Archive for October, 2015

25 October 2015, St Cuthbert’s, Heaton

Mark 10.46-52

Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

There are some questions I keep coming back to:
Why didn’t Jesus heal everyone?
Why doesn’t everyone believe the gospel?
Why hasn’t the kingdom come yet?

It’s much easier to ask the questions than it is to answer them
However, you can sometimes work backwards from one question to get the answer to another

So let’s ask, why hasn’t the kingdom come yet?
Actually, Jesus says it already has – more or less
He says, in his first recorded words in Mark’s gospel,
The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near
Both of those statements suggest Jesus is announcing things that have already happened

What has happened?
The time is fulfilled: God has executed his plan
God has announced his victory, and he is about to make his triumphal entry into our world
That is the gospel – that is the ‘good news’

The kingdom is so close, it’s practically here
We don’t have to do anything to make the kingdom appear – we don’t have to build it ourselves
All we need is eyes to see it, and all we have to do is proclaim it

Which leads us to the next question: Why doesn’t everyone believe the gospel?
This is a very difficult question – it’s at the root of all Christian teaching about salvation

Do you believe because you are saved, or are you saved because you believe?
It begs other questions: are the people who listen to Jesus the ones who
want to hear him, or the ones who were meant to hear him?

The true answer has always been, that no one can tell who or how many will be saved
God can save everyone if he wants to – or no one at all, because we have all sinned
But God has given evidence of his intention to save at least some people
One proof of that intention we can see in the gospels is Jesus’ healing miracles

That brings us to our third question: why didn’t Jesus heal everyone?
Because we are modern people brought up in the West, we automatically think more is better
If it’s good to heal one person, it’s twice as good to heal two
But the situation in the gospels is almost the opposite of that

There are passages in the gospels that described mass healings, including Mark:

Mark 1:33–34 (NRSV) At Capernaum: The whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons

Mark 3:9–10 (NRSV) Beside Lake Gallilee: He told his disciples to have a boat ready for him because of the crowd, so that they would not crush him; for he had cured many, so that all who had diseases pressed upon him to touch him.

Mark 6:5 (NRSV) Jesus rejected at Nazareth: He could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.

But the healings we have a real impact on us are the healings of individuals
Individuals whose names we are sometimes told, like Bartimaeus
The memorable heallings are healings with an important element of drama
Healings which often provoke confusion or anger among the people watching

Why are these individual stories so much more important than stories of mass healings?
Because when Jesus heals someone, it’s not the cure that’s important – it’s the sign

What do we mean by saying Jesus’ healings are signs?
You can compare the signs Jesus gave to road signs
The sign is not our destination – even if it bears the name of the place we are looking for
The sign tells us which direction to head in – it points to the goal of our journey
The sign doesn’t move – it stays where it is, but it tells us to carry on

Recognising a sign reassures us we’re on the right road
Far away from our destination, there aren’t many signs – we might start to worry we’ve lost our way
But the closer we get, the more signs there are

When you look at the people Jesus heals, he seems to specialise in a few conditions
He restores sight to the blind
He makes the lame walk
He frees people who are robbed of their freedom and status by the stigma of their conditions

The healings of Jesus are prophetic
Jesus heals exactly the people the prophets said would be healed
The healing is the healing of an individual, but the prophetic sign is meant for everyone

Jesus doesn’t heal everyone, because Jesus doesn’t have to heal everyone
Healing everyone would actually be a distraction
It would create the false impression that the world can be saved as it is

Jesus travels around the country, giving signs
After four hundred years of silence, the people hear the voice of prophecy again
That is a sign that the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom is at hand
Does this mean we all have to perform miracles to convince people the kingdom is real? No

Bartimaeus experiences a miracle – Jesus gives him his sight
But the real heart of the episode is a very human interchange
Bartimaeus calls to Jesus; Jesus asks him to approach
Bartimaeus throws off his cloak; Jesus asks him what he wants him to do

If Jesus had not restored Bartimaeus’s sight, might he still have followed Jesus?
I think he would – the restoration of his sight is a sign for the people watching, not for Bartimaeus himself
Bartimaeus doesn’t need a sign, because Bartimaeus already believes

I find one thing particularly interesting: Jesus does not call Bartimaeus himself
He says to the people around, Call him here
The people say to Bartimaeus, Take heart; get up, he is calling you
They realise now, a miracle is going to be performed and a sign is about to be given

Jesus has done nothing up to this point – it is the faith of Bartimaeus that has turned their hearts
Turned them from people who wanted to silence him, to people interested and involved in his fate

Those are our conclusions:
The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near: we can stop worrying about the future of the church – that problem was solved two thousand years ago
Our mission is to proclaim the kingdom that has come, not to save our institutions, or to perfect the world we can see
We do not solve the problems of the church by trying to be more reasonable, because Christians are not people convinced by an argument – Christians are people who recognise the signs
Christians are people who say to their neighbour, Take heart; get up, he is calling you


18 October 2015, St George’s, High Heaton

Hebrews 5.1-10

For every high priest is taken from among the people and appointed to represent them before God, to offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins.

