On this page you can find details of this month’s services and transcripts of recent sermons preached by our Minister, Revd Dr Kirsty Thorpe.
Sunday 14th January 2018
Sunday 17th December 2017
Sunday 26th November 2017
Sunday 12th November 2017 – Remembrance Sunday
Sunday 29th October 2017
Sunday 15th October 2017
Sunday 24th September 2017
Sunday 3rd September 2017
Sunday 27th August 2017
Sunday 14th January 2018
Jonah 3: 1-5 and Mark 1: 14-20
Some writers leave the introduction of their main character to well into the opening of the story. They let us wonder who the dramatic focus is going to be on and when this individual is going to show up. Mark, the gospel writer, is a man with a mission – just like the person whose story he’s telling. He goes straight in at chapter one, verse one, and introduces us to Jesus Christ, the Son of God, whose gospel (good news) he’s about to share with us. This is story telling with a foot on the accelerator and the words ‘And we’re off…’ ringing in our ears. In the next few lines we meet Jesus and his cousin John the Baptist in the Judean countryside, by the side of the river Jordan, as Jesus comes to receive baptism along with the crowds of other faithful from Jerusalem and all aorund who’ve come to see the new prophet. Jesus receives God’s special blessing in a moment of personal intimacy. If we’ve still got doubts as to who this story is going to be about then those must disappear fast when we hear the words: ‘You are my beloved Son; in you I take delight’. This, says the gospel writer, is what Jesus hears at his baptism as the holy Spirit descends on him like a dove. But there’s no time to stop and ask ‘what exactly does it mean that Jesus is God’s son?’ Without drawing breath – ‘at once’ says the gospel – Jesus is driven out into the wilderness to be tempted for forty days and given an intensive physical and spiritual preparation and strength test for what lies ahead in his ministry.
Now, at verse fourteen only, we enter the third scene in this tightly packed drama. We’re back up in Galilee with our friends in the north. This is the region where Jesus has spent almost all his time since his infancy until now, in his late 20s. This is the place he calls home – where Mary and Joseph raised him, as part of a family with brothers and sisters. This is where he’s learned about going to synagogue, when as a boy he began to read and value the Hebrew scriptures. Galilee’s towns and villages are full of the people who have shown him how to live well before God within a community and where’s discovered important life lessons. And it is here that he’s learned his trade as a builder as a way of earning his keep. And Galilee’s economy is nothing without the lake – the Sea of Galilee the locals proudly call it. Can you imagine a more beautiful sight than the lake in the bright morning sunshine, with the water sparkling and the distant Syrian hills on the horizon? Do you know a greater fear than the terror of a sudden storm whipping up the waves of that same lake into the scariest, most dangerous roller coaster ride you ever want to be out in a boat and experience?
Being out in the wilderness has done something to Jesus, Mark’s gospel tells us. Before verse 15 we’ve not heard him speaking but now his voice rings out loud and clear: ‘The time has arrived; the kingdom of God is upon you. Repent, and believe the gospel’. We all know exactly what that means don’t we? We can each write a 2000 word essay on the meaning of the phrase ‘kingdom of God’. We can all accurately describe what Jesus thinks people need to repent of, and what it means to believe the gospel. So we can get on with the next part of the service now…… only, of course we don’t know. And Mark the gospel writer knows we don’t. Nobody ever has or does know for certain exactly what Jesus means by everything he says. The attempt to get all of that straight – to say ‘once I’ve got that big clear I’m ready to take the next step’ – is what undoes us more comprehensively than anything else. ‘If I can just define the Trinity in half a page, if I can only describe the mission of the church in one strapline, if I can only make the ultimate two minute film about having faith, then it will all fall into place, God.’ But that isn’t how it works and, to judge by today’s reading, it never has done.
Jesus goes down to the lakeside and he meets fishermen. It’s not clear if he knows them already or they know him. Mark leaves the whole background of the scene totally vague. ‘Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men’ says Jesus. The humour and shock of the moment must hit us. Jesus knows full well you can’t go out with nets to bring in people as a catch. For one thing it would only take a couple of big hauls for the boat to sink under the weight and the lake isn’t full of drowning people anyhow. He knows the image is ridiculous and there’s a smile on his face as he says this. Right from the word go Mark the gospel writer is introducing us to Jesus’s habit of putting God into ordinary life with stunning effect: ‘You use nets to land fish – I’m going to show you how to ‘land’ people and catch them up in God’s loving purposes. Want to join me?’ Each of us has skills and gifts. Jesus doesn’t ask totally impossible things of us which don’t relate to what we can do already – our existing skills and gifts. He comes along and says, playfully: ‘Do you want to do that with a different underlying intention? Would you like to do it for and with me?’
Just as we’re starting to wonder what all of this means Jesus is off down the shore about to gather in some more companions. Simon and Andrew don’t have much time to become the ‘we were first’ disciples before newcomers arrive to take their place and disrupt the team dynamics. The second recruitment conversation isn’t even detailed. All we know is that in this case father Zebedee sees his two boys, James and John, walk off in the company of the young rabbi from Nazareth and is left to run the family business with just the hired men. Does Mark want us to see Jesus as supremely uninterested in economic stability for lakeside communities? If that’s not what’s going on then is the gospel writer trying to give us a very early clue that following Jesus is about finding a new meaning of family that doesn’t depend on blood relationship?
Please note what hasn’t yet happened in Mark’s story. We haven’t discovered what it is that makes Jesus so irresistibly attractive and charismatic that when people receive the offer of his company many find it hard to say ‘no’. We have next to no idea what it is he’s just recruited four Galilean fishermen to do and neither do they. We assume – guessing wildly and hopefully – that it’s something you don’t have to be a circumcised Jewish male with good boat skills to make something of – because if it is then none of us qualify – but there’s no clear evidence for that yet. So where is this journey going and what on earth is unfolding? If we’re feeling excited and scared that’s fine. Plenty of people have been there before us and felt just the same. If we’re not sure whether we’re about to make a mistake, or get lost, or fail to keep going on this journey, I have one word of advice for us all, myself included. Keep watching Jesus. I’m just learning a piece of new music with a choir I attend. It’s a very modern piece, highly repetitive, and yet there are slight changes which you have to concentrate hard to catch. In order to keep the whole choir together there are points in the score which read: ‘Unity cue. Conductor indicates these by a special sign.’ If you’ve got lost but are looking you can get back with everyone else but if you’ve lost your place and don’t watch you’ll never get back into the harmony. Let’s keep watching Jesus and see where he’s taking us as we accept his invitation to ‘Come, follow me’ together.
Isaiah 61: 1-4, 8-11 and John 1: 6-8, 19-28
It’s tempting today to say that I’m not going to preach a sermon and instead ask everyone here to find someone who heard Matt Williamson lead our Advent reflection yesterday so as to ask them what he talked about. What he shared and the atmosphere that grew were very special. He described the role of shepherds as outsiders in the Jewish culture of Jesus’s day – ritually unclean, ‘famously filthy’ people. The job of the shepherds around Bethlehem would have been to prepare the sacrificial lambs for the temple in Jerusalem – perfect specimens which would be offered up for their own sins by other people. But the shepherds themselves never got a look in with this system of forgiveness and restored relationship to God because they weren’t allowed in the temple or in polite society – they got left, literally, out in the cold. And what did they do with a perfect lamb when setting it aside to be looked over by a priest before sacrifice? They wrapped it round in strips of cloth and put it somewhere it couldn’t easily escape or come to harm, a manger. So, Matt explained, they were shocked and confused when the angels’ call came to them alone, of all people, to go and see the Messiah wrapped in strips of cloth and in a manger. At once on arrival in the presence of Jesus they knew that they were seeing the perfect baby and that he would end up as a sacrifice for them and all other outcasts and rejects.
