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

What do we mean when we say ‘God’?

Sermon for Good Shepherd Sunday, 3rd after Easter, Year B, 2021

1 John 3

John 10

‘What do we mean when we say ‘God’’?

The Sundays between Easter and Pentecost are properly taken up with a struggle – struggling to come to terms with the resurrection. ‘Christ is Risen!’ we loudly, perhaps even joyfully proclaim. Perhaps like Thomas we doubt. And that is not wrong, for if Christ is Risen, then what? If Christ is Risen from the dead, then how we look at and understand the world is seriously wrong, and if the way we understand the world is wrong then the way we live in the world is wrong . . .

What’s more if as we pondered last week, Jesus the True Human is bodily raised from the dead – if having passed through death he walks and talks and eats fish – then what does it mean to be Human?

And as we considered a couple of weeks ago, if Jesus in his Deity is crucified, what does that mean about what we mean when we say ‘God’? What does the revelation that God is not some Image of perfection humanly speaking? If God is happy, joyful even to reveal himself as wounded for our sake? Such that Thomas can say not merely ‘you are Lord, you are God’, but ‘you are the Lord of me, you are the God of me’? If there is a self recognition of God in the wounds, if by the eye of faith, we are sharing in something with God?

So Jesus offers his wounds to Thomas – in utter vulnerability. Not healed over wounds, but gaping wounds . . . . How we try and pretend that they are anything else but a gash in his side, and great holes in his hands . . . Jesus says  – do not be afraid. I am utterly vulnerable before you, as on the cross, naked before the gaze of the whole world. Do not be afraid. The door is as open as this wound in my side. Come enter into my life.

Jesus’ wounds are not there for identifying him, they are there for identifying with Him, seeing ourself in Him, Knowing ourself in Him, and so as we read today, The Sheep know their Shepherd and the Shepherd knows His sheep.

This Knowing is so close, it is the knowing we find so difficult if not impossible with one another. The closest we come to it humanly speaking is in the ideal of marriage, where the bride and groom declare to one another of their own free ‘All I am I give to you, All I have I share with you’. I lay down my life for you . . . I give you my life.

And so today we move to ‘Good Shepherd Sunday’ – and those familiar words of the 23rd Psalm should take deep root in us. ‘The LORD is my shepherd . . .’

Yet like the vulnerability of the wounds, we seek to cover this over as well. I wonder how many of us will be thinking – yes, the Shepherd, the King! Which do you want? A Shepherd who is defined by kingship, or a King who is revealed as a Shepherd?

In the same way that we might actually be terrified by Jesus weakness and vulnerability in his humanity, so much want ‘The Leader’ – The Strong King . . . Perhaps this is why we end up seeing the cross as some mere transaction, a price that has to be paid, because in so doing this preserves for us the Ideal we want for God – Strong, Powerful . . .

The Resurrection of Jesus puts us on the point of a dilemma here . . .

The is God on the Cross, or it is not . . . It is God at our feet washing them, or it is not . . .

So much Christian talk about the Cross, effectively sees it as God popping out of heaven on a rescue mission – a mission which then mysteriously has to wait for us to die before we can share life with him, rather than on a mission to share life with us, here and now. We who fled from him, he has come out to live amongst us . . .

God is the one who wishes above all to share his very existence with us. That’s why we are created . . . This goes way way beyond what we call ‘having a relationship with’, such words are inadequate. This is a mutual indwelling. This is the heart of the Christian Genius, which sets it apart from any human religion.

In Bhuddism, there is no God; In Hinduism there are many gods and all sorts of stories are told about them, rather like the Greek myths; in Islam the idea that God could share in human existence is impossible. God is utterly unapproachable. The version of Christianity which says that humans cannot ‘go to heaven’ unless Jesus dies to seal a deal with the otherwise unapproachable God, not only seems to ignore the God who sits down at table with sinners, but also sounds suspiciously like a form of Islam . . .

