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.

http://www.wisegeek.org/who-discovered-electricity.htm

Assembly

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.

Prayer: 

Dear God,

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.

Amen

 
Advertisements

Doubting Thomas?

April 7, 2013

Thomas. by Carl Heinrich Bloch

Thomas.
by Carl Heinrich Bloch

 

(John 20, 19-31. Easter 2, Yr C)

How do you feel about the apostle Thomas, whose story we have just heard from the Gospel according to John? Do you identify with him? Or do you condemn him, as the Christian Church has tended to do for most of its history, as ‘Doubting Thomas’?

Jesus gave some of his disciples additional names: Simon became Peter, the Rock, and James and John were called Boanerges, the Sons of Thunder; but we don’t usually remember the meaning of these nowadays. We don’t remember any other of the disciples by a name that commemorate one incident in their lives.   Simon Peter is not remembered as “the Denier” or James and John as “those who asked for the best positions”. The name of Judas has become a synonym for betrayal; but only slightly less reprehensible than being a ‘Judas’, it seems, is to be a “Doubting Thomas”.

The reading we had was one of the three ‘resurrection appearances’ of Jesus recorded in the Gospel according to John. Each of the four gospels has a very different record of the ‘appearances’ of Jesus after his death and burial, and St Paul’s gives yet another account in his letters. This makes it clear that what we are dealing with here is not historical fact, but myth or parable – stories which are meant to convey meaning and truth. The truth of a parable does not depend on whether the story describes something that really happened. So we should leave aside the question of whether what John the Evangelist describes actually occurred. The question we need to ask  is “What is he trying to convey through this story?”

In John’s account, the first appearance is to Mary Magdalene, in the garden beside the tomb. She doesn’t recognise Jesus until he calls her name. She is forbidden to touch him because ‘he has not yet ascended to the Father’. For John, resurrection, ascension and coming in glory are not events separated in calendar time; they all happen on Easter Day.

So, the appearances in the locked room in Jerusalem are of the ascended and glorified Jesus, although a Jesus who still bears the visible scars of crucifixion. He shows the disciples the marks on his hands and side. John’s resurrection parable tells us very strongly that it is the crucified Jesus who is raised to glory and whose life and death are vindicated by God. Resurrection does not cancel out the crucifixion.

Then he commissions them to continue his mission, to go to teach the world as he taught the world. As he was the agent of the Father in his earthly ministry, the disciples, and those who will come to belief through their witness, become the agents of God in their turn, speaking the message of new birth, new life and hope by the Spirit to those who are broken and fearful, hiding behind locked doors in their particular world.

Having revealed his glorified self to them, and commissioned them to continue his ministry, Jesus then empowers them for the task, by breathing the Holy Spirit on them. Again, the sequence of events in John’s account is very different from the synoptic gospel accounts, where the gift of the Holy Spirit comes later. John’s resurrection narrative has many echoes of the second creation narrative in Genesis: new life begins in a garden; God breathes into human beings to give them life. In other places in the Old Testament, God gives life through breath or spirit, for instance in the valley of dry bones which represent Israel in Ezekiel.

Although John’s  Gospel speaks of several different ways of entering new life (through rebirth to Nicodemus in Chapter 3 and through living water, perhaps meaning baptism, at the Festival of Shelter) the gift of new life through the Holy Spirit is particularly significant. In his farewell discourses at the last supper, John’s Jesus says he will be away from the disciples and they will not see him for a little while. Then after a little while they will see him. He promises he will come again to them, and give them another advocate, to replace himself, who will lead them into all truth. The gift of the Spirit fulfils these promises.

It is only after the gift of the Holy Spirit that Jesus gives the disciples the authority to forgive sins. John teaches that is only those who are united by the Spirit with the God of love revealed through Jesus who know the truth, and can judge what is sinful and what is not. It is only those who are at one with the God through the Spirit, as Jesus was, who have the authority to act in God’s name.

Sunday evening was one time when Christian communities in the Apostolic Age gathered to share worship and eat a fellowship meal together. So the messages in the two appearances, a week apart, are clearly directed to the communities for which John is writing.

