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Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Christ the King

Today is the very last Sunday of the Christian year, and it is the day on which we celebrate the feast of Christ the King.

I wonder what sort of images go through your head when you hear the word “King”. Often, one things of pomp and circumstance, the gold State Coach, jewels, servants, money…. and perhaps scandal, too. What do you think of when you think about a king? The modern monarchy is largely ceremonial, but I tell you one thing, I’d rather be represented by a hereditary monarch who is a-political than by a political head of state for whom I did not vote, and whose views were anathema to me! But it hasn’t always been like that.

We think of good, brave kings, like Edward the Third or Henry the Fifth: “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more”. We think of Elizabeth at Tilbury: “Although I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, I have the heart and stomach of a King, and a King of England, too, and think foul scorn that Parma, or Spain, or any prince of Europe should dare to invade the borders of my realm.” Or Richard the Lionheart – I’m dodging about rather here – who forsook England to fight against Muslims, which he believed was God’s will for him. Hmm, not much change there, then.

But there have been weak kings, poor kings, kings that have been deposed, kings that have seized the crown from others. Our own monarchy is far from the first to become embroiled in scandal. Think of the various Hanoverian kings, the Georges, most of whom were endlessly in the equivalent of the tabloid press, and cartoonists back then were far, far ruder than they dare to be today. You may have seen some of them in museums or in history books. The ones in the history books are the more polite ones.

But traditionally, the role of a king was to defend and protect his people, to lead them into battle, if necessary; to give justice, and generally to look after their people. They may have done this well, or they may have done it badly, but that was what they did. If you’ve read C S Lewis’ The Horse and His Boy, you might remember that King Lune tells Shasta, who is going to be king after him:
“For this is what it means to be a king: to be first in every desperate attack and last in every desperate retreat, and when there's hunger in the land (as must be now and then in bad years) to wear finer clothes and laugh louder over a scantier meal than any man in your land.”

And when we think of Christ as King, we come up against that great paradox, for Christ was, and is, above all, the Servant King. No birth with state-of-the-art medical facilities for him, but a stable in an inn-yard. No golden carriage, but a donkey. No crown, save that made of thorns, and no throne, except the Cross.

And yet, we know that God has raised him, to quote St Paul, “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” Christ was raised as King of Heaven.

And it is the Kingdom of Heaven that he preached while he was here on earth. That was the Good News – that the Kingdom of God is at hand. He told us lots of stories to illustrate what the kingdom was going to be like, how it starts off very small, like a mustard seed, but grows to be a huge tree. How it is worth giving up everything for. How “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

Jesus does lead us into battle, yes, but it is a battle “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” And through his Holy Spirit, Jesus gives us the armour to enable us to fight, the helmet of salvation, the breastplate of righteousness, et cetera, et cetera.

Jesus requires that His followers forgive one another, everything, all the time. Even the unforgivable things. Even the abusers, the tyrants, the warlords…. Even Osama bin Lade! We may not hold on to anger and hatred, for that is not the way of the Kingdom.

In our Gospel reading this morning Pontius Pilate clearly wondered what it means to name Jesus as King.

Pilate, who served the most powerful king in the world, knew what a king was. He knew about the power that a King has, the authority that he wields, the unquestioning obedience that he demands, and the power that he has to compel that obedience should it not be volunteered.

Pilate was a creature of his time, one who knew and accepted the rules – one who in fact was charged with making and enforcing the rules, and while he, like people today, sought to use those rules to his advantage, he knew what the consequences of ignoring or scoffing at the rules were.

One of the rules that Pilate was called to enforce was the rule that anyone who claimed to be a king, anyone who dared to set themselves up as an authority over and against the lawful authority of Caesar, was to be executed.

It was a rule that Pilate had no scruples about enforcing. It was a rule that he had enforced thousands of times throughout Galilee.

And so when Jesus is brought before Pilate the charge that is laid against
him is that he is a revolutionary – that he is one who unlawfully claims to be the Messiah, the King of the Jews.

The very idea that the bruised and beleaguered man that stood before him could be taken for a king must have seemed ridiculous to Pilate. He knew what Kings acted like. He knew what they looked like. He knew what even those who pretended to be kings acted like and looked like. And Jesus was not like that!

As we have seen, Jesus’ Kingdom is not of this world. He is the king who rides on a donkey, the king who requires his followers to use the weapon of forgiveness, the king who surrendered to the accusers, the scourge, and the cross.

But he is also, and let us not forget this, he is also the King who was raised on high, who triumphed over the grave, who sits at the right hand of God from whence, we say we believe, he will come to judge the living and the dead.

So are we going to follow this King?

Are we going to turn away from this world, and its values, and instead embrace the values of the Kingdom? I tell you this, my friends, most of us live firmly clinging to the values of this world. I include myself – don’t think I’m any better than you, because I can assure you, I’m not, and if I didn’t, Robert soon would! We all cling to the values of this world, and few of us truly embrace the values of the Kingdom.

But if Christ is King, since Christ is King, then we must be aware that he is our King. If we are Jesus’ people – and if you have never said “Yes” to Jesus, now would be a terrific time to do so – if we are truly following Jesus with our whole hearts and minds, then let us remember our King calls out to us from the cross and invites us to follow him and to pray fervently for the coming of his kingdom –
• a kingdom which welcomes those whom the rest of the world might find most unlikely followers,
• a kingdom in which we can ask for forgiveness from those whom we have hurt, and come to forgive those who have hurt us.

As we reach the end of one church year and look to the beginning of a new one, may the one whom we know to be King of the universe and ruler of our lives guide us in our journeys of welcome and forgiveness that our churches may include all whom God loves, and our hearts may find healing and wholeness. Amen!

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Lazarus and the Saints

Our Gospel reading today concerns the raising of Lazarus. You know the story, of course – Lazarus was the brother of Martha and Mary, and Jesus seems to have been a frequent, and beloved, visitor to their home in Bethany, just outside Jerusalem. It’s possible, if not probable, that he stayed there most years when he came up to Jerusalem for the Passover, and they certainly seem to have been among his closest friends.

Anyway, Lazarus falls ill, and they send to Jesus to come and heal him. But Jesus, unaccountably, delays for another two days. And when he does set out to go there, the disciples are rather worried, as they fear for his safety. But he explains that Lazarus has died, and God wants him raised from the dead.

And when he gets to Bethany, both Martha and Mary disobey tradition, and come out to meet him. Normally, relatives of the deceased were expected to stay seated on low stools while the visitors came to them to offer their condolences – it’s called sitting shiva, and I understand it’s done in Jewish families to this day. Anyway, Martha and Mary run out to meet him, Martha first. Jesus has this wonderful conversation with her which culminates in him saying to her, “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. Do you believe this?” and Martha replying with that wonderful declaration of faith: “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.” Martha said this. Martha. A woman – and not only a woman, but a traditional woman, usually more concerned with getting a meal for Jesus and the disciples than in learning what he had to say! It’s amazing.

Anyway, then we come to the bit we just read, where Mary comes out to Jesus in her turn, and Jesus weeps at his friend’s grave. And then he calls for the stone to be rolled away and Martha, wonderful, practical Martha, complains that it’s going to ponk quite dreadfully after four days.... but the stone gets rolled away, and Lazarus comes forth, still wrapped in his graveclothes.

Now, it’s a wonderful story, and I expect you, like me, have heard many great sermons and much wonderful teaching on it. But the reason why we had it this morning is because today is All Saints’ Day, when the church is asked to celebrate those who have gone before into glory. What is sometimes known as the Church Triumphant; we here on earth being the Church Militant. And tomorrow is the Feast of All Souls, when many churches will have special services to commem­orate those among them who have died during the year, although some will concatenate the two and have the service today. Some churches, particularly Anglican ones, will have invited the families of all those who have been bereaved – probably known because the vicar took the funeral – to come to church either today or tomorrow to commemorate their loved one. Rather a nice idea, I think. In France, All Saints’ Day is a Bank Holiday – well, this year it will be All Souls’ Day, of course, as All Saints is a Sunday! Anyway, the tradition there is to take flowers – usually chrysanthemums – to put on your loved ones’ graves.

But All Saints itself is about life, not death. Jesus said “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.”

It’s a funny word, “saint”, isn’t it? We seem to give two meanings to it. It seems to me that there are two sorts of saint. The first is a Saint with a capital S. These are often Bible people, like St Paul, of course, but there are also lots of Saints who were, in life, totally dedicated to being God’s person. To the point where, very often, they got into serious trouble, or even killed for it. There was St Polycarp, who was put to death, and when he was given a chance to recant, to say he wasn’t a Christian after all, he said very firmly that he’d served God, man and boy, for something like eighty years now, and God had never let him down,
so if they thought he was going to let God down at the last minute, they’d another think coming. Or words to that effect.

There were Saints Perpetua and Felicity, her servant. Saint Perpetua was a young mother, whose husband and father both roundly disapproved of her being a Christian, and Felicity, also a Christian, was expecting a baby when they were taken and put on trial. They were left until Felicity had had her baby – a little girl, who was brought up by her sister – and then they had to face wild beasts in the arena. And so went to glory.

There are lots of other saints, too, whose story has come down to us. Although sometimes their stories are rather less exotic than we once thought. St George, for instance, the patron saint of England: he was born in Cappadocia of noble, Christian parents and on the death of his father, accompanied his mother to Palestine, her country of origin, where she had land and George was to run the estate. He rose to high rank in the Roman army, and was martyred for complaining to the then Emperor about his persecuting the Christians – he ended up being one of the first to be put to death.

