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 29th September 2019
Sunday 22nd September 2019
Sunday 15th September 2019
Sunday 8th September 2019
Sunday 18th August 2019
Sunday 21st July 2019
Sunday 14th July 2019
Sunday 30th June 2019
Sunday 16th June 2019 – Trinity
Sunday 9th June 2019 – 175th Anniversary Service
Luke 16: 19-31 and 1 Timothy 6: 6-19
They’ve been out on the streets in Port au Prince again in the last few days. It hasn’t exactly topped the headlines – there’s been too much else going in the world – but yet again the people of Haiti’s capital have been expressing the frustration and despair of the poorest nation in the western hemisphere. Fuel prices on the Caribbean island are going up, great amounts of aid money have disappeared into the hands of corrupt individuals and prices keep rising. A few days ago a police station was looted for the furniture and the metal roofing. It sounds a rather trivial theft in some ways. If your family gets wet every time it rains, though, and there’s no prospect of ever getting better housing, perhaps it’s no surprise when impoverished people lose hope and decide to start taking things by force. More sinister, an MP opened fire and hit a journalist outside Parliament in Haiti a few days ago. He claimed he was under threat from the press trying to interview him as he walked to his car. I think back to the visit Martin and I paid to Haiti in 2011, about 18 months after the earthquake. They were about to have presidential elections. We were being hosted for lunch at a beautiful hotel in gracious gardens by Christian Aid staff – wealthier places are safer for foreign nationals though this wasn’t exactly comfortable when there was so much need around. One Haitian staff member was pinning his hopes on a new candidate – a popular singer – who he hoped might change things for the better. Our host, a slightly older man, doubted whether any politician could change the ingrained pattern of corruption at the heart of Haitian life. I think time has proved his fears right, and the hope of his younger colleague misplaced.
The poverty we met in Haiti built a sense of tension, restlessness and potential anger on the streets. The parable Jesus tells in today’s reading from Luke’s gospel tells of a poor man who is past caring. He’s given up protesting or hoping for a better life, as he lies, starving and sick at the gate of a rich man. It is a familiar story from Jesus’ day, one that his disciples, questioning pharisees and ordinary people would have known well. You can’t escape the contrasts in this simple tale. To begin with there’s a wealthy man, who dresses in the best cloth there is (purple cloth would be the equivalent of the finest haute couture clothing) and sleeps on the first century equivalent of silk sheets at night. Meanwhile, at his door, lies a poor man on the bare earth whose body is virtually naked. The rich man fills himself with the finest food every day – think of those super rich now who employ the best travelling chefs to supply their every need from fine dining to late night snacks. The poor man at his gate is starving. He doesn’t even have the strength to look for leftovers as his body grows ever weaker. Dogs lick his open wounds and the poor man, now ritually unclean, dies. There is no hint that the rich man, by whose gate he’s lain in agony, has ever even noticed the existence of this poor man.
So far the story is going just as Jesus’s hearers expect it to run but now comes a twist. Instead of the usual ending, with the dead man sending a message to those on earth to change their ways, in the Jesus version there’s no such opportunity. It’s too late. Lazarus – notice, the poor man is now given the dignity of a name, unlike the unnamed rich man who’s never helped him – lies in the place of greatest honour possible for a Jew. He’s in heaven alongside founding father Abraham. Meanwhile the rich man dies and ends up in Hades where for the first time he suddenly recognises the existence of Lazarus. He sends word asking if Lazarus can come and ease his torment or warn others to change their ways. It’s as though the rich man thinks he’s still in charge of events – issuing requests and trying to get the world around him to operate in ways that favour him. Lazarus may be in heaven, in the most elevated company possible, but the rich man continues to operate as a master with servants. Abraham refuses to send Lazarus with either message the rich man wants. Nothing can pass the great gulf which now exists between the two men, he says. In life they were just feet apart from each other every day, as the rich man came and went, but now they’re worlds apart and beyond communicating.
This isn’t just a story about how we use resources, though Luke’s gospel has been giving us many accounts of Jesus telling parables about the right way for rich people to share resources with those in poverty. Jesus isn’t re-telling a familiar yarn in a new version just to get people’s attention either. He’s got an important point to make. He wants people to see that God’s transforming love is not in the world to offer a welcoming hope to outcasts, beggars, forgotten and broken people in the afterlife but it’s making a difference in the here and now. It’s the pharisees’ stubborn refusal to hear this message that is so frustrating and deeply sad in the eyes of Jesus. They’re like a platoon of rich men, marching daily past their needy brothers and sisters. They consume the richest things themselves, they put on the garments of outer holiness and yet they refuse to see the desperate poverty both practical and spiritual which is lying daily in pitiful human form beside their front gate. When Jesus teaches us to pray ‘your kingdom come’ he doesn’t do so in the hope we’ll develop a pleasant vision of a better life when we die. This prayer is a life-changing daily reminder of God’s invitation to receive the hope, light, healing, health and wellbeing offered to all God’s children around us on earth today.
Here are my thoughts on the message this story sends to us today, heard alongside the teaching from the first letter to Timothy that ‘the love of money is the root of all evil’. In my role with South Area Pastoral Committee I see how much the 33 churches in our part of the synod are expected to pay into central funds each year, and how much they have in the bank – current accounts and reserves. It makes for interesting reading. Others may think of us as a rich church – and I agree that we are very blessed in lots of ways – but we’re not sitting on a great pile of savings. That’s something I’m glad of. We’ve made bold decisions and invested our savings and inheritance in risk taking projects and in making our buildings into 21st century friendly community resources – a project we’re not yet finished with. That’s partly because we’re not simply walking past those in need at our gate but noticing who they are and engaging with them. At Harvest Sunday on October 20th we’ll be inviting the uniformed organisations to bring donations of food and toiletries for Rainbow Haven asylum seeker and refugee centre in east Manchester. Through our support of the new youth charity, Source, we’re discovering the hidden needs within the families of some pupils from Wilmslow High School. It’s not easy to acknowledge your family can’t afford things when you’re surrounded by other students for whom the cost of things is not a game changer.
We’re also starting to address issues of social isolation, dementia, mental illness, chronic sickness and loneliness around us through things like Luncheon Club, the undercroft café and midweek reflections. It’s a big claim for a church to describe itself as ‘vibrant’ – almost as much as saying we’re ‘welcoming’ – but I do think we’re on the way to claiming that title. One piece of evidence for this is that the doors of the buildings are rarely closed now in the weekdays.
Alongside these actions locally we help to support work combatting poverty far from home through DEC appeals and collecting for Christian Aid. I know our friend, the senior Christian Aid person in Haiti, will be renewing efforts to stop the relentless drift of poor people from the countryside and small towns to the capital. Martin Luther said you can’t feed every beggar in the world but you can feed the one at your gate. As we do that we show our obedience to the God who calls us to care for those who most need help in his name.
Luke 16: 1-13 and 1 Timothy 2: 1-7
When I was on my major placement, training to be a minister, I was placed in a pastorate with three small churches on a large housing estate. Every morning, in the smallest of the three congregations, we gathered in a circle at the time in the service when we prayed for others. Whoever was leading the service would ask around the small circle ‘What shall we pray for today?’ After a few months I began to think I could easily predict who would request what sort of prayer concern, and some people always mentioned their nearest and dearest. The person you could rely on to bring us out of ourselves, and remind us of the big world out there, was a woman with learning problems who didn’t always get a lot of respect and praise from those she lived among. But she never let a Sunday morning go past without reminding us of people in the headlines and tragedies in the news, so bringing Jesus into the circle firmly and clearly as she did so. She taught me how easy it is for members of a church to pray only for one another. She showed me how those with greatest needs often have a strong gift for identifying themselves with others who are hurting, even if those people are on the other side of the world and they’ll never meet them face to face.
