Pentecost 2021 -The Resurrection of the People of God

Pentecost 2021

Can these bones live? Resurrection of the people of God

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all round them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. [He gave me a guided tour with nothing missing – he really rubbed my nose in it so I got the point]

(Then) He said to me, ‘Son of Man, can these bones live?’ I answered, ‘O Lord God, you know.’ 

Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.’

Whilst we often listen to this reading early on Easter morning – and it is a powerful experience to hear a voice speaking these words out of the darkness before dawn – we need to hear them again at Pentecost, because it is Pentecost which is the fullest revelation of what God has done in raising Jesus from the dead. For this is when the full drama of the work of God comes to its completion, in the Resurrection of the people of God . . . Pentecost is the Resurrection of the people of God

In the same way that we have reduced the gospel message to ‘going to heaven when we die’, and created the secular world as a result, we have lost sight of the staggering significance of Pentecost.  What does this event 2000 years ago have to do with us, now here? 

Jesus has gone –  ‘I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away’ he says to his disciples . . . but what a rag tag and bobtail group. Dozy fishermen, ‘country bumpkins’, collaborators with the Romans, crazy religious zealots and former prostitutes . . . Not an academic degree amongst them. How on Earth are you going to build a church out of that lot! How on Earth is Heaven going to come if that is your raw material?

Behold! Are not all they that speak Galileans?? Nobodies from Nightcaps . . . Behold, Pay attention to God’s raw material . . . and perhaps still we don’t get it.

I think about ordination – who do we ordain to walk in the footsteps of the Apostles? How many ‘nobodies from Nightcaps’, ‘bozos from the boondocks’, people with disreputable records do we ordain . . .? I remember being warned before my ordination not to get pulled over by the police . . . and Jesus uses prostitutes and collaborators . . .

I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.

Jesus sends the Holy Spirit on this bunch . . .

In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground— then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. 

Mud, dust . . . nobodies . . . dry bones . . . God’s raw material

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.

As we explored on Ascension Day, Jesus has gone away. When he went he commanded his disciples

he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.’

Stay here in the city . . . What else are they going to do, these ‘nobodies from Nightcaps’ . . .

I don’t know if you’ve ever visited an ossuary? A place full of bones and skulls stored away awaiting the resurrection. ‘Son of Man, can these bones live?’ ‘O Lord God . . . you know . . .’ It’s like the prophet is nervous. On the one hand, can dry bones live? On the other he’s dealing with God . . . ‘Son of Man, can these bones, these very dry bones, these dead bones live . . .’ ‘You tell me . . .’

Mud, dust . . . nobodies . . . dry bones . . . God’s raw material – has to wait . . . a dry bone is not going to get tired of waiting and take the law into its own hands. A dry bone has no choice but to wait on the Lord . . .

Those who wait on the Lord will renew their strength.

Those whose only hope is in God will rely entirely on God

Those who rely entirely on God as their way of life will Live

Why? Does God use the rawest of raw material

Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?
And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? [after all they are uneducated fishermen and down and outs and prostitutes and and and ]
Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia,
Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs–in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”

All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”

But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
Of course!

And what of us . . . dare we wait on the Lord? Until we are clothed with power fro on high and so are set free to declare the word and works of God in a way that will bring astonishment, and perhaps ridicule? In a way that will lead to thousands turning towards God? For that is the purpose, the end – tht God might be glorified

God uses unpromising raw material precisely because it is about His Life in us – that no one will be able to confuse the works of man for the word and works of God

Death catches up with us all. One way or another we become the raw material for Resurrection. But following the Resurection of Jesus, the way lays open to us all to enter the tomb and await the call to life

The Christian is the one who has already walked down that road – and now will only live by the Spirit. Like dead bones, the people of God await Resurrection

The Living God! Accept no substitutes! Sermon for Trinity Sunday . . .

The Living God – Accept no substitutes!

Sermon for Trinity Sunday

‘In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord . . .’

While Sarah was away, folk may possibly have noticed that I was a little more disconnected than is usual. That’s because I was incredibly busy. In her absence I gave every spare moment I had to writing a book about her. It includes some of her life story told from various angles, some of her funny saying, and some poetry I wrote to her. Of course I didn’t have to stop there in this age of technical magic – I put some photos in there as well. And then I got in touch with Netflix and asked if they could make a movie for me about her life, and having read my book they happily concurred. It was a bit of a rush job and I’ve been sat in front of my screen watching the final edits over and over and am really looking forward to when it’s on general release and I can binge watch over and over and over again. In any spare moments I have now, I go back to the book and re read that over and over . . .

