Archive for April, 2014

John 20.30-31

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

The modern church year is measured out in holidays
We have Christmas
Not long after Christmas, we have Easter
Then it’s the summer holidays, and everything stops until it’s Christmas again

Some things stop in winter, because the nights are dark
Some things stop in summer, because everyone’s away

When are we supposed to fit everything in?

You don’t see many people in the New Testament taking holidays
They make lots of journeys – they don’t take many holidays

What you see, in fact, is everyone acting with a great sense of urgency

Preaching, teaching; Welcoming, baptising
Healing and doing good works; Praying and worshipping together
Working out together, in those early days, what it means to live as a Christian community, and worship as a church

There was a great sense of the need to spread the word as quickly as possible
Because no one knew how long the world would last
They thought Jesus might come back any time
And when he did, he would be looking for results: they’d heard the parables

‘Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again’

it turned out, they were wrong
Wrong in expecting the immanent return of Christ
But certainly not wrong in preaching the gospel with urgency

Lots of churches have mission statements: including this one
The only mission statement worth having is the one John gives us here:
He says he was written his gospel so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

Everything we do as a church should be directed to helping others come to believe, so that they can have life in Christ’s name
We ourselves have received: now, we must give

1Pe 1.3-9

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ …

Peter’s letters are often treated as the poor relations of Paul’s
There are only two, and they’re not very long
They contain material we find stodgy, and some we find repugnant: advising slaves to accept their slavery, and to put up with ill treatment by their owners
Advising respectful obedience to anyone placed in authority
Telling women not to wear jewellery or braid their hair

Most scholars are pretty sure these letters weren’t written by Peter
Palestinian fishermen didn’t write literary Greek like this
The author says remarkably little about his personal experience of following Jesus

But even if these letters aren’t by Peter, that doesn’t mean we can ignore them
They give us a picture of early Christians struggling to work out what they believed
And to live faithful lives, in community, in the face of persecution by the authorities and their own neighbours

One of the most basic errors you can make about the people of the early church is to imagine they had it easy
Sure, we might say, they had to reckon with persecution
But it must have been easy in those days to believe
The evidence was fresh
The memories were fresh
The witnesses were still living – most of them

But Peter’s first letter shows how difficult they found it to preserve their faith
How tempting it was to desert the cause, to drift away

It was probably written forty or fifty years after the death of Christ
It’s addressed to Christians in Asia Minor, to encourage them in a time of persecution

The writer talks about Pontus, in modern Iran
He talks about Galatia, somewhere we also know of from Paul, and which is in modern Turkey
He talks about Cappadocia, also in Turkey, where 300 years later the Cappadocian fathers like Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa formulated the theology of the Trinity, as we find it expressed in the Nicene Creed

He talks about Asia, by which he means the region around Ephesus, another place he know of from Paul
He talks about Bithynia, which is another region of Turkey and one of the first places where the persecution of Christians by the Romans is documented

Some of these places, in other words, might have names unfamiliar to us
But they are neither remote from us, nor insignificant
These are important places in the development of Christianity and the emergence of the church

The letter is not a simple read
But I think it addresses a question that is fundamental for all Christians
One that’s particularly pertinent in the Easter season
What does it mean to believe in the risen Christ?
In particular, in situations of suffering, what difference does the resurrection make?

The writer turns to the Old Testament for his answers
He picks up the themes of strangers and the exile
Of testing in alien cultures, surrounded by people with alien beliefs

You can see how these themes relate to the experience of the people the letter was written to
As individuals, they were called out from their own people
But they were called to belong to a new people, a new community created and blessed in the name of the risen Christ

As believers in a faith that was not shared with most of their neighbours, or the people who ruled over them, they endured persecution
But they also belonged to a community that rejoiced to have been called from faiths that offered no convincing answers to the great questions of life
Why is life so uncertain, and why does it include so much suffering?
How can we affirm the value of our own lives, when we know they will end in death?

The questions raised by the facts of suffering and death still exist for Peter’s followers
Intensified by the experience of persecution, of additional suffering experienced because they dared to believe in Christ

They faced the same fears and anxieties the Israelites faced in the wilderness, or by the rivers of Babylon
God has brought us here: where is he taking us?
If God is with us, if God is our deliverer, why is our present experience one of insecurity, suffering and threat?