Today’s reading is from one of the letters in the New Testament written in the first century of the Church. We think it was written by Paul the apostle to his old missionary colleague, Timothy, but there’s no absolute certainty about that. The two letters to Timothy and the one to Titus sound different from the ones we are sure Paul wrote to the churches in Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Philippi and Colossae. They’re not addressed to the congregations but to the ministers. These letters are full of good advice, encouragement and help as to how a pastor is to look after their flock.
The first piece of wisdom the letter writer shares is that Timothy’s congregation must pray for everyone. It’s sad when Christians get so inward looking that our prayers don’t reach out into the community at all but are simply a familiar list of those from the fellowship who are in need of help. Sometimes, we get too wrapped up with our own concerns and feel so threatened by what’s going on around us in the big wide world, that we’d rather pretend it isn’t happening at all. Another of the churches in that pastorate where I was on placement was right in the middle of the main shopping area of the housing estate, near the bus stop. It had good, new premises but, for a whole variety of reasons I’ve never fully understood, the congregation wasn’t sure of itself or of God. Not long after I left there was a murder outside the church, on the pavement a few yards away, and the whole estate went into shock. The church might have found the grace to be a focus for bringing people together, and perhaps even opening its doors in the daytime for prayer, but it didn’t. I know that the minister tried to build dialogue and sat with people outside the building, listening to their fears and concerns, but the church preferred to be insulated from external pain rather than sharing it and offering it back to God. Sadly, that church closed a few years ago. Perhaps another part of the church’s problem was the lack of thanksgiving in its heart. The letter to Timothy reminds us that our prayers aren’t solely chances to ask for God’s help, whether for ourselves or the world at large. We are also to offer prayers of thanksgiving, not a long list of requests every time. These are good reminders for us too. We do well to include thanks in our prayers, even when the first thing that comes easily to our mind are urgent requests for help. Thanksgiving prayers remind us that God has been faithful in the past and will be with us in whatever new crisis life is throwing at us. ‘Count your blessings, name them one by one, and it will surprise you what the Lord has done’ says the old hymn. Focussing exclusively on the negative side of things – our need and the needs of the world – can leave us feeling exhausted and empty. Reminding ourselves of the good things in each day – no matter how apparently low key or insignificant – is a way of celebrating God’s love in all creation and in things both great and small. Yesterday I had the pleasure of sitting with my youngest granddaughter on my knee while we watched an animated film together. It’s one she loves. Daddy had finished watching one rugby match and the next one was yet to start. Freya knows the story we were watching back to front and inside out but she still enjoys every second of the drama unfolding and didn’t fidget or wriggle once for 20 minutes. It was a rare and special moment for me.
Now the letter writer goes on to an area of prayer which, in the midst of the current political and international upheaval all around us, seems freshly important. We are reminded to pray ‘for sovereigns and for all in high office, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life, free to practise our religion with dignity.’ Earlier in my ministry I remember being rather dismissive about the need to pray for those in authority and thinking this was just something that came up in Anglican prayers along with petitions for the Queen’s health and wellbeing. As a Nonconformist I thought I didn’t need to do this. How things change! There’s not a time in my adult life when I can remember feeling a greater need to pray for those in authority – our political leaders across the UK, the leaders of the EU, the leaders of other powerful democratic nations, the United Nations.
I’m even seeing the importance of praying for dictators – Vladimir Putin and the like – that they might understand the significance of their actions in undermining freedom, stability and world peace. This summer, at the international meeting Martin and I attended in northern Italy, we made friends with the pastor of a growing church in western Ukraine. His congregation have offered help to Tartars from Crimea. They are Muslims who for years had been repressed under successive Soviet governments and even exiled to Siberia for generations. In the 1990s, when things got a little less repressive, they had been allowed back to their ancestral homeland in Crimea for a time and allowed freedom to worship. In 2014, though, when President Putin moved to annexe the territory back into Russia they made their choice. Rather than lose their democratic and religious freedom all over again they left behind their land and almost everything they possessed in Crimea and fled west. Our friend’s church was helping these internal refugees with jobs, housing, and practical support of all kinds. I asked if the fact these new friends were not Christian was an issue for his congregation. He looked a bit surprised. ‘They’re fellow Ukrainians’ he said. That was enough. They were victims of oppression and neighbours – it seemed obvious to him that they deserved to be helped.
The contemporary resonance of the letter writer’s prayer for rulers to allow their people to practise their religions with dignity applies to Christian minorities too in our world. A report on the headlines this morning speaks of Christianity as the most persecuted faith in the world today. Martin and I have friends in Bury, a mother and daughter, whose Christian faith put their lives at serious risk in the part of Pakistan from which they come. It took a great effort of legal argument and many years of anxiety before they were both given the right to stay here in the UK. They had to prove that going back to Pakistan would endanger their lives from local Taliban fighters who had targeted the mother in the past and killed another woman whom they mistook for her.
In the first century, Jewish believers under Roman rule had vivid memories of the oppression and persecution their ancestors had suffered in the past over many generations. Many rulers over the centuries from the pharaohs in Egypt onwards had tried to take Jews away from worship of the one God, maker of heaven and earth. The Romans usually got their subject people to pray to the Emperors but, in the case of the Jews, they made an exception and allowed them to pray to God on behalf of the Emperor. Here the letter writer makes the strongest point of all. Christians are to pray to God asking for guidance for earthly rulers not to make them feel great about themselves but as a reminder that they are not the world powers they may think themselves to be. Leaders, too, are subject to God’s authority. Nor are they saviours of the world – that role is fulfilled by God’s son Jesus Christ, whose action brings the whole of humanity back into the right relationship with God and wins our freedom beyond all doubt. That message may not be an easy sell in our contemporary world but it’s still one that needs to be heard. How many voices around us are full of individuals telling us about their own value? We point attention away from ourselves to the one God who deserves our thanks and praise, who encourages us to pray for all peoples and who rules over all – the mighty and the weak – in the name of love.
Luke 15: 1-10 and 1 Timothy 1: 12-17
There’s nothing quite like the frustration, panic and desperation you can get into when you’re looking for something you’ve lost. You try to remember where and when you last had it. You re-run in your memory all the things you’ve done that might have contributed to it going missing. You go through the recycling and turn out the rubbish bag as you wonder with horror whether the object you need has actually ended up being taken away already and lost forever. Did I put it down somewhere I never usually leave it? I suspect most of us could describe the most important objects we’ve lost – these memories are vivid and don’t leave us. I still think, wistfully, of a pendant I left behind when I left a conference early, years ago. We had each been asked to bring something precious with us. I brought a simple necklace I’d bought from a pair of Baptist missionaries who’d served in El Salvador at the time when there were riots on the street for freedom from oppression, not long after Archbishop Oscar Romero was shot during worship in 1980 by right wing gunmen. This pendant had been made by a women’s group. It was the size of a small conker, cut in half, polished and painted, with a simple cross on it. There had been martyrs amongst the women too. Maria Cristina Gomez, a primary school teacher and community activist had been arrested, tortured and killed for giving water out to demonstrators on a searing hot day. My cross had been made by women from the group she belonged to which is why it meant so much to me. In monetary terms it was totally worthless. In personal terms it was impossible to put a price on. Through those missionaries, it linked me to a very brave woman who had lost her life standing up for the poor. The cross made in her honour celebrates the ways in which she served others.
