Monthly Archives: May 2014

“Many were baptized and added to the community”

Here’s the sermon for the 11th May (Easter 4) from St Andrew’s & St Peter’s Eucharists.
The readings were Acts 2:42-47, 1 Peter 2: 19-25 and John 10:1-10

I’d just quickly like to re-read our first reading from Acts…..

“Many were baptized and added to the community”.

It’s certainly true that nearly 2000 years later many, many people – usually as infants – are still being baptized, certainly in our part of the country. In our own Parish of Monkwearmouth we have between six and ten baptisms every month. On Palm Sunday, when, at St Peter’s, I repeated my half serious invitation that if anyone knew anyone who might like to be baptized in the North Sea at our Easter Dawn service, someone came up to me afterwards to say that he did know someone who might like to be baptized in this way. I had to do a quick calculation of the tide times to add to the calculated time of the sunrise that morning! Although there were other reasons why we didn’t in the end go ahead, there appears to be no shortage of interest in baptism. Which is actually great good news for the Church.

So, just thinking back to our reading from Acts, if it’s still patently true that many continue to be baptized it’s the being “added to the community” bit where things don’t don’t seem to be working – not in the way that Luke reports in the vivid, exciting picture he paints of the early Church. Of many hundreds of people, lives transformed by the power of the resurrected Christ and his Holy Spirit, being baptized and beginning a new life of membership in God’s family, a people, Christ’s body here on earth, the Church. Where great things were beginning to be done in God’s name, offering the world new hope, new life, new joy, new purpose.

If the “being added to the community” bit were happening in our day there wouldn’t be room enough in our churches to hold everyone. Think of it. Between six and ten baptisms a month in our Parish. Times twelve that would be between 60 and 100 newly baptised members a year – up to 500 every five years – without including parents and godparents.

Now I want to say straight away that this is nothing new to many of us here. That over the years and continuing into the present there have been many across the Parish who have been working hard and faithfully – visiting families, helping with baptism preparation, meeting and greeting baptism enquirers at Surgery on Wednesday evenings, being present at services, welcoming and assisting.

Heart and soul dedication, warmth of welcome, prayerfulness – it’s second to none and I want to say thank you. Thank you if you have been involved in baptism ministry – and it is a ministry (in other words a service in the name of Jesus) – thank you for your hard work and faithfulness. And I am quite sure that God in many ways has been able, through you, to bring blessing to the great numbers who come our way asking for baptism for themselves or their children.

And yet. And yet. Despite the hard work. The warmth of the welcome. The precious time given up in already busy lives – despite all this – the “added to the community” bit still doesn’t seem to be working. Many still come requesting baptism, are welcomed, greeted, visited, attend baptism preparation – hopefully – ……and then we don’t see them again. Or at least not until another child is born and another baptism is requested.

Dispiriting it certainly can be. And it does seem strange, at least from our perspective. Baptism in the Christian understanding, marks the entry point, the start point of discipleship, the beginning of membership of the Church: “a family currently numbering two and a half billion members world-wide, of which your children are the very newest members”, I sometimes say at a baptism service. We do our level best to try and explain this. The baptism service is very plain. It invites parents and godparents to help the newly baptized person take up their rightful place in “the life and worship” of God’s family, the Church.

And yet, after which service we often never see our new family members again. I sometimes think it’s a bit like being given a season ticket and never joining the other supporters and going to a match. Or the keys to a fantastic car – a Ferrari or whatever – or the title deeds to a lovely house, or tickets to a wonderful holiday and holding these things for a few moments – making an occasion of it – and then putting them to one side. Not enjoying the great gift that has been offered.

And what is this gift? Nothing other than God himself. In Jesus, the one who gives us strength in all things, peace beyond measure, forgiveness, wholeness, purpose. Life in all its fulness. It’s not simply about “going to church”. But maybe that’s the problem. The thought that some people perhaps have that that’s all it is. Coming to a big stone building each week and singing hymns. If that is the case, if it is what people think, including those many who come for baptisms – even if it’s wrong – but if it’s what people think – then a whole load of obstacles begin to stack up:

Unfamiliarity with services and the worry about feeling awkward or foolish; a ready assumption that it must be boring or irrelevant; that it’s impractical on a Sunday morning; “I’m not good enough”, believe it or not, I’ve heard being given as a reason for not coming to church. Above all else, a belief for many who do, perhaps quietly, struggle for meaning and purpose – look for answers to the big questions in life – that coming to church will not provide them with what they are looking for. And that’s a challenge to us always to work hard to try to provide every opportunity to show people that it can and does.

No, being baptised isn’t just about joining in the traditions of the Church: particular, locally inherited styles of worship or whatever. Of course not. When people say or think that they’re quite right. But neither is coming together for worship an optional extra: a choice. And “choice” is something which speaks very strongly into people’s lives today, and can be another issue as to whether people become part of the Church.

Look again at our reading from Acts: “They broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the good will of the people”. It actually sounds wonderful. Hugely attractive to want to join. These are the first communion services. The first Christians – men, women, children – in communion with one another and, together, in communion with God. Fellowship, prayer and broken bread shared in the name of Christ.

