Tag Archives: Holy Spirit

A Heart of Stone?

Heart of Stone

Evensong Message for Pentecost 2018 – Reading Ezekiel 36:22-28 and Acts 2:22-38

Today we celebrate Pentecost – an outpouring of the Holy Spirit – sent just as Jesus had promised – enabling and transforming those who were willing to receive it, with physical signs of flames and wind and a universal understanding of the truth being spoken to those listening and watching this in amazement. Just as Ezekiel had prophesied here was a gathering of the nations to hear the Word that would then spread out like wildfire from Jesus’ own land to ignite the flame that would become a global phenomenon – the birth of Christianity, with its message of faith, hope and love.

Here was something new then – or was it?

Surely people had had faith before? Jesus himself was a Jew, part of a well organised and structured faith; and whilst there were not necessarily a large number of organised religions as we would think of them today, there were many faith traditions. The Roman and Greek pantheon for example, Norse and Celtic traditions, many of which were Polytheistic, and often had an emphasis on communal public worship, and sacrifice (either of animals or humans) as an offering to the Gods; going right back to simple sun worship and pantheism.

 Hope is perhaps a little bit more difficult to measure prior to Christianity. What is it people were hoping for? For many it did centre on there being more to life than our brief span of three score years and ten – four score at a push. For the Greeks, a favoured few, were considered to have been physically immortalized and brought to live forever in places like Elysium. For others it was the ability to be reincarnated and to have the chance to live again, back on earth, albeit in a different way; but for most people, at the moment of death there was, however, no hope of anything but continued existence as a disembodied soul, endlessly swirling around in a cosmic soup.

And of course there was love, whether it was a strong feeling of affection and concern arising from kinship or close friendship or accompanied by sexual attraction. We all know that the Greek and Roman gods indulged in love with a relish, both among themselves and mere mortals, but rarely was it considered a love that was for all peoples, a love that begged relationship and which sought reconciliation as its ultimate goal.

Christianity though was and is different. Faith was not just something you did, it is how you live; hope was not limited, it is tangible and everlasting and love was not exclusive, it is mutual and unconditional. This wasn’t some distant deity dandling human beings like puppets, this is a God who lives right alongside us.

In order to love one has to engage with our minds and our hearts. The two organs in a human body that not only sustain life but which enable us to understand what life is all about. But it is our hearts that pump blood around our bodies to every other organ which enable us to think, to feel, to touch, to sense and which have become universal symbols of love; and a heart that does not love can be said to be as lifeless and useless as a heart of stone.

A heart of stone does not allow our ears to hear the cries of those in need or our eyes to see injustice being done. A heart of stone does not allow us to feel emotions of compassion or joy, it does not permit our arms and hands to reach out to hug or be hugged or comforted.

 A heart of stone does not allow us the desire to know God and to become followers of Christ, because a heart of stone cannot love either itself or others. Even so, God is able to reach out to the most hard-hearted individuals and to use them for his glory.

 ‘A new heart I will give you,
and a new spirit I will put within you;
and I will remove from your body
the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh’.

However, having a heart of flesh is not an easy thing to live with. A heart of flesh can feel the keenest of suffering, the deepest of sorrows and the innermost pain. There are times when it is almost unbearable to experience these things, but our hearts do not give up

The fact is that the heart it is the hardest working muscle in the body – the first organ to form during development of the body, and the last to shut down in death. But that’s just physiology. The difference is the presence of the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit in the form of love that enables us to ‘bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, endure all things.’

 When Peter stood up on the day of Pentecost, it was the Spirit that enabled him to declare so boldly that despite what the people had done to Jesus, there was no power on earth that could have held him down and he used the scriptures to back up this declaration.

Quoting from Psalm 16, the Michtam of David, or the Golden Psalm, he spelt our very clearly the faith, the hope and the love Jesus knew was his in God,

“I saw the Lord always before me,
for he is at my right hand so that I will not be shaken;
therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced;
moreover, my flesh will live in hope.
For you will not abandon my soul to Hades,
or let your Holy One experience corruption.
You have made known to me the ways of life;
you will make me full of gladness with your presence.”

 It was the witness of the disciples through the power of the Holy Spirit that persuaded others that indeed, Jesus was both Lord and Messiah. As it says, ‘they were cut to the heart’. To the very centre of their being.

