Tag Archives: Fear

Blue, Peter?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

to

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen

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

Just a Sunday School story..?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Love is stronger than hate.”

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

Not bad for a Sunday School story, eh?

Amen

David Goliath

God looks at your…

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

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

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

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

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

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

– howls of laughter followed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen

God looks at the heart

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.

Amen.

Gerasene demoniac saved

Facing The Fear

This sermon was preached at St. Andrew’s 9:30 Eucharist on 25th January 2015 – The Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. The readings were Jeremiah 1:4-10, Acts 9:1-22 and Matthew 19:27-30.

What are you scared of? What makes you truly afraid? Spiders? Heights? The curate standing up to preach?

I think it’s fair to say we all have things that make us uncomfortable, some things that we don’t like the idea of, and some things that, as Timothy puts it, “scare the life out of my skin!” It’s also true that some of these fears are irrational, but some are not – and either way, the fear is no less real. I know we are hugely blessed that, for the majority of us in here, we have less reasons to be afraid than many other people in this world, but this doesn’t make our fears any less valid – just we are probably in less immediate danger, or have more chance of avoiding them in 21st century Roker (unless you truly have a fear of the curate’s sermon…)

But consider how you feel when confronted by even the thought of those fears. Here we are, in a safe place surrounded by good people, yet just thinking about that thing that scares us will have left some here feeling uncomfortable or worse – sorry for that.

But imagine if you suddenly felt God calling you to confront one of those fears. And not just one of the irrational ones – finding a spider in the bath in this country is unlikely to be a life or death matter, however creepy some find them – but a really dangerous one. Ananias finds himself in this position in today’s New Testament reading.

We now know Paul as a great man – a great saint – without whose letters we would lack so much great teaching in the faith, such wonderful writing. And yet we shouldn’t underplay just how scary the prospect of meeting this man would have been for Ananias.

In the chapters of Acts before this reading we see how jealousy and fear of the Romans had led to the persecution of the early church, leading to imprisonment & flogging. When we first meet Paul, at that point known as Saul, it is at the stoning of Stephen. At first he seems more of an observer than a threat – a young man minding the coats while the really scary people get on with the business of killing a man by hurling rocks at him. But the first verse of chapter 8 I find chilling: “And Saul approved of their killing him.”

What would it matter if he ‘approved’ of it or not – unless his opinion was valued by those in charge. Then we see his true power.

“That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria. Devout men buried Stephen and made loud lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.”

Saul was leading a campaign of terror against those who professed Jesus name – and seemed ruthlessly good at it. This leads us up to the first two lines of today’s reading which cement all that has gone before.

“Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.”

Saul was on a mission to destroy this Jesus cult, and was not going to be held back.

Then – a miracle. Jesus himself intervenes. Saul is left blinded and understandably shocked by what happens – all his certainty, all his belief, his zeal his passion shown as misdirected, as against the wishes of the God he thought he was protecting. No wonder he spends the following days fasting & praying, trying to make sense of it all.

So, enter Ananias. And imagine for a moment you’re praying, taking a quiet moment in a busy day, when you have a vision. Is it a daydream, a flash of images, just words? Whatever and however it happens, suddenly you become aware that God is speaking to you – and is asking you to do something unbelievably terrifying, scarier than your worst nightmares. Worse than picking up a spider, looking out from the top of the church tower, or discovering too late that it’s me climbing up to the pulpit. In Ananias case, he is to go to the most dangerous person in the region, a man who is rounding up friends and fellow believers, who has been involved in the killing of his associates, and talk to him about Jesus. To put it in modern terms, it’s maybe up there with one of us being asked to parachute into Northern Nigeria and have a chat with the leader of Boko Haram

But it is unmistakable. God wants Ananias to go, and remarkably says He is going to use Saul as a missionary to the world. So Ananias goes, lays on hands, and the rest is history.

Our history.

For this is a massive part of the story of our faith, of our journey to eternal life and salvation. And it shows, amazingly, the biggest stumbling block to love – to God’s love being shown to the world – isn’t hate. It’s fear.

We spoke a few weeks ago about how perfect love casts out fear, about the way to win the war on terror, to defeat the evils of this age is through love conquering fear, and here is a great example. Because if Ananias had succumbed to the fear of what mortals could do to him – if he had run scared from facing Paul – or if he’d thought more about what ‘people’ said and thought rather than listening to the Lord – I appreciate the offer, Lord, but Saul is evil and terrifying and I, little old me, will have no hope facing him – he wouldn’t have gone.

