Posted in Credo

Credo XVI: Rising at the Last

Scripture: Romans 6: 1-5; 1 Corinthians 15: 35-43, 51-57

Video: https://youtu.be/bGrHfmD9ODk from around 34 minutes 40.

Audio here

Credo XVI: Rising at the Last

In a cemetery in Hanover, Germany, is a grave belonging to a Henriette Juliane Caroline von Rüling. Some sources say she did not believe in the resurrection of the dead. But at the same time she wasn’t taking any chances. She directed in her will that her grave be made so secure that even if there were a resurrection, it could not reach her.

So, on her grave, were placed huge slabs of granite and marble, cemented together and fastened with heavy steel clasps. On the marker were inscribed these words: “This burial place, bought for eternity, must never be opened.”

Over time, a birch tree seed, covered over by the stones, began to grow. Slowly it pushed its way through the soil to the surface. As the trunk enlarged, the slabs were gradually shifted and the steel clasps were wrenched from their sockets. A tiny seed grew into a tree that pushed aside the granite and marble slabs, breaking open the tomb.

The tomb became one of the major landmarks of the Hanover area, a tourist attraction that even appeared on postcards. It kept growing until 2010 when someone who worked for the parks and gardens agency cut down the tree without warning or even civic approval, prompting huge protests and a commitment to restore the grave, with a new tree.

A tiny seed, capable of producing life which breaks open a tomb.

Life triumphing over the grave.

And that is the hope and the promise to which we turn this morning.

Over the last lot of months we’ve slowly been making our way through the Apostles’ Creed. It’s the oldest, most widely accepted summary statement of the Christian story, from creation to new creation. We’ve reflected on God as the creating Father, as the Son who comes amongst us, whose birth we will celebrate in a few short weeks, who lives amongst us, suffers, dies and is buried, only to rise again and has ascended into heaven. All of that lies in the past.

We have affirmed belief in the Holy Spirit, that God present with us here and now breathing life into the Holy Catholic church, uniting us a communion  of saints, across the world and across time. Last time I was with you, we reflected on the forgiveness of sins, both God’s forgiving of us and our forgiveness of one another.

We’re on the home stretch now.

Now we turn our attention to where this is all going.

It’s been hinted at a few phrases earlier which speak of Jesus coming again to judge the living and the dead.

But what are God’s ultimate plans and purposes for us? What is our hope or destiny?

The creed sums it up in a couple of statements…

I believe in… the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.

Today we’re considering the first of these – the resurrection of the body.

The creed opens with a statement of faith in God our Father and ends with the hope that one day we will stand in God’s presence.

We often refer to faith as the spiritual life. But throughout it all the creed places great emphasis on the physical, the material. God creates stuff and calls it good.

The creed tells the story of a God who is the maker, redeemer and sanctifier of all things.

God is the one who brings the physical world into being.

God becomes part of that physical world, entering into it, taking on flesh and human nature. The womb of a woman becomes the avenue through which God makes his entrance onto the world stage. He suffers in the flesh, he is crucified, he dies and is buried… all very earthy, physical things, taking place in our history.

The Spirit continues to work in the world… through flesh. Through the body of the church and in the lives on individual believers. All of it very fleshy.

And it’s there even in our destiny.

 The creed offers much more than a vague idea of life after death.

We affirm I believe in the Resurrection of the body.

In fact the creed goes further – earlier texts referred not the resurrection of the body. But to the resurrection of the flesh.

That might seem quite trivial, but it is saying something important. You see, we humans have a long tradition of having a mixed up view of ourselves. We have this sense of purpose, of feeling that we matter, that we are capable of greatness. And that is no bad thing. It drives us on to greatness.

But we can also be very aware of our frailty, our vulnerability, our smallness, our sense of if there is a God, why would be have any interest in us.

And if we are honest we are aware that we are flawed, that we struggle to live up to what we feel we ought to be. In the scriptures it has that sense of weakness or sinfulness about it.

And it is that latter sense, that flawed, frail, vulnerable sense, that is being appealed to when we speak of the resurrection of the flesh. Frail, flawed and vulnerable we may be – yet loved by God and redeemed by God in our entirety.

But resurrection?

It’s one thing to believe that God raised Jesus from the dead. Even to believe that Jesus physically, bodily rose from  the grave. That this disciples weren’t just having visions, or that his spirit, mission and message wasn’t simply living on in the life of his followers after his death.

But the Christian story goes way beyond that. It not only declares that Jesus rose from the dead physically, but also that Jesus is just the beginning. As Paul in Romans, if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his.

Resurrection was a fairly widespread belief within the Judaism of the 1st Century.  We encounter something of this in the Gospels, particularly in the story of the raising of Lazarus. Martha, annoyed at Jesus for delaying in coming to her brother’s rescue says if you had been here me brother would not have died. Jesus responds that Lazarus is going to live again. With hindsight we know that Jesus is going to raise Lazarus. Martha doesn’t and she responds I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day. Those who had been faithful to God would rise to share in God’s victory. For some rabbis it was so literal that they were even very fussy about their burial clothes – after all they were going to be raised in them. Better make them their best threads!!

But this wasn’t a common belief in the wider world. It wasn’t that they didn’t necessarily believe in any life beyond death. It’s just it did not have a physical dimension.

Why would it? It was more characteristic in the wider Gentile world to despise the body, to think of it as little more than a soul container. For some the soul was considered to be imprisoned within the body. Death was the liberation of the soul.

And it is common even within Christian thought to separate out spiritual dimensions from the rest of life.

But we don’t just declare that God created the material world and called it good. God is interested in all of us, body, mind and spirit. Our body is not disposable. To look down on the body is to despise the workmanship of God. All of life matters. Nothing is outside the scope of the salvation of our God.

Perhaps no passage in the New Testament seeks to deal with ideas of resurrection, both of Jesus and of ourselves, in more depth than 1 Corinthians 15. Paul moves from the resurrection of Jesus, seeking to highlight that the cross and resurrection had always been God’s plan and had happened according to the scriptures, onto our destiny.

In the section we read together this morning he deals with questions of what will this body be like. Will be just the same as when we died? Will we all be like children? Thomas Aquinas, the medieval philosopher and theologian believed we would be raised age 33, since that was the age Jesus died.

Paul answers simply we don’t know.

If our resurrection is to be like that of Jesus we do get some hints in scripture. There is something of continuity and discontinuity.

The actual moment of Jesus’ resurrection, or how it happens, is never really described. But it’s outcome is witnessed. On that first Easter Sunday morning the tomb is empty. It can be disputed all day long how that tomb became empty, but not that it was. If not, this story and this faith which has been passed down through the centuries and passed around the world would never have got off first base. All someone would have had to do to shut them up is to produce a body.

There is something different about the Jesus we encounter post resurrection. Locked doors are no barrier to him, he seems able to just disappear. He doesn’t appear to be immediately recognisable.

But at the same time he is very physical and identifiably him. He says look at my hands and feet. See that it’s me. Touch me and see for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see I have. He then takes a piece of broiled fish and eats it in front of them. He invites Thomas to put his finger in the marks of his hands, and reach out his hands and put it in his side.

Interestingly what he is known by is his scars. He carries them with him into the next life. Resurrection does not negate or deny what we experience in this life, but infuses it with new meaning.

Of course some say how will it be? And, like Paul, we may have to accept we are dealing with mystery, with unknown. It is beyond our comprehension. It’s like looking at a seed and having no idea what it is going to become. That seed in the ground of a Hanoverian graveyard – no-one foresaw it becoming a tree which smashed open the grave. They are the same thing, but in different conditions.

So, says Paul, admittedly without the aid of modern science, it is with resurrection. Same body, but under different conditions. But one very definitely comes from the other. In some sense recognisable, in some sense less so. But undeniably you. To say I believe in the resurrection of the body, is to say more than we will live on after death, but that in that life I will be me and you will be you.

There are some who might ask what about cremation? What if my ashes have been scattered all over the place, is that getting in the way of my resurrection. For the God we have encountered in the rest of the creed, who creates and brings life and new life out of nothing, that’s as much an obstacle to the resurrection life of God as the granite and marble slabs and steel clasps were to a birch tree in that Hanoverian graveyard.

God knows the dust into which we have turned, and would surely know, if necessary how to regather it. But actually it is unnecessary. Your body was never defined in that kind of way. Our bodies are in a constant state of flux. Our bodies have approximately 30 trillion cells. 330 bn, approximately 1% of these cells, are renewed every day. Some cells in our heart, brain and eyes are with us throughout our lives, but the average age of the cells in your body at any time are between 7 and 10 years old. We are constantly being changed and renewed day by day.

The resurrection of the body boldly declares that God’s salvation is total. All of life matters. All of us is the object of God’s love. For God from beginning to end, from creation to new creation, places immense value on the physical and has a place for it in our destiny. We’re not going to float off on a cloud with a harp. Our destiny is the resurrection of the flesh, of the body.

But as I touch this down, is it just theological speculation, or does it have implications for how I live now?

Well this body we live in now, it too is the object of God’s love and affection. We may not always be able to appreciate that. For most of us at some point struggle with our bodies. They break down, they get sick, they suffer. A survey a few years ago found that in the UK 20% of UK adults felt ashamed of their bodies, a further 34% felt down or low, and 19% had been disgusted by their body image in the last year. Amongst teenagers over 2/3 felt upset or ashamed of their bodies. Over a third of adults had been anxious or depressed because of how they saw themselves and 1 in 8 had experienced suicidal thoughts because of how they saw themselves. Negative body images are linked to poorer quality of life, psychological distress and the risk of unhealthy eating behaviours and eating disorders.

If you need to hear this today, please hear it. You are fearfully and wonderfully made and loved by God. God doesn’t send Jesus just to get your disembodied soul into heaven. Jesus gave his life for all of you. In a few weeks we will light a white candle and celebrate God coming amongst us in Christ. The Incarnation of Jesus, God taking on flesh, shows the value God places on the physical and material.

So of course your body is mortal. Of course it can be sinful. Of course we can use it for harmful, destructive ends.

  • But your body can also be redeemed (Romans 8:23)
  • It can be offered as sacrifice to God (Romans 12:1)
  • It can be the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19)
  • Nothing less than members of Christ (1 Corinthians 6:15)
  • A man can be holy in body as well as in spirit (1 Corinthians 7:34)
  • Christ can be glorified in our bodies (Philippians 1:20)
  • His life can be manifested in our bodies (2 Corinthians 4:10).

Don’t despise it, for it is the handiwork of God. And it is the seed which one day, like a birch seed, break open the tomb, when life triumphs over the grave in the resurrection of the body.

