Mark 1:21-28

What difference does following Jesus make? Or, to put it another way, what would life be like if you weren’t a Christian? What would you miss? What hope would be absent?

 

Jesus makes a difference to people’s lives. He transforms us, changing us in many ways. Our reading from Mark 1:21-28 tells us that Jesus makes a difference in our lives today because he is the Son of God, because he has authority.

 

That authority comes up several times in the gospel reading. We first see it in verse 21 ‘They went to Capernaum.’ Who is ‘they’? Simon, Andrew, Peter and John. The fishermen who left their nets in response to Jesus’ call and followed him.

 

Do we imagine this as a completely spur of the moment decision? The reading we had from John’s gospel a couple of weeks ago suggests that Jesus had met at least some of these men before. Some of them had been disciples of John the Baptist, who pointed Jesus out to them. So it wasn’t a completely random leap into the unknown. They knew Jesus, had seen and heard him, had a chance to be convinced. When he called, they put down their nets and followed him.

 

Maybe you’ve known the call of Jesus as voice beckoning you on? As an irresistible draw, a deep longing, a knowledge that he has what you’re searching for, an understanding that life without him will never fulfil. Some people he commands clearly and suddenly, others grow towards him like a plant seeking the light.

 

And Jesus keeps on calling us. When we decide to follow him, our journey is only begun. In each different circumstance of life Jesus calls us to be faithful, to discern his will and grow the Kingdom of God in the best way we can. Sometimes he calls us to other places, to something new. Sometimes he calls us to an adventure in the place where we already are. Don’t imagine you have to become someone else to respond to Christ’s call. Ask him what he wants you to be, here, now.

When we respond to his call, we begin to change. I wonder if you have seen this happen with someone else? A new light in their eyes, a new demeanour, the sharp edges being rubbed off as the Holy Spirit gets to work, a more compassionate more servant hearted personality.

 

The disciples in the reading are only beginning their journey with Jesus, and they still have a lot to learn. If you ever take a trip to the Holy Land, one of the highlights is the tour round the ruins of Capernaum. You can still see a synagogue, built later on top of the one in which Jesus taught that very day.

 

It’s interesting that Jesus did teach. For he wasn’t a priest. He hadn’t been to the university or scribal school. And yet, as v.23 tells us ‘They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes.’

 

What does that mean? If you look at records of teaching from those times, it often follows a particular pattern. There will be a Bible verse –and someone will ask a question about it. So there’s a verse in the Old Testament which talks about lying. Somebody asks, are white lies ok? Here’s a real example: they ask: should you say a bride is beautiful, even if she’s not? Rabbi Shammai says no, you should never lie. Another Rabbi, Hillel, says all brides are beautiful on their wedding day. And then the teachers would discuss the relative merits of each viewpoint.

 

It reads like case law. It cites verdicts and appeals to precedent. It’s practical, wants to do the right thing, but is backward looking and often patriarchal. Seldom in this approach does God’s Word come to life, it feels like a dusty text, the object of study in a museum case.

 

Jesus is completely different. He goes straight to the heart of the question. When they asked him ‘Should we pay taxes to Caesar or not?’ he asked for a coin. ‘Whose inscription and image is this?’ ‘Caesar’s’, they replied. ‘Well then, give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.’ He always had a new angle.

 

Jesus recognised this himself. Often in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus teaches: ‘You have heard that it was said’ – referring to the arguments of the Rabbis – ‘but I say to you…’ I say to you? Who is this who can sweep aside centuries of tradition? Who has the audacity to ignore the opinions of the elders, and set forth his own as a replacement? Who can speak as if he alone knows the true meaning of God’s law? Who does Jesus think he is?

 

God’s own Son. Only the Son of God could reinterpret God’s Word with such authority and clarity. Only He could distinguish so clearly between the true intention of Scripture and the layers of encrusting tradition. The way Jesus teaches shows us his authority as Son of God. When we read Jesus’ teaching, let’s not turn it into a dry study. Let’s not make it a project of acquiring knowledge. Let’s ask him to show us the living beating heart of his word. His glorious will for us.

 

The implications of the way Jesus teaches may not be clear to everyone in the reading, but one man grasps it. With supernatural insight, in verse 24 he cries out ‘You are the Holy One of God!’ He is correct in that, but Jesus tells him to be quiet. For this revelation has not come through the Holy Spirit, but though spiritual forces opposed to God. ‘Have you come to destroy us?’ they cry in fear. No, Jesus has not come to destroy people but to set them free.

 

And so Jesus heals the man and liberates from the spiritual power which oppresses him. This is really important, because it is a sign of the Kingdom of God. When evil is defeated, when people are set free from spiritual darkness, then the Kingdom of God really is among us.

 

I knew of a woman who had got involved in the occult. At first it seemed fun, fascinating even. Then it was an opportunity to make money, as friends turned to her for readings and mediumship. But after a while, the darkness began to grow and take over. She started experiencing weird things, hearing voices, she was no longer in control, running scared.

Desperate, she turned to the church and was prayed for. She repented of what she’d done, turned to Christ and was delivered from the oppression. It was an amazing liberation for someone very troubled.

 

We might not think that kind of thing happens very much, but you’d be surprised. The name of Jesus has power – to bring peace to disturbed homes, calm into troubled lives. The Kingdom of God defeats evil.

 

In many ways, Jesus’ authority can set us free, from all sorts of things. I know a man who was dependent on alcohol. Not strictly an alcoholic, but relying on a drink or two to get through the day. The power of Jesus has set him free.

 

Now, that man has to watch himself in future. He knows that a single drink might make him fall off the wagon. The legacy of his past will probably stay with him for the rest of his life. There is healing, but not to make the problem vanish. He must still depend on God. I know several faithful Christians who are just about managing to keep their heads above the water. People who are using all the grace God can give to deal with depression, ME or other illness. It’s a real struggle for them to get by.

