Friday, 30 March 2012

Sermon for Sunday 1st April - Palm Sunday 2012

Sermon for Sunday April 1st - Palm Sunday 2012
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Philippians 2:5-11
Mark 11:1-11

“For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh,
but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

Our Struggle, our Conflict - as St Paul Has to remind the flock in Ephesus - we are Always getting this wrong, the Focus of the Conflict

At the end of our Gospel we heard these words ‘Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.’ Mark in his Sparse way leads us into the sense of a gathering storm - Jesus has surveyed the battlefield - Conflict lowers on the horizon. And we are of course holding our breath, for we know what is coming - Actually even if we didn’t know, we could guess.
    The Theme of Conflict is inescapable in Mark’s gospel - from the very first, Everyone and Everything seems to be in conflict with Jesus - the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the teachers of the Law, the Herodians - everywhere we turn we find people at odds with Jesus and HIs message. And its very easy to turn things around - to say as I started to write in this sermon -  that Jesus is in conflict with Everyone and Everything - especially everything and all those people who deny life.
    As if people can be easily split into neat categories - goodies and baddies. Those who are For Jesus and those who are against. Jesus we say is against the ‘Powers that be‘  - stripping that phrase of all of its power. ‘He’s against all those baddies, against all the people who are stopping what ‘We call justice’ we say. As if He has come to sort out the World on Our behalf. If only we could get rid of those people, those unjust structures, those diseases,  THEN the world would be a better place. And So today, we cheer Jesus on in what we think is his Crusade to put things right for us. Just as they all cheered him on on that first Palm Sunday. As if we see straight and understand Him and are not ourselves in conflict with Him.
    Of course there was a very powerful and legitimate ‘Cry for Justice’ in the minds of  many in the crowds. They wanted shot of the Romans, or at least they did if they weren’t benefitting from Roman rule. Funny how we always tend to see matters in such terms. The Roman reign of terror - putting down the freedom fighters with ill focussed precision, Or the Pax Romana, enabling Decent People to go about their everyday lives and business in Freedom, depending where you stood. Some wanted a King who would overthrow the powers that be and then ‘all would be well’, But as Jesus warned them and as he warns us as well, the devil returns, and finding the house clean and well swept invites some of his friends along and the last state of the man is worse than the first. We do Not understand what he is really about, and we are not alone.

The Crowd didn’t understand what he was really about, nor did his disciples didn’t. We find Even them in COnflict with Jesus - they are Getting in the way, threatening to obstruct his path - we remember His Angry words to Peter - ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’ - and there we may well find a clue - a clue to our own ignorance. For if Peter who has walked with Jesus and seen him heal so many, if Peter hasn’t got it - what makes us so sure we have. If Peter finds himself in conflict with Jesus - what makes us think We are not?

We cannot hear the words of Mark with anything approaching a sense of Comfort - in Mark’s account of Jesus we see writ large the Servant of the Lord from Isaiah
The Lord God helps me;
   therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like flint,
   and I know that I shall not be put to shame;
   he who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me?
   Let us stand up together.
Who are my adversaries?
   Let them confront me.
It is the Lord God who helps me;

No-one sees what he is about and Ultimately Everyone at one level or another is in conflict with Him - He is alone in the crowds. They are worshipping and rejoicing - ‘Hosanna!
   Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
   Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!’- his face though is set like Flint - His adversaries are confronting him Even though Now some of them rejoice to see Him come, they will be the same ones who call out ‘Crucify’, the same ones who will Flee from his presence in the darkness of Gethsemane. Jesus is under no illusions - He is Alone. Everyone is revealed to be against Him - He Knows it - we don’t understand.

And the lack of our understanding is revealed in the gospel text. ‘Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.’ We are given warning, that this is All about Worship. It is about the Temple. Last week we thought about Worship - about the mystery of Worship and earlier in Lent about Jesus declaring, destroy this Temple and I will rebuild it in three days.

Last week when I was teaching the final session of our Lent course on Christian Practices, and in Worship in particular, I rather naughtily asked people in their minds to make a choice, along these lines ‘If I were to say to you that from now on you had to choose between Coming to Worship Sunday by Sunday and Going out into the World to ‘make it a better place’ - and you HAD to choose - which do you think you would do’. It was an unfair question perhaps, although it does perhaps reveal how much we think that we are in charge of our own lives that most if not all of us understand Sunday worship to be dispensible in a way that would have shocked many of our forebears in faith [I feel rather like a headmaster of my acquaintance, who week by week stood up at the beginning of assembly and berated the people who were late - except of course because they were late they never heard him :) ] But if you HAD to choose - I suggest that we are perhaps more of a view that we Know what is wrong in the world and so perhaps are safe to go out and fix it, without worship. In other words we see things in terms of fixing unjust structures or turning oppressors out of power - like the crowds. We don’t Understand that our whole way of being is under the judgement of the Cross - and that every Sunday we are re-oriented to See afresh the Way of Christ, to be Judged and Saved by it, and thus and ONLY thus set free to live for his Glory

Jesus ‘went into the Temple and looked around - he Sees. This is the place God’s Life is meant to burst into the World - the Symbol of God’s Presence and lIfe amongst his people, but it had become a place where Life was Taken - not a place where Life was ‘Given’. Where money was extracted from the poor in the name of ‘good business’ - where the Free Life of God had been made into yet another commodity to be bought or sold. We know there is a conflict coming at the Temple - a Conflict between Life Taken and Life GIven. Between Life Taken, and Life Given - the Two Ways And he Chooses the way of Giving His Life. Not an unwilling sacrifice - no one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. The Way of Kings in Israel had been take take take as the prophet Samuel had warned - it is the way of us all. But not the way of this Servant King. For this Conflict between Life taken and Life Given is The Conflict at the heart of it all, between the Way of Sacrificial Love and Everything Else. Between The Life of God and The Way of the World.

Which brings us to the second place in the text where we are shown that it is our Whole way of being under the radical Judgement of the flint faced servant of God , as the King comes into Jerusalem on a Donkey.
    Now of course Much is made of the Donkey, of the humility of Christ, but what we perhaps fail to recognise that this was precisely How the King of Israel was meant to be. The Donkey was the Royal Steed - Israel’s Kings, God’s King was supposed to Ride on Donkeys. When the Kingship is first instituted - Samuel goes out to find Saul - who is off in the wilderness - looking for three donkeys he has lost, and when Solomon - Solomon in All his Glory is made King what do we read? he priest Zadok, the prophet Nathan, and Benaiah son of Jehoiada, and the Cherethites and the Pelethites, went down and had Solomon ride on King David’s mule, and led him to Gihon. There the priest Zadok took the horn of oil from the tent and anointed Solomon. They took Solomon and had him ride . . . on King David’s mule. He was Made to. To remind him what it meant to be God’s king.
    But the Kingship of Solomon was a Disaster, because although he rode on a donkey - in his heart and mind and in the hearts and minds of his people he rode on a majestic white charger. Because he Had to, because he was afraid of what it meant to be a King upon a Donkey. Do not be afraid says Jesus - over and over again - but we are terrified and most of all, we are afraid of the one who most truly represents us, the King who is meek and gentle - who comes to us meek and humble seated upon a donkey’s colt.     The people See the King on a Donkey and so they Know he is the King because he is on a Donkey, but they do not see what the donkey signifies about Kingship. That here is a type of King who is utterly in Conflict with the Way of the World - Here is a King who is steely faced in his conflict with Everything - that this act of Salvation is first to Judge Everything, so that Everything might become that which is redeemed.
    What do We see in King Jesus? Do we also see the Donkey and fondly imagine the White Charger? Do we secretly hope that this way of vulnerability is really only a sleight of hand, that God isn’t really like this?

