Tag Archives: Grace

The Elephant In The Room

Ever wanted to know how to explain the Trinity? Well perhaps now you can stop trying so hard. Sermon preached on Trinity Sunday 2021 based on John 3:1-17 and Romans 8:12-17

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

Before we turn our attention to our bible readings today, perhaps we ought to address the matter of the elephant in the room – that is the Trinity. Today is Trinity Sunday when traditionally an attempt is made by the preacher to ‘explain’ exactly what the Trinity is. It falls to my lot this year, but I wondered if we could take a different approach and actually try not to explain it.

By that I don’t mean dismiss it altogether for it is something that exists; but set aside the usual illustrations that somehow always fall short of the mark. For example, the idea that the Trinity is like water, which can be in a liquid, gas or solid state, but it’s still the same water. The problem with this is that is denies the three distinct Persons of the Trinity by claiming that God is one Person who appears in different ‘modes’ at different times. However, the three are not co-existing; H2O can only ever be one form at a time whereas for instance at the baptism of Christ, the Father, Son and Spirit are all distinctly present and interacting and only one of them is in the actual water!

To theologists this aquatic depiction of the Trinity is akin to the heresy of Modalism.

Similarly, we can discard many of the alternatives; the egg, with its yolk, shell and albumen where each part of the egg make up only a portion of the whole – the yolk alone is not the fullness of the egg, whereas each part of the Trinity is fully divine. Or perhaps the Sun, with itself, its light and its heat – again we’re verging towards the heresy of Arianism to claim that, because whereas light and heat are simply creations of the sun, we can not claim that the Son or the Spirit are mere creations of the Father.

And before you dash out to pick a clover leaf, just let it be…

Trying to explain the Trinity is rather like the Hindu fable of six blind men encountering an elephant, which John Godfrey Saxe translated into his poem The Blind Man and the Elephant where each man is brought into the presence of an elephant but can only feel one part and thus describe it variously as a wall, a spear, a snake, a tree, a fan and a rope – you will have to guess which parts they were touching. His concluding verse, however, can remind us God is someone whom we have to encounter as a whole.

So, oft in theologic wars the disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant not one of them has seen!

And yet we have seen and still see the Triune God all around us. We encounter the three persons of God when we visit a nature reserve and see the marks of careful husbandry; we encounter the three persons of God when we watch the skills of a surgeon in a real-life documentary, we encounter the three persons of God when we listen to the joyful sound of children’s laughter

At the moment I am on tenterhooks awaiting the birth of my first grandson, who will definitely be born of the flesh, and yet his arrival will reveal, as all new-born babies reveal, the Trinitarian presence of God, in creation, in love and in Spirit.

But what of Nicodemus, a devout Jew, a teacher of the Law; his mind was trained to obey God and to keep to the Law, yet his encounters with Jesus had led him to see a glimpse of God in the man Jesus, something had moved him to seek out a closer relationship and understanding that he was of God. Even so, he was trying to apply human logic and reasoning to something that clearly was beyond that.

Nicodemus was told he had to look beyond the physical and instead allow the spiritual to guide him. ‘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’. And as St Paul suggests in his letter to the Romans, that instead of trying to elucidate God’s nature through the things that tie us to earthly conventions we must allow ourselves to be led by the Spirit as children of God. 

Perhaps we would be better to be content to admit that we cannot fully understand the Trinitarian nature of God, but rather to simply and faithfully accept that God exists eternally as one divine nature, substance, or essence, comprising three co-equal, co-eternal and consubstantial persons – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Instead to accept the truth that despite living in a perfect Triune relationship, which is completely self-sufficient and with no deficiency, he still chose to create and eventually redeem us at great cost to himself.  

If we bring to an end our attempts to cognitively master God and the fact that we cannot understand the full depth of the Trinity (and certainly not with any myriad of analogies from the limited realm of creation) it should bring us to the reality that we are finite creatures standing before a sovereign, transcendent divine mystery… or more appropriately, it should bring us to fall to our knees and humbly worship the One true God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

The Wisdom Of The Wise Men

Divine Wisdom by Shiloh Sophia McCloud

A sermon for Epiphany based on the readings Ephesians 3:1-12 and Matthew 2:1-12

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

What makes a wise man or woman for that matter? Is it having knowledge of many things? Is it using the knowledge you have to make wise decisions? I would say it needs to be both, after all knowing that a tomato is a fruit does not mean it will go well in a fresh fruit salad…. or maybe it would if you’re Heston Blumenthal!

Today Matthew gives us a beautifully compact version of the story of the wise men, no word is wasted. I say version, because there is an ancient manuscript, The Revelation of the Magi, but that is an apocryphal gnostic text, so let’s stick with the gospel.

These men have the knowledge that they have gained from studying the stars, researching their own texts and discerning what the appearance of an apparently new star might mean. They could have parked that knowledge there, recorded it for future generations to wonder if it were in fact, just the alignment of Jupiter and Saturn to produce a Great Conjunction that we could witness in 2020, for the first time in 800 years.

