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The Power of a Name.

John 17:1-11

 

+ may I speak in the name of the one whose name cannot be contained by words…

Theodoret of Cyrus (Cyrrhus in Syria), The Ecclesiastical History 
Book V, Chapter XXVI: Of Honorius the Emperor and Telemachus the monk. 

“Honorius, who inherited the empire of Europe, put a stop to the gladitorial combats which had long been held at Rome.  The occasion of his doing so arose from the following circumstance.  A certain man of the name of Telemachus had embraced the ascetic life.  He had set out from the East and for this reason had repaired to Rome.  There, when the abominable spectacle was being exhibited, he went himself into the stadium, and stepping down into the arena, endeavoured to stop the men who were wielding their weapons against one another.
“In the Name of Christ Stop!”
The spectators of the slaughter were indignant, and inspired by the triad fury of the demon who delights in those bloody deeds, stoned the peacemaker to death.

When the admirable emperor was informed of this he numbered Telemachus in the number of victorious martyrs, and put an end to that impious spectacle.”

The story of Telemachus reveals how invoking a name, the name, brings about unexpected outcomes… answers to prayer – but not as we imagined… in the name.

And this week we have witnessed a most terrible tragedy in Manchester.

Killing in the name…

Yet also Loving in the name….

And loving too, but not in any name other than basic decent common humanity….

 

What does it mean to act in a name?

Todays reading is a rich and complex passage, which many scholars suggest is written after the event, trying to make sense of the growing and differing theologies of what Jesus was actually all about!

In the account Jesus seems most vulnerable. Just prior to his betrayal and arrest in Gethsemane, the text carries the weight of impending tragedy. Jesus prayer is a beguiling combination of what seems like uncertainty and yet faith at the same time, (and we will return to this…). A tender, fractured prayer is offered, a prayer of love and compassion and hope. Even when everything will soon be taken away; a strange aroma drifts through the text, an aroma—strangely—of hope.

Not a hope in something even, not a hope that something will happen.. but hope of the kind that simply says ‘I must go on’. The kind of hope embodied by patients in hospital, or those going through marriage break-down, or those facing tragic events; the simple, un-heroic, unwelcome, ‘I go to bed, I wake up the next day’, hope.

The sort of thing that 21st century Anglicanism may be all about. Jesus prays for his disciples because he truly cares about them-they have been his life. Before glooming skies, his prayer is earnest; he knows who he is praying about, women, men, probably children too… The prayer emerges from his experience as a human being, it is contextual; small, weak, vulnerable. It is like whenever a parent prays for their child, we know that the prayer is deep and primal.

And how many of us have prayed for children these last few days?

This week we have seen the most vulnerable sections of our society, and sadly in other parts of the world too, deliberately and malicious targeted by the opposite of this love—hated, fear and vengeance. We might well want to ask how Jesus prayer fits with our very real, painfully real, world; what does ‘The Name’ reveal?

We are here today as struggling human beings, trying our best to discover and follow the teachings of Jesus. His words may entice us, infuriate us, inspire and provoke us; but there is something about his vision of a world which manages to yet inspire us; something so alternative to the world we live in. He promotes love and compassion in the face of fear and hatred, he puts people before profit, God before ourselves. Is this what he has given this to his disciples; a way to see the world differently, and the wisdom to make it so, (in the Name of….??)

Jesus, we at are told, speaks of the Name;

“I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word.” Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; […] Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.

“I have made your name known”…

This week we celebrated Ascension – when Jesus and God are united in glory and wonder; the local moment of Jesus walking in a small part of Palestine give way to the Christ who walks among the stars, dances on the edge of the seas of creation, who spans all time, all place. The God of all time and space and people – who cannot be contained by any imagination, religion or Name.

Yet we only recently celebrated Christmas… and the story of the (Kenotic) God who shed the God-clothes in order to embrace and affirm humanity, to participate in human endeavour and human pain.

So we are caught in a tension between the Glory of Ascension and the Dirt of the Incarnation… or is it a tension? Fr.Vincent suggested earlier this week that in the Ascension Jesus took that broken humanity into the Godhead.. that the Godhead was forever changed… now there’s a thought to chew on… the weakness of Christ, the weakness of God….

So what then, is this Name Jesus is referring too?

