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.

 

 

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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!

Palm Sunday

How many palms did the people use to greet Jesus on Palm Sunday? Two, one on the right and one on the left!

Palm Sunday works on all kinds of levels. The children like waving the branches, and if we manage to get a donkey too, well that’s brilliant. And why not? When the Pharisees complained about noise in the temple, Jesus said that if the children were silent, the stones would cry out praise to God.

At the symbolic level there’s the blessing of palm crosses. My Gran always had one pinned to her dressing table. It was renewed each year, and I guess it was a reminder as she got ready in the morning. A sacramental symbol of God’s love taken into the home, Jesus’ sacrifice for me.

And then of course Palm Sunday has the bitterness amidst the joy, the fickleness of the crowd who at the beginning of the week hail their king, but barely a few days later are bawling for his blood.

What we often forget is just how political Palm Sunday is. It’s much more than just a festival procession. The reason the children were singing and dancing is because that much loved prophet from Galilee had come to be their King. It’s not just ‘Jesus is here’, it’s ‘King Jesus is coming to reign.’

And that’s what Jesus intended. He really did claim to be God’s chosen King. Today many people think of Jesus as a Middle Eastern prophet, a religious visionary, a healer and all round good egg. Decent, ethical and loving, perhaps a bit hippy/radical, but basically harmless.  

If that’s what Jesus was really like, how did he manage to get himself crucified? Why would anyone bother crucifying someone who was that innocuous? No, the reason the Romans executed Jesus is that they saw him as a threat. The Chief Priests said ‘This man claims to be a king’.

The charge against him, nailed to the cross above his head, was ‘The King of the Jews’. That’s why Jesus was killed – because everyone around him believed he had claimed to be the Messiah, the King of the Jews.

It won’t wash either to say that Jesus was misunderstood – he had plenty of chance to deny it if he wished to save himself. To argue that Jesus was misunderstood we’d also have to believe that Jesus was a spectacularly bad communicator. Which clearly isn’t the case.

No, on Palm Sunday Jesus deliberately set out to enter Jerusalem as the Messiah. Look at our reading: in verses 1-3 it describes at some length the elaborate preparation Jesus arranged. He didn’t just grab a random donkey because he was feeling tired. He set it up in advance. He intentionally fulfilled the Old Testament prophecy of Zechariah quoted in verse 5: ‘Look your king is coming to you, humble and mounted on a donkey.’ Jesus reveals himself as God’s chosen King.

This matters to us because it means that Jesus is a much more significant figure than just a prophet. If anyone says to you that Paul reinvented Christianity or that the church made Jesus into a God, here is the answer: Jesus himself claimed to be God’s Messiah. And it also means that Jesus is a much more political, more radical figure than we often imagine. He’s not just Lord in the spiritual realm but in the physical one too.

Of course, that kind of claim brings expectations, which can be hard to fulfil. Anyone seen Donald Trump’s approval rating recently? The graph goes like this…He promised the earth to those who felt left out, that his own brand of deal-making would change everything, and when he didn’t deliver in the way they expected, the crowd began to turn against him.

That’s the way crowds work. In first century Palestine rumour and news spread by word of mouth. Nowadays we have the internet. Mark Zuckerberg’s boast is that no two people have the same experience of Facebook. Which is exactly right.

My feed is full of left-wing news articles and quizzes to find out ‘Which famous Anglican theologian are you?’ Chantal’s news feed has adverts for children’s craft resources and videos of animals doing amusing things. That’s not at all her though, and mine’s not really me.

It’s due to our friends. The computer guesses the kind of stuff we might be interested in based on who our FaceBook friends are. And the danger of that is, depending on how wide your circle of friends, you can end up in an echo chamber, only seeing things which confirm your own point of view.

This isn’t an obscure point – experts reckon that the way social media works makes politics more polarised and makes it harder to respect different opinions. We all need to have friends with whom we disagree – perhaps we should even confuse the computer by clicking on links for opposing points of view!

Disappointing the crowd on social media is dangerous. A real live crowd more so. The Jewish people were oppressed, they wanted a military deliverer, and they latched on to Jesus. From their point of view, he was a let-down, he didn’t deliver what they wanted. But Jesus had constantly told them that the Messiah would suffer, die and rise again. They hadn’t wanted to hear the true meaning of the Messiah.

