17th Sunday after Trinity 2018

Brian Reader

Wisdom 1:16-2.1, 12-22; or Jeremiah 11.18-22; Ps54;
James 3:13-4.3, 7-8a; Mark 9: 30-37.

As we approach Bible Sunday, have you ever thought that today we have the ability to get closer to the Gospels than at any time in the past?

Firstly, I believe that scholarship and research has given us the best translations and commentaries that there have ever been, and secondly, modern technology, gives us easy access to the web which enables us to source that information whenever we wish. But, I would suggest, we rarely seek to find that Bible information, but rather seek the easier options of contact with friends, photos, games or support of our busy lives. Not that that is wrong, no this is just a reminder, that today we don’t have to carry a Bible with us, all we need to know can be found on the web.

Today on the back of our news sheet there are four related Bible readings. We heard passages from Jeremiah, James and Mark but didn’t hear the passage from Wisdom. Can I recommend that you all take the sheet home with you, and for homework, read the passage from Wisdom?

So what can be said about our Gospel for today? This story is also recorded in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, so the early Christians must have thought it worthy of note. Last week Veronica was telling us about Jesus teaching the crowds, but this passage from Mark tells how Jesus is now trying to teach his disciples. First he takes them away from the crowds because what he has to tell them cannot be said openly, because the scribes and the Pharisees are seeking to find evidence against him. Also the teaching method has changed. Usually Jesus teaches people by parables, interesting stories which have a hidden religious meaning. Now he speaks to them directly. “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him …!”

He will be handed over; he will be killed; he will rise again. Why couldn’t they understand?

Because no such fate could possibly have been part of their understanding of what role a Messiah might have. Why should they, or more to the point, how could they, be expected to understand? Education by the priests in the temple was for the rich, for the others they would be taught by their parents about the law and something of the Old Testament stories. They had been taught that the Jews were waiting for a Messiah to lead them into their Glory Days again. They had accepted Jesus as this new prophet, but did not expect him to be captured and put to death; and how could anyone rise from death? Perhaps Jesus was speaking in riddles again, how could they tell? And yet they were afraid to ask.

But something must have stuck. If Jesus is going to die, who will take over? And Jesus was aware of this undercurrent and discussion and asked them about it. But most probably, because they were ashamed, they did not answer him. But Jesus knew and turned it into another training opportunity, saying that, ‘Whoever wants to be first, must be last of all, and servant of all.” And to make the point even clearer he put a young child in their midst. Now many scholars believe that the verses from Mark 9:37 and 10:15, have been accidentally reversed in the past. They both speak about children, but if reversed back, the subject matter fits in better with the context. So the last verse would become; (from Mark 10:15) ‘I am telling you the truth: anyone who doesn’t receive the kingdom of God like a child will never get into it’.

This certainly makes more sense as, at this point, Jesus is teaching his disciples about humility. At this stage we should not only sympathize with the disciples; we must also ask ourselves whether we would have done the same thing. When God is trying to say something to us, how good are we at listening? Is there something in scripture, or something we’ve heard in church, or something we sense going on around us, through which God is trying to speaking to us? And if so, are we prepared to listen to it? Are we willing to have our earlier ways of understanding things taken apart so that a new way of understanding can open up instead?

A sign that the answer may still be ‘no’ is if, we like the disciples, are still concerned about our own status, about what’s in it for us. If we think that by following Jesus we will enhance our own prestige, or our sense of self-worth, then we’re very unlikely to be able to hear what God is actually saying.

Certainly Jesus must have been frustrated and disappointed that the disciples could only worry about their own relative status. How often do we need to be taught this lesson? I remember, with regret, how I got quite jealous that a lady who became a Christian quite late in life, appeared to be making more progress in her Spiritual life than I was. And I was a Lay Reader! And then I remembered, ‘anyone who doesn’t receive the kingdom of God like a child will never get into it’.

That’s the trouble with understanding only half the message – the half that the disciples and we want to understand. If Jesus is Messiah and king, then aren’t we all royal courtiers-in-waiting? In other words, anyone at all associated with Jesus can become the means of access to royalty, and even to divinity. So the disciples aren’t special in that sense at all.

Mark relates in the following chapters how the disciples continue with the same idea in their heads, until the shocking truth dawns. The Messiah will be captured, tried and killed.

To try to jolt them out of their upside-down thinking, Jesus, not for the last time, uses a child as a teaching aid. Aside from normal family affection, children were not rated highly in the ancient world; they had no status or prestige.

This lesson resonates down through the centuries of church history in which so many have thought that being close to Jesus, even working full-time for him, somehow made them special. Those who have really understood his message know that things just aren’t like that. When Jesus went to the cross, everything his disciples had imagined was turned upside down, and he is still turning upside down the way people think, including Christians. If we feel sorry for the disciples in their confusion, should we not ask ourselves just how confused we still are?

Do you think that you know all you need to know, or do you still want to learn? If you are no longer learning then you are not growing. Don’t you realise that we all still need help to live the true Christian life? Being child-like does not mean being childish, it means wanting to grow up. Don’t you too really want to grow up to the full-grown stature of a mature child of God?

When a fond relative asks a child, ‘What are you going to be when you grow up?’ they really mean, ‘What are you going to do?’ We are obsessed with ‘doing’ more than ‘being’ but what you are is more important than what you do. A proper answer to that question would be, ‘A man’; or ‘A woman’. However, the best answer is, ‘To be like Jesus’.

