Trinity

Today is Trinity Sunday. Traditionally, it’s a week when the Vicar has the day off from preaching. Instead trying to explain the Trinity is handed over to the poor curate in training. For the next three years we’ll have a curate. But in the meantime, it looks as if it’s still down to me.

I wonder what you think of when I say Trinity? Trinity may be a university college, a lighthouse or a newspaper group. It’s become a girl’s name – spiritual, a bit mysterious, kind of traditional but also modern. But for most of us, the Trinity is a bit like this: E=mc2.

We recognise it. We know it’s important. But I suspect few of us know what E=mc2 means. Or what difference it makes. And even fewer people could say why it is true. For most of us, the Trinity is similar – we know about it, we know it’s important, but what is it and why?

In essence, the Holy Trinity is the Christian belief that there is one God who exists as three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. If we look at the Creed it explains that each member of the Trinity also has a role. The Father is the Creator, the Son is Jesus, the Spirit is God within us. All together, they are one God: Father Son and Holy Spirit.

How on earth can that be? Christians throughout the ages have used illustrations. You might like the clover leaf –one single leaf, with three lobes, or the Toblerone: chocolate, nut and nougat in one three sided sweet. Everyday pictures where an item is both three and one. Analogies for how God can be one in three persons. Yet they are just that: pictures from creation which give us a pattern. But how could we expect to understand God? God is so far above us, he is so majestic and awesome, we surely can’t expect to get our heads fully around him.

Christian theology tells us that we can know God because Jesus shows us what he is like. But ultimately, we cannot fully understand God. There is a difference between knowing and comprehending, experiencing and mastering. And that goes for the Trinity too. Surely, if our minds could fully grasp him then he would no longer be God!

Perhaps we need to take that on board more. Sometimes we think of God in a way which is far too cosy – my spiritual friend, or a kind of Santa up there, a father figure whose job it is to answer prayers and protect good people. God is far bigger and deeper than we imagine. It is easy in worship to try and explain everything. Often we make our God too small. Let us come to God’s presence knowing that we stand on holy ground. Trinity Sunday reminds us he is greater than we can ever imagine.

But is it a Biblical belief? Sometimes people object to the Trinity doctrine and say that it isn’t in the Bible. Certainly, if you look up the word Trinity in the index, you won’t find it. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a Biblical grounded idea.

Just look at the Gospel reading. Please turn Matthew 28. In v.19 Jesus says: ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.’ This is worth a closer look.

The Father, Son and Spirit are each mentioned, so they are separate individuals. Jesus puts them in an order of priority. But he doesn’t distinguish between them as if one is God and the others aren’t. He doesn’t say, ‘the Father, who is God, and then the Son who is something a bit lesser, and finally the Spirit too’. No, they are all on an equal footing. And he says ‘in the name of’. Not ‘names’ plural. But ‘name’ singular. Meaning one God. One God. Three persons.

The reading from 2 Corinthians 13 is similar. In verse 13 ‘The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit’. Again, all three mentioned, again seemingly put on a level with one another, again all working together. Paul gives each a different attribute and interestingly he puts Jesus first – but again it’s obvious that the belief in the Trinity is Biblically founded. It took the early church a long time to hammer out precisely what it meant – but there was never any real doubt over whether it was true.

There are many Biblical passages which support the Trinity. It’s so Biblical, that the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who don’t believe in the Trinity, actually change the words of their Bibles to make it fit their beliefs.

So if you ever hear anyone say the Trinity isn’t Biblical, you can put them right. Don’t be worried either if you can’t understand it – that’s natural. Doubt too is o.k, if we bring it honestly to God. After all, in v. 17 of the reading, the disciples doubted even while worshipping Jesus.

So the Trinity is Biblical and a mystery. But what difference does it make? What does it mean for us today and tomorrow, out of that door?

Well, it tells us that God loves this world, he’s doing something about it, and he wants us to join him. The Trinity means God exists in a kind of family, bound together in love. And that love overflows to share with the whole universe. God’s love is so generous, like a champagne fountain, overflowing from the top most glass all the way down.

I wonder if there was much champagne drunk on Thursday night? Some politicians would be celebrating, others less so. Many of us might be excused for thinking ‘Thank goodness it’s all over!’ The television crews have disappeared, the door knockers have gone home and posters are coming down. All of a sudden, we get news from the rest of the world. I expect that many people, whatever their views about the result, are breathing a big sigh of relief that it’s all over for a while.

Elections are a reminder of the importance of relationships to humanity. We belong to a society with responsibilities to one another, where our actions have effects on other people. We depend on others for our day to day existence, and they depend on us. Men and women find themselves in other people – in those intimate relationships like marriage or true friendship we find out who we really are and are given the freedom to grow. There are tradeoffs between the individual and society as a whole – a lot of political debate revolves around this. We exist in relationship with others, and, like it or not, without them we would be lost.

Christianity says the reason that we are like this is that we take after God. A God who lives in relationship. Whose very nature is Trinity. That’s another reason why the static models of the Trinity fall short. Of course the Trinity is deeper than a Jaffa cake! But it’s also much more dynamic than that. The Father, the Son, they’re words used of a family. God exists as three persons in mutual relationship. Society is the nature of God.

