Monday, 10 December 2018

What if? A sermon for a carol service.

St Andrew’s does not do nativity plays
St Andrew’s does amazing and creative Mike Gibson full scale nativity productions
And last week was no exception.

(click the arrow below for audio)


The toys in a toy shop are told that there will be no nativity play – and so they put one on themselves. Woody was the director and a Tyrannosaurus Rex was his co-producer. Barbie – predictably – was Mary, although she was not impressed when she found out that her husband, Joseph, was to be played by Mr Potato Head. The angel Gabriel was Buzz lightyear, the inn keeper was a penguin, the sheep were played by the three pigs, and the wise men were three aliens. Oh, and the baby Jesus was made from Lego.

Toys allow us to imagine another world

With toys the impossible can happen: they can travel through space, they can speak, they can even put on nativity plays!

With toys there are almost no boundaries: you can do with them what you want. Pigs can be sheep (very C21st), and you can make a baby out of Lego.

The only limit to what toys can be or do is the limit of our imagination.

But as we grow older the worlds that we imagine collide with what others tell us is the real world, and the big kids tell the smaller kids not to be so stupid.

And so toys – and those other worlds - that we once cherished, are discarded. They are left lying at the bottom of the wardrobe and they are forgotten.

And our imagination shrinks

The nativity story points us to another world

It is a story about the birth of a baby - and like most births it is about new life, hope and a future.
But it is more than that.

This is a story in which boundaries are broken and the impossible happens:

A virgin gives birth (even if in the world of obstetrics and gynaecology today, that is a bit passé), people are led by ancient prophecies and dreams, an angelic choir appears to shepherds and a diplomatic envoy is guided by a star.

Of course, the nativity – like a toy - is for children.

‘Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,
The little Lord Jesus lays down his sweet head,
The stars in the bright sky, look down where he lay
The little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay’

It is just play – imagination. And of course, the big kids tell the smaller kids not to be so stupid and to grow up.

But just for a few minutes I invite us to become little kids again; I invite us to imagine - what if.

What if the story is true?

What if there is a God?

What if 2000 years ago the God of the universe, beyond space and time, was born in space and time as a human baby.

What if, in his love for us, God chose to communicate with us, to meet with us, by becoming one of us.

What if this God wants to make us know that it is not just the rich and beautiful and famous and powerful and brilliant who matter to him; but also the people at the bottom: the helpless baby, the refugee, the social outcast, the victim of political tyranny, the night shift worker? This is the cast who make up the heroes of the first nativity.

What if there is another world that is bigger and beyond the world of things that we can see, feel, hear, touch or smell? What if there is a world beyond matter? And what if that world occasionally does break into this world – when the unexplainable and unpredictable and unrepeatable happens – and the eternal kisses the temporal?

What if it is possible to know God? To know God as a loving heavenly Father (and for those who are concerned about these things, Father can be bigger than gender). Not to understand God, but to begin to know God – to glimpse what he delights in: love, truth, mercy, humility, justice and rightness - and what if he can come and live in us so that we begin to share in that delight?

What if death is not the end?

And what if there is a judgement? Not based on how good or bad we were, or on how religious or non-religious we were, but based on how radically honest we have been prepared to be about our human mortality and failings, and on whether we have been prepared to humble ourselves to receive divine mercy, forgiveness and life.

I know that the older kids among us will tell the younger kids not to be so stupid.

There are very few committed atheists (it is hard to commit yourself to a negative), but there are many people (probably many people, if I am being honest, who regularly come to church) who just don’t know.

So for all of us Christmas, the nativity story, gives us the opportunity to stop and think - to imagine a world without God and to imagine a world with God.

In the Silver Chair, the sixth in the Chronicle of Narnia series, written by CS Lewis, Prince Rilian, Eustace, Pole and Puddleglum – a Marshwiggle, who is your ultimate pessimist - have been trapped in the evil witch’s underground enchanted caves. It is dark and gloomy; there is no singing and laughter. And they’re forgetting that there is such a thing as the world that is above, that there are such things as the sun or stars or ocean or rivers or grass - they have a vague memory of them, but it is fading fast. And then suddenly Puddleglum, who realises he has been enchanted, chooses to put his foot in the fire and burn it, in order to bring himself back to his senses. And he speaks up.
“One word, Ma'am," he said [to the witch], .. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things - trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan [the great Lion, the ruler of Narnia] himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that's a funny thing, when you come to think of it. If you’re right, we're just babies making up a game. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That's why I'm going to stand by the play world. I'm on Aslan's side even if there isn't any Aslan to lead it. I'm going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn't any Narnia.
So I would ask you not to so easily discard the nativity story, and for this Christmas, I invite you to become like children: to scrabble at the bottom of the wardrobe and to get out the old discarded toys and to play, to imagine and to think ‘What if - this story is real’.

What if God loved us enough to come as one of us, to be born as a baby? What if all this talk of the kingdom and rule of God, of the forgiveness of sin, of a purpose and destiny in life, of the Holy Spirit to live in us and change us, of the possibility of friendship with Jesus, and of the hope of heaven – what if it is true?





Thursday, 29 November 2018

A sermon for St Andrew's day

Thank you for joining us as we celebrate St Andrew’s day

It is not just our patronal festival, but also the anniversary of the first service on this site.

In 1829 on 1 December, the first Anglican worship was celebrated here in what was then Большой Чернышевский переулок.

That, however, was not in this building. This building, St Andrew’s, saw its first service in 1885. It was named after St Andrew because many of those who paid for the work were Scottish merchants and business men who lived in Moscow, and St Andrew is the patron saint of Scotland

It seems a highly providential patronage


St Andrew is someone who can unite us.
He points us to the very beginning of the undivided church. He is honoured in both East and West.
And of course, St Andrew is not only the patron saint of Scotland but also of Russia.

St Andrew is reported in the gospels as being the first of the disciples called by Jesus.
That was not a calling not just to honour, but to responsibility and ultimately to great personal sacrifice. The call to Andrew was the call to follow Jesus: to follow him in his way of life, in his obedience to and trust of the Father – even to the extent of laying down his life. It was the call to share in the mission of Jesus: which is to draw all people into a relationship with the Father.

St Andrew was called to call people to Jesus.

And he does that:
He calls his brother. He says to Simon Peter, ‘We have found the Messiah’. He brought Simon to Jesus
He brings the little boy with five loaves and two fishes to Jesus. When the other disciples are standing around and not sure what to do – because Jesus has told them to buy food for a crowd that was at least 5000 strong – it is Andrew who says, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish”. I wonder whether that might have been Andrew trying to make a joke: ‘5000 people. Don’t worry Lord, we have 5 loaves and 2 fishes’. But the thing about Jesus is that he turns our jokes into miracles.
And Andrew brings the Greeks to Jesus. They wanted to see Jesus, but they weren’t Jews and so they were nervous about approaching a Jewish rabbi. So they talk with Philip and Philip talks with Andrew, and Andrew tells Jesus.

And according to the tradition, Andrew continued to draw people to Jesus. After the resurrection he preached in Scythia, in Kiev and even – possibly - Novgorod. He preached in Thrace and founded the church in a small town that was then known as Byzantion.

And St Andrew followed Christ to the cross,
quite literally. Because of his faith he was crucified on an X shaped cross

My prayer for the people of St Andrew’s Church is that we will learn to be like St Andrew
That we will know ourselves as called by Jesus – beloved by him, chosen by him and called by him to follow him, and to share in his mission.

