Tag Archives: forgiveness

Replacing Law With Grace

from-law-to-grace

Replacing Law with Grace

There are times when the Law is important and there are times when it needs to be replaced with Grace; whether it is to make a point or whether it is part of the way we need to live.

Readings: Isaiah 58:9-14 & Luke 13:10-17

May I speak and may you hear through the Grace of our Lord; Father, Son or Holy Spirit. Amen

Let me start by asking you three questions, and please don’t think you have to confess anything out loud. Have you ever broken the law? If so what were the circumstances? Do you feel you were justified in breaking the law?

No doubt a great many of us can probably answer yes, I admit that I probably do it quite frequently when I exceed the speed limit, and a recent survey in the Telegraph newspaper found that ‘millions of people who declare themselves innocent law abiding citizens actually commit around seven crimes a week’, with the most common offences being speeding, texting or talking while driving, dropping litter, riding bicycles on the pavement, parking on pavements or not cleaning up their dog’s poo!

It seems that people are not at all bothered about committing what they consider ‘minor’ crimes, because so many people are breaking these laws that they have almost become legal. Even so, it still depends on what sort of law you may have broken. Was it a law established to protect people and uphold society, one that carried a defined punishment in breaking it? Or was it a rule created for a particular group for a particular time? And how is that law being upheld?

In Isaiah we hear about the exiles’ complaint about God’s perceived lack of response to their prayers. However, the basis of their worship is that of self-interest – what they can get out of it, rather than opening their lives to God’s presence with them and the promise of God’s grace to transform them.

The covenants and the Laws that had been handed down to them were not wrong or unnecessary, but were part of the journey that God was taking humankind on towards complete reconciliation. The Old covenants would be superseded by the New Covenant that was Jesus. They were not separate goals for each group of people to aim for, but one goal. The difference being between the journey and destination; between the interim and the ultimate.

God’s meeting with Moses on Mount Sinai was the supreme revelation of himself in the Old Testament. The laws, the rules, the regulations that were handed down were relevant to what was happening to people at the time – the food laws, the hygiene laws, the clothing laws,  the laws of possession, the laws of laws – all made perfect sense for an itinerant band of travellers to provide protection, both physical and spiritual. However, the physical can never contain the reality of God.

The perceived wrathful, vengeful, inaccessible character of God would go on to be revealed anew in the gloriously accessible person of Jesus. Condemnation would be swallowed up in love and forgiveness.

In this morning’s gospel our focus it not centred on God’s power to heal –the fact that the women was restored to full health was almost a given; just one of many examples we have of Jesus’ power to heal throughout the New Testament. Nor is it concerned with the importance or value of the Law – Jesus himself declares in Matthew’s gospel, that he has not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfil it; adding that ‘truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass form the law until all is accomplished.’

 ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets;
I have come not to abolish but to fulfil’
Matthew 5:17

The Law of Moses may seem irrelevant to twenty first century Christians, laws such as don’t shave your face, don’t eat shellfish, don’t do any work on the Sabbath, and we consciously choose to disregard them. Even so, the law still remains, and, it is the same God as then as is now that we follow. In many cases the laws remain right, but it is how they are being used that is the nub. Is the law being used as an instrument of condemnation or as an instrument of grace

In this particular narrative, those who use it to condemn are ‘hypocrites’, masquerading as agents of a gracious God while being nothing of the sort. Jesus’ action demonstrates grace, his power to heal and all the while bears the fruit of God being praised in the response of the woman. The action has led to the Sabbath being honoured.

Jesus was rebuked because he dared to heal on the Sabbath or Holy Day – an action that was considered ‘work’. If he’d waited till the next day he’d have been fine, but he insisted that no one’s suffering should be prolonged just for the sake of the law. If good can be done today then it shouldn’t be postponed until tomorrow.

