Saturday, 21 July 2018

A sermon on Ephesians 2.11-22: How Jesus brings us closer to others and to God

I love airports. Seriously, if I had not gone into the ordained ministry I would have tried to have ended up working at an airport. They are so romantic. And one of the things that make them so special is that they are places where people who are separated are reunited.

You get in the plane and even though you are far from your home or from those you love, you are brought close to them.

Our reading today is about how, ‘in Christ’, we are brought close. We are brought close to one another and we are brought close to God.

Last week I tried to explain the idea of being ‘in Christ’ by comparing it to a book. Christ is the book and we are placed, like separate pieces of paper, in the book.
Where Christ is, we are.
And to take the illustration a little further: It is the Holy Spirit who binds us together into the book. And we only mean something when we are in the book. On our own, as a torn out page, we are useless. And if we are torn out of the book, well then the book is missing something pretty important. Don’t you hate it when you are reading a book and discover that there are some pages that are missing.  

Or we thought of Christ like this building. We come from many different countries, but we are all gathered together in this building.

In Christ – we have been brought together

1.      In Christ we who were far from each other have been brought near to each other.

We’ve been made one people, one new humanity

There was a great division between Jew and Gentile. Jews despised Gentiles and Gentiles ridiculed Jews.

And Paul, writing to the Gentiles says, ‘But now you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ’ (v13)

It was a significant division because the Jews were God’s chosen people.

God had said that he would be their God.
He gave them his promises: of a home, of a kingdom of joy and peace and abundance – where there would be no more sickness or death.
He gave them a purpose: they were to bring his blessings to other peoples, even if it meant that they would have to suffer.
And he gave them the promise of his presence. He warns them that it will not be easy. They will have to walk through fire and go through the waters. But he will be with them, he will guide them, he will comfort them and he will restore them.

And now, in Christ, we have been united with God’s people.

Their history becomes our history.
Jonathan Sacks writes that as Jews recall the story of how God rescued his people from Israel 4000 years ago, they say, ‘When we were slaves in Egypt .. when we came through the Red Sea’.
And as people who are now in Christ, the Old Testament becomes our story.

And the promises that God gave to them become promises that are given to us.
Their future becomes our future.

These verses in Ephesians 2 specifically apply to the division that exists between Jew and Gentile.
But they also can apply to all those other divisions which separate people from people.
Divisions of nationality, customs, diet, language, skin colour, class or education. I’m sure you can think of many more.

In Christ, those divisions have been broken down.

One of the most powerful communion services I have ever attended was in Bangalore. We were in a church. I was told, as I looked around, that here were people from every caste: Brahmins and Dalits (untouchables). And we all drank from the same cup.

In Christ we have a new permanent global, cosmic identity.
My first allegiance is now not to my nation or my tribe or even my family – important though those are. My first allegiance is to Christ.

That is why authoritarian states are always going to be suspicious of Christians – they cannot rely on their total loyalty

All our customs, all our achievements, all the things in which we put our pride or security are shown to be worth nothing. We come as sinners, who have nothing to offer.
Our position in Christ is not due to my keeping the law or observing the commandments – but on his death for me and you, on his forgiveness, on his overwhelming grace and love.
And we have been brought together in Christ.

I am a sinner who has been saved by grace and brought into Christ.
You are a sinner who has been saved by grace and brought into Christ.

And so Christ, in his death for you and me, has broken down the wall that stood between you and me.

This is a piece of the Berlin wall. That was a literal wall that separated people, and in 1989 it was smashed down.

Well 2000 years ago, when Jesus died on the cross, the wall that separated you from me was smashed down.
And we who were far off from each other have been brought together.
We are no longer strangers and aliens, but fellow citizens with the saints. We are members of the household of God.

In a few minutes time we will speak of the fact that Christ is our peace. In him, we have been brought together as one body. And we share the peace.

My prayer is that the peace which we share on Sunday will become the peace that we live, one with another, from Monday to Saturday.

2.      in Christ we who were far from God now have access to God.

We were not only far off from each other.
We were, especially those of us brought up as Gentiles, were far off from God.

At least the Jews knew about God.
They knew about his holiness. They knew about his law. They knew about how God was like fire – you do not mess with him.
Do you notice how often we miss out those passages in the Old Testament that speak of the wrath of God, or that show God acting in awesome and at times to us dreadful ways that we do not understand. But the writers of the Old Testament could not cut out those passages. They knew who they were dealing with, and they knew that God was far bigger than their understanding.
And those Jews who understood, realised that they could only come into his presence through the sacrifice of another being. They knew about the presence of God, the love of God, but they also glimpsed a bit of the awesomeness, the otherness of God.

