Sermon – 2nd Sunday of Easter

Sermon at St Mary’s Church Hadlow 10 a. m. on the Second Sunday of Easter 11th April 2021

Readings: Acts 4 vv 32 – 35  Believers share their possessions

John 20 vv 19 – End  The risen Jesus appears to the disciples on Easter Day and a week later.

Introduction.   I have said before that there are two people in the New Testament who get a bad press, namely Martha, the sister of Mary and Lazarus, and the Apostle Thomas. Today I want to focus on Thomas. In the late 1960s, I had a posting to Royal Air Force Muharraq, accompanied by Julia and our very young son Philip. As a licensed reader in the RAF, I assisted quite often at services in the station Chapel. In my second year in Bahrain there was no chaplain at the main Anglican Church, St. Christopher’s in the capital city of Manama and so I was also conducting services there from time to time.  There were other churches in Manama , one of which cause the Mar Thoma church, providing for Christians from the Indian subcontinent. You may have heard of the Mar Thoma Church. By strong tradition the Church was founded by the Apostle Saint Thomas who is considered to have landed at Crananore in South West India in AD 52.  In the period 1997 to 2003 when our son Philip was firstly senior engineer and then project manager for a project repairing the dry docks in Dubai, we visited him and his wife Karen on a number of occasions. In Dubai there is also a branch of the Ma Thoma church which at that time, like many other congregations, met in the Anglican, Holy Trinity Church.  They now have the own church in the complex of churches a few miles away on land at Jebel Ali, given by the ruling Sheikh. At the first service on the 16th December 2001, it is recorded that there were 5000 participants.   Certainly, one has to recognise that the Mar Thoma Church is a strong Church, probably as a result of Thomas’ initiation in the 1st century.

2. Thomas.   What do we know about Saint Thomas and the early Mar Thoma Church?  There are broadly three sources.  In no particular order there are:

  • Writings ascribed to Thomas but probably written by others,
  • There are brief references to him by reliable historian of the Church,
  • There are references to him in the New Testament from holy scripture.

3.       Books of Thomas.           There are three books named after the Apostle.

  •   There is ‘The Acts of Thomas’.  This is the only one of the five principal apocryphal ‘Acts’ which has survived intact.  Probably written in the late second century or early 3rd century A. D. The setting is almost certainly Indian.  Thomas is reputed to have been martyred in India. There is a  chapel on St Thomas’ Mount, the traditional site of Thomas martyrdom, near Madras (photo at end).
  •  There is the Gospel of Thomas, a Coptic papyrus discovered in Egypt in the twentieth century.  It is largely comprised of the sayings of Jesus, with many paralleling the canonical gospels.  The Gospel is probably the earliest of Thomas’ books
  •   The Apocalypse of Thomas is one of three principal apocalypses, the other two being attributed to the Apostles Peter and Paul.  Thomas’ Apocalypse has a strong emphasis on light.

In summary the books of Thomas give considerable support to his active ministry in India and probably elsewhere.

4.       Historians.  There are two reliable historians, both of the 4th century, who note Thomas’ work.

  • Firstly Jerome, a great scholar, bishop and translator, responsible for the translation of the Bible into Latin in what is known as the Vulgate version.  He notes that Thomas travelled to Persia, now Iran.
  • Secondly, Eusebius, born in Caesarea, where he founded a monastery and was consecrated Bishop.  He drafted the Creed, finalised and approved at the Council of Nicea in 325 AD and which we will be saying in a few minutes.  Eusebius is sometimes known as the ‘Father of Church History’.  He records that Thomas was active as a missionary in the East.

5.         New Testament. I come now to the third and most important source of information about Thomas, the Apostle, namely the New Testament.  Apart from five mentions in list of disciples, there are three significant references to Thomas, all in John’s Gospel.

Firstly, when Jesus tells the 12 quite plainly that his friend Lazarus is dead, Thomas makes the surprising statement, “Let us also go that we may die with him.”  One cannot be sure what was in Thomas’ mind at that point. Jesus had spoken of going back to Judea, but because of the risk of death the disciples expressed surprise at the suggestion.  Then after he had told them plainly that Lazarus was dead, Jesus says “For your sake, I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe.  But let us go to him.”  Did Thomas think that they were to join Lazarus in death?  The raising of Lazarus is in John’s gospel the sixth and final sign pointing clearly to Jesus’ own resurrection.  At the very least we can see in Thomas’ statement a strong commitment to Jesus, even if the belief in resurrection was not yet formed.  A belief as expressed a little later by Martha about her brother, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”, a hope shared then by the Pharisees but not the Sadducees, a hope to be shared with all of us.

          The second significant reference to Thomas is in John 14, where we find Jesus preparing his disciples for the fact that he will soon die, but in so doing will go to God the Father and prepare a place for them.  Thomas says to Jesus, “Lord we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?  To someone like Thomas with an enquiring mind he found Jesus’ enigmatic statements difficult to follow.  Was Jesus going to Bethany to see how his old friend Lazarus was getting on? Or was he going to risk going right into Jerusalem where the national leaders were keen to arrest him.   Or was he perhaps going to some of the dispersed Jews such as those in the great centre of learning, namely the city of Alexandria in Egypt where the Hebrew version of the Jewish Bible had been translated into the Greek language in what is known as the Septuagint Version, widely quoted from by 1st Century Jews.  Jesus’ response is even more enigmatic, for he says “I am the Way”.

          The third significant reference to Thomas is in our Gospel reading today. In that we are told that Thomas was not present on Easter Day when the risen Jesus appeared to the 10 apostles.  Clearly though he sceptical of the reports from the 10 as he responds, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were and put my hand in his side, I will not believe it.”  Here again we see the enquiring mind of Thomas, wanting good proof, hard evidence, not just secondhand reported evidence.

          What is more, Jesus graciously provides all the evidence a week later.  There is nothing enigmatic about this meeting and Jesus’ response.  Probably Jesus already knows that Thomas is destined for a demanding role in the kingdom of God, by establishing a church in Iran and another in India.  A truly apostolic role.  Jesus, after his initial greeting of “Peace be with you” to all gathered there, then invites Thomas to put his finger into the mail wounds in his hands and to put his hand into Jesus wounded side.  Thomas has witnessed Jesus come through locked doors, no problem if one reckons on one extra dimension for a resurrected person.  Thomas doesn’t need further proof but rather, responds with the strong affirmation, “My Lord and my God”.

6.       Our response.  What about our response?   We live in a strongly scientific world.  Science and mathematics underly much of our practical life, whether in medicine or transport, building or communications.  Many people like Thomas want to ask questions, and this can apply to matters of faith as well as the practicalities of daily life.  The Christian faith has stood up to 2000 years of questioning.  Faith is strengthened by an enquiring mind.  Do not be afraid to ask questions, to read, both the scriptures and helpful books.

          Maybe, like Thomas, you have had a ‘bad press’, perhaps been put down when you were young either at school or at home.  Maybe compared unfavourably to a sibling.   God hasn’t written you off.  He can use each one of us in the work of his kingdom.   Take inspiration from the way God used so-called ‘doubting Thomas’ in the foundation of an important branch of the Christian Church.

Christopher Miles.      

photo from The Lost Bible by J R Porter 2001, phot Ann and Bury Purless

Homily – Maundy Thursday

Homily for Maundy Thursday 2021

Readings: 1 Corinthians 11: 23-26; John 13: 1-17, 31b-35

Leonardo Da Vinci has a lot to answer for.

When we think of The Last Supper it is difficult not to think of that depiction. 

I am sure you are right now.

Jesus and his disciples, all wearing brightly coloured and clean robes, artfully arranged along one side of a table, inside a room which looks like a palazzo, and with windows facing onto a Tuscan landscape.

The real scene, in an upper room in 1st century Jerusalem would have been, somewhat, different.  The room, less palatial, the robes more workaday and travel worn.  They probably sat on both sides of a more rustic table, without a thought to the poor artist.  The reality would have been less posed, more incarnational, more real. 

