Saturday, 21 November 2009

When Christians face persecution

Revelation 1:4-20

Today, before we begin the period of preparation for Christmas known as Advent, we remind ourselves that Jesus Christ is the King. The Church calls today ‘Christ the King’ Sunday.

Our passage in Revelation describes Jesus as King. He is described as ‘the ruler of the kings of the earth’ (1:4); it talks about his kingdom (1:9); it talks of him as being Lord of time and as the Lord of life. It talks of how one day he will return, not as a baby – in some sense hidden – but openly, so that all people will see that it really is he.

This is something that we need to remind ourselves

This month our mission focus has been on Christian Solidarity Worldwide which argues and prays for the protection of Christians, and for that matter – of people from other faith groups – and that they be allowed to practice their religion in freedom.

In Colombia, for instance, since 2004 200 churches have been forcibly closed, 35 pastors have been assassinated and a further 50 received death threats, mainly because they have been standing up against the drug cartels.

In Iran, CSW tell of two young women in their late 20s/early 30 (Maryam Rostampour and Marzieh Amirizadeh), who choose to become Christians. The security officials come to their apartment, and their Bibles are found and confiscated. They are arrested, taken to a detention centre, interrogated, deprived of sleep and put in solitary confinement. Two weeks later (this was March of this year) they appear in court and are taken to prison without being charged, which is where they are today.

In India, in 2008, “the state of Orissa witnessed the worst spate of ‘communal violence’ ever faced by the Christian community in post-independence India, including brutal murders and rapes, widespread destruction of churches and property, and forcible conversions to Hinduism. It was centred in Kandhamal district, but spread to fourteen districts of the state. The attacks were catalysed by the assassination of Swami Lakshmananda Saraswati, local figurehead of the radical Hindu nationalist group Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) on 23 August, by assailants believed to have been Maoists. By 24 August, mobs were rampaging around the district, setting up roadblocks, shouting Hindu nationalist and violent anti-Christian slogans, openly blaming Christians for the murder and calling for revenge as they attacked Christian targets. The violence continued for over eight weeks. At least 50,000 were displaced, 70 killed; among the victims were Hindus opposing the rioters”.

The report continues, “The violence should not be construed as the product of natural animosity between Hindus and Christians or between different ethnic groups, but as the systematic targeting of Christians by proponents of an extremist, nationalist interpretation of Hinduism, known as ‘Hindutva’, which is based on the proposition that to be an Indian citizen is to be Hindu.”

There are many reasons for persecution of Christians.

To become a Christian in many societies can be seen as a betrayal of that person’s family, home, traditional values and national identity. Think, for instance of the attitudes that some people would have if a woman from your family became a Muslim and chose to wear the niqab or burqa. The Jews were able to cope with Paul, one of their own, while he was talking about Jesus as being the Messiah for the Jews. They may have disagreed with him, but he was OK because he was still part of the family. But when he began preaching that the good news was for Gentiles .. that was when the balloon went up.

Or to be a Christian, or for that matter a member of any faith group, in a totalitarian society is to challenge the authority of the State. When Caesar, the Roman emperor said that he was Lord, and that people had to worship him, Christians who said that Jesus was Lord, and who refused to worship the emperor, were guilty of treason. That is what happened to my favourite martyr, Polycarp. Such people were political subversives. They recognized a higher authority than Caesar. That is why Christians were so bitterly persecuted in the former Soviet Union, and why that persecution still continues in countries like North Korea, Laos and still even in China.

And in many places to become a Christian is to identify yourself with a minority group. And there is nothing easier than for leaders of the majority to identify a distinctive minority group, particularly if they are not fully understood, and pin the blame on them for all the social problems. Nero blamed the Christians for the great fire of Rome; the Nazi’s blamed the Jews for the troubles of post first world war Germany; and in Orissa Christians are blamed for the troubles of India.

But there is, I believe, something distinctive about the sort of persecution that Christians can suffer. When a person becomes a Christian they enter a spiritual battle. Jesus said, ‘If they hate me, they will hate you’. He said that our ‘struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realm’. And as a result there can be a particularly irrational and vicious dimension to the sort of hostility that people who choose to submit to Jesus Christ and who walk the way of the cross can face.