The statement by Thomas that he will not believe until he has seen the marks of the nails and put his hand into the spear wound in Jesus’s side leads into the second appearance. ‘Believe’ is a very rich word in the gospels, and has quite a different meaning from the way it is usually used in religious circles today. As Marcus Borg points out it does not mean believing a whole lot of statements about God and Jesus, such as those contained in the creeds. It comes from the old English word ‘be love’ and is more about love, trust, faithfulness and commitment, than intellectual assent to a number of propositions. It is more about ‘believing in’ than ‘belief’.

Thomas is not prepared to make his commitment to the Risen Son at second hand. But note what he asks to see – the marks of the nails and the spear – the wounds. He is clear that ‘belief’ involves identifying with the crucified Lord in his suffering. He is not one of those disciples who wants the glory without the suffering. Easter without Good Friday.

Jesus grants Thomas his wish by appearing the next Sunday evening. John makes clear that the appearances in Jerusalem are not of a physical body – it can appear and disappear at will through solid walls. Although invited to touch, Thomas doesn’t need to. Once he has seen the wounds, he pronounces the standard Christian confession of faith: ‘My Lord and my God’.

Jesus’s response is usually translated as a question, and as accusatory. “Have you believed because you have seen?” But the Greek in which the gospel was written does not reverse word order in order to indicate a question, nor did it have punctuation marks. Just as Jesus’s response to Pilate’s question ‘Are you the King of the Jews” can be translated “I am” or “Am I?” so this can also be translated not as a question, but a statement. “You have believed because you saw me.  Blessed are those who have not seen, yet come to believe.” This combination of statements gives equal affirmation to those who believe because they have visions in which they see, hear or touch Christ, as Paul says he did; and those who believe because of the witness of others, as most of us will have done. The first witnesses have no privileged place over those who follow.

Thomas, likes the other disciples, is now transformed: joyful where before he was fearful, and at peace, whereas before he was disturbed by the apparent failure of Jesus’s mission. The final sentences of our reading (which most scholars believe was the original end of John’s Gospel) explain that the account of the signs has been written to inspire belief and commitment to Jesus as Messiah and Son of God. It implies that John’s communities of Christians will be ‘people of the book’. They will no longer rely on visions, nor on the oral tradition, but on John’s account of the signs and his explanations of their meaning to know the truth.

Thomas, the account shows us, was not a doubter. He knew what had happened to Jesus on the cross and that he was dead. He didn’t want a happy ending, but evidence that God had approved and glorified Jesus for the path of service and suffering he had followed. Once he was assured of that, he was a faithful disciple, passing on through word and his own example that the way to be at one with God was through the path of service to others, and non-violent resistance to the forces of domination and oppression.

John’s account of the resurrection challenges us in turn, people who have come to faith through the witness of those who wrote the gospel accounts and the other books of the New Testament, to have faith in that same path. It tells us that the opposite to faith, which is belief as commitment, is not doubt, but fear, cynicism and despair. It tells us we are called to be communities of hope, committed to Jesus and the way of life he taught. We are called to bring that hope to places and people where it is absent – even to those who don’t share our particular way of commitment to God. We are called to move out of our comfort zones, out of the familiar and the safe, to follow our Lord and God into the new life he promises, accompanied by the Holy Spirit, who is our Comforter and Advocate.

May we hear and respond to this message of the Resurrection, as Thomas did.

Amen

The Politics of Christmas

January 8, 2012

(Isaiah 60, 1-6; Matthew 2, 1-12)

May I wish you, again, a happy Christmas!

Yes, I know that, for the secular world, Christmas is behind us, all the decorations have been taken down, and we’re well into the New Year.

