Monday, 27 April 2015

Three big prayers: a talk for the parish service of rededication

This is a good passage for an Annual Meeting

Paul writes to the Ephesian Christians and he thanks God for their faith and love.

'Ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, I have not stopped giving thanks for you' (v15)

This is a community of people who love God and who love one another. And Paul thinks of who they have at the very centre of their lives: when I heard about ‘Your faith in the Lord Jesus

When I look at the Christians in Bury St Edmunds and specifically at St Peter's and St Mary's,  I see so much to give thanks for. Your love for the word of God, your desire that Christ will be preached and made known, your prayer for each other, for other Christians and for people in all places; for your love for each other, the care and support that you show, the small groups, your hospitality and generousity, your willingness to serve, your welcome of newcomers, your commitment to God’s standards, and your desire to see our churches grow so that the name of Jesus is exalted.

And I give thanks for you.

But Paul also prays for the Christians in Ephesus.

It is, what I would call, one of the big prayers.

We tend to pray little prayers: little prayers are usually focused only on this life. We ask God to help us out, to heal us or those we love, to make our stuff go well, to give us wisdom in a particular situation. We pray that those we love may be happy, fulfilled, wealthy, healthy.

Paul's prayer is a big prayer: because it is not so much a prayer for the Ephesian believers here and now (Paul does pray for those sorts of prayers: for courage to speak the message, that God would take away a thorn in his flesh), but a prayer for them for eternity.

It is a prayer which begins in verse 17, gets interrupted at 2.1 (where Paul gets carried away describing the grace of God), is resumed in 3.1, and immediately broken off again, and completed in 3.14-21.

And as we rededicate ourselves, this is a good prayer to pray for each other.

1. We pray that we may get to know our Father God better

“I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better”. (v17)

That really is what we are all about.
We are on a journey, seeking to get to know God better. If we have received Jesus we already are sons and daughters of God. But we need to grow in our relationship with our heavenly Father. We need to grow in our knowledge of God.

It is where the bible language of the difference between justification and sanctification is so helpful. We are justified by faith, forgiven, seated with Christ in heaven. But the Spirit still needs to change us, sanctify us, make us holy, so that we might become what we are. 

To grow in our knowledge of God is not really about growing in our knowledge about God. This is about growing in knowledge of God - heart knowledge. It is about growing in faith, learning to trust him more, to love him more.

This  is gift – it comes from the Spirit. That is why Paul prays!  It is the Spirit who shows us our need for God, the love of God, who helps us see God at work (Nicodemus). it is the Spirit of revelation who helps us to see that all things come from God and belong to God. It is the Spirit who cries out from within our spirit to God (Romans 9). It is the Spirit who pours the love of God into our hearts. It is the Spirit who gives us a love for the word of God, a love for his people and ultimately love for God.

And so with Paul we pray that we might get to know our Father better.

That means we must attend to the inner life, to the heart life (v2 speaks of the eyes of our heart): spending time in prayer, reading his Word, regular worship, going on things like retreats, humbling yourself and doing what you don’t want to do, making ourselves accountable, making ourselves less so that others become more, costly obedience.

I was struck by something that I read by Henri Nouwen. He said he thought that as he grew older he would enjoy deeper intimacy with God. But, he continued, it was the exact opposite. Prayer became harder. There were new doubts. God seemed more absent. But he did not despair, because he realised that what God was growing his faith. He was making him go deeper, stripping him of those things on which he had relied, bringing him to a place where his faith did not depend on his feeling, but on simple obedience.

2. We pray that we may know the hope to which he calls us.   

I think that the next bit of the verse expands on this: ‘the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints’ (v18).

Others do not. They think that Paul is praying for two things: that we would know the hope, and that we would know how precious the saints (all of us – in our uniqueness and difference and rich diversity) are to God.

So I focus on the first part. Paul prays that we would know the hope to which God calls us.

Christians are now people. But we are also then people. We live in the now in the light of the then.

Paul has already spoken of our hope in the first few verses of this chapter:
In Christ we are holy and blameless in his sight, but we long for that day when we really are holy and blameless in his sight
We long for the day when we will see him as he is and become like him (1 John 3.2), when we know the love of God and are filled with all the fullness of God (Ephesians 3.19)
We long for the day when all things in heaven and earth, natural things – created things – animals – nature, will be brought together in their rightful place under the authority of Christ (v22).