And his dragon? Oh, that was a bit of a misunderstanding. The Greek church venerated George as a soldier-saint, and told many stories of his bravery and protection in battle. The western Christians, joining with the Byzantine Christians in the Crusades, elaborated and misinterpreted the Greek traditions and devised their own version. The story we know today of Saint George and the dragon dates from the troubadours of the 14th century. Of course, you can look at it, as they did, in symbolic terms: the Princess is the church, which George rescued from the clutches of Satan. I imagine football fans often see places like Brazil or Argentina as the dragon, especially during the World Cup!

But not all Saints belong to the dawn of Christianity. There is Thomas More, for instance, who was put to death by Henry the Eighth as he wouldn’t admit that the King’s marriage to Katharine of Aragon was valid, or that the King was Head of the Church. And in our own day, Mother Theresa looks likely to be made a saint, if she hasn’t been already, although she died in her own bed. She has been beatified, which is the first stage towards being made an official Saint You don’t absolutely have to be a martyr to be made a Saint, although it helps.

So, anyway, those are just a very few of the many “Saints” with a capital S. No bad thing to read some of the stories of their lives, and learn who they were, and why the Church continues to remember them.

And then, of course, there is the other sort of saint, the saint with a small “s”. St Paul often addresses his letters to “The Saints” in such-and-such a town. He basically means the Christians. Us, in other words. We are God’s saints. We are the sanctified people – sanctified means “being made holy”, or being made more like Jesus.

And you notice that it is “being made holy”, not “making ourselves holy”. We can do nothing to become a saint by ourselves! We can’t even say that God has saved me because I believe in him – our salvation, our sainthood, is a free gift from God and we can do nothing to earn it, not even believe in God! We aren’t saved as a reward for believing – we are saved because God loves us!

We believe that, like Lazarus, we shall be raised from dead. But unlike him, we shall probably be raised to eternal life with Jesus, and God will wipe away every tear from our eyes. And we are also told that Jesus came so that we might have life, and have it abundantly. That applies to the here and now, too, not just pie in the sky when we die! Our whole lives now have that eternal dimension. That doesn’t mean, of course, that we won’t experience great sorrow here – sadly, that is part of human existence. And I don’t think it means that we can live just as we like, doing whatever we like, because God has saved us. Rather to the contrary, I think personal holiness is very important. We need to do all we can to avoid sin. Jesus shows us in some of his teachings what his people are going to be like: poor in spirit – not thinking more of themselves than they ought; mourning, perhaps for the ungodly world in which we live; meek, which means slow to anger and gentle with others; hungry and thirsty for righteousness; merciful; pure in heart; peacemakers and so on.

St Paul gives other lists of characteristics that Christians will display; you probably remember from his letter to the Galatians: Love, joy, peace, patience and so on. And he gives lots of lists of the sort of behaviour that Christians don’t do, ranging from gluttony to fornication. Basically the sort of things that put “Me” first, and make “me” the centre of my life.

But the wonderful thing is that we don’t have to strive and struggle and do violence to our own natures. Yes, of course, we are inherently selfish and it’s nearly impossible to put God first in our own strength. But the whole point is, we don’t have to do it in our own strength. That is why God sent the Holy Spirit, to come into us, fill us, and transform us. We wouldn’t be very happy in heaven if we were stuck in our old nature, after all!

But if we let God transform us, we can have abundant life here on this earth, and then we leave our bodies behind and go on to be with Jesus. And that, we are told, is even better!

Jesus asks us, “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. Do you believe this?”

Can we reply, with Martha, “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.”

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Looking for God

Our two readings today are both about people who can’t find God. Firstly Job, and then the man who we call “The rich young ruler”.

So, Job. It's a funny old story, isn't it, this story of Job. Do you know, nobody knows anything about it - what you see is totally what you get! Nobody knows who it was written, or when, or why, or whether it is true history or a fictional story - most probably the latter!

I did read that they think the first two chapters are incredibly ancient. That figures, actually, since the picture of God that we see in it is also very old - the sort of super-King holding court among the angels, and Satan not even being the Devil yet, just one of the many beings who had the right to God's ear. Rather like the earthly kings of the time, no doubt.

The source I was reading seemed to think that the poetry chapters were more recent, but even still, nobody knows who wrote them, or when. Even still, "more recent" is a relative term! The Book of Job is incredibly ancient, or parts of it are. And so it makes it very difficult for us to understand. We do realise, of course, that it was one of the earliest attempts someone made to rationalise why bad things happen to good people, but it still seems odd to us.

I think one of the oddest things is that picture of God as almost an earthly King, with his court around him. And Satan as one of the heavenly beings belonging to that court.

The story first of all establishes Job as really rich, and then as a really holy type - whenever his children have parties, which they seem to have done pretty frequently, he offers sacrifices to God just in case the parties were orgies! And so on. Then God says to Satan, hey, look at old Job, isn't he a super servant of mine, and Satan says, rather crossly, yeah, well, it's all right for him - just look how you've blessed him. Anybody would be a super servant like that. You take all those blessings away from him, and see if he still serves you! (Wealth was considered to be a sign of God's blessing).

And that, of course, is just exactly what happens. The children are all killed, the crops are all destroyed, the flocks and herds perish. So then Satan says, well, all right, Job is still worshipping you, but he still has his health, doesn't he? I bet he would sing a very different tune if you let me take his health away!

So God says, well, okay, only you mustn't kill him. And Job gets a plague of boils, which must have been really nasty - painful, uncomfortable, itchy and making him feel rotten in himself as well. Poor sod. No wonder he ends up sitting on a dung-heap, scratching himself with a piece of broken china!

And his wife, who must have suffered just as much as Job, only of course women weren't really people in those days, she says "Curse God, and die!" In other words, what do you have left to live for? But Job refuses, although he does, with some justification, curse the day on which he was born.

Then you know the rest of the story, of course. How the three "friends" come and try to persuade him to admit that he deserves all that had come upon him - we've all had friends like that who try to make our various sufferings be our fault, and who try to poultice them with pious platitudes. And Job insists that he is not at fault, and demands some answers from God! And that’s where we came in. Job feels he can’t find God to get the answers from!

“If only I knew where I could find God,
I’d pound on the door and demand a hearing.
God would have to listen to me state my case
and argue my innocence.
Let’s see what God would have to say to that!
Then I could get God’s answer clear in my head.

Would God simply pull rank and rule me out of order?
I don’t think so. Surely God would listen.
Surely if an honest bloke like me gets a fair hearing,
God would judge in my favour
and clear my name once and for all.

But I can’t find God anywhere.
I look up, down, forwards, backwards – nothing.
I think I catch a glimpse to the left, but no;
I rush to the right, but God vanishes like a mirage.”

We know what happens in the end, of course – God does eventually answer Job, and, in some of the loveliest poetry ever written, tells him that he’s all wrong. He’s looking in the wrong place. He’s looking at all his problems and trying to find a reason for them, but where he should be looking is at God, at his Creator:

“Do you give the horse its might? Do you clothe its neck with mane?
Do you make it leap like the locust? Its majestic snorting is terrible.
It paws violently, exults mightily; it goes out to meet the weapons.
It laughs at fear, and is not dismayed; it does not turn back from the sword.
Upon it rattle the quiver, the flashing spear, and the javelin.
With fierceness and rage it swallows the ground; it cannot stand still at the sound of the trumpet.
When the trumpet sounds, it says "Aha!" From a distance it smells the battle, the thunder of the captains, and the shouting.
Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars, and spreads its wings towards the south?
Is it at your command that the eagle mounts up and makes its nest on high?
It lives on the rock and makes its home in the fastness of the rocky crag.
From there it spies the prey; its eyes see it from far away.
Its young ones suck up blood; and where the slain are, there it is.”

Wonderful stuff, and it goes on for about three chapters, talking of the natural world and its wonders, and how God is the author of them all. If you ever want to rejoice in creation, read Job chapters 38, 39 and 40. And at the end, Job repents "in dust and ashes", we are told, and then his riches are restored to him. Job was looking at his problems, not at his Creator.

And so we turn to the Gospel reading, the story of the rich young ruler. Well, All three gospels tell us that the person who came was a rich man, but Matthew tells us that he was young and Luke tells us that he was a ruler. He was probably a ruler in the synagogue. So we call him the rich young ruler.

Anyway, he comes running to Jesus just as he – Jesus – is about to leave town. (Running? They didn't run in those days once they were grown up!) I wonder why he left it so late? Perhaps he really didn’t want to ask. If he was a ruler in the synagogue, he probably thought he ought to know better than this travelling preacher who has come to town. Or perhaps he was held up by looking after business – people with a lot of money do seem to have to spend an awful lot of time looking after it. But whatever, he comes racing up, falls at Jesus’ feet, and addresses him as “Good Teacher!”

Jesus fends him off by saying “No one deserves to be called ‘good’ except God”. But he sees that the young man is in earnest – he really does want to know how to gain eternal life. He is looking for God.

So Jesus answers, “Well, you’ve been brought up in the synagogue, you’re a good Jew, you know the Commandments, don’t you?” And he quotes: “‘Don’t murder; Be faithful in marriage; Don’t steal; Don’t tell lies about anyone; Don’t cheat anyone; Treat your parents with respect.’ ”

The man replied, “Teacher, I’ve kept all these rules, ever since I was a youngster.”
Jesus looked him straight in the eye and, filled with love for him, he said, “You still haven’t found what you’re looking for though, have you? Come and follow me and you’ll find it. First though, go and flog off everything you own, give the proceeds to charity, and then, with all your investments in heaven, you’ll be free to find it.”

And we are told that the man went away, very sad, because he was very rich. Even though he saw his riches as a blessing from God, the rich young ruler was looking at his money, his property, his business, not at his Creator.

Both Job and the rich young ruler were looking for God. Job couldn’t find God because he was looking at his problems. The rich young ruler couldn’t find God because he was looking at his money.

