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.

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…)

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.

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.

 

 

Its tempting, isn’t it?

Somehow, in this mix of life temptation has become a good idea… somehow in the mix of life commitment has become a bad idea… somehow being careful has become cautious and carefree has become exciting… Words don’t always mean what we think they mean, and they certainly aren’t used in the way we might understand them…

I spent some time with a few pioneering types this morning. Now, 300yrs ago that would have entailed wagons heading out west to settle the prairies, and in my previous work a pioneer is a type of plant that is particularly adapted to extreme conditions, but here I was drinking coffee with some youthworkers- pioneers the lot of them and not an ounce of chlorophyll to be seen (or a wagon either).

Words, eh?

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So yesterday we were thinking, among other things, about temptation- our Bible passage in the morning was from Matthew chapter 4 – the temptation of Jesus in the Wilderness. (we didn’t record it this week, but we did record Bishop Sarah speaking in the afternoon at our baptism and confirmation service here. So, what did I have to say about temptation… well this is what I had written, but undoubtedly it’s not what I said:

Discipleship and Temptation… Friction, resistance, inertia… Momentum, intention, acceleration, direction… Active and passive… Directionless, intentional… Temptation and opposition…

Take your pick- in football there is the opposing team, in sailing there are currents and conditions, in climbing your own fears and the rock, in music the challenge of harmonising and keeping time with others, in faith there is temptation and spiritual opposition.

In life opposing forces exist. When we deny that we limit our ability to withstand and overcome them.

So Jesus has been baptised, is about to start his ministry, goes into the wilderness- led by the Spirit to be tempted by the Devil… an odd turn of phrase but one that recognises an important truth- that there will be temptations on the path, and its sometimes best to confront them earlier rather than later.

My wife and I were married in July 2004, I was ordained in Sept 2008 when our first child was 1, and a couple of years later we decided to go on a marriage course- it wasn’t marriage counselling, it was marriage strengthening- we chose to attend to our relationship, to talk through things that could have become problems in the future, so that they wouldn’t. We’re not perfect by any means, but we have learnt a couple of things that we know help us, and have a better understanding of what makes each other tick… the temptation is to assume that once you’re married it’ll all be fine forever with no effort required (because goodness knows you put enough effort into the wedding)… and that’s just not true.

In our Christian lives, the best and the hardest parts are still to come after we’ve come to faith, been baptised and confirmed. How many folk have we seen come and go over the years? How many of those have we actually invested time in helping to grow their faith- in their discipleship?

The three areas Jesus is tempted in, and the ways he resists are really important to note-

Firstly- material things… don’t be happy with what you have. Jesus has come to the wilderness, he’s fasting on purpose… but bread would be nice. You have a car/job/house/partner, a shinier one would be nice… His response? Material things are not the only things that matter… Jesus looks beyond the temptation, and he bases his response on God’s words, not man’s opinions.

Secondly- people’s opinions of us and our identity… if you are who you say you are… those worries we have about what people think, of whether we’re doing the right thing… if I do this, what will they say? Shouldn’t I just take the easy option- for Jesus this would have been to go public and let people know who he was in a showy and visible way. For us as the church and as disciples it may be the opposite- to step back from public debate about the important things of life or to concede that the Gospel has nothing to say to culturally imposed values… but either way its about who and what guides us… our identity is as children of God before anything else- before our national identity, before our sexuality, our age, our gender, our career, what team we support or anything… and as such we understand life and read the Scripture from that perspective.

Thirdly- Jesus is then challenged about the basis of his identity- what is on the throne in our lives? What do we worship? Not just have a nice car, but the temptation to make the desire for more and better at the heart of our lives- to worship the god of consumerism… The only place that God can fit in our lives is on the throne… there is nowhere else big enough. If we refuse to allow him that place, then what are we trying to do? Cut out the bits we don’t like? Make God small enough to fit into the box we have for Him? Somehow expand life so that God can still be the creator and sustainer of the entire universe whilst still being less important than… our next holiday- when you stop for a moment to think its ludicrous, but it’s the sort of mental juggling that we find ourselves doing all to often.

And then the devil goes (in Luke’s gospel ‘until another opportunity should arise’). Temptation doesn’t go away forever. Nor does opposition, and nor do our own daft habits.

