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Sunday, 16 April 2017

He is risen, He is alive

Alleluia, Christ is risen!

So we have proclaimed, and so, I imagine, we believe. I wonder what it would have been like to have been there.

I love this story in John’s Gospel. There is so much detail, so many little personal touches. Unlike John, really – so much of his Gospel is a formalised account, and you only get a couple of glimpses of Jesus as a person, unlike in the synoptics. But here is one of the intensely personal stories. You can’t help but get the impression that it is an eyewitness account.

Imagine, then, what it would have been like for Mary Magdalene. The third day after her dear Friend, her dear Teacher, some even say her Husband, had been killed. Yesterday had been the Sabbath; she couldn’t do anything then except sit at home and weep, and when the Sabbath ended, it was night, and there was no way she could go to the tomb after dark – nobody was going to let her go. But now it is morning; dawn hasn’t quite broken yet, but it’ll be light soon. It must have been about five o’clock, I think – dawn in Jerusalem at this time of year is about half-past five, a little earlier than for us. Mary hasn’t slept, or she’s woken up early, and creeps out of the house and makes her way to the tomb where, two days earlier, she had helped lay her Master’s body. Perhaps she’ll feel better if she can just see the body one last time. Some of the other accounts imply that they hadn’t quite finished embalming the body, and wanted to do that before it got too nasty.

And Mary walks up to the tomb – and finds the stone is rolled away from in front of it, and the tomb is empty! There must have been grave-robbers at work! Oh, it’s too bad of them. Couldn’t they have left his body in peace? So Mary rushes off in despair to find Peter and John – although quite what she thought they’d be able to do isn’t clear. Perhaps she hoped they would have more authority to ask awkward questions of the powers-that-be than she had. Anyway, she finds them, and rushes up to them in floods of tears.

“They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him!” So Peter and John rush up to have a look, and see what she is talking about. John is the fastest, but when he reaches the tomb he just stops and peers in. Perhaps Mary was wrong – he doesn’t want to trample on his dear Friend’s body Or perhaps he’s a bit overcome by it all. Anyway, whatever, he just stops and peers in. Peter rushes up and rushes in, not stopping to look first – how typically Peter, somehow. And John follows him in, hoping perhaps to try and stop him making yet another gaffe. And then they both see.

The graveclothes are still there. It isn’t that the whole package, graveclothes and all, has been taken away, it’s just that the body has been taken out of the clothes. And the bit that had been round the head, the bit that Mary and John had wrapped round together, that’s still there, too, lying separately. It really looks as though the shroud hasn’t been disturbed at all. How very weird. Almost as though – could it be?

Peter and John look at each other with a wild surmise. Perhaps it’s true? All those heavy hints that he had dropped? Without a word they rush off back to tell the others.

And they forget about poor Mary, who has gone off to have a good cry by herself somewhere.

Typically male, don’t you think? Mary has come to them for help, and they suddenly rush off without even telling her what they think might just possibly have happened.

Mary is too busy crying, just at first, to realise that they’ve gone, but all of a sudden she realises that it’s gone quiet, so she peers into the tomb. And there are these two beings dressed in white. Hang about, that’s not Peter and John, is it? Who are they, and when did they arrive?

“What’s the matter?” they ask her. “Why are you crying?”

She explains, “They’ve taken away my Lord and I don’t know where they’ve put him!”

Then she feels someone behind her.

It’s interesting, isn’t it, how Mary needs to be with the body to get her grieving done. The thing she really minds is that she won't know where the memorial, the tomb, is.

That says something to us, I think, about how we grieve for those we love.

Mary can’t see beyond the fact that the beloved body has gone missing: she won’t know where to bring flowers in the future; she won’t be able to finish off the embalming...

And when a man, whom she assumes is the gardener, asks her what’s wrong, she says again, “Where is he? Have you moved him? Where did you put him? Please tell me, please?”

And then the man suddenly says, in that well-known, familiar, much-loved voice: “Mary!”

And Mary takes another look. She blinks. She rubs her eyes. She pinches herself. No, she’s not dreaming. It really, really is! “Oh, my dearest Lord!” she cries, and flings herself into his arms.

We’re not told how long they spent hugging, talking, explaining and weeping in each other’s arms, but eventually Jesus gently explains that, although he’s perfectly alive, and that this is a really real body one can hug, he won’t be around on earth forever, but will ascend to the Father. He can’t stop with Mary for now, but she should go back and tell the others all about it. And so, we are told, she does.


Well, that’s the story. The question is, is it true? Was there really a physical resurrection? Does it matter? Isn’t it true that what really matters is that Jesus is alive today?

Well, that’s quite a point, of course. The one thing that really matters is that Jesus is alive today. But as St Paul said in his Letter to the Corinthians, the whole point is that if the Resurrection didn’t happen, he’s a fraud and our faith is futile. In other words, we might as well go home. For St Paul, if Christ is not raised, our sins are not forgiven, and we have no hope of everlasting life.

Even that begs the question slightly, for Paul might just have been talking about a spiritual resurrection – after all, we know that our own bodies, when we’ve finished with them, will either be buried or burnt, but we will expect the bit of us that matters to go on. Obviously, if we don’t believe even in a spiritual resurrection, what are we doing here?

The question is, does it matter whether or not we believe that Jesus’ body was raised? That he wasn’t a ghost of some sort, but in a genuine body one could hug, that could eat and drink, that could walk, talk, break bread, and, one assumes, eliminate.

