Pentecost 2018

I have a new definition of middle age. I think middle age begins when the experiences of your childhood are totally incomprehensible to children of that age today. So for instance I was trying to explain to my daughters that we didn’t have mobile phones and the internet in the 1980s, or for much of the 90s for that matter. If I wanted to look something up I had to walk to the library

So how did you make phone calls Daddy? Well we had a big handset with a hole near your mouth and another one near your ear. It had curly wire coming out of it, which went into what we called the telephone. There weren’t buttons on the phone but a kind of circular thing.

 

So did you have to put all that in your pocket to make a phone call Daddy? No – you couldn’t carry it. It was wired into the wall. You couldn’t sort the washing out or lay the table or watch telly while you made a phone call – you stood in the hallway. And the kids give me this look…and I start telling them how good dinosaur burgers tasted.

 

We get so used to the status quo that we forget what life was like beforehand. We take for granted the good things, the situation that we enjoy, and struggle to imagine how life might be different.

 

That can be an issue when we approach the New Testament. With the benefit of hindsight we are not like the early apostles – we know that Judas will betray Jesus. The story is familiar: Jesus dies, but it’s ok because we know he will rise again. We live in a culture which is formed by Christianity – yes culture may not acknowledge those Christian roots but they are there nonetheless. It’s hard for us to grasp just how radical it was to say ‘Jesus is Lord’ which means that Caesar is not. Or to believe in one God rather than many.

 

Perhaps it is also hard to imagine life before the coming of the Holy Spirit. Today is Pentecost when we remember the day when the Holy Spirit was poured out on all the disciples.

This event doesn’t just come out of nowhere. Later in Peter’s speech he explains the background. Jesus had risen from the dead on that first Easter. Then he appeared to his disciples. The Thursday before last we remembered Ascension Day when he returned to be with God – but he told his disciples to wait in Jerusalem for the gift he had promised.

 

So the disciples waited. And while they waited they prayed. In fact, verse 14 of Chapter 1 of the book of Acts tells us that they were ‘constantly devoted to prayer’. They spent the 9 days from Ascension to Pentecost in prayer. That’s why when the Archbishops wanted to call the church to a special season of prayer, they chose the past 9 days. That’s why on the 11th and 12th May we organised 24 hours of prayer in our churches. That’s why we had a day of prayer for children’s ministry on Tuesday last week. And it’s why we’re giving out these booklets to anyone who wants them as aids to prayer.

 

It’s not too late to begin. Having a focussed time of prayer together is great, and we draw encouragement and strength from one another. But we can pray anytime, anywhere. Prayer is so important that next week I’ll be starting a sermon series on that subject. From now until the school holidays we’ll be just scratching the surface of the huge riches of Biblical material on prayer. There is so much to learn about prayer, and I’m really looking forward to exploring it. Please do come.

 

When we pray, we open ourselves to the Holy Spirit. We become aware of what God is doing around us and within us. For the Holy Spirit dwells in every Christian. But it seems it wasn’t always like that. The picture we get in the Old Testament is that particular people received the Holy Spirit for particular tasks. So Saul and Samson were filled with the Spirit’s strength. The prophets spoke with words inspired by the Spirit. In the book of Numbers, when Moses was struggling to cope with work, God gave the Spirit to 70 helpers to share the load.

 

In other words, the Holy Spirit was given at particular times and particular places. Bit like the old days of dial-up internet! When you used to have to log on to the computer every day and spend an hour catching up on emails because you couldn’t get them anywhere else.

 

But now, when Peter speaks, it’s like the Holy Spirit is on broadband wifi! Everywhere, at all times, for everyone. Look at v.17 – he quotes from the prophet Joel: ‘I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh. Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, young men see visions and old men dream dreams.’ Young and old, male and female, even the slaves from the lowest parts of society will be filled with the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is not for a selected few, but for everyone.

 

Therefore do not think the children aren’t proper Christians until they’re confirmed – they have the Spirit. Don’t let anyone think they’re past it, that experiences of God are for the young – we can all have the Spirit. Just the other day someone was somewhat taken aback when God gave her two very clear messages. The gifts of the Spirit, like prophesy, are not just for professional Christians, but for everyone. So let’s expect God to meet us, let’s expect him to speak and guide.

 

For it is when we are open and listening, expecting God that we can be sensitive to the breath of the Spirit. Going back to the wifi analogy, you do have to be logged on! That’s where Peter’s speech is going. What we had today is just the introduction. He finishes by explaining that everyone can receive the Spirit. In v.38: ‘Repent and be baptised in the name of the Lord Jesus for the forgiveness of sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’ If you haven’t done that, think about it now. And perhaps now is the time to ask: Spirit, come into my life.

 

This is not to say that the Holy Spirit can’t be found anywhere else. The book of Genesis describes the Spirit hovering over the waters of creation – God’s spirit is active in the world. The Spirit can draw those who don’t know Christ closer to him.

Many people today describe themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious’. There is a huge interest in spiritual matters – people use mindfulness and meditation to be aware of what’s going on around them and become aware of their own spirit within. We have our spiritual self – we are body, mind and spirit – and some people are more aware of the spiritual side of life than others. Giving time to developing your own spirituality is quite popular – and depending on what the object of that spirituality is and how it is developed it can be healthy or rather less so.

 

It’s important that Christians are able to engage with this interest positively and listen to what people are searching for. Don’t dismiss it out of hand. For in looking within and finding their own spirit people can also discover an openness to the Holy Spirit, who comes as a gift from God. The Holy Spirit is of course not the same as our own spirit. Our spirit, like every aspect of humanity, is both beautiful, made in the image of God, and flawed, fallen, in need of healing. So spirituality which is not grounded in God will only get us so far. To reach our destiny, our union with God, we need the Holy Spirit.

 

St Peter says: Turn to Christ, ask for forgiveness, be baptised – and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. After that, we must keep on living in the Holy Spirit. For the struggles and challenges of life can wear us down – from time to time we need to reboot. Do you ever get that with a mobile phone? Sometimes it stops working and you just need to restart it.

