Archive for June, 2016

17 June 2017, St George’s, High Heaton

Luke 8.26-39

They found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid.

Earlier, we had a reading from Galatians
We asked, what’s the most important word in that passage?
We decided it was the Greek word that could be translated either guardian or disciplinarian

Let’s repeat the exercise with this passage from Luke
What’s the most important word here?
The obvious answer is Jesus, because Jesus is always the answer

What’s the second-most important word?
Perhaps it’s demon – but I wouldn’t like to think so
C.S. Lewis said, there are two mistakes we can make about demons
One is not to believe in them; The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors

Let’s accept that demons exist – even if we might not want to use that word
But let’s not talk about them this morning

So what’s the most important word in this passage?
Perhaps it’s tellGo back home and tell what God has done for you
That would be a good starting point for another sermon

But the word that is really most important, I think, is fear
Fear – the emotion that makes us want to run away

The background to the story is that people are terrified of the demoniac – he is irrational, ungovernable, violent
He is unclean, even in this country of swineherds, because he lives among the dead

The behaviour of the demonic himself seems driven by fear
He flees from the city, even though the people try to keep him there
He engages in various forms of self-destructive behaviour to try to drive out the demonic presence inside him

When he comes to Jesus, I think we have to imagine him running towards Jesus, and trying to run away from the presence of the demons
In the meantime, the demons are terrified of what Jesus is going to do to them

When Jesus drives out the demons, you might think the time for fear would be over
But it’s just beginning

The swine run into the lake
The swineherds run off into town
The people who come out to see what has happened are terrified to see the demoniac, clothed and in his right mind, sitting at Jesus’ feet

When they hear from the other witnesses what has happened, they become still more afraid
They ask Jesus to go away
Jesus does as they ask, and sails back across the lake
He leaves the healed man to proclaim the good news, no doubt spreading fresh terror

Why are the people afraid?
Perhaps we should start by remembering, there is one character who overcomes his fear
When the townspeople arrive they find the healed man sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind

From all these events, we learn something about fear
It’s not the fear of evil – it’s the fear of the supernatural in any form
In relation to Jesus, fear is the reaction of people who don’t quite get it

That reaction isn’t limited to the townspeople
Remember what happened in the passage before this one, when Jesus calmed the storm
We don’t hear that the disciples are terrified in the midst of the waves
What we hear, is that They were afraid and amazed after Jesus calmed the storm

Of course, there is more than one type of fear
There’s the fear of physical danger – the fear that makes us want to run away
There’s the reverential fear that comes from being in the presence of holiness
What the Bible stories show us is, that there often isn’t a great distance between them
To tell the difference we need wisdom – spiritual wisdom

When someone is healed or delivered by Jesus, they get it right away
But the disciples who are with Jesus every day only realise very slowly who and what he is
They model the kind of slow learning process we ourselves have to go through – the slow acquiring of wisdom

In Jesus, there is nothing to fear – Jesus drives out fear
That’s what the man feels as he sits at Jesus’ feet – that’s what he teaches us

How much fear is there still in our relationship with God?
Do we trust him absolutely?
Do we know him as the one who has saved us through Jesus Christ?
Or is he still an angry, vengeful figure?

What about the church? How much fear is there in the church?
I think the answer often is, too much – especially for someone who is new
The fear of doing the wrong things, breaking unwritten rules, upsetting someone
The fear of sitting in the wrong seat, or putting a cup back in the wrong cupboard
For people who have been there longer, the fear of doing new things or setting out in new directions

It’s time to drive out the spirit of fear
I’d like to remind you what Paul says in his second letter to Timothy: it was not a spirit of fear that God gave us, but rather of strength and love and a sound mind (2Ti 1.7)
– the translation of the Greek word
sophronismos is problematic
– this is the only appearance of this word in the New Testament
– It could be translated
– But
a sound mind suits our context better
– Related words are translated as
sober, temperate or discreet: qualities of maturity and wisdom

Fear is a primitive, immature emotion – an unhelpful emotion, an emotion that makes slaves of us
One word from Jesus can drive out the demons
But only a mature, loving faith can drive out fear


19 June 2017, St George’s, High Heaton

Galatians 3.23-29

If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise

What is the most important word in this passage?
– It’s obviously Jesus: everyone learns in Sunday School, Jesus is the the answer to every question

What’s the second-most important word?
– Perhaps it’s justified, because that’s the most difficult word here: it means basically being either made righteous or declared innocent, but those are clearly not the same thing, and scholars still argue about the precise meaning of this word as Paul uses it
– Perhaps it’s faith, because since the time of Martin Luther the church has come to see faith as the greatest gift God has given us: we are saved through faith in Christ
– But perhaps it’s in that phrase, the law was in charge of us – in charge of us until Christ came (GNT)

Different versions translate that phrase in different ways
The NIV says, The law was our guardian
The nrsv says, The law was our disciplinarian

