Remembrance Sunday 2019

Job said to his companions: “O that my words were written down! O that they were inscribed in a book! O that with an iron pen and with lead they were engraved on a rock for ever! For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. My heart faints with me!”

Job 19:23-27a

Job – a man put to the test by God at the behest of the devil, who is trying to prove that Job’s faithfulness is wafer-thin. Job’s fath is tested by disasters to his reputation, to his health, and by disasters to his family. But after this testing, Job’s faith is upheld – “I know that my Redeemer liveth…”

On this Remembrance Sunday it is appropriate to compare Job’ suffering to that of men, women and children in the midst of war – witnessing death and disaster, facing death or disability. Compared with Job, I think it is fair to say that in wartime many people lost their faith in God, while a few did persevere in believing…

…including one of Bollington’s most favourite vicars, Canon Reginald Norton Betts, who had been awarded the Military Cross in that terrible conflict of the First World War.

Another result of that war was that people lost their faith not only in God, but in all those in Authority – “the powers that be” – who led them into war in the first place. Our Collect for today echoes this:

Almighty Father, whose will is to restore all things in your beloved Son, the king of all: govern the hearts and minds of those in authority, and bring the families of the nations, divided and torn apart by the ravages of sin, to be subject to his just and gentle rule; who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

I rather think that at our present time, too, most people are not exactly inclined to trust those in authority, not only in our country but world-wide. And this year we celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the rising up of the churches and the “little people” in peacefully breaking down the Berlin Wall. But this fundamental mistrust can escalate into fearfulness and even despair about the future of our planet.

Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus, and asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.” Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die any more, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”

Luke 20:27-38

Our Gospel for today is about another battle of beliefs as Jesus confronts the Saducees – a Jewish religious group who did not believe in life after death. Obviously, Jesus spoke up for the belief in eternal life – and could do no other he was consciously on his chose pathway through life, to crucifixion and gloriously to resurrection. A path that led from utter despair to overwhelming hope, opening the way for all of us to eternal life: a central plank of our Christian faith.

On this Remembrance Sunday, I wonder how many of us remember that – as Christians and as many other faiths – we do believe in life after death. And (for instance) that those rows and rows of graves in foreign fields marked with crosses, or with Jewish Stars of David or the crescents of Islam, not only represent the tragic toll of death as a result of war, but also the ranks and ranks of those same souls now in heaven who “at the going down of the sun and in the morning” we do remember. Souls now at rest, with the battle done, but nevertheless poignantly reminding us of the immense sadness and tragedy of wars still raging today.

So at our parish war memorial this morning and later at war memorials right across the country and the world, we do well to remember not only the deaths of so many, but also like Job we may dare to believe that in truth Our Redeemer liveth, and that in God’s good time all things will be made new in Him. Our post-communion prayer for this remembrance Sunday has much to commend it:

God of peace, whose Son Jesus Christ proclaimed the kingdom and restored the broken to wholeness of life: look with compassion on the anguish of the world, and by your healing power make whole both people and nations; through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

Amen

Bible Sunday 2019

Brian Reader

Today is Bible Sunday, and many of you will know that the Bible has been on the best sellers list for ages. But just suppose, for the moment, that there was no Bible, it just didn’t exist. Put your hand up if you think that without the Bible the world would be a much poorer place. How could our church exist without the Bible? And that’s the whole point.

Without the Bible it would be difficult to worship God not just because the Bible shows us what God is like but also because most of our hymns are based on Scripture. So there would be no need for a choir!

There is no other book that can speak more powerfully into our lives than the Bible. So it would be very difficult to hear from God. Without the Bible it would be difficult to learn anything about God or to make any sense about why we are in this world, or the meaning of life. It would also be difficult to know whether what anybody else says about God is true.

Many people choose to live their lives without a Bible, they may have access to one, but it stays in the cupboard or on the shelf. They feel they don’t need it in their lives! They have it all worked out. It’s just another book which perhaps they may get round to reading one day! I hope you are not one of those people. There are also others, who through ignorance, indifference, or their own religious beliefs, choose never to read the Bible. But for millions of people they have no choice. Through barriers of illiteracy, language or religious persecution, they have no access to the Bible.

Do you have a Bible? How often do you read it? Daily? Weekly? Have your children, and grandchildren ever seen you reading your Bible?

We are fortunate that we have the privilege to hear and read the Good News, not only in our own language but also in the comfort of knowing that we can do this freely – in the open – with no risk of arrest or imprisonment. And if we have a problem, we can ask and receive help. But are we really interested in hearing and reading what God wants to say to us? In the Gospel passage today we hear what God’s message is about.

He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: “The Spirit of the LORD is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favour.”

Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked. Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ And you will tell me, ‘Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’ Truly I tell you,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown.”
Luke 4:16-24

It was a statement made by Jesus in the synagogue and was as controversial then as it is now. He was telling everyone that He has come to restore what has been lost. To put things back where they belong! On one level, Jesus is insisting that those who want to follow Him should give back what they have taken dishonestly, and redistribute wealth so that those living in poverty can be ‘released’ from the economic ‘chains’ which bind them. On another level, He is making the point that He wants to bring release to those who are feeling isolated because of emotional hurt and physical problems. He wants to bring FREEDOM to all. Most importantly, He wants to restore a relationship that has been lost, the relationship between ourselves and God the Father.

If I were to blindfold someone and ask them to go and make me a cup of tea, they would not be able to do it. Why? Because they wouldn’t be able to see – they need help – someone to guide them – to issue instructions on where to walk, when to go upstairs, where the kettle is etc. It’s the same with the Bible. Without it we cannot know how God wants to set us and our communities free to be the people He wants us to be. We cannot know of the love and mercy of God for ourselves and others. We cannot find out how we are to live our lives. We cannot know how to act to those around us.

Those who have translated the Bible have done us an incredible service and have helped to look for ways for people to understand it. By translating it into our own language we are able to find freedom; Freedom from fear, pain and addiction. We are able to find forgiveness, to find that we are loved, and to find the courage to face the future.

By reading the Bible we are able to find peace of mind, and liberation from the tyranny of sin and death, so that we are free to enjoy eternal life with God. But if we do read the Bible and if we who know of God’s love and mercy do not extend that information to others, then we will be poorer for it and, worse still, guilty of withholding the most precious gifts of God, from the very people who need them.