In chapter 15 of Luke’s gospel Jesus tells three stories about lost things – a lost sheep, a lost coin and a lost son. We’ve heard just the first two today. Notice when Luke sets the telling of these parables, which you only find in this gospel. It happens when Jesus hears people grumbling. That’s what sets him off. In the earlier chapters of Luke we’ve seen Jesus courting trouble with pharisees and scribes – the religious leaders of his day. He insists on healing people as and when he meets them, with no regard for the Sabbath law, because he says people’s needs override those rules. Even worse, he keeps accepting invitations to hospitality from all the wrong people – tax collectors (collaborators with the forces of occupation and oppression in terms of the Romans and their puppet rulers) and ‘sinners’. It’s not clear exactly who these sinners are – quite probably the poor, the weak, the marginalized people – in other words the ones you don’t want to be seen talking to on the street, leave alone sitting alongside at table in a high-profile home. This is getting Jesus into trouble. He keeps wanting people to change their religious priorities and put the needs of those who are missing out in life’s race at the top of the list. The pharisees and scribes are not impressed. Even so they turn up each time to listen because Jesus is always the best show in town. They’re chuntering under their breath all the time. Jesus only needs to see the expressions on their faces to know this.
He tells them three stories about joy in heaven. These parables show us what makes God smile – the return of those who have been lost. Where the religious leaders are focussed on the signal Jesus sends by eating in all the wrong places with all the wrong people Jesus is affronted that they don’t do that. If they really cared so much about holiness and closeness to God surely they would see that leaving so many people in the dark, searching for God but not being helped by their faith leaders, is as great a sin as the mistakes these ‘lost’ individuals are falling into. Jesus’ insistence on the joy in heaven at the return of one sinner to God, seeking forgiveness and a new start, highlights the mean hearted, negativity of the pharisees and scribes for what it is – insecurity, jealousy and resentment. Nobody ever listens to their sermons in the way they crowd to hear the rabbi from Nazareth. If he’s right and they’re wrong then they’ve sold their lives to the wrong ideal and their understanding of who God is and how God operates is are totally wrong. No wonder they’re trying hard to hold the line against Jesus and his scandalous teaching about God’s willingness to forgive us, when we return from wandering in the wilderness and seek a new start within God’s love.
There are some interesting things to notice about these parables. Everyone knows the hills of Judea are dangerous and sheep often get lost there. There are plenty of predators about too – jackals, hyenas, foxes, leopards – so it’s often the case that sheep go missing and nobody ever finds them. Jesus encourages his audience to see their best side – ‘Which of you wouldn’t drop everything to find one lost sheep?’ he asks. Quietly some of them may feel a bit uncomfortable at this point. They know they’d probably stay with the 99 and forget about the lost one. Which of you, if you lost one coin, wouldn’t drop everything to find that missing one? It depends on which voice you listen to, whether you decide the woman in the second story is poor and has lost one vital coin from her dowry, or whether you think she’s rich so it’s a shock that she would bother about one coin when she’s got so many others. The important thing with both these stories is the shock factor Jesus wants us to experience. The single mindedness of the individual who goes in search of one lost thing is a reflection of the love of God which searches for us when we’re lost. Neither the sheep nor the coin could intend to go astray but the result of their absence is heartache for the one who previously knew where they were. Finding them results in a community celebration – a big party – so everyone can give thanks that they’re safely found. In the same way, Jesus says, there is a party in God’s presence every time somebody comes back to God, asks for forgiveness and wants to begin again the light of God’s love.
There are plenty of lessons in these stories for us here and now. We are good at grumbling and commenting on the strange company God keeps. We may fail to celebrate when somebody begins their life with God again. It’s much easier for us to ask ‘Where were you all that time?’ than it is to say ‘Welcome to the party and here’s a place at the table.’ Another thing these parables show us is that God is not a ‘Where have you been? What sort of time do you call this?’ sort of parent but a come out and look for you when you go missing one. God searches for us until we’re found. God starts with the most unlikely people, too – women and shepherds, neither of them high profile or important groups in first century society. These parables also show us that God likes community celebrations and that faith is about ‘us’ not ‘me’. When we support one another then the company of heaven is part of the party. Being a citizen of the kingdom of God means having lots of brothers and sisters in Christ. Joy is what it’s all about – not grumbling and resentment. Thanksgiving is at the heart of our faith and communion is the meal which shows us this. The challenge I’m going to set myself this week, which you may choose to accept too, is that of finding God at the heart of all that seems lost.
Luke 14: 25-33 and Philemon 1-21
Letter writing is a dying art for many of us now, except on special occasions. People write letters when they resign from a job or apply for a new one. We write letters to express thanks for gifts. We write letters when emails don’t have enough significance for the importance of the message we want to send. In the time after the death and resurrection of Jesus, the apostle Paul wrote many letters to young churches. The New Testament section of the Bible has seven letters which are widely agreed to have been written by Paul, two letters on which opinion about authorship is evenly divided opinion and four which are now thought to have been written by other people in Paul’s name. There’s no dispute that the letter to Philemon is the genuine article. It tells us things about the lives of early Christians, and its teaching and significance reverberate for us now.
It’s a short letter but a very interesting one for a number of reasons. To make sense of it we need to meet the various people involved in a delicate situation which Paul is trying to sort out through his beautifully crafted letter. He’s writing to Philemon, to Appia who is quite possibly Philemon’s wife, and Archippus another member of their household, perhaps their son. Paul is writing from a distance to Colossae, from Ephesus a large port city about 100 miles to the south where he’s being held in prison. Paul himself hasn’t visited Colossae where Philemon’s household live, but we can guess that Philemon has heard Paul preach in Ephesus and become a follower of Jesus as a result. He and Paul have kept in touch since Philemon’s household converted to Christianity and Philemon’s home is now a house church. Paul seems to be hearing good things about the effect it’s having on the lives of those who attend. He expresses what sounds like genuine affection and respect for Philemon in the letter: ‘Your love has brought me much joy and encouragement; through you God’s people have been much refreshed.’ Now, though, Paul has a dilemma to solve with Philemon of the sort he’d probably rather handle face to face. He could lay down the law about it, and tell Philemon what he wants him to do, but Paul prefers to persuade him to a course of action he might not opt for otherwise.
Why is Paul being so tactful? We know he’s well capable of tackling difficult issues head on if he wants to. Maybe being confined himself is enabling Paul to see issues of power and grace in a different light. During his time in prison he’s met another individual, Onesimus, who has clearly been of great help to him. Paul knows Philemon and Onesimus have a chequered history together. He now wants to send back Onesimus, ‘once so useful to you, but now useful indeed, both to you and to me’ carrying the letter he’s writing to Philemon. The problem arises because Onesimus is not his own master, free to make decisions about where he goes and what he does – he’s a slave from Philemon’s household who’s left without permission. Paul hopes that Philemon will take the opportunity of his slave’s freewill return to grant him his freedom but there’s no guarantee. Slaves are assets. You invest in them, you train them up to be useful, you rely on their presence and free labour. In this culture you don’t let such a potentially valuable commodity go without careful consideration. It wasn’t unknown for slaves to be handed their freedom as a reward for good service later on in their lives but there was nothing to stop Philemon from saying to Onesimus: ‘Thanks for this letter from Paul. I have read it but I choose to reclaim you as my property all the same.’