Even the title, The Last Supper, are not words that will be found in the bible or the lectionary.  Only two people present that night would have had any idea that it was a last supper and not just, well, supper.

Tonight, we celebrate not The Last Supper but Maundy Thursday, Commandment Thursday, Holy Thursday, the Thursday of Mysteries, Sheer Thursday.

A Thursday of many names and many meanings which can be understood on one level at a first reading but, as we dig deeper and seek to live those meanings out, may also sustain a lifetime’s discipleship.

There is the institution of the Eucharist itself.  The living Jesus giving us everyday items of bread and wine and making them into the body and blood of Christ in order to sustain the body of Christ which is his church.

Judas’ betrayal, with its themes of freewill and predestination which can cause all sorts of discussion at Lent courses.

Peter’s characteristic but, oh so relatable misunderstanding of Jesus and his subsequent headlong rush of enthusiasm. 

We have the commandment to love and serve one another, demonstrated by Jesus getting down from the table and washing the feet of all the disciples, including both Judas and Peter, one of whom was about to betray him to death, the other to deny knowing him and all of whom would flee at his arrest.  Jesus knew that, but still he washed their feet.

Feet.

In your mind’s eye, look again at Leonardo’s Last Supper and perhaps Google it later.  Feet may not be the first thing that springs to mind, but look under the table and there they are – some wearing ancient Birkenstocks and some looking bare. 

The painter makes those feet look as clean and fresh as the robes but, again, the reality was somewhat different.  They were probably dusty, dirty, battered and imperfect, perhaps even smelly.  Their feet were as fully human and varied and weird and wonderful as our feet. 

I know that some people are embarrassed about having their feet washed at this service, perhaps because they don’t want anyone to see their imperfections, their ingrowing toenails, their bunions, their verrucas, their athlete’s foot or, perhaps worst of all, their chipped nail varnish. 

That is the point.  We are not called to bring our perfections to Jesus for him to admire.  We are called to bring before him those bits of our lives that we would rather not be seen, not just our fungal infections but the deepest imperfections of our lives, and allow him to wash us clean. 

We don’t need to get our feet sandal-ready before we bring them to Jesus, rather we get ourselves service-ready by bringing the whole, messy, incarnational reality of our lives to him.  As my children would say, we need to get over ourselves, get over our English reserve and let God do what needs to be done to restore his image in us.

Because when we have been washed clean by Jesus, when we know ourselves to be truly and deeply cleansed by the one who took on the sins of the whole world, then we are freed to love and serve others in his name. 

Who is the Peter in your life?  Who is the Judas in your life?  Knowing what you know about those people, imagine washing their feet and seeing not their imperfections but seeing them as Jesus sees them, as he sees us. 

Tonight is Maundy Thurday and Jesus wishes to wash our feet.  Tomorrow, on Good Friday, his feet will be nailed to a cross for us and for the whole world.

Leonardo Da Vinci has a lot to answer for, by which, I mean that we shouldn’t allow his depiction of beauty make us forget the reality of the original events, because Jesus came to deal with our reality. 

But, and this is where I let the artist off the hook, when Jesus is allowed to deal with our reality then he transforms the ordinary into the extraordinary, the travel worn into the glowing, the incarnated into the transcended, the imperfect feet which we all have into the beautiful feet on the mountain of those who proclaim the good news, which is Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen. 

Sermon – Palm sunday

Sunday 28th March 2021Palm Sunday

Readings: Isaiah 50:4-9a, Mark 11:1-11

On Thursday I had the immense privilege of being invited to speak about the Christian belief in the Messiah.

One of the things that was discussed was the fact that the Jewish people do not accept Jesus as the Messiah because they still expect that the one anointed by God to save his people will be a human, rather than a divine, saviour and that the salvation he brings would be the physical conquest of oppressors and the physical restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem.

Against that measure Jesus simply did not measure up – in purely human terms he was a disappointing Messiah, and I think that comes across strongly in today’s Gospel reading about the entry into Jerusalem.

For two or three years prior to the entry into Jerusalem Jesus had been healing and preaching and telling people about his relationship with God the Father but now there was a sense that his ministry was reaching its goal and he was riding into the City of David to achieve something great – to do what he had come to do.

But what was his goal? Why did Jesus ride into Jerusalem? The crowd thought that they knew – they spread cloaks and palm branches before the colt on which he rode and they shouted:

Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!

They thought that this worker of miracles, who so obviously had God on his side, had come to Jerusalem for one purpose only – to overthrow the Roman occupiers and to re-establish the Jewish monarchy and so restore the Kingdom of Israel to its rightful place as the home of God’s chosen people. When Pilate uses the term “The King of the Jews” in the passion gospel, which we heard last week, he is not giving it the spiritual quality that we now associate with that term – he thought, and the people thought, that Jesus had come to be the earthly King of the Jews and so the crowd greeted him as a returning king and as a saviour from foreign oppression –

Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!

But what did Jesus himself think he was coming to do in Jerusalem? We know from earlier readings that he had a quite different understanding of what awaited him. In Mark 8 Jesus taught about what awaited him in Jerusalem and the end of his Journey:

“He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me Satan!” He said, “You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.”

If Peter, one of Jesus’ closest disciples did not understand what awaited Jesus in Jerusalem and had in mind the things of man rather than the things of God  then it is hardly surprising that the crowds who lined the road into Jerusalem did not understand either.

The tone of the people at the City gate is one of triumph and great expectation – the crowd expected great things of this successor of King David. The entry into Jerusalem is like their favourite singer coming onto stage – the crowd are going to get what they want from this person.

And yet how quickly things change and how quickly the mood of the crowd changes.

Even before we get to the events of the arrest and death of Jesus I would suggest that, on a human level, even today’s reading ends of something of an anti-climax.

Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve.”

Jesus had passed through Bethany already that morning, as is mentioned at the start of the reading.   Bethany lay a couple of miles outside the walls of Jerusalem and was the village where his friends the siblings Mary, Martha and Lazarus lived.  In order to go back to Bethany it is more than likely that Jesus and the disciples exited Jerusalem through the same gate that they had just entered it.

So Jesus had ridden into the city to great acclaim and to great human hope.  He was greeted as a returning King.  But what happened next?  Did he give a stirring speech to rally the crowd? Did he promise to kick out the Romans, depose the Herodians and restore proper Jewish rule to Israel, as the Zealots wanted?

No, he went for a visit to the Temple and, because it was getting late, Jesus and the Disciples left the city the way they had come.  They may have walked and ridden over the discarded palm branches left there by the crowd earlier.  Some of the people who had waved those branches with such hope and enthusiasm perhaps only a few hours earlier may have watched them exit the City the way they had come in.   

What must those people have thought?  Was this the promised Messiah?

Within only a few days Jesus was arrested and then taken before Pilate. I have no doubt that this arrest was in part motivated by Jesus clearing the money-changers out of the Temple and thereby threatening the money and power of the Sanhedrin and the Chief Priests. But I also suspect that the crowds who had expected Jesus to start an insurrection and throw the oppressors out of Jerusalem were disappointed in Jesus. Yes, he had overturned the money changers tables but other than that he had spent his time in Jerusalem preaching in parables, answering tricky questions meant to catch him out, praying and having supper with his friends.

This was not the sort of revolution the people wanted – they wanted a true man of action – someone prepared to kill for the cause, a true man like Barabbas.

And so when Jesus is arrested how quickly the shouts of the crowd turn from “Hosanna!” to “Crucify him!”

Which, of course, we know that they did and, on a human level, we know that Jesus died on the cross.

I find it interesting that other faiths are keen to deny that the death was real.  Because if the death on the cross wasn’t real then the sacrifice for our sins wasn’t real and if the death on the cross wasn’t real then the resurrection wasn’t real and without the resurrection, as St Paul tells us, then our faith is in vain.

On a purely human level Jesus did not fulfil the expectations of the Jewish people for their messiah and, also on a purely human level, Jesus was either dead on the cross and his ministry was at an end or he somehow survived a Roman execution and snuck away quietly.

