Saturday, 17 November 2018

Meeting with God

Hebrews 10.19-25

I would like to speak today about meeting with God.

'Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus .. let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith’ (v19,22)

We come to church, we pray, we have chill moments, but few of us really know God.

The amazing thing is that we are invited to come into the presence of God. That is what prayer really is.

In the Old Testament, people realised something that we have forgotten, particularly in our Western traditions: you cannot simply rock up into the presence of God.

They understood with a clarity that we have lost, that God is utterly holy and totally other. He is awesome

On one occasion Moses dares to ask God for a vision. He says to God, ‘would you show yourself to me’. And God replies and says, ‘Moses, I am so holy, so other, so utterly beyond anything that you can conceive or imagine, that if you saw me, it would blow your mind. Nobody can look me and live. But’ – he says – ‘I will show you something. I’ll show you my back, my shadow’.

Or think of Uzzah. He was one of the people who had to transfer the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem. The ark was being drawn by oxen, but it shook. So Uzzah put out his hand to steady the ark, and he touched it. And we are told that God struck him and he died on the spot. At which point the people very wisely decided that they would leave the ark where it was.

Or Isaiah. He is a prophet in the Old Testament. He has a vision of angels and archangels and the throne of God; he glimpses a little of the glory of God. And he says, ‘Woe is me for I am sinful person and I live among sinful people and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts’.

Or when the people of Israel are in the wilderness – they’ve come out of Egypt but haven’t yet entered the promised land – they come to the Mountain of Sinai. And God appears to them – the glory of God appears. There is thick cloud and fire and thunder. And the people are terrified. So they say to Moses, ‘you go up the mountain, because we cannot. If we go up we will die’.

God is like lightening. And he created each of us in his image to be little channels of lightening. But because of my sin, my disobedience to God, my rebellion against God, I have ceased to be lightening. And so, if God – who is lightening - touches me, or if I touch God, then I am dead.

You can’t simply rock up into the presence of God.

But God in his love, wants to have a relationship with us – despite our sin. He wants us to be intimate with him. He wants us to come to him, to reach out to him, to touch him - without us being burnt up.

And so he gives to the people of the Old Testament a way of coming safely into his presence.

He gives them the temple in Jerusalem, a place where they can meet him safely.

It was a large building divided into sections. On the outside was the court of the Gentiles, non-Jews. That was as far as Gentiles could go. Then you had the court of the women, the court of men, and the court of priests. And beyond the court of priests was the holy place. Only those priests who were on the service rota could go there. And right at the very heart of the holy place, separated from it by a huge curtain, was the holy of holies – the place where God dwelt. And only the high priest could go into the holy of holies, once a year.

And God also gave them the gift of sacrifice.

The High Priest couldn’t just waltz into the Holy of Holies.
He couldn’t put on his Sunday best and walk in.
He could only come into the presence of God if he was covered by a sacrifice. He identified himself with an animal. That animal was then killed – in his place – the blood was smeared on him, and he was able to go into the presence of God.

And what about the rest of the people of the Old Testament who couldn’t go there?

Well, they could turn to the priests, who could turn to the High Priest. And God said that if they came to the temple and made a sacrifice then he would hear their prayers. They would be allowed to touch the lightening and to live.

But, says the writer to the Hebrews, with the coming of Jesus, something remarkable happened. There was a change

Jesus, he says, is the great high priest, who – when he died on the cross 2000 years ago – made one final all-sufficient sacrifice for all people – for Gentiles, for women, for men - for all time.

So we no longer need the temple and we no longer need priests – in the Old Testament sense – because we have a great high priest. We no longer need to be smeared with the blood of animal sacrifices, because the blood of Jesus covers us.

And the amazing thing, and it is amazing, is that because of Jesus we can touch lightening. Because of Jesus we can come into the presence of God and not be struck dead. It says here, ‘He has made a new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh)’.

So I imagine it a little like this:

We are about to pray. We are about to approach lightening. We stand nervously at the entrance of the temple. We think, ‘can I go in, will I be welcome?’ But Jesus is also there. And he takes us by the hand and he walks us through the court of the Gentiles and the court of the women and the court of the men and the court of the priests. And if people stop and stare and say, ‘why are you here?’, when they see we are with Jesus they step back and allow us to go through. And Jesus brings us into the Holy Place. In front of us we see the curtain .. But the curtain is torn. It was torn in two from top to bottom when Jesus died on the cross. And we look through the torn curtain, and we see .. nothing. We turn to Jesus and we say, ‘But I thought I came here to meet with God’. And Jesus says, ‘The curtain tore from top to bottom not to allow you in – but to show that God is no longer there. He has come out’. And you say to him, ‘So where is he?’ And Jesus smiles, and says, ‘I am here, beside you, with you and in you’.

