Saturday, 26 April 2008

Sunday 27 April 2008. The Six weeks of Easter: Trusting that He will reveal himself to us. Acts 17:22-31, John 14:15-21 Bruce

On Thursday we celebrate forty days after the resurrection of Jesus, and the event called the Ascension. For those first forty days, Jesus spent time with his disciples teaching them; almost certainly he went over lessons he had taught them before, but which they had not been in a position to understand until they experienced the wonder, the miracle of his resurrection from the dead. It was a process that would continue to the present day, as each generation has sought to come to terms with the reality of Christ’s presence with us.

Jesus said that we would not be alone in this endeavour. After he had returned to the Father, God would send to us another just like him, but with one important difference – he would not be limited by having a body. He would send the Holy Spirit who would reveal to each of us, from the inside, the reality and the love of God, to all who would accept him.

In the past weeks we have looked at the difference that Jesus, risen from the dead, can and should make in our lives. Two weeks ago we looked at the life of the church, last week we looked at how we need never fear death again, because Jesus is risen. And today I want to look at a subject that many find troubling. How can we know God? What certainty is there?

Allied to that is another question. I have a friend who is a vicar who is deeply troubled about baptising infants. So often parents appear who ask for their child to be ‘done’, who are happy to go through the outer forms of religion, and yet do not seem to connect with the inner reality of the words they have said. Would it not be better to only baptise those who are old enough to fully comprehend what they are saying and doing in being baptised?

It is undeniable that baptising children, christening them, has been part of our culture for generations. If every family who had a child baptised here kept coming regularly to share in our worship and communal life, we would have space problems (but I would not be troubled by that!). We pray for each family we baptise, and invite them back, but it does seem that their understanding of what we are about is different from ours.

But that is a potential situation that we face with every person who walks through the door. Each of us here is on a pilgrimage through life, exploring what we believe. As you sit there, you may have very different views about who God is, how we should respond to him, how to make sense of the events that have taken place in our lives already.

The good news is that it is not my job to control what you think or believe. Which is good news for me, because I do not have that power, and good news for you as you try to make sense of it all.

What we can all do together is accompany each other on the journey and seek to make connections and share any insights we have picked up on the way.

We see some of this in the way that the apostle Paul got on in Athens. After being persecuted and threatened in other parts of Greece, he has been sent to the capital and told to lie low. He has wandered around looking at the statues and idols, and realised that here is a culture that has a lot of religion, but they do not know God. He goes to their equivalent of Hyde Park Corner and is invited to speak to them about what he believes.

He picks up on the variety of different worships going on – the Athenians would like to know God, but do not know how. Having erected altars to all the obvious gods, they also have one TO AN UNKNOWN GOD, just in case they have missed one out.

Well, Paul says, this is the god I have come to tell you about. He is the one who created the whole world, and each and every one of us. This is the God of all peoples, the God not distant from any of us, the divine being present to all. He then quotes Aratus, a pagan poet, from his poem Phaenomena, written about 270 BC in Athens. “In, or perhaps through, whom we live and move and have our being: for we are his family.” It’s as if I started to quote Leonard Cohen to talk about God. The point Paul is making is that God reaches out to every one of us, and that all human experience, all culture can be a doorway to know God.

But, and it is a big but, we are not given freedom to imagine God just as we would like him to be. We cannot just choose the God we want. Some might like him as a metal statue safely locked away in a temple, but he is greater than that. The challenge is rather for us to be as he would like us to be. God reaches out in love to every person, but this not mean that religion is reduced to the lowest common denominator of what we can all agree on. One day we will each be called to give an account of ourselves, to be judged according to the standard set by the one whom God has raised from the dead, Jesus.

The question is therefore not “Will God reveal himself to us?”, but rather, how will we respond to the fact that he is already doing so? For some, the wonders of creation give an inkling of the divine. For others, it is art. For others, it is the message preached about Jesus. But in every case, it is the Spirit of God working within us unseen, and we can choose to cooperate with him, or not.

It is that cooperation with God, which leads us to make sense of him and his message of love and reconciliation. Jesus says that if we love him, return his love, and keep his commandments, which are chiefly to love, then our Father God will give us another Counsellor or Comforter, the Holy Spirit of truth. In John chapter one, we are told that some would not receive Jesus, but to all who do receive him, he gives the power to become children of God. Here Jesus tells us that there are some who choose to inhabit a rival authority structure, the world, because they are not “tuned in” to the Spirit.

How can we respond in a positive manner to God’s invitation to know him and love him?

First, you have to want to. God would never force himself upon us. In principle, each of us needs to be open to at least consider the possibility that God loves us, and wants the best for us. We can explore, learn, debate, doubt, but above all risk getting to know God.

