Living in sinless simplicity

Posted: July 12, 2017 in Uncategorized

Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

Last week I preached on Romans 6
The theme was freedom and slavery – freedom under the lordship of Christ, contrasted with slavery to sin, which promises freedom but gives the opposite

If we want to live under the lordship of Christ, which I assume we do, how do we go about it?
How do we make the change?
How do we escape from our bondage to sin, and accept Christ as Lord?

Paul talks in Romans 6 about the sacraments, and especially about baptism
We normally get a certificate at baptism, but baptism is not about contracts and signatures
Baptism is the sign and also the spiritual moment of dying to sin, and rising to life in Christ

Baptism is also the moment we enter into membership of the church
What Paul is underlining is, that you cannot live the Christian life alone
Faith is sustained and nourished and grows within the body of Christ – in the church

The problem Paul wrestles with consistently on behalf of his readers is the fact that we continue to sin after we have come to faith
After we have entered into new life through baptism

The new life turns out to look quite a bit like the old one
We make changes, but they stop a long way short of the total transformation we would love to see

In baptism the created image of God is restored in us
But somehow we do not become perfectly Christ-like
We struggle, even within the church, to love and accept everyone the way we should
Our own behaviour causes other people more problems than it should

Paul knows this, and wrestles with it in our passage this morning (Romans 7.12-25)
He tries to answer that vital question, where do we get the assurance and the strength to live as we want to live – as Jesus wants us to live?

It’s a real struggle – the passage is very confusing
Is Paul speaking in his own person? Is he making a confession?
Is he saying he still struggles with sin and temptation?
That seems unlikely – when he talks about his old life in Php 3.6 he says he was, as to righteousness under the law, blameless

Perhaps he is condemning his attitudes then, in order to warn people who are still pursuing a similar kind of legal righteousness now
He could be saying to them, don’t get bogged down like I was before Jesus dug me out

Or maybe this is a ‘speech-in-person’ – a portrayal of someone else’s thoughts
Is Paul talking about the struggles every believer has with temptation?

Is Paul talking to Christians who think they have passed beyond the law?
If he is, he is reminding them, that Christ fulfils the law – but he does not do away with it
Our freedom in Christ is not freedom to do anything we like

Conscience remains a fact of human experience
We might escape damnation but we can’t escape the feeling of guilt
To know we have sinned and feel unable to stop sinning is a wretched state

I don’t know if there’s enough evidence in the passage for us to choose among these interpretations, decisively
But I think we may well recognise in all of them a problem of conscience that is very common among Christians, and often a cause of despair

Paul shows us in dramatic fashion this state of conflict between inner beliefs and outward behaviour:
v15 I do not understand my own actions. I do not do what I want [to do]
v18 I can will what is right, but I cannot do it
v19 The evil I do not want is what I do
v23 I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind

What is the problem? What is the cause of this anguish?
The mistake we make is to confuse sinful acts, and the sinful state

Christ’s resurrection redeemed us from the sinful state
But in this world we continue to commit sinful acts
We struggle by our own efforts to make ourselves perfect people – and of course, we fail

The more we concentrate on our failures, the more hopeless we feel
The more hopeless we feel, the more bitter we become
The more bitter we become, the harder it is to live at peace with ourselves or anyone else

What we should remember is, no matter how imperfect we were and still are in ourselves, God has accepted us
He has accepted us, in Jesus Christ
The perfection of Jesus Christ makes up for all our imperfections

We go on sinning – but for those acts of sin, there is repentance and forgiveness
What was lacking until now was the possibility of final release from the sinful state
In other words, the state of alienation from God
In Christ, we are no longer alienated from God – that separation is overcome

Perfection lies in Christ – not in ourselves. This is the realisation that transforms our lives
Paul shows us this realisation in that breakthrough moment in verse 25
That triumphant declaration: Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

It almost seems like cheating – has Paul really solved the problem of our guilty conscience? But it genuinely is that simple

I compare it to that moment near the end of the Book of Job
Job has argued with divine justice and demanded a reckoning with God himself
His false friends have tried to convince him that all God’s ways are just, and he must have done something deserving of punishment

These arguments are no consolation to Job
Like Paul before his conversion, he believes he is blameless under the law
And the problem is not just his own suffering – it’s the whole human predicament

Suddenly, God breaks through, and Job surrenders unconditionally; he worships God
That is the moment we have to arrive at
The moment when we stop trying to make sense of what God has done in Christ to save us
When we believe that our salvation is real, and unconditional, and we fall down and worship

That is the challenge of faith – to accept for ourselves what God has done in Christ to save us
Accept it, believe it, and live gratefully because of it – live generously , in the spirit of the love that redeemed us

9 July 2017, St Cuthbert’s, Heaton

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Sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace

The 18th century poet Alexander Pope once gave the Prince of Wales a dog as a present
On its collar, he had engraved a little rhyme he had written
I am his Highness’ dog at Kew [Kew being at that time a royal palace, not just a garden].
Pray tell me sir, whose dog are you?

The joke is, we are all dogs – we all have a master, whether we know it or not
We think we are smarter than a dog, but at least this dog knows who its master is
Who is our master? If we don’t know who our master is, what does that say about us?

Freedom is a modern myth; we all serve someone or something
We are never more powerless than when we don’t know who is tugging our lead
Have we chosen our master, or have we been mastered without knowing it?

No matter what political or social thinkers say, we are all in bondage to sin
Freedom comes through Christ – but only through accepting the lordship of Christ
When do we come under the lordship of Christ? When we are baptised into Christ

In the earlier part of this chapter, Paul tries to explain what happens when we are baptised
For Paul, baptism is not just a public declaration of faith
Baptism is not like having a wash – Paul hardly ever talks of it that way

Baptism is a re-enactment in the believer’s life of Jesus’ death and resurrection
Just as our gathering around the Lord’s Table is a re-enactment of the Last Supper

Baptism is the death of the old life and resurrection into the new
It is putting off the old body of mortality and putting on the new body of Christ’s immortality

Baptism is an act of obedience, proclaiming a new faith that makes a new kind of obedience possible
In the life we still lead on earth, it is the opportunity to leave behind the old things and embrace the new
And that is really the point – we have a choice
While we remain in this world, all the old temptations are still there, and still available to us

Baptism is a moment of choice – a moment of freedom, where we can seize hold of what Jesus has done for us
Accept his lordship over us, and our share in the freedom he was won for us
Or go back to the old ways, and allow sin to re-assert its rule

