Thursday, 31 May 2012

Pentecost Sunday 27 May 2012 Acts 2:1-21, John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15, Bruce

I n two weeks time I will leave on a walk to Holy Island.  In part this is a fund raiser and publicity event for the Renewal Project.  It is also a pilgrimage to a Celtic holy place, in which I will seek to connect with the Celtic saints who walked this land 1400 years ago.
But I have a problem.  A symbol of the Holy Spirit in Celtic thought was the Wild Goose – free, untameable, unpredictable.  There are stories of Celtic monks going on mission who cast themselves adrift in their coracles, content that wherever the waves and winds took them would be the place that God’s Holy Spirit was directing them.
In contrast, I have done my best to map out a route and pre-book accommodation along the way.  Partly this is lower anxiety levels among those I am leaving behind, partly it is to aid the publicity effort that will accompany the walk, and partly it is because I know what it is like to have total strangers show up at the door requesting hospitality.  It does make the walk a bit tamer.
Here’s another problem.  The book I have been reading this week by Frank Viola has made the case that much of what we do in church life has pagan origins.  In particular, the sermon as we know it today derives its origin from the methods of Greek orators – a carefully constructed speech that is delivered to a largely passive but hopefully appreciative audience.  This is different, it is claimed, from the preaching and teaching we find in the New Testament.  So why I am preaching a sermon this morning?  Doesn’t that sound a paradoxical way to lead us in thinking about the person and work of the Holy Spirit?
“When the Day of Pentecost had fully come ..” is how the KJV translates this.  The disciples had been waiting and praying, just has Jesus had commanded them.  One suspects that they did not really know what they were waiting for.  When they hear the noise like a mighty rushing wind and see what look like flames, they rush out into the streets declaring the wonders of God, speaking in languages that they have never learned.  They were obviously excited, so that some passersby thought that the disciples were drunk.
I was asked the question on Friday evening, would I like to see this or a similar phenomena at St Michael’s?  I rather ducked that one, because I thought I would like to ask you all what you think?
How ready are we to encounter God the Holy Spirit and grow in him?  Many of us are attracted to the gentle Spirit who comes down like a dove, inspiring love and unity.  He is the Spirit of Jesus, an Advocate or Comforter just like Jesus, who comes to live in us and to motivate us for life and service.
How ready are we, though, to encounter the Holy Spirit who if we lie to him can bring about death (Acts 5);  who if we sin against him can cause us to be denounced (Acts 8); who can change our travel plans (Acts 16:7).
He is the one who testifies about Jesus.  We are not trying to live model lives to convince people to live like us.  We are not trying to convince people to adopt our philosophy or system of ethics and morals.  We are merely those who have come into a living relationship with the living Lord Jesus Christ, and that is the work of his Holy Spirit – we can claim none of the credit.
The Holy Spirit is first the one who motivates and empowers us to continue the work that Jesus began.  He works through us as individuals and us united as the church, to prove to people that they have been wrong, sinful, not to depend on and trust in Jesus.  Second, the Spirit is he who has demonstrated God’s righteousness by raising Jesus from the dead, and he continues this work as we live that resurrection life out in the midst of the brokenness that we see all around us today.  Third, he shows by the life of his church that all the rulers and power structures of this world have been judged and found wanting.
It all comes back to the work of the Holy Spirit, exciting, disturbing, potentially discomforting.  We try to be organised, but are continually reminded that the way to make God laugh is to tell him our plans.  We aspire to worship in a reverential, orderly way, but there is always the suspicion that God’s Spirit would like to burst our banks and flow out to bless and bring life in ways that will surprise, perhaps even shock us.
Today on this feast of the giving of the Spirit, may we open for all that God has for us, open for all that he would teach us, open to help all those who seek after him, and open to follow him wherever he leads us.

In Groups
Pray to be filled with the Holy Spirit.

Friday, 18 May 2012

Sermon for Sunday 20th May 2012 - Acts 1: 15-17, 21-26 and John 17: 6-19 – A Relationship with God

If you had to help to choose your next vicar, what qualifications would you look for? In some parishes: they look for an Oxford or Cambridge graduate only. That would weed out an awful lot. We want a learned man, but is intellect the prime importance? A degree in theology may impress but it does not guarantee that the owner is a committed Christian! There is a big distinction between knowing about Jesus and knowing Jesus. 
The disciples had to face this problem with the death of Judas. They were used to working as a team. They went in twos; rarely did they work alone. Eleven was definitely an odd number. Twelve is a special number, like the twelve prophets or the twelve tribes of Israel. If the apostles were like the new Israel they would need to make up their team to twelve. If we play with a team member short, it will affect our overall performance. They needed to find a replacement, so they got together and asked what was required.

