Envy, James 4

Can envy ever be a good thing? Seems a ridiculous question. How can envy ever be good? Envy is jealousy of someone else, or what they have. Envy is the opposite of contentedness and gratitude. Envy wishes that we might be like another person or enjoy the things they enjoy. Therefore it prevents us from valuing who we are and seeing the gifts that we have been given. The sixth deadly sin diminishes us and gives little in return. Could it ever be used for good?

 

In the Bible, the tenth commandment tells us not to covet: do not covet your neighbour’s ox, his ass, his house, his wife, or anything that belongs to him. Proverbs 14 verse 30 recognises that envy eats us up from inside: ‘A tranquil heart gives life to the flesh but envy makes the bones rot.’ Jesus lists envy as one of the evil thoughts that pollute a person from within.

 

And in the passage we read today from James chapter 3v13 through to chapter 4 verse 8, James lists what the results of envy can be. How often children fall out over sharing toys, or a parent’s attention! Adults are not immune – what is often called a personality clash may well be down to envy of someone else’s perceived good fortune. It has a corrosive effect in our society, as advertising encourages us to raise our aspirations, to compare ourselves with our neighbours, to imagine we can satisfy our deepest needs with the latest clothes or gadgets.

 

The Christian response to envy is to cultivate thankfulness. If we regularly give thanks for the good things we enjoy, we are much less likely to consider ourselves hard done by. In v. 3 James urges us to ask God for the things we need – simply pray for what is necessary. St Paul in his letter to the Philippians chapter 4 verse 13, tells us that he has learned to be content in every situation, whether with a little or a lot. For if our deepest needs, for God, for human relationships, for meaning in our work – if those needs are met then we are less likely to try and fill the hole with wanting more stuff. The good news is that following Christ means we do not need to envy!

How then do we deal with envy? If you’re prone to it, do you have a straight choice between squishing it or allowing it to take over? Or is there another way? After all, the problem with trying to suppress emotions is that they have a nasty habit of popping up unexpectedly elsewhere. Or the pressure builds up until the boiler bursts.

 

In v. 14 James writes about bitter envy and selfish ambition. Yet does ambition have to be selfish? Perhaps we can imagine a kind of ambition that can be positive: an ambition to make your company a force for good in society; an ambition to change the world for the better; an ambition to be the best you can for God. If ambition can be selfish, but need not, might there be such a thing as an envy which is not bitter?

 

I’m reading a book by the philosopher Alain de Botton, called The Joys and Sorrows of Work. It’s lyrical, astutely observational, occasionally a little smug but often entertaining as the book reflects on the world of work. Surprisingly, although Alain de Botton is an atheist, some of his thoughts on the value and purpose of work and human identity have close correspondence with Christian beliefs.

 

At one point he watches a vocational advisor giving careers advice. This is not to sixth formers, but to mature executives who have lost their way. Christians might say that they are seeking a more profound vocation. The adviser urges one of his clients to identify people that they envy – be honest, he says, and if there’s not at least two close friends on that list I’ll know you haven’t been truthful.

 

What’s he playing at? If we can identify who and what we are envious of, we might then be able to discern some misplaced desires of our hearts. So perhaps if you are envious of Carol’s fast car, maybe you long for fun and freedom? If you spend your time looking at gorgeous houses and gardens in the paper, do you have an unmet need for beauty, or a desire to give hospitality, or are you just tired and want to relax? I expect many people have a friend who doesn’t own much but whose simplicity of life and strong relationships are deeply attractive.

Identifying what we envy and thinking about why is a very interesting exercise. Perhaps with prayer and discernment, it can teach us something profound. It may even point us towards adjustments we can make to find deeper fulfilment and draw closer to God’s plan for our lives.

 

Of course, this isn’t the same as giving in to it! James’ point is very clear: unchecked envy is a powerfully destructive force. If we find it in our hearts, which v.14 recognises can be the case, then what do we do? Verses 15 and 16 show that giving in to envy, indulging it, leads us down an unhealthy path. Curious isn’t it, that those who have the most often seem most prone to compare themselves to others and want more as each bite satisfies less and less.

