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Long, long ago, in a
land far away from here, God’s people were feeling discouraged.
For many years, all the people who mattered had been taken off to
exile in Babylon, and now only a few of the poorest remaining, plus
people from other tribes who had taken advantage of the empty city.
Most of the city had been reduced to rubble, and, worst of all, the
Temple had been burnt down.
But that had been some
sixty years ago. Now, the Babylonians had been conquered in their
turn. King Darius was on the throne of one of the greatest empires
the world had ever known, the Achaemenid
Empire, also known as the First Persian Empire. It had been founded
by his grandfather, Cyrus the Great – you might remember Cyrus from
when you’ve been reading Isaiah – and now spanned a huge swathe
of territory, which, at its greatest extent included all of the
territory of modern-day Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Syria,
Jordan, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Afghanistan, parts of Egypt and
as far west as eastern Libya, Macedonia, the Black Sea coastal
regions of Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, and Russia, all of Armenia,
Georgia, Azerbaijan, parts of the North Caucasus, and much of Central
Asia. It truly was one of the largest empires ever!
Obviously one person
couldn’t govern all that, so they basically devolved their
government into provinces, ruled over by a provincial governor. The
area we’re concerned with today was known as Yehud Medinata, which
is basically just a translation of “Kingdom of Judah”, but, of
course, it wasn’t a kingdom any more, just one more province of
this huge empire.
King Cyrus had decreed
that the Jews could, if they wished, return to Judah and rebuild
their temple, and appointed a man named Zerubbabel, a grandson of the
penultimate king of Judah, as governor. Zerubbabel went to Jerusalem
with the new High Priest, a man called Joshua or Yeshua, it’s not
quite clear which. Unfortunately, not all that many exiles went with
them. The people had settled down in their new homes, as Jeremiah
had told them to so long ago, and now were prospering and most
reluctant to uproot themselves and their families. Most of them had
been born in exile, and had no idea what Jerusalem was like, other
than that it was some distant corner of the Empire. No thanks, they
were very-nicely-thank-you where they were, they might come and visit
when the city was rebuilt, but not just now.
That was the first
setback. But those who went with Zerubbabel worked very hard, and
gave very generously, and eventually the foundations of the Temple
were laid. There was great rejoicing – you can read all about this
in the book of Ezra, if you feel so minded – great rejoicing,
although some of the older people were overcome with grief at the
memory of the first Temple, which they could just, just remember....
and this? Not the same at all!
But many of the people
who lived in the area – again, this is all in the book of Ezra –
didn’t want to see the Temple rebuilt. Now, they knew as well as
anybody that really, only the people authorised by King Cyrus could
do any building work, and anyway, these people were not really
Jewish. But they came to Zerubbabel and said, sweetly, “Oh, do let
us help!” and when he said “No”, they did all they could to
stop the building works – sabotage, frightening people, and writing
incessantly to the King to ask him to make them stop work.
And for eighteen years,
no more work was done on the Temple.
But then King Darius came to the throne and eventually the situation
came to his notice. So he wrote to the other governors in the area
saying that Cyrus had authorised the rebuilding of the Temple, and
therefore: “I order you to stay away from Jerusalem. Don’t
bother the workers. Don’t try to stop the work on this Temple of
God. Let the Jewish governor and the Jewish leaders rebuild it. Let
them rebuild God’s Temple in the same place it was in the past.
Now I give this order. You must do this for the Jewish leaders
building God’s Temple: The cost of the building must be fully paid
from the king’s treasury. The money will come from the taxes
collected from the provinces in the area west of the Euphrates River.
Do these things quickly, so the work will not stop. Give them
anything they need. If they need young bulls, rams, or male lambs
for sacrifices to the God of heaven, give these things to them. If
the priests of Jerusalem ask for wheat, salt, wine, and oil, give
these things to them every day without fail. Give them to the Jewish
priests so that they may offer sacrifices that please the God of
heaven. Give these things so that the priests may pray for me and my
Also, I give this order: If anyone changes this order, a wooden beam
must be pulled from their house and pushed through their body. Then
their house must be destroyed until it is only a pile of rocks.