It won’t surprise you to hear my suspicion of ‘the name’; of words that we give when we try to name God, words which contain, control, build borders and barriers. The name of God is so easily used; sentimentally, glibly, aggressively, and we were reminded this week; dangerously. A bomb to maim and to kill… “ in the Name… ”

Yet, when Jesus spoke his teachings were simple really; love God and love one another…. And maybe by repeating this simple mantra he was trying to connect the two together.. where we might often think they are distinct; God and others… but what if he was saying they are the means by which we discover each of the other? Loving God reveals people, loving people reveals God. Is this the passion of Jesus’ prayer?
So what power, then, is contained in The Name – and is it power at all?

Maybe we should ask God, think back to the first time that God names Godself… in the guise of a burning bush, (of course!), before a startled, wide-eyed Moses….

אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה‎, ehyeh ašer ehyeh, “I am, who I am”

I am, I exist, I am being, I will be.

The Hebrew tradition is informative here. Their understanding is that God cannot—must not—be named… it is why the ‘I am’, according to most scholars then translates into YHVH, the unpronounceable name of God, which was later turned into both Yahweh and Jehovah. But for many Jews the word Adonai, (“the Lord”) or HaShem, (‘the name’) is still used… God cannot be named, wonder cannot be contained.

So can we say therefore that the name of God is no Name at all! It is a state of being instead… not a noun, but a verb..? Recently some writes have begun to suggest how much our faith might change if we think of our word ‘God’ as a verb, not a noun… allow yourself to dwell on that for a moment….

The ‘I am’, being…

The event, not the name,

The impossible, not the visible.

What is a name… what does a name mean, or refer to?… is the name the same as the thing it describe? Does ‘Gary’ encapsulate all that I am… does it tell my story? Does it reveal anything about me? (Apparently Gary’s are a dying breed!)

We all face the same question… who are we under our names? Maybe we feel that our names are wholly inappropriate and do not describe us in any way? Some of us may feel subconsciously constricted by a name; (think of the stereotypes conjured by names).

What then, if we look at God and ‘the name’ of God? What event is harboured by that name? What is hidden in the name ‘God’? Does the name God, fit the one we worship. Does God feel misrepresented by ‘his’ name?

We walk a fuzzy line, maybe. The philosopher John Caputo, speaks of the Name being the harbour to the Event of the possibility of God… this might be worth repeating!

The Name contains the event of God (possibly-but not always), yet sometimes the event of God exists beyond the name.. in people who want nothing to do with religion, yet still see the world in the light of hope and love and compassion.

It is not the name we desire, but the event of love that goes beyond The Name.

What are we to do.. how do we fit this together?… how do we love God and one another in times of terror and fear…. well I hope we can see a few signposts from Telemachus, through today and beyond; the path to love in the name of God is to let go of the name of God and to simply love. To let go of any expectation we may have in that name, and to discover God beyond the name. This is where the connection between uncertainty and faith come together, they hold each other’s hand in a delicate dance.

Jesus asks a lot from us, but that’s exactly why he prays.

Jesus prays… he still prays.. he invites us still to revel in the mystery, the wonderful beautiful magnetic mystery. Jesus is the ultimate deconstructor… the one that still turn ours expectations on their heads, our religions, our ideas, our ambitions. Love God, love one another, he says; still says, find God in the other, find the Other in God…

we learn, we grow, we fail, we lose… we must.

in the end we do not hold the name at all.. we cannot, we dare not,

the name hold us; dazzled, enthralled, amazed;

the name hold us.

series-g

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

 

 

 

 

 

Resurrection JT2

It was late…

Easter 2 – John 20:19-29

It was late that Sunday evening. Two days after Good Friday. If the Friday of the crucifixion was Day 1, Day 2 was Saturday, and this was “on the third day” as we have just said in the creed. Jesus appears to the disciples.

Today is the second Sunday in Easter, and we are celebrating the resurrection of Jesus. Easter is peculiar festival. We have two Bank Holiday days, the same as Christmas, to show its importance. But generally among the people it is a more confused festival. Christmas has fixed traditions: cards, office parties, stockings, presents, turkey dinners, nativity plays and a well known and heart-warming story. Easter is, well, a bit more confused: bunnies, chocolate, daffodils, Spring generally, and a story that, at least to begin with, is rather gruesome. Good news for Christians, probably, but we are not sure why.

Resurrection JT Is the resurrection important? It was certainly important for the early church. In Athens, the crowds thought Paul was preaching about two gods, Jesus and Anastasia – the Greek word for resurrection (Acts 1718). In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul says that if Christ was not raised from the dead, we have nothing to preach, and you have nothing to believe… If Christ has not been raised, then your faith is a delusion and you are still lost in your sins. Last week the choir sang This Joyful Eastertide: Had Christ that once was slain, ne’er burst his three day prison, our faith had been in vain.

