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Sunday, 1 September 2019

Pride and Prejudice




Our Old Testament reading this morning came from a book you may never have heard of – the book of Sirach, also known as Ecclesiasticus, the book of the Church. It didn’t make the cut into the Protestant Old Testament, although Catholics see it as canonical, but for us it is part of that collection of books we call the Apocrypha, which we are told to study “for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet not apply them to establish any doctrine.” But once in awhile the Lectionary throws up a reading from the Apocrypha as an alternative, and I think, particularly where it resonates with the Gospel reading, it’s no bad thing to have a look at it.

Anyway, this book was written, or possibly compiled, by someone known as Joshua Ben Sirach, who was a Jewish scribe who had lived in Jerusalem, and who may have been living in Alexandria when he compiled the work between about 180-175 BCE. We know who wrote it because, uniquely among the Old Testament and Apocryphal writers, he signs his work. And there is a prologue to the Greek version, written by his grandson in 130 BCE who translated it from the original Hebrew! There are far more Greek manuscripts of it available than there are Hebrew ones, although a large portion of the Hebrew version was found among the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Anyway, that’s all very interesting, but what was he about? Basically, it was a collection of ethical teachings, rather like the book of Proverbs. I must admit I’ve not read all the book, although I have skimmed the first few chapters, and he writes a great deal about Wisdom, pretty much equating her with God Himself, as the apocryphal writers are apt to do. And a great deal of it, as in the passage we just heard read, is to do with pride.

Pride, we are told, begins when a person abandons the Lord. Pride begins when a person abandons the Lord. Pride, says ben Sirach, is like a fountain pouring out sin, and whoever persists in it will be full of wickedness. A fountain pouring out sin. Strong stuff, no?

The thing is, though, he’s right. Pride is the worst of sins – if sin can be said to have any “worst”, because it is the one that totally turns us away from God. C S Lewis had a lot to say about it in his book, Mere Christianity, and I propose to quote from it, because he says it better than I could: “According to Christian teachers, the essential vice, the utmost evil, is Pride.  Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison: it was through Pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind.”

Lewis goes on in this vein for some time, saying that Pride is essentially competitive – I’m not too sure he’s right there – and then we come to the heart of it:

“But pride always means enmity – it is enmity. And not only enmity between human beings, but enmity to God.

“In God”, says Lewis, “you come up against something which is in every respect immeasurably superior to yourself. Unless you know God as that – and, therefore, know yourself as nothing in comparison – you do not know God at all. As long as you are proud you cannot know God. A proud man is always looking down on things and people: and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you.”

Of course, Lewis points out, it’s not pride to be pleased when someone pays you a sincere compliment – as long, that is, as the compliment doesn’t lead you to believe you’re cleverer or prettier or a finer person! As long as you delight in the praise, and don’t start thinking you must be a grand person to have merited it. And he also points out that it’s fine to be proud of your school or your father or your children as long as you don’t start thinking you must be a grand person to have been to such a school, or had such parents or children. The “Aren’t I clever, knowing a famous person” syndrome is alive and well today!

And obviously Pride, as in the carnival of that name, is fine, too – again, as long as you don’t think yourself rather superior for being part of it, or, indeed, rather broad-minded for enjoying it even if you aren’t gay!

Jesus, of course, knows all about it. In our Gospel reading, we saw him and his disciples – dare I say being amused by the people who obviously thought they deserved the best place at table, and being asked to move down…. As Jesus said, it makes far more sense to go down to the bottom, less honoured, places at the table and be asked to move up than to try to grab a place at the high table and be told in no uncertain terms you don’t belong there! Although I can see, as I’m sure you can, a danger lurking there whereby you rather ostentatiously go to the lowest place and look, expectantly, for the host coming to move you up a bit! And, indeed, it’s all too easy to see how, if you were to give a dinner for those who couldn’t return it, you could feel rather good about yourself in the wrong way: “What a good person I am to help out at Robes”…..

As I said, Jesus knew all about it. Look at the story he told of the Pharisee and the tax-collector who went to pray at the same time, and the Pharisee was all, “Oh God, I thank you I am not like this tax collector; I tithe and I fast and I’m generally a Most Superior Person, thank you very much.” But Jesus said it was the tax collector, who knew himself to be a sinner, who went away right with God on that occasion.

I heard a story once of a Sunday school teacher who was discussing this parable with her class, and at the end, she said “Now, let us thank God that we are not like this Pharisee”. Hmm – all well and good, until the moment I found myself thanking God that I was not like that Sunday School teacher!

No, pride and God are basically incompatible. Or rather the wrong sort of pride is. It can be very insidious – we go, imperceptibly, from being delighted that we have become God’s person, that we have been cleansed, forgiven and made whole, we go from that into thinking that we must be a pretty good person, really, to have allowed God into our lives.

Or, worse, we take this sort of thing to heart and, knowing that we are apt to be a bit proud on occasions, we think we must be truly terrible people, and quite beyond redemption. Which is another sort of pride, isn’t it – pride in one’s own sinfulness!

You know, this sermon feels very thou-shalt-nottish, which is not at all where I want to leave it. Pride is a very great sin, it is the sin that brings us into total opposition to God. Ben Sirach warns us, that whoever persists in pride will be full of wickedness. That is why, he tells us, the Lord brought terrible punishments on some people and completely destroyed them. And not only people, he says, but nations and empires, too. And if I were to leave it there, we would all be in a very sad case.

But there is hope. After all, we aren’t supposed to try to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. We aren’t supposed to strain and strive and continually fail and hate ourselves for so doing. No, my friends, not that. Never that.

If we try to overcome our faults in our own strength, we will fail. And we will become proud of ourselves for trying – I try far harder than he does, of course. I’m sure God will reward me better than him.

No, that’s not the answer. And continuing in our pride isn’t the answer, either. Let’s face it, we’re all guilty of feeling proud, some of the time. But if we continue, we will cut ourselves off from God, and perhaps end up worshipping what we think is God, but is in fact a god, made in our own image, who thinks we’re really rather brilliant!

God knows what we’re like. God knows our struggles, our failures, our weaknesses, our tendency to think we’re rather good for allowing Him to heal us…. And God goes on loving us and forgiving us and healing us. No matter how often we take our eyes off him to look at ourselves, or to look down on our neighbours, as soon as ever we realise what we’re doing, as soon as ever we turn back to God with an, “Oh, sorry!” or “Oops!” then God is there, forgiving us, healing us, helping us to grow into the person we were designed to be. “The Creator,” says ben Sirach, “never intended for human beings to be arrogant and violent.” And that being so, the Creator will help us become humble and peacable folk, the peacemakers who Jesus told us were to be given the kingdom of Heaven. Amen.

