Understanding the key to generosity

Last Sunday we began to celebrate our patron saint- we’re called St John the Baptist Church, so we celebrate the birth of St John- from the Gospels we understand he was around 6months older than Jesus, so it takes place at the end of June each year… Here’s what I meant to say on the day… of course the actual version is here

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I’ve been asked to speak about how money- about how the way we handle our finances, is part of our Christian discipleship. It seems that today, on the first part of our celebration of the birth of John the Baptist, is a good time to do this. John knew that his life was a miracle, that he had been blessed by God, and lived his life out of that understanding- I want us to think today about what it means for us to bring that same understanding to our handling of finance.  Those of us who heard our treasurer speak at our AGM a few months ago will know that in the last year our church accounts stood at a deficit. If you’ve been around a few years you’ll know that, as a church, this is not unusual for us- fundraising for particular project, a generous legacy or a grant for work are what keeps us afloat. You’ll also know that the gap has been shrinking these last few years, due to the hard work of many of us to keep costs down, to find grant funding, and to increase income from the hall- and everything I say starts with ‘thank you for what you already give, in terms of time, skills and finance’. Without your giving, collectively we can achieve very little, and there is so much that we want to do. People in churches across the county already give over £1million to charity each year, along with hundreds of thousands of hours of voluntary service- aside from what they give to their own local churches.

Last year the gap between the church’s income and expense was just £1 per person each month… so in some ways I’m talking about small change… probably most of us could find £1 a week extra, let alone £1 a month, and that difference would enable our church to plan further ahead than paying our next bill. Today’s service is, as well as part of our patronal celebrations, a giving Sunday- a chance for us to prayerfully reflect on our giving and make a gift towards the ministry of this church. Over the next few years the leadership of our church are hoping to continue the upgrades to the hall- to develop the facility we offer to the local community, we’re hoping to further develop our work with young people and families through appointing a trainee, and alongside this the running costs of a growing church… There are giving envelopes in the back of your seats and we’d invite you to take them home and prayerfully consider your gift into the future ministry of our church.

However, fundamentally, that isn’t what a Christian approach to money means. It is much more than just whether the church accounts are in the red or not and what our church’s future plans are.

Some may question whether Christians should talk about money- it’s a material, grubby thing, not something for us to concern ourselves about. The reality is that if we don’t- if my faith and my church doesn’t help me with my approach to money (my own and others), then I’m reliant on other voices to help me… and the voices I hear around me speak loudly about gambling, grabbing money, about how money and the things it buys will bring me happiness and make my life better.

Some may question whether God cares about this- but as we read the Gospels and the whole of the Bible, we see that God, Jesus, and the early church spoke a lot about money… the passages we’ve heard today are just two out of many. In the passage from Luke we hear Jesus speaking about how giving is proportional- there is no set membership fee for those who follow God, but what Jesus praises in this woman’s behaviour is the sacrificial nature of her giving. She gave generously out of the little she had- There’s no clever parable here, no imagery: rich people giving a large amount that they barely notice; while a poor person gives a small amount that has an impact on their life… Jesus notices it and praises her sacrificial generosity. The manner in which we give is as important as the amount… we recognise that God has given us everything, so when we give to God, how generous are we?

In the Old Testament we read of the tithe- the 1/10th of the crop or the income that every family gave to God; but we also read of the wave offering, the thanks offering and the feast offerings… and the amounts given at these were varied and open ended… but they were indications of generous hearts. There is no real reason why we, today, cannot do the same- the difficulty we have is that our attitudes have, over the years, become accustomed to think that all I have is mine, and I begrudgingly hand over my bills, tax, rent etc, pay for my food, maybe something in the savings and a bit for me to have fun, and then look at what is left… and I’ll give some of that to God, and some to charity, because I want to help others and to express my gratitude to God. If, instead, we recognise that all we have is a gift from God- for it is only by grace that I am blessed with the job, home, family and health that I have, that I was born here… and so if my initial response to all I have is one of thanksgiving; and my desire is to help others and express that gratitude to God, then my first priority will be to give.

