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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But the women were also filled with joy…

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

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

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

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

What are the alternatives?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Charlie Brown, the eternal optimist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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…

 

What? Who chose THAT Bible reading?

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Speaking on a passage from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians and from chapter 5 of Matthew’s Gospel- 2 challenging sections… lets just say I was slightly more worried than I sometimes am. The text below is part of what I said- there was a whole chunk which only came to me 10minutes before I got up to speak, which you’ll need to listen to on the website to hear, and also sometimes its easier to hear compassion than to read it…

There are some weeks when the Bible readings we set just line up really well, and as a preacher you’re in the equivalent of a sweetshop… where do I start? And there are other weeks where there’s just one simple idea that clearly speaks… and then there are weeks where you look at your feet, a bit embarrassed and wonder where to next? In Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth we have throughout one of the biggest tellings off in the whole Bible- for 16 chapters Paul says, in various ways ‘you have every reason and opportunity to be like this, but instead you are…’ ‘just look at yourselves- you’ve let the school down, you’ve let your parents down’… all that… in this passage we have ‘I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly- mere infants in Christ’- to the church he founded in one of the greatest cities of the world… I gave you milk, and you’re still not ready for solid food… Go back right to the start and look at the basics- its not about the person, its about God- its always been about God… Paul is addressing Christians here, and his word to them is- God is it. God is at the heart of our faith, at the heart of our Church, at the heart of our vision and our activity, at the heart of everything we do. Our worship is about drawing close to God, praising Him for who he is and what he has done- and the choice of song and the musical instrument used should be irrelevant. We are allowed preferences, for sure- we are individuals and we’re called to unity, not uniformity. But if our desire to sing ‘this song’ or our dislike of ‘that song’ gets in the way of encountering God… then we are right with the Corinthian Christians…

We often hear the verse  ‘I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow’ to remind us that God uses different people at different times of our faith journeys- and that is true, but the point behind it is that there was a disagreement going on, which was threatening to split the church because Christians had allowed their preferences to become more important than God.

A difference of opinion that is poorly managed turns into a disagreement that turns into an argument, then a feud… and somewhere along the line there is something that cannot be said…

The seeds we plant and we water are the things that will grow in our lives.

What seeds are we planting?

Jesus, when speaking in the sermon on the mount as we heard, is speaking to those who’ve chosen to come and listen- to the not-yet-but-on-the-way-to being-called-Christians, most of them Jews.

And he refers back to their laws- having previously said that he’s come to fulfil the Law, he now goes much further- not only don’t kill, but recognise that anger is the first step towards murder so be reconciled; not only don’t commit adultery, but don’t even let your thoughts head in that direction… divorce- no, its not an option that those approaching marriage should have- the ‘we grew apart’ line is just that- a line we hear… its not true. It was a decision, or a series of decisions not to keep growing together… and then this section about oaths and promises- interesting, we might think making a promise is a sign of commitment, but Jesus speaks against them- do not swear, just let your yes be your yes and your no be your no…

This gives us a hint of something important here- Jesus has just highlighted the importance of one particular covenant promise- marriage, and how significant the breakdown of that is, and then goes on to say that his followers should be cautious of making promises… because we can break them…

In the context of the earlier statements, and within the sermon on the mount where this whole passage is set, Jesus sets these incredibly high aims- the beatitudes, the challenge to be salt and light, to fulfil the law etc… but in tension with this is just, us- the hearers of this word, the readers of Pauls letter and us… and we get angry, we entertain silly ideas, we don’t have the integrity that we might wish for… and so we beat up on ourselves for our failures. But… in between, there is the grace, the forgiveness, the healing, the transformation… the possibility… the hope.

And love helps us to take hold of that hope and the possibility of transformation, and work at it…

Love of God for us, and our love of others.

In Paul’s great rant to the Corinthians there is a passage that I’m sure you’ve all heard- but I want to read part of it again… having torn a strip of them for so much, Paul writes  ‘And now I will show you the most marvellous way… If I speak in the tongues of men andof angels but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge and if I have a faith that can move mountains and have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is… Love never fails…

This, he’s saying, this is what we’re meant to be like- this is what we’re meant to show to the world…

This is what we’re meant to show to Barnstaple, to Newport, to Hillcrest and Rumsam, Old School and Clinton Roads- to Park Lane and Cherry Grove, to all the places we live- and to those where we don’t. This is what our prayers tonight and whenever we gather together in prayer are about- that we might grow in love and show love, that God would soften people’s hearts to know love.