Think about how the Trinity shows us God in relationship: God the Father made the universe, created beings who could love one another and love him. God the Son, Jesus, came to earth. He taught people, showed us the right way to live, brought healing, and through his death forgave us our sins. God the Holy Spirit lives within us, giving us power to change, and transform our world.

In other words, God is already at work in our world, and in the gospel reading we hear that he wants us to join him. God’s on a mission, and he calls us to his side. Don’t imagine that the church takes God into the world – as if he’s strapped into a baby carrier and needs a bit of help to get out and meet people!

God’s already there. The world is his, it belongs to him. As Jesus said in v. 18 ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me’ It’s Jesus’ world. He’s already there, already at work. People may not recognise him but he’s there. ‘Go therefore and make disciples.’ Go and join what the Spirit of God is doing. Share in his work. Help people to perceive him, help them to understand and make sense of where God is in their lives. Help them to recognise Jesus.

God calls us to join him in that task. Sometimes we give it a name: Mission. The danger of giving the task a name is that mission sounds like an add-on activity for a few keen people. That’s not the case. Mission is what God does, and he commands his church to join him. Mission is intrinsic to God’s very nature. So a church cannot exist for itself and by itself. It must be outward looking.

In doing that, we have a wonderful promise, right at the end of Matthew’s gospel in V.20 ‘Remember I am with you always, to the end of the age’ Jesus is with us. Not because we’re taking him with us from inside the church. But because when we go out, we’ll meet him already in the world. Because it’s his world. Because he is already at work there, drawing people to himself. Because he is the risen and ascended Lord, before whom one day all creation will bow. Let’s therefore have confidence in his presence and our relationship with him. Amen.

 

 

 

Vocation 5, Ezekiel 3 and Matt 28

Ezekiel left the refugee camp behind and stood on the banks of the River Kebar. Grand name for an unpleasant reality.  The drainage ditch was filthy, polluted with a scum of green algae and unspeakable things. Gloomily he stared at the water and felt utterly miserable. His life was pointless. Messed up, and there was no going back.

What is a priest supposed to do without a temple? A servant of the Lord far away from the Lord’s land? Ezekiel’s 30th birthday was meant to be the high point, the time when he could begin the ministry for which he had spent his life training. But the Babylonians had come. War, capture, and now exile. In the prime of his life, Ezekiel’s future was forced labour. He’d missed his vocation. He was far from home. What a waste.

To cap it all a storm was brewing in the North, and fat raindrops began to fall. Turning for shelter, he looked back at the black cloud – and saw visions of God. As it says in Ezekiel 1 v1 ‘In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I was among the exiles by the river Chebar, the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God.’

It may be obscure, but this is one of my favourite verses in the Bible. Because it says that no matter where I am, no matter what awful things are going on around me, no matter how much I may have messed up – God is there. However veiled it may be, his glory is ready to be revealed. The sovereign Lord is present and he is in ultimate control.

Ezekiel realised God was there. Even by the river Chebar God was there. When all hope had fled, God showed Ezekiel that he is still Lord, that he rules. It was the beginning of something new: a prophetic ministry that brought Israel back to their God; a call to repentance; the rebirth of Judaism.

Up until that point the Jewish people had more or less gone along with the idea that each nation had their own god. And that each nation and god had their own territory, the place where they belonged. Of course, they knew the God of Israel could defeat the gods of Egypt. But Ezekiel discovered something new: that the God of Israel is the God of the whole world. He’s not restricted to one place – he is everywhere.

In the gospel, Jesus similarly tells us all authority in heaven and earth has been given to him. For those who have eyes to see it, God’s glory is potentially everywhere. Not just in the temple, or the Holy Land, but here in life and joy, the beauty of creation all around us, the love of family and friends. We can be aware of God when we stop and pray, we sense his presence in a holy place. But Jesus means more than this.

One of the biggest lessons I’ve had to learn is that is often most known in times of trial. In the hardest moments of my life I have felt God more closely than in the times of blessing. He is alongside us in pain and suffering. In our darkness, when we experience difficulty, we can find God. Isn’t that the message of the cross on Passion Sunday? That God enters human suffering and we can find him in the midst of it? The cross gives us the deepest insight into God’s heart. For God cares about his world, and calls us to work with him in putting it right.

This is the final sermon in our series on vocation. So far we’ve thought about how God calls everyone to himself, adult or child – we are all called; how God uses our gifts, and how we may have to overcome our reluctance to respond. Today we’re looking at how God calls us to serve him in the world. The call of Ezekiel in Chapter 3 tells us that people may or may not listen to God’s message – but fear of that reaction should not hold us back. And, when we witness to Christ we must be rooted in God and genuinely caring for the people we serve.

Look at v.4. ‘Mortal go to the house of Israel and speak my very words to them.’ Right at the beginning of this series, I said that the most important thing in calling was that we are called personally to know God. I said that being called is not about doing a job, but about being in a relationship with God through Jesus. He wants us to know him.