I’m sure we recognise this rhetoric of choice
It wasn’t long ago, back in February, we were reading Deuteronomy and looking at the choice God offers his people in the covenant he makes with them

Obey, and enjoy God’s blessings; refuse to obey, and suffer his curses
What the people of Israel did not have, was a way of being as obedient as God demanded

In Jesus Christ his Son, God offers us an example of perfect obedience
A new choice – whether or not to share in the benefits of Christ’s obedience
The choice between sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness (Rom 6.16)
And means of grace, offered through the life of the church, to help us make the choice

Everything in this passage hinges on the lordship of Christ
Lordship is a difficult concept to grasp, in a democratic society like ours
Even in a married relationship, we hang onto the idea of rights and the notion of choice

When we live under the lordship of someone else, we have no rights and no choice
But what Paul is saying is, we never had those things anyway – they were an illusion
Admit you are a slave, as long as you live in the world – and decide whose slave you are

All earthly lordship is sin, of one form or another
Greed and lust – the lordship of physical appetites
Envy, covetousness and theft – the desire for lordship over property
Addiction and dependency – the lordship of substances that control our moods and our minds
Ambition and pride – the desire for lordship over people
Hatred – the desire for lordship over people expressed in the impulse to kill and destroy

Christ suffered at the hands of powerful people – religiously powerful, politically powerful
He suffered at the hands of those who exercised the power of lordship over others

He died at the hands of those powerful people
He suffered the worst that earthly lordship could do
The earthly desire for lordship that set itself against the loving will of God himself

And in his resurrection, through the power of the Spirit that raised him, Jesus destroyed that power of earthly lordship, the lordship of sin
He destroyed it in the name of the Father, through his own obedience to his Father’s will

In the victory of Christ’s resurrection, the lordship of sin and death was done away with forever – for anyone who accepts the lordship of Christ
Jesus asks us to embrace his victory, by accepting his lordship for ourselves

How do we do that? Is it a moral decision? Is it an effort of our own will?
No – it was the efforts of our own will that got us into this mess to begin with
More of the same won’t make things better

The lordship of Christ is the headship of Christ
To accept the headship of Christ, we must be incorporated into the body of Christ
By which, of course, we mean the fellowship of all believers – the church

The way we are incorporated into the body of Christ is through baptism
The way we are fed and nourished in the body of Christ is through the Lord’s Supper
In other words, all through this talk of freedom and slavery, life and death, wickedness and obedience, Paul is talking about the sacraments

I would never want to make something too mysterious of the sacraments
They are mystical – they have a spiritual significance far beyond what we see
But they are also gifts, geared to our own ability to receive and enjoy them
Intended to communicate to us, through very simple things, not just a better understanding of God, but something of God himself

We share the sacraments as an act of obedience – obedience to our Lord, Jesus Christ
But also as the means of grace
A reminder of the grace that made formal acts of obedience superfluous and unnecessary, calling us instead to respond to our God in gratitude

Paul asks, Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? (Rom 6.15)
Of course not – the lordship of Christ is not the freedom to sin, but the freedom to live in obedience to God in a new way
Sin is no longer our master, because Jesus Christ is our Lord

Our public acts of worship, our celebrations of the sacraments, are a declaration of that freedom, a celebration of that freedom
An expression of our determination to offer that freedom to others in Christ’s name
And our determination never to re-enter the state of slavery to sin and death

2 July 2017, St George’s, High Heaton

You will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved

Today we look at two very different passages
One from the Old Testament (Gen 21.8-21), the other from the New (Mat 10.24-39)
One, a story about the ancient origins of the people of Israel
The other, the record of a difficult teaching given by Jesus

Two very different passages
But with a common motif – the motif of division

Believe it or not, not everyone takes God seriously
Most people do not ask themselves at every moment of decision, what is the will of God here?
Most people do not rush to embrace Jesus Christ as their Saviour; they are not even conscious of making a choice

Divisions are part of God’s plan – but divisions arise from human judgements and decisions
These judgements and decisions have consequences – here and now, and in the end before God

Abraham and Sarah have a promise from God
They are going to have a son, even though they are both far too old

God’s word is not good enough for them – they decide to rush things
Perhaps because they are so old, perhaps because God makes them wait
They try to force God’s hand – they put him to the test

They force Sarah’s maid servant to become pregnant by Abraham; she bears Ishmael
But then of course Isaac arrives, the true son of the promise

Conflict is inevitable, Sarah quarrels with Hagar, and Abraham quarrels with Sarah
To put these quarrels in their context – the first argument between partners comes in Genesis after Adam and Eve defy God by eating the fruit

Quarrels arise from human pride and selfishness
Pride and selfishness lie at the root of every human sin
Every act or thought of defiance against God

Hagar and Ishmael are driven out into the desert
Did Abraham and Sarah assume that they would die there?
Of course, Hagar and Ishmael do not die. God protects them

There are actually two versions of this story in Genesis
The first one is in Genesis, where Sarah drives out Hagar while she is still pregnant

The second one is here, in Genesis21
The confusing thing here is that according to the dates we are given, Ishmael must be a teenager
But Hagar carries him and lays him under a bush as if he were still a baby

But what happened at the time is less important than what flows from these events
God promises that Ishmael, like Isaac, will be the father of a great nation
That nation is the Ishmaelites, who rank among the historic enemies of Israel
A bedouin people, desert dwellers who prey on the settled farmers and shepherds of Israel

In other words, by their deliberate actions against God’s will, Sarah and Abraham do not just create a domestic quarrel
They create a division among the descendants of Abraham
They make a rod for the backs of the whole people of Israel

Jesus is also talking about division in our reading from Matthew this morning
According to Matthew, Jesus gives this teaching at a pivotal moment in his ministry
His teachings are welcomed by the people; but not by the Pharisees and scribes

It is becoming harder and harder to ignore the claim to divine powers revealed in his miracles and in what Jesus says about them
So the Pharisees and religious authorities are starting to accuse him of blasphemy

Jesus empowers his disciples for ministry
Verse 10.1 tells us, he gives them authority over unclean spirits, and the power to heal all kinds of sickness and disease
He sends them out to gather the lost sheep of Israel

Jesus instructs his disciples before sending them out
He not only gives them practical advice; he tells them what kind of reception to expect

He tells them they will face hostility and persecution – even from close family
People will say the worst imaginable things about them

In other words, the preaching of the gospel will cause division
It will cause division when the disciples preach it, just as much as it does when Jesus himself preaches it
That division will provoke acts of violence against them, and even death

It makes me wonder, what is this preaching that will arouse such hatred?
Who will this hatred come from?

