Tag Archives: Faith

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.

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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

More Questions than Answers?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is the future for our church?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Ascension-Day-Of-Lord-3