It is in God’s great wisdom that he instructs us to come together – for as long as we are able physically to do so. It is meeting together – in enjoying being together – that we are strengthened for service in his name. It is the very best way that his Spirit is enabled to breathe life into his people, the Church, and, though sent out often in our separate directions, through shared active service, give hope to the world.

It may be tempting to get a little tetchy with baptism families and the many friends they bring with them – “they just want the occasion” (and they do certainly want to celebrate); “they don’t take it seriously”; “it’s just a family tradition” or whatever; “they don’t know how to behave in church” (and some big baptisms can certainly get a bit rowdy!); “they get dressed up like they’re going to a nightclub”. And it’s true that none of this makes it particularly easy for us to share with them the profound gift God is offering in baptism.

“They” do this, or “they” don’t do that or whatever. “They”. “Them”. Well, Christ died for “them” too. Perhaps many simply have never had the chance to know it yet. Nobody’s told them. Nobody’s shown them. They simply don’t know what God is like. Have never yet known the transforming friendship to be found in the person of Jesus Christ – his incredible grace and all embracing, unconditional love.

The scary thing is that it’s us – and only us – that can show them.

I have to say that in visiting families who come to us for baptism – young mums and dads – I have only ever encountered real human beings: anxious to do the right thing for their children; often a little nervous that the vicar is coming to see them; sometimes stressed and tired from a busy day, yet often full of energy and ideas and imagination; wanting to take the whole business of life (including the baptism of their children) seriously; vulnerable; gracious; shy; hospitable; struggling with pressures of various kinds, not least the demands of young children; demonstrating all kinds of wonderful potential.

How do we do it? How do we enable the many who come to the churches of our parish for baptism to move along from the opportunities we have with them for the encounter, engagement and involvement I mentioned a couple of Sundays’ ago to discipleship and active membership of God’s great family? Well, of course, firstly, it’s not ultimately up to us to try to work for “a result”. It is God’s Spirit which ultimately prompts the human heart and it is for the owner of that heart to respond or not. But we still need to do what we can.

Perhaps we feel that the task is just beyond us. The cultural gulf between Church and life lived in contemporary secular society just too big. The issues too complex. The challenge insurmountable. The sheer numbers overwhelming. Then I do invite you to pray about it. Shortly, there will be available the names of all those who have been recently baptized. Please pray for them and their families.

And also, please, pray regularly for all those of us who are engaged directly in baptism ministry, whether on Wednesday evenings at the Parish Office, the Baptism Preparation evening on the final Thursday of the month, during home visits and on Sunday mornings in the baptism services now held each week. Consider, too, staying around for baptism services, to meet, greet and welcome, get to know the many who come to us.

There is no task too big, too challenging for the Spirit of God. Let’s call on him to help us. Imagine if all those many hundreds of baptized children, with their families really did begin to be added to the community of Christ, just in those first days of the Church. Let’s allow our imagination to excite us, and then see what, with God’s help, we might do about it. Perhaps we need our own thinking challenging, too. Maybe for too long we have expected not to see baptism families again rather than wonder why it might be that they don’t return, or what we might do that might, just might, encourage some to come back.

Just a final thought about our reading from Acts. Yes – God was doing something very specific at this point: he poured out his Holy Spirit in the most dramatic, extraordinary way in Jerusalem at Pentecost in order to kick-start the Church; we might well expect there to have been mass conversions – just as, indeed, in our very own Parish little more than a century ago in the time of Alexander Boddy, the Holy Spirit, likewise, was poured out at Hall of All Saints’ Church.

But in both these defining moments – as though sending a current through an electric lightbulb lighting up every corner in a room – God was showing what the Church could and should be like. A vision for us to pray and work for. When all might hear clearly the voice of the Good Shepherd Jesus and “have life in all its abundance”.
Amen.

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The Bread of Life

The sermon for the midweek Eucharist at St. Andrew’s last Wednesday (7th May) – the Gospel reading was John 6:35-40.

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I am the bread of life

Me. Nobody else. When they come to you and say “This will make you happy” or “What you really need” or even “The Bible definitely says…” – talk to me first.
Don’t let them draw you away, fool you with their clever slogans, snappy titles and enticing images.
Look to me, to my cross, to my body broken for you.

I am the bread of life

Not “I was,” or “I will be,” but I am.
Yesterday, today & tomorrow.
Before Abraham was, “I am.”
When the world began, when the world ends, wherever you are, however you are feeling, when you laugh or smile or hurt or cry or don’t have the strength to do any of them… when you breathed your first breath & when you breathe your last… I am.

I am the bread of life

The real deal – not some cut price, wafer thin, bleached white, no taste Smartprice loaf but a big, tasty, thickly cut tea, jam & butter by a roaring fire occasion.
The only thing you need to sustain you, the ultimate comfort food. Enjoy me, come back for more – there is always more.

I am the bread of life

Not “of existence.”
Not “of survival.”
Of LIFE.
In all it’s fullness, the perfect embodiment of living life as it should be lived; loving, sharing, welcoming not rejecting, seeking mercy, doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with our God. Being who I was called to be.
Helping others do the same.