Second, you do not have to do this alone. A bit like singing in church, it is actually easier if we do it in a group with others. They may seem more familiar with the tune than we are, or at least more confident in their mistakes, but we can let ourselves go if the people around us are joining in. So, for you to seek after God on your own in private is absolutely your privilege. But you may very well find that you make more progress if you share the process with others. You may also find that you are a blessing and a help to someone alongside you.

Third, trust Jesus to help you by his Spirit. He is the one who will give understanding, and insight. He will help you forgive yourself when you get it wrong, as you inevitably will. He will give you confidence to share God’s love with those around you. When parents and Godparents make promises on behalf of a child, or when any of us commit ourselves to be disciples and servants of God, we can only do so by trusting in the mercy and power of God to help us and make it possible.

Questions for Discussion

  1. The wonders of creation. The good news about Jesus in the bible. Experiences of worship. What have been the doorways for you encounter God?

  2. St Michael’s has a Purpose Statement: To Encounter God and Grow in Him. What examples can you give of things that have helped you to encounter God?

  3. Do you prefer to explore these things alone or with others?

  4. What are your hopes and fears about the journey?

Monday, 21 April 2008

Sunday 20 April 2008 Forty Days of Easter - Trusting in Death Acts 7:55-60 John 14:1-6 Bruce

Jesus spent forty days after his resurrection talking to his disciples about the Kingdom of God. And so in these six weeks of Easter, the forty days leading up to the Ascension, we spend time revelling in the resurrection of Jesus, and asking “What difference does it make?”.

We remember this when we read the Acts of the Apostles, and the speeches in John’s Gospels where Jesus teaches about our day to day relationship with God. Last week Robert spoke about the blueprint for church life: Fellowship, Teaching, Prayer, Worship and Growth. This week I have chosen the title “Trusting in Death”.

There are said to be only two certainties: death and taxes. A few people seem to be very effective at reducing or avoiding paying tax, but none of us will escape the death of our present, mortal bodies.

The big claim that Christians make is that Jesus has conquered death. We see this in the words of Jesus, that he has gone to prepare a place for each of us, and also in the example of the first martyr, Stephen. Recalling the example of his master Jesus, Stephen has been arrested on a trumped up charge, subjected to a show trial with false evidence, condemned to public execution, prays for his killers, and entrusts his spirit into the care of God.

We see again the mystery of God’s purposes. Stephen has emerged as one of the first deacons, full of God’s grace and power, well known for doing great wonders and miraculous signs. It is this man, for whom we can see such promise and who is such an essential part of the growing church, who suffers this violent, premature death. How can we explain this?

Every one of us must confront the issue of death. We lose the ones we love. We know that we will die one day. How can we cope with this?

The root question behind this is whether God is real. We wonder whether we can trust him or if he is real at all.

Many of us struggle with a sense of unease, a disappointment with life, a sense that there should be more to life than this.

One response to this might be a world weary cynicism: “always look on the bright side of life”, “leave ‘em laughing”, “ultimately there is no point or meaning to anything”.

What does our resurrection faith say to this?

Jesus confronts two problems when he is speaking to his disciples. How do we handle it when we seem to have made a muck of our lives, and does God answer prayer?

Peter has just learned that at the climax of Jesus’ life and ministry, when Jesus will need his disciples more than at any other time, Peter will disown him. Into that stunned, crushed silence, Jesus speaks the life giving words: “Do not let your hearts be troubled, trust in me … I go to prepare a place for you.” You might be the greatest failure there has ever been. You might be the best, the greatest at your chosen job or profession, or in your family or relationships. The truth is – in the eternal scheme of things – it does not matter. It will not affect what happens to you when you die. What matters, all that matters, is that you trust, rely on and place all your hope in Jesus. He loves you, he wants you to experience his love, and he promises that whatever happens to you, and whenever it happens, he will care for you.

When we face the big difficulties and we desperately need God to intervene, we fall back on Jesus’ invitation to trust him, and through him the Father. Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, and we look to experience his love in every day life. A bit like those who run the marathon, we start with small walks and runs. We look for Jesus every day in the small things. Stephen was a man who trusted God in what might seem relatively small things, like the distribution of food to the widows. When the crisis of martyrdom reared up, though, he was in training and equipped, ready. When I spend time with someone who is dying, it is an encouragement to me when I quote “Do not let your hearts be troubled”, and they join in the rest of the quotation by heart. Time spent reading scripture and in prayer is never wasted.

In these forty days of Easter, let us resolve to learn a trust in Jesus and his word, to live a trust in Jesus and his word, which will sustain us every day in this life, and carry us together into the next, where he has prepared a place for each of us.