 

Someone once asked John Stott how he managed to follow Christ so faithfully. He replied ‘I make sure I get 8 hours sleep’. If we’re struggling spiritually, if we’re too tired to pray, sometimes the answer is quite prosaic! I also think it’s good to start each day with a prayer that I will be filled with the Holy Spirit – that’s a kind of recharge. And you have to make sure the signal stays strong – give that time to being close to Jesus through worship, prayer and encouraging one another.

 

For the spiritual life is not about self-fulfilment. (And this is perhaps where Christian spirituality differs from much contemporary spiritual writing. In Christianity we are fulfilled, we find life in all its fullness, by following Jesus’ way: the sacrificial, self-giving way of the cross)

 

It’s very clear that the Holy Spirit directs us outwards. Think about when the Spirit was given – there was a sound from heaven – which tells us the Spirit is other, comes as a gift. The divided tongues of one flame tell us that there is one Spirit, bringing all people together, yet individually relating to each person. St Paul describes how the Spirit gives each one particular gifts for the common good. The fire speaks of the warmth and comfort and power of the Spirit, which sends us out to love, serve and speak in God’s world.

 

In this sermon I’ve been returning to an analogy with wifi and the internet. While there are similarities with the Spirit’s work, there are also significant contrasts. Wifi is a thing – but the Holy Spirit is a person. God reaching out to us. The internet is a tool – what you do with it can be good or bad – but the Holy Spirit leads, guides and transforms us to be more like Christ. In other words, the Holy Spirit gives us a personal experience of God – he is God within us. Isn’t that just an amazing thing? So easy to say, so profound. God within us.

 

When we do not know the way the Holy Spirit guides us. The Holy Spirit gives us joy in the most unexpected times. The Holy Spirit sustains us in weakness, gives hope in challenge. He fills his church with power and conviction. He transforms the world around and reconfigures society. Let us pray that we, and God’s church, may be filled with the Holy Spirit:

 

‘Lord we thank you for the gift of the Holy Spirit. We pray that he may fill us today.’

 

 

 

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Acts 15 to 27

How could you do that? You’ve betrayed me – you Judas! There can’t be many people that are so well known that their name has become a byword. The story of Judas betraying Jesus with a kiss has become the classic example of treachery. This means Judas is also one of the best known of all the apostles – his Wikipedia entry is four times the length of St Matthias who we also heard about in our Acts reading.

 

There are so many questions about Judas. Why did he do it? Was it really just for 30 pieces of silver? What made this man, who had been trusted enough to become an apostle, turn against his master? Did he have some issue with Jesus? Had he hoped for an all-conquering Messiah and become disillusioned? Or did Judas hope to force Jesus’ hand – that when the arrest came Jesus would have to reveal his glory? Does that explain why he was filled with remorse? But why did that remorse not turn to repentance which gives life? And if, as Peter says in v. 16, the Scripture had to be fulfilled so that we could be saved, how do we hold that together with Judas’ free will and responsibility?

 

There are many questions, with legend and speculation filling the gaps. Our reading from Acts chapter 1 verses 15-17 and 21 to the end, deals with Judas but then quickly moves on. He has gone, he has met his end, his place is vacant and needs to be filled. With the benefit of hindsight the gospel writers know that Judas will be the betrayer – but it wouldn’t have felt like that at the time. Judas was not an outsider, he was one of Jesus’ closest friends. He had an important job. What then will the apostles do about the gap which is left?

 

Perhaps you have been part of an organisation when a key person leaves. It might be the boss – but in my experience the central person in an organisation is often sat at a desk near the entrance. You know that administrator who’s been there for ever and knows everything? Particularly if that departure is unexpected there can be a real sense of anxiety and loss. Who is going to do their work? How much corporate memory have we lost? Will the company feel the same again?

But if the organisation has a strong identity, if there are others waiting in the wings to step up, then you can weather the storm. In the first chapter of Acts it’s clear that Jesus has thought about this, and prepared for this day. He has taken the trouble to identify and train other people.

 

I wonder how you imagine Jesus and his disciples travelling around? My children have a particular picture book which tries to show all twelve disciples. It’s really hard fitting them all on one page! I think about Jesus turning up, with twelve big hungry fishermen in tow – inviting Jesus and his friends to supper was a big deal!

 

Yet that’s not the sum of it – in verse 15 we find out that there are 120 disciples in this core group. The verse before tells us that Mary, various other women and Jesus’ brothers were all involved. It seems that Jesus organised the group in concentric circles: Peter James and John were an inner three, then the twelve and women like Mary Magdalene, then the 72 who got trained up on preaching missions, and then some more. As Peter says in v.21, many of them had been with Jesus from the beginning. There were people ready to step up.

 

Which poses a thought-provoking question. What would happen if you were no longer around? If, say, you got taken ill or had to care for a relative, what things do you do that someone else would have to take over? Who might that be? Are there people learning the skills who could step up? And if someone did take on that task, would they have the contacts and the instructions that they need? Would they find it written down, would they be able to ask someone else in the know, or would they have to start from scratch?

 

That can be quite an uncomfortable question. Particularly if what you do is quite skilled or technical, and there’s no one obviously keen. If so, it’s all the more important to try and share the load –  are there parts you can hive off? Ideally everybody should have someone they’re training up. Working together is good for us!

For that to work it also needs people who are willing to step up. So perhaps there is another question to ask everyone: is there a contribution you could make? Is there an area of service where you could make a difference? Is there something that interests you, a skill you’d like to learn, an ability that you already have that you could get more involved in and help an experienced person out? Doing so is incredibly rewarding – research has shown that helping other people is one of the key things in making ourselves happy!

 

The Early Church certainly gives the impression of being an organisation where everyone pulls their weight. We might imagine that they chose Matthias to replace Judas because they needed someone else to preach the gospel. But they didn’t. Everyone was doing it! If you read the Book of Acts, you find loads of people sharing the good news who aren’t among the apostles: Paul, Barnabas, Philip, Stephen, Aquila – the list goes on. Ordinary Christians prayed, lived out the gospel, spoke about their faith and the church grew. It should be a shared task.

