Tag Archives: All Saints

Amazing Grace

This sermon was preached at All Saints midweek Eucharist & St. Andrew’s Evensong on Wednesday 1st July & Sunday 5th July 2015  respectively. The readings were 2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10; 2 Corinthians 12:2-10 and Mark 6:1-13.

This week I heard two renditions of Amazing Grace within 12 hours of each other. Not a very dramatic opening, I know, being a vicar & all. The first was the amazing clip of Barak Obama, arguably the most powerful leader in the western world, breaking into a rendition of the hymn as he delivered the eulogy of Reverend Clementa Pinckney, the pastor of the Mother Emanuel church in Charleston who was among the 9 Christians murdered there recently. The second was the choir of St. Anthony’s school at the official opening of the groundworks at St. Peter’s on Monday.

The two renditions were very different. To say the President’s singing wasn’t in the same league is to underplay how good the young ladies of St. Anthony’s were – it’s more accurate to say they weren’t even playing the same sport. But what Mr Obama lacked in tuning he made up for in passion, using the hymn as a rallying point to call out the names of the others killed in the attack & speak of their faith & the Grace they had received from their heavenly father.

It was interesting to have these two experiences of the same piece of music – the President’s at the end of a period of great sadness and tragedy for a community, the students at the beginning of a new phase at St. Peter’s, hopefully bringing new life to our community.

And I guess hearing them so close to each other got me thinking – it’s inclusion in both these events reminds us of the amazing gift of grace we have available to us through a relationship with Jesus Christ. You see, however clichéd it sounds, we all know full well that throughout our lives we have highs and lows, times of great joy and greater sorrow.

We missed St. Paul out last Sunday, as he shares St. Peter’s feast day, but it is his words we just heard, written originally for the people of Corinth but echoing through the ages to ring true for us today, that remind us of the power of God’s grace in our lives. Whoever we are, however weak we feel, however battered we have been by life’s storms, however distant we may feel from God at times, He is right here with us.

That’s part of the story of the incarnation – God rolling up His sleeves and getting in amongst our pain, our struggles and sticking by us throughout, enfolding us in His undying love; God rejoicing with us in the good times & giving us the strength to find out and actively seek to be the people He has called us to be, and help others do the same.

We may not feel worthy of this grace. It’s OK, we’re not. If we were – if we could earn our salvation solely by ourselves, we would not have needed Jesus sacrifice made once for all upon the cross. You see, President Obama’s singing was beautiful and inspiring not because of his voice but because of the heart and message he was conveying. Our lives are blessed by God, not because we are perfect but because we are the crown of His creation and as long as we seek to live in Him He lives in us; as we look to forgive we ourselves are forgiven; as we seek to bring people to know and love Christ our knowledge and love of Him deepens.

“Amazing Grace! How sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now I’m found, was blind but now I see!”


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.


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?


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.


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.




Seeing Past The Pigs

This sermon was preached at St. Andrew’s 8am & All Saints 10:30am Eucharist on 1st March 2015. It was part of our series working, as a parish, through Tom Wright’s “Lent for Everyone – Mark (Year B)” book.  With this in mind, the readings were Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16, Romans 4:13-25 & Mark 5:1-20.

I’ve mentioned to some of you before that I see it as a one of the highlights of my role to be involved with one of our best local primary schools, Seaburn Dene. It’s a great privilege to be able to work alongside the dedicated staff & hard working students, and to chat to parents, grandparents and carers at the school gates. But something I find interesting is how people view me and my role there.

To some I’m sure I’m still just ‘some vicar’ who they see wandering in and out, turning up at the odd event & maybe shuffling kids around, not really paying me much attention. To some I’m Reverend Child, as that’s what the head calls me – or Mr Reverend Child, as a delightful lass called Amy called me when she wanted to get my attention – who they know is there & may be on nodding or smiling terms, but not much more. And to some I’m just the dad of my children – or Paul – as we’ve talked, built a relationship, broken down some barriers. Three different ideas about me, all accurate parts of who I am, each of which I’m sure affects how those who hold the view relate to me.

As we explore this part of Mark’s Gospel we find Mark, in a short space, manages to paint three pictures of Jesus – show three impressions people held of him, as he turns up & performs an exorcism on the east side of the Sea of Galilee.

The first reaction is that of the man with the unclean spirit, who describes Jesus as a tormentor – Tom Wright even translates this as “torturer.”

Shocking words, and probably for us here something we can’t relate to, but bear with me.

I don’t know about you, but I find the treatment of this poor man to be a sad, scandalous tale. He lives in the graveyard, shunned by a society who don’t know what to do with him so try to restrain, to hide, to trap him and keep him well away. No wonder he is so distrustful of strangers, as he shows when Jesus arrives. When you read through Tom Wright’s observations tomorrow you’ll find out some of his interpretation of how the man came to be in such a state. But however he has come to this point, when He first encounters Jesus the possessed man is frightened. The voices in His head recognise Jesus as a game changer, and play on their hosts’ natural wariness of other people, born out of long experience of mistreatment and abuse of him as people struggle to cope with his ‘condition.’ Hence why he accuses Jesus in such strong terms.

But maybe this view isn’t overly different to that some still hold in society today. How many times do we hear people say they can’t go to church because they’re “not good enough?” At various events, baptisms, weddings, even funerals, you may overhear people joking about watching out for lightning bolts as they cross the threshold.