At which point you might gently tap me on the shoulder, or perhaps Sarah herself might and say, excuse me, but I’m here . . . ‘Please don’t disturb me! I’m reading and look at this great movie about you! . . .’ Yes, ,you would think me mad, and rightly so

The other night I stood out in the garden for over an hour observing the near total eclipse of the moon. Others might have stayed in bed and assumed correctly that they would be able to look at the photograph the following morning . . . we live in a world where increasingly we confuse representations for reality. If you ask me to picture The Queen, I find it very hard to get the image of Clare Foy out of my head. The other morning I watched the sunrise and found myself thinking – it’s as beautiful as a watercolor . . . Increasingly surrounded by dead representations we lose touch with LIVING Reality. And this perhaps above all is the reason why the contemporary culture has lost touch with God.

Today is Trinity Sunday. Trinity Sunday comes with beartraps for preachers. Notoriously, Vicars decide to take this Sunday off and allow someone else to preach, lest they get caught in their words. Of course one trap is Heresy, that you might say something wrong about God – like for example the clearly heretical statement at the beginning of one of our prayer book liturgies – but the fact that many people think this is the biggest trap is a sign of what I’ve just said. That we have substituted a representation of God, our words about God, for God. The real trap is the delusion that we can substitute words and thoughts about God, for the living and the lived reality of God.

I chose those words carefully and I’ll repeat them ‘The real trap is the delusion that we substitute words and ideas about God, for the living and the lived reality of God’

On December 6th Thomas Aquinas went to mass . . . Thomas was The Great Scholar of the church. He had over the years written perhaps the great systematic theologies, the Summa Theologica. That is what he is remebered for, but were he here today, I wonder if he might be going around saying, No! No! Because on December 6th something happened to Thomas. He came home from Mass and said to his servant ‘all I have written is straw’. He’s been born from above. He had had some kind of experience of God for which all his words were utterly inadequate.

He never wrote another word and died the following March

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:
‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.’ 

One of the habits I find increasingly difficult is how people say ‘God’ this ‘God’ that, ‘God’ the other, to justify themselves, or in the church a particular policy . . . This is taking the name of the Lord your God in vain, to try to USE God . . . The people of Israel had a not dissimilar practise – they would cry out ‘this is the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord . . . Jeremiah 7. They had God contained – they thought they knew what God was about, and he lived in the Temple they had built, against God’s explicit prohibition . . .

Isaiah Sees the Lord – and the bottom edge of his robe fills the entire Temple building – the largest structure anyone in Jerusalem would ever have seen, and the seraphs declare ‘Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of hosts – the whole Earth is full of his glory . . .

To paraphrase St Paul’s letter to the Romans – God is Obvious! Why do you not see him as Isaiah did? Why are you strangers to him, and he to you? Why are you blind? Why do you use God substitutes and then just get on with your lives as if the Living God was somewhere else? Why do you talk about him, in a way you would never talk about a person who was sat in the room with you? Words, words, words . . . “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” As Job says ‘but now my eyes have seen him! I repent myself in dust and ashes

The Christian Life is the Life of God or it is nothing. It is the Lived and living experience of God in the world which cannot be reduced to words. It is not even ‘a faith we live by’ for to reduce it to any kind of formula is to kill the life. The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life!

So to come to Paul again – For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. That is the mark of the Christian – not that they ‘live out their faith,’ a way we have come to say, but that they are born of God’s Spirit – and act in accordance with his movements.

Let me give you a simple example of this, which is very clear. As everyone is aware here, I face East during the Great Thanksgiving, and at other points in the service. Why? Because the Spirit of God in me compelled me to. I could do no other. It wasn’t that I had as it were figured out that I had to, rather the other way round. I was racing to keep up with God. My theology had to straighten itself out in the slipstream. I could give you now some reasons, but the danger would be that you might think I had figured it out ahead of time. I rarely if ever figure things out ahead of time and then put them into practise. ‘He does it because he believes this that or the other’

When I was called to ordained ministry I thought it couldn’t be right. Why? Because of my theology

When we were called to New Zealand I came up with loads of really good theological reasons why this couldn’t be right

When I first faced East I did so having for years thought it was theologically wrong, and still wondering, but I could do no other.