Take.
Eat.
I am broken for you – continually broken for you –
because I love you.

There & Back Again

This sermon was preached at St. Andrew’s on 4th May 2014, as part of our series leading up to the formation of a Mission & Ministry Development Group.

The readings are Acts 2:14a,36-41, 1 Peter 1:17-23 and Luke 24:13-35.

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You hear the word ‘journey’ a lot these days, don’t you? And if I’m honest, I think it’s getting a bit over-worked. You only have to switch on one of the many, many, “reality celebrity strictly come x-factoring on ice” type programmes to be told, usually in very serious tones, about the journey each contestant has been on, overcoming major adversities, hail, wind, fire and broken nails to reach the next all important round.

But it isn’t just Simon Cowell who’s obsessed with it. As I moved from my previous job in the bank, through the discernment process for this role & eventually into college, I had to discuss my ‘journey’ at great lengths – that was fine, expected even, but the word itself was somewhat undermined by my particular bank changing their slogan just as I was going to “For The Journey” – the kind of nonsensical stuff that comes out of advertising offices these days!

And yet…and yet…when used correctly, it conveys a real sense of what it is to be a disciple of Christ – to be a Christian. The story of the Emmaus road is a great case in point. Two blokes on a journey, chewing the fat over the events of the last few days, bump into a stranger who just happens to be the very man they are discussing. I wonder, did Jesus slow down so they caught up, or overtake them as they walked? What did he think, how did he feel, as they told him their version of the events that had just unfolded – his capture & crucifixion, the confusing words of the women, the mystery of the empty tomb.

Then, as they press on along the dusty path, the heat of the day fading, Jesus takes them on another journey – this time through the history of the Jewish people, showing how their scriptures pointed to the necessity of the death he subjected himself to for their, and our, sake. Then they come to Emmaus, and Jesus says his goodbyes, appearing to be moving on; allowing them the chance to offer him hospitality, to welcome the stranger. He accepts their invitation – as Jesus always accepts an invitation to be with us – and as they sit around the table he reaches forward and picks up the bread, his hands running along the crusted outside as he holds it out to them. Then he breaks it, and as the crumbs tumble all is revealed and they see him standing before them, the risen Lord, the king of kings present in the room. And then he is gone from their sight, but they realise he has set their hearts on fire – so much so, that the first thing they want to do is run off to find people to tell!

So, I find myself asking where I am on the journey, this long & winding road of Christian discipleship? Because, believe me, just because I’ve got this around my neck I’m still very much a traveller on the road.

It’s a good question, isn’t it?

Some of us are just setting out, taking the first tentative steps to who-knows-where. This can be an exciting, scary place. We hope we are going somewhere, but we’re couldn’t tell you where it is. We probably know a bit about Jesus, or at least want to, but have more questions than answers – if we’re lucky we have a companion or two alongside us, but we could really do with somebody to walk with us & explain things a bit more.

Some of us are further down the road – we’ve had some explanation, spent some time investigating this man and who knows, maybe actually experiencing his presence. And now it’s time to make a decision – do I welcome the stranger in, or let him continue walking. Do I commit fully to this life of discipleship, or do I pretend it isn’t important & go in another direction. Do I dare make myself vulnerable to the way of the cross and break bread with the risen Christ?

And for others, we regularly share in the broken bread, the body of Christ given for us & for our salvation – now we have to choose whether to stay seated at the table or run out into the world & tell people what we have experienced, to let Christ set our hearts on fire with love for him & go and help others meet him, experience him, be set ablaze as well.

You see, at no point in this journey are we encouraged to sit still. Yes, there is a point of rest, and the provision of the bread of life to sustain us, but then we race back to find others to tell about our experience. Achieving a place at the table is not the end goal – Christ meets us there, but then wants us to go back & share him with others, and bring them along with us.

We are focusing over the next few weeks on the Mission and Ministry development groups for the three churches in our parish. This isn’t just an exercise to find a few volunteers to put on safari suits and pith helmets and hack through jungles to find unruly natives to convert – though the way some people describe 21st century Britain, and especially our region, you’d think a machete & something to protect your head would be standard issue for those braving this dangerous task. Its about shaping our approach to being the body of Christ in this place, and allowing the Holy Spirit to show us how he wants us to deal with each other, and with the community we are called to live in and serve, using the gifts and talents the Father has given us. As we move towards May 25th, when we nominate those people who will join together to help all of us best carry out this valuable, essential work for the kingdom of God, honestly reflecting on our place on the journey is of huge importance.

This doesn’t mean saying “I’m no good at x, y, z so I can’t do it,” searching for excuses like Moses did when God appeared to him in the burning bush. It means time spent with those who know us best, in prayer and conversation, to try and truly discern how best we can help such a group.

The challenge, what I’m really asking, is if we can be honest with ourselves, with others, and with God, about where we are on the road – and be prepared to listen to what God is saying about it. We are all travelling this road together, and Christ challenges us in this passage of scripture to walk this road with him.

And, as we help each other on the journey, I have to ask – am I looking, really looking for Christ as Dick breaks the bread. When was the last time I felt my heart blazing with his holy fire as I walked back to my seat, the taste of his blood still in my mouth? Are such things even possible?