So we are invited not just to pray for things – that is like treating God as the genii in the bottle - but we are invited to actually come into the presence of God. We are invited to approach and to touch lightening. And we can come with assurance.

We come with a true heart – we come as we are, not pretending to be anything else, with all our worries and fears and anxieties and desires and shame and mixed up emotions. We come as open as we can be about our failures and our doubts and our weaknesses. And we come to him because we want to know God.

And we come with a heart sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and a body washed with pure water.

It is obviously a reference to baptism: to repentance and faith. Because however foul our conscience, however much we cringe and want to crawl into a corner when we remember what we have done to other people; and however stained our body by sin (just think of Lady Macbeth looking at her hands and seeing the invisible blood: ‘Out, damn'd spot! out, I say!’) – if we have turned to Jesus in repentance, then we come as forgiven men and women, washed inside and outside by God’s holy Spirit.

We can talk about God, read Christian books, say prayers, come to communion – but not meet with the presence of God. That happens when we hold onto ourselves – our agenda, our status, our lives. It is only when we are prepared to let go of those things, and surrender everything to him, seek him with our whole heart and put our full assurance in Jesus, that we will meet with him.

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your Kingdom come, your will be done
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

We really do need to hold together the holiness and the intimacy.

Some traditions within the Christian church emphasise the utter holiness and otherness of God.

When a person first goes into an Orthodox Church they go into another world. Often above us is an image of Christ the judge. There is a different language that needs to be learned. There are many more rules than here, and some of them are very strict. The liturgy is given and long. You realise very quickly that God is other, that God is not to be messed with, that God asks for everything from you. And yet as you grow in that tradition, you also begin to understand the central place of intimacy with God and love for God. You only need to read the writings of the saints, and fathers and mothers, ancient and modern, to realise that. This is a tradition in which you begin on your knees and the Lord Jesus lifts you up.

We, in our Western tradition, tend to begin with the intimacy and love of God, and emphasise the truth that Jesus is our friend. We try to strip away rules to make it open and accessible to everyone. But as we grow in our Christian faith, we will begin to realise that the one who is our friend is also the eternal Son of God, is holy, is lightening. We begin by standing up, and the Lord Jesus helps us to kneel.

Whatever tradition we are part of, we need to remember that we are invited, and encouraged, to come into the presence of God.

‘Let us approach ..’
And we are invited and encouraged to come ‘in full assurance’.
Not in ourselves, for we cannot simply rock up into the presence of God. But in Jesus.

And so this invitation is for everyone. Or at least it is for everyone who is prepared to put their trust in Jesus and not in their own righteousness or unworthiness.

You can come into God’s presence anywhere and at any time: on the metro, at 3am in the morning when you can’t sleep, or during the day. In our heart and in our mind we can turn to him.

But it is also helpful to put aside time when you consciously choose to approach God. And that might involve going to a place which is special for you, or kneeling, or turning off the phone. Jesus says, ‘When you pray .. go into your room and shut the door’. But at that moment you are consciously and deliberately giving yourself to God.

And of course, it is important to come to church in order to meet together, encourage one another in this and receive him. The passage speaks about the need to keep on meeting together, and not get in the habit of not coming to church. It is significant that it speaks of the habit of not coming to church.

And what we are doing today is a particularly powerful picture of what this is all about.

In a few minutes time we will be invited to come forward for communion.
Don’t come forward thinking that this is our right. This is one of the moments when we are coming forward to touch holiness.
But equally don’t hold back – because you do not think you are sufficiently worthy.
You are not! But we come with the assurance that Jesus is our high priest, who loves us, who died for you, who is our high priest, and has opened a new and living way for us to come into the presence of God.

Tony Campolo writes, ‘Sitting with my parents at a Communion service when I was very young, perhaps six or seven years old, I became aware of a young woman in the pew in front of us who was sobbing and shaking. The minister had just finished reading the passage of Scripture written by Paul that says, "Whosoever shall eat the bread and drink the cup of the Lord unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord" (1 Corinthians 11:27). As the Communion plate with its small pieces of bread was passed to the crying woman before me, she waved it away and then lowered her head in despair. It was then that my Sicilian father leaned over her shoulder and, in his broken English, said sternly, "Take it, girl! It was meant for you. Do you hear me?"
She raised her head and nodded—and then she took the bread and ate it. I knew that at that moment some kind of heavy burden was lifted from her heart and mind.