And my prayer is that we will have a deep conviction that Jesus is the Messiah, that he can turn 5 loaves and 2 fish into a feast that provides for 5000 people, that he would draw all people to himself.

And my prayer is that we will be people who bring others to Jesus. That we will bring those who are closest to us to Jesus – that is often the hardest task; that we will bring those who seem the most unlikely or the most insignificant to Jesus; and that we will bring those who are outsiders to Jesus.

I am, probably as a result of living here, becoming much more aware of the gift of the church and of the communion of the saints. As the writer to the Hebrews says, ‘We are surrounded by a great host of witnesses’. One of those witnesses is St Andrew. And I thank God for him, for his communion with us in the fellowship of the saints, for his obedience to Jesus’ call, for his passion for Jesus and for his willingness to give everything and to follow him

Saturday, 17 November 2018

Meeting with God

Hebrews 10.19-25


I would like to speak today about meeting with God.

'Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus .. let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith’ (v19,22)

We come to church, we pray, we have chill moments, but few of us really know God.

The amazing thing is that we are invited to come into the presence of God. That is what prayer really is.

In the Old Testament, people realised something that we have forgotten, particularly in our Western traditions: you cannot simply rock up into the presence of God.

They understood with a clarity that we have lost, that God is utterly holy and totally other. He is awesome

On one occasion Moses dares to ask God for a vision. He says to God, ‘would you show yourself to me’. And God replies and says, ‘Moses, I am so holy, so other, so utterly beyond anything that you can conceive or imagine, that if you saw me, it would blow your mind. Nobody can look me and live. But’ – he says – ‘I will show you something. I’ll show you my back, my shadow’.

Or think of Uzzah. He was one of the people who had to transfer the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem. The ark was being drawn by oxen, but it shook. So Uzzah put out his hand to steady the ark, and he touched it. And we are told that God struck him and he died on the spot. At which point the people very wisely decided that they would leave the ark where it was.

Or Isaiah. He is a prophet in the Old Testament. He has a vision of angels and archangels and the throne of God; he glimpses a little of the glory of God. And he says, ‘Woe is me for I am sinful person and I live among sinful people and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts’.

Or when the people of Israel are in the wilderness – they’ve come out of Egypt but haven’t yet entered the promised land – they come to the Mountain of Sinai. And God appears to them – the glory of God appears. There is thick cloud and fire and thunder. And the people are terrified. So they say to Moses, ‘you go up the mountain, because we cannot. If we go up we will die’.

God is like lightening. And he created each of us in his image to be little channels of lightening. But because of my sin, my disobedience to God, my rebellion against God, I have ceased to be lightening. And so, if God – who is lightening - touches me, or if I touch God, then I am dead.

You can’t simply rock up into the presence of God.

But God in his love, wants to have a relationship with us – despite our sin. He wants us to be intimate with him. He wants us to come to him, to reach out to him, to touch him - without us being burnt up.

And so he gives to the people of the Old Testament a way of coming safely into his presence.

He gives them the temple in Jerusalem, a place where they can meet him safely.

It was a large building divided into sections. On the outside was the court of the Gentiles, non-Jews. That was as far as Gentiles could go. Then you had the court of the women, the court of men, and the court of priests. And beyond the court of priests was the holy place. Only those priests who were on the service rota could go there. And right at the very heart of the holy place, separated from it by a huge curtain, was the holy of holies – the place where God dwelt. And only the high priest could go into the holy of holies, once a year.

And God also gave them the gift of sacrifice.

The High Priest couldn’t just waltz into the Holy of Holies.
He couldn’t put on his Sunday best and walk in.
He could only come into the presence of God if he was covered by a sacrifice. He identified himself with an animal. That animal was then killed – in his place – the blood was smeared on him, and he was able to go into the presence of God.

And what about the rest of the people of the Old Testament who couldn’t go there?

Well, they could turn to the priests, who could turn to the High Priest. And God said that if they came to the temple and made a sacrifice then he would hear their prayers. They would be allowed to touch the lightening and to live.

But, says the writer to the Hebrews, with the coming of Jesus, something remarkable happened. There was a change

Jesus, he says, is the great high priest, who – when he died on the cross 2000 years ago – made one final all-sufficient sacrifice for all people – for Gentiles, for women, for men - for all time.

So we no longer need the temple and we no longer need priests – in the Old Testament sense – because we have a great high priest. We no longer need to be smeared with the blood of animal sacrifices, because the blood of Jesus covers us.

And the amazing thing, and it is amazing, is that because of Jesus we can touch lightening. Because of Jesus we can come into the presence of God and not be struck dead. It says here, ‘He has made a new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh)’.

So I imagine it a little like this:

We are about to pray. We are about to approach lightening. We stand nervously at the entrance of the temple. We think, ‘can I go in, will I be welcome?’ But Jesus is also there. And he takes us by the hand and he walks us through the court of the Gentiles and the court of the women and the court of the men and the court of the priests. And if people stop and stare and say, ‘why are you here?’, when they see we are with Jesus they step back and allow us to go through. And Jesus brings us into the Holy Place. In front of us we see the curtain .. But the curtain is torn. It was torn in two from top to bottom when Jesus died on the cross. And we look through the torn curtain, and we see .. nothing. We turn to Jesus and we say, ‘But I thought I came here to meet with God’. And Jesus says, ‘The curtain tore from top to bottom not to allow you in – but to show that God is no longer there. He has come out’. And you say to him, ‘So where is he?’ And Jesus smiles, and says, ‘I am here, beside you, with you and in you’.

So we are invited not just to pray for things – that is like treating God as the genii in the bottle - but we are invited to actually come into the presence of God. We are invited to approach and to touch lightening. And we can come with assurance.

We come with a true heart – we come as we are, not pretending to be anything else, with all our worries and fears and anxieties and desires and shame and mixed up emotions. We come as open as we can be about our failures and our doubts and our weaknesses. And we come to him because we want to know God.

And we come with a heart sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and a body washed with pure water.

It is obviously a reference to baptism: to repentance and faith. Because however foul our conscience, however much we cringe and want to crawl into a corner when we remember what we have done to other people; and however stained our body by sin (just think of Lady Macbeth looking at her hands and seeing the invisible blood: ‘Out, damn'd spot! out, I say!’) – if we have turned to Jesus in repentance, then we come as forgiven men and women, washed inside and outside by God’s holy Spirit.

We can talk about God, read Christian books, say prayers, come to communion – but not meet with the presence of God. That happens when we hold onto ourselves – our agenda, our status, our lives. It is only when we are prepared to let go of those things, and surrender everything to him, seek him with our whole heart and put our full assurance in Jesus, that we will meet with him.

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your Kingdom come, your will be done
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

We really do need to hold together the holiness and the intimacy.

Some traditions within the Christian church emphasise the utter holiness and otherness of God.

When a person first goes into an Orthodox Church they go into another world. Often above us is an image of Christ the judge. There is a different language that needs to be learned. There are many more rules than here, and some of them are very strict. The liturgy is given and long. You realise very quickly that God is other, that God is not to be messed with, that God asks for everything from you. And yet as you grow in that tradition, you also begin to understand the central place of intimacy with God and love for God. You only need to read the writings of the saints, and fathers and mothers, ancient and modern, to realise that. This is a tradition in which you begin on your knees and the Lord Jesus lifts you up.

We, in our Western tradition, tend to begin with the intimacy and love of God, and emphasise the truth that Jesus is our friend. We try to strip away rules to make it open and accessible to everyone. But as we grow in our Christian faith, we will begin to realise that the one who is our friend is also the eternal Son of God, is holy, is lightening. We begin by standing up, and the Lord Jesus helps us to kneel.

