This was an informal service, just a few of us, on holiday in the German Alps. I didn't record it.
This story, of the anointing of Jesus, is
incredibly familiar. It’s one of the few stories which appears in
all four Gospels, although in slightly different versions, which
reflects the fact that those who made the gospels wrote down what was
said and taught in their particular fellowships, and from their
particular collections of "The sayings of Jesus", or
whatever unofficial manuscripts were floating around their church.
Matthew's and Mark's stories are the most similar.
They set the episode in Bethany, at the house of Simon the Leper. A
woman wanders in off the street, pours the ointment over Jesus' head
and, for all we know, wanders straight out again. The disciples and
others gathered there go: "Oh, what a waste! If she didn't want
it we could have sold it and given the money to the poor."
Jesus tells them to be quiet, because the woman
was anointing his body for burial and what she did would be
remembered for ever. As, indeed, it has been.
In John's gospel, the story is still set in
Bethany, but John says that Jesus was staying with his friends Mary,
Martha and Lazarus, and that it was Mary who upended the ointment all
over his feet.
Luke’s version, the one we have just heard,
might possibly be talking about a different episode, because his
version takes place in a Pharisee's house, although said Pharisee is
also called Simon, and the woman is known to be a hooker, and she
pours the stuff all over his feet, and Jesus said that only goes to
show how much she knows God has forgiven her.
Putting the stories together we know that Simon
lived in the village of Bethany, where Martha, Mary and Lazarus lived
some commentators have even suggested that Simon
was Martha's husband, which is possible, but not explicitly stated
It's also possible that the woman who comes in
with the alabaster jar of ointment is actually Mary –
in John's gospel we're told that she did anoint
On the other hand, that could have been two
we don't know and it isn't quite clear. The Bible
isn’t even clear whether this woman, Mary Magdalen and Mary of
Bethany are one, two or three different people!
Anyway, it doesn't really matter, although it's
fun to speculate.
But the point is that Simon has asked Jesus to
but he obviously thinks he's being terribly
broad-minded doing so.
It was a public dinner, probably held in the yard
in front of the house,
so everybody could see what Simon was doing.
The public were rather expected to come and gawp,
rather like we do at film stars going into
premières and so on today.
But, according to Jesus, Simon is really an
appallingly bad host –
he didn't offer Jesus any of the usual courtesies
of the day.
I wonder whether he even spoke to him during the
meal, or whether he had sat him as far away as possible.
"I might ask him to dinner, but that doesn't
mean I have to be friends with him!"
And then this woman wanders in, this street woman.
From the context, it's clear that she has lived a
probably as a prostitute.
Although we don't know why she became one,
probably not by her own choice.
Sometimes, in that time and place, it was that or
But she had one possession that stood between her
and utter destitution –
her alabaster box of ointment.
These were incredibly precious –
you may remember that in most versions of the
the disciples, and especially Judas, chunter about
how she could have sold it and given the money to the poor,
it would have been less of a waste.
Luke doesn't mention that;
what he does mention is that Simon gets impossibly
uptight about all this,
and wants to have the woman thrown out, but Jesus
And first of all, he tells Simon a little story:
Suppose there were two men, and one owed you a
vast fortune, and the other owed just a couple of days' pay, and you
let them both off, said it was a gift.
Which one do you reckon would love you most?
And Simon, quite rightly, suggests it would be the
one who had owed the fortune.
And Jesus then points out to him that her actions,
which incidentally have more than made up for his, Simon's
deficiencies as a host, show how much she has been forgiven, and
tells the woman that she has been forgiven, and that her faith has
Which, of course, leads to chuntering about who on
earth was Jesus to say that sort of thing..... poor man couldn't win,
But what’s it all about, and what does it say to
I think it’s partly about extravagance. Those
alabaster jars were incredibly precious. If you were lucky enough to
have one, it was your most precious thing and you guarded it with
your life, practically. It could only be opened by breaking it, so
it couldn't ever be used again. You didn't go pouring the contents
all over the head of passing prophets, no matter how charismatic.
So when the disciples
said, "What a waste!" they seriously meant it. The jar was
broken, it was no use any more. The ointment was poured out, and
that in itself was costly enough. The woman, Mary or whoever she
was, had given her most precious thing to Jesus, and from everyone
else's point of view, it looked like a terrible waste. They couldn't
even make use of the gift by selling it and giving the money to
charity. It was all gone. What a waste.
But – how like God.
You see, Mary was frantically extravagant and wasteful. But so often,
God's like that.
Think of the story of
the wedding at Cana, right at the beginning of Jesus' ministry. When
they ran out of wine, towards the end of the festivities, Jesus
provided some more. But he provided far more wine than anyone could
drink. I worked it out once that the six stone jars he had filled
would hold about eight hundred bottles of wine. You could open a
young off-licence with that.
Or think of the story
of the feeding of the five thousand. Actually, one of the gospels,
Matthew, I think, says that the five thousand was only the men, and
didn't count the women and children, which would have made it more
like thirty-five thousand. Anyway, when Jesus provided lunch for
them, and he certainly did count the women and children, even if
nobody else bothered, it wasn't as though there was only just enough
to go round; there were twelve huge basketfuls left over. Enough for
each disciple to take one home to Mum.
