Archive for May, 2015

24 May 2015, St Cuthbert’s, Heaton

Psalm 104,24-34  Romans 8.22-27

The central text for the coming of the Spirit is Acts 2
The Pentecostal vision of tongues of fire and the gift of speaking other languages

Our other readings frame that episode and show it in a different light
One of these passages comes from the book of Psalms
The other comes from Paul’s letter to the Romans
They both set our present experience of the Spirit in the context of God’s act of creation

I often use verses from Psalm 104 in funeral services
Not early in the service, but just before the words of committal
Because no matter how much we’ve heard about our assurance of resurrection through Christ, there is a mystery in death
There is a moment when we have to surrender all our own confidence, confront the reality of physical death, hand over our loved one to God, and say, “Thy will be done”

Psalm 104 sets our present suffering in the context of God’s mighty universal act of Creation, and his care for all the creatures he has made
We didn’t hear the whole psalm today, but our passage begins with praise to God for his creation

O Lord, how manifold are your works!
In wisdom you have made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.

It praises God for the wonder of his providence; it offers us the corrective example of how other creatures trust God to give them what they need:

They all look to you
to give them their food in due season;
when you give to them, they gather it up;
when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.

Then it goes on to ponder the mystery of God’s withdrawal of his spirit, and the end of life:

When you hide your face, they are dismayed;
when you take away their breath, they die
and return to their dust.

The Psalmist is urging us to accept three things:
– First, that death does not overrule divine Providence
– Second, that death exists in the context of the continual birth of new life
– Third, that God’s spirit of creation is continually active in our world

When you send forth your spirit, they are created;
and you renew the face of the ground.

This psalm reassures us, we are all in the hands of our Creator, who will not abandon us
So even when we are at our lowest point of despair, our best hope is to offer God our praise.

The Psalmist stopped short when the reality of death confronted him
His faith enabled him to face the fact of death without despair, without being overwhelmed by death’s apparent finality and meaninglessness
But he could not see a way through it

That is where Paul differs: in Paul’s writing, we see the knot being untied
What seemed to be a deadlock, is being loosened
Hope and freedom are coming into view

Human sin brought death into the world
Human sin has placed the whole of creation in a predicament it longs to escape
Creation groans in suffering – because everything it gives birth to will inevitably die
But in Christ, and then in the redemption of humanity through Christ, creation begins to be set free

This is probably not the way we are used to thinking about the problem of sin in our everyday lives
We don’t think of sin in cosmic terms
We realise Christ died for our sins
We know other people suffer from the consequences of our sinful acts, like passing on tittle tattle or eating the last of the biscuits
But we don’t see these things having universal implications

The gospels have helped to shape this way of looking at the problem of sin
Most of the parables are stories about the sinful acts of individuals
The need for individual repentance and forgiveness

But I think Paul sees danger in thinking of sin in purely individual terms
He views sin as the result of an individual act that had cosmic consequences
Because sin is a cosmic problem, it required a cosmic solution

If we think of sin in purely individual terms, we will see salvation in personal terms
My sin, my Saviour, my salvation
We won’t see the cosmic dimension of the problem of sin

Paul had dealt with problems in Corinth, caused by people who saw salvation in individual terms
Who saw religious experience in personal terms, and interpreted spiritual gifts from the same selfish standpoint
Who honestly thought they had been turned into spiritual super-beings

Paul says, our sinfulness is our own fault, but it isn’t our own problem
We can’t solve it for ourselves, and the solution God has given us isn’t only for ourselves
If God has graced us with spiritual gifts, they aren’t just for ourselves either

There’s only one spiritual super-being, and that’s Christ
Church isn’t a place for individualism; church life isn’t a competition to assert yourself
That’s why, for Paul, spiritual gifts are meant to serve the church

The supreme spiritual gifts are prophecy and teaching that help us collectively know more of God
All spiritual gifts are meant to be exercised in the spirit of love, that binds us together in Christ

The Spirit is given to individuals so that they can perform certain ministries
We see that type of gift being exercised on the day of Pentecost
But what happened at Pentecost is less important than what happened when God through the Spirit raised Christ from death
The resurrection is the spiritual gift the church was called into being to celebrate, forever

The Spirit of resurrection in Christ is not for certain individuals, in certain places, on certain days
The Spirit of resurrection is given to the whole church, forever

The promise of redemption is for the future
What we have now is hope – because God’s promise is certain
What we have now is the Spirit of Christ within us, the Spirit of prayer, our mediator, bringing us into the presence of God

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How do we know we believe?