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Posted in Advent 2022

Leaving the Lights On: A Reflection for Advent 2022

Scripture: Isaiah 55; Romans 15: 5-13

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, I mean it’d be very easy to miss, but there is something of a minor sporting event going on at the moment.

I say minor, I mean, it can’t be that important, because the mighty Green and White Army of Northern Ireland aren’t there… I presume we’re boycotting it on principle or something…

This World Cup is a bit unusual in a number of ways. For a start it is happening in our winter for the first time. Never before has the Church of England had cause to suggest that you might want to avoid the date of the World Cup Final for your carol service!

It’s the first football World Cup to take place during Advent. And I can’t help but wonder if FIFA, the body which oversees the event, have picked up on this.

Even if you’ve not seen any of the actual football, you may have heard of the ructions over some of the European countries’ captains being banned from wearing a particular armband.

What you may have missed though, was that there are different ‘official’ messages on those armbands for different stages of the tournament. And the message for the 3rd Place Play Off and the first World Cup Final to be held in Advent reads Football is Joy, Passion, Hope, Love and Peace.

And I thought it can’t be a coincidence that over the next four weeks many of our churches we will be lighting candles which signify four of those themes – Hope, Peace, Joy and Love. Four great, primal human longings that we yearn for in our world.

But as we light those candles we know we need something more that football if they are to ever come about.

In the Northern Hemisphere at least, Advent comes at the darkest point of the year. And that is no accident. We remind ourselves that it was to people who walked in darkness that a great light comes. But we acknowledge we need Hope, Peace, Joy and Love precisely because of the darkness in which we sometimes feel surrounds us.

We’ll be are reminded of a people who carried a promise down through centuries, often against all odds and expectation. A people who, on the grand stage of history, even at the height of their success, were never really one of the big players. The people of Israel.

Most often they got kicked about by whoever happened to be top dog in their day. But still, they carried with them this hope that their God, whom everyone else considered quite strange… I mean, there was only one of him, they couldn’t see him and they weren’t even allowed to make images of him… but this God had a key role for them in his plans… and not just for them, but for the whole world.

Throughout all the ups and downs (let’s be honest, mostly downs) all the joys and (mostly) disappointments, they clung on to the hope that in a world gone wrong, where the bad seemed to prosper and the righteous got trampled on, that their God would act to bring his peace or shalom, that he would turn their sorrow to joy because of his great love. Not because of the evidence around them – for there was precious little of that, but because of their hope in God. A God who has surprised them in the past, and could do it again.

Those words that we read together from Isaiah were spoken into the midst of one of those low points. They were living in exile, in servitude to a Babylonian empire. Any sense that their God had any plans for them or their world seemed pretty laughable. If their God was so special, why were they in exile?

It required great faith to believe that the promises God had spoken for them in the midst of their current crisis would be accomplished. That if God had said it, it would happen, as sure as the rain waters the ground. It took hopeful imagination to hang on to the conviction that that they would know joy once more, and walk in peace – to have any sense of hope and a future.

As we light the candles each week in the run up to Christmas, we’re reminded how they kept that light of hope burning down through the generations.

It might be fair to say Advent 2022 arrives at a time when we could really do with a dose of hope, peace, joy or love. So many of them seem in short supply.

Still living with the effects of a worldwide pandemic, war in Europe, a cost of living crisis, 3 Prime Ministers and 4 chancellors… since July, more and more people taking strike action… This meme largely summarises how I have felt waking up and turning on the Today programme for it seems like ages.

There is a podcast I sometimes listen to called O God, what now? It says a lot that they recently switched from 1 to 2 broadcasts a week. Collins Dictionary recently announced their word of the year and that word was…

Permacrisis.

An extended period of insecurity and instability.

A dizzying sense of lurching from one unprecedented event to another, as we wonder bleakly what new horrors might be round the corner.

And the sense that nobody really seems to know, or at least admit to what needs to be done to get us out of it.

So many are living with a lack of real hope that things are going to get better. Their sense of peace is threatened when they consider the bills coming in this winter, the mortgage payments as interest rates increase, and the cost of basically everything. This time of year when we’re being told ‘tis the season to be jolly can be hard for so many as they reflect on those who will not be with them this year.

And we, as people of faith, aren’t immune to that. I’ve often said to people at Harrow that if you haven’t at least occasionally felt a little overwhelmed by all that’s gone on over the last couple of years, you either haven’t been paying attention or you’re not really understanding just how serious it is!

But we too are a people called to choose hope. To be a people of hopeful imagination. Not so much because we can see the solutions, but because our hope is in a God who has surprised us in the past, been faithful to his promises and we are trusting he can do it again.

And in this, the darkest season of your year, we symbolise it by lighting some lights. Lights that remind us that even in the darkness there is hope, we can find peace, our sorrow is destined to turn to joy, because we are truly, deeply, madly, unconditionally loved. Because of God’s great passion for the world that God has made. And that passion is revealed in the white candle we will light in a few weeks, in the coming of Christ.

But on this first Sunday of Advent we are reminded that for us, Christmas is not so much a climax or a destination as a staging post, for a God who is taking his world from creation to new creation. Whose ultimate purpose is dwell amongst us, to wipe every tear from our eyes and bring an end to death, mourning, crying and pain and make all things new.

It might sometimes feel like we are carrying that hope against all odds and expectations. It requires faith to hold on to that assurance that what God has promised he can and will accomplish. But we are the ones called to choose hope and keep these lights of hope shining in the darkness in our age.

And that is why God sends his Spirit to us, to be at work within us and amongst us, reminding us that we are God’s children, groaning with us as we wait for our redemption, assuring us that nothing can separate us from God’s love, giving us endurance and encouragement and filling us with joy and peace in believing, so that we overflow with hope by the power of that same Spirit.

If you are anything like me, with energy prices these days you might be making sure you’re turning out the lights in any room not being used. But against all the advice we might be given, these advent lights of hope, peace, joy and love are lights our world really needs us to leave on. In great darkness our efforts might seem like little more than a candle flame, but however small the light, the darkness doesn’t overcome it.

Be it through foodbanks, warm hubs, night shelters, soup kitchens, hospitality to refugee families, they remain signs for someone that they are not forgotten. It takes a little hopeful imagination but they remind us that God has not forgotten us, God has not given up on his world, that God is not frightened to get down in the mess amongst us and get dirty because of God’s great passion, that we might have hope, to bring us his shalom peace, to turn sorrow into joy, and that we might know and show that we are loved.

So may you carry that hope. May you keep these flames burning, leave these lights on, lights of hope, peace, joy and love, signs that God has not given up in the world, for his great passion, revealed in Christ is to take us to new creation.

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit, this Advent and beyond.

Posted in Bible in One Year

Bible in One Year 2022: Reflection 27

Video of this reflection can be found here

Audio of this reflection can be found here

This reflection covers days 174-180. I say this every time, but it bears repeating. You may have been keeping up with things, in which case this reflection is ancient history for you. Alternatively by now you may have fallen behind, given up, or never got started. You’re still welcome to join in with these reflections and I pray you will be blessed if you do.

Both our Old and New Testament readings mark a period of transition, neither of which comes without its hitches. In a sense it shouldn’t surprise us – when has change ever come easily?

Last time out, when we reflected on Solomon, we saw that even at the height of the powers of Old Testament Israel, there were cracks appearing and we saw this in some of Solomon’s behaviour. It’s been said that all political careers end in failure. I’m not sure if that’s always true, but it’s certainly the norm. And for Solomon it seems to have been the case. After a period of relative peace, rebellions start to develop and he ends his life surrounded by adversaries.

His son Rehoboam inherits something of a mess. But a fresh start offers a chance to reset relations between different parts of the Kingdom. Solomon’s success had cost the people heavily and they send a delegation, led by Jeroboam, who had been in charge of Solomon’s labour force, asking that the new regime lighten the load that was being placed on the people.

I’m reminded of a comment from Margaret Thatcher in her early days as Prime Minister, when she said every Prime Minister needs a Willie. Rude as that might sound, she was referring to Willie Whitelaw, a member of her government, who in many ways held quite different views toher, but was also someone she could trust for advice and guidance. Many of the problems that we have had in recent years has been because leaders have surrounded themselves with voices which just agree with them.

There is great power in the critical friend. Not the one who will complain about everything you do, but someone whom you know and trust as very much on your side, but is able to push back a little and who has an awareness of what really matters.

It’s not that these weren’t available to Rehoboam. He consulted the elders and they wisely suggested if you deal well with these people now, they’ll be loyal to you from now on. But he didn’t listen, he took advice from his cronies who told him to be even harsher than Solomon and the people rebelled, the nation broke up, Rehoboam was left with only a couple of tribes, what becomes known as Judah, and the relationship with Israel, the other 10 tribes, was never healed.

And it wasn’t to either party’s advantage. Judah’s leadership was hit and miss thereafter, but Israel’s was a right mess.

The one hint of grace in the story is that despite this God’s promise to David, the establishment of his line, continues, albeit in a very diminished form. We, as followers of Jesus, get to see that even in disaster, God never gave up on his promise. It is through this line that Jesus will come into the world.

In the New Testament we are also in a season of transition. The Gospel moves into Europe. Thanks largely to the missions of Paul and Barnabas, the church is transitioning from a Jewish sect to something far more Gentile. How they will handle this becomes something of an issue. They held a Council at Jerusalem, largely to work out if people needed to convert to Judaism, keep the law and males circumcised, if they wanted to be part of the church. Paul and Barnabas were amongst those arguing that God had clearly already accepted the Gentiles and who were the church to get in the way.

With a few minor recommendations to enable Jew and Gentile toworship together, Paul and Barnabas’ view won the day.

But sadly, right after this, division creeps in. Paul and Barnabas get into a disagreement which becomes so sharp they end up parting company. It is over whether they should take a character called John Mark with them. He had been with them in an earlier mission only to go home early. That incident is glossed over somewhat and you could have forgiven for thinking it was innocuous. That’s not the sense we get here. Paul feels that Mark had deserted them.  

Tension is bound to occur and it is sad that Paul and Barnabas were unable to resolve this. We’re never told whether they do resolve the disagreement although the mentions of Barnabas in a couple of Paul’s letters, to the Corinthians and Colossians suggest that there was no lasting ill will.

However this does contain a seed of grace. Not only does the Gospel advance on two fronts, instead of one, but it’s what happens later that is interesting. For that is not the last we hear of Mark.

