Posted in Knowing Christ

Knowing Christ: Worth It?

Readings: Philippians 3: 4-14; Matthew 13: 44-46

In the Jewish, rabbinic tradition, they have a description for the way they reflect, or meditate, on the scriptures. They call it ‘turning the gem.’ They said the scriptures were like a precious stone with 70 faces. Each time you turned it over you would encounter something new, something different.

In a sense that’s what we’ve been doing over the last few months… with just five words.

I want to know Christ.

 

That phrase crops up twice in our reading from Philippians this morning.

In verse 10 Paul says I want to know Christ. Yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so somehow attaining to the resurrection of the dead.

Just a couple of verses earlier he has said I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.

We’ve not done it 70 times, but over the last few months, on Sundays, at church meetings, at deacons’ meetings, these words have been at the background of pretty much every reflection and sermon I’ve shared with you, even if the actual words have not been read.

At the heart of the Christian faith is the belief that we are made for relationship with God. We have a God who lovingly created us and longs for relationship with us. Down through the ages, in many ways God has been reaching out to us, revealing himself to us, inviting us into relationship.

But he has revealed himself most fully in his son, Jesus. That’s why Jesus came into the world.

Jesus said ‘I am the way, the truth and the life, no-one comes to the Father, except through me.’ Often those words are presented as a warning, as a really exclusive ‘choose me or God’ll get you.’

But that’s not how Jesus used them.

Jesus is saying if you want to know what God is like, look at him.

If you want to know what the kind of life God created us to live looks like, look at Jesus.

If you want to know God and enter into relationship with him, get to know Jesus.

Observe and learn from how Jesus relates to God.

We’ve explored this theme from a lot of different angles. We’ve considered ‘where’ we are to know Christ. We’ve spoken about him renewing our minds, stretching our imaginations, knowing him in our hearts. We’ve considered the importance of memory, of allowing the good God has brought into our lives to take root, in sustaining that relationship.

We’ve thought about the circumstances into which we can invite Christ: our loneliness, our anxiety, our self-doubt, our suffering.

We’ve looked at what Jesus says about himself, how Jesus describes himself. As the bread of life, light of the world, the true vine. We’ve observed his dealings with others, from the fishermen by the shore, to the Samaritan woman at the well. We have seen him deal with doubt in Thomas and failure in Peter.

We looked at how we grow in relationship and a couple of weeks ago I considered the question of how then shall we live. We are challenged to live differently.

 

This morning I want to wrap up this series by couple of last considerations. God invites us into living, personal relationship with himself through Jesus.

But do we need it?

Is it worth it?

And finally… does God consider us worth knowing? How can we know God wants it?

There’s no doubt Paul thought it was worth it. He says I consider everything a loss compared with knowing Christ. But to be fair we might argue ‘he would say that.’

But what is he talking about?

What is he comparing?

 

Last week I spoke to you of how the word religion is related to another English word: ligament. Just as ligaments exist to connect different parts of the body, so the purpose of re-lig-ion is to re-connect us, to put us back together again.

Which kind of suggests we’re not all together in the first place. The Christian worldview is that we live in this network of relationships: with God, with others, with our world, with ourselves. The scriptures has a word to describe when all these relationships are in good, healthy, working order.

Shalom.

It’s translated peace, but it means so much more than just an absence of trouble. It’s about everything that makes for our greatest good.

Shalom is about the deepest longings of our hearts.

However, shalom does not characterise the world. These relationships are all broken or damaged. We’re all part of it. We all mess up. We are, as the song I keep hearing on TV at the moment reminds me, only human after all.

The aim and purpose of good, true re-lig-ion is to heal these relationships;

to re-connect all these things,

to put us back together.

To restore us to shalom.

But of course, even if we admit this, we may not think we need to help to put it back together again. Faith they might say is fine for those not strong enough to take care of themselves. It’s a crutch for them. But give us enough time, will, money and effort there’s nothing we can’t sort. Why put our trust in some God, when we are perfectly capable of doing the job ourselves?

When Paul says those words on which we’ve been reflecting over the past few months, that’s the kind of thinking he’s been challenging.

 

I’m sure we’ve all encountered people from time to time who have no shortage of self-confidence. They boast about their prowess, how much money they can earn, their success, just how drop-dead gorgeous they are.

That’s not how most people see themselves. Many wonder just what they’re good for. People have more trouble even liking themselves than you might think. If you doubt it, just look at the rise of cosmetic surgery. Not that long ago that it was largely for the Hollywood stars and the very wealthy. Not any more. In 2015 50,000 people had cosmetic procedures. A few years ago psychologist James Dobson estimated that 80% of teenagers dislike how they look and are.

Paul argues that we can find shalom in the world.

It is within our reach.

But it’s not rooted in ourselves.

Instead it’s rooted in God’s love for us, in his plans for the world. In his longing to draw us into relationship with himself.

It’s not based on what we achieve, how good we become.

God has done all this required to set us right with himself in Jesus.

It’s not to be found by trying to make our own way, solving everything by ourselves, trusting in our own abilities and achievements. But by leaning on him trusting in what God has done to put us back together again.

In fact relying on ourselves, risks more than we realise. It’s harder to lay hold of something precious, if your hands are already full; when you’re clinging to what you already have and refuse to let go.

 

We can rely on ourselves.

But thing is, how will we know when we’ve done enough?

How will we know when we’re good enough?

Who do you compare yourself to?

I used to play a lot of table tennis. I was ok. I won a few tournaments as a teenager, although none of them were exactly of the highest standard. But for my level, I was pretty good. I did pretty well.

Then I was asked to play in another league. In one of my first matches I came up against the number 1 player in Ireland. Before we had even got through the warm up I knew I had nothing. And so it proved. He absolutely thrashed me. If I chose my competition well, I seemed so good, but I was not good enough in that environment.

And he was only the top player in Ireland. He was brilliant at our level, but if he stepped out of that and say, came across to the British mainland, he had the same experience I had against him.

How good is good enough?

 

Consider two children. One knows she is loved unconditionally. She knows what is expected of her. But her parents love her and support her whatever. There is nothing she can do, good or bad, that will change that. For she is already loved completely. If she messes up, she will still be loved, she will still be welcomed.

The other knows what’s expected of her, and knows that she is being watched to see if she lives up to it. Love and affection can be withdrawn or withheld. Acceptance is based on being good enough. So she tries and tries and she does live up to it. But she knows if she messes up she will never be allowed to forget it.

Which do you think is happier?

Which is freer?

Which child finds it easier to take risks?

Which has the better way of living?

 

Paul knew what he was talking about. He had been where the second child was. He knew what was required of him and did all he could to live up to it. He hoped it would lead to him discovering the life God created him to live. He hoped in doing it he would discover shalom.

And Paul was good at that life. He could say ‘if people want to play this game of how much they can do to please God, let’s see if they can compare with me…’

So Paul lists his credentials. His Jewish credentials were top notch. He was a Hebrew of Hebrews. He not only knew the Torah, which outlined the life God wanted them to live, he kept it… and how. If he had to decide how to apply a law to his life, he would choose the stricter end. Just to be sure. Better that than risk being wrong. He had no tolerance for those who challenged that way of seeing the world. We might not think that’s particularly commendable but Paul would have done.

His basic point is that if God was going to be pleased with anyone, it would have been him.

But Paul doesn’t play the game the way others would have. He’s not merely trying to show how good he was. All he’s saying is if anyone should have been capable of putting things right themselves, if anyone could have laid hold of the life God had for him, it was him.

But Paul had tried it and found it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.

It’s as if Paul has in mind an accounting system. He presents on one side all the good stuff in his favour. All the advantages he had. Then he encountered Jesus, and found that in that relationship his whole system didn’t work. All the stuff he thought would help get closer to God and would help him put everything back together, was getting in the way. It was stopping him trusting in what God had done for him.

The picture being presented is not of Paul standing before God with a 99% on his exam paper, only to find God saying ‘sorry, but the pass mark is 100%.

Paul doesn’t say all those things he once cherished were rubbish. Paul valued each and every one of them. It was just he had found something that was better, more powerful, more effective, and all that stuff did not compare. Paul’s not comparing good and bad. He’s comparing good with the best.

I’m not a rubbish table tennis player. At least I wasn’t. But placed next to the Irish number 1, I didn’t half look it.

Paul looked at what he had, trusting to himself. Then he compared it with the intimate, trusting relationship God was offering him through Jesus, and Paul realised he had nothing.

But realised there was another way of being.

Another way of living.

Another way of discovering shalom.

And it began by realising he wasn’t just relying on his own abilities, on how own merits. It began with realising he was loved completely and unconditionally.

He didn’t have to get God on his side.

God was already there.

God was already at work reconciling all things,

restoring all things,

renewing all things,

healing all things

and he was invited to simply place himself in the flow of that.

And God was so much better at it than him.

It’s like the guys in the two parables of Jesus that we shared. It wasn’t that they had nothing. It seems that by the standards of this world at least they were people of means. Then they found something else and realised that what they had simply didn’t compare.

That’s not to say it isn’t without its costs or its challenges.

In the last few weeks we’ve had no shortage of people saying that they can satisfy all out hopes, dreams, aspirations, and we needn’t worry about the cost.

Jesus never made any such promise.

And the people to whom Paul wrote knew that. One of the main themes of Philippians is about keeping faith in difficult settings. Paul is writing the letter from prison. He is writing to a church that is facing persecution and hardship for sticking to their faith.

When Paul writes those words in verse 10, it would be good to be able to say he stopped it half way. To say I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.

Who wouldn’t want a bit of that?

There are no shortage of teachers happy to tell you that you can know that power in your life.

 

But far fewer will tell you how you discover it.

Paul doesn’t stop there. He knows there is only one pathway to resurrection. He adds to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so somehow attaining to the resurrection of the dead.

Paul doesn’t claim that the live he has taken on and in which he urges the Philippians (and us) to continue, is easy. Jesus himself had said ‘in the world you’ll have trouble’ and Paul knew it.

But he also knew that when he faced them, he wasn’t alone. That the same God who was at work in Jesus is at work in us, even in our trials.

In Gethsemane, Jesus had begged to be spared, but had faced all that lay ahead of him, trusting in God, and discovered that God wouldn’t let him down.

God was greater, more powerful than whatever he faced.

God could turn it for good, that God could bring new life out of it.

God would be able to hold him and nothing could separate him from God’s love.

In the world we will have trouble – no-one escapes.

But we have a choice.

We can choose to face it alone, trust in our own strength, our own abilities, our own merits, or we can enter into relationship with God, through Jesus, knowing that he is more than capable of keeping his promises.

It is a journey.

And it will last a lifetime.

Not even Paul claimed to have made it.

Yet the deeper we enter that relationship, the more we come to know Christ, the more we come to realise he is far more able of bringing shalom to our life than we are.

The deeper we enter that relationship, the more we realise we are loved totally unconditionally. Yes, at times we will mess up, but we don’t have to live in fear, because we’re loved unconditionally. Yes we’re called to live differently, but not out of fear of what God will do to us if we don’t. We can choose to live generously, to be truthful, to forgive and stop carrying around bitterness, we can be compassionate, we can seek peace in every situation, simply because in Jesus we come to see it’s a better way to live.

It’s the life God revealed to us in Jesus, a life lived in the awareness that in all things we are held in the hands of a loving God, who is worthy of our trust, and whose intentions for us are good. In his hands, whatever we face, we can know we are going to be ok.

 

But how can we know that?

Because in God’s eyes you are the treasure buried in the field.

You are the pearl of great price.

 

We often read these parables and see ourselves as the treasurer seekers and the pearl merchant. So the story becomes about what we have to do, what we have to give up.

It sounds good. Heroic even. And Jesus did say seek and you will find. He calls us to take up the cross to follow.

But Jesus never says that in the parables.

He merely says the Kingdom of heaven is like that.

And there is another side to that story.

Maybe the treasure seeker or the merchant is God himself.

The message of the Gospel is not about us seeking out God, so much as God seeking out us. Elsewhere, whether it’s lost sheep, coins or sons that are found, the description Jesus speaks of the joy of the find is God’s joy at finding us.

Jesus says this is how God works in the world. He seeks us and when he finds us he will do everything possible to draw us into relationship with himself. That was what he did in Christ. That is how we know that not only are we created for relationship with God, but God wants us to enter it.

For it was Jesus who gave up everything he had, so that he might once again be in relationship with us. That he might be able to take all the broken pieces and put us and all things back together again. Jesus who left behind all the glory and the power and emptied himself and became obedient even to death on the cross.

If you want to know how much God wants us to enter into relationship with him, we need only look at the outstretched hands of Jesus on the cross as he says ‘this much.’ The cross shows it’s not about how good we are, but that we are loved unconditionally.

We don’t have to get God on our side.

He’s already there.

That is how committed he is to restoring all that is wrong in the world.

That is how committed he is to shalom.

 

We are invited into relationship with God, intimate personal relationship with him, where we can know we are loved completely and nothing can take that love from us.

All he asks us to do is trust him.

 

 

Posted in Knowing Christ

Knowing Christ, Loving His World

PSHE_CitizenshipLogo_JPG_jpeg

Readings: Jeremiah 29: 4-14; I Peter 2: 9-17

I don’t know if other nationalities are like this, but when the British meet someone new, the conversation will soon turn to the matter of ‘what do you do’.

I try to avoid the conversation going there too quickly. All too often people discover someone they just need to speak to… as far away from the minister as possible.

It can be amusing when people find out.

Sometimes they rush to tell me they’re not into all that, whatever ‘that’ is. I didn’t ask if they were.

I can almost see them replaying the conversation in their head, working out if might have somehow offended me.

Or they find some link between themselves and church, no matter how tenuous. Their great-aunt’s second cousin’s mother-in-law’s twin goes to church.

At Christmas.

In leap years.

Or on the rare occasion when I wear a clerical collar it can be quite interesting. Sometimes it’s good. I remember a conversation with a young woman whose boyfriend was about to be sent to Afghanistan. She’d sat at the table next to Julie and me, cos she’d seen the collar and wanted someone to talk to.

But far and away the funniest was on a train to Coventry. There was a guy sat directly behind me, having quite a loud, and coarse conversation, with I presume his girlfriend on his phone. I don’t know she asked him to say, but it must have been bad. I mean the rest of the conversation had been more 50 Shades of Grey than Mills and Boon. But whatever it was he suddenly exclaimed ‘I can’t say that! I’ve got an effing priest in front of me!’

