Palm Friday- getting excited a few days early

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Jesus on tour… #stillconfusedaudience

Last Sunday I preached a slightly rambling version of this text, having conducted a wedding the day before (weirdly the most tiring thing I do in my job…) and generally feeling slightly odd… apparently the last 5 minutes of the talk were really good, so you may want to fast forward the audio from our website or skip a few paragraphs… anyway, from chapter 8 of Mark’s Gospel…

Jesus’ preaching tour continues, and at this point he ask his disciples for some feedback- who do people say I am? And the answers they give are quite revealing-

John the Baptist, who we all know is dead, but somehow people aren’t paying attention to what they know is true…

Elijah (or another one of the prophets)…

Interestingly, all of those were people who came to draw people towards God and also to speak God’s words to people… so the crowds have got something right- they know Jesus isn’t just a teacher and a wise man (which if you were to conduct the same survey in Barnstaple today would be the most widely offered responses by folks in town).

But, its as if they’re so close, but just missing out- there was an expectation that Elijah might return as a forerunner to the messiah, and John had claimed to be doing just that… and yet they think Jesus is also fitting into that mould-  why is that? Maybe its because its easier that way- its ok to get excited about something that is on its way- you can look forward to it and get ready for it, but until it gets happens you can pretty much carry on as you were… the messiah is going to come YES!, the messiah is on the way YES!, the messiah is coming YES! But in between whiles nothing has to change. The messiah has arrived and is in the next village- that requires a shift in thinking, a shift that many people weren’t ready for. And many still aren’t.

But not Peter- You are the Christ, which is the greek translation of messiah. You are the anointed one of God who comes to save. And you’re also challenging people and changing things, and while some may not have been happy with that, Peter was.

As Christians we have to acknowledge that we have changed- that is what it means to be baptised and live in the light of our faith- we’ve been forgiven for our sins and brought to new life- it doesn’t matter when it happened or how slowly it happened, but we have been changed by God. If we have always been a Christian for as long as we can remember, then it can be really hard to understand this, but it is the basis of our faith.

Peter accepted that, he’d seen enough of Jesus, and was able to say ‘you are the messiah’.

But, and this is really important for us to hear- Peter still messed up. And Jesus didn’t just say ‘its ok, you had one moment where you got it, that’ll do fine’. No- he rebuked him, and then called him to come further along the road- further into the life of following Jesus, of discipleship.  If we’re going to be Christians, it involves change- not just once but again and again- because it involves growth- growing in the knowledge of God’s love for us, growing in love for the world, growing in compassion and in the gifts that God has given us- both the natural talents that we have and the spiritual gifts that the Spirit brings…

The difficulty of change- its painful but essential to accept that if, like the disciples, we’re going to change, we have to have come to the realisation that we are spiritually hard of hearing and short sighted… if God’s desire is to change us and ours is to remain the same, its probably not that God has a mistaken view of us or an overblown idea of our potential… This is for all of us- there’s no super holiness exam… everyone who is a Christian is called to deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow Jesus.

To deny ourself is to put God first- to say that his will, his word has the final say in the decisions we make, rather than the things we see on adverts or read in papers.

To take up our cross is to recognise that those decisions will have an impact and they may cause us to suffer, to be rejected by others.

But we follow Jesus- to remember that when we do this we are following the one who has saved us and changed us and has promised to be with us and offers us life eternal.

This life of following Jesus starts with us, just us, and him. Just the same as it was in the beginning. A few people working out what it means to follow Jesus and committing to that path, encouraging and helping one another- that’s all we mean when we talk of mentoring…

And the single most important thing we need, the greatest thing we have, the thing we see Jesus and the early church doing throughout the New Testament, is prayer. That’s why we pray so much when we’re gathered together in worship- because it is important. But we don’t just pray using the words of our learned prayers. Sometimes we pray in silence, and our thoughts and the prayers of our hearts are guided by and inspired by the world around us- that’s what we’ll be doing this evening, if you can join us. Sometimes we pray out loud in our own words- not because they’re any better, but because they are from our own heart. Sometimes we pray with others to be encouraged and held accountable (that’s Thursday morning each week here in the church) and sometimes we pray our prayers in solitude- whether it’s the Lord’s Prayer at noon or the daily office of Morning or Evening Prayer. Sometimes it’s a putting aside a chunk of time- going to the House of Prayer this week or during our prayer days, sometimes it’s a fleeting prayer, fired like an arrow… We don’t always get the answer we want to those prayers- God hears and responds, but doesn’t obedient to us… we’re obedient to him in our prayers and our lives.

