Sunday, 24 September 2017

A new reflection on the Parable of the Vineyard

Bow Brickhill – 24 September 2017 – Trinity 15


Reading Exodus 16

2 In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. 3 The Israelites said to them, ‘If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat round pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.’

4 Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘I will rain down bread from heaven for you. The people are to go out each day and gather enough for that day. In this way I will test them and see whether they will follow my instructions. 5 On the sixth day they are to prepare what they bring in, and that is to be twice as much as they gather on the other days.’

6 So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, ‘In the evening you will know that it was the Lord who brought you out of Egypt, 7 and in the morning you will see the glory of the Lord, because he has heard your grumbling against him. Who are we, that you should grumble against us?’ 8 Moses also said, ‘You will know that it was the Lord when he gives you meat to eat in the evening and all the bread you want in the morning, because he has heard your grumbling against him. Who are we? You are not grumbling against us, but against the Lord.’

9 Then Moses told Aaron, ‘Say to the entire Israelite community, “Come before the Lord, for he has heard your grumbling.”’

10 While Aaron was speaking to the whole Israelite community, they looked towards the desert, and there was the glory of the Lord appearing in the cloud.

11 The Lord said to Moses, 12 ‘I have heard the grumbling of the Israelites. Tell them, “At twilight you will eat meat, and in the morning you will be filled with bread. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God.”’

13 That evening quail came and covered the camp, and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. 14 When the dew was gone, thin flakes like frost on the ground appeared on the desert floor. 15 When the Israelites saw it, they said to each other, ‘What is it?’ For they did not know what it was.

Moses said to them, ‘It is the bread the Lord has given you to eat.

Epistle Philippians 1

21 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. 22 If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labour for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! 23 I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; 24 but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. 25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that through my being with you again your boasting in Christ Jesus will abound on account of me.

27 Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in the one Spirit, striving together as one for the faith of the gospel 28 without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved – and that by God. 29 For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him, 30 since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have.

Gospel Matthew 20

The workers in the vineyard

20

‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. 2 He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.

3 ‘About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the market-place doing nothing. 4 He told them, “You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” 5 So they went.

‘He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. 6 About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, “Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?”

7 ‘“Because no one has hired us,” they answered.

‘He said to them, “You also go and work in my vineyard.”

8 ‘When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, “Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.”

9 ‘The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. 10 So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. 11 When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 12 “These who were hired last worked only one hour,” they said, “and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.”

13 ‘But he answered one of them, “I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?”

16 ‘So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’

Sermon

As I learnt from 20 years as a shopkeeper, the inhabitants of this island have a particular way of grumbling. It’s generally:

· Just loud enough to be audible, but not so loud as to elicit comment

· Accompanied by a roll of the eyes, and a look to the heavens

· Expressed with a tut, or a sigh— and a word such as “Typical” or “Honestly”

In retail, the implication was that customers would have done the job better than those who were paid to do it—and that what went wrong, or was missing, was deliberate and a personal slight.

There is a lot of grumbling in Scripture. Two of today’s readings are full of it. The people of Israel grumbled throughout their time in the Sinai, either against Moses and Aaron, or against God or both. And in the parable of the Vineyard, there was a wage dispute of biblical proportions.

My mother was not a grumbler. In fact, she was always positive, leaving the complaining to my father. But she did object strongly to two passages. One was the Good Wife in Proverbs 31—who did all the work morning, noon and night, whilst her husband sat meeting his friends and chatting in the city gate. The other was the way the workers in the vineyard were treated. If this parable is about the Kingdom of Heaven, she felt, then an ethereal version of RMT or Unite was certainly called for.

If you’ve ever worked in a vineyard through the heat of the day, you’ll know how draining it is. And if those who had only worked for an hour in the cool of the evening were given a full day’s minimum wage, who can blame those who had laboured in the heat of the day for being disgruntled when they received the same?

I did try several times to explain that parables were allegories and intended to shock as a means of teaching, but my mother was redolent. I trust and hope God in his wisdom has straightened her out now she is with him. I’m sure by now she’ll understand.

In the parable, the criticism of the owner of the vineyard is that he is being unfair. Of course, if the first men hired earned a denarius, and the others pro rata to the hours actually worked, no one would have grumbled. It was done deliberately for impact—why else would the boss have instructed his foreman to pay the last first, and the first last?

All the power is with the owner. He can do what he likes with his own property, and that includes treating a plentiful supply or day labourers just as he pleases. After all, in effect he owns the labourers too. They are powerless to complain.

Traditionally, like the strange parable of the Unjust Judge—where a poor widow is denied justice until she makes life a misery for the lazy judge—perhaps we should ask ourselves whether Jesus meant to portray the owner as representing God himself, or whether there is another explanation?

What are we meant to think about the sneering way the owner addresses the chief grumbler as “friend?” Elsewhere in Matthew’s gospel, the King who bound a man hand and foot and kicked him into the outer darkness was addressed as “Friend.” His crime? He came to the wedding feast improperly dressed. Jesus himself called Judas “friend” when he came to betray him.

Should we blame ourselves? Somehow we are programmed to associate figures such as kings, fathers, and bosses with God, merely because they are powerful, however badly they behave? Maybe my mother was right, and the parable is intended for us to be more critical, and not so accepting of bad conduct merely because we tend to accept what authority figures say and do, even when that flies in the face of reality?

At the same time, should we not question the vilification of the workers? All they wanted was fairness and equality. All of us measure ourselves against others. What’s wrong with that? Can God’s system of right and wrong be so different from ours, and did he not create us the way we are?

On the other hand, if the owner represents God, are there not equally important lessons to be learned? God is generous, feeding the Israelites with endless meat and manna when they grumbled. God treats everyone who comes to him the same—regardless of whether they have laboured for the gospel all their lives, or come to faith in him at their lives’ end. Our version of right and wrong is limited by our understanding—only by faith can we fully accept what sometimes feels wrong to us. In God’s good time we will fully know, as we are known.

For the moment, and with our limited understanding, the parable depicts a false form of justice—because far from offering healing and wholeness, it produces envy and division. Jesus condemned his disciples’ infighting only a couple of chapters ago, when they argued for places of status and prestige in the kingdom, and like the workers in the vineyard risked becoming splintered and alienated rather than loving and faithful.

So maybe we have to read the parable in several different ways: as a glimpse of the kingdom when a generous God will bring in a reign of love and acceptance, without merit on our part, but full of grace and truth. In this vision, there is no room for bickering and strife, inequality and abuse of power, favouritism and unfairness.

Are you envious because I am generous? Asks Jesus? That can only be because in God’s kingdom, the last will be first and the first last. Amen

Intercessions

In the power of the Spirit and in union with Christ, let us pray to the Father.

For the peace of the whole world, for the welfare of the Holy Church of God, and for the unity of all, let us pray to the Lord.
All Lord, have mercy.

For N our bishop, for the leaders of our sister Churches, and for all clergy and people, let us pray to the Lord.
All Lord, have mercy.

For Elizabeth our Queen, for the leaders of the nations, and for all in authority, let us pray to the Lord.
All Lord, have mercy.

For this community, for every city, town and village, and for all the people who live within them, let us pray to the Lord.
All Lord, have mercy.

For good weather, and for abundant harvests for all to share, let us pray to the Lord.
All Lord, have mercy

For those who travel by land, air, or water, for the sick and the suffering, [for … ,] for prisoners and captives, and for their safety, health and salvation, let us pray to the Lord. All Lord, have mercy.

For our deliverance from all affliction, strife and need, and for the absolution of our sins and offences, let us pray to the Lord.
All Lord, have mercy.

