Don’t email. Talk.

A handy piece of advice: Three out of four murders are committed by someone who knew the victim. That’s one good reason to maintain a small circle of friends. As we think about conflict in our gospel reading from Matthew 18v15-20, it reminds me of the saying by W C Fields: ‘The world is getting to be such a dangerous place that you’re lucky to get out of it alive.

Whether it’s the nuclear stand-off with North Korea, the turbulent Brexit talks, or the tragic situation in Burma, conflict is everywhere. We can experience it at all sorts of level – work politics, neighbourly disputes, marital disagreements, trolling on social media. It’s a part of human nature – and so we shouldn’t be surprised when we also find conflict in the church.

 

The church is made up of fallible human beings, on a journey of redemption. So it doesn’t make sense if people say ‘It’s the church, we can’t have any conflict’, or even, ‘I used to go to church but there was a disagreement and it put me off.’ I’m afraid it happens, we’re human. And conflict itself isn’t sinful – it’s not wrong to disagree – it’s the way you handle it that matters. You may have heard the joke: In 45 years of marriage my parents only had one argument. It lasted 43 years.

 

When Jesus speaks in this reading from Matthew 18:15-20, he knows that his disciples will fall out, which may lead to sin against each other. He’s assuming it will happen and giving guidance for what to do when it does. Do remember that in v.15 Jesus is talking about another member of the church doing wrong– a lot of the guidance he gives here would apply in any situation – but some of it is specific to the church

And it’s worth noting: not only does Jesus assume there will be times we get it wrong. He also assumes it’s worth sorting it out. When people fall out with one another, it’s good to do something about it. It’s good to lean in, to move towards conflict, to heal and reconcile. Why? Because when we do so, we follow the example of God who reconciles us with himself through Christ’s death on the cross. Jesus forgave those who killed him, he taught us to love our enemies, because we are all God’s children. Reconciliation therefore is at the heart of the gospel.

I wonder if you find that difficult? I do. It’s hard to go and speak to someone. It’s much easier to be right. Happier being annoyed. More comforting to close ranks with your friends and block out the offender. If you unfriend someone maybe you don’t have to worry about them again. But if we do that, we ultimately end in C S Lewis’s vision of hell: a grey barren plain with dimly lit houses spaced far apart – and the longer people spend there the more they fall out with their neighbours and the further apart they move from one another. Not addressing conflict makes people drift apart.

 

A loving parent cannot ignore it when one child pulls another’s hair. The Kingdom of God is built as we reconcile differences, make peace, and learn to live with one another. We need to make the effort.

 

So in verse 15 Jesus encourages you to make the first move. I saw a cartoon once: a couple sat glumly on a sofa. He’s thinking: ‘Why isn’t she talking to me?’ Do you know what she’s thinking: ‘Why isn’t he talking to me?’ Don’t wait for the other person. Maybe they don’t know they’ve upset you. Maybe the sin that’s obvious to you isn’t so clear cut to them – as someone once said ‘There are two sides to every argument –and they’re usually married to each other’

 

If it’s safe to do so – and do be aware, go and point out the fact when the two of you are alone. Not through others, not gossiping to the world, not pasting it all over Facebook. Preferably not by email or letter – so easily misunderstood, but face to face, one to one. Not in a kind of passive aggressive sort of way ‘I suppose I’ll be doing the washing up again then’. But clearly, directly, with humility and openness.

 

Confronting someone and owning how we feel is hard. Particularly if we have to say how we’ve been hurt. It takes real courage and prayer. But if we do so, it’s surprising how people can respond. I once had someone who sent the most horrendous emails. They were real scorchers and upset everyone. I had to gather courage to go and tell him how hurtful they were. He was genuinely surprised, and although I won’t say he was totally cured, the situation did improve.

A small caveat though – if you’re sitting here thinking ‘Well I don’t find that difficult. What’s the problem? It’s easy telling people when they’ve got it wrong. I do it all the time!’, then do please pause and think about how others might experience it. Many of us are nervous about conflict, a few people find it a bit too easy.

 

If going to see someone face to face doesn’t work, then Jesus escalates it to involving some more people. Not in the sense of ganging up on someone, but it can be useful in a difficult situation to bring in a mediator. Someone’s who’s not so intimately involved, who can try and be fair to both sides, who can create a calm atmosphere in which each person can say what they need to and be heard.

 

That sounds heavy. But it needn’t be. I’ve done a bit of work as a mediator, and the biggest problem is that you always get called in too late. It’s only once the relationships have broken down and people are thinking about resorting to legal avenues that someone says: ‘I know, let’s go for mediation.’ ‘Divorce is on the cards, let go to counselling’ It’s like a chaplain being called to a hospice as the patient takes their last breath – really to do any good you need to be there much earlier. So don’t be afraid to say early: ‘this is getting tricky, let’s get some help.’

 

If that doesn’t work, v.17 says ‘if the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.’ Formal procedures have their place. Then, ‘if the offender refuses to listen to the church let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector’. So exclude them? Ostracise them like the Pharisees did? Or be like Jesus, who welcomed the tax collector and the Gentile, encouraged them to repent and find God? So if there is exclusion here, it is provisional. It is until such a time as the person who has done wrong admits to it, apologies and is ready to change.

 

In New Testament times, Christians were keen to keep disputes in house rather than go before corrupt secular judges. Besides, it did not look good if Christian fell out with one other in public. Nowadays though, for serious matters we cannot just keep things in house.

 

This year Dame Moira Gibbs reviewed historic child protection failures in the Church of England. Her report made it clear that resolving problems internally can all too easily be corrupted in a culture of cover up. Where crime has been committed we all have a duty to protect the vulnerable and involve the law.