Probably just as interesting is the affect the collar has on me. There’s that moment in the queue. I’m in a hurry. The person up ahead is trying all sorts of coupons, or waits until they are asked to pay before they start fishing around in a handbag. Like it never occurred to them when they were in the queue that they might need money. I feel that tension rising, I almost feel like throttling them, then I remember I’m wearing a bit of plastic round my throat and realise I have to behave.

Or I’m on the phone with that call centre, I’m getting really bad customer service; my voice is getting slightly raised, then they bring me down to earth with a single phrase…

but Reverend Jackson…

Whilst the reputations of clergy, along with all other institutions of the day, might have taken a bit of a battering in my lifetime, not always unfairly, there is still an expectation that we should seek to be good, to set an example.

That’s no bad thing. However it has its dangers. Particularly if it is restricted to people who wear a bit of plastic, call themselves Revd, pastor or whatever.

Over the last few months we have been spending time on this theme of Knowing Christ. I’ll be bringing that to a close in the next few weeks. All along I’ve been reminding us that each of us is created for relationship with God. Through Jesus the way has been opened up for us to enter into that a living, intimate trusting relationship with God. We’ve considered that from all sorts of different angles.

This morning I want to ask a very important question. If we do know Christ, if we enter that relationship with God through Jesus, how should we live?

Should it affect how we relate to the world around us?

How?

Those ideas were part of both our passages this morning (though I’m aware one was several hundred years before Jesus). Peter reminds them that they were all called to be different. He describes his readers as a priesthood. He wasn’t writing to a clergy conference. At least not an official one. He was talking to the whole church. It’s from this that we get an idea, very dear to the Baptist tradition, of the Priesthood of all Believers.

The point isn’t that we all have the same function, or that we shouldn’t set people aside to perform ministerial tasks. The New Testament describes the church as a body with different parts, performing different functions.

But priesthood has two basic functions.

To represent the world to God.

To represent God to the world.

And that’s the work of all of us.

Whether you like it or not, the moment you claim to be a follower of Jesus people will watch you. In the age we live in, people think less about whether what we believe is true, but whether it works, whether it makes any difference to us. They can see that by looking at us.

More people will read Christians than read a Bible.

Once we know Christ we do need to ask ‘how then shall we live?’ It should challenge us. How we live is important. Our lives are an advert for Jesus.

Ours culture has, whether it likes to admit it or not, been heavily influenced by the Bible and the heritage that Christianity, and Judaism brought to the world. So those of us who have lived most of our lives in Western Europe or North America may find it hard to grasp just how strange and different the first Christians were to those around them. Particularly as they expanded into the Gentile world.

Yes, there is a lot of murky stuff in the history of the church, and we should admit that. But so much of what we take for granted also originated there.

Take for example their care for the sick and vulnerable. Compassion wasn’t considered a virtue in the Roman world. Mercy was discouraged. Why help the weak, when society could do without them? Most people couldn’t afford doctors so when people fell sick even those closest to them would leave them to die. Unwanted children, particularly girls would be thrown out like rubbish.

In the third century when plague struck, families threw their own out onto the street in case they became infected, or left them behind as they fled. But the Christians who stayed behind, tended the sick, buried the dead, often at great risk to themselves.

And they did it, not just for their own, but for everyone.

And this was at a time when they were being scapegoated as the cause of the plague and persecuted.

Early Christians may not have gone far enough for our 21st century tastes when it came to dealing with slavery. But they were extremely radical for their time. They were accused of giving slaves ideas about how they were more than just property, that they had dignity and were equal as humans, created in the image of God. And that point of view was seen as subversive and bad.

Our society would hopefully be appalled at the attitudes of much of the world in which the first Christians lived. We would probably consider them primitive, and see ourselves as more moral, or caring.

But it began with people entering into relationship with God and one another through Jesus Christ, then asking how shall we live.

They did it because they revered God, honoured all people and, even if they couldn’t pledge their allegiance, they respected earthly leadership, including the emperor.

All of these things and so much more were seeds that got planted and grew into trees. The society around them perched and nested in the branches, even as they did not know where it came from. It began with believers and communities knowing Christ, and loving his world.

Sadly, all too often it’s not just the world that hasn’t realised where the seed came from. All too often God has found himself walking through history with his creation, whilst those who claim to have known him have been on the wrong side of history and the church as an institution lagged behind.

As they reflected on how being a follower of Jesus impacted how they should live in the world, they realised that however they did it, it seriously challenged some of the values of those around them.

That’s why we get passages such as Romans 12, were after a great deal of theology, Paul turns to the question of ‘how should we live?’ and begins with the statement, don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

Jesus himself had said they were to be in the world, but not of the world.

 

By the time I Peter was written they were really having to think about these things. The first followers of Jesus appear to have expected Jesus to return quickly, in their lifetime. But it didn’t happen. They realised they were going to be in a world they were not of for longer than they’d anticipated. 

Now it might be because Christianity grew from Jewish roots, but as they considered how they should live and how they should relate to the world they had an example from their history to follow. We encountered it in our Old Testament reading this morning. They looked back to the time when their people were exiles in Babylon. This was a traumatic period in their history. They had lost everything that they supposed had given them their identity. Their land, their kingdom, their temple…

… but it was also a time when they discovered who they really were and what was really important to them. What set them apart. They had to think what made them distinctive and preserve that.

That’s where most of their scriptures come to be written down and where the faith into which Jesus was born comes from. Its influence is felt down to the present day.

But that wasn’t the only response to the exile. Some fell in love with what Babylon had to offer. They forgot who they were and where they’d come from. When they were released from exile many did not return. They chose to remain in exile. They were comfortable with that world.

The first Christians were also aware that the world could be dangerous. The major power of their day brutally executed Jesus. Jesus had warned them that in the world they could expect trouble. Most of Jesus’ first followers were executed because they believed in him. It’s worth remembering that when Peter urged his followers to respect the emperor, he is talking about Nero.

All that in mind they knew they were called to love a world, they were in but not of. So they needed to decide what that looked like. How would they relate to the society around them?

Even within the pages of the Bible that tension exists. There is a right kind of love for the world. I mean God loves the world so much that he gave his one and only Son for it.

But equally from the exiles they learned that there was a wrong kind of love for the world. Where you just get too comfortable with the world as it is, and not want to see it as God intended.

We encounter that in a kind of bit-part player in the New Testament, a man called Demas. We don’t know much about Demas, but he appears to have worked with Paul. When Paul is finishing off his letters to the Colossian church and to his friend Philemon, Demas is there with him, sending his greetings. But towards the end of his ministry, amongst the last words Paul writes, feeling quite alone, he adds Demas has forsaken me, because he loves this present world.

The tension between ways of loving the world, how we are in it, but not of it, is partly because they weren’t quite talking about the same thing. It’s not always clear what world they’re thinking of.

Sometimes we use the same word to describe different things. I mean we use the same word, church, to describe the building we meet in and the congregation. If I were to say ‘isn’t the church hot today?’ you’d know I was talking about the building. But if I said ‘the church has decided to build an extension’ you’d know I was talking about the people. Same word, different meanings.

Normally I would say the Greeks had all sorts of different words for that. But this time they don’t.

When the New Testament talks about the world, there are at least three different things it is describing. Two are pretty much as we would use them. One is the planet we live on. God’s creation. The world God pronounced good. It’s good to love that world. It’s God’s gift to us.

Then there is the world as in the people of every nation. When we talk of God loving the world we should include the physical creation, but this is the one we are mainly talking about. God loves all the different people of the world. It is good to love them. The greatest commandment is to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and love our neighbour as ourselves.

But the Bible has a third way of talking about the world. It’s about the way the world is run. That our world is not run as God intended. That there is power in the world and in us which is actually hostile what God wants for us. So when Jesus comes into the world, the world doesn’t recognise him. The world rejects him.

When Jesus says you’re in the world, but not of the world, in the first half he’s talking about, we live on the planet, we’re amongst the almost 7 billion people who make up the world’s population; but we’re not of it. It’s that 3rd idea he’s talking about. If we follow Jesus we are to seek to live differently, we are to seek to live as God intended. We pray may God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Our lives should reflect that.

It’s this tension that has led to different understandings of how we relate to the world.

One understanding was to reject the world. It’s a fallen world, so come out from among them. Have nothing to do with the world. The point of the priests were they were separate, so we should separate from the world.

In some cases this has meant withdrawing physically. At the time of Jesus a group called the Essenes sought to avoid being corrupted by the world by running off to the desert. In some ways the life of the monks was a bit like that, with cloister walls to hide behind.

There is a bit of that in our history too. When the first Baptists refused to baptise their babies they were withdrawing themselves from society. In that time being baptised into the church and being baptised into society were the same thing. The Baptists refused to take part in that. For another part of our history we were forbidden from standing for Parliament, or attending the major universities.

You might say they’ve focussed on not being of the world, but it comes at the expense of not being in it either. Jesus called us to the salt of the earth and the light of the world. It’s hard to be either salt or light when you’re not involved, when you’re in a holy huddle. Salt hidden away in a cellar won’t make my food taste any different. If you hide a light under a bucket it’s not going to do much good.

And at the extreme, it can turn into hatred for the world. And if you have a vengeful, violent God, which is invariable a product of angry, vengeful people, it can lead to seeking to carry our his vengeance for him.

Of course it’s possible to go the other way, to fully immerse ourselves in the affairs of the world. To fully embrace the world. It sounds great, but it comes with its own dangers. It can easily slip into becoming of the world too. Not standing out at all. One of the reasons for the radical reformation, of which the first Baptists were part, was that they didn’t think that followers of Luther and Calvin had gone far enough. They were fully immersed in society and involved in the decisions, but they weren’t any different from those around them.

It’s possible to confuse what we think is right and good with what God must want to happen. I see it a lot at the moment with an election on. I can’t see how you call yourself a Christian and vote x. We can confuse our agenda with Gods.

The exiles did it in Babylon. Some told them God couldn’t possibly make the exile last. Rebel they said and God will rescue us. It’s a verse that’s used so often in Christian contexts, Jeremiah 29: 11 I alone know the plans I have for you, plans to bring you prosperity and not disaster, plans to give you hope and a future.

But we don’t really use it as Jeremiah does. It’s about confusing our agenda with God’s. Then it’s God’s way of saying ‘I know what I’m doing, even though you may not think it, when you see what’s happening.’

The first Christians had the same problem. As Jesus prepared to ascend into heaven what were they asking? Are you about to restore the Kingdom to Israel. And Jesus effectively says ‘that’s not your priority. You’re going to be my witnesses.’

Separating ourselves entirely from others is a bad idea, but we need to be careful about embracing anyone else’s agenda too readily. We can risk losing what makes us distinctive and salt that loses it’s saltiness is useful for nothing but grit.

 

But there is a third way, which was the route suggested in both the passages this morning. That you can be true to your faith and remain a good citizen.

It’s hard to realise what a radical idea Jeremiah was suggesting to the exiles in Babylon. He risked being called a traitor. There was a certain amount of pragmatism to Jeremiah’s response. Jeremiah knew the exile was unlikely to be over quickly. His call to settle down, to build houses, to start living lives as normal, it made sense if they were going to get through it. If this people were to survive, rebellion was not the way to go. They’d just get crushed and there’d be fewer of them left.

But Jeremiah went way beyond just avoiding rebellion. He told them to pray for the place where they were in exile, to seek what was the best for it. This was a people who were used to praying for Jerusalem. But it was a whole different matter to pray for a people who were their enemies, to seek their good, to be good, active positive citizens.

Yes, they were to remember who they were and that their first allegiance was to God. But they were also to give to society. None of us are an island. The same rain falls on good and bad alike. If their society succeeds it will benefit them.

It’s on that idea that Peter builds. But he goes beyond it. Like Jeremiah with the exiles, Peter is realising that the church will be around longer than he initially anticipated. But it was about more than surviving the intervening period. It’s about God’s rule would thrive and grow whilst we waited.

There was a degree of pragmatism to what Peter said too. True they believed that they ought to obey God over human rulers. Their first allegiance was to Jesus, not Caesar. But that didn’t give them a reason to basically rebel. For a start it wouldn’t end well. They would be crushed.

That’s not to say doing good will always be popular. It isn’t. Peter’s advice could be summed up as ‘they’ll say bad stuff about you anyway, but you don’t have to make it easy for them. You don’t have to give them an excuse.

The first Christians had all sorts of accusations levelled against them. They were disloyal to government; because they spoke of the bread and wine as the body and blood of Jesus, they were accused of cannibalism; Because they had shared meals called love feast they were accused of having orgies. They were accused of turning slaves against their masters. They were accused of all sorts of things, but they were never accused of not caring. Quite the opposite.

There was a brilliant article a few years ago in the Independent by the journalist Mary Ann Sieghart. I’m not sure she would claim to have any kind of faith. But her articles was titled ‘You don’t have to believe in God to cherish the church.’ She said the power of good is what the Church in this country exemplifies. It’s by no means true of all religions at all times – far from it – but here and now we are extraordinarily lucky to have the Church we have. It is broadly charitable, open, welcoming, tolerant, compassionate and undogmatic. It does a huge amount of good for a huge number of people well beyond its pews, work that goes almost entirely unreported.

In recent times Christians have found their place working together in groups like Foodbanks, groups like Firm Foundation. If you removed the church from work with children and young people, the sector would shrivel up to basically nothing. It’s part of our DNA too. Just over 50 years ago, in an old church hall, which was where you are sat now, people of this church, concerned about the housing situation got together and the result was Harrow Churches Housing Association. Currently we work with developers who will have very different values than us, but we do so because we seek the prosperity of Harrow. This evening, we get the chance to stand with people of so many different backgrounds, faiths, nationalities, worldviews, people with whom on many things we might agree, big things, but we stand to say we care. We will seek the peace of the place in which we live. Jesus holds our first allegiance, but we will love his world, because God loved the world and gave his One and only son for it. And I really don’t know how tonight is going to go. It’s way out of my comfort zone, but it’s a chance to make a contribution to our community, to seek the peace and prosperity of this place, for it this place has peace and prosperity, we might be blessed with it.

