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.

 

 

 

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Peace, terrorism and the Spirit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

1 Corinthians 2:1-12

She doesn’t have the presidential look. So said Donald Trump about Hilary Clinton, and when challenged, he repeated it. ‘I just don’t think she has the presidential look. And you need the presidential look. You have to get the job done.’ I wonder what he meant? Do we expect leaders to fit a certain mould? Do you have to have a particular appearance or air to be able to get on? What speaking skills and demeanour are necessary to be effective in the world?

The good news in our Corinthians reading is that whoever you are, God can use you. The world may value a particular sort of wisdom, but the Holy Spirit uses those who are open to him. So we place confidence, not in fancy techniques and special skills, but in the Spirit’s power. For it is God’s Spirit who convinces people of the truth about Jesus.

St. Paul had discovered this through experience. He was a real gospel pioneer, explaining and enculturating the Christian faith wherever he went. In AD 51 Paul went to Corinth, a sea port in Greece. Chapter 18 of the book of Acts describes how Paul and his companions stayed in Corinth for 18 months – a long time – because many people came to faith in Jesus.

Soon though it all began to go wrong. The letters to the Corinthians are the most personal and passionate in the New Testament, as Paul tries to win back his former friends. Within just a year or two of his departure, the Corinthian church had divided along class lines, gone downhill ethically, and wandered away from Christ as they experimented with so-called wisdom. Paul, the wandering unmarried missionary who supported himself by making tents, was an embarrassment to these ambitious, sophisticated Corinthians. Paul was so yesterday! Hadn’t they grown out of his homespun approach?

The passage we’re reading today, from 1st Corinthians 2:1-12 is a model of a Christian response to criticism. Paul does not stand on his dignity, instead he focusses on Christ. He does not defend his style, instead in verse 1 he admits: ‘When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom.’

This was a deliberate choice, in v.2: ‘I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.’

Paul could have adapted his message to make it more philosophical, he could have copied worldly wisdom. Paul could have focussed on the glory and power of Christ and forgotten about the shame of Jesus death. But no, Paul made the conscious decision that his message would be about Jesus the Son of God, and how he saves us through his death on the cross.

Paul did this because, as we heard last week in v. 18 of chapter 1, although the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, to us who are being saved it is the power of God. Jesus death on the cross is contrary to the glory, wealth and power of human wisdom, but it is the way that God saves us… As Jesus dies, he atones for the sin of the world. Mercy overcomes judgement, forgiveness triumphs over hate, love is discovered in the midst of suffering. Through his death Jesus sets us free from the power of evil.

Paul knew that we do not find salvation through our own efforts or morality, but through Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf. So Christianity without the cross would not be Christianity at all. Of course, Paul is not anti-intellectual – after all his own writings show great depth of thought. Paul is not saying that it’s wrong to communicate the gospel in the best possible way – for his own letters use all the best rhetorical methods. But is he saying that all these things must be pointing towards Christ crucified – they must shed light on the message rather than obscure it 

I think that’s an important message for the church today. To have confidence in the good news, that the power of the message itself will take root in people’s hearts and change lives.

It is not wrong to advertise: to use everything from Facebook to posters. It is not wrong to create glossy videos, have high quality music – whether by choir or worship band. It is not wrong to be warm, to serve decent coffee and sit in comfy chairs. But it would be wrong for churches to rely on those things; it would be wrong if the experience was wonderful but the gospel was not heard; it would be wrong if people went from church to church like customers seeking livelier music and eloquent preaching.

Look at the church in many parts of Africa. If they have buildings they are more like sheds. The pastor is lucky if he’s been educated to secondary school. Yet the churches are full and joyous, for the gospel is proclaimed.

And that is what Paul did. In v.3 he admits that he came to Corinth in much fear and trembling. But as v.4 and 5 say, this was so that their faith might rest not on human wisdom but on a demonstration of God’s power.

What is this power? Does he mean miracles? Was the power of God shown through miraculous healings and raising the dead? Certainly that does happen throughout the book of Acts but interestingly when Paul comes to Corinth in chapter 18 miracles are not mentioned at all.

Does the power mean the gifts of the Spirit? The supernatural abilities like giving prophecies, speaking in tongues or interpreting them? Certainly the gifts of the Spirit were very important to the Corinthians – so much so that Paul has to tell them that the gifts are not ends in themselves. Instead the gifts receive their power when they are used to serve one another in love.