The gospels show us, that the hatred only comes from a few
It comes from the Pharisees, and the religious authorities

Why do they hate the teachings of Jesus so much?
Because the teachings of Jesus reveal the falsity of their own teachings

God’s word says, don’t spend time serving an institution that only serves itself
Don’t spend your resources on a dead spiritual body, a priesthood that enriches itself and keeps you on the spiritual breadline
It’s an uncomfortable teaching for people who have given their lives to that institution – as leaders, priests or worshippers
It’s a searching word, that demands a decision one way or the other

What Jesus says here I think is reflected in how Hebrews 4.12 describes the word of God:
Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.

People fear the word of God not for what it reveals about God, but for what it reveals about them
God’s word divides the true from the false – spiritual things from the things of the flesh

God’s word will always be uncomfortable for many, and intolerable for some
Jesus warns the disciples, if you preach my word truly, you may find yourself in a very lonely place

But Jesus assures the disciples that God will be watching over them
And so they should persist in spreading the gospel, no matter what happens to them

It is so easy to keep quiet about the gospel
We fear the reactions of people who will realise for the first time how different we are
We fear rejection
We fear the reactions of people who might think we are judging them – even though we admit, we are all in need of God’s grace and mercy

But to speak for Jesus Christ on earth, is our best and even our only guarantee that he will speak for us before God in heaven
That will be the ultimate division – between those who testified and those who did not
Between those who showed themselves worthy of Christ, through their love of Christ – and those who did not
To love Christ and speak for Christ on earth – that is the test of worthiness

25 June 2017, St Cuthbert’s, Heaton

How to be a holy nation

Posted: July 6, 2017 in Uncategorized

You shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation

We find ourselves looking this morning at a very familiar Old Testament scene
A scene we might picture ourselves colouring in when we were very small, in Sunday School
Moses speaking in the wilderness to the people God brought up out of Egypt (Exo 19.2-8)

Or rather, Moses being briefed by God as to what he should say to them
Maybe that scene’s less easy to picture
What does God look like? What colour is he?

It’s easy to bog ourselves down in questions about what God is like
We do not need to know what God is like, in that abstract sense

The face of God will not be revealed to us like the face of the next James Bond
Our relationship with God is nothing like our relationship with celebrity

Because our relationship with God is a covenantal relationship, what we know of God is revealed through his covenant with us

So what we really know about God boil down to two things
– What he does for us
– What he asks of us in return

What does God do for us? Everything
Past, present and future – has done, is doing, will do – everything
The will of God embraces everything, and the will of God is all for our good
That consistent will for our good is unfolded all through the story the Bible tells

What does God ask of us in return?
Three months after God brings his people out of Egypt, he takes Moses apart for a briefing
He tells Moses what to say to the people of Israel, about what he expects from them

What does God say through Moses?
God is not like Pharaoh; you cannot measure God’s demands in so many thousand mud bricks
You cannot say, we’ll do so much, and then God will be satisfied

God’s demands are not quantitative – they cannot be measured
God’s demands are qualitative – he demands that we should be different

What does God want from his people? How should they be different?
He says, you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation

What does that mean? Let’s take it in reverse order
Let’s first of all understand, these words are addressed to us as much as to ancient Israel

The church is not a nation in the way Israel was a nation
But we are a chosen people – a people with a common ancestor
That ancestor is Jesus Christ, just as the common ancestor of Israel was Abraham

What does it mean, to be holy?
It means, set apart for a sacred purpose
It’s not we ourselves who are special – it’s our holy purpose
That sacred purpose is to proclaim the kingdom

What do we mean by the kingdom?
It’s not a place, it’s not a territory; but neither is it an entirely mystical entity
The kingdom isn’t something that will only come into being at the end of the time
Although it will only be fully revealed at the end of time

The kingdom of God is simply the rule of God
The kingdom is at hand when people hear the word of God
When they fall in love with it to the point, that the only thing that makes them happy is to obey it

How will others hear the word of God? That is the job of God’s priesthood
So much of the talk we’ve heard about kingdoms and nationhood before and after the Brexit vote has been about barriers and restrictions
The kingdom of God is nothing like that
The kingdom of God welcomes every foreigner, every stranger

That brings us to consider the first important word here, priestly
We are to be a priestly kingdom

What is the role of a priesthood?
Part of it is done behind closed doors – the celebration of sacred mysteries
But I think the other half of the role is more important for us – the role of standing before God on behalf of the people
In other words praying for them – which we cannot do unless we know what their needs are, and unless we are prepared to be part of the answer to prayer

To be holy means being set apart – but it doesn’t mean we should keep ourselves apart
Too much of our priesthood takes place behind closed doors
Too little of it takes place outside, among other people
Too much of our priesthood is dictated by custom – doing things for their own sake
Too little of it is guided by prayer and a passion for people outside

Priests do not exist to serve one another – they exist to serve God
Priests serve God by serving the people in his name
And they serve the people by serving God in their name

Let’s take two examples – Street Pastors, and the Heaton Festival

Street Pastors help people in need, without ever asking if people deserve our help
Because Jesus didn’t ask if we deserved his help – he only saw that we needed it

We put on the Heaton Festival without ever asking whether the community in Heaton deserves a festival
We do it as a gift – as a pouring out of the blessings God has poured out to us

Because we offer them as a gift, without making any demands in return, Street Pastors and the Heaton Festival reach people who might never come to church
They meet immediate needs or wants, but they speak to the deeper needs which only the gospel of Christ can satisfy

Because we do them outside the walls, Street Pastors and the Heaton Festival are highly visible – you can’t miss them
Because people can see these things, they encourage people to ask why we do them
Which allows us to answer, because we are Christians

Because they are so different from most of the things churches usually do, Street Pastors and the Heaton Festival transcend narrow concepts of identity
They step over the boundaries that make us and the people outside the church strangers to one another
They make the love of God visible and tangible – they make it something people can see, something they can touch and be touched by

God’s covenant with us is a one-sided thing
His call for a people to be a priestly kingdom and a holy nation will be answered

What’s in it for us? We will know God by honouring his covenant
Knowing God and the love of God is the only thing worth wishing for
It’s the thing we were made for

