Saturday, 21 May 2016

Leaving footprints: jumping

Being a disciple of Jesus was not and is not an easy ride.

It involves taking new steps of faith: of jumping into deeper and wilder water.

On one occasion the disciples were in a boat when they see Jesus coming towards them. He is walking on the water. They are freaked out. But Peter says, rather foolishly, ‘Lord, if it is you, tell me to come to you’. Jesus takes him at his word and says, ‘Come’. We can imagine the other disciples. They’re beginning to enjoy this. Peter has got to get out of the boat and walk on water to Jesus.

John Ortberg wrote a book based on that incident, and he gave the book the title, ‘If you want to walk on water, you’ve got to get out of the boat’.

But it is not quite as completely scary as that.
Because Jesus only asks his disciples, his apprentices, to do what they see him doing.

And here, in Luke 9, Jesus has been proclaiming the Kingdom of God; he has been casting out demons; he has been healing people. And now he tells his 12 disciples to do the same.
In the next chapter he will give a similar instruction to 72 other people.

And he is asking them to do two things.

1.      He is asking them to be obedient to the call of God.

He sends them out to preach the Kingdom of God, to drive out demons and to cure diseases.

To preach the Kingdom of God:
That it is near in Jesus. He is the King of the Kingdom.
And the Kingdom of God is the rule of God – that rule where everything and everyone will be right, and will work right and will relate right. I guess it is a bit like a jazz band. Every performer is a virtuoso and has the opportunity to shine, but the real glory is in the harmony with each other.
It is a kingdom which is controlled by peace, justice, mercy, joy and love. We will know who we are before God and be completely fulfilled as we authentically live who we are.

And we are to preach that the Kingdom of God is near in time. One day, at the end of history as we know it, time and space will be transformed; the new era, the God-era will be ushered in, and the Kingdom will be established when Jesus returns.

But this is a kingdom that is not just near in time. This is a kingdom that can come into the hearts and minds of people now. We invite Jesus to be our Lord and our friend, and he will begin to change our patterns of thinking so that we desire the things of God, of the kingdom, of what is right. And he will come near to us, closer than our very breathing.

And so, when we proclaim the Kingdom of God, we proclaim a message that is not just for the future, but a message of forgiveness, of hope, of restored relationship, and intimacy with God now.

To heal: Jesus physically cured people. It was a sign that the Kingdom of God was near; a preview of the time when all will be healed and there will be no sickness, suffering and death. And the church, the people of God, are still sent to heal. We can do that through medical science and training. We can also pray. And there will be times when God heals in amazing ways.

To cast out demons: Our culture does not use the language of demons. Other societies do. I notice that one of our big subjects is about the devil and demons, and the person who is leading our thinking is someone who has lived in places where demons are very much part of the experience of ordinary people.
But even if we don’t use the language of demons, there are things that grip us, that control us for evil. However much we use self-help methods, breathing exercises, stress and tension release exercises; however much we talk about the pain and anger in us, or try to understand it, that thing remains stubbornly there. It shows in the face contorted with anger or bitterness, the all-consuming lust (whether for a person or a thing) or the rage that just explodes. And we need to be set free because otherwise it will destroy us and it will destroy others.

But what I note is that Jesus is no arm chair general. He does not just send his 12 disciples out to cast out demons, to cure diseases and to preach the good news. He has already done it, and he gives authority to his people to do this.
And what I ask you to note is that this is not an authority that comes from strength or techniques. It does not come from learning or age. This authority is Jesus’ authority and it flows through the person who realises that they have nothing to offer - that they are nobody and that He is everything.

Everything we do is done in the name of Jesus.

What that means is that if someone asks us: ‘By what authority are you praying for healing, or praying for people to be set free?’, we answer, ‘We do it not in our own authority and power, but with the authority of Jesus, in the power of Jesus and for Jesus’.
There are some people who say, ‘I’m a healer. I’ve got the ability in me’. And I don’t deny that. There is so much more about the body that we do not understand.
But Christian healing is different because it is done by people who know that they are nothing, and Jesus is everything. And, if you are OK with this language, they are right with Jesus, they put their trust in Jesus and they ‘channel’ Jesus’ healing.