Sunday, 25 August 2019

Great Expectations




Once upon a time, there was a young man called Jeremiah.
He was from quite a good family –
his father was a priest, although not a high priest,
and owned a fair bit of land not far from Jerusalem.
So Jeremiah grew up in a fair amount of comfort,
loved and nurtured by his family.
Perhaps he had planned to be a priest himself when he grew up.

But then one day, in about 626 BC, God came to him, and said:
"Jeremiah, I am your Creator, and before you were born, I chose you to speak for me to the nations."

Jeremiah is shattered!
“Lord God, you’re making a big mistake!
I am a lousy public speaker and I’m too young for anybody to take me seriously.”

But God insists:
“Don’t put yourself down because of your age.
Just go to whoever I send you to, and say whatever I tell you to say.
Don’t let yourself feel intimidated by anyone, because I’ll be there as back up for you.
You’ll be okay;
take my word for it.”
And Jeremiah is touched by God, and enabled to speak God’s word.

Some six hundred years later, Jesus is teaching in the synagogue one Sabbath day, as he often did.
There was a woman in the congregation who was twisted and deformed –
perhaps she had scoliosis or perhaps it was an arthritic condition.
Certainly it was long-standing.
We are told she had been like this for eighteen years.
And Jesus suddenly notices her, and heals her.
She is able to stand fully upright again, and starts praising God.

Well, that didn’t please the leader of the synagogue.
Healing people like that on the Sabbath –
wasn’t that dangerously close to work?
“Oi,” he goes, “Stop healing people on the Sabbath!
Now then you lot, if any of you want healed,
you come on any of the other six days of the week;
I don’t want any Sabbath-breaking going on here!”

“Oh come on, mate,” says Jesus.
“I saw you taking your donkey down to the drinking-trough earlier this morning, Sabbath day or no Sabbath day.
If it’s all right for you to take your donkey to have a drink on the Sabbath,
it’s all right for me to heal this good lady,
whom Satan had bound for eighteen whole years!”

The leader of the synagogue had nothing to say to this, but the crowd really cheered.

---oo0oo---

I think it’s about expectations, isn’t it?
God expected Jeremiah to proclaim His word to the nations.
Jesus expected that the woman would be healed,
Sabbath day or no Sabbath day.
The ruler of the synagogue expected Jesus to keep the Sabbath.
And Jeremiah and the woman?
I don’t think they expected anything at all!

What does God expect from us?
What do we expect from God’s people?
And what do we expect from God?

Firstly, then, what does God expect from us?

Jeremiah was expected to go and proclaim God’s word.
He had been specifically called for this purpose,
and although he was horrified when the call came, and tried to get out of it,
he ultimately accepted it, and trusted in God’s promise that
“Attack you they will, overcome you they can’t”;
a promise that was fulfilled many times over in the Biblical narrative.

I wonder what God is expecting of you?
I know I am expected to preach the Gospel.
Like Jeremiah, I was very young when I was called –
about fifteen.
Unlike him, I wasn’t able to answer that call for many years for reasons that I won’t go into now,
but suffice it to say that for about the past thirty years I have known that this is what God has wanted me to do.
This is what God expects of me.
I am so grateful, every time I preach,
that all I am expected to do is to provide the words;
God does the rest!

So what does he expect of you?
Some of you will know, definitely, what God expects;
you are a steward,
or a local preacher,
or a musician.
Or, like my daughter, you’re called to children’s ministry.
For others, it’s less clear cut.
You have a job, perhaps, or are bringing up a family.
Or perhaps that is all behind you now, and you are retired.

But whatever it is you do, you are expected to be Christ’s ambassador.
You are a witness to him in everything you say and do.
Now, before you start squirming uncomfortably,
and thinking “Oh dear, I’m not a very good one, am I?”,
don’t forget that Jesus said that when the Holy Spirit came,
we would be his witnesses throughout the known world.
Not that we should be,
or ought to be,
but that we would be.
We are.
You are an ambassador for Christ,
and whether you like it or not,
whether you know it or not,
this is what you are, through the power of the Holy Spirit who dwells within you.

When God calls you to do something,
whether it is some well-defined job like cleaning the church,
or running a prayer group,
or speaking forth his word,
or simply praying quietly at home,
or whether you’re called to be God’s person where you work, or where you live, God will enable you to do it, just as he enabled Jeremiah.

---oo0oo---

And so to my second question for this morning:
What do you expect of God’s people?
When someone says he or she is a Christian,
what do you reckon they’re going to be like?

The leader of the synagogue was confounded when Jesus didn’t conform to his expectation of what a good Jewish man did or didn’t do on the Sabbath.

Healing people?
Seriously?
No, no, that counted as work!

And sometimes we are confounded when we come across Christians whose standards of acceptable behaviour might differ from ours.
Could they possibly be Christians at all?
Do real Christians behave like that?
Some churches have felt so strongly about some of these issues that they have even split up,
causing enormous hurt and upset in their various denominations.
Yet who are we to judge another’s behaviour?
In fact, you might remember that St Paul suggests
that if your brother is offended by something you do or don’t do,
you should do it, or not do it, as the case may be,
so as not to upset them, or, worse,
to let them think it’s all right for them to do it,
when it might not be at all all right,
and might lead them away from God.
We need to be sensitive to one another,
and to refrain from judging one another.
We probably have our rules that we live by,
but we don’t have the right to force those rules on to other people,
not even on to other Christians.

I suppose the thing is, we shouldn’t really expect other Christians to be like us!
Many, of course, will be –
that’s why you go to this church, here,
because you find people you are comfortable with,
people whose vision of what God’s people are like resonates with yours.
But there will be others whose views you are less comfortable with;
who perhaps strike you as rather puritanical, or rather lax.

