Friday, 23 September 2011

John 20.19-29 [14/06/2011]


John 20.19-29

Jesus Appears to the Disciples

20.19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’

Jesus and Thomas

24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’
26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ 27Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ 28Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ 29Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’

These are powerful words, and there is a treasure trove of theology, grace, and wonder in these verses.  There is so much that could be said, so many questions – questions that I would encourage you to seek answers to in your own prayer and study.  Questions regarding whether or not this is in fact Pentecost?  Questions about the resurrection body of Jesus.  Questions about the declarations in Mark that Jesus will meet them in Galilee yet here it is in Jerusalem. 

          There are many questions, but I am not going to address those here.  I want to take this Scripture, understood as part of John’s testimony to the Gospel message, and ask what it means now for us, not what it means to scholars sitting around a table in a dark and locked room brooding over some largely irrelevant word in Greek or Hebrew whilst missing the elephant – or rather Lord God and Saviour - in the room. 

In these two stories John confronts us not only with the height and culmination of the Gospel’s teaching on the Holy Spirit and the Person of Jesus, but with what this means for us in our lives – what we are to go and do in light of this.   It is a challenge as much as it is a glorious affirmation of the True Faith.  So what are these teachings?  What are these challenges?

          Jesus first appears to the disciples in the locked room – a room locked for fear of the Jewish authorities who would be looking to round up the followers of the traitor to the Emperor who had just days before been crucified – this appearance contains many messages for us today.  Firstly there is the joy the disciples display when they see that their Lord – the one they love and followed, the one they also rejected and fled from, is alive.  Even though they had failed to grasp His promise of His resurrection He is there among them.   One constant challenge for us is to take hold of this Gospel joy and keep it within our hearts and allow it to transform us, to let nothing persuade that anything can separate us from the love of God.

And then Jesus speaks these words: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  Recalling John 17.18 which says almost the exact same thing, we see here the great commission of John’s Gospel – we, the followers of Jesus, are sent into the world just as He was.

But what does this mean?  Well the next verses clear the picture – it is to do with the work of the Paraclete, the Advocate who proceeds from the Father and is sent by the Son.  Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit on the disciples – the Greek here uses the same rare word for breathe that is found only in Genesis 2.8  with the creation of humanity, and in Ezekiel 37.9 which speaks of the resurrection, of a new creation, a new order and a new time.  It cannot be underestimated how much the giving of the Spirit changes everything for us – just as the Cross redeems us so the Spirit takes work of the Cross work within us and makes us righteous before God, it empowers us and purifies us, holds us and stands us up.  

Having breathed new life, a new creation, a new reality, into their very being, Jesus declares those controversial words “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”  I am not going to enter into the Catholic / Protestant debate over this – but suffice to say that the Greek of all of this passage implies that it is still God who is the forgiver and retainer of sin, and also that this is not just a commission for the disciples present but for all who witness to Christ.

In John 16.11-17 we find written this promise concerning the work of the Spirit and our mission to the world: “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. And when He comes, He will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgement: about sin, because they do not believe in Me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see Me no longer; about judgement, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.

Jesus sends us into the world just as He was sent into the world; we are to continue His mission.  But we can’t do this impossible task alone – and that is one of the reasons why we are sent the Holy Spirit.   In John 14.12 it is shown that part of this mission is that we are called to work wonders and signs just as Jesus did – something made possible because Jesus has been glorified and has gone to the Father.   And in Acts we see this – people are healed, people are convicted of sin, people prophesy, people speak in tongues, people speak in other languages, people are empowered to boldly proclaim the Cross to a world that sees it as folly and ignorance – and people are saved.  And I tell you that 2000 years has not changed that mission or that power we have through the Spirit one jot or one iota.

 In John 15.27 we are called on to testify to who Jesus is because we have walked with Him and know Him – we are called to testify Christ crucified in every aspect of our lives – and through this testimony Jesus Himself will be revealed by the power of the Holy Spirit, a promise made in John 16.7-11.    We are called by the Spirit to lay bare the true reality of the world, to lay bear sin, righteousness and judgement, and to manifest the glory of God, to be bearers of the fruits of Christ’s victory, to proclaim boldly that Salvation is found in Jesus Christ alone, and to manifest signs as a witness to this just as Jesus did.

And what of the story of Thomas – so often named ‘doubting Thomas’?  Just as the previous story holds the climax of the work of the Spirit in John, so here we find Thomas making a statement that is the climax of the Christology of John.  But before he does this there is the insidious doubt, a demand for what the disciples claim to have themselves seen to be proved on his own terms, by his own measure of evidence – not only seeing Jesus with His wounds but physically feeling them to be as empirically sure as possible. 