The 12 and the 72 were sent out to preach, heal and cast out demons. The latin verb is 'missio'. It is where we get our word 'mission' from. And as Christ-followers disciples of Jesus then we too need to recognise that we have been sent.
That is scary. It involves jumping!

But it is not necessarily about doing big things.
We can jump in our faith when we do very ordinary things.

I have spoken before of choosing to turn off the television, or put down the Sudoku or crossword, and pick up the phone, or send someone a text, or go out to visit someone.
Or it might be that in a conversation you mention the fact that you go to church and that you believe in God. I saw that one of our people, on his twitter account, in the short description of who he was, before he put all the other stuff, had written one word: ‘Christian’.
And if you think about it, what is so threatening about telling people that 2000 years ago God became a human being out of love for them? What is offensive about telling another person that they have been created in the image of God, that they are precious and have an eternal destiny, that there is forgiveness, a way of living that is not easy but offers fulfilment and that death is not the end? And yes, there are consequences of accepting or rejecting this message – but it is not for us to judge them. That is between God and them.
And it really is not about ramming the message down the throats of people who do not wish to hear. Perhaps we have done that in the past and we need to learn to understand what it means to share the hope that we have ‘with gentleness and respect’. What Jesus does say is that we are to take the initiative but if people will not receive us or the message then we are simply to move on.

Or perhaps the jump that we need to make is offering to pray for someone who is sick. I know that I am a vicar and people might expect it of me, but it is ever so simple. You might be talking with someone, you ask them if you can pray for them, and you simply say: ‘Our Father in heaven, thank you for .. Please help them to know that they are precious to you, and please would you heal them, in Jesus name.’ People are astonished and often very moved when we do pray for them. They have never been prayed for before. And for those brief seconds, a window into eternity opens up.

Or maybe it is a case of driving out a demon. Actually this is something that I would recommend you do not do on your own. Please come and talk with one of the staff. The reason for that is that this area can be extremely subjective, and it is very easy for us to get ourselves all knotted up and in the process to knot other people up. We need to get the perspective of others.
For instance, one woman came to me because she thought her house was possessed. Her dead husband kept appearing to her. I could have gone in and prayed for the demons and the dark to go. But it wouldn’t have helped. Because as we spoke it turned out that she felt dreadfully guilty because she wasn’t with her hsuband when he died. I was able to pray for God’s peace on the house, and also – and this was more important - for his peace and forgiveness on her. And that did far more good.
Having said that, there are times when we encounter evil, real evil, destructive evil, evil which has gripped a person and is destroying them – and when that happens we need to remember that Jesus has given his authority to us, and that we do not need to be afraid.

We need to be obedient to this call

2.      Jesus is asking us to learn to be dependent on God

When he sends out the 12 without staff, bag, bread, money and tunic (I am assuming a spare tunic!) he is doing two things.

a)      There is a sense of urgency about this.

They need to go and they haven’t got time to prepare. Jesus knows that there is little time before his death, and he wants people throughout Israel to hear the message before then. He knows that after his death and resurrection, when this thing goes global, it will be harder for his own people to believe. So he wants his disciples to go, immediately – and not worry about reading the manual or packing the suitcase.

We live in a very cautious, safety conscious age. Risk assessments have to be done. Boxes need to be ticked. And it is good and sensible. But there are times when, in obedience to God, we simply have to act and get on with it. It is easy for me to sit and do admin in the office or at home – it is the comfortable thing to do, and a lot of it is about control – but there are times when I’ve simply got to get up and go into that nightmare situation, or I’ve got to go to someone and say sorry, or I have to challenge somebody. And there are times when God calls us to do something and just get on with it. It might be an inner compulsion, or a conviction I’ve got to do this, or a sense that I have been avoiding something or someone and it needs to be dealt with. But there is an urgency about it.

b)      But more clearly here, and this applies as much to us as to them, Jesus is speaking of how the 12 are to be utterly dependent on the provision of God.

