Sunday, 18 November 2018

Dan Brown–the End of Times

Sunday 18 November at Stoke Hammond

2nd Sunday before Advent


Old Testament Daniel 12

The end times

12 ‘At that time Michael, the great prince who protects your people, will arise. There will be a time of distress such as has not happened from the beginning of nations until then. But at that time your people – everyone whose name is found written in the book – will be delivered. 2 Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt. 3 Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever.

Epistle Hebrews 10

A call to persevere in faith

11 Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. 12 But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, 13 and since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool. 14 For by one sacrifice he has made perfect for ever those who are being made holy.

15 The Holy Spirit also testifies to us about this. First he says:

16 ‘This is the covenant I will make with them
    after that time, says the Lord.
I will put my laws in their hearts,
    and I will write them on their minds.’

17 Then he adds:

‘Their sins and lawless acts
    I will remember no more.’

18 And where these have been forgiven, sacrifice for sin is no longer necessary.

19 Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

Gospel Mark 13

Alleluia, alleluia. Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.

Hear the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Mark.

The destruction of the temple and signs of the end times

13 As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!’

2 ‘Do you see all these great buildings?’ replied Jesus. ‘Not one stone here will be left on another; everyone will be thrown down.’

3 As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John and Andrew asked him privately, 4 ‘Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?’

5 Jesus said to them: ‘Watch out that no one deceives you. 6 Many will come in my name, claiming, “I am he,” and will deceive many. 7 When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. 8 Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of birth-pains.

Sermon

I have recently finished Dan Brown’s latest thriller published October last year. You’ve probably read some of them—light hearted page turners that are good for holiday reading providing you don’t take the content at all seriously.

The book is called Origin. The story is the usual mix of science and religion. It starts with the assassination of a scientist who is about to reveal a new absolute proof that creation happened out of chaos, and that no creator—no God was involved.

I won’t spoil your next journey through Gatwick, Luton or Stansted by revealing any more of the story—except to say if you liked any of his other novels you will probably enjoy this one—and maybe it will give you pause for thought about what the Bible calls The end times.

Two of today’s readings are headed with the end times and the Hebrews passage talks about the last day approaching. Like Revelation, and much of the apocalyptic literature of the Bible, the language can seem fanciful—most Christians never look at it—but today the preacher can hardly avoid it. Is this fair—or should eschatology (as it is called) attract our attention more than it does.

Why should it? You may ask. Well, the study of eschatology is described as ‘the part of theology concerned with death, judgement, and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind’ which sounds pretty important to me, and central to our faith. Increasingly we seem to think about our own mortality as we age—so why not reflect on what will be the scenario when the world ends, as almost all respected scientists agree will inevitably happen.

Mark’s portrayal of what Jesus is like dominates his gospel. At the beginning, Jesus proclaims the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of Heaven. He grapples with demons and other worldly beings. Chapter 13 is an extended discourse about the end times, but in reply to a question about when this will all happen from Peter, James and John—he will not be drawn.

32 ‘But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come.

The portents and warnings given by Jesus are similar to what is in the Old Testament, and has been developed for centuries. Religious deception, violence, and betrayal. Planetary signs in the skies—the sun and moon go out—the skies will shake—'And God will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.’

Interestingly, these warnings can be linked to events at the time when Mark wrote his gospel—narrowing the dates down to around 66 – 70 AD.

The warnings accompanying the end times all sound terrifying, as Jesus must have intended. Why did he frighten his listeners in this way—especially as all they asked was when the world would end, not the signs and events that would accompany it? The answer seems to be in the repeated words “Watch out.” They appear in verses 5, 9, 23 and 33. Be prepared. Take nothing for granted.

The discourse ends with a parable about a man who leaves on a journey. Jesus’s charge to his disciples is the same as to those in the house while the owner is away.

35 ‘Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back – whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the cock crows, or at dawn. 36 If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. 37 What I say to you, I say to everyone: “Watch!”’

What is the equivalent charge Jesus would give us today? We live in an age of unprecedented scientific discovery, although perhaps not as dramatic as the E wave supercomputer imagined by Dan Brown. But our knowledge doesn’t really change anything—the cause of the end of the world might be a massive asteroid—climate change—a threat to the human race along the lines of whatever caused the elimination of the dinosaurs—or conflict using nuclear weapons and so on.

Whatever happens and when, we should remain active in the faith. Not become lukewarm. Not think the end times are so far away we have plenty of time to prepare ourselves.

If Jesus were sat here today, he would almost certainly repeat when he said in answer to his disciples’ question: Be on guard! Be alert! For you do not know when the end times will come. God works outside the cosmos, and can end this experiment called human kind at any time. Amen

Sunday, 29 July 2018

All things are possible

Trinity 9 – Sunday 29 July 2018- Stoke Hammond


Gospel John 6:1-21

Sometime after this, Jesus crossed to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee (that is, the Sea of Tiberias), 2 and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the signs he had performed by healing those who were ill. 3 Then Jesus went up on a mountainside and sat down with his disciples. 4 The Jewish Passover Festival was near.

5 When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming towards him, he said to Philip, ‘Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?’ 6 He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do.

7 Philip answered him, ‘It would take more than half a year’s wages to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!’

8 Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up, 9 ‘Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?’

10 Jesus said, ‘Make the people sit down.’ There was plenty of grass in that place, and they sat down (about five thousand men were there). 11 Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish.

12 When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, ‘Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.’ 13 So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten.

14 After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, ‘Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.’ 15 Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.

Jesus walks on the water

16 When evening came, his disciples went down to the lake, 17 where they got into a boat and set off across the lake for Capernaum. By now it was dark, and Jesus had not yet joined them. 18 A strong wind was blowing and the waters grew rough. 19 When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus approaching the boat, walking on the water; and they were frightened. 20 But he said to them, ‘It is I; don’t be afraid.’ 21 Then they were willing to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the shore where they were heading.

Sermon

Today’s gospel reading from John describes the miraculous feeding of the 5,000, and immediately following that is the account of Jesus walking on water.

You have probably heard countless sermons on the so-called nature miracles; and most clergy have preached several times on these events, which turn up more than once, every year in our lectionary.

Let me start by reading for you a passage from 2 Kings chapter 4 in the OT by way of background:

Feeding of a hundred

42 A man came from Baal Shalishah, bringing the man of God twenty loaves of barley bread baked from the first ripe corn, along with some ears of new corn. ‘Give it to the people to eat,’ Elisha said.

43 ‘How can I set this before a hundred men?’ his servant asked.