Jesus is the one who brought you to church today. He is the one who is beside you now as I speak, telling you – ‘that Malcolm – he speaks far too many words. Don’t listen to that. Ah. But do listen to this, because this is what I want you to hear’. And he is the one, when you get up to come forward, who will come with you. And as you stand here, he is standing beside you. And as you eat the bread and drink the wine, he is the one who, by faith, will come into you and change you.

You will meet with the holy one and he will begin to make you holy.

Friday, 9 November 2018

Remembrance Sunday in Moscow 2018

On this day, 100 years ago, at 5 o’clock in the morning, the armistice was signed. It stated that at 11am all hostilities would cease. But fighting continued to the bitter end. On the last day there were 10944 casualties and 2738 deaths, before what we know as the first world war came to an end.

On the front, news of the Armistice was met with disbelief that the end really had come, with simple relief, grief for those who had not made it, and with utter weariness. One British colonel reported that at exactly 11am, as the guns fell silent, German soldiers climbed out of their trenches, bowed and walked away.

And whilst, certainly among the Allied powers, there was jubilation back at home, Robert Graves, the war poet who had served at the front, writes, ‘the news sent me out walking alone above the marshes of Rhuddlen cursing and sobbing and thinking of the dead’. And when Sassoon wrote his poem, ‘Everyone sang’, which we will hear in a few minutes, Graves retorted that ‘everyone’ did not include him.

But the reality was that a war that had lasted 52 months, that had drawn in 70 million military participants from the entire globe, that had left at least 9 million combatants and 7 million civilians dead as a direct result had finally ended.

It is impossible to overestimate its significance. It was the war that began and shaped the 20th Century. It led directly to the revolution here and subsequent genocides and famine; it was the main reason why the flu epidemic of 1918 was so globally devastating: that left between 50 and 100 million people dead; and the unresolved rivalries, added to the humiliation and sense of betrayal felt by the peoples of the central powers, led directly to the events of 1933 and following.

If nothing else, it should remind us of something that those of you who serve as diplomats are probably more aware than most: that war will never end war. The war that was to end all war led to revolution, genocide and further war. War leads to war, unless there is significantly more effort and more money put into making the peace than there is that is put into fighting the war.

And today, as we mark the centenary of the armistice and the end of the First World War, is the day when we can come out of the trenches, bow to each other and stand side by side, as our political leaders are doing today – despite their differences - as we recognise our common humanity, and together remember and grieve and honour those who were and are willing to serve their country, even to the point of sacrificing their lives – each man or woman doing their duty.

Today can be one of those days when we realise that what unites us is far greater than what divides us; when we can seek the things that really do bring peace.

We recognise that each human person, each one of the 16 million and countless others who have died in war or terror, the ones who we personally remember; each one has an intrinsic identity and value and dignity. We are not just a number. We are, if we choose to receive it, created by God, unique and beloved of God.
God says, through the prophet Isaiah, to the people of Israel – who have suffered dreadful defeat and who, for the second time in their history, have become a slave nation – ‘I have not forgotten you .. See I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands’.
And we hold it to be true that this God, who has now made himself known to all people, speaks those words to us today. They, you, are incredibly precious to God.

And secondly we are, if we choose to receive it, created by God to live in community.
Isaiah speaks of the promised new world where people who are scattered and isolated are brought together. We do not need to define ourselves in opposition to the other, we do not need to have enemies in order to know who we are. Rather we discover who we are in relationship with the other.
And the language of our reading is astonishingly intimate: ‘Lift up your eyes all around and see; they all gather, they come to you. As I live, says the Lord, you shall put all of them on like an ornament, and like a bride you shall bind them on’.
And surely we here, who have the privilege of living as international citizens, must glimpse that there is some truth in that. You do not take away from my ‘me-ness’. You – like exquisite jewellery - enrich, no adorn, who I am, and I pray that I may enrich and adorn who you are.

And thirdly, in our reading from James – James was the brother of Jesus – we read of a wisdom that can bring peace. It is a gift of God and anyone can ask of it from God. It is pure, peaceable, gentle, willing to yield – why, because the person who has this wisdom knows that they are beloved of God and they have nothing to prove. It is full of mercy and good fruits. It has no trace of partiality – it treats all people the same, as created by the glory of God for the glory of God and intended to shine with the radiance of the glory of God. And with this wisdom there is no hypocrisy, no judgementalism. The person who humbly asks for this wisdom, and who is growing in this wisdom does not claim to have arrived or to be perfect, just forgiven and beloved.