20 years later Mark re-emerges in the Christian story. Paul is writing to the Colossians from a Roman prison cell, we find Mark by his side, sending his greetings. Paul also writes to Timothy, the young man who filled the role on Paul’s second missionary journey that Barnabas intended for Mark. And Paul writes Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry.’ 

Get Mark.

The very man whom Paul had considered so detrimental to the work that he was prepared to separate from his closest missionary ally, becomes the one that Paul wants by his side.

And Paul is not the only friend that Mark makes. For none other than Peter calls him ‘My son’ at the end of his first letter, and early church history suggests that Mark would take Peter’s account of the life of Christ to produce not only the first of the surviving gospels in our scriptures, but the one which would also form the backbone of Matthew and Luke.

In the hands of God, this was a man who may have failed, but found himself well and truly redeemed. Things could have been very different where it not for the trust of one man – Barnabas – who was prepared to take a chance on him.

How well do we cope when people we put our trust in let us down? How quick are we to write them off, to assume they’ll come to no good? Or, in the midst of the failure, how quick are we to recognise potential, to get alongside those who, perhaps for no other reason than inexperience or immaturity, fall along the way, possibly even causing hurt to us as they do so? Without Barnabas, not only would Mark not have had the opportunity to redeem himself, but many of the fathers of our faith, and indeed we too, would have been a lot worse off for his absence. Are we like Paul or are we like Barnabas?

Well, if we’re like Paul, I hope we follow through his attitudes. For Paul was also humble enough to acknowledge the change that God brought to Mark’s life. It’s easy, when we don’t get our own way, and are ultimately proved right, to say ‘I told you so’. It’s another matter altogether to hold our hands up and say ‘I called that one wrong’. So if we are to be like Paul and find it difficult to shift our doubts about people, I trust that we too can be like him in acknowledging the good that God brings out of those we doubted.

And a final word, for the Mark’s amongst us , for there are probably more of those than there are Pauls and Barnabuses. It might not be desertion on the missionary field, but perhaps you feel or you know you too have failed, that you too have let others down, or let God down. You’ve found the forgiveness of others hard to come by. Or when that forgiveness has come, you have found it hard to accept it – even from God himself. The hardest person to find forgiveness from is yourself.

Well our God comes to us in Christ, saying things like ‘I’ve not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.’ Our God himself took on flesh and in that flesh absorbed the worst that we could do to him and overcame it, rising on that third day. And ours is a God who, when we failed him utterly, did all of that, that we might once again be his glory in his new creation. Ours is a God who never gives up on us.

Let’s pray

Father God, thank you for the story of Mark

Thank you that is failure did not spell the end

Helps us to be like Barnabas, willing to encourage potential

Help us to be like Paul, not bound to prejudice against those who have let us down

And help us to be like Mark, receiving your grace and embracing the fresh starts you offer us. Amen.

Posted in Bible in One Year

Bible in One Year 2022: Reflection 26

Video of this reflection can be found here

Audio of this reflection can be found here

Hi, welcome to the 26th reflection, based on the Bible in One Year reading plan. I hope you’re keeping well.

This one covers days 167-173. As I keep saying, you may be well ahead of this, you may not have even reached this point, given up on or not got into the Bible in One Year thing. I still pray you will be blessed by these reflections.

This section sees the story of Acts moves from being the story of Peter, and the mission to Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, onto Paul and the mission to the rest of their world.  

But actually it’s the Old Testament section I want to focus on, which covers the reign of Solomon. And there are two distinct sides to Solomon which we encounter in the readings. And, given Solomon’s association with the book of Proverbs, we might term them Solomon the wise and Solomon the fool.

I must admit I have a degree of sympathy with Solomon in the early part of the readings. His father had been a (largely) successful king, held in very high regard. I imagine if he’s had a shekel for every time someone said to him if you’re half as good a king as your father… possibly with the best of intentions, but it probably didn’t help.

And there are suggestions in the passage that Solomon was not the obvious successor. Perhaps that had been Amnon or Absalom but David had outlived them. Then, before David is even dead, one of his other sons, Adonijah, sets himself up as king and a lot of the people follow him.

Solomon seems to have what we would call imposter syndrome. Not necessarily a bad thing. Better that than over-estimating himself.

But it’s interesting that the LORD appears to him first in a dream, to ask him what he wants. That way we really get to the heart of the man, rather than what might have been his carefully considered conscious response. Ask for whatever you want and I will give it to you.

And he could have asked for wealth, success, power, prestige. But that’s not what he asks for. He says God, you’ve made me king in place of my father David. But, certainly compared with him, I’m nothing but a child. I don’t know how to do this. There’s a lot of people out there counting on me. So give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong.

And God is pleased with his request. He is promised a wise and discerning heart and told all the rest will follow from that. He’s requested a solid foundation from which to establish his rule. And he becomes famous for his wisdom far and wide.

But if you look carefully at what Solomon requests, there is something else there. He doesn’t specifically ask for wisdom. He asks for the ability to distinguish between right and wrong. Sounds good. But we need to think where we have heard this phrase before.

Solomon is asking for the knowledge of good and evil, the fruit from the forbidden tree in Eden. Bear in mind those early Genesis passages are written from the other side of exile, and that influences how the story is told. And in response God makes no mention of the good and evil – he just speaks of the wise and discerning heart.

But also the ability to distinguish, discern, know right from wrong, is not the same as the ability to do the right thing.

Later the Queen of Sheba comes to visit Solomon (1 Kings 10). Amongst the things she says is how blessed this people must be to have such a wise king and that god has appointed him to maintain justice and righteousness. She doesn’t actually say Solomon is doing this, just that the reason God has blessed him so much is so than he can do this.

Solomon’s reign is considered the high water mark of the people of Israel. It’s when they build the temple, when there is peace all around them. It’s a period when there is no big domineering power on the scene.

But already there are signs that all is not well. How Solomon is using that wisdom and skill?

In 1 Kings 5 we read of Solomon conscripting labour from all our Israel and later in 1 Kings 9 we read that this was forced labour. Solomon made slaves out of the people to build the temple.

We’re also told he used them to build Hazor, Megiddo and Gezer. He accumulates 1400 chariots and 12000 horses, so many that he needs to build cities for them.

He also becomes an arms dealer, exporting them to the nations around him.

We’re told that the weight of the gold Solomon received yearly was 666 talents. That’s nearly 25 tonnes of gold. But those numbers – 6. 6. 6. They’re not the last time we are going to encounter them in scripture. In Revelation they will be considered the number of the beast. It’s a very Jewish way of saying there is something dark, evil, opposed to God going on here.

Meanwhile Solomon is getting involved with any woman with a pulse. He has 700 wives and 300 concubines. His heart is led astray and it not devoted to the Lord is God.

Moses had warned them about this before they entered the land. He told them that in time they would want a king, but that the king must not must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself or make the people return to Egypt to get more of them, for the Lord has told you, “You are not to go back that way again.”  He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray. He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold.

And what happened?

Did Solomon acquire many horses? Yes.

Did he take many wives? Yes.

Was his heart led astray? Yes.

All that Moses and later Samuel warned them about… it happened.

His reign might be the high point, but it already contains the seeds of its own destruction, as we’ll see in the next reflection. Solomon’s wisdom has tipped over into what Proverbs would describe as folly.

I’m reminded of the story which led to the anointing of Solomon’s father David. That whilst we look on the outside, God is looking at the heart. It’s a warning that the foundations we build on should be the right ones, for it is possible to do the right thing in a very wrong way.

It’s a path Jesus had to turn from in the wilderness, when all his temptations would have led not to failure but to success on the wrong terms.

And in Acts we see how the good news is spread ever wider, not through power, manipulation and coercion, but through loving acts of service and the good news of the love of God revealed in Jesus. As we week God’s Kingdom, may be wary of falling into the traps of influence and power, the wisdom of this age and lean on the good news of Jesus.

Let’s pray

Thank you for the scriptures we have shared and how they warn us to guard our hearts as well as watch our actions. May we be a people of pure heart, who truly see God.

Posted in Credo

Credo XV: The Importance of Forgiveness

Reading: Luke 6: 31-38

Video of the sermon here from around 43 minutes 30

Audio of the sermon here

Something I always enjoy when I receive them is a selection of odd warning signs or labels. You know the kind of thing I’m talking about.

Sometimes you’d think something should be self-explanatory, such as a packet of nuts which says warning: contains nuts

Then there are others where you think there’s got to be a story behind that.

Some, like this one, make we want to cringe

Some, just make me wonder who it was tried this.

And how many times did this happen before they thought we’d better put a sign up about that.

Some don’t seem that threatening really.

Others, well, if you need to be told…

I would love to know who has attempted to use a hairdryer whilst asleep…

Others, well, you just know someone would.

Must admit I’d need to be really hungry before I’d be tempted to eat a clothes hanger.

And as for this…

Then there are times when you really want to know the backstory. What recent events????.

Others you really don’t want to know!

By now you’re probably wondering where is he going with this. I If something needs to said, however bizarre, it seems to really be an issue. Yet so often you’d think surely that’s just obvious…

Over the last few months we’ve been walking slowly through the Apostles’ Creed. It’s the oldest, most widely accepted outline of the Christian story. In the last few weeks we’ve been reflecting on  a series of one liners towards the end. Recently we’ve thought about what it means to believe in a holy catholic church. Last week was a communion of saints. Today we consider what it means to say I believe in the forgiveness of sins.

In one sense we might hope this should be one of the less controversial parts of the creed. Surely it is one of the more obvious aspects of our faith. Yet it turns out this was actually one of the later parts to be added, and it is worth looking at the back story to see why they felt a need to add it. 

You’d think it would either be front and centre or too obvious to need to be said. One of the things that made Jesus controversial was that he went about telling people their sins were forgiven. One of his most famous stories is of a Father blowing his reputation by running to greet a rebellious son who has brought disgrace on the family and welcome him home, without condition.

The New Testament church spoke a lot about the forgiveness of sin as a key part of their message. In fact, as Luke tells it, it is their message. Jesus spoke of how it was written that the Messiah would suffer and rise from the dead on the third day and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins would be preached in his name, beginning in Jerusalem (Luke 24: 46-47).

And that was what they did. At Pentecost Peter urged the crowd to repent and be baptised for the forgiveness of their sins (Acts 2:38). Peter tells Cornelius that everyone who believes in the name of Jesus receives forgiveness of their sins. (Acts 10:43). Paul tells those listening to him in Antioch, that through Jesus forgiveness of sins is proclaimed. (Acts 13: 38) In pretty much exactly the same words he tells both the Ephesians and Colossians that in Jesus we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. (Ephesians 1:7, Colossians 1:14).