Posted: May 30, 2015 in Uncategorized

17 May 2015, St George’s, High Heaton

1 John 5.9-13

I’m sure we all remember those passages in the gospels where the authorities come to Jesus and demand a sign. ‘You can’t have one,’ he tells them; ‘You don’t deserve one.’
Demanding signs is a sign in itself – it’s a sign of spiritual immaturity; it’s a sign of lack of faith; it’s a sign you’re putting yourself first, ahead of God

When the Jewish authorities ask him for a sign it’s because they secretly believe it’s the task of God to convince them
Instead of it being their job, to accept the sign in front of them – which is Jesus himself
They set themselves above the rest of the community, and apart from the community that follows Jesus

Faith submits itself to wait for revelation, and search for understanding
Faith consists of patience, openness, perseverance, trust, and self-surrender
Faith offers – it does not demand

This passage from Johns first letter is about faith. It’s also a test of faith
It offers an assurance
It says, God has given us eternal life, and this life has its source in his Son
Yet this assurance is also a test: Can you accept this assurance of eternal life?
The answer is, you can’t, unless you have already accepted Christ

This is a passage that raises the whole question of the nature of religious truth
How can you know or say you have accepted Christ?

The writer faced this question, because he lived in a divided church
His own experience was that preaching the gospel of Christ was often divisive
But he reached the conclusion that the truth of the gospel only emerges among people who have committed to live and believe together, in love

It’s worth following the passage phrase by phrase to see how he develops his argument
Because he does it by standing a lot of our received notions on their heads
It begins:

9a We believe human testimony; but God’s testimony is much stronger
The first thing he does is to separate human hearsay from the real truth of the gospel
Our friends might tell us things we’d quite like to believe: because they make faith easier

God’s truths are more challenging than that
But God has brought his truths home to us, by presenting them to us in flesh and blood, in Jesus Christ.
God’s testimony is stronger – because in Christ he committed himself to it, to the point of giving up his own life for it

9b [God] has given this testimony about his Son
What is the testimony God has given us about his Son?
We already know this – God’s testimony to the Son is – the Son

Jesus is both divine and human – therefore his truth-claims are a combination of two things:
– The visible fact that he existed (which even non-Christian writers admit)
– And the divine witness to his origin and purpose, the witness that said he was more than a clever human being

This divine witness comes from two sources: the Hebrew Scriptures, now revealed to be pointing to Christ; and the signs manifested in Jesus’ own life and work.

But even this double testimony will not convince people who do not have faith in Christ
Because it is faith that brings together the visible facts of Jesus’ life, with the divine testimony to their significance

How do we receive this divine testimony?

10a Those who believe in the Son of God have this testimony in their own heart
What does it mean to have this testimony in our hearts?
Our growing faith in Christ is a movement of two things, in two directions:
– the knowledge of Christ moves inwards, from our minds and senses into our hearts;
– and the centre of our life and being moves outwards, from ourselves and this material world, into the spiritual body of the risen Christ.

That’s the work that belief in Christ performs in us
We now move from the challenge to believe, to the consequences of not believing

10b Those who do not believe God, have made a liar of him, because they have not believed what God has said about his Son
These non-believers are condemned by their denial
Refusing to believe is not just us exercising our right of free, individual choice
Our choice has consequences outside of ourselves

If we refuse to believe in the gospel, we exclude ourselves from the church community
By rejecting the gospel we pass judgement on God:
We accuse God himself of bearing false witness to his own Son.
That judgement rebounds on ourselves, so that we find ourselves exiled and condemned.

The next verse is the heart of the passage: the promise we have received from God:

11a The testimony is this: God has given us eternal life
It looks on the surface like a plain statement of fact, and yet it is ambiguous: how do we know this testimony is true?
Do we believe the gospel because we know we have eternal life, or do we know have eternal life because we believe the gospel?
We cannot ‘know’ we have eternal life in the same way we know what we had for breakfast today
Or even in the way we think we know we will have for breakfast tomorrow;
We only have God’s word, his ‘testimony’, that he has given us this gift.

Our Christian faith is not based on facts; it is based on promises
God’s truth is always presented to us as a promise, and promises invariably assume a relationship: how can you accept a promise from someone you don’t know?
We believe in God’s promise because of our relationship with God
And because God has revealed his promise in the incarnate Word itself – Jesus Christ

The rest of this verse makes this clear. It says

11b this life is in his Son. [GNB this life has its source in his Son]
The Son is the promise of life. This promised life becomes ours through faith in Christ
The next sentence assures us of this:

12a Whoever has the Son has this life
How do we know we have this life? How do we know we have Christ?
The gift of life in Christ is an inalienable gift – ‘inalienable’ simply means, that the gift remains part of the one who gave it
When God gives us the gift of life in the Son, it remains his;
When we accept it Christ becomes ours, but we become Christ’s.