What I’ve just done is to bear witness to what I heard Matt say. I can also testify to the effect it had on many of us who were there. I wasn’t the only one who needed a tissue to wipe away tears and blow my nose. Today, the third Sunday in Advent, is about witnesses to the Messiah, particularly John the cousin of Jesus. It’s also a day when we’re making three new members. People often ask on these occasions: ‘Do I have to say anything?’ and the answer’s ‘Not if you don’t want to’, but we do share our faith stories as part of the preparation for joining the church. That’s important because witnessing to the work of God in our lives is part of being a disciple of Jesus. Notice how, from the very first reference in John’s gospel to John the relative of Jesus, we’re told ‘he himself was not the light; he came to bear witness to the light.’ We know that in first century Palestine there were plenty of religious teachers and leaders who each had their own band of disciples. Some followers of John the Baptist, as he’s often called, were convinced he was superior to Jesus. Their evidence for this was the way Jesus came to John for baptism in the Jordan. The gospel writers try to put the balance right by showing us John putting himself lower down the scale than Jesus: ‘”After me there comes a man who ranks ahead of me”; before I was born, he already was.’ John’s gospel never calls John ‘the Baptist’. Instead it keeps on emphasising his importance in witnessing to Jesus.
There’s something of a trial feel to the conversation we hear John having with a deputation of priests and Levites from Jerusalem in today’s reading. Put in the witness box by them John is asked first to say who he is. He replies clearly that he’s not the Messiah or Elijah, the great prophet whose return to earth was expected to happen just before the Messiah came. When pushed, he quotes Hebrew scripture and words from the prophet Isaiah, to describe himself as a voice in the wilderness calling on people to ‘Make straight the way for the Lord’. The gospel writer wants us to ask ourselves if John is a reliable witness. Does his testimony ring true? We can only judge by what John says and does. He points not to himself but to Jesus, the true light from God. He tells us Jesus is far more important than he is. He describes Jesus as God’s Lamb, the perfect sacrifice, who will save all of us from our brokenness and sin. A few verses later in chapter one he says that his baptism with water is nothing to the way Jesus will baptize people with the Holy Spirit. He points constantly away from himself to Jesus and says ‘This is the one we’ve been waiting for’. No wonder the first followers of Jesus are impressed and drawn in at once with such an introduction.
‘This is what happened to me.’ ‘This is what God’s done in my life.’ ‘This is who Jesus is in my experience.’ These are the responses from which faith grows and develops. In the earliest days of the Church, simply to say the words ‘Jesus is Lord’ was enough to make the first step into discipleship. Paul writes to the faithful in Romans chapter 10 verse 9: ‘If the confession ‘Jesus is Lord’ is on your lips, and the faith that God raised him from the dead is in your heart, you will find salvation. For faith in the heart leads to righteousness, and confession on the lips leads to salvation.’ Since then the Church has had centuries to make things more complicated and erect a whole paraphernalia of doctrine and ritual to obscure the heart of what it means to become a follower of Jesus. But, at the centre of what we’ll be asking Morton, Peggy and Dorothy to confirm again today is their renewed statement that Jesus is Lord, their faith in one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit and their desire to ‘Come and see’ what God is doing here and now in fellowship with all of us.
There’s nothing like serious pressure for making you review your relationship with God. When Martin was having his heart attack just over two weeks ago, and we were waiting for the paramedics to arrive in the wee small hours, those minutes felt very full of the presence of God. I think both of us were aware of the seriousness of what was happening but we were very calm. It wasn’t just that we put our faith in the skills of the paramedics – brilliant though they undoubtedly were. It was also that we felt strongly supported by God. And of course, at points in the events, the three of them asked us questions about what we do. When we said we’re both ministers that was immediately a chance to witness – not to start preaching a sermon but to behave in a way that showed we have foundations and sources of strength that don’t depend on human help alone. It turned out that one of the paramedics had been here in church earlier that week helping Michael, our cleaner, when he had a nasty episode and was taken suddenly unwell in the vestibule. There are moments of humour in every crisis and the one that sticks in my mind came once Martin had been admitted to the cardiac care unit at Wythenshawe hospital later that day. The nurse going through the procedure got to the question about faith: ‘Are you Christian or Anglican?’ she asked. Think about it….
I could see the monitors to which Martin was attached starting to register some upsurge in activity and his eyebrows shooting upwards as he wondered to where to start deconstructing that highly confused question. I jumped in fast: ‘Let it go, love. Just say Christian.’ That’s the point about being a witness. You have to know when to say things and when to pick another moment. But the message of today’s gospel and the arrival of new members is that we all share the role of being witnesses to the work of God in our world. When we give our testimony others will want to come and meet Jesus, God’s Son, through us.
Ezekiel 34: 11-16, 20-24 and Matthew 25: 31-46
This year marks another incredible anniversary which I find it hard to believe. The Radio 4 comedy panel show, ‘Just a Minute’, is 50 years old. That means for well over three quarters of my life I’ve been hearing Nicholas Parsons, in his role as quizmaster, adjudicating between panels of four contestants. They challenge one another on the basis of deviation, repetition or hesitation when one of them is asked to talk about a given subject for a minute. Sometimes the feuds and pretend personality clashes threaten get out of hand. Often the audience plays a part and shows by cheers or wails of disappointment that they disagree with Nicholas Parsons’s decisions. In such cases he tries to balance things up by the end of the show, giving the contestant who’s lost out in one round what he calls the ‘benefit of the doubt’ later on. It’s a reassuring style of chairing things because you have a sense that nobody is going to lose out entirely. Everyone’s a winner, even the most incompetent and clumsy new player who can’t get the hang of a very tricky game.
The problem is that life isn’t like a soft centred panel game. In life we are judged and things can get very tough if nobody is giving us the benefit of the doubt at any point. It’s possible to hear today’s scripture reading – our final one from Matthew’s gospel as our year of reading his version of Jesus’s life ends today – as being about divine judgement in a very uncomfortable way. There are a few things we need to remind ourselves of in order to make sense of this reading. For one thing – as usual with Matthew’s gospel – we need to be aware of what’s been happening previously. Since the start of chapter 24, Jesus has been talking about uncomfortable events in the future and referring to the return of someone called the Son of Man. Jesus says the Son of Man will come in the middle of all sorts of strange phenomena on earth and in the heavens. This is the last of the strange stories Jesus tells in relation to these predictions. This is apocalyptic literature – it’s about the end times – and as such it sits within a long Hebrew tradition of teachings about humanity’s sinfulness and shortcomings in contrast with God’s purposes of justice and ultimate authority.