Isaiah stands in the Temple and all his God words are dust, straw . . . I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell amongst a people of unclean lips . . . the letter kills,

but the Spirit give life

For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God

For those who Know God – God is their life. That is what it means to call God your father – that you are born of God

And this is for the entire people of God. I was so so dismayed when I received a communication from a member of the clergy which embodied what is called the Spirit of clericalism which is horribly alive in so many ways

The church has a patchy history of caring for its clergy, and burn-out and other health issues too often feature in the lives of passionate and committed followers of Jesus Christ

What??? Apart from the huge issue of people getting burnt out following the one who rpomises that if we are with him we will be given rest – whose yoke is easy, and whose burden is light . . .

I wonder if you heard that? Were you indignant? I kind of hope so. If I believed for one moment that as a church we thought that the whole people of God were not ‘passionate and committed followers of Jesus Christ’, or that somehow I was moreso, I would have to resign my orders. This is precisely what always troubled me about ordination and it does to this day. That it created a ‘passionate and committed class’ amongst the half hearted and patently wobbly laity . . .

Part of the reason for East facing I think, is that the priest should be anonymous – simply one of the people of God oriented towards the life of God coming to us in and through Jesus. Perhaps like one who sees pointing the gaze of others but certainly no more. Anyone who sees God can be a priest

Anyone can be a priest if the Spirit of Christ dwells in them, if they are born again and can See the Kingdom of God. If they have no desire to deal with dead representations of God, with books or movies – because God is Real to them . . . Anyone for whom God is not only a living reality, but their lived reality, Christ in them Alive!

Think for a moment as we close about someone you dearly love. Perhaps they’re sat beside you, perhaps you wish they still did for they have died. If I took them away, or if they had been taken away and I said – ‘don’t worry here’s a book about them’, or ‘here’s a movie we’ve made of their life with an actor who bears an uncanny resemblance to them’ Can such a thing subsititute? If that is true for the one you love, how much more true is it for God. Know God, If you Know Jesus – no substitute will do . . .We know we wouldn’t accept a book about a loved one – we know that it is no substitute. Stop accepting substitutes for God

We believe in the one true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but do not think for a moment that God can be reduced to a formula which the scholars can dissect, for to See him is to die to our own agency and life our own definitions, our theologies lie in the dust. To Know God is to be animated by his life – and the Spirit blows . . . where’er it will – we follow in his slipstream, chasing to catch up.

Sermon for Ascension Day – Why “Vicars” are a bad idea . . .

GK Chesterton once said “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting, it has been tried and found too difficult”

There’s a temptation to think that these words are aimed at an audience outside of the church, but Chesterton was a wise old owl . . . he knew the reality of the Church well enough not to romantically imagine ‘here are the people who get it . . .’

Judgement begins with the people of God, those who have the sacred scriptures, those to whom God offers the Spirit and the Eucharist . . . those without excuse

‘Jesus is coming for his church’ we hear . . . and those words should give us pause

I once had a church that over ten years I had helped to get along without me . . . then I left. Unfortunately they appointed a new Vicar who took charge and made himself indispensable . . .

I’ve always struggled with the idea of being ‘a Vicar’. I remember telling my own Vicar that no one should be a Vicar as Vicar was from the word ‘vicarious’ – in the place of  . . . Jesus

Although that isn’t its actual historic meaning – the Vicar replaced the Rector – all the same the idea that the people of God need ‘someone in charge’ has a very very long history, and God’s rejection of that is the heart of the message of Easter, now made most clear as Jesus goes to be with the Father.

Down through the years Israel had wanted one thing above all else – ‘a king, then we can be like the other nations’ As Samuel the prophet tears his hair out, God speaks to him – it is not you they are rejecting, it is me. Whenever we hear a call for leadership in the church it is the same – God is being rejected and the way of Jesus abandoned. As Bishop Kelvin used to say ‘those who cry out for leadership want someone to support their position’

But, to use a not inappropriate metaphor, Ascension Day is the day that Jesus says to His church, ‘now it’s time to put on your big boy pants’.

For three years Jesus has been showing the disciples the Way – His Way . . . They have squabbled – they have fought for power – Jesus has shown them His way laying down his power . . . which leaves them speechless and uncomprehending, and on Easter morning plain terrified.

He was only here for a season – The work has been finished upon the cross he reminds his disciples. Sins are forgiven. It is time to grow up and follow me in laying down your power . . .