What are you looking at that comes between you and God? What, if anything, is stopping you from finding God?

Sunday, 27 September 2009

In or Out?

So which football team do you support? Or do you prefer rugby, or cricket – what’s your sport, and who’s your team? Do you play for a local team? Or did you, when you were younger?

It’s great being part of a team, isn’t it? Or perhaps being part of a group, or a gang of friends. At least it can be. But suppose you are left out? Suppose you’re the one who is always the last to be chosen because you’re hopeless at games? Suppose you’re the one they jeer at and laugh at?

Here’s another suppose. Suppose you were part of a group whose function in life was to do nice things for people – perhaps you did shopping for old people, say, or you knitted blanket squares for charity. And your group got together each week to catch up on what you’d been doing, and perhaps have a meal together, or generally have a bit of fun together. You’re a group, a gang, and it shows. People know who you are. They like you.

But then supposing you suddenly discovered that someone else was doing the same nice things as you were. The specky, nerdish kid that nobody likes. He was also fetching shopping for old people, or knitting blanket squares for charity, or whatever it was.

I wonder how you’d react. Would you think, oh, that’s nice, good for him. Or would you think, here, how dare he? He’s not one of us, what does he think he’s doing? We’re the only ones who do that job!

I think both Jesus and Moses came up against this attitude in our readings today. “How dare they! They’re not part of our group – tell them to stop!” For Jesus, it was when one of the disciples discovered that someone else was casting out demons in Jesus’ name, but it wasn’t anybody they knew and, as far as they were concerned, he had never met Jesus and he wasn’t One of Them. “We tried to make him stop,” explains John, “but he wouldn’t!”

But what was Jesus’ reaction? “"Don't stop him. No one can use my name to do something good and powerful, and in the next breath cut me down. If he's not an enemy, he's an ally. Why, anyone by just giving you a cup of water in my name is on our side. Count on it that God will notice.”

And something very much the same has happened in our Old Testament reading, too. Moses has got fed up again – Moses frequently gets fed up! This time, the children of Israel have been grumbling because they don’t like the food. God has been supplying them with Manna – nobody knows quite what that was, but it was a basic food source for them while they were wandering in the desert. Anyway, although they hated being in slavery in Egypt, they are beginning to miss all the fish, and the melons, the leeks, the cucumbers, the onions and the garlic. Well, I don’t blame them, really – I think I’d miss those things if I couldn’t have them! But not worth being a slave for! Anyway, God is a bit cross with them and says that okay, they want meat – fine, he’ll give them so much meat they’ll get sick and tired of it! At this stage, Moses doesn’t know how on earth God plans to do this – later, we learn, it was flocks of quails, which are a type of rather delicious game bird – and it all seems a bit much, so he gets his 70 elders, his team leaders, together to pray. And while this is happening, the Holy Spirit falls on the elders, and they begin to speak forth God’s word.

This was unusual in those days – the Holy Spirit didn’t come to people as a matter of routine, in the way that he does today, so when it did happen, it was thought to be a mark of God’s favour. And there are two of the elders who, for whatever reason, haven’t joined the gathering. Their names are Eldad and Medad, and they have stayed in the camp – but because they are elders, the Holy Spirit has also fallen on them. Oh dear. So, of course, someone comes running up to tell Moses, and his heir, Joshua – the same Joshua for whom the book of the Bible is named – says “Well, aren’t you going to stop them?”

Moses, I think, roars with laughter. “Are you jealous for me? I wish that all God's people were prophets. I wish that God would put his Spirit on all of them.” A wish that, of course, came true at Pentecost.

But do you see? It’s all about wanting to exclude people, isn’t it? They’re not part of the gang, so they can’t do what we do. They mustn’t be allowed. They must stop casting out demons in Jesus’ name, or they must stop speaking forth God’s word in prophecy.

Oh dear.

Not good.

Well, yes, we know that in theory, but do we know it in practice? It’s all too easy to exclude people, isn’t it? For a wide variety of reasons. Primary school kids sometimes form gangs whose whole idea is to exclude the opposite sex: No Girls Allowed; No Boys allowed. That’s relatively harmless, of course – but then you get the ones who exclude people whose skin colour is different, or who perhaps have some kind of disability. Or who are of a different religion – it is a very short step between reckoning that they’re mistaken in what they believe, to reckoning they, themselves are bad people for believing it.

None of this is nice; it’s the road to ethnic cleansing, to genocide, to the Holocaust. A road humanity has trodden all too often, and will probably tread all too often in the future.

But almost worst is when it happens in the Church. You will probably know better than I do the story of what happened when Black Christians first came over to this country with the Empire Windrush and its successors, and it’s not pretty. But that’s not the only form of exclusion, even if it is the most obvious one.

It’s what about the other Christians? People who worship God differently. People, who perhaps, disagree with us about certain issues. We are altogether too apt to say “Well, if you don’t agree with me, you’re not a Christian!” I know I’ve been guilty of that in my time. We try to limit God – who is in, who is out? Who’s in God’s gang?

But God doesn’t. We’re not Christians because of what we do or don’t believe; we’re Christians because God loves us and has sent his Son to die for us. We have responded to that, but that’s not what has saved us – God has!

There is a man in America1 who, for a variety of reasons, has decided to spend this year worshipping in a different church every Sunday, not just Christian churches, either, but Jewish and all sorts. I’ve been following his blog for the last couple of months; I can’t remember how I first found it. It’s fascinating reading his journal, and watching his faith grow and develop. A couple of weeks ago he went to a church that he found constraining – they were, for his taste, too negative, too full of “Thou shalt nots”. And after some thought – and argument with people from that church who commented on his reflections – and a Sunday spent worshipping in a Church that was rather more to his taste, he has this to say:

“I don't care who you are, what you've done, who you voted for, how often you read the Bible, or what your political stance is on gay marriage or abortion. I don't care if you are gay, straight, or bisexual. I don't care if you've had sex with a thousand people or you're forty years old and saving yourself for marriage. I don't care if you are Methodist, Catholic, Muslim, or you sat next to me at the Church of Scientology. GOD LOVES YOU. Not because of what you can do for him, but because he's freaking God, so he doesn't need you to do a damn thing. He loves you because he made you. He created you to be the jacked up person you are, and he loves you in spite of your flaws. You're the Prodigal Son. So am I. And God is running toward us with open arms. Nothing else matters except his desire to welcome us back home. And he's waiting. Despite the thousands of rules Pharisees will lay on you to convince you that you're unworthy of God's love, God says you are worthy because of the sacrifice Jesus made two thousand years ago. Period. Bottom line. End of story.”

To which I could only respond: “Amen!” And, that being the case, how dare we exclude anybody? They may not worship God the same way we do; they may look different, or behave differently. They may have quite different views about all sorts of issues that we think are important. But, as Jesus said, “Why, anyone by just giving you a cup of water in my name is on our side. Count on it that God will notice.”

And then Jesus went on to give a warning: “On the other hand, if someone –however insignificant they might seem – is believing in me and you put up a road block and turn them back, you’ll be made to pay for it. You’d have been better off being dumped in the middle of the bay wearing concrete boots.”

You see, it does matter. We are all part of God’s kingdom, and woe betide us if we try to exclude anybody, or try to make someone else feel they don’t fit in. God is Love – and woe betide us if we try to cut anybody off from that love. Just because they aren’t on our team doesn’t mean they’re rubbish players!

1 http://stevenfuller.blogspot.com

Friday, 14 August 2009

Mary

Yesterday, in some parts of the Christian Church, was a major festival in the Church’s calendar. It’s what’s called the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and celebrates the belief that her body, as well as her soul, was taken to heaven after she’d died. Or possibly even before, it’s not clear. Either way, it’s a very old tradition, going right back to the early years of Christianity, even though there’s nothing about it in Scripture. And even those Christians, like us, who don’t necessarily subscribe to that doctrine, do still consider 15 August one of the Festivals of Saint Mary.

And even though we Protestants don’t really think about Mary much, the fact that she’s such an important figure in so much of Christianity means she’s probably worth thinking about from time to time.

So what do we actually know about her from the Bible, as opposed to tradition? She first appears in our Bibles when Gabriel comes to her to ask her if she will bear Jesus, and, of course, as we all know, she said she would, and Joseph agreed to marry her despite her being pregnant with a baby he knew he wasn’t responsible for. I do rather love Luke’s stories about Mary – how one of the things the angel had said to her was that her relation, Elisabeth, was pregnant after all those years. And, as we heard in our reading, Mary rushes off to visit her. Was this to reassure herself that the angel was telling the truth? Or to congratulate Elisabeth? Or just to get away for a bit of space, do you suppose? We aren’t told. But Elisabeth recognises Mary as the mother-to-be of the promised Saviour, and Mary’s response is that great song that we now call the “Magnificat”. Or if it wasn’t exactly that – that may well be Luke putting down what she ought to have said, like Shakespeare giving Henry V that great speech before Agincourt – it was probably words to that effect! I think she was very, very relieved to find the angel had been speaking the truth, and probably did explode in an outpouring of praise and joy!

And later, in Bethlehem, when the shepherds come to visit her, we are told that she “kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.”

The next time we see Mary is when Jesus is twelve and gets separated from them in the Temple. I spent a lot of time with that story when Emily was a teenager – how Mary and Joseph say to Jesus, “But why did you stay behind? Didn’t you realise we’d be worried about you?” and Jesus goes, “Oh, you don’t understand!” – typical teenager!