But its prayer, however we do it, that will help us to stand, like Peter and say ‘you are the Christ’, to give up what we have for the what we will receive…

People may wonder how we Christians know that prayer works… and one answer I’ve heard is that if prayer doesn’t work, then there is nothing to lose by trying it… try praying consistently about something that is of importance to you, every day, for a month, and honestly ask yourself at the end whether anything has happened. And whether it is in you, in others, or in the world, I believe that you will find that your prayer will be answered. You may want to pray about the question that Jesus asked- Who are you Jesus? I want to know who you are… you may want to pray about what happened next ‘Help me to have in mind the things of God’… you may be struggling with following Jesus instead of the values of the world- help me to follow you… you may have forgotten your faith and what it once meant to you, and need that reassurance and forgiveness… help me to know I’m forgiven…

God’s desire is for you to come deeper into relationship with him, for us to grow as a church both in depth and in strength, and the way that he calls us to do that is through prayer.

So let’s pray now.

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…

Thoughts from a place of rest in John’s Gospel

…August is usually a time of holiday and rest for many people, and in churches a lot of programmes get put to one side for a few weeks.  However much of the life of our communities still goes on, even if we’re not formally organising things- meeting people in the street or a cafe still happens, there is still sickness and death, work still causes stress, babies are born and there are explosions of joy all around us- and none of it is planned.  This week I’ve been taking some holiday- actual holiday rather than going to a conference or pastoring at a festival, and so haven’t been online in the same way as usual. I won’t pretend I took a fast from the internet and technology as I’ve been checking the weather, looking up things for the family and playing more Nintendo than in the previous 3 months… and despite the English summer the family have managed a bike ride, a sailing trip, overnight camping (with a fire!) and a hike on the moor… and now I’m back to work today, prepping for tomorrow and things next week.

In the meantime, here’s the script for what I preached last Sunday morning- as usual the text won’t match the audio recording here but you can have fun playing spot the difference. This passage from the end of John chapter 6 comes after various miracles and in the midst of a long teaching discourse- it doesn’t feel as though Jesus is in a place of rest as he repeatedly deals with the comments and responses of his listeners…

In the passage from John’s Gospel Jesus lays out, using picture language, who he is-

He’s like the Manna that came from heaven- food God gave their ancestors to help them survive in the desert in the time of Moses… so he’s from God, to help… a gift that brings life

BUT he’s also different- you don’t actually eat him, and he doesn’t actually nourish you like bread… even though he says you really have to… he’s the source of our life, he’s also the route to that life… when you eat food and drink something, you are trusting it completely- you’re putting it into your body…

When we think about salvation and eternal life, when we try to explain it, we often use pictures of things like a great big wall between us and God or a gap between us and God, as a way of describing life without God- we’re alive, but we can’t reach God, and everything we know is poorer because of that fact.  If you’re ever talking to someone about what it means to be a Christian, one of the hardest things to explain, and for them to grasp, is that you see things differently… In our society we’re so used to moving pictures that we barely notice them- screens are so all-present that its really difficult for us to think back to what it must have been like for grown adults, in a sophisticated society, to see for the first time a picture that moved- at the first ‘movies’ people screamed and fainted when things moved towards and past the camera without coming through the screen and into the theatre- without any cgi necessary! They just didn’t understand what was in front of them.

