Playing catch up part 2- You’re off to see the Wizard, the wonderful wizard of Rome…

Ahem, apologies for that awful link there, but my mind has been filled these past few weeks with songs and script from the Wizard of Oz which has been our kids’ end of year school production.

We’re nearly at the end of the book of Acts (this week we were on chapter 25), both in our daily readings and our weekly preaching, and Paul is about to set off on his journey to Rome, as you’ll see…

You have appealed to Caesar, to Caesar you will go! With those words the next chapter in Paul’s journey commences- Last week we heard how Paul, at the end of his missionary journeys, had returned to Jerusalem and was seized by the crowd whilst praying at the Temple. He was rescued by the Roman guard, and gave his final public speech as a free man- proclaiming once again his faith in Jesus as the way to salvation, and proclaiming that God had called him to go and share this message of hope with any and all- regardless of whether they were Jew or Gentile. It was one thing to claim that Jesus was the messiah- this had been said before, and as had already been said, if it was not true things would die down of their own accord, but quite another to suggest that God’s love was not limited to the Jews. We’ve all heard of, or experienced first hand, situations where love can turn into jealousy and anger- I won’t share! And this is what happened here. Paul’s opponents began to plot and plan for his murder. Eventually Paul is moved to Caesarea- away from the Jewish centre of power to a Roman city, where he is imprisoned for 2yrs because no one will make the decision to free him- he’s not worth a ransom, won’t offer a bribe and its not politically advantageous to let him go.

And so, to our reading today- Governor Festus is replaced by Goveror Felix, and we go round again- the plotters attempt once again to get Paul transferred to their power, then when that fails they make accusations in the court, and Paul makes his defence. If you’ve read the account of Paul’s previous trial, you’ll notice there are some differences here, however.

Paul, on this occasion, doesn’t preach to the court- he doesn’t mention Jesus, or his vision, or the resurrection. He simply says that he’s done nothing wrong. Maybe he’s learnt that preaching to the last governor didn’t do him any good, maybe he remembers that talking about the resurrection caused a riot when he was on trial in Jerusalem… whatever the cause, he speaks to the legal situation- If I’m on trial, I’m on trial, find me guilty or innocent, but don’t hand me over to these folks who’ll just kill me. And then his appeal to the higher court of Caesar- if you can’t make that decision, send me to your boss.

Is Paul scared here? I don’t think so. It feels to me, reading this passage and those that go before it, that Paul has already decided his intention. He knew before ever arriving in Jerusalem that he’d face problems there- prophets had spoken to him, he felt it himself, and it was fairly obvious; and then after his arrest God spoke to him in a vision- you’ll testify in Rome in the same way… how would this happen? Paul knew that as a Roman citizen he could appeal to the courts of Caesar in Rome, which was the best option for him. Having been led by God’s Spirit, and through his ministry been supported by other believers, Paul also uses his common sense.

The story goes of a man out swimming at sea who encounters difficulties, and realises he’s too far from shore… so he prays ‘Lord, save me!’ Within a few minutes a rescue helicopter buzzes over- he’s been seen by someone from shore and they phoned it in… over the roar of the engines he calls out ‘thank you, but the Lord will save me!’ And so they go… but as time passes he feels his arms weakening again ‘Lord save me!’ and skimming over the waves comes a kayaker who happens to be passing this way… ‘climb aboard and I’ll take you ashore’… despite his fatigue his voice is strong ‘no, the Lord will save me!’ the kayaker shakes his head and paddles off… as the man continues, getting weaker and weaker, he calls out a final time ‘Lord save me…’ and as he sinks under the waves a dolphin swims past, pushing him back to the surface and supporting him on its back. As he recovers his breath, he starts to speak, but suddenly the dolphin looks over its shoulder at him, and says ‘Look, do you want saving or not, because frankly I’ve had just about enough of this!’

God gives us common sense and intelligence as well as spiritual insight and discernment. We, like Paul, should respond wisely to the situations we find ourselves in- while still trusting that God is with us in all things. We take responsibility for the things around us, for our own lives and actions, for the resources we have to hand and our relationships with people we know, whilst allowing God to be at work in those things too- we are not anxious, but we are not naïve. As our gospel passage puts it, we do not allow ourselves to be burdened by things- yes, there is much that faces us; some of it in our own lives, some much wider and seemingly bigger, but our response to these is the same- today, I choose to live, so far as I can, in a way which demonstrates the love of God which I have known, the forgiveness I have received, and the hope which I have, and where I cannot, I will pray that tomorrow will grant me opportunities which today did not.

Paul- imprisoned for two years, has a moment to speak, and he chooses to continue along the path that God has set him on- I will go to Rome… So may we not be afraid, may we not stumble, may we not feel burdened by what is ahead or weighed down by what has gone before, but may we live our lives this week in joyfilled response to God.

 

So, what happened?

Apologies, it’s been a long week. There’s been a lot going on, and I know I should have got in touch sooner, but you know?

Somehow it’s Friday, and I’ve managed to get through the meetings and the paperwork, and have done all the things of life and work that are part of the week. Phew. Except of course, here we go again… Am I behind at this stage, or have I managed to get ahead of the curve? The fact that I’m writing a blog during the day is a good sign, the fact that my notes from last Sunday are what I’m posting isn’t…

Anyway, to the point- what happened last Sunday? It was great! Folks turned up at both our services (of course, more could have come, but my internal optimist/pessimist meter always looks at the empty seats!), worship was GOOD, people responded to the testimony given by someone at one of our services (yay Sally!) and engaged with the opportunity to remember and reflect on their own baptism that was part of our celebration. In short, not a bad day at the office.

Jo preached over at one church (stonkingly good, but not recorded, I’m afraid), while the other church had to put up with me- it was recorded, so you can listen to it here or read my notes below. We were looking at part of Acts chapter 19- as we read through this book in our daily readings we’re also preaching through some of the later chapters, which folk seem to be really enjoying.

