Repentance

Giving a name is a task fraught with difficulties. For instance a baby’s name should be something the parents like – but have you thought about what happens when you shorten it? Christopher becomes Chris, which is ok, but some parents don’t like their Albert being called Bertie. Does the first name complement the surname? It’s always worth doing an internet search to make sure you’re not about to lumber your offspring with the same name as an American psychopath.

And if you’re naming a building, you might want to honour a famous benefactor – but what if society’s view of that person changes? More on the Colston Hall later.

Finally, does the name have a meaning? Is it one that you intend? In Biblical times children were often named after their father, as we hear in verse 59 of today’s reading from Luke’s Gospel. Surely he will be Zechariah? But the little boy’s mother wants to name him John. This is a shortened form of Johanan, which means God is gracious.

Perhaps that’s because this particular baby had been long awaited. However, there’s more going on here. Naming this boy John is an act of repentance, it is a sign that Zechariah is obeying God and doing what he was told. Repentance means turning back to God and doing his will.

Zechariah was a priest, and his number had come up. In those days there were so many priests that their duties were assigned by a lottery. Statistically, a priest had a once in a lifetime chance to serve in the temple. Zechariah’s big day arrives, he goes in and promptly sees an angel who tells him that, despite great age, he and his wife will have a son and they are to name him John. Perhaps years of disappointment have sapped Zechariah’s faith, because his response is to ask ‘How can I know that this will happen?’ For his lack of belief, he is condemned to be struck dumb until the day those things occur.

So when in verse 62 Zechariah asks for his communication aid, and writes on his tablet ‘His name is John’, his tongue is freed and he is able to speak! Through this practical action of naming the child, Zechariah commits himself to God’s will, and demonstrates that he has repented of not believing the angel. He acknowledges that his words and actions were wrong, he asks God’s forgiveness and wants to change. That’s what we mean by repentance.

As we continue our sermon series on prayer, thinking about repentance is really important because it opens the door to God in our prayer lives. Becoming aware of what we have done wrong, saying sorry, turning around, resolving to do better by God’s help is a really important part of prayer. That process of repentance is cleansing for the soul, and it’s a necessary preparation for the rest of our prayers to be really effective.

For it’s no good asking God to rain down blessings upon us, if we’re hiding from him under a great big umbrella! So often the way that God answers our prayers, showers good things onto us, is through our obedience. Which means that if we continue doing the wrong thing, persist in sin, it’s like digging up the seed we so carefully planted. Or our lives are so full of baggage we’re like a stream sweeping along so much dead wood and plastic bags that it can’t flow properly anymore.

Do you know what really annoys me? Really gets me going? It’s when someone asks me for help, to show them the solution to a problem, and then promptly ignores it! I’d rather not be asked in the first place than waste my time telling and showing, and then being disregarded. Yet I know I do that to God all the time. We need to ask the Holy Spirit to give us more self-knowledge, better insight into what we do, honest realism before God. We can’t hide anything from God – but the amazing thing is: however far gone we are, if we are open and honest with him, he accepts our confession and forgives us. Because Jesus died for us, took our sin on himself on the cross, repentance becomes for us the path to life. Properly understand, repentance is good and healthy.

In the story Zechariah acts and he speaks. He writes John’s name on a tablet, and then he praises God. It is important for us to do both of these things. It is good for us to confess our sins, like we do in general terms in church, and privately, more specifically, to God in personal prayer. It’s right that when we have confessed our sins, we then make an effort, with the Holy Spirit’s help, to live differently in future.

Either one of these is incomplete without the other. Words without actions are hollow. There is a real spiritual danger here: because the more times we say sorry for something but don’t change our behaviour, the weaker the effect of that confession becomes and the harder it is for us to be genuinely transformed. Words without action become an unhealthy turning over of the past, a dwelling upon things, or a superficial ‘sorry!’ on your way to doing the same thing again.

Perhaps it’s less obvious how actions without words are also incomplete. If the school bully changes and stops thumping the other children then everyone heaves a sigh of relief. But if that person has never said sorry, then they’ve never really acknowledged the harm their actions have done. Nor have they opened the way to forgiveness and face-to-face reconciliation. Often we’re satisfied when someone’s actions have changed, but words open the way to a deeper healing.

It’s this deeper healing that we see in the ministry of John the Baptist. Our reading from Acts summarises, in verses 24 and 25, what John did. He preached a baptism of repentance for all the people of Israel, preparing the way for Jesus. He turned people’s hearts back to God so that Jesus would receive a ready welcome. And then in verse 26, we find that this message of salvation has been sent to us.

So how does that happen? The good news that we can change if we admit our need of God affects us at different levels. Individuals, the church, the nation.
Like Zechariah the priest, the Church sometimes needs to repent. Pointing to Christ on earth it needs to hold to the highest standards. That’s why there’s been a review of the Church of England’s approach to child protection. Doing DBS checks and safeguarding training takes up a lot of time – but it is part of the church’s response to historic failures. It shows that there is corporate repentance for what has happened in the past, and demonstrates a resolve that such things will not be allowed to happen again.

There is also the question of the nation. Can a country say sorry for the things its ancestors did wrong? Recently a pardon was issued for the wartime codebreaker Alan Turing, which was very right and proper.

But words are easily said. Action is more difficult. And action is untargeted if we don’t think deeply. So for instance, we need to ask why the 18th century Bristol merchant Edward Colston was widely seen in his time as a good chap, a generous benefactor and philanthropist?
Why did someone who appeared to be a Christian just not see that there was a problem in having business interests which included the slave trade? How did he possibly think that was ok? How did he justify it? Did it even occur to him that it needed to be justified?

Until we ask those questions and engage with the history then we learn nothing. All we get good at is judging others by our own standards. The mistakes of the past will not shed light on our own times, or help us to discover our own hypocrisies and failings. Do we know what shares our pension funds own? How is it possible to buy a suit and shoes for £80?

