Archive for June, 2014

Genesis 21.8-21; Romans 6.1-11

My daughters knew nothing about Laurel and Hardy until a couple of days ago
This was quite a shock
So I had to try and explain to them what Laurel and Hardy were like, and why they were so good

The plot of every Laurel and Hardy film is basically the same
There’s a simple reason for this
Comic characters never learn: they always make the same mistakes:
So the outcome is always the same

Every Laurel and Hardy film begins with a simple job to be done
Usually it’s their wives who ask them to do something
Because women are the gods of the comedy world: the ones who make the rules

One of two things always goes wrong:
Either the men won’t admit they don’t know what they’re doing, or they try to find a shortcut
The result in either case is the same: a terrible mess

Ollie inevitably blames everything on Stan, and the film ends with the catchphrase we all know:
‘That’s another fine mess you’ve got me into’
It’s like a same-sex version of the Garden of Eden story, told over and over again, with variations

Today’s readings tell us, if nothing else, our God is the God of messy situations
God does not create the messy situations; we do it for him
Either by ignoring God’s advice, or not asking for it in the first place
But what we must remember is that God remains with us, even in the middle of the mess

What you don’t see in Laurel and Hardy is the final resolution
Because they have one option we don’t: they can run away from the mess
The characters run, the credits roll, and what happened next we never know

We’re not actors, playing characters in a film
When we create a messy situation, we have to live with the consequences
Pray for God’s help in finding the solution
The outcome, if we’re faithful, will be a closer walk with God
Just not necessarily a smoother walk with God; and that’s what we heard about this morning

This week we begin a series of readings from Genesis and Exodus
This series lasts until October
It takes us all the way from God’s promise to Abraham, of a land and descendants
Up until just before the Israelites enter the Promised Land in Exodus 33
When God reminds Moses of that promise:

The Lord said to Moses, “Go, leave this place, you and the people whom you have brought up out of the land of Egypt, and go to the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, ‘To your descendants I will give it.’

The story of Abraham and his descendants is a story of one messy situation after another
But God perseveres with his people, until his promise is fulfilled and he is able to bring them into the Promised Land

Things are already very messy in our reading from Genesis this morning
God promised Abraham descendants; but he and Sarah either couldn’t wait or didn’t really believe
So Abraham listened to Sarah’s advice, and had a son by her Egyptian serving-maid Hagar
That son is Ishmael

Before Ishmael was born Sarah had second thoughts about letting Abraham have children with another woman, and drove Hagar away
Hagar might have died in the desert; but God sent his angel to save her and send her back

That episode is repeated after Abraham’s son Isaac is born, when Ishmael is a teenager
Ishmael and Hagar are driven out into the desert together
Once again God sends an angel, but this time the message is to stay away
They do what they’re told, and they don’t go back

God’s angel promises Ishmael will also be the father of a great nation – just like Isaac
His descendants were thorns in the side of Israel

This is a messy story
Tangled relationships; sibling rivalries
Women and children rejected and endangered

What creates the mess in this story?
Simply, impatience
Lack of faith in the promises of God
Refusal to accept the fulfilment of God’s promises through the other people he has chosen

God accomplishes his original purpose
But the human actors suffer from the mess they have created by their disobedience

When we watch a film we identify with the characters we watch
We are sucked into their lives; we share the agonies of their decisions
We watch Abraham and Sarah, and we think: ‘I wouldn’t have done that; I wouldn’t have made that mistake; I would have listened to God’
The reality is, we would have done the same

In every messy situation and its solution there are lessons about God’s love and his care for us
Even the painful and dangerous experiences of rejection that come from preaching the gospel
Lessons about providence
That’s the lesson of the dead sparrow: God’s care is longer than life, and his promise reaches down into the grave and beyond death

Death is the messiest human situation
Genesis says, the first human beings created that messy situation through sin

God entered into our human lives in Jesus
He entered into our messy human situation; he endured rejection; he suffered the curse of death
But when the depths of hopelessness were reached, it wasn’t a tragedy; it wasn’t the end
No one yelled ‘Cut!’ The cameras kept rolling, and Christ emerged triumphant

It’s the greatest drama: When Christ is rejected, when he suffers and dies, we identify with him
When he rises from the grave, he carries us along with him
As Paul says: we have been buried with Christ by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.