 

But going back to the everyday problems, the kind of disputes which affect congregational life, just imagine what it would be like if all the church took this teaching seriously. Conflict would not simmer unaddressed but would be dealt with and healed. There would be fairness, respect, responsibility to one another. It’s a wonderful vision.

 

We would know the presence of God. In forgiving one another, learning to respect differences, we’d follow the example of Jesus. So as it says in v.20, where just two or three people living like this are gathered together, Jesus is there with them.

 

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this famous verse ends the passage on conflict. So often we take ‘when two or three’ out of context. We use it as a promise at the beginning of a prayer meeting – Lord we are gathered, we know you are here. Sometimes I have to remind myself of it when I leave the vestry of a country church and find a congregation which comprises the churchwarden, the organist and a sleeping dog. Ah well, when two or three are gathered together, Jesus is there with them.

 

But that’s not what it’s about. Jesus says that when two or three don’t avoid their arguments but heal them, he is there. When two who have fallen out are helped by the church to be reconciled, he is in that process. When I admit I have done wrong and you forgive me, we follow the example of Jesus. When I apologise for over-reacting I reach out to you and you respond in grace. When division is worked through, evil is overcome. When difference is integrated the Kingdom of God is built. God’s blessing comes in reconciliation; let us follow Christ’s way in our shared life together.

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Walking on water

Everything seems peaceful as the gospel story begins. It’s been an amazing day – Jesus has fed the 5000. But now everything is calming down. It’s a lovely evening on the Sea of Galilee. After the excitement, Jesus goes off to pray and the disciples get into their boats. But Galilee is infamously treacherous. Desert air rises, storms sweep in from the surrounding hills. Wind and waves batter the boat far from land. Jesus walks out to them. Now the disciples panic – is it a ghost? Jesus reassures. Peter goes out to meet him. He doubts. It all goes horribly wrong. Jesus reaches out his hand and catches him

It seems to be calling us to faith – to be like Peter, to step out in faith – to keep our eyes on Jesus and not to be distracted by the storms that come our way. Yet if the tempests of life should overwhelm, Christ is alongside, able to rescue us when we call out to him

I remember seeing this story in a French seaside church on the Ile de Re. The painting covered an entire wall, with life sized figures. The theme’s been done a thousand times. But this one was different. I was deeply moved by it. For the disciples were real people

You know the kind of art you get in churches, where Jesus’ followers are identikit middle aged men with plain but well balanced features, and costume out of Victorian central casting. Instantly forgettable. These guys were real, they had lined weather beaten faces, individual hair, craggy features, warts and all. St. Peter particularly could only have been a portrait. I’m prepared to bet that someone in that village had paid for the painting. Perhaps it was a fisherman giving thanks for salvation after a storm. Perhaps we might see him walking down the street. Someone there was saying ‘I was Peter’.

 

I wonder. Have you been Peter? Have you have felt solidity vanishing under your feet? Have you seen everything you trusted in giving way? Have you felt yourself slipping beneath the surface, when the pressures of life overwhelm? Have you reached rock bottom, where all you can do is cry out ’Lord, save me’?

If so, then maybe you will have known also the hand of Christ. Sometimes we only find him when we have nothing left to cling to and there’s no alternative. But when you turn to him, he holds on to you. You may feel his strength keeping you up. You may not feel anything – but he is there. He will not let go of you

I’ve certainly felt like that at times this past year. With so much going on: the media campaign, being Area Dean, it can at times feel overwhelming. I cannot do it in my own strength. But God’s strength supplies all that I need. I just have to learn to be out there in the deep end, trusting in God.

Maybe you’ve known that love of God. That sustaining power. Or maybe you need it now. Don’t forget that Christ is there, that he loves you. Don’t be afraid to receive his help. Don’t leave it to the last minute to call out. Bring your needs to him in prayer

This has become a much loved miracle, speaking to many people.  What we can forget though is that this wasn’t some great misfortune which happened to Peter. He got himself into it. He was the bright spark who thought it might be a good idea to jump out of a wallowing rowing boat in the middle of a storm. He thought he might be able to walk over water. In verse 28 he said to Jesus: ‘Lord if it’s you, command me to come to you on the water

What amazing faith! Peter says ‘Lord, if you want me to do the impossible, I’ll do it. In fact, that’s the way I’ll know it’s you, because only you would ask me to

Do we see amazing things? Do we challenge God to call us further? One of the things I really like about our churches is that people do step out in faith. Someone said: Let’s reorder the North Aisle and start a new service.. Let’s hold a stewardship appeal as we’re coming out of the worst recession in decades

‘Let’s employ a children’s worker.’ It happened. The grants came in. Do you know that during the time the charity that has been supporting our children’s worker donated about £50,000 to the project but investment performance mean their reserves have only gone down by about £10,000. God is good

Bonkers? Or faith? All those things were thought about carefully. All of them were prayed through. The difficulties may have seemed vast, but people stepped out in faith.

If you want to see great things happen, then be like Peter. Throw down the gauntlet to God. Here I am Lord, send me. Let me know what you want and I’ll do it. I believe Lord that when you call a man or woman you give them what they need

In verses 29-30: So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on water and came to Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind he became frightened, and beginning to sink he called out ‘Lord save me’.

Initial enthusiasm is great. Then you must keep going. Once he’s far enough from the boat to be alone, Peter begins to waver. He gets into trouble. It often happens when you set off in faith. I remember well when after five years planning the church reordering quotations came back. Even the lowest was twice what the PCC expected. Suddenly we were in trouble. We had to turn to God again

Living faith can be like that. We set off; full of enthusiasm, strong in the strength Christ gives. But once out of the safety zone, problems arise. There may be opposition, resolve falters. Then we need to turn to Christ anew. We need to learn through experience that he will provide. Perseverance despite opposition grows our faith.