Yet, to develop Chesterton’s words – it is not that following Jesus has been tried and found wanting, it is that it has been found too hard and not tried . . .

For the way of Jesus is Very hard, but not in the way we think. It is not hard in the worldly sense that we have to flog ourselves to death in His service. After all Jesus says ‘Come to me, and I will give you rest’

Back to why Vicars are a bad idea . . . Those of you blessed with children know all about this. “Muuum . . . johnnie said a bad word! Susie hit me! ” Dealing with children is dealing with the inability of children to grow up and live authentic human lives. It requires ‘a parent figure’ who is ‘in charge’ and judges between one person and another . . . yet Jesus said ‘man, who appointed me as a judge between you . . .’ Hey, Jesus – aren’t you here to tell people how right I am?

The story of Israel in the wilderness is a story about children. Moses is worn out because all the people bring their disputes to him . . . “so and so did this, or that or the other.” But all of that came to an end on the Cross. There, the Judge dies . . . The King dies . . . The Cult of the leader is demolished.

Now there is only the Life of God, or death – except the Way of God looks like death to us and that’s our problem

Sometimes in ministry someone says something which reveals that they have seen the way of Jesus and rejected it, whilst still holding on to their self-righteous ‘Christianity’.

I remember well how at a Christian basics group I ran a young woman, the eldest of three sisters, on hearing the story of the Prodigal and how the Father went out to bring him home and dress him in the best robe, “After all he had done!” cried out “That’s not fair!” BLessed was she who heard. For once the horrible message of Jesus had struck home.

“Horrible message?” Yes, that is how it appears to us, the way of death, the Cross in all its ghastliness confronts us.

Another example – Corrie Ten Boom – whose family hid Jews from the Nazis in wartime Holland. Eventually they were betrayed and taken to Ravensbruck Concentration camp where with her beloved sister Betsie, who dies there, she conducted worship services and led many to the way of Jesus

After the war Corrie had a remarkable ministry – she went all over Europe preaching the gospel of forgiveness. As she recalls that message and ministry was most powerful in Germany and it was there one day she was confronted with the “Horrible” message of Jesus. After preaching in a small church a man whose face was radiant from this the transformation this message had worked in him came to her to thank her. As he held out his hand she recognized him, one of the SS officers from Ravensbruck. He had been set free by the announcement of the gospel . . . but had Corrie . . . well you can read all about it in The Hiding Place.

The counsel of Jesus is clear and terrible at the same time. I have known Christians ignore it. ‘If your brother or sister sins against you, go to them in private and show them their fault’ . . . “What? Grovel before that person? Humiliate myself?!” The horrible message of Jesus strikes home . . . His Life giving message is about dying . . . Notice Jesus did not say – “if your brother or sister sins against you, go and find the church leaders and get them to deal with it, as in the days of Moses. Get them to grant you justice!” The Judge is Dead – so is The King . . . No now it is the Way of Jesus – laying down your life, your dignity for the lost person. ‘insofar as it lies with you be in fellowship with your brothers and sisters’

This person had really heard the horrible Gospel at last. only one goal, to seek and to save the lost. To that end he will suffer the utter humiliation of the Cross ‘to win them back’ What does he seek above all? Restoration of relationship. That is all that matters. Without Reconciliation there is no justice. Reconciliation is the undoing of Sin – as St Paul puts it, it is ‘the gospel of reconciliation’ – to go out to those who have cut themselves off and so are dead, and restore them to fellowship . . . But pride gets in the way – ‘they’ve gone too far’ – or just further than you or I will go. So we leave JEsus to do it, but we turn round and . . . well he’s gone . . .

The end of all the old ways is the Cross. There Jesus dies. For a few brief weeks he appears to his disciples, reminding them of all that he has said – because he is going to the Father. Today he has gone away.