The best thing is we all still can be. Just accept Jesus into your life as a child, and ask Him to be your friend and Saviour.

AMEN

14th Sunday after Trinity 2018

Brian Reader

Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9; Ps 15; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

We have now reached the first Sunday in September and the 14th Sunday after Trinity – only seven more to go! So today my talk is part sermon, and part meditation.

Our readings speak about the commandments given to us by God, and how it is most important for us to be doers of God’s word and not merely hearers like those who still speak with unbridled tongues and who deceive no one but themselves.

It could be said that it is all in your mind, as your mind commands your thought, speech and actions. Let me give you an example: A lovely-looking girl got on a bus and most heads turned. She had a classical beauty and figure, and was most attractively dressed. The faces of other passengers registered wistful pleasure or delight – until she began to speak. Her voice was like the sound of many cement-mixers, coarse and loud and grating and the content was worse than the sound, crude, judgemental, blasphemous; it really was a real turn-off. If only she had given as much thought and care to her attitudes as to her appearance!

Now the Pharisees were most zealous in religious observance; they were not all nit-pickers or pettifogging lawyers; but when the hungry disciples ignored a traditional ritual, the Pharisees were quick to try to attack Jesus through his friends. Jesus made no defence of his disciples, but launched a scathing counter-attack on their accusers, by contrasting appearance with reality. In Isaiah 29:13, we can read: The LORD says: “These people come near to me with their mouth and honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is based on merely human rules that they have been taught.”

Jesus opened up the whole debate about the validity of traditions; minute regulations can often obscure the real principle. He contrasted the eternal law of God with man-made laws which are not sacrosanct. Simply because it seems good to us or we’ve always done it that way does not mean it can never be changed or has Divine approval.

With the crowd and later with his disciples, Jesus explained the truth about uncleanness and what really defiles a man or a woman. His appalling catalogue of sins and crimes, which are repulsive to us all, are all actions of an unclean mind and heart, not anything external; and they all can seed and reproduce themselves.

The heart of the matter, is a matter of the heart and mind. It is all a matter of personal responsibility. We would like to blame our genes, or poor environment, or inadequate education, or social pressures, or life’s unfairness; Obviously, we think, it must be something to do with other people! God has, however, given to each of us the dignity and the privilege of being responsible – and answerable – for our own acts and attitudes. It seems as if there is an evil twist within us; but how we deal with depends on us.

When a trainee priest once told an old and very wise saint that he found it difficult not to give way to temptation, the saint replied that, “I cannot stop birds from flying over my head, but I can stop them from nesting in my hair!”

So when we need help. Remember the power of prayer.

Lord,
you know us far better than we know ourselves.
You know how badly we react to criticism,
how quick we are to judge other people,
and even quicker to excuse ourselves;
we want to blame other people for our mistakes and faults and frailty;
we close up our minds and hearts;
and we cling to things that are not good for us.
Lord, help us;
we are trying to be honest with ourselves,
and with you;
help us to admit our faults and confess our sins.
Show us what spoils us, imprisons us, and enslaves us;
show us how we can be free within ourselves.
Lord, help us,
have mercy on us;
forgive us;
and set us free from the evil power of sin.
AMEN

13th Sunday after Trinity 2018

Brian Reader

Joshua 24:1-2a,14-18; Ps 34 15-22; Ephesians 6:10-20; John 6:56-69

Today’s three readings have sufficient material for sermons covering a month of Sundays; however, you may be glad to know that I will comment on only one theme this morning.

In just seven weeks we will be commemorating the centenary of the ending of the First World War. As the words of St. Paul reminded us, we are still at war today, but many fail to recognise it.

C. S. Lewis wrote a book about imaginary letters between the devil and his lieutenants called the Screwtape Letters.  Lewis says in his introduction to the book, that the general public prefers either to ignore the forces of evil altogether – to pretend they don’t- exist’ and to use cartoon images of a ‘devil’ with horns and a tail as an argument to that effect. ‘You can’t possibly believe in that nonsense’, so how can you believe in a devil at all?’ The other extreme is to take an unhealthy interest in everything demonic, which can be just as bad in the long run.

What we have in the present passage and what l believe is required again and again as Christians, is face the daily and yearly battle for the kingdom, with a sober, realistic assessment both of the struggle we are engaged in and of the weapons at our disposal. It is, of course, a surprise to many people that there is a ‘struggle’ at all. Yes, they think, we find it difficult from time to time to practise our Christianity. We find it hard to forgive people, to pray regularly, to resist temptation, and to learn more about the faith. But as far as they’re concerned that’s the end of it. They have never thought that their small struggles might be part of a larger campaign.

In the letter to his friends in Ephesus, Paul writes that they should keep alert and arm themselves against the wiles of the devil and that is still good advice for us today. Paul warns them that, ‘our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh but against the rulers, against the authorities,
against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. The problem with that is you can’t see the spiritual forces of evil. During the last war it was easy. The German aeroplanes had black swastikas on them and the German soldiers wore grey uniforms with funny shaped tin hats and anyway the whole country was united in fighting them.