Many a true word is spoken in jest, and what we see is people who fear judgement, who fear not just that those in church will be holier than thou or too nice, but that their lives will not be as ‘good’ as they hope them to be & they will be cast out, or punished, for their wrongs, the things they hear the church call ‘sins.’

Maybe some of us here can relate to that feeling. It’s not an unnatural reaction, given how some portray Christianity as a list of things you can’t do, or as they look in the press at the latest division in the church over women or homosexuality. Some have even experienced that sense of judgement from other churchgoers, or even clergy. But look at how Jesus reacts. Instead of attacking the man, or trying to defend himself, put the shutters up & cast him aside, Jesus listens, Jesus asks questions, and Jesus seeks to help.

He doesn’t point out how the man has got himself into this situation, or lecture him on the dangers of consorting with demons or his lifestyle before they met. He just seeks to make his life better, to help him to be restored to the man God created him to be.

And that leads us on to Mark’s next image – Jesus as liberator. We know Jesus lived and died and rose again to free us from the sin that stopped us being in a relationship with God – at least we talk about it and acknowledge it.

Do we really know it – do we really believe that we, I, am saved from death and granted eternal life through the blood of Jesus Christ. That I can rely on the Holy Spirit to lead and guide me in my walk with the Father?

This man’s life was completely transformed by his encounter with Jesus – who then commissioned him to tell ‘his people’ what the Lord had done for him. When we allow Jesus into our lives, when we accept Him as saviour it really is a game changer – and part of that change is to share the miracle of our rebirth with those around us, and help them to discover this amazing, loving Lord for themselves.

For this to happen we need to maintain our relationship with God, to rely on His love for us & daily be renewed by Him, by spending time with Him in prayer & the scriptures, and allowing Him to work in our lives.

But this is challenging, as we see in Mark’s final image – Jesus as disruptor, as a disturber, as somebody who rocks the boat. The Gerasenes would probably not have been so keen for Jesus to leave if He had just come in and metaphorically patted them on the head and affirmed everything they were doing. Instead he challenged them by performing the exorcism, and by allowing the Legion to destroy the heard of pigs.

Tom Wright picks up on this, and it’s a good point to raise – why would a Jewish community have a heard of pigs? What other use would they have other than for food – something that any good, law-abiding Jewish person wouldn’t eat. So maybe the removal of the pigs reminded them that actually some of the things that they had convinced themselves were ok were really not. Maybe they simply looked past the healed man and saw the dead pigs – after all, it seems a peculiar quirk of human nature that we can value things over our brothers and sisters, profit over people, status and power over justice and mercy. Just look at the reaction in some quarters over the House of Bishops letter that dared to suggest politicians may want to seek “a fresh moral vision of the kind of country we want to be,” ranging from telling them to keep their noses out to accusations of them taking political sides, instead of pausing an thinking they may have a point – surely 913,138 people receiving 3 days emergency food and support from foodbanks in between April 2013- March 2014 was 913,138 people too many.

We know only too well that a relationship with Jesus changes us. As we allow His Spirit to move in us it changes the way we see things, the way we see people, helps us to love more and judge less – or at least, it should. Maybe we need to let Jesus disrupt as afresh once in a while, let Him illuminate the things we hide in the dark bits of ourselves and look to readjust our thinking a bit – after all, that’s what we do in lent, isn’t it?

So just as I am seen in different ways when I’m at the school, Jesus means different things to different people.

And we, as His disciples, face the challenge of showing who he really is to those we know and meet. We can reassure through our words and actions those who fear Him – not in the healthy, respectful way those who believe in Him are called to “Fear the Lord” but in a misunderstanding, judgemental way – that Jesus comes to bring healing, mercy and love, to help us to be the best version of ourselves we can be. We can show the great liberation a relationship with Christ brings – freedom from fear, freedom from death, freedom from that which stops us being fully alive. And we can show that although change does come, it is change for the better, change that comes from a loving relationship and a desire to heal us and make us whole.

As we continue our journey together through Lent, towards the pain and darkness of Good Friday and the glorious healing and light of Easter Day, maybe we should ask our loving Lord and Saviour to renew and refresh us again today – that as we remember His sacrifice made once upon the cross for each one of us, we find the strength and courage to see each other, and ourselves, through His eyes, to see who He calls us to be and allow Him to help us be it. To allow Him to free us, to heal us and to love us.


Gerasene demoniac saved

0 Shades of Grey

This sermon was preached at All Saints 10:30am Eucharist and St. Andrew’s 6pm Evensong on 15th February 2015. The readings were 2 Kings 2:1-12, 2 Corinthians 4:3-6 and Mark 9:2-9.

Over the past couple of weeks a certain book, which has also been made into a movie, has made headlines across the country. This has been great for me, as the book in question is one of my all-time favourites, and the media talk has put me in mind of some of my favourite moments, inspiring me to watch the movie last night.

I am of course talking about “To Kill A Mockingbird” by Harper Lee, and the shock announcement that the ‘lost’ manuscript for the sequel has been found and will be published in July.

