Monthly Archives: June 2015

Blue, Peter?

This sermon was preached at St. Andrew’s 9:30am Eucharist’s on 28th June 2015 as we celebrated the feast of St. Peter. The readings were Ezekiel 3:22-27, Acts 12: 1-11 & Matthew 16:13-19.

I’m currently reading through an excellent book called “More TV Vicar” by Revd. Bryony Taylor, curate at St Michael & All Angels in Houghton-Le-Spring. Now, I’m not just saying this because she’s a friend, but it’s a great little book about the portrayal of Christians, mainly clergy, on television through the ages – leading to nostalgic reminisces of some characters & a desire to look up (or in the case of some of the ‘bad’ ones, massively avoid) some of the shows and folk depicted.

More TV VicarBut interestingly, this little trip through the archives of British pop culture has reminded me just how much easier we as human beings relate to somebody if we can immediately find common ground with them. Think of some of the clergy characters you can remember from TV or radio over the years. People loved Geraldine Grainger, the Vicar of Dibley, because she was above all else very human, with failings and vulnerabilities there for all to see, and played to great comedic effect by the irrepressible Dawn French. People find other characters distasteful or unpleasant precisely as they are drawn to show a lack of humanity, making them harder for us to understand or find a mutual understanding with – again, created that way by writers looking to achieve certain emotions from their audience.

I think this is why so many of us feel drawn to St. Peter. He is undoubtedly my favourite disciple, probably because I can really relate to his efforts to try to be the man he thinks Jesus wants him to be, to try & approach everything with complete trust and faith – and yet always manages to mess it up somehow.

The lectionary has very kindly let us focus today on Peter’s great declaration of faith in Jesus – the great reveal of who Jesus really is, the ‘hinge’ point of Matthew’s whole Gospel. But if we were to begin the second half of the Gospel we would see things go sour rather quickly. Matthew explains in verse 21 how

“From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”

Peter’s first act is to do something completely understandable but also completely wrong. Six verses separate Jesus heaping praise on Peter’s discernment and rebuking him for his focus on human things over the divine. We go from

“‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it”

to

“he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’”

St PeterSo Peter is the very epitome of the phrase “God loves a trier.” And this is what makes him so endearing. But more than that, he gives us as God’s people, Jesus disciples here in this place hope and encouragement that even we, even I, have a special place in God’s kingdom & can achieve His works, fulfil His calling in our lives.

Jesus knows us inside out. He knew Peter inside out. He knew what was in Peter’s heart, the confession of Jesus as Messiah, and gave him the chance to let it out, to test if he had it right. He also knew Peter would say something stupid about His passion & crucifixion, that Peter like all the other disciples would not get what He meant when He spoke of dying and rising for the salvation of all human kind, that Peter would deny Him when He was arrested and taken away despite swearing he never would. And yet Jesus still says to him, as we just heard,

“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”

From here on in plain Simon the fisherman is The Rock, Jesus right hand man and the church’s unique foundation, yet still servant to all his fellow disciples.

Both Luke in his Gospel and Paul in his Epistles back up Peter’s role as first among equals among the apostles – Luke, in the same passage Jesus predicts Peter’s cock-crow cock-up, records Jesus telling him

“once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers and sisters,”

while Paul writes in Galatians that he sought out Peter first after his call and conversion, and notes Peter was the first of the twelve to see Jesus when He was resurrected in his first letter to the Corinthians.

Peter is regarded as the chief apostle because of his powerful living faith in Jesus – but I also think Peter is regarded as the greatest apostle as he not only represents each one of us in scripture but voices our fears, anxieties and even doubts directly to Jesus, yet is still loved and welcomed.

So despite Peter’s many failings, despite his background and upbringing, despite his tendency to open his mouth before his brain had fully kicked in, Peter’s faith, his deep love for Jesus, set him up as an example for all to look to.

And what an example. Repeatedly stepping out in faith, repeatedly trying again in the face of seemingly horrible mistakes and, eventually, being tasked with the keys to the kingdom.

And it is this final point I feel we really should seek to be inspired by. It’s perfectly natural to see Peter sitting by the pearly gates letting in the good and seeing off the bad, like some kind of heavenly bouncer. But in reality, Peter was called to be chief missionary of the Easter message, to unlock the gates of heaven through his preaching and helping clear the way for us, the gentiles, through his experience with Cornelius as recorded in Acts 10.