And when he is faced with the resurrected Messiah Thomas declares those famous words – “My LORD and my GOD!”  Enough cannot be said of these words.  Thomas declares Jesus to be the LORD – a word that here is without doubt a reference to the Divine Name given to Moses on Sinai, a word the Jews and Greeks preferred to translate , or rather simply replace, with the words ‘the LORD.’  Thomas is saying ‘my YAHWEH my God.’  Nowhere else in the Gospels is Jesus directly proclaimed like this to be THEOS, to be GOD.  We hear that the Word was with God and the Word was what God was, we hear that Jesus and the Father are one, we hear Jesus proclaim the great I AM sayings – before Abraham was I AM – and of course I AM is what YAHWEH means!  But here a human recognises Jesus for all that He is – my YAHWEH and my GOD!

And what did this mean for Thomas and the disciples?  Well just look at the growth of the Church once they held this firm conviction over all areas of their lives.  Perhaps one of the strongest Ancient Church Traditions, and by that I mean it is almost certainly true, is that Thomas went from here to proclaim Christ as Lord, God and Saviour, right through to India where he was martyred for his bold proclaiming of Christ crucified.  Even today the church he founded – the Mar Thoma Church – remains, indeed when the Catholics came to India with the Portuguese  in the 19th century they were so startled to find Christians – Christians who did not recognise the authority of the Pope that they eventually reasoned that it must have been the work of Satan and began to persecute, torture, and even simply murder these Christians! 

The Power the life of Thomas testifies to is the power of the firm conviction that Jesus is Lord and God – the power given through the Spirit to go to the ends of the earth in the name of Christ and even stand firm to the point of death.  Whatever Thomas was before this point – a doubter, a man requiring hard physical, academic, verifiable evidence, a loyal yet pessimistic and perhaps somewhat dull-witted disciple (as seen in John 11 and 14) - this truth, once he embraced it and truly believed it and allowed it to rule over his life, led to exactly the continuing of Jesus’ mission that we are called to.

But we do not have Jesus present to make us believe, we are blessed with believing without being able to see the wounds He bore in person.  We have the Scriptures which testify to Him, we have fellow brothers and sisters, fellow disciples, who proclaim they know the Lord and experience His salvation, and we see how this changes their lives, the gifts God gives them, if we look we even see signs and wonders, prophesy, healing, divine gifting of wisdom and leadership, and even speaking in others languages – and are told we can have these ourselves! 

The challenge for us, and the last point made there is one I often struggle with, is to simply believe without seeing the Lord Himself.   To let Him be Lord over all our life, to be completely unashamed of the Gospel and of Jesus Christ even though we have not seen the One we proclaim.  And in light of what Charlie was saying on Sunday, on Pentecost, the challenge is to believe that these gifts exist today, and they exist for us, God wants us to have them, not everyone will speak in tongues, not everyone will prophesy, not everyone will lead churches, but God loves to lavish His gifts on us – if only we believe in them and importantly in His promises to give them.  We have to believe that Jesus breathes the Spirit upon us and this empowers us to testify to His Lordship to everyone we know, to proclaim Christ crucified in everything we do, be it work, rest, play, fellowship, or worship.   We have to boldly ask, seek with perseverance, and knock with all our heart, and then we will be given.  We have to believe that Christ died for us and He has been glorified, and the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, has indeed been sent that we might proclaim Christ to be the one and only Saviour to the World.

That is our challenge.  That is the challenge of every single disciple of Jesus.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Acts 1.11 + 2.32-33 [March 2011]

[This is a copy of a sermon I prepared to give to a school in Uganda as part of a series known as 'Jesus is the King.'  Other people on the team had already explained that since Eden we are all sinners and deserve to be punished, but that Jesus is God and came to save us by dying on the Cross for our sins that everything might be good in God's eyes.  In the end for various reasons this sermon was not given in its entirety but rather a much cut down version to well over 1500 secondary school children in Kabale Uganda.]

In the Bible it says “God has raised Jesus to life, and taken him up to the place of honour at God's right hand.”  (Acts 2:32-33) and it also says that “This Jesus, who was taken up into heaven, will come again in the same way as you saw him go.” Acts 1:11

So we can see that God is king of all things, but we turned away from Him – yet amazingly God did not abandon us to sin and death but did something wonderful – He came down to this world and lived as we live that we might have a full relationship with Him.  But this was not enough because Jesus still had to defeat what happens because of sin – death.  But how do you defeat death, the thing that we see all around us – plants grow and die, animals grow and die, we grow and die?  Well Jesus defeated death by removing its sting – He made death like a mosquito with no mouth, a snake without fangs or venom, a scorpion without a tail.  Jesus did not just take on our humanity but He saw it through to the end and even died as we die.