But then it wouldn’t have got the more familiar name of ‘the Christmas Star’. What they did was to use this knowledge to make a wise decision, to follow it and see where it might lead, and to come prepared to honour a child that was foretold to be the king of the Jews, a king worthy of homage and the travails of the journey.  

So, these were indeed wise men. Then I found this unattributed quote that says, ‘Wisdom is the perfection of knowledge of the righteous as a gift from God showing itself in action’. Surely in this story, here is wisdom as knowledge and wisdom in action.

‘Wisdom is the perfection of knowledge of the righteous
as a gift from God showing itself in action’

But what of wisdom itself? Over my desk, I have a lovely painting of a figure entitled Divine Wisdom, she is called Sophia, the Greek word for wisdom, and she is a central idea in Hellenistic philosophy and Christian theology. She appears in the Book of Proverbs, ‘Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice’ (Proverbs 1:20). However, she come into her own in one of the accepted apocryphal books which is often used in our lectionary of readings, The Book of Wisdom. She is described as, ‘more beautiful than the sun, and excels every constellation of the stars. Compared with the light she is found to be superior (Wisdom 7:29) and ‘She gave to holy people the reward of their labours; she guided them along a marvellous way, and became a shelter to them by day, and a starry flame through the night’ (Wisdom 10:17).

The Book of Wisdom, was written about fifty years before the coming of Christ. Its unknown author was probably a member of the Jewish community at Alexandria in Egypt and his profound knowledge of the earlier Old Testament writings is reflected in almost every line of the book; the first ten chapters in particular providing background for the teaching of Jesus and some New Testament theology about Jesus. However, its primary purpose was to convey the message about the splendour and worth of wisdom.

Accordingly, here too is wisdom as knowledge and wisdom in action.

In Jesus, the mystery of God was revealed, as Paul tells the Ephesians ‘In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets (Ephesians 3:5)’ and it was to those who not only gained this knowledge but who were to act upon it that wisdom was given, ‘so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities (Ephesians 3:10)’

So why should we, as the church and as individual seek wisdom today?

Well, there has been much over the last year that has tested us like never before. The free will that we have, to gain knowledge and learn and discover, means that we are much wiser about a virus that has threatened and changed nearly every aspect of our lives.

Wisdom and knowledge have led us to develop new medical devices, procedures and medicines as we have pooled that knowledge. Our governments and global organisations have had to gain wisdom and knowledge to understand what is happening and then to apply that knowledge in the wisest way possible.

Of course, there are always those who would say they have not always been so very wise, and hindsight is a wonderful thing; but whilst the foolish or unwise have developed conspiracy theories that frighten and disable, theories that can be debunked just as quickly as they spring up, wisdom enables us to recognise the difference.

Definitely then, wisdom as knowledge and wisdom in action

On an individual level, I think we have learned a lot about ourselves. Maybe things that have surprised us. We have experienced emotions and seen and heard things first-hand as never before in our lives, whether we are young or old, wise or unwise.  

However, as Christians we are privileged to receive God’s grace that gives wisdom. Our knowledge of God and our faith enables us to see his leading, to hear his guidance and gives us a heart of courage to journey faithfully and find our way even when the path may seem difficult and dark.

It also means that we are enabled to reach out and to bring light into the lives of those around us. To shine in the darkness by putting our knowledge of God into action – to make known the wisdom of God.

The star that shone so brightly some two thousand years ago, can still illuminate and reveal the way – the way that leads to a child, who would grow into a king. The king of the Jews, the king of all God’s children, the king of the past, the present and the future, the king of kings, the wisest king of all!

Amen

The Magi

Matching God’s Generosity

Yesterday, in between showers, I took Molly dog for a walk in the park and I noticed these beautiful leaves that had fallen to the ground. When I found them they were still glossy and supple and felt full of life. But this morning they have begun to dry and fade and will eventually become lifeless.

Of course, whilst they were still part of the tree, they created and stored energy, from the water supplied by the tree, the carbon dioxide supplied by the air and sunlight – microscopic sugars. This energy was then shared with the tree to build up its branches and produce more growth and leaves – a perfect example of giving and receiving, of mutual generosity

However, once a leaf becomes separated from the tree, all of its stored energy is useless, its beauty begins to fade, and you are left with nothing except a mulch for the garden or crumbly dust.

We too can be full of energy and life, have more than enough reserves to sustain our way in the world, and plenty of opportunities to share what we have to make a difference, but if we keep these things to ourselves, storing up treasures in ever increasing amounts then we become like these leaves. We will have broken that connection to the source, and that mutually beneficial relationship that enables us to grow and flourish will have been severed; our riches will be worth nothing more than the likelihood of becoming someone else’s rich compost.