Dare we allow ourselves to approach Jesus as Peter did – fully trusting Him despite his own doubts as to what some of His message meant; willing to make mistakes and take chances for Him in the sure and certain hope He will be there to help and guide us; ready to turn back in true repentance when we really mess up; and to actively seek with all our hearts the lost, whatever their background or understanding of the faith we proclaim, and guide them through the gates that lead to eternal life? Because if we do, we too could rock this world.

Amen

“More TV Vicar? Christians on the Telly: The Good, the Bad and the Quirky!” is available now from all good bookstores, including Eden & Amazon.

Just a Sunday School story..?

This sermon was preached at St. Andrew’s 8am and All Saints 10:30am Eucharist’s on 21st June 2015. The readings were 1 Samuel 17:32-49, 2 Corinthians 6:1-13 and Mark 4:35-41.

FEE-FI-FO-FUM! I SMELL THE BLOOD OF AN ENGLISHMAN….

David and Goliath. The ultimate sporting cliché, a true underdog story, one of those Sunday School classics – the ugly mean giant, the handsome little lad, the stones and the slingshot – we can close our eyes and let this one just wash over us, we’ve heard it so many times.

But when the authors put together the narrative history of Israel’s transition from a marginal company of tribes to a centralized state, as found in the two books of Samuel, they weren’t looking to tell fantastic tales to entertain the kids while the adults got on with the ‘real’ theology – and if we take the time to look again at this part of the story we find subtleties in the way it is written and a real depth of meaning that can help us in our role as God’s people, the Body of Christ, today.

Coming in at this part of the story misses out some of the important pointers for our journey.

At the start of the chapter we see that Saul, first and reigning king of Israel, is failing in his one primary task – to keep the Philistine threat at bay. This threat is then embodied in the description of Goliath himself – not a ‘giant’ in the Jack and the Beanstalk mould but still around 6 foot 9 of intimidating, arrogant Philistine muscle, a huge man for that culture, and dressed to kill in the literal sense, with the author taking his time to describe every last detail of his kit. No wonder the Israelite troops are left “dismayed and greatly afraid.”

So, enter David. The young, handsome eighth son of Jesse, who last week we heard has been anointed king in succession to Saul but is still very much under the radar, and left tending the sheep and serving his older brothers. He appears on the frontline with supplies for the fighting men, but is taken aback by both the sheer front of this oversized enemy shooting his mouth off and the terrified reaction of his fellow Israelites.

“Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?’” he asks – an innocent question of youth, befitting of a Sunday School setting maybe, yet one that reveals a great truth. The army of Israel, full of men supposedly bigger and stronger than David, are immobilised by fear as if the living God is irrelevant to the battle. David is not afraid precisely because God is never irrelevant in the lives of His people – it takes the innocence of youth, the boy described earlier in 1 Samuel as “after Yahweh’s own heart,” to be the one to state this deep theological truth. Maybe unsurprisingly, however, those older warriors – given voice by his own brother Eliab – don’t want to hear him. They rebuke him, ignore him, try to put him back “in his place” – but, in the case of his siblings, forgetting or deliberately avoiding the fact that his place since Samuel anointed him is as the chosen King.

So this is where we come in. David’s words are repeated to Saul, now a desperate man clutching at straws, willing to give an audience to a youth who, for all he knows, was just flapping his gums.

There must be part of Saul that is delighted to find even one boy in his camp, an army defeated by their own lack of faith, who still holds dear the innocent dream of the “living God” that Saul once swore to uphold.

David speaks first. Surely Saul, as king, should drive the conversation, but David is the chosen one, and our narrator wants to remind us again that David is now called to lead. His words are a declaration of salvation and solidarity, showing he is both Saul’s servant and willing to give his life for God’s people. Remind you of anybody?

At first Saul dismisses the idea – looking at David’s outward appearance, he judges him too young, too small. But as we heard last week, God is interested on what is on the inside – what is in our hearts – meaning the smallest of things can contain enough power to make a great difference. David is prepared to state his case, painting a picture of a brave shepherd in the face of wild bears and lions, delivering his flock from the assaults of the enemy. But then he does something amazing.

He shifts the emphasis from what he has done, to what God has done through him. Up to this point nobody has had the courage, the faith, to invoke the name of the living God, but David does now – The Lord, Yahweh, has delivered him from the bear and the lion, and Yahweh will deliver him, and His people, from Goliath and the Philistines. As it has been, thus it will ever be.