When he saves Peter, in v.31, Jesus says ‘O you of little faith, why did you doubt?’ Why do we doubt? Because when the waves grow high, when the darkness clouds us in, Christ seems hid from view. Or is he?

Is it like Peter in v.30? Is it that we notice the strong wind, we focus on the problem, and we forget the Lord?

I’m not criticizing. I’ve been there. I remember when the time came for me to leave my curacy, you have a year to try and find a job. Sounds plenty! But I was young, inexperienced, in those days no-one wanted to take the risk. It was beginning to get really worrying and I started applying for ever more unsuitable posts. I’d forgotten that God was alongside me, that he had a plan. He often leaves it to the last minute. But when it came it was what he’d been planning all along.

The wind and the waves are so distracting. The problems can be like little goblins gibbering away in your face. You have to put them to one side. You have to make a conscious effort to focus on God. To look to him first, and then to lay down the problems at his feet

Now someone may be thinking: wouldn’t it be a lot easier to stay in the boat? Perhaps it would. But think what you’d be missing! What you wouldn’t achieve. How you wouldn’t grow. How much of knowing Jesus you’d miss out on. To be able to walk on water you have to step out of the boat

Christ calls us to follow him, wherever he goes. But we should be aware that getting out of the boat is only the beginning. We need persistence and the ability to keep fixed on Jesus. Even if we do get into difficulties – and if we try and do anything worthwhile, there will be problems – even if we do get into difficulties, Christ will save. 

He can do this because he is God. And I think that is the main point of the story. Although we tend to identify with Peter and the imaginative use of the story, nevertheless, Matthew’s emphasis is clear. Right at the end, the disciples are overwhelmed. They say: ‘Truly, you are the Son of God’. That’s what Matthew wants us to know. And it’s the same for the other Evangelists. Neither Mark nor John relate the incident with Peter – the main point for them is that Jesus walked on water. It is, pure and simple, a proof of divinity. The miracle was yet another piece of evidence that Jesus is divine

That, incidentally, is why you can’t explain away the miracle. Granted, it’s not an easy one to believe. And apologies if you’ve been sat here throughout the sermon thinking, ‘yes but did it really happen?

There have plenty of attempts to rationalize the miracle. For instance:  some say Jesus only appeared to be walking on water – he was actually walking by the lake! Going for an amble on solid ground. Or: Jesus wasn’t walking on the waves, there was a handily submerged mudflat, just so deep beneath the surface! As if it’s possible to walk securely on a submerged mudflat in the middle of a storm! Today, you too can walk on water. You can go to Lake Galilee, and for a few shekels you can wander about on a plastic sheet suspended in the lake. Hey presto, walking on water!

It’s bonkers! The gospel writers were not crazy. Those experienced fishermen would not have been fooled by Magic Circle tricks. When the gospel writers recorded this, they believed there were describing a miracle. They weren’t daft, they knew walking on water doesn’t happen unless it’s God. It’s evidence that Jesus is divine.

We can take it or leave it. We could believe it because if he were God then he could do that. Or some people disbelieve it and I suppose they have to say the evangelists made it up, created a myth with a spiritual meaning. The problem with believing it’s a just symbolic myth is that you end up with a spiritual meaning disconnected from physical fact.

But what you can’t do is water it down and take the meaning out of it. If you do, you end up with something that probably didn’t happen like that anyway, wasn’t what the Evangelists intended and is still pretty incredible.

The point of the miracle is that Jesus saved Peter. He saved Peter and was able to do so because he is the divine Son of God. He can intervene in our lives because he is the Son of God. And so we do all become Peter. Our own lives, our trials and tribulations are reflected in that dark and stormy night. Each one of us is the willing but fallible disciple. We too are full of enthusiasm one moment and doubting and fear stricken the next. And each one of us is also the disciple saved by Christ – the hands of Jesus reaching out and taking hold of us. So we too can know the wonder and love of the disciples. We too can exclaim with renewed faith: ‘Truly you are the Son of God’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Peace, terrorism and the Spirit

The minister was standing by the door, and as the congregation went by, they shook his hand, as they always did. ‘Lovely service vicar’, ‘thank you’, ‘enjoy the sunshine’ and so on. And then one man stopped, looked him straight in the eye and said: ‘Vicar, your sermon reminded me of the love and peace of God’. ‘How wonderful’, he said, ‘how’s that?’ ‘Well, like the peace of God, it passed understanding, and like the love of God, it went on for ever.’

What does peace mean to you? It works at so many different levels. Is it a glass of wine on a sunny evening in the garden? The stillness and prayerful presence of an ancient church? Relaxing with the children on holiday – not exactly peace and quiet but a deep peace that all is well? That’s one level. We often take that kind of peace for granted. The recent terrorist atrocities bring peace into sharper focus – how blessed we usually are to be free from fear and violence, and how awful it is when that peace is shattered. Absence of peace leads to anxiety and fear.

In our reading, the disciples are not at all at peace. ‘That day, the first day of the week’ referred to in v 19 is the very first Easter Sunday. In John’s account, the disciples have been to the tomb and found it empty save for the graveclothes. They are still pondering this mystery. Mary Magdalene claims to have seen the Lord – she even says he spoke to her, but did they believe her? With her history, quite possibly not.

Certainly, v 19 goes on to say that ‘the doors of the house where the disciples met were locked for fear of the Jews.’ Peace is far from them. They have seen their Teacher executed in the most barbaric way. The one they had hoped was the glorious Messiah has died a shameful death. They’re worried, not understanding why his tomb was empty. Fearful that the same Jewish leaders might come and do the same to them too.