The saying, ‘you reap what you sow’ comes in many guises throughout the bible, from proverbs and psalms, prophets and parables, but the underlying message is clear, the amount you receive is equal to the amount you give and vice versa. In our New Testament reading, Paul is reminding the Corinthians about the principles of Christian giving. Giving is like sowing seed: what you get is linked to what you give. In Christian giving both the thought and the attitude count. We are reminded that God is the greatest giver. He provides in all kinds of ways – in crops and food and spiritual gifts. His greatest gift being to send his only Son, Jesus, to be the Saviour of the world

The Corinthians, like us, will discover that by changing their attitude to giving that they themselves will receive more. They, like us, will be enabled and encouraged to be generous, both now and in the future. This will be a harvest of praise to God when people see his grace in their lives. So, more than ever we need to give generously, willingly, and cheerfully, of our time, of our talents, of our resources; because what we will receive back will be so much more

But wait, haven’t we heard this exhortation to be more generous so many times before. Haven’t we for a moment taken stock and reviewed what we already give in time, talents and resources and decided that we can say we are giving in at least one of these ways very generously so surely that counts?

I wonder though if God takes stock and reviews his generosity or does he simply pour out more blessings in abundance hoping some will at least try to match him.

And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance,
so that by always having enough of everything,
you may share abundantly in every good work.
2 Corinthians 9:8

Time, talents, and resources, it should never be a case of which one should I choose to be generous in…

Generosity of time should not be counted in hours and minutes, but being willing to offer enough time and more, so that things can be accomplished that will benefit not only ourselves but others too.

Generosity of talents should not be scored by the ability to outshine everyone else as the star of the show, but by sharing those skills to enable everyone to rise to their full potential

And generosity of resources should never be about percentages. If you have sufficient then the rest is a surplus, which might just be the necessary amount to provide for those with little or nothing.

As Christians and church members, we carry within us the seeds of faith, seeds that are to be sown to enrich each and every life that comes into contact with our own, to make those connections. God generously supplies the water, the spirit and the light and we are called to convert that into a generous life-giving energy. This is grace and it is freely given, is inexhaustible and unextinguishable.

This is our generous God, let us be his generous people. Amen

A sermon for Harvest Festival based on 2 Corinthians 9: 6-15 and Luke 12:16-30

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

Drawn From The Deep

Sunlight Under Water

He drew me out of deep water

Based on Luke 5:1-11

When I was little I would occasionally be allowed to go fishing with my dad. I say allowed, because it was actually for my father a time when he could escape the busyness of his work life and just simply sit and enjoy the peace and quiet of the river bank, certainly not to have to entertain a young child; but eventually I too learnt to appreciate this time of quiet companionship.

Of course, there was also the benefit of catching a few fish, that would be placed to wriggle around in the keep net until it was time to pack up and go home, and they would then be returned to the freedom of the water, presumably to swim free until the next time that they took the bait of the fly hook of another fisherman.

But there were also the days when we would sit there in virtual silence and the keep net would remain obstinately empty. For Simon Peter and his partners, James and John it must have been one of those days when much effort had brought little reward. Yet, suddenly here was this man inviting them to try one more time.

No doubt they were tired and weary, and also slightly sceptical, but something about him gave them a sense that they should do as he asked and trusting his confidence they cast their nets once more into the water and were suddenly faced with a catch that was almost overwhelming in its abundance.

It was miraculous, but what was even more surprising was their response, that they would immediately leave all that they knew and depended on to become followers and fellow missionaries with this young man. I guess it is this last outcome that most of us find difficult to understand and imagine ourselves duplicating but it is the whole story that leads us to see why this might be so and what it says to us about discipleship.

We know that Jesus will often use the situation he finds himself in to help people understand more clearly the point he is trying to make, so a miraculous catch of fish to a group of fishermen would certainly bring home the point very effectively. However, we can see that this was already being mirrored in his interaction with the crowd. Here was a sea of people, like a lot of people nowadays, who were beginning to realise that they were in deep water, all around them the water was foaming in turmoil and although they had the freedom to go anywhere, it was usually only in the direction that the tide took them.

Jesus, through his teaching was casting the net as the Word. This was not a net that was set as an entrapment, but a means by which God could rescue his people. As it says in Psalm 18, ‘He reached down from on high and took hold of me, he drew me out of deep water’.

He reached down from on high
and took hold of me,
he drew me out of deep water
Psalm 18:16

There was a growing realisation that without God they were lost, and Jesus was there to remind them of this. Simon Peter’s obedience and trust that what he was being told was a good thing, put him on his first step to acknowledging who Jesus really was. But this realisation also made him fearful; since the prodigious haul of fish only proved the awesomeness of God’s power and made his or anyone else’s effort pale into insignificance., ‘Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man’.

Yet, Jesus’ response was that they should not be afraid. The fact is that when they and we are drawn into God’s presence he asks us to part of his mission, to be his ears and eyes, his hands and feet, to work together as the body of Christ. And just as Simon Peter called for his partners to help with the extraordinary catch of fish, we never do it on our own, whether as individuals, or one church, but as the whole Church.

So the disciples were to be sent out to catch people. To use the Word to act as the net to draw them closer to God, and that net was to be cast far and wide. Just as each net of fish brings up not just one type of fish, but gathers many, so that diversity is reflected in the many different types of people who are called and seek to be in his presence. God is not looking for any particular type of person, just those who are willing to be transformed.

