June 11, 2013
Power of the Holy Spirit
Assembly for KS 1 & 2, comparing the power of electricity with the Holy Spirit
Aim: To show that the Holy Spirit has always been at work in the world, but was known in a new way at Pentecost.
Bible Passage: Acts 2, 1-8
Preparation and materials:
You will need several devices that work by electricity – some with batteries and some which plug in to power source.
You will need to know something of history of harnessing of electricity.
Ask what powers all devices? Electricity. If not connected to it, (by plug or battery) won’t work. Expand that electricity used to help us keep warm (fires) do difficult tasks (power tools) help us see and communicate (phones, radios etc.)
Ask who invented electricity? You may get several answers, including that no-one invented it, but several people discovered how to harness it and use it.
If appropriate give brief history of use of electricity.
Emphasise that electricity a natural force, in the universe since the very beginning of time, which humans became aware of and able to use .
Tell the story of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came upon friends and followers of Jesus with great power, enabling them to do things they couldn’t do before, to communicate Good News of Gospel to all sorts of different people, and giving them comfort when they were in trouble.
Point out that power of Holy Spirit in some ways like power of electricity.
Say Holy Spirit came in renewed strength at Pentecost, but had always been at work in world. Bible tells us that Spirit active in creation of world, animals and humans, and inspired words of prophets who taught Jews about God before the coming of Jesus. Also there at Annunciation when Mary told she would have Jesus and at baptism of Jesus.
Say Christians believe they need to be open/ connected/ plugged in to Holy Spirit in order to do the work in the world that Jesus did, and which he taught them God wants them to do also
Time for reflection
Switch on a torch/ electric light.
Jesus’s disciple John said he was the Light of the World. The Holy Spirit gives power to his followers to be light like him.
Think how you can be like a light to people around you today.
We thank you that your Holy Spirit is always at work in your world,
bringing strength and comfort, words and light to those who receive it.
Through your Spirit, help us to live as Jesus did,
to bring light to your world,
and to live in the way that you want us to live.
May 5, 2013
(Acts 16, 9-15; Revelation 21,10 &21,10-22.5; John 5,1-9)
Paul really didn’t want to go to Philippi.
He and Silas had plans to evangelise known territory in Asia Minor (present day Turkey), where they knew there were synagogues and Jewish communities where they could preach easily, but every time they tried to turn North and East, the Holy Spirit blocked their way.
They crossed to Macedonia, homeland of the hated Alexander who had imposed Greek culture on their nation 300 years before, only as a result of a compelling vision of a man from Macedonia begging them to come and help him.
Philippi was possibly the most unattractive place on earth to begin a religious mission. It was a colonial city, established by the Emperor Augustus to control that part of the Roman Empire, and populated by discharged veterans from the legions, who were each given a square of land on which to support themselves. It didn’t seem to have much of a Jewish population: there weren’t even the ten adult Jewish males you needed before you could establish a synagogue, so the Jews and the Gentile God-fearers who worshipped with them, gathered by the side of the river to pray on the Sabbath.
The leader among the women who met Paul and Silas there was also a stranger in the place: Lydia came from Thyatira in the region they’d just left. She wasn’t Jewish, it seems, though she was drawn to Jewish beliefs, and worshipped with them. She was probably a widow, and was a successful businesswomen, so was probably quite wealthy. She dealt in purple cloth, which was a luxury item, though since the snails from which the purple dye was extracted were considered unclean to Jews, she was probably not considered someone strict Jews ought to associate with.
But it was her heart that was opened to Paul’s preaching, her household that became the first European residents to be converted to the Christian faith, and her home that provided hospitality to Paul and his companions, and the centre of the church that Paul always remembered with joy and thankfulness. The core from which the Christian faith grew on the continent of Europe was composed of women, outcasts and foreigners.
Paul took a risk in preaching the Gospel and accepting hospitality from these women. Lydia took a risk in opening her home to this group of men. Yet, the strength of her faith showed itself in the hospitality and generosity to these strangers. The Letter to Timothy says such hospitality is the hallmark of a church leader, and Paul commended this in the church communities he founded.
‘Hospitality’ is an interesting word. The Greek from which it is translated – philoxena – is composed of two words meaning ‘love’ and ‘foreigners’ – it it literally love for strangers. The Latin root of our word hospitality, ‘hostes’, also means ‘stranger’.
That tells us ‘hospitality’ is not about having a nice time with people like ourselves. It is about offering safety, comfort, nourishment, security, healing and friendship both to those who are different and alien from us, as well as to those who are like us. This was an absolute obligation in the world of the Old Testament; to fail to offer security and sustenance to a stranger was the worst social offence. It is this, not gay sex, that Sodom and Gemorrah were condemned for
We Christians offer hospitality because that is what God in Jesus offers to us; we have done it as ‘hosts’ (another related word) in hostels, hospitals and hotels throughout the Church’s history; and it is what the best Christian communities continue to do today.
The readings from John and Revelation also speak, in their different ways, about hospitality. What is on offer in the Gospel passage is healing. The story speaks of Jesus going to a place where the sick gather, all hoping to to be healed by some sort of magic. He picks a stranger at random, and offers him true healing. The person who is healed is not particularly deserving, he doesn’t express faith in Jesus, he doesn’t even seem to be particularly grateful for his healing. It certainly doesn’t appear to provoke faith in him.The miracle demonstrates the generous, indiscriminate character of God’s grace. This story show that it is not true that faith is a precondition for healing; God doesn’t only reward those who have faith. on the contrary, God’s hospitality is offered to all, even the undeserving.