But in the next century or so something strange happened. The writers who come immediately after the New Testament are called the Apostolic Fathers. And between them they make very little mention of forgiveness. Their emphasis was on the call to holiness – to a life lived very differently to those around them. God was primarily a law-giver and judge. The focus was on ethical demands, which were very rigorous. Church discipline was very severe and excommunication was not uncommon for those who fell.

But then the pendulum began to swing again. Against this there were those who argued that the church wasn’t just a community of saints, but like an ark, saving good and bad. The church was to be a community where the sinner could come and find healing and forgiveness.

And throughout the Christian centuries there has been something of a tension between the call to holiness and the call to grace. Some have focussed more on one, others on the other.

But there was one major controversy that led to the inclusion of this phrase in the creed. It came early in the 4th Century. In 303, the emperor Diocletian ordered that the property of Christians be seized, their books burned, and the places of worship destroyed. All Christian leaders were to be imprisoned and they would only be released if they sacrificed to Roman Gods.

To make it easier for them, they were allowed to do it en masse. Some refused and paid the price with their lives. But others, including some of the clergy, gave in and made the sacrifices. This meant renouncing their baptism, and they were considered traitors.

The period of persecution passed. The state became more relaxed about pluralism and the church was tolerated. And some of those who had crumbled in the face of persecution attempted to return.

This posed a pastoral problem for the church. Could they just return as if nothing had happened? Or maybe, did they have to go through some public initiation like re-baptism? Maybe they shouldn’t be allowed in at all. Maybe they should be permanently excluded? How do you know the next time trouble came around they wouldn’t just do the same thing?

And what about the clergy? They had renounced their baptism. Had they invalidated their faith? Did that mean everything they had done was invalid? Where they ever truly part of the church at all? And if one of those ministers had baptised you, were you baptised at all?

At the heart of all this theological wrestling were some basic questions.

What makes you a follower of Jesus?

What if you stray?

Is the church for those who have made it?

Or can struggling, weak, uncertain souls find their place in the community?

Could God forgive them?

Could the church? Could they forgive one another?

The creed confirms the conclusion that they came to. I believe in the forgiveness of sins.

All who turn to Jesus are the church. It’s not just for the pure and successful. Even dramatic failures are not excluded from God’s grace. We sometimes sing a hymn which has the line the vilest offender who truly believes, that moment from Jesus, a pardon receives.  

Last week I mentioned Augustine of Hippo who lived in the late 4th/early 5th century. He was the one who spoke of the church as being as much like a hospital for the sick as a communion of saints. Augustine said We must never despair of anyone at all.

God’s forgiveness covers all sin.

Another ancient theologian I’ve mentioned in recent weeks was Isaac the Syrian who lived in the 7th Century. He put it like this. As a handful of sand is thrown into the great sea, so are the sins of all flesh in comparison with the mind of God. And just as a strongly flowing stream is not obstructed by a handful of dust, so the mercy of the creator is not stemmed by the sins of his creatures. Your sin has as much power to block God’s grace, mercy and forgiveness, as a handful of sand has to stop the oceans crashing onto the rocks.

When we say we believe in the forgiveness of sins, we are declaring that the church is not just for the pure, the sorted, the ones who have it all sussed. God’s church must have patience with the doubter and understanding to the one who stumbles along the path of faith.

None of us is part of God’s family on our own merits. We all come through what Christ has done for us. We all stand before God on the same level, trusting in his love, mercy and forgiveness. We are all totally reliant on his grace. We are reliant on God being faithful, even when we are faithless. His mercy is greater than our sin. His yes is stronger than our no.

Without that we’ve got nothing to offer the world.

Of course that’s not always easy to believe. Whilst there are those who refuse to acknowledge they might have done anything wrong or sinful, others are weighed down, paralysed by mistakes and failures. There are those who carry shame with them for stuff in their past, which God has already dealt with. That they are so bad that even if God could forgive others, there is nothing he could do for them. God so loved the world, God so loves you, that he gave his one and only Son for you. Nothing can keep you from that love. God is the loving father in the story of the rebellious sons. Nothing gives him more delight that when you come to him and say father, I know I’ve messed up. Forgive me, I want to live differently. He welcomes you home, dusts you down and gives you a fresh start.

It may be that in life you have to go to someone else to make amends, to say you’re sorry for the hurt you’ve caused. But God’s acceptance of you is not conditional on their acceptance of you. We’re called to live at peace with others as far as it is within our power to do so. If others refuse to live at peace with us, that’s between them and God. Leave them to it. Just don’t get dragged in.

If you need to hear this this morning, hear this. Your sins are forgiven. All that is asked of you is to receive that forgiveness.

Except that’s not all this section of the creed is saying. Yes, we’re affirming our belief in God’s forgiveness of us. But this is one section of the creed where others will truly know if we mean it. If we believe in the forgiveness of sins, do we forgive others?

It’s no accident that this phrase is inserted right after the lines about the holy catholic church and the communion of saints. Because those previous two rely on forgiveness for their survival. Because anywhere were groups of people are brought together, there are so many opportunities for relationships to break down, for hurt to be caused, for harm to be done. Where two or three are gathered, sooner or later forgiveness will need to be given and received.

And in this one, whether we truly believe in the forgiveness of sins will be apparent in whether or not we actually do it.

That’s not to say it is easy. No-one should tell you it is. True forgiveness has to come from the heart. And it’s powerful when we witness it.

At this time of year my mind is always cast back to Remembrance Sunday 1987, in Enniskillen when an IRA bomb exploded near the town’s war memorial, leaving 11 people dead and 63 injured. It led to a series of gun and bomb attacks aimed at Catholics in Belfast in the following week.

Amongst the dead that day in Enniskillen was a young nurse called Marie Wilson – aged only 20. Whole life seemingly ahead of her. Her father Gordon was amongst the injured. But his words I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge were amongst the most powerful, most-remembered words from the 30 year Troubles that consumed my home country when I was growing up. His calls for forgiveness and reconciliation became known as the Spirit of Enniskillen. He followed that up by becoming a peace campaigner, negotiating with people of both sides of the conflict to put an end to the violence and a senator in the Irish Republic. It’s sad he never lived to see the Good Friday Agreement, because he was instrumental is bringing it about.

Such forgiveness stands out because it is rare. Because it is hard. For all sorts of reasons. Quite a few of them because we don’t always understand what it is…

Forgiveness is not saying what happened was ok, or denying our hurt. If it were ok, there is no need for forgiveness. Forgiveness is necessary because it was NOT ok.

Nor does it mean we simply forget it and go back to how things were. Forgiving someone does not mean you have to put yourself in the position where they can do it again and again. So you don’t re-hire the person who stole from you, or go back to the partner who was violent or cheated on you.

Forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation. Reconciliation involves two parties, forgiveness only involves one. The other party may never apologise, feel sorry or even acknowledge their wrong. Forgiveness simply means that you are not going to live your life carrying around the bitterness or seeking revenge. In an ideal world reconciliation will come about, but you are not responsible for how the other person reacts to your forgiveness.

Also forgiveness does not mean that the normal rules of justice don’t apply and that there are no consequences for their actions. If someone attacks or robs you, it’s not a case of ‘I forgive them, don’t send them to court.’ That’s a whole different issue.

One other thing, forgiveness, as with any part of the Christian life, is more often a process than an instantaneous thing. True forgiveness takes time. Someone wronged us, it hurt and we need to heal. And when challenged about our need to forgive, we may have carried this around for a long, long time. Forgiveness can involve unlearning a lot of unhelpful, even destructive habits. It might be progress to just stop fantasising about how we can get back at the person who hurt us for a while. Forgiveness is one area where the will to change and the direction in which we are travelling, is every bit as important as how far we have got along the road.

Forgiveness is costly. It literally means to let go. We are letting go of our right to revenge. It means we absorb the hurt, rather than give it back or pass it on. That’s what Jesus does on the cross. He absorbs all the sin of the world, rather than pass it on. Rather than seek vengeance, Jesus breathes forgiveness.

In  forgiveness we are letting go of the responsibility for setting all things right. We entrust the circumstances which required it and those we need to forgive to God, who is much better at handling it.

It isn’t easy. It’s hard. Revenge is hardwired into us. And forgiveness can’t be forced. But it is necessary. For ourselves and for others.

Forgiveness it is said involves setting someone free then discovering that someone is you. You’re not going to carry what they did around with you. They won’t define how you live going forward.

But it necessary for community. On today of all days we recognise the results of unforgiveness. When it spirals into wars which take countless lives every year, exposing the myth that there is no such thing as the war to end all wars.

The alternative to forgiveness is to keep passing on the hurt and that will destroy any community. Without forgiveness there can be no holy, catholic church or communion of saints. For God knows we will hurt one another. I wish it weren’t so, but it’s a fact of life.

But we’re not left to do it alone. Thankfully we don’t just believe in a holy catholic church and a communion of saints. We believe in the Holy Spirit. And the Spirit can be at work in us, providing the healing which makes forgiveness possible, helping us to love, even when it is difficult and holding us together when otherwise we might tear ourselves apart.

As we said last week, whilst we are communion of saints, we are at the same time, a fellowship of sinners. We all stand at some point in need of forgiveness. May God grant you the grace to receive it when you need it, to accept forgiveness from God. May you see that your sin can no more block his grace than a handful of sand can block the ocean. May you have the grace to receive forgiveness from others. And may God be at work in you, leading you on the road to the forgiveness we say we believe in, and help us to be a people who can truly say we believe not just that God forgives us, but in the power of the forgiveness of sins.

Posted in Bible in One Year

Bible in One Year 2022: Reflection 25

Video of this reflection on YouTube

Audio of this reflection here

Hi, welcome to the 25th reflection, based on the Bible in One Year reading plan. I hope you are well. This one covers days 160-166 which for the most part covers the atter part of the reign of David and the early part of Acts of the Apostles. As I have said often, you may be well ahead of this, you may not have even reached this point, given up on or not got into the Bible in One Year thing. Well, I still hope that you can engage with and be blessed by these reflections.

It’s hard to believe it is over 20 years since the release of the first episode of the Star Wars prequel trilogy the Phantom Menace. This started a series of three films which amongst other things outlined how, and I doubt after all this time I’m putting out any spoilers here, Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader. The Phantom Menace was advertised with a picture of a young Anakin, standing on a desert-like plain and the way the sun casts a shadow on him to creates an effect like a cloaked and helmeted man, signifying the evil that this child was to become. And that was a little motif which cropped up a few times throughout the film.

