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Sunday, 17 April 2016

Our Doctrines

It was Hannukah. This is the festival of dedication that our Jewish friends celebrate every year shortly before Christmas, which involves lighting candles every night for eight nights – one more candle each night. Various blessings are said, and hymns are sung, and, of course, there is the usual feasting and celebration, although you still go to work or school, as appropriate. In Israel it's a school holiday, but elsewhere it isn't, and you aren't excused school as you are for some of the Jewish holidays. The festival commemorates the victory of the Maccabees over pagan kings who wanted to ban Judaism and defile the Temple.

The festival was about 200 years old in Jesus' day, and he, as we see, is in Jerusalem for it, and he's walking up and down what's called Solomon's Porch, or Solomon's Colonnade, which was on the eastern side of the outer court of the Temple. And various people – ones, I suspect, who had no reason to wish him well – came up to him and said “We do wish you'd tell us clearly, are you the Messiah, or not?”

To which he replied: “But I have told you! You just didn't believe me!” And he goes on to explain that those who are never going to be his disciples, no matter what, will not listen to him. But “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never die. No one can snatch them away from me.”

“My sheep listen to my voice”. And, conversely, “You will not believe, for you are not my sheep.”

So, Jesus is basically saying that he can tell them he's the Messiah until he's blue in the face, but they are never going to listen. They are not his sheep.

Now, I think we need to look at this a bit this morning, because it can be quite scary to think that there are people who are not Jesus' sheep. I wonder what he meant.

Well, first of all, our doctrines tell us that everybody can be saved. We don't believe, as some churches teach, that there is only a limited atonement and it's not for everybody. We believe that everybody can be saved. Everybody. Even a terrorist. Even a paedophile. Even a politician. Everybody can be saved. Jesus doesn't exclude anybody from His flock.

But yet, we also believe that everybody needs to be saved. Everybody needs to be saved. I strongly suspect that the default position, for very small children and so on, is that they are part of Jesus' flock – but people can exclude themselves. There are prominent atheists like Stephen Fry or Jimmy Carr who would be horrified to find themselves part of the flock! And others who exclude themselves by their actions – they couldn't care less whether they are part of the flock or not, but go their own sweet way regardless. And then there are those who don't follow Jesus, but do follow God to the best of their ability and knowledge, people like Jews and Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists. I don't know how God deals with such people, but I'm quite sure whatever happens to them after this life is fair and right. Jesus condemned the Jewish church leaders of his day, certainly, but that was basically because they didn't want to know, when he was right there in front of them.

But in many ways that is not our problem. Sure, we share our faith with Jews and Muslims and so on when it's appropriate to do so – and I very much hope that we listen when they tell us about theirs! But whatever God has provided for their salvation – and I'm perfectly convinced He has, because whatever else God is He's not unfair, and it would be terribly unfair to exclude people because they had been taught to worship God differently and to say different creeds; whatever God has provided for their salvation, the point is we do know what­ He has provided for ours!

We know that everybody can know that they are saved. Everybody can know that they are saved, that they are part of Jesus' flock. We know that we can hear His voice, through Scripture, through our friends, through our teachers.... I think all of us here have made a commitment, one way and another, to being Jesus' person; whether we said a specific prayer of commitment on a specific day, or whether it came so gradually that we couldn't possibly say when it was, only that you couldn't be doing without Jesus now. We have all, I expect, made such a commitment – and if by any chance you haven't, you might think whether it is time that you did so – and we can know that we are saved.

I don't really know exactly what “our doctrines” mean by “saved” in this context. It's far more than just “pie in the sky when you die”, of course; it's about being Jesus' person all the time, the “abundant life” Jesus talks about is for here and now, not just in some remote afterlife. It's about being filled with the Holy Spirit; it's about receiving the gifts of the Spirit to enable us to become more and more the person God created us to be. But it's one of those things where we all probably have part of the truth, and none of us has the whole truth, because it's about God. I know what I mean when I say “saved”, and I expect you know what you mean when you say it, but we may not mean quite the same things. And we may not mean now what we meant when we said it twenty years ago, or even yesterday – we all grow and change and this sort of thing is apt to change a bit as we go on our Christian journey.