Whatever tradition we are part of, we need to remember that we are invited, and encouraged, to come into the presence of God.

‘Let us approach ..’
And we are invited and encouraged to come ‘in full assurance’.
Not in ourselves, for we cannot simply rock up into the presence of God. But in Jesus.

And so this invitation is for everyone. Or at least it is for everyone who is prepared to put their trust in Jesus and not in their own righteousness or unworthiness.

You can come into God’s presence anywhere and at any time: on the metro, at 3am in the morning when you can’t sleep, or during the day. In our heart and in our mind we can turn to him.

But it is also helpful to put aside time when you consciously choose to approach God. And that might involve going to a place which is special for you, or kneeling, or turning off the phone. Jesus says, ‘When you pray .. go into your room and shut the door’. But at that moment you are consciously and deliberately giving yourself to God.

And of course, it is important to come to church in order to meet together, encourage one another in this and receive him. The passage speaks about the need to keep on meeting together, and not get in the habit of not coming to church. It is significant that it speaks of the habit of not coming to church.

And what we are doing today is a particularly powerful picture of what this is all about.

In a few minutes time we will be invited to come forward for communion.
Don’t come forward thinking that this is our right. This is one of the moments when we are coming forward to touch holiness.
But equally don’t hold back – because you do not think you are sufficiently worthy.
You are not! But we come with the assurance that Jesus is our high priest, who loves us, who died for you, who is our high priest, and has opened a new and living way for us to come into the presence of God.

Tony Campolo writes, ‘Sitting with my parents at a Communion service when I was very young, perhaps six or seven years old, I became aware of a young woman in the pew in front of us who was sobbing and shaking. The minister had just finished reading the passage of Scripture written by Paul that says, "Whosoever shall eat the bread and drink the cup of the Lord unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord" (1 Corinthians 11:27). As the Communion plate with its small pieces of bread was passed to the crying woman before me, she waved it away and then lowered her head in despair. It was then that my Sicilian father leaned over her shoulder and, in his broken English, said sternly, "Take it, girl! It was meant for you. Do you hear me?"
She raised her head and nodded—and then she took the bread and ate it. I knew that at that moment some kind of heavy burden was lifted from her heart and mind.

Jesus is the one who brought you to church today. He is the one who is beside you now as I speak, telling you – ‘that Malcolm – he speaks far too many words. Don’t listen to that. Ah. But do listen to this, because this is what I want you to hear’. And he is the one, when you get up to come forward, who will come with you. And as you stand here, he is standing beside you. And as you eat the bread and drink the wine, he is the one who, by faith, will come into you and change you.

You will meet with the holy one and he will begin to make you holy.

Friday, 9 November 2018

Remembrance Sunday in Moscow 2018


On this day, 100 years ago, at 5 o’clock in the morning, the armistice was signed. It stated that at 11am all hostilities would cease. But fighting continued to the bitter end. On the last day there were 10944 casualties and 2738 deaths, before what we know as the first world war came to an end.

On the front, news of the Armistice was met with disbelief that the end really had come, with simple relief, grief for those who had not made it, and with utter weariness. One British colonel reported that at exactly 11am, as the guns fell silent, German soldiers climbed out of their trenches, bowed and walked away.

And whilst, certainly among the Allied powers, there was jubilation back at home, Robert Graves, the war poet who had served at the front, writes, ‘the news sent me out walking alone above the marshes of Rhuddlen cursing and sobbing and thinking of the dead’. And when Sassoon wrote his poem, ‘Everyone sang’, which we will hear in a few minutes, Graves retorted that ‘everyone’ did not include him.

But the reality was that a war that had lasted 52 months, that had drawn in 70 million military participants from the entire globe, that had left at least 9 million combatants and 7 million civilians dead as a direct result had finally ended.

It is impossible to overestimate its significance. It was the war that began and shaped the 20th Century. It led directly to the revolution here and subsequent genocides and famine; it was the main reason why the flu epidemic of 1918 was so globally devastating: that left between 50 and 100 million people dead; and the unresolved rivalries, added to the humiliation and sense of betrayal felt by the peoples of the central powers, led directly to the events of 1933 and following.

If nothing else, it should remind us of something that those of you who serve as diplomats are probably more aware than most: that war will never end war. The war that was to end all war led to revolution, genocide and further war. War leads to war, unless there is significantly more effort and more money put into making the peace than there is that is put into fighting the war.

And today, as we mark the centenary of the armistice and the end of the First World War, is the day when we can come out of the trenches, bow to each other and stand side by side, as our political leaders are doing today – despite their differences - as we recognise our common humanity, and together remember and grieve and honour those who were and are willing to serve their country, even to the point of sacrificing their lives – each man or woman doing their duty.

Today can be one of those days when we realise that what unites us is far greater than what divides us; when we can seek the things that really do bring peace.

We recognise that each human person, each one of the 16 million and countless others who have died in war or terror, the ones who we personally remember; each one has an intrinsic identity and value and dignity. We are not just a number. We are, if we choose to receive it, created by God, unique and beloved of God.
God says, through the prophet Isaiah, to the people of Israel – who have suffered dreadful defeat and who, for the second time in their history, have become a slave nation – ‘I have not forgotten you .. See I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands’.
And we hold it to be true that this God, who has now made himself known to all people, speaks those words to us today. They, you, are incredibly precious to God.

And secondly we are, if we choose to receive it, created by God to live in community.
Isaiah speaks of the promised new world where people who are scattered and isolated are brought together. We do not need to define ourselves in opposition to the other, we do not need to have enemies in order to know who we are. Rather we discover who we are in relationship with the other.
And the language of our reading is astonishingly intimate: ‘Lift up your eyes all around and see; they all gather, they come to you. As I live, says the Lord, you shall put all of them on like an ornament, and like a bride you shall bind them on’.
And surely we here, who have the privilege of living as international citizens, must glimpse that there is some truth in that. You do not take away from my ‘me-ness’. You – like exquisite jewellery - enrich, no adorn, who I am, and I pray that I may enrich and adorn who you are.

And thirdly, in our reading from James – James was the brother of Jesus – we read of a wisdom that can bring peace. It is a gift of God and anyone can ask of it from God. It is pure, peaceable, gentle, willing to yield – why, because the person who has this wisdom knows that they are beloved of God and they have nothing to prove. It is full of mercy and good fruits. It has no trace of partiality – it treats all people the same, as created by the glory of God for the glory of God and intended to shine with the radiance of the glory of God. And with this wisdom there is no hypocrisy, no judgementalism. The person who humbly asks for this wisdom, and who is growing in this wisdom does not claim to have arrived or to be perfect, just forgiven and beloved.

Today is a day of remembrance, of lament for the millions whose lives were cut short – in the First World War and in subsequent conflicts. But it is also a day of hope. Today exposes our pathetic attempts to live as self-contained gods. We crawl out of our trenches, and we stand side by side, and we look at what we have done to each other. And we recognise our common humanity and our need for each other. And perhaps some of us will look up, and will cry out for the gift of that wisdom from above.

Friday, 2 November 2018

A sermon for All Saints day

John 11.32-44



It is lovely to be back here in St Petersburg

In our reading, Mary – and those with her – look at the grave of Lazarus and they see and they smell death. Jesus looks at the grave of Lazarus, and he sees the glory of God.

