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.

 

The Lost Coin – Luke 15:1-10

One of the small hidden bonuses of being a Vicar, is that I am never short of an umbrella. Whenever it rains, whether I am in church or at home, I know there will be a healthy stock of unclaimed lost property. It’s remarkable how many things are never reclaimed: glasses, coats, even car keys (with that latter I wonder: how did that person get home?)

Some items are so essential that you just can’t give up searching. Have you ever lost your phone with diary on it? Occasionally happens with me, and the house must be turned upside down.

Jesus parables often use familiar situations, like anxiously mislaying something precious and spending all day looking for it. The story of the lost sheep is perhaps the best known of all parables, and the lost coin is its less familiar cousin. (The plot is virtually identical: v.8-9.)

It always struck me as a little bit odd that the woman throws a party. She loses her coin, finds it again, and hosts a celebration. So how does she pay for the food and drink? It’s as if she gets her coin back and gives it away again.

But, I’ve discovered, apparently it was the custom for women to wear their dowry as a kind of headband. The coins would be linked together on a string across her forehead. This woman has ten silver coins, given by her family when she was married. They represent the family’s investments, and her savings in case her husband dies before her. Losing one of them is like mislaying a tenth of your pension fund. No wonder she lights a lamp, spring cleans and searches high and low.

As she was given it when she was married, the coin is also like a wedding ring. I was with Susannah at a play park when a little girl’s grandpa lost his wedding ring in the sand. You can imagine the anxiety as family were called over. Fortunately granny was level headed: Don’t move grandpa, she called. They couldn’t see it on the surface, so they gently raked the sand, there was a glint: all was well and there was great celebration when the lost was found.

The value of the ring may have been a few hundred pounds, yet the sentimental value was far more. It’s the same for the woman in the parable – the coin stands for her husband’s love, the bond uniting them.

And Jesus tells us in v.10 ‘Just so there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents’. The point is that we matter to God even more than the coin matters to the woman. God loves us immensely. Not for what we can do for him –who is God that he should need us? God is not some kind of hard up factory foreman who needs all the workers he can get. No, he searches for us because he loves us, because he values us for who we are.

Understand that and it can make a big difference to the way you see yourself. For knowing that you are loved by God is the most stabilising foundation. So many people’s self esteem depends on their achievements or what people think of them. Not so for the Christian – we know that we are treasured by God. Many insecurities come because people are not sure they are valued. The lost coin tells us that each one of us is valued by God.

It teaches us grace too, because the love of God is freely given. We do not have to win God’s regard, nor do we need to strive to stay within the Lord’s affection. His love for us is constant. He longs for those who have wandered to return to him and allowed Jesus to die to save them. Yes, God urges us to repent, to turn away from sin, not because sin stops him loving us, but because the barriers we raise cut us off from his cascading love. So when we do good it is not to justify ourselves, but rather it is a grateful response to his love, and a recognition that doing good is the right way to live.

Getting to grips with the message of this parable may also change our prayers. If we know that God loves us for who we are, then it follows that he enjoys knowing us. He appreciates our company. So prayer is more than presenting a list of requests to the Lord, it is spending time in his presence.

You can talk to him about the day, look back on what has happened, let him into your worries for the future. You can be honest with him, essentially chat. A vicar I knew had a wonderful way of describing prayer: he said it was ‘wasting time with God’. In the way that you might just sit and waste time, leisurely chat with a friend, enjoy their company. There are bound to be times when prayer feels more like a task or a duty, but remember when you pray, God wants to know you.

And if he wants to know you, he wants to know others too. Verses 1 and 2 tell us the background to these two parables: ‘Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. The Pharisees and Scribes were grumbling and saying ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’

How tragic is that! They couldn’t see that here were people coming to life and truth! They couldn’t see the wonder and joy of bad people being forgiven and made whole! They Pharisees couldn’t see that they themselves were sinners, and needed God’s forgiveness! It’s been said that evangelism is ‘one begger telling another where to find bread’ – but they couldn’t see it like that. And so rather than rejoice over the growth of the kingdom they chuntered about Jesus’ poor taste in company. Happily, Jesus’ words did bring change, and Pharisees like Paul eventually shared in going to find the lost.

If we’re to hear the message of this parable, I think it means three things. Firstly, God’s people need to seek out the lost. The shepherd didn’t stand in one place calling out ‘Come by’. He sought out the lost sheep. Churches throughout history have been very good at being visible in one place and inviting people ‘Come in and see’. But we also need to go out. We also need to act intentionally to reach those who haven’t heard the gospel.

Just last week our Children’s Worker and I had a visit from a major grant making trust. They’re deciding whether to support Becky’s work here – please pray that they do! One of the key questions for their trustees is: ‘Do we try and get people to come to church, or do we go to where they are?