Remembering [ … and] all who have gone before us in faith, and in communion with [ … and] all the saints, we commit ourselves, one another, and our whole life to Christ our Lord. Amen

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Take Up Your Cross

Holy Communion at Wingrave – 3 September 2017

Gospel Matthew 16

Jesus predicts his death

21 From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.

22 Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. ‘Never, Lord!’ he said. ‘This shall never happen to you!’

23 Jesus turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.’

24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. 26 What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? 27 For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done.

28 ‘Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.’

Sermon

Here’s a good question for a pub quiz:

“Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight. Red sky in the morning, shepherds’ warning”. Where does it come from?

1. Shakespeare

2. The Bible

3. A well-known phrase of unknown origin.

The answer:
Jesus quoted it at the beginning of Matthew 16:

16 The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven.

2 He replied, ‘When evening comes, you say, “It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,” 3 and in the morning, “Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.” You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.

The signs of the times are of course the miracles of Christ—especially the stilling of the storm, walking on the water, and feeding of the 5,000.

The Pharisees and Sadducees asked for their own personal sign, as we heard in last Sunday’s gospel reading; but they had too much self-interest to be able to interpret what Jesus was doing—who he was and what was his mission here on earth.

Privately, Jesus asked his disciples who people thought he was: he received a variety of answers, but this discussion led on to the most important question of all: “Who do you say I am?” Like so many of the interactions with his followers, Jesus is also addressing us down the ages, as well as his contemporary audience. Who do we say he is, in our lives, in our worship, and in our very being?

Peter impulsively jumps in with what seems the perfect answer: “You are the anointed one, the Messiah, Son of the Living God.” He is commended for what the Spirit had confessed through his lips. The turning point comes when Jesus warns his followers not to tell anyone he is the Messiah, the so-called Messianic Secret as theologians have dubbed it, and this leads on to him predicting his own death in Jerusalem.

In just a handful of verses, Peter goes from the ultimate praise for his confession that Jesus is Son of the Living God to absolute condemnation when Jesus likens him to everything that is evil. Peter, the Rock, has become Peter the stumbling block.

Can you imagine how this must have felt? All Peter was doing was trying to save Jesus from certain death. In the circumstances, who can argue with him for offering comfort and reassurance to Christ, and attempting to divert him away from a journey to Jerusalem and to keep him safe? For this, Peter was likened to a hazard on which people will trip, thinking more of human concerns than God’s.

You see, Peter acted quite reasonably as any human being would act. He wanted to keep the disciples and their leader safe. To steer them away from threat of danger. He wanted to live in love: maintain good relations with friends and acquaintances. He wanted to make a little money, enough to feed and clothe his family. He wanted to protect them.

All these things are understandable. They are how you and I would instinctively act. But they are all human concerns, and not what God may want us to do. Instead, we are to take up our cross, deny ourselves, and follow God’s way rather than our own.

Perhaps Jesus is saying to Peter, and to us, that if we think we have everything sorted out in our minds, just as Peter did in his declaration of faith, we might be completely wrong. We might think our theology is tight, right and settled. But perhaps Jesus is telling us, like Peter, than we are wrong and have become a stumbling block for others who are working out their faith or seeking their own mission.

For Peter, the way of the cross was unthinkable, avoidable and a gross failure. For Jesus, the way of the cross was the only way. For the cross can be a symbol of death, pain, humiliation and rejection, but I don’t think this is the sense in which this passage is to be understood. The cross can be a sign of sacrifice and a heavy burden, but on the other hand it became a symbol of atonement, new life, salvation, forgiveness, and freedom from the weight of sin.

For the disciples, and for us, the sacrifice must be made, for nothing can be allowed to stand in the way of the will of the Father. Our lives must be turned upside down. As it says in our reading from Romans 12:

14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 

And in the gospel:

‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.  Amen

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Who do YOU say I am?

11th Sunday after Trinity at Stoke Hammond 27 August 2017


Gospel Matthew 16

Peter declares that Jesus is the Messiah

13 When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say the Son of Man is?’

14 They replied, ‘Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’

15 ‘But what about you?’ he asked. ‘Who do you say I am?’

16 Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’

17 Jesus replied, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’20 Then he ordered his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

Sermon

Here’s a good question for a pub quiz:

“Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight. Red sky in the morning, shepherds’ warning”. Where does it come from?

1. Shakespeare

2. The Bible

3. A well-known phrase of unknown origin.

The answer:

Jesus quoted it at the beginning of Matthew 16:

16 The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven.

2 He replied, ‘When evening comes, you say, “It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,” 3 and in the morning, “Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.” You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.

The signs of the times relate to Jesus’s miracles, like the feeding of the 5,000, the stilling of the storm, and Jesus walking on the water which were described in the chapters leading up to today’s gospel reading.

The Pharisees and Sadducees ask for their own personal sign from heaven, but Jesus tells them they can predict the weather, but cannot interpret the signs of the times. All they wanted was to test and trap him, not understand and accept who he is and what he represents.

Jesus is clearer with his followers. They have just entered the region of Caesarea Philippi, where he asks them two questions. The importance of these two questions cannot be overstated.

1. Who do people say I am?

2. Who do you say I am?

The disciples cast around for a few answers to the first. They suggest John the Baptist, Jeremiah, Elijah or one of the prophets. They know of course that all these are wrong. They have seen the signs, and in some cases understood the meaning from the lips of Jesus himself.

Shortly afterwards, at the beginning of the following chapter, Peter, James and John are invited to witness the theophany called The Transfiguration when they see Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus, so it’s clear they cannot be one and the same person. So, having dismissed the gossip, Jesus asks his followers directly who they say he is?

We don’t know their answer, except that the ever impulsive Peter jumps in:

‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’

17 Jesus replied, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.

As usual, things are not precisely as they appear. You might think Peter has come up with the perfect reply, yet this same man will go on to deny Jesus three times. Still, for the moment, the confession hangs in the air. It is the Ultimate Truth, as we who have read the gospels know full well. But Peter and the others are still finding their way. We have the benefit of hindsight. They do not.

Jesus singles out Peter, and there follows a much misquoted verse about the church and Peter’s place in it. Peter was Simon son of Jonah, before being renamed by Jesus as Cephas from the Aramaic word for stone. So he is the Rock—πεtρα in the Greek. This leads Jesus to say the church of God will be founded on this rock, and successive Popes have claimed succession by reference to this particular passage in Scripture. Or does it?

The word commonly translated “church” was rendered by early translators as more correctly meaning an “assembly” of Christians, a gathering, since at the time Jesus used the word εκκλησία there was no established church, and would not be for a long time.

Then again, Jesus could not have intended to mean that the church would be built on Peter the Rock— πεtρα is feminine—likewise εκκλησία is feminine too. You can see why there was such division between peoples during the Reformation about what this passage actually meant.

But I don’t think we need to get too diverted by theological arguments, when the question posed to the disciples is as clearly asked by Jesus of us. “Who do you say the Son of Man is?”

This question can only be answered individually, and I suppose my response is to ask myself what place Jesus holds in my life. Is it central to everything I do? Is Jesus fitted into the cracks—of the 112 waking hours in each week, how much does he occupy, not just 1 hour in the assembly of God here, but everything else too. You may like to do an audit and ask yourself whether the balance of faith and secular life is quite right? If you’re anything like me, you are probably short changing the time you spend on matters of the soul.