Words which express regret are fine, but ‘what do we do?’ is a more difficult question. Is compensation appropriate to those directly affected by an injustice? Or to their descendants? What are we doing about racial equality and other forms of inclusion today? What about those who cannot speak for themselves because disability means they have no voice, or who cannot speak because they’ve not yet been born?
Repentance as a nation is complex, yet sometimes a whole society does realise it has taken a wrong turn. Sometimes nations do recalibrate, change their priorities and act. When we look back through history we see that national repentance often follows a change in the church, which itself follows on from repentance in the lives of individuals.

John the Baptist spoke directly to individuals in ways which were relevant to them. ‘Tax collectors, don’t take more than you’re entitled to. Soldiers, don’t use force to take stuff from the population. Rich people, share with the poor’.

He called everyone to repentance. Individuals, the religious establishment, the nation. How effective was it? Several times in the New Testament we read that the real sinners, the tax collectors and prostitutes, responded to John’s message. They knew they were doing wrong. They didn’t need anyone to point it out. They could see the good news, love and mercy in the message of Jesus and John.

But the religious professionals, the Pharisees and scribes didn’t. They thought they were doing ok. Their problems were less obvious but no less real: greed, self-righteousness, double standards. The challenge for churchgoing Christians today is obvious – religious commitment brings its own temptations. May we never be proud of our religious credentials. God forbid that we are proud of being Christians.

God can speak to each one of us. He can shine his gentle light into our hearts, showing us the places where we can change. If we ask him to, God will send the Holy Spirit to open our eyes and help us understand ourselves. He will give us self-knowledge and the desire to be transformed. Like taking out a rotten tooth, the process may not be comfortable, but you’ll be better off when it’s done! And if we encounter resistance within ourselves, then make that the subject of your prayers. For repentance is a gift from God, a way to life, and a core principle of prayer.

 

 

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1 Samuel 9:4-20

How do you pass things down the generations? Yesterday we enjoyed a great fete – lots of people having fun. What made it notable is that a younger generation were organising. The people in their 60s and 70s handed over to those in their 40s – and it’s going well.

Doesn’t always though. A certain media empire wrestles with the question: Is it better to keep it in the family? At times the  White House doesn’t seem keen to bring in expertise from outside.

 

Countless businesses have struggled with the same question. And it’s a tricky one. Maybe there just isn’t anyone who wants to take on the family farm. Or perhaps the younger generation are keen – but they want to do it their way, with their ideas, not the way grandpa did it. What might just work for a business isn’t best for a nation. Our reading today from 1st Samuel 8 considers, how will a good ruler be chosen?

 

Don’t do what Samuel did. His big mistake came before our reading, in v.1-3. He appointed his sons as judges, but they became corrupt. A familiar story from the lives of many leaders. What’s particularly strange though, is that Samuel started his career when his predecessor Eli made exactly the same mistake. As we heard last week, Eli the priest had sons who were corrupt so God sent a message to Samuel telling Eli that their conduct would not be tolerated any longer. So you might expect Samuel to have learnt – yet it seems he has no more control over his sons than Eli did.

 

Three times in today’s reading the word listen is used. It’s a passage all about listening and obedience. But this isn’t the listening of a well-trained sheepdog which follows its master’s whistle exactly. This is about people who don’t listen to God. Alarmingly, it’s also about a God who allows us a scary amount of freedom. As we continue our sermon series on prayer this is a salutary reminder that we worship a God who listens to us. He is a God who believes in our freedom, who might even allow us what we want, even if it’s not the best thing for us.

So it starts with Samuel, who had heard the message to Eli. He had seen what happened to Eli’s sons, and yet he failed to learn the lesson himself. He chose his successors from his own family.

 

The principle goes wider. It can be tempting for managers to promote people who agree with them, or who make them feel good – but flatterers are fickle and yes-men rarely have leadership qualities themselves. Some leaders choose lieutenants by repaying those who are owed a favour or do it on the basis of dead men’s shoes. Neither of those approaches leads to the best stewardship, nor to public service.

 

Those of us who act as leaders should choose our colleagues not for our own convenience, but remember that we have a wider responsibility.

In this light v.4-5 might seem reasonable. The people state the facts, somewhat baldly. ‘You are old, and your sons do not follow in your ways – appoint for us then a king to govern us like other nations.’ Clearly they cherish and admire Samuel even if their tact is lacking. But Samuel takes it personally, in v.6, Samuel was displeased.

 

How easy it is to take opposition to heart! How easy to confuse the role with the person. To imagine that if your idea is opposed that people don’t like you. Or to go off in a huff. But sometimes role and person must be separate.

 

For instance, the first women priests had a lot of opposition. Some said it was easier to cope when they realised that the opposition wasn’t directed at them as people – it was what they represented. Interestingly, in many cases once congregations had got used to the person they were also able to accept the role. It’s very important for everyone in whatever situation to be able to keep the distinction between person and role, so that it doesn’t get too personal.

 

 

Sometimes it’s God who’s actually being rejected. Just as it was for Samuel. In v.7b ‘The Lord said they have not rejected you, they have rejected me from being king over them’. Again, there’s a failure to listen. The Biblical book of Deuteronomy is clear: God is their king. That’s why early Israel didn’t have monarchs – they were ruled by God who made his will known through prophets and judges like Samuel. Asking for a king was actually a profound rejection of the Lord.

 

So isn’t it all the more surprising that God seems to give in? What does he say in v7: ‘Listen to their request!’ Might he not have refused? There is a frightening responsibility here – God gives us what we ask for. Sometimes I hear people talking about their past and saying that such a thing must have been God’s will because he allowed them to do it. Implying that if God hadn’t wanted it, it wouldn’t have happened.

 

That’s not the way God works. Our heavenly Father gives us free will. He gives us the opportunity to choose, for better or for worse. And it wouldn’t be a free choice if the consequences weren’t truly open.

 

Therefore Samuel had to explain to the people what a king would do. The grass seems greener on the other side. Sometimes people need to know what the alternative actually involves. They have to be brought back to the real world. Occasionally we might look at an unhappy present and imagine a future ideal. Dreaming like that isn’t harmful – it can inspire us – provided that we face that fact that choices have to be made between real-life situations. And perfection is rarely possible. Maybe next time you meet someone complaining about something, it might be worth asking them: ‘what’s your solution?’