Which is why our expectation and belief in Jesus as the Messiah are not founded simply in the humanity of Jesus but also in his divinity.

Because it is only as God the Son that the death on the cross as a sacrifice for the sins of the whole world makes sense, it is only as God the Son does the resurrection make sense, it is only as God the Son can Jesus ascend to take his place back at the right hand of the Father and it is only as God the Son can Jesus send the Holy Spirit to us.

We do have much in common with our Sisters and Brothers in both Judaism and Islam and I look forward to continuing to learn much more about both.

But, as I did say on Thursday, it is our belief in our nature and work of Jesus as Messiah which is our prime departure point.  Jesus was not the fully human Messiah that the Jews were expecting and nor was he a prophet of God in a line of prophets ending with Mohammed.  For Christians Jesus was a fully human being who died fully on the cross but he was also fully God the Son who transformed that death into new life through the resurrection and beyond.

We are now entering into Holy Week and, like today’s readings, it is a week of contrasts and emotions. It has drama, it has tragedy and, without wishing to spoil the ending too much, this time next week we will be celebrating the greatest victory of all. It is the most important story and the most important drama in human history and, amazingly, each of us is expected to play a part in that story and we have absolute freedom to choose our role, as we have also been reflecting in the Lent course.

Are we the crowd who, because of our disappointment with our own desires continue to cry “crucify him” or are we like the soldier at the foot of the cross who recognises both the humanity and the divinity of the one who hangs in front of us and proclaim in awe and wonder: “This man is really the Son of God.”?

Amen.

Sermon – Mothering Sunday, Lent 4

Sunday 14 March 2021

Fourth Sunday in Lent / Mothering Sunday

Readings: Exodus 2:1-10, Luke 2:33-35

This is, tragically, our second Mothering Sunday of not being together here in the church building.  That is slightly skewed by the fact that Easter is a bit earlier than it was last year. Nonetheless, when we were put into lockdown last March and, at that time, barred from being in church at all, I am sure that none of us thought, in our wildest speculations, that we would still not be here a year later.  Not much longer, God willing.

I always enjoy our normal Mothering Sunday services – especially when we have the school choir sing and the uniformed organisations attend and there are lots of parents and then, of course, there is the wonderfully chaotic time of the blessed flower posies being taken around the church.  It is truly a joy and I do pray that we can recapture some of that spirit next year and rebuild it into the future.

However, I am acutely conscious that service does run the risk of perpetuating or amplifying a certain image of motherhood, childhood, parenthood which may not be true for all and may even be a cause of real pain for many. 

Like most of us I receive an awful lot of marketing emails from loads of companies but this year, for the first time ever, I have noticed that many of them have given the choice of opting out of Mother’s Day marketing on the basis that some may find them difficult to see.

The reality is that apple pie and posies of flowers are not a universal experience of motherhood or parenthood. 

It can be a hard time for those who have lost a parent.

For those who may have had a difficult relationship with a parent.

For those who may have been abused by a parent.

For those who may have lost a child.

For those who may never have had a child.

Today we do think about the love of mothers but our readings from the bible both illustrate that it is more complex, and can be more painful, than we often like to admit.

Last week we had the ten commandments which were brought down Mount Sinai by Moses, but today we step back a little in time and hear the story of Moses’ infancy.

The story of Moses in the basket which is a story with which most of us have been familiar since childhood.  It is a wonderful story of a mother’s protective love for her child but, like most of the bible stories that we learnt as children, again a bit like Noah’s ark from a few weeks ago, there is always more to the story than we may first appreciate.

The story of Moses as a child takes place in ancient Egypt at the time of the Pharaohs and there had been a substantial Hebrew community living in Egypt since the time that Joseph had been sold into slavery by his brothers.  However, as the generations passed, Joseph was forgotten, the community of Hebrews grew and a new Pharaoh became afraid that this ethnic minority was becoming too numerous to be controlled.  First he put the Hebrews into slavery and then he ordered that all male babies be killed at birth by the midwives.  I did warn that it wasn’t all apple pie and posies. But it does get better because this is the point when a female conspiracy of resistance to Pharaoh’s inhuman orders kicks in.  First the midwives failed to carry out the order and claimed that the Hebrew women were much stronger than Egyptian women and always had their children before the mid-wives had time to get there! 

Pharaoh then ordered that all male babies be thrown into the Nile and that brings us to the starting point of this morning’s reading.  Moses’ mother gave birth to him and, rather than obeying Pharaoh’s command, she hid him from the authorities for three months.  However, as we know, babies have a tendency to get bigger and more noisy and thus Moses became more difficult to hide.  We aren’t told precisely the conditions that these people were living in but the conditions must have been tough because eventually Moses’ mother decides that she has no option other than to put Moses into the Nile.  But, as we know, she does not throw him into the Nile as Pharaoh intended; rather she put him in a waterproof basket.

I mentioned Noah’s ark a moment ago and, when God gave Noah the building instructions for the ark he said that it should be coated with pitch (Gen 6:14).  When Moses’ mother made the basket for him to go in we are again told that it was coated in tar and pitch (Ex. 2:3). We could think of Moses’ basket as a mini-ark.  God had saved his people from destruction through a Noah’s ark, and now he was saving them again through Moses in a mini-ark.  If one wanted to take that further it also got me thinking about the ark of the covenant which housed the ten commandments, intended to save the people, Mary as the Ark of Jesus and then Christ’s body the Church as the Ark of the world.  But that may be for another day.

Moses’ mother created this mini-ark, put her 3-month-old baby into it and placed it strategically amongst the reeds. 

Some of the children’s books and films make it look as though Moses’ basket floated down a torrential river and was only caught up in the reeds and was found quite by chance. In fact nothing could be further from the truth and Moses’ mother was much more careful and loving than that – she placed the basket where she knew it would be found and she had her daughter watch over the basket to make sure that it was alright.  How did she know it would be found?  Well, Pharaoh’s daughter came down to bathe in the Nile at exactly the right place to see the basket.  Now, I suspect that Pharaoh’s daughter coming to bathe in the river was not a random event but, rather, it probably happened either every morning or evening and everyone would know where and when it took place.  It certainly looks to me as though Moses’ mother knew exactly what she was doing and that she meant Moses to be found by Pharaoh’s daughter.

That probably sounds like a high-risk strategy – entrusting your baby to the daughter of the person who ordered all such children to be killed.  However, it seems that Moses’ mother was a good judge of character.  And this the where the next level of female resistance to Pharaoh kicks in – Pharaoh’s own daughter is not fooled for a moment about the racial identity of this baby (which is a little bit topical at the moment but I am not going there) and she immediately says:  “This is one of the Hebrew babies”.  She would have known about her father’s orders and she could, of course, have thrown baby Moses into the river.  But she didn’t and, although it was a risk, I suspect that Moses’ mother knew that she wouldn’t.

In some ways the next part of the story is even better – Moses’ older sister, who was watching over the basket the whole time remember, approaches Pharaoh’s daughter and offers to fetch a Hebrew women to wet-nurse the baby.  Of course, she fetches Moses mother and Pharaoh’s daughter then pays her to nurse Moses until he is old enough to be taken into the palace.  So not only has Moses’ mother saved his life with her bold plan but in one fell swoop she has gone from hiding her baby from the Egyptians to being paid by them to nurse him!  A huge transformation brought about by a mother’s love for her child.   This whole episode is a great story of women cleverly resisting the immoral commands of men in order to save the lives of children and to bring life out of death.

On one reading that sounds like a happy ending – Moses lived, his mother continued to care for him and was even paid so to do.  But it still had its fill of pain.  Moses’ real mother only wet-nursed him, possibly only for a short time, and he then went to Pharaoh’s daughter and was brought up as her son.  So there was still separation and his real mother would still have had to watch her son grow up from afar – possibly only catching glimpses of him as part of the royal retinue from time to time.  We don’t hear of them meeting again in a Hollywood-style slow motion and tear jerking finale.  This was not apple pie and posies.