God honoured his covenant by giving his Son
Nothing we could ever offer would cost that much

In fact, nothing we offer costs us anything at all – because nothing we have is truly ours
God himself makes that clear when he says in verse 5, Indeed, the whole earth is mine

So our whole lives should be a giving back to God of what is already his
And in that priestly offering, and in the living presence of the holy nation of God in their midst, other people will see that the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom is at hand

18 June 2017, St George’s, High Heaton

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit

The tradition in the church on Trinity Sunday is for preachers and ministers to open the dictionary
Look for words beginning with tri – tripod, tricycle, trifle and so on
And use those words as analogies to suggest what the Trinity is like

A tripod has three feet but it’s just one tripod
A tricycle has three wheels but it’s just one tricycle
A trifle has three layers but it’s just one pudding
You see what depths of analysis are involved here

Those sermons always end with a confession of failure – because the Trinity is like nothing else
The Trinity is literally incomprehensible in human understanding
Our minds cannot comprehend the Trinity – they cannot take it in
It is indescribable in human words
So to teach the gospel of the trinitarian God is a unique challenge

Yet the gospel of Matthew is quite clear, this is exactly what Jesus told us to do:
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matt 28.19)
We cannot baptise anyone into that three-fold name unless and until we have taught new believers about the three-fold God

It has been pointed out that the word Trinity does not appear in the Bible
But then again, neither does the word Bible

Trinity Sunday follows our commemoration of the coming of the Spirit the previous Sunday
This is appropriate, because it is the doctrine of the Spirit that makes necessary the doctrine of the Trinity

Jesus does not give us a clear exposition of the doctrine of the Trinity
We have to realise, Jesus did not invent the doctrine of the Trinity – the Church did
The Church invented the doctrine of the Trinity, to explain things Jesus said, and connect his words with things we find in the Hebrew Bible

We need the doctrine of the Trinity, first and foremost, because Jesus claims to be divine
Only, of course, he does not say so in as many words
Because saying so directly would have got him killed on the spot, before he had done all he was commanded to do
But he says more than enough to awaken the suspicions of his enemies and spark accusations

The title Jesus prefers to use for himself, especially in Mark’s gospel but also in Matthew, is Son of Man – a phrase which could mean anything, or nothing
It could mean simply, human being

But as faithful believers we know what he means, because the phrase is an echo of those verses from Daniel (Dan 7.13-14) we heard this morning:
As I watched in the night visions,
I saw one like a human being
[lit. son of man]
coming with the clouds of heaven.
And he came to the Ancient One
and was presented before him. Daniel 7.13

Long before his crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus tells his followers in this coded way that he is the Messiah
The one born in human flesh, destined to sit at the right hand of the Father in heaven, judging the nations

Jesus refers to himself as the Son of Man – but at this point he does so in the third person
He makes many claims about the status and powers of the Son of Man
But no one can accuse him unequivocally of saying these things about himself:
The Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins (Mark 2.10)
The Son of Man is Lord even of the sabbath (Mark 2.28)
You will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power and coming with clouds of heaven (Mark 14.62)

Nonetheless, it is a fundamental article of faith that Jesus is God, as much as the Father is
Does that mean that since the coming of Christ there have been two Gods? Of course not
Jesus says, The Father and I are one (John 10.30)

Jesus is not a new creation – Jesus was not created at all. God by definition is uncreated
Nor is he a human being adopted by God the Father to be his Son
Jesus has been there since the beginning, since before the beginning – just as the Father has
What is new, is the revelation of God the Son to the world, through the incarnation

The coming of the Spirit adds a new problem to a problem that was already there
The original problem was, reconciling the doctrine of God – that there is only one God – with the doctrine of Christ
The new problem, assuming we think we have solved the first problem, is reconciling the the doctrines of God and Christ with the doctrine of the Spirit

These two problems are really the same problem
The sending of the Spirit is the sequel to the sending of the Son
The Spirit is sent by the Father at the request of the Son, to be his continuing presence with his followers on earth

The solution is the idea that there is only one God – but more than one person
The people of Israel knew God simply as God, though they used different names and titles to identify and describe him
Until Pentecost, the followers of Jesus know God in two persons – the Father and the Son
But from the time the Spirit is given, followers of Jesus have to accept and believe that our God is one God in three persons, three persons in one God

Do we solve the problem, by adding the concept of divine persons to our understanding of God?
We immediately have to admit that persons in this context means something different to the meaning of the same word in human contexts
If there are three human persons sitting on a sofa, they are three separate human beings
But in the three divine persons we see in the Trinity, there is only one divine being

The unity of God is something we easily lose sight of is our personal relationship with God
Just because we have three persons, we do not have three gods we can choose between
It is contrary to the nature of our belief to ‘prefer’ the Son to the Father

We do not have a God who changes identity
We do not have a God who creates new personalities for himself when he needs them
We do not have a God whose persons take it in turn to be in charge
All of these are heresies, false beliefs the church has rejected at some point

That in some ways is the problem
The church has arrived at truth by rejecting error

That has two dangers:
It makes theology look like a negative exercise – it seems to be an activity based on avoiding error yourself, while trying to prove other people wrong
It makes theology look like a boring, pointless exercise – theologians seem to spend their time arguing with each other about things which seem trifling and remote from ordinary people’s faith

How does the doctrine of the Trinity become relevant to us?
I do not believe Jesus necessarily told his disciples to baptise in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, using these precise words
Does this mean the text has been falsified or meddled with?
No, because the gospels are not history – the gospels are teaching materials
As John says in 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)

I believe these words found their way into Scripture because they have been important to Christians since the earliest days of the church
As a formula used in baptism, to make clear the nature of the God in whose name we are baptised

The words which are given to Jesus in this scene (Mat 28.16-20) are given to make clear the mission of the apostles, which became the mission of the church
To baptise believers into faith in the God of Israel and the God of the gospels
The God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit – the Trinitarian God

That is the point where the theology of the Trinity becomes personal to us
Baptism is a public confession of faith, and faith is the key to understanding
These things are to be received in faith – they can only be understood through faith

We may offer our prayers in the name of Jesus
We may focus on the actions of Jesus in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper
But in baptism, we make clear that it is God in all his fullness into whom we are baptised

How can we teach other people about the Trinity?
Probably not by talking about tripods and trifles

Better, probably, to teach the doctrine of the Trinity by talking about the work of the three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
How these three divine persons have been revealed in the story of God’s people
Above all, how we relate to God through those three persons

We often say the words of the grace together
What do those words mean to us?
When and where in our lives have we experienced the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit?
What stories can we tell of how those things became real to us?