This is not just about being an optimist or pessimist, whether you see a glass half full and half empty.

It is about seeing the world in two completely different ways: it is about seeing the world through human eyes or seeing the world through Holy Spirit eyes.

I don’t know whether you noticed how often the verb ‘see’ appears in our passage.

When Mary saw Jesus v32
When Jesus saw her v33
They say to Jesus, ‘Come and see’ v34
And when Jesus weeps, they say, ‘see how he loved him’ v36
And the great statement of Jesus in v40: ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’

And there are other references to seeing and not seeing.

When the people ask each other why Jesus had not healed Lazarus, they remember how he has healed a blind man. He enabled someone who could not see to see.
And when Lazarus comes out of the tomb, Jesus commands them not only to unbind his hands and feet, but also to unbind his face, to take away the wraps that were covering his face– so that he can see.

That is the gift of God: the miracle, the gift of the Holy Spirit who enables us to really see.

When I worked in London I used to go and visit Derek. Derek was going blind. But week on week as I met with him, I was astonished at how God was coming daily more alive for him, giving him not external physical sight, but deep inner spiritual sight.

And Paul writes about how we are blinded by the god of this world, how our faces are covered with a veil, but how the Spirit comes and takes away from us that veil, so that we can begin to truly see.

Mary and those with her looked at the grave of Lazarus and they saw death.

Last week the wife of Sergei, one of our guards, died. Natalya Alekseevna was only 53 and her death was completely unexpected. The funeral was on Friday. And he is devastated. Death has stepped in and shattered his life. It has stripped him of the person he most loved, and of the person he had built his life together with for the last 35 years.

And for the people of this world, who can only see this world, it is desperately tragic. Death for them really is the final word.

That is why we find it so difficult to deal with:

In our pain and grief we sometimes look for someone to blame. We see that here: Mary says, ‘Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died’. And the crowd echo her criticism: ‘he has made blind people see, so why couldn’t he heal Lazarus?’

Just as an aside, I do have sympathy for doctors. We expect them to save us – to save us from death. But they are only human. They work in human institutions, they make the sort of mistakes all humans make, and they have limited human knowledge. They cannot stop death. And yet so often they get blamed when death happens.

And we push death away; we pretend it does not happen; we do everything we can to avoid facing it (especially in Western societies) – and when it does happen, and someone who we love dies, we are - quite literally - gutted.

Mary looks at the grave of Lazarus and she sees death

But Jesus looks at the situation with very different eyes

1. He looks at those who are bereaved with the eyes of love and compassion.

He sees the grief of Mary and Martha.

He sees that it is as if someone has taken a hammer and smashed their world into smithereens.

Not only had they lost someone they loved dearly, and who had loved them dearly, but they appear to be unmarried and to have lived with their brother, and so in their culture they had lost the person who would have provided and protected them.

Jesus sees their grief, their devastation. He sees the grief of others who have come to mourn Lazarus. He sees what death does. And he is moved. He weeps.

John 11.35 is one of the shortest verses in the bible: in the Greek it is only two words long – Jesus wept. But it is also one of the most precious

That was really what they needed. Not some platitude which changes nothing. When I was in the parish in the UK we had many funerals. And there were some occasions when there simply was nothing to say. And all I could do was go in and simply sit with the person.

And in her grief and confusion and despair in the face of death, Jesus comes to Mary and he listens to her and he weeps with her.

2. But Jesus looks at the tomb of Lazarus and he sees the glory of God

He asks, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They say to him, ‘come and see’.

They take him to see a grave, a tomb. They take him to see a full stop – not a full stop at the end of a sentence or the end of a paragraph, but a full stop at the end of the book. The last word has been written. The last full stop is in place. And the book of Lazarus is closed.

But Jesus does not see a grave that is a full stop. He sees beyond the grave. He says to them, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God’.

Jesus knows what his Father in heaven is going to do for Lazarus, and he knows what his Father in heaven will do for all those who put their trust in him.

The grave is only our temporary resting place. We only have short term tenancy. Our bodies may decay, they may become as nothing, but one day – to the glory of God and by the glory of God - they will be raised.

Paul writes to the Christians in Corinth, ‘For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality’.

Today we remember All Saints day.

And it really is all about how we see things.

How do we see ourselves?
I think it was Ernest Hemingway who wrote,
‘Life is just a dirty trick. A short journey from nothingness to nothingness’.

Or as Macbeth says, on hearing of the death of his wife,
‘Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow,
A poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more:
It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’

Because both Hemingway and Shakespeare are speaking truth if death is the end.

And how do we see the church?
A human institution that is hopelessly compromised and irrelevant to what really matters?

On Thursday I went to a meeting of the Russia British Chamber of Commerce. The old Trade Centre in Moscow was packed out with men and women in suits. And I confess I was tempted to think, this is the place where it really happens, that really matters, where things get things done. Making money, doing business. And Christianity – it is just a leisure time activity for people like you or me with rather odd ways of thinking. And I felt very little and very much on the outside.

And maybe we look at ourselves here, Anglican Christians in St Petersburg with a small congregation, no full-time pastor, struggling to survive on the edge, and dependent on the kindness and generousity of our hosts. And we look at ourselves and we think we are simply irrelevant.

We need Jesus to work a miracle in us.

We need him to open our eyes as he opened the eyes of the man born blind.
We need him to order them to take away the wrappings that cover our face so that we can see.
So that we realise that the grave – while it is awful because it separates us from those who we love - is not final. It is not the full stop.

I love that phrase that Paul uses: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory’
2000 years ago, Jesus Christ was crucified and he rose from the dead.

And yes we are separated from those we love by space and time; yes there is a great divide; but we are also at one with them, in communion with them, because they are in the Lord and we are in the Lord.
As one great hymn writers put it, ‘We feebly struggle, they in glory shine’.

And we need him to work a miracle in us, so that we see the true Church:
the glorious Church of men and women forgiven and made perfect, of angels and saints, of those who have gone before us and of those who will come after us.
When we come here together, we don’t come to summon up worship of God. We come to join in with the worship of heaven.
When we pray ‘our Father’, ‘our’ is not just us gathered here – ‘our’ includes all who have been and all who are and all who will be followers of our Lord Jesus Christ, members of his Church. We are joining in with the prayer of the true Church, the prayer of the people of heaven addressed to the Father of heaven.

We need that miracle so that our eyes are opened and we see worship and the praise of God, and the work of loving people into this community of worship, not as some religious sideshow, but as the ultimate purpose and joy of the whole of creation.

Sunday, 14 October 2018

Giving up everything for eternal life

Mark 10.17-31

 

This is one of those profoundly disturbing passages.

Jesus challenges all our ideas about goodness and about wealth, and we find ourselves stripped naked before him

He challenges our ideas about goodness

The man calls Jesus ‘Good Teacher’.

Jesus cuts him down, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone’. (v18)

That is radical.

Jesus is in fact saying, ‘There is no such thing as a good person’.

There is goodness, but nobody can really be described as ‘good’

That is quite hard to take. Especially for this man who was counting on his goodness to get into heaven.

He claims to have kept all the law: ‘All these I have kept since my youth’.
And there is no reason to doubt that claim.
Look at what Jesus lists: murder, adultery, stealing, bearing false witness, defrauding others, honouring your father and mother. He could say, ‘I haven’t murdered anybody, committed adultery, born false witness (in court), defrauded anyone (in a significant way), and I’ve honoured my parents.

You could say that you have either done those things or not done them.