They are, they can be, even for us here today.

“You will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit,” said Peter, “for the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.”

The promise is for all who are far away. The promise is for you. Amen

What is “evangelism”?

This is the sermon from the Eucharist at St. Andrew’s & St. Peter’s on the 27th April (Easter 2).
It’s the start of our series leading up to the formation of three Mission & Ministry Development teams, one for each church in the parish.
The readings were Acts 2:14a, 22-32, 1 Peter 1:3-9 and John 20: 19-end.
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What is “evangelism”? Maybe we have a vision of Billy Graham. Or perhaps someone knocking on doors, bible in hand, or standing on street corners proclaiming to no one in particular.

Our reading from the Acts of the Apostles gives us, perhaps, an image of archetypal evangelism in action. Here’s Peter, full of the Holy Spirit. Full of the joy of the knowledge of the risen Christ he’s seen him himself just days before – proclaiming before great crowds the reality of Jesus, the one he had so fearfully denied so very recently. Urging his listeners to turn away from their selfish lives and back to God. Here he is proclaiming from the bottom of his heart that Jesus is Lord! Which is wonderful. Great and inspiring stuff. Proof positive too, I think, of the resurrection. What else could have so transformed Peter and the other disciples from the trembling, fearful men of jelly they were to the bold, irrepressible speakers they were now, persuading, preaching with impassioned words, that all should see the error of their ways, repent, be converted to the grace and joyful discipleship of the risen Lord Jesus?

I think that much of what we understand of the word “evangelism” comes from this image. Of proclamation and conversion.

For over sixty years, in many places around the world, Billy Graham preached, probably literally to millions, and countless numbers were converted. Many will recall Billy Graham’s “Mission England” in 1984 – perhaps you went to hear him at Roker Park. I know there was a great impact for St Andrew’s at the time. I heard him at Ashton Gate in Bristol.

And there have been many more like him – Luis Pallau is a particularly effective evangelist and many have great cause to thank God for using people like this. Such events and such individuals really have marked a turning point and revival for many people, personally and for churches.

And yet, and yet. I don’t believe this is the whole story or the complete definition of what evangelism is or has ever been. I don’t think that it is coincidence that the great revival meetings are not the way to do things just at the moment. For the past twenty years and more there has been much more focus on learning, thinking, inviting. Alpha, Emmaus and other Christian courses rather than big events have been the ways that many have begun a life of discipleship.

And yet – with a recent focus on the very real need for the Church to grow in numbers and in faith – frankly to reverse a decline in many areas – a fresh look is being taken with this business of evangelism.

For many decades now, and this is despite what the Prime Minister says about our being a Christian country, the numbers of people coming to church on a Sunday morning has been declining. Which is depressing. Worrying. Isn’t it? I certainly find it depressing and worrying.

Many people in the current age – good people, decent people, kind people. People we respect. People amongst our families and friends, seem totally impervious to the message of Jesus and to feeling a need to belong to a church. Now there are all sorts of reasons for this. A general move away from institutions of all kinds. A disinclination to accept being told what is wrong with your life. Sometimes, sadly, a bad personal experience of church. Increasingly, it’s simple ignorance – many people are now growing into adulthood simply not knowing what Church is like or about. The impression – perhaps wrongly – that church is boring, hypocritical and simply irrelevant to their lives. The asking of some pretty difficult questions like “How can a God of love allow so much suffering?” The comfortable life of a material age. All that. And more.

How is it that those of us who have known and know the amazing, life-transforming gift of the risen Lord Jesus, the gracious, amazing power of his Holy Spirit giving us peace and strength and purpose, direction, wholeness and forgiveness – and the utter relevance that this is for the needs of the human heart – how is it that we can share that with others, overcoming all the issues which get
in the way today – so that they can know it too?

Which brings us back to “evangelism” – literally meaning, the “carrying of the Good News of Jesus”. Is it just about charismatic speakers and vast crowds? No, that’s not the whole picture. Certainly not one which is particularly useful in our own day and age. A day and age in which, incidentally, I believe people take decisions in life every bit as carefully, as morally, as thoughtfully, as they ever have. Maybe more so. Just not in a Christian framework.

Evangelism – quite simply – is the business of giving as many people as we possibly can the correct picture of God in Jesus Christ and of his Church, his body here, active and at work on earth. That he is utterly relevant, completely active and totally real. That he is not a figment of the imagination of those strange people who go to the pointy buildings on Sunday mornings but has purpose, concern and involvement in the lives of every single individual and of the whole world.

And I have to say that these past couple of years have seen a hugely encouraging demonstration of that. Food Banks, Credit Unions, Night Shelters, Street Angels, Street Pastors, imaginative use of the space in church buildings, such as “Space 4” at St Michael’s and All Angels in Houghton le Spring and “Breathing Space” at another St Michael’s and All Angels at Witton Gilbert. The church debated nationally – positively and, it seems, personally – promoted by the Prime Minister, to the point that the poor old secularists are writing worried letters of protest to The Times. An Archbishop of Canterbury and a Pope who are unequivocally combative in their stance on injustice and equally as vocal that it is Jesus Christ who is at the centre of their and all our lives.