But here is the truly amazing thing – Jesus did not stay dead, on the third day He rose again, the massive stone in front of His tomb was rolled away, the roman soldiers removed, and angels came and told His disciples what had happened.  Jesus was not a ghost or a spirit, He was real and physical, He could eat and drink and people could touch Him, He was real and He was back. And because Jesus rose again, if we believe in Him and love Him and give our lives to Him– if we have faith in Him – then we will rise again just like Jesus.  And because Jesus who had no sin died on the cross instead of us, then just like Jesus never sinned, it will be like we have never sinned, and just as Jesus rose from the dead to a glorious new life, so we will rise again and live forever with our Mighty and Loving God.

In England we have a saying – ‘the proof is in the pudding’ – now the proof is the seal of authenticity, it shows that something is real.  So when a baker made their cake they would put a little metal seal like a coin inside the dough.  Then as the dough rises the coin would be stuck inside the new risen cake.  And when a person ate it they would find the coin and know that this cake truly was what it said it was – made by the baker.  Now Jesus rising from the dead is the proof in the pudding that all we have said so far has been one hundred percent true, complete truth, no lies or deception, just truth: that God loves you so much that He came down and died for you that you can have eternal life with Him.

And not too long after Jesus came back to life He gathered together His disciples and said farewell, and promising that He would be with them always, He ascended into heaven to sit at the right hand of the Father.  So now Jesus is seated besides God the Father and having been here on earth and lived as we live and even died as we die He pleads with the Father for us, He calls us righteous for believing in Him and what He did.  We always have someone on our side, we are never alone, God always cares and God always loves us.  Jesus is now King of the whole world, of the whole universe – the best king there could ever be, the most understanding and wise king there could ever be.

And that is not all, one of the reasons that Jesus went up to Heaven was to send the Holy Spirit down from Heaven that the Spirit might live in us and bring us to Jesus, that the Spirit would pray for us even when we cannot find the words, that the Spirit would lift us up and encourage us, would give us strength and energy and life itself.  This Spirit is for everyone if only we allow it to come in, and when we do wonderful things happen.  The Holy Spirit is like a well in the desert that never ever runs dry, a tap in our life that gives us cold fresh clean water that never runs out so long as we don’t turn it off.

But here is the important thing for you – Jesus the King of the Universe, the king of you and me, is going to come again: just like He went up, so He will come down.  And when He does God is going to judge everyone.  And no one is good enough to get into heaven, because to get into heaven you need a perfect record, not one sin or mistake. No one can get into heaven on their own - but Jesus came and died for us, living without sin that we might have His record instead of ours, that He might step in and say “this one is my child, He believes in me, I will vouch for him and give him a perfect record – you can go to heaven.” 

And so we have a simple choice – believe and accept that Jesus is King of the universe and Jesus loves us so much that He came down and died and rose again and went up to heaven and will come again to judge us all, because if we believe this and invite Jesus and the Holy Spirit into our lives we will be saved and live forever in glory and joy.  Or we can reject Jesus, reject the Holy Spirit, reject God and all He has done and be punished in Hell for all eternity.  God loves everyone, He is offering His hand to each one of us in friendship, all we have to do is take hold of it and walk with Him.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

John 1.1-18 [24/12/2010]

  Crib Service 24th of December 2010

John 1.1-18

The Word Became Flesh

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” ’) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known. 

Over the summer a film came out named ‘Clash of the Titans’ (some of you may have seen it).  If you have not seen the latest movie you have most likely seen the films that preceded it – the 1981 film of the same name starring Harry Hamlin as the hero Perseus and Maggie Smith as Thestis, and also the 1963 film Jason and the Argonauts.  These films tell roughly the same story.  The most recent film is an epic dramatisation of the stories of Perseus and Medusa mixed with the story of Jason and the Argonauts.   I will never forget the stop motion skeletons from the original Jason film – the cutting edge in graphics on show as skeletons and monsters shakily moved around as if they desperately needed to find a toilet.  And of course the most recent film is a remarkable show of modern computer graphics – yet seems to lack something that made the others ‘classic.’
In the story Perseus is ‘a son of a god.’  He is the illegitimate son of Zeus with a human woman, and as such Perseus is destined for great things, he is strong, an amazing fighter, wise and clever, witty and even more muscular than Rambo.  He single handedly takes on hordes of monsters and trials and over comes them.  He leads a group of disciples – the Argonauts, the greatest warriors in the ancient world - who have come to follow this messianic hero that their city, Argos, may be saved from its impending doom at the hands, or rather tentacles, of the Kraken.  And of course, as in all good stories, Perseus kills the Kraken, becomes the saviour of Argos, marries the King of Argos’ daughter and lives happily ever after. 

