Sunday, 8 May 2016

Unity in Love

Easter 7 – Sunday 8 May 2016 – Stoke Hammond

Readings Ezekiel 36

24 ‘“For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. 25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. 26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. 28 Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God.

Reading Acts 16

Paul and Silas in prison

16 Once when we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a female slave who had a spirit by which she predicted the future. She earned a great deal of money for her owners by fortune-telling. 17 She followed Paul and the rest of us, shouting, ‘These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.’ 18 She kept this up for many days. Finally Paul became so annoyed that he turned round and said to the spirit, ‘In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her!’ At that moment the spirit left her.

19 When her owners realised that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the market-place to face the authorities. 20 They brought them before the magistrates and said, ‘These men are Jews, and are throwing our city into an uproar 21 by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practise.’

22 The crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten with rods. 23 After they had been severely flogged, they were thrown into prison, and the jailer was commanded to guard them carefully. 24 When he received these orders, he put them in the inner cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.

Gospel John 17

Jesus prays for all believers

20 ‘My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one – 23 I in them and you in me – so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

24 ‘Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.

25 ‘Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. 26 I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.’


Ezekiel is not an attractive book, although you would think so if you only read the few passages from Ezekiel in the lectionary for the weeks between Easter and Pentecost.

Ezekiel has been described as ‘the most thorough instance of “blaming the victim” in the history of world literature.’ It was written as a response to the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonian empire in 587BC.

The book is full of poems that seem to take particular delight in blaming the Judeans for their own downfall. There is little hope for the future, as there is in parts of Isaiah, but universal condemnation for the Judeans’ sin, much of which was a failure to observe all the requirements of Temple worship and minute observance of the Law.

I rather wish I had not done any research on this passage before deciding what to preach about this morning. Ezekiel 36 was one of my favourite bits from the OT. The image of the clean water sprinkled on us to make us clean again; and the replacement of our old hearts of stone for new ones which listen to God and obey him are attractive pictures of our change of heart and of our salvation.

I won’t go into any more detail in case this is one of your favourite passages too. Just be thankful next week is Whitsun, otherwise we might have been treated once again to Exodus 37 — the valley of the dry bones.

In isolation though, it’s a wonderful text, and today we can read it alongside Jesus’ prayer that all may be one. This is not just the elusive vision of church unity, but oneness with God in love for Him and his love for us, as well as reflecting that same love for each other.

Today’s gospel comes from Jesus’ ‘farewell discourses’ to his disciples. The fact that we read it in the weeks after Easter is confusing. We celebrated Easter at the end of March, and now we are taken back to the Passover meal which Jesus ate with his disciples.

First, Jesus prays for himself. It’s not the agonising prayer of the garden of Gethsemane, but a prayer of glorification and satisfaction that the end has come. The Son will glorify the Father, as the Father has glorified the Son.

Second, what a privilege it must have been for those sitting at table, leaning forward, straining to hear what Jesus was saying. How amazing for them to hear those words, as Jesus prays out loud for them.

One woman theologian wrote this:

“Then Jesus moves on to pray for those who are sitting at the table with him. Jesus is praying like a mother who has adopted these children. They belonged to God, but God gave them to Jesus to care for, to teach, to nurture. Soon Jesus will go away and he prays for these children with the love of a motherly heart.” [i]

But Jesus’ prayer does not stop with those seated at table. It extends to us—to you and me. My Bible makes this clear, with the heading “Jesus Prays for All Believers.” He says:
20 ‘My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.

We are the ones who have believed in him through the message of those disciples. Jesus’ prayer hangs in the space between earth and heaven, between time past and time to come—a prayer that we will remain faithful, through the encouragement and support of the Holy Spirit whose presence we celebrate next Sunday at Pentecost.

It’s hard to believe we can all act in this way, when we look at our church nationally and internationally. A church that takes 18 months to elect a new Bishop of Oxford all can agree to support. A church that acts towards some minorities in the way it does. A church that took so long to recognise the full ministry and contribution of women.

All that is broadly out of our hands at a local level, but we can sing in unison from the same song sheet at the grass roots. That song sheet might as well be John’s gospel chapter 17, when Jesus prays aloud his hopes for the future and for us, his followers. Amen

[i] Barbara Lundblad Joe R. Engle Professor EmerITUS Union Theological Seminary New York, NY

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Paul’s Second Missionary Journey

Easter 6 – 1 May 2016 – Stewkley

Reading Acts 16

9 During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’ 10 After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.

11 From Troas we put out to sea and sailed straight for Samothrace, and the next day we went on to Neapolis. 12 From there we travelled to Philippi, a Roman colony and the leading city of that district of Macedonia. And we stayed there several days.

