Sunday, 21 April 2013

I and the Father are One

Easter 4 at Aston Abbotts

Gospel John 10.22-30

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.
All Alleluia.

When the Gospel is announced the reader says

Hear the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to N.
All Glory to you, O Lord.

The time came for the Feast of Dedication at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was in the temple area walking in Solomon’s Colonnade. The Jews gathered round him, saying, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.”

Jesus answered, “I did tell you, but you do not believe. The miracles I do in my Father’s name speak for me, but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no-one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no-one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.”

This is the Gospel of the Lord.
All Praise to you, O Christ.


We read today from John 10, verse 22 to verse 30. It’s the festival of lights – Hanukkah. Jesus is walking through Solomon’s Porch. This portico was on the east side of the Temple. The location is not just a detail thrown in by John. It’s important. Solomon’s Porch was also known as the Porch of Judgement. This was where the king held court, forming judgements and dispensing justice to complainants who came to him.

Here is Jesus walking round this historic place, representing fairness and justice for all in his own person and through his ministry to the poor and disadvantaged. That’s what so much of his life and teaching was all about.

The Jews—says John—by which he means the religious authorities I suppose—have another agenda in mind. “Stop keeping us in suspense” they say. “Tell us plainly who you are. Are you the Christ, the Messiah?”

This constant questioning of his identity must have become a constant annoyance to Jesus. He snaps at them. “I did tell you, but you don’t believe me.” Which is not really fair, because Jesus never unequivocally stated who he was—nor does he answer plainly here.

This is what theologians call the Messianic Secret. In the gospels, Jesus tells those he has healed not to reveal his identity, in case the crowds overwhelm him and prevent him moving freely around the countryside or allowing the authorities to see his Messiahship as a military or political threat to their relationship with Rome.

The reply Jesus gives the Pharisees here is that they do not believe in him because they are not numbered among his sheep. It must have sounded odd at the time and it seems strange to us, until we put this passage in context. You see—chapter 10 is all about sheep. Unless we understand what Jesus is saying about sheep, we cannot understand his reply to the Pharisees.

The Parable of the Good Shepherd, as its name implies, tells us more about Jesus the shepherd than it does about us, his sheep. The Pharisees do not belong to the flock because they do not behave like sheep act towards the shepherd.

Jesus is the Good Shepherd, of course. Sheep will not follow anyone, but only the shepherd. They recognise his voice and follow him. Not only do the sheep recognise the shepherd, but the shepherd knows them all by name. Jesus calls us all by name. He goes before us, facing danger with us and giving us eternal life in his name, so that we will never perish whatever might befall us in this transitory life here on earth.

John the Evangelist makes it clear the Pharisees do not understand. In verse 6, it says: 6 Jesus used this figure of speech, but the Pharisees did not understand what he was telling them. That’s why the Pharisees asked Jesus to tell them plainly whether or not he was the Christ, the anointed one.

Eventually, at the end of our gospel reading, perhaps in frustration, Jesus puts himself at great risk by abandoning the pastoral metaphors and admitting that “I and the Father are one.” It is God who has given him the sheep of his flock. We are his sheep, and no one can snatch us from the care of the Good Shepherd. The sheep do not die—they are not ravaged by thieves who come only to steal, kill and destroy. No—the Good Shepherd is the one who will die, because the Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep, so that we may have life and have it in all its fullness.

No wonder the crowd immediately pick up stones to mete out on Jesus the traditional punishment for blasphemy. What greater sin could there be but to claim that I and the Father are one. As yet, his time had not yet come, and Jesus escaped from their grasp.

We of course know the end of the story, or maybe it is only the beginning as we are still celebrating the resurrection of Jesus in Eastertide. There are two marks to being in his flock. We hear his voice and follow him. As his followers, we are protected by the One who is all-powerful against anything that threatens to do us harm, whether spiritual or in any other sense.

Many of us have known hard times. We may have been afflicted by disease. We may have tragically lost loved ones. We may have been abused or belittled. During these darker times, very likely we have not felt protected or cared for. But this is the context into which we able to bring the gospel message of grace. This is the context into which we bring a message of reassurance and hope. We are called to minister to others, and help them hear the voice of the Good Shepherd and to follow him in their lives.

In another parable, the Lost Sheep, we learn more about the sheep than the shepherd. It maybe should be called The Sheep that was found. Because the lost sheep could do nothing. It was lost. All the sheep could do was wait to be found, and accept help when it came. Then Jesus, the Good Shepherd, brought the sheep home. So it is with us and those to whom we minister. There’s nothing we can do in our own power. No action we can take to save ourselves. We can only have the grace to permit ourselves to be found, and brought back into the fold. Amen

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Feed my Sheep

Easter 3 at Stewkley

Gospel John 21.1-19

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.
All Alleluia.

When the Gospel is announced the reader says

Hear the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to N.
All Glory to you, O Lord.