Now I have had days when reading the Bible, I would skip reading the passage for the day because I knew the story. The familiar ones, which get repeated every year; the author may be different but the story is almost the same. Then, one day it dawned on me that I was missing God’s opportunity to speak to me and for me to hear what He was trying to say to me. The more times I read the same passage, the more I got out of it, and more often than not something different each time. Each time something unexpected was learnt, or something unfamiliar heard. Suddenly, a word or two would leap off the page and strike me in a new way and lead me to an encounter with God and on a journey I had never thought possible. When that happens, in that split second, the living God who breathes through the words of scripture is there with us in that moment and the scriptures are fulfilled in our hearing. But it doesn’t happen if the Bible stays on the shelf or sits in the cupboard or alongside the TV Guide.

We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please our neighbours for their good, to build them up. For even Christ did not please himself but, as it is written: “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope. May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our LORD Jesus Christ.
Romans 15:1-6

Today is Bible Sunday, a day when we recognise the importance of the word of scripture in defining who we are as a community of faith. Today, like Paul writing to the Romans, we acknowledge that this collection of writings that we know as the Bible, some written over 2000 years ago is for our instruction, our encouragement and to give us a sure hope. I believe that when you take the scriptures and you read them regularly and pray them passionately, you find that what you get is not certainty but possibility; what you get is not always answers but questions that leave you longing for more; what you get is not definite direction but a compelling call to go deeper into the mystery of this always new and very surprising God; what you get is not grounds for self-justification but the reality of a God who embraces our human vulnerability and sinfulness and who in living, dying and rising again opened the door to life in all its fullness.

Today and every day we are called to follow the pattern of the living Word. Today and every day we are called to read and pray so that the word of God will become so familiar that the ears of our hearts may be tuned to listen for the unfamiliar and the unexpected. There will of course be days when the words of scripture will stay fixed and lifeless on the page; when there’s no sign of movement. We too, will experience times when the light of dawn seems far away and the night seems endless. But as we journey forward each day with the risen Christ, we will be able to keep believing, and see the scriptures being fulfilled in our time. – for it is the reality of the living God who dwells amongst us in the Word made flesh.

A poem whose author is unknown:

They lie on the table side by side,
The Holy Bible and the TV Guide.
One is well worn and cherished with pride.
Not the Bible, but the TV Guide.

One is used daily to help folk decide.
No, not the Bible, but the TV Guide.
As the pages are turned, what shall they see?
Oh, what does it matter, turn on the TV.
So they open the book in which they confide.
No, not the Bible, but the TV Guide.

The Word of God is seldom read.
Maybe a verse before they fall into bed.
Exhausted and sleepy and tired as can be.
Not from reading the Bible, from watching TV.

So then back to the table side by side,
Lie the Holy Bible and the TV Guide.
No time for prayer, no time for the Word,
The plan of Salvation is seldom heard.
But forgiveness of sin, so full and free,
is found in the Bible, not on TV.

Blessed Lord, who caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: help us so to hear them, to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them that, through patience, and the comfort of your holy word, we may embrace and for ever hold fast the hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ.
AMEN

Michaelmas 2019

A sermon prepared by Canon Roy Arnold, read by Canon Veronica.

Prologue: We have several people in our congregation who suffer from age-related macular degeneration. This is an eye condition which reduces central vision. Roy is now one of them – which is why Veronica read his sermon for this special day.


Have you noticed the Michaelmas Daisies on this the feast of St Michael and All Angels – commonly called Michaelmas?

56 years ago – in 1963 – at this time I was ordained Deacon in Bristol Cathedral. And earlier in that year Hylda and I were married at St John’s church in Bollington; married to my wife, and then to my second wife – the Church of England!

The connection between ordination and Michaelmas being angels – for angels (by definition) are messengers and servants of God, and hopefully and in theory, so are the clergy to the church. And as my special companion and guardian angel, so has Hylda been to me and our daughters too – which perhaps underlines the fact (in the priesthood of all believers) that everyone – clergy and laity alike – is called to serve God and one another.

We come across St Michael in our reading today…

War broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world – he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. Then I heard a loud voice in heaven, proclaiming, “Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Messiah, for the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death. Rejoice then, you heavens and those who dwell in them! But woe to the earth and the sea, for the devil has come down to you with great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!”

Revelation 12:7-12

The Good News is that God, being an Almighty God, won the battle and the war. The Not-so-good News (for us) is that the devil and his bad angels were banished to the earth, and we only need to turn on the television news or read the papers to see what the devil and his bad angels have been up to in our world. With so much evil and pain all around us, we (who are hopefully on God’s side) are called upon, in small ways or great, to fight the good fight (as the old General Thanksgiving has it) “not only with our lips (just by what we say), but in our lives, by walking before God in holiness and righteousness all our days particularly by following Jesus – the Son of God. For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that all who believe in him “should not perish but have everlasting life.”

Of course, the devil whispers in our ears that this statement is not true – that God’s Son will not lead us to eternal life, because eternal life does not exist! But we must realise that the devil has always been a liar through and through. So we as Christians must hold onto our core beliefs, and live our lives with love and love and honesty and gratefulness… Speaking of which, let me end by thanking Veronica and Dave for their ministries, and thanking all of you, alongside all the people in the parishes and dioceses in which I have served.

I have – we all have – so much for which to thank our God – as I do!

Amen


There were two retired priests (and Honorary Canons) in our congregation this day who were celebrating anniversaries of ordination at Michaelmas. Veronica read out a potted history of each of their careers (having consulted Crockford’s Clerical Directory).

Canon Roy Arnold: After Lampeter Theological College Roy undertook two curacies (as was usual in those days) over a period of about seven years. his first curacy was at St Luke, Brislington in Bristol diocese. His second curacy was back in this diocese at the parish of St Mary Without the Walls, Chester. Then he served his first incumbency as Vicar of Brinnington with Portwood 1971-1975, followed by seven years as Vicar of St Paul, Sale. After that followed a short period as rector of Dodleston, before then moving away from Chester diocese across the Pennines to take up the post of Vicar of St Oswald, Sheffield, when he also had the demanding role of Diocesan Communications Officer, which latter role continued when he moved from that parish to take up another post, additionally working as Chaplain with the Deaf. In 1995 he was made an Honorary Canon of Sheffield Cathedral. He finally “retired” as they moved back to Bollington in 1997, helping cover two vacancies and also becoming a great friend and support to the present Vicar for the past twelve and a half years.