So here’s what was said-

Today we’re celebrating the birth of St John the Baptist, the patron saint of our churches here in Newport and in Bishop’s Tawton; and in both our churches we’re joining in a baptism and also reflecting on our own baptism- we may prefer to use the term Christening or baptism, they are identical, except that one is the word we find in the Bible, the other is an English slang- to baptise someone is to ‘Christian’ them… it’s what the earliest Christians did when someone came to faith in Jesus, growing out of the Jewish tradition of washing- baptism as a symbolic action for cleansing from sin- John’s baptism in the river was rooted in the Jewish law and made perfect sense to his listeners- you become spiritually unclean with all the mess and muck in your life, and as a sign of what is going on in your heart you wash yourself as you turn towards God.

As we talk about Baptism and Christening we use all sorts of imagery- some of which the children are thinking through over at the tables now, but one of the most powerful that John the Baptist spoke of was the need to turn- to change the direction of our lives- to repent. It’s not about changing the person you are, but about the direction you’re heading. The result of that turn is that things in our lives change- we have a different perspective, but we remain who we are- I am me, wherever I’m standing. The difference that this change makes is in how we view God, and in how we view the world- God becomes at once more awe-inspiring, but also more accessible- He is the God of all the world, and yet I can approach him as Father. The world is no longer something I want to extract as much as I can from or a place where I need to ‘win’, but something I want to see flourish- I place where I want to ‘give’.

And finally when we think of turning, and of changing perspective, we realise that repentance is about starting- sometimes a fresh start, sometimes a restart; but its never the endpoint. We turn from something, towards something else… and then what? We move in that new direction.

What Paul, in our Bible passage today, realised, was these people he was meeting in Ephesus had been given the first parts of this, but not the whole- they didn’t know there was more than the turning away, that there was anything more- they were completely unaware of Jesus, or his promise of the Holy Spirit- that gift of God which helps us to continue… to receive the gifts that he gives us as we try to pray, to worship, so serve him, and to see the fruit of God’s life in us throughout our lives- to grow in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. These things are like lightbulbs switching on, and at the same time the work of a lifetime- we can experience moments where something happens in us, where peace breaks out or gentleness is unleashed, but we know that these things will fully flourish in us over the years.

When we think of Christening, or baptism, and particularly when we think of how it’s been part of our history in the UK, we might be tempted to forget that it is part of mission- but when Jesus sent his friends into the world he sent them to baptise and make new disciples, and as the church in this place, worshipping in this church named after John the Baptist- who went out of the city and spoke to all who’d listen, we stand in this awesome tradition- we follow in the footsteps of those who despite opposition and being ignored did not give up, or shut up. And neither should we. We have been given a precious and wonderful gift to share- light in the darkness, hope in times of despair, healing for the broken hearted, release for the captive, a rescue for all of us. Those of us who have called ourselves Christians for many years are in no way superior to anyone else- we have only recognised that the peace, the hope, the healing which we seek- and that we see in so many wonderful ways around the world, all has its source in God, and in his son Jesus we are invited to know that source- so why settle for anything less?

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And the plan for next year? Do it again, but bigger! See you there.

The sneeze effect- when a message goes viral

We’re continuing to read through the book of Acts in our Sunday morning services, and our daily Bible readings- last weekend I was speaking on a passage from chapter 11, and we also had a passage from the very end of Matthew’s Gospel read- chapter 28, verses 16-20 if you want to look at them here. I’ve been thinking about how things spread over the last few days- partly reflecting on the election campaigns, partly thinking about how the smell of last night’s cooking or a bbq still haunts me today, partly thinking about the terrible images of the fire in Grenfell Tower, but also thinking about how a message spreads from place to place- how the Gospel message of peace (real peace, mind you, not just the lack of actual violence), spread from Jerusalem to north and south. How was the experience of those early disciples (not yet called Christians) similar to mine today, and how was it different? What parts of their account are important for their place in history, and what parts teach and challenge me in 21st Century Britain?

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And why a sneeze? I guess at heart I’m still a kid who like gross things, and it makes much more sense than ‘point source explosive dispersion’ to most of us!

As always, what I said last week bears limited resemblance to what I wrote, but here’s what I planned-

Hopefully in the midst of everything else that has happened since Easter you have been able to note that in our Sunday morning worship and our daily Bible readings we have begun to look at the book of Acts. We do this each year as, following the events of the first Easter when Christ rose from the tomb we reflect on the lives and experiences of those early disciples during the first weeks of the life of the church. This year we’re continuing to read through Acts over the next month and will be having readings each week that will take us further into the book than we often go… we’re looking at what happened next, how did the experiences of those early days pan out over the next few years, and, very importantly, what can we learn for ourselves from it, for the here and now.

Our Gospel reading sets things up- the great commission. So often quoted, is Jesus’ final instruction- go and make disciples, baptising and teaching, but there are two other parts I just want to make mention of-

Firstly- They worshipped Jesus (but some doubted)- They no longer followed Jesus as a teacher or respected his rhetoric- they did not want him as their party leader or their king. They worshipped him as God. Everything that followed, the book of Acts and the existence of the church, stems from that- alongside our doubts and uncertainty, the decision made by Christians through the ages again and again to affirm that, yes, Jesus is God and yes, I will praise him and glorify his name.

We come together to worship, and to be encouraged and support one another… but primarily we come together to worship Jesus, the risen Son of God.

Secondly- Jesus said I am with you always… the book of Acts is sometimes known as the Acts of the Holy Spirit rather than the Acts of the Apostles- it tells of their waiting, during that period of 10 days, until the Holy Spirit came on Pentecost, and then of the outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit… firstly in the city of Jerusalem and then beyond.

When we talk about the important things of our faith, we must remember these things- the crucial importance of worship- if we aren’t worshipping God then we have nothing worth sharing, the essential need of the Holy Spirit to guide and direct our actions so that they are serving God, to give us words to speak so that we speak His words of life, to give us strength when we are struggling, to bring healing to the lives of those around us.

And we must also remember that instruction that Jesus gave- that follows on from worship and is empowered by the Holy Spirit, that we are to go, and make disciples, baptising and teaching. In a few weeks time we’re having a service here to celebrate baptism- on our patronal festival as we remember the birth of John the Baptist, we will remember our own baptism and the calling we each have to share our faith with others. Some of us will do it more comfortably through words, others more comfortably through our actions, some are natural inviters, others will go and spend time alongside those who do not yet know God’s love for them. All of us feel inadequate to the task, and yet it is the charge given to us by Jesus.