Of course, when we know someone, we know what they are like,
whether they are reliable,
whether you can trust them.
And we accept them, normally, for who they are.
Just as God does with us.
But we mustn’t be judgemental.
Maybe they hold views that we find strange, or even unpleasant.
Maybe they feel free to behave in ways we’ve been taught that Christians don’t do,
or ways that we feel would be sinful for us.
But it is not for us to judge.
Our Lord points out, in that collection of His teachings known as the Sermon on the Mount,
that we very often have socking great logs in our own eyes,
so how can we see clearly to remove the speck in someone else’s?
In other words, keep your eyes on what’s wrong with you,
not on what’s wrong with other people!
See to it that you obey your rules, and leave other people to obey theirs.

That’s something, I think, that the leader of the synagogue would have been wise to keep in mind,
rather than criticising Jesus for healing someone on the Sabbath,
to say nothing of criticising the congregation for coming to be healed that day.
He had rules he needed to keep,
and he needed other people to keep them, too.
But Jesus had other ideas.
For him, healing someone on the Sabbath was as normal and as natural as making sure your livestock were fed, or your cow was milked.

---oo0oo---

So, then, God is free to expect anything from us;
we should not, though, expect other Christians to be just like us.
But what do we expect from God?

Jeremiah didn’t expect anything from God.
When told that he was to proclaim God’s word, his first reaction was to panic:
“I can’t possibly! I’m a lousy public speaker and much too young!”
But God gave him the gifts he needed to fulfil his task,
and sometimes Jeremiah had to actively act out God’s word, not just speak it!

The woman who was all twisted and bent over didn’t expect anything from God, either.
She presumably went to the synagogue each week to worship,
not really expecting anything to happen.
But that particular Sabbath day, Jesus was there –
and that made all the difference.
After eighteen years she was finally free of her illness,
able to stand up straight,
able to walk normally and talk to people face to face once more.

What did you expect from God this morning?
Let’s be honest, we come to church week after week,
and on most Sundays nothing much happens!
We worship God, we spend some time with our friends,
and then we go home again.
And that’s okay.
But some weeks are different, aren’t they?
Not often, but just sometimes we come away from Church
knowing that God was there, and present, and real.
I wonder why these occasions are so rare?
Partly, of course, because mountain-top experiences like that are rare,
that’s why we remember them.

There’s an old story of two men coming out of Church one Sunday morning when the preacher had been rather more boring even than usual.
The first man said, “Honestly, what’s the point?
I’ve been going to Church more or less every Sunday for the past 30 years,
and I must have heard hundreds of sermons,
yet I hardly remember any of them!”

To which the second man replied, “Hmm, well;
I’ve been married for 30 years and my wife has cooked me a meal more or less every night,
and I don’t really remember many of them, either.
But where would I be without them?”

Church, mostly, is about providing daily bread for daily needs.
We don’t expect to see miracles each Sunday,
or healings such as took place in the synagogue that day.
But what do we expect when we come to Church?
Do we expect to meet God in some way?

What do we expect from God?
We know that our sins have been forgiven, right?
And that God is gradually making us into the people he designed us to be.
But do we expect more?
Should we expect more?
Neither Jeremiah nor the woman in the synagogue expected anything from God –
yet God gave, bountifully, to both of them in very different ways.

---oo0oo---

Who was it who said “Expect great things from God.
Attempt great things for God”?
I can’t remember right now,
but it’s really what I want to leave with you this morning.
What does God expect from you?
Are you trying not to hear something you think God might be trying to say?
What do you expect from other Christians?
Are you requiring a higher standard from them than from yourself?
And what are you expecting God to do for you today?
Amen.

Sunday, 11 August 2019

You have to go there to be there!

Recording didn't work - not sure why - which is a great pity as I added in some stuff about migrants.

Have you been on holiday yet?
We’re off again in a few weeks, when the schools go back.
I love our trips in the motor home, but one thing I don’t love is the long, dreary drives across Belgium to get to where we’re going in Germany!
It is always a long, dreary day –
Robert drives,
I knit or doze,
we listen to podcasts and music
and, of course, stop every few hours.
But oh, how I wish, sometimes, that we could get there without the long journey!
I want to be there without going there!

I don’t quite go “Are we nearly there?” like a small child,
but I’m very tempted….
I probably would, if our Satnav didn’t tell us how far there was, and how long it would probably take.

And I am sure that anybody who has travelled with children longs and longs for the journey to be over,
whether it’s by car, train or aeroplane.
You long to reach the resort, and if you could,
would get there without having to go there.

It’s the same if we’re learning a new skill, or a new subject at school.
We don’t start off being brilliant at it.
Our first attempts to speak a foreign language sound like baby talk!
Our first knitted strip is going to be uneven and full of holes.
We have to learn and study and practice, and in the end we get good at it.

And it’s the same with faith, which is what our Bible readings this morning are all about.
You don’t start off being a person of terrific faith –
you have to learn how.
We all hope to be brilliant Christians, but it takes time, and it takes practice.
You can’t be there without going there!

I have often said that these Sundays in Ordinary Time are when we discover whether what we think we believe actually matches up to what we really do believe.
And our readings this morning are the absolute epitome of that.
All our readings emphasize faith, but slightly different aspects of it.

Isaiah, for instance, is talking about repentance:

“What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?”
   says the Lord;
“I have had enough of burnt-offerings of rams
   and the fat of fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
   or of lambs, or of goats.”

And then;

“When you stretch out your hands,
   I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
   I will not listen;
   your hands are full of blood.”

In Isaiah's day his day, people worshipped other gods,
gods who didn't actually require you to do more than perform the sacrifices and rituals.
But for God, our God, this was not enough.
God demanded –
and still does demand –
a lot more than that:

“Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
   remove the evil of your doings
   from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
seek justice,
   rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
   plead for the widow.”

You can't just go on as you were and then come to the temple to do your sacrifices.
This will not work.
Remember Psalm 51;
“The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”
We need a complete change of heart, to turn right round and go God's way, not ours.
This is called repentance, of course –
not so much about being sorry, although that can be part of it,
but about a complete change of outlook.
And then, according to Isaiah:

“Come now, let us argue it out,”
   says the Lord:
“though your sins are like scarlet,
   they shall be like snow;
though they are red like crimson,
   they shall become like wool.
If you are willing and obedient,
   you shall eat the good of the land;
but if you refuse and rebel,
   you shall be devoured by the sword;
   for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

It is about an attitude of the heart.

The letter to the Hebrews shows us how this faith works out in practice;
we are reminded that
“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

Abraham, we are told, was promised a wonderful inheritance.
God promised to make his descendants, quite literally, more numerous than the grains of sand on the seashore.
He was going to be given a wonderful land for them to live in.