No. The death and Ressurrection of the Man-God Jesus of Nazareth reveals a God who is far from remote. We fail to see him, not because he is too far away, but because as St Augustine reminds us, he is closer to us than we are to ourselves, such is his identifying with us. When the shepherd brings us home to himself, he brings us home to ourself . . . Salvation is the Good Shepherd bringing us home.

But, as many Christians ask – how can we know? This is simple. As St John says, because in the same way that the Life of God flows out of Jesus, it also flows out from you.

We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. 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?

If by faith in Jesus, God dwells in you, then God’s life will flow from you – to pick up on a phrase in the verse previous to our reading – they have eternal Life dwelling in them

We pass from death to Life – we enter the Kingdom and feed with Him at His table – we are filled thus with His Life and Love one another as he has loved us, without reservation, in mutual sharing of all we have and all we are, and so with Thomas proclaim his to be Our Lord, Our God.

Amen

The Wounded God. Our Lord? Our God?

Sermon for Easter 2

1 John 1

Acts 4

John 20:19-end

The Wounded God

Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 

Audio of sermon as delivered

So I am sure that people really want to know how my guitar lessons are going . . . As always there is a special FB page for folk who are doing the course and people are putting up their photos of their fabulous guitars, and videos of their amazing playing . . . There’s a video of someone a little better than me, which has no likes. . .

I look at it and think . . . I can never be like that . . . Fail!

I wonder what we make of the story of the disciples – have you ever heard folk say ‘The disciples failed’. When Jesus needed them, they fled . . . they are doubting, they make rash promises which they can’t keep . . .

I wonder, as we hear this familiar story of Jesus’ appearing to his disciples, if we are reading it through that lens? If the truth is perhaps so life altering that we can’t hear it?

I mean, Have you ever been let down by someone? What was your emotional response? Love?? Or anger perhaps?

When you encountered the person . . . did you put them right?

Or perhaps you are one of those ever so rare people who is aware of having let someone down . . . What would your response be? Shame perhaps – almost certainly. Perhaps you wouldn’t want to meet the person you had let down. A resolve to pull your socks up and try and live up to their standards for you . . . Like God, no?

After all – we come to church and sit here and ‘call to mind our sins’ . . . make a list of how we have failed . . . perhaps we make a resolution ‘to do better’, to try and live up to God’s standards, and because we are, in the same way we expect others to live up to ours . . .

Back in 1985 a huge concert was held at Wembley Stadium – Live Aid. I wonder how many folk here watched some of it? It was to raise awareness and money to ‘feed the world’ as our TV screens were full of images of starvation in Ethiopia . . . In terms of star names, everyone was there including Queen . . . With Freddie Mercury strutting his stuff . . . ‘We are the champions of the world . . . No time for losers, for we are the champions . . .’ I wasn’t the only one who noticed a more than jarring note . . . no time for losers played out in front of images of starvation . . .

The world has no time for losers . . . it is its motto. Idols of perfection surround us and dominate us from birth . . . and our failure . . . ‘Could do better . . .’ So we need ‘people we can look up to leading us in the church . . . despite the FACT that we have to look down to see Jesus . . . washing our feet’

Images of perfection . . . Letting people down . . . but according to that story, this story of Jesus makes no sense . . .

The disciples are hidden for fear of  . . . the Judeans . . . not Jesus.

Because in the eyes of the world – Jesus, like his disciples, is a loser . . . The World has no time for losers, like the disciples, like Jesus . . .

Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 

He showed them his hands and side . . .  Jesus identifies with failures . . . They are so happy to see him . . .  that seems to be all that concerns him . . . Peter, get over yourself, I know you failed, but I’m not interested in that . . . ‘do you love me?’

Jesus shares his life with them, he identifies with them.  

Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.

So the early church – life shared – instead of images of perfection which separate us one from another so we can only stand at a distance and admire, a community of those who have failed according to the world’s story . . .