Discussion Starters
What do you make of the quip that Christian faith is “Pie in the sky when you die”?
What parts of the worship or life of the church give us most comfort when we think about Christian attitudes to death.
An important part of the role of a Soul Friend (Anamchara, Spiritual Director) is to discuss eternal matters, and to accompany us at the time of death. When did you last talk with someone about the death of someone close to you, or your own death?

Friday, 18 April 2008

ST MICHAEL’S 13th APRIL 2008 EASTER 4 BLUEPRINT FOR A CHURCH Acts 2 : 42 – 27 John 10 : 1 – 10 Robert

The key passage from Acts chapter 2 which we read as our Epistle, is Luke’s description of the Christian Church as it was in the period immediately following the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. It is set out for us as a blueprint, or proto-type, for any local Church as it should be. The standard against which every Church should be measuring itself.

As in every passage in the Bible which we make relevant to our situation today, the process we need to apply is to ask two questions: ‘What did it mean in its original context?’ and ‘How can we carry the vital principles across to the 21st century in such a way as to make them valid and practical today?’

But before we apply this process to the this important passage from Acts 2, let’s just put it into context and bring it to life, by reminding ourselves of how those disciples got there.

In today’s Gospel from John 10, we come to understand that the Risen Christ is alive and can be available today to anyone who believes in him. As Kim explained so vividly last Sunday, we can experience him as those two disciples did on the Emmaus Road. He comes alongside us in any situation in which we find ourselves – in their case, in times of bewilderment, despair, anxiety, depression, loss and grief.

And we recognise him in many ways. In the breaking of bread, as in Holy Communion. Like Elijah in the still small voice – rather than in great miraculous signs and wonders. Through the testimony of another person, as they tell us about their experiences, and we feel our hearts burn within us. Through private or public prayer, when suddenly we know that Christ is speaking not just in general terms, but to me directly and personally. As we read the Bible, or hear it read, the Risen Christ can (so to speak) walk off the page and appear to us even as we read or listen. I am sure there are those among us today who could get up, if I asked, and tell us about such experiences. Kim shared with us last Sunday just such a very personal experience.

The Risen Christ can come to us personally, and we can recognise him or hear his voice, personally and unmistakeably at any hour of the day or night. But in Matthew 18:20, Jesus does make a specific promise. He says that ‘where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there in the midst of them.’

This was the situation described in Acts 2 as we have just heard, and this is the situation now here in Church, as we are gathered together in the name of Jesus to worship, to pray, and to listen carefully to what He is saying to us.

From the blueprint described in Acts 2, we can derive specific guidance as to how this wonderful miracle happens.

There are five elements I want to draw your attention to – and it will help if you have the Epistle open in front of you.

1.FELLOWSHIP. These Christians met together, we read, every day. This may not be possible for us, but it should mean more than an hour or so in Church on a Sunday, with little or no real fellowship or personal meeting as we sit in our rows. But we have many other doors open to us for this vital New Testament fellowship - Encounter Groups, Thursday lunch and prayers, and many other groups within St Michael’s which allow us share fellowship and which many of us find so valuable. Look for ways in which we may come together in twos and threes and sevens and tens, so that Christ may be with us in the midst.

An important aspect of fellowship is coming to agreement in all our affairs, and – wherever we see there is a need – being willing to give time and energy and resources to share, so that the fellowship is real. It seems that those first disciples pooled all their worldly goods, and that is probably unrealistic today, but we can go a great deal further than the average Sunday worshipper. Indeed if we are to fulfil our vision for this Church, we shall have to go much, much further in sharing our money, our time and our energy. It cost those first Christians a great deal, but look at the wonderful ways they were blessed and the vision they achieved. We read that they ‘devoted’ themselves to fellowship. We need to do the same.

2.LEARNING. We read that they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching. For us that means devoting ourselves to the study of the Bible, with a view both to understanding it and putting its principles into practice, and also meeting with the Lord through that disciplined study – ideally on a daily basis, but at the very least on a thoroughly regular basis.

There is an Alpha Course due to begin fairly soon – an ideal way to start for the relative beginner, and indeed as an excellent refresher for us all. There are Bible Reading notes to help us, along with modern translations, and a vast store of other resources to help us in the modern world.

We can learn on our own and that’s necessary, but often we learn better in groups, whether just two or three, or a larger group. Learning and Fellowship go together very well.