May we be a priestly people. Always read to represent those around us before our God. And may we represent our God well to those around us. I’m going to conclude with a on the walls of Mother Theresa’s home in Calcutta, which sums it up.

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.

Posted in Knowing Christ

Knowing Christ: Growing Well

prspiraldynamicsswirlsquare

Reading: I Corinthians 3: 1-15

On the back of the door of the kitchen cupboard in my aunt and uncle’s house in Belfast were some pencil marks. I used to visit them on Sunday afternoons, a couple of times a month, until I was about 11. Each time I went, my uncle would ‘measure’ me. It was a big day when my head was about the same height as the cupboard door. Though we probably only discovered it when I walked into it. Those marks, climbing up the door, showed how much I’d grown over time.

To be honest, I couldn’t possibly have been growing as fast as my uncle was telling me. I certainly didn’t seem to be growing that fast when my mum measured me, or when I was measured at school. It was years before I realised he was putting the mark a little higher than was true, to make me feel good. In a way I suppose realising that was a sign that I was growing up in a slightly different way.

In this church we’ve been blessed in the last few years with a number of children. I sometimes joke with Lin and Frankie that I wonder what they were putting in the food at 4U. And they’re all growing so fast. They’ll grow faster at some times than others, they’ll do some things in different orders, do some things at different rates, in their own good time. But God willing they’ll keep moving forward.

But we grow in lots of ways and they’re not always straightforward. I haven’t done any running for a long time, but when I did, and I’d train for half marathons, it would have been great if every time I went out I got further and faster. But it doesn’t work that way. You get the odd day when your body or your mind just go ‘nah!’ You go through phases when you don’t seem to be improving at all, then suddenly, sometimes just as suddenly as it started, that phase just passes and you go up a notch. It can be the same when you’re developing any skill. Progress is rarely steady. It tails off, maybe feel you’re going backwards sometimes. But if you stick with it, suddenly something ‘clicks’ and you improve.

And you can use it or lose it. If you stop disciplining yourself to get out there and do it, over time you’ll not be able to run so far, or do it as well as you once could.

Relationships change and develop over time. You might remember those early days of your marriage when you couldn’t keep your hands off each other. When that other person was just the most wonderful one in the world to you. But relationships go through tough periods. Sometimes through circumstances. Or we get something wrong. Over time the way he doesn’t clear the stubble from the sink after shaving doesn’t seem quite so endearing. That football match you recorded but hadn’t got round to watching yet gets deleted from the sky box.

At every wedding and every dedication I remind people, and I’m not giving away too many secrets about life in the manse, but it won’t be all lovey dovey every day forever. Yet, if you survive it, you may find that though your relationship might be different, in other ways its deeper. Often the road to that deeper love is painful, but you’re loving them more fully, loving them more as they really are.

Over the last few months I’ve been exploring with you this theme of Knowing Christ. I’ve spoken about how we are invited into loving, intimate relationship with God, through Jesus. But like any relationship that is expected to grow over time.

In different ways how it grows might be similar to the different examples I’ve just described. Different people’s faith will develop at different rates. We’re all different. Two people coming to faith at the same time might be equally committed but their faith grows in different ways. Stuff that’s a real battle for me might not be a problem for you. You’ll have your own struggles.

It’s very rarely straightforward. As with developing a skill there are disciplines and practices that can help you grow in that relationship. Prayer, scripture reading, meditation, fasting, charitable giving all have been found helpful to followers of Jesus down through the centuries to grow and develop their relationship with him. Sometimes as with my example of the running, there are times when it is a struggle. I’d love to tell you that the more you pray, the closer to God you’ll feel. But in my experience whilst I sometimes feel really close to God, other times I’m just hoping that what you say is getting past the ceiling. You may find yourself wondering if you’re just piously talking to yourself. And that can last some time.

Often what prompts us to grow in our relationship with God isn’t easy. There are times when that relationship is rocked by circumstances. It might be challenged by prayers which seem to go unanswered. Ideas and beliefs that you once cherished no longer seem to work…

Sometimes when people get to that stage they just give up.

If God had cared he wouldn’t have let that happen.

Why didn’t God answer my prayer?

I used to think that, now I see it’s not quite like that, so the whole thing is a load of rubbish…

Others hang on in there and find a faith and love that is deeper as a result.

Last week we looked at the story of Jesus restoring Peter. The love which Peter had for Jesus after that encounter was different and deeper than it had been before. Peter had seen the whole drama of rejection and crucifixion unfold. Any images or illusions he’d had when he first started following Jesus were gone. Now he was following with his eyes open, fully aware of the cost.

Peter was also aware of his own weaknesses and shortcomings. Those days when he had trusted himself and could confidently declare that Jesus could rely on him; that he would stand by Jesus, whatever happened, even if all the others deserted… those days were gone.

But Peter also knew he was still loved. All that would have changed the nature of his relationship with Jesus. That period of change was difficult and painful. But really it was the only way he would ever discover it. There was no shortcut.

If you have a living faith in Jesus you should expect it to grow and change over time. Jesus likened faith to a seed, planted into the earth, growing into a plant. It starts off tiny, like a mustard seed, but can grow greatly from those small beginnings.

Paul develops a similar analogy in the reading from the Corinthians this morning. He talks of one person planting the seed, another watering it, but God is involved in the growth.

Paul wants the Corinthians to grow in their faith, and that would be his longing for us too. But growth isn’t easy. Grow involves change and change is never easy.

But as we delve deeper into this morning’s readings we find a couple of issues about growing in the faith. A couple of growing pains, if you like.

One is about being reluctant to grow.

The other is how we handle growth when it comes.

This morning I want to introduce you to something which I plan to comeback to later in the year.

Some of you may have seen this in other settings, so bear in mind I am really simplifying things. But it has something to teach us about how we learn, grow or develop.

We go through cycles of learning. We start from the position of thinking we know something. Everything seems lovely and wonderful.

Then something happens which tells you this might be more complicated than I thought. And things don’t get better quickly.

It can develop into a crisis. You might even look back to the day where you wondered ‘how could I ever have thought that?’

But hopefully over time you come to discover a new way of understanding. It may be that what you thought was wrong. But often, hopefully, you discover that there was some truth in it, but you had more to learn to understand it more fully.

Let me use an example. I am using little Theo, just because I wrote this shortly after he’d fallen asleep on me. Theo’s needs right now and fairly basic. Milk, changing, winding, cuddles, sleep. In Theo’s world, if he wants any of those things he only has to cry. There are big people whose job it is to give him those things. It might take the big people a little while to work out which of these things he needs, but keep crying and sooner or later they’ll work it out.

However there’ll come a time when he realises that things aren’t as simple as he thought. He reaches for a sharp object and it’s moved out of his reach before he gets there. He wants sweets when he is just about to have his dinner, or has already had quite enough. The big person says no.

He tries the crying tactic, I mean that’s how it’s supposed to work, and it doesn’t get him anywhere.

This develops into a crisis, or as his parents might come to see it, the full blown tantrum. He’s always known he was loved and secure because these people have given him what he wanted. They must hate him. How could he have been so wrong?

But over time you hope he comes to see that he was right that he was loved and secure. But not everything he wants is good for him. And much, much later, possibly even, God willing when he has kids of his own, he’ll realise that they sometimes knew best.

But when we grow in a healthy way, he doesn’t just go back to where he started. He moves on, with his new learning and the cycle repeats as he moves on to the next challenge. But the route he gets there is difficult and painful.

Let’s take a disciple. Say Peter. He starts to follow Jesus. He comes to think Jesus is the Messiah. And Peter thinks he knows what that means. A king who will rescue his people from the Romans. But then Jesus starts saying things which make it seem that’s not quite so simple. He starts talking of being rejected and killed and rising again. Peter doesn’t understand that. He resists it. But it grows into a crisis when what Jesus says actually happens. How could Peter have been so wrong? But after the resurrection Jesus explains things, and Peter sees he was basically right, but he had so much more to learn.

He moves on and later the same thing happens in the Cornelius story. Peter thinks that God loves the world, but he especially likes the Jews. To become Christian God really wants people to become Jewish first. Then he has a vision which questions it. Then he meets Cornelius and it’s clear that Cornelius has been accepted by God. This is a crisis for what Peter thought. And he realises that God does love the world, it just doesn’t work like Peter thought. And his faith develops.

What’s that got to do with what we’ve shared from Corinthians?

When people tell me that they would like us to get back to the faith of the New Testament church, I always say ‘fine, provided it’s not Corinth.’ Most of the letters which make up such a large chunk of our New Testament arose because churches had problems. But Corinth had quite a few. That’s why their letters are so long!

One of which was that they were a divided church. Paul was the one who had planted the church. He spent 18 months with them. Then Paul moved on to the next place. After Paul had gone a guy called Apollos came to Corinth. Don’t get the wrong idea. Neither Paul nor Apollos would have seen the other as a rival or an enemy. Paul never says anything bad about Apollos, just how they react to him.

Paul had started the church. Some of his early converts would have been part of the Jewish faith so would have had knowledge of what we call the Old Testament. They would have understood much of what Paul was talking about.

But others, probably most, wouldn’t have had that. So Paul would have kept it basic. Just as new born babies are fed on milk, because it is all they can handle, Paul likens his teaching to milk. He gave them what they needed to begin their Christian life.

When Apollos turned up the situation had moved on a little. He found a community which looking after itself. They were handling well what Paul had taught them. So Apollos tried to take them a little bit deeper. Nothing wrong in that. Paul doesn’t criticise him for it.

From what we can gather from the Bible Apollos was a persuasive, charismatic preacher. Which, it might surprise you to know, Paul wasn’t really. In his second letter to the Corinthians Paul speaks about how they considered him impressive in writing but when you meet him in person he and his preaching’s not up to much!

Anyway this caused some division in the church in Corinth. Some loved Apollos, but some were wary of him, perhaps out of loyalty to Paul, their founder.

But it went a bit deeper than that. In chapter 1 we see these weren’t the only groupings. Some were following Cephas (which is another name for Peter) and others said they were following Christ.

What was going on?

And what’s it got to do with growing in faith?

What’s happening here is a very human response to growth or the challenge to change. Paul is challenging two opposite responses to growth and change. Suspicion of the new and disdain of the old.

If we start with the suspicion of the new. Some were reluctant to embrace Apollos. He had tried to move them on in their faith. But they were suspicious because it wasn’t what they were used to. But it wasn’t what they knew. It sounded different to Paul. Maybe it challenged some of what they had understood from Paul. So it must be wrong.

But some went further. Some, perhaps from the Jewish end of the church, said ‘well, if you think about it, that’s not really any different to what Paul did. He developed the message of Peter, or Cephas.’ So in turn they were suspicious of Paul.

But of course, why stop there? Some were suspicious of Peter. Where did he get his message from? Perhaps there was an air of superiority to those claiming not to follow any of those but to just follow Christ.

Note, Paul doesn’t commend any of those groups. Not those who are loyal to him, or even those who claim to be just loyal to Christ.

By the time we pick up the reading he has just focussed on the situation between those who claim to follow Paul or Apollos. He’s telling them they are missing the point. It’s not that Paul and Apollos were rivals preaching different messages. Apollos was building on what Paul had taught. Maybe he was taking them further and deeper. But that didn’t mean Paul’s teaching was any less useful, or worthwhile. Paul’s teaching was a necessary stepping stone on the way.

It is possible to be suspicious of the new, purely because it seems, well, new. It’s not what we’re used to. It might even challenge some of what we have long held dear, cherished, believed. And that kind of growth can be scary. It involves change. We can be very loyal to the people who first introduced us to the faith. Perhaps what they said resonated with you. And that’s brilliant. It was just what you need at that time. But those three words are important.

At that time.

But, as I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, growing and developing and coming to own your own faith, that might mean leaving some stuff behind. It may not be that what helped you 5, 10, 30, 40 years ago is what you need for now. You might feel that to move on from what you were taught all those years ago is disloyal to the person who introduced you to the faith. But you’re not called to be loyal to them. And if they were true teachers of Jesus they wouldn’t want you to be loyal to them at the expense of growing in your faith.

That doesn’t mean that what seems new is always good. It needs discernment. Paul speaks of some building with gold, silver, precious stones. Others with wood, hay and straw. The gold, silver, precious stones would stand the test of time, outlasting the wood, hay and straw.

And it’s not always obvious who is using what materials. Selling lots of books, having a TV station, having a huge church and following is not a certain sign that it is good. It’s not a sign that it’s bad either. But it could just be you’re telling people what they want to hear. It does need a degree of discernment.

One of the churches commended in the book of Acts is the Berean church. Why? Because they took what Paul was saying, and checked it out to see if he was right. If they were doing it for Paul’s teaching, it makes sense we should do it with ours. Including this one.

Paul was looking for them to have the same kind of personal, open and honest faith we encountered in Thomas. A faith that was open to grow, open to challenge, open to question, open to explore. One of the things that will stop us growing in faith is the fear of growth, the fear of the change. The suspicion of the new.

But there is another type of growing pain. It’s about not being able to handle growth well. It’s when those who do get it, who do want to explore, who become excited by the next thing, act, well there is no nice way to say this…

…like jerks.

They look with disdain on those who are still back where they were. How can they possibly still think that way?

In one sense it’s understandable. Making that step forward might have difficult. It was a journey were you discovered something you had cherished wasn’t what you thought it was. It didn’t work any more. That can feel quite painful. You may want to avoid others feeling that same pain.

But it makes no more sense than Simi looking down on Jayson cos he hasn’t starting walking yet, or Danny making fun of his sister Keren cos she hasn’t mastered her 7 times table yet.

Disdain for the old is no better and can be just as divisive as suspicion of the new. Besides, as we’ve seen already, embracing the new doesn’t mean that everything you learned back then was wrong. Brian and Maire will have learned that even if Anne Marie and Femi don’t let them have everything they want, they are still loved, still secure. A much better way of looking back to where you’ve been is to own it, find the good in it, give thanks for what you learned in it. It’s part of your story. We all grow at different rates, in different ways, it’s rarely straightforward and what’s more important is that each of us has a personal, open and honest faith.

May you grow well. May you build on the one sure foundation, which is Jesus, without whom we have none of the rest.

May you be wary of gullibility but also of being too suspicious of the new.