And then Thomas . . . again we have a problem. If we read this through the lens of ‘the demanding God who calls us to live up to his standards’, we do not see Jesus . . . who loves and forgives and washes feet . . .

Someone wrote of Thomas – ‘John obviously has it in from Thomas – painting him as ‘the doubter’’ but to write that assumes the world’s standards . . . that being a failure by the world’s standards is a failure in the light of the gospel also . . .

Note Thomas’ response – ‘My Lord, My God . . .’ You are the wounded God . . . in the eyes of the world you are the failure God . . . You are the God with whom I can identify . . . you are the God who will not hold my failure over my head – you are the God who Loves me unconditionally . . .

If we take the Incarnation at all seriously we need to See the wounded God in the Wounded Jesus . . . his bodily imperfection. Jesus does not stand in front of them with his wounds healed – They are open – and so Thomas believes in truth – identifying himself with the God who is not ‘impossibly perfect’ . . .

From the wounds flow life – blood and water –  the source of the eucharist is the wounded one – the lamb slain from before the foundation of the world – in other word’s God always was like this . . . pouring his life out through his wounds, by which we are healed . . .

You see, Jesus shares life in weakness . . . we are terrified of weakness – we are ashamed of our weakness in a world which demands strength, and success which has no time for human failure, for losers . . . which endlessly condemns and judges . . .

Why does Jesus call these disciples? Is he on some massive ego trip and doesn’t want to be outshone? If he wanted to set up a church in the image of the world, surely he would have selected people who were humanly speaking very gifted . . . or does he want to set up a church which is like Him? Like God? All too human

It is in weakness we are saved – at the end of ourselves . . . Years ago I had a  major breakdown. I had been driven by images of perfection, of trying to please God, of working harder and harder and I blew up . . . Coming out of that was a revelation . . . all the old ladies of the parish gathered round – ‘oh it’s so terrible, those nerves . . .’ So many of them had been through that. Suffered from nervous exhaustion . . . all of a sudden there was connection we hadn’t had before in weakness – the Vicar was human

Playing the guitar, I watch videos of people who play so well. I can admire, but I cannot relate to them . . . recently someone posted a video which was much more like my clumsy attempts . . . a bond was formed . . .

A community of drug addicts is the closest I’ve ever gotten to see the Kingdom – like in Acts. No one counted anything as their own . . . a community of the wounded, surrounding the wounded Jesus, who points us to the Wounded God . . .

I wonder . . . how many of us live under these idols of the God for whom ‘we can never be good enough’, who are worn out as we drive ourselves without love or mercy? And how well do we as a church manifest the wounded God, the real God shown perfectly in Jesus – put your hands in my side . . . I am broken . . . recognise yourself in me.

My Lord, and My God

Our End, and Our Beginning

Following Jesus – Finding the Space for God. Lent Course 2021

PART 2

Following Jesus—Finding the space for God

PART 2

Our end, and our beginning . . .

‘Lucy stayed behind because she thought it would be worthwhile trying the door of the wardrobe even though she felt almost sure it would be locked. To her surprise it opened quite easily, and two moth-balls dropped out’ C.S. Lewis – The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardobe

As we begin our journey, I’d like to suggest an idea. That there are unexplored dimensions to us. That within us are hidden places . . . perhaps even something not unlike Narnia?

Initially as Lucy explored the wardrobe, nothing of significance seemed to drop out. I guess she could have left it there, gone no further. ‘Nothing to see here! Pass along now!’ the door could have remained closed, but Lucy opened it and entered in. (And eventually, others followed her lead)

But where is this going. After all, only a fool thinks that there is a door to another world inside an old wardrobe, or indeed a small child. As Miraz, the King of Narnia says to Prince Caspian ‘That’s all nonsense, for babies . . . Only fit for babies do you hear? You’re getting too old for that sort of stuff . . .’. You may well say that even in Narnia, people don’t believe in Narnia . . .)

Yet didn’t Jesus say that we had to become like a small child to enter his Kingdom?