The synagogue official was putting the system of law above the individual, but in Christianity the individual comes before the system and it is fair to say that democracy itself would not exist without Christianity. Civilisation has developed based on the relationship of the individual to the system. But all too often the social system takes on a life of its own and swallows up the individual. As the theologian William Barclay says, ‘Should those Christian values start to disappear from political and economic life then we can only look forward to a totalitarian state where people exist not for their own sake but simply for the sake of the system’.

This, therefore, is the big wide world in which we all have to live in, but what about the world within the church. How do we react to those whose only concern is that of Church governance, that consider the method more important than worship of God or service to others. Even more worrying is those who seek only to condemn because of a narrow-minded and blinkered interpretation of what God wants us to do rather than applying the grace that God offers to everyone.

The law doesn’t bind us to what we should  or shouldn’t do on the Sabbath or any other day. In fact the law shouldn’t be a bind at all. Laws are created  and upheld to protect us, to guide us and to enable us to make the right choices. And we do have a choice. We can ask ourselves is this something that is immutable or does my love and knowledge of God allow me to break or remove it all together.

Does our respect for the present position of the church on matters such as marriage, divorce, disability, homosexuality preclude us from recognising God’s grace for these situations and the individuals they affect.

When the law changes around us how do we react as Christians? Think of some of the things that have happened within many of our lifetimes. From the apparently mundane decision to allow shops to open and trade on a Sunday, to the well-considered remarriage of divorcees in church, the full inclusion of those considered disabled in some way, to the current impasse over the pain and suffering that has been and continues to be inflicted on members of the LBGTI community by certain Christian theologies and biblical interpretations. Where has the love and compassion that flows from God’s grace been in all of this?

If we honour God with our rituals so must we also honour God in our lives. So rather than break the law let us always instead replace it with the law of grace.  Amen

creation and grace

Judas – Servant or Scapegoat

 

Judas HangingThe turning point for Jesus and Judas? My dissertation for my MA focused on the question of whether Judas Iscariot might be God’s scapegoat. This sermon preached on Maundy Thursday 2017 is based on John 13:1-11, 31b-35 and suggests that there may be more to his actions than the traditional view of Judas the unrepentant, egotistical betrayer of Christ

May I speak and may you hear through the grace of our Lord, Father, Son and Holy Spirit

This evening we hear one of the pivotal stories of what it means to be a Christian. John, declines to provide us with an account of the breaking of bread and sharing of wine, the origin of our Holy Communion, but instead gives us an account of Jesus washing his disciples feet as mark of servanthood which models for them a life of mutual acceptance and forgiveness which must be the mark of his followers for all time.

Apart from Peter, who, with his usual bluster and enthusiasm, misinterprets Jesus’ actions, our attention is focused on Judas; Judas Iscariot, the betrayer of Christ. Of all the gospel writers, John focuses on the persistent presence of the devil; for all those who come to believe in Jesus, particularly the Jewish converts, are changed into Children of God rather than children of the devil.

We are also not given an account of the temptation of Jesus in the desert by John, but it is useful to remember Luke’s account, where at the end of his failure to persuade Jesus to have anything to do with his enticements, the devil leaves him ‘until an opportune time’. This then is that opportune time and Judas is to enter centre stage for his brief but eternal moment of fame.

Here then might be his story:

‘The past few weeks and days have been very unsettling. For the last three years we’ve been travelling with Jesus, seeing him doing such miraculous things and managing to outsmart those who wish to do him harm. I’ve never been more certain of anything, that he truly is the one who has come to liberate not only our own people, but many others from the tyranny of brutal regimes… and yet so many are saying he’s gone too far, what he asks us to do is too hard a life to follow, that he must be demon possessed and so they are turning away. His talk of oneness with the Father, calling people to salvation and eternal life for some is an outrageous blasphemy and yet I’ve seen for myself the wonderful deeds he has and is doing.