But in today’s war we can’t see our evil enemy, we can only recognise the evil effect the devil has on other people, or on the way he tempts us from the straight and narrow path as we try to follow the will of God. And today, not only is the country not united in fighting evil, but sometimes even the churches seem divided!

But even if we can’t see our foe, Paul does give us some very practical advice.  We must put on the armour which has been provided by God. Firstly he says fasten the belt of truth around your waist. That is very important. The primary thing about the Christian message is that it is true; if it isn’t, it’s meaningless. It isn’t true because it works; NO, it works because it is true. Never give up on the sheer truth of the gospel. It’s like the belt which holds everything else together and in place. And we should be true in all we say and do. On the television we see advertisements in which lying is seen as the norm – I’m thinking about the advert where a hostess passes off a bought ready meal as her own cooking.

And put on the breastplate of righteousness.  The Revised English Bible says
for a breastplate put on integrity; we all know what is right and wrong, so we should do good and seek the moral high ground. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. REB says let the shoes on your feet be the gospel of peace, to give you firm footing; Jesus proclaimed a Gospel of peace, yet he did not budge when things got tough, and he was prepared to stand firm – even against physical force when necessary.

With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. If we have a strong faith in Jesus as our Lord and Saviour, then we can be sure that he will help us resist all that the devil can throw at us. Take the helmet of salvation, GNB says accept salvation as a helmet. The devil tries to put doubt in our minds,
but if we know, if we really, really know, that we are saved, and that Jesus really loves us and that he died on the Cross for us, then the doubts sown by the devil will never be able to take root.

Ok, so that’s the armour, but how do we attack? Take the word of God as the sword which the Spirit gives you. God has given us the Bible, His Holy Word, as a great spiritual resource to help us defeat evil. It gives us great strength and encouragement and we should read it every day. And Paul goes on in his letter to the Ephesians to remind them that they also have another weapon which is prayer. God is spirit and we have been told to worship God in spirit and in truth. So Paul says – Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. And we know that in prayer we can ask God’s help not only for our own fight against evil, but also for our friends and family, and not only for our friends and family, but for our town and for the whole world.

We are told that with Christ’s death and resurrection he has won the victory, yet we still appear to see evil overcoming good all over the world.
How can this be? The only way I can think of explaining this is to liken it to winter in 1944-45. The war in Europe was virtually won yet because the allies let their guard down, the Germans had one last push, the Battle of the Bulge. It was their one last offensive, it cost many lives, it may have prolonged the war, but it was defeated, and by May of 1945, it was all over.

Have we as Christians let our guard down? Perhaps the devil is having his Battle of the Bulge. But he has already been defeated and Christ will come in Glory.

So next time you see a film or a programme about the war on the TV, remember, that we too have a war to fight against evil, and we have God’s armour to protect us if we will only use it. Sometimes we may have feelings of being restricted or let down, or inadequate. Remember that Paul was in prison when he wrote this inspiring letter to his friends. So take heart, never give in, and never forget to use our God given weapons of prayer and reading the Bible. They will Inspire us to tell the world of Jesus’ love for all and spread God’s kingdom and at the same time enable us thwart the devil and all his evil ways.

Amen

9th Sunday after Trinity 2018

Brian Reader

2 Kings 4: 42-44; Ps 145. 10-19; Ephesians 3.14-21; John 6:1 -21

In the past I have spoken about the story of the feeding of the 5000, so, I was a bit taken aback to find that the main Bible reading again related to that story; so today I will be asking you to think about the second part of the story where Jesus comes to his disciples when they are in trouble on the lake.

Just over two weeks ago the country was gripped with the Football World Cup fever, and even Veronica featured it in her sermon. Our team did well, but had they returned with the trophy I am sure that one of the newspaper headlines would have said that Gareth Southgate, or the winning goal scorer ‘walks on water’, acknowledging an almost superhuman performance. But that success in the world cup did not quite happen.

‘Walking on water’ has become an accepted sign of divinity since the evangelists recorded this story -which is exactly why they wrote it down. But the water he walked on was no ‘millpond’. Jesus was seen, striding across a tempestuous sea.

Now I believe in miracles. I believe in the really big ones, the Incarnation and the Resurrection; I believe that Jesus healed the sick and cured the lame, the blind, the deaf, the dumb. I believe in miracles, but I do not believe in magic; there is no place for magic in the Christian faith.
When it comes to the ‘nature miracles’, however, I have to pause and wonder; but I’ll keep an open mind.

You have heard me speak about Bishop Tom Wright, and he has written the book ‘John for Everyone’. The book is a very easy to read commentary on the Gospel of John and in it the bishop says he believes that St. John has already made it clear that this chapter is to be all about the Exodus, and so when we have this scene of Jesus walking on the water we should be prepared to understand it as part of the same story. The children of Israel began their journey to freedom by coming through the Red Sea, with the waters parting before them but closing again on their pursuers. It was, of course, Moses who led the way through the Red Sea, and the crowds have just declared that Jesus is ‘the prophet who should come into the world’ – the prophet, that is, like Moses.

Now, even though the crowds have misunderstood what such a prophet might have come to do – they were looking for another act of political liberation, but Jesus was offering something far greater and deeper – Jesus nevertheless does something which the disciples, on subsequent reflection, are bound to see in terms of the Exodus story, the Passover story.