But we!
Well we have either fantasised God or rejected God.
We have fantasised him: we’ve made him into the god that we would like him to be. We’ve reduced him to the status of a tame pet, or a personal genii. We’ve certainly cut out of the Old Testament those bits that we don’t like.
And when that happens, the atheists are right. The god of our fantasy does not exist. He is a figment of our imagination. He is a comfort blanket.
And we do not have access to God, because we are blind to God.

And Paul says to both Jew and Gentile – to the Jew who was aware of the distance between God and themselves, and to the Gentile who fantasised about god and make him to be whoever he wanted him to be - Paul says to them that in Christ we both have access to the Father.

Those are amazing words.
To the person who is terrified of God, terrified of the God who is beyond understanding, terrified that they have messed up, that God hates them or against them – these are amazing words
And to the person who has ignored God, or fabricated their own little god – they are amazing words.
You can get to know the real God – not just as God, but as our heavenly Father.

We don’t need any sacrifice – because there is one who has sacrificed himself for us.
We don’t need priests in the Old Testament sense. We don’t need someone to stand in our place before God, on our behalf - Bbcause someone has already done that for us. Jesus.
And we don’t need mediators. We don’t need to pray to the saints or even to Mary in order to get God to hear us. We can go direct to the top.
We are in Jesus, we can go to Jesus. And together with Mary and with the saints, we pray in Jesus name.

Because we are in Christ, and he is the beloved one, who has always been and always will be in the presence of his Father, then if we are in him, then we are in the presence of the Father.

That is why we can pray Jesus’ prayer: ‘Our Father in heaven’.
That rather sums it up for me – our Father (intimacy) in heaven (the otherness of God).

That is why we can know intimacy with God.
Kallistos Ware speaks of how, as a child, he was struck by the story of the man who would go into church to sit or kneel to pray for hours. Someone said to him, ‘You must have a lot of sins to confess or a lot of things that you need to ask God for’. ‘Oh no’, said the man. ‘Well what do you do?’ He answered, ‘I sit and look at Him, and He looks at me’.

Most of the time the Christian life is about walking by faith and being obedient to God, when we can’t see him or feel him. But there are moments of intimacy and, even if you haven’t yet had them, if you are prepared to stop and become vulnerable before God, and give God the time, then they will come.

We have access to Father God. That is why, in Christ, in Jesus’ name, praying what Jesus would pray, we can bring our petitions and bequests before him; and we can be confident that even if he doesn’t answer our prayers as we would like - he still hears, and he will give us what is good and perfect for us.  

At Sheremetova airport, just where you have your bags checked after coming in on the aeroexpress, there is an Orthodox chapel. In view of what this passage is saying, that is quite appropriate. Airports are places where people from all nations are brought together. And the Church is just basically a very big airport. It is the place, in Christ, where we have been brought together. Brought together with each other, and brought together with our God.

v17: ‘so he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and to peace to those who were near; for through him both of us (Jew and Gentile) have access in one Spirit to the Father’.

Wednesday, 18 July 2018

On the occasion of the centenary of the anniversary of the martyrdom of Elizaveta, Grand Duchess of Russia

Matthew 11.25-27

There is no place for pride in our Christian faith.

With God it does not matter if this world considers us ‘wise’.
With God it does not matter if you have human power.
Indeed human wisdom and power seem to be a problem.
Paul writes how God chooses the weak and foolish of this world rather than the wise and the strong.
The wise think that they can find salvation through wisdom or knowledge.
The strong think that they can find salvation through their strength.
But those who recognise that they are weak and foolish know that they cannot rely on wisdom or strength and so have to turn to God.

Today we remember Elizaveta Feodorovna, the wife of Grand Duke Sergei, the sister of Empress Alexandria and relative of Prince Philip. It is the centenary of the anniversary of her murder by the Bolsheviks.
She certainly was born into all those things that the wisdom of this world says are important: privilege, beauty, power and wealth. But from her childhood, through the influence of a godly mother, she realised that there are other things that are far more important.