So they barricade the doors. isn’t it true that often the desire for peace becomes a wish for freedom from harm, which then turns into defensiveness, anger and even violence. There’s the old Latin adage: if you want peace prepare for war! We can see that in North Korea – they produce nuclear weapons thinking that ensures they are left alone, but it only draws attention and increases the risk of war

In the next few weeks our society will face that issue again. We can choose between two paths. Communities could withdraw into themselves, wedges be driven between different religions, fear of the unknown and the outside could grow. of course that is exactly what the terrorists want. Yet you cannot defeat darkness with darkness. Instead you must shine a light. It is only hope and reaching out to others which gives the chance of overcoming terrorism.

That is what the disciples found. In the reading the disciples are defeated, defensive and downcast. And then suddenly, they hear a familiar voice speaking: ‘Peace. Peace be with you.’ Jesus breathes peace into them, the peace of God which passes all understanding; tranquillity; restfulness. Their worries evaporate, their concerns which seemed so large fade away in the presence of Christ.

Jesus would have been speaking Aramaic, and the word he spoke would have been Shlama, the equivalent of Shalom in Biblical Hebrew. Our Bibles translate Shalom as peace, but it actually encompasses much more. Shalom is more than feeling peaceful, it’s wider than the absence of war. Shalom is more like everything being as it ought to be. Life as God intended it, in all its fullness. The poor having enough, justice for the oppressed, a society of care and compassion.

Shalom is a vision for the whole of life, and it’s interesting to think about that this coming week. As various political parties put in a pitch for our votes, they sell us a vision of what life could be like. As you read a manifesto or compare promises, ask yourself, what picture of society is being painted here? What are the politicians hoping our world will be like? What vision underpins the policy? And of course, we must also ask what chance do they have of achieving it? Do they have a plan to achieve those aims?

Now the Kingdom of God cannot come through political means. The Kingdom of God includes people making a personal response to God’s love through Christ. Politics does not do that. What politics can do is align our society with the values of the Kingdom of God. Try and make our world more how God wants it to be. But to bring in the Kingdom of God, we need to make our own response.

When Jesus says ‘Shalom’, he’s speaking about the Kingdom of God. Then, in verse 20, he shows them his hands and his side. Have you ever wondered why he did this? I’ve always imagined that it was a proof of identity ‘look it’s definitely me. Proof that this really is Jesus who was crucified and is now risen. After all, when Thomas wants proof, Jesus shows him his hands and his side.

But it occurred to me that there’s something else going on here. The wounds in Jesus’ hands and his side are the reason for peace. The proof of peace, if you will. Because it’s when Jesus passes through death that death is defeated for us. It’s when Jesus’ blood is shed on the cross that our sins our washed away. It’s as Jesus rises again that we share in the hope of resurrection.

Jesus shows the disciples that he brings them peace. They can have peace because of what he has done. No longer need they fear death as the ultimate enemy – and if you’ve ever met someone who has no fear of death it’s amazing what they can achieve because they’ve got nothing to lose. No longer should the disciples be anxious and fearful about sin – because Jesus has reconciled us with God we can be confident in God’s presence.

So what Jesus brings is a deeper peace. It’s a bigger peace than we often imagine. In v.21 he says: ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ I don’t know about you, but when I think about peace, I often think about relaxing. ‘This is such a peaceful spot’ means I can sit here and think and enjoy the view. ‘That service was very peaceful’ tends to mean that it has left me in a contemplative frame of mind. Perhaps because we live in such a busy noisy world, peace tends to mean slowing down, taking a longer look, doing less and being more. Our world desperately needs that sort of peace.

It’s a bit of a surprise then that Jesus words ‘Peace be with you’ are followed by ‘as the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ The deep peace Jesus brings is not a cop-out, nor a hideaway from society. Jesus gives us a deep and lasting peace so that we can make a difference in the world. The great gift of peace is given so that it can be shared.

The kind of peace of which Shalom speaks, the Kingdom of God, involves whole communities. It transforms society. Peace is not for the individual, it’s for all creation.

A retreat for instance, fills us up so we can minister. The Holy Spirit brings us peace within, joins Christians together into the church, and gives us power to do God’s will. We need to keep asking God to fill us with his Holy Spirit so that we can be the community he wants us to be.

It has been wonderful during the last week when we’ve met together for prayer. The 24 hours of prayer at Norton were a hugely blessed time and I know that many people have been praying since. I’d love to know how we can continue developing that regular prayer – what can we do to keep up the momentum.

That’s why Jesus breathes on them and says ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’. Isn’t it inspiring to think that the Holy Spirit in us is the breath of Jesus? That the Christ who was once dead, is now alive, and breathes eternal life into us! That that Breath of Life continues today.

So is this a kind of Pentecost? We are reading it on Whitsunday! Yes, I believe it is. I don’t think it’s a kind of alternative Pentecost, as if John the Gospel writer hadn’t heard Luke’s account. I’m not convinced that John presents it with alternative emphases. I think it makes more sense to see this as a kind of sacramental act: Jesus breathing on the disciples is an outward sign of what will happen later when the Spirit comes. It’s to get them ready, and emphasise that the Spirit ultimately comes from him.

Finally, Jesus says in v. 23 If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven them, if you retain the sins of any they are retained. This is a puzzling verse. History tells us that this saying has been very controversial. Mediaeval Catholicism interpreted it to mean that the church inherited from the apostles the power to forgive people’s sins and to refuse to forgive people too. This verse was used to argue that if you wanted to be forgiven you had to confess to a priest and you might well have to pay up for the privilege.