 When we are filled with the Holy Spirit, there is nothing that we cannot accomplish, whether it is showing compassion, sharing joy, or seeking peace. When our hearts beat to the same rhythm as God’s then nothing will be the same and everything will be transformed by love

Love of the Holy Spirit

 

Love One Another…

Love One Another Blog

The end of the Easter season is fast approaching and we will pack away our Alleluia responses for another year (liturgically and in theory). So before we do so here is a reminder that that our praise of God comes not just in liturgical form but in practical acts of loving one another as well.

Based on the following readings: John 15:9-17 and Acts 10:44-48

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

Who’s still excited that it’s still Easter? Perhaps our Alleluia’s that we waited so long to hear after Lent as little more subdued, not quite so resounding? Well, we’ve come to the Sixth Sunday of Easter and we should be excited because the Easter season is building to its climax. Over these past weeks we have been celebrating the joy of the resurrections and the presence of the risen Christ appearing to his first disciples and being among us still. And yet on Thursday it will be Ascension Day when we remember Jesus’ departure from his disciples and his return to be with his heavenly Father for all eternity. We are therefore, liturgically at least, reaching a turning point.

In the weeks leading up to his death, Jesus had been preparing his apprehensive disciples for the shock when he is taken away from them; wanting to give them reassurance of his continuing love and presence with them afterwards, and giving them instructions for how the church (with a small c) should live. Of course, as disciples today, we can never get back behind Easter, because we hear Jesus’ reassurances in the light of our Easter experience, knowing that he rose from the dead to be with them and with us. So his warnings of his imminent departure and the coming of the Holy Spirit as a guide, resonate in our experience as we look toward Ascension Day and Pentecost, soon to come.

So, here today we hear Jesus continuing to give his disciples ‘commandments’, underlying all of which is the commandment given by God to Moses, the imperative that people should show by their lives what their God is like, which Jesus has fulfilled utterly. The example that Jesus gives, of his own willingness to die for his friends, is not a comforting one. Is that, then, to be the measure of love?

Well the gospel suggests that sometimes it is, and we know that nearly all of Jesus’ original disciples were called to do that in one way or another and those who followed after them were often martyred for their faith. However, the verses that follow this commandment suggest that there are other interim measures too.

One such measure is the role that we play, ‘I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. This sharing between Father and Son is extended to us. We are not simply issued with instructions that we must follow without needing to understand them. Instead we are invited to God’s table, to eat and discuss and share his great plan for the world.

Therefore, it naturally follows that one mark of our ‘love’ for one another and God will be our willingness to extend this invitation to others. Not to be an introverted, cozy warm church where we are all having a wonderful time, but ‘Come and join us at God’s table, come and help us to work out with God what to do next’. I wonder if you can remember when you received that invitation? Not simply an invitation to come to church, but the sense that God was calling you, through Jesus, come and find out more; a sense that you had been chosen to be part of the whole Christian way of life and love. As Jesus tells his disciples that they didn’t chose him, but he chose them. In the same way it is not we who chose God, but God who, in his grace, approached us with a call and an offer made out of his love.

This is certainly the experience of Peter and his companions as they watch Cornelius and his household respond to the love of God. They hear these strangers praising God long before they have gone through all the rules and regulations of what you’ll need to do be a proper Christian! Even so everyone needs guidance and God has this in hand when he gives us our different gifts and talents, both academic and practical.

The thing about guidance though it that it should be more about learning than teaching.  We learn better when we engage with our whole bodies – as I spoke about a few weeks ago, we need to love with all our mind, our body and our soul… I know that I have learned more about loving one another from people who have demonstrated this unconditional love of Christ, people who show love and compassion to loved ones with dementia, never getting annoyed or frustrated. People who give their time to serve others without any thought of reward or recompense. People who do things cheerfully and willingly, who never moan that it’s always them left to do something, when others have walked away oblivious to the fact that they might have shared a task.

It is deeply challenging and amplifying to see the word of God at work in the lives of others, and to see that before me and my feeble attempts at love got anywhere near a situation, that God’s love was already at work. I’m standing here talking to you this morning about love, but who remembers anything I or anyone else has said, if all you hear is someone ‘telling’ you? In fact, research shows that within just one hour, if nothing is done with new information, most people will have forgotten about 50% of what they learned. After 24 hours, this will be 70%, and if a week passes without that information being used, up to 90% of it could be lost.