On the Cross the old way has come to an end – now there is only the way of Life, the way of the Spirit, the way of Jesus which looks like death. Yet we don’t want to hear this for as Paul says ‘the way of the Cross is foolishness to those who are perishing’

So, we try and find another Jesus to be “Father”, even though Jesus said – ‘you will call no one on earth “father”‘ Or in that vein we might add ‘VIcar’, or ‘Church Leader’. In the early days of the church, it is notable that the letters written to the churches are written to ‘all the Saints’, and the leadership is not mentioned, if of course it exists, and we should be wary of reading it back into the text . . . The Risen Christ addresses his letters to ‘the angel’ of each church and commands that We hear what the Spirit is saying to the church . . . but it is hard to grow up. It is hard to trust God to work in our brothers and sisters – yet that is the Only Way

That is why the Church has one thing to be given to – to pray for the gift of the Spirit. To pray that where there is death, Life will blossom. For apart from the Life of Jesus the Way of Jesus is not hard, it is impossible. Jesus has gone . . . Jesus has gone. It’s time to get those big boy pants out of the cupboard

St Paul’s letter to the church in Rome

A weekly study in conversation with the theology of St John – The Astounding Gospel

Session 1 – Some introductory comments on Scripture and the letter before we address the opening verses
Session 3 – What is ‘Faith’? Commentary on Paul’s understanding of the nature of faith and how it differs to ours. (Session 2 was not recorded – the opening of this talk refers back to important content from that talk) to fully benefit from listening to this talk it would be helpful to listen to the Trinity Sunday Sermon
Session 3 – Q+A How do we begin the journey to live out faith as Paul describes it?

Jesus is going away – Time to grow up into maturity – Sermon for Easter 6

Sermon for the fifth Sunday after Easter 2021

As often is the case, the sermon as delivered differs significantly from the written form below 🙂

Year B in the Lectionary Cycle

John 15:9-17

Giving AND  . . . the missing dimension

‘Unless I wash you, you have no part with me . . .’ John 13:8

The flood waters were rising around the man’s house. Being a very good and pious Christian he of course prayed that God would save him from the deluge. Sooner had the words lft his mouth than a fireman waded past his window and offered to carry his to safety. “No worries” the man called to him smiling broadly, “God will save me!”.

The waters continued to rise and he retreated to the upper floor of his house from where he cried out to God to save him. Momentarily, a boat drifted by. Those on board called out to him ‘jump in!’ but the man said “I’m fine!” God will save me . . .’

It was but a few hours later when night began to fall that he retreated to the roof. And there as the good and pious Christian that he was,  he prayed most earnestly that God would show himself and thus witness to His Goodness and save him tha tall these heathens might believe. The words were barely out of his mouth when suddenly a bright light appeared in the night sky! God was coming to save him! But No! it was the search light of a rescue helicopter. “Let us winch you up!”.

“It’s fine, I’m Ok, I’m good. God will come and save me.”

Night fell, the waters rose, the man was swept off the roof and drowned. Wakening to his new reality God stood before him, and the man said ‘Why didn’t you save me?’ To which God replied, What do you mean? I sent a fireman, a boat and even a helicopter . . .’

Well of course we laugh and it is ridiculous, but perhaps it is closer to home than we like to think. Perhaps we are all to a certain extent that foolish man . . . allow me to explain.

What was it that killed the man? The early church would have named it straight away. Fundamentally the deadliest of diseases, Pride . . . He was unable to allow anyone to help him. Only GOD would do for Him. At heart he was far too important to be helped by mere mortals . . . of course the light in the sky had raised his hopes, but . . . I wonder if that deadly worm keeps us from being saved by Jesus in the guise of those around us? Of being healed? Of being made whole, or if we just wait for ‘heaven’, or ‘when Jesus returns’, when everything shall be put right and “We shall be saved! We shall be healed!” Or if our healing and salvation is closer to us than we realise. Put another way and to reer back obliquely to John’s letter last week, who can be healed by a Jesus whom they have not seen, who will not open their lives to the healing of their brothers and sisters whom they can see? As Jesus disarmingly or perhaps threateningly asks the paralysed man, ‘do you want to be well? Do you want to be healed, do you want to be saved? Do you want to come from the darkness of death into the Light of the Life of God? Now?’

Thursday is Ascension Day – we shall have a Eucharist here at 7pm to mark this important day in the church’s calendar, a day which often gets missed along with its message. It is the day when these words of Jesus from John 16 find their full expression ‘I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, “Where are you going?” But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.’