My time is up, but I will leave you with a reflection. On the rock Jesus has built the assembly, where we are now. It is through this assembly that we receive the keys to the Kingdom—herein lies the signs of the times. We keep our eyes on the weather forecast, and know how to interpret the look of the sky. Take a moment—take many moments in mindfulness—maintaining contact with the knowledge of the signs of the times and keeping close to God. Amen

Sunday, 23 July 2017

The Parable of the Weeds

TRINITY 6  -  SUNDAY 23 JULY 2017 – WING CHURCH


Introduction

Rod and Mary—two weeks ago contemplating Parable of Weeds—problem of Good and Evil.

Why did God sow the fields himself? Who created the Evil One, who contaminated the crop with darnel and vetch?—Why did God not order the weeds to be removed, as was usual, when it was possible to do so and leave only the good seed?

Invitation to Confession

Christ our passover lamb has been sacrificed for us. Let us therefore rejoice by putting away all malice and evil and confessing our sins with a sincere and true heart.

Absolution

May almighty God have mercy on you, forgive you your sins, and bring you to everlasting life.

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 Romans 8: 12—25

Present suffering and future glory

12 Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation – but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. 13 For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.

14 For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. 15 The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’ 16 The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. 17 Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.

18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19 For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.

22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

Gospel Matthew 13: 24—30,36—43

The parable of the weeds

24 Jesus told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. 25 But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away.26 When the wheat sprouted and formed ears, then the weeds also appeared.

27 ‘The owner’s servants came to him and said, “Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?”

28 ‘“An enemy did this,” he replied.

‘The servants asked him, “Do you want us to go and pull them up?”

29 ‘“No,” he answered, “because while you are pulling up the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: first collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.”’

36 Then he left the crowd and went into the house. His disciples came to him and said, ‘Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field.’

37 He answered, ‘The one who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man.38 The field is the world, and the good seed stands for the people of the kingdom. The weeds are the people of the evil one, 39 and the enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels.

40 ‘As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. 41 The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil.42 They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Whoever has ears, let them hear.

Sermon

Parable of Weeds—Matthew 13. About Good and Evil in our world. Exist side by side. Uncontrolled. No checks and balances. No judge or adjudicator limiting the scope of either. No attempt to keep order—for time being. Not everyone plays by same rules. Nor do we share a common moral compass or conscience.

Where did evil come from?—one of most challenging and problematic issues in history of theological thought.

Surely God cannot create evil—evil can come about through the allowance of freewill—what was once wholly good but having freewill has chosen the path of evil.

This does not explain the presence of “evils” in our world—cruel diseases; natural disasters; suffering of innocent babies—and so on. That is for another sermon, another time.

Bible OT generally invents alternative being alongside a good God—call him Satan. We did not create him. It’s not our fault. We are not to blame. Yes we share in the presence of sin in our lives—but Satan has tempted us and we fell for it—or rather, our remote ancestors did.

Does this provide a wholly satisfying rationale to ease our minds and explain some horrific evils, many not even the responsibility of humans?

NT Jesus gives an alternative illustration to the problem of evil in the Parable of the Weeds. But it is only an illustration, not a fully satisfying explanation. We have to admit the difficulties, inhabit the discomfort, and resist any superficial explanation for what we observe in the world.

Parable of the Weeds

· One of few parables that Jesus explains—Jesus himself is creator of a good world—healthy and productive seeds producing abundant crops. These are people of Kingdom.

· At night, evil one comes—his people sow weeds— vetch which grows and resembles the good seed, or darnel that winds its tentacles around the crop and competes with it.

· Servants of the Son of Man ask whether they should pull the weeds up—normal practice. Jesus says no—leave both growing side by side and separate them only at the end of the age—harvest time:
‘The servants asked him, “Do you want us to go and pull them up?”
29 ‘“No,” he answered, “because while you are pulling up the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them.

· Our present reality is that the Son of Man cannot, or will not take steps to conquer evil—at least until the end of time. So we have a world with good and evil people—it would be possible to destroy the evil people, but not at the risk of hurting or prematurely judging some of the potential people of the Kingdom

· So we wait for the harvest—doing good and resisting evil—until Jesus comes again

Warning—this parable is in one sense a warning—if you think you’ve got it all worked out, think again. If you are sure of good and evil, and have identified those responsible, you’re probably misjudging the situation.

Our job as people of the Kingdom is not to judge between good and evil but to live our lives in the love of God and for our neighbours—whether they are weeds or main crops—not to look around us and judge, for that is to elevate ourselves unjustifiably and open ourselves up to the judgement of God and others.

The difficulty of this parable is that the righteous take no responsibility for the presence of the evil one. The parable perpetuates the alternate being, not created by God, but somehow a fallen being, who is ultimately responsible for sin, when we know that we are all sinful beings, and the careful division between good and bad crops does not hold water. We as humans are a mixture of good and bad, constantly challenged by failure and seeking forgiveness. We ourselves share the blame for most of what is evil in our world, by the way we have acted, by our arrogance, by false judgement, by selfish greed, by neglect of this good world, by emulating the powerful and discriminating against the weak.

So we have to be careful not to push the analogy too far—but the essential truth of the parable told by Jesus casts new light on the co-existence of good and evil, and the need for us not to judge but live as people of the Kingdom.

That leaves unanswered the big question—why is the world the way it is?—why did God not remove evil before it took hold, when it was still possible to do so? These are questions for us to ponder.

But the essential truth—the message of the parable is this. When it seems we are overwhelmed by evil, and no one is in control, still we know there will come a reckoning in the fulness of time when justice and peace will hold sway in God’s realm.

In every service and at home, we pray for God’s kingdom to come, in the words of the Lord’s Prayer. Maranatha, Come Lord Jesus—we are your harvest—the people of your realm. Amen

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Discipleship

Wingrave Methodist Church – 25 June 2017 – Trinity 2

Collects

Lord, you have taught us
that all our doings without love are nothing worth:
send your Holy Spirit
and pour into our hearts that most excellent gift of love,
the true bond of peace and of all virtues,
without which whoever lives is counted dead before you.
Grant this for your only Son Jesus Christ's sake,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever. Amen

Faithful Creator,
whose mercy never fails:
deepen our faithfulness to you
and to your living Word,
Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

Reading—Psalm 86

1 Hear me, Lord, and answer me,
    for I am poor and needy.
2 Guard my life, for I am faithful to you;
    save your servant who trusts in you.
You are my God; 3 have mercy on me, Lord,
    for I call to you all day long.
4 Bring joy to your servant, Lord,
    for I put my trust in you.

5 You, Lord, are forgiving and good,
    abounding in love to all who call to you.
6 Hear my prayer, Lord;
    listen to my cry for mercy.
7 When I am in distress, I call to you,
    because you answer me.

8 Among the gods there is none like you, Lord;
    no deeds can compare with yours.
9 All the nations you have made
    will come and worship before you, Lord;
    they will bring glory to your name.
10 For you are great and do marvellous deeds;
    you alone are God.

11 Teach me your way, Lord,
    that I may rely on your faithfulness;
give me an undivided heart,
    that I may fear your name.
12 I will praise you, Lord my God, with all my heart;
    I will glorify your name for ever.
13 For great is your love towards me;
    you have delivered me from the depths,
    from the realm of the dead.

14 Arrogant foes are attacking me, O God;
    ruthless people are trying to kill me –
    they have no regard for you.
15 But you, Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God,
    slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.
16 Turn to me and have mercy on me;
    show your strength on behalf of your servant;
save me, because I serve you
    just as my mother did.
17 Give me a sign of your goodness,
    that my enemies may see it and be put to shame,
    for you, Lord, have helped me and comforted me.