It’s also true that the more we get to know God, the more we will share his love for his creation. It’s like a fire within us, his compassion will lead us to serve. So relationship with God is bound to make us look outwards. Christian faith must lead to practical service, a better world.

Ezekiel was given the job of conveying God’s words. So, in a general sense are we. We may not all be called to be evangelists or Bible teachers, but all Christians are called to bear witness to Jesus. We are meant to be lights in the world, and speak of our faith.

That’s what the church is for. In the gospel reading, Jesus sent the apostles out to make disciples of all nations, baptizing and teaching them to obey everything he had commanded. The church continues that task and we all have a role to play. Lost for Words?

Like Ezekiel, that may meet with rejection. V.5-6 describe how Israel, who knew God, will not listen, even though those with foreign languages would. Do we not see that still today? In China, South Korea and Nepal, huge numbers are becoming Christians. England, with a long history of Christian faith, is resistant to the gospel.

But I don’t think we should over-emphasise that. I’ve found that many individuals are willing to listen and discuss. I had respectful discussions with atheists, good arguments with articulate Muslims. I find that Agnostics Anonymous is much appreciated – someone even travels from Bristol to join us. Younger people can often be very open because they haven’t had religion drilled into them. They really respond if they see a genuine faith that makes a difference in our lives.

So non-believers are not necessarily hostile. They may be searching for meaning, they often find alternative lifestyles interesting. One of the biggest traps is when we assume we won’t get a hearing, and so don’t speak. Often I have been pleasantly surprised.

When I became a curate my vicar said to me: ‘We’ve got these paperback gospels. Drop them into people’s letter boxes would you? It was some kind of evangelistic initiative. I didn’t even have to knock the door. Yet even such a timid effort with minimal contact brought a two people to a real faith. Any of us could do that, couldn’t we? It doesn’t need much courage to drop off the parish Christmas cards, or publicity.

But fear inhibits us. ‘Oh, I couldn’t speak about my faith’; or ‘I can’t do children’s work’. ‘What if I messed up?’ Well, what if? So it went wrong – at least no-one died. Put it down to experience and try again. Fear like that is a devil’s trick – he exaggerates the danger so we don’t share our faith. What really is the worst that can happen? Being seen as a religious nut? That pales in comparison with what Jesus did for us. Never forget that Matthew 28 is a resurrection appearance. Christ sends the disciples out to tell the story of a God who died to save us.

Christ’s love compels us. But we do have to acknowledge the fear we sometimes feel. We should bring those fears to God, praying he will take them away, or give us courage to overcome them. As he says to Ezekiel in v. 9. ‘Like the hardest stone I have made your forehead’. Like him we may feel that the concerns we had just evaporate, or we are given strength to carry on.

God also commands Ezekiel not to fear. Sometimes you just have to step out in faith and get on with it. For courage is not the absence of fear. John Wayne said ‘courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyway.’ So let’s take a chance, stick our necks out for God. It may well be that we get an encouraging response and something good happens – particularly if we’ve prayed beforehand.

Isn’t it encouraging that Jesus’ disciples doubted even when he appeared to them. How did they doubt? Did they wonder if it was really Jesus? Were they in two minds about whether he was actually alive or a vision? Or did they doubt the appropriateness of worshipping him?

The word for doubt is the same one that’s used when Peter gets out of the boat to walk on water, and then sees the wind and waves and gets scared. So doubt isn’t incompatible with faith. Nor does doubt necessarily stop us from being useful to Jesus. He told these doubting people to start the church! He used them for an enormous job. We may have doubts too. It doesn’t mean that we aren’t true Christians. Nor does it mean that God can’t use us.

So be encouraged to step out for God. Don’t be shy of speaking of your faith for fear that you don’t know all the answers, or have worries or doubts. Often a real story of faith, honestly told with times of joy and of sorrow and doubt can be much more compelling than one which is so confident that it sounds otherworldly.

And of course, what we do and say needs to be a fair reflection of God’s word. As it says in v.10 ‘Receive in your heart’ – God’s word must be true in our lives. We need to take it to heart. It’s said that a preacher always preaches to himself first. Anyone who tries to speak about God is not a mere mouthpiece nor a typewriter keyboard, conveying a message without understanding. Instead, we should be more like a dancer, who interprets and embodies the script. People instinctively know when the story doesn’t ring true. That’s why, in v 12 and 13, Ezekiel has visions of God, so he can reflect what he has seen. So use your own words to describe your faith, not Christian cliché. (LFW)

Unfortunately a spiritual high can be followed by a big comedown. We can’t spend forever up high in spiritual experience, you have to descend to the hurly burly of train tickets and the school run. It’s a shock. Sometimes people can be really bitter because there’s such a contrast between the joy of their conversion, and the hard work of being faithful to Christ day by day. There can even be anger at what we’ve been called to do. But that’s o.k. God’s big enough to cope when we bring it to him. Ezekiel describes it in v. 14 ‘I went in bitterness of Spirit’.

But the hand of the Lord was upon him. It was less obvious, but God’s presence was still there. If any of us are finding life hard, we should remember that. Present, not in felt glory, but present nonetheless.

