Saturday, 23 April 2016

A disciple-making community

Summary: The risen Jesus commands us to be a disciple making, grace offering and teaching, learning, obedient people who by faith know that he is always with us

It is good on this sort of occasion to go back to basics and to remind ourselves what sort of community we are called to be. And for that I have turned to the last few words of Matthew’s gospel and what is known as the great commission.

The disciples have gathered together and Jesus has said to them: ‘All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me’.

I guess that is easier to take from a man who has risen from the dead.
Clearly Jesus has authority over the processes of nature and over death.
And he has authority over the lives of men and women.
God, by raising Jesus from the dead, has shown them that he is the Messiah, the One who He promised to send as his ruler, who has authority over all people and over all rulers.

There is a booklet that has been produced about our Queen, called The servant Queen and the King she follows. If you are introduced to the Queen, you will bow or curtsey. It is a mark of respect, and a recognition that she is the head of our state. But our Queen freely recognises the authority of Jesus Christ as her Lord. She, as far as I know, curtseys to no person, but she curtseys to him.

And when we pray for the rulers of the world we are actually doing something quite radical: we are stating that we believe that there is a power, an authority, that is greater than them. That is why totalitarian rulers struggle with an active and lively church – or, for that matter, any faith, where people recognise a higher authority than them.

And as one who has all authority, Jesus gives his followers a task to do.

He calls us to go and make disciples.

It would have been so easy for the first disciples to keep together, secure in the knowledge that they had been chosen by Jesus, that they had intimacy with God, and that they had a glorious hope. But they are told to ‘go’.

For some that is an actual call to relocate.
Many people have heard Jesus’ call to go and serve him and make him known in other cultures. I pray that as a parish we will get behind Tom and Jemma as they go to Ethiopia. I hope that we will pray for them, support them (and Ellie May and Mim) and give to their work. It would be great if we could ‘go’ with them as a parish together.
And often we need to hear God’s call to ‘go’ to a different place, not only because the desire of Jesus is for the people of all nations and cultures to become his disciples, followers, but also because so often it is when we relocate that we find we become much more dependent on him – and therefore open to him. And some of us here may need to hear that.

But ‘going’ is not necessarily about moving on. It is also about an attitude of mind. It is very easy for us to do the same old thing because it is easy and safe. New people, new things, new ways require effort. There are challenges and opposition that will need to be overcome. And it is very easy to become lazy or ‘weary with doing good’.

We need that ‘go’ attitude. In fact, I would argue that the church of today particularly needs to hear the command to go.
That is why I am delighted that St Peter’s is setting up this new service, Sunday at 4. Even though we are inviting people into the building, it is about an attitude of ‘going’. It is why I am encouraged when people set up initiatives: Inspiring women, mini church, little fishes (a new creche based at St Mary’s), Sometimes on Sunday, work with 18-30 year olds.

And we need to recommit ourselves to ‘go’ – even if it simply means getting out of the armchair, turning off the telly, moving out from the familiar group, breaking a routine that is in danger of stifling us - and getting down on our knees, listening to God, and then picking up the phone and ringing someone, or visiting a neighbour, or inviting a friend to an event, getting involved in something different or even – if this is what God is calling us to do -putting up the ‘for sale’ sign and moving.

But this is not going for ‘goings’ sake. It is not just a question of moving out of our comfort zones. We are called to go with a very specific purpose.

We are to be a disciple making community.

Only God can make disciples. Only he can give men or women a desire for him; only he can give life to someone who is spiritually dead.

But we have our part to play.
We are to pray – pray that spiritually blind eyes are opened, that those who have spiritually closed ears will hear.
We are to proclaim the good news: of our Lord Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, of sins forgiven, of the presence of the Holy Spirit and intimacy with God, of peace and purpose; of the present and future kingdom of God.
And we are to encourage people as they begin to respond; we are to support them when they waver or struggle; we are to teach each other and learn from each other.