They decided together it should be someone who had been with Jesus from the beginning, from the baptism of John until Jesus was taken up from them. (Here we discover there were more than just the twelve going around with Jesus, but nevertheless twelve is a special number).  They needed a team member. They would require that person to witness with them to the resurrection. If they were able to put an advert in Situations Vacant it might sound like this:

Due to the untimely death of an apostle,
one person needed to join a team of twelve.
Will normally be required to work with others. 
Needs to  know Jesus personally and
to be ready to witness to the resurrection.

The important things became obvious. They wanted someone who knew Jesus, not someone who had just heard of him. The person had to have followed and loved Jesus. What mattered was their personal experience of the Lord. What would such a man see as his work?
Take services, look after churches, do social work? Above all he would have to witness to the resurrection. He would have to show others that Jesus is alive. Jesus is not a figure of history or just a holy man of the past: he is the LIVING LORD. We need to know him in the present tense, to know him now.
There seemed two obvious candidates, Joseph and Matthias. Now the followers of Jesus wanted to show that it was God’s choice, not theirs. They prayed, ‘Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen.’ Then they cast lots. We may find this is a little strange but they wanted the choice to be God’s and in those days this was a natural way of seeking their choice. The names of the candidates were written on stones. They were then placed in a vessel and shaken until one stone fell out. He whose name fell out was the chosen one. In this case Matthias’ name came out and be became apostle number 12.  Their relationship with Jesus, the Father was such that they knew they could count on Him to respond to their request.
In the John reading prayer comes up again, this time Jesus prayed for His disciples. Why would Jesus pray for these men? On one hand you could say because they were His friends but it goes deeper than that, Jesus had a relationship with them and they had a relationship with Him. Jesus based his prayer for the disciples on the relationship he bears to them. These men have been given to Jesus by his Father. “They were yours”, says Jesus. They belong to the Father but in a way far different from the simple affirmation that all creation belongs to God. No, this relationship is different. They are given to Jesus “out of the world”. That phrase highlights the Father’s choice, free and deliberate. This also suggests that, like us, they had previously belonged to the world and were entrenched in its sin and rebellion against God. There was nothing inherently special about these men that drove the Father to choose them; it was simply the free and mysterious grace of God.

They were a Father’s gift to his Son – And the Father who chose them has given them to his Son and so the Father and Son share in all things together. The Father will accomplish redemption for this world through his Son and will remake all things in and through him, so anyone who is to have a share in that future (US) must be joined to the Son – and that is what has happened to these men, by the sovereign will of God. They are a gift to his Son, in order to bring glory to the Son through their sharing in all that the Son is and has achieved.
Jesus made the Father known to them and they obeyed the Father’s word to believe in his Son. They accepted what Jesus said and knew with certainty that he had come from the Father and believed that he had been sent by the Father.  In these words of Jesus we see the work of God being acted out in the experience of the disciples – he chose them and, as Jesus revealed him to them, they received and believed his words.

This prayer is specific to their calling as disciples, as those who both know God and are called to make him known. One big thing this tells us is that the divine mission is not in danger, never has been and never will be. Everything is in the hands of the Father and his Son. What comfort that gives to us in terms of our own security and what hope in terms of the progress of the gospel!

He prays for their protection. Jesus knows his disciples no longer belong to this world.  So He prays for theirs and our protection from the world  - Satan. He is the one who stands opposed to God and his mission of mercy in the world and he is the one who stirs up trouble against the Lord and his people. And Jesus says, “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world”. There you have it, straight and to the point. That means that all our attempts to evade the world and to run from any engagement with it are contrary to the praying of Jesus. We often think safety is only gained by removal (“Lord, get me out of here!”) but that isn’t necessarily the case. Jesus is not praying that we be removed from the heat of the kitchen; rather, he is praying that we be protected whilst still in the world. “Protect them”, Jesus prays, “by the power of your name”. Whilst in the world, Jesus protected his own – kept the powers of evil at bay, corrected and rebuked his disciples and so on. As he prepares to leave, he is asking his Father to continue that same work of protection through the Holy Spirit. Jesus doesn’t simply pray for protection, he prays too for sanctification. God’s will, declared in his word, has the power to set people apart for God, to call them out of the world in order to belong to him. Jesus here prays that this will be accomplished in the lives of his disciples.