Paul, though, is arguing for another approach, one that would probably have sounded quite strange and surprising to anyone who understood the way of the world in the Roman Empire. His suggestion is that Onesimus should be welcomed back into the household as his master’s brother, as a friend of the apostle, as someone on equal terms. It’s not, perhaps, what we want to hear. We’d far rather Paul spoke out against slavery altogether. But within the first century expectations that would be highly unusual if not revolutionary.
We don’t know, sadly, what Philemon did with Paul’s request. Was he able to see his former slave with totally new eyes, and to welcome him as a fellow Christian, on an equal footing with him before God, free from the previous master/slave relationship they’d been held in? Did Apphia, his wife, or Archippus their ‘comrade in arms’ have anything to say about this? Did Onesimus take the letter in fear and trembling or with confidence and prayer, trusting that the God who brings about new life through Jesus’s death and resurrection could give him a new start as a free man? If Paul had kept Onesimus with him in Ephesus, and not sent him home to seek his freedom, Onesimus would always have had the threat of arrest and being returned to his master hanging over him for the rest of his life. We can each imagine the ending to this story we hope would happen next.
This incident from two thousand years ago reverberates for me today because it speaks so loudly of partnership between equals, rather than the exercise of authority in a top down, non-consultative way. Paul could impose his will on this situation but chooses to operate by the gentle art of persuasion. Philemon could stamp his will on things and refuse to accept Onesimus as a free man, granting him the right to a new future. Onesimus could choose not to obey Paul and take the letter back into a situation he might fear as a trap. We know he didn’t do that because if he had done we wouldn’t have this letter now. All of them have choices to make about the power they have access to. In God, in the light of the love of Jesus, Paul implores them all to operate by a new set of rules rather than sticking to the regulations laid down in cultural expectations and Roman Law. It’s radical, edgy and liberating stuff. What a pity the church has been so institutionally unable to put such partnership and mutual respect it into practice for much of its life.
There’s also the new understanding of family which Paul highlights through these events. There could hardly be a more intimate way of welcoming someone than as ‘brother’ or ‘sister’. It means you share parents, you have lived in the same space, you have eaten and grown together. Paul invites young Christians to embrace and live out a new way of building not just the church but society as a whole. What a difference it would make if we were able to find non-hierarchical ways of settling our differences in Britain now. Consensus and listening are much needed commodities this week and beyond.
And the third quality highlighted by this story, alongside partnership and new family loyalties, is the importance of addressing the ways in which people hold one another captive. Through modern slavery, we know that there will be trafficked people in every town and city of our land, forced to work against their will, held captive by others and exploited. When we operate this week by a different set of values, show respect to one another and try to address the ways in which people wield power abusively over others we are honouring the thoughts in Paul’s letter and honouring God in Jesus.
Luke 12: 49-56 and Hebrews 11:29 – 12:2
You never know who will come when you’re about to lead worship and that’s even more the case when the service is part of an international, multi-site, ecumenical event like the one Martin and I attended a few weeks ago in Italy. ‘Would you be responsible for organising worship for those who don’t attend the Catholic Mass?’, they asked us. ‘Yes,’ we said, without any idea of how many people that might mean, where we’d be, how it would fit into the timetable, what language people might have in common, whether we’d know any of the same music and a long list of other questions. That’s how Martin and I found ourselves sitting in an Italian hotel disco, with black walls, rather unusual lighting and an empty stage on a Sunday night at the end of July. We’d put on our clerical shirts and grabbed a few books of prayers as well as a bible plus the basics to lead communion. There was no guarantee anyone would show up. This was the start of the event. Some people hadn’t arrived yet, others were making the evening meal their priority, and most of the 600 or more people on the list from as far away as Siberia in one direction and Portugal in the other didn’t know that a service was happening. So there we sat, quietly, preparing to spend the next 20 minutes or so on our own probably.
It was then that I had a very powerful experience of a sort I can’t remember before. We’d put out a semi-circle of chairs, in a hopeful way. I felt I could see three friends of ours sitting there with us, giving us the benefit of their company and support in this moment of uncertainty and waiting. They were people who might have come to the event were it not for the fact they’re all now dead. There was Malcolm, a probation officer in Liverpool who was one of the wisest and kindest people I’ve ever met. Endlessly thoughtful, Malcolm lived his Christian faith every moment. He might seem a bit serious on first meeting but could be tempted into laughter if you got the tone of your joke right. Next to him I could see Manfred, a German who’d moved to the UK years ago and risen to a senior post in prison management. Manfred was a giant of a man but one of the most thoughtful and intelligent people you could meet. He died about six years ago and touched many hearts during his final illness by the way he used the internet to share reflections about his illness and his faith in God. One phrase he used – of finding diamonds in the mud – struck a special chord with many of those who prayed for him. And next to them was Pietro – an Italian and a clinical oncologist – a bubbling, energetic, talkative, extrovert, creative whirlwind of a man. Pietro’s family and friends are still coming to terms with his death four years ago. All three of them had died of cancer and – incredibly – all three of them had deepened the Christian faith of others as they did so. They hadn’t hidden their pain, their questions, their frustration and their anger away from those around them but had brought all these things to Jesus. They did so because they knew that the love Jesus brings us flows richly from his having experienced the cross. By entering into the worst life can fling at us he helps us to integrate the broken, damaged elements of human life and so to find, in Manfred’s phrase, ‘diamonds in the mud’.
In the light of today’s readings from the letter to the Hebrews, that moment in the Italian disco feels like a ‘great cloud of witnesses’ experience. I sensed the presence of people Martin and I have known, from whom we’ve received support, friendship and encouragement in our faith journey. They seemed to be there, sitting alongside us and giving us their continuing help. In our culture, the idea of being watched by invisible witnesses doesn’t conjure up thoughts of the saints who’ve gone before. We’re more likely to think of the way, every day, we’re being caught on surveillance cameras. In public places, in shops and on the bus, entering or leaving a car park we’re tracked by cameras a great deal. Now they can even recognise our faces so the sense of George Orwell’s ‘Big Brother is watching you’ threat from his novel Animal Farm is easy to identify with. But the idea of being watched by a cloud of helpful witnesses, pioneers of the faith in which we take our place, is totally different. It’s a positive presence, reminding us that these believers too had their trials but they held on to God throughout their worst moments and ultimately triumphed.
We think this letter was written to a group of first century Christians in Jerusalem, mostly Jews, who are struggling with their faith in the face of persecution. Scholars disagree as to whether or not the letter was written by Paul, but whoever the author is this person is well aware of the tension a Jew might feel between trusting in Jesus as God’s promised Messiah and finding his life and death a real challenge. The Jewish people had been waiting for the Messiah to come for centuries but they had a clear idea of how this individual would operate when he appeared. It seemed obvious to those suffering under Roman occupation that God’s chosen one would take on the task of leading an armed uprising, to expel the hated Roman army and administration and restore Jewish independence. It was impossibly hard for some early Christians from a Jewish background to accept that the death of Jesus on the cross was the way through which God had chosen to release them from the power of sin, pain and evil. For some of them their sense that death on the cross was a sign of shame and public failure in Jewish understanding was undermining their faith in the resurrection of Jesus. They were falling back into old patterns of thinking. That’s not hard to understand when people are being worn down by pressures from outside. Persecution can undermine faith for some us – it stops us coming to worship because we don’t want to risk attracting attention to ourselves. Then, as we fail to receive the support and encouragement of other faithful people around us, our own faith grows even weaker. We can tell from earlier passages of the letter to the Hebrews that theirs is a community enduring problems.