Maybe then, I need to get us to do something a bit more practical to try to help us learn, and I’ve put this in the middle of my talk to see who’s still listening up to this point! Something that will help us think about being called to love one another whoever that might be. So when it comes to exchange the peace this morning, rather than simply shake someone’s hand, then look past them for the next hand to shake – as you take that person’s hand, briefly look them in the eye, offer them the words of peace, but let this thought go through your mind each time you do…. ‘This is someone I am called to love – how might I do that?’ Remember no need for fuss, just simply use that thought each time, ‘This is someone I am called to love – how might I do that?’

That’s something then to help us to share love between like-minded people, but we are also chosen in love and for love, and are sent out into the world to love one another. So that’s a thought we should have in our head every time we meet other people as well. Because, sometimes we live as if we were sent into the world to compete with one another, or to dispute with one another, or even to quarrel with one another. Many tell people to love each other when their whole lives are a demonstration that that is the last thing they do themselves. That is not the way of love.

However, we can become confused about being ‘commanded’ to love – perhaps our natural instinct is to say, ‘well actually I don’t think I can love in the same way that you did Jesus’. When Jesus talks about commanding, this is not a peremptory legalistic order, neither is it quite an instructional encouragement, it’s more a necessary requirement. The fact is that you cannot legislate for love, but God, through Jesus, can command us to love and discovering the difference between the two is one of the great arts of being human. The ‘command’ to love is given by one who has himself done everything that love can do. When mothers and fathers love their child, they create a context in which the child is free to love them in return. When a ruler really does love his or her subjects, and when this becomes clear by generous and warm-hearted actions, he or she creates a context in which the subjects can and will love them in return.

So when Jesus issues the command that we are to love one another, we do so because he has acted out and will act out the greatest thing that love can do. He has made us more human, not less because we do this in freedom and joy. So that we can bear fruit that will last, whether in terms of a single life changed because we loved somebody as Jesus loved us, or in terms of a single decision that we had to take, … or a single task we had to perform… through which, though we couldn’t see it at the time, the world became a different place.

So let’s enjoy these last few days of the Easter season. Alleluia, Christ is risen!…. he is risen indeed, alleluia!

He Has Risen

 

 

A Voice Crying in the Wilderness

A voice a calling out

A sermon for the third Sunday in Advent recalling John the Baptist as the ‘one calling out in the wilderness’, and the call to be that voice today.

Reading: John 1:6-8, 19-28

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

I wonder how many of you will admit to watching ‘I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here’? Not that I’m saying there’s anything wrong if you do. I think we all have a natural curiosity to watch people who for one reason or another are deemed famous, doing things that are strange or unusual. I must admit that if I hear in the news that someone is proving to be a real character, I might flick over and catch part of an episode to see what all the fuss is about.

Of course it’s easy for us nowadays, with satellite TV and catch up, to bring things that are happening ‘live’ into the comfort of our living rooms or on our mobile devices to satisfy our curiosity, but in Jesus’ day any apparent fame was broadcast by word of mouth and only those who were serious about finding our more would make the effort to travel long distances on the testimony of a friend or neighbour; and yet, we hear in Luke’s gospel that ‘the crowds’ were coming out to see John the Baptist; and today in John’s gospel we catch a sense that the strict traditionalists, the Pharisee’s, had got wind of a strange and curious man doing things that were unsettling and causing ripples in their neat and tidy well-ordered lives. Who was this man?

Obviously, not concerned enough to distance themselves from undertaking their strict religious observances in the temple in Jerusalem, but enough to send a contingent of representatives to find out more, just in case. What then did they find as they journeyed out into the wilderness around the River Jordan? The gospel writer tells us that the place they found John was at Bethany – not the village just east of Jerusalem, near the Mount of Olives, that was the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus. No this Bethany, although nowadays not officially known, would have had to have been about 50 miles to the North of Jerusalem, in Jordan, and is thought to be modern day Al-Maghtas, an Arabic word for a site of baptism or immersion and which has been venerated as such since the Byzantine period.

