Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Trust in God, Trust also in me

Do not let your hearts be troubled, believe in God, believe also in me (NRSV) John 14:1, that’s is how today’s reading starts.

This is a tough reading to get to grips with, it’s often a reading that is read at funerals, as I guess it seems to offer comfort to people that Jesus is saying that he has prepared a place for us.  However it contains much more than comfort, and is as powerful for the now as it is for comforting for the future.  I think to fully understand what is happening here one needs to look at what has happening.  Chapter 14 is part of the four chapters long farewell discourse by Jesus at the last supper.  For John the last supper is a key event in Jesus’ life, otherwise why would we get as much as four chapters.  

So, we are at the last supper; Jesus has just washed everyone’s feet, showing them that they were to emulate a style of leadership and living that was at odds with the world around them.  Indeed, Jesus’ actions and message echoes that given in Matthew Ch 20 when after James and John request special status and cause a rumpus amongst the rest of the twelve, Jesus has to call them all together to tell them that their view of leading is totally at odds with his.  They are not to follow the example of the gentile (Roman) leaders who lord it over their people by bully tactics.  Rather whoever wants to be great among them would need to become like a slave.

Perhaps this was the last straw for Judas as it’s after the footwashing in John’s Gospel that Jesus announces that one of them will betray him while also then informing Peter that he won’t do too well on the loyalty front either.  Talking of Judas, just how is it that no-one realised what he was up to other than Jesus?  John has Jesus clearly earmarking Judas as the person he is giving the bread to, and yet the others somehow still think he is taking money for the poor.  Perhaps it is an indication of the mood and the nature of the evening.  Perhaps no one was thinking straight.  It is no wonder then that their hearts might be troubled.  Jesus had told them that their leader was in danger, that there was no turning back at this point, but never mind Jesus says just trust in me.

Is it any surprise that Thomas and Philip press Jesus with questions trying to pin him down.  What do you mean you are going somewhere?  Where? How can we now the way?   At least they are asking questions, I wonder what the others are up to.  We know about Judas, was Peter nursing his hurt pride?  Early manuscripts of Matthew’s Gospel paint a picture of everyone talking at once.  This is a moment of crisis.  Either way, it seems to me that people weren’t listening too well.

Jesus is not of course talking about physical mansions or dwelling places for his apostles or for us. He is talking more about being with him.  He means being joined with him in some way and therefore also joined to the Father.  Jesus is the way, because Jesus and the Father are somehow sides of the same coin.  This explains why Jesus responds in the way he does to Philip when Philip wants to see the Father.  Philip, Jesus reminds him, does not have to see the Father physically because he has already seen Jesus.  To know Jesus therefore, to experience Jesus in to know, to become part of, that relationship that exists at the very heart of the Trinity.  John actually develops this train of thought further with his representation of Jesus prayer for others in Ch 17.

So it is a this point with the darkness of chaos looming and the disciples facing the decimation of their movement, their lives to which that had given everything; Jesus turns and says to them something like this.  “Look it’s all going to go wrong in the next few hours.  But keep on trusting in me even when it looks as thought all hope is gone because what you are about to see as failure is actually the coronation of God as King of this world.  It’s the beginning of a new age.”

When, therefore, Jesus goes on to say that he will do anything we ask in his name, it is really important that we don’t forget the context within which this is being said.  It doesn’t mean that Jesus will provide the much needed money for a new Church Roof or a failing church; that might happen of course, who knows, but it isn’t what this is about.  Rather Jesus is saying that he will grant us life, true life, that is relationship with him, the Father and the Holy Spirit.  If we are in the Godhead, and the Godhead is in us then what else really matters.

I’m sure that many people here have experienced dark and challenging times; and chances are that you will again.  It is not my place to make the world sound like a Disneyland fantasy.  All I will say is to listen to Jesus’ own words in the midst of the imminent destruction of his own life and potentially that of his group.  “Keep trusting in God and keep trusting in me.”

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit


Sunday, 9 April 2017

commitment, ours and Gods.....

