Friday, September 11, 2020

Behaving well

from Helen 

 Well, what a week last week was. It was a week when we saw people’s true feelings and concerns on the news. We heard political arguments, we heard about more local lockdowns including Caerphilly and we heard the reaction of people to this.

Lockdown was not fun and it is still difficult to get used to the new normal, which former Prime Minister Tony Blair described as everything that was not normal before.  Understandably people in Caerphilly are upset. I heard the voices on the news of people feeling unfairly treated because they had done all the right things but others hadn’t which had led to a local lockdown. They were angry and disappointed.

I would love to say that I didn’t get fed up of other people’s behaviour in lockdown, it wouldn’t be true. When we find things hard we can all judge others a bit for not living in the way that we have been living.

In our readings from the epistle to the Romans (14:1-12) and the gospel of Matthew (18:21-35) we heard about behaviour. In Romans we were reminded that we are not to judge and in Matthew that we are to forgive.

Nothing difficult, nothing that will be hard for us then.. Ahem ! In this week amidst all the news there was one news story that will have an ongoing commentary on behaviour. Yes, Eastenders is back. When Ian and I were in college one of our tutors always said that if you want to know what is really happening in the world, and the kinds of things that trouble others then you should watch Eastenders.

We don’t watch Eastenders, but we used to. One of the things that always seems to happen in Eastenders is that people thrive on gossip and emotions. To be honest from that point of view I think our tutor was right because we all thrive on a good chit chat and on our emotions. This is why it is so hard not to judge and to always forgive.

In the reading from Romans, Paul who wrote the letter made it clear that the community of believers needed to support each other, not to gossip behind each others backs. One of the big problems was that there was food in Rome which would have been sacrificed to pagan gods, and there was a big problem over what a Christian should do. If someone ate the food then others might judge their faith and accuse them of getting involved in pagan life. Some would see eating the food as fine, and judge others for not eating it in case they were seen as rude. Paul pointed out that the main thing was not to judge but to do everything for Jesus. This meant that everything was to be done for God and so it would all be good. We live for Jesus he pointed out, and so we are to live lives were we put Jesus first. If we do this and don’t judge then everything else will fall into place.

It’s not easy being a Christian at times precisely because we aren’t to judge, but whenever we think of judging we need to remember that everything we do, we do for God.

This applies to forgiveness as well. When we forgive someone then we feel better as long as we have managed to forget as well. Bizarre things come along in life and a little while ago I read about a twitter row that came about due to judging. Jim Corr, who was the brother in the band the Corrs some years ago had gone to a protest about having to wear face masks in Ireland. He was questioned for his thoughts by none other than those other great Irish singers, well not really great but … Jedward.

Using lyrics from their songs Jedward and Jim Corr had an argument and they got down to finishing this by using a line from a Corrs song which was, “you’re forgiven but not forgotten.” This can actually be so true of us, we can forgive people but not completely forget. This is not real forgiveness.

In the gospel reading (Matthew 18:21-35) we heard of forgiveness, the need to forgive and to accept that we have been forgiven. In the gospel reading  when Peter asked Jesus how many times he should forgive he would have known about a tradition from the rabbis. The tradition was that you could forgive someone for doing the same offence to you 3 times but then no more. Peter probably thought that he was being extravagant by going beyond the three times to seven. Jesus’ response suggests forgiveness that is even more.  This is incredible, the answer Jesus gives of 77 times is not meant to be an exact figure. It’s not as if He was encouraging us to keep a forgiveness book where we tally up the number of times we have forgiven someone. The point was that 77 times is a lot bigger than 3, we are to forgive more than any number we can pluck out of the air. We are to forgive and keep forgiving. 

To illustrate His point Jesus told a parable that is laughable in some ways. This is because the servant  went to the King and asked for his debt to be excused and to be given time to repay. The amount he owed was an impossible amount to pay. A writer called Josephus writing around the time of Jesus calculated the taxes in Judea, Idumea and Samaria as coming to 600 talents, which he said would take 150,000 years to pay off. There was no way that the man in the parable Jesus told would be able to pay off his 10, 000 talents. 


The King had been forgiving and basically excused this man whose response wasn’t good at all as he attacked someone who owed him a lot less and made them go to prison. This reminds us that forgiveness, which is so much more than we could imagine, must be accepted and make us want to act differently.  We have been given the best gift ever, forgiveness and the promise of life everlasting. God has blessed us extravagantly but this means that we are to be extravagant back. Extravagant in our love for God, putting Him first, extravagant in our love of others and extravagant in the ways that we forgive others even when it seems to make no sense to do so.