Now, at this stage, Abraham was living very comfortably thank you, in a very civilised city called Ur,
and although he didn't have any children, he was happy and settled.
But God told Abraham that if he wanted to see this promise fulfilled he had to get up,
to leave his comfortable life,
and to move on out into the unknown,
just trusting God.
And Abraham did just exactly that.
And, eventually, Isaac was born to carry on the family.
And then Isaac’s son, Jacob.
And we are told that, although none of them actually saw the Promised Land, and although the promise was not fulfilled in their lifetimes,
they never stopped believing that one day, one day, it would be.
Their whole lives were informed by their belief that God was in control.

This sort of faith is the kind we'd all like to have, wouldn't we?
Wouldn't we?
Hmmm, I wonder.
In our Gospel reading, Jesus says, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
That's great, isn't it?
“It is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

Well, it would be great, but then he says, “Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.
For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

That's the bit we don't like so well, do we?
Like Abraham, we are very-nicely-thank-you in Ur,
comfortably settled in this world,
and we don't want to give it all up to go chasing after something which might or might not be real.
This is the difficult bit, the bit where what we say we believe comes up against what we really do believe.

It's like I was saying earlier, we would like to be there –
wherever “there” is –
without the hassle of actually going there!
We want to have all the privileges and joys of being Christians without actually having to do anything.

Of course, in one of the many great paradoxes of Christianity,
we don't have to do anything!
We can do nothing to save ourselves!
It is God who does all that is necessary for our salvation.

But if we are to be people of faith, if we are to be of any use to God.
And faith does, or should, prompt us to action.

First of all, then, our faith should prompt us to repent.
To turn away from sin and turn to God with all our hearts.
It's not just a once-and-for-all thing;
it's a matter of daily repentance, daily choosing to be God's person.

And as we do that, our faith grows and develops and strengthens to the point where, if we are called to do so,
we can leave our comfort zone and try great things for God.
As Abraham did, and as Jesus calls us to do.

We aren't all called to sell our possessions and give what we have to the poor –
although a little more equity in the way this world's goods are handed out wouldn't be a bad thing;
look how 25% of the world consumes 75% of its production,
or whatever the figures actually are –
I may be being generous on that one.
We are all called to work for justice in our communities,
whether that is a matter of writing to our MPs if something is clearly wrong,
or getting involved in a more hands-on way.

Some people –
maybe some of you, even –
are or have been called to leave your home countries and work in a foreign land to be God's person there,
whether as a professional missionary, as it were,
or just where you are working.
Others are asked to stay put, but to be God's person exactly where they are –
at school,
college,
work,
home,
at the shops,
on the bus,
in a traffic jam,
on social media...
everywhere!
Being God's person isn't something that happens in church on Sundays and is put aside the rest of the week.

It isn't easy. It's the every day, every moment hard slog.
The times when we wish we could skip over all this,
and be the wonderful faith-filled Christian we hope to be one day without the hard work of getting there!

Sadly, it doesn't work like that.
We don't have to do all the hard work in our own strength, of course;
God the Holy Spirit is there to help us, and remind us, and change us, and grow us as we gradually become more and more the people God designed us to be.
But God doesn't push in where He's not wanted.
If we are truly serious about being God's person, then we need to be being that every day.
Each day we need to commit to God, whether explicitly or implicitly.

Jesus reminds us that this world isn't designed to be permanent.
One day it will come to an end, either for each of us individually,
or perhaps in some great second coming.
But whichever way, it will end for us one day,
and not all of us get notice to quit.
We need to be ready and alert, busy with what we have been given to do, but ready to let go and turn to Jesus whenever he calls us.

None of this is easy.
Being a Christian isn't easy.
Becoming a Christian is easy,
because God longs and longs for us to turn to Him.
But being one isn't.
Allowing God to change us,
to pull us out of our comfort zone,
to travel with Him along that narrow way –
it's not easy.
But it is oh, so very worthwhile!
Amen.

Sunday, 28 July 2019

Mary Magdalene




Brixton Hill , 28 July 2019
Mary Magdalene

Last Monday, July the twenty-second, was the Feast of St Mary Magdalene,
in the part of the church that celebrates that sort of thing.
Which we aren't, of course, but nevertheless I can't resist having a look at Mary Magdalene today, because she is such an intriguing person.
We know very little about her for definite:

Firstly, that Jesus cast out seven demons from her, according to Luke chapter 8 verse 2, and Mark chapter 16 verse 9.

From then on, she appears in the lists of people who followed Jesus, and is one of the very few women mentioned by name all the time.

She was at the Cross, helping the Apostle John to support Jesus' mother Mary.

And, of course, she was the first witness to the Resurrection, and according to John's Gospel, she was actually the first person to see and to speak to the Risen Lord.

And that is basically all that we reliably know about her –
all that the Bible tells us, at any rate.

But, of course, that's not the end of the story.
Even the Bible isn't quite as clear as it might be,
and some Christians believe that she is the woman described as a “sinner” who disrupts the banquet given by Simon the Leper, or Simon the Pharisee or whoever he was by emptying a vial of ointment over his feet –
Jesus' feet, I mean, not Simon's –
and wiping it away with her hair.
Simon, you may recall, was furious, and Jesus said that the woman had done a lot more for him than he had –
he hadn't offered him any water to wash his feet, or made him feel at all welcome.

Anyway, that woman is often identified with Mary Magdalene,
although some say it is Mary of Bethany, sister to Martha and Lazarus.
Some even say they are all three one and the same woman!

So if even the Bible isn't clear whether there are one, two or three women involved, you can imagine what the extra-Biblical traditions are like!

Nobody seems to know where she was born, or when.
Arguably in Magdala, but there seem to have been a couple of places called that in Biblical times.
However, one of them, Magdala Nunayya, was on the shores of Lake Galilee, so it might well have been there.
But nobody knows for certain.

She wasn't called Mary, of course;
that is an Anglicisation of her name.
The name was Maryam or Miriam, which was very popular around then as it had royal family connections,
rather like people in my generation calling their daughters Anne,
or all the Dianas born in the 1980s or,
perhaps, today, the Catherines.
So she was really Maryam, not Mary –
as, indeed, were all the biblical Marys.

They don't know where she died, either.
One rather splendid legend has her, and the other two women called Mary, being shipwrecked in the Carmargue at the town now called Saintes-Maries-de-la-mer, and she is thought to have died in that area.
But then again, another legend has her accompanying Mary the mother of Jesus and the disciple John to Ephesus and dying there.
Nobody knows.