Another thing to remember is that Matthew’s gospel is aimed particularly at a small, struggling Christian community feeling very insecure about its future and facing persecution. When you’re in the middle of being oppressed it’s very comforting to be reminded that nothing escapes God’s attention. One day those people who have been pushing you down will get their come-uppance. For the first hearers of this teaching it would have been easy to see themselves as the individuals in the story who are thirsty, sick, hungry, outcast, naked or imprisoned. Most, if not all of them, would have been Jews by birth and upbringing before becoming followers of Jesus of Nazareth. Thinking of the world in terms of ‘them and us’, ‘Jew and Gentile’ (non Jew) would be second nature to them. They would readily hear this account of Jesus’ final teaching before his arrest in Jerusalem and crucifixion in terms of those Gentiles who supported and quietly helped their small Christian community and those who pushed them down and were making their lives a misery. The clue is in the word ‘nations’: ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne, with all the nations gathered before him. He will separate people into two groups, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats’. To a first century Jewish audience hearing Matthew’s gospel for the first time speaking about ‘nations’ clearly means Gentiles, non Jews.
Sadly, recent events in the Middle East mean we’re far more used now to hearing about modern day persecution of Christians there. Here’s the true story of a family from Iraq. Imagine how they might hear the parable of the sheep and the goats. Marlene and her husband Jinan have two daughters – Mariam aged nine and Miran who is five. Marlene comes from a small town near Mosul in Iraq where she and her wider family lived until her father’s brutal killing by al-Qaeda 10 years ago. He worked in the local church with the priest – the two of them were killed together and Marlene saw it happening. The killer threatened to kill anyone who tried to bury her father but Marlene’s brother managed to recover his body from the church and give him a Christian burial. Marlene and her family then suffered death threats and fled to a Christian town nearby. At that point Marlene’s mother died so she became responsible for her six younger sisters and brothers. Money was so short she had to put two of her younger brothers into an orphanage. The next year Marlene brought her family to her husband’s home town of Jambour where they lived with his four disabled sisters – yet more family members relying on them. They lived in a small, windowless house and struggled to find work. Things got even worse when Daesh came to town. Seven times they tried and failed to flee to Erbil. Finally, in 2014 the Kurdish police allowed them and 50 other Christian families into Dohuk. Things were pretty desperate there too, living in a tiny house with 23 other people and eventually threw out into a tent. Her uncle was kidnapped by Daesh and no more has been heard of him since. In 2015 they came to Jordan, a town south of Amman, where they live now in a tiny flat. A Christian charity pays their rent money. There are posters of Jesus taped to the wall. There is, here at last, one window letting in light.
Not only is the parable of the sheep and the goats intended for those being persecuted, it is also (like much of Jesus’s teaching) playful and multi layered in meaning. Dividing sheep and goats is good shepherding because goats, being less hardy, need to be kept warm at night. They can’t tolerate cold conditions that don’t bother sheep. Dividing sheep and goats would be a routine thing for a first century audience to hear about. It sounds easy to do, going by this story, but it isn’t. Middle Eastern sheep and goats are hard to tell apart. The best way to separate them is that a goat’s tails sticks up but the sheep’s tail hangs down. No wonder then that, in the parable, the individuals concerned don’t realise when they have been pleasing God by caring for Jesus in the strangers in need they meet. God, who sees the heart, knows when we’re stepping outside our comfort zone and building God’s kingdom by reaching out to those who need help beyond our normal community reach.
Many of the stories – for young and old – we’ll be hearing in the coming season of Advent and Christmas are about welcoming those we don’t know, and meeting Jesus in the process. Today’s scripture passage calls us back to the heart of our Christian discipleship as those who serve Jesus in one another and who welcome God’s son as Emmanuel – God with us. May we be tuned in to the needy people who will cross our paths in the coming days and be open to meet God in them as we reach out to them in love.
Amos 5: 18-24 and Matthew 25: 1-13
One aspect of being under pressure is very often wakefulness. You go to bed but you can’t get to sleep. Your mind races on, coming up with ever more present problems and future challenges that you may feel less and less equipped to handle. The brain pops up with all the unfinished tasks you didn’t get round to during your ‘official’ waking hours. I keep a note pad and pencil on the bedside table so as to capture these flashes of memory before they disappear again. When we can’t switch our brains off it’s hard to fall asleep. Today’s gospel reading puts wakefulness in a different light. Far from sleeplessness being a bad thing that leads to exhaustion and greater stress we’re encouraged to have awareness of what’s going on, the ability to wake up fast to events and not doze off at the critical point.
The parable we heard is one which Jesus tells during his final week of public teaching, his last days of life and freedom, in Jerusalem the home of the Temple and the central place of authority and holiness for every faithful Jew. Already he’s been talking about being ready for what God will do in the future, and the importance of being awake and alert. Here, in chapter 25, he tells a parable based around the conventions of a Middle Eastern wedding on the same theme. Forget the expectation of a daytime event. Even today a wedding in this culture can take place after dark. What better way to draw everyone in the community together for a special moment than by putting on a torchlight procession. Bride and bridegroom have different roles to fulfil in this culture too, including some parts of the event which they have to do separately before they come together. So, the idea of the bridegroom processing through the village, in the dark, to the main banquet at the heart of the wedding can even happen now. Weddings always attract plenty of young women as happens in this parable too. Half of them are sensible and half of them silly. Half remember to get enough oil in good time to make sure they won’t run out during the nightime procession and the other ones come without enough oil to last them. There are echoes here of the Wisdom teaching in the Old Testament, as Tom Wright’s commentary points out. Very often in the book of Proverbs the characteristics of Wisdom and Folly are represented by two different female figures. Here, there are five wise young women and five unwise ones. Being poorly prepared doesn’t just mean you miss the first part of the banquet or have to turn up embarrassingly in the middle of the speeches. In this case it means being shut out of the entire event. You won’t get in if you’re not ready at the crucial moment.
It’s clearly a story that could ring bells in an early Church setting where some Jews have seen Jesus as the Messiah (so having the oil of faith in their lamps perhaps) while others haven’t recognised who he is (their oil has run out maybe). That’s as far as I propose to go in picking up other lessons from this parable. It’s not helpful or necessary to apply all the points in this story. There is one point, and one point only, being made here. That is the need to be ready for whatever God is doing. Of course the description of Jesus as a bridegroom, and the Church as his bride, did appear quite early in the Christian story. It crops up in hymns and prayers too. That lends an extra layer of significance to the parable but it still isn’t the central message.
You can even fall asleep – that’s human and all the bridesmaids do it – but what matters is that when you wake up you’re in a position to respond to events, ready to act, and not asking God to put everything on hold while you pop down to the late night corner shop to get the things you should have bought earlier on.
So the question arises, ‘What does God need us to be ready for?’ On this Remembrance Sunday I think one answer must be ‘the possibility of renewed major conflict in the world’. Our task as followers of Jesus is to speak out for peace with justice. It’s a classic school history question now to write an essay on the causes of World War One. Hindsight is a marvellous thing. With the benefit of it we can see how the origins of that war developed decades earlier in the rise of nationalism, particularly the unification of Germany, and the arms race between the competing colonial powers. Added to that there were alliances in place, meaning attack on one member of the pact would bring all the others into conflict in support of it. We can see now how fast things escalated because of the two major alliances in Europe. British intelligence knew, too, that Germany was getting ready for war. Why else were there very long station platforms in isolated locations all across Germany where troops were assembled to drill getting on and off trains in their thousands before 1914? Little signs like this, and a tight control on rolling stock in summer 1914, all added up.