The gift of Christ in other words creates a community: we share in the life of the Trinity, and we share in the lives of every other Christian who has received this gift
It’s within the body of Christ, where we all belong to each other, that we experience what it means to have Christ, to know Christ, and to belong in Christ

The next statement sets out the negative implication of these truths:

12b whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.
Those who do not accept this promised life accept its absence, and the absence of life is death.
Only by accepting the Son do we escape the prospect of our own inevitable death, and enter into Christ’s promise of life.
Who are the people condemned to this death? They are people who have quarrelled, who have left the community

But the writer doesn’t want to go on pursuing this quarrel
His purpose in this passage is to reassure those who still believe
To reaffirm his community in its faith. So he says:

13 I am writing this to you so that you may know that you have eternal life—you that believe in the Son of God.

To sum up: this letter seems to be in plain language, yet it’s actually written in a secret code
– Paradoxically, it is an explanation addressed to people who already understand.
– To anyone who does not believe, it is a series of platitudes, or even gibberish (why these endless permutations of the same few words?).

The only ones who can understand the words of this letter are those who have received Christ, the Word of God.
If we approach this from the world’s standpoint, this is back to front.
Surely, we can’t accept Christ until we understand?
Surely, we can’t join a church until we know what we are being asked to accept?

But I don’t think this is our own experience, if we think about it.
We all passed at some point from the position where the cross was a stumbling block and the gospel was foolishness, to a position where it all made sense.
We probably didn’t reach that point of understanding locked in a room by ourselves
We reached it when God had already brought us into relationship with people who believed – when we’d become part of a church community

A popular catchphrase religious commentators use is that now, people want to believe without belonging – they want to create a faith of their own, and keep it to themselves
I think this is entirely wrong – I say, you can’t believe without belonging

If you don’t believe, you can’t belong: because everything said in a gathering like this one will seem like foolishness
If you don’t want to belong, you probably don’t believe: because the gospel draws people together
If you don’t belong, your faith will not endure – because faith without community is just opinion
And that really is a hopeful message for us: because it fits entirely with our fundamental belief, that in Christ we are all made one.

Who is the victor today?

Posted: May 30, 2015 in Uncategorized

10 May 2015, St Cuthbert’s, Heaton

Psalm 98  1 John 5.1-5

We don’t hear sermons on the Psalms as often as we used to
This is because the Psalms aren’t quite as central to the life of our church and our thinking about God as they once were
And that, in turn, is because we don’t interpret the Psalms in the way people once did

Long ago, people thought the Psalms were songs and poems actually written by David
The Christians of the early church believed this too – but they also believed the Psalms speak about Jesus

Much later, people began to think the Psalms were texts used in the worship of the Temple, and scholars tried to reconstruct the ceremonies where they were used
Nowadays, scholars usually approach the Psalms as literature – as pieces of verse and prose which try to say something to us or make us feel a particular way about God or ourselves

This raises a question: If we treat the Psalms as literature, does that mean we can choose whether to take them seriously or not?
Does it mean we can treat them as fiction – distance them from our lives?
I don’t think we can: because the Psalms say a lot of very direct things about God
And they depict a lot of situations that seem to reflect our own world in very clear ways

Psalm 98 is one of the ‘enthronement psalms’ at the heart of the Psalter
– The enthronement psalms address God as ‘King’ or speak of his ‘reign’
– They speak of universal ‘justice’ as the essence of God’s reign

It’s believed by some scholars that these psalms were used in the coronation of the kings of Israel and Judah
Perhaps today, after a General Election, Psalm 98 has something particular to say to us

The crowning of a new ruler is always a time of hope
– there is always an expectation that things are going to be better

Some of this is just formal rhetoric – the new king is entitled our highest praise, because he is the most important person in our land
Some of it is flattery – we want to get on the right side of the new king
Some of it is moral blackmail – when we praise the new king so extravagantly we are saying, ‘we expect you to live up to the praise we are offering you – we say these things about you, because this is what kings are meant to be like – so don’t let us down’

Not all of this applies to the result of our own election
We don’t have a new ruler – we’ve just re-elected the old one

Far from promising not to repeat what some people might think were mistakes, he will take his re-election as a mandate to go on with the same policies
In his next few speeches he will go through the motions of humility, but we know he is really thinking, “Great: four years at least before I have to face another election”

He might talk about governing in the best interests of the whole country:
But we know, like every politician, his first obligation is to repay his backers and keep his most committed supporters happy

God’s victory is not like the victories of politicians
After the election David Cameron said, “This is the sweetest victory of them all”
But the victories of politicians are only sweet for a few people

David Cameron will feel he was vindicated: he will say, “I had my critics and I had my opponents; but I knew I was right all along, and now I’ve been vindicated”
But when the psalm speaks of ‘vindication’ it’s nothing to do with saving face or restoring anyone’s pride
It doesn’t mean winning an argument over human opponents
Vindication has to do with righteousness – not self-righteousness
God is vindicated when his righteousness is revealed to the nations

Finally, David Cameron’s victory is a limited victory
It’s a victory for his party, over other parties
It’s also a personal victory over opponents within his own party – because if he had lost the election, not only would he not be Prime Minister today, he wouldn’t be leader of the Conservative party either

But God’s victory is victory for all of us
For the people of every nation; for every creature; for everything in creation
Because God’s victory is the victory of God’s “steadfast love and faithfulness”