We are not called to expect people to be perfect. It is only God who can do that, and it will take time! We are pilgrims not perfected saints. We are sinners inviting other sinners to walk with us on a journey as we follow Jesus, as we learn from him. And because we are sinners, church will be very messy. There will be conflicts, frustrations, wrong routes taken, disagreements. But we are disciples together, heading in the same direction. We want to become like Jesus and to be with him.

And notice, please, that this is something that includes people from all nations. I do not yet know how I am going to vote in the referendum. I still struggle to see what are the issues underlying the decision. But I would remind you this. If you plan to vote to stay in, so that we only have Europeans coming here and can keep people from other continents out, or if you plan to vote out so that we can close our borders to everyone, then we have forgotten God’s vision for humanity: of people from all nations together in unity, recognising our need for each other, gathered together in worship of the one who loved us, and died for us, and rose from the dead.

We are to be a grace offering community.

If you join any society then you usually have to do something to qualify for membership. You have to pass an exam, go through some sort of ritual, be recommended as a decent sort of chap.
The only thing that Jesus asks you to do to become a member of his church, to become a disciple, is to allow someone else to throw some water on you, not in their name but in the name of God!  (The bible doesn’t even say clearly how old you need to be when it happens or how much water). And the water is a symbol of his washing, of forgiveness.

It is all about grace.  To become a member of God’s church, all you need to do is receive the gift of forgiveness that God offers you. That means, of course, that you need to recognise that you need forgiveness (quite a few stumble over that) and that forgiveness is a free gift. You can’t earn it. You can’t baptise yourself. It is a gift.

So we need to urge people to be baptised; to receive the free gift of God; to become part of the life of God – the intimacy that is shared between Father, Son and Holy Spirit – and of the community of people who are disciples of Jesus. It means that we need to be people who welcome sinners: whether they seem to have it all together or if they are obviously messed up.

And we are to be a teaching, learning and obedient community.

Jesus calls his disciples ‘to teach them to obey everything I have taught [you]’

The first disciples of Jesus did that through their teaching in those early Christian communities – and we have their teaching in the New Testament. They passed on what Jesus had taught them.

And that is why we do put stress on teaching here: whether it is at services, small groups, weekends away, and through personal study. It is why, after worship (the first reaction of the disciples when they see the risen Jesus is to worship him), our priority in this parish is to teach the bible.  And we do try to be faithful to his teaching, and to pass on what has been passed on to us.

We need to be teaching churches.

But there is a flip side to that.

We need to be learning churches: people who seek to learn, and to grow in our knowledge.

But more importantly, we need to be people who are obedient. We are not learning in order to win a bible trivia quiz, or to make ourselves sound good. We are learning so that we can ‘be obedient’ to Jesus.

There is the story of the three people talking about which version of the bible they prefer. One said they preferred the language of the KJV. The second said they preferred the clarity and accuracy of the NRSV. The third said they preferred their mother’s version. ‘What’, said the other two, ‘has she translated the bible?’. ‘No’ says the third, ‘but she lives it’.

What we have in Matthew 28.16-20 is a great event (the resurrection), a great truth (Jesus has all authority), a great task (to go and make disciples) and a great promise: Jesus promises to always be with us.

For those first disciples that was important.
Jesus was physically present with them, but was about to go away. They would no longer see him. But he would still be with them, as he is with us, through his Spirit.

And for us it is equally as important. Because in doing the task, it is very easy to forget that it is ultimately about relationship with him.

There will be times when we clearly experience his presence – that is when it is easy.

But there will be many times when we do not. And that is when faith kicks in.
When we get up out of the armchair to ‘go’, we believe he is there.
As we are obedient to his command to make disciples, to baptise, to teach, we trust that he is with us.
When we face difficulties, discouragement or opposition, by faith we know that we are not on our own.
When nothing seems to happen, our lives don't seem to change, the world remains stubbornly godless and our prayers appear unanswered, we know that it is not futile and that we are not praying to no-thing but to some-one.
When it seems that he is so distant, we cling on to this promise that he is with us.

This is a promise for that time each day when you stop and remind yourself of his presence with you and you consciously seek him; it is a promise for our very ordinary daily lives often when nothing special seems to happen or for the moments of pain, frustration, confusion, doubt or fear; it is the promise for when we step out in obedience and do a new thing.

