The Essential Question… How can I make a difference…

For the last few years a number of us in our churches have been reading through a book together- not quite a book club, but just a bunch of people reading the same thing at the same time. This year we’re looking at ‘The Essential Question’- a book by Whitney Kuniholm which takes us through the book of Acts in 50 readings. It’s looking at the question of how can I make a difference for God in my life, and over the next 10 weeks we’ll be having some talks based on passages from Acts, and I’ll be posting occasionally on bits that I’ve been reading.

Image result for whitney kuniholm essential question

Today we’re right at the start- Chapter 1… in the first reading yesterday there was the account of Jesus leaving his disciples, ascending to be with the Father- its one of those things that our imagination (with some help from Star Trek or wherever else) tries to help us with… but of more importance is what is said- he tells them to wait, and he tells them to pray, and he tells them they will receive the Holy Spirit, and he tells them they will do great things in many places.

If someone ever tries to tell you how great you’re going to become at something, there is something within us (certainly in me) that doubts, that puts your head down and says ‘yeah sure, whatever’… but I guess if that same person has healed the sick, raised the dead, fed the hungry, risen from the dead themselves (oh, after telling you in advance that they’d be killed and rise again), and then proceeds to teleport/fly/ascend/whatever, you have to wonder that they might know something more than you do.

But you still have to trust.

And trusting is hard, especially when it involves waiting.

But that is the first thing the disciples have to do, and us if we’re going to try to learn from their experiences of how to live and make a difference for God. If you want to make a difference, first of all trust, and wait.

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History and life- is it a circle or a spiral?

Image result for those who study history

Looking backwards should help with moving forwards… Knowing what happened then should help us with what is happening now… time moves on, not just around in a circle.

A wonderful friend of mine, Jeremy, once tried to teach me about the Maori way of telling stories- they don’t just have a beginning, middle and end, but they return to themes and points of reference again and again, but each time the story has progressed- its not a straight line, nor is it just a circle, but its more like a spiral…

This year seems to have had more than its share of nervy moments in national and international news, and the cartoon pic I’ve used expresses concerns I know are held by many, but we need to make sure that we don’t just focus on the worrying news, that we don’t ignore the things that we can do…

It would be easy to put your hands in the air and stand back, proclaiming your helplessness, but that isn’t going to lead anywhere good. So get stuck in, get passionate, get involved, because this world, this life, this stuff is important. The Bible doesn’t speak of hope in heaven or salvation from this life- it starts here and now, with the things that we do in our lives… and so Paul writes to encourage and help Christians in that…

I was speaking on Romans 15, verses 4-13, which may well be the official reading for next Sunday morning, but hey, I was excited by it, so there you go…

‘Everything that was written in the past’- Paul is writing about the importance of Scripture here, but of course he’s writing about the Jewish Scriptures- our Old Testament. The New Testament as we know it barely existed- Paul and others were writing it and collating the stories of those who’d met Jesus. But what he writes is true of both. The purpose of Scripture, which is God-breathed, is to teach us. There are rules and commandments- the 10, the 2, the 300… but actually Paul says here that the purpose of Scripture is to teach us to endure and to be encouraged- its purpose is to give us hope. This is not the ‘obey the Law’ understanding that we may have, but much wider- what is the story that the whole of Hebrew Scripture tells us?

God’s creative power- yes; God’s love for his creation, including humanity- yes; mankind’s flawed and fallen inconsistency- yes; God’s persistent intention to love and redeem mankind- yes, yes, yes.

God does not give up, and has spoken over the years through the prophets of his intentions. God has called mankind back to him many times, and has sent judges, kings, prophets, prophetesses etc to bring that word of love, so that through his chosen people the whole world may be blessed- the Jews and the gentiles may sing God’s praises together.

But Paul knows from his own people’s history how hard it is to endure, to remain faithful… and so he prays that his readers, the Roman Christians and us, may be given a spirit of unity. This is not simply accept one another as Christ accepted you- though it is that. Paul invites us to model ourselves on Jesus- that is the basis for our unity, our being accepted by Christ and our acceptance of others… The promises are linked to the command. Jesus came and was a servant to bring the promises made in Scripture to fulfilment, and to confirm them for the Gentiles… This is the purpose of his coming.

Over the course of this letter Paul has set out and developed his understanding of God, of Jesus, of the Holy Spirit and of what it means to be a Christian in more depth than anywhere else, but here in this verse he summarises why Jesus came- Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God’s truth, to confirm the promises made to the patriarchs, so that the Gentiles may glorify God for his mercy.

If we can get these things right, they act as foundations- helping us to flourish, to be ourselves, to stand strong. Its one thing to stand, its another to stand strong- one is simply stubbornness, the other has a purpose. I was reminded of the Prayer meetings in DDR in the 80’s- they’d had prayer meetings at St Nikolas’ church in Leipzig every Monday from 1982, but somehow the meetings in Leipzig were different, by May 1989 the police were barricading the roads to keep the congregation away, but it had the opposite effect… by October the numbers had reached epic levels- the leader of the DDR government described the prayer meetings as ‘the counter-revolution’ and had ordered them stopped by any means- but the riot police were not ready for candles and prayers. On October 9th the police did nothing as 70,000 protestors- Christians and atheists together quietly walked through the city. The numbers doubled and doubled again each week, and a month later the Berlin wall came down- the DDR was over. Sometimes waiting, showing strength by constancy is more powerful than anything else.  Trusting in what you are doing, in the rightness of your beliefs. Being encouraged by what has happened to continue to hope for the future.

So, in the words of the prayer written by Paul- ‘may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit’

Have a good week, hold onto hope, and bring a blessing where you can.