God’s victory is the triumph of God’s justice
God’s justice doesn’t mean that one section of society suffers so that another section of society can benefit
God’s justice is an expression of God’s righteousness

When Jesus satisfies God’s demand for justice, we are all declared righteous
We are all put right with God
The curse of Adam’s sin is lifted, and creation itself is restored
Peace is restored
Everything in creation is restored to its proper function – which ultimately is to offer praise to our Creator
Which is why this psalm ends with this great universal vision of hope:

Let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
the world and those who live in it.
Let the floods clap their hands;
let the hills sing together for joy
at the presence of the Lord: for He is coming

Our victory is not something we win for ourselves
Our victory is not victory over other people
Our victory is not won at anyone else’s expense
Our victory is not over when the press or our supporters turn against us

Our victory is the victory God has proclaimed
Our victory is the victory of Christ’s love: the love that conquers the world
That victory is victory for all people, forever

3 May 2015, St George’s, High Heaton

Psalm 22.25-31  Acts 8.26-40

All the ends of the earth shall remember
and turn to the Lord;
And all the families of the nations
shall worship before him.  Psa 22.27, nrsv

Today, we continue the story of the early church

We have jumped ahead a bit from last week
Our last reading from Acts was from chapter 4: the examination of Peter and John by the Jewish authorities

Now here we are at the end of chapter 8
Which means we have missed out a lot of episodes – so let’s summarise

Peter and John are ordered to keep silent after their trial, but of course they don’t – and neither do their followers
The high priest puts the apostles in prison, but the Spirit opens the doors and lets them out
They carry on preaching, and the high priest wants to kill them, but Gamaliel persuades him to let them live

But then Stephen is arrested, put on trial, and stoned by the mob
That sparks a persecution that forces all the community apart from the apostles to leave Jerusalem and scatter across the countryside

Today’s reading is an episode that happens as a result of that scattering
– The conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch by Philip

In the ministry of Jesus on earth we saw many Old Testament prophecies fulfilled
In this reading, and in the other readings during the weeks after Easter, we see the beginnings of the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy through the life and witness of the Christian church

When Jesus hung on the cross, some of the last words he spoke came from psalm 22:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Now, in the conversion and baptism of a diplomat from a country on the edge of the known world, we see the beginning of the fulfilment of a prophecy from the same psalm:

All the ends of the earth shall remember
and turn to the Lord;
and all the families of the nations
shall worship before him.

This Ethiopian is an important man
He rides in the equivalent of a chauffeur-driven limousine
He has the money to buy religious manuscripts from a culture not his own, and the learning and the leisure to study them

Because the Ethiopian is not a Jew, he stands for “all the families of the nations”;
Because he comes from a country so far away, he represents “the ends of the earth”
Because he is in charge of the Ethiopian queen’s entire treasury, he represents a prophecy we know from Isaiah – that the kings and empires of the world will one day bring their wealth to Jerusalem by sea and land, and pour it out before the God of Israel

But more importantly, the Ethiopian eunuch shows us the atonement and reconciliation of all humanity through Jesus Christ
The Jewish Law says, “anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse” (Deut 21.23).
But Jesus bears and lifts the curse sin has placed on all of us

In the same way, people who according to the Law were beyond the pale are now accepted by God, through the grace given in Christ
Eunuchs were reputed to be particularly interested in prayer and worship
But according to Jewish law, eunuchs were regarded as ‘blemished’, unfit for conversion to Judaism

So this eunuch cannot be accepted, even though he has been up to Jerusalem to worship in the temple
– He cannot be accepted, according to Jewish tradition, no matter how much he studies the Scriptures
– He cannot be accepted – until Philip opens the Scriptures to him, and reveals how the Scriptures have been fulfilled in Christ

The Jewish Law is based on a particular understanding of ‘holiness’
Judaism thinks of ‘holiness’ as setting apart: purifying and separating, driving out the impure

But the holiness represented by Jesus Christ is one of atoning (making-as-one) and ‘bringing in’
Christ takes our sinfulness; Christ takes our brokenness; Christ takes our imperfection, and clothes us in his perfection
He makes us acceptable to God, and makes us one in his body

Why does this Ethiopian matter to us?
We remember the stories told in the early church, that this official went home and converted the people of his own country
We remember that Christians in some of the lands where the church took root first are now under threat – Coptic Christians in north Africa and Christians in the present day states of Iraq and Syria.
In Ethiopia itself, there is friction between Christians and Muslims
Among the latest ISIS terror videos was one showing Ethiopian Christians being shot and beheaded in Libya

But the Ethiopian diplomat is important to us for reasons that go beyond those modern conflicts, horrifying and tragic though they are
He is important to us because he is evidence that from the beginning of the Christian faith, prophecies from the Old Testament were fulfilled in the life of the church
He is our
guarantee that the remaining prophecies will be fulfilled

This is a story of a distant time; we don’t have eunuchs as government officials now
But there’s nothing obscure about this story – what happens is very simple
And it poses a very direct question
In one hand the Ethiopian holds the Scripture; with the other hand he points to the water, and he says,
“What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

From word to action is a short step, if we have faith
We have the Word; we have the sacraments; we have prayer; we have the Spirit; we have the body of Christ – we
are the body of Christ
What is to prevent the will of God being done here?