It’s easy for us with the benefit of hindsight. Perhaps we could pause and ask if we ever misunderstand Jesus? Do we want him to deliver something he has never promised to do? I’ve quite often met people who have given up on God because they feel he let them down. Life has been harder than they hoped, but they’ve never stopped to ask themselves were those hopes realistic? God doesn’t promise to protect us from hardship when we follow him – but he does promise to go with us through the challenging times.

Nor does God promise to sustain us in our Christian faith without effort from ourselves. He showers means of grace upon us – he gives us prayer, the Bible, church and the encouragement of other Christians.

But we’ve got to use them: pick up that Bible, make the time to pray, join with worship, put yourself in the place where God’s means of support can do you good. He gives us his Spirit if we will only open our hands to receive! Otherwise we end up like the crowd on Palm Sunday: singing ‘Hosanna’ but asking ‘Who is this?’ They haven’t really understood the Messiah, and Jesus needs to make it clear how he meets their real need.

To do so, they have to recognise their false solutions. The Romans wanted more possessions and power. They sought security by eliminating threats. Invading other nations for wealth and stability, they instead spent more and more on armies to quell rebellion. The Jews sought identity in their land, rather than in God who is everywhere. Longing for freedom, they thought their problems would be over once the enemy was defeated. Instead they fell out among themselves.

Don’t we see the same today? Seeking security in economic and military might? Blaming our problems on others? Jesus overcame all this by teaching that we are all sinners who need God’s love. None is better than another. All alike need forgiveness. Dying on the cross, he forgave Jew and Gentile together. He bore their sin and division, he reconciled them with God. When he rose again he called them together as children of God. He invites us to find a new identity in him. When we are secure in being loved by God we don’t find our ultimate validation and security in other things which can’t bear the weight.

Rooted in that firm foundation we can then share in God’s work of transforming the world by the way of the cross. Changing the world through following Jesus’ example is not about imposing solutions by power – it’s about sacrifice and self-giving, generosity and love.

That may take longer, it may feel tougher, but will lead to real reconciliation and progress. God has promised to give us the Holy Spirit so that we can build his Kingdom. It grows here on earth and will one day be fulfilled when King Jesus comes in his glory. Today on Palm Sunday we’re called to follow Jesus in the life-giving, world changing way of the cross. Amen.

Our destiny: Glory!

Today’s my first Sunday back after being on holiday down in Seaton, on the Jurassic Coast. The Jurassic coast is so called because it is the place for fossils. The steep streets of Lyme Regis are full of fossil shops, where you can buy bright polished ammonites varying in size from little golden pyrites half an inch across to great monsters of two foot wide.

They are wondrous to look at – shimmering colours, whirling patterns, fine details and texture. You can pay uto buy one – or you can pick among the flotsam and pebbles to find similar specimens on the beach. The seashore ones won’t look the same – the fossil shops have washed them, picked off encrusting mud, cut and polished the fossil shells to a finish. Yet the beauty within is there ready to see.

It’s like that with the pebbles on the beach. They shine in glorious pinks, greens and sapphire shades. You take them home, and drying out they fade to a disappointing off-grey. But immerse them in water and the glorious beauty emerges again. In the right situation, at the right time, for those who are there to see it, there is glory to perceive.

And so it was with Jesus. Usually there was nothing extraordinary about his appearance and as the three disciples climbed the scented slopes that day, they probably thought they were going to spend some time in prayer. After all, mountain tops are where you go to be alone with God. But as v.2 in our gospel reading from Matthew 17 says: ‘Jesus was transfigured before them and his face shone like the sun.’

Suddenly Jesus’ true nature shone through. Awestruck, Peter James and John saw Jesus as he really is – the Son of God. We might speak of a bride being radiant on her wedding day, or of someone exuding cheerfulness, and in the Old Testament there is the story of the face of Moses shining with reflected glory after spending time in the presence of God.

But this is on a whole different level. This transfiguration is not of human origin, nor even is it from reflected divine light. Instead it’s part of who Jesus is, his real nature revealed. God himself affirms in v. 5: ‘This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him!’

This had been God’s plan right from the beginning – that’s the point of Moses and Elijah being there – they represent the Old Testament Law and the Prophets, who predicted the coming of Christ and looked forward to him. God intended to send his Son and to reveal him.