Of course there are always going to be as few who for some reason want to wriggle out of and escape the net, but for those who choose to believe and to take up the challenge there is no reason to hesitate, real freedom has been gained, grace offered and accepted and the task of catching people for God begun.

Amen
Luke 5

How To Fill The Time In Between

Questions

The First Sunday of Christmas is what I call the in-between time. It sits between the great festivals of Christmas and Epiphany and doesn’t seem able to muster up its own special liturgy after all the awe and wonder  of the Saviour’s birth and the star lit revelations of the Wise Men. We also leap from cradle to the teenage years and then back to a toddler in the space of two weeks marking three of the four biblical appearances of Jesus as a child, which still leaves us with a lot of questions. Who, where, why and how? But as with all questions, if we ask the right ones we should get the right answers and learn something.

Based on Colossians 3:12-17 and Luke 2:41-52

I suspect that we all have stories of our childhood, some which show us in lots of different lights – the early achiever ‘Yes, she was walking and talking before her first birthday’; the dexterous enabler, ‘Oh he could put together all of the Star Wars’ Lego models by the age of two!’; the future celebrity, ‘I think she came out of the womb singing and dancing, we LOVE all the ‘shows’ she creates for us to watch’; but also the innate rascals, ‘every tree, every wall, every supermarket aisle shelf would need to be climbed – I think he’s going to be a mountaineer.’

Of course, we don’t always remember the things that we did from a very early age but have to rely on stories that are passed down to us and which become part of our family’s history. No doubt for Jesus, there were also stories from his childhood, that his parents, aunts, uncles and cousins would remind him of as he grew up, but we don’t get to hear about these, despite his later ‘fame’. Nothing comes out of the woodwork to show us the times when he wasn’t so obedient or got into scrapes with other children or indeed did anything out of the ordinary.

We have to be content with four brief episodes to tell us something about the child that grew into the man who was God, his extraordinary birth, his presentation in the temple, that he had some special visitors when he was a toddler, and that by the age of twelve he was displaying wisdom and knowledge beyond his years, astonishing his elders whilst at the same time being utterly respectful and freely submitting to his parent’s authority.

Yes, we could look for other remarkable stories of the child and youth Jesus, offering healing and miracles, that were recorded in the Infancy Gospels of Thomas and others, but these were gnostic texts, written some two centuries after his birth and we have no way of knowing whether any of ‘these’ stories are true and reliable and they were certainly not accepted into the canon of the bible

In our gospel today, the gap between the twelve year old on the cusp of becoming a nominal adult through his bar mitzvah and the man Jesus beginning his ministry following his baptism, is covered in one brief sentence, that he grew ‘in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favour

Perhaps this is all God determined that we needed to know, but it’s obvious that these were the years in which he would have been able to experience humanity to its fullest extent before living the last three years of his life in a fishbowl. If we recall the verse that Luke give us immediately beforehand (v40), ‘the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him,’ it indicates a normal childhood and early adulthood. We can imagine Jesus learning his trade as a carpenter from Joseph, his adoptive father; being a pleasant and hardworking individual, inquisitive and innately knowledgeable beyond his years, which amazed some who saw him as an uneducated handy man; growing physically, spiritually and mentally under the cover of God’s grace.

As devout Jews, his parents would each year travel to Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover, they would have travelled together with a large group of family and friends, and at twelve, Jesus would not have been expected to stay with them. So, the fact that they would not have noticed he wasn’t among the returning celebrants, would not have been negligence on their parts, and with men and women generally travelling in separate groups, it wouldn’t have been until the end of the day, when they came together that they might notice that he was missing. You can imagine the conversation of Mary asking Joseph, ‘Have you seen Jesus since this morning?’ and Joseph replying, ‘No, I thought he was with you’.

No doubt they were worried and spent the next few hours increasingly frantic, asking all their friends and relatives whether they’d seen him, before setting off back to Jerusalem, and finally the relief of finding him after a three day search, calming sitting among the teachers, asking questions, not quite oblivious to the apparent distress he has caused them, as indicated by their understandable reaction, ‘Why have you put us through this anguish’ but reassurance that why would they think he would be anywhere else but in his Father’s house, not Joseph’s house, but God’s house.

‘Why were you searching for me?
Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’
Luke 49

For Mary and Joseph, there was still no full understanding of who Jesus was and what his work would entail, but Mary would once more reflect carefully on these events and would add them to her treasured memories of Jesus’ life. So, we hear that Jesus, returned with his family and as far as we know caused them no further upset, accepting their authority of parenthood, and at the same time growing and maturing into perfect manhood.

Now I don’t know about you, but I did not have a perfect childhood, mainly because I was not the perfect child! I can remember that I was not always obedient to my parents and would often find myself in trouble. However, I do know that I was loved, and any discipline metered out was undoubtedly for my own good. But that’s another story!