That’s why the writer is keen to remind them of figures from the Jewish past who are great signposts to the way God is at work through ordinary people of faith. There’s already been significant mention in the letter of the great pioneer of the faith Abraham and his wife Sarah. In today’s reading we hear about Moses, the leader who was given the task of bringing the Israelite slaves out of Egypt back to the promised land. The great stories of the past – the Red Sea crossing, the fall of Jericho as the promised land was resettled, the early kings and prophets – are all referred to. The other strange references to people undergoing physical trials and persecution could well refer to the suffering of the Jews at the time of the Maccabean War, a century and half earlier, when a Greek tyrant had inflicted terrible horrors on the Jewish people.
We, like those first century Christians in Jerusalem, can draw strength from remembering those who have been our witnesses and faith mentors – individually and in the life of the church. We can also remember that this race the writer refers to, which lies ahead of us, is not a sprint but a marathon. If we hit the wall, as marathon runners sometimes do, we may find help in surprising places. I’m reminded of a friend who once ran the New York marathon and ground in Harlem several miles from the finish. He was convinced that all he could do was to hobble along at snail’s pace. A well-meaning but imposing local resident approached him with the question: ‘What are you? Some kind of a quitter?’ My friend was so scared he started running again and finished the race. May God give us whatever each of us needs to stay in the race.
Luke 10: 38-42 and Colossians 1: 15-28
‘Send us, God of new beginnings, humbly hopeful into life.’ ‘The peace of God comes close to those caught in the storm.’ ‘’Tis mystery all. The Immortal dies.’ ‘show me your way of righting wrong and turning sorrow into song until you bring me home.’ In case you’re wondering where those quotes are from – and I think you will have recognised some of them – they all taken from hymns in Rejoice and Sing. The words of hymns have a lot of teaching packed into them. Like the perfume maker, the hymn writer tries to distil a beautiful, lasting essence, and hopes we’ll carry this reminder of God with us throughout the day’s encounters. If you read histories of hymn writing you might come away thinking none of this was happening until the 1700s when the likes of Isaac Watts and later Charles Wesley, brother of John the founder of Methodism, got going. Not so. There were hymns before then, right at the start of the Early Church. We can tell this from the number of quotes from hymns we find in the letters of the New Testament. It’s not that they’re laid out in short lines with numbers at the top of them. Even so they have all the signs of poetry with a message, there to explain Christian teaching, to strengthen followers of Jesus, to give them helpful tips for daily living.
Today’s reading from the first letter to the Colossians has what almost definitely has to be an early hymn in it. We mentioned last week that Colossae, not an especially rich or remarkable city close to two major trading routes in what is now south central Turkey, was probably a place with several different faith groups in the first century. Followers of the Way – who believe that Jesus of Nazareth is the son of the one God and that he rose from the dead after his crucifixion – live in Colossae amongst a variety of neighbours. Some follow mystery cults. Other people are of Jewish faith. In public life it’s the Roman Empire and worship of their gods which are firmly in charge if you want to get on in Colossae. Into this multi faith, multi-cultural setting comes the new faith of Christianity. Epaphras, the missionary who’s founded the Church there, is making a good job of getting the new followers of Jesus to understand the message of love and grace which are at the heart of gospel. We can tell that from the opening verses of the letter to the church there. Now what people need to do, the letter writer knows, is to understand more about who Jesus really is. Without this they’ll be at a loss, and easily undermined in their beliefs if they start debating and relating with people of other faiths. They need some easily memorable teaching – good, sound stuff – about the true identity of Jesus. At the time when the letter was written, in the second half of the first century, (possibly as early as 50AD and possibly as late as 90AD) there were no theologians writing about what we now call Christology. The gospels themselves were still in people’s memories and conversation around the meal table and in worship, but not yet written down. Your best resource for teaching sound truths would be a hymn. That’s what the letter writer quotes here – an early Christian hymn – from verse 15 to 20. It’s a description of Jesus that’s full of mystery and beauty. This is not an explanation of who Jesus is which is going to result in all of us saying, loudly and confidently ‘Now I get it. Everything is crystal clear.’ It’s more about inviting us to enter into the mystery of God so we can say we don’t understand everything but that’s alright. We can relax and give praise to God, in the face of God’s majesty, even so. The hymns tells us that Jesus is God’s image – the visible part of God, who is invisible. Jesus is at the centre of creation – all things and all people, all powers and every authority. ‘The whole universe has been created through him and for him.’ Fifty years on from the first trip to the moon we now know that those first astronauts took communion in the lunar model, receiving bread and wine, to remind them of that faith before they stepped onto the surface of the moon. Buzz Aldrin’s ceremony, which he timed to coincide with the communion of his home church, was not broadcast by NASA live – only those in the control room heard it. The hymn goes on, describing Jesus in these terms: ‘He exists before all things, and all things are held together in him.’ That’s the phrase which strikes me most powerfully today.
I am very aware of the number of forces in our lives which threaten to pull us apart. ‘Things fall apart’ – is a line from a poem called ‘The Second Coming’ which Irish poet W.B Yeats wrote 100 years ago to describe the atmosphere in post war Europe. Many of the unspoken yet accepted assumptions on which my generation thought the world order was based now risk falling apart. The idea that truthfulness and personal integrity matter is one that’s constantly being undermined. The belief that what human beings share in common is more powerful than what distinguishes and separates us is also under attack. The hope in a better way of solving disputes and building a just and peaceful world is rocked every time we withdraw funds and support from the United Nations, the Security Council, the World Bank, the World Health organisation, the World Food Programme and all the other international organisations set up in the 1950s to ensure better health, safer childhoods, the prevention of starvation, the promotion of culture and dialogue around the world. You can see the faults in all these bodies without saying we should walk away and watch them collapse.
The letter to the Colossians tells us that in Jesus all things are held together. What does that mean in reality for us and how can we share this good news with an increasingly divided world? The early Church was still coming to terms with the radical, life changing truth that Jesus, God’s son, is a unifying figure who draws people in – who says (as we sometimes sing) ‘For everyone born, a place at the table’. They had trouble with that radical inclusivity and so do we do. Wouldn’t life be easier if God in Jesus were not so ridiculously welcoming? Jesus shows us God’s love knows no limits, and can cross barriers of race, gender, education, wealth and poverty, faith and disbelief. So every time we’ve sorted out a nice community of people who look and behave in ways we can predict and feel comfortable with God is capable of sending in some new faces whose presence will challenge and change things in unpredictable ways. No wonder some churches only use the language of welcome without changing their hearts at all. They would rather not be touched by the presence of people whose background and ideas they can’t easily relate to or understand. ‘All things are held together in him’, remember, not just the things we carefully select and feel totally comfortable with.