David’s faith moves Saul – even giving him the courage to speak the name of the Lord – but still Saul wants to do things on his terms. He hasn’t grasped yet how radical David’s trust in God is. Saul wants him fit for battle, to dress and behave like any other soldier in any other army. But David refuses, and walks out in faith – leaving the comfort and protection of armour and tradition behind to stand in the light of the Lord with just five smooth stones rattling in his bag and the fire of God’s love blazing in his heart.

Unsurprisingly Goliath is less than impressed. He has been playing the crowd so long he is not going to back down to this cheeky bairn. He runs his mouth like an American wrestler cutting a promo before a match – calling on his gods, explaining in detail how little of David will be left when he’s finished with him.

Imagine being an Israelite soldier standing on the front line, seeing little unarmed David stride forward, hearing again Goliath’s terrifying, graphic declarations of his power. You’d give David seconds before he was nothing but a smear on the landscape.

But David’s speech is better, more compelling. He shows no fear in his lack of conventional weapons, no doubt that he will not just defeat but humiliate his enemy, and evokes memories in the Israelites around him of God’s faithful rescues of the past.

“It isn’t me you are insulting, but Yahweh. It isn’t any army you face, but God’s chosen people. And God will be glorified throughout the world when he saves his people again – not by the conventions of human warfare but by his own mysterious ways.”

Basically it is David the missionary, urging Israel to rediscover their faith, turn back to the living God and begin walking in his light once again.

Then, after all the, build up, the fight itself is almost an anti-climax. One smooth stone from a little creek bed hits Goliath on the head – whack whack sword cut off his head, the giant now is dead.

Yet this is the bit we are used to focussing on. This briefest of sections runs through popular culture – as we said earlier, everyone knows a David and Goliath story when they see it. But as we noted with the Holy Trinity a few weeks ago, the common perception wildly misses the point. Without the speeches and the backstory it is just the little guy getting lucky, or being brave, or displaying amazing intestinal fortitude, and sticking it to the big man. When you scratch the surface, it is the final act, the cherry on the icing on the cake, of a long reminder of the power and presence of God with His people, and His great saving love for us.

For God is bigger than any of the giants we face, any of life’s storms. That can be really hard to believe sometimes, especially when you are caught in the middle of them – but, from experience, I can tell you He truly is there.

Just as David did we need to let our relationship with the living God inform and impact how we face all life throws at us. Take the families of our Christian brothers and sisters brutally murdered at a Bible study in Charleston just a few days ago. They have gone to great lengths to rise up through their pain and anguish to speak words of forgiveness to the man accused of the killings. And this comes as a surprise to many people, making as many headlines around the world as the hate crime itself. But it really shouldn’t. The BBC quoted Dr Alton Pollard III, Dean of the Howard School of Divinity, in their report –

“God is always greater and because of that, even in horrific conditions, we can still be faithful… Because of faithfulness, we have the capacity to forgive.”

Chris and Camryn, the children of murdered Sharonda Singleton, summed it up simply –

“Love is stronger than hate.”

When we stand in faith, when we have the courage to let God strip away the things the world says are important, the things we hide behind or even battle to uphold, and just give ourselves over to the Lord in love and trust, it changes the game. It does not make the situation just go away. It may not make it less terrifying or less painful or at all ‘easier.’ But all three of our passages today show God has brought those who have faith in him through many, many battles and storms – and that same God is with us in ours, surrounding us with His great love and inspiring us to show the same to all who we meet, to bring them to faith in Him who will save us and take us home at the end of our final chapter.

Not bad for a Sunday School story, eh?

Amen

David Goliath

God looks at your…

This sermon was preached at St. Andrew’s 8am Eucharist on 14th June 2015a and All Saints 10:00am Eucharist on 17th June 2015. The readings were 1 Samuel 15:34-16:13, 2 Corinthians 5:6-10, 11-13, 14-17, Mark 4:26-34.

Many of you will know that, not long after I came to faith I travelled to the North East of Brazil to work as a volunteer with the Baptist Missionary Society. Part of the role was, on our return from 6 months overseas, to tour the UK for 3 months speaking in churches, schools, youth clubs – anywhere that would have us really – encouraging people to support prayerfully and financially the work of the organisation, and to look at the mission possibilities in their lives, both overseas and on their doorstep.