The doctrine of the three persons is fundamental to our personal experience of God
God in three persons – persons who have revealed themselves and one another to us, in their love for one another and for us, revealed in Scripture and in our own experience

11 June 2017, St Cuthbert’s, Heaton

The spirit of community

Posted: May 22, 2017 in Uncategorized

Love one another deeply, from the heart

There will soon be some new MPs in the House of Commons
I once heard the story of a new MP who came to the House in his smart new suit
He worked out which side his own party was sitting on
He found a vacant seat on one of the benches, and sat down beside a colleague, who turned out to be a very experienced MP

He turned to her (did you assume it would be a man?), and introduced himself
He told her his name, pointed to the benches opposite, and said, “It’s great to come face to face with the enemy at last”
She smiled and said, “They are the Opposition. Your enemies are all around you.”

It’s often said how much respect and even friendship there is between members of different parties in the House of Commons
Most of the denigration and name-calling we hear is intended for public consumption

I remember Dennis Healey saying that being attacked by Chancellor Geoffrey Howe was like being savaged by a dead sheep
I don’t remember that Geoffrey said about Dennis to begin with
I would remember if they had been seen fighting in one of the Commons bars after the debate
The exchange was just part of the rough and tumble of politics

But I remember when Geoffrey Howe made his resignation speech in the Commons
His words were very calm and measured – but they were loaded with such harmful intent, they were enough to bring down Margaret Thatcher

The Opposition are the ones sitting opposite – your enemies are all around you
The Opposition see you as an opponent – your enemies regard you as a traitor
What we often see in the New Testament letters is division between outsiders and insiders within the church – and that fear and suspicion of mutterings behind your back

Today’s reading (1Pe 3.13-22) is about feelings of persecution, and how to respond
Peter’s letter is addressed to exiles (1Pe 1.1)
This is a two-edged term – we know he means Christian Jews
But does he mean Jews who have chosen to live outside Judea, or Christians driven out of their Jewish communities?

This sense of exile is a source of suffering. What causes it?

In their suffering, they are identified Christ, who was also an exile – rejected by his own people
They are chosen ultimately to be sprinkled with his blood – to share in his death

So we have the background of persecution – but who are the persecutors?
The imperial rulers of these towns, the rulers of the synagogues, their neighbours in the community?

We know the imperial authorities persecute Christians – but they are a known quantity
We even hear the apostles acknowledge the authority of imperial rulers – they urge their followers to recognise it, and accept it as something ordained by God

The real danger often comes from people much closer at hand
From Jewish neighbours – those who know the Law, but reject Jesus Christ
So Peter may be talking to Christians driven out of the synagogue

But even within the Christian fellowship, is everyone sweetness and light?
In 1Pet 1.22 Peter praises the community for their genuine mutual love; but then he encourages them to love one another deeply from the heart
If you’ll allow me to use a negative argument, I’d suggest that if they already love each other in this deep way, they do not need Peter’s encouragement

But they do need this encouragement – and actually more than just encouragement
They need to be warned, to rid themselves of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander (1Pet 2.1)
Clearly, they are a very long way from perfection – they are spiritual babes in arms

So persecution from outside is not the biggest issue
The real danger threatening these Christians is not death or imprisonment
It is the loss of love and community within the church

The people of this community have to learn what it means, to be living stones [as we saw last week]
The members of a Christian community are building materials, not fine sculptures
That remains true of us
None of us deserves a pedestal – we are not worthy to stand alone and be admired

Today we are thinking about the Holy Spirit
The Spirit is the difference between living stones, and dead ones
We are ordinary stones (as I said), almost impossible to tell apart
We are valuable only because of what the Spirit can do with us

Through the power of the Spirit, we ordinary stones, dead things, can be raised up
We can be built up – into a living temple, with Christ as its capstone
The worthiness of the whole building comes from that one perfect stone

Sometimes I think we make the gift of the Spirit a very individualistic thing
As if to be spirit-filled was the badge of an elite
That is not a doctrine we can read out of Scripture
One stone is not a building – the stones must be built up together

The Holy Spirit is the spirit of love and community
We worship one God, but that God is a community of three persons
The Holy Spirit proceeds from the love of the Father and the Son
It overflows into God’s work of creation, into the words of the prophets, into Christ’s ministry on earth and his work of salvation, into the teachings of his disciples

The persons of the Trinity do not work alone
Even Christ did not raise himself; Christ was
made alive in or through the spirit
Even Christ does not rule alone; he sits
at the right hand of God, appointed by the Father

The doctrine of the Church is a doctrine of community
And so is the doctrine of the Trinity – these doctrines are inseparable
We part of the church community, not because the church met and had a vote, but because through the Spirit we are members of the body of Christ

John’s gospel tells us, our belonging in Christ is a deep and mystical thing
He tells his disciples on the last night in the Upper Room,
I am in the Father and the Father is in me John 14.10
You know [the Spirit ], because he abides with you, and he will be in you John 14.17
[
One day] you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. 14:19–20

The Trinity is a community of indissoluble love and perfect obedience to one divine will
The church is a community commanded to imitate that love and obedience

Look again at that list of sins condemned in 1Pet 2.1:
malice, guile, insincerity, envy, slander
They are not crimes of violence or crimes against property, like slapping someone’s face or stealing their handbag
They are secret sins, sins of motive – sins we commit against one another, behind one another’s backs
They are betrayals of community, and therefore among the worst sins of all

I have said before, your faith is someone else’s evidence – evidence that God is real
Our love for one another, the harmony of our church community, our willingness to do good for one another at our own expense, is also someone’s evidence
– evidence of the obedience of the Son to the Father
– of the love of the Son for the Father
– evidence of the love of God for the world, revealed in the figure of the Son on the cross, and in the coming of the Spirit

21 May 2017, St George’s, High Heaton

The stones will cry out

Posted: May 15, 2017 in Uncategorized

I tell you, if they keep silent, the very stones will cry out!