 

I would argue that understanding envy, and thinking about where it comes from, will give us a much greater ability to defeat its negative consequences. Then, as v.17 urges, we will not be hypocritical but able to live at peace with ourselves and with others.

 

Nonetheless, as we fight against any temptation, there will be times when that is a struggle and we need to draw on real willpower and learn to work with God’s Holy Spirit. When James talks of peace and being willing to yield, it teaches us that we ultimately have a choice: we can choose to let others be others and be content with who we are – or we can try and prove ourselves. We can choose to spend time giving thanks in prayer – or we can choose to flip through the catalogues.

 

Making peace requires effort, the ability to reach out to someone else. Moving on to verse 7, resisting evil is a deliberate choice too. ‘Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts you double minded.’

 

 

 

As James closes this passage, he brings the battle against envy onto a spiritual dimension – an ongoing spiritual warfare. Resisting the devil is about knowing right and wrong, and being aware when there is a battle on. Some significant battles have been lost because one side didn’t know there was a war! We need to acknowledge that there is a battle for our hearts and minds, a spiritual dimension.

 

Submitting to God is explained later on – it’s about being humble and drawing close to God. We need his spirit to help us, and as we draw close to God then he draws close to us. Cleanse our hands is a picture of repentance, of acknowledging when we have done wrong and turning from it. Purifying our hearts recognises that we can learn to control our thoughts.

 

To sum up then: Envy is a powerful emotion. It lurks within – and if we’re aware of it, it’s better to be open with ourselves and with God. If we pray about it, the roots of envy may even reveal useful things about ourselves. And when we have understood it and rejected its negative consequences, thankfulness and contentedness are the blessings that God gives.

 

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James 1:17-end

I wonder when the last time was that somebody was really generous to you? One of the joys of living in a vicarage is that the Church of England takes its duty of care seriously. The Diocese is good at sending someone to sort things out – if a tree is rotten, or squirrels are eating the electrics, you come back from holiday and find the problem has gone.

There is a flipside though: early this year the gas man came to inspect the boiler. While he was at it, he decided to look at our cooker – and promptly decided it had to be condemned. It’s 3 o’clock on a Friday and we’ve got guests coming – what do we do? We did not end up eating takeaways for two months – instead we were blessed with generous offers.

Here, borrow my halogen oven, my slow cooker. Use our kitchen if you want. Join us for a meal – the generosity from God’s people was amazing. As it says in our reading from the letter of James, v.17: ‘Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights.’

We can be generous because God has been generous to us. Everything we have comes as a gift – even the things we’ve earned and bought come from our talents, which are given to us. God is the source of all giving. The whole creation is one massive act of generosity – for God did not create because he had to. He did not bring life into being because he was missing something. God needs nothing, he creates out of love, out of a desire to bless and bring life. 

He is the father of all. The lights in v17 may be the planets. Whereas they change and move, there is not variation or shadow of change with God. He is constant. Forever reliable. Trustworthy.To be sure, there are parts of the Bible which suggest that God changes his mind. Frequently in the Old Testament we hear that God planned to do something but he relented.

Often, as in the book of Jonah, judgement is threatened on wicked people. They then repent. God changes his mind and forgives them. God is always like this – consistently he acts against evil. He always wishes that people would return to him, and if they do he promises to forgive them. God is therefore consistent in his attitude to human action. He does not change his character –even if we change our response to him.

 Through the ups and downs of the Bible, God is working his purpose out. As it says in v.18: ‘In fulfilment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth so that we would become a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.’ 

 Our reading describes the greatest gift of all. From the beginning God intended to send Jesus as our Saviour, so that when we believe the word of truth about Jesus, we can become part of the renewal of creation.