Restoring sight to the blind, curing the sick and the lame, freeing people from injustices and teaching ways of love and peace above hatred and violence – why don’t the people get it. I’ve learned so much from him and he’s trusting me, as one of the twelve, to be part of his mission, to show others the power of God; and what better demonstration of that power than his bringing Lazarus back from the dead – there can surely be nothing more amazing or mind-blowing. Yet, even that has had the effect of dividing people and has added weight to the authorities case against him, that they are losing control of the crowds and fear an uprising. Certainly our latest arrival in Jerusalem shows that he has an incredibly popular appeal, but still for someone who claims that we should do all we can to support and uphold the poor, the way he allowed Mary to be so extravagant with that precious nard is at least questionable.

There have been moments lately when my mind seems foggy, my judgement clouded and I can’t think straight – what really is his purpose for me? Am I to abandon the faith of my father and forefathers; isn’t there a way that we can explore a way to move forward? What might it take to bring both sides together? Might it be best to talk to the authorities and hand the problem over to them? … Is that what he wants me to do?

Now though, as we sit here sharing a meal, he’s once again demonstrating his upside down thinking; the master who acts as a servant, by offering to wash our dusty feet. Look at Peter, who earlier protested so vehemently that he would allow him to do no such thing, suddenly eager that Jesus should bathe his whole body… and yet when he came and knelt before me, his gentle hands wiping away the dirt and grime, I couldn’t look him in the eye. Does he know what I’m thinking?

He must do, but it didn’t stop the feeling of cold panic that swept over me when he clearly stated that he knew at least one of us was not as innocent as they seem. Is that his way of telling me he knows what I’ve determined to do? Even so, we have broken bread together and his offering to me of the choicest morsel surely shows that he still loves me. Perhaps it is the right thing to do.

Judas leaves the circle of the disciples.

I seize a lull in our conversations to slip out, and the darkness of the night compared to the bright glow of the room I have left renders me temporarily blind. As I move quickly away, the sound of laughter and fellowship follows me through the still, cool air, however, my heart is heavy and mind whirling – do I sense the enormity of what I am about to do? May God forgive me if I’ve chosen the wrong path’

Judas made a choice, whether under the influence of the devil or not, but John makes it very clear that whilst Jesus was about to be betrayed, he would not be taken by surprise. He has not been deceived and his arrest, trial and crucifixion will not be a dreadful miscarriage of his plans, but their fulfilment. Instead the event will glorify Jesus and through him glorify God, not by being recognised, proclaimed and crowned as king, but by going obediently to disgraceful death on a cross.

Judas leaves the circle of the disciples before he can hear Jesus’ commandment that a mutual reciprocity of love is the best way to show others that they are one of his disciples. Love that is to be shown even to those who find themselves far away from God; those who cannot see or understand what purpose God might have for them; even those who seem unforgivable. God knows his plans for us, plans to prosper us and not to harm us, plans to give us hope and a future.

Amen

Brea(d)th of Forgiveness

Breath Window

Breath – Nave window at the Church of the Holy Spirit, Lebanon, New Jersey*

The gospel reading for the 2nd Sunday of Easter, as often happens, included in part the reading that was given for Easter Sunday’s evening prayer service. This morning we heard the additional story of Doubting Thomas and thought about how we too can doubt, but that how we are more blessed when we have come to believe rather than have the concrete proof that Jesus offered to Thomas.

Last Sunday, when I preached at evensong, my thoughts were more on the breadth of forgiveness that Jesus offered in coming to and appearing to his disciples, who had hidden themselves away from the world. In return this reflects the breadth of forgiveness offered and how we should receive it.

Reading: John 20:19-23

“To err is human, to forgive divine” Alexander Pope, poet (1688-1744)

In our build up to Easter we have taken a great deal of time to reflect on the pain and the suffering that Jesus was to endure through the cross. An instrument of torture, it has, as of this morning, become a symbol of God’s transformative and life-giving power through its emptiness, echoed with the discovery of the empty tomb by two of Jesus’ disciples. This new life is offered to us as a result of Jesus taking on himself our sins in order that we could be completely forgiven, not just for our sending him to die in the first place, echoed in his words from the cross, ‘Father forgive them for they know not what they do’ but as part of our response to do the same from thereon in.