 

Why does God not simply take it away? If Jesus has authority over the chains that bind us, why does he not set us completely free? Why this day to day struggle? Why a kind of partial healing, depending on God until the day comes when we are fully free? It feels like that with physical healing too. In the verses after this reading, Jesus heals Peter’s mother in law. She has a fever, and Jesus helps her up and she recovers completely. Jesus has power over sickness, so why is that not always experienced?

 

I live with that question all the time. I live with a child who in many ways has received healing. People have prayed earnestly, and he has done much better than expected, miraculously he keeps on going. His capabilities have exceeded anything anyone dared to predict. A week on Monday he will be the subject of a documentary about his political campaigning and poetry – yet he still inhabits a broken body.

 

To Jonathan the power of Jesus to change lives is real. He knows the difference God has made – and is the most content person I have ever known. He looks forward to the day when he shall be made complete, healed in eternity. That overarching perspective reminds us that the Kingdom of God is not yet complete, that our final liberation is yet to come.

 

For in this reading, the King, the Chosen One, the Son of God begins to bring in his Kingdom. The signs of the Kingdom of God are everywhere. All around us. We see the Kingdom of God when people find new life in Jesus. When lives are transformed by Christ’s authoritative teaching. We experience the power of the Kingdom of God in victory over evil. When lives are set free, broken creation is healed and restored. We respond as Jesus calls us to journey with him and play our part in growing the Kingdom of God.

 

The Kingdom of God begins, and it continues to grow, until eventually it will be fulfilled in God’s presence. Jesus changes lives. He did so then, and he does so now. This is the message, and the power, that he invites us to share. Let us seek to live by Christ’s authority in every area of life. Let us submit everything to him. And may we see his power to bring change impact positively on those around us.

 

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Come and See

When was the last time that you just had to tell the world? When you got so enthusiastic about something – a new car that you couldn’t wait to demonstrate to a friend? A grandchild’s winning sprint posted on Facebook? Or even just boasting about the Jamie Oliver puddings you picked up for £2.50 in the post-Christmas sales?

 

In this reading from John’s gospel, Chapter 1 verses 43 to 51 the first disciples get so enthusiastic about meeting Jesus that they just have to tell someone. It invites us to think about how we meet Jesus today, what he means to us personally, and how we might invite others to him.

 

This church season of Epiphany focusses on Jesus being revealed, people discovering who he is. So several of the gospel accounts we read come from the beginning of his ministry. Here Jesus returns from the desert regions to Galilee and chooses his disciples. He’s already called Andrew and Peter, and in verse 43 he says to Philip ‘Follow me’.

 

And then something important happens. Philip finds Nathanael and says to him ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote: Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.’ Philip has found Jesus. He searches out his friend Nathanael and full of enthusiasm, he shares his discovery, in his own words. Philip is the first ordinary person to tell someone else about Jesus. He does something so important – for if people everywhere will become part of the Kingdom of God, then one must tell another. We too can share our faith – it is a duty and a joy to do so.

 

But Philip’s efforts don’t meet with a warm response. ‘Nazareth? Can anything good from there?’ The place was totally unremarkable. About ten acres in size, with a population of 200 to 400 peasant farmers. They lived in houses which were half building, half cave burrowed into the soft rock. Can anything good come from there? But isn’t that the point? Precisely the place where God enters humanity at its humblest, identifies most closely with us by sharing human hardships. That’s what the incarnation is about – the dump is where God is most likely to be.

Rather wisely, Philip just replies ‘Come and see’. Give Jesus a chance, try him out and make up your own mind. Philip says ‘Come and find out for yourself. Experience and find out if it’s true.’

 

At Christmas we got given a board game – it was one of those that has complex symbols printed on a board, hundreds of little plastic shapes, piles of cards that all mean different things, and tiny tokens to punch out and lose. The instructions ran to a small booklet – two whole pages on just setting the game up!

 

Did we sit down and read the manual aloud to the assembled players? Did we work it through in our minds before we began to play? Of course not! We just started playing and found out the rules as we went. ‘Now it’s your turn. Move your token. Roll the dice. 7. What’s that mean? The plague – what are the rules for the plague?’ And so on.

 

Now there were some complaints that Daddy was finding new rules at times which suited him. Yet overall, it worked really well, and it was a fun, well designed game. Ok, for the first time we were a bit confused. But when we played it again, and again, we really got the hang of it.

 

It can often be the same when people encounter Jesus today. There is a proverb that people belong before they believe. In other words people appreciate the friendship of a Christian community, they are drawn to the joy and mystery of worship, they take part, even get stuck in – and then something of faith stirs and grows into understanding. People come and see, experience the living Christ, and then believe.

 

Even before someone comes through those doors, they will have seen the Kingdom of God at work in the world. Maybe the church’s work in a food bank or a Romanian orphanage, or a kind friend, will lead someone to take faith seriously, will help them realise that those words mean something. The Christian faith is experienced, desired, caught, which generates the willingness to learn and understand.

So for Christians, when we seek to share our faith, let’s remember that explanation is important – and it is made real by genuine experience of God’s love. It is fine to issue an invitation – which will be effective when it is backed up by a faith that making a difference in the world. Neither words nor actions are enough on their own. We must have both.

 

And then Jesus will do his own thing. I have learnt not to try and control people’s path to faith. For Jesus has his own way of dealing with each person. He knows them far more intimately than I do. So it is my place to watch and listen for what he is doing – speak the word in season, invite when the Holy Spirit prompts, challenge when appropriate, all the while trying to follow the lead of the Holy Spirit.

 

Jesus works his own particular way. The conversation in 47 onwards is rather odd. Jesus greets Philip with the words ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.’ In effect ‘Here’s a genuine bloke, there’s no messing about with this man. He’s an honest seeker.’

 

Nathanael seems to recognise this is fair, but he is surprised: ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus replies ‘I saw you under the fig tree, before Philip called you.’ Apparently this is enough to convince Nathanael who immediately jumps to the astonishing conclusion ‘Rabbi you are the Son of God, you are the King of Israel!’