We don’t see Joseph again after this – tradition has it that he was a lot older than Mary, and, of course, he had a very physical job. It wasn’t just a carpenter as we know it – the Greek word is “technion”, which is the same root as our “technician”; if it had to do with houses, Joseph did it, from designing them, to building them, to making the furniture that went in them! And tradition has it that sometime between Jesus’ 12th birthday, and when we next see him, Joseph has died.

But we see a lot more of Mary. She is there at the wedding at Cana, and indeed, it’s she who goes to Jesus when they’ve run out of wine. And Jesus says, at first, “Um, no – my time has not yet come!” but Mary knew. And she told the servants to “Do whatever he tells you”, and, sure enough, the water is turned into wine.

There’s a glimpse of her at one point when Jesus is teaching, and he’s told his mother and brother are outside waiting for him, but he refuses to be diverted from what he’s doing. And, of course, it could have been that it was just random people who said they were his relations to try to get closer to him.

We see Mary, of course, weeping at the Cross – something no mother should ever have to do. And Jesus commending her into the care of the “beloved disciple” John. And, finally, we see her in the Upper Room in Jerusalem when the Holy Spirit came.

That’s really all we know about her from the Bible, but other early traditions and writings, including some of what’s called the apocryphal gospels – they’re the ones that didn’t make the cut into the New Testament as we know it – tell us a bit more. They tell us that her mother was called Anne and her father was called Joachim, and that she was only about 16 when Gabriel came to her. One source has it that Anne couldn’t have babies, and when Mary finally arrived, she was given to be reared in the Temple, like Samuel. And traditional sources also tell us that she went to live in Ephesus, probably with John, and died somewhere between 3 and 15 years after the Crucifixion, surrounded by all the apostles. And that her body was taken up to heaven, which is where we came in!

Well, so far, so good, but how did they get from there to the veneration of her, not to say worship in some cases, that we see today? This may be something you find difficult to understand – I certainly do – and that’s okay. We aren’t required to do more than honour her as the Mother of our dear Lord; we mention her when we say the Creed, of course, and there are lots of churches dedicated to her. My parents’ church in Clapham – some of you have been there – is dedicated to St Mary the Virgin, as are loads of other churches around the world.

But we do not think of her as quasi-divine in some way. We do believe that Jesus was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, not by ordinary human means, but that this was something that happened in time, not in eternity! She became the Mother of God – she was not the Mother of God before Jesus was born.

It’s been fascinating, reading up on all the various Marian theologies to prepare this sermon. I don’t propose to go into them now – I don’t understand some of them at all, and anyway, it would take too long. It would appear, though, that while veneration of Mary is very ancient indeed, the theological study of her is comparatively recent. Actually, theology isn’t quite the right word, given that that is the study of God - I think the technical term is “Mariology”. And when it spins over into giving Mary that worship that properly belongs to God alone, it becomes “Mariolatry”.

I wonder, though, just how it happened that veneration of Mary became such a thing among Roman Catholic Christians. Orthodox Christianity also venerate her, but make it quite clear that she is not divine – the distinction, sometimes, among Catholics gets a bit blurred. One theory I have heard put forward is that she gives a female aspect to Christianity, which may or may not be lacking from the Trinity. Well, if that is so, how come Protestant women have managed without for so many generations? (I added something here which I only thought of the night before I preached about goddess-worship, and maybe it carried over - people were used to worshipping a Mother goddess).

We Protestants, of course, do have a choice – there is a tradition of venerating Mary in some parts of the Protestant Church, but it is far from compulsory. We honour her as the Mother of our dear Lord – and we honour her, too, for her bravery in saying “Yes” to God like that. After all, had Joseph repudiated her for carrying someone else’s child, she could have ended up on the streets!

As for the Assumption – well, who knows? Some Catholics think she was still alive when that happened, but the official position is unclear. The Orthodox call it the Dormition, or falling-asleep, and celebrate her death, but they, too, believe her body was carried up to heaven. But I am amused to learn that in Italy, the day is called “Ferragosto”, and is far older than Christianity – it was originally a festival of the goddess Diana, and became a public holiday during the reign of the Emperor Augustus! We Christians do like to take a pagan festival and turn it into something else, don’t we?! (And goddess-worship, perhaps!)

But what, then, can we learn from Mary? We don’t tend to think of her very much, at least, I don’t. But there is that incredible bravery that said “Yes” to God – and remember, she didn’t know the end of the story, not at that stage! There are times I wonder what she must think of it all! But she was totally submitted to God in a way that very few people can claim to be.

And, of course, there is what she said to the servants at that wedding in Cana - “Do whatever He tells you”. And that’s not a bad motto to live by, either: Do whatever Jesus tells you. Amen.

Friday, 7 August 2009

Commissioning Service, 9 August 2009

A was commissioned as a Local Preacher on Sunday 9 August, and asked me to preach at the service, which I was delighted to do.

From Deuteronomy chapter 33 and verse 27: “Underneath are the everlasting arms”. “Underneath are the everlasting arms.”

I think this verse is one of the loveliest in the Bible, particularly on an occasion like this. For while we as a circuit are rejoicing in the admission of a new local preacher – something that really doesn’t happen very often, according to our Plan the last time was in 1997, so you see, it is very special – I expect A has rather mixed feelings. Joyful, yes, certainly, but who could blame her if she also felt rather scared? I know I did, when I was accredited all those years ago. Quite apart from the practical considerations – I remember worrying about how on earth I was going to say “With God’s help I will” several times without sounding like a complete plonker? – those promises? Am I ever going to be able to keep them? For the rest of my life? Okay, one can resign as a local preacher, but few of us do; we are aware that this call is for life. Whether or not we go on to ordained ministry, as some of us do, or whether we stay ministers of the Word, our calling as one of Mr Wesley’s preachers – I like that description of us – is for life! That’s scary. And then there’s that sneaky feeling we all get – at least, I get, and I’m sure I’m not the only one – that somehow or another They, whoever They are, will discover I’m nothing but a great fraud!

Well, of course I am. We all are. If you think preachers, or even ministers, are anything other than ordinary people with ordinary emotions who get just as cross and tired and fed up as you do, think again! We’re exactly the same, it’s just that this is the work God has given us to do, whereas you will have been called to do something different. It’s like that great myth we perpetuate on our children that there is a such a thing as a grown-up! We go on feeling exactly the same inside as we did when we were 12.

But the thing is, whatever it is we are called to do, whether that is preaching, or teaching Sunday School, or being on the Church Council, or doing flowers, or whatever, we can only do it with God’s help. Actually, really, even though we might make a pretty good job of being human by ourselves, if we are to be fully and truly the people God designed us to be, we need God’s help to be that.

About ten days ago I went up to Trafalgar Square. You might know that there is a project going on at the moment where ordinary people spend one hour on the Fourth Plinth, doing whatever they like up there. I went up because a Methodist minister planned to celebrate Communion that day, which duly happened and was very moving. But the point is, because people are standing up on that plinth for an hour at a time, day in and day out for several months, they have put a safety-net round it. And when I saw it, I thought, “Underneath are the everlasting arms!” If a person were unlucky enough to fall off the plinth, he or she wouldn’t fall far, because of the safety net. And it’s the same, I find, for me as a preacher, and I’m sure A will find the same, too. She probably already has found it!

You see, all we have as preachers is words. Sometimes we’re happy with our words; we know our thoughts have lined up correctly and make sense. Perhaps we even have three points beginning with the same letter! Other times, though, we know we’re struggling. We aren’t at all sure that we have teased any sense at all out of the passage; our arguments don’t hang together. Did we start a red herring and not come back to draw it into the rest of our thoughts at the end? Isn’t it most frantically dull? I remember once that I was about to preach on the fruit of the Spirit, and it was an all age worship service, and I wasn’t any too sure about the sermon as it was. I’d bought a bowl of fruit along to act as a visual aid – and the last straw was when I sat on the banana in the vestry! I burst into tears and said “I can’t go on, I can’t do this!” but, of course, I had to. And do you know, it wasn’t that bad?! Fifteen years or so later I can laugh about it, of course, but it wasn’t funny at the time. But underneath were the everlasting arms – and God took that squashed banana, and the words of that sermon, and lifted them and did something with them, as I have to trust he does with all my sermons, and as all of us preachers have to trust he does, week after week. Underneath are the everlasting arms. My job, A’s job, is to supply the words – and to let God take care of the rest. One minister once pointed out to me that even that isn’t always the case, as God sees to it that people only ever hear what He wants them to hear, anyway! Underneath are the everlasting arms.

Like many of us, I have magnets on my fridge. Some are a bit random, but I have six butterflies that I found in one of those kitschy shops they used to have in Clapham. I like the butterflies, because they remind me of growth and change, and how scary that can be. As you know, a butterfly, like many insects, starts life as a tiny caterpillar, and then pupates and becomes something quite different, before it is born anew as a butterfly. The actual butterfly bit is a very tiny part of its life; some species last no more than a day or so, if that. Mayflies, for instance, don’t even have mouths – all that they are interested in is reproducing themselves, finding a mate, laying their eggs, if female, and then dying. And the whole cycle takes two years or so to fulfil.

And when they actually go to become a butterfly, or mayfly, or dragonfly, or whatever insect they are due to become, the caterpillar has to pupate. That isn’t just a matter of hibernating, like a dormouse or bear; they have to be completely remade. While they are in the pupa, all their bits dissolve away, and are made from scratch, from the material that is there. It’s not just a matter of rearranging what is there, it’s a matter of total breakdown and starting again. The insects are quite literally born again!