Yet, one of the most difficult things we ever do is forgive another. We know we should forgive, because it’s the right thing to do; it’s the Christian thing to do and we know it’s what Jesus would do. But it’s always easier to see another through the lens of their behaviour and its effect on us than it is to see them as God sees them.

How often have we recited the Lord’s prayer in which we ask for forgiveness for our sins as we forgive others? But if our forgiveness to others is given begrudgingly then perhaps we might suspect that our own forgiveness might be begrudged. Even more difficult than forgiving another is to forgive ourselves, to set ourselves free to return to the likeness of God.

What the disciples were to receive on that first day of the week as they came to terms with the amazing turn of events was the life-giving gift of the Spirit as Jesus breathed it onto them, with its resonance to God’s creation of Adam at the beginning of Genesis.

The Spirit is given and the disciples are now called to take up Jesus’ mission, and its immediate effect will be to send them out, to take responsibility for the world. The Christian mission starts in the knowledge of our own need. It’s what the gift of the Holy Spirit to the church is for. It is not designed to fill us with pious emotions, or give us unwavering certainty, or overawe others with our power, or even to build us into the church, though it may do all of these things. The gift is given principally to the disciples and to us to do what Jesus told us to, which is to be his witnesses ‘in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

 Throughout John’s gospel, the way in which people react to Jesus signals whether they will accept or reject God’s forgiveness offered through him. Now the same thing is happening to the disciples. Their mission, too, is to do with forgiveness and judgement  and while it might sound as if Jesus is giving the disciples a blank cheque when he says they now have the power to forgive sins or retain sins, the important thing to remember  is to whom this charge is given, and in what circumstances.

This is a group of people who, only a few days previously, had betrayed and deserted their leader and now they have locked themselves in an upstairs room, fearing for their own lives. When Jesus comes to them and shows them the marks of the nails, it is not just so that they can be truly certain who he really is, but in order that the tremendous mission he  is about to entrust to them can be grounded in the reality of who they are too. These disciples know how much they have been forgiven. They are not going to take the power they are being given over sin lightly.

The temptation is to treat the gift of the Spirit as something for insiders, something to be enjoyed and guarded jealously. Instead we need to long for the Spirit to fall down on all of God’s people; a longing that all should share in the forgiveness and new life that God has given to us. We receive in awed gratitude, and share because we know that God has given us what we do not deserve. Shouldn’t we then in our own levels of forgiveness ensure we are as ungrudging as God?

 Amen

Forgive

*This beautiful interpretation in glass of John 20:21 is one of a series of windows in the Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit, Lebanon, New Jersey. To see some of the others please follow this link

Called to Love

Brussels_Love One Another

Love One Another, As I Have Loved You

 On Maundy Thursday we are explicitly called to love one another. Sometimes though it’s not as easy as you think. This reflection was preached as a sermon at St James’ Church at the Maundy Thursday evening service and is shared with you now.

Readings: 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 and John 13:1-17, 31b-35

‘That you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another’

This week has for me been a week of great sorrow. In a week when we are following in the footsteps of Jesus to the cross, his words to his disciples have a great poignancy. A week in which we have once again witnessed the total disregard for the value of human life.

‘That you love one another’

On Monday we heard of the devastating effect that one person can have on one family, the Philip’s family, we heard of the anger and hatred that is justifiably felt as raw emotions are still very much on the surface.  Then on Tuesday, the indiscriminate attack on innocent victims in Brussels, as they went about their ordinary business; treated not as individual human beings but an in-distinguishable mass target.Still each of those who died or were wounded will be connected in a myriad of ways to others: wives, husbands, fathers, mothers , sons, daughters, friends. Connected to people who love them.