This is not easy- this is deeply challenging for us. This is love your enemy territory, this is mind how you speak of others when they are and aren’t around… this is how we answer the phone, post on Facebook, drive our car, treat our colleagues and all the rest…

And this is the miracle. That because of his love for us, somehow, sometimes, when you really wouldn’t expect it, we find it possible to do this. Its because of his love for us that says yes, you can be saved, forgiven, healed, transformed- and those things repeatedly… as often as required. Its because of that, that we’re empowered and enabled to love… its so much easier to respond to someone who has shown you consideration… but someone has to go first or it never gets started…

So let us love, and in that love let us be united, reconciled, pure, commited and filled with integrity.

Amen

Ready salted and shining like a star!

Yesterday we didn’t have a sermon in our main service… shock horror. Instead we figured one out ourselves- we had some crisps and breadsticks (as well as tortillas and rice cakes), candles, fairy lights and torches, a whole bunch of discussion and a reading from Matthew’s gospel where Jesus talks, yup, about salt and light…

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It was an amazing time, led by a wonderful woman of God, who put an immense amount of thought, prayer and effort into the service along with her team (and I know this because I watched her plan it during the previous two weeks). I may be biased, but I thought my wife rocked- there aren’t many occasions when joining in the prayer of confession and hearing the words of forgiveness brings me to tears, but it did yesterday.

So, if that’s what happened at the main shebang, what am I going to post? Well, fortunately we have the early morning service, and I got to share some thoughts with the folks there… so here they are, for once, something similar to what I said…

I came across an online discussion last week- someone had found something in their grandmother’s cupboard, in an unlabelled jar, which looked like salt… problem was that it didn’t really taste like salt and when used to make sauerkraut it ended up producing mouldykraut…

Salt is for preservation- for salting… it has purpose. It wasn’t just a bit of flavouring as we often use it today. If you tried to use some salt and it wasn’t salty, it was useless. Light is for seeing in the dark- to give light to people, so they can see, and move, and live without injuring themselves and others…

Jesus here says its ok for others to know about our deeds- but is very clear that the outcome of that should be that God is praised… when we do something that is good, we risk two traps- one is that we take any praise for ourselves- elsewhere in Matthew’s gospel there is a very clear judgment on this- that’s all the reward you’ll get… but there’s also the tendency towards dismissiveness, or self-deprecation- it was nothing, anybody would do the same… actually, not everybody would, and it was something… but if you know you’ve given to the poor, fed the hungry, housed the homeless, welcomed the stranger, stood up against injustice or healed the sick because Jesus has called you to follow him- because you are a disciple of Christ, then acknowledge it. When I was involved a number of years ago in a free café over at the Pilton Festival, the biggest problem we had were those serving explaining why it was free- those coming expected to pay, and we were often quite used to charging… and so it was quite something to say ‘actually this is free- it’s a gift, we’re giving this away as an act of compassion and generosity…’ in the end we made napkins with the text we wanted to say printed on them- the team could all give out a napkin and say ‘read what it says on there’… ‘This cake is a small expression of love, it was made and given for you by members of the local churches, as a tiny way of showing God’s love for you. If you’d like to know more, speak to one of the team’. In the first instance we were giving away cake- and not to those who were starving. However it was more than that.

When we run Mini music, Cake Club, the Youth Club, when we go to visit Park Lane Nursing home or to the schools, or any other outreach event, the purpose is always twofold- to respond to a need, but to show God’s love as we do so. When we have special collections for overseas or UK charities or give a portion of our annual giving, we do it to help, but also to show God’s love as we do so. Churches aren’t just money funnels or finance managing groups, just as much as they aren’t just cafés or nurseries, however the Church has been supporting those in financial need, those who’re hungry, those who need our practical help long before we ever started writing down our prayers and forms of worship. This is the tradition of the church, this is the fulfilment of the law of Moses- this is what it looks like to love our neighbour as ourselves.