I’m sure many of you here are familiar with the tale, if only from the film version starring the amazing Gregory Peck, but in case you are not it’s the story of a small town lawyer called Atticus Finch, his young son Jem and daughter Scout. Set in the rural south of the USA during the Great Depression of the 1930’s, Atticus is raising his children aided only by his black housekeeper. To begin with, the children just see Atticus as a normal father, enjoying a close relationship despite referring to him by his first name, and vaguely aware of how some of his eccentricities affect their lives (not playing in the local Methodist baseball team and his respect for the black community, for example). But one day, their understanding of Atticus is changed, altered, by the arrival of a mad dog, which is spotted foaming at the mouth in the street near the Finch home. Sheriff Tate arrives with his rifle, but when he sees Atticus, he gives the weapon to him and asks him to shoot. The children are very surprised at this. Atticus calmly takes aim and fires. The dog falls in its tracks. The children are amazed, especially when the sheriff tells him that their father is regarded as the best shot in the county.

Atticus is so quiet and unassuming that his children are not aware of what a special man their father is. Only after dispatching the dog, and later through the main crux of the book which deals with deeply-ingrained Southern state racism, do Scout and Jem come to see him for who he really is. He is, in effect, transfigured in their eyes, no longer just their old dad.

Mark’s version of the transfiguration of Jesus is the hinge point of the Gospel, marking the transition from Jesus life & ministry to His death and resurrection. Just after Peter has hit the nail on the head by declaring Jesus to be the Christ, then been hugely chastised for suggesting the passion could be avoided, Jesus takes Peter, James and John up the mountain, away from the others.

We as readers know a key incident is about to take place – the “high mountain” is the place nearest to heaven, and throughout scripture Godly incidents happen on mountains. So it is here when, suddenly, Jesus is transfigured and his clothes shine so bright, become so dazzling, that it can only be the glory of God shining out from Him – there’s no shades of grey here! Think of the light that blinded Paul on the Damascus Road, or of Moses receiving the stone tablets with the Ten Commandments engraved, also on a mountain, & the way his face shone with the reflected glory of God when he descended. And speaking of Moses, there he is with Elijah chatting to Jesus.

Of course, Elijah himself as no stranger to meeting with God on a mountain – his experience of the “still small voice” on Mount Sinai was arguably less dramatic, but no less profound.

So with all this going on is it any wonder the three disciples don’t know what to do! Then Peter, dear Peter, tries his best to grasp the situation & offers to make shelters for the three Holy men – maybe to keep their glory safely in one place, maybe because the only way he could deal with such an amazing, intense experience of God was to safely box it up separately from the rest of his life, to try to do something practical with it.

Then the voice from the cloud – the revelation to those there of Jesus as the Son of God, the Messiah who has come in Glory and Power; not in battle dress to crush the Romans but, as Jesus will allude to shortly after they come down from the mountain, as the suffering servant who will give His life as a ransom for many.

This is what I mean by the hinge – this is the second of three instances where Jesus is declared “Son of God” in Mark.

The first is by the Father to Jesus Himself when He is baptized, as He begins His earthly ministry and the Spirit descends on Him like a dove. The third is at His crucifixion – itself almost a reverse transfiguration as Jesus hangs abandoned, beaten, bloodied and dying right at the end of the Gospel, leading a Roman soldier to cry out “Truly this man was the Son of God.”

So here God almost parallels and affirms Peter’s confession from the previous chapter, while also showing the reality of that which Peter tried to deny – Jesus upcoming passion. When read as a whole with verses 9-13, this middle section of Mark shows glory and suffering, lowliness and majesty.

Obviously things can never be the same again for these three disciples. They have witnessed something that will only make true sense after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, but even before that such an encounter changes a person – just like our encounters with God through Jesus in the power of the Spirit should change, have changed, us.

Some of us will be able to put our fingers on moments when we have had such encounters with God – some of us may find that more difficult.

So I guess the question is… where on the mountain do you feel you are today? It’s possible some of us are still summoning up the courage to take a few steps higher, knowing that folk say there are great things to be seen and experienced but hesitant of what it might mean, how it might change things. Some of us carry the experience of seeing the blinding light of the transfigured Lord at some point, or at least have the conviction to keep seeking it. It’s possible though, that this in itself complicates things – because like Peter we’re not sure what to do with what we’ve found, and are not convinced anyone would even believe us if we told them! So in our confusion we find ourselves looking to build shelters, trying to find a way to package up, to keep inside this revelation as our special thing, in our special place.

Because it can be a difficult thing, sustaining the reality of God’s love for us in our lives.

Despite all we’ve seen over the years, all we have experienced, we still forget, or lose focus, especially in a world so damaged by fear, greed and oppression. But take heart. As I said earlier, just before the transfiguration Peter had made his profession of Jesus as Christ – rapidly followed by the “get behind me Satan” incident. Not long after today’s Gospel passage the disciples, including James and John, argue over who the greatest. Mark is not afraid to show those closest to Jesus were constantly messing up – yet He corrects them, helps them move on – and moves on with them. As he does with us. We can’t earn our salvation any more than we can put Jesus in a booth, shelter or box, however church-shaped and beautiful it may be.

So I hope I can encourage all of us here to make the full journey up the mountain with me this morning. Let us step out truly believing that, as we celebrate the Eucharist in a few minutes time Christ will come and meet with us again.

That we can glimpse the light of His glory if only fleetingly, then go out into the world with our faces shining as a light to all we meet. That the experience we have this Sunday, and every day we take the time to consciously come into God’s presence, will reawaken our knowledge of who Jesus is and the amazing gift He has given us – the gift of eternal life, of forgiveness from sins and a relationship with He who created us. That through the gift of His Spirit we are renewed and refreshed to further His kingdom on earth, made fully alive by His presence with us.

