Ways of guidance

A motorist once stopped his car in a Wiltshire village, and asked a passing local: ‘Excuse, could you tell me which way to go to get to Bristol?’ ‘Oooh,’, said the villager, ‘if you’re going to Bristol I wouldn’t start from here.’ And there’s the guy who stopped in Surrey and said ‘Leatherhead?’ to which the reply was ‘Potato face!

Knowing which way to go in life is a question which affects many people. We feel the need for guidance. Of course there are those who seem to find their way in life with a quite untroubled ease – everything they do seems a natural progression without wondering whether it’s the right thing. But many of us seek God’s guidance.

It may be for the big things in life: what career to follow, where to live, which school to send the children to. It may be for smaller day-to-day decisions – which route to follow on the journey, a choice of holiday cottage. It may be decisions which involve others such as which project to develop at work or in church. In all of these things we can seek God’s guidance, we can ask him to show us what is best, the right decision to make, what his will for us is and how it fits in his plan.

There’s a pretty key assumption lying behind that and I want to make it clear. Christians believe in a God who loves us, who cares about us as individuals and who therefore guides us. That’s an amazing thing – I was in sporting event the other day and struck by the crowds. Thousands and tens of thousands of people – you can tell I live in a small village and don’t get out much – and I was thinking to myself ‘How on earth does God know each person and care about them?’ But he does: remember how Jesus said that sparrows are two a penny but God knows every one?

It’s wonderful. It didn’t have to be like that. Imagine an indifferent God who creates a world and looks on with detached interest to see what it will do in the way that you or I might observe a nest of ants going about their business.

Or he could have given us general rules to obey like a herd of cows, a time to come and a time to go. Or at the other extreme, we could imagine a God who was a dictator, moving chess pieces around.

Instead God gives us individuality, free will and moral responsibility. He grants us liberty to fulfil our desires and the chance to grow in discernment. Sometimes Christians think of guidance as being a bit like a treasure hunt: you follow the clues, you go from Bible reading to prayer to wisdom of friends to common sense to signs to a feeling of peace and when you’ve found all the clues you get the answer. As if God knows what’s best but hides it and we then have to find his will.

Perhaps we could think of guidance being more like orienteering with a guide. As you go out walking together, finding new places, you also get to know one another. You learn from his experience and if he is a good guide he will teach you to read the map yourself. As we journey through life with God, our relationship with him deepens, we learn to trust him, we discover more about ourselves and become more practised in discernment. That image also helps us understand times when God has allowed us to learn from our mistakes and dead ends.

So what sorts of guidance are there? I heard of a chap who had a message from God. God wanted him to build an ark. It had to be a bit like Noah’s, but this one needed many decks on which to hold many fish tanks. These fish tanks had be filled with all the different types of carp. It was to be God’s new multi storey carp ark.

That’s very particular guidance. Often though guidance is general – and we find a great deal of it in the Bible. Do no murder! It is good to work to earn a living and to support your family. Anyone may marry but no-one must, and singleness should be honoured as a vocation. God’s word gives us all that we need to know for salvation and ethical living.

But the details of it we will need to work out for ourselves. The Bible won’t tell you which job to apply for. It won’t tell you who to marry, although there are indications that it’s good to share your life with someone who shares your faith.

That’s a lot of the background behind today’s reading from Genesis. It’s a couple of thousand years BC, and Abraham wants to arrange a marriage for his son Isaac. God has called Abraham to live in Canaan, where the people worship idols. But Abraham wants Isaac to be a partner with someone who worships the Lord, so he sends his servant off to find a bride for Isaac from the area that Abraham originally came from. In this part of the reading the servant recaps his story.

In v. 42: ‘I came today to the spring and said ‘O Lord if now you will make successful the way I am going’. All guidance starts with faith and prayer. The servant shares Abraham’s faith. He believes that God is there and that God answers prayer, so he prays to God for guidance. Faith, prayer and crucially obedience are at the heart of guidance. It’s no good having a doctor but not going to the doctor when you feel ill. And when you’re there, you don’t just tell the doctor your problems and go away again, you listen to her answer and take the medicines.

As Jesus says in v.25 of the gospel, ‘these things are hidden from the wise and intelligent but revealed to infants’. It is possible to overthink guidance, to worry too much about the right thing to do. But if we are humble then the path can be more easily revealed to us.

Prayerful obedience means we get used to hearing the voice of God. In my last parish I was doing some visiting. As I walked past one house, I felt the nudge of God – go and knock on that door. But it was getting late, there wasn’t really time so I carried on home. Next time I was that way I felt God prod me again. Harder this time. I knew the people there had moved in recently but it wasn’t that long ago, surely they could wait and I was in a hurry.

A week or so later, same place, but this time more like a command ‘Go and knock on that door’. The guy opened it, looked surprised but also relieved. ‘Ah, you must have heard about my wife. The cancer is quite bad now. Come on in.’ I didn’t know their situation, but God did, and eventually managed to get through to me! ….

Perhaps sometimes we also need to repent of our willfulness, entrust our future to God and actually trust him. There’s no point praying for guidance if we’re not prepared for the answer, if we’ll only accept it if it fits our existing dreams.

