Tuesday, 26 August 2008

24 AUGUST 2008 ST BARTHOLOMEW / NATHANAEL. Genesis 28 : 10 – 17 John 1 : 43 – 51 ROBERT.

Today is the Feast of St Bartholomew – sadly remembered over the past 400 years only for the terrible massacre in 1572 of Protestants in Paris and the French provincial cities, when some 5,000 Protestant Huguenots were slaughtered in their homes and in the streets, by French Roman Catholics, apparently on the orders of the Queen Dowager, Catherine de Medici.

Perhaps it is chiefly remembered for this because we actually know nothing about Bartholomew, who is named in the New Testament as an Apostle but not mentioned thereafter – EXCEPT that tradition tells us that he is the same person who features in John’s Gospel under the name Nathanael. I won’t go into the reasons for this, but it explains why – on St Bartholomew’s Day – we have a Gospel Reading which features Nathanael, and this is a chance to look at a very unusual and interesting passage of John’s Gospel – and one I have never preached about before – so here’s my chance!

I think you will agree that it’s quite a curious interchange between Jesus and Nathanael and actually worth a closer look. And it’s worth a closer look because the author of this Gospel never gives you information just for the sake of giving you information. There’s always more behind it and you are meant to look beyond the surface and at the deeper significance.

There are a number of crucial differences between John and the other three Gospels. One is that each incident is described as a ‘sign’ which leads beyond itself. Great examples would be the healing of the man born blind. John devotes the whole of chapter 9 (where the other writers would have described the incident in a few verses), and whereas it is no doubt a wonderful miracle, the point John wants us to understand is that we are all naturally spiritually blind - until Jesus gives us sight, and then we can recognise him for who he is. Similarly, the raising of Lazarus is meant to tell us that Jesus is the one who can bring life out of death for each one or us. Or the feeding of the 5,000 tells us how, as in today’s service, Jesus can be for us the Bread of Life. So we are meant to look beyond the surface if we are to get John’s message.

So we can be sure that Jesus’ meeting with Nathanael is not taking up space in John’s Gospel just for our interest. There is something important here that John wants us to understand. What can it be?

Let’s begin by noticing that the call of the disciples in this Gospel is very different from the way it is described in the other three. In Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus calls them from their place of work and asks them to follow him. The key is that a disciple is a ‘follower’ of Jesus, and obviously, by implication, their message is that we, too, should become followers of Jesus. Jesus is quoted as saying, for example, that whoever does not take up his cross and follow him is not worthy of him.

In John it is different. The key to being a disciple is that they recognise him for who he really is – the Messiah, the Christ, the One whom the prophets foretold.

Earlier in this chapter, John the Baptist has said at Jesus’ baptism “I have seen and testify that this is the Son of God”. And the next day, he sees Jesus passing and cries out: “Look, the Lamb of God”. Now, obviously, hundred and hundreds of people saw Jesus passing by or otherwise during the course of his ministry. Most saw simply a man – perhaps a very special and gifted and holy man – but only a few saw the reality, that this was the Son of God.

Among them is Andrew who rushes off to find his brother Simon and says: “We have found the Messiah”. (1:41). The next is Philip (1:45) who finds Nathanael and says: “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law and about whom the prophets also wrote – Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”

Nathanael is more than sceptical at first, but when he sets eyes on Jesus, he too is gifted with spiritual recognition and proclaims (1:49): “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.”

So, for John, the key to being a disciple (whether then or now) is whether you recognise Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, as did John the Baptist, Andrew, Philip and Nathanael.

And John is implicitly posing the question to us: What does it mean to recognise Jesus as the Son of God? It certainly means more than saying the words in the Creed – anyone can do that. It is a recognition that comes from within and at root it is a gift from God. It is a recognition that goes far beyond what most people see – the man teaching and performing miracles, or for us, the man whom we read about in the pages of the New Testament.

The verb ‘to find’ is used several times in this passage. Andrew finds Simon; Philip finds Nathanael. We use that word sometimes about God or Jesus. We sometimes say that a person has found God. But we don’t mean it in the normal sense, because God is not lost. God is here constantly, but we don’t recognise him – we don’t see him – or understand his presence. It needs that spark of recognition that is a gift. We talk about a person finding Jesus, but Jesus is with us always – he doesn’t need to be found. He needs to be recognised, and that is a gift.