People say, oh but the Gospel accounts are contradictory, they are writing what they would have liked to have happened, etc. I, personally, believe that the very fact that the Gospel accounts do tend to be different in the details makes it all the more likely to be true.

If it were just wishful thinking, their accounts would tally far more, and there is absolutely no way in the world they would have had it that the first people to meet the risen Jesus were women! In those days, women’s testimony simply didn’t count. Women were not supposed to be able to tell the truth, or something. If you wanted a witness, he had to be male. So absolutely no way would the stories, if they were made up, or wishful thinking, have had the first witnesses be women.

But does it matter? I believe it’s true; you may or may not. But does it matter? In one sense, yes, it does matter. The Resurrection is, after all, totally central to our whole faith. If it didn’t happen, then we might just as well all go home, as St Paul so rightly says.

But the most important thing of all, of course, is that Jesus is alive today! The Resurrection is important, it’s central, yes. But if it is just an episode in history, no matter how true, no matter how well documented; if it’s just history like the Second World War or the Gunpowder Plot, then it doesn’t really affect us at all. But the fact that Jesus is alive today, the fact that he can, through the Holy Spirit, come and indwell us, you and me, the fact that we can know God’s forgiveness and healing and wholeness – that’s what matters! And for that we say “Alleluia!

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Mothers, Mary, Mother Mary

Today, it will not have escaped your notice, is Mothers’ Day. At least, it might be Mothers’ Day out in the world, but here in Church it’s Mothering Sunday, and that, in fact, is only tangentially about human mothers! 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. Families 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 children 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 year.

And today is also a day for remembering God’s love for us. 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 Mother. After all, there are people whose mothers have died; people who didn’t or don’t have a good relationship with their mothers; and above all, people who would have loved to have been mothers, but it didn’t happen, for whatever reason. Many of those will not be in church this morning. 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....

The worst Mothers Day sermon I ever heard was from a young curate who had just discovered his wife was expecting their first child – sadly, he moved away during the course of the year, as several of us were longing to hear what he would have had to say after several months of the reality of parenthood!

But, talking of motherhood, you will have noticed that our readings for today seemed more like Christmas ones than suitable for mid-Lent. You see, yesterday was 25 March, exactly nine months to go until Christmas, so, of course, that is the day when parts of the church celebrate what’s called the Annunciation, when Gabriel came to tell Mary she was going to have a baby. And even though we Protestants don’t really think about Mary much, the fact that she’s such an important figure in so much of Christianity means she’s probably worth thinking about from time to time.

So what do we actually know about her from the Bible, as opposed to tradition? She first appears in our Bibles in this very reading, when Gabriel comes to her to ask her if she will bear Jesus, and, of course, as we all know, she said she would, and Joseph agreed to marry her despite her being pregnant with a baby he knew he wasn’t responsible for.

I do rather love Luke’s stories about Mary – how one of the things the angel had said to her was that her relation, Elisabeth, was pregnant after all those years. And, as we heard in our reading, Mary rushes off to visit her. Was this to reassure herself that the angel was telling the truth? Or to congratulate Elisabeth? Or just to get away for a bit of space, do you suppose? We aren’t told.

But Elisabeth recognises Mary as the mother-to-be of the promised Saviour, and Mary’s response is that great song that we now call the “Magnificat”. Or if it wasn’t exactly that – that may well be Luke putting down what she ought to have said, like Shakespeare giving Henry V that great speech before Agincourt – it was probably words to that effect! I think she was very, very relieved to find the angel had been speaking the truth, and probably did explode in an outpouring of praise and joy! And later, in Bethlehem, when the shepherds come to visit her, we are told that she “kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.” The next time we see Mary is when Jesus is twelve and gets separated from them in the Temple. I spent a lot of time with that story when my daughter was a teenager – how Mary and Joseph say to Jesus, “But why did you stay behind? Didn’t you realise we’d be worried about you?” and Jesus goes, “Oh, you don’t understand!” – typical teenager!

We don’t see Joseph again after this – tradition has it that he was a lot older than Mary, and, of course, he had a very physical job. It wasn’t just a carpenter as we know it – the Greek word is “technion”, which is the same root as our “technician”; if it had to do with houses, Joseph did it, from designing them, to building them, to making the furniture that went in them! And tradition has it that sometime between Jesus’ 12th birthday, and when we next see him, Joseph has died.

 But we see a lot more of Mary. She is there at the wedding at Cana, and indeed, it’s she who goes to Jesus when they’ve run out of wine. And Jesus says, at first, “Um, no – my time has not yet come!” but Mary knew. And she told the servants to “Do whatever he tells you”, and, sure enough, the water is turned into wine.

There’s a glimpse of her at one point when Jesus is teaching, and he’s told his mother and brother are outside waiting for him, but he refuses to be diverted from what he’s doing. And, of course, it could have been that it was just random people who said they were his relations to try to get closer to him.

We see Mary, of course, weeping at the Cross – something no mother should ever have to do. And Jesus commending her into the care of the “beloved disciple” John. And, finally, we see her in the Upper Room in Jerusalem when the Holy Spirit came.

That’s really all we know about her from the Bible, but other early traditions and writings, including some of what’s called the apocryphal gospels – they’re the ones that didn’t make the cut into the New Testament as we know it – tell us a bit more. They tell us that her mother was called Anne and her father was called Joachim, and that she was only about 16 when Gabriel came to her. One source has it that Anne couldn’t have babies, and when Mary finally arrived, she was given to be reared in the Temple, like Samuel. And traditional sources also tell us that she went to live in Ephesus, probably with John, and died somewhere between 3 and 15 years after the Crucifixion, surrounded by all the apostles. And that her body was taken up to heaven.

