Saturday, 21 April 2012

The iLife or the godLife

I've had one of those weeks when I've decided that I don't really like myself.

Now please don't get too anxious. I'm not dropping into the self-loathing pit, the 'everybody hates me, nobody likes me, I'm going to go and eat worms' syndrome. That is one of the excuses that people give to avoid the claims of Christianity: "It is all about sin and feeling worthless". 

I had read something earlier written by St Augustine. He lived 1700 years ago, and he talks about this wish that we have, "to be feared and to be loved by men, for no reason but that from it there may come a joy that is yet no joy". In other words he is saying that we think that we will find joy and happiness when others 'fear' us (probably 'respect' would be more appropriate) or 'love' us. 

And the reason that I do loving and kind things is not because I am loving or kind, but because I want people to love me and respect me. I am really no better than the man or woman who does lousy things in order to get others to respect them or love them, or the person who couldn't care less what other people think of them, and so does nothing for anyone. And I don't like it, and I really don't like when it becomes very obvious to me (and probably obvious to others) that I am being driven by the motive to make others love me or respect me. I don't like it, and I don't like me.

You see whichever generation we are, there is a universal condition that we suffer from. It is called sin. It is when the I is the centre. There is an old word for sin, iniquity: it has 3 'i's' in it. We have iPads, iPhones, iPods, iTunes. They and we are driven by the iMotive.
So what is the answer?

Some might say: 'Why are you getting so worked up? There are other people who are far worse than you'
Others might say: 'I know the angst. Basically you either slit your throat or you blame them for putting unreasonable expectations on you'.
And yet others might say: 'It's OK to be iCentred. What's the problem. The world is about you.'

When we were on the march of witness on Good Friday, there was a mobile photo shop in the arc. It had this advert: 'The most important story ever told - yours', which I thought was quite ironic given that 600 people had gathered to celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

But actually the bible is far more helpful. Because I do not want to be told that I am OK when I know that I am not OK. I don't wish to be told that the strategies that I employ to make people love me and respect me are working, because it simply means I will carry on doing the same thing. I don't wish to be told that there are people who are worse than me, because all that is doing is making me look down on others.

And the reason that the bible is far more helpful is because it does not sweep the issue under the carpet. And I'm looking here specifically at 1 John 3:1-7

1. It shows us that there is a different way to live.

1 John 2:29: 'If you know that he is righteous .. '

There is a bit here about divine sovereignty and revelation. 
There are some who look at Jesus and think, 'Yes, everything about this man is right. Here is someone who does not live the iLife but the godLife and this really is the right way to live'. And there are some who are completely blind to Jesus, who do not, to use John's words, 'know Jesus'. 

And here we get our first encouragement.J ohn is saying that if we look at Jesus, and we realise that here is someone who is righteous, and someone who does righteous things, then we are on the road to discovering a new life. 

Now I am assuming that you know something about Jesus, that you know the story, or at least a bit of it. If you don't know about Jesus then I urge you to get to know about him. If you know a bit, then get to know some more. Many of us who come to church don't actually know the basic stories. Come to the Introducing Jesus course; ask a Christian friend to meet with you and go through one of the stories about Jesus in the bible. Learn about him. If there is nothing else, pick up one of your children's bibles and read the stories again. Visit Learn what he actually said, taught and did.

Jesus was righteous. Not just in what he did, but at his very heart. He did not do loving and kind things because he wanted people to love him or fear him. Jesus did loving and kind things because his heart beat and God's heart beat were one and the same. He was a human being just like you or me, but he was also filled with God. At the centre of Jesus was not Jesus, but an overwhelming assurance of being the Son of his loving Father God.

And John says in 2:29, 'If you know that he (Jesus) is righteous - if you know that he lived and he lives the really good life, the iDenying, God-centred, divinely-human life, and if you see someone beginning to live like that - then you know that they have been born of God'.
There really is a different way to live

2. The bible tells me that I can start again.

People get hung up about the phrase born-again Christian.
You don't need to. What it means is that these are people who have begun again.

