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Sunday, 12 December 2010

Hanging in there

Today is the third Sunday in Advent.
We’ve lit three candles in our Christmas Countdown –
er, I mean Advent Wreath.
Christmas is coming –
only another fortnight!
End of next week, even!
I expect you’ve already had some Christmas cards –
we have.
And maybe you’ve already been to a Christmas party.
Robert had one during the week.
Maybe you’ve even finished all your Christmas shopping, and feel yourself well organised. I sort of am, except for working out who is cooking what on Christmas Day itself.
But in the Church, it isn’t Christmas yet.
Not for another two weeks!
Even though King's Acre is having their carol service today.
Technically, we are still in the Season of Advent, and the lectionary tells us that this week we look at John the Baptist.
You may have looked at him last week, too;
traditionally on the second Sunday in Advent we look at his role as a prophet. Today, however, we look at his role as the Forerunner, the one who came to prepare the way for Jesus.

Now, you know who he was, of course.
He was Jesus’ cousin, born to Zechariah and Elisabeth in their old age.
He was the unborn baby who “leapt in the womb” when Mary, carrying Jesus, came to visit Elisabeth.
We know absolutely nothing about his childhood, how well he knew Jesus, whether they played together as kids, or whether they only saw each other once a year when the holy family went up to Jerusalem.
What we do know is that, when he grew up, John disappeared off into the desert for awhile, to study and pray –
whether alone, or with a community such as the Essenes,
we also don’t know.
When he came back from the desert, he was a prophet,
just as Luke alleges that his father foretold:
“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.“

For the people of Israel, that was rather exciting.
They hadn’t had a prophet for many centuries, not a proper one.
And John looked the part.
He dressed like a prophet, in camel-hide clothing.
He ate locusts and wild honey, just as they expected a prophet would do.
He gathered a small flock of disciples around him.
And he preached God's message:
"Repent and be baptized and get ready for the coming of the Kingdom!"
Well, you can imagine, the crowds absolutely flocked to hear him!
Better than the cinema, this was –
such an excitement.
But what they wanted was to see the prophet.
They didn’t really want to hear what he had to say.
Few of them were really willing to repent,
to turn right round and go God's way.
Not even the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law.
Not that they interfered with him, mind you –
could have been nasty, if they had.
But they didn't want to know!
Very frustrating.

But there were the other kind of people, too.
People who really did want to listen to John,
to hear what he had to say and to act on it.
People who came to him, asking to be baptized in the river Jordan.
And one day, his cousin Jesus comes to him and asks for baptism.

And at that moment, John knows that this is the One he has been waiting for, the One for whom he has been preparing the way.
And yet he wants to be baptized - surely not!
Surely it should be he, Jesus, who baptizes John?
John's always known that when the Messiah came,
he wouldn't be fit even to undo his shoes and wash his feet,
slaves' work, that.
John mutters something to this effect,
but Jesus says, "No, let's do this thing by the book!"
And as he enters the water, the Holy Spirit comes down on him in the shape of a dove, and a voice speaks from heaven,
"Behold my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased!"
And John says, so we are told, “He must increase, and I must decrease”, and he spends his time pointing people to Jesus,
as well as preaching the message of repentance,
of turning round,
of going God’s way.

And then John preaches against scandal and sleaze in high places once too often,
and the powers-that-be have had enough,
so they put him in prison to try to shut him up.

And then the doubts start.
Is Jesus really the one God was going to send?
Could John be mistaken?
This is his cousin, after all –
Aunty Mary’s son.
John had thought so, but everything’s gone so totally pear-shaped he can’t be sure of anything any more.
So he sends one of his disciples to ask Jesus,
“Are you the one who was to come,
or should we expect someone else?”

Jesus sends John a message of reassurance:
“Go back and report to John what you hear and see:
The blind receive sight,
the lame walk,
those who have leprosy are cured,
the deaf hear,
the dead are raised,
and the good news is preached to the poor.
Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.”

In other words, “Hang in there, mate, you’re doing great!”

And then Jesus tells the crowd that John is just about the greatest of God’s servants that there ever has been, or ever will be –
yet while he’s on earth,
even the least of those in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he is.

Sadly, as we know, it all ends tragically –
the king’s wife seizes the opportunity to have John killed,
and he is beheaded.
Jesus is devastated by the loss of his cousin,
and goes off by himself to pray,
but the crowd follow him and he has to feed them all,
and then he sends the disciples off ahead, because he really, really, really wants to be alone with his Father to try to come to terms with John’s death –
and ends up walking across the lake to join them, later on!

===oo0oo===


I love this story –
the affection between the cousins,
the respect that John had for Jesus,
but the fact that John was also human enough to doubt,
and secure enough to express his doubts.

Because we all have our doubts, from time to time, if we’re honest.
And that’s as it should be.
There are times, and I wish they came more often,
when God is as real to us as bread and butter,
when we couldn’t doubt his existence and his love for us
if we were paid to do so.
But at other times, all trace of God seems to vanish from the universe.

Perhaps dreadful things happen, either personally or on the world stage –
I remember hearing someone on “Thought for the Day” saying,
on the 14th September 2001, hat the smoke rising from the collapse of the World Trade Centre seemed to come between her and the face of God.
I knew exactly what she meant!
And for John the Baptist, it was personal circumstances –
being thrown into prison, deprived of his whole reason for being,
which at that time was to preach repentance and to baptise people.

John is actually quite a good model of what to do when doubts strike.
He does absolutely the right thing –
he goes to Jesus and asks, outright.
And Jesus reassures him.
But the interesting thing is that Jesus actually reassures him by saying “Look around, and see what’s happening!
Look for the signs of the kingdom!”
He doesn’t just say “Yes, of course I’m the Messiah, you silly little man!”
Or even, “Don’t worry, mate, I’m the Messiah!”
What he does is say, “Look, see what is happening, see how the blind receive sight”, and so on.
And maybe that is his answer to us, too, when the doubts happen,
when we wonder whether it’s really a load of nonsense,
whether it’s just wishful thinking.
Look around and see the signs of the kingdom.

===oo0oo===

And sometimes, when we doubt,
it’s good to come back to those lovely words from Isaiah 35.
For me, this is one of the most lyrical and beautiful passages of the Bible.
So often, if I’ve been praying for my church, or in a time of darkness, I’m drawn back again and again to these words:

“The desert and the parched land will be glad;
the wilderness will rejoice and blossom.
Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom;
it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy.
The glory of Lebanon will be given to it,
the splendour of Carmel and Sharon;
they will see the glory of the LORD,
the splendour of our God.”

And so on –
I’m tempted to quote the whole thing,
but we’ve already heard it once this morning!
It is such a wonderful promise that,
no matter how black the present may seem, things will get better.
One day.
Maybe not in this life, but one day.

Of course, sometimes it happens that external circumstances get worse and worse.
John was in prison, and would soon be executed.
We see all sorts of crime and injustice, terrorism and hostage-taking, mistrust and suspicion.
We reckon bad things always happen in threes, which is superstition, but it does seem that way sometimes!
And yet, and yet, and yet –
there are signs of the Kingdom of God.
Sometimes very tiny signs –
parents bringing their children to baptism,
a young couple choosing to be married in church,
even what I’ve heard described as “random acts of senseless kindness!”
I personally think beauty is a sign of the kingdom –
whether beauty in nature,
or in music,
or in words, like these words from Isaiah.
I don’t believe that there’s beauty where the Kingdom isn’t!

And, of course, at this very dark time of year,
we rejoice that in a very few days we will be at the solstice
and the days will start to lengthen.
It’s no accident that the early Church fathers put the festival in which, above all, we celebrate the coming of the Light of the World
at the very darkest time of the year.

Jesus sent a message to John urging him to hang in there, not to despair, for there were signs that the Kingdom of God was coming.
And we, too, can hold on to those signs in the middle of our busyness in the run-up to Christmas, perhaps in the midst of sorrow or despair, perhaps even in the midst of happiness and excitement.
The Kingdom of God is coming, the Light of the World will come, and there are signs of hope.
Hang in there!

Children's Talk, Advent 3 Year A

I don't know if you've ever been in Central London when a visiting head of State is being taken to Buckingham Palace, too – they close off the roads, and there are motorcycle outriders and lots of police to ensure the visiting personage has a clear ride. They go and prepare the way.