People have always had the potential to be immensely cruel, and that cruelty becomes particularly vicious when it is directed against the weak and the vulnerable. We kick a person when they are down. We plunge the knife in, and then to justify ourselves, say that they deserved it – and then we plunge it in again. It is that kind of irrational and demonic cruelty that can be directed against Christians, who choose to walk the way of the cross, by others who have power, and sometimes even by others who would call themselves Christians and who are in positions of power.

So there are many different causes and kinds of persecution. Paul writes in Timothy: ‘Anyone who chooses to live a godly life will be persecuted’.

Why am I saying all this in the context of our passage in Revelation?

Well, Revelation is written to believers who are suffering severely because they are Christians. They are ostracized, in fear of the local magistrates – who could have them up on charges of treason to the state; they are vulnerable and easily identifiable. They have no power, and they are suffering.

They are suffering simply because they have chosen to believe the message that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, that he is the Messiah (the one God has chosen to be ruler of this earth) and Lord, and that he rose from the dead. They are suffering because they are staying faithful to the simple message that Jesus Christ was who he said he was, and because they lived by the hope that one day he would return.

John is suffering for what he has seen and heard and proclaimed. He is in exile ‘on the island of Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus’. He writes to his fellow believers as ‘I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus’.

The vision that he has of Jesus in verses 12-16 is very similar to the vision that Daniel has of a man in Daniel chapters 10-12. That man talks of how God’s people are going to be completely crushed before the end. It also points to a person called ‘the Son of Man’ in Daniel 7, who will be utterly broken before he is finally vindicated.

And the point of the book of Revelation, and the point of the vision that John is given, is to encourage Christians who are struggling – people who are struggling because they have remained faithful to God. The Psalmist describes the fact that the people of God are suffering in Ps 44. He writes, “All this happened to us, though we had not forgotten you or been false to your covenant .. for your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered” (Psalm 44:17,22).

And in Revelation God is saying to John and to us, ‘Look up. Look forward. See the bigger picture. Jesus Christ is who he said he was. He has conquered death. He died and rose from the dead. John knows. John was there. He is coming again. Every person will see him. And those who have mocked him, or who have used him, and who have mocked or used his people will weep. They will weep when they see what they have done.’

As a rule we do not, at the moment, face the sort of persecution that the Christians of John’s time, or the Christians of Orissa, or Iran or Colombia or North Korea face. We are in an unusual period for God’s people and we should not take it for granted. And for that we give great thanks.

And yet there are many people here who do or will face irrational opposition: sometimes from a partner, from a colleague, from a friend or employer. I remember Alan Redpath saying how, when he was in national service, his neighbour used to kneel beside his bed and pray each night. The other lads mocked him mercilessly. So did Alan. Until he too was so taken by his neighbours’ example that he surrendered his life to King Jesus. I remember reading about Adams, who said that when he went out drinking and smashed up a bar, they laughed with him and said he was being a lad. When he gave up drinking, and used to go into a church to sit and be quiet for a few minutes, they said he was mad. I think of the older teenager mocked, and even being caused to doubt themselves, because they have chosen to remain a virgin, or go to a bible study, or work as an unpaid volunteer, because they call Jesus Lord.

And there are also times when we seem to receive an unequal share of the general human lot of suffering: not specifically because we are Christians, but just because it seems that life has done the dirty on us. And that can also lead us to doubt and to anxiety – and sometimes to giving up.

But God is saying to us through John: Jesus is the ruler of human rulers. They may seem as if they are in charge. But they are not. That is why we pray. Don’t be afraid and don’t give up. Jesus was dead, but he is alive. He was the victim of irrational, demonic hatred. He has been there, and he has come through. It is worth it.

And God is saying to us ‘Jesus is the ruler of the kings of the earth’. They may seem scarily omnipotent. But they are not. There will be justice – justice for the oppressed and justice for those who oppress: for the drug barons, for the political leaders, for the religious leaders who incite hatred and murder. It will be His justice, not ours.

He may meet with us now in a very intimate way (John has this vision), but one day he will come again, and we will see him.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

What Jesus can do for you?