This all sounds very grand – well, the view from the top of a mountain usually is. But just as Scout & Jem could never look at Atticus the same way again, once we allow Jesus to reveal Himself to us our lives take on a new meaning. So today I want to encourage all of us to keep climbing up the mountain, keep coming close to Jesus & marvelling at his glory, looking for transformation, healing, refreshment & renewal – but then to remember the world around us is crying out for the same light. Let’s have the courage to take all we’ve found out with us, because as Paul so excellently put it,

“the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”



♪ ♫ Got To Get You Into My Life ♫ ♪

This sermon was preached at St. Andrew’s 8am and All Saints 10:30am Eucharist services on 1st February 2015, as we celebrated The Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. The readings were Malachi 3:1-5, Hebrews 2:14-18 & Luke 2:22-40.

Nestling safely in my mam’s record collection is something a little special. Now, I’m sure I don’t need to tell you when I say ‘record,’ I mean a proper LP – I think the cool kids call them ‘vinyl’ these days. When I were younger I was flicking through to see what she had, when I came across ‘Revolver’ by The Beatles. I’m very fond of The Beatles and, in my opinion, this is one of their best albums, from the opening count in of Taxman (one…two…three…four [cough] one two three four!) to the drum and bass hook of Tomorrow Never Knows, its closing track – though some only remember it for “Yellow Submarine!”

But this particular copy is a bit different. It was recorded in ‘mono,’ not stereo. This means it’s all recorded on one audio channel, unlike a stereo recording which has more than one and can give the effect of movement between speakers or different instruments coming from different sides. Nowadays, almost all the re-releases, beatles-revolverCD’s and downloads of ‘Revolver’ use the stereo mix, so this mono recording, with different versions of some of the songs, is rarer than others available – and so worth a few quid more to those who value this kind of thing. But, apart from the word mono printed on the sleeve in not-particularly-large letters, you wouldn’t know this record was any different by just a glance. If, however, you were to spend time with somebody who knows and cares about the subject, they would help you to realise you have to look at it properly, listen to it, to discover it is actually worth more than you realised.

When I read through the Bible, especially the more narrative works like the Gospels, I like to try & take time to picture the scene, to immerse myself in what is going on around the characters at the time. And as this passage from Luke, which we revisit year after year at this time, is one of those that we could easily just let wash over us through sheer repetition if we are not careful, I think it deserves a little care & thought.

A young couple enter the temple with a six week old baby. They are poor, as Luke talks of a pair of turtle-doves or young pigeons being offered as the sacrifice, which was acceptable in place of a lamb and a pigeon in cases of hardship.

They are just one more couple among many, doing their religious duty according to the Law of Moses, apparently no different to any others there. But an old man spots them through the crowds, and something leaps inside him. He is moved by the Holy Spirit to go across to them, to take the child in his arms and some of the most wonderful words in the New Testament pour out of him – words that have since been used a great deal by the Church in both funeral services and every night in Compline, or Night Prayer, to bring comfort & blessing – the words we now call the Nunc Dimmitis.

They must be in the outer courts of the temple when they meet Simeon as women were not allowed inside, and both parents are present and stand amazed at what they hear. Some call this celebration day “Candlemas,” and it is at this point it seems a light is switched on, the amazing events of the night of Jesus birth are affirmed by Simeon & God’s love blazes into the darkness of God’s fallen world – at least to us.

For all around them, as Simeon sings praises and blesses the Holy couple people go about their business, oblivious to the long-promised Messiah being cradled in their midst. Anybody who had taken the time to listen, to take a proper look, may have discovered the truth. As it is, it seems only one other person does – an old Prophetess called Anna, who comes over to praise God, then spends the rest of her life in the temple “speak[ing] about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.”

What an amazing sight to behold – the old man & old woman, a life searching for the coming King now fulfilled, the young married couple, just beginning their new lives together and not knowing what to expect from the amazing gift they have been given, and the baby Jesus, the light of the world holding them all together. Four very different people, all united by God’s Son.

So I wonder – as we read this story, as we think about this passage, where do we place ourselves?

As Mary or Joseph, nervously standing in the outer section of the temple, plucking up the courage to take the next steps in our journey with Jesus, to move closer to God?

As Anna, already trying to be as close as can be to God, always in the temple, in fasting and prayer, ready to set eyes on the promised Messiah and tell those we meet about Him?

As Simeon, long in the service of the Lord and continually on the lookout for signs of His kingdom, looking through the eyes of the Holy Spirit at all who we come into contact with and ready to offer blessing and praise to even the poorest and most different of strangers?

Now, there is a chance that some of us may feel more like those wandering around, visiting the temple as they felt compelled to do or out of a sense of duty but completely missing the Son of God in their midst. That’s my biggest fear – that I get so caught up trying to do things ‘properly’ that I miss the Spirit’s prompt to seize the opportunity to experience the living God in our midst. Kind of a Martha/Mary situation, if you will.

So I think the challenge for all of us is to study Simeon & Anna and try to emulate their devotion to the seeking of God’s Kingdom. Because there appears to be no great secret to what they did to spot Jesus amongst all that was going on. By spending time with God the Father & God the Holy Spirit, they recognised God the Son incarnate – Jesus Christ. By spending time in prayerful communion with this amazing mysterious Trinitarian God of ours, Three Persons yet One God, we will find ourselves more able than ever to see the light of God blazing in all who we meet – in the stranger, the outcast and the oppressed, and in the friend, neighbour or, dare I say it, enemy – or, at least, difficult challenging person – closer to home.