And I expect you heard on the news this week what happens if they fall down on the job – the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall were driven straight into the middle of student rioters and their car was bounced and scratched. Their security people had failed to prepare the way.

Well, you can see where this is leading, can't you? John the Baptist came to prepare the way for Jesus, the Messiah. The prophet had said “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight”, and whether that originally referred to Jesus, or to a local ruler of the day doesn't matter, as it came to mean Jesus and John.

And, of course, we need to prepare for Jesus, too. Getting ready for Christmas isn't just about presents and cards and thinking about a festive meal, although of course it can and does involve all that. It's also about preparing for Jesus. Christmas isn't just a remembering thing, it's also about inviting Jesus into our lives and homes and hearts now, today, at the end of 2010. We make that formal in the New Year, when we have our Covenant Service, of course – but we need to prepare for the coming of our Lord, and make him welcome!

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Remembrance Sunday 2010

“'When you hear of wars and revolutions, do not be frightened. These things must happen first, but the end will not come right away.' Then Jesus said to them: 'Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.'”

Depressing, isn't it? We long for peace, we are encouraged to make peace, and yet here is our dear Lord telling us that there will not be peace. Wars and revolutions, he says, must happen. Nations will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.

And today, on Remembrance Sunday, it is still true. How many British soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan since we first deployed troops there? Up to 15 October this year, it's three hundred and forty-three. That's three hundred and forty-three families who have lost a child, a sibling or a parent. Three hundred and forty-three deaths – and that's just British troops. The Americans have lost nearly eight thousand, over the years, just in Afghanistan.

And what of those who have been injured, so badly, some of them, that their bodies or minds will never work quite right again. According to Ministry of Defence figures, between 1 January 2006 and 15 October 2010:

* 1,511 UK military and civilian personnel were admitted to UK Field Hospitals and categorised as Wounded in Action.
* 2,876 UK military and civilian personnel were admitted to UK Field Hospitals for disease or non-battle injuries.
* 218 UK personnel were categorised as Very Seriously Injured from all causes excluding disease.
* 222 UK personnel were categorised as Seriously Injured from all causes excluding disease.
* 3,919 aeromedical evacuations have taken place for UK military and civilian personnel injured or ill in Afghanistan.

And there have been over seven thousand Afghani civilian casualties since 2006! Civilian casualties – people who were not fighting, just trying to get on with their lives. Seven thousand! The totals are beginning to add up rather disastrously....

Yes, there will be wars and revolutions. But there hasn't been a battle on British soil since Culloden in 1745. And none of the wars our troops have fought since 1945 have impinged on our daily lives unless we happened to have a relation serving with the armed forces. In the two wars we call world wars, last century, it was very different. Everybody’s lives were affected in one way or another.

The horror of it all came home to me very vividly one holiday some years ago now, when we toured Northern France. We wandered around Alsace and Lorraine, parts of France which were part of Germany within living memory, and which changed hands twice in not-quite-living memory. People who were born before 1870 and died after 1945 would have forcibly changed nationality no fewer than five times!

Battles were fought in this area. We visited a fort on the Maginot line, which the French had hoped would be impregnable in the 2nd World War. And we visited Verdun, a town which has been destroyed and rebuilt so many times within the past hundred and fifty years that it is a wonder anything is left of it today! Just this week there was a programme on the BBC, you may have seen it, showing film and still photographs of the trenches, and of towns and villages that had been totally flattened by the fighting, not a house remaining. At least they had managed to evacuate those who lived there before the fighting started. There was one very poignant sequence filmed after the fighting had ended, which showed people coming back to rebuild their homes and their lives, and although there were no houses standing yet, the market had restarted. And then, twenty years later, it was all to do again.

How lucky we are that we have not had fighting like that on British soil. Yes, we were bombed in both wars, and you can still see the scars today: a block of newer flats among older ones in one of the streets in my part of Brixton, for instance, showing where the original houses were destroyed. I wasn’t around in those days, but those of you who were will, I know, tell me how terrible it was.

But since then, although there have been wars of all kinds, they’ve all taken place in someone else’s back garden. The tanks have rolled through other people’s streets. Yes, we have been attacked – those dreadful bombs in July 2005 are just the most recent, and the nastiest, in a long stream of terrorist attacks here.
But we didn’t have foreign soldiers walking in our streets, swaggering around imposing their will on us, perhaps even raping every woman. And maybe that’s one of the reasons we continue to remember those who fought and died for their country so long ago. My grandfather was badly wounded in the First War, and my father in the Second. Actually, the First World War must have been really terrible – I’ve read my great-grandfather’s diaries. His elder son was wounded so badly nobody thought he would live – although he did, obviously, or I wouldn’t be here to tell the tale – and my great-grandfather got permission from the War Office and went over to France to visit him. And then it became clear that he would live, after all, so my great-grandfather came home again, only to hear that his other son had been killed on the Somme.

My other grandfather was a career officer in the Royal Engineers, involved in both wars – my mother and grandmother didn’t see him for years during the second world war. One of his brothers was killed in action, too – he was a flyer, and the life expectancy of fliers over the Western Front was measurable in minutes. And my family's story is far from unique – most families, from every country that was involved, suffered similar losses and agony.

But this is all history. Kids study it in school. Even the oldest of us here weren’t much more than children when the Second War finished. I wasn’t even born. I don’t remember having a ration book, although I’m told I did. I don’t remember a time when I couldn’t buy anything I wanted in the shops, whenever I wanted it. But I grew up during the Cold War, which the younger ones won't remember. The tension between the then Soviet bloc and the West was always there, a constant background to our lives. We understood from a very young age that one of these days, someone would press a red button and it would all be over, in what was called Mutually Assured Destruction. When the Berlin Wall fell, in 1989, it felt like a reprieve from a shadow we had grown used to living with and barely realised was there until it lifted.

But 1989 brought no real peace. There was an appalling conflict in the Balkan states, and places like Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina became household names. There was a Gulf War in 1990 when Iraq invaded Kuwait and everybody else ran to the rescue. And the second Gulf War after the September 2001 atrocities. And then the war against the Taliban. And wars in Somalia, in Rwanda, in Liberia.... maybe it's easier to list countries who have not been at war!

Those casualty figures from Afghanistan I quoted are happening now, today. Our troops are still fighting. Other troops are still fighting other wars. There will be wars and revolutions, just as Jesus told us.

So what is the point of Remembrance when it is going on happening? War may or may not be justifiable, but it is always horrible and never glorious. But it is fought by people, by men and, these days, by women. Troops who have always been seen, throughout history, as cannon-fodder and expendable. We have the raw numbers – you can find them on the Ministry of Defence website, and unless we know the people, they are just numbers.

But they are not numbers, not really. Each and every one of them is a person, an individual. Someone like you. Someone like me. Someone, above all, for whom Christ died on the Cross. Each and every one of them is known to God, and loved by God. They are not perfect, any more than you or I are perfect, but they are not monsters, either. God loves them, just as God loves you and me.

In many wars, you don't get much of a choice about whether you are a soldier or not. You're conscripted, you are required to join up, whether you want to or not. Even in the last century, people who were brave enough to say “No, I don't want to fight; put me to another job and I'll do it, but not fight and kill people” were often considered cowards and even executed, although they were in many cases very brave indeed, working as stretcher-bearers to pick up those who had been wounded, and coming under fire themselves. They deserve to be remembered just as much, I think, as those who died fighting.

But there will be wars, Jesus said, and revolutions. Nations rising against nation, kingdom against kingdom. There doesn't seem as if we have much choice about it, given human nature.

Jesus also said “Blessed are the peacemakers”. We need to strive for peace, even knowing that there will always be war. “Strive for peace” - it sounds almost an oxymoron, doesn't it, a contradiction in terms. But St Paul reminds us that our fight isn't against flesh and blood, but against “but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” It is they, arguably, who are responsible for much of the earthly conflict we see. And Paul also reminds us of the weapons we need to arm us for this particular conflict: faith, truth, righteousness, peace, salvation and, above all, prayer.