And there are so many other legends and rumours and stories about her –
even one that she was married to Jesus,
or that she was “the beloved disciple”, and those parts of John's gospel where she and the beloved disciple appear in the same scene were hastily edited later when it became clear that a woman disciple being called “Beloved” Simply Would Not Do.

But whoever she was, and whatever she did or did not do,
whether she was a former prostitute or a perfectly respectable woman who had become ill and Jesus had healed,
it is clear that she did have some kind of special place in the group of people surrounding Jesus.
And because she was the first witness to the Resurrection, and went to tell the other disciples about it, she has been called “The Apostle to the Apostles”.
So what can we learn from her?

Well, the first thing we really know about her is that Jesus had healed her.
She had allowed Jesus to heal her.
Now, healing, of course, is as much about forgiveness and making whole as it is about curing physical symptoms.
Mary allowed Jesus to make her whole.

This isn't something we find easy to do, is it?
We are often quite comfortable in our discomfort, if that makes sense.
If we allowed Jesus to heal us, to make us whole, whether in body, mind or spirit, we might have to do something in return.
We might have to give up our comfortable lifestyles and actually go and do something!

What Mary did, of course, was to give up her lifestyle,
whatever it might have been, and follow Jesus.
We don't know whether she was a prostitute, as many have thought down the years,
or whether she was a respectable woman,
but whichever she was, she gave it all up to follow Jesus.
She was the leader of the group of women who went around with Jesus and the disciples,
and who made sure that everybody had something to eat,
and everybody had a blanket to sleep under,
or shelter if it was a rough night, or whatever.
Mary gave up everything to follow Jesus.

Again, we quail at the thought of that, even though following Jesus may well mean staying exactly where we are, with our present job and our family.

But Mary didn't quail.
She even accompanied Jesus to the foot of the Cross,
and stood by him in his final hours.
And then, early in the morning of the third day after he was killed,
she goes to the tomb to finish off the embalming she hadn't been able to do during the Sabbath Day.

And we know what happened –
how she found the tomb empty, and raced back to tell Peter and John about it, and how they came and looked and saw and realised something had happened and dashed off, leaving her weeping in the garden –
and then the beloved voice saying “Mary!” and with a cry of joy, she flings herself into his arms.

We’re not told how long they spent hugging, talking, explaining and weeping in each other’s arms,
but eventually Jesus gently explains that,
although he’s perfectly alive, and that this is a really real body one can hug,
he won’t be around on earth forever, but will ascend to the Father.
He can’t stop with Mary for now,
but she should go back and tell the others all about it.
And so, we are told, she does.

She tells the rest of the disciples how she has seen Jesus.
She is the first witness to the Resurrection, although you will note that St Paul leaves her out of his list of people who saw the Risen Lord.
That was mostly because the word of a woman, i
n that day and age, was considered unreliable;
women were not considered capable of rational judgement.
At least Jesus was different!

So Mary allowed Jesus to heal her, she gave up everything and followed him, she went with him even to the foot of the Cross,
even when most of the male disciples, except John, had run away,
and she bore witness to the risen Christ.

The question is, of course, do we do any of these things?
We don't find them comfortable things to do, do we?
It was all very well for Mary, we say, she knew Jesus,
she knew what he looked like and what he liked to eat, and so on.

But we don't have to do these things in our own strength.
The Jesus who loved Mary Magdalene, in whatever way,
he will come to us and fill us with His Holy Spirit and enable us, too,
to be healed,
to follow Him, even to the foot of the Cross,
and to bear witness to His resurrection.
The question is, are we going to let him?
Amen.

Sunday, 21 July 2019

Thirsting for the Word

After all that, I discovered that the sermon had recorded, after all!


I forget who it was who, when asked whether he preferred Martha or Mary, said:
“After dinner, Mary.
But before dinner, definitely Marthat!”

Me, I’ve always felt a bit sorry for Martha.
There she was, desperate to get all these men fed,
and her sister isn’t helping.
And when she asks Jesus to send her in,
she just gets told that Mary has “chosen the better part”.

Yet it was Martha who, on another occasion, caused Jesus to declare:
“I am the resurrection and the life.
Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live,
and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”
And Martha herself gave us that wonderful statement of faith:
“Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah,
the Son of God,
the one coming into the world.”
Martha was seriously a woman of faith.
And she wanted to show her love to the Lord by providing him and his disciples with a really good meal.
Maybe she overdid it –
the Lord might have preferred Martha’s company,
even if it did mean dining on bread and cheese, and perhaps a few olives.

The family at Bethany has many links in the Bible.
Some people have identified Mary as the woman who poured ointment all over Jesus’ feet in the house of Simon the Leper –
and because he lived in Bethany –
Simon the Leper, that is, not Jesus –
some people have also said that he was married to Martha.
We don’t know.
At that, some people have said that Jesus was married to Mary;
again, we don’t know.
What we do know is that Martha and Mary were sisters,
and that they had a beloved brother, called Lazarus.
We do know that on one occasion Mary poured her expensive perfume all over the feet of the Lord –
whether this was the same Mary as in the other accounts or a different one isn’t quite clear.
But whatever, they seem to have been a family that Jesus knew well,
a home where he knew he was welcome,
and dear friends whose grief he shared when Lazarus died,
even though he knew that God would raise him.
Lazarus, I mean, not Jesus, this time!

In some ways the story “works” better if the woman who poured ointment on Jesus’ feet in the house of Simon the Leper and this Mary
are one and the same person,
as we know that the woman in Simon’s house was, or had been,
some kind of loose woman that a pious Jew wouldn’t normally associate with.
Now she has repented and been forgiven,
and simply adores Jesus, who made that possible for her.
And she seems to have been taken back into her sister’s household, possibly rather on sufferance.

But then she does nothing but sit at Jesus’ feet, listening to him.
Back then, this simply was Not Done.
Only men were thought to be able to learn,
women were supposed not to be capable.
Actually, I have a feeling that the Jews thought that only Jewish free men were able to learn.
They would thank God each morning that they had not been made a woman, a slave or a Gentile.
And even though St Paul had sufficient insight to be able to write that “In Christ, there is neither male nor female, slave nor free, Jew nor Gentile”,
thus at a stroke disposing of the prayer he’d been taught to make daily, it’s taken us all a very long time to work that out,
and recent events would show we haven’t really worked it out yet!