So: Everybody needs to be saved; everybody can be saved; everybody can know they are saved, and the fourth line of “our doctrines” is “Everybody can be saved to the uttermost”.

“My sheep listen to my voice”, says Jesus. And it isn't just listening like we might listen to the radio or a CD, just background noise. It is active listening, that focusses on what is being said and reacts to it. It is the sort of listening that enables God to make us into the person we were created to be, the sort of listening that enables God to give us the gifts we need.

Most of us, of course, aren't good at listening to God all the time. Like sheep, we wander away and have to be brought back. Have you ever seen a field of sheep with their lambs? Actually, more to the point, have you ever listened? There is constant bleating going on, as that's how the sheep stay in touch with their lambs. Each sheep knows her lamb's particular bleat, and each lamb knows it's mother's. So they listen out for their own lamb, and ignore other people's. It would be a serious mess if they didn't know how to identify their own lamb in all that flock. And­ most sheep learn to recognise their shepherd, or at least the car or quad-bike. Their reaction to a familiar vehicle or person is quite different to an unfamiliar one. “My sheep listen to my voice!”

And, like sheep, we are apt to wander away, but the joy is that the Good Shepherd is always there to bring us back, always on the alert for someone straying, and grabbing them before they go too far. Those of us who are committed to being Jesus' person, and committed to being part of the flock, know that. It is a great comfort, as we know we're going to mess up sooner or later, but Jesus will be there to help us get things right again.

But John Wesley was convinced that there were some people who had grasped the knack of living so closely with God that they didn't mess up. They were, in all the ways that matter, perfect. He says obviously nobody is perfect in understanding God – you can't be. And making mistakes doesn't necessarily make you less than perfect, nor does any kind of infirmity – physical or mental. Although he does qualify that, when he says: 'Only let us not give that soft title to known sins, as the manner of some is. So, one man tells us, "Every man has his infirmity, and mine is drunkenness;” Another has the infirmity of uncleanness; another of taking God's holy name in vain; and yet another has the infirmity of calling his brother, "Thou fool," or returning "railing for railing." It is plain that all you who thus speak, if ye repent not, shall, with your infirmities, go quick into hell!' And, of course, one can be tempted. Wesley says, 'Christian perfection, therefore, does not imply (as some . . . seem to have imagined) an exemption either from ignorance or mistake, or infirmities or temptations. Indeed, it is only another term for holiness.'

Holiness. Wesley goes on to define holiness as he sees it, being freedom from sin. He spends a great deal of time saying, “Oh but people say the Bible says”.... yadda yadda yadda and refuting it, rather like people do about homosexuality in our day. But he also tries to explain that we are forgiven in this life, forgiven and cleansed, and that we can live in the reality of that. He reminds us of Paul's letter to the Galatians: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” And he reminds us, too, that we produce fruit by the power of the Holy Spirit. He doesn't quote the list of fruit of the Spirit given in Galatians, but you can tell he's thinking of it.

We can be saved to the uttermost. We can so spend our time listening to the Good Shepherd, aware of His presence, that we become fully whole, fully holy, more fully his person than we could possibly imagine. And yes, one can – well, I can't always, but people do – be aware of God and of His presence with us even while busy with the rest of life, with school and work and watching television and being with friends....

I'm not quite sure how I ended up talking about our doctrines this morning, but it's always good to remind ourselves of them.

Everybody needs to be saved.
Everybody can be saved.
Everybody can know they are saved.
Everybody can be saved to the uttermost.

It seems to me the secret is to be open to listening to Jesus, to be part of His flock, not to close off His voice because we are so convinced that we are right and everybody else is wrong. The Jews, that Hannukah festival so long ago, simply couldn't hear Jesus – they were so convinced that this young man couldn't possibly be the Messiah that they were unable to listen to what he was actually saying, not what they thought he was saying!

