Sermon for Easter 3 – Year B – Sunday April 19, 2015. ‘You are witnesses’

Sermon for Easter 3 – Year B – 2015
Sunday April 19th

Acts 3:12-19
1 John 3:1-7
Luke 24:36b-48

‘You are witnesses of these things . . .’

In my family there is a certain question which we have learned not to ask, because to ask it would to be met with a chorus of correction. The question is one often asked of children – ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’

And the correction is simply this – ‘it’s not what you want to be, it’s what do you want to do!’ However much work is tied up with identity in the World, and how often in casual conversation with a stranger we ask – what do you do for a living – a subtle way in which we value some people higher than others, I still remember the pain of a wonderful man I knew who kept it hidden from most people he knew that his work was as a bus cleaner . . . indeed we may well ask how many of us know people engaged in the menial work without which our comfortable lives would quickly fall to pieces, I still also remember the horror of a very well qualified friend when they learned that one of my highly educated daughters was training to be a nurse . . . So perhaps it is not surprising that we confuse that which we do for a living with who we are, whereas more subtly it is Lives Lived that reveal the truth about us. And, as with aspiring to highly paid careers, it is that upon which we fix our eyes and our hopes that in the end reveals our essence.

Over the last couple of weeks we have reflected on the terrifying fact of the resurrection of Jesus. I must admit that last Sunday as we celebrated communion, I was almost overcome by it. For ‘if Christ be raised from the dead’ then the World is not as we think, and as Christians we have the most significant of Vocations in bearing witness to that fact, that the death AND resurrection of Jesus changes everything.

As I have said before, all too often we are left saying, Good Friday changes everything – but without Easter Day, there is no Good to that Friday, it is just another Friday like thousands of others. Nothing is changed and those Christian narratives which place the emphasis upon the cross for the here and now, as the thing to which we must respond, leave the story dangerously half told, and the people of God half baptised. Placed down into the waters of Baptism, but with no one to draw them up out – death of the Old self, but no sign of the new, until after we die. But the Resurrection of Jesus comes crashing in to our present existence. The Resurrected Jesus terrifies his disciples and then eats grilled fish – he invites Thomas to put his fingers and hands in his open wounds. He does these things not purely to persuade the disciples that he is risen – his emphasis on the Physical proclaims them that New Life has come into being, that the worlds narratives of Sin and Death have been triumphantly renounced. The Life to which John the Evangelist bears witness takes on flesh and blood, it cannot be known apart from it.
The Gospel is no disembodied message of hope for life after we die – it is the total metamorphosis of life before the end of our physical bodies. It is at once utterly challenging, but also utterly compelling. It is at once both terrifying, and yet the source of exultant Joy.
It is New Life in Jesus Christ – and for us as Christians, that gives each one of us, and the Church together a Vocation unlike any other. A doing and a call to a new being.

The doing of Christian life is very very simple, yet utterly challenging. ‘You’ says the Risen Jesus, ‘are witnesses of these things’ Witnesses.

It is a word which loses some of its resonance for us – it is a largely passive word in our language – we see something happen. It only becomes active IF we are called to give an account of what we have witnessed.

But the word ‘Witness’ of course in the Christian tradition has a far deeper more engaged meaning – it is Active – it is Participatory. Something to which the realisation that ‘witness’ and ‘martyr’ are one and the same word in the language of the scriptures, bears eloquent witness. To witness is to give your life for . . . we note such language in Paul when he calls the Roman church to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Our Being – our Existence is given over to God in response to, as witnessing to what God has done for us in and through Jesus Christ. The meaning of each and every moment of our Life has been named – it is Witness – Martyr

For too long in the church, witness has been reduced to ‘speaking about Jesus’ as and when the opportunity arises – and given our shyness in this regard, witness has all but disappeared – yet the biblical vision of witness as giving our lives for the truth of the Gospel – takes us way way beyond all of this. To be a witness is to lay down our lives in testimony to the one who laid down his life for us. It is our whole existence, we receive the New Life of the Risen Christ and so become witnesses. In living through and out of the glorious reality of the Resurrection, our Radically New Lives become vessels of witness.

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him.

We Are children of God – that is through the Sacrament of Baptism – we have been included in the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ and now become participants in the very Life of God in and through His Son. In other words, our Lives, our Baptismal identity is a New Life , which sets us apart – Insofar as our lives as Christians do not make sense to those amongst whom we live – we reveal the World’s hostility to the God who so loved the World that he gave his only Son – ‘The Reason the world does not know us, is that it did not know Him’

The Church in her anxiety about what seems to be happening rushes after the false God of relevance, seeking at every opportunity to become more and more like the World – but that is to abandon our baptismal vocation – to bear the same reviling that Christ suffers from the World for the Love of the World – we do not hear the Words of Jesus – Woe to you when all men speak well of you. ‘Ah how relevant and rational – how up to date your church seems . . .’ In seeking to make sense to the world in which we live, we abandon our discipleship – our commitment to Jesus and deny our true parenthood.