Jesus in his Kingly humility is in Conflict with the Way of the World - The World revealed in the Kings it chooses for itself. And in his journey towards the cross - what becomes clear is that the illusions of everyone are swept away. We know the story of the Emperor who has no clothes - who is fooled and tricked by his Vanity into wearing the most incredible suit of clothes that only the wise can see, a suit that is no suit at all? And how the Crowd, not wishing to be fools all express their wonder at the clothes.Despite the fact that he is naked.
    This is just like this story, except here the King is not vain - he knows he goes Naked into this week, bearing no sword, riding on a humble mule - and as his nakedness and humility comes into sharper and sharper focus - gradually the crowd See that he is Not the Powerful Warrior King they had wanted, and they begin to drift away to come back and hurl at him al their rebukes for not being the King They Want - as he stands scourged and whipped before the crowds they see him as he really is - the King who made himself Nothing - the King who emptied himself, taking the form of a Slave = How can you support a King who is a Slave?? - who Meekly goes to his death - and they Mock - they laugh - they scorn, so terrified are they of the Truth - that it is only in utter weakness and vulnerability that the world can be redeemed. Jesus is the true Emperor with no clothes - naked and not ashamed - not hiding. Not afraid.

And it is not only the crowd, it is his disciples too - they melt away. Perhaps because they had heard but never understood what he meant when he said - ‘no one can be my disciple unless he gives up Everything he has - lets go of the world - no-one can be my disciple unless he hates his father and his mother, yes indeed life itself - whoever would become my disciple must take up his cross - whoever would gain his life must lose it’. Like the crowd they had an image of Jesus that didn’t fit with his words, and chosen the image - the idol Jesus for the naked reality -  and now as they approach the end it becomes terrifyingly clear, he meant every word of it, to become obedient even unto the death of the cross. That True Power is revealed in letting go of all Power. That true worship is not in the sacrifice of others, it is in the laying down of one’s own life. And they flee, and now it is clear, he is utterly alone. For He is the True King, and as it is clear as he goes to His throne, He has No subjects. All the other Kings have taken and taken and taken - All Human Kings and rulers do - but this King Gives - Everything.

It is this terrifying self emptying of Christ, this Utter vulnerability that has led some theologians to speak not unreasonably of the weakness of God - for in our sin skewed vision the Way he Walks in in Holy week is the way of utter weakness - of putting himself in the hands of evil men and women - that they might do what they want to him. Yet in this Final Conflict the way of Death is Overcome, for He chooses to Give His Life - and so it Cannot be Taken. There is No Triumph for the World over the One who comes in humility and weakness and Gives His Life

Jesus in Holy Week stands utterly against all that is, all the world in its fearful pomp and show, in all its grasping and taking and clinging on - In His Self Giving he pronounces judgement on it all, and shows us the Way to Life.

To quote the disciple who perhaps didn’t doubt at all, Let us go with him, that we too may die, and so live


Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Lenten Disciplines - Fasting (1)

I began by suggesting that we might think that Almsgiving was the easiest of Lent disciplines - after all one need merely set up a standing order to a charity and that, we think, is that. I went on to suggest that Almsgiving if pursued in the spirit in which it is intended is actually the hardest, such is the grip that money has on us

On the other hand - we might suppose that fasting is the hardest of the three chief disciplines. Of all three, it most smacks of asceticism - a much maligned word in a culture that thinks that lack of Anything we desire as soon as we have the thought is Gross Deprivation!

Yet, at the heart of all these disciplines is the stripping away to discern Reality. Through Self denial, we realise we have been living a Lie, we have been deceiving ourselves. All that is stripped away is revealed as a cloak under which we have hidden - the false security of Money, the Busyness which cannot allow time for Prayer, and we come to see how we have abused the Goodness of Food, and in so doing missed its real Gift.

When we Fast we learn again the significance of food. And it is a significance we have forgotten and lost sight of, a Loss as significant as the Loss of Life we suffered when our First Parent Sinned, for it is inextricably linked to it. We fail to understand what we are involved in when we eat, and Most especially as we always should - (for 'it is not good that Man should be alone') - when we eat together.

One of the first effects of the fall was a distorted relationship with food - 'by the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread' - and we have reached a time in history where that distortion has reached what one can only call blasphemous proportions. We live in an age when many millions are dying from overeating and millions more from inadequate nutrition. This is played out before us through the media, yet nothing seems to change. That which was Good has become a Snare.

In part this is revealed in our practice of fasting or, better, lack of practise. In an age when so many of us have so much food, fasting has died a death. Yet in previous times when food was more scarce and thus more precious, such self denial was a commonplace. We have as it were become addicted to food and our relationship to it more and more unhealthy. Many homes are full of cookbooks that are never read, TV shows draw in millions who rarely prepare a fresh meal to watch the experts, perhaps whilst also munching through a bag of potato crisps. Which draws attention to the paradox that we have also become increasingly inattentive to food. We Watch it, look at it, read about it - but do not attend to it - we are not Present to the Gift. We talk of Grazing - we Eat on the move - we have business lunches. Family mealtimes are more and more a thing of the past [One sad definition of a family I read was 'a small group of people who share a common refrigerator and microwave].

And this last example brings me to my point - that Food is a Creative Vehicle of Reality - it has the Deep potential of Creating Life, if we understand what it is - God's Life giving Gift. And the Life is Shared. In the Fall we lose our relationship to Everything in losing our relationship with God - with Food and each other. (It is noticeable that the first murder denotes separation over matters of Food). We speak of Companionship as a deep level of Friendship - the word literally means 'With Bread' - Friendship - Relationship is Food oriented. And so in lent we strip away all the Lies and re-appropriate Food - by  NOT eating for a time.

Imagine you have not eaten for some time - you are hungry - you have been praying (Fasting should Always be accompanied by prayer). Now you come to sit and eat. Take time to contemplate what is before you - God has Provided - Give thanks (Saying Grace has also disappeared from our lives as we have lost touch with Food). In a very real sense, the food is an expression of the presence of God - He has provided it, without Him you have no food.

Now imagine further - two people sat together sharing a meal - but a third is present, for God has provided. Something knew comes into being in the Deep web of reality if we will but see it. Eating and Drinking is a Sacramental Act. We remember one who came 'eating and drinking' - the Lord of Life is Present. In this simple act of sharing a meal Companionship is happening - in God's hospitable act of providing food - you are drawn closer together.

Of course, as Christians we should never have forgotten this for central to our Faith is The Meal. God offering himself to us in Bread and Wine - the Life that enlivens Everything. In the early days of the church, the feast of the Eucharist was encompassed by a shared meal, just as the Institution of the Lord's Supper takes place in the context of a meal. Everything touched by this becomes Holy.

If we are alert to what we are doing - to the Gift, then Every shared meal becomes something Gloriously Other. As we say at the Eucharist 'The Lord is Here - his Spirit is with us!'. 
Might we not also say around the dinner table??

If we fast we begin once more to encounter God, 
to strip away the excess and thus see everything in its true light - including Food.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Parish Magazine Article for April 2012

The Vicar Writes . . .

Over the first few days of this month as we pass deeper into Autumn, we also walk with Christ through the events of Holy Week, to the Cross and Beyond. In some senses I find that, although every previous Easter I have spent with daffodils and cherry blossom bursting forth giving a Visual Clue to the new Life available to us all through the Resurrection of Christ, there is something to be said for Easter in Autumn. It reminds us that Resurrection only follows on from death - that there is Nothing inevitable about it. It is a Great surprise, that in the laying down of Life - new life might arise.

That Laying down of Life is remarkable in so many ways not least that it is a Living rebuke to Satan’s final temptation, to be Powerful. "Worship me and all this will be yours!!"
 Christ refuses the way of Power - and chooses instead the way of Vulnerable Love.

We tend to forget that when the Son of Man is Glorified, He is nailed to a cross, a member of a despised race, naked. There is No sense of Power there at all. God is revealed to us upon the Cross in utter vulnerability - and thus reveals to us something perhaps we might not wish to comprehend, that the most Powerful way, is to lay all power down. That Life is only found in vulnerability.