The Trinity… helps you work, rest and play

Today’s passages from Isaiah chapter 40 and Mark chapter 1 (the first a great descriptive piece of writing about the character of God and the second a wonderful passage where we see all 3 persons of the Trinity in action within a few words) help us think about what God is like. The partial but incomplete, the mention of all three persons in the Gospel, the symbols of water, the dove, the words of the prophet… so lets see where we can get to, because Trinity Sunday is either a day when we just accept we can’t fathom God, or we do some work on trying to see what we can fathom of God…

Now, starting with the deep theological stuff- we need someone who knows a bit about chocolate…(for anyone listening on i-player or reading this on the blog- you’ll have to get your own Mars bar to really join in!) the ingredients of Mars are chocolate, nougat and caramel centre… well, here’s  Mars Bar, lets see if you can find a bit of each of them… separate it out and show us what they look like… its a pretty messy process that ultimately, isn’t very successful- but what about finding the ingredients of them- some sugar, some milk, some butter, some barley, a bit of salt and egg… when you try to pull a mars bar apart, you just end up with a mess- it can’t really be done, but when the ingredients are all together- they are more than they are on their own…just the other day my daughter took a mix of sugar, egg, some flour, a bit of baking powder and cocoa, and it became a cake- when we try to understand God, we need to know that God is more than just Jesus, more than just the Holy Spirit, more than just the Father…

So now I need 3 more helpers- people who can move… in fact one of you doesn’t need to move at all… someone sitting… someone standing… anyone fancy lying down (or in a buggy?)… when you are standing, you can’t be sitting, when you’re lying you aren’t doing either of the others, but you are still absolutely you… When we come close to God in one way- when we’re worshipping the Father or the Son, when we’re receiving from the Holy Spirit…

Another way of thinking about the Trinity that you may be familiar with is that of water- it can be a solid, a liquid or a gas, but they are all water- each one possesses different properties, each one does its own thing. They are all fundamentally the same, just in different conditions of temperature and pressure. The three persons of the Trinity each act in different ways, but always in keeping with the others- When we look at the actions of Jesus, they are in line with the character of the Father, when we see the work of the Holy Spirit in our own and other’s lives, it continues what we saw happening through and around Jesus…

If we’re trying to see how this fits together- God the Father is the Lord almighty- the Lord of Hosts who is to be feared, except he is also the creator and the shepherd of his people… Jesus took on that image and said ‘I am the Good Shepherd’… he was God in a place, with a smile on his face, but was not someone to be messed around… but he could only be in one place at a time, and so the sending of the Holy Spirit for all believers was a logical next step- God’s power and God’s love in others… so that the world might look to us and see God, just as much as people look at the created world and see the character and hand of the creator

And what should the world see of God-  we look at space and see? We look at a newborn baby and see? We look at a parent or grandparent and see? We look at Jesus as a man, on the cross? We look at the ocean, the sand, the sunset… we see God’s character… his love, grace, mercy, glory…

As humans we all have our own character and we all warm to different people- each of us naturally or from our upbringing relates more easily to God as Father, as Son or as Holy Spirit… that is normal. If you have a strong (positive or negative) relationship with your own father that will affect your understanding of and relationship with God the Father. Any sibling rivalry will affect your connection to Jesus- the kind of big brother who you’re never going to beat at anything, but will never let anyone put you down (sounds familiar to anyone?), and your relationship with the Holy Spirit is often seen by some as linked to the way we relate to our mothers… and all of this could be rubbish, but my own experience tells me it isn’t. However, wherever we start, we need to know that the persons of the Trinity consistently and constantly point and lead us on to the others… as the Son does what the father does and calls out the Spirit, so the Spirit came down onto Jesus and draws us closer to the Father, and the Father sent the Son to do their will on earth…which was to prepare the way for the coming of the Holy Spirit…

So in our lives, lets be open to the whole of God, lets get to know all of God, lets meet with and worship and share all of God- Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Another of God’s ridiculous ideas…

This week we’ve continued to look at how the first generation church grew and spread- in Acts 16 Paul and Silas have arrived in Europe, and we’ve seen the first church founded in Northern Macedonia… and now here we are for the next instalment…

Today’s reading follows on from last week- It’s a great passage with so much in it that I struggled to decide what to speak on, so we’re just going to work through the passage and see where we get to…starting at verse 16 in chapter 16 of the book of Acts.

At the heart of it, this passage is about faith and power… who do we have faith in, and where does the power lie?

We have Paul and Silas, men of faith who, as we heard last week, were used to listening to God and following his guidance, and people in Philippi are beginning to put their faith in God too, and in doing so are trusting in God’s power to save them and bring transformation to their lives. And we have the slave girl– she has no power of her own, and yet people come to her, pay money to hear what she says. Her masters and the spirit control her, and make her work for their purposes. She is a reminder of those things that exist- spiritual forces that are not of God such as mediums, psychic healings, fortune tellers- those things that can have power over people- that can have power over us if we let them, and material things in the world, in our own lives that can, without us realising it, limit our lives. It might be things from our past- unforgiveness, rejection, anger, issues with violence, relationships etc. It might be that we have dabbled in occult spiritual things at some point… and as with the slave girl, these things can follow us around… and they will not stop until we choose to declare God’s power in our lives, as Paul does. Later in the summer we’re having a series on living the Christian life, based on the book ‘Stand’ by Karl Martin- as in the last few years we’ve used a book to support our teaching series, and it addresses these things that are stopping us from flourishing as Christians…