Wouldn’t it be frightening if that sort of thing were to happen to us? Of course, in one sense it will, after we die, when we’re told that we will be raised in a new body. But it’s not necessarily about death. In our Gospel reading, Jesus says “The person who loves his life will lose it, while the person who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Now, I don’t really think that this means quite what it says on the tin – what sort of God would we serve who condemned us to lose a life we loved, but to keep one we hated? In Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, you often used very exaggerated expressions – if you wanted to say you preferred apples to pomegranates, for instance, you would say that you loved apples, and hated pomegranates. Remember how God allegedly said “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated”. Same thing – just meant Jacob was the chosen one, not Esau. And it's like that when Jesus says “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”

He doesn't mean to actually hate them, of course – how could he? Not when he tells us to love one another! But the idea is to put Jesus first.

And similarly, in this passage, he doesn't mean it's wrong to be happy! We aren't meant to hate our lives and loathe ourselves – again, how could we, when we are commanded to love our neighbours as we love ourselves? It's fine to be happy, it's fine to enjoy life, it's fine to love, and to be loved. But, if we are to be Jesus’ people, we do need to keep a light hold on things. And we need to be prepared to change and grow, as God calls us. If our caterpillar never turned into a pupa, it would never turn into a butterfly, either.

Today is a major step for A along the path that God is leading her. It’s a happy, wonderful occasion. It can feel quite normal, too – you know you’re doing the right thing, the thing God wants for you. It’s normal. But at the same time, it’s a step into the unknown, a step in the dark. I remember feeling that I wasn’t ready to be launched on to Full Plan yet; I couldn’t do it all by myself. But I didn’t have to, and A won’t have to. Underneath are the everlasting arms.

Pray for A, and for me, and for the other preachers in this circuit. We need your prayers, in fact, we rely on them. We know we are doing the work God has for us, and in that we rejoice – but we are still ordinary human beings, and we still need your prayers.

My father tells a story of a man who fell down a cliff, but was lucky enough to catch on to a tree-root part of the way down. And he was stuck, and scared, and in danger. So he prays “Is anybody out there?” And the voice comes, “Yes, I am God, and I am here. Just let yourself fall, and I will catch you!”

So the man thinks about it for a few moments, and then he calls out “Is there anybody else out there?”

I imagine that for A right now this minute, it feels as though she’s about to step off a cliff! But underneath are the everlasting arms, and God will catch her, as he caught me, as he has caught so many of us. Amen.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Come and Rest

I don’t know about you, but, especially at this time of year, when I greet people and say “How are you?” I tend, more and more, to get the response: “I’m really tired!” or “I’m exhausted!” or something stronger. People just seem to be tired all the time, have you found that? Perhaps you feel really tired all the time? I have several friends who have, or who have had, that most distressing syndrome called myalgic encephalitis, or ME, the main symptom of which is extreme exhaustion – and I mean, totally extreme, where you can’t even chop up vegetables for supper because your arms are so weak. And others, who don’t have that condition, but who are nevertheless frequently so tired they don’t know what to do with themselves. I get like that sometimes, I know!

Modern life is incredibly stressful and tiring. People are so scared of losing their jobs that they are working as many hours as they possibly can, arriving early and leaving late, as though by working longer hours they’re actually being more productive. Of course, what really happens is that they get more and more tired, and their work becomes less and less good, so they have to spend longer and longer doing it, and get more and more tired.... and so on.

And this has led to shops being open later and later, so the people who work in them don’t get to go home, either. Of course, supermarkets employ people on shifts, and many students and, perhaps, those who look after children all day, are glad of an evening shift or two to help the budget. But again, people end up really tired, mistakes get made, and tempers get frayed.

In our Gospel reading today, Jesus and his disciples were really tired, too. The disciples had just been out on a mission, and were longing to tell him all about it. Jesus himself was tired and sad because his cousin John had just been put to death by the King. So they were in dire need of a rest and a breather. And Jesus said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.” Sadly, they couldn’t have as long a rest as they would have liked, because the crowds followed them and needed to be fed. And, in the bit of the story we didn’t read, Jesus feeds the five thousand, and then, absolutely desperate for a bit of time alone with his Father, to come to terms with what has been happening just lately, sends them on across the lake ahead of him, and then he comes to join them by walking across the lake.

Jesus himself would have been seriously in need of some time of quiet – if it was like Mark portrays it in his gospel, it was non-stop hustle, hustle, hustle. He was constantly on the move, healing people, performing miracles, and so on. And all his plans for a breather never seem to work out – when he went home for the weekend, the people of his home town were all, “well, who do you think you are, then?” and sneering at him, even, so Luke tells us, going so far as to throw stones at him. When he goes off with his disciples right outside Jewish territory, a woman comes to him to beg him to heal her daughter. When he goes off with them for a bit of quiet, as in this story, so that they can all rest and recharge their batteries after a busy mission, the crowds follow him, and, at the end of our reading we are told that wherever he went, sick people were brought out to touch him, and all who touched him were healed.

Whew! No wonder he badly needed time alone with his Father! And, I think, we could do a lot worse than follow his example. “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.” Yes, this is going to be one of those sermons, reminding us to use what Wesley calls “The means of grace” which God has placed at our disposal. And, heaven knows, I need to hear it just as much as you do! It’s one of those guilt-producers, isn’t it – no matter how great our prayer-life may be – and, trust me, mine isn’t! – we always feel that we ought to be able to do more.

The thing is, though, that when we are very tired – and who isn’t, these days? – prayer can feel almost impossible. But Jesus shows us that it is just when we are tired that it’s most important. And the other thing is that there are plenty of resources around to help.

It is one of the things that I regret, that when I was a young Christian, that I was never really taught about different ways of prayer. They just told me I needed to pray and to read my Bible – as, indeed, I do need to – but they didn’t tell me about the different ways that this could be done. My model ended up being that of the public prayer meeting. Now, nothing wrong with that, of course – it’s an excellent way to pray, but it turned out not really to suit me. I was delighted – surprised, but delighted – when I found out that there were other ways of praying that could be used.

In fact, there are whole libraries of books out there explaining different ways of praying, from the “lectio divina” of the Benedictines, reading and meditating on a Bible passage, allowing God to speak to you through it, via the “sanctified imagination” of the Ignatians, where you imagine yourself into the scene, right up to just sitting and being in God’s presence. Not just letting your mind wander, but staying focussed, being aware of your body and your breathing, and of God’s presence. Contemplative prayer, they call it. And there are even Christians who practice what they call Christian meditation, which is basically like any other form of meditation, only using the word “Maranatha”, i.e. “Come, Lord Jesus”, to focus on, rather than a Hindu word. There is a group that meets each week at Clapham Methodist Church if you are interested in trying that out for yourself.

Or you can use a rosary – John Wesley did, so there is good precedent! While I was researching for this sermon, I discovered there is also something called Anglican prayer beads, which are four sets of seven beads, divided by four larger beads, with a cross on the end – the idea is you develop your own way of using these for prayer, perhaps praying a Bible verse on the larger beads, and then something like “Lord Jesus Christ, Lamb of God, Saviour” on the smaller ones. Or a holding cross, which is wonderful when you are ill and tired and too weak to pray – you can just literally cling to the cross of Christ! But again, you can develop your own ways of praying with it. Talking of visual aids, many people light a candle at the start of their prayer time, and I don’t know about you, but sometimes I use a candle flame to help me focus in prayer, particularly in a quiet service with lots of space for private worship in it. Music helps some people, too – hymns, or choral music, or even plainsong.

The point is, prayer is a bit like exercise – one size doesn’t fit all. You know that the best exercise for you is the one you like and will actually do, and the same applies to spiritual exercises. It’s well worth spending some time researching different ways of prayer that different groups of Christians have found helpful. There are plenty of sites out there to help. My particular favourite is a site called Pray as you Go, which provides, for each day of the week, a 15-minute podcast that you can download on to your mp3 player and listen to when convenient. It starts with some music – usually a hymn or psalm, often from another culture – and then a guided introduction to prayer. Then there is a scripture reading, and a very brief meditation on the reading, which is then repeated, and a few moments more of the day’s music before the podcast finishes with the Grace. Rather good to listen to on public transport, I find.

But there are plenty of other resources out there. I recommend a New Zealand site called Liturgy – don’t worry, I’ve got all these written down if you want a copy to have an explore for yourself – which has links to daily readings and prayers, and to other sites such as Benedictine Nuns singing the Offices of Lauds and Vespers – again, rather wonderful to listen to. There are also links to morning, afternoon and night prayer if you are the kind of person who finds a written liturgy helpful – the prayers and psalms change from day to day.

Talking of listening, if you don’t go on-line much or at all, don’t forget the weekly Choral Evensong broadcast on Wednesday afternoons on BBC3 at 4:00 pm, and repeated on Sundays, also at 4:00. We listened last week, as it was from Winchester Cathedral, and a friend of my daughter’s is one of the professional choristers there. They call them Vicars Choral, which is rather grand.

The point is, it doesn’t actually matter how you pray! Whether you use your own words, or other people’s, or none at all; whether you prefer to listen to music or to sing yourself; whether you use a rosary or prayer beads or whether those do simply nothing for you. What matters is that we spend time with our Lord, that we go by ourselves with him to a quiet place and rest awhile. It’s worth trying out a different way of praying from time to time.

After all, as we grow and change – and I hope we are all growing and changing, and allowing God to mould us into the people He created us to be – a way of prayer that was perfect for us some years ago might well not be quite such a good fit now, and something that seemed not even to be prayer back then might turn out to be the exact thing your spirit has been craving! And if it doesn’t work for you, if you find that you can’t use a given method to get and stay in touch with God, that’s fine, too. There’s plenty of other ways! What matters is that we pray, not how! And may God the Holy Spirit help us and guide our prayers.

Resources


Pray As You Go – Daily prayer for your MP3 player.

Liturgy NZ "Virtual Chapel" – Collection of resources for daily prayers, including links to sung offices.

