Tag Archives: Incarnation

A Birthday to Remember

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

 Come_Holy_Spirit_Yvonne_Bell_1

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Do You Know This Man?

This sermon was preached at St. Andrew’s 9:30am Eucharist on 22nd 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 Jeremiah 31:31-34, Hebrews 5:5-10 and Mark 11:12-25.

The Angry Christ

As you came in, each of you should have received a picture – one free in every pack! It looks a bit like an old cigarette card, doesn’t it. Take a good look at it now. Do you know this man? The flashing eyes, the pointing finger, the snarl, the teeth – this surely can’t be Jesus? Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, strolling around in his socks and sandals, stroking his beard, tossing his long flowing hair like he’s in a L’Oreal advert – that’s how He looked, surely. Not this maniac who looks like He’s about to reach through the card & black our eyes!

Personally, I’ve liked this picture ever since I saw it. It challenges me. Because it is so easy to, in effect, dehumanise Jesus by focusing solely on His kindness, His compassion, even His wisdom, but avoiding some of His emotion, His passion. The ‘nice’ bits of his personality are certainly important – the fact He loves us is undeniable to anybody who has read even just one of the Gospels – but Jesus was fully God and FULLY man.

But does that excuse His behaviour in this Gospel reading?

Because, on the surface, He’s being a bit irrational. In the first part of chapter 11, He’s welcomed into Jerusalem like a returning hero, with shouts of “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” Palm branches and cloaks were laid in His path – all the stuff we’ll think on next Sunday. But maybe the power has gone to His head? Sent Him a bit off track. This is the following day, the morning after the night before, and Jesus is hungry, but as the fig tree has no fruit He curses it. The following day they find it withered. Quite harsh when you think it wasn’t even fig season! Maybe Angry Christ has lost the plot a bit?

But Mark doesn’t waste words – or show Jesus as anything other than the fulfilment of the Messianic prophecies. This is another classic Markan sandwich, where Mark places a similar story either side of a passage to help us understand what is going on.

Jesus has gone to the Temple to find fruit – you could say the fruits of the Spirit – but instead has found the rich exploiting the poor, those with power oppressing those with none, those on the fringes of society, the marginalised, being excluded from any chance of offering proper, lawful homage to their God in His House. After all, it should be a house of prayer “for all the nations” – not just those who can afford the money changers charges.

So Jesus decides to teach the people a lesson – no, not in that way, but in the manner of one of the prophets of old. He enacts God’s word, driving out those who are exploiting the people – then, it says, He teaches them by using words of scripture. No wonder the chief priests and scribes were so angry when they heard what had happened – all of those who found out about the days events, especially in the light of the triumphal entry the day before, would see Jesus as at the very least acting like a messenger from God – and would be aghast to hear the prophecy was, in effect, accusing them of the same failings of their ancestors. Best get Him out of the way before He does much more damage.

So when we, His modern disciples, alongside those followers with Him at the time, see the fig tree, it seems to tell us that Jesus wasn’t some maniac who was eager for figs to be available all year round – a kind of prophetic nod to our modern selection of goods in the supermarkets – but an indication of His point. If the tree does not produce good fruit, it is no use. If the tree is sick at its roots, the whole thing ceases to function. If the worship of the Jewish people was rooted in the temple, and the temple and its keepers were rotten, then God’s Kingdom was under threat.

So this passage isn’t justifying all anger – I am as guilty as anyone at losing my temper inappropriately. When hurt or challenged, even if the other person is right, it can be hard to hold back, not to react & let rip in their direction. But being angry about some things is entirely appropriate.

See how Mark cleverly plays off the unjustified anger of the authorities at being told, entirely correctly, they were not fulfilling their duty to the kingdom, against Jesus righteous anger on behalf of God’s people, oppressed, downtrodden & put upon by those claiming to do it in the name of God.

There are many situations today we, as Jesus disciples, as God’s people on earth, should be rightfully angry about. Oxfam reported that by next year 1% of the world’s population will own more than half the world’s wealth – they will own more of the world’s wealth than the whole other 99% added together! While people across the globe, including in our own country, struggle to afford shelter, warmth, even food – 1 in 9 people go to bed hungry each night, and more people die from hunger than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined each year – just a fraction sit on the means to stop hunger forever. And on the subject of malaria, anyone who watched Comic Relief a week last Friday will now know mosquito nets, which can prevent thousands of children dying from malaria, are two for a fiver. Yet thousands die from malaria each year, as they can’t get the nets. I think that should make us angry.

Closer to home, big corporations, rich individuals, are evading tax – sometimes assisted by our own financial institutions, if the allegations in the press were true a few weeks ago, which takes away valuable income which could elevate austerity measures in this country. I think that should make us angry.

Child sexual exploitation, ethnic cleansing, FGM, people trafficking, executions, racism, sexism, homophobia – we are right to get angry about these things – especially when supposedly carried out in the name of ‘god’ – as each one of them, just as was the case in the temple, are ways that those who have authority, who hold the power, abuse and oppress others – which is the complete opposite of God’s kingdom, of His plan for each and every one of us.

Terry Pratchett, who sadly passed away recently, wrote something helpful in his novel Carpe Jugulum. Granny Weatherwax is arguing with a member of a religious sect:

“sin, young man, is when you treat people like things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is.”

“It’s a lot more complicated than that—” he argues

“No. It ain’t. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they’re getting worried that they won’t like the truth. People as things, that’s where it starts.”

“Oh, I’m sure there are worse crimes—”

“But they starts with thinking about people as things…”

The money changers were treating God’s children, coming to His house to worship, as a revenue stream, as a conveyer belt of profit. The authorities were allowing this to happen. Jesus anger was directed at those who were treating their brothers and sisters, our brothers and sisters, created each one in the image of God, as things.

As we approach Good Friday, when Jesus was beaten, mocked, abused and killed for each one of us – and Easter Day when He rose again to lead us to eternal life – we need to hold on to the fact he did it for each member of this world’s population, however rich or poor, strong or weak. We are called to be angry on behalf of those who are powerless, however close to home or far away they are, and use that anger to try and make a difference.

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,” caused anger and derision from many people, a lot of whom it seems have a vested interest in the current system. “Christians should stay out of politics,” was the accusation. “Religion and politics don’t mix.” It was up to the comedian David Mitchell to point out “If church leaders can’t complain about poverty who on Earth can?”

Through prayer, through our buying choices, through our votes & our willingness to hold to account those elected into authority over us, by our relationships with friends, neighbours and strangers, we can help further God’s kingdom on earth. Let’s take the time to look into issues that affect the poorest in our society, locally and globally, let’s allow ourselves to be moved, upset, challenged and become righteously angry this Lent and beyond, and to ask God our Father, through His incarnate Son Jesus Christ who knew and experienced every range of human emotions, to fill us with His Spirit and guide us to radically love our neighbour, and our perceived enemy, and seek to change things for good.

It seems a huge ask – it may seem like I can’t possibly mean us here. But I do, and we can.

We are all blessed by God, loved by God, empowered by his Spirit. Look around you – We are the body of Christ. Together we can make a huge difference. How??

“Jesus answered them, ‘Have faith in God. Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, “Be taken up and thrown into the sea”, and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you. So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.’”

Amen.