Well, so far, so good, but how did they get from there to the veneration of her, not to say worship in some cases, that we see today? This may be something you find difficult to understand – I certainly do – and that’s okay. We aren’t required to do more than honour her as the Mother of our dear Lord; we mention her when we say the Creed, of course, and there are lots of churches dedicated to her. My parents’ church in Sussex is dedicated to St Mary the Virgin, as are loads of other churches around the world. But we do not think of her as quasi-divine in some way. We do believe that Jesus was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, not by ordinary human means, but that this was something that happened in time, not in eternity! She became the Mother of God – she was not the Mother of God before Jesus was born.

I wonder, though, just how it happened that veneration of Mary became such a thing among Roman Catholic Christians. Orthodox Christianity also venerates her, but make it quite clear that she is not divine – the distinction, sometimes, among Catholics gets a bit blurred. One theory I have heard put forward is that she gives a female aspect to Christianity, which may or may not be lacking from the Trinity. Well, if that is so, how come Protestant women have managed without for so many generations?

Having said that, of course, it’s worth remembering the days when Christianity was first spread around the world. If you were Jewish, you were quite used to thinking of God as Father and Creator, but if you came from a background which worshipped a virgin goddess, Mary obviously provided what you found you were missing. And again, if you were used to worshipping a mother figure, as so many people were, you found something in Mary that perhaps you missed in the Christian depiction of God. Don’t forget, in the olden days you had to convert to Christianity when your ruler did, or the head of your tribe, or whatever, and if the worship you were used to was suddenly no longer provided, you had to make what you could of what you did have!

And then, of course, the Catholic Church being nothing if not practical, formalised a great deal of what was happening, and thought, about Mary into doctrine.... and so it went on. Chicken and egg type of situation, drawing on tradition and practice more than on Scripture. And so, of course, when the Protestants went back to the Bible, discarding most, although not all, traditional theology, Mary rather fell back into the background.

We Protestants, of course, do have a choice – there is a tradition of venerating Mary in some parts of the Protestant Church, but it is far from compulsory. We honour her as the Mother of our dear Lord – and we honour her, too, for her bravery in saying “Yes” to God like that. After all, had Joseph repudiated her for carrying someone else’s child, she could have ended up on the streets!

 But what, then, can we learn from Mary? We don’t tend to think of her very much, at least, I don’t. We don’t necessarily find in her a mother figure to worship. But there is that incredible bravery that said “Yes” to God – and remember, she didn’t know the end of the story, not at that stage! There are times I wonder what she must think of it all! But she was totally submitted to God in a way that very few people can claim to be. And, of course, there is what she said to the servants at that wedding in Cana - “Do whatever He tells you”.

And that’s not a bad motto to live by, either: Do whatever Jesus tells you. Amen.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

For God so loved the world

The text of this sermon can be found here.

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Listen to Him

1. Introduction

The problem with having two thousand years of Christian history behind us is that we don't always appreciate the significance of the stories about Jesus that we hear so regularly each year.
I'm thinking particularly of this story of the Transfiguration,
because it is so easy for it to slide over our heads and mean nothing to us.
It's not like Christmas, when we celebrate God's having come to earth as a human baby.
It's not like Easter,
when we celebrate Jesus' death and resurrection, with their obvious consequences for us today.
It's not even like the Ascension,
when we celebrate Jesus' going to glory,
so that the Holy Spirit can be sent upon us.

Does this story actually mean anything at all to us today?

2. The Story of the Transfiguration

Jesus had gone up the mountain,
with his three closest friends,
Peter, James and John.
And suddenly something happened to him,
and he looked quite different,
was dressed in white,
and was chatting to two figures who, we are told,
were Moses and Elijah.
What I am not at all sure is how they knew they were Moses and Elijah –
it's not, after all, very probable that they had their names printed on their T-shirts.
I suppose either they were heard to introduce themselves,
or Jesus knew who they were and said "Hullo Moses, hullo Elijah!"
Anyway, at first the three friends think they are dreaming,
because they were half-asleep anyway,
but then they realise they aren't.
And Peter, getting a bit over-excited,
as he tended to in those days, babbles on about building shelters for the three men, and so on and so forth.
He didn't really, we are told, know what he was saying;
he was just so excited that he wanted to prolong the moment,
go on being there,
keep it going.
Perhaps, too, he felt the need to say something to reassure himself that he was still there.

And then the cloud comes down;
they can't see a thing,
not Moses,
nor Elijah,
nor nothing.
And they are scared, and cold,
the way you are up a mountain when the clouds come down.
And then, the voice that comes out of the cloud:
“This is my own dear Son, with whom I am pleased—listen to him!”
And they couldn't see Moses or Elijah any more, only Jesus.

“This is my own dear Son, with whom I am pleased—listen to him!”
It wasn't Moses they were to listen to,
and it wasn't Elijah.
It was Jesus.
Now, for us, that makes a great deal of sense;
we are quite accustomed to knowing that Jesus is far greater than Elijah or Moses.
But for Peter, James and John –
and, perhaps, for Jesus Himself –
it was far otherwise.
They had grown up being taught that Moses and Elijah were the greatest historical figures there were.
Moses, in their hagiography, represented the Law,
the very foundation of their relationship with God.
And Elijah represented the prophets,
those men and women of old who had walked with God and who had told forth God's message to the world,
whether or not the world would listen.
There really could be no people greater than Moses or Elijah.
No wonder they didn't say anything to anybody until many years later, when it became clearer exactly Who Jesus is.