Let’s, therefore, get back to this morning’s story. We know that Jesus’ calling was to follow the will of God, so for him to spend time in the temple, the centre of Jewish worship, was an opportunity to discuss theology with experts, develop his own understanding and challenge people on their concepts of God. He was able to do this because of the personal relationship that he had with God

We too are called to develop a personal relationship with God in order for us to better understand his will for our lives. However, for many people the sense of being drawn closer into the story through the events leading up to and celebrated at Christmas is already dissipating. ‘Phew, I’m glad that’s over and done with, let’s pack the baby Jesus away with the rest of the nativity set and get back to some kind of normality’. Of course, they don’t really mean it like that, what they do mean is they’re glad the frantic shopping has ended, no more stressing about whether the presents you bought are appreciated and family member and other guests are finally heading home… and even though you love them and have been glad to spend time with them, there is the relief of getting back to your regular routine.

Relationships can be pretty tricky; there was an article I read the other day that asked people if they had argued more over the Christmas period and what had they argued about? Most people said, ‘Yes’ they had had a row and that it was about petty things like the tree decorations, how the turkey was cooked and what they wanted to watch on television. An expert commented that this was perfectly understandable as when people in families are thrown together for a time, tensions can be unearthed and expectations can be different.

Just like Jesus’ parents were stressed, there was probably some tension between Jesus’ true identity, what his mission is and his relationship with his parents. I am sure that they didn’t expect to find him discussing theology in the temple, otherwise they’d have gone straight there and not spent three days searching.

Why Jesus

But Jesus was setting the foundations for a new understanding of family. One that would be built on a relationship with God the father though his son, Jesus and which would be founded on love, forgiveness, peace and thanksgiving. A family not sharing a bloodline or DNA but linked together through the Holy Spirit.

Our reading from Colossians sets this out in more details. It’s a reading that a lot of wedding couples choose for their reading as they too set out on a new relationship. It starts by reminding us that we are all part of God’s family, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved. Many people feel unloved and some are damaged psychologically. Yet no-one is unloved. God loves each and every person so much he sent his son Jesus to die in their place on the cross.

It is a wonderful, unconditional, free love and we are called to live lives that reflect this. To clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. To bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances we may have against one another.

Above all, clothe yourselves with love,
which binds everything together in perfect harmony
Colossians 3:14

Showing compassion that comes from within, concerned about meeting people’s most basic needs; kindness that is gracious and humble; a gentleness that is not weakness, but a willingness to suffer injury rather than inflict it and patience that forgoes anger and resentment and does not seek revenge.

Of course, we all have our own faults, but God has forgiven us and so, who are we, who have been forgiven, to withhold forgiveness from someone else? This is based on God’s choice and love for us and is completely undeserved and helps put into perspective any problems that really are no more serious than a Christmas tree or a turkey!

That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t attempt to correct any conduct that is not part of God’s will, we are Christ’s ambassadors, we bear his name and we should reflect his kingdom values in everything that we do.

Many people came to church this year, and we hope that they would have felt loved, welcomed and accepted. But let’s not be complacent, instead let’s make sure that we continue to reach out to show even more compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. In that way we will all grow in wisdom and in both human and divine favour

Amen

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God’s Attitude Should Be Ours

 

Rainbow Through the Trees

Our attitudes to God and each other should be the same as his attitude to us. A sermon for Evensong based on Jeremiah 7:1-16 and Romans 9:14-26

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

I want us to reflect this evening on our attitude to God and our attitude to each other as Christians. How our differences can be a stumbling block not only to our relationship with God but also to those who see us a stumbling block to any sort of belief in God or the Christian Faith. By ‘us’ I am not necessarily referring to individual Christians here at St James’ church, but a more general broader identity, but it does us no harm to consider what our own attitudes might be in some of these situations.

First though, we have to go back to the pre-Christian ‘church’ where Jeremiah’s radical and hard hitting words proclaim God’s judgement on a nation that believed they were unassailable in their right to God’s protection and salvation. Their interpretation of the scriptures, the laws that protected their faith and their judgement of others was predestined and incontestable. However, they were in for a shock – there was no way that God was going to let them treat the temple in a mindless, shallow way by assuming that forgiveness was automatic simply by walking through the doors.

As Jeremiah stresses quite forcibly – ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord’ – a triple, Trinitarian reminder, that even though Christ was yet to live on earth, that here was Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Here was the simple statement that if you want to be true believers then you have to stop abusing foreigners and the weakest members of society, the easy targets. Neither could you disregard the most basic of commandments nor cherry pick those that have more in common with your way of thinking or lifestyle. If you mistreat your holy places, turning them in to a ‘den of robbers’ – a sentiment echoed by Jesus in Matthew’s gospel – then you should know that God will not protect them, they will be abandoned and eventually destroyed – there was and is no automatic security of God being with you… A self-righteous attitude will not save you.

The people’s disobedience of God’s commandments, brings what would appear be a harsh response and directive to Jeremiah, ‘do not pray for this people, do not raise a cry or prayer on their behalf, and do not intercede with me, for I will not hear you.’