 

What’s going on here? V.50 suggests that Jesus had seen Nathanael by some kind of prophetic insight. A supernatural ability which combines with Philip’s words and the presence of Christ to convince Nathanael.

 

Probably also Nathanael is meant to be an example. He’s the open minded, fair, faith-filled and hopeful Jewish person waiting for the Messiah. Perhaps there were such people among the first recipients of the gospel. Perhaps they themselves were puzzled as to why so many of their fellow-Jews did not accept Jesus as the Messiah. Indeed the Christians had been expelled from the synagogues. Perhaps Nathanael is an example to them of what ought, what could be.

 

 

For us too, Nathanael reminds us that some people will get it. Jesus meets them and wham! Perhaps we may know people whose initial scepticism has been replaced by faith. Suddenly the Holy Spirit surprises us by what he can do in someone’s life. Meeting Jesus in worship, acts of service, prayer, stillness is incredibly powerful.

 

We have to face up to the fact that many Christians today, myself included, often have a negative assumption about how people will react when we speak about faith. We assume they won’t be interested. Or we give up at the first sign of reluctance, when maybe the invitation to come and see might be effective. Perhaps we are conditioned by the secular society around us not to share our faith or to be shy in doing so. In reality, folks are curious to find out about other people’s lives – if we share humbly and don’t lecture we often get an interested hearing.

 

Perhaps also we think that the people around us know about Christianity. We’ve all been brought up with it, we heard it all at school. What can I tell them that’s new? For starters, you’d be surprised what people don’t know! And for those who feel they’ve been there and done that, a radical servant Christianity brings them up short and makes them realise that the Kingdom of God changes lives.

 

Perhaps faith seems too big a thing to convey – after all it’s easy enough to enthuse about a bottle of wine – but faith is so life changing and so big it’s hard to sum up adequately. So maybe the answer is to try and convey a bit at a time. To respond to ‘how do you cope?’ with a personal explanation of the real difference faith makes in that situation. To be ready to explain the particular life choices we make due to faith. And to be ready to say ‘Come and see’ – not try and fix it with our explanations but invite people onto their own journey of discovery.

 

Bringing people to encounter Jesus, giving birth to faith is ultimately the Spirit’s work. Our role is to pray, listen, serve, speak, invite and accompany. For when we make space for the Spirit to work, he can do amazing things through us. Very soon the person we have taught will be teaching us things!

If there hadn’t been Nathanael, there wouldn’t have been v.51. Maybe it is a bit obscure: ‘you will see heaven opened and the angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man.’

 

But for those who were brought up with the Hebrew Bible, they would have instantly thought of Jacob. This Old Testament patriarch was running away from home. While sleeping rough, with a stone as a pillow, he dreamt he saw heaven open and a ladder connecting heaven and earth. Angels were ascending and descending on the ladder. Jacob took it as a sign that God was with him. In the morning he set up his stone pillow as a pillar to remember that God is here.

 

Jesus says that the angels ascend and descend on the Son of Man. On himself. He takes the place of the ladder linking heaven and earth. This one is the fully human, fully divine, son of man. In him God’s eternity and creation come together. In his body – perhaps hinting at the cross – he bridges the gap.

 

We do not climb a stairway to heaven by being good or keeping all the rules. It is Jesus himself who brings heaven to earth and earth to heaven. This is what is unique about him. Jesus does not point to a code to follow, nor a culture. The centre of Christianity is Jesus himself. That is why we say ‘Come and See’. Come and experience the life of the community in which Christ lives. Come and join the worship, come and receive the word and sacrament in which Christ is known. Come and serve, build the Kingdom of God on earth as in heaven. Come and see.

 

mark 1:1-8

The world’s most expensive Advent calendar costs – well, would you like to take a guess? Is it a) £100, b) £1000 or c) £10,000? This year the most expensive Advent calendar contains 24 little bottles. Each 30cl dram – that’s right, barely a single measure each – each one is a rare and ancient single malt whisky. And it costs £10,000. Mind you, that’s a snip compared the year that Porsche produced a million pound advent calendar with gifts including a yacht and a luxury watch.

 

It seems a far cry from the days when my brother and I used to race each other downstairs to open a little cardboard window with a picture and a Bible text inside. Replacing that with a chocolate calendar didn’t actually increase the anticipation and excitement – for the fun of Advent is all about getting closer to the great day.

 

Advent is a time of preparation, getting ready for the coming of Christ. In our gospel reading, from Mark chapter 1 verses 1-8 we heard how God prepared the way for Christ. Interestingly, Mark’s gospel doesn’t have the familiar Christmas stories that we know from Matthew and Luke. Mark doesn’t tell us anything about Jesus’ birth or childhood. Instead, it bursts into action with this mysterious character – John the Baptist. He appears in the wilderness with a message for God’s people: ‘Get ready, because God is doing something new.’

 

Mark says that John the Baptist was fulfilling the Old Testament prophecies. V.2 quotes from a couple of passages where God promises that he will send a messenger to reconcile his people to one another, and thereby prepare the way for God to come to them. V.3 is from Isaiah, where the prophet speaks about people returning from exile and God making the paths straight for them. Now though, Mark perceives a further meaning, hidden deeper in the traditional texts: it is the Lord himself who is coming and he has sent someone to get his people ready.

 

 

And they needed the help. Life was tough in first century Judah. The Romans were an occupying force, people longed for liberation. The freedom they seek will ultimately be found in Jesus, but before his ministry can begin, John the Baptist must prepare the way.

 

There is a recognisable pattern here and elsewhere in the Bible: people experience challenges; they go through a time of spiritual preparation and turning to God; eventually God blesses them. We can see that pattern in the history of nations: the Methodist revival which transformed 18th Century England, bringing hope and self-sufficiency to the poor, began with a few Oxford undergrads trying to live for God.

 

The same pattern happens in church life: somebody once asked Sandy Millar, the previous Vicar of Holy Trinity Brompton, how the growth of that church and the Alpha course had begun. He replied: ‘it all started when a few older ladies got together to pray.’ Perhaps we have also seen it in our own lives: when times are hard yet we can also see God preparing us to encounter him and be used in greater ways.