As Disciples the advice we find in the Bible has two parts to it- Paul advises Timothy to flee from temptation- the evil desires of youth (though middle age and older age have their own evil desires too)…. If we think we can stand up to temptation just by staring it in the eye we’re fools. However James writes that Christians should submit to God and resist the Devil- and he will flee from us- where there is spiritual attack rather than temptation we can, by holding close to God, take control of a situation.

To go back to that image from sailing- you don’t sail towards a storm but you don’t just drift with the currents…

For us- the importance of being active in our discipleship because there are things against us- the natural temptations of life and the spiritual opposition- both are present, both are to be recognised, neither should defeat us if we are wise.

Spiritual wisdom starts with awareness, and is a combination of practicality, allowing God to help us and expecting to have to put effort in ourselves… This has got to work, without God this probably won’t work, somehow it appears to be working…

 

Disciple, grow thyself!

Last Sunday I was meant to be listening to a friend share their reflections and thoughts on a passage from Matthew’s gospel, and how it related to our engagement with issues surrounding homelessness… I was hoping to hear about the problems of compassion burnout and insularity which our society breeds in us, the tension between friends who’re always there for you and the unnamed stranger who we’ll leave, literally, out in the cold… I was particularly looking forward to hearing these insights from someone who’s full-time job is to work alongside the homeless and vulnerable in our town on homeless Sunday. Unfortunately for all of us, my friend was poorly sick that night and had to pull out. Mildly unfortunate for me, most probably very unpleasant for her, and really unfortunate for our congregation who had to hear me speak…

As is the way, I just happened to have a sermon in my back pocket, and I even used some of my notes… you can, of course listen to what I actually said on our church website (or even download it from i-tunes here or else just plain read it below…

The main headline which I would want to emphasis is this- if you want to grow in your faith, then you have to take steps to grow… if you want your church to grow (however you prefer to measure this- and there’s a whole load of things we could say on that one word, but fundamentally, if the church is a place of life, then growing in some way should be expected) then, once again, it starts with you… if you’re wondering why your faith in God’s love for you is fading, or why your church isn’t booming, then at least part of the responsibility lies in the face you see in the mirror each day.

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Anyway, I’ll let you read for yourself-

 This last month we’ve had readings from both John and Matthew that describe the events leading to the start of Jesus’ ministry, and have been thinking about and here it begins- John has been imprisoned (probably in Jerusalem) and Jesus goes to Galilee where he will spend much of the next three years. Some of us are real Bible geography buffs, or may have been to the Holy Land and seen these places for ourselves. For those who haven’t, however, Jesus travels around an area smaller than Devon for his whole life- the towns of Nazareth and Capernaum are less than 20miles apart with various other places we know from the Gospels in between.  Because of the variety of names and their foreignness to us we can get confused and the whole area seems much larger to us than it really is, but essentially we could think of it that Jesus spends most of his live in North Devon with occasional trips to Exeter… Although Jesus was the Son of God, and came to bring salvation for all mankind, for much of his day to day life he was incredibly focussed on the smaller scale- on individuals in communities. Over time this commitment helped people to see his integrity and consistency, that his words and his actions were in alignment with one another, and with God. And he called those around him to a new way of life- offering a light that shone in the darkness, offering healing, preaching the good news, and calling some from among them to come with him.

We’ve begun this year hearing the message of hope and expectation that is contained within the Gospel, and the importance of simplicity- of keeping our faith real and grounded in our daily lives.  Jesus words are rarely said to cause deliberate confusion- to make his listeners and us think, yes, but not to confuse or wrongfoot us.

So when he speaks to people living in an arid place of the water of life… they know what he means. In this chapter of Matthew the people of the hill country of Galilee would know what it was like to live in the shadow of a hill, would know the swift transition from day to night as the sun dropped behind the horizon in a way that we, with our lights and our long evenings just don’t see every day.

The fishermen- Andrew, Simon Peter, James and John- they were fishermen, and they would have understood that for them to become fishers of men would mean relearning all their skills- just as a boy who learns to fish with a rod must relearn all he knows when he becomes a boatman… and then as Jesus moved on, away from the lakeside, so his stories change- from nets and fish to seeds and harvest… so they followed Jesus, and over the next few weeks we will journey with them, as we hear again the accounts of teaching, of healing- miracles beyond our experience and understanding… they followed and learned, and then they were sent out for a brief time and ultimately sent to ‘go and make disciples of all men, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…’ They learned their faith as apprentices- following their master, and they lived their faith as themselves- each in their own way- Andrew bringing Peter as we heard last week, James and John with their passionate hearts, Matthew with his careful exactness, and so on, to Paul the great missionary and preacher (who may or may not have baptised certain people)…