Jesus has met the Samaritan woman. He has spoken with her. And the conversation has led her to change her mind about Jesus
In verse 9, he is a Jew
In verse 19, he is a prophet
In verse 29, she is saying to the people in her home town, ‘Could this be the Messiah?’

Now the disciples return. They’ve been in town to get the supplies. And John writes,
“Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, “What do you want?” or “Why are you talking with her?” (John 4:27)

Those two unasked questions are answered in our passage.

1. What do you want? (or, ‘What do you seek?’)

What do we seek today?
Security, health, entertainment, respect, dignity, pleasure, wealth

[story of A: ‘I want some money’]

John sums it up in one word: ‘Food’.

The disciples assume – fairly reasonably – that the thing that Jesus is thinking about is his stomach, how to satisfy his physical desire. They assume that Jesus wants food. (John 4:31)

But Jesus turns it on its head
He says, ‘Yes, I do want food. But I am not seeking the physical stuff that we eat. I am seeking real food. And the real food is to do God’s work. “My food, is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work” (v34)

Physical food grows us, sustains us and satisfies us physically.
The real food grows us, sustains us and satisfies us at the level that really matters.

This is where Jesus in John’s gospel is so radical. He turns everything upside down.

We think that the physical food is what really matters. We think that Jesus is using it as a sort of illustration of spiritual food. But Jesus goes further than that. He is saying that the real food is the will of God, the word of God, himself. This stuff, the physical stuff, is just a shadow of the real stuff.

This is why the debates of former years about the nature of communion were so fruitless. The debate was whether the bread turned into the body of Jesus, because Jesus says, ‘For my flesh is real food and my drink is real drink’ (John 6:55)? The point is that Jesus is saying that he is the real food, and that when we eat bread and drink wine we are eating and drinking something that is a physical shadow of the real Jesus. So every time we find that we are physically hungry, it is a reminder that our real hunger is to do the will of God. And every time we eat and are physically satisfied, it is a reminder that our real satisfaction will come from doing the will of God, from receiving Jesus.

I hope that those of us who have received Jesus have found this to be true.
A feast can be satisfying and bring great joy
But doing the will of God; doing the right thing in the right place at the right time for the right reason is the most deeply satisfying, fulfilling and joy giving thing that we can ever do.

I hasten to add that does not mean it will be easy at the time. Jesus hanging on the cross was doing the work of God. He was doing the right thing in the right place at the right time for the right reason.

But Isaiah writes many years before the event of the event. And he writes (Isaiah 53:11) ‘Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied, by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.’

And the author to the Hebrews, writing after the event, says, ‘Jesus, who for the joy set before him endured the cross’ (Hebrews 12:2)

Doing the work of God may, at times, be very hard. But it is our real food, and it is worth it. It is what will ultimately satisfy.

In saying this, I am not suggesting that Jesus is saying that physical food is not necessary. Simply he is saying that if we seek true, real food (the work of God), the physical food – for as long as it is necessary – will follow.

We see God’s provision time after time in the Bible:
Manna in the wilderness
Elijah fed by the raven
The feeding of the 5000

Communion: we seek God, we seek Jesus and we receive physical bread.

2. And that leads us on to the second question that the disciples don’t ask Jesus: Why are you talking with her?

It was a question they could have asked because a Jewish man should not talk with a Samaritan woman. Nor vice versa. So the unspoken assumption is that Jesus was speaking with the woman because he wanted something from her: a drink of water

But Jesus was speaking to the woman not simply because he wanted some water (which is where the chapter begins), but because he had something to give her. He wanted to offer her LIFE. John 4:10, ‘If you knew the gift of God and who it is who asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water’.

He had come to do the work of God, and the work of God was to raise up a people who would reap a harvest: not any harvest, but the real harvest: the harvest of men and women who have been born again, who have received Jesus Christ the Son of God, who have received the Holy Spirit, who have become children of God.

And for us, to do the work of God involves sharing in this harvest: whether as sowers or as reapers.

This woman starts to share in this work of God: I love this. No one told her to. She had been on no evangelism course.

She runs home, she leaves the water jar behind, and she speaks a very simple message: ‘Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?’

She doesn’t tell everybody they’re wrong. She simply asks a question.