As disciples we do this in our individual lives, and as the church we do it on a larger scale, and so on…

We encourage one another, we strengthen each others voices, we sharpen one another…

We spent some time praying that we’d be able to do this more in our lives, and so I guess that’d be my prayer for you too this week.

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.

Christmas Dreams…

Last week we were thinking about expectations, and we know where that got us… this week we’re onto dreams… last week John the Baptist, this week Mary and Joseph, and the dreams that they had…

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Our reading was from Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 1, verses 18-25 which you can find here

Of course the text below isn’t what I actually said, but it is what I planned to say… if you want to here the whole shebang, its on the church website here

What does it mean to have a dream? On 28th August 1963 a preacher stood and proclaimed these words ‘I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed – we hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’ Martin Luther King, for it was he, was speaking of his great passion for the civil rights movement to lead towards total and complete equality between black and white… but in a sense it wasn’t his dream… he didn’t come up with idea- he was standing, as he acknowledged, in the shadow of the statue of George Washington who had, 100yrs previously signed the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring slavery illegal throughout the United States… but even that was built upon the declaration of independence and the American Constitution… In a sense none of these people had a dream- the dream had them. A vision of how it could be, a sense of what needed to happen…something got hold of them and caused them to change their plans, their ways of being… as I recently heard it put- people don’t choose dreams, dreams choose them, so the question is do I have the courage to grab the dream that picked me?

Last week we were thinking about John the Baptist, and the fruit- the things that grew out of his ministry, and the things that were the fruit of Jesus’ ministry… those things happened in part because individuals took heart and grabbed hold of the dream that was in front of them… John preached repentance- they chose to repent. Jesus preached healing and forgiveness- they chose forgiveness and were healed in soul and body…

What is the dream that stands in front of us?

In our Bible passage today, as we remember Mary the mother of Jesus, we hear not of her obedience (that passage you’ll find in Luke’s Gospel and you can hear it this evening at our carol service!), but of Joseph’s- he has a pledged wife who is pregnant… he has every good reason to abandon her and no good reason to stick with her… and then he has a dream… ‘Do not be afraid’- these are good words of advice when you’re considering grabbing hold of a dream… Dreams often involve flying… they are rarely under our control…

Joseph is also known- this is no strange hallucination or idle day dream… the angel addresses him by his name and the name of his family… The dream he is given is of God’s mighty hand at work- he’s given a glimpse into the perspective of God… ‘here is what I am about to do- will you play a part?’

And this thing that God was doing was mindblowing in its simplicity, as many dreams are- he was going to send his Son as God with the people- Immanuel… and his Son would save- God would save through his Son with his… Jesus, Immanuel, the Messiah. He would save people from the thing that everyone needed to be saved from, and would call them into new life- he would save them from the lies and deception of our sins, and call them into a new life of truth and love…

Last week we were considering the fruit that God would grow in us- the ways in which he would be at work in us, making us more like Christ in our own lives and as we are a part of his people here…

Today we consider, what is the dream that God has for us? Its not to bring his Son into this world and to be his parents- that was the dream God had for Joseph. But what is the dream that stands before us?

The thing with dreams, the thing with hopes, is that they are there for us to grab hold of. But we can ignore them. We can decide not to- there are all sorts of seemingly good reasons to leave them be, just as there were all sorts of reasons why Joseph could have abandoned Mary. But the truth of it is that he knew the right thing, and he stepped out and took hold of it- when Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him. He gave Mary’s son the name Jesus… and the world was changed…

What dream does God have for us here, for us as a church? As we work together to proclaim Christ’s live in ourselves and our community, what do we dream will happen? And how are we being obedient to that dream? If we take that risk, what might happen?

If you want to look at the video that I mentioned, you can find it here, it’s pretty cool, if you like your well-scripted and nicely shot first person spoken to camera motivational videos, which I do. If you prefer your classic speech text, then check out the full text of Martin Luther King’s speech, you can find it here, among other places.

When will I learn?

So, last Sunday we were thinking about expectation… and waiting, and anticipation.

Ok, so far so good… but I’d been praying about this, and how to speak on expectation… I’d prepped some notes (not much) and was hoping to leave space for folks to respond, to have some time where we could prayerfully wait on God- you know, with expectation.