I was challenged to consider tithing many years ago by a friend- we didn’t look at whether it was before or after tax or any other deductions; the simple principle was ‘give 1/10th to the work of God in the church you’re part of’… anything else you want to give on top of that, to anything else you want to support- that is an act of generosity, but 1/10th? That’s the start point. What made this easier for my friend and I was that we were both young and single- we didn’t have 40yrs of ‘financial planning’ or a family that questioned what we were talking about. For St Paul it is part of Christian discipleship- as he wrote to the church in Corinth, we can give with joy and generosity out of poverty as well as riches- if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable to God based on what we have. And my experience is that this is true: the more generously I gave of myself and my finances, the more joy, the more purpose in life, the more freedom I have had. As I step into the freedom that comes from following Christ, my understanding of grace, of my identity in him, of how I handle my money, of what it means to be saved for this life and all eternity, all of these become less a case of the tick-list and more about my acceptance of God’s love for me- all that I am and have changes in the light of that.

John the Baptist, who’s birth we’re celebrating this week and next, knew that his life was a gift from God, and he used it to serve God- as we are inspired by him to share God’s grace and the Good News of the gospel with those around us, so let us be equally inspired to recognise that our lives are a gift from God, and to respond to that gift.


Harvest generosity

We had our harvest celebrations this weekend- with much food consumed at a BBQ, at coffee time, at lunch. We also celebrated in our worship- giving thanks for the harvest that has come from the fields and the sea. We’re a ‘sort of’ rural community- on the edge of a small town and a largeish village, you can see fields from pretty much anywhere and there is fresh caught local fish available if you know where to look, but not that many of us rely directly on the land for our livelihood- a few, but not heaps. Harvest is, then, not so much about giving thanks that the wheat crop has come through or that the cows are calving well, though both those are present; but about the simple fact that we have food on the table. And so we reflect on and take action to help those who are struggling with that- the traditional bringing of harvest produce has become a collection of dried food goods that goes to the local Foodbank while fresh produce is given to a local charity that cooks lunches during the week for homeless and vulnerable folk. Add to that a collection taken up for Wateraid, going to fund their work building boreholes in small communities in Southern Africa, and we’re doing ok- almost smug… uh oh.

Why Should I Give My Money? | Brad Hoffmann's Blog

Of course, that’s the dilemma- do nothing about the needs of others and you either feel guilty or learn to ignore them… which is not a direction I’ll be heading in myself, thank you; or else you do something and feel a small glow of pride- I helped someone, we saved a life… and that path leads to smug self-congratulation. Some might say we should just keep quiet about the good we do- which is a valid point, but if there’s a need that I know about, is it right that I just keep quiet about it, or should I invite others to help me make more of a difference?

And in the midst of all this, you get our Bible reading for the day- someone (probably me), just googled ‘harvest’ in their Bible and shoved it in (It’s from Luke 12, this is the Message version):

Jesus told the crowd this story: “The farm of a certain rich man produced a terrific crop. He talked to himself: ‘What can I do? My barn isn’t big enough for this harvest.’ Then he said, ‘Here’s what I’ll do: I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. Then I’ll gather in all my grain and goods, and I’ll say to myself, Self, you’ve done well! You’ve got it made and can now retire. Take it easy and have the time of your life!’

20 “Just then God showed up and said, ‘You fool! Tonight you die. And your barnful of goods—who gets it?’

21 “That’s what happens when you fill your barn with Self and not with God.”

Jesus continued with his friends, “Don’t fuss about what’s on the table at mealtimes or if the clothes in your closet are in fashion. There is far more to your inner life than the food you put in your stomach, more to your outer appearance than the clothes you hang on your body. Look at the ravens, free and unfettered, not tied down to a job description, carefree in the care of God. And you count far more.

25-28 “Has anyone by fussing before the mirror ever gotten taller by so much as an inch? If fussing can’t even do that, why fuss at all? Walk into the fields and look at the wildflowers. They don’t fuss with their appearance—but have you ever seen color and design quite like it? The ten best-dressed men and women in the country look shabby alongside them. If God gives such attention to the wildflowers, most of them never even seen, don’t you think he’ll attend to you, take pride in you, do his best for you?

