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Sunday, 24 January 2016

Scrolls and Bodies

 For the children's talk, I told them Aesop's fable of the Belly and the Members:

"One fine day it occurred to the Members of the Body that they were doing all the work and the Belly was having all the food.  So they held a meeting, and after a long discussion, decided to strike work till the Belly consented to take its proper share of the work.  So for a day or two, the Hands refused to take the food, the Mouth refused to receive it, and the Teeth had no work to do." 

 at which point I stopped, and asked the children what they thought would happen in a day or so.  "I think," said a 10-year-old, "That the person would die!"  I said they certainly would if they persisted, but before that time:

But after a day or two the Members began to find that they themselves were not in a very active condition: the Hands could hardly move, and the Mouth was all parched and dry, while the Legs were unable to support the rest.  So thus they found that even the Belly in its dull quiet way was doing necessary work for the Body and that all must work together or the Body will go to pieces."

I then added that no matter how young they were, they were still a very necessary part of the Church, and not to let anybody ever tell them different.  Nor, I said, addressing the whole church, are you ever too old!

Two interesting readings today, I thought. Firstly St Paul, talking about the Body of Christ, and then Jesus, reading the Scriptures in the synagogue in his home town.

So, St Paul. The story I told the children earlier is a very ancient one; it dates back to a fable by Aesop, Aesop is thought to have lived around 600 BC, and the story may be much older still. St Paul, who was an educated man, probably knew it, and thought of it when he drew the analogy about our being parts of the Body of Christ.

St Paul was, of course, writing to the Church in Corinth, and it looks as though the people there had got themselves into a bit of a muddle about who was the most important. Some people thought they really didn’t matter very much. Other people thought that everybody else should be just like them. Still others thought that people with smaller roles to play in the Church didn’t matter as much as they did. But there would have been educated people in the congregation, who would have known the story, and nodded wisely as they realised where Paul was going with this. Yes of course, all parts of the body are necessary. Yes, the stomach may appear to do nothing, but you see how far you get without any food! And Paul takes this and runs with it: the foot is just as much a part of the body as the hand is; the eye just as much part as the ear. If the whole body were just an ear, how would you smell? If the whole body was an eye, you wouldn't be able to hear! And so on. His point, of course, is that all parts of the body are equally necessary and important, and if we are the Body of Christ then we are all equally necessary and important.

Then we have this story of Jesus, fairly early in his ministry, going home for the weekend, and on the Sabbath Day, he goes to the synagogue with his family, and because he’s home visiting, they ask him to choose the reading from the prophets. So Jesus reads from the prophet Isaiah, the bit where it says: “The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD's favour and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn.” So far so good. But then he says “Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Our reading ended there, but I expect you remember what happened next – the people were outraged. They knew this young man, they'd known him from a small child, ever since his family had settled there when he wasn't much more than a baby. “He’s only the Carpenter’s son, Mary’s lad. These are his brothers and sisters. He can’t be special.” And they were offended, so we are told. They even went so far as to try to kill him for blasphemy, but he escaped and went away.

Once upon a time, two men were talking in the pub, or their club or somewhere like that. One of them told how he had been lost in the Sahara desert. I don't know what he was doing in the Sahara desert in the first place – perhaps he was an aviator whose plane had come down, as so many did, or perhaps he was an explorer, or perhaps he just thought he knew better than anybody else. Well, anyway, he was lost, and dying of thirst, and he knew that, barring a miracle, he wouldn't make it home. So he prayed to God to save him.

“Oh,” said his hearer. “And what did God do? You obviously were saved, as you're here to tell me the story.”

“Actually, God didn't;” said the first man. “Just at that moment a caravan came past and helped me, so you see, God didn't need to save me.”

Now, we can see, can't we, what our hero couldn't – that it was God who sent the caravan at just that moment. But he didn't expect God to work in that way, so he didn't see it.

Similarly, the people of Corinth couldn't always see how God was working in and through other people in the church – people with, perhaps, different views on how things should be done. We know from later in the letter than some people were bothered about eating meat that had previously been offered to idols, and others reckoned that, as the idols had no power, it didn't matter. We know they argued about sex, whether within or outside of marriage. We know they argued about all sorts of things, but for Paul, what mattered was that they were all part of the church, and God could and did work in and through them.