One of the quirks of the English liturgical tradition is its heavy overuse of the phrase ‘Almighty God’, a phrase which occurs many many more times in English prayer books, both  old and new, than it ever does in Scripture.  Coming to New Zealand, a country which has no lengthy history of Empire it is interesting to discover that the liturgy makes little or no use of the phrase ‘Almighty God’. The Humanly powerful are always the most fearful, they have the most to lose, they need a God who is up to the job.

But this is not the way of Christ, it is not the Life giving Power of God. No, in the words of one of my mentors of old, ‘His Power is revealed in that he is utterly defenceless before us’. Utter vulnerability is the way to Life. He empties himself, makes himself nothing, loses  His Life - all ways of expressing that which we most fear, death - and in so doing overcomes Death.

At the heart of Easter is this mystery of Life and death - the One who overcomes Death by dying and invites us to do the same - to become like Him in his life through the way of  Vulnerability. Vulnerability is something we fear because we see how people are forced into it, by old age, or poverty, or sickness, or physical oppression. But God in Christ does something quite remarkable - he Reveals Himself in Choosing vulnerability. Paradoxically, in choosing the way of weakness, he is revealed to be the one who is Truly powerful. And invites us to do the Same.

Easter in Autumn expresses this well - it is the way to Life we can scarce imagine
Dare we follow?

Lent Course Session 5 : - Worship

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Sermon - Sunday March 25th - John 12:20-33, Hebrews 5:5-10

Sermon for Sunday 25th March 2012
Jeremiah 31:31-34
Hebrews 5:5-10
John 12:20-33

‘having been made perfect,
 he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him,
 having been designated by God a high priest for ever
according to the order of Melchizedek’

A good friend was once at an ecumenical conference. There were there representatives of all the Christian Churches and as is the case on such occasions, there were ample small group sessions where folk would share together their different experiences. My friend found himself in a small group with a priest from the Orthodox Church, that church which accounts for about a third of the world’s Christians. Well conversation moved on to differing practices of Worship and my friend seeking to engage the Orthodox Priest, who seemed to have become very quiet, asked him if he would describe worship in his tradition. ‘Worship?’ he replied, ‘how can one describe Worship’, and descended back into silence. Along also now with the rest of the group.

It seems, as the American Writer Marva Dawn puts it, that all too often the church descends into ‘Worship Wars’ – where Everyone it seems has some sort of opinion which they are eager to voice. ‘ The Old hymns are completely outdated’ – ‘the new songs are so banal’ – Church is not complete without a Choir – No! A Band is what is needed! – Must we have so much Liturgy – Oh How I Love the Old Prayer Book – Oh How I Love the New Zealand prayer book. Worship is all too often it seems, to steal the words of Macbeth about life ‘a tale . . . full of sound and fury’  - but, if the Orthodox Priest is right only an idiot would try to tell it, and it signifies Far from Nothing.

Yet however much people are ready with their opinions about worship  - pretty exclusively it must be said in the Protestant Churches – it seems that when we come to the Scriptures we Avoid like the plague those passages where Worship is thrust to the fore. If I were to ask which book of the Bible, people were most wary of and found most difficult – then I guess most folk would say ‘The Revelation of St John the Divine’ – a book which is Profoundly to do with Worship – false and true worship, not of course that that has stopped a Lot of people talking about it. But running it a close second, surely must be the Letter to the Hebrews, which seems utterly impenetrable to most modern readers and also contains a rebuke to those who don’t understand it. [ Along with Dire warnings about falling away!]Immediately after the passage we heard a moment ago – we hear this. ‘About this we have Much to Say that is hard to explain, since you have become dull in understanding. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, need someone to teach you again the basic elements of the oracles of God!’. It is almost as if it is saying – not only don’t you understand worship in its fullness, you haven’t even got off first base – you are still in the nursery.

And we Bridle at that of course – well we’ve been worshipping all our lives we say – OK then – who is Melchizedek? What does it mean that Christ has been designated by God a high Priest in the order of Melchizedek? Why does the author go on for THREE CHAPTERS about Melchizedek???

Plainly if this book is all about Christian Worship, then perhaps we too need to keep more silence about it. Certainly at one level this passage presents a Profound puzzle concerning the whole thrust of the book of Hebrews to this point – for up until chapter 5  the key theme has been how Jesus has been Better – Greater than – what has gone before. He is greater than the prophets – the book opens ‘ Long ago God spoke to our ancestors, in many and various ways – but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son,’ -  Greater than Moses – ‘Now Moses was faithful in all god’s house as a servant – Christ however was faithful over God’s house as a Son’ – and now as the Melchizedek section begins, Christ is being portrayed as  Greater than the High Priest of the line of Aaron, the high priest in the Temple at the time of Jesus. And to make the point – the writer begins by making the point that Christ is a Valid High Priest – for he does not appoint himself – but was appointed by God as was Aaron – but then goes on that he is of a different Order – that of Melchizedek – not of Aaron.

So in Christ we do not have the continuation of the order of Aaron, the order of the Time from Moses to Jesus – but rather the continuation of a Much older order – that Of Melchizedek. In a real sense there is a suggestion that although Christ’s priesthood is the greatest, it is paralleled by that of Melchizedek.

So Just who Was Melchizedek?? Well we read about him right back in the book of Genesis – The King of Elam, Fought against some of the neighbouring Kings and somehow Lot, Abram’s cousin got caught up in it and Captured. So Abram set out to rescue his relative. Having defeated the King of Elam he is on his way home when, out of nowhere we read‘Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. (He was priest of God Most High.)  And he blessed him [Abram] and said,
“Blessed be Abram by God Most High,
     Maker of heaven and earth;
20 and blessed be God Most High,
    who has delivered your enemies into your hand!”
And Abram gave him[Melchizedek] a tenth of everything. And the writer to the Hebrews goes on to make the point that the lesser is blessed by the Greater – that Melchizedek is Greater than Abraham and perhaps we hear here an echo of a dispute Jesus has with the Pharisees – Are you greater than our Father Abraham? To which this reading from Hebrews answers with  a resounding Yes!

And the parallels don’t end there  - Melchizedek is a Priest King – King of Salem, which means King of Peace – and his name MelchiZedek means King of Righteousness. He is Priest, King of Righteousness and Peace. And Christ is both our righteousness and our Peace. And we are told – having neither beginning nor End – but Resembling the son of God – he is a priest forever. How can this be?? For this is the thing – we know nothing of Melchisedek – he pops in and out of the story  - there is no hint of birth or death. Just as The King Priest – Christ is from all eternity to eternity -  This is Most mysterious. Perhaps it is best to say that like the three visitors to Abraham – somehow Melchizedek is a theophany, or better a Christophany – Christ making himself known in the story from of old, as with the figure in the fiery furnace in Daniel.

We are left unsure – it is clear we are face to face with a profound Mystery with regard to this Priestly worshipful ministry, the book of Hebrews, shot through with the matter of Worship leaves us saying – ‘we do not know, we are not sure’ -  and that it seems is important for two reasons.

Firstly, that all those worship wars seem in the end to boil down to one thing – a desire for worship that fits us. However it is stated – those who go to war over worship want something for themselves – whether it be beautiful language, or ‘music that makes me feel close to God’, or making it Relevant. What is essentially sought is less Worship that is focused towards the glorifying of the Son of Man, than Worship fits My categories of the Good and the True and the Beautiful. Of Marva Dawn it was once said she led a service of worship at the end of which a lady rather haughtily said to her ‘I did not like Any of the hymns today!’ and Dawn replied, ‘that’s Ok, we weren’t worshipping you!’

We live in an age where like Procrustes, we must make everything Fit – we have no time for mystery – everything must be brought down to the level of the human and if possible My Level – there must be NO Mystery!! We Must understand!! If we cannot it cannot be True – everything must be brought down.

And here some might argue, But That is Exactly the point of the Incarnation – Christ became like us – he came down, so that it Could be all on our terms – But that is Only half the story and if it is left there we are left in a swamp of self centered sin and not saved. No! The work of Christ in his Incarnation is not merely to step down, and that in itself is enough of a profound mystery for us to be more reticent in saying what it means for us all – no -  it is to step down so that he may be lifted up – and So draw all people unto Him. He steps down to our life – in order to be lifted up – to be Glorified and so to lift us up to His Glorified Life.