Revelation speaks of a God who accepts the hospitality of humankind, coming to live among them in a renewed Jerusalem, and then, in that holy city, offering hospitality to every race and people. The picture it paints is of a renewed creation: the tree of life stands at the centre, and the river of life flows through it, reflecting the situation in the Garden of Eden. In a parallel with the Gospel story, those who find sanctuary there are offered healing through the leaves of the tree of life. There will be absolute security for everyone within the city, with no darkness to provide cover for wrongdoing. It will be so secure that the gates will never have to be shut to keep out attackers. It is portrayed as the place of perfect hospitality, where everyone is comfortable, befriended, secure, healthy and at home.
There is no need for a place of religious hospitality in the city, because the presence of God and of the Lamb pervades the whole. Until that consummation comes, each of our churches is called to be a microcosm of that heavenly city in our own towns and communities. How can we be that city and offer that community?
As you wait to move into your new church building, it’s a good question to ask yourselves. How can you offer safety, comfort, nourishment, healing and friendship to both committed members and strangers? How can your church community and your worship be more welcoming to the friendless and the newcomer, in both practical and spiritual ways? Perhaps, like Philippi, this area doesn’t look like a very easy place in which to do mission; but God has a task for you here, just as he had for Paul.
Like Paul’s mission to Europe, the new chapter in this church’s life you are about to embark upon will be a continuation of the old. There will be things you will continue to do, like Messy Church, and hosting meetings for younger and older folk; but the new premises may also offer opportunities to open your doors to welcome other groups, with different interests and different needs, to feel at home as your guests.
But, as citizens of a democratic nation, we all have an obligation to offer hospitality and healing in the name of God, to those far beyond our local communities. John’s vision of the heavenly city in Revelation sees it as a place of security and refuge for all nations, and our Christian calling is to do that through our votes and making our opinions felt, as well as through our practical activities.
John’s vision of a hospitable world is a vision of hope, and also a challenge to the ways in which we fall short of this ideal. In so many ways, our world has developed a culture of suspicion and inhospitality. But, one of the obvious characteristics of Jesus’ first followers as they sought to live out the Gospel was hospitality, reflected in feeding the hungry , inviting strangers into their homes, and serving and praying for the sick, the widow and the orphan . What might be the present day equivalent of those? Perhaps global debt relief and removal of unjust trade restrictions;humane and just immigration laws and fair treatment of ethnic and other minorities; freely available equitable health care and social services? For those of us who seek to follow Christ, our vote, and our voice in public debate against those who would deny them, could be a significant influence in creating a more hospitable world.
As we draw to the end of the Easter season, we are reminded again through our readings that the new life unleashed through the resurrection demands that we share God’s love in practical ways. Last week we were shown how the first apostles included those who were once considered unclean in the covenant community. This week we are shown how they offered and accepted hospitality and healing in different and not obviously receptive situations, and so laid the foundations for what would become Christendom, the centre of the world wide missionary activity of the Church. Our calling as Pentecost approaches is to do the same, to welcome in and offer healing and comfort to all, without distinction, and to do our best to create the community and safety of the heavenly city wherever we have influence on this earth.
April 24, 2012
Luke 24, 36b-48 Service of Baptism in Eucharist
During the baptism of S. his parents and godparents will promise that they will encourage him, as he grows up, to learn to know God, to follow Jesus Christ in the life of faith and to serve their neighbour following the example of Jesus. In other words, they will encourage him to witness to his faith.
Our Gospel today describes how the risen Christ told his disciples that they must be witnesses to the whole world of what they saw in his life, his death and his resurrection. S’s parents and godparents are promising today that he will grow up to be a disciple of Christ; but the task that Jesus gave to his disciples after the resurrection seems a bit of a heavy load to give to such a small child.
It would have seemed an impossible job to the original disciples too – a small group of rather frightened, not very well educated, not at all wealthy men and women in an obscure corner of the Roman Empire. But they did it! And today, 2000 years later, there are about 2.1 billion followers of Christ throughout the world.
Sometimes they spoke to large crowds, and lots of people accepted the Christian faith at one time. But, most of the time, it happened one or two people at a time, with someone who was already a Christian telling two more, and each of them witnessing to two more, and each of them converting two more- and the mathematically mined among you will know how quickly very small numbers become very big numbers when that happens.
That’s not a difficult thing for anyone of any age to do.
A more difficult question, especially as we get older, is HOW we are to witness to our faith.
Some people think it’s all about talking to people about Christ and the Bible and Church – that is important, but it’s not the most important thing – and the best witnesses are not always those who talk a lot, but those who silently observe and say just the right thing.
Some people think it’s important to wear something to show you are a Christian. That can be a very important way of quietly witnessing who you follow, whose commands you obey.
But it is actually more important to LIVE the cross than to wear a cross. The baptism commission that will be read to S’s parents and godparents sets out what that means in everyday life: a life of love and service to our family, our neighbours and especially to those who are different from us and even those who hate us and wish us ill. A life in which we struggle against anything that brings pain or division into our communities, against anything that brings conflict into our neighbourhoods, and against anything that perpetuates injustice and inequality in our world. A life which in which we constantly examine what we do, and repent of anything that falls short of the standards which God expects of us. It is a call to embody in our own lives the message and mission of Christ.
