Sunday, 26 January 2014

Sunday 26 January 2014, 1 Corinthians 1:10-18, Sarah

I’d like to look take a closer look at Paul’s letter to the Corinthians that we heard in our second reading today.

Paul called to be an apostle of Christ.

Paul, formerly, Saul, of Tarsus, which today is southern Turkey came from a wealthy family and was a Roman citizen. He was educated in Jerusalem by a renowned Jewish teacher by the name of Gamaliel and was a well-respected member of his community.  Acts 26:5 tells us he was also a Pharisee.

Paul was infamous for hunting out and imprisoning and even killing followers of The Way, the early Christians. He was an avid follower of Jewish Law and was set on destroying anyone or any movement that didn’t follow it too.  Acts 7:58 provides clear evidence of this, when he actively encourages the stoning of Stephen.

In short, he was a devoted believer in God and he saw Jesus and his followers as upstarts and trouble makers, leading people away from the righteous path of God, and they needed to be stopped.

So why did Jesus choose him. Would you choose one of your biggest enemies to promote you and your story?  Can you imagine someone really hated you, didn’t believe in you, actively working against you, running your campaign of spreading the ‘good news about you’ or bringing in new business? Wouldn’t work would it, they would probably do the opposite, try to destroy you or reap havoc!

But actually, in the case of Paul, he was so infamous with his hate for Jesus and his followers, that his sudden conversion and subsequent fervent following of Christ would quickly spread throughout the nation, giving the message that, This Jesus, This Way … … there must be something more in it.

He chose Paul because he worked so hard for God and put all his efforts into his beliefs and no one compared to him.  Paul was able to communicate with Kings and could speak with confidence.

As Peter was the rock of the early church, Paul would be the shepherd of the gentiles.

Paul was perfect for the job!

Paul had the skills, the knowledge and the enthusiasm to lead the Gentiles, the non-Jewish, to Christ. 

His thirst for God and The Law were exactly the qualifications Jesus needed to spread the news to all the world, that Jesus was the living God … … resurrected. His conversion complete, Paul now knew his destiny. 

So why did Paul visit and write to Corinth and why did he write to them twice. Where they special?

Yes Corinth was special because it was five times larger than Athens and was one of the richest ports and largest cities in ancient Greece.  It was ideally located, and was a well-known commercial centre, adjacent to two thriving seaports.  It also had its downsides.  It was a place where prostitutes were openly used alongwith other sinful  activities, but the advantages outweighed the disadvantages for Paul.

The city was young, open to change and not stuck in tradition. It was inhabited by various individuals with no particular religious followings. 

A perfect and most influential place for Paul to preach the gospel of Christ and to plant a new Church.

We read that Paul always thanks God for the Church at Corinth because of the grace given to them in Christ Jesus. 

As I mentioned earlier, Corinth was a place filled with sexual immorality and was full of sin.

Things were going wrong, the Church was becoming divided with differences of opinion, about who was following who. Serious problems had arisen … … …

Yet Paul always thanks God because of the grace given to them in Christ Jesus! 

Don’t know about you, but there doesn’t seem to be a great deal to be celebrating here or much to be thanking God for. 

Chaos and even some disbelief was occurring within Paul’s newly formed church in Corinth.  Divisions and arguments were becoming so common place,  that the residents of Chloe’s household felt they needed to write and ask Paul for help.

When the news reaches Paul about these divisions within the Church, he doesn’t rebuke the Corinthians, quite the opposite, he reminds them that God loves them, God is faithful and the church can place all their faithfulness in God, which in turn will secure the future of their church and make them strong.

God has blessed and enriched the Corinthians in every way through the grace of Jesus.  They lack no spiritual gift and they are to eagerly wait for the return of Jesus.  God will keep them strong to the end because they are called into fellowship with his Son.

This sounds like praise rather than a good telling off doesn’t it ... 

So ... there are divisions within the church, arguments and not much unity and Paul thanks God!!!