Our passage this morning from Acts shows something of what it looks like when the church takes this charge seriously… There has been persecution- Stephen has been martyred, the church has been attacked and many believers have fled Jerusalem… and as they’ve gone they have shared their message- some to Jews, some to non-Jews. It doesn’t say how, but I imagine in those times a group of people arriving in your town might raise the same questions as today- where have you come from, why have you come here? And their response would naturally have included their own experiences- of who Jesus was and of how they couldn’t pretend otherwise. And ‘a great number of people believed’- this isn’t like the crowd at Pentecost or when Peter preached outside the Temple when thousands came to faith in one day… this is 1 here, 1 there, 50 in that town, 200 in this city… this is spread over different places and over time, but it is the time when that charge of sharing the gospel went from being something done by the experts, to being something done by everyone. The church went from being a closely concentrated group growing in one or two places, to something that was growing all over the region- From Cyrene in modern Libya round to Antioch on the border of Syria and Turkey.

What we see here is a great example for us of how mission can work-

Nobody asked for permission to go and do what Jesus had already told them to…

When the news reached the leadership they didn’t shut it down, but sent someone to encourage and support what was already happening.

Barnabas- the encourager, found someone he could work with and taught that person- Saul as he was still known, all that he could- as we’ll read in the weeks to come Saul learnt well!

Within this new way of being God’s people, things were allowed to be different but, they were still closely connected to their roots- they received and listened to the prophets who came to speak to them.

Finally we see again the generosity shown by the early church- sending gifts according to their ability to give to help their brothers.

Those things are still true for us today, here in North Devon-

You don’t need any permission to share God’s love with those around you, you already have it and will be following in some good footsteps. Wherever you find yourself, whether by choice or not, is a place where you can live in a way that shows God’s love- in the way you conduct yourself, in the way you use your possessions, in the way you speak of others, all that before you say a word about God’s love.

The job of those of us in leadership is to support through prayer, through advice, through training, those of us who’re serving God in our workplaces, families, in our streets as well as in church-based projects. But we can only help with what we know of- news has to reach my ears!

Then we provide ways for folk who’re responding to actually come to their own decision- to become and grow as disciples- last year’s Alpha, the Start courses and other, more informal things that help us find answers to the questions we have… and that are leading to the sprouting up of homegroups and discussion groups in our church.

And we support, with generosity, each other- through our giving to the church, through our giving of ourselves to each other- if we know someone is suffering we give what we can, if we want the ministry of our church to flourish, the bills need to be paid. This verse touches on a great truth- in our generosity we bless others, and God then blesses us. I know that whenever I’ve taken the chance to give generously to something- whether it was the running costs of my church or to put my hand in my pocket for a particular project, I’ve never regretted it. It’s only when I’ve given with a heart that calculates what I’ll get back that I’ve felt short-changed.

We do all this not as something new, but as something that has always been part of our church, however it’s been expressed over the years- these things are not ‘our’ identity or strategy- they are part of the identity of the church- since that time in Antioch when the believers were first called Christians.

So as we move on this year, as we read together through the book of Acts, as we live in these uncertain times, let us hold to these things that have served Christians for so many years- our commission from Christ, and our identity as the Church.

Speaking strong words gently

I was about to post my talk from last Sunday today… but the thing about blogging is that you can, and should, respond to immediate things. So this morning the meeting I was at didn’t start on time, because we prayed. Not hugely surprising for Christians to pray at the start of a meeting, you might say, fair point, but we prayed for Manchester, the city where I used to live, and for all those affected by the attack there last night in which 22 people died. We also prayed for the places we haven’t heard about in the news today, for the unnamed and unknown. We prayed for the injured, the mourning, the scared, the security and medical personnel, and yes, we prayed for those who would attack children and young people. I’m not asking you to be impressed, I’m just saying we did something slightly different, because we needed to.

So, if its ok with you, just stop reading here for a few seconds, and pray (if you like) or think of (if you prefer to call it that), those affected by terror attacks at the moment. And if you’d like to, then plan to do something different as a result of your thoughts and prayers- whether its going to Manchester to help practically, or to be friendly to the next random call-centre person who phones you from an 0161 number in case they’ve been affected, or to make sure you don’t act in fear or hatred to someone who’s ethnically different from you…

(here’s the bit where you stop)

Thanks. You can carry on now, if you want to

And the other thing that struck me was that we carry on doing the same things as normal… we don’t give up… so here’s my sermon from last Sunday as normal…based on Acts chapter 17 when Paul visits Athens.

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Paul is at the Areopagus- summoned there by the citizens to present his case… I have wondered whether he was being given the opportunity to speak- a visiting speaker with interesting ideas, or the chance to defend himself- a stranger with some concerning  views- was this a pre-trial hearing or a preview of what he’d teach if given permission? The answer probably lies somewhere in between. Paul has explored the city, having visited Phillipi, Thessalonica and Berea, and has begun to debate with Jews, God-fearing Greeks and anyone in the marketplace who would listen… and so he’s been brought to the Areopagus- the meeting place, not quite such an important place as a few hundred years before when Athens was chief among the Greek cities, but still…

As we look at Paul’s message here, we can learn as much about how to speak of God from it as we can learn about God- and for us, this probably something we need to look at- the chances are, if you’ve been coming along to church for a while, you know some things about God- from our prayers, the creed, our Bible readings, our hymns… you know God is the righteous and holy judge, who forgives although he could condemn; you know God is the creator and sustainer of all things, who loves and takes joy in his creation, you know that God has given humanity a role within creation, and that Jesus has given Christians a role within humanity… though you may well say or think you know very little, if you sat down with a piece of paper and wrote down your thoughts on what is God like, you’d be surprised how much you’d put down. Paul’s message is very simple- there is a God who created the universe. He knows you. He sent Jesus to die for you.

But are we able to share that with others? I’m not asking for all the evangelists to stand up and wave, but rather, are we, all of us, able to share what we know and believe with others?

Many Christians might feel that they don’t know what to say, or that its not their place, or that it’s not appropriate.