13 On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer. We sat down and began to speak to the women who had gathered there. 14 One of those listening was a woman from the city of Thyatira named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth. She was a worshipper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message. 15 When she and the members of her household were baptised, she invited us to her home. ‘If you consider me a believer in the Lord,’ she said, ‘come and stay at my house.’ And she persuaded us.

Gospel John 14

Jesus said, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.’ Alleluia.

23 Jesus replied, ‘Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. 24 Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me.

25 ‘All this I have spoken while still with you. 26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. 27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.

28 ‘You heard me say, “I am going away and I am coming back to you.” If you loved me, you would be glad that I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I. 29 I have told you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe. 30 I will not say much more to you, for the prince of this world is coming. He has no hold over me, 31 but he comes so that the world may learn that I love the Father and do exactly what my Father has commanded me.

‘Come now; let us leave.


When I was young, Sunday school leaders used to give those children who had attended regularly and faithfully, presentation Bibles. KJV. Maps.

Acts 16—part of Paul’s 2nd missionary journey. Set out from Caesarea, up coast of Syria to Antioch, then round coast to home town of Tarsus.

Our reading from Acts 16 follows on from a description of Paul’s journey so far— through Derbe, Lystra and Iconium—visiting and encouraging fledgling Christian congregations and giving them the latest news from Jerusalem.

Paul seems to have been prevented from speaking in Asia or entering Bythinia as he had planned. He attributes the blockage to the “Spirit of Jesus” or the HS. Ends up in Troas—located on edge of Aegean Sea in Asia looking out towards Macedonia.

Nowadays the “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” is further north than it was in antiquity, and further north than the geographical region of Macedonia. Ancient M was in the SE part of Europe, in the Balkans, its S flank part of northern Greece.

One night, Paul has a dream. He sees a man from Macedonia, who says “Come over and help us”. With hardly a second thought, Paul gets ready and takes ship over to Samothrace, then on to Neapolis and overland to the Roman colony of Philippi, the capital of Macedonia.

On the Sabbath day, Paul left the city and went down to the river bank where there was a place of prayer run, it seems, by local women led by Lydia, a “worshipper of God.”

Lydia was a trader in purple cloth—for the rich and important. God opened her heart to Paul’s message, with the result that she and all her family were baptized and Paul went to stay with her in her house.

Could talk about women’s leadership in Church—supporters of Jesus providing money and resources—leaders of early church—and how it took 2,000 years and more of male dominance for us to get back to where we started… But appearance of Man from Macedonia speaks more of divine guidance in several forms, and whether or not we believe it still exists today. Partly, of course, the answer to this question will depend on our own experience of God leading us through our own past lives.

Paul evidently believed stumbling blocks in the way of his travel plans were put there by God to prevent him going astray, and directing him to where he was needed.

Today, we might call this ‘opening and closing doors’—being alive to the presence of God in our lives, and being prepared to go along with the direction in which we are led, regardless of our carefully laid prior plans.

Paul and his followers could have determinedly ignores the road blocks and struck out for Asia along the well laid Roman roads, but clearly he recognised something else was called for, and he was prepared to go along with it.

In saying this, I don’t mean to imply we should believe God micro-manages our lives—there are all sorts of theological objections to this position—nor do I mean to imply we should expect guidance for every detail of our lives, because I don’t think God works that way. But I do think we can be guided by Paul’s example, and perhaps be surprised at unintended outcomes which, after the event, seem clearly divinely led, as we recognise the doors that were open in the past, and the ones that were closed.

Paul’s change of heart came about after a ‘night vision’—possibly something more vivid than a dream. Dreams appear throughout Scripture. Some of the more well-known dreamers include:

  • · Joseph—dominance in his family; Pharaoh’s cup bearer; Pharaoh and the impending famine.
  • · Samuel and Eli
  • · Midianite and Amalekite armies
  • · Solomon—chose Wisdom
  • · Daniel—interpreted for Belshazzar

In NT:

  • · Zechariah
  • · Mary and Joseph
  • · Pilate’s wife
  • · Ananias
  • · Cornelius
  • · Peter
  • · Paul
  • · John the Divine

If you’re anything like me, most dreams however vivid you don’t recall for long. Some, like Samuel’s report to Eli are easily mistaken. But the mind works during our sleeping hours, and often provides an answer to a problem that seemed intractable the night before. Whether or not that is the hand of God pointing to a particular direction is for you to say, but Scripture is full of instances such as these, and we would do well to take note of them.

As Paul found, some were doors closed—the roadblocks steering us away from a course of action. Other were clear directions, like the Man from Macedonia.

This reminds me of a verse or two from Isaiah 30:

19 People of Zion, who live in Jerusalem, you will weep no more. How gracious he will be when you cry for help! As soon as he hears, he will answer you. 20 Although the Lord gives you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, your teachers will be hidden no more; with your own eyes you will see them. 21 Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it.’