Looking ahead…

Last weekend we were away- not just me slacking off, but a bunch of folk from our churches, having a retreat/holiday/weekend break at a place called Lee Abbey, on the North Devon coast. I think it’s fair to say it was amazing for everyone in some form- whether the walks along the coast, the teaching and input, the company of friends, being catered for and eating with 100 other people (without having to wash up!).

So, as a result, I’ve nothing to share in terms of ‘here’s what I said…’

I could share some of the things I heard at the weekend, all about identity, about knowing we each matter as individuals to God our father, about how being secure in our identity is worked out in what we do (and why we do it!), but at the moment its all floating round and needs to settle down… maybe another time.

Instead, I’m going to advertise, blatantly, something we’re doing this weekend. Obviously I’d love anyone reading this to come and join us, but equally, if you’re in Hungary, Canada or Suffolk then you might not be able to. But that doesn’t mean you can’t do the same-

In both our churches it is traditional for us to remember the birth of John the Baptist, which is celebrated on June 24th each year. This year we want to remember and celebrate our own baptisms as a way of recommitting ourselves to live in hope, working to bring peace and to restore relationships with those around us. Some of us have been baptised as adults, others as children (which we often call Christening- but they are the same thing). In baptism, Christians around the world promise to turn away from evil and to turn towards what is good, and to hold Jesus as our guiding light as we do this. At this time, with so much bad news and uncertainty, we want to hold out something that is good and life-giving to our community. We warmly invite anyone who has been baptised, particularly if it was in either of our churches, to take this opportunity to refresh their baptism, and to come along with Godparents, parents and anyone else. Many of us, over the years have been asked to be godparents, and this is also a chance just to remember what we, as godparents, are part of.  Each church will, as usual, be decorated by our amazing volunteers who turn the windowsills into a riot of colour and celebration, and the services will be followed by serving of Fairtrade refreshments.

A child's baptism at Newport 2015

I’m hoping the churches will be full, with friends visiting and folk saying ‘yes, I’m in’ for the first or the 40th time. I’m hoping that for us this will be a time when we say that we are aligning ourselves with the prince of peace and the kingdom of hope, and standing against the evils of hatred and injustice.

And, wherever you are- whether you happen to be near a church called ‘St John the Baptist’ or aren’t near to a church at all, you can do the same.

 

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?

Image result for sneeze

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.

Holidays and Holy Days

I don’t have a talk from last weekend to post… because I didn’t preach at all. Cathy preached at one of our services (Recorded and uploaded here), and Hugh preached at the other (sorry, if you wanted to hear it, you needed to be there!). I was leading the worship, and since then I’ve been taking some time off- a holiday, would you believe it!

Its a strange thing, but for me, at present, holidays represent stepping back from my phone and emails as much as anything else- a time when I let my phone battery die and don’t bother finding the wifi code for wherever I am, but unfortunately I’m also in the habit of using my phone to help me in my prayer and Bible reading… it has readings on it and apps with ‘verse for the day’ and prayer links, so when I’m in holiday mode, I find it easy to miss my personal time with God. Added to which I’m not in meetings or leading services, or ‘doing’ God-stuff… and so I can find that I don’t have the same structure to my daily relationship with God. And that’s doubly ironic, because the word holiday is derived from ‘Holy day’- a day when folk didn’t have to work because it was a saint’s day. In some churches there is a saint’s day every few weeks, in others they’re barely remembered… but most of us now have personal holiday that adds up to 4-5 weeks each year or more… and in our personal holiday, have we forgotten about being holy?

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I know that in the last few days I’ve sat by a fire and watched the sunset, I’ve marvelled at the shine of water on a pebble beach, I’ve looked on as my children play together… and given thanks for those things. (and yes, I’ve sat in a traffic jam, struggled through a diversion, put up a tent with tired helpers, worried about car-sick little ones and survived temper tantrums… life has been real still).

So are my holidays my holy days? I guess the test for me is that I’ve still been talking with God, and have taken some time each day to at least touch base with Scripture, and have been loving being in the world whilst being conscious of the One who made it. If I forget who’s child I am, or forget who’s world I’m in, that’s when I’m going in the wrong direction.

Did Jesus take holidays? He took time out from his healing and teaching the crowds- to spend time with his closer friends, and to spend time with his Father, but he didn’t go off to exotic locations to do so- a hill, the side of a lake. For him, and for us when we stop and think, its not about the location, or even really about the experience, but about the people we are with- the relationships that are fed and deepened through time together. Sure, it’s wonderful to say ‘that’s where we…’ or ‘do you remember…’ about particular places and times, but it is the truth that what makes those things significant is being able to say that to those people who’re part of our lives.