Those words might remind you of another event? They’re almost identical to the words of God at Jesus’ baptism. Both times God says that Jesus is his own Son, divine but come to earth as a human being. There are many pieces of evidence in the gospels that point us to that conclusion: the miracles Jesus performed like calming the storm, his power to heal and authority over evil. Jesus himself believed that he was God’s son: he claimed to be able to forgive people, which only God could do; and when he taught he did so with authority: ‘You have heard that it was said…but I say to you…’ And of course his Abba Father gave him the ultimate vindication in raising him from the dead

In a way, the Transfiguration looks forward to the Resurrection. The glory revealed here is the glory that Jesus will share when he has conquered death. But looking down from this steep hill, there’s a long and dusty road back to Jerusalem. A path of pain and sorrow that Jesus is about to tread, the way of Holy Week, that leads up to the cross. Only by coming down the mountain, by embracing a suffering world and transforming it, can the glory be made available to all.

Understandably, St Peter doesn’t want to come down. In v.4 he offers to build dwellings so that Jesus, Moses and Elijah can stay up there with them forever.

I think that speaks to us of three choices that we have today. We too can be like Peter, and try to hang on to the spiritual experience. For instance, there are churches which are incredibly well resourced, with amazing music and technology, and they can be very popular. People travel miles to get to them – they drive though many parishes to get there. Maybe that’s not a problem if that experience enables them to serve better, to engage more closely with their community, to love their neighbours more deeply. But it is a problem if it’s just about seeking an experience. If worship isn’t geared up to making a difference.

Christians rightly seek to be built up in our faith and spiritually nourished – and sometimes we do need extra input beyond what we can do in one smallish church. To resource us in these churches we have Group Services where we all get together, housegroups for mutual support. Some of us go to the Filling Station or New Wine. I need to receive and be topped up so I go on annual retreats and the odd trip to HTB. For if all you do is give out, then you dry up. But if all you do is receive, you stop gaining any benefit because it’s as we give out that we grow.

The other danger to watch out for is what happened to the disciples after the reading. They came down the mountain, encountered difficulties, and promptly forgot the power they had just experienced. When we are preoccupied by challenges, they crowd us in and we neglect the resources we have in Christ.

We can become like the guy who was king in the time of Elisha. Samaria was besieged and all king Joram could see were crowds of enemies. Elisha the prophet prayed ‘Lord, open the king’s eyes’, and he saw the angels of God, an invisible army protecting the city.

That’s why the Transfiguration happens at this particular point. It’s a blessing and encouragement for Jesus and his disciples. Knowing who Jesus really is gives them strength and persistence for the road ahead. ‘Get up and do not be afraid’ says Jesus in verse 7.

Knowing who Jesus is means that we can be secure in following him. It also means that we can be secure in our own identity as children of God. For one day we too shall share in Jesus’ glory. St John says in 1 John 3:2 that we shall be as Christ is. Isn’t that amazing? That one day we shall be like Jesus!

Jesus didn’t become human by kind of popping God inside human skin. Or by a divine soul descending into a human body. Jesus became human by assimilating humanity, by taking humanity into divinity. And so as people who are united with Christ we shall one day share his glory. Because we have that identity, because we have a glorious future, we can act with real integrity now.

What I’m trying to say is that when we understand what our future is in Christ, when we understand our real identity, it changes the way we view ourselves and the way we act. We will move in the direction of our destiny.

Society today is very keen on the idea of authenticity. That we should be true to our inner selves. That what we are outwardly should be the same as what we are inwardly – otherwise we’d be hypocrites. But there’s a problem with that. A writer summed it up very well in this article from The Week, originally printed in the Observer.

“‘Be true to yourself’ is one of the most common pieces of advice given in graduation speeches. But it is a strange vanity to think that it is this is deeper unfiltered version of ourselves, as opposed to the one we show the world, that is the better part of our nature. My own authentic self, sadly, is a fan of pyjamas and inertia. She doesn’t take out the bin or write thank you notes or file tax returns. Her heart tends to sink when she spots the lonely woman from next door. Authenticity is, at its heart, the idea what we should make the way we behave match what we feel on the inside. But really a functioning society depends on keeping a healthy distance between the two.”

So, seeing problems with authenticity, she sets up an alternative. One that will sound familiar to a lot of Christians. Perhaps we too think of themselves as trying to do the right thing outwardly while struggling with all sorts of inappropriate thoughts and wrestling with darkness within. Do you know what I’m saying? The outer me I present to the world, versus the inner me which I need to keep under control? Which one is real?

Actually neither of those understandings are fully Christian. The Transfiguration points us to an alternative way. Those who trust in Christ will one day be like him. We shall be glorified. That is our destiny. So our outer actions and our inner thoughts are all on a journey, a journey of transformation. What we are inwardly is not fixed, a grubby self to be beaten down. Instead the Holy Spirit strives within us, helping us to be more like Christ.