 

And that’s what the prophet does in verses 10-17. He tells what the king will do. The king will take the best for himself. He will take a whopping 10% for his people. Shows how much things have changed, that in those days an oppressive rate of tax was 10%! But then again, it was only for the armed forces and the king. No welfare state back then!

Yet the people do not listen. ‘No but we are determined to have a king over us. There are two reasons: We want to be like other nations. Not an informal coalition of tribes, relying on the worship of one God. Not living radically as a witness to the Gentiles. We want to grow. We want identity. Boundaries. Power. More land. Empire. We want a king.

 

Israel was meant to change the world. Instead they ended up being changed by it. Rather than listen to God and share that good news with the world, they listened to the world and asked God that they might be the same. The same challenge faces Christians today. Will we be witnesses? Or will we be conformed? Are we light in the world, pointing the way to Christ? Or do we seek to be like the other nations, taking our values from the world? What do we really value, and why?

 

And then their second reason ‘so that our king may govern us and go about before us and fight out battles.’ Perhaps we can sympathise with this. They did face real threats of invasion. Rule by God must have seemed a bit of a gamble. Is God really there? Does it make a difference in battle? And if God chooses the leaders by giving them his Spirit, well who will he send? Will they be up to it? At least with a king you know where you stand. You can see him!

 

It’s about trust, isn’t it? Following God is step into the unknown, a leap of faith. Faced by an alternative radical lifestyle, and the seeming uncertainty of God as King, the people opted for the allure of the nation state and the security of a human king. The irony was, they were less secure. For no human king would be up to the challenges the nation of Israel would face. Many were tried and found wanting. Only those who depended on God made the grade. Only he could ultimately save.

 

So God says again ‘Listen to them’. They are set in their way so he will allow them what they want. Yet the amazing thing about the way this story turns out is that God did not give up on them. Yes, the kings of Israel often did do exactly what Samuel had said. But there were also kings who ruled wisely: David, Hezekiah, Josiah. Maybe the institution was flawed from the start, but God in his grace was able to use the monarchy for good. It’s a reminder to us that, even when we mess up, God does not give up on us. He can take our mistakes and turn them round. If there’s anything in your life that you wished never happened, a mistake you made, bring it to God, see what he can do.

 

For God can even turn our mistakes into blessings. The change God brings is so great that even our errors and sins can be transformed and become something good. Look at the beginning and end of the Bible.

 

The Bible begins with two naked people in a garden. When they do wrong they cover their shame with clothes. Their descendants try and build a city which reaches to the skies, but their pride is punished when God divides their languages so they cannot understand one another.

 

What then would we expect at the end of the Bible? All being put right, a return to the golden age, of nakedness in a garden?

 

The Bible ends with a great multitude, from every tribe and language, clad in white robes as a glorious city descends from heaven. God has not put the clock back. He has taken human sin, and its consequences and totally transformed everything. The path we have taken cannot be untrodden, instead it is planted with flowers.

 

That’s exactly what God does with the idea of having a King. It becomes a model for Jesus. The one who would lead and serve perfectly. The one who now reigns with God.

 

Jesus was sent to be a King. Jesus too was rejected, the people did not want him as their Lord. We heard that in the gospel reading. And so they crucified him. Yet God turned that rejection into redemption. Jesus’ death in our place, on account of our sins, opened the way for all humanity to return to God. His love really is that awesome.

 

And so, to conclude. Our readings today challenge us – to whom do we listen? Do we listen to God and try to share that sensitively with the world around? Or do we take our values from the world around and hope that God won’t mind? Do we take responsibility for our decisions – for that responsibility is given by God and respected by him.

 

Recognising that we all make mistakes, can we see the hand of God in redeeming them? Will we allow God to transform our lives, not by putting the clock back, but by taking the hand we have dealt ourselves, and with it creating something beautiful and wonderful?

Acts 15 to 27

How could you do that? You’ve betrayed me – you Judas! There can’t be many people that are so well known that their name has become a byword. The story of Judas betraying Jesus with a kiss has become the classic example of treachery. This means Judas is also one of the best known of all the apostles – his Wikipedia entry is four times the length of St Matthias who we also heard about in our Acts reading.

 

There are so many questions about Judas. Why did he do it? Was it really just for 30 pieces of silver? What made this man, who had been trusted enough to become an apostle, turn against his master? Did he have some issue with Jesus? Had he hoped for an all-conquering Messiah and become disillusioned? Or did Judas hope to force Jesus’ hand – that when the arrest came Jesus would have to reveal his glory? Does that explain why he was filled with remorse? But why did that remorse not turn to repentance which gives life? And if, as Peter says in v. 16, the Scripture had to be fulfilled so that we could be saved, how do we hold that together with Judas’ free will and responsibility?

 

There are many questions, with legend and speculation filling the gaps. Our reading from Acts chapter 1 verses 15-17 and 21 to the end, deals with Judas but then quickly moves on. He has gone, he has met his end, his place is vacant and needs to be filled. With the benefit of hindsight the gospel writers know that Judas will be the betrayer – but it wouldn’t have felt like that at the time. Judas was not an outsider, he was one of Jesus’ closest friends. He had an important job. What then will the apostles do about the gap which is left?

 

Perhaps you have been part of an organisation when a key person leaves. It might be the boss – but in my experience the central person in an organisation is often sat at a desk near the entrance. You know that administrator who’s been there for ever and knows everything? Particularly if that departure is unexpected there can be a real sense of anxiety and loss. Who is going to do their work? How much corporate memory have we lost? Will the company feel the same again?

But if the organisation has a strong identity, if there are others waiting in the wings to step up, then you can weather the storm. In the first chapter of Acts it’s clear that Jesus has thought about this, and prepared for this day. He has taken the trouble to identify and train other people.

 

I wonder how you imagine Jesus and his disciples travelling around? My children have a particular picture book which tries to show all twelve disciples. It’s really hard fitting them all on one page! I think about Jesus turning up, with twelve big hungry fishermen in tow – inviting Jesus and his friends to supper was a big deal!

