Tuesday, 29 May 2007

Wedding Talk

The story is told about the bride who was walking up the aisle. She was trying to remember the order of the service, and she was heard muttering under her breath, ‘Aisle – Altar – Hymn’

It is a dodgy attitude to go into marriage with. Marriage, people say, is about give and take. There is the old quip: “She gives – I take”
But I would suggest that marriage is about give and give and give, and when you’ve given everything you can, you give again.


We live such busy lives. And in the middle of all the activity, we need to give time to the other person.

Yes, we need time to be alone (but that is often not a problem). We also need time to be together.

We need to give time to do the things the other person wants: going out; doing what they enjoy

And we to give time to talk to each other and to listen to each other. Many couples I know will try to put aside one evening a week, even when – particularly when – there are children, in order to do something together that they both enjoy so that they are able to talk.

The three key words for any marriage, for any relationship are ‘communication, communication, communication’.

And marriage is about GIVING EMOTIONAL SUPPORT to each other. It is about being there for the other person.

That means being open with each other: open about what we are doing, what we are thinking, what we are feeling. And that can be the hard part. It is very easy to freeze the other person out. We need to learn to say to the other, and to allow the other to say to us: “I’m hurting” or “I’m confused” or simply “I need you”.

Some of us, and I think that this is particularly true of men, can be a bit like unemptied vacuum cleaners. We take in all the stuff of life, we think we can deal with it ourselves, and in the end we clog up.

And marriage is about BUILDING THE OTHER PERSON UP. In marriage you cease to belong to yourself. You belong to the other person. So when we build up the other person, we build up ourselves.

We need to be like Rugby players at a lineout and not dodgy footballers at a corner. When the corner is sent over, dodgy footballers leap onto the shoulders of their opponents to push them down so that they can go up higher. But when the ball is thrown in at a lineout, the Rugby players gather round one of their team mates and lift him up so that he get the ball.

In our marriages we are in the business of lifting the other person up – to encourage them, to say thank you, to be there for them when they fall.

Someone once said, “If you wish to be married to a princess, treat her like one”.

So marriage is about giving yourself to the other person: totally. All that you have, all that you are, all that you feel.

But marriage is not only about giving. It is also about ACCEPTING EACH OTHER.

If you give yourself to another person that much, then it is very easy to be hurt.

And today you have said “YES” to each other.

A couple who had just celebrated their 80th wedding anniversary were interviewed on television. He was asked what the secret of the success of their marriage was. He replied: “It is two words”. “What are those?” asked the interviewer. He replied, “Yes, dear”

But it is true. It is about both of you saying to the other, “Yes, dear”

Marriage isn’t only about an arrangement
Marriage isn’t only about a feeling

There will certainly be times when you don’t feel in love with each other, and there may even be times when you ‘feel’ in love with someone else. But that doesn’t matter.

Marriage is ultimately about a COMMITMENT – a commitment that you have made here in Church in front of us and in front of God.

It is about a ‘Yes’ that you have said to each other.

Ø Yes, we are going to give ourselves to each other

Ø Yes, we are going to work through our difficulties

Ø Yes, we are going to accept each other – with all the faults, problems, hang ups and funny little habits

Marriage is about a big Yes that eats up all the little no ’s

WE NEED GOD to help live like this. 1 Corinthians 13 talks of the kind of love that God is asking of us. No one can love like that without God.

We need to know God’s love for us, before we can begin to love
We need to know God’s forgiveness for us, before we are set free to forgive

(as an aside: it is worth bearing in mind Ogden Nash’s advice.

To keep your marriage brimming,
With love in your marriage cup -
Whenever you’re wrong, admit it;
Whenever you’re right, shut up!)

We need to know God’s acceptance of us, before we can truly accept another.
We need to know God’s hope, so that we can trust and go on trusting even when we’ve been hurt
We need to know God’s power, so that we can change and work through the difficulties.
We need to know God’s YES to us so that we can learn to say YES to each other.

You need God’s help. And I would encourage you to spend time getting to know him: coming along to church, picking up a bible and reading one of the books about the life of Jesus (Matthew, Mark, Luke or John), going on one of the many churches offer: Alpha or Christianity Explored.

You also need our help, the help of family and friends: our love, support, at times our distance, and our prayers.