In one school we took a lesson with a group of primary age children, and decided to write out some of the words, albeit in a different translation, that we heard in our Old Testament reading this morning. 1 Samuel 16:7b:

“man looks at your outward appearance, but God looks at your heart.”

A group of children each had a board with one of the words written on it, and the remaining bairns had to arrange them, one move at a time, to form the complete passage. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Each move I read out the resulting sentence with great gusto – which was fine until, too late, I realised they had arranged it so it read

“man looks at your outward appearance, God looks at your but(t)”

– howls of laughter followed.

So that verse has stuck with me ever since. But that’s quite a fitting way to remember it, I think. It seems to me that now more than ever before the world wants to judge people, especially women, by their outside appearance. The advent of social media and the internet as a whole has fuelled this, but advertising, TV, films, newspapers, gossip magazines all seem obsessed with “the body beautiful,” dismissing personality, intellect or emotional skills to focus on mammary glands and posterior parts, hair, teeth and eyebrows of any female who puts her head above the parapet and dares voice an opinion. As a father to three daughters this worries me, as I don’t want them to see how you look or dress as they key to happiness. As a father to a son it worries me, as I don’t want him to fall into the trap of looking at women that way & missing out on the depth of relationship both they and he deserves.

As Christians we can sometimes outwardly judged ourselves. We are stereotyped as boring, irrelevant, mad even, for declaring a faith in God, or coming to church. Some of us may even feel tempted to keep our heads down and avoid the gaze of others, lest we stand out & are ridiculed.

But as a church, we too need to be wary of how we look at those we meet. It’s easy to raise an eyebrow at the hair and hemlines of those who come to us for wedding and baptism services, to be put off or even scared of people who dress differently, behave differently, who are just….different. How can we communicate the Gospel to them – they won’t be interested, they won’t understand…

God looks at your heart. God looks at their heart too. As God’s children we are blessed by the Holy Spirit, empowered to share the good news to whoever we meet, however young or old, however different they seem.

By showing love not fear, warmth not distance, care not judgement, we can be the first step on somebody’s journey to faith – or even the last step on their making a commitment to Christ. After all, although I’m everyone in this room dressed sensibly, never listened to loud ‘unsuitable’ music, behaved impeccably and understood all there was to know about Christianity and Jesus love for the world just like that (finger snap) from day one… I didn’t – and if it wasn’t for the love and acceptance of Christian folk who were different to me, I never would have.

David was written off because he didn’t look the part – too young, too small. Look where he ended up. As the current Bishop of Durham says, “Never underestimate the small.” Our small actions, our small prayers, our small acts of love, driven by what we may even see as the smallest amount of faith can and will be the big difference in somebody’s life, the tiny mustard seed which grows into the massive tree of life, spilling out from us to our neighbours to their neighbours to our world.

Paul urged the Corinthians – urges us – to “walk by faith not sight.” Because, he says, “from now on…we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”

Let us always strive to show all our neighbours, those we welcome into our church and those we go out to meet, the chance to find that fresh start, that healing touch, that amazing love made available to us by the life, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Amen

God looks at the heart

How do you solve a problem like the Trinity…

This sermon was preached at St. Andrew’s 8am and All Saints 10:30am Eucharist’s on 31st May 2015 – Trinity Sunday. The readings were Isaiah 6:1-8, Romans 8:12-17 and John 3:1-17.

I have here a bag of crisps. I am a huge crisp fan – they’re kind of my Achilles heel when it comes to healthy eating. Everything in moderation…

But these didn’t really do it for me: “Tyrrells summer butter & mint flavour. According to the back they comprise “the finest spuds, a dab of butter, a snippet of mint – summer’s holy trinity.” I’ll let you tell me at the end of the service if you think they live up to the first part of that billing as we’ll share them over coffee, but isn’t the “Holy Trinity” bit interesting?

It’s funny, but across our now supposedly ‘secular’ society it’s a phrase that still gets heavily used. A few months ago a headline read “Businessman buys £3m ‘Holy Trinity’ of supercars.” The paper explained that “Paul Bailey is believed to be the first British car enthusiast to own a McLaren P1, a Ferrari LaFerrari and a Porsche 918 Spyder.” Lucky boy. A quick Google showed me people’s opinions on the holy trinity of rock, holy trinity of advertising techniques and even a Sun headline that read “Historic picture shows holy trinity of 3 Popes together” – Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, in case you were wondering.