We need to not just accept that we have been forgiven, we need to forgive. It seems so annoying at times but we are called to forgive as we have been forgiven. It isn’t easy. 


Back to Eastenders, it would never work if people always forgave and never held a grudge. Our behaviour then is to be non-judgmental and forgiving. This is not always easy but we know that we do it in God’s strength. In the epistle to the Romans it was clear that we are to support those who are weak in their faith. We are to be there for one another, not judging but forgiving, not disliking but loving. Everything we do and the life that we live is for God.


To get our behaviour right then is to base it on the one who gives us life and who we live for. If we want to know how to live, well it comes from reading our Bible, following the pattern of Jesus, trying to be more like Him. It means making our lives work by asking the question – what would Jesus do and supporting each other in living that way. AMEN 


Sunday, August 30, 2020

Take up your cross

 A long time ago I saw a thing on the internet about job descriptions for jobs that are really bad and I looked it up again this week but couldn’t find it – the closest I came was a list of the top 10 worst jobs as voted for by the readers of the Grimsby Telegraph ! At the very top was a sewage worker… 


To be fair it’s not the most immediately attractive job on paper at least, and the reason I was thinking about this related to today’s gospel reading from Matthew (16:21-28). Jesus is talking about his followers and what it means to be one of those followers. 


First of all he’s described how he has to go to Jerusalem to be killed. Peter argues with him and is bluntly told, ‘Get behind me Satan !’  It seems harsh but Peter was judging things by earthly standards and Jesus had very different ideas and he went on to tell the disciples that whoever wanted to follow him must deny themselves, take up their cross and follow… 


It’s not an immediately attractive job description is it ? And in some ways perhaps that was what Jesus intended – he had shown those closest to him some incredible things in his earthly ministry – they had enjoyed fellowship with him, they had listened to his teaching, they had witnessed some miracles and they had known and witnessed his love for them and for others.


Although by no means popular everywhere, Jesus was interesting to people. He had what today might be described as celebrity status, albeit in a relatively small area... We’re used to celebrities coming crashing down because of some weakness or problem but then power and strength was incredibly important – the idea of a Messiah coming to die couldn’t be right… 


But Jesus continually turned upside down the standards and expectations of the world and offered something different and today he invites each of his followers, just as he did then, to be prepared to take up our cross and follow him. 


And maybe that won’t always be easy. Maybe we will be inconvenienced for the sake of the gospel, maybe we’ll have to make tough choices, or stand up for things when others aren’t. Maybe we’ll have to be willing to love those who society seems to be shunning. Maybe we need to look different !


And that won’t always be easy. Jesus didn’t lose control by going to the cross but actually exercised enormous power by offering himself for everyone else – by taking the sins of all on his shoulders… He knew that his death wasn’t going to be the end of the story, but rather a new beginning, for the people at that time and for the millions of people since… 


Life for all was offered through the life, the death and the resurrection of Jesus.


But yes, let’s get back to this thought about it not being a great job description for being a follower of Jesus – take up your cross, lose your life maybe for his sake…. What is it about ?


Well, Jesus answers that a little at the end of this reading as he tells his followers that he would come back – he would come back to judge people. Elsewhere the gospels make it clear that Jesus doesn’t want to condemn the world but to offer new life, fulness of life. Yes, he offers eternal life to those who trust in him and that puts any troubles of this world into some perspective. It perhaps makes at least tolerable some of the suffering which might have to be undertaken if we’re truly committing our lives to Jesus. 


To those early followers these sort of words were incredibly powerful – they understood all too well what it meant to take up their cross, in other words to risk death at the hands of Roman authorities for whom their lives were pretty unimportant. 


For Jesus, no life is ever unimportant and when we’re called to fulness of life, to enjoy life here as we wait for the incredible riches and blessings of eternal life, we’re called to discover the riches he has given for us, riches that are often found in the strangest of places. 


One of the things that this pandemic has taught people is that those riches are often not found in money or any kind of material wealth, they’re often not found in success in work or any sort of celebrity status, but rather in our relationships with others and of course, in our relationship with God. 


Last Sunday and on Wednesday we were challenged to think about who Jesus is to us and it’s a question that is there again in the underlying message of this gospel reading. How committed are we, not to a particular building, not to a particular tradition, but to Jesus…


And in the section of Paul’s letter to the Romans that we heard (12:9-21) we’re given a description of the marks of a Christian. When Jesus talks about taking up the cross, these are the sort of things that he is calling his followers to do, and I’ll just mention some of those that Paul writes about but it’s a passage worth reading over and over again. He says :


Let love be genuine, hate what is evil

Love one another with mutual affection, outdo one another in showing honour

Serve the Lord, rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering

Persevere in prayer.