Lets start with that last one- there are times when it isn’t appropriate, and there are times when it is. When someone asks you, as Paul was asked, what you believe about God, and how you’ve come to believe that, then they deserve an answer.

Secondly- ‘it’s not my place’- if not yours, then whose? If Paul had said, wait here while I sail back to Jerusalem and fetch Peter, that would have taken many months. He was the man on the spot, the one who was asked… We’re not all Paul- we don’t take off on missionary trips around the Mediterranean (though now I think about it like that…)- we don’t have his gifting etc. But lets remember that Paul was not only clueless about Jesus, he was for his early life totally wrong. When he discovered the truth he immediately began to tell others… Very often in life we are the person in the right place, at the right time, having the conversation, and no one else could be there. Yes, there are times when we can reasonably say ‘I think you should talk to…’ or ‘I think you’d be helped by coming on an Alpha/Start course’…

Lastly, ‘I don’t know what to say’. Here’s the bullseye. Lets have a look at this passage from Acts. First of all, before Paul even speaks, we read ‘I walked around, I saw…’  He observed and got to understand something of where he was- if you know someone, you’ll know how to talk to them, and when to, and also you’ll have listened to them. When Paul finally does speak, he gives an Old Testament type preach- God as creator, humanity as offspring of God- he’s making a connection with Greek ideas but also challenging their practices of worship at the same time…He doesn’t really mention Jesus until the end… its not that Paul doesn’t think Jesus is important- just read his epistles if you doubt that, but that he realises how far his listeners need to journey before they can hear him speak about Jesus. So Paul listens and understands. He has spoken with a few people, but here he has been asked to speak, and so he does. And when he speaks, he starts where his listeners are- with things they understand- the unknown god and their poets, and relates them to his understanding of God as revealed in his people’s writings… You know the people around you better than I do, you’re already in friendships with them- that’s why you’re the best people to share the gospel with them.

Sometimes when we talk with others about God and the Christian faith, they may fire off a cheap shot, or make a joke about something, and we can be fearful… we aren’t good at arguing our point, we don’t remember clever things. But we are, each of us, experts in one thing- ourselves. Our own lives and experiences. Often folks will tell you about the God they don’t believe in… and sometimes you’ll agree with them- I wouldn’t believe in a God like that… but can I tell about the God I do believe in, and how my life has been? When Paul speaks, elsewhere in Acts, to Jews and tells them of his experience on the road to Damascus, there is no logical argument to be made against him- its just a case of believing him or not. When you or I speak of our own story, our testimony about our faith, it is our experience, our response to God, that speaks. Often its not even the words themselves, but the spirit in which we say them, that speaks most strongly into people’s lives.

Most often, we’ll be having a conversation with someone, rather than making the sort of presentation that Paul is, but what Paul finds is that at the end of his speech people have varying responses- you may have read the following verse ‘after he said this some of them sneered, but some of them asked to hear more’… When we share our faith with others, they may not respond as we’d like them to, but they may….

And its that ‘maybe’ that needs to grow in our hearts- we need to be like that boy, desperately fearing rejection, but who plucks up courage to shyly ask a girl if she’d like to go for a walk. Like that artist who eventually puts a painting into an exhibition, or the singer who finally shares a song. It may not work out how we hope, but if we’re always too afraid of what might happen, then we’ll never find out if it will.

Finding comfort when things are uncomfortable

Last Sunday morning our reading was from John 14- a passage that we’re most familiar with, unfortunately, from funerals. It’s very often used, because its so very poignant and appropriate to the question of ‘what is happening here?’ that we often face at those times. Yet the odd thing is, it comes before the death of Jesus- he is helping his friends to come to terms, in advance, with his death…

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Yesterday I went significantly off script, various things came up and had come up- some tough things for us as churches alongside things to celebrate, but it was just one of those wonderful timings- The passage chosen for today, and which I’d put on the list several months ago, was just perfect for many of us in different ways. Just another one of those remarkable coincidences that seem to happen around God.

Anyway, here’s what I based my talk on- I think the audio should be on our website here

Jesus is the way to the Father… but that doesn’t make it comfortable…

Often folk like parts of the Gospel, or the idea of God, or the feeling of the Holy Spirit, but when all three come together it can be more challenging- we might like to have a pick’n’mix, but is that what is on offer?

I once came across the acronym USP- Unique Selling Point… its what makes something unique- its particularly to do with marketing and sales- what makes this product or service stand out…

In terms of faiths and philosophies, this passage expresses one of the really important USPs of the Christian faith- How we can relate to God…

All philosophies/belief structures and religions try to help give life meaning- to find a way to live.

Many have some spiritual aspect beyond the material and measurable

A significant number have an understanding of the universe that embodies spiritual power within a god or gods

Some believe that there is some kind of life after our death

A few believe that their god is interested in individuals- that some kind of relationship is possible

One, and only one to the best of my knowledge, claims that anyone who wishes to can have a parent/child relationship with their god, a relationship that is based on love, hope, and that out of that relationship they can act and represent their god…

Jesus says- no one comes to the Father except through me. Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.

This is one of those ‘did he really say that?’ moments- What Jesus said is either true or blasphemy-the Sanhedrin, the Jewish leaders, made their decision and then acted on it- blasphemy- so they sought his death, and they killed Stephen for what he said…

Whilst the gospel is open to everyone, its not acceptable to everyone- there’s a point at which it can no longer be one of the things that we ‘like’… it is either so true and so important that it shapes our response to everything else, or its complete rubbish.

If Jesus is wrong about himself, if Stephen was wrong about Jesus, then the Christian faith is built upon the mistakes of a deluded man and his lying or hallucinating friends…

But the proof is in the pudding- when we humbly seek God, when we come in prayer for the needs of our community and seek forgiveness for the mess we’re making of our world… then we find that God responds- rarely in the way we might have preferred, or the timing we had in mind, but often in a way we could not have conceived of.

In prayer faith and faithfulness go hand in hand- do we believe in God’s ability and desire to act? And do we have the faithfulness to keep on pressing into that situation, praying for those people etc…

If we want to see people come to faith, we have to pray. If we don’t pray, why are we surprised when people don’t? Like a father, God knows what we need and yet delights in our asking for it…

Life to the full- woop woop!