Anyway, the point is that Mary, by sitting at Jesus’ feet like that,
was behaving in rather an outrageous fashion.
Totally blatant, like throwing herself at him.
He might have felt extremely uncomfortable,
and it’s quite possible that his disciples did.
Martha certainly did, which was one of the reasons why she asked Jesus to send Mary through to help in the kitchen.

But Jesus replied:
“Mary has chosen the right thing, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Mary, with all her history, was now thirsty for the Word of God.
Jesus wanted to be able to give Mary what she needed,
the teaching that only he could provide.
He would have liked to have given it to Martha, too,
if only Martha could be persuaded that they’d be quite happy with bread and cheese.
But Martha wasn’t ready.
Not then.
Later on, yes, after Lazarus had died, but not then.

In many ways, Martha and Mary represent the two different sides of spirituality, perhaps even of Christianity.
Mary, wrapped up in sitting at the feet of her Lord, learning from him, listening to him,
was perhaps so heavenly-minded she was of no earthly use.
Martha, rather the reverse.
She was so wrapped up in doing something for Jesus
that she couldn’t see the importance of taking time out to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen.
Or if she could, it wasn’t something she wanted to do while there was work that needed to be done.
She expressed her love for Jesus by wanting to feed him,
wanting to work for him.

All of us, I think, are like either Martha or Mary in some ways.
Many of us are more or less integrated, of course,
finding time both to sit at Jesus’ feet in worship, adoration and learning, and time to serve Him in practical ways,
mostly through working either in the Church or in the Community.
Others of us are less balanced.
We spend our time doing one or the other, but not both.
Mind you, it usually balances out within the context of a church;
the people who do the praying and listening,
the people who do the practical jobs that need to be done around the place,
and the people who do both.
And perhaps in an area, too, it balances out,
with some churches doing far more in the way of work in the community than others,
but perhaps less in the way of prayer meetings,
Alpha, or similar courses
and other Bible studies.
And so it goes on.

Our Old Testament reading brings this need for balance very much to the fore-front.
The Lord, speaking through the prophet Amos,
expresses his disgust with those who have failed to be honest and upright in their dealings:

‘Listen to this, you that trample on the needy and try to destroy the poor of the country.
You say to yourselves, “We can hardly wait for the holy days to be over so that we can sell our grain.
When will the Sabbath end, so that we can start selling again?
Then we can overcharge, use false measures, and fix the scales to cheat our customers.
We can sell worthless wheat at a high price.
We'll find someone poor who can't pay his debts, not even the price of a pair of sandals, and we'll buy him as a slave.”’

And then, after a paragraph of warning of physical misery, comes the terrible warning:
“The time is coming when I will send famine on the land.
People will be hungry, but not for bread;
they will be thirsty, but not for water.
They will hunger and thirst for a message from the Lord.
I, the Sovereign Lord, have spoken.
People will wander from the Dead Sea to the Mediterranean and then on around from the north to the east.
They will look everywhere for a message from the Lord, but they will not find it.”

“They will look everywhere for a message from the Lord, but they will not find it.”
The people started off with dishonest measures,
with forcing the poor into slavery,
and end up longing to hear from the Lord,
but the heavens have been closed off to them.

Why am I reminded of current events?
This whole mess in our country, everybody wondering what will happen next;
will we really have to leave the EU without a deal, or at all?
and what are the implications if we do?

I don’t want to go into detail about the causes of this whole disaster;
you know them as well as I do.
The road this country has chosen to take over the past 50 years hasn’t helped –
the erosion of our manufacturing base,
the disappearance of industries such as shipbuilding,
consumer electronics,
aircraft manufacture
and most of the vehicle construction industry. 
The fact that we were lied to, over and over again,
by politicians and by the Murdoch press....
you know all that as well as I do.
And I’m finding it incredibly difficult to work out what to say, anyway,
as I’m so aware that my experience as a White, middle-class, elderly British woman is so very different to so much of many of your experiences.
What, after all, do I know?

But whatever our experiences, however afraid of the future we might be, can we do anything about it?

None of us knows what is going to happen tomorrow;
we can’t see round the bend in the road.
But there is much we can do –
not least, to pray for our country, and for our leaders;
we may or may not care for whoever is elected leader of the Conservative Party tomorrow, but whoever he is, he will be our Prime Minister and will need our prayers.

Those of us whose Christianity is more like Martha’s will want to get involved in many different ways;
those of us who are like Mary will want to spend time in prayer and perhaps even fasting for this country we call home.

We don’t know the future;
but we do know the One who holds the future in his hands.
We may long and long for a word that doesn’t come, but we know that we have not been abandoned.
We know that we may sit at His feet and drink of His word, and we may, must and will trust Him for tomorrow.
Amen.

Sunday, 16 June 2019

Trinity Sunday 2019




This sermon is very like that of three years ago, but a few differences.

Today is Trinity Sunday,
the day on which we celebrate all the different aspects of God.
It’s actually a very difficult day to preach on,
since it’s very easy to get bogged down in the sort of theology which none of us understands,
and which we can very easily get wrong.

The trouble is, of course, that the concept of the Trinity is trying to explain something that simply won’t go into words.
We are accustomed to thinking of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
and most of the time we don’t really stop and think about it.
Trinity Sunday is the day we are expected to stop and think!

The thing is, the first half of the Christian year,
which begins way back before Christmas,
is the time when we think about Jesus.
We prepare for the coming of the King, in Advent,
and then we remember his birth,
his being shown to the Gentiles,
his presentation in the Temple as a baby.
Then we skip a few years and remember his ministry,
his arrest, death and resurrection, and his ascension into heaven.
Then we remember the coming of the promised Holy Spirit,
and today we celebrate God in all his Godness, as someone once put it.

The second half of the year, all those Sundays after Trinity,
tend to focus on different aspects of our Christian life.
And today is the one day in the year when we are expected to stop and think about God as Three and God as One.
And it is difficult.
It’s a concept that doesn’t really go into words,
and so whatever we say about it is going to be in some way flawed.
It took the early Church a good 400 years to work out what it wanted to say about it, and even that is very obscure:
“That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity:
Neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance.
For there is one person of the Father,
another of the Son,
and another of the Holy Spirit.
But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit is all one,
the glory equal, the majesty coeternal.
Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Spirit.
The Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, and the Holy Spirit uncreated.
The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Spirit incomprehensible.”
The whole thing incomprehensible, if you ask me!