But if you have done what is right by the law, then all that does is make you someone who is good at keeping the law – you conform to the requirements of society. It doesn’t make you a good person.

The goodness that God is looking for is not surface goodness but heart goodness. It is not about just about behaviour; it is about what is going on in here.

And often it is people who we think of as good who would be the first to say that they are far from good. John Stott, an immensely godly, gifted and humble Christian bible teacher who lived in the UK and died a few years ago, was on one occasion introduced to his audience with a glowing introduction. He replied by saying, ‘Thank you. But if you could see into my heart you would want to spit in my face’.

The point is – and even though you may find this disturbing, I also hope that you will find it liberating – however good you are you will never be good enough to get into heaven. ‘No one is good’, says Jesus, ‘except God alone.

I think this man knew that. Yes, he had ticked all the boxes, but he knew that something was missing. That was why he had come to Jesus.

2. Jesus challenges ideas about money

In Judaism, and to be honest, still in our world today, having money is considered to be a blessing, a mark of God’s favour

If you have money you have power. You can make choices, go where you want. You think you have security – at least until those things happen which not even all the money in the world can prevent.

But Jesus seems to be saying here that having a lot of money is not a blessing but a curse. It prevents people from entering the Kingdom of Heaven

‘How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the Kingdom of God’ (v23)

‘It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God’ (v25)

That is something that speaks to many of us here. We may not have the wealth of an oligarch, but by whatever global standards you choose to use, many of us here are wealthy. And money traps us.

It trapped this man.

When Jesus said to him, ‘One thing you lack – sell what you have and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven’, he couldn’t do it.

I guess Jesus is asking him, ‘how much do you really want to enter the Kingdom of Heaven; how much do want eternal life? How much do you want to be saved?’ Those are the three phrases that are used here. In other words, because this is what it is really all about, ‘How much do you want God – how much do you want to know God, and know his goodness, to know his joy and to share in his life – a life which far far bigger than death?’ Do you want that so much that you are prepared to renounce everything that you have in order to get it.

You have to give Jesus this: he was utterly consistent.

He speaks of the Kingdom of God as a uniquely precious diamond. Someone sees it and they want it. They want it so badly, that they sell everything that they have, their entire jewel collection, in order to buy that one diamond.

He tells people who want to come and follow him, but who ask him to allow them first to bury their father, or to even just say goodbye to their family – that if they go back they cannot be his disciples.

He teaches the crowds that if they do not hate their fathers and mothers and even their own life, they cannot be his followers.

He talks of giving up all you have if you wish to follow him.

We need to get this. Before we can enter the Kingdom of Heaven we need to be prepared to renounce everything that we are, everything that we have.

We come to Jesus with two suitcases – our goodness suitcase and our stuff suitcase – and we say I want to follow you. And Jesus says, ‘I’ll take you, but I can’t take that.’ First put them down.

We need to stand naked, alone before God – with nothing

That is the symbolism of what happened at your baptism – or, if you have not yet been, what will happen when you are baptised.

As we are washed with the water – in many churches here you will be submerged under the water – it is a symbol that I am dying: dying to this world, dying to my ideas of goodness, dying to my stuff.

And we cannot come alive to God, we cannot enter the Kingdom of heaven, while we are still clinging to this world and what it offers.

But please do not despair.

There are also some tremendous reassurances here.

1.      Jesus looked at this man who came to him and, we are told, loved him.

And Jesus looks at you and he loves you. Yes, he asks you to do something that appears incredibly difficult, but he does it because he loves you.

He delights in you. He longs for the absolute best for you – so that you will become the person that he created you to be. He deeply desires to be in communion with you, and he invites you to come into communion with him.

When we surrender all that we have and are to Jesus, we are surrendering ourselves to one who loves us deeply – who loved us so much that he was prepared to go to the cross in order to win us.

2.      Jesus offers this man a new life.

He says to this man, ‘Sell what you have .. and come and follow me’.

Jesus invites this man to become one of his followers. He is saying literally ‘come with me’. Go where I go, camp where I camp, to eat what I eat, learn from me.

This man was invited to speak Jesus words and to do Jesus’ deeds.

And for us, it is not just the call to give up the things that we cannot give up, but it is the invitation to live a new life: a life lived with Jesus, as part of his family.

3. Jesus promises that whatever we leave for him, however big or little, it will be returned to us – almost certainly not in the same way – but many times over. And not only then – also now, in this world [vv29-30]

You see this is not just about eternal life. This is about beginning to live the Kingdom of God here and now in this world

That is a promise which many people have found to be true.

Think of people in history who have heard Jesus speaking to them through this passage literally. People who have become monks or missionaries. People like St Anthony or St Francis or St Augustine. People like CT Studd, Jackie Pullinger.

And for others – people who have given up much in order to be obedient to the call of God. 

Please hear me when I say that this passage is not the entire teaching of the bible on personal wealth. I don’t think everyone is called to sell everything. That was certainly not the assumption of the early church. But the key point is that if money and the pursuit of money has got a hold on you, for the sake of God you have got to give it up

Clement of Alexandria wrote in Salvation of the Rich Man, “If one is able in the midst of wealth to turn from its mystique, to entertain moderate desires, to exercise self-control, to seek God alone, and to breathe God and walk with God, such a man submits to the commandments, being free, unsubdued, free of disease, unwounded by wealth. But if not, “sooner shall a camel enter through a needle’s eye, than such a rich man reach the kingdom of God.”

4. I’m not sure whether this is reassuring or not, but Jesus also promises us that there will be persecution. I guess it is a reassurance that – when they come - we are on the right track; and if they don’t come, then we can thank God, but also re-examine ourselves and ask whether we are living for the world’s standards on goodness and stuff – or for God’s standards

5.  You will receive eternal life.

Imagine that you are this man. You are one of the wealthiest people on this planet. And Jesus had looks at you and says to you, ‘You can buy eternal life. It is very expensive – it will cost you $100 billion’. You think: ‘I could do it. I could get $100bn if I sold everything – my companies, my houses, my football clubs, my islands. It will strip me of everything, and I will have nothing. I could end up homeless. My reputation will be shot to pieces. I would probably have to beg, throw myself on the mercy of others’.   
Is it worth it? Would you do it?
We’re not talking 15 or 20 extra years of life. We’re talking life in the Kingdom of God – where there is right-ness, mercy, peace and joy – we’re talking life with God. And we’re talking eternal life.

And this is not a theoretical question. Because Jesus looks at you with what you do have, and he says to each of us: you can buy eternal life. You don’t have $100bn dollars but it won’t cost you $100bn. Instead it will cost you all that you have.

Is it worth it? Will you do it?

Friday, 28 September 2018

Good works, faith and prayer

James 5.13-19



People say that James is all about doing good works and not about faith.

Well certainly, James is immensely practical

He challenges us

To control the tongue, what we say :
· not to speak evil of each other (4.11)
· not to grumble against each other (5.9)
· not to boast (claiming that I am going to do this or that and forgetting God) (4.13f)
· not to swear or take oaths, as if our word needs enforcing (ch 5.12). 

Because of that verse Tolstoy refused to swear on the bible. He asked how could he swear on a book which itself forbade him from swearing?
I’m not sure that I completely agree with him. When I made my oath of allegiance to my bishop and to the crown, I placed my hand on the bible. But I wasn’t swearing on the bible. I wasn’t saying, ‘If I don’t do this, may all the curses that are written here fall on me!’ Instead I was placing my hand on the bible, which I believe is the ultimate source of truth, and I am saying that my yes will be yes and my no, no.

