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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

Sermon given on 23rd August 2015 by Christine Bainbridge

Sermon 23 Aug 2015
Joshua 24. 1-2a, 14-18, John 6.56-59

Choices
A book I used to love reading to my children and now also enjoy reading to my grandchildren is ‘Would you rather?’ by John Burningham. In it he faces us with impossible choices. ‘Would you rather be made to eat spider stew, slug dumplings, mashed worms or drink snail squash? Or perhaps, even worse, ‘Would you rather jump in the nettles for £5, swallow a dead frog for £10 or stay all night in a creepy house for £50?….?’ The book closes with a lovely get out clause – ‘..or would you rather just go to sleep in your own bed?’

Our bible readings today are about choices. Having finally reached the Promised Land under Joshua’s leadership the people of Israel are faced with choices about how they will lead their lives there. How far will they adapt to the customs of the Hittites, Jebusites, Girgashites and all those other tribes – people living a settled, agricultural life rather than the nomadic path they have been following for the past 40 years? This big question surfaces again and again in the Old Testament – how do we live as God’s people here (wherever that is – Egypt, Babylon, Canaan)? If we adapt, settle, and learn the way of life in this new country will we still be faithful to all we have experienced and learned about God during our wanderings in the wilderness? If you have come to live in the UK from another part of the world you will be familiar with this kind of dilemma. What do I hold on to? What do I leave behind?

Choices
In our gospel reading Jesus’ 12 disciples find themselves faced with a choice – do they continue following him or not? Others have already left, having found some of his teaching just too difficult. So he asks them, ‘Do you want to leave?’ How will they respond?

The choices can seem very stark – either you do this, or you do that. More often, perhaps, they are nuanced – it’s not really clear which path to follow. Whatever they are there comes a point when we have to make a choice. We may wish that someone would say to us as to the child at the end of the story – or would rather just go to sleep in your own bed?! But ignoring the choice is in itself a choice. We can’t escape.

There are probably as many ways of making a choice as there are human beings, but I want to suggest that the key element in the choices we make is in what could be called our inner compass.

During their time in the desert the Israelites inner compass changed from that of slaves to that of a people who had entered a covenant with God. They were no longer defined by the Egyptians, but by God himself as his chosen people. The 12 disciples were likewise experiencing a change in identity from fishermen, tax collectors etc to that of Jesus’ closest friends. Their inner compass, like that of those ancestors of theirs, was changing. They were hearing things, seeing things, as they followed Jesus that were reorienting their lives. What they most wanted in life was changing. So the choices they made were changing too.

We’re in that situation too. As we follow Christ we are committing ourselves to a process of change and growth. Inevitably we are faced with choices.

I invite people to think of any choices facing them at present and then share with a neighbour.

Our inner compass colours how we see these choices and then how we respond. Richard was encouraging us last week to trust – that message from Brother Roger of Taize – and we can trust the growth of our inner compass to God; it’s in his hands. As we do so he offers many promptings on ways in which we might help it become ever more attuned to him. For me promptings sometimes come in the form of stories. I want to tell you a story which was a recent prompting to me about how to nourish my inner compass. This is a story from the American Indians. It was told to me as a story from the Cherokees. It’s probably well known, but I hadn’t heard it before. A young Cherokee was receiving wisdom from one of the older men in the tribe; ‘Listen, son, there are 2 wolves fighting inside each of us. One is bent on devouring us – taking away whatever gives joy and purpose to our lives; sometimes this wolf comes as anger or self pity or fear, or greed, tearing away at our hearts. The other wolf wants us to flourish, to dwell at one with ourselves and with this land; this wolf comes as thankfulness, wonder, courage, trust, bringing ease to our hearts and minds. The 2 wolves are constantly at war with each other’. The young Cherokee looked worried. ‘Which one will win?’ He asked. The older man looked at him thoughtfully, ‘The one you feed’, he replied.

Casting your mind back to the choice you were just considering, which wolves might be around for you? Which one do you find yourself feeding?

It’s no coincidence that the gospel readings over the past few weeks have all been about food – feeding 5,000, Jesus as the Bread of Life, eating Christ’s body and drinking his blood. The old proverb ‘you are what you eat’ is largely true. Our sacraments, especially the Eucharist, as Richard Harwood pointed out the week before last are there to nourish our good wolf. Christ’s words – our scriptures – also feed the good wolf; as Peter says to Jesus in our gospel to day when faced with the option of leaving Jesus, ‘To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life’.