It’s the same when we try to explain what it means to follow Jesus, and Jesus faced this difficulty too- (which should encourage us when we’re worrying about this!)… When we try to explain what Jesus does, we can end up describing him like a bridge, or a gate- a thing. But we need to remember he’s a person too. He was real. He taught people to trust him, to follow him, and they told others, and some of them wrote that down, and others talked about it, and so on… and I’m talking to you because someone told me about it… a person told me about what another person has done… it can get all complicated by pictures, or they can help us to get things, but ultimately its about a person, called Jesus, and our response to him. People follow Jesus because of other people, not because of an idea. Let me show you what that means- put your hand up if you first came to church because someone invited or brought you… ok, keep it up, put your hand up if you came to understand more about Jesus or became a Christian because someone talked to you… most people in the world who are part of a church or have a faith in Jesus are in that position because someone else told them- not because of a concept, or a book- somewhere along the line, it comes down to people, and those people who’ve helped us to come to faith are trying to live like Jesus…

If we want to know what he was like, we can look at the Bible which describes his actions and what he said, or we can look at people who say they are trying to follow him, we can ask them how they follow him and we can join in that endeavour. We might try, for a while, to follow some of his ideas, to be like him in certain ways, but that would be like someone who, to use the idea that Jesus uses in this passage, is invited to come to dinner – you have to hear the invitation, turn up, sit down and eat… otherwise you might have done a whole lot of things, but you haven’t been for dinner… unless you do all of those.  Jesus said to those who were listening to him, who’d enjoyed the miracles and maybe been at the amazing picnic, who’d heard him say things that challenged other people… to those people Jesus now said- you have got to trust me, completely. Even more than our ancestors trusted God in the desert. And people didn’t like that. They liked, just like we do, to be able to trust a little and to hold back a little, to have control. As children and grown-ups we want to have control of things- the remote control is a classic example in every home… but Jesus says, give me control, and here’s why-

Those who were hearing Jesus, and us today, have to face up to two truths-

  • Jesus definitely talks about what happens after we die. He talks about eternal life, he talks about being raised up to life… and he talks about that eternal life being completely dependent on having him at the centre of our lives- we live because of him. Jesus claims that he can be trusted to help us with what happens after we die.
  • Jesus definitely talks about what happens before we die. He talks about feeding the hungry and healing the sick, about loving our neighbour and forgiving our irritating siblings… he talks about our life today being connected to that eternal life, and that he wants to be involved in how we live every day of the week. Jesus claims that he can be trusted to help us with what happens straight after we leave this building.

Everything we’ve been hearing about the Kingdom of God over the last few months revolves around these two things- and weaves them together… our eternal life in the kingdom of God starts when we commit to follow Jesus, and as we love our neighbours and pray for the transformation of our community so we bring the kingdom of God into our homes and workplaces…

So- what about our kettle, our puppet and our rubbish sack? Well, each one of them has a purpose, that can only be fully seen when they are filled… the kettle with water, the puppet with a hand and the sack with rubbish… and when they’re not filled they’re pretty useless. A church has a purpose, Christians have a purpose, and we need to be filled with God’s love and the Holy Spirit. And when we are filled we’re able to keep on… being like Jesus in places where its hard, sharing God’s love with those who really don’t seem that interested, blessing the people around us even when they don’t seem to deserve it- because someone was like Jesus for us, someone shared God’s love with us, someone helped us to know God’s blessing…

Let’s pray.

Messy business- the kingdom of God, the church and our lives…

This weekend we had a great time clearing and cleaning inside and out at one of our locations- the older church in a village just outside of town.  Alongside members of the congregation around 30 local residents who might at best describe themselves as ‘occasional visitors’ or ‘not religious types’ turned up and grafted really hard throughout the day. With various people coming and going over the day, there were probably around 60 of us involved. It was a great time, and we made huge progress.  We shared lunch together and got to know one another better, and agreed that we’ll do this again at the end of the year…

Now, question to ponder… was this part of a deep outreach strategy? Or was it a way to harness the generous spirit of our neighbourhood? Or was it something else that was just good in itself?

The next morning I was speaking on the ‘continued growth of the Kingdom’- looking at how people respond to Jesus in Mark’s gospel. Its messy, and not exactly purposeful, and its not under control.