I find this fascinating. Common parlance seems to show that a ‘holy trinity’ – note it is always a ‘holy’ or ‘unholy’ trinity, not just a trinity – is three similar things, or at least three things linked in some way – Cars, foodstuffs, pontiffs. And there is a danger when speaking of THE Holy Trinity that we Christians fall into the same trap.

It’s understandable – someone like me gets tasked every year to stand up and speak on Trinity Sunday, trying to proclaim afresh this great declaration of our faith, one we repeat every Sunday in the words of the Nicene Creed. And over the years I have heard many ideas on what the Trinity is ‘like.’ This is nothing new – St. Patrick supposedly used a shamrock in his attempts, meaning he is also Patron Saint of All-Age worship services. Some of us may have heard it explained as like an egg – shell, yolk & white yet still one egg or, and this could be my favourite, the Jaffa Cake – chocolate, sponge & smashing orangey bit.

The problem is, although analogies can be a good thing in this case they are always found wanting – and actually lead us down the well-trodden path of believing ancient heresies instead.

But it seems that we need something to hang concepts and experiences on to. When we eat unusual food we don’t say “I just had frog – it tastes of frog!” We say “It tastes a bit like chicken,” (which it does!) When Jilly Goolden tasted wine on Food & Drink – remember that? – it would be “Oh, I’m getting liquorice, I’m getting pear drops, I’m getting used petrol from a 1984 Ford Capri, I’m getting right on your nerves aren’t I?!”

Yet this is God we are talking about – the fact is nothing is truly ‘like’ God. We cannot ever truly comprehend the divine this side of heaven.

A story, credited to Edward J Yarnold, a Jesuit scholar:

St. Augustine of Hippo, the fourth century Bishop and theologian who wrote among other things the huge treatise On the Trinity, was pacing the Mediterranean shoreline of his native North Africa when he noticed a young boy scooping seawater into his small hands and carefully pouring it into a hole he had hollowed in the sand. Puzzled, Augustine watched as the bairn repeated this again and again. Eventually, curiosity piqued, he went over to introduce himself and ask the lad what he was doing. “I’m emptying the ocean into this hole,” came the reply. Augustine was dismissive – how could such a vast body of water be contained in such a small hole? The boy was equally dismissive in return – how could Augustine expect to contain the vast mystery of God in the mere words of a book…?

So, how do you solve a problem like the Trinity? Is it a leap of blind faith which we need to just accept & move on, or ignore & hope nobody asks about? Or are we approaching the whole thing from the wrong angle? If we view the Trinity, as 20th century theologian Karl Barth appears to, as an explanation of God’s revelation of Himself, we find that instead of being a problem to be solved, the Trinity becomes a framework which puts our efforts to understand something of God into a proper perspective. Rather than seeing the Trinity as a concept or idea about God, if we see it as God’s way of revealing Himself to humanity, God speaking to us, our questions move from “how do we understand the Trinity” to “what is God saying to us – to me – through His being Father, Son and Holy Spirit?”

John 3:16, possibly the most famous verse of the New Testament, is bound up in Jesus revealing it takes a Trinitarian God to work out our salvation, to repair our relationship with our creator & restore in us the promise of eternal life. By being born again in the Spirit we enter the kingdom of God the Father. We are born of the Spirit by faith in Jesus, the Son sent by the Father, who dies and is raised for us, lifted up to be gazed upon in faith and trust as was the bronze serpent that saved the Israelites from earthly, physical death in Moses time.

Each of us probably feels more drawn to, more able to ‘get,’ one of the persons of the Trinity over the others. That again is human nature, and says more about us than it does about God. Hopefully we use this starting point to explore the whole of God in Trinity, not just the person of His revelation that we feel most ‘comfortable’ with, which will then deepen and strengthen our relationship with Him.

But I think if allow ourselves to believe, as the Athanasian Creed so aptly puts it:

“we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither cShield-Trinity-Scutum-Fidei-English_svgonfounding the Persons; nor dividing the Essence. For there is one Person of the Father; another of the Son; and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one; the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal…”

we find ourselves on the right track. Just because we cannot fully explain something does not mean it doesn’t work – I can’t explain how my laptop works but I wrote this sermon on it, so it must.

Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 13 that

“now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

God has chosen to reveal himself to us in Trinity. If that’s good enough for Him, it’s good enough for me.

Amen.

rublev