All posts by Paul White

Sermon – Trinity 9

9th Sunday after Trinity

1 August 2021

Ephesians 4: 1-16, John 6: 24-35

“The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”

Our two readings this morning pose us with some interesting questions – why do we follow Jesus and what does it mean to be part of the church?

Just before the events in today’s gospel reading Jesus had miraculously fed 5000 people with five small loaves and two fish.  With that small beginning, and a prayer of thanks from Jesus, the people ate their fill and there 12 baskets of leftovers.  I have preached on that before and it should encourage us that, no matter how straightened the times and no matter how meagre we think our gifts are, when they are offered to Jesus in faith then impossible things can happen. 

There is no doubt that the crowds were impressed with this miraculous sign and, after they had finished eating, they declared Jesus to be a prophet and wanted to make him King, by force if necessary. (6:14,15).  But that was not what Jesus intended and he withdrew to the mountains by himself.

There then followed an interlude of the people realising that Jesus has gone and some climbed into boats to sail around the Sea of Galilee (or the Lake of Tiberias as it is also known) and go looking for him in the fishing village of Capernaum.  If you ever go to Israel then it is still possible to visit that same village, which is named in all of the gospels, and there is a wonderful modern church with a glass floor through which you can view the remains of what is believed to be St Peter’s house.  Presumably the crowds headed there because they knew that Jesus and his followers were often there and that is, indeed, where they found him.

Although Jesus knew that this crowd had been impressed by the sign of the feeding of the 5000, and wanted to make him king by force, he also knew that the crowd’s motives for following him were mixed:

Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” 

If you look closely at Jesus’ encounters he often challenges people to look at their motives for doing what they are doing.  In Mark 10, and elsewhere, Jesus asks the question a number of times: ‘what do you want me to do for you?’

By challenging the crowd, and by posing that question to individuals, Jesus encourages them to look deeper – to see if there is anything beyond their surface motives.  Perhaps their obvious need is their real need – as the blind man who wanted to see again – but Jesus still wanted him to name that need.  Or perhaps, like the crowd here there may be a variety of needs but Jesus wants them to stop and think and ask who and what they want in this situation.

Jesus’ challenge to this crowd looks quite rude – he is saying that they are only following him because they enjoyed a free lunch and, if they hang around, they may get some more free food.

I feel quite sorry for them – they are following Jesus through both wilderness and across the sea and he is accusing them of being freeloaders.

But then, of course, he takes them deeper into the true meaning of who he really is – not simply an earthly prophet or king or even a dispenser of free food which, no matter how much you eat, will never fulfil you forever. 

Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”

The crowd then pose Jesus a question:

         “What must we do to do the works God requires?”

The answer is simple and refreshing:

         “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”

To believe in Jesus is the work of God.

But the crowd weren’t happy with that.  Despite the fact that they had already seen the feeding of the 5000 they wanted another sign and, despite what Jesus had already said about physical food they wanted him to feed them again, like the Hebrews had been fed with manna from heaven in the wilderness.  

Perhaps Jesus was right to think that they only wanted more free food.  Perhaps also the crowd here are representing another temptation for Jesus, by getting him to prove that he is equal to Moses or to prove his divinity 

If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread

The crowd are repeating the temptation of the devil.

Which brings Jesus to the denouement of this toing and froing:

I am the bread of life.  Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

The crowd have been on quite a journey: they ate their fill of physical bread, they have spoken about the miraculous bread from heaven which fed their ancestors in the wilderness and now Jesus says that he is that bread from heaven and, if they do the work of God by believing in him, then they will never truly want for anything again.

As those who seek to follow Jesus in the wilderness now we know that he feeds us week by week in the bread of communion and, for us, that bread is as physical as the loaves on which the 5000 dined, it is also as light as the manna in the wilderness and it is also Jesus himself, broken and shared for our healing and union with him and with one another.  

Which brings us briefly to Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.  As always with Paul there are layers of meaning to be mined and these 16 verses could keep us occupied for a month.  For today I simply want to identify the theme of church unity and it’s purpose.

In verses 4 to 6 Paul names the seven ones:

One body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one Faith, one baptism, one God

 I can’t help thinking that if the churches, and denominations and factions spent a little longer dwelling on those seven ones then we may move beyond our man-made differences and see our essential unity which, of course, is in the God who calls us and feeds us with the bread of heaven.

The purpose of that unity in the church is not to impose uniformity, on the contrary each calling and part of the body needs to be different and needs to be fully itself, but that the whole body should grow together as one, that we should move from being spiritual infants who are blown around by every fad and trend, by cunning, deceitfulness and scams and, as Paul says:

“…we will grow in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is Christ.  From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does it’s work.”

Ligaments are rarely the first thing we think about when we think of a healthy body, but if the smallest supporting ligament goes wrong then it can affect the health and happiness and work and mission of the whole body.

Why do we follow Jesus and what does it mean to be part of his church?

I follow Jesus because he feeds my soul eternally with the bread of life and to be a small supporting ligament within the body of Christ is the greatest calling ever.

We are the body of Christ and we called to build up that body by sharing the body amongst ourselves and by being the diverse yet united body of Christ in the world.

Lots to think about.  But, if you remember nothing else today, remember this:

“The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”

Amen.

Sermon – Trinity 7

Trinity 7 – Christ the Good Shepherd

18 July 2021

Readings Jeremiah 23:1-6, Mark 6:30-34, 53-end

May I speak this morning in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

A couple of years ago Vivienne and I arrived home at the Vicarage and parked in the drive.  One of the flowerbeds at the front was a bit less full of plants than it is now and we noticed that there was something a bit odd about it.  There was a rather large sheep standing on it.  You can’t pull the wool over our eyes. 

I guessed that the poor thing must belong to the people who keep sheep just behind the pond and, sure enough, they came over with a van and with some good shepherding and some dumb luck we managed to get her in the van and home.

Pope Francis once said that he wanted priests who smelled like their sheep, well I certainly smelt of sheep that day.

Although there are plenty of sheep in this part of Kent, and we see lots at the College too, I served my curacy on the edge of Romney Marsh which is sheep-central, and even has its own breed of sheep named after it.  In places like Ivychurch and Fairfield the churches stand in the middle of the pasture and the flocks graze amongst the headstones and will wander into church if allowed.  

Dotted across the marsh you will see small, 10ft square, brick-built structures, called Lookers Huts.  There are only 20 left now but, at one time there were up to 350.  They were used as primitive shelters by the Lookers whose job it was to look after numerous herds of sheep over a large area.  They would spend a long time living on the marsh with their flocks and the huts would double as their shelter and their tool sheds.  They were hardy men who dedicated their lives to looking after their flocks, and I suspect that they also smelled, quite strongly, of their sheep.  Although before we get carried away and elevate them to Christ-like status as good shepherds of their flock I was also intrigued to read that the Romney Sheep were bred not to jump over the ditches and drains but if you got a feisty one that was causing trouble then the Lookers were not averse to having lamb chops that night, so the analogy only goes so far.