Or what about our natural world? Look at the
beauty of the Alps all around us.... not just the scenery, though,
but all the flowers and the grasses and so on. And think of all the
houses and towns and villages between home and here, and yet God
knows and loves the inhabitants of each and every one of them!
It’s about extravagance – the woman knew she
had been forgiven so very much, and responded in her turn with a
gesture of extravagance.
Simon, on the other hand, couldn’t see it at
all. He really shouldn't have asked Jesus to dinner if he wasn't
prepared to accept him for who he was.
Holding him at arms' length, failing to
offer him more than the most rudimentary hospitality, you wonder why
He might have wanted to show how
broad-minded he was, inviting this itinerant preacher that none of
the other Pharisees would dream of inviting.
Or maybe he was curious about what
Jesus had to say –
but his curiosity didn't extend far
enough to actually welcoming him, and certainly not to welcoming
someone that Jesus wanted to see but he didn't.
For Simon, allowing a street woman into
his grounds was quite beyond the pale, totally not done!
It looks as though Simon missed the
whole point of Jesus altogether.
At that stage, Jesus was teaching about
the Kingdom of God, and the kind of person that was part of the
we know from the various collections of
Jesus' teachings and stories that have come down to us what sort of a
person that is.
And basically, Simon wasn't it!
He was judgemental, he put people down
in the worst kind of way, he wasn't open to new ideas....
as for loving his enemies, well, I
highly doubt he would have thought that
proper behaviour for a good, upright Pharisee like himself!
don't think, did accept that he was wrong.
hear what he replied to Jesus, but maybe he just said, "Yes,
yes", but didn't let what Jesus said get to him.
that's not the case, but too often it happens.
really let God's word into us and change us the way the woman did.
She knew she
was all wrong.
know why she went wrong –
was her only option if she was to feed her babies.
someone like Simon, perhaps even Simon himself, had abused her and
then cast her out into the street like so much litter.
repented, and demonstrated her repentance by giving Jesus her most
precious possession, anointing him with very precious ointment,
weeping over him.
could have stopped her descent into prostitution by selling the
ointment and its jar.
We do know,
though, that she thought Jesus was worth all of it.
It's quite scary, isn't it? There are so many issues about world
poverty and so on that the very word "extravagance" seems
to sit oddly on Christian lips. Yet we only have to look at so many
of the stories of God and God's people to see that it isn't a word
that is out of place when it comes to God.
We can be
desperately hard on ourselves, far harder than God ever is. Even
this holiday week – it’s can be quite difficult to escape the
notion that it’s wrong to enjoy ourselves, or to realise that God
wants us to enjoy ourselves, and to enjoy the holiday in and through
us! Our God is an extravagant God, and we need to rejoice in that!
For the children's talk, I had a Thermos with ice in it, a flask of water, and an electric kettle that I brought to the boil during the hymn before. So steam, ice, and water. I asked the children why they were different, and what qualities they had. But then I pointed out that, no matter whether it was solid, liquid or gas, it was all chemically identical: H2O. And that it is just a tiny picture of how God as Three and God as One could work, but only a picture.
Today is Trinity
Sunday, the day on which we celebrate all the different aspects of
God. It’s actually a very difficult day to preach on, since it’s
very easy to get bogged down in the sort of theology which none of us
understands, and which we can very easily get wrong.
The trouble is, of
course, that the concept of the Trinity is trying to explain
something that simply won’t go into words. We are accustomed to
thinking of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and most of the time
we don’t really stop and think about it. Trinity Sunday is the day
we are expected to stop and think!
The thing is, the first
half of the Christian year, which begins way back before Christmas,
is the time when we think about Jesus. We prepare for the coming of
the King, in Advent, and then we remember his birth, his being shown
to the Gentiles, his presentation in the Temple as a baby. Then we
skip a few years and remember his ministry, his arrest, death and
resurrection, and his ascension into heaven. Then we remember the
coming of the promised Holy Spirit, and today we celebrate God in all
his Godness, as someone once put it.
The second half of the
year, all those Sundays after Trinity, tend to focus on different
aspects of our Christian life. And today is the one day in the year
when we are expected to stop and think about God as Three and God as
And it is difficult.
It’s a concept that doesn’t really go into words, and so whatever
we say about it is going to be in some way flawed. It took the early
Church a good 400 years to work out what it wanted to say about it,
and even that is very obscure: “That we worship one God in
Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the persons nor
dividing the substance. For there is one person of the Father,
another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit. But the Godhead
of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit is all one, the
glory equal, the majesty coeternal. Such as the Father is, such is
the Son, and such is the Holy Spirit. The Father uncreated, the Son
uncreated, and the Holy Spirit uncreated. The Father
incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Spirit
incomprehensible.” The whole thing incomprehensible, if you ask
St Paul said it better, in our first reading. ‘We have peace with
God through our Lord Jesus Christ,’ and a little later in the same
paragraph, ‘God’s love has been poured into our hearts through
the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.’ St Paul may not have
known the expression “The Holy Trinity, but he certainly was aware
of the concept!
