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The Shape of Everything

Acts 3:13-19, Luke 24:36-48

If you have seen the film, ‘The Shape of Water’, you may have wondered about the title. The movie takes its name from Plato’s idea that in its purest form, water takes the shape of an icosahedron, a 20-sided polyhedron, evoking the idea that beauty has many faces. It’s a lovely, unlikely film where Sally Hawkins falls in love with a humanoid sea-creature, ugly to our eyes but beautiful to hers. The shape of water.

Luke is the author of the gospel passage we read this morning, or, as I am coming to like to call it, the Jesus story. In those few verses, right at the end of his account, Luke gives us a summary: ‘the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations’. These few words have a particular shape, containing as they do suffering and death – crucifixion – on the one hand and new life – resurrection – on the other. The cross-resurrection message, Luke goes on to tell us, is at the heart of the message of forgiveness for the world. I want to look at this in a particular way that I hope we will find enlarges our understanding and our faith, using the metaphor of shape.

Firstly, I want to say that this book, the Scriptures, has itself the shape of death and life, cross and resurrection. Jesus tells us that “’…everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled. Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day.’” (Lk 24:44-46) What he is saying is that his death and resurrection were clearly foreshadowed in the Scriptures: that is, the OT. Let me illustrate briefly with three examples. If you’re not familiar with the stories, I will reference everything and you can look it up later. It’s important to understand that Jesus’ death and resurrection didn’t come out of the blue: there was a shape to much of the OT – the shape of death to life. First, there is the grand movement of the Exodus: the captivity and slavery of the Hebrews in Egypt and their escape (Exodus 1-14) – from captivity to freedom, the shape of death to life. Then within that story is another story with the same shape, just so we don’t miss the point – the death of the Passover lamb and the horrible death of the firstborn in Egypt (Exodus 12) which led to Pharaoh driving them out of his country. Again, death to life. Secondly, there are many individual figures in the OT with this shape. The clearest is Joseph, poor boastful Joseph, literally thrown into a pit by his brothers, then sold into slavery, then unjustly accused by Potiphar’s wife, and thrown into prison. But God reveals dreams to him which he interprets to Pharaoh and he becomes ruler of Egypt. Slavery to redemption. Death to life, crucifixion to resurrection (Genesis 37-47). Finally there are the prophets. I will mention only one, the 53rd chapter of Isaiah, written around 700 years before Jesus’ birth, speaking of someone who is to come, a suffering servant: ‘Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed…yet he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days; through him the will of the Lord shall prosper. Out of his anguish he shall see light.’ (Isaiah 53:4,5,10,11). This remarkable chapter in Isaiah prefigures the coming of the Messiah, a servant who will mysteriously suffer in order to give us life, who will die, but will see new life. It traces the shape of the One who was to come, and in the person of Jesus the dots are joined together. Scripture is Jesus-shaped.

I’ve made a bit of a meal about the shape of scripture for two reasons. Firstly, Jesus does himself. No argument there! Secondly, because if we believe anything, if we say that we believe that Jesus, in his life and death and resurrection achieved our salvation, that is, our healing; and if we say that in Jesus, God himself was dwelling, and if we say, look, this didn’t happen out if the blue, it’s actually prefigured in the OT, then get this: not only is scripture Jesus-shaped, God is Jesus-shaped. I don’t know what picture of God you carry in your mind – an old man with a beard sitting on a cloud? A kindly uncle? A kindly aunt? Put those images away. God has the shape of Jesus. And as we reflect on his death and resurrection, it’s a blood-and-guts picture as well as one of new life, of victory – even if his hands and feet and side still carry the marks of the nails and the spear (John 20:27). Paul tells us in his letter to the Colossians that ‘He is the image of the invisible God’ (1:15) – an image which includes all the suffering of the cross, death and resurrection. I am certain that when Ascension day comes, Vince will remind us that what the ascension tells us, is that all of this is taken up into the Godhead, into the Person of God himself.

This is treasure beyond price. But I want to widen the field still further. In speaking of Scripture having the shape of Jesus, the shape of cross and resurrection, and then of God Himself having that same shape, we are still being sort-of ‘churchy’. I came to faith some 40-odd years ago with the idea of ‘personal salvation’, that it was all about me somehow. And I had a message to tell people about admitting sin, coming to Christ, receiving his forgiveness through the cross and then the promise of eternal life through his resurrection. And all of that is true, and absolutely right for me and for many people at the time. The trouble is it was too small. It’s not only that Scripture is Jesus-shaped, or that God is Jesus-shaped – thinking particularly of cross and resurrection – it’s that everything is Jesus-shaped! We don’t have to look very hard to see the same shape spread across not only humanity, not only the world, but the whole universe. The animal and plant kingdoms have been following a cycle of death and new life for billions of years. Paul himself, in his first letter to the church at Corinth, in Greece, writes about the resurrection. He uses the illustration of a seed which first has to die – that is, to be put into the ground, before it comes to life again (1 Corinthians 15:35-57). The universe itself is full of stars dying and being born again. It’s like this: from the smallest microbe to the biggest galaxy, in the Scriptures, in our own lives there is the shape of death and life: the shape of Jesus, the shape of God himself, the shape of everything. Have we got it yet?

In our human existence we experience death and new life – quite literally, but also within our own lives as we face pain and suffering and then sometimes, new life as well. I deliberately say ‘sometimes’. We will not always see the reality of resurrection, of new life and hope. We can reflect that in the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, there really wasn’t much hope, maybe none at all. With one or two exceptions, the story of Jesus’ death reads like it’s the end. We tend to view the cross through the lens of the resurrection, but the reason the resurrection reads like a surprise is because it was a surprise! Who really knew that would happen? For the disciples and everyone around the cross, it looked exactly  like the end – it was a public execution. Did even Jesus know the resurrection was coming? He had some hope – ‘today you will be with me in paradise’, said to one of the two thieves crucified with him (Luke 23:43) but coming back and eating fish on a lakeside (John 21)? Maybe not! ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Matthew 27:46) doesn’t sound full of hope, does it? ‘It is finished’ (John 19:30) sounds, well, like an ending.

I say that because sometimes it can feel like there is no hope at all. Yet the Jesus story contains even hopelessness (which, weirdly, can give us hope). We can draw a line between the bleakness and futility of the torture and death of an innocent man on a Roman cross and our own experiences of bleakness and futility. Many years ago I spent 6 weeks on a training course in India, became friends with a German doctor, Dirk, on the same course. We had a lot of fun together, and I stoically endured the merciless teasing about warm, flat British beer with gritted teeth and a plastic smile. We talked often about faith – he wasn’t a believer – and one time he asked me, what do you say about suffering? I began to talk about the cross, the suffering of Jesus. After a few minutes he said, ‘Stop! It’s enough for me to know that you have somewhere to go with it!’

Some of you know that Rosemary and I have recently got back from a visit to Myanmar where our son and daughter-in-law are working for a few months. While we were that side of the world, we took the opportunity to visit Cambodia with Jon and Alexia. On our last day we visited the Genocide museum and Killing fields in Phnom Penh, the capital. Some 2 million people – that’s a quarter of the country’s population – almost all completely innocent, were tortured and killed in around 200 centres around the country in the years 1974-1979 at the hands of the Khmer Rouge under their paranoid leader, Pol Pot. It is the most sobering and depressing place I have ever been to, yet it is part of our global history. Before we went Rosemary and I prayed together and read verses from Isaiah 53: ‘He was despised and rejected, a man of suffering and acquainted with grief’ (v.3). Those words are so poignant, connecting like an electric circuit with the horrors of what happened at Tuol Sleng prison and I wept. In her prayer, Rosemary thanked God for the resurrection of the country, much in evidence now. And there it is again. Crucifixion and resurrection. Look for that pattern, that shape. It is everywhere.