The Trust Secretary was telling me that in Northern Ireland there’s a new move away from the church setting up toddler groups or lunch clubs. They find it’s too heavy on resources and you spend all your time trying to get people to come to things. Instead Christians in Northern Ireland are helping the groups that already exist, and being salt and light there. Interesting idea.

In our own Group, Becky provides Sunday clubs for children and we want children to grow up in the church. But we also recognise that if we want to reach them all then we have to go to the schools – for that’s where the children are. Like the shepherd, we have to go out, intentionally seek the lost.

How do you and I do that? In our villages and at work?

On the 22nd September at 7.30 pm we’ve got a meeting in Holy Cross to plan our vision in the Gauzebrook Group for the next three years. Questions like that will be really important and I want to hear your views. Please come.

Secondly, the parable tells us ‘Don’t be like the Pharisees. Rejoice over the lost!’ I know a Vicar who got his first parish a few years ago. The church was looking for someone outgoing who’d grow the congregation. They got what they asked for – and some more! After a while he made some changes to the morning service. Which worked – the congregation doubled!

It wasn’t long before he got complaints. ‘We need to buy more coffee nowadays and we don’t know how much’. ‘All these children are very noisy.’ ‘The Vicar doesn’t have time to speak to us anymore.’ That church got what they asked for, but they also found that growth involves sacrifice. Like the Pharisees, rejoicing in the lost didn’t come naturally, it was easier to see the challenges that the lost brought.

So thirdly, Jesus invites us to enter into the world of lost things. To imagine life without God – what does it feel like to be lost? Do you remember a time when you had no direction, were not aware of God’s presence? When you had no-one to turn to? Surely we can feel for those who live and die without having heard God’s call to turn to him and be forgiven? Surely people’s eternal destiny puts our little inconveniences into perspective? When we think on these things and ask for God’s heart of love, we can begin to feel his passion for the lost.

Some of the lost are more like the sheep, others like the coin. What about us? Were we like the sheep, wilfully wandering from the right path, its own worst enemy, before God sought us out and called us back? Or were we like the coin, fallen down a corner, mislaid in a dark world that has lost its way, our spirituality all dusty and cobwebby? Jesus describes two slightly different situations, but the response in both cases is the same: God seeks the lost. He looks until he has found. And when a sinner responds to God’s call, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God.

Resurrection Breakfast

One day a rather inebriated ice fisherman drilled a hole in the ice. As he prepared his line a loud voice called out ‘There are no fish down there’. Startled, he walked a few yards away and drilled another hole. But just as he was stringing a worm onto the hook, the voice boomed out again ‘There are no fish there.’

He then walked on about fifty yards, drilled another hole and looked cautiously in. Again the voice said ‘There are no fish there.’ He looked up into the sky and called out: ‘God, is that you?’ ‘No, you idiot,’ the voice said ‘it’s the ice rink manager.’

Today’s gospel begins with seven blokes going fishing. Nothing remarkable about that, it happens all the time and it was a daily occurrence on the Sea of Galilee. Jesus’ disciples had grown up as fishermen, that’s how they earned their living, so at one level there’s nothing unusual here.

But actually it’s the strangest thing in the world! These are the disciples of Jesus Christ. Jesus who had proclaimed himself the Messiah, entered Jerusalem in triumph, been captured and put to death. And then risen again! Barely a week or so before, their Lord and Master had risen from the dead – and now the disciples are going fishing? Shouldn’t the Resurrection change everything? Jesus is alive – take the message to the four corners of the world! Be inspired! Or go fishing?

I suppose fishing is what they’re good it. They’ve been doing it for years, it’s what they understand. In a sense they’re comfortable with it. Not that this is relaxing angling – you know the joke about angling? Give a man a fish and he’ll eat tonight. Teach a man to fish and he’ll spend all day in a boat drinking beer. What Peter and the rest were doing is serious work: pulling in heavy nets, soaked to the skin and an April night in Palestine is none too warm either. But despite the hard labour, the routine is what they know and it’s familiar.

Moving on to something unknown can be hard. Even wonderful opportunities can suddenly look challenging when you get up close. Sometimes you hear of lottery winners saying ‘Nothing will change me. I’m going to stay in the same job and won’t let it get to my head.’ That may be a genuine humility or it might be worry over what’s coming, an inability to handle the implications. Statistically you or I are unlikely to win the lottery. On a fishing theme, you’re more likely to be attacked by a shark than win the jackpot.

But we can find ourselves in a similar situation to the disciples or the lottery winner. Where opportunities present themselves but the familiar seems safer. A new job. A move. God may call us to do something for him – I don’t mean going to Papua New Guinea as a full time missionary – a woman I know felt God nudging her to become part of the Open the Book Team telling Bible stories in school assembly. It was a real step into the unknown as she’d never done anything like it before, but she loved it and God used her abilities wonderfully.