For the people in Rome, whom Paul was addressing, they were struggling with their identity, attempting to understand what the term ‘Israel’ meant in regard to being chosen people. Paul explains that God hasn’t broken his covenant to original people of Israel, as this was never intended to just apply to the race who shared Abraham’s blood group, but, as he states earlier in his letter as well, those who shared in his faith. Moreover, here was a God who would not be contained by people’s views and attitudes, here was a God who sprung surprises even on the most faithful, choosing Jacob over Esau, demonstrating his sovereign right to do so. Hardening Pharaoh’s heart to highlight his greater power

God does what he wants, as evidenced in the metaphor of the potter’s right to create from the same lump of clay whatever objects he chooses. He has a purpose for of his creations, and the fact that some are chosen and some are not is not the same as pre-destination, this is amazing grace.

God's Amazing Grace

The belief in the omnipotence of the one true God may lead to the conviction that God exerts control over every human action, but God is not only powerful but just.  It is not an injustice to be merciful, to apparently treat some people better than they deserve. To be chosen by God is a gracious gift, not an achievable reward. He can be trusted because he had done what he promised, calling people regardless of their faith; their gender, their sexuality.

We may question why, as Paul says, ‘Will what is moulded say to the one who moulds it, ‘Why have you made me like this?’’. That conversation though is between God and us as individuals, others have no right to ask the same of a person.

There is an arrogant complacency within the Church of England that breaks my heart for it as an institution. An arrogance among Christians today who feed their own theologies into the media, which then labels divisive and exclusive views as representative of all Christians. It is not our job to decide who is unworthy and it certainly isn’t for us to link unworthiness to those who disagree with our theology based on limited fragments of scripture.

John Barton in his commentary, describes God as ‘an untamed deity, a wild thing not reducible to theological formulae.’

As Paul quotes from the prophet Hosea, ‘Those who were not my people I will call “my people”, and her who was not beloved I will call “beloved”. ’ ‘And in the very place where it was said to them, “You are not my people”, there they shall be called children of the living God.’

As Christians, representative of the one, true God we do well to make this our own attitude. Amen

 

Day Three – Part 2 – The Holocaust & The Christian World

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Street Art in the centre of Jerusalem

In Shoah and Genocide I wrote about Professor Yuhuda Bauer’s insights into why the Shoah or Holocaust was unprecedented. However, for any genocide to occur there has to be a history behind it. Dr Jesper Svartvik* suggests that however painful it might be we have to recognise the part that Christian anti-Semitism had to play in it. So what was the history of this anti-Semitism?

He suggests that this can be explained as a sevenfold process:

  1. SIBLINGS (Mark) In the beginning Judaism and Early Christianity had something in common. However, like most families where there are siblings, although they have a common origin that can be very different in character
  2. RIVALRY (Marcion) For more than 100 years, Christians had been using the Old Testament as Christian Scripture, and even the most sacred documents of Christians referred to and relied heavily on, the Old Testament. The solution for Marcion, a second century theologian, was to completely reject the Old Testament and establish a canon that de-emphasized Christianity’s Old Testament and Jewish roots as much as possible, to move from the LAW to GRACE. Although his solution was rejected it did cause the early Church Father to do some re-evaluation, after all they were reading it through Christian spectacles
  3. NECESSARY (Augustine) Despite speaking out against the Jews, he did not consider Judaism a problem, in fact he is quoted as saying that Jewish scripture was vital to the Christian faith, “If any adversary should say you have forged these prophecies, let the Jewish books be produced. They are our librarians.” But he did not consider the survival of Jews as necessary, after all they were the ones that had said ‘no’ to the Messiah and had therefore been relieved of God’s promises (replacement theology).
  4. OPPOSITE (Luther) Martin Luther believed that there is no valid way of being a Christian that will make you Jewish, it could be agreed that they had the right texts but they were doing the wrong thing with them. At first Luther wanted to convert the Jews to Christianity, it had been done before because Christ himself was a Jew, but when this failed he said ‘Away with them’. As he grew older this attitude became more and more polemic, using the rudest and vilest scatological language, perhaps the politest example being ‘throw sow dung at him . . . and chase him away’. The effect though of this is that defendants in the Nuremberg trials after the war were able to quote from his treatise, On the Jews and Their Lies, written in 1543, as justification

Martin Luther

Martin Luther

5. UNNECESSARY (Enlightenment). You would have thought that the Age of Enlightenment in the Eighteenth century, with its metaphorical image of light, would mean that these differences would disappear. However, when you become a minority, marked by your religious symbols and customs, these are seen as making you more religious, rather than part of the establishment . Therefore, religious attachment becomes a problem.
6. POISON (Nazi Germany) Christianity remained the dominant religion in Germany through the Nazi period. That Nazi ideology was able to come to the fore was due in part to the social and economic situation between 1918 and 1933. However, the Nazi’s didn’t even consider Jews as human and started talking about them as ‘rats’, a natural pest to be destroyed. Using a Christian perspective it was considered that there could be no salvation without the defeat of the Jews. The commandment to ‘love your neighbours’ was interpreted as ‘they live next door to us, but they are not my neighbours’.
7. SACRAMENTUM (Nostra Aetate) The Nosta Aetate is the Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions of the Second Vatican Council and repudiated anti-Semitism and the charge that Jews were collectively guilty for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. It said that we were all children of Abraham and that Christians and Jews were a blessing to the world. It also drew on Romans 11, the fact that ‘they are our brothers’.