To treat all people with respect, not giving preferential treatment to the rich, especially in our Christian communities (2.1ff)

To show social justice: to care for widows and orphans (1.27); to show mercy (2.12), to clothe the naked and feeding the hungry (2.15f).
And he condemns those of us who are wealthy for our exploitation of the poor. He uses words that could have been written by Marx, ‘Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you .. Listen! The wages of the labourers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter’ (James 5.1ff)

It is powerful stuff

But we must not get James wrong.

This short letter is immensely practical; it is about works.

But it is also about faith.

· It is about the Word of God which gives life (James 1.21).
If we have not received that implanted word, if we have not been born again of the word, then we cannot really begin to understand the letter of James

· It is about the power of the Word of God: this is the mirror (1.23-25) that we look in and see ourselves - both as we are, in our sinfulness, in what we are with Christ living in us, and in who we can become. He describes the Word as ‘the perfect law, the law of liberty’ (1.25;2.12)

· It is about submission before God (4.7-8)

· It is about the sovereignty of God (4.15)

· It is about waiting in patience for the coming of the Lord (5.7-11)

And as James brings his letter to a close, he writes about prayer, about healing and forgiveness and he finishes it, very dramatically, by speaking about bringing back someone who has wandered away from the faith.

Prayer.

He begins his letter with prayer and he ends with prayer.

He begins with the prayer for wisdom: ‘If any of you is lacking in wisdom ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you’. (1.5)

I used to think that that was about asking God to help me make the right decisions. I need wisdom to know what I should do, who I should marry, where I should live.

But I think that James instead is speaking of wisdom as a grace, a virtue. Other New Testament writers might say that this is a prayer asking God to fill us with his Holy Spirit, or with his love. So in 3.17, he writes, ‘But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy’.

So when we pray for wisdom, we are asking that God will change us – that he will give us a new heart. That we will become like Jesus

And now in chapter 5, he speaks again of prayer

He calls on those who are suffering, not to despair, not to give up, not to think that they are on their own – but to pray, to call out to God

He calls on those who are cheerful, for whom life is going well, not to become complacent, not to forget God – but to sing praise.

That bit is great advice. Sing in your prayers. Yes, we sing in church, but sing also on your own. When nobody is there – when you are in the loo or the shower – because otherwise they will think you are mad, but sing. Use an app Youtube or isingworship (probably not when you are in the shower!). And don’t say you can’t sing. One person I knew who had a dreadful singing voice, spoke of how he would sing a hymn in his daily prayer time.
Because there is something about singing, and singing the truth, which helps us lift ourselves up out of ourselves and to focus on him.

He calls on those who are sick to get in touch with the church elders, who will pray over them and anoint them with oil.

Why the church elders?

Of course, we can each pray for each other, as individuals, and it would be great to see that happening.
But we are to call the church elders because, I guess we hope that they have more experience of walking the Christian life, but more importantly because they represent the whole community, even the wider church.
I say this with some hesitancy, because it means more work for me, but it needs to be said because it is here.

Do this.
If you are sick – and I guess I am not talking about bugs or coughs or colds - if you are seriously sick, get in touch, and ask us to pray for you. If you can get to us, come and we’ll pray for you here. If you can’t get to us, we’ll try to get to you.

One lady, a senior leader in a significant Christian organisation, was diagnosed with something pretty major, and she took these words seriously. She asked several of us to go round and pray for her, and so a group of us went, I took some oil and we prayed and anointed her.
It was very special. She was a private person, but she opened up and it was a privilege to pray for her. There was no miraculous recovery, but that was 2 years ago and she has been able to continue to live an active life.

And I know that asking others to pray for us can be difficult because it means humbling ourselves before the other, admitting our need, and being really open with each other. This is not just putting a name on a list or saying, ‘Oh pray for me because I’m not feeling well’. It is deep stuff. It is about being prepared to confess our sins, and also put right what is wrong.

And James was not a fool.

He knew that prayers can be answered very dramatically. That is why he speaks of the prayer of Elijah.
He could also have spoken of the prayers that the early church community saw answered: Peter miraculously released from prison, people healed, wonderful conversions.
And I could also speak of several people who I have known to be dramatically healed, or of prayers answered in amazing ways. There is the Russian word ‘chuda’, wonder, and there are times when we see ‘chuda’. Alison was telling the ladies bible study group of how God answered two very simple prayers in a very clear way when she was seeking guidance about coming here. They were chuda

But James was no fool. He also knew that prayers are not always answered as we wish. Peter was saved, for the time being, but James, his namesake, was put to death. He had possibly heard of Paul’s prayer – probably for healing – and God had said No to that.

And far from everyone is physically healed.

But if you notice, James does not say that sick people will be healed. He says that sick people will be saved and raised up (5.15)

That is ambiguous language.
It could speak of physical rising up. We think of Peter’s mother in law who was sick. Jesus healed her. She got up and served them.
But it could also speak of the final salvation, the final rising up, the resurrection from the dead, our ultimate hope

Perhaps that is why many parts of the church use oil for anointing just before death. It is the recognition that our final healing comes at our physical death.

And when James does use the word ‘healing’ it is in the context of confessing our sins to each other and prayer for each other. ‘Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed’ (5.16). And so maybe this is speaking more of community healing.

And as I was thinking this through, I wondered whether that is why this letter ends in the way that it does – which, at first reading, seems very strange.

‘My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins’ (5.19)

People say that James is all about works and not about faith.

But at the very end, and in quite an abrupt way, James focusses on what really matters.

Yes, God wants us to know physical well-being. And we are to pray for physical healing.

But he wants more than that for us.

He wants us to be a people at peace: at peace with each other and at peace with God.
He wants us to be filled with his wisdom – that wonderful wisdom he speaks about in James 3.17, so that we are people who are pure, peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.
He wants us to be peacemakers who produce an amazing harvest of righteousness that flows out of our peace (if you want to do a further study of James, look at how he uses the word harvest and crops. It is fascinating).
He wants us to do the good works which flow from our faith.
He wants us to be prayerful
He wants us to be honest with each other, merciful with each other, right with each other.

And what he really wants is that we might stick closely to the truth, ‘the law of liberty’, that we hold on to it and persevere even through suffering, that we hold onto the promises of God and our hope of eternal life, and that we love each other enough to pray for them, to challenge and to care, to welcome and draw people back into the community of faith – however costly it is for us.

And he wants that one day, we will be raised up.

Saturday, 15 September 2018

How can I control what I say?

James 3.1-12


A couple of weeks ago we saw how James speaks about three marks of true religion:

- Controlling the tongue
- Showing care to orphans and widows
- Growing in holiness

Today we look at the first of those three – controlling the tongue - because it seems slightly odd.

Why does James mention controlling the tongue, when there are so many other things that could have been said? Why is it so important?

Of course, James has got nothing particular against the tongue. It is a big muscle that is used for tasting, chewing and swallowing. It is also used – and this is what James is really on about – for speaking.

And in these verses, James gives us several reasons why we should control the tongue

1. The tongue, the spoken word, is incredibly powerful


At the very beginning, when the beginning began, and time came into being, God – we are told – spoke a word: ‘Let there be light’. And there was light.

It was God’s spoken word which brought creation into being. It was his spoken word which gave life to human beings.

And this is the word that James has spoken about which has given new life, spiritual life to you and me.

In 1.18, we are told that we are given birth by the word of truth
In 1.21, he speaks of the implanted word, that has come into us, that has power to save our souls.