God put his name there in Jerusalem. May God defeat any king or
other person who tries to change this order. If anyone tries to
destroy this Temple in Jerusalem, may God destroy that person.
I, Darius, have ordered
it. This order must be obeyed quickly and completely.”
Quite a turn-round. And then, enter the prophet Haggai. We don’t
really know who he was, whether he was one of those who went off into
exile, or one of those who stayed behind. Either way, he supported
Zerubbabel and Yeshua, and he knows that God wants the Temple to be
rebuilt. So, three weeks after the work began again, he receives
this message from God, as we heard in our first reading: ‘How many
of you people look at this Temple and try to compare it to the
beautiful Temple that was destroyed? What do you think? Does this
Temple seem like nothing when you compare it with the first Temple?
But the Lord says, “Zerubbabel, don’t be discouraged!” And the
Lord says, “Joshua son of Jehozadak, you are the high priest.
Don’t be discouraged! And all you people who live in the land,
don’t be discouraged! Continue this work, because I am with you.”’
discouraged”. That was God’s message to the people of Jerusalem
at that time. The Temple was at that stage of construction that you
wish you’d never started, when it gets worse before it gets better.
You know what it’s like, when you set out to have a massive
tidy-up at home, it always gets worse before it gets better, and
half-way through you start to wish you hadn’t bothered! “Don’t
It’s a good message
for us just now, isn’t it? 2016 has been an appalling year so far
– not just the celebrity deaths, sad though they are. But the
Brexit referendum, and the upsurge in racism and intolerance we’ve
seen since then, the awful situation in Calais, the sword of Damocles
hanging over us in the shape of the US elections this coming week....
it’s been a dreadful year so far and it’s not over yet.
But I do truly believe
that God says to us “Don’t be discouraged!” The Christians in
Thessalonica appear to have been discouraged, too, when St Paul wrote
to them. They had received false teaching, saying that Christ had
already returned, and they thought they had missed out. Which they
hadn’t. St Paul points out that there has to be tribulation first,
and this hadn’t happened at the time of writing, so Jesus can’t
possibly have returned yet. And when he does, they’ll all know all
And he goes on to tell them not to be discouraged, either: “Brothers
and sisters, you are people the Lord loves. And we always thank God
for you. That’s what we should do, because God chose you to be
some of the first people to be saved. You are saved by the Spirit
making you holy and by your faith in the truth. God chose you to
have that salvation. He chose you by using the Good News that we
told you. You were chosen so that you can share in the glory of our
Lord Jesus Christ. So, brothers and sisters, stand strong and
continue to believe the teachings we gave you when we were there and
sisters, you are the people the Lord loves.” And that’s just as
true for us as it was for the people of Thessalonica. We, too, are
saved by the Spirit making us holy, and by our faith in the truth,
and God chose us to have that salvation.
So, in the face of all
the awful things happening around us, let’s not be discouraged! We
are the people the Lord loves, and we will continue to share that
love with others in His name, no matter how many awful things happen.
No matter what the result of the American election. No matter how
badly our quality of life may deteriorate when we leave the EU. If
we leave – I still find it hard to believe that anything so
disastrous could possibly happen.
We are the people the
Lord loves. We will not allow ourselves to be discouraged. Amen!
This sermon was preached at a Service at which the Sea Scouts paraded
It’s not very often I
open my Bible – or, these days, open a Bible app on my phone or
tablet – and come across a passage I’ve never even heard of
before, but, do you know, that’s exactly what happened when I read
the Old Testament reading for today, from the prophet Jeremiah. I
thought I had read all the book of Jeremiah, but this bit obviously
Jeremiah writes a
letter to the people of Israel, who have been taken into captivity in
Babylonia, and this is what he says: “The Lord Almighty, the God of
Israel, says to all those people whom he allowed Nebuchadnezzar to
take away as prisoners from Jerusalem to Babylonia: ‘Build
houses and settle down. Plant gardens and eat what you grow in them.