29-32 “What I’m trying to do here is get you to relax, not be so preoccupied with getting so you can respond to God’s giving. People who don’t know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep yourself in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met. Don’t be afraid of missing out. You’re my dearest friends! The Father wants to give you the very kingdom itself.

So what does this all mean?

As conditions get harder for many people all around the world- whether that’s rising sea levels, drought, job security, violent conflict or anything else, we need to hang on to what we can do- the rich man in the story Jesus told isn’t berated for being rich, but for trying to hold onto more than he had- for his greed. Elsewhere Jesus talked about the generosity of a widow who gave the smallest coin in the local currency as a gift to the temple in Jerusalem- it wasn’t the size of the gift, but what it meant- she gave out of her scarcity, the rich man tried to keep more even when he had plenty.

Jesus then went on to speak of a different way- instead of trusting yourself, trust God, and then you can be at peace. Not just relax and put your feet up, but relax and not worry. I can’t make the rain come, I can’t make myself taller, I can’t affect certain things, so why am I worrying about them? What can I do, with what I have?

There’s a quote, attributed to John Wesley, which goes like this- “Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.” Whether Wesley said it or not, it’s a great phrase, not a bad motto at all, and as we celebrate and give thanks for what we have, I can think of worse things to have in my head.

BTW, if you’re wondering what happened to the actual sermon notes from yesterday, the early morning service had a preach based on this passage that went miles from my notes, the main service had a different preacher, and the later service had a family talk about vegetables, droughts and grandmothers… and no, there were no notes that made any sense!

Prayer- the relationship at the heart of everything.

We’ve reached the subject of prayer, you know, that thing that Jesus did a bit of, and our Bible passage this morning was where Jesus’ disciples ask him to teach them how to pray. In our all age service this was acted out as 4 of the disciples shuffled their feet and looked at the sky until one of them plucked up the courage to ask Jesus. As you’ll read below, it may have been less embarrassing than that, but maybe not…

As I was preparing for today I received 2 specific prayer requests- not that unusual, you might say, but often prayer requests are either vague, or global- prayer for someone who’s depressed, or prayer for those affected by the war in the Yemen, for instance. These however were for people I know, and were very specific- one for a friend’s recovery from surgery and healing from suspected infection of his blood, and the other for safety and good waves at a local surf comp being organised by my mates in Christian Surfers. They really made me think, this is what it means to be able to pray- I can talk to God about my friend who’s ill in bed, and I can talk to God about the wind, weather systems and tides at the beach down the road; and God cares about both, and is able to respond in both situations.

I was also reminded of a story my mum used to tell me (and she’ll tell me how inaccurately I remember it, I’m sure), about how Christians in Romania would put a handkerchief on the floor before they prayed in church- they had no chairs, let alone kneelers, but the handkerchief would prevent them wearing through what might be their only trousers as the prayed on stone or concrete floored churches for half an hour… I spoke about this and the importance of our bodies in our prayer life, but I’d not written any of that down, so you’ll have to make do with what notes I did have…

Every week when we gather together we spend time in prayer- our formal liturgy is almost entirely prayers, our intercessions, our use of the Lord’s Prayer, our times of silence, our informal prayers in response to today… and yet many of us might feel that we’d echo the request of Jesus’ disciples- teach us to pray. One of the aspects of discipleship was, and still is, to learn how to do things the way your master does, and so this was a natural request. Jesus’ disciples had attended the synagogue and been to the temple, even if they were uneducated in many aspects of the Jewish faith, they knew the prayers of their people, just as many today can join in with the words of the Lord’s Prayer. But ask them to pray out loud, with power and confidence?