Last weekend was an odd one… Wonderful wife plus two other stars were taking the main service and my boss was coming to preach at later service… so I had the day off? Not quite, as we still had an early morning service, there was a worship group to play in (yay, got to play bass in church!), and still needed to lead worship… so a light morning’s work that lasted 6hrs, but definitely no complaints- a good day was had by all.

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The passage we were thinking about was from John’s Gospel, chapter 10, which contains one of my favourite verses- ‘I have come that you may have life to the full’- verse 10. I love it, its both challenging and inspirational… Hope you don’t mind sentimental cheesy pic of wonderful wife out on a walk later in the week- living life to the full.

Here’s what I said at our 8am service…

 Jesus has just healed a blind man, the religious authorities have been called to investigate and have ended up throwing the man out of the synagogue for being cheeky, Jesus then finds the man who recognises him not only as a prophet of God but accepts him as the saviour… a blind, ill-educated man gets in a flash what the ‘proper’ folk have been waiting for and can’t see right under their noses. Who is really blind here? He goes on, in the passage we heard, to talk about the importance of the answer we give to ‘who is Jesus?’ or ‘what authority does Jesus have?’… The idea of sheep knowing their master’s voice sounds at once alien and attractive to us- it’s a nice image but not one we know from our own experience. We might remember the record shop HMV with its iconic picture of the dog listening attentively to ‘his master’s voice’… we might recall how a child can be calmed by a word from a parent when no one else will do… but we need to know the cultural resonance that the image of a shepherd had for Jesus’ listeners- they’d been shepherds since, well, forever- Abraham was a shepherd, Jacob and his sons were shepherds when they went to Egypt, Moses was a shepherd, David was a shepherd, and throughout the Psalms we read of God as a shepherd…and on the night of Jesus’ birth shepherds were on the hills- the role of a shepherd, while maybe no longer such a respectable job, was still significant.

When Jesus says, there are those who enter by the gate and those who climb in another way it’s clear he is saying that there are some who should not be followed, and some who should be- the sheep know the difference. There’s a relationship here- the sheep know their shepherd by voice and the shepherd knows their sheep… the shepherd is thinking of them- again, a different context for us where sheep are primarily farmed for meat, historically their milk (and cheese) and wool would have been more important- you grew the flock to fill the land… a context, a way of life that is less centred around short term profit and more about longer term care… The image is of a leader who cares, who puts themselves out- what we might call a servant leader… this is who Jesus is… his authority doesn’t come from the volume of his voice, but from how he speaks… a shepherd who’s flock know him and trust him- as Jesus disciples followed him they came to trust him more and more- as we live our lives as Christians today we find there are times when it’s easy to trust, and times when it’s hard, times when we forget someone is guiding us, and times when we cling to him…

In life there are many things that we might say we follow- a football team, a hobby, a band, an artist, a political party… at various points in our life we’ve probably each done so- but there is one similarity that carries across all of those- although you can see them, and although following them has its rewards- I remember going to obscure gigs and seeing my heroes close up, those things that we enjoy to not love us the way we love them- the way that Jesus loves us. They do not know us- despite the clever algorithms and cookies on websites they don’t know us, they do not have that self-giving love that Christ spoke of and demonstrated throughout his life and in his death. He is in this, both the shepherd and the gate- the one calling us to follow, and the means by which we are able to cross over- he is our personal saviour and Lord AND the saviour of all creation who stands at the right hand of the Father.

For us, we’re called to be sheep- to follow our Lord where he leads us, and we’re called to be sheep that somehow look like the shepherd- you know the way that dogs and their owners have a likeness? Just as Jesus came and lived among us so we’re to be like him to those we meet… not trying to replace him, but pointing others towards him by our words and our actions- by our prayers and our work amongst those in need.

And the outcome of all of this? Not a life lived in a holy tower or a ghetto, but life lived to the full- including the things we love- those hobbies, that desire to see the world changed, that love of the outdoors and those people we care for… but a life that isn’t limited or constrained by them- a life with a perspective that reaches to eternity and includes the whole world as our neighbourhood.

So, wherever you find yourself, live life to the max- not in splendid isolation from the rigours of the world, not blindly denying the truth of what is around you or missing out on the beauty of the world for fear of getting bruised along the way, and do what you can to help others live more fully.

Cheers.

 

Roadtrip with Jesus

Last Sunday we were looking at the passage in Luke’s Gospel where two disciples are walking from Jerusalem to a nearby village, on the afternoon of the first Sunday. It’s known as ‘The Road to Emmaus’ because, well, they’re on the road to Emmaus… you can find the passage in Luke 24.13-35 here, and this is what I said (or at least planned to say… as always the two are never quite the same).

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In this passage we see something of the impact that an encounter with God can have on people’s lives… but most importantly we see the how that encounter needs to be understood- eyes need to be opened, minds need to come to terms with things…

The two disciples, on the road to Emmaus- possibly going back home after the events- the excitement of the arrival in Jerusalem, the tension between Jesus and the teachers, then the seeming catastrophe of his arrest, the farce of the trial and the nightmare of his crucifixion. And then nothing. In times of crisis there are moments of in-between- waiting for the exam to start, for the news from the doctor, waiting for the girl to finish reading the note, for the phone call after an interview… and sometimes your mind is in a fog, you can’t think properly because you can only see one thing, and nothing else really makes any impact on you… the people of Jerusalem were convinced that Jesus wasn’t the Messiah, so he must be a blasphemer, a rebel, a danger… the disciples were convinced that Jesus was dead, so the news that they’d heard about the empty tomb wasn’t good news, it was another twist of the knife…

Sometimes we need to have our eyes opened, our horizons raised, our perspectives changed… but even when that does happen we may well not have the language and ideas to understand what is happening… When people use the term ‘spiritual but not religious’ they often mean that they have had, or want to have, spiritual experiences, that they believe in what is beyond the physical… but that they don’t want to be told what it means, or how to make sense of it by any form of organised faith community- they want the spiritual, but not the religion… which is ok, except that it can lead to a situation where everyone interprets an event themselves, and no one interpretation has any more truth… which is where our disciples on the road to Emmaus were… they just didn’t know what to believe- who was Jesus, was he alive or dead, what should they do? And so, they were just heading home- just as Peter and some of the other disciples… fishing etc…