The illustration I gave
earlier of steam, liquid water, and ice all being H2O but
all different from each other and with different purposes, is just
that. An illustration. It happens to be my favourite one, but I
could have brought in three tins of soup – lentil, mushroom and
tomato, say – all tasting very different but all soup. Or perhaps
I could have mentioned Wesley's favourite illustration: he lit three candles, but there was only one light. They are all sort-of pictures, but only sort-of.
Nobody really understands it. And, of course, that is as it should
be. If we could understand it, if we knew all the ins and outs and
ramifications of it, then we would be equal to God. And it’s very
good for us to know that there are things about God we don’t really
understand! It’s called, in the jargon, a “mystery”. That
means something that we are never going to understand, even after a
lifetime of study. Lots of things to do with God are mysteries, in
that sense. Holy Communion, for one – we know what we mean when we
take Communion, but we also know that it may very well mean something
quite different, but equally valid, to the person standing next to
us. Or even the Atonement – none of us really understands exactly
what happened when Jesus died on the Cross, only that some sort of
change took place in the moral nature of the Universe.
Nevertheless, for all
practical purposes, we live very happily with not understanding. We
synthesise some form of understanding that suits us, and, provided we
know it is not the whole story, that’s fine. And the same applies
to the Trinity. It doesn’t matter if we don’t really understand
how God can be Three and One at the same time; what matters is that
we love and trust him, whatever!
And in our Gospel
reading, Jesus talks of Himself, the Father and the Spirit as equal:
“All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is
why I said the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known
to you.” Like St Paul, He doesn’t have the word “Trinity”,
but it is the kind of thing He means.
in the reading from Proverbs, which I chose not to use, we are
reminded of Wisdom.
LORD brought me forth as the first of his works,
before his deeds of
I was appointed from
from the beginning,
before the world began.
When there were no
oceans, I was given birth,
there were no springs abounding with water;”
so on and so forth. Wisdom, here, is personified as female. The
Greek word for Wisdom is Sophia. And some commentators equate
Sophia, here, and in other passages, with the Holy Spirit.
some people find the image of God as Sophia, Wisdom, helpful and
different. It’s one of the many images of God we have, up there
alongside the Shepherd, the Rock, the Strong Tower and so on. If you
don’t find it helpful, then don’t use it, but if it is something
that appeals, then do.
that is beside the point. Seeing God as Wisdom is a very old
tradition, but the real point is that even in the Old Testament we
get glimpses of God as having more than One Person. The Trinity
might not be a Bible expression, but it is a Bible concept.
really, the thing about today is that, no matter how much we don’t
understand God as Three but still One, today is a day for praising the whole Godness of God. It is not really a day for deep theological
reflection, nor for self-examination, but a day for praise and wonder
and love and adoration.
I’m going to be quiet now, and let’s spend a few moments in
silent worship before we sing our next hymn.
It was Hannukah. This is the festival of
dedication that our Jewish friends celebrate every year shortly
before Christmas, which involves lighting candles every night for
eight nights – one more candle each night. Various blessings are
said, and hymns are sung, and, of course, there is the usual feasting
and celebration, although you still go to work or school, as
appropriate. In Israel it's a school holiday, but elsewhere it
isn't, and you aren't excused school as you are for some of the
Jewish holidays. The festival commemorates the victory of the
Maccabees over pagan kings who wanted to ban Judaism and defile the
The festival was about 200 years old in Jesus'
day, and he, as we see, is in Jerusalem for it, and he's walking up
and down what's called Solomon's Porch, or Solomon's Colonnade, which
was on the eastern side of the outer court of the Temple. And
various people – ones, I suspect, who had no reason to wish him
well – came up to him and said “We do wish you'd tell us clearly,
are you the Messiah, or not?”
To which he replied: “But I have told you! You just didn't believe
me!” And he goes on to explain that those who are never going to
be his disciples, no matter what, will not listen to him. But “My
sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give
them eternal life, and they shall never die. No one can snatch them
away from me.”
“My sheep listen to my voice”. And,
conversely, “You will not believe, for you are not my sheep.”
So, Jesus is basically saying that he can tell
them he's the Messiah until he's blue in the face, but they are never
going to listen. They are not his sheep.
Now, I think we need to look at this a bit this
morning, because it can be quite scary to think that there are people
who are not Jesus' sheep. I wonder what he meant.
Well, first of all, our doctrines tell us that
everybody can be saved. We don't believe, as some churches teach,
that there is only a limited atonement and it's not for everybody.
We believe that everybody can be saved. Everybody. Even a
terrorist. Even a paedophile. Even a politician. Everybody can be
saved. Jesus doesn't exclude anybody from His flock.
But yet, we also believe that everybody needs to
be saved. Everybody needs to be saved. I strongly suspect that the
default position, for very small children and so on, is that they are
part of Jesus' flock – but people can exclude themselves. There
are prominent atheists like Stephen Fry or Jimmy Carr who would be
horrified to find themselves part of the flock! And others who
exclude themselves by their actions – they couldn't care less
whether they are part of the flock or not, but go their own sweet way
regardless. And then there are those who don't follow Jesus, but do
follow God to the best of their ability and knowledge, people like
Jews and Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists. I don't know how God
deals with such people, but I'm quite sure whatever happens to them
after this life is fair and right. Jesus condemned the Jewish church
leaders of his day, certainly, but that was basically because they
didn't want to know, when he was right there in front of them.