Finally, in v.15 ‘I sat there among the exiles, stunned for seven days’. Ezekiel remained one of the people, he continued to share their lives. If he were just to speak God’s message with God’s fearlessness, he might have come over as condemning, unloving, hard. But he sat as one of them; as Jesus did, sharing our weakness, loving us, acting with compassion and praying to God for us. Anyone who would share their faith with friends and neighbours should be the same. Christians cannot set ourselves apart and criticise from a distance. We must sit among our people – one beggar telling another where to find bread.

So, God has called us to himself. That means we are also sent, from God’s presence, equipped with a vision of his glory and strengthened by his love and courage. In the words of Christ in the gospel: ‘Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

 

Eucharist 4 – mission

A snail made its way into a police station. He said to the desk sergeant  “I’ve just been mugged by two tortoises.” “Gosh” said the sergeant “what did they do?” “I don’t know” said the snail “it happened so fast”

We live in a world which is changing rapidly, and in unexpected ways. Apparently if you put a single pound on an accumulator bet at the beginning of the year that the UK would vote to leave Europe, Donald Trump would be the next US president, and Leicester City would win the Premier league – you would now be four and a half million richer.

The pace of change can be bewildering, perhaps especially for the church, which at times seems to be playing a belated game of catch up.

Yet often in its history, Christians have been at the forefront of change, doing their utmost to usher in a better world. Think of the Evangelical Clapham Sect who led efforts to abolish slavery and child labour in Victorian times. The social impact inspired by Christian faith can be very personal and local – like the Methodist revival which changed drinking culture in working men or the current work among self-harming teenagers. Or it can be more like a revolution – it’s a well-documented fact that the demonstrations which brought down the Berlin Wall had their origin in a prayer meeting in St Nicholas church Leipzig.

Christian faith changes the world. As we go out of that door our faith makes a difference. It affects our relationships, our values and impact, our prayers – and if it doesn’t we have to ask what’s the point? The end of the Eucharist sends us out with the words: ‘Go in peace to love and serve the Lord’. It’s that serving we’re thinking about today in this final sermon in the series on the Eucharist. How does the Eucharist join us in God’s mission? How does the Eucharist affect our communities?

In our first reading from Romans 1:1-7 St Paul sets out a massive vision which we’ve followed in our Advent journey. Paul describes the amazing acts of God: how the Old Testament prophets promised the coming of a Saviour; how Jesus came as both man and God. Last week we reflected on the depths of God’s love shown when Jesus offers himself as a sacrifice for our sins. We also thought about the resurrection – in v.4 – and our call to be saints.

But this isn’t just something to make us feel great. Paul doesn’t stop there: how wonderful this is, let’s sit back and enjoy God’s love! No, in verse 5 he says: ‘we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles.’ In other words, having received this great blessing we share it with the world. We have forgiveness, the promise of eternal life, teaching on the right way to live, God’s Spirit to transform us, the Kingdom of God to build! What an amazing gift to bring the world!

And our worship equips and strengthens us to do this. The word of God read and preached changes our understanding, renews our minds and motivates us to action. Prayer and song focus our hearts on God, build a connection with heaven and ground us in God’s reality. Ministry time – fellowship and prayer for one another can be profoundly healing, restoring spiritual health and psychological wholeness. At its best, worship enables us to connect with God, connect with one another, and so connect well with our communities.

Of course, all of these things are open to the non-communicant – and that is a very important point. Nothing we’ve explored so far is exclusive to the Eucharist, and indeed there are many good reasons why outreach through worship is often non-Eucharistic. The Early Church kept the Eucharist secret, and for many today it can still be a mystery.

Indeed, the way the Eucharist is often celebrated is not exactly the material of revolution. Unchanging liturgy and regular observance emphasise the idea that communion is about ‘rations for the journey’ – enough to carry us spiritually through the week. That is true – we need God’s regular blessing, but there is so much more to which he calls us.

The Eucharist is more than bread for the journey. It is fuel for the revolution. For the wounded, worship can be a refuge from an unpredictable world, but ultimately the Eucharist should be healing and reconciling so that we can re-enter the world with radical engagement. The Eucharist gives us continuity with the past, but also transformation.

Transformation is right at the heart of the Eucharist. Look at the offertory procession, why do we do that? If you think about it, we could perfectly well start off the service with the bread and wine next to the altar and indeed many churches do that. But the offertory procession does have a symbolism: the bread and wine of human labour are taken and transformed by God’s spirit to be a blessing to us all. Someone made that bread, bottled that wine and their efforts represent our own self-offering and commitment to be transformed by God.

Remember our gospel reading? St Joseph the worker is willing to be offered, broken, in effect shared for God’s glory. He offers himself, accepting God’s costly call. It will feel like being broken – imagine the gossip, the innuendo, the humiliation – has Joseph lost his self-control? Or is he raising someone else’s son? Joseph’s talents, his parenting will be lavished on Jesus. How much was Jesus inspired by Joseph? What did he learn from him? And so Joseph will in the end, through Jesus’ ministry, be shared with us all.