As Jesus prayed for his own disciples we should pray for ourselves. We must pray that the Lord’s Word would do its sanctifying work in our lives, that we would visibly be the fruit of Jesus. It isn’t enough simply to sit under God’s Word or to read it privately; we must couple those activities with earnest prayer that we would benefit from that same word. Jesus prayed that we might know God and have a personal relationship with Him.

This may seem like a great burden on us but Jesus is not like the Pharisees. Yes, to live on a battlefield and to seek to win over the enemy is a great burden – but Jesus has prayed and does pray for us now. And so these words are intended to breed not gloom but joy within our hearts.  No calling was heavier and more burdensome than that of Jesus yet he was a man of joy. He wants us to share in that joy – not by running from the battle, nor by isolating ourselves far from the spot where mission hits the road, but through knowing his protection and his deep work of sanctification in us. As we embrace our calling and commission, the words of Jesus breathe an abiding joy into our hearts. Amen.
  1. Who is Christ directly referring to? Who else?
2.       Why would Jesus pray for their protection?
3.       What does Jesus want for his disciples (and for us)? How would hearing this prayer bring that joy to the disciples?
4.       The disciples were a ‘gift’ from the Father to Jesus.  That also means you and me.  How do you feel about being a ‘gift’ to Jesus from the Father bearing in mind that ‘God has chosen you to be witnesses’ and has ‘called you by name’.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Sunday 13 May 2012, Acts 10:44-48, John 15:9-17, Bruce

On Sunday 3 June we will celebrate the Queen’s Jubilee.  We will do this by remembering her in our prayers here in church, and perhaps by taking part in a street party or other celebration.  She is our monarch, our ruler, and yet I wonder if there is anyone here who has ever received a direct personal command from her.  When I was installed here as vicar I had to take to repeat the vow of obedience to Her Majesty, as well as the oath of canonical obedience to the Bishop of Guildford.  I have only, however, seen her at a distance.
She nevertheless remains the queen, and we should obey her.  Of course, our laws come from parliament, and the prime minister and other government ministers.  I suspect that if Her Majesty did knock on our front door, we would be amazed and thrilled, and would probably do whatever she asked.  But perhaps we would do the same if it were Tom Jones, Lewis Hamilton, Meryl Streep or Michael Caine at our door; we might react the same, out of politeness if nothing else.
In our passages today we see the power of God at work and receive his summons to obey.  Of course they are snippets of much longer works, and so it is as if we had heard one song from a musical; it perhaps only makes sense if we know the whole story which gives our snippet meaning.
Jesus has washed the disciples’ feet, predicted his own betrayal and death, predicted that Peter will fall away, told them not to allow their hearts to be troubled, that he will be the way, the truth and the life who will lead them to the Father, and that he will send someone to take his place – the Holy Spirit.  He says that he is the vine and they are to remain in him.  He tells them that he has loved them as the Father has loved him, now he says that they are to remain in his love and keep his commands.
The strange thing is that carefully tells them that they are not slaves.  They are his friends, and he is explaining to them what he is doing, almost as if they are equals.  They are in a relationship of love and trust.  He is coming to his own, and inviting them to receive him.  It is the same language that we use when we talk of encountering God and growing in him.  It is up close and personal.  In fact we need to be open to all that he has for us, all that he would teach us.  If we read it again, can we hear Jesus speaking:  I have loved youYou, keep my commands.  You, remain in my love.  You are my friend.  I chose you.
So we learn that God is in charge, that Jesus has designs on our lives.  The initiative is God’s.  His ways are not always our ways.  We can and will be taken by surprise.  Adam and Eve thought God was making a number of suggestions for them to consider, and the one about the fruit was up for debate.  There was a lot of trouble about that.    We ourselves veer between renegotiating what we believe to be good and true and God-given on the one hand, and feeling desperate and guilty about our own disobedience on the other.
But God is in charge.  He welcomes us into his forgiving ways and invites us to submit to his will.  Jesus calls us friends.
We are amazed at the gifts that he gives us. We cannot earn them or aspire to them.  We are amazed when he chooses to give his gift of life to others.  In the snippet from Acts, Peter has just been sharing the good news that Jesus died on the cross for sins, when his Gentile audience grasps this truth, believes in Jesus, is filled with the Holy Spirit and receives the gift of tongues.  We learn from this first that we are not in control; God loves to bless.  We learn second that it is all free, unearned grace; when we talk of gifts, it is never in the context of our achievement or worthiness or us seeming to take the credit.  It is always God demonstrating his love, grace and power as he entrusts us with gifts and abilities to be stewarded and used to bring in his kingdom.
We see that in Acts and we see it also in John.  Jesus is bringing in his kingdom and commanding us to fall in with his ways.  He does this, though, as the suffering servant whose love is so great that he lays down his life for his friends.  He comes to his own, to each of us, to you, and gives the invitation to receive him.  To align ourselves with him.  In the garden he said that he was willing to obey.  We also delight to obey.  That is what we are really saying when we repeat “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”. 
May we each be open, open to the work of his Spirit, open to the fullness of his love, and open to share his love with each other and the wider world that is his.