Perhaps it would help if we could stop ourselves creating new versions of ‘either/or’ whenever life throws us another awkward thing to tackle. Since God is ‘everywhere present on earth’ (another hymn quote incidentally) we should be door openers not pathway blockers for the Holy Spirit. We find dialogue and listening across difference excruciatingly painful. God, in Jesus, is a specialist in the reconciliation of people and the ideas and feelings which divide them. Yesterday Martin and I were at a special family celebration for friends. As often happens I found myself talking about inter church conversations. My conversation partner remarked, laughing, that he knows in heaven he will find a lot of people he’s disagreed with profoundly on matters of doctrine. I know he’s right. Why are we so much better at seeing what divides rather than what unites us? The spectacle of the crowd in Portrush, Northern Ireland at the Open Golf Championships cheering leader Shane Lowry – from the Republic of Ireland – yesterday was an example of the way sport can bring people together. God, in all God’s fullness, chooses to dwell in Jesus and if we do too we can bring people into a circle rather than driving them to the wall. I will finish with a reading from the 1990 Prayer Handbook – edited by Graham Cook with Tony Burnham as writer. I haven’t updated the names in this piece. They are not all the ones we would use now. But they speak to me about what unity in Jesus can mean for my life and for this world.
Luke 10: 25-37 and Colossians 1: 1-14
Over the past few days Martin and I have actually had some time to get on with work in the manse garden. It’s been getting away from us this year. We didn’t have as much time as we wanted to do for the autumn tidy up or for the spring preparation and it’s felt ever since as though we have been playing catch up. I suppose that desire to get some sense of order and colour and fruitfulness out there in the garden was one reason why I was very strongly hit by some words I heard on Gardener’s World on Friday evening. Those of you who watch the programme will know that at the end of it each week Monty Donn comes out with a list of things you should be doing. And for once he said something totally unexpected. He said: ‘Leave it a bit untidy.’ My goodness! Did I really hear that? Aren’t amazing gardens supposed to be ordered and tended down to the last blade of grass? I knew he meant it, though, because the whole of the rest of the programme had been focused on the value of wildlife gardens and meadows. We had seen beautiful examples of amazing meadows full of bright, colourful wildflowers, of all different shapes and sizes and heights, and an amazing variety of butterflies, moths and caterpillars and wildlife that had come in because of allowing things to get a bit untidy. And we heard about the way that our desire to keep things so orderly, and to stop what we see as pests and weeds, has actually reduced the power and fertility of God’s creation very seriously over the last few decades to such an extent that we have not only lost amazing wildflowers but we’ve also taken away the very plants that caterpillars need to feed on so that the beautiful moths and butterflies can emerge from the chrysalis. One expert actually said to Monty Donn, and I couldn’t quite believe she was saying it: ‘We came along to this area of ground at the beginning of the spring we scattered the seeds and we’ve left it alone.’ Left it alone! They hadn’t weeded it, they hadn’t watered it. They left nature to do it’s thing.
I think back a few years in the life of our church to when we were just starting to experiment with something that some of us had heard about but most of us weren’t at all sure about in some ways called Messy Church. Some of us didn’t like that name at all. We weren’t really sure that being free and easy with bible studies and games and crafts and conversation and bits of old cardboard, paint, glue and glitter could produce anything that looked at all like a Church. Surely it was just offering something well intentioned that was ultimately just a family activity for those people with nothing else to do on a Sunday afternoon. It couldn’t possible achieve any if the things we were used to thinking of in the past as the ways you make new followers of Jesus. How wrong can you be? A bit like those surprising wildflower meadows. It’s messy, yes, and if you want to go and examine the carpet tiles in the small hall you will know that, close up and personal. But like those wildflower meadows, Messy Church is also colourful, lively, fertile, attractive and full of all forms of life. And it’s giving us a new problem now. How do we take the next steps of faith for parents and children we’ve seen at Messy Church because in all honesty we can’t reasonably expect them suddenly to want to come and sit still here with us for an hour on Sunday mornings to be part of this sort of service, though many of us like this sort of service and value this style of worship. So we need to find new ways to disciple and grow them and the very presence of those children and their families is helping us to grow in new ways and the Messy Church leaders are wrestling creatively with this lovely fresh challenge we’ve got. When you make new disciples unexpected things start to happen.
Thinking about messiness and meadows and Messy Church I look again at the parable of the Good Samaritan, because it’s a very messy story. Like all parables it‘s a story with a message, a story which Jesus tells that will stick in the memory, so people will take it away and mull it over because it says something important about the nature of God. A parable gives us something to bite on, chew over and wrestle with. This parable only comes in Luke’s gospel and don’t forget it’s a story that Jesus tells not long after he and his followers on the road heading towards Jerusalem have been turned away from a Samaritan village. James and John have got very upset about that and wanted permission to call down fire from heaven on those rude villagers who wouldn’t let them in. Jesus has told them both to grow up and stop it. In the context of that incident, remembering all the rivalry and difference and splits there are between Jews and Samaritans, Jesus tells this story. It’s a story about descending. Jerusalem is 2500 feet above sea level and Jericho is 8 to 900 feet below sea level. When you make that journey from Jerusalem to Jericho you’re going downhill a lot of the way. Even today when you go along this road you find yourself in some very desolate, isolated and difficult places where it’s not very sensible to walk on your own. To do so in the time of Jesus would make you vulnerable to attack so it’s no surprise that the traveller in the parable is set upon and robbed. Being left by the road side, half, dead, bleeding no doubt, he is definitely in a mess. He is lying in a pool of blood. That makes him ritually unclean for anyone who comes by. Any practising Jew who touches him is going to become unclean, not just from the blood on their clothes and hands but ritually unclean too. That means such a person cannot go home and interact with their relatives without first going the priest to be put right with God again through a ritual. If you stop, what else are you risking? He may look as though he’s on his own but who knows? He could have been put there by a pack of robbers as a trap. As soon as you stop it may be that as you bend down you will find yourself surrounded by people who want to steal from you. It’s a very unpleasant situation to find yourself in. Much better to pass by quickly and take as little notice as possible. Have you noticed how awkward demands on our time always seem to crop up when they are most inconvenient? If only God were to give us the opportunity to help other people when we are ready to do it – when we’ve got a nice little gap in our diary and our heart. That would be so much more reasonable wouldn’t it? Instead of which God gives us challenges at the very point when we’ve got our hands full already, thank you. Cries of those in distress and their urgent need for something to improve their urgent situation come at times when we haven’t got very much space so we’d rather take no notice.
We have our own version of the priest and the Levite in their avoidance tactic. We keep going fast, avert our eyes and focus on what we need to be doing. Any awkward questions that might crop up inside our head are batted away fast. What if that were me? What if my situation were that bad? What if I were trying to convince genuine people that I’m not faking this but am in genuine need? We have a clear idea of those who deserve to be helped and those who are responsible for their own problems. If that traveller will insist in walking on a dangerous road on his own like this what does he expect?
For me the behaviour of paramedics in responding to emergency calls is one of the most humbling contemporary examples of genuine compassion for those who have fallen down on life’s road and got themselves into a mess. Paramedics meet people from all parts of society, from newborn babies to elderly people approaching death. Some of these people do seem to be responsible partly for their own mess but the paramedic crews as we see them portrayed on television and as we experience them ourselves when we have to call them out seem to have an amazing reservoir of wisdom and patience and humour and compassion, alongside the blankets and medicine and the rescue they represent. You might say that answering emergency calls is their job – it’s what we pay them for. But I can’t imagine how it feels to be called endlessly every day, sometimes many times a day, by the same needy and manipulative people and yet to turn up and respond positively and professionally each time it happens.