The Eucharist speaks of Christ’s obedience to God, of his self-offering and brokenness, of bringing healing to the world. We too are called to follow that pattern. To offer ourselves, where we are, our concerns and joys, the fruits of our labours.

To be willing to be broken and shared in that strange dance of self-denying yet ultimately fulfilling love.

As we come to communion I think there are several applications for today. Firstly, let’s keep the big picture in front of us. Everything that we do as Christians is to glorify God. The purpose of the church is to share in God’s mission. Let’s keep that at the forefront of what we do, the ultimate goal of all our activities.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that we drop everything that we’re doing and start something else. But it does mean that the ethos of offering and being shared in God’s mission should pervade everything that we do. A couple of years ago our PCC developed a vision statement for this church, a hope of what we would like to be. It is

A holy place at the heart of the community, open to all.

We can do that, in a way which is centred and grounded in God.

Secondly, let’s ensure that our Eucharistic worship connects with our community. Communion can be evangelistic, if we celebrate in an appropriate way. It need not feel exclusive or distant. As another example, it’s perfectly appropriate for our intercessions to include national and local concerns. It’s right to pray about Syria – it’s right too to pray for this village. Who will pray about the future of preschool provision in Sherston if not Sherston’s church? We do not tell God what to do, how to answer our prayers (still less preach at him), but we do offer up particular instances and people to our loving Lord.

Finally, may we be drawn in to the movement of the Eucharist. As God invites us, may we respond to him in love and receive his grace. May we be strengthened through his spirit to love and serve the Lord. Amen.

 

Eucharist 2 – who we are

 

1 Corinthians 11:20-27 and Luke 14:15-24

A couple in their 90s die suddenly in a freak accident. Up till that point they had been in excellent health, due to the wife’s interest in health food.

When they reached the pearly gates, St. Peter took them to their mansion, with beautiful kitchen, swimming pool, lovely view. As they “oohed and aahed”, the old man asked Peter how much all this was going to cost.

“It’s free,” Peter replied, Remember, this is Heaven.”

Next they went out back to see the championship golf course next door. Each week the course changed to a new one representing the greatest golf courses on Earth. The old man asked, “What are the green fees?”

“This is heaven,” St. Peter replied. “You play for free.”

Next they went to the clubhouse and saw the lavish buffet lunch with the cuisines of the world laid out. “How much to eat?” asked the old man.

“Don’t you understand yet?” St. Peter asked. “This is heaven. It’s free!”

“Where are the low fat and low cholesterol foods?” the old man asked timidly.

“That’s the best part…you can eat as much as you like of whatever you like and you never get fat and you never get ill. This is Heaven.”

The old man looked at his wife and said, “You and your stupid bran muffins. I could have been here twenty years ago!”

When Jesus talks about heaven, how does he imagine it? He certainly doesn’t talk about harps and clouds at all. As far as I’m aware he mentions Paradise just once – to the thief on the cross who puts his trust in Jesus right at the end of his life. Because he turns to Christ he is forgiven and will be in Paradise.

But mostly the image Jesus uses is a banquet. ‘Blessed is the person who will eat bread in the Kingdom of God’ says a dinner guest piously. Jesus has just said something challenging and it seems that the guest is one of those people who tries to defuse tension by saying something that all can agree on. But Jesus isn’t going to let an opportunity pass.

He responds by telling a parable about a banquet. How lucky indeed those will be who eat in the kingdom. So make sure you respond to God’s invitation! Don’t take it for granted, says Jesus!

Elsewhere in the gospels, Jesus talks about feasting in the Kingdom of God. You and I are invited to a glorious celebration, a wedding banquet thrown by God. And I don’t mean the sort of party where you make polite conversation with people you’ll never see again while wishing you had three hands because you’re standing up and it’s impossible to eat canapes from a plate while holding a glass of imitation Prosecco.

No, God invites us to abundant joy. To celebration and fulfilment. To the whole company of the redeemed. Not the smug nuclear family of the Christmas adverts. This is a celebration that involves the full communion of the saints – all those who have belonged to Christ. The vast breadth of people from every race, nation and language who have accepted Christ will be there. It will make the Olympic opening ceremony look tame by comparison. We are invited. God calls each one of us today to make a response – to say yes to him, be forgiven, and then live his way…

This feast, this gracious invitation from God, this inclusive celebration is symbolised and foreshadowed in the Eucharist. Holy Communion is a picture of God’s heavenly banquet. Here God invites us to come to his love feast. To join in celebration with all those others he has called. Today we will explore what the Eucharist says about us. How it symbolises the diversity of God’s people. How it calls us into fellowship with one another. How it creates a new Kingdom community.

Isn’t it interesting that in the Gospel reading from Luke several people refuse the host’s invitation? And they do so for individualistic reasons. The activities they do instead are not about community: they are solitary and could be done anytime: inspecting a field, trying out oxen. Even having a new wife begs the question ‘why not bring her along and share your joy?’