And although God will use each of our individual personalities, our message does not need to be that different:

a) Come and meet someone

b) Who died and rose from the dead, and is alive
who knows all about me (even the very very messy bits) and yet still loves me
who helped me to face up to the reality of myself and what I have done
who has changed my life
who offers forgiveness, the Holy Spirit and eternal life

c) Can this be the person we have been waiting for; the one who holds it all together; the missing central piece in the jigsaw; the one who gives meaning and purpose to life, the universe and everything?

So the two questions that they wanted to ask Jesus, but didn’t – and as John thought back he realised that Jesus had answered those questions.

What did he want? Jesus’ deepest desire was to do God’s will.

Why was he talking to a Samaritan woman? It was not just because he wanted something from her (water). He was talking to her because he loved her, because in three years time he was going to die for her, because he had the most precious gift to offer her and because she was part of that great gathering of harvesters who he had come to establish.

Not much has changed. What does he want? He still desires to do the will of God

Why is he speaking to you? Because he loves you, because he died for you, because he offers real life, real food, real water, and because he invites us to share in the joy of gathering in the real harvest.

"Nearly 200 years ago there were two Scottish brothers named John and David Livingstone. John had set his mind on making money and becoming wealthy, and he did. But under his name in an old edition of the "Encyclopaedia Britannica". John Livingstone is listed simply as "the brother of David Livingstone."

And who was David Livingstone? While John had dedicated himself to making money, David had knelt and prayed. Surrendering himself to Christ, he resolved, "I will place no value on anything I have or possess unless it is in relationship to the Kingdom of God." The inscription over his burial place in Westminster Abbey reads, "For thirty years his life was spent in an unwearied effort to evangelize."

On his 59th birthday David Livingstone wrote, "My Jesus, my King, my Life, my All; I again dedicate my whole self to Thee." [Illustration from]

Monday, 2 November 2009

A funeral address for Richard Spaul, 9 October

Richard Spaul
20 December 1940 - 29 September 2009

Today is immensely sad. We say goodbye (literally ‘God be with you’) to a man who was so special to all of us here, but particularly to you. And Sheila, Rachel, Jonathan and Philip; Michael and Joan, and the family – we do pray for you.

How does one speak of Richard?

Here was a man: a fully human person who lived life to the full. He was able, gifted and passionate. When he spoke, he conducted. He spoke with his whole body. There was no side to him. He was straight forward and direct, sometimes a bit too direct. He was a man of great integrity, someone who lived according to his convictions. I am not even sure if the word ‘compromise’ was in his dictionary.

Here was a man who loved this world: he was fascinated by it. He taught. He was the first to introduce computers into his school. He was a fellow of the British Interplanetary Society. He loved gardening. He loved cricket. He loved singing (more recently, St Peter’s music group and the St Edmundsbury Male Voice choir were so special to him – take this opportunity to say thank you to those of you who made it possible for him to go to Estonia with you). He loved trains: he was a member of the Trix Twin railway club. On one of his better last days, he was sitting up planning a railway journey. He loved drama: whether harvest supper musicals in the past, skits at parish weekends, Open the Book (Remember him starring in the role of Cinderella, with one line that he repeated over and over again, ‘Alright’). He was also practical, helping with the first reordering here at St Peter’s, cutting the grass here and doing DIY – mainly on his children’s houses (I understand): I think you owe mum something! He was a gifted administrator: secretary of St Peter’s for over 30 years, working as treasurer with Just Traid for 9 years, and as administrator of the Hyndman Centre for 6 years. He was also remarkably strong willed.

The Psalm we had read says, ‘What is man that you are mindful of him, the Son of Man that you care for him? You have made him a little lower than the heavenly realms, and crowned him with glory and honour’

And we celebrate Richard because he was a man who – with all his failings and because he was honest enough to recognise his failings – lived with his face turned to God. He, and I suspect that this gets to the heart of Richard, recognised that this world was God’s world, and that all that we have been given comes from God. He knew he was dependent on God for life, for forgiveness, for mercy and for strength. He held to the word of God. He set up, I believe, what was for a long time the only bible study group in the parish. He prayed: and by that I do not mean the self-centred stuff that most of us call prayer: ‘The God bless me and mine’ prayer; but the God-centred prayer: the ‘Your name be glorified; Your Kingdom come; Your will be done’ prayers. And he trusted God, and he went on trusting God – even when life got very very difficult. At the prayer meeting, when the church met to pray for Richard after we had heard that Richard’s cancer had returned and it was only a matter of time before he died, he was sitting at the back. He suddenly spoke up and he said, ‘I’m trusting in Jesus’.