I'm sure that our prayers for peace do make a difference. As do our prayers for our armed forces. We remember what are, I think wrongly, called “The glorious dead”, as if it is glorious to be shot dead at twenty rather than dying in one's bed at ninety, but we are right to remember them; for if we remember, we shall, I hope, also remember to pray for those who are still alive, and still fighting. And to pray for peace. Wherever the conflict is, whichever soldiers are fighting, our job is to pray for them, for both sides. To lift them up to that great Captain, the Prince of Peace.

And one day, one day, perhaps, Isaiah's vision will come to pass: “Never again will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not live out his years; he who dies at a hundred will be thought a mere youth; he who fails to reach a hundred will be considered accursed. They will build houses and dwell in them; they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit. No longer will they build houses and others live in them, or plant and others eat. For as the days of a tree, so will be the days of my people; my chosen ones will long enjoy the works of their hands. They will not toil in vain or bear children doomed to misfortune; for they will be a people blessed by the LORD, they and their descendants with them. Before they call I will answer; while they are still speaking I will hear. The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, but dust will be the serpent's food. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, says the LORD.” Amen.

Sunday, 31 October 2010

We Feebly Struggle

Today, as we have already mentioned*, is Hallowe'en. And tomorrow will be All Saints' Day. In some countries, tomorrow will be a Bank Holiday, and if you are that sort of person, you might buy chrysanthemums and put them on a loved one’s grave – when I lived in France, back in the early 1970s, you only ever saw chrysanths on sale around this time of year. But recently I've noticed they focus on Hallowe’en far more than they used to - American influence, no doubt.

In this country, though, we never have gone in much for All Saints, except in church names, like All Saints Lyham Road. We’ve tended to go straight from Hallowe’en to Guy Fawkes’ Night with nothing in between. But if the Church suggests, as it does, that we should celebrate All Saints’ Day, then maybe we should do so. And there is a long tradition, in the Church, of celebrating a festival on the previous day, the eve. So it is all right to celebrate it today, instead.

What, I wonder, springs to mind when you think of the word “Saint”? We Protestants don't tend to think of them all that much, really. I suppose we think of New Testament people, like St Paul, and some of us might fly the St George cross during the World Cup, but by and large, they don't really impinge on our consciousness. We don't have a formal category of “Saint” in which to put people, as we believe that all who trusted in Jesus during their lifetime have eternal life. We don't have the concept of Purgatory, of a time of working off our sins, as we believe that we have already passed from death into life. We are all saints!

Then why celebrate All Saints? What's the point? Well, in a way that is just the point – all Christians are saints! This isn't the day, by the way, for commemorating those who have died – that happens on All Souls' Day, which is on Tuesday. Many churches will hold special services around this time of year to commemorate those who have died during the course of the year, and invite those with whom they have contact – Railton Road Church is having just such a service next Sunday afternoon. I think that's rather nice. But today is about those who are living, those who are part of the great Church Triumphant, as we call it. We, here on earth, are the Church Militant, still fighting the world, the flesh and the devil, as the old prayer-book has it. “We feebly struggle, they in glory shine” says the hymn we'll be singing at the end of the service.

We don't tend to think too much about what happens after we die. But if our faith is real, if what we believe is true, then what happens next is something even greater than we can imagine. It is our great Christian hope, as St Paul reminded us in our first reading, from his Letter to the Ephesians:

“I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is like the working of his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.”

We have that glorious inheritance.

But it doesn't always seem like it! As C S Lewis once put it: “The Cross comes before the Crown, and tomorrow is a Monday morning!” We feebly struggle, they in glory shine!

But Jesus reminds us that it's okay, a lot of the time, to feebly struggle. Our second reading was taken from Luke's version of the collection of Jesus' teachings known as the Sermon on the Mount – actually, I think Luke's version is commonly called the “Sermon on the Plain”, but never mind that now. The point is that both Matthew and Luke start off their collections with a proclamation of people who are blessed. Luke says it is the poor, the hungry, and people who are hated, which he contrasts explicitly with those who are rich, well-fed and of who people speak well of!

I don't know what was preached on here last week, but at Railton I listened to a sermon about the Pharisee and the sinner, and was reminded that our values and opinions are not necessarily God's. And that is certainly the case here – in the Jewish world, prosperity was seen as a sign of God's blessing, and poverty was thought rather disgraceful. Jesus is turning the accepted wisdom upside-down. No, he says, you are blessed if you're poor, if you're hungry, if you're hurting...

Matthew, who was Jewish, couldn't quite bring himself to write that down, and has people being blessed if they hunger and thirst after righteousness, or if they are poor in spirit, but in many ways the principle is the same, I think.

Of course, we in the First World aren't really poor, only by comparison; we have food, shelter and clothing, we have health care and education, and a general standard of living that our ancestors could only dream of. So is it woe unto us?

I think it's the same issue that the Pharisee had, who, you may remember, was so pleased that he fulfilled the criteria for an upright, religious member of the community that he forgot his need of God, and it was the tax-collector, the hated quisling, who remembered that he was a sinner, and that he had need of God's mercy. Again, Jesus is turning this world's values upside-down; it is the despised outcast who went home justified, and the professionally religious man who, that day at least, did not.

Jesus' teachings, as collected by Matthew and Luke, give a terrific picture of what God's people, the saints, are going to be like. They'll be people who don't judge others, who don't get angry with others in a destructive way, who don't use other people simply as bodies. Basically, they treat other people with the greatest possible respect for who they are. And they trust God. They don't get stressed out making a living – they do their absolute best at whatever their job is, of course, but they don't scrabble round getting involved in office politics in order to get a promotion. They trust God to provide the basic necessities of life, but they don't make a parade of being ever so holy, they just get on with it quietly.

Jesus' values turned the world upside-down. We are almost – dare I say used to them. They don't shock us, or strike us as strange – until, that is, we try to live them! Then we discover just how far off they are from the values that most people live by. And what we say we believe comes smack up against what we really believe – and what we really believe usually wins! Truly, we feebly struggle!

But the saints in glory shine! They found the secret of living the way Jesus suggested. And it wasn't striving and struggling and trying to do it all by themselves. Remember what St Paul wrote, again. He prays that we might be given the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that we may know God better. And he prays “that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe.”

We don’t have to strive to know this in our own strength; we can allow God to put this knowledge in us and make it part of us. The saints in glory have done this. We feebly struggle, but we don't have to, we can relax and allow God to do it for us.

As we are, we would never inherit the Kingdom of God, whether on this earth or in the world to come. But transformed by God’s Spirit, then, in the words of St John, “We shall be like him”. And yet, paradoxically, we shall still be ourselves.

St Paul addresses some of his letters to “The saints in such-and-such a town”. He knew, and they knew, that it was possible to be a saint in this life. The letter to the Corinthians, for example, begins: “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

The word “sanctified” means “Being made saint-like”, and it’s one of the things that happens to Christians who are truly intent on being God’s person. You can’t help it; the Holy Spirit who dwells in you does sanctify you, makes you more the person that God created you to be. We feebly struggle, but the Holy Spirit always wins!

Jesus taught that the values and opinions of God's kingdom are radically different to those of this world. The saints, those who trust in Christ, all have one thing in common, and I hope and pray that it's a feature that I share, that you share: They all knew, and know, that of themselves they are doomed to feebly struggle. It is only through recognising our own weakness, our own utter inability to live anything like the sort of life Jesus expects of his followers, that we can be enabled to live that life. And one day, one day, we will be among the number of those who “in glory shine”. Amen.

* In earlier children's talk

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Mr Moneybags and the Big Issue seller

Once upon a time, there was a really big city gent, known as Mr Moneybags.
You might have seen him, dressed in an Armani suit,
with a Philippe Patek watch on his wrist,
being driven through Brixton in a really smart car to his offices in the City, or perhaps in Canary Wharf.
Mr Moneybags did a great deal for charity;
he always gave a handsome cheque to Children in Need and Comic Relief, and quite often got himself on the telly giving the cheque to the prettiest presenter.

But in private he thought that the people who needed help from organisations like Comic Relief were losers.
Actually, anybody who earned less than a six-figure salary was a loser, he thought.
He despised his five brothers,
three ex-wives,
ten children,
twenty-five grandchildren
and the hordes of mistresses,
secretaries,
assistants
gofers
and general flunkies
who surrounded him –
and they knew it, too.
Especially, though, he despised the homeless people,
who he thought really only needed to pull themselves together,
to snap out of it,
to get a life.

