All posts by Christopher Miles

Sermon – St John the Apostle

Sermon – St John the Apostle,  27 December 2020

1 John 1   God is Light – walk in the light; John 21 vv 19b – End – Jesus’ rebuff of Peter.   John will probably outlive Peter.

  1. Introductory.   Christmas has ended.   Thankfully Christmas was not completely cancelled although it wouldn’t have been the first time.   During the period of the Cromwellian Commonwealth, 1642 to 1660, the celebration of Christmas was firmly prohibited by Parliamentary decree.   Looked at it in its historic context it was not surprising.   During many reigns, our royal families and nobility had set an example of riotous and immoral celebrations.   I said ‘Christmas has ended’ because in the popular mind Christmastide is coincident with Advent and therefore the Christmas season ends with the climax of Christmas Day.  By government decree we were originally allowed 5 days for Christmas, ending today, albeit it ended up by being more like one day.  I have often wondered why in the Church calendar, Catholic and Anglican, we have a slightly strange grouping of major festival days, immediately following Christmas, namely St Stephen’s Day on the 26th December, St John’s Day, as today, on the 27th December, and then on 28th of December, Holy Innocents’ Day.   I suspect, albeit I can find no authority for it, that the Church in its wisdom decreed these days of obligation to ensure the masters and mistresses gave their servants a good 4-day break from work, an enjoyable holiday.   Today then we celebrate the Apostle John, the brother of James, the sons of Zebedee.   John, with good reason, is the traditionally accepted author of both the gospel in his name and the three epistles in his name, hence the readings today from I John and the Gospel of John.   Rather than focus on a particular verse or group of verses, I am going to give a broad overview of John’s Gospel and First Epistle.

John’s Gospel.      I start then with the purpose that John had in mind in writing the Gospel, stated quite explicitly in the penultimate chapter, where he writes, “Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples which are not recorded in this book.   But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (Jn 20 vv 30, 31).   Much, but by no means all, of John’s Gospel, is structured around selected signs or miracles of Jesus.  Signs point to the way ahead, as in road signs, certainly in the days before sat navs, to guide us to our destination and perhaps to tell us from where we have come, so that we don’t go round in circles.   John has selected and records six signs, which I will describe briefly:

The first miraculous sign is at a wedding feast in Cana in Galilee, where the host runs out of wine to give to his guests, and Jesus turns water into wine, one of the two physical elements of the Eucharist.   John quite explicitly states, “This is the first of his miraculous signs that Jesus performed, at Cana in Galilee and his disciples put their faith in him.” (Jn 2 v 11).

The second sign is one of the many healing miracles of Jesus.   Again, He is at Cana, when he is approached by a royal official, who begged him to come and heal his son who was seriously ill with a fever.   The son wasn’t there in Cana but more than 15 miles away in Capernaum.   I guess that the father had been at the wedding feast and knew about the water being turned into wine.   Jesus doesn’t go with the father to Capernaum, but says, “You may go, your son will live.” (Jn 4 v 49).   John records, “This was the second miraculous sign that Jesus performed.” (Jn 6 v 54).    Healing at a distance, and the Church says that in a Zoom service the elements cannot be consecrated remotely!

The third sign is the feeding of the 5000, in which the second element, the bread of the eucharist is the focus, as well as fish, which later became a Christian symbol.   John tells us, “The People saw the miraculous sign that Jesus did, they began to say, ‘Surely this is the prophet who is to come into the world.’” and there were those who intended to come and make him king by force, but he withdrew. (Jn 6 vv 14, 15).   The reference to ‘The Prophet’ is almost certainly to Moses’ prophetic statement recorded in Deuteronomy, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet, like me, from among your brothers.” (Deut 18 v 15).

Immediately following the feeding of the 5000, Jesus walks on the surface of the Sea of Galilee as he goes out to join the disciples in their boat as they crossed to the other side of the Sea.  John probably reckons by now that there is no need to keep numbering the signs; his readers will have begun to get the message.

So far, we have been in the North of Palestine with an entirely sympathetic audience.   The next sign occurs in the South, in Judea, when Jesus restores the sight of a man born blind by telling him to wash in the pool of Siloam in Jerusalem (Jn 9 v 11).   Having had two cataract operations this year, I am mindful of benefit of improved sight but cannot comprehend what it must have been like for a man who had been born blind, and his healing happened without all the modern medical and surgical advances.   The miracle arouses opposition from Pharisees because Jesus was apparently breaking their strict interpretation of the Sabbath law (Jn 9 vv 14 – 16).   There were though those who challenged the Pharisees, saying, “How can a sinner do such miraculous signs?” (Jn 9 v 16).  