Canon Phil Lambert was ordained deacon in 1978, then priested in 1979. He also served two curacies, first at Holy Trinity, Upper Tooting in Southwark diocese, then at the parish of Whorlton in Newcastle diocese. Then he served successive incumbency posts in several clusters of parishes in Newcastle diocese before moving to the diocese of Bath and Wells as Rector of another group of parishes and becoming Rural Dean there. He then moved to Salisbury diocese as Team Rector of Dorchester and also Rural Dean there too, before becoming Canon Residentiary of Truro Cathedral. Finally he moved to the diocese of Europe where he served as an Assistant Chaplain living in Crete. We are pleased that he too has recently come to live here in retirement and has the Bishop’s Permission to Officiate.

Albeit the timings of both Roy’s and Phil’s early retirements were not necessarily what they had planned, we are nevertheless privileged to share in their continuing journeys and wish them every blessing.

14th Sunday of Trinity 2019

Brian Reader

What should be made of our readings for today, what are they trying to tell us? They all seem to be pointing in different directions. Firstly, I think we should consider the Gospel reading from Luke:

Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes. “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much.  If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

Luke 16:1-13

Some have thought that Jesus was condoning sharp practice in Business, but Jesus was not applauding fraud; he was telling a story where the master was commending his steward because he acted cleverly, not because he acted dishonestly. How can we sort all this out? The first thing to do is to understand how the story works. It would seem that the master in the story had himself been acting in a somewhat underhand manner. Jews were forbidden to lend money for interest, but many people got round this by lending in kind, with oil and wheat being easy commodities to use for this purpose. It is likely that what the steward deducted from the bill was the interest that the master had been charging, with a higher rate on oil than on wheat. If he reduced the loan in each case to the basic sum that had been lent, the debtors would be delighted, but the master could not then bring a charge against the steward without owning up to his own shady business practices. Thus, when the master heard about it, he could only admire the man’s clever approach. We know, as many lottery winners have discovered, that money can’t buy true friendship. This manager decided that by helping his master’s debtors, he would at least put them under an obligation to himself. He ‘made friends’, by writing off their debt; and his action recalls in part, the ancient Hebrew law of Jubilee when every fifty years debts were cancelled.

We should remember that the best that any of us can be or become is one of the ‘friends of Jesus’. He calls you to be his friend, and writes off all that you owe. He promises aid whenever you need it – all with no strings attached, and also gives us  – to each other – for ever.

But we should also realise, that the story is a parable, and not just a piece of moral teaching about money, and how or how not to use it. We are faced with a first-century Jewish story about a master and a steward, so we should realise that the master is God; and the steward is Israel. Israel is supposed to be God’s property manager, the light of God’s world, responsible to God and set over his possessions. But Israel – as can be seen in so much of Luke – has failed in the task, and is under threat of imminent dismissal. What then ought Israel to do? The Pharisees’ answer was to pull the regulations of the law even tighter, to try to make Israel more holy. But this had the effect that they were excluding the very people that Jesus was trying to reach. Jesus, in this parable, indicates that if Israel is facing a major crisis the answer is rather to throw caution to the winds, to forget the extra bits and pieces of law which the Pharisees have heaped up, and to make friends as and where they can. That’s what ‘the children of this world’ would do, and ‘the children of light’- that is the Israelites, ought to do so as well, learning from the cunning people of the world how to cope in the crisis that was coming.

Hear this, you who trample the needy and do away with the poor of the land, saying, “When will the New Moon be over that we may sell grain, and the Sabbath be ended that we may market wheat?”- skimping on the measure, boosting the price and cheating with dishonest scales, buying the poor with silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, selling even the sweepings with the wheat. The LORD has sworn by himself, the Pride of Jacob: “I will never forget anything they have done.”

Amos 8:4-7

The reading from Amos is also warning about unfair trading and social injustice. To have good law and justice in a country you must have a good government to make those laws and then see that they are obeyed. Amos is advocating that the Jewish state return to the teachings of the prophets and obey the laws that God gave them so that they would prosper as the people of God. I think that today, when we look around at the problems in our country, many of us feel that our Parliament, as a whole, has let us down very badly.

I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Saviour, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people. This has now been witnessed to at the proper time. And for this purpose I was appointed a herald and an apostle – I am telling the truth, I am not lying – and a true and faithful teacher of the Gentiles.

1 Timothy 2:1-7

In the reading from the epistle, Paul is giving Timothy instruction about how to be a good pastor, and his teaching on prayer goes straight to the point. It is normal to pray for those close to us, but in this passage he strongly urges that we should start, as it were, at the other end. We should pray for the people who hold the world together by their rule, leadership and authority.  A few years ago people were more or less happy with our democratic institutions, and our system of government. We voted every few years, we answered opinion polls from time to time, and we had a sense that we lived in a free society. Are you aware that since the reign of Charles II, prayers are said before each day of parliamentary business? The Speaker’s Chaplain usually reads the prayer:

“Lord, the God of righteousness and truth, grant to our Queen and her government, to Members of Parliament and all in positions of responsibility, the guidance of your Spirit. May they never lead the nation wrongly through love of power, desire to please, or unworthy ideals but laying aside all private interests and prejudices keep in mind their responsibility to seek to improve the condition of all mankind; so may your kingdom come and your name be hallowed.”

You may not be surprised to hear, considering their recent actions, that in January of this year, some MPs have called for an end to the practice of holding prayers in parliament before the start of official business. This motion, backed by the National Secular Society, says “religious worship should not play any part in the formal business of the House of Commons”. And we think we are in a Christian country!

I remember that not so long ago, in every Anglican service there was a prayer for the Queen, but just not the queen but for all those in authority under her; this included all those in government, national and local, the armed forces, police and civil servants. When I was in the Royal Air Force, I liked that prayer because I felt it was also for me. I held the Queen’s Commission and I was part of all those ‘in authority under her’. That prayer was not just for the Queen but for the good governance of all in our country. We rarely hear it today!

Many Christians who were reasonably content with their country have been tempted to think that praying for kings and governments is a rather boring, a conformist thing to do. It looked like propping up the status quo. But now we have an unstable government, unable to find solutions to current problems and tending to divide rather than unite the country. We have knife and drug crime rife amongst our young, an under-resourced police force, a judiciary who appear weak, and there are other injustices affecting the less able and weak in our society. Our tackling of climate change and pollution can be said to be only half hearted at best.

No, this is not another chapter of Project fear, but a call to action for all Christians. The teaching given to Timothy is correct and just as meaningful now as it was then. Should we not all be joining together and praying for good government on a worldwide scale, for the United Nations and all who seek to influence the rulers of the nations?