The cross in oil and water which will be made on S’s forehead will soon be invisible. But we pray that he will so live the cross that he will grow into a shining witness for Christ through his whole life.
April 8, 2012
(Acts 10, 34-43; Mark 16,1-8.)
Last month all the ministers of the Watford churches received a bag of goodies from the young people of ‘Love Watford’ with an offer to pray for them and with them during Holy Week. Among the other delights in the bag was a Kinder Easter egg.
I always used to appreciate it when people gave my children or me one of these eggs. With it, you get the pleasure of a chocolate fix, but it doesn’t stop there. The experience goes on, because inside the egg there is a ‘surprise’, which you have to extricate from its tomb like capsule. Then you have to think about it, and, more often than not, you have to construct the toy or puzzle for yourself from all the bits inside. Only then can you really recognise what your ‘surprise’ is.
It seems to me that the story of the Resurrection which we find in chapter 16 of Mark’s Gospel (the first 8 verses written by Mark, not all the other bits that people dissatisfied with Mark’s version added later) is very like a Kinder Surprise egg. You get the joy and sweetness of the proclamation that Christ has been raised; but then comes the surprise and the puzzle.
The account contains a number of surprises. The women who witnessed the crucifixion and the burial of Jesus go to the tomb. They are worrying about who will be available to move the heavy stone that seals the tomb entrance for them. But ‘Surprise!’, the stone has already been rolled back, They go with spices to anoint the body; but ‘Surprise!’ there is no body. The women expect the tomb to contain a dead body; but ‘Surprise!’ it contains a living person, the young man in white. He gives them a message for the disciples; and ‘Surprise!’ they are told Jesus has been raised, and will be seen back in Galilee, where they first got to know him.
Mark’s narrative also contains a number of puzzles. There is the puzzle of the women going to the tomb 36 hours after the burial, to anoint the body with spices, when it has already been wrapped in linen, and would have begun to smell. There is the puzzle of why they did not think to take someone stronger with them to deal with the stone.
Then there is the young man in white they find in the tomb. Who is he? A young man in white appeared in Mark’s account of the arrest of Jesus. Is this meant to be the same young man? Some commentators think this is the writer of the Gospel himself, who ran away like the other followers during the arrest, but was the first to understand and experience the resurrection. The other gospel writers turn him into an angel, or even two! Or is he symbolic? – of those who are baptised and clothed in white, but run away, deserting their baptismal faith at the first sign of trouble; but later come to experience the forgiveness of the resurrected Christ, and return to belief and discipleship.
There is no detailed explanation of how Jesus has been raised; Mark just says the tomb is empty. The women are told to inform the disciples, and instruct them to go to Galilee where they will meet him. Why Galilee? The other Gospels have resurrection appearances in Jerusalem for the most part. The early church, as we see from Acts, was based in Jerusalem. So what is the significance of Galilee?
More puzzles: there are no appearances of Jesus to give clues as to what sort of resurrection, physical or spiritual is taking place; and the story tells us the women ran away in terror, and told no-one. So how did the news of the resurrection spread, and how did the disciples find out about it?
Mark’s resurrection story is not one for people who like everything explained, everything cut and dried, all the i’s dotted and the t’s crossed. It is a resurrection story for those who want to ponder and puzzle about faith, and to work things out for themselves, and with their faith community, and keep coming back to find deeper meaning in the story.
Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan suggest that it is helpful to treat the resurrection account as a parable. This approach does not require us to pass judgement on whether any of the elements of the story are historical or not. It simply looks at what meaning the story is trying to convey.
So Mark tells us that Jesus was laid in a tomb – but the tomb could not hold him – the stone was removed and he was not there. The tomb is a place for the dead – and Jesus is not to be found there. Jesus has been raised. Mark reminds us that the body was of a person crucified by order of the authorities. Jesus was rejected by the Jewish religious authorities and executed by the Roman political power; they said ‘no’ to Jesus’s way of living. God, however has raised Jesus; God says ‘yes’ to Jesus and vindicates him.
In Mark the disciples are told they will see Jesus again and in order to do this, they have to go back to Galilee – back to the place where it all started, back to the beginning, back to the proclamation of the way and the Kingdom. That is where they will see Jesus again, this is where their faith will be renewed, this is where they will know the forgiveness of Jesus and be able to start again, knowing that Jesus is alive and always will be, without limitation of time or space.
We simply don’t know what happened in those first few weeks and months after Jesus was executed. We don’t know how long it was before all the remaining disciples and followers of Jesus came to the realisation that the crucifixion was not the end, but the beginning of a new life in which Jesus was seen and known through the Spirit. The New Testament uses picture language to describe the Resurrection, the Ascension, and the coming of the Holy Spirit. It uses sacred time scales: ‘after three days’, ‘after 40 days’ to speak of the coming of the Holy Spirit, through which the followers of Jesus knew his presence and strength to be with them again.
We do not know how soon the sharing of bread and wine (as we shall do in a few moments) became the defining moment of communion with the Risen Lord. We do not know who searched the Hebrew Scriptures to find passages and prophecies to illuminate and express their experience of the life and death and resurrection of their crucified master, and to affirm their belief that he was God’s Messiah and God’s favoured Son.