That’s the point Jesus makes in the Gospel reading, 18 and 19. ‘John came eating and drinking and they said ‘He has a demon’, but the Son of Man came eating and drinking and they say ‘Look a glutton and a drunkard.’’ The people’s hearts were in the wrong place, so they couldn’t respond to the message of John and Jesus. The crowd were judging, condemning, contrary, not open to God’s voice. When we seek guidance it’s good to ask God to purify our hearts too, make us ready.

So the Bible guides us generally, prayer helps us listen to the voice of God. Sometimes God guides us using signs. In v.43 and 44 the servant suggests to God a sign to point him to the right young woman. And God graciously grants it. We might also remember Gideon’s fleece. Both of these signs are given to people who humbly seek reassurance, who really don’t know what to do. And it can be legitimate for us to ask for a sign – as long as we are humble and not putting God to the test.

In his ‘Sacred Diary’ the Christian writer Adrian Plass feels he ought to go carol singing with the church. But he’d like to stay at home and watch the Bond film. So he asks for a sign: ‘Lord, if the doorbell rings at 9.04 pm and it’s someone dressed in the uniform of a Japanese Admiral, I’ll know you want me to go carol singing.’

The sign the servant asks for works because it’s about character. In v.44 the right woman is the one who gives the servant a drink and offers to water his camels too. Given that a mature camel can drink 30 gallons, and the servant had ten of them, that’s a lot of water! Rebekah is a woman who is practical, strong, thoughtful and kind.

In other words, Abraham’s servant uses common sense. God gave us human wisdom, let us use it! Do a job that plays to your strengths. Work out the budget for a property renovation. It’s ok to be restricted to living where you can support your ageing in-laws. Sure, there are times when it is a sign of faith to go against prevailing opinion, but God doesn’t call us to pigheadedness. Remember that what’s right for someone else is not necessarily right for you: John was called to fasting, Jesus was called to party with tax collectors and sinners. Both were right, both fulfilled their vocation, and as Jesus points out in v. 19, wisdom is vindicated by actions: you can tell it’s right by the results.

Another source of wisdom can be found in the wider community. Friends, family, church, colleagues – all can give wisdom.

In this reading we see it in v.50, where Rebekah’s family are involved in the decision. At last, there is her own consent in v. 58. Anything which involves other people will include them in the guidance process – for instance those seeking to be ordained or become Lay Ministers have to seek the goodwill of the wider church.

Finally, abiding in the will of God brings us a sense of peace. In v.30 Jesus says that his yoke is easy and his burden is light. Often when we have prayed about something, thought about it deeply, agonised before finally making the decision, a sense of peace will come. That is not to say that the right course of action does not involve challenge or uncertainty. It may, but alongside that there is often a sense of ‘rightness’, of trusting God for the unknowns.

All of these things together make up guidance. We bring them all together in prayer: Biblical commands, circumstances, common sense, wisdom of friends, consent of others. God could have just told the servant the girl’s name. But what then would he have learned?

As it is, God guides free people; Isaac and Rebekah are brought together, and through their marriage God’s plans are advanced. May we walk with him through our lives, know his guidance, and play our part in Growing his Kingdom.

 

 

Hagar and Ishmael – Genesis 21:8-21

Would you be flattered if you were described as a small cog in a very big machine? I’m not sure I would! I suppose whoever came up with that phrase may have been trying to get to the idea that each of us has a place, and a role to do. That our part may seem minor, but we are contributing to something much greater than ourselves. Economics and society may well feel like that, but what about God’s plan? Where do you and I fit into God’s great big picture? Are we dots of colour on the painting? Cogs in the machine? Grain that is ground to make bread

I think a better image is one that will resonate with anyone who’s been to an Open Gardens recently. Think of a flower bed, a riot of colour. There are groups of plantings, blocks of blues purples and reds following the gardener’s plan. The overall effect is of great beauty, natural and at the same time ordered. Yet all this is possible because each individual geranium or rose is following its destiny, being fulfilled in flowering. It’s that fulfilment which is key – God’s plan does not involve treating us as impersonal cogs. God’s plan for creation is fulfilled as we find our true place, destiny and calling

God weaves a tapestry out of history and when he does so he makes it up from the individual threads of our lives. He includes our triumphs and disasters, our obedience and even our failures. As we hear in our Old Testament reading, God is able to work with even the most unpromising situations. He can turn around injustice, he can bring about his purposes while also bringing healing and fulfilment to individual persons

You might like to have the reading from Genesis 21 verses 8-21 in front of you. To understand what’s going on, we need to recap from earlier on in the story, where God had called Abraham to go to Canaan and promised that he would be the father of many nations. Yet Abraham and his wife Sarah were old. So after several years, Sarah suggested that Abraham should have a child with her slave-girl Hagar. Sarah gave Hagar into Abraham’s arms, Hagar conceived and gave birth to Ishmael

As Christians in the 21st century, what on earth do we do with this? It’s the stuff of dystopian science fiction. Yes, it may have been the custom back then, yes it may have been an accepted way of producing an heir; but how do we understand it now, make sense of it? To us it’s outrageous. Slavery is an abuse of power, let alone making the slave girl have your child.