In times of great pain and loss the temptation is to withhold our readiness to wait on God – to put up defences and forget the idea that we must be prepared to respond to whatever God wants and needs us to do. Thankfully there are brave, strong souls who do remain alert and start amazing pieces of work in the most challenging circumstances as a result. Two such people were sisters Eglantyne Jebb and Dorothy Buxton, who founded Save the Children in 1919 after witnessing tuberculosis, rickets, mass starvation and death among European children. Their work followed the end of World War One in Austria Hungary and Germany where the continuation of the British blockade after the end of the fighting was leaving people totally without food. Then it moved on to include Greece and post-revolutionary Russia which, in 1921, suffered a disastrous famine. Eglantyne wrote the Declaration of Children’s Rights in 1922, which is today part of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. In 1920 she declared: ‘The world is not ungenerous … but unimaginative and very busy.’ Save the Children is now the world’s largest, independent, international children’s development agency and it works in more than 120 countries.
How well known is Moina Belle Michael? She was the American professor and humanitarian who became known as the Poppy Lady because she had the idea of using the symbol of the red poppy as a reminder of sacrifice and a device for fundraising. Inspired by John McCrae’s poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ she wrote her poem ‘We shall keep the faith’ in 1918. She vowed to wear a red silk poppy as a reminder of the sacrifice of those who served in the war and said: ‘Alone… in a high moment of resolve, I pledged to keep the faith and always to wear a red poppy of Flanders Field as a sign of remembrance.’ After the war she taught a class of disabled servicemen and this was when she realised the need to raise money for them. In 1921 the poppy was adopted as a symbol of war veterans both in America and Britain as a result of her work.
What is God calling us to be ready and alert for now? In September our church signed up to ROC, Redeeming our Communities. This Manchester-based Christian charity encourages and supports churches and their neighbours across the country to build better, safer communities. They do this through things like ROC cafes – evening social spaces where young people and official bodies like the police, fire and rescue service, and local council can meet up and build positive relationships once a week. They also do it through supporting families which need help to thrive. They run Restorative Justice programmes that tackle low level crime and conflict. They also focus on problems of isolation and loneliness for older people. Our refurbished undercroft will lend itself beautifully to housing projects like these. The place to start is by having a Community Conversation where everyone is invited along to say what they think is needed. Then people in Wilmslow can agree what our priorities are and where the serious gaps exist. The work on our buildings is nearly finished. The work on refocussing our ministry and mission is just starting. Let’s keep those lamps well supplied with oil and try to stay awake when God is talking to us.
Leviticus 19: 1-2, 15-18 and Romans 3: 19-28
Why throughout 2017 are we making all this fuss about Martin Luther? Is it because our fast-changing world revels in anniversaries and likes looking backwards at how much things have changed or stayed the same? Is it because church historians are short of things to talk about that might interest anyone else? Do they have to find reasons why we should buy another book, watch another drama documentary, or make another visit to a place of historic interest? Maybe, but that’s not the whole story. Martin Luther changed the world in ways that still affect us, despite the enormous gap in experience between our life as Christians now and that of an Augustinian friar, born in what we would now call Germany in 1483. His was the first translation of the Old and New Testaments into German. He championed the idea of ordinary people reading the Bible in their mother tongue. Having a printed Bible at home, and being able to understand it even if you couldn’t read the original Greek and Hebrew versions, led to a revolution in ideas. Think what life was like before the arrival of desk top computers 20 years or so ago. How easily do we take it for granted that we can hold the answer to almost any question we might have in the palm of our hand, literally, with an internet-enabled mobile phone? We have lived through a revolution in communication and ideas that has some parallels with what we call the start of the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago. Luther’s ideas influenced John Calvin, the Genevan theologian who founded the part of the Church our denomination belongs to some 20 years later, and they touch us still.
That’s why our reading today is from Paul’s letter to the Romans. It was engaging with this amazing letter that caused Luther to start seeing the world through a new set of lenses. Please remember this – that Luther didn’t go looking for a reason to overthrow the Catholic Church he was born and brought up in, or to challenge the power of the Pope in Rome. He began by reading the Bible and it was there he found ideas that challenged and energised him to ask a set of new, demanding questions. Whether he actually wrote down his 95 theses – propositions, sound bites – and hammered them onto the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg on October 31st 1517 is disputed. What isn’t in doubt is that he wanted to start a debate. Today he would record a TED talk, or write syndicated newspaper articles, but back then this was the way to get people interested.
What was it about the Letter to the Romans that so inspired and intrigued Martin Luther? We think it was written about AD 60, so it’s one of the earliest parts of the New Testament to have been put on parchment. It is written to a group of house churches within the Roman Empire, which Paul is planning to visit, made up of Jews and non Jews – Gentiles. That’s where the problem arises. How does he reconcile the good news about Jesus Christ with the insistence among many Jewish followers of the way, (as early Christians were often called) that you have to obey Jewish law in all its details in order to worship Jesus as God’s son, the Messiah? Reconciliation between people across difference – it’s a problem that never stops throughout human history and is every bit as difficult for our world now. Paul is building up to that point, in Romans chapter 15, where he will advise everyone: ‘In a word, accept one another as Christ accepted us, to the glory of God’ (15.7) but he knows that takes some doing. To start with he has to help people to see how badly we’re all managing as individuals – the mess we’re in – ‘For all alike have sinned, and are deprived of the divine glory’ (3.23). There’s nothing like looking around you and seeing the chaos and pain and sadness in your own life, and that of the world, for making you feel a failure – helpless and overwhelmed. No wonder that we are all tempted at times to find ways of avoiding that difficult process – things to take away the aching emptiness and disappointment. Our ‘drug’ of choice may be something relatively harmless or it can get out of hand and take us over. Examining your bank statement can be one way of finding out where things may have got out of balance in your life – or thinking about the way you spend your time. Paul doesn’t let his readers and listeners in Rome dwell too long on the problems they face before giving them the immediate and answering good news from God: ‘and all are justified by God’s free grace alone, through his act of liberation in the person of Christ Jesus.’ Paul is writing within a culture where sacrifices are well known and he is linking that idea, in a revolutionary way, with the death and resurrection of Jesus. This would have been an enormous leap of thinking for Jews who were used to thinking of the sacrificing of animals within the Temple in Jerusalem. The idea that the death of Jesus on the cross, outside the city, without a priest in sight, at the hands of the Romans, was actually the way in which God was overcoming the evil and brokenness within the world to bring about reconciliation was mind blowing. For Jews and Gentiles alike to be encouraged not to think so much about what happened and who did what around the crucifixion of Jesus, but instead what good God can and does bring out of that event, was totally new. It puts everyone – Jew and non-Jew – in the same place before God.