‘Repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations’ (Luke 24:47) comes near the end of our gospel reading. I have said before that I the word ‘repentance’ quite problematic. It seems to me, at least, to have too narrow a focus: ‘what have you been up to, then? – you had better repent of that!’ I much prefer to break the word down into two halves – ‘re’ meaning ‘again’ and ‘pent’ from the French penser, ‘to think’. Rethink your life! No so much what have you done wrong today (although there may be profit in that!) but what direction is my life taking? How does my life line up with the Jesus story? And rethink the cross and resurrection – not just isolated events in history, but fulfilling the shape of Scripture written hundreds of years in advance; somehow revealing not only the shape of God Himself but the shape of everything. And you are forgiven! Again, I find the word ‘forgiven’ a bit narrow although it’s true, but it’s not enough – not only forgiven, you are loved, accepted, welcomed. If Jesus could forgive the men who nailed him to the cross – and he did – he can surely accept you!

Richard Croft

 

https://ronaldraab.com/2017/04/22/the-second-sunday-of-easter-2017-painting-of-jesus-and-thomas/

Living with the Resurrection; doubts, hopes and all.

+ May I speak …

Quote from Les Miserables: “To love another person is to see the face of God.”

It’s been a week, a long week.. and a lot can happen in a week. I wonder how your weeks have been since we last were together celebrating the wonder of Easter’s resurrection… have you lived in the bright glow of hope, or the grey everyday, or under darker clouds of oppression, stress or grief..

One week on.. has Easter made a difference?

One week on… lets be honest, what difference did we expect it to make?

As the excitement of the festival dims, It’s hard to know what difference it actually makes to our lives… is it a marker, a signpost, a symbol of hope built into the everyday?

During last weeks (joyfully chaotic) homily, I spoke of the abrupt mid-sentence ending of Mark; of how the story is left unfinished. How the wordlessness and fear of the visiting women might be the only appropriate and fitting response.

+Andrew asked me several years ago what it means to say ‘Christ is Risen’ before a church; I answered (controversially?) that I wasn’t really interested in trying to get back to what happened 2000 years ago, I was interested in what that meant now; how in people come to church and say ‘yes’ to this impossible claim, that it becomes the very basis of this church and of the lives of its people … how can we say ‘yes’ to a testimony which claims the God has made life come from places of death? How and when does it happen? And how do we celebrate that hope realistically?

Perhaps the clues are found in this week’s connected readings; both rich with layers of meaning.

We have two scenes portrayed; first, the book of Acts, (interesting that the lectionary this year gives it as a post-resurrection narrative, not  the usual post-Pentecost narrative). We get a snapshot of a life totally transformed, people and community transformed, living together and sharing in ways that they could never have imagined before now… a radical, (even today) vision of a re-setting of prime values and priorities..

Why is this a post-resurrection reading? How does this speak of new life, unexpected life coming from places (or habits) of death?

32 The group of believers was one in mind and heart. None of them said that any of their belongings were their own, but they all shared with one another everything they had. 33 With great power the apostles gave witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and God poured rich blessings on them all.

Hold on… ‘great power’, ‘rich blessings’, these are words associated with the Spirit.. by enacting community are they embodying something of the resurrection drama?

It’s a reminder that our whole service this morning makes up the Eucharistic Drama… when we share The Peace we are doing more than simply saying ‘hello’, (and slightly embarrassing ourselves); we are participating in a symbol which is rooted in exactly this resurrection change – a moment of sacramental remembering.

I said last week that the Mark’s resurrection is a story which needs telling again and again, it never ends.. As we greet one another, we confer a blessing to each other , and as we do we re-hearse, re-tell, re-story the endless story. The Acts passage invites us to imagine such moments as defining rather than accidental. The Peace provokes and rehearses our own works of mercy and justice.

“To love another person is to see the face of God.”

The second scene is told by John… is the familiar visitation to the disciples, and the special encounter with Thomas… We hear the story of the disciples locked away, afraid; fearful of the Jewish authorities, (note – ‘Jews’ means authorities, priests, not all Jews; Jesus was a Jew – as were his followers, and John himself!). Other commentators have wondered, were they afraid of Jesus? Maybe they didn’t want to believe the testimony of the women … afraid that it was all too real?

But Jesus appears.. we imagine the shock, the awe… We see the physical interaction; body, wound, touch, seeing, restoration. (Whatever resurrection has done – it has not removed the wounding).

But we also witness the Spirit being given… as breath, and the words ‘Peace be with you’..

This following section was not given in the sermon…

And then this strange line about forgiving.. most strange. or is it…

If you forgive people’s sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

There are two halves to this sentence; the first concerns this strange word ‘sin’.. but I’m not talking about that today. It’s easy to imagine the second half of the sentence follows the same subject… which means if you do not forgive sin, they are not forgiven..

But that’s not what is being said… let’s be honest, Jesus has just died for or with the sin/(brokenness) of the whole world.. why on earth is he saying then that sins can be left unforgiven? That makes a mockery of the whole Easter event!

Let’s look another way and consider it talking about the people who commit sin, who carry and embody brokenness.. (and yes – that’s all of us!).

if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.

… But if you do, if you forgive the person, hold the person, embrace and welcome the person, the ‘other’– they are held, they are restored, they become like you.

Jesus meets the doubt of his followers; holds them, gives them the Spirit of peace, gives them the ability to share that peace with each other and with the world. So peace, spirit, resurrection, others .. again. The resurrection story becomes a little clearer… it is lived out with others…

“To love another person is to see the face of God.”

And finally we have the story of badly-typecast Thomas. To be honest.. he doesn’t even really ‘doubt’.. it’s more like when someone tells you about a great movie, a great song or a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavour.. hearing about it isn’t enough.. you want to see it or hear or taste it yourself.

That’s not even doubt in my book! .. I can tell you a few things about real doubt.. (but you’d be bored!)… Doubt is not the opposite of faith, but instead it’s part of it. Real doubt is good, necessary sometimes, and once again embraced by the one who cares enough to meet us in doubt.

And I would push further and say that doubt isn’t an in/out thing… we all live questioning; both believing and simultaneously denying all this stuff – all the time! Those whose doubts prevent them from entering church have a gift for us… cause us to be realistic. (Camino program, ‘I’m not sure if I believe’). In the crucible of doubt we lose certainties but are left with faith.

Thomas is where we are.. one week on.. when the glow of celebration subsides and reality knocks at the door. He wasn’t with the first disciples.. (who also didn’t believe what they were told)..  he’s probably had a terrible week.. I think we can give him that.. Maybe he didn’t doubt at all.. Maybe he grieved.. “how can anything be real anymore, how do I even begin to carry on with life?” Maybe we can all share something of that.. when something so devastating rips the ceiling off our lives… tears our worlds apart… Perhaps Thomas is like the psalmists pleading for God’s existence amid our groans, watching for God in the land parched with doubt but no water, looking for the God who bears the marks of our weary world in his own body. * The Psalms juxtapose extravagant faith claims alongside deep doubts.. The tension of now/not-yet. And if we are to be realistic about the resurrection then maybe we can doubt it as much as celebrate it!

Maybe, like Thomas and the Psalmists, we wait – allowing time to pass… we have to – we have no choice. We find ourselves held by others.. exploring silence and then (sometimes) unexpectedly surprised.

Jesus greets Thomas one week on.. offers the same blessing of peace, the same breath of the Spirit.. the same physical interaction. It is a beautiful intimate moment.

 “To love another person is to see the face of God.”