This week’s readings both use the imagery of the people of God being his flock who need to be cared for by good shepherds.  

Jeremiah says that the people charged with looking after God’s people in his time, both the political and the religious leaders, have gone astray and, therefore, the flock has also gone astray:

“Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord.”

God promises to punish those who have led the flock astray and then he makes three further promises – firstly to gather the scattered flock back together:

“I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold” 

secondly to raise up new shepherds:

“I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the Lord.”

And last, but by no means least, God promises to raise up a new ruler from the House of David:

“I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.”

Jeremiah lived and was prophesying at around the year 650 BC and, in referencing King David, he is looking back about 400 years to the time when Israel had been a united, strong and proud nation and straight after David was his son Solomon who was wise and wealthy and Israel was at its height of power and influence.  

But by the time of Jeremiah things had gone badly wrong – Israel and Judah were separate nations, they had suffered a series of ineffectual rulers and the stronger nations around saw them as a weak target.  The Babylonians carried many away from Jerusalem as slaves and Jeremiah himself is believed to have died in exile in Egypt.  The ‘flock’ was not regathered again for over 100 years and was gradually regaining its status when the Roman Empire invaded from the other direction.  We are familiar with hearing about the uneasy peace between the Roman and Jewish leaders from the New Testament but, very shortly after the close of the New Testament period, that uneasy peace broke down into rebellion by the occupied people and suppression by the Romans which resulted in the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD and the razing to the ground of much of Jerusalem.  

Today, the 18th July, is the Festival of Tisha B’Ev in Judaism which is the saddest day in the Jewish calendar when they remember that destruction of the Temple, but they also remember all the other calamities which have fallen the Hebrews, up to and including the Holocaust.  

Following the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem, once again the flock of Israel were scattered and this time the diaspora did not last 100 years but almost 2000 years, but from 1948 that flock has once again been re-gathered.  Interestingly some Jews also regard Tisha B’Ev as the time when the Messiah will be born – the righteous branch from the line of David – as an antidote to the calamities of Israel.  

Which, of course, brings us to Jesus.  Although it is clear that Jesus did not drive out the Romans or act as King and Shepherd over his flock in his lifetime, in fact we just saw that things got worse for Israel only a few decades after the crucifixion, as Christians we are working with a longer time-scale – the coming again of Jesus – and with a bigger flock – not just the Jewish people but all those who are joined to that flock because of our call by Jesus.  

In our reading from Mark the apostles had previously been sent out by Jesus to preach and teach and heal, and now they were returning to him and telling him everything they had been doing.  One could see here the apostles both as the new trainee shepherds who had been out and about learning how to care for the flock, but one could also see them as Jesus’ flock coming back to gather around the good shepherd.  

Jesus’ first concern is for the pastoral well-being of the apostles:

He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.32 And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves.”

The apostles may be the trainee shepherds but here they are Jesus’ inner flock, and he can see that they are worn out by their first taste of ministry, they need some rest and recuperation, even just some time to eat.  So they went off on a boat.  Don’t worry, I am not going to talk about boats again.

But the needs of the people for healing, for comfort, for hope, to have a new Shepherd, are so great that they run around the lake and get to the landing spot before Jesus and the apostles.  

Although Jesus loves his inner-flock and wants to be pastoral to the apostles, when he sees the crowd he sees a larger flock who also need him:

“…he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.”

We sometimes talk about the passion of Christ, which means his suffering.  To feel compassion for someone doesn’t just mean to feel a little bit sorry for them, it means to enter into their suffering with them.  Real compassion is the ultimate form of empathy.  God in Jesus is never dispassionate about the suffering of others but is always compassionate, which found its ultimate expression in his passion on the cross.

You may have noticed that there has been a great deal of sheep and shepherd imagery in this sermon.  It wasn’t that subtle.  When I was at theological college I was taught to avoid this if possible as I was told that it is terribly insulting to modern people to compare them with sheep, for all sorts of reasons.

Nonetheless, our bishops have croziers which are shaped like shepherds’ crooks and we do think of Jesus as the Good Shepherd.  I know I have shown you this picture before but this the icon of Jesus the Good Shepherd, which I made at college, and it is made up of 3000 smaller pictures, including some of Annabelle as a baby.  They are all individual people with their own lives and personalities but as we zoom out the bigger picture is that they find a greater identity as part of the flock of the Good Shepherd.

So, let’s never feel insulted at this pastoral and ovine imagery but let’s rejoice that we are part of Christ’s flock here, let us listen out for the voice of our Good Shepherd as he seeks to regather us into a greater fold and let us always know that no matter how far off we are scattered, and no matter how much we suffer, Jesus the Good Shepherd has compassion for us and calls us home.

Amen.  

Sermon – Trinity 6

Trinity 6 – A prophet beheaded

Sunday 11 July 2021

Readings: Amos 7:7-15, Mark 6:14-29

There was once a great and united kingdom.  However, as its glory days passed and its power waned it was divided into ever smaller constituent parts, each with its own government.  The part of the kingdom which controlled the capital city was ruled by a quixotic man who was married to a strong woman who controlled his actions from behind the scenes.  The court of this leader was morally bankrupt but when people of faith dared to ‘interfere in politics’ by questioning the dubious moral choices of those at the top then he could be cruel and merciless.  

I am, of course, talking about Israel at the time of Jesus and John the Baptist and Herod Antipas.  

At the beginning of our gospel passage news has reached Herod’s ears that a man called Jesus is going about performing miracles and healings and everyone is wondering who this Jesus is:

“Some were saying, John the Baptizer has been raised from the dead…But others said ‘it is Elijah’ and others said ‘It is a prophet like one of the prophets of old.’  But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”

These are the words of a guilty conscience.  Herod knows that he killed an innocent, holy and righteous man and he is afraid that John has been raised from the dead.  Fans of Shakespeare may be reminded of Macbeth being haunted by the ghost of Banquo.

As we know, John the Baptist was a fierce preacher and proponent of a return to holy and clean living.  He saw Jewish society being corrupted.  Thinking about our imagery from the prophet Amos this morning, John the Baptist was holding a plumb line, or perhaps a spirit level, up to the society of his time and found that it had gone wonky.  At the top of this part of Jewish society was the Herodian royal family, who lived more like mini-Caesars than as observant followers of God.

Herod Antipas was married to Herodias who had previously been married to his half-brother.  John the Baptist was outraged by this quasi-incestuous marriage and he voiced his indignation to Herod by saying:

It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.”