When Martin Luther studied the letter to the Romans he related it to the practice of selling indulgences of the Catholic Church of his day – raising money for the building of St Peter’s basilica in Rome by gathering the donations of the faithful. People were told their gifts shortened the time the souls of their loved ones would spend after death in purgatory before fully entering heaven. At the heart of the Protestant Reformation, which followed unplanned from the debate Luther started 500 years ago, are three declarations – Sola Scriptura! Sola Gratia! Sola Fide! – Scripture only, Grace only, Faith only. The idea that it is not by our own efforts – however well-meaning and laudable they may be – but by God’s response to our faith that we are brought into the right relationship with God is a basic teaching we hold to. Sola fide – by faith alone – said the Reformers. It’s not just the feeble faith we can muster that’s being referred to here but the amazing, deep and powerful faith that Jesus shows us, in being willing to faithfully follow God through the events that led him to the cross at Calvary. The reality that we can and do keep on making a mess of our lives, that we never manage to hold to what we hope and mean to do, emphasises how much we rely on God’s grace to keep forgiving us and allowing us yet another a new start – sola gratia – by grace alone. And the basis for all this is not what one person may say but what we, collectively, agree we discover in scripture. The supreme authority in Protestant churches lies with God’s word, speaking to us, into our world and our lives – sola scriptura, by scripture alone.
Does this matter today? Yes, I believe it does, because of that great message about mutual acceptance across difference which Paul gives to the Romans and which our world still lacks with such disastrous results. Back in 2012 I was lucky enough to attend the 7th General Assembly of the Community of Protestant Churches in Europe, taking place in Florence. Some of our discussion was about how to mark this anniversary year – suggestions for pilgrimages between Reformation cities, for special events in Wittenberg, for new conversations between churches. It was important to hear the German delegates talking about the painful and violent past of Catholic and Protestant churches in their country, and the way this anniversary was allowing them to have new dialogues about their damaged history so as to live better in the present and go forward on a new basis. We also heard a plea for help from a Syrian Christian – it was the early stages of that awful civil war – who showed us images of damaged churches and spoke about the damage being done to members of a Church which can trace its history back to the first century. Now that concern about buildings seems a distant luxury. There has been so much suffering since then – the tide of refugees leaving Syria and the reality that in a besieged suburb of Damascus now children and babies are dying from malnutrition. So much has changed since 2012 and little of it for the better.
The cross still speaks to us about God’s reconciliation through pain and suffering and calls us to live this reconciliation in our lives too. We need reconciliation between Catholic and Protestant, between New church and traditional church, between evangelicals and liberals, between Catholic and Orthodox. There’s also the need we’re being reminded of, through allegations of high profile sexual harassment, for reconciliation between men and women. Reconciliation is needed in Syria, to end the suffering in the civil war which continues to take lives and create refugees. Reconciliation is needed between and within Catalonia and Spain. Reconciliation is needed in Kenya between government and opposition. How does it start? By people being willing to speak to one another across difference. Fergal Keane’s television news report on Friday showed two regional governors in western Kenya speaking side by side. They spoke to groups in the open air, mainly men and many of them angry. One group was interviewed about an allegation of cattle rustling by ‘the other side’. Another group said they had been prevented from getting to the ballot station to vote in the election by the opposing side. The two governors spoke about keeping up dialogue, and about the fact what they held in common was more important than what kept them apart. That’s the message of the cross – the message of reconciliation that matters as much now as it ever has done in God’s world.
Isaiah 25: 1-9 and Matthew 22: 1-14
There are three meals linked with today’s service, and they all have a message for us about what God is like. The first – and probably most obvious one – is the communion meal. You can’t escape the sight of the chalice, glasses and patens with bread on them which now cover the table here. This is the meal we share to give thanks for God’s love in Jesus and to join ourselves with all God’s people, past, present and to come. As we do so we honour the depth of love to which God in Jesus is prepared to go for us – as far as death on a cross – and celebrate the new life and new relationship with God which the resurrection of Jesus offers to the whole world. That’s one meal. The other two are in our readings where we heard two stories of feasts.
Let’s start with the story from Matthew 22 which is often called the parable of the wedding banquet. This story starts off quite pleasantly but soon takes a worrying turn. We may have a memory of another version of this parable in the gospels and it’s true that Luke tells a much more comfortable version of this story in Luke chapter 14. That version has the same sense of urgency about a master who longs to see the places at his table filled with enthusiastic guests. That version also has people who are the properly invited guests but who have plenty of excuses as to why they can no longer attend. That version also has the master sending his servant out a second time to round up anyone he can find to bring in from the highways and byways to fill the hall and make sure the event is full and successful. So far so similar. But the Matthew version of the parable we’ve heard today is full of other worrying elements too, which sound far from comfortable or pleasant. Why all these references to violence and aggression – that’s not the way to make sure the party goes with a swing, surely? Why in the Matthew version does the person throwing the party suffer the indignity and disgrace of having some of his servants attacked and killed in the act of delivering the invitations? Why does he take time to send in armed men to kill these murderers and torch their city before extending a wider invitation to collect anyone and everyone to fill the places at table? Why does the whole parable end with this strange episode of a guest who turns up in the wrong clothes – not having bothered to dress for the occasion – being arrested and chucked out of the feast to a background track of wailing and grinding of teeth?
One simple rule of thumb in trying to make sense of bible passage is to step back and look at the wider context. ‘What comes before this episode and what comes after it?’ are always good questions to ask. Immediately it becomes obvious why this version of the parable of the wedding feast in Matthew is so much more gritty and difficult that Luke’s telling of it. Matthew places this story in the middle of Holy Week, with the build up to the arrest, trial, torture and crucifixion of Jesus all about to unfold. That’s why Matthew’s central figure, the one doing the inviting to the meal, is not just a ‘master’ as in Luke but a King. That’s why the meal to which people are being invited is not simply a nice dinner party but a wedding feast – the wedding of the man’s son. Are we starting to get the message that the host here is God and the person being celebrated is God’s son, Jesus? And think about the violence in the story too. Jesus is standing in the temple courtyard, home of all that’s wrong and needs to change in the religious and societal structures of first century Palestine. He is telling this parable in the full view of the temple authorities and the temple guards, as well as the crowds from Jerusalem and beyond who want to hear his message. He knows that before much longer he is going to be arrested and subjected to violence. He knows he’s living on borrowed time. He foresees that there’s going to much blood spilt and many tears shed before a great celebratory meal where all is well with the world can ever take place. In Matthew’s gospel Jesus has just told four parables already and this is his fifth. Remember that Jesus had warned the disciples earlier in his ministry that parables were coded language, to be interpreted quietly and in private after they had been told in full public view. Here is a prime occasion when speaking in these sort of terms is making Jesus himself even more of a target. In the verse after today’s reading the chapter goes on: ‘Then the Pharisees went away and agreed on a plan to trap him in argument.’ The trap is being set at this stage of Jesus’ ministry.
Alongside the fact this story is being told at a point of great danger and mounting tension in Jesus’ public teaching, there are references which suggest Matthew the gospel writer is reading back later events into the words of Jesus. A city put to the torch could that be Jerusalem itself, destroyed by the Roman armies after the Jewish uprising of AD 70. A group of guests who make excuses for not attending and other guests picked off the streets, good and bad alike, to fill the spaces could be the Gentiles, the non-Jews. By the time the gospel was written down they were starting to take up the good news of Jesus Christ in significant numbers.
