Saturday, 30 September 2017

Changing your mind

The question that the chief priests and elders ask is one of the most important questions that was asked of Jesus: What is your authority?

Is his authority simply ‘earthly’?
Does his authority rest solely on the fact that he was a charismatic attractive individual, who was able to speak well, do remarkable things and draw crowds?
Because if that is the case, we can respect him as a great historical figure, we can admire and learn from his teaching, we can marvel at his works – but he does not have any claim on our life.
We can treat him as we would treat any other great figure from history. We can learn from him, and we can pick and choose which bits we like from him and reject the rest.

But if Jesus’ authority comes from heaven, if he is the eternal Son of God, then we really need to listen to what he says, and do what he says. If he has come from God, does the work of God and speaks the word of God, then we need to treat him as God.  

So the chief priests and elders’ question is really important: “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority”.

But Jesus doesn’t answer the question.
He seems to avoid it; and he does that by asking the chief priests a question which he knows they cannot answer.
They cannot say that John’s baptism was from heaven, because Jesus will then ask them why they not did receive John’s baptism.
But the they also cannot say what they really thought - that John’s baptism was from earth – in other words it was something that John had made up – because John had martyr status among the people. He had been beheaded by Herod only a few months earlier, and the people treated him as a prophet. So they can’t say it.
It is like asking a Dinamo fan to go into the middle of a crowd of Spartak supporters and to shout ‘Spartak are rubbish’. You are not going to do it, unless you have a death wish.

So is Jesus being a little bit devious or crafty here in order to avoid answering the question? Or is he, as I suspect, doing something more?

You see the chief priests and elders had made up their mind. They had decided that Jesus was an imposter. That his authority came only from earth and not from heaven. They didn’t know how he did the stuff that he did, but they were convinced it was not of God.

And Jesus knew that if he told them that his authority came from heaven, it would not make the slightest difference.

But I think that Jesus, by pointing the chief priests and elders to John the Baptist in Matt 21, is trying to persuade them that, however unlikely it is, they can still change their mind.

In Matt 21.29, Jesus tells of two sons. The first son said No, but then we are told ‘he changed his mind’.

And in v32 he says to the chief priests and elders:
“You saw how sinners believed John when he declared to them that the Kingdom of God, the rule of God, is so near.
You saw how they heard him when he called them to repent: to stop living for yourself or for other people or for the things of this world; and to start to live for God, and for the things of that world. Stop doing the things that God hates: lying, stealing, using your power to exploit people, keeping what you have got for yourself – and start to live the things that God loves: generousity and kindness and mercy and honesty.
And you saw how sinners repented when John preached. You saw them go to him, confess their sins, and seek God’s strength to change. You saw them go into the water with John as they symbolically asked God to wash away their sin and give them a new life.
You saw all of this, he says, and yet (v32), ‘You did not change your minds and believe him’.

Jesus did not publicly declare that his authority came from God until the very end.
There is a strong emphasis on this in the gospels.
The demons recognise him as Messiah and want to proclaim it, and Jesus orders them to be silent
Those who are healed dramatically recognise him as Messiah and they want to proclaim it, but he tells them to be silent
His followers finally get it, and they say to Jesus, shall we go and tell people now, and Jesus says No!
The reason he doesn’t want to self-declare his authority is because as soon as he self-declares it, people have to make a decision.
Do I believe him or not?
Do I accept him or do I reject him as nuts?

And it seems to me that Jesus, in his mercy, even now, is giving the chief priests and elders one more reason for believing that he is the Son of God, that his authority does come from God. He is urging them to look at the sinners, at the tax collectors and prostitutes, who had begun by saying no to God, but who had changed their mind. And he is warning them and us that it is possible to be like the second son, to say yes to God with our lips, but no to God with our lives.

Perhaps you are somebody who still has to make your decision about Jesus.
The fact that you are here probably means that you have not rejected the possibility that Jesus might be the Messiah, the Son of God, but you are not convinced. You are open to have your mind changed.

Well it seems to me that what Jesus is saying to us is, ‘Look at the people who have changed their mind’.