‘What is Man’: when we look at Richard we can glimpse the glory of human beings, and through them the glory of God. It was Irenaeus who said: “The Glory of God is a human being fully alive with their face turned to God”

In Richard, we can see what a very ordinary flawed human being can become when they choose to turn to Jesus: someone who prays, who trusts and seeks to obey, who loves creation, who fights for what is right and fair, who sings, who plays, who works, who serves, who laughs, who dreams.

‘What is Man?’ When Pontius Pilate brings out Jesus just before Jesus is crucified, he says – ironically – ‘Here is THE man’. But for the first followers of Jesus Christ there was no irony there. They realised that Jesus Christ really was THE man.

In the Bible, we have a record of a letter written by one of the first Christians. We are not exactly sure who he was or where the people he was writing to were. But the writer of what is called ‘The Letter to the Hebrews’ looks at human beings, at the mess that we make of creation and of our lives and the lives of other people; and he looks at how we are subject to sin and death.

And he recognises that – even those who live the fullest of human lives - are pale shadows of ‘THE man’ spoken of in Psalm 8: ‘You have put all things under his feet’.

But he does not despair. Because he recognises that Jesus Christ is THAT man, sent by God, the one who lived THE fully authentic human life, even though it meant that at the age of 33 he was nailed naked and helpless to a cross.

But because he was the one who died in obedience to God his Father, and for all of us, that was not the end. Not even death could keep him down. He was THE man. Three days later he rose from the dead. And God has put all things under his feet. And he promises that all who put their trust him will one day become fully like him.

Although Richard died at a relatively young age, 68, and the last 2 years of his life were at times pretty grim, he really was incredibly blessed.

He was blessed because he was surrounded by a family who loved him. He saw his children and a child of each of his children.
He was blessed because he had turned to THE man, put his trust in THE man, and had begun to live an authentic human life
And – up to now I’ve been using the past tense for Richard, but now I am going to use the present – he is blessed because he is now with THE man.

And one day THE man will return. Yes it is picture language because it will be the end of history as we know it, and because it is beyond our imagination: ‘Eye has not seen; ear has not heard, nor the human mind conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.’ But when he returns, there will be a new creation: a new heaven and a new earth. His Kingdom will be established. And he will come with those who are with him, who love him, who are being made like him.

“Beloved we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2)

And that, for Richard and for ourselves, is our certain and unshakeable hope.

Glory, suffering, Greatness, service

Mark 10:35-45

In our Bible reading today,

James and John seek glory: "Grant us to sit, one at your right and one at your left, in your glory"
Jesus instead offers them suffering

And the disciples seek greatness
Jesus offers them service

James and John were two of three disciples closest to Jesus. Peter was the third.
• Jesus took Peter, James and John with him when he raised Jairus' daughter.
• He took Peter, James and John with him when he went up the mountain and was transfigured.
• And, after this, it was Peter, James and John who Jesus took with him when he prayed in the garden of Getsemane just before he was betrayed.

So if any of the disciples could assume that in the coming Kingdom they would be in the top places, it must have been James, John and Peter.

They were the ones closest to Jesus.
They were, it seemed, the inevitable - not successors of Jesus, because Jesus was always going to be around - but they were the inevitable right hand and left hand men.

What is it that makes us seek status and glory?

I suspect that it is the desire to be recognised as someone different, someone unique, someone special.
I wish to be different from the crowd because I am superior to the crowd.
The fact that everybody in the crowd is thinking that - causes some problems.

I like the story of the young woman who wanted to go to college, but her heart sank when she read the question on the application form that asked, "Are you a leader?" Being both honest and conscientious, she wrote, "No," and returned the application, expecting the worst. To her surprise, she received this letter from the college: "Dear Miss K: A study of the application forms reveals that this year our college will have 1,452 new leaders. We are accepting you because we feel it is imperative that they have at least one follower."