Particularly, he despised the Big Issue seller
who he used occasionally to come across in the car-park.
He would usually buy a copy, because, after all, one has to do one’s bit, but once in the car would ring Security and get the chap removed.

Laz, they called him, this particular Big Issue seller.
Not that Mr Moneybags knew or cared what he was called.
I’m not quite sure how Laz had ended up on the streets,
selling the Big Issue
or even outright begging.
It might have been drugs, or drink,
or perhaps he was just one of those unfortunate people who simply can’t cope with jobs and mortgages and families
and the other details of everyday life that most of us manage to take in our stride.
But there you are, whatever the reason,
Laz was one of those people.
He was rather a nice person, when you got to know him;
always had a friendly word for everybody,
could make you laugh when you were down,
knew the way to places someone might want to go, that sort of thing.

But what he wasn’t good at was looking after himself,
keeping hospital appointments,
taking medication,
that sort of thing.
And so, one morning, he just didn’t wake up,
and his body was found huddled in his bed at the hostel.
They couldn’t find any relations to take charge of it,
so he was buried at the council’s expense, very quietly, with only the hostel warden there.
But the warden always said, then and ever afterwards,
that he had seen angels come to take Laz to heaven.

At about the same time, Mr Moneybags became ill.
Cancer, they said.
Smoking, they muttered.
Drinking too much….
Rich food….
So sorry, there was very little they could do.
Now, of course, Mr Moneybags wasn’t about to accept this,
and saw specialist after specialist,
and, as he became iller and more desperate, quack after quack.
He tried special diets,
herbal remedies;
he tried coffee enemas,
injections of monkey glands,
you name it, he tried it.
But nothing worked and, as happens to all of us in the end, he died.

His funeral wasn’t very well-attended, either.
Funny, that –
you’d have thought that more of his
five brothers,
three ex-wives,
ten children,
twenty-five grandchildren
and the hordes of mistresses,
secretaries,
assistants
gofers
and general flunkies
might have wanted to be there.
But no.
In the end, only the ones to whom he had left most of his money were there,
and a slew of reporters,
hoping to hear that the company was in trouble.
Which, incidentally, it wasn’t –
whatever else Mr Moneybags may have been,
he was a superb businessman, and the company he founded continues to grow and flourish to this very day.

Anyway, there they were,
Mr Moneybags and Laz the Big Issue seller, both dead.
But, as is the way of things,
it was only their bodies which had died.
Mr Moneybags found himself unceremoniously told to sit on a hot bench in the sun, and wait there.
And he waited, and waited, and waited, and waited,
getting hotter and hotter,
thirstier and thirstier.
And he could see the Big Issue seller, whom he recognised,
being welcomed and fed and made comfortable by someone who could only be Abraham, the Patriarch.
After a bit, he’d had enough.
“Abraham,” he called out, “Couldn’t you send that Big Issue seller to bring me a glass of water, I’m horrendously thirsty?”

And you know the rest of the story.
Abraham said, not ungently,
‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things,
while Lazarus received bad things,
but now he is comforted here and you are in agony.
And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed,
so that those who want to go from here to you cannot,
nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’
And he pointed out that Mr Moneybags’ five brothers,
three ex-wives,
ten children,
twenty-five grandchildren
and the hordes of mistresses,
secretaries,
assistants
gofers
and general flunkies
wouldn’t listen to Laz if he were to go back and tell them –
they really knew it already, thanks to Moses and the Prophets.
You note, incidentally, that Mr Moneybags didn’t ask if he could go back!

===oo0oo===

Jesus had a lot to say about money, and our relationship with it
didn’t he?
And about our relationship with other people, too, for that matter.
Do you remember the story he told about the sheep and the goats?
This was when he reckoned that at the Last Judgement it would be those who had cared for Jesus in the persons of the sick, the prisoners, the hungry and, yes, the Big Issue sellers who would be welcomed into heaven, and those who had ignored him, in those guises, would not.
“For whoever does it unto the least of one of these, does it unto Me”, he said.

It must have come as a shock to Jesus’ hearers.
They had been taught that if you were rich and successful, it meant that God favoured you, and if not, not.
I am always rather amused when I read Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes and compare them with Luke’s –
Luke says, frankly, “Blessed are you when you are hungry, or thirsty, or poor”, but then, he was a Gentile and didn’t have the background that Matthew, a Jew, had.
Matthew can only bring himself to write “Blessed are you when you are poor in spirit, or when you hunger and thirst after righteousness.”
For him, still, poverty is not a sign of God’s favour, but rather the reverse.

Even today, you know, there are those who preach prosperity, they preach that if you are God’s person you will be rich and healthy.
But that isn’t necessarily the case.
Jesus never said that!
Okay, so he healed the sick, but he had a great deal to say about the right attitude to possessions and to other people.

It’s in this sort of area, isn’t it, where what we say we believe comes up smack bang against what we really believe.
We discover, as we study what Jesus really had to say, that being His person isn’t just a matter of believing certain things, it’s about being in a relationship with Him, and about letting him transform us into being a certain kind of person.
It’s no good believing, says St James, if that faith doesn’t transmute itself into actions.
And this seems to be what Jesus says, too.

It’s no good saying you believe in Jesus, and ignoring the very people Jesus wants you to look after –
the dispossessed, the refugees, the downtrodden, the marginalized, the exploited.
It’s not easy, I know.
We do hesitate to give money because of the very real possibility it might be spent on drugs or drink.
But there are other ways of giving.
There are various charities we can give to, or even lend a helping had at.
I believe one organisation sells meal tickets one can give away.
Of course, one can even buy the Big Issue!

Seriously, though, we need to take this sort of thing seriously.
Quite apart from anything else, our very salvation may depend on it.
We say that salvation is by faith, and so it is –
but what is faith if it doesn’t actually cost us anything?
What is faith if it is mere lip-service?

And anyway, what sort of picture are we giving to the world if we just talk the talk, and don’t walk the walk? (I mentioned something here about Back to Church Sunday, and how we need to show people who we are, as well as tell them)
Do you remember Eliza Doolittle, in My Fair Lady, exclaiming “Don’t talk of love, show me!”
I reckon the world is saying that to the Church right now.
Don’t let’s just talk about Jesus, let’s show people that he is risen and alive and dwelling within us by the power of his Holy Spirit.
The best way to cultivate a right attitude to money, people and spiritual things is to see the “beggar outside our gate” –
quite literally the Big Issue seller, if you like, but basically anybody who is not like ourselves.
The miracle is that the more loosely we hold our possessions, the more we enjoy them, the more we serve the needs of others, the more we value them, and the more we listen to God’s words, the more we value ourselves.
And, of course, the more we are able to show people Who Jesus Is, and that he is alive today.
Amen.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Of God and Money

I don’t know –
today’s Gospel reading!
What are we to make of such a story, do you suppose?
The steward has been doing a rotten job,
so he gets told to put his books in order and pack his bags.
And he decides to make a few friends for himself en route,
to build up a few favours he can call in when he is homeless and hungry.
So he starts adjusting the debts of those who owe his master some money –
you owe my master a hundred jugs of oil?
Okay, let’s call it fifty.
A hundred bushels of wheat?
Hey, eighty’s just fine!

So what do you think his master would say to that if he found out?
Call the police, shouldn’t wonder.
Have him done for fraud.
But no –
the master was pleased!
One modern paraphrase puts it like this:
“Now here's a surprise:
The master praised the crooked manager!
And why?
Because he knew how to look after himself.
Streetwise people are smarter in this regard than law-abiding citizens.
They are on constant alert, looking for angles, surviving by their wits.
I want you to be smart in the same way –
but for what is right –
using every adversity to stimulate you to creative survival,
to concentrate your attention on the bare essentials,
so you'll live, really live,
and not complacently just get by on good behaviour.”

Another paraphrase goes: “You see, that’s how it is.
The people who belong to this present world are far better equipped to dodge and weave their way through their dealings with one another than you lot are, and you belong to the light.
So take it from me, if you’ve got a fistful of filthy lucre, use it to help other people out. That way, when it runs out, you’ll have friends for eternity.”