Let’s be hungry for our scriptures and our Holy Communion (Eucharist) so that when we face those choices, ‘would you rather…?’ we respond from an inner compass that is being shaped by a living faith.

Christine Bainbridge

Heartfelt Trust – sermon given by Richard Croft on Sunday 12th July 2015

St Johns and St Stephens Church, Reading, 12th July 2015, Trinity 11

Proverbs 9:1-6, John 6:51-58

‘Heartfelt trust’

 

Many of you know that a couple of weeks ago a small group from St John’s, and some friends, spent a week at the community of Taizé in France. It was the 6th visit we have made. It was, as always, a wonderful experience of prayer, of community, and of joy. It so happens that today, August 16th, is a very significant day for the community, for on this day, exactly 10 years ago, the founder and Prior of Taizé, Brother Roger, died. He was killed during evening prayer by a mad person. He was 90 years old. The 10th anniversary of his death coincides with the 100th anniversary of his birth, and the 75th anniversary of the founding of the community in 1940, during the 2nd WW. There are many thousands of people from all over the world at Taizé right now to give thanks for his life, and ro remember him.

 

I never met Brother Roger but his influence is felt very strongly in the community. During our stay, every morning, we older adults met for an address given by a French-Canadian brother, Émile. Each address was based on one word which Brother Roger used frequently. One of the words was ‘trust’ and it was that which spoke to me most powerfully. I am therefore, quite unashamedly, going to try and use that talk as the basis for my sermon this morning, giving full credit to Brother Émile, and to Brother Roger himself. I ran it past Vicki and Alison – they heard Émile too – and I am grateful for their comments and support.

 

By pure chance, I picked up this headline in The Times of Friday 14th August: ‘Britain grows into a land of distrust and suspicion’ Nearly half the British population distrust the people around them and think that ‘you can’t be too careful when dealing with people’….about 1/3 of Britons were also skeptical of people’s kindness, saying that given the chance they would try to take advantage of them most of the time’.

 

Let’s see if we can hear Brother Roger on the topic: https://vimeo.com/25553854

 

What I would like to do this morning is present ‘trust’ to you as a core Christian virtue, one that would make a difference to our life of faith and of human relationships – communion. Trust. Heartfelt trust, to use Roger’s words. In French, ‘la confiance du coeur’. Another word quite close to trust is ‘hope’. Roger often used the word ‘trust’ as if it meant ‘hope’, and we often speak of our Christian hope of, for example, the resurrection. But there’s a difference between those two words: Hope is perhaps less concrete, it’s more difficult to base your life on, hope can sometimes mean wishful thinking: ‘I hope the sun shines tomorrow’. Trust, on the other hand means more like there is something real, something solid to it. It’s a good word. We can contrast it as well with the word ‘faith’ which can feel like something we possess – or not – or as the opposite of reason, which never goes well. But trust – trust is simply something we do. It is an attitude of openness, of willingness to receive, and to act. It’s not the same as naivety.

 

Suspicion, which is the opposite of trust, does not nourish or fulfill; it does the opposite, it stultifies, paralyses us, it cuts us off from other people and ultimately from God. In the short video we saw, Roger spoke about a lack of trust, suspicion, providing an alibi for not doing anything: if we don’t trust anything or anyone, if we believe everything is corrupt and without value, then we have the perfect excuse, or alibi, to do nothing at all. But to trust, to trust another person, to trust God with my life, is to reach outwards and upwards, beyond ourselves and our fears and suspicions. You can tell how precious and important trust is by considering what happens when it is broken.

 

Trust is what helps us to sleep at night, but also what gets us up in the morning. We hand over what is beyond us since we know that we are not in control. Often, what makes us anxious is the fear and suspicion that makes us try to control everything, which is impossible. Trust is life-giving – to hand over our concerns gives life and is a gift of life. We can do this because fundamentally, what we, as Christians say about God is this: he can be trusted. His trustworthiness, his faithfulness, runs through the whole of creation and through the stuff of our lives like a seam of gold. We are invited to enter that trust, to live it. We are called to dare to trust. Yesterday evening I watched, again, the French film, ‘Of Gods and men’. It’s a beautiful, moving, true story of a small religious community who lived peacefully in the Atlas mountains of Algeria. In the 1990s there was an violent Islamist uprising. The film shows the brothers’ struggle to reject fear and to embrace trust – in which struggle they succeeded.