But in the church year, the season of Christmas continues until Candlemas, the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple on February 2nd; and although we are now into the part of the Christmas season we call Epiphany, on this particular Sunday we are actually hearing another version of the story of Christ’s birth. This time, not Luke’s version with the Annunciation to Mary, the census, the journey to Bethlehem, the child in the manger, the visit of the shepherds, the presentation in the Temple and the peaceful return to Nazareth; but Matthew’s version, with the Holy Family living in Bethlehem, the annunciation to Joseph, the magi led to see the new born baby by a star, their visit to King Herod, their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, their return home by another way, the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt, the slaughter of the innocents by Herod, and the family’s decision to live in Nazareth, rather than Bethlehem when they return. Two very different narratives, but asking the same questions and giving the same answers about who this child is, and what it means  to follow him.

The Archbishop of Canterbury was roundly criticised in some quarters for his Christmas Day sermon,which some people thought was ‘too political’. Politics can be defined as ‘of, for or relating to citizens’ or as ‘the process of human interaction by which groups make decisions’. Whichever definition of politics you use, the whole of the Bible, the Gospels and the Nativity stories in Luke and Matthew are about politics.

Do you remember the series of comedies starring Rowan Atkinson called ‘Blackadder’? In the one set in Tudor times, Miranda Richardson, playing a rather petulant Queen Elizabeth I had a catch phrase, which she produced whenever anyone disagreed with her: “Who’s Queen?” And that question is what the Nativity narratives are all about. Who is in authority, who wields ultimate power, whose laws do we obey?

Luke, writing for a predominantly Greek audience asks: who is the emperor, who is the Son of God, who is the Prince of Peace, who is the Saviour of the world? Is it the Roman Emperor Augustus, to whom all these titles were given at the time? Or is it Jesus?

Matthew, writing for a predominantly Jewish audience, asks who is the King of the Jews, who is the Son of David, who is the Messiah, who is the successor of Moses? Is it King Herod, the puppet king, installed by the Roman Emperor; or is it Jesus?

Matthew’s Nativity story demonstrates that Jesus is greater than the Roman Emperor, by mirroring the myths about the founding father of the Emperor’s dynasty with the story of the journey of the Magi. The imperial mythology tells of a star which led the ancestor of Augustus, Julus, his father Aeneas and his grandfather, westward from the doomed city of Troy to found the Roman race. Matthew tells of a star which led the wise men westward to worship the new born King of the Jews.

But Matthew also wants to show that Jesus is greater than, and is the summation of, all the leading figures of the Old Testament, and in particular the law giver, Moses, and the iconic king, David.

The Jews believed that Moses was the author of the Torah, contained in the first five books of the Old Testament. So Matthew includes in his Gospel five great discourses, giving the new Torah; and this pattern of five occurs also in his birth narrative, which is like the Gospel in miniature. There are (very unusually for a Jewish genealogy) five women mentioned in the list of Jesus’s ancestors; there are five dreams which guide Joseph and the Magi; there are five mentions of the town of Bethlehem; there are five texts of the Old Testament which illuminate the events of Jesus’s birth.

Matthew’s birth story also mirrors closely the non-biblical elaboration (targum or midrash) of the story of the birth of Moses. First century Jews and Christians would have been very familiar with these, but we miss the echoes, both because we don’t know these stories, and because we rarely read or hear the whole of Matthew’s story. Usually the visit of the Magi is tagged onto the end of the end of Luke’s nativity story, and we never hear the climax of the story, the killing of the baby boys in Bethlehem, (unless the Feast of the Holy Innocents falls on a Sunday – and we all know how small congregations are on the Sunday after Christmas!).  Yet Matthew wrote about this slaughter as a direct parallel to the slaughter of the Hebrew boy children by the Pharoah.

In the Moses midrash the Pharoah has a dream that a Hebrew boy will be born who will threaten his power. So he decrees that all Hebrew boys are to be drowned at birth. The Hebrew men vow to divorce their wives, so they don’t produce any more boys. But Moses’s father is told in a dream to remarry his wife, as their son will be the saviour of Israel. He does so, and the child is protected and survives the slaughter of the babies to lead the Hebrews out of Egypt.