 

Yet that’s not the sum of it – in verse 15 we find out that there are 120 disciples in this core group. The verse before tells us that Mary, various other women and Jesus’ brothers were all involved. It seems that Jesus organised the group in concentric circles: Peter James and John were an inner three, then the twelve and women like Mary Magdalene, then the 72 who got trained up on preaching missions, and then some more. As Peter says in v.21, many of them had been with Jesus from the beginning. There were people ready to step up.

 

Which poses a thought-provoking question. What would happen if you were no longer around? If, say, you got taken ill or had to care for a relative, what things do you do that someone else would have to take over? Who might that be? Are there people learning the skills who could step up? And if someone did take on that task, would they have the contacts and the instructions that they need? Would they find it written down, would they be able to ask someone else in the know, or would they have to start from scratch?

 

That can be quite an uncomfortable question. Particularly if what you do is quite skilled or technical, and there’s no one obviously keen. If so, it’s all the more important to try and share the load –  are there parts you can hive off? Ideally everybody should have someone they’re training up. Working together is good for us!

For that to work it also needs people who are willing to step up. So perhaps there is another question to ask everyone: is there a contribution you could make? Is there an area of service where you could make a difference? Is there something that interests you, a skill you’d like to learn, an ability that you already have that you could get more involved in and help an experienced person out? Doing so is incredibly rewarding – research has shown that helping other people is one of the key things in making ourselves happy!

 

The Early Church certainly gives the impression of being an organisation where everyone pulls their weight. We might imagine that they chose Matthias to replace Judas because they needed someone else to preach the gospel. But they didn’t. Everyone was doing it! If you read the Book of Acts, you find loads of people sharing the good news who aren’t among the apostles: Paul, Barnabas, Philip, Stephen, Aquila – the list goes on. Ordinary Christians prayed, lived out the gospel, spoke about their faith and the church grew. It should be a shared task.

 

Part of the reason why they needed Matthias is in verses 21 and 22: ‘One of the men who accompanied us from the beginning must become a witness with us of Jesus resurrection.’ While many Christians have encountered the risen Christ, while we all have his Spirit, the apostles were in the unique position of being witnesses of Jesus’ ministry. They saw it, they were there, and we can trust what they wrote.

 

Charles Colson was described as Richard Nixon’s hatchet man. He was sent to prison for his part in the Watergate scandal. He became a Christian and once said: I know the resurrection is a fact, and Watergate proved it to me. How? Because 12 men testified they had seen Jesus raised from the dead, then they proclaimed that truth for 40 years, never once denying it. Every one was beaten, tortured, stoned and put in prison. They would not have endured that if it weren’t true. Watergate embroiled 12 of the most powerful men in the world-and they couldn’t keep a lie for three weeks. You’re telling me 12 apostles could keep a lie for 40 years? Absolutely impossible.”

So the apostles were chosen as witnesses. Yet from Peter’s words it’s clear there were many such people. Why pick only one as an apostle?

 

Whenever the Early Church does something new, the apostles give their permission. When they decide to call some people deacons and give them a new role, it’s the apostles who initiate it. When Philip shares the good news in Samaria and people are converted, it’s the apostles Peter and John who go there to accept the new Christians and ensure they receive the Holy Spirit. When the Gentiles join the community, it’s by the actions of St Peter.

 

The apostles represent continuity with Jesus. They have the authority to interpret Jesus’ teaching for new circumstances. They are rooted in tradition but open to the future.

 

That is how the church must be. God’s community is not a chaotic free for all where anyone can do their own thing – no, it is grounded on the foundation of Jesus’ teaching, decisions are made together. Nor should the church be static, preserved in aspic, unable to change. The Holy Spirit leads us to respond to changed circumstances, new understanding.

 

That can be a difficult path to tread. Some of us would like to be more comfortable, prefer the familiar and well-loved. Others get frustrated with processes, forms, and the slow pace of change. We need to be like the Early Church: rooted in the teaching of Jesus, clearly continuous with what’s come before, yet also flexible, creative, permission giving. So we can interpret afresh the unchanging gospel for each generation.

 

(Perhaps one example of this is the way the new apostle is chosen. There are not many job interviews that involve drawing lots! Here there are two equal candidates, both qualified. They pray about it, then following an Old Testament practice trust that God’s will be made known through random lots.

I’m not sure that’s a recommended practice now. Later on in Acts, when similar decisions are made, people pray about it and God speaks to them. The difference here is that Pentecost has not happened, the Holy Spirit has not yet come. Maybe the apostles don’t yet have that immediate, personal guidance that the Holy Spirit brings? Surely when we have decisions to make we pray and listen to what God says?)

 

What about Matthias then? What great deeds did he end up doing? Actually, we don’t know. The Greek Orthodox church says he planted the faith in Cappadocia. The traditions give conflicting accounts about him – some say he lived to a ripe old age, or that he was stoned to death, or even eaten by cannibals. His feast day is tomorrow. Really there’s little we know for sure. This is the only time the Bible mentions Matthias – after this he disappears from the record. His is a cameo role, a walk on part.

 

Much like most of us I suspect. Few of us have more than a brief appearance on a public stage, yet each of us can create a significant impact. Matthias represents all those people who did faithful things, who did not become famous but did their bit and made a difference.

 

It is those people, their combined efforts, that changed the world. Sure, the apostles went places and planted churches. Yet in many places where the famous apostles went, they found new Christians were already there. Ordinary followers of Jesus had got there first and made converts. Merchants, travellers, people returning to their families, evangelists – unrecorded and unheralded had done their bit.

 

And when the apostles moved on, it was the folks on the ground who prayed, shared, loved and spoke. The apostolic churches in the cities planted in the towns, and thence to the villages. Whole countries knew Jesus through the faithful actions of people like you and me. Living out their calling, doing the things any of us can do, they changed the world. We can do likewise.

John 15:9-17

One of my family’s favourite days out is Avebury. It’s got everything: a short walk round the stones, hide and seek in the garden and then when you’ve worked up an appetite there’s a restaurant and pub. There’s an old church, and a museum with buttons to press.