What I hadn’t banked on was God deciding to do some work in me, in front of everyone… I’d been praying that I would be able to grow in leading more out of my own character and less out of any sense of what a vicar/church leader is meant to be, which is fine, except that last Sunday that included tears from the front, sitting with others and crying during the service… and generally a fairly emotional time. I get home afterwards and am beginning the post-service feedback session with the bathroom mirror, and a comment from my wife comes into my mind “It’s harder to be real, to show emotions, to be vulnerable, than it is to pretend you don’t feel or to hide what you are feeling- it takes more strength to let things out than hold them in.” Now, maybe she’s just an amazing wife who knows the right things to say to her husband, but I think she made an important point.

This week has continued to be a difficult and heavy week, but in many ways I’ve felt better able to cope because I started off last Sunday by openly saying and showing where my heart is. People around me are journeying with me- all of us grieving and struggling together… But in the midst of it all there is also the deep joy that gives hope. Hope which sustains through all the tears, the waiting and the sadness.

Because ultimately, we anticipate, we await, we expect God to be faithful to his promises.

Anyway, speaking at times from Matthew 11, the bit where John’s disciples come to speak with Jesus, here is something of what I said… the audio is on the website here

Expectation.

Fruit. A tree produces fruit in keeping with itself- pears from pear trees etc. Paul writes about the fruit of the Spirit- they show what the Spirit of God is like- the character of God shown in the people of God. John’s disciples are asking Jesus if he is the one that John spoke about, and his answer is ‘look around you- what fruit do you see?’

When John the Baptist started preaching in the wilderness area, people went to listen, and Jesus asked ‘What did you expect?’ Some would have gone out of curiosity, but others in hope- John was a prophet- he called the people back to God, telling them they needed to repent- to repent means turn around…

The kingdom of heaven… what is the kingdom… an easy yoke… led by love not governed by rules… Expectation of something is well founded, but not the specifics- we can be fairly sure that we’ll be given some gifts this Christmas, when you’re given a gift you can get some clues- size, weight etc… but you don’t know the exact contents until you’ve opened it- until you’ve received it, accepted it…

What is the fruit of God’s work in us here? How do we show each other and anyone else who encounters us as the church what God’s character is?

When we welcome someone to our Christmas fair, to Mini Music, Cake Club or our Sunday worship- we each present the image of God to the people we meet… when we answer an email or a phone call etc…

And those times when we’re not ‘on duty’… when we’re not ‘part of the church’… what is the fruit that is visible in us then?

Like I said, not much… but God seemed to work… when will I learn?

You, in the tree…

Greetings- its been a while… since I last posted some awful things have happened in the world and some great things have happened- the attacks of late July in France and Germany, the celebrations of the human spirit of the Olympics… Also for us there’s been a lot going on- mostly really good with some holiday time as a family and a week at the New Wine conference in SW England (which needs a series of posts on its own…), and then back to ‘normal’ with all sorts of things going on alongside the occasional sunny day and even one sneaky surf at the weekend.

What’s been bugging my head and my heart, however, is something to do with the depth of our response to the Gospel of Jesus- whether it penetrates deep into us and shapes our thinking and our behaviour from within or whether we’re ‘Gospel-proof’… like a brand new coat where the rain beads and runs off… The big problem with a waterproof coat is how do you wash it clean, when it doesn’t let water penetrate? How do we allow the Gospel of peace to penetrate into us, when we spend so much effort toughening and protecting ourselves?

This week’s passage, from Luke chapter 19, gets right to the heart that question… as with the last month its using some ideas from Karl Martin’s book ‘Stand’… highly recommended reading.

Jesus comes to Jericho, on his way to Jerusalem for the last time- he has predicted his own death, he’s shown his power to heal… the passage we heard comes just before his triumphal entry into the city just 5 days before his crucifixion. This is Jesus the superstar- surrounded by crowds who’ve come to see what he’ll do next and at least to be witness to it. And even the sinners are interested- Zacchaeus, not just a tax collector but a chief tax collector… He would have had guards, men who could have ‘found’ him a space at the front of the crowd… but for some reason he doesn’t take that option… instead he goes incognito, hiding in a tree (though possibly not alone) to see for himself what this Jesus is all about- whether it’s the stories of the healings, the way that Jesus has spoken against the scribes, the pharisees and the teachers of the law (the ones who would have most loudly accused Zacchaeus of being a sinner), or if he’s heard about how other tax collectors have met with Jesus and been forgiven for their sins… (what’s the deal with tax collectors anyway? They get lumped together with ‘sinners’ throughout the Gospels because in taking on that job they had to work as collaborators with the Roman authorities, imposing their law onto their countrymen, and also the expectation was that they would profit by making money- either bribes or extortion… so no one likes them, no one trusts them, but no one can get rid of them…) Whatever it is, something has intrigued him enough to find out more.