John Wesley, who preached his famous “Use of Money” sermon
on this very passage, sees it slightly differently.
He reckons that Jesus is saying that those who seek no other portion than this world, and I quote: "are wiser" –
not absolutely;
for they are one and all the veriest fools,
the most egregious madmen under heaven;
but, "in their generation," in their own way;
they are more consistent with themselves;
they are truer to their acknowledged principles;
they more steadily pursue their end.”

We, Christians –
and I think this is as true today as it was in Wesley’s time –
aren’t very good at talking and thinking about money.
We remember that “the love of money is the root of all evil”
and shy away from the subject.
We might or might not talk about holding lightly to our material possessions and living simply and all that, but by and large, we don’t talk about it.
It was the same in Wesley’s day.
But we all need money, we all use money.
Wesley concluded that Scripture shows that we should earn all we can,
save all we can
and then give all we can.

He then went on to explain further.
I rather love this paragraph, as isn’t it true in today’s world where people spend so long at the office:
“We ought to gain all we can gain, without buying gold too dear, without paying more for it than it is worth.
But this it is certain we ought not to do;
we ought not to gain money at the expense of life, nor (which is in effect the same thing) at the expense of our health.
Therefore, no gain whatsoever should induce us to enter into, or to continue in, any employ, which is of such a kind, or is attended with so hard or so long labour, as to impair our constitution.
Neither should we begin or continue in any business which necessarily deprives us of proper seasons for food and sleep,
in such a proportion as our nature requires.
Indeed, there is a great difference here.
Some employments are absolutely and totally unhealthy;
as those which imply the dealing much with arsenic, or other equally hurtful minerals, or the breathing an air tainted with steams of melting lead, which must at length destroy the firmest constitution.
Others may not be absolutely unhealthy, but only to persons of a weak constitution.
Such are those which require many hours to be spent in writing;” –
or, perhaps, these days, at a computer screen –
“especially if a person write sitting, and lean upon his stomach, or remain long in an uneasy posture.
But whatever it is which reason or experience shows to be destructive of health or strength, that we may not submit to;
seeing "the life is more" valuable "than meat, and the body than raiment."
And if we are already engaged in such an employ, we should exchange it as soon as possible for some which, if it lessen our gain, will, however not lessen our health.”

He goes on to add that:
“We are, Secondly, to gain all we can without hurting our mind any more than our body.
For neither may we hurt this.
We must preserve, at all events, the spirit of an healthful mind.
Therefore we may not engage or continue in any sinful trade, any that is contrary to the law of God, or of our country.
Such are all that necessarily imply our robbing or defrauding the king of his lawful customs.”
These days, of course, it’s her Majesty’s Government, rather than her person, which is robbed by tax evasion and smuggling –
as prevalent now as in Wesley’s day, if not more so.
All the same, could it harm our souls to engage in it?
I suspect so.

“For it is at least as sinful,” said Wesley, obviously forgetting for the moment what story he had taken to base his sermon on,
“For it is at least as sinful to defraud the king of his right, as to rob our fellow subjects.
And the king has full as much right, to his customs as we have to our houses and apparel.
Other businesses there are, which however innocent in themselves,
cannot be followed with innocence now at least, not in England;
such, for instance, as will not afford a competent maintenance without cheating or lying, or conformity to some custom which not consistent with a good conscience:
These, likewise, are sacredly to be avoided, whatever gain they may be attended with provided we follow the custom of the trade;
for to gain money we must not lose our souls.”
Slave trading springs to mind, of course, or trafficking as we call it today;
or again, drug-dealing.
“There are yet others which many pursue with perfect innocence, without hurting either their body or mind;
And yet perhaps you cannot:
Either they may entangle you in that company which would destroy your soul;
and by repeated experiments it may appear that you cannot separate the one from the other;
or there may be an idiosyncrasy,
a peculiarity in your constitution of soul, (as there is in the bodily constitution of many,) by reason whereof that employment is deadly to you, which another may safely follow.
So I am convinced, from many experiments, I could not study, to any degree of perfection, either mathematics, arithmetic, or algebra, without being a Deist, if not an Atheist:
And yet others may study them all their lives without sustaining any inconvenience.
None therefore can here determine for another;
but every man must judge for himself, and abstain from whatever he in particular finds to be hurtful to his soul.”

Wesley then goes on to explain that, just as you shouldn’t earn money doing things that might hurt you physically or spiritually,
similarly you mustn’t do anything that might hurt other people, either physically or spiritually.
Within those limits, you should work hard, concentrating on what you’re being paid to do and not wasting time on Facebook or Twitter.
Well, Wesley didn’t exactly say that, but that’s more or less what he meant!
And Wesley reminds us to use our God-given intelligence to do our jobs as well as we can.

He then goes on to discuss his thesis that one ought to save all one can.
He reckons you shouldn’t fritter money.
Buy your necessities, by all means, but don’t go mad for luxuries you don’t really need.
Don’t try to keep up with the Joneses.
And don’t spoil your kids.
“Why should you purchase for them more pride or lust, more vanity, or foolish and hurtful desires?”
And, foreseeing today’s massive inheritance tax, “Do not leave it to them to throw away.”
He was actually talking about kids wasting their inheritance, like the Prodigal Son, but it’s nevertheless a good point.

Finally, he discusses the third, and arguably most important clause:
“Give all you can”.
For him, it wasn’t about tithing, or giving away a certain proportion of your income.
He reckons you should start from the premise that everything you are and have is God’s, and take it from there.
Your property, he thinks, isn’t your own, it is God’s.
You’re just the steward.
And if, says Wesley, “you desire to be a faithful and a wise steward, out of that portion of your Lord's goods which he has for the present lodged in your hands, but with the right of resuming whenever it pleases him,
First, provide things needful for yourself;
food to eat, raiment to put on, whatever nature moderately requires for preserving the body in health and strength.
Secondly, provide these for your wife, your children, your servants, or any others who pertain to your household.
If when this is done there be an overplus left, then ‘do good to them that are of the household of faith.’
If there be an overplus still, ‘as you have opportunity, do good unto all men.’
In so doing, you give all you can;
nay, in a sound sense, all you have:
For all that is laid out in this manner is really given to God.
You ‘render unto God the things that are God's,’ not only by what you give to the poor, but also by that which you expend in providing things needful for yourself and your household.”

Almost everything I’ve said this morning has been Wesley, not me.
But talk about why keep a dog and bark yourself –
what Wesley had to say all those centuries ago is still true for us today, I think.
We should still be careful how we earn our livings,
not harming ourselves or our neighbours in so doing.
We should still work hard while we are at work,
not distracting ourselves or faffing about.
We should still live sensibly and frugally, especially in the light of climate change and reducing our carbon footprints and all that –
we are, after all, stewards of the planet God has given us.
And we should still regard ourselves as God’s stewards in our attitude to what we do own –
fine to spend money on ourselves where we need to, and God is totally not mean!
There’s no need to be a miser, but just to be aware that maybe one day God will ask you to do something for, or give something to, someone else.

And do pray.
I haven’t mentioned our first reading so far, from Paul’s letter to Timothy, but it seems that prayer was, and should remain, a priority.
When did you last pray for David Cameron or Nick Clegg?
And I mean really pray, not just “Oh God, David Cameron!!!”
Maybe if we all prayed for him, not just “God bless,” or “Oh God”, but really holding him and Obama, and other world leaders up to the Throne of Grace,
well, maybe things would be different.

I forget, at this instant, who it was who said that the world has not yet seen what one person truly dedicated to God can do.
I actually disagree with whoever it was –
Dwight L Moody, I think –
we’ve seen loads of people who have dedicated their life to God and made a huge difference, from Wesley himself, Mother Teresa, all sorts.
But the point is, if we are truly dedicated to God, if our whole lives are about being God’s person, then how we live may or may not make a difference to the whole world, but it probably will to our own immediate community.
Let’s be good stewards, but let’s also be streetwise and know how to use what God has given us! Amen.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Great Expectations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Firstly, then, what does God expect from us?

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

I wonder what God is expecting of you? I know I am expected to preach the Gospel. Like Jeremiah, I was very young when I was called – about 15. Unlike him, I wasn’t able to answer that call for many years for reasons that I won’t go into now, but suffice it to say that for about the past 20 years I have known that this is what God has wanted me to do. This is what God expects of me. I am so grateful, every time I preach, that all I am expected to do is to provide the words; God does the rest!