Finally, at the end of the most recent film Zeus makes an offer to Perseus – because Perseus is half-god he may take a seat in Olympus instead of living on earth and may become immortal.  Remarkably, Perseus refuses because he relates far more to mankind than to the Greek gods, to the love and emotions of mankind rather than the incomprehensible, cold, harsh, judgements of the Greek gods and how those gods only see the humans as mere play things.  Perseus never knew the power of being a god and never wanted it, he was happy with the powers he had, the life he had.

    In the 1st Century the Jews were expecting a Messiah – The son of The God.  Ever since the exile to Babylon they had been expecting for a messiah to come.  A messiah who would kick out the Babylonians, or later on kick out the Egyptians, or Greeks, and finally, who would kick out the Romans and give back to the Jews the Land God had promised them.
    They expected a mighty warrior to come with the host of heaven, to mount a warhorse and lead the charge against the occupying forces.  To kill the Roman soldiers who held their land to ransom, to purify the Holy City of Jerusalem and to cleanse the Temple from foreign taint.  From of old God had promised a saviour:

A Messiah who will remove oppression and usher in a new Kingdom with himself on the throne as king.  But the Jewish authorities had missed the point, and when the Son of God did come, born of David’s line, He did not come as a warrior, he came as a child, weak, feeble, reliant on others.  He came not as a hero in an armour of iron but as a carpenter and teacher dressed in righteousness.  He came not on a warhorse with sword drawn heading to take His throne in Jerusalem, but He entered Jerusalem on a donkey, and took the cross as His throne and exaltation… and there on that cross He died.

And that is the meaning of this ChristMass – this Mass of Christ.  God did send His Son, did send the Messiah.  But this Messiah was no Perseus.  Perseus saved Argos, saved a city.  Jesus saved the world.  Perseus defeated the Kraken, Jesus defeated Death itself, Perseus killed Medusa, Jesus cast out evil spirits, healed the sick, cured the blind, gave hope to the world and smote the devil.
Zeus offered Perseus a place on Olympus because he was half god.  Jesus, fully God yet fully man, offers all of us, all of us, a place in heaven, offers us all eternal life and everlasting peace, everlasting joy, no more death or sorrow or sickness or pain.  Jesus offers us life even though we are not half god – indeed not any part god.  That is love.  And that is what Christmas is all about.  

We give presents to show love to those we care for at Christmas time.  But what did Jesus give exactly? The beginning of the Gospel of John reads: 

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.”

The Word – Jesus Christ – was with God in the beginning, indeed the Word was God.  Jesus is God, God who is above all words, above all things, who is more powerful, more merciful, more loving, more great then we can ever truly comprehend. This is the God who made all that is, who made us, who made this universe for us. He gave life and he is the light of the world.  But then, as John tells us:

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.

God became flesh and lived among us – Jesus was born of Mary.  Jesus came into the world that was His own.  In the tale of the Clash of the Titans, at the end Perseus who has always been on earth is offered a place in Olympus, in heaven among the other gods.  But he never had the power and immortality of the other gods, to go to Olympus he would not be cursing himself, restraining himself, placing himself in pain and suffering and weakness. 

But that is exactly what God did when he came down to us as a child born in Bethlehem, the City of David.  He who is beyond all things placed Himself into a physical body just like ours, and He felt physical pain, emotional pain, psychological pain.  He wept with sorrow and sang with joy.  He who created all relied on a mother to feed Him whilst He was a helpless baby.  He gave it all up, gave it up to the point of dying – God was not just born that fateful day and all was done, He lived a whole life, He experienced all we experience, even death. 

And so He redeemed us all by living our life sinlessly, by restoring to humanity what it had lost – the likeness of God.  And in doing so offered us salvation, a place with Him in heaven sat upon thrones if only we believe.  