I’m going to be controversial. I can’t help reading the Green manifesto and saying ‘Yes’ to so much that is there. It really does offer an alternative vision for society. But it is the same reaction that I had when as a teenager I read the communist manifesto (with the exception of the anti God-bit). Yes we long for a society that is fair and equal, where everyone has the same opportunities (wherever they live – not just in this part of the globe), where there are no nuclear weapons and human beings live in harmony with nature.

But there is one major problem: human sinfulness, corruption and greed. It affects even the clearest of visionaries. And so when they tried to turn the communist vision into reality, it failed. What was meant to bring liberty to people brought slavery; what was meant to bring paradise brought the terror of the labour camps and what was meant to bring equality brought hypocrisy and totalitarianism.

As Christians we do believe in the vision of a fair and equal world, where there is justice, abundance, security; where the old and young, black and white, Asian – African – European – Indo-Chinese – American – Australasian live as a common humanity, and together we live in harmony with nature. Read Isaiah and his vision for the coming Kingdom.

And yes, we should live in the light of that. We should work and struggle because we know that the Kingdom is coming. Maybe even vote Green. But we must realise that we will not see that vision of the world fulfilled, that type of society instituted until the King of the Kingdom comes. 

So I pray we may know our hope. The hope of resurrection and transformation, not just for us but for all of creation.

It is a hope which will inspire our work: whether that is, for you, the call to politics; the call to some work which seeks to put right an injustice – gross inequality, anti-trafficking, seeking the freedom of those who are slaves (Dalit freedom network), working with orphans in Zimbabwe or providing support for refugees in Syria, protecting against environmental abuse, providing a foster home, helping those in debt, working with those with learning disabilities.

But because that vision can only be finally fulfilled when the king comes, please do not turn your work into your god. Do not build your life on it. You will be deeply frustrated and become disillusioned, or you will become judgemental, puritanical (in the worst sense of the word) and prescriptive.

But if you place your work under the authority of the coming king, then even if you don’t see any results, you know that the work that you do is not in vain. One day God will take that work and use it, I don't know how, to bring about the glorious transformation on that day when history as we know it ends and Jesus returns as judge and Lord. And then he will establish his kingdom of justice, rightness, harmony and peace, where there will be no more sickness, suffering or death.

3. We pray that we may know the power of God

‘And what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe’ (v19).

Paul tells us about this power.
It is the power that raised Jesus from the dead and lifted him to the right hand of the Father in the heavenly places.
It is the power which will draw all things to Christ.
It is the power of love.

This is the power which brings life to spiritually dead people and which raises us so that we are seated in Christ in the heavenly places.
This is the power which transforms us so that we become what we already are: holy, righteous, full of love and peace and joy and patience and kindness.
It is the power which means that when we seek God he opens the door of the coming kingdom and gives us glimpses of the future life in healings or even resurrections.
It is the power that enables us to persevere when the road gets tough (remember that Paul is writing this letter as a prisoner cf. Ephesians 3.1)
It is the power which releases us to praise.
It is the power which emboldens us to speak of Jesus, even when there is hostility.
It is the power which equips us to serve and give sacrificially.
This is the power which promises to keep us if or when we suffer for our faith
It is the power which doesn’t always do wonderful things, but which brings us to our knees, sometimes even to that place of desolation, but through that to the place of greatest security and joy - ultimate dependence on God.

I pray for us as a church that we will know more of this power. I pray this coming year that we will see people coming to him, being converted; that we will see people growing in love for him and changing; that we will see people stepping up to the mark in order to serve in new ways for them.

Of course we pray the little prayers

But with Paul we are also invited to pray the big prayers:

That we will know our God and Father better,
That we will know the hope that he gives us – together with all the saints (those whom he has called and those who are yet to respond to his call), and

That we will know the power of God at work in us and through us. 

Saturday, 18 April 2015

Call on the name of Jesus


Peter and John preached a simple message.
2000 years ago God raised Jesus from the dead. 