This is a Profound mystery – and we come now in the church’s year to the culmination of that mystery – the Paschal Mystery – Christ’s own self offering upon the Cross – the Priest King glorified for the sake of the whole world, not to condemn but that the world might be saved through him. And it is the coming of the Greeks, their presence amplified in that it is the two Greek named Disciples, Philip and Andrew who tell Jesus – the profoundest of Mysteries that out of the depth of time and an obscure race – prefigured in the wandering Aramean, Abraham, ministered to by this shadowy yet Gloprious figure of Melchizedek – from this mysterious root might come the saviour of the world.

And in doing so to exercise a Priesthood which can find no ready parallel, only in this strange story of the Priest who appears out of nowhere with . . . Bread and Wine. We are pointed by Melchizedek’s action back to Christ. Thus when the disciples were told in the upper room to remember him in Bread and Wine they would be thrown back on this ancient type – not the Priesthood of Aaron, but of Melchizedek – here was the Priest who lives for ever, without beginning or end. And so they must have been thinking in terms of a Sacrificing Priest and they were right, but of a type Never seen.

Christ unlike the High Priests of the Aaronic line, offers Himself, a lamb with out spot or blame from before the foundation of the world. As we approach Holy week we hear this announcement from Christ himself – the hour has come for the Son of man to be glorified – truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies it remains but a single grain; but if it dies it bears much fruit – and when I am lifted up from the earth I will draw all people to me.

So we look into the Heart of Worship – Christ’s Own self offering – this is why we should fear to speak of Worship for this is its heart, the self offering of the Son of God for our sins. All Worship comes from This Root. It is not primarily a response to it – rather it is Worship that Springs from it – Worship that can Only be understood in thelight of it. Jesus goes on ‘Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.’ To worship in spirit and in truth is to follow in the path of this One True Sacrifice

As the grain falls to the ground and dies what does it do – but bears much fruit – many many more grains, that themselves fall to the ground and die, That do not themselves turn back from carrying their Cross because We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters the inner shrine behind the curtain, where Jesus, a forerunner on our behalf, has entered, having become a high priest for ever according to the order of Melchizedek.

 He has gone before us – our Great High Priest – revealing the self offering that is the Heart of Worship and so let us follow Him in this season of the Paschal Mystery, of the Lamb, slain before the foundation of the World.


Lent Meditation - Denial of the body

'For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgement against themselves.'

Talk of denial of the body in Lent, may well evoke images of fasting, of 'giving up' bodily pleasures for a time of prayer. (The Saints of the church always remind us that fasting without prayer is the devil's own work, so to speak)  But for now that is what is not what I wish to explore - there is yet time as Lent still has a few days to run.

Nor do I wish to think too deeply about our disembodied existence in modern culture. If it is true that the average Westerner spends at least ten hours a day sat, as I am now, in front of a screen, then our bodies are little less than a set of levers with which we interact Virtually, and then only if we are working or 'interacting' online. If we are sat in front of a movie or the TV then our bodies are pretty much out of it. Indeed our flicking of the remote from station to station is only a sign that our minds and the chemical reward signals that do so much of the driving of our minds are in control. Our bodies are all but useless.

And yet we Are in a very real sense, our bodies. As we are we Act. Whatever we do is somehow bodily, and we can only engage others through the medium of our bodies, our bodies Express us. We need to be physically present to be Alive. It is an irreducible fact.
             In the beginning the man and the woman were naked and unashamed. they were Present. Knowing and Fully Known. So When Christ comes into the world he comes Embodied, for the Body is the vehicle of Knowing and being Known. How would we for a moment recognise each other apart from our bodies?

This leads me on, perhaps surprisingly to The Church. For many of us in the Western Church, the Church itself has been largely understood, for better or worse as an aid to faith - but that encounter with God in Christ was somehow separate. We see the church as one thing and Christ as another. And of course in one sense this is true, but only I suggest in the sense that the Son is not the Father, nor the Father the Son. In a sense we may I think speak of the relationship betwixt Christ and His Church as 'two in one and one in two' (to misquote an old hymn). Too much?? Certainly to the modern ear, Yes. But to our forebears in faith??

St Paul in his teaching on marriage puts alongside the one flesh union of marriage, the union twixt Christ and the Church, the bride of Christ - the two become One. And of course he is explicit in this regard in his teaching in 1 Corinthians - You Are the Body of Christ. He paints this at the individual level by saying, 'it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.' This presence of God in and through the believers is most starkly put in the story of Anaias and Sapphira - (Acts 5:1-11), where Peter rebukes their deceit to the church as deceit to God

And finally we have the words of the Lord - 'when two or three are gathered in my name, I am Present in the midst of them'

The truth is that we encounter Christ in and through our fellow believers - as Jacob said of Esau 'truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God' - this is no less than that which our true apprehension should be of our fellow Christians. They are God's chosen vehicle to mediate the Love of Christ. We see this plainly in the idea of laying on of hands, such a vital part of Christian praxis. The body of the believer is literally Vital in prayer, in healing ministry, in blessing, in ordination, in baptism and confirmation, in the Eucharist. 

The verse at the head of this article, taken from St Paul's teaching on the Eucharist. Tuned as we are to doctrines of the Presence in the Sacrament, it is all too easy to miss that what Paul has in mind here is as much the body of the church. Put another way, if you do not recognise Christ in each other, then you do not recognise him in bread and wine.

Where accidents of church history and poor teaching have led so many of us to deny this truth, 
it is still the truth and our fellow believers are to us as Christ, if we will believe.

And therein lies so much blessing.

In my previous blog I spoke about following Christ. How we do this is actually discovered in many many ways though mutual submission to one another in Christ. We learn obedience to Christ in obedience to one another. We serve Christ in serving one another. We bless Christ in blessing one another. We suffer with Christ in suffering for one another.

Oh how much our lives might be blessed if we Knew this Truth?

An old hymn which grows out of an understanding the Christ and his church are Not joined together in mystical union says this . . .

What a Friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear!
What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer!
O what peace we often forfeit, O what needless pain we bear,
All because we do not carry everything to God in prayer.

Yet as many many many will testify, we take things to the Lord in prayer and yet we have no peace and we have much pain - for we do not discern the body.

As of old, it is pride that causes us to hide from one another. 
We imagine we are open to God, but we do not trust God in one another

Do we know His Presence in the body?

It is in the touch of another that is the touch of Christ - the One who calls us back to ourselves, our bodies and the more certain and sure presence of God

This is one denial we need to give up for Lent
And beyond . . .

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Lent Meditation - Following

Why do we do Lent? We do Lent for any number of reasons. From a devotional angle we do Lent to prepare our hearts for Holy Week and Easter. But in essence we do Lent for exactly the same reason we do anything in the Christian Life - to follow Jesus. In this case we follow Him into the Wilderness, judging that if it was necessary for Jesus in his humanity to learn Faith, perhaps we might also need this lesson.

Over the last few years, the metaphor of Journey has become the dominant one when we speak of the Christian life, or better, 'Walk'. Of course this ties quite neatly at first sight with the idea of following Jesus, except first sight can be deceptive. Talk of 'My Journey', gives the game away. As we explored yesterday, this Life of Faith isn't about us - it's about God. It is only Our journey insofar as it is the journey we make, but Nothing else is Ours. If we are to be faithful to Christ, then it is His journey. He sets the direction, he determines the days itinerary, he is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end - indeed His Life is the Meaning of the journey.

As we explored yesterday, when the comfortable 'me' shaped 'god' is discovered - often through Trial - to be no more than the echo of ourSelves, it can feel as if we have lost our bearings. Our lives were Self referential and now they can no longer be if we are to have Faith. But what now is Faith in this strange new world to which we wake from the sleep of death? It is to follow Jesus - and is so doing give up our life.