Because they'd been told not to listen to Moses,
not to listen to Elijah,
but to listen to Jesus.

Well, that's all very well, but we know that.
It doesn't mean anything to us today,
so why do we remember it?
Well, sometimes I actually wonder whether we do remember to listen only to Jesus.
It's not that we don't mean to, but we get distracted.
And I think sometimes we find ourselves listening to Moses, or to Elijah.

3. Not Moses

If Moses represents the Law, then I think we listen to Moses a great deal more than we mean to!
We know, in our heads, that what matters isn't how well we keep the various rules and regulations we impose upon ourselves,
but whether we are walking with Jesus.
But sometimes we act as though what we do matters more!
As if whether or not we pray, or how we do it, was more important.
As if the various restrictions we impose on ourselves were more important.
As if whether or not we read the Bible every day, were more important.
But what really matters is our walk with Jesus.
If we are walking with Jesus, then we are His people,
and that fact matters far more than the various ways we may try to express that walk.

And sometimes –
I am a bit hesitant to say this, in fear you misunderstand me –
sometimes we even put the Bible in place of Jesus.
It's an easy mistake to make, because after all,
we do sometimes call the Bible the Word of God.
But it's actually clear from the Bible that Jesus is the Word of God.
And the Bible is, if anything, words about the Word.
But it's from the Bible that we learn about Jesus,
it's from the Bible that we learn who God is,
and what sort of people we will become when we become His people.
And it's not too surprising if, sometimes, we get confused.
I have heard people say
"Oh, I do love the Bible"
with the kind of fervour you would expect them to use only of Jesus.
I always want to say,
"but surely it's Jesus who you worship, not the Bible!
Surely it is Jesus you are following, in that sense."
Of course, we do follow the Bible,
we would be very silly if we didn't.
If we didn't read our Bibles and learn from them,
we wouldn't know how to follow Jesus, and we'd go off on all sorts of tangents.
And of course, even if we do read our Bibles and learn from them, we can still go off at all sorts of tangents,
and get things tragically wrong.

Look at the Crusades –
hundreds of years ago, they genuinely believed that fighting and killing Moslems was what God wanted them to do;
they seem to have taken some of the bloodthirstier parts of the Old Testament a bit literally!

Er – has anything changed much? People do seem to want to worship a bloodthirsty God, a God who is judgemental and harsh, who wants nothing more than to condemn people,
and looks for any excuse to do so,
And, sadly, they apt to find him.
You only have to look at some of the stuff coming out of the USA these days, the Biblical literalism that demands that men have control of women’s bodies, that believes it is all right to hate people of certain ethnicities,
or certain sexualities.

And similarly, if we come to it looking for a God who is loving and kind,
wanting nothing more than not to condemn people
and looking for any excuse not to do so, then that is what we are apt to find!
So while the Bible is terribly important,
we have to be careful with it.
We can't rely on the Bible without knowing that we are to rely on the One to whom the Bible points.
The Bible alone, Moses alone, cannot save us.
"This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!"

4. Not Elijah

And if Moses alone cannot save us, how much less can Elijah!
Elijah was on that mountain-top representing the prophets.
We are to listen, we are told, to Jesus.

That doesn't mean that prophets are not important to us.
Prophets, of course, are those people who speak forth God's word, whether as preachers –
although not all preachers are prophetic, many are –
or whether more informally,
in the sort of setting where the so-called charismata are used.
Of course if someone is telling you what he or she believes God is saying to the assembled company, that is very important,
and you would do well to listen.
But you also have to weigh it up,
to make sure that this is what God is really saying.
They do say, don't they, that one of the marks of a cult is when the leader's words are given an importance equal to, or greater than, the Bible.
Which would not, I suspect, happen if the leader's followers weren't prepared to let it!
I don't know about anybody else,
but when I come to preach, I have to remember two things.
The first is that all I have is words.
They may be very good words, or I may have written a load of –
er –
round objects,
but all they are is words.
And unless God takes those words and does something with them, we might as well all go home!
My job is to provide the words;
God's job is to do the rest.

The other thing I try to remember when I come to preach is a story I read when I was training.
Two men were coming out of church on a morning when the preacher had been more than usually dull,
and the first man had not only been bored, but had had a severe case of chapel-bottom!
And he said to his friend,
"You know, there are times I really don't know why I bother!
I have heard a sermon nearly every Sunday for the past 40 years, they have mostly been very dull, and I can hardly remember any of them!"
To which his friend, who was somewhat older, replied,
"Well yes.
I've been married for 40 years,
and my wife has cooked me dinner almost every night of those years.
I can't remember many of them, either –
but where would I be today without them?"
In other words, our sermons are to be daily bread.
They aren't supposed to last a life-time, and be life-changing –
if they are to be, that's God's job, again, not ours.

"Listen to Him".
It is Jesus that matters, not the preachers and prophets of our age.
They are at best conductors –
they bring us to Jesus.
They are not Jesus, and we are very silly if we trust them more than Him.
They cannot save us;
only Jesus can do that.