St Paul said it better, in our first reading.
‘We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,’ and a little later in the same paragraph, ‘God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.’
St Paul may not have known the expression ‘The Holy Trinity’, but he certainly was aware of the concept!

There are all sort of illustrations you can use to try to get a mental image of what it’s all about.
Look, for instance, at what happens when you join two hydrogen atoms to one oxygen one –
you get H2O.
Di-hydrogen monoxide!
Which, I am sure you realise, can be ice –
a solid, good for cooling drinks or injuries, for preserving food, or for skating on.
Or it can be water –
a liquid, making up most of our bodies, good for drinking, sustaining all life.
Or it can be steam –
a gas, good for removing creases from our clothes or for cooking vegetables. Ice, water, steam, all very different from each other, but all, still, H2O.

It’s an illustration.
It happens to be my favourite one, but there are plenty of others.
D, on the same subject, once brought in three tins of soup –
lentil, mushroom and tomato –
well, it might not have been exactly those, but something like that –
all tasting very different but all soup.
Some people like thinking of an egg,
which has the shell, the white, and the yolk....
They are all sort-of pictures, but only sort-of.
Nobody really understands it.
And, of course, that is as it should be.
If we could understand it,
if we knew all the ins and outs and ramifications of it,
then we would be equal to God.
And it’s very good for us to know that there are things about God we don’t really understand!
It’s called, in the jargon, a “mystery”.
That means something that we are never going to understand,
even after a lifetime of study.
Lots of things to do with God are mysteries, in that sense.
Holy Communion, for one –
we know what we mean when we take Communion,
but we also know that it may very well mean something quite different, but equally valid, to the person standing next to us.
Or even the Atonement –
none of us really understands exactly what happened when Jesus died on the Cross, only that some sort of change took place in the moral nature of the Universe.

Nevertheless, for all practical purposes,
we live very happily with not understanding.
We synthesise some form of understanding that suits us,
and, provided we know it is not the whole story, that’s fine.
And the same applies to the Trinity.
It doesn’t matter if we don’t really understand how God can be Three and One at the same time:
what matters is that we love and trust him, whatever!

And in our Gospel reading, Jesus talks of Himself, the Father and the Spirit as equal:
All that belongs to the Father is mine.
That is why I said the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you.”
Like St Paul, He doesn’t have the word “Trinity”, but it is the kind of thing He means.

And in the reading from Proverbs, which I chose not to use, we are reminded of Wisdom.

The LORD brought me forth as the first of his works,
before his deeds of old:
I was appointed from eternity,
from the beginning, before the world began.
When there were no oceans, I was given birth,
when there were no springs abounding with water;”

and so on and so forth.
Wisdom, here, is personified as female.
The Greek word for Wisdom is Sophia.
And some commentators equate Sophia, here, and in other passages, with the Holy Spirit.

Incidentally, some people find the image of God as Sophia, Lady Wisdom, helpful and different.
It’s one of the many images of God we have, up there alongside the Shepherd, the Rock, the Strong Tower and so on.
If you don’t find it helpful, then don’t use it, but if it is something that appeals, then do.

But that is beside the point.
Seeing God as Lady Wisdom is a very old tradition,
but the real point is that even in the Old Testament we get glimpses of God as having more than One Person.
The Trinity might not be a Bible expression, but it is a Bible concept.

But really, the thing about today is that, no matter how much we don’t understand God as Three but still One,
today is a day for praising God in all his Godness.
It is not really a day for deep theological reflection, nor for self-examination, but a day for praise and wonder and love and adoration.

So I’m going to be quiet now, and let’s spend a few moments in silent worship before we sing our next hymn.

Sunday, 5 May 2019

Peter and Paul

Another "Golden Oldie"



Our readings today are about two very different men, both of whom were leaders of the very early church, and both of whom had made appallingly bad starts!

To take them in chronological order, first of all there was Peter.
Simon, as his original name was –

Peter was basically a nickname Jesus gave him.
It means stone or rock;
if Jesus had been speaking English, he might have nicknamed him “Rock” or “Rocky”.
“You're Rock, and on this rock I will build my church.”
But the Greek word was “Petros”, so we know him as Peter.

Anyway, as you know, Peter was an impulsive type,
probably with a hot temper.
We probably know more about him than we know about any of the Twelve, as it is often his comments and answers that are quoted.
And, sadly, the fact that when push came to shove his courage failed him
and he pretended he didn't know Jesus.
And our Gospel reading today is all about his reinstatement.

It’s not very clear how this story fits in with the rest of John’s Gospel, which seemed to come to an end after last week’s reading.
But the writer seemed to find it necessary to add this additional story.
The disciples have gone back to Galilee after the Resurrection,
and have gone fishing.
I suppose they must have thought that it was all over,
not realising how much their lives were going to change.
And although the other gospel-writers tell us that Peter had seen the risen Lord, he still seems to have had trouble forgiving himself for the denials.
So when he realises that it is Jesus on the lake shore, he grabs his tunic –
he will have been working naked in the boat –
and swims to shore.
And they all have breakfast together, and then Jesus turns to Peter.
You can imagine, can't you, that Peter's heart started beating rather faster than usual.

Now, part of the whole point of this story doesn't actually work in English, because we only have one word for love, which we use for loving anything from God down to strawberries, including our spouse, our children, our best friends and the writings of Jane Austen!

But the Greeks had several different words for love.
There was eros, which was erotic love, the love between a man and a woman;
then there was storge, which was affection, family love, the love between parents and children.
Then, and these are the two words that are relevant to us here, there was philia, which is friendship, comradeship, and agape, a word only found in the New Testament, which means God's love.
And when Jesus says to Peter “Do you love me?” he uses the word agape.
Do you love me with God's love.
And Peter can't quite manage to say that, and so in his reply he uses philia.
“Yes, Lord, you know I'm your friend”.
And Jesus commissions him to “Feed my lambs.”

This happens again.
“Do you love me with God's love?”
“Lord, you know I'm your friend!”
“So take care of my sheep.”

And then the third time.
Well, that's logical, there were three denials, so perhaps three reinstatements.
But this time it is different:
“Simon, son of John, are you my friend?”