The Reformers insisted that indulgences and the like were an abuse of power. People like Luther emphasised the liberating truth that we are forgiven through trusting in Jesus. Some people find sacramental confession to a priest helpful, anyone may do it, but none must because we can all be forgiven through Christ. The role of the church is to proclaim that good news, so that everyone has the chance to be forgiven free of charge. What Jesus does here is emphasise the responsibility of the disciples: your actions, your communication of the message gives people the chance to be forgiven or otherwise. We must take seriously the power that he has entrusted to us -a power that must be given away.

Thankfully the churches today have moved beyond that controversy, because it obscures the real point: that we believe in forgiveness! Jesus has risen from the dead, he breathes new life into us, and we can have peace! The peace of God is bigger than a feeling, or a pious thought. It is grounded on the greatest truth, that Jesus has died and is risen, and that he has won the peace. Now let us put it into practice!

 

 

For this moment

Of all the Remembrance Sundays that I have been involved in, this is the one where I feel most anxious about the future. I’ve led Remembrance in the aftermath of 9/11 and the London bombings, at times when British forces have been at war on two fronts, yet at no time has the future seemed as uncertain as it does today.

Traditionally we give thanks for the blessings that we enjoy, and commemorate the sacrifices made by many so that we could be free. Yet it seems that the progress in made in rebuilding society in the aftermath of the second world war is going into reverse: barriers are being raised between nations, economies are becoming defensive, outsiders are viewed with suspicion, and demagogues are once again rising to power.

For those of us who have placed our hope in a positive view of human nature, in the triumph of reason over prejudice, in the ability of different countries to work together for the common good of all creation, these are deeply worrying times.

As I have prayed – for Donald Trump as he takes up the presidency, for the Brexit negotiations and climate change talks, for Iraq and Syria – as I have prayed I have also sensed the need to repent. I have felt God calling me back to a more Biblical faith in him.

I have sensed that I have put too much faith in our human ability to address our problems – despite our great sinfulness – and have not fully accepted that the Kingdom of God comes in God’s time and through his leading. Like many I have trusted that our society will steadily progress from good to better – whereas our Gospel reading (Luke 21:5-19) speaks of a great crisis before Jesus is revealed in glory.

Times like this can be a wake-up call, an opportunity to reflect on where our Christian values have become absorbed by the values of the world. Has Christianity in the West become too closely identified with a particular form of government, a certain philosophical view of historical and scientific progress?

As our Epistle reading (2 Thess 3:6-13) shows us, Christians have lived and thrived in societies which were profoundly undemocratic and unjust. All around the world today Christians bravely contend with great difficulties. Our privileged lives may be taking a step closer to theirs. We are still called to be salt and light, to transform the world around us, to give of ourselves sacrificially so that others may know Christ. We are called to make a difference in our world, not to give up on it, nor to see it as the ultimate end. God calls us to place our hope in Christ and to wait, with faith and action, for the coming of his Kingdom.

Is your imagination up to it?

‘Life after death’ said the barber. ‘I mean, nobody knows what happens do they? After all, it’s not like anyone’s been there and come back? The clergyman, who was in mufti at the time, swallowed hard and said a silent prayer: ‘Actually,’ he began…’ there was Jesus’

Last week we celebrated the feast of All Souls. We gave thanks for those who have died with faith in Christ, and we looked forward with hope to the day when we shall meet again. For many people, that’s a great source of hope. It gives us comfort when loved ones have died. I still remember feeling that when my grandfather died – he was the first person really close to me who died, he’d been a wonderful example of steadfast faith. This amazing sense of peace came that his long battle was now over and a real confidence that he is now with Christ.

And when someone close to you is constantly living on the boundary between this life and the next, believing that there is a resurrection enables you to cope with it all. I know some of you were at the the confirmation service on Wednesday. I think it was the closest I’ve ever been to heaven: a glorious celebration; friends and family from every stage of your life; all gathered together in joyful worship of our amazing God. When time stands still and eternity seems very close.

But I also know it doesn’t always feel like that. At some times and for some people it’s really difficult to believe in the resurrection. For some folks, the doctrine is more of a stumbling block, a difficulty for faith. Like the barber, they might ask: How can a dead body live? What if there’s nothing left to bring it back together from? What will we look like, what age will we be, will we know each other? How will it happen and when?

Undoubtedly it can be hard to imagine. Or maybe the imaginings that we do have don’t really seem up to the job. How many people have I spoken to who say that they can’t believe in an old guy with a long white beard sitting on a cloud! To which I reply: I don’t believe God and heaven are like that either! But we have to remember: just because we struggle to picture it, doesn’t mean the underlying belief isn’t true.

That was the mistake the Sadducees made in the gospel reading. When Jesus was on earth, there were two main religious groups in Israel: the Pharisees and the Sadducees. The Pharisees were working people who took the Old Testament law seriously. They believed that one day the dead would rise to life and God would make the world perfect. The Sadducees on the other hand were the priestly aristocracy. They believed that once you were dead, that was it.

There’s no reason for us to think that their beliefs weren’t honestly held. The Sadducees seem to have struggled with the resurrection on day-to-day grounds. If God will bring people back to life, what sort of lives will they lead? How are the practicalities going to work out? For instance, what about marriage?

Imagine, they say to Jesus, imagine a woman whose husband dies young. Now we all know that Moses commanded that she should marry the dead man’s brother. But before they can have children and carry on the family line, he too falls sick and dies. In order to pass on the inheritance, she marries the next brother. But he falls out of a tree picking olives. Hoping to be looked after in her old age, she marries no. 4. But he falls under a chariot. And so it goes on.

Finally no 7, who must have been a bit of a mug not to notice what’s going on, predeceased her. So, say the Sadducees, in v.33: imagine the resurrection. The woman climbs out of her grave, then her husbands rise too – all seven of them! So which of them is her husband now?