5. Conclusion

It is not Moses we must listen to,
Moses who represents the Law, or the Scriptures.
It is not Elijah,
Elijah who represents the prophets and preachers.
It is Jesus.
"This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!"
Of course, the Bible is important.
Of course, our prophets and preachers are important.
But they are only important in so far as they lead us to Jesus.
That is what matters.
They do not, and cannot, of themselves save us;
only Jesus can do that.

And do note that I said only Jesus –
all too often we use a form of shorthand, when we say that we are saved by faith!
Mostly we know what we mean –
but it is not our faith that saves us.
It is Jesus.
Sometimes we talk and think and act as though our faith saves us.
It doesn't.
Jesus does.
We are saved by what Jesus did on the Cross,
not by what we believe about it.
Nor by what we read about it.
Nor by what our preachers tell us about it.
Salvation is God's idea, and God's job, not ours.

And that, I think, is the message of the Transfiguration.
"This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!"

Friday, 17 February 2017

Being, not doing

 This will not actually be preached, as it turns out the church I'm Planned for just has a token service - a "Parliamentary" service, if you will - to keep it open pending a new building.  I could wish I'd known this before spending two days of my life writing this, but as it has been written, I might as well publish it!

“Be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect”

I was reading an article the other day by an American pastor called Amy Butler, whose church, like us, follows the Revised Common Lectionary. Not all of her article is relevant to us, as she lives in the United States, and the culture there is somewhat different to ours, of course, but this first bit is, and I’m going to quote it directly:

“In these weeks after the Epiphany we are hearing parts of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ famous teachings from the Gospel of Matthew, chapters 5-7. Last Sunday in worship, instead of preaching a sermon I had written, I decided to “preach” the entire Sermon on the Mount – two full chapters with no breaks, the words of Jesus.

In coffee hour after worship, several people came up to me to tell me they really did not like or agree with some of the parts of my sermon that day. Two chapters. Read from the Bible. The words of JESUS.

Most of us really like certain parts of the Sermon on the Mount – the parts about the lilies of the field and where your treasure is there will your heart be also. But there are lots of other parts of the sermon, and frankly, many of them are quite onerous. There’s the love your enemies part, direction about not being a hypocrite, hard words about divorce, and a warning against religious leaders who smile too much. If you listen to the whole thing instead of picking and choosing the passages you like, I will guarantee you’ll feel uncomfortable …” (

And I don’t know about you, but the verse “Be perfect, just as our Father in heaven is perfect” really, really, really makes me feel uncomfortable!

How on earth are we going to be perfect? No matter how hard we try, no matter how fiercely we discipline ourselves, we are never going to be totally perfect.

Look at the Pharisees, for instance – they really wanted to be God’s people, and thought that they could succeed by doing. The trouble was, that they were so busy trying to act correctly that they forgot all about what God had said about looking after people, things like we heard in our first reading this morning:

“When you cut your crops at harvest time, don’t cut all the way to the corners of your fields. And if grain falls on the ground, you must not gather up that grain. Don’t pick all the grapes in your vineyards or pick up the grapes that fall to the ground. You must leave those things for your poor people and for people travelling through your country. I am the Lord your God.”

The Pharisees were so busy trying to tithe everything, even the product of their herb garden, that they forgot to look after their elderly parents or the travellers. They didn’t mean to be unkind; they just got rather self-righteous about things. They were too engrossed in how holy they were being that they didn’t have any spare energy to help their neighbours. And Jesus picked them up on it, pointing out, as I’m sure you remember, that it didn’t really matter how you washed your hands, or what you ate – what mattered was what you thought and felt inside, and how that expressed itself in practice.

Being perfect, in Jesus’ terms, appears to be more about who you are than what you do. We are told in John’s gospel that if we believe in him we are not condemned, but have passed from death to life. ­The letter to the Hebrews reminds us that we can enter God’s presence with boldness because of what Jesus has done. The whole thrust of Paul’s letters is that we should rely on grace, not on the law. Jesus has taken the law to a whole new level; it’s not just about what you do, it’s about who you are.

Of course, who you are is going to inform what you do. Jesus reminds us that his people will love their enemies, as well as their friends; they won’t fight back when they are abused; they will pray for those who treat them badly, and in return, treat them as they would wish to be treated.

That’s not to say that God’s people are going to be doormats, letting others walk all over them. And it’s certainly not to say that you never pull up someone you see doing wrong. Remember our first reading?

“You must be fair in judgement. You must not show special favour to the poor. And you must not show special favour to important people. You must be fair when you judge your neighbour. You must not go around spreading false stories against other people. Don’t do anything that would put your neighbour's life in danger. I am the Lord.
“Don’t secretly hate any of your neighbours. But tell them openly what they have done wrong so that you will not be just as guilty of sin as they are. Forget about the wrong things people do to you. Don’t try to get even. Love your neighbour as yourself. I am the Lord.”

“Tell them openly what they have done wrong”.

Of course, like any of these things, it can be misused. We all know those people who like to “tell you the truth in love”, which invariably means they are going to be incredibly rude about something that’s none of their business.

But, by and large, it is not incompatible with loving our neighbours, of course. Look how we discipline our children, and remind them of the standards of behaviour we expect from them. Look at the demonstrations, the petitions, the upsurge in popular feeling that’s taking place in America at the moment, and to a lesser extent here. Many people feel that the attitudes and actions of Donald Trump and his government are not those that they can condone, and feel the need to stand firm against what they perceive is wrong. Many of us feel that our own government’s refusal to receive immigrant children who have lost touch with their families is very wrong indeed.