 

I think there are signs that the same pattern: of challenge, preparation and blessing can be seen now. As a nation we’re going through great uncertainty, big questions about our future direction in a changing world, at a time when our spiritual identity is also unclear. Yet Christians are turning to God more profoundly, open to his call.

 

There is a new national movement of prayer: led from the front by the Archbishops in the Thy Kingdom Come week, which was joined by many different denominations. There’s a willingness to change, a programme of reform, seeds of God renewing his church so that it can be prophetic light in the nation. I think those times of preparation are beginning.

 

 

I see it locally too: for a couple of years we’ve tried to get a regular Gauzebrook Prayer Meeting but it’s never quite happened. Until last week – and hopefully the last Wednesday of every month from now on. Suddenly the leaders of other churches are keen to meet up with us, and in our churches there’s a willingness to try new things. On the 22nd Feb we have a special evening to pray and think about the future.

 

So as we look at how John the Baptist prepared the way, let’s apply it to our nation, our church, our own lives and even the run-up to Christmas!

 

‘John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.’ Who here has been baptised? Who remembers their baptism? I certainly don’t. Like many of us, I was baptised as a baby, marking the beginning of a Christian life, the start of growing in knowledge of God.

 

Now the people who came to John were Jewish. They hadn’t been baptised. In fact nobody had been baptised before then – it hadn’t been invented. Jewish people used to bathe regularly to keep ritually keen, and if any non-Jew decided to convert, a full body wash was part of the ceremony. But the way John did it – a splash under the water in a river – and the meaning he gave it was completely novel.

 

Imagine people coming to see John. Dirty, tired from a long journey, it’s a real blessing to leave the desert and come to the greenery of the Jordan. The cool water refreshes their sore feet. Waist high in water, they confess their sins, and then John immerses them. Dirt washed away, light pouring upon them as they come up out of the water, it is like a new birth. A fresh start. The old life washed away, the beginning of something new.

 

 

When John baptised people, it was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Repentance is a technical word, but it basically means turning back to God. Whenever we say sorry for the wrong we have done, ask God’s forgiveness and his help to live the right way – that’s repentance. Baptism is a symbol of repentance: sin being washed away and entering into a new life close to God.

 

Repentance is absolutely fundamental when God begins to move. It’s when a prisoner looks at himself in the mirror and doesn’t want to live like that anymore, and cries out ‘God if you’re there, help me’. It’s when a mother who’s snapped and hit her child sobs ‘God, I need help.’ It’s when a church that’s been shrinking comes to its senses and realises that tinkering around the edges is not going to bring the life of the Spirit that God desires. It’s when a nation looks aghast at an atrocity and wonders ‘what sort of society have we created? We must change’

 

If that turning away from evil and determination to do right does not include God, then those good intentions do not last.  But if it includes turning to God, true repentance will bring life, and as in v.8, unleash the power of the Holy Spirit. Absolutely central to our personal and corporate renewal is repentance, turning back to God.

 

A couple of years’ ago I went to the Holy Land, and saw the place where John is supposed to have baptised people. The Jordan is surprisingly small – deeper than the Avon at Malmesbury but not much wider. While I was there, somebody was baptised, and because it’s so intimate you know exactly what’s going on. It’s a very public declaration of faith. For the person being baptised it was obviously very emotional and important. Part of that may be because they were standing up and being counted, they were saying: I choose to follow Jesus. That public decision will give that person confidence in the years to come.

 

 

So do people know that you are a Christian? Neighbours, those at work, family, do they know what faith means to you? How might you let them know in a way which is sensitive, appropriate and attractive?

 

One culturally acceptable mark of Christianity is giving up things for Lent. Not that everybody who does is therefore a Christian, or that all Christians must – but it can indicate commitment. Why stop at Lent? Traditionally Advent is also a fast, although I have to say it’s a rather more difficult one with all those mince pies and port.

 

As verse 6 tells us, John the Baptist was clothed with camel’s hair, and ate locusts and wild honey. Fasting can be a sign of dependence on God, it is one of the things God uses to prepare us. Giving something up for a while can create space to draw close to God, it reduces our dependencies, it grows self-discipline. Perhaps most of all, it can help us focus on Christ.

 

For that’s the point. That’s why John came: to get people ready for Jesus. That’s why they needed to get their hearts ready and return to God in repentance – so that the Messiah would find a fertile soil for his message. That’s why people stood up and made a commitment – so when Christ called they would leap to their feet. That’s why John fasted and prayed – to develop self-discipline in following Jesus.

 

As he did then, so now. God can do great things with us. I trust that he will do wonderful things in our nation and church. As that begins, he prepares us. Let us then prepare ourselves to seek him. Amen.

 

 

Hospitality, Genesis 18v1-15

A farmer went to the big city to see the sights. Checking in, he asked the hotel receptionist about the time of meals. ‘Breakfast is served from 6 am to 11 am; lunch from midday to 3 pm, and supper from 5.30 to 11.00 in the evening’. ‘Look here’ enquired the farmer in surprise, ‘when am I going to get some time to see the city?

The hospitality industry is big business in Britain, providing jobs for many people. So much so that when we hear the word hospitality we might well think first of a commercial transaction – paying to stay a night in a room. Or companies which provide receptions at weddings, that kind of thing. Hospitality is incredibly valuable in oiling the wheels of business, politics, estate agency, you name it.

And of course there is the hospitality that is offered to close friends and family. One wag once defined hospitality as ‘Making your guests feel at home, even when you wish they were.

In many parts of the world hospitality is still as it was in the days of Abraham: extremely generous. A stranger turns up announced, and no matter what the time of day, everything stops. He or she is warmly welcomed, given the best seat and a cold drink while the fatted calf is killed so a generous meal can be served

I heard of a man in an Africa village who was due to welcome guests from an English Diocese to his home as part of a link Diocese scheme. He had heard that Westerners were used to a different sort of loo. So he planned to install one. This man was going to blow his life savings on fitting a WC so that his guests could enjoy home comforts for a week.