And, sadly, we all know people like that. People who are so convinced they are right that they can't possibly listen to anybody else's point of view. They may claim to follow Jesus, or they may despise what they tend to call “organised religion” (though quite what they mean by that is totally unclear!), but either way, it's utterly impossible to get through to them about whatever particular bee they have in their bonnet.

The awful thing is, if you are like that – although I don't think anybody here is – you won't have heard a word I've said this morning! Some people do come to church just to have their prejudices confirmed, but I'm sure nobody here does. Or perhaps we all do, who knows? But I do pray that I, and you, will be open to hearing the Shepherd's voice, open to being part of the flock, even when that challenges our ideas, even when it touches places within us we don't want to explore. Because by listening, by hearing, by being willing to be changed, only then can we really be “saved to the uttermost”. Amen.

Sunday, 10 April 2016

Peter and Paul

This sermon is very similar to the one I preached three years ago on the 3rd Sunday of Easter, but not identical, as this turned out to be a Parade Sunday. 

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

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

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

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

The disciples have gone back to Galilee after the Resurrection,
and have gone fishing.
I suppose they must have thought that it was all over,
not realising how much their lives were going to change.
And although the other gospel-writers tell us that Peter had seen the risen Lord, he still seems to have had trouble forgiving himself for the denials.
So when he realises that it is Jesus on the lake shore, he grabs his tunic –
he will have been working naked in the boat –
and swims to shore.
And they all have breakfast together, and then Jesus turns to Peter.
You can imagine, can't you, that Peter's heart started beating rather faster than usual.

Now, part of the whole point of this story doesn't actually work in English, because we only have one word for love. We say we love our mums and dads, or we love cheese, or we love watching boxsets.

But the Greeks had several different words for love. I'm not sure what they said about cheese, or about whatever the local equivalent of watching boxsets was, but they said eros to describe the love between a man and a woman;
they said storge, to describe affection, family love, the sort of love you have for your mum and dad or brothers and sisters.
Then, and these are the two words that are relevant to us here, they had the word philia, which is friendship, comradeship, and the word agape, a word only found in the New Testament, which means God's love.
And when Jesus says to Peter “Do you love me?” he uses the word agape.
Do you love me with God's love.
And Peter can't quite manage to say that, and so in his reply he uses philia.
“Yes, Lord, you know I'm your friend”.
And Jesus commissions him to “Feed my lambs.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And they both responded.

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

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

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

Of course, they were exceptional.
We know their stories, just as we know the stories of John Wesley,
or of people like Lord Baden-Powell, Dwight L Moody, Gladys Aylward,
Eric Liddell or Billy Graham.
If you don't know who those people are, look them up on Wikipedia after the service.

But there are countless thousands of men and women whose stories we don't know,
who received God's forgiveness,
offered themselves to His service,
and through whose ministry many millions of men and women came to know and love the Lord.
Some of them went to live and work somewhere else,
but many of them lived out a life of quiet service exactly where they were.
Some of them, sadly, were imprisoned or even put to death for their faith,
but many died in their own beds.

And you see where this is going, don't you?
Now, I know as well as you do that this is where we all start to wriggle and to feel all hot and bothered,
and reckon we can't possibly be doing enough in Christ's service,
or that we are a rotten witness to his love and forgiveness.

Perhaps some of you here this morning aren't quite ready to call yourselves Jesus' people just yet. That's okay – Jesus still loves you and forgives you, and when you are ready to be His person, you just say, and He will accept you.

Others of you will already have made that commitment – some of us did so many years ago, and for others it's more recent.
And we are told that when the Holy Spirit comes,
we will be witnesses to Christ –
not that we ought to be, or we must be, but that we will be!
And I know that many of you are doing all you can to serve the Lord exactly where you are, and I'm sure you're doing a wonderful job of it, too.

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

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

Sunday, 3 April 2016

Thomas Gives Permission

The text of today's sermon can be found here.  I see I recorded it back then, too, but here is today's podcast.