Oremus.org - More resources and links for daily prayer

Anglican prayer beads, with links to how to make them.

Choral Evensong on BBC Radio 3 at 4:00 pm on Wednesdays, repeated 4:00 pm on Sundays.

Holding crosses - £4.99 each from here; you can also get them from the gift shop at Westminster Cathedral, but they are £6.99 there!

Rosaries can be bought in Brixton Market, among other places.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Without Honour

I don't actually like the title for this sermon, but it was the working title and I didn't change it.

Once upon a time there was a big flood, and people had to climb up on to the roofs of their houses to escape. One guy thought this was a remarkable opportunity to demonstrate, so he thought, God’s power, so he prayed “Dear Lord, please come and save me.”

Just then, someone came past in a rowing-boat and said “Climb in, we’ll take you to safety!”

“Oh, no thank you,” said our friend, “I’ve prayed for God to save me, so I’ll just wait for Him to do so.”

And he carried on praying, “Dear Lord, please save me!”

Then along came the police in a motor-launch, and called for him to jump in, but he sent them away, too, and continued to pray “Dear Lord, please save me!”

Finally, a Coastguard helicopter came and sent down someone on a rope to him, but he still refused, claiming that he was relying on God to save him.

And half an hour later, he was swept away and drowned.

So, because he was a Christian, as you can imagine, he ended up in Heaven, and the first thing he did when he got there was go to to the Throne of Grace, and say to God, “What do you mean by letting me down like this? I prayed and prayed for you to rescue me, and you didn’t!”

“My dear child,” said God, “I sent you two boats and a helicopter – what more did you want?”

In a way, that’s rather what happened to Jesus in our Gospel reading this morning. What a difference from last week’s reading! You remember, we looked at the story of Jesus healing the little girl and the old woman. Jesus was mighty popular then, all right.

But then what happens? He goes home for the weekend. Big mistake! Because on the Sabbath Day, he goes to the synagogue with his family, and because he’s home visiting for the weekend, they ask him to choose the reading from the Prophets. Luke’s version of this story tells us that he read from the prophet Isaiah, the bit where it says: “The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD's favour and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn.”

Mark doesn’t go into such detail, but he does tell us that Jesus’ friends and family were amazed. “Where did this man get these things?” they asked. “What's this wisdom that has been given him, that he even does miracles!” And we’re told they were rather offended. “He’s only the Carpenter’s son, Mary’s lad. These are his brothers and sisters. He can’t be special.” And they were offended, so we are told. Luke says they even picked up stones to throw at him to make him go away. But Mark says that he could do no miracles there, just one or two healings.

And he was amazed at their lack of faith.

After all, they thought, what did he know? He’s just a local lad, a builder. Ought to be home working with his brothers, not gadding about the country claiming to be a prophet. They couldn’t hear God’s voice speaking through him. They didn’t expect to, and they didn’t want to. Like the man in my story, they had very definite ideas about how God worked, and working through a local boy they’d known since childhood wasn’t one of them!

You know, I really love King’s Acre. I’ve been worshipping here regularly for more than half my life – I first came over thirty years ago, a young bride of 25 years old. You people have known me for years, you’ve stood by me in my struggles with the faith, you’ve prayed for me, you’ve loved me. When I decided, tentatively, that it was just possible that God was calling me to be a preacher, you didn’t laugh at me. You encouraged me, you prayed for me, you supported me. You rejoiced with me when I was commissioned – seventeen years ago this month, it doesn’t seem possible, does it? In short, you’ve known me for the best part of my life, you’ve watched me grow up, you’ve helped me grow up, and you accept me for who I am. And my goodness, I thank God for you!

But it could have been different. You could have turned round and said, what her? Who does she think she is, thinking God has called her to preach? You could have refused to listen to me.

Now, obviously I’m not Jesus, but I hope that sometimes God does use me to bring His word to you – that part of it isn’t my problem, of course! I have no way of knowing what God wants to say to you this morning, I just preach what I think I’m given to say, and trust God for the rest. But the point is, if you refused to listen to me, simply because I’m Annabel and you’ve known me since I was little more than a girl, that would be treating me rather like the people of Nazareth treated Jesus.

Do we have definite ideas about how God works, I wonder? Do we expect to see God working in the ordinary, the every day? Or do we expect him always to come down with power and fire from Heaven? Do we expect Him to speak to us through other people, perhaps even through me, or do we expect Him to illuminate a verse of the Bible specially, or write His message in fiery letters in the sky?

We do sometimes, because we are human, long and long to see God at work in the spectacular, the kind of thing that Jesus used to do when he healed the sick and even raised the dead. And very occasionally God is gracious enough to give us such signs. But mostly, He heals through modern medicine, guiding scientists to develop medicine and surgical techniques that can do things our ancestors only dreamed about. And through complementary medical techniques which address the whole person, not just the illness. And through love and hugs and sympathy and support.

We do need to learn to recognise God at work. All too often, we walk blindly through our week, not noticing God – and yet God is there. God is there and going on micro-managing His creation, no matter how unaware of it we are. And God is there to speak to us through the words of a friend, or an acquaintance. If we need rescuing, God is a lot more likely to send a friend to do it than to come in person!

And conversely, we need to be open to God at work in us, so that we can be the friend who does the speaking, or the rescuing. Not that God can’t use people who don’t know him – of course He both can and does – but the more open we are to being His person, the more we allow Him to work in us, to help us grow into the sort of person He created us to be, then the more He can use us, with or without our knowledge, in His world. Who knows, maybe the supermarket cashier you smiled at yesterday really needed that smile to affirm her faith in people, after a bad day. Or the friend you telephoned just to have a catch-up with was badly needing to chat to someone – not necessarily a serious conversation, just a chat. You will never know – but God knows.

We are, of course, never told “what would have happened”, but I wonder what would have happened if the people of Nazareth had been open to Jesus. He could have certainly done more miracles there. Maybe he wouldn’t have had to have become an itinerant preacher, going round all the villages. Maybe he could have had a home. I think God may well have used the rejection to open up new areas of ministry for Jesus – after all, we do know that God works all things for good.

And, finally, what happened to the people of Nazareth? The answer is, nothing. Nothing happened. God could do no work there through Jesus. Okay, a few sick people were healed, but that was all. The good news of the Kingdom of God was not proclaimed. Miracles didn’t happen. Just. . . nothing.

We do know, of course, that in the end his family, at least, were able to get their heads round the idea of their lad being The One. His Mother was in the Upper Room on the Day of Pentecost. James, one of his brothers, was a leader in the early church. But were they the only ones? Did anybody else from Nazareth believe in Him, or were they all left, sadly, alone?

I think that’s an Awful Warning, isn’t it? If we decide we need to know best who God chooses to speak through, how God is to act, then God can do nothing. And God will do nothing. If he sends two boats and a helicopter and we reject them because we don’t see God’s hand at work in them, then we will be left to our own devices. As the people of Nazareth were.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Twelve Years

Twelve years. The story in today’s gospel reading is about two people who, for twelve years, have led very different lives.

Twelve years is a very long time. Twelve years ago, it was 1997. Most of us, at least those of us who were alive twelve years ago, were worshipping here then, but things were very different.

We were still a local Ecumenical project. Sheila was our minister. The Conservative Government finally came to an end, and Tony Blair was elected Prime Minister in May. Emily was in the Lower Sixth at School, and went into the Upper Sixth in September. And in that September, Diana Princess of Wales and Dodi Fayed were killed in a car-crash in Paris. It feels like a long time ago.

But Chelsea won the FA cup – some things don’t change! I think they were just as international then as they are now. Michelle Kwan took Silver in the Figure Skating World Championships, and is still talking of making a come-back next year. I wonder whether she will. And in other sporting news, Jan Ullrich won the Tour de France for the first time. Pete Sampras and Martina Hingis won Wimbledon.

Ummm, what else happened in 1997? It was just before the infamous Dot-com bubble that was to build up over the next couple of years, so e-mail and Internet access, although growing, wasn’t nearly as ubiquitous as it is today. Most people still had dial-up connections, so you couldn’t be on-line and talk on the phone at the same time, and you couldn’t download television programmes or anything like that – if you knew you were going to miss a television programme, you set your video to record it on to tape. People did have mobile phones, but children didn’t, by and large. Your home or business telephone number was still the first thing you thought of when people wanted to contact you – and you mostly had a telephone-answering machine at home if you needed one, since the useful 1571 service wasn’t launched until 2001. Our telephone numbers, by the way, began 0171 or possibly 0181, depending on the exchange.

Such is the pace of change, that twelve years is a different world for us now.

And for the little girl in today’s story, it was a whole lifetime. She was twelve years old, so Luke’s version of the story tells us – beginning to grow up. She would, perhaps, be expecting her parents to start thinking of a husband for her within the next couple of years – her culture, you were more or less grown-up at 13. We don't know her name; women in the Bible don't tend to have names very often. We do know that her father was called Jairus, and he was a leader of the synagogue in Capernaum. I don't know if that means he was a rabbi, or whether he was the local equivalent of a church steward or something. Not that it matters. What does matter is that he loved his daughter, and now she was ill. Seriously ill. Her short life was ending almost before it had properly begun.

And there was the other woman, the one for whom twelve years was not so much a lifetime as a life sentence. The one with the haemorrhage. Twelve years of constant nagging, dragging pain. Twelve years of constant blood loss, of constantly feeling unwell, of constantly being tired and anaemic.

And, worst of all, twelve years of total social isolation. You see, back then, if you were a woman and you were bleeding, you were considered unclean. Nobody could touch you, or they risked becoming unclean, too. Your husband certainly couldn’t touch you – not even a cuddle. She couldn't go to the Temple, or to her synagogue, to worship. If she sat in a chair, that chair would be unclean for the rest of the day. And so on. She was basically cut off from normal social contact. We aren’t told whether this woman was married, although it was very unusual not to be in her society. But if she was, it’s quite probable that her husband had consoled himself elsewhere.