And after the assassination of her husband in 1905, she gave up her privilege, power and wealth.
She went to visit her husband’s murderer, forgave him, begged him to repent and even interceded (unsuccessfully) for him to be pardoned.
She sold her jewels and spent her money on founding a convent, hospital and orphanage.
That convent was re-established in the early 1990s, and now serves both as a place of prayer and as an orphanage for children with cerebral palsy, and a respite centre for children who are critically ill. We went there with the Archbishop of Canterbury last November.
And Elizaveta became a nun, living the life of a nun, wearing the habit of a nun, devoting herself to prayer and working tirelessly - along with the other nuns - among the sick and poor of Moscow. She tried to set up an order of Orthodox deaconesses which combined both prayer and action. That came to nothing.
And she became a martyr.
After the revolution, Lenin ordered the Chekha to arrest her: he is quoted as saying: ‘virtue with the crown on it is a greater enemy to the world revolution than a hundred tyrant tsars’.
And so, 100 years ago, on July 18, 1918 she was executed - beaten then thrown into a disused iron mine, 20 metres deep, together with other relatives of the royal family. Some survived the fall, and the soldiers (and we have a first hand account) heard them singing an Orthodox hymn. So they threw in hand grenades and then burning firewood. Elizaveta survived both of those, and died either of starvation or from her injuries. In October 1918, when the territory was taken by White army soldiers, the remains of their bodies were discovered. And Elizaveta had, even at the very end, found strength to bandage the head of one of her dying companions with her wimple.

By no account, could it be said that Elizaveta was one of the foolish or weak of this world.
Even as a nun she remained a Grand Duchess.
But she used her wealth and her status - not for herself, not to have a comfortable life, not even to save herself at the end. Because of her status she had two opportunities to leave Russia after the revolution. Instead she used it to support churches, monasteries and charitable works.
But her story shows us that it is possible to have status, to be powerful and intellectually gifted and to know that is not about status and power and wealth. It is about a complete dependence on God, a knowledge of God that is a gift of God, and a knowledge that leads to love of God, and a love of God which enables us to love people in Jesus’ name.

Jesus said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will’ (Matthew 11.25-26).

There is a story of how, on one occasion, Elizaveta went to visit a orphanage for girls. The children were taught how they should greet her and were told that they were to curtesy and kiss her hand. But when she turned up, the little girls got confused and stretched out their hands to the Grand Duchess saying, ‘Kissing of hands’. Their teachers were horrified. But the Grand Duchess, with tears in her eyes, came up to the girls, bent down, and kissed the hands of each of them.

Thursday, 12 July 2018

Created to Praise

Over the next few weeks we’ll be looking through the book of Ephesians.

These opening verses are astonishing. They are an explosion of praise to God for all the blessings that he has given us. And the fact that they are written by Paul when he was in prison - he describes himself as ‘an ambassador in chains’ (6.20) - makes them even more remarkable.

‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (v3) – and then he just goes on. In Greek it is all one sentence. Paul says one thing and then wants to add another and another – it is breathless.  

And these verses are praise of the amazing, lavish, abundant, over-flowing generousity, grace and glory of God.

They speak of the communion at the heart of God:
a)      of Father God: ‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (v3)

b)      They speak of the Father’s beloved, his Son Jesus Christ.

Paul repeatedly uses the words ‘in Christ’
‘blessed us in Christ’ (v3)
‘chose us in Christ’ (v4)
‘in him we have redemption’ (v7)
‘God’s pleasure that he set forth in Christ’ (v10)
‘in Christ we have obtained an inheritance’ (v11)
‘in him .. we are marked with the Holy Spirit’ (v13)

The New Testament uses two phrases quite regularly.
It speaks about Christ in us. Christ living in us. That is fairly easy to understand. His Spirit comes and lives in us. We can talk about God in us.
Later we will receive the bread and drink the wine, and as they come into us, so we pray that God, by his Holy Spirit, will come into us.
That is amazing, that God is in you
But the New Testament also speaks of us being in Christ.
It uses that far more often. And it is harder to understand.

Perhaps we can explain it like this.

Imagine that this book is Jesus.
He has eternally been in the presence of God.
He delights in God the Father and God the Father delights in him.
He is the eternal Son of God. He is the Beloved.
And God has given all things to him.

And (placing sheets of paper inside the book) God has chosen to put you in him, and you, and you. That means that you are where Jesus us. If Jesus is the Beloved, you are now beloved because you are in the beloved! If Jesus is the Son of God, you are now a son of God because you are in the Son. If God has promised Jesus an inheritance of all things, then you will inherit all things because you are in him.

Or to put it another way. Think about us gathered here in St Andrew’s Church. We’re from all over the world - Ethiopia, Kenya, the UK, India, Nigeria, Indonesia, Switzerland, the US. But in St Andrew’s we have been brought together, we become one family, one people with one purpose – to listen to God and to praise God.