What is the difference between a priest and a minister?

Different denominations use different names for what appear to be the same jobs
People often address you with the wrong title – particularly at funerals
They call you ‘vicar’ or ‘Father’
In those circumstances, you wouldn’t want to spend time putting them right
But within our own church, it’s important to understand the differences

A priest is not the same as a minister, I think for three reasons
– One is rooted in our understanding of the Lord’s Supper
– One is rooted in our understanding of the calling and ordination of priests and ministers
– The third is rooted in mediation: our understanding of how a minister or priest stands between God and people; and whether, in fact, they do stand between them

Firstly, the Lord’s Supper
A priest in the Bible is someone who serves in the temple
He serves the temple cult – he performs cultic rituals
Which essentially means, he accepts the people’s sacrifices, and offers them on the altar
So although a priest is usually defined simply as someone authorised to perform religious rituals, in practice I think I would always associate it with sacrifice

In our church, we don’t believe Communion is a repetition of Christ’s sacrifice
It’s a remembrance of Jesus’ last meal with the disciples
So the one who presides at Communion is not a priest

Secondly, calling and ordination
The temple priesthood share a common ancestry
They believe they are descended from the first priests appointed under the covenant of Moses
Ordinary priests are the males of the tribe of Levi – the Levitical priesthood
High priests are the descendants of Aaron – Moses’ big brother

The Catholic and Anglican churches believe in the apostolic succession
– that this generation’s priests assume that status through the laying-on of hands by bishops
– in an unbroken chain that leads back through the generations all the way to the apostles

In the free churches, we believe that someone’s ministry is determined by God’s calling
All the church does is to recognise that call

Ministers are expected to lead a holy life – to set a moral example
They are expected to be good – but that’s not the same as saying they’re special
The title ‘minister’ is not exclusive to a particular caste
We believe everyone has a special ministry, unique to them

The term ‘minister’ for a church leader is just a convenient shorthand
The full title is, minister of Word and Sacraments
Which means you are expected to teach and to preach; to lead worship; to baptise, and to preside at Communion
The ministry of Word and Sacrament might need specific training, it might entail particular expectations, but it’s just a calling to a different thing

So do we believe in priests? Yes
But in the Reformed churches, we believe that the priesthood is not an office of individuals
We believe the office of priest is exercised collectively by the whole people of God

That’s our third point: mediation
A priest stands between the people and God
The perfect holiness of God is dangerous to anyone or anything that is not perfectly holy
In ourselves, we cannot approach him; but Jesus can
And since Christ returned to the Father, we haven’t needed any other mediator

The church is the body of Christ; Christ is its head
As the letter to the Hebrews says, Christ is our great High Priest
As Peter’s first letter says, we are a chosen people, a royal priesthood – the ones appointed to serve God under Christ

There’s a wonderful and very mysterious paradox here
Christ is our High Priest; he is also the sacrifice offered for our sins
The blood he carries into the sanctuary to offer for our sins is his own

Christ our High Priest doesn’t go into the Holy of Holies once a year at festival time
He is there all the time, hearing our prayers, interceding for us with the Father

The things Christ did and goes on doing as our High Priest we will not emulate
There’s no need
The most important things he did for us, he did once and for all; they don’t have to be repeated
But the things Jesus did in his earthly ministry are very much there for us to imitate

‘Priest’ is a noun’, ‘minister’ is a verb
Verbs are ‘doing word’, and Jesus has left us with lots of ministering to do:
Telling others about the gospel, in ways that bring the truth alive and communicate its urgency
Always speaking and acting with compassion for others
Sacrificing our own comfort in order to be where people need us
Praying that the healing power of the Spirit may flow to the sick, the anxious and the desperate – not from a distance, but close enough to lay our hands on the suffering
Rendering to God and not to Caesar
Knowing that we are holy – called, and set apart, to serve in Christ’s name

11 October 2015, St Cuthbert’s, Heaton

Mark 10.17-31

Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing.”