This is the meaning of power. A changed life brought about by God. The Spirit’s power is shown when someone believes the good news and becomes a changed person. It’s as we become more like Jesus that the Spirit’s power is shown. That’s a real challenge to our priorities. What is it that shows the presence of God in a church? Lives changed to be more like Jesus. It’s not the quality of the experience for an hour one Sunday morning that matters – it’s what you do with it for the rest of the week.

I wonder who the best preacher you’ve ever heard was? I think of a certain chap. I can’t remember any of his sermons – perhaps one or two jokes and illustrations but no more. I certainly can’t think of any one set-piece where I thought ‘that was an amazing talk’. But I do know that for three years at university I was nourished and developed in my faith through the biblical message he gave.

It’s a bit like meals: I suspect there are very few individual meals you can remember, perhaps the odd special occasion. If I were to ask you what you had for lunch last Tuesday you might struggle to answer. But the fact you’re alive means you have been sustained by regular meals – they have nourished you day to day. It is like that with hearing and reading God’s word – regularly receiving nourishment gives us life.

And when we come to God’s word, we must do so with humility. That means asking God to speak to us when we read the Bible. It means praying that when we listen to a sermon we can hear whatever nuggets are there – because there are always some if you listen hard enough! Coming with humility means wanting to encounter God and being open to whatever change he wants to make in our lives.

Without humility we are like the rulers Paul speaks about in verses 6 and 8. Pontius Pilate and the Jewish chief priests did not understand the significance of Jesus, and so they condemned him to death. Yet by this action they fulfilled God’s hidden wisdom which he decreed before all time, they did what was necessary for God’s plan of salvation.

Incidentally verses 6 to 9 are not saying that God has hidden knowledge that he only reveals to a select few. This doesn’t set up a kind of super-religious elite. The secret and hidden wisdom in v7 is the message of the cross – which did not make sense at the time but is now available to all. God’s purpose was mysterious but in Christ he reveals it to all.

To understand God’s word we need to ask the Holy Spirit to help us. This is what verses 10 to 12 mean. Why did the rulers not understand Jesus? Why do many not get it today? Why can a child grasp the gospel whereas some professors cannot? Because in v.10 these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. We need to be humble and open to the Holy Spirit who alone understands the things of God.

Think of horse whisperers – we had an email the other day from a guy in Singapore who puts a lot of effort into understanding the different moods of horses. Susannah went on a trip to Bristol zoo recently and found out about the body language of gorillas. Apparently when gorillas are happy they relax. And every muscle relaxes. So their faces go all droopy. Which means that if you see a gorilla looking spectacularly fed up, it’s actually really chilled out. At least that’s what the zoo say!

Gorillas though would understand gorillas. And horses horses. Humans intuitively understand one another. Like understands like. That’s what Paul is saying in v.11: ‘for what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within’. And here comes the punchline: ‘So also no-one comprehends what is truly God’s except the spirit of God.’

And amazingly in v.12: ‘We have received the Spirit of God!’ Isn’t that astonishing?! We could not naturally understand the things of God, but he gives us his Spirit so that we can. Because the Holy Spirit is divine, he understands the mind of God. Because the Holy Spirit dwells within Christians, he can lead us into truth.

What a wonderful gift God gives in the Holy Spirit! May we ask for his illumination every time we come to God’s word. May we use the gifts the spirit gives us, all our time and talents, and submit them to the service of Christ crucified. May we seek to be filled regularly with the Spirit and live out our lives in courageous obedience to him. May we pray the Spirit’s blessing on all that we do, and trust in God’s strength, so that others may find a faith which rests not on human wisdom but on the power of God.

Why raise the dead?

In today’s Gazette, Marjorie has a wonderful illustration of faith:

Someone asks you to have a ride in his single-engine plane. You politely decline. Why? Well – you’ve heard that the plane has a history of mechanical problems and you don’t have confidence in its safety. The pilot has no such concerns. He assures you that he fearlessly entrusts his life to it whenever he flies. You still say no.

A few weeks later the plane crashes, and the pilot is killed. The engine was faulty. The pilot had a very strong, never wavering faith – but he had a strong faith in a weak object.