This train of thought brings us exactly to the point the Jews had reached in the first century. They had suffered under persecution and unjust rulers for many generations. But they trusted in the one true God, and that God had sent his Son Jesus into the world to act as a ‘mediator between God and humans’. The fact that this view of God is centred upon Jesus, who died as a ransom for the sins of the whole world, means that the news of this one God, this one Saviour, must now go out and spread into all the world.

As so often in the New Testament, the call to prayer is also the call to think clearly about God and the world, and God’s project for the whole human race. Try praying for your rulers instead, and watch not only what God will do in your society but also how your own attitudes will grow, change and mature. So, if we want Justice for all, if we want a better government, if we want the best outcome from the current situation, if we want to see our nation united and thriving again in the future, then we had better start praying for it now.

“Oh Lord, the God of righteousness and truth, we are in a mess. Grant to all those responsible for our government, both in this country and to those who speak for the European Union, the wisdom and the guidance of your Spirit, that they may reach solutions which benefits all and brings the unity and wellbeing for which we all long; For yours is the kingdom and the power; and to yours be the glory now and for evermore.”

AMEN

11th Sunday after Trinity 2019

Come to the party!

Brian Reader

Proverbs 25:6 – 7; Ps 112; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14: 1, 7 – 14

A very good morning to you all on this the 11th Sunday of Trinity, or as Veronica has renamed it “Back to school Sunday”.

I am very pleased to be back with you today because last Sunday Jean and I were worshipping at Holy Trinity Church in Broadstairs, in the church where I was both christened and confirmed. Veronica would have appreciated the service as lots of incense was used.

We were there to celebrate the 80th Birthday of my sister-in-law, and it was a big family gathering and a party. To find a theme for the address for today is fairly straight forward as the short reading from Proverbs points directly to the Gospel from St Luke, which itself links in with the family party.

Did you know that Luke’s gospel has more mealtime scenes than all the others? If Luke’s vision of the Christian life, from one point of view, is a journey, then from another point of view it’s a party. Several stories end with a festive meal – like, for instance, the parable of the prodigal son which is in the next chapter of Luke. All these themes come together in the Last Supper and, finally, the reported meal at the end of the journey along the road to Emmaus.

In this chapter Luke has brought together two parables about feasting. The first we heard this morning, is not always recognized as a parable, because it looks simply like a piece of social advice, a piece of practical wisdom. So if you want to avoid embarrassment in front of your fellow guests, then follow this tip. But Jesus didn’t come to offer good advice; and often his own conduct seemed calculated to cause embarrassment. In any case, Luke tells us it’s a parable; in other words, we ought to expect it to have at least a double meaning.

One Sabbath, when Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee, he was being carefully watched… When he noticed how the guests picked the places of honour at the table, he told them this parable: “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honour, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this person your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honoured in the presence of all the other guests. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbours; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

What is Jesus really talking about? The rest of the chapter makes it clear that he’s talking about the way in which people of his day were jostling for position in the eyes of God. They were, so it appeared to him, eager to push themselves forward, to show how well they were keeping the law, not to benefit others, but to maintain their own purity. They were precisely the sort of people he now found himself with, people who would watch for any sign of irregularity, even frowning upon actions, such as Jesus’ healing a man on the Sabbath; which they would have accepted on any other day but not the Sabbath. And Jesus, throughout this section of Luke, is turning things upside down. He is associating with the wrong kind of people. He is touching the untouchable and going out of his way to speak to the nobodies.

The parable, then, isn’t so much good advice for social occasions – although there is a very practical human wisdom in the warning against pride and arrogance. No! The real meaning is to be found in the warning against pushing oneself forward in the sight of God. In Jesus’ day it was all too easy for the well-off and the legally trained to imagine that they were superior in God’s sight to the poor, and to those without the opportunity to study, let alone practise, the law. And even today, this is a trap that Clerics, Readers, and all other Christians can fall into.

At the same time, in the world for which Luke was writing, there would also be another wider meaning. Within Luke’s lifetime thousands of non-Jews had become Christians – they had entered, as you might say, into the dinner party prepared by the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Many Jewish Christians, as we know from Acts, had found this difficult, if not impossible, to understand or approve. They were so eager to maintain their own places at the top table, that they could not grasp God’s great design to stand the world on its head.

Pride, notoriously, is the great cloud which blots out the sun of God’s generosity. If I reckon that I deserve to be favoured by God, not only do I declare that I don’t need his grace, mercy and love, but I also imply, that those who I think don’t deserve it, shouldn’t have it. Jesus spent his whole life breaking through that cloud and bringing the fresh, healing sunshine of God’s love to those in its shadow. The Pharisees could watch Jesus all they liked, but the power, both of his healings, and of his explanations, was too strong for them. The small-mindedness which pushes itself forward and leaves others behind, is confronted with the large-hearted love of God. All Christians are called to the same healthy dependence on God’s love, and should have the same generosity in sharing it with those in need.

The last two verses are linked more with the next passage, but still have a message for us. Bishop Tom Wright, who has written many good commentaries on the Gospels said, that once, many years ago, he preached a sermon on this passage. He emphasized the extraordinary way in which Jesus tells his hearers to do something that must have been as puzzling then as it is now. Don’t invite friends, relatives and neighbours to dinner – invite the poor and the disabled. The sermon had a strange effect. In the course of the next week he and his wife received dinner invitations from no fewer than three people who had been in church that day. The Bishop didn’t know which category of guest he was in and he was too polite – or afraid – to ask. This time it looks as if the passage is real advice. The parable of the supper, which immediately follows, is a parable all right, but Jesus really seems to have intended his hearers to take literally his radical suggestion about who to invite to dinner parties.

Social conditions have changed. Once it was easier when people lived in small villages in which everyone knows everyone else’s business, when meals are eaten with the doors open and people wander to and fro at will, but now in many parts of the world this has changed and it may seem harder to put it into practice. Many Christians would have to try quite hard to find poor and disabled people to invite to a party – although you will know some who do just that.

But nobody can use the difference in circumstances as an excuse for ignoring the sharp edge of Jesus’ demand. In particular, they cannot ignore it in the light of the parable that follows. You will remember the story about people who very rudely snub the invitation to a splendid party. They make excuses of the usual kind. The householder, having gone to all the trouble of organizing and paying for a lavish feast, is determined to have guests at his table, even if he has to find them in unconventional locations. The original guests have ruled themselves out, and others have come in to take their place. Once again the invited and expected guests are the Jews, waiting and waiting for the kingdom, only to find, when it arrived, that they had more pressing things to occupy them.