3.PRAYER. Those first Christians devoted themselves to prayer. Prayer can take many forms, although they are essentially all about cultivating a personal relationship with our Lord. There is private, personal prayer, which should be a regular discipline, going alongside our Bible study. There is Group Prayer, which goes alongside Fellowship, and is a hugely rewarding experience, and often a time when – as a fellowship – we discern the Lord’s presence, and the Lord’s will for our lives, most clearly.

And there is Church prayer. When a group grows into a congregation, a different style of prayer becomes necessary, but it is no less valid and real. It is bound to be more structured, more formal, but can be enormously helpful and real, if done well. We, like those first disciples, must devote ourselves to prayer if we are to achieve personal growth and our vision for this Church.

4.WORSHIP. We read that they devoted themselves to the breaking of bread, both in their homes and more formally as they met together on Sundays, the first day of the week, as they celebrated the resurrection. And as they did so, we read that they praised God, and were filled with awe, and saw many wonders and signs. Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel (John 10:10) that He came ‘that we might have life, and have it to the full.’ When we meet together, we should be full both of joy and life, and also of awe and wonder. And as we praise God together, we too will see wonderful things happen in our own lives and in the lives of others. They may or may not be the sort of miracles that come to mind when we use that word – instant healing for example. But they will certainly be miracles in the equally valid sense that we will see our lives changed, and the lives of those around us changed. We will see wholeness, and love, and grace, and healing, and forgiveness, and all the characteristics of that fullness of life that Jesus promised to all who believe in him.

5.GROWTH. We read that the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. They didn’t have to go door knocking because when there is life-filled local community which truly exhibits all these attributes of fellowship, sharing, prayer, worship and all that I have been describing, we shall have people queuing at the doors. This is what we all want at heart. This is what people seek now just as much as they did then. And we shall not have to argue or struggle to persuade, because when they see God at work in us and in our Church, the Lord Himself will touch their hearts.

We are following a short series in these weeks of Easter and in the notes for today, we read: “The first Christian community takes steps to live out a seven-days-a week-faith. What are the implications for each of us and the church family that God has placed us in?”

It is those implications which I have been describing. If we put them into practice, our own lives and the life of the Church, and the life of our whole community, will be wonderfully transformed. I am tremendously encouraged to see many of the signs of the church described in Acts 2 already living and breathing in St Michael’s. We are not starting from scratch like some churches. Indeed we have come a long way. But to fulfil our potential under God, we need to find the Risen Christ alive and in our midst in ever more wonderful and dynamic ways. He is risen, He is here, He is willing to continue our transformation and bring it to completion. We need to play our part. The word that keeps leaping out of the text of Acts 2 for me is the word ‘Devotion’. They ‘devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.’ We must devote ourselves too.


Share personal experiences of the Risen Christ and the context in which they happened
How can we make better use of the resources we have in order to become more like the church in Acts 2?
What should be our priorities, and how can we implement them?