Jesus, who rose from the dead, who has all authority, who has given us a great task, will always be with us.

Friday, 15 April 2016

My Lord and my God

Today we are looking at the last in the cycle of very early C6th mosaics that can be found in the church of St Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, which depict the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. 

We see Jesus appearing to the 11 disciples. This is the second meeting that the resurrected Jesus has with his disciples – a week after his appearance to them on the first Easter Sunday. Jesus is showing his wound (we only see the wound on his side, presumably where he was stabbed with the spear), but in so doing he points us to our right. All the way through this cycle of 26 mosaics, there has been a movement to our right. In most of the mosaics, one of the figures moves us on to the next. Now here at the end, Jesus himself moves us on, but this time upwards, to heaven.

On the first occasion when Jesus appeared to his disciples, Thomas was not present. And when the disciples told Thomas that they had seen the Lord, Thomas made his famous statement: ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” (John 20.24) He is demanding evidence that is very physical: he won’t be satisfied, he says, with just seeing Jesus. He needs to feel, to touch his wound.

So now a week later Jesus appears. He shows Thomas his wounds. He invites Thomas to touch. ‘Do not doubt’, he says, ‘but believe’. And Thomas – who is here shown bowing before Christ, in an attitude of service (the robes are like a towel covering his hands: this is a symbol of service which later icons make us of; for instance in the icon of Jesus' baptism, the angels 'who minister to him' are shown in the same posture) - makes the great declaration of faith: ‘My Lord and my God’ (John 20.28).

This confession of Thomas, which we read about in John 20.24-29 is critically important.

We learn from it the truth at the heart of the faith:

1.      That Jesus Christ can be called God.

Thomas’ declaration is the final climactic statement of John’s gospel – and it echoes the very beginning of the gospel: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the word was with God and the word was God’ (John 1.1)

Jesus, who turns water into wine and makes things new, who brings healing, who has authority over nature, who has come to feed people spiritually, who opens people’s eyes literally and metaphorically, and who brings people back from the dead is not just a prophet, is not just the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, is not just the Messiah, is not even just the eternal Son of God (although that is the preferred title that John uses for Jesus). He is, as Thomas confesses, our Lord and God.

So when we listen to Jesus we listen to God; when we obey him, we obey God; when we trust him, we trust God; when we pray to him, we pray to God; and when we worship him, we worship God.
People sometimes ask, ‘To whom should I pray: Jesus or God?’ Well ultimately we are praying to God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. But Thomas' declaration means that when you pray to Jesus you are praying to God. If you pray to God, you are praying to the one who has revealed himself to us as Jesus. Eric Delve, an evangelist, put it this way: ‘Everything that Jesus was doing, thinking, saying and being on earth, was what God was doing, thinking, saying and being in heaven’.

It is not just Eric Delve! Paul describes Jesus as the visible image of the invisible God. The writer to the Hebrews describes Jesus as the reflection of God’s glory, and ‘the exact imprint of God’s very being’.
In the creed we declare at communion we declare belief in:  
‘The only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father’.

As an aside, the church of St Apollinare Nuovo began its life as an Arian church. The Arians (not to be confused with the Nazi idea of an Arian master race) are so called because they followed a teacher called Arius who said that Jesus was not God. He was created by God, the first of all God’s creation. He was human, and more than human, but he could not be called God. So they would actually have a problem with Thomas’ declaration that Jesus is ‘Lord and God’. 

The Arians, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses today, could not say that. For them, it was not God who came down from heaven to earth, but a celestial being. So Jesus is an inspiring example for us to follow, a great teacher for us to listen to, a pioneer who has led the way – but not God.

But if Jesus is not divine then:

1.  The death of Jesus does not show us the full extent of the love of God: God does not give us his own being and his own heart to be crucified – but he creates something, a sort of demi-god, and then that something is crucified for us. It doesn't really cost God that much, and it does not make sense of 1 John 4.9-10, ‘God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for ours sins.’