The sixth sign is quite tremendous.   It is the raising of Lazarus from the dead.  Despite Jesus’ deep friendship with Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha, when he hears the news of Lazarus’ illness, he deliberately delays his departure from the East side of the River Jordan, for two days, knowing that he would be performing this supreme miracle as a sign pointing to, and giving veracity to, his own resurrection.  This miracle resulted in a meeting of the chief priests and a group of Pharisees calling a meeting of the Sanhedrin.   The Pharisees said “Here is this man performing many miraculous signs.  If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.”

  What an amazing selection of six miracles pointing to the true nature of Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God, who was in the beginning with God and was God, without whom nothing was made that was made, leading up to the supreme miracle of Jesus’ own resurrection and thus fulfilling John’s purpose for those who seek after truth, that “You may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may life in his name.” (Jn 20 v 31).

1 John.        My overview of 1 John will be much briefer with a focus on two words, light and love.   Just as with his Gospel, John states quite clearly the purpose of his first epistle.   In his concluding words he states“I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.” (1 Jn 5 v 13).   Broadly, John’s gospel brings people to faith and his epistle gives assurance to those who have come to faith.   The theme of light is a continuance from the Gospel in which he has written “In him was life and the life was the light of men.” (Jn 1 v 4).   In our epistle reading today, John writes, “God is light;” and he invites the Christian readers to walk in that light”.   In His Gospel, John records Jesus saying to his disciples, “A new commandment I give unto you, that you love one another; as I have loved you.” (Jn 13 v 34).   In his epistle he writes, ‘God is love.   Whoever lives in love, lives in God and God in him.”  (1 Jn 4 v 16).   In Greek there are three words that are translated as ‘love’ in English.  There is ‘phileo’, typified as a brotherly or sisterly love.   There is ‘eros’ from which we derive the word ‘erotic’, a more emotional love and thirdly there is ‘agape’ with the sense of a self-giving, sacrificial love.   It is this third word, agape, which is used in the two quotations that I have just made.   Our love for others is to be a sacrificial love after the example of our Lord Jesus.

Conclusion.    We come today almost to the end of a very difficult year and the prospect of anyhow a difficult start to a New Year.   If this has in some way shaken or disturbed your faith, I invite you to read John’s gospel, particularly pausing to think about the seven signs, as a means of strengthening your faith.   In this difficult year people have spoken about light at the end of the tunnel, perhaps particularly with the Covid 19 vaccination becoming available.   Let us as people of the light walk now in the light, being positive about life now.   I finish with a quotation from Winnie the Pooh: Pooh asks Piglet, ‘What day is it?’   Piglet replies, ‘Why, it’s today’, to which Pooh responds with gusto, ‘My favourite day!”

Christopher Miles

Sermon – Advent Sunday

Sermon at St Mary’s Church Hadlow
on Advent Sunday 29th November 2020

Isaiah 64 vv 1 – 9   A prayer for God to intervene
Mark 13 vv 24  – E The distress of the last days

  1. Introduction.   “O that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down”.  Perhaps many Christians, and others would echo that prayer of Isaiah at the beginning of our first reading, to come down and save us from this plague or as we prefer to call it in modern times, pandemic.   We long for an end to the restrictions associated with Covid19, especially having just been put in Tier 3. We may be fearful of the impending effects of climate change.  As I write a robin settles in the hawthorn bush at the end of our garden, and bobs up and down in agreement.  Birds, as well as humans, are under threat. The world seems to be in turmoil.   We long for God to come and sort out our mess, to save us in every sense of that word, remembering the words of the Psalmist, “God saves both man and beast” (Ps 36 v 6).

          Jesus, in our gospel reading, warns us that cataclysmic times not only on earth, but in the heavens above, will preceed his return to earth.  

          Today we begin not only the season of Advent, but the beginning of the Church’s year.  In the Book of Common Prayer there was not so much consideration of Christ’s return, going straight from the last Sunday after Trinity to Advent Sunday. The Alternative Service Book introduced us in 1980 to the Sundays before Advent and this has been continued into Commom Worship.  We have had quite a lead in to the climax of Advent Sunday, not only on the last few Sundays but also in weekday Morning Prayer, reading right through the book of Daniel and much of Revelation.  Today we begin Common Worship Year B with a focus on Mark’s Gospel in our Sunday readings.   In our Gospel reading today Jesus warns us to be prepared, to watch, to which Luke adds Jesus saying, ‘and pray’ (Lk 21 v 36).