We sometimes think of faith as if it’s the amount of faith that we have. You’ve got a strong faith, I’ve got a weak faith – that kind of approach. But the story makes the point that it’s not the strength of our faith that matters – it’s what or whom we put our faith in. Even a weak faith in the Almighty God is better than a strong faith in a false God – and today’s reading from the Old Testament is all about real faith.

Firstly, a battle over the true source of faith. Just before our readings starts, 1 Kings describes a time when the King of Israel, Ahab and his wife Jezebel were enthusiastically urging everyone to worship the idol Baal. But the prophet Elijah called people back to worship the living Lord God. Elijah told the king that it would not rain until the nation returned to worshipping God rather than idols. Rain was particularly important because Baal was a fertility god who was supposed to be able to make rain – so if there was drought when people were serving Baal it showed that Baal wasn’t real and didn’t have power to help them.

The drought worsens. Elijah himself runs out of food and water. So where does God send him? Not anywhere in Israel. Not to a secret worshipper of the Lord. Not to someone rich with plenty of resources. But to Jezebel’s home country, to the heart of Baal worship, to a little town in Sidon and a poor widow who’s on her last meal.

Faith can be found in the most unlikely of places. Jesus referred to this incident when he spoke about a prophet not being welcome in his own town. It’s one of the places in the Old Testament where Gentiles, or non-Jews, are held up as models of faith.

For us today, it’s important to remember that all sorts of people can be surprisingly open to God. Perhaps they are searching for him, perhaps they have had experiences they are trying to make sense of, perhaps they are finding their way towards real faith. We must not write off anyone as uninterested or unable to be open to the Christian faith. One might think: ‘oh, it’s not his background’ or ‘she’s from a different faith’ or ‘someone of that age won’t be interested in what we do’ – but you never know.

Even those who have rejected the church in the past can change with time or be open to a new approach. I think that’s one reason it’s important that church buildings are open all the time – it allows people to come before God at their own time and own way.

So faith can be found in unlikely places. It is then expressed through obedience – in other words we see that someone has faith when they take God at his word and it shows in their actions. Imagine how it must have felt for the widow when she took God at his word and gave her last meal to the hungry prophet! She had nothing else, that was the only food in the house, and Elijah asked her to make a little cake of bread with it and give it to him. I can’t imagine how difficult that must have been, but when she showed her faith through her actions God kept his promise. As the reading says, the jar of meal was not emptied, nor did the jug of oil fail.

It was a miracle – which makes some important points about faith. Sometimes God calls us to step out in faith, to commit ourselves to a course of action without being absolutely sure it will work. Often living a life of faith involves putting your hand into God’s hand even though you can’t see the way ahead.

For instance, we’ve started a new service at Sherston after a lot of prayer. It seemed like the right thing to do, we did all the planning we could, but there were no guarantees it was going to work. We just had to step out in faith and do it.

Also, one thing we’ve being doing in that new service is offering people a free breakfast. It expresses another principle from this reading: that generosity leads to blessing. Rather like Jesus pointing out the widow giving her mite, Elijah’s widow gave sacrificially from the tiny amount she had. It was not much but it was everything to her. And it opened the way for much more than she could ever have hoped.

Throughout the Bible, God has promised that when we give generously, he blesses us abundantly. In 2 Corinthians 9 verse 6 St Paul says: ‘whoever sows sparingly will reap sparingly and whoever sows generously will also reap generously.’ Let’s not give a little from what we have left over, but make our giving a priority.

So faith can be found in unlikely places, it shows itself through our actions, and it sends us back to God in times of trouble. Faith is not an insurance against bad things happening. Faith does not insulate Christians from hardships and sufferings. It is not an agreement with God that he will protect us against whatever might go wrong. But faith does keep us close to a God who never lets us go whatever may happen.

Despite the daily miracle of the olive jar, tragedy strikes. The widow’s son becomes ill – there is no breath in him – is he already dead or close to death? Like many people, the widow blames herself – she knows she is a sinner and she thinks that God is punishing her  .

Perhaps Elijah would wish to correct her mistaken view, and explain that’s not the way God works. But there’s no time for theological discussions. Elijah acts, and quickly. He takes the boy upstairs, cries out to God, and resuscitates him. Life returns and the boy is given back to his mother. I wonder how he remembered it

Sometimes when I meet a bereaved family to plan a funeral, they may say something like this: ‘We don’t feel sorry for the one who’s died. He has gone to a better place. We’re crying for ourselves.’ There’s a profound truth in that. For those who have died in Christ there is eternal life. But it is those who are left behind who must cope with loss.