 

The manor house is different from most National Trust properties in that you can get in the beds. None of those thistles to keep you off the chairs, quite the opposite. You are positively encouraged to live the life of a Victorian gentleman playing snooker or pretend to drink cocktails while listening to the wireless in the 1920s sitting room.

 

Interestingly, the children seem most engaged with the life of the servants. They can climb into the big Tudor 4 poster – and also slide out the little tray bed underneath for the manservant. And the biggest highlight is trying to cook with Victorian implements.

 

Increasingly historic houses are trying to show us what life was like for everyone – not just the gentry but the chambermaid and gardener’s boy too. We discover the servants lived a strange life – a precarious existence where they were easily dismissed for getting something wrong. They were absolutely vital, yet kept out of the way downstairs and in hidden passages. Fellow human beings, who if they met the master on the stairs, had to turn away and face the wall.

 

Some people imagine that God is like that. They think of God as the master and us a bit like servants. Mind your own business, be good, keep out of the way and you’ll be ok. Put a foot wrong though and you’ll be in trouble. And he definitely doesn’t want you to bother him.

 

Yet Jesus says in v14 that we are his friends. Jesus spoke this to the disciples in the upper room – but it applies to all of us. (We heard in the Acts reading how the Holy Spirit came on the Gentiles – and the Holy Spirit unites us with God today)

 

 

Can I ask you to think of a friend you have. What do you and your friend do together? How do you keep in touch – over the garden wall, with a cup of coffee or by Whatsapp? Do you share activities or just hang out? If that friend was in trouble, what would you do for them?

 

A friend is an amazing image. As a friend Jesus loves us. He likes us. He appreciates conversation with us in prayer. We can share our activities with him. He is the unseen guest at every meal.

 

Just the other day I was talking with a lady who’d been bereaved and she was telling me that whenever the grief was strong she brought it to Jesus. And she knew that he understood. Because he is a human being, because he has lived on this earth, because he lost loved ones and wept at the grave of Lazarus, Jesus understands. He is really with us, truly present in spirit, a friend for us.

 

Perhaps like me you find it easier to think of Jesus as the Lord we worship, the Risen Christ, our Saviour, the Heavenly King who will return. Let us also remember that he describes himself as our friend. He is glorious, yes, but that’s not a reason to keep him at arm’s length.

 

In verse 9 Jesus talks about the basis for our relationship with him. ‘As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you, abide in my love.’ So the love of Jesus for us came first. He loved us freely, right from the moment you were born. We do not have to win his love or earn the right to a relationship with him – it is a gift. And when we receive that gift, we abide, or rest, in his love by keeping his commands.

 

Many people imagine it the other way round. Even some Christians act and think as if they have to win their way into God’s affections, as if eternal life is a reward to be earned by good behaviour. To think like that is to condemn yourself to a treadmill of effort, a deadening, unfulfilling shadow of spirituality, in which the best is never enough.

 

It can’t be like that. in v.16 Jesus makes it quite clear that we did not choose him, but he chose us. He calls us and we respond. When we do so, we find, in v.11, that Christ’s joy is in us, and our joy is complete.

 

My Facebook feed has decided that I need cheering up. I don’t know what I’ve been searching for online, or whether Facebook has been listening in to my conversations but it’s clearly decided that I need a dose of joy in my life. So my feed is full of amusing videos, jokes, and articles describing the ‘7 Habits of Happy people’. A lot of that advice seems to be about choosing your mental attitude – deciding how you will react to life’s events – and what you give energy to thinking about.

 

There’s something in that which chimes with Christian spirituality. When you are faced with disappointment, will you dwell morbidly on it or bring it to God? Will you listen to the nagging voices that say ‘it simply can’t be done’ or will you step forward obediently in hope? Will your mind revisit resentments and criticise people, or will you choose to forgive, to give thanks? …What do you think about?

 

Can I suggest you observe yourself during the day – from time to time just stop and ask yourself– what am I thinking about it here? Are my thoughts bringing me life and joy? And if it’s not – don’t feed the gremlin, stop that train of thought – think of something good instead. Pray. Give thanks. Listen for God’s presence. And you’ll find his joy.

 

When we listen to God, as verse 14 says, we also know what he is doing. The Holy Spirit helps us understand God’s will as revealed to us in the Bible. As we get better at listening we also hear God’s specific guidance to each one of us for our own lives.

 

We learn to ask confidently too. In v.16 Jesus says ‘the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name’. Of course this isn’t a magic formula: Dear God, please give me an Aston Martin DB11’ and as long as I put ‘in Jesus name’ at the end the magic words give me what I want

 

‘In my name’ means in accordance with Christ’s will, seeking his glory, asking because it’s the kind of thing he would ask. But because we are his friends, we can ask confidently. A couple we know once put an email out ‘We’ve got all the money we need for our new house – but the cashflow has gone wrong. Can anyone out there give us a bridging loan for twenty thousand?’ And someone did. That’s friendship. You can ask God with confidence because you are friends with his son.

 

And because we are friends of his son, we are friends with one another. In v.12 Jesus says ‘This is my commandment that you love one another.’ He showed the greatest love possible for us when he laid down his life for us on the cross. He saved us from the penalties of sin by dying for us – it was the greatest thing he could give.

 

Now he calls us to love one another. To make sacrifices, to give up our time, to help those in need. As I travel around I constantly hear amazing heart-warming stories about practical love. The people who give lifts into hospital and cook meals. The friends who babysit so a busy couple can get to Housegroup. The neighbour who picks up someone else’s shopping at the same time. The legal advocate who gets on the phone on behalf of a vulnerable person. The praying person who wrestles on behalf of others. All this practical love goes on and it is wonderful.

 

Yet to do so, we need to know one another. We need to be open about our own needs, be genuine. We need courage to offer help and not be offended if it’s politely refused. Maybe first of all we need to know one another better. So speak to your neighbour when you see them. Stay for conversation after the service. Horror of horrors – when you come to church don’t always sit in the same place.