They would see it like this – not least because the Jewish people were not very keen on the sea. They were not much of a seafaring race, unlike the ancient Phoenicians to the north. In some of their ancient stories and Psalms, the sea was associated with chaos, evil, untameable forces within the natural or the spiritual world. True, they sang psalms which celebrated the fact that YHWH, their God, was king over the mighty waters. But small lakes can make big waves as we saw on the TV last weekend, when the Duck boat sank on a small lake in America with the loss of all those lives. So even the fishermen in the story, used to squalls on the Sea of Galilee, could find themselves not only in trouble but in real fear of their lives, as the sea would suddenly become rough, and chaos threatened to come again.

All of this is in the evangelist’s mind as he tells of how Jesus carried on praying on the mountain, away from the excited crowds, until late in the evening, while the disciples set off back to Capernaum in the boat. The lake is about twelve miles long by seven wide at its widest point, and it looks as though they had rowed, through the storm, most of the way back from the east side of the lake to Capernaum on the north side, when Jesus came to them walking on the water.

This event is recorded by Matthew and Mark as well as by John – with all three of them locating it immediately after the feeding of the multitude – and there is no way of rationalising it. (People have suggested that maybe Jesus was standing on a sand bank near the shore, or something equally unlikely). You either come to the story with a firm view of what is and isn’t possible in the world, which won’t allow any fresh evidence – which is not, perhaps, the best way of approaching a book like John, which is all about the challenge of the gospel to all existing world-views – or you come with at least an open mind to new possibilities as yet unimagined. This isn’t the same as being gullible, or credulous.

Nor are the extraordinary stories in the gospels designed, as some seem to have imagined, to portray Jesus as being able to do anything and everything, simply for the sake of making a supernatural display. They are there, rather, as moments in the text when the strange glory of the Word-made-flesh shines through, not so much because Jesus can do whatever he wants, but because this particular act is so closely associated with what Israel’s God does at a key moment in Israel’s history.

The reaction of the crowd is explained in detail in the next four verses.
22 The next day the crowd that had remained on the far side of the lake saw that there had only been the one boat there. They knew that Jesus hadn’t gone with his disciples, but that the disciples had set off by themselves.
23 But other boats came from Tiberius, near the place where they had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks.
24 When the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and came to Capernaum looking for Jesus.
25 When they found him beside the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?”

John wants us to understand the fact that not only had the disciples seen what had happened but also that the crowds were puzzled. They knew Jesus hadn’t set off on the boat, and yet when they managed to get to the other side of the lake they found he’d already arrived in Capernaum. Last week, the Revd Rob Wardle told us about his night walk around the north-east side of the lake, so it is easier to understand that it would have been difficult for Jesus to make the journey by land in that time.

As so often, John leaves us with their puzzled question, to which Jesus will now give what seems an even more puzzling answer. This story of Jesus’ walking on the water can easily be used as a theme for meditation.
There are many times in our lives – and we never know when they will strike – when, metaphorically speaking, suddenly the wind gets up and the sea becomes rough. As we struggle to make our way through, sometimes we are aware of a presence with us, which may initially be more disturbing than comforting. (We may think ‘We’re already nearly drowning, and now we’ve got ghosts following us!’) But if we listen, through the roar of the waves and the wind, we may hear the voice that says, ‘It is me – don’t be afraid’.  And if we are ready then to take Jesus on board, we may find ourselves, sooner than we expected, at the harbour where we will be calm and secure once more.

Remember, God in Christ is with you; even in the deepest darkness.
Do not be afraid.
AMEN

God’s Hand Is Always There by Helen Steiner Rice

I am perplexed and often vexed
And sometimes I cry and sadly sigh,
But do not think, Dear Father above,
That I question you or your unchanging love
It’s just sometimes when I reach out
You seem to be nowhere about…
And while I’m sure that you love me still
And I know in my heart that you always will,
Somehow I feel that I cannot reach you
And though l get down on my knees and beseech you,
I cannot bring you closer to me
And I feel adrift on life’s raging sea…
But though I cannot find your hand
To lead me on to the Promised Land,
I still believe with all my being
Your hand is there beyond my seeing!

Trinity Sunday 2018

Isaiah 6:1-8; Ps 29; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17

Brian Reader

Those of you who were here last Sunday will remember that the service was taken by Rev’d Dr. Christopher Swift. He told me of a surprising headline in a Cambridge local newspaper which reported “Anglican Christians sunk by Trinity“. This extraordinary headline is explained by the fact that Westcott House, a Church of England theological College and Trinity College were engaged in the ‘Bumps’, a rowing race where boats are sent off at intervals and gain places by catching and touching the boat ahead. On this occasion the ‘bump’ was more aggressive than usual and the boat sank. And why did Dr. Swift remember this?  Well he was rowing in the Westcott boat, and got an early bath! Back to today.

When I first looked at the readings for today I was disappointed for two reasons. Firstly, it appeared to have no immediate link with the ‘Trinity’; the fact that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and secondly, because the subject matter was difficult to understand. So where would I start and what could I say?

Mind you I did have a connection with the verse John 3, 16. It was on Palm Sunday back in 1943, when a Beach Missionary came to visit the Plymouth Brethren Chapel where my family used to worship. At the end of the evening service, he did a ‘Billy Graham’, and asked if anyone wished to give their life to Christ, and I went up. Later we had a talk, and after I had convinced him that I was sure about the step I had taken, he showed me the text of John 3 16, saying that throughout his life he had found great strength in the words, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” I commend it to you.