We are all living risen lives now; This is a brand new episode
There will be isequels and spin-offs

The people of God will fall short; We will try to do things above our own strength
Look for shortcuts and easy alternatives; We’ll make one fine mess after another

But when we come to our senses and look for God, we’ll find him
Showing us the way out
Telling us again of his promises
Showing us, again, our Saviour standing with us


Dan 7.13-14 Mat 28.16-20

Today we reflect on the doctrine of the Trinity
Since this is Father’s Day, and since we have been talking about human families, we think about the Trinity as a family
And how the doctrine of the Trinity helps us understand our relationship with God

‘Make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’
The German theologian Karl Barth says, these words tell us God’s Christian name
A pun that says, this is how Christians know their God

Our Christian name is the name we are given in baptism
Our Christian name is the name other Christians know us by
Father, Son, Holy Spirit: these are the titles Christians use when they address their God

Let me ask you a question: when you pray to God, which person do you talk to?
Is it the Father? Is it the Son? It’s probably not the Spirit
Yet in addressing one, we should be aware of addressing all three

I think the error most Christians are guilty of is an excessive focus on Christ
– We think the Father is too old-fashioned
– We think the Spirit is too vague, too hard to picture

The Son is the Trinity’s company rep;
– the familiar face we recognise; the one we have become sentimentally attached to
– the one who heals the sick
– the one who tells us stories
– the one whose suffering we see
– and therefore the one we mistakenly give the sole credit for our salvation

So it’s good today to be reminded, that Jesus commanded his disciples to baptise not in his name alone, but ‘in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’

In the past few weeks we’ve seen the parallels between the revelation of God in the resurrection, and the emergence of the idea of the church
We see the same pattern here

You can see that this passage from Matthew is all about spiritual community, because it involves all of the disciples:
– It brings together the believers and the doubters: those who believe, and those who have yet to believe: Christ accepts them all, when they come to him together
– It lays down qualifications for belonging: belief, baptism, obedience – the things that shape our belonging, and express our belonging
– It tells us that Christianity isn’t a one to one relationship between believer and God: we receive our teaching and our religious initiation as part of the church, and live out our faith as part of the church

The church is above all a community founded on the work of Christ
But the appearance of the church accompanies a decisive shift in the human view of God
A shift from a view of God as a single person, to the three-person God

This is a shift from an outside view of God, to an inside view
From the outside, you just see one God
This is the view of God revealed to Israel, who saw his unity and uniqueness

But we’ve moved as the church to an inside view of God
This is the view of God revealed through the work of Christ and the sending of the Spirit
The ‘inside’ view can see the persons and relationships within the Trinity
It sees the three persons sharing one divine being

This is all quite clear in Scripture, even if the word ‘Trinity’ never appears there

In his preaching, Jesus adopts the title of the Son of Man’ from the Book of Daniel
He also describes himself as the Son of the Father who is in heaven
In using these titles together, he revels himself to be both human and divine
But more than this, he identifies the Father and Son as two persons of one God
And he points to the existence of family relationships binding the persons of the Godhead together

That’s two persons; but of course Jesus points to the third
Once again, a person whose work has been spoken of in Scripture
But whose precise relationship to God, or whose pace in God, has not been clear

Jesus concludes the work of his earthly ministry by sending the Spirit in his own place
By doing this, he completes the family: he establishes the Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, as fully equal with himself and the Father

The church itself has relationships with all three persons of the Trinity, not just one
The church sees the loving relationship between Father and Son through the Spirit as the model for the relationships Christians within the church have with each other

So baptism in the name of the Father, Son and Spirit is an act performed by an earthly community,
– in the name of a heavenly community,
– into membership of a community that has one foot on earth, and the other in heaven

We looked earlier at the words of the grace, which we know from Second Corinthians
‘The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all’
Scholars suggest these words might be a liturgical formula, used in worship

It could be the same with Matthew’s words here
It’s possible they have put back into Jesus’ mouth the words the church used in baptism:
‘I baptise you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’
Not because it’s something he definitely said, but something he definitely meant

What does that mean? I’ll conclude by saying just one thing
Humanity is created in God’s image; he commands that his church should be built up in his image, in his name
Or rather in his three names: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
Belonging to him; belonging to each other; revealing his love in the love of belonging