Bless those who persecute you

If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.

If your enemies are hungry, feed them. If they are thirsty give them something to drink. 

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. 


It’s a pretty demanding list but it is taking seriously the commandment to love one another, to look out for our neighbour whoever that neighbour might be and some of the words in there actually inspire us to go further than just help when we can – we are to be active in care and concern and love. We are to try and outdo one another in doing what is good. 


So often it’s comfortable to think we’ve done enough when we’ve completed something good, but Jesus always encourages us to go further, to go the extra mile for others, to show others what love is about… 


Life as a Christian won’t always be easy. The gospel reading highlighted that – “take up your cross !” it said. But as we do that, as we grow closer to other people through the way we live, through displaying or trying to display the qualities that Paul wrote about, we are growing closer to God and as we grow closer to him, we relax into a relationship that changes us, that makes us less fearful of the challenges we face, but more visionary and ready to see the opportunities before us to serve God through loving others. 


‘Take up your cross’ is not a warning of a tough life ahead, but an invitation to join a family committed to working together for good, committed to showing love for others and  seeking to go the extra mile wherever we can to try and reveal Jesus to people, and to join a family that will celebrate eternally together the rewards and riches not of money or of earthly success and wealth but of the grace, mercy and love of God.  


Earlier I thought about the idea of taking up the cross as a rather unattractive job description, but to do it for Jesus offers the greatest privilege we can ever know. AMEN

Sunday, August 09, 2020

Doubters to believers

 For my text this morning I’m not immediately going to use one of the Bible readings but rather words from the Liverpool Echo from October 9th2015, and the words of Jurgen Klopp who had just been appointed the Liverpool Football Club Manager. 

He said, “We have to change from doubters to believers. Now.

At this moment we (all the LFC family is) are a little bit too nervous, a little bit too pessimistic, a little bit too much in doubt,” he said. 

“They all celebrate the game and there is a fantastic atmosphere in the stadium, But they don’t believe at the moment. They only see five years ago, 10 years ago, 20 years ago.

History is great. But only to remember. Now we have the possibility to write a new story if we want.

At a time when we’re really being challenged to consider our faith and our churches, I don’t think there could be more appropriate words than these and today’s gospel (Matthew 14:22-33) could not contain a more appropriate message. 

Think about the gospel reading – just before the section we heard Jesus had fed the 5,000 with five loaves and two fish and now he wanted to get away and so he asked his disciples to get into a boat and go on ahead over the Sea of Galilee while he spent some time in prayer…. 

And that’s one thing to note immediately – the importance of prayer in what we do, in everything we do. I don’t know how the lockdown period has worked for everyone but I do know that for some people it has actually been a time of real discovery, discovery of an ability to just pray – to pray without formal words or liturgy, just to offer our thoughts to God in simple, heartfelt words… 

We must never under-estimate the need to pray…. 

But back to the disciples. They were out on the water and their boat was getting a bit battered around and suddenly they saw this ghost like figure coming towards them – naturally they were terrified until they heard the words of Jesus, ‘Do not be afraid.’

And suddenly they weren’t – they were excited, they knew they were safe – Jesus was right there with them. And Peter, often the most excitable of all, was first in line to ask Jesus whether he could get out of the boat and walk on the water as well – and he started to do it… 

And it seems that it was going fine, until Peter realised that there was a nasty wind and he got scared and began to sink… 

That of course wasn’t the end of the account though because Peter asked Jesus to save him and he did and eventually all the disciples again praised Jesus for his incredible saving power and care… 

So there are lots of lessons to learn from this one short account. 

The first is the need for prayer – we need to pray regularly. We need to recognise that God is alongside us always, looking out for us, loving us, inviting us to get closer to him – we need to accept that invitation more often… And I can pretty confidently say we need to do it more often because I don’t think any of us pray enough because we’re imperfect and things get in the way and we get distracted or we get our priorities wrong… 

Pray regularly !

The second thing is to remember those words of Jesus, ‘Do not be afraid.’ He says them a lot – they occur in the bible over 300 times… 

Life can sometimes be scary, it can be uncertain. Jesus knew that and he knows that… At the moment lots of people are facing all kinds of problems that they never expected – life is different, but to every problem, to every fear, Jesus says, ‘Do not be afraid.’ 