But Elisha answered, ‘Give it to the people to eat. For this is what the Lord says: “They will eat and have some left over.”’ 44 Then he set it before them, and they ate and had some left over, according to the word of the Lord.

The ‘man of God’ was Elisha the prophet, and I am sure you were struck by the similarity of the miracle with the feeding of the 5,000. In fact the chapter is full of such events involving illness and famine.

Jesus’s audience would have immediately made the link for themselves. Did John want to depict Jesus as a prophet in the mould of the OT prophets? We know Jesus constantly quoted the Hebrew scriptures, and called himself Son of Man and so although we nowadays are not steeped in the Old Testament prophets, we can understand better the miracles such as the Feeding of the 5,000 by appreciating how the first audience would have interpreted it.

The parallels are obvious. Moses led the Israelites across the Red Sea. The last meal that they ate in Egypt was the forerunner of the Passover, and of course the Holy Communion. Moses went up a mountain, and so did Jesus—and so on.

But the passage is not just about Jesus the Prophet, but who Jesus was which goes way beyond the fact that Moses talked face to face with God, as did Jesus himself. This is where we have the advantage—we know and believe Jesus to be divine, which would have been a giant step too far for those who sat down the eat with him.

Elisha’s servant protested to his master that 20 loaves of barley bread were hopelessly inadequate to provide a meal for a crowd, and Philip protested to Jesus that ‘It would take more than half a year’s wages to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!’ Elisha’s servant just did what he was told and there was food left over. Likewise there were 12 baskets remaining of bread left over at the end of the Feeding of the 5,000—proving God’s abundance and grace to those who put their trust in him.

The crowd are impressed by what they have seen, but they only conclude that Jesus is a latter day prophet in the OT mould.

‘Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.’ they say. This is why Jesus resists being acclaimed king. He is much more than that, but it will take more than a ‘sign’ before they are prepared to see him as more than just a prophet. This will be by a series of signs, some demonstrating mastery over the forces of nature which can only point to his divinity.

The Walking on the Water is a case in point. He tells the frightened disciples ‘It is I; don’t be afraid,’ making reference to the words “I AM” —It is I—which in this case is the name for God.

So here we have the start of a transition between how Jesus portrays himself in a way that people steeped in the OT can understand, but also laying the foundations with his disciples who will be called on to assert he is much more than just another prophet.

The test of our faith and that of the church is to put ourselves in the shoes of Philip and Andrew, or of Elisha’s servant. Would we respond with the impossibility and impracticality of what we were being asked to do—of what Jesus challenges us to believe—or would we put our faith and trust in him and boldly lay out the provisions, inadequate as they seem to be?

Putting prayer at the centre of a life of faith provides that challenge. Do we ask for the impossible? Do we stick to asking for what we believe can be answered? Do we listen to God’s command and believe that in Jesus, all things are possible?
Amen

Monday, 9 July 2018

Be prepared

8 July 2018 at Wingrave – Trinity 6

Collect

Merciful God, you have prepared for those who love you such good things as pass our understanding:
pour into our hearts such love toward you that we, loving you in all things and above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever. Amen.

Reading 2 Corinthians 12:2-10

2 I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know – God knows. 3 And I know that this man – whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows – 4 was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell. 5 I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses. 6 Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say, 7 or because of these surpassingly great revelations. Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9 But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

Gospel Mark 6:1-13

A prophet without honour

6

Jesus left there and went to his home town, accompanied by his disciples. 2 When the Sabbath came, he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were amazed.

‘Where did this man get these things?’ they asked. ‘What’s this wisdom that has been given him? What are these remarkable miracles he is performing? 3 Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?’ And they took offence at him.

4 Jesus said to them, ‘A prophet is not without honour except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.’ 5 He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few people who were ill and heal them. 6 He was amazed at their lack of faith.

Jesus sends out the Twelve

Then Jesus went around teaching from village to village. 7 Calling the Twelve to him, he began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over impure spirits.

8 These were his instructions: ‘Take nothing for the journey except a staff – no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. 9 Wear sandals but not an extra shirt. 10 Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave that town. 11 And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, leave that place and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.’

12 They went out and preached that people should repent. 13 They drove out many demons and anointed with oil many people who were ill and healed them.

Sermon

Be Prepared was a motto I learned at cubs. I never was prepared, and generally considered a boy who could immediately lay his hands on a swiss army knife as a bit of an anorak. Still, I am sure it was good advice at the time.

As I looked at today’s gospel reading, the thought occurred to me that we were witnessing an important preparation for the disciples in their training and development to be witnesses to Jesus, and we might learn from them too, but in this context was is it to “be prepared”.

Jesus’s encounter with the people of his home town starts chapter 6 of Mark’s gospel. It’s a self-contained unit. Jesus has been performing miracles elsewhere, but in Nazareth he encounters rejection and a complete lack of faith which prevents him doing the same in his home town.

The text suggests a positive reception at the beginning, but the crowd are scandalised when they consider who Jesus is, his questionable paternal lineage, and his familiarity as a tekton—a craftsman, a small builder or a carpenter.

You will recall that in Mark 3 Jesus’s family came to fetch him and stop him preaching and teaching because they thought he had gone out of his mind. Tradesmen did not suddenly morph into prophets and miracle workers—it would be like your local village handyman leading public meetings and claiming to be inspired. ‘Who does he think he is?’ would probably be most peoples’ hostile reaction.

Given his known background, it’s no wonder those who have known him all his life refer to him as ‘son of Mary.’ This question of Jesus’s identity is a recurrent theme in Mark. Think forward to chapter 8, where Jesus himself asks:

‘Who do people say I am?’

—and after Peter’s declaration

‘You are the Messiah’

we are asked the same question

‘But what about you? Who do YOU say I am?’

The sending out of the disciples follows from verse 7. The background is not auspicious. The disciples in chapter 4 fail to understand Jesus’s parables, and ask for explanations. In the same chapter the disciples are accused by Jesus of lacking faith and being fearful before he stills the storm. They wonder ‘Who then is this?’—a man who can intervene in the forces of nature and save them all from drowning.

The immediate background is the controversy in Nazareth, and the people’s complete lack of faith which prevented Jesus performing any miracles in his home town. Now the disciples are told they are being sent out on a mission to preach repentance, heal the sick, and cast out demons. It’s this challenge that I think speaks to us today.

The first thing that occurs to me is that God does not necessarily choose those who are well versed and equipped to do his work. The disciples were for the most part completely unqualified and lacking the skills to face the immense challenges that came their way. Maybe we need to hear this kind of encouragement occasionally when we doubt our ability to fulfil our own mission.