We do know that the questions were answered in several different ways, and that the pieces of the puzzle that were discovered in the tomb were put together by different groups to give slightly different answers; and we know that some of those answers were collected together in what we now know as the New Testament, to inform and guide our thinking about the significance of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for our time.
We do know that the followers of Jesus were transformed by their experiences of meeting the Risen Lord, from frightened men and women, into a congregation fired by the power of the Spirit, which enabled them to proclaim their faith in life and in death, and which gave birth to the Christian church which spread throughout the entire world, and is still growing.
We know that, however we understand what happened in Jerusalem and Galilee two thousand years ago, it continues to provide inspiration and meaning to us and our fellow Christians, and to reveal the surprise and puzzle of the love and forgiveness of God to us, again and again.
That inspiration enables us to face the pain and suffering and abuse of power that still scar the lives of so many people in the world today, and to affirm that if we face them without resorting to violence or hatred, as Jesus did; if we continue to follow in the way that Jesus showed us; and to affirm the values of the Kingdom that Jesus lived and died for, we too will be raised by God from the old selfish life that ends in death to the life that never ends.
So we can say, as we say every year:
‘Christ is risen!’
‘He is risen indeed!’
November 20, 2011
(Matthew 25, 31-45) Address for Holy Communion with baptism.
Have you ever seen the Queen or a member of the Royal Family in the flesh. Or in a film or on TV? Did they look the same as every other person or different? They are a very different Royal Family from the one described in our reading today. That king would have had absolute power to reward or punish anyone. Think Henry VIII rather than Elizabeth II!
What about Jesus? Anyone ever seen him? Seen pictures – what people think he may have looked like. What do you think Jesus looks like? How would you recognise him if he suddenly appeared before you? Do you think he would look the same as everyone else, or different?
Today is a very special day in the church. The Feast of Christ the King – the last Sunday before we begin the four weeks of Advent, which is the time we prepare for the coming of Jesus at Christmas. It’s a time also when we try to prepare ourselves for when Jesus comes to us again, to judge us.
In this week’s gospel Matthew tells Jesus’s followers a story about the day they will be judged and surprisingly, explains they will be judged as good or bad by how they’ve taken care of Jesus.
Matthew says when Jesus was hungry they gave him food and when he was thirsty they gave him a drink. He tells them that they took care of him when he was sick, or gave him something to wear when he had nothing or visited him when he was in prison.
But the people are a little surprised to hear this from Jesus – as we might be. We probably know we’ve never taken care of Jesus when he was sick – or given him food or a drink – and neither had many of them. So they said to “We don’t remember doing all these things for Jesus!”
And then Matthew gives them the message that’s at the heart of what Jesus taught. He explains that when we do these things for others who really need them – when we feed the hungry and take care of the sick… when we do good things for other people here on Earth – that we’re actually doing these things for Jesus, our King.
Jesus’ story helps us to remember that we do God’s work every day – and that we never quite know all the places we meet him.
Perhaps some of you may have done these things for Jesus on Friday, when Children in Need were raising money for children in this country. Today is the World Day of Prayer and Action for Children – perhaps you could do something to help other children today. And over Christmas, there will be lots of appeals to help people without homes and needing food and other essentials. There will be appeals at church and elsewhere. Perhaps you could serve Jesus by responding to these appeals.
What a perfect story that is to lead us into the first Sunday of Advent, when we begin celebrating the coming of Jesusas a tiny baby.
But the story has other lessons for us especially as we welcome J. into the Christian family in baptism. It tells us that God is not chiefly concerned about how we worship, or whether we say the creed, or believe certain things about the Bible, or Jesus or the Church. What really matters to God is how we behave, and especially how we behave to those who are vulnerable and at a disadvantage. As Jesus shows us, it doesn’t matter whether their troubles are their own fault, whether they deserve to be helped or not. We will be judged on how we respond. And that will affect what our world is like – whether it’s the Paradise into which those who helped others were welcomed in Matthew’s story, or the living Hell into which those who ignored the needs of others were sent.
And remember, it’s not a TV personality, or a member of cast of Eastenders, but our King who is telling us whenever we help the smallest and weakest member of the human family, we are doing it for God.
(based on an outline at The Children’s Sermon.Com © 2008)
July 17, 2011
(Wisdom 12,13 & 16-19; Matthew 13, 24-30.) (Family Communion + Baptisms)
I’ve just planted a patch of earth in our garden with wild flower seeds. I cleared the earth of weeds before I sowed the seeds, but now they’ve germinated, I don’t know whether what is growing are flowers or weeds. I’m going to have to wait until they’re much bigger, perhaps even until they flower, before I do anything about the weeds.
And if I did then decide to remove the weeds what could I do? Well, I could use weedkiller. Trouble is, I would be likely to kill off all the flowers I’d planted as well. Or, I could use a hoe. That’s O.K. when you have clear rows of sturdy plants, but, with flowers, you are likely to chop off things you want to keep. Or, I could pull up the weeds. That would be very time consuming; and I would risk disturbing the roots of the flowers, so they might die. So I think I’ll just enjoy whatever grows in that particular patch – and hope the bees and the butterflies enjoy them too.
When Jesus told this story about the man who planted wheat in his field, and then found weeds growing up, he knew what he was talking about. The decision of the farmer not to try to separate the two until harvest time was the right one. In a field of wheat, it would be extremely difficult to tell the weeds, which would probably be a form of wild grass, and would look exactly the same as the wheat until the ears of corn were formed. Much better to wait until harvest time to sort them out.