I think of Michael. He was a dear friend to me and he died earlier this week. Michael was a gardener. He wasn’t a bad guy, far from it. Like most people in most places he lived life for himself and his wife and family, he worked hard at a job he was good at and enjoyed, and and he tried not to hurt other people. He didn’t believe. Then, one day, about 30 years ago, he walked into a village church in England and encountered God. He tells me that peace was given to him, almost physically, and it didn’t leave him. He started to come to church and was one of our most faithful worshippers at the early 8am service. Then, about 4 years ago Michael was diagnosed with Motor Neurons disease. It is pretty horrific. It began by affecting his feet and then slowly worked its way up his whole body so that he was finally completely paralysed. Michael decided to read through the bible. I would go and he would ask me to explain certain texts. But as he lost his ability to do literally everything, Michael was given a profound insight into the things of God. He never complained, thanked God for all the blessings God had given him, and especially his wife and daughter. And he said to me that he understood now why God had given him that gift of peace – and he did have this most astonishing sense of peace. We often prayed together that he would have a good death, and in the end, I am told that it was relatively peaceful and painless.

Or I think of Suraj in Bury. He came from a Hindu background, and he married Shani, a committed Catholic Christian. He came to me, about a year later, and asked to be baptised. I asked him why? He said he had looked at Shani’s life, at her patience and goodness and kindness, and at her faith, and he wanted to become a Christian.

And I’ve had the privilege this week of meeting with some of you and hearing how God has touched your life, how he helped you to ‘change your mind’, how you have come to believe, whether that was a sudden experience, or opening you up to a new way of thinking.

And it is good to tell our stories, and to encourage one another, and to see God at work in changing people’s lives.
Because when we see God changing someone’s life, it means that we will be open to change our mind.

Michael and Suraj were neither prostitutes or tax collectors. But I guess prostitutes and tax collectors stand for all who have first said no to God. They are the two extremes. Tax collectors were rich and they had power. There are many ‘tax collectors’ in cities like this. Prostitutes were usually abused and at the very bottom of the heap. There are many ‘prostitutes’ in cities like this.

I would love it if St Andrews were a place where tax collectors and prostitutes, and all of us in between who had consciously or unconsciously said No to God, could hear the word of God.
I would love it if it was a place where people who had said no to God, would be able to look around and see God changing lives: giving people a hunger to worship, to read his word, to put away their old little gods, and to step out in service.
And I would love it if they looked at that, and decided that having said no to Jesus, they might – after all – decide to do what he said.

This passage is about authority.

True authority never needs to be self-proclaimed.

Jesus knew that. In Matthew, Mark and Luke he never proclaims his own authority.
Actually, that is not true.
He does proclaim his authority, but at the very end, as he stands on trial for his life.
The die has been cast; there is now no more time for people to change their mind.
They ask Jesus, ‘Tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God’, and Jesus will reply – Mark makes this absolutely clear – “I am”. There is no ambiguity.

But real authority is revealed when we look at the lives of those who receive that authority. And if we want people to change their minds and submit to the authority of Jesus, they need to see how we have changed our minds and how we have submitted to Jesus.

That is why it is not just about what happens at this end of the church, about what we say or do.  It is equally important about what happens at that end. It is about who we welcome and how we welcome them. It is about the quality of community that we offer. It is about the measure of lives that are being changed, as we kneel before Jesus.

Because when we get it right it really is a witness to the world of the authority of Jesus. 

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Learning to forgive. On the occasion of a wedding blessing for Lev and Vasilisa Buinov

This is a great passage for building a relationship.

It was important for Alison and myself, though probably for the wrong reason!
I was single, and had started work as a curate, an assistant pastor, in Ipswich. I visited, on my rounds, one of the local schools where I saw this rather attractive teacher. Her class were due to take an assembly and she asked me if I would help – she must have been desperate. The assembly was about this story and so we worked together on it. And the rest, as they say, was very good news for Peter, John and Andrew!

And for you Lev and Vasilisa, I hope that this story that Jesus tells will be special for you. Both because it is the set reading for our communion service today, but also because it is about grace and forgiveness – and that is what a marriage, or for that matter, any relationship, is built on.

I’d like to suggest three key words for marriage and relationships

1.      Communication:
It is absolutely key. There will always be issues and problems, things we expect and things we don’t expect. But if we are talking together, if we are being real with each other, we can usually overcome most problems.
But for that to happen we need to learn to share: the everyday stuff, the daily gossip, our thoughts and feelings, and deeper still. That is why it is good to have one or two people with whom we can learn to share our soul.
So we do need to speak, especially when we are hurting. That is the time we can go into ourselves and cut out the other person. Many of us – and this can be particularly a man thing - are like vacuum cleaners which are never emptied. We take the rubbish in, but because we do not speak, or at least we do not speak about real stuff, we fill up and we clog up. And we stop working.
And it is not just about speaking. We also need to learn to listen to each other. To listen to what is said and to listen to what is not said. There are some people who are so good at speaking that they find it very difficult to listen.