And those could be taken as rather glib words except for the fact that time and time again Jesus has proved not just his love for us, but also his power to guide us, to strengthen us, to care for us… 

Jesus, who in his time on earth, gave an example of how to live and love, showed his power through miracles like the feeding of the 5,000, like the ability to walk on water… 

He showed his power through the prayers he offered for the very people who were torturing and killing him on the cross. He showed his power and love in the forgiveness he offered to all those disciples who’d abandoned him when things got really bad… 

‘Do not be afraid.’ These words of Jesus are not empty words, but a promise of eternal love, guidance and protection…

And so we’ve thought of the gift we’re given of prayer, of talking to God, and we’ve thought of the fact that we can trust Jesus who will always be there with us and for us, and finally I want to think of Peter… 

He was excited when he knew it was Jesus walking on the water and he wanted to do it too and so Jesus let him – he called him towards him and gave him the power to do it, and Peter was doing it, until his own doubts got in the way…. 

How often does God give us strength to do things but we allow our own worries and fears to get in the way ?   

More bluntly, how often do we fail to really trust Jesus ?

I think this lockdown period has to have taught us a lot of things and one of them is to really think about our priorities..

Where is our trust being placed ? If it’s in material things, they can disappear very easily – money can’t buy everything. 

If it’s in a particular church building, that won’t last – churches can be locked up as they have been for the past few months. A building, however beautiful and useful as a tool for our worship, will not give us all we need…. 

It is only by trusting in Jesus and building a relationship with him, that we find real life, that we find someone to whom we can talk to in prayer confidently, honestly… It is only in Jesus that we can truly know that we don’t need to be afraid because he’s with us and he has faced the worst that the world can offer and come through it… 

Back to Jurgen Klopp, who in case you’re wondering I’m not likening to Jesus, but back to his words –     We need to turn from doubters to believers, to not just look at the glories of the past and talk about years gone by, but to be confident of the present and the future. 

In other words let’s stop talking about incredible buildings being full of people of all ages with plenty of money to pay the bills and not a leaking roof in sight…   Let’s look to Jesus and seek his vision for us today, for his church today… 

Like Peter, let’s step out of the boat, keep our eyes fixed firmly on Jesusand walk confidently…  



Saturday, July 18, 2020

Shine like the sun

I wonder how many people in recent times have thought that evil seems to be winning or that God has no control in the world… Perhaps some have gone further by asking how can a loving God have allowed such chaos to dominate not just a small part of the world but the whole world… 

Lots of people will be asking those sort of questions and now it would be easy to say let’s put the past behind us and move on. We’re back in church, even though it’s different !! 
But actually, we need to recognise that things are different and we need to challenge ourselves to consider what in us needs to be different as we move forward and today I want to think of one line from the gospel reading that we just heard (Matthew 13:24-30,36-43) and actually I want to take it in some ways out of context… 

It’s the very last line from the gospel we heard, ‘Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father…’  I’m going to use this out of context because it describes a situation that is to come, a situation when God has judged the people of the world, a situation where death and sin and pain are no more… A situation that finally proves to us, if we hadn’t quite always been sure, that God is in control… 

But I don’t want to think about judgement today and I don’t want to think about our eternal state with God, important though those things are… Today, I want to think about today and about tomorrow and about next week.

And I think those words from the gospel, ‘Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father’, stand not just as a wonderful promise for the future, but as an inspiration for today… 

One of the inevitable consequences of the last few months is that church will look very different at least for a while. Some people will come back, some won’t and hopefully some new people will come as well, but we have an opportunity to make a mark perhaps like never before in our lifetime as the church – an opportunity to reflect and plan ahead and that has to begin with us…. 

And that means that shining like the sun in the kingdom of our Father isn’t something for the future, but it’s a demand of us today. Each of us are called to shine brightly for God, and one of the things that I’m sure of is that amidst the questions from some people, amidst their doubts, amidst their concerns, there is a longing for something, a longing for something which gives meaning to life… 

And I believe, and I hope you do, that we know that meaning in Jesus. He doesn’t magically remove some of our concerns and provide easy answers to every tough question, but he does make that promise to us of an eternal relationship with his people – it is a promise not to leave us alone, but a promise to walk alongside us every moment of every day. 

As we move into an uncertain future for the church, we have some options. We can do it pessimistically wondering what the future might hold and shaking our heads at the problems we face… 

That’s a natural enough response surely… Things are a bit of a mess. Congregation numbers may be down for a while, the money situation isn’t going well for a lot of churches, we’re not going to get a biscuit and a cup of tea after the service for a while. It’s easy to be pessimistic… 

Or we could perhaps just long for the day when things are back to normal. We can wait until we can sing and have that cup of tea. We can wait until we can give people a hug and things will be ok again… 

We can tell ourselves it will be worth the wait.