When shepherds squabble

Posted: May 11, 2015 in Uncategorized

26 April 2015, St Cuthbert’s, Heaton

John 10.11-18  1John 3.16-24

There will be one flock, one shepherd. (John 10.16)

We talked about shepherds in the Bible not long ago
– There are lots of shepherds in the Bible
– Mainly because there were lots of shepherds in the Ancient Near East

It may seem unusual to us to represent kings or gods as shepherds
– But this image is quite common in Ancient Near Eastern literature
– Our Bible is not unique in this respect
– On the other hand, the ethical accountability of kings and religious rulers and the real threat of divine judgement against bad rulers are expressed much more powerfully in the Bible than elsewhere
– The biblical imagery is not just courtly rhetoric

Why portray kings as shepherds?
– The humbleness of shepherds reminds us of our common humanity
– Kings are exalted above other human beings on earth; but they are supposed to retain their kinship with the rest of us: they should remain humble
– The shepherd has a boss; the sheep are not his own
– An ancient king’s power is virtually absolute; but his people belong to God, and the ultimate source of his authority is God

In the Bible we have examples of good shepherds, and bad shepherds

The good shepherds who show us how a ruler’s power is meant to be exercised, in the light of this ethical accountability to God
I could give many examples, but let’s just take three:
– Abraham, whose huge flocks and herds symbolise God’s favour and prefigure the descendants future leaders will guide
– Moses, who leads God’s people in the desert
– David. Shepherding gives him the skills he needs, both to defeat Goliath and later to guide God’s people as their king

We also have bad shepherds: people who use power as if it was their own, as if it was simply a tool or a weapon to get things for themselves
– The prophets routinely compare bad rulers to bad shepherds. God tells Ezekiel to “Prophesy against the shepherds of Israel”
– They just as routinely promise that God will intervene. He tells Ezekiel, “I will rescue my sheep from their mouths”

In John’s gospel, Jesus repeats the condemnation of Israel’s bad shepherds
You would expect him to condemn the Roman authorities: but he does not
Instead he says, “render unto Caesar” (that’s actually not John, but the attitude is the same)

The bad shepherds Jesus attacks are the Jewish rulers and temple officials
He sets himself against them, by proclaiming himself to be the Good Shepherd

He says, I do what I do because the Father has sent me to do it
You do what you do, because of what you hope to get out of it – influence with the Roman governors, status in the eyes of the people, or money

When the prophets prophesy against the bad shepherds, they are hoping for an immediate change
They hope the official and priests will hear God’s condemnation, and change for the better

In the gospels, it is different
Jesus dies, and the bad shepherds remain in charge
Jesus not only promises to lay down his life for his sheep: he actually does it
Which begs the question: who is the Good Shepherd now?

The answer, of course, is that the responsibility passes to his followers
Jesus tells Peter, “Feed my lambs”; “Tend my sheep”; “feed my sheep”

This is the point where questions begin to creep in
There was only one Jesus – How many shepherds are there now?
In theory there is only one church, one body of Christ – in practice there are lots of churches in different areas, founded by different apostles, with different leaders

The Bible gives us a very realistic picture of the lives of shepherds
We know from the Bible stories that shepherds argued and fought with each other
They quarrelled over whose sheep were whose
They quarrelled over pasture lands
They quarrelled over water sources

Shepherds in the church quarrel too
Different different leaders have different interpretations of the gospel
They resent people who stray onto their patch
Who come in from outside and preach a different message
They resent people who try to tempt their followers away

Before Paul leaves Ephesus to make his final voyage to Rome, he warns his church there are “savage wolves” who will attack the flock when he is gone
He isn’t talking about the Roman authorities; he isn’t talking about the Jewish leaders
He’s talking about other Christians

So already in the early church, just a few years after Jesus dies, the imagery of good and bad shepherds is being used in quarrels between rival leaders
We see it in the Acts of the Apostles, we see it in Paul’s letters, and we see it in the letter of John we heard from today

The imagery of flocks and shepherds is being used by one side to brand the teachings of the other side as unsound
It’s being used to blacken the characters of religious opponents, to suggest they preach for selfish reasons

It’s easy for relationships between pastors in the church to become competitive
What we all have to remember is that we don’t have power; we have a responsibility
And any responsibility we have, in the church or anywhere else, is a gift from God
Even Jesus said, “I have received this command from the Father”

Every shepherd in the Christian church is also a sheep
We have to know how to follow as well as lead
There is one voice the sheep should follow – and it is not our own

Like the Good Shepherd, we have to be ready to lay down our own lives for others
Not necessarily to throw ourselves in front of buses or tackle armed robbers, but to give other people priority: to regard each other’s needs and feelings as more important than our own

Pastoral care, the care of the shepherd for his flock, is the responsibility of all of us
Do churches grow because of the care they lavish on themselves, or the care they show for other people?
Do churches shrink because they have neglected themselves, or because they have stopped caring for the world outside?
The responsibility God gives, he can also take away

“Feed my lambs”; “Tend my sheep”; “feed my sheep”
We will have to account one day for the sheep God has asked us to care for
We will be judged for how we have carried out his command

Afraid to burn?