Marry and have children. Then let your children get married, so
that they also may have children. You must increase in numbers and
not decrease. Work for the good of the cities where I have made
you go as prisoners. Pray to me on their behalf, because if they are
prosperous, you will be prosperous too.’”
Well, what’s this all
about, then? What had happened to the people of Israel, and why did
God want them to settle down?
Well, a few centuries
earlier, the kingdom of Israel had been divided into two, with the
northern kingdom being larger, and the southern kingdom, Judah, being
smaller. But the Middle East is, was, and probably always will be a
very unsettled area, and back in the day, the strongest nation in the
region was called Assyria. And eventually the Assyrians conquered
the northern kingdom, known as Israel, and carted its leaders off
The southern kingdom,
Judah, struggled along for another couple of centuries, being more or
less allied with Assyria. Eventually Assyria fell in its turn, and
Babylonia became a power in the region. King Nebuchadnezzar was able
to conquer the kingdom of Judah, and he carried its people off into
captivity. Not everybody went, of course, either time, but certainly
they would have taken the leaders and influential people, and their
families and extended families, and what was left behind were the
ordinary people. We do know that some of the people who went to
Babylon had great influence there – Daniel, for instance, or
Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. You can read their stories in the
Book of Daniel.
Anyway, the point was
Jeremiah lived around that time, and he was one of those left behind.
There seems to have been a certain amount of coming and going.
Anyway, Jeremiah’s letter said what he believed God was asking him
to say to the people: Settle down in your new cities, raise your
families, and, above all, pray for your new homes and your new
rulers. The people were obviously going to be away for some years,
and it made sense to make proper homes for themselves rather than
hope – as some of the crowd-pleasers kept telling them – that
they would be able to go back home next week.
Well, that’s all very
well, and all very interesting, but what does it have to do with us
today? These people lived long ago in history, and there aren’t
even many sources to confirm what really happened!
Well, that letter might
have been written about two and a half thousand years ago, but it’s
still relevant today. We are not exiles in a strange land – but
goodness, more people are today than at any time in human history!
Millions of people, quite literally, have had to leave their homes
and flee to safety; many now have to live in refugee camps, which I
believe is all very well in the summer, but would you like to have to
live in a wet and muddy tent as winter draws on? No, me neither!
Others have been able to get to safety in Europe, and many here, to
the United Kingdom. Some of them set out to cross the sea in the
kind of rickety little boats that would give your leaders a heart
attack – and some, sadly, didn’t make it. And many, if not all,
of those who come will do just exactly as Jeremiah told his people,
all those years ago. They will settle down, get jobs, and work for
the good of their new country. And if they are praying people –
and many of them are Muslim, so they will be – they will be praying
for their new country, and their new friends, too.
And if they are doing
it, how much more should we be doing it? We are told to pray for our
city and our homes, and that includes our friends.
Prayer is an odd sort
of activity, isn’t it? Especially what’s called intercessory
prayer, which is when we ask God for other people, and for ourselves.
You would think God would know people’s needs before they ask –
and of course, God does! But we are told to pray; it seems in the
Bible that it’s absolutely indispensable. Jesus assumed that
people prayed; you might remember that he said “When you pray....”
rather than “if”. In a few minutes, when we have our
intercessory prayer, I’ll be reading out a list of names of people
who’ve asked the church to pray for them. Yet God already knows
their needs. And it’s the same if you see on social media that a
friend is poorly or something, and you stop what you’re doing and
say a little prayer for them, even something like, “Dear God,
please look after them and help them feel better.” God already
knew they didn’t feel great....