2.      Compromise:
This is important for every relationship.
Forgive me for saying this, but it is not all about you.
Former head of our childrens school in BSE. His PA, Deborah, would constantly remind him, “Geoff it is not all about you”. He said, at his leaving do, “Today Deborah it gives me great pleasure to say that today this is all about me!”
But life is not all about me. And we need to be willing to yield, to do what the other person wants. That is as true for work, for a church council, for a bible study group or for a marriage.
Several years ago, in the UK they interviewed on TV a couple who had reached their 80th wedding anniversary. It was a record. They asked the husband what the secret of their marriage was. He replied: “The secret of our marriage can be summed up in two words, ‘Yes Dear’.” But he is right. Not just him to her, but also her to him.

3.      Forgiveness:
That is what our passage is about.

It is a story about a huge debt. A servant owes 1000 times the annual revenue of Galilee, Judea, Samaria and Idumea put together. We don’t know how he came to be so seriously in debt (maybe he had been gambling on the money markets or stock exchange and it had gone disastrously wrong) but it was there and it was unpayable.
It is a story about an astonishing act of compassion.
The servant cries out for mercy and the king cancels the debt. It may have meant that he had to sell off some of his personal assets or that he almost bankrupted himself. But in forgiving the servant, the king himself took the hit.
It is a story about the difference between the king and the unforgiving servant
The king saw the servant before he saw the debt. He saw the servant’s distress. He realised what it would mean for him, for his wife and children. And he had compassion.
But that servant, when he had been forgiven, did not see his fellow servant, but only the debt.
Perhaps he had dwelt on what was owed to him. He had allowed resentment to grow. It had got to him. It had eaten him up. Money can do that.

I remember many years ago when I lent a colleague £50. He said he would repay, but he never did. I think he genuinely forgot, and I resolved to just let it go. But I found it so hard. It kept coming back. And in our story the unforgiving servant, even though he has been forgiven so much, cannot get beyond the debt. He cannot see the person.

Jesus tells that story because he wants us to know that

1.      You are known
God knows us. He knows our deepest desires, our loves, the frustrated ambitions, the greatest regrets, the missed opportunities, the achievements of which we are so proud. He knows our fears; he knows the times when we have been badly hurt; he knows our longings and our joys.
It is a bit scary because he also knows our dark desires, our ungratitude, our selfishness and self-centredness. He sees the people who we have hurt – unintentionally or intentionally. He knows our greed, our lies, our lack of mercy, generousity and graciousness, our  resentment and unforgiveness. He looks and he sees our cold hard hearts.
And he sees the debt that we owe. The debt that we owe to him, and the debt that we owe to each other. And it is overwhelming.
And he looks at our rather sad attempts to deny the debt, and at our pathetic attempts to pay it off: “I’ll give money to the church; I’ll mortify myself; I’ll follow the strictest teachings of the church; I’ll be really good”.
Do you think you can pay off the debt by doing that? What a joke!
We might be able to deceive ourselves. We might be able to deceive other people – even those most close to us. But we cannot deceive God. He knows us.

2.      You are beloved
God knows us and yet – and this is amazing – he still loves us. He sees through the muck, through the debt, through our attempts to justify ourselves and he sees us. He sees the person desperate for love, for significance, for fulfilment and meaning. He sees the lost soul inside us.
And when we cry out to him, when we ask him to have mercy on us, he forgives.
And his love is overwhelming, and it is costly. He took our debt onto, into himself. That is why we have the symbol of Christ on the cross here. It is THE symbol of the love of God.
This is how much he loves you

3.      You are forgiven
Of course, we need to acknowledge our need for forgiveness and we need to be prepared to receive this forgiveness.
That is hard. It is often harder to receive forgiveness than to give forgiveness.
If we give forgiveness we are in control.
If we receive forgiveness we have recognised that we need forgiveness, we lose power and we put ourselves in the other persons debt.