We have all too easily divorced believing in Jesus from following Him. Some years ago I was part of a small group studying 'discipleship'. One lady member of the group, a Christian of many years standing who knew her Scriptures better than any of us, was not at all happy with the title of the course. 'I do not believe that we are all called to be disciples'. Although this statement sounded  and sounds outrageous, it was in effect the voicing of the attitude most of us have to our faith. That we can have faith, but not follow. We make Our Journey and Jesus accompanies us. This is in the end a death dealing deceit. It is the deceit of a faith that is about Us and not about God.

In the Wilderness the people of God are meant to learn that this is All about following, that the life of faith is one of dependence upon God. Realising that He is the Source of our Life, we can do nothing more than chase after Him. Like a small child who instinctively knows that their security is in the company of their parents - we Must follow.

But that following is disorientating to us - we feel at sea.
Faith is no comfort blanket - it is an insistent Knowledge that we Must follow
That we Must be with Jesus
It is All about Him

Mark in his gospel makes very little of the forty days - his account is sparse 'He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him' - and then Immediately the action moves on. Mark is Always using the word 'Immediately' - he reveals to us that we cannot settle. The disciples find themselves at times confused, at times (literally) all at sea in a great storm, at times in conflict with Jesus - but all the time with Him. And indeed this continues through Jesus' death and resurrection. 'you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.' Mark wants Us to know, this is how it is to follow the Risen Lord too.

Adele Calhoun in her deceptively lovely book 'Invitations from God', puts this aspect of following - that it decenters us, and in a very real sense 'Saves us from ourSelves' - very well.

Following is a huge deal to Jesus, because following builds character, sands away the ego and shapes the heart. Followers can't barge ahead or simply do the next thing that pops into their head. they can't set cruise control or autopilot and zone out on what's happening. Followers must be alert attentive and ready to turn on someone else's dime. Jesus followers take up the challenge of turning where He turns, stopping where he stops, detouring where he detours, loving whom He loves an serving whom He serves.

To Follow is to lay down Our Life and indeed Our version of faith.
It is to learn to be at Sea on the Vast Ocean of God's Love
With Jesus our Only security

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Lent Meditation - It's not about Me

The writer Marva Dawn is someone whose work I enjoy and learn much from. She has had a Very tough life and 'suffered greatly at the hands of many physicians', although she has on occasion joked that if she lived in another country she may well have been written off medically a long time ago :)

That tough life has produced what is at times an apparently brutally realistic faith. It is said of her that one day she was leading worship in a church, and at the end was approached by a member of the congregation, who said 'I did not like Any of the hymns you chose today!' Quick as a flash Dawn replied. 'That's OK - we weren't worshiping you, we were worshiping God' Ouch!!

Lent, if we will let us teaches us this Most Vital Lesson - a Lesson which is Central to a Living faith - that We are Not the Centre, God is. We give things up to deny ourSelves and in that denial begin to realise just How central to our faith we are - that we do NOT like to deny ourselves, to lose our life to find it.

Christ at the end of forty days has laid his life down - in a sense the shadow of the Cross has already done its work. If there is anything there now, it is the Life of God his Father. And that is revealed in the confrontation with Satan - Every response focusses on God. 'Every word that proceeds from the mouth of God', 'Do Not put the Lord your God to the test', 'Worship the Lord your God - him only shall you serve' (remembering that to Serve is to Worship (you cannot Serve God and Mammon).

Lent is a time when we strip back - in effect laying our life down - to reveal what lies underneath - what lies hidden from even our own gaze. And this is to learn hard truths about ourselves for the heart is deceitful and hiding, like our first parents.

And our hearts greatest deceit is to allow us to create a faith for ourselves which is 'Me shaped' - a comfortable 'god', 'god' in our own image. Of course it may well be that for some reason or other the 'god' we create is harsh or cruel, but just as often this 'god' is one who comforts us. Either way it is an inner reflection of the 'god' we want, the 'god' who we create to protect us from God. The 'god' who is just a pitiful image of ourselves.

Either way we detect this false 'god' when life overwhelms us - when this protective 'god' we have crafted for ourselves is inadequate and crumbles. The shattering of this mould can be very disorientating - it is like being cast adrift on a vast ocean - for formerly we had taken our bearings in effect from ourselves - we were our own inner compass. It feels like we are losing our faith, that God is now distant. And many interpret it in that way to their great loss. But in truth all it reveals is how far we have strayed from him in our own hearts - how small we had made the love of God, that it was just the echo of our own closed heart. When the false 'god' shatters, then we find ourselves exposed to the Living God, whose Life is more overwhelming than any overwhelming of Life.

At such times we need wise counsellors - those who have already known what it is like to sail upon this vast ocean that is the Love of the Living God - who have not grown used to it, who do not find it safe, but know that it is Good - that here and here alone may we know the fulness of Life. Such guides can help us to learn to Trust that He is Near, even when to our dimmed sight, dull ears and storm tossed psyche, He seems now remote.

I guess one way to put it is this - that when we have much, i.e. a life we have crafted for ourselves, then our 'god' must be small to fit in. But when we lose it all, then we discover that God is not small and manageable - it is a terrible shock to the system, but it is the equivalent of a defibrillator going to work on a heart that to that point has not been brought to life.

Until we learn that our 'god' is not God - we have not yet learnt that our life is not LIFE. 
It is at this point that the journey of Faith begins in earnest

Lent Course Session 4 :- Truthfulness and Life

Monday, 19 March 2012

Lenten Meditation - The Temptation to be Powerful

Henri Nouwen lists the temptations Jesus faces in the wilderness as: - 'to Relevance' - "you're hungry? Turn the stones into bread!"; 'to Spectacle' - "Throw yourself from the Temple"; and 'to Power' - "Worship me and all this will be yours".

Lent challenges all three of these head on - there is nothing more irrelevant than withdrawal from the world and aspects of our life we feel to be so significant - there is nothing spectacular about the hidden work of the Spirit as exemplified in Jesus' teaching in Matthew 6 - and when you're  so hungry you cannot lift a finger, all your 'power' is gone from you'.

All three speak to deep anxiety within us, Fear - the root and fruit of all sin. But of the three it is perhaps the Temptation to Power which speaks most seductively. We are surrounded by Fear of being powerless, just think for a moment how we fear poverty, or old age, or debilitating illness - all those things which in no way good in themselves, are doubly damned in our eyes as they rob us of Power, of Self determination.

And the temptation to Power is itself doubly seductive in that it both conceals and feeds The Cardinal Sin - Pride. 'Look at what I can do!' - 'Look at what I have Done!' - 'Consider this fine Life I have made for myself!'. With Power we can have life the way we want it, or so we would like to think. Fear desires Power and thus is the root of Pride - the self made life.

And so Satan comes to Jesus to tempt him - 'you can have Everything you want . . .'

'I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven'

Now we all know that Satan fell because of his Pride - but reading these words from Jesus in their context in the tenth chapter of Luke's gospel, we might be blinded to the fact that that is what he is talking about to his disciples. Jesus has just sent them out to go ahead of him, labourers into the harvest field, and  - 'The seventy returned with joy, saying, "Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!" ' Jesus responds immediately with the words about the fall of Satan - and it is too easy to think he is referring to Satan's defeat. So schooled are we in the dualism of cosmic warfare - (yes there is a warfare but it is far far more subtle than we allow) - that we imagine this is about Christ's Victory - yet is it not rather a warning to the disciples about Pride?? 

Jesus goes on 'See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.’ Do not rejoice in what you can do!! Remember I have seen the consequences of Pride - I saw the great angel Satan Fall. 
The fundamental call is to Faith in the Love of God, that drives out Fear and thus can never be a fuel for Pride. When we fall into the Sin of Pride of what we have done and can do - we then Need Power for nothing else will sustain the life we choose to make for ourself, that we now have no choice but to make having rejected the free gift of Life. Thus we are always at root Afraid. The Proud Person is Afraid.

