Sermon – Trinity 3

Faith in stormy times…

Sunday 20 June 2021

Readings: Job 38:1-11, Mark 4:35-41

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

There is nothing quite like being at sea during a storm to put the fear of God into you.

Some 20 years ago now I signed up to take part in a charity fund-raising trip, sailing an ocean-going clipper down the coast of Norway and across the North Sea back to London.

But before myself and the rest of the novice crew were let loose on the boat we had to go on a training sail for the weekend – to literally learn the ropes.

The training sail took place in the Solent between Southampton and Cowes.  The plan was that we would be sailing for 24 hours continuously in a watch system to get us used to the 5 or 6 days it would take us to get from Bergen to London.

During the day the weather was fine and all the other sailors on the Solent had a good laugh at us struggling to pull up sails, tack the boat and all the other things we had to learn how to do.  

But, as darkness fell, the other boats went home and we carried on sailing around the Isle of Wight.  

And then, out of nowhere a bit like this morning’s reading, a vicious squall came up, a force 8 wind that whipped the sea into a frenzy.

We still had the large mainsail up, which meant that the boat tipped right over, the waves were breaking over the sides and washing down the decks.

In this state we had to try and reef in the mainsail, to make it smaller, and change the foresails.

Which might sound easy but which meant leaving the relative safety of the cockpit, strapping yourself onto the jackstays, going forward into the breaking sea and struggling with complex ropes and heavy sails while the wind and waves are doing their best to knock you over.  

I don’t mind telling you that there was quite a bit of fear around while that was going on and I wonder what we would have said if Jesus had been having a bit of a doze on a cushion in the back while we were fighting for our lives, or so it felt.

Let’s remind ourselves of what the disciples, many of whom were experienced fishermen, said in Mark’s gospel:

         “Teacher, don’t you care that we are perishing?”

These are strong, challenging words to Jesus and you really get the sense that they come from a place of genuine fear.

In the other synoptic gospels this challenge to Jesus is somewhat toned down.  In Matthew the disciples say:

         “Lord, save us!  We’re going to drown!”

and in Luke:

         “Master, master, we’re going to drown!”

But in Mark, who is always more direct, forthright and forceful, the disciples perhaps echo our own voices in times of distress, of which we have had a few recently:

         “…don’t you care…”

They say that there are no atheists in a foxhole, as those without God may find him in times of crisis, but here it is those who are literally with God who are challenging his perceived inaction when an unexpected challenge arises.

We are first told that Jesus is asleep in the stern during the storm.  It really does look as though Jesus doesn’t care what is happening to the boat or the disciples.  But is this the reality, or is it merely the disciple’s perception of what is happening?  Is God really absent and uncaring in this situation or is he acutely aware of what is happening but waiting for the disciples to make the first move towards him?

They don’t simply make a move towards Jesus, they actually wake him up.  We aren’t told quite how they did this, but given Jesus was managing to sleep through a storm I suspect that they had to give him quite a shake to get this attention.  If you think that prayer is always a super-spiritual activity which involves lots quietness then imagine the disciples in a state of real fear having to shake Jesus awake to get his attention.  Which I suppose is an act of faith in itself, after all why bother waking someone up if you don’t think they can do something?

As Jesus wakes up the first thing he hears is their complaint: “Don’t you care?” 

I don’t know whether to feel more sorry for Jesus or the disciples at this point.

But Jesus answers the question decisively – he ‘rebukes’ the wind and the sea, and there is a dead calm.  Interestingly if you think that you want some dead calm in your life remember that we do need some wind in our sails to move our boats at all.

Having rebuked the elements, Jesus then challenges the disciples:

Why were you afraid?  Have you still no faith?”

They don’t answer this question, because they were in ‘great awe’ and spoke not to Jesus but to one another:

How can this be?  Even the wind and sea obey him!”

The disciples seem almost as scared by this action as they were of the previous inaction. 

The answer to ‘how can this be?’ is not given in today’s Gospel but is strongly hinted at in the reading from the book of Job.  And, of course, the book of Job itself is an exploration of the question of where is God when trouble strikes.  After many chapters of Job complaining to God and challenging his decisions part of God’s response is found here, although it is not always comfortable reading.  God essentially says to Job ‘who are you to question me – who laid the foundations of the earth.’  

and

‘Who shut in the sea with doors…’

“…and said ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther,

and here shall your proud waves be stopped.”

The message is clear – the doubt of the disciples is on a par with the doubt of Job and the answer is the same – the God who created the sea can stop it in it’s tracks and the God we see in Job is the same God we see in the person of Jesus in the back of a boat on the sea of Galilee.

He is the God who made heaven and earth.  The God of creation has power over creation.  This is the God we have faith in and he is there all the time.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t question him or shouldn’t metaphorically shake him awake in our fear.  Questioning God is a good thing if it leads us from a state of not thinking about him at all to realising that he is with us always.  But, as Job and the disciples discovered, we need to realise that God answers our questions and our prayers in his terms and not ours.  

God is not asleep to our suffering and our distress but often it is we who are asleep to God.  In seeking to shake God awake perhaps it is our own faith and prayer life that is being woken up.

Sometimes the storm passes and we return to normality, although I hope not dead calm.  And sometimes the storm does not pass but we find ourselves able to cope better with the situation.  When we have faith and perseverance amazing things can happen.

My shipmates and I not only survived that long night on the Solent but when we eventually sailed from Norway across the North Sea we had a storm then too.  Because of our experience of being challenged we found that we have been transformed from terrified novices into salty sea dogs – and rather than clinging on for dear life and wondering when God was going to make it stop we found ourselves riding the waves with joy and rejoicing in a God whose creation is bigger and more vibrant than we can possibly imagine.

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.