Remember what Karen Kendall said last week, when the Church is divided and full of arguments, those outside the Church don’t see Jesus, they just see Church, making Christianity very unattractive.

I remember one night at the vicarage, having a very heated debate with Bruce a few years ago, where I was so fired up I don’t think he got a word in ‘edge ways’.  He patiently waited for me to take a breath, then seized his chance and asked me;

‘Sarah, where is Jesus in all this’ it stopped me in my tracks for a moment, before replying I don’t know … and I continued for another 20 minutes and once again he waited patiently for a gap to speak and he repeated the same question;

‘Sarah, where is Jesus in all this’? to which I replied;

‘What’s he got to do with it’ … … … …

I remember driving home that night, thinking, he didn’t listen to a word I said. He was listening, but he was focussed on bringing  my thoughts back to Jesus.

I had fallen away from Jesus, I was focussed on my own interests and  had lost my way, just as the Corinthians had. 

The question; Where is Jesus in all this; has served me well and will continue to serve and remind me that my life is about Jesus, about His will, not mine.

Paul urges the Corinthians to put aside their differences and to be united and in one mind with Christ.

He reminded them they are blessed with God’s Grace;

But what is Grace and did the Corinthians understand it – I doubt it.

Grace is divine favour from God, that we cannot earn nor do we deserve, but is available to each and every one of us. (Read twice).

Grace cannot be earned through good deeds, but by Faith and obedience to the Gospel.

Salvation is given to us only by grace. It is impossible for us to obtain a perfect righteousness by our own faith or our own good works. This is why God gives us salvation by grace - its a gift.

Grace and works are exact opposites. Rewards come with the practice of works, but mercy comes through receiving grace. In the Bible, salvation is always and exclusively by grace.

When you really understand this, you have truly grasped the meaning of Faith, giving you access to Grace, the two cannot be separated. 

But we CAN ‘fall from Grace’ if we let our faith diminish, just like the Corinthians did.  Paul is reminding them of this.

To fall away from Grace is to be severed from Jesus.

Remember, it is through our true belief and personal relationship in Jesus, through our faith, that we will unlock the secret of Grace, which will lead us to eternal life.

It sounds like the end is nigh when we here it; ‘oh he’s fallen from Grace’ … … The truth is, we fall from Grace on a regular basis, which is why we need to confess our sins and use our Faith to rekindle our relationship with Jesus, to enjoy God’s Grace.

So Paul is thanking God for continuing to believe in the Corinthians by his Grace … … (God still has Faith in them) and Paul urges them to return to their Faith because God has called them into fellowship with his son. 

Even Paul, who, was not just a sinner, but an opposer of Jesus, was saved by the wonderful gift of Grace.

So God believes in us all, but do we all really believe in him?  Have you gained access to Grace by your Faith, or have you fallen away?

Are we busy doing good deeds hoping to gain favour with those around us and not really focussing on Jesus?

Next time you fall out with someone, in the choir, over the flower arrangements, making the coffee or disagreeing with the Vicar, or whose turn is it to do something;

Ask yourself; Where is Jesus in all this?


Questions for discussion:

1.      Do you understand the true meaning of Grace?
2.      How can you make sure that you are receiving God’s Grace?
3.      Do you believe Christians can ‘fall from Grace’, even though they are still attending Church?
4.      What message do you think we give out when we fall out and quarrel within the Church family?

Sunday 12 January 2014, Baptism of Christ, Matthew 3: 13-17, Bruce

We still display the star and the crib during this season of Epiphany.  They remind us that God has made himself known.  The crib reminds us that God’s radiance has shone forth in a special baby.  The star reminds us that learned strangers from afar have come to proclaim his that he is unique and royal.  As Anne reminded us last week, it is a revelation, an unveiling.

In Isaiah 42 we read 1‘Here is my servant, whom I uphold,   my chosen one in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him, and he will bring justice to the nations.’