It’s not just the blood the man’s lying in that you’re going to find is very messy if you get involved with him. You’re also going to get drawn into a lot of other problems. What are you supposed to do with him out in the middle of nowhere? He can’t walk. How can you get him anywhere for rescue? In the story as Jesus tells it the man has a beast on which to transport the injured man. But he doesn’t just take to him an inn and go on. The next day, having nursed him overnight, he leaves money and then moves on. The Samaritan has changed his whole schedule for this injured man. Being someone who recognises each other person as their neighbour is a dangerously open-ended form of discipleship. It means that we’re in it for the long haul. This sort of neighbourliness is not about five-minute fixes with a bit of cash. That can make us feel better and solve short term problems but it doesn’t answer things when a new problem arises further down the road. When the Samaritan arrives he cares for wounded traveller and makes provision for him longer term and then says he will come back on his return journey. He has thought ahead, planning with the injured traveller in mind. He has made space in his heart, his purse, on his donkey and in his planning to complete what he’s begun. He is dealing with layers of mess. That’s the way God deals with the messiness in us too – thinking ahead to what we will need and how to enable us to take the next steps on our journey – sending us help through others when we fall by the wayside as a result of life’s onslaughts and unexpected violence.
Luke 9: 51-62 and Galatians 5: 13-25
A couple of days ago I heard about a comment a friend had made about a much-debated issue on Facebook. I don’t go on Facebook so I haven’t read his views first hand – a mutual acquaintance told me what our friend had been saying. I have a lot of respect for the person concerned – a fellow Christian whose commitment and self-sacrifice in ministry are a powerful example to me in many ways. But it sounds as though we have totally opposing views on the issue he had talked about on the internet. I felt a whole mixture of responses from disappointment to anger. I wondered about sending him a book I’ve read recently which might help to enlighten him – in my terms anyway. I had an internal debate about whether our differences on this view might have to affect our relationship in the future. I don’t think I can just say nothing and pretend this difference of view between us doesn’t exist. Arguments between believers can teach us important lessons.
Today’s reading from Luke starts with an incident where the disciples would like Jesus to endorse their rejection of a group of near neighbours in first century Palestine. They haven’t reacted against something on Facebook – they’ve received an outright, in your face insult from a village of Samaritans. Perhaps some of the disciples wondered in the first place why Jesus risked sending people ahead of the group to a Samaritan village as a stop off on the way to Jerusalem. Samaritans and Jews lived in separate communities and had different beliefs from one another in some very significant ways. The split between them went back centuries to the time of the Babylonian invasion, when great numbers of Jews were carried off into exile. The Samaritans were descendants of those who had remained behind. Their ancestors had been moved to the then capital Samaria and intermarried with non-Jews. On the return of the exiles, several generations later, the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem became a big falling out between the two groups. The Samaritans offered to help. The returnee Jews from Babylon rejected this because they didn’t see these descendants of those people who had avoided exile as pure Jews. As a result Samaritans built their own temple instead on Mount Gerizim, rejected the rebuilt temple in Jerusalem, and so began a long history of hostility and division. Another difference between them was that Samaritans recognised only the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures, what we call the Old Testament. No wonder that most people in the time of Jesus would have nothing at all to do with this group. It was a high risk for Jesus and his friends to have tried to stop in a Samaritan community on the way to Jerusalem of all places. It was their difference about the temple there that continued to rankle most deeply between the two groups.
But, as ever in Luke’s gospel, Jesus does his own thing. He operates in the way he thinks his Father, God, will want him to. No matter that everyone else thinks of these people as a lost cause, the gospels show us Jesus offers healing, teaching, welcome and dialogue to Samaritans from the earliest parts of his ministry. In John’s gospel the conversation Jesus has with a Samaritan woman at a well is one of the most beautiful and powerful pieces of revelation about his true identity you’ll find anywhere in the Bible. In the next chapter of Luke’s gospel Jesus tells a story where the hero is a Samaritan, who cares for an injured man on a lonely road when the good Jews who’ve gone that way before him have been too concerned about ritual cleanliness to stop and help. The normal rules don’t apply to Jesus because he tries to do things God’s way. And you can’t take childish revenge on your enemies when Jesus is around either, because he won’t let you get away with petty rivalries and silly, rude gestures. ‘Can we call down fire on these villagers, please Lord?’ doesn’t go down well with Jesus. ‘Certainly not. Keep walking.’ comes the reply.
How would our relationships with other Christian denominations, and other faiths, be different if we were to fully understand and own this attitude of Jesus to those with whom we have disagreements? The Christian Churches have been some of the most petty and divided groups of people in history, over the centuries, in terms of our ability to fall out with one another and keep up disagreements over the centuries long after anyone understood what the original quarrel was all about. And perhaps it’s no surprise that one of the places where this has been most in evidence is the so-called Holy Land itself, especially Jerusalem. Just last month the three Churches which have care of the Holy Sepulchre, the site where Jesus is believed to have been buried after his crucifixion, agreed a multi million dollar restoration to stop the whole edifice from collapsing. The drains, the electricity supply and the infrastructure is all in a total mess. Earthquakes, hosts of visitors, candle soot, dirt and the wear and tear of centuries have left the marble structure around the tomb in danger of collapse. Back in 2015 the Israeli authorities closed the church because it was dangerously unsafe. Now, at last, the Greek Orthodox, Armenian and Catholic Churches have agreed to do the necessary repairs together. Just 20 years ago an unholy row broke out between monks about who had the right to sweep which bit of floor. Back in 1810 workmen hired by the Greek Orthodox Church were actually shot at by Armenian monks and eight died because there was no solving the rivalry about who is in charge of repairs. Why, now, are these three Christian traditions learning to work together so much more positively? Could it have anything to do with the declining numbers of Christians born in Israel and Palestine as more and more leave? Could it be linked to the new Israeli church taxes or the ambitions of Jewish settler groups who want to take control of the city in a new way? Finally, all 13 Christian churches represented in the city are now working together for the first time and meeting regularly. We can’t claim a holier than thou stance about the way James and John want to react to Samaritan rejection. We have our own examples of behaving that way too.
So why does Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, risk encouraging bad behaviour in the followers of Jesus by reminding those young churches in Galatia (modern day southern Turkey) that the Jewish Law no longer applies to them? Surely it would be better to keep the law in place until they really understand the gift and challenge of following Jesus, as otherwise their human tendency to bad behaviour could get out of hand. Not everyone agreed with Paul’s approach to this challenge. Other teachers in the first generations of the Church advised new converts to keep the Law of Moses but Paul is quite clear that the Law stopped applying once Jesus Christ came. Now, instead of following a set of rules, we have been set free. Not only that. As free individuals we are invited by God to choose to become servants, slaves even, of one another. This is not the sort of deal that any self-respecting Roman citizen would normally opt for. What Paul wants the worshippers of these young churches to grasp is the way that Jesus has won this freedom for all of us. Our response is not to do exactly what we like, but to fulfil the whole spirit of the law by choosing to behave as Jesus did, in tune with God’s Holy Spirit. Then the things we do will bring about a harvest of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, fidelity, gentleness and self-control which represent the best in us and those around us.
It might be tempting to see this as taking all the fun and excitement out of life. Perhaps the followers of Jesus are not supposed to enjoy themselves at all, but simply live in this very focussed, pure way. But the life of Jesus shows us that isn’t the aim at all. We’re to enjoy life in all its fulness at the same time as choosing to behave in mature, attractive, other-centred ways. Paul wants the followers of Jesus to live like this. It’s an invitation for us too. The God who loves us as we are and as we may become can help us to do this.