Isaiah 44:3–4; John 7.37-39; Revelation 21:1–7

So much of the Bible speaks to us through the power of the images it uses
Not least because no one has ever seen God: no one knows what God is really ‘like’
All the writers of Scripture can do is think of things God can be compared to

God is like a king: or rather, kings are a little bit like gods
God isn’t like Juan Carlos of Spain
He doesn’t rule just one country
God is love; he doesn’t have to worry about popularity
God is power; he doesn’t have to negotiate with politicians
God is righteous; he doesn’t embarrass his followers with political mistakes
He won’t grow old; he’ll never have to abdicate

The first images used in the Bible are images of darkness and light, and images of water:
The earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while the spirit of God swept over the face of the waters.

You know these are images, because this verse speaks of the time before creation
A point when nothing we know as real had come into existence
But before there was anything, there was God
Bringing everything into being, through the agency of his Spirit

The spirit of God is the power of Creation that brings order out of chaos
It separates light from darkness, the heavens from the earth, and water from dry land
It brings all things into being, and sustains them in being

In short, we can see the Spirit in all things
And that makes any attempt to limit the manifestations of the Spirit to the kind of phenomena we see in the book of Acts a real distortion of the truth

The Spirit isn’t just tongues of flame, and people talking in languages they never learned
The Spirit is what creates the church; it brings it into being
The Spirit animates the church; it gives it life
The Spirit gives the church its mission and its power

Paul usually describes the Spirit of the church as the Spirit of Jesus
I think it’s very clear from the Hebrew Bible why he does this
And what he thinks is so distinctive about the church’s proclamation of the coming of the Spirit

We didn’t hear the obvious passage from Acts about Pentecost today
Instead, we heard a very short passage from John’s gospel
What is striking in this passage is that Jesus promises how the coming of the Spirit will turn things which now are only symbols, into realities

Jesus says, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’”
And the narrator helpfully adds,
he said this about the spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified.

To understand these words, and why Jesus says them at just this moment, you have to picture the scene
We’ve been talking a lot lately about the festivals of the farming year in Israel
The narrator tells us this happens on the last day of the festival,
The festival he’s referring to is the Feast of Booths; the Feast of Tabernacles
The time of sowing, when the people lived out in the fields in temporary shelters, and remembered the years in the wilderness

The last day of the festival is the great day
That means it’s the eighth day
The anniversary of the day Solomon dedicated the temple

The Talmud tells us more about this festival
It says that every day, water was taken in a golden vessel from the Pool of Siloam to the Water Gate and carried in the procession up to the Temple and the altar’
– There it was poured out on the foundation stone (?), which was believed to be at the very centre of the earth
– Jews believed one day, rivers of living water would flow out across the earth from that spot
– Founded on Zechariah 14 and 47

Picture this scene
– Jesus and his small band of followers, standing apart from the crowds of eager faithful and curious tourists surrounding the procession of priestly bucket-carriers
– Jesus raising his voice and crying out above the chanting of the priests

The week of ritual has ended, and once again nothing has happened:
– But now, Jesus speaks up
– He presents himself as the source of the living waters that will flow out across the earth
– His followers, those who receive Jesus in their hearts, will become sources of the same living water for others

In other words, this passage is a prophecy of how the Spirit will equip the church for mission after Christ’s resurrection and ascension

The question for us is, who are we in this story?
Have our hearts been filled with living water? Are we ready to start pouring it out to others?
Do say we believe in Jesus, but still go on waiting for the spirit to come and clothe us with power?
Or are we just priestly bucket carriers? Going through the motions?
Constantly enacting rituals that are nothing more than symbols, ignoring what the spirit of God is doing to make them real?


Luke 24.44-53; Acts 1.6-14

Thursday was the feast of the Ascension

Today we take some time to think of that theme, and what it means
– not just for how we think of the figure of Jesus, but for how we live

The Ascension is a problematic episode for modern Christians
William Barclay said, there is “no incident in the life of Jesus at one and the same time so beset with difficulties and so essential as the Ascension”

We think of Jesus rising physically from the ground, and disappearing into the cloud
It’s a simple picture but then the questions start
We don’t know where heaven is, but we know it’s not ‘up there’
Where did Jesus go? When did he stop rising?