That is remarkable, but in itself it is not life changing. It is an interesting fact. Something to talk about over coffee or a pint.
‘You know that Jesus?’  ‘He was crucified’. ‘Yes. But he came back from the dead’. ‘No! I don’t believe you’. ‘It is true, I met him. Gave me quite a turn’. ‘What’s he doing these days?’ ‘Not sure. He comes and goes. Turns up here and there’. ‘Amazing. I wonder whether I’ll see him. Do you think Arsenal stand any chance of catching Chelsea?’

If Jesus rose from the dead, then that is great for Jesus, but it does not really need to affect you.  

But Peter and John do not simply say that 2000 years ago God raised Jesus from the dead.
They make, if it is possible, a bigger claim. 

They are ‘proclaiming that in Jesus there is the resurrection of the dead’ (v2) 

In other words they are saying that Jesus did not only rise from the dead, but that he IS the resurrection. He IS ultimate life. And we share in that resurrection life when we come to him, put our trust in him and call on him.

In other words resurrection life is Jesus shaped. 

When we put our hand into his hand and allow him to lead us, we enter into this new life. 
He is the logic and wisdom of this new life. 
He is the ruler of this life. 
He is the role model for this new life. 
He is our guide and companion in this new life.

But more than that. He is not only the companion beside us. He is the one who comes into our lives and gives us the heart, the desire and the inner strength so that we want and are able to begin to live this life. 

The resurrection life is a Jesus-shaped seed that is planted deep inside a person when they turn to Jesus. As we feed it and water it, that seed grows, and it starts to shape us. Not physically, but spiritually, at the very centre of our being. As Jesus knows God as his Father, so we come to know God as our Father; as Jesus sees things with the eyes of God, so we begin to see things with the eyes of God. As Jesus is controlled by love for his Father, by joy and by peace, so we begin to be controlled by love for his Father, by joy and peace. 

And because Jesus did not simply rise from the dead, but because he is the resurrection of the dead, because resurrection life is Jesus shaped, there are three implications.

1. Jesus is the power of the resurrection life. 

We’ve already seen that. 

Because of the resurrection power of Jesus, people are healed
A 40 year old man, lame from birth, is healed in the name of Jesus. 
What happens here is that the resurrection life, when there will be no more pain, or suffering or sickness or death, when there will be no one lame or blind or deaf – breaks into the here and now. This is a glimpse, a taster of that future life. 

On Friday we had a service to give thanks for the birth of little Oliver. He is only 5 months old, but in those 5 months he has had meningitis and sadly, as a consequence, has suffered brain damage. His mum and dad have gone through hell. We pray that he might be healed. But even if he is not healed here, the resurrection power of Jesus means that one day Oliver will be free to be the person who God made him to be. We live in hope

And the resurrection power of Jesus means that people are changed
Dorothy spoke last week of the transformation in Peter. He was set free from fear. Only a few weeks earlier when someone asked him if he knew Jesus he said ‘No’. Now he stands in front of the same people who condemned Jesus to death, and he openly speaks of Jesus. 

And the most amazing thing about the resurrection power of Jesus is that when we preach in his name, people believe and are converted. People who are spiritually dead are made alive (v4). 

Jesus is still the resurrection from the dead. And when we faithfully speak in the name of Jesus, things will happen. 

People will be converted: Those 5000 who came to believe didn’t see the risen Jesus. This is after the ascension. Jesus has gone to heaven. They only had Peter’s word to go on that God had raised Jesus from the dead. 
And yet when Peter preaches in the name of Jesus, something happens. They realise their deep need for God, for his forgiveness and power, and many come to believe. They put their trust in Jesus and they call on him.

Of course this is God’s business and not ours. Many of us long to see God work more. Many of us long to see more God-incidences. We’ve seen three in the last few weeks. In one case a lady who could not see had her eyes opened long enough so that she was able to read a particular Psalm. We give thanks for that, but it gives us a greater longing to see God’s resurrection life come in more power. We long to see healings. We long to be changed, to see others changed. We long to see many becoming believers. 

Only God can do that. Our task is to pray, to trust that there is power in the name of Jesus, and like Peter and John to speak in the name of Jesus 

2. Jesus is the true cornerstone for our lives. 

He is, ‘the stone you builders rejected, which has become the capstone’ (v11)

Some bibles say capstone; others say cornerstone. The capstone is the final stone that is put in when an arch is made that holds everything together. Without it, the whole thing collapses. The cornerstone is the foundation stone. 