2. There will always be a gap between God and men and women. We can never really fully know God. With the Arians we can serve God as our Lord (it is not that much different from Islam), but we can never participate in the divine nature (2 Peter 1.4), never be filled with the fullness of God (Ephesians 3.19), and never have the true life, communion or intimacy with God which Jesus offers us because he is both fully human and fully God. In 1 Corinthians 13.12, Paul says that one day we will know fully as we are already fully known. If Jesus was not both fully human and divine, then we will never be able to fully know God as God fully knows us.

That is why Thomas’ declaration, ‘My Lord and my God’ is both important and precious. And it is why Thomas is remembered in many Christian traditions not as doubting Thomas, but as believing Thomas.

2.      Faith does not come from sight.

Jesus reacts to Thomas’ declaration by asking him a question: ‘Have you believed because you have seen me?’
We assume the answer is Yes. Thomas only believed after he saw the risen Jesus.

But we need to think again.

There is a chain of seeing in John 20.
When Mary Magdalene sees the risen Jesus, she says to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’ (v18).
When the disciples see the risen Jesus, they say to Thomas, ‘We have seen the Lord’ (v25). 
But when Thomas sees the risen Jesus, he says, ‘My Lord and my God’ (v28).

Where does that come from? As Gregory the Great, who wrote in the C4th about this passage noted, Thomas ‘saw one thing, and he believed another. Divinity could not be seen by a mortal person. He saw a human being, and he confessed him as God.’ (Forty Gospel Homilies, 26)

OK, a person who did the sort of things that Jesus did and who then comes back from the dead is pretty impressive, but it does not make them God.

How do you see if Jesus is Lord and God? That is a declaration which requires far more than sight. It is a declaration of faith and trust. It is declaration of ultimate allegiance.

And that is why Jesus goes on to say: ‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe’ (John 20.29). It is the final beatitude.

That is us!

We haven’t seen the risen Jesus. We learn about him; we hear what he said; we consider the evidence for the resurrection. But even if we are totally convinced that he rose from the dead, that in itself will never convince us that he is Lord and God.

Sight obviously makes people sit up and take notice. We are told in Acts 8.6, that ‘the crowds with one accord listened eagerly to what was said by Philip, hearing and seeing the signs that he did’. 
But it is not the clincher. I remember hearing Michael Green tell of an astonishing healing. A girl, most of whose bones had been broken in an accident, in complete traction, was dramatically and suddenly healed as some people prayed for her. Her parents saw it, but it did not bring them to faith.

Faith, that ability to confess Jesus as Lord and God, is a gift. Faith comes when what is spoken to us speaks to the depths in us, and the depths stir us to respond

So people who have not seen but who have come to believe are blessed because

1.      God has spoken to them, and they have heard.

A voice, a word has spoken to their depths; and it has come with conviction: conviction that God exists, that sin and judgement and forgiveness is real, that the good news about Jesus is true, and that this man really is worth serving and worshipping as our Lord and our God.

I'm not necessarily talking about something dramatic. That conviction can come suddenly, or it can come gradually over years. Perhaps you are on the way now, but you are not quite yet there with Thomas. Or perhaps you are. You do believe, and you can fall down with Thomas at Jesus Christ’s feet – the man who lived 2000 years ago, who died and rose again from the dead – and declare that he is your God.

2.      Their faith is not dependent on what they see.

They have come to realise that ultimate reality is not about what is visible in this world. It is not about power or wealth or status here. It is not about experiences, even spiritual experiences, in this world. Instead it is about another world.

And that means that they are not always looking for new evidences or new experiences that God really is there. I was very struck when I read Henri Nouwen. He wrote that he expected that as he grew older he would enjoy greater communion and intimacy with God. But in fact the opposite happened. He felt more and more remote from God. He found it harder to pray. Some spiritual writers speak of it as ‘the dark night of the soul’. But he did persevere, because he had this sense that God was moving him on beyond sight and touch and even feeling – so that his faith rested simply on the word of God.

So Thomas bows down at Jesus feet. He declares him, ‘My Lord and my God’.