We have been waiting for long generations for the arrival of the promised one, God’s servant, who would bring in the kingdom.  Matthew has told us of his birth, of the visit of the Magi, of the escape to Egypt and the return to Nazareth.  And then John has appeared to announce that people need to repent and get ready, because the kingdom is near, and the promised deliverer is here.  Then Jesus came from Galilee to be baptised by John.

What questions are we to ask?

In the ancient church it seems to have been “Why did John baptise Jesus and not the other way round?”  If Jesus is the greater and John the lesser, then Jesus should have been the one doing the baptising.  It appears that John thought so, as he tries to deter Jesus.  We can wonder what Jesus was thinking.  The main answer that he gives is that it is necessary.  Jesus feels sure that it is God’s will for him to be baptised.  We get a glimpse straight away that this newly arrived deliverer is going to be a surprise, that he will not fit in with expectations, that the first is willing to become the last.

In today’s church the question seems to be “Why did Jesus need to be baptised?” 

What is baptism and why do we do it?  Is it to wash away sins?  Is Jesus identifying with the sinners who will soon become his followers?  Why is the sinless one being baptized?  What happens when someone is baptized?  How is this relevant to me?

Baptism is a communal act.  John has been recalling people to the true faith of Israel.  The response has been to come and join the throng and be immersed.  Jesus cannot baptize himself and so he appeals to John to work with him: “it is proper for us to do this to fulfil all righteousness”.  "The primary point of baptism is not so much that it does something to the individual, but that it defines the community."  -N.T. Wright

So the water is not special.  The words and the person doing the baptism are not of themselves special.  Rather, baptism is dying, and re-emerging into new life.  We used to be part of a community of individuals dedicated to living our own lives in our own way.  Now we have proclaimed that we are part of a new community of individuals who have heard the call to follow Jesus and we have responded.  It is not just about us, or our local church, but the world-wide community.

This is why we baptize infants.  We celebrate that they are members with us of a community that follows Jesus.  It is a public service where parents and supporters make promises, and where the whole church community is present and we also make promises to support and encourage these new members of our family.  In the Thanksgiving Service that leads us to baptism, the whole church prays:

God our creator,                       
we thank you for the gift of these children,                    
entrusted to our care.               
May we be patient and understanding,               
ready to guide and to forgive, so that through our love              
they may come to know your love;                    
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.    

Baptism is a personal act.  Did you notice that the way Matthew tells the story; it is only Jesus who sees the Holy Spirit? 

So I wonder, is the epiphany to Jesus?  Is he the only one to hear the words “This is my Son …. ?  (In the other gospels it definitely appears that others also were witnesses to these events, but Matthew has been careful in the way that he makes his point.)  At our first encounter with Jesus in Matthew’s gospel as an adult, we are privileged to witness this intimate moment of strength and affirmation.  One writer has described it as a selfie  A selfie has been defined as a personal image that one can choose to share later with others.  Jesus receives this personal gift, a wash of the Holy Spirit, a breath of the Father’s love.  I wonder if that is why his parable of the prodigal is so special – Jesus knows something of a father’s love.  It will carry him through all the trials and difficulties, the conflicts and the betrayals that he will endure.  His very identity is that of the son of God.  Harry Potter was sustained by his knowledge that he was the son of James and Lily – it defined him.  In the film, Philomena, a biographical account, a woman travels across an ocean to say to a child she bore fifty years ago, that he is her beloved child.  And the miracle of her own pyschic survival, after horrible shame and mistreatment, is rooted in her deep sense of herself as Beloved by God.

So, is the epiphany to us?  When we are baptized, what is happening?  Do we believe that the Holy Spirit rests upon the one baptized.  Do we hear the voice of God claiming “This is my beloved?”   Who sees the Holy Spirit?  Who hears the voice?  How can we remember our baptism, even if we cannot remember our baptism?