Jesus appeared again to his disciples, by the Sea of Tiberias. It happened this way: Simon Peter, Thomas (called Didymus), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples were together. “I’m going out to fish,” Simon Peter told them, and they said, “We’ll go with you.” So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realise that it was Jesus.

He called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?”

“No,” they answered.

He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish.

Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, “It is the Lord,” he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water. The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full of fish, for they were not far from shore, about a hundred yards. When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread.

Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you have just caught.”

Simon Peter climbed aboard and dragged the net ashore. It was full of large fish, 153, but even with so many the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead.

When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?”

“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”

Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me?”

He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”

The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”

This is the Gospel of the Lord.
All Praise to you, O Christ.


When I was a kid we had a large round net on a long rope, and used to drop it over the side of the Cobb in Lyme Regis. The bait was a decomposing and very smelly kipper, which was secured with string just above the net. The idea was to dangle the net after midnight, and haul in prawns or even the occasional small lobster. Then as a family, we’d take our haul back to the house we had rented, tip the catch into boiling water, and enjoy the freshest shrimps you’d ever tasted. It was exciting, easy, and meant staying up late.

Fishing is not my thing. Mostly it’s too boring. Sitting by a canal all day in the rain, catching the occasional carp you can’t even eat, is not for me. If I had to fish, I’d prefer prawns at midnight to any number of hours of preparation, waiting and eventual disappointment. But that’s what some of the disciples experienced in our gospel reading for today.

Why were these disciples fishing? After all, this was the fourth time Jesus had appeared to them or to Mary Magdalene since his crucifixion. Yet they remained in hiding for quite some time, and then decided to return to their previous occupation and earn some money. You can just imagine the scene. There they are, behind closed doors in an upper room, bored. Peter, their leader, suddenly has enough. “I’m going fishing” he says. “We’ll come with you” the others reply.

This was not what Jesus had in mind. The Great Commission at the end of Matthew’s gospel is to go out and make disciples of all nations, baptizing and teaching them about everything Jesus commanded them to do. Not give up, and go fishing. To be fishers of women and men, not fishers of fish.

Perhaps it was no coincidence when Peter and his companions worked all night and caught nothing. Bored, demoralised, and frustrated they approached the shore. There was something familiar about the man who greeted them. Have you no fish? He asked, somewhat ironically. Go out again, and this time do something completely unconventional. Cast your net out on the wrong side of the boat.

John is very precise about all the details in his gospel account. So theologians have speculated for centuries about the significance of the 153 fish they caught. 153 is a special number. Add every number between 1 and 17 together, and you get 153. Add factorials 1! 2! 3! 4! and 5!—you get 153. Arrange a triangular collection of balls from 1 at the apex through 2, 3, 4 balls and so on up to 17 in the bottom row—and there are 153 balls. Apparently you can even add together the value of the Greek letters in Mary Magdalene’s name and you get 153—but that’s too Dan Brown for me.

My explanation is radical. I think there were 153 fish. Simples, as the meercat would say. But that’s not the point of the story. The fact was that the disciples had almost given up, yet Jesus was waiting for them. Not with words of condemnation or disappointment, but with breakfast cooked on a fire.

And Peter, who denied him three times was not berated. No, Jesus just asked him—three times—to reaffirm his love for him. Then, after Peter gets tetchy, Jesus tells him to “feed my sheep” and to follow him.

Standing where he does, and waiting for his disciples to return frustrated, cold and disappointed, Jesus is calling them back to the fold. The symbolism is unmistakeable. Don’t fish for fish—fish for women and men—and if you do so in my name and with the authority and power of the Holy Spirit, you will haul in abundant success, just as the 153 fish were safely landed and did not break the net. And when we go astray, or take the easy, familiar way, rather than the more challenging, harder and more risky path, there is Jesus standing there, with encouragement and no blame, to call us back and set us once again on the right road.

Make no mistake—this account of Jesus on the shore is a Eucharistic event. There might be no wine, only fish. But just look at the wording Jesus uses when he invites his disciples to “come and have breakfast.”
“Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish.”

Once they had had communion with Jesus they received a recommissioning from him. They are reminded who they are and what they were originally called to be. They are challenged to get back in the boat and try again—in more ways than one.

Supposing we apply this for a moment to ourselves and our church. Following the call of Jesus means for us putting our nets back into the water even when we are tired and have had no success. Casting our net on the wrong side of the boat opens up some creative discussions we can have as to what church and mission might look like when we follow Jesus’ commands unquestioningly, and when that means doing things the way we have never done them before. It’s an end to inertia—it’s a liberating approach that calls us to follow him, and not to stay comfortably, year in year out, doing the things we have always done before in ways we have always done them. Amen

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Disbelief moves to Belief

Easter 2 at Wing Church

Reading Revelation 1.4-8

John, To the seven churches in the province of Asia:

Grace and peace to you from him who is, and who was, and who is to come, and from the seven spirits before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.