Jesus has passed through death to Life – showing us the way. Like the Good Shepherd he hasn’t driven his sheep but gone ahead of them. We are now in that brief window of the Easter Season when Jesus prepares his disciples for what lies ahead, when the Risen Christ reminds his disciples of all he has said, so we listen again to the earlier chapters of John’s gospel. ‘I am going to the Father . . . And it is for your good that I am going away’

Jesus is calling them away from infantile dependency to a new relationship, a new way of being. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. They are no longer childish servants, those who wait to be told what to do because they have no idea what their masters business is, rather, they are his friends. He will send the Spirit that they can live as his Friends, that they can live as he lives. Jesus says to them – You will have everything you need – You will know all that you have to know. Jesus has established his business. The church has all it needs to get along without him being there. Indeed perhaps it doesn’t even need leaders – after all leaders create the same childish dependency that Jesus is calling us away from. It calls us to live as mature adults sharing the one life of Jesus . . . A community of people who together know the business of the Father and can all speak with equal authority into the life of the church. A community of those who have entered the maturity and joy of utter vulnerability with one another.

They no love as Jesus loved by being utterly vulnerable – laying down his life – opening his wounds to them so they too, if they obey his command and live in that way will find that they have all that they need.

Yet we have a problem. A problem exacerbated by various highly misguided forms of Christian piety and practise, which keep us as infants and prevent us growing to maturity in Christ. Quite simply this, the idea of a ‘personal relationship with Jesus’. I have a personal relationship with Jesus whom I cannot see, to avoid the way of Jesus that is vulnerability before those whom I can see . . . Put another way a voice quietly whispers, In the last analysis, I do not need other Christians. If other Christians aren’t in my view very Christian, it’s ok. Because I have as Johnny Cash witheringly sang, ‘my own personal Jesus’. If I can’t find the right church for me, if My church gets changed so its no longer the safe space I knew, the place where Jesus and me, we were just like this . . . I, I, I my own . . .

Of course these walls don’t have to be immediately invisible – we can cut ourselves off from others by our feverish activity. It is a more subtle way of saying to tohers keep out. ‘This is my job, and this, and yhis and this – there is so much to do and no one will help, oh and this is my job also – get out of my space . . . Walls of feverish acitivity – being busy for Jesus, or  turning personal into private faith – living ‘private lives’ like J Alfred Prufrock, carefully measuring out our life in teaspoons . . .

The voice that quietly judges all those around you, those whom God has sent to save you and heal you – I know that the other members of your church aren’t up to much, btu don’t worry, you know me and I know you, and that’s all that really matters . . . Do we nurture this voice? Or do we tell it to GO to Hell where he belongs . . .

Jesus calls Lazarus out from the cave, from death to life, but even within the church and perhaps within each one of us, there is part of us that wants to be safe and wants to stay in our safe place . . . spiritually dead After all, there’s no risk in being dead 

Love one another as I have loved you, says Jesus. Loving – Oh we may well think we understand that = but in reality as John tells us – by this we know love, that we were first loved. You only know love if you are loved. You cannot love another if you will not open up to love yourself . . . and ok the stories we tell ourselves, tucked away from one another. ‘I’m fine’ . . . You must never wash my feet . . .

To a certain extent we have heard the message of footwashing  means. We must be ready to get on our knees and humbly serve one another . . . one another. We all know that part. – some of us pat ourselves on the back, because ‘by golly we serve others. . .’ others feel guilty every time it is mentioned – all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. You see without the corollary the second part we miss the point. There is no flow of lovein the community if we are both giving and receiving “Christianity, it’s all about loving others . . . but first there is a missing element.

The church is the vessel of the Life of Jesus, which he breathes upon his own body, the disciples. That Life, that Love is now set free amongst them . . . which means that church is the place where we love . . . and are loved. We give, and receive from one another. It is the one love. It has to flow to be Alive. Which means that we are to give – we have heard that so very often, BUT and perhaps more difficult, perhaps far far more difficult, we are to be like Jesus, Vulnerable. We have to receive.

Peter, Proud Peter. Poor Peter, the fall guy who shows us who we all are. Brave for Jesus one moment, fleeing the next. Peter who in his pride cannot let Jesus minister to him . . . Jesus names the outcome – if you do not let me wash you, you have no part with me . . . Unless I love you, we are not connected. I don’t know you if you will not let me serve you . . . But who will save Peter now that Jesus is going?? I have set you an example says Jesus, that you must wash one another’s feet. There are no longer amongst you those who wash and whose who are washed, no, now you all give, AND receive . . .

We are SO wired to serve – to give – to work hard for Jesus – yet we do not know him if we cannot allow ourselves to be served, and in equal measure. When service for example becomes a place for grumbling – it isn’t the service of one who is also receiving . . . and perhaps doesn’t want to receive, doesn’t want to admit that they too need help. The quick “Oh, I’m fine!’ The false smile . . .