You will doubtless recognise our short Gospel reading as it is not long ago that we celebrated Jesus being presented in the temple at Candlemas and this is a part of the reading we have that day.

Although the circumstances of Jesus’ birth were unusual it appears that Mary and Joseph were doing all they could to be a normal family and to bring Jesus up fully in accordance with the Jewish laws and customs.  They took Jesus to the Temple to present him to God and to make the customary sacrifices.  Then they had the prophetic encounters with Simeon and Anna.  Simeon declared Jesus to be the promised saviour not only of Israel but also to be a light to lighten the gentiles.  Joseph and Mary marvelled at what was being said, and Simeon blessed them.  So far so good.  Then we have today’s words, which foreshadow that love is not without pain:

“…This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

A sword will pierce your soul.

We only have to think of Mary at the foot of the cross, as Jesus handed her over into the care of another disciple before he died, to imagine that sword piercing her soul. 

We know that wasn’t the end of the story, but it must have felt like the end of the story for her.

I said last week that love for God and love for neighbour is not simply about fuzzy feelings of good will, but can be truly costly.  When God in the person of Jesus Christ went to the cross he was paying the ultimate price both of God’s love for humanity and of humanity’s love for God and for neighbour.  But there was other costly love there too – the costly love of a mother.

We are called to love those around us, whoever they are.  But real love is not just apple pie and posies – real love brings the risk of real cost, real hurt and real pain.  We can’t hide from that anymore that Moses’ mother could, Jesus’ mother could or Jesus himself could.

But we can offer our pain to God as the price we pay for being human and pray that, when we are most vulnerable, that those around us will sit with us when we need it as we would sit with them.  We love one another by being able to share both our times of joy but also those times when a sword pierces our soul.

Amen.

Sermon – Lent 3

Sunday 7 March 2021 – Third Sunday in Lent

Readings: Exodus 20:1-17, John 2:13-22

Although you can’t see them from here I am sure that most of you know that behind the High Altar, carved into stone, we have the Ten Commandments.

There used to be a large red curtain hanging behind the Altar. When I took the opportunity to peek behind the curtain I was amazed at the theological and architectural treasures which were hidden there.  A bit like the curtain of the Temple being torn in two, which symbolised the ending of the division between God and humanity, I was convinced that the barrier between us and those words had to come down.  Fortunately, the PCC agreed and down it came.

But I wonder whether in our heart of hearts, some of us are thinking:

The Ten Commandments – aren’t they a bit, well, [whisper it], old fashioned.  A bit Old Testament, a bit shall we say, pre-Christian or, even worse, a bit 17th century.  Surely, Jesus did away with all that, and summed it up so that we don’t have to think about it?

Well, yes and no.  Jesus, of course, did provide a summary of the commandments, which I shall come to in a moment, but he also made it clear that he had not come to abolish that which came before him and not even simply to fulfil it but, also to enhance it. 

The Ten Commandments, the Decalogue, the Ten Words are as much a part of our Scripture in the 21st century as they were to those who put them in this church, as they were to Jesus and as they were to the Hebrews in the wilderness at the foot of Mount Sinai.

It is easy to think as a list of commandments as restrictive and that the sort of God who wants his people to live by such a list to be rather controlling.  I want to suggest something a little different this morning. That the God who had literally just rescued his people from slavery in Egypt did not want them to become slaves once again but that he wanted to liberate them into a new relationship with him and with one another. 

The Hebrews had been slaves in Egypt for generations.  Joseph, of the many coloured coat, had been sold into slavery by his brothers but ended up becoming hugely successful in Pharaoh’s court and was later joined by his brothers and their families.  Although Joseph had been honoured in Egypt after he died new Pharaohs came and went, the number of Hebrews kept increasing and the Egyptians enslaved the people and even attempted genocide on them.  Sadly, anti-Semitism goes back a long way.

Moses led those oppressed people, who knew little of God and nothing of how to live as free people, out of Egypt on a trek to the promised land. 

When they came to the foot of Mount Sinai, at the start of Chapter 19 of Exodus, they had only been out of Egypt for 3 months. Before giving Moses the commandments God told him the purpose of this new covenant:

“…out of all the nations you will be my treasured possession.  Although the whole earth is mine you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Ex 19:5,6)

When the Hebrews looked at one another what did they see?  Hot and dusty former slaves who had just escaped death and were now sitting at the foot of a mountain in the middle of nowhere.  But what did God see when he looked at this people?  His treasured possession, something loved beyond compare and beyond price, a priestly people in relationship with their true God, a holy people in relationship with one another. 

And at the start of chapter 20, before the ten commandments are set out, God again puts them into the context of the freedom he has given his people:

I am the Lord you God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” (Ex 20:2)

Then we have the commandments themselves, which divide into two groups: four concerning our relationship with God and six concerning relations among people:

You shall have no other gods before me.”

Egypt was full of the worship of many gods, Isis, Osiris, Anubis and others.  The promised land ahead of them was full of the worship of the Baals.   Our world is full of many ‘gods’ seeking our worship.  But, number one, front and centre, God directs our attention and worship to him and him alone.  God is the magnetic north for our compass of worship, and if our compass is set properly then we know the way to follow.

You shall not make or worship idols” [I paraphrase a little]

This flows naturally from the first commandment and reminded the Hebrews, and should remind us, that the only thing worthy of worship is the creator of all things.  We know that the Hebrews were very quick to break this commandment, making themselves a golden calf to worship, and we can tut at their foolishness, but how many idols do we make for ourselves and which stand between us and our worship of God?

You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God.”

Names are powerful things.  We are commanded to pray in the name of Jesus.  In some societies to know someone’s name is to be in relationship with them, or to have power over them.  If we take God’s name lightly or even use his name as a swear word then we are taking God lightly or even blaspheming him.  I wouldn’t use the name of my loved ones as a swear word.  If we truly love God and are in relationship with him then how can we also bring his name into disrepute?

Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.”

We know that Jesus later sought to free the Sabbath from an overly-legalistic interpretation and said that the ‘Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath’ but this was never meant to abolish the commandment or the principle of Sabbath-rest.  A people who had been enslaved would not have known much rest.  God freed them from slavery and commanded them to rest.  That is liberation in the purest sense.  How good are we at keeping a Sabbath?  I know too many priests who claim to be too busy to take a proper rest day.  My response is always that (a) it is an actual commandment and (b) who are we to pretend that we are busier than God? God commands us to take rest seriously – why would we want to give that up and seek to enslave ourselves again?

And then we have the commandments about our relationships with one another:

Honour your father and mother.” 

In a society which we may think of as patriarchal it is interesting that both parents are mentioned equally here.  To honour our parents, as well as to honour God, helps keep us within a network of relationships in which we acknowledge that we are not the creators of all things – first came God, and then came our parents, and only then came us.  None of us invented the universe or was capable of creating ourselves.  Give thanks and honour to those who brought us into being. 

You shall not murder

This is one of the commandments that Jesus took further than the law of Moses.  It is easy, most of the time, not to murder someone.  Most of the time.  But Jesus said that even to call someone a ‘fool’ in our heart is as bad as killing them (Matt 5:22).  Wow.  This is the way of holiness.  We must not only not murder people but try to excise anger against them.  Perhaps to love them.  We are getting there.

You shall not commit adultery.”

Again, it is easy most of the time not to commit adultery.  Most of the time.  I am joking!  But Jesus amplified this by saying that to look at someone with lust is the same of committing adultery.  Our relationship with God and with other people doesn’t consist only of right actions but also right thoughts. 

“You shall not steal.”

If murder can include calling someone a fool and if adultery can include looking at another with lust then I am going to go out on a limb and suggest that the command not to steal can include more than not robbing a bank at gunpoint.  How might we have stolen from others?  In our use of the world’s resources, in our economic treatment of those less fortunate than ourselves? One to ponder.

You shall not give false testimony against your neighbour

To lie about someone in court could cost them their lives or their freedom but also to gossip about someone and to play even a small part in spreading falsehoods about someone could cost them their reputation or their friendships.  Lying about others does not come from a place of love and so it has no place in the economy of God.

You shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbour” [Again I paraphrase]

To lust after your neighbour’s wife, on Jesus’ interpretation would also be adultery and to desire your neighbour’s material belongings would be theft, on the deeper spiritual understanding.  In addition, to desire what others have means to be ungrateful for what God has given you and it elevates material things into idols which divert us from the worship of God.  In a world driven by advertising whose sole purpose is to make us covet or lust after the things we don’t have this may seem like the most minor of commandments, but it covers a variety of sins, including the ones to which we may be most susceptible. 

So, I would suggest that the ten commandments do not belong to a long-forgotten past which has nothing to say to us or our discipleship.  On the contrary, to know them and to truly live by them would be to set us free indeed.

But the bar is set high and, in places, Jesus seems to set the bar higher by making them a matter of the heart as well as a matter of our actions.

We know, I am sure, that Jesus summarised the ten commandments into two, perhaps corresponding with the two tablets or the two groups – that we are to love God with all our being and to love our neighbours as ourselves.

The commandments, the ten and the two, are utterly grounded in love – we love God by worshipping him and not giving our worship to anything which is not him and we love our neighbours by treating them always as we would like them to treat us.

But let’s not confuse love with fuzzy feelings which cost us nothing.  In today’s Gospel reading we saw Jesus whipping out the money changers from the Temple because of his burning love for God, and we know that that action fed into the chain of events which led to the crucifixion.  We should not let the word ‘Christian’ become a synonym for nice because sometimes radical love means going beyond mild niceness.  We also know from the parable of the Good Samaritan that our neighbours are not simply the people who live next door to us – we are commanded to love those who might be most unlike us, who might be opposed to us in numerous ways, and our love for them might extend to costly giving to ensure that they are treated in the way in which we would wish to be treated.

True love is costly.

We know that love is costly because God loved the world so much that he sent his Son to us and we know that love took him to the cross and beyond.

Because of that costly love and the cross of Jesus we know that we can live by the commandments – not through our own efforts and our own holiness.  Jesus was the only human to fully live out the commandments and by joining ourselves to him, who is also fully God, and by asking him to dwell in us and us in him, we have the grace to live fully in love towards God and towards one another. 

And when we fail in that, as we do every day because of our many imperfections, we pray for the grace and humility to say sorry, pick ourselves up and try again. 

Here’s a challenge.  For the rest of today love God with all your heart and love your neighbour as yourself.  Give it your best shot.  And try again tomorrow.

In the name of Christ,

Amen.

Sermon – Lent 2

Sunday 28 February 2021 – Second Sunday in Lent

Readings: Genesis 17: 1-7, 15-16 & Mark 8: 31–end

“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me”

It is very easy to fall into the trap of thinking that once you become a Christian everything will be right with the world, that nothing bad will ever happen to you and that you will get whatever you pray for. If you become sick then you will be healed, if you are poor then you will receive money and that you will never be depressed because God will always make you happy. Unfortunately there are at least three problems with that view:

  1. It is not biblical;
  2. It does not fit with our real world experience; and
  3. It belittles God.

One of the huge values of Lent is that it reminds us in no uncertain terms that being a follower of Jesus is not all about personal fulfilment without cost or effort. It is a season in which we think about the wilderness in which our faith is tried and in which we take up our own crosses and follow Jesus to Good Friday. As someone charged with preaching the gospel, which is a huge privilege and a huge responsibility, it is always tempting to gloss the sombre bits and get straight to the good news – and of course that is exactly what Peter tried to do when Jesus started to speak about his forthcoming crucifixion – Peter attempted to rebuke Jesus for being too downbeat – Jesus’ response was swift and to the point –

Get behind me Satan – you do not have in mind the things of God but the things of men.”

It is surely no coincidence that only last week we thought about Jesus being tempted in the wilderness and, although this was not explicit in Mark’s gospel account, that Jesus’ ultimate response was to rebuke Satan for trying to tempt him away from his God-given ministry. And today Jesus speaks to Peter in very similar language because Peter is also trying to divert Jesus from the hard yet unavoidable path that lies before him.

That response of Jesus is both an incredibly helpful yet an extremely challenging message to keep in mind both when preaching and when thinking about what it means to be a Christian – do we have in mind the things of God or the things of men? Are we speaking and thinking and living in accordance with the true depths of God’s message for us or are we paddling in the shallows for the sake of our mutual amusement?  There was a debate about Christianity on the radio recently and someone compared the church to a swimming pool – in that most of the noise tends to come from the shallow end.

I suspect that in Lent, at least, any attempt to avoid the challenge of the wilderness or to avoid the burden of our own crosses for the sake of the feel-good factor is a substantial failing to have in mind the things of God.

Vivienne and I have some friends: The wife was one of my friends with whom I trained for ordination and her husband is a former lay URC minister. One of the reasons that he is a former rather than a current URC minister is that he has become severely disabled by a virulent form of ME. ME is what the newspapers used to disparagingly call “Yuppie ‘flu” but if he ever met this man you would appreciate that a debilitating and chronic illness which has robbed him of much of the quality of normal life. For example he cannot sit upright for any length of time – when he and his wife travel by car he has to lie across the back seats surrounded by a selection of pillows and cushions that go everywhere with him. As soon as he arrives anywhere he has to commandeer the nearest sofa and again he lays prone amongst his pillows exhausted by the effort of moving from the car. At dinner time, he cannot sit at the table but has to lie across three chairs pushed together. And, when it comes to eating, he is a mass of food intolerances – he cannot eat wheat, tomatoes, cheese, sugar, fruit, he cannot drink alcohol and on and on the list goes. He has to carry his own supplies of special foods and drinks with him otherwise he would probably starve.

I spoke to him once about his condition and about its impact on his spiritual life. He said that being disabled is like being in a permanent wilderness – you simply cannot join in with the comforts of ‘normal’ society – you are often on your own, without comfort, left to your own devices. If we think about our own experiences I suspect that for each of us that it is at our times of being most on our own that the devil whispers in our ear to reject God’s call on our life. Now, if our time in the wilderness is short then temptation may be resisted but imagine being in that wilderness permanently – how do you resist the temptation to blame God for your predicament, how do you resist blaming him for failing to cure you through either prayer or medicine? How do you cling to the concept of being made in the image of a perfect and loving God when your self-image is one of brokenness and pain?     His answer has been to draw deep on the wells of Christian spirituality and, in particular, from the Sayings of the Desert Fathers. The Desert Fathers were the earliest Christian monks who took themselves out of the cities and away from the comforts of normal society and went to live in the depths of the Egyptian desert. Like Jesus before them, and like us now, they faced the temptation to give up and walk away, to take the path of least resistance. There they wrestled with their personal demons but, over time and with much prayer and perseverance, many of them won through and discovered the joy of knowing God at a very deep level – way beyond the superficiality of much of our discourse about God they encountered the living God in the wilderness. Taking the example of their lives, their sayings and their experiences my friend said whilst his disability was a wilderness he now found it a blessing to be able to make his body into a hermitage in the wilderness and to there seek to encounter God.

So, for him, the wilderness of disability can be a place of encounter with God. That doesn’t mean that there is no temptation in the wilderness or that it is wrong to shake our fists at God when tragedy strikes but it gives us hope, it gives us a signpost, that on the other side of temptation and on the other side of grief and anger God is waiting for us and loving us and despite all our feelings of loss and abandonment he is already there with us in the midst of all the suffering guiding us towards the good news.

And there is good news because we know that whilst the cross of Good Friday is casting a long shadow across Lent death does not have the final word.   Yes, we have to endure the wilderness as Jesus did and yes we have to carry our own crosses to Calvary and there die with Christ. But if we die with Christ on Good Friday then we rise with him on Easter Sunday – we are a resurrection community and because of that we are also a Eucharistic community – a community of thanksgiving that knows always that Christ has gone before us, hallowing our path, and that Christ is with us always, to the end of time.

AMEN.