 

To trust means you see there are possibilities for change. If we are told, ‘you can’t change anything’, then our margins of freedom are reduced. Trust breaks through that. The Danish philosopher Kierkegaard used this parable. What do you do when someone is choking? You give them air. What do you do when someone is choking of despair? You offer them possibilities. Roger wanted Taizé to be a place where people would realize that is possible. Through the worship and prayer, people would deepen their trust in God, their love of Him; and through community, the experience of meeting and living with people from other countries and different Christian traditions, trust in one another would be strengthened and deepened. And it works! It works here too at church as we express our trust in God in worship and prayer, and as we spend time with each other in trusting relationships, as we really do, we exercise our trust. It’s as if every Sunday we get to experience, and to practice trust, to get another dose of it.

 

As Christians, as the church, we are of course part of the human family. We are not just a little sect, unconnected with the rest, doing our own little rituals on a Sunday and enjoying cosy relationships. We are here, is Jesus told us, as salt. We are not here just to serve ourselves or the institution of the church, but to serve the human family. Salt makes things different, but only when it is mixed in with them. Our faith, our trust in God is not just a private reality but we take what we know, what we practice on a Sunday, and offer it to those around us. I wonder how that plays out, what it looks like? In a world where so many are cynical, suspicious and pessimistic, what does it mean to be different? To not conform? Paul tells us, ‘Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind’ (Rom 12:2) I think again of the brothers in the tiny monastery in Algeria who chose to reject violence and hatred, and instead trust­ – wherever that would lead. It was a radically counter-cultural thing to do. What would that mean for you and me? What decisions are you facing now, what new possibilities exist that with a trusting heart you could reach out and embrace in trust, in hope, in faith, leaving behind doubt, and cynicism, suspicion and fear?

 

Speaking personally, this message directly touched me as I went to prayer later on that day and felt able to trust God for the future direction of my life. I have shared that with some of you. I can only say that I felt liberated.

 

As Christians, if all we do is carp and criticize, we are conforming! Trust is non-conformist and counter-cultural. How has it felt when someone has trusted you? Our institutions which surround us – government, NHS, workplaces, schools, churches even, are very fragile, they can easily lose their sense of service. Our trust, our hope and faith that things can be better can change that.

 

I hope this hasn’t been too much of a ramble and that you have been able to catch some of the sense of simple joy in trust, that you have heard Roger of Taizé speak. There was a new song we learned at Taizé, I’m afraid I’m not going to sing it, but here are the words in English (the song is in French). It is a prayer of Roger: ‘Happy are those who abandon themselves to you with a trusting heart. You keep them in your joy, simplicity and mercy’ (Heureux qui s’abandonne à toi, ô Dieu, dans la confiance du coeur. Tu nous gardes dans la joie, la simplicité, la miséricorde)

 

What would happen of the decisions I make were not based on suspicion, but on trust?

 

Richard Croft

With thanks to Brother Émile of Taizé, Brother Roger, Vicki Jones and Alison Peyton

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Trinity Sunday 31st May 2015

Trinity Sunday – John 31-7

Morning Communion, Trinity, 31st May 2015

Who do you pray to?  Do you pray to the Father, as Jesus did?  Or do you pray directly to Jesus?  Or sometimes one, sometimes the other?  And do you pray to the Spirit?  I suspect that, like me, you may not always be sure.  Sometimes you know who you are praying to, sometimes it does not seem to matter.  There is a bit of a tradition in the church that, because the Holy Spirit’s role is to glorify Jesus and the Father, not himself (from John 1613-14, among other places), you do not normally direct prayer to Him, but it is clearly not a strict rule.  Does it matter who you pray too?  After all, they are all God…

Well, that is the nub of the matter.  They are all God.  But making sense of that is another matter.  Three in One.  It is a bit like this diagram, where there is only one Dr. Who, but three people who are Dr. Who.  But in this case the identity is sequential – who was, and is and is to come – which is not really like the Father, Son and Spirit at all.