So our prayer for you today is that God will bless you both richly, and that through your marriage many others will be blessed.

Thursday, 24 May 2007

The Holy Spirit

ACTS 2:1-13

The Holy Spirit is not an impersonal force – he is a person

Ø He comes as fulfilment of Jesus’ promise
Ø He comes at a time when the Father in heaven chooses
Ø He comes, as a person, to persons: to ‘each one’. It is a strong theme in Acts 2. Peter, later on, recalls a prophecy made about 600 years earlier, when God says through a man called Joel: “I will pour out my Spirit on all people”, men and women, old and young.
Ø He comes every time in a unique way: on this occasion he came with wind and with tongues of fire. But there is no formula, no single pattern.

Sometimes he will come with shaking and heat. Sometimes he will come and there will be weeping and joy. Sometimes he comes and there will be falling over. Sometimes he comes and people will speak in tongues. Sometimes he comes and there will be an overwhelming sense of peace and the presence of God.

But when the Holy Spirit comes upon the church and upon individuals, a number of things happen.

1. People are released to praise God.

The disciples speak in tongues. They don’t understand what they are saying, but others do. They are ‘Praising God’: “We hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues”.

2. People will be amazed:

The words that Acts 2 uses are ‘bewilderment’, ‘utterly amazed’, ‘amazed and perplexed’ - and later on, ‘everyone was filled with awe’.

The Spirit will break open our assumptions, and disrupt our patterns.

3. People will be mocked:

When things happen that we don’t understand, that are slightly threatening to us – because they challenge our assumptions – we try and to explain away. And if we can’t, then we mock. In this case the disciples were accused of being drunk

4. People will be changed

We read about that at the end of the chapter (vv42-47): there is faithful discipleship; things were happening; there was a real – and very practical - unity among the Christians; there was an overwhelming generosity: people sold their stuff in order to help other people who were in need; and there was great joy.

5. People will be converted

3000 were converted on the day of Pentecost. And v47 tells us that the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

Why? Because the Spirit of God was touching people and drawing them into the community of believers.

So often we operate our Christian life at the level of duty.

Now don’t get me wrong. Duty is essential in the Christian life. It is actually something that is desperately needed in our churches today. We need men and women who will do their duty to God: who will read their bible and say their prayers daily, who will come to church, and be obedient – even when they do not wish to do so. I like the story of the student who was converted. His friend had been talking with him about Jesus for many months. The student went up to see his friend. He was so excited. “I’ve invited Jesus into my life – and he’s so real”. “Great”, replies the friend, “We’re going to go out and buy you a bible and an alarm clock”.

Duty is essential. The words that the bible uses for the idea of duty are the words ‘self-discipline’ and ‘perseverence’ and ‘faithfulness’. They are actually all works of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

But duty on its own is not enough. A religion that is based on duty will inevitably lead to legalism. And legalism has two little brothers: pride and inadequacy. If I do my duty I feel proud. If I don’t do my duty, I feel condemned.

A Christian faith that is based purely on duty is like a relationship, a marriage that is based purely on duty. It’s stable, it’s bearable but not very attractive.

Last week I was talking with someone about his daily cycle of prayer. I would give him full marks for discipline. But I found it very hard to see where the joy was for him, or the intimacy with God or the love, or the life. It was simply a duty.

And there is a real danger that our relationship with God becomes sheer duty: we have a fixed pattern of daily prayer; we come along to the prayer meetings, home groups and church. And maybe we enjoy the company, or the music, or the building – but actually our relationship with God has become stale. It is about maintaining a stable and very formal relationship. We’ve lost – or maybe have never known – the love and the joy.

I have a suspicion that the single strongest reason why we do not share our faith with others is because we do not really think that we have much to share.

The problem is that if I do not know the peace and joy and freedom and hope and life that come from knowing Father God – if my faith is simply duty bound – why should I wish for someone else to become a Christian? Why should I impose on them all my hang-ups?

I don’t know what language you use for this. Some people talk about the baptism of the Spirit; some people talk about being filled anew with the Spirit. I don’t actually think it matters. What does matter is that we need to pray that God will pour out his Spirit on us – that he will renew us with his love, and that he will refresh our intimacy and that he will restore our passion.