Of course, in Luke’s day many Jews had become Christians. But the majority of the nation, both in Palestine and in the scattered Jewish communities in the rest of the world, were not. Instead, (as it must have seemed to those first Jewish Christians), God’s messengers had gone out into the roads and hedgerows of the world, getting all kinds of unexpected people to join in the party. Not just Gentiles, but people with every kind of moral and immoral background, people quite different from them culturally, socially, ethnically and ethically.

But there is a another twist to this parable, because it bends back, as it were, on itself, returning to the challenge which Jesus gave in those last verses. The party to which the original guests were invited was Jesus’ kingdom-movement, his remarkable welcome to all and sundry. If people wanted to be included in Jesus’ movement, this is the sort of thing they were joining.

Once again, therefore, the challenge comes to us today. Christians, reading this anywhere in the world, must work out in their own churches and families what it would mean to celebrate God’s kingdom so that the people at the bottom of the pile, at the end of the line, would find it to be good news. It isn’t enough to say that we ourselves are the people dragged in from the country lanes, to our surprise, to enjoy God’s party. That may be true; but as those of you who have done an Alpha course, or experienced a Cursillo weekend will know, party guests are then expected to become party hosts in their turn.

Jesus is asking you to invite non-Christians to come in and share His party, to share, His love, His joy and His forgiveness which is available to all.

AMEN

2nd Sunday after Trinity 2019 – Freedom!

Anne Coomes

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other. So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. [Galatians 5:13-25]

Freedom is a word that you often hear these days. There are many different forms of it, and many different people advocating it. Certainly people around the world want political freedom – from Africa to Asia to the former Soviet Union to Scotland. Then there are the economists who believe in FREE trade, the lifting of tariffs. There are the capitalists who dislike central controls because they hinder FREE enterprise, and then there are the communists who say they want to set the proletariat FREE from capitalist exploitation. Just now, with regard to Brexit, there are the Remainers who want to have the FREEDOM of belonging to Europe to enjoy travel and trade. And there are the Brexiteers who want the FREEDOM of NOT belonging to Europe, because of all the laws and regulations.

President Roosevelt way back in 1941 summed it up well when he listed four kinds of freedom that politicians should aim to deliver:
freedom of speech everywhere,
freedom of worship everywhere,
freedom from want everywhere,
freedom from fear everywhere.

What sort of freedom is Christian freedom? Paul talks about it a lot in our reading from Galatians this morning. So what is it? Primarily it is a freedom of conscience. According to the Christian gospel no one is truly FREE until Jesus Christ has rid them of the burden of their guilt. So Christian freedom is freedom FROM sin, not freedom TO sin. We have freedom to approach God without fear, not freedom to exploit our neighbours without love. Indeed, the reading this morning makes it clear that with regard to others, we do not have the freedom to even just tolerate them. We are commanded to love them, and because of that, to be willing to serve them, to act in their best interests. It is a remarkable paradox – we are free in relation to God in that we can approach him without fear, but we are slaves in our relation to others, in that we need to always consider their needs as well as our own. We are not to be destructive, but in Christ we are to be constructive towards others.

But how is that realistically possible? We all know the pull of the lower nature in our lives. Paul looks in some depth at the constant warfare that goes on between what he calls the flesh and the Spirit. He urges us to be aware of this constant pull downwards on us. He urges us to actively repudiate the it evil, selfish urges that will harm both ourselves and others.

Paul says we will only succeed if we stay close to the Holy Spirit. In fact, in our reading this morning Paul mentions the Holy Spirit seven times by name. He is called our Sanctifier who alone can oppose and subdue the sinful flesh, and He alone can cause the fruit of righteousness to grow in our lives.

Paul lists some beautiful traits that make you wish that you knew a lot of people who had them: these nine Christian graces together portray the beauty and attractiveness of a Christian life. The first triad, or three, if you like, is LOVE, JOY and PEACE. These Christian virtues primarily describe our proper attitude towards God. For our first love is for God, our chief joy is our joy in God, and our deepest peace is our peace with God. The second triad of graces are PATIENCE, KINDNESS, GOODNESS. These are, if you like, the social virtues, looking towards others rather than Godward. Patience is longsuffering towards those who aggravate us. Kindness is a question of our disposition towards others. Goodness is doing words and deeds which benefit others. The final three graces are FAITHFULNESS, GENTLENESS AND SELF-CONTROL. Faithfulness is a description of the reliability of a Christian, gentleness reflects the humble meekness of Christ, and self-control describes personal inner strength, the very opposite of personal weakness.

So ‘love, joy, peace’ is God-wards, ‘patience, kindness, goodness’ is towards others, and ‘faithfulness, gentleness and self-control’ is self-wards in that it describes a Christian’s character in themselves. And all of these are fruit that comes from the indwelling of the Holy Spirit within us.

If only it were easy to allow such beautiful characteristics as these to bloom in our lives! But we all know that it is not easy, and St Paul was above all a realist. He spoke in quite savage terms about the on-going struggle it will be, and was adamant about how we should treat our baser desires. He even said we should ‘crucify’ them – in other words, make a stern, decision to utterly reject the wrong, to put it firmly away from us. And we can look for help to the Holy Spirit. For Paul says we are to be led by the Spirit. The Greek verb which he uses for led, was used of a farmer herding cattle, of a shepherd leading sheep – in other words, a relationship of everyday calm familiarity, and of total trust and confidence based on on-going experience. We are to be led, and we are NOT to suddenly take off down the road on our own, as a cow did recently on the Silk Road on my way to Poynton. And Paul goes even further. He urges us to actively ‘walk with the Spirit’ – and the verb he used here is of moving forward actively, with purpose and direction. If you have ever walked a Jack Russell dog, you will know what he meant.

As one well-loved Bible scholar urges us: To keep our Christian freedom, and to enjoy it, we are to make it our task each day to take time to remember who we are. We belong to Jesus Christ, and his Spirit dwells within us. So we can actively decide to cooperate with Him each day, and ask Him for guidance when the way is not clear. Remember – we are FREE to do so.

So – finally – coming back to Brexit, with regard to our Christian lives, you can have it both ways this morning. With regard to the rule of sin in your life, be a Brexiteer – get yourself free of it and deny its control on your life. With regard to other people, be a Remainer, and make the decision to love others and be willing to help them.

You are a Christian – you are free!
So Brexit from sin, and Remain in the Holy Spirit.