Sermon – 1st Sunday of Lent

Sunday 21 February 2021 – First Sunday of Lent

Readings: Genesis 9: 8-17, Mark 1: 9-15

Thank you again to Rev’d Christopher Miles for taking last week’s service.  I had the pleasure of joining in the service from home and it did come across better on Zoom than I sometimes fear that it does from this side of the camera, so it was good to experience that.  Although I do hope that we shall soon start moving back to worshiping together physically again in church – there will be resurrection!

The season of Lent started last Wednesday, and it started even though we missed the physical, sacramental, sign of being ashed.  As I said two weeks ago it is so important that we do not just make Lent a time of giving up chocolate or alcohol AGAIN and think that this is going to make us any better prepared for the events of Easter which lies ahead or any closer to God.  I know that for many of us lockdown has felt like a huge time of giving up so much and so we cannot bear to give up anything else.  But if we make ‘giving up’ our focus then we have lost the plot.  Lent is about deepening our relationship with God, adopting the discipline of being a disciple, so that week by week we can walk with Jesus the path which leads all the way to the cross, to enter into the darkness and pain of Good Friday, the silence of the tomb on Holy Saturday and experience the joy of Easter Sunday – and if that joy is confined to having a chocolate egg and a glass of wine then, again, we have lost the plot.

Treat Lent not as a punishment or even as an exercise in temptation which simply has to be got through, although there is an element of that which I’ll come to, but as a gift from God.  A gift of time and a gift of a season in which you are positively encouraged to draw closer to God, to pray more, to engage more with the bible, to cleanse your heart, your life, your soul from those things which stand between you and your relationship with the one who yearns to be in ever deeper relationship with you.  There are countless ways in which this can be done and none of them need be complex.  My suspicion is that the God who knows each one of us more deeply than we know ourselves knows exactly how each of us can best draw closer to him – it may be through prayer, through reading, through worship, through silence.  Our job is simply to clear the path of our usual distractions and seek to co-operate with God.  If we are distracted from God by chocolate, or meat or booze or TV or the internet then, yes, take the time to tackle those distractions by ‘giving them up’ for a season, but not as an end in itself – but as a means of letting go and letting God.  Focus always on the one who calls rather than on what you are called to let go of and the journey will be easier – look to the horizon rather than the bumps in the road.

I mentioned temptation a moment ago and this First Sunday in Lent is when we normally think about Jesus starting his earthly ministry, following his baptism, by going out into the wilderness for 40 days in order to wrestle with temptation.  The Gospel of Mark, which we had this morning, is notoriously concise in places and whilst Matthew and Luke give us the memorable stories of Satan tempting Jesus to break his fast, to accept an earthly kingdom and, most of all, to give up his calling Mark says very simply: “He was in the wilderness for 40 days, tempted by Satan, and he was with the wild beasts and the angels waited on him.”

C S Lewis says that Christians make two big mistakes when thinking about Satan: The first is not to think about him at all, the modernist approach which affirms only the nice and comfortable bits of faith, the bible and tradition, and the second is to think about him too much – those who think that everything is spiritual warfare and that the devil is to blame for cutting themselves when opening a tin of dog food. 

Mark seems to hit the C S Lewis balance – he says 3 words about the temptation by Satan, thus acknowledging the reality of the experience, but he says more words about Jesus being with the wild beasts and being ministered to by angels, which we seem to think about less. 

We know that Jesus got through his 40 days in the wilderness, that he resisted temptation, that he accepted the ministrations of the angels and that he returned to ‘civilisation’ to commence his ministry which, again, Mark gives us quite succinctly:

The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe in the good news.”

And that says just as much to us about the purpose and the season of Lent as Satan in the wilderness – the kingdom of God has come near – repent, turn around your life, get rid of those habits and distractions which keep you far from God and believe in the good news, the gospel, that God has come down to earth as a human to lift humanity back up to God. 

I could end there, but there is another story presented to us today, and it is one which speaks to me of hope in lockdown. 

Our first reading this morning struck me, at first, of being slightly incongruous.  Whilst we are setting out on the journey of Lent our reading from Genesis was about the end of Noah’s journey on the ark – God promises to Noah that he will never again destroy the earth by a flood and he sets a rainbow in the sky as a reminder of that promise not only to mankind but, interestingly, to God himself:

When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant…”

The image of Noah, smiling at a rainbow, and surrounded by colourful smiling animals is one that we can all picture from children’s story books of the bible, of course normally preceded by a picture of happy animals going up a gang plank two by two for a jolly boat ride. 

But there is a bit more to the story of Noah than those two pictures tell, and I want to explore that briefly this morning.

The character and the story of Noah covers chapters 6,7, 8 and 9 of Genesis.  He is actually a much bigger part of scripture than we commonly imagine.  Interestingly Noah is also an important prophet in Islam, and there is both a Sunni and a Shia tomb for him.  Islam also credits Noah with a fourth son, in addition to Shem, Ham and Japheth, but who did not get on the ark, with the expected consequences. 

Turning back to Genesis, God created the world in chapter 1, and he said it was good.  In chapter 2 he created humanity in his own likeness and breathed his sprit into us, the very first Pentecost if you will.  But by chapter 3 the fall from God’s grace and presence had begun, in chapter 4 we have the first murder of Abel by Cain and then chapter 5 is a chronology of the generations from Adam to, yes, Noah. 

By the time we get to chapter 6, it seems that the wickedness of humanity knew no bounds and Chapter 6 v 6 says:

The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on earth, and his heart was deeply troubled.”

God regretted creating humanity and his heart was troubled.  If we think that God is always impassive and unchanging then I am not sure how that theology copes with this.  The God who walked in the garden of Eden with his beloved creation is now regretting his action of creation.  I have occasionally regretted late night purchases on eBay but this is something else.

Anyway, God decided to bring the wickedness of humanity to an end with a great flood.  There are all sorts of theories about a great flood in the ancient world and about how it is mentioned in the Epics of Gilgamesh and so forth.  I am not going there today but it is interesting to look at and, for me, enhances rather than diminishes the biblical account. 

Fortunately, not all of humanity was evil and corrupt and Noah was righteous and blameless amongst all the people.  So, God commanded Noah to build an ark, he gave him the precise measurements which make for a large boat with several decks.

I have already mentioned the image of animals going into the ark two by two, but that is only half right.  In Chapter 6 v 19 God tells Noah to bring two of all living creatures into the ark but this is amplified in chapter 7 v 2 when God says that Noah is to take seven pairs of every clean animal and one pair of every unclean animal.  When you see two lions or two giraffes trotting up the gangplank you have permission to say “unclean”.  

And it is just as well that Noah had 7 pairs of every clean animal because, although I don’t want to get ahead of myself, when the flood receded and they came out of the ark the very first thing he did was to give thanks to God by sacrificing some of the clean animals.  You don’t normally see that in the picture books and you probably wouldn’t do it with only one pair!

Noah, and his wife, and his three sons and their wives and all these clean and unclean animals entered the ark.  Once the door was shut the only opening was one small window, one cubit square, right at the top.  Just think about that.  It is a fair-sized boat but it is now stuffed with 8 people and untold hundreds of animals – with one small opening.  The darkness, the noise and, yes, the smell must have been overwhelming.

When they got into the ark and shut the door it wasn’t even raining.  It didn’t rain for a whole week after they shut the door.  (chapter 7 verse 4).  Imagine the atmosphere by, say, Wednesday or Thursday of that first week…

But then it did start to rain.  And it rained for 40 days and nights.  A time which may sound familiar to us from earlier.  Speaking as someone who likes messing around on boats it must have taken some time for the ark to start to float and those initial movements as the water started to lift it but couldn’t quite, must have been terrifying.

Although this is hard to do on Zoom, and without looking at Genesis, any guesses how long Noah and his family and all these animals were in the ark for?

We have already had the initial 7 days of no rain and 40 days of rain, so any advances on 47 days?

The total answer is 370 days, or just over one year.