Nicodemus

Now the reason that we may find the passage hard to understand is that Jesus was talking to one of the sharpest minds in Jerusalem. The passage has a lot about ‘new birth’, and some very active Christians go about asking, ‘Have you been born again?’ For some, the moment they accept Christ as their Lord and Saviour can be quite traumatic, like Saul on the road to Damascus. He went blind and changed his name to Paul.

For me, and I am sure it is the same for many, it was not traumatic, as although I was only a school boy, I had come to believe and trust in God over a period of time. What matters most, is not that you can remember and define the time when you were reborn or ‘born from above’, but that you are alive now, and that your present life, day by day and moment by moment, is showing evidence of health and strength and purpose of living in the way that God intends.

Where there are signs of life, it’s more important to feed and nurture it, than to spend much time going over and over what happened at the moment of birth. In fact, what Jesus says to Nicodemus is more sharply focused than we sometimes think. The Judaism that Nicodemus and Jesus both knew had a good deal to do with being born into the right family.
Being born from above is different.

To bring people into the kingdom-movement we have the baptism in water begun by John the Baptist and continued by Jesus’ disciples, and today we will be welcoming Natasha into the Church when she is baptised later.

Closely joined to the water baptism, is the baptism in the spirit, the new life, bubbling up from within, that Jesus offers. In this passage, Jesus is explaining how this double-sided new birth, which brings you into the visible community of Jesus’ followers, firstly water-baptism and then spirit baptism, which gives you the new life of the spirit welling up inside you, that both were now required for membership into God’s kingdom.
Indeed (as Jesus says in verse 3), without it you can’t even see God’s kingdom. You can’t glimpse it, let alone get into it.

But the point of this is that God’s kingdom is now thrown open to anyone and everyone. The spirit is on the move, like a fresh spring breeze, and no human family, tribe, or gathering can keep up with it. (It is interesting to note that the word for ‘wind’, in both Hebrew and Greek, is the same word as you’d use for ‘spirit’). Opening the window and letting the breeze in can sometimes be inconvenient, especially for the Nicodemuses of this world who suppose they have got everthing tidied up, labelled and sorted into neat piles. But unless we are prepared to listen to this dangerous message we aren’t ready to listen to the gospel at all.

In verses 10-13 we have the first of many passages in which Jesus speaks about a new knowledge – indeed, a new sort of knowing. It’s a way of knowing that comes from God, from heaven. It’s humbling for Nicodemus to have to be told this. He is, after all, a respected and senior teacher. But this way of knowing, and the new knowledge we get through it, is given by the mysterious ‘son of man’, God in human form. And I would suggest that it is from this new way of knowing that we get our first understanding of the truth about the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit working together in love.

Do not expect to fully understand the mystery that the Trinity is, just believe and accept that Jesus and God and the Holy Spirit work together divinely as one.  In the first chapter of John we are told that, Jesus is now the ladder which joins the two dimensions of God’s world, the heavenly and the earthly. If we want to understand not only the heavenly world, but the way in which God is now joining heaven and earth together, we must listen to him, and walk with him on the road he will show us.

Jesus then reflects back to the Book of Numbers and the time when the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness. They grumbled against Moses, and poisonous snakes invaded their camp, killing many of them. God gave Moses the remedy: he was to make a serpent out of bronze, put it on a pole and hold it up for people to look at. Anyone who looked at the serpent on the pole would live. The serpent entwined around the pole, is still used as a symbol and as a sign of healing, and is used by various medical organizations, including the medical branches of the armed services.
In this verse, Jesus is clearly pointing to his own death.

Moses put the serpent on a pole, and lifted it up so the people could see it;
even so, the son of man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. Humankind as a whole has been smitten with the deadly disease of sin. The only cure is to look at the son of man dying on the cross, and find life through believing in him. This is very deep and mysterious, but we must ask: how can the crucifixion of Jesus be like putting the snake on a pole?

But evil isn’t then healed, as it were, automatically. Precisely because the evil of sin lurks deep within each of us, for healing to take place we must ourselves be involved in the process. This doesn’t mean that we just have to try a lot harder to be good. You might as well try to teach a snake to sing. All we can do, just as it was all the Israelites could do, is to look and trust:
to look at Jesus, to see in him the full display of God’s saving love, and to trust in him. .

In the first chapter of John, he speaks of the great divide, which he describes in terms of darkness and light. Believing in Jesus means coming to the light, the light of God’s new creation. Not believing means remaining in the darkness. The darkness (and those who embrace it) must be condemned. It must be condemned because evil is destroying and defacing the present world, and preventing people coming forward into God’s new world (into ‘eternal life’; that is, the life of the age to come). ‘God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him’. The point of the whole story is that you don’t have to be condemned. You don’t have to let the snake kill you. God’s action in the crucifixion of Jesus has planted a sign in the middle of history.

And the sign says: believe, and live.

AMEN.

Fourth Sunday of Easter 2018

The next day their rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem, with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family. When they had made the prisoners stand in their midst, they inquired, ‘By what power or by what name did you do this?’ Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, ‘Rulers of the people and elders, if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. This Jesus is “the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.” There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.’ Acts 4.5-12

Brian Reader

Although this the fourth Sunday of Easter, I promise I won’t mention anything about eggs, chocolate or real!