This seems to bring the seven points in full circle – from Siblings to Sacramentum because Early Christianity and Judaism were so similar, but that Christianity had stepped out of the ashes of the 2nd Temple’s destruction. Christianity being the word that became flesh whilst Judaism was the flesh that became Word.

Jewish and Christian Thinking

Dr Jesper Svartvik
Dr Jesper Svartvik since 2009 is the holder of Krister Stendahl’s professor of religious theology at the Center for Theology and Religious Studies at Lund University and the Swedish Theological Institute in Jerusalem. Between 2005 and 2009, he was chairman of the Swedish Committee against Anti-Semitism

 

Hail To Christ, The King

Hail to Christ, the King

Hail to Christ, the King

On Sunday we came to the last Sunday of the church’s year. It goes out with a bang, celebrating Christ as King. The evening brought a quieter more reflective time when we could think about just what sort of king Jesus is.

Using some of the liturgy from Liturgies for High Days by Dorothy McRae-McMahon, we thought about a different kind of royalty, one bereft of privilege and wealth, whose power lies in truth, faithfulness and grace for all people. We also remembered Jesus’ faithfulness to his calling, entering into the pain of our lives and yet able to leap free of all its bondages.

The cross that frees us from bondage

The cross that frees us from bondage

Our reading for the evening was one of those ones that lends itself naturally into a meditative retelling. Here is my version of Luke 23:32-43:

The journey through the streets had been tortuous, the crowd pressing in on either side. The sounds of jeering and weeping had mingled together to form a cacophony that heralded their progress. Now they had left the city gate and slowly climbed the skull-shaped hill called Golgotha. Three condemned men, each bearing the burden of a death sentence, brought out to this seemingly god-forsaken place to be nailed to a cross and hoisted high so that all might see that justice had been done.

Few people had made the effort to ascend the incline; there was a perfectly good view from the shaded city walls, and they were even more grateful for that distance as the midday sun rose to its zenith, its heat intensifying the stench of decay that hung in the sultry air over the place.

Jesus’ thoughts, however, were not for his own physical discomfort but that God might show mercy to those who had condemned him, and he cried aloud, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not realise what they are doing’. Some of those who heard these words felt a pang of guilt sweep over them and turned away, ashamed.

Are there times when we too turn away in shame?…

But beneath the crosses the guards, who had seen it all before, bickered over who should have his redundant clothing before drawing straws; the winner triumphant that he had obtained such a seamless tunic so cheaply. Whilst the representatives of the Jewish leaders, perhaps sensing the remorseful sentiments of the woman who had gathered there, tried to add justification of their part in the proceedings by scoffing at Jesus, pointing out that this man who claimed to be the chosen Messiah of God seemed incapable of saving himself despite his claim to have saved others. Hearing this, the soldiers joined in, offering a toast to the ‘King of the Jews’ with a sponge soaked in sour wine. Even so, they could see no glorious death of a king in battle, no pomp and ceremony, and soon grew tired of mocking this inaptly titled monarch.

When might our desire for ritual and symbols blind us from the simple truth?…

One of the criminals, hearing these things, turned and spoke in derisory tones to the man who hung beside him in silent sufferance, ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’ His thoughts were, that if this was the hope of Israel then surely he could save not only himself from this punishment but them also, however unlikely that was… and it was a slim hope that he would not die today.

However, the other rebuked him harshly; pointing out that self-preservation was not necessarily the main reason to call on God in these circumstances, particularly when they were both there for being condemned justly for their actions. It was clear to him that Jesus was a victim of a miscarriage of justice; what’s more he had recognised the holiness of this innocent man. Perhaps, he told the other, they should fear God’s ultimate punishment more.

Where does it leave us if we only call on God in times of crisis?

Turning to Jesus, an honest and heartfelt plea came to his lips, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ As the figure at his side turned to look at him with a full gaze, he saw not a broken and bloodied man but a saviour in all his resplendent majesty who spoke immeasurable words of reassurance, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’

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Back to the service then, as we sang ‘Jesus remember me, when you come into your kingdom’ as a prayerful chant and thought about our ‘king’ who calls us to have a more generous love for the world; to bravely dream of the future where we might be a new hope for better things to come and to remain steadfast in our faith in the possibility of Christ’s reign of love.

Hail to Christ, the King,
ruler who lays down the power to destroy,
leader who treads through the costly journey
and into the shadow places of life,
that we might find the rising of life before us:

Hail to Christ, the King,
born to be first witness to God’s truth,
whose might lies in mercy,
whose throne is placed in the midst of humble people.

Hail to Christ, the King

Some material has been reproduced from Liturgies for High Days, Dorothy McRae-McMahon ©SPCK. The meditation is my own.