And indeed Leviticus 18:16 and 20:21 forbids a man to have sexual intercourse with his brothers wife, although, interestingly Deut 25 commands it when his brother died without leaving a son, although that is not the case here.

Although these prophetic words are spoken to Herod Mark tells us that it is his wife Herodias who takes most offence:

“And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him.  But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him.”

Although Herod had John arrested and taken into custody Mark tells us that Herod may actually have done this to keep him safe from Herodias. 

Of course, John the Baptist is not the first biblical character to incur the wrath of a queen for daring to speak out about their morality – there are real echoes here of the prophet Elijah and his denunciation of Queen Jezebel in 1 Kings, and that is far from accidental as many view John as the returning Elijah, heralding the messiah.

So Herod seems to have John in protective custody but not only did he know that John was a righteous and holy man but, it seems, that Herod was intrigued, if confused, by John’s teachings:

When he heard him he was greatly perplexed,and yet he liked to listen to him.”

It would have been very easy for Mark to have portrayed all of the Herodians as being almost like cartoon villains, but here we are being told that despite all his other faults that there was something going on inside Herod which recognised that there was something special in John and wanted to protect that from harm.  I am reminded here of the way in which Pontius Pilate, and in that case also his wife, recognised the holiness of Jesus.

But despite Herod’s apparent desire to protect John an ‘opportune day’ came for Herodias.  It was Herod’s birthday party and the Herodians had a reputation for knowing how to party.

And as one would expect everyone was there – in our translation it says “the courtiers, officers and leaders of Galilee” – in another translation it sounds even grander as it says : “his lords, military commanders and magnates of Galilee.”  Anyway, you get the picture, anyone who was anyone in the ruling class in that part of the world was invited to this birthday party.

And like all good parties it really got going when the dancing girls arrived.  Although in this case, and perhaps this is indicative of the slightly strange, not to say inbred character of the royal household, the dancing girl is Herod’s own step daughter.  Actually it is even more complicated than that:  She seems to have been Herodias’ daughter by her first marriage and was therefore Herod Antipas’ niece (on her father’s side), his grandniece (on her mother’s side), and his step daughter by marriage to Herodias.  I hope that is clear.

Some commentators have been shocked at the thought that a Jewish king would have a young girl, especially one of his relatives, dancing to entertain a group of men at a party like this, but it should be fairly clear by now that the monarchy at this point had rather departed from traditional or devout Jewish values, and of course that is exactly what John was telling them off for!

In this atmosphere of general debauchery the young girl danced for the men and we are told that is ‘pleased’ Herod, so much so that he promised her half of his kingdom.  I suspect that this was not the polite sort of pleased – this was not a round of applause at the end of seeing a good play – the fact is that Herod Antipas and no doubt many of the men there were extremely pleased at this girl dancing for their pleasure and it was in that atmosphere of drunken, not to say, erotic pleasure that Herod makes his rather rash promise to give her anything she desires, up to half of his kingdom.  And it probably says something about her age that the girl has to go and ask her mother Herodias what she would like and, of course, that is the moment for Herodias to get her revenge on John the Baptist.

Herod has painted himself into a corner – he has given his word in front of all these people.  To break his word and, at the same time, to continue to spare the life of someone who had been so outspoken against his household, would have been the ultimate act of weakness, which is the last thing that any ruler can afford.

Herod was deeply grieved, but he knew he had no option and he sent for a guard to behead this holy man.  And we then have this most grisly scene, in the middle of a feast the guard returns with John’s head on a platter and he hands it first to the young girl and she hands it onto her mother.  One writer referred to this feast as the evil twin of the last supper, and it is easy to see why.

But for me, today, the tragedy of this story is not simply the execution of John.  Herod did not just put John to death – I believe that he put his own better nature to death.  Herod knew that John was a holy man and although John reminded him of his own sinfulness he liked to listen to him.  Despite Herod’s best intentions he ended up ordering John’s horrific execution – whether it was drink, misplaced lust, the desire to show off in front of others we can’t tell exactly but we do know that Herod did something that he did not really want to do – he ended up killing someone that he did not want to kill.  And where did that leave Herod?

Herod ended up being frightened of the reports of what Jesus was doing because this also reminded him of his failure to live up to a higher standard.

And I wonder how much that also applies to us?  We are attracted and intrigued and called by holiness and yet so often we fall down and fail – often perhaps because we don’t want to look silly in front of others.  Everytime we fail to live up to those high standards perhaps we feel a little bit further away from God, perhaps even a little bit afraid to hear about Jesus because that reminds us, that haunts us even, that we are not the people we really want to be, the people that God really fashioned us to be.

Well the good news is this: you are not beyond the forgiveness of God and the redemptive power of Jesus.  No matter how often you have failed or fallen down and no matter how badly you think you have sinned God has not given up on you.  The path to holiness is not a destination it is a lifetimes journey and everytime we recognise that we have fallen short of the glory of God and say sorry we move a little further along that path.  And the amazing news is this: today we are closer to God than we were yesterday and tomorrow we shall be closer still, by the grace of his Son and in the power of his Holy Spirit.

Amen.

Sermon – Trinity 5

Trinity 5 – A prophet without honour

Sunday 4 July 2021

Readings: Ezekiel 2:1-5, Mark 6:1-13

On Tuesday of last week the Church celebrated the two Saints Peter and Paul together.

Bearing in mind that most Saints, even ones you have never previously heard of, get a day all to themselves it may look a bit odd that these two pillars of the church, have to share.

It looks even more odd when you realise how different they were in so many ways.  Peter was a ‘salt of the earth’ fisherman from Galilee, not very learned, often a bit impetuous.  Paul was more of a scholar, advanced in his studies of Judaism and an early persecutor of the church.  Even as apostles they did not always agree with one another.

But, despite their obvious differences in character and temperament, they did have something significant in common.  They both responded to the call of Jesus on their lives to make a difference in the world.  Peter was called by Jesus in person to leave his nets and become a fisher of men. Later he was called to be the Rock on which the church would be built. Paul was called spiritually by Jesus whilst he was on the road to Damascus, to stop being a persecutor of the church and he became its greatest evangelist.  

What I love about these two saints being celebrated together is that we are reminded that the church is not built on those who are like us and who agree with us in all things.  The church was never intended to be a club for the like-minded but is the place where the whole world is redeemed, and the whole world includes people who are different from us in all sorts of ways.

So, the sharing of this day by two great saints says loud and clear that the church can live with difference and diversity and even disagreement.  We can choose our friends but we can’t choose our family and the Church is a new family.

This time of year, often called Petertide, is also about the calling to minister within and to the church.  Peter and Paul were both called and ‘ordained’ to their different ministries and most Dioceses in the Church of England ordain their deacons and priests at this time of year, and my Facebook and Twitter feed has been full of ordination photos and memories.  