And these verses speak of Christ, and us being in Christ

c)      They speak of the Holy Spirit (v13): the gift of the Spirit as the first small gift of the future inheritance that will be ours

Father, Son and Holy Spirit – all working together in deep communion.
And Paul blesses God for all the blessings that he has given us

1.      That in his love God chose us – before creation came into being - to become holy and blameless (v4)

You might ask, if God chose me does that mean that I had no choice?

God did choose you – about that the passage is clear: it speaks of choice, of destining, and other translations don’t avoid the word predestination – but he chose you so that you, with complete genuine freedom, chose to say ‘yes’ to Jesus.
And I’m not going to say much about that here apart from to say that that truth is something that should give you both deep assurance that you belong to God and also shatter any of your pride when you start to think that you deserve to be a Christian.

But what I do want to emphasise is the fact that God has chosen you so that you might become like Jesus. God has chosen you so that you will become someone who would freely choose to be crucified for the sake of another person. That is what it means to become holy and blameless. He is going to change you – from the inside out. Because he loves you, He has chosen you to live a life of love. A life motivated by delight in God and delight in his will, and by a love for other people. He made us to be transparent, and true, and beautiful – on the inside, and holy. He made us to become radiant people.
2.      He blesses God because God delights to adopt us as his children (v5)

We become part of the family of God.
We can call God our Father.

That is the beginning of Christian prayer.
We pray to the Almighty – to the one who is all seeing, all knowing, all powerful, ever present; We do pray to the one who is our Lord and Judge.
But ultimately when we pray, we pray to ‘Our Father in heaven’.

And that means we are brothers and sisters. We have a common father. Unity is a major theme in Ephesians. Paul writes about how in Christ Gentile believers and Jewish believers are brought together as members of one family, one body.

And of course, brothers and sisters don’t always get on, they fall out, they have different tastes and they don’t always like each other – but they are still brothers and sisters.
They cannot run away from the fact that they share the same DNA, that what is in one is in the other, that they have a common history, and a shared identity.

And as believers what is in you – or perhaps I should say ‘who’ is in you, is the same as who is in me.
And we have a common history: when we become part of the family of God, then the history of the family of God, the people of God, becomes our history.
And as believers we have a shared identity: Remember that we have been brought together. Our ultimate identity is not in our biological family, it is not in our tribe, it is not even in our nation (we need to remember that in a World Cup). Our ultimate identity is in God our Father.

3.      He blesses God for our forgiveness (v7)

We have been forgiven. God in his grace and mercy has forgiven us our sins.

We had walked away from God, lived as if he did not exist, ignored his law and his word, put our trust in the things that he had created and not in him, abused his creation and treated it as our private waste disposal pit, treated other people like dirt, and messed ourselves up.
Maybe I am a bit better than you; maybe you are a bit better than me. It doesn’t make any difference, because by anybody’s standard we were pretty far gone.

And God could have wiped the floor with us.
But in his grace and mercy and love, he sent his beloved Son, Jesus to come to us – to call us back to God, to show us God’s way, and to die for us – for our forgiveness.

We have been forgiven. It is one of those things that we have in common. That is why we are able to come together to worship God; it is why can come to this table together.

I can’t look down on you, and you can’t look down on me.

We’re like people who have been given free tickets to the premiere seats at the World Cup final. On the market they would cost $10000. I can’t say to you that I deserve that ticket because once I played two games in a youth team, but you don’t deserve a ticket because you only played one team in a youth game. That is foolish. We are both there because of an astonishingly gracious invitation.

And we are both here because of an even more astonishingly gracious invitation.

4.      He blesses God for God’s plan for the universe – which has been made known to us - ‘to gather up all things in him’ (v10)

As believers we are in Christ. Our unity is in him.

The New Testament talks about the church – the people of God - as a body, with each person playing a unique role, with unique value and significance, but in relationship with all the others. And the head of this body is Christ.
Or it talks about the church as a building in which each person is one of the bricks. And Jesus is the builder of this building: he lays brick beside brick.
It speaks of the church as a family
I guess today we could use the illustration that the Church is like a team: a top football team that really does play the beautiful game. Jesus is the manager. He knows each person, their gifts and abilities, he sees how they can play with others and he knows where to position them and how to inspire and bring the best out of them.

But the Church is just God’s starter for ten. It is a picture of what God plans for this creation. That under the Lordship of Jesus, and in harmony with Jesus, all things will work together.