So this is saying that Jesus is the foundation rock on whom we build, the stone who holds it all together. 

There is a story that Jesus told. There were two builders. Both built their own homes. One built on rock, the other built on sand. ‘And the rain came down and the flood went up .. and the house on the sand fell flat’. And Jesus teaches that those who listen to his words but do not put them into practice are like the one who built on the sand.

Why? Because he is the only true cornerstone on whom we can build our lives.
The political rulers of Jesus day rejected Jesus because they built on sand.
They built on the fear of not rocking the boat. They were terrified of what the Roman authorities might do.  
They built on their preconceived images of what God’s kingdom and what God’s ruler would look like. 
They built on a foundation of needing to prove themselves, of showing that they were somebody and that they were significant. Jesus’ message, miracles and popularity threatened that. 

Many of us reject Jesus because we build on sand: we build our lives on what others think of us, on trying to prove ourselves, on living a stable quiet life, on our own unquestioned assumptions, on our safe cliques. We think that is what will give us fulfilment, significance and permanence. 

And when we build our lives on those things, they will of course crash. 

Peter invites us to build our lives on the one who is bigger than death, to build our lives on the one who knows us yet loves us, who died for us, who rose from the dead, who has an eternal destiny for us. That is the only way we can survive the earthquakes which threaten to shake and break our lives into millions of little pieces. Listen to him, obey him, trust him – even when, particularly when, he asks you to do things that you do not agree with, or that you find particularly difficult. That is when obedience is costly and when we grow in love and trust. That is when we build on the rock. 

3. Jesus is the only one who can give salvation

‘Salvation is found in no-one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mortals by which we must be saved’. (v12)

There is a danger that when we quote this verse we often do it as spiritual Arnold Schwarzeneggers with our theological rocket launchers. We blast it at non-believers thinking that it will shake them and get them to believe. 

‘We Christians have got it right and you’re all condemned: so you better become one of us’. And all it does is destroy them and make us look like arrogant, intolerant bigots . 

Please remember that when Peter states this fact he is not in a position of power, but of extreme weakness. He is on trial. He could be imprisoned, beaten and even possibly executed. 

And Peter is saying to them that Jesus, who they last saw dead hanging on a cross, but who God raised from the dead, is the one who God will use to bring salvation to everyone who turns to him. ‘There is no other name .. by which we must be saved’. 

Peter is saying this to them: Because resurrection life is Jesus shaped, if you call on him you must be saved. This is not a threat. The threat is in the previous verse. If we build our lives on foundations that are not Jesus they will be shaken. But verse 12 is a gift. This is a promise. 

Call on the name of Jesus.
Call on the name of Jesus when you are out of your depth, when your life has been shaken, when you face the unthinkable. 
Call on the name of Jesus when you face relentless pressure, when the monsters are about to devour you, when you are crushed, when temptation and sin and fear and death overwhelm you and grip you and control you. 
Call on the name of Jesus when you stand naked and vulnerable before others, when you have been shamed, when they laugh at you, mock you, spit on you and then crush you.
Call on the name of Jesus when your hopes have been smashed, your desires ripped in pieces, when you are broken and heartbroken.
Call on the name of Jesus when you are empty and lost and desperately alone, when you are deep in the pit, and do not know which way to turn. 
Call on the name of Jesus when you are hurting, in pain, and all you want to do is to die. 
Call on the name of Jesus when you begin to realise what you have done to others, how you have hurt them, when you see yourself with all the darkness inside you, you see how small and trapped you have become, and when you cannot face yourself let alone others.

Call on the name of Jesus today in church, in the classroom, in the boardroom, on the shop floor, in the office, in the bedroom. Call on the name of Jesus when you wake up and when you go to sleep. Call on the name of Jesus when you are well or sick, happy or sad, in life, at the time of death and in death.
Call on him with all your heart.

There is no other name that has been given to you by which you must be saved. 

He is the life raft that will not fail, the friend who will never betray you, the lover who will never abandon you, the brother who will always be there for you.

Many of you will have heard of Andrew White, the vicar of Baghdad. I had the privilege of being a student at theological college together with him. Andrew, in his previous life, had been an anaesthetist at St Thomas’ hospital. He told of how, as he was putting patients under, he would invite them to think of something really precious and lovely to them. And he spoke of one larger older West Indian lady who looked up at him, smiled and said, ‘I’m thinking of Jesus’. 