But what of her words- these men are servants of the most high– they are correct but only to a point- in John 15 Jesus says ‘I no longer call you servants but friends’, and in John 1 ‘children of God’- not servants but so much more. Whether this spirit is deliberately lying- in the same way that we see Satan challenging Jesus by distorting what God has said and the serpent challenging Eve by questioning God’s will for humanity, or just cannot grasp the relationship that these men have to God… friends of Christ, sons of God?? How can this be, and yet it can- Whatever power this spirit has to discern who Paul and Silas are, God’s power is so much greater– firstly in that they are not servants, but have been made friends and brothers of Christ, with all the privileges and responsibilities that brings, and secondly in that Paul’s words- simple, plain, matter of fact- would that our prayers were like that, and as effective! Paul has faith, and his words have power- Lord’s Prayer– archbishop’s call to pray for our nation, using the Lord’s prayer- this week- please pray specifically for our nation to be changed and our community to be transformed… for individuals you know- and if you find yourself unsure of how to pray for those things, use the words of the Lord’s Prayer to get you started, write down on a piece of paper- maybe your notice sheet from today the names of 5 people who you want to know God more fully in their lives- people you care about enough to pray for each day.

What happens next- these things happen, the fear of what might happen must not stop us from living out our Christian lives to the fullest extent- this is our only stab at this, so why hold back? I’ve heard of several occasions over the years and have experienced it myself here and elsewhere, that if a church is trying to draw closer to God and to serve him in the community and prayerfully working to bring about transformation through the gospel- then there will be problems, and difficulties.  Fear of what might happen if we do what we know in our hearts is right… that’s a rubbish reason to keep our faith toned down.  If we are not sure about what we believe, then take the opportunities that are around to you sort that out- the bible study groups that already exist and are being started here… Start course… invite a friend, come with them if you like. If we have other things in our lives that demand our attention and time- that’s ok for a time… in that none of us really like our wheelie bins, but we know that we need them, and that we have to put them out, put them back and occasionally clean them… but to accept that things will always keep us from growing and flourishing as Christians, that’s like saying that its reasonable to leave your wheelie bin in blocking your front door and climbing over it every day… it just isn’t… so don’t live that way.

But the road isn’t guaranteed to be an easy one- If we believe the good bits in Scripture, we have to believe the tough bits too- Paul and Silas were beaten, flogged, mocked and imprisoned… and they took it- they didn’t say or do anything, they sat in their chains. Now Paul knows about Peter’s escape, but he also knew about James’ death… Ultimately they trusted God more than they feared man, they knew that their lives were his, that living or dying wouldn’t change that.

And then- the earthquake, the decision not to run, and the words of the jailer- both ‘how will I get out of trouble’ and ‘save me!’ The decision to remain in their cells was made because Paul and Silas wanted the glory to go to God- earthquakes happen- not infrequently in Greece, and if they’d escaped that night the magistrate and jailer and the city would have had them marked as escaped criminals and hunted them down. But by remaining they are able to speak God’s word into the lives of the jailer and his family– This is probably not how Paul had hoped or expected to see things develop… the continuation of the unexpected- Lydia last week- as someone pointed out to me a dealer in cloth was not just a shop assistant, purple cloth even less so, but still not necessarily your strategic choice… here, God’s word is shared with another unlikely candidate, but once again its someone who is ready to respond- the jailer has seen how Paul and Silas were at peace… I was reading just yesterday ‘you can’t control your circumstances, but you can control your response to your circumstances’… their peace and their manner spoke as much as their words…

As we reach the end of this passage we see two interesting and important things- there’s been an earthquake that has brought down the doors, but Paul and Silas are still beaten and bruised- God has power, but leaves work for us, He doesn’t do all things… God is glorified through the earthquake, but people are still able to make a difference and help one another- Paul’s words bring the man to a place where he wants to respond, and the first thing he does is to help Paul and Silas… and then is baptised- once again, we see that there doesn’t need to be a long time left… if you are drawn towards God, then why hold back? What must I do? Believe in the Lord Jesus- that he is the son of God who can forgive our sins- not just an academic, intellectual belief, but a belief that includes trust and faith- believe in him in the same way that you believe in a chair that you lean back in… commit yourself.

Ultimately- God is glorified and the kingdom grows… faith, and power. May it be the same in our time, in our community, in the lives of those we know, and in our own lives.

 

Refugee faith, part II

So once again the Christian faith is crossing cultures- this time its not being shared with ex-pats living in Palestine, but with proper foreigners on properly foreign soil- Paul has travelled hundreds of miles on foot, reached the edge of the Mediterranean and crossed over in a flimsy boat to mainland Europe (sounding familiar yet?), and the result is that the Christian faith arrives on these shores- Acts chapter 16 describes the events, but here’s what I said last Sunday, or at least some of my notes:

Paul and Silas are on the second of Paul’s major missionary trips- they’ve revisited the churches founded during Paul’s first trip, and then travelled further north and west into what is now Turkey… at various points they’ve found their way barred- and have continued where they were able to… its important to note that they were already moving when God guided them- they weren’t just stationary, expecting God to do everything. Their journey had had twists and turns- some very unexpected… things not going to plan… normally when planning a journey we might ask advice from friends who’ve been to the same places, look in a guide book, check a few websites…

The dream- not quite sure what made the man recognisably Macedonian… maybe he was wearing the national costume, but they responded… They recognised that it was God directing them- they knew his voice well.

Paul and Silas were by this stage used to following God, to stopping, pausing, waiting, going, and also used to discerning whether people around them were speaking God’s will or not- Go away, stay, be quiet…

So they went to Philippi and there they met Lydia, among others. They didn’t meet them in a synagogue- there may not have been one, and Lydia wouldn’t have been there anyway, as she was not a Jew. They didn’t go to the town square and shout the good news about Jesus in the middle of town…They went to the river, to a place of prayer- and spoke with some who were interested. After all the guidances of the Holy Spirit this is where Paul and Silas are led- to a group of people sitting around by a river… Lydia was ‘a worshipper of God’- the same as Cornelius, whom Peter visited in Caesarea. She was interested, and she was open.