Peter doesn’t give a simple answer
He doesn’t just say, ‘Things will be better tomorrow’
he doesn’t say, ‘You’ll get your reward in heaven’
Although he says that, too

What he does is to say that the blessings we can look for in the future are already being given to us in the present
The test of our faith is to be able to see those blessings now, when things are difficult

in the future, in the last time, we can look forward to the final revelation of our salvation and a heavenly inheritance
Here and now, we experience God’s mercy; God’s protection; the consciousness of new life; and above all, the knowledge of a living hope

The cross and the resurrection are the symbols of that double sense, of future hope and present blessing, even in the midst of suffering

If we suffer, Christ suffered first
If we are rejected, Christ was rejected first

The risen Christ is our living hope
By dying and then rising to new life, Jesus became our salvation

He not only rose; he was exalted to the right hand of God; he became our Lord
As such, he became our personal guarantee that we will be raised with him
To share in his glory, praise and honour when he is revealed

Faith in Christ is what makes those future blessings present for us now
Faith is what keeps the fact of our salvation constantly in front of us

Suffering shared with Christ strengthens our faith in Christ
Faith in Christ transforms our experience of suffering

So even if for now our salvation is ‘just’ a story, it’s a story containing a promise
And the promise contained in the story of the resurrection of Christ is a promise with the power to transform our present experience
So that grace and peace, as Peter says, are ours in abundance; ours to share; ours to spread

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Acts 10.36-43

We gather here this morning to praise the God who said, Let light shine out of darkness

That’s an important Easter theme: Light triumphing over darkness

The darkness begins on the night we commemorate on Maundy Thursday, when Judas went out from the feast in the upper room

Jesus said to Judas, “Do quickly what you are going to do.” … [Judas] immediately went out. And it was night.

Jesus was arrested in garden, by torchlight

Jesus faced his accusers, his mockers, and his torturers, by torchlight

The dawn of the day we commemorate as Good Friday came, and Jesus was marched or dragged to his place of execution

But the darkness fell again as the time of Christ’s death drew near

Christ’s body was taken from the cross and laid in the tomb
Darkness falls over the gospel narratives at this point
We don’t know what happened on the Sabbath, so there is no Easter Saturday to celebrate

But next morning came the glorious light, of the discovery that Jesus had risen

We heard John’s account this morning, but the one that always sticks in my mind is the one Matthew gives us. It’s the women who come to the tomb, bringing spices to wrap with the body.

Suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples.

I read this scene and I remember the Transfiguration – as I’m sure you’re meant to

Remember what happened the Transfiguration
– Jesus takes his three closest disciples to the top of a mountain
– His face and clothes shine with divine, uncreated light
– He talks with Moses and Elijah
– The Father’s voice speaks
– The disciples are terrified
– Jesus takes them back down the mountain
– He and commands them to say nothing about what they’ve seen and heard

Now compare that to the scene in front of the empty tomb

– The angel takes the part of Jesus: ‘ His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow’
– The rolling of the stone is like the thunder of the Father’s voice

– The guards take the parts of James and John: the disciples who were too terrified to speak, who just lay there as if they were dead
– The women play the part Peter played on the mountain: who although he was dumbfounded, had the strength of faith to stand and watch, and even speak to the transfigured Christ

So there are several similarities between the two scenes, the Transfiguration and the resurrection

But of course there are significant differences

The most important difference is in the ending of the two scenes

Jesus comes down from the mountain of the Transfiguration accompanied by his closest disciples, and listen to what he told them:

As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

What the angel tells the women is quite different:

Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples.

The problem for many churches is, there are too many people eager to ‘come and see’
Too few prepared to ‘go and tell’

The time for keeping silent is gone

Come and see; then go quickly and tell: that’s the message for us this morning

Who are YOU going to tell first?

Wisdom of Solomon 2.12-22, John 19.14-25

When Easter rolls around, everyone talks about eggs
Today, I’d like to talk about the cup

The Bible is full of cups: Genesis, the histories, the Psalms, the major Prophets, the minor prophets, the Gospels, the Book of Revelation

The letters are the great exception
Only Paul among the letter writers talks about cups; and only in his first letter to the Corinthians
And even then, only when he talks about the Lord’s Supper

But the image of the cup is one the authors of other books keep coming back to
These images reach their climax in the Book of Revelation:

Then another angel, a third, followed them, crying with a loud voice, “Those who worship the beast and its image, and receive a mark on their foreheads or on their hands, they will also drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured unmixed into the cup of his anger, and they will be tormented with fire and sulphur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever. Revelation 14:9–11

Strong stuff!

Every one of the gospel writers use this image of the Lord’s cup
They report words spoken by Jesus, picking up an image which would have been very familiar from the Hebrew Bible
What Jesus does that is different, of course, is to apply this imagery to himself

This morning, we share the sacrament of Holy Communion
We gather at the Lord’s table, and share the bread and the cup
We see in the cup, the bread and the table, symbols from the Old Testament transformed in the New

In the Old Testament, the cup is the symbol of God’s blessing, and his curse
For the righteous, the cup is the symbol of blessing
For the wicked, the cup is a warning, and a threat of punishment to come

The righteous gratefully accept the Lord’s cup, as Psalm 16 describes:

The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup Psalm 16:5

We all know the words of Psalm 23: You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.