The story says the man’s servants thought someone had come deliberately and sown the weeds in the crop. But of course, in an open field, or even in a garden, it’s very easy for weed seeds to get mixed in with the good seed. They are brought by birds or on the fur of animals, or blown by the wind. In any open piece of ground, it is inevitable that both the good things you want to grow and the weeds you want to get rid of grow up together.
I don’t know whether you saw a TV programme recently which featured the Blue Peter gardener, Chris Collins, talking about weeds. He made the point that many of our garden flowers started out as weeds. Then someone thought they were attractive, brought seeds to grow in better soils, cross-pollinated them and selected plants for their best characteristics, and so produced garden flowers.
But he also pointed out that some garden plants have now become weeds. Things like Japanese knotweed, buddleia and rhododendron were introduced as ornamental plants, but then their seeds spread into the wold, and now those who maintain woodland and look after railway lines spend millions trying to eliminate them. He also pointed out how useful some weeds are – for dyeing cloth, and as medicine. So it does seem that the old adage ‘A weed is merely a plant growing in the wrong place’ has some truth in it.
Jesus, of course, didn’t just tell stories to entertain. His stories, which we call parables, usually had a deeper meaning, which he left people to work out for themselves. This story is about the world, and the way the Good News of God is sown like a seed in a field. It grows and produces a good harvest in spite of all the evil around it. God, who is the farmer, will sort out the good and evil when the time comes. No matter how many weeds there are around, they can’t prevent God’s abundant harvest of good.
Because Jesus didn’t explain what his stories meant we are free to find other meanings in them too. The church community for which St Matthew wrote saw the wheat and weed seeds as representing two different sorts of members of the church community. Some of them were inspired by Jesus, and their work was good. Some they thought were inspired by the devil (the enemy) and what they produced was evil. They hoped that the ‘good seed’ would be gathered in to God at the harvest on Judgement Day; but they expected that the ‘bad seed’ would be punished by being thrown into the fire.
In the story, Jesus warns his followers not to be too quick to judge which of his followers are ‘good’ and which are ‘bad’. He doesn’t want them pulling people out and sending them away. In the story of the farmer, he is telling them they are like the servants, not skilled enough to judge. Judgement, he says, should be left to God. His church should be tolerant of different ways of expressing faith, and leave God to decide which is right. That’s something some people in today’s church need to realise too.
Jesus also didn’t talk much about God punishing people. Like the writer of our Old Testament passage from Wisdom, he talked about a God who was kind and forgiving, who never gave up hope that bad people could be turned into good people, and who was patient enough to wait for however long it took for people to accept the Gospel and turn from weeds into productive wheat. Jesus talked about a God who, like the farmer in the story, will spare everyone punishment if possible. In the story, even the weeds have some purpose. When they go into the oven they produce heat to cook the bread made from the wheat; and they ash to spread on the ground as fertiliser for the next crop.
The story of the weeds and the wheat is a very good one for today, when we are going to baptise R and M, make them members of the community of the church, and ask God to send the Holy Spirit upon them to strengthen them to live good lives in the service of the Gospel. We hope and pray they will grow up to be wheat, rather than weeds in the world. It will be the task of their parents and godparents, supported by all the rest of us, to nurture them and to promote their best characteristics, so that their lives are good and fruitful. Baptism and membership of the community of the church is one way that we are strengthened to grow as good seed and defended against the competition of the bad seed.
But of course, the reality is that all of us are sometimes good and sometimes bad, sometimes wheat and sometimes weeds. That is why we need God’s mercy, to forgive us when we go wrong, to patiently leave us growing and changing in the hope that we will all turn out to be fruitful members of the church and community, and to gently separate out the good and bad in us when judgement time comes.
Today as we support R. and M. and their family as they come to baptism, we will thank God for his mercy and pray for them and ourselves that we may grow into fruitful plants, which help to spread the Gospel of God’s love and contribute to an abundant harvest of good things for God.
Prayer for ‘weeds”
A prayer for those who do evil:
O Lord, remember not only the men and women of good will, but also those of ill will.
But do not remember them for the suffering they have inflicted;
remember the fruits we have bought, thanks to that suffering:
our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility, our courage, our generosity, the greatness of heart which has grown out of all this;
and when they come to judgement, let all the fruits which we have borne be their forgiveness. Amen
June 26, 2011
Proper 8. Yr A. Romans 6, 12-23: Matthew 10, 40-42.
Can you imagine yourself as a slave? Can you imagine living in a situation where you have no rights at all, where you are obliged to do everything someone else tells you to do, where you have no home or clothing or possessions or food that does not belong to someone else, where even your children may be taken away from you and sold to work in another place, where you can be abused without any recourse, where you can even be killed, and no-one will object, because you are simply a possession, to be disposed of at will? That is the sort of situation Paul is talking about in his letter to the Romans, a society where everyone is either free or enslaved.
It’s almost impossible for us to conceive of living in such a society. We tend to complain about even minor restrictions on our our freedom to do what we want and go where we wish, when we want. But that was a reality for many of the new converts in Rome to whom Paul was writing, and even those who weren’t slaves would have known what life would be like as a slave. And yet Paul uses slavery to illustrate what it is to belong to Christ.