In Luke 22.35-36, Jesus gives the disciples a new set of instructions. After his death they are to take their purses and their bags. They are even to take sensible precautions against unprovoked attack (that is what I think the reference to the sword is about).
So it is not wrong to plan. It is not wrong to have insurance policies or pensions. But, and this is the point, all the time it is about not putting our trust in those things, but in God.

That is why we pray the Lord’s Prayer: ‘Give us today our daily bread’. We pray that prayer when we do not know where the daily bread is coming from, and we still pray that prayer even if we are fairly confident that we have a loaf of bread in the freezer! We pray it because it shows that we recognize that we are dependent on him for everything.

There are times and seasons in this. When I left university and worked in a parish in Hackney, there was no money. For the first year I worked in a supermarket filling shelves. But for the second year it seemed right that I should work full time for the church and live ‘by faith’, with no guaranteed income and dependent on God providing for me through the gifts of others. And he did. At the end of the year my bank balance, which was not great, was the same as it was at the beginning of the year. That was right for then. But since then I have always had a salaried post.

There is nothing wrong with either model, although it is much easier to remember that we are dependent on God for everything when we don’t have a guaranteed salary or pension – and I sometimes think that we miss out on real miracles and great blessing when we try to play it too safe.

But the reality is that we are dependent on God, and that he is utterly dependable.

So yes, being a disciple of Jesus is not an easy ride. There are times when we need to take not steps of faith, but jumps of faith. We need to be obedient and we need to relearn dependence on him.

Perhaps the specific challenge to us as believers here, where we are now, is to take those jumps of faith and actually proclaim the Kingdom of God, support those people of good will who are involved in healing, and to pray for healing, to cure diseases, in the name of Jesus.  Both of those things require obedience and courage. We need to come out of our comfort zones and we need to throw ourselves on him.

This series is about leaving footprints. If we are walking in sand then all we need to do is walk, and the footprints we leave will be very clear. They will also be washed away very quickly. But if we are on hard ground, and we want to leave footprints, footprints that will last, then walking won’t do. We need to jump. 

Saturday, 7 May 2016

Imitating those who follow Jesus

This is the second in our series on leaving footprints, on being a – and I appreciate that this is a very churchy word – disciple of Jesus Christ.

A couple of weeks ago Andrew spoke about how that means that we are to respond to Jesus call and follow him. It is a radical call. It does not depend on our goodness or ability – but completely on the love of God.

Today we look at another dimension of what it means to be a disciple. We are called to become imitators: imitators of Jesus and imitators of other followers of Jesus.

I guess most of us have dream idols. I wish I could be like them: a mega-pastor with a mega-church, sports star, commentator, astronaut, MasterChef, celebrity. It is not really that we want to be like them, but we would love to have their success, wealth, skill, influence and star status.

But even if we don’t have the dream idols, the reality is that we do all have role models. We learn by watching and imitating. Small children watch their parents. There was one mum in our church when I was in Ipswich. She was a delight. She was so gentle. And on one occasion one of her children spilt some drink – and the child said, and I could hear her mum in this: ‘Oh Bother!’ I suppose it is better than the child at the early years drop in, who was driving a play car and shuoted, 'Get out of my way, idiot!' at some other child. And children imitate slightly older children (it is why we are paranoid about the friends who our children make). And as we grow older, it is the pattern of the Padawan and Jedi. It is what we do in a new setting, a new job, a new place. We watch, we learn, we imitate. On Thursday in cathedral for ascension day – they were doing all the ritual. I hadn't a clue what was going on or what I was meant to do: I sat down when I was meant to stand up, stood up when I was meant to sit down, turned round when I was meant to stand still .. SoI did what everyone does: I watched and I imitated. (I appreciate that is how it is for many people who come for the first time to church).