First Sunday after Trinity 2019

Brian Reader

Luke 8:26-39

As you may have realized, I have been away from Bollington over the last two Sundays, but I have not missed Church. While I was away I realised that I have been a Lay Reader for 24 years…

was played on the organ by Jennifer (and those who knew the words joined in!)

This is really quite an achievement because I remember our team Rector saying before he agreed to the start of my training at the age of 61 “Well I suppose we might get two or three years out of you!” Why have I mentioned this? Well today’s Gospel story is well known. As well as appearing in Luke, there are similar stories in both Mathew (8.28-34) and Mark (5.1-20). Yet when studying the text and the various commentaries, I learnt something new. It does not matter how old you are, or how long you have been doing something, you can always learn something new if you approach it with an open mind.

The story is set on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, or Lake Tiberias. The lake is not very large, only about 13 miles long, and 8 miles wide, so I had assumed that in Jesus’ time all the people around the lake would have been Jews. This was not the case, as along the western edge of the lake was part of the Decapolis, a group of ten cities on the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire in what is now Jordan. The Decapolis was a centre of Greek and Roman culture in a region which was otherwise populated by the Jewish people and that was the reason they were breeding pigs.

But back to the Gospel story. Jesus had chosen to cross over on to foreign soil, perhaps to escape the immediate pressure of travelling around under the nose of Herod Antipas. There was, however, to be no peace there either. This violent man, possessed, it seems, by a multitude of spirits, at once confronts him and fills the air with screaming and yelling. The disciples must have wanted to get straight back in the boat and head for home again. Jesus remains calm before this human storm, as he had before with the wind and the waves on the lake. The same quiet authority will deal with the one as with the other. The man was wild and had almost superhuman strength; today he would probably be diagnosed with melancholic mania. He was certainly in mental torment, but Jesus was stronger than his whole regiment of demons. Jesus needed some visible demonstration of his cure and when the pigs were stampeded by his cries Jesus said, ‘There go your demons’.

There’s an ironic twist in the story; because the demons ask to enter the pigs and the pigs then rushed headlong into the sea; at the time, there was a popular superstition that the sea was the abode of condemned spirits. Now the story contrasts the well-being of man with that of the pigs and their owners; but the pigs’ drowning raises some awkward questions: was it right to take the men’s livelihood away? Were the men more worried about the money than about the animals? Did the pigs matter more than the man? Is business profit and the economy more important than the well-being of animals? The townspeople asked Jesus to leave, but were they afraid of such obvious divine power, or of the threat to their businesses, or because they just didn’t want to be disturbed?

We may have our own views but we cannot be sure of all the answers. It’s very sad that the only time that he came to them they asked him to go away. Jesus is then very careful not to do anything which might antagonize the Roman Authorities in the future. But Luke’s focus in telling this story is on the man himself, and, as always, on Jesus. For Luke, what has happened to this man isn’t just a remarkable healing; it is ‘salvation’. The salvation which God promised long ago, is now becoming evident in Jesus and his mission. It has already reached many in Israel, and it is now starting to spread further afield. The man, quite understandably, wants to be allowed to stay with Jesus. Not only is he now bonded to him by the astonishing rescue he has experienced; but he may well assume that things would not be easy back in his home territory, where everyone knew the tragic tale of his recent life. There might be considerable reluctance to take him back as a member of his family or the village. He would have to stand up and take responsibility for himself; he couldn’t rely on being able, as it were, to hide behind Jesus. Luke reserves the real point of the story to the last few words. ‘Go home,’ says Jesus, ‘and tell them what God has done for you.’

Just as from Israel’s earliest experience, deliverance always precedes commandment, so this healing comes before the commission; now that he has set you free and you are in your right mind: go and tell the others. And the man goes off and tells everyone what Jesus has done for him, and in doing so he becomes the first apostle to the Gentiles. Luke is not offering us, or not yet, any formula, or carefully worked-out doctrine, of how ‘God was in Christ’. At the moment it is simply something people discover in their own experience: what Jesus does, God does. Or, to put it the other way round, if you want to tell people what God has done, tell them what Jesus has done.

The best brains in two thousand years of Christianity have struggled to find adequate words to explain how this can be; but it is a truth known to many,
at a level too deep for mere theory, from the moment they discover God’s saving power in the person and work of Jesus. Jesus will not run from any danger or turn away from anyone. Jesus showed that he was stronger than a whole regiment of demons. He waits patiently for you to come to him, waits to set you free from all that troubles you, and give you peace.

Find the peace that Jesus alone can give, and go and tell others, of what God, through Jesus, can do for them.

AMEN

6th Sunday of Easter 2019

Brian Reader

Acts 16: 9- 15; Rev 21: 10, 22 to 22: 5; Ps 67; John 14: 23-29.

Now this may seem a strange question but bear with me, it does have relevance. Does anyone remember this? [played on the organ by Jenny]

It is one of the Beatles hits which was released as a single 1967, over half a century ago.
I first preached on these readings back in 2004 – fifteen years ago, and I played a recording of the first part of the song. Then I was able to ask – How many of you remember the Beatles? But now perhaps I might have to ask a younger generation, have any of you heard of the Beatles? The lyrics were:

Love, love, love
Love, love, love
Love, love, love
There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done

Nothing you can sing that can’t be sung
Nothing you can say but you can learn how to play the game
It’s easy
Nothing you can make that can’t be made
No one you can save that can’t be saved
Nothing you can do but you can learn how to be you in time
It’s easy
All you need is love
All you need is love

Today is the last Sunday before the Jesus’ Ascension into Heaven. After His resurrection, Jesus had to remind his disciples what he had taught them about God and Himself. Now in today’s Gospel reading from St John, Jesus is trying to prepare them for what is about to happen. “I’ve told you this ahead of time, before it happens, so that when it does happen, it will deepen your belief in me.” It will also give them a better understanding of His love. In another translation, the passage starts: “If anyone loves me, he will carefully keep my word and my Father will love him.” If you read John’s Gospel, you will see that just before this passage, Jesus is talking a lot about love. Hence my being reminded of the old Beatles hit.

All you need is love. But is that true? Yes, if that love is for God and for our neighbours as Jesus commanded. Yes, if it is the selfless love that a parent should have for a child and a child for their parents, then it is good and honourable.

Regrettably, in today’s permissive world, with all the media and peer pressures put upon us, love is more likely to be selfish or just plain lust. So it is not surprising that David Shepherd, who as Bishop of Liverpool, the home of the Beatles, said, when speaking on permissiveness and human love – “If I was clever enough and good enough it would be all right to say, ‘Love is all you need’, but because I am neither clever enough, nor good enough, there is a need for signposts (or rules) to show that it is not the loving thing to go down (some) particular paths.”