The point is that each of us is - to God - different, special, unique. I know that when we say everyone is special, it can mean nobody is special. But with God - because we are who we are, and where we are - it really is true. You are unique and special.
And it really does not depend upon where we are in relationship to other people. It does not depend upon our status in society. Just because we were not born into a royal family, or a fabulously wealthy family or just because we do not have the ability to be an Einstein or a Usain Bolt or an Obama it does not make us any the less a significant person.

I am getting to that seriously worrying age when someone who is younger than me could become prime minister next year.

But Jesus is saying to James and John and to us, 'It does not matter'. It does not make you any less a person. In the Kingdom of God the people who will be at the right hand and left hand of Jesus are not there because they are more spiritual or more godly or more intelligent or more able or more humble. They are not there because they have won the competition, because they have been awarded the trophy.

They are there because they are the people who God the Father has chosen will be there. (Mark 10:40)
And actually that makes them no different from you or me who are also where God our Father has chosen for us to be.

It is not where you are in society that matters, where you are in the pecking rank.
It is whether we are prepared to identify ourselves with Jesus.

And there are two ways that we are called to identify ourselves with Jesus

1. By going the way of suffering.

Jesus offers James and John not status, but suffering: 'Can you drink the cup that I drink?'

They don't realise it: but the cup that Jesus has to drink is not the bottle of champagne that will be given to him when the Kingdom comes. The cup that he has to drink is the cup of the wrath of God, the anger of God against human sin and rebellion against God.

The Old Testament talks many times of God pouring out his cup of anger on the people who reject him, who turn from him. The prophet Jeremiah says, "This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, said to me: "Take from my hand this cup filled with the wine of my wrath and make all the nations to whom I send you drink it." (Jeremiah 25:15)

It is a terrifying cup, and it was a cup that Jesus did not have to drink. But he chose to drink it, down to the last dreg - out of love for us. And because Jesus has drunk it, none of us need drink it.

And the baptism that Jesus has to suffer was the baptism of his death.

So Jesus says to James and John: You have asked me for something: status in the Kingdom of Heaven. The answer to your question is that it is not mine to give. I am now asking you something: “Are you prepared to suffer for others in the same way that I will suffer for others?”
And the second way that we are called to identify ourselves with Jesus is by
2. walking the way of service.

When the other disciples hear that James and John are asking for the top places in the Kingdom, they get very indignant: 'Who do they think they are? Why do they think that they are better than us? Why are they asking for the promotion? What right have they to push themselves forward?'

They too are playing the game of status, of one-upmanship, of 'I'm the King of the Castle'.

And Jesus says to them, "It is not a question of superiority. It is a question of service. It is not about where you are. It is about whether you are prepared to identify yourself with me.

"You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles Lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many".

The invitation is the invitation to serve as Jesus’ served.

And Jesus' service sets people free from sin: from the power of sin and from the consequences of sin. He gave his life as a ransom, because we were slaves to sin. We needed to be rescued, literally redeemed: that is bought for a price. And the price was his life.

So when we talk about Christian service, we are not talking about the sort of service which tries to make life simply more comfortable or convenient for someone else: in the way that we might serve a wealthy customer.

This is the sort of service that seeks to set people free from sin.

Obviously Jesus has done that, and Jesus alone has done that. There is nothing that we can add to his work. But we can share in the work that he has already done.

And we do that by our words and by our actions.

We speak: We tell others the good news that we do not need to be held captive by sin; that there is forgiveness and new life because of Jesus; that we can begin to change; that we who were enemies of God can become friends of God, can know God. And, yes, it is costly.

We are talking today about Passion 4 Life. That will cost. It will cost in terms of effort; in terms of putting our reputation on the line, in terms of giving

We live: Please do not underestimate the power of lives lived by people who are not seeking status but service. When everyone is trying to get to the top, the example of a life lived by someone who might get to the top but chooses to go to the bottom in order to set others free is incredibly powerful.