Someone I know who I deeply respect and who has more godliness and theology in his little finger than I have in the whole of my body said to me, ‘As I grow older I find that I am losing many of my old certainties. But I’ve come to realise that it doesn’t really matter, because what I do know is that it is all about Jesus’. 

Come to Jesus, call on Jesus

Because Jesus rose from the dead, because resurrection life is Jesus shaped – he is the power of the resurrection life, he is the cornerstone on whom we must build our lives and there is no other name given to men and women by which we must be saved. 

Saturday, 4 April 2015

Easter changes everything

We love the idea of Easter.

It is about bunnies, eggs, chickens and chocolate
(I have an egg here. With the words ‘Death’ and ‘Myself’ painted on it. I had fun when I went into Thorntons!)

It is about hope: seeds in the ground are springing up into new life
It is about life after death: maybe there is something after this life
It is a story of how goodness, love and life win in the end.

But we have become too familiar, too comfortable with Easter. 

We have turned Easter into an idea, and forgotten that Easter was an event.

If you remember from our reading, the first reaction to the resurrection was not joy, but trembling, bewilderment and fear (Mark 16.8)


1. The resurrection shatters death.

Nobody expected anything would happen. He was dead. 

The women were coming to anoint his body. (ask for volunteers)
They bring spices (give them some spices from the spice cupboard!) – the best we can do in the face of death is to try and take away the smell of death. 
They come expecting to find a tomb with a great big rock in front of it. But it is gone. 
They come expecting to find a body in the tomb. But it is empty. 

And a man in white (dress child in white!) tells them that Jesus is risen and they are to go to Galilee to meet him.

How do they react? With joy? 

Not yet? This is too big for them. 

It is as if they have been living in a dark room for years, and suddenly someone turns on a light. They can’t face it. 

People who are dead do not rise from the dead. 

We try to challenge death. We spend billions on keeping ourselves alive as long as possible. Some even try to freeze their brains in the hope that in the future we may have advanced enough so that we can live for ever.

It really is like trying to break this egg with a plastic spoon. It can't be done.

The women were right to tremble and be afraid. It says that they legged it from the tomb and at first they did not say anything to anyone. 

I think that is very authentic. 
How would you react if you went out for the Easter egg hunt in the churchyard and see all the tombs blown apart? A strange person in white tells you: 'They're not dead. They've come back to life.'
I think you might be just a little scared. 

God shattered everything when Jesus rose from the dead. 

He shattered death

2. The resurrection shattered our self-centred world

Place a chair like a throne in the centre, and ask a child to sit on the throne as the king or queen.
Before Easter it is OK to think that I am in the centre of my life, that everything is dependent on me, that it is all about me: what I can do or achieve, about me proving myself, putting on a good show so that others are impressed with me, making life comfortable for me; it is about what others can do for me. 

The virtual worlds that we create are simply windows into the sort of real world that we seek to live in.

But if a man, a human being, rose from the dead and that man has defeated death - then he is bigger than the biggest force in this universe. And he is certainly bigger than you and me. You can't win against someone who has defeated death.

[Lord of the Rings. The army of the dead join the Fellowship of the Ring in their penultimate battle with the hordes of Mordor. It's very unfair. They're invincible. When Aragorn is about to let them go in peace, Gimley says to him, 'Don't do that. Very handy in a tight spot these lads - even though they are dead']

Jesus, of course, was not dead. He has gone into death, challenged death, shattered death and death cannot now touch him. 
And the bible says that God has "set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all people by raising him from the dead' (Acts 17.31) 

So it is now not OK to think it is about me. 
Because it is about him. He is the Lord.

Do you notice that the women are told to go to Galilee, where they will meet him? They have to obey – in this case, to go back to where it all began. And if we wish to meet with the risen Jesus, then we need to go back to the stories of Jesus, and we need to learn to walk with him, in obedience to him. 

(To volunteer). So I am sorry. Having sat you on the throne, I need to ask you to get off the throne. It is not for us. It is for him.

Jesus is risen from the dead. 

The resurrection shatters everything. 

(Smash egg with a rolling pin!)

It shatters our self-centred lives
It shatters death.