Secondly, the list of equipment and resources the disciples were allowed to take was meagre in the extreme—yet people continue to emulate this unpreparedness even today. A month or so ago I saw on Breakfast TV a disabled cyclist who rode her recumbent bicycle round the coast of the UK. It took her years to complete the task—she carried everything on her bicycle—and when she was not camping out in bad weather alone she was invited into people’s houses and given provisions needed for her immediate needs. God will provide—and does—through our own hands.

Thirdly, how much does our own faith determine how effective we are in furthering God’s mission through his Son here on earth? Jesus marvelled at the unbelief that surrounded him—but for some of us, in our nice houses, with lovely views and every advantage including a pension that will guarantee our economic security for the rest of our lives—how much are we like the man who pulled down his barns and built bigger, in order to house all his wealth and put his feet up—only to wake up the next day and find his soul had been required of him?

‘Take nothing for the journey except a staff – no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. 9 Wear sandals but not an extra shirt.

What is the modern day equivalent of this I wonder? The disciples took a walking stick—and not only no money, food or possessions, but no bag to hold anything they were given, and no pocket in which to keep donations.

While the disciples were away, John the Baptist was beheaded. They returned to report back:

30 The apostles gathered round Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. 31 Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, ‘Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.’

Notice how Jesus cared first for their physical wellbeing before anything else. Yet the comparison between their meagre equipment and the abundance associated with the Feeding of the 5,000 could not be more striking.

We do, though, have one thing the disciples did not, and it makes all the difference. We have experienced the faithfulness of God in Jesus crucified and risen. So, we may marvel at the unbelief around us, but still we go forth, proclaiming and practising our faith in Christ, trusting in God to provide abundantly for our journey. That is to “be prepared”.
Amen

Sunday, 10 June 2018

Family Troubles

Trinity 2–10 June 2018 at Great Brickhill


Reading Genesis 3

8 Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. 9 But the Lord God called to the man, ‘Where are you?’

10 He answered, ‘I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.’

11 And he said, ‘Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree from which I commanded you not to eat?’

12 The man said, ‘The woman you put here with me – she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.’

13 Then the Lord God said to the woman, ‘What is this you have done?’

The woman said, ‘The snake deceived me, and I ate.’

14 So the Lord God said to the snake, ‘Because you have done this,

‘Cursed are you above all livestock
    and all wild animals!
You will crawl on your belly
    and you will eat dust
    all the days of your life.
15 And I will put enmity
    between you and the woman,
    and between your offspring and hers;
he will crush your head,
    and you will strike his heel.’

Reading 2 Corinthians

13 It is written: ‘I believed; therefore I have spoken.’ Since we have that same spirit of faith, we also believe and therefore speak, 14 because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you to himself. 15 All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.

16 Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. 17 For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 18 So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. 5.1 For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.

Gospel Mark 3

Jesus accused by his family and by teachers of the law

20 Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. 21 When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, ‘He is out of his mind.’

22 And the teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, ‘He is possessed by Beelzebul! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons.’

23 So Jesus called them over to him and began to speak to them in parables: ‘How can Satan drive out Satan? 24 If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25 If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. 26 And if Satan opposes himself and is divided, he cannot stand; his end has come. 27 In fact, no one can enter a strong man’s house without first tying him up. Then he can plunder the strong man’s house. 28 Truly I tell you, people can be forgiven all their sins and every slander they utter, 29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin.’

30 He said this because they were saying, ‘He has an impure spirit.’

31 Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him. 32 A crowd was sitting round him, and they told him, ‘Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.’

33 ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ he asked.

34 Then he looked at those seated in a circle round him and said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.’

Sermon

Our journey—in the lectionary year B—takes us through the gospel of Mark. We have reached chapter 3, and in the beautiful weather of an English June we are suddenly confronted by a need to linger on the offence Jesus caused, and the reasons behind it.

The incident we are focusing on today has three competing groups of people:

1. The crowds who constantly swarm and press in on Jesus

2. His family, who are concerned about him

3. The Scribes—theological heavyweights come down from Jerusalem

At this stage—chapter 3—the crowds seem interested in what Jesus has to say and what he does. They want to hear and learn more. They express no worries and ask no questions—but are a constant presence that will in the end be manipulated by the Scribes among others and turned against him.

The second group is Jesus’s family. They have come to rescue him from the trouble and notoriety he has got himself in. His family think they are the ones who know him best. Their belief is that he is out of his depth, and that dangerous groups of people, such as the Scribes, and watching him and judging his impact on the crowds.

These people have the power to put an end to his teaching, or worse to put an end to his freedom and even his life. His family think he is “beside himself”—not in his right mind—the Greek is existemi [εξιστεμι]—the same word can also be translated as ‘insane.’

We the readers know he has been acting this way since his baptism by John the Baptist—his family members have therefore come to find him and take him away to a place of safety.

The last group is the Scribes. These are the experts in theology—come down from Jerusalem to investigate and make a judgement on what Jesus is doing. They recognise that a power is at work in him—but do not consider that God is performing a revival through him—instead they decide Jesus is an agent of evil—a servant of Satan.

In one sense, it was good that the Scribes took Jesus’s power seriously—and did not put his works down to magic, illusion or pronouncing him a charlatan. On the other hand, branding him a Satanic agent was deeply damaging.

Unlike the magicians in Egypt, who could replicate the ‘signs’ that Moses and Aaron performed—the Scribes could not match Jesus’s miracles, and so had to fall back on ascribing his power to a malevolent force.

Jesus in return accuses the Scribes on being blind to the possibility of truth—they blaspheme against the Holy Spirit—searching for every possible source of power except that of God’s renewal and forgiveness—healing, casting out demonic possession, freedom from guilt and sin, both to individuals and the people as a nation. Their minds are closed—they do not recognise the transformative power of God’s grace at work.

The response from Jesus is short and to the point. He does not address the accusation at length, but does point out the logical absurdity of saying that he is using Satanic power to act on itself. The powers of evil show no signs of loosing the bonds of oppression—the reign of Satan is dominant and ruthlessly unyielding. In reality, are the Scribes in thrall to the evil one themselves?

Jesus’s little parable is short and to the point. He likens himself to a burglar, who breaks into a house owned by a strong man who represents Satan. The possessions the strong man has plundered can only be taken from him by tying him up and neutralizing his power.

This rest of the gospel harks back to this little illustration. God in Jesus comes to displace the reign of Satan—to tie down and neutralize the kingdom of evil—a power that is not given up easily, but only by the transformative love of Jesus, so aptly illustrated by Episcopalian bishop Michael Curry at the wedding of Prince Harry and Megan Markle.