What to pray, how to pray, why to pray… if we can take some steps towards answering these, then we’ll be doing ok…

What to pray- In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus prays for God’s kingdom to come- in the version we have from Matthew it includes ‘your will be done’… we pray for God to act in line with his character and will- If we’re wondering what that is, look at the life of Jesus- he only did what his Father told him to do, so if we’re wondering about praying for healing, or for the hungry, for those who’re spiritually oppressed, look at what Jesus did… We can pray prayers asking God to act, asking for his protection- interceding on behalf of others, we can pray prayers of thanksgiving and praise for what God has done and is doing. We will each have our own concerns, and so when we lead others in prayer we bring those with us, but we’re conscious that others come with theirs too- allowing silence and leading gently in prayers that encourage us all.

How to pray- The Lord’s Prayer and other prayers that we find in the Bible give us starting structures- as we thought about earlier in the year though, they can become words that we’re so comfortable with that we lose our sense of their power… Jesus teaches his disciples here not just to pray one prayer, but that they can a- come to God almighty as Father, b- come to God for forgiveness themselves without needing any intermediary, and c- come to God for guidance.

We can pray with words- clearly. We can pray in silence and stillness. We can pray in the Holy Spirit. We can pray through the gifts that we each have- how do we express ourselves best? Then use those abilities in prayer.

We pray persistently and with expectation- not like a whinging child but a hopeful petitioner. We are reliant on God’s power and mercy, but also confident in his promises and love. And so we do not give up.

Jesus went to a certain place- in other passages we read he went to hillsides, got up early in the morning, stayed up late at night… interestingly Jesus seems to have been alone with God for these times. He was with the disciples when he prayed for them, he was with people when he prayed and spoke words of healing over them, but mostly he went by himself for times of prayer… Many of us today have lost this practice, and our attempts to cultivate a life of prayer involve coming together for prayer meetings and breakfasts etc- these serve a good purpose as they get us to pray, but they don’t replace personal time with God- just as going to a party with a friend isn’t the same as spending time over a cuppa.

But Jesus was also always with God- he was in the presence of his Father at all times, and he still sought out times of intimacy. As I wrote this I was in the same house as my family, and could hear them in the background, but I was not paying close attention to them. Brother Lawrence described this as practicing being in the presence of God in all things, the cooking of soup, the digging in the garden- in all of these practicing being aware of God in those places.

Why to pray? Our faith is essentially an expression of our relationship with God. And prayer is the chief means by which we develop that relationship. Reading the Bible? Worship? Outreach? Gifts of the Spirit? All wonderful, all important, but prayer is the most foundational aspect of our relationship with God. If I want the Bible to mean more to me, I pray before and after reading it, I praise God because of answered prayers or a sense of his presence in my life, I share faith with others because God has revealed himself in my life, If I have any gifts from God, they have come through prayer…

Prayer is also the way in which God’s power is connected to the world- The Holy Spirit of God connects to the world that we see around us through the prayers of God’s people; or not. If we see God at work, it’s because we pray. If we don’t see God at work… the answer is simple.

So, enough talk. We’re going to spend a few minutes in prayer now- in silence, using that pattern which Jesus taught his friends- asking for God’s kingdom to come, asking for forgiveness, asking for guidance in our lives.

home prayer prayer

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).

Image result for people walking on road

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.

Easter- Surprise!!!

So this is what I saw on Easter Sunday morning at around 7am, on top of a hill. By this stage I’d been rained on, wanted to go home, woken up too early (yes, I actually managed to defeat the smartness of my smartphone and mess up the alarm time… so I was woken an hour early for sunrise), got to the top of the hill and been surprised to find that others were also daft enough to join me… and then the rain stopped, the wind eased, we prayed and sang and got this view…WP_20160327_07_06_31_Pro

(as a friend said to me- how very appropriately Christian).

It was a very surprising and very good way to start the day. A few hours later I spoke in church about Luke’s account of the resurrection, and with great thanks to Scripture Union’s resources for all-age worship, this is a rough outline of what was said- you can hear it on audio at our website here

Have any of you ever had a really good surprise- how did it make you feel? Sometimes we love a surprise, at other times not so much. On the third day after Jesus had been crucified his friends didn’t want any surprises. They thought Jesus was dead- they had seen him arrested, tried, sentenced and crucified- if you were here on Friday we showed some scenes from the film Jesus of Nazareth as part of our time of prayer… and we, with them, stopped at the point of his death… at that point there hadn’t been a surprise- no one had rushed through the crowd and rescued him, the thunder and darkness hadn’t turned into a host of angels or a voice from the sky.