Here’s what I planned to say- if you want to compare it to what was actually said, then you can listen to the audio on our website here

We’re continuing in our series on the Kingdom of God, looking once again at its growth. At the start of today’s reading, the apostles gathered round Jesus- they’d been sent out with instructions to go and preach the Gospel of repentance- which is, by the way, exactly the same as the Gospel of salvation… it’s the same thing, the only difference is where you start- if you preach salvation to someone who feels safe they may find it difficult to hear and understand that they need to be saved. Equally if you proclaim to someone who is in the depths of despair that they are lost its not anything new or helpful to them- one needs to be warned of the dangers that they do not see, the other needs to be encouraged that there is hope beyond all that they know…but both are the Gospel of the Good News of Jesus, that through him there is forgiveness and life eternal- through him we can come to God as father…

They gathered round and told Jesus what they’d been doing- this passage here gives one of the really important reasons for why Christians gather together- when we come together on a Sunday morning, when Christian leaders gather at Churches Together or synods, one really important thing that we do is share our stories- not to show off or to moan, but to encourage each other and be encouraged by each other… I wonder whether all of the disciples, or apostles as they’re called here (apostle- sent… Jesus has sent them out so they’re no longer disciples- followers), had pure 100% encouragement when they were out teaching people about Jesus and praying for healing… I doubt it, in fact I’m sure they didn’t… and so each one needed to be encouraged by the others… and then Jesus says ‘come, and get some rest’. This is the second really important thing we do when we gather together- we’ve encouraged each other and been encouraged, and then we are restored by God- we are refuelled ready for what lies ahead of us…

What lay ahead of them- we talked last week about opposition and authority, and here we see that same cycle- there are people suffering, there is spiritual darkness, and Jesus has authority over both…

And people hear that he is coming- they run across the region… their friends and neighbours tell them. And why? Because they are intrigued, because there’s no TV and the football season hasn’t started, but also because nothing like this has ever been seen.

When we talk about God, about our faith, about our church, its important that we know what we’re talking about… it shows through in our words but also in how we talk (which is actually much more important)-

God saves us, and has given us life with him. Our faith gives us purpose in life, and helps us to manage all the things the world throws at us. Our church is a place where we are accepted and challenged- encouraged and welcomed…

Our church has a sense that we have a part to play in what God is doing- in the lives of individuals, in the life of this community and as part of God’s church in this part of the world…

But here’s the twist- we don’t know exactly how its all going to pan out in the meantime… we  don’t know and we can’t control who of our friends will respond to an invitation to come to church, or who might have questions they’d love to ask… just as Jesus couldn’t control people’s response to his teaching and the gospel that his followers proclaimed…

Go, preach, offer healing where you are welcomed, and look for where there is response… it’s a strategy that seems lacking in structure but it is infinitely flexible, its organic and can respond to any situation.

And so we try anything and everything, we’re never disheartened by people’s response because the only failure is a failure to try…  the invitations… if no one you know would like to come to this service, then how or what might be more appropriate? Because its not about the specifics of one thing, its about the overall- are we joining in the growth of the kingdom of God, in all its messiness.

And no mention of any sporting events at all! So there you go.

cheers

Opposition… an essential for growth (or is that just something we say?)

Just posting this up here, a few days after I preached two slightly varying versions of it at the weekend. The first can be found on our website where you can hear how it departs from the script, the second departed even more from the written word with an illustration of being pushed around by little children (thank you to my helpers- they were very keen to push me around) and an extensive tangent into the physics of the Tour de France and how the peloton is like the church…

but this is what I actually meant to say:

A few words from the passage we heard from Ephesians- Chosen, predestined, his sons, guaranteed inheritance- good language, encouraging. That’s the kind of stuff we need to hear when we are facing opposition. Because the kingdom of God faces opposition. People feel threatened when we talk and live as though God is not merely a fanciful idea or a helpful thought process but actually is real and makes a difference in our lives. There are times when we feel it might be easier if that were so- and we are always at liberty to live like that- no one will stop you. But if once we have known- whether through an experience of God’s reality in prayer or worship, through being involved in a God-moment of some kind (and those range from the pleasantly ‘oh, look at that’ to the jaw-dropping ‘woah!), or from something that has changed within us… whatever it may be, once we have known that God is real to live as if he is not is to deceive ourselves.