Someone asked me just the other day, what is the single biggest factor in the growth or decline in churches in our area, and the answer, I feel, is this- our discipleship. Our own, personal journey of faith. When we and other believers know ourselves to be loved and called by Jesus, as the first disciples did, then his priorities become our priorities- we know we are called to be disciples in our workplace, our street, in the pub, in the shops- we know that our discipleship shapes how we support the things we can’t do ourselves in prayer, it shapes how we welcome visitors to our church on a Sunday- or a Saturday… it’s the driving factor behind our willingness to go from where we are comfortable- whether that means a style of worship or our building…

For the next month or so we’re going to be looking at passages from Matthew’s gospel that demonstrate how the first disciples grew in their faith, and as we journey through this year, with our hopes as a church and the things of our own lives, its our prayer, for each other, that we might all grow in the depth of our knowledge of God’s love for us and our outworking of that… that we would grow as disciples of Jesus.

 

Simple is the new innovative.

At this point in the year we’re doing the church equivalent of New Year (not resolutions)- things we would want to be doing and working on through the year- as a leadership we’re looking at stewardship of our finances, we’re starting a couple of homegroups for those who want to learn to study the Bible and grow in faith together, we’re having our annual prayer morning and we’re trying to sort a church weekend away… no wonder it feels busy round here!

And in the midst of all this, I’m having this resounding message in my head ‘just keep it simple’… so, that’s what I tried to do last weekend. My notes, below, from when I spoke on the baptism of Jesus as described in the Gospel of Matthew are, as usual, a vague version of what I actually said- the recording on our website here would give you the real deal.

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So…

What gets us excited? Often it’s the simple things… What gets you excited?

‘Look, the Lamb of God- this is the one I meant’… John gives his testimony- I saw the Spirit come down… And the next day… the same thing happens… ‘Look, the Lamb of God’

 

(what does that phrase mean- Lamb of God points towards the sacrifices made at the Temple- the blood of an innocent shed for the forgiveness of sins, and beyond that towards the sacrifice of a lamb at the Passover- the night when God rescued his people from slavery in Egypt, an event that we remember every time we come to Communion- Jesus death on the cross was how he took away the sins of the world- by taking them onto his shoulders. But although he took the blame, the punishment for those sins- death and separation from God, would not remain on him, for he was totally innocent. At this stage of the Gospel John (the writer) is highlighting to us what John (the Baptist) has said- that though he preached forgiveness it is through Jesus that forgiveness is received.  John’s 2 disciples would most likely have had some idea what this meant, but it might also have sparked their curiosity… and so they followed Jesus.

They fall into conversation and he asks them to come with him- at the end of the day the first thing Andrew does is? Find his brother Simon and tell him, and bring him to Jesus…

Jesus meets Simon and sees him- sees him truly and loves him truly. Jesus sees the fisherman standing before him, and sees straight through him all the way- through the bravado, through the insights that God would give him, through the determination, the denials, the self-hate, the leadership he would give, all the way through. And he names him- Peter- sometimes we might prefer to think of that as meaning Rocky, The Rocky, ol’Stoneyface or any other way of translating it can think of.

 

There are times in the gospels and throughout the New Testament when things are unclear- where the writers use imagery (like the Lamb of God) to help express the depth of an idea- to link what they are saying into the bigger story of God and the world… but there are also times when things are pretty simple- the gospel itself… the response of Andrew and the encounter between Jesus and Simon Peter.

 

There are times when in our attempts to explain things and put them across, to engage people and communicate ideas and vision we accidentally go the wrong way- instead of making it clear we confuse, instead of engaging people we distance people. And we do that in our churches as much as anywhere else.

 

So here’s the thing- The church is about worshipping God for all that he is and all he’s done, for the forgiveness for our sins that we’ve received and the relationship we’ve been invited into. And about making that known to the world, about extending the love we’ve received to others. That’s why Christians must care for the weak, give to the hungry, work for peace. Just as John the Baptist did, we point others away from ourselves and towards Jesus…

 

Our plans and strategies, vision documents and relationship with other churches are all to help with that simple thing- we want to come and see Jesus, and we want others to do the same.  Everything else is to help with that- the way we use our buildings, the style of worship we have, the midweek ministries and homegroups… Amen.