In Matthew’s version, Joseph (another name that harks back to the time in Egypt) vows to divorce his wife after finding she is pregnant. He is told in a dream to take her back, which he does. Herod finds out about the child from the wise men, and attempts to kill him, but through messages given in dreams, the child is protected and escapes to Egypt. When the danger is passed, in a new Exodus he returns to Nazareth to grow up, and eventually begin his ministry.

The Moses midrash is not the only Old Testament reference in Matthew’s birth story. The references to Bethlehem, and to the king who will be a shepherd to his people, refer back to the story of David, the greatest Jewish King. The five prophecies refer back to the prophet Isaiah and the threat from Assyria, the hope for a restoration of the Davidic kings, the Exodus, the Exile in Babylon and the time of the Judges. As we heard in our first reading, Matthew also draws on passages in Isaiah and the Psalms (particularly Psalm 72 on which Hail to the Lord’s Anointed is based); these refer to foreign nations and kings being drawn to the light of God in Jerusalem, and bringing gifts of gold and incense. Other passages which influenced his story include the prophecy of Balaam in Numbers 24, 15-19  and the dreams of Daniel.

But Matthew’s birth story does not just look back to the Old Testament and its prophets, kings and heroes who served God, revealed God’s will before Jesus, and so prefigured him. It also looks forward, to the climax of the story of Jesus in his death and passion, and his continuing story in the life of the church. The third gift of the magi, myrrh, foreshadows his death. The attempt by the Romans’ puppet king, Herod, to kill a rival King of the Jews, foreshadows the decision of the Roman governor, Pilate to crucify Jesus as King of the Jews. The escape to Egypt foreshadows Jesus’s escape from death through the resurrection.

The star foreshadows the acclamation of Jesus in the Gospels, especially John’s Gospel, Paul and Revelation as the light, which reflects the glory of God;  and the Magi, foreigners and pagans who recognise and worship Jesus as the Messiah when the Jewish leaders try to destroy him, foreshadow the Gentiles of Matthew’s church, who recognise and worship Jesus as their Saviour, when many of his countrymen reject him. Matthew’s birth story is filled with joy, like Luke’s, but is much more obviously filled with conflict and foreboding – which perhaps explains why we prefer to ignore many of its details.

But if we do only read ‘the nice bits’ of Matthew, we will fail to hear the message Matthew intended us to hear. Matthew wrote in a tradition that believed that hearing the stories of the past made these events real and effective in the present. His story says that Christmas is not just something that happened two thousand years ago; it happens now, and demands a response from us, as it demanded a response from those who witnessed it then.

It asks us who we are in the story. Are we like the Magi who follow the light, and refuse to comply with the attempts of those in religious and political power who want to extinguish it?

It asks, who is king and emperor over our lives? A secular ruler or party leader, or the one who embodies the values of God’s kingdom? When we vote, who is uppermost in our minds.

It asks what most completely discloses the divine will for us? The law of Moses or the grace, forgiveness and sacrifice shown by Christ?

It asks what really brings light and peace to the world? The exercise of military and economic power or following the example of a persecuted and crucified Messiah? Peace through military victory or peace through justice?

Matthew’s Christmas story is not a nice story for children, about exotic kings, guiding stars, dreams and strange gifts.   It is an adult story, about religion, and power and politics, and how they can be abused. It places before those who hear and read it a choice about  the decisions they make, and the guidance they follow.

The Christmas story proclaims the beginning of a new world order, initiated by the birth of Jesus, It challenges all of us to consider what we are being called to do to bring about that new world order in our time, in our church and our town. And that’s politics!

Will we follow his star? Will we bring our gifts to offer to him? How will we pay him homage?

Isaiah 9, 2-7; Luke 2, 1-14.

A sermon for Christmas  Day with visual aids.

Have you ever sung the song about the 12 Days of Christmas?

Did you know it has a secret, religious meaning?

Everything mentioned in the song stands for something else:  4 calling birds are 4 Gospels, 2 French hens are the Old Testament and New Testament, & partridge in a pear tree is Jesus; & ‘my true love’ who gave all the gifts to me over the 12 days of Christmas is God.