A few words from the passage from Mark’s Gospel- arrested, grudge, beheaded… not so encouraging… especially when that’s John the Baptist we’re talking about. But let’s make sure we’ve got the timeline correct here- Herod hears about what Jesus and his disciples are doing, and is afraid that John, who he had executed some time ago has either risen from the dead or that his spirit is somehow in Jesus… John was arrested, imprisoned for a time and executed some time fairly early on during Jesus’ ministry- which may be why in Luke’s Gospel we read of John’s disciples coming to visit Jesus- John can’t come because he’s imprisoned- but that’s speculation… The reality is that the opposition that faces God’s people takes varied forms, and can include physical persecution and execution. It did in the 1st century, and it still does today.

But- and this is important… John’s arrest and execution didn’t stop Jesus, his disciples or the crowds who came to see him. The persecution of the early church caused the Gospel to be preached in new and different cities. The illegal and underground church spread across the whole of the Roman Empire and did what armies had failed to do. The Chinese church was systematically wiped out and foreign missionaries forced to leave during the cultural revolution of the late 1960’s- and it is the largest church in the world today… Opposition is a hallmark of the life of the church- where Christianity is alive and well, with Christians living out their faith, then it challenges the values and worldviews of a society that would prefer God and Jesus to be put on mute and sidelined as a seasonal attraction.  Living here, we don’t face the threat of physical violence, though it may come and there is certainly a sense in which speaking out about our faith can have consequences- in the age of social media many people are quite willing to post a remark onto the internet that they might not say to anyone face to face.

So when the kingdom is on the move, when God is at work, there will be opposition. We need to know this, so that we can be prepared for it, so that we can pray into that situation- In an article about the persecuted church in nations in the middle east, one Christian asked that the western church should pray for them to have strength to prevail, not for rescue or removal from the situation- they know that they are in the right place, serving God.  We can pray for those who persecute us- pray that they would come to know God. We can take spiritual authority over the situation- as Christians and as the church we have been given that responsibility and that authority. In our gospel readings over the last few weeks and in our daily readings this past week we’ve heard how Jesus gave his followers spiritual authority and sent them out to do just this. We may not be used to considering spiritual opposition and conflict- but the Bible makes it abundantly clear that it was there- where the kingdom was growing, where God was at work, the opposition was both physical and spiritual.  And the same is true now. I wonder how many of us pray specifically for protection over our families when we know things are going to be difficult- we look ahead in our diaries, see exams, busy times at work, medical appointments we are worried about… and do we think to take spiritual authority over those times? This last winter our boiler has gone on the blink several times- and each time has been on the night before something important in our church life… but these things don’t mean we should stop.

What we need to realise is this- Wherever there are Christians who allow their faith to be visible- in those places there is opposition to what God is doing in that place through those people. If we choose to give up in the face of opposition, then we may have a quieter and more peaceful life, but it will be poorer and we will not be living in obedience to the one who has saved us. If we choose to face that opposition, but do so in our own strength (either as individuals or a church), then we will find ourselves drained, overburdened and losing sight of why we started in the first place. If, however, we recognise that our own strength is not enough, and rely instead on the strength of God who is in us, then we will rise on wings like eagles, we will run and not grow weary, we will reach the goal that lies ahead of us… opposition exists. But we don’t need to be afraid- we’re never outnumbered when we stand alongside God.

cheers.

The Kingdom of God is like Wimbledon, or the Tour de France, but hopefully not like the Ashes

Ok- shameless link to sporting events. Yes, absolutely. But I’m not apologising for it- firstly because when Jesus spoke in parables he was telling big stories in words and with ideas that people could grasp- he would have spoken about sport today, and secondly because we based our time in church yesterday around sport. Jesus called a team together, he sent them out in teams, he gave instructions like a captain to his players… and we also had a short game of cricket during the main service (no one hurt, no windows broken fortunately).

So how is the kingdom of God like Wimbledon or the Tour?

Well, in any given match, or during the Tour, things have started and are underway from the first serve of the tournament or from when the first rider pulls out on the sprint time trial of the prologue, and so you can say ‘its started, its here’ and get excited… but its also not yet fully happened- we’re only just into week 2 of Wimbledon, when it gets really exciting as the top seeds close in on one another, and the Tour has yet to shape up… its going to get better… and that is exactly how I understand the Kingdom of God which Jesus spoke about… we’re spending the next couple of months thinking and learning more about this, but for now here’s the first idea: The Kingdom of God is here, but its still on the way… (oh, and as for why its not like the Ashes- the Kingdom of God is not and never will be as depressing and dismal as the Ashes are for those who care about it deeply!).