A disciplinarian was a special type of slave
– one trusted with looking after an eldest son and keeping him away from bad influences until he came of age
– until he could be trusted to act responsibly
So in other words, like the trusted slave, the law is a temporary measure

There are two things to say about this
– The first thing to say is, the law is not like a pair of children’s shoes: we won’t grow out of it all by ourselves, with the passage of time
– Only Jesus enables us to outgrow the law
– Only Jesus enables us to pass into the freedom God wants us to have

Daughters didn’t have these types of slave: only sons
And that reminds us, that although it might be more acceptable now to talk about children of God, the Greek text actually says In Christ Jesus you are all sons of God

We are children of God because we are in Christ
Jesus is not a child of God – Jesus is the Son of God
In Christ we are, what Jesus is
So no matter whether we are men and women, boys or girls, we have all been adopted as sons of God

This is Father’s day, and we thank God for our earthly parents
We remember everything they have given us, and we say ‘thank you’ to them
But the thing we have to be really thankful for, every day, is the inheritance of salvation we have, in Christ, the Son of God
It is Jesus who has made us all heirs of the promise

12 June 2016, St Cuthbert’s, Heaton

Luke 20.45 – 21.6  Galatians 2.15-21

If I build up again the very things I once tore down, I am a transgressor

It’s hardly original for me to say, we live in a culture obsessed with celebrity
One of the worst things about the culture of celebrity, is the horrible pleasure newspapers take in destroying someone they helped make famous in the first place
The empty pretence of concern as they gloat over someone’s weight gain, their behaviour on a drunken night out, or their unfortunate fashion choice at an awards dinner

We have what is described as a build-them-up-knock-them-down culture
Which is an interesting phrase – it is what linguists call a dead metaphor
It’s been used so often and become so familiar, we’ve forgotten it actually is a metaphor
Like so many of the commonest metaphors in our language, it has its origins in Scripture

But the meaning of the term in Scripture is different – the Bible doesn’t talk about celebrity
When the Bible talks about building up, it’s the body of Christ that is being built
The people of God are meant to build each other up – to edify one another

Paul is especially good at talking about this:
1Th 5.11 Paul tells the Thessalonians to edify one another
1 Co 8.1 Paul criticises intellectual snobbery, saying knowledge puffs up – but love builds up
1 Co 10.23 Paul talks about conduct: everything is lawful – but not everything builds us up

Where does Paul get this imagery from?
One of the questions asked about Paul is, how much he actually knew of the teachings of Jesus
The first letters of Paul are the oldest documents in the New Testament
They are older than any of the gospels
What is less clear is how much contact Paul might have had with the gospel material, before it was gathered into its present forms

There are certainly some references in Paul’s writings to known teachings of Jesus
There are also phrases and images that seem like clear echoes of things Jesus said
Those echoes include the images of building up and tearing down in the reading we heard today:
Paul says, If I build up again the very things that I once tore down, then I demonstrate that I am a transgressor

We can all think of parables that talk about building:
Luke 6.48 The wise man who built his house upon the rock (Matt 7.24)
Luke 12.18 The man who built bigger barns to store his harvest
Luke 14.28 The man who set out to build a tower

But the passages I am thinking of are the ones where Jesus prophecies the fate of the temple
Jesus says the temple will be thrown down – not one stone will be left standing on another
He also says, if this temple is destroyed, in three days he will raise it up again (John 2.20)

This prophecy is very important because it forms part of the authorities’ case against Jesus
It’s thrown back at Jesus again as he hangs on the cross
No one understands at that point – no one realises Jesus was not talking about the stone walls of the temple, but his own body

Jesus’ promise to rebuild the temple is still being used as proof of blasphemy in Acts 6, when Stephen is put on trial for preaching the gospel
Acts 6.14 The hostile witnesses say,: We have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us.

Galatians was probably written 15 years before the temple was destroyed
But there were clear pointers in the signs around Jesus’ death that the age of the temple was past
– the priestly rites of purification and separation
– the offering of sacrifices to atone for sin
Particularly in the tearing of the veil in front of the Holy of Holies

Jesus said he would raise up the temple – what did he mean ?
He meant, of course, not the literal temple, but his own body – a prophesy that was fulfilled in the resurrection

But the prophecy was also fulfilled in the growth of the church
And that is the aspect that Paul focuses on – the building of the body of Christ

Galatians is the most impassioned and even angry of Paul’s letters
He wrote it because he had lost an argument
Teachers who still clung on to some of the laws and customs of Judaism had broken into the church community Paul had founded in Galatia
They had encouraged Paul’s converts to submit themselves to circumcision and to observe Jewish dietary restrictions

What was the problem?
I expect it was, that despite their faith in Christ and belief in their own salvation through the resurrection, the Galatians found they still kept falling into sin
The doctrines taught by the incomers gave them some assurance they could work their way back into God’s favour by observing certain rules and performing certain rituals drawn from Judaism

Paul articulates his objections to this restoration of ritual observance very forcefully
If I build up again the very things that I once tore down, then I demonstrate that I am a transgressor

The Greek words can be translated in various ways – but this translation seems to me the best, for three reasons:
Firstly, because building up is such a key idea in Paul’s pastoral theology
Secondly, because building up and tearing down are such clear opposites
Thirdly, because the image of tearing down points so clearly to Jesus’ prophecy

Jesus prophesies the destruction of a religious institution
Whereas building up (in this verse) represents a human attempt to restore it
– to restore a legal understanding and practice of faith whose authority was expressed in the kind of ritual practices Paul is particularly clear are no longer required

You might ask, where’s the problem?
Surely we perform rituals here, to this very day, which deepen our relationship with Jesus Christ and each other and help us build our faith?