Why such incredible generosity? In many societies, caring for your guests and giving them the best possible hospitality is a point of principle and honour. You disgrace yourself, your clan and your community if you do not welcome the stranger. 

After all your fellow human being is made in the image of God. Entertaining guests is a way of serving God. As Hebrews 13:2 puts it: ‘Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by doing so some people have entertained angels without knowing it.’ Or as Jesus said in Matthew 25 ‘I was hungry and you gave me something to eat.’ 

Many cultures have tales about divine beings arriving in human form, and the dreadful things that happen if they are turned away. Here v.1 informs the reader that the Lord appears to Abraham, so we know who the visitors are. But v.2 makes it clear that Abraham has not yet recognised God as he only sees three men. Interesting isn’t it that God appears as three – from very early on the church has seen this as a pointer to the Trinity and you may be familiar with the Orthodox icons on this theme like Rublev’s Hospitality of Abraham

Even by Middle Eastern standards, Abraham is exceptionally welcoming. Barking orders to Sarah and the servants he rushes round organising a meal with an extraordinary amount of bread and an entire calf just for three people. Surely it is no coincidence that these are also the offerings made to God in Old Testament worship? Like modern Bedouin they sit and eat yoghurt as their host respectfully stands by.

In v.9 there’s a hint of supernatural knowledge – how do they know that Abraham’s wife is called Sarah? The promise of a baby follows, Sarah laughs to herself. But nothing is hidden from their guest, and his true nature is revealed as v.13 uses God’s name: ‘The Lord said to Abraham ‘why did Sarah laugh?’

She laughs because of God’s amazing promise – the promise of a baby. Hospitality enables them to hear God’s great blessing. We’ll come to the promise later, but for now, what about hospitality? What can we learn from Abraham’s ministry of welcome

Firstly, hospitality is a ministry. It brings people together, it makes peace, it serves communities. Those who offer hospitality are bringing a great blessing and we need to thank them.

Secondly remember the words of Jesus about not seeking returns. When you give a party, don’t invite those who can repay you, Jesus said, invite those who have nothing. Hospitality that is given freely, that is offered to the poor, that includes the marginalised is hospitality that honours Jesus. He loves it when we step out from our friendship groups to greet the person who’s standing alone and unsure. When we serve those in need we serve him.

Thirdly, in Romans 12:13 St Paul says ‘Practice hospitality’. Practice makes perfect. Practice means doing it – offering hospitality isn’t just the responsibility of the few but for everyone. Practice means keep on doing it. Practice means be ambitious, have aims so you get better

For the reason behind hospitality is that each person matters to us because each person matters to God. Our needs, our hopes, our dreams matter to him. I wonder what you would do if God came to your house today? If Jesus came to my house I know that I would be like Jairus. I know the healing I would seek, the one whom I would bring to Jesus for him to heal and bless. Who or what would you bring to Jesus?

In the story, God knows Abraham and Sarah’s deepest longing. He knows the pain they have felt over many years. He offers hope even when they do not ask. 25 long years they have lived with this promise – God said you will become the father of many nations and they will inhabit this land. Over a quarter of a century Abraham and Sarah have become rich, but they do not possess the land God promised. During that time Abraham has become a father to Ishmael, but the mother was Sarah’s servant. Hope quenched seems to have become bitter

But here, God keeps his promise. What I love about this story is the way that God’s promise weaves together the big picture – the salvation of the world – and the personal blessing for an elderly couple. There’s the overarching story: how God promised that Israel would be a light to the nations, showing God’s love and giving rise to the Messiah, our Saviour. And there’s the personal story, how all this will happen when Abraham and Sarah have their longed for child.

God is able to include our lives in his creation-wide plan. Sometimes we may feel as if we are very small cogs in an enormously large machine. But actually we are God’s beloved children, hugely important to him.

A better picture might be a flower bed, a riot of colour. There are groups of plantings, blocks of blues purples and reds following the gardener’s plan. Yet this happens because each individual geranium or rose is following its destiny, being fulfilled in flowering.

God weaves a tapestry out of history and we should not be surprised if we surrender ourselves to him and then find that we are fulfilling our own purpose while playing a part on a greater stage. The key thing that has to happen though is our obedience: just before this reading God had appeared to Abraham. He gave Abraham the ceremony of circumcision – an outward sign to distinguish the Jewish people, and Abraham obeyed God. It’s that commitment and obedience which opens the way to finding God’s will

So if we ask God to steer us, then we must be prepared to hoist the sail. If we seek God’s guidance then there will be surprises on the way. As God weaves our story into his great tapestry, even our disappointments will be transformed by his grace.

It was such a shock and surprise that Sarah laughed. ‘Yeah right’ she thought – and God knew. She laughed again nine months later, and so Abraham and Sarah’s child was called Isaac – which means ‘laughter’. Laughter, joy, promise kept. The God who watches over us includes us in his plan –and laughs with us in our surprise.

 

 

A model for the church?

Acts 2:42-47

What would we do if 3000 people got converted one day? If you turned up to church and there was a queue of 3000 to get in? That was the amazing thing that happened on the Day of Pentecost shortly after the first Easter. Jesus had promised the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit came in power. Crowds gathered, Peter explained what was going on, and as it says in v. 41 of Acts Chapter 2: ‘Those who welcomed his message were baptised and that day about three thousand persons were added.’

3000 new Christians, all in one day, in small city: Jerusalem. It must have been astonishing, the most incredible thing to be part of – I doubt if anyone got any sleep that night they would have been totally buzzing! Or perhaps they did sleep from exhaustion. After all, if 12 apostles are baptising 3000 people, that’s 250 each. And if it takes a minute to baptise each one, then that works out at four hours solid!