I wonder if any of you noticed that on today’s readings sheet, it says that ‘The reading from Acts must be read as either the First or Second reading’. So I thought I better look at this reading more closely. I found that I certainly had not preached on the passage before and that on reading it, it seems a little out of context unless you also know something about what went on before. In the previous chapter we can read about how a lame man came to be cured by Peter and John, who then started to explain what had happened and preached to the people in the temple. The priests, the chief of the Temple police, and the Sadducees then arrived and they were thoroughly annoyed that they were teaching the people and proclaiming that ‘the resurrection of the dead’ had begun to happen through Jesus. So they arrested them and put them into prison. So that explains why they were under arrest, and why the Chief Priest thought it necessary to go mob handed the next day to interrogate the disciples.

Bishop Tom Wright retells the story about another bishop who complained, that he didn’t seem to be having the same impact as the first apostles. ‘Everywhere St Paul went,’ he said, ‘there was a riot. Everywhere I go they serve tea.’ But as we have seen, it wasn’t just Paul but the other earlier disciples as well, who caused trouble when they preached the good news. So why doesn’t the Gospel message make such an impact today?

Let us examine the facts. The message about Jesus as Messiah and rescuer meant trouble long before Paul started preaching in the name of Jesus and declaring that God had raised him from the dead. So what was it about this early message which got the authorities, and others so alarmed and angry? Wouldn’t it be simply great news to know that God was alive and well and was providing a wonderful rescue operation for all through his chosen Messiah? Well, NO, not if you were already in power. Not if you were one of the people who had rejected and condemned that Messiah. And certainly not if you were in charge of the central institution that administered God’s law, God’s justice and the life of God’s people. To understand all this we need to get inside what these people believed on the one hand and what the news of Jesus’ resurrection actually meant on the other; and in a similar way, and at the same time, see how it relates to the world today.

As we know from other passages, the Sadducees were Jewish aristocrats, including the high priest and his family, who wielded great power in Jerusalem and among the Jewish people. They guarded the Temple, the most holy place in Judaism, where the system of animal sacrifice had been practised for a thousand years and where the one true God had promised to meet with His people. In so doing they, exercised great power economically, socially and politically. It was with the high priest and his entourage that the Roman governor would normally do business. They could get things done, or stop things being done; and that is why they strongly disapproved of the idea of ‘resurrection’.

 

Today, the Gospel story is old news. It has been discussed, debated and denigrated. For at least the last 200 years in the Western world people have laughed at ‘resurrection’, whether that of Jesus or that of anyone else. Those who have stuck out against this mockery, lies and disinformation and declared that they do believe in resurrection anyway, have been thought of as ‘conservatives’ rather than the modern ‘liberals’. But resurrection always was a radical, dangerous doctrine, an attack on the status quo and a threat to existing power structures. Because Resurrection, is the belief which declares that the living God is going to put everything right once and for all, He is going to ‘restore all things’, to turn the world the right way up at last. And those who are in power, within the world the way it is, are quite right to suspect that, if God suddenly does such a marvellous, drastic thing, they can no longer expect that they will stay in power in this new world that God is going to make. What’s more, people who believe in resurrection as did the Pharisees (a radical populist group of the time), tended to be more ready than others to cause trouble for the authorities. They believed, after all, that the God who will eventually put the world the right way up is likely to bring about some advance signs of that final judgment, and they were prepared to die for that belief.

Resurrection, whichever way you looked at it, was not what the authorities wanted to hear about. So what made the authorities angry wasn’t just Peter’s announcement that God had raised Jesus from the dead. It was, as Luke puts it, a much larger thing: that Peter was preaching the resurrection of the dead, and also announcing this revolutionary doctrine ‘In Jesus’. In other words, Peter was saying not only that Jesus himself had been raised, but that this was the start and the sign of God’s eventual restoration of everything. This may have been be bad news for the chief priests and the Sadducees, however it was exactly what plenty of others wanted to hear. (St. Luke, who wrote The Acts of the Apostles, notes that a further 5,000 came to faith on the spot). But the really sinister thing about this section is the further question the authorities ask. ‘What name did you use to do this?’

This reminds us of the accusations that were hurled at Jesus himself: was he, after all, in league with Beelzebub? Was Jesus – and were the disciples, – the kind of people that they had been warned about in Deuteronomy. In Chapter 13 there are warnings to guard against false prophets leading people astray from the one true God. Jesus answered that question by reference to the holy spirit, at work in and through him to launch God’s kingdom project, so Peter, himself filled with the holy spirit, announces boldly that the ‘name’ in question is that of Jesus, the Messiah, from Nazareth. He continues, in words that would hardly endear him to the authorities: ‘You crucified him’ (not that they did, as we know; it was the Romans who did it; but the chief priests had planned it and pressed Pilate for a verdict to crucify).

The name of Jesus, in other words, isn’t just the name through which healing power can flow into people. It is a name which can change the behaviour of people throughout the world. It is not surprising that the last verse read, Acts 4 verse 12, is so unpopular within the politically correct climate of the last few generations in the Western world. That verse says:- There is Salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.