It’s really important to understand that when the Bible stories describe something, they often do so as a warning, not as an example to follow. The people in the Bible are not plaster-cast saints; perfect individuals whom we must admire from a distance. They are all too human, flawed, dangerously so. They wrestle with God and their own frailties. Sin catches them out, but somehow God works through this gritty reality. The stories tell us about real people, real passions, real redemption

Old Testament narrative in particular tends to tell us what happened and invite us to draw our own conclusions. Sometimes there will be a clear moral, more often we have to work out for ourselves: was this action wise? Did it obey God and lead to human flourishing

And the obvious answer is no. Hagar was unhappy. Sarah was jealous. Abraham was caught in the middle. God had not been obeyed. Abraham and Sarah had taken matters into their own hands, used a flawed and unjust human solution to try and fulfil God’s promise. The story is about to get worse, and yet amazingly, God can redeem it

Thirteen years after the birth of Ishmael, God repeats his promise to Abraham. This time Sarah conceives and gives birth to Isaac. By the time our reading starts in v.8 Isaac is about three years old – they weaned late back then, and the feast celebrates the fact Isaac has passed through the period of greatest infant mortality. Yet in verse 9, Sarah sees Ishmael playing – or the word might mean making fun – of Isaac.

How incredibly destructive jealousy is! Jealousy is one of the most powerful and irrational emotions. Jealousy fritters away inheritance on legal fees, it wastes court time on disputes over the names on gravestones, it leads one man to oppose his neighbour’s planning permission because the neighbour’s house is nicer. Jealousy fuels social media trolling, it causes anxiety and leads people to cut off their nose to spite their face. Jealousy reorients our lives to priorities which do not bring peace and can never satisfy. It is a form of madness.

If we do find jealousy in our hearts – perhaps at the career success of colleagues or the wealth of friends – then we need to repent of it. But we also need to sow a better plant to replace the weed. The Christian antidotes to jealousy are contentedness and generosity. If we are content with our lot, then the good things others enjoy will not trouble us. If we give thanks regularly for our blessings, then we will not feel that we are missing out. And if we are generous in our attitudes and actions, we will not feel diminished when others do well.

Abraham and Sarah were wealthy. Isaac’s needs would have been amply met if they had shared with Ishmael. But Sarah insists that Ishmael will not inherit. Conveniently forgetting her own role in creating this situation, she demands in v.10: ‘The son of the slave girl shall not inherit with my son Isaac.

Now some experts say this is not as harsh as it appears. Apparently there were laws at the time which allow the child born to a slave and her master to inherit. But the slave and the child can be liberated in exchange for relinquishing the inheritance. So in effect, Hagar is freed

But it still seems harsh to me. What sort of freedom is this? Freedom to wander unsupported? Freedom to be friendless and alone in the wilderness? Who wants that freedom? Abraham did not want it for Ishmael – he is greatly distressed. We can only imagine the marital situation that resulted.

The unstoppable force of Sarah meets the immoveable object of Abraham in such a way that only God can resolve it with a direct command to Abraham. Do what your wife says, but it will work out because God has a plan. It is indeed Isaac who is the son of the promise, his descendants will give rise to the Jewish nation. But choosing Isaac does not mean that Ishmael is rejected. He too will become a great nation

This is really important. There’s a lot in the Bible about how God chose Israel, how he has a chosen people. Sometimes this was interpreted as God choosing a particular people to the exclusion of others. But St Paul reminds us that God’s plan was always that Israel would be a light to the nations, a special blessing to the Gentiles, showing them how to live and know God.

God’s call is always like this – to be a means of blessing. God doesn’t call anyone to be special or to feel great – he calls us to serve. We who come to church on Sunday – we shouldn’t think of ourselves as the chosen few, but as a means of blessing to our communities

Sometimes that may seem optimistic. In the final few verses Ishmael’s very survival seems in doubt, let alone any idea of becoming a great nation. Hagar is lost, dehydrated, it’s a pathetic scene as mother and son both weep and prepare to die.

But just at the point when all is lost, God saves. The loving and rescuing heart of God cares just as much for the cast-out slave as for the patriarch. In verses 17 and 18 God affirms that he has heard Ishmael’s prayer. He knows every person’s situation and he hears us when we pray to him. God reiterates his promise that Ishmael will be a great nation – which should remind us that God’s promises can be trusted. God commands action ‘Get up’ – and we should remember that God’s blessings often need a response from us. God opens Hagar’s eyes and she sees a well – which may remind us that sometimes the answer to pray lies in what is already close at hand.

The story ends with God continuing to be with Ishmael. The young man carves out a life for himself as a desert ranger, and his mother finds him a wife from her home in Egypt. Finally, as a postscript in Genesis 25:9, we find that when Abraham dies, he is buried by his sons Isaac and Ishmael. At the death of the parent the divided family come together

To sum up then, in these events we have a warning. A warning about the terrible consequences of jealousy and exploitation. Abraham and Sarah are not here as examples to be emulated, but avoided. Yet as well as a warning, we also have a promise and an encouragement. We see that God can redeem even the most desperate situation. That God has an incredible ability to turn things around and use even the most flawed people in his plan. Here we see grace, compassion for the needy, redemption and hope. Amen.