John 16: 12-15 and Romans 5: 1-5
I don’t think there’s been a time in my adult life when it’s been so hard to work out what the truth is about the big issues of the day. The world has always been a confusing place but now there are so many voices and so many sources of information wanting our attention that it’s almost impossible to know which ones to listen to and take seriously. The choice of getting our news from sources we’re likely to agree with doesn’t help us either. We may be asking today if we can rely on the truthfulness of the candidates to lead the Conservative party and be the next Prime Minister. Perhaps we’re concerned when some of them seem to have changed their minds and are now doing and saying different things from those they did in the past. One person’s pragmatic, informed searching for truth and the right way forward is another person’s blatant flip flopping in the search for power. If we could go out on the streets now, among the young demonstrators in Hong Kong, they would probably tell us they’re risking their lives for freedom, truth, and an independent legal system. They fear domination and loss of rights as the Chinese authorities just a few miles away scrutinise every decision the Hong Kong leaders take. The Chinese ambassador in the UK tells us his leaders have nothing to do with the proposals about a new extradition framework. How can having a one party state world power as your next door neighbour make no difference to the decisions of a city state about how to run their affairs?
A Christian understanding of truth, and the ancient philosophical ideal of wisdom, lie at the heart of today’s readings. In John’s gospels we’re back with the disciples and Jesus in the upper room, after they have shared a meal together for one last time. Earlier on in the evening he’s washed their feet, and after that Judas Iscariot has gone out into the darkness to tell the authorities how to arrest his master later that night. The disciples are feeling a rich mixture of emotions by now. They’re so full of different thoughts and ideas that their heads are spinning and they’re totally wrung out. What they could probably do with is a nice quiet lie down in a darkened room – somewhere safe and comfortable, their own sleeping space at home in Galilee perhaps, with their family close by. Instead, here they are in the middle of Jerusalem, the most dangerous place on earth which Jesus could have chosen to bring them to. They love to hear him speaking but he keeps on talking about the scariest things they can possibly imagine, above all the idea that he’s not going to be with them for much longer. He tells them not to worry and he talks about the Father in the way he always does, helping them to see how close he is to God and how deeply he feels God’s hold on his life. Now, he’s been saying, he will ask God to give them another companion to take his place when he leaves them – the Spirit of truth. This spirit will be their advocate – the one who teaches them all they need to know, who reminds them of all Jesus has said to them, who helps them to make their case about Jesus’s true identity to anyone who will listen.
Just imagine the look on the faces of those eleven disciples. They are on overload in every sense – emotional, mental, physical and spiritual. No wonder Jesus tells them: ‘There is much more that I could say to you, but the burden would be too great for you now.’ Too right – they can’t take any more in at this time of night, after the sort of day they’ve all shared, and with what Jesus knows (and they suspect) lies ahead for them all when they step outside the house quite soon. What sort of comfort can they possibly extract, in this moment of loss and despair, from the possibility of replacing Jesus with the presence of God’s Spirit of truth? Jesus has been there among them, flesh and blood, companion at the meal table, presence on the road, teacher, mentor, spiritual guide, friend, bible study leader, small group enabler, mediator, healer and so much more. Life without him around feels to many of them, no doubt, like no life at all at this point. What he wants them to do, through their stress and teary eyes, is to trust that God is not going to leave them high and dry when he is no longer physically present with them. They will still have a companion, a protector, a leader. This Spirit of truth will draw down and focus the energy of love, wisdom and light from God the Father, as Jesus has done for them up to now. He’s not giving them a doctrine lesson on how God manages to have three identities but one being. He’s encouraging them to keep praying, listening and following when he’s not around to keep them on track.
As Jewish believers, who have heard the Hebrew scriptures read in the synagogue, they will be familiar with the idea that truth is closely linked to God. There’s a passage in the book of Proverbs, chapter 8, where truth, wisdom, speaks with a female voice: ‘She takes her stand at the crossroads, by the wayside, at the top of the hill; beside the gate, at the entrance to the city, at the approach by the portals she cries aloud.’ Wisdom tells those who are listening to what she has to say that what she has to offer is better than the richest jewels. ‘Don’t go down to the fancy jewellers in town. Don’t spend thousands on the latest watch or the finest diamond ring. Hear what God’s truth has to offer. Tune in to the message the Spirit of wisdom wants to share with you. These are true riches. These are messages that can change your lives – turn your ideas upside down – transform everything within and around you beyond all recognition. Why wouldn’t you want to listen to such an offer from God?’
Already in this part of John’s gospel, which we call the farewell discourses, Jesus has been saying these same things in different ways time and time again. Are the disciples getting the message? He needs them to show some signs that they will be able to cope without him so that before long he’s able to leave them well. Jesus hopes they’ll learn, fast, how to remember the good and great things God has already done in and through them. They’ve been in communities where people’s lives have changed beyond recognition because of understanding God’s love and forgiveness in a new way and hearing the good news preached by Jesus. They’ve been challenged by the breadth of his understanding of God’s love – a love that can embrace even Samaritans, even Roman soldiers, even those who the Jewish law would describe as unclean and untouchable, even the least respectable or most hated individuals in town. They’ve begun to see that God’s greatest longing is for them and all God’s children to have life in all its fullness, and to understand that creating a central space within themselves where God can make a home is the first step in doing this. But up to now they’ve had the Master, the rabbi, the Lord, among them to make all of this real. Now they must recreate that reality of God’s presence in a new way through embracing the Spirit of truth without Jesus among them in person to help and guide them. They will not always agree about the right direction to take but if they keep talking and praying together when the going gets tough they can and will have God’s strength to find the way.
One great thing, for me, about telling our history as a church is re-discovering the great things God has been able to do in and through those who have gone before us. This reinforces our identity, renews our energy and helps to refocus our mission. We didn’t just imagine those 175 years – they happened and many people’s lives were changed for the better. Of course our forebears made some mistakes, just as we’re making mistakes now too, but those are not impossible obstacles to God’s purposes provided we all know how to admit our faults, seek forgiveness and start again.
It’s easier to see this process in action when you spend time with those whose lives have been in a terrible mess and who have turned things around through Christian faith. Yesterday I sat in a church next to Jamie. He’s a big guy in every sense – bright, funny, quick talking and passionate. You wouldn’t have wanted to get on his wrong side in the days when he was always angry about his grandfather’s death from cancer, his brother’s death from a rare heart condition, his dad losing his battle with depression and drugs and taking his own life, and his Mum’s succession of violent partners. In those days Jamie was always on the bottle or doing drugs. Look at him the wrong way on the street and he had it in him to set light to your car. He terrorised the estate where he lived and it’s not hard to see how. He’s a changed person now because God in Jesus has got hold of him and the Spirit of truth is now guiding what he thinks and says and does. Of course, that needs constant reinforcement. Old habits die hard with all of us. Deep seated patterns take a long time to change. Under pressure we’re all prone to go back to what we used to do to relieve the pain of life. That’s why being in a home where he’s surrounded by others who have turned their lives around, and who are watching out for themselves and for him, is what’s helping Jamie to stay calm, honest and God-centred. His dream, now, is to be trained as a church leader so one day he can go back to teach and care for the people he once scared witless. I think he’s got it in him to do just that but it’s not going to be easy. It will be the presence of God that gives him the strength to do this. Transformed lives, guided by the Spirit of truth, can achieve great things.
‘Telling our story’ through six imagined voices from the past