 

Part of the reason why they needed Matthias is in verses 21 and 22: ‘One of the men who accompanied us from the beginning must become a witness with us of Jesus resurrection.’ While many Christians have encountered the risen Christ, while we all have his Spirit, the apostles were in the unique position of being witnesses of Jesus’ ministry. They saw it, they were there, and we can trust what they wrote.

 

Charles Colson was described as Richard Nixon’s hatchet man. He was sent to prison for his part in the Watergate scandal. He became a Christian and once said: I know the resurrection is a fact, and Watergate proved it to me. How? Because 12 men testified they had seen Jesus raised from the dead, then they proclaimed that truth for 40 years, never once denying it. Every one was beaten, tortured, stoned and put in prison. They would not have endured that if it weren’t true. Watergate embroiled 12 of the most powerful men in the world-and they couldn’t keep a lie for three weeks. You’re telling me 12 apostles could keep a lie for 40 years? Absolutely impossible.”

So the apostles were chosen as witnesses. Yet from Peter’s words it’s clear there were many such people. Why pick only one as an apostle?

 

Whenever the Early Church does something new, the apostles give their permission. When they decide to call some people deacons and give them a new role, it’s the apostles who initiate it. When Philip shares the good news in Samaria and people are converted, it’s the apostles Peter and John who go there to accept the new Christians and ensure they receive the Holy Spirit. When the Gentiles join the community, it’s by the actions of St Peter.

 

The apostles represent continuity with Jesus. They have the authority to interpret Jesus’ teaching for new circumstances. They are rooted in tradition but open to the future.

 

That is how the church must be. God’s community is not a chaotic free for all where anyone can do their own thing – no, it is grounded on the foundation of Jesus’ teaching, decisions are made together. Nor should the church be static, preserved in aspic, unable to change. The Holy Spirit leads us to respond to changed circumstances, new understanding.

 

That can be a difficult path to tread. Some of us would like to be more comfortable, prefer the familiar and well-loved. Others get frustrated with processes, forms, and the slow pace of change. We need to be like the Early Church: rooted in the teaching of Jesus, clearly continuous with what’s come before, yet also flexible, creative, permission giving. So we can interpret afresh the unchanging gospel for each generation.

 

(Perhaps one example of this is the way the new apostle is chosen. There are not many job interviews that involve drawing lots! Here there are two equal candidates, both qualified. They pray about it, then following an Old Testament practice trust that God’s will be made known through random lots.

I’m not sure that’s a recommended practice now. Later on in Acts, when similar decisions are made, people pray about it and God speaks to them. The difference here is that Pentecost has not happened, the Holy Spirit has not yet come. Maybe the apostles don’t yet have that immediate, personal guidance that the Holy Spirit brings? Surely when we have decisions to make we pray and listen to what God says?)

 

What about Matthias then? What great deeds did he end up doing? Actually, we don’t know. The Greek Orthodox church says he planted the faith in Cappadocia. The traditions give conflicting accounts about him – some say he lived to a ripe old age, or that he was stoned to death, or even eaten by cannibals. His feast day is tomorrow. Really there’s little we know for sure. This is the only time the Bible mentions Matthias – after this he disappears from the record. His is a cameo role, a walk on part.

 

Much like most of us I suspect. Few of us have more than a brief appearance on a public stage, yet each of us can create a significant impact. Matthias represents all those people who did faithful things, who did not become famous but did their bit and made a difference.

 

It is those people, their combined efforts, that changed the world. Sure, the apostles went places and planted churches. Yet in many places where the famous apostles went, they found new Christians were already there. Ordinary followers of Jesus had got there first and made converts. Merchants, travellers, people returning to their families, evangelists – unrecorded and unheralded had done their bit.

 

And when the apostles moved on, it was the folks on the ground who prayed, shared, loved and spoke. The apostolic churches in the cities planted in the towns, and thence to the villages. Whole countries knew Jesus through the faithful actions of people like you and me. Living out their calling, doing the things any of us can do, they changed the world. We can do likewise.

John 15:9-17

One of my family’s favourite days out is Avebury. It’s got everything: a short walk round the stones, hide and seek in the garden and then when you’ve worked up an appetite there’s a restaurant and pub. There’s an old church, and a museum with buttons to press.

 

The manor house is different from most National Trust properties in that you can get in the beds. None of those thistles to keep you off the chairs, quite the opposite. You are positively encouraged to live the life of a Victorian gentleman playing snooker or pretend to drink cocktails while listening to the wireless in the 1920s sitting room.

 

Interestingly, the children seem most engaged with the life of the servants. They can climb into the big Tudor 4 poster – and also slide out the little tray bed underneath for the manservant. And the biggest highlight is trying to cook with Victorian implements.

 

Increasingly historic houses are trying to show us what life was like for everyone – not just the gentry but the chambermaid and gardener’s boy too. We discover the servants lived a strange life – a precarious existence where they were easily dismissed for getting something wrong. They were absolutely vital, yet kept out of the way downstairs and in hidden passages. Fellow human beings, who if they met the master on the stairs, had to turn away and face the wall.

 

Some people imagine that God is like that. They think of God as the master and us a bit like servants. Mind your own business, be good, keep out of the way and you’ll be ok. Put a foot wrong though and you’ll be in trouble. And he definitely doesn’t want you to bother him.

 

Yet Jesus says in v14 that we are his friends. Jesus spoke this to the disciples in the upper room – but it applies to all of us. (We heard in the Acts reading how the Holy Spirit came on the Gentiles – and the Holy Spirit unites us with God today)

 

 

Can I ask you to think of a friend you have. What do you and your friend do together? How do you keep in touch – over the garden wall, with a cup of coffee or by Whatsapp? Do you share activities or just hang out? If that friend was in trouble, what would you do for them?

 

A friend is an amazing image. As a friend Jesus loves us. He likes us. He appreciates conversation with us in prayer. We can share our activities with him. He is the unseen guest at every meal.

