Friday, 26 April 2013

Three gospel shaped values: truthfulness, graciousness, faithfulness

He writes about 10 words that sum up management.

One of those words is ‘values’. He argues that if any organisation is going to work well, then those who work for it need to have shared values.

So he got everyone together, from all levels of the company, so that they could come up with the sort of values that they considered important.

No one tries harder for customers’:
Understand customers better than anyone.
Be energetic, be innovative and be first for customers.
Use our strengths to deliver unbeatable value to our customers.
Look after our people so that they can look after our customers.

Treat people how we like to be treated’:
All retailers, there’s one team . . . The Tesco Team.
Trust and respect each other.
Strive to do our very best.
Give support to each other and praise more than criticise.
Ask more than tell and share knowledge so that it can be used.
Enjoy work, celebrate success and learn from experience.

They are good values. Many of them come from the bible. Whether they are put into practice, I leave for you to decide!

But it did get me thinking.

What are our values – and where do our values come from?

I mean if anybody should do values, it should be us.

We think of the many lists of values that we find in the New Testament:

For instance Colossians 3:12ff, ‘Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other .. and above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.’

Paul is saying: be kind, be humble, think more of the other than yourself, be patient with each other, forgive one another, and show love.

And just as Tesco values flow from the business of Tesco: selling branflakes and toasters; so Christian values flow from what Christians are all about: the proclaiming of the message of Jesus Christ.  

We see that in our verses from 1 Corinthians 15.

Paul first reminds us what the gospel message is:
‘Now I would remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand and by which you are being saved  ..  that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures and that he appeared ...’

 We are gospel churches. We are in the business of proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ. Our task is to declare the message that Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God, who lived among us as a human being. It is to proclaim the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the reality of God’s love, judgement and forgiveness, the coming kingdom of God and the defeat of death. It is to announce that, for those who put their trust in him, there is the possibility of changing lives and hearts now so that we can begin to love God and love our neighbour.

This is the business of the church. And it seems to me that there are three values which flow from our business.

1. Truth
We need to be people who speak the truth.

The gospel is about truth – a truth that had been transmitted to Paul by the people who were actually there with Jesus, who saw what he did and who witnessed his crucifixion and resurrection.

And Paul stresses the truth of what he passes on. Yes, it is unbelievable, but the risen Jesus appeared to Peter, to the 12, to 500 and to James. And Paul says, writing about 15 years after the events, ‘most of these people are still alive’. You can ask them.

And later, in 1 Corinthians 15:15, Paul writes that if Christ is not raised from the dead, ‘we are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is not true that the dead are not raised.’

We are people who proclaim a gospel that is true, based on what people actually saw.

We do not need to be scared of the truth.

And if we proclaim a gospel that is true, we must be people of truth. Ephesians 6 speaks of the armour of the Christian: the first piece of equipment is ‘the belt of truth’. (Ephesians 6:14).

We need to be honest about ourselves. We need integrity. That is what being ‘pure in heart’ is. It is about being sincere (literally, from the Latin, ‘without wax’ – the custom of Roman sculptures to use wax to repair part of sculpture that has gone wrong).

It does not mean that we need to be right or perfect. It does not mean that we always need to make the right decisions. Far from it. It means that we need to be honest with ourselves about ourselves – the reality of our failure, our weakness, our disappointments.

That is why the bedrock prayer that I pray is the prayer, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner’.
If you are looking for a perfect minister, I am not your man. John Stott was once introduced to an audience in particularly glowing terms. He was reputed to have said, ‘Thank you for that, but if you could look into my heart, you would want to spit in my face’.  

We need to be honest about the church: the encouragements and discouragements. The fact that our electoral roll is now less than it was in 2007, although the total figure for all our congregations is about the same size. But equally the fact that people’s giving has increased significantly since then, and that our giving away has increased significantly.
It is when we face up to the facts that we can begin to analyse what is going on and use some of our God given wisdom to work out how we should go forward.

We need to be honest about the answers to prayer that we have seen – for people who have become Christians, for new initiatives, for financial provision, for people considering taking another step in their Christian faith, for those times when God has spoken to us very clearly, for healings and wonderful deliverances.
But we also need to be honest about the long periods when God seems absent, or when our prayers never seem to be answered. The previous pope spoke, before his retirement, about how, at times, he really did wonder what God was doing.  Some people might question that: he is undermining faith in God. But I don’t think so: he is not saying that God is not there. He is simply saying that we don’t understand the ways of God – and that is true.