5.      He blesses God for God’s purpose for us
‘In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance … so that we who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory’ (v11-12)

Football fans are quite good at praise. I suspect that when the victorious Croatian or French team return to their country, thousands of people will come out onto the street to praise them and give them glory.

But when it comes to praise of God: then I’m rubbish – even though what he has given to us, and what he has promised us is far greater than even winning the World Cup.

I find it hard to praise God.

When I’ve been at prayer meetings and we have been asked to share one thing for which we would like to thank or praise God, my mind goes blank. And if in my prayer time, I start to praise God with my own words, I very quickly run out of words.

That is why it is helpful to have set words to say, or to sing a song or hymn: it can set us free to praise.

But I suspect that I struggle to praise God because I have not quite realised what it is that he has given me, just how much he has blessed me. That is why spending time with passages like this is so important.
It is often when we begin to praise God out of a sense of duty that we discover -even if we are in prison or if the world is against us - that we end up praising him with self-forgetful freedom and joy.

We were created to praise God. It is what we were made for.

These verses are all about how we are called to praise:
God called us to become his children ‘to the praise of his glorious grace’ (v6)
His purpose is ‘so that we … might live for the praise of his glory’ (v12)
He gives us the Holy Spirit ‘to the praise of his glory’ (v14)

If the first line of the Lord’s Prayer is ‘Our Father in Heaven’, the second line is ‘Hallowed be your name’.

And this is not for God but for us.
God isn’t sitting there like some oversized cuckoo in an alien nest crying out to its exhausted foster parents, ‘feed me, feed me’. He is not some megalomaniac potentate saying, ‘praise me, praise me’!

Praise really is what we are all about.
God created us to be like God. We were created to be people who love – who lose ourselves in the delight of the other, in the adoration of all that is good and beautiful and wonderful and true, and in the acclamation – the praise – of all that is good and beautiful and wonderful and true.

And who or what is more worthy to receive our praise, because who is more good or beautiful or wonderful or true than the Father God who loves us, created us and has blessed us with every spiritual blessing?

Saturday, 7 July 2018

Authority over unclean spirits

Jesus gives the Church authority.

He calls the 12 to him and he gives them authority. And in giving them authority, he gives the Church authority, because the Church is built on their teaching about Jesus, and on communion with them. 

But if you notice, it is a very specific authority. He gives them ‘authority over unclean spirits’ (v7), authority to set people free from the evil that grips us and controls us.

Don’t dismiss the language of unclean spirits or of demons.

There are things, forces which control us, which are bigger than our will.  They can’t be healed by psycho-therapy, or self-knowledge, or religious ritual, or by our sacrifices, or by self-discipline or meds.

I remember one of our children putting it very clearly. He said on one occasion: ‘There are two mes. There is the good me and the bad me – and I don't know which one is going to turn up’.

And I know that. There are two Malcolms. There is the Malcolm, who wants to put God first and love and serve; and there is the Malcolm - the Malcolm I hate - when the fears and the wrong loves (the lusts) and self takes over.

Jekyll and Hyde is not a monster created by Robert Louis Stevenson. Jekyll and Hyde is alive and well, and is in each of us.

Someone (a Russian) asked me recently whether I thought the Russian people were a good people – were they better or worse than British people?
I didn’t know quite how to respond, but afterwards – isn’t that so often the case – I wished I had remembered a quote by Solzhenitsyn:
“The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either -- but right through every human heart -- and through all human hearts.”

When we talk about unclean spirits or demons we immediately think of supernatural phenomena, of possession, and exorcists. We think of the dramatic.

And there certainly were those moments in Jesus ministry:
In Mark 5, our previous chapter, we read about the demon possessed man who lived in the local cemetery – and Jesus drove a multitude of demons out of him.

But that is the extreme.

The desert fathers and mothers, women and men who went into the desert to separate themselves from the things of this world in order to focus on the things of the other world, speak a great deal both about becoming aware of their demons and battling with the demons.

And for each of us, and in each of us, the demons, the unclean spirits, are alive and well.

But – and this is the amazing thing – Jesus gives to his Church, to his people, authority over evil spirits.

The Church does not only have the authority to declare to men and women who are repentant that their sins are forgiven. It also has the authority to ‘cast out’ (that is the language that is used here) evil spirits. It has the authority to set people free.

So how do we exercise this authority?