 

For when we abide in Jesus and love one another, we bear much fruit. I am so looking forward to the strawberry season! I have put so much work into that bed. The white flowers are just beginning, in a few weeks’ time the fruit will come. And joy will be mine! May we grow in Jesus, love one another, bear much fruit and know his joy. Amen.

Listening. Acts 8:26-end

I wonder what makes a holiday complete for you? For a lady I know, whatever the weather, it’s essential to find a café and have a cream tea. For me, it’s building a dam. Holiday isn’t complete unless we’ve been to a sandy beach with a stream and dammed it, enclosing a vast pool which you can then breach creating a wave of water rushing to the sea. It’s great because I can spend the whole afternoon dam-building and still say ‘Look, it’s for the children, honest.’

I soon found out that if you’re building dams you have to work with the natural features of the beach. Use the contours to shape your pool, build where the rocks are already restricting the flow. You have to see where the water wants to run and work with it.

Working with God’s Kingdom is like working with water. The stream of the Holy Spirit is already flowing in the world. God was active long before you or I arrived. We don’t do well if we then start building somewhere completely different! If we dig where the Spirit isn’t, if we try and channel God into our plans, little happens. Often the first step in our task if we want to grow the Kingdom of God is to listen, observe and see what God is doing. If our church wants to serve God well we need to ask: What is God calling us to do?

Where does he want us to join in? We need to listen – and the Merlin exercises many of our churches have been doing are all about that. Discerning God’s call. I’m being constantly reminded how important it is to pray about this. That’s why we’ve got the Grace prayer meeting on the last Wednesday of every month. That’s why we’re gathering to pray for children’s ministry on May 15th. That’s why there’s a 24 hours of prayer on Fri 11th and Sat 12th May. It’s so good to be listening to what God is doing so we can join in.

For the church doesn’t take God into the rest of the world – it is his world and he is there already.

This is what Philip found when he met the Ethiopian in the story from Acts.

Now, if everything was going well for you in your job, if you were overcoming challenges, recruiting people, meeting success everywhere how would you feel about being posted to the middle of nowhere to start again from scratch?

That’s what happened to Philip. Before our reading, in v.5 Philip went to the city of Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah to them. The crowds with one accord listened eagerly to what was said by Philip, many miracles were done, evil was overcome. It was great.

But then in v26 the angel of the Lord appears to Philip and tells him to leave this wonderful successful ministry, walk 66 miles across the hills, not stopping at Jerusalem, down to the wilderness road that goes towards Gaza. And then when he sees a chariot God tells him to run, in the heat of the desert, and catch up with a trotting horse!

I’m struck by how amazingly open Philip must have been. Open to God guiding him in different ways. When the Early Church created deacons, they intended them to be administrators. People who would ensure food distribution went smoothly. The deacons’ job was to wait on tables so the apostles could get on with evangelism. Yet very quickly deacons like Stephen and Philip were preaching the gospel. God had a plan for them, and the early church allowed them to follow God’s call.

And then, when all the facts on the ground suggested he ought to stay in Samaria, Philip recognised the nudging of the Spirit and responded obediently. He was open to the possibility that he might be needed elsewhere. Open to sacrifice. Trusting God though he had no idea how it would turn out.

How do we trust God? Often we do that by straightforward Christian obedience. Most of the time the things God wants us to do are obvious.  Right in front of our noses. Doing our work well, being loving to the people we meet, taking the opportunities to share our faith. We don’t have to agonise in prayer deciding whether to do this stuff. All the guidance to do these essential things is in God’s word. But sometimes the Holy Spirit nudges us to do something particular.

Just the other day I was heading off to say Morning Prayer in Stanton church. I had a nudge from God – a thought popped into my head that I ought to take my church keys. I don’t need to do that – Hilary always unlocks the door each morning. But, I thought, maybe something’s happened to her so that she can’t get in. So I put my keys in my pocket.

When I got to church, the door was unlocked. I thought no more of it until, just before we were due to start, the electricity meter man turned up. And where’s the meter? In the vestry, behind a locked door!

At a time when there was a lot on my mind and I was worried about lots of things, it seemed that God was telling me something. He knows everything. If he can sort it out so I don’t have to head back home to pick up a key, and the meter man doesn’t have to hang around; if God can give me a nudge to sort out a tiny thing like that – then surely he can guide me and direct me through the really important things in life!

That’s a pretty small example – but God likes to build our faith. He starts by giving us a nudge to do something small – and if we respond we’ll find that’s faithful. Next time, it might be something more challenging. Ways you or I can be part of someone else’s solution. God does this when we are listening – and we develop the habit of listening through prayer. When we spend time with God praying, when we hold others before him by name, when we sense God’s response and guidance, we learn how to listen to him.

So if you sense that God is prodding you, pray it over, and if you think it is God, you may not know why but pluck up your courage and act.

When Philip does so, the guy he meets is an Ethiopian. Obviously interested in the Jewish religion, perhaps even a convert, but Gentile background nonetheless. At this stage in the early church, God had begun widening out the good news to other nations – first including Jews, then Samaritans who were kind of heretical Jews, now a Gentile proselyte. But this man was also a eunuch. Someone who was banned by Old Testament law from worshipping in the temple. What can God do with him? Philip might well have thought.

I once said to a colleague: ‘Isn’t it good that Charlie has started coming to Evensong’. ‘Naah,’ said the lay reader, ‘you’ve got mixed up. Charlie’s lived in this village for 70 years, only ever come to church for a funeral.’ Next week he came up to me ‘God’s amazing. Charlie was at Evensong!’ It’s so easy to think ‘So and so won’t be interested.’ Let’s not write people off, but give them the opportunity to find God.

Charlie was pretty amazing too – it’s not easy to change your habits when everyone in a small village knows who you are.

I’m struck by how open the Ethiopian eunuch was. Here is an important man: the Chancellor of the Exchequer of a foreign power. He is riding along in his official chariot when some sweaty bloke turns up, jogging alongside and asks ‘Do you understand what you’re reading?’ Many people might have told Philip where to go, but not this official:

In verse 31: ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ He doesn’t understand and he’s not afraid to admit it. For him, a lack of knowledge is not an embarrassment but an opportunity. If he doesn’t get it, he will seek help so he can. What a wonderful attitude to have! So often I meet people who are ashamed they haven’t read much of the Bible, or keep their doubts and questions securely under wraps. Which is sad, because if we were open and honest about our needs, we could address them.