Our reading in John has one of Jesus’ post resurrection appearances. There are, of course, others, but while there is a lot in common between the various accounts in the Bible, they are not the same… There are about eight occasions recorded.

Resurrection JT2The first is in the garden by Jesus’ tomb. In John and Matthew Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene; Mark says it was Mary Magdalene and ‘the other Mary’, whereas Luke just has the angels appearing to the women.

Then in Mark and Luke, Jesus appears to two disciples on the road. Luke says it was the road to Emmaus, Mark just says the disciples were ‘on their way to the country’. In Mark, Luke, 1 Corinthians, and here in John, Jesus appears to the disciples together; ‘while they were eating’ says Mark. John, and Paul in Corinthians has a further appearance to the disciples in Jerusalem later. Matthew and John tell of the post-resurrection appearance in Galilee. Paul (1 Corinthians 15) talks of an appearance to more than five hundred, and Acts talks of appearances over 40 days.

Jesus did not walk down the street in Jerusalem; the appearances were all to his followers. So we are relying on reports from believers. But it certainly made a difference to believers: our New Testament reading was from Pentecost in Acts. The disciples were no longer hiding in fear of the Jewish authorities, but here is Peter proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus the Messiah as prophesied by David.

So why is the resurrection important. Clearly, it was out of the ordinary; people do not come back to life. But it is not just a spectacular, inexplicable event, a miracle. It is the significance that matters. Look what Jesus says when he appears to the eleven in the locked room.

After the women had met Jesus in the garden, and the two disciples had met Jesus on the road, the rest of the disciples would have been exited but doubtful, confused, unsure. Then there is Jesus, among them. He says four things to them:

  • Peace be with you
  • As the Father sent me, so I send you
  • Receive the Holy Spirit
  • If you forgive people’s sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.

Peace is what they needed. They had seen their world overthrown. All they had worked for and believed in for the previous few years had been destroyed in Jesus death. Their faith was shaken. Now Jesus reappears and helps them to rebuild those lives.

A large part of that comfort, that peace, is the giving of the Holy Spirit: God-with-them and in them for the work they had to do. And that work was to be sent out on Jesus’ behalf. As Jesus had been sent to a small bit of the Middle East by the Father, to influence maybe thousands of people, the disciples were to be the start of a movement to the whole world, to millions.

Finally, the message is forgiveness. What Jesus achieved was release from sin for all. He had put us right with God and given us a fresh start. We do not know quite how this works – there are lots of theories and metaphors – but the Bible is quite clear that it happened.

Do we need forgiveness? If you are an optimistic humanist, surely you can think that people are basically alright. Perhaps a few people are bad, or maybe disturbed, or with a bad upbringing, but generally we are not all depraved. Well, of course not. We are made in God’s image, and there is a lot of good in the world, and in people. But not enough. You can see in God’s dealings with Israel, from Abraham onwards, him bringing them to understand that their disobedience and selfishness did create a barrier between them and Him.

We also know that it does not take much to destroy a relationship. How many families do you come across who do not talk to each other. Thoughtless actions can be difficult to overcome. Lack of communication leads to drifting apart that can make it very hard to get back together. How much worse is it between us and God. God our creator, our Father and Mother, who never gives up on us, but who is always good and pure and true, and cannot tolerate selfishness, and evil, and indifference.

And somehow, Jesus has bridged that barrier. We are forgiven. We receive peace, and the Spirit. We can approach God as if nothing had happened, and know that we will be welcome. It is pretty amazing, and good for an Easter Celebration. This is why Good Friday is good.

One thing in this reading puzzled me as I was preparing this. The language Jesus uses is a bit perplexing. He says to the disciples that they can forgive people’s sins, or not forgive them. The first bit is OK, but when would they ever refuse forgiveness? It sounds a bit as if Jesus is delegating authority to the disciples, and saying God will go along with whatever they decide. This surely cannot be true. We, all Christians, are frail humans, and we sometimes get things wrong, sometimes right. It is surely not possible that, if we (even if ‘we’ was just the apostles, or their successors), through misunderstanding, or dislike, condemn someone wrongly, that God would feel bound to do the same.

It is an exercise in interpretation: what do you do with a passage you do not seem to agree with? I do want to take the Bible seriously, inspired by God, as the church has understood it through its history. So I have been asking people about John 2023 over the last week or so, and reading around it a bit.