The astonishing gift that God offers to each one of us is that we can begin again. We can quite literally die to our old way of life, and become a new person together with him.

That is what baptism symbolises: the old life is washed away - or, and it is much more dramatic when people are baptised by full immersion, you go down under the water, you die to your old self, and you to come up again as a new person.

Baptism, being born again, is for those people who have looked at Jesus and who know that they are lost, and can see the difference between the iLife and the godLife, and who so dislike themselves and the old life that they are prepared to die in order to come alive to a new life.

And the verse before our reading and the verse a couple after our reading talk of 'being born of God', being born again. Born not just of flesh and blood, but born of the Spirit of God.

And when we are born again, God takes out the old me centre of my life (elsewhere the bible talks about it as a heart of stone), and puts in its place a new God-centre for our lives. No longer do we need to be controlled by the iLife but by the new spiritLife, godLife.

3. The bible tells me that this new birth makes a real difference in our lives.

We will begin to change.

v6: 'No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him'.

Now this verse is not saying that a born again Christian is going to be perfect. John has already said in 1:8, 'If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us'.

But the key words in v6 are the words 'keep on' sinning. If a person has truly been born again then there will be change. That person will begin to become aware of what it really means to live a righteous life, a God-centred, Jesus-like life. They will begin to become aware of how far they fall short of that.

Many people speak of a growing awareness of their sinfulness as they grow as Christians.

So although I have decided that I do not like myself this week, I am actually quite encouraged. Because I think I am beginning to hate in myself what I should be hating in myself. And if you start to hate something that you are doing that you know is making you less like Jesus rather than more like Jesus; or if you find that you are saying sorry for something and then doing it again, and you hate it, then be encouraged. You are hating what is already dead in you. The Spirit is at work in you. Persist. Give it time. And there will be change.

I remember one older man, not here. He was a Christian, but he was very legalistic and quite judgemental. After all, he had survived and done OK, so why couldn't others? I did not even conceive of the possibility that he would change. And then he asked to see me. His son, who was a teacher, had been arrested and had been charged with the serial abuse of children (he was subsequently found guilty and sent to prison). I thought that would destroy any relationship the father had with his son, that he would never want to see him again. I thought that it would destroy him. But I was completely wrong. I spent quite a lot of time with him and his wife. And I saw an astonishing change. He hated what his son had done, but he still loved his son as a father. He wrote to his son, he visited his son and when his son came out of prison - and, as you will realise, his son was now a complete leper, an untouchable as far as society was concerned, they let him come and live with them. But what I found even more astonishing was that he never tried to justify his son, he never made excuses for his son but he still treated his son as his son. And I saw that man grow, at the age of 80 plus, in astonishing grace: not just toward his son, but towards others - a deep compassion for the victims of his son, along with a deep compassion for other victims and for other offenders, and for other sinners.

And this passage tells us that God will not finish working with us until we see his son Jesus face to face: 'What we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears [that is talking about the time when Jesus returns at the end of space and time as we know it, and there is the general resurrection of the dead] we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is'. (1 John 3:2)

CS Lewis reminds us of what we are to become. "It is a serious thing to ... remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship..." . (The Weight of Glory)

And he goes on to say, in Mere Christianity (p174f), "(God) said that we were “gods” [John 10:35] and He is going to make good His words. If we let Him - for we can prevent Him if we choose - He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a .. dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back to God perfectly (though, of course, on a smaller scale) His own boundless power and delight and goodness. The process will be long and in parts very painful; but that is what we are in for."

4. The bible tells us that if we are born again, if we have come to Jesus for this new life, we are deeply beloved children of God

One of the main reasons we try and get people to love and respect us is because we are always looking for that parent figure, that father, to say  to us, 'Well done".

But, even though I am, I do not need to be motivated by the desire to get others to love and respect me, because as someone who has died to myself and turned to God I am already deeply beloved by God. "See what kind of love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God" (1 John 3:1).