I went recently went to a Garden centre with a ‘Christmas grotto’ – a section set apart just for Christmas decorations and the like.  It was amazing, it had singing santas, a Romani Gypsy caravan complete with fire inside and fake snow.  It had a thousand, thousand, different Santa’s, more colours of tinsel and wrapping than I could count.  And of course, large price tags with all of these things.  Yet I was saddened by the experience.  There was but one small corner of the grotto which held nativity figures as we see in this crib, one tiny section that had anything whatsoever to do with this Mass of Christ. 

Did you know that Americans spend 450 Billion dollars on Christmas, every single year?  450 Billion.  Did you also know that lack of clean water kills more people every day than anything else?  And did you know that the estimated cost by the UN that it would take to give everyone clean drinking water is only 10 Billion dollars.  I think I will leave you to do the maths as I am not very good at it without a calculator.  

So I would ask all of you to ask yourselves: how will you be spending this Christmas? And how did Jesus spend Christmas?  He spent it among us, He spent Christmas in time and space with people, by being present among others he loved and cared for – among the needy and the helpless, the lonely and the broken, family and friends.  And that is something we all should aspire to do more of – with Christmas dinner being the perfect opportunity.

St. John also wrote in his Gospel about this commercialisation of Christmas, how the world has ignored what Christmas is all about and has replaced the message of love and hope with one of spending money, ranking up debts, wearing themselves out.  John wrote that when God came into the world He had made, the world did not recognise Him, and the entire human race which He sustained, did not receive Him.  But, and this is a big but, John continues to say:

To all who received him, Jesus, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.”

We are all kept alive every second by God, but let us take up our seat at the Christmas dinner above - the feast we have been invited to because Christmas happened and God gave all He is for us, because Jesus was born in a manger and laid in a stable. And He gave it all that we may sit and eat with Him as His own children.  That is the offer of a life time, so whatever you do this Christmas – do not give that offer up.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Mark 4.35-41 [30/08/2009]

Mark 4.35-41 

Jesus Stills the Storm

4.35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’ 36And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37A great gale arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ 39He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ 41And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’

When Sylvia asked me if I would like to give the talk during this beach service I said I would without really thinking.  Later that night I started to think what I should talk about.  After some time had passed I decided that it was not as easy as Sylvia and Richard often make it seem.

Eventually I wrote down the word ‘God’ and circled it.  A good starting point perhaps.  But with no divine inspiration forthcoming I circled it again.  Having repeated this a few times I found I had achieved a great deal, one word, and a few circles.  Circles rippling out from the word God like waves.  And so, I decided that I would talk to you about waves.  And at first glance this is a rather unreligious topic.

Being besides the sea we can see many waves.  The closest waves to us at the moment are those that form the tide.  The tide is often taken for granted; it comes in and goes out, the breakers gently overlapping.  If I asked most people where their milk came from I am sure they could tell me it came from a cow, or if I asked about paper I would be told it came from trees.  But what if I asked where the tide came from, what actually causes the tide.  It is likely some people would not know.  But I can tell you - the tide is actually caused by the moon. 

Both the earth and the moon are large and heavy, they have a lot of mass.  And mass causes gravity.  The gravity of the earth causes the moon to orbit.  But the moon also affects the earth, it pulls on us too, but all we really see of it is the tide which comes in and out.

We can thus see that the centre of gravity is something of immense importance.  The question to be addressed here though is where our own centre of gravity is to be found.  What I mean by this is best demonstrated in the Bible reading we just heard. 

Jesus and his disciples get on a boat, likely waiting for a good tide, and head out across the lake.  By the time they are halfway Jesus has fallen asleep on a cushion and a great storm roars.  The waves rise up and begin to fill the boat with water and the ferocious winds and rain make it so that the disciples can hardly see.  The boat is out of control. The disciples are no doubt trying to keep themselves alive, fighting the power of nature.  They will be trying to steady the boat, fill buckets with the gathering water and throw it overboard to avoid sinking.  All the time, Jesus sleeps.  As the disciples struggle for their lives, using all their strength and experience and resolve, Jesus sleeps.  He is not even awoken by the storm and the shouts and the rain.  Clearly He was not a person who got sea sick.

But Jesus is testing His disciples in the tempest.  He is waiting for them to open their eyes.  The disciples are struggling with all their might, doing all they humanly can, and Jesus does nothing.  Their centre of gravity at that time is themselves.  What can they do to stop the boat sinking?  What can they do to keep themselves from giving in to panic?  What can they do to save their own lives? It is a familiar story.  There may not be an 'I' in team, but if you mix up the letters there is a 'me'.

Me, me, me.  How often do we go around thinking about ourselves?  What shall I do today, what shall I spend this money on, what shall I spend my time doing?  But it seems God has little time for this way of thinking. Little time for this mindset that places the self as its centre of Gravity.  Indeed, it would appear that this bores God so much that He falls asleep. 