Brussels - Tintin

Herge’s Tintin weeps for Belgium

Far too frequently we think of ourselves as just individuals, separated from one another by race, culture and faith, yet we share a common humanity. Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela, when having to deal with the aftermath of apartheid in South Africa, choose to walk the way of love rather than retaliation. Tutu explained that one of the sayings in his country is Ubuntu – the essence of being human, and that it speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality – Ubuntu – you are known for your generosity.

Our common connection means that what we do as individuals affects the whole world. When we love each other and recognise that common humanity and things go well, it spreads out and shows what the power of love can do; but when we disregard it we act in fear, creating hatred and violence.

 ‘That you love one another’

 That you love one another. Just as I have loved you’

If we want to know what that love should look like then we only have to look at Jesus. Love is never straightforward but he managed to show us the different sorts of love that are needed to unite us rather than divide us.

Love can be tough – we only have to think of the rich young man who when told that he had to give up all that he owned went away grieved.. Yet Jesus didn’t give him a get out clause. He looked at him and he loved him even though he knew how hard that would be

Love enables forgiveness as well as  demanding a change of heart. Like the woman caught in adultery, who was judged and condemned by those who were blinded to their own sinful natures. ‘Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. She was sent away with the instruction to sin no more, knowing that love enables us to forgive.

Love gives us a servant heart. What better demonstration of Jesus’ love for us that he stoops to wash our feet, not as master but as a servant and asks us to do the same. Amongst his disciple he was aware that one was going to hand him over, to be part of his inevitable death and yet he still washed his feet.

And that brings us to the greatest love of all, that he would offer up his own life in order to give us ours. A love that we celebrate each time we come to share at the communion table, and taste the bread and wine.  A sacrificial love that didn’t distinguish between the worthy and the unworthy but was poured out to encompass all of humanity.

Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another’

You also should love one another’

There is one more love that he calls us to emulate – to love our enemies. Jesus tells us that if we only love those who love us back then love has no real value. But to try and love those who perpetrate violence, surely this is the hardest love of all.

This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t hate the crime and that punishment must follow according to the agreed judicial system, and let’s be clear that in the case of the ISIS attacks in Belgium this has nothing to do with the Muslim faith in general, but is caused by a perverted religion of hate.

Even so we are called to show mercy and offer grace. We are called to look at each individual and imagine what has happened in their lives to make them turn to such hatred, to make them so blind that they forget their common humanity with their victims, to espouse causes that deny the power of love, and despite this to love them­­­­­­. How hard that is.

‘By this everyone will know that you are my disciples’

What has also been demonstrated, is that evil and hatred were not allowed to get the upper hand in Brussels, as Christian throughout the city offered practical help and prayers and the Belgian people rallied defiantly in the an open square to write chalk messages of love and hope.

The Archbishop of Brussels, Josef de Kesel, also announced that he had received messages from around the world, as signs of fraternity, and which he said, ‘let us feel how we are united in faith and humanity. He added that “We must stay faithful to our message of peace and go on promoting a discourse which appeals for acceptance, unity and coexistence’

So, as we continue to commemorate the passion, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ this Holy Week, let us all remember that God is the source of love and life, and ask him to bring peace to our troubled world.

Amen

Servanthood image

© ‘Servanthood’ by Debbie Saenz.

Prayers for Passiontide

They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head

They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head

A weekend away at college brings lots of new insights and learning, and it also gives us time for reflection. In the midst of all the talk about mission and preparing for ministry we entered Holy Week with a day of silence which was to include an area set aside for prayer and contemplation. Several people brought with them some resources to set up separate prayer stations but it is amazing that what might be disjointed individual activities often come together beautifully to make a whole spiritual space. Here are just a few highlights and the ideas behind them.