Peter doesn't quite know what to answer.
“Lord, you know everything;
you know whether I'm your friend or not!”
And Jesus tells him, again, to feed His sheep.
And comments that he will die a martyr's death, but instructs him to “Follow Me!”

And, we are told, Peter did follow Jesus.
We know he was in the upper room on the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came,
and it was he who preached so powerfully that day that three thousand people were converted.
We know he was imprisoned, and miraculously released from prison;
there is that wonderful scene where he goes and knocks on the door of the safe house,
interrupting the prayer-meeting that has been called for the sole purpose of praying for him,
and the girl who answers the door is so shocked she leaves him standing there while she goes and tells the others, and they don't believe her!
Quite the funniest scene in the Bible, I think.

Anyway, we know that Peter ended up in Rome, and, sadly, tradition tells us that he was crucified upside-down, which those who wrote down John's gospel would have known, which is arguably why it was mentioned.

But the point is, he was completely and utterly forgiven and reinstated, and God used him beyond his wildest dreams.

And so to St Paul.
Now Paul, at that stage known as Saul, also needed a special touch from God.
He couldn't have been more different from Peter, though.
He was born a Roman citizen in the city of Tarsus.
He was well-educated, and had probably gone to university,
contrasting with Peter, who, it is thought, only had the basic education that all Jewish boys of his time and class would have had.
He was a Pharisee, the most learned and holy of the Jewish religious leaders of the day.
And, like so many Pharisees, he felt totally threatened by this new religious movement that was springing up, almost unstoppably.
It was, he thought, complete nonsense, and not only that, it was blasphemy!
He set himself to hunt down and kill as many believers as he could.

But God had other ideas, and grabbed Saul on his way to Damascus.
And we all know what happened then –
he was blind for three days, and then a very brave man called Ananias came and laid hands on him,
whereupon he could see again, and then,
after some time out for prayer and study,
he became the apostle to the Gentiles, so-called, and arguably the greatest influence on Christianity ever.
He had a knack for putting the great truths about God and about Jesus into words, and even today, we study his letters very seriously.

He started off by persecuting believers, but in the end, God used him beyond his wildest dreams!

So you see the common link between these two men:
one an uneducated provincial fisherman,
the other a suave and sophisticated Pharisee, and a Roman citizen, to boot.
Peter knew how dreadfully he had sinned;
Paul thought he was in the right.
But they both needed a touch from God, they both needed explicit forgiveness,
they both needed to know that they were loved, no matter what they had done.

And they both responded.

If this had just been a story of how God spoke to two different men in two different ways, that would be one thing.
It would be a fabulous story in its own right.
It would show us that we, too, no matter how dreadful we are,
no matter how prone to screw things up,
we too could be loved and forgiven and reinstated.
And this is, of course, true. We are human.
We screw up –
that, after all, is what sin is, when you come down to it –
the human propensity to screw things up.
Which we all do in our own particular ways.
It doesn't actually matter how we mess up –
we all mess up in different ways,
and sometimes we all mess up in the same way.
It is part of being human.
God's forgiveness is constant and unremitting –
all we have to do is to receive it.
There is no more forgiveness for a mass murderer
than there is for you or for me.
And there is no less forgiveness, either.
It is offered to us all, everybody,
even the worst sort of person you can possibly imagine.
No nonsense about God hating this group of people, or that group of people.
He doesn't.
He loves them, and offers forgiveness to them as and where they need it,
just as he does to you,
and just as he does to me.

But, as I implied, that isn't quite the end of the story.
It would have been a wonderful story, even if we had never heard of Peter or of Paul again.
There are one or two marvellous stories in Acts that we don't know how they came out –
I'm thinking here of Cornelius and the Ethiopian treasury official;
both men became Christians,
one through Peter's ministry and one through Philip's,
but we are not told what became of them.
We don't know what became of the slave Onesimus, either;
the one who had to return home to Philemon,
bearing with him a letter from Paul asking Philemon to receive him as a brother in Christ.

But we do know what happened to Peter and to Paul.
They both responded to God's forgiveness.
They received it.
They offered themselves to Christ's service and, through their ministry, millions of people down the centuries have come to know and love the Lord Jesus.

Of course, they were exceptional.
We know their stories, just as we know the stories of John Wesley,
of people like Dwight L Moody, or David Livingstone,
Eric Liddell or Billy Graham.
But there are countless thousands of men and women whose stories we don't know,
who received God's forgiveness,
offered themselves to His service,
and through whose ministry many millions of men and women came to know and love the Lord.
Some of them went to live and work somewhere else,
but many of them lived out a life of quiet service exactly where they were.
Some of them, sadly, were imprisoned or even put to death for their faith,
but many died in their own beds.

And you see where this is going, don't you?
Now, I know as well as you do that this is where we all start to wriggle and to feel all hot and bothered,
and reckon we can't possibly be doing enough in Christ's service,
or that we are a rotten witness to his love and forgiveness.
But that isn't really what it's about.
For a start, we are told that when the Holy Spirit comes,
we will be witnesses to Christ –
not that we ought to be, or we must be, but that we will be!
And I know that many of you are doing all you can to serve the Lord exactly where you are, and I'm sure you're doing a wonderful job of it, too.

But maybe it never occurred to you to offer.
Maybe you accepted Jesus' forgiveness, and promised to be his person, and rather left it at that.
That's fine, of course, but what if you're missing out?
You see, the giving and offering isn't all on our side –
how could it be?
And when we offer ourselves to Christ's service, you wouldn't believe –
or perhaps you already know –
the wonderful gifts He gives to help you do whatever is is you're asked to do.
I know that sometimes people have even wondered if God could possibly be calling them to do whatever it is,
as they want to do it so badly that it might be just their own wants!
But, you see, God wouldn't call you to do something you would hate, would he?
And so what if it did end badly?
Look at a young lawyer, in a country far from here, who was thrown into prison for his faith, which led him to stand up for what he believed was right against the government of the day.
He left his country when he was released from prison –
and to this day he will tell you that it was knowing his Bible as well as he did that helped him stay sane while he was in it –
you may have known him, for some years ago he was a local vicar and now he is the Archbishop of York!

I'm rather waffling now, so I'll shut up.
But I do just want to leave this with you:
Perhaps, today, you just needed to be reminded that God loves and forgives you, whoever you are and whatever you have done.
But it maybe you need to think:
have you ever offered yourself to God's service as Peter did, as Paul did, as so many down the years have?
And is God, perhaps, calling you to something new?
Amen.