Indeed didn’t he Jesus say something about seeking the Kingdom of God?

But what does that mean? Pause a moment and see what arises?

Is there a call there for you?  Have you been seeking the Kingdom of God? What does it mean?

Houses serve as metaphors of our lives at all sorts of levels. I know that when I am puzzling over a question, often I will dream of searching the corridors of large old houses that I have known.

If we are fortunate, we live in a house . . . although the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head . . . perhaps there is an invitation there? To step outside of the boundaries of our house, of what we call ‘our life’? To explore a little? Perhaps our life has neglected rooms, hidden realms? Perhaps we haven’t really entered into it at all?

For example, considering not just our life but The kingdom of God; are we on the inside looking out, or the outside looking in . . .

Jesus after all has a habit of turning things inside out and upside down. “The meek shall inherit the earth!” “The first shall be last . . . and the last first” When Jesus speaks of entering the Kingdom of God, there are gates and doors. Some who thought they were in, find themselves on the outside and those whom are thought to be outside enter ahead of them. (Matthew 21:31) Indeed the first person to follow Jesus to the very end, is a common criminal . . . (Luke 23:43)

Follow me!

As we were reminded last week, The Gospel begins with an invitation to follow Jesus. So let us consider how this happens in the gospel of our patron, St John.

Perhaps as those who worship under his patronal care should we ask for it, we especially may find something here . . .

Jesus’ ‘call’ in John is unlike that of the other gospels. Jesus doesn’t call disciples in John, rather folk are drawn to him. Intrigued by him. Nicodemus looks for Jesus in the dark, the Samaritan woman at the well is led to seek after who he is. Shortly after he raises Lazarus from the dead it is suggested that ‘all the world has gone after him’, as some Greeks request “to see Jesus’’.  In John we first encounter disciples looking for Jesus.

John the Baptist twice draws his disciples attention to Jesus. ‘Behold! The Lamb of God!’ The second time, their curiosity aroused, two of his disciples set out after Jesus. Perhaps we might follow with them?

Jesus turns and sees us following, and says, ‘What are you looking for?’

Take a while. Pause . . . Are you following him? Why? What are you looking for?

The disciples’ answer is typical of conversations with a rabbi. Jesus asks a question to which the disciple responds with a question of their own. (What question might you ask Jesus in response?)

The disciples asked him ‘Rabbi, where do you live?’  . . . houses again. He said to them, ‘Come and you will see.’  Jesus calls and invites us to follow him. Away from where we are. To where he is.

Away from where we are . . .

To where he is . . .

Perhaps we might want to stay where we are – to stay home. Perhaps if we wait long enough he will come to us. Or perhaps we are meant to go to him? If we think we know what it means ‘to go to be with jesus’, perhaps we’re in no hurry . . .

Take a moment to pause . . . Stay home? But where is home?

Home is one of the most powerful foundational images we know of as human beings. ‘Homelessness’ is not a Good thing. Being lost likewise. The story of scripture is one which from the beginning concerns our home . . .

“In the beginning”, two stories are told. One is somewhat like watching a construction project, the construction of a theatre stage for the drama which is to follow. Evening and Morning, the first day, the second day . . . elements of the stage are put in place. Light, Lights, water, dry land. It is well ordered. It is declared Good. Finally the Actor is put in place . . . and God rests form all his work in Creation . . .

Then the play begins. There is music, there is in the dramatic scene setting. The stage is a garden and water flows from it. It is intimate and lively in a way perhaps the first story isn’t. God encourages the actor into his role and sees what he will name all the animals. The actor seems at home on the stage, until tragedy strikes. He misreads his cue. He freezes. He hides . . . and finds himself outside of the garden, unable to get in, surrounded by thorns and weeds and with a flashing sword set in the Space which would give entry . . .

But something else shifts in the story. He is no longer lost in the role. Like an actor who forgets his lines, he becomes self-conscious. ‘He saw that he was naked . . . ‘ there is perhaps no more powerful expression of self-consciousness!