In these weeks after Easter we bear witness to our belief in the resurrection, and the events that followed
In the weeks before Easter, through our readings and reflections, we tried to follow in Jesus’ footsteps towards Jerusalem, with his disciples
In the same way, now we commemorate and re-live the beginnings of the process through which the followers of Jesus laid the foundation of the church

We see how the disciples came to accept that Christ was risen indeed
How they began to proclaim that gospel
And how the people around them in Jerusalem received the proclamation

The Pentecostal scholar James G Dunn wrote a book about this time, called The Partings of Ways
Beginning at this point, he traced the emergence of fundamental differences of belief between Jews and the people eventually referred to as Christians

He analysed Jewish belief at the time in terms of what he called the Four Pillars of Judaism
1 Monotheism: the belief there are no other gods, apart from Israel’s God
2 Election: the belief there is one people chosen by God, who have a unique claim to righteousness, founded on the Law
3 The Covenant: the belief that God by his own word has made promises about his people’s future, and given them instructions about how to live: including distinctive behaviours such as circumcision and food laws
4 The land: a national identity linked to a specific territory, including Jerusalem and the temple

Each of these four pillars has its counterpart in the Christian faith
But our understanding is different, because our faith is founded on Christ

We believe in the God of Israel – but as the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit
We believe in election – but as the election of Jesus Christ through his faithful obedience to the Father, and Christian believers through their faith in Christ
We believe in the Covenant – the new covenant sealed in the blood of Christ
We believe we have a place and a name – but where we belong is in the body of Christ, and in the name of Christ

That Christian understanding of the Four Pillars cannot be reconciled with the beliefs we find in Judaism, or any school of belief which is not rooted in faith in the risen Christ Christ
So even though we see the apostles worshipping and teaching in the temple and the synagogues, the parting of the ways was inevitable as soon as a distinctively Christian theology emerged
New Testament passages like our readings this morning (Acts 7.55-60; 1Peter 2.2-10) show how those differences emerged

The story of the death of Stephen is crucial
Not just because he is the first Christian martyr, the first one to die for his faith in Christ
But also because of the way he dies

There have been stories in the news about executions in the state of Arkansas
Executions of men who had been prisoners on Death Row for many years
The authorities were in a hurry to carry out these eight executions before the drugs they intended to employ reached their use-by date

There was something very thrifty and mundane in their calculated way of thinking about this supposedly human way of killing
As if they were trying to decide whether a yoghurt they found at the back of the fridge was still safe to eat
It is ironic, because the law has always treated murders committed in the heat of the moment more leniently than murders which are carefully planned

We see this in its extreme form in the murders committed by so-called Islamic State
We recoil in horrified bafflement from the tortured imaginations that come up with such spectacular and brutal ways of killing enemies
All staged in front of the camera and posted straight to the internet

These stories continue the narrative we can trace back to the Taliban in Afghanistan, who liked to stone their enemies
These stories shock and horrify us, as they are meant to
These acts are so far from anything we as Christians would do in the name of our faith

But of course there are stonings in the Bible too
Not atrocities committed by God’s enemies, but judicial executions carried out in obedience to the laws of God himself
Stoning is the punishment laid down in the books of Leviticus, Deuteronomy and Numbers for apostasy, blasphemy, sorcery, or even breaking the Sabbath

In the days of the New Testament, in theory only the Roman authorities could impose the death penalty – as they did to Jesus
But the community could still rise up and stone someone to death – as they do with Stephen
Although with Stephen, we know the stoning is instigated by the authorities

Why is stoning such a horrifying punishment?
Partly because of its brutality – it is the most primitive and savage way of killing
Partly because it is a slow and drawn-out death
Partly because although it appears spontaneous, it is an orchestrated performance carried out according to a ritual known to everyone involved

Why is stoning mandated in the Bible?
First of all, it’s exceeding unlikely the writers of the Bible invented the punishment of stoning
It is a primitive act, perhaps the most ancient mode of judicial killing
All they did was put it in a legal and theological framework, and limit its use to what seemed in the list of Commandments to be the most serious crimes

What does stoning mean within the Law?
Partly, the collective nature of the act represents the community’s anger on behalf of God against the criminal, its determination to root out sin from its midst
Partly, the throwing of stones picked up from the ground symbolises creation itself rising up against the criminal

But what does the stoning of Stephen represent?
Firstly, stoning to the Jew authorities is what crucifixion is to the Romans
It represents their determination to exterminate opposition
But the fact we read is story in the book of Acts, tells us their efforts failed

The stoning of Stephen is meant to be symbolic – a warning to others
We have accounts in the Old Testament of the bodies of traitors and enemies buried under heaps of stones, that remain as a monument to remind people what happened there
Achan in the book of Joshua, who helps himself to valuables from the ruins of Jericho, when Yahweh has said everything in the city is to be destroyed
David’s rebellious son Absalom, in 2Samuel 18

The stoning of Stephen represents the determination of the authorities to bury the gospel of Christ
But in the same moment and by the same act, the Spirit is raising him up and transforming his death into a symbol and a witness of something no human power can destroy

The crowd batter Stephen to the earth with stones – symbolising creation rising up to silence him
But we remember what Jesus said, when the Pharisees ordered him to stop his disciples cheering
Jesus responded, I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out (Luke 19:40)
The stones still cry out today, every time the story of Stephen’s martyrdom is heard or remembered

The crowd batter Stephen to the earth with stones
We remember how Jesus said, if this temple was thrown down, he would raise it up in three days
We see these words fulfilled in the resurrection
But also in the martyrdom of the apostles, that inspired the building of a house of living stones
A monument to the power of the Word, the life of the Spirit, and the love of Jesus Christ

14 May 2017, St Cuthbert’s, Heaton

A game of spot the join

Posted: May 7, 2017 in Uncategorized

Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying

In this season of Easter we follow the evolution of the followers of Jesus from a set of individuals who had decided to follow him, into a more or less organised group dedicated to spreading the good news of the cross and the Kingdom

We see not only the people they met and the good works they did
We also see the development of their teaching

In the Book of Acts we have examples of the kind of sermon they preached
Or at least we can say, the kind of sermon Luke believes they preached

In the written gospels, we get some idea of the teachings of Jesus his followers remembered and handed on
And how the people who received those teachings, then brought them together and situated them within the story of Jesus’ earthly ministry

Bearing in mind how we think the written gospels came into being, the question often arises: are the teachings Jesus delivers in a single scene an accurate record of the teachings he gave on a particular occasion?
Or has someone brought together a set of related teachings on a particular theme, which Jesus originally gave on several different occasions?