Here’s what I said yesterday about the passage from Marks Gospel, chapter 6… or at least the outline notes I spoke from. Unfortunately we didn’t record it so there’s no audio file to listen to…

What is the kingdom- brief intro… God’s sovereign & dynamic rule- it has an eschatological aspect and a present sense- existing in the now and the not yet it cannot currently be found on any maps but there will come a time when all of creation is within its borders. Some commentators over the years have argued that Jesus preached the coming of the kingdom and brought it about through his life and ultimately through his death and resurrection- the kingdom of God has come. However this fails in addressing to major problems that we see in the world- If I as a disciple of Jesus am living in the kingdom now, why do I still fall into sin so easily if the kingdom has come? Secondly, if the kingdom has come, why do we see suffering so consistently throughout history and in our own community?  An alternative reading is that Jesus preached and taught about the kingdom, but it will only come on his return- at the second coming, the kingdom will come and until that time we are not yet living in the kingdom of God. This helps to answer questions of suffering and human sin, but does not give us hope for today- our best and only hope for anything changing is that Christ will return. There’s no expectation of healing or transformation in our own lives or those around us. Jesus spoke of a kingdom that is at hand- on the verge of arriving but not fully here. One image that helps me to understand this is that of a train arriving at a station- if I’m asked by my children where the train is, its coming is an answer that works… until the train pulls into sight- then its no longer coming but is arriving ‘its here’- it may still be half a mile away if the track is straight. Its definitely here once the engine pulls into the station, but its not really here in any fully useful sense (you can’t get on) until its come to a complete halt and the doors are unlocked. The coming of the kingdom of God is like that- its here in a real way, a way that we can experience and know, but its also not here yet- there is still more to come.

Jesus in his ministry preaches- the Kingdom is near- his message initially is one of repentance: turn and be forgiven for the Kingdom of God is near- and this is the message that his disciples preach as they go in this passage. Until this point Jesus’ disciples have been onlookers…now he calls them to be active participants in the spread of the kingdom.  And he gives them some instructions-

How to travel- lightly; to have expectations of help and rejection; and to preach repentance and bring spiritual healing. There’re some really important things for us to learn about our own calling, about what it means for us to be the church here in Newport and to be Christians in our own individual lives.

Firstly-the kingdom spreads through the people of God going into the world. If we do not take the Gospel- the message of God’s love, into the places beyond these walls, then we should not be surprised that the world does not know or understand God’s love.

Secondly- there are some places that are harder and some places that are easier for us- our own family/street/workplace etc may be a really good place for us to share our faith and help people to encounter God, but it could also be really hard- people who’ve known us for years can be amazed at the change faith makes in our lives, or they can see the bad side of us… but that just means we should look elsewhere. If you’ve been praying and hoping that a family member will come to faith but nothing seems to be happening, maybe you need to share your faith elsewhere… God can bring others alongside those who you can’t reach.

Thirdly- what are we to do? Preach repentance- that’s not just ‘turn or burn’, or standing on a soapbox, but showing people in word and deed that they have turned away and lost contact with God. Yes, they need to turn- but they need to know that they are turning towards God (with everything that entails) rather than just be told they need to turn away from their life. If we’re not sure that the Christian life matches up to the existing life of people we know, then we need to make sure we’ve got a good understanding and have experience of what it means for ourselves…

Lastly- expect some positive outcomes. People will want to hear, will appreciate what you can offer them, will need prayer and will come to faith. They may not do any of those while you are there, or for some time after. They may never worship here with us, they may not remember what you did. We don’t hear about which villages didn’t welcome the disciples (but they were ready for rejection), only that some welcomed them, accepted their teaching and allowed them to bring healing…

That is what the going out of the kingdom looked like then, and that is what it looks like now, if we are willing to partner in it. SO lets pray.

E100- all quiet on the heavenly front

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pentecost… what’s that all about anyway?