 

Perhaps that truth is in both of today’s readings. As far as I know, across four gospels Jesus raises three people to life: Jairus’ daughter, Lazarus, and the widow’s son at Nain. All were people who died young. Did Jesus raise them because they had a lot of life to live? Perhaps.

 

But I think it goes deeper than that. When my son Jonathan learnt to communicate using a plastic letters board – he is very disabled so cannot speak and has to spell out his words by looking at letters  – he told us how he had an amazing experience when he was very ill in intensive care. He refers to it as ‘going to Jesus garden’. He describes how beautiful it was, how he could run and climb trees, he talked about the people he met there – people we knew had died. It has given him hope and the most amazing positive attitude about death. He gets excited about going back. He really struggles to understand why we get upset by death – for him it is a chance to go this wonderful place.

That positive understanding of death is Christian. For the end of our earthly lives is the beginning of a new life. We return to God, and hopefully we will be prepared by trusting in Christ. For Christians, death is the gateway to eternal life. So, if Lazarus, Jairus daughter, the man of Nain had all gone to God, why did God return these people to life?

Was it because they had others depending on them? Lazarus appears to have been the man in the family supporting his sisters Mary and Martha. Jairus might have expected his daughter to care for him in his old age.

In those days widows were incredibly vulnerable. Without a son, this widow and the widow at Nain (in our Gospel reading) would have had no means of support when they got old.

Listen to how Luke relates it. He writes: ‘when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her.’ Not, on the dead man. He is at peace. But Jesus has compassion on the one who remains behind. He knows what poverty she is condemned to. He knows the loss.

Christ has compassion for the bereaved. Whatever our circumstances around loss, Jesus understands. He himself lost his friend Lazarus and wept at his grave, so he knows what it is like to mourn. St. John tells us that Jesus wept.

It is therefore perfectly acceptable to God when a bereaved person has feelings of grief and loss. It is normal to feel a heavy burden. It is not selfish to feel sorry for oneself – for it is the bereaved who have to live with loss. God wants us to bring those feelings to him, not to hide them away. Christ loves those who grieve, and he longs to comfort and console. So when we mourn, let us be honest and be open to God.

If we do so, we can find comfort because Jesus offers us his promises. We can be confident that anyone who dies in Christ has life in him. This is the clear conclusion from the miracles: that Christ has power over death. He created us, therefore he can give us life again when we have died.

And so these miracles in Kings and Luke have a deep importance. They show us that God has compassion for all who suffer loss. They show us that Jesus has power over death; that if we trust in him we too will live in eternity. And they invite us to have that faith in him, to believe and trust and put it into practice, whoever we may be, whatever our circumstances.

 

Freedom

The Fourth of July was coming up and the American nursery school teacher was taking the opportunity to tell her class about patriotism. ‘We live in a great nation’, she said ‘One of the wonderful things is that in this country we are all free.’

One little boy stood up, with his hands firmly on his hips. ‘I’m not free’, he said, ‘I’m four!’

The little boy said more than he knew. Can you be free if you are four? When you are four you spend a lot of your time doing what you are told. But if my four year old was free to do what she wanted, she’d quickly get addicted to crisps and bad habits and wouldn’t be free at all.

So is freedom all about being able to do what you want? And does the idea of freedom as liberty end up making freedom the opposite of responsibility? What about all those people who have found freedom of the soul despite living in oppressive societies?

Today’s reading from the book of Acts Chapter 16 verses 16-34 tells us a lot about freedom. How freedom can take many forms, how someone can be free even in prison, how Christ sets us free. If you want to follow it you can find it on the inside cover of our Gazettes.

This passage follows on immediately after the reading we had last week, in which we heard how a merchant called Lydia was converted in a Roman colony called Philippi. St Paul and his companions had met Lydia at a place of prayer on the riverbank. What I find interesting in verse 16 is that they’re still going there.

Lydia was a wealthy woman, so now she’d become a Christian, why didn’t they meet in her house? It would have been nice and comfy, they could have enjoyed food and drink, they could have adapted the room for their own needs, they could have worshipped God in their own way without worrying about what others might think. But they didn’t.