We imitate people. And that is just as true of faith. Paul, speaking of the Christians in Thessalonica commends them because ‘they became imitators of us and of the Lord’ (v6)

And that call to imitate is a call which is repeated through the New Testament

James urges us to follow the example of the Old Testament prophets: ‘As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.’ (James 5.10)

Jesus washes his disciple’s feet and then says, ‘I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you’ (John 13.5)
Peter writes to those Christians who are suffering because of their faith: ‘For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps’ (1 Peter 2.21)

And Paul, on several occasions, urges those he writes to to imitate him.
He urges them, like him, to become nothing so that Christ might become everything:
1 Cor 4.16, ‘I appeal to you, be imitators of me … When reviled we bless; when persecuted we endure; when slandered, we speak kindly’
1 Cor 11.1, ‘I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, so that they may be saved. Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ’

He urges them to imitate him in pressing on in the Christian faith, not becoming complacent or giving up: ‘Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us’.  (Philippians 3.17)
He urges them to work hard out of love for others: ‘For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you .. so that we might not burden any of you.  .. This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate’ (2 Thess 3.7).

And the writer to the Hebrew Christians, Christians of Jewish descent, writes to them, ‘Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith’ (Hebrews 13.7)

So as Christians we are called to look at other Christians, to see how they are living as they follow Jesus, and to imitate what is good. 

And that is why I would encourage you to meet with a Christian brother or sister who is further on in the faith and learn from them. Meet, talk, discuss a passage of the bible that you have read recently that you don’t understand, talk through a difficult situation, pray with them or ask them to pray for and with you.

Perhaps you already do so. Perhaps there is someone who you have started to build a relationship with. And that can be so helpful in our Christian walk. Maybe this is something that you don’t do but you would like to do. If you do know someone, then ask them if they would like to meet up for a coffee. And if there isn’t, but it is still something that you would like to do, have a quiet word with me and we’ll see if we can find someone who can help you. There are many people here who would love to have that opportunity to meet with you.

Of course they are not perfect, and they are not the oracle of all wisdom, but if they really are mature in faith then they will know that they are not perfect, that they do not know all things. But they will also know that even though they are nothing, Jesus is everything, and that everything they have comes from the love and the forgiveness of God.

And now we come to the really scary bit.

You see we are not only meant to look to others and imitate them.
We are also called to be examples ourselves.

Paul writes to Timothy and encourages him to be an example: ‘Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.’ (1 Tim 4.12)

And here in 1 Thessalonians, Paul writes to this new church.
He thanks God for them – for their faith, their love and their hope. He is confident that they have been chosen by God. Why? Because when they heard the message about Jesus, it came with the power of the Holy Spirit. They knew it was true. And Paul writes, ‘We know God has chosen you .. just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord’.

And he goes on to say how they became an example right across the region: 'So you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia' (1 Thess 1.7).


They became an example of a people who welcomed those who brought the word of God - and in welcoming the messenger, they welcomed that message (v9).

They became an example of a people who changed the way that they were living.
‘They report … how you turned to God from idols to serve a true and living God’ (1 Thess 1.9). In other words, here were men and women who were an example of people who stopped living for control, approval, comfort or power; they stopped living for money, or sex, or status, or the body (we live in a world which glorifies the young body and which represses the old body). And instead they began to live for and serve God. They began to spend time learning from God’s word, together with God’s people, looking for those examples of Christ likeness to follow and seeking to show the love of God.

And they became an example of a people who lived in hope, that even though there will be wrath, Jesus will rescue us from that time.
Yesterday I visited one of the ladies who worships with us every week. She has been taken into A&E and told that nothing can be confirmed till they have done more tests, but that the news is not very good. She showed me the copy of 'The imitation of Christ', which she is trying to read,when the pain allows her. Then she said to me, ‘I’m really not afraid to die. It will be the beginning of a completely new life for me’.

That is the sort of example that we are called to be.
That is the sort of example that we are called to imitate. 

We are, you are, meant to be an example of someone who imitates someone else who imitates Jesus, so that others will look to you and imitate you.

That does not mean that you are to set yourself up as a model of morality or success or of someone who has got it sorted. If we do that, then we are putting onto ourselves and others a burden that we or they cannot possibly bear, and we will either become obnoxiously smug and judgemental, or we will fall, or we will do both.