When the Lord delivers the righteous from trouble, the cup symbolises their desire to offer praise and thanksgiving:

What shall I return to the Lord for all his bounty to me?
I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord Psalm 116:12–13

On the other hand, the wicked and the ungodly are threatened by the Lord’s cup. The cup for them is an image of judgement. Psalm 75 warns them,

In the hand of the Lord there is a cup with foaming wine, well mixed;
he will pour a draught from it, and all the wicked of the earth shall drain it down to the dregs.
Psalm 75:8

In the great prophets of the time of the exile, the cup becomes an image of universal judgement:

Babylon was a golden cup in the Lord’s hand, making all the earth drunken;
the nations drank of her wine, and so the nations went mad. Jeremiah 51:7

In Christ, all these images of cups find a different focus
The prophetic cup of warning and judgement; the cup of suffering; the cup of salvation

On the way to Jerusalem, Jesus asks the disciples, “Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” And of course they say to him, “We are able.”
But of course we know, at that point, they are not

On the night when he is betrayed, at the Last Supper, Jesus holds out the cup and commands all of his disciples to drink from it
They drink, not knowing really what he means

They can physically drink the wine in the cup he holds out to them:
But that’s not the challenge
When they are really challenged to drink his cup, later on, when they think they might be arrested with him, they melt away or deny him

Jesus himself knows the difficulty of accepting the Father’s cup
The cup of salvation is not medicinal
It is not something we drink in order to feel good
The cup of salvation is an initiation
It signals a change: departing from one life, to enter into another
It may not lead to death for us as it did for Christ: but we take it knowing it involves letting go of old things

This process of departure and change can be a painful one
We accept the cup as a token of our call and our willingness to enter into the life of Christ
The life of Christ that led through suffering and death to new life for all who participate in it

Jesus drank of the Lord’s cup in Gethsemane, and on the cross
His followers drank of the Lord’s cup as they went out to preach the gospel, and as they suffered in Christ’ name for preaching
Today, we come to this table, we take this cup and this bread, as symbols of our membership of the body of Christ
Symbols of our willingness to leave what we were, and become what he calls us to be
Symbols of our willingness to suffer, in his name, whatever is necessary to proclaim his Word of salvation

Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again
He told his disciples on that last night,
I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.

Here, today, he calls us to drink his cup; to share that new wine with him
To celebrate the new life of the Kingdom we share, in him

Exodus 12.1-14, John 13.21-30

One of the most important words in the Bible is, ‘Remember’
Even the commandment to love doesn’t make much sense without the commandment to remember
Remember your Creator
Remember the God who loves you, and all the ways he has revealed his love for you
We remember to love, when we remember our God

Remembering makes the past live in the present
It brings the lessons of the past into the present

Don’t make the same mistakes again, Scripture keeps telling the people of Israel
As soon as the Israelites stop remembering, they slip into evil ways
Someone said, God told them to walk backwards into the future
Always remembering where they had been, and how God had been with them in the past

Remembering God is not the same as remembering ordinary things
It isn’t nostalgia for the way things used to be, for a god who used to do great things
Our God is not just the God who did great things, and the God who still does
God’s Word and God’s will do not change
To truly remember God is the key to discerning his purpose here and now

That’s why it’s so important to remember the Passover as we think about the Last Supper
Jesus intended his followers to remember the night the Exodus began as they shared that last meal together
And he intended them to remember it through the events of the days that followed

The Old Testament and the New are not opposites
The New Testament is not a replacement of the Old

I think of the first Passover and the Last Supper not as distant points on the line of history
But as mirror images of each other
If they are points at opposite ends of a line, that line is bent to form a circle
They are points that meet

There are very obvious points of similarity:
– The family gathered for the feast
– The unblemished lamb
– The blood smeared on the doorframe; an image we see again on the cross
– The expectancy of the people in their houses, waiting to see what God would do
– The fear and uncertainty

And there is the surrounding darkness
The first Passover happened in the night, in Egypt: as the book of Exodus tells us:

At midnight the Lord struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the prisoner who was in the dungeon, and all the firstborn of the livestock. Pharaoh arose in the night, he and all his officials and all the Egyptians; and there was a loud cry in Egypt, for there was not a house without someone dead. Ex 12.29-30