Or there is a third option and that is to look at this as a real opportunity to think about where God might be leading us in this – we can take this as a real opportunity to pray more, to read the bible more, to think about what our churches might look like into the future… 

We can actually take this as a positive challenge to accept renewal of our churches and our lives, starting out afresh on a journey that isn’t going to be always easy, but certainly isn’t going to bring us down at every moment, but is going to lift us up as we face challenges together that we can overcome, as we can celebrate God’s goodness always, and as we can learn more and more to depend on him for our future, because there is no other way.  

And that is surely the crux of where we have to go in our lives, recognising God, recognising his presence in our lives and recognising both his love for us and his desire for us to enjoy a life of blessing, a life where our only option as we recognise his unchanging goodness and love, is to shine as lights for him out into a world desperately hoping for and needing good news. 

A theologian J I Packer, died on Friday. When asked what his final words for the church would be, he replied, ‘Glorify Christ every way.’

As Christians that isn’t just what we’re called to do, but it is our greatest privilege and can be our greatest joy as we seek to serve the creator who loves us and who offers us life, true, full life, always. 

Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father, said the gospel. May we be willing to try and shine today, tomorrow and beyond, that our lives may be full and that we may touch others who need to know they’re loved and wanted by God. AMEN 

Saturday, May 09, 2020

The way, the truth and the life 2020

The great American evangelist Billy Graham is quoted as saying, “I've read the last page of the Bible, it's all going to turn out all right.” I think there are some days and some times when we need to hear that a little more than at others… Perhaps for some of you, that time may be now ! 

And the readings from today point us, not to the last page of the bible, but certainly to some words of hope and inspiration. 

In the gospel according to John (14:1-14) we’re told by Jesus, ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me’. These are powerful words, and words which can be trusted because they come from Jesus, but it’s not always as easy as it sounds is it ? 

Sometimes, although we want to trust, 
and we want to be sure, 
and we want to know that everything will be ok in the end, 
it just doesn’t feel like it ! 

But Jesus didn’t leave it there. He had more to say, ‘In my Father’s house, there are many dwelling places. If it were not so would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you ?’ 

People often think of this life and the next and that’s understandable in one sense, but actually Jesus in these words is linking up these supposed two lives and making one – one eternal life… 

Jesus has lived on earth, he has died and come back to life and has gone to prepare a place for us. We don’t get too many pictures of heaven from the bible but what we get is an image of a place of no pain, no mourning, no tears, a place where we live in close contact with God all the time. 

We get this idea that whatever might be happening to us now, whatever happened yesterday, whatever happens tomorrow, things will, as Billy Graham suggested, ‘turn out all right.’ 

That can be challenging enough for us sometimes, but as the disciples were listening to these words of Jesus, they didn’t know he was going to die and rise again, 
they didn’t understand the power that God would offer his people through the Holy Spirit, they didn’t understand the fact that what would become the church would grow into a worldwide family of millions, as we do, 
and so it was natural perhaps that Thomas would speak up and say, 
‘Lord we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way ?’ 

And Jesus responded with those words, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life…’ In other words, I think Jesus is saying that he’s all we ever need ! 

He is the way, leading us in the right direction in our lives. He is the truth – this is God, who we can trust, who we can follow, who has shown us how to live with love, with compassion, with hope and peace; and he is the life, in other words the giver of abundant and eternal life… 

And so we’re invited to follow his way; and to live, knowing and trusting his truth and we’re invited to accept life, life in all its fulness as our gospel reading last week described it (John 10:10)… 

Again in the gospel according to John we are being invited to make a decision as to what we think of Jesus and whether we should follow him or not… What is our response to his invitation drawing us closer to him ? 

And in the reading from Acts (7:55-60, 8:1a) we heard of a real example of what following Jesus meant as Stephen was stoned as the first Christian martyr. It’s a pretty gruesome account, and at first sight, perhaps following Jesus doesn’t seem the greatest idea ! 

But Stephen reminds us that it is. He doesn’t approach his earthly death with fear but with hope and with trust. His words are almost triumphant, ‘I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God !’

The people who were there to see Stephen die didn’t want to listen and covered their ears but Stephen clearly recognised that this wasn’t the end of his life but the start of a new phase – he understood perfectly this bridging of the life before earthly death and the life after earthly death into one life, eternal life with God. 

That is the life into which we are invited. A life that will have ups and downs. A life that will contain some sadness as well as hopefully lots of joy, but above all a life lived knowing that God is right here with us, that God takes our journey of life with us… 

And one final thing to add about that reading from Acts and that came from the last verse we heard, ‘And Saul approved of their killing him.’ Saul approved of killing Stephen.