2. Be prepared.           ‘Be prepared’, but for what?  As three of the evangelists, Matthew, Mark and Luke, were  writing the their gospels, there were two events that were still in the future for them.  The first was the destruction of Jerusalem, and in particular of the Temple and the second was Jesus return to earth.  One needs to read the whole of Mark 13 to understand what Jesus is saying.   As Jesus and his disciples leave the temple, one disciple draws Jesus’ attention to the magnificence of temple stones.  You may have seen some of these huge stones in the Western Wall, where Jews today pray individually and conduct religious ceremonies such as Bar Mitzvah.  Jesus, whilst having a great respect for the temple, prophesise that the temple will be destroyed in the lifetime of many of them.  This may explain the difficult verse at the end of today’s reading, where Jesus says emphatically, “I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.”  The temple was destroyed by the Roman army in 70 A. D, following a 4-year siege of Jerusalem, some 40 years after Jesus was speaking and so within a generation. However the verse is difficult because it seems to refer to his Second Coming, as this preceeds it in today’s reading.  I would like to think that Jesus is saying,  “I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have been generated.”  I am told that neither the Aramaic nor the Greek texts support such a translation.   The Greek word for generation is ‘genea’, which actually can be translated ‘age’.   It could well be that Jesus is saying of the destruction of the temple that it will happen within a generation, but his coming will happen at the end of the age.    There is a link between the two, for the destruction of the temple is symbolic of the end of the Old Covenant and Jesus’ return will be the climatic end, the full accomplishment, of the New Covenant.    It is of course Jesus’ return for which we must ‘Be prepared’, to use the motto of the Scouts, or to ‘Watch and pray’ to use Jesus’ words.  

3. Signs.            ‘Watch’ for what? Jesus gives us the parable of the fig tree.  He tells us to watch out for the leaves coming, because soon the young figs that have over- wintered as little lumps, no bigger than my little finger nail, will start growing, then in summer to develop into full-grown ripe figs.  Last Autumn I cut down our fig tree, as in 19 years it produced no more than about 5 edible figs.  What though are the signs of fulfilment that we should be watching out for?   As I mentioned earlier, in weekday Morning Prayer in the pre-Advent season we have been reading through the books of Daniel and Revelation.   Not easy books to read and I am wary of trying to select from them precise signs of the coming fulfilment of  the Kingdom of God at the return of Christ.  I will just point up two signs from Jesus’ own words in the gospel accounts of the end of the age.

Firstly, Luke records Jesus as saying, “Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.” (Lk 21 v 24).   This time, I suggest, clearly began with the sack of Jerusalem in 70 A. D.  From that time forward Jerusalem was under Gentile control right through to the 20th Century, when in 1919, the UK was given a League of Nations mandate to establish in Palestine a homeland for the Jews, with finally Israel becoming an independent state in 1948.

Secondly Jesus says, as recorded by Mark, “First the Gospel must be preached to all nations.” (Mk 13 v 10).   You may say, hasn’t this now happened?  I think there is not a country without Christians.  Perhaps North Korea is the only country without an established Church, but the Gospel has been preached there.  Let me though just amplify this a little from the book of Revelation.  John says, “After this (this refers to the 12 tribes of Israel), I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb.” (Rev 7 v 9).  Several chapters on, John says, “I saw an angel flying in mid-air, and he had the eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth – to every nation, tribe, language and people.” (Rev 14 v 6 ).  In Mission Aviation Fellowship’s book, ‘Above and Beyond’, in the final section, entitled ‘To the end of the age’ it states, “ According to the Joshua Project, today over 40% of the world remains unreached with the Gospel, and our teams remain committed to going above and beyond to make sure those living in extreme isolation are given the best chance to thrive in the fullness of Christ.”   So this second sign may take another 100 years to be fulfilled.  Very appropriately the book concludes by saying, “It is our hope that you will join us in the Great Commisssion, knowing that our Heavenly Father will always be with us, to the end of the age.”

4. Prayer.        Finally, I will take up the point made by Jesus as recorded in Luke’s gospel, that we should not only watch but pray.  When we talk of prayer, we so often think of asking God to do something for us or for other people.  There is nothing wrong with that. I began with Isaiah’s prayer, “O that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down”.  Let us though put a stronger emphasis on prayer as aligning ourselves with the will of God.  We pray in the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Your will be done on earth as in heaven, your kingdom come.’  The kingdom of God will not come in all its fulness by us trying to twist God’s arm, praying for him to hurry up, but rather by us seeking his guidance, being open to the Spirit, in His prompting about the little things of life, as well as discernibg the way forward in the big decisions of education, career and life partnerships.