‘No other name’? People say this is arrogant, or exclusive, or triumphalist. So, indeed, it can be, if Christians use the name of Jesus to further their own power or prestige. But for many years now, in the Western world at least, it is the secularists and the so called politically correct, who have acted the part of the chief priests, protecting their cherished ideas of modernist thought, within which no credence can be given to the teaching or the resurrection of Jesus.

And so we should answer like the apostles, Well, who else but Jesus Christ is there that can rescue people in this fashion, and offer them peace, freedom,
and a new life in this world and the next?

I pray that the Holy Spirit who was so evident in the lives of the early Christians, be within us, and embolden us, to tell all we meet, of the good news of the risen Jesus Christ.
Amen

2nd Sunday of Easter 2018

Canon Roy Arnold

In the evening of that same day, the first day of the week, the doors were closed in the room where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews. Jesus came and stood among them. He said to them, ‘Peace be with you’, and showed them his hands and his side. The disciples were filled with joy when they saw the Lord, and he said to them again, ‘Peace be with you’.


Bollington, we believe, came into being in Anglo-Saxon times, as did the small word “if” – a word that can convey many meanings, not least to do with doubt. As in “If it’s nice next Sunday we will go for a picnic” or “If I pick the winner of the Grand National I will take you out for a meal”.

But if we add the word “only” – as in “If only” – it changes from doubt to regret. So if only I hadn’t fallen down nine stone steps at the Bull’s Head in March 2017, I wouldn’t still be on crutches, and Hylda and I wouldn’t have experienced one of the worst years of our lives.

But accidents apart, the words “If only” can express other types of regret, as in “If only I hadn’t quarrelled with my brother” or “If only I had written that letter”. If you think about it, we might count those “If only” moments as sins – things done wrong or things not done right; things that can spoil our personal lives, or the life of the whole world.

Which is where Easter, and Jesus the Son of God enters through our locked doors, comes in and says “Peace be with you” as he said to the Apostles – Well, all but two of them – Judas and Thomas, the Thomas whose day we keep today. He had not been there when Jesus spoke those words of peace. Perhaps he had been experiencing one of those “If only” moments. If only it could be true about Jesus being raised from the dead. if only.

But then, so we are told, it really was true. Jesus had risen from the dead – as Thomas found out when he touched the wounds in the hands of Jesus. Then the doubts of Thomas disappeared – as they can for me and you if we can believe that Jesus does take away all our regretful “Ifs” and know ourselves to be forgiven through the love of God. And find ourselves in the middle of a Special Offer for Easter – two for one – not only our sins forgiven, but (as well) the hope of heaven, in the closer presence of God, and of those whom we have loved and lost a while.

Thomas was given the proof for which he craved when he met the risen Jesus. But for the time being, we must walk by the light of faith and with all our “Ifs” and “Buts” through our nights and days of doubt or joy. Onwards let us go, singing songs of expectation, marching to the promised land;
letting the love of Jesus fill us,
the joy of Jesus surprise us,
the peace of Jesus flood us,
the light of Jesus transform us,
the touch of Jesus warm us.

O Saviour Jesus, forgive us,
and in your wounds, heal us.
and in your risen life, take us with you,
to stay with us, and us with You.

Amen

Maundy Thursday 2018 – a reflection

Brian Reader

I don’t know about you, but some of us found the dramatic reading of the Passion Story from St. Mark’s Gospel last Sunday, not only moving but also quite harrowing. We have been through six weeks of Lent and it may have left some of us feeling a bit scarred or traumatised by it all. Recently I read a reflection by Gerard W. Hughes from his book ‘Oh God, Why?’ on the subject of the Pasion and suffering which I think puts it into a wider perspective. I would like to read that passage to you.

“Frequently we hear ‘The Cross lies at the heart of Christian life’ and ‘Unless we enter into the Passion and death of Christ, we cannot share in his resurrection.’ The phrases are true, but in what sense is this Good News to any except masochists?

Some writers of saints’ lives can leave the reader with the impression that the Christian journey is a kind of ‘sufferathon’, the person who suffers most winning the Olympic gold. We are still afflicted with this false belief, so that we can feel bad about feeling good, for we are told that suffering is a sign of God’s favour.

Some theologies of the Cross do not help, suggesting a God who can only be appeased by the shedding of blood, but who is ready to accept the blood of his Son in place of the blood of us all. This can leave us very grateful to Jesus, but less keen on his heavenly Father!

According to these beliefs, the most effective service of God would consist in our imposing the maximum suffering on ourselves and on others. Suffering, in itself is an evil and to be avoided. While it is true that some people are ennobled by suffering, the majority are diminished or destroyed by it. God’s will for us, as Scripture frequently says, is life, not destruction and death.

Jesus did not will suffering, he prayed to escape from it. ‘Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass me by’. He declared himself to be the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophesy. ‘The spirit of the Lord has been given to me, for he has anointed me. He has sent me to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives and to the blind sight, to set the downtrodden free.’

It was because Jesus lived out this prophecy that he suffered, for he threatened those whose power, prosperity and security depended on keeping the poor in their poverty and the downtrodden in oppression. If we let Christ be Christ in us, oppose injustice and speak the truth in love, we shall also suffer at the hands of those whose power we threaten, whether in Church or State.