This closeness to God can be scary, painful even – as we heard in Malachi the Lord “is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap.” We may need to make changes in our own life, be reshaped by our creator, have some of the things that have no place in our walk with him or our dealings with others burned away or scrubbed clean.

But as we break bread and pour wine in remembrance of Jesus, we are reminded of the great hope His life, death and resurrection has brought us.

 “Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.”

We do not do any of this in our own strength, but fully assisted by He who knows us better than anyone, and who gave His life out of love for us. As I said at the start, sometimes – with the help of an expert – we have to look at something properly, listen to it carefully, to discover it is actually worth more than we realised.

By taking the time to see through the eyes of God’s all empowering, all-encompassing love poured out for each one of us, we can love as we are truly loved, value others as we ourselves are valued, and change the world one person at a time – even if the first person changed is ourselves.


Presentation Christ 2

God Is Love

This sermon was the final in our “Still Valued and Valuable” series, preached on the Last Sunday after Trinity, 26th October 2014, at St Andrew’s 8am & 9.30am and All Saints’ 10.30am. The readings were Deuteronomy 34: 1-12, 1 Thessalonians 2: 1-8 and Matthew 22: 34-46.

Love. It seems to be right at the heart of so many things. Pop songs, romantic story lines on the television, films and books. (In 2011 the novel, Fifty Shades of Grey was the best seller in the UK – outstripping even Harry Potter. In it the writer was trying to demonstrate that it had, at its heart – for all its controversy – love relationship between a man and a woman). I did actually try to read it, to see what all the fuss was about, but couldn’t get beyond the first fifteen pages. Just not my sort of book I guess.

Love is seen as something valuable by most people. Something almost everyone wants. Something most people miss when for whatever reason it seems not to be there. Something which is fundamental to who we are as human beings.

Which is why it’s at the very heart of the message which God gives us through Jesus. Our own human attempts through music, books, films and so on – even though they are often sort of on the right lines – always fall short of what love truly is. We probably know much more about love from our own personal experiences – family, friendships, marriages. Maybe particularly when tough experiences are shared or the realities of hurt or our different personalities, view points, self-centredness and so on require lots of patience, compromise and forgiveness.

Love – real love – it seems, can be hard work. Requiring a lot of giving, sacrifice, selflessness, costly service. It can be really, really demanding, really draining.

We know this from our own experience.

St Paul in his famous first letter to the Church in Corinth – still a standard reading for weddings, and I think for good reason – wrote: “love is patient, love is kind, love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things”. Keeping all of that going all the time… it’s blooming hard work!

If we needed reminding a good test at home is, perhaps to read that passage from 1 Corinthians 13, replacing the words “love is” with “I am” and see how it sounds! How hard we do need to work!

In the reading we had this morning from another of Paul’s letters – one of the very early ones he wrote, to the Church at Thessalonika – it’s clear that it was really, really hard work. Paul and his companions, as they shared the good news of the love of God in as many places in the known world they could get to, were opposed almost at every step of the way.

Misunderstood, ill-treated, imprisoned, beaten up. Making it clear that they themselves had no ulterior motives, had nothing to gain, but relied wholly on the strength provided by God, “we were”, Paul writes, “gentle among you, like a nurse caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that that we are determined to share with you not only the good news of Jesus but also our very selves, because you have become very dear to us”.

There is something about real love which persists, through the hard work, the let-downs, the disappointments, the sense that we may be getting nowhere.

In our first reading, from the Old Testament, we heard about Moses. Now there’s someone who was stretched to the very limit. Put by God in charge of a huge group of people – the Israelites – to lead them out of slavery in Egypt, through all the discomforts of the desert of Sinai towards a “Promised Land” – a trip which, ultimately, took forty years. “Will we ever get there?” must have been a prevailing emotion. Moses, as we heard, didn’t actually make it in his lifetime. The people were unruly, complaining, moaning, bickering from the first and throughout.

The people were demanding, blaming Moses for their discomfort, driving him almost to distraction: “Why have you given me this lot to have to deal with?” Moses implored God, in the Book of Numbers, chapter 11. In one translation Moses says to God, “I can’t carry all these people by myself! The load is far too heavy! Do me a favour and spare me this misery!”

And yet he carries on. In one sense he had no choice. As we don’t, really, in caring for those committed to us – because of a promise we have made in marriage perhaps, or because they are members of our family, or because we are compelled by compassion or because we simply love them. Moses carried on. Loving God’s people. Serving them. Guiding and caring for them literally to the end of his days.

Loving is “doing”. And loving God – in doing what he asked in carrying on loving, serving his people – even though sometimes it was a right royal pain! – was what Moses was simply getting on with. While he was doing it, it probably felt far from the noble, gracious thing it actually was. No doubt he wanted to throw in the towel and run away a dozen times. But he didn’t. He kept on going.

When, in this morning’s Gospel reading, Jesus reminds the Pharisee lawyer of the greatest commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind – this is the first and greatest commandment – and the second is like it: you shall love your neighbour as yourself”, he is telling us what it is all about. That we must go on loving and serving others, even when it is hard. Even when we get nothing in return. Even when it seems not to be appreciated or even noticed. Even when we don’t like the person we are called to love. We must treat them with the same consideration, gentleness and dignity as we need ourselves.