And, of course, there are others, equally sincere Christians, who hold just the opposite view to us. Especially, it seems, in the USA, where Christianity is very often allied to extreme right-wing views, extraordinary though we may find this. And, sadly, the extreme right seems to want God to be judgemental, harsh, unloving – the kind of God who says “You must be perfect” and condemns you for not being.

Well, I don’t believe God is like that. If God says “You must be perfect”, there must be a way of being perfect. The Pharisees thought it was about hundreds of very detailed rules and regulations which, if you kept them perfectly, would keep you right with God, but Jesus said it wasn’t that. Jesus said, so often, that it was who you are, not what you do, that matters.

John Wesley very much believed Christian perfection was a thing. He didn’t think he’d attained it, but he reckoned it was possible in this life. He preached on it and it’s one of the sermons we local preachers are supposed to have read – you can find it on-line easily enough. Anyway, he said about perfection was that it wasn’t about being ignorant, or mistaken, or ill or disabled, or not being tempted – you could be any or all of those things and still be perfect. Wesley reckons – he goes into all sorts of arguments here, mostly putting up straw men and demolishing them, but by and large he reckons that the closer we continue with Jesus, the less likely we are to sin. I believe he didn’t reckon that he’d got there himself, but he did know people who had. He said even a baby Christian has been cleansed from sin, and mature Christians who walk with Jesus will be freed from it, both outwardly and inwardly. I hope he’s right....

But the point is, we simply can’t be perfect in our own strength. You know that, and I know that. Trying to be will only wear us out and make us either give up in despair or become one of those harsh, unloving Christians who worships out of fear rather than out of love. We become Biblical literalists, and try to dominate women and feel it’s all right to hate people who are not like us.

No, the only way to become perfect is to allow God the Holy Spirit to make us so. To allow God to fill us with his Holy Spirit right up to overflowing. To let go, and let God, as they say. Amen.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Turning the World Upside-Down

Our readings today are both very familiar ones. The passage from Micah, reminding us that nothing we can do can take away our sin, but that God has told us
“what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God?”

Micah of Moresheth, incidentally,was a prophet in 8th-century Judah, more or less a contemporary with Isaiah, Amos and Hosea. He prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem, particularly because they were simply dishonest and then expected God to cover for them: “Her leaders judge for a bribe, her priests teach for a price, and her prophets tell fortunes for money. Yet they lean upon the LORD and say, Is not the LORD among us? No disaster will come upon us.” But Micah said, “Ain’t gonna happen!” As one modern paraphrase puts it: “The fact is, that because of you lot, Jerusalem will be reduced to rubble and cleared like a field; and the Temple hill will be nothing but a tangled mass of weeds!” Israel, back then, was a theocracy, rather like present-day Iran. Religious leaders held an enormous amount of political power, but they were not elected, and nor were the kings. So you had an unelected power-base who enriched themselves at the expense of the ordinary people. But “What does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?”

And then that incredibly familiar, perhaps over-familiar passage from Matthew, which we call the “Beatitudes” – the blessings with which Matthew opens the collection of Jesus’ teachings we call the Sermon on the Mount. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven”, and so on.

So what are we to make of all this? Why do the lectionary compilers think that the Sermon on the Mount is so important that it deserves several weeks’ study?

I think, don’t you, that it’s because we don’t hear the words any more. We don’t hear how they would have struck the first listeners. We don’t notice them – they are part of our culture, part of the stuff we have “always” known about Christianity.

I’ve been looking at a few modern paraphrases of this passage, to see if they can make it feel more relevant. I particularly like this one, from a church in Australia:
“Those who depend entirely on God for their welfare
    have got it made,
        because they are already at home in the culture of heaven.

“Those who are stricken with grief
    have got it made,
        because they will receive the ultimate comfort.

“Those who allow others to have first claim on everything
    have got it made,
        because the whole world will be given to them.

“Those who hunger and thirst to see the world put right
    have got it made,
        because they will be richly satisfied.

“Those who readily treat others better than they deserve
    have got it made,
        because they will be treated with extravagant mercy.

“Those whose hearts are unpolluted
    have got it made,
        because they will see God.

“Those who forge peace and reconciliation in places of hostility
    have got it made,
        because they will be known as God’s own children.

“Those who are attacked and abused for sticking to what is right
    have got it made,
        because they are already at home in the culture of heaven.

“When people turn on you
    and do all they can to make your life a misery;
when they make false allegations about you
    and drag your name through the mud,
        all because of your association with me,
    you have really got it made!
Kick up your heels and party,
    because heaven is coming
        and you will be rewarded beyond your wildest dreams!
You are in great company,
    because they were just as vicious
        to God’s faithful messengers in the past.”
©2002 Nathan Nettleton

The thing is, back in the day, people thought – as we are inclined to think today – that when all is going well, when we have plenty, or at least enough, when life is smooth and there aren’t any humps in the road, then, they thought back then, and we think today, that God is blessing us. And, of course, that is true.

But it’s just when things are going well, when life is smooth and we are happy that we are inclined to forget God. Oh, we may go on going to church and so on, but we aren’t necessarily living a holy life. God is basically part of the background, not front and centre.

And so God asks, in the words of the prophet Micah,
“O my people, what have I done to you?
In what have I wearied you?
Answer me!”

And the people, irritated – after all, who needs God when life is going smoothly? The people respond, “Well, okay, what do you want? Doves? Sheep? Rivers of olive oil? Herds of oxen? Our firstborn child?”