Some of us will be confused – we really do not know what to make of it all. We need the Holy Spirit to give us the courage to take that first step of faith – whether it is committing ourselves to Jesus or saying that we would like to be baptised or confirmed (with all that it means), or choosing to attend an introducing Jesus course, exploring Christianity or Alpha course

Some of us here will be weary – we need refreshment. You’ve been working your socks off for the kingdom, and the gauge has been bouncing on empty for as long as you can remember. We are giving ourselves and we’re not giving Jesus. And the problem is that while he is infinite, we are finite.

Some of us have become complacent – we need, not to put too fine a point on it, a kick up the spiritual backside. We had a routine; that became a rut. And the rut has got deeper: and as someone said, ‘The only difference between a rut and a grave is the depth’. We need the Holy Spirit. It is his speciality to convince people of the reality of sin, of the fact that life apart from God has no future and of how to live right. But he needs us to allow him to do it.

Some of us find ourselves out of our depth. We’re going through things or doing things that are much too big for us. Or it seems that God is asking us to do something that we don’t think we can do. We need to know again the reassurance of God’s presence and guidance and equipping

And some of us have simply lost our way. We did believe it, but now we’re not so sure. We need the Holy Spirit to give us the courage to persevere through the darkness, and to break through and bring his light and hope.

I long for God to pour out his Spirit on us again: I’ve seen what happens when the Spirit has come on a group of people. There were about 30 of us gathered together. Someone had spoken. There really was such an awesome sense of God’s presence. Two people were converted. Eight or nine people experienced God in a completely new way. And over the rest of that term we saw a considerable number of people becoming Christians.

We need to trust the Father’s timing. And we need to trust Jesus’ promise.

The Spirit was given at the first Pentecost, but that does not stop him from coming again and again and again and again.

Martin Lloyd Jones used to say, “You claim you have the Spirit. That’s great. Where is he: where is the love, the joy, the freedom?” And he would go on to say: “People ask me if I believe in a second blessing. Of course I do. I believe in a second blessing, and a third, and a fourth, and a fifth. God, bless me, bless us, bless us”.

So I’m going to invite you to pray with me for the coming of the Spirit. We’ll remain seated. You don’t need to do anything. You can simply pray this prayer with me – and then we’ll wait in silence. And if you wish to, use the silence to invite God to send his Holy Spirit, to work in you through his Holy Spirit.

Friday, 18 May 2007

Ascension day 2007

LUKE 24:44-end

It is good for the Christians in Bury St Edmunds to gather together and to celebrate the ascension here

For those who do not know the story it is very simple.

Jesus was crucified
Three days later he rose from the dead
For a period of 40 days he appeared to his disciples

And Jesus uses those times
to convince them that he is alive
to demonstrate that the cross was as much a part of God’s plan as was the and resurrection
to prepare them for their future work: the preaching of repentance and forgiveness to all nations

And then, at the end of the 40 days, Jesus is taken from them into heaven. Luke simply says, “While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven.”

So why celebrate the ascension? Is it not a sad day, the day that Jesus was taken from us?

We celebrate the ascension because it points us to another world

It is the very absence of the living physical Jesus which points us to another world: a world that is beyond what we can see, feel, hear, touch or smell.

But how do you describe a world that is beyond space and time?

The bible uses the language of ascension. We talk of heaven as being ‘up there’, even though we literally do not mean that it is up there.

CS Lewis in the Chronicles of Narnia uses the language of a parallel universe. This universe can be entered, by gift, through things like wardrobes!

And there is a brilliant poem by Dr Seuss called Beyond Zebra. In it, the speaker tells of how his alphabet begins where everybody else’s alphabet ends. His alphabet begins after the letter ‘Z’

"I'm telling you this 'cause you're one of my friends.
"My alphabet starts where your alphabet ends!
My alphabet starts with this letter called YUZZ.
It's the letter I use to spell Yuzz-a-ma-Tuzz.
You'll be sort of surprised what there is to be found
Once you go beyond Z and start poking around!
So, on beyond Zebra!
Explore!Like Columbus!
Discover new letters!
Like WUM is for Wumbus,
My high-spouting whale who lives high on a hill
And who never comes down 'til it's time to refill.
So, on beyond Z! It's high time you were shown
That you really don't know all there is to be known".
The ascension tells us that there is a world beyond what we know; a world beyond ‘Z’.