Which leaves us with this awkward guest who comes wearing the wrong things and suffers as a result. We may think this sounds especially harsh but perhaps we need to see the significance of dressing up for the occasion in different terms. The wedding clothes may not just be the special things you put on to show you scrub up nicely. They may signify putting on the garment that God hands to you, the outer clothing of love and forgiveness and mercy that God alone can put over our clothing to help us to enter the feast. By turning up in ordinary clothes this feast goer is saying, in effect, ‘I don’t respect or value your invitation, God.’ And, says the gospel writer Matthew, if we don’t value the gift we’re receiving from God then we can’t expect there to be no outcome from that. The God who goes out in search of the lost, the marginalised, the forgotten and uninvited ones, who deliberately encounters pain and death for his own son in that quest, has a right to control who comes in and who goes out at the feast he throws.
If all of that is hard to hear – especially in a world where more than ever we seem to be resorting to violence and aggression rather than peace and dialogue – we can find great reassurance in our other reading. Here a totally different sort of feast is being thrown, one that is all about finding a place of honour in contrast to the parable we’ve heard Jesus telling shortly before he would be publicly shamed. In an economy without bank accounts you show wealth in ways people can see. You don’t appear on a rich list – you simply load your table with the best food and drink that money can buy. Here we are reminded that God has good things in store for us to be served ‘on this mountain’ the prophet writes. God’s people have suddenly and surprisingly been set free from the rule of the Assyrians whose armed outpost near Jerusalem has fallen 7 centuries before the time of Jesus. God invites everyone to a victory feast. God sets the table. God buys the best wine. God promises that tears will be wiped away from every face and says all that has been wrong in the past will be put right. Death itself will be swallowed up.
Our hope and prayer for Rowland, and his generation, is that they will grow up in a world that chooses better ways to deal with conflict and difference and that they will find personal faith in the living God who invites us all to a feast based on righteousness and justice.
Jonah 3: 10-4: 11 and Matthew 20: 1-16
Today is a special Sunday in several ways. It’s an opportunity to welcome the members and friends of Wilmslow Town Council, to get to know one another better and to recognise what we have in common. I think there are some important things we can all agree about – things which matter to God as well. We all want this community to become the best place to live it can be. Maybe many of us also recognise that improving quality of life here is as much about the people, and their relationships with one another, as it is about the roads, the homes, the schools, the health care, the businesses, the parks and public spaces. It’s when you’re having a difficult conversation with someone about a matter of life and death like car parking (!), or behaviour in a queue, or obstructions on the pavement, that this comes most sharply into focus. Today is also Back to Church Sunday, a day when churches remember how important it is that we keep inviting others to come and join us as followers of Jesus Christ. Between now and Christmas is our Season of Invitation, a period when we’re all encouraged to expand the horizons of our life together as we welcome new worshippers. We do this not because we want to fill all the seats here every Sunday – though it always feels good when the church is full – but because we believe that God wants us to serve one another and the people around us. If we’re to do that we need to welcome fresh faces, new ideas and God-given opportunities like today.
So what do our readings from scripture say about community and how best to get on with one another? The story of Jonah from the Old Testament is one we Christians have in common with people of Jewish and Muslim faith. At the end of next week, at the Jewish festival of Yom Kippur, the story of Jonah is always read as worshippers reflect on their sins and God’s forgiveness. It’s sometimes heard as if it were a children’s story – full of wildly improbable things but with no real, serious message to convey. Perhaps we struggle to understand it because we’re unfamiliar with the patterns of exaggeration, playfulness and humour that are part of the tradition and culture this story comes from. To make any sense of today’s reading you have to know that to begin with Jonah has been called by God to go and preach a sermon about repentance to the people of Nineveh. It’s a suicide mission in effect – the worst job offer ever. How is a single prophet of God going to get listened to in a vast city of the Assyrian empire and convince everyone to mend their ways and change their lives? This is a place from which armies are sent out, part of an nation that has made its wealth from attacking, overwhelming and repressing its neighbours. No wonder Jonah decides to run in the opposite direction. He disregards God’s unattractive call and takes a boat across the Mediterranean to Tarshish. The problem is that God sees everyone and everything. There is no escape from God’s presence. The boat in which Jonah is travelling is caught up in a terrible storm and the sailors realise that it’s Jonah’s disobedience of God’s call which is the reason they’re all about to sink amidst storm force seas. They throw him overboard and Jonah is swallowed by a great fish, in whose stomach he remains for three days and nights, pondering his fate, praying and somehow staying faithful to the God whose purposes are so hard to fathom. Here, finally, Jonah is doing the sort of things prophets are supposed to do. He’s speaking to God and listening to what he hears in reply. As a result he’s returned to dry land, and given his message: ‘In forty days Nineveh will be overthrown!’ It’s a bit like those placard bearing individuals you sometimes see wandering through a city centre bearing the message ‘Repent, the end of the world is nigh!’ Only in this case everyone listens.
Much to Jonah’s amazement the king takes the prophecy to heart and commands the entire nation – animals included – to put on sackcloth and ashes and start fasting to show their change of heart and mind. Lo and behold, God sees the transformation and changes his mind. Nineveh is spared. Jonah is not impressed. That’s what you get for serving the one God, maker of heaven and earth. You are made to look foolish in the eyes of a whole nation. Jonah sulks outside the city. He takes no pleasure at all in the successful outcome of his mission. He’s totally wrapped up in frustration and self-pity. Why should God choose to give a second chance to such a selfish, overbearing group of people as the inhabitants of Nineveh? Can’t God put his grace and mercy to better use than this? It’s the complaint of the self-righteous person down the ages. We don’t like it when God’s forgiveness means those other people who we despise or dislike are let off the hook, as we see it. In doing so we conveniently forget for the time being the awkward fact that we too have often benefitted from God’s gracious pardon in ways we didn’t deserve either. God can do nothing to console Jonah – even letting a plant grow up to shade him from the hot sun isn’t appreciated, so God decides to teach Jonah a lesson. No wonder this story is often depicted in cartoon form – it has all the elements of humour and larger than life characters.
God sends a worm to kill the plant that’s shading Jonah and when the prophet complains about the heat, and grieves for the dead plant, God puts the killer argument: ‘You’re worried about the plant that’s died, which you didn’t even grow in the first place. Shouldn’t I be worried about a great city whose people have got lost, who’ve made wrong choices, and who need to be saved to live in different ways in the future?’
God’s ways and God’s ideas of justice are not ours. They challenge and surprise us. The second reading makes the same point in slightly different ways. Jesus is speaking to his close followers, the twelve disciples, and challenging them to understand the mysterious workings of God’s kingdom. Our response to this story changes according to where we place ourselves. If we identify with one of the labourers who’s worked all day and sees the latecomers being paid the same we may, like Jonah, feel cross with God’s generous love. If we can see ourselves among the day labourers who hadn’t got hired first thing, who’d been waiting in the market place all day trying to get hired but having no success and who were wondering how their children would eat that night, but suddenly they’re taken on for the final hour and paid a full day’s money, we’ll see the story in a totally different way. Jesus is challenging us to broaden our thinking and open our hearts to the wideness of God’s love and mercy. What would it mean for the economy of Wilmslow if we tried to do everything by these rules? We might end up with a lot of arguments, I suppose, but the faith communities are here to remind everyone that God’s way of doing things, God’s way of seeing things, are not the same as ours.