Although this ordination season is a source of joy and excitement, and it is always a privilege to respond to God’s call on your life, and to see others do so, we are also reminded that ministry can be a costly business, even for Jesus.

Last week we heard that Jesus healed a woman merely by her touching his cloak and that he brought a 12 year old girl back from death. It is clear to all those around him that Jesus is a powerful miracle worker, a prophet of God and perhaps even more than that.

And then Jesus returned to his home town of Nazareth – the place where he had grown up with his family, had been surrounded by friends and neighbours – in short the place where he had been known since being a young child.

When Jesus started preaching in the synagogue things seemed to be going well at first. We are told that the people who heard him were ‘astounded’ at both his words of wisdom and the deeds of power that he had been doing. And they wondered “Where did this man get all this?” The obvious implication being that such power and wisdom must come from a place above and beyond his humanity – that it comes from God.

But in the blink of an eye the astonishment of the people in the synagogue turned to doubt and to cynicism:

Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary – are not his brothers and sisters here with us?

The crowd allowed their knowledge of Jesus as a person – a person with a family and a history – someone they may well have seen scampering around the streets of Nazareth as a child – to destroy any possibility that there was something else, something divine, going on here. And we are told that they ‘took offence at him’.

I am reminded here of not one but two Monty Python sketches.   In the first John Cleese enters a room dressed smartly in a suit and his elderly mother and one of her elderly friends are there. He says “Good evening Mother” and the two old ladies are amazed that he can walk and talk until, eventually, he says: “Mother, I am the Secretary of State for Trade.” and that sets them off again.

And the other is, of course, from the Life of Brian when Brian’s mother says to the gathered crowd, “He is not the Messiah, he is a very naughty boy.”

And we can probably understand the human nature of what is going on. Here in Hadlow, where no one knew me as an 8 year old, I am the Vicar and many people like to imagine that Vicars drop from the sky fully formed. But when I visit friends and family I am not the Vicar, I am simply Paul and rather than getting to preach I usually struggle to get a word in edgeways.

But of course, the whole point of the incarnation is that Jesus was fully human, a person with a family and a history of growing up in Nazareth who was also fully divine. God works through real, living, breathing human beings not only in the person of Jesus but also in his church – sometimes that makes it hard to discern the divine through the human but it is a useful reminder that we need to open our eyes to the divine presence in the familiar and the material – ordinary bread and wine are transformed to divine service but so too are ordinary men and women – even those we may have seen growing up and even those we know to be fallible human beings.

So, the encounter in the synagogue that started well with the crowd being astounded with Jesus ends with him being amazed at their unbelief. 

In many ways this passage should be a comfort to those of us in ministry who may have unrealistic expectations about people liking us because we are seeking to do good or being won over by our preaching. And, indeed, when Jesus sent out the apostles he made it very clear that just as his ministry was not welcome in Nazareth so there will be times and places when the apostles are not welcome either.   It is the apostle’s responsibility to go in the name of Christ and do what they are commanded to do but if the people won’t respond then that is the people’s responsibility.   Likewise it is the prophet Ezekiel’s responsibility to go to the people, but it is up to them how they respond.

With the exception of Jesus himself, who still had to suffer the disbelief of his home crowd, all those called and ordained into the service of God including Peter and Paul and this Paul are fully human beings with pasts and with faults.  Do we choose to take offence at the humanity of the preacher or do we choose to listen to the divinity of the message?

What is that message?  God loves you and he calls you to love him and love each other, even those who are unlike you in every way.

How will you respond to that message this week?

Amen.

Sermon – 2nd Sunday after Trinity

St Mary’s Hadlow Sunday 13th June 2021

Readings: 2 Corinthians 5: 6-17, Mark 4: 26-34

May I speak in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

I’m sure you have all heard the saying: “Never judge a book by its cover.”

However, if you have ever been to a bookshop, ever bought a book or ever read a book you will know that this is complete nonsense.

Publishers employ artists and designers for the express purpose of selling their books to the right readership by making the covers look both attractive and appropriate to the genre.

I happen to have a couple of books with me. 

The first is by a Russian author Vasily Grossman, called Life & Fate.  It is set in the Second World War and is all about the Battle for Stalingrad.  The cover features a red and black sky, perhaps signifying blood and death, and there are some very serious and gloomy soldiers of the Red Army, who also look as though they have seen a lot of blood and death, looking out of the picture with 1000 yard stares. 

Just by looking at the cover you know that this is going to be a serious book, by a serious writer, featuring, yes, a lot of blood and death.  And, by the way, Vasily Grossman spent 1000 days fighting on the front, so he knew what he was writing about.

And then we have Utopia Avenue, by the English writer David Mitchell.  It is a novel about a band who make it big in the 1960s and the cover has lots of swirling psychedelic patterns which, if you look closely, include some vinyl records, which sends the clear message that this book is about music, about the 60s and about drugs, which is all true. 

No matter what genre of books you read publisher go to great lengths to ensure that you can judge a book by its cover.

But, of course, the saying is not really about books at all, it is about people. 

We are told that we should not be judging what a person is really like by judging their appearance. 

Which we all do all the time.  In fact psychologists tell us that we have normally made up our minds about someone within micro-seconds of meeting them, mostly because of their appearance and, if you are English, by their pronunciation. 

When I arrived as Vicar in Hadlow someone, who shall remain nameless, said to me: “I only have one question to ask you – how do you pronounce the word ‘faith’?”

When I said “Faith” with a T H they seemed satisfied.  Had I said “Faiff” with a double F, I suspect not.

No doubt there are important evolutionary reasons why we judge people so quickly based on outward appearances – if someone looks like us and sounds like us then they are probably one of our tribe, or a close relation, and they probably won’t kill us, so we can relax and let them into our circle.

Whereas if they are different we need to be wary, and we need to keep them at arms length.

But the world has moved on in many ways, and our Stone Age brains need to catch up. 

Judging others on their outward appearance, and specifically on how much like us they appear to be, is, of course, the driving force behind racism, sexism, classism and most other forms of discrimination.

But there is another reason why we should not judge other people by their outward appearance. 

And that is because God does not look at us or other people in that way. 

It does not matter how old or young we are, how fat or thin we are, how white or black we are, how rich or poor we are, how posh or common we are, God is not fooled for a minute. 

We can’t blag God with the way we pronounce ‘faith’ or by going to Eton and quoting some Latin, or even by pretending to be ever so ‘umble and Christian.  The being that created us and knew us before we knew ourselves and will know us long after we have departed this mortal coil sees past the clever design of our cover, our dust jacket, and looks at the text being written every day by our lives, and not just at the text of our words and actions but also between the lines of our thoughts and our motivations.