 

Hospitality, Genesis 18v1-15

A farmer went to the big city to see the sights. Checking in, he asked the hotel receptionist about the time of meals. ‘Breakfast is served from 6 am to 11 am; lunch from midday to 3 pm, and supper from 5.30 to 11.00 in the evening’. ‘Look here’ enquired the farmer in surprise, ‘when am I going to get some time to see the city?

The hospitality industry is big business in Britain, providing jobs for many people. So much so that when we hear the word hospitality we might well think first of a commercial transaction – paying to stay a night in a room. Or companies which provide receptions at weddings, that kind of thing. Hospitality is incredibly valuable in oiling the wheels of business, politics, estate agency, you name it.

And of course there is the hospitality that is offered to close friends and family. One wag once defined hospitality as ‘Making your guests feel at home, even when you wish they were.

In many parts of the world hospitality is still as it was in the days of Abraham: extremely generous. A stranger turns up announced, and no matter what the time of day, everything stops. He or she is warmly welcomed, given the best seat and a cold drink while the fatted calf is killed so a generous meal can be served

I heard of a man in an Africa village who was due to welcome guests from an English Diocese to his home as part of a link Diocese scheme. He had heard that Westerners were used to a different sort of loo. So he planned to install one. This man was going to blow his life savings on fitting a WC so that his guests could enjoy home comforts for a week.

Why such incredible generosity? In many societies, caring for your guests and giving them the best possible hospitality is a point of principle and honour. You disgrace yourself, your clan and your community if you do not welcome the stranger. 

After all your fellow human being is made in the image of God. Entertaining guests is a way of serving God. As Hebrews 13:2 puts it: ‘Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by doing so some people have entertained angels without knowing it.’ Or as Jesus said in Matthew 25 ‘I was hungry and you gave me something to eat.’ 

Many cultures have tales about divine beings arriving in human form, and the dreadful things that happen if they are turned away. Here v.1 informs the reader that the Lord appears to Abraham, so we know who the visitors are. But v.2 makes it clear that Abraham has not yet recognised God as he only sees three men. Interesting isn’t it that God appears as three – from very early on the church has seen this as a pointer to the Trinity and you may be familiar with the Orthodox icons on this theme like Rublev’s Hospitality of Abraham

Even by Middle Eastern standards, Abraham is exceptionally welcoming. Barking orders to Sarah and the servants he rushes round organising a meal with an extraordinary amount of bread and an entire calf just for three people. Surely it is no coincidence that these are also the offerings made to God in Old Testament worship? Like modern Bedouin they sit and eat yoghurt as their host respectfully stands by.

In v.9 there’s a hint of supernatural knowledge – how do they know that Abraham’s wife is called Sarah? The promise of a baby follows, Sarah laughs to herself. But nothing is hidden from their guest, and his true nature is revealed as v.13 uses God’s name: ‘The Lord said to Abraham ‘why did Sarah laugh?’

She laughs because of God’s amazing promise – the promise of a baby. Hospitality enables them to hear God’s great blessing. We’ll come to the promise later, but for now, what about hospitality? What can we learn from Abraham’s ministry of welcome

Firstly, hospitality is a ministry. It brings people together, it makes peace, it serves communities. Those who offer hospitality are bringing a great blessing and we need to thank them.

Secondly remember the words of Jesus about not seeking returns. When you give a party, don’t invite those who can repay you, Jesus said, invite those who have nothing. Hospitality that is given freely, that is offered to the poor, that includes the marginalised is hospitality that honours Jesus. He loves it when we step out from our friendship groups to greet the person who’s standing alone and unsure. When we serve those in need we serve him.

Thirdly, in Romans 12:13 St Paul says ‘Practice hospitality’. Practice makes perfect. Practice means doing it – offering hospitality isn’t just the responsibility of the few but for everyone. Practice means keep on doing it. Practice means be ambitious, have aims so you get better

For the reason behind hospitality is that each person matters to us because each person matters to God. Our needs, our hopes, our dreams matter to him. I wonder what you would do if God came to your house today? If Jesus came to my house I know that I would be like Jairus. I know the healing I would seek, the one whom I would bring to Jesus for him to heal and bless. Who or what would you bring to Jesus?

In the story, God knows Abraham and Sarah’s deepest longing. He knows the pain they have felt over many years. He offers hope even when they do not ask. 25 long years they have lived with this promise – God said you will become the father of many nations and they will inhabit this land. Over a quarter of a century Abraham and Sarah have become rich, but they do not possess the land God promised. During that time Abraham has become a father to Ishmael, but the mother was Sarah’s servant. Hope quenched seems to have become bitter

But here, God keeps his promise. What I love about this story is the way that God’s promise weaves together the big picture – the salvation of the world – and the personal blessing for an elderly couple. There’s the overarching story: how God promised that Israel would be a light to the nations, showing God’s love and giving rise to the Messiah, our Saviour. And there’s the personal story, how all this will happen when Abraham and Sarah have their longed for child.