But then the disciples turn to Jesus, they find there is nothing they can do.  They shake Him awake and plea with the words ‘Teacher do you not care that we are perishing?’  And then Jesus awakens and stands and rebukes the wind and the waves, He forces them to be silent and still, He forces all the power of nature to cease and be still.  Light shines down through the clouds, and the disciples are astonished, they had been saved by Jesus.

Having exhausted their own efforts, their own selfish and small minded attempts, they approach Jesus - God.  And God awakens and takes them up in His hands, protecting them, and stilling the storm.  They move their focus from themselves to God.  They take the gravity of their lives which was themselves, and hand it to Jesus.  Now Jesus is their centre of gravity.  Jesus is the one about whom everything rotates. And for doing this, they are saved from drowning and death, saved from the darkness and the cold.

And this is what we must do in our lives.  When one looks at stories from the Bible it becomes apparent that God desires for people to place Him at the centre of their lives.  There is another word for doing this, and it is called Faith.  When God asked Abraham to leave his home and his family and follow Him Abraham put aside his life, its luxuries and comforts and his own wants, and followed his God.  Moses could have lived the life of a Prince of Egypt, but he did not, he chose God and led the Israelites from Slavery.  Moreover, the people who Jesus healed, they put faith in Him, put Him in the centre of their lives, and were healed. 

But how do we place Jesus at the centre of our lives?  Even the disciples seem to have struggled with this time and time again.  They had seen Jesus perform countless miracles, yet they were still afraid of Him when He calmed the storm, they asked themselves “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”  Their relationship with Jesus, with God, was only surface deep.  And when He died upon the cross for them, they even deserted him, placing themselves, once more, in the centre of their being.

What then is needed to shift our centre of gravity from ourselves to God?  The answer is a relationship with our God, and in Christian terms, that is prayer.  Prayer should be placed at the centre of all we do.  Prayer is not asking God for something that you want.  It is not even asking God for things to be given to others.  Prayer is being with God, walking with God.  You ask Him, He answers, you stand beside Him in prayer, but make sure you realise that He is stood beside you too.  Prayer is a relationship with God. 

Prayer is not an act of piety; prayer is a way of life, a shifting of focus from the selfish to the selfless.  St. Paul even goes so far as to exhort us to pray unceasingly.  By this he does not mean of course to say the Lord’s Prayer from now and forever more.  He means to live a life where God is the one in your heart, because that is what God wants.  God wants you to love Him as He loves you, God wants to share your joys, and hold you during your sorrows.  God is love, and love without other people is simply narcissism.

This is of course a difficult life to lead, perhaps even an impossible challenge.  But did not the Jews say it was impossible for Jesus to rise from the dead?  Impossible that the Messiah be the one who was crucified for us?  This life is surrounded by distractions, and no one, not myself, or Sylvia, or Richard, or even Archbishop Sentamu are faultless, everyone gets distracted, everyone sins, everyone is a sinner.  Part of being human is that our minds wander towards sin, even when we are speaking to others, even when we are speaking to God.  But God knows this, and He does not seem to care, He just wants to be in our lives, and for us to place Him first, that He might give us everything.  In fact God loves us so much that He sent His only Son to come and die in agony on a cross that we may be forgiven, redeemed, ransomed, and restored – that His anger at all of our sin and toxic ways of life that go against all He is may be satisfied and we brought into communion with Him.

Just as the waves erode the cliffs, forcing people to move their livelihood from one place to another, once we decide to listen to God, to Jesus, and place Him as our centre of gravity, like the waves God’s love erodes the hardness of our hearts, and so He leads us to pick up our lives and follow Him, follow Him to new life, because God is love, and God gives His love freely to us all.


[This sermon was the first sermon I ever gave.  It was given at a Beach Service at Mappleton in the East Riding of Yorkshire.  My Ministers, Richard and Sylvia, had invited me to give the short 'Word.'  I find it interesting to see what parts of my theology have changed, or rather how I over time have come to emphasise different things.] 

Saturday, 17 September 2011

1 Thessalonians 2.1-12 [9/11.2010]

1 Thessalonians 2.1-12

[This sermon was preached during 'preaching class' at Wycliffe Hall.  It was aimed to an audience of ordinands, people training for Priesthood in the Church of England.  But what it says, I believe, applies  to all people - because Jesus died for us all, He calls all of us to live in humility, honesty, and to acknowledge our sin.  Furthermore, in the Kingdom of Heaven, of the New Covenant written in His blood we are all 'priests' - it is a kingdom of priests.  Every Christian has a duty, and what should be a joy, to preach Christ crucified and to minister to their friends.]