I find understanding this really helps me. It gets over the sense of being divided, a good person versus a bad person and which one’s the real me? It means the struggle against sin isn’t about fighting a losing battle. It means I can’t just shrug my shoulders and say ‘sorry that’s who I am.’ The Transfiguration tells me that my destiny is better than that, in Christ.

Imagine a gangster and thief released from prison, who manages to go straight and get a job. He works his way up a company and does pretty well. At the weekends does he go back to the old ways, smoke pot and get in fights? Hardly. That’s not him any more. He is looking to what he has become. A new life.

Christians are called to be conformed to the likeness of Christ. So the real you is not some shabby, sinful, ashamed or inadequate self-image. That is the old man, who died with Christ. The real you, the real me is the new creation. The one who is being formed in Christ’s image, made like him. So become what you are! Let the glory of the Transfigured Christ transform you! Lord let it be so.

 

 

1 Corinthians 2:1-12

She doesn’t have the presidential look. So said Donald Trump about Hilary Clinton, and when challenged, he repeated it. ‘I just don’t think she has the presidential look. And you need the presidential look. You have to get the job done.’ I wonder what he meant? Do we expect leaders to fit a certain mould? Do you have to have a particular appearance or air to be able to get on? What speaking skills and demeanour are necessary to be effective in the world?

The good news in our Corinthians reading is that whoever you are, God can use you. The world may value a particular sort of wisdom, but the Holy Spirit uses those who are open to him. So we place confidence, not in fancy techniques and special skills, but in the Spirit’s power. For it is God’s Spirit who convinces people of the truth about Jesus.

St. Paul had discovered this through experience. He was a real gospel pioneer, explaining and enculturating the Christian faith wherever he went. In AD 51 Paul went to Corinth, a sea port in Greece. Chapter 18 of the book of Acts describes how Paul and his companions stayed in Corinth for 18 months – a long time – because many people came to faith in Jesus.

Soon though it all began to go wrong. The letters to the Corinthians are the most personal and passionate in the New Testament, as Paul tries to win back his former friends. Within just a year or two of his departure, the Corinthian church had divided along class lines, gone downhill ethically, and wandered away from Christ as they experimented with so-called wisdom. Paul, the wandering unmarried missionary who supported himself by making tents, was an embarrassment to these ambitious, sophisticated Corinthians. Paul was so yesterday! Hadn’t they grown out of his homespun approach?

The passage we’re reading today, from 1st Corinthians 2:1-12 is a model of a Christian response to criticism. Paul does not stand on his dignity, instead he focusses on Christ. He does not defend his style, instead in verse 1 he admits: ‘When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom.’

This was a deliberate choice, in v.2: ‘I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.’

Paul could have adapted his message to make it more philosophical, he could have copied worldly wisdom. Paul could have focussed on the glory and power of Christ and forgotten about the shame of Jesus death. But no, Paul made the conscious decision that his message would be about Jesus the Son of God, and how he saves us through his death on the cross.

Paul did this because, as we heard last week in v. 18 of chapter 1, although the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, to us who are being saved it is the power of God. Jesus death on the cross is contrary to the glory, wealth and power of human wisdom, but it is the way that God saves us… As Jesus dies, he atones for the sin of the world. Mercy overcomes judgement, forgiveness triumphs over hate, love is discovered in the midst of suffering. Through his death Jesus sets us free from the power of evil.

Paul knew that we do not find salvation through our own efforts or morality, but through Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf. So Christianity without the cross would not be Christianity at all. Of course, Paul is not anti-intellectual – after all his own writings show great depth of thought. Paul is not saying that it’s wrong to communicate the gospel in the best possible way – for his own letters use all the best rhetorical methods. But is he saying that all these things must be pointing towards Christ crucified – they must shed light on the message rather than obscure it 

I think that’s an important message for the church today. To have confidence in the good news, that the power of the message itself will take root in people’s hearts and change lives.

It is not wrong to advertise: to use everything from Facebook to posters. It is not wrong to create glossy videos, have high quality music – whether by choir or worship band. It is not wrong to be warm, to serve decent coffee and sit in comfy chairs. But it would be wrong for churches to rely on those things; it would be wrong if the experience was wonderful but the gospel was not heard; it would be wrong if people went from church to church like customers seeking livelier music and eloquent preaching.