 As God breathes that newness into us, we become more like him. How often we end up having arguments with people, when if we could sit down with them and talk it calmly through we’d understand each other! How much better it is to do what v.19 says, and be quick to listen, slow to speak! Don’t reply to that snide Facebook remark with words you’ll regret, don’t send the email written in haste. It’s amazing how many things don’t seem that important 24 hours later.

 For ‘your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.’ Can you think of any time when being angry has made a situation better? Perhaps if there’s an issue of justice at stake – like Jesus and moneychangers – but even then you or I get angry we often end up having to apologise for it. A couple of weeks ago the letter to the Ephesians reminded us that anger is inevitable, but we can learn to control it. Anger will happen, but it doesn’t have to lead to sin, and don’t let the sun go down on it.)

 So with the help of the Holy Spirit we can get rid of all wickedness, and) as verse 21 says ‘welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls’.  

How do we accept God’s Word? For me as a preacher, that means I need to think about what it means in my own life before I dare to speak it to others. Welcoming God’s word with meekness means I respect its authority – this is the word from God, and, rightly understood, it reveals God’s will for our lives.

We all need to get the best out of God’s word, the Bible, which means actually picking it up and reading it. Praying about it, asking God to show us what it means. Reading it in a translation which makes sense. And above us working out what difference it makes in real life – how what you have read will affect the things you do this day. 

For the Bible does make a difference. It is there to change lives. Yes, we read the Bible because it is entertaining –great stories, beautiful poetry. Yes, we read the Bible because it is the foundation of our community and culture – far more than many people realise. Yes, we read the Bible because it is interesting and a fascinating study in its own right.

But it is no good telling, say, the story of the rich fool dramatically, giving a theologically integrated account of Jesus’ teaching on wealth, no good studying the history of the impact of those beliefs in our culture and sitting in a group talking about it, it’s no good doing any of that if the story of the rich fool doesn’t change the way we use our own money.

We must be ‘doers of the word and not merely hearers’. For to be otherwise is to deceive ourselves. James imagines someone inspecting their reflection in the mirror. What would be the point of looking in the mirror if you didn’t also straighten wayward hair and wipe chocolate away from the edge of your mouth? Looking into the Bible and not acting on it leads to a spiritual hardening of the arteries – sadly it becomes more difficult to hear what God is really saying.

If we look into the perfect law closely, we find that v.25 is true. We discover that God’s commands are not a restrictive set of rules, but rather a law that gives life.  We discover that we will be blessed when we persevere in the face of boredom, weariness and temptation.

This may not sound very spiritual. The letter of James, which we’ll be looking at over the next few weeks, has been criticised because it is so practical and down to earth. Yet this is what real faith looks like. James’ whole message, which he drums into us again and again, is that real faith is practical. Real faith is lived out. Real faith makes a difference in the world. What we believe matters, of course it does. But James challenges us: does what we believe change us? If it doesn’t, what’s the point?

V. 26 is typical of James’ message: ‘If any think they are religious and do not bridle their tongues, they deceive themselves and their religion is worthless.’ Gossip, harsh words, the things we say matter. ‘Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the father is this: to care for widows and orphans in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world.’

That’s how Christianity spread. The appeal of Christian faith wasn’t just that the teaching was better than the sordid tales of naughty Roman gods. It wasn’t solely down to the hope of resurrection and healing, in comparison to the noble but resigned Greek philosophy. Christianity spread because the Holy Spirit enabled people to live in a different way. Ordinary people began looking after their neighbours; the church cared for its vulnerable members; generosity was sacrificial, partners were faithful; martyrs faced death courageously. Lives were changed.

And as we look at our society, people are crying out for examples of authentic living. Ours is a world which is both ignorant of Christianity and yet feels that it has heard it all before. We cannot gain a hearing by insisting on ancient privilege, or assuming a self-evident superiority. In a world which looks for integrity, which is desperate for a vision to live by, Christians need to point to the word of Christ by a radical lifestyle. As we live out the gospel of Jesus, its power will be seen.

 

 

Peace be with you

Luke 24:36b-48

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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.

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.