I thought I might do a version of the song with you today – with presents in this Christmas stocking which stand for 12 of the gifts we are given at Christmas with the coming of Jesus.

“On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me:” a baby boy – a son; as Isaiah prophesied in Jesus we are given the Son of God. (baby doll)

“On the second day of Christmas my true love gave to me:” a royal child. Isaiah said, & the angels said baby would be Prince of Peace, King of Jews, reign on throne of his ancestor David. (crown)

“On the third day of Christmas my true love gave to me:” a Saviour. The name Jesus means ‘God saves’ and angels told shepherds baby born would be their saviour. (St Bernard dog with brandy. This might not look like a saviour to you, but if you were buried in an avalanche in the Swiss Alps, it would!)

“On the fourth day of Christmas my true love gave to me:” the Messiah, the Christ. The angels told the shepherds that the Messiah would be born. Messiah or Christ means anointed one. Priests and kings anointed with oil (jar of oil)

“On the fifth day of Christmas my true love gave to me:” a light. Isaiah said people who walked in darkness would see light when the special child was born, and John’s Gospel proclaims Jesus as that light. (torch)

“On the sixth day of Christmas my true love gave to me:” the Word. John’s Gospel says Jesus was the Word or Wisdom of God made flesh. Gospels and NT are words about the Word of God. (New Testament)

“On the seventh day of Christmas my true love gave to me:” A shepherd. The prophets foretold  a shepherd King like David, and in John’s Gospel, Jesus calls himself “The Good Shepherd” who gives his life for his sheep. ( model sheep & crook)

“On the  eighth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me:” A vine. In John’s Gospel, Jesus calls himself the True Vine, of which we are all branches. If we remain in him we bear fruit. And in this Holy Communion we drink the fruit of the vine to remember him (grapes)

“On the ninth day of Christmas my true love gave to me:” some bread. Bethlehem where the Gospels tell us Jesus was born means ‘House of Bread’  & in John’s Gospel, Jesus says he is the true Bread, the Bread of life. In this Holy Communion we share bread to remind us we are the Body of Christ. (roll)

“On the tenth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me”: A Lamb. John the Baptist called Jesus the Lamb of God, and we remember that in this Communion service, when we give thanks for the Lamb of God who died to save us from the wickedness of this world. (lamb)

“On the eleventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me:” a Redeemer. In the olden days, money was paid over to redeem people from slavery. Today we celebrate the birth of Jesus, whose life and death redeems us from slavery to evil (money)

“On the twelfth day of Christmas my true love gave to me:”

Emmanuel, God with us. The Christmas stories tell us that Jesus was both human and divine, the Son of Man and the Son of God. (Rubik’s cube puzzle)

That’s a mystery, that Christians have spent 2000 years thinking about, trying to puzzle out what exactly it means for us. And we will go on trying to puzzle it out throughout this coming year.

I hope you will enjoy your material presents this Christmas, and the spiritual presents that God gives us in the birth of Jesus. I hope you will go on trying to puzzle out what exactly the birth of Jesus means for you and the world, and that you will be here with us during the year to help us unwrap all the gifts that God gives us.

What are we here for?

February 6, 2011

(Isaiah 58, 1-9a; Matthew 5, 13-20)

Over the past year, the Deanery has been doing a Deanery Review and drawing up a Deanery Plan which has just been sent off to be considered by a meeting of the Diocesan Pastoral Committee in 10 days time. It contains a vision statement, and a list of action points, grouped around the three priorities of ‘Vision for Action’ the latest diocesan initiative, launched at the cathedral in January.

 

‘Vision for Action’ also encourages parishes to take a good look at what they are doing, and to plan for the future through a process called ‘Mission Action Planning’. This involves looking at the local community, both through observation and statistics, to discover its needs; and looking at the church community, to discover its strengths, weaknesses and values. Then it involves developing a plan about what the church thinks it is being called to be and to do at the present time, and prioritising that vision into an action plan which states how, when and by whom the plan will be implemented.