And alongside this, if Paul’s fears had got in the way, he too would have run a mile. What if he’d sat there thinking of all the things he’d done in his life – the persecution, the pain & misery, the mistakes he had made – and decided he wasn’t worthy of being a follower of Jesus. That he wasn’t good enough. Or if his pride had put up a barrier – if he’d worried about what this change of heart was going to look like to those around him. Imagine what would happen if a well-known atheist like Richard Dawkins suddenly came out and said he’d become a Christian. That he was wrong about Jesus & faith and was now not just a believer, but truly committed to helping others find a relationship with their creator.

Paul had to overcome the fear of what people would say, how people would react, the complete change of direction his life would have to take because of his newfound belief in Jesus. And thank God he did. Because there is a distinct possibility that, without Paul’s mission to the Gentiles, without Ananias listening to God and facing his fears, we would not be here today – or, more importantly, would not have the love, hope and amazing privileges that come from being in a relationship with God our Father, though Jesus His Son by the power of His Holy Spirit.

Through prayer, through time reading the Bible, we have direct access to the one who made us, loves us and wants the very best for us, in this life & beyond. Who knows us better than anyone – just look at the words spoken to Jeremiah in our Old Testament reading.

So I don’t know about you, but I think this story of Paul’s conversion should bring great comfort and courage to us all. Because once again it shows ordinary people being called to do extraordinary things by God – and then being equipped to do them. It shows nobody is beyond salvation, no matter what has happened in the past. It shows there is true forgiveness for sins, true redemption of lives. It shows people like you and me overcoming fear with love, and changing the world.

conversion-st-paul

Je suis la lumière…

This sermon was preached at St. Andrew’s 9:30 Eucharistic on 11th January 2015, celebrating the Baptism of Christ. The readings were Genesis 1:1-5, Acts 19:1-7 and Mark 1:4-11.

I’ve discovered since having children the delight that can be had by being a bit counter-cultural. I know as Christians we talk of being in the world but not of the world, a challenging idea in a catchy phrase, but as we escape the Christmas hype & the incessant demands of a commercialised society there is real joy to be had watching the bairns discover for the first time things that you have loved since you were their age, that the marketing men probably see very little value in any more. So we have recently watched old episodes of “Button Moon” on YouTube, sung along to my 3 year-old’s new favourite band – Jethro Tull – and played a board game called “Escape from Atlantis,” a staple of my childhood that nobody else in the whole world, apart from the bloke selling it on eBay, had ever heard of.

But probably my favourite thing recently has been watching my eldest firstly pick up, then devour rapidly C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. Since then the eldest three have watched through all the BBC adaptations I just so happened to own on DVD & have thoroughly enjoyed the adventures of the Pevensie children as they negotiate the pleasures and pitfalls of the strange land of Narnia. Of course, the books are steeped in Christian symbolism & allegory, something my eldest was quick to pick up on. She was delighted to link Jesus to the great and powerful Aslan, who throughout the novels tends to appear on the scene suddenly before rapidly moving from place to place in great leaps and bounds. At one point in The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe it proclaims “he rushes on, never missing his footing, never hesitating.”

It’s interesting to note, therefore, that St. Mark and his Gospel have long been symbolised by the image of a lion. The four gospels are traditionally represented by four images of heavenly beings found firstly in Ezekiel 1:10, then similarly in Revelation chapter 4: Matthew symbolised by the one with “a face like a human face,” Luke the ox, John the eagle & Mark the lion.

And, just like the great lion Aslan, Mark’s Jesus literally bursts onto the scene.

In his own counter-cultural way, eschewing the usual beginnings of a biography of the time, Mark gives us none of the preamble of the birth narratives, family history or genealogy as in Matthew or Luke, or even the majestic & cosmic opening of John. “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” is all we get – then we’re off with this fully grown God-man as He sets about His mission. Immediately we meet John the Baptizer, who lives well outside society’s norms: dressing strangely, talking to the religious people in a way that they thought was completely out of order, and enjoying a diet lifted straight from an “I’m A Celebrity” bush tucker trial.

Mark, in his hurry to move us along, doesn’t show just how threatened the religious authorities were by this wild prophet – but he does show just how much the public connected with him, as “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.”

But John was quick to point away from himself to Jesus which, as we all know, is the point of baptism – it’s a way of connecting with, of joining with Jesus. And Mark’s Gospel, for all its pace & brevity, is a clever lion. The next time baptism appears in it, Jesus uses it as a metaphor for His death, when He asks James & John if they can “drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” in chapter 10. Alongside this, there is no gentle “opening” of the heavens, as in Matthew & Luke. No, in Mark the heavens are “torn apart” before the voice declares “You are my Son.” The only other time Mark uses the Greek schizo is when the curtain of the Temple is “torn apart” after Jesus death, and the centurion declares “Truly, this man was the Son of God.” So the baptism and crucifixion bookend the whole Gospel – Jesus appears from nowhere to be baptised, and is baptised in order to die.