This was the same Saul whose incredible conversion we read about if we continue the Book of Acts on just a little bit. This was the same Saul who would become Paul, probably the most prolific evangelist the church has ever known. 

Who knows the impact those words of Stephen had on Saul ?

We will hopefully not be called to die for our faith, but we are called to live for it, to live for Jesus, and to share something of his love, and of the peace and hope that he can offer, with others. 

We may never know the power of our words, of our small or huge acts of kindness, of our visible actions of trusting God wherever we find ourselves. 
Who knows what people see and when they will respond to the invitation of Jesus to ‘follow him’, the ‘way and the truth and the life.’  

Adapting some of the words of the hymn that will follow (The Day of Resurrection), 
‘The day of resurrection, let’s tell it out everywhere, 
Christ the Lord is risen, our joy can have no end.’ 

Monday, May 04, 2020

Abundant Life

We’ve had 2 wonderful readings today and both of them have so much guidance and help to offer us and I just want to think of 3 things, 2 from the reading from Acts (2:42-47) and then one from the gospel according to John (10:1-10). 

The reading from Acts gives us a description of the early church. We’re told how the followers of Jesus devoted themselves to the apostles teaching, to fellowship, the breaking of bread and prayers. We were told how they lived together sharing everything. We are also told that they had the ‘goodwill of all the people’ and that, ‘day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.’  

When I was thinking about what to say today, two things came up from this reading for me. The first is the fellowship that the followers of Jesus enjoyed together. Now I’m pretty sure they would have had a few quarrels too because that’s often what happens when people are together a lot, but they were bound together as a family, doing things together, supporting one another, sharing things with one another, caring for each other and praying together. 

It is a wonderful model of fellowship and at the moment we’re doing things a little differently ! We can’t gather together in the same way but we try and keep in touch with people. We try and care for each other, support one another and importantly, pray for one another. 

And one of the things that this current situation has taught us is how precious people are – how important it is to see friends and loved ones, not just over computer screens, amazing and helpful though that is, but face to face, and I hope that when this is over, as it will be, this will be something we’ve learnt and won’t forget and we will want to spend time together, in worship, in praise and prayer, in studying the bible, in social events… 

The second thought I had from this was from the last verse of that reading from Acts where we’re told they had the ‘goodwill of all the people’ and that, ‘day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.’  

To have enjoyed the goodwill of people meant they were doing good things. They were known for being good, kind, caring, thoughtful, supportive, loving and because they were known for those things, the Lord added to their number – people just kept coming because they wanted to know more about this Saviour, Jesus, who had changed their lives so much.

This is what the church should be known for… But sadly, I’m not sure that’s always the case. The church does an awful lot of amazing work and lots of it is unseen and perhaps even unappreciated, but it does. 

However I think if we ask too many people outside the church today what they think about when they hear of churches, it will be of arguments about the right way to do things, about sexuality, about whether the Eucharist service can be celebrated online or not (that’s a current one !), about the role of men and women in the church and about who we allowed to be baptised and who we didn’t and what conditions we put on the wedding couple excitedly preparing for their marriage who were told they had to come to church for 6 months before…  

I’m not trying to underplay some of these debates, but they are very much secondary things to the importance of showing God’s love, of welcoming everyone as he does, of having an open-door policy to anyone who approaches as he does, of opening up our arms and running out to meet the person lost on the streets as he does…. 

Praising God, doing good, helping to reveal Jesus to people – these are things we must be known for as a church… And if we are, then I really believe that God will add to our numbers as well.

But the lesson has to be that it’s not just about looking after ourselves, it’s not just about preserving the worship in the way we like it done or keeping our building because it’s our building – our faith has to be bigger than that. Our faith needs to be reaching out whilst supporting one another, loving one another… 

And that brings me to the gospel reading from the gospel according to John (10:1-10). It’s an incredible gospel, as they all are in different ways. In this gospel we’re drawn into reflecting about who Jesus is and how we respond to him, and we’re clearly shown that he is the way to a relationship with God… 

There’s the imagery in this reading of Jesus as the great shepherd – the shepherd would often sleep across the doorway of the sheep pen to protect them and Jesus will do anything to protect his people because he loves them. And I want to think of just the last verse of the reading we heard where Jesus says, ‘I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.’

I’m not sure what we associate with abundant life – perhaps before this current situation it might have been having enough money to be comfortable, going out for a meal or to watch football or rugby when we feel like it, but when these things are gone, and none of those things last for eternity, what have we got left… 

Well we’ve got people certainly and importantly – friends, loved ones who we want to spend time with, people who we care about and people who care about us, but we’re also invited to ask Jesus to play a part in our lives or a bigger part in our lives. 