It is a general principle that we take the Bible as a whole, and a difficult passage has to be taken in the overall context of others. The general theme of God giving forgiveness to those who ask him for it is so embedded in Scripture it is not disturbed by this.

This saying by Jesus does sound like some others where he commissions the disciples, notably Matthew 1818, where Jesus says whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose in earth will be loosed in heaven, which sounds similarly improbable. But binding and loosing were technical terms in Judaism which would have been understood by the disciples, and mean forbidding or permitting. It is more about the application of God’s will than dictating it. In English, judges bind people over to keep the peace, applying the laws of the country. Jesus statement about not forgiving seems to be a similar sort of binding, forbidding people to carry on as if there were no consequences to their actions. But the disciples also forgive, loosing, declaring that God does and will wipe away sins as if they had not happened. Jesus is passing on his commission from God to the disciples, to make Gods will known.

The passage finishes with Doubting Thomas. The resurrection was hard to believe, and he did not believe it, even when all his friends told him it was true. But forgiveness was for him too, and Jesus appears a second time, when he is there, and helps him to see the truth. There is room even for doubt on the way to faith. Jesus says again, Peace be with you.

Jeremy Thake

St. John and St. Stephens.

 

Post- Resurrection Appearances

  • Matthew 28: Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary”, then disciples in Galilee
  • Mark 16 (later addition): Mary Magdalene, two disciples “on their way to the country”, 11 disciples while they were eating
  • Luke 24: two disciples on road to Emmaus (one was Cleopas), 11 disciples together
  • John 20-21: only to Mary Magdalene outside the tomb, then to the disciples in the locked room, then in Galilee
  • Acts 1: over 40 days, Ascension
  • 1 Corinthians 15: Peter, the 12, 500, James, all the apostles, Paul
  • Garden
  • Road to Emmaus
  • Peter/Cephas
  • Locked room
  • James
  • A week later
  • Over 40 days
  • 500
  • Galilee
  • Paul

John 2019-25

Jesus Appears to His Disciples

19 It was late that Sunday evening, and the disciples were gathered together behind locked doors, because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities. Then Jesus came and stood among them. “Peace be with you,” he said. 20 After saying this, he showed them his hands and his side. The disciples were filled with joy at seeing the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I send you.” 22 Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive people’s sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

Jesus and Thomas

24 One of the twelve disciples, Thomas (called the Twin), was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”

Thomas said to them, “Unless I see the scars of the nails in his hands and put my finger on those scars and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

26 A week later the disciples were together again indoors, and Thomas was with them. The doors were locked, but Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and look at my hands; then reach out your hand and put it in my side. Stop your doubting, and believe!”

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

29 Jesus said to him, “Do you believe because you see me? How happy are those who believe without seeing me!”

Acts 214a, 22-32

Peter’s Message

14 Then Peter stood up with the other eleven apostles and in a loud voice began to speak to the crowd:

22 “Listen to these words, fellow Israelites! Jesus of Nazareth was a man whose divine authority was clearly proven to you by all the miracles and wonders which God performed through him. You yourselves know this, for it happened here among you. 23 In accordance with his own plan God had already decided that Jesus would be handed over to you; and you killed him by letting sinful men crucify him. 24 But God raised him from death, setting him free from its power, because it was impossible that death should hold him prisoner. 25 For David said about him,

‘I saw the Lord before me at all times;

he is near me, and I will not be troubled.

26 And so I am filled with gladness,

and my words are full of joy.

And I, mortal though I am,

will rest assured in hope,

27 because you will not abandon me in the world of the dead;

you will not allow your faithful servant to rot in the grave.

28 You have shown me the paths that lead to life,

and your presence will fill me with joy.’

29 “My friends, I must speak to you plainly about our famous ancestor King David. He died and was buried, and his grave is here with us to this very day. 30 He was a prophet, and he knew what God had promised him: God had made a vow that he would make one of David’s descendants a king, just as David was. 31 David saw what God was going to do in the future, and so he spoke about the resurrection of the Messiah when he said,

‘He was not abandoned in the world of the dead;

his body did not rot in the grave.’

32 God has raised this very Jesus from death, and we are all witnesses to this fact.

OneBornEveryMinute

One Born Every Minute

Lent 2 – John 31-17

 

Today’s gospel reading is one of the best known passages in the Bible, which presents a challenge for talking about it. But it is well know because it has so much in it, and is so significant.