On one level this is a judgement issue – as St Paul says in the reading from 2 Corinthians “for all of us must appear before the judgement seat of Christ” and there we can only give a truthful account of who we are and how we have used our God-given time and talents.

But there is also more to it than end-of-time judgement.  It is also about living our lives as the person God made us to be and, this is important, looking at other people in that deeper way too.

As St Paul goes on to say:

“From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer that way.  So, if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away, see, everything has become new!”

I mentioned last week, and in this week’s pew news’, about how being in relationship with one another because of Jesus creates a new family.  Those who are unrelated by physical birth become brothers and sisters by the new spiritual birth of baptism.

Here St Paul takes that even further and says that because of being in Christ we have become a whole new creation – everything old has passed away and everything has become new. 

As Christians, we don’t look at Jesus merely as a carpenter from Nazareth who did and said some good things, but we see also the Son of God.  So, we no longer see him from a purely human point of view.

We already know that God does not see us from a human point of view, but sees the real us, which might be scary or it might be encouraging.  If it is very scary then I am happy to talk further.  Seriously.

We can see beyond the cover of Jesus’ humanity and God sees beneath the cover of our humanity – we’ve got that.

But how do we look at one another?

Do we use our Stone Age brain to make instant judgements about each other based on dress and colour and accent?  That may be our human nature but we know that we are called beyond that and called to be more than that – indeed, a whole new creation and a whole new family in Christ.

“From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view.”

What a challenge and what an opportunity.

We are given permission to set aside the mass of prejudices that we think make us who we are, to be the new creation that we really are and to see those around us not only as brothers and sisters but as whole new creations who are loved and known by God, just as we are. 

None of us are as holy as we pretend to be but, because of Christ, all of us are holier than we could possibly imagine – and so is the person next to you and so is the person you may encounter for the first time tomorrow.

Never judge a book by its cover.

Hang on a moment, these covers appear to be the wrong way around.

Amen.

Sermon – Trinity Sunday

Sunday 30 May 2021

Readings: Isaiah 6:1-8, John 3:1-17

In the name of the most holy and blessed Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Last Sunday was Pentecost and, as I said then, the two Sundays of Pentecost and Trinity, taken together, force us to think more deeply about the God we worship and with whom and towards whom we travel.  

Whilst we thought about the sending of the Holy Spirit on the church last week, and whilst we are encouraged to think about the Threeness and oneness of God this week, of course, both the Holy Spirit and the Trinity should inform our thinking, our praying and our worship all 52 weeks of the year.  These should not be things which we grapple uncomfortably with for 2 weeks and then pop back in the box so that we can get back to thinking about Jesus for the rest of the year.  To be followers of Jesus is to be in relationship with the whole of God the whole of the time.

Trinity Sunday could also be known as the Sunday of Inadequate Metaphors, in which preachers try to demonstrate how something can be one and three at the same time by trying to relate it to eggs and ice and so forth.  Last year, on my first Sunday back from Sabbatical, I looked at most of those metaphors and challenged some of the heresies they contain.  I ended up dwelling on the icon of the trinity by Rublev, which remains one of the best illustrations of the concept.  However, as beautiful and meaningful as that is, even that is an abstraction.

So this year, rather than dealing in metaphors and abstractions, I simply want to look at the gospel reading and see something of Father, Son and Holy Spirit shining through the words we are given.  

“There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.  He came to Jesus by night…”

Despite being an establishment man, Nicodemus found himself unable to ignore the Jesus phenomena, albeit that he made his initial approach under cover of darkness.  There is something quite modern and relatable in that reluctance to be seen in public with Jesus.

But, despite it being uncool and dangerous, Nicodemus wanted to know the truth about this man Jesus.  And, despite his own position of importance he had to approach Jesus as someone willing to learn at the feet of a teacher.  His first words are:

“Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who comes from God, For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.”

Nicodemus recognises, at the least, that Jesus is a teacher blessed by God, that he is with God, and Jesus uses that starting point for a dialogue which leads us further into who Jesus really is.

“Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

In Greek the word which means “born from above” is very similar to one which means to be “born again” and Nicodemus interprets that a bit too literally and asks Jesus how an old man can be given birth to a second time and this leads Jesus onto to explain that, of course, he does not mean a second physical birth but, rather, a new birth of the spirit:

“What is born of the flesh is flesh and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.”

Nicodemus asks the question that is on everyone’s lips at this point:

         “How can these things be?”

It is a simple question but the most profound.  If we cannot enter the kingdom of heaven without being born from above, having a second spiritual birth, then how does this happen, what do I have to do?  

Of course, we can’t give birth to ourselves spiritually, any more than we can give birth to ourselves physically.  Our spiritual re-birth comes only from the Holy Spirit. 

I spoke to someone at length during the week who had had a dramatic and life-changing experience of being ‘born again’ through the actions of the Holy Spirit, her life had been completely transformed. But, being ‘born from above’ doesn’t have to be dramatic to be real – I wouldn’t be here without the Holy Spirit and you wouldn’t be there.

Each of our lives are already different because we seek to follow Jesus in the power of the Spirit.  But, despite being Anglicans, we can still pray continually for the awareness of and renewal by the Holy Spirit and that the fruits of the Spirit would become ever more real in our lives and in our church.  

It may no longer be Pentecost but we can still say: “Come Holy Spirit.”

It would make a great evangelistic story if Nicodemus had responded that he wanted to be born again, had received the Holy Spirit there and then and become another one of the first disciples. But the truth is sometimes a bit messier and Nicodemus does not respond to Jesus at this point and he fades into the background for a few chapters.  It should be a sobering reminder that when even Jesus himself evangelised on a one to one basis that immediate and obvious conversion were not always the result.  Although I think that Nicodemus did become a disciple of Jesus, albeit a less public one, as it was he and Joseph of Arimathea who wrapped Jesus’ body in linen following his crucifixion, when the more public disciples had gone into hiding. 

Having taught Nicodemus about the work of the Holy Spirit Jesus then spoke about the relationship between himself and God the Father:

“No one has ascended into heaven except the one descended from heaven, the Son of Man” 

And perhaps the most famous evangelistic verse of all time, John 3:16:

“For God so loved the World that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have everlasting life.” 

Some people may tell you that the concept of the Trinity was invented by the church a long time after the bible was written.  But today, in a space of only 17 verses, Jesus has told Nicodemus, essentially that it is not sufficient to worship God as a far-off being,

Rather, in order to enter the fullness of relationship with God that he desires for us we need to be ‘born from above’ by the power of the Holy Spirit and believe in the name of Jesus, his only Son, who was himself conceived by the Holy Spirit and blessed by the Spirt at his baptism.  