Many people have asked questions about faith through this situation, but rather than abandoning it or being led by the lack of answers to abandon it, many people are I think finding that it is a relationship with Jesus that is truly lasting… 

It is when we know Jesus that we can know, not an easy life or a life free of problems, but the security of having someone who loves us on our side and that someone was willing to die for us, but also to reveal his power and strength by rising to life again to offer new life to everyone – an abundant life isn’t measured in material possessions but in knowing that, whatever we may be doing, good or bad, whatever situation we may find ourselves in, good or bad, whoever we are surrounded by, Jesus is there and he has been through everything bad the world could offer and come out the other side… 

As the great shepherd of the sheep we can know he will always be there for us, always protecting us, always guiding us and always loving us. AMEN 

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Low Sunday

This Sunday is sometimes known as Low Sunday – it’s the day when people often stay at home and don’t come to church... oh ! Well, this year, that’s a bit like any other Sunday of course… 

But whilst we might be desperate to get back to our church buildings to meet up with family and friends, church has continued because of the event we celebrated last Sunday - church has continued because Jesus has risen from the dead, Jesus is alive ! 

In the reading from Acts (2:14a,22-32) we read this remarkable speech made by Peter – Peter of course had, not very long before, denied even knowing Jesus, but he was now ready to stand up in front of some of the people who had called for Jesus to die, maybe some of the people who had been responsible for killing him, and proclaim boldly that Jesus had been killed, but that he rose from the dead and that he and others were witnesses of that.

Who could possibly deny the reality of the resurrection when faced with the boldness of Peter ? This wasn’t the timid cowardly man who denied knowing him, but a man transformed by seeing and speaking with the risen Jesus.

In the gospel reading from the gospel according to John (20:19-21) that we heard it offers the account of Jesus appearing to the disciples after the resurrection and saying, ‘Peace be with you’. It was a ‘peace’ that they must have desperately needed – a peace that must have seemed totally absent from their lives as the one they followed, the one they gave their life to, was nailed to the cross and died.

‘Peace’ was essential and Jesus knew that. Of course this passage has a bit more to it as well – Thomas who was absent from that group of disciples didn’t really believe that Jesus had been there but a week later Jesus appeared again and he showed Thomas the marks on his hands and side and he said, ‘Do not doubt, but believe’ and Thomas replied, ‘My Lord and my God.’ 

Transformation comes with seeing the risen Christ who always promises peace to his people. Today many people are in need of peace – people who are lonely, people who are working in dangerous situations, people who are missing loved ones, people who are scared, people who are caring for loved ones who are sick, people who are struggling with isolation and all that it brings with it. Jesus continues to enter the darkest places with the words, ‘Peace be with you’.

More people might be staying at home at the moment than even on the worst attended Low Sunday but I think the message of the gospel is becoming more and more relevant as we think of Jesus who rose from the dead because in doing that he did three things which I think can help and support us at this time, and always… 

Firstly, he conquered death for evermore. When someone dies we still miss them. This week I heard that someone who I’ve known for many years had died suddenly – nothing to do with the horrible virus but a horrible shock to her family and to friends and somehow made worse by this time when people can’t go and give the family a hug or spend time with them and people won’t be able to go to the funeral and pay the respects in the same way. 

Human grief is very real – it’s a time of sadness and we should never try to play that down in any way, but because Jesus rose from the dead he has conquered death for ever. We may miss loved ones. We may not see them day by day, but we can be reunited with them because of Jesus. He has conquered death for evermore. 

 he’s alive for evermore and walks with us. This was something Thomas initially struggled with of course in that gospel reading, but he saw the reality of it when Jesus appeared to him. It was a reality made clear in the changed life of Peter, the timid coward who became the bold evangelist proclaiming publicly all that Jesus had done and was continuing to do. 

Jesus is alive for evermore and guides us, sustains us and strengthens us to be the best people we can be, to be the people that he wants us to be… And through it all, as we occasionally get things wrong, he reminds us that he loves us anyway and that he always will… 

And thirdly, Jesus has seen it all. He has been there through very real pain, through rejection, through loneliness, emptiness, through torture and even death and his response ? do we know what it is ? 

Yes, we do – we go back to the cross to see where he said ‘Father forgive them for they not what they do’... We go back to the cross where he says to the thief ‘today you will be with me in paradise’... And we go back to the cross where he says ‘it is finished’ and we know from that point on that there is nothing that can keep us from his love.., we know that pain, in whatever form, is temporary but that his love is everlasting.... 