Maybe the whole group of disciples, which Luke describes in Acts 1:15 as 120 strong, played a part. Even so, as a pastor you’d want to take everyone’s names and addresses to keep in touch – imagine doing that before the days of handheld devices. And as I think about the Hullavington reordering I wonder where they would all meet? Thank God for the temple courts and a warm climate! It would be the most glorious, chaotic unprepared challenge – providing teaching and pastoral care to all those brand new believers. But how wonderful!

Even 1% of that number would be remarkable if it happened here. 30 newcomers would double the size of the congregation. How would we help them settle in? We might need new children’s groups, it might give the chance to start a band. If something on that scale happened, it would be the most important thing all year, surely it would be the highest priority for the church’s life. Pray for such things!

So as we look forward to starting our Alpha course on May 11th, what happens if through that three people come to faith? What do we do to help those new to Christianity? And to help ourselves grow?

In Acts 2:42 St Luke describes the key practices of Christian discipleship, and in verses 43-47 he expands upon them. These are the things the early church focussed on to support each other in following Jesus. The disciplines we need today if we are to be strong and effective in Christ’s service.

Firstly, they devoted themselves to the apostles teaching. Presumably this meant hearing the stories and sayings of Jesus, learning the explanation of what God had done through Christ. And putting it into practice – verse 43 describes the signs and wonders done by the apostles showing that the Kingdom of God is at hand. For us, the apostles’ teaching has become the New Testament and it’s important that we read and reflect on it regularly.

Secondly, they gave time to fellowship. Fellowship is a bit of a jargon word but it basically means meeting together, talking about what’s going on in your life and particularly your faith, praying and encouraging one another. It’s one of the most important things in strengthening our faith. If you just turn up to church once a week, it’s like learning to drive through a weekly lesson. But if you have fellowship it’s like getting real driving practice in through the week.

Today, you can find fellowship in a structured way like through a housegroup, Lent lunch and the Mothers’ Union. Or it can be informal – Chantal has a prayer partner she meets over coffee from time to time for a chat and to pray for one another. I’d really encourage you to think about how you could do this because when you look at different churches you usually find that the places where people are enjoying their faith, the places with a sense of vibrancy, are where those people have a way of meeting up midweek.

It can also build incredibly deep community. I know of someone who a few years ago needed to exchange contracts on a house. They had the money, but not in the right place, and a bridging loan couldn’t be done in time. So they sent out a message and within a day had been lent tens of thousands by friends. It’s a modern example of v 44 – they were together and had all things in common.

Thirdly, the believers joined in breaking bread together. This may well refer to the Eucharist, which in those days was part of a shared meal. Verse 46 describes them sharing meals at home with gratitude – I always think it’s such a blessing when the church comes together to eat.

Last of all, Luke mentions the prayers. This probably means worship, the praising God of v.47. Perhaps it also includes coming together specifically to pray. Holding a prayer meeting for our world, the churches’ work, the people we know. If I’m honest, I think this is one area I’d really like to improve in the Gauzebrook Group. We do have prayer meetings – Pause and Pray, Saturday mornings at Sherston – but are they at the wrong time or wrong place? Or is there a particular style that would help people take part? I’d love to know because prayer is so important. We’re having a 24 hours of prayer on May 26th based in Norton – I’m hoping that can be the beginning of a prayer renewal across our area.

The apostles teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread and prayers. These are the bread and butter of the Christian life, our regular balanced diet. And they make all the difference. Over twenty years I’ve seen people come to faith who’ve grown and grown, who’ve blessed those around them and had a real influence for good. I’ve also seen people make an initial profession of faith and seem keen for a while, but then you see them less and less and their commitment fades.

I think there are two key differences between those who grow and those who fade. Number one is the midweek commitment – do they get support in a group? Number two is ministry – do they get stuck in? It’s fine being a passenger on a cruise ship, but I don’t think you’d want to live that way. Often those who drift away from the church have only ever received and not been given the chance to give something back. Having a ministry of your own helps you grow. Having an area of responsibility, whether that’s doing a reading or being a churchwarden, means you have to step out in faith, you find that God is trustworthy and he equips you with what you need. Having some form of service is a great way to grow in faith.

So are you getting that midweek connection? Do you have some form of service? And if not, how might that happen?

For as v47 shows, these are the things that lead to growth. When we as individuals grow, then the church does too, because that kind of Christian life is attractive.

Of course, the Early Church had one huge advantage. It was new! Imagine if nobody in England had heard of Jesus! You wouldn’t meet those who say ‘Oh, I’ve heard it all before. Had it drummed into me at school’ Imagine if Christianity was a new exotic faith, not seen as part of the past. It wouldn’t then be cool to rebel against Christianity, because it wouldn’t be part of the Establishment. And that is what the Christian faith is like in places like Nepal.

Familiarity breed contempt. So perhaps the answer for Christians in the West is to be less familiar. More radical. More distinctive. After all, if we lived like the Christians in Acts chapter 2, people would certainly notice. They might not like it, they might call it a cult. But it couldn’t be ignored.

There is however an elephant in the room. An enormous grey-trunked beastie which we can’t ignore any longer. I’m going to name that pachyderm and hope that by naming it we can tackle it.

‘Could life really go on like that?’ I wonder if you’re like me – whenever I read this passage I think ‘yes, but…’ Surely if they sold all their goods and share the proceeds, eventually they’d have no goods left? And if day by day they spent much time in the temple, well I guess that the washing pile could be left to build up – but if you want to eat the sowing and reaping must be done. You can sustain a heightened tempo for a while, but the leaky downpipe won’t fix itself. Surely also human nature will intervene? People fall out? The momentum slow? Is this just Luke’s ideal view of the church, not reality?

I think there are three possible responses. I want to challenge the assumption that these things can’t be sustained. There are signs and wonders today. Yes, there was persecution, but the courage of the Early Church meant that in Acts 4:3 they grew to 5000 members. Yes, there were fallings out, but the way they resolved conflict in appointing the first deacons was a huge witness and another point of growth. Yes, they did sell and share, but like a good overseas aid budget, if that money was invested in people they could become economically self-sufficient. So think twice before dismissing this passage as ‘just for those days’.