This is early on in John’s gospel. We have had Jesus’ baptism, the calling of the disciples, the wedding at Cana, and Jesus clearing the temple. But John is probably more interested in the meaning of the events rather than the correct order, and this passage sets out Jesus’ message.

Nicodemus is a Pharisee. They were pious Jews, not necessarily the official leaders, but an influential religious movement that had been around for ~150 years, with about 6,000 members throughout Palestine. (The population was only a million or so.) The name ‘Pharisees’ means ‘separated ones’, and their belief could be summed up in saying that God’s grace only extended to those who kept the law. They tended to be quite certain about the truth, which often brought them into conflict with Jesus later.

Yet something in Jesus’ had attracted Nicodemus. He came at night, which might mean he did not want to be seen, but might just be because he wanted time to talk to Jesus without the crowds around.

Nicodemus starts by complimenting Jesus and saying that he recognises that he comes from God, but he has barely got started before Jesus lobs a googly at him. “I am telling you the truth: no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born again.” Which is not quite the obvious reply. But it does make Nicodemus think. Born again, or born from above, the Greek can mean either.

Nicodemus stalls by saying, obviously, that going back to being a baby is not possible. No, says Jesus, the kingdom of God is spiritual. It involves being touched by the Spirit. The Spirit gives birth to the spirit.

How? asks Nicodemus. Again, Jesus does not really answer the question, but turns it around to make another point. He has a little dig at Nicodemus who, as a teacher of the Law, does not know something so basic, but goes on to say that he, Jesus, the Son of Man, knows because he has come from heaven.

It is a comprehensive statement of Jesus theology in a few very short sentences. For God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not die but have eternal life. We know this verse so well, but it is striking. It always makes me think of the music from Stainer’s Crufixion, which is quite a good way of remembering verses.

Jesus looks forward to his crucifixion, in verse 14: As Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the desert, in the same way the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.

And then he points to the love of God, contrasting it with what Nicodemus might have expected, his judgement: For God did not send his Son into the world to be its judge, but to be its saviour.

As I said, this comes early in this gospel, and allows John to set down Jesus’ purpose. How he is seeking to bring people in to the Kingdom of God, how this is the work of the Spirit, how it will be made possible by Jesus death, and how it is God the Father’s love that is behind all. So we have this very rich passage of Gods promises and purpose.

Nicodemus’ background was one of obedience to laws, earning your place with God. Jesus says that it is not your actions that let you see God, but the Spirit working within your spirit. We still tend towards thinking we earn God’s love. It is part of the human condition that people’s response to us tends to be based on how we are to them. To an extent, we earn love. It is refreshing and life changing when people love us anyway. When parents keep loving difficult children through hard times. When partners give forgiveness. When strangers show love. These are illustrations of God’s way. Love that continually welcomes us back, never gives up. It is not judgement of what we do wrong, but acceptance of us as His children. It is demonstrated supremely in God’s sending of Jesus into the world for us, so that everyone who believes in him will be saved.

One Born Every Minute is not a title I chose. It initially seemed unhelpful, as it is usually used to imply stupidly: there’s one born every minute. Taken literally, in terms of the number of people converting to Christianity in the world, it is a massive underestimation. One a minute is about half a million a year, and it is estimated that about 5 times that, 2.7 million people, are converting to Christianity per year worldwide, not including population growth among Christian communities. God’s love for the world is still reaching people.

There is a link to what Jesus says here in our Old Testament reading. It is God’s promise to Abram when he calls him to leave his home. Through you I will bless all nations. Years ago I read a book by Stuart Blanch, who was the archbishop of York at the time. It was about the Old Testament, started in Ecclesiastes and ended in Genesis, which was delightfully perverse, but it was a very good introduction. The title of the book was from this verse, in a different translation: the blessing to Abraham would be For All Mankind.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

 

Jeremy Thake

St. John and St. Stephens.

 

 

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Candlemass 101 – No/thing is Ordinary

1 Kings 17:8-16     John 2:1-11

 

There’s something so powerful about light isn’t there…?

There is an Advent tradition in the Collins household of daily family reflections. We would light a candle for each child saying “the light of G-d coming into the world”, eating a little chocolate, and telling a story, or part of the nativity, and saying a blessing.

It’s a lovely thing which captured the children’s imagination when they were very young. A moment of quiet, reflection and ’otherness’ (only a moment – they were young children, and there could be arguments).

But on the last day of Advent, Christmas Eve the children would be sent out of the room, and Rachel and I would fill the table with candles, line the windows, cover the tables with all sorts of candles.. the room would be filled with light.