Discussion Starters
1.       What do you think that Jesus means when he talks of our receiving joy (v. 11)?
2.       Why do you think we need to be reminded to love one another?
3.       You have been chosen to bear fruit ...  What do you think Jesus is trying to tell you?

Sunday, 6 May 2012

ST MICHAEL’S SERMON 6 MAY 2012. KEEP YOUR CHRISTIAN LIFE ALIVE! Acts 8 : 26 – 40 John 15: 1 – 8

Personally I find the conversion and baptism of the high ranking Ethiopian court treasurer in our first reading very moving to read. A highly important and intelligent man from an entirely different culture, reading Isaiah’s prediction of the suffering and death of Jesus, being moved by the Holy Spirit to acknowledge him as Lord and Saviour, and asking for baptism.   Afterwards, we read that he went on his way rejoicing but wouldn’t it be great to know how his Christian life progressed after that? Did Queen Candace herself become a Christian – and possibly her family and court? We don’t know.

Usually when individual stories appear in the New Testament it means that they were known to the young Christian Church. But then they generally are described by name. To take just one example, when Jesus became too weak and unable to carry his own cross any further, the Roman soldiers picked a strong-looking man at random out of the crowd. Have a look at Mark 15:21. He is named as Simon, his home town is known as Cyrene, and we are told he is the father of Alexander and Rufus. This certainly means that this man became a Christian and, with his sons and family, were known to those who heard Mark’s Gospel read. That’s another truly moving story.

But when Luke wrote The Acts of the Apostles, the situation was somewhat different. Luke was writing for a Greek (Gentile) audience as well as a Jewish one, and he may have decided to include this story because it demonstrated that the Gospel was already spreading to a far-flung audience, going as far as the upper reaches of the Nile south of Egypt, far beyond the Roman Empire. We are left to guess whether this man remained strong in his faith, although surely (I believe) he did, because the extraordinary way in which Philip met him in his chariot reads almost on a par with Paul’s Damascus Road experience. He was a top level financier too, so we can assume that even bankers are sometimes not far from the kingdom....!

He was reading from Isaiah chapter 53. We need just a bit of background here. The Jews didn’t just live in Palestine. After the Babylonian captivity many had dispersed to the far reaches of the Persian, Greek and then Roman Empires. They were called the ‘Diaspora’ which simply means the ‘dispersion’ and these communities of Jews could be found in virtually every town and city you could name. And many Gentiles found them and their religion attractive. They worshipped just one God, who was Lord of all creation, unlike the pantheon of often unpredictable and less-than-admirable gods of the empire. Gentiles often admired their strong family life, their generally strong moral and religious code and way of life. Not a few attached themselves loosely to a local synagogue. They even came to have a special name, these Gentile adherents to the Jewish faith and way of life. They were called by a Greek name which translates as ‘God-Fearers’.

They had access to the Jewish Scriptures, because what we now call the Old Testament had been translated into Greek and had been available in its full and polished form for well over a hundred year before the time of Jesus, and most of it for long before that. So there was no difficulty for any reasonably educated Gentile in reading and meditating on the Law and the Prophets - what we call the Old Testament.