You see what happened? They’ve got carried away with their own rhetoric! They’ve set up a straw man and knocked it down. They’ve taken the idea of the resurrection and assumed that life after the resurrection would be just like this life. A continuation. And because there are obvious problems, and that doesn’t make sense, they said the whole concept is flawed. But nobody said the resurrection life is just like this life. It’s not a simple continuation. In the case of marriage, relationships are not the same in the resurrection. Marriage is a sign of the soul’s unity with God – and in the life to come the reality is fulfilled

Jesus then shows the Sadducees how the parts of the Old Testament that they accepted point to the Resurrection. The Sadducees only regarded the books of the Pentateuch as Scripture. But even there, points out Jesus, there is the story of Moses and the burning bush. Moses approaches the bush, God speaks to him, and when Moses asks who he is, God replies:

‘I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.’ Not the God whom they worshipped when they were alive. Not I was their God. But I am their God – because they are living with God still. To him all are alive.

The mistake the Sadducees made is easily done and we do it all the time: Because I can’t imagine it, therefore it can’t be true. rpt.

This is not some kind of religious cop-out, or invitation to believe uncritically anything outrageous. Coping with the limitations of our imagination is an issue for scientists too: for instance in the book ‘The Blind Watchmaker’ Richard Dawkins says that the reason some people struggle with evolution is that they just can’t imagine it happening.

I wonder how many of our doubts are intellectual or moral, and how many are due to a simple lack of imagination?… I once read a physicist musing on eternal life – I’ll get bored he wrote. I’ll run out of things to do. I’ll get fed up with my own flaws. And as I get older I find I have a little more sympathy with that idea. You know that line in the hymn: ‘Amazing Grace’ – ‘when we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise, than when we’ve first begun.’ Sometimes I sing that and it feels wonderful. Sometimes it feels a little unnerving – I don’t know what 50 years is like, let alone ten thousand. What about life without end?

That too is a lack of imagination. So how can we begin to dream of eternity? Look back to the very best holiday you’ve ever been on, one you never wanted to end – and imagine that the whole of creation is perfect, ready to be explored. Or how when you’re totally absorbed in good useful work you lose track of time. Remember being engrossed in conversation with friends, or completely lost in worship which lifts up the soul to the presence of God – and imagine that there is never any earthly weariness or sin to drag you back down again.  We’ll be made perfect in the world to come. The infinity of God is able to keep us occupied. And eternity isn’t the same thing as a very very long time.

That physicist should have known we don’t need to be able to visualise something in order to believe it. He would have studied quantum physics, and that’s a prime example of what I’m talking about. For nobody has seen a subatomic particle and they have strange properties like nothing we experience.

And yet that physicist was willing to believe that in physics there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy. Why not apply the same logic to faith? Our imaginations are limited. There are some things we may never be able to grasp, or we can only approach by using pictures.

Are we ever like those Sadducees? Do we struggle to believe in the return of Christ because the words St Paul uses are hard? The Biblical imagery of stars falling from the sky, is a sign that words and images are striving to portray a reality that no-one has set seen. The Biblical writers were stretching their imaginations to describe it. No surprise that we have to too.

Let’s therefore be honest with ourselves. Most people have doubts. Not about everything all the time, but occasionally on particular subjects we do doubt. Don’t feel bad about that. It’s only human. Don’t try and hide it from God though – no point because he knows everything, and it’s when we’re open and honest with God about doubts that he is most able to help us.

Do address doubts. They show us where we haven’t quite understood our faith, where there is space to grow, as long as we address them. So don’t let doubts fester. Bring them to God and pray about them. Think about them and reason them through. Find a helpful book, ask a minister, go on a course. Have we really understood what Christians actually believe, or are we trying to believe something the church has never actually taught? Allow God to renew your imagination and draw you closer to the unimaginable.

On this earth, we won’t understand what life after death is like. Not until we get there. It will hold wonderful surprises! There’ll be limitations we didn’t know we had that we’ll be free from, things we can do that we couldn’t have thought possible, experiences that are inconceivable to us now. For God is the God of the living, and to him all are alive.

A different kind of hope

Jeremiah 29

The Vicar was passing the allotments when one in particular caught his eye. The cabbages were the size of basket balls, the garlic looked more like leeks and it was surrounded by an abundance of beautiful flowers. The Vicar had been on the Diocesan Evangelism course, so he said to the old man tending the plants: ‘God has really blessed you with this allotment.’ ‘Aye, said the old man ‘but you should have seen the state of it when God had it all to himself’.

Harvest is the result of commitment. The produce that we enjoy today and which fills our church is the result of long hard work, and stability in one place. Year after year the farmer ploughs, sows, sprays and reaps. There are drains to keep up, hedges to trim, machinery to maintain and barns to repair. The fields around us are the result of generation upon generation doing their bit to improve the land. From the Neolithic farmers who first cleared the forest, to today’s agribusiness, there is a long line of workers who have invested in a place, so that their labours will bear fruit the next year.

But what happens if that stability is taken away? If the family farm is lost? What happens in any of our lives if we had plans and they didn’t turn out the way we hoped? What if you were building a future and something came along and wrecked it? If in the blink of an eye a car accident changes the course of your life forever?

This is the question faced by Jeremiah in today’s Old Testament reading. As it says in verse 1: ‘The letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the people in exile in Babylon’. As we’ve heard in our sermon series over the past few weeks, the Babylonians invaded Judah and eventually captured Jerusalem, deporting most of the people. Some had already been taken into captivity – over the course of sixteen years several thousand people were led into exile, eight hundred miles away in modern-day Iraq, where they scratched a living.

How did they respond? How would we respond?