That is why the good news of the Christian faith is both so humbling and so liberating.
It is humbling because Jesus gave everything for me, and there is nothing that I can do to repay him. I am completely in his debt.
But it is liberating because I have been forgiven. I have been forgiven an astonishing overwhelming debt. It has gone. It has been paid.

The gates of heaven, that were so firmly closed, have been blown open

And because we are forgiven we can forgive.

Someone hurts us.
Often, we are most hurt by the people who we are most close to.
I guess we could hold onto the offence, and allow the resentment to grow.
One person said, “In our relationship we don’t have rows. Instead we collect niggles and grudges. We stockpile them, like nuclear warheads, in preparation for the domestic Armageddon”.
Or there was Dennis who told me about his father. His father never spoke to his brother. They had fallen out many years earlier. Dennis asked his father why they had fallen out. His father replied that it was so long ago that he could not remember what the issue was, but he was still not going to speak to his brother.

Yes, we will be hurt. Sometimes very badly hurt.
But as believers we do not need to hold onto resentment. We can be different.

I can look at the other person and see somebody who is just like me. They may have hurt me, but I also have hurt many people.
And I have been forgiven so much, so who am I not to forgive someone else.

So can I suggest, if you are struggling with forgiveness, that we ask God to help us to really see the person who has sinned against us, to see them as someone created and beloved by God, to see them as people who are mucked up by sin, and to see them as someone who is just like me. Because when we do see them as God sees them, as the king saw his servant, then we will have compassion on them.

Lev and Vasilisa, forgive me for speaking about forgiveness today. I guess I have been married long enough to know that there are times when we need to forgive each other. It is how we grow together and how we grow to become more like Jesus Christ.

But we do congratulate you on your wedding, and Lev, we forgive you for stealing our administrator!
But we pray that your love for each other will grow and deepen.
We pray that you will take time to be with each other, to speak with each other, to listen to each other.
We pray that you will learn to say ‘Yes dear’ – especially when you would prefer to say ‘No’.

And as people who are known by God, who are beloved of God and forgiven by God, we pray that you, and each one of us will grow in the knowledge of how much we have been forgiven, and as forgiven sinners, learn to forgive.  

Saturday, 9 September 2017

Listening to each other

We need unity.

We need unity so that we know what to pray for, things will happen and Jesus will be present.

Matthew 18 is about how as Christians, as people who are citizens of the Kingdom of God, we live together. It is remarkably helpful and practical

It tells us (vv1-5) that we need to come into the kingdom as little children - not standing on our status, but receiving it as a gift
It tells us (vv6-14) that because God has welcomed us we need to welcome each other - whoever we are, even the person who we consider the most insignificant. We are not to put obstacles in their way; we are not to despise each other
And it tells us (vv 21-35) that because we are forgiven, we are to forgive each other - not once, not twice, not seven times, but seventy times seven.

And then we have our verses, verses 15-20.

They seem a bit out of place because they speak of church discipline.

But I guess that for a body of people to live together in unity there does need to be some church discipline.

But we need to get it right.

Most of the time we run away from it. We don't like conflict, so we are not prepared to challenge. But that is not great because we end up with churches which stand for nothing, in which anything goes, and which have no prophetic voice.
Or we are big on church discipline. But that has its own dangers. People can be crushed. And so often when churches try to discipline individuals, unless the issue is absolutely clear, you end up with serious division: If I throw the book at you, there is a strong likelihood that you will pick up the book and throw it back at me!

Rather ironically in the CoE, I am told that the clergy discipline measure, which was introduced to give bishops some control over wayward clergy, is used more often by clergy against their bishops: and at one point there were more active cases of clergy using the measure against bishops than of bishops using the measure against clergy.

The only time in my 25 years of ministry that I have had to tell two people that they were not welcome to the Lords table, was when a married woman in the congregation told her husband that she was leaving him, because she was moving in with a single man who was a member of the congregation. They said it was OK because they had prayed about it, and they had peace. I said, and the church said, it was not OK.

But if we look more closely at these verses, the thing that strikes me is that the key word here is the word 'listen'

V15: if the member listens to you
V16: but if you are not listened to
V17: if the member refuses to listen to them
V17: if the offender refuses to listen even to the church

If someone sins against you, then Jesus tells us that we are to go and see them privately, and we are to pray that they will listen to us.

In other words, we are not to talk about them, but to them.
And if we want them to listen to us then can I suggest we do not shout at them, and we do not go to condemn. After all, it is possible that we have got it all wrong. That is particularly the case when we come from different cultures and backgrounds: what you think is normal, might be perceived to be very rude in a different culture.

