Saturday, 30 April 2016

Sunday Sermon: John 5.1-9 Angels and Miracles

John 5:1-9

After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Bethezda, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk. Now that day was a Sabbath.

May the words of my lips and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord.

Jesus is in Jerusalem and he goes to the Pool of Bethesda. Imagine for a moment that you are there: maybe close your eyes and try to imagine the heat of Palestine; the smell of food; the sound of a dog barking or of children playing; the murmur of a group of people nearby. You are at a pool, surrounded by arches offering shade and shelter and the area has become a gathering place for anyone with some sort of sickness: they are watching the surface of the water for the smallest sign of the rippling of the waves. A bubbling from the underground spring or even a breeze could cause a stampede of invalids trying to be the first into the water. You hear Jesus talk to one invalid and offer to heal him - an offer which is accepted - and your curiosity takes over and you move closer.

Now what’s this business of getting into the water all about? Religious commentators explain that when the waters of the pool moved – that movement which triggered the rush of the hopeful to be first into the water for divine healing – the belief was that an Angel had touched the water. I have no doubts that the people of Jesus’ time had a stronger belief in Angels than we have today: or is it that the distance in time and knowledge between then and now has left us question some of these more awkward bits of religious belief? I’ve heard it said that most British Christians are "functional atheists". While we believe in God, we function as if God were still resting after the creation. We don't expect God to break into our lives. Our God tends to be seen as a very passive God.

I certainly grew up questioning much of the traditional elements of the Bible and I suppose like many I simply decided to concentrate on what was clear to me: the person, the teaching and the sacrifice of Jesus. Some of the other stuff, I reasoned, was fringe, a bit too fantastical or not relevant to where I was in my faith at that time. After all, these people didn’t have the scientific and medical knowledge that we take for granted today but had to find some explanation for what they didn’t understand.

In the end, I suspect it comes down to definitions and I’d like to illustrate that with a little scenario from the classroom because the parallel with today’s Gospel is very strong: angels and miracles.

I used to be a High School teacher of RE. My Yr. 8 students - aged 12/13 - had been studying Miracles and it had been a struggle from the outset, if for no other reason than spelling. You see “miracles” on the board, look down to your book and write “miricals.” How does that happen? Every. Single. Time?

Of course, the first problem was that of definition: what are we talking about when we talk of miracles? Blank looks. It took some time, and with heavy guidance from me, to decide on “A dramatic and unusual event which goes against the laws of nature and is caused by God or one of his agents.” This is where it all started to unravel as we were taken down an unexpected line of discussion in relation to what constitutes an agent of God. Predictably angels came in for some considerable forensic examination and I found myself explaining the mind-set of the medieval artist.

“O.K.” I say, “I’m a Medieval Pope.” They look less than convinced.

“Chris, you’re Michelangelo.” Chris looks pleased.

“Chris, I need a nice painting on the ceiling of my new chapel - a Biblical story. How about the Christmas story?”

“Right you are Guv.”

Later Michelangelo gets out his Bible. “What’s in the story that I need to include? Stable, check. Mary and Joseph, check. Infant, check. Cattle, check. Shepherds, check. Wise men, Check. Innkeeper, check. Angels, ch … Angels? Oooh, Angels.”

“What does an angel look like?” I ask.

How about you guys? Any ideas?

Surprisingly for a group of avowed Atheists they soon build up a picture: M & S floaty nighty, pigeon’s wings and a tinsel halo.

“Musical Instrument of choice?” I ask.

“Harp.” They chorus happily, entering into the spirit of the occasion.

“Trumpet.” Someone else offers.

(I ponder, briefly, how far we have moved in five minutes from my carefully crafted lesson plan on miracles – sorry: miricals.)

I draw said angel on the board. It takes about six pen strokes but they pronounce themselves happy with the result.

So I ask them, “How did we get to this?”

“Well, it’s in pictures.”

“And adverts. Sir, Sir, Have you seen that advert for cream cheese where …..?”

And so it goes on. Having established that this image is firmly established in the international imagination, I try to point out that medieval artists were faced with a no-win situation in attempting to represent something visually where there’s not much in the way of description to go on.

I explain, “They needed to get over the idea of something spiritual rather than human otherwise we’d be looking at these paintings asking “Who’s that man in the background?” or “Why are those ladies falling out of the sky?” The angel as we know it is an artistic compromise.”

“Are you saying they don’t look like that then?”

“Well, I’m saying they might not.”

“What do they look like then?”

“O.K.” I take a deep breath.  “What does “angel” mean?”

There is no response.

I ask again.


(That’s teen-speak for “I don’t know”)

I offer them a clue, “It’s a Greek word.” Why did I tell them that? This is bottom set of 12 year olds. What are the chances they know New Testament Greek? What is the matter with you man?

Still no ideas.

How about you? Any ideas?

“It simply means messenger of God. What does God’s messenger look like?” Perplexed looks. This is marginally encouraging as it indicates some level of mental activity above and beyond maintaining a heartbeat.

“Do you remember when Mrs. Stanley sent a pupil down with a message last lesson?”

“Are you saying Emily was an angel?”

I’m saying Emily was a messenger. What does a messenger look like?

“Could be anybody.”


“I don’t get it.”

I sigh. I do that a lot with Yr 8. “Why does God’s messenger have to look picturesque?”

“Coz it’s an angel.”

Now, you will recognise that this is a circular argument.

“And angel means messenger.” I persevere. “Why couldn’t anyone be God’s messenger? Please don’t say “because we don’t have wings.””

“So, right? Are you saying Sir that anyone could be an angel because they’d be being God’s messenger?

“I’m just saying that the images of medieval artists might not always be helpful, that’s all. What was an aid to faith in the middle ages seems to be quite the opposite today: "Who'd believe in one of those winged things?"

There is a glimmer of hope that we might, at last, move on to talk about miricals.

“Any questions on anything we’ve looked at so far?” I ask.  “Yes Chris?”

“Sir, who’s Michelangelo?”

And yes, much like my lesson, we are moving on to talk about miracles. “A dramatic and unusual event that goes against the laws of nature and is caused by God or one of his agents.” The agent of the Godhead here, being Jesus the Son.

By the way: any ideas why it the passage mentions that it was the Sabbath? It’s important because Jesus has cured on the Sabbath when nothing that could be understood as work might be done.

Surely healing is a necessary, compassionate act which the Sabbath law allows for? Well, yes – in an emergency but this man had been suffering for 38 years so his condition hardly counts as an emergency so his healing could surely wait until the Sabbath was over.

So what? Interesting enough – or maybe not. Why are we considering this passage today?  Well, I think there are two possible approaches: I think the challenge for us today is to consider whether Jesus’ words as spoken to this man and the Pharisees are also words for us today? What am I going to do with this passage? What are you going to do with it?

Let’s try this approach: And Jesus asked the man, “Do you want to be made whole?”

Do we fear the cure more than the illness? When we cease being a victim – “I can’t get to the water Jesus; there’s always someone else who gets there first” – and start being responsible then we begin to become strong enough to walk beside others who are in pain and need help. We are more able to accept our enemies and the outcasts no one else wants to know. We no longer make excuses; instead we walk forward to new life in Jesus and go to work serving, healing, hoping, and living a life which involves helping others.

But we know that to get up and follow Jesus will involve us in people’s lives in ways we’re not sure we really want, because to be whole means to be re-connected with God and with God’s people and God’s creation. No more isolation. No more living my own private life where no one bothers me. To be whole means to get off of our backsides and get involved. It means working hard, often doing behind the scenes work that is tedious and overlooked: talking quietly to people; offering a shoulder to cry on; a listening ear; moral and practical support as far as we are able and praying for each other and others – even the ones we don’t much like. We know that to say, “Here, am I Jesus! Send me!” is something that in our heart of hearts we really don’t want to say because it may require us to do something.

But there is another way of looking at this passage: If we are really the modern audience of today’s passage, then are we being invited to examine how the knowledge of God brought by Jesus is rejected because it is too challenging to the way we’ve always done things?  “You can’t do that! It’s the Sabbath!” When do the safe and comfortable ways of doing things help to keep people "sick" or "stuck in their condition" rather than offering new life through the power of God? I think that was the situation in today’s Gospel: the man had the opportunity for a new life, a fresh start but the religious rules of his day would have kept him where he was. The rejection of Jesus later in this story, then, is a rejection of the possibility of new ways of knowing God and living the life of faith. Jesus could have avoided the controversy of this healing by waiting until after the Sabbath; or not commanding him to take up his mat.

 Jesus did both as a deliberate act.

So what might those things be today?

I remember a lady once complaining about teenagers coming to church in jeans. She was especially upset when they went up for communion in trainers: so disrespectful! Would she rather have had them in church in jeans and trainers, or have her idea of the proper way of doing things keep them away?

Many years ago I was a member of a congregation where the morning service was broadcast live on the Radio. A few days later the vicar received a letter of complaint from a member of the public because the Lord’s Prayer, which had been set to music, had been accompanied … by a guitar! Does obedience to these unwritten “rules” help or hinder the spread of the gospel? Perhaps we should be asking ourselves: "What are we willing to do differently so that more people might hear the Gospel?"

So, look around you. Think about what we do here and what you do afterwards as a result of being here. Is there anything in our practice that keeps people away from the message of Christ?

So, at the start I asked you to try to imagine that you were there. Who in the story did you most identify with: those who stood for the old ways of doing things or those who stood for the new? Your answer to that question may well influence the way you think and act from now on.

Well, there was a miracle by the pool of Bethezda. Why? Not just because Jesus performed a healing but because in that healing the people glimpsed new possibilities. I think that our prayer should be for Jesus to touch many more people so that they, too, can see new possibilities.






Friday, 22 April 2016

Sunday Sermon. John 13.1-35

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.” After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.
I am not speaking of all of you; I know whom I have chosen. But it is to fulfill the scripture, ‘The one who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me.’ I tell you this now, before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe that I am he. Very truly, I tell you, whoever receives one whom I send receives me; and whoever receives me receives him who sent me.” After saying this Jesus was troubled in spirit, and declared, “Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.” The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he was speaking. One of his disciples—the one whom Jesus loved—was reclining next to him; Simon Peter therefore motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking. So while reclining next to Jesus, he asked him, “Lord, who is it?” Jesus answered, “It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.” So when he had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot. After he received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, “Do quickly what you are going to do.” Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. Some thought that, because Judas had the common purse, Jesus was telling him, “Buy what we need for the festival”; or, that he should give something to the poor. So, after receiving the piece of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night. When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

So, we’re clearly still in the Easter season: we have here the well-known Maundy Thursday story of Jesus washing his disciple’s feet, but in John’s version there is so much more than we are used to hearing.

So, if you’ll excuse me – and if you want to get home in good time to put the veg on – I’ll just take a couple of the themes for us to consider this morning but, as Eric Morecambe once said, “Not necessarily in the right order.”

I’d like to start at the bottom and work back and the first theme is found in verses 31-35: The glorification of God comes through us, as latter-day disciples reflecting in our lives the love that God has shown to us, By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

The second theme is found in verse 15 when Jesus, having washed his disciples’ feet talks about the nature of his servanthood and expects his followers to imitate that, For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.

