Monthly Archives: May 2015

A Birthday to Remember

This sermon was preached at St. Andrew’s 9:30am Eucharist on 24th May 2015 – Pentecost Sunday. The readings were Acts 2:1-21, Romans 8:22-27 & John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15.

Tomorrow is a big day in our house. No, I’m not just talking about the events that will unfold at Wembley Stadium as my beloved Canaries seek to re-join the great escape artists of Sunderland in the Premier League – it’s also my middle daughter’s 7th birthday! Where does the time go?!

Birthdays are a funny thing really, aren’t they? We long for them as a child, maybe squashing down a bit of jealousy when a friend or sibling has theirs but anticipating the gifts and celebrations to come on our special day. Then as we get older, we maybe don’t relish them as much as we used to – possibly they’re just a reminder of another mile on the clock, another year older and hopefully, but not necessarily wiser. But if we allow ourselves, birthdays can afford us a good opportunity to look back over the life of ourselves or a loved one and see how far we’ve come, how we’ve grown, what made us who we are today.

I guess this fits in nicely with our Pentecost celebration today, as we read once again Luke’s account of the birth of the Church as recorded in Acts.

But his account also serves to help us look back at the real birth of Christianity – the birth of Jesus Himself. Luke spends more time describing the beginning of the Incarnation, the word becoming flesh, than any of the other Gospel writers – he wants us to see that in the origins of a person there is an indication of the direction that person’s life will take. With this in mind, there are parallels between the opening chapters of Luke’s Gospel and the opening of Acts. Both stories begin with the arrival of the Holy Spirit, though in both the Spirit seems to be at work in the period before. In both the promise given is contrasted with John the Baptist. Knowing Theophilus and any other readers will have seen his original Gospel, Luke is indicating to us we can expect to learn much from this second infancy narrative – that of the first community of believers, our Christian ancestors.

It’s important to hold this in our minds as we explore Pentecost – Acts is very much rooted in what is written in Luke, and the dramatic events of Pentecost are bound up with the events recorded in Luke 24. Pentecost follows hot on the heels of our Ascension celebrations, and inside the Easter season, because all three are inextricably linked to one another. At the Emmaus road encounter, Cleopas and his colleague reported Jesus was “made known to them in the breaking of the bread,” and that he “opened their eyes to understand the scriptures.” Afterwards he told his disciples to “stay in the city, until you are clothed with power from on high.” At Pentecost we remember that same power of God, made known at the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, is given to the people of God – his closest disciples, the Jews from every nation who hear them preach the Good News and listen to the message, even to the Gentiles. Yes, even to the gentiles, us, allowing us to also have an encounter, to be strengthened, healed and empowered by the Holy Spirit of the living God.

Because a good birthday celebration is not just about looking back, living in the past. We need to also look forward, to our future, to what is to come, what we feel God is calling us to do next, how we can develop to be the person or people God has created us to be – how we can be the Church, the Body of Christ, that God has called us to be. And this part of Acts shows us that anything is possible in the power of the Holy Spirit. Luke highlights this in a very subtle way, a way that even those of us who are long in the faith can miss. The story of Peter in this chapter shows that wherever we feel we are with God, however powerful or insubstantial we feel our faith to be, a relationship with Jesus and the awesome power of the Holy Spirit can truly transform us into the person the Father sees as He looks at us. This same Peter, who could only follow at a distance as His great friend was taken away, who denied even knowing him to the maid who insisted he must, and who left the courtyard weeping, broken and in the full knowledge of his betrayal – this same Peter is the first to raise his voice, to confront those who wish to pour scorn and derision on the amazing display of God’s grace and love occurring in front of them, and to boldly proclaim those word which only weeks before he could not bring himself to quietly say to a lowly serving woman in the dark of night.

In the beginning, Genesis 2:7 tells us the Spirit of God breathed life into dust and made a human being. In Acts 2:1-4 this same Spirit breathes life into a broken and cowardly disciple and creates a new, emboldened and empowered man, who cannot restrain himself from sharing the Good News that Jesus is Lord, that Jesus is the promised Messiah, that Jesus is the Christ who takes away the sins of the world and has set us, each one of us here free – free to live, free to know God, free to be loved.