Jesus joins them on the road- as with so many of our own encounters with God, we can mistakenly think that we have sought and found God, but in reality God has found us- often because we have stopped running or hiding… Jesus joins them where they are- they explain what they know and what they are unsure of, and then Jesus begins to speak, ‘explaining to them…’ and then finally Jesus joins them in real life- at the table, in a home- not in a worship time or a church, and they knew he was the Lord…

They still don’t have the language, but they can’t ignore what’s happened, so they get up and walk for two hours in the night… ‘were not our hearts burning within us’…

Article in Christianity last month- a young student from a damaged background, ended up in church having seen how becoming a Christian had changed a friend… not sure what’s going on, not connecting, when invited back gave a ‘sure’ but not meaning it, and then somehow finding themselves there for the evening service, and ended up being prayed for… and felt their heart burning within them, with no knowledge of this passage or having ever heard of Wesley’s ‘heart strangely warmed’… without having the language to describe it, she knew she’d met God…

Acts- Peter explains- this is what has happened… this is what is means, this is what you should do…

Our job, our privilege is to help people understand their spiritual experiences, their desires etc… not to control them, but to free them and give them peace… to point them towards Jesus to help explain and make sense of things, to help them process them in a way that brings the supernatural and spiritual (yes, there is a God almighty, and a Holy Spirit, and Jesus is the Son of God, and because of God’s love and Jesus’ sacrifice I can be filled with the Holy Spirit) into the everyday and the earthly (yes, I can pray at the kitchen table, about things that are happening in my life, and God can help me to cope with the stresses I face today)… The promise was not just for those who met the risen Christ or who heard Peter at Pentecost, but is for all who would listen.

Later this month we’re going to be reading through Acts together as a church, and I’ll be posting reflections on those readings- probably not every day but a bit more frequently than over the last while… If you fancy getting hold of a commentary/guide to Acts yourself, we’re using Whitney Kuniholm’s ‘Essential Question’ or you might prefer Tom Wright’s ‘Acts for Everybody’, both available in good bookstores and various online places.

Boom! Shazaam! ‘Where’d he go?’, the resurrection according to Matthew and Spielberg, with visuals by God.

What a weekend! What a week! What a day! What a sunrise!

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Looking back its really easy to look past the middle of the road stuff and see either the highs or the lows… most of the time when someone asks how you’re doing the reply is either ‘Great, thanks!’ ‘Busy as you like!’, on occasions we may be ‘just awful’, but its rare that we describe ourselves and our day as ‘a bit pants and a bit good, you know’…

I’m saying this because when we read the events of the first Easter, they’re viewed in hindsight- the women were overjoyed, the men ran to the tomb, the angel- well, the angel played it pretty cool actually. After an event we talk it down or we talk it up, but while its happening we’re mostly just getting through- hanging on with our fingertips, refusing to give up, or just trudging along. Last week I took my daughters on their first rollercoaster ride… there was much screaming, laughter and general ‘whoa!’-ing, but when the ride finished, their voices were unleashed ‘it was like this, and so that and then…’ Often in church we’re quite good at calm and reflective, but we don’t tend to do too much ‘it was just amazing!!’… maybe we should try a bit more?

Anyway, some of these things and more were included in my talk on Sunday morning which was based on Matthew’s Gospel… it was recorded on the website here, and my original notes looked a little like this:

Matthew’s account of the resurrection is a real action movie- there’re angels and supernatural earthquakes, but there’s also the human aspect- down to earth things- the body is gone… Jesus appears and speaks to the women- they can ‘clasp his feet’…

At the beginning of the day, everyone thought they knew what was going to happen- the guards, the women and the disciples… but they were all wrong. And so their first reaction is a mix of disbelief and fear- Guards were afraid, Angel says do not be afraid, women hurry away, afraid… Jesus says don’t be afraid…

But the women were also filled with joy…

When something momentous happens, how do you feel? When you get wonderful news, what emotions go through you? A friend gave me some news the other day- it was big stuff, and I could feel a whole mix of thoughts- concern, sorrow, relief… when you get the best news, sometimes its hard to accept it… sometimes you have to say to yourself ‘is this real’- but the answer is often ‘why wouldn’t it be?’… when someone tells me its raining, I rarely look up… when they see a rainbow I’ll come to the window- if they say its snowing I can’t bring myself to believe it until I know for myself.

The resurrection- Matthew and the other Gospel writers, who are the primary source for Jesus’ life, seem to present the resurrection and the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus to his disciples in the same way as they present the rest of their gospels- when they include a story, its clear that they aren’t presenting that as something that happened…

If Jesus rose again, its of supreme importance- because it validates what he said about who he was, about his power and authority, and it means so much for life after death.

If Jesus did not rise again, its of supreme importance- because it invalidates his claims, and the claims of others around him, it means that he was ‘just a teacher’, but one with a remarkable idea that he was the Son of God- or whose teachings were so warped as to sound like that… either way Jesus is not someone to follow.

What are the alternatives?

He didn’t really die- Soldiers put him on the cross, a soldier stabbed him with a spear… they were professionals doing their job…

The women and disciples were mistaken- (wrong tomb) if so, why didn’t the authorities at the time produce Jesus’ body? That would have quashed the stories early on, and there wouldn’t have ever been a church

The disciples stole the body- that was the line the authorities took… interestingly in Acts it never comes up again… when Peter, John, Stephen and Paul are before the Jewish or Roman authorities, on trial about their claims, its not recorded that anyone suggests this… instead the response is ‘blasphemy’- how can you suggest Jesus was the messiah? Rather than ‘of course he wasn’t, you’re deluded and wrong’…

A spiritual resurrection- this suggestion comes from Christians who want to believe the accounts of a resurrection but can’t accept the idea of a bodily resurrection… but it has two big problems- where did the body go? And what does ‘spiritual resurrection’ mean- his disciples claimed they saw and touched him, and shared food with him… and the body was gone… a spiritual resurrection doesn’t actually help, it just raises other, equally big questions.