Social engagement and action. The Church showing, demonstrating, enabling people to see that God is good news for them. Whatever their preconceptions or misconceptions.

For me, you know, evangelism is, as much as anything, catching the attention of the world with something which makes utter sense. What so many churches have – and we certainly have it in Monkwearmouth – is opportunity to do just this. Opportunities for encounter. Not only in our daily lives but also with the many who come during the week to our church buildings, for all sorts of reasons; and looking – with the resources we have – to create new opportunities for encounter with people we have never yet met.

Opportunities for engagement. To get to know. To listen to. In a Christlike way. To let people know that they have value, worth and purpose.

Opportunities for involvement. Giving others the chance to contribute. So important. I am bowled over by the generosity of spirit of people I have barely got to know; who have had no previous involvement with the church. But who say, “I can help you with that”.

People – all people – long to belong, to be part of something. To be part of something bigger than themselves. Just stand on Wearmouth Bridge at 2pm on a Saturday afternoon to see that. Of course, they do. It’s how God made us. And to believe, too. Ditto about the Wearmouth Bridge on a Saturday. To believe, as well, that life has, at its heart, something good, honest, worth hoping and living and working for. Again, that’s how God made us to be. Belonging, Believing – Behaving. The final, joyful realisation that God is God and living our lives in response the reality of his amazing love. That’s evangelism, and it all begins with enabling people to see the sense of it all, to know that they, too, are loved utterly and their contribution is valued.

Over the next few weeks we will be starting the process of bringing together three Mission and Ministry Development Groups – one for each District. For a number of years, as many know, the Parish has had a Shared Ministry Development Team: the “SMDT”, whose aim was to share with the clergy, the responsibility for encouraging the development of gifts and the practical outworking of the ministry of God’s love. In some ways the aim is the same but perhaps with more emphasis outwardly, towards those outside the Church, and that each District, with its own distinct heritage and geographical opportunities, will have its own Group. Prayerfully, in the context of each church – St Andrew’s, St Peter’s and All Saints’ – the Groups will meet, pray, reflect upon ways that we can as God’s Church in this place encounter, engage with, involve those many around about us. That belonging they might believe and that in believing, by God’s grace, might become part of the church. But that’s God’s business. Our business is to imitate Christ as best we can. Serving, welcoming, affirming.

But it’s not just for groups and teams. It’s the job of all of us. Each one. In our Gospel this morning Jesus said to his disciples – and to us – “As the Father has sent me, so I send you”. A bit scary? Well, maybe. And as the New Testament reading from the first letter of Peter reminds us faith can be testing – how could it be real faith if it wasn’t? But Jesus has something to say about that, also from our Gospel reading. In fact he says it three times, just to get it through the disciples’ thick heads – maybe ours, too. Just to make sure we get it. “Peace be with you”, he says. “Peace be with you”.

Wherever we go, whatever we do, God’s peace will be with us. And in breathing his Spirit on his disciples – and us – Jesus, God, himself, is within us, giving us his strength. We just need to get on with it.

Amen.

Dial ‘F’ for Fear

This was the sermon for St. Andrew’s evening service last Sunday (27th April). The readings were Daniel 6:1-23 & Mark 15:42-16:8.
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Right, your starter for ten… who said “the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself”?

(That’s right!) Franklin D. Roosevelt, at his inauguration as the 32nd President of the United States, on Saturday March 4, 1933. FDR took swore his oath with his hand on his family Bible, which was opened to 1 Corinthians 13. Interestingly it remains the oldest Bible ever used in an inaugural ceremony, published in 1686, and was written in Dutch. Roosevelt came to power while the USA was in the grip of the Great Depression, which he himself blamed on bankers and financiers, the quest for profit, and the self-interest basis of capitalism (sound familiar?) He brought about a major realignment of American politics, as well as instituting unprecedented programs for relief, recovery and reform.

But this isn’t a lecture in American politics. Yet fear is a motif in both our Old and New Testament passages this evening. The last line of Mark’s gospel – as any of the text after 16:8 is most likely written by a different author looking to tie up the loose ends of Mark’s account – tells us “terror and amazement” seized the two Marys and Salome; so much so that “they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Mark’s knack of portraying the very human failings of the ordinary men & women who were the first followers of Jesus thus continues right to the end of his Gospel. If we look through the book as a whole the lack of faith, the propensity to misunderstand, the fear and confusion of the disciples is laid out for all to see, and given it is believed by some that the source for Mark’s information was Peter himself, it’s almost comforting to see this is what the disciples interaction with Jesus was like. To think that Mark doesn’t hide the fact that these followers, who had been with Jesus for such a long time, had remained to the point of his death and beyond, disobeyed a direct instruction from what appeared to be an angel maybe makes some of our failings seem less terrible.

Then again, they would have had good reason to be afraid. The body was missing – the authorities would not be happy, especially if they started telling people Jesus wasn’t really dead! And now the religious leaders had shown they weren’t beyond killing off the odd troublemaker, on false charges, for deviating from their view of God, it would be their lives on the line. Does that possibly put some of our fears over talking about our faith into perspective?