 

Both the Deanery Plan and Mission Action Planning are trying to answer the question,”What are we here for?”

 

Over the last couple of weeks the Gospel readings have been telling us about the beginning of Jesus’s ministry, and the calling of his first disciples. And now, as we approach Lent, we turn to readings which set out the programme of action for his disciples, passages which answer that same question: “What are we here for?”

 

The programme of action is based on the covenant with Israel’s God set out in the Old Testament. Matthew says Jesus has not come to do away with the Law of Moses, but to fulfil it. His programme, he says, asks his followers to go beyond what was previously demanded, to meet a higher standard of righteousness (which, as we learnt previously, encompasses not just acting in accordance with the law, but also justice, integrity, charity and a particular concern for the weak and vulnerable members of society). Unless they do even more than the teachers of the Law and the ultra-religious Pharisees, he tells, them, they won’t really be under the rule of God (which is what entering the Kingdom of Heaven means).

 

The reading from Isaiah expands on what sort of religious action  Jesus is asking his followers to undertake. It is from the prophecy of Third Isaiah, writing to the Jews who have returned to Judea after the exile in Babylon. Isaiah observes that they are trying to earn God’s approval by being ultra scrupulous about ritual and fasting and making a great fuss about being seen to follow all the ritual rules. But, Isaiah tells them, this is not what God actually wants. The sort of ‘discipline’ God actually wants them to follow is not about worship, but about their everyday lives. It’s about what we now call ‘social justice’ – feeding the hungry and poor, providing shelter for the homeless, freeing those who are oppressed by the structures of society, ensuring justice for all.

 

When we hear this passage, it raises echoes of the agenda for his ministry which Jesus proclaimed in the synagogue, recorded in Luke 4; and with the story of the Last Judgement, the Sheep and Goats, in Matthew 25. This confirms that the gospel of social justice is not a trendy modern invention. It is what Third Isaiah said discipleship was all about in the 8th century BC; it is what Jesus said discipleship was all about in the 1st century AD. It is still what Christian discipleship is all about. It is the answer to the question “What are we here for?”

 

We are often told there is a hunger for spirituality in today’s world. These passages tell us Christian spirituality is not to be discovered in withdrawal from the world, but in daily engagement with its realities. Christian discipleship is about politics, economics, healing and housing human bodies, removing the ‘yoke’ from the shoulders of the oppressed, whether that yoke be poverty, sickness or prejudice. It means working to oppose anything which prevents human flourishing.

 

So, our discipleship is to be lived out in service to the community. But how are we to carry out that service?

 

Jesus answers using two metaphors – light and salt. Both are ordinary common substances, both are God-given, not of human manufacture, both can be used to transform what surrounds them.

 

We have heard a lot about light in the readings over the last couple of months. It is a major theme of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany and Candlemas. Light stands for vision, direction and reflecting the values of God. As a metaphor it says that the Christian disciple must be at work in the public dimension. This seems obvious to us, but we need to remember that in the  verses that come before this Gospel passage, The Beatitudes, Jesus has concluded by saying you are blessed when others persecute, revile and slander you. That, he indicates, is the normal state of affairs for the Christian disciple. In those circumstances, it might be tempting for the disciples to retreat into private religious observance, rather than continuing to ensure that the light of God shines on those who need it.

 

Our attitude towards light hasn’t changed much towards light in the years since these words were spoken by Jesus, but our attitude to salt may have done. In a world before refrigerators and antibiotics, salt was important for flavouring food, and preserving it, and for purification and healing. Salt was a common substance, but so valuable that Roman soldiers were paid with it. Nowadays it is still a common substance, but with little value, and we are very much aware that too much of it can not only spoil the taste of food, but also damage our health.