Today is a day of remembrance, of lament for the millions whose lives were cut short – in the First World War and in subsequent conflicts. But it is also a day of hope. Today exposes our pathetic attempts to live as self-contained gods. We crawl out of our trenches, and we stand side by side, and we look at what we have done to each other. And we recognise our common humanity and our need for each other. And perhaps some of us will look up, and will cry out for the gift of that wisdom from above.

Friday, 2 November 2018

A sermon for All Saints day

John 11.32-44

It is lovely to be back here in St Petersburg

In our reading, Mary – and those with her – look at the grave of Lazarus and they see and they smell death. Jesus looks at the grave of Lazarus, and he sees the glory of God.

This is not just about being an optimist or pessimist, whether you see a glass half full and half empty.

It is about seeing the world in two completely different ways: it is about seeing the world through human eyes or seeing the world through Holy Spirit eyes.

I don’t know whether you noticed how often the verb ‘see’ appears in our passage.

When Mary saw Jesus v32
When Jesus saw her v33
They say to Jesus, ‘Come and see’ v34
And when Jesus weeps, they say, ‘see how he loved him’ v36
And the great statement of Jesus in v40: ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’

And there are other references to seeing and not seeing.

When the people ask each other why Jesus had not healed Lazarus, they remember how he has healed a blind man. He enabled someone who could not see to see.
And when Lazarus comes out of the tomb, Jesus commands them not only to unbind his hands and feet, but also to unbind his face, to take away the wraps that were covering his face– so that he can see.

That is the gift of God: the miracle, the gift of the Holy Spirit who enables us to really see.

When I worked in London I used to go and visit Derek. Derek was going blind. But week on week as I met with him, I was astonished at how God was coming daily more alive for him, giving him not external physical sight, but deep inner spiritual sight.

And Paul writes about how we are blinded by the god of this world, how our faces are covered with a veil, but how the Spirit comes and takes away from us that veil, so that we can begin to truly see.

Mary and those with her looked at the grave of Lazarus and they saw death.

Last week the wife of Sergei, one of our guards, died. Natalya Alekseevna was only 53 and her death was completely unexpected. The funeral was on Friday. And he is devastated. Death has stepped in and shattered his life. It has stripped him of the person he most loved, and of the person he had built his life together with for the last 35 years.

And for the people of this world, who can only see this world, it is desperately tragic. Death for them really is the final word.

That is why we find it so difficult to deal with:

In our pain and grief we sometimes look for someone to blame. We see that here: Mary says, ‘Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died’. And the crowd echo her criticism: ‘he has made blind people see, so why couldn’t he heal Lazarus?’

Just as an aside, I do have sympathy for doctors. We expect them to save us – to save us from death. But they are only human. They work in human institutions, they make the sort of mistakes all humans make, and they have limited human knowledge. They cannot stop death. And yet so often they get blamed when death happens.

And we push death away; we pretend it does not happen; we do everything we can to avoid facing it (especially in Western societies) – and when it does happen, and someone who we love dies, we are - quite literally - gutted.

Mary looks at the grave of Lazarus and she sees death

But Jesus looks at the situation with very different eyes

1. He looks at those who are bereaved with the eyes of love and compassion.

He sees the grief of Mary and Martha.

He sees that it is as if someone has taken a hammer and smashed their world into smithereens.

Not only had they lost someone they loved dearly, and who had loved them dearly, but they appear to be unmarried and to have lived with their brother, and so in their culture they had lost the person who would have provided and protected them.

Jesus sees their grief, their devastation. He sees the grief of others who have come to mourn Lazarus. He sees what death does. And he is moved. He weeps.

John 11.35 is one of the shortest verses in the bible: in the Greek it is only two words long – Jesus wept. But it is also one of the most precious

That was really what they needed. Not some platitude which changes nothing. When I was in the parish in the UK we had many funerals. And there were some occasions when there simply was nothing to say. And all I could do was go in and simply sit with the person.

And in her grief and confusion and despair in the face of death, Jesus comes to Mary and he listens to her and he weeps with her.

2. But Jesus looks at the tomb of Lazarus and he sees the glory of God

He asks, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They say to him, ‘come and see’.

They take him to see a grave, a tomb. They take him to see a full stop – not a full stop at the end of a sentence or the end of a paragraph, but a full stop at the end of the book. The last word has been written. The last full stop is in place. And the book of Lazarus is closed.