 

Just the other day I was talking with a lady who’d been bereaved and she was telling me that whenever the grief was strong she brought it to Jesus. And she knew that he understood. Because he is a human being, because he has lived on this earth, because he lost loved ones and wept at the grave of Lazarus, Jesus understands. He is really with us, truly present in spirit, a friend for us.

 

Perhaps like me you find it easier to think of Jesus as the Lord we worship, the Risen Christ, our Saviour, the Heavenly King who will return. Let us also remember that he describes himself as our friend. He is glorious, yes, but that’s not a reason to keep him at arm’s length.

 

In verse 9 Jesus talks about the basis for our relationship with him. ‘As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you, abide in my love.’ So the love of Jesus for us came first. He loved us freely, right from the moment you were born. We do not have to win his love or earn the right to a relationship with him – it is a gift. And when we receive that gift, we abide, or rest, in his love by keeping his commands.

 

Many people imagine it the other way round. Even some Christians act and think as if they have to win their way into God’s affections, as if eternal life is a reward to be earned by good behaviour. To think like that is to condemn yourself to a treadmill of effort, a deadening, unfulfilling shadow of spirituality, in which the best is never enough.

 

It can’t be like that. in v.16 Jesus makes it quite clear that we did not choose him, but he chose us. He calls us and we respond. When we do so, we find, in v.11, that Christ’s joy is in us, and our joy is complete.

 

My Facebook feed has decided that I need cheering up. I don’t know what I’ve been searching for online, or whether Facebook has been listening in to my conversations but it’s clearly decided that I need a dose of joy in my life. So my feed is full of amusing videos, jokes, and articles describing the ‘7 Habits of Happy people’. A lot of that advice seems to be about choosing your mental attitude – deciding how you will react to life’s events – and what you give energy to thinking about.

 

There’s something in that which chimes with Christian spirituality. When you are faced with disappointment, will you dwell morbidly on it or bring it to God? Will you listen to the nagging voices that say ‘it simply can’t be done’ or will you step forward obediently in hope? Will your mind revisit resentments and criticise people, or will you choose to forgive, to give thanks? …What do you think about?

 

Can I suggest you observe yourself during the day – from time to time just stop and ask yourself– what am I thinking about it here? Are my thoughts bringing me life and joy? And if it’s not – don’t feed the gremlin, stop that train of thought – think of something good instead. Pray. Give thanks. Listen for God’s presence. And you’ll find his joy.

 

When we listen to God, as verse 14 says, we also know what he is doing. The Holy Spirit helps us understand God’s will as revealed to us in the Bible. As we get better at listening we also hear God’s specific guidance to each one of us for our own lives.

 

We learn to ask confidently too. In v.16 Jesus says ‘the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name’. Of course this isn’t a magic formula: Dear God, please give me an Aston Martin DB11’ and as long as I put ‘in Jesus name’ at the end the magic words give me what I want

 

‘In my name’ means in accordance with Christ’s will, seeking his glory, asking because it’s the kind of thing he would ask. But because we are his friends, we can ask confidently. A couple we know once put an email out ‘We’ve got all the money we need for our new house – but the cashflow has gone wrong. Can anyone out there give us a bridging loan for twenty thousand?’ And someone did. That’s friendship. You can ask God with confidence because you are friends with his son.

 

And because we are friends of his son, we are friends with one another. In v.12 Jesus says ‘This is my commandment that you love one another.’ He showed the greatest love possible for us when he laid down his life for us on the cross. He saved us from the penalties of sin by dying for us – it was the greatest thing he could give.

 

Now he calls us to love one another. To make sacrifices, to give up our time, to help those in need. As I travel around I constantly hear amazing heart-warming stories about practical love. The people who give lifts into hospital and cook meals. The friends who babysit so a busy couple can get to Housegroup. The neighbour who picks up someone else’s shopping at the same time. The legal advocate who gets on the phone on behalf of a vulnerable person. The praying person who wrestles on behalf of others. All this practical love goes on and it is wonderful.

 

Yet to do so, we need to know one another. We need to be open about our own needs, be genuine. We need courage to offer help and not be offended if it’s politely refused. Maybe first of all we need to know one another better. So speak to your neighbour when you see them. Stay for conversation after the service. Horror of horrors – when you come to church don’t always sit in the same place.

 

For when we abide in Jesus and love one another, we bear much fruit. I am so looking forward to the strawberry season! I have put so much work into that bed. The white flowers are just beginning, in a few weeks’ time the fruit will come. And joy will be mine! May we grow in Jesus, love one another, bear much fruit and know his joy. Amen.

Listening. Acts 8:26-end

I wonder what makes a holiday complete for you? For a lady I know, whatever the weather, it’s essential to find a café and have a cream tea. For me, it’s building a dam. Holiday isn’t complete unless we’ve been to a sandy beach with a stream and dammed it, enclosing a vast pool which you can then breach creating a wave of water rushing to the sea. It’s great because I can spend the whole afternoon dam-building and still say ‘Look, it’s for the children, honest.’

I soon found out that if you’re building dams you have to work with the natural features of the beach. Use the contours to shape your pool, build where the rocks are already restricting the flow. You have to see where the water wants to run and work with it.

Working with God’s Kingdom is like working with water. The stream of the Holy Spirit is already flowing in the world. God was active long before you or I arrived. We don’t do well if we then start building somewhere completely different! If we dig where the Spirit isn’t, if we try and channel God into our plans, little happens. Often the first step in our task if we want to grow the Kingdom of God is to listen, observe and see what God is doing. If our church wants to serve God well we need to ask: What is God calling us to do?

Where does he want us to join in? We need to listen – and the Merlin exercises many of our churches have been doing are all about that. Discerning God’s call. I’m being constantly reminded how important it is to pray about this. That’s why we’ve got the Grace prayer meeting on the last Wednesday of every month. That’s why we’re gathering to pray for children’s ministry on May 15th. That’s why there’s a 24 hours of prayer on Fri 11th and Sat 12th May. It’s so good to be listening to what God is doing so we can join in.

For the church doesn’t take God into the rest of the world – it is his world and he is there already.