 

Nevertheless, the metaphor of salt warns Christian disciples to keep their faith sharp and alive, and to follow a faith whose values contrast with those of the world around, so they continue to make a difference in their communities. For us today, that might mean that Christians value the small rather than the big, the spiritual as well as the  material, but also value community cohesion above individual satisfaction, and watch out for the vulnerable rather than having increasing personal wealth as their highest ambition. Two illustrations of this. First, a comment made on the last day of the football transfer window : “I live in a world where £35 million is paid for a footballer, yet 60 disabled people lose their day centre because it costs £200K to run”. That is not a picture of a world where Christian salt is being effective. But another picture shows Christians being salt and light in their communities. Yesterday in Luton there were marches by the EDL and the AFL. Police were drafted in from all over the country, at a cost of £800,000. But on duty also were many Christian ministers, there to counter misleading rumours and to act as community mediators; and St Mary’s the parish church in the centre of Luton, was open all day as a refuge for anyone who needed it.

The salt metaphor also warns Christian disciples that their values should permeate society, rather than dominating it. Too much salt makes food inedible. Christian dominance of society has not always proved beneficial either for society or for Christian discipleship. Particularly in today’s world, to insist that so called Christian values should be the only guide to law making and enforcement, to the exclusion of other values which people think are important, actually damages the Kingdom of Heaven rather than helping it to grow. Just as in cooking the balance between adding to little salt and adding too much is a difficult judgement, so in social life, we need much prayer and wisdom to decide how far our Christian beliefs and practices need to be defended by law, or whether their best defence is the difference they make to society.

 

Diocesan and Deanery Plans may give us some guidance about how we can co-operate to be salt and light in our world. But ultimately it is up to each of us as individuals to decide how we can best be disciples of Jesus who bring the salt and light of God’s rule to our communities.

 

Because that, today’s readings tell us, is what we are here for.

 

Seeing the Light

January 23, 2011

Isaiah 9, 1-4; Matthew 4, 12-23.

It’s a common saying that people have ‘seen the light’.

 

Our readings today are linked by a prophecy from Isaiah that people who are in darkness have ‘seen a great light’. The people he is talking about live in ‘the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali’, the area north and west of the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus began his ministry.

 

For Isaiah, light is an image of triumph and conquest. He prophesies that someone will be sent by God to overcome the oppressor, (at this time the Assyrian Empire) lift burdens and hardship from the people, and bring them joy.

 

It is clear that Isaiah is expecting God’s agent to be a human king. The passage we heard continues in verse 6 to talk of the child to be born, the son to be given who, will be called Wonderful Counsellor, the Prince of Peace. He is also called Mighty God and Eternal Father, because he will act as God’s agent in bringing light.

 

Light in the Old Testament is often used as a sign of God’s presence with people: in the burning bush, and the pillar of fire that led the people of Israel through the wilderness, as well as in the psalms and the prophets.

 

The same imagery continues in the New Testament – in the descriptions of the Transfiguration in the Synoptic Gospels and in the account of Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus; and Matthew frequently associates Jesus with prophecies about the light of God shining on both his own people, and the Gentiles.

 

So, when Jesus leaves Judea and returns to Galilee, Matthew sees this as the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy that the people there will be taken from a dark existence into one filled with light; taken from oppression to liberty, from sadness to joy, from sickness to health. Jesus announces that the rule of God is coming in, and that from that time on, God’s people are under God’s rule.

 

He calls on those who hear him to ‘repent’. ‘Repent’ has become a religious word, and we tend to hear it in a specific way, meaning being sorry for our sins, but originally it was a word with a much richer meaning. Metanoia means a change of mind, involving going outside and beyond one’s present limited mindset. In

modern terms, it means thinking outside the box, thinking big, seeing the light. It involves adopting a new way of seeing the world, and a new way of loving. Of course that might involve being sorry for past sins, but only because our new viewpoint reveals to us how much those sins separate us from God and get in the way of the divine plan.

 

Jesus also calls specific individuals (Andrew and Peter, James and John) to ‘follow me’. Again, following someone can be understood in a fairly weak sense: “tag along and see what happens”; or in a strong sense. When Jesus calls people to follow him, it is in the strong sense, meaning be with me, learn from me, respond to what I teach you, do what I do, be totally committed to me and my vision for the world. It involves a complete change of mind, priorities, relationships and community, to one which puts the Kingdom of God first.