She responded, and all of a sudden there were European Christians… She and her household were baptised- no hanging around… when God is at work, why wait?

If you were planning the spread of the Gospel into Europe, I wonder how you would have done it- who would you pick as your first convert on the European mainland? A woman in business- not a powerful person with influence and connections in all the right places… why?

  • God values women BUT ALSO that this good news was for everyone and to show that God values those others do not, the poor, the diseased, the children, the women, the outcasts, the cultural minorities were and are important to God.
  • And we can really KNOW this, because God made such a surprising choice to our logical minds choosing Lydia

So… What is God doing today? Where and how is God at work in this community? Where is he calling us to go and be his people?

Note to self and apology to anyone who was there- I managed to get myself confused when I spoke about Paul and Barnabas- Paul wanted to revisit some of the churches they’d founded, and Barnabas wanted to revisit others- they both wanted to encourage the existing Christians and found new faith communities.

But going back to the image of refugees and travellers- Paul brought the Christian faith to Europe. He wasn’t a refugee. He was a travelling preacher and migrant worker. He was also a citizen of Rome and so had access to the open borders policy of the Empire… Oh, it just gets more and more complicated… So am I saying that open borders to all is a good idea? Not sure. Am I saying ‘In’ to the EU? Well yes, but thats a personal thing rather than something I get from my faith. I guess I’m just making the point that its really easy to mix up the wood and the trees, to look back at something and say it was important while making sure that the same thing doesn’t happen again.

Prejudices not welcome here…

Yesterday we were thinking about the welcome that we give, and the welcome that God gives us… and it reminded me of the church welcome bulletin that has begun appearing in the last few years… rather than just saying ‘all are welcome’, its a bit more extensive…

WELCOME! We extend a special welcome to those who are single, married, divorced, gay, filthy rich, dirt poor. We extend a special welcome to those who are crying new-borns, skinny as a rake or could afford to lose a few pounds We welcome you if you can sing like Pavarotti or are like our vicar (who can’t carry a note in a bucket). You’re welcome here if you’re just browsing, just woke up or just got out of prison. We don’t care if you’re more Christian than the Archbishop of Canterbury, or haven’t been in church since little Jack’s christening. We extend a special welcome to those who are over 60 but not grown up yet and to teenagers who are growing up too fast. We welcome keep-fit mums, football dads, starving artists, tree-huggers, latte sippers, vegetarians, junk-food eaters. We welcome you if you are having problems or you’re down in the dumps or if you don’t like organised religion – we’ve been there too! If you blew all your money on the horses, you’re welcome here. We offer a welcome to those who think the earth is flat, work too hard, don’t work, can’t spell, or because your grandma is in town and wanted to go to church. We welcome those who are inked, pierced or both. We offer a special welcome to those who could use a prayer right now, had religion shoved down their throat as a kid or got lost in the local oneway system and wound up here by mistake. We welcome tourists, seekers and doubters, bleeding hearts…………and you!

Of course, there is the age old tension with things like this- you’re welcome so long as you don’t mind us welcoming others…and we’ll protect you so long as you don’t mind us protecting others… which means that although our welcome is wide and inclusive, it has edges too- if you can’t or won’t cope with other people being welcomed, or if you want welcome to mean ‘unconditional trust and total acceptance’- If everyone’s welcome except the fascist/communist/crazy-eyed loon/martian delete as applicable or fill in your own preference… that means our welcome has limits. Which, if you think about it, has to be ok.

Anyway, we were thinking about the welcome God gives to Gentiles- you know, the horrible foreign people like me (and probably you too), the ones who weren’t blessed enough to be born into the covenant… and how the book of Acts describes the shift when it became apparent that God really does welcome all people… go and read chapters 10 & 11 for the actual and reported events, but here’s what I said yesterday:

I said at the outset that this morning we’re thinking about welcome- but there are things that get in the way- prejudices… they’re pretty much the opposite of love, and yet all of us who call ourselves Christians, who try to follow the commands of Jesus, have them. We try to dress them up as wisdom, or reasonable, we may genuinely think that its normal… we can almost certainly see other people’s prejudices much more easily than our own…

In our society there is still casual sexism, there is thoughtless ageism towards young and old, there is financial discrimination, and that’s without even going near to the borders and mentioning refugees. There is prejudice against different parts of the country, and different parts of the same town. If we genuinely think that we are without prejudice, then answer me this- how is it that we allow anyone in our country to go homeless, naked, or hungry? We do these things so easily- this morning since I’ve arrived here I have shown prejudice against those with mobility problems, those with reading difficulties, those for whom English is a second language, those who are deaf… just by leading our service.

But a large part of prejudice stems from fear- fear of the unknown. And today there are many who don’t know God, and so they are afraid, and are prejudiced against God and those who claim to follow him. So how do we respond to that fear? By love- love one another was a command to love each other- other believers yes, but also the ‘not yet’… Jesus demonstrated the breadth of God’s love in the stories he told and his actions- the people he spoke with and healed, the places he went. And then the disciples began to do the same- healing and teaching a wider and wider group of people until… Peter… Peter had the same expectations as the other disciples, the same ideas about who God loved, and who he shouldn’t associate with, until God told him otherwise. Now, there are themes and ideas which appear in the Bible in different places, and that helps us to grasp that they are more significant than other things which are only mentioned once… In Acts we have the Gospel retold, repeated explanations of who Jesus is, and here, repeated twice in 2 chapters- Peter visits Cornelius, and then we have his own account to the other brothers in Jerusalem… to emphasise its importance, but it also emphasises how challenging this was… love the gentile while they are still foreigners, welcome them without waiting for them to become just like us, expect their lives to be transformed- yes, but not to become clones of me and you… its hard for us to recognise how hard this was, how huge a change it was… this was changing centuries of what it meant to be a follower of God… and it’s an indication of how Peter had grown and matured, of how the brothers in Jerusalem recognised that God was at work, of the power of the resurrection in their lives that they listened to his words and accepted them…

So, if you’re at all serious about following God, then pray for, and expect that your prejudices will be shaken up this week.

