Tag Archives: St. Paul

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!”

Amen.

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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

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.

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