And nothing was helping. She’d spent all her money on seeing doctors, but they hadn’t been able to help, and the problem was, if anything, growing worse. She was becoming weaker, and knew that soon she would be too weak to carry on. Her life, too, was drawing to a close – and it may well be that she was profoundly grateful that it was happening.

But then, a rumour swept through the crowds. Jesus of Nazareth was visiting Capernaum today! Everybody had heard of Jesus of Nazareth. He had done some spectacular healings. Maybe, just maybe....

Jairus, it seems, had no doubts. The doctors hadn't helped his girl, and she was dying. Maybe this Jesus could help. Nothing to lose, anyway. At worst, he could do nothing for her. And at best.... well, perhaps Jairus didn't really allow himself to hope what that best would be.

The woman with the haemorrhage may or may not have doubted. Probably she was in despair, too. And anyway, Jesus wouldn’t look at the likes of her. She didn’t have any money. She didn’t have clout, like a synagogue leader. She was just a lonely old woman.

But the crowd was so huge that Jesus could barely walk up the street. The disciples were going, “Excuse me, excuse me, make way there now, oh would you please shift your – er – yourselves”, but progress was very slow. And the woman, caught up in the crowd, suddenly plucked up the courage and just, with one finger, touched his cloak.

And Jesus felt it. In all the crowd, with people everywhere, jostling and rubbing up against him, he felt that one deliberate touch. "Who touched me?" he asked. We aren't told the tone of voice he said it in. Sometimes, preachers seem to reckon he was irritated, angry even. I don't think so. I think he was full of compassion and love. He knew. He may not have known who she was, but he knew why she was hiding.

For Jesus, being ritually unclean didn’t matter. Sure, he was a devout Jew, worshipping in the synagogue every week, going to Jerusalem as often as possible, but for him, people mattered a lot more than ritual. You’ll remember he makes rude remarks to the Pharisees about their habit of tithing every herb in the garden, but refusing to take care of elderly parents. People, to Jesus, mattered far more than ritual. He was quite prepared to visit the centurion's house to heal his servant, even though that would have made him unclean.

Not that he could have been made unclean by her touch – it is, after all, He who confers cleanliness upon us, not us who make him unclean. But would Jesus, walking about on earth, have known that? Arguably not. I think, for him, it was more a matter of minding about people more than about rituals, without really realising why. So he doesn't care that the woman may or may not have rendered him unclean. What he does care about is that everybody should know that she is now well, and thus no longer a social outcast. So he says to her "Go in peace; your faith has made you well!"

And then to the little girl, who, if she wasn't already dead, was very close to death. But Jesus never let a little thing like being dead stop a healing, and he reached out to her and held her hand. "Get up, little one!" he said. And she did. She woke up, yawned, and stretched, for all the world as if she had just been enjoying a lovely, refreshing nap. "Get her something to eat," Jesus said, what could be more practical? And he didn't want her surrounded by the media of the day all yelling at her and stressing her out, either, so he suggests the parents don't tell anybody.

---oo0oo---

So far so good. But what is this telling us today, on this summer morning?

It’s about the obvious things, of course – about faith, about trusting Jesus, about having the faith to reach out and ask when things go pear-shaped. I suppose it’s about healing, and patience, and all that sort of thing. And it’s about the fact that everybody, but everybody, is welcome to Jesus.

You have the little girl, loved, accepted, coming from a relatively well-off family, who are in despair at her illness. And you have the old woman, poor, outcast, alone, friendless, who has nobody now to care whether she lives or dies. Yet Jesus heals them both.

I don’t know whether these two healings actually happened in the way that those who retold the stories say – it seems remarkably pat, to me. The rather obvious parallels and contrasts between the two healings – the repetition of twelve years, the risk of uncleanness in both cases, the woman, reaching out secretly, privately, yet healed in public. The little girl, whose father comes to Jesus in public, yet the healing is private and supposed to have been kept that way. It might be that the two stories were linked together very early on, even if they didn't happen quite like that. Not that it matters, of course, and all the three Gospels who tell it do link them together.

Another thing to notice is that both of them were women. Neither has a name, which is typical, but in that time and place, even for women to be noticed is pretty incredible. Certainly religious Jews didn't go round allowing themselves to be touched by strange women!

So, I think for today, the story is about inclusiveness. God's love is for everybody, no matter who you are. Rich or poor, old or young, male or female, religious or otherwise, whatever your race or ethnic origin. Even the worst type of sex-offender or paedophile. Even terrorists. God's love is for everybody.

I think we sometimes like to be a bit exclusive about who we worship with – I don’t know whether the Methodist church in this country has a less shameful history in this respect than the Anglican church, but I doubt it, somehow. We like to be with “people like us”, and in some ways, that’s all right. What isn’t all right, though, of course, is when “people like us” becomes “the only people worth knowing”, or “the only proper people”. That way leads to tribalism, and we know how many and dreadful conflicts tribalism has led to throughout the years. Including, it has to be said, Northern Ireland.

But, of course, the joy of it is that the Lord Jesus who brought healing to the little girl and the old woman, the Lord Jesus who was not afraid to get his hands dirty, not afraid to be considered ritually unclean, who put people before religious ritual, that same Lord Jesus is still with us today, still loving us, still healing us, still reaching out to us as we reach, however tentatively, out to him.

Praise God!

Friday, 22 May 2009

Waiting for God

This is an edited version of a sermon I first preached back on the Sunday after the Ascension in 1996. I retyped it for another community, and thought I would also publish it on here.

Acts 1 - Jesus Taken Up Into Heaven


In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: "Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptised with water, but in a few days you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit."

So when they met together, they asked him, "Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?"

He said to them: "It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."

After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.

They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. "Men of Galilee," they said, "why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven."


When I was a little girl, which was quite a long time ago now, I used to really look forward to my birthday. And the night before, it would be very difficult to go to sleep, just like it was difficult to go to sleep the night before Christmas. My mother used to say, "The sooner you go to sleep, the sooner it will be morning." But that didn't make it any easier to go to sleep!

I wasn't very good at waiting for it to be Christmas, or waiting for it to be my birthday. I always used to peek at presents, to try to guess what they were. Of course, people who are good at waiting never peek, do they? That only spoils the surprise! But I'm impatient. I don't like waiting for things.

I wonder how I would have got on, then, if I'd been one of Jesus' disciples all those years ago. We heard in our first reading, from Acts, that Jesus was taken from the disciples. We don't know exactly how - Luke's account isn't very clear. It just says he was taken from them, and a cloud hid him from their sight, so we don't know if he just faded into the mist, or if he zoomed off up into the air like an aeroplane taking off, or what. And really, it isn't exactly important. What does matter is that it was made very clear to the disciples that This was It. Jesus wasn't going to be with them in quite the same way any more. And their job now was to go back to Jerusalem and wait.

The question is, what were they waiting for? It wasn't going to be their birthday. It wasn't going to be Christmas. Well, of course, they didn't celebrate Christmas then! It was going to be the Feast of Pentecost, but in those days that was a sort of Harvest Festival. But that wasn't what they were waiting for.

I don't think they knew exactly what they were waiting for. They knew, in theory, that they were waiting for the Holy Spirit, but they didn't know, in practice, what that meant. Jesus had told them lots of things about the Holy Spirit. But that didn't tell them exactly what was going to happen. Jesus had told them that the Holy Spirit would remind them of all the things he had said and done, and they would understand the things he'd taught them. He said that the Holy Spirit would give them power to witness to Jesus in all sorts of far-flung places like Judea and Samaria and all the ends of the earth. He had told them that the Holy Spirit couldn't possibly come unless he, Jesus, went away.

But he hadn't told them what it was going to be like. They had o way o knowing exactly what they were waiting for.

And I think it must have been very difficult to wait. We don't know, of course, exactly how long they did have to wait. It might not have been for very long. In the Church, we celebrated Ascension Day on Thursday, and we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit next Sunday. We know the date for the coming of the Holy Spirit, because it was Pentecost, and we know that the Crucifixion and Resurrection happened around the time of the Jewish feast of Passover, and that these two feasts were about six weeks apart. But we don't know when the Ascension happened. It could have been a week after Easter; it could have been the day before Pentecost. So we don't know exactly how long the disciples had to wait. But no matter how long or how short a time it was, I bet that it felt like a very long time indeed! It must have been very, very difficult to wait patiently for Jesus to send the Holy Spirit. I shouldn't be surprised if some of the people nearly got fed up with waiting, and felt like going home to get on with their lives again. I think I might have felt like that, don't you? Perhaps some people did go home; Luke doesn't tell us. But we do know that 120 people didn't go home, including Jesus' mother, and Peter, James and John, and they were there in the Upper Room that morning when the Holy Spirit came down in tongues of fire and a noise like a rushing mighty wind. But if they had gone home, of course, they might have missed the whole thing.

It really isn't always easy to wait for God, is it? I'm sure you've had the experience of praying for something, and it not happening and not happening and not happening, and then all of a sudden it does happen. And you can't help wondering whether you had started to do something differently, or what, that made it happen, when, of course, it was just that not everything was ready for God to answer your prayer.

Waiting for God isn't a bit easy. Who was it prayed, "Give me patience, Lord, and I want it now!"? We always have to think we know better than God does - we want whatever it is now, and we don't see why God is delaying letting us have it. So then we whinge and moan at God, and some people even want to give up being God's person altogether.