And God responds, “Don’t be silly;
You already know what’s wanted:
To do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God!”

“To do justice, and to love kindness,
 and to walk humbly with your God!”

God is saying pretty much the same thing here as in the Beatitudes, isn’t He? We are blessed – God blesses us – when we hunger and thirst after righteousness. We are blessed – God blesses us – when we are merciful, kind, treat others better than they deserve. And so on.

It’s interesting, I always think, that if you read Luke’s version of the sermon, he doesn’t say “Poor in spirit”, he just says “Blessed are you poor”:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
    for yours is the kingdom of God.
‘Blessed are you who are hungry now,
    for you will be filled.
‘Blessed are you who weep now,
    for you will laugh.”

And he goes even further:
“‘But woe to you who are rich,
    for you have received your consolation.
‘Woe to you who are full now,
    for you will be hungry.
‘Woe to you who are laughing now,
    for you will mourn and weep.
‘Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets!”

I don’t suppose that Jesus means that it is wrong to be happy, or to have sufficient for our needs, or whatever; it’s not about misery now in order to rejoice in heaven. After all, he is on record as saying that he has come that we might have life and have it abundantly! And given his own track record of providing several hundred gallons of wine at the fag-end of a wedding, and enough food from a small boy’s packed lunch to have twelve basketfuls of leftovers, he can scarcely want us to live in poverty and want!

But – people do. Refugees. Victims of war. Victims of famine. People who are homeless for whatever reason, often due to mental illness, but not always. And while one other person is in want, then we should not be content. You read awful things on the Internet about churches – mostly in the USA, it has to be said, but not invariably – where people are not welcomed because they are different, perhaps their sexuality is different, or their skin colour. And, of course, we in the UK have a very poor track record on that last one. No, we should not be content.

As St John reminds us, if we don’t love our brother, who we have seen, how can we love God, who we haven’t? If we exclude people for any reason, we are not doing God’s will – and it is those who we exclude who receive God’s blessing. If we say horrible things about people, we are not doing God’s will – and it is the ones we are horrible about who receive God’s blessing.

For Jesus’ followers, what he was saying was revolutionary. He couldn’t mean that, could he? He couldn’t really mean that God wasn’t blessing the rich and the powerful? It was the “little people”, not the influential ones, who mattered most?

But the Bible has always said that! “To do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” It wasn’t unique. Over and over again the prophets, perhaps especially Micah, but not only him, inveigh against those who use false measures, those who rob the poor, those who get rich at the expense of others. Over and over again we are taught that other people matter just as much as we do, if not more so.

And over and over again we forget. Over and over again we start to think that because God loves me, and I’m like this, the people who God loves are all going to be like this. We forget that God loves everybody. Even Donald Trump! Even members of ISIS.

But seriously, that’s why we need to be reminded of these passages every so often. God does actually mean it! “You are blessed” “You are happy” “You’ve got it made!” However we may translate it, it’s true that God smiles on those who this world considers of little importance. And we, who have been blessed so very richly with the material things of life, we need to keep an eye on ourselves lest we become complacent, and lest we forget God. Amen.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

His own people did not receive him

You might be wondering why I have chosen to have two Gospel readings today, and no readings from other parts of the Bible. The thing is, the ­lectionary isn’t at all clear which to use, and gives both. So I thought, well, why not have both, for a change? They both, I believe, have things to say to us today.

From John chapter 1, and verse 11:
“He came to his own country, but his own people did not receive him.”

“He came to his own country, but his own people did not receive him.”

The “He” we are talking about is, obviously, Jesus, and we are looking at part of the great Prologue to John's Gospel that we sometimes call the “Christmas Gospel”.

I believe, incidentally, that this first chapter of John is thought to have been written last, a sort of summary, almost, of the whole thing,
or it may have been a paraphrase of a then-current hymn, rather like Paul quotes one in Philippians 2.
Not that it matters, of course, not at this distance;
it is the Prologue to John's Gospel, and it tells us of the Word of God,
the Light of the World,
who was rejected by his own people but who adopted any and all who did choose to believe in Him.
Which is basically the whole of the Good News in one sentence, no?

Anyway, the thing about this second half of the Prologue is that it spells out quite clearly that anybody who does believe in Jesus becomes a child of God, not through physical birth, but through spiritual birth.

John doesn't tell us about the Wise Men coming to see Jesus –
only Matthew does that.
But the Wise Men are a vital part of the Christmas story,
however strange a part. Next week is the feast of the Epiphany, when you will be thinking a little more about the coming of the Wise Men, but this week, we have the second half of the story, the What Happened Next. And it doesn’t make for pleasant reading.
Matthew tells us the story largely from Joseph's point of view, of course, and there are some very serious differences, not to say contradictions, between his version of events and Luke's.
Matthew seems to think that the Holy Family lived in Bethlehem, rather than Nazareth, which was where they moved to for safety after they came back from Egypt.
No mention of mangers or inns here –
and not even Luke says the manger was actually in a stable!
As far as I can tell, when he talks about the “inn”, he means the guest room that many, if not most, houses had on the roof, and where Mary probably expected to go to be confined, but if this was full of relations come to town for the census, she had to give birth in the kitchen. The manger would have separated the animal part of the house from the human part – people lived together with their animals in those days for warmth, as much as anything else. And we don’t know what time of year it was, but probably not in the depths of winter, because the sheep wouldn’t have been out in the fields then. So if the animals were in the fields, the manger would be empty, and make a very convenient cot for a tiny baby!