I’m not suggesting that we splurge out our doubts – because the only thing I do when I speak of my doubts is to tell others that I have doubts.

And we need to be truthful with each other. ‘Speak the truth in love’ (Ephesians 4:15) – in other words we speak what is true to another in order to build them up and not to destroy them, to help them grow into the person God calls them to be. We need to put away falsehood, and speak the truth because, says Paul, we are members of one another (Ephesians 4:25).
Someone told me this week how much I had hurt them and that they felt let down. They told me in love – but it was still painful. Painful for me and painful for them.  But it was right. I needed to know.

The reason why truthfulness has to be one of our core values is because we are God’s heralds. God is absolutely true – there is nothing false, nothing two-faced. He is completely reliable. If he says something he will keep his word. But also, we need to be truthful because the gospel is true.

And if we are to be gospel – good news – people, then we need to speak the truth.

I am conscious, having spoken all of this, that most of us, and I include myself in this, tell lies. We tell lies, usually little lies, because we get scared of what will happen, or what people will think of us, if the truth is told. And so if, as I’ve been speaking, you have become conscious of lies that we have told or that we know that we are living, we really do need to seek God’s strength to be truthful, even if it means saying sorry and facing some of the consequences.

But don’t try to do this on your own. You can’t. As you come to communion later, ask God for his Holy Spirit to be poured into your hearts. He is the Holy Spirit of love and love, we are told, ‘rejoices with the truth’ (1 Corinthians 13:6).

The gospel of Jesus Christ is based on the truth that he really lived and he died and rose again from the dead.

That is one of the reasons why truth is important in a church whose business is the gospel.

2. Grace
The gospel is all about grace.

We see that here: ‘by the grace of God I am what I am’ (1 Cor 15:10)

Many people think that in order to become a Christian, we need to clean up our life and then invite Jesus in. In other words, we need to become a little bit righteous and then God will come in and do the rest in us.

But that is not how it was with Paul. He was in a bad place. He hated Jesus Christ; he persecuted Christ-followers. And it was while he was on his way to put some of them into prison that God appeared to him.

He was dead to God and God gave him life.
He was blind to God and God opened his eyes.

And God called Paul to be his preacher, to take the message to all nations, because God wanted someone who knew here that it is all about grace. It is all about God giving us what we do not deserve.

We are people who are saved by grace, and we are therefore called to live by grace.
We are not here by merit. We are here by gift.

So I would hope that grace and graciousness would be a significant value in a church whose business is the gospel.

Graciousness welcomes all people. It does not say, ‘You are only welcome if you fit in, if you are up to the grade, if you become like one of us’.

James, in his letter, tells us that we are to treat every person who walks into our meetings in the same way. We are not to give preferential treatment to the one who is wealthy, or ask the one who is obviously poor to sit at the back.

Graciousness kisses Mary. Mary was a lady in the church that John Pearce was vicar of in Hackney. She was a bag lady, and she was called by the local children, not without reason, ‘Smelly Nelly’. She stank.

Mary would occasionally turn up at church and sit in the back pew. I would say, ‘hello Mary’ but move on quite fast.  I remember on one occasion I came into church and saw Mary. She smelt of urine and she looked bad; her skin on her face was blotchy and scabby. I said ‘hello’ and walked on. But then I saw Annette come into church. She saw Mary, went straight up to her and said ‘Mary how lovely to see you’, and then she bent down and kissed her on the cheek. Graciousness kisses Mary.

And we need open doors. One of my pet hates are churches with closed doors, particularly when a service is going on. My father tells of a service he visited last year in Afghanistan. It was in an upper room and they did lock the door. It was a bit scary. But we are not in Afghanistan. We are in Bury St Edmunds! When we shut the doors, we are living as pre-Pentecost Christians: the disciples knew that Jesus was alive but still locked the doors because they were afraid. We usually close our church doors to keep the heat in, but I wonder also whether there is a little bit of the desire to keep disruption out!

A couple of weeks ago I was at the back of St Peter’s when the inner doors opened wide – they were blown by the wind. The poor warden didn’t know what to do did and shut the outer door. He whispered to me as he went past, ‘I hate shutting the door’. But I think that there is a little parable there. If we are to prepared to allow the the wind of the Spirit to blow, we need to open the doors of our lives – and if the Spirit does blow there will be no doors that can keep him out.