Anything is possible in the power of the Spirit – and we have access to that same Spirit right here, right now. And that can seem a bit, I don’t know, a bit scary. Because in Acts we see the Spirit move by wind and fire, making the church visible and public, reaching out, changing lives, provoking wrath and confusion in some and bringing hope and empowerment to others. The crowd respond to Peter’s words, crying out “what must we do to be saved?” And everything changes. Their little group suddenly expanded massively. But, if we look further into this chapter of Acts, people set aside their differences and unite for the common good, living as those who love Jesus above all else. As I’ve said before, John reminds us perfect love casts out all fear. If we faithfully call on the Spirit He will move afresh in us, in our church and our parish, and He will help us once again to bring people to that knowledge of the love of Jesus Christ that will make their lives complete.

So let’s make this birthday our best birthday ever – our re-birthday. Let’s unite in calling on the Holy Spirit to once again fill our hearts, fill our lives, fill our brothers and sisters who we are with here today – and ultimately fill our Church with our brothers and sisters who do not yet know the risen Lord. We, like Peter, can be changed, strengthened and empowered to carry that amazing Good News out with us and proclaim it to all – today, tomorrow and forevermore.

Amen.

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More Questions than Answers?

This sermon was preached at St. Andrew’s 6pm Evensong service on 17th May 2015, the Sunday after the Ascension. The readings were Acts 1.1-11, Ephesians 1.15-23 & Luke 24.44-53.

I was once told there is no such thing as a stupid question – only a stupid person. I don’t subscribe to the latter part, but I think one of the great things about our Christian faith is we have the ability to – are hopefully encouraged to – ask questions about it.

You may not be surprised to hear I often end up chatting to people – in the street or at the school gates or wherever, and something that has been asked a couple of times is how I as a Christian avoid doubt, or can have “blind faith.” But I don’t think doubt is the opposite of faith – fear is the opposite of faith, just as it is the opposite of love. And as we explored a few weeks ago, perfect love – agape, God’s divine, self-giving love – casts out fear. But questions are healthy, as they hold us to account and stop us getting too blasé about our faith, too comfortable in our small Christian bubble, and encourage us to explore God’s understanding and perspective of things instead of just ours and our friends.

So there’s a part of me that loves the confusion in the ascension story. The disciples, the people who have been closest to Jesus throughout his ministry, the guys who have listened to all he’s had to say, seen the miracles he has performed, grieved for his death and celebrated his resurrection and have now been taught by Him for an extra forty days still have questions – still don’t seem to really understand. After all He’s said and done, they can’t quite believe He’s leaving without doing the big Messiah thing they had expected right from the start.

“Lord,” they say, “all the other stuff sounds brilliant, but is this the part where we start the revolution & overthrow the Romans? After all, what have the Romans ever done for us?!”

It’s quite comforting really – to think that 2000 years ago those who were the first to hang around with Jesus were still left scratching their heads in a similar way to us as he rose into the clouds, dust trickling from his feet and his final instructions ringing in their ears.

And there a chance that, in our enlightened times and with the benefit of hindsight, we could think it was a bit of an odd, even a daft question. But I’m wondering – if it would have been us standing there, listening to Jesus and contemplating His impending departure, what would we have asked Him? I’m not going to put anybody on the spot, but what springs to mind?

“Lord, how do we respond to so much need in this world?”

“Lord, did you really mean that love your enemy thing?”

“Lord, are Sunderland going to stay up?!?”

Because, if we’re honest, there is a fair chance we would find ourselves asking about things that are more specific to our lives, our immediate concerns.

“What is the future for our church?”

“Why didn’t you heal my friend, loved one…”

“If this Church grows again will it change – will I feel a stranger in my own pew?”

These are all perfectly good questions – I’m sure that the many, many more flitting around your heads like butterflies right now are equally as good. And the example of the disciples shows we are justified in asking them. The amazing thing about our relationship with God our Father through Jesus His son in the power of the Holy Spirit working in us and through us is we are allowed to come to Him with whatever is on our hearts – whatever troubles us, excites us, builds us up or destroys us and lay it at the foot of His cross in prayer.