The resurrection started a chain of events that has led to us being here today…

There was a man named Jesus who was crucified outside Jerusalem- the Bible says so, the Jewish historian Josephus says so.

His followers claimed that he rose from the dead- again, the Bible, Josephus, Tacitus, Suetonius and the Jewish Talmud all agree that his followers claimed this…

Those followers then went on to live as if what they claimed was true- to travel around sharing the news with others, they didn’t deny it under oath or torture. They lived lives in keeping with Jesus teaching, including practices of generosity as well as healing the sick… they prayed and bore witness to lives changed through prayer and God’s power.

If that had all been untrue, or just made up, it would never have made it out of Jerusalem, out of Palestine… it would never have made it to the heart of the Roman Empire, where for the next 200yrs Christians were persecuted- but still continuing to grow in numbers until its estimated that by the time of the Edict of Milan in 313AD there were over 200million Christians…

Despite rumours to the contrary the Christian faith is still alive and well in the world… but it is true that there are a lot of people in our own country and community that wouldn’t accept the claims that Christianity makes… so the challenge for us is to let them see the truth of those claims in our lives- in our love for the poor as well as the rich, in our generosity to the stranger as well as to our friends, in our faithfulness in the small things and the large- in the way that we show the love of Christ that prompted him to live on this earth, to minister amongst Jews, Samaritans and Gentiles, and to walk the path of the cross.

We worship Jesus as the son of God, because that is who we believe he is, as demonstrated supremely by his death and resurrection- which is why you’ll see here and in many other churches an empty cross- a symbol of state execution, but without its victim. We remember his sacrifice in the way he showed his disciples- through the breaking of bread and the sharing of wine- in some churches using grape juice, wafers, raisins or other things- in some countries using different food that has meaning to them, with the use of water to demonstrate that even the poorest of us can bring something. We celebrate that Jesus is the light of the world, who came into the darkness- with candles, white to symbolise purity… we do all this, and remind ourselves with the words of our communion prayer, that we worship, follow and serve a God of love and power who knows us and sees us at our worst, yet would transform each of us to more than we could hope for. Let us worship the Lord- Alleluia, Christ is risen.

 

What I would have said…

Sometimes on this blog I post some notes, or thoughts, from a talk that I have given; often with a ‘well, this is what I planned to say, but it didn’t quite come out like that…’ note. I think this has to be a first however- What follows has not been used as a talk at all, or given as an address- not even with a few changes or alterations.

I was, last week, ahead of the game- everything was prepped for the weekend by 5pm on Friday so that I could take some time off for the kids on Saturday- all good… until the phone call on Saturday afternoon… I’m not working so my wife picks up, listens, talks a bit, and then says ‘well, I think you’ll need to speak to Andy’… and calls ‘Andy, its your boss on the phone’. Fortunately, it wasn’t THAT kind of a phone call from the boss, but the other one, where he rings you up and says ‘hey, do you want a lie in tomorrow, I’ll take your early start if you like, come along and lead the main service but I’ll do the 8am’….. You bet! And then as I put the phone down, it hits me- firstly, I have 3 children, a lie in? and secondly that I have a completely sorted talk that’s going begging…

Anyway, so here is the premier unveiling of my… unspoken talk, based around the first 11 verses from chapter 5 of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome.

If it doesn’t make sense, well, sorry… I haven’t road tested it yet.

‘Therefore’… Paul has been building an argument over the last few chapters of the letter to the Roman church, and he continues to do so… ‘you see’, ‘since’… This is not an image-laden passage, not his testimony or a powerful metaphor… this is Paul in full logical argument mode…

Justification- being made right with God, comes through faith… by believing in Jesus we are at peace with God- or as John puts it- to all who received him, to all who believed in his name he gave the right to become children of God… as believers we are now in the unique position of being able to stand before God- but only because of his grace and Christ’s saving sacrifice…

Suffering for the sake of future peace- we have hope, and so we persevere, which leads to greater hope…

When people talk about favourite passages of Scripture, they may refer to a story- a parable, because we can retell a story, they may refer to a passage from the Psalms or Proverbs that is evocative- the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it… or a short verse that helps us understand God’s will and work- Romans 5 verses 6-8 is just such a passage…

It emphasises the role of God- at just the right time while we were still powerless…

It clearly describes the action of God- Christ died for the ungodly

It challenges our easy acceptance of this- very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man (but haven’t we just been described as ungodly?)

And then it comes back round to the starting point- but God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners Christ died for us…

That single verse contains so much-

The nature of God, the relationship that God desires for us and him, the relationship between Christ and God, the nature of sin and redemption…

In some circles the theology of redemption isn’t very popular- particularly penal substitution, which suggests that not only did Christ have to live and die for us, but that it was as a punishment that God the Father either could not or would not rescind… Now, that doesn’t sound loving or merciful to us, but we have to remember that we, us sinners, are the ones needing redemption… and that we cannot save ourselves. Unless we can… If somehow we can lift ourselves out of our sins such that we are saved from God’s wrath by our own actions (maybe inspired by Jesus?), then we don’t need redeeming… but if that’s the case, then why did Jesus die?

It seems, from the Gospels and from passages such as this in Romans, that there is an essential need for some kind of redemptive action by God- that Jesus chose to take on life so we could know God more fully, and that he chose to die so that all who believe might be forgiven… and rose to life again to show his power over sin, and death… God demonstrated his love in that Christ died, God demonstrated his power in that Christ rose again…

Under the covenant that God established with the people of Israel in the Old Testament, if you read Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers, we see repeatedly the idea of substitution- where someone sins, there is something they can do or give to atone- to make up for what they’ve done… and there are specific things… there is a clear indication of the necessity, established from the moment of the Passover, for some form of substitution… things can’t simply be forgotten but they can be resolved… God creates a way for the mess that we are, and the mess that we are in, to be redeemed… while we were still sinners, Christ died for us…

And what this means for us, as Christians, is expressed most fully in the final verses of this mornings passage- this is how much God loves us- he allowed his son to give his life so that we might be reconciled- before we were actually reconciled… and so now we in are in that relationship with God… one that he conceived before we knew of his existence, one that he acted to make possible, one that he continually restores us in when we blunder, slip or march headlong back into sin…

This is the God we worship, the one we are called to follow as we serve Him in this world, this is the Gospel we have received and are called to proclaim as we grow and make disciples. This is the relationship we have, and can grow through our own prayer life and our study of Scripture. So let us pray that this week we may do all we can, each day, to make this true in our lives.