'Satan is Afraid!' many tub thumping preachers have said - whipping up the cosmic conflict. 'Satan is afraid because he knows his final defeat in imminent!!'. This is not so. Not that Satan is not defeated. But his fear is not caused by his defeat, rather he is defeated because he is afraid. He has been defeated from the first. The most oft repeated command in scripture is precisely Do Not Be Afraid. It is as if it is the root of everything. As John says, the one who fears has not been made perfect in Love, for Love casts out Fear.

The temptation to power is very subtle - it seems to promise us everything and it works on our weakest point, that is our lack of faith in the Goodness of God. It whispers in our ear, 'You Are Responsible' - God will not come through with the goods - why not do it yourself?? And we listen and are afraid and cast around for that which will build us up and having found it we become full of Pride.

Power and 'Success' in Ministry

Recently I've noted a disturbing video. In it two prominent church leaders in the USA criticize one of their fellow ministers for relinquishing his very 'successful' pastorate. It is well critiqued on the excellent blog 'Lost in the North' and also in the journal 'Out of Ur', but what I cannot get away from  is the strong suspicion that these powerful leaders cannot bless this other minister in his bold move because they are at root afraid. What would they look like if all the trappings of big church were removed?

Fear does this - it entraps us - it entombs us.

Dante in his Inferno finds Satan in the seventh circle of hell, literally entombed in ice.

Satan rejected the gift of Life - Afraid of Love, thus sought Power in and of himself and so fell
This Fall is the Universal fall

Fear seeks Power which feeds Pride

It is a deadly trap - it is why we Must go out into the Wilderness - casting those those things aside upon which we have come to depend, that we might learn not to be afraid, but there to freely bear the beams of Divine Love.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Sermon for Mothering Sunday - 2012 - Sunday March 18th

 Sermon for Mothering Sunday
1 Samuel 1

One of the great frustrations of most of my life has been trying to extract from my Grandmother how Exactly she cooked Yorkshire puddings, Or Egg custard tarts, or her famous blackcurrant mousse, which it must say became at once a cause celebre and a family scandal – or her currant tart – 'Fly pie' as we all learned to refer to it :) ( All I recall was a half and half pastry, with Lard and butter, and lots of butter and brown sugar in amongst the currants before baking)

Well Grandma wasn’t giving it away (apart from the mousse, which she had the audacity to spill the beans about to someone outside the family!!). Of course like most if not all women of her generation, she didn’t learn to cook from a book, but alongside her own mother, my Great Grandma Troughton (from whom I get one or two red hairs in and amongst the black and white ones :) ). Grandma Troughton as a girl had been in service and so had worked in many kitchens – a la Downton Abbey, although in Lancashire and not Yorkshire, and had learnt Much about food, below stairs – working alongside experienced chefs.

Indeed you cannot really learn how to cook from a book, like anything that is really Life giving, we need the Other to give it Life - there is as it were a deeper knowledge which can only be passed on personally, in the presence of another. I myself know this as I have struggled to learn to cook by correspondence with a friend in America – it would be a LOT easier if she was here to show me! And so it is with faith in the end – we need those who will walk with us and Show us this Life of Faith, as did Christ – and so often the first person to do that is our Mother.

And thus we can think of the significance of today, Mothering Sunday about that deeper knowledge which we receive from our Mothers and hopefully fathers too!

And Mothering Sunday was an important day for girls like my Great Grandmother who were in service (funnily enough I’ve never heard it referred to in terms of boys!) – because it was a Sunday Off – A day when they could go Home – to Mother, And to their Mother Church – places from which they’ve gone, places of life and Wisdom. A returning to Source if you like.

But also unacknowledged. You cannot express in words what any human life means to you and the closer you are to them the less easy this even seems. One cannot really put into words what our Mothers Mean – they have a huge influence on us – some for good, and some for ill – but their place in our lives is usually sensed as more significant than our father’s. Perhaps this is because we are supposed to search for the Father of us all, I don’t know. But Mothers occupy a huge space in our emotional and physical lives. I know that years after my mother died – I would find myself as it were falling into the space she had occupied. Like a familiar piece of furniture against which you leant – perhaps not aware of this huge influence until you leant on it once more and discovered it was no longer there. But that is in a sense the point

There is this  one great Gift that Mothers are meant to give us, apart from introducing us to faith, is teaching us to Walk in it – to leave and follow Christ – A Mothers Great Gift to us is to give us up. To use an Avian Metaphor, to push us out of the nest :)
We should perhaps most give thanks to our mothers for letting us go. From that first letting go at the school gate, to sending off for sleepovers and trips away, to leaving to go perhaps to college or to seek work and perhaps marriage – it is that Letting Go, sending us on our way with Blessing that is the biggest gift a Mother can give. Just like Hannah in our story, she realizes that her son Samuel is not in the end meant for life in her house but another, not meant in the end to be Her possession, but to belong to the Lord. For we do not belong to our mothers, we belong to God. Home is in His presence –And this Letting Go – this Leaving, is like that first leaving, in giving birth, both painful and life giving. It is Truly Loving in that it Let’s Go.

How many of us first heard of faith on our mothers knee – first learned to pray from our mother – were first taken to the house of God, as Hannah took Samuel, by our mother – Given to the Motherhood f the church, Given to God? We are nurtured in faith often by our mothers and then Given – sent  on our way

Hannah is Truly Wise – you may not be aware of this but Wisdom in the Old Testament is Personified in the Female – and Hannah reveals Deep Wisdom in her action –she Knows that a child is to be Released to find Life
She stands before Eli the priest and says
For this child I prayed; and the Lord has granted me the petition that I made to him. Therefore I have lent him to the Lord; as long as he lives, he is given to the Lord.’

We have to leave home to Live  - to become ourselves, sources of Life. Actually my great Grandmother was called Hannah too J And she similarly pushed my grandmother out of the nest when the time was right  - we have to leave home to find our true home

For this reason a man will leave his father and his mother,
The prodigal leaves home
Abraham leaves Ur and his father
And they left their nets and followed Him

We leave home – we leave our mothers, to find Life

God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. – God SENT his Son into the world

So finally see that Leaving is the Source of Life – The Son leaves his Father’s house to go to a far country where he will Squander the fathers Love on the world

So on this day let us all give thanks for our mothers, living and departed, and especially in how they were sources of wisdom for us, most especially in pointing us to our true home in God and Letting us Go

Furthermore . . .

Having posted yesterday on Individualism, a good friend posted this Video on Facebook. 

Rowan Williams talks about the impact of the work of the Church Urban Fund

I was struck by resonances from a different perspective, with what I wrote about yesterday.
Expressed in terms of the good of Society as a whole.

(It needs to be borne in mind that Rowan is talking very specifically here to the work of Church Urban Fund)

Two phrases stuck out from a man who carefully chooses his words

'mutually isolated silos of human experience, and of wealth and of poverty'

'Nobody is unaffected by what happens in our world'

In my sermon for Sunday March 18, I refer to Ananias and Sapphira. As a friend mentioned to me, their story is also one about this Isolation. Their hiding (given expression in their deceit), was in reality from authentic community, from sharing Life, from Love. This is Death dealing. 

For all of us the story of Ananias and Sapphira should give great pause. It is difficult for us for we wish to remain hidden by ambiguity, but it reveals that underneath the ambiguity of thought and action, choices are made are the fruit of hearts that are Not ambiguous, they are either Alive or Dead.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Sermon for Sunday March 18th

 Sermon for Sunday 18th March – Lent 4
Living in the Light

Numbers 21:4-9
Ephesians 2:1-10
John 3:14-21

“Those who do what is true come to the light,
so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God”

Over the years, I have seldom found more genuine self-understanding and a greater capacity for a ruthless honesty about the inner reality of a person’s life, than amongst recovering drug addicts. Just the other day I was speaking with a dear friend who was recounting to me his own encounter with such a person at his church. They were washing up together [another example of how technology gets between us :)  - you never get to have these conversations over the dishwasher] and the man spoke of how he knew that the life he had made for himself had been a complete mess, and of how he wanted to live truly before God now, although looking at his life it was hard to see the way forward.