We entertain inappropriate pictures in our minds, of the ascending Jesus crossing international flight paths, if such things had existed then
Military jets being scrambled to intercept

There are problems with the way the story is told in the Bible
Only Luke tells this story
He tells it twice; and there are inconsistencies – even in this recounting of a single incident, by one person

The first version is at the end of his gospel; the other is in the first chapter of Acts
– In the first version, the Ascension takes place at Bethany; in Acts, it’s mount Olivet
– In the first version, the disciples go straight back to Jerusalem, rejoicing and worshipping; in the second, they stand there bemused, until angels appear and say, ‘What are you hanging around here for?’

It’s easy to get bogged down in this sort of detail
It easily becomes a distraction from the function of Scripture
The question to ask yourself about any passage is, why is the writer telling me this?
Why is this important?
And the overarching answer to this question is the reason John gives at the end of his gospel:

These [things] 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. John 20:31

The Ascension is an incident that does exactly what John says the gospels should do:
– It gives us reasons to believe; it presents us with overwhelming evidence that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God
– It teaches us about the nature of the risen life we are promised in Jesus
– It makes clear to us the relationship between this risen life, the gifts of the Spirit, and our call to preach the name of Jesus to everyone in the word who has yet to hear it

Firstly, the Ascension gives us reasons to believe that Jesus is the Messiah
The resurrection fulfils both what the Hebrew Scriptures say about the Messiah, and what Jesus foretold about himself
So Jesus not only fulfils the Word of God, but proves that he himself speaks with the voice of God
And so, by definition, he is the promised Redeemer

Secondly, the Ascension spells out the link between Jesus’ return to the Father and the coming of the Spirit
This is complicated: Surely, Jesus doesn’t have to leave so that the Spirit can come?
Are we supposed to imagine some kind of celestial see saw, where one goes up, and the other comes down?
Or are we supposed to see them as squabbling celebrities, where one leaves the party as soon as the other one arrives?

It’s obviously not like that: not quite, anyway
Let’s introduce today’s Sunday word: ‘reciprocation’
Reciprocation in mechanics is an alternating motion:

To reciprocate is to respond to an action or a gesture by someone, by making a corresponding gesture of your own
I smile, and you smile; you buy me a coffee, and next time I buy you a coffee
The two actions are the same: but they are also opposites, or mirror images, of one another

What we see in the Ascension is reciprocation
What happens is, Jesus goes into the presence of the Father, promising that the Spirit will come into our presence

Jesus in heaven retains his humanity; he is a divine being clothed with human flesh
He promises that after he returns to the Father, the disciples will be ‘clothed with power’:
They will be human beings clothed with divinity: clothed with the Holy Spirit

So in heaven, there is now a divine being, clothed with humanity
On earth there are human beings, clothed with divinity: do you see the reciprocity?

The presence of Jesus with the Father, as a divine being clothed with humanity, makes it possible for the Spirit of God to be present with us
The letter to the Hebrews explains this in imagery drawn from the worship of the Temple

Jesus goes into the presence of the Father, just as the High Priest did once a year, on the Day of Atonement
The Jews believed that the High Priest really went into the presence of God, behind the veil, in the Holy of Holies
He burnt incense, he made his offering of blood, and he came out again to the people

The High Priest was said to bring something of the radiance of the divine light of God himself with him, just as Moses’ face shone after he spoke with God
And his return brought renewal to the land and the people

With Jesus, it’s the same – but different
Jesus makes his sacrifice of blood once and for all, and the Atonement is forever
Jesus is eternally present, physically, with the Father in heaven
But he is eternally present, spiritually, with us here on earth
The Sacrament of Communion helps us understand his spiritual and physical presence, with us and with the Father, through the Spirit

What does all this mean?
It means we should see the
Ascension not as the loss of Jesus, but as our glorification with him

Glorification doesn’t mean sitting back or keeping quiet
Glorification for us means, experiencing the power of the Spirit through our witness to Christ
Preaching his name, welcoming others in his name
Doing the works the disciples saw him do
Building a community of love in his name

Because that is the new life we are called to in the name of our risen and ascended Lord