As we enjoy the first weeks of a New Year we are reminded, in our first reading today, of the beginnings of the world. God spoke His Word and light suddenly appeared.

The sudden, dramatic arrival of light in total darkness is an indescribable, unimaginable thing. So maybe that’s the point Mark is making by his sudden start to the Gospel. John takes the time at the start of His to explain Jesus is the Word, present at the very start of all things, that through Him all things came into being. In Mark the Christ suddenly appears, the light of the world arriving as dramatically as the light at the dawn of time, and remains until “At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon;” at the point of Jesus crucifixion.

At times it feels like our world is still struggling with this darkness. The events in Paris this last week, with people murdered in the name of God leaves some again asking the obvious question – where is God in this? Surely, if He’s a caring & loving as we say He is He would intervene – step down into the darkness & change the way people act, people think, and defeat evil, sin & death once and for all.

Well, here’s the thing. He did. He has. God in Jesus, who lived and died and rose again for us here and the whole of creation has changed the world.

Sadly there are still people that maintain the violence, terror and evil that perpetuates war-torn regions, land-grabbed areas and fierce reprisals against those they disagree with. However, football fans get understandably frustrated when the minority of people, who actually turn up for the trouble & not the match, are held up to represent them and thus all get painted as hooligans. Our Muslim friends suffer in a similar, yet far worse way when people such as the Kouachi brothers & so called Islamic State carry out atrocities and legitimise their lust for violence & glory by using the name of God. And that got some people thinking. One journalist put it like this

“What if the terrorists who attacked Paris were merely pretending to be offended by cartoons, in order to give themselves an excuse to commit murder? Murder so horrifying, on a pretext so unWestern, that non-Muslims – blinded by grief and rage – turn on Muslims. Blame them. Persecute them. Burn their book, attack their mosques, threaten them in the street, demand their expulsion from Western societies. Actions that, in turn, scare Western Muslims, isolate them, alienate them. And thus drive some of them to support – and even become – terrorists. Result: terrorists swell their ranks for a civil war they long to provoke.”[1]

This is a pretty scary thought, and there are times, like the back end of last week, when it appears terrorists seem to be closer than ever to achieving this – especially when certain political figures add fuel to the fire to try to achieve their own agenda.

But now turn our thoughts back to Jesus Himself. He was mocked, beaten, spat on, tortured and eventually murdered, but did not raise a hand in violence and in fact healed and forgave his aggressors. As He told Peter,

Put your sword back in its place…for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?”

In this, Jesus taught us the way to defeat evil. With love. This sounds trite and maybe overly passive, but love is the greatest weapon we possess in the so-called “war against terror.”

That “love your neighbour” thing. He meant that. Because by loving those around us, we break the cycle of fear. By treating seeing those around us through the eyes of Jesus we learn to recognise our common humanity, recognise we were all created by the same Father and Jesus died and rose again for each one of us. And this great love, arriving like the brightest, warmest light suddenly appearing in the darkness burns through the hate and despair. “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear.”

To blame the vast majority of Muslims for these acts of terror, to demand they apologise even, is akin to blaming all the Newcastle fans for the actions of the one who punched a horse the other year – or all Norwegian Christians for the attack carried out by Anders Breivik in 2011.

So we are right to condemn, in the strongest terms, the actions of those who commit terrorist attacks. We are right to pray for an end to such terror, for those responsible to be brought to justice.

But to truly have a chance of hastening the end of terrorism, whoever’s name it is carried out in, we need to pray as Jesus prayed & love as Jesus loved – which includes praying for the terrorists. After all, that “love your enemies” thing – He meant that too.

This takes courage – to love like this can be a scary, seemingly counter-cultural thing to do. But just as Aslan is not a tame lion, Mark’s Gospel is not a tame, comforting book. It reminds us that we have a responsibility as adopted sons & daughters of God to live His way, as shown by Jesus, whose power was realised in suffering, and whose kingship was proclaimed in death.

But take heart. The strong, brave lion of Christ is with us, to lead and to guide, to carry us when we falter, to inspire us to love. Because, “if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.”

He will show us the way the Father delights in, and help us to teach it to those around us – and by the power of the Spirit make the light of the world, present from the very beginning, shine into the darkest of places.

Amen.

[1] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/france/11332535/We-think-the-Paris-terrorists-were-offended-by-Charlie-Hebdos-satire.-What-if-were-wrong.html

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