John finishes his story here…. (most scholars believe the other chapter is a later addition)

The story told ‘that you might believe’, is always being told, always without an ending; it requires time, patience understanding and love.. it requires others to help us tell the story, to listen, to share and to grow.

It asks that we dare to imagine something different.. something different to what we face now…

It asks that we embody a future full of wild, unknown and hopeful possibilities.

It asks that we understand that doubt is an inevitable part of that journey.. we cannot love the impossible until we first realise that it is truly impossible.

Yet in the face of death.. even the death of a crucified God .. a gift seems to emerge in our lives and offer something new.. life still overcoming death – over and over again. A new blessing, a new grace.. The Peace we share in this Eucharist reminds us that Easter transforms our lives and will keep on transforming…  always in process, always in hope, always in the face of an/other.

Peace be with you …

 

Featured Image : “My Lord and God” Jesus and Thomas, Painting by: Ronald Raab, CSC
https://ronaldraab.com/2017/04/22/the-second-sunday-of-easter-2017-painting-of-jesus-and-thomas/

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Thomas and Philip and the Way, the Truth and the Life

Thomas and Philip and the Way, the Truth and the Life

Acts 7:55-end, John 14:1-14

 

Many years ago, when I was a student, there was a fashion for thinking about Jesus like this: ‘Is he mad, bad, or God?’ The question was meant to be a way of focussing your mind on the incredible claims that Jesus made about himself and saying, well, who on earth is he then? A fraud, or who he says he is? I suppose the very fact I can remember that says something. But if you’ve been coming to church and been hearing about Jesus for some time, we tend to take it all a bit for granted. We’re used to the formula Jesus = God. It was definitely not like that for the disciples, certainly not in the time before His death and resurrection. Jesus was, after all, a human being, a man. They knew Him as their master, their teacher, yes – but also as their companion, their friend. This morning I want to try and get inside of that, to look at Jesus from the disciples’ point of view, specifically that of Thomas and Philip. So I am going to try and speak to them. Perhaps you can imagine yourself as one of the other disciples, sitting, listening, overhearing Jesus’ words or perhaps you can become Thomas or Philip and hear the words directly. Because what Jesus says, His words that we heard read in the gospel, were spoken in relationship. And they are really only true in relationship. Our Christian faith isn’t a set of rules and regulations that you follow. It begins and ends with the person of Jesus. It’s all about Him.

Before we get there though, let’s be clear of the context. Jesus didn’t say what He did out of the blue. He was on his way to Jerusalem, it was the last week of his life on earth. He had already told them that He wouldn’t be around much longer: “I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you: ‘Where I am going you cannot come.’” (Jn 13:33) So this was a period of uncertainty, of fear for the disciples. The party was ending. From the position of fear and uncertainty, Thomas poses his question: ‘Where is it you are going? How can we know the way?’ (Jn 14:5)

‘Thomas, how long have we known each other? Is it really three years? We know each other now, don’t we? I know you so well, always a bit sceptical, a bit unconvinced, but still you’re here, still you are with me. I love you for the way you voice your doubts and questions, you don’t keep them buttoned up. And don’t you know me? Don’t you know me well enough to believe me when I say that even though the worst may happen to me, to you, to any of us, in my Father’s house there are many rooms? Look, I am going there to prepare a place for you – yes, you Thomas – as well as all of you, too. That part is settled. I know that there are dark days ahead of us and that you are worried and fearful. I want you to step over your fears – as I have to – yes, I too am fearful of what may come in the next few days – but hold on to what you know, what you have seen and heard.

‘So, you are wondering about the way we are going, what is the way. Haven’t I become the way for you over these last years? Haven’t you been with me in all the things I have done and said? I have literally been ‘the way’ for you – you have, after all followed me – but haven’t I become like a way of life for you as well? Not only that, haven’t I become the way to the Father for you as well? Did you imagine it could be anything like how it has been? And hasn’t it been exciting, fun even? Think of some of the things we’ve been up to! Look around you to start with, at this bunch of misfits and ask yourself how it is that we are all here? You’re not exactly the top class, are you? Yet I chose you! Look at Peter the fisherman with his size 13 wellies, always ready to rush in where angels fear to tread! And James and John, the sons of thunder I call them (Mk 3:17), after they wanted to call down lightning from heaven in judgement! Matthew, dear Matthew, the tax collector, the collaborator, the traitor – gave it all up, all his money so he could be here with me, with us (Mk 2:13-14). Would you have been friends with any of them? But look, here we are! Isn’t this life? Isn’t this living? Think of some of the other people we’ve come across, invited to join us, people who are ‘nobodies’? Ordinary men and women and children, shopkeepers, bakers, fishermen, builders – and then the sex workers, the crazy – what about the man who spent his life naked, raving among the tombstones, remember that? How we sent the spirits that plagued him into a herd of pigs that rushed off a cliff and left him clothed and in his right mind? Didn’t we give him his life back? (Mk 5:1-17) Even more than that, think of Lazarus, our dear friend, Mary and Martha’s brother, who died. You wept, I wept, we all wept at their sorrow. And yet, what happened? he’s unwrapping his bandages and stepping out of the tomb (Jn 11:1-44). Thomas, I am the way, I am the life. I am the truth, too. Not that horrible kind of truth that condemns a man because he’s on the wrong side of it, but truth that is full of life, truth that says, ‘this is right, this is true and good’ – and it gives life. Because the truth about those ‘nobodies’, about you, and all the others that are just ‘ordinary’ is that you’re not ordinary. In fact, my Father loves you, Thomas the doubter, and the crazy guy in the tombs, and the whores, and the collaborators, as well as the people at the top. Yes, He loves them too.

‘Do you remember when we got accused of being drunkards? (Mt 11:19) Maybe they were thinking of when I changed the water into wine at the wedding in Cana so the party could go on (Jn 2:1-11). Hasn’t it been a bit like a party in these years? Hasn’t it felt like that? But that’s what being in the kingdom of my Father is like – it’s not some drab, stiff, sober place where nobody laughs or cracks a joke or maybe has a bit too much to drink – it’s exactly the opposite. It’s a place where we celebrate, enjoy each other’s company where we can be who we are, happy to know we are loved by the Father.

‘And think about the cages we’ve rattled? That’s part of it, too. We rattled cages when we stood up for what is right and true and some people – people with vested interests, people who have been blinded by possessions or power haven’t liked it at all. I called them out. The Pharisees who teach you can leave your parents dirt poor if your money is offered to God (Mk7:9-13). Who load people with burdens, stuff to do to make them really ‘religious’ but don’t help them to do it . The people who are offended because I care for the poor, the outcast, the sick, lepers, even the dead. Those ways of living – not that it’s really living – have to be called out for what they are, even though there’s a price to pay. In fact, and you know it, the price is soon going to be paid. I am the truth, the truth about my Father.

‘But Thomas, you should know that the way, the way I live, includes pain. Yes, I am the way to the Father and you have seen how much joy there is in that, how there is welcome, how it’s true life and how that is literally what I have given to people. But there will always be resistance, there will always be pain. This is a way where we go out towards others, towards people who are suffering, towards the unloved and the unlovely, a way where we do what is true and right even though it costs us. What is about to happen to me is part of the way too.

‘Philip, I have heard your question too. ‘Show us the Father’. Philip, haven’t you understood yet? Look at me. Look at the things I have done and said. Think about what I’ve just said to Thomas. Think of what kind of person I am. Think about why you wanted to follow me. The truth is, I am in the Father and the Father is in me. When you look at me, you are looking at the Father.

I hope that in some way that has helped us to get behind perhaps what Jesus had in mind when he said of himself. ‘I am the way, the truth and the life’ (Jn 14:6) It is this Jesus that we honour in our worship and in our lives, who is Himself the way to the Father, who shapes our way of life – a way that is full of celebration, friendship across all barriers, brings healing and reconciliation but also self-giving; who is the truth, the truth about God Himself who reaches out in love to all; and the life – the life of God.