But in many ways that is not our problem. Sure,
we share our faith with Jews and Muslims and so on when it's
appropriate to do so – and I very much hope that we listen when
they tell us about theirs! But whatever God has provided for their
salvation – and I'm perfectly convinced He has, because whatever
else God is He's not unfair, and it would be terribly unfair to
exclude people because they had been taught to worship God
differently and to say different creeds; whatever God has provided
for their salvation, the point is we do know what He has
provided for ours!
We know that everybody can know that they are
saved. Everybody can know that they are saved, that they are part of
Jesus' flock. We know that we can hear His voice, through Scripture,
through our friends, through our teachers.... I think all of us here
have made a commitment, one way and another, to being Jesus' person;
whether we said a specific prayer of commitment on a specific day, or
whether it came so gradually that we couldn't possibly say when it
was, only that you couldn't be doing without Jesus now. We have all,
I expect, made such a commitment – and if by any chance you
haven't, you might think whether it is time that you did so – and
we can know that we are saved.
I don't really know exactly what “our doctrines”
mean by “saved” in this context. It's far more than just “pie
in the sky when you die”, of course; it's about being Jesus' person
all the time, the “abundant life” Jesus talks about is for here
and now, not just in some remote afterlife. It's about being filled
with the Holy Spirit; it's about receiving the gifts of the Spirit to
enable us to become more and more the person God created us to be.
But it's one of those things where we all probably have part of the
truth, and none of us has the whole truth, because it's about God. I
know what I mean when I say “saved”, and I expect you know what
you mean when you say it, but we may not mean quite the same things.
And we may not mean now what we meant when we said it twenty years
ago, or even yesterday – we all grow and change and this sort of
thing is apt to change a bit as we go on our Christian journey.
So: Everybody needs to be saved; everybody can be
saved; everybody can know they are saved, and the fourth line of “our
doctrines” is “Everybody can be saved to the uttermost”.
“My sheep listen to my voice”, says Jesus.
And it isn't just listening like we might listen to the radio or a
CD, just background noise. It is active listening, that focusses on
what is being said and reacts to it. It is the sort of listening
that enables God to make us into the person we were created to be,
the sort of listening that enables God to give us the gifts we need.
Most of us, of course, aren't good at listening to
God all the time. Like sheep, we wander away and have to be brought
back. Have you ever seen a field of sheep with their lambs?
Actually, more to the point, have you ever listened? There is
constant bleating going on, as that's how the sheep stay in touch
with their lambs. Each sheep knows her lamb's particular bleat, and
each lamb knows it's mother's. So they listen out for their own
lamb, and ignore other people's. It would be a serious mess if they
didn't know how to identify their own lamb in all that flock. And
most sheep learn to recognise their shepherd, or at least the car or
quad-bike. Their reaction to a familiar vehicle or person is quite
different to an unfamiliar one. “My sheep listen to my voice!”
And, like sheep, we are apt to wander away, but
the joy is that the Good Shepherd is always there to bring us back,
always on the alert for someone straying, and grabbing them before
they go too far. Those of us who are committed to being Jesus'
person, and committed to being part of the flock, know that. It is a
great comfort, as we know we're going to mess up sooner or later, but
Jesus will be there to help us get things right again.
But John Wesley was convinced that there were some
people who had grasped the knack of living so closely with God that
they didn't mess up. They were, in all the ways that matter,
perfect. He says obviously nobody is perfect in understanding God –
you can't be. And making mistakes doesn't necessarily make you less
than perfect, nor does any kind of infirmity – physical or mental.
Although he does qualify that, when he says: 'Only let us not give
that soft title to known sins, as the manner of some is. So, one man
tells us, "Every man has his infirmity, and mine is
drunkenness;” Another has the infirmity of uncleanness; another of
taking God's holy name in vain; and yet another has the infirmity of
calling his brother, "Thou fool," or returning "railing
for railing." It is plain that all you who thus speak, if ye
repent not, shall, with your infirmities, go quick into hell!' And,
of course, one can be tempted. Wesley says, 'Christian perfection,
therefore, does not imply (as some . . . seem to have imagined) an
exemption either from ignorance or mistake, or infirmities or
temptations. Indeed, it is only another term for holiness.'
Holiness. Wesley goes
on to define holiness as he sees it, being freedom from sin. He
spends a great deal of time saying, “Oh but people say the Bible
says”.... yadda yadda yadda and refuting it, rather like people do
about homosexuality in our day. But he also tries to explain that we
are forgiven in this life, forgiven and cleansed, and that we can
live in the reality of that. He reminds us of Paul's letter to the
Galatians: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live,
but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by
faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
And he reminds us, too, that we produce fruit by the power of the
Holy Spirit. He doesn't quote the list of fruit of the Spirit given
in Galatians, but you can tell he's thinking of it.