Reading—Romans 6

Dead to sin, alive in Christ

6 What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning, so that grace may increase? 2 By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? 3 Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death? 4 We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.

5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin – 7 because anyone who has died has been set free from sin.

8 Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9 For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. 10 The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.

11 In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. 12 Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. 13 Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness. 14 For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace.

 

Gospel—Matthew 10

24 ‘The student is not above the teacher, nor a servant above his master.25 It is enough for students to be like their teachers, and servants like their masters. If the head of the house has been called Beelzebul, how much more the members of his household!

26 ‘So do not be afraid of them, for there is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. 27 What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs. 28 Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care.30 And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. 31 So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

32 ‘Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. 33 But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven.

34 ‘Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to turn

‘“a man against his father,
    a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law –
36     a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.”

37 ‘Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38 Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.

Sermon

Today’s readings related—Psalm is plea for help from someone who trusts in God

15 But you, Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God,
    slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.
16 Turn to me and have mercy on me;
    show your strength on behalf of your servant;
save me, because I serve you
    just as my mother did. Psalm 86

1 Psalmist surrounded by enemies—but God is compassionate and merciful.

Jesus brought up under OT law:

5 Do not trust a neighbour;
    put no confidence in a friend.
Even with the woman who lies in your embrace
    guard the words of your lips.
6 For a son dishonours his father,
    a daughter rises up against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law –
    a man’s enemies are the members of his own household.

7 But as for me, I watch in hope for the Lord,
    I wait for God my Saviour;
    my God will hear me.
Micah 7.

Jesus’ mission was not to divide family members, but this is what will inevitably happen.

37 ‘Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38 Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.

In Matthew 12—Jesus even rejects his mother and brothers when they come to see him—because they think he is putting himself and them in danger and want to divert him from the path he has chosen.

2 Romans: Our path to faith is not to change—but to be born anew. Not remain the same being, however radically we change our ways—not even to be like Christ—but to be a new creation—mini versions of Jesus himself

Romans 6 explains—we walk parallel to Christ:

4 We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.

5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin.

We are no longer the same as we were—we are a new creation—we are dead to the sin of our old ways and united with Christ in his resurrection.

3 Matthew 10 continues theme of disciples imitating their master. We live in Jesus’s home—imitate our master as students imitate their teacher—or as an apprentice learns their trade.

But there is a house of Evil—Βηλζεβουλ is the head of the household—Lord of the Flies or Satan—if the master represents all that is evil, how much more so with his followers.

First part of chapter 10 Jesus gives instructions to disciples as he sends out the 12. They are to trust solely in God—take nothing with them. They are warned they will suffer rejection—even death.

16 ‘I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Even their own families will reject them and betray them to death.

Matthew 10:24 leads us into second part of instructions for disciples—applies to us—Jesus tells it like it is—still same warnings of what we might face—but there are many reasons for hope.

We are told not to be afraid of what the world can throw at us—nothing will be hidden but everything is out in the open—what Jesus tells us quietly is to be proclaimed from the rooftops. God’s care for us is illustrated by his care for creation—even the death of a small bird is known to him—and the very hairs on our heads are all numbered.

Discipleship is compared to an apprenticeship—we learn from our master and try to follow his instruction. This relationship we must acknowledge before others—whichever disciple denies their master will be disowned by him before God. Since we have been crucified with Christ, we must take up our cross beside him—for to lose our lives in this world is to gain a new life in the world to come.

Discipleship can take many forms:

a) Psalmist serves God, just as his mother did
b) Romans—we walk parallel to Christ—having died with him, raised with him, so that we may lead a new life
c) In Matthew, we have the clearest form of discipleship. This is a two way process—we listen to our master and try to be like him—similarly, others less mature in faith walk alongside us and listen to what we have to say and watch how we lead our lives.

Most of us can remember those who have brought us up in the faith and owe a lot to them, perhaps when we were young. This is a grave responsibility—one not to be taken lightly or abused. If we are truly effective disciples, others will be following us—and we must lead them with the same intensity that we are led by Christ.

This disciple-teacher relationship might not be a comfortable and cosy one—Jesus described his mission as one that caused dissention—similarly in channeling what we heard from our master and repeating it from the roof tops might be uncomfortable if as also tell it like it is—this is something we are warned to expect.

Rewards are undimmed
38 Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me.
39
Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.

This is the first reference to “cross” in Matthew—even before the crucifixion. We have to take up our cross as a prerequisite to following Jesus. As we look forward to his return in glory, and we identify him by seeing the marks of the cross on his hands and feet, it may not be out of place for us as his disciples not only to recognise the proofs of Jesus’ passion—but they should be even more familiar to us because they match our own.

Amen

Sunday, 30 April 2017

The Journey from Jerusalem to Emmaus

Easter 3—30 April 2017—Bow Brickhill Benefice Service

Gospel Luke 24

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. Alleluia.

On the road to Emmaus


13 Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. 14 They were talking with each other about everything that had happened. 15 As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; 16 but they were kept from recognising him.

17 He asked them, ‘What are you discussing together as you walk along?’

They stood still, their faces downcast. 18 One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, ‘Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?’

19 ‘What things?’ he asked.

‘About Jesus of Nazareth,’ they replied. ‘He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. 20 The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; 21 but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place. 22 In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning 23 but didn’t find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. 24 Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but they did not see Jesus.’

25 He said to them, ‘How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?’ 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.

28 As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus continued on as if he were going further. 29 But they urged him strongly, ‘Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.’ So he went in to stay with them.

30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened and they recognised him, and he disappeared from their sight. 32 They asked each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?’

33 They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven and those with them, assembled together 34 and saying, ‘It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.’ 35 Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognised by them when he broke the bread.

Sermon

Road to Emmaus
Many people’s favourite story. Puzzling—many unknowns. Fast paced—9 different verbs describing movement. Occurs only in Luke—Easter Day afternoon just after passion narrative.

Unknowns
No one knows where Emmaus was—7 miles from Jerusalem. Only one traveller is named—Cleopas appears nowhere else in gospels—his companion not named. Did Luke actually know?

Luke dives right in:

13 Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. 14 They were talking with each other about everything that had happened.

Two of whom?—probably an ‘outer circle’ including certain women (Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James) and the others with them—travellers to Emmaus not of the ‘Twelve’ disciples. Were they men—or was one a woman?

Some of this group—especially women—had visited tomb early Easter morning—they were involved and active—not peripheral.

Jesus not recognised—even when expounds and explains Scriptures, until Eucharistic meal—words used clear parallel to Last Supper—almost identical in NT Greek.

Perhaps ‘outer circle’ not as familiar with Jesus during his ministry as the immediate disciples. “They were kept from recognising him” may even mean influence of Holy Spirit in delaying recognition until Jesus revealed in breaking of bread.

Journey — PART ONE
The Two—discussing momentous events of past few days in Jerusalem—Jesus joined in—unusual he was accepted as a stranger—roads dangerous and travellers avoided contact with possible robbers.

Even ‘outer circle’ familiar with Jesus’ Messianic claims:
‘He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. 20 The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; 21 but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.

Then they described visit of women to the tomb—vision of angels—some of ‘outer circle’ visited tomb and verified what women had seen—did not see Jesus.

Jesus condemned the foolishness of The Two. He explained how the Messiah must suffer—according to Scriptures—and how these Scriptures applied to himself. By this time the 3 had reached Emmaus—about 2½ hours in all.

Jesus the stranger wants to continue alone—the Two persuade him to accept their hospitality—walking alone after dusk is very risky.