Are the people rejecting the invitation because they turn away from others? Now of course, for an extravert who likes being in a crowd it is easy to be the life and soul of the party. For a bookish introvert a party can be a fearsome thing. I don’t think Jesus is talking about that – not least because the things the introvert may be concerned about such as looking stupid or being rejected, those fears are not issues in heaven.

No, the ungrateful guests are rejecting the host and his character. They don’t want to be part of his celebration. They prefer to be independent rather than receive blessing from others. They don’t want to share with the guests he has invited, community holds no attraction for them, the openness, even vulnerability that fellowship requires is a step too far.

It reminds me of the old style 8 o’clock. When I was a curate about two dozen came to prayer book communion. There was plenty of room in the choir stalls but several people preferred to be miles away from anyone in a church that could seat 800. There was quite an emphasis on ‘making my communion with God’ – but rather less on communicating with one another. I knew a chap who even used to leave before the clergy had reached the door so that he didn’t have to speak to anyone.

I can see how such a service could provide a place of refuge for those who have been deeply damaged. It can hold them in a safe place but it’s contact with others which gives the chance of greater healing. Being willing to share your pew, offering the peace, staying for coffee after the service are much more than just being sociable. They are God given means of grace, ministries by which we can welcome one another, build relationships and support fellow Christians on the journey of faith. Meeting is a way that we can encourage one another in living out the gospel in the coal-face of Christian living: at work, home, school.

For God’s mission in the world is not done by the clergy, it’s carried out Christians in the front line – by the lay people. It’s lay people who have contact with other folks through their work, school, home or social interests. You can be the light of Christ for them, show his love, speak of him. It’s your work that makes a difference for the Kingdom in the world.

The job of the clergy is to resource the wider church, to support through ministry of word and sacrament the laity who are on the frontline of God’s mission.

So think of how we can support one another in our work for the Kingdom. That time after the service is potentially a real blessing. It’s not just for the clergy; it’s a chance for all of us, the whole body of Christ, to share in real ministry. Ministry belongs to everyone – the whole people of God.

Stay if you possibly can. Speak to different people. What about those you know well? Can I challenge you to raise your game? Go a bit deeper: what’s are you doing this week? What did you think of the sermon? And be willing to open up yourself, for it’s as we share with one another that trust and support grow. That does require us to step out and make the effort. But if we can kneel at the rail and open our hands to receive the presence of God, surely we can stand and recognise his presence in one another.

In the parable the host throws open his doors. He invites those who are truly vulnerable, the disabled and rough sleepers, people despised and rejected because society believes they have nothing to offer. The Bishop of Chichester, Dr Martin Warner, recently spoke of seeing a peer of the realm and a man recently released from prison kneeling side-by-side to receive the sacrament. Humility before Christ removes all pretensions to status; in His presence we are all equal: sinners redeemed and saints in the making.

When the God’s people can embody this grace, it is an incredibly powerful witness. Which is why St Paul is so frustrated in the reading from 1st Corinthians. Imagine how revolutionary it would have been in Romans times for slaves and masters to share communion together! That symbolism would undermine the whole institution of slavery.

But the Corinthians weren’t practising equality. Their Eucharist took place in a meal, and it seems that it wasn’t so much Bring and Share as Bring and Scoff. The idle rich arrived early and ate their banquets. When the slaves had done all their tasks, there was nothing left for them to eat. ‘Do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?’ says Paul. Because of their disunity, it is not really the Lord’s Supper they are eating. Division means they are not recognising the body of Christ. It is a kind of blasphemy when they say they’re celebrating the Body of Christ in bread and wine but not recognising the human Body of Christ right in front of them.

It’s so important that we act on division quickly. If you’ve got an issue with someone there are several things you can do. Firstly, don’t grumble about them to everyone else but approach them directly. The most destructive thing to relationships is an undercurrent of grumbling that never gets addressed. Secondly, best not to send emails or even letters – they are so easily misunderstood – but pluck up your courage and speak face to face. Thirdly don’t accuse or lose your temper, but speak honestly, owning the emotions you feel. ‘When you did that I felt hurt because…how can we stop that happening again?’

We share the Peace because Jesus told us to be reconciled with one another before we approach God in worship. Hopefully sharing the peace reflects good quality relationships that do exist – but if there are problems may it also be a reminder that we need to sort them out.

Perhaps this episode explains why the church moved away from celebrating the Eucharist as a meal. It can be very powerful when we do – perhaps we ought to more. We have celebrated a Maundy Thursday supper – are there other times when the church can gather for Eucharist in a meal? Perhaps this is something we should do as a Gauzebrook Group, overcoming the isolation that can creep into rural life.

When people share communion together it can be an incredibly powerful symbol of reconciliation. We are who are many are one body because we all share in one bread. The Eucharist both expresses the unity of the God’s people the church – and creates it. When we share the bread we are united in our common dependence on Christ. When we drink from one cup we acknowledge that each one of us is here because we have responded to his love poured out on the cross. As we kneel together we affirm our equality in God’s sight and as we rise we look forward to that heavenly banquet. In the meantime, let us go and be Christ’s body in the world. Amen.

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.