The purpose of this is not to condemn the other; it is to listen to the other.
The goal of this is restoration. It is to win them; it is to restore our relationship.

And the additional steps only come into play when the other person refuses to listen: refuses to listen to you, to the two or three others, to the church.
And at that point they have really broken fellowship with you - because you cannot be in communion if you refuse to listen to those you claim you are in communion with.
And I have to add that if you are not prepared to listen to your Christian brother or sister, there will come a time when you are not prepared to listen to God.

So I hope and pray that we will be a people who listen to each other - especially when we hurt each other.
It means when we are hurt we don't crawl into a corner and sulk (that's me!) or we don't throw the toys out of the pram.
But we learn to be honest with each other and to listen to each other.

And unity is so important because

1.      When we are united, we know what to pray for

V19: If two of you agree on earth about anything you ask ...

We think that we want something, but it is not really what we either want or need. We may even claim that the Holy Spirit has led us to pray for something. But we are experts, we have level 5s, in deceiving ourselves.

And there is a danger that we are so full of ourselves, of our own ideas, of what we think needs to happen that when we pray it is just an exercise in self obsession.
Jesus told the story of the tax collector and the Pharisee. They both went into the temple to pray. The tax collector cries out to God for mercy, but the Pharisee prattles on telling God how great a person he is, how spiritual, how righteous. And Jesus says that God hears the tax collector, but God cannot hear the Pharisee because, in Jesus words, 'he prays to himself'.

And the answer to our self-obsession? It is to listen.
It is when we listen to others, when we listen to what hurts them, when we listen to how we have hurt them, that our prayers can come alive. We can pray for them, and we can pray for ourselves. We can ask God to fill us with us love.

So we need others, and we need each other.
Notice here how many times in our reading that one needs to become two (or more). You go to your brother or sister, so that the two of you are alone (v15), you take one or two others along with you (v16), if two of you agree on anything (v19), where two or three are gathered (v20)

And as we meet together, as we listen to each other and to God, so we will gradually learn what it is that we are to pray for.

2.      When we are united, things will happen

I guess that is sort of what Jesus means when he speaks about what they loose on earth being loosed in heaven, and what they bind on earth being bound in heaven (v18)

A Jew at the time would know what Jesus meant.

The ones with the power to loose and bind, were the ones who had the power to interpret the law, to say what was acceptable and what was not, and they had the power to admit or exclude from the community.
And now Jesus is saying to his followers that they have that power - not to be used by yourself, for yourself - but to be used with others on behalf of the one who we serve.

And there is a power when we are united, when we listen to each other and when we pray: 'It will be done for you by my father in heaven'.

Things happen: God opens doors, real deep heart work takes place, there are new opportunities for service, amazing 'coincidences' happen, people are healed, relationships restored, the Kingdom of God grows.

When we are united, when we listen to each other, things happen. It was when we prayed and talked together with other churches in our town, that the really remarkable work was able to be done: town pastors, debt relief work, food bank - and we were able to put on some of the most effective evangelistic work.

You've seen that. It is as we work with, for instance, MPC, that we can do so much more.

Things happen when God's people are united and we take God seriously.

3.      And finally, and most importantly, when we are united, Jesus is present.
"For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them"

That is what all of this – church, services, robes, communion - is really all about: It is about meeting with Jesus, the Son of God. It is about knowing Jesus.

Now we know him by faith. We trust that he is with us. We believe his words.
There are moments when we feel his presence with us, and there long periods when we do not feel his presence. But Jesus reassures us that he is with.
And he promises that he is particularly with us when we meet together, when we listen to each other, especially when we have hurt each other - united in his name. He will walk with us, he will guide us and teach us, he will help us in our prayer, he will feed us - not just with physical bread, but with the real true bread, and he will make us more like himself.
So we can call to him, we can trust him even when we do not understand, and as his people who love him, we can know that - whatever it seems, whatever life throws at us - all things work for good.
And one day we will know him not by faith, but by sight. We will see him. He will fill us just as we will be fully part of him.

So I do thank God for you, and for the privilege of coming to work with you, and I pray that God will give us the grace to listen to him and to listen to each other. Because when we listen there can be unity. And when there is unity, we will know what to pray for, stuff will happen, and Jesus will be present.