That’s one reason why, as you’ll have noticed, our church has got the builders in – like half of the rest of the town, it seems. We’re upgrading the facilities in the space below us here, the undercroft, so we can offer warm, bright, comfortable, flexible space where people of all ages, shapes and sizes can come in and be welcomed. It seems to us that our position here, just on the route into and back from school for so many of the pupils at Wilmslow High School, is a God-given opportunity. When the undercroft is ready for use – in a few weeks from now – it will give a home to Wilmslow Youth, a new venture which this church and our friends at Life Church (who worship in Revolution) have been undertaking together for over a year. With help from two gifted youth work consultants, Matt Williamson and Gemma Tuson, we’re building relationships with youngsters in the school. The idea is to help them discover life in all its fullness – a word which comes from God in Jesus. That sometimes mean helping them to deal with identity issues, self-confidence, loneliness, bullying, the desire for friendship and networking in positive ways, supporting the great work already being done by the school’s Wellbeing Hub. This week’s headlines about identity anxiety and depression among teenage girls only emphasises how important supporting our young people really is. And all of this work we’re enabling to happen is going to be in partnership with ROC, Redeeming our Communities, the Manchester based community organisation which works to improve inter-generational relationships and encourage young people to build their lives on solid values. Watch out for a Community Conversation early in 2018 about how ROC can work with all of us in Wilmslow to build a better place for all age groups to live in. And, because you can’t do anything now without decent coffee, there will be a café element in this somewhere – details to be decided.
The God of forgiveness, of inclusion, who puts the last and least at the front of queue, is inviting us all to make Wilmslow a better place in the coming years. It’s great that we can respond and make this journey together.
Jeremiah 15: 15-21 and Matthew 16: 21-28
Do you ever wonder why God started you off on a particular course in life just to go off in another direction and – so it seems – totally abandon you in the middle of nowhere? Our readings today are about two conversations around that theme. Jeremiah the prophet and Peter the disciple both have to discover that there’s more to the purposes of God than appears on the surface. They both learn that God’s way of doing things is usually quite the opposite of what we would expect or prefer. I remember a friend sporting a tee shirt with an image of fish swimming about on it and the slogan ‘cod moving in mysterious ways’. Well, God does move in mysterious ways and it’s one of the things that bemuses, frustrates, annoys, and challenges us most about our lives of faith. If only God would operate in the way we want then everything would be alright! Well, it wouldn’t of course, because we only see our part of the picture and God’s got the large screen, overall perspective. God can see the before, present and to come version of events in ways we can’t even begin to imagine. Not only that, God is God and operates in a very different way from we limited mortals. We need to factor in the acceptance of mystery and a need for ongoing revelation in our relationship with God.
At the point when we meet him the prophet, Jeremiah is not in a good place, to put it mildly. He’s seen today by Jews as one of the greatest of the prophets but you might not have thought that hearing the negative tone of his conversation with God at the start of today’s reading. Jeremiah was the son of a priest, born in the village of Anathoth, and called to the ministry of a prophet in the year 626 before the birth of Jesus Christ. That ministry continues for 40 years in all, covering the rule of five kings of Israel – a time of unprecedented upheaval and crisis. It wasn’t an easy period in which to be required by God to speak truth to people of faith, the leaders of the nation, and those in positions of religious power. Jerusalem’s people and its rulers are living on borrowed time. The country is under dire threat of invasion from the north and nobody is waking up to the danger. Instead of staying faithful to God, remembering the one who brought their forefathers and mothers out of slavery and established them back in the Promised Land, the people are abandoning the one God, the maker of heaven and earth. They’ve opted instead for the far more exciting and racy gods (small ‘g’) of their neighbours – the gods of Baal – to whom they enthusiastically offer sacrifices on high altars. They haven’t stopped at animals either – they’ve started sacrificing their children too. Jeremiah sees signs of decay and doom all around him. He’s been told by God to keep himself to himself – not to marry or to mix with the troubled and misguided people around him. He feels as though he is the only one to see the terrible risks the people are running, the threat that’s building up on their borders, the likelihood of total collapse as an independent nation which they’re blindly walking towards. Not surprisingly, nobody wants to hear his message from God, warning them of the peril they’re courting. He’s ridiculed, attacked and ostracised for his trouble. After years of enduring hurt and pain Jeremiah is at his wits end when we hear his confession, his lamentation in chapter 15. We are eavesdropping on his personal despair as he pours out his heart to God.
There is something very real and raw about Jeremiah’s prayer. Being a prophet is not a job for wimps. He is full of reproach and regret in the way he addresses God. ‘I’ve tried to be faithful,’ Jeremiah says in effect, ‘but now I can’t feel anything from you at all, God.’ In our culture the whole idea of getting problems out and talking about them – to a friend, or a counsellor, or by looking up advice from others on the internet – is well accepted. We know that previous generations were not like this. Very often throughout history the idea of confessing the reality of how we feel to one another, let alone to God, has been frowned on and discouraged. Jeremiah’s example of honesty with God in the face of despair is a healthy one for us all. It means we, too, can risk being truthful with God when we feel let down, abandoned, confused and bereft. When we begin to be honest then God’s grace and mercy can start getting to work. God’s words of reassurance, acceptance, and hope are for us too: ‘I will heal you if you stay loyal’, says God. ‘I am with you, I will rescue you’. What we don’t hear from the Old Testament is how Jeremiah eventually comes to see things differently. There will be a moment when, later on, he is able to look back on his moments of frustration and melt down before God in a new way. Then he will no doubt repent of some of the things he said, the tone of his prayers, at those moments when his faith was at its lowest ebb. But here and now the most important thing is that God has not abandoned Jeremiah, and does not abandon us, when we air our frustrations and seek reassurance in the bluntest terms. God seeks an open, honest, mature and real response from us not a childish ‘you know best, Lord’ that quickly falls apart when the going gets tough in life. Resilience, and the ability to recognise that God sees the bigger picture, are parts of our growing discipleship that we all need to work on.
Our second conversation is even more dramatic as an example of human honesty encountering the gap between the way we think and the way in which God sees things. Only just a few verses earlier in Matthew’s gospel chapter 16 Peter has been described by Jesus as the ‘rock’, the solid foundation on which Jesus will build his Church. Here he reveals just moments later that he hasn’t understood who Jesus is, or what it truly means to give up the life of a fisherman on the Sea of Galilee and commit himself to following this wandering preacher. When he hears that the way Jesus is taking is all about pain, suffering, death and resurrection he stops listening half way through the description. Peter gets stuck on the loss and sadness that he now knows must lie ahead for those who choose to travel with Jesus of Nazareth. He doesn’t want to believe that this has to happen. He doesn’t want to acknowledge the truth that God’s purposes for bringing about the triumph of love and the overcoming of pain, loss and hurt, can only be moved forward through the embracing of pain and the facing of death head on. What a shock it must be for Peter and the other disciples to hear the strong terms in which Jesus responds to this – ‘Get behind me, Satan!’ Jesus is back in the wilderness again, hearing a soft and appealing voice in his head saying: ‘You don’t have to make it that hard on yourself. There are other ways to get to the place you want to go. Take the other route. Don’t worry about the means – it’s the outcome that matters.’ But Jesus knows that to confront evil, and fight for righteousness in the world in the ways God wants, he must not avoid the road to Jerusalem. He must take the road and follow where events lead him. That can’t mean anything else but death, and if his followers don’t want to go through similar trials then they’d better go home now. ‘if someone wants to save their life, they must lose it; and it anyone loses their life for my sake they will find it.’