God the Father sent his Son to the world out of love and the Father and the Son send the Spirit upon us out of love.

We don’t need metaphor or abstraction today we just need to know that the whole of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, love us and want us to have eternal life by being born in the Spirit, in the name of the Son and to the Glory of the Father.

Amen.

Sermon – Pentecost Sunday

Readings: Acts 2:1-21, John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

May I speak this morning in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

This week is Pentecost Sunday, and next week is Trinity Sunday, and those two weeks together ought to remind us, loud and clear, that there is much more to God then we can possibly imagine.

Actually, why don’t we try that for a moment.  Close your eyes and imagine God.  

 And now come back to Earth for a moment.

Focusing our minds on God in this way is doubtless a good thing, and it may be a first step to moving us deeper into contemplative prayer, but here is the thing: whatever we imagine God is like, is wrong.  The theologian Anselm said that the God we can imagine is never the real God because, if we tried a little bit harder, we could probably imagine a greater God.  Whatever image came to mind a moment ago I am sure, if you tried again, you could imagine something bigger and older and more loving.

If we struggle to remember the name of that nice person we met yesterday or which Christmas it was that Auntie Bertha dropped the Christmas pudding, then let’s not kid ourselves that we can truly imagine the fullness of the God who spoke the whole universe into being, who upholds it from moment to moment, and who knows the beginning and end of all things.

The wholeness of God is beyond our human imaginings.  But that doesn’t matter and should not cause us any consternation, because we were not created to understand God, as if he were an equation or a text book, but to enter into a relationship of love and worship towards him.  And if you think that love needs understanding then I can tell you that I don’t understand my wife and children most of the time, but I still love them. And sometimes worship them, but not in an idolatrous sense.

God is not simply a creator who stands apart from his creation, like a watchmaker observing the cogs, but that he continually reaches out to it, and participates in it.  We see that primarily through the incarnation of Jesus but, because of the events of Pentecost we are reminded that God continues to reaches out to the world through his Holy Spirit.  

I once heard a preacher say that the Holy Spirit came into being at Pentecost, but of course that is nonsense – the church as we know it came into being at Pentecost, but the Holy Spirit had been with God and been part of God since the beginning – in Genesis 1:1 we encounter the Spirit of God hovering over the waters.  The Holy Spirit is evident throughout the Old Testament, primarily in the lives of the prophets.  But the New Testament is full of the Holy Spirit, and much of that before Pentecost.  The obvious example is the Holy Spirit ‘overshadowing’ Mary at the Annunciation but the Spirit is also present in the story of John the Baptist, with Simeon and Anna at the Temple and at the Baptism of Jesus.

Prior to his Ascension Jesus promised his followers that he would not leave them comfortless, and we heard those words of promise in our Gospel reading this morning – Jesus would send his followers an advocate.  When I was a lawyer I often acted as an advocate and, as such, one steps into the shoes of the client and speaks on their behalf, saying the things they would say if they had the knowledge and vocabulary so to do.  But the job of the advocate is not just to represent their client’s case to the court, it is also to explain to the client how the system works and what is happening.  So the advocate is not just a mouthpiece but is better understood as an interpreter – translating client speak into court speak and vice versa.

Jesus says that the ‘Spirit of Truth’ will testify on his behalf and will prove the world wrong about sin, and righteousness and judgement.  So the Spirit will stand in the shoes of Jesus and continue to speak into the world.  But the Spirit doesn’t just speak into the world – Jesus says that the Spirit will also speak what he hears and declare it to the followers of Jesus, because they are not able to bear everything now.  So, in that sense, the Advocate, the Spirit of Truth, the Holy Spirit is representing God to the world and to the church.   But we also believe that in our baptisms each of us becomes recipients and dwelling places of the Holy Spirit and as that Spirit leads us into truth we hope also that he acts as our Advocate to God, saying what we would say if only we had the knowledge and vocabulary.

In our reading from Acts we saw the events of the first Pentecost, and we also learnt an important lesson.  God the Holy Spirit doesn’t just exist ethereally or in the abstract, rather the Holy Spirit is made manifest in the body of the church – on their own wind and flames are unintelligible and unknowable but when they land on the church and people start to speak as they hear from the spirit, then barriers are broken down and individuals become a church.  In a very real sense, if Jesus is the incarnation of God the Son then the Church is the incarnation of God the Holy Spirit.

Whilst we celebrate and remember Pentecost as the Holy Spirit giving birth to the church we should also remember that this was not a once and for all occasion.  Only a couple of weeks ago I spoke about the Pentecost of the Gentiles, when the Holy Spirit was poured out on Cornelius and his family in Joppa, I have already mentioned the work of the Holy Spirt throughout the Old and New Testament, in John’s Gospel Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit on his followers even before the Ascension and we believe that the Holy Spirit continues to be poured into the church, which, of course, also does not exist ethereally or in the abstract, but only exists through each and every one of us.

The God who created the universe is not just ‘up there’ but is also in here and in each of you and, therefore, in us collectively.  As Christians we are not just called to be nice to one another but to remember that we are filled with the fullness of God.   

God is vaster than we can ever imagine, but he also looks at the world through your eyes and cares for the world through your hands, because the Holy Spirit dwells amongst us and within us.

When you imagined God a moment ago did that picture also include Jesus who took our humanity into heaven?  Did it include the Holy Spirit who fills each of us right now?

Our homework for this week, as we prepare for Trinity Sunday, is not to constrain God by the limits of our imagination but to allow the fullness of God, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to help us enter into proper relationship with him, with ourselves and with one another.

Amen.

Sermon – 6th Sunday of Easter

Sunday 9 May 2021Easter 6

Readings: Acts 10:44-end, John 15:9-17

May I speak this morning in the Name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Next Thursday is the Feast of the Ascension, when we remember the resurrected Jesus returning to be with God the Father.

Having seen Jesus die on the cross and then having undergone both the disbelief and the joy of the resurrection the disciples, and perhaps us by extension, have become used to having Jesus around again.  But he can’t stay in the world forever – it may be interesting to imagine a world in which Jesus simply never died and never left – but that was not God’s plan for the world and for the church.  So Jesus is now getting ready to return to the Father and, perhaps more importantly, he is also getting his followers ready for a world without his physical presence. 

If you cast your minds back over the previous several weeks I hope you will recall the lengths that Jesus went to in order to demonstrate not only that he had been risen from the dead but that he was physically real.  He was neither a ghost nor a purely spiritual being – he had hands and feet and a side still bearing the wounds of the cross.  He ate and drank with the disciples both to prove his physicality but also to continue to share fellowship with them from the other side of the cross – the Last Supper was not really the last at all. 