God is able to include our lives in his creation-wide plan. Sometimes we may feel as if we are very small cogs in an enormously large machine. But actually we are God’s beloved children, hugely important to him.

A better picture might be a flower bed, a riot of colour. There are groups of plantings, blocks of blues purples and reds following the gardener’s plan. Yet this happens because each individual geranium or rose is following its destiny, being fulfilled in flowering.

God weaves a tapestry out of history and we should not be surprised if we surrender ourselves to him and then find that we are fulfilling our own purpose while playing a part on a greater stage. The key thing that has to happen though is our obedience: just before this reading God had appeared to Abraham. He gave Abraham the ceremony of circumcision – an outward sign to distinguish the Jewish people, and Abraham obeyed God. It’s that commitment and obedience which opens the way to finding God’s will

So if we ask God to steer us, then we must be prepared to hoist the sail. If we seek God’s guidance then there will be surprises on the way. As God weaves our story into his great tapestry, even our disappointments will be transformed by his grace.

It was such a shock and surprise that Sarah laughed. ‘Yeah right’ she thought – and God knew. She laughed again nine months later, and so Abraham and Sarah’s child was called Isaac – which means ‘laughter’. Laughter, joy, promise kept. The God who watches over us includes us in his plan –and laughs with us in our surprise.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

A model for the church?

Acts 2:42-47

What would we do if 3000 people got converted one day? If you turned up to church and there was a queue of 3000 to get in? That was the amazing thing that happened on the Day of Pentecost shortly after the first Easter. Jesus had promised the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit came in power. Crowds gathered, Peter explained what was going on, and as it says in v. 41 of Acts Chapter 2: ‘Those who welcomed his message were baptised and that day about three thousand persons were added.’

3000 new Christians, all in one day, in small city: Jerusalem. It must have been astonishing, the most incredible thing to be part of – I doubt if anyone got any sleep that night they would have been totally buzzing! Or perhaps they did sleep from exhaustion. After all, if 12 apostles are baptising 3000 people, that’s 250 each. And if it takes a minute to baptise each one, then that works out at four hours solid!

Maybe the whole group of disciples, which Luke describes in Acts 1:15 as 120 strong, played a part. Even so, as a pastor you’d want to take everyone’s names and addresses to keep in touch – imagine doing that before the days of handheld devices. And as I think about the Hullavington reordering I wonder where they would all meet? Thank God for the temple courts and a warm climate! It would be the most glorious, chaotic unprepared challenge – providing teaching and pastoral care to all those brand new believers. But how wonderful!

Even 1% of that number would be remarkable if it happened here. 30 newcomers would double the size of the congregation. How would we help them settle in? We might need new children’s groups, it might give the chance to start a band. If something on that scale happened, it would be the most important thing all year, surely it would be the highest priority for the church’s life. Pray for such things!

So as we look forward to starting our Alpha course on May 11th, what happens if through that three people come to faith? What do we do to help those new to Christianity? And to help ourselves grow?

In Acts 2:42 St Luke describes the key practices of Christian discipleship, and in verses 43-47 he expands upon them. These are the things the early church focussed on to support each other in following Jesus. The disciplines we need today if we are to be strong and effective in Christ’s service.

Firstly, they devoted themselves to the apostles teaching. Presumably this meant hearing the stories and sayings of Jesus, learning the explanation of what God had done through Christ. And putting it into practice – verse 43 describes the signs and wonders done by the apostles showing that the Kingdom of God is at hand. For us, the apostles’ teaching has become the New Testament and it’s important that we read and reflect on it regularly.

Secondly, they gave time to fellowship. Fellowship is a bit of a jargon word but it basically means meeting together, talking about what’s going on in your life and particularly your faith, praying and encouraging one another. It’s one of the most important things in strengthening our faith. If you just turn up to church once a week, it’s like learning to drive through a weekly lesson. But if you have fellowship it’s like getting real driving practice in through the week.

Today, you can find fellowship in a structured way like through a housegroup, Lent lunch and the Mothers’ Union. Or it can be informal – Chantal has a prayer partner she meets over coffee from time to time for a chat and to pray for one another. I’d really encourage you to think about how you could do this because when you look at different churches you usually find that the places where people are enjoying their faith, the places with a sense of vibrancy, are where those people have a way of meeting up midweek.

It can also build incredibly deep community. I know of someone who a few years ago needed to exchange contracts on a house. They had the money, but not in the right place, and a bridging loan couldn’t be done in time. So they sent out a message and within a day had been lent tens of thousands by friends. It’s a modern example of v 44 – they were together and had all things in common.

Thirdly, the believers joined in breaking bread together. This may well refer to the Eucharist, which in those days was part of a shared meal. Verse 46 describes them sharing meals at home with gratitude – I always think it’s such a blessing when the church comes together to eat.