But the reality is that he is far further down the road to Life than most other people, for in the collapse of the life he had tried to make for himself, Light and Truth had broken in. For most of us are adept at making a life for ourselves and unless some catastrophic happening breaks in, we think the life we have made for ourselves is pretty good – we do not see that it keeps us from the Life and the Love of God. The Prodigal tries to make a life for himself, but it is only when he has nothing that the truth breaks in and he comes to himself and begins the journey home. The Elder brother is so full of the life that he has made for himself – that he cannot see the Life that his father offers him – he cannot see that All the father has is his, that he doesn’t need to build a life for himself.

Blessed are the poor and the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you when your life is in tatters for then you can begin to discover the Life that is God’s Gift to you – and we need, all of us need to come to this point of Truthfulness about our lives. Blessed are you when the life you have built for yourself lies smashed to smithereens, for then your hands are free to accept the Life that was always offered to you by God.

It is sometimes said, why does a good God allow evil things to happen? And I do not propose to explore that here – but in part it must be acknowledged that Freedom to get it wrong seems to be a door to life. In other words if we were always protected from the consequences of choosing to build a life for ourselves, we would never discover that we had been living a lie. If the Father had not allowed the Prodigal Son to get it wrong, would he have ever have come to his senses, or would he have remained trapped in the life he made for himself, like his elder brother. If indeed it takes the shattering of this false life to bring us to a point where we see the truth about ourselves, we may well ask, why does God in his love and mercy not allow More terrible things to happen to us so shut tight, against the reality of the Life of God do our lives appear to be.

And I must admit that as I read the Scriptures, I am often left thinking, have we as a church got our doors firmly locked against the light and Life of God. In other words have we built a church that We are happy with, like an individual might build a life that they are happy with.

Our reading this morning from the book of numbers puts in Very stark terms the consequences of turning our back on the Life that God offers. The children of Israel have been many years now in the wilderness – Aaron the priest has just died – the last of those who left Egypt are disappearing form the story – yet they still haven’t learnt that Life is a Gif and that God is the Giver – they are still rebelling against the God who has saved them. We may well have heard this story about them grumbling and God sending the snakes amongst them and thought it very harsh, but what we missed is what happened immediately before. That the Canaanite king of Arad had fought against Israel and taken some of them captive. The people had cried out to God asking for his help and he had AGAIN rescued them, as he had form Egypt and repeatedly since – and Then they start speaking against God again!! Right in the very face of God’s Salvation and Life, they complain, “Why have you bought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water and we detest this miserable food” – They detested God’s provision. So God in his mercy shows them what happens when he stops providing. This is what happens when God’s protection is withdrawn – the poisonous snakes come amongst them. God had protected them from the Canaanite king and they complained. So he stopped protecting them. It is Harsh, but the Light can be to those who prefer darkness. The Truth Hurts, to those who have grown accustomed to lies.

AND this theme carries on in the New Testament – let us Not make any bones about this. There is a story in the New Testament, which I have never yet heard a sermon on. It comes from the book of Acts. I once saw an article about it in a small book of writings, but otherwise silence. It is the story of Ananias and Sapphira. A married couple in the early church. I wonder if we know it? It certainly isn’t Sunday school material, but perhaps it should be? The early chapters of the Acts of the Apostles are an amazing testament to the Power of the Gospel, and the Abundant Life that there is to be found in God – there is amazing openness between the believers – abundant Generosity – all share what they have with each other – there are no poor amongst them – it is Like in Eden – the bounty of God is flowing without Let or Hindrance. And it is a standing rebuke in Scripture to the paucity of the Life that we share and call good. And people were freely giving in abundant generosity and response to the Life of God amongst them – it was their guide and rule, not a set of Doctrines but a Life Lived and Real amongst them

‘And a man named Barnabas sold a field and came and brought the proceeds of the sale and put them at the feet of the Apostles’ – But Ananias and Sapphira also sell a piece of property and connive to keep some of the proceeds back and seek to make the case that they have given it all to the Apostles. First in goes Ananias – he is found out – Peter Sees he is Lying and tells him ‘You did not lie to us – you lied to God!’ and when Ananias heard this he fell down and died. They took him off and buried him. Then in comes his wife, Sapphira – and Peter gives her a chance to live in light and Truth by asking – this money your husband brought, was it the price you were paid for the land – and she lies and says Yes it was. “ Peter says – how is it that you have decided with your husband to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test?” and she falls down and dies – and great Fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things.

And we might say “Oh how Terrible!” and yes it is, but What is it that we say is so terrible? That they died? Or that they chose to live in darkness and deceit, rather than Light and Truth.

There had been so much Openness in the community – Lives open to one another – but Ananias and Sapphira were closed. Deceit is Always a closing of the door of Life – it is choosing darkness over light. It is the fundamental form of Hiding. And it is why Confession is Such an important Sacrament in the church and one sadly that we think little of nowadays, so content have we become with the lives we make for ourselves – that Making known who we really are – of the deep reality of our lives – bringing it into the Light – the place of healing.

So adept are we at hiding in the dark that we do not even recognize the Life of God when it comes to us – or the truth of God in His word to us – the lives we have built for ourselves are like a Castle, firmly fortified against the grace of God – we hear words like St Paul’s to the Ephesians – for you were dead through the sins and trespasses in which you once lived – and we think, Dead?? That is ridiculous – I am fully alive, I have a wonderful life! A life I have made for myself. We are Not aware of the Reality of Life and Death in which we spend our days. We are deaf to the Truth.

The encounter with the Snakes in the Wilderness, Ananias and Sapphira, Paul’s words about us being dead in sin and trespasses – are this Bright Light of God breaking in and it leaves us with a choice – to turn and face the light and to learn the Blazing Glory of living lives of truth and openness, or to turn away and choose instead the darkness.

And so just as the instrument of God’s Judgment was lifted up and became the source of healing, so is the son of Man lifted up, that whoever believes in Him might have eternal life. Jesus is at once the instrument of Judgment – When we look at the Life that is in Him it is like a Blinding Light – and our lives cannot bear that Scrutiny, but if, discerning that our lives are under that judgment, remain in the light, then His Life becomes for us the Salvation Life.

All of us need to come to that point – to acknowledge that in the Light of the Life of the Son of God, all of our lives, which we have so carefully built for ourselves, come under judgment. Like the recovering drug addict, to acknowledge our lives are no lives at all – but then to see in Him the free Gift of Life – that this judgment is not for Death but for life – for God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through him.

We turn to the light, confront the Truth about our lives, and then begin the journey of Salvation  - living in the Light, having nothing to do with the darkness – turning our back on lies, living in the Truth. And living in the Truth, the Truth shall set you free.

Sermon for Sunday March 18th - Romans 5:1-11

Sermon for Sunday March 18th 2012 – EVENSONG
Exodus 6:2-13
Romans 5:1-11

Hope and Life

“I am the Lord, and I will free you from the burdens of the Egyptians and deliver you from slavery to them. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgement. I will take you as my people, and I will be your God. You shall know that I am the Lord your God, who has freed you from the burdens of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; I will give it to you for a possession. I am the Lord.” ’ Moses told this to the Israelites; but they would not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and their cruel slavery.”

My subject this evening is Christian Hope and the Christian Life. But we have to begin I think with this reading from Exodus. God has heard the cry of the Israelites in their harsh oppression and remembering his Covenant, his unbreakable Oath – Whilst we think of Love as the Pre-eminent aspect of God, the Scriptures speak more of his Faithfulness. God is Faithful, for as St Paul says, he cannot deny himself. To be faithless is to deny your very being. – and so God in his Covenant faithfulness has decided to rescue His people from Egypt. To claim them for himself.