We can be saved to the uttermost. We can so spend
our time listening to the Good Shepherd, aware of His presence, that
we become fully whole, fully holy, more fully his person than we
could possibly imagine. And yes, one can – well, I can't always,
but people do – be aware of God and of His presence with us even
while busy with the rest of life, with school and work and watching
television and being with friends....
I'm not quite sure how I ended up talking about
our doctrines this morning, but it's always good to remind ourselves
Everybody needs to be saved.
Everybody can be saved.
Everybody can know they are saved.
Everybody can be saved to the uttermost.
It seems to me the secret is to be open to
listening to Jesus, to be part of His flock, not to close off His
voice because we are so convinced that we are right and everybody
else is wrong. The Jews, that Hannukah festival so long ago, simply
couldn't hear Jesus – they were so convinced that this young man
couldn't possibly be the Messiah that they were unable to listen to
what he was actually saying, not what they thought he was saying!
And, sadly, we all know people like that. People
who are so convinced they are right that they can't possibly listen
to anybody else's point of view. They may claim to follow Jesus, or
they may despise what they tend to call “organised religion”
(though quite what they mean by that is totally unclear!), but either
way, it's utterly impossible to get through to them about whatever
particular bee they have in their bonnet.
The awful thing is, if you are like that –
although I don't think anybody here is – you won't have heard a
word I've said this morning! Some people do come to church just to
have their prejudices confirmed, but I'm sure nobody here does. Or
perhaps we all do, who knows? But I do pray that I, and you, will be
open to hearing the Shepherd's voice, open to being part of the
flock, even when that challenges our ideas, even when it touches
places within us we don't want to explore. Because by listening, by
hearing, by being willing to be changed, only then can we really be
“saved to the uttermost”. Amen.
This sermon is very similar to the one I preached three years ago on the 3rd Sunday of Easter, but not identical, as this turned out to be a Parade Sunday.
Our readings today are
about two very different men, both of whom were leaders of the very
early church, and both of whom had made appallingly bad starts!
To take them in
chronological order, first of all there was Peter.
Simon, as his original
name was –
Peter was basically a
nickname Jesus gave him.
It means stone or rock;
if Jesus had been
speaking English, he might have nicknamed him “Rock” or “Rocky”.
“You're Rock, and on
this rock I will build my church.”
But the Greek word was
“Petros”, so we know him as Peter.
Anyway, as you know,
Peter was an impulsive type,
probably with a hot
We probably know more
about him than we know about any of the Twelve, as it is often his
comments and answers that are quoted.
And, sadly, the fact
that when push came to shove his courage failed him
and he pretended he
didn't know Jesus.
And our Gospel reading
today is all about his reinstatement.
The disciples have gone
back to Galilee after the Resurrection,
and have gone fishing.
I suppose they must
have thought that it was all over,
not realising how much
their lives were going to change.
And although the other
gospel-writers tell us that Peter had seen the risen Lord, he still
seems to have had trouble forgiving himself for the denials.
So when he realises
that it is Jesus on the lake shore, he grabs his tunic –
he will have been
working naked in the boat –
and swims to shore.
And they all have
breakfast together, and then Jesus turns to Peter.
You can imagine, can't
you, that Peter's heart started beating rather faster than usual.
Now, part of the whole
point of this story doesn't actually work in English, because we only
have one word for love. We say we love our mums and dads, or we love
cheese, or we love watching boxsets.
But the Greeks had
several different words for love. I'm not sure what they said about
cheese, or about whatever the local equivalent of watching boxsets
was, but they said eros to
describe the love between a man and a woman;
said storge, to describe affection, family love, the
sort of love you have for your mum and dad or brothers and sisters.
Then, and these are the
two words that are relevant to us here, they had the word philia,
which is friendship, comradeship, andthe
word agape, a word only found in the New Testament,
which means God's love.
And when Jesus says to
Peter “Do you love me?” he uses the word agape.
Do you love me with
And Peter can't quite
manage to say that, and so in his reply he uses philia.
“Yes, Lord, you know
I'm your friend”.
And Jesus commissions
him to “Feed my lambs.”
This happens again.
“Do you love me with
“Lord, you know I'm
“So take care of my
And then the third
Well, that's logical,
there were three denials, so perhaps three reinstatements.
But this time it is
“Simon, son of John,
are you my friend?”
Peter doesn't quite
know what to answer.
“Lord, you know
you know whether I'm
your friend or not!”
And Jesus tells him,
again, to feed His sheep.
And comments that he
will die a martyr's death, but instructs him to “Follow Me!”
And, we are told, Peter
did follow Jesus.
We know he was in the
upper room on the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came,
and it was he who
preached so powerfully that day that three thousand people were
We know he was
imprisoned, and miraculously released from prison;
there is that wonderful
scene where he goes and knocks on the door of the safe house,
prayer-meeting that has been called for the sole purpose of praying
and the girl who
answers the door is so shocked she leaves him standing there while
she goes and tells the others, and they don't believe her!
One of the funniest
scenes in the Bible, I think.
Anyway, we know that
Peter ended up in Rome, and, sadly, tradition tells us that he was
crucified upside-down, which those who wrote down John's gospel would
have known, which is arguably why it was mentioned.