That’s the place but what about the man? John, even by biblical standards, would have presented an eccentric appearance, dressed in camel hair clothing secured with a leather belt and a physique that was sculpted by a diet of locusts and wild honey, one can imagine his wild hair and austere demeanour were not the things that were attracting the people to him. He probably looked like an ancient prophet, if not smelt like an ancient prophet and his words echoed the prophecies of those Old Testament prophets who had gone before him. Perhaps his disregard for his own personal appearance confirmed his humble and self-effacing nature, but let’s be under no doubt, John was no shy wallflower, he knew what his role was and he was certain about the mission he was undertaking.

In answer to their attempts to guess his identify, he wasn’t the Messiah and he wasn’t the re-embodiment of the prophet Elijah, but he was the messenger that the prophet Isaiah had said would appear as a herald to prepare the way for the Messiah’s appearance; to make straight the paths, to smooth the way, to give people a chance to re-order their lives before it was too late. Yet Isaiah had mentioned nothing about the need to be baptised in order to repent of your sins and certainly this form of baptism was not something that the Jewish people would have seen as normal. Ritualistic washing, however had been practised since the time of Moses, through the Leviticus laws when a person needed to be cleansed and purified in order to be able to make sacrifices in the Temple.

This ritual was later expanded to taking a dip in a ‘mikveh’ or immersion pool, with steps leading down on one side and then up on the other, having passed through the pool of water; think of the pools of Siloam and Bethsaida, that were used for high days and holidays at the Temple site. And as with a lot of Jewish ritual law there are six different options that satisfy the requirements starting with pits, to cisterns refreshed by rainwater, custom-built ritual baths, then fountains, then flowing waters. But natural lakes and rivers were considered to be the best, so the ‘living waters’ of the River Jordan were definitely ideal.

But as John says this is only the preliminaries, water would give way to immersion in the Holy Spirit, and he was very, very clear of his unworthiness to carry out this form of baptism. There was another coming after him. Curiosity satisfied then for the Pharisees’ researchers, they would no doubt return to their leaders with more food for thought than reassurances. But that still leaves us with the question of why so many people were attracted to the message that John was voicing and what that means for us today. What was this baptism of repentance that he offered?

Like ourselves this Advent, the people had been watching and waiting, in fact they had been waiting for over 400 years. This period of seemingly divine silence is the name given to the period of time between the last of the Old Testament prophets and the arrival of Jesus in the New Testament. It had begun with Malachi’s prediction of Elijah’s return, ‘I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes,’ hence the Pharisee’s question and was now to end with its fulfilment in the coming of John the Baptist.

Silence however didn’t mean that the people had been living in limbo, because despite the lack of Scripture detailing this period, a great deal happened. The Jewish homeland had first of all been taken over from the Persians by the Greek Empire followed by an Egyptian occupation. Then halfway through the Syrians overtook Jerusalem, followed by the Greek king, Antiochus Epiphanes’ desecration of the Holy of Holies within the temple which led to a revolt, led by the Maccabee brothers to retake control of the Jerusalem, only to be conquered by the Roman Empire, the state the people found themselves in now.

You can understand, therefore, when the strange and unusual figure of John appeared in the wilderness, calling people to repent, to turn back to God , then they were ready and curious enough to seek him out. There were some, like the Pharisees, who came to the Jordan to observe John’s ministry but who had no desire to step into the water themselves. However, even those who did wade into the river, it wasn’t enough to be ritually purified, John’s baptism was more than that – it was a symbolic representation of changing one’s mind and going a new direction – a direction that pointed toward Jesus. His was the voice calling as we are called to be that voice.

On a personal level, I have always been reminded that this task has been passed on to us each time I say out loud the Benedictus during Morning Prayer. The second half of the canticle is an address by Zechariah to his own son, John the Baptist,

You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way, to give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins.

You, my child… that you is directed at each and everyone one of us to be the voice, offering the knowledge that points people toward Christ. With John’s baptism, a person repented of sin, acknowledged their need for salvation, and was therefore ready to place their faith in Jesus Christ. It foreshadowed what Jesus would, did and still does accomplish, as the Benedictus goes on to say

In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

John the Baptist wasn’t a B-list celebrity in the jungle or wilderness, someone you think you’ve heard of but you’re not sure you recognise them – he was definitely A-list, but he wasn’t the main attraction. His baptism was a purification ceremony meant to ready the peoples’ hearts to receive their Saviour. In this season of Advent we too are watching and waiting to receive once again with joy our Saviour. It’s an event worth calling out about…

Amen

John_The_Baptist

Not In Our Own Strength

 

The Promise of the Holy Spirit

An Advocate, a comforter, a helper, an assistant… the gift of the Holy Spirit means that we never have to rely solely on our own strength; and some days you need it more than others. After an exhausting few days, I explore this thought in my talk yesterday morning (6th Sunday of Easter John 14:15-21)

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

The gospel passage we heard and read this morning is often subtitled the promise of the Holy Spirit. In this instance not as a rushing wind or tongues of flame that we will hear about in a couple of weeks, or the gentle dovelike descent that was seen at Jesus’ baptism; but a breath that we inhale and which resides deep within us.