But Jesus does not see a grave that is a full stop. He sees beyond the grave. He says to them, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God’.

Jesus knows what his Father in heaven is going to do for Lazarus, and he knows what his Father in heaven will do for all those who put their trust in him.

The grave is only our temporary resting place. We only have short term tenancy. Our bodies may decay, they may become as nothing, but one day – to the glory of God and by the glory of God - they will be raised.

Paul writes to the Christians in Corinth, ‘For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality’.

Today we remember All Saints day.

And it really is all about how we see things.

How do we see ourselves?
I think it was Ernest Hemingway who wrote,
‘Life is just a dirty trick. A short journey from nothingness to nothingness’.

Or as Macbeth says, on hearing of the death of his wife,
‘Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow,
A poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more:
It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’

Because both Hemingway and Shakespeare are speaking truth if death is the end.

And how do we see the church?
A human institution that is hopelessly compromised and irrelevant to what really matters?

On Thursday I went to a meeting of the Russia British Chamber of Commerce. The old Trade Centre in Moscow was packed out with men and women in suits. And I confess I was tempted to think, this is the place where it really happens, that really matters, where things get things done. Making money, doing business. And Christianity – it is just a leisure time activity for people like you or me with rather odd ways of thinking. And I felt very little and very much on the outside.

And maybe we look at ourselves here, Anglican Christians in St Petersburg with a small congregation, no full-time pastor, struggling to survive on the edge, and dependent on the kindness and generousity of our hosts. And we look at ourselves and we think we are simply irrelevant.

We need Jesus to work a miracle in us.

We need him to open our eyes as he opened the eyes of the man born blind.
We need him to order them to take away the wrappings that cover our face so that we can see.
So that we realise that the grave – while it is awful because it separates us from those who we love - is not final. It is not the full stop.

I love that phrase that Paul uses: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory’
2000 years ago, Jesus Christ was crucified and he rose from the dead.

And yes we are separated from those we love by space and time; yes there is a great divide; but we are also at one with them, in communion with them, because they are in the Lord and we are in the Lord.
As one great hymn writers put it, ‘We feebly struggle, they in glory shine’.

And we need him to work a miracle in us, so that we see the true Church:
the glorious Church of men and women forgiven and made perfect, of angels and saints, of those who have gone before us and of those who will come after us.
When we come here together, we don’t come to summon up worship of God. We come to join in with the worship of heaven.
When we pray ‘our Father’, ‘our’ is not just us gathered here – ‘our’ includes all who have been and all who are and all who will be followers of our Lord Jesus Christ, members of his Church. We are joining in with the prayer of the true Church, the prayer of the people of heaven addressed to the Father of heaven.

We need that miracle so that our eyes are opened and we see worship and the praise of God, and the work of loving people into this community of worship, not as some religious sideshow, but as the ultimate purpose and joy of the whole of creation.

Sunday, 14 October 2018

Giving up everything for eternal life

Mark 10.17-31


This is one of those profoundly disturbing passages.

Jesus challenges all our ideas about goodness and about wealth, and we find ourselves stripped naked before him

He challenges our ideas about goodness

The man calls Jesus ‘Good Teacher’.

Jesus cuts him down, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone’. (v18)

That is radical.

Jesus is in fact saying, ‘There is no such thing as a good person’.

There is goodness, but nobody can really be described as ‘good’

That is quite hard to take. Especially for this man who was counting on his goodness to get into heaven.

He claims to have kept all the law: ‘All these I have kept since my youth’.
And there is no reason to doubt that claim.
Look at what Jesus lists: murder, adultery, stealing, bearing false witness, defrauding others, honouring your father and mother. He could say, ‘I haven’t murdered anybody, committed adultery, born false witness (in court), defrauded anyone (in a significant way), and I’ve honoured my parents.

You could say that you have either done those things or not done them.

But if you have done what is right by the law, then all that does is make you someone who is good at keeping the law – you conform to the requirements of society. It doesn’t make you a good person.

The goodness that God is looking for is not surface goodness but heart goodness. It is not about just about behaviour; it is about what is going on in here.

And often it is people who we think of as good who would be the first to say that they are far from good. John Stott, an immensely godly, gifted and humble Christian bible teacher who lived in the UK and died a few years ago, was on one occasion introduced to his audience with a glowing introduction. He replied by saying, ‘Thank you. But if you could see into my heart you would want to spit in my face’.