There is no need to fear the exploration.

But nor is there any need to disdain where you have come from. And remember where you are now, might not be where you are in a year, 2 years, 10 years.

We are all works in progress.

 

Posted in Knowing Christ

Barriers to Knowing Christ: Inability to Face Criticism

critic-8

Reading: I John 1: 8-10

One of the bosses at Julie’s work has recently started having lessons from a badminton coach. Julie has also just started playing tennis again, so they’ve found themselves comparing aches and pains.

The boss was telling Julie about his lessons. And he said ‘until I started going to badminton lessons, I thought I was doing alright. I thought I was a pretty decent player. But it turns out I was doing it all wrong. We do a different shot each week, and after 4 weeks I’ve found I wasn’t hitting a single one of them properly.’

This week is finals’ week of this year’s Masterchef. It’s a series I dip in and out of. I quite like it, but it always seems to take too long. But it can be interesting to watch how the cooks progress and grow throughout the competition. The way they do it is by working with some of the top chefs in the country, but also through facing the judges. At each stage they prepare what they hope will be an awesome meal, only to have John Torode and Greg Wallace point out what they haven’t got right. I’m sure it can be difficult at times. They’ve invested a lot in it. But it’s how they progress. What might be fantastic in their home kitchen, might not be up to scratch when it is compared with all the others in the competition. If they don’t want to improve, stay out of that kitchen!

Just like it is only by paying attention to his coach that Julie’s boss will ever improve at badminton.

I wonder how we hear the word ‘criticism.’ It can be hard to take. When we speak of someone being a critic we can hear the term in a hostile tone. It implies disapproval.

Sometimes criticism is like that. People can be critical in ways which leave the other person feeling small and worthless. It can be overly negative and destructive. Sometimes it says more about the person giving the criticism than the one who is supposed to receive it.

And sometimes we give it more weight than it merits. If we have say 100 people in church on a Sunday, and 99 file past telling me how much they were blessed by what I said, yet a single person tells me that was rubbish, which do you think I remember? And it’s not just that it stands out, because it wouldn’t work the other way round. If 99 people said it was rubbish and 1 person said they thought it was fantastic, I wouldn’t leave thinking the 99 were wrong.

And a certain amount of our reaction will depend on the person from whom the criticism comes. I remember, as a student, receiving some criticism from a woman and it really made me sit up and notice because she was someone who never complained about anything.

Whereas there may be some who are always quick to complain. And that brings its own problems. Because I know me, and I suspect I am not the only one who is like this. If people constantly complain we can begin to be quite dismissive, think ‘oh they’re always whining’ and not truly hear them. When once in a while they can be quite right.

I want to highlight that this has not been inspired by a given incident.  I decided several months ago that this topic would be coming up this evening.

But how comfortable do we feel of the idea God as our critic?

In one sense it seems to oppose what I shared yesterday in the account of the restoration of Peter. Yet in another sense it follows on naturally from it.

For the real point of the idea of the critic is to highlight ways in which we can improve. The badminton coach might criticise how Julie’s boss plays a backhand serve, but I would hope it’s because the coach wants him to get better. John Torode and Greg Wallace have no desire to destroy anyone’s confidence or stop them ever wanting to set foot in a kitchen again. They want to see them improve.

And as we consider this theme of Knowing Christ, and being drawn deeper into relationship with him, we might ourselves challenged and called to live differently. The Spirit will play the role of our critic, but in a good way – not to condemn or destroy us.

But to rescue us.

Last week I spoke of how Jesus could help Thomas was that Thomas was honest about his doubts and open to exploring them. Yesterday Peter was honest about where he had got it wrong, and longed to make it different. If either of them had been happy or satisfied with where they were they could never have grown.

Here John is writing about the opposite of the Peter story. When people refuse to admit when they’ve got it wrong. Julie’s boss will never improve at badminton if he continues to play his shots in the same way, refusing to listen to the coach. The Masterchef contestants will remain decent home chefs, but never fulfil their potential if they insist on ignoring the advice of the judges or the other chefs who seek to teach them and help them.

Teachability is vital if we are ever to grow. People who think they are the finished article and have nothing to learn are deluding themselves.

That’s what John is saying about us here. As we are drawn deeper into relationship with Jesus, as we grow closer and closer to him, one of the things that should happen is that we start to see areas where we have got it wrong. The Spirit within us might challenge us about an attitude or behaviour. We might start to recognise something of the struggle Paul writes about in Romans 7 when he says he wants to get it right, but keeps stumbling into the wrong.

The truth is, if we claim we have no sin, we’re saying we have no need of a Saviour which has a couple of consequences…

The first is that Jesus can’t help us.

The other is more serious. A God was prepared to send Jesus into the world and allow Jesus to go through all he suffered, when there was no need for it would hardly be worthy of worship.

For in a way the cross is God’s critique of the human condition. It’s God’s way of saying ‘this is what is needed to rescue you.’

If God is to help us and rescue us, we need to be truthful that we need him. The word comes to us full of truth.

But God’s criticism is not meant to destroy us. The word also comes with grace. Even as he is crucified Jesus speaks words of forgiveness, It comes from a place of commitment, of that longing for our relationship with him to be set right. Yes, we must face the truth about ourselves, but God’s challenge is full of compassion, from one who has been there and knows the full experience of what it means to be human.

So when we do sin, we have no need to hide as Adam and Eve did in the primal Eden story. For God is patient and generously disposed towards us. We are free, just as Peter found in yesterday’s sermon, to face it, find forgiveness and start again. When we believe in our own perfection, facing failure and hearing the challenge of the Spirit is always going to be a threat. But when he acknowledge that he speaks the truth in love, we can know that when we bring it to him, he is faithful and just, able and willing to set us back on the right path. To draw us ever deeper into that relationship with him.

This talk was given at our deacons’ meeting on 8 May 2017.

Posted in Knowing Christ

Knowing Christ Through His Encounters: Restoring Peter

graceheader

Reading: John 21: 1-19

One of my favourite authors is the American writer Mitch Albom. A lot of his writings deal with big, meaningful, even spiritual questions. That might sound like hard work. But he always does it in an easily readable way. I’ve read a couple of his books in one sitting on a train.

One of his novels is called For One More Day. It’s a real guilt, forgiveness and redemption type story. It’s about a baseball player called Charley Benetto, whose career ends prematurely through injury. Charley turns to drink, and he loses his job and family. His daughter doesn’t even invite him to her wedding because he might embarrass her. When he realises what he has become he decides to end his life.

He decides to do this at his family home. But when he gets there, without wanting to tell too much of the story, he finds his mother waiting for him and welcomes him.

Which might not sound odd, but his mother has been dead for 8 years.

The rest of the book reads a bit like a strange twist on the film It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s about a day he spends with his mother, interspersed with memories of times when his mother had done so much for him, and times when he had let her down.

To quote the blurb on the back, it’s a book about ‘a day so many of us yearn for: a chance to make good… and to seek forgiveness.’

Which I’d suggest is a pretty good summary of this morning’s Bible passage. We’ve been considering the theme of Knowing Christ. Through Jesus we’re invited into a loving, trusting relationship with God. We’ve approached the theme from a number of different angles. One has been by looking at some of the encounters Jesus has in the Gospels. You can learn a lot about someone by their dealings with others. The same is true of Jesus.

But it’s possible to find ourselves wondering if God really does want that kind of relationship with us. Any of us. Even some of the great religious thinkers in history have asked this question.

That question even crops up in the Bible. In the Psalms David, an Israelite shepherd boy who rose to become king, looks up at the night sky, at the moon and stars. He gets a sense of just how great, powerful, and huge God is. And he wonders ‘what is man that you are mindful of him; what are we that you even notice us?’ I mean God’s got a great big universe to run. Why notice puny, little us?

But others wrestle with a slightly different, more personal question.

Would God would want anything to do with them?

 Would God want anything to do with me?

With you?

For some that’s a self-esteem issue. Some of us struggle to love ourselves, so we wonder why anyone else would love us?

Ohers carry around the weight of guilt about something in their past. They find it hard to forgive themselves, so it’s pretty hard to understand why anyone else would.

If you carry around a picture of an angry, vengeful judging God, always waiting and ready to punish us for getting it wrong, it can be hard to believe that kind of God would want to forgive us or relate to us.

Sometimes the person who is hardest on us, is us. You might imagine God being able to forgive other people. Yet somehow your God mysteriously draws the line at you.

Perhaps you tried to follow. You started out on the journey but lost your way.

Or maybe there is that one thing in your life. You just keep getting it wrong. You promise yourself never again, but before long you’ve fallen into the same sin, the same destructive habits or patterns, again and again.

You despair of ever getting it right.

You’d love to believe that God loves you and invites you into relationship with him. But there’s that voice that says ‘really? You?

With your past?’

With what you’ve done?

With your weaknesses?’

There are some odd things about the passage before us this morning. Some people wonder why it is there at all. If you read the last bit of the previous chapter, John seems to have finished his Gospel. He says ‘Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you might believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.’ It’s seems he’s finished.

But then he seems to say ‘sorry, just one more thing before I go.’ Then he adds this story.

I don’t know why it’s there. But I’m glad it is. Last week we considered the story of Thomas and I’m glad we had that. The story of Thomas is good news for those who wrestle with questions of faith. It reminds us that if we struggle to believe, we’re not alone. It’s always been that way. Even with the closest or best disciples. Jesus can handle the honest question, if we’re prepared to be open and explore his challenge.

Well, I’m glad this story is here. For it’s good news to those of us who have messed up, who have got it wrong, who have tried to follow and failed.

It’s good news for those of us who struggle to forgive ourselves and wonder if God ever would.

For this is a story which has all those same ingredients and themes as Mitch Albom’s For One More Day. It’s about the yearning for one more chance, to make good, to seek forgiveness, to deal with the bitter memories of failure and seek healing from them.

Another odd thing about this passage is the question of why Peter and the other disciples are fishing at all. Had they not given that all up to follow Jesus?

Some are quite sympathetic. All those things that they had witnessed would have taken their toll emotionally, mentally and spiritually on the disciples. They had seen Jesus welcomed into Jerusalem as a king. They had believed that all the promises God had made and which had been carried and preserved by their people down through the centuries, which had been part of their lives growing up, were about to finally happen.

And they were getting to be part of it.

But then Jesus had been betrayed…

…by one of them.

He had been arrested, tried, treated like the worst of criminals and executed on a cross.

To make matters worse, they had all failed him, just when he needed them. They had committed themselves to him. They had promised to follow him, no matter what happened.

Yet when the guards came to arrest Jesus they ran away.

Yet before they had time to deal with any of that, there were reports that his tomb was empty, news that Jesus had risen. He had appeared to Mary Magdalene in the garden, then to his disciples in the upper room. The following week he appeared again and invited Thomas, who had doubted the news of the resurrection, to see the scars, to touch his wounds.

These were young guys.

Perhaps no more than late teens.

It’s a bit much to expect them to experience all that, then just react with a ‘oh, right. That’s what you meant. I remember. You told us you would be killed and rise again. Silly us. What are we like? It all makes sense now!’

Maybe a night doing something familiar, something they loved would have been just what the doctor ordered.

But for others it’s a sign that, despite the resurrection appearances, the disciples have given up. They’d been called to leave behind the nets to follow Jesus. Yet here they were. Back on the water.

Back on the boats.

Back with the nets.

Gone fishing.

I love my murder mysteries. But sometimes with murder mysteries you get to the end and you’re left thinking ‘but what about that? Or what happened to this person?’ It’s not all tied up neatly.

And although John could probably have finished his Gospel at the end of chapter 20, there were still some loose ends left.

One of them was ‘what happened to Peter?’

Peter had been with Jesus since the early days of his ministry. Not only had he been one of the 12 chosen disciples. Jesus seemed to have a few disciples to whom he was particularly close. There were things they had seen, things they had been part of that the others hadn’t. Peter was one of them.

In fact, Peter seems to have been something of a leader in the group. As we pick up the story, it seems he still is. Peter says I’m going fishing. And the others follow.

But Peter was far from the perfect hero. He was a man with weaknesses. And his weaknesses had been exposed in a very humiliating fashion. On the night of Jesus’ arrest, as Jesus tried to tell them he was about to be taken from them, Peter demanded to know why he couldn’t come to. He declared he was ready to die with Jesus, if that was what it took. When Jesus had warned Peter that he would deny knowing him, Peter had argued that even if it cost him his life he would never do that. He would never disown Jesus.

Yet that same evening, when the guards came, Peter at first attacked a soldier, but then he ran away, just like all the others. Then, when confronted, not by a great big soldier, but by a young servant girl, one the weakest members of the High Priest’s court, he had been unable to live up his promises. Three times he said ‘I’ve never heard of him’ in increasingly abusive language.

On the morning of the resurrection, Peter and John had gone to the tomb, after being told it was empty.

We’re told that John believed.

It doesn’t say the same about Peter.

It just says Peter went back to where he was staying.

It’s almost impossible to piece together the various accounts of the appearances of the Risen Christ. But as John tells it, there is no specific mention that Peter is with the other disciples when Jesus appears to them, either on the night of the resurrection, or one week later when Thomas was present. It’s true he doesn’t say he wasn’t either. But John doesn’t say he was.

Either way, for Peter there is this unresolved tension. The Peter who’s gone fishing and is on the Sea of Galilee, is a man who still hasn’t heard that word of forgiveness.

Who perhaps still hasn’t forgiven himself and finds it hard to believe that Jesus would.

This Peter is a man who’s messed up and carries that longing ‘for one more day’ for one more chance, that yearning to make good, to seek forgiveness.

But perhaps he wondered if there was any real hope of that chance.

Did he feel he had gone too far?

That he had blown it?

That there might well be forgiveness for all the others, for Thomas, Nathanael, James and John, and any other nameless disciple he might be able to think of.

But why would Jesus forgive him?

Perhaps Peter thinks he’s finished.

So just like Charley Benetto in For One More Day he returns home.

He’s back to the nets,

to the fish,

to the boat and the water.

And there he finds Jesus waiting to meet him.

These were experienced fishermen. They knew their stuff. They knew night was the best time to fish.

But as darkness fades and begins to give way to the dawn, they’ve caught nothing.