What does Baptism or Christening mean to you?  What has happened this morning for Caitlyn and her family and friends.  I wonder if there is anything that related to what we remember of Jesus on Palm Sunday.  Let’s investigate a little together.
First some clarification.  We might Christen our child, or they may later undergo what is called adult baptism, (that’s not a second baptism but some people elect to wait until they are old enough to decide for themselves and then choose to be immersed in water – it is not necessarily better, rather it is different).  In either case, it is a ritual that is engaged in.  It is a very arranged piece of theatre.  Much like many church services you might think.  There are questions and responses, we have heard them this morning.  There may be Godparents, the person may be shown off to the church and afterwards a time of celebration. 
When we then look at the Gospel reading today from Matthew; Ch21 v 1-11.; what do we see or think is going on.  Some would argue that it is all done because God has planned it all since the beginning of time.  Well, that way of thinking is of course OK to a point, but if we don’t dig a little deeper, we often miss a whole load of good stuff in the writing. (Note the theological term “stuff”) We might just gloss over the story as we know it by heart and have heard it, well just too many times before.
First of all, there is nothing magical or miraculous in my mind about the story of the disciples finding a colt just as Jesus had told them.  Why do we assume everything Jesus said or did was in some way miraculous?  For a clue, we need to pop over to John’s Gospel account found in Chapter 7.  We have Jesus going in secret to the “festival of booths”.  He went alone because he couldn’t trust some of those who were close to him.  His brothers for one, remember they had tried to kidnap him once, and it is telling that he didn’t leave his closest 12 followers with the job organising the meal for the what would become the last supper.  For Jesus, these things he was planning had to happen, and he couldn’t risk being betrayed until AFTER they had happened.  He knew full well that the net was closing in.  Preparations had to be made, preparations like a colt and an upper room.
Like Baptism then, the entry to Jerusalem is a pre-arranged piece of theatre, full of imagery, and the imagery means that everyone would have known exactly what message is being said.
In Baptism, we have a naming ceremony and a promise of commitment to God; we might well forget our commitment to God but we make it all the same.
On Palm Sunday, Jesus lives out a commitment by God to return to his people and to rule again; albeit is a way that would take everyone by surprise.  The message however was clear to the people who lined the way down the hill into the eastern part of the city of Jerusalem.  God was coming back and Jesus couldn’t have said things any clearer; I am the Messiah.

Whilst we often forget our promises, and commitments that we make to ourselves, others and God. God, never does.  God is faithful to the promises he makes, and so Jesus rode in to the east of the city the poor end, the end with no sanitation, literally through a gate called the dung gate, to engage in battle with the imperial forces of Rome who were symbolically approaching from the upper western end (the posh seat of power, where there was running water and good air), with Pilate surrounded by armed guards and all the trappings of military might.  But this wasn’t to be a battle in the way that often think of.  Jesus rejected violence as an option and instead does battle with the one who works behind the scenes of the Romans, the Temple authorities, the same one who works behind the actions of selfishness, pride, hatred, and violence that can still attempt to enslave all of us.  He will do this in a way that will take everyone by surprise.

In the coming week, we will reflect and think about the events of the passion and the resurrection.  When and if you do, take a moment to remember God’s commitment to love and to you.  In Baptism, we recall that we love because first God loved us.  This Easter, consider that we live and love because God in Jesus lived and died for us and loved for us never straying from the commitment to love.

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit


Saturday, 11 February 2017

Sin and Forgiveness

What do we mean by SIN?  (invite suggestions)
What do we mean by forgiveness?

In my childhood, I was raised in the Catholic Church and as such confession was a regular occurrence.  Most of the time I didn’t really know what to say, so offered a measly collection of lying, winding up a sibling etc.  On reflection, I feel a bit sorry for the priest, who must have sat there listening to a litany of material that perhaps didn’t really mean anything.  And those were the days before Ipods, and the like so he really had nowhere to escape to.  When I was preparing to write this message, I started to wonder why I didn’t really know what to confess to.  Was it a lack of imagination?  Unikely, as I never had problems with imagining myself in all sorts of situations and crises, always of course as the hero.  Was it because I didn’t sin?  Definitely NO.  I am the same as anyone else.  No, on reflection, whatever one’s views on the place or value of the confessional; I think the problem for me what that I didn’t really have a true understanding of what Sin actually was.  Is that really important I hear you ask?  But you see, if we don’t understand sin, how can we truly acknowledge ourself as being a sinner?  As a person in need of forgiveness, and then how can we realise that through the cross we have actually been forgiven, we have been freed from Sin.