Our Old Testament passage gives a different take on this. Daniel knows that praying to anybody or anything except the king is a death sentence. Yet he openly continues to pray, three times a day, knowing full well he will be seen & condemned. He sees his commitment to God as more valuable than his own life, and refuses to hide his faith, even to the point of death. Obviously in this case it works out for the best – Daniel survives, his persecutors are punished and King Darius makes a decree that all his subjects should “tremble and fear before the God of Daniel.”

Fortunately for us we are not in the same danger as Daniel or the three women at the tomb. In Britain, however uncomfortable it can feel to identify ourselves as a Christian we do not live in fear of our lives for proclaiming Christ as Lord & saviour. This week we have seen this in action. The Prime Minister makes a public statement on his view of the faith of this country, and his own personal beliefs. Some others disagree with him – so they write a letter saying they think he’s wrong, and the press debate it for a week.

In contrast, in the Central African Republic this week alone two priests were killed, four others briefly detained and a number of villages were attacked by ex-Seleka fighters. In Syria, a Christian school was bombed.

Hanna, a Christian living in Damascus, explains:

“There is a Christian school, a private one. We know a lot of people in that school, some children from our area also go to school there. Yesterday, when those kids went to school, gathered at the square like they always do, a mortar fell in their midst. Some friends passed by the school and saw how parents and teachers were carrying their wounded children out of the school, dripping with blood. How they were running to the hospitals in panic. For me, as a mother and a teacher, I can hardly bear to imagine what these people must be going through right now. Twelve people lost their lives in that school yesterday, most of them children from the elementary school. Many more of them have lost arms and legs or have other injuries.”

How do we respond to stories like this – and we must, as these are our brothers and sister. Our friend FDR explained the ‘fear’ he was talking about – the “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes…” Do we feel, like the women at Jesus tomb, paralyzed by the enormity of the task? Are we scared that we cannot do anything to help those being persecuted, or that we won’t be able to explain how we can believe a Jewish man who died a criminal’s death almost 2000 years ago can make a difference to our lives today!

Yet the women did pass on the message, eventually – the other gospels point to this, and without the news of Jesus resurrection we would not be sitting here today. The task is enormous, but Daniel shows us the way to approach any impossible task – prayer. Constant, unceasing prayer. Prayers of thanks for the comparative safety of our lives, prayers for the world leaders who have the ability to make a difference in these situations, prayers for the individuals suffering daily. To help with this, I’ve got a copy of the charity Open Doors World Watch List for you to take away. (See below) Read it, use it in your prayer time, and come back and talk to me if you want to know more.

Sometimes prayer is hard – sometimes all we can do is turn up & say “Lord, help me to want to pray!” And prayer can be scary, as it’s a conversation, and you never know what God’s going to say. But I know prayer makes a difference – you only have to look at the last few months of my life to see that. Daniel knew prayer made a difference, and was unashamed of it. So let us pray for those who are persecuted for their faith, and for those leaders who have the power to make the difference in these situations. Let us pray that David Cameron will put his recently declared faith into practice in his party’s policies, so that Archbishop Justin’s remarks that “even as the economy improves, there is weeping in broken families, in people ashamed to seek help from food banks, or frightened by debt” – that crippling fear again – will become a footnote in the history of our country.

1 John 4:18 tells us “perfect love casts out all fear.” We are privileged to have access to the source of that love – so my prayer is that we all can find the courage to live like Daniel, glorify the Father like Daniel, and show the whole world that great Easter gift of perfect love – in the name of Jesus Christ who lived, died and rose again for the whole world, including me & you, and through the power of the Holy Spirit who moves in us & through us. Amen.

That sinking feeling…

This is the sermon preached at last night’s Tuesday of Holy Week Eucharist. The readings were Isaiah 49:1-7, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 and John 12:20-36.
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There is an oft-told story of a clergyman who decided to go on a sailing trip. After a few days on the high seas he ran into trouble – a massive storm swirled about him, and before he knew it his ship was struck by a huge wave, and he lost consciousness. He awoke to find he was floating on a small piece of wreckage, adrift in the ocean, utterly alone & helpless.

“Lord, I have dedicated my life to your service,” he prayed.
“Please save me!”

Just then, a sailing boat, about the same size as his had been, came into view.

“Climb up!” cried the lady on board.

“No, it’s ok,” said the clergyman, “the Lord will save me!”

An hour later, a large ship appeared alongside him.

“I’ll throw you a rope and pull you up” called the captain.

“No thanks,” came the reply, “the Lord will save me!”

Two hours later, now suffering from severe exhaustion, the sound of rotors caught the clergyman’s attention. A helicopter hovered overhead, and the pilot hailed him.

“Don’t worry, I’ll send down the winch.”

“No, it’s fine, the Lord will save me!”

Finally, the clergyman could hold on no longer, slipped beneath the waves and was drowned. Standing at the pearly gates, he was furious.

“I gave you all I had in that life, why didn’t you save me!” he fumed.

“What do you mean?” replied God, “I sent you two boats and a helicopter, what more did you want!!”