Nakedness. It is the most powerful metaphor of feeling ‘out of place’. All the eyes are on you. You want to be somewhere else, you want to hide . . . What are YOU doing here?  And without any clothes on?! For shame we hide away . . .

In the story as the human becomes self-conscious, a form of alienation sets in. Is God telling him he is out of place? Or is he telling himself?? Things become confused. He has lost his bearings. Wherever he looks he finds his life as one of alienation, somehow shut out.

For many if not all of us, the Christian story is in some sense about finding our way home. Usually, and this is the reigning assumption in many ways, we talk about ‘life after death’, and ‘going to heaven when we die’

Take a moment to pause . . . Going to heaven when I die? But what does that mean?

Perhaps we are not hearing correctly.  After all didn’t Jesus say that we had hearing problems? In the same way he goes around healing the blind, suggesting to us that we don’t see right, he also heals the deaf . . . Perhaps they are signs, but perhaps we have taken the in one way when they are meant in another?

Do we assume too much? Is it perhaps easier to think we know what Jesus means? Isn’t it always the way? We know what it is all about . . . After all, if we are certain about that we don’t have to trouble ourselves about it, and just get on with our lives . . .

Like the Garden, we discover ourselves to be outside of somewhere. Let us call it Heaven. That is the name we usually give it. But where is it? Who knows the way?

Jesus has come to take us home – to where he lives. That is why he tells us to follow him, to come and see.

Times and Places

Following Jesus – Finding the Space for God. Lent Study 2021

Part 3

Questions . . . questions open doors. Perhaps they come through these doors?

We’ve been encouraged to sit with questions in silence. The best way to do this is to let the question sink into the silence. Perhaps nothing will come to you. That’s fine. An answer you construct is never as valuable as an answer that comes to you. Perhaps at the end of your time sat with the material, nothing seems to have come up, yet perhaps as you’ve gone about your everyday work something has occurred to you? Do you notice how sometimes in the midst of our going hither and thither, something suggests itself to you? What do you do when that happens? And where did it come from?

Jesus has come to take us home – to be with him where he lives. That is why he tells us to follow him.

Last week as you thought about following Jesus. I wonder what came up? Did it require you go somewhere? ‘Following’ . . . If so, where? And indeed when? If Jesus has gone to heaven, then do we follow him when we die?

I wonder if you recall what that phrase, ‘Finding the Space for God’, summoned up when you explored it in week one? Prayer?

Prayer

Lent comes to us as an opportunity to make space for God, and prayer obviously comes to mind in response. Prayer is one of the three classic disciplines associated with Lent; fasting and almsgiving being the other two. (The Ash Wednesday gospel comes from Matthew 6 where Jesus speaks about these three ways. Reflecting on these verses Chapter 6 verses 19-21 may prove helpful)

‘How is your prayer life?’ How might you answer this?

Recently I met with another minister. He was telling me how much he needed to carve out more time in his day for prayer. Someone else told me how they were struggling to find someone who wasn’t so busy that they could pray with them.

Have you ever felt that way? Do these not uncommon concerns find resonance with you?

Does it feel like there is a conflict, between your lives and your desire to pray?

On Sunday 23rd of October 1642, at Edgehill in Warwickshire, England, one of the first battles of the English Civil war was waged. The Royalist infantry was led by Baron Astley of Reading.

Immediately before the battle he prayed, and his prayer was recorded by his biographer, thus: ‘[He] made a most excellent, pious, short and soldierly prayer: for he lifted up his hands and eyes to heaven, saying “O, Lord! Thou knowest how busy I must be this day: If I forget thee, do not thou forget me.” And with that he rose up crying out, “March on boys!”’

Do you ever pray like this? Does your prayer and your life feel like this sometimes?

Perhaps we succeed at carving out time for prayer. We may have a regular discipline. We find the time – we settle down for our special time with God, yet when we do things aren’t always easy . . .