I am going to repeat that last bit because it is important.  If we don’t fully grasp what sin really is, then we can’t fully grasp the nature of freedom from sin

Listening to our scripture readings today, there is plenty of scope to investigate and understand better the concept of sin and therefore forgiveness.

Matthew’s Gospel reading is a continuation of the so-called Sermon on the Mount.  I say so-called because the traditional view is of Jesus speaking to the multitudes and delivering a more radical set of rules and regulations than had ever existed in the Torah.  As a consequence, we sometimes view what he said as unobtainable, as just something to aim for but something that is impossible.  If we continue to look at it that way, we will sadly end up being sorely disenchanted, and that is dangerous and unnecessary.
If we go back to the end of Chapter 4 and the beginning of Chapter 5, we may get a slightly different picture.  A great crowd is following Jesus, who then climbs a mountain.  What happens is we link the two images in our minds, but that is not what I think Matthew is trying to portray here.  A great crowd was following Jesus so when he saw the crowds he went up the mountain.  This is normal Jesus behaviour to be alone, to spend time in prayer and solitude.  His disciples, as usual, catch up with him, and it is to them that he addressed what has become termed the Sermon on the Mount.  He is essentially letting them know what being a follower of his way is going to be like.  This is the no holds barred session on the hill.  You want to follow me?  Well great, this is how it is going to be, because everything is changing.

vv 21-37  look at behaviour, this is explicitly the behaviour that is to be expected of those who are living as part of the new Kingdom, this is the way of life in the Kingdom of Heaven, that is the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth. 

We need to be as careful of someone’s emotional health as their physical health.  It is just as unacceptable in the new Kingdom to destroy someone emotionally as it is to destroy someone physically.  How has the Church fared with that?

V 23 urges against hypocrisy.  How can we really be worshipping God at the altar if our love for our own ego is too great to seek reconciliation with another.  The one who refuses to reconcile is sinning against God because they are in effect turning away from God.  The price of exclusion from the Kingdom is to be seen as a measure until that person turns back which is the literal meaning of the word repent.

How do men fare with v 27.  Isn’t this unattainable?  Doesn’t this mean that Jesus is actually saying that in the new Kingdom, gender should not be used for the purposes of power and betterment of self.  Rather it should be that men and women should value each other as equal children of God.  The use of the words  -“to Lust” – indicates an uneven power relationship where a person is being forced to fit into the fantasies of another.  This  leads to a warping of God’s initial work, and so instead of a reflection of God’s love, we get an outcome that is out of balance and normally ends up with suffering and pain somewhere.

The new Kingdom therefore reflects relationship put right.  Relationship is put right when God is the true focus of our worship, our true worship and not something that is of our own creation.

The Church in Corinth was falling into the trap of creating their own idols.  There were followers of Paul, or Apollos or Jesus.  Yes, even when we worship Jesus or God, we need to be careful that we are not worshipping our own created image of God, in other words just another worthless Golden calf.  Worthless, because it is not real and therefore it is quite dead.  Paul reminds the church to turn back from this error, to repent.  To turn back from this sin, and to turn back to God, as perfectly illustrated in the life of Jesus.

When we create our own image of God, or when we allow ourselves to worship other gods, such as fame, money, sex or power, we sin against God.  We voluntarily enchain ourselves again with the very chains that God has set us free from!

We don’t have to do this now as there is a new creation, a new Kingdom in which no one is greater than anyone else.  There is no Jew, no Greek, no slave; there are in other words no boxes we need to be enslaved by.  There are no republicans or democrats; no tory or labour or liberal; no black or white; no gay or straight or trans.

There are only people living out the true purpose of being an image of God, worshipping the one true God and reflecting God to the whole of creation.

If we worship God in truth and in spirit, then we will live in freedom, because the power of sin has been destroyed for us by God. 

Yes, we can still fall, and we can still be hurt, both physically and emotionally, but we will never again be destroyed by evil or bound by evil.  We have been set free from sin and WE ARE FREE.  So we should act live free people and should not act like slaves any more.

In the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit


Sunday, 29 January 2017

What do you hear when you read the Bible?

When you read the Bible, what do you hear?  Do you hear the words of an angry and jealous God in what we call the Old Testament?  Do you hear a God biding his time until a day of Wrath and Judgement?

Does God seem different to you, in our so-called New Testament?  If that’s the case, could it be that we have been led to believe in an interpretation that in fact sells itself short and leaves us confused and possible disenchanted?  There are lots of questions here, because I strongly believe we are in a time when we should be asking ourselves questions, as a church, as a family, as a community, as a country.