Ok, so it’s a bad joke. But sometimes, if we’re honest, we can feel a bit like our hapless clergyman. If God wanted to be heard, why can’t he just speak to me directly – really get my attention, instead of making me guess at the ordinary being symbolic. However, in our gospel reading, God does just that – and we see a similar and equally human response to that of the clergyman – they turn the exceptional into the mundane.

Jesus has just made his triumphal entrance into Jerusalem; the crowd who saw him raise Lazarus from the dead are following Him, and the Pharisees even remark “the whole world has gone after Him!” – confirmed when Greeks turn up to see Him. Then He begins to talk about how He is to die – hard to grasp things that don’t fit in with the people’s ideas of the coming messiah, or even a great rebel leader.

Finally He gives glory to His Father and, suddenly, the voice of God rings out, affirming Jesus and His mission. Imagine this for a moment – a voice from heaven, declaring the words of this man to be true. They all turned up to see a miracle, and now one has occurred… BUT it isn’t the miracle they wanted, a spectacular feat they can gasp at – so they pretend it didn’t happen. “Its just thunder!”

Do we ever find ourselves dismissing events that don’t fit our own agenda? Do we miss the miraculous occurrences, those out-of-the-blue moments as we don’t like what we hear, or are too preoccupied with what we think should be happening? Do we close our eyes to the possibility God is speaking to us?

We can run the risk of doing the same with the story of Jesus’ passion – we know the narrative so well we can almost skip through it, let the pain and the blood and the nails pass us by as we anticipate the joy, the celebration, the chocolate of Easter day. The miraculous happens right before our eyes – the Christ is crucified, the dead man rises – yet we miss it in the rush. And as Paul tells the church in Corinth, and continues to tell us today, this truly is the key to the whole story. Paul was an expert Jew; his persecution of the church was motivated by his Pharisaic conviction that, by definition, a Messiah who suffered death must be an impostor; something not just confirmed by his being found guilty by the authorities but, seen through Deuteronomy 21:23, confirmed by God – “anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse.”

But Paul’s conversion experience revolutionised his religious convictions. His descriptions of life in Christ radically reinterprets the tradition of the sacrificial death of Christ by reversing the very conviction we just mentioned, speaking of Jesus’ death not as God’s curse but the redemptive centre of God’s judgement and love for a lost world.

The phrase “…but we proclaim Christ crucified…” from 1 Corinthians 1:23 should possibly be translated either “a Christ crucified” or “a crucified Christ,” as to translate simply “Christ crucified” seems to lose some of the force of the point Paul is making. To put his words in their original context, if “wisdom” conjured up ideas of achievement, success, and the path to honour and esteem in the 1st century traditions, the cross of Christ would be seen as it’s polar opposite. To renounce all power of your own and to place your trust in the action of ‘an Other’ is contrary to all that the “Greeks” or gentiles understood about the path to success, making it foolish indeed. Similarly, if “signs” are understood to mean a reversal of Jewish political fortunes a humiliated Messiah would certainly be a huge stumbling block.

So Paul is addressing both Jews and gentiles on the equal footing of them both being self-styled ‘critics.’ However, to those Jews and Greeks who have been called, he says, the cross of Christ is the thing which conveys God’s strength and wisdom. Paul reminds them that God’s foolish wisdom has been demonstrated in their own experience, as they have embraced the gospel solely on the basis of God’s call, not due to their own intellect, power or status. In fact, Christ has become for them their “wisdom from God” and, underpinned with a quote from Jeremiah 9:22-23, their boast may now only be in the Lord.

The death and resurrection of Jesus are absolutely basic to Paul’s faith. His whole letter to the Corinthians is written as a means of helping them to understand the ‘foolish wisdom’ of the cross. Failure to grasp this absurd gospel, this story of a crucified criminal, appears to lay at the heart of the problems in Corinth, where Paul’s converts had not begun to see that good news based on a cross carried certain implications about their own lifestyle. You see, to keep your social standing in Corinthian society you had to participate fully in the main communication methods of the day, which involved sacrificial meals. Therefore, to be seen as an “atheist” or “impious,” by rejecting meat that may have been sacrificed to idols, could lead to rejection and loss of standing.

One reason the Corinthian church didn’t receive the social exclusion experienced by its sister church in Thessalonica was possibly because the leading converts deliberately “played down” the offensiveness of their faith. But their failings gave Paul the opportunity to expand on the tradition he had left with them, and proclaim that those who accept this “shameful” gospel, and who are willing to identify themselves with Christ’s crucifixion and dishonour will receive, not earthly reward, but the promise of “strength that works through weakness and the joy that transforms pain.” Sharing in the death and resurrection of Christ is all part of Paul’s understanding of Jesus solidarity with humanity. Although the members of the Corinthian church continue to share in the weakness of Adam in this life, Paul maintains that, on the last day, they will exchange the likeness of Adam for the likeness of Christ.

But this is not just a historical document – Paul’s words, inspired by his knowledge of God’s kingdom, speak just as much to us today. How easy is it in our ever-so clever post modern society to keep quiet about our foolish faith, under the onslaught of the ‘wisdom’ of the age, the continuous stream of self-help, self-reliance, insular me-ness that we are told is the only way to get ahead.