And when I think like that I also have to look at my priorities. Why is it not possible to meet regularly for prayer? Because there are so many other things to do? Why not rather put in prayer as my first commitment and fit in the meetings around it? If coming to worship is difficult, is it because I’m trying to have everything in my life?

I also want to recognise that there are seasons in a church’s life. It’s like the farming year – there are times when the plants grow and just need the occasional spray. There are other times when the combines are out harvesting by headlight at 3 am.

 (In Sherston it feels as if we’ve done a lot of ploughing, a lot of patient sowing and now we’re in May, seeing the young plants grow. In Hullavington it’s like we’re digging up the whole farm to put in field drains – it’s busy, intense and we need to look out for one another)

So I don’t believe that this passage is just for back then. I don’t believe it’s an impossibly idealistic vision, or a template than we can never even come close to. It’s there to challenge us, to set out what could be, the blessings that can be attained, something to which we can aspire – a living model for the church. Amen.

 

 

 

Road to Emmaus

Towards the end of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Aslan the king of the animals has been killed. As a Christ-figure, he gave his life in exchange for the boy Edmund. And now Edmund’s sisters gently tend the great lion’s body. They turn away to weep, and when they look back, he has gone. For a moment the grief becomes unbearable until they hear a familiar voice behind them. Aslan continues to speak p148.

C.S. Lewis captures well the joy of the Resurrection – that brightest of  mornings as a new life, a new world begins. There is life, humour and fun as the Risen Jesus pops up all over the place astounding his disciples, leaving a trail of joy and wonder behind him.

As Jonathan put it in his Easter poem ‘Erupting anguish obscuring, Gardener’s playful delight, Agony’s deep yearning, aching, Recognition ignites. Exploding joyful elation, Spirit’s music exclaims, Touching, soaring – soul suspended, Jesus beckons my name!’

That playful delight is in this passage too, the Road to Emmaus. I’d never thought of it until we read it with the children a little while ago. Susannah found it absolutely hilarious. Literally laugh out loud funny. Here are the two disciples, plodding glumly towards Emmaus – but we know don’t we that Jesus has risen. And here he comes, sneaking up on them – but they don’t recognise him!

And when he asks what they’re sad about, they start telling him all about himself – that was the funniest bit. He explains the Bible, how it foretold what would happen, but they still don’t see. It’s only at last, when he breaks the bread, that they perceive him.

Lay aside all the arguments about why the disciples didn’t recognise Jesus. Whether it was being dazzled by walking into the setting sun, eyes bleared by tears, only seeing what they expected, or as Luke seems to say in v.16 a spiritual blindness. Put aside all that – as far as my daughter is concerned, Jesus was playing ‘Boo’!

And yes, the Resurrection accounts are full of joy, playfulness and exhilaration. Grief is over. Sin is forgiven. Death is defeated and the horror of Calvary past. A new creation is begun, let us rejoice in its birth! Jesus is alive and will die no more, let us be joyful in his presence!

Surely that is the key message of the Road to Emmaus – that Jesus is with us. He is alive, alive today and we can know him. For that is the heart of Christianity. It is the presence of the living Christ which transformed those two disciples from tearful wanderers to running evangelists, and which transforms us today. All our witness, all our service, all the religious paraphernalia of Christianity is geared up to this: knowing, loving and serving the risen Christ.

I’m doing a leadership course at the moment which the Diocese are organising. It involves a day a month of input and group work. You might think that a course on leadership in the church would focus on techniques – how to be a better preacher; strategies – how to grow a church; and vision – how to discern God’s plan for your parish. There is certainly a lot of that.

Yet at least half of the course is about something much more important: how you live as a disciple of Christ. The inner life, knowing God. For no-one can presume to lead unless they first know how to follow. Last week’s session was called ‘Sustaining your first love’ – and it was all about how to keep your own relationship with God alive and flourishing. After all one of the biggest risks for anyone who tries to do good things for Christ’s church is that the busyness crowds out the love for Christ which brought us there in the first place. The danger of doing a lot for Jesus is that we forget to be with Jesus.

So how do we nourish that love? The Road to Emmaus gives us several pointers. Firstly, let’s support one another. It’s as the disciples were talking with each other that Jesus first came alongside them.

God gives us fellow Christians so we can support one another. Let’s make the most of that opportunity. Often when members of a church meet up there’s so much to talk about: fetes to plan, rotas to organise, gutters to clear, social chit-chat. How often do we actually talk about the faith that’s brought us together? Share the signs of God’s love in our lives? The things we’ve learnt recently? Our needs and support?

In v.18 the disciples begin talking with Jesus, and the equivalent for us is prayer. I find it interesting how honest these two are – they share their hopes and disappointments, their puzzles and doubts. Jesus doesn’t probe, but it’s as they are honest with him that he is able to carry their questions and answer them.

In my own prayers recently I’ve found it very liberating to say to God exactly what’s on my mind. Not to cover up the questions, or thoughts and temptations which seem unacceptable, but to let them all out. To tell God precisely how I feel, even if some of those feelings aren’t healthy or good. You know, you can’t surprise God. He knows it all already. So there’s no point having secrets from him. He’s totally unshockable. I’ve found that when I pray openly to God about the stuff that shouldn’t be there – anger, jealousy, whatever; God doesn’t close himself off and withdraw in horror. Instead he moves towards me and shows me how to deal with it. Keep trying to be more honest in prayer.

One of the ways God helps us is by reminding us of the promises in the Bible. Jesus opened up the Scriptures to the disciples on the Emmaus road. Like those disciples, sometimes we can get stuck with the Bible. Stuck reading the same bits, in the same way, hearing the same morals. So if you’ve got stuck, ring the changes. Try reading a different part of the Bible, use a different translation, get help from some reading notes. Read it in a new style – a whole passage out loud, or imagining it as a play, or taking just one phrase and turning it over and over in your mind.