 

If I’m in a corner, which way will I jump?

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I like to think I have integrity- I know how to spell it, I know what it means (or at least I think so), and someone once said they thought I had it… but I don’t know for sure.

There are times when I fade under pressure, keep quiet to blend in, don’t say things for fear of upsetting folk… and in your heart you tell yourself its wisdom, its building relationship for future opportunities, and all that, but there’s another voice saying ‘but were you true to yourself- do you still have integrity?’

I’m not talking about major things (like, say, telling everyone you won’t call a general election and then changing your mind (sorry, no more politics for the rest of the post), or cheating on taxes, lying to friends or whatever), but the difficulty I face with little things makes me worry- what if I ever faced a biggie… how would I respond?

Acts chapter 4, if you’re not familiar with it, has Peter and John (that’s Peter the guy who denied knowing who Jesus was, remember?), pulled in front of the religious authorities (that’s the guys who got Jesus killed, remember?) and told in no uncertain terms to shut up talking about Jesus… or else. And their reply is pure gold- ‘Judge for yourselves, whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.’  in other words ‘You guys, the religious leaders, help us out here- what would you do? We can’t help ourselves’… Boom! Take that Mr High Priest and your assorted cronies… But the big question it raises for me is, how would I speak in their shoes? Would I be like them, confidently taking on the authorities because I know I have God in my corner? Or would I back away, intending to lay low and spread the message subtly, or at least telling myself that? I know what I’d like to do, and I hope I’d be able to, but…

The truth is, I just don’t know. And part of me is afraid to find out.

(If you’ve reached this point and are still wondering about the image at the top- it has nothing to do with Peter, John, the book of Acts, or integrity in particular, but is the album cover of a band I quite liked in the early 90’s- I saw them supporting the Charlatans when I was at school, and then a few years later on their final tour saw them again with a band called Oasis as their support act…)

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.

Borrowed wisdom

Sharing a post from my friend Ash Leighton Plom… further thoughts on Acts and yesterday’s talk will be posted tomorrow and in days to come, but I thought this was worth a read-

Today’s blog is from Martin Goss, Diocesan Environment Officer for Exeter:

 

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Five years ago the Diocese of Exeter submitted plans to construct six small-scale wind turbines on its land in three different parishes in north Devon.  These were part of an overall strategy for the Church of England in Devon to reduce its Greenhouse Gas carbon emissions.  In the event the planning applications were withdrawn amidst an ambience of acrimony and unpleasantness.

 

In retrospect, it was agreed the process had not been well handled and there were lessons to be learned.  However, the continuing legacy of the whole process was to release dubious forces of animosity and division which last to this day.

 

This pervasive ‘nastiness’ was, on the whole, invoked by people’s fear and uncertainty about the future, and therefore triggered a reaction which was fully self-motivated and self-protective.

 

I sense that the same kind of bitterness is now threatening to engulf us all as we head towards the 2017 General Election.  The country is painfully divided and frightened, and extreme reactions are magnified through the media, unsettling us all. Racism, xenophobia and cultural hostility are on the rise. Cynicism prevails and lies become acceptable. All this, and more, is extremely nasty – especially if you are on the receiving end.

 

This is not to say there should not be political challenge and cut and thrust debate, which are both fundamental parts of our evolving democracy.  But when the entire election seems to split people or communities and we are apparently possessed by a spirit of the ‘uncommon bad’, we need to ask deeper questions. Feeling bitter is not necessarily a healthy motivator for change.

 

SCREEN GRAB POPE FRANCIS TED.COM

Pope Francis, in his recent TED talk, speaks rather of the need for a ‘revolution of tenderness’. Love is the tenderness which starts in the heart and extends to the eyes, ears and hands to shape a different future. “Tenderness is being on the same level as the other” he said compassionately.

 

To politicians and decision makers he adds, “The more powerful you are, the more your actions will have an impact on people, and the more responsible you are for acting humbly. If you don’t, your power will ruin you, and you will ruin the other”. Prospective Parliamentary Candidates please note!

 

Through public elections people of faith are called to remember that they are also citizens and therefore have responsibilities for both the local community and the wider society in which they live. We are invited to make choices that will have consequences not only for our civilisation now but also for the future. The decisions of politicians  today will determine life in this world for generations to come…

 

The media and others will pressurise us into voting for those who say they will deliver good things for us – actions which will enhance oursecurity or safety, policies which favour our communities and our households.