Jesus then turns back to the other protagonists—his family. He renounces their claim on him—family ties and love are not sufficient to divert him from his clear mission in the world.

So in this passage we have the start of the conspiracy against Jesus by various groups who eventually join together in a plot which leads to the cross. As we continue to read through Mark in year B of the lectionary, we can see how these attacks develop—how the conspiracies play out.

Jesus promises good news—but this is very different from comfortable news as his family found out. The reign or Kingdom of God that Jesus keeps talking about is not going to have a smooth ride—it is far from ‘business as usual.’ Amen

§ Amen

Intercessions

We pray for God to fill us with his Spirit. Generous God, we thank you for the power of your Holy Spirit. We ask that we may be strengthened to serve you better. Lord, come to bless us and fill us with your Spirit.

We thank you for the wisdom of your Holy Spirit. We ask you to make us wise to understand your will. Lord, come to bless us and fill us with your Spirit.

We thank you for the peace of your Holy Spirit. We ask you to keep us confident of your love wherever you call us. Lord, come to bless us and fill us with your Spirit.

We thank you for the healing of your Holy Spirit. We ask you to bring reconciliation and wholeness where there is division, sickness and sorrow. Lord, come to bless us and fill us with your Spirit.

We thank you for the gifts of your Holy Spirit. We ask you to equip us for the work which you have given us. Lord, come to bless us and fill us with your Spirit.

We thank you for the fruit of your Holy Spirit. We ask you to reveal in our lives the love of Jesus. Lord, come to bless us and fill us with your Spirit.

We thank you for the breath of your Holy Spirit, given us by the risen Lord. We ask you to keep the whole Church, living and departed, in the joy of eternal life. Lord, come to bless us and fill us with your Spirit.

Generous God, you sent your Holy Spirit upon your Messiah at the river Jordan, and upon the disciples in the upper room: in your mercy fill us with your Spirit, hear our prayer, and make us one in heart and mind to serve you with joy for ever. Amen.

The Great Conspiracy Theory

10 June 2018 – Great Brickhill – Trinity 2

Gospel Mark 3

Jesus accused by his family and by teachers of the law

20 Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. 21 When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, ‘He is out of his mind.’

22 And the teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, ‘He is possessed by Beelzebul! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons.’

23 So Jesus called them over to him and began to speak to them in parables: ‘How can Satan drive out Satan? 24 If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25 If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. 26 And if Satan opposes himself and is divided, he cannot stand; his end has come. 27 In fact, no one can enter a strong man’s house without first tying him up. Then he can plunder the strong man’s house. 28 Truly I tell you, people can be forgiven all their sins and every slander they utter, 29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin.’

30 He said this because they were saying, ‘He has an impure spirit.’

31 Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him. 32 A crowd was sitting round him, and they told him, ‘Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.’

33 ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ he asked.

34 Then he looked at those seated in a circle round him and said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.’

Sermon

Our journey—in the lectionary year B—takes us through the gospel of Mark. We have reached chapter 3, and in the beautiful weather of an English June we are suddenly confronted by a need to linger on the offence Jesus caused, and the reasons behind it.

The incident we are focusing on today has three competing groups of people:

1. The crowds who constantly swarm and press in on Jesus

2. His family, who are concerned about him

3. The Scribes—theological heavyweights come down from Jerusalem

At this stage—chapter 3—the crowds seem interested in what Jesus has to say and what he does. They want to hear and learn more. They express no worries and ask no questions—but are a constant presence that will in the end be manipulated by the Scribes among others and turned against him.

The second group is Jesus’s family. They have come to rescue him from the trouble and notoriety he has got himself in. His family think they are the ones who know him best. Their belief is that he is out of his depth, and that dangerous groups of people, such as the Scribes, and watching him and judging his impact on the crowds.

These people have the power to put an end to his teaching, or worse to put an end to his freedom and even his life. His family think he is “beside himself”—not in his right mind—the Greek is existemi [εξιστεμι]—the same word can also be translated as ‘insane.’

We the readers know he has been acting this way since his baptism by John the Baptist—his family members have therefore some to find him and take him away to a place of safety.

The last group is the Scribes. These are the experts in theology—come down from Jerusalem to investigate and make a judgement on what Jesus is doing. They recognise that a power is at work in him—but do not consider that God is performing a revival through him—instead they decide Jesus is an agent of evil—a servant of Satan.

In one sense, it was good that the Scribes took Jesus’s power seriously—and did not put his works down to magic, illusion or pronouncing him a charlatan. On the other hand, branding him a Satanic agent was deeply damaging.

Unlike the magicians in Egypt, who could replicate the ‘signs’ that Moses and Aaron performed—the Scribes could not match Jesus’s miracles, and so had to fall back on ascribing his power to a malevolent force.

Jesus in return accuses the Scribes on being blind to the possibility of truth—they blaspheme against the Holy Spirit—searching for every possible source of power except that of God’s renewal and forgiveness—healing, casting out demonic possession, freedom from guilt and sin, both to individuals and the people as a nation. Their minds are closed—they do not recognise the transformative power of God’s grace at work.

The response from Jesus is short and to the point. He does not address the accusation at length, but does point out the logical absurdity of saying that he is using Satanic power to act on itself. The powers of evil show no signs of loosing the bonds of oppression—the reign of Satan is dominant and ruthlessly unyielding. In reality, are the Scribes in thrall to the evil one themselves?

Jesus’s little parable is short and to the point. He likens himself to a burglar, who breaks into a house owned by a strong man who represents Satan. The possessions the strong man has plundered can only be taken from him by tying him up and neutralizing his power.

This rest of the gospel harks back to this little illustration. God in Jesus comes to displace the reign of Satan—to tie down and neutralize the kingdom of evil—a power that is not given up easily, but only by the transformative love of Jesus, so aptly illustrated by Episcopalian bishop Michael Curry at the wedding of Prince Harry and Megan Markle.

Jesus then turns back to the other protagonists—his family. He renounces their claim on him—family ties and love are not sufficient to divert him from his clear mission in the world.

So in this passage we have the start of the conspiracy against Jesus by various groups who eventually join together in a plot which leads to the cross. As we continue to read through Mark in year B of the lectionary, we can see how these attacks develop—how the conspiracies play out.

Jesus promises good news—but this is very different from comfortable news as his family found out. The reign or Kingdom of God that Jesus keeps talking about is not going to have a smooth ride—it is far from ‘business as usual.’ Amen

Sunday, 3 June 2018

Trinity 1 at the Methodist Church in Wingrave

3 June 2018


Reading—I Samuel 3:1—10

The Lord Calls Samuel


The boy Samuel ministered before the Lord under Eli. In those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions.