Jesus is about to ascend from his earthly life and resurrection back to the Father. His disciples will doubtless be feeling even further bereft bearing in mind the great task that he is setting them up for. We could reason, and I’ve heard people say it, if only Jesus were here today he’d explain what we need to do – yet look at the time he did spend with his disciples and followers and how they themselves so often showed a complete lack of comprehension or understanding. But if we look closer at what he is saying he is not abandoning them or us; instead he is to send an advocate.

The word Advocate here is a translation of the Greek word parakletos or Paraclete which is often also translated as comforter or helper. For the disciples, and for us as well, the idea of a comforter is very apt. In the sense of bereavement or tragedy, which the disciples were facing, having someone with you and alongside you, giving you the odd hug or silent hand holding, gives strength to face the next moment – the death or tragedy is still a tragedy but having support and comfort enables you to cope with that moment.

Here though we have the word Advocate; a legalistic word as an advocate stands up in a court of law and explains to the judge or jury how things are from their clients perspective and pleads their case.  In the same way the Holy Spirit does this for us, but in ways that are more than just acting as an assistant, helper or comforter; more like bridging the gap between us and God.

As we get to know who Jesus is, so we find ourselves drawn into his life and love and sense of purpose – we are then able to see what needs doing and what resources we might need to do it – and to help us do this Jesus promises his own Spirit, his own breath, his own inner life – the Spirit of Truth.

You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.
John 14:17

I must admit that I wrote this sermon yesterday when I was very tired. I’d been out on Friday evening with Southampton Street Pastors and hadn’t gone home until just before five o’clock on Saturday morning. By a quarter to ten I was out with the Love Harefield crew, including several others here, picking up litter around Harefield. By noon I was visiting my mum in Abbey House, Netley, where she is undergoing rehabilitation since having a fall in February when she broke her hip. By two o’clock I’d had a sandwich for lunch but knew that I still had this talk to write before I went out in the evening to hear my daughter, Lizzie, sing with the Singsational Voices choir at All Saints, Botley.

Now I don’t say all of that seeking sympathy or to be told that I’m over-stretching myself, because each of these things I felt were equally important to do. No doubt we’ve all had times when we’ve faced similar periods, when we feel that we’re running at full speed with our petrol gauges hovering over empty. Yet for all the physical tiredness there is joy to be discovered when we realise that we do not have to rely on our own strength or capabilities to engage in each task.

I can tell you at nine thirty on the Friday evening I could quite easily have remained sitting on the sofa and not got up and changed into my Street Pastor uniform and driven into Southampton. Yet the moment I did I began to feel energised as to what situations we might be called to during the patrol.

I could have stood back and simply poured out cups of hot chocolate to our homeless friends on the street, but then I wouldn’t have felt moved to bob down beside Mark, who told me his dyslexia was preventing him from filling out the necessary form in order for the council to provide accommodation for him, and having signposted him to a group that could help him with this, have him grasp my hand and bless me.

I could have hesitated to go over to assist a taxi driver who was dealing with a very drunk young man who had resolutely sat himself in his cab, despite having no money, and gently persuade him to dismount, very precariously I might add, so that we could sit him down on a wall and offer a bottle of water, sitting next to him and listening as he poured out his story of why he was in such a state, as he gradually sobered up enough to be able to start his long walk home instead

I could have ignored the high-heels-abandoned bare-footed girls, knowing that I’d already cleared up two areas of broken glass further down the road, instead of calling out whether they’d like some flip-flops and then explaining in response to their incredulity as to why we would be doing this in our own time and all for free

I could have stayed under the duvet instead of donning a hi-vis jacket and operating a pick-up stick, doing a menial task that would help bring the satisfaction of a job well done to improve our neighbourhood, and which was much appreciated by the people I spoke to as I walked around, and I would have missed the fun of working together and the doughnuts!