Paul’s Ministry in Thessalonica

2.1       You yourselves know, brothers and sisters, that our coming to you was not in vain, 2but though we had already suffered and been shamefully maltreated at Philippi, as you know, we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition.  3For our appeal does not spring from deceit or impure motives or trickery, 4but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts.   5As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery nor with a mask to cover greed;  6nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others,  7though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were as babes among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. 8So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.
9You remember our labour and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. 10You are witnesses, and God also, how pure, upright, and blameless our conduct was towards you believers. 11As you know, we dealt with each one of you like a father with his children, 12urging and encouraging you and pleading that you should lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.

          As future ministers of God, this passage should speak to the very core of who we are, it should resonate with our very souls, our passions, our purpose, and our lives.  When I was younger I remember one Christmas being given a Darth Vader mask, it even had a voice transformer so I would sound and breathe like the Sith Lord himself.  When I wore that mask I was no longer Adam Young, I was Anakin Skywalker, Darth Vader.  I did the things he did, I said the things he said, and I mimicked his demeanour.   But of course I was not Darth Vader, and as much as I may have protested, eventually the mask had to come off – even if only to eat.

The challenge to all of us at the core of this passage is to discover who we truly are, why we act as we do, to inspect ourselves in the mirror that is Christ broken on the cross and discern where our masks begin and where they end.   The masks we wear probably do not portray us as Darth Vader, more likely a Jedi immersed in the light side.  But is that really who we are?  Or is it who we want people to think we are?  Perhaps even who we need people to think we are?

Throughout 1 Thessalonians Paul calls on the Church to remember – as they themselves know - what he taught them, what he showed them, to remember who they truly are: citizens of heaven - as absurd as it may sound - citizens of heaven loved by none other than the Most Holy, All Powerful, All Knowing, Sole, Ultimate, and Only Creator of all that is – God, the Father, the Son and Holy Spirit.   And we too must remember. We must remember who we are, who called us, what we know, and how we should live.  We of all people must remember and have before our eyes at all times the knowledge that God is Good, that God Loves all people, and that God wishes all to be saved – and to that end died upon a Roman Cross at Calvary that whoever accepts Him as Lord might have eternal salvation.

And the reason for this?   There are far too many for me to list here, so let me state one: because we are called to follow Jesus, to live as people ever desiring and ever being conformed into His image and likeness.  Furthermore, not only are we are called to follow Him in all things, but also to herd His flock, tend His sheep.  The first mask we must peel away is pride and self-confidence.  We may be called to tend His sheep, but no person can possibly accomplish this task, even if we try with all our might we will only find ourselves burning out – indeed in trying with our own might and power all we do is sin against God.   For Jesus is the true Shepherd of His sheep, and without Him there sustaining us at every moment, without recognising, that we of all people, need Jesus and His Cross more than anything – we are liars, we are fakes, we are actors in tragic play.

Only when we are truly honest with ourselves, only when we have the guts to look in the mirror and see that we, those called by God to lead, are just as broken, as fragile, as sinful, as everyone else, only then are we of any use to God.  Because unless we recognise that, then God cannot, or rather will not, enter every aspect of our hearts, He will be forever put into different boxes, shelved here and there but never in the ‘restricted section’ of the library that is our lives.   I don’t think it needs to be said that that is no way to treat the God who loved us so much that He suffered agony, humiliation and death that we might live – the least we could do is show Him the same:  to agonisingly search our souls, humbly ask for His Spirit, and put to death the demons we all carry around each day.  It is a task we will often fail in, but He is a God we can always trust in.

And it is only if we do this that we will be able to hold the true courage to face the humiliation, the resentment, the hardship, the pain, the fatigue, the persecution that we will face; which is very real.  And we won’t need to wear a mask; Christ will stand before us and bear it all – for His load is light and His love is endless and He has already taken it all and with the hammer of Hrace nailed it to the Cross.. 

          Paul exclaims to the Thessalonians that what he had the courage to teach, and to live, did not come from empty deceit, from dubious and sinister motives, from flashy trickery for cheap kicks or fat cheques.  And how do the Thessalonians know that he is not simply playing them in saying this?  Because they saw how he was among them.  How despite all he had previously suffered he never hesitated to proclaim the Good News that he was entrusted – that we have been entrusted.   He did not speak to please the Thessalonians; indeed I would wager that he said a lot that did not please them in the slightest.  But the Thessalonians saw that we all must bear our cross if we desire to have Christ in us, if we desire to not act ourselves, but for Christ to act in and through us. 