The difference is, that to Paul, the works of the Law taught by these false apostles undermine faith in Christ
Because they imply that faith in Christ is not enough

The problem is, as church communities, we are constantly tempted to build up things we should pull down, and tear down the things that are really most valuable
The thing we most have to build up is the body of Christ – which means, we have to reach people outside
The things we most have to tear down are cultural things and things of tradition
Things that have built themselves into a prison, almost without us noticing

What is is that speaks to you most clearly about the love of God?
What is it that fills you with the sense of the freedom we have in Christ?
What is it that inspires with the sense of the power of the Spirit to change our lives?
What do we have here that speaks most clearly to other people about the love of Christ?
These are the things to build

5 June 2016, St George’s, Heaton

Luke 3.15-17, 21-22  Matthew 28.16-20

Teach them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

The earthy ministry of Jesus Christ begins with baptism
It reaches a climax with the Last Supper

The Last Supper is a richly symbolic act that draws together all the strands of Jesus’ teaching, and prepares his disciples to witness his death and resurrection
The gospel story ends with the commissioning of the disciples, to preach the gospel to the ends of the earth and baptise new disciples

The ideal Reformed Christian worship service follows a similar pattern
It should begin, when possible, with a baptism

The baptism is followed by readings from Scripture and a sermon
The preaching of the Word prepares the congregation to come to the table and share in the Lord’s Supper
The service concludes with a blessing of the congregation that sends them out into the world to make disciples in the name of our Saviour, Jesus Christ

This morning, for once, our service follows this pattern
We began with a baptism, and we will conclude with Holy Communion
But first, we reflect on our hearing of God’s Word

Both of our readings are about baptism
– The first reading describes how Jesus himself was baptised in the Jordan by John
– The second reading describes how the risen Jesus sent his followers out to teach and baptise others

What interests me in the second reading are those words, When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted
What this tells me is, hearing in not enough – even seeing is not enough
You only come fully to faith through proclaiming the gospel – by sharing with others what you’ve discovered in Jesus

Someone once said, you never understand anything, until you’ve explained it to at least one other person
Until you’ve done that, you only think you understand
The word of the gospel has to follow a triangular path, from mind, to mouth, to heart

But for the disciples, it’s not just the preaching of the word that will bring them fully to faith
It’s also the performance of the ritual of baptism
Putting words of belief into action – performing with their hands a simple act that makes faith visible to others

What interests me in the first reading is, why Jesus thinks he has to be baptised
After all, what John the Baptist offers is a baptism of repentance
It’s intended for sinners – and Jesus is without sin

John thinks of his baptism as a proclamation
He says “Repent!” because he believes someone who is coming is mightier than he is
He expects a mighty judge who will separate the wheat from the chaff and consume the evil-doers with fire

He is partly right
The one who comes does not come in wrath
He meekly submits himself to John’s baptism

What interests me in the second reading are the words, when all the people were baptised, and when Jesus also had been baptised and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended
At least when the Greek is translated this way, it sounds as if the descent of the Spirit comes when all the people present at the scene are baptised, with Jesus
We have an image of the church as the people of God, gathered together with Christ at the centre
We have an image of baptism as a preparation for the work of the Holy Spirit
We have an image of Jesus Christ as the one into whom we are all baptised, in the Spirit

Why do we celebrate Holy Communion? For three reasons:
– Firstly, from obedience: because Jesus told us to
– Secondly, to remember: to bring into our minds the Last Supper and the events of Jesus’ last night on earth
– Thirdly, to share in Jesus himself: because we know that spiritually, Jesus is with us at the table and present in the bread and wine

Why do we baptise? For three very similar reasons:
– Firstly, from obedience: because Jesus told us to
– Secondly, to remember: to bring into our minds that scene on the banks of the Jordan and the beginning of Jesus’ ministry on earth
– Thirdly, to share in Jesus himself: because we know that Jesus himself was baptised as the head and first member of the body of Christ, which is another name we use for the church

There’s nothing magical about anything we do here
But everything we do here is more than it seems
Because the Spirit of God is moving in this place

There’s nothing spectacular about anything we do here
Just ordinary water, ordinary bread and wine
But these things are more than they seem
Because the Word of God is heard in this place
And the Word of God, through the power of the Spirit, enables ordinary things to speak deeply of God