This is what Philip found when he met the Ethiopian in the story from Acts.

Now, if everything was going well for you in your job, if you were overcoming challenges, recruiting people, meeting success everywhere how would you feel about being posted to the middle of nowhere to start again from scratch?

That’s what happened to Philip. Before our reading, in v.5 Philip went to the city of Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah to them. The crowds with one accord listened eagerly to what was said by Philip, many miracles were done, evil was overcome. It was great.

But then in v26 the angel of the Lord appears to Philip and tells him to leave this wonderful successful ministry, walk 66 miles across the hills, not stopping at Jerusalem, down to the wilderness road that goes towards Gaza. And then when he sees a chariot God tells him to run, in the heat of the desert, and catch up with a trotting horse!

I’m struck by how amazingly open Philip must have been. Open to God guiding him in different ways. When the Early Church created deacons, they intended them to be administrators. People who would ensure food distribution went smoothly. The deacons’ job was to wait on tables so the apostles could get on with evangelism. Yet very quickly deacons like Stephen and Philip were preaching the gospel. God had a plan for them, and the early church allowed them to follow God’s call.

And then, when all the facts on the ground suggested he ought to stay in Samaria, Philip recognised the nudging of the Spirit and responded obediently. He was open to the possibility that he might be needed elsewhere. Open to sacrifice. Trusting God though he had no idea how it would turn out.

How do we trust God? Often we do that by straightforward Christian obedience. Most of the time the things God wants us to do are obvious.  Right in front of our noses. Doing our work well, being loving to the people we meet, taking the opportunities to share our faith. We don’t have to agonise in prayer deciding whether to do this stuff. All the guidance to do these essential things is in God’s word. But sometimes the Holy Spirit nudges us to do something particular.

Just the other day I was heading off to say Morning Prayer in Stanton church. I had a nudge from God – a thought popped into my head that I ought to take my church keys. I don’t need to do that – Hilary always unlocks the door each morning. But, I thought, maybe something’s happened to her so that she can’t get in. So I put my keys in my pocket.

When I got to church, the door was unlocked. I thought no more of it until, just before we were due to start, the electricity meter man turned up. And where’s the meter? In the vestry, behind a locked door!

At a time when there was a lot on my mind and I was worried about lots of things, it seemed that God was telling me something. He knows everything. If he can sort it out so I don’t have to head back home to pick up a key, and the meter man doesn’t have to hang around; if God can give me a nudge to sort out a tiny thing like that – then surely he can guide me and direct me through the really important things in life!

That’s a pretty small example – but God likes to build our faith. He starts by giving us a nudge to do something small – and if we respond we’ll find that’s faithful. Next time, it might be something more challenging. Ways you or I can be part of someone else’s solution. God does this when we are listening – and we develop the habit of listening through prayer. When we spend time with God praying, when we hold others before him by name, when we sense God’s response and guidance, we learn how to listen to him.

So if you sense that God is prodding you, pray it over, and if you think it is God, you may not know why but pluck up your courage and act.

When Philip does so, the guy he meets is an Ethiopian. Obviously interested in the Jewish religion, perhaps even a convert, but Gentile background nonetheless. At this stage in the early church, God had begun widening out the good news to other nations – first including Jews, then Samaritans who were kind of heretical Jews, now a Gentile proselyte. But this man was also a eunuch. Someone who was banned by Old Testament law from worshipping in the temple. What can God do with him? Philip might well have thought.

I once said to a colleague: ‘Isn’t it good that Charlie has started coming to Evensong’. ‘Naah,’ said the lay reader, ‘you’ve got mixed up. Charlie’s lived in this village for 70 years, only ever come to church for a funeral.’ Next week he came up to me ‘God’s amazing. Charlie was at Evensong!’ It’s so easy to think ‘So and so won’t be interested.’ Let’s not write people off, but give them the opportunity to find God.

Charlie was pretty amazing too – it’s not easy to change your habits when everyone in a small village knows who you are.

I’m struck by how open the Ethiopian eunuch was. Here is an important man: the Chancellor of the Exchequer of a foreign power. He is riding along in his official chariot when some sweaty bloke turns up, jogging alongside and asks ‘Do you understand what you’re reading?’ Many people might have told Philip where to go, but not this official:

In verse 31: ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ He doesn’t understand and he’s not afraid to admit it. For him, a lack of knowledge is not an embarrassment but an opportunity. If he doesn’t get it, he will seek help so he can. What a wonderful attitude to have! So often I meet people who are ashamed they haven’t read much of the Bible, or keep their doubts and questions securely under wraps. Which is sad, because if we were open and honest about our needs, we could address them.

If that sounds like you then don’t be embarrassed. Why should you have all the answers? Ask questions. Talk to someone!  Admit when you don’t know – you can bet that someone else won’t either. Just the other week I was in a training session and the facilitator asked: ‘is there anyone who’d like that explained a bit more?’ Somebody cautiously raised a hand – and the rest of us breathed a sigh of relief – thank goodness they’d raised it, we were too shy to!

Philip’s openness shows as he draws alongside the chariot. He listens. He hears the man read Isaiah. Philip then starts a conversation with an open question: ‘Do you understand what you’re reading?’ And when the man answers ‘No’, Philip listens to the question. ‘Is the writer of Isaiah talking about himself or someone else?’ Seems obvious it’s someone else, but Philip takes it seriously as an honest question. I’ve had all sorts of strange conversations with people about spiritual stuff they’ve read on the internet, aliens and what have you, and however daft you think the question is it’s important not to be dismissive.

We can only connect with people if we listen to them. Good listening means being able to respond, appropriately. One very important thing is to be aware of the reason behind the question. For instance if someone says ‘if there’s a God how comes there’s so much suffering in the world?’ – is that a question for philosophical debate? It might be. Or are they asking because they’ve recently been through the mill? Rather than jump in with an answer, a listening response might be ‘that’s a good question, can you tell me how it’s important to you?’