This is the world where Christ reigns in glory
This is a world of love, grace, truth, mercy, justice, beauty and righteousness

This is the world that we glimpse in moments of ‘otherness’: those moments when we see and realise our desperate brokenness and need for God – and at the same time are overwhelmed by his love for us.

And the good news that the church has to preach is that because of Jesus the door to this other world is now open, to all people. We preach that there can be repentance and that there is forgiveness.

And it is this world – this invisible world – that is the real thing.
We stand in the ruins of this great abbey. It was enormous. In its time, it was the third largest building in Europe. Now: it is a pile of stones. And one day, the cathedral church of St James and the civic church of St Mary’s will be like this (although if the Christian Platonists are correct there will be in heaven a transfigured St Mary’s, St James and Great Abbey – the real thing of which these buildings here are but shadows)

But the fact that there are ruins here now doesn’t matter: because as Christians we are, as Peter puts it, aliens and strangers in this world, and we look for a world that is beyond our world – a world where Jesus Christ is ascended.

So we celebrate the physical absence of the living Jesus, because it tells us that there is something more.

We celebrate the ascension because it tells us of the Lordship of Jesus

This is not an excuse for Christian triumphalism – for Christian imperialism – for the imposition of our views on others.

We’ve tried to do that in the past, and these ruins are a witness to what happens when we do that. We forgot that the one who we proclaim as LORD is the one who, out of love, was crucified for us.

And it is precisely because it is Jesus Christ who is Lord:

Ø that we are called to clothe ourselves with kindness, with perseverance, with faithfulness and with love.
Ø that we are called to turn our backs on the rewards of this world: the wealth, the possessions, the titles, the power in order to become servants of the powerless and dispossessed, whether here, or among the pockets of poverty that can still be found in our rural areas, or in our inner city estates, or overseas
Ø that we are called to identify with the broken, the child or young person who no-one can cope with, the mentally ill, the prisoner, with those who need 24 hour care
Ø that we are called to swallow our pride; to admit that we do not have all the answers; to admit that we get things wrong; to say sorry and to forgive
Ø that we are called to follow Jesus: to give everything that we have, to give our lives, in order that others might live
Ø that we are called to become like Jesus in his death: to become scum, the despised, the mocked of the earth in order that others may find the freedom that comes from discovering the truth that it is Jesus Christ who is Lord, and the realisation of the forgiveness and love of God.

It is because it is Jesus – the crucified and risen one - who is Lord of all, that we are not to be lords of all, but servants of all, for his sake. And it is because it is Jesus – the crucified and risen one – who is Lord of all, that we know that evil and death will not have the final word.

We celebrate the ascension because it is about the presence of Jesus in this world

The ascended Jesus is not physically here, as you are here or I am here. But because he has ascended, he is with us.

He says to his followers, “Stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high”: He is talking about the power that is the Holy Spirit – the power of his presence with us.

The paradox of the ascension is that as Jesus is taken from us up into heaven, so he becomes closer to us than the air that we are breathing. And this is not something to be explained or understood. This is something to be experienced, to be known, to be lived

People sometimes say, “If I could see him, then I would obey him”. I’m sorry. The logic of the ascension is the opposite. It is because Jesus is Lord in heaven, that we can know him on earth. Faith and obedience usually comes first.

It is as the disciples trust him and are obedient to his command, as they wait in Jerusalem, so his presence – through his Spirit – comes on them.

And it is as we trust him and are obedient to him in our daily lives, so we will know his presence among us.

And as we cease trying to live for ourselves, trying to prove ourselves and trust him and turn to him in prayer, submitting our will to his will, seeking his kingdom, laying our needs at his feet, he is with us.

And as we trust him and are obedient to his command to break bread and share wine in remembrance of him, so that other world – beyond Z – breaks into our world. And the risen ascended Jesus is present with us.

We celebrate the ascension because it points us forward to the future coming of Jesus

The thing that strikes me about the verses that we have read is that although the physical Jesus has gone, the disciples are filled with joy.

The ascension is soaked in hope: Jesus told the disciples that though he was going away, he would be with them. He also told them that just as he had gone into the heavens, so he would return. We don’t know when and we don’t know how. It will be the end of space and time as we know it. But we are told that on that day, this world and that world will collide, and that world will penetrate and consume this world, and on that day, “every knee will bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father”.