Please note that Podcast Garden have recently changed their backup location. If you think there should be a podcast (only for sermons from 2014 onwards) and there is not, you can still listen by clicking here

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.