Ascension Day

I used to feel a little ambivalent about what we’ve just done – the ritual after the Ascension Day Gospel. You know what I mean? Where the priest snuffs out the flame on the Paschal Candle. The light of Christ, kindled on Easter Day, the flame of Resurrection, is extinguished because Jesus has returned to heaven.

I suppose the inevitable sadness might reflect the disciples feelings as Jesus leaves them. We get the impression from the Acts reading that they are standing staring wistfully at the sky until the angels reassure them. But Luke tells us in v.52 that the disciples returned to Jerusalem with great joy. Why? 

Because when you snuff out the candle, the wisps of smoke rise up and spread throughout the room. It mingles with the air we breathe. Yes, Jesus is no longer physically present on earth – so that he can be spiritually present with us always and everywhere. Ascension Day is not about the absence of Jesus – it’s about his presence. That’s why the disciples rejoice, that’s why Ascension Day sends out in mission.

The church takes the message of a God who has made himself known. A God who has revealed himself in Christ. A God who is intelligible – not that we can totally understand him, not to say that there is not mystery. But it is to say that God chooses to communicate, that when he reveals himself he does so in a way we can understand.

In verses 44-48 of the Gospel Jesus explains how the law, the prophets and the psalms are fulfilled in him. Even in the actual act of the Ascension we get a sense of how God communicates with us. He comes down to our level, he accommodates himself to what we can understand.

For when Jesus ascends, it doesn’t mean that he keeps going on up and up until he reaches something higher than the sky. We know that beyond the sky is space, and that goes on and on. Heaven is not a place in our Universe, up there just at another higher level. Heaven, God’s reality, exists beyond this creation. And yet we still use ‘going up’ to heaven as a kind of shorthand – it’s a useful way of thinking about it. Everyone can grasp it.

In the way that he takes Jesus up, God accommodates himself to our level. He allows the Ascension to happen in a way that can be understood very simply and also very profoundly. This shows us that God wants us to understand what he is doing, he sends out his church in mission.

The Ascension also motivates us for mission with the promise that God will send his Holy Spirit. Jesus alludes to the Spirit in the Gospel, but makes his words plain in Acts chapter 1 verse 8: ‘But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.’

I know that I cannot fulfil my part in God’s mission in my own strength. I know that if I try and do the things God calls me to by relying on my own abilities, I don’t get very far. I know that I need the Holy Spirit. I try to remember at the beginning of every day to pause and ask God to fill me with his Holy Spirit – to get that orientation right at the start of each day. I know too that prayer is absolutely essential – we cannot achieve much for God if we are not praying – and certainly for me, in the final analysis, that’s question of priorities – what really matters to me? Is there a limit to how far I am prepared to go to make time for prayer?

The book of Acts tells us that the disciples devoted themselves to prayer between the Ascension and Pentecost. They needed patience, and so will we, to persevere in prayer and service while the Kingdom of God grows. If you read stories about great revivals or missionary movements, you almost always find that for a long time before a few people were praying steadfastly. Often they are patient through considerable difficulties, they persevere despite little apparent result. Then suddenly something happens, and the Kingdom of God grows.

That is the final motivation to mission and prayer in this Acts reading. The disciples ask when Jesus will restore the Kingdom to Israel. He tells them, in v. 7 ‘It is not for you to know the times of periods that the Father has set by his own authority’ – but the implication is it will come. And then the angels say, in v. 11: ‘This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way’.

In other words, the Kingdom of God will come. It is a promise that one day the world will be conformed to God’s will, that one day the petition in the Lord’s Prayer will be answered – thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. There’s no sense of if or but about this. Instead there’s the assurance that when we pray and work for God’s Kingdom, we are joining in with a project whose outcome is certain. There is no risk God’s Kingdom will not come to pass – we can be confident in God’s plan. So let us live serving God, prayerfully listening for his call to further his mission in the world. Amen.

When God closes a door he opens a window

‘What can we do with a problem like Maria’, sang the nuns. Some time after, in the Sound of Music, it becomes clear that the novice Maria is a square peg in a round hole. Mother Superior has a pastoral chat, and her message is: ‘When God closes a door, somewhere he opens a window’. In other words, it may not be right for Maria to stay in the convent, but God will have a bigger and better plan for her.

I have a hunch about folk wisdom quotes like that. I have a feeling that they’re mostly true 80, perhaps 90% of the time. True enough to be a good generalisation. But that remaining 10% – the times they don’t work – that’s big enough to be a problem. Those times when, even with the benefit with hindsight, we can’t see what God’s plan was. There needs to be an additional understanding.

For instance, one lovely service the Methodists have which Anglicans don’t really do is the covenant service. This happens once a year, where people dedicate themselves to follow Jesus whatever happens in their lives. It includes this moving and profound prayer:

‘I am no longer my own but yours.
Put me to what you will…
let me be employed for you,
or laid aside for you,
exalted for you,
or brought low for you;
let me be full,
let me be empty,
let me have all things,
let me have nothing:
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours.’