I could have been quite irritable with my mum, who nowadays asks me the same thing several times and whose memory means that a lot of the times we’ve shared in the past are often forgotten or denied. Rather than sitting and doing a crossword together and her telling me that she’ll know the answer as soon as I say it.

I could have missed the joy yesterday evening of being filled with the Spirit as I listened to nearly a hundred voices sing in harmony and rhythms that touched my innermost soul.

These are all things that I don’t always want to or feel comfortable doing in my own strength, but I am aware that it is the gift of the Holy Spirit that enables me to achieve so much more, to live for God and to witness to his love in the world, and it’s a gift that is offered to everyone.

Yet not everyone can receive it because they choose not to see or hear the message. There is a large part of the world that lives as if there were no God and a person who has eliminated God from their thoughts never listens for him. When we open ourselves up to receiving the Spirit we wait in expectation and prayer and in doing so will be joined to Jesus and God the Father by an unbreakable bond of love. We will recognise that Jesus never leaves us to struggle alone. As William Barclay puts it, ‘The Holy Spirit gate-crashes no-one’s heart – he waits to be received’

Jesus asks us to keep his commandments – a commandment that boils to down to just one thing – love one another as Jesus loves us. Jesus expressed his love in many different ways, the gospels show us his immense compassion for the suffering, his attentive listening presence, and his energetic celebration of the lives around him. He healed the sick, he fed the hungry, he released those held captive, he sought justice and invites us to do the same; all with the assistance of the Spirit that he sent in his place.

The Spirit that abides with us and in us. So maybe next time that we feel unsure, ill-prepared or uncertain of what we need to do or how we’re going to cope we can remember that invisible bridge bringing us closer into a relationship with Jesus and the Father so that they are revealed more clearly to us and in turn reveal God more clearly to others through us.

Amen

 

Come and See…

 

come-and-see

Come and see – John 1:29-42

 

How do we share good news? Do we rejoice that we have heard something wonderful but forget that others too might like to hear it? Do we ever think to invite them to come and hear it for themselves?

Questions that we all need to ask ourselves from time to time, and the Gospel on the second Sunday of Epiphany helps us to consider the importance of issuing that invitation.

Based on the readings: 1 Corinthians 1:1-9 and John 1:29-42

Last week I was asked give a talk to a Mothers’ Union group under the title ‘My Journey… So Far. it was actually a very useful exercise which enabled me to reflect on what had been turning points in my life; who had been part of those and what it was that brought me to where I am today.

I also liked the idea of ‘so far’, because it helped me to see that in spite of my advancing years there are times when I seem no closer to becoming a mature Christian than I was at the beginning. Also where was that beginning? At my birth? At my baptism? At my Confirmation, Ordination or Priesting? What I do know is that somewhere along that timeline I was invited to ‘come and see’. I wonder if you know the circumstance or people who said the same to you and what was it that we were being invited to see?

For me, despite a non-church background, it was the fact that when I wanted to arrange the baptism of my youngest daughter Ruth, the vicar who was preparing us – without a hint of contempt or disapproval – simply pointed out that neither parents nor godparents had been confirmed. It was a subtle nudge as if to say, you want to join this club, but you have no idea about its constitution, its purpose or its demands. Without using the exact words it was like he was saying why not ‘come and see’, perhaps then you’ll know what the attraction is.

So I did just that, I took myself off to church one Sunday, which was pretty scary when you’re on your own. I got to know the people there, both as fellow worshipper and through social events. They were friendly, helpful and I found their attitude to life, which reflected their faith, very attractive. I joined Lent groups; study groups; I read and discussed important life questions; I listened and learned. Not just from those up front, but talking to all different sorts of people, and not just those in the church but with friends who were not Christians. But then it wasn’t just about me.

He said to them, ‘Come and see.’
They came and saw where he was staying,
and they remained with him that day
John 1:39

One of the hardest points in my life was making a decision to talk openly about my faith with my work colleagues at the school I was working in. I can remember having to make a real conscious decision to do this. Not by telling them, ‘Jesus loves you and you need to believe in him to be saved’ – although technically that is true. Instead, I’d chat about what I’d been doing in church over the weekend, the church social events I’d attended and saying to them they’d have to come along next time as I’m sure they’d enjoy it. Amazingly, it was as if the floodgates had been opened and other Christians began to appear out of the woodwork so to speak, to join in the conversations. It became natural and easy-going, again an unspoken ‘come and see’; and John’s gospel reflects this process very clearly.