The purple stole used in the service as a focal point was created by Deborah Ireland. See here for more information about her work

Savouring Solitude

Savouring the solitude of Alton Abbey

Savouring the solitude of Alton Abbey

Prior to my ordination, after which life will change and inevitably get a lot busier, I decided to spend a day on a personal retreat at Alton Abbey. This community of Benedictine monks offers generous hospitality, prayerful worship and a space to simply be, all the while surrounded by a  natural and inviting arbors from which you can gaze at the world in contemplation.

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Be still, and know that I am God. Psalm 46:10

I went there principally to gain a sense of stillness; a few hours to calm the mind and refresh the soul, but as the day wore on I realised that there is never complete stillness in solitude. For God’s presence is fully alive in creation and she demonstrates her vivacity in a vibrant showy display of life in sight, sound and smell.

On other occasions It might have been a day for expressing myself in poetry or art, but I discovered that this day was purely a time for sitting and waiting, observing and listening. Let me share some of these moments with you now.

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The Abbey houses bathed in sunlight

Firstly, I have to acknowledge that I visited on a glorious, sunny day – something that the Brothers told me was unusual, as the Abbey often has its own micro-climate of fog and rain, and summertime has its own pleasures when the freshness of spring has given way to abundant blooms and lushness of grass and burgeoning leaves on trees. So after a period of settling into the room I have been allocated for the day I ventured out into the gardens and grounds

A walk along the first path I saw from the doorway took me past the overflowing honeysuckle (see title picture) with its sweet scent and colourful trumpets, before I came to a pause, suddenly aware of the movement and sounds that were coming to me. A row of trees whispered loudly that they were very much alive as their leaves danced in rhythm with the breath of the Spirit; their rippling tones a background pulse to the melody of the birds whose notes rose and fell as if urgently repeating a song of sheer joy.

Woodland shades

Woodland shades

Choices… whether to take the woodland path or enter the formal garden with its gated entrance and a notice that stated, ‘You are welcome, the rabbits are not! Please shut the gate behind you’. I plumped for the shady woods.

Fallen fruits, yet like sparrows 'not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father' Matthew 10:29It was cooler and quieter here, and yet underneath my feet crunched the husks of autumnal beech nuts, reminding me of harvest abundance. Whilst the cascade of lace-capped hydrangea and towering rhododendrons gave promises of future profusion and growth. Even the flowers that had fallen to the floor, still radiated beauty; and in the dappled shifting shade, glints of light flashed like beacons signalling a presence.

Fallen blooms, yet like sparrows ‘not one of them will fall to the ground
unperceived by your Father’ Matthew 10:29

On days like this, time ticks imperceptibly onward and I found it was necessary to hurry back into the Abbey Church to join the Brothers in Midday Prayer, then lunch, which even though it was taken in silence, was much appreciated and gave one time to digest one’s thoughts.

The drowsy courtyard steeped in peace

The drowsy courtyard steeped in peace

The sun by now was high above in a cloudless sky and although I am not normally a sun-worshiper of any kind, I was drawn to the tranquility of the courtyard where I settled on a stone bench and closed my eyes, Warmth has its own life, as it seeps into your bones and lingers on the surface of your skin. My sense of drowsiness was dispelled by the sound of water erupting in shimmering jets of cascading jewels that fell to tumble over a moss-covered fountain, splashing the lily pads, under which fish found shade, their diaphanous tails swirling in lazy circles. All the while the tall purple and yellow irises quivered in anticipation  as gentle bees brushed their petals and a kaleidoscope of pansies turned their faces to the sun, exuding a honeyed fragrance so familiar from childhood.

Alton Abbey Daisies 012 blogThere is nowhere that creation is out of place and as I left the courtyard, my feet grazed the small stubborn weeds that had pushed their way up through the cracks in the paving and brushed against delicate ferns that sprouted in vertiginous splendour high up on the walls. These humbler plants, despite attempts to eradicate their existence, are no less beautiful, and as I walked around the side of the church to seek a shadier nook I encountered tiny white daisies nestling with bright blue speedwell and baby pink cranesbill, which had escaped the mower’s blades.

As always when you visit somewhere for the first time, you’re never one hundred percent sure whether you might stray into areas that are private; secret places full of hidden treasures. Yet the well-worn wall seat was placed invitingly at the end of the two pools of water and seemed a perfect place to linger before Evening Prayer and Supper. Here I was rewarded with a deep feeling of peace, as if God had saved the best till last. Here was life in abundance from the immeasurable variety of insects, including carmine and turquoise bodied dragonflies hovering on lacy wings, and the unseen life within the silty mud, that sent bubbles up to break the tension of the water’s surface, to the chattering house martins that swooped overhead.

I will give you hidden treasures, riches stored in secret places. Psalm 45:3

I will give you hidden treasures, riches stored in secret places. Psalm 45:3

As the day drew to a close, and I packed my bag and said farewell to the Brothers, I reflected how lucky I was to have been granted that time and that space to simply be another small part of God’s incredible creation. Those images and thoughts that filled my time there will no doubt sustain me for quite a while to come; a point in time both sacred and divine, a moment of sheer grace.

Alton Abbey blooms blog

Exuberant life in seed and bloom

For more information about Alton Abbey, its people and the work it does, click here