Look at the church in many parts of Africa. If they have buildings they are more like sheds. The pastor is lucky if he’s been educated to secondary school. Yet the churches are full and joyous, for the gospel is proclaimed.

And that is what Paul did. In v.3 he admits that he came to Corinth in much fear and trembling. But as v.4 and 5 say, this was so that their faith might rest not on human wisdom but on a demonstration of God’s power.

What is this power? Does he mean miracles? Was the power of God shown through miraculous healings and raising the dead? Certainly that does happen throughout the book of Acts but interestingly when Paul comes to Corinth in chapter 18 miracles are not mentioned at all.

Does the power mean the gifts of the Spirit? The supernatural abilities like giving prophecies, speaking in tongues or interpreting them? Certainly the gifts of the Spirit were very important to the Corinthians – so much so that Paul has to tell them that the gifts are not ends in themselves. Instead the gifts receive their power when they are used to serve one another in love.

This is the meaning of power. A changed life brought about by God. The Spirit’s power is shown when someone believes the good news and becomes a changed person. It’s as we become more like Jesus that the Spirit’s power is shown. That’s a real challenge to our priorities. What is it that shows the presence of God in a church? Lives changed to be more like Jesus. It’s not the quality of the experience for an hour one Sunday morning that matters – it’s what you do with it for the rest of the week.

I wonder who the best preacher you’ve ever heard was? I think of a certain chap. I can’t remember any of his sermons – perhaps one or two jokes and illustrations but no more. I certainly can’t think of any one set-piece where I thought ‘that was an amazing talk’. But I do know that for three years at university I was nourished and developed in my faith through the biblical message he gave.

It’s a bit like meals: I suspect there are very few individual meals you can remember, perhaps the odd special occasion. If I were to ask you what you had for lunch last Tuesday you might struggle to answer. But the fact you’re alive means you have been sustained by regular meals – they have nourished you day to day. It is like that with hearing and reading God’s word – regularly receiving nourishment gives us life.

And when we come to God’s word, we must do so with humility. That means asking God to speak to us when we read the Bible. It means praying that when we listen to a sermon we can hear whatever nuggets are there – because there are always some if you listen hard enough! Coming with humility means wanting to encounter God and being open to whatever change he wants to make in our lives.

Without humility we are like the rulers Paul speaks about in verses 6 and 8. Pontius Pilate and the Jewish chief priests did not understand the significance of Jesus, and so they condemned him to death. Yet by this action they fulfilled God’s hidden wisdom which he decreed before all time, they did what was necessary for God’s plan of salvation.

Incidentally verses 6 to 9 are not saying that God has hidden knowledge that he only reveals to a select few. This doesn’t set up a kind of super-religious elite. The secret and hidden wisdom in v7 is the message of the cross – which did not make sense at the time but is now available to all. God’s purpose was mysterious but in Christ he reveals it to all.

To understand God’s word we need to ask the Holy Spirit to help us. This is what verses 10 to 12 mean. Why did the rulers not understand Jesus? Why do many not get it today? Why can a child grasp the gospel whereas some professors cannot? Because in v.10 these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. We need to be humble and open to the Holy Spirit who alone understands the things of God.

Think of horse whisperers – we had an email the other day from a guy in Singapore who puts a lot of effort into understanding the different moods of horses. Susannah went on a trip to Bristol zoo recently and found out about the body language of gorillas. Apparently when gorillas are happy they relax. And every muscle relaxes. So their faces go all droopy. Which means that if you see a gorilla looking spectacularly fed up, it’s actually really chilled out. At least that’s what the zoo say!

Gorillas though would understand gorillas. And horses horses. Humans intuitively understand one another. Like understands like. That’s what Paul is saying in v.11: ‘for what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within’. And here comes the punchline: ‘So also no-one comprehends what is truly God’s except the spirit of God.’

And amazingly in v.12: ‘We have received the Spirit of God!’ Isn’t that astonishing?! We could not naturally understand the things of God, but he gives us his Spirit so that we can. Because the Holy Spirit is divine, he understands the mind of God. Because the Holy Spirit dwells within Christians, he can lead us into truth.

What a wonderful gift God gives in the Holy Spirit! May we ask for his illumination every time we come to God’s word. May we use the gifts the spirit gives us, all our time and talents, and submit them to the service of Christ crucified. May we seek to be filled regularly with the Spirit and live out our lives in courageous obedience to him. May we pray the Spirit’s blessing on all that we do, and trust in God’s strength, so that others may find a faith which rests not on human wisdom but on the power of God.