We cannot argue ourselves or anyone else into the Kingdom of God, but we can pray for that gift – that gift of recognition that Nathanael was blessed with. We can pray for it for ourselves – and we can pray for that gift of recognition for other people. And the phrase that John uses in this chapter is “Come and see”. Jesus says it to two disciples in 1:39. They ask significantly, in effect, where do you live? And Jesus says – as he says to us – come and see where I live! Philip’s reply to Nathanael’s sceptical “Can anything good come out of Nazareth” is not to argue with him, but simply to say: “Come and see!”.

This is how evangelism works best. If someone is sceptical about Jesus, ideally we invite them to Church and say: “Come and see for yourself! Find out if you recognise Jesus and find him as your Lord and Saviour.”

The problem, of course, is that the Church has to fit the description. It has to be a place where Jesus is worshipped and made so real and relevant, that he can be recognised. We have to think and pray very hard about that – as does every Church everywhere, all the time. Can we fit the bill?

Let me read you a short extract from a commentary on this passage where the writer is talking about how a church moves forward into the future. He writes: “When I was serving a 100 year old congregation (like us), a mission congregation started up less than 2 miles away (like, say, the Beacon). Within 5 years they had grown larger than us and completed a building programme. A major difference between us was that the ‘mission church’ was looking ahead to the greater things God was going to do with their congregation. The ‘established church’ tended to look to the past at the good things God had already done. Even when members of the ‘established church’ were asked “are the best years for this church ahead or behind you”, and they answered ‘ahead’, that wasn’t the way they talked or acted about their future. It is hard to move into the future when you are looking backwards. And you can’t invite someone to be part of the past. You can invite them to be part of your future.” Now I do believe that we are now looking to the future in a very positive way, but you can see the danger with a church with a long tradition. When we invite people like these disciples to ‘Come and see’ we must be inviting them to be part of our future, not our past.

At the end of this reading from John Chapter 1, Jesus refers back to the Old Testament, and the passage he has in mind is the one we read as our first reading today. Jacob has a dream where heaven is opened and God is (as it were), recognised, and there is a ladder with angels ascending and descending. Now that door in heaven is open once again because God’s Son has come down to be among us – and, as John says in the opening passage of his Gospel – we can “behold his glory, glory as of the one and only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

We shall be exploring over the coming months this theme of how can we create an environment in which Jesus can be seen and recognised in his glory. Too often our problem is that we are too busy, too pre-occupied, too diverted even to look properly, let alone see through the surface and recognise Jesus.

Now Jesus sees potential in Nathanael because he sees him sitting under a fig tree. This seems very strange to us, because we don’t know our Old Testament, and hence miss John’s symbolism. In Micah and Zechariah, for example, to sit under a fig tree is to be in a place of peace, a place of contemplation, meditation, essentially a place of ‘space’(Hebrew- Shalom). How often we talk about our need for a’ bit of space’ – meaning a time and place free from stress and distraction and busyness. John places Nathanael in a place of focused peace of mind. Hence John is telling us that it is not surprising that, when confronted with Jesus, he instantly recognises him for what he is – the Son of God.

We are in too much of a hurry to understand who Jesus is, and what is his will for our lives and for our church. We need ‘space’ and time and peace. When the various plans for St Michael’s are presented to us all on 3rd October, if we’re not careful we will immediately start to discuss, compare, debate, come to conclusions. I suggest that what we shall need most is silence and space, to give us time – perhaps a good length of time – when we can be still, and wait and pray, until we hear the heavenly still small voice telling us what to do.

So Nathanael turns out to be quite an influential role model. Because he occupies a place of peace and space, he recognises Jesus as the Son of God. That is God’s gift to him as it can be to us. Because he recognises Jesus for who he is, he is naturally a disciple – a Christian – someone who has seen Jesus. And once you have seen Jesus for who he is, you have seen God, and your life will never be the same again.

He can speak to us down the ages to where we find ourselves today, because – as John explicitly tells us (20:31) - “These things are written - (John has written this chapter) - that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing, you may have life in his name.”


1. When you read this passage from John Chapter one, what strikes you about the encounter between Jesus and Nathanael? Do you think it has relevance to you now?

2. When you read about Jesus in the Gospels, have you ever had that special moment of recognition that the Son of God is present with you as you read?