One possibility is to try and get back to where you were. Life before the big change was better, so perhaps the logical thing to do is to try and go back to how it used to be? I knew a woman who moved out of her village, spent a few years elsewhere, never settled in, and eventually moved back where she’d come from. Sometimes that makes sense.

Often though we can’t turn the clock back. That’s true for life-changing injuries and bereavement… There are different stages to life, and sometimes you just cannot retrace your steps –for instance the experience of a mature student is very different to that of an undergrad.

And would you actually want to turn the clock back? When I look back on my grammar school days I remember it with great fondness, I’ve got so many happy memories. Which is weird because I hated a lot of it. Double maths and bottom set rugby – who’d want to go back to that? Rose tinted spectacles are a real phenomenon: scientists have found that our brains actually make memories better over time. Which I guess is something to be grateful for, but it can trick us into idealising the past. So Jeremiah says to the exiles, don’t listen to the prophets who promise things that can never happen. Face the situation as it is now.

That needs strength and hope. Another possible reaction would be to give up. And sometimes one does meet those for whom life has lost its savour. It was once good, something went wrong, it didn’t turn out the way they hoped, and now they just survive. That hopelessness is deeply tragic because God is a God of hope. In his eyes no-one is cast aside on the scrapheap of life. However late in the day, there is still hope. And so Jeremiah commands the exiles to increase, not decrease. Be hopeful.

The third possible reaction might be to adapt, and blend in to the new situation. Here we are in Babylon, we might as well make the most of it. Face it, we’re not going back to Israel, so let’s forget it and move on. The God we worshipped there judged us, perhaps we’ll get more luck with the gods of Babylon.

No doubt some did feel like that, and that’s what seems to have happened to the lost tribes of Israel – they were assimilated into the peoples around them. Forgetting, moving on and adapting may seem like a robust realistic strategy, but if it’s not grounded in God it’s lacking in long term hope.

What God calls us to is a trusting hope. A hope that has faith in his plan, a hope that believes in the Spirit’s ability to heal and transform situations. A hope that accepts the path ahead may be long and sometimes hard, but treads it knowing that God can see the destination. A hope that walks by faith not sight.

In v.10: ‘Thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s 70 years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfil to you my promise and bring you back to this place.’ The exiles will return, after 70 long years. So yes, do adapt, do commit to Babylon. As verses 5-7 say, build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry, have children and grandchildren. But don’t lose sight that your true home is somewhere else. Be in this world but not of it. Put down roots – but be prepared to pull them up.

‘For surely I know the plans I have for you,’ says the Lord, ‘plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.’ Wonderful words. Powerful enough when standing by themselves, written on a bookmark, but all the more amazing when you consider the context. You may be a long way away, far from home. Maybe you wish life worked out differently. But God knows the plan he has for you.

Perhaps his plan is different from what you imagined. How often do we hold a church meeting and ask God to bless our agenda and the plans we have? Lord, bless the things we’d like to do in your name. How much more should we be open to let go of our ideas and ask God to reveal to us His plans! Lord guide us into your will, show us how you will glorify your name.

For God’s hope invites us into a surprising reality. God’s hope often goes further and deeper than we could have imagined. God’s hope invited Jeremiah’s listeners to make their home in exile. To build community amongst those you thought of as the enemy – with the implication that you find peace through forgiveness. God’s hope invited them to seek the welfare of the city in which they lived and be blessed with it – even though that city was Babylon. To commit to life around them, even while remembering that they belonged elsewhere.

It involved commitment, trust, patience, sacrifice and not a little letting go of cherished dreams and a rose-tinted past. But it was the way to a hopeful future.

I wonder how might we apply this in our own situation? Firstly, it suggests that God calls us to get stuck in; to create connections with the communities around us. They are part of God’s gift to us and we should seek their welfare, just as the ancient Jews sought blessings for Babylon. Jesus calls us to be salt and light to those around, that his people might be a sign of God’s love. We cannot do this in isolation but are called to belong. And I think on the whole our churches are good at this, although we do need to be aware of how our communities are constantly evolving and new things happening.

Secondly, it is good to look for our vocation where we are. We often think of vocation as going somewhere else to do God’s work – I think we’re unduly influenced by that image of the disciples leaving their nets behind and following Jesus. But when they did that they were called into a new stability.

For most of us, most of the time our vocation is to serve God where we are. We are called to be the people he wants us to be in our villages, workplaces, families and networks. We do not need to up sticks in order to serve God – often it is just a matter of becoming aware of the opportunities he sends us daily.

Thirdly, there is here a challenge to commitment. Our society is in danger of losing sight of the truth that perseverance through difficulty usually yields much greater results. I see so many CVs where people have stayed in a job less than 2 or 3 years. Perhaps it is possible to bring cosmetic change in such a time, but deep-rooted transformation needs quality relationships and commitment. It is the same in many areas of life. I’m not saying short term projects aren’t worth it – they often are. But you get so much more from a long term commitment.

Finally, let us praise a God who brings hope and transformation. A God who calls us to a join him on a journey which is both realistic and hopeful. A journey of loving trust with a God who knows the plans he has for us. Amen.

 

 

Jeremiah 8 verse 18 to 9 verse 1

‘Escape by the skin of your teeth’, ‘A drop in the bucket’, ‘Scapegoat’, ‘Casting your pearls before swine’, ‘to everything there is a season’ – everyone got the connection by now? These are all phrases that entered the English language through the Bible. The first translations of the Bible into English coined some memorable phrases which have had a lasting legacy. In fact, some university degree courses in English literature offer an introductory lecture on the Bible, so that students reading Shakespeare and Milton can get the references.