But now, on the third day, there was a surprise in store- there was more than one… there were 5 (hold up hand)

The stone- it should have been blocking the door, but was it? ‘No!’ The first surprise was that the tomb was open- the large stone (make fist) that had blocked the entrance was gone- this shouldn’t happen, large stones don’t just roll themselves away- this would have taken several people… how had it happened?

The body- dead bodies stay where they are put- inside a grave. They can’t move on their own. Was the body in the grave? ‘No!’ The second surprise was that the body was gone(open hand to make empty palm)- this was where Jesus had been carried to, had been wrapped and laid… but his body was not here, and the women didn’t know what had happened.

The two angels- Angels don’t normally hang around places waiting for people. Were there angels at the tomb? ‘Yes!’ The third surprise was that when the women went looking for Jesus’ body, instead they found 2 angels (hold up two fingers…). Angels were understood to be servants of God, messengers etc… if an angel appeared, something was up, if more than one, it was extremely significant, and a meeting with an angel was something out of the ordinary- if the open tomb and the missing body were confusing, this was something else!

The message- when an angel gives you a message, its usually important- was this message important? ‘Yes!’ And when you get an important message you need to listen to it (hand to ear)- Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, he is risen! Jesus had told his followers what was going to happen, but they- as we probably would, understood him to be using picture language ‘dead’ meaning some clever thing, and ‘rise to new life’ meaning well, something other than ‘rising to new life’- which could only happen after his death…

The burial clothes- when someone is buried, not only do they stay put, but they don’t change their outfit… Were there any burial clothes left behind in the tomb? ‘Yes!’ If the body had been taken, by anyone, taking off the burial cloths would have been a slow, fairly unpleasant job… why do it? And yet, there the bandages (wrap bandage around hand) were.

And those five surprises pointed towards the biggest surprise yet for the followers of Jesus- Jesus is alive… there are some surprises which make us shout, there are others which may take time to sink in- in Luke’s account each of the people are left wondering what this means… Over the next few weeks we’ll be considering how their reactions changed and how others reacted to the news that Jesus was alive, but today, for us, in our scientific world, with our busy, pressurised lives, lets just pause to wonder again at this- what this means for me, for my community, for the world…

Have a great week, massive Easter blessings.

Palm Friday- getting excited a few days early

If you spent your childhood in church you may well have varying memories of Palm Sunday- re-enacting the story, colouring in pictures and wondering what is going on, following (if you were lucky) a real donkey around your church and watching the vicar try not to cry if if pooed inside the porch… and then, there’s the crosses- the little palm crosses which, if you were me, you always tried to tear apart just because they were so strong- clearly an early indication that I was going to love dissection and biomechanics!

But what about the actual events? You know, the thing we’re remembering? Its the prequel to Easter, the first chapter of the final novel, the opening scene of Act 4… the beginning of the Passion.

Of course, the problem is that for most of the world outside the church (and even most of the world outside of the more established church groups- so thats around half of the Christians in the UK), Palm Sunday is pretty much a nothing event-there’re no meaningful presents (woohoo, a small origami cross made out of a leaf), no bank holiday, no seasonal cards or aisles in Tesco’s to remind us of it…

But actually, if you read the accounts- its in all of the Gospels in one form or another, then this is a seriously significant event- Jesus approaches Jerusalem, knowing that he’s unpopular with the religious authorities. He doesn’t do it subtly, but for a change allows himself to behave as the king- acclaimed by the crowds, speaking words of sorrow and love over the city as a ruler might, unstoppable in this moment he enters the Temple and brings justice… when the people hail him with ‘Hosanna!’ and cheer him as the king, he doesn’t hush them or tell them to keep it secret as he so often has… just try to shut them up! This is the day when Jesus lets the world in on it- he is the chosen one, the messiah, the king- but still not quite what people expected… on the way he heals a blind man and speaks about generosity, he comes in peace bringing justice, not in war to overthrow the oppressive regime…

This is a day for the curious, the questioning, the enquirers and the seekers- come and see, come and check this out! So why not let them in on the event this year… there’s still time to invite your mates and your neighbours, to wave and cheer… Here comes the king!!