Flames, flowers and foundations

 

 

 

So last weekend we had a family service that was around the theme of Candlemas, with flames, singing, incense, snowdrops and whatever else could be shoehorned into an hour, but just before the folk arrived for that, I was speaking at our first light 8am service… its a smaller, quieter affair with room for reflection and interaction with people that maintains some of the formality of the Book of Common Prayer service that its grown from. So here’s what I said responding to 2 Corinthians chapter 3 verses 12- chapter 4 verse 2

Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold- our daily readings this last fortnight have been looking at the start of the book of Joshua, who was told by God to be bold, strong and courageous… but unlike him most of the Israelites were ‘dull’… with a veil over their hearts that prevented them from perceiving the radiance of God…

But through Christ and the Holy Spirit the veil is both removed from the world and can be removed from our hearts… and as we reflect the glory of God to one another and those around us, we are transformed into the likeness of Christ… who as we’ve heard over the last few weeks fed the hungry, healed the sick, brought healing and reconciliation to individuals and the world…

Renouncing secret and shameful ways… and setting forth the truth … we do that in our worship, in our prayers and proclamations, but what we think is plain may be confusing to folks- when you’ve been in the church for a while you understand the jargon…

Judgment, Sin, Grace, Atonement, Salvation… even worship and Christian can be confusing terms…

God, the creator of love, the source of the universe and sustainer of all loves me. With a love that is unconditional- I cannot reduce it or make God love me more, and God wants me to know that I am loved and to respond in love.

BUT I have messed up- we might use the word sin as a catch all, or trespasses in our prayers, but its mess- damaged people around us, damage to ourselves, a damaged world that reflects that all is not well, even in its beauty- the eggs of a parasitic wasp that cause blindness and death, the horrors of disease and the cruelty of a hunter stalking its prey

And my mistakes, my mess, my sin- that is currently ruining my ability to respond to God, if I say I love God but am not willing to take responsibility for the complete mess of my life, then I’m like a politician who says sorry but in the same breath places the blame somewhere else, and doesn’t seek to change.  The word we use in our jargon is repentance- turning around, God on the throne of my life instead of me… whatever image we prefer… it involves change.

And when we take responsibility- when we acknowledge its our mess and say sorry, God steps in and takes the whole thing from our shoulders… because of Jesus- because Jesus, God’s own Son, who was without sin stepped down into the mess of the world and took it onto himself, in a way that was foreshadowed and envisaged throughout the Old Testament worship- he was the sacrifice on the altar, the scapegoat for the people, but so much more than those- his sacrifice was once and for all… when we worship and share Communion we are recalling and remembering and joining with the church that has done this for 2000years, but we are not repeating the sacrifice… it is finished. That is atonement, and it has been done for us…

All that is left for us is to receive the gift- but we can only receive it when we recognise our need for it… only the sick can be healed, only the hungry can be fed, only the blind can have their sight restored… while we do not recognise our need, we cannot encounter and receive salvation- it is only the man who knows he is stuck in a pit that will accept the offer of a hand, or climb a ladder… a ladder is how you climb from one place to another

Christians are those who’ve come to the point of climbing that ladder- we might be on the first rung, or have been climbing for a while, or be standing still on the same rung we’ve been on for ages, we may not be aware that we’re on a ladder, in transition, because we’ve been on it for all our life and don’t remember the first step we took… but we are in transition for as long as we live, from the old us to the new- being transformed into the likeness of Christ- not becoming Jesus, but more and more like him, in the same way that all of us are created in the image of God.  We can get the wrong impression of all this and think that the ladder, if you like that image, is taking us towards God and away from us… and that’s just not true, or at least only partially… the ladder is more helpfully understood to be taking us towards the us that we can be, that we have the potential to be, and away from the us that we could be and might have been…

Those characteristics and parts of our nature that we can see as being in God, contrasted with those that are not… and as we live as Christians we grow away from one set and towards the other…

So selfishness, greed, laziness, lust, impatience, fear, bitterness… we are gradually being transformed away from being people defined by those things, to being people, the same people, but defined by our generosity, kindness, compassion, self-discipline, patience, love, forgiveness and peace… And each one of us as we go along has to repeatedly answer the question ‘do I want to let go of the one, to have more of the other? Do I want to climb up or stay put, or climb down?’ That is what God does in us, and what we bring to the community around us- not as perfect shining examples, but as flawed works in progress, accepting the help of God to lift us out of the pit of ourselves and into the light of his love.

A belated but much needed gift…

Well, the end of 2015 saw a complete lack of blog posts from me- nothing in Nov or Dec, I’m afraid. A number of reasons- including writer’s block when it came to reflecting on the terrible acts of violence that were taking place (but also a decision that the best thing to do was talk with people and pray rather than struggle to write); some teaching commitments that needed significant input, and then the crazy Christmas season (I got as far as drafting one post in the midst of the brilliant but time consuming extra services…) and then some time off, which I spent, well, taking time off.

I was also trialling a period of preaching without full scripts, which meant that I didn’t have anything that made sense for a blog post at the start of each week…

But, yesterday I had a full script, based on the passage of the Bible in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church chapter 12, verses 1-11, so here it is-

Our main theme today is the Holy Spirit; and while the second reading is about one of the best-known miracles, or signs as John calls them, of the kingdom of God, which takes place soon after Jesus’ baptism… these two readings, while quite different, are really about the same thing- how God takes action in the world.