5. Conclusion. In conclusion, Jesus warned us that the end of the age would not be an easy time.  We are still passing through the the restrictions, the heartache and the myriad impacts of the coronavirus, Covid 19.   As the writer of a recent article in the Church Times, wrote (Voice from out of the rubble by Anna Carter Florence, Church Times 20th November 2020 p15) “We can choose to walk through the pandemic, dragging the carcases of our predjudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us.   Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world and ready to fight for it.”  Let us go into this Advent season, this new year of the Church, trusting in Our Lord Jesus Christ, in hope of a wonderful future.   I conclude with the final verse of Stuart Kine’s hymn, ‘How great thou art’.

When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation
And take me home – what joy shall fill my heart!
Then shall I bow in humble adoration
And there proclaim, my God how great Thou art.

Christopher Miles

Sermon – Trinity 14

Sermon at St Mary’s Church Hadlow 10 a. m. on Trinity 14,

13th September 2020

Exodus 14 verses 19 – End    The Lord protects the Israelites Matthew 18 verses 21 – 35 The unforgiving servant

  1. Battle of Britain.  Last weekend, on Saturday 5th September I met three members of the family of Squadron Leader Philip Campbell Pinkham, who 80 years ago as Commanding Officer of 19 Squadron RAF took off with his Squadron from an RAF airfield in Essex and who was shot down by an incoming a German Luftwaffe aircraft somewhere over the River Thames, crashing on the North Downs just above the Pilgrims Way in Birling parish.  We met to remember the sacrifice of a young man of 25 who, in common with many other pilots in the Battle of Britain, lost his life in the defence of his and our country.   I had the privilege of dedicating a new memorial cross at the place where he died and saying a prayer of thanksgiving with the family members and others at this place with its marvellous view Southward to West Malling and Borough Green.  As Mayor’s Chaplain I was able to convey the greetings and the appreciation of Cllr Jill Anderson of this act of remembrance just within the boundary of our Borough.

2. Exodus.   During the Exodus and the wilderness wanderings, the Israelites lived through  a very stressful and uncertain 40 years.   As we look back on that period of the formation of the nation of Israel, with a record written from a theological perspective it is easy to miss the uncertainty that many ordinary people felt.   There were those who often criticised Moses’ leadership saying it would have been better to stay in Egypt as slaves than to endure the hardships of life in the desert.   Our first reading this morning reminds us of the early stage of that uncertain period.   The Egyptian army was pursuing the escaping Israelites and so, suddenly they were confronted with the Red Sea in front,  the Army behind and possibly soon be round their flanks as well – no escape. “Help.  We have had it now”, many of them must have been thinking and even voicing aloud.   Suddenly a dark cloud comes down between the Egyptian Army and the Israelites, the wind gets up and blows with gale force to thrust the shallow waters of the upper Red Sea out towards the Indian Ocean and the Israelites are able to move forward in the early morning light.

Sunday 15th September 1940 is regarded as the turning point in that Battle; a point when the Royal Air Force began to gain the upper hand and obtain air superiority over the German Air Force.  Hitler was intent on invading England, but he knew that he could not do that until he had air superiority.   He was taken aback as the Luftwaffe with superior numbers began to loose the upper hand.   Air Marshal Hugh Dowding, Commander-in-Chief of Fighter Command revealed in his memoirs that he attributed the success in the Battle of Britain to ‘divine intervention’.   Incidentally, on that Sunday our Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, with his wife Clementine, visited the Sector Operations Room at RAF Uxbridge, to witness at first hand the progress of the battle that day.  The operations room was restored about 25 years ago, with the plotting board as it would have been at some point on that Sunday.   Although RAF Uxbridge closed as an RAF Staion about 10 years ago the operations room has been retained and is open to the public (battleofbritainbunker.co.uk).   Usually Battle of Britain Services are held on or close to the 15th September.   This is not a full Battle of Britain Service, but it seemed appropriate to recall today that critical time in the life of our nation, a time of great uncertainty, 80 years ago. 

A word about the walls of water on either side.   They have been portrayed quite often in children’s Bibles and in films as huge vertical walls of water perhaps 100 feet high.   Quite sufficient to cause a thinking person that the whole account is either made up or grossly distorted.   In the Hebrew language, the original language of the Old Testament, there are two words, translated as ‘wall’.   One is ‘Chomah’ used of a defensive wall such as a city wall or of an enclosure such as an orchard or vineyard.  The other is ‘qir’ used of the wall of a house or other building.   The word used of the Exodus is ‘chomah’.   It therefore is describing the water as a protection of the Israelites, since it prevented a flanking movement by Pharaoh’s army.   The water needed to be only 3 or 4 feet deep to prevent such a flanking movement and didn’t have to be vertical as in the wall of a house.