3. Do you manage to find the ‘space’ to think and pray through issues, and hear the voice of Jesus giving you guidance?

Sunday 17 August 2008 Rhythm of Life 2: Leviticus 25:1-7, Luke 6:1-5 Bruce

Welcome to the second of two sermons on the theme of the Rhythm of Life, looking at the need for balance in all that we do and all that we are. Last week Melanie gave new insights into the 23rd Psalm, how the shepherd rules over the flock, but also gives rest and protection.

This week we look at the key principle of Sabbath. I wonder what this word conjures up in your mind? When I was 19, I was an impoverished bank clerk in Woking, and gratefully accepted invitations for Sunday lunch. One lovely couple regularly entertained me, but it could be quite tense. They were wonderful parents, who lavished love and attention on their children, while giving them safe boundaries. On the Sabbath day, however, no ice creams could be purchased, and no ball games played outside; they must sit quietly because it was the Lord’s Sabbath. Needless to say, they spent considerable periods of every Sunday afternoon remonstrating with bored, upset youngsters.

We find the Sabbath in the fourth commandment, in Exodus 20:

8 Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.
9 Six days you shall labour and do all your work,
10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates.
11 For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

We see from the very first chapter of the bible that God rules this world through order: day and night, days of the week, seasons of the year. This extends to our relationships with each other, with God and with the world of work. Once a week a day was to be set aside as a day of rest; as we read from Leviticus, every seventh year was to be set aside. If you read on, you will see that after every seven periods of seven, i.e. after 49 years, the 50th year was to be a year of Jubilee, when debts and leases were cancelled.

The principle here is that all of our relationship with God and existence in this world is to be balanced, ordered, and that we should know rest and peace. We might refrain from our legitimate work, but in so doing we trust our God that he will provide for all our needs and care for us. As we honour the Sabbath, we demonstrate that we are God’s.

This is worked out in various ways throughout scripture. It might be through a day spent in quiet and contemplation, with time to give ourselves to our chief purpose here on earth, that of worshipping God – a preview of our occupation in heaven! We also have time for deepening and enriching our relationships with those around us.

The language of ‘rest’, of Sabbath, is also used of the gift by God of a land for the people to inhabit; remember the three promises to Abraham: land, descendants and a relationship of blessing. The people would not inherit the blessing by their own efforts, but by trust and willingness to receive what God had in store for them; to use the language of last week’s sermon, they could choose to follow the shepherd in the ‘ways of righteousness’ and to the ‘still waters’. This is rest, Sabbath. It is all about the goodness of God, and his desire to provide for us all that we need.

And yet my good friends in Woking had managed to take this expression of goodness and freedom and make seem harsh and restrictive. How does this happen?

Of course, it says it in the bible. And yet this is where we must take care to read the scriptures, and remember some simple guidelines. For instance, something can be biblical but not necessarily scriptural. To put it another way, the Old Testament was written for us, but not about us. We learn from it and are guided by it, but we read it with care. In some parts, the most questionable actions or beliefs are recorded for us to learn from, so that we can live better; we do not have to copy them. In other cases, commands that were good and helpful in a particular situation can be seen not to apply for all time and in every place. There is very often room for disagreement and debate, and that is where we need to know the scriptures well and seek to be mature. To use a familiar phrase, we want to encounter God and grow in him ….

Sometimes we can use a scripture that is very helpful to us. When reformers were trying to help children who were working seven days a week, they railed at the owners of the mills and factories that they must give their workers the biblical day of rest. Alongside this, they founded the first Sunday Schools, where children could be given the first rudiments of a more general education. From this came the institution the British Sunday, which has faded into memory so rapidly.

It could be argued that this well intentioned movement caused a great harm, giving to generations of children (and perhaps older people as well) the unintended message that God and the church are all about restriction and coercion: fun has been outlawed!

Jesus tackles this issue head on; he is the key to understanding God’s will and purpose in this and every subject. He knows and acknowledges the Old Testament strictures, and claims the right to reinterpret them. Just as Yahweh God has set the bounds on all creation and ordered the lives of humankind by giving the Sabbath, Jesus reveals himself as the Lord who can do the same in our lives. It is part of the gradually revealed picture of Jesus as fully human and fully divine. He is the one who says ‘Come to me and I will give you rest’ (Matthew 11:28). On another occasion he says bluntly that the Sabbath was instituted for our benefit, not the other way round. (Mark 2:27). Everything that God does is love, and he has given us himself, his name and his rest so that we might be blessed and helped.