For me one of the biggest challenges we face now in the 21st century church is to rediscover what this teaching means for us. It’s far easier to talk about preserving our structures, keeping the show on the road, maintaining our view of who we are and what we do than it is to be willing to lose that and discover life in new ways. As a denomination – like most traditional churches – we’re facing big questions about the future. How do we downsize in such a way that local churches receive the leadership they need to flourish? How do we reallocate the resources we’ve got so that the work of God’s Holy Spirit is encouraged to take root and grow? What is God calling us to do and be in a culture which no longer thinks of faith as an important element of public life and debate but where people’s personal experiences of loss, searching and desire for nurture, community and fulfilment are as deep as ever? Today’s readings encourage us to start by getting real with God and one another, to recognise that the answers we hear from God will not be comfortable in all likelihood, and they remind us that God’s purposes are far bigger, longer and broader than anything we dream up now or in the future.
Matthew 16: 13-20 and Romans 12: 1-8
One of the books I keep on coming back to and seeing more within is Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice’s Adventures through the Looking Glass’. And one of my favourite characters is the White Queen – who always gets in a muddle and needs rescuing. The amazing thing about the book is that you can read and understand it on a number of different levels. It can be a children’s story or a much deeper work full of all sorts of interesting and challenging observations about life and what it means to be human. When Alice meets the White Queen they get into a conversation about the way the world works, and Alice discovers to her surprise that in Looking Glass land everything happens backwards, in reverse. She finds it hard to believe what the Queen is telling her and blurts out: ‘one can’t believe impossible things.’ ‘I dare say you haven’t had much practice,’ said the Queen. ‘When I was your age, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.’ Well I’m not asking you to do that – I simply want you to try and believe a couple of impossible things before lunchtime. It shouldn’t be too much of challenge, I think.
Where do we begin? It all starts with believing that God knows and loves each one of us in the most amazing, detailed, intimate, forgiving and encouraging way. Think of the people whose love and support have meant most of all to you in your life and then try to imagine their care and concern for you doubled, trebled, increased to such a level that it goes off the measurement scale. We can’t begin to grasp how much God loves us, how totally God is committed to us, how much God wants to support us and see us blossom and grow. The apostle Paul knows this personally because his own life has been totally turned around by that love. From being someone who persecuted the followers of Jesus – who wanted to see them harrassed and stoned to death in the most brutal way – he’s now become a leading member of the Christian community. Since that moment on the road to Damascus when he was temporarily blinded and heard God speaking to him he’s devoted every day, every hour, every minute to this cause. His reason for living is to bring more people into relationship with the risen Jesus, who he now sees is not a deluded Jewish prophet but God’s own son.
So what does God ask from us in return for this incredible, all encompassing, never-ending love? Paul tells his audience in the young church at Rome that they need to respond by offering their ‘very selves’, to become ‘a living sacrifice’. Have you ever stopped to think how ridiculous and impossible that is? Anyone hearing the word ‘sacrifice’ in the first century would have known what that meant. It was an invitation to find a suitable living creature – a sheep, a goat, a bird, whatever you could afford – and then to take it to the altar to be killed. How can you both be a sacrifice and continue to live at the same time? It’s a logical clash – an impossible thing to believe all day long, not just before breakfast. You can’t offer yourself to God so completely without there being blood on the carpet and a dead body at the end of it, surely? Well, you can’t in the way sacrifice had been understood before this. Paul is proposing something totally new though and it makes a new kind of sense. We are to allow God to take control of our bodies every bit as conclusively as if we had laid ourselves on the altar and gone under the knife. The difference is that having committed ourselves in this way we will then be allowed to stand up and go on living. As we do so we are to breathe and walk and live all the time as living sacrifices, Paul says, constantly willing to submit ourselves to God’s will and pouring out our love for others in thankfulness for the salvation we’ve received from God, totally undeservedly.
If you go into a health food shop you’ll find the shelves filled with food that is supposed to make your body glow and shine and thrive. There are also whole hosts of products to build up your muscles and enable you to transform your body. Goodness knows what you actually have to do to look pumped up, fit and radiant in the way those models on the boxes and packaging do. No doubt it’s about continual practice – regular training – little and often. The Christian call to make our bodies into living sacrifices needs to work in the same way. We can keep asking ourselves how we’re using our bodies to honour God. Many people in our culture have serious doubts about their bodies – even actively dislike them – with damaging results like eating disorders and self harm of all kinds. These problems are no surprise when our popular media are saturated by images of apparently perfect bodies without a blemish or spare ounce of flesh in the wrong place. This whole area is one of the areas where Wilmslow Youth can and is making a difference in the High School. Through the mentoring and conversations Matt Williamson and Gemma Tuson are having there young people can be offered new ways to like themselves and their bodies which are not dependent on ticking all the boxes of perfection they find pushed at them through our culture. God loves bodies that are offered for others, not impossible beauty.
Paul demands a lot of himself and he asks a lot of those who commit their lives to following God in Jesus too. True discipleship isn’t just about what we do with our bodies but how we channel our minds, our thoughts, our consciousness and our emotions too. Things start by us choosing, deliberately, to live by the standards God sets for us not by those of the world. There’s a tall order. I’m just reading a history of broadcasting and political reporting in the last century and going back in my memory to the early 60s when my parents stoutly refused to watch anything on television which had advertising involved. I didn’t know there was such a thing as ITV until I started going to a school friend’s house for tea occasionally, when we watched a whole range of children’s programmes I hadn’t realised existed. Advertising has evolved and spread vastly since those days. Do a simple internet search and you’re likely to be confronted by a whole side panel of advertising jumping up and down for your attention. Even the BBC’s rules on product placement and mention of brands have now been relaxed. ‘Spend your money on this product and your life will be transformed for the better’, the adverts say. ‘No’ says Paul. ‘Conform no longer to the pattern of this present world’. The battle starts right there.
But there’s more. Having chosen different standards, those shown to us by God, he tells the disciples in Rome they are to be ‘transformed by the renewal of your minds’. This doesn’t mean ‘go out and find all the most complicated books on theology you can and sit down to read them.’ That would hardly make any sense since Paul has just advised the same disciples that what they do with their bodies matters to God. We are not to spend our whole Christian life sitting still and writing notes in the margins of learned tomes. But we are to have a new mind set, a fresh way of thinking about things, because the love of God has helped us to offer our bodies as living sacrifices. That means we treat one another differently and operate by a different set of values from those who live according to the world’s standards. If that involves forgiving one another seventy times seven times then that’s what we have to do. If that involves working with people who are not our natural allies and friends then so be it. If that means being part of a multi coloured, diverse community where some people drive us round the twist and others are our soul mates then that’s fine too.
And the whole experiment of living in this way is to be carried out not on our own, as isolated individuals, but in community. Here, in the church, Paul knows that we will all have different gifts. The challenge is to respect and value each other’s contributions. No one gift is automatically greater than another. There’s nothing that says you have to give more respect to things that require training courses and letters before or after your name. What matters in God’s eyes is the quality of community we create together. A place where all are welcome, all are invited to commit what they bring, all are valued and together we go on this life-changing journey day by day in God’s company, not just for our benefit but so the world can be changed too.