The Gospel means “Good news”.  In the early days and years of the church, the message was clearly interpreted as Good News by the poor and scary to those in power.  When we preach the Gospel today, is that still the same?  Why doesn’t it seem to have the same power as back then?  Why would most people equate the Gospel with “Bad News”, with a call to lead a boring life, rather than a message of freedom from slavery?  For instead of a message of freedom. People hear a message of slavery.  If that is the case, have we been getting it wrong?  When did the way become just another option of belief open to people in a world that refused to accept any one particular truth? 

What would happen if people instead heard a message of forgiveness and of freedom rather than of judgement and slavery?  Whether we look at traditional or more charismatic styles of worship, we have tended to embrace a vision of Jesus being sent from heaven to save his flock and to rescue them FROM the world in order to take them to heaven.  It’s a model that is especially prevalent in the popular American model, in which we see mega-churches, TV evangelists and claims of rapture at the end times.  The real problem is that the original message has been totally divorced from its original context and words and their original meanings have been forced into a totally different worldview.  It’s not surprising that the message has lost it’s force.  It is a model where we all too readily restrict Jesus and the Holy Spirit to a role that only consists of personal salvation.  How easily we try and box Jesus again.  This leaves us with conferences that rely on conversion stories, of individual testimonies from an ex burglar, murderer or drug addict.  Is this really what the original writers of the Gospels or Letters had in mind?

Let us therefore take a look at our readings today and try and compare different ways of looking at them and then attempt to see if we can obtain a more congruent message from both pre-Christian and Christian scriptures.  My way of saying “Old and New Testaments”. 

The very first thing to keep in mind is that when they were written all of our scriptures were written from within a Jewish worldview. It seems a basic thing to say, be we easily forget it and we desperately need to keep in at the forefront of our mind if we hope to stop ourselves falling into bad habits too easily.  In other words, so that we can understand them better, we need to try and read them from the viewpoint of a first or second temple Jew.  We need to put aside if we can views of an atheistic enlightenment that has impacted on our interpretation of these scriptures where God is placed more and more as a peripheral player leaving humanity to sort things out as we like.

If we read Isaiah as though every use of the word “I” relates to the prophet himself, we will tend to be led towards an individual model of salvation as I have warned about already.  More than that though, Isaiah 49 v 3 just makes no sense, as here the identity of the individual is unambiguously that of Israel itself, “He said to me, you are my servant Israel”.  So the “I” here needs to be read as referring to Israel.  At other times it is much more confusing of course and it sounds like a story about a person.  We are left with the question.   What is going on?  Perhaps it is a complex piece of writing that allows for both understandings, that challenges us to see multiple interpretations and hold them together.

One of the important things, is that is we allow ourselves to read the OT through the eyes of Israel, the nation called to be a light to the nations, then instead of seeing a vengeful, angry, jealous God we can see instead God showing intentional and unconditional love towards the people whom He chose to fix creation.  I believe that we also see that this is echoed in Psalm 40.  God is ever faithful to the covenant that he has made with Israel even if Israel isn’t, or can’t be.

Paul, who is a Jew in case we forget, sees this and sees in Jesus God coming as human to do what Israel can’t do and in so doing fulfills their part of the covenant.  This completion, then is directly what allows Paul to reach out to the rest of the world.  Phase 1 has been completed with Jesus’ crucifixion.  Phase 2 was announced with the resurrection.  We are in phase 2, preaching forgiveness of sins and freedom from exile, and praising the one true God.

We, like the church in Corinth, are now freed from the societal constraints to worship idols other than God; we need of course to remind ourselves every day.  We are now free to worship the one true God who has defeated and made powerless the idols that we have ourselves created, and the ones that we continue to create.  Those empty puffed up idols of celebrity, power, sex and money; tools that we have given over control to rather than managing and enjoying responsibly, that continue to wreak havoc principally because we forget that they are now powerless and like unsupervised toddlers they create destruction in their wake.

It means that you are free to be what you are meant to be, an image of the one true God. How do we do this?  We are called to reflect God to the world in order that whoever me might meet gets to in turn meet with God themselves to experience the intentional and unconditional love on which creation itself is built.

Next time you read the bible, ask yourself; What do you hear?

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit