Saturday, 27 May 2017

Sunday Sermon for Ascension: Luke 24.44-53


 

Luke 24.44-53

 
Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the Law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.

There’s been a little cartoon doing the rounds on Facebook this week: it shows the risen Jesus high in the clouds with a group of his followers on the ground pointing up excitedly – except one, who’s asking, “Where? Where?” I can’t see him!

The caption is Ascension Deficit Disorder.

In many respects Ascension is a very straightforward celebration: Jesus’ words reminded his followers again of the significance of what they had seen and heard in the life, suffering, death and resurrection of the man who was speaking to them. He was ensuring that they understood all that they had witnessed: “Everything written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.” and as the theological conclusion to this, he ascended, in front of them: teaching fulfilled in their sight.

There is a problem here though, one I used to encounter as a teacher and one I encounter as a prison chaplain: gone are the days when we can assume with reasonable confidence that people do actually know what was told about Jesus in the Gospels, let alone the Law of Moses, the prophets and the Psalms. No wonder so many new disciples and enquirers, together with those of no faith, have difficulty understanding many of our festivals and today’s texts from the end of Luke’s Gospel and from the start of the book of Acts leave us with many more questions than answers. Why does Jesus need to go? Where does he go? How does he go? Is he coming back? How will he come back? Why are the two accounts so different?

Perhaps we’re all suffering from a touch of Ascension Deficit Disorder.

Yes, it seems that there are more questions than answers in these two texts, especially when you put them side by side and we aren’t going to get to the bottom of most of them – certainly not this morning. What we have here, as with much of the Christian experience, is a matter of mystery that in some sense remains shrouded. Some who seek certainty are discomforted that there isn’t more clarity; others are more content to accept that not all can be known or has been revealed.

Neither view should prevent us from asking questions.

So, let’s start with this one: When is leaving not leaving at all?

The days after Ascension Day are poignant because, for almost the entire year, Christians celebrate God’s being with us, but for these next ten days, until Pentecost, we’re symbolically aware of what it feels like for God not to be with us. When you’ve felt such a profound sense of presence, the ache of loss can create a bewildering vacuum. And into that vacuum may cluster doubt, regret, anxiety and fear.

Jesus does, on the surface appear to be disappearing. It’s interesting to note, then, that the disciples don’t act as though this were actually true. There is no doubt, regret, anxiety and fear. They don’t go away sorrowful, or mourning the loss of Jesus. In fact, the text reports that they are worshiping as they return with great joy, praising God in the temple day after day. They don’t behave as if Jesus is absent at all.

We don’t have to look too far back in Luke’s resurrection account to find others who experienced this same phenomenon. The disciples on the Emmaus road didn’t, in fact, recognize or experience Jesus as present when he walked and talked with them: they were caught up in their loss and grief. It’s only later when Jesus breaks the bread with them that he’s made known to them. And in that moment, when they experience his presence most fully, he’s no longer visibly with them. But rather than thinking that they missed something, they run back to the rest of the disciples overjoyed that Jesus is risen and still present.

It’s also clear that the disciples take up the ministry of Jesus in the Book of Acts and do some extraordinary things: they heal the sick; they raise the dead; they die forgiving those who kill them (as Stephen did) and they endure much of the same treatment as Jesus and they don’t take credit for any of this. Instead they proclaim the living presence of Jesus. In fact Luke’s inclusion of these stories is meant to lead us to conclude that Jesus is very much still around and active, through the disciples.

Jesus ascension isn’t experienced by the early disciples as his leaving or disappearing at all, according to Luke. While he is taken from their sight, he’s not absent at all. In fact, as the newly baptized disciples gathered around the apostle’s teaching, the breaking of bread and prayer, they experienced the presence of Jesus. Jesus didn’t go to be somewhere else and to show up now and again randomly, he’s experienced as real and present in scripture, read and explained, in the Eucharist and the prayers on behalf of the world, much in the same way that Christians today experience Jesus’ presence in these same actions that together mark our common life as disciples.

I think the problem that many of us struggle with is the idea of heaven as another place, as there are other places in the world that we know little of. If Jesus ascends to heaven, then he must go to that other place, seems to be the logic, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. In Luke’s Gospel, the Kingdom of God, what many people assume to be heaven, is portrayed not so much as a reality in a different place (located up in the sky somewhere) but rather is God’s future that in Christ’s death and resurrection has broken into the present. In the passage from Acts, two men in white robes turned to the disciples - and to us now - with their question. "Why do you stand looking up? This Jesus, who has been taken up into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven." The men in white robes didn’t comment beyond that but Jesus had: “ … but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth," which surely includes where we are right now. The promise of the Spirit, fulfilled and celebrated at Pentecost, is a promise for this earth, this place, this time. Jesus will be forever involved with this earthly life in the power of the Spirit. Understood this way, we have a new possibility, so let’s ask another question: What does it mean that Jesus has gone ahead of us?

If the risen Jesus belongs to the future, then we should understand that he has also ascended to that same future.  The language of our liturgy and hymns, the language of the book of Revelation, the language of our creeds, and our experience all now begin to come together. We experience in worship a “foretaste of the feast to come” because we understand how God’s future banquet has broken in upon our present world of comparative famine. Though we suffer, we understand that in God’s future the victory is certain. When we proclaim our faith in the ascended Jesus, we’re proclaiming that despite events that seem to contradict it, as seen for example this week in Manchester, we can see and participate in the future Reign of God with Jesus in the here and now. We experience, not the absence of Jesus, but his real and life transforming presence. The marvel of this is that if Jesus goes to the future ahead of us, then there’s no place in our journey where Jesus isn’t there to greet us and to accompany us.

I know that in my family life, in particular, I need this understanding more than ever. We’re facing a very difficult journey right now, with the recent death of my mother-in-law and the declining health of my father-in-law. My wife and her sister have been up and down the motorways from opposite directions, visiting and helping their dad, in the fading times of a relationship that they, the sons-in-law and the grandchildren have always counted on as being there. We’re participating in what is, to all intents and purposes, an extended “leave taking” event. It’s a difficult journey for the family, and one that I know many here have already experienced.

What’s surprising to me, though, is that this journey, no matter how difficult it is in different ways for various members of the family, and how bleak the destination may seem, hasn’t at any point along the way, seemed without hope. It may sound trite to put it this way, but the Jesus of the future has been at every turn of this journey so far, even when we’ve not always looked for him and I am inclined to trust that he will be there ahead of my wife and sister-in-law, ahead of my father-in-law, a man of strong faith, each step of the way. I shouldn’t be surprised, I suppose, but still, we don’t often see what we don’t expect to see. But step by step, I am coming to understand that when I confess that Jesus ascended to heaven, I am confessing that Jesus awaits me in very ordinary places and ordinary ways with extraordinary grace and love. It is comforting, and challenging, all at the same time.

As a family we need, perhaps, to get used to saying that there will be no bad outcomes of my father-in-law’s illness. There will be sad ones, of course, as all who love must come to terms with loss. But that is as God intended. Genuine love is always given in the face of certain loss, but we remain hopeful because our Lord’s future is stronger even than death, and more powerful by far than our grief. In all of this lies the challenge and the comfort.

Another question: What of hope for tomorrow?

Hope for tomorrow means courage for today – and I borrow, here, some of the thoughts of the Revd Dr. Sam Wells from Thursday’s Though ForThe Day from BBC Radio 4.

Here’s the payoff: because the future is now safely in Jesus’ hands, I have more courage to face the challenges of today with hope and dignity. We all do, really, I suppose. The Ascension is the assurance that the battle has already been won, even if it doesn’t seem to be over. We live in the in-between time: between the final victory and the consummation of the reality that is already present in Jesus Christ.

But this is the remarkable fact. The greatest historical argument for Christianity is the otherwise inexplicable transformation of the eleven terrified and dispirited disciples into hopeful, dynamic and invigorated apostles. Somehow the echo chamber of fear became for them not the dismantling of all certainty but the clarification of all faith.

Out of our place of deepest fear comes our encounter with truth. In the last few days many of us must have wondered whether we should now go to that event, get on that bus, go into that crowded place. We’ve heard words of defiance from Manchester and beyond, which has said, “Don’t give in to fear, that would be allowing the terrorists to win.” We know the laws of probability mean our chances of getting caught up in such a ghastly incident are actually very small. But there’s something deeper than that.

The great medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas tells us the object of fear is a future evil that is imminent, of great magnitude, and threatening the loss of something we rightly love. Think about the last part of that definition for a moment. Fear puts us in touch with what we rightly love. Terrorism is about terror. We want lives free from anxiety and we resent and abhor terrorism because it embodies evil and cruelty and creates anxiety.

But we don’t have to be passive victims of fear. We can turn fear to good use if it puts us in touch with what we truly, deeply and rightly love. That’s what’s happened in Manchester in the last few days. Think about the generosity, humanity and compassion that have sprung up from that most dreadful atrocity as people refused to give in to fear.

What happened to the disciples after Ascension Day is that they reflected on and identified what in Jesus they truly deeply and rightly loved; and soon after they were overwhelmed with the power and energy to embody it. Because of the ascension of Jesus, we too now see a future in which we are no longer slaves to fear. We are free to live in a new reality, where death and the threat of death no longer have the power to control us. We are free to live for others in a world that has yet to hear this news. We can live courageously, even in a world where the fighting is still going on around us, perpetuated by those who have not yet heard that the battle has been decided. We are free to experience the Jesus of the future, who still breaks into our present world giving himself to us anew in the teaching, the Eucharist and the praying. We are called to live this future into the present as well. We don’t know where Jesus IS, so much as we know that Jesus is WITH US. We don’t know what the future will bring, so much as we know that the future is safe in Jesus’ hands. And finally, we too can return to the world after our encounter with the Risen Jesus, hearts rejoicing and heads held high as we worship and serve God.

Amen

Friday, 5 May 2017

Sunday sermon: John 10.1-10. Jesus the Good Shepherd


John 10:1-10

 

“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

Isn’t the countryside lovely? Not to live in, obviously, just for passing through – and even then only when the sun shines. The Yorkshire Dales on a sunny day in July? Bring it on. On a wet day in February without a tea-room for miles? No thanks!

Those of us who live in towns and cities live lives pretty divorced from rural life and in many cases quite ignorant of it given how much we depend on what goes on there for our food. I was once involved in a school trip taking thirteen year olds to Flamingo Land, which is well of the urban beaten track. We were passing a field of cows when one kid asked, “What are they for?”

“They’re cows.”

“But what’re they for?”

“They’re beef burgers at an earlier stage.”

“Oh, I get it.”

So, a Gospel story about sheep. In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus employs the imagery of first-century shepherding to reveal his own identity and his relationship to us. Now, I know nothing about sheep other than what the washing instructions on my clothing says and I am partial to the lamb option at a carvery,. I also remember my father trying to fool me as a young child that sheep droppings were evidence of a breed of giant rabbits but other than that ….. what a townie eh?

Have you ever tried talking to a sheep? Isn’t it nice to hold the intellectual high ground once in a while? So, that’s another thing I know about sheep: their stupidity is legendary. But their loyalty? Who knew?

So, in order to access John’s passage for today I think we must first acknowledge our lack of personal contact with Jesus' choice of image and embrace the opportunity to use our imaginations. It’s worth asking whether this Middle Eastern imagery can have power even in our urban, cosmopolitan, and industrial centres. In fact, isn’t it possible that we long precisely for the kind of relationship between God and us that such imagery promotes?

So imagine with me a rolling plain, dotted with humps and hillocks. Dusk descends, and the shepherd leads his flock into the sheepfold. One of the hillocks has been hollowed out, and the sheep huddle inside. A pair of piled rock walls extends out a few feet from the sides of the hill. The shepherd lies down in the space between the low walls, effectively sealing the enclosure. Thieves and bandits and wolves will have a difficult time getting in with the shepherd on guard. The sheep are safe in the sheepfold. There was no longer a door. The shepherd himself had become the door. That is what Jesus is saying: he is the door.

When the shepherd gets up the next morning, Jesus explains, "He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he‘s brought them out, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice." The sheep can't spend their whole lives in the sheepfold, no matter how safe the enclosure may be. There's no food in the fold, after all. The sheep may be comfortable and safe, but the sheep must follow the shepherd out of the fold in order to live more fully. So what is Jesus the door to? He goes on to explain: he is the door to abundant life, which means not just in this world but in the next.

We aren’t talking about sheep any more are we? He's talking about us.

Therefore, this meaning of this parable of Jesus is unlocked when we start to think of Jesus himself as being the door but Jesus isn’t only the door into the sheepfold, he’s is also the door out to green pastures. One side of the metaphor is this: Jesus is the door into the sheepfold where we will find communities of love, communities of justice and communities of peace. The other side of the metaphor is this: Jesus is the door by which we go out to green pastures and experience the fullness of life in all its abundance.  

Now, another thing about sheep is that they seem to lack an independent spirit. They just amble about eating grass; they are relatively defenceless against predators and they easily lose their way. It’s because they are so dense and defenceless that they need a shepherd. Is that us not in so many ways, relatively defenceless against the negative influences of our society without the guidance of our shepherd, Jesus? It’s something of an insult today to be likened to sheep isn’t it? It’s used for people who seem to follow a herd instinct and don’t think or evaluate for themselves: eternal followers, lacking in initiative. That could well be us in the run up to our general election; following a herd instinct; voting as we’ve always voted out of party loyalty without seeing the wider issues – but let’s not get too political today because there are other areas where we follow like sheep, accepting or colluding in our society’s norms when those norms don’t reflect the attitudes and ethics of the Gospel.

And at the same time, if we celebrate this Good Shepherd, there must also be bad shepherds, those who attempt to pull the wool over the eyes of their followers. We often read in the papers or see on television accounts of shepherds or leaders, whether they hold positions in the church or in politics or in big business but, nevertheless, are people who have been viewed as trustworthy but who have let their flock down in some way. Whenever trust has been broken and boundaries crossed, it can take months and years for healing and wholeness to return to victims who have been hurt and communities whose trust has been breached. In today’s Gospel, Jesus differentiates himself from untrustworthy or bad shepherds. He warns us that there are others who exploit and cause division instead of expressing love and bringing about healing, unity, and peace.

 We often suffer when our herd instinct becomes stronger than our intelligence. It is a human characteristic - and a failing - that we all too often follow the crowd. We think back to Nazi Germany where many intelligent people blindly followed the lead sheep and the flock of sheep into a war that cost the lives of millions. It has happened so often in human history: It happened in the former Yugoslavia when nationalism led to the break-up of that country with all its attendant atrocities and it’s happening today with the rise of the Far Right in America and France. It’s happening today in Syria and in Russia where authoritarian leaders seek to stamp on dissent and where many are willing to follow blindly. It’s happening today with our cheap and diminished sound-bite politics. The most intelligent and educated among us often don’t want to admit that our herd instinct is stronger than our intelligence but in Jesus we have a shepherd we can unfailingly put our trust in.

On the other hand, though, there is something appealing about the imagery of sheep that trust without fail; about a shepherd who cares without ceasing; about a bond which words can’t fully express. In today’s text, despite any fear about surrendering too much of our independence, we can still appreciate some of the profound meanings of Jesus as door to the sheepfold and voice to the sheep.

I’m sure there have been times in all our lives when, rather like sheep, we have seen the grass on the other side of the fence and it seemed greener when being one of Jesus' sheep didn't sound like such a great thing to be. The book of Isaiah says, in chapter 53, “All we like sheep have gone astray.” And yet the shepherd continues to love us and call us to follow him. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus stood before the people who were sick, who were poor, maimed, blind and lame and looked on all of them, and said, “I will have pity on them for these people are harassed and helpless, like a sheep without a shepherd.” Yet we have our shepherd, even when, like those people, we have reached our lowest ebb.

One of the most famous and best loved passages in the Bible is the 23rd Psalm which begins as you know, "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want." Now that's a profession of faith. And these words speak to us at different times throughout our lives. Sometimes when we have a lot of concern and maybe that's when we're in a hospital or a prison cell or facing a family crisis or serious problems at work, those words come to us and give us comfort. It is a source of huge encouragement to have a Good Shepherd who seeks us out when we are lost and then brings us back into the fold. It’s wonderful to have a Good Shepherd who calls us by name. That’s the nature of our relationship with Jesus. We are known: he knows us by name.

When I take funerals and ask family members what Bible passage they would like to have read, most choose the 23rd Psalm and that's a good choice, because as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, it’s good to know that there’s a leader, a Good Shepherd who has gone before us and who is also present with us at all times and, as we are still in the Easter season, it’s good that we still emphasise the Good Shepherd who was also the perfect Passover lamb: a Good Shepherd who has given his life for the sheep. As Peter wrote, "He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross so that free from sins we might live for righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed."

We cannot import into the sheepfolds the full abundant life that Christ offers us because, safe as the sheepfold is, the very fullness of that life cannot be found there. Jesus calls us out of the sheepfold so that our lives have the opportunity to expand, that we may embrace God's unrestrained abundance. During this season of Easter, let’s strive to join God in the expansive life found in the Resurrection. Let’s listen for the voice of the shepherd calling us by name. Let’s give Jesus the chance to call us out of the sheepfold so that we may find the fullness of a life lived in the abundance of God. Jesus says, “I am the door. Let me lead you in to a community of love, peace, security and justice and out into the fullness of life both here and in the future.” That’s surely an invitation worth accepting.

Amen.

Friday, 21 April 2017

Sunday Sermon: John 20.19-31. The disciples in the upper room and Thomas' doubt.


John 20:19-31

 
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.


When I was at Theological College, at an Easter residential one year, we did an exercise called the ENNEAGRAM, which is a standard personality test. Someone asked how to spell Enneagram and quick as a flash one Anglo-Catholic in the group shouted out in reply, “H E R E S Y!” (Oh how we laughed!)

On this occasion the enneagram had a twist: it had been devised to help us to establish which of the key characters in the Easter story best represented our personality type – and I got Thomas, which absolutely delighted me. Thomas: realist, rationalist, pragmatist and cynic. Indeed! I’ve always felt slightly out on a limb spiritually, particularly with my more Evangelical friends, and now I had not only an explanation but a Biblical role model. I was the only Thomas in that year’s intake. We had Marys and Marthas and Peters and Johns galore. We even had a few Jesus types but I was the only Thomas.

So proud!

Today's Gospel text begins with the disciples locked in a room. Imagine for a moment that you are one of them, locked in through choice because of your fear. We can, perhaps, imagine their anxiety and can even see some occasionally checking the door to ensure that it was really locked. Other disciples might have been looking out of cracks in the shutters, watchful and on guard. How had it come to this?  They were now fugitives fearing that the Roman and religious leaders who had executed Jesus would come after them for being associated with this radical preacher from Galilee. Perhaps they saw themselves as loose ends to be tied up by the victorious and vengeful authorities. All their hopes and expectations had dissolved and they were now in survival mode, beset with shock and confusion and an overwhelming sense of loss and calamity: how had it come to this? What was their future? Did they even have one? Would they escape and survive? Would they be allowed to? Were there patrols scouring the city looking for them? Who could they trust after this appalling turnaround of fortunes? Were there spies and informants working for the authorities who would turn them in for a reward? Yes, hiding was the short-term option but how long could they stay there undiscovered?

But they weren’t all there. Judas had taken the easy way out and killed himself, although it’s not clear whether they knew this yet. Either way, he wouldn’t have been missed. It was all down to him anyway. He’d set this chain of events in motion. Yes, there was a palpable sense of his betrayal hanging in the air: not that when push had come to shove they’d behaved all that well themselves, so there was shame too at their own behaviour. I doubt it was an occasion free from recriminations and half-hearted attempts at self-justification.

And Thomas? Where was he? Had he abandoned them too? Had he made a break for freedom and safety, banking on the fact that he had more of a chance of escape on his own than in a more identifiable group?  Or was he out and about doing a bit of reconnaissance and checking out the public mood and the lay of the land?  And what of the women, presumably freer to come and go without arousing suspicion? What were the remaining disciples making of their story of the empty tomb and Mary’s claim that she had seen Jesus again, seemingly alive and well? As Luke puts it, "These words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them."

Fear, confusion, loss, betrayal, recrimination and shame: what an atmosphere!

And into this sense of heightened emotion, John tells us, appeared Jesus. Not, it would seem, by knocking on the door and demanding entry. No. We’re simply, but tantalisingly told that he came and stood amongst them – and the personal Thomas within me is asking how? Give us details!

The first words that Jesus spoke to those disciples who had abandoned him and left him to die is “Peace be with you”, not "How could you have abandoned me?" There are no words of recrimination here, no blame, only words of reassurance. “Peace be with you.” Which, together with his very presence, seemed enough to quell all incredulous demands of “What ….?” “How ……?”

You’ll have worked out by now that I think Thomas gets a poor press from the Gospels and from this Gospel story in particular. I identify with Thomas: I’m not one for blind faith or emotion. I ask questions, I like evidence. I like a good debate. So when Thomas puts in his belated appearance after doing whatever it was that meant he missed Jesus, he’s not happy - and yet actually he does nothing that the others hadn’t already done. Did they instantly acknowledge the resurrection? No. We’re told that it was only when Jesus showed them the marks of the crucifixion that they fully believed. Look at the passage again: “After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.” Was Thomas asking for anything more than the others had experienced?

Can you imagine his disappointment at having missed Jesus? “Why didn’t he wait until I was there too?” I don’t doubt he felt hurt and excluded: the others had experienced something significant and he had missed it. “Why me?” Is there a touch of petulance there? “Well, I won’t believe until I see the marks of the nails.” I can’t help wondering though whether the doubt isn’t a doubt about Jesus but Thomas’s own self-doubt. “Was I not good enough?” Who is Thomas doubting? Jesus or his own sense of worthiness? Remember, Thomas has already seen someone come back from the dead: he was there when Jesus raised Lazarus, so he already knows the reality of resurrection. This is not an intellectual issue for him, it’s an emotional one. Has he been deliberately excluded and if so why? Self-doubt is a dangerous thing and a destructive thing. Thomas sees himself as being excluded and so he behaves accordingly and we can, perhaps, imagine a gulf beginning to open up between him and the others. That’s the downside of the Thomas personality type.

But when Jesus returns and Thomas enters into the same experience as the others his reaction is deeper than theirs. The key for Thomas is that he knows the implications of what he has seen. He believes that Jesus is not only alive, but is also God.  The other disciples rejoiced at seeing Jesus alive, but Thomas was the only one who proclaimed "My Lord and my God!"

Anyway, enough of Thomas: there is more to this passage and if we concentrate on Thomas we are in danger of missing what Jesus says and does.

The first thing we’ve already noted: when Jesus appeared he offered his followers peace, but he also gave power.  Verse twenty-two tells us that "when he said this he breathed on them." This is John’s version of Pentecost. It doesn’t appear as it does in the other Gospels but here Jesus gives the disciples the Holy Spirit, the Other Jesus who remains with disciples now as then after the Ascension. Jesus does not leave his followers devoid of guidance and support.

But guidance and support for what?

He gave peace, he gave power and he gave purpose.

This is our purpose. We are to be a mouth to speak for Jesus; feet to run errands for Jesus, hands to do the work of Jesus, and a heart to love Jesus. As my Lutheran friends would say: God's Work, Our Hands. 

That’s the challenge of today’s passage: this group of defeated, confused and frightened men and women were transformed into a driving force that changed others and the world. We are part of that movement.

 Yes us, here, today.

In the same way that the disciples were transformed by their encounter with the risen Jesus, we too have our part to play in the transformation of others and the world around us. Jesus gives us his peace, his power through the Holy Spirit and his purpose in bringing the Kingdom of God closer.

Look at what the early church achieved. Let’s not be paralysed by self-doubt. Let’s take the words of Thomas, “My Lord and my God” and act as if we meant it.

Amen

 
 
 
 
 

Saturday, 8 April 2017

Sunday Sermon: Palm Sunday. Matthew 21.1-11


Matthew 21.1-11







Matthew 21.1-11


When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken though the prophet, saying, “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and other cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Today is Palm Sunday; churches around the world will celebrate by sharing the gospels’ message of Jesus’ triumphal entry into the city of Jerusalem. The week which follows is the most important season in the Christian calendar; it’s the time of year that we celebrate our Saviour’s death, burial and resurrection from the dead and during this week we celebrate the gift of salvation and redemption that God has given us.

But there is important background information that the Gospels don’t give us but which can be discerned from contemporary records and which should help us to understand better the events of this day and the days to come.

It was standard practice for Roman governors to be present in Jerusalem at the Passover Festival: not out of religious sensitivity but to be in the city in case there was trouble – and there often was at Passover, a festival that celebrated the Jewish people's liberation from an earlier empire, the empire of Egypt. Pilate's military presence was a demonstration of both Roman imperial power and Roman imperial theology because according to Roman imperial theology the Emperor was not simply ruler of Rome, but the Son of God.

So, two processions entered Jerusalem on that spring day in the year 30 at the beginning of the week of Passover. One was a peasant procession, the other an imperial procession. From the east Jesus rode a donkey down the Mount of Olives. His message was about the Kingdom of God and his followers came from the peasant class. On the opposite side of the city, from the west, Pontius Pilate the Roman governor entered Jerusalem at the head of a column of imperial cavalry and soldiers. Pilate's procession proclaimed the power of empire. These two processions embodied the central conflict of the week that would lead to Jesus' Crucifixion.

Jesus' procession deliberately countered what was happening on the other side of the city. Pilate's procession embodied the power, glory and violence of the empire that ruled the world. Jesus's procession embodied an alternative vision, the Kingdom of God. The confrontation between these two kingdoms would continue through the last week of Jesus life.

The Gospels make it absolutely clear that the ruling Jewish authorities worked through the approval of the Roman authorities and were therefore collaborators. The local people were oppressed not just by the Romans and their taxes but by the puppet authorities - which included the Temple Authorities whose primary obligation to Rome was loyalty - and their taxes.

This was the Jerusalem Jesus entered on Palm Sunday. His message was deeply critical of the temple and the role it had come to play as a tool of empire and Jesus pronounces forgiveness apart from temple sacrifice. Jesus' message and activity put him in conflict with the temple authorities from the moment he arrived in Jerusalem.

As we consider Palm Sunday we need to be clear that the conflict which led to Jesus' crucifixion was not Jesus against Judaism. Jesus was part of Judaism not apart from it. Jesus' is a Jewish voice arguing about what loyalty to the God of Judaism meant. He was arguing against a religious system fatally compromised by collaboration with Rome.

We need also to remember that the long hoped for Messiah was generally expected to be a warrior King who would drive out any occupying force. The Jews loved Passover because of the hope it offered. It was a national day of Jewish pride. At Passover the Jews remembered the freedom of God’s people from the Egyptians. It also looked forward to the future freedom of the Jews. The people of God had been oppressed for hundreds of years. Under the Assyrians, under the Babylonians, under The Persians, under Alexander the Great and the Greeks, under corrupt Jewish leaders and now under the harsh rule of the Romans.

It was this expectation of military might that Jesus subverted in his humble arrival: an arrival which those who knew their scriptures might recognise as a fulfilment of Zechariah’s prophecy, “Be full of joy, O people of Zion! Call out in a loud voice, O people of Jerusalem! See, your King is coming to you. He is fair and good and has the power to save. He is not proud and sits on a donkey, on the son of a female donkey.”  

No self-respecting king would ride a donkey. If you wanted to make an impact, you would come in on a white war-horse surrounded by soldiers, but that wasn’t the way of Jesus, nor of the Kingdom he sought to usher in.

What, we might ask ourselves, does it feel like to have less than a week to live?

That’s the situation in which Jesus finds himself when he makes his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The crowds don’t know what’s coming. The disciples have been given hints and overt predictions from Jesus that the Son of Man will be betrayed into the hands of sinners and killed, but they haven’t fully understood the implications.

To the disciples and the crowds, this is a moment of incredible potential and excitement. Those who travelled with him have seen the miracles Jesus is capable of – and word has spread of his approach, so who knew what that power might do if they could convince him to turn it against Rome?

What a lonely moment this must be for Jesus, to be surrounded by screaming supporters but burdened by the knowledge that this is the point of no return. By entering Jerusalem on a colt with the crowds laying down their cloaks before him and shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David!” he has triggered one prophetic tripwire too many. The Roman rulers and the Jewish religious authorities can no longer pretend that he is insignificant, that he is not dangerous. Jesus was deliberately provoking the crisis that would end with him on the cross.

And our immersion in these scriptures this week, moving from the palm procession to the Passion, is deliberately designed to provoke a crisis within ourselves. The transition in Jesus’ fortunes in less than a week from adulation and joyful allegiance to rage-filled demands for him to be crucified; the disciples moving from proudly walking at his side through the streets of Jerusalem to slinking away in stomach-clenching fear, insisting they don’t know who he is, should give us pause for thought because it reflects, in brief, our own lifelong journeys with Jesus.

Holy Week, which begins today, is our opportunity to immerse ourselves in this move from the false joy of Palm Sunday, a joy that is centred around expectations of power and reward, through the pain of finding that our faith is often so weak when Jesus needs us the most, finally to the deep and profound joy of the day of Resurrection, the day of forgiveness and new life. We have the opportunity to walk with Jesus in real time as the hourglass runs out, as he struggles with the knowledge that he has less than a week to live.

Today we make a choice. We can choose to be present with Jesus as his disciples throughout this week, confronting the ways in which we betray him and loving him as we see him struggle for the courage to endure his death or we can let the meaning of these events pass us by.

The only tools we need to be present with him are the scriptures and open hearts to make this journey with Jesus.

Two processions entered Jerusalem that day. Which procession are we in? Which do we yearn to be in? This is the question of Palm Sunday and of the week that is about to unfold. Let’s spend that week with Jesus.

 

 
  

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Sunday Sermon. Luke 2.41-52: Jesus goes missing on Mothers' Day


Luke 2.41-52

 

Every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the Festival of the Passover. When he was twelve years old, they went up to the festival, according to the custom. After the festival was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it. Thinking he was in their company, they travelled on for a day. Then they began looking for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they went back to Jerusalem to look for him. After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.” “Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he was saying to them. Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man.

This is one of those Gospel stories we’ve all heard before: it’s a familiar text to most of us but I wonder if anyone knows what it is that’s unusual about it?

This is the only story of Jesus’ childhood recorded in the Gospels. Matthew, Mark and John don’t have it.

Our text not only tells us about the young Jesus, but also a lot about his parents. Earlier in the Gospel we learn that eight days after Jesus' birth he was circumcised and that as an infant he was presented in the Temple according to the religious custom and our text today begins by telling us that every year his parents would go from Nazareth to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover.

So, what do we learn about them? That they were a couple who were very devout in keeping the Jewish Law. Even though there is nothing else written about the young Jesus in scriptures, we know that he grew up with parents who made it a habit of obeying the Law so we can be pretty confident that he would have grown up learning good habits from his parents.

So, we begin today with the party travelling on foot to Jerusalem, probably covering about 15 miles a day, so their journey would have taken four or five days in all. That’s not a trip to be undertaken lightly, particularly as Mary and Joseph were taking their young son with them for the first time. They travelled as a large party because such travel was dangerous and there was safety in numbers. This may be one of the reasons Mary and Joseph were so anxious: it wasn’t just about the possibility of a lost son and Joseph being made to look like an irresponsible father: having had to return to Jerusalem, the family were now several days behind the rest of their kin and trusted neighbours and so were potentially in very real danger.

There’s a little theological gem hidden here too because this incident mirrors the later idea that leaving family and friends to follow Jesus is a potentially costly activity.

Look, we’re doing theology!

And we continue to do theology when we consider the paradox in the passage that Jesus is presented as both son of Joseph and Son of God. Mary asks, "Child, why have you treated us in this way? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” Jesus responds to his parents' concern with two questions: "Why were you searching for me?" "Did you not know that I must be in my father's house? These are the first words Jesus speaks in Luke and they are a real clue to what follows in Jesus’ ministry. Because of the amazement of the crowd focused on his answers to the religious leaders in the Temple, he is in effect teaching the teachers. We have to understand that back then biblical interpretation was a spectator sport. It was competitive exhibition. Those religious leaders wrestled with the text and verbally wrestled with each other. And Jesus was fully engaged in the process. He belonged there. Luke tells it like this: He was sitting among the teachers, listening to them and putting questions to them. And he wasn’t out of his depth, either. Twelve-year-old Jesus was no beginner when it came to interpreting the sacred words. Everyone who heard him was impressed by his understanding and his answers. He was holding his own.

And this is precisely the activity of Jesus that Luke emphasizes at the climax of his ministry before the passion narrative when Jesus again responds to the questions put him in the Temple precincts by Jewish leaders which Luke calls teaching in the Temple. It’s ironic that those who marvelled at his understanding as a child would be scandalized by his words and his teaching as an adult, by his interpretation of the very words of scripture that he’d read in their presence, threatened by the questions he continued to ask and threatened by the answers that he gave.  It was these same priests and Levites, the doctors, the scholars who’d been amazed by his wisdom as a child who’d whip up the crowd into a frenzy and demand that Jesus the man be crucified as a blasphemer.

Have any of you ever seen the film “Home Alone”? “Home Alone” and Jesus being left in the temple share the same basic plot.

In both stories, an extended family goes to a faraway place to celebrate a holiday. And because of a miscommunication, a boy is left behind. No one notices for a while, because everyone assumes he’s with other relatives. When they realize their son is not with them, his parents freak out and spend days frantically trying to get back to him. And when they find him, it turns out he’s taken care of himself just fine. In fact, he’s capable of holding his own with even the most wily of adults. The boy Kevin in “Home Alone” proves this by going head-to-head with two career burglars. Jesus proves it by going head-to-head with the Bible scholars in the temple.

Jesus was never lost. To his parents, he was missing. But he was never lost. He knew exactly where he was. And he knew why he was there. Jesus was right where he was supposed to be, doing just what his Father God put him here to do.

But Luke says that his parents didn’t understand.

From Luke’s perspective, if anyone was lost that day, it was Mary and Joseph. They didn’t know where Jesus was. They were confused. They didn’t know what was going on.

Sometimes who is lost and who is found is completely a matter of perspective.

Today’s gospel is a story about growing up but it is not Jesus’ growing up. It is about Mary and Joseph growing up. It is about you and me growing up. Growing up is not about how old we are. It is really about moving into deeper and more authentic relationships with God, our world, each other, and ourselves.

Jesus has put the Father at the centre of his world and asks Mary, Joseph and us to do the same.

But today is Mothering Sunday, so is there anything from today’s passage that we can learn from about Mary’s relationship with Jesus?

Well, we’ve already noted that Mary wasn’t above chiding Jesus when she felt he had crossed a line and I’m sure most of us are the people we are today because our own mothers, out of love, took us on one side and spelt one or two things out to us about our behaviour and attitude, especially when it was perceived to be disrespectful, selfish or thoughtless. Just think back for a moment. Can you recollect such an occasion in your own relationship with your mother? Try and think what the trigger was in your own behaviour and then think about your mother’s motives and concerns. Why did she tell you off then and why did she continue to do so as the circumstances demanded?

It’s easy isn’t it? Our mothers, like Mary in today’s Gospel passage, had our best interests at heart. It was about showing us what we’d done wrong and showing us a better way to behave or what better attitudes to hold. Why? To make us better, less selfish people; to instil in us life-skills that would help us to be better rounded and more independent people; more socially able adults who are better able to make good decisions and choices for our own welfare and the benefit of those around us.

But I think the main clue can be found in the concluding verses of today’s passage, “His mother treasured all of these things in her heart.” This is the second time in this Gospel that Luke uses this phrase and it says something about the nature of motherhood: our mothers remember everything!

Let’s be honest though: we didn’t always appreciate the reminiscences did we? My mother had this infinite capacity after one or two gins too many to regale us at family events with anecdotes from my childhood and teenage years but, embarrassing as those anecdotes were, they came from a deep pride and affection and I soon realised that not much had got past her. But as I got older I was able to see the funny side of her stories and to appreciate my own youthful foolishness and misunderstandings. It’s also worth remembering that if anyone tried to be critical or snide with me about those events she was the first one to leap to my defence – and she could be formidable when roused!

I think today’s passage also tells us something very special about that mother/child relationship: in the same way that Mary – and Joseph – had to adjust to their son’s developing maturity and his sense of self, so our mothers did too: our relationships with them as adults were very far removed from the ones we had with them when we were children. Just as Jesus helped his parents to change their views and attitudes and to see new perspectives, so it was with us as we also grew, matured, developed independence, distinct personalities and a sense of self, even if that wasn’t always easy for them: the balance in the relationship will have subtly shifted – maybe several times – as we got older and we can see this at work in today’s passage.

So, today we come not just to hear the Gospel, to pray, to take our communion  and worship but to celebrate our own Marys; to give thanks to God for them and to remember them with deep love and affection, for all their faults, understanding that we are who we are today because of them.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Sunday Sermon: John 3.1-17: the problem with John 3.16 and evangelism


John 3.1-17

 
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

 

So today I have probably the most famous Gospel text known to Christians to preach on.

 

No pressure then.

 

Last weekend I was at a residential with all the other curates I trained with. The subject was evangelism and when I was preparing for this morning much of what we discussed then fell into place.

 

But let me start with an anecdote which, to me, illustrate the problem we face with evangelism and with the key verse in this passage.

 

I used to have a teaching colleague, an African Christian. I would give him a lift home most evenings and it had become something of a nightmare because he insisted on talking to me about Jesus - and it really got on my nerves. This caused great hilarity amongst some of our other colleagues:

 

“Doesn’t he know you’re going to be ordained?”

 

“Yes, but that seems to make him worse.”

 

“This must be your Lenten discipline.” (That was a Muslim friend)

 

“Look, I gave up chocolate, cake, alcohol, biscuits and second helpings. They were my choice. I didn’t choose this.”

 

“Maybe it’s Allah’s will for you at this time.” (She’s very sharp, that one.)

 

I tried to analyse why this was becoming such an issue for me and I drew the uncomfortable conclusion it is because our Christianities were so different. His is a very black and white, literalist approach with no scope for nuance, areas of grey or holy doubt, whereas I am very much at the radical end of liberal.

 

“I’ve given up Alcohol for lent.”

 

“You drink alcohol?”

 

What followed was a diatribe against the laxness of the west.

 

“It is to do with low standards: with fornication and homosexuality.”

 

“Now let me just stop you there …”

 

Can I stop on the M621 and ask him to get out between junctions? Would that seem too inhospitable? I tried to bite my tongue, I really did, but sometimes I just couldn’t rise above it.

 

“… I’ve just read a very detailed biblical study of why the so-called traditional teaching on homosexuality is a gross misinterpretation of the various texts.”

 

Sounds of apoplectic gasping from the passenger seat.

 

“But it says in Leviticus and Romans …..”

 

“I know what it says, but that depends on whether you accept everything in the Bible as literally true, rather than seeking to understand the various types of holiness codes and laws to say nothing of the different genre, and whether you believe that we are the implied audience of the various passages rather than the people they were written to. We mustn’t assume that we are. Much of the Bible was written in a very specific religious and cultural climate which is not ours.” (Who’s on his soapbox now?) Note to self: triumphalism is not a nice characteristic in a trainee vicar ….. but it felt so good.

 

There was ominous silence for a while and I realised that I had been driving progressively faster.

 

There is a change of tack:

 

“What do you understand about the crucifixion?” he asked me.

 

I explained the theology of the atonement.

 

“Not all will be saved.” He says. “People who do not confess Jesus will go to Hell. It says in John 3.16…”

 

And here we have it: one of the most misunderstood and misused texts in scripture. This single verse has provided motivation for some of the most destructive and unchristian impulses in those who call themselves Christian.

 

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son so that all who believe in him may not perish but have everlasting life.”

 

Now some of you know that I am a bit of a keyboard warrior: “I’ll be up in a moment Love. I’m just telling someone on the INTERNET that they’re wrong.” There seems to be a recurring theme in this activity: every two or three months I seem to end up in strident cyber debate with some other Christian, usually from either the Anglican diocese of Sydney or U.S. Southern Baptists or Nigerian Christians. The “discussion” is usually about the nature of salvation and the fate of those who do not accept Jesus as Lord and Saviour.