As the children return – and of course this is really magical when they are only just beginning to understand this – the single candles, “the light of G-d coming into the world”, had been transformed into something like this!

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The sense of wonder, awe and beauty is a thing to behold… the light overwhelmed us, disorientated us, and surprised us.

Next week in our Family Service we will celebrate Candlemass, a celebration of light; to remember the presentation of Jesus at the Temple following his birth, and the responses of Anna and Simeon.

Candlemass has been observed by the Church as far back as the fourth century, so it is a deep and rich part of the Church calendar. It also represents a turning point in the calendar, when our focus shifts from Christmas … and towards the Season of Lent, and the Passion of Easter. The pagan celebration of Imbolc, rhymes with us – the turn from winters bleak chill to the first anticipation of spring.

Traditionally, worshipers would bring new candles into Church to be blessed and used in the homes; a light from God illuminating our homes and lives. All kinds of superstitions have arisen about this… (don’t spill the wax!). Once again light becomes the powerful metaphor for hope entering a chaotic and unpredictable world.

And maybe in our chaotic times.. where hate-speech seems to have a presidential seal of approval, where the church has once again put its head in the sand over sexuality and gender, and where the other and the different are regarded with increasing prejudice, then maybe the simple symbol of lighting a candle; refusing to follow the dark agenda of fear, reminds us of the arduous task of resistance, imagination and the surprise of love.

I say surprise deliberately…. because within this special moment in the Temple I want to suggest a profound question is presented to us. It may be an obvious question, (or not?) A question which asks…

 ‘what are we looking for when we look for God?’

But first a little history;

According to Jewish custom, the firstborn child belonged to God, and so at an appointed time – 40 days after the birth – the child must be taken to the temple to be blessed, a sacrifice would be offered, (which would essentially ‘buy back’ the child), and at the same time the Mother would be purified.

Despite the rather unconventional conception and birth, Mary and Joseph, were observant and faithful Jews, so it made perfect sense for them to follow this custom. And they did.

Indeed, they may have wondered if the oddities of Mary’s birth story were fading into memory? With vivid dreams; angelic visitations; last-minute travels; magical stars; shoddy hotel bookings and hordes of shepherds wandering in and out … maybe all that strange stuff was behind them?

Well, not quite! Yet another surprise was awaiting them, another strange chapter in this bizarre birth narrative. We will hear the story next week that as Mary & Joseph enter the Temple they are met by two older people Anna, and Simeon. (and things are going to get weird again…)

Simeon and Anna are part of that long tradition within Judaism that had the intuition of a ‘bigger plan’ from God. An audacious whisper of hope that God would send an ‘anointed one’ to redeem God’s people. The prayers of Anna and Simeon joined with the subconscious prayers of all Israel, ‘How long Adonai, how long?’

They have both devoted their lives to serving in the Temple, Anna had remained in the Temple for decades) and prayed ceaselessly for the coming Messiah – the chosen one. They were looking for a light to come, a sign.. but had no idea what that would look like.

Waiting, watching, waiting, listening, waiting, hoping, waiting….

 

But what were they waiting for? Who was the redeemer to be? Who were they anticipating?

Certainly the messiah image in many people’s minds would point to God triumphant, worshipped by all, established in the Temple so that all the nations could see. Their God – ‘the one God’ – governed the universe; the God of Glory.

Yet when an ordinary couple enter the temple with their child, (as many couples would we imagine), something clicks. Something is different. Anna and Simeon see something – they make a connection.

In hindsight – as ever – there might be hints…. ‘See the young woman is with child’, told Isaiah; not, (as we often assume), a reference to Jesus, but a simple, hopeful affirmation of the blessing of God in the continuation of life. Glimmers of hope peeking through the ordinary things.

But surely God would redeem God’s people in triumph? A King maybe, in the line of David? Or some cosmic vision, or a climactic wrapping up of history, a final vindication for these oppressed people of God?

Whatever Simeon and Anna might have themselves imagined, we can ask ourselves – would it have been this? An ordinary looking couple, with an ordinary looking child?

What was it that gave them the vision to see something different here? What could they see that so many had not seen? What had inspired them to look into the ordinary and to see the heavenly?

When we celebrate Candlemass next week, we will recall this beautiful encounter; with its evocation of Expectation, Devotion, and Hope …

But what other words could we add? Maybe ‘Surprise’, ‘Questioning’, , ‘Incredulity’ ‘Shock’, ‘Disappointment’ ‘Consolation’, ‘Peace’, ‘Improvisation’ ‘Discernment’?