Saturday, 5 April 2008

Sunday 6th April 10.30am Luke 24: 13-35- The Road to Emmaus and Back Kim

Sometimes it seems that, because Jesus had told the disciples about being raised on the third day, they therefore knew what would happen. But on that first Easter morning the fact that the women reported that the body had gone did not lead the two on the road to Emmaus to conclude that ‘Christ is risen’. Indeed it made matters worse, compounding their anguish about all that has happened to Jesus in the previous few days. It just did not occur to them that Jesus had been raised; in fact they were more worried about being arrested as his followers. As the two disciples on the road to Emmaus were approached by this stranger they might have wondered if he was a spy, but one of them was beyond caring and he began to tell of all the recent events in Jerusalem. And it became clear that their disappointment is because, like many of the Jews they thought that he would be the one person to redeem Israel. Israel was still under Roman oppression and the expectation was that in this Passover week God would intervene again and Jesus would establish God’s Kingdom. After all Jesus had been a great prophet, powerful in word and miraculous deeds.
But now they were walking away from Jerusalem, because Jesus had died at the hands of the oppressors and there wasn’t even a body to show for it! As Frederick Buechner says in his book The Magnificent Defeat; “Emmaus is whatever we do or wherever we go to make ourselves forget that the world holds nothing sacred: that even the wisest and bravest and loveliest decay and die; that even the noblest ideas that men have had – ideas about love and freedom and justice – have always in time been twisted out of shape by selfish men for selfish ends.” I find this statement extremely sad and very true!
The resurrection made the difference! They, like everyone else, had been looking at the Bible story through the wrong set of lenses, seeing it as God’s story not of how he had set them free FROM suffering, but free THROUGH suffering. Jesus uniquely bore upon himself this suffering as Israel’s representative. The whole story from Genesis to Chronicles points towards this, and the execution of Jesus was not disproof, but proof, vindication, that he was God’s Messiah. God undoes the evil; in weakness and suffering he releases the world and brings it to freedom. The two disciples on their way to Emmaus did not recognise the story. We will only get it and have our hearts opened when we hear the right rendering of the way the world is. It is our story too in that we share in His sufferings and then enter glory. We will recognise Jesus also when we stay faithful to the way the story is communicated to the church.
On arriving in Emmaus they invited Jesus to stay whereupon he assumed the role of host. In contrast to Genesis 3 where eating the fruit opened the eyes of Adam and Eve and brought to the shame, death, decay and futility, here we have another meal where a couple, on eating with Jesus, discover that the curse has been broken, death has been defeated and the God’s new world has broken in. It is the Great Reversal, not shame but dignity, because we are loved by the living God.
Through the Word and the Sacrament Jesus is risen in His Church – that’s why Sundays are so important. Here we catch a glimpse of the world to come, our hearts are warmed, we are clean again and we can hope again. This is the Risen Jesus Christ and we can take this resurrection power to a dying world. Jesus has led God’s people out of slavery, and now invites them to accompany him on the new journey to the Promised Land.
You see these two men did not know when they left Jerusalem that they were to return and in a sense these two journeys were the only things they had control over. They could not control the meeting with Jesus on the way to Emmaus, they could not control the fact they did not recognise Him, they could not control that they DID recognise Him and they could not control Jesus’ disappearance after the meal. They could control their going back to Jerusalem and what a contrast in those two trips. A slow, sad, hopeless trip from Jerusalem to Emmaus. A quick, joyful, hopeful trip from Emmaus to Jerusalem. They came back with their ‘happy feet’.
All of us will experience our own ‘road to Emmaus’. There will come a time in our life when we will have a personal encounter with our Saviour. Right now we might still be too preoccupied with making our first million, raising a family, looking for a job, Caring for someone, or struggling up the corporate ladder, but sooner or later, we will eventually meet up with our Lord, like Cleopas and the other disciple, or more dramatically, like St. Paul’s encounter with Jesus on his way to Damascus. Jesus just bides His time, but He knows that somewhere along the way in our journey through this earthly existence, we will discover our true destination, and He will be there to offer His assistance. After all, He is the Way, all His promises are true, and in the Holy Communion, which we will all partake in, in a little while, He is the Source of eternal life.

My journey to ‘Emmaus’ ended on the evening of Easter Sunday in 1983 at St. Mary’s Church, when the guest speaker invited the congregation there to rededicate themselves or make a commitment to Jesus. He talked about God love for everyone and in the quietness of the silence I heard the words as if someone was sitting next to me, but nobody was, ‘that means you too Kim’.
And why did Jesus appear to the two men on the road? Because he knew they needed to hear what we all need to hear when we feel crushed by disappointment. We need to hear that God is in control. We need to be reminded that it is not all over until he says it is. We need to believe that life’s tragedies and disappointments are not sufficient reasons to bail out but to sit tight. It was Corrie ten Boom who as a Christian spent much of her youth in Ravensbruk concentration camp who said, ‘When the train goes through a tunnel and the world gets dark, do you jump out? Of course not. You sit still and trust the engineer to get you through.’
And perhaps, like these two loving disciples of Jesus that is where you find yourself at the moment, in the middle of a dark tunnel. If so then remember that Jesus tells the story of God’s plan to let his followers know that the engineer still controls the train. This story is God’s story and our story. It is a story of divine love, searching for and seeking out the lost. It is the story of sheep wandering and the shepherd gathering. It is the story of betrayal and rebellion and God’s faithfulness and offer of amnesty. It is the story of death and the gift of life. Our own mini resurrections. Read the story and you will discover that you are not the first person to weep and will not be the first person to be helped.
Do you feel lonely and abandoned? Then read of Ruth and God’s provision.
Do you feel frightened? Then read of Daniel and his deliverance.
Do you feel betrayed? Then read of Joseph and his offer of forgiveness.
These were ordinary people like you and me, caught up in the great story of God’s salvation.
And when you realise that, the most natural thing you want to do is to tell others about it too, which is exactly what happens-v 33 to 35, ‘They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven and those with them, assembled together and saying, "It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon." Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognised by them when he broke the bread.’
Who are you going to tell?
1. Suppose you had been in the room to hear the first news of Jesus ‘resurrection’. Would you have believed it? What makes you believe it now?
2. The disciples didn’t recognise Jesus walking with them. Who or what kept them from recognising Jesus? And what stops us from seeing Jesus in the difficult situations we find ourselves in?
3. We believe that the Messiah, Jesus, which the ancient prophets spoke of, has already come; how then do you explain the present state of the world?