John’s gospel doesn’t give us Jesus’ baptism in real time, but a retrospective recount of this epiphany moment and an affirmation by John the Baptist that Jesus lives and moves in the power of God. No shrinking violet, John, he further witnesses to this fact by his exclamation to two of his disciples that this is the one they have been waiting for – the Messiah. He has whet their appetites and they are interested in finding out more. So they follow Jesus, who asks them what are they looking for. He doesn’t assume anything, he wants them to discover for themselves, so he invites them to come and spend some time with him, and we can only imagine the conversations and questions they must have had. What we also see is that Jesus is beginning to call a group of people together, to build a community that will be able to hold that knowledge for the world and share it. All through that simple response ‘come and see’.

Now, those two men could have just gone home and talked about an amazing afternoon they’d just spend, but at least one of them, Andrew, realised that what he had heard was ‘good news’, something to be shared and so he brought his brother, Simon, so that he could see for himself. I wonder when was the last time we invited one of our friends or neighbours to come and join us at church; when we invited them to come and see? We have to remember though, that come and see isn’t about saying come to church, sit through a service where everyone else seems to know exactly what they’re doing – standing up, sitting down, singing responses (and believe me that was exactly what it was like for me on my first visit to church). Where we’ll sign you up for a rota, get you on to a committee. It should be more about simply come… and see if the people are welcoming, see if what’s being talked about is being lived out, spend some time with us.

 

welcome_to_church

Extending a welcome to church

 

The trouble is, like me previously, we know that we have seen and heard something good, but for some reason we feel reluctant to share it. It’s great talking with your friends from church about your faith, but it takes a lot of courage to speak to other people. Maybe nowadays, when we are surrounded by so much that is secular and politically correct, we think people will somehow see us as strange, misguided fanatics; and we want to fit into our neighbourhoods.

Or maybe we pre-judge who we think might be interested; ‘they won’t want to come’, ‘I’ve never heard them talk about anything religious’. We need to realise that we are not looking for ‘perfect fit’ people, we are not the ones who decide whether or not a person is willing to hear or understand the message. After all when Andrew invites his brother Simon to come and see Jesus we could be forgiven, bearing in mind all we will come to discover about the latter’s character, that he might not be the sort of person that Jesus wants to be part of his community. Yet when Jesus looks at the volatile, unstable Simon he immediately renames him Cephas – which means Peter or ‘rock’, the very foundation of Christ’s followers – because Jesus sees the potential of the most unlikely people.

Christians are called to witness together, to learn from each other as well as from God. As Paul says in his letter to Corinthians, we are called to be saints – not some mystic holy supermen or women, not necessarily sophisticated or intellectual, but ordinary, just like everyone who calls on Jesus is equal. We just cant afford not to share our faith, not in these times of secular, self-determination. We can’t afford to keep quiet and hope that somehow our faith will be shared by some sort of telepathic osmosis. After all what Paul tell us in his letter to the Romans? ‘How can people have faith in the Lord and ask him to save them, if they have never heard about him? And how can they hear, unless someone tells them?’

How can they hear, unless someone tells them?
Romans 10:14

I don’t believe that I, personally, have ever brought anyone to Christ. That’s a job for God through the Holy Spirit to accomplish, but I have talked to people and invited people and encouraged people to come and discover for themselves why they might want to say yes to Jesus’ call, as I am sure we all have in different ways. As I said at the beginning, it’s worth reflecting on how Jesus reached out to us. It is isn’t always through a direct communication. Sometimes Jesus reaches out through other people, especially his followers. Sometimes it will be through us, his disciples in the world today, that others are able to learn about Jesus. Maybe it will be you who tells someone, ‘I have found the Messiah! Come with me and see for yourself!’

That then surely is our challenge, in the weeks, months, years ahead, that in order to offer the invitation to come and see we have to go and tell. To share our faith with others – what we’ve learned, what we know to be true, what we’ve experienced in our own life. To witness to him, not only with words, but in deeds of loving service; and as Paul reminded the Corinthians, we are enriched and strengthened  by God to be able to do this.