Last of all, Luke mentions the prayers. This probably means worship, the praising God of v.47. Perhaps it also includes coming together specifically to pray. Holding a prayer meeting for our world, the churches’ work, the people we know. If I’m honest, I think this is one area I’d really like to improve in the Gauzebrook Group. We do have prayer meetings – Pause and Pray, Saturday mornings at Sherston – but are they at the wrong time or wrong place? Or is there a particular style that would help people take part? I’d love to know because prayer is so important. We’re having a 24 hours of prayer on May 26th based in Norton – I’m hoping that can be the beginning of a prayer renewal across our area.

The apostles teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread and prayers. These are the bread and butter of the Christian life, our regular balanced diet. And they make all the difference. Over twenty years I’ve seen people come to faith who’ve grown and grown, who’ve blessed those around them and had a real influence for good. I’ve also seen people make an initial profession of faith and seem keen for a while, but then you see them less and less and their commitment fades.

I think there are two key differences between those who grow and those who fade. Number one is the midweek commitment – do they get support in a group? Number two is ministry – do they get stuck in? It’s fine being a passenger on a cruise ship, but I don’t think you’d want to live that way. Often those who drift away from the church have only ever received and not been given the chance to give something back. Having a ministry of your own helps you grow. Having an area of responsibility, whether that’s doing a reading or being a churchwarden, means you have to step out in faith, you find that God is trustworthy and he equips you with what you need. Having some form of service is a great way to grow in faith.

So are you getting that midweek connection? Do you have some form of service? And if not, how might that happen?

For as v47 shows, these are the things that lead to growth. When we as individuals grow, then the church does too, because that kind of Christian life is attractive.

Of course, the Early Church had one huge advantage. It was new! Imagine if nobody in England had heard of Jesus! You wouldn’t meet those who say ‘Oh, I’ve heard it all before. Had it drummed into me at school’ Imagine if Christianity was a new exotic faith, not seen as part of the past. It wouldn’t then be cool to rebel against Christianity, because it wouldn’t be part of the Establishment. And that is what the Christian faith is like in places like Nepal.

Familiarity breed contempt. So perhaps the answer for Christians in the West is to be less familiar. More radical. More distinctive. After all, if we lived like the Christians in Acts chapter 2, people would certainly notice. They might not like it, they might call it a cult. But it couldn’t be ignored.

There is however an elephant in the room. An enormous grey-trunked beastie which we can’t ignore any longer. I’m going to name that pachyderm and hope that by naming it we can tackle it.

‘Could life really go on like that?’ I wonder if you’re like me – whenever I read this passage I think ‘yes, but…’ Surely if they sold all their goods and share the proceeds, eventually they’d have no goods left? And if day by day they spent much time in the temple, well I guess that the washing pile could be left to build up – but if you want to eat the sowing and reaping must be done. You can sustain a heightened tempo for a while, but the leaky downpipe won’t fix itself. Surely also human nature will intervene? People fall out? The momentum slow? Is this just Luke’s ideal view of the church, not reality?

I think there are three possible responses. I want to challenge the assumption that these things can’t be sustained. There are signs and wonders today. Yes, there was persecution, but the courage of the Early Church meant that in Acts 4:3 they grew to 5000 members. Yes, there were fallings out, but the way they resolved conflict in appointing the first deacons was a huge witness and another point of growth. Yes, they did sell and share, but like a good overseas aid budget, if that money was invested in people they could become economically self-sufficient. So think twice before dismissing this passage as ‘just for those days’.

And when I think like that I also have to look at my priorities. Why is it not possible to meet regularly for prayer? Because there are so many other things to do? Why not rather put in prayer as my first commitment and fit in the meetings around it? If coming to worship is difficult, is it because I’m trying to have everything in my life?

I also want to recognise that there are seasons in a church’s life. It’s like the farming year – there are times when the plants grow and just need the occasional spray. There are other times when the combines are out harvesting by headlight at 3 am.

 (In Sherston it feels as if we’ve done a lot of ploughing, a lot of patient sowing and now we’re in May, seeing the young plants grow. In Hullavington it’s like we’re digging up the whole farm to put in field drains – it’s busy, intense and we need to look out for one another)

So I don’t believe that this passage is just for back then. I don’t believe it’s an impossibly idealistic vision, or a template than we can never even come close to. It’s there to challenge us, to set out what could be, the blessings that can be attained, something to which we can aspire – a living model for the church. Amen.

 

 

 

Road to Emmaus

Towards the end of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Aslan the king of the animals has been killed. As a Christ-figure, he gave his life in exchange for the boy Edmund. And now Edmund’s sisters gently tend the great lion’s body. They turn away to weep, and when they look back, he has gone. For a moment the grief becomes unbearable until they hear a familiar voice behind them. Aslan continues to speak p148.

C.S. Lewis captures well the joy of the Resurrection – that brightest of  mornings as a new life, a new world begins. There is life, humour and fun as the Risen Jesus pops up all over the place astounding his disciples, leaving a trail of joy and wonder behind him.

As Jonathan put it in his Easter poem ‘Erupting anguish obscuring, Gardener’s playful delight, Agony’s deep yearning, aching, Recognition ignites. Exploding joyful elation, Spirit’s music exclaims, Touching, soaring – soul suspended, Jesus beckons my name!’