And he tells Moses to go and tell the people, “but they would not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and their cruel slavery.”  They were so down they did not even have the energy to look up – they had nothing to hang their hope on. How on Earth could this be so . . . and to be frank who can blame them. For when We speak of hope, we have something similar in mind. I hope something will come along – I hope the weather will be better tomorrow – I hope aunty Jean will get well soon. But if we ask Why do you hope these things, then we have to say  - nothing really, I just hope they are true. And this is as far as it probably could be all that the Israelites could mean by hope also – a vague wish, based on?? Well based on very little, indeed based on the words of a strange God whom they did not know – Remember when they Cried out in their oppression, they didn’t cry out to God, they just Cried out! Based on the words of a strange God through the mouth of one of their own who had grown up in the Egyptian court and then got them all into trouble by killing an Egyptian and trying to set himself up as some kind of saviour and then fleeing who knew where to suddenly arrive back and say “God has been speaking to me’ and all the while they have been whipped and driven and tormented and forced to make bricks without straw. A labour camp of the worst sort, in all but name a Death Camp. Humanly speaking their situation in hopeless. I doubt any one of them listened to Moses, and they certainly didn’t pay any attention. Imagine being Moses and having to declare it!

No they didn’t even have the vague wish kind of hope for there was Nothing to base it on . . . which brings us to Christian Hope and one of the most densely argued sections of St Paul’s densely argued letter to the Romans. This reading is So significant that it is unusually read here at Evensong as Well as being part of the three year lectionary cycle – but it is not easy. I remember early in my years as Vicar in Hellifield. There was a diminutive lady in the congregation, a widow by the name of Barbara. And She was on the rota for readers and had this passage to read. And she came to me afterwards and said – I haven’t a clue what any of that meant! And it was at once highly understandable, and at the other deeply regrettable, for in some sense if we don’t get what this is about, we really don’t understand Christian faith or life at all.

Paul here in these carefully worded 11 verses in a very real sense tells us the Good News. He speaks of the past and the future and their concrete relationship to the present. It is masterful theology. And it reveals a staggering Hope about which there is Nothing Vague – and the Extraordinary nature of the Christian Life. So if you will permit me – I shall take a few minutes now to unpack what he says.

Verse 1 (Yes I am Really going to unpack this :) ) Therefore since we ARE justified by faith – ‘Therefore’ reminds us that we are in Chapter 5 and Paul has spent much of the preceding 2 chapters proving that if we put our Trust in God, abandoning trust in anything or anyone else, then That is sufficient to put us right with Him – we are Justified by Faith, by placing our trust in him.
Well what is the consequence of doing that? When we let go of everything else and trust God instead, ‘we have Peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ’. Christ in his death and resurrection has brought us access into a profound relationship with God – he has opened the door to the Rich Life of God and we enter into that Peace through Faith  - this Grace in which we now stand Vs 2 – And then Paul makes an Extraordinary claim and it is the first mention of that word Hope –at Peace with God, Made right with Him, Standing in Grace, we boast in our Hope of sharing in the glory of God!! We boast in our Hope of Sharing in God’s Very Life!! This is Extraordinary and we may well say hope in what?? Paul, you have gone to far!! But Notice that this is not a baseless hope – this is no vague wish, for Already God has acted – Our position for hope is Not like that of the Israelites in Egypt who are addressed before God rescues them. No! It is based on what God has Already done. The security of hope is the Past even of the death and resurrection of Jesus. So our Hope, our Faith has a Solid Past foundation upon which we base our Future Hope. And because it is Such a Breathtaking foundation, it gives rise to a similarly breathtaking Hope. That we might share in the glory of God.

Then Paul changes gear – having given the foundation for the Future hope – he then speaks of how we Now enter into that Hope.. throughout Lent I have been teaching on the Christian Practices – if you like the Essence of the Christian Life an I have said over and over again, that that is no more or less than entering into the very Life of God. We enact His Generosity, His Love, His forgiveness, His Hospitality, His Life. (details on my website). In other words that we begin to live the future reality in the present, based on the firm foundation of the past.

And here we see how clearly we enter the life of God – for we boast in our sufferings – for the Life of God is Suffering in the World, we can only walk in this Life following our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ – there is no other way. If we Trust in God, we Will find ourselves in conflict with All that is not God, BUT say Paul, Suffering produces Endurance – endurance character and character Hope. As I have been teaching these past few weeks, if we push past that first terrible resistance to Living out the life of God, we discover the Life of God available to us. The more we enter in the more we know of this Life of God in us and So we Grow in that life, Suffering, Endurance (God Endures though all the mountains are worn away, He endures), Character (the fullness of God’s being more and more revealed as we walk in this path, Growing in Love and Generosity and Forgiveness) and finally  - there is is again Hope. We Work from Hope founded upon the work of Christ – to Hope –the End is found in the beginning. You see we begin with this seed of Hope – given to us through the death and resurrection of Jesus, and Like All Life – it produces of its Own – we Grow in Hope.

And now Paul moves again, from the future Hope to its breaking into the present. ‘Verse 5’ ‘And Hope does not disappoint us because God’s Love has been poured into our hearts through the holy spirit that has been given us.

This is SO important. The Holy Spirit – the very Life of God is given to us. His Love poured into our hearts and Out into the world. In other words, this future hope  - this scandalous Hope that we will share in the Glory of God – share in His Life is found Present Expression as he shares his life with us here and Now.

The Hope is based on the Past work of Christ – it has a firm foundation – as we step out in faith, through suffering, endurance and character grow which produce More Hope and that Hope is already Now partially realized. So our hope is not only now based on what God has done pouring his life out for us Christ in the past but also his continual pouring out of his life for us in our present experience. We are Tasting the future.

The Christian Life is Based on the past, future directed and Present enacted – our Vocation, our Call it to live out the Life of the future, Here and Now. This is the Fruit of Faith.

So Paul makes this stunning and Wonder Full case for a Concrete Hope, Based Solidly on the Past work of Christ – Growing as we enter into the Life of God ourselves as Christ’s disciples – Given Present re-inforcement by God Living in us now by His Spirit.

And then he leads us in a meditation of the wellspring of all of this. Bringing us back again to the work of Christ on the Cross, this Spring of Life. Paul wants us to Wonder more and More. If you are at all unsure of God’s Love for you –meditate on this. For it was while we were still weak, Then at the Best time Christ died for the ungodly (Not the immoral, by the way, not the moral, no he died for those who were without God – God’s Love does not depend on us except in that we are far from him – that is the basis of His love – his love is poured out for those who do not believe – those like the Israelites who did not, who could not listen, because of their broken Spirit, and their cruel slavery. God proves his love for us that while we were yet sinners – while we had nothing in us to commend ourselves, like the utterly unlovely, That is the measure of God’s Love. Like the Father loving the Prodigal, Wasting his love on the wastrel. God’s Love is breathtaking for it Loves where NONE is shown in return. THAT is why we may have So much confidence in the Love of God precisely because it does NOT depend in anyway upon us..

And How Much that One fact can transform our Christian Life – that God’s Love is shown to us for no reason that we have anything to do with except our mere existence. Truly Unconditional Love. And So Paul now works up to his final Crescendo. Having Spoken of the past work being the Sure ground of our faith, he has Shown Just how wonderful that work is – if the death of Christ for you is Not enough – just consider that it is Utterly Gratuitous!! ‘Much more surely then’ he goes on, Much more surely that we have been put right by his blood , shall we be saved from the wrath of God’ Because this whole Salvation is an act of Gratuitous Love. There is NO basis for Fear.

For if while we were yet his enemies Christ died for us – the wrath of God is shown to his enemies, YET he takes the wrath upon himself, absorbing in himself for the sake of Love – If God makes his enemies his children through the death of Jesus, HOW much more surely will we be Saved by His Life.

In other words, Having started out on this journey into the life of God, we discover we are given his Life that we might more fully live the Salvation Life – which is of course the Life of Christ and so we rejoice, boast, glory in God through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Karl Barth in his magisterial commentary on the Epistle to the Romans puts it like this ‘When once again people have God’ No longer without God and without Hope ‘they have all the fullness of life and its blessedness’ . . . because through the death of Christ, they are now filled with the future of God’

This is our Hope, This is our Life. The Past work of Christ – the present Life of God poured into us by the Holy Spirit as we live both In and towards the Glorious future of God.