For Thomas it was not just words. Tradition, and it is a strong tradition because it comes from several different sources, tells us that he travelled to India and preached that Jesus was alive and was ‘Lord and God’, and that he was martyred.

So we leave the last word to this mosaic. The disciples see the crucified but risen Jesus. They praise him, But Thomas really sees what is going on. He does not just see a risen Jesus; instead he sees with faith the one who is his Lord and his God, and he bows before him in worship. 

[Revised 18 April, 2016]

Saturday, 9 April 2016

Hope is kindled!

One of our boys talks in his sleep. We were on holiday, had been watching The Lord of the Rings, and were sharing a room in a B and B, when our comatose 12-year-old declared: ‘Don’t worry mummy. Hope is kindled!’

The resurrection of Jesus gives hope

1.      It gives hope to people who are crushed

The first followers had lived for Jesus. They had put their trust in Jesus.  They had hoped that he was the Messiah. ‘We had hoped that he was the one who would redeem Israel’, say these two people as they walk on the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus.

And the Messiah, for Jews, was the one who would come as God’s ruler. He would establish God’s kingdom of peace and justice. He would not die, but would bring an end to death. And when he reigned, those who had died would rise. There would be a general resurrection from the dead – some to eternal glory, some to eternal shame.

These followers had staked their life on the conviction that Jesus was the Messiah.

And now he was dead.

The dementors of Harry Potter suck out all hope from their victims.
But we don’t need dementors to do that. Death does that. It crushes us. It leaves us desperately empty on the inside.

Now we might have said to them: “You don’t need to despair: ‘Jesus body is in the tomb, but he is not dead. His Spirit is alive. And you will go to be with him in heaven.”

That is what many people would say today. We have this vague idea that on death the spirit is released from the body. It will be free. And what happens to the body does not matter.

It is the sort of belief that is behind poems like Mary Frye’s poem ‘Do not stand at my grave and weep’:

Do not stand at my grave and weep,
I am not there, I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glint on snow.
Do not stand at my grave and weep.
I am not there, I do not sleep.
Do not stand at my grave and cry.
I am not there, I did not die!

And that assumption of dead bodies but free spirits has crept into Christian theology, like the camel that shoved its way into the tent.

So the argument goes: When Jesus died, his body was put in the tomb; but his Spirit was free. All this talk about resurrection of the body makes God into a magician who does conjuring tricks with bones, as one former Bishop of Durham so memorably put it. And it is not necessary. Even if Jesus’ body is in some ancient grave, we can still say that Jesus is alive.

But we have to understand that that was not the Jewish belief.
It was not an option for the first followers of Jesus
And I would say that it is not an option for us:
In the creed we declare, ‘We believe in the resurrection of the body’.

Those two people on the road to Emmaus could never have said ‘Jesus is alive’ while his body was in the grave.
They were far more materialistic, and – to be honest – far more realistic than us.
For them, the Spirit and the body were totally connected. The Spirit could not live apart from the body. And the body could not live apart from the spirit. It is like, to use an analogy that Tim has used before, your computer hardware and software. The software without the hardware is useless. The hardware without the software is a piece of junk. You need both. So when Jesus died on the cross – he was dead.

And so you can imagine their confusion when the women tell them that the body of Jesus was missing and that angels had told them that Jesus was not dead but alive.

That is what they are talking about on their way home to Emmaus: ‘We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel’ (v21), they say to the companion who has joined them as they walk along. ‘And now, to make matters worse, some women are saying that his body is missing and that angels have told them that he is alive (v23). But, they add, nobody has seen him’ (v24).

If you were Jesus, wouldn't you just long to say: ‘Hello! It’s me!’
He doesn't. Instead he invites them to think, to really think through what the prophets in the bible said about the Messiah: that the Messiah would first suffer ‘these things’ (v26) and then enter his glory.

And as Jesus spoke to them, we are told that a fire began to burn deep in their hearts. It was a fire that nothing was going to put out – not suffering, persecution, disaster or tragedy. It was a fire that made them get up and go back, (it was about 11 miles), to Jerusalem to tell the others.

It was the hope that – as God had promised - Jesus was alive, not just spiritually, but physically.