Stepping out into something new can be hard, but God promises to be with us when we serve him. Denial or running away is never satisfying because it’s not based in reality. As John Maynard Keynes said: ‘If the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?’

Maybe the disciples went fishing for practical reasons. Presumably they still needed to eat and pay the rent! Yet Jesus appears with a full BBQ – bread, fish and fire, with no explanation of where it came from – suggesting he can provide. In his teaching about food, clothes and money, Jesus said ‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added to you as well.’ He didn’t say they were unnecessary. He never said we wouldn’t have to work for them. But he did tell us not to chase after money, that God provides us with the essentials and to put his Kingdom first. So don’t let busyness get in the way of being a Christian disciple or finding God’s will for you.

I wonder if the disciples were suffering from a spiritual comedown? It can happen in any area of life: after a big success comes a feeling of flatness. You win the contract and then have to knuckle down to the paperwork. You take home the trophy but on Monday morning you’re back at the training ground.

The same can happen spiritually, after a high point there is often a down. I guess that’s why they call it Low Sunday after Easter! Although funnily enough, I always enjoy that day! Spiritual rhythm is built into life, but can catch us out. We may find ourselves thinking: Those worship experiences were wonderful, why does prayer feel tough again today? God felt so close, was I really imagining it? Lots of people came to our new event, but was it just out of curiosity? Will they come next week?

When we feel like that it’s good to recognise what’s happening. See that this is part of the natural spiritual cycle; recognise the battle that’s going on. Rebuke the evil one and keep on through the challenging time, because one day it will pass. Remember the good times and be sustained by the glimpses of grace God gives in the midst of difficulty.

Perhaps it was all these things together. The disciples just felt flat and unprepared. They hadn’t seen Jesus for a bit, the task ahead looked vast, money was running out and the answer seemed obvious. ‘Let’s go fishing’. They met with a lack of success, perhaps a sign this wasn’t what they’re supposed to be doing? There’s a symbolic significance too, because whenever we wander from God’s will for us, we feel dissatisfied. Even if what we’re doing is a perfectly innocent thing, if it’s not God’s plan it doesn’t fill us up.

Only when Jesus appears and they obey him do they get results. What a lovely moment it is in verse 7 when John says to Peter ‘It is the Lord’.

Of course they recognised Jesus. Doesn’t it all sound familiar? A bit déjà vu? Yes it does! It should. Almost the exact same thing has happened before. Not at the end of the gospel but at the beginning. One of the very first miracles Jesus did was a catch of fish. He met some disciples – these disciples, in the morning. They had caught nothing. Put your net on the other side, he said – they were inundated with fish.

Yes, they would have got the point. He’s back. And they would have got the meaning too – because immediately after that first miracle Jesus came out with his famous pun: ‘Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.’ Become my disciples and share the good news. Now, post Easter, Jesus does it again, after the disciples have lost their way a little.

And if the point is still not clear, it’s there in the number of the fish. 153. A curious detail – but apparently 153 was regarded at the time as the number of nations on earth. It’s Fishers of men again. Join me, says Jesus, in bringing all nations into my Kingdom. He’s calling them back to their original purpose. Especially Peter.

Peter can’t wait to meet Jesus, even though they’re only a hundred yards from the shoreline he jumps into the lake and swims to the shore – not forgetting to put his clothes on first! Sounds daft. But is there symbolism here? Does it recall guilty Adam in the garden of Eden, putting on clothes before he can meet God? Even in the joy does Peter remember there is something he needs to sort out? Does the charcoal fire that Jesus has lit remind him of that other charcoal fire, the one at which he denied Christ?

Soon, Jesus restores Peter. Peter, who had three times denied Jesus, is given the chance to assure Jesus of his love three times. Broken and now restored, he will be a wise and sympathetic pastor for Christ’s church.

So Jesus called them back to following him. When they had been distracted by busyness, he gave them focus again. When they had been paralysed by fear, he gave them purpose and power. When they had been discouraged and flat, he restored their vision.

He can do the same for us. Each one of us here will be in a different place. But it may be that some of you will recognise yourself in that description of the disciples. Having lost the way a little bit, let Jesus call you back. If our relationship with Christ has been squeezed out by activity, he can enable us to reprioritise. If our spirituality feels flat, Jesus can envision us and give us strength to persevere. If we know he is calling us onwards but worry about the consequences, Jesus will enable us to face reality and the future with confidence. If you are feeling like those disciples, I encourage you to bring it to God and ask him to meet you and bless you at this resurrection breakfast.