Posted: May 10, 2015 in Uncategorized

19 April 2015, St George’s, High Heaton

Isaiah 33.13-17  Acts 3.11-21

Who among us can live with the devouring fire?
Who among us can live with everlasting flames? (Isaiah 33:14 )

Last time I spoke here we were thinking about the different versions we find in the gospels of the events of Easter morning
Easter is a particularly clear example of a simple fact
There is no possibility now of bringing together what we read in the four gospels, in the Book of Acts, and the letters, to create one, perfectly coherent account of Jesus’ life and teachings

The urge to sort out these different accounts and impose order on the whole thing is a modern impulse
The first readers of the gospels had a very different sense of history, and a very different idea of truth, from the one we have

We can see very clearly from the gospels and the letters what the real priorities of the first Christians were
They had lived through events that overturned all their previous beliefs and expectations
Or they had heard eye-witness accounts from other people which challenged them in the same way

They had to bring two very different things into step
On the one hand, the undeniable events of their own recent memory
On the other hand, the teachings they had grown up with: the evidence of Scripture: the testimonies and prophecies handed down from previous generations, about the words and works of almighty God, who is always faithful and never changes

What they did was to use the Hebrew Scriptures as commentaries on the events they had witnessed
They used the Hebrew Scriptures to interpret the words and actions of Jesus they remembered
And as they did this, they generated the first statements of the distinctive Christian doctrines we still believe in and proclaim today

The book they turned to most often was the book of Isaiah
Isaiah is the longest of the prophetic books
It contains prophecies from three periods of Israel’s history:
– from before the exile
– from the time just before the exile came to an end
– and from the time after the homecoming when the first, hopeful joy had worn off and they no longer believed God was going to vindicate his people at once
So when you read Isaiah, you can find words appropriate to any situation you might be facing – from the best to the worst

The belief of the early church was, that every passage in the Hebrew Scriptures had to have a Christian interpretation
Every passage had in some way to refer to Christ

We can still do this
We can find creative parallels between passages in the Old Testament and the New

Look at today’s reading from Isaiah, and Peter’s sermon to the crowd in Jerusalem in our reading from Acts – which I think is the third sermon preached in the Christian church

The passage from Isaiah begins,

Hear, you who are far away, what I have done;
and you who are near, acknowledge my might.

So we know right away, that the words God speaks to Israel through Isaiah are not just for Israel
Any more than the teachings of Jesus or the events of Easter were just for a local audience

Isaiah goes on,

The sinners in Zion are afraid; trembling has seized the godless

Zion of course is Jerusalem
Both an earthly city, and the city on a hill, chosen by God to be the place of his earthly presence
The site of the temple; believed by Jews to be the starting point and the centre of creation
In those last days, the place of Jesus’ crucifixion and his resurrection
And now, as the faithful spread the word of Jesus’ resurrection, a place of dawning fear for those implicated in his death
Dawning awareness that this is a time of judgment – as Peter tells them

And yet almost in the same breath he tells them, this was all God’s own doing
God used you to perform his own will

The next lines are the climax of Isaiah’s words: he invites us to imagine these godless sinners putting their fear into words, and saying,

Who among us can live with the devouring fire?
Who among us can live with everlasting flames?”

If we read these words in the simplest sense, they seem to be a threat – a warning of the torments of hell-fire
But I think we should see them as a challenge

Peter challenges the people in his audience to separate themselves from the mob who handed Jesus over for execution
He challenges them to side with Jesus
He urges them to repent, and he promises them a reconciliation with God: he says,

Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord

“Times of refreshing”: these are words used in the Old Testament when it speaks of the Day of Atonement, the one day of the year when the high priest carried the blood of sacrifice into the holy of holies
It was a ritual believed to restore creation and the eternal covenant
But it had to be repeated every year

But when Jesus returns to the Father, he enters the holy of holies once and for all as our great high priest; And he takes us with him

Our reading from Isaiah ends with those great words,

Your eyes will see the king in his beauty; they will behold a land that stretches far away.