That playful delight is in this passage too, the Road to Emmaus. I’d never thought of it until we read it with the children a little while ago. Susannah found it absolutely hilarious. Literally laugh out loud funny. Here are the two disciples, plodding glumly towards Emmaus – but we know don’t we that Jesus has risen. And here he comes, sneaking up on them – but they don’t recognise him!

And when he asks what they’re sad about, they start telling him all about himself – that was the funniest bit. He explains the Bible, how it foretold what would happen, but they still don’t see. It’s only at last, when he breaks the bread, that they perceive him.

Lay aside all the arguments about why the disciples didn’t recognise Jesus. Whether it was being dazzled by walking into the setting sun, eyes bleared by tears, only seeing what they expected, or as Luke seems to say in v.16 a spiritual blindness. Put aside all that – as far as my daughter is concerned, Jesus was playing ‘Boo’!

And yes, the Resurrection accounts are full of joy, playfulness and exhilaration. Grief is over. Sin is forgiven. Death is defeated and the horror of Calvary past. A new creation is begun, let us rejoice in its birth! Jesus is alive and will die no more, let us be joyful in his presence!

Surely that is the key message of the Road to Emmaus – that Jesus is with us. He is alive, alive today and we can know him. For that is the heart of Christianity. It is the presence of the living Christ which transformed those two disciples from tearful wanderers to running evangelists, and which transforms us today. All our witness, all our service, all the religious paraphernalia of Christianity is geared up to this: knowing, loving and serving the risen Christ.

I’m doing a leadership course at the moment which the Diocese are organising. It involves a day a month of input and group work. You might think that a course on leadership in the church would focus on techniques – how to be a better preacher; strategies – how to grow a church; and vision – how to discern God’s plan for your parish. There is certainly a lot of that.

Yet at least half of the course is about something much more important: how you live as a disciple of Christ. The inner life, knowing God. For no-one can presume to lead unless they first know how to follow. Last week’s session was called ‘Sustaining your first love’ – and it was all about how to keep your own relationship with God alive and flourishing. After all one of the biggest risks for anyone who tries to do good things for Christ’s church is that the busyness crowds out the love for Christ which brought us there in the first place. The danger of doing a lot for Jesus is that we forget to be with Jesus.

So how do we nourish that love? The Road to Emmaus gives us several pointers. Firstly, let’s support one another. It’s as the disciples were talking with each other that Jesus first came alongside them.

God gives us fellow Christians so we can support one another. Let’s make the most of that opportunity. Often when members of a church meet up there’s so much to talk about: fetes to plan, rotas to organise, gutters to clear, social chit-chat. How often do we actually talk about the faith that’s brought us together? Share the signs of God’s love in our lives? The things we’ve learnt recently? Our needs and support?

In v.18 the disciples begin talking with Jesus, and the equivalent for us is prayer. I find it interesting how honest these two are – they share their hopes and disappointments, their puzzles and doubts. Jesus doesn’t probe, but it’s as they are honest with him that he is able to carry their questions and answer them.

In my own prayers recently I’ve found it very liberating to say to God exactly what’s on my mind. Not to cover up the questions, or thoughts and temptations which seem unacceptable, but to let them all out. To tell God precisely how I feel, even if some of those feelings aren’t healthy or good. You know, you can’t surprise God. He knows it all already. So there’s no point having secrets from him. He’s totally unshockable. I’ve found that when I pray openly to God about the stuff that shouldn’t be there – anger, jealousy, whatever; God doesn’t close himself off and withdraw in horror. Instead he moves towards me and shows me how to deal with it. Keep trying to be more honest in prayer.

One of the ways God helps us is by reminding us of the promises in the Bible. Jesus opened up the Scriptures to the disciples on the Emmaus road. Like those disciples, sometimes we can get stuck with the Bible. Stuck reading the same bits, in the same way, hearing the same morals. So if you’ve got stuck, ring the changes. Try reading a different part of the Bible, use a different translation, get help from some reading notes. Read it in a new style – a whole passage out loud, or imagining it as a play, or taking just one phrase and turning it over and over in your mind.

For instance, a verse that came to mind when I was reading this passage was ‘Practice hospitality’. Paul says it in Romans 12:13, and the disciples did it when they invited Jesus to stay with them. The thing that interests me is that Paul writes Practice hospitality. And we all know that practice makes perfect! In other words, like squash or running, hospitality gets better the more you do it. If you don’t think you’re good at hospitality, try getting some practice in!

Finally, in v. 30, it’s in Communion that they recognise Jesus. And for us today, he offers himself to us in the sacrament so that we can be nourished by his presence. Communion is a very direct way that we can experience the risen Christ. In these churches we offer several communion services on Sundays, in different places at various times, so there are plenty of opportunities to receive. To keep on offering Communion, we need priests – priests who come in from elsewhere like Elveen, our new deacon who will be ordained in July, and priests who are raised up locally like Susan. Please pray that more people will respond to God’s call to be ordained and help us all experience Jesus.