Sometimes we are laid aside. We recognise that there are times when the door closes, and a window opens. Maybe you’ve put all you had into a job application which seemed so right, and yet it came to nothing. And then a new opportunity came up where you were and the reason became clear. But sometimes also there never seems to have been a window and it remains a mystery to us. Sometimes a venture may seem so right, it doesn’t work out, and this side of eternity we never know why. I must say that, because tonight’s passage talks about the times when it does work out, but we need to keep the balance.

In Acts chapter 16, Paul has begun his second missionary journey, encouraging the churches he started earlier on. As he ventures towards uncharted territory, in v. 6-7 he has a strange experience. ‘They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the Word in Asia.’ Why on earth would the Spirit of Jesus stop them going somewhere new and telling people about Christ? Surely that’s a good thing?

Why not go into Asia? It’s a completely new mission field. What could be more strategic than opening up a new province, a new continent for Christ! One day it would happen, but not now. Again in v.7 – When they had come opposite Mysia they attempted to go into Bithynia but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them. What could be wrong with that? At one level, nothing. It’s not a bad thing to do, far from it! Yet it’s not God’s will. Somehow the Holy Spirit stops them – perhaps by events one might call coincidences but they spiritually discern them as coming from God? Perhaps by convicting them it’s not right? Even physically holding them up? Whatever the means, they knew it was from God.

Maybe some of us have had times when a proposed course of action, say buying a particular house, has seemed right. Rationally speaking, it all fits. There’s no reason not to, perhaps every reason to do so. And yet it doesn’t feel right. When you pray about it, you don’t get a sense of peace. Far from it: you feel uncertain or bothered. That can be from God. Both the peace and the lack of it. He knows more than we do, and he can guide us like that. Ignatian spirituality makes a great deal of this sense of inner peace or discomfort. If we are genuinely trying to seek God and obey him, if we are praying, he may confirm his will by this sense of peace.

I keep on learning to trust God’s guidance. Not just rationally, but also intuitively. Sometimes there are things which to all intents and purposes look sensible, but God says no. Maybe that house you looked at had unseen subsidence. Or maybe by moving somewhere else God knew you would meet lifelong friends. At the time we just don’t know.

We have to trust, which is hard if you’re turning down an opportunity. Paul trusted God, and the reason became clearer: In v.9 ‘Paul had a vision of a man from Macedonia pleading with him and saying ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us’. There was another field of opportunity. At this point, St Luke joined the band – v.11 begins ‘We’ whereas v. 6 started with ‘they’, and Luke describes their itinerary into Greece.

But when they got there it must have seemed unpromising. Whenever he entered a new place, Paul went first of all to the synagogue, because there he could speak with people who were already familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures. That gave him an obvious opening, a point of contact and some faith background. Just as when we have Back to Church Sunday or Alpha we often start by inviting people we know who have some Christian background. It gives something to build on. It may be easier for people on the fringe to make steps into faith – although of course we should try and offer the message to all.

But in the Roman colonial town of Philippi there’s no synagogue. That means there were hardly any Jews. You had to have a minimum of ten men to employ a rabbi – on the basis that each man would be giving 10% of his income. Here there’s less than 10. So there’s only a place by the river where a few women gather and pray. Interesting how Paul and his colleagues supposed there would be a place of prayer by the river, and were proved correct. Is there something about water which helps us be still, reflect and pray?

These women find it helpful although some of them, like Lydia, aren’t even Jewish – v.14 makes it clear she was an interested Gentile. However, God opens her heart. That’s an important point. From the way some Christians speak you might imagine that it was our job to convert people. It isn’t. It’s the Holy Spirit’s role.

In v14 c it says ‘The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul’. In other words, God did it. Christians are called to be faithful witnesses, but it’s the Holy Spirit who drives the point home. It is God who convicts people, both of sin and the truth of the good news.

That is liberating for us. We aren’t responsible for God’s call, for how people react to Christ, we can only witness and speak, we can’t make them respond. We must show the gospel by the way we live. And explain it by what we say – for if we don’t say anything, how will people know that it’s Christ who empowers us? If we just do good deeds but don’t say anything, all the attention and credit might go to us! Word and deed should work together, and the Lord confirms them both.

So in v.15 Lydia responds to the message and is baptised – along with all her household. That’s how it worked in those days. The head of the house made a decision and the rest of the family, the servants and slaves followed along. The ‘whole household’ may also imply infant baptism – that the little ones were baptised as members of God’s family

The apostles stay at Lydia’s house, events unfold and several people are converted.  From these tiny beginnings grew a significant church whose descendants are in the modern town nearby to this day. By all measures, this journey had been a success. Several hundred miles, undertaken because Paul felt God said ‘No’. And what faith to turn your back on the obvious and trust in God’s leading.

If Paul hadn’t been listening to God this might not have happened. He might have been very frustrated in Asia or Bithynia. But because he listened, God could do great things.

I wonder what opportunities we are faced with? May we too seek God’s will for all of life’s decisions. May we be open to his leading, both when he tells us to do something, and when he says no. May we listen for that presence or absence of a feeling of peace, which so often confirms important decisions. May we stay with God when his guidance is puzzling or the reasons unclear. And may we also be able to look back and see with hindsight that maybe there have been times when God has closed a door but opened a window.