Today is Trinity Sunday.  This is the beginning of the rest of the year as far as liturgical time goes, up until Advent, with 24 Sundays in Trinity (though we now take up a few of them at the end with Creation Time has crept in recently).  But on Trinity Sunday we think about the Trinity, which is not easy.

There is a rather more famous version of the previous triangle regarding the Trinity.  This is exactly the same in form as the Dr. Who diagram, but means something rather different.  The Spirit did not follow the Son, who did not follow the Father; they have all always been.  This is what the church traditionally thinks about the Trinity.  Incidentally, the diagrams I am using are from a wonderful book called Theologygrams, by Richard Wyld.  Having presented them and discussed them a little, he concluded that there is “probably more to be said about the Trinity than can be fitted into a diagram.”

The Trinity is not explicit in the Bible, but is more a way that Christians came to understand the various saying and happenings in the Bible.  Jesus did not give a definition of the Trinity, but the things he said lead you there.

Take for example, one of the earliest events in Jesus ministry, his baptism recorded in the earliest of the gospels: As soon as Jesus came up out of the water, he saw heaven opening and the Spirit coming down on him like a dove.  And a voice came from heaven, “You are my own dear Son. I am pleased with you.” (Mark 110).  Father, Son, and Spirit.

Jesus talked about his Father (as in the Lord’s Prayer, Matthew 69-13).  He also talks about the Father sending his only begotten Son into the world, a little further on from today’s New Testament reading (John 316).  He claimed to be God (“before Abraham was, I AM”, John 858, “I and the Father are one”, John 1030).  He frequently talks about the Holy Spirit, for example in today’s passage (John 35-8), and about asking the Father to send the Holy Spirit on believers (John 1415).

So the church came to understand that God was three persons in one.  It was always very clear that there was not a hierarchy.  One is not superior to the others, nor did one come before the others.  The Trinity is, in particular, a high understanding of who Jesus is.  The church has always maintained, strongly, that Jesus was both God and human.  This diagram summarises various heresies.  The church has had to counter teachings that try to detract from who it believed Jesus really was.  He was not created by God, he was not separate from God, he was not God in disguise, he was not a man specially touched by God.  We are in the white bit, the overlap of the circles.  (I particularly like the Aslan bit.)

So far, so good, but how can one person be three people?  It is an analogy for something we cannot really comprehend.  It is like a person having different aspects, one person being a wife, a teacher, a friend, different to different people.  It helps to explain different aspects of God.  Mark Laynesmith has a YouTube video[1] about the Trinity, in which he talks about the Father being the part of God which is mystery, beyond us, Christ being before us, what God is going here and now, and the Spirit being alongside us.  But, like the Trinity triangle diagram, there is probably more that can be said than can fit into an analogy.

Having a science background and being interested in that sort of thing, excuse me a slight digression at this point.  There are things in science, in the world and the universe, that we can understand and imagine.  Classical mechanics, where object move around and have momentum, and are acted upon by forces; it does take a while to understand the principles behind it, but you can picture it.  You can see why, when you throw a ball, it follows a parabolic path, and you can even modify that picture to say that it falls a bit short because of air resistance.  And we can extend this to orbiting planets, and rotating galaxies.  Our minds are geared up to model the physical world we see.

But quantum mechanics is something else.  It is one of the most successful scientific theories ever, has led to a lot of the electronics and gadgets we have today, and has at its heart apparent contradictions that we cannot get our minds around.  There is something called the two-slit experiment, where you fire a beam of electrons at two slits in a plate.  If electrons were particles, the your detector plate would have two slightly scattered lines of points on it where the electrons have landed.  If electrons were waves, the plate would have an interference pattern on it, like ocean waves going through two openings in a harbour wall.  The waves diffract and spread out on the inside, and then at some places the peaks from the two propagating waves join together and make big peaks, and at other places the peaks and troughs meet and cancel each other out.  You would get a pattern of peaks and troughs arriving at the quayside.  What actually happens is that your detector recognises discrete particles hitting it, but in a pattern that looks like wave interference.  Electrons appear way off from where they should be, but they still seem to be particles.