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

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

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

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

The leader of the synagogue was confounded when Jesus didn’t conform to his expectation of what a good Jewish man did or didn’t do on the Sabbath. Healing people? Seriously? No, no, that counted as work!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What did you expect from God this morning? Let’s be honest, we come to church week after week, and on most Sundays nothing much happens! We worship God, we spend some time with our friends, and then we go home again. And that’s okay. But some weeks are different, aren’t they? Not often, but just sometimes we come away from Church knowing that God was there, and present, and real. I wonder why these occasions are so rare? Partly, of course, because mountain-top experiences like that are rare, that’s why we remember them. There’s an old story of two men coming out of Church one Sunday morning when the preacher had been rather more boring even than usual. The first man said, “Honestly, what’s the point? I’ve been going to Church more or less every Sunday for the past 30 years, and I must have heard hundreds of sermons, yet I hardly remember any of them!”

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Mary the Mother of God

Today is the Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary. At least, in some parts of the Church it is. If you’re Catholic, it is the Feast of the Assumption, and a public holiday in many countries. If you’re Orthodox, it is the Dormition, only many branches of the Orthodox Church observe their Festivals according to the old calendar, so that won’t be until the 28th of this month. But for us Protestants, it is simply a day to celebrate Mary the Mother of God.

We tend not to think very much about her, do we? Possibly in a reaction to what we see as Catholic worship of her, we tend to ignore her most of the year, except possibly for a mention on the Annunciation, on the 25th March, and then this festival, deep in August when many people are away.

As so often happens, the festival long pre-dates Christianity. It has taken over what used to be a day celebrated to the goddess Diana, who, if you remember your Roman mythology, was the goddess of the hunt, and of the Moon, and, incidentally, was celebrated as a virgin goddess.

Hmmm, that’s interesting. We celebrate the Virgin Mary on a feast-day originally dedicated to a pagan virgin goddess. It makes sense, really, when you come to think about it, given that Christianity took over many other pagan festivals. But perhaps it helps to explain why some versions of Christianity do venerate Mary so much. If you were Jewish, you were quite used to thinking of God as Father and Creator, but if you came from a background which worshipped a virgin goddess, Mary obviously provided what you found you were missing. And again, if you were used to worshipping a mother figure, as so many people were, you found something in Mary that perhaps you missed in the Christian depiction of God. Don’t forget, in the olden days you had to convert to Christianity when your ruler did, or the head of your tribe, or whatever, and if the worship you were used to was suddenly no longer provided, you had to make what you could of what you did have!

And then, of course, the Catholic Church being nothing if not practical, formalised a great deal of what was happening, and thought, about Mary into doctrine.... and so it went on. Chicken and egg type of situation, drawing on tradition and practice more than on Scripture. And so, of course, when the Protestants went back to the Bible, discarding most, although not all, traditional theology, Mary rather fell back into the background.

The thing about Mary, though, is that she provides a model for us to copy. In our Bibles, we first meet her as a young girl in Nazareth who says “Yes” to the enormous, impossible task God set for her, to be the mother of the Messiah. Tradition tells us that she was the daughter of Joachim and Anne, and quite possibly had been reared in the Temple, like Samuel, only if she was living in Nazareth when she was 16, I’m not quite sure how that could have been. Unless, of course, as Matthew implies, she was living in Bethlehem, which isn’t that far from Jerusalem. In either event, she was not dedicated to the Temple as a permanent virgin or anything; she was betrothed to Joseph, a local craftsman, who we are told was much older.

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 – as I said, 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 at the start of his ministry, 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.

Tradition then has it that she moved to Ephesus with John, where she died sometime between three and fifteen years later, and that her body was taken into heaven – or perhaps she didn’t die, but was taken bodily into Heaven first, which is what Catholics believe. In either event, this is what the Catholic Church celebrates today; the Orthodox believe she died, and her body was taken into heaven, which they celebrate as the Dormition.

Well, we Protestants don’t necessarily see her as the Queen of Heaven, or anything like that, but she does make a terrific role model, doesn’t she? She says “Yes” to God; she tells the servants at the wedding to “Do whatever Jesus tells you”. She does what no mother should ever have to do, and watches her Son die one of the most cruel deaths imaginable. And she stays with the disciples afterwards, and is in the Upper Room when the Holy Spirit comes. She stayed with Jesus, all the time. She believed in him, apparently not just because he was the son of her body, although that too, but because He was raised from death, and she remained, one imagines, a faithful disciple until she died.

I’ve been thinking about that a bit this week, as it is the start of Ramadan when, as you know, observant Muslims don’t eat or drink anything during daylight hours. That must be incredibly difficult – I should hate to have to do it. Yet they do it every year, for four whole weeks, as a discipline to help them stay close to God. I find it always says things to me about my own self-discipline and how I need to help myself stay close to God. Nadine was reminding us just last week how easy it is to slip away from one’s first love for God.

But Mary stayed close to her Son, and through Him to His heavenly Father. Mary’s “Yes” to God enabled God to be incarnate, to come to earth as God the Son. Our own “Yes” to God is unlikely to do anything quite so earth-shattering, but on the other hand, who knows where it will lead? We don’t observe Ramadan, and when we do observe a season of fasting, such as in Lent or Advent, we tend not to allow it to impinge on us very much. But we do need to do whatever it takes to stay, like Mary, close to God, and to say “Yes” to whatever we are asked to do. Amen.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Allowing God

Jesus said to his disciples:
"A large crop is in the fields, but there are only a few workers.
Ask the Lord in charge of the harvest to send out workers to bring it in."

St Paul wrote to the Christians in Galatia:
"Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up."

You can see the theme the lectionary compilers were thinking about –
harvests!
But there are other themes, too, that unite the two readings.

In many ways our two readings are completely different, of course.
Nobody seems to know who the 72 people that Jesus sent out were –
nor, actually, how many there were,
as some translations say seventy, others say seventy-two.
But who were they?
Where did they come from?
Why do we never hear of them before or since?
All very peculiar.

But Jesus sends them out, telling them they were not to take anything with them –
no luggage, not even hand baggage.
One paraphrase has it:
"comb and toothbrush only!"
but I'm not entirely sure they were meant to take even that much.
They were to be totally dependent on other people's generosity in order to live.
If one household wouldn't take them in, another probably would,
but you weren't to move from house to house to find who was the better cook.

Apparently the instruction not to stop and greet people en route was because doing the polite, in those days, could take a mighty long time,
it wasn't just a matter of saying "Hi!" and moving on, you had to stop and ask about all the family members right down to your sixth cousin twice removed, who was probably their uncle anyway.
So it all took time, so you hadn't to stop.

And when they come back –
we are not told how long they were on the road –
they were full of their experiences:
"Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name!"

But Jesus said that was almost by the way.
It didn't matter.
What did matter was "that your names are written in heaven."

A modern paraphrase puts it this way:
"All the same, the great triumph is not in your authority over evil, but in God's authority over you and presence with you.
Not what you do for God but what God does for you –
that's the agenda for rejoicing."

---oo0oo---

Some years before this story was written down, but a few years later, chronologically, St Paul was coming to the end of his letter to the Christians in Galatia.
This is, you may or may not know, one of the earliest letters –
they think it might have been written as early as 54 AD, so within twenty-five years or so of the Crucifixion.
People who had actually heard Jesus speak would still be alive;
people who had seen the Crucifixion;
maybe even people who had seen the risen Jesus.

And St Paul was already travelling around and making converts.
And this is where the problem arose, because originally, people who were converted were Jewish, and tended to follow the Jewish law and so on.
At that, St Paul himself was.
But then you started getting this new lot of Christians,
who had never been Jewish
and didn't see that it was necessary to keep the Jewish law in order to be a Christian.
This, as we know, is also what St Paul thought,
but there were others who disagreed,
and said that if you were to be a proper Christian, you had to be circumcised
(if you were male –
they didn't practice female circumcision)
and keep the Jewish Law, with all the observances about what you did and didn't eat,
what did or did not make you unclean,
what you could and couldn't do on the Sabbath Day and so on.
For St Paul, this had all been rendered totally obsolete by the Cross of Christ –
you were saved by faith, not by keeping the Law.
And thus his letter to the good Christians of Galatia.