There are lots of stories with a catch
Stories where the action hinges on a moment of decision

It’s a moment when the right choice is quite obvious
It’s quite obvious to us, at any rate, as readers standing outside the story
We can place ourselves in the position of the hero
We can reassure ourselves that in his place, we would make the right choice
Yet the hero, we know, is bound, for some reason or another, to make the wrong one

Many of these stories are myths
– Orpheus and Eurydice
– Lot’s wife
– Pandora’s box
– Adam and Eve, with the serpent, in the garden
All of these stories deal with characters who are in some way compelled to make the wrong decision at a crucial moment

These bad decisions have serious consequences – even infinite consequences
They are stories which identify the root causes of our human condition
Even if they don’t portray real events, they point to a real tendency in human nature
A distorted tendency which we as Christians recognise as sin

The story of the rich young man is a story with a catch
Jesus asks the rich young man to do just one thing – to give his money away
But that is the one thing the young man is unable to do

In last week’s story, the Pharisees came to Jesus to test him
In this episode too, we have the story of a test

The Pharisees came with evil intentions – to trick Jesus with a question about divorce
The young man is different
He has no designs against Jesus – he comes to Jesus as a willing disciple
But unconsciously he wants to trap him

Jesus took on the Pharisees by turning their question from a narrow legal one about divorce, into a universal question about the nature of human relationships
That question was, if God makes us one flesh, how can we separate ourselves?

The rich young man comes to Jesus with good intentions, and a worthwhile question
He asks, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
We see immediately, the young man is talking the right language
He is looking forward to a reward in the future, an inheritance

Just as in last week’s episode, Jesus raises the discussion above the level of the question he has been asked
Not because it’s the wrong question, this time – but because the young man already know the answer, but is unable to face it

Jesus looks on the young man with love – he does not treat him as an opponent
But he still treats him as someone whose beliefs need to be exposed – because they are wrong, and damaging

He says, come and follow me: but first, give away everything you own
In those words, Jesus issues a challenge to each of us: what is it that stands between you and me?

The young man wants to be justified – he doesn’t really want Jesus to tell him what else he has to do
He wants Jesus to tell him he is already doing enough

He wants to blind Jesus in the same way he has blinded himself, with a list of his good deeds
But Jesus is not deceived – and when the young man goes away, he is no longer deceived either

The young man’s inability to part with his wealth shows all his efforts to lead a virtuous life in a different light
His good deeds construct a mirage of virtue, both in his own mind and in the minds of people around him, that obscures the reality of his spiritual condition

When we look at his good deeds, knowing he still lacks the ‘one thing needful’, we see they are not steps along the road that leads to the kingdom
They actually take him further away from it
Because they distract him from the ‘one thing needful’

This is a story about grace
We know everything begins with grace – that without grace, nothing is possible
The question is, whether and how far we have to cooperate with the working of God’s grace
Whether we are even capable of cooperating with it, in our state of sin
And whether it is humanly possible to resist it

I don’t think this story settles the question either way
We see grace at work in the way Jesus accepts the young man, but then questions him
Grace reveals to him the ‘one thing needful’ he still has to do, to be accepted
But what is it, then, that prevents him doing it? Is the grace he is given not enough?
Or does he actually go home, and do what Jesus demanded, and sell his property?
We do not know; we are not told – instead, the focus of the story moves to the disciples

Their situation seems to be the opposite of the situation of the rich young man
He still has his wealth and property: they have left theirs behind
They are following Jesus – the young man has been sent away

Peter seeks a reassurance from Jesus that they have done enough to earn their reward
The question is, have they? Peter’s question reveals his uneasiness
Jesus unexpectedly tells them that their situation may not be very different to the young man’s
They have left their homes and families to follow Jesus – but perhaps they are carrying with them something they still need to part with

The first will be last, and the last will be first
These words are both a promise, and a warning

Complacency is the constant danger facing all disciples
Assurance only comes through faith in Christ: assurance comes through grace
Assurance that comes from within ourselves is actually just complacency

The life of a disciple is a life of constant thankfulness for God’s grace, given in Christ
But it is also a life of constant questioning
We have to give up any sense of merit or entitlement
We have to keep looking within ourselves, for evidence of the one thing we still have to part with, before we can really follow Jesus
We have to keep looking within ourselves, and at the fruits of our Christian lives, for evidence that his grace is really at work in us