So gave this talk yesterday, as we celebrated Pentecost in our two churches, and then this morning I bumped into a friend who doesn’t go to church and we got talking about what Pentecost is, what it means to people in different churches and how its this secret, hidden celebration in the middle of the church year… (if you’re reading this and you know who you are, I hope you’ll forgive me for writing a blog post in response to our conversation!).  Anyway, the weird bit for me was that i’d deliberately not spent much of yesterday talking about what Pentecost is (the ancient Jewish harvest festival 50 days after passover) and spent more of my time talking about the Holy Spirit (who came and filled the believers on the festival of Pentecost following after Jesus’ death and resurrection)…

The thing I’m puzzling over is whether its more important to give people an understanding of the event (Pentecost) or the person that we celebrate (the Holy Spirit)… anyway, this is, mostly, what I said yesterday… Oh, and if you’re waiting for the first E100 blog, it’ll come later this evening…

The Holy Spirit- described previously as the counsellor and the comforter (NB ref DGJ’s mention of William the conqueror comforting his troops!)… what do we make of the Holy Spirit?

Because I’ve had to try and explain Pentecost and the Holy Spirit to primary school children, I’ve had to make sure that my understanding of the Holy Spirit isn’t too complicated, but at the same time I’ve always understood that the Holy Spirit is complicated. One of the images that I’ve found helpful is electricity- we all know what it is, and how to use it, we can all tell if something is electrically powered- battery slots, wires etc and we can all recognise electricity in action- though interestingly it does have some similarities with other forms of power… BUT at the same time, actually, very few of us really understand how electricity works- the movement of electrons within a sea of metal atoms… or is it about the alignment of electrons within the shells? As soon as we try to get to grips with it, actually our level of understanding slips away…  we understand what it does, not necessarily how it works.  At other times people use the image of the wind to help understand the Holy Spirit- partly because that’s an image we can find within the Bible- the breath of God, the pneuma or ruach… or still we might think of the Spirit as fire- partly because that’s mentioned in the passage we heard today. The problem with all of these is that they can make us forget we’re talking about a person here- not a person with arms or legs, but a person nonetheless- part of God rather than just God’s Duracell batteries.  Just as we often find it easier to talk about the characteristics of God- loving, holy, creative rather, so one of the ways that we can go a bit deeper in our understanding of the Holy Spirit of God is to consider what the Holy Spirit does- the work of the Spirit…

Alongside the Father and the Word in creation, in empowering God’s servants, in inspiring the prophets and the teachers- the role in both the Old and New Testaments seems to be that of an enabler, helping others to flourish and guiding them…

So how do we relate to the Holy Spirit? Many of us will feel more comfortable praying to God as father, Lord or creator, we might think of thanking Jesus for his sacrifice- and especially in our songs and hymns, but we often bypass the Holy Spirit… just as we might speak over the heads of children or the elderly (does she take sugar?- I’m deaf not dead!)… we might ask God to send his Holy Spirit, when we can also ask the Holy Spirit to come- we can pray, speak, and sing directly to the Holy Spirit.

In us- like an electrical device has wires running through it

Filling us- like water in a jug, or a sail that is tugging, like air fills a balloon and gives it shape

Powering us- like a battery, water wheel, wind in the sails or heat

Leading us- like an inspirational coach or guide

And what about Pentecost? It’s the point at which the Holy Spirit no longer limited those things, and particularly those last two, to just one person at a time- so Saul was filled with the Spirit, and then David was, but not both at the same time… on the day of Pentecost and ever since, the Holy Spirit has filled people left right and centre, spreading in, through and beyond the activity of God’s church in the world…

What does the Holy Spirit do when it comes and fills, leads and empowers?

NT stuff- gifts, fruit… 9 listed in Galatians, the gifts described in Romans, Corinthians, Acts… but all that comes later, the first thing is that people respond and receive the Holy Spirit- God in us…

And so that’s what we spent the next while doing- waiting, praying, listening, receiving.

belated ascension… or waiting with a purpose

So, last weekend i was speaking on a passage from the beginning of Luke’s account of the Acts of the Apostles, one that describes Jesus’ ascension and the promise of the Holy Spirit.  For all sorts of reasons my talk was slightly less structured than sometimes (those reasons would include pox-ridden children, taking some time off and general stuff), but here it is, for those who’d like to have a look:

And they said to him (well, they didn’t, but I would have been tempted to)- we’ve left our homes and families, we’ve followed you, seen all you’ve done and been equipped by you to do the same, we’ve failed you at crucial times, and you’ve come back to us- you’ve done everything you set out to, you’ve brought the kingdom of heaven down into the streets and lifted the beggars and the poor into the presence of God- you’ve drawn us into a whole new way of understanding the world and have set out the start point for the kingdom, and are you now going to restore the kingdom of Israel as a way of demonstrating what your restoration will look like on a grand scale?