We can see that Philip has listened. He starts where the man is. And he shows the man respect by pointing him to Scripture and speaking about Jesus. Philip would not have done the Ethiopian a favour if he said ‘Who’s it about? – well that’s up to you. The answer is whatever you make of it’ The Ethiopian would not have gone away any the wiser if Philip had said ‘If it works for you then it’s true’. Instead Philip shared the good news with him.

That’s important because the Bible explains God’s purposes. Jesus gives the context that makes sense of faith. In Jesus we have answers for life – so let’s not hide them away or back off if people ask us.

So the Ethiopian trusts God and decides to get baptised. This is the last we hear of him, but one of the most ancient churches in the world is the one in Ethiopia. The Ethiopian Coptic Christians link their origins to this man, who shared the good news in his home country. Through Philip’s obedience a whole country was eventually led to Christ.

God led Philip to the Ethiopian, and now the Holy Spirit takes Philip away again, dropping him in Azotus where he continues to preach the gospel. It’s like that with serving God – we’re called to play our part, and leave the rest with God. It’s not down to us whether someone responds to God – that’s between God and them. We’re not ultimately responsible – God is.

I find that incredibly liberating. It’s a great encouragement to join in God’s work. God is already active in people’s lives. He calls us to join him in what he’s doing. He asks us to listen – to listen for the wind of his Spirit, to listen to those we meet, to listen to Scripture and tradition. Let us listen act and speak faithfully, open to God’s leading and rejoicing in the privilege he gives.

Peace be with you

Luke 24:36b-48

here was some remarkable news announced last month. Scientists searching for a cure for diabetes have come up with a breakthrough. They looked at the genetics, and the way diabetes affects people and found that it is not one disease, but as many as five different types.

 

It could be great news. Of course, other scientists must check the idea is right. And then they’ve got to put it into practice by developing treatment. If they can do this, it could change the lives of millions.

 

In a way, you can think of the Resurrection as being similar. If the idea that Jesus rose from the dead is true, and if it can then be put into practice then it is life changing. For if Jesus really did rise then we need to take him seriously, it means he’s with us now. He opens the gate to life after death.

 

Our reading from Luke’s gospel sets out to do just that. St Luke deliberately records it so that anyone reading can be confident that Jesus is alive and so that it can make a change to us today. Luke describes something which happened late on the very first Easter day.

 

Imagine those disciples, all gathered together in secret with the doors locked. It has been the strangest of days, starting, as did Saturday, in the depths of grief. Some of the women went off to tend Jesus’ grave. Soon they rushed back, full of tales of angels and an empty tomb. But as v.11 tells us, the disciples didn’t believe them.

 

Someone goes with Peter, checks it out and finds the tomb is empty. Then Peter reappears in a hurry, claiming to have seen Jesus. While he’s still speaking two disciples burst in saying they spoke with Jesus while walking to Emmaus. Everyone’s struggling to get to grips with the news when a familiar voice says ‘Peace be with you’. They turn around. It’s Jesus! They jump a mile, gasp out loud. ‘The doors are locked. How did you get in here?’ ‘Aren’t you dead?’ ‘Is it a ghost?’

 

Was he a ghost indeed? Sometimes it has been suggested that what the disciples saw was some kind of apparition, wishful thinking, or maybe an hallucination. Jesus does four things to make it quite clear he’s real.

 

Firstly, he speaks. He reassures them. ‘Peace be with you’ is the standard Jewish greeting, but there is a deeper significance to it as well. You can know peace for Jesus is risen. Peace, not guilt, is ours because sin has been forgiven. Peace, not fear, can be ours, because Jesus has defeated death. His resurrection brings peace from God to humanity.

 

So if you are troubled by worry, remember that Jesus brings peace. If you find that concerns go round and round your mind and won’t leave you alone – perhaps you could try imagining that upper room. Imagine being one of those disciples. Imagine Jesus speaking peace to you. Imagine his breath blowing away those worries. Allow yourself to experience his peace.

 

As we look at events in the world around us, we might feel that peace is very far away. Talking about peace might make us think of getting away from it all, shutting out the world, curling up in a little ball and trying to focus on feeling peaceful. But that’s not Christian peace. Christian peace comes as we engage with the world, as we share in its pain, and bring it to God in prayer. Christian peace comes from involvement, when we have done what we can and entrust it to God. Christian peace holds the big picture in mind, is peaceful because nothing can separate us from the love of God.

 

The second piece of evidence Luke sets out for the reality of the Resurrection is that Jesus can be touched. In v.39 Jesus tells them to touch his hands and feet – and they are solid ‘a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.’ In John’s gospel the emphasis is on Christ’s hands and his side, referring to the crucifixion wounds and showing that it’s really Jesus, who really died. Luke’s emphasis shows that his resurrection body is a physical body that can be touched.

 

For, thirdly, Jesus eats a piece of fish. (presumably if he was a ghost you’d be able to see it go in and get churned around like a barium meal!) All this tells us that Jesus really is alive, in a physical sense. It’s very important. Sometimes people will talk about the inner meaning of the Resurrection, or the hope that Jesus is still with us today, in a way that seems to deny that the physical body of Jesus was raised. But this gospel makes it clear that Jesus appearances at the Resurrection were not just some kind of vision or symbolic message. He spoke, ate and the disciples touched him.

 

Why is this important? It’s not simplistic or literalistic. This belief makes a difference for our future hope. For where Jesus is, we shall follow. The destiny he has is the one we shall enjoy. So we can be confident that when we die our future is not as an immaterial, insubstantial ghostly sort of thing. You will not be a drop that loses itself in the ocean. Nor merely a memory in the mind of God. But truly, really alive. Ourselves, and more ourselves than we have ever been.

 

Yet at the same time, Jesus clearly doesn’t have a body exactly like he had before. He can appear behind locked doors, come and go at will between places that are miles apart. It’s as if it’s a physical body which can also inhabit a spiritual dimension. In 1 Corinthians 15 St Paul tells us that the physical, earthly body is different from the heavenly body. He uses the image of a seed: which grows into a plant that is in many ways very different from the seed, yet genetically the same. We cannot understand what the new body is like until we experience it ourselves…

 

The fourth thing Jesus does is explain to them that all this was predicted in the Old Testament. It is easier to believe if you can see how it was foretold. It makes sense as part of God’s plan: ‘Thus it is written: that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name.’