There’s a stranger on the shore. He shouts out ‘Lads, not caught anything?’ Perhaps they wondered if he wanted to buy some of their catch, but they had nothing to sell.

Then the stranger says ‘cast you net on the right side, and you’ll catch some.’

I’m not sure whether such advice would have always been welcome. But they do and they can barely hold on to the nets as they bulge and strain with a huge catch.

153 biggies.

Does it bring back memories of that other encounter we considered a few weeks ago, when Jesus had first called Peter to follow him?

Then one of them recognises the stranger on the shore. It’s the Lord he says.

Suddenly hope stirs within Peter.

Had Jesus come for him, just as he had for Thomas?

Could this be his One More Day?

The chance he longed for…

…To make good…

…To seek forgiveness?

This is not the first time Peter has climbed out of a boat to meet Jesus. But this time he’s not so bothered about the walking on the water thing. By now he’s become well aware of his weaknesses.

He bunches up his robe and splashes the hundred yards or so to the shore where he finds Jesus waiting to meet him.

There he’s reminded all too vividly of the scene of his failure.

For on the shore is a charcoal fire.

The only other time that phrase appears in the New Testament is the fire by which Peter was warming himself when he denied knowing Jesus.

And it’s dawn. If there are any roosters nearby, they’ll start crowing any minute now.

But Jesus is just there, by the shore, waiting to meet him, waiting to welcome him. Waiting to welcome all of them.

They dine together, just as they had that fateful night.

But things are still unresolved. Peter is facing his failure.

But he’s still had no word of forgiveness.

Then Jesus speaks…

Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?

What does Jesus mean? Does he point to the others and ask do you love me more than you love them? Is he reminding Peter of his big, bold, brash claims, when Peter had declared his willingness to die by Jesus, and asking ‘do you still feel that way. Do you love me more than they do?’

Or does he point to the fish, the nets, the boat? Is Jesus saying ‘do you want to return to this life? Is the life you left behind the one you really want? Or do you love me? Do you want to follow me, wherever it takes you?’

‘Yes, Lord’ Peter says. ‘You know that I love you.’

Jesus responds ‘feed my lambs.’

Jesus again says ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’

Again Peter answers ‘Yes, Lord. You know that I love you.’

Jesus responds ‘take care of my sheep.’

But Jesus still isn’t finished. A third time Jesus says ‘Simon, son of John, do you love?

This time Peter feels hurt that Jesus keeps asking. ‘He blurts out ‘Lord, you know all things? You know that I love you.’

Jesus says ‘feed my sheep.’

What’s going on here? Three times Peter had been asked the same question by the charcoal fire, at dawn, in the high Priest’s courtyard. Three times he had messed up.

Now, as another dawn breaks, by another charcoal fire, Peter gets to make three great affirmations of love.

But these affirmations are different to the ones he’d given to Jesus before the crucifixion. Back then Peter had seen Jesus in action and saw love, respect and glory in his future. Jesus had tried to warn them where it was headed. But they didn’t get it. He couldn’t see it.

It was different now. Those days of innocence were over. Peter has seen what being true to God could cost. This time he would be making the choice with his eyes open.

Peter has also come face to face with his weakness. He had given it his best shot and failed. Jesus had been right. Without him he could do nothing. But Jesus hadn’t given up on him. So this time there are no brash statements, no rushed promises. Just a simple recognition ‘Lord, you know I love you.’

And Jesus did.

But I wonder is there something else going on here. There was a 12th century Cistercian abbot called Bernard of Clairvaux. He spoke of three stages of loving God. They are

  1. Loving God for our sake, for what God can do for us
  2. Loving God for God’s sake, just for who he is
  3. Loving ourselves, for God’s sake.

In that stage we see ourselves as God sees us, in a more compassionate light.

Peter was being commissioned to love the people of God. The more effectively you love yourself, the better you will do that.

I’m not saying you have to see yourself as perfect. Far from it. Peter needed to face up to his failure. But he also needed to face up to how much he was loved. That way he could be truly honest about himself.

Feeling can be deceptive. Peter had to face up to the fact that however bad, guilty, unforgivable he felt he was, or what he had done was, he was forgiven. If Jesus had forgiven him, who was Peter to withhold forgiveness from himself?

Perhaps that’s where some of us here need to begin this morning. With knowing we’re forgiven…

…and forgiving ourselves.

That guilt that’s been weighing you down.

The nagging sense you’re not good enough.

That sense that you’ve failed.

That questioning would God want anything to do with me.

Well, this morning we gather round a table. We’re invited round this table, whoever we are, whatever we are done. It’s not for me, the deacons or any church members, or church hierarchy to decide if you’re invited.

Jesus invites you.

To come.

To eat a chunk of bread.

To take a sip of wine.

And as you eat and drink, you’re invited to reflect on how you are loved.

You are forgiven.

And if God has forgiven you, perhaps you can too.

Or perhaps you come with that sense of worthlessness, that lack of self-esteem, that lack of self-love that makes you question whether Jesus would want to know you.

Well, let’s borrow one last analogy from For One More Day. Charley Benetto walks, with his mother, along the street where he grew up. His mother talks how much and how long she and his father had waited for a child. They reach the tree and she points to single word carved into the bark: Please. That word was her prayer for a child, for Charley, carved into a tree. She had chosen a tree because, she said they spent all day looking up to God.  Then she said ‘I know you’ll think this sounds corny, but now you know how much someone wanted you, Charley. Children forget that sometimes. They think of themselves as a burden, when really they are a wish granted.’

How easy that can be for us, as children of God. We come seeking forgiveness, but come with a sense that we are a burden to him. He must be fed up listening to us fessing up to the same old stuff time and time again. We think his forgiveness is offered on a ‘you’d better not do it again’ basis.

It’s no bad thing to name and acknowledge the wrong in our lives. It helps us overcome over-reliance on ourselves.

But it needs to be viewed alongside an awareness of the love of God, and the power that raised him from the dead, which can be at work in us. How much he longs to forgives us.

As we reflect on this bread and wine this morning, as we reflect on the broken body and spilled blood they represent, may we allow them to say to us ‘see how much you are wanted, see that when you come to me, it’s not a burden, but a wish, a divine aching and a longing granted. See how far I was prepared to go to win you. If you long for that one chance, that yearning to make good, to tell me you love me, to seek forgiveness, here it is. Now come, follow me.’

Peter found his one more day. He had yearned for forgiveness, the chance to make good. And he found he was forgiven, long before he asked for forgiveness.

Long before he even left the boat.

He found it in the stranger who invited him to come and eat.

The same one who invites us to come and eat. May we know that the same Christ who encountered Peter by that shore, longs to meet with us. May we like Peter, eat, drink and find that in Christ we are loved, we are enough, we’re forgiven, even before we ask.

Posted in Knowing Christ

Knowing Christ Through His Encounters: With Thomas

Doubting Thomas cartoon

Reading: John 20: 19-29

A lawyer was once defending a client who was accused of murder. All the evidence pointed towards his client being guilty, except for one thing…

…They couldn’t find a body.

The lawyer had a reputation for never losing a case and he was determined to keep it. But this time there wasn’t much of a defence to work with. So in his closing statement he decided to play a trick…

“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I have a surprise for you all,” he said. “Within one minute, the person presumed dead in this case will to walk into this courtroom.”

He turned and looked towards the courtroom door, and began looking at and tapping his watch. The whole courtroom gasped. The jurors, somewhat stunned, all turned towards the door and looked on eagerly.

But the minute passed. Nothing happened.

Finally the lawyer said, “Actually, I made that up. But you all looked, expecting something to happen. I therefore put it to you that you have a reasonable doubt as to whether anyone has been killed. And if you have such a reasonable doubt, you must return a verdict of ‘not guilty’ on my client.”

The jury, clearly confused, retired to deliberate. But within minutes they had returned. Their speed surprised even the judge.

They were asked if they had all agreed on the verdict. The answer was ‘yes.’ Do you find the defendant guilty or not guilty? the foreman was asked and he responded ‘guilty!’

“But how?” inquired the lawyer. “You must have had some doubt, I saw all of you stare at the door.”

The jury foreman replied: “Yes, we looked, but your client didn’t.”

We continue in this series of Knowing Christ. Over the last few months I have spoken about how we are created for personal, loving relationship with God our creator, who has made himself known to us most completely through his Son, Jesus Christ. The more we come to know Christ, the more we are drawn into that relationship.

One way we can discover something about any other person is through their dealings with others. The same is true of Jesus. Before Easter we looked at a couple of his encounters with other people: The Samaritan woman at the well and the calling of his first disciples. This week and next we will look at another couple of encounters Jesus had. This time after the resurrection.

This morning I want to focus on his encounter with a man who had what the lawyer in my opening story might have called a ‘reasonable doubt.’ The disciple Thomas.

And Thomas’ doubt was reasonable. Sometimes the way modern people approach Bible narratives is to think that people back then were so primitive, and we interpret this to mean they were naïve or stupid. That’s why they could believe all the stuff we read in here back then.

Whereas we know better.

We’re smarter, more sophisticated.

But Thomas, in common with everyone else of his day, did know one thing.

Dead people stay dead.

Romans knew how to kill people. It was there job. They were good at it. And they had killed Jesus by crucifying him. So Thomas could be pretty sure that Jesus had been dead.

So it wasn’t a huge leap to assume he still was. No matter what anyone else says. Thomas’ doubts were reasonable.

I have always had a degree of sympathy with Thomas. I mean to have got that far, Thomas had to have displayed great faith. We don’t know about his life before he followed Jesus, but all of the disciples had to give up everything to follow Jesus. Yet, because of one incident in his life, he has forever come to be associated with the word doubting. In English even people who know very little about the Bible and may not even know who Thomas was might be familiar with the phrase ‘doubting Thomas.’

Yet the truth is Thomas is really no different to the others in the Gospel accounts of the resurrection. Nobody, apart from Jesus himself, emerges from the story looking particularly good. Jesus had told them several times he was going to be killed and rise again.

Yet when it happened, no-one expected it.

In John 20 we get three encounters that the risen Jesus has with people. The first is in the section immediately before we began our reading this morning, in the garden with Mary Magdalene. When she sees the empty tomb her first thought is not ‘oh good, Jesus has risen, just as he said he would.’ No, she assumes someone has taken his body. When the Risen Christ speaks to her she doesn’t immediately recognise him. She thinks he’s the gardener. It’s only when Jesus says her name that she recognises who he is and comes to believe.

After her encounter Mary tells the disciples she has seen the Lord and told them what he said to her. Yet when Jesus comes to the disciples later that same day, he finds them locked away in hiding. Jesus says peace be with you and, as if to prove it’s really him he shows them his hands and his side. Then they were glad. Then they believed.

Trouble was, Thomas wasn’t there.

We don’t know why he wasn’t there. Maybe he wanted to be alone with his grief. Often people do. Maybe he just got held up in the Passover traffic. We just don’t know.

But whatever the reason, his reaction to the events unfolding in front of him was no different to the others around him. And when Thomas does see the risen Christ, he goes way beyond the others when he recognises Jesus as his Lord and his God. No-one else in the Gospels talks of Jesus in those terms.

Not Peter, not Mary Magdalene, not even the mysterious ‘disciple whom Jesus loved.’

No-one.

It’s possible to dismiss Thomas is as someone we should not be like. Which would be unfortunate, because suspect more of us are like him than we would care to admit.

So this morning I’d like to go some way to redeeming Thomas’ reputation. Yet Thomas and his encounter with Jesus have a lot to teach us about disciples. From Thomas we can learn how we are drawn into the intimate loving relationship with God which we were created to have.

There are three things about Thomas’ faith that I particularly want to draw your attention to. Thomas’ faith is

  • Personal
  • Honest
  • Open

Firstly, a real, living faith is personal. It’s something that is true of any relationship. No-one can have it for you. Thomas wasn’t content to have a secondhand faith. He wanted to experience the risen Christ for himself.

Mary Magdalene had met Jesus in the garden.

The others had met with the Risen Christ when they were gathered together, behind locked doors.

Thomas wanted that experience for himself.

To understand this we need to make a distinction between two words.

Personal

and Individual.

The church in which I grew up strongly emphasised the idea of the personal relationship with Jesus. Every week someone would speak about ‘knowing Jesus as your own and personal Saviour. I heard it so often it was quite a while before I realised that phrase was nowhere in the Bible.

However this idea can be, and is, misunderstood. It can lead people to think they don’t need to be part of the church to follow Jesus. But the scriptures knows nothing of that kind of faith. Christianity may be personal. It should be personal.

But it’s not individual.

I realise that to an extent I am preaching to the converted, cos you’re here. And honestly, I’m not just saying this to keep me in a job. Spending time alone with God, maintaining our relationship with him, is important, but it cannot replace meeting together. Following Jesus is something we do together. It has an important corporate dimension.

It was as they gathered together that Christ appeared to them. Thomas missed his encounter with the risen Christ because he wasn’t there when it happened. The following week he experiences that encounter because he turned up.

Jesus himself had said that where two and three are gathered he would be there amongst them. And it’s a pattern which is consistent throughout the New Testament. The church is together at Pentecost, when the Spirit comes. They’re together when they choose the first deacons. They’re together when God sets apart Paul and Barnabas for the Gentile mission, which is approved together. Hebrews urges us not to stop meeting together, but to spur each other on, encouraging each other. If we want to meet with God, gather together. Things happen when Christians gather. Faith can be born in the personal encounter with the living Christ. But the church, or faith community should be a place where it is nurtured and grown.

But equally it’s true that if our faith is to make any real difference to our lives, we have to make it our own. You are created for relationship with God. But no-one else can have that relationship for you.

Just a show of hands. How many of you were raised in church?

Of those who were raised in church, how many of you left the church for a while before returning to it?

Perhaps the stories of the faith have been part of your life for as long as you can remember. That was true of me. And although I have come to see many things very differently from the tradition in which I was raised, I am very grateful for that. To a certain extent we do inherit the faith of those who pass it on to us.

Can I just throw in an aside here? Some of you may have children who have grown up in church, maybe even been baptised, perhaps followed Jesus for a while, but are no longer part of the faith and maybe even seem quite far from God. I’m not saying you love them any less, or that you’re any less proud of them. But you would still love them to rediscover something of that faith they once had.