The point is – and even though you may find this disturbing, I also hope that you will find it liberating – however good you are you will never be good enough to get into heaven. ‘No one is good’, says Jesus, ‘except God alone.

I think this man knew that. Yes, he had ticked all the boxes, but he knew that something was missing. That was why he had come to Jesus.

2. Jesus challenges ideas about money

In Judaism, and to be honest, still in our world today, having money is considered to be a blessing, a mark of God’s favour

If you have money you have power. You can make choices, go where you want. You think you have security – at least until those things happen which not even all the money in the world can prevent.

But Jesus seems to be saying here that having a lot of money is not a blessing but a curse. It prevents people from entering the Kingdom of Heaven

‘How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the Kingdom of God’ (v23)

‘It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God’ (v25)

That is something that speaks to many of us here. We may not have the wealth of an oligarch, but by whatever global standards you choose to use, many of us here are wealthy. And money traps us.

It trapped this man.

When Jesus said to him, ‘One thing you lack – sell what you have and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven’, he couldn’t do it.

I guess Jesus is asking him, ‘how much do you really want to enter the Kingdom of Heaven; how much do want eternal life? How much do you want to be saved?’ Those are the three phrases that are used here. In other words, because this is what it is really all about, ‘How much do you want God – how much do you want to know God, and know his goodness, to know his joy and to share in his life – a life which far far bigger than death?’ Do you want that so much that you are prepared to renounce everything that you have in order to get it.

You have to give Jesus this: he was utterly consistent.

He speaks of the Kingdom of God as a uniquely precious diamond. Someone sees it and they want it. They want it so badly, that they sell everything that they have, their entire jewel collection, in order to buy that one diamond.

He tells people who want to come and follow him, but who ask him to allow them first to bury their father, or to even just say goodbye to their family – that if they go back they cannot be his disciples.

He teaches the crowds that if they do not hate their fathers and mothers and even their own life, they cannot be his followers.

He talks of giving up all you have if you wish to follow him.

We need to get this. Before we can enter the Kingdom of Heaven we need to be prepared to renounce everything that we are, everything that we have.

We come to Jesus with two suitcases – our goodness suitcase and our stuff suitcase – and we say I want to follow you. And Jesus says, ‘I’ll take you, but I can’t take that.’ First put them down.

We need to stand naked, alone before God – with nothing

That is the symbolism of what happened at your baptism – or, if you have not yet been, what will happen when you are baptised.

As we are washed with the water – in many churches here you will be submerged under the water – it is a symbol that I am dying: dying to this world, dying to my ideas of goodness, dying to my stuff.

And we cannot come alive to God, we cannot enter the Kingdom of heaven, while we are still clinging to this world and what it offers.

But please do not despair.

There are also some tremendous reassurances here.

1.      Jesus looked at this man who came to him and, we are told, loved him.

And Jesus looks at you and he loves you. Yes, he asks you to do something that appears incredibly difficult, but he does it because he loves you.

He delights in you. He longs for the absolute best for you – so that you will become the person that he created you to be. He deeply desires to be in communion with you, and he invites you to come into communion with him.

When we surrender all that we have and are to Jesus, we are surrendering ourselves to one who loves us deeply – who loved us so much that he was prepared to go to the cross in order to win us.

2.      Jesus offers this man a new life.

He says to this man, ‘Sell what you have .. and come and follow me’.

Jesus invites this man to become one of his followers. He is saying literally ‘come with me’. Go where I go, camp where I camp, to eat what I eat, learn from me.

This man was invited to speak Jesus words and to do Jesus’ deeds.

And for us, it is not just the call to give up the things that we cannot give up, but it is the invitation to live a new life: a life lived with Jesus, as part of his family.

3. Jesus promises that whatever we leave for him, however big or little, it will be returned to us – almost certainly not in the same way – but many times over. And not only then – also now, in this world [vv29-30]

You see this is not just about eternal life. This is about beginning to live the Kingdom of God here and now in this world

That is a promise which many people have found to be true.

Think of people in history who have heard Jesus speaking to them through this passage literally. People who have become monks or missionaries. People like St Anthony or St Francis or St Augustine. People like CT Studd, Jackie Pullinger.

And for others – people who have given up much in order to be obedient to the call of God. 