The writer to the Hebrews goes further: our whole life is now one big Sabbath. Where the Israelites were promised a land, we have an inheritance of a relationship of love and trust because of Jesus. He is the Good Shepherd. We are invited to enjoy the forgiveness of our sins, the provision of our daily needs, a growing and deepening relationship of love with God our Father and with each other. This is the true Rest, the true Sabbath that he wants us to enjoy.

We can make living the Christian life such hard work. Why can we not stop, wait, accept, delight, in God?

To be practical, each of us must prayerfully work out how to spend Sundays. For some, it is quite acceptable to play sport, go shopping. Others will choose to fit these activities into the other six days of the week. Some have no choice but to work, and we are grateful for those who provide essential services.

May I offer some general principles to help you? The Sabbath is God’s gift to bless you and enrich your life. It is symbolic of your whole life lived in trust. It can be very helpful to have a special day when we devote ourselves to building and deepening good relationships with family, neighbours and friends. By hosting a barbecue or going visiting, you may be keeping the Sabbath in its true spirit and intention.

Worship is not an optional extra or leisure choice, to be put alongside all the others. If you are not ill or required to work, you should expect to be in church. Even if there are some Sundays that are more appealing than others, your presence here deepens and enriches our corporate experience of God. It is a shame when not all the family can get to the gatherings.

Worship and our gathering together is designed by God to be a blessing to us and an enrichment. If that is not your experience, may I encourage you to pray for the service leaders, for those who choose the music and the singers and musicians who practice and prepare so hard to help us in our worship? Pray for yourself and all the rest of us to have a living, fresh experience of God’s love, that gives a glimpse of the glories of heaven where we will experience true Rest and joy for ever.

We can make living the Christian life such hard work. Why can we not stop, wait, accept, delight, in God?

1. When did you last sit in complete silence and experience peace?
2. What for you is the heart, the essential factor of Sabbath?
3. What ways could you work (!) with others to better experience the Rest that God has in mind for us?


2 Peter 3: 14 – 18 John 20: 24 – 31



The New Testament is not one block of Holy Scripture in the way it appears in copies of the Bible. 4 Gospels, Acts of the Apostles, 21 Letters, and (at the end) the vivid but (to 21st century eyes strange) Book of Revelation. So not the sort of book you buy in a shop and read from beginning to end in a logical sequence. It is a collection, written over many years by many different authors, from different stand-points, with different purposes in mind. Don’t start at the beginning and attempt to read through to the end!

FOUR GOSPELS. These tell the story of the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus. They are called Gospels because the word means “Good News” and they represent the basic message of the Christian faith. The Christian Faith centres not on a body of doctrine or code of conduct, but on one Person – Jesus – and without these accounts, Christianity would not exist because we would not know his story. They all claim (explicitly or indirectly) to be or at least represent eye-witness accounts of Jesus’ ministry and the manner of his death and resurrection.

They are unsigned and it is tradition that has assigned authors to them. Mark written first. It is the shortest and perhaps most dynamic and vivid. It is more about actions than words. Matthew and Luke clearly had Mark’s account in front of them when they wrote, and often quote him verbatim or with small variations. They have their own standpoint because they are addressed to different readers – essentially Matthew to Jewish readers, and Luke to Greek and other Gentile readers. Both seem to have in front of them another source in addition to Mark – a collection of the sayings or teachings of Jesus, from which they choose selections of his words and teaching.

John stands apart. He does not refer to Mark as his source. The Greek style is markedly different and more philosophical. Much more space is given to recounting just a few incidents and miracles, with interpretation and – towards the end – a long account of what Jesus said to his disciples at and after the Last Supper. Over the centuries people seem to have always been drawn to John’s account, perhaps because it quotes Jesus’ words in such detail and length. But you read the other three if you want the overall synopsis of his life and ministry.

ACTS OF THE APOSTLES. This is written by the same author as the third Gospel, Luke, and continues the story of how the Christian Church was formed at the Day of Pentecost, and how it broke away (under the leadership of St Paul) from its original Jewish base, and (as we would say now) ‘went global’ and began to become the worldwide community of faith that (for example) we now see represented by bishops from all over the world at the Lambeth Conference. It is a great story and an exciting read.