God’s word is an active word.

John describes Jesus as ‘the logos’ of God – the word of God, the reason of God. But when Jerome came to translate ‘logos’ from the original Greek into Latin, he used the word ‘verbum’ – from which we also get our word, ‘verb’. And it is a wise translation, because the ‘verb’ is a doing word, and the Logos, the Word, the verbum of God is a doing word.

The spoken word is incredibly powerful.

I know it can send people to sleep, but it is the word which wakes people up. It brings life to people. Paul talks about how blessed are the feet of those who preach the good news – who tell people about Jesus Christ, so that they can hear and choose to receive this word – and discover new life.

And James writes of how the tongue is like a bit in the mouth of a horse.

I know little about horse riding, but I understand that the horse is controlled, directed, by the thing in its mouth, pulling it in one direction or another.

Or the tongue is like a rudder. I occasionally sail small dinghies. But I’m not a great sailer and usually have mishaps. On two or three occasions now my rudder has fallen off. Which is a bit of a problem. You are rather helpless. Fortunately, I sail in a narrow estuary, so I simply end up stuck on some mud bank.

The rudder is rather important – it controls the direction of a small dinghy. It controls the direction of huge ocean tanker.

The tongue, James says, makes great boasts. It does major stuff.

Words shape how we see reality. For those of us from the West, inclusive language has been a real political power battle. But it is important, because it shapes how people see things.

I remember about 30 years ago hearing a friend preach. In his sermon he used an illustration of an engineer, and in the illustration he spoke of how ‘she’ made a decision. I remember being caught up short – because I had never really heard anybody talk of an engineer as a ‘she’. You sort of assumed that they are always going to be a ‘he’. So a word changed a whole set of assumptions that I held.

And speeches and oratory are important. They can inspire, move people to tears, whip up crowds to violence. Think of Shakespeare’s Mark Anthony in Julius Caesar; think of Abraham Lincoln, Pushkin, Churchill. Words have shaped nations, defined how people think about themselves and given them self-understanding

And later James writes of the power of words addressed to God. The words spoken in prayer: they bring healing, forgiveness and they can do great things.

So the tongue, the spoken word, has enormous power

2. The tongue can do great damage

James speaks of how the tongue can be like a tiny spark that sets a forest on fire.

We have a saying: ‘Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words they cannot hurt me’.
It is, of course, not true.

Again, words shape how we see reality.

Think of the words that we use for other people, how we separate people who are like us (nashi) from those who are not like us. It is interesting that those of us from the UK who are here like to call ourselves expatriates. We call those who come and live in our country migrants.

Alison says that the big word that she hears in the playgroup where she helps is the word ‘mine’. If you say that something is mine, then I am saying it is not yours, and I am claiming control over it.

It is my toy, my possession, my church, my right.

And that little word can do such great damage.

And there is the damage that is caused by the lies, the fake news, the one-sided news

And then there is the vindictive, cruel word: the spoken word that can destroy a person, rip a person’s reputation into pieces; that can ridicule, humiliate and crush

I read of the testimony a woman who had a break in a work, who went with a colleague to the ladies toilets, and – she said – she started to slag off a colleague, Beth, who wasn’t particularly popular. You can guess what happened. Out of one of the cubicles came Beth. She rushed out, and left the place of work immediately in floods of tears. She didn’t come back the following day; she didn’t come back at all. The woman who tells the story says that it is one of the most awful moments in her life. She tried to get in touch with Beth but she wasn’t able to. And she finishes off by saying, ‘And I am a Christian; I am someone who calls Jesus Christ Lord’.

And there is the gossip (and yes, we can dress it up in Christian terms), the backbiting, the swearing and profanity, the cruel unthinking comment: ‘you are so stupid’. Jesus warns his listeners that before God we will be held accountable for simply calling another person, ‘a fool’.

And the tongue can be just as devastating when it is not used, when we are silent when we should be speaking out.

Many of us here will have been hurt badly by words – but if we are honest we will know that we have also used words to hurt other people.

3. The tongue, James tells us, is a window into our heart – it shows us that we desperately need God

We cannot see into a person’s heart. We cannot see the things that motivate them. But we can hear the words that they speak.

And the problem is that the tongue betrays us.

Some of us are very good at putting on a persuasive show – and then suddenly the tongue betrays us. Out splurge our inner thoughts. And the problem is that when they are out, they are out. You can’t put words back in. As I said a couple of weeks ago, they are like toothpaste in a toothpaste tube: once it is out, you can’t get it back in!

Baxter, a C17th preacher said, and it is a brilliant comment, “One proud, surly, lordly word, one needless contention, one covetous action may cut the throat of many a sermon, and blast the fruit of all that you have been doing.”

James describes the tongue as ‘a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell’ (v6).

It is a world of iniquity: an agent of the sinful world among the different parts of our body. It is a fifth columnist living in you. You put up a good front and suddenly out comes the muck

It is set on fire by hell: all the anger, rage, fear, resentments, prejudices. That is the fuel which is deep within us – and it comes out through the tongue. Jesus speaks about that. He says it is not the stuff out there that comes into us and defiles us. It is the stuff that is in here which defiles us.

It stains the body. Imagine a bride in a stunning white dress. And there right on the back is a massive ink stain. That, says James, is what the tongue does to us.
Recently there have been a number of cases where people have been completely undone, their reputation ripped to pieces, because of things that they have said which have been recorded, or messages that they have tweeted.

It sets on fire the cycle of nature: It leads to more of the same. I say something that comes from the pit that is in me. And you respond with something that comes from the pit inside you – and the cycle escalates. James speaks about this in the next few verses. And we end up with people and communities and even brothers and sisterss not speaking with each other, hating each other, at war with each other. I think of Northern Ireland. I think of the Ukraine.

The problem is that: ‘no one can tame the tongue – a restless evil, full of deadly poison’ (v8)

Let me be clear about this:

If we remain silent – which is often a good thing – we still will not be able to control the tongue. Our inner pit will out!

There is a story told about a man who entered a silent monastery. He was allowed to say one sentence to a gathering of all the monks once a year…

If we cut out the tongue – not recommended – it will change nothing. We’ll still think the muck.

And James writes that even if we become religious we won’t tame the tongue.

Yes, we might come to church to praise God – we might praise the One who is good and beautiful and true, who loves us, who has given us life and who has created all things. We might pledge our faith and obedience and allegiance to him, our desire to serve and follow him.

And then, at coffee or later in the afternoon, we curse somebody: we make fun of them, mock them, put them down, speak bad of them – even though they are, James points out, created by God and made in his image.

With one breath we declare our love for God – and with our next breath we deride the person that he has made

I like the story of the three vicars going on a long train journey. They agreed to confess their most besetting sins. The first said, ‘I have a problem with the women’. The second said, ‘I have a problem with drink’. The third says, ‘I am an incurable gossip’!

So what do we do? How do we control the tongue?

Because if we don’t say something about this, it will be a very honest but depressing sermon! Is there no hope?

1. Remember the power of words
– to do good or to do harm.

2. Guard your tongue as best you can.

There are the bits of wisdom that we can hold on to:
· If we can’t say anything that is good or helpful or that builds people up, don’t say anything
· Count to 10 before you respond

And those of you who are good with words need to be particularly careful.
I thank God that I am not particular quick with words. I always think of the thing I could have said, the response that would have cut them dead, about 2 hours afterwards. I think if only I had said that.
But while I would love to be quick with words, I thank God that I am not – because it often means I don’t say what I should not say.