One way is to remember the command of Jesus that we should observe two ceremonies, two sacraments.  One is baptism where we pledge ourselves to his service.  As adults we take these promises on ourselves at our confirmation.  The other sacrament is communion, where we come week by week to renew those vows and that commitment.  In each one we take ordinary everyday things, water, bread, wine, and invest them with significance as they help us as a community celebrate our connectedness with Jesus.  There is an analogy with the Big Promise.

The BIG Promise is about re-affirming, not renewing, marriage vows. Certainly some couples hold ceremonies to renew their marriage vows when they have been broken, perhaps in the same way as we would renew a broken appliance or car.  However “Re-affirming” is something we do to celebrate the importance of a promise. It is a way of saying “this promise is still really important to me”.

As we come to communion, we are proclaiming and reaffirming to the whole world, just as we did at our baptism and confirmation, that we are each immersed in the love and grace of God, as individuals who have made our unique response, and as a community.

Baptism is a hopeful act.
Our reading from the Acts has Peter out of his comfort zone, preaching to Gentiles about Jesus.  He says ‘I now realise how true it is that God does not show favouritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.”  “All the prophets testify about him (Jesus) that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”  For home study, as you read on in Acts 10, you see that as Peter utters these words about acceptance, belief and forgiveness, the Holy Spirit comes upon the hearers, just as he did on Jesus at his baptism.  Peter has them immersed in water to complete the job.

Instead of focusing on our sinfulness and need to be cleansed, can we reclaim our worthy-ness from being claimed by God?  If you have not been baptised, or perhaps feel that in some way you have never fully entered into the promises made at your baptism, Jesus calls you today to respond to him.  The Spirit longs to shine upon you and fill you.  Your Father longs for you to hear his words of comfort and acceptance.

Heavenly Father,
at the Jordan you revealed Jesus as your Son:
may we recognize him as our Lord
and know ourselves to be your beloved children;
through Jesus Christ our Saviour.   Amen.

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Sermon 5th January 2014 Epiphany Anne

Today is the Sunday in the church calendar that we celebrate the Feast or Festival of Epiphany.  The feast started in the Eastern church in honour of the baptism of Jesus  and was introduced in the western church in the fourth century.  It then came to be associated with the visit of the Magi, the wise men who came to worship the infant Jesus. 

The word ‘Epiphany’ means revelation, enlightenment or awakening.  Sometimes we talk about an ‘epiphany moment’, when suddenly a mystery or puzzle that was hidden from us is made plain and clear to see.  Let me try to explain; in these pictures, what do you see?  (Only two are represented here)

There are two possibilities in each one.  The moment you see the ‘other’ possibility is an ‘oh yes’ moment because what was hidden becomes clear.  There is a picture hidden in these pictures and yet they are both in plain sight. 

There is something hidden and yet in plain sight in the gospel reading this morning. This story is so familiar to us and yet we can struggle to focus on the most important thing – the mystery revealed to us in the story.  So, what’s the mystery?

Let’s start with the Magi.  Maybe the mystery is the Magi.  We think they were astrologers or magicians because they were used to reading the stars and to interpreting dreams.  They were probably from Persia, but no one really knows.  We’re not even sure how many there were or whether they travelled alone and whether they really did ride on camels.  We call them wise men, but there might have been women among them too.  Sometimes we describe them as kings and we even give them names - Melchior, Balthasar and Caspar.  The fact is, Matthew doesn’t tell us any of these details.  We assume there are three of them because they bring 3 gifts with them, gold, frankincense and myrrh.  We do know they were foreigners, gentiles travelling from the east to find the king of the Jews.  They are very mysterious, but they are not the mystery.

Maybe the mystery in the story is something to do with the behaviour of the teachers of the law and chief priests of Jerusalem.  Now these really were wise men.  Matthew tells us that Herod called them together.  If anyone knew where the king of the Jews was, it would be them.  They knew the Scriptures like the backs of their hands and used them to tell Herod where the Messiah would be – in Bethlehem in Judea.  No mystery here then, except, it’s strange … why didn’t they go to Bethlehem?  Why wasn’t His birth already on their radar?  Why weren’t they following the star?  Why didn’t they seek out the Messiah?  But maybe Herod didn’t tell them the whole story, after all, he secretly met with the Magi to find out the details about the star.  Mysterious yes, but they are not the mystery.