How powerful are the stories – those who ‘pour themselves out’, those who minister and those who are ministered to . . . and the quiet desperate voice which won’t admit its need – for “of course it doesn’t matter that I am not ministered to for Jesus himself minsters to me”. . . And how’s that working for you? Jesus has gone to the Father – he only to any of us in the person of the one who sits next to you or in front of you . . . apart from mutual ministry one to another we are separated from Christ.

Jesus’ body is this body, His Spirit is in this church. If we pray Jesus to help, we must accept whoever comes to us . . .

You know those moments at a dinner – the host leans over – Some more trifle perhaps? ‘Oh no, I couldn’t possibly . . .’ but if you insist . . .

How are you  . . . All of us are wounded. All of us have needs which Jesus would meet if we would let him near us in the shape of his body, the friends of Jesus. Only deadly pride gets in our way. ‘I am one who serves’ I am fine . . . I’m good . . . the happy smile which covers so much pain – abandonment, bullying, abuse, or just the day to day knocks which wear us out . . and add up and up and up . . . but it’s ok because Jesus is coming to save me . I’m ok, I’m good, I’m . . . oh the lies we tell

St Paul tells us that it is in bearing one another’s burdens that we fulfil the law of Christ – but if we never allow anyone close enough?

Last week I gently suggested that we are to be a colony of heaven = the place of healing and rest. Look around a moment – whatever burden you have bourne, for however long you have born it, the friends of Jesus who are in on his life and work are here in one or probably more of those people who sit around you this morning. They are here to Save and to heal. God has heard your prayer and his friends have shown up. Now is the day of Salvation. Now is the day of healing . . . learn from the mistakes of Proud Peter – let others wash your feet . . . Amen

What do we mean when we say “Church”?

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Easter

Year B 2021

1 John 4:7-21

John 15:1-8

‘What do we mean when we say “church”?’

Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, trust also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.’

I wonder what you think that those words of Jesus are about?

Not long before our grand-daughter Abigail was born into the world for her brief life, people started dropping by Ben and Hannah’s house with matching soft toys for Abigail and her sister Naomi. For some reason rabbits featured highly – despite their being soft toys, they did what rabbits do and threatened to swamp the small terrace house in Sheffield. Someone brought a Panda for Abi – Naomi already had a panda – and Naomi made special friends with Abigail’s panda, or ‘Abi Panda’ as she calls it.

Shortly after Sarah left to return to the UK, Naomi was overheard talking with Abi Panda –  ‘Granny has gone on a big airplane – to heaven’. Heaven obviously being a place where you went where you couldn’t be seen, rather like her sister Abigail had gone. Children have disarmingly simple and largely untroubled logic – which is why they see the Kingdom of heaven . . .

So I started out with a short passage not from today’s gospel, but from the beginning of the previous chapter. It’s the passage you most likely have heard more than once, when someone ‘dies and goes to heaven’, because of course that’s what Jesus is talking about, isn’t he? People have ‘this life’, they then ‘die’, and depending on your theological persuasion all, or some ‘go to heaven’, to be with Jesus . . .

Suffice to say, if you’ve been paying attention at all through Lent and the Easter season, you’ll probably guess that I’m going to suggest that that isn’t the case, that Jesus is not talking in the terms we assume at funerals. Rather he is establishing the church as a community who to use the words of our gospel today ‘abide in him, as he abides in them’ – that is as a colony of heaven breaking out upon Earth. That ‘My Father’s house’ is the Church, not the building but a living breathing body of Christ.

John, as I hope we are aware uses his words very carefully. When he says, ‘The Word became flesh’, we are alerted to the only time Jesus speaks of his flesh, in the sixth chapter, where he says ‘my flesh I will give for the life of the world’. The Word becomes flesh according to John, upon the Cross, where if you look carefully, you can see the empty tomb – life pouring out from Christ – that is His Spirit. Further, you might say that the flesh of Jesus becomes Spirit upon the cross for again as Jesus says in John 6, The Spirit is Life, the flesh avails nothing.