Paul and his companions deliberately go to the public place of prayer because they want to be seen and heard. They want everyone to hear the good news about Jesus. Christ gives us the freedom to speak about him so that others may have the freedom to respond. Christians shouldn’t spend all their time shut away in churches. It’s good to get out into the community, to be visibly present and to worship outdoors.

Palm Sunday processions, Good Friday walks, Pentecost and Boules services, that kind of thing give a positive message. Of course, it’s got to be high quality and well supported – I’ve been to too many cringeworthy outdoor events attended by one man and his dog. Let’s go outdoors, and if we do let’s make it a priority, doing justice to our faith.

There’s a saying that ‘any publicity is good publicity’. Paul doesn’t think so. Being followed by a slave girl shouting out ‘These men are servants of the Most High God who are telling you a way to be saved’ annoys him. He turns, and says to the fortune telling spirit ‘I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out’. And it does.

As a vicar I occasionally get phone calls from people who feel that something spiritual and unpleasant is troubling them or present in their home. It doesn’t happen often but perhaps more often than you might think. Sometimes a tragic event has happened in that place, or a previous occupant was involved in the occult. I go round the house with a colleague, praying in each room, splashing holy water, listening and blessing in the name of Christ. It’s amazing the peace that Christ can bring. It’s only not worked once: and that was when the person was leading séances and wouldn’t give them up. Christ allows us freedom. If we want to be free from darkness he has great power.

It’s remarkable how many people, even Christians have tried out Ouija or tarot, consulted a medium or similar. People offering this may be charlatans who cold read customers to give false comfort. But that may be less dangerous than those who open people up to unwelcome forces.

While they may seem to give insight into the future, I’ve known people say that such foretelling does not bless – it can cause great anxiety.

The Bible is clear that fortune telling, mediumship and all other forms of spiritism are forbidden to God’s people. It is not our place to know the future. God can prepare us, even tell us what is going to happen if we need to know. But usually God’s emphasis is on giving us the strength to get through whatever the future might hold. Trying to see the future through tarot or palmistry or even horoscopes won’t give you the ability to avoid it or the strength to endure it. If we want to be held through the unknown, we must step out in faith with God’s Holy Spirit.

I much prefer the approach taken by Her Majesty the Queen as she speaks about her own faith on her 90th birthday. In a foreword to a book about her faith, she quotes this poem: ‘I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: “Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.” And he replied: “Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”

If anyone here had been involved in Spiritism or the occult, Christ can set you free. Renounce it, ask for his forgiveness and his peace. It may be surprisingly difficult to do so – that emphasises how necessary it is.

When someone turns away from evil and the Kingdom of God grows, often there is a backlash. In v.19 the slave girl’s owners see that their hope of making money is gone, but rather than complain about this, they use the well-tried tactic of stirring up racial hatred. ‘These people are different, they’re introducing new customs.’

Christians in many places are susceptible to this kind of kangaroo court and summary punishment. Like Paul and Silas though, many of them have discovered that Jesus gives us freedom despite our circumstances.

The apostles could have felt very sorry for themselves, it would have been entirely understandable after a severe beating. Instead, locked up in the stocks they sing hymns and pray. They have realised that they are free: free in how they react, free to praise God. No one can crush them.

Perhaps we too can learn this – in small way. It was the morning before going on holiday. I was in a rush. Lots to do, emails to send, a sermon to write for when I got back, people to phone. Then when the work was done, packing to start. I was in a bad mood, snappy at the children.

As I was struggling with Jemima’s coat buttons, she began to sing: ‘Sing Hosanna, sing hosanna, sing hosanna to the King of Kings’. It suddenly struck me: I have a choice. I can choose to remain in a grump and stressed by everything there is to do. Or I can accept that it’s all there and make the most of whatever comes my way. To a large degree my mood is my choice. Despite circumstances, Christ gives us freedom.

It’s not recorded what the other prisoners made of the midnight praise party. But the situation was transformed when an earthquake burst the prison door. Yes, earthquakes are frequent in that part of the Mediterranean but Luke is sure this was no coincidence, rather the power of God.

God can give us freedom from circumstances. He can change what is going on around us. This does raise a few questions though: why did God not intervene earlier to save Paul and Silas from a beating? Why did God intervene at all – they didn’t make a run for it when their bonds where broken, and we learn in the next passage that they were going to be set free anyway. Perhaps God’s priorities are different to ours.