Personally, I see the application of these ideas in our lives as signs of authentic religion. That’s not to say that we’re looking for perfection: that’s not realistic or achievable. It is the honest striving, rather than the expectation of succeeding that is the key here. We believe that we are saved through the grace of God – a good Lutheran principle that perhaps we don’t stress enough, but the knowledge of our salvation still requires that we show obedient discipleship. Or as my mother once said, “Religion’s all right, but you shouldn’t let it rule your life." She was, of course, both right and wrong at the same time: right that inauthentic religion shouldn’t rule our lives and wrong because authentic religion absolutely should! Well, St. Paul tells us in Philippians that it is our responsibility to Work out your (our) own salvation in fear and trembling. Similarly James tells us that   faith without works is dead.

So, where does that leave us as people of faith?

We are saved by the grace of God through faith alone and we are required to reflect the positives of that in our lives. Then we can glorify God through our love towards others, by being a servant of others and recognising that God sends us and many others as his voice, his hands and his feet in this world. For those of us who claim to be Christian, we should also acknowledge that the practice of the Christian religion throughout the world often appears to have little in common with the mind and the spirit and the character of Jesus. I recall that Mahatma Gandhi once said. "I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ." That’s painful. It’s also true.

One of the things that has really struck me recently is the mismatch between the ideal of Christian discipleship and what we often see in practice.

How many of you have INTERNET access? Have any of you ever looked at some of the religious discussion forums that can be found on the web?

Don’t - unless you have a strong stomach. As Mr. Spock might have said to Captain Kirk, “Its Christianity Jim, but not as we know it.” Much of what is out there in the ether is a complete subversion of those themes of love for others and servanthood. What is all too evident on these discussion threads is a petty argumentativeness built around the need to be right by rubbishing alternative theological and spiritual viewpoints. There is a strong streak of the judgemental. There is a strong streak of superiority; of arrogance; of triumphalism and, very often, a determination to question the spiritual credentials of others. “You disagree with me. I’m right, therefore you are not a Christian.” It is not edifying and it is not the Gospel.

Now, perhaps there is a certain type of person who is attracted to these discussion forums – keyboard warriors perhaps, but it does strike me that there is a tendency, albeit a more subtle tendency amongst many people of faith to hold, while playing down, similar views. “I wouldn’t ever go on the INTERNET and express such views. I keep my prejudices to myself.”

Remarkably, some believers cannot seem to trust their own faith unless they can be sure that everybody else is wrong. The truth of our tradition does not depend upon the untruth of another. Roman Catholics/Methodists/Baptists/Pentecostalists are not wrong because we are Anglicans.

If you were born in Saudi Arabia, Israel or India, how are you ever going to hear, let alone understand the message of Christ? Rather than assume that they are condemned out of hand for not being Christian - surely an unchristian belief in itself, is it not possible for such people to be unknowing disciples when they allow the light of Christ into their lives through their love of God and their neighbours?  When the Jewish Democrat, Bernie Sanders is lauded for having more Christian principles that his Christian Republican competitors for the American presidency, we see that the light of Christ is, indeed, made manifest in the lives of those who do not confess him as Lord: as the Prophet Micah said, He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

We may believe other faiths have an incomplete revelation of God but we simply have no right to make a judgment on behalf of God on the authenticity of the light by which others live. You and I are neither wise enough not good enough to judge the faith of another. We should rightly leave such matters to the grace and judgement of God alone. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, “We may be surprised at the people we find in heaven. God has a soft spot for sinners. His standards are quite low.”

Religion has been a source of great good, a huge source of hope and grace but we should face up to the dark side as well. Inauthentic religion is making our world more dangerous--from Brussels to Baghdad to Gaza to Paris to Damascus and if we feel self-congratulatory because that isn’t Christianity think of the American election, and the appalling recent comments of Trump and Cruz.

