus, and our baptism by water and the Spirit.

Foreigner… citizen. Doubt… belief. John 20:24-29 Eph 2:19-end

 

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The Chancel at St. Lawrence, Weston Patrick – the ceiling is stunning!

It was THAT passage again. It might have been in 3 completely new contexts, but St. Thomas seems to follow me around, and here he was again. Not in Easter Season, but for his Feast Day, post-referendum, not just post-resurrection! 

Last Sunday was my first adventure in multi-parish rural Sundays: 4 hours, 3 churches, 2 forms of worship, 1 priest! It was also another of my Sunday’s covering parishes in ‘vacancy’ in the North Hampshire Downs, specifically Weston Patrick 8.15am (BCP no hymns), Tunworth (9am BCP with hymns & coffee), Herriard 11am (CW Family Communion with portaloo!)

They were all lovely places, frequented by lovely welcoming people, who were eager to chat where appropriate, gracious where timings don’t (with the best will in the world) quite work, and treated the roving priest with a great sense of humour. In Weston Patrick I was greeted by a warden dashing off to find a Bible that didn’t collapse and a Red Kite calling over-head (and for those that know me, you will know how much that will have meant to me), in Tunworth I was greeted with the chance to catch my breath and let my heart rate slow down after a close encounter with an obdurate pony and it’s care-worn rider, and in Herriard I was greeted by an ancient Masey Ferguson tractor & apologies for the lack of bells and after service coffee; there was an agricultural show secretaries gathering that demanded the attention of those involved in both activities! 

I absolutely loved it, and am so pleased they seem happy to have me back – especially since they don’t have much choice between now and the arrival of their new Rector in mid-August!!

For what it’s worth, this is what I said to them. As you’ll see, the brief was to speak for only 3 minutes in the first parish as there isn’t time to speak for longer. I will let you be the judge of whether stopping at the point I did was helpful, or not.

Foreigner (KJV) Alien (NRSV)… and citizen.

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The tiny Chancel and stunning Belinda Scarlett altar frontal at All Saints, Tunworth (and my Dad, photographing the frontal – look her up, she’s done Lambeth and Winchester too!)

Doubt… and belief.

Pairs of words taken, not from our media news of the last 10 days, but from the scriptures set for today.

It is tempting to think that these pairs of words are opposites: mutually exclusive. But they aren’t.

These pairs of words, these scriptures, speak not of borders but of belief, proclaim peace rather than prejudice; they are not so much about judgement as about journey.

The foreigners of Ephesians 2:19, who we know biblically as Gentiles, though still not circumcised and thus unaltered from their previously alienated state, find their circumstances so changed that they are no longer strangers to their Jewish neighbour’s, but belong with them as fellow citizens of God’s kingdom.

The doubting disciple Thomas, more accurately described as honest Thomas, the disciple who had the integrity to say what he could and couldn’t believe, to stay around to find out the truth for himself AND be willing to admit a change of understanding, though seeming foolish among his friends, finds faith.

Journey’s from alienation to citizenship, from doubt to belief. Journeys of reconciliation.

What makes the difference in both these stories, is the presence of the risen Jesus.

Thomas finds that Jesus knows, without being told. Knows Thomas’s questions, and his honesty. Faced with the risen Christ, Thomas doesn’t need to probe wounds inflicted by prejudice, jealousy and hatred, for Jesus’ very presence in and of itself, is an encounter with love. Thomas journeys from doubt to belief.

In Ephesians, the risen Jesus is described as the cornerstone of a holy temple, one that replaces the physical Temple of Jewish tradition. A group of ordinary people build on the witness of the prophets of the Old Testament, and the apostles of the New, around the cornerstone that is Christ, to create a community where all have equal status, both Jew and Gentile. A journey of reconciliation from the status of alien, to full citizenship.

The presence of Jesus leads people on a journey. For Thomas and the first Gentile converts to Christianity, it led them from places of emotional pain and confusion to a place of peace and community. This journey with Jesus, is perhaps more needed now in the world, and dare I say it, in this country, than perhaps at any other point since WW2.

It is participation in a journey of reconciliation to which we have all committed by our very presence here this morning with Christ. (I ended my reflections here at Weston Patrick.)

We might be hidden within the walls of an ancient building, just as Thomas was hidden with the other disciples after the crucifixion, but we are part of that new community that was being spoken of and built in Ephesus, a community based on the resurrection of Jesus; he broke down the barrier of death to offer new life, a life marked by healing, justice and equality.

Neither Thomas and the other disciples, nor the Gentile Christians of Ephesus, stayed hidden for long. Thomas after all, declared aloud: “My Lord and my God” and went on to share that testimony as far away as India! They all went out, and filled with the Holy Spirit of Pentecost, shared the message of Christ’s resurrection, the love that overcame suffering, so that others could become citizens, be blessed by belief, share the journey and be part of a growing community Christians.

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The view from St. Mary’s Herriard

Just as we see the journeys of reconciliation that Thomas and the Ephesians took, from alien to citizen, from doubt to belief, if we are looking to apply the lessons of these scriptures, then the impact of the risen Jesus in our lives needs to be recognisable. Among the many challenges we find ourselves faced with today, this is perhaps the greatest: how, in our social lives, our businesses, our economic or political aspirations or decisions, how does the presence of Jesus affect what we think, and say and do? How are we contributing to the world’s desperate need to take a journey of reconciliation?

Being Brave and Honest – like Thomas (John 20 v19-end)

Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed. Alleluia!

 

We say that so easily, don’t we?

Like Pavlov’s dogs, I said four words, and to mix my metaphors you parroted the response back.