Graciousness allows other people to fail because it realises that we ourselves have failed. If a person messes up – well, we are no different. We have messed up. Mercy has been shown to us – we show that mercy to others. We have been accepted even though we are quite clearly not acceptable. We therefore accept others, whoever they are.

Graciousness helps another person when they are in need. A person is coughing during the anthem: we don’t tut, turn round and stare at them, but we get up and bring them a glass of water. And graciousness bears with children running around and making a noise in the church. I know that children need to learn that some places are special and need to be treated differently, but they are not there yet (and nor are their parents).  Graciousness does not mean we don’t say anything and then grumble. Graciousness means that we do say something, but we do it with gentleness.

And graciousness welcomes those who we (or others) define as sinners. I’ve said this before: I long to see gay couples in our churches. It is one of my deepest regrets that a couple living in a gay relationship felt that they had to leave our churches. I fear that people hear about the very strong stand we take on marriage here and run a mile. Now please do not get me wrong. I do believe that the place for sexual intimacy is exclusively in marriage between man and woman, and I will teach that in the appropriate place, but I do not think we should make it a condition for people walking in through the door. I guess we need to have the attitude of a parent whose child is in a sexually active gay relationship. We may be upset; we may not approve, but our child remains our child and is still always welcome at home. I long that our churches are places which are welcoming to all.

I do appreciate that it is very hard to get the right balance between grace and truth. Jesus Christ managed to hold the two together; he was full of grace and truth. But we struggle. We find churches that are big on truth and not very big on grace. We find churches that are big on grace but have very little idea of what they stand for. My prayer is that we will grow in grace and truth.

The more we realise just how sinful we are, and the extent of God’s love in sending Christ to die for me; the more that we can say with Paul that I am the worst of sinners, but am also forgiven; the more I realise how little I deserve the Holy Spirit and the hope of resurrection, the more I can be gracious to others.

That is why a church whose business is the gospel will value graciousness.

3. Faithfulness

Truth, grace and faithfulness.

Faithfulness in believing (1 Corinthians 15:2): we are called to hold firm to the message about Jesus Christ

But also faithfulness to God and faithfulness to others in what we do.

Paul states that it is the grace of God which took him, a persecutor of the church, and made him into someone who worked hard – really hard – for God and for people, in being a preacher of the gospel. He says, ‘I worked harder than all of them – yet not I, but the grace of God that was within me’ (1 Corinthians 15:10).

 2 Corinthians 4:13-15, “Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, “I believed, and so I spoke”, we also believe, and so we also speak, knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence. For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.”

The message of the gospel is good news.

The more that we realise what good news it is, the harder that we will work to proclaim it.

Branflakes and toasters are great. I have my branflakes and sultanas every morning. And I love my toast and marmalade. If I’m selling branflakes and microwaves, then my values will be shaped by what I am doing. I will wish to give people the best service at the cheapest price. And because a happy workforce is a good workforce I will strive to make them happy. And I will work hard, because that will increase the profits, and I can pay the shareholders more, the employees more and myself more.

But we are not in the business of selling branflakes and toasters.

We have something so much more precious to proclaim. It is about Jesus Christ who loved us and gave his life for us; it is about the one from whom and for whom everything exists (it is all gift from God, and ultimately it is all for the glory of God); it is about the restoring of a relationship with God, that you can know God as your friend; it is about forgiveness and peace; it is about how God can take the absolute worst and transform them/us into his son or daughter, sharing in his very nature, a citizen of the kingdom of God and an heir of heaven; it is about resurrection.

It is as if we have been given a rich source of precious jewels. Each of them is worth millions. And the owner, who has given them to us, has told us – in turn - to give them away completely free of charge. All we need to do is to come out of ourselves and to go up to people and say, ‘Would you like it?’

Many will say ‘No. I don’t need it’. Some will look at us and say, ‘This is too good to be true. It can’t be real’.  Others, who are to trying to sell fake diamonds at extortionate prices, will hate us. But there are some who will receive what we are offering. There will be joy for them and joy for us.

The more that we come to realise just how wonderful the One is who has given us this message, who has given us Jesus, and the more we realise just how wonderful it is, the harder we will choose to work. We will be faithful to the one who loves us, called us, saved us and is glorifying us.

My prayer is that we will be a church whose business is the gospel – and as a result, that we will be marked with these three simple values: truthfulness, graciousness and faithfulness.  