I get a similar kind of feel when I read the story of the martyrdom of Stephen which we get in Acts 7 on Day 163, although kind of in reverse. It’s a story of havoc, persecution and scattering. It’s an attempt to destroy the fledgling church, yet it was a season of opposition which God used to great effect. At the start of Acts Jesus had said that his church would be his witnesses in Jerusalem, then Judea and Samaria, then the uttermost parts of the earth. But several chapters in they have not left Jerusalem. It was persecution and scattering that sent them out into Judea and Samaria.

But it also set up a much larger mission. For there, at Stephen’s death we are introduced to a man called Saul of Tarsus. He is guarding the coats of those putting Stephen to death, before setting off for Damascus in what was intended to be another round of persecution.  soon to be known as Paul. Yet a shadow is cast over him, towards a future ahead in which that same man will be the one  larger responsible for taking the good news of Jesus to the Gentile world. He is responsible for most of our New Testament.

But opposition and struggle are themes running right through the passages. Even at the start of the week trouble is brewing in the house of David. One of his sons Amnon falls in love with his half-sister Tamar, eventually leading to his raping her. Tamar’s brother, Absalom, takes revenge, killing Amnon. Absalom then tries to stage of coup, setting himself up as king. And he is a popular bloke. He makes promises that he will be all the things David is not and many of the people side with him. Ziba, a member of the house of Saul comes with word that Mephibosheth, son of Jonathan, has turned against David. He faces abuse from a man called Shimei who tells David he’s only getting what was coming to him for taking over from the house of Saul.

The Absalom rebellion is quashed, but David loses his son in the process. Then another rebellion from Saul’s tribe, the tribe of Benjamin, springs up and many of the people followed that. We can see early tense signs of trouble to come much further down the line after the death of Solomon.

It’s also a season of opposition for the church. The Jewish leaders seem intent on quashing the movement before it gets off the ground. They are concerned that these young, uneducated followers of Jesus were spreading the good news faster than the leaders could shut it down. The there is trouble within. One group grumbling that they are not being treated as well as nother group. They appoint the first deacons, one of whom is Stephen, who appears to have been an effective Godly man. So they stir up trouble against him until he becomes the first Christian martyr, stoned to death with Saul looking on.

Trouble can come whether we bring it on ourselves or not. Much of David’s troubles were rooted in situations he had created. The church however must have wondered what people had to complain about. Healing people, feeding people, yet others didn’t like it. I’m reminded of hearing someone from the Foodbank organisation talk about meetings he had had with governments, in which he discovered there were people briefing against them as dangerous. Feeding people. Dangerous.

But I am challenged by some of the attitudes displayed by those facing the opposition. The disciples refuse to be blown off course. They just keep doing what they were doing. They’ll be good citizens, but if becomes a choice of obeying God and the authorities, God will win hands down.

David refuses to take revenge on Shimei, who is stoning and abusing him, even when David has probably had it up to here with all the grief he is getting. (Don’t get too carried away by that, later we’ll see David doesn’t forget this incident). Even in battle he seeks to have Absalom spared, and is distraught when his son loses his life.

Then we read of Stephen looking up to heaven, seeing Jesus stood at the right hand of God, as if getting up to welcome his child ‘home’ and begging for forgiveness on those who wished him harm. Undoubtedly that played a role in Saul’s later conversion and in the spread of the Gospel into the world.

In those latter two we see something of the love of God expressed in Jesus, who, though we rebelled against him, and rebel against him, never stops loving us, never stops hoping, but instead gives himself for us in love. And even as we killed him, breathed forgiveness over us. That love and forgiveness still transform the world 2000 years on.

But how do we react to opposition and struggle? Do we allow it to blow us off course, get into a huff, maybe seek to get even? Or do we leave it to God.

Now there is no place for bullying and that doesn’t mean we simply take what we face and allow that to go ahead. Often bad treatment needs to be challenged. But we can do that without it spilling over into full on disagreement and division. And with God’s spirit we can leave it with him – and who knows where the love and forgiveness we offer might lead. I’ll leave you with some words I’ve shared with you before, but which are relevant today. They are attributed to Mother Theresa.

People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered.  Forgive them anyway.

If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives.  Be kind anyway.

If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies.  Succeed anyway.

If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you.  Be honest and sincere anyway.

What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight.  Create anyway.

If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous.  Be happy anyway.

The good you do today, will often be forgotten.  Do good anyway.

Give the best you have, and it will never be enough.  Give your best anyway.

In the final analysis, it is between you and God.  It was never between you and them anyway.

Let’s pray

Father we thank you for these accounts which are given us to instruct us, challenge us and encourage us. Forgive us when we are quick to take offence, when we are blown off course by criticism – whether fair or not. Help us to lean into you and trust you, and simply keep becoming and being all that you call us to be.

Posted in Credo

Credo XIV: Together Across Space and Time

Cover pic by Manny Becerra on Unsplash

Scripture: Romans 12: 3-21

Video of sermon here from around 32 minutes 30

Audio of sermon here

Once upon a time there were two gangster brothers who terrorised their whole town with all kinds of corruption, violence and vice. Both made a huge amount of money but not a single penny had been honestly or legally earned.
 
One day the older brother died. Few in the town mourned his passing, but his younger brother, went all out planning the funeral.  His big problem was finding a minister willing to do the service - neither brother had ever been near a church, unless they were nicking lead from the roof.
 
However he read in the paper that a local church was in the midst of a big fundraising campaign, so he called on their minister.
 
Reverend, he said, I know my brother and I never attended church. And you’ll probably have heard a lot of things about my brother which aren’t very nice. But I'll strike you a deal.  You do the funeral and I’ll write you a cheque for £50,000. You could fix a lot of roof with that. I’ve just one condition…
 
What’s that? asked the minister.
 
You have to say my brother was a saint! Simple as that. Say he was a saint, get £50,000.
 
The minister thought for a moment, then he said Ok, I’ll do it. But I have one condition too. The £50,000 must be paid in advance.
 
The younger gangster brother agreed.
 
The day of the funeral arrived and the church was packed.  Some were mobsters and women with whom the brothers were associated. But most had only come to hear how the minister was possibly going to call this guy a saint.
 
The service began with the usual scriptures, hymns and prayers, then the pastor began to preach. He started slowly, but step by step he launched into a litany of the horrible things the deceased had done. He had been selfish, greedy, corrupt, caring about no-one but himself, womanising, drinking excessively, dealing drugs... 
 
The younger brother, sitting in the front pew, was growing more and more agitated, but there wasn’t much he could do during the service.  He could only wait and hope that the minister would keep his end of the bargain. 
 
But on and on this catalogue of sin continued. Then suddenly, after ten minutes outlining the gangster’s flaws, the minister concluded his sermon in a booming crescendo proclaiming:
 
Yes, my friends. This man was a no-good, dirty, rotten scoundrel!  But, compared to his brother, the man was a saint!
 
 
My favourite religious joke… ever!
 
 
We’ve been working our way through the Apostles’ Creed. This is the oldest, most widely accepted summary of the Christian story. We’re on the home strait; the series of short punchy one-liners towards the end. Today we’re reflecting on what it means to believe in the communion of saints.

In Greek the phrase is Koinonia hagion. I’ll come to the first part of that in a little while. But I want to start with the second bit.
 

What comes into your mind when you think of a Saint? 
 
Someone from the Bible, like Peter, Paul or James?
 
Someone from history perhaps, a St Francis type figure?
 
Maybe someone more modern, Mother Theresa or Martin Luther King?
 
 
Ask most people to name a Saint, those are the kinds of answer you’ll get. They’ll probably name people whose faith, vision or integrity should be an inspiration to us. Generally they’ve died but achieved great things and are held up as worthy of imitation.
 
In part, I suppose that answer is true, though, as we’ll see, not entirely.
 
 
In an ideal world, I could have planned it that we would reach this point last week, as the Sunday closest to All Hallows or All Saints Day. Nonetheless, we’re still in the middle of 8 days which are called All Saints Tide!
 
All Saints Tide used to be one of the big festivals in the church. However, since the Reformations, Protestant churches have tended to overlook it. Today many of our churches make a bigger deal out of not celebrating All Saints Eve (Halloween) than they make of celebrating All Saints Day or All Saints Tide.
 


I think that’s a bit of a pity.
 
It is no bad thing to remember loved ones who have died and passed into the presence of God. Their examples can encourage us in our endeavours, or challenge us about our priorities.
 
But it also reminds us of the Christian hope of eternal life. That death is not the end.  It reminds us that we are part of a universal family of God, of those who seek to follow Jesus, united by the Holy Spirit. But that family not only stretches around the globe, but reaches back through the generations and centuries. We are here because of them and their sacrifice. That’s an important part of what it means to believe in a communion of saints.
 
All Saints reminds us of how for 2000 years Jesus has faithfully built his church, through all the ups and downs. It reminds us that history is going somewhere. In a world which seems on a downward spiral, heading for destruction, and which has lost, or is losing, its sense of eternity All Saints reminds us we are part of a people through whom God is renewing, restoring, reconciling the world.
 
But is also points us forward to those who all come after us. The journey of faith is a relay and we, in this place, in this time, are running our leg, charged with passing the baton on to those who will come later.  
 
 
But the problem with so much of the general understanding of the saint, is that rather than encouraging us in our faith, or challenging us to emulate our heroes, it can make the idea of sainthood quite distant from us, especially if we thinks of them as high-flying spiritual over-achievers, practically perfect in every way, whom we could never be like.
 
It also seems reserved for those for whom the holy spotlight shines for a particular moment. It’s like that with so many heroes.  We notice the guy or the woman at the front, and fail to see the people behind the scenes who have shaped the person at the front and have made the great achievement possible. When Helen and Gorka or Hamza and Jowita walk out on the Strictly dancefloor on a Saturday evening, the spotlight shines on them. Yet there are countless unnoticed people behind the scenes making that show happen.
 
So it is with many of what are often called saints. They’re not the big names. No-one ever gets to hear of them. Most of their work is unseen by anyone, but God. Yet from God’s perspective, the only difference between those we’ve heard of and those we haven’t is the role they play.
 
We’re all part of the body and the parts we all play make up the whole. The star names may have much to admire or imitate. But so do many others. That’s part of what it means to be part of a communion of saints. It’s a recognition that we are all part of this story. That we are all on a level. No-one more special or deserving than others.  All of us are only part of this story because of Jesus. He has made us all part of a body, a communion, and every part of that is important.
 
 
Nonetheless, we may not find it easy to think of ourselves as saint. But when the Bible speaks of saints, it is not the spiritual giant it has in mind.
 