Please hear me when I say that this passage is not the entire teaching of the bible on personal wealth. I don’t think everyone is called to sell everything. That was certainly not the assumption of the early church. But the key point is that if money and the pursuit of money has got a hold on you, for the sake of God you have got to give it up

Clement of Alexandria wrote in Salvation of the Rich Man, “If one is able in the midst of wealth to turn from its mystique, to entertain moderate desires, to exercise self-control, to seek God alone, and to breathe God and walk with God, such a man submits to the commandments, being free, unsubdued, free of disease, unwounded by wealth. But if not, “sooner shall a camel enter through a needle’s eye, than such a rich man reach the kingdom of God.”

4. I’m not sure whether this is reassuring or not, but Jesus also promises us that there will be persecution. I guess it is a reassurance that – when they come - we are on the right track; and if they don’t come, then we can thank God, but also re-examine ourselves and ask whether we are living for the world’s standards on goodness and stuff – or for God’s standards

5.  You will receive eternal life.

Imagine that you are this man. You are one of the wealthiest people on this planet. And Jesus had looks at you and says to you, ‘You can buy eternal life. It is very expensive – it will cost you $100 billion’. You think: ‘I could do it. I could get $100bn if I sold everything – my companies, my houses, my football clubs, my islands. It will strip me of everything, and I will have nothing. I could end up homeless. My reputation will be shot to pieces. I would probably have to beg, throw myself on the mercy of others’.   
Is it worth it? Would you do it?
We’re not talking 15 or 20 extra years of life. We’re talking life in the Kingdom of God – where there is right-ness, mercy, peace and joy – we’re talking life with God. And we’re talking eternal life.

And this is not a theoretical question. Because Jesus looks at you with what you do have, and he says to each of us: you can buy eternal life. You don’t have $100bn dollars but it won’t cost you $100bn. Instead it will cost you all that you have.

Is it worth it? Will you do it?

Friday, 28 September 2018

Good works, faith and prayer

James 5.13-19

People say that James is all about doing good works and not about faith.

Well certainly, James is immensely practical

He challenges us

To control the tongue, what we say :
· not to speak evil of each other (4.11)
· not to grumble against each other (5.9)
· not to boast (claiming that I am going to do this or that and forgetting God) (4.13f)
· not to swear or take oaths, as if our word needs enforcing (ch 5.12). 

Because of that verse Tolstoy refused to swear on the bible. He asked how could he swear on a book which itself forbade him from swearing?
I’m not sure that I completely agree with him. When I made my oath of allegiance to my bishop and to the crown, I placed my hand on the bible. But I wasn’t swearing on the bible. I wasn’t saying, ‘If I don’t do this, may all the curses that are written here fall on me!’ Instead I was placing my hand on the bible, which I believe is the ultimate source of truth, and I am saying that my yes will be yes and my no, no.

To treat all people with respect, not giving preferential treatment to the rich, especially in our Christian communities (2.1ff)

To show social justice: to care for widows and orphans (1.27); to show mercy (2.12), to clothe the naked and feeding the hungry (2.15f).
And he condemns those of us who are wealthy for our exploitation of the poor. He uses words that could have been written by Marx, ‘Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you .. Listen! The wages of the labourers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter’ (James 5.1ff)

It is powerful stuff

But we must not get James wrong.

This short letter is immensely practical; it is about works.

But it is also about faith.

· It is about the Word of God which gives life (James 1.21).
If we have not received that implanted word, if we have not been born again of the word, then we cannot really begin to understand the letter of James

· It is about the power of the Word of God: this is the mirror (1.23-25) that we look in and see ourselves - both as we are, in our sinfulness, in what we are with Christ living in us, and in who we can become. He describes the Word as ‘the perfect law, the law of liberty’ (1.25;2.12)

· It is about submission before God (4.7-8)

· It is about the sovereignty of God (4.15)

· It is about waiting in patience for the coming of the Lord (5.7-11)

And as James brings his letter to a close, he writes about prayer, about healing and forgiveness and he finishes it, very dramatically, by speaking about bringing back someone who has wandered away from the faith.


He begins his letter with prayer and he ends with prayer.

He begins with the prayer for wisdom: ‘If any of you is lacking in wisdom ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you’. (1.5)

I used to think that that was about asking God to help me make the right decisions. I need wisdom to know what I should do, who I should marry, where I should live.

But I think that James instead is speaking of wisdom as a grace, a virtue. Other New Testament writers might say that this is a prayer asking God to fill us with his Holy Spirit, or with his love. So in 3.17, he writes, ‘But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy’.

So when we pray for wisdom, we are asking that God will change us – that he will give us a new heart. That we will become like Jesus

And now in chapter 5, he speaks again of prayer

He calls on those who are suffering, not to despair, not to give up, not to think that they are on their own – but to pray, to call out to God

He calls on those who are cheerful, for whom life is going well, not to become complacent, not to forget God – but to sing praise.