I don’t know why we
are told to pray, but we are. It seems as if prayer creates a
condition, an energy if you like, that enables God to work. I do
know that when we pray, things change. We change. The more we pray,
I think, the closer we come to God, and the more we are enabled to
see things from God’s point of view. We aren’t telling God what
to do, although it might start off feeling like that; we are barely
even asking, other than to say here’s this person with this need,
can you do something about it? And sometimes God says, yes, here’s
this person with this need, what are *you* going to do about
We can’t, of course,
make someone feel better if they’re not well, but we can text them
and say we’re thinking of them; if new children come to your school
who don’t yet speak much English, you can befriend them, show them
what they need to know – where the toilets are, for instance, or
where to go when it’s lunchtime. If someone’s being bullied, you
can help them report it, or just stay with them so the bullies can’t
get at them. That sort of thing. And the grown-ups will have their
But we need to pray, we
need to bring our concerns to God. Jeremiah told his people to
settle down, and to work and pray for their community. They
needed to become part of their new communities, even though they
hoped they’d be able to go home soon. In fact, it was about fifty
years before they could go home – that’s another amazing story in
the Bible, and you can read all about it in the books called Ezra and
Nehemiah. But they did go home, although the Jewish community also
ended up scattered throughout the world.
We need to pray for our
community, whether large or small – our family, our schools or
workplaces, our London boroughs, London in general – the Mayor and
our elected representatives.... all of those. And for our
government, for Mrs May and her Cabinet. God said to the people of
Judah in exile: “Work for the good of the cities where I have made
you go as prisoners. Pray to me on their behalf, because if they are
prosperous, you will be prosperous too.” Amen.
For the first time since I started using my Kindle Fire to record my sermons, the recording has failed me! Only the first 4 minutes recorded, one of which had to be edited out when I dropped the microphone and couldn't reattach it to my t-shirt.
The sermon was a "sustainable sermon", and you can find the text here.
Some years ago now I
went into my father’s study, and found him reading his Bible. I
enquired what he was reading, and he told me that he was looking up the passage he had
heard in Church that morning, as it struck him that it must have been
written for people who owned more than one dog: “The more I called
them, the more they went from me!”
Dogs do that. Puppies,
especially. And so do small children – if you chase a puppy or a
small child, it will run away, in the case of the child usually
laughing hysterically until it falls over, at which point it howls.
If you’re serious about getting either child or dog to come to you,
you need to stop calling, turn round, and pretend you’re going to
go away, at which point dog and child will usually come running.
This is a lovely
passage, one of the ones in the Old Testament that shows us God as a
loving parent, and helps us to understand why Jesus said to call him
“Abba”, or “Daddy” - children today who speak Hebrew as their
first language usually call their fathers “Abba”, and their mums
Anyway, the person who
wrote this passage, Hosea, was a prophet in Israel in the 8th
Century BC, so ten thousand years ago. Which is a very long time
indeed, but nevertheless! In the Armenian church, they celebrate
Hosea and the other so-called “minor prophets” today, 31 July.
Hosea was one of those
people who did things to illustrate what he believed God was saying,
as well as saying them. He married a woman, Gomer, who was a
prostitute, and she continued to go with other men even after she was
married to him. This was to illustrate God’s sadness and
disappointment that Israel was going after other gods and not
worshipping God any more. And there are all sorts of doom-and-gloom
prophecies, you know the kind of thing, saying that the people will
be taken away into slavery if they do not repent and turn back to
But Chapter 11, the chapter we read today, is a little
different. The metaphor changes from a husband-wife relationship to
a parent-child one. And God laments, loud and long, that his
children will not come back to him. Verses 3 and 4 are maternal in
their love for Israel, or Ephraim as it is also known:
“Yet it was
I who taught Ephraim to walk,
I took them
up in my arms;
but they did not know that
I healed them.
I led them with cords of human kindness,
bands of love.
I was to them like those
lift infants to their cheeks.
I bent down
to them and fed them.”
The image is of God as
mother, breastfeeding her children, who then grow up and turn away,
doing the things they know their mother hates. And suffering the
consequences, too. And God also hates that:
“How can I give you up, Ephraim?
I hand you over, O Israel?