To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father – to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen.

Look, he is coming with the clouds,
and every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him;
and all the peoples of the earth will mourn because of him.
So shall it be! Amen.

Gospel John 20.19-31

“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.” All Alleluia.

When the Gospel is announced the reader says

Hear the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to N.
All Glory to you, O Lord.

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

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

Now Thomas (called Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 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 it.”

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!” 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.”

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

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

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

This is the Gospel of the Lord.
All Praise to you, O Christ.


John 20 is the penultimate chapter in John’s gospel. It’s a story of belief and disbelief. Belief and disbelief ebb and flow. People start by doubting, and move towards faith.

There are 4 scenes in chapter 20 that illustrate what is happening. I’ll describe them to you one by one. Remember – each move from disbelief to belief. Think about how this transition might apply to you.

Scene 1 – It’s Sunday morning – the first Sunday. It’s still dark. Mary Magdalene arrives to find the tomb where Jesus was laid empty. Disbelieving, she runs to Peter and the unnamed beloved disciple and says: They have taken the Lord.

The two disciples run to the tomb. Peter enters and sees the folded grave clothes. The other disciple comes shortly afterwards. His reaction was: He saw and believed.

Disbelief turns to belief.

Scene 2 – Mary Magdalene still disbelieves. She is crying when a man she assumes to be a gardener approaches. If you have carried him away, she says, tell me where you have put him.

The man calls her by name, and she recognises it is Jesus. Convinced, she goes to find the other disciples, and tells them I have seen the Lord.

Disbelief turns to belief.

Scene 3 – this forms our gospel reading in today’s lectionary. The disciples are still in the Upper Room. The door is locked for fear of the Jewish authorities, not the Romans. Jesus appears, and says Shalom – Peace be with you.

The disciples believe, but one among their number is absent. He is Thomas the Twin – who garnered the ill reputation as Doubting Thomas for the rest of time, even though he ended up a greater believer than any of the others who had been present. Thomas, in this sense, represents us. We can all associate with what he went through. Who among us would not have done the same?

The other disciples catch up with Thomas, and tell him We have seen the Lord. Disbelief and fear turn into some form of belief, but Thomas doubts.

Finally, we come to Scene 4. Jesus appears to Thomas. A week has gone by, yet the disciples are still locked away in the Upper Room. So how lasting was their belief, and how strong their fear? They had seen clearly the risen Christ yet they remained in hiding. Why were they not proclaiming the fact from the housetops and on every street corner? The answer – they were human and fallible, like us. For the time being, they remained out of sight. It would take some time before the enormity of the implications of what they had seen and experienced for themselves sunk in.

But Thomas reacts much more strongly. Faced with the evidence in front of his very eyes, he doesn’t even bother to reach out his finger and touch the cruel wounds left by the process of crucifixion. No – previously Doubting Thomas shows himself one of the Bible’s greatest believers. My Lord and my God – he says.

Just think of that huge leap of faith. For a Jew of his time to come to the conclusion that the risen Jesus is actually divine – none other than God himself. How unfairly history has treated Thomas! If we think he is much like us, then we focus on his doubts, and ignore completely this major statement of faith.

At the end of Scene 4 – Jesus in effect turns and speaks directly to each and every one of us. It’s like he turns from Thomas, and addresses the great cloud of witnesses gathered round, including we ourselves.

Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed. Jesus is offering us his blessing, if only we number ourselves among the believers, who have faith yet have not seen him in the flesh — incarnate.

Does it matter that our faith ebbs and flows —just like Mary and the disciples? Those disciples only reacted with joy when Jesus was present with them. After he had left, they remained under lock and key. So how strong was their faith?

Their faith might have been imperfect—isn’t that what faith is all about anyway? Faith is not knowledge, nor is it even strong belief. It is faith. Even with that imperfect faith, still the disciples took forward the mission of the Messiah, and our presence here, thanks in large measure to Paul and others, is evidence of what results from... from what?

Well, certainly not the strength of 11 fallible men, together with a larger group of women and men who formed the outer corps of followers. No, it was more than human activity and endeavour.

Even before he met Thomas, remember that Jesus breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” So it was in the power of God’s Spirit that those fearful men were empowered to take the mission forward. That was what changed for the disciples —it wasn’t that they saw the Lord in the flesh, but that he conferred on them the gift of the Spirit which then convicted and convinced, and then led them into all truth.

This gift does not have to come to us in a flash, with fire and noise, heat and impact obvious to all. No, what is quieter than a breath? Jesus breathed on them. Like the sound of sheer silence—the still small voice as Tyndale translated it from I Kings 19. Barely audible. Intimate even. Yet intensely powerful and transforming. So let us pray for that same Spirit, and for its transforming power in our lives, both now and for evermore. Amen