2 One night Eli, whose eyes were becoming so weak that he could barely see, was lying down in his usual place. 3 The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the house of the Lord, where the ark of God was. 4 Then the Lord called Samuel.

Samuel answered, “Here I am.” 5 And he ran to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.”

But Eli said, “I did not call; go back and lie down.” So he went and lay down.

6 Again the Lord called, “Samuel!” And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.”

“My son,” Eli said, “I did not call; go back and lie down.”

7 Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord: The word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.

8 A third time the Lord called, “Samuel!” And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.”

Then Eli realized that the Lord was calling the boy. 9 So Eli told Samuel, “Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.

10 The Lord came and stood there, calling as at the other times, “Samuel! Samuel!”

Then Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

New Testament 2 Corinthians 4

5 For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. 6 For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.

7 But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. 8 We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; 9 persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. 10 We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. 11 For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. 12 So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.

Gospel Mark 2:23—3:6

Jesus Is Lord of the Sabbath

23 One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grain fields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. 24 The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?”

25 He answered, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? 26 In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.”

27 Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. 28 So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”


Another time Jesus went into the synagogue, and a man with a shrivelled hand was there. 2 Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath. 3 Jesus said to the man with the shrivelled hand, “Stand up in front of everyone.”

4 Then Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they remained silent.

5 He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. 6 Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.

Sermon

The reading from I Samuel is all about God’s call. The influence of religion and people’s awareness of the Lord had reached a low ebb. The references to light and darkness are surely deliberate. At a time when God revealed himself in dreams, the passage explains that:

In those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions.

Eli was getting old, and his eyes were dim. His apprentice Samuel did not recognise God’s call because he did not yet know the Lord.

The word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.

Even the Temple at night was in darkness. God’s light was not recognised, the light he spoke into being at the time of creation. But eventually, God’s call was plain, and Samuel is told to reply:

“Speak, for your servant is listening.”

Like Samuel we pray the same prayer today, that God will speak and that we will listen, but the New Testament experience of God is very different. You may have to re-read the passage from II Corinthians several times to try and appreciate what Paul is saying, but briefly he rejects any cleverness, holiness or value in himself, describing his body as a clay jar which is fragile and vulnerable, but which contains the treasure of the life and death of Jesus which we continually witness to in our daily lives.

When we proclaim the Messiah as Lord, this truth does not come from us. What we announce to others does not come from our personal or collective egos. Our achievements, what makes us special, our learning or understanding—all these are meaningless. Why?—because God’s Word lives in us—fragile clay jars—and it is God’s light, spoken into existence at Creation, that is being announced, not by us but God himself. The light of God shines in the darkness, and sin and death cannot overcome it, even though in Jesus his death and resurrection live side by side.

Anyone who has plant pots knows how vulnerable they are—how easily damaged by frost or chipped by the slightest knock—how cheap and fragile. That is why earthenware was used in the Temple sacrifices, according to Leviticus, and not just precious metals and fine wood. Clay jars symbolise the vulnerability and fragility of our human form, yet like the sacred vessels there is treasure in God’s indwelling of us through Jesus Christ.

Because we are clay vessels, Paul explains our affliction:

8 We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; 9 persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. 10 We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.

Not only are we afflicted, but Jesus shared our vulnerability.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Mark 15:34; see also Psalm 22:1).

But it is through the death of Jesus that all that disfigures us, distorts and spoils our created goodness dies. Jesus’s life is manifest as the flourishing of new creation in our lives. Treasure in clay jars. The light of God’s glory shining amid our fragile human existence.

Breaking through the bonds of sin in all its forms is something Jesus seems to have rejoiced doing. Today we rejoin Mark’s gospel and continue reading from it until November. There are two incidents which we must understand if we are to grasp the meaning of Mark’s gospel as a whole.

You can illustrate the incidents in this way:

1. Lawlessness and those who hunger

2. Lawlessness and those who suffer

The Pharisees are good at laying down the letter of the law. Jesus is good at interpreting its intention, and adapting its rules to those in need.

Both incidents take place on the Sabbath day. In the first, the Pharisees complain that the disciples of Jesus are eating ears of corn from the fields as they cross because they are hungry. The law prohibits gleaning on the Sabbath day, and any food for the Sabbath must be prepared in advance.

In the second, the Pharisees watch to see whether or not Jesus will heal a man who suffers from a shrivelled hand on the Sabbath day.

Both incidents sound totally nit-picking—and they are—but the direct challenge to the authority of the Pharisees and the violation of the law’s very foundations drive those in authority to rid themselves of this troublesome rabbi.

In asking whether it is lawful to do good or evil on the Sabbath, Jesus poses a bit of a conundrum. The answer is obvious to us—doing good is the best choice—but not to the Pharisees whose whole foundation of life is challenged by any thought that the law should be interpreted, rather than applied directly to every situation. In the end, the man with the disability seems to have healed himself—Jesus did not touch him or do any of the things that were usually associated with healing. But the die was cast, and it was the violation of the Sabbath and the suggestion the law could be applied more compassionately that let to the plots to kill Jesus and do away with him.

Both of these cases seem to be in direct violation of God’s command to keep the Sabbath holy, but Jesus sees the wider picture. This is that human beings are not shackled—slaves to the Law—but free. The Law is intended to serve human beings and not the other way round.

Only 79 verses into Mark’s gospel, and the Pharisees and Herodians are already plotting to do away with Jesus. This is why is say that understanding what is happening at this early point in the narrative is important for helping interpret the rest of the gospel.

But Mark has good news to announce, and does not leave us with all the controversy and threat. Jesus, like the God who instituted the Sabbath, is committed to preserving life. His ministry will expose the oppressive and corrosive tyrannies of fear, pretence, and hypocrisy, wherever they reside. Yet, finally, he will deliver us from them. Amen

Sunday, 13 May 2018

Easter 7 at the Methodist Church in Wingrave

13 May 2018

Reading—Acts 1:15—17;21—end

15 In those days Peter stood up among the believers (a group numbering about a hundred and twenty) 16 and said, “Brothers and sisters, the Scripture had to be fulfilled in which the Holy Spirit spoke long ago through David concerning Judas, who served as guide for those who arrested Jesus. 17 He was one of our number and shared in our ministry.”

21 Therefore it is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus was living among us, 22 beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection.”

23 So they nominated two men: Joseph called Barsabbas (also known as Justus) and Matthias. 24 Then they prayed, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen 25 to take over this apostolic ministry, which Judas left to go where he belongs.” 26 Then they cast lots, and the lot fell to Matthias; so he was added to the eleven apostles.