It might just be that this needs to be part of their journey. Perhaps if they are going to move from an inherited faith to one that is truly their own, some things need to be left behind. Some of them they may go back and pick up later. Others they may not. But the bits they do, they will own. That’s been my personal journey. I don’t know if anyone finds that helpful, but as I was preparing this, I just sensed that maybe someone would.

But if Jesus is ever going to make a real difference to your life; if you are ever to be drawn into the intimate, loving relationship with God for which you were created, there needs to come a point where that faith becomes your own. When you are prepared to enter into that relationship with Jesus for yourself. Thomas wasn’t satisfied for others to enter into that relationship for him. He wanted to encounter the risen Christ for himself. Yes, Thomas was part of the community. His faith had a corporate dimension. He encountered Christ in that community. But it was a faith he owned. It was personal.

But there are a couple of other things in the narrative, which help Thomas to make that faith personal. His faith had another couple of characteristics. And these characteristics might also pose a challenge to how we share the life of faith together. Thomas’ faith was honest and open.

Despite the fact that Thomas seems to have travelled with Jesus for around three years, we know remarkably little about him. He’s mentioned a few times in the Bible, but most of the time he just appears in lists of disciples, or of people who happen to have been there when something happened.

Other than this story he is only mentioned doing or saying anything on two occasions. One is around the time that one of Jesus’ friends, a man called Lazarus, becomes ill. After a while Jesus tells the disciples that they are about to go to Judea. His disciples aren’t keen to go. Jesus’ last visit to Judea hadn’t gone well. Some people had tried to stone him. But Jesus insists on going. That’s when Thomas speaks up and says ‘let us also go that we may die with him!’

The other place is a few chapters later, on the night of the last supper, when Jesus says that he is about to leave them. He means he’s about to be arrested and crucified. Jesus says you know the way to the place where I am going. Thomas again speaks up. Jesus, but we don’t know where you’re going, so how can we know the way.

The third passage is this one.

Perhaps we should careful about making too many assumptions based on a very little information. But the impression we’re given of Thomas is that he is blunt and he is honest.

Back when I used to teach students I used to encourage them to ask questions. One of the things I used to say, was something which was also said to me, was ‘no question is too stupid. Chances are if you don’t understand something, you’re not the only one.’

Of course, if you asked them if they understood what you’d just told them they would nod ‘oh yes.’ Sometimes you knew they probably didn’t. Because, after all, when I was a student, that’s what I did most of the time.

I suspect that day when Thomas said ‘Lord we don’t know’ the others were more likely relieved that someone had asked the question, because they didn’t want to be seen to be the silly one. Cos it’s clear they really didn’t understand what was going on. I’m not being harsh. Chances are, we wouldn’t have understood it either. But they really didn’t.

Honesty is vital in any relationship. Honesty is the only condition in which we can be open to anything another has got to offer. And that includes God.

I remember chatting with a Citizens’ Advice advisor one day and he told me that one of the things he found most frustrating was when people failed to be honest with him about the extent of the problem. They’d come to him for debt advice and he’d spend ages working on a payment plan, then just when he thinks they have it sorted they turn up with another pile of bills they hadn’t owned up to. And he’s back to square one. They can’t work with you, if you won’t be honest.

It’s the same with a doctor, a therapist. They can only deal with what you tell them, or with what you’re prepared to face.

It’s the same in all types of relationship. If we hide from the truth, the relationship will never be good, strong, healthy.

Being honest with others and with ourselves isn’t always easy. There’s stuff we’d rather others didn’t know. Stuff we’d rather not face.

But we can also try to hide ourselves from God. We might say we believe that God knows all about us and loves us. But it’s part of the primal human story that we seek to hide from God, we seek to cover ourselves up.

And churches can be places where, in particular, we seek to cover up and hide our doubts. Where we worry people will think less of us if we have doubts, or if we express doubts. Perhaps that’s why some turn away from the church. When they realise the faith they inherited does not ring true for them, perhaps they fear rejection. Perhaps they even experience it.

I pray that we may always allow people to have the honest question.

The first Christians did. Thomas had not yet come to share their belief, yet the next Sunday, after Jesus appeared to them, Thomas was still welcome amongst them.

And Jesus welcomed him.

I suspect that’s one of the things Jesus loved about Thomas. That he was honest. Honesty you can work with. Honesty you can deal with.

Jesus can handle your doubts. If we just, like Thomas, seek a faith which is honest.

But honesty will only get you so far. Thomas’ faith had a third feature. Thomas was open. Thomas may have had doubts but he was willing to explore. Thomas was willing to have his understanding stretched.

Thomas struggled with the resurrection. So far as Thomas was concerned he was being asked to accept something that just didn’t happen. That’s fairly reasonable.

So he said unless I see the marks of the nails and touch them, I won’t believe.

But Thomas was prepared to have his understanding challenged. Yes, he has doubts. But Thomas is also open to having his worldview changed.

That’s a rarer trait than we might think. We humans are really hard to shift. For years we’ve been told about the benefits of competition. Whether it’s your bank account, your energy supplier, your broadband, your insurance… it’s never been easier to switch. All sorts of efforts have been made to teach us the benefits of it. And we may be getting better. But really we’re remarkably reluctant. I know I am.

And if we won’t do it with our broadband or energy supplier, how much harder to shift us on how we view things. We humans can be experts at ignoring anything that doesn’t fit with how we see things. One of the things I notice, particularly around election times like this, is how many people live in a little bubble, mainly of people who agree with them. Openness is a rarer trait than we might like to imagine.

Part of my coming to own my faith was when I was in St Andrews. I filled out my university timetable with some Biblical Studies. It’s interesting that I did probably the most in depth study of the Bible at a time when I was very rarely in church.

There were quite a lot of people in my class, who, like me, had a fairly conservative religious background. Then they came across stuff they really struggled with. Perhaps it’s because I was already questioning anyway, I just gave it a go. And there was a lot of stuff I still didn’t agree with. But even then there was often something I found helpful.

And I certainly didn’t realise it at the time, but God was using that. He was keeping me open, keeping me exploring.

It’s possible to become entrenched in your views about anything. And faith really is no different. I know people who only read books by people they know they are going to agree with and which will further entrench their viewpoint.

But a real living faith, a faith which grows is one which is open. That’s not frightened of anything that contradicts it. Living faith realises it doesn’t have to have all the answers. And that’s ok.

Because it is open to challenge.

It is open to the question.

It can live with the mystery.

God is far, far bigger than we can get our head around. The only way we can be drawn deeper into relationship with him is when we accept that we don’t know everything, that we can be open to seeing things differently. And keep on exploring.

So don’t be afraid of the questions. God can handle the question.

God welcomes the questions.

God invites you to come just as you are.

He can handle your honesty. He can work with your honesty, if you’re open to challenge and open to change, you are open to transformation. He can take that openness and honesty and create a faith that is truly personal. A faith that may be nurtured in community, but is truly your own. A living faith that is drawn deeper and deeper into relationship with him.

A faith that comes to know Christ and helps us to experience the life he offers ever more deeply.

 

Posted in Knowing Christ

Knowing Christ Risen

es (2)

Reading: Mark 16: 1-8

Based on a few scripts where a lawyer quizzes witnesses to the resurrection. Audio here,

 

Did you see any similarity in the various stories?

In every one of them, how did they expect people to believe them that Jesus is alive? It was because of the difference he made to their lives. That was the same story for all those whom we read about in Corinthians.

And it’s much the same with us. Yes, I believe there is a lot of evidence that the events the Bible tells us about that first Easter Sunday are true. But we can’t take someone to a garden and show them an empty tomb. And even if we could, 2000 years on that wouldn’t prove much.

I’ve never had an angel tell me that Jesus is alive. But nor had the people to whom Paul wrote in Corinthians. It wasn’t God’s plan that we would need it.

The best evidence Jesus has that he is alive is…

…us.

In the way Jesus changes us. Behind the stupid costume there’s a serious message. The best evidence that our broken world doesn’t have to be like this is when we do what we can to change it and show people how much God loves them. And I suppose as we draw this Easter morning to a close a challenge.

What is there in us that would show the world that Jesus is alive?

Do we believe he is alive?

What difference does it make to us to Know Christ as the Risen Lord.

But the only way God can use us, or that God can change us is if we invite him into our lives. Because of what Jesus did on the cross and the resurrection we can be forgiven and can have a new life. But only if we take it.

Are you prepared to believe that Jesus came for you?

If so, are you prepared to welcome into your life?

If today you have any questions about all this stuff, or if you want to invite Jesus into your life, please don’t leave without talking to me. If you do, it will give Easter a whole new meaning. May you come to know, really know that Jesus is alive, May you come to accept that invitation to know him and may you discover, from the youngest to the oldest, what a huge difference his resurrection makes to us.

Happy Easter!

Posted in Knowing Christ

Knowing Christ Crucified

cropped-BG.jpg

Reading: John 19: 16-37

When Paul wrote the first letter to the Corinthians, he reminded them of his first visits to their area. He tells them he had turned up trembling with fear, and if you read the story of how he came to be there in Acts, you’ll see why. He’s been imprisoned in Philippi, run out of town in Thessalonica and Berea. He met with little more than curious indifference in Athens. An ancient equivalent of ‘Good for you. Glad that works for you.’

Then he turned up in a town famous for being quite snobbish, very class conscious and status-driven and with a great affection for Rome.

And, he says,he decided to focus all his energy on teaching one thing.

Jesus Christ, and, in particular, his crucifixion. Today that would have seemed the obvious place to begin.

But it was a message which he admitted was designed to make no sense to anyone. Jews would find it offensive, the Greeks would think it stupid. He was telling both groups of people they had got it badly wrong. Jews would have thought ‘if this Jesus was who you claim he was, there’s no way he’d have been put to death on the cross. God wouldn’t have let that happen.’ Gentiles would have thought ‘sorry, but only the worst and lowest kind of criminals get crucified. And you expect me to one of them was your God and you want me to worship him?’

In the West, where Christianity has been the main, often the official, religion, it can be easy to forget what a staggering claim this was. To state that the God who created the heavens and the earth should take on flesh and live amongst us.

But that’s nothing compared with the claim that he should choose to suffer and die, in brutal fashion, at the hands of his creation.

Yet that is the heart of the Christian message. In the Christian year, tonight and tomorrow all the focus is on the cross. But in reality, it is, or at least it should be, at the centre of everything we do.

I’ve been talking for months about Knowing Christ. However surely one of, if not the most important way we need to know Christ, it’s as the crucified one. If Christ crucified is not part of the picture, we might say we don’t know Christ at all.

For it’s in the cross that the truth of who Jesus is laid bare.

It’s where God and his love is most fully revealed.

But in an odd way, what is revealed is best seen by what was put to an end. John tells us the words on Jesus’ lips as he breathed his last were ‘it is finished.’

But what did he mean?

What is finished?

Of course we need to be careful about the tone in which we hear it. It is Finished can mean a whole lot of different things, depending on how we say it. To us there are times when ‘It is Finished’ could roughly translate as ‘phew! Thank goodness that’s over.’

He could have said those words with little but relief.

Or we might say those words with an air of resignation or surrender. I give up. I’m done for. And that need not necessarily be a bad thing. There can be wisdom in knowing when to quit.

But that’s not what’s going on here. Jesus wasn’t just a tragic, innocent victim. No-one was taking his life from him. He was laying it down. Even as he dies, John speaks of him ‘giving up his spirit.’

Jesus is not saying ‘well, I’ve done all I can, I’ve given it my best shot and look what’s happened.’

He’s not thinking ‘if only I’d been a bit more critical in my disciple selection’

or ‘maybe I could have been a bit more conciliatory to Pilate. Still, too late now. It’s over. Finished.’

Jesus doesn’t say ‘I am finished’ he says ‘It is finished.’

 

So what tone is he speaking in? Well come with me to Centre Court on a Sunday in early-mid July. Two guys at the peak of their game, slugging it out to fulfil a lifetime’s ambition and become Wimbledon champion. At match point, at the end of a gruelling 5 sets, one plays a brilliant passing shot winner, and as he falls to his knees, or flax onto his back in that mix of sheer joy and exhaustion, the commentator, almost without fail will say one of two things. 

Either ‘that’s it!’

or ‘he’s done it!’

Take your pick.

Either will give you that sense of what Jesus is saying here.

It’s completed.

Accomplished.

The work’s all done.

But what’s finished?

Over those hours since supper the previous evening, a work was being done. Jesus had sweat drops of blood and prayed he might be spared this task. Yet, as it became clear to him that this was his Father’s will, it was a he had willingly undertaken it, without shirking any of it. But as he said those words the mocking, scourging, humiliation, crown of thorns, rejection, betrayal, denial was all at an end. Jesus has been faithful to the very end. Even death on the cross. He’d completed his calling, placed upon by his Father, completed the work he was sent to do.

It was finished.

What else is finished? God’s revelation of just how much he loves us, even when we reject that love. His revelation of the lengths to which he was prepared to go that he might win us back to himself. He said it himself that greater love has no-one than this than to lay down his life for his friends. Yet here, even when we are still at odds with God, still rejecting and defying him, he gives himself over into our hands to do with him as we wish. And as we do so cries Father forgive them for they know not what they do.

And he’s doing it because God so loves the world.  

Never before has God demonstrated his love so fully.  

He could go no further and never will again.  

That revelation is complete.

It is Finished.

 

Then there’s that business that began in the garden, when we didn’t need another God, when we felt we could do the job perfectly well ourselves. All that pride, rebellion, sin, the stuff which even at times we’ve known is not working for us, but we haven’t been able to rid ourselves of.

Through the ages God has been determined, having created and loved us in all manner of ways to deal with it and get back to us. And now it has been addressed, not with words, but a deed. In Christ God has done for us what we cannot do for ourselves. When we could not reach up to him, God has climbed down to us and finished what he began.

It is finished.

Then there’s that sense of give us enough time, enough money, enough will, a bit more effort, we’ll work it all out. That thinking is utterly blown apart by the cross.

It’s had its day.

It is finished.

I don’t know whether it was in Aramaic or Greek, but in their world there was a similarity between the idea of sin and being in debt. That’s why in some versions of the Lord’s Prayer it reads Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. So it’s quite appropriate that when Jesus says those words It is finished, it was the same word that would be stamped on a bill, saying ‘paid in full.’