Paul describes all those who put their faith in Jesus as saints. All those who look to God to redeem or rescue his world, and who with Christ’s help, seek to live faithfully to Christ’s call and teaching.
 
It’s a term Paul uses frequently. He uses it of the Christians in Rome, Philippi, Corinth, the Colossae and Jerusalem.
 
He uses it of people he knows intimately and people he’s never met.
 
He uses it to describe those fellowships who considered him the best thing before sliced bread and of those with whom he didn’t always get along. 
 
He uses it to describe churches who are doing well and churches which, to put it kindly, are in a bit of a mess.  
 
And how does one become one? Well, that’s not really our job. All that is required is to turn to Jesus and trust him to help you follow him in God’s world.
 
Being a saint is less to do with how we view ourselves, and how God sees us.
 
Saints aren’t super-spiritual elites. We’re not asked to join a holy club. We’re simply people brought together by a Holy God.

Augustine of Hippo once said church is more like a hospital, full of sick, desperately longing for the cure. To say we are part of a communion of saints is to recognise that we are a fellowship of forgiven sinners, but who confidently hope, by God’s grace, we are being built into a fellowship of saints.
We are both a communion of saints and fellowship of sinners at the same time. God is still able to renew and regenerate our fallen natures. It’s only God who can do that.

And he does it by bringing us together. There was a song I was listening to as I prepared this. It had a couple of lines which I thought at the time I wish I’d used those last Sunday, but they’re just as relevant today.

The sea throws rocks together,
but time leaves us polished stones.

The church throws diverse people together, but God and the Spirit work in us and through constant interaction, keep working in us to make us polished stones, a communion of saints.

What is this word communion or koinonia? It was a common word in Greek. It was used in marriage and business relations, communities living alongside one another, countries even. The common thread was coming together, sharing what we have, for the mutual benefit of everyone. They come together for a common purpose, of one mind, with a common goal.
 
For us that should be the worship God, sharing his love, and seeking his will done amongst us and around us as it is in heaven.

Our passage in Romans highlighted some of the ways that happens.

Some will have the gift of prophesying, or speaking what God would bring into that moment.

Some will serve, others will teach, others encourage, others will give from their financial resources, others will lead, others will be able to smooth friction within the community, bring people together.

The proof of whether we truly believe in the communion of saints will be in what we are prepared to share.

There will be times when we are in a place of rejoicing, and a healthy group will join in that rejoicing.

But there are times when we will find it tough, and a healthy church will be there alongside us in that too.

There’s a story told of a Saint in the early to mid 3rd century called Lawrence. Pope Sixtus II put him in charge of any wealth the church had, but also in distributing it to those in need.

Persecution broke out and Pope Sixtus was executed. They then came for Lawerence, but first they demanded he give up the treasures of the church. He agreed but said can you just give me a few days to line it all up. Then you can have all you want. It was agreed.

But when the soldiers came back a few days later, they found Lawrence with a crowd of people. At first they thought he was about to start an insurrection then they saw they were blind, lame, maimed, orphans, widows… We’ve come for the treasures of the church they said. To which Lawrence pointed to those with him. Here they are – these are the true treasures of the church.

We, however we come, our Christ’s treasures.  

There will be times when we are on top of the world and able to reach out to others.

But there will be times when we are weak and struggling and that will involve being humble enough to accept the love and support of another. By refusing it, we could be cutting ourselves off from God’s help, cos we’re rejecting the one God has given us to help us. At some point we all need each other. That’s the point of the communion of saints. We are all on the level. No superstars or superheroes. All broken flaws sinners, in need of God and each other.

And we share in that not just locally, but nationally, internationally. It’s why we give to Baptist Home Mission, BMS, Embrace the Middle East. It’s why we have those prayer requests in our noticesheets. It’s part of sharing as part of a local, national and worldwide body.

But as I’ve hinted already, it stretches not just around the globe, but back through the ages. We live in an age which tends to value the new and the novel and not make space for what has gone before. But the truth is we are here because of what went before. We may have ideas, wisdom, revelation and light they did not possess, but if we see farther than they did, it’s because we’re standing on the shoulders of giants.
They have passed their wisdom down to us, but it is not set in stone. The church at its best is a dynamic, pilgrim people, never truly settling, always seeking fresh light and truth, constantly finding new arenas in which to be faithful and obedient to the Spirit’s leading.

And future generations will do the same, if we stay true to that calling. They will stand on or shoulders and see farther than we ever thought possible.

Some of you may have seen a whatsapp this week of a new t-shirt I have on order. I found it whilst looking for another one. It was friend of mine who was sick of people expressing surprise that she had come to preach cos she was a woman who had this t-shirt. I thought it said Baptist minister, but it works on it’s own level. It says This is what a preacher looks like!

Well, if we put our trust in Jesus we could wear one saying this is what a saint looks like.

What does a saint look like? Look in the mirror. Look around you. We’re surrounded by them. They’re normal people, who, yes, are different, but not because of their moral perfection, but because of what Christ achieved. They are set apart, not because they themselves are special but because through them God draw others closer to himself and into his family.
 
It’s all the saints who are promised the inheritance of a new life with God, when the trials of this life are past, or when Christ comes again and brings all things together under his lordship. It was to all the saints God made this promise – not just the greats.
 
And because we’re all called to be saints it makes sense to take time to pause and think of those saints who have enriched our lives; to consider the way in which they have brought God’s love and God’s glory into our lives; to thank God for them; to remember what we admired in them; and to seek God’s help to aid us as we seek to imitate their graces.
 
This morning I want to stop, take time, close our eyes and think of those saints who have touched your life, but have now passed into the company of the heavenly hosts, into the intimate presence of God.
 
They may not have been famous, they may not have been noticeable but they were precious to us and were precious to the God who has already granted them that inheritance and welcomed them home. Think of those people whom you want to thank God for, who have inspired you and whose dedication to God and to showing God's love has warmed your hearts.
 
Each of you has been given a little paper harp and if you would find it helpful in your remembrance, as you think about those names, write them on the harp to remember them and thank God for them. I invite you to take them away with you – maybe attach it to your fridge, or use as a book mark.
 
Mine aren’t famous … Sunday School teachers, family friends, people who took time to explain things to me, help me in trouble, shared with me on my journey. One is a woman in Alvechurch who prayed every day for every name on the church cradle roll, people who prayed each day for me. Yours might be similar, might be very different.
 
But let’s take a moment to be still, to reflect and to be thankful.



Posted in Bible in One Year

Bible in One Year: Reflection 24

Video of reflection here

Audio of reflection here

Hi, welcome to the 24th reflection, based on the Bible in One Year reading plan. I know – you get none of these reflections for absolutely ages, then two drop at once! This one covers days 153-159 which for the most part covers a chunk of the reign of David and the early part of Acts of the Apostles.

I picked up 3 disparate themes running through these passages. One is the idea of kingdoms. A second is an awareness of the sacred. But the third is about those to whom God entrusts great responsibility. I’ll take each in turn.

One is about Kingdoms. In the case of David it is rather obvious. It covers the period when, following the death of Saul, first Judah, then Israel confirm David’s anointing as king all those years before, when Samuel had come to Jesse. There is a lot of violence and intrigue going on behind the scenes. But once David is settled, he decides why should I be living in a lovely big palace, whilst God dwells in a tent, or tabernacle? It seems good to him to build a temple, and at first Nathan, the prophet, agrees.

I don’t know, maybe it seemed like a bit of a no-brainer. How could God not want that?

But it seems that is not what God wants. There’s a kind of thanks, but no thanks. I appreciate the gesture, but I haven’t asked for it. At this stage we are not given a reason why. And it is a kind of warning about the importance of committing our endeavours to prayer, which is what we see a lot of in Acts.

But it begs the question – can an we get burdened down trying to give to God something for which God has never asked?

But instead God says, rather than you build me a house, I’ll build you one! Israel is still an emerging kingdom. Their first attempt had not ended well and succession had not stayed within the royal house as perhaps had been first envisaged. But God promises David that his family line will be established and this is the first mention of a kingdom being established forever.

But of course in Acts we know such a Kingdom does not exist. It ended with the Babylonian invasion. Even when they return they are passed from one empire to another. Jesus has come but he lived in an occupied land, on the outskirts of an empire that oppressed the people. Such kings as they have, are puppets installed by their overlords.

The disciples had lived with a vision of a Messiah who would come and set things right. But rather than going into battle, Jesus had gone to the cross. Rather than destroying their enemies, Jesus had been crucified. Rather than calling down legions to rescue him, he called on God to forgive those doing this to him.

But then Jesus was raised from the dead. Maybe now, they hoped, he could do the job properly. They ask are you going to restore the Kingdom to Israel now?

But Jesus effectively says all that stuff is not for you to work out. Instead wait for God to send the Holy Spirit. The Spirit will empower you to be my witnesses locally, in Jeusalem, then in ever increasing circles of influence, outwards to Judea and Samaria and then the rest of the world.

God’s kingdom is not going to be established through violence and conquest, but through loving service drawing more and more people into the love of God, expressed in Jesus.

The second thing is the awareness of the sacred. I’ve got to admit there are a couple of passages in these readings that I really wish were not there. I’m not saying you should, but if you gave me the chance to cut out a few chunks from the Bible, a couple of them would be here. One is from 2 Samuel 6, on day 155. David is bringing the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem. On the journey, at the threshing floor of Nakon, the oxen carrying the ark seem to stumble. A guy called Uzzah reaches out to steady it and he drops down dead.

The other is the story of Ananias and Sapphira. We find it in Acts 5 on Day 159. It’s a time when many of the believers are giving possessions to the church, to care for the poor amongst them. Ananias and Sapphira sell something, we don’t know what. They keep some of the money back, but give the rest to the church. That of itself is not wrong. Peter says as much. It’s that they lie about it. And both of them die as a result.

As I say, it’s one of the parts of the Bible I feel less comfortable with. But it’s there. I can’t just pick and choose.

We’re told that David is mad at God for what happened to Uzzah, which doesn’t seem entirely unreasonable. I’ve read around that passage and although I still wrestle with it, it appears that the ark should never have been on a cart in the first place – God had given instructions for how it should be moved and these had been disregarded. There is also the suggestion that the ark had been with Uzzah’s family for some time and perhaps familiarity had bred laxness or even contempt.

Both passages seem to warn us against taking God for granted.

Nonetheless we can go to the opposite extreme and steer clear of the sacred out of fear. That is what David does at first. He chooses not to bring the ark to Jerusalem. But in time he comes to see that is not the right approach. It just needs to be handled appropriately.