Jesus has died, but Jesus is alive. Meeting the risen Lord on a snowcapped mountain

Coming back from a wonderful holiday with family and friends, I told myself that I mustn’t just stick loads of holiday memories into my sermons for the next few weeks… well, that didn’t last.


We’ve been looking at the passages in Luke’s gospel that follow on from his resurrection- last week we heard about the conversation on the road to Emmaus, this week I was talking about the time when Jesus met his disciples in the evening, in the room where they were all gathered- its in Luke chapter 24.

Sometimes in life, you find yourself in a place where you’re out of your comfort zone, where everything you’ve gone through so far hasn’t prepared you for what’s in front of you now. The disciples, Jesus’ friends, found themselves in exactly that situation in the passage we just heard- they’d known Jesus, followed Jesus, seen him do amazing things, but they were not prepared for this… just that morning they’d been getting ready for a burial, then the body was missing and the women who’d gone to the tomb were talking about him being alive rather than missing… some of the group were already dispersing, leaving Jerusalem to head home and then this… the disciples are talking, and suddenly Jesus appears among them- he speaks, they’re terrified. He invites them to check that it is him- look at my hands and feet, and they still don’t believe because- he was dead. They hadn’t got an ‘ology’ yet to explain all this- the framework hadn’t yet been put together to explain how Jesus could rise from the dead, but there he was… he’s not a ghost, he’s really there, he’s not a hallucination because he can explain things to them, and they’re all experiencing the same thing… I once had concussion and began seeing things- hallucinating red and green snakes crawling across in front of me. But even while I was seeing these things, I knew that they were not there- I can still recall seeing them, but there were no snakes… I’m afraid of snakes, but I wasn’t afraid of these hallucinations. Jesus friends were afraid- this was something beyond their comfort zone, way out. But they were going through it, experiencing it, and afterwards they tried to make sense of it, to see how it worked…

I was trying to think of something that would help me draw some parallels between the disciples experiences and our own lives, and my mind drifted back to the holiday I’ve just come back from… and a morning spent skiing on one of my favourite mountains. One side of it is in France, the other in Italy- its called Chenaillet, but is more usually known as Eagle’s Rock or Rocher de l’aigle… on this particular morning I found myself, along with 2 others, skiing down one of the less skied sides- away from the main routes. I’d been there a couple of days before, and on previous occasions, but I found myself standing at the top of a particular spot that I hadn’t skied down before. To my left was the route I’d come down a few days ago, and to my right was a fairly clear line, but right in front of me was a steep, narrow passage that I’d never skied before… at this point, you may be thinking that the story will go one of two ways, and as I’ve not got my leg in plaster it’s the gloriously wonderful success that seems more likely than the crash… but it was something in between… I tried to be careful, cautious, and suddenly found myself about 2ft from quite a large rock, knowing I had to turn around and that falling over would result in an embarrassing, and probably quite painful slide/fall around 40ft of chute… in that situation the only real option was to go for it- to embrace the reality of it, that I was skiing down this narrow passage and so I really better do everything properly. And 10 seconds later I was skiing out of the bottom, a big grin on my face.

At the moment where I was standing at the top, I had to commit, if I was going to make this work. In the same way, Jesus followers, faced by the risen Jesus, had to commit to what was in front of them- and try to make it work. The thing is, that underlying their experience of meeting Jesus like this, was all the background- they’d known Jesus, they’d lived with and walked with Jesus, they’d heard his teaching and shared food with him… and that had stretched their understanding of what God could do… In a similar way, I spent years learning the basic skills of skiing- how to ski across the mountain, how to weight the skis and turn. And there’s one lesson that I hold to beyond almost all the others- when it gets scary and you want to hide, to avoid the hill or the turn… if you do that you’ll fall and hurt yourself. It’s a bit counter-intuitive but its really important. I guess it could have been tempting for the disciples to hang back, to wait for someone else to say that they believed Jesus first, but where would that have left them?