The people of Nazareth had no idea that God was coming to earth in the person of the young man they'd seen grow up from a baby. Do we have definite ideas about how God works, I wonder? Do we expect to see God working in the ordinary, the every day? Or do we expect him always to come down with power and fire from Heaven? Do we expect Him to speak to us through other people, perhaps even through me, or do we expect Him to illuminate a verse of the Bible specially, or write His message in fiery letters in the sky?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What more indeed? You, and I, and each and every one of us here is part of the Body of Christ. We cannot say that we have no need of each other. We cannot say that they have no need of me, and we most certainly can't say that we don't need you! But we also need to be aware of God at work in our world. Do you remember what happened to the people of Nazareth?

Nothing. That's what happened. Nothing at all. God could do no work there through Jesus. Okay, a few sick people were healed, but that was all. The good news of the Kingdom of God was not proclaimed. Miracles didn’t happen. Just. . . nothing.

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

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

Sunday, 10 January 2016

The Baptism of Christ

This Sunday, the Church celebrates the baptism of Christ.
St Luke tells us how Jesus came to John to ask for baptism.
Unlike some of the other Evangelists, he doesn’t mention John’s making a fuss and saying
“Oh, oh, it ought to be you baptising me, not the other way round!”
But he does mention the voice from heaven, saying
You are my Son, whom I love;
with you I am well pleased.”

For Jews, baptism was really a matter of washing.
They had –
and still, as far as I know, have –
a way of washing in their ritual baths,
which made them no longer unclean.
But it was not, I believe, until the time of John the Baptist
that baptism was linked with repentance.
John had one or two things to say to people who wanted baptism without repenting,
baptism without tears, if you like,
calling them “a brood of vipers”,
and reminding them that just because they were children of Abraham didn’t mean they were excused from bearing “fruits worthy of repentance.”
In other words, they had to show their repentance by the change in their lives, and their baptism was to mark this fresh start.

Now for me, at least, this raises at least two questions.
Why, then, was it necessary for Jesus to be baptised, and, secondly, what about our own baptism?

Why did Jesus have to be baptised?
He, after all, was without sin, or so we are told,
so he, alone of all humanity, did not need,
and never has needed, to repent.
But when John queried him, so St Matthew tells us,
he said “Let it be so now;
for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.”
In other words, let’s observe all the formalities,
don’t let anybody be able to say I wasn’t part of the religious establishment of the day.

And, of course, one other very good reason is that it was an opportunity for the Father to proclaim Jesus to the crowds thronging the Jordan.
John probably baptised hundreds of others that day, I shouldn’t wonder, with Jesus waiting his turn very patiently.
But it was only when Jesus rose up from the waters of baptism
that God sent the Holy Spirit upon him in the form of a dove, and said, out loud,
You are my Son, whom I love;
with you I am well pleased.”

God proclaimed Jesus as his beloved Son.

And then what?
No triumphant upsurging against the occupying power,
no human rebellion.
Not even a triumphal entry into Jerusalem.
No, what awaited Jesus after his baptism was forty days in the desert,
and an almost unbearable temptation to discover the depths of his powers as God’s Son, whom God loves,
and to misuse them.
And it was only then, after Jesus had wrestled with, and conquered, the temptation to misuse his divine power,
that he could come back and begin to heal the sick,
raise the dead,
restore sight to the blind
and preach good news to the poor.
And gather round him a band of devoted followers, of course, and all that.

Well, so much for Jesus’ baptism;
what about ours?

For many Christians, baptism does seem to be very similar to John’s baptism, a baptism of repentance, of changed lives,
a signal to the world that now you are a Christian, and plan to live that way.
But for a great many more Christians, baptism is something that happens when you are a tiny baby, too small to remember it.
That’s usually the case for Methodists and Anglicans, so it applies to us.
I was baptised as a baby and so, very probably, were you.

Now, some folk say that being baptised as a baby is a nonsense,
how can you possibly repent when you are an infant in arms,
and how can other people make those promises for you?
I think it depends very much on whether you see baptism as primarily something you do, or primarily something God does.
The Anglican and Methodist churches call baptism a Sacrament,
and you may remember the definition of a Sacrament which is
that a Sacrament is the outward and visible sign
of an inward and spiritual grace.

The other Sacrament that Methodist churches recognise is, of course, Holy Communion.
The Catholic church recognises at least five more,
but as I can never remember all of them off-hand, I won’t start listing them now!
The point is, that a Sacrament is a place where we humans do something and trust that God also does something.
When we make our Communion, we believe that we are meeting with Jesus,
communicating, if you like, in a very special way
during the taking, breaking, blessing and sharing of the bread and wine.
And in baptism, we believe that God comes and meets with us in a very special way, filling us with the Holy Spirit.
Yes, even babies –
do you really have to be old enough to be aware that you are doing so in order to love God?
I don’t think so!
You certainly don’t have to be aware to be loved by God,
and that’s really what it’s all about.