Trouble is, of course, if you do that, if you try to know best, what you are saying, even if you don't realise it, is "Do it my way, God! Don't do it your way, do it my way!" And that is not a very sensible thing to say, because God can see round corners and we can't!

Sometimes we have to wait until we can say to God, "Okay God, do it your way! Don't do it my way!" Jesus had to say that to God in the Garden of Gethsemane, do you remember? He really, really didn't want to have to go through with it, and he had to absolutely fight with himself until he got to the point where he could say "Do it your way!" to God.

The other thing that sometimes happens is when something horrible has happened. When someone has died, for instance, especially if they are young, or if it was a terrible accident, or if they were killed. We get very cross with God, and say things like, "Well, what did you want to go and do that for? Why didn't you stop it?"

We forget that we can't see round corners the way God can. We aren't told what would have happened, but God knows And sometimes God doesn't stop dreadful things happening because it would mean interfering with someone else's freedom. And God doesn't interfere with our freedom. And sometimes God doesn't answer our prayers at once because to do so would mean forcing someone else to say "yes" to God when they aren't quite ready to. And again, God doesn't do that, either. But we do know that God always has a Plan B And that God works all things together for good to those that love him and are called according to His purpose. We might be going through a rough patch just now, but we know that, if we trust God, God will work it for good, and in six months' time we can probably look back and see the good God has worked from it.

I seem to have wandered rather a long way from the disciples, waiting patiently in the Upper Room for the Holy Spirit to come. But waiting is one of the skills we all have to learn to do. It's no good jumping up and down and being impatient, because it won't make God's time happen any faster. In act, I have a feeling that sometimes it delays things.

We have to learn to say to God, "Do it Your way!" And it's not an easy thing to learn. i find it incredibly difficult at times, and am terribly prone to go saying "No, no, you've got to do it my way!" But i we are to grow as God's people, then we have to say "Do it Your way."

And, of course, when we do learn to say that, then God the Holy Spirit is free to work in us. We mightn't necessarily see the tongues of fire or hear the rushing mighty wind that the disciples saw and heard, but we can know the power of God at work within us. We can be given gifts with which to do God's work; we can grow into the kind of people we were always meant to be. We will be the sort of people who have rivers of living water flowing from them - not that we can see it, or touch it, but that people will know that we are in touch with the source of all healing, and come to us for comfort. And we, we hope, will be able to point them to the right place where they can find healing for themselves - we will be able to point them to Jesus.

So learning to wait for God isn't just about learning patience; it isn't just about learning to say "do it your way" to God. It's about waiting for the right time, for when God is able to give you the gifts you need, the power you need, the love and joy and peace you need. To wait, as the first disciples waited, for the Holy Spirit to come. Amen.

Hmm. I'm not sure whether I would preach this like this today. Possibly. I can see several things I'd change - I don't think I would say that God has a Plan B, for instance; I think I'd say that God is never surprised! And maybe I'd talk about our need for control, and how hard it is to surrender control of our lives to God. But by and large I'd probably say the same kind of thing.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Remain in my love

“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.”

Thus Jesus in the first part of our Gospel reading today. To set it in a little context, which I probably don’t need to do, but still, this is, of course, part of Jesus’ farewell to his disciples. They have met together for the Passover meal, and Jesus has washed their feet. And the other Gospels tell us that he took bread and wine, blessed them, and gave them to the disciples – the ordinary actions that the host would have done at any special meal together, particularly a Sabbath or Passover meal. But Jesus, we are told, took this and lifted it into something different: This is My Body; This is My Blood. And now he is speaking to them, telling them things that perhaps they won’t take in all at once, but that the Holy Spirit, so Jesus reassures them, will remind them of in the days, weeks, months and years to come.

Above all, he is reassuring them. Basically, he is telling them that he must leave them, but that they will not be left alone. The Holy Spirit will come to them – something that couldn’t happen if Jesus didn’t leave. And the Holy Spirit will lead them into all truth.

The bit about loving one another, though – that’s so important that he says it twice. First, right at the very beginning: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” And now in the passage we have just read: “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.”

Well, yes, all right, we know that. We have heard it before. It is familiar. But, hang on a minute – how are we supposed to do this? And what does Jesus mean, anyway?

Part of the problem, of course, it does depend on your definition of “love”. Our English language lets us down here, unusually, as we only have the one word that has to cover an awful lot of meanings, from loving God down to loving cheese on toast, including loving our families, our friends, our pets, our old teddy-bear, our hobbies and the person we're in love with! In Greece they managed better, and had several different words!

There is “storge”, or affection, the kind of love you feel for your child or your parents; then there is “eros”, which is romantic love; “philia”, which is friendship,and “agape”, which is divine love, and this is the word that is used in this passage. It is also, as you may or may not know, the word that St Paul used in that lovely chapter in 1 Corinthians, when he talks of the nature of that sort of love:

“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”

One of the interesting things is that when Jesus reinstates St Peter after he has denied him, you remember, by the lakeside, when he says to him “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” he uses the word “agape”. Peter can’t quite manage that, so he, when he replies “Lord, you know that I love you”, he uses the word “philia”; in other words, “Lord, you know I’m your friend”. Then when Jesus again asks him, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”, he again uses the word “agape”, and Peter again replies using the word “Philia”. And then the third time, Jesus himself uses the word “philia” – which is why Simon Peter was so hurt. He’s already said twice that he is Jesus’ friend, why does he have to say it a third time?

Simon Peter found that committing himself to agape love, to God’s love, was pretty much impossible. I’m not surprised, are you? Let’s look at it again:

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”

This is the sort of love that Jesus was talking about, when he told us to love one another in the same way that He loved us.

But how? Heaven knows, I don't always succeed in this, I'm sure my centre is far more often on myself than it is on God, and I expect many of you feel the same way.

Even Simon Peter couldn't do it, as we have seen: “Lord, you know I'm your friend!” It wasn't until after Pentecost, after the Holy Spirit came down, that he became the great apostle and evangelist. His love for God, and for his neighbours, was never in doubt after Pentecost, however much it was before!

So it seems as though we can't love God or one another without God's love first in us, in the Person of the Holy Spirit. And in our Gospel reading, Jesus says that we need to remain in His love. God loves us. We need to remain in that love, “abide” in it, the older translations say. A modern paraphrase, “The Message”, says “Make yourself at home in my love”. So if God’s love is in us, and we remain in that love, we make ourselves at home in it, what does that mean? Jesus says that if we obey his commands, we will abide in his love, end of. And his command is to love one another.

But it's not always easy, is it? The trouble is, quite apart from anything else, our human loves can be so desperately flawed. You might think that there is nothing more wonderful than the love between parents and children but how easily that love can turn into wanting to dominate the child, to dictate how it should live, what it should do, who it should be. And you have all heard the old joke, “She’s the kind of woman who lives for others – you can always tell the others by their hunted expressions!” The kind of person who, out of love, misguidedly tries to run people’s lives for them.

And I don’t need to spell out just how easily romantic love can go wrong, and become something of a battle for possession. Or in this day and age, more likely, a refusal to commit oneself to the beloved.

As for friendship, you would have thought it would be difficult for that to go wrong. People tend to be friends because of shared interests; Robert and I have a great many very dear friends whom we would not otherwise have anything in common with apart from our love of skating. That is the thing that we are friends about.

But sometimes friendship can be more about excluding the other person, not including them. Particularly among children, of course, but it can happen among adults. Sadly, we see it a lot in the churches – we exclude those who, perhaps, are not of the same denomination as we are, or don’t worship God in quite the same way. Or perhaps we are Evangelical and they are not, or vice versa, so we tend to be sniffy about their way of being a Christian, and exclude them.

But God’s love is the kind of love that lays down its life for its friends. Jesus says that if we obey his commands, we will remain in his love. We need to love one another with God’s love, and that’s not something we can do alone. God’s love, we are told, is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit – we can love neither God nor one another without God’s having first loved us.

It all comes back to that, doesn’t it. God loves us and one of the implications of that love is that we are enabled to love one another.

But it’s not just about gooey feelings. Jesus pointed out that the greatest test of love is if you are willing to lay down your life for the other person. And St Paul’s description of love is eminently practical, too. Love, it seems, is something you do.

Love is something you do. Love is about putting the other person first. It’s about taking that extra step – giving someone a lift, even though it’s out of your way; making that telephone call, or sending that e-mail, to check that someone is all right. It can even be about commenting on someone’s Facebook status! It’s about remembering people’s birthdays and other special days. All that sort of thing – you know as well as I do; I scarcely need to spell it out.

In another place, Jesus tells us that we must love our neighbours as we love ourselves. Now loving ourselves is, very often, the difficult bit. It's all too easy to have the wrong kind of self-love, the kind that says “Me, me, me” all the time and demands its own way – the absolute opposite, in fact, of the love that St Paul speaks about in 1 Corinthians. You can't love your neighbour – or God, either, for that matter – if you are full of that sort of self-love.

But then there is the equal and opposite problem – we don't value ourselves enough. We don't really like ourselves, we have a big problem with self-image, we are not what the French call “comfortable in our own skins”. And often it is the people who appear most self-absorbed, most unable to love others, who are the most wounded inside, and who are totally not comfortable with themselves. And again, it is only through the love of God, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, that we can be made whole, and thus enabled to love ourselves and other people, as we should.

So really, it's all one – we love, because God first loved us; we can't love God without also loving one another; we can't love one another unless we love ourselves – or, at the very least, have a healthy self-image, which amounts to the same thing; and we can't love ourselves unless we are aware that God loves us!
So the important thing, as it always is, is to be open to God's love more and more - which is basically what I think "remain in my love" means; to continue to be God's person; and to continue to be open to be being made more and more the person God designed us to be. To be fully human is to be fully God's person. Amen.