God intervenes so that he can give freedom to the gaoler. Convinced by God’s power and amazed that the prisoners have not escaped, the gaoler abandons his plan to kill himself and instead is baptised. God brings him freedom from despair. He has the gift of hope and salvation.

This is the ultimate freedom that puts everything else in context. When we are set free by God’s forgiveness a huge burden is released. When we know God loves us we are free from all sorts of expectations society lays on us, free from all manner of striving. When we accept eternal life in Christ, we are free to spend our lives in a completely different way. Coming to Christ is the best freedom of all.

There’s a model of becoming a Christian here: the gaoler’s family hear the word, they believe and are baptised and then he begins Christian service by tending the wounds of the apostles.

Finally, there is one other form of freedom in this story. Freedom from society’s boundaries, the divisions of class and wealth. Paul, a Jewish zealot; Lydia, a wealthy business woman; a slave girl and a tough Roman gaoler are now members of the Church. In Christ we have freedom, whoever we are in the eyes of the world.

Jesus gives us freedom. Freedom from the power of darkness, freedom despite our circumstances. Freedom to change and freedom to live for him. I wonder, where do you need freedom today? Is Christ calling you to a deeper freedom in him? Let us be silent for a moment and listen to his call. Be free to respond.

 

Baptism in the Spirit

‘The Lord is here’. Do you know the response? ‘The Lord is here; His Spirit is with us’. This uniquely Anglican beginning to the Eucharistic prayer could also be the summary of today’s readings. They tell us that God is here, through his Holy Spirit. God within, God inspiring, encouraging, enabling. The readings tell us the gospel of the Holy Spirit; the good news that the Spirit is with us today. The Holy Spirit is the petrol in the fuel tank of the Christian life. He gives us that get up and go!

The Holy Spirit is so powerful that John the Baptist describes receiving him as being a baptism with fire! I wonder what you think of when you hear the word baptism? I think of parents and godparents gathered round that font, making promises for a little baby. A christening in others words – when we think of baptism we think of a sacrament speaking of being a member of the church.

But in the original Greek, baptism just meant being soaked. You were baptised when fell in the river. Or walked under a ladder and someone dropped a bucket on you. Or went out in a thunderstorm. So whereas John the Baptist baptised with water, he says that Jesus will baptise – or soak us with fire! It’s a dramatic picture, of judgement, power and change. Being drenched in fire! It reminds me of a few Christmases ago. When I was responsible for lighting the Christmas pud.

Don’t ever give a Vicar responsibility for doing anything after the services on Christmas Day. By then I’m barely capable of stringing a sentence together. In previous years I’d had great difficulty in getting the pudding to light. So I decided to put on a bit more brandy. A mugful in fact. And to reduce the flash point by warming it up beforehand. So I gave the mugful a minute in the microwave, poured it over the pud and lit a match.

There was a massive woompf noise, a sheet of blue flame rose literally three foot high, and a blast of heat singed my eyebrows. I looked down and the pudding was swimming in a lake of burning brandy. And my thumb holding the edge of the plate was immersed in it! Sometimes you perceive injuries well before you register pain, and I remember just looking at the blue flames and thinking ‘my thumb is on fire’. It was like the old British Gas ad.

That pudding was well and truly baptised in spirit – admittedly of the 40% proof variety. Once everything had calmed down, the pudding looked the same. But it was transformed. Being drenched in fire had taken it to another level of taste through the richness of brandy and caramelised sugar.

Can we imagine baptism in the spirit like that? According to John the Baptist it is a dramatic, fiery event leaving a lasting change. When somebody receives the Holy Spirit, (and all we need to do is ask) it can be a powerful sensation. Or it can be peaceful. If genuine, it always leaves a mark. For Christians today, the Holy Spirit gives us a new beginning and fills us up with the dynamic presence of God.

The Spirit also helps us to become holy. In the Bible fire is often a purifying image. Like the refiner’s fire. Imagine the intense heat of a crucible into which a metal worker pours a mix of rocky ore, stokes it up, burns off the dross, until pure precious liquid metal is left. It’s said that the metal worker knows it is finished when he can see his reflection in it.

Similarly, in our lives, the Holy Spirit purifies us. He sharpens our consciences so we know right and wrong. He gives us the power to overcome sins, and the persistence to keep on trying when we fail. The process can be sacrificial as we have to let go of habits and perhaps things to which we have become too attached. But through it the Spirit purifies us to be like Jesus.