The Church of St Mary the Virgin in Gisburn – one of the churches I looked after in England – has seen a lot of history. It stands at the centre of the village on an ancient cross roads. (Well not exactly, the two routes were slightly offset, but both passed through the small village) Built long ago – we weren’t sure when, but there had been a Vicar there in 1124 – its solid oak doors, and castellated ridges and tower suggested it had been built not least as a place of defence. It was a place everyone would use, for many different activities. It had housed the village fire wagon, markets in older days, and more.

On the night of 16th August 1648, it had stabled the horses of Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentary forces as he made his way to fight the Royalists at the battle of Preston, a little further down the Ribble Valley, and a little later in the same Civil War.

It was said that a peculiar notch on one of the churches pillars was the result of someone letting off a musket in the building . . .

Perhaps Space for God is as much about a place as carving out time? But a space with whinnying war horses and guns going off?

The other church in the team had been built in the early years of the 20th Century. It has never seen such profane use. There were other places in the village which might be used for such things. This was ‘a space for God!’. Set off to one side of the village, church was for Sundays, and funerals and weddings, the God space.

Do you know such spaces?

How does the description of each church match your idea of prayer? A place of refuge and defence? A place of  metaphorical whinnying horses and gunfire? A place set apart from the rest of life?

How does each speak to your life? To your faith? What else do they suggest?

———

Think again about that question of the disciples to Jesus. Where are you living? And his response, ‘Come and see’. His command to seek and enter the Kingdom . . .

As we considered a few weeks ago as we heard the account of Jesus calling the fishermen, God is on the move. Yet we often try and keep him in one place. We carefully make a time . . . but its rather an odd idea, isn’t it? After all if you really want to see someone, say the doctor, don’t you ask them when they can see you?  Do you suggest to your doctor that you’ve managed to carve out 20 minutes, and will be in a certain place at a certain time, and expect her to turn up?

Or we make a special place, with just the right chair and candles . . . Yet, God had dwelt in a tent in the desert. When He moved, the Israelites just had to ‘up sticks’ and follow. But then things settled down. Life and faith in the promised land became domesticated, and perhaps so did their view of God?

David sought to build a space for God, a space in which God lived, a space where he xcould be sure God would turn up. In a sense it is rather a charming idea – like a little child inviting its parents to live in the house he has built for them under the kitchen table . . . God asks David, ‘You are going to make a house for me?’ ‘Are you sure we have this the right way around?’

Do we??

‘God is always there for me. He walks alongside me through my life’

‘I walk with God . . .’

Which of these phrases comes closest to describing how you relate to God? The content of your prayers?

The Carmelite nun, Ruth Burrows speaks of entering into relationship with God, entering His Kingdom in a challenging parable which I paraphrase here . . .

The Kingdom of God is as if a great king had set an examination for three of his subjects. He told them that it was impossible, and that they would be unable to answer the questions put to them, but that his Son would appear at some point by the city gate and instruct them.

The first subject thought this faintly ridiculous. If the king’s Son knew the answers, then he was sure he would also, and anyway there was so much to be doing.  Roll on exam day!

The second subject had a slight sense of unease and would turn up at the gate from time to time, but never found the Son there when he went. The third subject pitched his tent by the city gate. In fair weather and foul to the bemusement and occasional ridicule of passers by, he waited on The Son . . . He passed the exam.

Remember the gospel from a few weeks ago? The one about following Jesus. Jesus said ‘Follow me!’ and they just went. Dropped their nets – never a ‘by your leave’ – and if we  stayed by the shore, they’d disappear from our sight. Gone to be with Jesus . . .

The disciples put me in mind of a little known character in the Scriptures. Enoch. We know  little about him, although writings bearing his name were very important to the first Christians. All we know of him from Scripture is that  – ‘he walked with God, and was not . . .’

Follow Jesus. But where? Find the space for God? But where? Perhaps we have to follow Jesus to find the answers? But it may not be easy . . .