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest,” says the Lord.

The trick, as they say, is then to stay around and listen for the answer. Because one thing I think many of us have experienced is that prayer is not always answered in the way we expect, or the way we would have planned or chosen. In this instance, Jesus answers the disciples question with what appears to be a frustrating vagueness – but notice He does not deny that the kingdom will be restored, and backs up His earlier promise of help. What He does ask them to do is wait…

Luke uses two languages in Acts to describe what has happened to the world in and through the incarnation, God becoming man, word becoming flesh. One is the language of resurrection, of victory over death; the other is ascension, of Jesus sitting at the right hand of God. Next week, when we celebrate Pentecost, we see these two motifs meet in the life and power given to the disciples in the Holy Spirit. But for now, the disciples had to be patient – and as we wait with them to mark the outpouring of the Spirit, let us give thanks that we have a God so mind-blowingly awesome that He can transcend life & death, time and space, yet merciful and gracious enough to listen to us, to walk amongst us, die a cruel, torturous death for us, and reside with us in our hearts this day and always.

Amen.

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Surprises in the familiar

This sermon was preached at St. Andrew’s 8am Eucharist on 10th May 2015. The readings were Acts 10:44-48, 1 John 5:1-6 & John 15:9-17

“This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth.”

One of the things I find exciting about being a Christian is spotting things I haven’t seen properly before – a verse or a phrase that stands out all of a sudden in a book or letter that I’ve read countless times, that moment when it seems God is speaking afresh to me through the scriptures. Some of us may find this when we try Lectio Divina, the Benedictine method of prayerfully meditating on the Bible. Some of us may just be flicking through scripture & be drawn to a certain section, or be reminded of a passage we once read by a hymn, song, piece of music or just in everyday conversation.

That enigmatic verse, the beginning of the end of John’s First Epistle, caught my eye as I was looking through today’s reading during the week. It may sound a bit like a riddle at first glance, but I find it gives an intriguing snapshot of the importance of two of the great sacraments we have been gifted by God – Baptism and the Eucharist.

The author seems to presuppose an understanding of Jesus life, and as some see this Epistle as almost a commentary on the Gospel of John that is understandable. So think of the two bookends of Jesus earthly ministry. His baptism in the River Jordan, the Holy Spirit descending on him like a dove, witnessed by and testified to by John the Baptist in John 1:29-33. His crucifixion and death, his side pierced so water and blood poured out, witnessed by and testified to by an unnamed man in John 19:31-35. These two hugely significant events in Jesus life, given extra credence by John recording witness statements to ensure people saw their truth, and now handed on to us as Christ’s body on earth. And they are now hugely significant moments of our earthly walk with Jesus – but like so many things, repetition and familiarity can make their significance, I don’t know, fade or seem diminished. I need, and I think we all need, to remind ourselves of the importance of Jesus life and death on a daily basis.

To recall our own baptism, or our first communion, may not be easy in the literal sense – most of us will have been a mere bairn when we got ‘done,’ and with weekly Eucharist’s our first becomes one of many, especially if it wasn’t given the same prominence it would receive in the Catholic Church. But every time we reaffirm our faith in the words of the creed we remember our participation in the death and resurrection of our Lord through our baptism. Every time we drink the cup we remember his torturous, agonizing, life-giving death for each one of us. And each time we gather together, each time we spend time in prayer, each time we open the Bible, we can call upon the Holy Spirit to testify that this is the truth – that Jesus lived and died and rose again to bring us life in all its fullness, to the glory of God the Father.

As we gather around the table this morning, let’s ask the Sprit to move afresh in us, in our Church, to encourage and excite us by His presence once more. He will speak to us in the liturgy, in the scriptures, this day and every day, if we have ears to listen and a heart to love.

And through us He can, and will, restore our faith and revitalise this Church, this city, this fallen world. Yes, through each one of us. After all, “Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?”

Amen