Making Palm Crosses

They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna!”  “Blessed is he who comes  in the name of the Lord!” John 12:13

They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” John 12:13

Making palm crosses is not necessarily easy at the best of times but to have to give instructions without speaking  makes it even more interesting. These were used for the Palm Sunday procession later on in the morning

The station reminded us that Jesus knew he was on his way to the cross when he entered Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday. Many of those who had been with him and who cheered him that day were soon to fall away, unable to follow his instructions.  Matthew 16:24-25 reminds us that if we want to become followers of Jesus that we are required to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses. We were therefore asked to think whether we were willing to do so.

Kneeling at the foot of the Cross

When I survey the wondrous cross

When I survey the wondrous cross

Kneeling down and looking up at the cross is a powerful image. It was an opportunity to lay down all the things that we had got wrong  and for which we asked forgiveness for.

Before the cross as we thought of these things we could write or draw them in the sand. As the prayer told us:

Know that God forgives you…
Forgive yourself

PS Foot of the Cross Sand Blog

Now smooth out the sand… You are forgiven

 Now smooth out the sand…
You are forgiven

The Stones Cry Out

if these were silent,  the very stones  would cry out.” Luke 19:40

if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.” Luke 19:40

The cheering that accompanied Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem was upsetting the Pharisees and they ordered him to tell his disciples to keep quiet. His response that even if they were silent then the very stones that lined the roadside would cry out

A reminder that we can not keep silent about injustices, and we were invited to think and pray about all those who are suffering at this moment in time and then to place a stone before the cross

The Crown of Thorns

I can do all things through him who strengthens me. Philippians 4:13

I can do all things through him who strengthens me. Philippians 4:13

At the hands of Pilate’s soldiers, Jesus was mocked, spat upon and struck. People of faith often suffer this humiliation at the hands and voices of those who do not understand, who belittle their beliefs and who do so out of hatred; the answer being to respond with love. Jesus predicted that this would happen (Matthew 10:22) but there was reassurance that God would provide the strength necessary to endure this. Lighting a candle was a way of giving thanks for this

I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
Philippians 4:13

 Consider the Lilies

Consider the Lilies - Stanley Spencer

Consider the Lilies – Stanley Spencer

A chance to contemplate one of Stanley Spencer’s beautiful painting that was produced as part of a series entitled Christ in the Wilderness (1939-54). Here we see Christ contemplating not the grand lilies but the humble daisy, whose faces are turned toward the absorbed attention of their creator. The reference is to Matthew 6:25-34 with its reminder of the futility of worrying. (Concept – Jenny Tebboth)

PS consider the lilies + flowers blog

 The Unity Cross and the Tree of Life

PS Unity Cross blog

The Unity Cross

Other things to contemplate were the Unity Cross and the Lindisfarne Scriptorium, Tree of Life. The cross had been especially commissioned  for our opening worship when as individuals we had each taken one of the small piece of coloured glass that were scattered on a table and placed them within the cross to symbolise our unity in Christ. (Concept Jenny Tebboth)

Likewise the drawing of the Tree of Life with Christ at the centre was used as an example of a powerful image for mission in one of the lectures

PS Unity Cross and Tree of Life blog

 Peg Prayers

Pegging out our prayers

Pegging out our prayers

Our own prayers were important as well and we pegged them knowing that God has promised to hear our prayers when we pray to him in faith

Other Prayer Activities

PS Prayer Activities

Also included were other prayer activities which included clockwise from top left above:

  • Poetry Corner – a chance to read and write our own poetry
  • Meditating on Christ on the cross
  • Tasting Scriptures
  • ‘Love Bade Me Welcome’ with its imagery of the Eucharist
  • Lectio Divina
  • Praying for the Nations
  • Stations of the Cross (not pictured)
  • The Potter and the Clay based on Jeremiah 18 (not pictured)

All in all a veritable plethora of activities and images to not only provide breathing spaces in a day of quiet contemplation but to help make us more imaginative in our prayer lives for the future

 And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.”
Matthew 21:22