New Testament 1 John 5

9 We accept human testimony, but God’s testimony is greater because it is the testimony of God, which he has given about his Son. 10 Whoever believes in the Son of God accepts this testimony. Whoever does not believe God has made him out to be a liar, because they have not believed the testimony God has given about his Son. 11 And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12 Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.


Gospel John 17

Jesus Prays for His Disciples

6 “I have revealed you to those whom you gave me out of the world. They were yours; you gave them to me and they have obeyed your word. 7 Now they know that everything you have given me comes from you. 8 For I gave them the words you gave me and they accepted them. They knew with certainty that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me. 9 I pray for them. I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours. 10 All I have is yours, and all you have is mine. And glory has come to me through them. 11 I will remain in the world no longer, but they are still in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name, the name you gave me, so that they may be one as we are one. 12 While I was with them, I protected them and kept them safe by that name you gave me. None has been lost except the one doomed to destruction so that Scripture would be fulfilled.

13 “I am coming to you now, but I say these things while I am still in the world, so that they may have the full measure of my joy within them. 14 I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. 15 My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. 16 They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. 17 Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. 18 As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. 19 For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified.

Sermon

How many believers—early church at start of Acts? Hard to believe only 120 people recorded by Luke who were listening to Peter’s address to them. Not just men—Peter refers to them as “Brothers and Sisters.”

How many Methodist chapels in Bucks does this represent in numbers? 6? Yet even after the momentous events of Easter—resurrection of Christ and his appearing to his disciples—gift of the Holy Spirit—Peter can only count 120 people to take forward the great commission given to the believers by Jesus himself. No wonder Jesus in today’s gospel passage prays earnestly to the Father for the followers he will leave behind after his ascension. It’s like we can listen in to what he prays:

11 I will remain in the world no longer, but they are still in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name, the name you gave me, so that they may be one as we are one. 12 While I was with them, I protected them and kept them safe by that name you gave me. None has been lost except the one doomed to destruction so that Scripture would be fulfilled.

The gap left in the number of apostles by Judas Iscariot was also a first priority for the early church. The number 12 was important to the Jews in very many ways, but how were they to make up the number—who to choose—what qualities they must have—how to go about appointing them?

The background was one of crisis—which explains the priority given to strengthening the leadership.

1. They were frustrated that the resurrection of the dead did not immediately lead to the restoration of Israel—their hopes dashed with the death of Jesus on the cross [Emmaus]—they rose to the pinnacle of expectation on his resurrection. Jesus had told them it was not their business to know the place or the time—nor was it his but God’s own time.

2. The believers were forced to wait—no one likes waiting do they?—in the meantime God would deliver on his promise through Jesus to give them the Holy Spirit—but the longing for restoration never really went away—there was short term thinking—that led to a delay for many years writing down the gospels.

3. There was a leadership crisis—which explains the priority given over other matters to the replacement of Judas. For 3 years Jesus had led them—interpreted the scriptures—taught his disciples—resolved disputes—prepared them for the time when he would no longer be with them. Now they had to work out a transition—how would the group be directed?—who would lead them?

4. They had a short list of two men—Joseph Barsabbas known as Justus—and Matthias. They prayed to God for guidance on how to choose between the candidates—drew lots and Matthias was chosen.

To us today, this sort of recruitment looks like an act of desperation—Matthias does not appear anywhere else in scripture—but there is a tradition that he took the gospel to Cappadocia and the Caspian Sea region.

We know that the extra apostle in effect was not Matthias but Paul—so the choice may not have been for the best and the method of selection crude—but Paul’s vocation revealed by God on the road to Damascus was probably the single most critical factor in the spread of the gospel around the Mediterranean and Roman world.

What are we to make of the fact Jesus hand picked Judas as his disciple—yet after his treachery and betrayal the remaining believers cast lots for his replacement? Sin can appear to triumph and derail our hopes—but in the end we know that God’s will will be done—that is exactly what happened here. Despite the shared prayers of the believers—it was the Holy Spirit that overruled and chose Paul as the twelfth disciple—and the rest, as they say, is history—but the early church moved from only 120 followers to millions in the next 2 or 3 centuries, thanks to Paul the twelfth apostle and his boldness and leadership.

No wonder Jesus prayed for his disciples at some length—and continues to do so, as we offer our prayers to the Father through him.

Today’s gospel reading is actually only a part of the extended discourse by Jesus with his disciples that stretches from chapter 13 to 17. The most significant theme is that of ‘giving’ — mentioned 9 times in this chapter alone. Here are 6 in three verses alone:

6 “I have revealed you to those whom you gave me out of the world. They were yours; you gave them to me and they have obeyed your word. 7 Now they know that everything you have given me comes from you. 8 For I gave them the words you gave me and they accepted them. They knew with certainty that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me. 9 I pray for them. I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours.

Knowing we belong
Both God the Father and the Son are extravagant givers through grace—we are inheritors of the grace given to us through Jesus—and in this state of grace we are enabled to live. We have only to accept the word that comes from God, and believe in him. We are identified as belonging—we belong to Jesus

Knowing the Father’s name
Knowing his name stands for knowing all that God is and has done—if we wonder why we are enabled to know Jesus as Lord, it is because we have been given to him from the very beginning

Knowing the Word
8 For I gave them the words you gave me and they accepted them. They knew with certainty that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me.

We are sanctified—made holy—we are sent into the world—belonging to God, knowing his name, and accepting the Word. Guarded and sustained in that Word we can know ourselves as disciple community—constituted in the power of Christ's death and resurrection and in the promise of his presence in the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Counsellor and Comforter—about which we may hear more next week—Pentecost.

Amen

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Easter 2 at Wingrave Methodist Church

8 April 2018

First Reading—Acts 4

The believers share their possessions

32 All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. 33 With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all 34 that there was no needy person among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35 and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.

New Testament 1 John 1

The incarnation of the Word of life


That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched – this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. 2 The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. 3 We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. 4 We write this to make our joy complete.

Light and darkness, sin and forgiveness

5 This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. 6 If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. 7 But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.

8 If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.


My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father – Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. 2 He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.

Hymn 2

· Walk in the light 397

Gospel 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.

Sermon

Barely a month has passed since the snow, and my last visit. We spoke about Zeal—for Law, Wisdom, Temple as Body of Christ. This time—clear choice of Jesus appearing to disciples—giving gift of Holy Spirit—Thomas not present—told to believe, not doubt—which he does “My Lord and my God!”