But for those who do not do so, God has something truly breathtaking in store. It is the very vision of God which is the source of our Life. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.The old St Iranaeus said – The Glory of God is a Man fully alive – may people have taken hold of this and thought that it therefore justifies our lives as they are, but no, for he goes on ‘and the glory of man is the vision of God . . .’ What is it to be fully alive – but to have our vision consumed by the Living God – we will see him as he is . . . where is our vision? Where are we looking?? Perhaps that old childhood question is appropriate . . . ‘what Will you be when you grow up??

Perhaps it is time, perhaps it is Always time for the church to remember its identity – its God given Vocation of being those living witnesses to the Life of Jesus Christ – radically free in the world – for the sake of the world and to the everlasting glory of God the Father. Time to grow up

Receive the Holy Spirit – Sermon for Easter 2, 2015

Sermon for Easter 2 -2015

Acts 4:32-35
1 John 1:1-2:5
John 20:19-31

‘Receive the Holy Spirit . . .’

‘the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all’

As I’ve said on occasion, those who set the lectionary readings for Sunday at times refuse to treat the Church like adults, carefully chopping out passages which may offend our sensibilities and in the process infantilising the church. Well that hasn’t happened today, although if we were to attend to what we heard perhaps it might call into question the reality of our faith andn common life . . . but this reading from Acts comes immediately before a reading you will never hear on a Sunday, that is the story of Ananias and Sapphira. No sooner have we heard of the revulutionary life of a community which is filled with the Life of God, than we are told of a couple in the church who chose not to live out of that Life of God.

They too sell a piece of property but choose to deceive the church and suggest that they have given the Church all that they have. Having received the forgiveness of sins and Gift of the Holy Spirit in the name of Jesus, they choose to continue to live in the old life of sin and deceit. Except, as our Easter liturgy dramatically announces ‘The Age of Sin is Dead’ – . One after the other they lie to the Apostles, and one after the other they drop down dead.

As we said last week it is the events of that first Easter day which should be far far more troublesome to us than those of Good Friday. The world is a world of endless Good Fridays – there seeming to be no other way. The Life of God and With God we thus put off until after we die – the message of Easter is as it were put off until we complete the cycle of Good Fridays. Nothing is disturbed if the Life of God is for after our earthly bodies expire. But that is not the case.

As St John puts it We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— 2this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us— 3we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.

The Church has but one proclamation, Life in the name of its Risen Lord Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit. This Life has been revealed and it is the testimony of the Church, n word and action. The Church has no business living out of anything else, for she has discovered that there is nothing else to live out of, but the Life which is made known to us in our Risen Lord

5This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. 6If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; 7but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.

Everything else is darkness and death – and here we must gently but firmly insist on one thing, that God is Light and in him there is no darkness at all – we know what is Good and True and Beautiful only in so far as we have fellowship with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. THis is Life – all else is darkness and death.

Which is why Ananias and Sapphira disappear so dramatically from the story of the early church. They choose death rather than Life – they elect to walk in darkness and deceit, a life which has been declared Death by the resurrection of Jesus. In what we are confidently told over and again is a world of infinite choice, a story which is steering all of creation into destruction – the Resurrection of Jesus reveals the One Way – there is the Life of God and nothing else, all else is death

So we live in the lIght which means complete light regarding ourselves – no longer living in the self deception of saying we are without sin – freely confessing our sisns one to another, living in the Light of Christ, not the darkness of self deception. Those who live in fear of being known fully for who they are still do not know the Love of God in Jesus Christ for His Love drives out all fear. 8If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

The endless Grey of Good Friday is dispersed by the Light of the Risen Christ, brighter than a million suns burning with full force. Darkness flees in his presence, there is only Life. All else is Death.

And so Jesus comes to his disciples, to cast out Fear “Peace be with you.” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.

And then commissions and empowers them to Walk in the Light – empowers, not force. There is no Coercion in Love. Life has been revealed but Death is still  choice “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

Receive the Holy Spirit – now that which Sin made impossible for you I make possible. humanly speaking who can forgive Sin but God alone? Receive His Life – and Live out of it! Whosoever Sins you forgive they are forgiven! As the Son of Man hath authority of Earth to forgive sins, so those who Live His Risen Life are also empowered so to do . . . but it is choice – it is not coercion.We can still choose death ‘Whoseover sins you retain, they are retained’

God in His superabundant mercy has freely given us all things – to hide, to live in the dark, to choose not to sell what we have for the sake of the hungry, those are our choices, the Way of Life and the Way of Death having been put before us. The early church full of the Spirit knew no poor amongst them, for whenever someone saw someone else in need and had the means to feed clothe did so. As John puts it elsewhere in his letter How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?