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Reflections on Psalm 23

Psalm 23

This is the most well known Psalm

It has been set to many musical settings: Crimond, The King of Love, The Lord's my shepherd (Townend), Brother James' air, Stanford – to name but a few.

It is a psalm that I use when I sit beside the bed of people when they are ill or even dying.
It is a psalm that is often used at funerals.
But it is also a psalm that people use to express their confidence and trust in God.

It is profoundly personal.

God has commanded the rulers and prophets of Israel to be good shepherds of Israel; but here David, who has been brought up as a shepherd, takes the illustration a step further and declares that the LORD himself is the shepherd of Israel [but note Gen 48:15, where Joseph calls God 'my shepherd'].

And David goes even further. He calls God ‘my shepherd’.  

And because David can call God shepherd, he makes four statements about himself.

1. 'I shall not want'

God will give you everything that you need for the eternal well-being of your soul.

He will give you rest, food, protection, guidance

'He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters'.

He makes me lie down. I was speaking to someone in hospital who told me that becoming ill was the only way God was going to get him to stop being frantic and make him look up.

We think that being busy is the sign of a worthwhile life. Being busy is actually a sign that sometimes we are not prepared to face up to the emptiness in or meaninglessness of our life.

There was an article in the New York Times, 'Busyness serves as a kind of … hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day …. [We're] busy because of [our] own ambition or drive or anxiety, because [we're] addicted to busyness and dread what [we] might have to face in its absence.'

There are times when God strips us of activity and busyness, when he makes us rest and - if we let him - he can help us to face up to who we are, and who he is.

The Bury Free Press had a report this week of a lady who was stuck in the lift for a night. I came across another story of a nun who was stuck in a lift for 4 nights and 3 days. No, this isn't the beginning of a joke! She had with her some water and some celery sticks - she'd been taking them up to her room for the night. When she realised she was stuck, she said she had a decision to make: she could either panic, or she could accept what had happened to her as a gift from God: a gift of space and time to be with him. So she treated it as a prayer retreat.

My divine shepherd, says David, gives me everything that I need for the eternal well-being of my soul.

He provides us with pasture: food to eat and water.

I was listening to some talks by Bill Hybels about simplifying your life. He was saying that one of the greatest destroyers of a living and joyful faith is lack of contentment with what God has given us. We always want more. And as a result we overstretch ourselves. We go into debt. And we lose peace and we lose rest.

The problem is not the lack of God's provision for us. The problem is that we are not prepared to trust him that what we have is sufficient for our needs. And we need to trust him when he takes us through the more barren pastures, knowing that he will lead us in time to the richer pastures.

Our shepherd will provide us with what we need: but we need to be prepared to trust him as our shepherd – even in the difficult times.

And our shepherd guides us; he shows us the way to go, how to live: 'He leads me in paths of righteousness'. If we listen to him, if we trust him – then he will guide us in the right way to live.

Do you have a decision to make? Look at what his word says – what are the general principals. Are you being disobedient? But if it still seems OK - pray, find out more, push doors. Let him be the one who guides you.

God will give you everything that you need for the eternal well-being of your soul and so that you live to honour him. That is why, if we are prepared to call God our shepherd, we will lack nothing. We may not have everything that we want, but we will have everything that we need.

2. ‘I will fear no evil’

I don't know what particular dark valleys you are walking through.

But I do know that all of us will go through incredibly dark places: illness or bereavement; maybe you are being bullied, you are confused, struggling because you feel trapped in a wrong crowd, threatened and out of your depth or in a wrong friendship and you see no hope; perhaps you are wrestling with pain from the past, with your identity or sexuality. Or maybe you had great dreams of what you were going to do - maybe even for God - but wrong expectations, the reality of life and your own failure has crushed those dreams. Maybe you are broken hearted, or battling with loneliness, or crushed: you've let down other people and you've let down yourself.

Or maybe, like our psalmist, you are facing the greatest darkness - the shadow of death.

The one who knows God as their shepherd does not need to fear the dark valleys. Psalm 23 speaks of his comfort: his rod and his staff.

The rod, they say, is more a club for bashing the enemies on the head. When the wolf comes, the shepherd clubs him.
The staff is the shepherd's crook. It is for pulling back the frightened scattering sheep.

So the monster comes for us. We panic and freeze or we panic and run. But God our shepherd pulls us back or moves us on - and he knocks out the beast.