This Ethiopian clearly belonged to this large group of adherents, and he had actually been to Jerusalem to worship. It would have been surprising, so soon after the crucifixion and resurrection, and with Jerusalem still buzzing with argument and conflict about Jesus, if he had not picked up something of the events surrounding Jesus.

And he comes across Isaiah chapter 53. This is that most extraordinary chapter in which you read and feel as if you were reading an eye-witness description of the crucifixion. Remembering that there was no such thing as the New Testament at that time, what better place could there be for Philip to start telling him the good news of the gospel and leading him to faith. And this important man is moved by the Holy Spirit and comes to a living faith in Jesus as Lord and Saviour. Then he is not too proud – in front of all his no doubt astonished attendants and entourage -  to ask to be baptized by Philip down in the river or lake they were passing. He went on his way rejoicing. It’s a moving story that makes the heart and the spirit glad.

But, as I suggested at the beginning, what happened after that? He would have returned to his Queen and court and resumed his official duties amid a community with its own gods and rituals and culture. It must have been difficult to say the least.

In some ways, it’s not so different for us. We may find a true and living encounter with Jesus at a church gathering or in the privacy of our own homes, and feel (like John Wesley) our hearts strangely warmed, our faith coming alive, and our relationship with the risen Jesus becoming real. But what happens when we get back to the office on Monday morning, or resume what we call ‘normal life’? As in the parable of the sower, does the seed fall on good ground and bear fruit? Or on shallow soil, or among all the rocks of secular life, and sadly fail to grow to maturity?

Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel reading from John Chapter 15 how we must maintain that vital, living relationship with himself. We have to ‘remain attached’ or ‘abide’ in him, in exactly the same way as a branch must remain attached to the tree stem if it is to remain alive. The moment we become detached, we start to die spiritually.

The life-giving sap which is the life of God himself, is drawn up through the main trunk, which is Jesus, and feeds that life into the branches, the leaves and the fruit. There is no spiritual life if that link is broken. So what is necessary for the life-giving link to remain and grow and give birth to a fruitful Christian life? Here, briefly, are four ways..

1. Bible Study. In the Bible Study Group to which I belong, our leader John Kane told us that he felt that, by careful reading of the scriptures, he was coming into a closer relationship with Jesus. We are studying Mark’s Gospel and I know we are all having that same experience as we follow Jesus through his life and ministry. However much (or little) time we can give to it each day, and whatever form of discipline and help in the way of notes we use, every Christian draws the sap of God’s life into ourselves as we prayerfully draw close to Jesus through our reading and meditation on the scriptures.

2. Prayer. Prayer is the channel of communication which is so vital in keeping the relationship alive. How can any relationship survive if the people concerned never talk to each other? Whatever method of prayer we adopt, we need crucially both to share our thoughts, our needs, our joys, our sorrows with our Lord, and hear carefully what He has to say to us.

3. Fellowship. The story is told of a man who went to visit a Christian friend, and as they sat in front of a coal fire, he shared the fact that his Christian life was growing cold. The friend lent forward with the fire-tongs, took a red-hot lump of coal out of the fire and laid it in the grate. Silently they watched as it lost its glow and gradually became cold. No words were needed. The point was made. We need each other – we need encouragement, if necessary admonishment. We need each other’s prayers and practical help. Our faith is always best nurtured within a warm and lively Christian fellowship.

4. Sacrament. When we come to Holy Communion, we receive under the symbols of bread and wine, the promise of the very life and presence of Jesus within our hearts and lives. They tell us that, for our physical health, we need five types of vegetable each day. For our spiritual health, we need all four of these spiritual lifelines, and no doubt more as well.

There is no time to expand on these this morning – we could easily have a sermon series on each. But the picture I want to leave in your minds is of the tree, the branches and the fruit. Imagine a tree in full fruit, and beside it on the ground the sad sight of a branch that has become detached. The life-giving sap of the tree can no longer reach it and it is relentlessly on its way to death. It is an immensely sad sight and there is now no possibility of re-attaching it to the main stem.

Fortunately for the Christian, and however far we may have fallen back in our Christian life, there is – by the mercy and grace of God – always, but always, a way back. It is never too late to renew our living and life-giving relationship with our Lord. Let’s review our Christian life and practice and make sure that we are each truly living and healthy branches that bring forth much good fruit to the glory of God.