You can explain this with maths, predict what is going to happen with Schrödingers equation, but there really is no sensible way of imagining what is happening.  This is the subatomic world behaving in ways that is unlike anything we can see with our eyes.  It seems to be a contradiction in terms – something is both a wave and a particle at the same time – but it happens, and you can prove it repeatedly.

You can probably see where I am going with this.  There are things in this world, even is something as unimaginative and rational as science, that we know exist but cannot imagine.  How much more, then, should the creator of the universe be beyond our imagining.  We cannot fully rationalise the theory of the Trinity, as we cannot fully rationalise the incarnation or the atonement, but that does not mean it is not true.  Certainly it is an approximation, an analogy, but it can still be helpful.

Jesus said to Nicodemus, you must be born again, born of the Spirit.  Let us allow this complex, loving God to speak to us through all his parts, the Father in his glory, as in the vision of Isaiah, Jesus showing us God as a man, and the Spirit within us to guide and change us.  Amen.

Jeremy Thake St. John and St. Stephens.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R-PzKtTKYJk&list=PLUvMk1fN40M_kuL-0SbztxmO8mVeI0PJq&index=4

Joy – John 21-11: The Wedding in Cana

An Englishman, an Irishman, and a Scotsman walked into a bar, and the barman said, “Is this a joke”.

There are not many jokes in the Bible. You may think that was not one either – one to think about. But there is humour.

Today we are going to be following our reading about the wedding at Cana. It is, in many ways, a rather strange story. We know it well, but there are some odd things here:

  • It was Jesus’ first recorded miracle, but it seems to be completely unplanned, and that Jesus actually did not want to do it.
  • The miracle appears to happen because Mary completely ignores Jesus, and tells the servants to follow Jesus’ instructions even after he has asked her not to.
  • Jesus makes an extraordinary amount of wine, about 800 bottles. And this for a wedding where they had already finished all the wine the bridegroom had laid on. If there were a thousand guests, with what they had had already, they would have been having a bottle or so each.

Commentaries on this passage often read a lot of significance into it. It is special because Jesus chose this as his first miracle. Jesus makes use of the vessels used for Jewish ceremonial purification, and replaces it with wine that represents his cleansing blood. Wine then leads you into thinking about ‘new wine’, and communion.

I am not sure about this. It may be in the gospel because John saw it as particularly important (which is a good argument), or it may be there just because it happened. What it has made me think about is the softer side of faith. Of joy, and humour, and kindness, and friendship, and good company, and how that is also part of Christianity.

In the Bible is says that ‘Jesus wept’, but it does not say ‘Jesus laughed’, or even that he smiled. But he obviously does have a sense of humour. As you read the parables, there are lots of witty illustrations: houses built on sand (Mt 726), lamps hidden under baskets or beds (Mk 421), pointing out the speck in someone else’s when you have a plank in your own (Lk 642), dead people being left to bury dead people (Lk 960), picking a gnat out of your drink then swallowing a camel (Mt 2324). Huge crowds went to listen to him, so he must have been a good speaker, entertaining as well as thoughtful and challenging. One of my favourite bible stories is Jesus’ way of paying his temple tax. He tells Peter to go an catch a fish, that there will be a coin in the fish’s mouth, and that he should use that to pay the tax (Matthew 1724-27). Can you imagine him saying that without a smile?

Jesus was also obviously good company, because he was regularly invited into homes, and joined by large numbers of people for meals. These were not always posh, polite dinner parties, because Jesus’ enemies accuse him of being a glutton and a drunkard, and a friend of tax collectors and sinners (Lk 734).

Consider in today’s reading the amount of wine Jesus made. This is not a kill-joy whose mind is only on higher things, who does not like people enjoying themselves. Jesus is being kind at a very personal level, helping out some family friends, not with a matter of life or death, but so that their wedding would not be spoiled.

Of course faith is about important things too. It is about obedience to God, about sacrificial love for others, about justice and truth. Jesus says hard, difficult, uncomfortable, demanding things as well. He does not avoid suffering so that he can have a good life. But an enduring theme in the New Testament is joy, and you cannot have joy miserably. Jesus demonstrated that he was good with people, he cared for people, he enjoyed being in their company. In this passage, and others, he demonstrates his humanity, in a sense that is down-to-earth, neighbourly, friendly. And we are his followers.