Some Israelites did not share the belief of their leader, Moses, in the God of all creation.   They did not perceive that God was using his own creation, with the laws of its operation, including providing air superiority, to facilitate their escape from Egypt.  They did not see that God was laying the foundation of a great plan of salvation that succeeding generations would celebrate in the Passover Festival as God’s supreme act of salvation of his chosen people.   Such people would easily have looked back on that night and said “Phew! That was a lucky escape!”.  Such people, without faith in God, found the deprivations and uncertainity of the wilderness experience more that they could bear.  They repeatedly complained about their leaders.

3. Uncertainty.            Most of this year we have been living and are still living through a time of uncertainty.   Restrictions were easing but with the possibility of a resurgence some restrictions have been reimposed, both in this country and in other countries.   No longer is it a fight between one country or alliance of countries and another, but rather of all countries fighting an unseen, a hidden, enemy.   However the threat is also a global force for unity and even cooperation against this common enemy.   There have been plagues throughout history, there are always illnesses abounding and it is difficult to understand the causes and the working of such things.   The human race, with its huge population, is having unexpected effects on the whole natural world.   In dense populations disease spreads more readily.   It is difficult to understand the place of viruses in the created order.   The chief certainty of life is that each of us will die.   Part of the wisdom of life is to live positively, through uncertainty, towards that end,.   This in part is done by a firm belief in God our Creator, who knows us each one, who loves us each one.   The Exodus and wilderness experience was a challenging time for the Israelites.   By no means all rose to the challenge.   When the twelve spies were sent out to make a reconnaisance of the Promised Land, only two came back with a report based on faith in God and his promise.   We have the evidence of the supreme and loving God in his great saving act of the New Covenant, achieved through our Lord Jesus Christ.

I was but 4 years old at the time of the Battle of Britain and was evacuated from Kent to Devon.   For those living here in Kent, those in London enduring the nightly bombing, it must have been a very challenging time, when some lost hope.   One of the good things to come out of the Second World War was the founding of Missionary Aviation Fellowship, as three former RAF officers, two pilots and an engineer, believed that God was calling them to use the skills that they had acquired in wartime to serve him in peacetime in serving countries in Africa.   That new venture which has flourished over the past 75 years, now flies in around 26 countries in the world.   The last surviving founding member, the Engineer Officer, Stuart King, who continued throughout his life to take an active interest in MAF, died on 29th August at the age of 98.   We thank God for a humble, dedicated and visionary servant of God.

Let us, who are living in a particular time of uncertainty, not only because of Covid 19 but also not knowing how we will progress as a country, when we fully leave the European Union in a few months time, continue to trust in God, a loving and faithful God.

1418 words                                                                                                                                                  Christopher Miles

Sermon – Trinity 11

Sermon at St Mary’s Church Hadlow 10 a. m. on Trinity 11, 23rd August 2020

Exodus 1 v 8 – 2 v 10    Birth and upbringing of Moses

Matthew 16 vv 13 – 20  Peter’s confession of Christ

Introduction.       Julia and I returned 9 days ago from a two-week family holiday in Cornwall.  On the Sunday morning two weeks ago we all attended the Tube Station in Polzeath, where we were staying.   This is not a new station on London’s district line, but a Christian venture started about 10 years ago in the former Methodist Church, to reach out to surfers.   About 50 of us sat on and around a large grassy bank overlooking the beach at Polzeath for a simple act of worship.  Some guitar led music to which we were allowed only to hum, a time of prayer and a sermon.  Our preacher, Caroline, spoke movingly of how God had led her with her husband to move very recently from Orpington to take up Christian ministry in Cornwall.  I went up to her afterwards and just said ‘Christ Church Orpington’.   ‘Yes’ was her reply.   I spoke of my links, including preaching there in May 1968 and the mentioned more recent ministry including being Vicar of Leigh at which an elderly woman nearby joined in and said did I know Ken and Gladys Skillman.  I did.  The woman is Caroline’s mother and Ken and Gladys, no longer alive were her parents, that is Caroline’s grandparents.  Ken sang in the choir at Leigh and Gladys and Julia did meals-on-wheels.    Having lived for well over four score years and lived in over 30 places in 10 counties and met 1000s of people I so often find unexpected links with people.  