Our society values freedom highly. We celebrate when we think people have won their political freedom, throwing off the shackles of totalitarian systems or absolute monarchies or theocracies. But experience tells us that freedom is difficult to obtain and even more difficult to maintain. So often, as we watch events unfold, we realise that the ‘revolution’ has simply replaced one sort of tyranny by another. The rule of the Shah is replaced by that of fundamentalist clerics, the army takes over from a corrupt dictator, or a dictatorship, often of one tribe or ethnic group, takes over when an imperial power withdraws. Again and again we see the pattern of dictatorship, followed by anarchy, followed by another dictatorship. Jesus made a point about this in Luke 11: when an evil spirit leaves a place, he said, he often returns, and finding the place swept clean invites seven more evil spirits to come and occupy it (Luke 11, 24-6).
These illustrations seem to indicate that human freedom is something of an illusion; we are always under the power of something. That is something that sociology and psychology tends to confirm – the way that our actions are strongly influenced by the spoken or unspoken customs and conventions of the society we live in. Some social systems may be less directive than others; but human beings need to be equipped to handle freedom, and it is not easy. I expect most of us can remember a time when we were suddenly given a new freedom to make decisions for ourselves: perhaps when we went from school to university, and had to discipline ourselves to turn up to lectures or hand in work; or when we first left home, and found that the flat and the oven didn’t miraculously clean themselves.
So when Paul wrote to the Romans about the choice between being a slave to sin or a slave to righteousness, he was not speaking theoretically, but about a real dilemma in which new Christian found themselves, and in which we still find ourselves. Believers are converted or make a commitment to Christ. They are justified and saved. But while salvation brings forgiveness for sin, it doesn’t bring freedom from sin. What Christians then experience is sanctification, a long process of growing in grace, but in which they continually struggle against the power of sin.
It’s important to realise that when Paul talks about ‘sin’ he is not talking about the occasional lapse into wrongdoing. He sees ‘sin’ as an external power, a spiritual force to be contended with, and one which humans could not defeated in their own strength. Only the power of God was strong enough to overcome the power of ‘sin’.
This view of sin helps me to make sense of the concept of original sin. It says it has nothing to do with our being born as a result of sexual intercourse. Rather, it speaks of the reality that we are born into a world where the pressures of society incline us to put ourselves, our desires, our family or our social group first. It is a real struggle to escape from that inclination, a struggle in which we need to put ourselves under the direction of a spiritual power that is as strong as our inclination to be selfish and do evil.
In chapter 6 of the letter to the Romans, from which we heard, Paul is talking about justification, the process of being put right with God. In the first 11 verses he talks about baptism, and uses the analogy of dying and rising again with Christ. In the passage we have today, he uses the analogy of slavery to show how we have a choice about who is to ‘own’ us and direct our lives. In the next chapter, he uses another analogy, that of marriage, to show how we are bound in union to Christ, and must obey him, as a Roman wife was bound to obey her husband.
So he says, Christian believers are like slaves, who have been bought by a new master, and must commit themselves wholly to the service of their new owner. But, the reality is that we are constantly tempted back to serve our previous master. That, he argues, is stupid. We may not wish to feel enslaved, but we have no choice about our enslavement. All we can choose is what sort of master to serve. If we choose sin, we are enslaved by a cruel master, in a life which is humiliating, exploitative, and exhausting. Slavery to sin is like an addiction, more and more difficult to escape from the more we obey it. It leads, Paul says, to spiritual death and separation from God.
If we are enslaved to righteousness, though, we have a loving master, who offers us not wages, but a free gift of salvation, freedom, and eternal life in the presence of God. And both this death and this life are to be experienced here and now. We are are not talking about what will happen to us after death, but about what happens to us as we live our lives on this earth.
This is not to say that being a ‘slave of righteousness’ is an easy life. Like any slavery, it demands obedience, and is costly, particularly because our previous master, sin, is still trying to direct our lives. Jesus warned us that we cannot serve two masters, but often we try to do so, with great cost.
The reality of slavery is that your whole body is at the disposal of your master; and Paul talks in this passage about putting our whole selves, bodies as well as minds, into the service of righteousness. Our society tends to emphasise the freedom of each individual to do what they like with their bodies; so this instruction of Paul’s goes against the cultural norms of our time.
Unfortunately, when we talk about bodies and sin in our society, the emphasis tends to be on sex. This is sad, because it limits our conception of sin to just one part of us. As the letter to James tells us, our tongues are capable of inflicting great damage on others and doing many evil things. Our use of our bodily strength can inflict real physical damage on others, and our minds lead us into all sorts of wrongdoing. Desire for food, for water, for money, for living space, for all sorts of physical comforts lead people into many more evil acts than their sexual desires. When we think about surrendering our whole selves to Christ, we are committing every part of our bodies and every part of our lives to the service of righteousness.
In this passage, Paul presents us with three pairs of choices: to choose righteousness over sin; to choose freedom over slavery; to choose the gift of God over the wages of sin. In the letter to the Romans he also indicates the resources we can draw on in order to have the strength to continue to be obedient to our righteous master.
The first resource is our baptism, when we are incorporated both into Christ’s death, but also into new life through him in fellowship with God, and are given the gift of the Holy Spirit to strengthen us.
The second is the Christian community of which we are part, which, when it is truly working as one body, enables each of us to offer our particular gifts in the service of Christ, and strengthens us when we are weak. The third is the Holy Spirit, given at baptism, inspiring the Christian community, which controls the minds and spirits of those who are committed to Christ, and helps them to overcome the evil desires of their human nature.