1.      We exercise this authority by being faithful to the teaching of Jesus

The emphasis in these verses is on Jesus’ teaching.
v2: On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue
v6: He went about among the villages teaching
And we are told that his teaching is full of wisdom and it is accompanied by works of power

And the calling of the twelve is an extension of his teaching.
We are told in verse 12, ‘They went out and proclaimed that all should repent’

That is the key to all of this!

It is Jesus’ teaching which sets us free

When people hear his teaching and don’t do anything about it, very little happens.
We see that in v5: ‘And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief’.

But when people hear his teaching, and repent, things happen

And it is when we, as a church, are faithful to Jesus’ teaching, to that vision; and it is when we call people to repent, to turn from living without God to living with God, from living for themselves to living for God; it is when we call people to get off the throne of their life and to submit themselves to his rule; it is when we call people to stop believing the half-lies of this world and to put our trust in what God has done for us when Jesus died and rose from the dead, and to put our trust in the promises of God – that is when things happen.

Sometimes there are dramatic things that happen. But usually it is the quiet non-dramatic life changing stuff that happens.

Jackie Pullinger, who wrote the book Chasing the Dragon was sent by God to work among drug addicts in the old walled city in Hong Kong. She speaks of how for the first year or so she saw remarkable miracles. She prayed for addicts and they were instantly delivered – with no withdrawal symptoms. But, she wrote in a subsequent book, after the initial period, those instant deliverances didn’t happen. Instead she worked with those people who had been delivered miraculously to help set up drug rehab centres – and she wrote that subsequently people were delivered, usually not instantaneously, but through the long, hard, costly path of step by step healing.

And for us there may be moments of deliverance. when we are instantly set free from something that has gripped us. But that is rare. Most of the time we will need to constantly put our trust in God’s word, in his forgiveness and do battle with the demons. There will be times when we win and times when we lose. But we hold to his promise that one day we will be set free.

One of the desert fathers describes the teaching of Jesus, the Word of God, as like a stream falling from a height onto a rock. The water, he said, is soft. The rock is very hard. But over thousands and thousands of years, the constant fall of the water has worn away the rock and created a hollow which is filled by pool of ever-flowing, life-giving water.

All we need to do is to be faithful to that word, and faithful to that teaching, and to call people to repent and turn to God.

2.      We exercise this authority by living in absolute dependence on Jesus

Jesus ‘commands’ the twelve – it is a strong word – to go out with virtually nothing in complete dependence on him.

They are to go in pairs: that is so that they could collaborate each other’s words. Jewish law required that there had to be at least two witnesses if anything was to be validated as true.
And they were to only take staff, sandals and one tunic. That really is travelling light.

When we go out for the day, Alison loves to take everything with her – a bit like Mrs Beaver in the Lion and the Witch and the Wardrobe. The baddies are coming to get them and they’ve got to get out of the house as quickly as possible and she still wants to take the sewing machine with her. That is very different to me. I just want to leave and not take anything with us. But that is not me being spiritual. That is me being impetuous and lazy. And I can’t even be smug in my laziness, because I still make sure I have my wallet and my money with me.

But they are to take nothing: no bread – so the Lord’s prayer, ‘Give us today our daily bread’ becomes for them a very real prayer; no bag and not even any money
Even the instruction about taking only one tunic is significant. During the day one tunic was sufficient, but at night you would need two tunics to keep warm if you were out in the open.

 So they were really were dependent on God for their provision.

I was very struck by an article that I read about Mother Theresa after her death. Her worldly personal possessions consisted of a couple of saris and a bucket for washing.

Jesus was giving to specific people specific instructions for a specific task in a specific time. And there is an urgency here because he wants to get the message of the Kingdom of God to as many people as he can before he is crucified.
But I do not think that these instructions are for all people at all times. The dress code wouldn’t really work in Russia in the winter!

Rather the principal is that if we are to exercise our authority and see people set free from evil spirits then we need to be doing this by living in complete dependence on God.

The story is told of someone showing Thomas Aquinas around the Vatican treasury. The guide asked him if he remembered the story in the bible when the beggar came to Peter and John and asked them for money. And Peter and John had to say to him, ‘We don’t have any money’. ‘Well’, said the guide, ‘Look at this treasure. We don’t need to say that now’. And Thomas Aquinas replied, ‘I agree. But we can’t say what Peter and John then did say to the paralysed beggar: ‘In the name of Jesus of Nazareth, get up and walk’.