So, when Jesus says, ‘in my father’s house’, again we remember the only other use of the phrase ‘my Father’s house’ in John in chapter 2 where Jesus says ‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market-place!’ So ‘My Father’s house’ is the Temple, but then he says,  ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews then said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But he was speaking of the temple of his body

So when Jesus says ‘In my father’s house’ there are many dwelling places – what he means is – in my spirit breathed body, in that community which makes me up, the church, there is space for many . . . or if you like, I am establishing in my body the place my father’s house, where my Father lives . . . which is of course, ‘heaven’

As we have seen these past weeks the death and resurrection of Jesus calls into question how we look at so much. What do we say of God if Jesus who is the revelation of God is recognised by his wounds? What does it mean for our humanity if Jesus, the true human is raised bodily from death – if he isn’t a ghost?

And for the church? What does it mean if the risen body of Jesus IS the church? After all, does he not breathe out His spirit on the disciple body, bringing it to life, before he disappears from view? Does Jesus not give His Life to the disciples? Just as in the beginning God breathed his life on Adam, but then Adam chose his own ‘life’ over the life of God and so became ‘mortal’?

Let’s just ponder a moment that thought about heaven, and the church. That the Church is constituted by Jesus as his living body, the House of the Father, or ‘heaven’. Certainly it was not uncommon in the earlier years of the church to refer to local bodies of believers as ‘Colonies of Heaven’ – Colonies of Heaven . . . Now perhaps like Sara, the wife of Abraham, on hearing she would have the child Isaac, she laughed; we might also laugh that God intends the Church to be a colony of Heaven within the realm of Earth, but perhaps we too might be rebuked by the LORD for doubting his Word. But what if rather than doubting, we believe?

Through the weeks after Easter we always have readings from the Acts of the Apostles. Why? Because the Church is the outworking of the Resurrection of Jesus. Not simply a group of people who happen to believe in the Resurrection, but a people who are brought into being, a born again body, by the Risen Life of Jesus breathed out.

For two or three Sundays our focus is on the Risen Jesus, but then in our gospels it shifts to the relationship of Jesus with his flock, and then today to how that relationship will continue. Abide in me as I abide in you. Similarly our epistle readings from John’s first letter continue that theme of the continuation of the life of the disciples with Jesus and their fellowship with the Father. As we read at the top of the letter – 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— this 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— we 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. 

Our fellowship is with the Father and His Son Jesus Christ . . .  isn’t that a description of the heavenly life. This fellowship – to use the much stronger word ‘koinonia’ – lived participation in the Life of the Father and the Son.

In my father’s house, in my body, there are many dwelling places, Abide in Me, as I abide in you. As we explored last week, coming home to Jesus is coming home to ourselves. In the same way a community of people who have come home to their home in Jesus, abiding in Him, is the church

Insofar as we truly the body of Christ – that Life of Christ is amongst us.  As we heard today ‘Beloved, let us love one another for love is from God; whoever loves is born of God and knows God.’ And again as John told us last week, the test is simple – ‘if you see your brother in need and have the capacity to help but do not, how does God’s love dwell in you’

God’s love just flows. If God’s love, if Jesus lives in you, then you will lay down your life for your brother or sister, and again this week ‘We love because he first loved us’ – God is the source of Love – ‘Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.’ 

When we do not love all the members of the body of Christ we cut ourselves off from the body of Christ. When we have those supposed private conversations within ourselves, or worse amongst one or two, about this or that person in the church, we cut ourselves off from Christ and the church . . . (Which is the sin against the Holy Spirit mentioned in our sentence this morning . . . )

John says something which to our ears might be utterly amazing, Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgement, because as he is, so are we in this world.

As He is, so are we in this world . . . we are like God. To encounter the Church is to encounter God, it is to touch on the realm of heaven. . . . That is what the Church is in the light of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Waking up to that is the stirring of the Life of God amongst us

That is why in the early church people freely shared everything they had – for they had but one life, the life which Jesus had breathed out upon them, so to use again the words of the wedding service – they in effect said to one another’ All I am I give to you, and all I have I share with you, within the Love of God’

What if ‘Colony of heaven’ was the way we not only thought of church but indeed acted as if it were true, as if Jesus has breathed His life upon us? What if we made it our business to live as if those words of Paul were true, ‘you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God?’ As if we had but one life, and all we had we shared with one another? What would that say to the wider world?

To be part of the church is simply to be able to say All I am I give to you, and all I have I share with you, to every member. It is to recognise Christ in one another, it is to live the heavenly life, the life of God now. It is to lose our lives and in that way, find them. It is to Abide in Christ, to dissolve the barrier between heaven and earth for in Jesus, that barrier is dissolved . . . Or we can just go back to the old story of a separate heaven, and hope it’s true instead . . .  Amen