 

Richard Croft

 

 

 

 

 

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Pentecost Sunday

Pentecost Sunday

St John’s and St Stephen’s Church, Reading, 15th May 2016
Acts 2:1-21, John 14:8-17, 25-27

series-fChristmas, Easter and Pentecost are the three big Christian festivals. In them, the church has stamped onto the year, written in to the passage of time, three indelible marks of grace, of unconditional love to all humanity with, as Vincent powerfully reminded us last week, no strings attached. If Christmas is about this: God with us in the child of Mary, then Easter is God for us in the death and resurrection of that child, become a man, dying and rising to bring us of forgiveness, acceptance and new life; and Pentecost is God in us, the gift of the Spirit to transform and renew. Pentecost is the act of God actually touching and indwelling us. It’s the place where it becomes real; where faith moves from the head to the heart.

 

In our first reading today, we read of that first day of Pentecost in Acts 2, a vivid moment of high drama. In the OT, Pentecost was the Jewish festival of weeks, when the appearance pf the first fruits were celebrated. Let me read you a paragraph from an old book, ‘The Big Fisherman’ by Lloyd C. Douglas. It describes exactly the moment. I can remember reading this for the first time and feeling the hairs on my neck prickle up:

 

‘Peter drew himself up to his full height and glanced upward as if he had been struck. His auditors straightened and stared. Immediately above the Big Fisherman’s head, and touching it, was a shimmering crimson flame—in shape like the flame of a torch! All breathing in the spacious room was suspended.

Then the massive oaken door flew open and banged hard against the wall. There was the deafening roar of a mighty tempest that swept through the hall. The startled men and women held to their seats and clung to one another as the rushing wind lashed to and fro. It was as if the world had come to an end! Now tongues of flame stabbed through the storm, coming to rest—torch- like—upon the heads of all present! The glow of the fire possessed exhilarating properties. Some of the men shouted ecstatically. Some wept for joy. Strangers grasped the hands of strangers and gazed at one another in wonderment. Jairus put his arm round Joel, who was weeping. Mencius put both hands over his eyes and shook his head. Joseph of Arimathaea clutched Hassan’s arm.

Now the torch-like flames departed and the tempest roared out as suddenly as it had come. Every man was on his feet, all talking at once, loudly, as if the tempest still raged. Mencius, not one to be easily discomposed, was so utterly stampeded that he turned to Jairus and shouted—in Greek: ‘This is a most amazing thing, sir!’ And Jairus, who didn’t know a word of Greek, instantly replied, in that language, ‘Surely the Lord has visited us!’ Young Joel, listening intently, nodded his head; and when Jairus asked him if he had understood what they were saying he said he had, and added, in his own Aramaic, ‘It is true, sir! God Himself has been in this place!’

 

I guess it needed something really big and unforgettable to kick-start the movement that would, in time, transform the world. And it did just that! A couple of weeks ago, by coincidence I think, I preached on Acts 10/11, the ‘Gentile Pentecost’ when there was a similar kick-off to make it absolutely clear that the way of Jesus and the gift of the Spirit was for non-Jews as well as Jews. I don’t necessarily think that this kind of massive, dramatic moment happens often and I’m not thinking it’ll happen today but then who knows? Nevertheless, there will be people in this church this morning, myself included, who have had some kind of experience of the Spirit that has left a deep memory, an imprint on us of the reality of God.

 

But John’s gospel gives us another, much gentler description of the gift of the Spirit, and this by Jesus Himself. It was after the resurrection, when Jesus appeared to the disciples in the upper room: “Jesus said to them, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you’. When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’” (Jn 20:21,22). Of course, this too is a moment of drama: Jesus has just appeared after his death! But the moment of him bestowing his peace, and breathing on them the Spirit, is a quiet moment, unaccompanied by the shenanigans of the Pentecostal event in Acts. So it is that many of us will have a much gentler, quieter experience of the Spirit in our lives. In fact, we may not even recognise His presence in us. And you will notice I used the personal pronoun, ‘His’ and not the impersonal, ‘Its’. Because it is clear in the NT that the Spirit is a person, not a force. The Spirit is referred to in personal terms right through the NT. Think of Him like this: He is Jesus’ other self. He is Jesus within us, and in fact within the world.

 

There is so much that could be said about the Spirit but time is short! I want to focus now on what He does in our lives, and I will end with an offer to receive Him in a fresh way.

 

Firstly, it is the Spirit who makes Jesus real to us. He is a kind of internal witness, a warmth in our hearts, speaking to us about Jesus. We can find this in today’s gospel reading, again from John’s gospel: ‘The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all I have said to you’ (Jn 14:26).

 

Secondly, the Spirit is the one who gives gifts. These are all gifts – perhaps think of the word abilities – that enable us to build each other up and to make Jesus known in different ways. St Paul gives lists of different gifts or abilities, but I don’t see much of a gap between most of these and what we might call ‘natural’ talents or abilities. So for example, a person who is gifted in administration, or someone who is a natural encourager, will most likely find that they are exactly the gifts that are most useful both in the church, and in the world at large. They will probably be the ways that God will use to make His presence known to others and the gift of the Spirit kind of ‘lights them up’. The gap between the so-called ‘supernatural’ and ‘natural’ may not be that big. So Paul speaks of gifts of cheerfulness, compassion, leadership, generosity, exhortation, teaching, ministry, prophecy in Romans (Rom 12:6-8); and then perhaps more ‘supernatural’ gifts in 1 Corinthinans: utterance of wisdom and of knowledge, faith, healing, miracle working, prophecy, the discernment of spirits, tongues (1 Cor 12:4-11). And that list is by no means exhaustive! It’s very easy in a fantastic church like St John’s to see the gifts all around us being used: out in the garden with a hoe as much as a friendly chat in the café, to involvement in social justice and peace, to work overseas, to visiting the sick, to administration, to looking after the money as well as the sort of ‘up front’ stuff you see before you. Every person here has gifts of the Spirit: today might be a day to recognise and acknowledge that, and be affirmed.

 

Thirdly, it is the Spirit who brings fruit in our lives. If gifts are what we do, fruit is more about who we are, the way we are, and we all have the potential to grow the fruit of the Spirit, no matter who we are. There is a classical list of fruit in Galatians that I will read in a moment. Once again, the fruit are in much evidence among us and we can reflect on that and give thanks. And think too of where you need a ‘top up’. ‘The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things’ (Gal 5:22,23).

 

We are physical beings. We live in our bodies, in fact we are our bodies. We are very used to this, of course! So our faith in Christ isn’t simply something locked up in our heads, it touches our physical selves as well. This is the power of what are called the sacraments. I’m speaking of baptism and holy communion. Sacraments are an outward sign of something happening on the inside and they can be remarkably powerful. Baptism is a physical act: the application of, or submersion in water to our bodies in the name of Father, Son and Spirit to signify washing and entry into the kingdom of God. The Holy Communion, which is given to us, is the physical receiving, the eating and drinking of the consecrated bread and wine. Here’s the thing: we get up, move, stand, put out our hands, eat and drink. By these simple things we do we receive Christ and we are reminded: it’s as simple as that. A free gift. No strings attached! I would like to suggest that these big, liturgical festivals like Pentecost, Easter and Christmas are like sacraments of time. Of course, we can remember God with us – Christmas, every day; and God for us – Easter, and God in us – Pentecost in the same way. But when we say, today is Christmas, today is Easter, today is Pentecost it can become a special moment, a time of grace. So today, we are doing something a bit different. We are going to offer prayer and anointing with oil as an opportunity to be open, to receive a fresh touch of the Spirit in your lives. It’s not exactly a sacrament but it is a sacramental act and it involves our bodies as well as our minds and souls. Christine will explain in a bit exactly how that will work but I would say: don’t be afraid, welcome the opportunity. What will happen? I don’t know. That’s between you and God. It may be a sense of peace, or of joy, or assurance of God’s love; there might be tears for some, I don’t know. There may not be much at all in that way but who knows where it might take us.