The end of the letter, he says, is written in his own handwriting –
some scholars think he had something the matter with his eyes, which is why he tended to use a scribe or secretary to write his letters for him.
And when he uses his own handwriting, it tends to be rather large and scrawly.
But it enables him to stress what he wants to leave them with which in our pew Bibles reads:

"Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything;
what counts is a new creation."

Another modern translation puts it:
"It doesn't matter if you are circumcised or not.
All that matters is that you are a new person."

And in a modern paraphrase, they put it like this:
"Can't you see the central issue in all this?
It is not what you and I do—
submit to circumcision, reject circumcision.
It is what God is doing, and he is creating something totally new, a free life!"

That is really the point:
a new creation.

St Paul is very big on that, it's one of the things he stresses.
This from his letter to the Corinthians:
"Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation;
the old has gone, the new has come!
All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation:
that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people's sins against them.
And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation."

---oo0oo---

Obviously, being "a new creation" is something God does.
It's not something we can do.
And having our names "written in heaven",
that's not something we can do, either.
It is something God does.

Now, over the centuries, some branches of Christianity have interpreted this to mean that you don't get a choice about it,
and that it's not until you get to heaven that you find out whether your name was or was not written down there.
They call it "Limited Atonement" –
as if!

But we Methodists don't believe that.
We believe that everybody needs to be saved –
to become a new creation, if you like –
and that everybody can be saved.
We also believe that we can know that we are saved, and that we can be "saved to the uttermost", as they say –
for Wesley, this meant that one could grow so close to Jesus that for all intents and purposes one would be practically perfect.
He didn't, you will note, claim to be like that himself,
although he did reckon he knew one or two folk who were.

We know all this, of course.
Most of us have been Christians for more years than we care to remember!
But it's always good to remind ourselves of the basics from time to time;
and the thing that really leapt off the screen for me from the various translations and paraphrases that I read
was that both having our names written in heaven and being a new creation is something that God does, not something we do.

"Not what you do for God but what God does for you –
that's the agenda for rejoicing," as the modern paraphrase put it.

And we who have been Christians for many decades sometimes forget that.
We get so involved in Church administration, or worse, in Church politics, that we forget what we're here for –
and the main thing we're here for is to allow God to do something for us!

So the question I want to leave with you today is:
When did you last allow God to do something for you?

Sunday, 27 June 2010

The Fruit of the Spirit

Think of a bowl of fruit. I wonder what fruit you think of. Apples, oranges and bananas, perhaps; or at this time of year peaches and nectarines and strawberries? Or perhaps the tropical fruits, like pineapples and mangoes and papayas. It doesn’t really matter what they are – they are all fruit. So are things like tomatoes and cucumbers and squash and marrow; basically if it is a mechanism for carrying seed, it’s a fruit. If not, not, which means that disgusting rhubarb is actually a vegetable!

Fruit, of course, is Nature’s way of ensuring that seeds are widely distributed – the fruit is eaten, and the seeds deposited somewhere else to grow away from the parent plant. Obviously centuries of cultivation have meant that some fruit has grown a very long way from its origins, and of course, for farmers nowadays it is a cash crop; I’ve driven past cherry orchards in the South of France, and plum orchards in the Vale of Evesham, and we have all heard of the fruit fields in California.

St Paul talks about a crop of fruit, too, in our reading from the letter to the Galatians. He isn’t talking about apples and oranges, though; his fruit is qualities: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control And he calls this the fruit of the spirit.

The fruit of the Spirit. Now, you may have heard plenty of sermons on the fruit of the spirit – I know I have! And do you know, almost every time I’ve heard one I’ve ended up feeling horrible and guilty – I always start to think that I don’t show the fruit of the spirit in my life, and that means I must be a terrible, rotten person, or I’m doing the whole Christian thing all wrong, or something like that!

But I don’t think St Paul really meant what he was saying to make us feel all guilty and horrible. I’m sure he meant something rather different.

You see, he didn’t just write this list of good qualities out of the blue! He wrote it as part of a letter to the Christian Church in Galatia, which was either the Roman province of Galatia, or a much smaller area that was called Galatia long before the Romans came. Doesn’t matter which it was, not at this stage. What does matter is that the Galatians had a problem. They wanted to follow Jesus, but some of their teachers thought that in order to do that, they must also keep the Jewish law. They were teaching that they must become Jews first and Christians afterwards.

Well, St Paul was Jewish himself, and he knew that this was not so. He knew that you could be a good Christian without necessarily being a good Jew. He himself was both, of course, but he was beginning to abandon the Jewish rituals when they became a barrier to evangelism. He said that the Jewish law was fine as long as it lasted, but now that Jesus has come, it’s all changed. You don’t need to keep the Jewish law any more. “For freedom, Christ has set us free.”

But then he realised that people might just misunderstand him, so he goes on to say BUT. And his BUT is that you do have to let god the Holy Spirit fill you, and live in accordance with God’s will. You see, Paul says, if you just live for yourself – what he calls “the sinful nature” – if you don’t either follow the Jewish law or allow God the Holy Spirit to lead you, you might well end up with some or all of the nasty qualities he listed: idolatry and witchcraft, hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies and the like. And, he says, people like that don’t fit into God’s kingdom.

And then he says, but if you allow yourself to be filled with the Holy Spirit, you’ll produce love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. And he says that if you belong to Jesus, the old selfish you has been crucified. Put to death. He doesn’t you notice, say it should be put to death, or it must be put to death. He says it has been put to death. By virtue of the fact that you belong to Jesus.

The trouble is, of course, that when you hear that, if you’re anything like me you go “I wish! In your dreams!” and similar sort of remarks. Because we know all too well that we are prone to some of the things in the list of nasties – we might get jealous, or bite someone’s head off because we’re stressed out... and so on. There are times when a life showing nothing but Paul’s fruit of the Spirit seems like an impossible dream.

Perhaps Paul is being idealistic? Perhaps we should all be trying to be loving and so on? Perhaps that’s the ideal, and if we mess up it doesn’t matter all that much?

Well, that's not what it says. Yes, of course we should, ideally, be trying to be loving and all that, but by ourselves we simply aren’t going to succeed. It isn’t that we should try and develop these qualities – it is that, if we are God’s person, we gradually will develop these qualities.

I’ve said before and I’ll probably say it again that these Sundays in Ordinary Time are the ones when the readings put what we say we believe smack up against what we really do believe, and how that belief translates into practice. If we are God’s person, we are told, we gradually will develop these qualities. We’re told that we’re being made more and more like Jesus as we carry on our walk with God, and these qualities, above all, are ones that shone out of Jesus.

Now, we’re probably not going to notice them very much; it’s far more obvious that we’ve had a meltdown than that we haven’t had one when we might have done! Reminds me of the silly story of the man with the string round his wrist, and when asked why he wore it, he said, “It’s to keep the elephants away!”
“But there are no elephants!”
“Yes, you see, it works!”
It’s really hard to prove a negative! And in some cases it’s hard to prove a positive – we know when we have been unloving or unkind, but do we know when we have been loving or kind? And ought we to know? Wouldn’t we end up being proud of ourselves, as though it were all down to us, when it isn’t really.

Because, you see, these qualities are fruit. And you can’t make fruit, can you – well, there is doubtless an Apple factory somewhere, but that’s something different. You can’t go and watch a banana being made, or the peel being put on an orange. Fruit grows. It’s the farmers and the growers who produce fruit, not factories or mills. The farmer, or the market gardener, does a great deal to protect the fruit trees, and see that they aren’t eaten by pests, or get too dry, and that the trees have been pollinated so that the fruit can grow, but basically they have to be patient, and wait for the fruit to grow and ripen.

And so do we. We can’t manufacture love, or joy, or gentleness, or the other qualities Paul mentions. But we can help them grow.