But how? How on earth do we do this? How, when we think it is beyond our strength? Our endurance?

Well, there is only one way. But it is a sure way. To know that we ourselves are loved by God. “We love God”, writes John in his first letter, chapter four, “because he first loved us”. There is no doubt about that. It is a fact. God loves us, each one of us, so profoundly, so passionately that he gave himself, in his Son Jesus, to die for us. If any of us was the last person in the world he would still have died for us.

So when loving is hard in our own lives we have the knowledge, the simple, wonderful reality of God’s love for us (and maybe the knowledge of what he has had to put up with from us, maybe over many years!). A love which will keep on going. A serving, patient, giving love (for that is what love is all about).

So when it is hard we need to remember that God loved us first. Always will. Actually through Moses, we see God. Bearing with, caring for, loving and guiding his people to freedom. So much more through Jesus. And not only does he give us an example to follow, it gives us a strength which nothing else can. To know that we are loved – that we are, each one of us, the apple of God’s eye.

I know it doesn’t make sense but it is as if each of one us is his favourite child! He delights, utterly, in each one of us. Loves us with a passion. And to know that. To rest secure in that knowledge, just as Jesus, himself, did when he was on earth makes all the difference when the love we offer to others and the world seems to be rejected, not appreciated or to make any difference. To know that renews our strength to go on loving.

Today is known as “Bible Sunday”. Hence, the special collect we had today. “Blessed Lord, who caused all holy scriptures to be written for our learning; help us so to hear them, to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them that, through patience, and the comfort of your holy word, we may embrace and forever hold fast the hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

The God who loves us is there, shown throughout the Bible. Through the lives of ordinary people, like you and me. It is true that some people think that the Old Testament shows an altogether different God: a God of anger, of coldness, of distance. A fearsome God. But if you look more closely, whether at Moses, David, Ruth, Esther or countless others your will see, yes, a God of strength and purpose and holiness but also a God of tenderness, of grace, of patience and of love. And in the New Testament all of this brought together in one person, Jesus.

If the Bible was a stick of rock we would find the words running all the way through the centre: “God loves you”. God is love.

And Jesus calls us to follow him.


Handing On The Baton

This sermon was preached at all four morning services on Sunday 19th October. The readings were Exodus 33:12-23, 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 and Matthew 22:15-22.

As some of you will know I came to faith in my late teens. I used to play football on a Monday night, and a few of the lads there asked if I’d like to join the team they were forming to play in the Norfolk Christian League. Little did I know it was a dastardly evangelism plot! I used to enjoy the matches, and didn’t mind the little prayer at the start – in fact, it seemed a good idea to pray for protection given the temperament of some of the players we came across! But, what struck me after a while was the Christian players on my team seemed… different. They wanted to win just as much as I did, were passionate and hardworking, didn’t back out of challenges; but they conducted themselves with restraint, respect and dignity. They didn’t seem to need to shout & swear at the ref or opposition, to try & con the ref into a decision or leave a boot in on a tackle – things I had no problem with doing. So what made them different?

Well, I guess most of us here know the answer to that. Hopefully we have all, at some point in our lives, realised the amazing, transformative power of our relationship with Jesus –
a relationship that changes us, shapes us and shines out from us like a candle in a darkened room.

Today in our “Still Valued and Valuable” series, we’re looking at what we leave behind – our legacy, if you like. But with that passage from Matthew’s Gospel ringing in our ears it would be easy to think this was going to be about giving more money to the Church (though feel free to – plate’s around in a bit) or, as some may fear when they heard the title, “we’re going to die soon, so sort it out!”

But I would like to think all of us here, however old or young we are or feel, thinks about our impact on those around us, about our place in our community as a Christian, about how we spread the Good News of Christ and point people towards His kingdom.

Paul, in his letter to the Thessalonians speaks of the light we just mentioned and its effect on those around him “You know how we lived among you for your sake. You became imitators of us and of the Lord…And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia”

They saw what he did & lived it out. And more than that, in copying him they got others interested – “The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia—your faith in God has become known everywhere.”

I doubt it will be surprise to any of you that I’m going to stand up here and say how we live our lives, how we deal with others, is hugely important. The way we act reveals a great deal about our character, and with one of the biggest charges levelled against Christians being hypocrisy, it’s essential to our spreading of the Gospel – our key task as members of Christ’s family.

And I’m sure we’ve all heard the great St. Francis of Assisi quote: “Preach the Gospel at all times, and when necessary, use words.”

But something about that quote bothers me – aside from it not actually being said by St. Francis (sorry). There seems to be a school of thought that, by living a good life, by trying to do the right things, treating people fairly and keeping out of trouble, we’ve done enough. Yes, it’s an important part of our calling, but alone it’s not enough. Faith without works is dead, says James, and that’s true, but works without faith are equally flawed, as Paul points out in many of his letters.

St. Francis himself preached extensively, and wrote and dictated many works and letters. Paul would famously go to the synagogues and preach, debate and argue the legitimacy of Jesus place as the Christ.

Now, this is all well and good for Christian superheroes like Paul or Francis, or early Christians like the Thessalonians, but what about you or I? I mean, they didn’t live in a society where they were surrounded by people who have no Christian upbringing, or who believed in different religions, where they felt in the minority because of their faith in Jesus… oh, wait…!

Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians is regarded as the earliest document in the New Testament, written within 20 years of Christ’s crucifixion.

This was not an easy time to be a convert to the new Jesus movement – society was structured around cult worship, which played a key part in social and economic transactions. To stand apart from that could lead to at best social separation, but also the possibility of stoning as an atheist.

So for the people of Thessalonica to be known far and wide for their faith, in a place where to be a Christian was not seen as being a good, well behaved person but as a radical counter-cultural renegade shows a great deal of belief and courage on their part.

If the people I had played football with had kept quiet about their faith, my life would probably have been very different. I wasn’t going to ask- I suspected it had something to do with the Bible probably saying something about being nice to people – but as an unchurched person I would have happily just left it that they were doing good, or do-gooders, about whom my opinion would have probably veered from holier than thou to genuinely good guys.

But they took the time to make sure those around them knew their motivation was because of Jesus love for each and every person, including me – not just some wishy-washy philosophical ideal, like “wouldn’t it be nice if everyone was nice,” not even a traditionalist “we’d like you to join our church because we do it properly” style of evangelism, but a genuine relationship with our creator. Walking the walk, certainly, but also talking the talk. As a result, here I am. And as St. Francis probably did say, “I have been all things unholy. If God can work through me, He can work through anyone.”

As I look around this room today, I see a wealth of experience – life experience, faith experience. Many of us have years of prayer, years of trying, even years of faithfully turning up! And yet I suspect most of us would look at ourselves and feel under-qualified to tell people about Jesus at any great depth. We could discuss the tradition of our church, our favourite hymns, the ritual that makes up the service – but some of us would be worried about how to answer if somebody asked us any serious questions about our faith, about how we can believe in God when there is so much suffering, when it all seems so far-fetched, when science has disproved it all, etc, etc. So it’s easier to do the good works, be remembered as a nice person and hope that by some miraculous means the person will understand that it is Christ’s unfailing love for His people that drives us and drop to their knees in faith and repentance.

But I think we do ourselves an injustice. These years of faithful service have taught us more than we think.

Some years back a letter was published in a national newspaper. “Dear Sir, I have attended my local church weekly for the last 57 years. Every week a vicar has given a sermon, and I have come to realise I can recall hardly anything that has been said during them. Surely the church should do away with such an antiquated system of speaking to the congregation. Yours, etc…”

A few days later, this was published. “Dear Sir, in response to the letter from Mr. X regarding church. I have been married for 62 years, and my wife has cooked my evening meal without fail every day of our married life. I could not tell you what she has made for me on each of these occasions, but I do know I have been well fed.”

It all goes back to what Paul was saying to the Thessalonians. If you hang around with somebody long enough, and are inspired by them, you begin to replicate what they do – after all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

And if we just go about doing good deeds without explanation, or just allow people to see our church attendance as a pastime or hobby we enjoy – like going to the match or playing an instrument – then we miss the chance to bring something amazing to their lives.

I know it doesn’t always seem like it’s worth the effort. I know many of us here will have friends and loved ones who we have witnessed to in word and deed for many years who seem to show no interest in going to church,something particularly hard to take if they are our children, brought up in the church yet finding other things to do with their Sundays. But, and this is what makes it such a hard task, many of us will not see the fruits of our labour. Many of us will be just a step along the road to faith for people who we meet. The trick is to allow ourselves to be that step, to let the Holy Spirit work through us to make the journey of each person we meet that bit smoother, to make straight the paths and go before the Lord to prepare His way, to help the dawn from on high to break upon them, to let that light shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to help guide their feet into the way of peace.

If you’re worried you haven’t spent enough time hanging around Jesus, allowing His relationship with you to grow – well start today. Take a chance on letting the words you hear in this service feed you. Re-read the Bible, find time to pray, risk coming along to Alpha – even if you’ve missed the start you can still join us. Paul wrote in expectation of Christ’s immanent return.

Without wanting to return to the dreaded “We’re all on our last legs” scenario I mentioned at the start, it is true we don’t know the hour Jesus will return, but we do know He is coming. We don’t know if it will be before or after we die, so maybe it’s best to be prepared. Remember, in more words of St. Francis: “All the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the light of a single candle.”

So do strive to live a good life. Help old ladies across the road, be sympathetic to those younger and less experienced, hug a Sunderland fan after their result yesterday. But always be ready to tell them why you do it – out of love for the living God, who loved us all so much that he sent his only Son to die for us, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. Or as somebody who most likely wasn’t St. Francis once put it, “Jesus is coming – try to look busy.”



Maturing In Christ

This sermon is part of the “Still Valued and Valuable” series, and was preached at all three churches on 5th October.

Pussycat, pussycat, where have you been? I’ve been to London to visit the Queen.  Pussycat, pussycat, what did you there? I frightened a little mouse under her chair.

This poem tells of a cat going to London to visit the famous Buckingham Palace. But when the cat returns home he never tells his friends about the changing of the guard in all its spectacle. He doesn’t mention the dazzling crown, the rare and prized works of art, nor does he even mention the Queen he actually went to visit. The only thing the cat can remember is – terrifying a tasty looking mouse under the Queen’s chair. Now, the point of this rather peculiar poem is simply this. What you are, generally determines what you see.