You’ve heard this many times before—sermons on Believing Thomas—but as we are in the Methodist church let’s heed the words of John Wesley:

“If the preacher would imitate any part of the oracles of God above all the rest, let it be the first epistle of St John” (Sermons on Several Occasions).

Why did John Wesley elevate 1 John in this way? The clue is in the content. The first century was something of a honeymoon period for the early Christian gatherings—followed the ideal of holiness and unity—led by the Holy Spirit—a period of fresh revelations, miracles, and rapid growth in numbers. But it was also a time of differing beliefs, strife, and splits in the church over passionate differences in doctrine.

One of most controversial splits was between those who differed fundamentally over the person of Christ and the nature of the Christian life. These dissenters denied that Christ was ever really human—they followed the model of the ‘spiritual’ Jesus—Christ they believed was heavenly, sinless and wise—they thought that made them the same. This same split in doctrine has never gone away—the church tried to reconcile differing views by asserting Christ was fully human and fully divine—but over the centuries this ideal of the early church gave way to violence, torture and death—but that’s another terrible story in the history of religion.

The writer of 1 John—we’ll call him The Elder—fearing the effects of dissent and fracture—wrote his letter to set the record straight, as it were. He wasn’t criticising anyone, but making a passionate appeal for the believers to join in their relationship with both Father and Son. Surprisingly, over the generations, this letter has never held centre stage—nor did people tend to agree with Wesley about it’s importance—but here we are in the shadow of John Wesley, so I’ll continue with 1 John.

According to Luke, when Paul was in Athens, he was engaged in discussion with Greek philosophers who enjoyed new teachings. Some early Christians were more interested in special wisdom—revealed especially to them—in Greek they were known as Gnostics—after the Greek word for knowledge—a special kind of revelation that only they had.

John the Elder therefore opened his letter by a restatement of the incarnation. What he has heard, what he has seen with his own eyes, what was from the beginning, what he has held with his hands, in short what concerns the Word of life—these are the things he declares to those who hear of read his letter.

John the Elder avoids personalising the Logos—although the opening of his letter sounds like the opening to John’s gospel—so he restates what he has seen and heard without immediately declaring the personality of the Word (Logos). This news sounds new and fresh—and so the dissenters would be all ears—but the news is old news—no secret wisdom or special knowledge—unchanged from the beginning.

3 We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. 4 We write this to make our joy complete.

It sounds strange to our ears that John says the word he declares has been touched by human hands. The Greek word here means something closer to grapple, wrestle, or physically examine. It’s interesting that Luke uses the same word in reference to his resurrected body:

“Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see I have.” (Luke 24:39)

Instead of a new revelation of special wisdom, John the Elder’s hearers get the old, old story of Jesus and his love. This Jesus was a person, a human being. We cannot know Jesus—we cannot reckon with Jesus as risen and reigning Lord—we cannot do all this without engaging with the incarnation—the flesh and blood Jesus. We cannot do all this without Jesus’ early life on earth, the words he spoke and the things he did—and of course his death on the cross. All these are necessary before we can comprehend his divine nature, his resurrection, his ascension, and his salvation. Only then can there be fellowship for us with Christ as well as God the Father.

God is Light—we cannot have fellowship with Him without dealing with our sinful nature first. Justification by faith leads on to works—inspired and impelled by faith. God is Light. In Him is no darkness at all. So we must attend to sin. Not that we can make things right with God through our own power, but by grace. There cannot be light without darkness—but one banishes the other, however feeble is our reflected light from our personal fellowship with God the Father and the Son.

Salvation is not obtained by special knowledge, but by grace. This is the message of John the Elder:

7 But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.

8 If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. Amen

Easter 3 at All Saints Marsworth

15 April 2018

Reading Acts 3:12—19

Peter Speaks to the Onlookers

11 While the man held on to Peter and John, all the people were astonished and came running to them in the place called Solomon’s Colonnade. 12 When Peter saw this, he said to them: “Fellow Israelites, why does this surprise you? Why do you stare at us as if by our own power or godliness we had made this man walk? 13 The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified his servant Jesus. You handed him over to be killed, and you disowned him before Pilate, though he had decided to let him go. 14 You disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you. 15 You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this. 16 By faith in the name of Jesus, this man whom you see and know was made strong. It is Jesus’ name and the faith that comes through him that has completely healed him, as you can all see.

17 “Now, fellow Israelites, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your leaders. 18 But this is how God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, saying that his Messiah would suffer. 19 Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord.

Reading 1 John 3:1—7

See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 2 Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. 3 All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.

4 Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness. 5 But you know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin. 6 No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.

7 Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. The one who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.

Gospel Luke 24:36—48

Alleluia, alleluia. I am the first and the last, says the Lord, and the living one; I was dead, and behold I am alive for evermore.

Jesus Appears to the Disciples

36 While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”

37 They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. 38 He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? 39 Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.”

40 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. 41 And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” 42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate it in their presence.

44 He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”

45 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. 46 He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

Sermon

Today’s gospel passage from the last chapter of Luke follows on from everyone’s favourite travel story—The Road to Emmaus. In Luke’s account, it is Sunday morning—as the day starts two women make their way to the tomb where Jesus has been interred. There they find the stone covering the entrance has been unsealed and rolled aside. Two men in dazzling garments announce to them that Jesus is risen.

Armed with these momentous tidings, the women go straight to the disciples and announce the resurrection. They are not believed—their tidings are judged to be no more than an idle tale.

Peter, however, runs to the tomb and finds it as the women had reported. Apart from confirming that the tomb is empty, Luke does not tell us anything about any conclusions Peter reached. At this point Luke’s narrative cuts abruptly to the account of the Road to and from Emmaus.

Two of the disillusioned disciples have decided to escape from the febrile atmosphere in Jerusalem and start walking the 13 miles home to Emmaus. They encounter, but do not recognise Jesus. They express their disappointment. They hoped that Jesus would be the one to redeem Israel, but Jesus explains how everything that happened was necessary according to Scripture.

The two invited Jesus to spend the night with them. During the meal, when Jesus blessed and broke the bread, their eyes were opened, and they recognised him, but he vanished from their sight. They rushed back to Jerusalem and reported to the gathered believers what had happened.

Jesus’s greeting was the first word the disciples had heard from him since the dark and terrible events of the weekend. The word was Shalom. Peace was what the disciples needed to hear. They were in hiding, fearing for their very lives after the leader of their fledgling movement had met his fate. Jesus’s appearing in their very midst, unaccountably, was accompanied by the reassurance that all would be well, despite every indication to the contrary.