Journey — PART TWO
Eucharistic formula renders Jesus immediately recognisable—just as the words used are instantly familiar to us:

30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened and they recognised him, and he disappeared from their sight. 32 They asked each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?’

This ‘theophany’—recognition of Divine—opens their eyes to Jesus’s presence and immediately signals his disappearance from their sight.

Cleopas and the other disciple, in spite of the danger, set off to walk back to Jerusalem—they report to the 11 what has happened and confirm Simon Peter’s report that Christ had risen from the dead. They both recall how their hearts had been burning within them along the way, as Jesus expounded to them the Scriptures.

Significance
The empty tomb is the foundation of our faith—this point Paul makes in 1 Corinthians 15:

14 … if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.  16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.  19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

You might say—we cannot witness to the empty tomb, can we? I would make 3 points:

1. The Emmaus story shows how the first Christians did not believe because of what was said by Jesus or by others. His resurrection was not self-evident to his followers—the reason they came to believe was because he appeared to them.

Even so, we cannot believe by reason of our own intellect or strength—it is through action of the Holy Spirit that we come to believe.

2. It is usually in the setting of Christian worship that we come to believe—including the exposition of the Scriptures through the readings, then in the sermon—and of course in smaller group settings like your Lent course.

But it is also in the coming together of us all round the communion table in the breaking of the bread and in our sharing of the Eucharist, Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion. This is the context in which Jesus continues to reveal himself and sustain our faith. Surely all this is clear from the events of the Emmaus road.

One theologian puts it this way:
The Christian faith is born and nurtured where people share in worship through word, gesture, and earthly means, such as water, bread, wine, and tactile expressions of mutual care--the smile, the clasp of another's hand, perhaps even an embrace.

3. As I said at the beginning—story full of movement. That movement has not stopped, even after 2,000 years—as we share in the Eucharist, sustain our belief, and take our faith into the world outside these 4 walls, we ask ourselves what is the purpose of our movement? It is not a movement for its own sake—but has a purpose.

That purpose is to tell the story of Jesus, to interpret it, to have fellowship (communion) with Jesus and others, and to share it all with others. That is what it means to be the church.

My prayer, today, is that, like the Two on the Emmaus road, we may fully recognize Christ in the breaking of the bread, and that having done so our hearts may burn with us in a new way this Eastertide. Amen

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Easter Day

at Great Brickhill 16 April 2017

Gospel John 20:1—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. Alleluia.

The empty tomb
20 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. 2 So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!’

3 So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. 4 Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, 7 as well as the cloth that had been wrapped round Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen. 8 Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. 9 (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.) 10 Then the disciples went back to where they were staying.

11 Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb 12 and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.

13 They asked her, ‘Woman, why are you crying?’

‘They have taken my Lord away,’ she said, ‘and I don’t know where they have put him.’ 14 At this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realise that it was Jesus.

15 He asked her, ‘Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?’

Thinking he was the gardener, she said, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.’

16 Jesus said to her, ‘Mary.’

She turned towards him and cried out in Aramaic, ‘Rabboni!’ (which means ‘Teacher’).

17 Jesus said, ‘Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”’

18 Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: ‘I have seen the Lord!’ And she told them that he had said these things to her.

 

Sermon

By the end of John 19, Jesus has been condemned to death, crucified, died and was buried. John 20 describes the journeys to the tomb and back—the empty tomb as it soon appears.

John the Evangelist describes 3 journeys:

1. Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb, then returns to Simon Peter and the unnamed Beloved disciple.

2. Simon Peter and the Beloved disciple go to the tomb and then return to where they are staying

3. Mary Magdalene returns to the tomb and is weeping just outside the entrance. She meets the risen Christ and is commissioned by him to bear witness to the resurrection.

On this Easter Day, the narratives are so familiar we struggle to find new insights, but this is the most important day in the church’s year and these insights, the fundamentals of our faith. So this morning I invite you to listen again to these journeys, and in your mind’s eye associate with one of the characters as the journeys unfold. How did the characters react? How would you have acted in the same circumstances? Why does John the evangelist give us these three insights into the momentous events of Easter, and not just relate to us what he believed happened from the researches he made?

So—choose yourself a character and follow along with me. The main characters are Jesus himself, Mary Magdalene, Simon Peter and the Beloved disciple.

Scene 1
This is the first journey made by Mary. Like the other journeys, it’s not just a path travelled, or even a historical event, but what happens represents a journey in the mind, a trip of faith, a dawning realisation, a sudden release of understanding.

Take Mary, for example. Early in the morning, before it is light, she walks in despair to the tomb. There’s nothing she can do except be there; she knows the tomb was sealed, and with it all hope for the future. Mary has lost everything—hope, trust, faith, friendship, love even. But when she arrives at the tomb, she sees the stone has been rolled back, but she does not enter.

“They” have rolled the stone away and stolen Christ’s body, she supposes. At this point, Mary draws no conclusion. She assumes no resurrection. She does not even witness the empty tomb, but guesses the body of Jesus has been removed. There could be many reasons, in the highly charged political atmosphere of Jerusalem over the previous few days.

Mary runs to find Simon Peter and the Beloved disciple. She reports not what she has seen, but what she thinks must have happened.

Scene 2
The men decide to verify what Mary has reported. They both run, but Peter is overtaken by the Beloved disciple who reaches the tomb first and looks in. He sees no corpse, but linen wrappings lying there. Peter then arrives breathless, and climbs straight into the tomb. He sees more of the linen, neatly arranged. Crucially, Peter discovers the tomb is empty.

Why did the Beloved disciple, like Mary, wait outside the tomb? Was it fear or panic, or perhaps a desire not to see the tomb’s contents, bringing back all the despair and grief of the crucifixion? Mary blamed enemies of Jesus, or the authorities for stealing his body. It was too early for anyone to make a leap of faith and arrive at any other explanation.

By contrast, when the Beloved disciple outran Simon Peter and looked into the tomb, he did no more than look at what he could glimpse from outside. Peter went in, but he made no leap of faith, any more than Mary had done. It was the Beloved disciple who at last entered, “saw and believed.” Presumably what he saw was the fact the tomb was empty, but more than that, he believed something miraculous had taken place.

John the evangelist makes it clear their understanding was only partial. 9 (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead) he explains. This limited grasp is reinforced by the fact both disciples did not announce the good news to the others, but just went home.

Scene 3
We now move to the climax of the narrative, not as you might expect involving the senior disciples but Mary again, two angels, a gardener or the resurrected Jesus, and all the other disciples.

Mary makes a second visit, stands outside weeping, then takes the big step of bending down and looking in. She sees two angels who ask why she is crying. Mary repeats her first conclusion, that “they” have stolen the body. Then she turns round and sees a man, whom she assumes must be a gardener. He asks why she is crying, and Mary responds by asking whether this minor worker was party to the theft?

The climax of the three journeys follows. Mary recognises Jesus, not by his appearance but in a deeper way and because he calls her by name. The unsealed tomb has unsealed Mary’s faith, and perhaps also that of the Beloved disciple. But what of Simon Peter? If you associated with him, why do you think he was silent? Why was Peter’s understanding not unsealed? Had he still not moved on from his triple denial and doubt?

Response
The gospel accounts of the empty tomb might be sparse (like Mark) or more extended (like John or Luke) but they are surely written in order not to cross T’s, dot I’s or tied loose ends. They are intended to evoke a response from the readers, and this is where we come in.

How do we respond? Have we skipped from the high point of Palm Sunday to this morning, without being involved in the dark despond of the events in between? Did we stand outside the empty tomb, making no attempt to fully enter, but doing no more than glimpse at what it did or did not contain?