3. Know that you will make mistakes.
Only the perfect person will not make mistakes with their speech, and you are not perfect. So when you make mistakes, and it is when, repent, say sorry – to God and to the person you have offended - and call out to God to have mercy and to change your heart

4. Don’t aspire quickly to become a teacher (and James 3.1 is speaking specifically to those who would teach the Christian faith), even if you have an ability to teach.

I would probably say a person should not aspire to become a teacher until they have messed up big time, until they have become acutely aware of their own fallenness, brokenness and sinfulness, of the pit that is deep in their heart - but who have also become aware of the astonishing acceptance, forgiveness and mercy of God

Oh, and one final thing
Come to church next week – because the next verses offer a little bit of hope!

Saturday, 1 September 2018

The three marks of true religion

James 1.17-27


I’d like us to look at those last two verses of our reading from James

If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues butdeceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. (James 1.26-27)
There are three marks of true religion – and I fear that I fail on all of them!

1.       If any think they are religious and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their heart, their religion is worthless

James speaks a great deal about the tongue. We’ll see that in a couple of weeks’ time.

It is interesting that he speaks of the tongue and not of the written word.

I think that is because, firstly very few people of his time used writing, and secondly because writing requires you to think a bit! You have to get a piece of paper and write something, and then work out how you are going to get that piece of paper to the person you want it to go to. So you start to write, and out comes all the anger and hurt, but then you need to somehow get that to the person you want to receive it. And that gives you time to stop and think, and often it means putting your brain into action. And you are given time to tear up the letter and rewrite it.

But I think, that if James was writing today, he would also include emails, whatsapps, facebook, vkontakt, instagram and twitter posts. Why? Because like speech it is immediate.

One of the things that I have heard from several people who have become bishops in the church that has shocked them is sort of language that people use in some of their emails when they write to them, even clergy. They just didn’t expect that. One of my previous bishops used to answer those emails by asking the person to rewrite their email before he would even consider replying.

But James does not simply tell us to bridle the tongue. He helps us to do so.

‘Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak (or send the email) and slow to anger’ (v19)
In other words, God gave you two of these (ears) and one of these (mouths).
Or, to use a phrase of my grandmother, before you speak – count to 10.

One thing that I do with emails that I’m tempted to write back to immediately, especially if I am hot, is that before I write, especially if it is a reply, I remove the email address of the person or people I want to send it to. It means that I don’t write it and then hit send in the heat of the moment. I’ve got to think a little bit more.

And that is even more important if we are responding in anger. Human anger may get things done, but it does not do God’s work – it does not bring about the righteousness that God asks for.

The problem is that our anger is too wrapped up in ourselves

In my case it is usually because I have felt slighted or ignored or put on or felt that I have been treated as irrelevant and insignificant. Last week we were in a restaurant, and we were waiting and waiting to be served. In the end, I went to someone to ask when the food would come. I intended to be very calm and level, but as I spoke with them I felt the anger surge in me.

So often we get angry because our ‘I’ has become too big. We think it is all about me, and about the things that I value or desire. And the problem is that the things that I value and desire are not always the right things. That is why the Jesus prayer, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner’ is so helpful – it reminds me of who I am, and why I am not so important. And that is why only the anger of Jesus, the Son of God, can do the work of God – because the ‘I’ of Jesus coincides completely with the ‘I’ of God.

But there is another reason that we need to bridle the tongue.

You see if we are so keen to speak, to tell others what we think, we find it very hard to listen. And James urges us to be people who listen – who listen to others (what are they really saying) and who listen to God, who listen and who receive his word.

2.       The second mark of true religion is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress

Orphans and widows in the sort of society in which James lived were desperately vulnerable. There was no social safety net. If they had no relatives to care for them, then anything could happen.  We speak today of trafficking and slavery.

Orphans and widows are still very vulnerable in many societies today, along with other people. One thinks of refugees, or people with learning disabilities. Jesus spoke about how the world, how a society, will be judged for how it treats a member of a despised sect who is hungry, thirsty, naked, a stranger, in prison or sick.

What James is saying is that if a person has a real faith, if the word has been implanted in them, if they are born again, if they have been ‘given birth by the word of truth’ (v18), then they will show compassion to the person in need.

This is a huge subject, and I can’t really begin to touch on it today. But a faith that is not expressed in compassion for those in need is no real faith.

John writes about that. He says in his letter, How can you claim to have the love of God in you if you do not love your Christian brother or sister? How can you say to a starving person, ‘God bless you’, if you are not prepared to do something about it?

And while it is good to be part of a community which does work with widows and orphans, quite literally - MPC run a pensioners drop in every other Wednesday, and Vverh, originally started by members of St Andrew’s, run their school for orphans and people with mental disabilities here on our premises – I am not sure that we as individuals can hide behind that!

If your faith is not beginning to help you to see everyone as God sees them – with his compassion and love (whoever they are: in the next verses James challenges the church to receive every person who comes in to their meeting – whether they are wealthy and well dressed, or if they are in dirty clothes and smell – to treat each person with the same dignity); and if your faith is not beginning to give you a greater compassion for people who are in need, then you really need to question whether you have actually received the word of truth.

3.       Mark of true religion is that you will be growing in holiness.

‘Religion that is pure and undefiled is this: .. to keep oneself unstained by the world’ (v27)

Earlier in our passage we are told, ‘Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls’ (v21)

It does not mean that we become holier than thou. It means that we become more like Jesus Christ.

He was very much part of the world. He had a profession, he was a Rabbi. He taught in the synagogues. Large crowds came to hear him. He went to parties put on by the sort of people who the religious leaders despised. But he did not live by the values of the world – he was different: he was not into status or possessions. He did not use his power for his own purposes, and he did not try to seize political power. Instead he lived for God. He preached the rule and kingdom of God. He prayed for people and they were healed or set free from demons. And he was willing to die so that people could share in, could experience, the relationship that he had with his Father in heaven.

And we are called to become like him. We are to let go of the pride that leads to anger, the filth aht defile us and the lusts that deafen us to the Word of God.

So how?
As I said at the beginning, if these are the three marks of true religion, I fail and I fail pretty spectacularly on all counts

How can I bridle my tongue?
How can I become more compassionate; because if I start to care for orphans and widows and people in need in my own strength, I will simply burn out? I know because I have tried, even as someone who claimed to believe in Jesus. And I did burn out.
How can I keep myself unstained from the world?

We need to be hearers of the Word.
Yes, James is about works that follow faith. But it begins with faith. This is chapter 1 of his book.

It begins with asking for wisdom (v5), with receiving new birth through the Word of God (v18), with humbly listening and taking in that Word (v21).
It begins with receiving the love of God, the forgiveness that God offers and with asking God for his Holy Spirit. That is what happens today at communion: we come to offer nothing. We come to receive.

The Word is like a mirror (v22): a mirror that shows us as we are, with all our failures and weakness, with our desperate state without God and our need for God. But it is also a mirror which shows us how and what we can become. It shows us forgiven, beloved and accepted. It shows us holy and radiant, set free from sin. This is the mirror of liberty (v25)

And the Word is like an embedded seed implanted into our hearts (v21). If we receive it and persevere then it will grow in us. CS Lewis describes it as a good infection, that gradually overwhelms our body and soul. It will transform us, from the inside out. And it will slowly, and over time, transform us into radiant plants that bear beautiful fruit, which give us a glimpse of what the future creation will look like; and it will transform us so that we, with the radiance of the glory of God, will bring glory to our God.