I don’t have all the answers to these passages, nor do I have time to go into the ones I do, but I am reminded that there are things which are sacred. Sometimes we can grow so familiar with things of God, especially if we have been around church for a long time, or even, like me, pretty much all your life. And that familiarity can diminish our sense of the sacred.  

It is about never allowing my familiarity to diminish my reverence. It’s like in the Narnia chronicles, when Mr Beaver is explaining to the children about the lion Aslan, Susan asks, is he safe. I’d be nervous about meeting a lion. Mr Beaver responds, Safe? Of course he isn’t safe. But he is good. There are many things I don’t understand, but when I face those things I lean into the goodness of God, expressed in Jesus. With that I can trust in his judgments.

The final bit is about those to whom the Kingdoms are left. Both have been through struggle and training. Both the disciples and David – it hasn’t come easy. But they are still far from the finished articles. The disciples are flawed people. No-one would have left something so important to them, except God. They stumbled, they got stuff wrong and often it was their mistakes that led them to right answers.

David is described as a man after God’s own heart. But he is a complex character. On the one hand, when he hears of Saul’s death he mourns for Saul and Jonathan. But then he treats Saul’s daughter, Michal, David’s wife with contempt. Fair enough it is far from one way.

In a world where women were treated terribly as possessions to be passed around, Saul had given her to another. When David becomes king he demands her back from a husband who truly seems to love her. Maybe she resents him and that explains her response to David’s perhaps over-exuberant dancing. But after mourning so eloquently for Saul’s house a few chapters earlier, when they get into a fight David effectively says you’re just mad cos God chose me over your Dad.

Sadly their marriage never recovers. Harsh words can be so destructive.

But we catch another sign of this complexity later. Two incidents sit quite closely together. When David is well established he remembers a promise he made to Jonathan and welcomes Mephibosheth into his home. This is an enemy – one who would wish him dead. It is a moment of remarkable grace. Yet, almost immediately he has an affair with Bathsheba and has her husband killed. Despite the fact that Uriah is one of his most trusted men. One who would give himself for David. How often it is those closest to us, ones to whom we owe so much, who get the absolute worst of us. In fact, like so many in positions of prominence, it’s those more distant who get the best of us – often at the expense of those closest to us.

But God in his grace remains faithful, even we don’t. He remains good even when we struggle to understand. And his promises remain true and steadfast. Quite a lot of disparate ideas in a few short passages. I pray that God will speak to you through some of them.

Let’s pray

Father God, we thank you for these scriptures. Often not easy to understand, often certainly not a go thou and do likewise. But written to warn and edify us. Help us to wrestle with the scriptures, but always look on them through the lens of Jesus, and recognise that throughout these passages we have a God who, though not tame or even safe, is good and can be trusted. Amen.

Posted in Bible in One Year

Bible in One Year 22: Reflection 23

Video of this reflection can be found here

Audio of this reflection can be found here

There comes a time in life when you have to listen to your own message, and I confess this is one of mine. For much of this year I have started many of these reflections by reminding you that if you fall behind it’s not the end of the world, that one of the reasons we think of scripture as alive is how God can use something you were supposed to read, yesterday, last week, a month or more ago and invest it with a relevance it would never have had, if you’d been up to date. That’s kind of where I am at the moment.

I was a little behind, with the readings – not as far as I was with the reflections, but a little behind nonetheless. But I have had a spell where I really fell behind. And I was about to give up. The I heard my own voice say, Andrew, it’s not a race, just pick up where you left off and keep going. So I have made that choice. Both with the readings, where I am a good but further one and with the reflections. As a result, this reflection covers the period from days 146-152.

And today I’m talking about one of THE most famous bits of the Bible. David and Goliath. You know the story. Goliath, big giant, out challenging Israel to one on one combat. Everyone running scared… Young shepherd boy David delivers supplies to his brothers and hears him. But rather than being scared he thinks who does this bloke think he is, mocking us and our God. He goes to the king and says I’ll take him on. Saul argues at first, then tries to lend him his armour, but David ends up going out armed with nothing more than the sling he uses as a shepherd, and fells the giant.

Even people who grew up outside church may have heard of David and Goliath type stories. Certainly football fans will have. A tiny club who’s team are playing for 2 pints of beer and a packet of crisps, take on the mighty Premiership team and triumph. It’s a giant killing.

It’s used when an underdog wins against all expectations. It’s a metaphor for improbable victory.

The problem is that that is not what actually happens. For the next few minutes, you might call this Andrew ruins David and Goliath.

Have you ever played rock paper scissors? Scissors cut paper, which wraps rock, which blunts scissors. There are three choices, none of which are of themselves the best, so you can’t guarantee you will win. It all depends on how the other person acts.

Well ancient armies were made up of three types of warrior.

Cavalry – armed men on horseback or in chariots

Infantry – foot soldiers with armour, swords and shields.

Artillery or projectile warriors – archers and slingers.

These three kinds of warrior balanced one another out. Infantry, with long pikes and armour could stand up to cavalry. Cavalry would take out artillery cos the horses moved too quickly to take aim. Projectile warriors could easily take out lumbering infantry, weighed down with armour.

Goliath is infantry. When he issues his challenge he assumes that what will come out to fight him is infantry. That would have been the norm.  And if David had tried that he would have failed. That’s why David rejects Saul’s armour. I’m not used to it.

But David messes with the tradition. He makes a choice how he is going to fight. David is artillery and that gives him the upper hand The sling, in trained hands was devastating. In Judges they are described as being accurate within a hair’s breadth. Slingers weren’t unique to the near east. They existed in Ireland. Irish slingers were said to able to hit a coin from as far away as they could see it.

Twice David mentions Goliath coming with sword and spear. He has speed on his side, cos he is not weighed down with armour. Goliath was wearing over 100lb of armour and was prepared for battle at close hand. He is a sitting duck for an expert slinger. It’s reckoned that an average stone, hurled by an expert slinger at a distance of 35m, would have struck Goliath at 34m p/s – the equivalent of a modern handgun. And Goliath would have approximately 1 second to act. One historian says Goliath had as much chance against David as a bronze age warrior with a sword would have had against an opponent armed with an automatic pistol. We look at it as a battle against the odds. But of those watching that day, once they became aware precisely what was happening, well, there wouldn’t have been many putting their shekels on the big guy in the armour!

So does this negate the faith aspect of the story? Absolutely not. But David wins the battle because he chooses to be who he is, whom God has made him and to use those giftings rather than try to fit into someone else’s style and clothing. Had David tried to go into battle like Saul, it’s have been disastrous for him.

Saul is sceptical cos David is small and Goliath is huge. He thinks purely in terms of muscle and might. Also many medical experts believe that Goliath was affected by a disease caused by a benign tumour in the pituitary gland. It causes overproduction of the growth hormone, therefore making him a giant.

But it also cause vision problems, which is why Goliath is led into battle by an attendant, why he is quite slow on the uptake as to what is happening.

What the Israelites saw from the ridge was an intimidating giant. But what gave him his size was also the source of his weakness.

But because David stays true to what he is, is willing to think not just as everyone expects him to think, and refuses to go to battle on the giant’s terms, he is able to fell the giant who seemed so terrifying.

It’s interesting that Jesus is called the Son of David. And if we look at the genealogies we will find that Jesus’ ancestry was traced back to David. But the Jews has another way of using this saying. It was like us saying he’s a chip of the old block, or I can tell who’s son he is. James and John were called Sons of Thunder cos they were stormy guys. Barnabas a son of encouragement cos that’s the kind of guy he was.

Jesus is a Son of David, not just by chance of birth, but by the way he acts. Jesus stays true to who he is when God sends him into the world to rescue us. Jesus sets aside any of what the world might think of as advantages. He is one man, who spent most of his life in obscurity, and in the last week of his life he is set on a course to Jerusalem where he will encounter the greatest power in the world. Jesus knew if he fought fire with fire, well the outcome would have been obvious. There were any number of would be failed Messiahs whose stories tell that tale. But Jesus went into the battle of the cross, armed with legions of angels, but with the love and forgiveness of God. His Kingdom is not of this world, so he refuses to behave like it is. He doesn’t equate power with strength, but lays it aside and lets them do their worst. And God vindicates him, raising him on the third day.

And for us there is something in there for us too. For as we seek to be his people in the place he has put us, we can see what others are doing and try to replicate it, whether or not it fits us. What we do better to pay attention to whom God has made us, and use that, as we seek to face the challenges ahead of us. When we do that, with him, we can achieve more than we can ask or imagine.

Prayer

Father God, I thank you for the story of David. I thank you for those who lives are an inspiration for us, in the courageous ways they have stood up to giants. I thank you for those who have refused to be lowered to another’s level and have stayed true to what you called them to. Help us to be such a people. Trusting you, trusting that you have given us exactly what we need and living up the to calling you place on us. In Jesus’ name we pray all these things. Amen.

Posted in Credo

Credo XIII: It’s Universal

Estuary Pic by Jordan Heath on Unsplash

Bible Readings: Matthew 16:13-20; Ephesians 4: 1-6

Video of the service on Facbook Live (sermon from 21:45) and YouTube (from

Audio of the sermon can be found here

This morning I want to begin with a series of pictures of people. All of them have something in common. I wonder if anyone can tell me what it is…

  • Mick Jagger
  • Priti Patel
  • Prince Harry
  • Piers Morgan
  • Idris Elba
  • Osama Bin Laden
  • and me!!!

The answer is we all are, or were, reported to be Arsenal fans.

I could have added Mo Farah, Jeremy Corbyn and Keir Starmer, Robert Peston, Aled Jones and Fidel Castro.

Got to say, I can’t be on that many lists that contain all of Priti Patel, Fidel Castro and Aled Jones.

It’s been said you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family. And I would say if you’re a football fan, once your club is chosen, however that is, you’re stuck with it. I admit some people seem to manage it. It’s amazing how few Man City fans I knew until a few years ago. I could have sworn at least some of them were Chelsea fans!

I’ve never been able to manage that. A guy called Michael told me Malcolm MacDonald was the greatest footballer in the world (and can I just say, he really wasn’t but I was 7!). But when I found out he played for Arsenal that was it. To make matters worse, Malcolm MacDonald suffered a knee injury almost immediately after I started supporting Arsenal that finished his career!!

When I lived in Nottingham I would often go to watch Notts County. I went to Walsall a few times when I lived in Birmingham. I still have soft spots for those clubs and will look for their results. (Notts County beat Wealdstone 6-1 earlier in the week!) But no, for good or ill, I’m a Gooner.  I’m stuck with it. And once you’re in, you’ve no control over who you’re joining up with. Some are pretty cool, like Idris Elba, Mo Farah or Prince Harry, others, well… let’s not go there.

But just as we can’t really choose our family or who we side with in the football, so it is when it comes to faith. When we turn to Jesus, we are joined together with all those who also follow him. And sometimes that’s great. But sometimes… well, again, I’ll leave that line there.

We’ve spent the last few months slowly walking through the Apostles’ Creed. It’s probably the oldest, most widely accepted statement of the Christian story. Last week we started on the series of punchy one-liners which make up the final section of the creed. Today we turn to the line [I believe in] the Holy Catholic Church.  

Up until now all the statements the creed has consisted of affirmations about God. Be it the Father, who created us, the Son who came amongst us, lived, died, was buried, rose again, and ascended to heaven. We’ve reflected on his coming again, about judgement and about the Holy Spirit.

Today’s is different. This one is far more earthy. It is about us. Though we might not realise it immediately.

I believe in the Holy Catholic Church.

Now, in one sense, you might think this one should be pretty easy. I mean to say you believe or don’t believe in God, that’s a statement of faith. No-one can objectively prove it one way or the other.

Church is different. It exists.  It’s a matter of record. You’d look pretty stupid trying to say the church did not exist. I imagine even Richard Dawkins believes the church exists. He might question why, or whether that is a good thing, but it does exist.

Except that is not what we are saying. To believe in something is not just a matter of existence, but a matter of do I put my trust in this?

And you could say virtually every word in that statement is contestable. At all sort of different levels.

I want to do something we did a couple of weeks ago… look at the statement.

Do any words stand out for you?

I imagine for some of us the word that stands out is catholic.

We have come to associate that with Roman Catholic. And yet as we’ll see the statement is not about a particular branch of the church. If anything it is complete opposite of that.

Then there is the word holy. It’s a word which sadly doesn’t get the greatest of press. When many of us hear the word holy, we can slip into thinking holier than thou. It might make us sound like we think we’re special.

And the thing is, experience doesn’t always suggest we are particularly holy as most would understand it. The history of the church is chequered, to say the least. Those who would view religion as an overwhelmingly negative influence on the world are only too happy to point to great failures… Anti-Semitism, Crusades, Inquistion, empire, collusion with Nazis and apartheid, Northern Ireland to name a few. Writer Brian McLaren’s most recent book is called Do I Stay Christian and the first chunk of it outlines a series of reasons why for many the answer might be no.

In the last few years two men, each of whom was held in veyr high regard in various parts of the church, Jean Vanier and Ravi Zacharias have both, following their deaths, been revealed to be sexual predators who abused their position of trust and left a trail of abused women in their wake.

And they are just the big names. I remember someone asking a member of Christian media about why a fairly major falling from grace of a particular pastor had gone largely unreported, only to be told it’s so common, that unless it is someone really high profile, it’s barely news.  We can point fingers at other traditions, but our own tradition has not been free of this, as an ongoing investigation of historical sexual abuse in churches has found.

But it doesn’t even have to be big and blatant. Just at the every day level. In The Screwtape Letters, CS Lewis talks about a new convert going to church, expecting to find it full of saints, only to grow disillusioned when he discovers it is full of ordinary people like himself. It’s an old joke that if you think you’ve found the perfect church, leave it well alone. It can be hard to think of the church as holy.

And to believe in it. Well, I know you’re here and all that, but on the whole church going is such a marginal activity in the UK. In 2015 4.7% of the population were part of a church and that number has shrunk since then. There are many families where it is several generations since anyone had a connection with a church. 

I don’t want to be overly depressing. But although decline is slower in Baptist churches than some others, this graph still suggests that without change even us Baptists will be extinct sometime between 2080 and 2090.

It’s not that society is going completely anti-spiritual. It is not unusual for people to describe themselves as spiritual but not religious. Or maybe to express some faith in Christ, but not really see a need or a place for church, or organised religion in that. They might even see it as getting in the way. Personally I think that, as with a lot of life, it is not good to walk the life of faith alone. We are made for community. And whilst we do talk about needing a personal faith, God didn’t send Jesus so that he could just have one-on-one relationships with us all. Jesus was all about building community. And from the very beginning those churches have had their flaws. Just read the New Testament. You will see that.

Someone sent me this general outline for all Paul’s letters recently – it made me laugh…

  • He wishes grace for the community to whom he is writing
  • He thanks God for some aspect of their community
  • He encourages them to hold fast to the Gospel.
  • Then he says for the love of everything holy, stop being stupid
  • Before concluding with Timothy says hi.

I say this as one who has a great love for the local church, it’s not always easy to see how often small, struggling, often aging, communities, wondering how they can make an impact around them, that we are at the heart of God’s plan for the renewal of the world.

But Jesus promised that he would build his church. Even if you or I struggle to have faith in ourselves, Jesus has faith in us. And the creed affirms God’s church every bit as much as God’s creation and Jesus birth, death and resurrection.

The Bible has lots of images for the church. Bride of Christ, Body of Christ, A Holy Temple.

This morning I want to offer you another one. The church as an estuary.

What do you know about estuaries?

It’s a partially enclosed body of water, near the coast, where the fresh water from the rivers and streams meets the salt water of the oceans. Makoto Fujimora suggests the church at its best is like an estuary, where different environments come together – it is a place like no others. And it is a critically important place. The health of the world’s oceans depends on the health of the world’s estuaries. But the vast majority of fish use one at some point in their life cycle. 75% of all commercially caught fish in the world live part of their life cycle in an estuary. It’s a place of breeding, formation, growth, transformation and strengthening.  There are some species that only live there. But for the most part, for most of the aquatic life that develops there, it is a place of preparation for what happens next, for life in the wild.

That is a picture of the church and, at our best what we could or should be. It is a place like no other. A place where the sacred and secular flow into one another. When we come together it should be a place of new life, growth, transformation, formation, and strengthening can happen, to support us in the life we live when we are not together. Which, even for the most committed of us, is the vast majority of the time. 

All sorts of life can be found here. We come from all sorts of different backgrounds, ethnicities, class, age groups to be prepared for mission.

The uniqueness of that space is what is meant by the word holy. Holy is simply a word which means different, or set apart. For us to call ourselves or be called holy is not because of any special merit we have of ourselves. It is because of the One who has called us. It is down to our merit or because we’re such good guys and gals, but simply because we have heard and responded to the call of Jesus to come, follow him.

Alister McGrath puts it like this. We are holy because of our calling, not because of our nature. He compares us to the moon, which shines by reflecting the light of the sun. The moon is a dead world. It possesses no light of its own, but it can shine by reflecting the light of the sun. So it is with us. We are called to reflect the light and the love of God, bringing light to a dark world.

We are holy, different, because we are called together to seek to see the world made more as God intended. That and the worship of God is the reason we exist. Not because of some merit in our own character. But because of the God who calls us. In fact that is what the word ekklesia which is translated church means. Called out. Not to live totally apart from the rest of the world, but to live differently within it.

Now we need to be careful how we talk about that. There’s an old bumper sticker that says Christian’s aren’t perfect… just forgiven. And, yes, that is true. The trouble is that it can become an excuse for bad behaviour, or to just keep going as we are.

Church at its best is an estuary – not just a place where we can start the Christian life, but a place of growth and transformation. It’s where we come to hear the words of Jesus, and allow them to shape us, to make us more like him. We become different, holy, as we listen to him and follow him. Not in the sense that a choir of angels follows us as we enter the room, but because we carry Jesus with us where we go. We don’t just hear his words, we seek to be wise and live them. Not because we think it’ll keep God on our side and that he’ll owe us one. Not because he’ll be mad and smite us if we don’t. But because Jesus calls us to be part of the renewal of his world, and the way he calls us is simple a better way to live.

Generosity – a better way to live.

Compassion – a better way to live

Peace-making – a better way to live

Honesty, Integrity, Fidelity ­ –  a better way to live.

Not easier, certainly. But better.

When we call the church holy, it’s not a definition of what we are, but it is a calling to which we’re to aspire, to grow into. For when we are, that is when we are salt and light, having an impact on where we are.

But what about catholic? This words simply means universal. It’s what Ephesians means when it says there is  one body and one Spirit,  one hopeone Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

We use the word in this way in English. If I were to say a friend had catholic tastes I’m not saying she prefers mass to a praise service full of choruses. I’m just saying that they have a wide range of tastes.

What we are recognising is that there may be different faith communities across different times, places, cultures, but we are all part of the one family. We can be divided in all sorts of other ways, but when we enter the waters of baptism, whatever divisions we create are rendered irrelevant. Rich, poor, gender divisions, Jew, Gentile, black, white, pro-European, pro-Brexit, young, old, slave, free, Arsenal fan, Tottenham fan, Wealdstone Fc fan, Tory, Labour, Lib Dem, Monster Raving Looney Party – no social barrier we construct is a barrier to inclusion in this body.

And our message isn’t just to one group or another. Christ comes for the whole world. His mercy is extended to every one, in every need. It is addressed to very part of our lives, body and soul, individual and social. All of us are embraced in a word of grace and truth.

All of life is here, in this estuary, being formed into a community, being prepared to share in the renewal, restoration and reconciliation of all things. We’re being drawn into a community which as Revelation will describe as a crowd of every nation, tribe, people and language.

And that is why every division between believers is a denial of the gospel. We don’t get to choose whom we share with in God’s mission to flood the whole earth with his love, any more than I get to choose whom I cheer alongside for the Arsenal. When we join ourselves to Jesus, he connects is to the whole family.

And that family will let us down. Our holiness is not a statement or status about us, its about the one who calls us who gave himself for us. It is flawed, stumbling, not perfect, but forgiven. And, I pray, striving to grow into the difference, the holiness God wants for us. Finding our place in the estuary, discovering new live, and being formed, growing, transformed and strengthened so that we are more and more like Jesus.

And we’ll be very diverse. Even within the small group of people here that’ll be true. Now stretch that around the globe. Some of us restrained, some of us exuberant, different spiritualities, different convictions and priorities. But what matters is not the divisions we create, but the Christ, the Spirit, the faith and the mission that unites us.

We are the beginning of the reconciliation of all things, brought together by Jesus. If God has joined us together, , let’s not get ourselves into the business of tearing apart. For the health of the estuary, is vital for the health of the world.  And God’s love extends to the whole world. He says he is building his church and if gates of Hades can’t prevail, let’s not get ourselves in the wrong side of history.

For the church he is developing in this estuary – it’s not just unique and diverse. It’s universal.