If that sounds like you then don’t be embarrassed. Why should you have all the answers? Ask questions. Talk to someone!  Admit when you don’t know – you can bet that someone else won’t either. Just the other week I was in a training session and the facilitator asked: ‘is there anyone who’d like that explained a bit more?’ Somebody cautiously raised a hand – and the rest of us breathed a sigh of relief – thank goodness they’d raised it, we were too shy to!

Philip’s openness shows as he draws alongside the chariot. He listens. He hears the man read Isaiah. Philip then starts a conversation with an open question: ‘Do you understand what you’re reading?’ And when the man answers ‘No’, Philip listens to the question. ‘Is the writer of Isaiah talking about himself or someone else?’ Seems obvious it’s someone else, but Philip takes it seriously as an honest question. I’ve had all sorts of strange conversations with people about spiritual stuff they’ve read on the internet, aliens and what have you, and however daft you think the question is it’s important not to be dismissive.

We can only connect with people if we listen to them. Good listening means being able to respond, appropriately. One very important thing is to be aware of the reason behind the question. For instance if someone says ‘if there’s a God how comes there’s so much suffering in the world?’ – is that a question for philosophical debate? It might be. Or are they asking because they’ve recently been through the mill? Rather than jump in with an answer, a listening response might be ‘that’s a good question, can you tell me how it’s important to you?’

We can see that Philip has listened. He starts where the man is. And he shows the man respect by pointing him to Scripture and speaking about Jesus. Philip would not have done the Ethiopian a favour if he said ‘Who’s it about? – well that’s up to you. The answer is whatever you make of it’ The Ethiopian would not have gone away any the wiser if Philip had said ‘If it works for you then it’s true’. Instead Philip shared the good news with him.

That’s important because the Bible explains God’s purposes. Jesus gives the context that makes sense of faith. In Jesus we have answers for life – so let’s not hide them away or back off if people ask us.

So the Ethiopian trusts God and decides to get baptised. This is the last we hear of him, but one of the most ancient churches in the world is the one in Ethiopia. The Ethiopian Coptic Christians link their origins to this man, who shared the good news in his home country. Through Philip’s obedience a whole country was eventually led to Christ.

God led Philip to the Ethiopian, and now the Holy Spirit takes Philip away again, dropping him in Azotus where he continues to preach the gospel. It’s like that with serving God – we’re called to play our part, and leave the rest with God. It’s not down to us whether someone responds to God – that’s between God and them. We’re not ultimately responsible – God is.

I find that incredibly liberating. It’s a great encouragement to join in God’s work. God is already active in people’s lives. He calls us to join him in what he’s doing. He asks us to listen – to listen for the wind of his Spirit, to listen to those we meet, to listen to Scripture and tradition. Let us listen act and speak faithfully, open to God’s leading and rejoicing in the privilege he gives.

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…

Image of the invisible God

Over the past year I’ve learnt a lot about the media: what they value in a story; how one article feeds off another; which newspapers are always at each other’s throats. It’s been particularly interesting to observe the tricks of the trade – like ‘noddies’. The TV producer interviewing someone wants some shots of them nodding as they listen to a question – but it’s hard to get that in the actual interview. So you sit there at the end, being filmed nodding wisely – hence the term ‘noddies’.

 

I wonder if anyone here has been in a recording studio? I haven’t, but it must be a strange experience. Watching as a succession of musicians record their pieces in isolation. First there’s the drummer, a solid rhythm for several minutes. Then the bassist plays a few riffs. The guitarist come and goes, then the singer tries a few times to get it right. That’s why they do each separately – so if there’s a mistake they don’t get everyone doing it again. Hearing the piano, the backing vocals and every part separately sounds really strange, but then the tech guys work their magic and it ends up as a beautiful synthesis.

 

The Bible passage we heard from Colossians 1:15-20 is also about a beautiful synthesis. It describes how everything is held together in Christ – how believing in him gives a comprehensive world-view. Jesus makes sense of life and every area of human activity falls into place.

 

Yet for many of us, and for our society, our beliefs may feel more like being in that recording studio. We have a bit of scientific understanding here, maybe some superstition ‘touch wood’ there. We go to church on Sundays, but can end up with a different morality under pressure at work on Monday. There’s the person I am at home, and the happy image I project on Facebook. We easily end up living a compartmentalised existence, allowing Jesus into the smart, well-kept hallway and sitting room of our lives, but no way is he allowed to see the mess in the kitchen or all the rubbish we moved upstairs when we heard he was coming round.

 

It’s similar in our broader society: Christianity is one faith among many. It is tolerated in the public sphere. Christianity may be seen as a matter of curious personal morality, a spiritual comfort blanket, or a part of our heritage and custom to teach children at school.

 

But what Colossians 1:15-20 tells us is that Christ is the integrated centre. Believing in Jesus gives us a coherent world-view. For years science has been searching for a unified theory of everything. Remarkably Colossians tells us we already have it in Christ.

 

The glorious order and beauty of creation – however we think it came to pass – find their meaning in God. The wondrous things of this world are not purposeless but reveal God’s glory. By their life and flourishing and vocation they show his wisdom and love. This universe is God’s, so his presence can be discerned everywhere, we can look for meaning by his Spirit. The rulers and authorities about whom we worry so much are not all powerful – they are under God’s authority. Even the brokenness that we see all around is being redeemed. The new creation is beginning with the church and it will be fulfilled in its marvellous destiny: healed, reconciled and full of the love of Christ.

 

It’s worth looking at this passage more closely, so please do have it in front of you. There’s so much here – but we can’t spend all day!