 

And one way it makes a real world difference. It’s a message to be shared. The disciples were witnesses to what happened to Jesus, they needed to tell others. In obedience to Jesus’ command they did so and that is why we are here today, because they told others, who passed it on and eventually the church was founded here.

 

We today are part of that succession. You and I have inherited that message of the risen Jesus. And we also have our own experiences, ways in which we know that Jesus is alive. Christians today know Jesus in prayer – the peace which he breathed on the disciples is felt today when we meet him as we pray.

 

We may not touch the physical body of the risen Jesus, but we receive him in bread and wine. Perhaps you have had the sense of him speaking to you, maybe as very personal guidance or as the words of Scripture coming alive.

 

So Jesus calls us to know him and to share that good news with others. That is what we are here for. Over the last month I’ve been to plenty of church annual meetings. We talk about buildings – keeping the roof on, reordering, finances, trying to get enough people to do the jobs. All of which is, in its own way, necessary and important. But that’s all a means to an end. The heart of what we’re here for, the reason for the church, is to know the risen Jesus alive today and to share that good news with the people around so that they can come to know him too.

 

Of course that can be quite a challenge. When Mary and her companions said that they had seen angels at the empty tomb, the disciples disbelieved them. They were still surprised when Jesus appeared, even after Peter and the Emmaus two had spoken. If we share our faith, we may find that it takes a while for people to understand. Not everyone will. Don’t give up. After all, even the disciples were hard to convince.

 

Perhaps there is a clue why in the final verse of our reading: Jesus says ‘See I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high’.

 

In other words they must wait to be given the Holy Spirit. The Spirit had not yet come when Mary told the disciples. And it is the Spirit who convinces people of the truth about Jesus. The meaning for us is clear: We should pray that the Spirit will move in people’s hearts to convict them of the truth. We should pray too that we may be filled with the Spirit so that our testimony comes with the Spirit’s power. For this is good news, an event in the physical world which makes a life changing difference. It’s good news today, for all the world. So let’s pray that Spirit will come and fill our witness to the Risen Lord…

Cleansing the Temple Intercessions

Lord God and Father of all, over all and in all and through all: we give thanks for Christ, through whom we can know you and who brings us with confidence into your presence.

 

Father, we thank you for the vision and generosity of our forebears, who built our church buildings and whose care for them sustains them for today. May we be able to use them creatively for mission, may they be places where the Kingdom grows. May the responsibility of care never overwhelm or dishearten us. WE thank you for those who cherish these buildings, and ask that you will strengthen them. We pray too that those who focus on the architecture and history will find a path to living faith.

 

Father, we pray for the Holy Land, that its people may know peace. We pray particularly that the Temple Mount may not be a sign of division, but a place of light for all nations. We pray for the conflict in Syria, that it may be resolved and not spread further.

 

Father, as your Son Jesus purified the temple, so we pray that you will purify our hearts this Lent. Make us ready for your coming.

 

Father, we give you thanks for all who work in commerce, for those who bring Christian faith into the market place. May they act with integrity, justice and sensitivity towards the needs of those who have little.

 

Father, Jesus was motivated by love for his suffering people. We pray for those we know who endure illness or difficulty today…

 

Father, Jesus reminded us that a seed must die before it can live. We pray for those who approach death, that through trust in Christ they may find death to be a pathway to new life. We commend to your care those who have died…

Cleansing the Temple

Wherever you go in the Holy Land, you’re aware of the security situation. Roadblocks, checkpoints, settlements are everywhere. With so many armed guards around, the pilgrim feels safe, if a little uneasy, but there is one particular place where you have to be very careful

The Temple Mount, the site where the Jewish temple once stood, is now a mosque. Non-Muslims are allowed to visit, but the wisdom of doing so depends on the political atmosphere at the time. Recently the state of Israel installed scanners and cameras – but had to take them down following widespread riots.

Some Jewish people would like the temple area back – they are supported by some Christians who, wrongly I think, believe that Jesus will only return once the temple has been rebuilt. Other Jewish people would never walk on the Temple Mount – how, they say, could you be sure you weren’t walking on the site of the Holy of Holies? This sacred ground, significant for three religions, is one of the most contested places on earth

It has been so for centuries. Jesus must have been to the temple many times before, but in our reading something seems to snap. He sees the buying and selling, hears the shouts of the traders and the cries of the animals, feels the pushing and shoving, senses the greed. As verse 15 of Chapter 2 in John’s gospel says, He takes time to make a whip out of cords, and in a premeditated act of violence, drives the traders from the temple. Do we feel uncomfortable about that? Jesus said many pacifist things, he was never violent to protect himself, but he did act for others

‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.’ My old college chapel had a wonderful early stained glass window at the entrance, showing a suitably dynamic Jesus casting out the traders. Bill Clinton was being shown round, and someone, I think it was Dennis Skinner, quipped: ‘You see, Mr President, Jesus was no fan of the capitalist system.’

But it’s not that Jesus disapproves of money. Or of buying and selling. After all, his parables recognise trade as a necessary part of the world we live in. Done well, commerce can enable human thriving. God can bless business as part of his general blessing on creation.

Part of the problem with the temple traders was the cheating and greed. You’ll know what it’s like going to a tourist site and being faced with a multitude of ways of having your wallet lightened. The piles of overpriced tat. My particular favourite was the world’s most expensive lettuce. To feed the giraffes you could pay a pound a leaf. I reckon the zoo was making 2000 per cent profit. Then there’re the fees for cameras, and special charges for essential items: the shoes you have to wear to stop your feet scratching the floor, or whatever.