And remember what John wrote at the beginning of his gospel. He tells us at the beginning of his gospel why Jesus came: 'He came to his own people, but his own people did not receive him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave them the right to become children of God' (John 1:12)

If you have looked in at yourself and hate your iLife, and if you have looked at Jesus and seen his godLife, and if you have died to yourself and received Jesus, then you are a profoundly beloved child of God, a son of God or a daughter of God.

Jim Packer writes, "If you want to judge how well a person understands Christianity, find out how much they make of the thought of being God's child, and having God as their Father. If this is not the thought that prompts and controls their worship and prayers and their whole outlook on life, it means that they do not understand Christianity very well at all."

So yes, I decided that I did not like myself this week. But actually I also realised that that is rather a good thing. Perhaps I am actually being honest with myself. And it doesn't matter, because I do long to do the things of Jesus and to live like him and to be like him, and I have chosen to die to my old iLife (even though it keeps on pretending to be alive), and he is changing me, and he will make me like Jesus and I am a deeply profoundly beloved child of God. And I'll settle for that.

Sunday, 8 April 2012

The resurrection cross

In our service this evening, we've been hearing about the resurrection of Jesus in music and in words

I'd like to complete the trinity and add a reflection using two images of the cross.

They are both called resurrection crosses.

The first image is called the Japanese cross

This image is very simple but it speaks of horror. It is a wooden cross to remind us of the reality of the crucifixion, when Jesus was nailed to the tree.
And the shape of a person outlined on the cross?
It is like those crime films in which the shape of where the body fell is outlined on the floor. It was said that, after the horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, because of the immensity of the light and heat of the bomb, the only thing that was left of some people was their image burnt into the ground.
And this cross reminds us that Jesus knew suffering. He was crucified. He was there.

But the reason that I value this cross is because it also speaks of something much better. The shape of the person on the cross is a cut out shape. It is almost as if Jesus has cut through, has broken through the cross. Death could not hold him. And a door has been thrown open wide between this world and the world of ultimate reality.

It is a bit like 'Hole in the Wall'! Do you know the TV programme? Contestants have to make themselves into the shape of the hole in the wall, or else they will not get through. Well, in a way that is also true here. We can now know God, we can have a relationship with him, be intimate with him. The barrier between us and God has been smashed down. But, and there is a but, if we wish to go through this door, then we too need to be willing to become cross shaped.

The problem is that so many of us try to smash our way through that door, like a drunk man trying to break down a wall using his head; or we try to crucify ourselves for our own sins, to someone make recompense. This cross tells us that we can't and we don't need to. Because of the cross and the resurrection, Jesus has smashed through death, and all we need to do is to put our hand in his hand and allow him to lead us through the hole in the cross. It does mean that we will need to mould ourselves into his shape, but it is the way to life.

The second is simply called the resurrection cross. I came across it on the Barnabas in Churches website.

I find it beautiful.

1. This is an image of the risen Jesus, not the crucified Jesus
The image is in gold
Christ is wearing his robe
This is the Son of God who reigns. Here is the one before whom we bow.
I belong to a tradition which treasures intimacy with Jesus. Jesus is my brother and my friend. When I sit down to pray to my Father in heaven, he is the one who is seated next to me.
But he is also the eternal Son of God, the one who was in the beginning with God, the one who sustains all things by his powerful word, the one who will return as judge; the one before whom every knee shall bow.

2. Christ is pinned to the cross, but the cross does not hold him or restrain him. He is both tied inseparably to the cross, but also gloriously free.
And we cannot separate Jesus from the cross. The one who rose from the dead is the one who died on the cross. The cross is part of who he is at his very core. The resurrected body of Jesus carries the scars of the crucifixion - because they are scars of obedience, of ultimate trust in God and of love for God and for the people of God.
When we worship him, we will worship the lamb who was slain.

3. Jesus transforms the shape of the cross. He takes that which was a symbol of utter human cruelty and shamefulness and transforms it. And he can transform our shame, our sinfulness, our suffering into something that is quite glorious. (Apocryphal story of Paginini, who allows child to continue to plonk on the piano, but adds in the most glorious refrain). And one day he will take our frail human bodies, which are subject to sin and to death, and he will transform them so that they will be like his glorious body.