Committing ourselves to obedience does not come easily to us in our society. We live in a culture that tends to think that sin is exciting and liberating, whereas commitment to a belief system is limiting and stupid. We are urged to grasp the freedom to do whatever we like – but which so often is just conformity to a passing fashion or to something which eventually damages our minds or our bodies. It requires an act of faith to commit ourselves to struggling for a righteous life, in faith that it will bring the peace and perfect freedom that Paul promises us. But as he says in the letter to the Corinthians, to chose righteousness is to chose the foolishness of God over the wisdom of this world.
The choice which the non-believing world presents us with is obedience versus freedom. The choice which Paul presents us with is to be freely obedient to righteousness which will eventually bring us real freedom, or enslaved to the illusion of freedom which will eventually kill our spirits.
Which one will we choose?
June 12, 2011
Pentecost 2011. Acts 2, 1-21; John 20, 19-23
Are you sitting comfortably. Then I’ll begin. Here’s a story from a very famous book. I wonder if you know where it comes from.
There was a table set out under a tree in front of the house, and the March Hare and the Hatter were having tea at it: a Dormouse was sitting between them, fast asleep, and the other two were using it as a cushion, resting their elbows on it, and talking over its head. `Very uncomfortable for the Dormouse,’ thought Alice; `only, as it’s asleep, I suppose it doesn’t mind.’
The table was a large one, but the three were all crowded together at one corner of it: `No room! No room!’ they cried out when they saw Alice coming. `There’s plenty of room!’ said Alice indignantly, and she sat down in a large arm-chair at one end of the table.
`Have some wine,’ the March Hare said in an encouraging tone.
Alice looked all round the table, but there was nothing on it but tea. `I don’t see any wine,’ she remarked.
`There isn’t any,’ said the March Hare.
`Then it wasn’t very civil of you to offer it,’ said Alice angrily.
`It wasn’t very civil of you to sit down without being invited,’ said the March Hare.
`I didn’t know it was your table,’ said Alice; `it’s laid for a great many more than three.’
That was a passage about a party. We have a party here every week. Like all the best parties, we have a special tablecloth, and candles, and special plates and cups to eat and drink from, and special food that we don’t have at any other time; and all the guests put on their nice clothes to come and share in the party.
Like all the best parties, this one helps us to remember a special event. It reminds us that Jesus came to teach us what God is like, and that he died and was raised to life in heaven with God – all the things we have been remembering over the past couple of months. It reminds us also that God sends the Holy Spirit to strengthen and inspire us, which is one thing we are particularly celebrating and remembering today.
Our readings remind us that the gift of the Holy Spirit comes to us in different ways. Sometimes it comes in spectacular ways, like the event described in the Book of Acts, like rushing wind and tongues of fire, and has striking effects on the people who receive it, enabling them to speak in many different ways to spread the message. But sometimes it comes very quietly, like a breath of another person, as it is described in John’s Gospel, and works quietly within people. It doesn’t matter how we experience it, through the Holy Spirit our Father God and our Lord Jesus Christ are with us throughout our Christian journey, and, like the special balloons we have brought here to celebrate this day with, we are lifted up to share in the life of God.
Today we are also celebrating the fact that M. and H. have accepted God’s invitation to share in this very special meal in a new and deeper way. Both of them have been coming to this party, and have received a blessing at the altar rail since they were very tiny babies. But today, they will eat the bread and drink the wine, and symbolically receive the Body and Blood of Christ for the first time. And all of us who are here offer them a very warm welcome to the party, and hope they will be here to party with us regularly, week by week, as we celebrate God’s gifts to us of Jesus and the Holy Spirit.
Until a short time ago, we wouldn’t have been able to welcome them to God’s table in this way. Up until then, this party had a lot of similarities with the Mad Hatter’s Party. There were all sorts of people say “No room, no room” to every baptised child who approached the table, even though it seemed to other people that there was lots of room, and that God and Jesus, who are our hosts, would always welcome anybody, of whatever age.
Jesus said that one of the tasks of the Holy Spirit is to guide Christians into new truths, to challenge them about what they believe and how they do things. And that is what happened recently when the Church of England decided that it was right to allow baptised children to share the bread and wine before Confirmation, as soon as they were old enough to be taught something about what it means. In this diocese it was decided that was when they were about seven years old, which is why H. and M. are able to take this next step on their faith journey today.
They have been preparing for this day for many weeks. Of course, they don’t understand everything about the Holy Communion yet. None of us do. All of us will go on learning with them as we accept God’s invitation week by week to share with him in the party to which everyone is invited, and at which the host never says “No room”.
January 9, 2011
(Isaiah 42, 1-9; Matthew 3,13-17)
Has anyone ever said to you “Whose side are you on?” It usually happens when you are involved in a discussion, and you make a point which demonstrates that the issue is less clear cut, less ‘black and white’ than other people thought.
Through the mouth of the prophet Isaiah, God says to the Jewish nation in exile that he is on their side. It may not seem like it to them. After the glory days of King David and King Solomon, the kingdom had split in two, and first the Northern Kingdom of Israel, then the Southern Kingdom of Judah had been defeated and overrun and their elites deported to a foreign land. This was explained by the prophets as God’s punishment for their lack of loyalty to the Covenant.