You can tear up the repayment plan. Those instalments were never really manageable and weren’t clearing it off. So no more working out what we have to do to make it up to God or to get God on our side.

It’s paid in full.  

It is finished. 

On Maundy Thursday and Good Friday it can be especially easy to leave church depressed, burdened or guilty. There’s a grim horror in the events we are remembering and in the thought that this man is hanging and suffering there…

..for us.

But was we come to know Christ, as we are drawn into the relationship he has made possible, we realise it’s not about burden, but about joy. From our perspective all we see is the blood, the horror and the death. Yet we are invited to see that this is not the defeat, but the victory of God.  

So much of what has gone on from God’s perspective remains hidden from us. From the very first Christians who wrote our New Testament, right through to the present day, there have been all sorts of ideas and theories of how Jesus’ death saves us, and they’re fine, provided we remember one thing – they’re just ideas to help us understand what was happening that day. 

But we’re not asked to explain it, or figure it out. Tonight we are simply invited to sit down, be still and know that in that man who drinks the cup he begged to be spared, and who goes all the way to the cross, God has worked out something grand and glorious on our behalf… 

…and he’s done it despite us.

When we come to know Christ as the crucified one, we come to know that he has done it all. There’s no need to be busy trying to get ourselves right with God. It is finished. He has done it.

Yet although the work is finished, the story is not over.

I’m not just thinking of the recognition that within a few days we will be celebrating the resurrection of Jesus. I’m thinking more of our response to it.

God’s Spirit is still at work in the world and in us, inviting us into the kind of relationship of peace with God and with each other that somehow Jesus’ death has made possible.

We are invited to recognise that all he asks of us is that we open ourselves to allowing him to be at work in us, shaping us to be people who will share in his work of drawing others into that relationship with him.

When we come to know Christ as the crucified one, we are invited to dwell in the knowledge that there is nothing we can or must do to earn his love. He’s done it all.

It is finished.

So no more wrestling with guilt

No more burden of failure

No longer captive to the past

No longer troubled by the future

The victory is won, mercy is assured

Evil and death are defeated and life is held out to you

Go then and live it. Rejoicing in the love of Christ

Serving him as best you can, by his grace

Closing Prayer from Nick Fawcett’s For You and For Many

 

Posted in Knowing Christ

Knowing Christ… as the Fulfilment of Prophecy (Palm Sunday 2017)

23rfd-image-custom3

Reading: Matthew 21: 1-11

I was flicking through Friday’s metro when I came across an article by the sports journalist Colin Murray which had a headline something like ‘It’s a Grand Idea to Ignore Any Tips I have for the National.’ He was saying that you stay well clear of any horse he backed in the Grand National. It would fall at the first, run the wrong way at the start line, anything except win. I don’t follow horse racing, but in some ways I sympathise with him.

I like to think I’m reasonably up on my politics and sport. But if the last couple of years have shown me anything it’s that I know nothin’ about nothin’. If you had told me two years ago Britain would be leaving the EU, Donald Trump would have been President of the USA, and that Leicester City would not only have won the Premier League but go on to be the English side which did best in the European Champions’ League the following year, I’d have laughed at you.

And I’m not alone. Very few of those who are supposed to be able to predict such things saw them coming. Be that the pundits, the opinion pollsters. Not even the bookies!

Even those who desperately wanted the results were taken by surprise. When people first mentioned the possibility of Leicester winning the league, Gary Lineker, a lifelong Leicester fanatic, was so sure it wouldn’t happen, that he said he would present the first Match of the Day in the new season in his underpants if it did.

No, the last couple of years have shown that the future is not easy to predict, even over very short periods. So what are your chances over hundreds of years?

Yet time and again, as we read through the Gospels, we find something like that said about Jesus. The writer will describe an incident in the life of Jesus, then say something like ‘this is to fulfil what was written in the prophets’ and go on to quote a passage from our Old Testament.

We had one in this morning’s reading. Jesus rides into Jerusalem, with the crowds lining the roads, laying their coats in his path, waving the branches and Matthew says ‘this happened in order to make what the prophet had said come true: Tell the city of Zion, look your king is coming to you! He is humble and rides on a donkey and on a colt, the foal of a donkey. It’s a quote from Zechariah 9:9.

This happens a lot in the Gospels, occasionally in Acts and sometimes in the rest of the Old Testament. I did a quick Google search on ‘prophecies fulfilled by Jesus’ this week and found one article which listed 44 specific references to facts and events about Jesus which were mentioned or ‘prophesied’ in the Old Testament. The author of the list admits that even that is by no means exhaustive. I have since found another list claiming to have 100 such prophecies.

Sometimes it is less specific. On that first Easter Day Jesus walked the road to Emmaus, unrecognised, with two dejected disciples. As he did so he explained to them how the scriptures had pointed to the events which had just happened. Or when Paul, one of Jesus’ early followers, wrote to the Corinthians, he said Christ died for our sins, as written in the scriptures, he was buried and he was raised to life three days later, as written in the scriptures. It’s that same idea of fulfilling prophecies.

But what does it mean to know Christ as the fulfilment of prophecy.

What does it mean to say Christ fulfils prophecy?

For some it is evidence that the Bible is true. We can’t predict 3 or 4 events over a very short time span, so what are the chances that all these people could predict 44 things, hundreds of years in advance? So, the argument goes, this shows the Bible must be inspired and Jesus is who he said he was.

Perhaps.

Now, I do believe the Bible is inspired. I believe Jesus is who he said he was. But I’m not sure I’d use that argument to back it up.

A lot depends on how you understand prophets. Was their job to predict a distant future? Most of the time they were commenting on the affairs of their current world. Not claiming to predict something that will happen in a future hundreds of years away.

We hear one such example every Christmas. A young woman who is pregnant will have a son and will name him Immanuel. It’s part of the story of Joseph’s dream in which the angel tells him to marry Mary.

But in Isaiah 7, where it is found, it’s actually a sign given to a faithless king Ahaz that God is still with them. Telling him that something would happen in 700 years would not have been much of a sign. Isaiah was probably referring to the birth of Hezekiah, who, in later years, would be described as a good, Godly king.

Or when Mary and Joseph fled with the baby Jesus to Egypt, after Herod plots to kill the child, Matthew refers to a verse in Hosea, which says ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’ But if you read Hosea it’s fairly clear that’s not what he was talking about. For a start Hosea talks about this son rebelling and worshipping idols. Not the greatest description of Jesus. No, Hosea’s talking about something that happened in the past. He’s talking about Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt.

Also the Gospel writers will highlight certain parts of the story and tell it in a way which makes the reference more clear. Around half of the prophecies referred to in the article I mentioned earlier occur in the week leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion. Each Gospel pulls out little details of the Passion narrative and highlights Old Testament texts, from the soldiers gambling for Jesus’ clothes, to the fact that they check he is dead by piercing his side rather than breaking his legs.

Maybe Old Testament did predict those things. But perhaps, in later years, as they reflected on the scriptures, the writers found things reminded them of what happened to Jesus.

Also does it count if you can make it happen? It’s one thing predict that Jesus would be born in Bethlehem, that he would be born of the tribe of Judah, or any of the details of the crucifixion. Those were outside Jesus’ control.

The events of today’s story are different. Jesus sets this up. Jesus knows the passage in Zechariah. He knows his opponents will get it. I’ll talk about this a little later, but Jesus is deliberately making a statement.

Also, it raises questions about how we understand the world. Do we believe in free will? Or do we believe that everything is predetermined? That God is micromanaging all the details?

How you answer that question will influence how you understand Jesus as fulfilling prophecy.

Please don’t think I’m playing clever tricks to undermine Bible prophecy. As they searched their scriptures, early Christians did find all sorts of echoes in the life of Jesus. Those things were important in how they came to understand him. A few weeks ago I spoke of how they found Isaiah 53 particularly helpful for understanding Jesus.

But proof-texting, or being able to link little bits of the Old Testament to the life of Jesus, only gets you so far. Does it have anything to say to us as we seek to come to know Christ better? Is there a way we can see Jesus as fulfilment of prophecy which draws us deeper into that relationship and help us to trust and follow?

I’m sure there are other ways you could break this down. But as I have alluded to already, you could separate the prophecies into two categories. There are some things in life over which we have no control. Your family, where you are born, your gender, skin colour all that sort of stuff. Plenty of prophecies said to be fulfilled by Jesus fall into that category. I’ll come to those in a few minutes.

But there are others which Jesus does control. Some he consciously chooses. Matthew and Luke both record a meeting between disciples of John the Baptist and Jesus. John had been arrested by Herod and is in prison. It seems Jesus is not quite living up to John’s expectations, for the message he sends is ‘are you the one we have been waiting for (the Messiah) or should we expect someone else?’

Jesus does not give John a direct response. Instead he tells them to go back and tell John what they have witnessed: ‘the blind can see, the lame can walk; those who suffer from dreaded skin diseases are made clean; the deaf hear; the dead are brought back to life and the Good News is preached to the poor.’

Jesus quotes from an Old Testament passage in Isaiah. It’s a passage with Messianic overtones and talks of God coming to the rescue. We don’t know how and when Jesus came to understand who he was and what he had been sent to do, but it’s clear that at some point he considered how he should live that calling out and this passage which consciously shaped his approach. The prophecy told him how to do it. Likewise when Jesus’ disciples ask him why he uses parables to teach, Jesus uses another quote from Isaiah to explain his approach.

This morning’s passage is the most blatant example of this. Jerusalem would have been extremely crowded at Passover. Pilgrims came from all over their known world. So even with the Jewish authorities looking out for him, already out to get him, Jesus could have slipped in quietly.

Instead Jesus makes himself hard to miss. Matthew tells us that when Jesus entered Jerusalem the whole city was stirred. The word Matthew used can also describe the effects of an earthquake. If our media reported on this, we might say Jesus’ arrival sent shockwaves through the city.

Riding a donkey at all would have made Jesus noticeable, even without the pomp and ceremony. Pilgrims tended to arrive for Passover on foot. Jesus had made the rest of the journey from Galilee to Jerusalem on foot. It seems odd that he should need a donkey for the last couple of miles. Unless he was making a point.

This was deliberate, it was calculated.

And it certainly wasn’t subtle.

Jesus had thought it out in advance. At Bethphage, he had sent two disciples on, probably to Bethany, to collect a donkey and her foal. It seems he pre-arranged it.

From this point on everyone seems determined to make a point. What follows contains echoes of other stories in Israel’s past. Laying coats on the animals for Jesus to sit on, or coats along his path would have reminded them of Jehu ad marching on Jerusalem to overthrow the existing royal you family of Jezebel.

Waving palm branches would have reminded them of the arrival of the last great Jewish deliverer, Simon Maccabaeus, coming to establish his Kingdom.

If that’s still a bit subtle, they’re singing royal chants, crying ‘Hosanna to the Son of David.’ They quote a Psalm about God’s rescue from oppression. Even more explicit, they refer to Jesus as ‘Son of David.’ It’s a title which throughout the rest of Matthew’s gospel Jesus always seems reluctant to accept. But not on this day. This time Jesus does nothing to deny their claims. On the contrary, his actions suggest a conscious a deliberate claim to be their king.

Rescue us, they shout.

Jerusalem was a city, which even back then was steeped in history and was the focal point for the faith and hopes of this people. For the last 500 years they had been longing for a king like David to deliver them.

And Jesus does all this at Passover, a festival which remembered deliverance from empire, the most politically sensitive time of year.

But Jesus has done something else, to which Matthew draws attention. In case we miss the point, Matthew points out ‘this happened in order to make what the prophet had said come true.’ ­And he then goes on to quote from Zechariah.

Jesus has quite deliberately acted out a prophecy. He has made it happen. So it’s worth asking ‘why? What was he trying to tell us? What message was he trying to send out.’

The precise manner in which he arrived was important. It’s true Zechariah’s king was ‘triumphant and victorious’ but  Matthew actually overlooks that part. He focuses on how in Zechariah arriving on a donkey, rather than a warhorse, was a sign that this king came in peace. That he has come not to destroy and condemn, but to love and to rescue them.

He came in peace.

Jesus was coming to be all that God had promised, if they’d just receive him.

On that Palm Sunday, as Jesus deliberately fulfils the prophecy, Jesus tells us he has come to be king. In years to come his followers would come to see him as the world’s one true king. Ruler over everything.

But his aim is not to condemn us, but to rescue us. And he won’t force his rescue on us.

But even though he comes in peace, it is not without a challenge. That’s why it’s interesting that Matthew should described Jerusalem as stirred, and we are left with a degree of ambiguity about what he meant. There’s another part of Matthew’s Gospel were we get a similar mix of reactions in Jerusalem.

Some strange, wise men turn up from the East and start asking around about a baby born to be King of the Jews. When Herod hears about he gets upset and Jerusalem with him. And it’s that same idea. Some were excited. But others were nervous. Others were hostile.

Jesus comes to rescue us. He offers himself as our king. But we might not want another king. We might not acknowledge we need the rescue he can offer. We might be happy just as we are, thank you very much. We might even act with hostility at the prospect. He comes in peace. But will you welcome him?

Only you can answer that.

In the events that will follow over the next week, we will see that the love and humility with which he comes makes him seem so vulnerable.

He will be betrayed. He will be abandoned. He will be falsely accused. He will be silent before his accusers. He will be mocked and ridiculed, spat upon and struck, he would be pierced and executed amongst criminals as his belongings are gambled over in front of him. Most of these things are not things he controlled. They were the actions of others.

But each time it says this fulfilled what the prophets had said.

But what point are they making when they say that?

I think it’s this. That these events were no more an accident than Jesus’ deliberately orchestrated action in Jerusalem.

At surface level Jesus may have looked like a tragic innocent victim. But actually one of the things that comes across most strongly in the events of this last week is actually Jesus’ resolve. Jesus seems very much in control.

The message they were trying to put across was even in the midst of the most horrendous, horrific events, God had not gone missing. Somehow or other, God was still there, right in the midst of it.

Does this mean that prophets looked hundreds of years into the future and saw little details.

Does it mean that for all the illusion of free will, each of them were bound to do what they did?

There is no full answer. It is a mystery.