Let’s not fool ourselves: while we are largely sheltered from the worst excesses of this in the U.K.  it is out there: scratch the surface and it’s there for all to see. Only recently someone, a committed churchgoer, asked me why we have to have a black Archbishop. “Aren’t there enough of our own?” Look at the right-wing press. The language says it all: “let’s look after our own first” say people who had never previously shown any concern for “our own” while asserting the Christian character of this country. “What about our own homeless?” say people who walked past our own homeless without a backward glance only the day before. Look at the English Defence League who picket mosques while holding crosses and claiming to be Christian warriors. What about people who get Muslims thrown off buses because they “look shifty” and made them “feel uncomfortable” as happened in Bristol this week? They may not reflect our Christianity but that distinction is lost on others.  Christianity is being brought into disrepute by Christians – or alleged Christians - and we’re all tarred with the same brush.

Inauthentic religion is alive and not only well but flourishing. People who believe themselves to be true believers are fanning the flames of hatred, bigotry and anger.  So the question is this: how can we redeem Christianity from this path, where faith is being used to ignite the fires of bigotry and conflict? Surely it’s down to those of us who take Jesus at his word to challenge that inauthentic expression of faith that perverts his message. It’s down to us who believe him when he says, as he does in today’s Gospel, that people will know we are Christians by the love we express towards each other – and I don’t believe that’s limited to other Christians. It’s down to us to take Jesus at his word when he says we should be servants of one another – and again that’s not to be limited to Christians - because that’s the example he has set us.

There are two powerful forces at work that we need to take more seriously: fear and ignorance.

When religion is hijacked by fear, the result is some brand of fundamentalism, which spews out absolutism and exclusivity and hostility toward people of other faiths and Christianity has its fair share of those fundamentalists who are usually convinced that they alone possess God's truth and they possess it absolutely. Virtually all of the world's major religions today have fallen victim to this self-righteous and uncompromising belief system. For us Christians, I believe that such anger and hostility is contrary to the spirit, to the character, and to the word embodied by Jesus.

A religion of fear inevitably leads us toward a religion of prejudice which often leads to violence. Throughout the world people are overwhelmed by fear. It is fear, not faith that lies at the root of prejudice and discrimination. It is fear, not faith that acts with arrogance and bitterness toward other believers. It is fear, not faith that proclaims doctrinal absolutes and moral certainty. It is fear, not faith that trusts violence and hatred more than compassion and grace.

It is ignorance, not faith that teaches creationism as legitimate science. It is ignorance, not faith that wants us to believe that the Bible is infallible. It is ignorance, not faith that claims that God is the exclusive possession of one religion to the exclusion of others. It is ignorance, not faith that spreads appalling misinformation about others: “They’re all terrorists you know.” As if I should be frightened of that Muslim family I buy my newspaper from every morning.

Jesus set out, I believe, to enable people to see the light of God that had been lost to the doctrines and complex rules of his day. Jesus' faith was closer to the street, and on those streets he bumped into the learned, the blind, the beggars,  the rich and powerful, with outcasts and adulterers. He socialized with every social stratum. The fact is that Jesus was not very discriminating. He embraced tax collectors, Samaritans and thieves. The word from God which Jesus taught and lived on the streets of Nazareth and Jerusalem was this: we are called to relate to others as God relates to us; to forgive; to become makers of peace; to be instruments of grace - in short, to embrace a new way of living together in the world, including living with those who are committed to diverse religious traditions: to show love and servanthood as a way that lifts people up instead of putting people down. It is a way that forgives instead of condemns. It is a way that sits alongside the dispirited and that loves with no expectation of being loved in return. The question we all need to ask ourselves is whether we have truly bought into that ethic.

So, we can do this: you and I can become a vigilant voice for a better way. We can show that we are Christians by the love we show to others and by our willingness to serve others as Jesus did, without prejudice.

I believe Jesus would say to us that God's grace is not conditional.  If there is any hope at all, it is that God who is not a Christian or a Jew or a Muslim, believes in us all and lifts us up above our partisan divisions and embraces us without condition. I believe God yearns to set us free from our addiction to division, so that one day, we can embrace one another as children of God and leave the rest to God’s grace because God's grace finds us where we are but doesn't leave us there.

In the meantime it is down to us to show that love and servanthood to others.