Jesus is alive, we believed he was dead. For most of us who would say that we’re Christians there has been a moment where we’ve discovered that to be true… what did it feel like for you… if it was a long time ago or you were v young, you may not remember it, but thinking of some other area of life where you’ve had an eye-opening experience… remember that sensation… for some of us its connected with our baptism- particularly for people who have been baptised as young people or adults, there is a close connection between becoming a Christian and being baptised. For others who, like Bentley, have been baptised as a young child or infant, it will be later on that we become conscious of the truth of Jesus’ resurrection.

If you’ve not yet discovered the truth about Jesus, you’re in the same place as those disciples were… and they needed to discover that it was true. And they couldn’t do that by hanging back in the corner- they had to come forwards, to touch Jesus and speak with him, to listen to him…  But what does that mean today for us? You may be able to think of a time when you’ve met with Jesus…or may be wondering how I can talk about meeting Jesus today. what does that mean? …We can encounter Jesus through worship, in prayer, when you’ve been reading the Bible, just talking with someone etc.

When we have that experience, or that opportunity… the basic things of knowing how to pray, knowing the Bible, feeling reasonably confident in doing those things… they stand us in good stead when Jesus says ‘come beyond your comfort zone’, our thinking is flexible enough that we don’t get tied in knots but are able to journey with Jesus- to go on a spiritual journey, that starts with the sort of things we celebrate in baptism, but it doesn’t end there.

Have a great day.

The suffering and the glory…

Belatedly- once again due to technical difficulties, here is the gist of what I preached from last Sunday morning…

Jesus, just before his arrest goes out to pray with his friends- as usual… but this wasn’t a usual evening- his mood wasn’t the usual one… this came at the end of a week of intense teaching and verbal sparring with the religious authorities which had left them feeling threatened, wordless, out-thought and out-taught. At times Jesus had spoken against them, at times side-stepped their traps, at times astonished them with his clarity and insight… And his disciples had been with him through it all.

As the week drew to a close the plot to arrest and get rid of Jesus developed, finally drawing in one of his friends- Judas, who agrees to betray Jesus to the soldiers. Was Judas greedy? Did he hate Jesus? Was he possessed for a moment by a spirit of madness? Did he misunderstand Jesus’ intentions and think his actions would bring about the kingdom?

Whatever the cause, on this evening, as Jesus and his friends, tired but caught up with the tide of events, made their way up the hill, to their usual spot… Judas was not with them- in Luke’s account his departure from the table is a quiet one, but no doubt Jesus had noted it. And so, as the disciples talk, Jesus walks, carrying the knowledge of what is already happening on his shoulders. He leaves them, asking them to pray ‘that you would not fall into temptation’ (meaning what? That they too wouldn’t betray him? That they might not deny him or flee from his side, or just that they’d be able to stay awake?)

And so… he prayed… which was nothing unusual… but this time in anguish… this time his closeness to his Father didn’t bring comfort or reassurance… only anguish, sorrow, tears… and then the arrest, the trial and the beatings, the humiliation, followed finally by the slow public execution by crucifixion.

We cannot fully appreciate what it must have meant for Jesus to go to the cross. It meant more to him than for any of us to give something up- this wasn’t simply about stepping aside from his close relationship with his Father, and nor was it about the pain that he knew was to come, or the sense of abandonment as his disciples left him… In part it might have been because he knew it was not only inevitable, but it was also what he needed to do, and it was only happening because of his acceptance of it- Jesus went to the cross willingly- not as one who wants to suffer or die, but one who knows what will be gained, what will be the final outcome.

And on the 3rd day- Mary came to see the tomb, and instead of a guard and a corpse she saw an angel and the risen Christ- confused and filled with joy, the women worshipped and then obeyed him.  All the promises were made true, the cross had not been the end but the doorway to salvation.