. . .
My heart recoils within me;
grows warm and tender.
I will not execute my fierce anger;
will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and no
the Holy One in your
and I will not come in wrath.”
God’s own law says
that Ephraim must be destroyed, but God’s heart revolts against the
implications of that law, and refuses to destroy a beloved child.
The Israelites did go into exile, as promised/threatened:
“They shall return to the land of Egypt,
Assyria shall be their king,
have refused to return to me.
The sword rages in their
it consumes their
and devours because of
My people are bent on turning away from me.”
The King of Assyria was
put on the throne, and the tribes were lost. Admah and Thingummy –
Zeboiim, I think you say it – were two of the Cities of the plain
that were destroyed with Sodom and Gomorrah.
But God didn’t cease
to love Ephraim, even though Israel made its own plans, worshipped
its own gods, and refused to turn back to God. That didn’t matter
to the great Father-heart of God.
In our Gospel reading,
we hear about someone else who made his own plans and they went
astray. The rich farmer decided to pull down his barns and build
bigger ones to store his crops so that he would be comfortable in the
future. But do you notice, it’s all “I, me, mine!” “I will
build bigger barns to have more room to store my crops”. There
appears to be no question of his giving away his surplus this year –
no, he plans to be rich!
But then – the heart
attack, the stroke, the ruptured artery, and bye-bye rich farmer!
And who are all those crops going to belong to now? asks Jesus,
cleverly coming back to the question that started it all: “Tell my
brother I want my fair share of my inheritance!”
It is not earthly goods
that matter. Not in God’s eyes, anyway. Elsewhere, Jesus tells
his followers not to store up treasure on earth “Where moth and
rust corrupt, and thieves break in and steal”, but rather to store
up treasure in heaven. And that’s pretty much what he is saying
But what does it all
mean for us, and how do we relate it to the passage in Hosea?
It’s about what we
value ourselves by, I think. All of us here are pretty well off, by
the standards of much of the world – I expect we are all wearing
clothes and shoes – and if we are barefoot, it is from choice. We
probably have a change of clothes and of shoes at home, and we can
wash in warm water each morning and have drains to dispose of used
water and other waste. We are going home to eat enough food, to
homes that keep out the elements and are warm in winter; we probably
have a television and a telephone, and may well have the Internet.
Now, there is nothing
wrong with any of those things, as long as we don’t start to value
ourselves by how much we have. And as long as we realise that most
of the world doesn’t have these things, that millions of people
have been forced to leave their homes due to war or famine and to
live in makeshift camps with no running water or proper facilities
for disposing of sewage, with no jobs, no residents’ permits, no
real hope. If they have been lucky enough to be admitted to a
European country they still can’t work while their request for
asylum is being processed, and even though they get a small
allowance, it isn’t really enough to live on, and certainly not
enough to lead a comfortable life.
The farmer in Jesus’
story was valuing himself by his possessions, by how much he owned.
It is a seductive temptation, isn’t it? Even the Jews were
inclined to believe that wealth was a sign of God’s blessing, and
poverty a sign of the reverse. And we have all heard of “prosperity
theology” which claims that God wants you to be rich – and so God
does, but not necessarily in material possessions! In fact, they are
of least importance, when moth and rust can corrupt and thieves break
in and steal.
It is the treasures in
heaven that God wants us to store up. Jesus said, “In my Father’s
house are many mansions”, and we know that values in God’s
country are totally different from values here. But it is in God’s
country that we need to store up our treasure!
So we need to stop
valuing ourselves by our jobs, or by our income, or even by how hard
we work for the Church. We need to value ourselves because Jesus
values us. Because Jesus died for us on the Cross, and God raised
him from the dead. Because we are loved so much that God found a way
to keep us with Him.
“The more I called them, the more they went from me”, said Hosea.
“You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you,”
says God to the rich farmer.
What are you valuing
yourself by? And incidentally, it’s no good valuing yourself by
how much you pray or use the other means of grace. Because it is
only through the grace of God that we have any value at all in God’s
eyes – but in God’s eyes, our value is enormous! Amen.