That bit is great advice. Sing in your prayers. Yes, we sing in church, but sing also on your own. When nobody is there – when you are in the loo or the shower – because otherwise they will think you are mad, but sing. Use an app Youtube or isingworship (probably not when you are in the shower!). And don’t say you can’t sing. One person I knew who had a dreadful singing voice, spoke of how he would sing a hymn in his daily prayer time.
Because there is something about singing, and singing the truth, which helps us lift ourselves up out of ourselves and to focus on him.

He calls on those who are sick to get in touch with the church elders, who will pray over them and anoint them with oil.

Why the church elders?

Of course, we can each pray for each other, as individuals, and it would be great to see that happening.
But we are to call the church elders because, I guess we hope that they have more experience of walking the Christian life, but more importantly because they represent the whole community, even the wider church.
I say this with some hesitancy, because it means more work for me, but it needs to be said because it is here.

Do this.
If you are sick – and I guess I am not talking about bugs or coughs or colds - if you are seriously sick, get in touch, and ask us to pray for you. If you can get to us, come and we’ll pray for you here. If you can’t get to us, we’ll try to get to you.

One lady, a senior leader in a significant Christian organisation, was diagnosed with something pretty major, and she took these words seriously. She asked several of us to go round and pray for her, and so a group of us went, I took some oil and we prayed and anointed her.
It was very special. She was a private person, but she opened up and it was a privilege to pray for her. There was no miraculous recovery, but that was 2 years ago and she has been able to continue to live an active life.

And I know that asking others to pray for us can be difficult because it means humbling ourselves before the other, admitting our need, and being really open with each other. This is not just putting a name on a list or saying, ‘Oh pray for me because I’m not feeling well’. It is deep stuff. It is about being prepared to confess our sins, and also put right what is wrong.

And James was not a fool.

He knew that prayers can be answered very dramatically. That is why he speaks of the prayer of Elijah.
He could also have spoken of the prayers that the early church community saw answered: Peter miraculously released from prison, people healed, wonderful conversions.
And I could also speak of several people who I have known to be dramatically healed, or of prayers answered in amazing ways. There is the Russian word ‘chuda’, wonder, and there are times when we see ‘chuda’. Alison was telling the ladies bible study group of how God answered two very simple prayers in a very clear way when she was seeking guidance about coming here. They were chuda

But James was no fool. He also knew that prayers are not always answered as we wish. Peter was saved, for the time being, but James, his namesake, was put to death. He had possibly heard of Paul’s prayer – probably for healing – and God had said No to that.

And far from everyone is physically healed.

But if you notice, James does not say that sick people will be healed. He says that sick people will be saved and raised up (5.15)

That is ambiguous language.
It could speak of physical rising up. We think of Peter’s mother in law who was sick. Jesus healed her. She got up and served them.
But it could also speak of the final salvation, the final rising up, the resurrection from the dead, our ultimate hope

Perhaps that is why many parts of the church use oil for anointing just before death. It is the recognition that our final healing comes at our physical death.

And when James does use the word ‘healing’ it is in the context of confessing our sins to each other and prayer for each other. ‘Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed’ (5.16). And so maybe this is speaking more of community healing.

And as I was thinking this through, I wondered whether that is why this letter ends in the way that it does – which, at first reading, seems very strange.

‘My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins’ (5.19)

People say that James is all about works and not about faith.

But at the very end, and in quite an abrupt way, James focusses on what really matters.

Yes, God wants us to know physical well-being. And we are to pray for physical healing.

But he wants more than that for us.

He wants us to be a people at peace: at peace with each other and at peace with God.
He wants us to be filled with his wisdom – that wonderful wisdom he speaks about in James 3.17, so that we are people who are pure, peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.
He wants us to be peacemakers who produce an amazing harvest of righteousness that flows out of our peace (if you want to do a further study of James, look at how he uses the word harvest and crops. It is fascinating).
He wants us to do the good works which flow from our faith.
He wants us to be prayerful
He wants us to be honest with each other, merciful with each other, right with each other.

And what he really wants is that we might stick closely to the truth, ‘the law of liberty’, that we hold on to it and persevere even through suffering, that we hold onto the promises of God and our hope of eternal life, and that we love each other enough to pray for them, to challenge and to care, to welcome and draw people back into the community of faith – however costly it is for us.

And he wants that one day, we will be raised up.