The cross and the resurrection were more important to them than the right kind of behaviour, or doing what had always been done. And so we need to reflect on how important the cross, the resurrection and the words of Jesus are to us…

As we gather here, as we go from here… what does it mean to us… how is the way we live defined by and affected by the resurrection of Jesus? To what extent is our worship related to our belief?

I’ve been looking at the beginning of Acts this week… lots of amazing things recounted in there, have a look yourself if you have a chance.

E100- all quiet on the heavenly front

So you live in a society where God apparently guides you, and is the leading force behind your people’s culture. Where for a period of time the leaders understood themselves as standing in the gap, hearing God for the people and with the responsibility to lead the people towards God, and where on occasions they had understood that blessing to be for and on behalf of the wider population- the whole region rather then just their own people group… but its all been quiet for a long time on the heavenly front. No kings, no judges, no prophets, or at least none that were shown to be faithful to God by their words and actions.

What does it mean to be the people of God when God seems to go quiet? Does it mean that you’ve been given all you need, all the guidance that a people can reasonably expect and so now you just need to get on with it? Does it mean that God has turned away and left you for good this time- and if so why? Is it a test? Is it just one of those things- you have to wait for some things in life, like exam results or the sunrise.

And then, in the silence, a voice speaks- first in one place, and then in another- first in the Temple to a priest (where you might expect it) and then in hicksville to a young woman (which was definitely unexpected).

You know how at the end of the night, when the sun has yet to appear, things often go quiet, and the light changes so slowly and night shifts imperceptibly towards day… and then there is the first moment when the sun itself peeks over the horizon.

The passage I’m referring to is Luke chapter 1– the beginning of his account of the life of Jesus. The priest is Zechariah and the young woman is Mary and the beginning of the new day is the message that the great prophet John the Baptist is soon to be born, and the dawn that is coming is the birth of Jesus- a new day dawning on the world, the coming of the kingdom of God in a new way where there is no silence between heaven and earth.  And we still live in the beginning of that kingdom- on the brink, with sorrow and fear and tragedy and loss beside us even as we see the growing signs of the light, the love, the healing and the life of the promises coming into being around us each day.

And I’m aware that this all sounds a bit crazy, as if I’m living in Narnia or another fairy land. But the thing is that I know in the last day, in my normal life, I’ve seen God touch the life of a sane intelligent man, I’ve prayed for miracles in the lives of desparate strangers, and I’ve had my own prayers answered through conversations and phone calls. God works in the ordinary and the humdrum, bringing his Kingdom into our lives… and the sound is breathtaking.

The view from here- reflections on a week

Apparently this week has been ‘back to normal week’ for many folk, and started off with what some people call ‘Blue Monday’. Well, I hate to disagree, but its not been normal and Monday was weirdly good.

Weirdly good, because I was taking the funeral of someone I knew, who’s wife had also died just over a year ago, which should all be fairly sad, but in fact it was ok. And more than ok- we remembered him, we said goodbye to him, tears were shed, we celebrated his life, and people came together to talk and share and live. It felt like an afternoon where people were more alive than normal, maybe because we’d been more conscious of death than we so often are.

Then several other appointments and meetings that were meant to happen later in the week just didn’t- they were cancelled, one just didn’t turn up or they became unnecessary. Again, this could have been really frustrating- certainly it meant that some of the effort I’d put into preparing was wasted, but I also had the gift of that time, an unexpected bonus during my working day.

I’ve had some great conversations with people- where people have opened up about life and God and stuff, and I’ve also got some things on the go which I’m really excited about.

Has anything changed or caused this? Not that I’m conscious of. Maybe I’m at the sweet spot of busyness, sleep deprivation and emotional tiredness that comes when you combine post-Christmas aftermath, a 2 month old baby and the return to work and school. Maybe I’m managing to live in the now rather than in the future or the past (you can call it Zen, or you can call it following Jesus teachings).  I’m aware of the things I’m not doing, and I know that there’s stuff that has an urgency to it, but right now, I’m not worrying about those things, and life is good.

If this is the first ‘normal’ week of the year, long may it continue.

BTW- the picture at the top is an MC Escher print, one of my favourites from my childhood.