 

v.15 says that ‘Christ is the image of the invisible God’. In other words, Jesus makes God known. When we look at Jesus we see what God is like, and he completes our understanding of God. On my computer I have a 3D printer app. It’s very clever: the idea is that I can design anything at all – from an alien spacecraft to a new hip joint. I could draw it in 3D on the laptop – and then send it over the internet to a company who will 3D print it, and drop it off to my door. It could do anything – there’s even an old lady walking around who’s got a 3D printed replacement lower jaw!

 

Through a 3D printer, the unseen idea becomes visible. The image becomes concrete. In Jesus, God, who is unseen, reveals himself. God who dwells in unapproachable light makes himself known to us through his Son.

 

So when we look at Jesus we get an accurate picture of God the Father. For me, that brings God so much closer. ‘God’ can be quite a loose word – we can have different ideas of what ‘God’ is like, depending on what we’re like. If I’m a guilty sort of person, then I’ll probably have an image of a vengeful God. If I’m complacent, then my idea of God may be a Santa in the skies. Or maybe my God won’t bother me if I don’t bother him. We can very easily make God in our own image.

 

But if Christ is the image of the invisible God, then we know what God is like. When Jesus heals the sick we feel God’s compassion for the suffering creation. When Jesus weeps at Lazarus’ tomb we see God’s commitment to defeat death. When Jesus rebukes the Pharisees we hear God’s passion for justice. When Jesus clears the temple we see God condemning greed and idolatry. In his words we hear God’s perfect will for us, in his forgiving embrace we feel God’s love for the world.

 

So, when you think of God, do you think of Jesus? If not, why not? Are there bits of the character of Jesus that you do and don’t have in your image of God? If so why? And how can you imagine God in a more Biblical way?

 

Jesus shows us God’s love in this physical world. For God is not part of this creation. Militant atheists like Dawkins are fond of saying that the chances of a supremely intelligent, hugely capable being arising in the universe are infinitesimally small. Which is correct. But God isn’t part of this universe, that he should arise within it. God is totally other.

 

 

 

The Son of God is eternal too. But in the incarnation he takes created flesh. God’s Son becomes a human being. That’s what it means in v.15 when it says that Christ is the firstborn of all creation – he also has the right of a firstborn, of inheritance. As v.16 says, everything was made by him and for him.

 

This doesn’t commit Christians to a naïve view of creation, as if Christ makes the world out of a kind of divine plasticine. The Big Bang and evolution are perfectly compatible with Christianity, they fit with the belief in John’s Gospel Chapter 1 that the creation is ordered and intelligible – and that sense and reason is derived from the Word of God. Paul expresses the same belief in v. 17: ‘He himself is before all things and in him all things hold together.’ Christ is the Wisdom of God and that Word of God becomes flesh and dwells among us.

 

Does it then seem a bit odd for Paul to start talking about the church? We’ve had this amazing scenic sweep through all creation, a grand theory of everything in which Christ is the pinnacle, and now Paul’s talking about the church?

 

We so often sell the church short. The church is not a group of people meeting on a Sunday where we might decide to turn up if the music’s good enough. The church is spread throughout time and space, a vast army of those who have trusted in Christ, people from lands we have never heard of, people who have gone before us, who are alive with God now. The church is eternal, timeless, Christ’s treasured possession and the beginning of his new creation.

 

The church is all about Jesus. Particular denominations here on earth can get distracted by all kinds of issues, but we need to remember that the church’s job is to point to Christ.

 

 

There are many great things associated with the Christian faith: art, architecture, music, education, spirituality, community. Yet none of these is the ultimate purpose of the church. They’re all good things, but they need to be built on Jesus. He is the cornerstone, all else follows. That’s what we’re here for! The church is only the church insofar as it is faithful to the teaching and example of Jesus. We are here to bear witness to the resurrected one.

 

Verse 19 reminds us that ‘in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell’. In other words, Jesus is fully divine. Knowing Jesus we can know God. If anyone wants to know what God is like, point them to Jesus.

 

For above all, Jesus shows us the immense love of God. As an accurate image of God, Christ reveals amazing things we could never have imagined had he not come.

 

Picture a naked man, bleeding, battered, gasping his life away, nailed to a rough wooden frame. Not exactly the first image that comes to mind if we’re asked to picture God. But that is the reality. The cross shows us the depth of God’s self-giving love. Paul has been leading up to this picture – the crucifixion of Jesus is the deepest insight into the nature of God, the most profound image of God we can have.

 

A God who loves us so much that he did not leave us unforgiven. He did not leave us hopeless, unable to help ourselves. Despite the immense cost, Christ sacrificed his life for us, reconciling us to God.

 

Later on in Colossians, Paul reflects on how this happens. In Chapter 2 verses 13-14 it says: ‘God made you alive together with Christ, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside nailing it to the cross.’

 

It’s like there’s a record of all the wrong things we have done. The trespasses, the things we did that we shouldn’t have – and the things we didn’t do that we really we ought to have done. For some of us this record will be long, for others a bit shorter, but I guess for each of us we wouldn’t have to think for long to appreciate what would be on that record – or how we might feel about it.

 

But the amazing thing is: God has taken that record away and nailed it to the cross. Does that mean it is gone forever? Yes! Because when something’s nailed to the cross, it’s the charge against you. That’s what they used to do with the charge against criminals. If a thief had been caught and sentenced, the record of their crime was nailed to the cross with them. So ‘the record that stood against us, with its legal demands’ has been nailed to the cross of Christ – the cross on which Jesus died.

 

The meaning is clear: Jesus died to deal with our sins. The verdict, the punishment that stood against us, has been paid for by Christ. Basically, he dies in our place. God’s Son suffers the pain involved in forgiving, gives up his life that we might live.

 

It’s not only for us either, but for all creation. Back to Chapter 1, verse 20: ‘through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself All Things, whether on earth or heaven, making peace through the blood of his cross.’ If you wonder about the future of our planet, if you fear for our earth and worry about how the environment can survive, then this passage can give you hope. The new beginning for us, will also be a fresh start for the whole world. God’s plan is not just for us, it’s huge.

 

In this we see above all what God is like. Through the whole life and ministry of Jesus, God reveals himself to us. On the cross he pours out his love for creation and calls us back to himself. What an amazing God Jesus has made known!