Even if the dead were among the enemies of Israel
Even if the dead were the children of the perpetrators of crimes of attempted genocide against Israel
Even so, the events the Passover commemorates were dark and terrible events

The darkness is what distinguishes Passover from the other Jewish feasts
Only the Passover is celebrated at night

Darkness is mystery
Darkness is confusion
Darkness is ignorance
Darkness provides the cover for conspiracy, skullduggery, violence

But God is present in the darkness
God enters the darkness on our behalf, to defeat the forces that lurk there

The time of darkness precedes the dawn
That brings us to the most important similarity between the Passover, and the Last Supper
Both mark a new beginning

The Passover marks the start of the year: the first Passover marked the point when time began again. As Exodus records:

The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you. Exo 12.1-2

Tonight, we remember the coming of the darkness
Not just the darkness of a Spring evening
But a darkness that lasts until the Easter dawn

Christ goes down into the darkness of the grave
He descends to Sheoul, to the place of the dead
But in the resurrection, the grave becomes the place of rebirth; of new life

To fully realise the hope, we must first enter into the apparent despair
We must remember where Christ went for us
Remember where Jesus found us.

This week, a series of short reflections on passages related to Holy Week

Luke 19.28-40

Numbers matter to us. We always think we’re right if enough people are saying the same thing. What we’re doing must be important if lots of other people are doing it too.

You see re-enactments of Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem, in books and films, and there are huge crowds rejoicing and making enormous amounts of noise.
I wonder how accurate that is

The text mentions a multitude: but it’s the multitude of his disciples, and even if it’s not just the Twelve, it’s still probably dozens rather than thousands
It’s not an overwhelming show of force

That means the Pharisees feel safe to tell Jesus off
Tell him to keep his followers quiet

There are lots of stones in Luke’s gospel
Here Jesus says, if my followers were silenced, the stones would cry out
Creation itself in other words would still proclaim the gospel of Christ

There’s a lesson here for us
God does not rely on us to proclaim the gospel
His word will be heard regardless of what we do or say

So why does he lay this task on us?
Not for his own benefit; not for the benefit of the people we speak to
But for our own

There’s no such thing as a silent disciple
If you really believe, you will speak
And as you speak, you will find your way deeper into what you believe

Psalm 31.9-16

I don’t know if we should call this psalm prophecy

Is it the way things seemed to Jesus in the days leading up to his betrayal?
Or is it just the way we all feel at some point in our lives?

Some people experience it more than most
Politicians. Pop stars when the glory days are over. Managers of sports teams

Popularity never lasts
The adulation of the entry to Jerusalem melts away when opposition comes

Perhaps because the old order didn’t immediately crumble
All the demonstration seemed to do was crystallise opposition
Now it’s Jesus’ followers who melt away

The schemes and murmurs grow until the final confrontation in the Garden
The arrest, the humiliation, the trumped-up trial and the forced march to the place of execution

What do you do when things are going badly?
Do as the Psalmist says: Turn again to God: say, You are my God

What do you do when you feel sick and worn out?
Turn again to God

What do you do when people you thought were your friends desert you?
Turn again to God

Do what Jesus does: turn to prayer
Find a quiet place and seek the Lord
Seek him with faith that he will reach out to strengthen you for whatever comes
Because he is the God of mercy, the God of grace, the God of faithful love

Isaiah 50.4-9a

Before they reach Jerusalem, Jesus starts to prepare the disciples for what will happen to them when they go out to preach the gospel on their own

He teaches them three things:
– That they will face persecution, imprisonment and even death for the gospel
– That being dragged into court is just another opportunity to preach the gospel
– That they shouldn’t agonise about what to say, because the Spirit will give them the words

Funnily enough, when Jesus comes to trial, the Spirit give him no words to say
Jesus remains silent: There’s no need to speak
His persecutors are condemned out of their own mouths, and judged by their own actions

In everything they do, judgment is passed, prophecy is fulfilled, lines are added to the gospel accounts that still speak to millions, nearly two thousand years after those events

St. Augustine said, ‘Everywhere you go, preach the gospel: use words, if you have to.’
Jesus preaches by not turning away; by offering his back to the whip, his cheeks to their blows, his face to their insults and taunts

What he reveals is, everyone in this scene is playing a part: but they don’t know it
Only Jesus knows the story that is really being written

His enemies are standing on quicksand, but they don’t know it
Everything they do pulls them under faster: The world of Jesus’ enemies is passing away

Philippians 2.5-11

Scholars think these words aren’t really Paul’s; they think he is quoting a hymn used by the early church. So if Philippians is a very early letter, this must be a very, very early hymn.