 

The last sentence of the reading shows the Kingdom of God being realised in Jesus’ ministry: light breaking into people’s minds through his teaching, light coming to society through his proclamation of the Good News, darkness being removed from people’s bodies through the curing of disease and sickness.

 

The gospels show the response of the first disciples to Jesus’ call as immediate and unconditional; although they also show that ‘seeing the light’ did not happen immediately, but was a continuing struggle for them. We also see from the gospels that the call to ‘repent’ was a difficult one for the Galileans to respond to, as it has been for people ever since.

 

We would think, wouldn’t we, that people would prefer to ‘walk in the light’ rather than to continue in the darkness. After, all, darkness can be dangerous and frightening. But light can also be uncomfortable! Just think about why we do spring cleaning: because when the sunlight shines into your house, it shows up all the dust and cobwebs in neglected corners that were less noticeable in the gloomy days of winter. Choosing to walk in the full radiance of God’s light is similar: it opens us up to scrutiny, and reveals all our shortcomings, so that it often feels more comfortable to continue to hide ourselves in the dark.

 

So, what might the readings say to us today?

 

Light continues to be an important symbol for us. We no longer need candles to light our homes, but they have become things that are frequently used to express joy, love and remembrance. We use them in our churches, our houses and in public shrines. But what this passage is talking about is not gentle candlelight – it is penetrating searchlight or all-illuminating floodlights.

 

Isaiah talks about the people who walked in darkness seeing a great light. We might ask ourselves, where is the darkness in our world, and how can we help to move people – including ourselves – out of that darkness and into the light?

 

When we look on the large scale at the whole world, there are obviously lots of areas of darkness, just as there were when Isaiah wrote: nations at war, countries affected by natural disasters and the changing climate, groups who are persecuted because of their race, or gender, or sexuality or nationality. Perhaps we cannot do a great deal to move those people into the light, except through contributing to public debate and exercising our democratic privileges with care. We can do more, perhaps, to dispel the areas of darkness in our nation and even more in our community. Transforming communities – bringing the light of Christ to shine in them – is one of the three priorities of the Diocesan initiative launched last week.

 

But what of our church? And what of ourselves? The readings challenge us to examine those places closer to home, and to bring them into the light. Ignorance of the true nature and the true demands of God were often spoken of as ‘darkness’ in the gospels. How ready are we to open our cherished beliefs, traditions and practices to the searching light of God? How prepared are we to spend time and effort studying our faith and the Bible, rather than simply accepting what has been passed down to us, or what we learned in our childhood? Going deeper into God – and allowing God to penetrate deeper into us, is another of the priorities of ‘Living God’s Love’.

 

Jesus calls on us, as he called on those first century Galileans, to repent, to allow our minds, our world view, our relationships to be completely changed, and to put ourselves under the rule of God. Are we ready to undergo that transformation, disturbing as it will undoubtably be?

 

And finally, how do we respond today to Jesus’ call to “Follow me”? Those first disciples are shown as immediately abandoning everything to be with Jesus. Some of us might look at what they did and say to ourselves “Well, that was fine for them. But what about their wives and children and families? How did they manage? Didn’t God care about them?”

The third strand of “Living God’s Love’ is making new disciples. Perhaps we need to start with making new disciples of ourselves. As Christians, we have pledged ourselves to follow Jesus. But we have to work out for ourselves, as people with jobs and  mortgages to sustain, and families to care for, how exactly we can do that. And each of us may come up with a different response, that is right for us at this particular time in our lives.

 

What is important is that, through hearing the Good News proclaimed by Jesus, we commit ourselves to seeing the light, repenting, and following him, and acknowledge that serving the Kingdom of God must become our first priority.

Living God’s Love Prayer:

Living God, draw us deeper into your love;

Jesus our Lord, send us to care and serve;

Holy Spirit, make us heralds of good news.

Stir us, strengthen us, teach and inspire us

to live your love with generosity and joy, imagination and courage;

for the sake of your world and in the name of Jesus, Amen.