Jesus had risen from the dead. The Messiah has come. And notice has been served on decay and death

I pray that you might have some sort of experience when the word of God, the power of God breaks into your life. You are crushed and broken. You are cold and weary. But then, a glimmer of light breaks in. It may be sudden and dramatic. It may be gradual. It doesn't matter. But hope is kindled. And you are set on fire.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, had that sort of experience:
 “In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

It is not just famous old Christians like him! I was speaking to a young woman yesterday. She is getting married here. And she told me how she was crushed. She hadn't any church background, but a friend invited her to go to Great Barton Freedom Church. She went along and God touched her. She spent the entire service in tears. Since then she, and her fiancée, worship regularly and they have now been baptised.

A fire was kindled in her heart

2.      The resurrection of Jesus gives us hope for our bodies and for this created world

It was Jesus’ body that rose from the dead.

God didn't give Jesus a completely new body. He took Jesus’ old body, the body that had been pierced with nails, and transformed it. Yes, it was very different (the two disciples didn't at first recognise him, and the risen Jesus was able to eat fish and yet also appears and disappears at will), but there was continuity between the old and the new.

The resurrection of Jesus shows us that God will take the stuff of this world and he will transform it.

And that is really important because it means that this material world matters, and what we do in it and with it matters.
It is not just about our ‘inner life’, our ‘sense of identity’ or ‘happiness’, our ‘spirit’. It is not just about saving people out of this material world so that they can be with Jesus in heaven.
It is also about the transformation of this material creation.

This created world is a gift from God, and it needs to be treasured.
And that means that what you create, make, repair, sow or stitch, paint, carve, write, cook, build, plant matters. How you do it matters. For whom you do it matters.

You can use the stuff of this world for yourself
Or we can treat it as a gift of God. We can delight in it and shape it, but we do it with deep gratitude, integrity and justice. We use it to bring glory to God.
Because one day God will take this creation, this matter, and he will transform it.

And because it was Jesus’ body that rose from the dead, our bodies also matter.

Your body has a precious dignity and an astonishing potential destiny.

What we do to and with our body matters.
One of the deep tragedies about the sexual revolution is the fact that people, in pursuit of experience or self-expression or passion, end up doing things to their body or allowing things to be done to their body that shows no respect for the dignity of their body.
You may hate your body and wish you have a different body. You may have tried to harm your body. You may try to reshape your body into the way that you think it should be (or others think it should be).
But I would counsel caution.
Yes, we live in a fallen world, with imperfections and flaws and weaknesses. And our bodies are imperfect, flawed and weak. But I beg you, treat your body well. Because you are precious and it is precious.

And one day – on that final day when the Messiah returns in glory - just as Jesus’ broken body was resurrected and transformed, so God will take all that remains of our bodies, that scattered dust, and (don’t ask me how) he will use that dust to give us new bodies: bodies that have some continuity with the old body, but that are transformed, completely soaked, in the glory and radiance of God.

Because of Jesus’ bodily resurrection, we know that the stuff of this world matters.

Is that why, it was when Jesus took bread and broke it, that the eyes of these two people were opened?

It was not the rumours of the resurrection that convinced them
It was not their reasoning about the empty tomb and the grave clothes
It was not even the preaching of the word: Jesus revealing the scriptures to them
It was something that he did with bread

Maybe as he broke the bread, his robes rode up and they saw the scars on his wrists.
Maybe as he broke the bread they remembered how he had broken bread only a few days earlier and said, ‘This is my body’.

We don’t know. What we do know that as he broke the bread they realised that the one who had been with them was the risen Jesus.

And in a few minutes we will do something with bread. We will take it, remember Jesus’ words, give thanks to God for it, break it and eat it.

And I pray that as we do that he will open our eyes.
We will see a small piece of bread but we will also see Jesus, who gives us bread, who shares bread and who will one day transform bread.

And that hope will be kindled – the hope that one day the Messiah, the resurrected Jesus will return, that the dead will rise, and that this bread and this creation, including our bodies, will be transformed, and will be filled with the radiance of the glory of God.