The Holy Spirit and God’s action was something we noticed in both our readings from last week also- the Samaritans being filled with the Holy Spirit after being prayed for and the Holy Spirit coming upon Jesus at his baptism…that outpouring of God’s grace and power in a way that was hoped for and yet unexpected. This weekend in many other churches in the UK congregations are hearing these readings… over 3/4million people, just in the Church of England, are hearing about the Holy Spirit today, which is quite exciting for me… but we’re also in a quiet season- after the busy Christmas services the question that remains is ‘what now?’ as the sales draw to a close, do we shut up shop until December or engage with people in our community, press further ourselves,  pray and seek renewal and growth in our own lives and churches? If the answer to any of those is yes, then we need to consider the Holy Spirit sooner rather than later.

Who is the Holy Spirit? Sometimes when talking about the Holy Spirit its tempting to pull out batteries and talk about how the Holy Spirit energises Christians, like a battery, or to use a hair dryer to fill something, or some baking yeast… those are all helpful to some extent, but they also miss one important point- The Holy Spirit isn’t electricity or air or carbon dioxide produced by yeast… the Holy Spirit is God. If God the Father is God everywhere, if Jesus is God over there, then the Holy Spirit is God in there. The Holy Spirit is a person- the one whom Jesus promised to send, BUT the sign of the Holy Spirit’s presence is the activity of God… when God is active the Holy Spirit is present, and when the Holy Spirit is active that is a signpost towards the kingdom of God- in the passage from John the changing of water to wine was a sign of God’s activity, the in the lives of the Samaritans who’d become Christians there was a clear and obvious sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit, as we heard last week.

So what does the Holy Spirit do? Well the passage we heard from 1 Corinthians gives one part of the answer. The Holy Spirit gives gifts- now you can over-analyse passages like this and get all tied up in knots about particular gifts or which ones have priority, or whether anything that someone could naturally do can still be a gift… but at the bottom line- God, through the Holy Spirit, helps us to do things either better than we might otherwise (eg flourish and grow in ourselves) or to do things we could not do (pray in different tongues, have knowledge of things, bring healing in spirit and body).  There’s been enough theology and practical discussion about this amongst Christians of different backgrounds to agree that a- this is what the early Christians believed and b- this is what significant numbers of Christians continue to experience in the 21st century. All Christians have responded to the Holy Spirit- when we have any conviction of sin, anything in us that wants to come close to God or responds in thanksgiving when we are reminded of our own salvation, it’s the Holy Spirit that is at work. The Holy Spirit is in all believers- like a seal of God, and when someone talks about ‘receiving the Holy Spirit’ or being baptised in the Holy Spirit, rather than it being about before- no spirit, after- yes Spirit its much more helpful to understand it as ‘more Spirit’… God’s Spirit is in all believers, we can ask for and receive more of God’s Spirit in our lives, to help us to be- wiser, more discerning, to help us work for the common good, to have greater knowledge of God’s will for our own lives and for others, to have more faith, to be able to bring healing to others or other signs of God’s power, to be better able to speak God’s truth to the world and to others, to be able to pray in other languages- and understand and discern those things… anyone who says that ‘Jesus is Lord’ does so in the power of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit helps us to move from the stands onto the pitch, to stop being spectators and get involved- but not just in frenetic activity like a lunatic running around in circles on a field, but as part of a team with a coach and a plan- we each have a part to play in the whole, and when we do, it works- more is done, better, with God at the heart of it all…

Why doesn’t the Holy Spirit do all that in my life? All sorts of possible reasons- my own lack of faith/expectation, my own sins that I don’t want to confess or repent of, my own blinkers (which may be personal, cultural or spiritual), my own fears… but not because God doesn’t want it for me or you. God may not give me the gifts I want, or think I need, but its not my prerogative to pick and choose… that, that and that, but don’t bother with those two…

What doesn’t the Holy Spirit do? Solve all our problems, force strange gifts onto us that we neither want nor need, replace our brains… If we are anxious about something- whether it be exams, work, money or health, then asking God to help us with those things probably won’t remove them from our lives- the education secretary declaring that there won’t be any A levels this year or the bank manager discovering an extra 0 in a convenient place on our account… but the Holy Spirit can give us wisdom to work through them, discernment about how to act, Godly insight into the situation, and the strength to let Jesus be our Lord rather than those other things that try to take his place in our lives.

Why is the Holy Spirit important for us today? If we want to grow as a church, if we want to grow as Christians, if we want to see people’s lives and the community around us transformed by the saving love of God as shown in Jesus his son, then we need the Holy Spirit. To the extent that we’re not clueless, ignorant, unloving and unable to pray, we already have the Holy Spirit with us and within us, but we need more… And we also need to know this- that we are important to the Holy Spirit. God has plans for this place, for us, for you and I, and they involve the Holy Spirit and the people of this community. We are so important to God that he is willing to somehow cram part of himself into us in a way that doesn’t even give us indigestion or mess up our hair. The Holy Spirit is also important for the world today because there are a whole lot of wonderfully kind people, acting with compassion to help folks they’ve never met, but it’s the Holy Spirit that transforms people’s lives like nothing else- just as the transformation of water into wine was remarkable not because wine was made… that was an everyday thing, but it was the speed, the quality and the way in which it happened- that was the sign of God that revealed Jesus’ glory at Cana, and its is what draws people to faith today.