The example that we are called to be is the example of people who live as people who know that they are nothing, but that Jesus is everything. We are to be a model of people who are messed up, sinful, weak and failures, but who live by faith in the Son of God who loved us and died for us.

I recently came across a quote from Catherine of Siena (1347-1380). She got this. She said she was praying when God spoke to her. He said, ‘There are only two things that you need to know. You are she who is not. I am He who is’. It is that sort of attitude that is so precious: We have done nothing to deserve the love or mercy of God. And yet he, in his love, has given us everything.

And so as disciples of Jesus we are called to be an example of people who are beginning to live by the Spirit, people who have begun to turn our back on the things that this world offers and people who live for the things that God offers: righteousness, justice, peace and joy. 

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Peggy Troll. A funeral talk

We are thinking of you, Jenny and Peter. There is something about losing a second parent, however much you were looking after her – and Peggy's final illness was relatively recent: even if her body stubbornly hung on to life long after the doctors expected. And you must feel pretty drained and weary. It was also really good to see the support you gave her in those last days. If it wasn't Jenny by her side, it was Pete and Judy or Colin.

And we particularly appreciate how hard it will be for you, Jenny. You cared for her for so long, and life will seem empty in every sense of the word. But I am pleased that you have the support of your wider family, friends and members of your house group.

It was a privilege to know Peggy – both in the earlier years before the stroke and dementia and also after. She didn't want a fuss, was very faithful, had that lovely knowing, slightly wry, smile that lit up her face, was quiet, a lady who definitely knew her mind; and most of the time was someone who was content and at peace. You wrote that ‘she enjoyed gardening and would love to sit in the garden with a cup of tea and a crossword to do.’ That’s the sort of gardening I enjoy! We will miss her.

The passage we read, Isaiah 40.27-31, was a passage that was underlined in her bible. She thought it was important. And it is an appropriate passage. The context is Isaiah 40. God speaks to his people. They have been through a pretty rough time – and they are weary and drained and hope was flickering for them like a tiny candle that looked as if it would be blown out.

But the whole chapter has a theme: God (who is bigger than creation, than the nations, than the idols of the nations; who cannot be compared with anyone or anything, whose wisdom is beyond even someone with an Einstein or a Hawking’s sized brain, and who will never grow weary) is coming to his people to bring them comfort and strength.

For Peggy, faith was really important. She ‘put her hope in the Lord’.

And as Christians our hope and our conviction is that God did come:
He came and rescued his people in Isaiah’s time. He gave then ‘hope when hope was gone; strength to carry on’, to quote from a song from Les Miserables.
But the great rescue was when he came to us in his Son, Jesus.
He was born, taught us the values of the Kingdom of God, gave us glimpse of the Kingdom of God, lived the Kingdom of God, he died for us on the cross and rose again.

Through his birth, the Son of God opens the door of heaven and comes to us. He lives as one of us. He knew joy and he knew deep anguish. He knew what it was to suffer, and because he was fully ‘one of us’ he would have known that sense of powerlessness we have as we sit by the bed of one who suffers (yes, he was the eternal Son of God, and he did have power to do amazing things, but he only did those works of power when he knew it was what His Father wanted). But it is that which leads to total dependence on God.

And through his death and resurrection, he opened again the door of heaven, but this time from creation-side, and as he goes through it he takes those who have come to him with him.

So today we entrust Peggy into the hands of the one she put her hope in. And as she goes through the door into eternity that Jesus has opened, she won’t need her chair. She will stand and she will join the crowd of those who worship and sing the praise of the One who is bigger than all our understanding, who was with her all her life, who loved her, died for her and who is bigger than death.

And for you who are left?

‘Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength’

That same promise of God’s comfort and strength is there for you if you wish

I really do pray that you know that deep comfort – through really good friends and family, through glimpses of the future, through the strength that comes from prayer and through the presence of the living Jesus who is with you.

God bless you.