 

I am clearly a masochist: here I was in my own car having the same discussion.

 

Taken literally this passage from John suggests that those who do not believe in the Son will perish.

 

It is difficult to overestimate the damage that has been done by a literal interpretation of this text. It is difficult to overestimate the hurt, harm and abuse that have been encouraged by this passage. It shapes the way Christians throughout history have treated people of other faiths and cultures and the outcome of that has been conflict and violence and the crushing of indigenous culture and languages in the name of Christ.

 

And yet I can (just) remember in those far off heady days of my late-teenage post-conversion years, when I was a lot more evangelical than I am now, that this text was one I learnt by heart and which informed my attitude to other people. It didn’t matter who they were: they were either saved or they weren’t. Simple as.

 

My movement away from that stance happened gradually as I matured in my faith and God took me in directions and into experiences where I began to question the old certainties. I will always remember one particular joke a wise vicar told me.

 

A new arrival at the pearly gates was met by St. Peter and shown round Heaven. At one point they came to a very high wall.

 

“What’s behind there?” she asked.

 

“Keep your voice down” said St. Peter. “That’s where the Anglicans are. They think they’re the only ones here and we don’t want to upset them.”

 

Actually, it wasn’t the Anglicans in the original –just trying to be topical - I’ll leave you to guess: suffice to say that it works with any Christian group.

 

I have a number of Muslim and Sikh friends. We often talk about religion and I’ve learnt a lot about them and from them. When other Christians berate me about mission and witness and how we must bring others to a saving knowledge of Jesus, I always think of them … and I always think that bringing them to Jesus sounds so simple but in reality is very far from it.

Of course it is never me who convicts and converts, it is the Holy Spirit. I know that and, yes, I sometimes wonder what the Holy Spirit makes of my witness by word and deed to anyone, not just Muslims and Sikhs.

 

But let me ask you two things:

 

·       What does it take for someone – anyone to come to faith?

·       What is it that we ask others to believe and accept as part of that act of faith?

 

You see I don’t think it matters whether you are Muslim or Sikh or Atheist or whatever: in order to come to faith you have to not only hear but to understand the Gospel, although if you come from a culture which is broadly Christian I suspect that it may be easier for you.

 

“How” I ask these other Christians “does a Muslim born and brought up in rural Saudi Arabia hear, let alone understand the Gospel? How does a Jew brought up in the most orthodox part of Jerusalem or a Sikh brought up in Amritsar, the Holy City? And yet you are telling me that God – my God, the God I believe in and follow – condemns to Hell a whole swathe of people for not following an injunction they could not possibly have known about. In terms of God’s justice, how does that work, then?”

 

“The Bible is clear.” I am told.

 

Right.

 

Taken literally John 3.16 becomes the foundation for the rejection of the “other” in society: the ones who are not like us. By that I don’t just mean race and religion, but gender, sexuality.

 

The irony here is that of the Gospel writers John was the one who was least likely to take a literalist approach to his writing and would most certainly have rejected that sort of literalist reading. The passage immediately before today’s Gospel reading is the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus. This is the same John who tells us that Jesus was amazed that Nicodemus understood Jesus’ comment about being born again in a literal way. If the life and teaching of Jesus gives us cause to be literal in our reading of Jesus’ words it is not John 3.16, but John 3.17 that we should look to: “God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”

 

Neither Jesus nor John was interested in establishing a belief system based on rejection by God. What they were very interested in was the question concerning how one came to have faith and the supplementary question about how one grows in one’s experience of God.

 

There seem to be a number of positions in the New Testament and the one I favour is “Believe and be baptised.” (Mark 16.16) but that raises other issues such as “Believe what?” or “Believe in what?”

 

So, I think my challenge to you this morning, and perhaps as a Lenten discipline, is to think of those Biblical passages which most closely represent to you what the life of faith is about.

 Of course, there are many passages, but for me here are few ideas which sum it up: repent, believe, be saved by God’s grace, show the change in your life but recognise that you are still vulnerable to temptation. Be open to the spirit, continue to repent and seek the strength of the Spirit to grow more into the likeness of the Saviour.

 

Hang on, though. Weren’t you concerned about the Muslim in rural Saudi Arabia, the Orthodox Jew and the Sikh -  and the Hindu and the Buddhist who have no chance of hearing, let alone understanding the Gospel?

 

Yes. But we must leave that to God. My responsibility is not to go with John 3.16 without John 3.17. We may turn out, like the Christians behind the wall in Heaven in the joke, to be surprised by the extent of the grace of God, but it is most certainly not for us to second guess the mind of God on this or to seek to put limits on his grace. Remember, righteousness was ascribed to Abraham through his faith in God and he predated Jesus.

 

So, I’ll leave you with a tantalising insight into the theology of C.S. Lewis on this topic: a theology which has become known as the theology of the unknowing disciple.

 

For those of you who are unfamiliar with his writings, Lewis writes a series of what appear to be children’s adventure stories, set in the land of Narnia, the most famous of which is “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”. However, Lewis wasn’t simply a children’s writer but a perceptive theologian and the Narnia stories are a Christian allegory.

 

In “The Last Battle”, which is a story dealing with the end times and judgement, there is an exchange between Aslan the Lion, the Christian God figure, and Emeth, a follower of the God Tash. Emeth is surprised to find himself on the right side of Aslan’s judgement and says to Aslan: “Alas, Lord, I am no son of thine, but a servant of Tash.” Aslan answered “Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me. If any man swears an oath to Tash and keeps the oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he knew it not and it is I who reward him.” Emeth replied “Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days.” “Beloved”, said the Glorious one, “unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.”

 

It is my personal challenge during Lent to concentrate on my own walk with God. I look beyond that to my immediate family. I must also continue to take responsibility for my witness through word and deed but it is also my challenge to let God be God and to work his grace where he will. It is not for me to misuse his word in a theology of exclusion.

 

Amen