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21 LETTERS. These are mostly written by Paul (at different times, from different places, and for different reasons), but some are by other authors whom it is hard to identify by name in most cases. Probably all of Paul’s letters will have been written some time before the Gospels. The Gospel story of the life of Jesus, and the stories of what he said and did would have been passed on orally through sermons and teaching in groups for a generation, and it was when the first eye-witnesses began either to die naturally or through martyrdom, that they realised that it was essential that orderly accounts be written down.

They are written to ‘Churches’ in different places, and (being a well taught congregation) we all know that a ‘Church’ is the people, not the building. In those days there were no church buildings. Sometimes he writes with encouragement, sometimes with criticism, always with advice which is well worth reading.

Because he was writing to address such specific circumstances and often (as we say) ‘on the hoof’ dictating at speed, the sentence construction can become difficult, and the thoughts they contain (Peter tells us) sometimes hard to understand. But they contain the godly wisdom that underlines so much Christian teaching down the ages. But try to understand the context into which they were written, and the problems he was addressing – and read them as letters – not as polished doctrinal theses.

REVELATION is (as they say) a ‘one off’ (using very different Greek from eg: John’s Gospel and the 3 letters which carry the name ‘John’, so certainly not written by the same person as wrote the 4th Gospel or the three letters under John’s name). But actually belonging to a category of prophecy which was common at the time and well accepted in the Jewish world. It draws on the Book of Daniel but great guidance is needed before dipping in too far, as it has been used to underpin endless cults and false prophecies down the centuries, and is impossible to be taken literally.

So –take time and care to understand the way the New Testament is made up, its variety, its types of writing, its diversity, and it will add immensely both to your enjoyment of an amazing collection of literature and to your understanding. Who would think, for example, that we could read personal letters written two thousand years ago? It is very exciting.


Some people read the New Testament because they enjoy the beauty of its language which is often poetic in character and beautifully constructed as language. Those people will always like what we call the ‘Authorised Version’ which was a new translation from the original Greek into English, commanded by King James 1st after the death of Queen Elizabeth, and printed in 1611.

What most people don’t know is that the language was consciously old-fashioned even in 1611. The language was intended to impart a rather ancient solemnity to the text and would have been a little difficult for ordinary people to understand

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even then. Bear in mind that Shakespeare was still very much alive in 1611 and was still writing plays. It is fascinating to imagine how different the Authorised Version would be if Shakespeare had been asked to do the work. His language was entirely different – very lively, vivid and including many new words in common speech and indeed it seems many he more or less invented. It would have brought the text to life is a quite different way – perhaps rather like the very modern new translations that are published especially for young people today.

But, however beautiful the cadences of the Authorised Version, what we are concerned with today is UNDERSTANDING the New Testament and its message, and for that we really do need a modern translation. Here in St Michael’s we use the New international Version (NIV) which is a good, conservative version for most of us to use. More modern translations include the Good News Bible, and the New English Bible which was produced in the 1970s and was intended to replace the Authorised Version, but has never really caught on. There are many others – shop around, and find one that you find easy to understand. If we are to live the Christian life today, we need to know what the New Testament actually says and means.


Who remembers the Prayer Book Collect for Bible Sunday (2nd in Advent in those days)? A little exercise in memory – if I stop in the middle who can tell me what comes next...?

‘Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy scriptures to be written for our learning; grant that we may in such wise hear them – read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ.’

In order to understand the New Testament, and live by it, we need not only to understand how it came to be written, and understand the language, we need more – read, mark, learn and inwardly digest.

So (if by chance you don’t already do this), obtain a good modern translation which you find easy to understand. Get hold of some good notes or commentaries to help you. Make time as a priority for regular prayerful reading of short passages, followed by reflection and prayer.

Then comes the further step. Mark and Learn (yes, often by heart is really helpful) and inwardly digest – which means allowing the meaning to seep deep into your system and your daily life, so that you not only read the scriptures, but live by them. There lies the makings of a Christian life!

DISCUSSION. Discuss which versions of the Bible you find most helpful; whether you use Bible Reading notes or commentaries and, if so, which ones you find helpful; and what it means in practice to ‘inwardly digest’ Holy Scripture.