But if the resurrected Jesus was physical then, of course, the Jesus that ascended was also physical.  Whilst we may seek to put God into a space marked ‘spiritual’ and ourselves and the world into a space marked ‘physical’ it seems to me that the incarnated, resurrected and ascended person of Jesus takes away that distinction.  

By being born into human flesh, which was created in the likeness of God and which becomes literally the image of God in Jesus, by defeating death which entered the world through disobedience and by being lifted up to the Father in the flesh we are shown time and again that God wishes to reconcile the whole of our being with him.  God came to us in Jesus so that we could be lifted back to him.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

How are the followers of Jesus to cope in the world, without Jesus being with them?

In the Gospel reading Jesus tells his disciples that they should ‘abide in his love.’  This word ‘abide’ was also in last week’s Gospel when Jesus used the image of the vine branches abiding in the vine.

We would usually abide in our abode.  Our home.  Our dwelling place.  Somewhere where we bide our time, where we want to spend our time.

Jesus is saying that his love is our home – the place where we can and should abide.

We should live in the love of Jesus.

And if we live in the love of Jesus then we know that we are living directly in the love of God the Father, because Jesus abides – lives and spends his time – in that love. 

Jesus says that if we live in his love that our joy will be complete. 

The world can be a difficult and dark place but if we feel that in May in 21st century Kent then never forget that the world has been much more difficult and dark in most other times and places.

Jesus knew that, because it literally crucified him.

But, despite that, it is possible for our joy to be complete if we make our home, our dwelling place, in the love of Jesus.

However, abiding in the love of Jesus does not, and never meant a purely private, spiritual, relationship between Jesus and individual followers.

Jesus makes it clear that the fruit we bear when we make our home in his love is that we love those around us – ‘that you love one another, as I have loved you.’

‘As I have loved you’. 

How did Jesus love?

By giving everything he had, including his life, for those that he loved. 

The love Jesus had for his disciples and the love he commands them to have for one another is never a purely spiritual love.  It is the opposite of a ‘thoughts and prayers’ love, which rarely results in thoughts, prayers and certainly not in action.  The love that Jesus has, and the love he commands us to have, is a love which finds expression in thought, word and deed.  The Good Samaritan loved the injured man by taking costly action.

So the disciples, and by extension us, learn to cope without the physical presence of Jesus here on earth by dwelling in his love and allowing that utterly spiritual but deeply real and practical love bear fruit in the world for all those around us.  We cope with the absence of Christ by making Christ present.

But Jesus knew that we needed some extra help with that and we know that in two weeks time we shall celebrate Pentecost when the Holy Spirit arrived in power to breath new life into the disciples so that they would become the church, the body of Christ on earth.  I shall keep my powder dry for that but in the reading from the Acts of the Apostles we see that the Pentecost was not simply a one-off event for the very first members of the early church but that the Spirit of God comes to all those who believe. 

Sermon – 4th Sunday of Easter

Sunday 25th April 2021

Acts 4:5-12, John 10:11-18

May I speak this morning in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Nearly every week I start my sermon in that way – seeking to ground my thinking, my writing and ultimately my speaking in the name of God.

“…there is no other name under heaven…by which we must be saved.”

Names are important and names are powerful.

The name by which you are known, and how others use it, can speak volumes about relationships.  If someone you don’t know well changes your name without consent – perhaps they shorten a Stephen to a Steve or a Vivienne to a Viv – then not only can it cause annoyance but it can also feel as though that person has become over-familiar and trying to exert informal power.

One of the redeeming features about being called Paul is that it is not an easy name to either shorten or lengthen – although I was called Pablo when I lived in York many years ago. I guess that could now be Padre Pablo.  That has a certain ring, but no!

When parents shout, or say quietly, your full given name, including your middle names, then you know you are in trouble.

People in close relationships may use all sorts of nick-names for each other, which may not be known or used by anyone else, and which reinforce intimacy.

People who don’t like each other, or wish to be deliberately unkind, may call each other horrible names:

‘…sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me…’ – I think we all know that is not true.

People with depression or self-esteem issues may call themselves all sorts of bad names, which can change the way they think of themselves.  When we think lowly of ourselves and give ourselves demeaning names, remember always that that is not how God sees us – he knows our real name.

The importance and power of names runs like a golden thread from the beginning to the end of the bible – let me highlight just a few:

At the very beginning, when God spoke creation into being, he also named that which he created:  ‘God called the light “day”, and the darkness he called “night.” (Gen 1:5) The act of naming completed the act of creation. 

When Abram entered into a new covenant with God, at the age of 99, an age when most of us are quite used to our names I suspect, God changed his name, perhaps to complete the act of creation in his life: “No longer will you be called Abram your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations”. (Gen 17:5). 

Many monks and nuns change their names when taking religious vows.  I once stayed in a monastery and ended up sitting next to a monk called St John of the Cross.  Which felt a little intimidating but he was very nice. 

When Moses was called by name from the burning bush and sent to rescue his people from slavery, Moses asked the name of the one who was sending him: “I AM WHO I AM” or I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE – Pure being-ness and becoming. (Ex 3:14)

When God, I AM WHO I AM, later gave the ten commandments to Moses the fourth commandment was that his people should not misuse the name of God – ‘for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name’ (Ex 20:7).  In response to this commandment many Jews will not even write or say the word ‘God’, for fear of even accidently misusing the name, and will refer to God as “HaShem” – which simply means the Name.

I don’t know about you but when I hear people using the name of Jesus Christ as an exclamation or a swear word it really hurts me. I feel it in my heart.  It is misusing the name of God, it is misusing the name of someone we love and follow and I would certainly hope that no practising Christian would even be able to do this.

When God called the boy Samuel to be a prophet he called him distinctly by name, as he had called Moses before, and, as we heard on Easter Day, when Jesus wanted Mary Magdalene to recognise him following the resurrection he simply said her name.  Although God calls in many and varied ways he is also quite capable of simply calling us by name.  If we are brave enough to approach the burning bush, willing to seek the counsel of those who are wiser than us or simply take a moment to wipe the tears from our eyes, or metaphorically unblock our ears, we may recognise and respond to the one who calls us by name.

When John the Baptist was conceived his father Zechariah was struck dumb and was not able to speak again until he confirmed that ‘his name is John’ (Luke 1:57-66).

Having started in Genesis the theme of the power of names, both for us and for God, goes all the way to Revelation: “To the one who is victorious I will give some of the hidden manna.  I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.” (Rev 2:17)

Doubtless a mysterious verse but one which suggests to me that our true identity, our eternal name, is known only to God and that the act of creation in us will be completed on the other side of this life when God gives those who have won through that white stone with our new and real name written on.