4. I draw attention to the shape of Jesus' hands. You can look at these in many ways. With one hand he blesses us, and with the other he blesses God. Or with one hand he receives the blessing of God and with the other he passes it on to us.
Or perhaps you can see his hands forming a scooping movement. With one hand he scoops us up and with the other he brings us to God. And Jesus opens up for us a completely new dimension. The cross is rigid and square. The arms of Jesus begin a circle which point us not simply outwards or upwards but upwards and outwards at the same time.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

A talk for Easter day - God's grammar

Mark 16:1-8
This could be an adult talk, but if telling it with children, you will need four sheets of card, with a full stop on one, a question mark, an exclamation mark and an ellipsis on the others. Invite children to stand/sit at front and hold up cards at the right moment. You may also wish to hand out stones or pebbles to people during the talk.
Easter day begins with a full stop (period) .
It really did seem that Good Friday had brought the story of Jesus to an end. Jesus was dead. His body had been taken down from the cross. It had been laid in a tomb, and a large stone had been put in front of the tomb.
I like the story of the homeless man who kept coming to a vicar to ask for money. Each time he told the vicar that he was dying of some incurable disease. Each time the vicar gave him some money. Each time the man miraculously recovered and came back with a request for more money and another incurable disease. Each time he said he was as good as dead, and each time he came back. Well, one day the man did die of an incurable disease – known as walking drunkenly in front of a bus. There was nobody to give instructions, so the undertaker asked the vicar what sort of stone they should put on the grave of the man. The poor vicar replied, ‘I really don’t mind what stone you put over his grave, but I don’t want him coming back. Please make it very very heavy’.
Well the stone put over the grave of Jesus was very heavy. It really was the full stop to the story of Jesus.
All the disciples had hoped for Jesus, all the dreams the people had for Jesus and what he could do for them – they came to a very public and very brutal full stop.
Would the children to hand out these stones? There should be a stone for every person here. I’d like you to hold your stone, and I would like you to imagine that this is your full stop. This is the barrier which you are facing which you know you will never get past. It may be grief, it may be sickness, it may be the constant frustration of your dreams, it may be a besetting sin that you hate and you long to be free of. It may simply be death. This stone is that full stop
But our story in Mark continues with a ?
The women are coming to the tomb. They wish to show their respect to the dead Jesus by anointing his body for burial. There had been no time on Friday, and they had not been able to do anything on the Saturday, because that was the Sabbath. So now on Sunday morning they are coming to the tomb.
And they are asking a question, ‘Who will move the stone?’ They know that the full stop is a full stop. Jesus is dead. All they simply want to do is to move the full stop, just a little, so that they can get closer to the past, closer to the hopes and dreams they once had, closer to the one they had loved.
So often we simply want to move the full stop a little: And so we ask, ‘Who can help us move the full stop a little? Who can help me live my dreams, if only a little? Who can give me if not full life and full love, a little life and a little love? Who can prolong my life here – maybe for 5 years/10 years?’
It is the ? that the women are asking
But they get more than they bargain for.
When they get to the tomb, they find that the stone has already been rolled away. They go into the tomb, and they see a young man dressed in a white robe.
And the ? becomes an !
They are alarmed.
And it becomes scarier. The young man tells them to look around the tomb. ‘Look’, he says, ‘That is where they laid Jesus. He is not here. He has risen. Now go and tell the disciples to go to Galilee. There they will meet him.’
The women were alarmed. Now they are trembling and the word in my bible says bewildered – but it is more than that. It is the word that means deeply deeply agitated. It is the Greek word ‘ekstasis’, from which we get our word ‘ecstasy’. They were out of themselves, blown away. Mark only uses the word on one other occasion, to describe the reaction of Jairus when Jesus brings his daughter back from the dead. And Mark’s gospel almost certainly ends with the words of verse 8: ‘they said nothing to anyone because they were afraid’. And again, the word that Mark uses for afraid is a word that he used to describe the reactions of the disciples when Jesus calmed the storm, when he healed the demon possessed man called Legion and when he walked on water. It is the fear that comes when you know that you are standing in the presence of God.
I quote from RH Lightfoot’s commentary on Mark. “I desire to suggest, in conclusion, that it may be exceptionally difficult for the present generation (and he wrote in 1949) to sympathize with St. Mark's insistence on fear and amazement as the first and inevitable and, up to a point, right result of revelation. One of the most obvious and disturbing phenomena in the religious life … has been the disappearance of the awe or dread or holy fear of God. We of the present older generation are not afraid, as our parents and grandparents always were afraid. It is not a marked feature of religious life today that we work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, Philippians 2:12 (it is the same word that Mark uses for the women), or that we offer service well-pleasing to God with godly fear and awe, Hebrews 12:28, or that we order our lives, whilst we live here, in reverent fear, 1 Peter 1:17”.
The women came to anoint a dead Jesus behind a solid full stop. They get far more than they bargained.
And so to my final punctuation.
Mark’s gospel finishes with an !
But if we put the dot of the full stop, and the dot of the question mark and the dot of the exclamation mark together, we get
which, I am told, is an ellipsis. It means that there is so much more to come.
What we thought was a full stop is just the beginning.
The women do tell the disciples. We know that from the other gospels
The disciples do go to Galilee, and they meet Jesus.
And you and I: well look at the stone. Jesus doesn’t remove our stones, but he transforms them. Instead of being full stops, they become openings to something that is new.
The death of our dreams and hopes can be the beginning of a new dream and a new hope: God’s dream and God’s hope for you.
Our own suffering and pain can open up new ways of knowing God and new ways of loving other people.
Our own death becomes the way that we let go of this body of flesh and draw closer to the God who loves us
The death of Jesus means we are forgiven and we can know God.
So take your stone home. Put it on top of the fridge near to the palm cross. Remind yourself that for Jesus the full stop of death was only the beginning of his resurrection to life; that the stone in front of the tomb was rolled away, and that what you think is a full stop is, in fact, just the beginning of an ellipsis, of a new way of life with the risen Lord Jesus.
(This talk is a development of an idea from Barnabas in Churches:

Thursday, 5 April 2012

My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?

Matthew 27:45-56

It is now 3 o'clock in the afternoon. After the initial activity following the crucifixion, there has been three hours of darkness and silence. And now we come to the final moments of the life of Jesus.

I am going to focus on the last cry of Jesus: 'Eli, Eli, lema sabbachthani'.

The people there didn't understand. They thought that Jesus was calling Elijah.

Elijah is one of the great figures in the Old Testament. He was a prophet. And Jews believed that at the very end of time and history as we know it, as God brings in his kingdom, so Elijah would return. So when the people hear Jesus saying, ‘Eli, Eli ..’ they think that he is calling Elijah; they think that he is saying that history as we know it is coming to an end. That is why they offer him wine vinegar: it is pretty unpleasant, but it is a sedative. They think that he is going out of his mind. Most people did when they were crucified. And then they joke: ‘Leave him alone, let’s see if Elijah comes’. After all, why should the destiny of the world hang on the crucifixion of this one man?

But they had misunderstood the words.
Matthew helps us here. He translates the Aramaic words for us: ‘My God, my God why have you forsaken me?’

In other words, this is not a cry for Elijah, but a cry of abandonment.

Jesus uses words that King David used many centuries earlier: when he was in pain, when it seemed that his enemies had overwhelmed him, that he was crushed and there was no hope.

Jesus uses the same words, but for him they come not out of a feeling of abandonment, but out of the dreadful reality of abandonment. For David it seemed as if he had been abandoned by God. Jesus was abandoned by God in a way that no other human being has been abandoned by God. God the Father not only turned his face away from God the Son, but he literally abandoned him. At the very heart of the eternal love of the unchanging Trinity, there is a moment of utter separation. Hence the darkness: there was no light. Hence the cry: 'My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?'