The temptation, in this ministry – particularly when we speak about something like casting out unclean spirits – is to fast and confess my sins, to get others to pray for me, to say my prayers and do the rituals.
In one sense that is right. We need to do that.
But we do not do that to make ourselves more spiritually powerful. We do not do this to spiritually psych ourselves up. We do it in order to spiritually psych ourselves down. We make ourselves weaker – so that as I go into this ministry, I recognise my physical weakness, my dependence on forgiveness, on others and my dependence on God.

We have no power in ourselves to forgive sins. We have no power in ourselves to preach or persuade people to repent or to cast out unclean spirits. Who do we think we are?

But as his Church, as his people together, we do have authority over the unclean spirits, over the demons, over the forces of hell: We can be set free and set others free - when we are faithful to his teaching, and when we recognise our complete weakness and our utter dependence on him.

Sunday, 1 July 2018

Reaching out to Jesus through our fear

Mark 5.21-43

These are a fascinating couple of stories.

I’m sure some of you will have played ‘spot the difference’. Two photographs that are almost identical but that have a number of differences. Well, in this case, it is more a matter of spot the similarities.

The woman has suffered for 12 years. The little girl is 12 years old
Both Jairus and the woman fall at Jesus’ feet
Jairus asks Jesus to touch his daughter. The woman touches Jesus
Jairus pleads for the life of his daughter - and Jesus calls the woman ‘daughter’

But I think that the big similarity is that they are both about fear and faith.

The woman comes to Jesus ‘in fear and trembling’. But Jesus commends the faith of the woman: ‘your faith has made you well’.
And when Jairus receives the news that his daughter has died, Jesus says to him, ‘Do not fear, only believe’.

There is the fear.

For the woman it is the fear of exposure, of ridicule, abuse and shame. She suffers from bleeding. That makes her unclean in the eyes of the law. The last thing that she should be doing is touching a rabbi, a religious leader. By touching him, she would be making him unclean. And there was no such thing as health insurance or a health service, and this woman has been ripped off - by the first century medical profession.

So when Jesus stops and says, ‘someone touched me’, she is terrified. She has lived in the shadows so long. She is the unnoticed one. She has got away for so long thinking that she is naked, nothing. She thought she had got away with this. And now someone has noticed her - and not only noticed her but brought her out into the public.

And so she falls at Jesus’ feet.

In Ravenna, in Northern Italy, there are some amazing mosaics. They date back to about the C5th, making them some of the earliest surviving Christian images. In the Church of Apollinare Nuovo, there are a series of mosaics depicting events from the life of Jesus. One of them is this moment – in fear and trembling the woman falls at the feet of Jesus.

I think many of us are like this woman. Maybe we have never had that confidence. Maybe we have tried to get up but been knocked down time after time – whether by people or by the circumstances of life. So we prefer to live in the shadows. We’re terrified of being exposed in public and of being shown up, or shamed and ridiculed. And so we hide. We might hide behind a role, or dress down so that we are not noticed. And we certainly don’t put ourselves forward.

But the thing that I love about this story is how Jesus brings this woman to the front in order not to push her down, but to lift her up. He does not rebuke her. He commends her for her faith. He reassures her that she has been healed. He tells her to go in peace. And – and this is possibly one of the most significant words in the whole encounter – he calls her ‘daughter’. Daughter of Abraham, Daughter of God.

And in this image we see how the woman is holding out the garment covering her arms as if it is a receptacle. She is stripped of all self-reliance. She is at the feet of Jesus, but she is open to receive from Jesus. And Jesus is beginning to stoop down in order to lift her up.

And perhaps this is where we should be, a little more often!
‘Humble yourself before the Lord’, says James, ‘and he will exalt you’.

And what about Jairus?

He has also come to Jesus and fallen at Jesus feet.

That was a big thing for a leader of the synagogue to do. He was an important man. Could you imagine a VIP doing that?
But he was desperate. He asks Jesus to heal his daughter. And now – because Jesus has spent time with this woman - the news has come to him that his daughter has died.

His heart must have broken in two.
Those of you who have lost a child, when you got the news, will be aware of what that feels like.

In my parish ministry in the UK, I spent a great deal of time with people who had been bereaved. And one of the more powerful emotions that people can experience is fear. Fear of facing a reality that is so much bigger and more powerful than they are, of something - though they are not quite sure of what: fear of what happens next, fear of isolation and separation. Fear of being alone in a hostile world. Fear that they will be found to be naked and nothing.

And in the face of that fear, Jesus calls us to believe, to exercise faith.

To believe in him. To put our trust in him.

That is important.