And of course it is obvious. Someone is hungry, we have the means to help and we do not – we are clearly outside of the life of the God who superabundatnly and freely hath given us all things. There is no more dangerous myth to the health of our souls perhaps than ‘I have earned all I have’ and those weasel words  ‘I did what I could . . .’ no – God has put it into our hands and we are utterly responsible to Him for it. As St Vincent de Paul puts it – when we give to the poor we do not do so with any sense of ‘doing good’ but rather asking their forgiveness for having closed our hearts against them.

There is no worse understanding of Spiritual than that which is not rooted in the Holy Spirit – the Life of the Living God made known to us in Jesus Christ. Jesus the Son breathes the third person of the triune God into us – the Divine Life. This is no warm glow feeling, no mountain top experience – this is the very life of The Living God who has called everything into existence who is the source of all that is Life, before whom even the nations are as grasshoppers, His Life!

So too the frequent warnings about forgiveness – ‘if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart, God will not forgive you’ – Jesus in giving his Life and breathing upon us the Holy Spirit – releases the forgiveness of God into the world – ‘Father forgive them for they do not do what they are doing. We in mercy freely forgive all people for everything – but we are not robots – we are still responsible agents. We receive the Holy Spirit in fear and trembling – this is why it is SO important that we are truthful about our own sinful condition – for it is that which will cause our downfall. If we hear the words of Jesus ‘Whoseover sins you retain, they are retained’  and think anythiong other than ‘Why on earth would anyone retain the sisn of another – why on earth would one not forgive??’ we are in mortal danger. Because LIFE has been set free in the Resurrection of Jesus and the world is not as it was

The Resurrection of Jesus means that at last, Life is Loose in the world. We as those who are indwelt by the Spirit KNOW that we can only live in this life – that all else is death.

Freely you have received
Freely Give

Easter 2015 – ‘They fled from the tomb . . .’


Sermon for Easter 2015

Acts 10:34-43
Mark 16:1-8

‘They fled from the Tomb . . .’

Glory to Jesus Christ
Glory for Ever

I have a very vivid recollection of Holy Week in 2001. Unknown to me at that time it was the last Easter I celebrated as a curate, as Sarah and I moved to Gisburn in the December of that year, moving into a community which like many others that year was suffering from a trauma the like of which few if any of us here may have known, the effects of which continue to this day.

Gisburn and Hellifield were of course rural parishes, in the midst of many farms. Gisburn a village of 400 people, was home to one of the largest stock auction markets in the North of England. And it was 2001 – the year of the Foot and Mouth epidemic. Of course my curacy was in a Northern town far from any farm apart from rather unusually, an Ostrich farm 🙂 But for all that no one could be unaware of Foot and Mouth. At the start of the year TV news bulletins carried film of burning mountains of cattle carcasses, a view so distressing that the government ordered in the army to excavate an entire disused airfield so that the tens of thousands of culled beasts could be buried rather than burnt. Access to all open countryside was closed to try and prevent the spread of the disease, so I couldn’t walk my beloved hills

But I was closer to the epidemic than that. We watched with horror as the disease seemingly unstoppable overwhelmed the village in which I‘d grown up in and the surrounding areas, a cousin was involved with the ‘veterinary’ squads who were charged with shooting all the cattle, and somehow dealing with the trauma of that. And of course my own family were farmers.
Tucked away in a very remote valley in the South West Lake District we hoped and prayed that the plague would stay away, but inexorably it inched closer. It was on the Monday of Holy Week that we had the news we’d dreaded. Foot and Mouth had been diagnosed on a farm adjacent to my uncle’s farm. Which meant that all his stock would be culled as well.

Most farming operations involving stock were not huge, industrial scale farming is still pretty much unknown in the English stock sector. And my Uncles farm was no exception. He had about 150 rough fell cattle. Semi Wild – they were  hardy and gave birth unassisted.
When he had first moved to the farm in 1970 the first calf was born – they found the mother, obviously having given birth yet they couldn’t find the calf – until late into night, walking the rough moraine landscape, my uncle saw the shape of a calf in the moonlight reflected of a small tarn. They named the cow Moonlight and they named the tarn ‘moonlight tarn’, a name which you now find on OS maps of the area.

We learned that the dreaded cull of the stock would take place on Maundy Thursday, and so it was I went to our Diocesan Chrism Eucharist with the heaviest of hearts and barely able to speak with anyone, rushing out at the end without even acknowledging the bishop. I returned home, to hear things were worse than I thought if that were possible. The stock wagons carrying the armed vets had been unable to get up my uncle’s farm track quickly enough and would be unable to carry out the cull in the space of a day as required. they were to return the next day.