If I had to answer that I’d consider this marker pen. If I hold it long ways and ask you what shape you see, it’s a rectangle. If I hold it out towards you it’s a circle. If you ask me is this a rectangle or a circle the answer is ‘yes.’

One very incomplete way I have of working with this involves the former Liverpool and Scotland footballer Steve Nicol. I can’t say I ever imagined comparing any Liverpool player to God, but never mind.

He’d played over 300 times for Liverpool and played for Scotland in the World Cup. But towards the end of his career he played for some lower clubs, before moving to America.

I happened to be at his last game in this country. He played for Doncaster Rovers in a dreadful 0-0 draw against Stevenage Borough. He was 37 at the time. Easily the oldest on the pitch and far from the quickest. But because he was so much better than everyone else and because his football brain was so far beyond the others he didn’t need to be quick. He was always where he needed to be. He wasn’t controlling what his opponents were doing, but he somehow knew, before they did, what they were going to do.

Perhaps that’s one, admittedly very imperfect sense in which God could know the future whilst preserving our free will. His thoughts are so much higher and above our thoughts. He knows how we will react before we do.

But perhaps it’s best just to live with the mystery.

For mainly I don’t believe that was the point they were making. As they recounted the memories of all that Jesus endured they found themselves looking back to other parts of their story, of times when things had gone wrong, when things seemed to be out of control, when it seemed God had given up on them, when it seemed like it was all over and God was nowhere to be found.

And yet somehow God had brought them through.

So yes, sometimes they looked back and found promises from God, which they came to see he kept in sending Jesus. But they could also look back to times and see how when things had seemed hopeless, God had brought them through. God had helped them in so many different ways in the past. And here in Jesus God was doing the same thing on a whole different level.

So when Jesus is described as a lamb of God, they could look back to, say the time when God had provided a lamb for Abraham. Now here he was doing it for the whole world.

Just as in the time of darkness for Israel, God had provided a king like Hezekiah, now he is providing a king for the whole world.

Just as promises to Abraham must have seemed a distant dream when they were slaves in Egypt, God had rescued them. So they must have seemed very distant throughout the birth stories of Jesus as Mary and Joseph seem to lurch from crisis to crisis and even up fleeing for their lives to Egypt. But God was still with them,

Now as Jesus hangs on the cross, promises of him rescuing us seem all finished. But it’s the same God who had been with them through all the detours of the story so far, who was showing himself committed to us in Jesus. And nothing that could be done to him was able to stop God fulfiling what he had promised.

Either way the message was the same.

That in all things God had been faithful.

On the surface it seemed like Jesus was just another tragic victim. Even in the midst of the horror God was not finished. God was still taking his purposes forward.

That Jesus should seem so in control shows his commitment to fulfilling the purposes God had for him. But by this time next Sunday we will celebrating not the crucifixion, but resurrection.

It might serve as a reminder to us, in the midst of the trials and struggles of life, in a world where life seems thrown together at random and we feel like victims of circumstance, the story is going somewhere. We are not randomly blundering on to an uncertain future.

When we lose sight of the belief that God is with us, even then God can still bring us through. More is going on that we realise. God has not gone missing. God has not finished yet. He remained faithful back then, and will remain faithful into the future. For he is the same God who is committed to his purposes, who is faithful to his promises.

Even though we might struggle to predict the future, even over very short periods, we don’t have to. We’re just invited to trust that the story is going somewhere and that somewhere is for our good. For the God taking it forward comes to us in peace. He came not to destroy, but to rescue.

We don’t have to know the future.

We are simply invited to trust in the One who holds it.

 

Posted in Knowing Christ

Knowing Christ Through His Encounters: Calling the Fishermen

nets

Reading: Mark 1: 14-20

Some early church historians believed that Mark’s Gospel was based on the memories of Simon Peter, and entrusted to Mark, by Peter, in Rome, shortly before his execution by Nero.  This narrative sermon is based on that tradition. Here Peter looks back on the day Jesus called him to be his disciple…

 

 

Come in, come in. Sit down. It’s really good of you to come, Mark.

I’m really sorry to call you here at such short notice.

It’s just I’ve had word. Not officially, like, just from the guard on the door. But I’m told that Nero plans to hold my trial tomorrow.

Yes, yes, I know. That’s not the news you wanted to hear.

I can’t say it’s looking good. I mean if the charge is declaring that Jesus Christ is Lord and not Caesar, I can hardly plead ‘not guilty!’

I still can’t quite believe it, mind. I mean, who’d have thought I’d be the kind of guy who’d be up in front of the emperor because of what he believed?

Me! Simon Peter!

All mouth and no toga.

Red hot temper, yellow belly.

If the guard is right, and if things do go as I expect, I do worry about how the church is going to take it. It was difficult enough trying to be a faithful community, being a tiny minority in a great big city like this and people just ignored us, or didn’t care. But since the emperor’s started being actively hostile, it’s become even harder.

And it’s not just the government. I overheard one of the guards the other day, talking about Christians and saying ‘crucifixion’s too good for them.’

So I do worry about the church. Some already doubt the promises that Jesus made. They’re already asking ‘where is this coming he promised? Nothing changes – everything just goes on as it always has.’

No doubt some will start to question how God can still be in control whilst the church suffers like this. I’m sure more than a few will question whether it’s worth keeping going.

I wanted to say something that would give them hope, a reason to keep going. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking whilst I’ve been in here. Not much else to do. I understand exactly how they’re feeling. I felt the same way myself, all those years ago, when I first started following Jesus.

Can you believe it’s almost 40 years since he first called Andrew and me, as we were casting out by the Galilean shoreline, in Capernaum? Forty years. And I still remember it as clearly as if it was yesterday.

In many ways the situation was really quite similar to today. We had a hostile government, trying to stamp out what was perceived as a threatening message. Herod had just thrown John the Baptist into prison. You know what we Galileans are like. Always ready for a fight. There was always a lot of anger and frustration in the air.

The ruling lah-di-dahs in Jerusalem, might have been happy to defend their interests, accept their lot and tolerate or collaborate with the Romans. Not us oop North. Anyone up for a bit of trouble for the Romans or Herod for that matter, we were right there behind them.

Around that time there was no shortage of would-be Messiahs. But they were all fraudsters in the end. Not that we learned. When they disappeared the Romans were still there, but there were a lot fewer Galileans.

But John the Baptist? Well, he was different. It wasn’t the hair, the clothing and the diet, although I wouldn’t have fancied the locusts and will honey myself. He just wasn’t in it for what he could get. A lot of people thought he was the Messiah, but he rejected the notion. He even said that there would be someone who would be coming after him, who was far more worthy of being followed.

Still, people realised very quickly that he was a prophet and there hadn’t been one of those for hundreds of years. It was no wonder people flocked out to hear him. That included a lot of Galileans. And their ears pricked up when they heard his message. For he told them that the Kingdom of God was almost here. We had waited for this moment for hundreds of years. We had longed for the day when God would finally intervene to rescue us and free us from our enemies.

Now John the Baptist had come on the scene and was telling us that the moment had nearly arrived. He asked us to make ourselves ready for what God was going to do by being baptised in the River Jordan. Galileans were down there to the Jordan in their droves.

I’d never experienced anything like it. It gripped the whole nation. People came from everywhere to be baptised by John. It was the one time that Galileans and Judeans agreed on something. There was a real sense that something big was going to happen.

Yet it seemed to be snuffed out like that!

 

He spoke out against Herod and before he knew it, he was in the dungeons of Machaerus. He spoke about the Kingdom of God, he spoke about how God was about to intervene in our world and how he would fulfil all the promises he had made down the years through the prophets.

But in the end, it seemed like it was same old, same old – disappointment and defeat, just like it always was.

And that was only Herod. He was just a puppet king. If God’s Kingdom could be snuffed out by Herod, what did that say about God? Where was this promised Saviour?

So with John, it felt like the whole town breathed a collective sigh of resignation. Like for a moment there had been some hope, only for it to be snuffed out.

Yup everything seemed to carry on just like it always had.

It certainly seemed like same old, same old from where Andrew and I were sitting in Capernaum. We were still on that boating casting and dragging, casting and dragging. Just like we’d been doing every day for as long as I can remember.

There were worse lives we could have had. The Sea of Galilee was teeming with fish. We tended to consider it more of a miracle if we didn’t catch any. And Capernaum was a busy town so you always had a market. You weren’t exactly going to make a fortune fishing, but it was a living.

It must have been early evening. We can’t have been going for that long, when we met Jesus. As I recall there was a bit of a ruckus on the shoreline. Two blokes had been arguing about John the Baptist and it had started coming to blows.

At first I thought it was James and John. They were always at each other. It was no wonder Jesus would later call them the Sons of Thunder. But I remember glancing across the still blue waters towards the shore, where they moored their boats and they were still preparing their nets as we set out.

Then I saw him, walking slowly, but purposefully along the shoreline. I’d seen him before. He’d been there at the Jordan, being baptised by John. He seemed to have made quite an impression on John. Which was a bit weird, because he came from Nazareth, and as Nathaniel would later say, nothing good comes out of Nazareth.

John had seemed quite reluctant to baptise him, but this guy had insisted.

Then when John was arrested, this Jesus had come up to live in Capernaum.

We weren’t that far from the shore. We didn’t need to be. So I could hear him as he spoke. For his message was exactly the same as John’s.

Repent for the Kingdom of God’s nearly here.

Andrew and I stopped what we were doing to listen to him. It’s hard to explain but as we listened, suddenly all that hope within us was reignited. John the Baptist was in prison, but the message went on.

Herod thought he had snuffed it out, but it just sprang up somewhere else. The message was clear. God was fulfilling his promises.

Herod thought he was the boss round here.

He wasn’t prepared to allow any talk of other kingdoms.

Herod thought he could stop it.

But the message went on.

But nothing could have prepared me for what happened next. Suddenly his message got very personal.

He looked straight at us and invited us to join him.

Follow me, he said, and I will make you fishers of men.

This wasn’t just a general call to the crowds. It was to me. To Andrew.

If he’d said anything else I’d have wondered what he wanted from me.

But this? I got it right away.

It’s true it was an invitation to a whole new life. He was calling us to leave behind an old way of life and take up a very different one.

Yet the old one wasn’t wasted. He could use all the things I had learned from fishing; the patience, perseverance, sense of timing, flexibility, to make it happen.

Andrew and I looked at him, then at the nets, then at each other.

He offered us no inducements. He made no promises of fame, fortune, success or excitement. He had no business plan to present to us. Instead he offered us a mission. He was inviting us to travel with him. He wasn’t telling us what it would look like, or where he would take us.

But you know, as he spoke, all that hope that had been all but gone as we set out for another evening’s fishing, was reborn in us.

There really was no contest.

We dropped the nets and followed.

To describe the three years we had together as fantastic would the understatement of the century. To have heard him speak, to have witnessed the miracles and just to be associated with him was a privilege that’s simply beyond words.

Sure, it had its frustrations. At times he was perplexing and confusing. I never learnt to keep my mouth shut. Close as we were, I seemed to have the knack of saying the wrong thing and winding him up. And yes, we embarrassed him as often as not.

But he never gave up on us. He chose not to carry out what God had sent him to do alone. He remained committed to the idea of handing it on to us, however difficult that made it for him.

But it’s the lesson of that first day that keeps coming back to me. And I realise that it is in handing it on, that the message survives, even when we don’t.

No matter how hard those who think they rule this world might try, God’s purposes can’t be controlled or thwarted, his message cannot be silenced.

Of course we would learn it all over again, more forcefully, three years later, when the powers that be tried to snuff it out again.

They arrested Jesus, tried him falsely and although Pilate himself admitted he could find no fault in him, Jesus was nailed to a cross as a warning to all those who talked of other Kingdoms and made claims that anyone else was Lord.

And that Friday, as he died all alone, it seemed that all hope had been snuffed out, that God’s purposes had come to nothing, just as it had seemed that day in Capernaum.

But three days later he rose again, he met us, he ate with us and showed us graphically that try as they might, the powers of this world cannot silence the message, cannot snuff out the hope and cannot thwart the purposes of God.

That day in Capernaum, when he called out to Andrew and me, and then to James and John, and invited us to follow him, he set off a chain reaction, which for all their efforts, the powers of this world have never been able to stop. It spreads by people simply sharing it with one another. They don’t need to be special. We weren’t. The same call Jesus issued to us, we give to anyone who will listen. Anyone who take up the challenge to follow him. To listen to him, learn from him and seek to live like him.

The cross wasn’t the last time they tried to silence the message of another Kingdom, of another God who reigns and is in control. They’ve tried it several times.

That that time they tried it by stoning Stephen. Look what happened then. His executioner to turn into our most prominent missionary. I’ve watched them try with James and so many others, yet the message goes on and God is still drawing people to himself. If anything our opponents have just made us stronger. Because we are not called to do it along. We are called to hand it on.

So I do worry for the church.

And I don’t.

For just as he handed the news that our God reigns onto us, so we’ll hand it on to the next generation. And them to the next.

Will they get it wrong sometimes? Yes. But so did we.

Will they be an embarrassment to him (and to us) sometimes? Of course. We certainly were.

But if there’s one thing I learnt about God, from my encounter with Jesus, it’s that he is committed to the word of mouth method, to passing it on, handing it down, generation to generation, however difficult that is.

If my guard is right, tomorrow could be my turn to follow Stephen, James… and Jesus

Oh, I haven’t entirely written myself off yet. I’ve been in prison before, don’t forget, back when Herod was alive and that night an angel miraculously helped me to escape. I’ll never forget Rhoda’s reactions that night – the whole church praying for my release, then couldn’t believe it when it happened!

But I also remember James. He was executed by Herod around the same time as my miraculous escape. When we’re called to follow, we’re not told what the future looks like or where it will take us. Just that he will be with us.

But take this message back to the church.

Thank them for their prayers. They’ve really kept me going whilst I’ve been in here.

Rome will think they’ve won, but the hope will go on, the message won’t be silenced and the purposes won’t be thwarted.

Keeping eating the bread and drinking the wine.

Remember how we got here.

Remember what they symbolise.

And remember our God works by sharing the load, passing the message on, handing it  down generation to generation to ordinary folk.

I’m sure in years to come they’ll make their mistakes and misunderstand just as we did.

But don’t give up.

I reckon they’ll still be talking about Jesus thousands of years from now.