But none of that matters, of course, not against the real truth, that God became a human being:
the Word became Flesh and lived among us, as our passage says:
“The Word became a human being and, full of grace and truth, lived among us.
We saw his glory, the glory which he received as the Father's only Son.”
That is what matters.
The details are just details, and are not important.

So we are told that the wise men came from the East – as far as we know, there weren’t necessarily three of them, and they weren’t kings, either. But they came from the East to worship the new-born King of the Jews, and when they found out that He was to have been born in Bethlehem, off they trotted – it’s only a few miles – and found Joseph the Carpenter’s house easily enough. But when they had seen for themselves – quite possibly, by now, a toddler staggering around and falling over and being shy.... they went home by a different way and avoided Jerusalem.

And Joseph and Mary and the child had to flee, too, in the middle of the night. Some people say the massacre may never have happened as there are no external sources referencing it – but then, would there have been? I mean, how many boys under the age of two were there likely to have been in a village that size? They reckon Bethlehem held about 1000 people of all ages, so probably only a handful of boys under the age of two – and, sadly, probably no more children than are killed every day in Syria. Absolutely awful for the parents, but not global newsworthy, even back then.

But the Holy Family are out of it, and have fled to Egypt. I’ve never been there, but my mother went and sent me a picture of the Pyramids with the comment that they would have been old when Jesus saw them as a boy! I wonder whether he remembered that in later life?

We aren’t told how long the family had to stay away, but with Joseph’s skills, he would have had no trouble making a living for the family. “Carpenter” isn’t quite an accurate translation of the word “Technion” - it’s the word we get “Technician” from. Basically, if it had to do with houses, Joseph did it – from designing them to building them to making the furniture for them.... so no shortage of skilled work. And it’s probable that, because they were, as far as we know, the only refugees at that time, they were able to take a proper house in a village somewhere, rather than have to live knee-deep in mud in a makeshift camp. But all the same – a stranger, in a strange land. Joseph was glad, I suspect, to pack up and go home again when he heard that Herod had died. But even then he couldn’t go home, not back to his old home in Bethlehem, but up to Nazareth, in Galilee – really provincial and in the sticks if you were the sort of person who’d always lived near Jerusalem. But it was safe, and the neighbours were Jewish, so you felt far more at home there... and it was a lovely place to bring up a growing family.

But we know that, once he was grown, it was a different story. Once again, “his own people did not receive him”, and he could do no miracles in his home town when, home on a visit, he preached in the synagogue and appalled the locals by saying “This Scripture has come true in your hearing!”

And we know, too, that later on “ his own people did not receive him” when the people who became his first followers were the outcasts, the prostitutes, the collaborators, even the Gentiles, the non-Jews. But we also know that “Some, however, did receive him and believed in him; so he gave them the right to become God's children. They did not become God's children by natural means, that is, by being born as the children of a human father; God himself was their Father.”

God himself is our Father!

How true that is!
And isn't God great?!
The magi came to Bethlehem to worship the new-born infant,
and we are invited to do the same.
But we don’t just worship him as a baby –
it’s not about going smiling down at a baby kicking on a rug,
and saying “Oh how clever” when he picks up a toy, or staggers a few steps unassisted.

No, worshipping the Baby at Bethlehem involves a whole lot more than that.
It’s about worshipping Jesus for Who He became, and what he did.
We kneel at the cradle in Bethlehem, yes –
but we worship the Risen Lord.
We celebrate Christmas, not just because it’s Jesus’ birthday,
although that, too,
but because we are remembering that if Jesus had not come,
he could not come again.
And he could not be “born in our hearts”, as we sing in the old carol.

Christmas isn't just a remembering thing, I think, although that too –
it's also about allowing the Lord Jesus to be born in our hearts,
about renewing our relationship with him.

We worship at the cradle in Bethlehem,
but we also worship Jesus all year round,
remembering not only his birth,
but his teachings,
his ministry,
the Passion,
the Resurrection,
the Ascension
and the coming of the Holy Spirit.

And we worship, not only as an abstract “Thing”–
what was that song:
“I will celebrate Nativity, for it has a place in history....” –
it’s not just about worshipping a distant divinity,
but about God with us:
Jesus, as a human being, can identify with us.
He knows from the inside what it is like to be vulnerable, ill, in pain, tempted.....

Jesus would have been educated, as every Jewish boy was,
and probably taught to follow his father’s trade.
After all, we think he was about 30 when he started his ministry,
and he must have done something in the eighteen years since we last saw him, as a boy in the Temple.
I wonder, sometimes, what he said when he hit his thumb with a hammer, as he undoubtedly did more than once.
A friend and I were discussing this once, and could come up with nothing more specific than “Something in Aramaic!”
God with us:
a God who chose to live an ordinary life,
who knows what it is to be homeless, a refugee;
who knows what it is to work for his living.
Who knows what it is to be rejected, to be spat upon, to be despised.
Who knows what it’s like to live in a land that was occupied by a foreign power.
Who came to his own people, but his own did not receive him.

“Some, however, did receive him and believed in him; so he gave them the right to become God's children. They did not become God's children by natural means, that is, by being born as the children of a human father; God himself was their Father.”

This, then, is the God we adore. We sing “Joy to the World” at this time of year, and rightly so, for the Gospel message is a joyful one.
But it is so much more than just a happy-clappy story of the birth of a baby.
It is the story of the God who is there. God with us. Emmanuel. Amen.