There are many ways that we can know Christ today. For the reading we had this morning is not just a story about something that happened almost two-thousand years ago. It’s not just another piece of evidence in the Resurrection casefile, or an interesting discovery two particular people made. Far better: it’s the proclamation that Christ is risen indeed, that the joy of the new creation is begun, that we can know him today. That the presence of the Risen Christ is with us, ready to be known if we reach out for him

Alleluia, Christ is Risen!

He is Risen indeed, Alleluia!

 

Easter mystery

There’s not much room for doubt in Matthew’s Easter story. For Matthew it’s very clear: Jesus was raised from the dead, so go and spread the word.

In the New Testament we have four different accounts of Jesus’ life. And when it comes to the resurrection, the four gospel writers describe the events in different ways. Imagine there’s a car accident, the police take statements from the witnesses, the things they say will depend a bit on whether they were in one of the vehicles, or standing by the roadside – they’ll describe the same events but from a different perspective.

So too the gospel writers tell the Easter story in ways which reflect their own concerns and understanding about what this amazing event means.

Mark’s gospel is mysterious and the ending unresolved. The women go to the tomb, and find the stone has been rolled back. It ends on a cliffhanger – is Jesus really alive like the angel said? Mark draws us in, encouraging us to find out more.

There’s mystery in Luke too but it soon becomes clear. Luke knows that dead men don’t usually rise, so he gives us lots of proof. He describes Jesus meeting the disciples, eating fish to show he’s not a ghost. Luke is very practical: how we can know Jesus today? He tells us how Christians in every place and time can know Jesus walking alongside them in life and can recognise him in the bread and the wine. How Jesus gives us energy to share the good news with the world.

Whereas the others are selective, condensing the story, John’s gospel gives the whole sequence of events. John is the consummate story teller. He describes the horror of finding your friend’s grave empty, the confusion and grief of Mary, the puzzlement of the disciples giving way to understanding. The human drama and emotion appeal to us. For many, John’s gospel is the Easter story as they know it. in some churches John is the only gospel read on Easter Day

The reading we had today, from Matthew is all about the power and the victory of God. It’s stirring stuff, and you might like to have it front of you as we look at it together.

The day begins with dawn’s first light bringing hope to the sky. Suddenly the earth shakes. The power of God splits the rocks in two. If you go to Jerusalem, in the Adam and Eve Chapel of the church of the Holy Sepulchre, they will show you the faultline in the rocks, said to go back to that day.

A mighty angel of the Lord descends like lightning from heaven. Singlehandedly he rolls back the stone… and sits on it. That action says it all – the angel sat on the stone. Job done, that stone is not going back. Death is defeated once and for all. The tomb lies open – for everyone. Jesus’ resurrection is the promise of ours also, if we place our trust in him. We shall live forever. Then we too, forgiven through Christ, will be as holy and as pure as the angel’s white garments.

Overwhelmed the guards lie flat out. So much for the imperial might of Rome! God is victorious, Christ reigns. Sin and evil defeated.

<heartily> ‘Don’t be afraid’, the angel says to the women. <to the point> ‘Look, that’s where he was. He’s not here. He’s risen. You’ve got a job to do: go and tell his disciples.’ Afraid, but full of joy, the women turn to leave, and there is Jesus! They worship him, convinced he is alive. Only when the disciples meet Jesus in Galilee does Matthew mention that some of them doubted.

How can Matthew be so clear when the other gospel writers take a while to get to a point of conviction, if at all? Partly it’s because they answer different questions. John wants to describe what the first Easter was like; Luke how we can know Jesus today. Partly it’s down to personality: Mark appeals to those who are inquisitive and like open-endedness.

Can they all be true? Yes. The others tell the story from a human perspective. We accompany Peter and Mary on the journey to the tomb, we share their shock and puzzlement. As we work out with them what’s going on, we slowly become convinced that Jesus is alive.

Matthew writes with an all-seeing divine perspective. Jesus has risen. Of course he has – this has been planned from eternity. God acted, and it was done. Nothing, not even raising the dead, is a problem for God who spoke the worlds into being. God’s victory is assured, the only thing that’s a bit puzzling is why the people take so long to get it.

As we celebrate Easter today, we need to hold together both approaches. We need the human quest for understanding, the faith that wrestles with doubts and looks for evidence. If we are told ‘It says so here, you must just believe’, it feels pastorally insensitive, not taking account of our need to think things through. If that’s you, you can take comfort that Jesus understands this: he was gentle with doubting Thomas and gave him the assurance he needed.

Yet we also need that divine perspective Matthew gives us. We should remember that the power of the resurrection is not limited by our ability to understand it; that truth is not constrained by our consent. If something is true, it is true whether or not you or I believe it. Matthew’s gospel is an important corrective to the human tendency to feel that our doubts and questions in some way affect what actually happened that day. It challenges us not to wallow in doubt. Matthew says this is life-changing truth.

The other gospels invite us to make up our minds. They include us in the story. They ask us to consider the evidence. But Matthew proclaims the resurrection. He invites us to live in the light of the new life of Christ. To rejoice that life begins afresh with him. To know that we are forgiven. To have faith that this life is not the end. To be changed by the power of the Risen Christ. Happy Easter!