Trust him. There are times in our life when we face things that are bigger than us, things that we cannot overcome or understand. God asks us to simply trust him. We're not going through them on our own. He is there. He will keep us on the right path with his staff; and he will overcome the enemy with his rod.

There are some famous lines from Aeschylus, the Greek playwright, "Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God."

3.  ‘My cup overflows’

David now changes his illustration. He has spoken of God as shepherd; He now speaks of God as gracious host.

God is the master chef who has invited you into his home as an honoured guest.

And David speaks how God has prepared a table, a banquet for him. It is as if he has come into the entrance hall. His host has welcomed him, and his coat is being taken. There is a wonderful smell coming from the kitchen. And just through the open door into the dining room, he can see the most amazing spread on the table.

And our host has not simply prepared a meal for us. He brings out some oil and he anoints, not our hands, but our head. That would be odd today, but then it was a sign of real honour. Kings were anointed with oil - it was a mark of being chosen by God and appointed for a task.

And when people are confirmed in our Church, oil is placed on their head. It is a way of saying to each candidate that you are incredibly special; that you are anointed for a purpose.

And God does all of this in the presence of our enemies: of those who say, 'You'll never get in there. You're not worthy enough. You're not clever enough. You're not good enough'.

And so David says, ‘My cup overflows’.

God, you see, takes your cup and fills it with a life-giving drink.

You ask him, 'What is in here?'

He replies, 'This cup is overflowing with mercy. Your enemy was right when she said that you don't deserve to be here - that you are not good enough or clever enough or successful enough or strong enough or famous enough. But she was wrong, because I don't let in people who think that they are good enough, clever enough, successful enough, strong enough or famous enough. I only let in people who come to me, who know that they need me and who are prepared to trust me as their shepherd.

But to those who do come to me, I give this cup. It is a cup full of mercy, forgiveness, acceptance and peace.

But there is a second ingredient. It overflows with goodness. There are so many flavours to goodness: beauty, contentment, fulfilment, happiness, delight and joy.

I am not saying that that joy is necessarily ours now. We may be walking through the valley of the shadow of death. But we know God as shepherd, we have been anointed, the table is prepared, the cup has been poured - to overflowing. And the hors d'oeuvre is being served - exquisite samples of the food that is yet to come.

4. ‘I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever’

This is quite exceptional. There are very few references to eternal life in the Old Testament. The dead go to Hades, a place of shadows, and that seems to be that.

But David is implying that there is a very different destiny for those who call God their shepherd: 'they will dwell in the house of The Lord for ever'.

This remarkable host, who first invites us into his home as guests, now invites us to stay on as members of his household 'for ever'.

In his book Thoughts in Solitude, Thomas Merton wrote a prayer (which has become known as the Merton prayer). It echoes many of the ideas in Psalm 23.

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

Saturday, 13 April 2013

A talk on the occasion of Adam and Charlotte Day-Lewin's wedding

Song of Songs 8:6-7

“Set me as a seal upon your heart,
    as a seal upon your arm,
for love is strong as death,
    jealousy is fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
    the very flame of the Lord.
Many waters cannot quench love,
    neither can floods drown it.
If a man offered for love
    all the wealth of his house,
    he would be utterly despised.

Many congratulations
It is a real joy and a privilege to celebrate your wedding and your love for each other.

You’ve chosen two remarkable passages.

When I read ‘The two of us’ to Alison, she said: ‘Why didn’t we have that at our wedding’ ?

And I’m delighted that you’ve chosen some verses from the Song of Songs.

I love this book. It is about a wedding, but it is a love poem, in which lover and beloved speak of each other and of their love. They speak of their absolute delight in the other, and of their desire for the other: a desire for union, that two might be one – in every way. And as someone said, ‘In all of human literature there are few passages on the power of human love compared with [the last two verses that we had read (SS 8:6-7)]’.

They speak of

1. the desire of love.

The desire of love is for the desire for total union with the other.

Earlier in this service, you said: ‘I take you ... to love and to cherish’. And then you said, ‘All that I am, I give to you; all that I have, I share with you’

You have taken the other to be yours; and you have given yourself to the other to be theirs.

Charlotte, the bad news is that from today you have ceased to belong to yourself. You belong now also to Adam.
Adam, the bad news is that from today you have ceased to belong to yourself. You belong now also to Charlotte.

You are not just two people saying that you love each other and that you agree to share your life together.
Christian marriage is much more than that: today you’ve been knitted together, sown together, bound together. Today you have been stitched up!