So how do I invite the Holy Spirit to be more part of my life? I’m a Christian and have been for years, I’m a new Christian, unsure of how this all works, I’m not yet a Christian and I’m completely flummoxed by most of what’s been said and done today. If you take nothing else away, take this- As the meerkat on the telly says, its ‘simples’… we ask God. We desire. we crave, we need, we want it- if we are content with our experience, our faith, our church and with our understanding of God, then we don’t want more of the Holy Spirit. We may have had our white hot moments of faith, but they were long ago… So let’s pray now, sitting as we are, maybe with our hands on our knees, open to receive…come Holy Spirit, fill me again, I’ve become so empty that I’d forgotten what it was like to be filled… come Holy Spirit I want more of you in my life- I’ve never realised what I could have… come Holy Spirit, into my life- I’m don’t know or understand what this will mean, but I can feel something in my heart that yearns for you and today, now I want to overcome my fears and hesitations… come Holy Spirit, into my life- I’ve been around people and places and I’ve been put off, but I want this, even though I’m nervous and unsure… so fill us, breathe on us, strengthen us in unity and empower us to boldly serve you, give us the gifts that you have for us, help us to know you each day, set us free from the prisons we have created for ourselves, open the windows of our hearts and blow through us with the sweet scent of heaven…

hope you have a great and blessed week, and maybe I’ll post something else this month…

St Paul and the 21st Century- the car of God

All this summer we’ve been learning about the Kingdom of God, in various passages from Mark and John’s Gospels. We’ve recently been looking a what Jesus meant when he describes himself as ‘the bread of life’ and instructs his followers to eat his body… This week, alongside some more about that, we had a second reading from St Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus- the passage in chapter 6 that talks about the armour of God and compares it to the spiritual characteristics that Christians must have in their lives if they’re to continue to grow in faith and remain in relationship with Christ- if they’re to carry on being in the Kingdom of God.

One question that I had as I prepared was whether the analogy to armour is just that- an analogy, or whether its a more exact parallel- whether when Paul talks about the helmet of salvation he’s talking about something that is really essential, life-saving, pretty obvious ‘like’ a helmet, or if he means that it is a helmet… I came down on the side of the analogy as you’ll see, but I’d be interested to know if I’m alone here.

Anyway, here’s the script from yesterday, and as usual, the link to the audio file here

When we hear the passage from Ephesians chapter 6, which we just heard, we often think of the first time we saw a vicar in toy armour, or when we saw a youth worker making armour out of kitchen utensils, all to try and illustrate this passage for us… but we won’t be thinking about those things today… well, maybe just a little bit.

Paul wrote to the people of Ephesus that they needed to put on the full armour of God if they were going to stand their ground in tough times, and though we don’t wear real armour today, the spiritual things that Paul was talking about are just as important… but what might be some modern things that Paul would mention if he was writing today? I was tempted to use all sorts of climbing kit at this point, but Paul talks about something that is familiar to people- so something that many people in our society understand is a car… so lets think about what the car of God would be like… and the things you’d need if you were driving in a tough situation…

belt of truth… something that protects you… seatbelt? Without it you are vulnerable. Truth helps to hold us in place in the midst of skids and slides… sometimes its uncomfortable…

Breastplate of righteousness… things in front of you bounce off it… windscreen? Protects you as you’re moving forwards, often without you noticing it- things bounce or slide off it. When a windscreen is doing its job you can see where you’re going, and you are visible- its not just a thing to hide behind but you can still move.

Feet fitted with the readiness of the Gospel- grip and steering, stopping and starting- surely the tyres?

Shield of faith… something you can’t see, but you trust is there, something that will save you in need- air bags and crumple zones? A shield was something you could move, cars now have airbags on all sides… wherever they’re needed… faith is only visible when its in action.

Helmet of salvation… drivers licence- you have to know it, to pass your test… a map or satnav maybe? Tells you where you are going, helps you to get there… a basic but an essential

Sword of the Spirit… which is the word of God… fuel?

As Christians how do we get those things into our lives?

Knowing the word of God in our lives- 2 of them are about this, so its important- not just reading the Bible, but reading it as a way to get to know Jesus and to understand God. A car can’t get moving if it doesn’t have tyres or fuel… the others are all needed too. People sometimes talk about putting on the armour of God every morning, but as well as that, how do we strengthen those things? Through our times together here- we pray, we hear God’s word, we worship- we celebrate Jesus’ death and resurrection- we are reminded, encouraged and invited to know more about the relationship we are each discovering with God…

In our other reading from John’s Gospel, we heard Jesus talking about the bread of God, that it’s a symbol of accepting his promise of eternal life… but if you miss a week, are allergic to bread, don’t like raisins, feel funny coming to the front, can’t walk and we forget to come to you- none of those prevent you from receiving the promise of salvation and eternal life in Christ- that is the relationship between you and God that is restored because of Jesus death and resurrection. The bread and wine that we use to celebrate Holy Communion are symbols of that- just as they point towards the events described in the Bible- the last supper, the meals that Jesus shared with others during his life, the manna in the desert, the Passover meal (and the annual repetition of that). Jesus says- you remain in me, and I remain in you- that’s a permanent thing… its not dependant on a top up or a renewal… but we do it every week here at one of our services… because just like putting armour on, or like putting the seatbelt on in the car… we don’t do these things for the times when we don’t need them, but for the unexpected times when we do…

Nobody wants to run out of petrol, get a flat tyre, crash their car etc… and so we refuel in plenty of time, always have a spare in the back, use seatbelts and have airbags that we hope are never used. We take a driving test and then forget half of what we learnt, and when was the last time any of us seriously looked at our windscreen to check for scratches or chips? When we come here on any given Sunday morning we may arrive in a rush, tired from the week, worried about the week ahead, barely able to concentrate or take much in… or we may be in that place of peace and joy, filled with expectation of encountering God until its ruined by the service leader, the welcomer at the door, the music, the grumpy children and the noisy older folk… but somehow, God meets with us on both those occasions. We may not notice it, we may not appreciate it at the time, but God meets with us, his Spirit fills us, we are reminded of what Christ did for us and of the truths of our faith… we are strengthened for the time that lies ahead, and healed from the week that has passed- a trip to the armourer, a weekly servicing for the car…