How much safer, simpler, more sensible, to blend into the crowd like a chameleon instead of challenging the norms of our society. And I’m not really talking about those issues the media claim we as Christians are only interested in – fighting about what women & homosexuals can or can’t do – but what Christians should be interested in – things like giving a voice to those trapped in poverty, those marginalised by virtue of where they were born, those kept downtrodden to maximise the profits of those who already have more than they could ever need. This is part of the call in the passage from Isaiah, the messianic figure being “a light to the nations, that [God’s] salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

And the people who followed Jesus in our Gospel reading were drawn to His light – indeed, he declares Himself to be the light after the voice has spoken, and in John 8:12 He declares He is “the light of the world.” Yet they were put off by His message, even the miraculous affirmation, as it didn’t fit.

You see, when we experience the light, we are also challenged to show that light to others. To show this sacrificial, life-changing, world altering love to all we meet, even to those who we don’t know! Yet too often we ‘hide our light under a bushel’ when we need to let God’s presence shine out from us! We can dismiss the everyday miracles instead of seeking God’s word through them. Those small acts, inspired by the Holy Spirit, that can add up to a big difference. Of course, if we let the light shine out, we need to be willing to back it up by listening to God’s word for those around us – allowing the prompting of the Spirit to illuminate the lives of others.

And that’s the challenge for us tonight, this week, this year – are we willing to put ourselves in the position of the three others in the story of the clergyman – the sailor, the ship’s captain & the helicopter pilot – and go where the Holy Spirit leads us to save those adrift in this world. The church isn’t a rest home for saints – it’s a lifeboat for sinners. Our job is to get people into the lifeboat, and then let the light of Jesus guide us all safely home. Yes, this path is costly – it needs work, and time spent in prayer and reading the scriptures, to have a hope of getting anywhere – but compared to the price Jesus paid to give us the chance, I think we can cope. And that is perhaps the greatest of the everyday miracles – we have the gift, the ability, to spend time with the architect of our faith, God’s own Son Jesus Christ, who lived and died and rose again for each of us in here tonight, and for every single person out there too. We can talk with Him, read with Him, allow Him to help us. Such simple things, so easy to take for granted, yet truly miraculous and life changing. God does want to speak to us – and wants to speak through us. We just have to watch, listen, and follow the light.

Christmas Presence

Here’s an (attempted) written version of the all-age talk from the Christmas Day Eucharist at St. Andrew’s. It was a bit looser & more ad-libbed than this, but the key message was the same…

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Who managed to open their presents before coming to church this morning? Did you get anything nice? Well, I didn’t get the chance, so I brought mine with me – would you mind if I opened them now?

This ones nice & big! It’s… a jumper & hat.
Hmm. I try to get excited by clothes…

Well, onto the second one. The label says “Merry Christmas – thought this would help you clean up your act!” It’s…shower gel! I’m always a bit worried if I get this kind of things – are they trying to tell me something?!

Ah, last one – and it’s such an unusual shape! I wonder what it is…a torch! Is this some kind of wind-up? Oh, here’s a handle – it’s a wind-up torch…!

Do you ever feel like the presents are more exciting when you don’t know what they are? Don’t get me wrong, these are great presents & I’m very grateful for them, but when they were wrapped up& hidden they held so much mystery & promise, and now I know what they are that’s all gone.

I wonder how the shepherds felt when, after all the excitement of the angels appearing and filling the sky, they got to the stable? Maybe they had in their mind the kind of nativity scene we’ve seen around us over the last few weeks (or months) – glowing halos, a fluorescent, radioactive glowing baby, more angels? Instead, its likely they a very ordinary young couple: travellers, homeless, relying on the generosity of others to have a roof over their head, huddled together with a very ordinary looking little baby…

Perhaps they were disappointed at first glance. The wrapper had come off, but the gift seemed so much less exciting. And yet, when they saw the family, “they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.”1 The true worth of the gift of Jesus was not the outside appearance, but what his birth meant – and still means. God with us. The promised saviour is here!

The gifts I just unwrapped might not look exciting, but what do they represent. Maybe the hat reminds me of Jesus with me in my thoughts – his Spirit guiding my prayers – his comfort and his peace when I need him most?

The jumper could be Jesus in my heart, helping me to love the stranger, the poor, the refugee, the homeless – people existing just as Jesus did in his own life, on the margins of society.

The torch could remind me Jesus the light of the world, a lamp unto my feet and a light to my path. This one never runs out of power, you just keep winding it – Jesus light shines for ever!

And the shower gel…well, maybe this reminds me that Jesus would go on to die on the cross for me, and for you, to wash us clean from our sins “not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.”2

The best present any of us have got this Christmas is Jesus. His love is a gift for today, tomorrow and the rest of our lives. We shouldn’t just clear him away with the left-over turkey, or pack him up with the baubles until next year. He is willing to be with us every day, not just at Christmas – and that’s a gift that money can’t buy.

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1Luke 2:17-18
2Titus 3:5