Today’s first reading relates the birth and upbringing of Moses the leader of the Israelites in God’s great saving acts of the Exodus.  It is fascinating to note the people whom God used in the preparation for the Exodus – members of Moses’ family and others.   In our Gospel reading we heard of the climactic point in the preparation of one of the foremost leaders of God’s people of the New Covenant, the Apostle Peter.

As then, so now, God uses the coincidences of life, the calling of the quiet voice of the Holy Spirit and the cooperation of many people in the work of his kingdom in preparation for the climax of the Kingdom of God in Christ’s return to earth.    Let us look more closely at the outworking of God’s plan of salvation, through Moses, through Peter and through ourselves.

Moses.   ‘Call the midwife’.  It is not only The King, Pharaoh, who calls the two Israelite midwives, but the King of Kings. Pharaoh’s instructions were to kill the boys, who 20 years later might form a revolutionary army, but to let the girls live.  The midwives calling of God was to preserve life not to destroy life.  They were women of faith in the one true God and were prepared to risk their own lives in disobeying Pharaoh. It is good that we know their names, Shiprah and Puah, for they deserve to be held in remembrance as God’s agents who risked their lives in fulfilling His plan of salvation.

Next, we think of the unnamed mother of Moses, who hid her baby boy in defiance of Pharaoh and who no doubt instilled in her young son a sense of God’s promises to his chosen people.  When it was no longer possible to hide her son, Jochebed, as we learn in Exodus Chapter 6 was her name, devised a cunning scheme that involved what was technically a means of disposing of unwanted children, to put Moses in one of the many channels of the Nile Delta in the land of Goshen, where, under Joseph the sons of Israel had settled.  Pharaoh’s palace was at Rameses, Egypt’s capital city, in the land of Goshen.  If the Pharaoh at that time was Rameses II who had about 60 daughters, it was quite likely that this particular princess, possibly called Tharmuth, had a regular habit of coming to a particular place in the river.   On this occasion the baby was put in a carefully constructed basket, placed in the reedy shallows, safe from the river current.  Jochebed, a woman of faith, had an important but risky role in God’s plan of salvation.

Moses’ elder sister, no doubt carefully briefed by her mother, also had an important role in God’s plan.

We know little about the Princess, although she was a woman of compassion and with the status to exercise her compassion, possibly hiding from her father the origin of the baby.  Maybe with the large number of princesses this was not difficult to do.  God can use people of good will, albeit outside the fellowship of his chosen people, to achieve his plans.   She would have seen to it that Moses had a good education.

So, four women and a girl, who guided consciously or otherwise by His Spirit were essential agents, through the coincidences of life, through God’s call and in cooperation were important agents in preparing his chosen leader of the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt to the threshold of the Promised Land.

Peter.       Let us now move forward from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant, to a leader who may seem a surprising choice to take a leading role in implementing God’s plan of salvation, when Jesus would no longer be physically present with his followers.  Jesus and the 12 close disciples had gone to Caesarea Philippi in the mountainous country in the North of Palestine, close to the border with Syria and not to be confused with Caesarea, much further south, on the Mediterranean coast.  It was a time of reflection, away from the crowds, a time of Jesus preparing the 12 for his death.   The 12 had accompanied Jesus in his 3 years of public ministry, they had eaten, rested, discussed and slept together during this time.  They had witnessed Jesus healing, teaching, preaching, encouraging and challenging people throughout Galilee, Judea, Samaria and sometimes further afield, with his concern for Gentile as well as Jew.   To carry on the work of the Kingdom of God, he needed followers who were thoroughly committed, who understood and believed fully in his role.  He knew that his own death would be a great challenge to the 12, including Peter who takes him to task as recorded in the same chapter of Luke, just after today’s reading.  Were the 12 just taking a popular view of him as a prophet or as the Messiah?  To start the ball rolling he asks them what people are saying about who he was.  People will often express views about a leader to his followers, his fans, that they would not express directly to the leader.

  Some surprising answers come back.   Some say John the Baptist, whom Herod Antipas had had beheaded.  What a superficial judgement, considering John was Jesus’ cousin, only a few months different in age and John had baptised Jesus!   Some were saying that he was Elijah.   There was more justification for this as the last words of the Old Testament, in the book of the prophet Malachi, state God as saying to him, “See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and dreadful day of the Lord comes.  He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers or else I will come and strike the land with a curse.” (Mal 4 vv 5, 6).  Malachi was not saying that there would be a literal resurrection of Elijah but that there would be a prophet in the mould of Elijah; one who would fearlessly challenge both high and low, rich and poor and that if they responded in repentance the result would be family harmony, social wellbeing, but if not then a terrible outcome.   Jesus had made clear to the 12 at an earlier stage that actually John the Baptist was the one who fulfilled Malachi’s prophesy.  Thirdly some people were saying that Jesus was a prophet in the mould of Jeremiah or maybe another of the prophets, perhaps because he apparently foretold the destruction of the temple and frequently challenged the national leaders.