 

 

Charlie Brown, the eternal optimist

Usually this blog is based around what I’ve been preaching on- my own thoughts and reflections on a passage from the Bible and the things that are going on in life. You may have noticed that some weeks I appear to have no thoughts (or at least nothing worth sharing)… and while this may be true, the reason nothing comes onto the blog is because someone else has preached at our Sunday worship times. In one of our churches those talks are recorded and uploaded onto our website and itunes, and you can listen to them or find them here– you can also download them from itunes, I suggest you go via our website rather than searching on itunes or click here if you want to subscribe. Anyway, in the other church those talks don’t get recorded or uploaded, instead we just allow people to remember them, or not.

A few weeks back a friend preached, and it a real good’un, and so I’ve asked her to give me the text to post here- so, a guest post by my good friend Jo Pay, based on chapter 6, verses 25-34 of Matthew’s Gospel-

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When I was a teenager the Daily Mail used to run the Peanuts comic strip and I used to cut out those that I thought were apt, I occasionally come across them stuck between pages in books. There was one with Charlie Brown and Linus, where Linus is asking if Charlie Brown is worried about tomorrow; he answers no – he’s still hoping that yesterday will get better! This little cartoon strip perfectly illustrates the theme from our 2 readings today – Worry and Hope. I tried to find the comic strip, but although I flicked through a number of books I couldn’t locate it – never mind it’s around somewhere.

Now at times I can be a bit of a worry wart; am I packing the right clothes for this holiday, will the meeting at work today go alright, will I catch the train this morning as I’m running a bit late! Not huge all the time sort of worrying, but odd and quite specific concerns – probably quite trivial in the grand scheme of things.

Our reading today tells us specifically not to worry. I find it really refreshing that Jesus recognised this inbuilt trait in humanity to worry. Also it’s quite reassuring that it was prevalent enough then to warrant a mention, and there’s us thinking that we have the monopoly on things to worry about?! Times obviously don’t change that much.

So worrying, why do we do it? Is it because we think that by making a real conscious effort and dwelling on something we could possibly make any difference to a situation, or to the outcome?

Let’s look at the reading – it opens with ‘do not worry about your life’ and goes on to say ‘is not life more important than food’? This made me think about planning, just because God tells us not to spend time worrying about our life, it doesn’t mean that we can’t plan, or map out our lives. Now I might think that I do this, but oh no I’m just a mere amateur compared to some! When I worked at Wrafton Labs in the Development Team we had a gap year student, who had planned exactly how he wanted his life to be. He was working with us for a year and then studying Chemical Engineering at University. He had decided that he wanted to work for BP, he’d even decided at what age he would marry and when he would have children, and yet at that time he didn’t even have a girlfriend – wow! I’d never met anyone like that before to have such strong views on how his life would be, I remember thinking at the time what would happen if it didn’t turn out like that, maybe that wouldn’t be the case as he was so determined! In comparison my life is a bit more ‘unstructured’, allowing space for God to steer, or push. I have aspects of planning as for an example, from quite a young age I was determined to work for ICI at Plant Protection Division, and I did, however when I look back the ‘steer’ from God can be quite visible, although when you are there in the moment, it doesn’t feel like it. We don’t have to just sit there and worry about how our life will turn out, or what will happen to us – we can plan and turn it prayerfully over to God and relieve ourselves of that worry.

I was thinking of this passage as I was in the garden at the weekend filling up the bird feeders. Yes lots of people now help God out and feed the birds, however some of my shrubs still have some berries on them, and the blackbird was having a good old root around in the leaf mould finding insects, so there is still plenty of God given food for them. So why do we feed the birds? I think that it is because we care for them, enjoy them visiting the garden; Not worrying doesn’t mean not caring. Maybe some people feel that the only way they can show care for somebody is to worry for them, or about them. But we need to develop a better way of showing we care to relieve ourselves of the worry. Our heavenly Father cares for us, it says that he knows what we need. We need to sometimes give ourselves a shake and remember exactly how much God knows us, he knows the number of hairs on our head, he knit us together in our mother’s womb – put your cares back onto God. Stop worrying and enjoy the life that God has given you, know that it is all within his plan for you.

So now we’ve managed to consider our worrying habits and think about bringing it back into perspective and under control we can consider the second reading – we can have hope for today and tomorrow.

Now this reading is a bit more challenging, I’ve been doing some reading on it in preparation and one author stated that we need to read chapter 8 as the Victory chapter, the turning point in Romans where Paul tries to show us what is awaiting us. But if we are just considering the passage in question and especially thinking about hope I found a really good analogy which I will share. This passage was likened to watching a football game, or your sport of preference, between the team you support and a n other team. Your team isn’t doing well and so you are groaning, probably shouting at the TV. Part of you wants to hope that it will turn out to have the result that you want, a win for your team, however at the moment that hope is unfounded and you are in despair. Then, suddenly in the last few minutes of the game your team turns themselves around, the crowds are cheering them on – you are on your feet in the living room, shouting and screaming as they score the final winning goal. The hope you had in them has been realised. However you feel emotionally like you have gone through the wringer, yet if you watch any of that game on the highlights later on, you will have a completely different outlook all the way through, your despair is not so deep because you know the outcome.  Well this is what Paul says we should be like, our despair, our pain, our worrying should not be too deep because we know that God sent Jesus to die in our place. We can have that hope that it won’t be too bad, we can wait patiently because we know it will be good. However it is worth remembering that this hope needs to be our attitude to life, it won’t always be easy, life happens to us in all its glory and some of it can be a bit tough, we have those worries about those specific things in our life that can swamp us at times. We need to pray daily for hope to arise in our lives, to know that those things that make us worry and feel hopeless have been overcome by Christ’s death on the cross.

So let’s try this all together, praying daily for hope, kicking our worries into touch so that we shine with God’s light flooding us from within – maybe even changing what Charlie Brown thought and having hope for today and tomorrow.