I think our gospel passage this morning (John 10.1-10) is an example of the second method in operation
Someone has brought together different teachings about sheep and shepherds and sheep folds

Whoever it was who did it, they obviously thought it was more important to hand on these teachings faithfully than to smooth out the differences
Because things in the parable are made to stand for more than one thing in the interpretation that follows
And that is without considering the further development of the theme in verses 11 to 18

In verse 1, Jesus says, Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit.
The obvious understanding is, Jesus is talking about how we come to enter the community of faith
There is only one right way into membership, and lots of wrong ways

It’s easy to think this way, because this is a teaching we find in Matthew 7
The right way in, in fact the only way in, is through the narrow gate – faith in Jesus

But then in verse 2 Jesus goes on to say, The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep
So the one coming in through the gate can’t be a new Christian
New Christians don’t get the job of shepherd, of guiding those who are more mature in their faith

The one coming through the gate is a human being, a shepherd
So he isn’t coming to join the sheep – he isn’t even the same species

But he isn’t just A shepherd; he’s THE shepherd
Presumably Jesus himself – but maybe it’s too soon to reach that conclusion

In verse 3 a new character appears: the gatekeeper
The gatekeeper opens the gate for him
Now I’m confused – who is the boss? The gatekeeper, or the shepherd?

There’s only one gatekeeper – so maybe Jesus is the gatekeeper
We don’t know how many shepherds there are, but clearly there are more than one: the shepherd calls his own sheep by name
So who are these other sheep? And who are the other shepherds?

The shepherd calls his sheep by name, and leads them out
I’ve known a few shepherds, and I don’t remember any of them giving their sheep names
But at least we know from this, the sheep fold does not represent membership of the community of faith
Otherwise why would the shepherd be leading the sheep away from it?

At this point perhaps we should think about who we think Jesus is speaking to in this scene
He could be speaking to his disciples – people he has been leading around the countryside
Just as the shepherd leads the sheep – except as far as I know, shepherds do not try to educate their sheep
Sheep are not very teachable – that is why they will always need the shepherd

Some commentators say, sheep in the Near East are a bit smarter than ours
Our sheep have to be driven – Near Eastern sheep can be led
Look at verse 4, where Jesus carries on, When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.

So is Jesus talking to his disciples? Is everything he says here meant for them?
I don’t think so
Is Jesus alone with his disciples? Probably not

In the the previous scene Jesus healed the man blind from birth, and had a confrontation with the Pharisees
Chapter 10 carries on with no obvious break – no indication that time has passed or the the scene has changed

So the Pharisees are probably still there, listening
Which tells us exactly what Jesus means when he says the sheep will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers

There are other people on the scene – bystanders, the ones who witnessed the miracle of the blind man receiving his sight, and the subsequent confrontations
Jesus is now speaking to them, offering them a choice
Will they go on listening to the Pharisees, or will they hear the voice of Jesus?

Will they follow Jesus, the one who speaks with the voice of God?
Or the false shepherds?
Who are, in fact, the descendants of the wicked shepherds condemned by the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel

We seem to have reached a climax, a moment of choice
And that moment of choice is where many gospel stories end

But this time the story carries on, because Jesus senses the disciples are confused
Unfortunately, what Jesus goes on to say by way of explanation seems to upset the interpretation we have just reached
Because in verse 7 he says, Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep

A minute ago, we were trying to decide whether Jesus was the gatekeeper or the shepherd
But now we discover both of these choices were wrong, because Jesus is actually the gate

Jesus has apparently decided to introduce the teaching of the narrow gate from Matthew 7 I mentioned above
Which is fair enough – except that it takes our understanding in a direction that does not fit easily with the line we were pursuing before

Is there a way out? There is – two ways out, actually
Either two separate teachings have been woven together
Or Jesus challenges his disciples’ understanding by giving himself two roles in the same parable

In verse 8, Jesus switches back to the image of the Good Shepherd: All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them.

But then in verse 9 he returns to the second image, of himself as the gate: I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.

When I think of how these images come together my conclusion is, this is a teaching for leaders

Bad shepherds don’t need a gate, because they like to keep the sheep penned in the fold
The bad shepherds, who Jesus also calls thieves and bandits, have no concern for the sheep – they want to hold them captive, so they can exploit them
The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy

If you think about a real sheep fold, there is nothing there for the sheep – no grass, no nourishment
The gate allows the sheep to come and go
The sheep go out, and the good shepherd leads them to pasture outside the fold

The two roles Jesus gives himself in the parable, in other words, are complementary
He gives his sheep freedom, guidance, protection, and nourishment: I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly

The job of a church leader is to be a good shepherd – to watch over people, but not to hold them in captivity through fear
The fold is a secure pace to set out from and return to, but a good leader will not trap people inside the fold – within a congregation, within the building, or within the institution
The job of a good leader is to lead the sheep to the pasture that will nourish them in their faith – pasture which can only be found outside the fold

7 May 2017, St George’s, High Heaton

The LORD is God, and he has given us light

My father was a joiner for more than forty years
One day he and his mate got a call to go and have a look at the boardroom table
The surface was dull and sticky; it was ugly to look at and horrible to touch
The manager thought they would have to buy a new one – which would have cost thousands

My father and his mate knew better: they gave it a good rub down with white spirit
Then they polished it up with a bit of good quality oil-based polish, and it came up as good as new

What was the problem? A build-up of silicon polish
How had it developed? The cleaners had been giving the table a good spray with Pledge and a quick rub with a duster, every night for years – it was an automatic part of their routine
The problem, in other words, was too much polish – not enough elbow grease

The fact is, every time we read Scripture, we leave a trace
Something that is still there when we next go back to it – a residue of of understanding

The use we make of the Bible in church can foster this
We read the same passages again and again, at the same times
We see what we want to see: what we are used to seeing

If we are lazy readers, eventually we won’t be able to see the text at all – just those sticky layers
We’ll find that our Bible has somehow become very dull – something we don’t want to touch
What we have to do then, is find ways to is strip away all those layers of familiarity and get to grips with the words God has given us

I think today’s gospel reading is a case in point:
We read it as a sort of cameo – an isolated incident. It’s how we are used to reading it
Jesus enters Jerusalem, and receives the acclamation of the crowd. The end. Wish I’d been there.

Let me pick out one detail that jars with this picture
That word hosannah – we assume it means hurrah!

It’s hard to know what this word means, because this is the only episode where it appears
It’s a Greek word formed from two Hebrew words:
yasha (defend, deliver, help preserve) and na (I pray or beseech)
So it’s not hard to imagine that the crowds are calling, Jesus, I pray you, help us! Jesus, I pray you, deliver us!