But the point is, he
was completely and utterly forgiven and reinstated, and God used him
beyond his wildest dreams.
And so to St Paul.
Now Paul, at that stage
known as Saul, also needed a special touch from God.
He couldn't have been
more different from Peter, though.
He was born a Roman
citizen in the city of Tarsus.
He was well-educated,
and had probably gone to university,
contrasting with Peter,
who, it is thought, only had the basic education that all Jewish boys
of his time and class would have had.
He was a Pharisee, the
most learned and holy of the Jewish religious leaders of the day.
And, like so many
Pharisees, he felt totally threatened by this new religious movement
that was springing up, almost unstoppably.
It was, he thought,
complete nonsense, and not only that, it was blasphemy!
He set himself to hunt
down and kill as many believers as he could.
But God had other
ideas, and grabbed Saul on his way to Damascus.
And I expect you know
what happened then –
he was blind for three
days, and then a very brave man called Ananias came and laid hands on
whereupon he could see
again, and then,
after some time out for
prayer and study,
he became the apostle
to the Gentiles, so-called, and arguably the greatest influence on
He had a knack for
putting the great truths about God and about Jesus into words, and
even today, Christians study his letters very seriously.
He started off by
persecuting believers, but in the end, God used him beyond his
So you see the common
link between these two men:
one an uneducated
the other a suave and
sophisticated Pharisee, and a Roman citizen, to boot.
Peter knew how
dreadfully he had sinned;
Paul thought he was in
But they both needed a
touch from God, they both needed explicit forgiveness,
they both needed to
know that they were loved, no matter what they had done.
And they both
If this had just been a
story of how God spoke to two different men in two different ways,
that would be one thing.
It would be a fabulous
story in its own right.
It would show us that
we, too, no matter how dreadful we are,
no matter how prone to
screw things up,
we too could be loved
and forgiven and reinstated.
And this is, of course,
true. We are human.
We screw up –
that, after all, is
what sin is, when you come down to it –
the human propensity to
screw things up.
Which we all do in our
own particular ways.
It doesn't actually
matter how we mess up –
we all mess up in
and sometimes we all
mess up in the same way.
It is part of being
God's forgiveness is
constant and unremitting –
all we have to do is to
There is no more
forgiveness for a terrorist
than there is for you
or for me.
And there is no less
It is offered to us
even the worst sort of
person you can possibly imagine.
Even a suicide bomber.
No nonsense about God
hating this group of people, or that group of people.
He loves them, and
offers forgiveness to them as and where they need it,
just as he does to you,
and just as he does to
But, as I implied, that
isn't quite the end of the story.
It would have been a
fabulous story, even if we had never heard of Peter or of Paul again.
There are one or two
fabulous stories in Acts that we don't know how they came out –
I'm thinking here of
Cornelius and the Ethiopian Eunuch;
both men became
one through Peter's
ministry and one through Philip's,
but we are not told
what became of them.
We don't know what
became of the slave Onesimus who had to return home to Philemon,
bearing with him a
letter from Paul asking Philemon to receive him as a brother in
But we do know what
happened to Peter and to Paul.
They both responded to
They received it.
They offered themselves
to Christ's service and, through their ministry, millions of people
down the centuries have come to know and love the Lord Jesus.
Of course, they were
We know their stories,
just as we know the stories of John Wesley,
or of people like Lord
Baden-Powell, Dwight L Moody, Gladys Aylward,
Eric Liddell or Billy
If you don't know who
those people are, look them up on Wikipedia after the service.
But there are countless
thousands of men and women whose stories we don't know,
who received God's
offered themselves to
and through whose
ministry many millions of men and women came to know and love the
Some of them went to
live and work somewhere else,
but many of them lived
out a life of quiet service exactly where they were.
Some of them, sadly,
were imprisoned or even put to death for their faith,
but many died in their
And you see where this
is going, don't you?
Now, I know as well as
you do that this is where we all start to wriggle and to feel all hot
and reckon we can't
possibly be doing enough in Christ's service,
or that we are a rotten
witness to his love and forgiveness.
Perhaps some of you
here this morning aren't quite ready to call yourselves Jesus' people
just yet. That's okay – Jesus still loves you and forgives you,
and when you are ready to be His person, you just say, and He will
Others of you will
already have made that commitment – some of us did so many years
ago, and for others it's more recent.
And we are told that
when the Holy Spirit comes,
we will be witnesses to
not that we ought to
be, or we must be, but that we will be!
And I know that many of
you are doing all you can to serve the Lord exactly where you are,
and I'm sure you're doing a wonderful job of it, too.
But maybe it never
occurred to you to offer.
Maybe you accepted
Jesus' forgiveness, and promised to be his person, and rather left it
That's fine, of course.
For many of you, school
and your studies have to come first, and that's absolutely as it
God wouldn't ask you to
do anything that would badly interfere with that. But what if you're
You see, the giving and
offering isn't all on our side –
how could it be?
And when we offer
ourselves to Christ's service, you wouldn't believe –
or perhaps you already
the wonderful gifts He
gives to help you do whatever is is you're asked to do.
I know that sometimes
people have even wondered if God could possibly be calling them to do
whatever it is,
as they want to do it
so badly that it might be just their own wants!