Peace is a repeated theme in Luke—think of the angels in the fields, and the hymns of Zechariah and Simeon. But before their minds could be put at rest, the disciples needed assurance they were not seeing an apparition. Jesus showed them the marks of the nails in his hands and feet, but also demonstrated his ability to eat and drink—something phantoms could not do.

In our modern translation, it’s easy to miss Jesus claim to be divine:

Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.”

“It is I myself”—ἐγώ εἰμί in Greek—I AM is the name for God. After sharing the peace with his friends, Jesus gives his authority for the peace he shares with them. His credentials are nothing less than the assurance of God the Father. The news must have been startling to the band of disappointed, fearful, disciples who remained in Jerusalem, despite the likelihood they would be betrayed, arrested and killed themselves.

All this can be understood in fulfilment of Scripture. That was why Jesus expounded the law of Moses—effectively what had been written about him—to the disciples in the upper room as he had on the road to Emmaus.

All this is not for interest alone. The elaborate explanation is for a good reason. The disciples, as witnesses of Jesus, are now called to proclaim repentance for the forgiveness of sins in his name to all nations, a theme that will be traced further in Acts.

Both for the early disciples—and also for us—the message of Easter is the fulfilment of what God has been accomplishing throughout human history. The reality of Jesus is the reality of God’s plan revealed. This understanding moves the disciples forward to the future—no longer fearful and alone—but sure in the knowledge of the resurrection through their own witness of a physical Jesus who is very much alive.

Luke in his gospel account immediately follows this episode with a commission to the disciples—and of course the same exhortation to us:

48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

Belief in the empty tomb is a prerequisite of every Easter day of our lives. What follows from this confession is our own commission—the same promise and the same assurance as was given to the disciples by the physical Jesus himself.

Luke did not himself witness these things—he is in the same position as we are in that sense. Like the apostles we have to account for what we have done with the witness account we have just read. That is the big question asked of all of us.

You are witnesses of these things, says the Lord. I was dead, and behold I am alive for evermore. Amen

Easter 4 at Wing

22 April 2018


Reading Acts 4:5—12

5 The next day the rulers, the elders and the teachers of the law met in Jerusalem. 6 Annas the high priest was there, and so were Caiaphas, John, Alexander and others of the high priest’s family. 7 They had Peter and John brought before them and began to question them: ‘By what power or what name did you do this?’

8 Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them: ‘Rulers and elders of the people! 9 If we are being called to account today for an act of kindness shown to a man who was lame and are being asked how he was healed, 10 then know this, you and all the people of Israel: it is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed. 11 Jesus is ‘“the stone you builders rejected,
    which has become the cornerstone.” 12 Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.’

Gospel John 10:11—18

Alleluia, alleluia. I am the first and the last, says the Lord, and the living one; I was dead, and behold I am alive for evermore.

11 ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. 13 The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.

14 ‘I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me – 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father – and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that are not of this sheepfold. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. 17 The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life – only to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.’

Sermon

Magic Persian carpet—2,000 years—Jesus tells Parable of Good Shepard. Not cosy pastoral fable with a message—not sitting on the grass with disciples as Jesus taught—background threatening investigation of lawbreaking by Pharisees.

Lawbreaking—John 8—Pharisees present to Jesus Woman taken in Adultery—long dispute follows—Jesus claims about himself—chapter ends with Jesus claiming in effect he is God:

58 ‘Very truly I tell you,’ Jesus answered, ‘before Abraham was born, I am!’ 59 At this, they picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds.

Chapter 9 continues theme of lawbreaking—this time Jesus himself—healing of Man Born Blind—on Sabbath Day. Pharisees investigate—interview man who was healed—under whose authority did Jesus do this?—chapter ends with accusation against Pharisees of spiritual blindness.

Chapter 10—opens with Good Shepherd—parable told at first against Pharisees—they are accused of being thieves and robbers—who do not enter gate of sheepfold but try to break in by climbing the wall. The Good Shepherd enters through gate—sheep recognise him—know his voice and feel safe. They run away from a stranger—they do not know his voice.

Pharisees do not understand—miss the point—parable is aimed at them. Thieves come only to kill and destroy—Jesus not only the gate keeper—also the gate itself. Not only does Jesus control the gate—he is the gate and the gatekeeper.

Sheep are dumb creatures—follow the leader—if rescued from snow drifts weighing down their fleece—tend to climb back again because the blanket of snow is warmer—easily stray into danger. How funny we so readily associate with the sheep when told this parable!

Christological reflection—Pharisees misunderstood—represented as wolves preying on sheep—or thieves and robbers. We need to understand what part we play—more important we use parable and other I AM sayings to learn more about Jesus—who and what he is.

Logos—John starts by a grand vision of The Word—creative force since before time itself—through who all things came into being.

Jesus uses I AM also in several parables to help our understanding:

· Vine and Branches

· Bread of Life

· Living Water

· Shepherd and flock

· Door of sheepfold

Easter—good time to get to know Jesus better through these images.

There is a difficulty for us in today’s parable—we understand little of sheep husbandry compared to Jesus’ hearers. Shepherds were universally mistrusted—badly paid with no incentive to confront danger—prone to theft of the sheep. So it’s interesting Jesus represents himself as the Good Shepherd. Scripture is full of images of God as shepherd of his flock:

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
    He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
    he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
    for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk
    through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
    for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
    they comfort me. (PS 23)

The twist now is that Jesus is representing himself as Shepherd—but also as God in OT. If we reflect on the nature of Christ post Easter—what theologians call theological reflection—there are a number of questions that you may think come to your mind:

· What kind of flock are we? What kind are we meant to be?

· Jesus mentions another flock—they are not of this sheepfold—what flock is this and what has happened to them?

· What does it mean to be part of Jesus’s flock—protection from harm—access to the gate—being trusted and loved by the Good Shepherd—being fed and nurtured—knowing his voice and choosing to follow him—being rescued and valued if we repent after wandering off?

The Pharisees and others thought they were chosen by God—but Jesus tells them about only one flock and one Shepherd. We—through Christ—by God’s Holy Spirit—have the invitation to belong to this one flock. This is not the way we tend to remember the parable of the Good Shepherd. Too often the parable is recalled out of context—with a warm glow of satisfaction—whereas the truth is much grittier—born out of a dispute between our Lord and the religious authorities.

So this Eastertide—let us read anew one of the most familiar passages of Scripture—this time in a much more direct and grown up version—knowing our salvation depends on it—and not falling into the trap of the Pharisees, believing they are God’s elect—or that justification is necessarily by faith alone. Amen