Who himself was baptised with the Holy Spirit, as we hear today. It may seem odd that Jesus is baptised, but he did so, not because he had sinned, but as an act of identification with sinful humanity and submission to the Father’s will. Jesus has no need of purifying fire. So with him, in v. 22 the Spirit descended in peace like a dove.

The Spirit can be like that for us: he breathes peace into our hearts when we are troubled; he comforts us with the presence of God. The Spirit produces fruit like love, joy, peace, patience, self-control and hope. It is good day by day to the Spirit’s presence to help us grow in faith and become more like Christ. For although the Spirit is given at baptism, I believe we do need to keep asking for his help.

When the Spirit is in our lives, and when we let him take control, he produces visible results. One example is in the reading from chapter 8 of the book of Acts. As we read this, remember that Jews and Samaritans were enemies. Like Sunni and Shia today – similar in many respects but some significant differences and at times a deep animosity.

So when Philip preaches the good news in the Samaritan capital, and the new converts receive the Holy Spirit, it’s the first time the gospel reaches these non-Jews.

This is probably why Peter and John have to go to Samaria to pray that people will receive the Spirit. Normally you would expect God to give his Spirit as soon as people believe in Jesus. That’s what happened at Pentecost and later on at the conversion of Cornelius. Cornelius was of course a Gentile, but a convert to Judaism.

Here, unusually, there is a two-step process: people believe and then receive the Spirit. Some of us may have had an experience of believing in a simple way and coming to a deeper faith, or an experience of the Spirit later on in life. But this seems to be more fundamental.

Perhaps it happened like this because it was such an important moment. Because it was the first outreach beyond the Jews. At this key moment, God gave his Spirit through the Apostles. Using their authority to emphasise the continuity with Jesus. That this is truly Christ’s spirit. It’s proving that what Philip has preached is right, and that it’s the same message that Jesus entrusted to those eleven apostles. In this story, continuity is proved when the Spirit is visibly given.

Just think about that a moment ‘visibly given’

To prove that they are accepted, v.17 in Acts 8 says they received the Holy Spirit. That implies it was clear when the Holy Spirit came. How do we know we have the Holy Spirit? Is it because we speak in tongues or show other gifts? Is it something we feel? Is it clear in changed lives? Whatever the answer, or combination of the above, the point is that it was obvious for the Samaritans. They knew, and other people knew.

So it can be for us today. Jesus tells us to ask for the Holy Spirit, and he promises he will give it. If we ask, we will know the reality of the Spirit with us, and other people will see the results. So how will they know?

Perhaps we shall see the effects through the gifts he will give us. Those gifts we read about are for today. The wonderful gifts of tongues, prophecy, healing and teaching can be used to serve others. To bring a new life to worship. They can also be a powerful witness to non-Christians who suddenly realise ‘perhaps there’s something to this after all. It’s often like that on the Alpha Course away day – that’s the time when newcomers truly grasp that God is real because of the focus on the Holy Spirit.

We may also know we have the Spirit through feelings: sensing the presence of God; or we have a deeper faith, or we feel reborn and new. We can’t place too much emphasis on feelings of course – they can be erratic and people going through hard times can sometimes doubt whether they have the Spirit, because they feel so far from God. But as St. Paul says in 1st Corinthians, no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ without the Spirit. That means that every Christian does have the Holy Spirit – when we ask for the Spirit we seek to become more filled with him.

For then we shall produce the ultimate proof of the Spirit’s work: changed lives. It’s when we see ourselves striving to be like Christ, fighting sin, becoming better people that we know the Spirit is living in us. If someone claims great experiences of God’s spirit but shows no evidence of Christian love and growth, then one doubts what they say. In Corinthians Paul teaches that the spiritual gifts are fine – but without love they are nothing. There may on the other hand be a believer who does not have strong feelings of the Spirit’s presence, yet is growing in faith and loving service. Such a person can be reassured that they do have the Spirit.

And his work is seen in changed lives. As I said at the beginning, the Holy Spirit is the fuel in the petrol tank of the Christian life. All Christians have the Spirit, yet sometimes we may feel as if that fuel has got low; as if the needle is at the left of the gauge and the little red light is flashing. If so, pray that God will fill you again with his Spirit. Jesus has promised to give to all who ask. He waits to bless us now. Come, Holy Spirit, fill us today and fill your church with living fire! Amen.