We have heard the good news, we have received the good news and if it’s good news for us then it’s good news for everyone – so let’s all extend that invitation to ‘Come and See!’

 

 

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

How Far Can We Trust God?

Trust blog

How far can we trust God?

Our readings for Evensong on the second Sunday in Advent bring us the story of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, and his encounter with Gabriel in the Temple sanctuary. It gives us Luke’s introduction of how God’s divine plan is about to unfold…

Readings: Isaiah 40:1-11Luke 1:1-25

May I speak and may you hear in the name of God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

This evening our gospel reading leads us further into our Advent preparations and on this second Sunday of Advent we are reminded of the work of the prophets, and in particular we remember John the Baptist who stands as a link between the Old and New Testament. However, this evening it is not directly about John, but his parents, especially his father’s pre-conceptual reaction to the news of his divinely ordained fatherhood.

It is with this story that Luke begins his gospel and being the historian he is he is at pains to include in his dedication the care he is taking to make sure that we have an orderly and accurate account. He doesn’t set out Jesus’ ancestral claims like Matthew does; or the symbolic prose of John, or even start with John, the adult baptiser, appearing in the wilderness to fulfil Isaiah’s prophecy as in Mark’s gospel. No, Luke wants to start with a story of how people reacted to God’s preparations for the gift of his Son to the world. So, what does it tell us and how might we learn about our reactions from it?

We are introduced to Zechariah and Elizabeth, chosen by God to play an important role in Jesus’ story. I think we can safely say that neither of them were lukewarm nominal believers. Their credentials meant that they were righteous in the sight of God. Zechariah serving as a priest in the order of Abijah, which can be translated as ‘my Father is Yahweh’, and Elizabeth claiming descendancy from Aaron, God’s original high priest at the time of the Exodus. They walked blamelessly and observed all the commandments. In other words, they were obedient servants of God. Yet, for Zechariah there was an area in his life that resulted in some trust issues.

We can imagine that for a long time they had tried hard to conceive a child and had prayed to God about it, but no doubt as they grew older they had given up hope that it was likely to happen. So it is fairly reasonable that when Zechariah, alone in the sanctuary and terrified at the sudden appearance of an angel, is told that not only is he going to be a father, but that his child will play a pivotal role in proclaiming the arrival of the Messiah, that his first response is, ‘Are you sure? What proof can you offer for this?’

‘How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.’
Luke 1:18

He was confronted with a situation that required faith and trust. The faith bit he had in abundance but the trust was not so easy. Very often we too can face a lack of trust where God is concerned. It seems that we are happy to accept that love underpins our motivation to seek God and to follow his example but trust is harder to pin down. Often this difficulty has to do with our past experiences and our present situations. As humans our fall-back position is to initiate our self-reliance mode. It’s a primitive response to protect ourselves from perceived harm, thinking that we only have ourselves to rely on to get out of trouble

It can also be difficult to imagine stepping out of our comfort zones, but we have to remember that nothing is impossible with God, not even in areas where we have experienced nothing but failure, disappointments and frustration. We have to trust he is there to catch us when we fall and to uphold us as we move forward. It may be that we are holding back that trust because we are happy and comfortable to stay exactly where we are; but this can lead to stagnation; our faith never gets an opportunity to mature, or for our relationship with God to grow stronger as we grow closer to him.

God knows all things; he knows our hearts, our desire to be committed to him and sometimes our desire to be rebellious. But we have to be prepared to take the first necessary step to trust him in each area of our life. Take that step, then another and then the next one. This is the way to grow our faith in God, one step at a time… and how much easier is it as well to take those steps in the company of others, to be encouraged and to encourage each other. Because the more we hand over our lives to God and trust in him the more we can be freer to become the people that God is calling us to be.

With regard to Zechariah’s enforced silence following his lack of trust, I would not see this as a punishment for a lack of faith rather an opportunity for Zechariah to have space for reflection. If we fast forward to his son’s birth, we know that he had become reconciled to leaving things in God’s hands, for his first actions on having his speech restored to him was to speak in praise of God and to leave people amazed at just what his son was to become

We know he was to be ‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’ but we also know that we too can be responsible to make this happen in our own lives. From Proverbs 3 ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.’

So, this Advent let us all be prepared to step away from self-reliance and instead step forward in faith and trust.

Amen

zechariah window

Zechariah and Gabriel at the incense altar in the Temple