In addition to the 47 days in chapter 8 v 3 the water was present for a further 150 days before the ark ran aground on Mount Ararat on the 17th day of the 7th month.  But is wasn’t until the 1st day of the tenth month that other mountain tops began to be visible – so that was another 2 and a half months of remaining cooped up in that noise and smell and darkness, again with the boat settling on the mountain, and perhaps even sliding from time to time until it rested securely. 

Another 40 days after the mountain tops became visible Noah opened the one window and sent out a raven and then a dove.  He waited another 7 days and sent out the dove and it came back to him with a leaf.  He waited another 7 days and sent it out again and it did not come back.  Only then does Noah roll back the covering from the top of the ark.  The daylight and the fresh air must have been incredible.  But, even then, there is no unseemly rushing out of the ark and Noah waits until God says that he can come out.

370 days. 

But they came out again, Noah gave thanks through his sacrifice and, as we heard this morning, God promised that never again would he send a flood to bring us back to righteousness.

Instead he sent his Son, Jesus Christ.

We can do lockdown because Noah has been there before us and emerged giving thanks.

We can do the wilderness of temptation because Jesus has been there before us, not only resisting Satan but accepting the ministrations of angels.

We can even face death because we know that this story does not end at the cross of Good Friday but in the resurrection, in the ascension and in the renewed heaven and earth where God will once again walk with his children and we become his children by adoption and grace when we follow Jesus and clothe ourselves in him.

The kingdom of heaven has come near.  Repent and believe the good news.

Amen.

Sermon – Sunday before Lent

14th February 2021

Readings: 2 Kings 2: 1–12  Elisha succeeds Elijah, who is taken up to heaven Mark 9: 2–9  Jesus’ Transfiguration

1.       Introduction.        Alexei Navalny, the Opposition Leader in the Russian government, is a good modern-day example of a person of great courage, who despite an attempt on his life, returns to his home country to challenge the leaders of his country and in so doing, encourages his supporters.  Prior to the event of Jesus’ Transfiguration, our Gospel reading today, Jesus had spoken to all 12 of his close disciples about going up to Jerusalem, where he would die.  Peter had taken him to task, causing Jesus to rebuke him.  The Transfiguration is an important event for Jesus himself and for three of his disciples, Peter, James and John, who would take on important roles in the leadership of the Church.   For two of them it would be at the cost of their lives.  We can read in Acts 12 of Herod having James put to death.  Not in the New Testament, but in tradition, supported by Jesus words to him after Jesus’ resurrection, “Someone will lead you where you do not want to go.” (Jn 21 v 18), Peter was crucified.  As we prepare to enter the season of Lent with a strong focus on the passion of Christ, we do well to reflect on the significance of Jesus’ transfiguration.

2.       Liturgical.   Despite the significance of the transfiguration, the Church of England, and perhaps more widely in the Church, has found it difficult to give due recognition to such an enigmatic but profound event.   The Book of Common Prayer allocates 6th August as the day to mark the Transfiguration, but without any special readings for such a profound event.   But then we are not too good with other celebrations.   Ask anyone whether churchgoer or not about the significance of today, 14th February, and almost everyone would say, “St Valentine’s Day”, but in the Church of England calendar it is St Cyril and St Methodius’ Day.   I guess that Lea, as a native of Hungary, would be one of the few people that we know, who could tell us much about those two great 9th century missionary brothers probably of Slavic origin but from Macedonia, now N Greece, who went to the Slavic people in what is now Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Bulgaria.   They were keen on people having a liturgy in the own native language and to this end Cyril invented the Cyrillic script, still in use in parts of Eastern Europe.   To return to the Transfiguration, the Alternative Service Book allocated the 4th Sunday of Lent for the observation of the Transfiguration.   This was a sure-fire way of it being overlooked by most individual churches as they celebrated Mothering Sunday.  Probably the Common Worship position of allocating the Sunday next before Lent is a good compromise, ensuring that however few Sundays there are before Lent, the Transfiguration is marked every year, with the gospel in the liturgical Year B from the second synoptic gospel, Mark’s Gospel and related readings; the Old Testament being Moses receiving the commandments on the first or second time or, as this year, Elijah’s ascent to heaven as he hands over to Elisha.

3.       Elijah and Elisha.  I will just draw out a few points from that OT reading.  First of all, the two prophets had a demanding journey setting out from Gilgal about 1 to 2 miles from Jericho, down in the Jordan valley at about (Mediterranean) sea level, 13 miles up to Bethel in the hills N of Jerusalem, probably at about the same height as the city.  The Jerusalem Central Bus Station is at 2,700 ft (817 m) above sea level.  Bethel literally means ‘house of God’, where Jacob, when fleeing from his brother Esau, stopped for the night and had a vision of angels going up and down a ladder between heaven and earth.   At Bethel there was a school of prophets.   I reckon that Elijah was keen to introduce his successor, Elisha, so that the School accepted Elisha.  He suggests that Elisha should even stay there, but Elisha knows instinctively that he must stay with Elijah until that became impossible.  Perhaps they stay a night, before returning very close from where they set out, namely Jericho.   An easier down-hill journey of about 14 miles, to a second school of prophets, where again Elijah invites Elisha to stay with the prophets, but Elisha firmly resists this and again, perhaps the next day, they set out, but accompanied by no less than 50 prophets from the School, down to the River Jordan just north of the Dead Sea at 1,250 ft (-382 m) below sea level. 

          Old Testament prophets were known for their performance of miracles.   Elijah’s final miracle is to strike the River Jordan to provide a way to cross to the other side, before he is then received into heaven.   Some people find such a miracle hard to accept.  When Joshua led the Israelites into the promised land, crossing the River Jordan, a natural explanation is given, that a landslip higher up the valley was the physical cause of the water ceasing to flow.   The miracle is in God’s timing, of bringing the Israelites to the brink of the river at just the right time.   The Arabian historian Nuwairi records a similar event in 1267 A. D.  In the early 20th Century, in 1906 and again in 1927, similar events of landslips stopped the flow of the river, and now, so much water is regularly extracted, that you can almost paddle across in places.  On the East side of the Jordan, the remarkable life on earth of the man, who again and again had challenged authority, including Ahab, King of Israel, putting his own life in danger, comes to an end as he is taken up to heaven in a whirlwind. As a representative of the prophetic line, he is the one to be present at Jesus’ transfiguration, together with Moses, the great law giver.

4.       The Transfiguration.   What was it that Moses and Elijah talked about with Jesus?   St Luke tells that “They spoke about his departure which he was about to bring to fulfilment in Jerusalem.” (Lk 9 v 31).   The Greek word translated ‘departure’ is ‘Exodon’, literally, ‘the way out’.   The Greek therefore gives us a natural link with the OT Exodus from Egypt, under Moses’ leadership.   From beginning to end, Jesus is the one who supports and fulfils the Law and the Prophets.   You may wonder about Peter’s response to the situation, especially as it has been translated in Church Bibles that we use.  He proposes three dwellings, one for Jesus, one for Moses and one for Elijah.   This is not meant to be some sort of self-isolation for 10 days.  The Greek word is variously translated ‘booths’ (RSV), ‘tabernacles’ (KJV) or ‘shelters’ (NIV).   I like tabernacles, as this links with the Feast of Tabernacles, a sort of week’s camping holiday with tents or tree branches, perhaps in the garden, to remind the Jews of their forebears’ wilderness experience.   This meeting was not only important for Jesus but for the early Church, to help counter any idea that Christians were rabble rousers, intent on flouting the moral law of the Jewish people.  The gospels helped any thoughtful Roman citizen to have a more balanced view of conflict between Jew and Christian.

                The climax of the transfiguration is a cloud, reminiscent of the cloud which guided the Israelites in the wilderness, coming over the mountain and out of the cloud comes the voice of God the Father, ‘This is my beloved Son, listen to him’.   It can be quite frightening being up a mountain enveloped in cloud.   Many years ago, when our younger son Andrew was 7 years old (and he is now 50), I was leading a walking group of 12 in the Lake District.  We were at a high level on Sergeant Man in thick cloud and rain and I could not find the track to take us down.  We had to go down, on compass and reference to the map, quite a steep slope.   I held Andrew’s hand and he was quite unperturbed.   We all got down safely.