And Jesus said, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.”
What is Jesus’ word? It is His teaching and His commandments which we can read in the Bible. To sum up the whole message of the Gospel: Belief in and love of God, means belief in and love of Jesus. For St John the two are inseparable. There is no adequate faith in God apart from faith in Jesus.

At the time of Christ’s passion, the disciples were worried and upset by the talk of His betrayal and the thought of Jesus leaving them. Jesus himself knew the effect his death had on them all. And so He is trying to explain and to get them to understand why it has to happen; that the time was coming when Jesus would no longer be physically present with them. However, His return to God will be for their good: it will bring a new power for action, together with a new certainty in prayer. If Jesus is to leave them, how can He be the ‘way’ to God when He is no longer there? The answer lies in the two successors to Jesus’ ministry named in this chapter.

One successor is the Holy Spirit. Jesus promises the disciples that they will not be left ‘orphaned’; he will send a ‘Helper’ , a ‘comforter’ or a ‘Counsellor’ for them – the Holy Spirit. The resurrection of Jesus will bring not only the promise of eternal life for the believers, but also his living presence through the Holy Spirit.

The Spirit will help the disciples remember and apply Jesus’ teachings to life after His ascension and give them the courage to endure the persecutions which will follow. And two weeks ago Anne spoke of the persecutions which are still taking place in the world today. Best of all, the Holy Spirit will come to be with them always and everywhere (not limited by a physical body as Jesus had been). The Spirit will teach and counsel and bring to mind all that Jesus has said. And Jesus’ own unshakeable peace will be theirs.

But there is a second successor, the church. With the promise comes a commission. Jesus promises that those who believe in him will “do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these”. So Christians can continue Jesus’ work. ‘Greater things’ does not mean more spectacular – it would be hard to outdo the resurrection! But the world-wide mission of the church does take the ministry of Jesus far beyond the bounds of His earthly ministry. The Holy Spirit is the power for this ministry. And our contribution lies in obeying Jesus and his teaching. Love of Christ and obedience are tied intimately together in this passage.

For all those who follow him, Jesus offers his ‘peace’. Note: the peace that Jesus offers his disciples is not the peace of an easy life. It is the peace of the obedient servant who has the full confidence and support of his master, and who carries out his commission effectively and joyfully.

With His death Jesus made the approach-road for men and women to come to God. His resurrection enables His return to the Father, and His ascension enables Him to get a permanent home ready for his disciples, and in due course he will come again for them. And we are included in that promise if we follow Him as His disciples today. We have seen that as disciples, we must continue to love and trust Jesus Christ. And the way we can show our love is to do all that he says and commands.

As we have seen, the Beatles’ phrase ‘All you need is love’ is not enough. It also requires prayerful action, commitment and courage to follow Christ. In the Beatles song we hear – ‘It’s easy, love is all you need’. But Jesus never said it would be easy, or without hardship, for the Christians who follow Him, but we know that with the help of the Holy Spirit all things are possible. Jesus’ ascension, His returning to the Father is the culmination, the completion of Jesus’ work as a man here on earth. It is the crowning of the Easter story – Hallelujah!

4th Sunday of Easter 2019

Anne Coomes

“My sheep listen to my voice, they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand.” 
John 10 27

No one will snatch them out of my hand. 

Yet today, there are many countries where the authorities are trying to do just that. To snatch Christians away from Jesus Christ, by persecuting them or even killing them. Just how bad is this persecution? Well, as you know, following the outcry over Asia Bibi, the Christian woman cleared of blasphemy in Pakistan late last year, the Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt commissioned the Bishop of Truro, the Rt Rev Philip Mounstephen, to carry out an independent review on the persecution of Christians worldwide.

Bishop Mounstephen was a good choice, because he used to head up the Church Mission Society, and in that role has worked with persecuted Christians in many countries.

Well, you’ll remember that on 3rd May, only about 10 days ago, the bishop published his interim report, and the findings made our national headlines. The report found that ‘religious persecution is a global phenomenon that is growing in scale and intensity’ and that there is ‘widespread evidence showing that Christians are by far the most widely persecuted religion’. Acts of violence ‘are on the rise, with an increase in the severity of anti-Christian persecution.’

As of 2019, 245 million Christians worldwide suffer high levels of persecution or worse. This is up 30 million up on 2018. That’s one in ten Christians globally. In Asia the statistics are even more shocking, with one in three Christians at risk of severe persecution. As for the persecution in the Middle East and Africa, it has reached such a ‘vast scale’ that it is arguably coming close to meeting the international definition of genocide, according to that adopted by the UN. Christians in Palestine now represent less than 1.5% of the population, while in Iraq they have fallen from 1.5 million to less than 120,000 in just 16 years.

The main impact of such genocidal acts is exodus. Christianity now faces being wiped-out in parts of the Middle East. In fact, ‘The eradication of Christians and other minorities on pain of the sword or other violent means is… the specific and stated objective of extremist groups in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, North-East Nigeria and the Philippines.’ These groups want to stamp out all evidence of Christianity. They remove crosses, tear down or bomb churches (think of the attack in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday), abduct and kill the clergy.

But it is not just extremist groups. It is governments. In many countries to be a Christian is to risk arrest, imprisonment, and torture – for no other reason than that you believe in Jesus. For the report warns of an increasing threat from ‘aggressive nationalism in countries such as China, as well as from Islamist militia groups.’ For example, in India, ‘there is a growing narrative that to be Indian is to be Hindu.’

The report then analysed persecution around the world.

Christians in the Middle East and Africa use to be 20 per cent of the population – 100 years ago. Today, they are less than 4 per cent. In South East Asia, such as India and Nepal, militant nationalists are demanding anti-conversion laws. In other words, to make it illegal to even become a Christian. In sub-Saharan Africa, such as Nigeria there are the militant Islamists Boko Haram and the Fulani herdsmen.  Their specific aim is to eliminate all Christianity and thus pave the way for the total Islamisation of the country.

And so in Nigeria alone, hundreds of Christians are being killed every single month. During 2018, far more Christians in Nigeria were killed in violence than anywhere else in the world. What about East Asia?  Well, North Korea has been the most dangerous country in the world for Christians for the past 18 years. Here Christians face arrest, interrogation, severe torture, imprisonment and often execution. Over in China, the Government is currently demolishing church buildings and tearing down crosses. In Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar (Burma), again the growing influence of Islamic militancy… is driving persecution of Christians in the region. In Central Asia? The report says that ‘the situation for Christians is bleak, as authorities have further enforced a widespread crackdown on churches.  