You might want to listen to the podcast, as between having written this and preaching it, there was an atrocity in Nice and an attempted coup d'etat in Turkey, both of which had to be talked about. I'm told I "gabbled rather", and I expect I did, as I always do when preaching extempore! See what you think!
forget who it was who, when asked whether he preferred Martha or
Mary, said: “Before dinner, Martha; afterwards, definitely
I’ve always felt a bit sorry for Martha. There she was,
desperate to get all these men fed,
her sister isn’t helping. And when she asks Jesus to send her
just gets told that Mary has “chosen the better part”.
it was Martha who, on another occasion, caused Jesus to declare: “I
am the resurrection and the life.
who believe in me, even though they die, will live,
everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” And
Martha herself gave us that wonderful statement of faith: “Yes,
Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah,
Son of God,
one coming into the world.” Martha was seriously a woman of
faith. And she wanted to show her love to the Lord by providing
him and his disciples with a really good meal. Maybe she overdid
it – the Lord might have preferred Martha’s company, even if
it did mean dining on bread and cheese, and perhaps a few olives.
family at Bethany has many links in the Bible. Some people have
identified Mary as the woman who poured ointment all over Jesus’
feet in the house of Simon the Leper – and because he lived in
Simon the Leper, that
is, not Jesus –
people have also said that he was married to Martha. We don’t
At that, some people
have said that Jesus was married to Mary; again, we don’t
What we do know is that Martha and Mary were sisters,
that they had a beloved brother, called Lazarus. We do know that
on one occasion Mary poured her expensive perfume all over the feet
of the Lord – whether this was the same Mary as in the other
accounts or a different one isn’t quite clear. But whatever,
they seem to have been a family that Jesus knew well,
home where he knew he was welcome,
dear friends whose grief he shared when Lazarus died,
though he knew that God would raise him. Lazarus, I mean, not
Jesus, this time!
some ways the story “works” better if the woman who poured
ointment on Jesus’ feet in the house of Simon the Leper and this
one and the same person,
we know that the woman in Simon’s house was, or had been,
kind of loose woman that a pious Jew wouldn’t normally associate
with. Now she has repented and been forgiven,
simply adores Jesus, who made that possible for her. And she seems
to have been taken back into her sister’s household, possibly
rather on sufferance.
then she does nothing but sit at Jesus’ feet, listening to
him. Back then, this simply was Not Done. Only men were thought
to be able to learn,
were supposed not to be capable. Actually, I have a feeling that
the Jews thought that only Jewish free men were able to learn. They
would thank God each morning that they had not been made a woman, a
slave or a Gentile. And even though St Paul had sufficient insight
to be able to write that “In Christ, there is neither male nor
female, slave nor free, Jew nor Gentile”,
at a stroke disposing of the prayer he’d been taught to make daily,
it’s taken us all a very long time to work that out,
and recent events would
show we haven’t really worked it out yet!
the point is that Mary, by sitting at Jesus’ feet like that,
behaving in rather an outrageous fashion. Totally blatant, like
throwing herself at him. He might have felt extremely
it’s quite possible that his disciples did. Martha certainly
did, which was one of the reasons why she asked Jesus to send Mary
through to help in the kitchen.
Jesus replied: “Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not
be taken away from her.”
with all her history, was now thirsty for the Word of God. Jesus
wanted to be able to give Mary what she needed,
teaching that only he could provide. He would have liked to have
given it to Martha, too,
if only Martha could be
persuaded that they’d be quite happy with bread and cheese.