    Jesus then puts a more challenging question to the 12, “What about you?  Who do you say that I am?”    It is easy to have a general discussion, but not so easy when it becomes a personal challenge.   In their witness of Jesus’ ministry had they been able to see deeper than the perception of the generally sympathetic response of much of the population?  Only the answer of Peter is recorded, with his inspired statement of his belief, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  There is not time this morning to consider Jesus’ enigmatic response about the rock.   We must get personal.

Our response.  Today many people of other faiths or none would say that Jesus was an outstanding teacher or a prophet.   Some years ago, as the Multifaith Coordinator for the Air Cadet Organisation I had discussions with leading people of other faiths, who at that time were the appointed advisers in their faiths to HM Forces, as to how they understood chaplaincy.  This was with a view to us appointing chaplains of other faiths.  I was having a discussion with the Muslim Adviser, Khurshid Drabu, a barrister who was Vice-President of the Immigration Appeals Tribunal. After about an hour’s formal discussion, I concluded with a ‘throw away remark’, “Don’t Muslims accept Jesus as a prophet.”  I was quite surprised by Khurshid’s response, “Yes, indeed, in some respects greater than Mohammed, for only Jesus healed people.”   Let us be glad that Muslims and many others accept Jesus as a prophet. As we saw in our Old Testament reading, God can use people of good will in achieving his plans of salvation, as he did with the Egyptian princess.   But what about ourselves?   Jesus’ question comes to us today, “Who do you say that I am?”  God wants people whether lay or ordained, young or old male or female, to take forward the work of his kingdom.  The gospels record only two other people who made a firm confession similar to that of Peter, and both of those people have always had a ‘bad press’, doubting Thomas, one of the 12, and Martha, who was cumbered about with much serving.  Can you say today with the Apostle Peter, in response to Jesus, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”    

Christopher Miles

Sermon at St Mary’s Church Hadlow Church 10 a.m. on the 3rd Sunday of Lent, 15th March 2020

Romans 5 vv 1 -11 Peace and joy come through suffering approached positively John 4 vv 5 – 42 Jesus’ encounter with the woman of Sychar

1. Introduction

The Duke of Sussex arrived in the French port of Marseille. When the official asked him for his passport, he had to admit that he had none. He was summarily required to present himself at the Town Hall and apply for one. He soon found himself before a municipal clerk, who was bowed over his paperwork on his desk. The clerk took out a passport form and, without looking up began to fill it in.

“What is your name?” asked the clerk.
“Augustus Frederick” replied His Royal Highness (no, not Harry, for the year was 1791).
“No other name?”
“No”
“Who do you belong to?”
“To my father and mother.”
“Are you of the department of the Mouth of the Rhone?”
“No sir”
“Of what department are you?” (Pause)
“Of the department of the River Thames”
“What is your father’s name?”
“George.”
“What trade does your father follow?”
“He is King of England.”

When Jesus arrived in the region of Samaria at the town of Sychar he was met by a woman coming to the well outside the town. After a considerable conversation in which the woman diverted attention from her personal situation, to controversial questions about the correct place of worship, the woman says:

“I know that the Messiah is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”
Jesus responds, “I who speak to you am He.”
The King of kings arrives in foreign territory

I think that this account of Jesus’ ministry is the most amazing account of the all four gospels, with perhaps the exception of the raising of Lazarus. This morning I want to look at three aspects of this encounter, reconciliation, redemption and the laying of a foundation.

2. Redemption and Reconciliation

I have spoken before of Jesus’ concern for the poor, the despised, the marginalised, including especially the Samaritans. Jesus could have avoided going through Samaria on his return with the twelve, to Galilee but he deliberately goes by the shorter route albeit with the risk of re-buff, as did happen on another occasion. He deliberately waits at Jacob’s well outside the town, whilst the disciples go into the town to do some shopping. The well would have been a place of meeting for many, but more so in the cool of the early evening; not at midday. A woman comes on her own, probably deliberately when others did not normally come, for she may have been ostracised from society, seeing she was living with a man to whom she was not married and that she had had five husbands. Life may have been particularly hard for her; we don’t know what had gone on before. Perhaps she was strong minded and not prepared to put up with abuse from her previous husbands. In Jewish society and probably in Samaritan society it would have been considered improper for a man to speak in public with an unknown woman. Jesus is prepared to step outside the conventions of the day. Jesus doesn’t judge her. Far from even preaching to her to repent of her sins, he asks her to draw water and provide him with a drink. In outreach we need to be unjudgmental and willing to receive as well as give. The woman is a bit taken aback by Jesus’ friendly approach. The conversation very quickly and naturally goes on to spiritual issues, using water as an illustration of spiritual refreshment and renewal.