It is not simply about having faith.
We have faith in many different things: in people, in yoga, in experts, even in ourselves.
But when you have been sick for 12 years or ripped off by the very people in whom you put your trust, or when you have lost a child, you realise that that is a misplaced faith.
We are called to put our faith, our trust in Jesus.

We are to put our faith in his power to act

He does have the power to heal, as he healed the woman.
We must not let go of that. Wonders can happen when we call on Jesus.

In my previous parish, God met one of our younger mums in a very powerful way. Her faith came alive. Her mother had a painful leg. So Maaike prayed for her leg. And Maaike’s mother spent most of the following day in tears. Not only was her leg healed, but Jesus had touched her.

And Jesus has the power to bring people back from the dead.

There is evidence that it happens – not very often, and usually at particular places at particular times when the people of God are going through dreadful suffering. God uses it as a sign to encourage the church.
My own adopted half-cousin, who is Indian, and her husband, Krishna, work in Orissa in North India where many Christians have been martyred for their faith.  They tell of someone who they knew who had died and who their church had prayed for. His body was in the mortuary. He sat up, and the terrified mortuary attendant ran out of the mortuary and locked the door. Make of that what you will.

But when we speak of such healings and when we speak of people being raised from the dead, we need to remember that Jesus is sovereign in all of this.
He works in his way and in his time.

This woman had to wait 12 years before she was healed.
And Jesus in his ministry on earth only brought back three people from the dead: Jairus’ daughter, the widow of Nain’s son and Lazarus. And in each of those cases none of the people left behind asked Jesus for the miracle of resurrection.

So this passage is not only about putting our trust in Jesus; it is about persevering in that faith.

That is why Jesus says to Jairus, when he hears that his daughter has died, ‘Do not fear, only believe’.

Jairus had thrown himself at Jesus feet. He had trusted Jesus that Jesus would heal his daughter. But his daughter had died. Jesus had let him down.
And Jesus says to him: ‘Don’t fear – don’t give up on me. Just keep on believing’

I guess many of us need to hear this

We have prayed for healing and not seen healing. Maybe we have lost a child or someone close. The job has gone, all our efforts are futile, a relationship is on the rocks, there is no money, our team have gone out of the world cup, the church continues to struggle, the political situation gets worse, we have got no resources left. And Jesus has gone AWOL, or at least, if he is there, he is doing wonderful things in other places with other people – but not with us.

Remember that Jesus didn’t heal Jairus’ daughter. Because he spent time with this woman, the most awful thing that Jairus could imagine did happen. His daughter died.

But Jesus then went and did something even more astonishing, something that Jairus could not even imagine would happen. He raised her from the dead.

Jesus is showing us that there is nothing beyond his control. He is saying, ‘Look. Don’t be afraid. Trust me. Keep on trusting me. Because I am bigger than the worst thing that can possibly happen. I am bigger than death.’

And God promises that he will answer our prayers, in his way, and in his time, and ‘he is able to accomplish abundantly – through his power at work within us – far more than all we can ask or imagine.’ (Ephesians 3.20)

These are two stories with a similar theme: faith and fear.

Believe in Jesus. Put your trust in him.  And go on putting your trust in him. Even in the face of terrifying, rational or irrational, overwhelming fear, even when the worst thing you can imagine happens, even in the face of death.

We cannot physically reach out and touch the hem of his robe like this woman, but we can in our mind and in our imagination reach out to him and touch him. We throw ourselves at his feet.

When I was at theological college, we were attached to local churches. One of my fellow students spoke about one Sunday, when after everybody had received communion, and the service was meant to continue, the vicar was nowhere to be seen. So he went up into the sanctuary behind the large altar and saw the vicar lying flat on the floor. He asked, ‘Are you OK’, and was greeted with the words, ‘Go away. I am praying’. 

Or I remember going to a service in the St Petersburg theological college, when a student became a monk. He lay flat out on the floor with his arms stretched out in the shape of a cross. It is a symbol of our absolute dependence on God. 

Can I suggest you try it - when you are on your own – throw yourself at Jesus’ feet: Physically prostrate yourself before Jesus.
But don’t do it when you are tired, because you’ll just fall asleep!

In our fear, in our emptiness and brokenness, we reach out to him.

He is the one who lived and who died and who rose from the dead.
We cannot see him, we cannot hear him. He is beyond our five senses. And yet, in some completely incomprehensible way, he is present. He is present in this world. He is present in his people. He is present here as we listen to his word and as we eat the bread and drink the wine.

He bends down and he lifts us up. He calls us Son or Daughter. And he gives us eternal life.