5.       Application.           At the beginning of my sermon, I spoke of the courage of Alexei Navalny, a man much in the news.  I want to tell you now of Fadzayi Mahere, a woman of great courage who recently returned to her own country of Zimbabwe.  A committed Christian and a qualified lawyer, she had worked at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, but then decided that she must return home to defend people whose human rights had been abused, and to protest against police brutality.  She was quite soon arrested and thrown into prison, a prison with appalling conditions, lacking any kind of human dignity.   The Christian way is by no means always an easy way.  We may not have the calling or the opportunity to courageously challenge authority where power is misused and people are abused, as did Jesus, and as do Alexei Navalny and Fadzayi Mahere. May we though, out of the clouds of life, hear the voice of God the Father saying ‘You are my son, I love you’ or ‘You are my daughter, I love you.’ and so press on to serve Our lord in all the challenging circumstances of life.

          I conclude with the words from the hymn, ‘The King of love my shepherd is’, based on Psalm 23, “In death’s dark vale, I fear no ill, with thee, dear Lord beside me; thy rod and staff my comfort still, thy cross before to guide me.

                                                                                                                                                         Christopher Miles

Sermon – 2nd Sunday before Lent

Sunday 7 February 2021Second Sunday before Lent

Readings: Colossians 1:15-20, John 1:1-14

I was most affected by a telephone conversation I had on Thursday morning.  It was a long call, with someone I hadn’t spoken to before, obviously I won’t go into details but their lives had been turned upside down in the last six months – not by Covid but by other personal tragedies. 

The person I spoke to has a Christian faith but they found themselves and their faith shaken to the core and they found themselves asking the question which afflicts many of us at some point:

How can there be a God if bad things happen to good people?”

I should start by saying that it is absolutely fine to say this out loud – it is even biblical.  Read the Psalms – they are a wonderful example of both praising God and questioning him at the same time.  About half of the psalms are about how wonderful God is and half of them are asking how he could be so harsh with his chosen people.  Seriously, read them.

The philosopher AC Grayling posed the challenge quite neatly – he said that if one believes that God is both all-powerful and all good then it is a logical contradiction for there to be suffering in the world. Either God cannot prevent suffering, in which case he is not all powerful, or he will not prevent suffering, in which case he is not all good.

The problem with this neat argument, and the problem which lies at the root of much of our fist shaking at heaven when tragedy strikes, is that our preconception of God as a deity whose function is to wrap his creation and each of his creatures in so much cotton wool that nothing bad can ever happen is fundamentally mistaken, and is not a view of God that one gets from the bible.

So why does God allow suffering? Let’s think first about the suffering caused by our fellow humans – wars, terrorism, preventable poverty, environmental destruction and so forth. In my view it is clear from the earliest chapters in the bible that God always intended mankind to have the freedom to choose how to act towards him and towards one another and that our freedom to choose is a fundamental part of our humanity.

A quick illustration: A few years ago Vivienne played the good fairy in a pantomime. As the story unfolded two of the characters decided to take a wicked course of action that would bring ruin to their brother but, in the end, the good fairy stepped in and made them change their minds by casting a spell so that they become good, albeit against their will. So, some wickedness was prevented but it was at the expense of their free will or their freedom to make a bad choice.

Now, you may say that it would have been good if God had acted like the good fairy and taken away the free will of, say, the 9/11 plotters and prevented that disaster from happening or if God had prevented the concentration camps by taking away the free will of the Nazis. But it only takes a moment’s thought to realise what a dangerous route that is. If God takes away the free will of other people to prevent suffering then, presumably, God would also take away our free will every time we made a wrong choice – if we drove too fast would God act as a speed limiter and make us slow down to prevent the suffering caused by an accident, if we choose not to donate blood one day and God knew that someone would die for want of that unit we would be marched like a zombie to the clinic to prevent the suffering of another. I think you can see where this is going – when God gave humanity free will he took the biggest risk ever because it meant that humans could always make the wrong choice, but it is the price we pay for not being automatons.

However, surely, a choice made to do good made out of genuine free will is of infinitely greater value than a person whose will is bent to God’s against their will to prevent suffering. So, to answer AC Grayling I would say that God is both all-powerful and all good but, from the moment of creation, God has chosen to limit the exercise of his power in the interests of giving us the room to be and become fully human.

So what about natural disasters like earthquakes or tsunamis and what about diseases like cancer or even Covid – why isn’t God preventing these and allowing the innocent to suffer?

Well, firstly and most importantly we inhabit vulnerable physical bodies in a dynamic physical world. Tectonic plates shift and cells divide and sometimes those things can create the conditions for life to arise and sometimes they shift and divide in the wrong way and create the conditions for death, even premature death. The bible itself actually mentions numerous earthquakes and there is no shortage of premature death there either so we shouldn’t imagine that we are thinking of things that were either unheard of or couldn’t be mentioned in scripture.

So why does God allow this? Well, firstly, shouldn’t we be asking: on what are we basing our expectations of God? If we try to make God into a good fairy who waves a wand and protect everyone from every tragedy then we will always be disappointed in that God. But, actually, shouldn’t we take our image of God from the bible? The bible certainly does not tell us that God wraps his people in cotton wool and never lets anything bad happen to them – on the contrary much of the story of the nation of Israel is about how they learned to recognise and to worship God despite the bad things that happened to them – held in slavery in Egypt, taken into captivity in Babylon, occupied by the Romans. Time and time again, in the psalms, in the book of Job and in the prophets there is recognition that we live in a fallen world, that bad things do happen to good people and that whilst we may shake our fist at God, ultimately the only answer is that he is Sovereign, he is in charge, that his ways are not our ways and his thoughts are higher than our thoughts.

As educated Westerners we find that so frustrating because we want to be in charge and, if necessary, to serve a Freedom of Information request to find out what is going on but, as Christians, we are subject to a higher power, and I don’t mean the Archdeacon.

And as Christians we should also remember the element of faith: that death is not the end. I said a moment ago that we inhabit physical bodies in a physical world but we are also told in the bible that these bodies are like seeds that need to die in order to become transformed and resurrected bodies, in a resurrected and re-created world in which death is no more and where God wipes away every tear.

So, finally, Where is God in all this?

I would say in two places – we worship a God who does not stand far off from our suffering but rather a God who entered into our world and took suffering upon himself in the person of Jesus – the same Jesus who did not live a life of ease and comfort but who went into the wilderness for 40 days and nights and who later took that wilderness experience all the way to the cross. In Jesus God did not avoid suffering and death but rather transformed it into resurrection and victory and the fruits of that transformation are for us to share. So humanity does not suffer apart from God, on the contrary God has been there before us and shared our suffering in the person of Jesus, God the Son.

But God the Holy Spirit is also there, in the midst of the suffering, in the actions of all the thousands of people who seek to help alleviate suffering. God is there in the free will decisions of human beings to care for and help each other. God is Love and when we demonstrate our love for others in need through practical action we are reflecting something of God’s love for us.

God is not to be found in the avoidance of suffering – that god is an idol no more worthy of worship than a good fairy in a panto, much as I love her. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of Jesus Christ and, I hope, our God is to be found not in the avoidance of suffering and pain but in the coping with suffering and pain, in choosing to love and to be human and to be humane towards one another despite the suffering and pain and, like Jesus in the wilderness, resisting always the temptation to give up and despair when we are at our weakest.

When life challenges our view of God, as it always will, we need to constantly ask ourselves, in what image of God is my faith based? When that question comes do not think about God an abstract being apart from us who watches our suffering from afar, but think about Jesus, God with us, suffering, dying and rising again for us and think about God the Holy Spirit who motivates us to love others in their suffering and who can enthuse us to lift our eyes beyond our own suffering to the joys of the kingdom of heaven.

Having mentioned the psalms I will end on one that my caller loves and clings onto, Psalm 23: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff they comfort me.”

Amen.