When the subsequent conversation goes on to the correct place of worship, whether Mount Gerizim, visible to them, being about 2 miles away, or Jerusalem, Jesus far from taking up sides, gives an answer that is not localised in a particular place but is universal, relating to our inner attitude and condition. We can worship God anywhere. The principles are to worship God in spirit and in truth. Today some people say that the Book of Common Prayer is the only form of worship that they can use. Others say we must use contemporary language if we want to reach out to people outside the regular fellowship of the Church. Others go further and say we should have a greater spontaneity in our worship and be led by the Spirit, rather than constrained by set liturgies. Some like to express their worship with their whole being, praising God with their arms outstretched. Let us be open to worship God in a variety of ways whether using the Prayer Book, Common Worship or quite different, approaches such as Messy Church. Let us accept one another. As the Coronavirus progresses, we may have to limit further our worship activity. Let us whether together or on our own, worship God in Spirit and Truth.

In this account of Jesus’ ministry to the Samaritan woman, he both redeems her to God and reconciles Jew and Samaritan. He is the Great Redeemer, the Great Reconciler.

3. Church foundation

Jesus is also laying a good foundation for the future Church in its progressive outward movement and universal principle. In Acts 1 v 8 Jesus, shortly before his ascension, instructs his disciples, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” That third stage was reached very quickly, soon after the stoning of Stephen, one of the seven chosen deacons. Stephen in his speech before his stoning refers to Jacob’s body being brought back from Egypt to Shechem; to land which Abraham had bought. Probably Jacob’s well was close to Shechem, a town perhaps 10 miles SE of Samaria. It was near Shechem that the returning exiles of Israel built a temple on Mount Gerizim. Both town and temple were destroyed in the first century BC. The village of Sychar, only about ½ mile from Jacob’s well, was built up to be a town, in effect replacing Sychem. Philip the deacon, who would have heard Stephen’s martyrdom speech and during the subsequent scattering of the Church from Jerusalem went down to a city in Samaria, very likely actually went to Sychar, before perhaps going on to the city of Samaria. Jesus’ ministry, a few years before, had laid an excellent foundation for people to come to faith in the risen Lord Jesus. The unnamed woman of Sychar had brought a large number of the townspeople out to Jacob’s well to meet Jesus and now they not only believed him to be the Messiah, but that he had died and risen. The Samaritan Church was founded.

The Church of England is making a considerable effort to be a missional Church, to reach out to those outside its regular worshipping community, to have a concern for the poor, the marginalised, the immigrant, the people who are in the BAME category, Black, Asian and minority ethnic origin, to LGBT+ people, We recognise now that the way we treated immigrants from the West Indies in the 1950s and 60s, the Windrush generation of people, who had been encouraged by our government to come and work in the UK, was at times quite appalling.

On 29th February I attended the Bishop’s Study Day for clergy and Readers. The title of the study was ‘Scattered and Gathered – Fruitfulness in the whole of life”.

The main thrust of the day was that we place too much emphasis on the clergy when we think of the mission and evangelistic activity of the church and not enough emphasis on all church members in the their daily occupations as they meet people uncommitted to Christ, perhaps some, like the woman at the well of Sychar with an openness to hear and commit themselves and others who will never be regular churchgoers but will be influenced for good by the way we conduct ourselves at work, in leisure activities and the other aspects of our daily life. There are normally about 60 of us here on a Sunday morning. During a week, if we each meet with only 10 people, that is overall 600 people in just one week, who have been influenced for good (or ill) by our daily life. About 6% of the population of the UK regularly attend a church at least once a month. If each person in the 6% has a significant meeting with 10 people during the course of a week then about 56% of non-regular churchgoers, over half the population of the country will have been influenced by church members.

Tremendous opportunities. In our Deanery Ash Wednesday our Area Dean, Andrew Axon, in his sermon encouraged each of us the make Lent a season of deepening our relationship with Christ. I have never met the present Duke of Sussex, albeit I have once met his grandfather, but I look forward each day to meeting with the Son of God, the Messiah, or Christ, our Lord Jesus.