When Jesus spoke about who he was and what he meant to do, many who heard him said ‘this is a hard teaching!’- why? Because they didn’t want to hear about a man who could give them eternal life, who would plant complicated ideas in their heads about God being with them in all places, who claimed that he really was sent by the Father and lived only to do the will of the Father- promising eternal life. They didn’t want this because some of them wanted a hero to lead an army, a teacher to inspire them to fight against the Romans, while the others wanted a man of peace to help them keep their heads down and wait for the next empire to come along, while telling them that they were doing just fine with God… and Jesus didn’t fit the bill.

He confused them with his wonderful miracles and fascinating stories, his sidestepping the expectations folks had and the connections he made with the wrong sort of people… and Jesus knew this. And many of those who’d followed him for a time stopped, and went away. Because he didn’t fit their bill. But some stayed- they didn’t necessarily understand everything, and they weren’t yet fully formed, but they, like us, and like all those others who’ve worshipped here over the years and are in churches elsewhere today, were willing to say ‘yes’… and so we echo the words of Peter- ‘to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and have come to know that you are the Holy One of God’

As we worship today, in every part of our service, that is essentially what we are doing… our prayers are in his name because Jesus is the Holy One of God. When we celebrate Holy Communion it’s the death and resurrection of the Christ that we celebrate, when we lift our voices in worship, it’s the Son of God who’s name we praise. So let us live in the light of that- ready to endure the challenges set before us, to prevail for the sake of the one who saves us- whether we are clad in the armour of God or driving in the car of God, but living as the people of God.

In terms of some of the other writing that I’m planning to develop, I’ve just been asked to put together some teaching on Mission, which will need to get done first…

Why the long silence?

… because once you’re out of a habit, it’s difficult to pick it up again. Maybe? I haven’t been on a silent retreat or stopped engaging in social media; my broadband hasn’t been broken or my laptop crashed. I’ve just stopped writing, and not started again.

That’d be one difference between a habit and an addiction I guess. For a time last year I wondered whether I was on the verge of becoming a blog-addict, spending more time writing and thinking about my blog- wanting to check whether I’d reached double figures or higher for a particular posting and always hoping to beat last week’s views. I guess, if I was, then the last 2 months have been a reasonable cold-turkey break.

One other difference is whether its helpful to others or only self-centred. Going back to the viewing numbers- if I spend time looking at the stats and playing with the numbers, that is effectively self-centred and could be labelled as part of an addiction. If I was spending the time crafting some top-notch posts which really connected with those who read them, using the same amount of time… would that still be an addiction? Or a habit? Or am I just splitting hairs here?

I guess ultimately I’m not so bothered about the correct definition, or exactly how many people read a post. But I’m still interested in writing- both for myself and for those who’ve indicated that they’re interested. So I’ll be back in the fray, posting some sermons and notes, some thoughts and talks… One point to note is that I’ve been spending a fair amount of time helping others plan and produce talks, supporting their development, and while that takes energy and produces some exciting stuff, none of it sits on my computer… it’s all theirs.

Anyway, to move on from this spiel, here’s something I put together for a Lent lunch the other day, based around a passage in Ezekiel chapter 47…

Lent Lunch…

Before we start… would you consider yourself to be an environmentally aware, or ‘green’ person?

How do you think environmental issues relate to the Christian faith?

Then read- Ezekiel 47.1-12.

The Spirit of God spreading out from the Temple ‘God has left the building’…

The spiritual, the holy, which has previously been contained- within the tabernacle and then within the temple, is being released… but not in a contained, focussed way as in Moses or Elijah’s encounters with God, or the pillar of fire and smoke which led the people of Israel in the wilderness… in this image the holiness of God is spreading out- the water from the Temple…

But what happens is that the water- the flood, doesn’t damage the ground or cause erosion, it spreads and grows deeper (which is unusual in itself) and where it flows, there life grows- the salt is made sweet, fruit trees flourishing by the banks…

It’s a picture of the Incarnational god- holiness moving out, hands dirty, getting close to the world- not staying in the place of holiness but making the world a holy place by going there.

Its also a picture that speaks clearly of how God is connected with the material world, rather than just interested in the ascetic spiritual things…in the Genesis narrative ‘God saw that it was good’- in and of itself the natural creation is loved by God.

During Lent we are trying to go deeper/closer to God, and one area that has historically had little attention is how we live within the natural world… its something that didn’t need to be taught because for so long our lives and livelihood were so intimately connected with it, but in the last 150yrs a gap has grown… and so as Christians we need to know how to live in creation. Dominion, stewardship- both have been used, but both are insufficient…

Creation as gift- receive it, care for it, love it as we love the Giver

Us- getting our hands dirty, loving the creation, sanctifying the places we go to… ways of responding to God.

Discussion questions…

When you read or hear passages from Ezekiel and the other prophets, how do you transfer their meaning from the original time and place to your life- do you find it easy or hard?

In the passage from Ezekiel, we read of a very clear experience that Ezekiel had- a waking dream or vision… when you are thinking about things deeply, do your thoughts progress in the same sort of way- like a film in your head, or do your hopes and plans appear as pictures or words?

What helps you to transfer those thoughts from that place of ideas and make them real?

Going on from today, in what way have you grown or heard God during our time together?

These are all rather sketchy, but hopefully make some sense. Maybe you need to find some silence yourself…