If you were associating in this narrative with Jesus himself, remember that just as Mary wept outside the tomb, so Jesus wept outside the tomb of his friend Lazarus.

Jesus, in the garden of Gethsemane, was full of confusion and fear. At the end of Scene 3 he declares to Mary he will soon ascend back to his Father God. In the same way, having met Jesus the woman at the well leaves her fear with the water jar; Mary Magdalene leaves her fear at the empty tomb; and we can leave all our dark moments at the foot of the cross.

18 Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: ‘I have seen the Lord!’ And she told them that he had said these things to her.

Amen

Monday, 3 April 2017

An Unlikely Paragon of Faith

Blind Bartimaeus – BCP Great Brickhill – 2 April 2017 LENT 5

Gospel Mark 10:46—52

Blind Bartimaeus receives his sight
46
Then they came to Jericho. As Jesus and his disciples, together with a large crowd, were leaving the city, a blind man, Bartimaeus (which means ‘son of Timaeus’), was sitting by the roadside begging. 47 When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’

48 Many rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’

49 Jesus stopped and said, ‘Call him.’

So they called to the blind man, ‘Cheer up! On your feet! He’s calling you.’ 50 Throwing his cloak aside, he jumped to his feet and came to Jesus.

51 ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ Jesus asked him.

The blind man said, ‘Rabbi, I want to see.’

52 ‘Go,’ said Jesus, ‘your faith has healed you.’ Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus along the road.

Sermon

Bartimaeus
Paragon of Faith in Mark—every disadvantage in life—far from cursing God for his lot, he believed life could turn around for him.

Jesus was leaving Jericho—Bartimaeus begging in gutter. People crowded around Jesus—Bartimaeus troubled everyone with his shouting—did not ask for money but appealed to Jesus to have mercy on his lot in life—blind man who seemed to have reached lowest ebb.

The crowd rebuked him—Bartimaeus shouted even louder—Jesus stopped—did not go to him but called Bartimaeus forward. Bartimaeus threw aside his coat and leaped to his feet—this was an opportunity not to be missed.

Faith
Mark in last verse makes it clear Faith is what impels Bartimaeus—his is an active faith—story told to illustrate this active faith—Gospel gives us examples to learn from.

How does active faith reveal itself in Bartimaeus?

1. He grasps who Jesus is

2. He persists despite hindrances

3. He expects transformation

4. He asks for the right thing

1. Grasps who Jesus is
Bartimaeus is not well placed to learn about Jesus—calls him Son of David—we do not know what is the significance of this title he uses—clearly he associates Jesus with royal dimension in Hebrew scriptures and recognises him as God’s agent—Mark 12 makes the link in a public debate with teachers of the Law:

35 While Jesus was teaching in the temple courts, he asked, ‘Why do the teachers of the law say that the Messiah is the son of David?

When Jesus enters Jerusalem—arrives as king, goes on trial as king, and dies as king—Bartimaeus’s understanding and perception is impressive. He also recognises Jesus has power to show mercy and to heal

51 ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ Jesus asked him.
The blind man said, ‘Rabbi, I want to see.’
52 ‘Go,’ said Jesus, ‘your faith has healed you.’

2. Persists in Faith
Faith does not come easily to people in Mark’s gospel—crowd think Jesus is more interested in glory and popularity than listening to the needs of a blind beggar—thus they deserve more attention than Bartimaeus—probably think Bartimaeus a sinner who has deserved his place at the bottom of social privilege—think there are many more important people who should be heard by Jesus, or spoken to by him.

The crowd sought to limit the scope of Jesus’s compassion—they have made their judgement as to his worth—Bartimaeus responds by shouting all the louder, like the woman importuning the Unjust Judge—Jesus responds by calling Bartimaeus and asking what he wants.

3. Expects transformation
Jesus could have walked to Bartimaeus, stooped down, and decided in advance what was best for him—instead Jesus called him forward—he was centre stage—asked what he desired—the crowd far from excluding him shared in Jesus’s ministry to him.

How did Bartimaeus expect transformation? He tossed aside his coat rather than hanging onto his few possessions—he knew what he wanted and boldly asked—as in other healings, Jesus addressed not only his sight (physical) but also his wholeness (spiritual and mental). Bartimaeus expected to regain his sight—tossed aside his coat, as if saying he did not need to sit on it begging any more.

4. Asks for right thing
51 ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ Jesus asked him.

The blind man said, ‘Rabbi, I want to see.’

52 ‘Go,’ said Jesus, ‘your faith has healed you.’ Immediately he received his sight...

I want to see implies more than medical vision—to ‘see’ includes understanding, wholeness and deliverance—Bartimaeus has confidence all this will through the Messiah be his—does not ask for anything less.

We can compare the disciples with Bartimaeus—they have difficulty with belief and are full of doubts—there are few declarations of faith—this passage wants to leave us with the impression that those disciples who doubt are more blind than Bartimaeus was.

Following on the Way
Bartimaeus follows Jesus on his way—not just a disciple now—has moved from lying in the gutter on the edge of the road to walking boldly in the middle. What Jesus did was not limited to healing—his faith not only led to wholeness but also to salvation.

Bartimaeus was not just following Jesus but the road led immediately to Jerusalem and confrontation—there was a cost to pay and Bartimaeus was prepared to pay it.

There is always a cost to discipleship—Bartimaeus followed on The Way after the joy of his healing—Jesus offered no promises for the future, except salvation—for Bartimaeus the Way led to the cross—we don’t know what price Bartimaeus paid to follow Christ, but this was certainly a risky and dangerous way he chose.

His was not blind faith—but he was prepared to follow Jesus without knowing where the road would lead—Bartimaeus the Paragon of Faith—how much can we learn from him?

Amen

Sunday, 19 March 2017

The Woman at the Well

Mentmore – Lent 3 – 19 March 2017

Gospel John 4:5—42

5 He came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon.

7 When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, ‘Will you give me a drink?’ 8 (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)

9 The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?’ (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)

10 Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.’

11 ‘Sir,’ the woman said, ‘you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?’

13 Jesus answered, ‘Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again,14 but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.’

15 The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.’

16 He told her, ‘Go, call your husband and come back.’

17 ‘I have no husband,’ she replied.

Jesus said to her, ‘You are right when you say you have no husband.18 The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.’

19 ‘Sir,’ the woman said, ‘I can see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.’

21 ‘Woman,’ Jesus replied, ‘believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshippers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshippers the Father seeks. 24 God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.’

25 The woman said, ‘I know that Messiah’ (called Christ) ‘is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.’

26 Then Jesus declared, ‘I, the one speaking to you – I am he.’

27 Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, ‘What do you want?’ or ‘Why are you talking with her?’

28 Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, 29 ‘Come, see a man who told me everything I’ve ever done. Could this be the Messiah?’ 30 They came out of the town and made their way towards him.

31 Meanwhile his disciples urged him, ‘Rabbi, eat something.’

32 But he said to them, ‘I have food to eat that you know nothing about.’

33 Then his disciples said to each other, ‘Could someone have brought him food?’

34 ‘My food,’ said Jesus, ‘is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work. 35 Don’t you have a saying, “It’s still four months until harvest”? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. 36 Even now the one who reaps draws a wage and harvests a crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together. 37 Thus the saying “One sows and another reaps” is true. 38 I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labour.’

39 Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I’ve ever done.’ 40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they urged him to stay with them, and he stayed two days. 41 And because of his words many more became believers.