And Jesus said (well, he didn’t, but…) ‘not telling’. But- you can have the Spirit of God living in you while you wait.

And with that, he left them… waiting.

Children to help out by charading synonyms: congregation have to guess the phrase, it links to today’s theme

Twiddle your thumbs, kicking your heels, be patient, stand by… wait

Define waiting- ‘staying where you are or delaying action until a particular time or event’

‘remaining in readiness for a purpose’ a period of waiting could be called an interval- between 2 things… but its not the thing…

What do we do when we’re waiting for something? Well, what sort of things do we wait for? Buses and trains, sometimes- and usually we try to minimise the amount of time waiting by turning up as close to the departure time as possible…

Food- often… but do we actually wait, or do we fill the time? In a restaurant, how often do you see a table of diners sitting in silence with their cutlery poised before the food has arrived? My guess is never… why? Because actually the food isn’t the whole point, is it? Its about time together, the atmosphere etc… this is why the English are sometimes accused of missing the point about mealtimes- lunch should take 3hrs, rather than be rushed… conversation before and over the food is a part of the meal rather than a distraction from it.

And so Jesus told his disciples to wait. Children to go and join Kim.

The waiting wasn’t the whole point. Nor, in fact, was what they were waiting for- the Holy Spirit is an amazingly important part of what it means to be a Christian (more next week on that) but its not the whole point…

But why does God make them wait? Why does God make us wait? Many of us here have waited and prayed faithfully for things to happen- whether in this church or others, and yet they haven’t. Is it because God is lazy or hard of hearing, or just forgetful? No, no, no.

When we’re asking God to do one thing in the world, God is often doing something in our lives, and if we think its taking time for God to act in the world, its usually because its taking time for us to let God act in our lives… there are all sorts of examples that help us to understand this-

A party- you want to see the people, but you don’t want them to arrive while things aren’t ready…

Decorating/DIY- the bits that seem to take forever, and then suddenly things start to move quicker… getting things ready first is so important if you want to make good progress…

Waiting- being in a state of readiness… ready for the power of the Holy Spirit to come, and ready to be witnesses for God… ready to become the means that God has chosen to spread his word in our home city, our nation and across the world… to become the church. A time of growing- putting down roots, thickening the stem etc…

Our job here is twofold- firstly to discern which stage we’re in, whether we’re in a waiting stage- preparing ourselves, learning to trust God, learning to receive and follow, like diners waiting for the food to arrive, or whether we’ve the food in front of us, the road ahead of us, the party is starting, and we’ve done enough preparation and learning- its time for action… whether we’re in a time of going… and that discernment itself is a spiritual process, which the PCC, wardens and myself are engaged in as the leaders of the church, but which we each must go through for ourselves.

And the second part is to make sure that we don’t just spend our time waiting… always waiting, while not knowing what we’re waiting for or having any expectation of it happening… and equally that we don’t just spend our days in action, being busy for God, doing the work of the kingdom in the world when actually the first place that God desires to see transformation is in our hearts… because all of this stuff- the ascension and the angelic figures, it all has an impact here, in the grounded reality of this place and this person… so lets let it happen, and lets let it happen in God’s timing.

On Sunday I’ll be speaking about what happened next- when the Holy Spirit came… and hopefully we’ll make time to actually do some waiting for that to happen here today.

On another note, we’re going to be looking at the E100 resource and I’ll be blogging my own responses each day, so there’s going to be a flurry of posts over the summer, and maybe even a guest post or two… if you’ve never looked at E100 it’s a set of readings from the Bible that give an overview of the whole narrative that it contains, without having to read all of every book.