But Martha wasn’t
Later on, yes, after Lazarus had died, but not
many ways, Martha and Mary represent the two different sides of
spirituality, perhaps even of Christianity. Mary, wrapped up in
sitting at the feet of her Lord, learning from him, listening to him,
perhaps so heavenly-minded she was of no earthly use. Martha,
rather the reverse. She was so wrapped up in doing something for
she couldn’t see the importance of taking time out to sit at Jesus’
feet and listen. Or if she could, it wasn’t something she wanted
to do while there was work that needed to be done. She expressed
her love for Jesus by wanting to feed him,
to work for him.
of us, I think, are like either Martha or Mary in some ways. Many
of us are more or less integrated, of course,
time both to sit at Jesus’ feet in worship, adoration and learning,
and time to serve Him in practical ways,
through working either in the Church or in the Community.
of us are less balanced. We spend our time doing one or the other,
but not both. Mind you, it usually balances out within the context
of a church; the people who do the praying and listening,
people who do the practical jobs that need to be done around the
the people who do both. And perhaps in an area, too, it balances
some churches doing far more in the way of work in the community than
perhaps less in the way of prayer meetings,
or similar courses
other Bible studies. And so it goes on.
Old Testament reading brings this need for balance very much to the
fore-front. The Lord, speaking through the prophet Amos,
his disgust with those who have failed to be honest and upright in
‘Listen to this, you that trample on the needy
and try to destroy the poor of the country. You say to yourselves,
“We can hardly wait for the holy days to be over so that we can
sell our grain. When will the Sabbath end, so that we can start
selling again? Then we can overcharge, use false measures, and fix
the scales to cheat our customers. We can sell worthless wheat at a
high price. We'll find someone poor who can't pay his debts, not
even the price of a pair of sandals, and we'll buy him as a slave.”’
And then, after a paragraph of warning of physical
misery, comes the terrible warning: “The time is coming when I will
send famine on the land. People will be hungry, but not for bread;
they will be thirsty, but not for water. They will hunger and thirst
for a message from the Lord. I, the Sovereign Lord, have spoken.
People will wander from the Dead Sea to the Mediterranean and then on
around from the north to the east. They will look everywhere for a
message from the Lord, but they will not find it.”
will look everywhere for a message from the Lord, but they will not
find it.” The people started off with dishonest measures, with
forcing the poor into slavery, and end up longing to hear from the
Lord, but the heavens have been closed off to them.
am I reminded of current events? This whole mess in our country,
everybody wondering what will happen next; will we really have to
leave the EU, and what are the implications if we do? Parliament
going into a tailspin and leaders resigning left, right and centre –
well, mostly left and right, actually; I think the Liberal Democrat
leader is still there. Or he was when I was writing this, but who
don’t want to go into detail about the causes of this whole
disaster; you know them as well as I do. The road this country has
chosen to take over the past 50 years hasn’t helped – the erosion
of our manufacturing base, the disappearance of industries such as
shipbuilding, consumer electronics, aircraft manufacture and most of
the vehicle construction industry. The fact that we were lied
to, over and over again, by politicians and by the Murdoch press....
you know all that as well as I do. And I’m finding it incredibly
difficult to work out what to say, anyway, as I’m so aware that my
experience as a White, middle-class, elderly British woman is so very
different to so much of many of your experiences. What, after all,
do I know?
whatever our experiences, however afraid of the future we might be,
can we do anything about it?
of us knows what is going to happen tomorrow; we can’t see round
the bend in the road. But there is much we can do – not least, to
pray for our country, and for our leaders; for Mrs May as she settles
in to the job of being Prime Minister, and the Cabinet she is going
to have to choose – and the awful decision she faces as to whether
and when to trigger Article 50, and whether she can lawfully do this
without the consent of Parliament as a whole... she needs our
prayers, I reckon, even if we wouldn’t dream of voting for either
her or her party!
of us whose Christianity is more like Martha’s will want to get
involved in many different ways; those of us who are like Mary will
want to spend time in prayer and perhaps even fasting for this
country we call home.
don’t know the future; but we do know the One who holds the future
in his hands. We may long and long for a word that doesn’t come,
but we know that we have not been abandoned. We know that we may sit
at His feet and drink of His word, and we may, must and will trust
Him for tomorrow. Amen.
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?
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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