42 They said to the woman, ‘We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Saviour of the world.’

Sermon

Last Sunday, I was taking a service of HC at Stoke Hammond. The lectionary reading was from John 3: the visit of Nicodemus to Jesus by night. Jesus tells Nicodemus he must be born again, in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

After I finished the sermon, I received a letter from the Rector, John Waller, telling me he had designed a special Lent Course for the benefice. The gospel reading would be from John 6: Jesus after feeding the 5,000, crossed the Sea of Galilee walking on the water, and when the crowds who had been fed caught up with him again, he told them they must seek out the Bread of Life, which he represented.

I tore up my original sermon, and rewrote it. As I started to look again at the Bread of Life, I remember being struck by how similar the exchange was to Jesus’s conversation with the Woman at the Well. Then Gill got in touch and asked me to cover today for her absence in Burundi, so I get the chance to enlarge on what I said last Sunday at Stoke Hammond.

I bet you have a picture in your mind of the Woman at the Well, which you have developed over the years. You probably think this Samaritan was a fallen woman, who had lived with 5 different men, and was a model of sinfulness used by Jesus to illustrate that salvation could come to everyone, regardless of their condition or behaviour.

My picture of the Woman at the Well is rather different. Firstly, I have a picture in my mind of the time when Vicky and I walked across the Sinai with 7 camels, and came across a woman with a flock of goats, sitting on a well cover, shocked and immoveable, having been surprised by a group of western walkers as she prepared to water her goats from the ancient well. She was dressed head to foot in black, and did not move a muscle until we had filled our water bottles and continued our trek.

Secondly, and here I put my cards on the table, I don’t think she was a fallen woman, or even particularly sinful: in fact, over the centuries, we seem to have read between the lines and, like Mary Magdalene and other women in the gospels assumed an interpretation which may be completely unjustified.

Read the passage again, and you will see Jesus does not accuse her of anything, does not call for repentance, does not forgive her, but makes a statement about her history which is purely factual. She may have been sent away from her husband by divorce. Her next husband may have died, and she may have been taken in by his family. If childless, she may have married her dead husband’s brother. This was called a Levirate marriage. There could be all sorts of reasons. To be widowed 5 times might be heart breaking; it was certainly not impossible. We can imagine this woman’s story was more tragic than necessarily scandalous.

The difficulty with jumping to conclusions from what Jesus said to her is that our judgement colours the rest of the encounter, and makes it hard for us to understand the teaching. Immediately after Jesus mentions her history, the Samaritan woman says: “I see you are a prophet.” In John, the word “see” means to observe and note, but also has a deeper meaning—to believe. What the woman is saying is that Jesus’s knowledge of her past leads to her belief he is a prophet.

Jesus has recognised the woman’s plight—how dependent she is on men for her survival. He recognises and accepts that she has little alternative but to adopt a dependent lifestyle, or face penury and immorality. Jesus “sees” into her soul.

Can this man be the long awaited Messiah? The woman wonders. Jesus confirms he is. At this point, the disciples return with food and water. They are shocked to see Jesus conversing with a woman, and a Samaritan one at that. The woman, having “seen” Jesus’s identity, leaves her water jar (an authentic detail in the account) and goes to announce in the village that she has “seen” the Messiah. ‘He told me everything I’ve ever done’ she tells her friends and neighbours.

This woman—this early Christian evangelist—was not endowed with fancy words and cogent evidence. She just told people of her own experience. Many of her friends and neighbours became believers. They tell us why, in the last verse:

42 They said to the woman, ‘We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Saviour of the world.’

This is where I felt the eco of other passages. Nicodemus coming to Jesus secretly, and later on openly helping with embalming his body and arguing with the Sanhedrin. Andrew who was told by Jesus to “come and see” then seeks out his brother Peter. Philip who tells Nathaniel. And this nameless Samaritan woman—the least likely of all—who just relates what she has “seen.”

Next on the list of missioners might be you or me. Isn’t this what John the Evangelist wants us to see? The Samaritan woman is seen by Jesus, and loved by Jesus. She has the capacity to bear witness to the one who comes to enlighten our lives. He is the one who will give us living water to satisfy even our deepest thirst. What she can do, so can we. Amen

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Believing the Impossible

Lent 2 – Stoke Hammond – 12 March 2017

Readings Genesis 12

The call of Abram

12

The Lord had said to Abram, ‘Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.

2 ‘I will make you into a great nation,
    and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
    and you will be a blessing.
3 I will bless those who bless you,
    and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
    will be blessed through you.’

4 So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. 

Reading Romans 4

Abraham justified by faith

4

What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, discovered in this matter? 2 If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about – but not before God. 3 What does Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.’

4 Now to the one who works, wages are not credited as a gift but as an obligation. 5 However, to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness.

13 It was not through the law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith. 14 For if those who depend on the law are heirs, faith means nothing and the promise is worthless, 15 because the law brings wrath. And where there is no law there is no transgression.

16 Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring – not only to those who are of the law but also to those who have the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all. 17 As it is written: ‘I have made you a father of many nations.’[c] He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed – the God who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not.

Gospel John 3

Jesus teaches Nicodemus

3

Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.’

3 Jesus replied, ‘Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.’

4 ‘How can someone be born when they are old?’ Nicodemus asked. ‘Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!’

5 Jesus answered, ‘Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, “You must be born again.” 8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.’

9 ‘How can this be?’ Nicodemus asked.

10 ‘You are Israel’s teacher,’ said Jesus, ‘and do you not understand these things? 11 Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony.12 I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? 13 No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven – the Son of Man. 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.’

16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 

Sermon

In Genesis 12, Abram is in no doubt about what God said to him. It’s almost as if God was walking with him and speaking to him, just as God did to Adam in the garden of Eden.

In Romans 4, Abraham is made righteous through his faith, not by what good things he did. The promises given to him are seemingly impossible, yet Abraham believes and trusts God, who does not let him down.

Impossibility
In John 3, Nicodemus protests to Jesus at the impossibility of his promise. A well known religious leader, a member of the Sanhedrin, a man with a reputation to preserve, Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night, alone. He recognises no one could perform the signs that Jesus did, unless God were with him. This is the level of faith he showed—and it grew.

Nicodemus appears three times in John’s gospel, and nowhere else. After his clandestine visit, John describes how Nicodemus reminds the Sanhedrin that a man must be heard before judgement is passed (John 7:50). His third appearance was after the crucifixion, when Nicodemus provided 45kg of embalming spices to anoint Jesus’ body, and assisted Joseph of Arimathea in preparing for his burial.

Meaning
But on the night of his first encounter with Nicodemus, what did Jesus mean by using the words “born again.” To us, the words are familiar. How many times have we been asked if we are born again? But to one hearing the words for the first time, what was Nicodemus to make of it?

The Greek word ανωθεν does not only mean “born again” but can also be translated “born from above.” Nicodemus clearly thought Jesus meant “born again.” Perhaps Jesus actually meant “born from above.” So Nicodemus was not being deliberately obtuse when he asked how one might physically be born again at his age.

In fact, theologians argued their cases by routinely trying to discover the impossible and eliminate it, as a means of arriving at what they believed to be the truth. After all, there was nothing to prefer one meaning over the other.

Whatever Jesus intended, he proceeded to propose the impossibility of anyone seeing the Kingdom of Heaven unless they had been reborn.

Faith
Just like Abram, Nicodemus is being asked to believe the impossible. In verse 7, Jesus tells him he should not be surprised at what he is asked to believe. That’s all very well, but Nicodemus still does not know what Jesus means.

Spirit
In order to elucidate, Jesus treats Nicodemus to a ‘play on words.’ He says there are two types of birth: one “of the flesh” and one “of the spirit.” In Greek, the word πνευμα means both “spirit” and “wind”.