The hymn makes a huge and outrageous claim:
that during the Roman occupation of Palestine at the beginning of the first century of our era, when King Herod the Great ruled Judea, the God of Israel became a human person.
God got tired of telling us how to live our lives in relationship with him; so he came to earth in person to show us.

God gave us Jesus Christ as a human example to follow
And through Christ, God made us a promise:
that, if we humble ourselves as he did in coming to live among us, he will raise us up
He will exalt us beyond death, just as Christ has been exalted.

Paul tells us clearly how to humble ourselves:
by confessing that we are slaves to sin, who can only free ourselves if we become slaves to Christ: If we are obedient to the Son, just as the Son was obedient to the Father.

Paul is sometimes very difficult to follow; but here he is making a very simple point about what we can learn from Christ about how to live our lives on earth

Christ refused to let people put him on a pedestal.
So our slavery to Christ will take the earthly form of being humble in our relationships with each other:
– because we see in ourselves the defects of sinful humanity Christ came to redeem
– and in our neighbour the divinely exalted humanity of Christ.

Romans 8.6-11

We think of Lent as a time for trying to do as Paul says, and ‘set the mind on the Spirit’
A time for tor trying to be more spiritual – whatever that means

We might do this in several ways:
– Spending more time in prayer and Bible reading
– Embarking on some course of reading or study
– Spending more time in worship
– Spending more time in fellowship with people from other churches: Lent lunches
– And of course, by giving something up: chocolate, biscuits, etc

These resolutions are hard to keep: why?
I think for three reasons:
– Because they’re seasonal: they’re not a response to any particular calling or sense of spiritual crisis
– Because we think of them as medicinal: we think they’ll make us feel better, and that doesn’t necessarily happen
– Because we are human. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak

The last is the important one. Why is it hard to keep a resolution?
– Because you always want what you can’t have: you never feel more in need of a biscuit, than when you can’t have any
– This is so because we remain ‘carnally minded’, even when we give up biscuits
– Our minds remain ‘set on the flesh’

What characterises the flesh? HABITS: habitual behaviours; addictions
– The flesh does not want to change
– The flesh wants the things it is used to
– The flesh always wants more: even when ‘more’ is bad for us
– The flesh can put up with doing without luxuries for a while: but it soon slips back into its old ways

Paul says, stop setting your mind on the flesh: set your mind on the spirit instead
Paul isn’t talking about trying to be more ‘spiritual’ in the way some people think
He isn’t talking about giving up biscuits for a few weeks
He isn’t discussing an exercise of will-power

Our understanding of the Lenten fast is too superficial
Paul is talking of a completely new awareness
A completely new way of thinking about ourselves and our relation to God

True fasting is an ascetic practice

We make three mistakes when we think of asceticism
– We think of it as something monks do
– We think of it as something involving deliberate self-harm
– We think of it as a form of penance: a way of punishing the body

But true Christian asceticism isn’t about punishing the body: we don’t think there is anything evil about the body

We believe resurrection is resurrection of the flesh and the spirit together
We don’t want to deny or do away with the flesh: we want to transform it

The true aim of asceticism: participation in the divine energies
Being touched by God in such a way as to be filled with his Spirit

This isn’t a sudden event
Remember that passage from Second Corinthians we heard when we talked about the Transfiguration:

All of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit. 2 Corinthians 3:18

Asceticism is not an attempt to achieve this transformation before God wills to grant it to us; not a way of forcing the hand of God

Asceticism is a recognition of what God is already doing; the change he is working in us.
It isn’t a way of producing change
It is a way of directing our attention to what is happening within us.

In other words, Christian asceticism isn’t life-denying
It isn’t a way of focusing our thoughts on death
It is a way of discovering the presence of the new life of the Spirit within us

It isn’t a way of imprisoning ourselves: of forcing intolerable restrictions on ourselves
Asceticism means recognising we are already free
No longer slaves to our worldly circumstances or the demands of our fleshly appetites

Giving things up isn’t easy
We are still created beings, with needs and appetites
We are part of a creation that groans for redemption
We share the universal longing to see the purpose of God revealed and fulfilled

But Paul talks of our salvation as something happening now
To account for our Christian experience of hope – which was also his own experience, in the midst of everything he suffered in proclaiming the gospel

The resurrection abolished the past
The presence of the Spirit transforms the present
Paul’s gospel of hope brings our future salvation into our present experience

In Christ, we are already dead
Through Christ, we are already being raised
In our hearts, Christ has already come again

So we are free to live transformed lives
Not lives weighed down by the demands of a body we wish we could do without
But lives characterised by the accepting love of a Saviour who lived, died and was raised a flesh and blood human being, as well as a perfect and immortal God