We have to give up our false riches here, to lay up treasure in heaven
We have to give up our faith in ourselves, in order to come to faith in Christ
It’s not easy to give up what we think we’ve earned – only grace makes it possible
So the conclusion we are led to is, that the one thing needful is grace

A question of love

Posted: October 4, 2015 in Uncategorized

4 October 2015, St George’s, High Heaton

Genesis 2.18-24  Mark 10.2-16

It is not good that Adam should be alone

I remember a satirical sketch show on television a few years ago
In one episode a reporter went out onto the streets to ask members of the public, “Do you think the law should be tightened up?”
Without mentioning any particular law

If they said, “Yes,” he took a big rubber band out of his pocket and gave it to them
“Show me,” he said. “Show me how much you think the law should be tightened up.”

People quite seriously would take the rubber band from him
They would wrap it round their fingers and stretch it out, and make careful little adjustments to show how much they thought the law should be tightened up
Without realising the sheer meaningless stupidity of the question they were being asked

Something similar happens in many of the episodes where the teachers of the Law come to Jesus to test them
Jesus infuriates them by revealing their questions to be not worth answering

He infuriates them above all by exposing them as hypocrites
As people who have divorced the Law from the God who gave it
As people who are interested in the Law as either a tool for oppressing other people, or a cloak for their own sins
As people driven by pride, selfishness and hardness of heart

It’s not easy to talk about divorce
It’s an issue that affects virtually all of us personally
More than half of all marriages in the West now end in divorce
Statistics in church communities are probably not that much different

Some people think the solution to the problems of marriage is to make divorce easier
Other people think the law on divorce should be tightened up, to force people to work at resolving their differences

But what conclusions do you draw from these statistics?
Have people lost respect for the institution of marriage?
Is it part of a wider loss of sympathy with Christian values?
If there were fewer divorces, would more people come to church?
It sounds a bit like wishful thinking, when you put it like that

There is one fact we should face
There were no good old days: marriage was always a troubled institution
We see that as clearly in Scripture as we see it in today’s world

The Bible account of the origin of marriage is written from the perspective of a sinful world
It is written from a time when things had already gone wrong

Even before we see Adam and Eve together in the garden, we know they will be driven out
A man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh
We hear those wonderful words against a background of failure and regret
The very fact the author of Genesis felt the need to write these words tells us that, in his time, the principle of faithful, monogamous marriage was being questioned

So one of the intentions of this story from the time of its origins was to call people back to the beautiful simplicity of the ideal of marriage
– The idea that two people from different families create a new unity between them
– They become one flesh; a new and unique community

This coming together is a miraculous event, beyond human will
If two people have become one flesh, nothing can ever come between them

Yet the Bible itself is full of stories of relationships gone wrong
So the Law includes procedures for what should be done when a marriage ends
And these procedures give the teachers of the Law ammunition they think they can use when they come to Jesus to test him

What do the teachers think they have to gain from asking this question?
Partly, they want to gather evidence against Jesus – evidence that his teachings go against the Law
Partly, they want to make him look stupid – they want him to look like one of those people on television, standing there with a serious face, stretching a rubber band in front of the camera
But Jesus, as always, goes straight to the heart of the matter

Jesus is not interested in marriage as a human contract
This passage is the beginning of a series of teachings on family matters:
– Husbands and wives
– Children (allow the children to come to Jesus)
– Property (sell what you own, give to the poor, and follow Jesus)

All these teachings are about the human desire for control and possession that comes between us and God

A marriage partner, children, a home
These things are blessings: gifts from God
Gifts must be freely given, and freely received
You can neither earn nor deserve a gift; something that is yours by right is not a gift
Gifts cannot be questioned or refused, without offending the one who gives them

God does not give us his gifts so that we can make them the subject of legal discussions
God gives us his gifts to teach us more about him; he teaches us by blessing us

I find very interesting the reason God gives for creating a partner for Adam
It is not good that the man should be alone

The first man was not actually alone: he was surrounded by other creatures
But God decreed his real companion should be his equal
Bone of his bone, and flesh of his flesh – someone he could not deny or separate himself from

It is not good that the man should be alone
Why? Because if Adam had been left alone, he would have been selfish
So God gave him a partner: someone created in the image of God, as he was
Someone who came to him as a gift, but to whom likewise he was given

We cannot rescue every marriage; but we can and must look at our relationships through this lens, that shows us closely we are bound together