Let me make a connection with what happens next
Jesus does not go home for his tea; Jesus is not invited to attend a civic reception to meet important people and drink sherry
Jesus carries on into the temple, and throws out everyone who is buying or selling, the money-changers and the sellers of doves

The authorities are indignant and reproach him
Because they feel threatened by the crowd, who are shouting: Jesus, I pray you, help us! Jesus, I pray you, deliver us!

They feel threatened, because they are the ones the crowd wants Jesus to deliver them from
They are the dead hand of institutional religion the temple has come to represent
They are the willing pawns of the Romans, who are the actual rulers of the Jewish people

Jesus alludes to the Hebrew Scriptures repeatedly in this passage
He doesn’t do it to show what a good memory he has
He does it to show that Scripture is being fulfilled that day
He does it to show that the kingdom of God is at hand

He can afford to do it, because he knows he is surrounded by people who read their Bibles properly – people who will understand
People who will see that the one who brings Scripture to life before their eyes, is the Living Word of salvation

9 April 2017, St Cuthbert’s, Heaton

A matter of life and death

Posted: April 4, 2017 in Uncategorized

Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die

Is the Easter story a love story or a horror show?
It has powerful elements of fear and horror
The darkness, the looming threat outside, the betrayal
The vulnerability of the kneeling man in the garden
The violent arrest and then the mad rushing from one interrogation to another
The mockery, the torture, and finally the cross, the nails, the spear
The broken body taken down and laid in the tomb

But the whole story is instigated, inspired and driven by love
And what Paul tells us in Romans 8, is that love drives out fear
God’s love confronts our fear, our fear of that we have made of ourselves, and drives it out by bringing us back to him

Nevertheless, the elements of horror in the gospel story are among the things that do most to convince us of its truth
They let us know, the gospel writer is not telling us this story just to keep us happy
It is not escapism

There is probably in all our minds a conviction that most love stories are a form of escapist entertainment
The struggling heroine, trapped in a dead end job with no hope of pursuing her dreams, is rescued by a glamorous hero who makes all things possible
These things do not happen in real life – certainly not with the monotonous regularity they seem to happen in romantic fiction
These stories can’t be true – so we do not take them seriously

Horror fans should not look down their noses at fans of romance
Most horror stories are escapist entertainment too
Even though in theory the idea is to shock the reader or the viewer, the things that happen are essentially the things the audience want to happen
Just like fans of Mills and Boone, horror fans get what they pay for

But the greatest stories are the ones that transcend the limits of their genres
They are stories that speak to their readers of deep truths about life and existence
Truths which even in the safe confines of a work of entertainment, cannot be denied, without creating a work which is hollow at its core

The great love stories are love stories that grapple with the facts of suffering and death
And the greatest horror stories are the ones that point to something revealed in the depths, that points us to the heights

By those definitions, the story of the cross is both the greatest horror story and the greatest love story of all
It reminds us of the fact of death which curtails all stories of human love
At the same time, it proclaims the fact of divine love which rewrites the ending of every story of human death

Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones Ezekiel 37) , and the story of Lazarus (John 11), are among the most grotesque and macabre passages in the whole of Scripture
These two episodes, Ezekiel in the Old Testament, and Lazarus in the New, have something important in common – the way they bring death and life together
I think this short passage from Romans points us to ways of understanding them both

We had better be clear at the outset, about what we mean by ‘resurrection’

Stephen King wrote a story called “Pet Sematary” [sic]
It’s a story about a native Indian cemetery
Local people know you can bury your dead pets there, and they will be mysteriously restored to life
Except there’s something not quite right about them – they still seem ‘a little dead’

One day the main protagonist’s two-year-old son is run over and killed on the busy main road near their house
I think you can guess what the grief-stricken father does next
But not what the ending is – it’s even worse than you imagine

There are elements of horror in the story of Lazarus that perhaps we gloss over
Even though the teller of the story insists on just those elements

It starts with Jesus delaying his departure, to make quite sure that Lazarus is really dead
It continues when they are all assembled in front of the tomb, and Martha warns Jesus of the horrible stench that is going to overwhelm them when they open the tomb
It reaches its height when Lazarus steps from the tomb, with his winding cloths still around his head and body

Who has the power to make the dead walk?
Think of the legends of zombies we find in many parts of the world, which have inspired a whole genre of horror films
It’s not necessarily God; it’s not necessarily the Messiah, who brings the dead to life – it could be an evil wizard
Perhaps the kind of magician who gives a man his sight by smearing mud on his eyes

What kind of life has Lazarus been brought back to?
By what power? For what purpose?

I think there is in the minds of the authorities a suspicion that a power greater than death must inevitably be something worse than death
There is something more than malice in their desire to do away with Jesus – there is fear

The true and proper fear of God arises from the sense of the power and mystery of God
It is different from superstitious terror, because it includes faith in the love of God
The horror and terror that arises from a superstitious conception of God, without the sense of his love, is actually a sign of our distance from God

If there is anything truly horrific in this world, it is the unredeemed life
That is the point from which a true biblical understanding of ‘death’ and ‘life’ begins

We happily use paradoxes like ‘a living death’, and cliches like ‘a fate worse than death’
But we don’t think of our own lives in these terms
Whereas Paul and Ezkiel actually do

Ezekiel describes his shocking vision of finding himself in a valley full of human remains
Then he turns to the living people round about him and says, “This is you; you are the dead”
Paul means essentially the same thing, when he says, To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. (Romans 8:6)

You might say, Paul is talking metaphorically
He’s talking about outlook and priorities:
Those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. (Romans 8:5)
Here, Paul isn’t saying anything more than Jesus is, when he says in Matthew 6:21:
Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

This is true; but what Paul is trying to tell us, is that the life and death he speaks of are spiritual realities far more ‘real’ than anything doctors can measure or treat

Life in other words is not a matter of heartbeat or respiration or brain activity
Death is not something that happens when your heart stops beating

The line between life and death is the one drawn by the state of sin
A line which can only be erased by God’s act of grace
But which has been erased, through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ

What about us? Are we alive or dead, by this reckoning?
Do we live according to the Spirit, or according to the flesh?
Have we been born again, from above, or are we still clinging on to the old life?

Jesus says, Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die (John 11.26)
If we are in Christ, the life we enjoy now is continuous with the eternal life we are promised
If we are in the flesh, our life is already a living death

2 April 2017, St George’s, High Heaton