The spirit is like the wind, Jesus says. You can feel the wind on your skin, but not see it. You can hear the wind, but not know where it is coming from, or where it is going. So it is with the Spirit, and everyone born of the Spirit.

Lifted up
Nicodemus still fails to understand. Jesus continues to play. He refers to the venomous snakes that plagued Israel in the Sinai (Numbers 21). As an antidote, Moses was told to cast a bronze replica of a snake and mount it on a pole. Everyone who had been bitten could look at the bronze snake lifted high and be cured.

The word “pole” is the same word as “sign” in Greek. Nicodemus had started his discussion by praising the “signs” that Jesus performed, which could only be done through God. In the same way as the snake was “lifted up” as a “sign” to the people, so Jesus would be “lifted up” at his crucifixion, to the end that all who believe in him might have eternal life.

The passage ends with one of the most familiar verses in the whole of Scripture—John 3:16. What Nicodemus struggles to understand is revealed to us, through the grace of God.

The words “lifted up” describe a cruel and shameful death, but the same word for “lifted up” also means “glorified” or “exalted.” Jesus—the One sent from God—was to be “lifted up” on the cross, but the real meaning for all who believe the seeming impossibility is that he is glorified and exalted. All who believe will not perish but have eternal life.

For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn it, but to save the world through him.

So let us rededicate ourselves to live by this truth, come into the light so that others may see that what has been done has been done in the sight of God. What to us seems impossible is not impossible for God.

Amen

Jesus the Bread of Life

REVISED SERVICE – Stoke Hammond – 12 March 2017

Readings Exodus 3:1—15

Moses and the burning bush

3 Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2 There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. 3 So Moses thought, ‘I will go over and see this strange sight – why the bush does not burn up.’

4 When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, ‘Moses! Moses!’

And Moses said, ‘Here I am.’

5 ‘Do not come any closer,’ God said. ‘Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.’ 6 Then he said, ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.’ At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.

7 The Lord said, ‘I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. 8 So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey – the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. 9 And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. 10 So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.’

11 But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’

12 And God said, ‘I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you[b] will worship God on this mountain.’

13 Moses said to God, ‘Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your fathers has sent me to you,” and they ask me, “What is his name?” Then what shall I tell them?’

14 God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: “I am has sent me to you.”’

15 God also said to Moses, ‘Say to the Israelites, “The Lord, the God of your fathers – the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob – has sent me to you.”

‘This is my name for ever,
    the name you shall call me
    from generation to generation.

Reading Hebrews 3:1—6

Jesus greater than Moses

3 Therefore, holy brothers and sisters, who share in the heavenly calling, fix your thoughts on Jesus, whom we acknowledge as our apostle and high priest. 2 He was faithful to the one who appointed him, just as Moses was faithful in all God’s house. 3 Jesus has been found worthy of greater honour than Moses, just as the builder of a house has greater honour than the house itself. 4 For every house is built by someone, but God is the builder of everything. 5 ‘Moses was faithful as a servant in all God’s house,’ bearing witness to what would be spoken by God in the future. 6 But Christ is faithful as the Son over God’s house. And we are his house, if indeed we hold firmly to our confidence and the hope in which we glory.

Gospel John 6:25—35

Jesus the bread of life

25 When they found him on the other side of the lake, they asked him, ‘Rabbi, when did you get here?’

26 Jesus answered, ‘Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. 27 Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.’

28 Then they asked him, ‘What must we do to do the works God requires?’

29 Jesus answered, ‘The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.’

30 So they asked him, ‘What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? 31 Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: “He gave them bread from heaven to eat.”’

32 Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’

34 ‘Sir,’ they said, ‘always give us this bread.’

35 Then Jesus declared, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

Sermon

A week or so ago, I thought I would be talking to you about Nicodemus, who visited Jesus at night. He was told he must be ‘born again.’ To us, the words sound reasonable. We know what being ‘born again’ means, or we think we do. To Nicodemus, the whole thing sounded impossible. Yet he was told to believe in the seemingly impossible, just as Abram was told to believe he would become the ancestor of many peoples. In Scripture, God walks and talks with the patriarchs, and somehow believing the impossible is easier when you are that close to the divine.

Today in the Lent course John Waller has devised, our readings are about Moses, who sees the impossible and is sent to try and negotiate the unlikely release of his people from Pharaoh. The Hebrews reading tells us that Jesus is greater than Moses, just as the designer and builder of a house is greater than the house itself. The gospel passage chosen by John Waller brings these two together in an extended metaphor about the Bread of Life.

The background to the conversation between Jesus and the crowd of those who had followed him round the Lake of Galilee is the ‘Feeding of the 5,000.’ The people had been miraculously fed, and they followed Jesus wanting more. The bread was like a kind of manna, not the one that fell from the sky, but even better: it landed in their laps.

After the ‘Feeding of the 5,000’ Jesus evaded the people and went off on his own. He sent his close disciples ahead in a boat. When they encountered a dangerous storm, Jesus miraculously appeared, walking on the surface of the water. What had happened must have surely been spread around the crowd, who had rounded the lake in search of another free lunch.

It’s tempting for the preacher to try and explain the feeding miracles in some detail, but as you will no doubt learn from the Lent Course, that misses the point. After the feeding of the 5,000, many people wanted to have Jesus as their King, one who would take up arms against the Romans and make Israel great again. That reminds me of Donald Trump’s campaign aims, hopefully this time more believable. The point, though, is not about what Jesus did, but who Jesus is. The ‘sign’ is not about people being fed, but the nature of the divine.

I don’t know if you noticed, but as I read the gospel passage the conversation sounded very similar to the woman at the well. That was about living water and not the physical water in the well. This time the extended metaphor is not about bread, and what it represents for us. In the end, both are about who Jesus is.

These events have a lot in common. Both include references to the ancestors: first Jacob, provider of the well; second Moses and the manna in the wilderness. Both ask for Jesus go on providing a permanent supply of bread or water freely. These are understandable physical desires, but both call for correction by Jesus, who explains the signs refer to himself, not bread or water.

This theme is what theologians refer to as ‘Christological’ — they are centred on Christ. When we look at the questions posed by the people and Jesus’s answers, they are told not to work for bread that spoils, but the bread that has God’s seal of approval, the kind Jesus provides. This sounds good. The crowd want the username and password. How can they work for this bread? Jesus tells them God’s work is to believe in Him—the One God sends.

The people want a ‘sign.’ They want another feeding miracle. They want to see more manna falling into their laps, just like Moses in the wilderness. Jesus explains this is not the true bread. Another sign won’t help. Only the true bread is sent by God and comes down from heaven.

Finally Jesus given them the key to the metaphor. The true bread comes down from heaven, and gives life to the world. OK, the people say, give us this bread then. Jesus replies:

…‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.’

Just as the preacher is tempted to explain the details of the feeding miracles, so this preacher is tempted to say something more about who Christ is. What does ‘living water’ mean? What about the ‘bread of life?’

The ‘signs’ in John’s gospel, like the parables, speak to each one of us differently. Even the locks are not consistent, and the meaning seems to vary whenever we try and access it. So all I have to do is invite you to contemplate Who Jesus is for yourself and myself. Perhaps Lent is an opportunity for us all to ponder on this aspect of our faith?

The starting point could not however be clearer. The only food that can last for all time is the bread that Jesus himself is, the true gift from God. The key to unlocking this bread is to believe in Jesus, the One God sent. Now the hard bit—what follows from that? Amen