This is the promise we will see Jesus in his heavenly majesty
And the land that stretches far away is more than just a larger territory for Israel
It’s God’s kingdom on earth

Today’s theme is the Great Commission
Jesus’ commandment to his disciples to preach the gospel to the whole world
The land that stretches far away is the mission field they are sent to
The king in his beauty they will see is the king they have already seen – Jesus transfigured on the mountain top
– and then Jesus standing before them risen from the grace
– and finally Jesus ascending through the clouds to his Father in heaven

That is the true significance of the flames in those earlier lines:

Who among us can live with the devouring fire?
Who among us can live with everlasting flames?”

These are not the fires of hell; this is a vision of standing before the throne of God

This is also a vision of the lives of the apostles
Who lived lives filled with presence of the Holy Spirit and the knowledge of the power of the gospel
Whose lives were consumed by the demands of preaching the gospel
Who endured hardship practically every day of their lives
Who suffered torture at the hands of the authorities who opposed them
But said, as Paul did, this is all worth it – as long as I suffer these things for the sake of the gospel

To live our lives in this spirit – that is the Great Commission still given to us today

3 April 2015, St Cuthbert’s, Heaton

Ezra 9:5–9But now for a brief moment favour has been shown by the Lord our God, who has left us a remnant, and given us a nail in his holy place, in order that he may brighten our eyes and grant us a little sustenance in our slavery.

This passage from Ezra isn’t one of the usual Good Friday readings
In fact it’s rare to have a sermon preached on Ezra in church at all

But this passage is relevant to Good Friday for several reasons
Firstly, because the political situation Ezra describes is so similar to the situation of Judea in the time of Jesus
Ruled over by a pagan empire, which nevertheless tolerates the Jewish religion, its temple, and its priestly power structure
Its people live with the conviction that they are living through a time of divine punishment for their religious shortcomings
But also with the hope of national restoration and vindication by their God

It’s relevant secondly, for the theme of the rebuilding of the temple
Because, if you remember, Jesus predicted that if the temple were torn down, he would restore it in three days – which confused everyone

Thirdly, because nails are central to both passages
In the gospels we are not actually told, but we believe, that three nails fastened Jesus to the cross: one through each wrist, and another through both ankles
In Ezra there’s that odd verse: ‘ for a brief moment favor has been shown by the Lord our God, who has left us a remnant, and given us a nail in his holy place’

Why is Ezra talking about nails? There is a simple reason, but not an obvious one
The people under his command have come home from exile in Babylon – home to a city and a temple in ruins
They have been working to rebuild everything the Babylonians destroyed
It’s a difficult job; but the fact they are being allowed to do it, is a sign (they hope) that God has relented and is giving them back their land

Today, when you want to open a new building, you unveil a plaque or cut a ribbon
Archaeologists and historians tells us that in the Ancient Near East, the way you announced that a new temple was complete was to hammer a nail into the wall

Why? Because the vessels used in the temple service were hung on nails
So banging in the first nail was a sign that this building was a temple, and it was ready for use
And when Ezra says the Lord has “given us a nail in his holy place”, he means that after all the years of exile, God is permitting his people to worship Him again
God is giving his people something to hold on to: metaphorically giving them a place in his temple

Now lets think about the other nails – nails as one of the central elements of the crucifixion
Why crucify Jesus? The Jewish punishment for blasphemy was stoning:

Leviticus 24:14 Take the blasphemer outside the camp; and let all who were within hearing lay their hands on his head, and let the whole congregation stone him.

Stoning is the way the community expresses its horror at blasphemy, and its determination to purify itself by collectively exterminating anyone who blasphemes

Jesus had already escaped stoning for blasphemy more than once:

John 8:58–59 Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.” So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.

John 10:30–31 The authorities demand to know if Jesus is the Messiah. He answers, “The Father and I are one.” and “The Jews took up stones again to stone him.”

Crucifixion is a Roman punishment, not a Jewish one – so it’s the Romans who kill Jesus

Pilate declares that Jesus’ guilt is theological, not political
So the punishment should have been stoning

But for all sorts of theological reasons, it’s important Jesus hangs from a tree – we’ve heard some of the reasons in our readings during Lent
– He becomes a scapegoat, something on which people can project their unknowing hatred of what is actually their own sin
– He becomes a curse, an embodiment of the curse placed on Adam and Eve because of their sin
– He becomes Moses’ bronze serpent, that cured the plague when people gazed on it

So much for the cross; But why use nails?
Simple economics suggest that at least Jesus’ arms should have been tied, not nailed
That’s the way the criminals crucified with Jesus are sometimes shown in paintings and illustrations
You didn’t waste nails: iron was rare and expensive

So why are Jesus’ hands nailed?
Hammering nails through someone’s hands or wrists is gruesome, it’s brutal – it appeals to our sense of the sadism of the authorities
But that’s not enough
After all, stoning is in its own way just as cruel a death as crucifixion

The reason for the nails through Jesus wrists, I would like to suggest, might be something to do with the prophecy he makes in the temple after chasing out the money changers:
“Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

The pattern of the whole Passion narrative is that when the authorities do to Jesus what they think they want, they are actually doing what he wants
They are fulfilling the prophecies made concerning the Messiah in the Old Testament