I suspect that Jesus knew the answer.

When he was in the garden he chose to accept the cross. And he knew that it was only his death that could establish a new covenant (agreement) between God and human beings. Because Jesus was abandoned the human race need never again be separated from God by sin. That is why, immediately after Jesus dies, the curtain in the temple, that separated God from the people, is torn in two and the tombs are opened. There is now access to God and resurrection. Or to put this another way, because Jesus was abandoned, God will never abandon his people.

The following was written by Jim Smith, for the CMS, in 2000. It describes what Jesus is saying to the people who are looking at him.

"You’re looking at my wounds, my pain.
I’m looking at yours.
You’re looking at the damage to my body.
I’m looking at the damage to yours.
You’re thinking of the agony in my heart.
I’m thinking of yours.
You’re thinking of the destruction of my hopes.
I’m thinking of the destruction of yours.
You’re thinking ‘How will he face death?’
I’m thinking ‘How will you face yours?’
You say, ‘How can God let this happen?’
I say, ‘Why shouldn’t he? He loves you.’"

Why did God forsake Jesus? For the sake of you and me.

My niece asked yesterday, 'Why is it called Good Friday'? She has a good question. What is good about remembering a man crucified on a cross and abandoned by God?

The answer has to be that because of that Friday, our sins have been forgiven, we can now have intimacy with God and we have the hope of eternal life.

And yet, even though we have this hope, we do still feel abandoned.
We know what it is like to feel abandoned by other people: friends, colleagues, brothers or sisters, parents and partners. Many of us know that sense of abandonment which comes when someone who is part of us dies. And many of us, who have known God, who have turned to him and received him, know at times the experience of abandonment by God.

And at those times David's prayer, Jesus' prayer becomes our prayer. 'My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?'

And so for instance, I would love to be able to say that every believer as they die, especially if they die in pain, will experience the presence of God, will experience the good shepherd who walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death. I would love to say that even if getting to heaven may not be easy, at least we will know that the one to whom we are going is with us. That certainly has been the experience of many martyrs who have died in dreadful pain, of many saints and of many very ordinary men and women.

But it is not always true. There are some who have been faithful followers of the Lord Jesus who seem to die without an awareness of God, with that sense of final desolation and abandonment.

But you need to know that if that is going to be our destiny, even then we are not on our own.

Jesus too knew what it felt like to be abandoned by God (in his case, he really was; in our case, we just feel it!)

But even in that moment of abandonment, Jesus does not abandon God. He still cries out to God. He becomes the ultimate righteous man: the one who continues to trust in God when the God he trusts in has walked away. God may have let him go, but he is not going to let God go.

Jesus had once told a story about a woman who persisted in going to a judge to get justice. The judge was too lazy to do anything, but because the woman persisted, in the end he gave her justice. Jesus told that story to encourage us to persist in praying even when our prayers are not answered. He finishes that story by saying, 'But will the Son of Man when he comes, find faith on earth?' In other words, will people keep on praying even when it seems that God is silent.

Jesus lives out his story. He holds on to God. He clings to God with, as Spurgeon once said in a brilliant sermon on this passage (, both hands: one hand crying out from the cross, 'My God', and the other hand crying out from the cross, 'My God'. The cross held Jesus. But Jesus still holds on to God. He clings to God, even though God has abandoned him, in the darkest moment of his life.

But of course those words are not the end of the story. The end of this story is the beginning of a much bigger story. Jesus had not gone mad. History does rotate around this moment when the Son of God dies on the cross. But Jesus did not need to call Elijah from the cross, because Elijah had already come - in the person of John the Baptist. So this story ends not with the abandonment, but with the curtain in the temple being torn in two, the dead being raised, and the centurion declaring, 'Truly this was the Son of God'. And that is the beginning of another story. It is the story of resurrection, of joy, of a new creation. It is the story of the coming kingdom of God. It is the story that we will celebrate on Easter morning.