In the old days, a slave would be branded with the seal of their owner. The seal showed that they belonged to the other.

But look at what the lover says to the beloved.
She does not say, ‘Set your seal on me’: in other words, ‘possess me’.
She does not say, ‘Let me put my seal on you’: in other words, ‘let me possess you’.
She says, ‘Set me as a seal on your heart, as a seal on your arm’. She is saying, ‘the seal that I place on your heart and on your arm – to show that you belong to me – is nothing less than myself’: She is saying ‘Choose to be my possession, but only because I have chosen to be completely part of you’

His life and her life are completely entwined.
It’s like the rings. The ring is the other person. They become part of you. ‘Set me as a seal on your hand’.

So you really are now in the business of living for each other.
When of you is shamed, the other is shamed
When one of you weeps, the other weeps
When one of you rejoices, the other rejoices
When one of you is honoured, the other is honoured

You’re like two opera singers who are singing a duet. If it is going to work, you can’t compete with the other. You are now not in the business of proving that your voice is bigger than their voice, that your tune is more beautiful than their tune. It’s about something that is bigger than both of you – and at times you have to step back, and maybe even be silent, so that the other can be heard. But the beauty of the sound that you make, when you sing in harmony, far outweighs the beauty of the sound that either of you could achieve on your own.

Or to use some well known words from Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, “Love is a temporary madness. It erupts like an earthquake and then subsides. And when it subsides you have to make a decision. You have to work out whether your roots have become so entwined together that it is inconceivable that you should ever part. Because this is what love is. Love is not breathlessness, it is not excitement, it is not the promulgation of promises of eternal passion. That is just being "in love" which any of us can convince ourselves we are. Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away, and this is both an art and a fortunate accident. Your mother and I had it, we had roots that grew towards each other underground, and when all the pretty blossom had fallen from our branches we found that we were one tree and not two.”

The desire of love is the desire for total union with the other.

2. the power of love

‘Love is as strong as death’.

Because we are talking about a union of body, mind and soul – for this union to be broken is death. I’m not talking necessarily about physical death (although there are the real life Romeos and Juliets), but death in every other way.

If the two of you have been made one, you can survive on your own, but how can you really live on your own?

That is why this union is ‘till death us do part’.

And the passage speaks of jealousy being ‘as fierce as the grave’.

Jealousy is incredibly destructive if it jealousy of the other person.

But in love there is a right place for jealousy when it is jealousy for the other person. Because the two of you are one, it is right to be jealous for their honour, happiness, fulfilment and their well-being.

The mystery of love is that when you are jealous for their joy – and when you hate with a burning passion everything that takes away that joy from them - you will find your joy.

3. the invincibility of love

‘Many waters cannot quench love ..’

God’s love for us cannot be quenched.

But the reality is that our human love can be quenched.

Guard your love:
·         time together: quality time only comes with quantity time.
·         talk together: share – hopes, dreams, disappointments, hurts, joys – especially when you are hurting.
·         listen to the other: (sad illustration – not sad because it is sad – but sad because I am using it as an illustration!) Brenda and Tom in the Archers. Tom has been so obsessed with his crises that he has not been able to listen to Brenda when she is hurting.  
·         do familiar things together – do new things together – serve together;
·         don’t take each other for granted: thank you, you look good.
·         continue the romance

Give and give and give

Our prayer is that in 40/50 years time your love will not have been quenched, but you will be deeper in love with each other

4. the pricelessness of love

Love is like life.
It cannot be bought. It is priceless.
It can only be received as a gift.

You are the gift that you are giving to each other today.

Adam, you did nothing to deserve life. Yet you have life.
You did nothing to deserve Charlotte – yet she is giving herself to you.
Charlotte, you did nothing to deserve life. Yet you have life.
You did nothing to deserve Adam – yet he is giving himself to you

And the life that you have, and the love that you have for each other, is a gift of love from God.

Christians have always understood the Song of Solomon both as a love poem between lover and the beloved – but at a deeper level they have understood is as a love poem between human beings and God.

God is the beloved desired by the lover.

And so we ask that he would set us in his very heart.

For his love is not as strong as death, but stronger than death. He died for you; he conquered death for you.  
His jealous passion for our well-being and joy is unshakeable – and it does burn like a fire. God’s anger is nothing less than the burning of pain in his heart when we try to seek well-being in things that can never bring us ultimate happiness.
His love for us is unquenchable.