All in all, Bishop Mounstephen has said: “Through my previous experience… I was aware of the terrible reality of persecution. But to be honest in preparing this report, I’ve been truly shocked by the severity, scale and scope of the problem.”

For of course the New Testament was always clear that to be a Christian is to face persecution. 

Matthew 5 11: Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven,

Mark 8 35: For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.

Luke 21 12-15: But before all this, they will seize you and persecute you. They will hand you over to synagogues and put you in prison, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name. And so you will bear testimony to me. 

John 15 18: If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’  If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. 

Romans 8 35: Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

2 Corinthians 4 8-10:  We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. 

2 Timothy 3 12: In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.

1 Peter 3 14: But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened.

1 Peter 4 12: Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.

So going back to our Bible readings this morning, it is not often that you can pick up a national news story and link it directly with the Bible, but when you compare the Mounstephen interim report with our reading this morning from Revelation, the similarities are striking: 

Revelation reads:  ‘there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from? I answered, “Sir, you know.” And he said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore, they are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat down on them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’ 

2nd Sunday of Easter 2019

Brian Reader

Acts 5:27-32 / Ps: 150/ Rev 1:4-8 / John 20:19-31 /

Today is sometimes known as Low Sunday, after all the excitement of Easter Sunday. It is also a time when Cathedral choirs are away on holiday. This is good, because it allows good parish choirs to fulfil the role of relief choir in a cathedral setting, and I consider myself very lucky to have had the opportunity to sing with relief choirs at Bury St. Edmund’s, Gloucester Cathedral, and twice at St. David’s.

So what impact did this Easter have on you? For me it surprised me in a number of different ways; ways I did not expect and ways I did not choose.

Firstly there was the Lent group, movingly centred on the book ‘The Nail’, some portions of which Veronica used in the services leading up to Easter. It was a good Lent course as it made us realise that through our sins, we all had a responsibility for nailing Jesus to the cross. But it wasn’t nails that held him to the cross – it was His love for us. And then last Sunday we had our Easter services to celebrate Christ’s glorious resurrection, and we met the risen Lord at the communion table. In the past I can remember waking up on Easter morning to find snow covering the daffodils. But not this year; Easter was late and we had fine weather! The daffodils may have faded, but the bluebells were out and the trees had a good covering of new leaves. For those of you who made the early Easter service it was magical. The sky was clear with an almost full moon and a couple of pink contrails crossing the dark blue sky; with the dawn chorus in almost full throat. Even the weather was warm and we didn’t really need the blazing fire, as we filed into a dark church with our candles burning. If you have never been to one of Veronica’s early Easter services, I certainly recommend it, as it is an experience never to be forgotten. And the 10.30 service was also memorable. We had a double Christening, and multiple Christenings at Easter used to be a feature of the early Church.

Today’s reading, taken from St. John’s Gospel, is part of the continuing resurrection story. Jesus appears in a locked room to some, but not to all the disciples, and he commissions them. “Just as my Father sent me, I send you.” But Thomas, the twin, was not there, and when they told him that they had seen the Master, he said that he would not believe unless he too could see the marks of the crucifixion on His Lord. Poor Thomas, nicknamed ‘doubting’ for the rest of time.

Why did he doubt; why is this story recorded? Just imagine if this had been a communist story, or even the report of an event or a meeting by a modern political party, would they have written anything about anyone possibly having doubts? Most unlikely. This part of the story would receive spin, it would be glossed over, or edited out. But some doubting is normal, it is not improper, unless it is hidden and not faced and overcome. So why was this bit about doubting Thomas recorded, and why did Matthew also record that some doubted? Well the Gospel writers would not have made it up, so it can be regarded as true. And if the doubting is true, then all the other resurrection eye witness reports can also be taken as true.

Back in 2004 there was a lot of hoo-ha about the film – ‘The passion of the Christ’. I saw the film, with all the gore and violence, and I think it gave me a better understanding of Christ’s love and the suffering He endured for me, for you, and for the whole world. We know that Pilate was pressurised by the Jewish priests but as the Roman governor, he was very happy to use their false accusations to rid himself of a possible trouble maker. Christ who came teaching love and justice for all, was put to death unjustly because of the fear and hatred of a powerful few. One thing that the film ‘The Passion of the Christ’ forcibly recalled to mind, was the great trauma that the two Marys and all the disciples felt as events unfolded leading up to the flogging and terrible death of their beloved Master.

Would I have denied Christ like Peter? Probably. Why stick out and be another victim when all you have worked for and believed in is being swept aside, rejected, and nullified before your very eyes? They did not know that he was to return, to make all things new, to gladden the heart and stiffen the sinew. He tried to tell them, but they just didn’t understand. Yet return to life He did. Risen in a new body which they failed to recognised till he spoke their name, broke bread in thanksgiving, or said “Peace be with you.” He also taught them afresh about himself – as the Son of God, and of God His Father, and He spoke of the Holy Spirit, who would come to fire them up for their work in the days to come.

Tom Wright, who was the Bishop of Durham, has said that “there is little justification for being a Christian unless one accepts that the Resurrection is a matter of historical fact.” In his TV programme ‘Resurrection’, he took an historical journey to the places where Jesus lived and died, in an attempt to build up a picture of what really happened in Jerusalem some 2000 years ago. He showed that the cross was not the end – NO, that was just the beginning.

The Resurrection that followed was an event of cataclysmic proportions which changed the way mankind viewed life and death for ever. The resurrection rejuvenated the grieving disciples. It galvanised the young Church which spread the Gospel through the eastern world like wildfire. It gave a faith in Jesus Christ by which, men and women were prepared to live their lives, and if – as was sometimes necessary – a faith to die for.

This is our faith, and yet we too sometimes doubt just like Thomas. He was able to see and feel the wounds inflicted on Jesus, and we can’t. We can’t prove there is a God in any scientific way, yet we can prove that Christ did live, that he was crucified unjustly for our sins, and that he did rise again. And Jesus tells us through his disciples and scriptures, that if we have seen Him, (or know Him as our personal saviour) then we have seen and know God the Father. And so we can believe with our minds and have faith, but we also need to trust with our hearts and reach out for His ever forgiving love.

He said, “Peace be with you.” So cast your doubts away, Jesus lives, Hallelujah!