But, you see, God
wouldn't call you to do something you would hate, would he?
And so what if it did
Look at a young lawyer,
in a country far from here, who was thrown into prison for his faith,
which led him to stand up for what he believed was right against the
government of the day.
He left his country
when he was released from prison –
and to this day he will
tell you that it was knowing his Bible as well as he did that helped
him stay sane while he was in it.
And you will have seen
him on television, and maybe even you older ones have met him, as he
used to be a local vicar, and now he's the Archbishop of York.
I'm rather waffling
now, so I'll shut up.
But I do just want to
leave this with you:
Perhaps, today, you
just needed to be reminded that God loves and forgives you, whoever
you are and whatever you have done.
Perhaps, today, you
needed to be reminded that when you are ready, you need to commit
yourself to being Jesus' person and then you'll really know that love
and forgiveness for yourself.
But it maybe you need
have you ever offered
yourself to God's service as Peter did, as Paul did, as so many down
the years have?
And is God, perhaps,
calling you to something new?
Please scroll down for the main sermon and its podcast - I did add some additional stuff, so it is slightly different.
Children's Talk - Mothering Sunday
It will not have
escaped your notice that it's Mothers' Day today. But what you might
not realise is that it's also Mothering Sunday, which is a church
thing. Mothers' Day is basically a commercial festival, useful for
making money for retailers by selling flowers at twice what they
normally cost. But Mothering Sunday is only tangentially about human
Today is the fourth Sunday in Lent, and it’s long
been known as Laetare Sunday, or Refreshment Sunday – it’s
half-way through Lent, and in days when people kept it rather more
strictly than they do now, it was a day when you could relax the
rules a little. And the tradition grew up that on that day, you went
to the mother church in your area – often the cathedral, but it
might have just been the largest church in your area.
went together, and it became traditional for servants to have time
off to go home and see their families on that day, if they lived near
enough. In the Middle Ages, servants may only have got one day off a
year, and it was, traditionally, the 4th Sunday in Lent. Many
servants had to leave home when they were very young – only about
11 or 12 – because their parents simply couldn't afford to feed
them any longer. And, indeed, many of these children hadn't known
what a full tummy felt like until they started work. But even so,
they must have missed their families, and been glad to see them every
And today is also a day for remembering God’s love for
us. We’re having the readings for the Fourth Sunday in Lent today,
but if we’d had the traditional Mothering Sunday readings, we would
have heard Jesus weeping over Jerusalem:
Jerusalem! Your people have killed the prophets and have stoned the
messengers who were sent to you. I have often wanted to gather your
people, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings. But you wouldn't
The image of Jesus as a mother hen! What we
remember on Mothering Sunday isn’t just our mothers, although that,
too, but above all, the wonderful love of God, our Father and our
We do give thanks for our mothers, of course we do.
But we have to remember, too, people whose Mums are no longer with
us, and to remember that some people didn't have satisfactory
relationships with their own Mums, and some people have never known
the joy of motherhood. The Church isn't always very tactful about
Mothers Day, I'm afraid – I used to find it very patronising,
especially considering that for the rest of the year I was rather
left to get on with it, and was told that the loneliness and
isolation and lack of fellowship was “the price you pay for the
wonderful privilege of being a Christian Mother!” As if....
we can all celebrate God's wonderful love for each and every one of
Love Bade Me Welcome
This is such a familiar
story, isn't it? We probably first heard it in primary school, and
have heard it on and off down the years ever since.
Jesus had a couple of
stories that began, “A farmer had two sons”. I shouldn't wonder
if he didn't flesh them out a bit, give them names, and so on, and
when he started a new story about them, the crowd would relax,
knowing that a favourite type of story was coming. That's slightly a
fantasy of mine, but don't you think the two sons who were asked to
help in the vineyard were the same two sons as in this story, only
Well, we don't know why
the younger son got fed up with his comfortable life on the farm;
Jesus didn't go into details about his family background, or, if he
did, Luke didn't record them! Perhaps he was being asked to marry a
girl he really disliked – or perhaps he'd fallen in love with the
wrong girl. Or perhaps he just found farm work boring, and the
lights of the big city more attractive. Whatever, he goes to his
father and asks for his share of his inheritance, and takes off.
Now, it was really
awful of him to ask that – he was more or less saying “I can't
wait until you're dead!”. And, of course, it wasn't a matter of
going to the bank and writing a cheque – it was a matter of
dividing up the farm, letting the younger son have a certain
number of fields and buildings, and a certain amount of stock. But
this story is taking place in God's country, where the rules are not
the same as ours, so the farmer does just that, and a few days later,
when the son has sold all this – I wonder if he sold it back to his
father, I wouldn't put it past him – he lets his son go with his
And the son goes off to
seek his fortune in the big city.
But, like so many of
us, he doesn't make a fortune. Instead, he wastes what he has on
what the older translations of the Bible called “riotous living”
- “reckless living” is what the Good News Bible calls it. You
know the kind of thing – fashionable clothes, champagne, caviar,
top-of-the-range smartphones, expensive callgirls, fast cars, and so
on and so forth. They perhaps didn't have quite those things in his
day, but very similar! And he almost definitely gambled, and may
even have taken drugs as well.