How? Well, obviously first of all by really being God’s person, not just in Church on Sundays, but allowing what we do on Sundays to affect the rest of our week. Ideally we should try to take time to be with God, even if only for a few minutes, every day. John Wesley reminds us of the “means of grace” of prayer, both private and corporate, the Holy Scriptures and Holy Communion. He points out, in his famous sermon on “The means of grace” that these things aren’t powerful in and of themselves, but only insofar as they bring us towards God. We can pray until we’re blue in the face, Wesley says – well, words to that effect, anyway – but it’s not our prayer that changes things, it’s God working in and through our prayers. And, of course, Wesley reminds us, it’s not praying or whatever that makes us a Christian – it is God’s grace alone that can do that.

Nevertheless, the “means of grace” are very helpful to keep us aligned with God, and the closer we can stay to God, the more fruit will grow in us. Remember what Jesus told us, in John 15: “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”

And in another of Paul’s letters, he reminds us to go on being filled with the Holy Spirit, too; it’s not a once-for-all thing, but a daily need, a continuous process.

But let’s be realistic, too – we are going to fail! We often show more nasty qualities than good ones. It happens. It’s no good saying “It oughtn’t to happen,” or “It doesn’t happen” when we know full well that it does. That’s because we’re here on this earth and we are not yet made perfect. And when it happens – not if, when – then we need to admit to ourselves, and to God, that it has happened. That we aren’t perfect. We need to apologise to the person we were unkind to, or who bore the brunt of our latest meltdown, or whatever, and then pick ourselves up and go on being God’s person.

Because the more we go on with God, the more we will grow these fruit-qualities of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. It’s the only way. We can’t make them; we can’t even fake them. We can only grow them. Let’s be committed to doing just that. Amen.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

In Remembrance of Me

I was preaching at our Church's monthly Communion service; our minister had asked me to share the service with her.

“If anyone loves me,” said Jesus, “he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. He who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me.”

You remember that this passage comes from John’s Gospel, at the Last Supper; it’s where Jesus is summing it all up for the disciples before the crucifixion. “In my Father’s house are many mansions” and so on. If you had the lectionary reading last week, as we did in Shropshire, it was the passage about the commandment to love one another, from the same section. This bit sort-of carries on from there. “If anyone loves me, they will obey my teaching.”

In our Gospel reading, Jesus makes it pretty clear that being a Christian isn’t just about believing, it’s also about obeying. We need to take Jesus’ teaching on board, and allow our faith to make a difference in our lives. It’s not just a mental assent to a set of propositions, it’s about a whole new way of living. We know that, of course, but half the time we forget it and, if you’re anything like me, when you remember, you instantly start thinking you must be a terrible Christian!

But look at it again, for a minute: “If anyone loves me, they will obey my teaching!” Not “They ought to”, or “They must”, but “They will!” It will happen more or less automatically as long as we love Jesus. It’s not about a legalistic list of dos and don’ts; it’s about a relationship with the living God. “They will obey my commands.” Not because we have to, not even because we love Jesus, but because it’s a cause and effect type of relationship. We don’t need to feel guilty, we just need to let go and let God. As Jesus goes on to say:

“My Father will love him – or her – and we will come to them and make our home with them.”

That’s a pretty extraordinary statement, when you come to think of it. To make their home with us? Really? Actually, it’s a bit terrifying – are we, am I, are you living as though this is true? Is it true for us? Yikes....

And then Jesus goes on to say not to worry if his disciples don’t remember all this, as when the Holy Spirit comes, He will teach it all to us, and remind us of all of Jesus’ teachings.

And then he concludes “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

I have been thinking about this passage in the context of Holy Communion, which we are celebrating today. In the other Gospels, Jesus takes the normal Jewish Friday-evening ritual of taking, blessing, breaking and sharing the bread and the wine, that every Jewish family did, and still does, on a Friday evening, and made it into something different, something special. The bread becomes, in some way, his body, the wine becomes his blood. And we are told to “Do this in remembrance of me”.

Now, as I’m sure you realise, there are as many different ways of looking at Holy Communion as there are Christians! What happens when we take, bless, break and share the bread and the wine, as we are about to do, is what they call a mystery. That’s a jargon-word of course, it doesn’t mean anything to do with Midsomer Murders or Lewis; what it means is that no matter how deeply you go into it, no matter how deeply you understand it, because it is of God, there will always, always be more that you don’t understand. And that’s as it should be! We won’t understand the things of God until we are in Heaven with God, and quite probably not even then.

I was taught, as a very small girl, that Holy Communion is a sacrament. And that a sacrament is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace”. In other words, we do something – in this case taking, blessing, breaking and sharing the bread and wine – and God does something, too.

For some people, it is a time quite simply of remembrance. We use the Lord’s Supper to remember what Jesus did for us on the Cross. For others, it’s the great Thanksgiving, the Eucharist, where we not only remember what Jesus did, but give thanks for it. Or again, it might be, quite simply, a time of special communion with Jesus – whether that is through the actual bread and wine in some way, or because the service is very focussed. And then there are people for whom it is a re-enactment of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross – not repeating it, but re-enacting it.

And, of course, because it is a mystery, everybody is probably right, and nobody probably has the whole truth about it. And that’s okay. And our views will, quite probably, change as we continue on our Christian journey, with one aspect taking priority and then another, and that’s quite normal, too.

But whatever the Eucharist means to us, one very good reason to make our Communions is because Jesus said to: “Do this in remembrance of me.” Christians have differed widely about what Jesus actually meant when he said “This is my body, this is my blood”, but we are all united that he said to do it anyway!

“If anyone loves me, they will obey my teaching!”

And this is one of the ways in which we do obey Jesus’ teaching, by making our Communions. Whether we do this daily, weekly, monthly, or even less often, almost all Christians, except Quakers, make their Communions regularly. It is one of the great uniting things – Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox Christians have very different views of the sacrament, but we all celebrate it regularly, one way or another.

And of course, in our Gospel reading, Jesus reminded us that “the Counsellor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” And in the great prayer of Thanksgiving, the Eucharistic prayer, one of the things is praying for the Holy Spirit to come. “Pour out your Holy Spirit, that these gifts of bread and wine may be for us the body and blood of Christ,” or words to that effect. There’s a technical term for that part of the prayer, by the way; it’s called the epiclesis. Just fancy that!

But the point is, it echoes back. The Holy Spirit, Jesus said, will teach us all things and remind us of everything that Jesus said; we pray, in our Communion prayer, for the coming of the Holy Spirit.

For me, right now, as you may have gathered, the service is all about a special moment of communion with Jesus. A time of forgiveness, a time of healing, a time of empowerment, of refilling with the Holy Spirit, of – well, of Jesus, if you like. But, of course, there are times when it feels as though one is just going through the motions. Perhaps you didn’t come to church in a great mood, or the service has been uninspiring, or you’re uncomfortable or in pain or something, or just one of those days when you simply can’t concentrate. We all have them. You know what it’s like as well as I do.

The thing is, I think this passage helps to show us that it doesn’t really matter. We come to Communion, if all else fails, because Jesus told us to do so. He never actually promised we’d get anything out of it, even though quite often we do. He just said, “Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For his first followers, this was a normal and natural part of their Friday night rituals; whatever Jesus may or may not have meant by “This is my body, this is my blood,” passing the cup and the plate around was what they did.

For us, it is a Sunday morning ritual. But still, we do this in remembrance of him. We do it because he told us to.

Of course, there are plenty of other things that Jesus told us to do; in the context, he may well have been referring to the so-called “new commandment”, to love one another. And we know from elsewhere, from Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels, exactly what sort of people we are going to be, which can be summarised as people who treat other people with the greatest possible respect for who they are. No matter who they are. But nevertheless, by making our Communion we are doing as he commanded us.

But what does it do? Does it actually change anything? I said earlier that it was a Sacrament, and that implies that God does do something. Yes, we make our Communions frequently, although perhaps now that we’re wholly Methodist not quite as often as we’d like. And I don’t suppose, most of the time, that we feel any different.

I suspect, though, that we’d soon notice if we didn’t take Communion as regularly as possible. It is one of what Wesley calls the “Means of Grace”, which include prayer and reading the Scriptures and fellowship, as well as Communion. It is a place where we come into contact with God, and those places are vitally necessary to us. Without them, we are apart from Jesus, and you remember that he said “Without me, you can do nothing!”

And, as we come to make our Communion, let’s remember, too, the last thing Jesus said in this particular passage: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

“Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” Amen.