And, at the very end of Revelation, in the new heaven and the new earth we are told of God’s people that:

 “They will see his face and his name will be on their foreheads(Rev 22:4)

There is a beautiful circularity here: The people of God both receive a new name from him, which is their true identity, but ultimately they are known not because they wear their own name, but because they wear God’s name.  This is the opposite of misusing God’s name, it is being known as His people by making his name our name. 

Then, of course, last but by no means least, there is the name of Jesus:

          “At the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow,

          every tongue confess him, king of glory now.”

I do love that hymn, but, like many hymns it is based in scripture, in this case Philippians 2:9-11:

Therefore God also highly exalted him
    and gave him the name
    that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
    every knee should bend,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
    that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

The name above all names. 

Although I don’t bow my knee every time the name of Jesus is mentioned you may have noticed that I often bow my head during the liturgy, and those that wear birettas to worship would doff them at that point – this is no mere affectation or empty religiosity but, for me at least, comes from the same heart that is hurt when Jesus’ name is misused – it is a heart that recognises the name of Jesus as the name of my friend, my brother, my judge, my king of kings and my God.  How could we be unmoved by that name?

The disciples were asked:

By what power or what name did you do this?” (Acts 4:7)

Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit said:

It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead…. there is no other name under heaven…by which we must be saved.”

There is no other name by which we must be saved.

Amen.

Sermon – 3rd Sunday of Easter

Sunday 18th April; Doubting Disciples

Readings: Acts 3:12-19 Luke 24:36b-48

May I speak this morning in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

It is sometimes easy to forget that Easter, like Christmas, is not a single day but it is, in fact, a whole season.  

We don’t simply hear the story of the resurrection on Easter morning and then get back to ‘business as usual’, or at least we shouldn’t.  

For the 50 days of the Easter season we travel with the disciples in their struggles to come to terms with the reality of the resurrection, and what it might mean for them and for the world.

On Good Friday this year Professor Alice Roberts, the President of the Humanists in the UK, Tweeted that ‘dead people do not come back to life.’   Apart from demonstrating a severe lack of grace I wonder what she was hoping to achieve – would millions of Christians suddenly realise the error of their ways? 

Of course, we know that dead people don’t come back from the dead, apart from in ghost films, and the disciples also knew that dead people do not come back to life.  Well there was Lazarus and Dorcas but they are exceptions because Jesus did that, but generally dead people don’t come back.  It’s simply common sense, and the disciples were sensible people – fisherman, tax collectors, grown ups.

Dead people do not come back to life.

Last week we heard about the disciple Thomas.  And ‘thank you’ Christopher for reminding us that the stories of the disciples did not end when their story in the bible ended, and that Thomas may well have travelled to India proclaiming the good news.  

Saint Thomas is often referred to as a doubter because he would not believe in the resurrection until he saw Jesus for himself.  This is doubly unfair on Thomas  – at no point do his words or actions display the slightest doubt, in fact he is crystal clear: At first he says that “unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my fingers where the nails were, and put my fingers in his side, I will not believe.”

I will not believe.  That is not doubt.

And then, when Jesus appears to him and Thomas sees and touches the wounds of the cross he says: “My Lord and my God!”  That is not doubt either.  Thomas was clear in both directions – he would not believe and then he believed.  

But the reason that calling Thomas a doubter is doubly unfair is because that word is used in today’s reading and it is not aimed at him:

“…Jesus himself stood among them and said to them ‘Peace be with you.’”

“They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost.”  “Why are you troubled and why do doubts arise in your minds?”

There is that word – doubt – and it is not being aimed at Thomas but at all those who were gathered in that room.  

The disciples knew that dead people do not come back to life.  Except for ghosts.

I find it fascinating that some think that it is entirely un-Christian to believe in the possibility of ghosts – when the disciples mistook Jesus for a ghost not once but twice – in this passage and also in Matthew 14 when he walked on water.

Jesus then goes to some lengths to prove that he is neither a ghost, nor a purely spiritual being:

Look at my hands and feet.  It is I myself!  Touch me and see, a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see I have.”

This reminds us that the resurrection of Jesus was never a purely spiritual matter.  Jesus rising from the dead had nothing to do with a ghost or a spirit or a soul shedding it’s earthly shell, floating around for a bit and then floating up to heaven.  

The incarnation of Jesus does not just mean that God joined himself with our fleshly humanity in birth but he also joined himself to our physicality in death and resurrection.  

But even having seen his hands and feet the disciples were still not sure and so Jesus ate some fish in front of them.  

Poor old Thomas gets called a doubter and yet here is Jesus having to do party tricks in front of many of the disciples to get them to believe that a dead person had come back to life.

Then he opened their minds so that they could understand the scriptures.  What a gift – to have your mind opened in person by the resurrected Jesus so that we can see him throughout the scriptures and see in him the fulfilment of those scriptures – we pray that the Holy Spirit will work in each of us that way.

But it is not kept secret – this is not a gnostic gospel – Jesus says clearly that the scripture is fulfilled by the Messiah who suffers and rises from the dead on the third day.  This, we know, is the thing which distinguishes Christianity from the other Abrahamic faiths – that apparent failure and disappointment will be overturned by new life and resurrection.  And that forgiveness for the repentance of sins will be preached in all nations.  

Christianity has a had bad rap for being too focused on sin, historically, and often for the condemnation of sin.  I sometimes wonder whether we have gone too far the other way in not thinking about sin at all and pretending that we are all fine with God exactly as we are, with no change required.  If the latter is true then, frankly, there would be no point to faith at all.  Actually I think we need to rediscover the import of what Jesus is saying here:

Sin is real – not everything we do is what God would have us do.

Repentance is real – We can turn from wrong.

Forgiveness is real – When we admit our sins and turn to Christ we are not condemned, rather we are forgiven.

Those who know their need for repentance and experience the forgiveness that only Christ can bring are always the most powerful witnesses to the power of faith.

And I want to close on that word ‘witness’ – it is used in both the reading from Acts and the Gospel reading.  For us to be a witness means two things: It means to see something happening – to witness an event.

But witnesses are not merely bystanders.  They are those who are prepared to stand up and act as witnesses to what they have seen – to give evidence of what they have witnessed.

The mission that Jesus gives the disciples is to be witnesses to his bodily resurrection.  To see that although dead people do not come back to life that Jesus came back to life and not as a ghost but as flesh and bones.  It is the resurrection first and foremost that makes us who we are.  Having acted as witnesses to his resurrection Jesus charges them to be witnesses to the whole world of the forgiveness of sins and the new life that brings.

Sisters and Brothers in Christ.  In the power of the resurrection the dead do come back to life – that is the lesson the disciples learnt and that is the lesson for us. 

“You are witnesses of all these things.”

Go out into the world and be witnesses to the difference that the resurrected Jesus makes to you.

Amen.