But he’s not quite sure, so he hides… maybe he, like us sometimes, knows the theory- Jesus can forgive sins, and believes it in practice- Jesus forgave their sins, but struggles to believe if for himself- Jesus can forgive my sins, and he has… so he hangs back, hiding in the tree.

But Jesus spots him, and knows him, and calls him by name. Now, although there are the great long lists of names at points in the Bible, considering how many people Jesus meets, and how many people God speaks to, there are a lot who’s names we don’t know- the leper, the centurion, the other disciple on the road to Emmaus, the woman at the well, the man freed from demons etc… and there are even fewer called by name- In the Old Testament the story of Samuel who is called by God stands out, and here in this passage- ‘Zacchaeus, come down’. Zacchaeus, who maybe wasn’t sure that God could love him, finds out that in Jesus God sees him, God knows him, and God loves him.

At this point he’s still a sinner- he’s not asked for forgiveness, hes not made amendments for how he has mistreated those around him, but Jesus has invited himself to dinner- just as with Matthew and Levi sometime earlier. Here though, things play out differently- even before Jesus gets to Zacchaeus’ house the muttering starts in the crowd- All Zacchaeus’ doubts come back… its now or never time for him. Ok- I give away half of everything I have and repay anyone I’ve cheated 4 times over… Now I’ll leave the sums to you but that sounds like he’s emptying his pockets AND making reparation to those he’s hurt…

When Jesus encounters people he gets to the cause of their problems- if someone is unclean he makes them clean, if someone is on the edge he welcomes them, if someone is sinning he warns them not to sin… There were various reasons why someone might be called a ‘sinner’ but for Zacchaeus it was all to do with money- you wouldn’t take on the job as a tax collector unless money was more important than people or God. Zacchaeus knows it, he may have known it for years, but that doesn’t make it easier to change.

And then in a second, because of Jesus, his life is changed. However much he loves money and the things it can buy, he knows that he needs forgiveness, he needs God more.  The best of intentions without the power of God may lead to nothing, but with God even our little efforts can transform lives.

Today salvation has come to this house… When Jesus heals the paralytic he not only heals him, but also forgives him. And it’s the same here- Zacchaeus receives healing that is beyond the physical- thank you, sorry, I forgive you… really important words that can bring healing to hearts if they are meant- Z trusted that Jesus meant what he said, J trusted that Z meant what he said… And he is healed in his heart, he is saved, he is given life.

Jesus came to seek and to save what was lost. We as a church exist to help those around us find Jesus- we do that through our worship- saying and singing the greatness of God. We do that in our encouragement of one another- not to give up, to press on towards the goal. We do that in our outreach to friends and neighbours in our community- whether its in the building of friendships with people at the Fun Day, the chat on the corner, the discussions at work or with those who come to Pints of View or other events we plan.

But that has to start with ourselves and our church-  and I mean two things by that- I was challenged by someone in the last week about how welcoming a church genuinely is, and being as honest as possible I said ‘when we get it right, we’re more welcoming than we are exclusive, we don’t always get it right but we try to’…  we, asking God to help us, try to be a place and a people where anyone and everyone are welcome… and when we fail or give up, we try again…

And secondly, we each need to know the truth of what happened to Zacchaeus. That God’s promises are true for us. That the crazy logic of the kingdom- I have sinned, Jesus paid on the cross, I am forgiven, is true today for each of us. And as it is true we each need to respond to it- in our prayers and our worship we don’t only proclaim how great God is, but also thank him for his love and mercy shown to us- each of us. And we might also need to do some stuff- we might have to make reparations- there may be people we need to forgive in our heart, that we need to speak to or write to… there may be people we need to thank, or need to ask for forgiveness… because we have all been lost, and the Son of Man came to seek and to save each one of us, that we might follow him, and as part of his people be witnesses of him in all the earth.