Let us pray 
God our Father, at this Easter time we continue to give thanks for the resurrection of Jesus. Lord without that resurrection our faith would be empty and without hope, but he is alive and we rejoice in the knowledge that in Jesus all that separates, injures and destroys has been overcome by that which unites and heals and creates.
We think of your church today celebrating the resurrection in isolation, yet united in love and praise for you. We pray for John our Archbishop, for our diocese and our parish and we pray that your spirit may guide and strengthen us all in mission and service to you, to our own community and to the world outside in whatever way we can each contribute and we pray that day by day we may draw closer to you, experiencing your love for us.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Easter without the buildings - He is still risen !

Alleluia, Christ has risen !
He is risen indeed, Alleluia !

D William Sangster, a Methodist who had been working on a renewal movement in this country following the 2nd world war contracted a disease which progressively paralysed his body, and even his vocal chords. But on the last Easter Day that he was alive, he painfully wrote a note to his daughter saying, ‘How terrible it is to wake up on Easter morning and have no voice to shout “He is Risen!” But it is far worse to wake up with a voice and not want to shout…’ 

Easter Day is the greatest day of celebration in the whole year for Christians, the day that Jesus rose from the dead, the day when death was destroyed forever and the day when victory which seemed to have been claimed a couple of days before by the forces of darkness, was suddenly claimed by love, by God.

It is the day to shout, ‘He is risen’ ! But this year those shouts will be a bit different. Rather than joining together in our church buildings we are to do it in our houses, in small family groups or perhaps even alone, but the words are no less powerful and perhaps in some ways remind us that we are united as one in the name of Jesus always. 

When Mary Magdalene went to the tomb on that first Easter morning, it was empty. She went back and told Peter and he and another disciple went to check on what she was saying. Sure enough, the tomb was empty. 

And in the gospel according to John there is one interesting verse about this (Ch20 v9), ‘as yet, they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.’

They didn’t understand what had happened because, well, why would you ? People don’t rise from the dead. The execution was carried out efficiently. It had been proved that Jesus was dead before he was taken down from the cross. The stone was put in front of the tomb, the soldiers guarded it – Jesus was dead and he wasn’t coming back, and the disciples, confused, disappointed, grieving, didn’t expect him to be back. 

Yes, there are passages from what we know as the Old Testament which predicted that Jesus would rise from the dead, but at that stage that wasn’t how they would have been interpreted. Jesus was dead and he was not coming back… 

But as we jump forward a bit from the confusion at the tomb of Jesus we see a group of Jesus’ followers who, following Jesus appearing to them, led new lives with new courage and new found inspiration. Death had been defeated and nothing would or could hurt them again.

And that would lead them into all kinds of physical danger and no doubt some physical pain, as well as to the sentence of death for some, but nothing would ever hurt them again, and they were sure of that. 

Jesus was back and the lives of his followers were transformed forever. Suddenly the teaching of Jesus made sense. Suddenly his call to love made sense. Suddenly they realised that they weren’t alone to share Jesus’ message. Jesus was, and would always be, with them. 

And that is an amazing message for us today as well. Wherever we are and whether we are faced with loneliness, with fear for ourselves or for loved ones, whether we are worrying about the future, Jesus is with us… 

And he has overcome the darkest things the world could ever throw at him and we can and we should rejoice always because of that. We may not have the church buildings in which to shout ‘He is risen’ this year, we may not be with members of our church families, but we are united as a church, perhaps more than ever before in concentrating on those words ‘He is risen’. 

Wherever we are this year, it has perhaps emphasised to us something we needed to hear and that is that the walls of our buildings, if we allow ourselves to be constrained by them, limit the message we share. 

We’ve so often acted as if our faith is only valid if we do it in our ‘proper building’. We’ve often acted as if we have the authority on how to worship, what exactly to believe about every doctrine of the church, who is welcome and who is not, we’re this year called back to focus on the basic and most important and transformative message of all, ‘Jesus is risen !’

Nothing else matters… So from whatever church or place we might come, whatever opinions we might hold and whatever the future may bring, that news, ‘Jesus is risen’ assures us that he is with us always. It assures us that there is no darkness we cannot face with him on our side because he has been there and conquered it.

This year we don’t have to choose which is ‘our church’. We don’t have to drive or walk past several others to get to the right one for us. We don’t have to go to the one with the best preacher or the most comfortable seats. It doesn’t matter what hymns are sung, whether babies are baptised, who receives the bread and wine at communion, who is welcome and who is not, because love has won the day… God is love and the only choice we are called to make this year is whether we can say and know in our hearts, ‘Jesus is risen’. AMEN