The Temple authorities had hit on a couple of nifty wheezes. First, there was the so-called sanctuary shekel. Roman money wasn’t the same as the money that Moses or Solomon would have used. So the religious leaders decided the temple had to have its own currency. And if you have two currencies, you have to have money changers, and an opportunity to take a cut

And then if you want to offer a sacrifice? Well sir, the law says that God will only accept the best lamb or goat from your flock. It has to be without blemish. But to make it easy, the priests have pre-approved some lambs. And your luck’s in sir, I happen to have one here today. Only 50% premium over the Jerusalem market, sir. What’s that? You’d like to bring your own? Oh no sir, that would never do sir, the priests wouldn’t allow that. It has to be approved. Just hand over your sanctuary shekels

Matthew’s gospel quotes Jesus saying ‘The Scriptures say my house will be a house of prayer for all nations, but you have made it a den of thieves.’ Jesus burns with righteous indignation, he longs for justice. It’s made worse because this market was probably in the Gentile area.

In other words, the outer part of the temple which was set aside for non-Jews to seek God had been taken over by traders. The mission of the temple, the chance for it to be a light to all nations, had been pushed out by profit. It was the vulnerable and the outsider who lost the most

Sadly, it is the same today. I renewed my road tax recently. Not everyone has £130 to hand to spend in one go, so there’s the option of paying by monthly direct debit. But it will cost you. Several pounds extra. In many ways, like prepayment energy meters, people are penalised just for being poor. In our business arrangements, we might well try to give people incentives to spend more, or to cover extra costs incurred through different payment methods – but we should ask, when does that stop being fair? Do we end up discriminating against those who have little? How can we ensure a level playing field

Just think how much trouble could have been avoided if there been the willingness to stick to the Ten Commandments. Funny to say that about a centre of religion, isn’t it? The letter of the law, do not covet, should have banned those cynical get rich quick schemes. The spirit of the law underlying do not steal, should have provided for compassion for the poor. And what of the command ‘You shall have no other God but me’. Did they not realise that in charging people for access to God, they revealed their true priorities, unveiling their idol to Mammon?

There’s a problem with cheating, and there’s also a problem with the location. This is God’s temple. The footstool of the almighty. The place where his Name dwells. The means of sacrifice which brings people close to God. The temple is special – in a way that we may struggle to understand. For while we see our church buildings as holy, we mean something very different. Church buildings are places in which we worship God, we may encounter his presence here, sense generations of prayer which have soaked into the walls. But if it came to it, we could worship God just as well in a hall. Our Anglo-Saxon ancestors, and the early Methodists, often met under trees or by a prominent stone.

The temple was different. For the temple provided the way that people could come close to God. They didn’t imagine that God lived there – but it was certainly the special place where he was present like no other. So the temple was where sacrifice was offered – to give thanks, to pray for blessing, most of all to forgive sins. If you had done wrong, and you sought God’s forgiveness, you had to sacrifice at the temple

I get a bit annoyed when there are kiosks charging a fee to enter a cathedral but I know that I can go anywhere else if I really want to pray. The same choice was not open to the 1st Century Jew. That’s why Jesus got so angry: people were being charged for access to God. They were being swindled when they came for forgiveness. How can you set up barriers between people and God for profit

Access to God is free to everyone. Through Jesus, anyone can pray. Because of Jesus and what he did on the cross, anyone can ask for forgiveness, and it comes without price. Several places in this gospel reading point to Jesus’ unique role

Firstly, verse 17 is a quote from Psalm 69: ‘Zeal for your house will consume me’. Perhaps John sees Jesus as the perfect man, the one in whom all human aspirations are most sincerely felt

He is also fully divine. The whole episode reminds us of the Old Testament book Malachi, Chapter 3, verses 1 and 2: ‘The Lord whom you seek will come to his Temple. But who may abide the day of his coming?’ The people had been saying ‘If only God would come. If only he would return to his temple.’ Yes, he will come, says Malachi. But be careful for what you wish. Judgement always begins with the house of God. His people must be purified first. When we long for God to act, when we pray for revival – and I hope that you do – we must also be ready for God to purify us. Greed, self-deception, injustice – it must all be cast out of our hearts. We must allow the Holy Spirit to purify his temple.

When we think of the body as a temple, we might well remember St Paul writing about how the body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. In this chapter, Jesus means something slightly different. 

The Jewish leaders ask him: ‘Who gave you authority to do this?’ He replies in v 19: ‘Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.’ How can he do that when it took 46 years to build and still wasn’t finished? Well, says John, the temple of which he spoke was his body

Remember, the temple was about forgiveness. Sacrifice. It was there to being people close to God. Now in Jesus, the symbol has been replaced by reality. The Old Testament sign has been fulfilled. We no longer need the temple as a way to get close to God – because in Jesus God has come to us. We do not need to go to a temple for forgiveness, because Jesus told people their sins are forgiven. We do not sacrifice animals because Jesus gave himself as a ransom for sin – he is the Passover lamb sacrificed for us so that we could come close to God

In other words, Jesus replaces the temple. We can go a step further. He is the real temple. He does perfectly everything that the temple building was trying to do

What does this mean? Firstly our church buildings are not like the temple. Yes they are places of worship where we gather together to experience the presence of God – but they are not the way that we come to God. We cannot just read the Bible and wherever it says temple think ‘church building’. That also means we have a different attitude to sacred space – we are able to use it in different ways and for a wider variety of purpose.

Secondly, the Jerusalem temple should not be a crucial thing for Christians. It was a sign pointing to Christ, and is now fulfilled. Judaism learnt to manage without the temple when the Romans destroyed it. Christianity has no need for the temple. We have to recognise the modern location is a political reality, a flashpoint but we must not believe those who want to rebuild the Jerusalem temple.

For, thirdly, it is Jesus who brings us all to God. The temple had different grades of holiness – for priests, men, women and last of all non-Jews. But whoever we are, we can come to God equally through Christ. There’s no hierarchy of Christian believers. Wherever we are, we can have a relationship with God through Christ. Even if someone is alone – housebound, in prison, lost in the middle of nowhere, they are in the presence of God. He sends his Holy Spirit into our hearts – he is with us always, so that each one of us becomes the temple, the place of his Presence. Let us acknowledge his presence with us now. Amen.