• I think of Henri Nouwen, a Harvard Professor, who - for Christ - gave up his chair in order to run a home to allow severely disabled people to live in the community.
• I think of the mum or dad who gives up the career they love in order to spend time at home nurturing and growing their children.
• I think of the man who gave up a major city job with a major city salary to work as a minister in Salford.

We are called to be people who serve others by setting them free from the desires of selfish ambition, of status seeking; of the desires to prove ourselves or make ourselves worthy - whether that is by what we do or where we are in society. "True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost."

It is costly, but it is also liberating. When you or I can make being crucified for someone else our ambition in life, when we can make what we give rather than what we can get our ambition, the rest of it - status, glory, superiority - becomes a joke.

To put it simply, what matters is not where we are in this world or the next. That is completely beyond our control.

What matters is what we do with what we do have. It is about how close we come to living Jesus' life, how close we come to identifying ourselves with him. Because if we are prepared to identify ourselves with him in his death, we will become like him in his resurrection power.

James and John were asked by Jesus if they could drink the cup that he would drink - and were told that it would not guarantee them the status that they desired. They said 'Yes'.
This James was one of the first Christians to be executed for his faith. This John, if tradition is right, died a natural death, but the last years of his life were lived in exile

You and I are asked by Jesus if we are willing to die to ourselves, to our selfish ambition and our desire for status and glory, and to take up our cross.
We are asked if we are prepared to serve others by setting them free from sin and the consequences of sin.
We are asked if we are ready to drink the cup that Jesus drank.

Please do not think that I am there. I am not. But I pray that we might be there. I pray that we might have the courage to say with James and John, ‘Yes, we are’

True power and true wisdom


1 Corinthians 1:18-25

What would you like to build your life on?

Money: have the wealth of a Bill Gates
Fame: have the celebrity of a Danny Minogue
Brain power: be as clever as a Stephen Hawkins
Political power: have the authority of a Barack Obama
Physical ability: run like a Usain Bolt

Or would you prefer to build your life on Jesus Christ, who got himself crucified.

It is obvious. You choose anyone but him.

They are successes in life
He is a failure

Perhaps you might say that he has not done that badly. We are here 2000 years later and someone is talking about him.
But in life he was poor, homeless, shamed, tortured and executed. He was the victim.

And not only that. He said that if anyone wished to follow him, they had to deny themselves, and to be prepared to be crucified for him.

The choice for us is whether we live our lives for power and wealth. Watched the X factor a couple of Saturdays ago, when the contestants went to the judges houses. There was a castle in Tuscany, luxury house in Hollywood and the hotel in Dubai. Do you want that or this?

And parents would be outraged if a school started to say to its pupils, we do not wish you to aspire to become like him (Obama), but to become like him.

And yet, our bible reading says that this is the ultimate demonstration of the wisdom of God and of the power of God.

The bible says that if we wish to build our lives on the most solid foundation, we need to build our lives by putting our trust in one who was crucified.

Paul writes, ‘We preach Christ crucified, .. Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God’ (1 Corinthians 1:22)

So why – on earth – should we build our lives on one who was crucified?


This is the way that God chooses to rescue human beings.

There is a difference between knowledge and wisdom, and the problem is that we focus on knowledge and we forget wisdom.

It was the mantra of certain religious groups: if you knew the secret knowledge you can be saved or save yourself.
It is the creed of society: The answer is ‘education, education, education’. You can save yourself through knowledge.

And of course education is vital. It really can transform lives; it can open doors; it can bring about social mobility; it can enable people to imagine new worlds.

But we cannot turn education or knowledge into god.

There are two kinds of learning:
There is a learning that leads to arrogance: which says, ‘We are masters of the universe. We can work it out’.

There is a learning that leads to wonder and humility: this world is bigger and far more amazing than I can possibly imagine.
And it leads us to the recognition that we are not masters of the universe: that if we can control 0.1% of natural forces, 99.9% of them are far far beyond us. It leads us to the recognition that we need God.

And it is that recognition which is the beginning of true wisdom.

And the wisdom of God invites us to put our ultimate trust – not in particular knowledge and not in a system of education – but in a person who hung on a cross.

And we trust the one who died on the cross:
Because his death on the cross shows that he loves us.

We die for what we believe is precious. People give their lives for what they think is important: a reputation, a career, a sport, a nation. A mother or father will give their life for their child.