Adam and Charlotte, as you go through life together,
As you go on expeditions together
As you do your sums together
And you scare your dragons together

I pray that your love for each other will deepen day by day
And I pray that you come to know the astonishing and overwhelming love that God has for you. 

Friday, 5 April 2013

The story of Thomas and four egg shattering truths (an all age talk)

John 20:19-31

I'd like to look today at the story of a man called Thomas.

And I'd like to illustrate this with an egg (I'm wary of using eggs because when I did an assembly at St James school I exploded an egg onto the school stage curtain)

Did you know - you can't break an egg by pressing down on both poles?

The shell is very hard

Thomas had become hard: He refused to believe the others when they told him that Jesus had been raised from the dead.


He felt that it was impossible; he didn't want to be let down; he didn't want them to say 'April Fool'. 

I watched the last ever Goodies (it had to be because it's topic was the end of the world.) Well, the end has come. They're watching the clock click down to midnight when they've been told the world will explode. It hits midnight and nothing happens. They start to laugh with relief - it was all a con. But one of the Goodies is in hysterics in the corner. When he stops laughing he says, 'I fooled you all. I put the clock forward 5 minutes!'

Thomas, I think, refused to believe - not because he didn't care, but because he did care. He wanted to protect himself. Maybe there had been too many disappointments and failures. He really had thought that Jesus was the one who would establish his kingdom - but it just seemed impossible now.

Or maybe he refused to believe because he felt really guilty. He too had run away. 

Whatever, he had become incredibly hard: 'I will not believe', he says.

The problem is that if there was a baby chick in this egg - and this egg remains like this, it may look nice, but the chick will die.
The hard shell needs to be broken open before it can live.

So could you break this egg?

Actually, Thomas wasn't like a chick. Chicks break the egg from the inside. He didn't break the egg from the inside. Jesus broke Thomas' shell from the outside.

He broke his egg by appearing to him, by knowing him, by forgiving him and by giving him a task.
And when Thomas was broken, he was really broken.
He kneels at Jesus feet and worships him as 'my Lord and my God'.

I think some of us have pretty hard shells: we've allowed them to become hard.
We've been hurt or let down.

I think some Christians can become hard because - like Thomas - we have an unrealistic picture of what God is going to do for us, or at least of how and when he is going to do it. We pray for healing, or for a miracle, or for a particular kind of guidance - and nothing happens (at least nothing happens in the way that we think it should happen). And so we become hard.
Or we've become hard because of unforgiveness or failure or fear or resentment
Or we become hard because of guilt - we've hurt someone or let someone down. We know what we've done, and we can't really face up to what we've done, so we become hard. It happens so often: we even end up blaming the person we have hurt for the fact that we have hurt them!

And now we find that we are like chicks inside the egg trying to get out, and we cannot.

But Jesus, by bursting out of the tomb, breaks through our shells.
He drills through, so there suddenly is a weak point.

1. He really did rise from the dead.
We know that, not because like Thomas we saw him. But because Thomas and the others DID SEE HIM. We put our trust in what they saw, and in the way that their lives were changed.

2. When Jesus came to Thomas, he knew exactly what Thomas had said, even though he wasn't physically there when Thomas had said it.
And when he comes to us, he knows us and he loves us. I can't explain: it is bigger than words. But you will find - if you trust him - that there will be times when something happens which shows that he really does know you: he knows your innermost thoughts and longings. It won't necessarily happen when you expect it or want it to happen, but it will happen.

3. He forgives Thomas for his refusal to believe. That is the reason Jesus died on the cross: so that our sins are forgiven. And when he appears to his disciples he tells them to declare this forgiveness.
And because, when we come to him, we receive forgiveness - we can begin to face up to the reality of the pain that we have caused other people in the past.

4. Jesus gives Thomas a task: indirectly! He says 'Blessed are those who believe who have not seen'. But how are people to believe if they have not seen? Only if people, like Thomas who did see, are prepared to tell others.
And Thomas, we are told on quite good evidence, became a preacher of the resurrection of Jesus. He went to India and was used by God to establish the church there.
Jesus gives us a task: to be people who live by faith in the resurrection, to be people who declare his message of forgiveness and peace and reconciliation

We might be very hard - but remember the four egg shattering truths:

Jesus is risen from the dead
He knows you and loves you
He has forgiven you
He has given you a task

Have a smashing time!