 

So, Pentecost. A dramatic birthday of the church; or a gentle breath of Jesus. The Spirit: the One who makes Jesus real to us, the One who gives gifts, the One who bears fruit in our lives. Let’s make sure we receive Him afresh today.

 

Richard Croft

 

 

 

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Ascension Day – sermon given by Rev. Christine Bainbridge

Ascension Day
5 May 2016
Acts 1.1-11, Luke 24.44-end

Daniel’s vision of a heavenly court where God sits, enthroned and where the Son of Man has a place; the prophet Elijah who was taken up to heaven after leaving behind a portion of his spirit for his disciple Elisha; and Jacob’s dream where he sees a ladder going between earth and heaven with angels moving up and down it. What do all these have in common? Put that question on the back burner. I’ll come back to it.
I’ve just returned from visiting our daughter in Sweden. Sweden likes having special days to celebrate something; they include cinnamon bun day and crayfish day. While I was there they had a day which I think may be special to all the Nordic countries – 1st day of spring day. It involves having a huge bonfire in the evening and, in our daughter’s village, traditional songs sung by the church choir. Everyone turns out for this – it’s a community celebration. The arrival of Spring is a big event when you’ve been through the dark and cold of a Swedish winter. It was unseasonably cold on my first few days there, but the weather on Spring Day was co operatively spring-like (even warmer than here!) and I enjoyed seeing everyone come out of their burrows, as it were. Babies in buggies were being pushed along. The odd looking man with long grey frizzy hair was once again fishing by the lake. 2 boats were out. People were greeting each other in the street. Camper vans appeared.
The big bonfire is a way of marking a significant shift in the seasons. Now, I want to suggest that Luke’s account of the Ascension serves a similar purpose in his gospel narrative; it signals the end of something and the start of something. It marks a transition, in other words. The transition from winter to spring is particularly apt because suddenly people are looking up and out, rather than huddling against the cold as they scurry down the street with barely a glance at passersby. They look up at those immensely tall Swedish trees just coming into leaf. At the sun (especially the sun!), and at each other. Just as the disciples are all looking up as Jesus is taken into heaven.
Luke is the only gospel writer to include the Ascension. It serves as a hinge between his gospel narrative and the book of Acts. It helps to explain why Jesus’ presence with his disciples after the resurrection changes after a while (40 days is the given period which in bible speak means ‘a certain amount of time’). For Luke, alone among the gospel writers, it serves to kickstart the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and the sending out of the disciples.
Someone said to me recently that writers are artists. I find that helpful when considering Luke’s narrative. He is attempting to put into words something that is beyond words – a mystery – and he does it by painting a word picture. The mystery is this turning point , this transition– the resurrection appearances coming to an end and that explosive looking up and going out that happens soon after. What is it that has happened?
Luke uses words that tap into moments of revelation in the Hebrew scriptures (all of them vivid pictures) and here we return to that question I asked at the beginning – about the connection between Daniel’s vision of a heavenly court where God sits enthroned and where the Son of Man has a place, the prophet Elijah being taken up to heaven after leaving behind a portion of his spirit for his disciple Elisha; and Jacob’s dream of the ladder going between earth and heaven. It is likely that the first hearers of Luke’s gospel would have experienced resonances with all these events from the OT as they heard the account of Jesus ascending into heaven. These resonsnaces would have helped them understand what was happening.
Ok what was happening? Daniel’s vision connects with Jesus now at the right hand side of God, in heaven. The Elijah story reminds us of someone else who disappeared into the clouds and who left his disciples with a portion of his spirit. So, we can say that Jesus, having completed his mission, now returns to his rightful place in heaven, leaving the disciples to carry on what he was doing. Jesus is up there, the disciples (and us) are down here. But what about the ladder with angels moving up and down? This conveys something more.
For that we need to consider how another gospel writer understands the mystery of what is happening after Jesus’ resurrection. We turn to John’s gospel. Jesus talking to his disciples at the last supper, giving reassurance because he knows he is facing his death and therefore leaving them. John 14.3 – I go to prepare a place for you so that you be where I am. Jesus’ ascension is about more than his departure into heaven, leaving his friends to carry on the good work (although that is part of it). The truly astonishing feature of the Ascension is that we are taken up to that heavenly place with Christ; because of his death and resurrection we can be where he is (John). Or, as Paul puts it (Eph 2.6), God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms, and, ‘our life is hidden with Christ in God’ (Col 3.3). So, we’re up there and we’re down here. We dwell constantly at the centre of the Trinity whilst carrying out our daily routine here in Reading or wherever. This is what the Ascension is telling us.
In the Chronicles of Narnia CS Lewis puts it another way. When the children are at school or staying with their uncle in Cornwall they are to everyone who sees them just ordinary children. However, their hidden identity is as kings and queens of Narnia and as soon as they travel to Narnia that is how they are treated – as kings and queens. St Augustine uses the language of citizenship – we are citizens of earth and citizens of heaven at the same time.
In John’s gospel the coming of the Holy Spirit is Jesus breathing on his disciples (John 20.22) and saying that they can now forgive sins. When human beings were created God breathed his breath into them. Now Jesus does the same. We have his breath in us. We are a new creation. We have Christ inside us. If he is at God’s right hand then so are we.
So, Jesus was not simply ascending into heaven so that the disciples could be left to get on with his mission (rather the way a good trainer leaves their trainees to go and do the job themselves), but so that he could take them and us there too, to re-imagine our humanity as totally shot through with the divine because of Jesus’ death and resurrection. And it’s all our humanity – the good, the bad and the ugly.
In Sweden there isn’t a bank holiday on Spring Day. Instead the bank holiday is on the Thursday the same week – Ascension Day- a day to celebrate the connection made by the early Christians there between spring and the transforming power of Christ’s victory over death. The Ascension is good news. It’s not only Fairtrade chocolate that is Divine; all human being are too!

Christine Bainbridge

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Peter and Cornelius

St John’s and St Stephen’s Church, Reading. April 25th 2016, Easter 5
Acts 11:1-18, John 13:31-35

series-gWhat is it that divides you from other people? What are your prejudices? Where are the lines drawn that cut you off from another person, another group? We all have them and sometimes we don’t even know they are there. Race, religion, colour, culture, gender, sexuality, social class, age, even physical appearance. Reading the beginning of Luke’s gospel the other day, I noticed how prejudice nearly killed Jesus even before he had begun his ministry. That bit in Luke 4, right at the beginning of his public ministry, where he stands up in the synagogue in Nazareth and reads from Isaiah. Everyone was amazed at him, but Jesus rather spoiled it when he reminded them that Elijah the prophet, one of their heroes, didn’t go to a widow in Israel at a time of famine, but to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon – a Gentile. Again, there were many with leprosy at the time of Elisha, another prophet, but Elisha was sent to Naaman – the Syrian. The reaction of those godly people? ‘They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way’ (Lk 4:29,30). Hold that thought.

The Acts of the apostles, where our first reading came from, is the fifth book in the NT, coming after the 4 gospels. It tells the story of what happened after the death and resurrection of Jesus, and how the church was born. It tells of the day the Holy Spirit blew like a storm into the lives of the disciples at Pentecost, literally setting them on fire for Jesus. We learn about the backlash, the beginning of persecution, and we meet a man, a Pharisee, who is changed from arch-enemy Saul to apostle Paul as he meets the resurrected Jesus on the Damascus road. Up until chapter 9 it’s all about Israel, but in chapters 10 and 11 something really, really big happens.

The Jews were, and still are, a very particular race with many laws relating to behaviour, rituals, food and worship. These ways of living were, and are very, very deeply rooted. Food laws in particular are very strong and most of us will be aware that Jews do not eat pork; but there are many more prohibitions than that. In addition, at the time of Jesus it was forbidden for Jews to associate with Gentiles (non-Jews).

In Chapter 10 we meet Cornelius. He was a centurion, a Roman army commander and a Gentile, although we learn he was a God-fearer. He had a vision of an angel, telling him to summon Peter. So he sent 2 slaves and a soldier to get him. Meanwhile, and here’s the really weird bit, Peter is having his own vision. He sees a kind of sheet, coming down from heaven, loaded with all kinds of ‘four footed-creatures and reptiles and birds of the air’ (10:12). What exactly they were we don’t know, but Peter immediately recognised them as unclean – that is, he was forbidden by Jewish law to eat them. But Peter hears a voice telling him to ‘Get up, Peter, kill and eat!’ (13). Peter is absolutely shocked. But the voice comes back, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane’ (15). This vision happens 3 times. This is challenging some of the deepest roots of Peter’s life up until now. ‘You want me to do WHAT???’

Just then Cornelius’ messengers arrive and ask him to go to Cornelius’ house. Cornelius. Gentile. Unclean. Forbidden to associate. And the penny drops. That vision was to prepare him for this. ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane’. So he goes. And he doesn’t just find Cornelius, he finds all his friends and relations too. Cornelius asks him to tell them ‘all that the Lord has commanded you to say’ (33). It’s a wide open door. It’s like a penalty shootout only the goalie is taking a break. So Peter tells the story of Jesus and while he is doing so the Holy Spirit falls on all present, they speak in tongues, it’s a revival meeting. It’s a Gentile Pentecost. ‘The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles’ (45) This good news isn’t just for Jews, it’s for everyone, Gentiles too. Peter gets it, and goes ahead and baptises them. As far as we know, Cornelius and his friends were the first non-Jewish believers in Jesus.

Feathers have been seriously ruffled, and the Jewish believers in Judea criticised Peter and demanded an explanation. So in Chapter 11, today’s reading, Peter tells the story of exactly what happened. Which means, we have the same story twice so that we are absolutely clear how important it is. The reading in Acts 11 ends with these astonished words of the Jewish believers: ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life’. (18).

This is a story about crossing boundaries, amongst other things. About moving out of a comfort zone, about getting over prejudices, about even breaking the rules and regulations of a strong religious belief. It was a revolution, a breakthrough, a transformation and as a result of it the good news about Jesus was free to explode into the Gentile world. And it did. A mere 300 years later the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as the Imperial religion and the rest is history. It’s why we are here this morning.

That movement to cross boundaries, to reach out to the excluded, the unclean wasn’t new. It’s there in the OT, and I have already mentioned about Elijah and the widow of Zarephath, and Elisha and Naaman the Syrian – but there is much more. However, it’s in the gospels, in the ministry of Jesus, that it really stands out. Think of Jesus healing those with leprosy – completely cast out and excluded from Jewish society. Think too of Jesus reaching out sex workers. To collaborators – the tax collectors. Think of the hero of Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan – yes, a Samaritan, not a Jew. To the demon-possessed, to a gentile woman from Syro-Phoenecia.

This movement outwards, to cross boundaries, is an absolutely fundamental part of our faith. This story of Peter and Cornelius puts the flesh on the bones for us and shows us what it looks like. I’ve taken time with this story, rather than glossing over it, because I think it’s only when we can see what it might mean that we begin to get it. Also, to understand that this story is our heritage, it’s one of the foundation stones of our faith.

Moving swiftly on from Peter and Cornelius to the Church of England, I want to say that sometimes, just sometimes, the CofE gets it spot on and they did so this morning. The lectionary – that’s the list of readings for each Sunday – pairs the reading from Acts 11 with John 13, today’s gospel reading. It comes in the lead up to Jesus’ death, probably at the Last Supper: ‘I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another’ (34,35). It is all about love. The best-known verse in the Bible: ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only son…’ (Jn 3:16). It was love that led God the Father to send his Son, to cross the boundary, to become one of us. Love that impelled Jesus to do what he did in reaching past prejudices, to break rules and regulations, to embrace the rejected. If we want to understand what love means, we can look at the life of Jesus, see what he did, who he spoke to, touched, healed and we can say, ‘So that’s what love looks like’. There’s always a moving out, a moving across. And that is exactly what the story of Peter and Cornelius is all about. It was not easy for Peter, not at all. He needed a distinct push in the right direction, an open goal yawning in front of him for him to reach across to an unclean Gentile and tell the good news about Jesus. But he did it.

I wonder what this means for us, both as a church and individually? Well, this church has a long and strong history of people reaching out across cultures, living in another country, learning another language and I can count several people here this morning, myself included, who have done exactly that. The Galpin family are still working in Nepal now. The café too is a place of crossing cultures. As individuals, this outward momentum, fuelled simply by love, should take is towards those in our society and town who are having a hard time. It is so remarkably easy to slip into the ‘comfort’ of a prejudice – I’m thinking particularly of migrants and Muslims – fuelled by the insidious and appalling insults of the right-wing press.

It’s good to know that we currently have an indestructible hero in this regard – notice how often his name crops up – in the form of Pope Francis. He recently swooped into the island of Lesbos, got together with the leader of the Orthodox church, a miracle in itself (the RC and Orthodox churches have been feuding for a millennium), met some migrants, applauded the people of Greece for their fantastic welcome to them at a time of their own hardship, told the rest of the EU off, picked up 12 of them and brought them back to the Vatican as a sign and a rebuke to the rest of us. That is so clearly a deeply, deeply Christian act, rooted in the life of Jesus and the example of Peter and Cornelius.

Well, I’m going to leave Peter and Cornelius there. This story, and the command of Jesus to ‘love one another’ is part of the landscape of our faith, the ground we walk on. May we not lose sight of it.

Richard Croft

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Murder, mayhem and mystery

Sermon 3rd Sunday of Easter

John 21. 1-19, Acts 9.1-6

Murder, mayhem and mystery; they’re all there in our bible readings today. Discovering that you were not who you thought you were, the persecution of a religious minority; working long hours for very little. Sounds topical?

Before and after – I enjoy those pictures of before and after; you know, like when we watch some TV DIY experts sweep into a house and do a makeover. Today in church of course we have our own before and after – last week our floor before it was done and this week, after it’s been repaired and varnished.

I don’t know about you, but I find before and after very attractive. I love reading about how people’s lives are changed for the better or seeing how communities are transformed from struggling and embattled to flourishing and empowered.

In our readings today we see 2 of Jesus’ followers after the resurrection, with clear reminders of what they were like before the resurrection. Peter, the one who had run away, now reinstated by Jesus and declaring 3 times that he loves him, thus undoing his previous 3 fold denial during Jesus’ arrest and trial. Paul, a vigorous persecutor of the church, now blinded by a totally unexpected fresh insight and redirecting his energy towards spreading the gospel. Before and after…

The before and after of the resurrection is not quite the same as a damaged floor and a repaired one or a dilapidated house, and a renovated one, though there may be some similarities. I want us to look at the recollections of Jesus’ resurrection appearance in John’s gospel and Luke’s description of Paul’s encounter with the risen Lord in Acts and see how resurrection before and after works out there.

Firstly, a fresh recognition of identity. Having had a startling revelation about the identity of our archbishop this week we might more easily enter into the significance of names, their meanings and how they relate to who we are. Can you turn to someone near you and, if you don’t know their name, ask them, and then ask them if they know the meaning of their name and why they were given it. (Pause while everyone does this) Names are important in these resurrection encounters. Notice that Jesus addresses Peter by his old name, ‘Simon son of John’, and Paul as ‘Saul’. Although Jesus had renamed Simon ‘Peter’ (the Rock) when he’d called him by the lake at the start of his ministry, Peter had turned out to be anything but a rock. So, here he is being recalled to this, his original, but hidden identity in Christ. ‘Saul’ in Hebrew means ‘asked for’; Saul was certainly not asked for by the Christians he was persecuting! The name Saul uses after his encounter with Christ is ‘Paul’ means small and humble. Like Peter the so called rock, wavering and crumpling on the night of Jesus’ arrest, small and humble aren’t adjectives that immediately come to mind when considering Paul, the man with the impeccable Jewish pedigree, far advanced beyond many, he tells us, in the knowledge of the law. Yet his hidden identity in Christ is that he is small and humble and we can see him growing into this identity as we read his epistles. Encouragingly for us neither man is transformed overnight through the resurrection encounter; we read in Galatians, for example, that Peter wavers over whether new Christians needed to be circumcised, and Paul can be quite boastful (whilst saying he is not!). So, Jesus’ resurrection puts us in touch with our hidden, true identity, the name by which God calls us and into which we grow as we follow Christ. Some of you may have heard Justin Welby say that revelations about his father don’t affect his sense of who he is – his true identity is as a follower of Jesus Christ.

Another feature of these resurrection appearances is that they happen in surroundings that are very familiar to the disciples. They are familiar and yet different. It’s as though they are seeing them through new eyes.

The disciples had been fishing before, they had been on that lake hundreds of times; doubtless they’d had breakfast on the beach after a night’s fishing numerous times too. But there is now something different about all those familiar things. John’s language conveys a numinous, luminous quality; there is a sense of that newness and freshness that you have as the sun rises on a clear day, but it’s more than that; it’s not just a fresh start to their day, but a fresh start to their lives. More than that; it’s as though everything is being renewed, recreated almost. I like to imagine John the writer of this gospel, reflecting deeply on those encounters between Jesus and his followers before and after the resurrection and noticing how the familiar surroundings looked different. Some of you will know the pull towards holy places like Iona or Holy Island or Taize, and we can all be nourished and inspired by making pilgrimage to such places; and yet for John the resurrection is very much about seeing Jesus, recognizing him, in our current circumstances. The lakeside setting seems beautiful to us, and indeed it is. Let’s not forget, though, that for the disciples it was their workplace and here we see them coming off the night shift, working long hours for very little. Then making the startling discovery that this ordinary place was now a place of rebirth. There is more than a whiff of baptism in John’s narrative with Peter putting on his garment as he jumps into the water – just as those to be baptized would put on a special robe before entering the water. He’s a new creation. Then, having some of the fish they have caught for breakfast – ordinary enough and yet extraordinary because it reminds them of other times of eating with Jesus; perhaps the last supper, or the feeding of the 5,000. Nothing can be the same again. They glimpse that earth itself is full of the divine presence. The presence of the risen Christ enables them to see this.

A renewed sense of our true identity, (that hidden name by which God calls us), a transformation of our familiar circumstances as we recognize Jesus in them, and then, finally, a calling. When Jesus gets Peter to say 3 times that he loves him he is not only undoing the damage of Peter’s 3 fold denial, he is also reminding him of his original call and then updating it. Before he was to be a fisher of people. Now he is to be a shepherd – a familiar term for a leader in Jewish thought. He’s been reinstated and promoted! When Saul is blinded by his encounter with Jesus on the Damascus road, he hears Jesus telling him to go into the city where he will be told what he must do. An encounter with the risen Christ is a call to some sort of action. It will be closely linked with our hidden identity and also, of course, with our circumstances. It will be something that gives us joy, it won’t necessarily be our paid employment, and it will contribute to the flourishing of people and/or the earth.

Recently our newspaper included a short report about 2 young Irish women who had been caught smuggling a very significant quantity of drugs out of Peru. They were both sentenced to prison there. It looks as though one of them is likely to be released fairly soon, a bit sooner than expected perhaps. The reporter seemed to have obtained their information from a Catholic priest and as I read it I heard what you might call a bit of resurrection music which I suspect the reporter didn’t pick up at all. The young woman had learnt Spanish in prison. She spoke of a realization that if the drugs she had been carrying had been dispersed in Europe she would have had blood on her hands. This hadn’t really dawned on her before. She spoke of plans to remain in Peru and work with people affected by Aids. It made me wonder if she had met with the risen Christ.

Today’s readings challenge us to get in touch with that name by which God calls us – why not ask him to reveal that to you? They challenge us to recognize Jesus in the familiar circumstances of our everyday lives. They invite us to hear God’s call on our lives.

 

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Belief & Doubt

easter2-1Last Sunday was Easter, when we emerge from the reflection and mourning of Lent to the celebration of the resurrection. I was down in Cornwall, at the Lookout on the cliffs at Boscastle at 6:30am, which felt like the middle of the night with the clocks having gone forwards. We arrived in complete dark, in a stormy night, and during the ‘dawn service’ we did not see the sun, but the scudding clouds slowly got brighter until, by the end, it was day.

easter2-2[2] The celebration of Easter is of Jesus rising from the dead. Not just a teacher who leaves his teaching, but God’s Son who changes the nature of death for ever, who is raised and gives us eternal life. Our gospel reading today recounts two of Jesus’ resurrection appearances to the disciples, first without, and then with, Thomas.

[3] The post-resurrection sections of the gospels are comparatively short, only twenty verses in Matthew and Mark, and just over fifty in Luke and John, but they are quite similar. They all have the story of the women visiting the tomb, as in these paintings by Fra Angelico. Jesus appearing to two disciples on the road to Emmaus is in Mark and Luke (Caravaggio) [4]. Jesus appears to the disciples, as in today’s reading, in all the gospels, though only John has the story about Thomas. Then just gives his commission to the disciples to go out into the world in Matthew, Mark and Acts, and the Ascension is in Mark, Luke and Acts. John has an additional story about Jesus appearing to the disciples in Galilee (Duccio) [5].

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Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 repeats what many take to be an early creedal statement:

I passed on to you what I received, which is of the greatest importance: that Christ died for our sins, as written in the Scriptures; that he was buried and that he was raised to life three days later, as written in the Scriptures; that he appeared to Peter and then to all twelve apostles. Then he appeared to more than five hundred of his followers at once, most of whom are still alive, although some have died. Then he appeared to James, and afterward to all the apostles.

easter2-6[6] We think of Thomas as ‘Doubting Thomas’, which may be a bit harsh. Mark and Luke both say that the disciples did not believe the women when they came back from the tomb, Mark says they did not believe the two disciples from the road to Emmaus, and Mark recounts Jesus rebuking them when he did appear to them all for their lack of faith. But poor Thomas missed the first appearance to the group, and that story now appears in the Bible.

easter2-7[7] Jesus tells Thomas to stop doubting, and believe, and then he says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” There would have been very few people to whom this would have applied when Jesus said these words, but they do apply to us. Thomas actually had proof in front of him to overcome his doubt. He thought Jesus was dead and gone, defeated, but here was Jesus, gently and patiently allowing him to place his hands on the wounds. Jesus’ reprimand is quite gentle too. Jesus understands doubt, even if he asks Thomas to overcome it. (Caravaggio again.)

Unlike Thomas, we do not have proof. It does not mean that our faith is unreasonable, or blind. There is plenty of good evidence for Christianity, and for the resurrection. Just think of our first reading, from Acts. Peter and the other apostles are pretty convinced about Jesus, despite having seen him die. Just on a human level, their work in establishing the church would be difficult to explain if they did not actually believe in the risen Lord they were proclaiming.

But you cannot control doubt. Telling yourself off or making yourself feel guilty because you do not have 100% certainty about your faith is not going to help. Nor should it; doubt is perfectly natural. Christianity makes claims which make sense of the world, give purpose to our lives, give us individual value, promises us life after death, but we cannot prove it. All Christians wonder sometime or other whether they might be deluding themselves. The church is generally bad at dealing with doubt. It is not mentioned that much, and tends to be denied. After this sermon we will say the Creed together, and there is not much room for debate or questions in the wording. Doubt is a wobble that you have to get over when your faith returns.

While you cannot stop doubting, you can decide what you will do with it. We have to balance doubt with faith, and with the reasons for faith. As I mentioned, there is historical evidence for Christianity. There is far more documentary evidence for Jesus than for many other historical figures we accept without question. There is also the evidence of the work of Christians over millennia. Yes, bad things have been done in the name of faith, but Christians have been at the forefront of establishing health and care systems, working quietly in charitable work all over the world, working for justice and peace.

More personally, I think of people I have known who demonstrate Christ’s love. Some extraordinary people, though not famous, and you will never have heard of many of them, but they have been an example of what faith can produce. There is this community of faith which, through all its imperfections, supports people and reaches out to the community.

We were talking in our homegroup about the cheerful subject of death this week, following John Pritchard’s book Living Faithfully. One of the questions was about whether not having faith, not believing in life after death, would affect us. One person said that, if they lost their faith, they would not want to give up on the church and their friends within it because it was such a wonderful community. I know what they mean. But you can also take that as a pointer to the truth of faith, that it does engender good things.

I also look back on times of worship, times of study, times of prayer when God has been there. On times when I have known his presence, a sense of not being alone that is precious, and the significance of which we can forget. I may be a Doubting Jeremy, but Jesus invites us to believe anyway. [8]

 

Jeremy Thake
St. John and St. Stephens.

 

 

John 20

Jesus Appears to His Disciples

19 On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.

21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

Jesus Appears to Thomas

24 Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”

But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

26 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

29 Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

The Purpose of John’s Gospel

30 Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31 But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

Acts 5

27 They brought the apostles in, made them stand before the Council, and the High Priest questioned them. 28 “We gave you strict orders not to teach in the name of this man,” he said; “but see what you have done! You have spread your teaching all over Jerusalem, and you want to make us responsible for his death!”

29 Peter and the other apostles answered, “We must obey God, not men. 30 The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from death, after you had killed him by nailing him to a cross. 31 God raised him to his right side as Leader and Saviour, to give the people of Israel the opportunity to repent and have their sins forgiven. 32 We are witnesses to these things—we and the Holy Spirit, who is God’s gift to those who obey him.”

RESURRECTION APPEARANCES

Matthew

Women in the garden

Appearance to disciples

Great Commission

Mark

Women in the garden

Road to Emmaus

11 disciples- rebuked for unbelief

Commission

Ascension

Luke

Women at tomb

Road to Emmaus

Disciples

Ascension, also at the start of Acts

John

Women at tomb

Disciples

Disciples + Thomas

Galilee

Reinstatement of Peter

 

1 Corinthians 15

Peter

Disciples

500 brothers

James

All the apostles

series-f

The feasts of John & Stephen

Sermon 27 Dec Feast of John and Stephen
Ex 33.7-11a, Acts 7.51-end, John 21.19b-25

Would have been my favourite aunt’s birthday today. Would buy us Smarties and let us use the red ones as lipstick. Sat me on the kitchen table while cooking, giving me bits of raw pastry to play with and letting me lick out the cake bowl. Auntie Popsy. Known as ‘our’ Pop. In the north east people with whom we have a particular bond are referred to as ‘our’ so and so. So here at church we would call one another our Mac, our Chloe, our Norma, our Sujith, our Antwi etc
Today we remember the 2 saints that our church is dedicated to – John and Stephen. We have a particular bond with them – they are ‘our’ John and ‘our’ Stephen. Rather wonderfully, their special days fall one after the other (26th and 27th) so we can celebrate them together. Immediately after Xmas Day our lectionary turns our attention to these 2 saints. I’d like us to consider why that might be.
In both cases it’s their deaths that are the focus – Stephen’s an actual description; John, an indication that he was very old when he died. Let’s look at our John first as it’s his day today. Our gospel indicates that he lived to a great age, so much so that it was popularly believed he would see X’s second coming. Tradition has it that he was the John described as the beloved disciple in his gospel and that he lived on the island of Patmos with a community of believers. Tradition has it that as he drew towards the end of his life the church elders carried him into church to give his last sermon. He was exceedingly frail but with great effort spoke these last words to his people, ‘Little children, love one another. It is the Lord’s command and it is enough’. He is said to have died soon afterwards.
Now, our Stephen. He would have been much younger when he died. His was a very different kind of death- violent, brutal, sudden. Stephen was a Greek speaking Jew, appointed with others of a similar background when a rift started to appear between the Greek and Hebrew speaking members of the very early church. He was a powerful preacher, was arrested on a what was presumably a charge of blasphemy (a strangely contemporary ring when we hear of what is happening to Christians in countries like Pakistan) and then reading his long speech to the Sanhedrin, it becomes clear that Stephen stood in the long tradition of the prophets – he doesn’t mince his words when talking about the extent to which God’s chosen people have rejected him. He’s particularly scathing about the importance they attach to their temple in Jerusalem. So he is stoned. At his death he repeats Jesus’ words from the cross – ‘Receive my Spirit’ and ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them’.
Two very different saints at very different stages of life. I like to think that our John’s sermon was short not just because his strength was failing, but because he had probably forgotten most of it – perhaps a bit of dementia?! Stephen, so fiery, battering the Sanhedrin with his words and then battered to death by the rocks they hurled at him. John, an elderly pastor, wanting to gather his flock around him, to offer them a good ending. Stephen a young prophet, dying alone, unprotected.
Here we are at Xmas, celebrating a birth, and then the next day we’re asked to look at death. Perhaps this is to alert us to the cost of following Christ? Make the most of Xmas cos suffering is just around the corner?! Rather unlikely – I think the writers of our bible rather took for granted that suffering was an inevitable feature of being human. My own hunch is that it’s for an altogether more hopeful reason.
I had lots of aunts and uncles apart from our Pop who called me and my sister ‘pet’ and ‘our’ Christine. It was the custom in those far off days of my childhood that when aunts and uncles went to the seaside they would return with a stick of rock. Here you are, pet, they would say. What intrigued me about rock was the words – Scarborough rock, Redcar rock – and the way the words went all through the rock. If you broke the rock in the middle the words were there; if you sucked it to the very end they were still there.
It’s the same with our John and our Stephen. The words they say at the end of their lives had been clearly discernible in their speech and behaviour throughout. It’s all of a piece. Consistent. Note Stephen is still referring to his people’s sin, but, like Christ, asking that it might be forgiven; John emphasising again the priority of Christians loving one another. The nature of their deaths are consistent with how they lived, and more importantly, with whom they had particular bond. To both of them Jesus, whose birth we are celebrating, was not just Jesus, but ‘our’ Jesus and their kinship with him is clearly visible, running consistently though their lives like the writing in the rock, right to the very end.
Two very different people with different callings, but with the same writing running through their lives, encouraging us to follow our Jesus, whatever our stage of life.

Christine Bainbridge