Jesus Christ, the Son of God, chose to give his life for us, to die for you and for me

Because this is the way God has chosen to defeat sin and death.
This is the way that God has chosen to rescue us from the self-centred pride that divides us from other people, the jealousy that eats us up, the unforgiveness that twists us up, the fears and monsters who paralyse us, the sense of meaninglessness that stupefies us, the sin and rebellion that separates us from God, and from death which makes everything ultimately futile.

God chose to do it, not simply by sending his son into this world to be superman.

That is what we ask for: we say, ‘If God exists, why doesn’t he intervene and sort the world out’. But God chooses to do it by sending his Son to live among us and to die for us.

We cannot fully understand it. We do not need to understand it. We simply need to put our trust in the one who died for us.

It means that you are not going to be saved, you are not going to sort your life out, by right answers, by being clever or physically strong or rich or famous. You are not going to be saved by winning cups or trophies.

You are saved when you put your trust in someone who loved you enough to die for you.

This is good news. It is good news for people who win the prizes, because it says to them: ‘You don’t have to go on winning the prizes’. And it is good news for those of us who never win the prizes or become prefects or whatever: because it says, ‘It’s OK. You are beloved’.

God’s wisdom is this: however big you are, however little; however important or unimportant we think we are; however right or however wrong; however good, however bad; however much other people tell you that you are a success or tell you that you are a failure (I took the funeral of an elderly lady, called Miss Bishop. She had carried a memory with her for 90 years. Her mother had died, and father couldn’t cope with the children. So as a 6 year old girl on an August bank holiday she walked down the road to her grandmothers, with a baby in a trolley. She was lame in one leg. The grandmother said, ‘Oh I’ll have the baby. I won’t have her. She’s disabled. She won’t be any use’). It doesn’t matter what they say about you. Jesus died for you.

And God’s wisdom is that however much we mess up our lives; however deep the pit we find ourselves in; however dark it all is – we can put our trust in the one who did not mess up, but who went deeper and darker than anything we can face, because he loved us.

And he didn’t save us by zapping our enemies, and making life comfortable for us. He didn’t save us by teaching us a body of knowledge and then examining us in it. He saved us by identifying himself with us, by meeting with us, by coming alongside us and walking with us.


Jesus hanging on the Cross destroys sin and defeats death.

There are two kinds of cross that you can see.

One has Jesus on the Cross (crucifix): it tells me of the power of God because there was nothing that could stop Jesus going to the cross. He went there in obedience to God his Father and in love for human beings. Evil, Satan, Temptation, Circumstances tried to stop him, tried to make him turn back and disobey his Father God. They couldn’t.

The other is an empty Cross: that tells me of the victory that Jesus won on the Cross. If there was no power on earth that could stop Jesus going to the cross, this tells me that there was no power on earth that could keep Jesus on the Cross.

He rose from the dead.

And the death and resurrection of Jesus is the greatest power moment in the history of the creation.

If scientists are right, the old creation (this world and this universe) began in a moment of unbelievable power: a single blinding moment, which we call the big bang. But it became a creation that was ruled by sin and death.

But the new creation, God’s new world, also began in a moment of equally unbelievable power: when the Son of God gave his life for us and died for us on the cross.

And when a man, woman, girl, boy chooses to listen to Jesus, to live in the way he wants for us – even if it is to live in a way that we would not choose to do – ‘to die’ to ourselves and to live for him - we are born into this new creation, this new world. We become new people. And even though we continue to live in this world and we will die in this world – the person who is a new creation will have a life that not even death can destroy.

And when that happens we are building our lives on the most solid foundation that there is – that will stand firm in the face of success or failure; fame or shame; acceptance or rejection, tragedy or joy; life or death.

So yes, please do aspire to use your gifts and maybe you could become a future Hawkins, Bolt, Obama (Thatcher, Brown, Cameron). It would be great if future generations say of you: ‘She was at Wymondham college’. But do not let that desire ever control you. Do not let it control who you think you are, your values or what you think is your ultimate purpose.

Instead, may I urge each one of us to build our life by putting our trust in Jesus Christ, the Son of God who loves us, and who gave his life for us.