And, inevitably, it all
goes horribly wrong and he wakes up one morning with no money and
with his creditors ringing the doorbell. And he is forced to earn
his living as best he can.
I don't think we
Christians can ever quite realise the absolute horror of what
happened next. We don't have the utter horror of pigs that the Jews
had and have. We think of pigs, we think of bacon and sausages and
roast pork with crispy crackling; for the Jews – and, I gather, for
Muslims, too – it was more like taking a job on a rat farm. In
terms of actual work, it probably wasn't much different from the work
he'd been used to, but he would be an outcast among his own kind, and
we gather from the story that he wasn't paid very well, either. He
was hungry, to the point where even the pigs' food looked good. I
wonder if he was working for one of his creditors?
Anyway, one morning he
wakes up and thinks to himself, “What on earth am I doing? Even my
father treats his people better than this – maybe he'd take me on
as a farm worker.”
You notice, perhaps,
that he doesn't say he's sorry. He doesn't appear to regret having
left home, only finding himself in this fix. And yes, he would be
better off working for his father than he is here.
And again, we know what
happened next. Father rushes out to greet him – and men simply
never ran in that place and time, but remember that this story takes
place in God's country, and anything can happen there. The
celebrations go on and on.
Elder brother is most
put out. He has been working hard all the time, and nobody ever gave
him a party, did they? And this wastrel, who has caused so much
grief, is being treated like a prince. What's all that about?
Well, the elder brother
could have had a party any day in the week, if he'd wanted one. He'd
never said, had he? He'd seemed quite content with his lifestyle.
Perhaps underneath, though, he was seriously jealous of his brother.
No, not jealous, that's the wrong word. Envious. Perhaps he wish he
had had the guts to cut loose and make a life of his own. We don't
But whatever, Father's
reaction seemed to him to be well out of order. He wished his Father
had said, “Get out – how dare you show your face around here!”
Or that Father had said
“Well, I suppose you can be a servant, but no way are you coming
back into this family.”
Or, perhaps, “Well,
if you work really hard and prove to me you're really sorry, I might
be prepared to forgive you – in about ten years' time and providing
you are absolutely perfect during that time!”
But for Father to rush
up and hug Little Brother, and to be calling for champagne and
throwing a party – well, that was definitely out of order, as far
as Big Brother was concerned. His only hope was that Little Brother
would insist on being treated as a servant: “No, no, you can't give
me a party! I don't deserve it. I'm going to live above the stables
with the other workers, and behave like a worker, not your son!”
You know, that's what I
think I would have done. I don't know about you, but I find being
forgiven the hardest thing there is. Responding to God's love is
really hard. I want to earn my forgiveness, earn God's love, God's
But it doesn't work
like that, does it? The bit of Luke Chapter 15 that we didn't read
was the other two “lost” stories – the lost sheep and the lost
coin. We don't blame the coin for getting lost; we know how easy it
is to drop something, or to put it down in a safe place, and we can't
find it. Just as I was settling down to prepare this sermon, Robert
rang up to say his bag had been stolen, with all his credit cards,
his phone, his keys.... in fact, it hadn't been stolen at all,
someone had moved it, but great was our rejoicing when we learnt
We don't really blame
the sheep for wandering off, either. Sheep are dumb animals –
well, noisy ones, really, but stupid ones, whatever – and if they
can get into trouble, they will. But the Good Shepherd isn't going
to lose one if he can help it; he'll be pulling on his coat and
wellies as soon as he realises one has gone missing, and set off with
his dogs to find it.
You might say that is
over the top – but again, this is God's country, the Kingdom of
Heaven, and anything can happen there. In God's country there is
more joy over one lost sheep being found than over the 99 that stayed
in their field.
But we can and we do
blame the young man for running off. Perhaps we would like to run
off, who knows? In any case, we can identify with him. We know we
can – and maybe we have – done dreadful things like that. And we
don't like it, like the big brother didn't like it, when the Father
forgives him so generously and open-heartedly, even without his
repenting properly. He came home, he is here again, this calls for a
drink! No, we think, this won't do. I can't be forgiven that
easily. It can't be that simple. I need to earn it.
But we can't earn it.
We can't earn forgiveness. We can't earn salvation. Sometimes we
speak, and maybe even think, that salvation is down to us, that we
need to say the special prayer so that God will save us. No.
Salvation is all God's idea, and God has a great deal more invested
in the relationship than we do. God pours out his love on us
unconditionally, and all we need do is accept it.
There's a lovely poem
by a 17th-century poet called George Herbert which I'm going to
finish with today, as it does summarise what I'm trying to say here:
Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me,
If I lacked any thing.
A guest, I answered,
worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and
smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?
Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says
Love, who bore the blame?
My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.
May we all “sit and
eat”, and receive God's love and forgiveness, not as we deserve,
but as He desires. Amen.
Welcome! I am a Methodist Local Preacher, and preach roughly once a month, or thereabouts. If you wish to take a RSS feed, or become a follower, so that you know when a new sermon has been uploaded, please feel free to do so.
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