True? For instance, the vulture flying over a field of flowers never sees the flowers but immediately spots the body of a dead rabbit. The man who says that, ‘there isn’t an honest man in the world’, usually has a character problem himself. And so, similarly, the mature disciple of Jesus because of – what they are – sees the world in ways others don’t see it. When a mature disciple looks at life their vision is coloured by their relationship to the Lord and their fellow human beings. This is, I hope, the kind of disciple that you and I want to be. We must understand that we can’t view the experiences of life in the way people who aren’t disciples of Jesus do because of – what we are. We must further understand that becoming a mature disciple demands more than a casual and easy going approach to the Christian life.

I’m sure we’re all aware that spiritual maturity is achieved, quite simply, by becoming more like Jesus. If only it were – simple. Nevertheless, after entering into that new relationship with Jesus every disciple begins the process of spiritual growth with the intention of growing spiritually mature. And according to the Apostle Paul that’s a continuous and ongoing process that will never end in this life. In Philippians chapter 3 verses 12 to14, speaking of a full knowledge of Christ. He tells his readers that he himself hasn’t – already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

Now, we all know that babies grow at their own pace. But they do grow. When they stop growing, stop maturing, stop stretching out for new challenges and new skills. Then we worry don’t we because something isn’t right, something isn’t working the way it’s supposed to. And so, it’s the same way with those who begin as babes in Christ. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul is concerned that the Corinthian believers have stopped growing that they aren’t growing up as they should. Saying to them: Brothers, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults. (1 Corinthians 14:20)

It’s the hope and expectation that every member of a family, whether that’s a personal family or a church family, will grow towards maturity. And like I’ve said, in the case of disciples of Jesus, full maturity is never reached in this life. Nevertheless, the expectation of continued growth never goes away. Ours is a life-long journey of stretching and growing and maturing.

Yes, I know that’s a tall order and what’s more spiritual maturity isn’t just a matter of age either. Although I should issue a caution here and say that spiritual maturity does and will take time. It also takes energy and it takes effort. No one becomes spiritually mature overnight. Even Jesus grew as he grew up. Look at what Luke says in chapter 2 a few verses on from our gospel reading. Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and men. (Luke 2:52) But, and here’s the spiritual health warning, you can get older and not grow to spiritual maturity. It’s like the T shirt slogan that says, I may be getting older but I refuse to grow up. Similarly, some Christians refuse to grow up. Sadly, I’ve known 60, 70 and 80 year old spiritual babies because spiritual maturity involves much more than just the passing of time.

So, if in fact, spiritual maturity isn’t just a matter of age then what might it look like when we encounter it? Well, in the course of reading, thinking and praying about this talk, I came up with what we might consider to be five marks of spiritual maturity.

A spiritually mature person is positive under pressure. A spiritually mature person is sensitive to the needs of other people. A spiritually mature person is a peacemaker not a troublemaker. A spiritually mature person is patient and prayerful

Now, I imagine we could add more to that list and also that these are some of the qualities we might expect to discover in a spiritually mature disciple. This then made me think of two characters featured in our gospel reading – Simeon and Anna. So many of those five qualities, seem to me, to simply ooze out of that pair of saints in spite of relatively few words being recorded on the page. And I think that’s because they both demonstrate the very essence of spiritual maturity. This for me can be summed up in one word – character. Character makes a difference. It’s character that counts.

American preacher, evangelist and writer D. L. Moody said: Character is – what you are – in the dark. Recognition is what people say about you. Character is what God knows about you. God says it’s your character that determines – who you are.

Now, despite what you might be tempted to think at times, Christ-like character is the central aim of all Christian teaching and preaching because to settle for anything less is to miss the point of spiritual growth. Again as Pauls says we’re to – become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ (Ephesians 4:13). Developing the character of Christ is the disciple’s most important task because it’s the only thing we’ll take with us into eternity. Jesus made it quite clear in his Sermon on the Mount that eternal rewards will be based on the character we develop and demonstrate in this life. What’s more, character is never built in a classroom setting. Character is built in the circumstances of life. The classroom or home group Bible study is simply the place to identify character qualities and to learn how character is developed. When we understand how God uses circumstances to develop character, we’re able to respond correctly when God places us in character-building situations.

 And if you want to know what Christ-like character looks like then a good place to start is the list of nine character qualities Paul lists in Galatians chapter 5. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Which, if you’ve made the connection then you’ll see mirror the five marks of a spiritually mature person I mentioned earlier. The fruit of the Spirit is a perfect picture of Christ. He embodied all nine qualities. If you’re going to develop Christ-like character, you too, must have these qualities in your life. Whenever we choose to respond to a situation in God’s way instead of following our natural inclination then we develop – character. For this reason God allows all kinds of character building circumstances. Conflict, disappointment, difficulty, temptation, times of dryness and delays.

So, thinking of the cat in the poem I began with. You’ll not be purrrrrr-fect in this life. Nevertheless, that cat was being – what he was – by frightening a little mouse. Likewise, our Father God calls you to be – what you are – and see that just because you might have a few more miles on the clock than you’d really like. It doesn’t, for a single moment mean you’re consigned to the scrap heap because that’s letting the world colour your vision. Instead, see your life through the eyes of a mature disciple that the Lord desires you to grow up to be. Neither will your experience of life be a purrrrrr-fect one. But you must understand that you can’t view the experiences of life in the way people who aren’t disciples of Jesus do. Instead, see your life through the eyes of a mature disciple and that the Lord seeks to create in you a Christ-like character.