Simeon and Anna had the vision to see something beyond their own expectations, they looked for God, they waited for God, they hoped for God… but in the final act of their drama – they discovered God in the most unlikely of places.

They could be at peace, they could know consolation, they could anticipate that hope was being fulfilled….

Not fulfilled full stop, but instead being fulfilled… a process was only just beginning to work out. Rather like our own lives – never settled, always evolving, a story being told and discovered.

They recognised that the long-awaited redemption was somehow embodied in this baby, it would not be an instant vanquishing act. No this was something different.

It would take time, it would take care – and nurture…

And when we begin to understand that love, and humanity, and hope, and the divine collide together in bodies – just like our bodies – then pain would inevitably be part of that redemption picture;

Simeon understood that whatever might happen next, this drama would contain sorrow, loss and grief. Mary, as with any devoted parent, would not see this story fulfilled without a piercing to her heart. (Such vivid words which leap from the text into the various sorrows of our own lives).

So, in a series named ‘21st century Anglican’ we have to ask, what does this story suggest today?

What was it that Anna and Simeon could see/ And what is it we are invited to see? Some 2000 years on this dramatic scene still asks us questions… maybe the most simple and profound questions of all…

‘what are we looking for when we look for God?’

Are we limited by our own imagination – our expectations? Does God have the space to surprise, or is God constrained by what we want? What is happening in America right now and the imposition of the religious right?

‘what are we looking for when we look for God?’

Is it inside the Church? In our songs, worship, hospitality, and Eucharist? In the Sermon, bible study and prayer?

Maybe….

Or is the kingdom in the more ‘Ordinary?’ At the bus stop, or in the checkout queue at Morrisons? In geriatric wards, or in our schools and friends, or prisons, or in the smiles of our own loved ones…

Maybe….

Maybe throughout the world whenever anyone stands against injustice? Where the poor are lifted up, and the hungry filled with good things? When communities come together, when the homeless are sheltered, when love is fostered…

Maybe…

In nature, diversity and wildlife? On mountaintop awe, the hollowing absence of a desert, or the unique rhythms of waves on a seashore.

Maybe…

In art, music, in food and drink, in the fabric of life? In the substance of paint on canvas, lines of poetry on a page, in the melodies of music in our ears.

Maybe.

Or in the vocabulary of doubt, absence & silence; in the spaces beyond knowing or understanding, in the un-containability, in darkness and disorientation.

Maybe.

In the surprise of water turning into wine, or the provision of flour – and life – to an exasperated and desperate widow, (who I notice clearly hadn’t received the memo from God!)

Maybe.

What are the limits to where God might be found, who of us can contain the Spirit of God’s life – surprising and disappointing, cajoling and inspiring?

Where do you look for God, Where do you discover God, are they the same?

That seems to be the subtle challenge of this story, the task that is given to us; to see God in the ‘ordinariness’ of our own lives; and to finally understand that, with eyes and ears and hearts that see the Spirit of God moving, there is never really anything that is ‘just ordinary’.

Maybe God is turning up all the time; in the event of love, compassion and mercy; in the sacrament of body and blood. [1]

The Spirit revealing over and over again, that the real ‘Glory’ we speak of is not grandeur and power, but is weakness and mystery; that Christ enters our lives and drama, (as with Simeon and Anna)… in vulnerability, hope, and wide-eyed, child-like wonder.

Candlemass reminds us that Christ never arrives as we expect. We cannot ‘know’, cannot apprehend, cannot contain. We can only delight in the glow of this light; which arrives within the veil of mystery, yet clothed in flesh.

This light, entering the fabric of our lives – reveals heaven in the ordinary, and transforms the mundane into something beautiful.

Amen.

 

 

GS Collins

29 Jan 2017

[1] Chauvet, Louis-Marie, Sacraments: The Word of God at the Mercy of the Body. (Pueblo Books, 2001)

 

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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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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

All-in-one-Christmas – Sermon given by Richard Croft on 3rd January 2016

St Johns and St Stephens Church, Reading, 3rd January 2016
All-in-one Christmas, Epiphany and New Year
Jeremiah 31:7-14, John 1:1-18

There has been a bit of liturgical confusion about today. I’m almost certain that statement has got everyone’s pulses racing, so let me explain. The liturgical rota gives today as Epiphany, but it’s not – that’s on January 6th. It’s actually the second Sunday of Christmas. Great stuff, eh? But let’s pull 3 things together here: Christmas, Epiphany, and the New Year and see where we get to. The thing about having an annual cycle of readings, liturgy and prayers – Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost, Trinity, Creation and Kingdom is that it spreads the story of our faith across the whole year and then repeats it. The story at the heart of our Christian community is so big that you really can’t do it justice in one go.

We, as Christians, are people of a particular story. Our faith isn’t a set of principles or rules: do this, don’t do that and so on although there are principles. No, that’s not the heart of it. We don’t dress differently or look different. We aren’t immune from pain, suffering or disappointment. No, what we have, like treasure, like pure gold, like a pearl of great price, like shining light, like music, is what we heard in our gospel reading this morning, so familiar we may not even have heard it properly: ‘In him was life, and that life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it…..And the Word became flesh and lived among us and we have seen his glory…from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace’ (Jn 1:4,5,14,16).

Does that touch you? Does that move you? There is the Christmas message, the reality of the baby in the manger as seen by John as he tried to make sense of three years of sharing his life with Jesus bar Joseph, called the Christ. But what touches me even more, are the opening words of the first letter of John. We don’t read that much but get a load of this: ‘We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us— we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.’ (1 Jn 1:1-5) Don’t you love it? John saw, heard, touched – Him; and had an epiphany, a light bulb moment, that this man whom he followed and came to love, was Himself the word of life, the eternal Son of God.

The Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon is reputed to have said that the first thing you need after hearing the gospel, is oxygen. He was right! This gospel that we hold, that we share between us, that has been given freely and without condition is one of astounding generosity, of amazing grace, of deepest love. It is not some harsh, punitive, judgmental, shouty diktat thrown down from heaven for us to get on with do the best we can. No, it is a life that is given us, God revealed in a single human life of extraordinary dimensions. A life that at every step showed what God is really like. A life that accepted the weak and sinful, that healed the sick, that welcomed the wayward, that made whole the broken, that embraced the repellent; that also was no stranger to injustice, pain, and suffering but yet had a power that could vanquish even that final enemy, death. That is our faith, that is what sets us apart: we affirm the truth of it, we hold it, we celebrate it, we set it as the gem on the ring on our finger.

It changes everything and it touches everything. We are not alone. That life, lived out on earth is our inspiration and our hope. At the beginning of 2016, we are very aware of fear and danger in the world. Actually, that has always been the case but it does seem quite acute at the moment with millions of refugees pouring across international borders, international terrorism and the awful threat of climate disaster. It is very easy to get dragged down, to lose hope. Let’s not! The people of the Central Africa Republic have been going through appalling trauma in the last couple of years as the Christian and Muslim communities have been tearing each other apart. In October Pope Francis insisted on visiting the war-torn country, telling his minders that if they didn’t let him go he would open the door of the aircraft and jump out! He did go, visiting mosques and churches and giving a message of reconciliation and hope. What a fantastic, brave act! Francis was drawing richly on his Christian heritage, on this reality we share with him and found hope, found inspiration to go and do something extraordinary. Perhaps we could find the same thing?

Moving from the global to the personal, many of us are facing our own difficulties – they might be to do with work or lack of work, with relationships, with children or elderly parents, with illness, with loss of our faculties, with depression, with bereavement or any number of things. They can crowd our lives and drag us down and can lead us to unwise words, actions or decisions. I’m not foolish enough to say, ‘Believe in Jesus and it’ll all work out fine’ because while it may work out that way, it may equally well not, either. No, but what I am saying is that here is something that gives us hope. We come together every week to remember, celebrate and enter into the reality that is Christ, Christ present here between us and in us, present in the words of scripture, present in the prayers, present in the bread and wine, present in a reality that reaches right to our hearts. When we can’t do it ourselves, we reach out to our sisters and brothers and ask for their help, to pray and stand alongside.

It is very good to remind ourselves of all of this as we stand at the beginning of another year, not-quite-Christmas and not-quite-Epiphany. Do you know what Epiphany is? It’s the festival on the 12th day of Christmas, January 6th and it honours the moment when the three kings brought their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the baby Jesus and we hold it as the celebration of the revealing of Jesus to the Gentiles, to non-Jews. It’s also known as the season of light, for this story we hold is like a light, it shines out in darkness. And epiphanies are moments when something suddenly becomes crystal clear to us, when it jumps through our minds and lands in our hearts. Let this Christmas truth, the giving of Christ to humanity – that is, to us – fall into our hearts, fill us with joy and hope and give us strength for whatever the new year brings.

Richard Croft