 

Yet deep at the heart of the Gospel is a message to be concerned and caring for the most vulnerable people in our world – those whose human growth is stunted by disease or poverty or oppression. All Christians have a moral duty to look beyond their own interests and speak up for justice and kindness in a broken world. For us there is a vision of a different kind of society where the gifts of all are included,  and the needs of all are met. Some of us recognise this as the Reign  of God, in which the first shall be last and the last shall be first; in which peaceful means of managing conflict are preferred to violence and war, in which strangers are welcomed; and in which people are enfolded in kind-heartedness at times of real uncertainty.

 

We therefore vote not only for ourselves but more for others, voting out of tenderness not bitterness.

 

‘Everything begins in mystique and ends in politique’ said spiritual writer Charles Péguy. So to speak up for the poor, the planet and the future are central actions that grow out of a prayerful life which may begin in the mystery of God but always ends in political action…

 

May these sentiments influence the choices we make more than the clamour of appealing to our selfishness, greed or fear. In the end we are judged not by how we feather our own nests by how we care for the other.

 

All best wishes – Martyn

 

The future of humankind is in the hands of the people who recognise the other as a ‘you’, and themselves as part of an ‘us’   (Pope Francis)

The Essential Question- So, what shall we do?

It’s easy to see a problem and say ‘We have to do something!’. It’s even easier to say ‘You do something!’. But it takes something more to say ‘what shall we do?’ We might think that is abdicating responsibility- after all, if I’m asking the question, then I’m not taking the initiative myself, unless of course that is precisely the first move that is needed…

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Often I’m tempted to charge into a situation and try the first thing that comes to mind, but gradually, through painful experience, I’m learning that may not be the ideal, and so I’m discovering that asking questions like ‘what shall we do?’ help me to make the right decision. In first aid and medical care this is called triage- figuring out who/what to treat first, to get the best outcome for a patient/department etc- the classic I was taught was to make sure I’m not distracted by the sprained wrist that’s producing a lot of noise and risk missing the bleeding that is far more serious.

What shall we do? In the specific instance I’m referring to this phrase is used by someone in a crowd, responding to Peter on the day of Pentecost… he’s been accused of drunkenness and has defended the disciples, turning his defence into an accusation that the crowd bear a shared responsibility for the death of Jesus, who God has raised to life, and that this Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah… It’s one of those moments where things could have gone very wrong- 7 weeks before a similar crowd did cry for Jesus to die, and at other times in the book of Acts we will see the crowd aren’t so friendly, but as I read this passage (Acts chapter 2, this comes in verse 37), I imagine a silence falling, and then one voice, followed maybe by others, calling out ‘what shall we do?’

When someone asks you that question, there’s a pressure, and a responsibility- ok, I have to get this right, which is a bit scary… Peter, fortunately for him, has recently had his training refreshed- the last thing Matthew records Jesus saying in his Gospel is that the disciples should ‘go and make disciples of all nations- baptising them…and teaching them… (you can find this in Matthew 28 verse 19)… so, maybe after a panic-stricken millisecond, he responds ‘repent, be baptised in the name of Jesus Christ, every one of you’- in other words, if you’re seriously asking, then let’s do the thing, let’s take this seriously.

And they do.

That’s the second scary thing- what if someone does take my answer seriously? The good news in this context, and wherever we’re talking about faith, is that the next bit really isn’t my responsibility- its between an individual and God- they ask me what do they need to do, I say repent and believe, be baptised, they say ok… It’s not me they’re believing in, it’s not me they’re asking to forgive them, they don’t get baptised in my name. Which is a huge relief!

Of course, the question ‘what shall we do?’ doesn’t just apply to a response to the Gospel, and it isn’t simply a question about plans for Saturday night either. There is a genuine, huge question of ‘what shall we do?’ that faces us every day- what shall we do about the destruction of the environment that is leading to climate change (according to most everyone but the Trump), what shall we do about the refugee crisis, what shall we do about the homeless in our town, the poor in our street, the broken relationship in our family, the habits of our mind. What shall we do about the election, the health service, the corruption and apathy that litter our communities?

I guess we have to start by doing something… registering to vote, and voting… voting for a candidate (and ideally a party) that you believe can and will make a difference. Maybe making some decisions about your habits of shopping and how you use your time. Maybe giving up something to help someone else. Right now, because I don’t know your circumstance, I can’t tell you the answer, but if you sit in front of a mirror you’ll probably see someone who can; they just might be afraid of the responsibility.

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.