But through second Isaiah, God proclaims that he is going to do something new. He is going to restore them to their position as his people, renew the covenant with them, and make them a light to the whole world. There will be no doubt that he is on their side. But he is going to do it in an unexpected way. They might expect God to send them a warrior King, who will defeat their enemies and establish their dominance by force of arms. But the King God will send will be a Servant, whose main task will be to bring God’s justice to the world.
He will do so in gentleness. He won’t make a great fuss about it, or be high-handed or brutal. His way will be so gentle that it wouldn’t break a bent reed or snuff out a lamp. Both of these metaphors tell us God’s servant will have a special care for those people the rest of society thinks useless or unimportant. A bent reed was no use to make a pen for writing, or for building with; all that could be done with it was to break it and use it for fuel. A dimly burning wick was worse than useless,it was a danger. As it burned towards is end,it grew dim, and the wick could break and fall onto the rush covered floor,causing a fire; the only safe thing to do would be to extinguish it. But God’s servant would do neither. He would bring liberty, teaching and the rule of God not just to the Jewish nation, but to the furthest ends of the earth.
Though his way would be gentle, he wouldn’t be ineffective or weak, because he would be sustained by the strength of the God who created the earth and gave life to all humanity. God had chosen the Servant and God delighted in him. He was to be sent to do God’s work on earth.
Isaiah didn’t identify who God’s Servant was. It could be he was speaking of an individual. It could be he was referring to the Jewish nation, or a faithful remnant of them. It is clear that the gospel writers identified Jesus as the Servant, since there are constant references to the Servant Songs of Isaiah in their writings. So when we hear the Servant Songs, we hear them as referring to Jesus and his ministry. But they could equally refer to anyone who does God’s work of bringing justice into the world. They refer to those who are on God’s side, as God is on theirs.
The Hebrew word for justice means so much more than our contemporary English word. ‘Zedakah’ means much more than doing things according to the law; it goes well beyond retributive justice (an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth) or equal application of the law. In the Old Testament it is frequently paired with the words for compassion and grace. Justice is equivalent to righteousness, and loving-kindness, which show a particular concern for the defenceless, the sick and the vulnerable, and which are characteristics of God,.
In New Testament Greek, too, the same word, dikaiosune, can be translated as integrity, virtue, charity, piety, godliness, righteousness, justice. This is the word which Jesus uses when he answers John the Baptist’s objections to baptising him. he thereby affirms that he sees his ministry as doing God’s will, and as applying God’s standards of justice.
His baptism is affirmed by the descent of the Spirit (the spirit which Isaiah prophesied would be given to God’s Servant) and by the voice from Heaven, which proclaims (again, like the Servant) that God delights in him. In Matthew’s version, the message is addressed not just to Jesus, but to everyone. It is a proclamation that he is on God’s side, and God is on his.
Righteousness and justice are particularly important in Matthew’s Gospel. In his birth story, he says that Joseph was a just or righteous man. This did not mean that Joseph simply kept the rules; if he had done so, he would have denounced Mary and had her punished when he found out she was pregnant. On the contrary, he went against the rules, shielding her from punishment by resolving to divorce her quietly; and then standing up against public opinion by marrying her and adopting her son as his own. Like the Servant, he was strong but compassionate.
Righteousness also features twice in the Beatitudes, as a human characteristic which will bring blessing from God. For Matthew, this is a defining characteristic of the Christian community, the followers of Christ, those who have made the choice to be on his side. Matthew, more than any other Gospel writer, presents his readers with the necessity of making that choice before it is too late.
His baptism by John in the Jordan is shown in the Gospels as the moment when Jesus made public his commitment to work for God’s justice and righteousness. John the Baptist proclaimed the same standards; he rejected the approaches of the Sadducees and Pharisees because they didn’t really understand how far their understanding fell short of what that meant. Jesus later said that his followers must have a higher concept of righteousness than those of the religious elite: unless their idea of righteousness and justice exceeded that of the Scribes and the Pharisees, they would not enter God’s Kingdom.
Our baptism is the moment when we decide, and make public whose side we are on. We are called to recognise who Jesus is, and to follow him in doing what he did. We promise, as he did, to do God’s will, and to be God’s faithful servants for the whole of our earthly lives.
For some of us, that commitment was made for us when we were infants; but we take responsibility for it ourselves when we are confirmed, and every time we re-affirm our baptismal vows, and every time we have to make a decision about how to act. Will we act in accordance with earthy standards of righteousness and justice – or in accordance with God’s standards?
It is very, very easy to forget what a radically different standard of righteousness baptism commits us to. It is all to easy to fall back into a less demanding definition, which simply asks that we keep the rules and accept the current definition of what is good or bad or the traditional interpretation of what it means to be righteous.
If we study it carefully, the Bible can open up to us the full richness and complexity of God’s standards of righteousness. The Bible can be interpreted in a restrictive, judgemental and negative way, reinforcing human concepts of righteousness, which teach , that only a few who consciously believe and don’t break any rules will be saved. Or it can reveal to us the full glory of the God who will go to any lengths to save even those who consciously reject his call: his judgement on human evil, yes, but also his compassion for human weakness and the repeated offer of forgiveness and eternal life to all who turn to him in repentance and humility.
Christian baptism calls us to Live God’s Love (as the Bishop of St Albans has titled the current diocesan initiative). The Feast of the Baptism of Christ today is another chance for us to reconsider exactly what that means in our lives, and decide once again whose side we are on.