Although sometimes the earliest translations lacked a certain resonance. For instance in verse 22 of our reading from Jeremiah, Henry VIII’s Bible had ‘Is there no treacle in Gilead?’ – creating an image of the prophet bemoaning the lack of a crucial ingredient for his gingerbread.

Of course, Jeremiah is mourning something far more significant. ‘My joy is gone, grief is upon me, hark the cry of my poor people.’ It’s about 590 BC. A great army is poised on the borders of Judah. The Babylonians are soon to invade. There is a sense of looming disaster: everyone can see what is about to happen yet no-one can do anything to stop it. And they cry aloud: ‘Is the Lord not in Zion?

As can happen in times of hardship, they feel abandoned by God. God doesn’t seem to be doing anything to retrieve the situation and rescue them. It can be a very difficult thing to bear when we are going through a troubled time. Christians may say that when life is tough we are very aware of God’s presence and strength – that is often true. Occasionally though it feels as if God has abandoned us – and that is very hard – perhaps the hardest part. We have to persevere, carry on doing right seek God in the darkness until that sense of separation passes.

That can happen to the most faithful of Christians. So if anyone feels that God is a long way away it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s our fault. Sometimes though, if God feels distant it may be because we’ve moved, because we’re building walls against him and need to repent.

Just as thirst tells you that you need a drink, so the feeling of separation and distance can be God calling us back to himself. So that we can love him more, he may allow us to experience the results of when we turn away from him. How do we know? Our conscience will usually make it abundantly clear if we have been at fault, if we ask God to show us.

That was the truth for Israel. God spoke through Jeremiah words which were strange, challenging yet ultimately much more hopeful. God’s message through Jeremiah is that he has not abandoned them. Far from it, in fact he is acting in judgement.

As it says in verse 19: ‘Why have they provoked me to anger with their images, with their foreign idols?’ Judah had stopped serving God and instead were praying to statues to save them. God warned and rescued them time and again, eventually allowing them to experience the consequences – he permitted them to find out that statues could not save. We see God respects our free will, and they got what they chose.

For us idols are more often disordered loves. Something which is good become too important and takes over the centre of our lives. It might be money, as we heard in the Gospel parable. It might be relationships, power, work – even the best things can become idols if we try and build our lives upon them. And when we do we become dissatisfied because only God can meet that deepest need. Placed in the space that belongs to God alone such things collapse under the weight of our expectations.

When that happens the sensible thing to do is return to God in repentance. Sadly Jeremiah’s people were not doing that. Although they lamented that God had abandoned them they failed to take serious steps to change. And so Jeremiah records God’s lament over them.

It’s not an easy passage to read or reflect on, yet there are three really important things to notice here. Firstly, God laments. He does not delight in judgement. God loves us and hates it when we suffer.

You know that dreadful caricature of the Old Testament, where God is the heavenly psychopath who delights in plaguing people? It keeps on popping up – Stephen Fry does it very eloquently. But nothing could be further from the truth. As Ezekiel puts it: ‘Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?’

Some of you may remember our Passover meal that we did one Thursday before Easter a few years back. At the point where the Jewish people remember the plagues of Egypt they spill ten drops of wine on their plates, one for each plague. There is silence as they mourn the Egyptian dead and remember that God takes no pleasure in judgement.

It is a useful reminder for the church. I think it was Billy Graham who used to say ‘We should never speak of hell without tears in our eyes’. We should not delight in being proved right, nor rejoice in evil getting its comeuppance. The Church may be called to be prophetic, to point out to society where it is going wrong, but it must not be self-righteous. The church’s voice should not be like Basil Fawlty speaking to a foreigner – just shout louder and more slowly and they’ll be bound to get it. Instead we must speak from within the society which we challenge, as members of it who share in its responsibilities.

Secondly, grief is often necessary. It’s not helpful to sweep it under the carpet and pretend that all is well. Sometimes grief can wake us up to reality. We know that with personal grief, it’s equally true for groups and society. I heard of a vicar who came to a church where not much had changed for a long time. The faithful congregation had grown old together, not acknowledging the steady slow decline, or the end of Sunday School.

Before anything could happen, they had to learn how to grieve. That Vicar had to help them see what had happened, then she created the space for them to mourn what they had lost. Like Israel, only when that grief was articulated and shared could they begin to look to the future.

Until they did that, they were kind of numb. Half-conscious of what was going on, they were too frightened to acknowledge it. What would happen? Perhaps it would be too painful? Would they find there would be no future? It was only when someone was brave enough to point out the elephant in the room – and travel with them on their journey – that new life and hope could bring God’s grace into that situation.

That vicar had to travel a painful path with the congregation. In a small way she points us to a much deeper truth which Jeremiah only hints at. In this reading we hear of a prophet – or is it God? – who wishes his eyes were a fountain of tears so that he might weep day and night for his people.

True prophets, living churches, don’t stand over and against their society, throwing in criticisms like hand grenades. The Biblical prophet and the truly Christian church identify with people’s situations, walk alongside them, challenge, support and transform. They bear the cost of the repentance and change; they suffer alongside the victim, and accompany the oppressors as they learn to serve.

In doing so, they take their inspiration from God himself. God in Christ entered this world so that he could walk in our shoes. He did not come triumphantly to blast the opposition, but in humility. Christ was rejected, mocked, unjustly condemned. God’s Son suffered cruelty, indignity and a painful death. He took onto himself the worst that this world could throw at him – and forgave his persecutors.

By bearing the cost of forgiveness himself, God through Christ opens the door to a new creation. The power of evil cannot triumph over the love of Christ. Death cannot hold him and he is resurrected to a glorious new life. A fresh start, the Kingdom of God beginning among us and inviting us to join in. The path of grief faced and trod, and turned into Easter joy.