Jesus has declared himself to be the new temple
The head of the corner: the foundation and keystone, of a temple of living stones

Now the authorities think they are nailing him down
Punishing him in the way appropriate to what they think he really is: a deluded troublemaker, a threat to true religion, decent worship and civil order

Actually as they hammer in their nails they are inaugurating the new temple
Creating a new place of worship, for a new people who will worship in spirit and in truth
The nails are hammered in by Roman soldiers – by Gentiles
Unconscious representatives of the new people of God, in Christ

We are also part of that people: Gentiles; participants in Christ’s death, but also in his resurrection and new life
For to borrow Ezra’s words

we are slaves; yet our God has not forsaken us in our slavery, but has extended to us his steadfast love before the kings of this earth, to give us new life to set up the house of our God, to see Christ our temple resurrected from the ruins of his earthly body, and to give us a secure dwelling in his holy city

2 April 2015, St George’s, High Heaton

How do you respond to generous acts?
Do you respond joyfully, or do you react with fear and suspicion?
Because if someone gives us something, they surely want something in return

The giving of gifts has inspired a lot of folk wisdom, sometimes pointing one way and sometimes another
– Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, on the one hand
– There’s no such thing as a free lunch, on the other

The Frenchman Marcel Mauss helped create what anthropologists call ‘gift theory’
He said our society is built around the giving and receiving of gifts
But he doesn’t talk so much about gifts, as about obligations
There are no gifts without obligations – no such thing, in other words, as a free gift

Marcel Mauss says there are three obligations:
To give, to receive, and to give back:
– To give thoughtfully and generously
– To receive graciously and thankfully
– To respond to gifts received from others by offering something in return

To give, to receive, to give back: three obligations
That sense of obligation is what holds communities together
It is also the source of a lot of anxiety

I’m sure you’ll recognise the anxieties produced by Mauss’s three obligations

When we offer a gift, we worry over whether it’s too much, or not enough;
– whether the one who receives it will appreciate the thought and effort we put into it
– or whether they’ll realise, after all, it was a token effort, something we had on a shelf in the cupboard, a last-minute bargain

When we receive a gift we struggle to respond appropriately:
– If it’s a nice gift, how can I look grateful enough, without overacting and appearing insincere
– If it isn’t, how can I mask my disappointment; because this gift suggests they either know me less well, or value me less than I thought they did

When we give or receive gifts we worry, in other words, about revealing our inner selves to another human being
– We worry in case we are found out
– We are sometimes upset by what we discover
We live our lives behind the walls of our personalities
– The social activities of giving and receiving gifts demand we pass through those walls

So when Jesus insists on washing the disciples’ feet, he provokes anxiety in at least two of the disciples
– Peter, who battles with his sense of Jesus’ dignity and his own unworthiness
– Judas, who has already decided to betray Jesus; and in betraying Jesus, to betray the whole fellowship; and most of all, to betray himself

This kind of anxiety can have two results
– The act of crossing boundaries either deepens the relationship
– Or threatens it: possibly causing one party to withdraw altogether

The foot-washing scene shows us both possibilities
Peter’s love of Jesus is deepened
Judas’s feelings of personal threat are sharpened to the point where he reacts with an act of betrayal

Of course the roots of Judas’s betrayal go back far beyond this scene
The real source of his need to betray lies in his reaction to another gift – the spontaneous, generous act of the woman who anoints Jesus with costly perfume
The giving of gifts in every society is surrounded by rules – and this woman’s conduct breaks all of them
Judas’ own personality is too fragile to withstand this breaking down of barriers – so he lashes out to remove the one who provokes such outrageous responses

Peter’s response is different
Peter is scared by the way Jesus humbly gives himself, by washing his disciples’ feet
– Jesus’ rash act violates the boundaries of the master/disciple relationship
– Peter first of all tries to maintain the boundaries, by refusing the gift
– Then he tries to regain control in another way, by demanding more from Jesus
– Finally, he accepts the gift just as it is offered: and accepts the obligation a deeper relationship with Jesus entails

There is no such thing as a free gift: all human gifts entail obligations
As long as we live under an obligation, we do not feel completely free
Material obligations bind us to our neighbour
Our debts of sin cut us off from our God

Judas’s betrayal of Jesus was an almost infinite betrayal
But Jesus’ surrender of himself was an infinite gift
It was a gift that cancelled all our debts to God – all our obligations

The challenge, for us as Christians, is to respond to God’s gift in Christ
To give to others without creating the sense of obligation
– “Freely, freely, you have received; freely, freely, give”

Charity is one thing
– But the real challenge is to respond to others not just with material gifts, but with the spontaneous, unforced giving of ourselves
– And much more than this, not to give from our own resources: but to give the gift that is much more than ourselves, the gift of the gospel of Jesus Christ
– Christ, who cancelled all obligations, by responding to a human act of betrayal with a divine gift of love