Usually the vets and soldiers with them would round up the stock, but these were wild fell cattle, On Good Friday, early in the morning, my Uncle walked his land alone, to call his stock to their deaths. The oldest cow among them, 31 years old, Moonlight herself.

Good Friday – and on Easter Sunday I had been rostered to preach . . . to a church full of people most of whom had come with Easter joy and cheer . . . I think that this was the first Easter when I had come anywhere close to understanding the terrifying nature of Easter Day.

For the response of the disciples that first Easter morning was not an easy joy – rather they were troubled, they were afraid, they were amazed and terrified . . . For they had seen all their hopes, their lives destroyed. They had given up everything to follow Jesus. They had thrown in their livelihoods, they had walked away from home and family because they believed he was the one who was going to rescue God’s people. They had pinned their lives on him, and he had apparently recklessly taken that all to the Cross, where he had been brutally murdered not only before their eyes, but the eyes of everyone.

My Good Friday Story in a very real sense is nothing out of the ordinary – we live in a world where we live in fear of such things because they can and do happen, and represented amongst us and all those we know are 1001 such Good Fridays. Good Friday is nothing out of the ordinary. It was just the brutal confirmation of the way the world is – all heading inexorably one way or another towards death. Indeed the death of Jesus upon the cross is not in itself at all exceptional. The death of the innocent is a universal human theme, highlighted in brutal fashion this past few weeks in the deaths on Vanuatu and of course the crash of the German Wings plane in Southern France.

Traumatic as these events are, they do nothing to challenge our view of the world. Good Fridays are endless. But not Easter Day. Good Friday we assume to be troubling and Easter Comforting, but in a sense it is entirely the other way round. For all the horror of what my family suffered that Good Friday in 2001, life went on. They still farm there. A small fountain in the farmyard the only visible testimonial to that terrible day, although the pain of it carries on, but in many ways, in most ways, life carries on as normal. It didn’t change anything, it didn’t change the world. Similarly the disciples had seen in the death of Jesus the death of all their hopes. There was no way forward. He was their life. Without Him they were nothing and he was dead. So in a sense were they. It is perhaps not surprising that they too are found in the resurrection stories going back to life as it was, fishing by the shore of Galilee. Back to normality . . . So it is perhaps little or no wonder that they are terrified when early that Easter morning they find the tomb empty and rumours of angels telling them he is Alive.

Good Friday seemingly confirms for us ‘the way of the world’ – Easter Day demolishes it, trashes it, and says not ‘there is another way’, but That way is no way at all. We are confronted in the Risen Jesus with the terrifying realisation that  Life is not what we have been told. The Resurrection of Jesus unmasks what we call ‘our everyday existence’ as a tragic illusion, and Satan as the Father of Lies.

And I have to ask has the Resurrection of Jesus had that impact amongst us? Has it so disturbed us, because if it be true as the Church asserts that God the Father Raised Jesus from the dead, not as some ghostly spirit, but as a living breathing man who prepares breakfasts and eats bread and fish . . . then the stories the world tells us about our existence, and most if not all the stories we have built the frail fabric of our tenuous existence upon are untrue.

A couple of weeks ago, Mother Keleni visited us and warned us about our ‘familiarity’ with God . . .I think the danger of comfortable familiarity with the Easter story is just as perilous. We learn it young and for most if not all of us if that familiarity doesn’t breed contempt, as it does without doubt in some, it breeds a sort of spiritual narcolepsy – its like a dream – we have not discovered its truth in our everyday existence, we have not woken up to its Reality – because if it is indeed true then nothing can ever be the same again. No wonder they fled from the tomb . . . because they were afraid. Like a child being born into the world, that which we had taken to be life, the darkness of our existence up to that point, turned out not to be life at all . . .

And we must ask ourselves and especially as the Body of Christ the Church, Have we allowed this new Reality to shake and disturb us as it so terrified the disciples??
Often if not always this is not the case – as with the Living God and Father of our Lord Jesus, we ask questions of the Resurrection without stopping to allow it to ask questions of us . . . Like Peter at the Last Supper, we don’t want Jesus getting to close, we don’t want him overturning our world, the world which in our anxiety and imprisonment we have done our best with and tried to call ‘life’

If Christ be not raised from the dead then we are playing religious games here week by week, games which the wider world has tired of – but if he be raised from the dead, then we have no business playing any religious games. His Resurrection so changes our perception of reality that we are faced with a terrifying choice, go on as we are, or start to live in the light of this New Creation that has come into being.

Indeed it is no choice at all – if Christ be raised from the dead, there is only one existence and that is Life in obedient following of Him, the Risen one who is Alive for ever more. The Resurrection of Jesus is the judgement of the whole world – how then shall we live?

Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down death by death,
And upon those in the tombs
Bestowing life!

Glory to Jesus Christ
Glory for Ever