For instance, a verse that came to mind when I was reading this passage was ‘Practice hospitality’. Paul says it in Romans 12:13, and the disciples did it when they invited Jesus to stay with them. The thing that interests me is that Paul writes Practice hospitality. And we all know that practice makes perfect! In other words, like squash or running, hospitality gets better the more you do it. If you don’t think you’re good at hospitality, try getting some practice in!

Finally, in v. 30, it’s in Communion that they recognise Jesus. And for us today, he offers himself to us in the sacrament so that we can be nourished by his presence. Communion is a very direct way that we can experience the risen Christ. In these churches we offer several communion services on Sundays, in different places at various times, so there are plenty of opportunities to receive. To keep on offering Communion, we need priests – priests who come in from elsewhere like Elveen, our new deacon who will be ordained in July, and priests who are raised up locally like Susan. Please pray that more people will respond to God’s call to be ordained and help us all experience Jesus.

There are many ways that we can know Christ today. For the reading we had this morning is not just a story about something that happened almost two-thousand years ago. It’s not just another piece of evidence in the Resurrection casefile, or an interesting discovery two particular people made. Far better: it’s the proclamation that Christ is risen indeed, that the joy of the new creation is begun, that we can know him today. That the presence of the Risen Christ is with us, ready to be known if we reach out for him

Alleluia, Christ is Risen!

He is Risen indeed, Alleluia!

 

Easter mystery

There’s not much room for doubt in Matthew’s Easter story. For Matthew it’s very clear: Jesus was raised from the dead, so go and spread the word.

In the New Testament we have four different accounts of Jesus’ life. And when it comes to the resurrection, the four gospel writers describe the events in different ways. Imagine there’s a car accident, the police take statements from the witnesses, the things they say will depend a bit on whether they were in one of the vehicles, or standing by the roadside – they’ll describe the same events but from a different perspective.

So too the gospel writers tell the Easter story in ways which reflect their own concerns and understanding about what this amazing event means.

Mark’s gospel is mysterious and the ending unresolved. The women go to the tomb, and find the stone has been rolled back. It ends on a cliffhanger – is Jesus really alive like the angel said? Mark draws us in, encouraging us to find out more.

There’s mystery in Luke too but it soon becomes clear. Luke knows that dead men don’t usually rise, so he gives us lots of proof. He describes Jesus meeting the disciples, eating fish to show he’s not a ghost. Luke is very practical: how we can know Jesus today? He tells us how Christians in every place and time can know Jesus walking alongside them in life and can recognise him in the bread and the wine. How Jesus gives us energy to share the good news with the world.

Whereas the others are selective, condensing the story, John’s gospel gives the whole sequence of events. John is the consummate story teller. He describes the horror of finding your friend’s grave empty, the confusion and grief of Mary, the puzzlement of the disciples giving way to understanding. The human drama and emotion appeal to us. For many, John’s gospel is the Easter story as they know it. in some churches John is the only gospel read on Easter Day

The reading we had today, from Matthew is all about the power and the victory of God. It’s stirring stuff, and you might like to have it front of you as we look at it together.

The day begins with dawn’s first light bringing hope to the sky. Suddenly the earth shakes. The power of God splits the rocks in two. If you go to Jerusalem, in the Adam and Eve Chapel of the church of the Holy Sepulchre, they will show you the faultline in the rocks, said to go back to that day.

A mighty angel of the Lord descends like lightning from heaven. Singlehandedly he rolls back the stone… and sits on it. That action says it all – the angel sat on the stone. Job done, that stone is not going back. Death is defeated once and for all. The tomb lies open – for everyone. Jesus’ resurrection is the promise of ours also, if we place our trust in him. We shall live forever. Then we too, forgiven through Christ, will be as holy and as pure as the angel’s white garments.

Overwhelmed the guards lie flat out. So much for the imperial might of Rome! God is victorious, Christ reigns. Sin and evil defeated.

<heartily> ‘Don’t be afraid’, the angel says to the women. <to the point> ‘Look, that’s where he was. He’s not here. He’s risen. You’ve got a job to do: go and tell his disciples.’ Afraid, but full of joy, the women turn to leave, and there is Jesus! They worship him, convinced he is alive. Only when the disciples meet Jesus in Galilee does Matthew mention that some of them doubted.

How can Matthew be so clear when the other gospel writers take a while to get to a point of conviction, if at all? Partly it’s because they answer different questions. John wants to describe what the first Easter was like; Luke how we can know Jesus today. Partly it’s down to personality: Mark appeals to those who are inquisitive and like open-endedness.

Can they all be true? Yes. The others tell the story from a human perspective. We accompany Peter and Mary on the journey to the tomb, we share their shock and puzzlement. As we work out with them what’s going on, we slowly become convinced that Jesus is alive.

Matthew writes with an all-seeing divine perspective. Jesus has risen. Of course he has – this has been planned from eternity. God acted, and it was done. Nothing, not even raising the dead, is a problem for God who spoke the worlds into being. God’s victory is assured, the only thing that’s a bit puzzling is why the people take so long to get it.

As we celebrate Easter today, we need to hold together both approaches. We need the human quest for understanding, the faith that wrestles with doubts and looks for evidence. If we are told ‘It says so here, you must just believe’, it feels pastorally insensitive, not taking account of our need to think things through. If that’s you, you can take comfort that Jesus understands this: he was gentle with doubting Thomas and gave him the assurance he needed.

Yet we also need that divine perspective Matthew gives us. We should remember that the power of the resurrection is not limited by our ability to understand it; that truth is not constrained by our consent. If something is true, it is true whether or not you or I believe it. Matthew’s gospel is an important corrective to the human tendency to feel that our doubts and questions in some way affect what actually happened that day. It challenges us not to wallow in doubt. Matthew says this is life-changing truth.

The other gospels invite us to make up our minds. They include us in the story. They ask us to consider the evidence. But Matthew proclaims the resurrection. He invites us to live in the light of the new life of Christ. To rejoice that life begins afresh with him. To know that we are forgiven. To have faith that this life is not the end. To be changed by the power of the Risen Christ. Happy Easter!