It’s easy to do isn’t it, when we’re absolutely certain that the crucified Jesus, his body bound in cloths and laid in the tomb, rose again to life – not like Lazarus who would die again, but to a life like no-one has experienced since.

It’s easy to believe because people we trust wrote that we should believe. It’s easy to know we believe because we’ve had a profound experience or experiences of our risen Christ. It’s easy to say we believe because we simply can’t face admitting – especially in church – that it isn’t, or we don’t.

Except it isn’t, is it. Easy, that is. Believing that Jesus rose again and can meet us in our daily lives, in answered prayer, in extraordinary encounters, in another’s pain, in our own pain… None of that is easy at all. Having faith in the risen Jesus, and holding on to that faith, can be really, really tough. Especially, when we’ve not necessarily seen or encountered him for ourselves.

But we do believe don’t we. We share this thing called faith in the risen Jesus, or we are at least intrigued by the possibility of that fact, else we would not be sat here this morning. We base our hopes and/or trust in the fact that the beatitude of the risen Christ that we heard this morning is: “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe”. We rely on the fact that Jesus responded to what we so easily assume were Thomas’s doubts, and returned to a locked room to reveal his risen self, his scars, his love.

I don’t believe the hype about Thomas, or at least about his doubts being such a bad thing. We should not be derogatory about these doubts, but rather celebrate their worth: for me he is Brave and Honest Thomas, someone we need to seek to emulate, not look down upon.

When Thomas said to his friends “Unless I see him face to face and put my fingers in the hole of his and hands and his side, I shall not believe”, he was most likely just seeking “clarity”. He needed “to get to the bottom of things”, to check whether his friends had reached a point of hysteria in their grief, or whether something significant that he really needed to get his mind round had just happened. Thomas knew he had to “find his own way to be faithful to God” that involved not simply blind faith, but his intellect, his mind and a firm grasp of the reality of the situation.**

We know that “It’s… hard to own up to being the odd one out among a group of friends, and [we should recognise that] it was brave [of Thomas when he] found that he was the odd one out, not to go off, be by himself, [and give up on the last three years of following Jesus].  For a whole week he went on meeting up with the other disciples. Their faith and stories… must have made him feel uncomfortable and left out. But he still hung around.”*

It was his honesty, and that willingness to hang around with those for whom the risen Jesus had become a reality which meant that “eventually, Jesus came and met him in person. His integrity paid off; when faith came to him as a gift, it was his own and not someone else’s.”*

“Doubt is not the same as unbelief. Unbelief is a determined refusal to believe, whereas doubt is an honest owning up to not being convinced”, and finding that the people and ideas we encounter in this life can knock holes in our faith. “In Judaism, according to Dr. Jonathan Sacks,… ‘To be without questions is not a sign of faith, but [suggests a] lack of depth [to our faith].’ Sacks encourages people not only to ask questions about the meaning of the faith, but to question God. We ask questions, [he says], “not because we doubt, but because we believe.”*

Like Thomas, we need to risk making our ourselves look foolish among our friends, ask apparently awkward questions, confess our doubts and confusion, because even when we can’t see him, Jesus is listening.

Like Thomas, we need to hang around in the places that we are most likely to encounter Jesus. In our private devotions, our public worship and other forms of fellowship with Christians, our participation in the sacraments, in our commitment to serve others, to make time to be in holy places (both natural and man-made), we need to be doing the things that mean Jesus can show up and reveal himself to us – scars and all. That may mean we’re behind closed doors at times, though that doesn’t mean that’s where Jesus wants us to stay.

Like Thomas, we may find that when we are faced with the risen Christ, we will not need to touch or “probe” his wounds, for his presence in and of itself, the encounter with his love for us, will be enough to convince us that it is Jesus.***

Like Thomas, and the other disciples, we need to be reminded that there are many people in this world who believe in the risen Christ without having seen him, and we need to honour and encourage that faith, in ourselves as much as in others: for “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Like Thomas, we are called by Jesus to be brave and honest. Jesus, appeared in the disciples hideaway the first time to commission them to go out into the world – sending them out as they were, but with the power of the Holy Spirit as their guide, to proclaim the forgiveness of sins that comes to those who believe in him as their Lord and their God. St. John’s account of these resurrection encounters gives the disciples, Thomas included, little time for hesitancy. There is no waiting around for Pentecost, no more time to struggle with doubt and uncertainty, for questions to be answered. They have to take those with them.

Acknowledging that we are both ‘Like Thomas’ in his doubts and also blessed by God whatever stage our belief in the risen Jesus has reached, means accepting our uncertainties and the questions that seem to remain un-answered, and yet STILL going out into the world to live as Jesus wants us to – as those who proclaim his name in words of forgiveness. What we watch and read on the news, shows us that there is no more time for us to remain hidden – the world needs to hear that in Jesus there is forgiveness, in that forgiveness there is reconciliation with each other and with God, and in that reconciliation, there is peace.

Lord Jesus
Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.
We acknowledge before you our doubts, as well as our certainties.
Help us this week to be bold in what we do,
and honest about our search to meet you;
that in thought, word and deed
we will be encouraged to
proclaim your resurrection, your forgiveness,
and the hope of peace it offers.
Amen

Sources: 

*Maggie Dawn http://maggidawn.typepad.com/maggidawn/2009/04/honest-thomas.html

**Rachel Mann ‘Thomas’ in “The Risen Dust” Wild Goose Publications

***Paula Gooder “Journey to the Empty Tomb” 

This is one of those sermons that was excruciatingly painful to preach, though it always is when I speak of Thomas. It has been significant for me to realise that Thomas, and the other disciples in this account, do not meet the risen Lord in the breaking of bread, but hidden behind closed doors. But that doesn’t mean that is where we should stay.