So that brings us to the star, maybe the star is the mystery.  The star must be important – it’s mentioned 4 times in Matthew’s account!  There has been so much speculation about this star.  Could it have been Halley’s comet? A supernova? Or the result of some planetary conjunction? We will be singing about it later - it was the guiding star, the ‘star of wonder, star of night … westward leading …’.   The Magi saw it and followed it.  Herod quizzed them and wanted to know the exact time it appeared to them and then the star guided them from Jerusalem to Bethlehem.  Mysterious happenings in the night sky, but not the mystery. 

So, the Magi, the chief priests, the star are not the mystery, but they do tell us something about it.  They do reveal the mystery to us -  point to it – show us what’s hidden and yet in plain sight.  Such mysterious happenings, so much tooing and froing, so many people and places in this story, and in the midst of this busy-ness, in the midst of these mysterious and wondrous events, the star reveals something of cosmic importance.  As it stops over a house the Magi are overjoyed.  Inside the house is a mother, Mary, and the child.  A vulnerable infant.  Not in a palace.  Not with a kingly entourage, but just there, in that house with His mother.  Everything happening around this child points to who he is.  The Epiphany moment;  the mystery is revealed – the mystery is this child, Jesus.  The Epiphany, the revelation, is God on earth.  The child is both human and divine, God’s glory is revealed on earth in his Son.

The Magi know it; they understand.  They journey from afar and God reveals to these foreigners who this child is and the first thing they do is bow down and worship him.  This child is the long awaited Messiah promised in Hebrew Scripture, but he is sent for Gentiles too.  In this child, God’s glory is revealed to everyone.

No one, whether they be Magi from the east, tax collectors or fisherman disciples, us in church this morning, those fighting in Southern Sudan, those in Camberley who know nothing about Jesus, no one is outside the reach of Christ’s saving embrace.  In that house, on that night, the Christ child is revealed as being for all people.  And this message, this vision, goes back with the Magi to their own country.  They return home by a different route; such an experience must have transformed them.  I wonder what happened when they got home?  What did they say to their loved ones?  Who did they tell – their friends, family, people in the street, merchants, other star gazers?  I wonder if their faces lit up with excitement and joy as they remembered the joy they felt when the star stopped and they saw the child?  I wonder how they revealed to others the mystery of the Christ child?

Jesus is saviour for all humankind.  We need to catch that vision too.  Our own ‘Epiphany moment’, when we became aware of Christ’s saving embrace, of God’s love for us, may have been a dramatic experience, a sudden revelation or awakening.  Or, it may have been more gradual as the hidden slowly came into plain sight over a period of time.  Maybe you can’t remember when that was – sometime in your childhood, you became aware of God’s mercy, or the love of Jesus.  Either way, it doesn’t stop there.  We are called to share that moment, to ‘return home with the good news’; what began with the Magi, continues with us. 

So, when we ‘go home’ – return to our everyday activities in the coming week –  who will we tell about our Epiphany moments?  Our friends? Family? School mates?  Neighbours?  How will we describe our Epiphany experience?  And will our faces light up with joy and excitement as we tell them?  This week, let’s catch the vision, let’s go out into the world and be ready to share the mystery, to reveal what’s hidden in plain sight, to share His story by telling our story.


1.  What surprises you about Matthew’s account of the visit from the Magi?
2.  How can we as a church ‘catch the vision’?  See also Ephesians 3:6.
3.  Consider the questions in the last paragraph.
4.  How does Paul use his ‘Epiphany moment’ to share the Good News? See Eph 3:1-12

The pictures: – the first is a native indian and an eskimo looking in a cave; the second is a woman and also a man playing a saxophone standing sideways on; the third is a young woman and an old woman.