As future ministers, and from my own experience, the truth can be one of the hardest things to speak.  Paul did not speak words that would please, he did not use false flattery, he simply preached Christ crucified, taught what Christ taught, lived as Christ lived – and made very clear in, and by, his example that as Christians we must lead a life worthy of God – the God who calls us into His kingdom and glory.  We all have masks, we all wear makeup, and when washing away heavy makeup, especially around the eyes – the things we see the world through – it can hurt, it can sting, it can be sore, but nothing, nothing, is more beautiful to God than us as we are, flaws and faults and all, we are all His little children.  Seen like this is it any wonder mothers tell off they young daughters for sneaking away to try on their makeup? 
          Near the centre of this passage Paul uses two interesting metaphors.  That of his being like a babe among the Thessalonians and that of being like a wet-nurse or mother caring for their children.  So what was Paul among them, what are we to be?  Like babes or like mothers?  Some scholars choose a far less likely reading and replace the word ‘babes’ with ‘gentle.’  Paul was like a gentle mother.  But to ignore what critical scholarship has revealed concerning Scripture simply to make it easier is no ethic for spiritual edification. 

Was not Jesus the Lamb of God, an innocent, helpless animal, reliant on its mother to survive?  Yet was Jesus not also the Lion of Judah, the White Rider of Revelation  19 who is the Word of God, named Faithful and True, the one who judges and who makes war!?  Is Jesus not also the True Vine, the one that gives life and nutrients to all His seed, his fruit, till they have ripened?  In Christ we can be all things to all people, and we must be as humble as babes, acknowledging that we are indeed infants, that we have needs, and yet we must also feed the flock, care from them, teach them and love them.
          For me verse 8 forms the crux of this passage, and it is a passage that defines what true ministry is.  So deeply does Paul care for the church, his brothers and sisters in Christ, that not only did he share with them the Good News – but his very self, all because they were dear to him.  To share the Good News and give his very self.  That reminds me of another person who did exactly the same.  His name was Jesus of Nazareth, known as the Messiah, He shared the Good News with all the people, and He demonstrated it too in His life, and He shared that life, shared it to the grave for those He loved – and this Jesus had a big heart because He loved every one that ever had been, was, or would be.   Personally I can’t think of a better role model to follow than that, and Paul certainly couldn’t. 
          Of course the risk of sharing our very selves is that we have to know who we are – to share a masquerade would be a farce, an insult.   So once again the theme of masks is found.   Of course there is a fine line to be trodden.  There are things to be shared with your parish, things to be shared with friends, things to be shared with family, and likely things to be shared only with Jesus.  Where that line lies will just be one of the challenges we shall have to face as we step into ministry, a ministry that deals with real people, that affects real people, which can change the lives of real people.  
Just because you don’t wear a mask doesn’t mean you have to be open to read like a book.  We are not on the Truman Show with those around us; they do not have to tune in to every aspect of our lives.   But as Paul makes perfectly clear in this passage, whilst we should not act and live to please people, we must live and act in a way pleasing to God.   Paul in this passage exhorts those who read it to imitate him, to be pure, upright, and blameless in conduct to all, to deal with others with familial love, to urge and encourage them that they and we may live lives worthy of God.  We will fall, stumble, trip, just as Paul did, but one thing Paul never, ever, did is give up, he kept on running the race, keeping his sights on Jesus and by desiring to have Jesus in Him – not as a mask – but actually as part of his very being, so he became what he was called to be.  And so I pray that we may do the same.

And at the last what is left to be said?  There are a few points to conclude concerning the teachings of this passage.  Firstly, we must take off our masks and wipe away our makeup, in all we do, even if it is not done perfectly, it must be done honestly, genuinely, humbly, and for Christ alone.  Sound character produces credible results. Secondly, as ministers we are called, as indeed are all people, to follow the Good News – and the Gospel is not just an announcement made from a pulpit, it is a response to God’s divine initiative, it is a way of life.  We are called to live lives worthy of God, called to live holy lives here and now.  And just thinking of all of that, I can only thank my God for the things He has done – for coming down to this rock to live and breathe and die as we do – on fact to die in agony on a blood stained Roman Cross, that we may be forgiven, reconciled to Him, and picked up once again, if, or rather when, we fall.   

Which just goes to show that God is Good, and that is fact.                                  


Popular Posts