You see, baptism, like Communion, is one of those Christian mysteries, where the more deeply you penetrate into what it means,
the more you become aware that there’s more to know.
You never really get to the bottom of it.
St Paul goes off in one direction, talking about baptism being identifying with Christ in his death.
I’m never quite sure what he is getting at, when he says in the letter to the Romans,
“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death?
Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”

I may not have totally understood Paul there –
who does? –
but it’s nevertheless part of what baptism is all about.

Another part of it is, indeed, about repentance and turning to Christ.
For those of us who were baptised as infants,
someone else made promises on our behalf about being Jesus’ person, and we didn’t take responsibility for them until we were old enough to know what we were doing,
when we were, I hope, confirmed.
We confirmed that we were taking responsibility for those promises for ourselves,
we became full members of the Church and, above all,
we received, once again, the Holy Spirit through the laying-on of hands.

And so it goes on.
But it’s all very well me droning on about baptism and what it really means, but what is it saying to us this morning?
For some of us, our baptism was more than six decades ago, after all!
For some of us, it may have been a lot more recent, but you may well not remember it, even so!

Well, first and most importantly is that baptism is important for Christians,
as important as the Sacrament of Holy Communion.
So if for any reason you never have been baptised,
and you know that you want to be Jesus’ person,
do go and talk to Andy or someone.
The same applies if you haven't yet been confirmed, but feel you are ready to become a full member of the Church and ready to take responsibility for those promises they made on your behalf.
There's a new course starting very soon, and I'm sure you'd be most welcome to take part, even if you then decided it wasn't for you just yet.
Have a word with Andy about it.
That wasn't meant to be an advertisement, by the way; just thought I'd mention it – it'll doubtless be mentioned again in the notices!

But for the rest of us, for whom our confirmation is nothing more than a memory, and baptism not even that, so what?
What does it mean for us today?

I think that, like so much that is to do with God,
baptism is an ongoing thing, not just a once-for-all thing.
Yes, we are baptised once;
St Paul reminds us that there is one baptism,
just as there is one faith, and one Lord.
But when Martin Luther was quite an old man,
and the devil started whispering in his ear that he was a rotten human being and God would cast him out, et cetera, et cetera, you know how he does,
Luther threw his inkpot at the spot where he felt the voice was coming from, and said: “Nonsense!
I have been baptised, and I stand on that baptism!”
Even though that baptism had been when Luther was a newborn baby,
he still knew that its effects would protect him from the assaults of the evil one.
As, indeed, it does for us.
There are times when life seems to go very pear-shaped, aren’t there?
Times when it feels that God has forgotten us, that we are stumbling on alone, in the dark,
totally unable to see where we are going.
Whether that is true for us as individuals, or as a church, these times are very hard to deal with and to understand.
All we know is, they happen to all of us from time to time, and we simply can’t see the reason from this end.

Of course, we know intellectually
that God hasn’t in the least bit forgotten us.
Some folk say these times of darkness are when God is testing us,
but I’m not sure it’s even that.
It’s some part of the pattern that we don’t understand,
can’t see what is happening,
and tend to try to rationalise.
I do believe that one day we’ll know what it was all about,
and see how it fitted in.

But when I am going through one of these dark patches, it is to this lovely passage in Isaiah that was our first reading that I most often turn:

“Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have summoned you by name;
you are mine.
When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.
For I am the LORD, your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour.”

It’s a lovely passage to learn by heart, to say to yourself in those dark watches of the night when you are lying awake, worrying.
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have summoned you by name;
you are mine.”

In some way we know that our baptism was part of that.
As I said earlier, it’s what they call a mystery;
we’ll never know the whole truth of how it works, only that it does!
Jesus came for baptism to John, and from his baptism he was sent into the wilderness to wrestle with one of his bad times –
the other, as we know, was in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before he was crucified.
And if Jesus can have bad times, then it’s all right for us to, I reckon!
In the Isaiah passage I just quoted, it's when, not if!
When you pass through the waters,
when you walk through the fire.
The bad times will happen, they happen to everybody.
But we will not be swept away, we will not be burnt, God will be with us.
Life doesn’t have to be perfect, and nor do we, before we can remind ourselves that God loves us.

Of course, that love isn’t just warm fuzzies;
it’s about going out there and doing something.
Christian love is something you do,
not something you feel.
But in the dark watches of the night, we need our warm fuzzies.
And I think God knows that,
which is why there are those lovely passages in Scripture about how much he loves us, about how he protects us and cares for us.

Let’s sing that lovely hymn, “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy”
to affirm that love.
It’s number 416.