This is to share in the Passion of Christ. To keep quiet in the face of injustice and oppression, doing nothing to oppose it, may be painful but it is also a refusal to enter into the Passion of Christ. Much of our suffering has nothing to do with the Cross of Christ, for it is not pain incurred through following him, but the pain of our own bruised ego when our own kingdom is threatened by criticism, loss of status, or financial loss. But if we can let God into this pain, show it to him, acknowledge its origin in our own egoism, pray to be delivered from our own false securities then the pain can become curative, leading us to freedom, from our false attachments and to the knowledge that he really is our rock, our refuge and our strength, and that we have no other.

Perhaps instead of trying to enter into the Passion of Christ, we should ask Christ to enter into our suffering, whether it is the suffering we endure through trying to follow him, or the pain we feel when our own kingdom is threatened. It is in our own pain that we can find him present and beckoning.”

AMEN

There is an ancient prayer on the Passion, called Anima Christi, meaning “Soul of Christ”. Here is a translation of it from the Latin:
May thy mind and heart be mine,
Thy body and blood heal mine,
Thy blood act on me like wine.
May the water from thy side cleanse me.
In thy goodness hear me.
Let thy wounds enfold me,
So that I become inseparable from thee.
From all that is evil protect me,
In my life may I always hear thee;
In death may I see thee invite me
To be one with all creation
In praise of thee and adoration.

AMEN

Lent Lunch Talks 2018 – 5

Roy Arnold

“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” 1 John 1:8

A thought to hold in mind and we may illustrate it by something that happened to Jesus: two men stood before him, one was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.

The Pharisee said to himself “How glad I am that I am not as other men are. I fulfil all the laws of our Jewish faith from the old testament. I have never touched a pork pie. I wash everything that is unclean according to the Bible. I go to synagogue every day and I am very pleased with myself. And I am certainly better than this tax collector.”

And the tax collector said “God have mercy upon me – a sinner.”

You might have thought that Jesus, the Son of God, would have commended and congratulated the Pharisee for his exemplary religious life. but instead, Jesus commended the tax collector for his absolute honesty.

Sometimes we can get bored by the same old words in our services week by week in our church worship. But I think the repetition of the words is good for us, and the words “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves…” remind us of the need for honesty before God. And as we hear these words often, we can (and must) take them to heart, as they remind us that what God wants is not self-righteousness but honesty – and certainly never to think of ourselves as better than any other, because we have all sinned and come short of what God – and Jesus – wants of us.

When we come to church to worship God, our services often start with a confession, and I think that we often just gabble through it, maybe without much thought. Yet I believe God wants us to come to Him with our sins of thought word and deed, of commission and omission, to be forgiven, and to improve our lives and be happy. We cannot afford to wallow in our sins – we need to get rid of them. Things like bad temper or peevishness, or money grabbing – maybe things we may not think of as sins at all – just part of who we are.

Envy is counted as the number one of seven deadly sins, which can destroy our relationships in marriages or in family life. And confessing our sins to God is a start towards a better way. I think we could all do with preparing a list (as we do when shopping) and being specific about the sins we want to be rid of. Only make the list in your head (in case you accidentally leave it around). Although in the early church people did confess their sins openly as a way of healing, which is a thought alien to us – to think that our sins might be making us ill, and confession a way to get better. So as the way to end these Lenten talks…

Christ himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die
to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds we are healed. Let us
confess our sins. 1 Peter 2.24

Let us admit to God the sin which always confronts us.
Lord God,
we have sinned against you;
we have done evil in your sight.
We are sorry and repent.
Have mercy on us according to your love.
Wash away our wrongdoing and cleanse us from our sin.
Renew a right spirit within us and restore us to the joy of your salvation,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Psalm 51

Almighty God,
who in Jesus Christ has given us a kingdom that cannot be destroyed,
forgive us our sins,
open our eyes to God’s truth,
strengthen us to do God’s will
and give us the joy of his kingdom,
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen.

Lent Lunch Talks 2018 – 4

Roy Arnold

We are now halfway through Lent. The word Lent comes from Old English lencten, the lengthening of the day as this year of 2018 spins along. And this Lengthening of the Days is another way of describing Spring. And at one time, Spring was synonymous with giving the house a good clean through – a Spring Clean. Not so much practised nowadays, because with a good Hoover and washing machine you can Spring Clean every week. Yet, I believe, we can still Spring Clean our lives – our souls- and our life-style.

At one time if you asked about THREE sinful things to do people might have said SMOKING, DRINKING and SWEARING. Well I would say yes to SMOKING as a wrong thing, as it is self-harming. But actually up to you if you want to die of lung cancer. As to drinking, well of course it can be harmful and lead to alcoholism (another way of self-harming), but is probably OK in moderation. Although I would say that it is difficult to moderate, and that an awful lot of harm is caused by DRINK – violence is often a result of drinking. But in moderation some people say it is a good thing. As to SWEARING, I suppose it depends on the context – and whether or not it is meant, or is a habit.

But there are (I think) many other things – every day things – which become sinful. ENVY comes top of the Seven Deadly Sins – and it can spoil relationships and family life. And there are other everyday things that can become sinful and destroy people’s happiness. I would say BAD TEMPER would come top in this. old men (and I speak as one) can be particularly good at Bad Temper – which is related to peevishness and changeability – never knowing whether you are going to upset someone – someone you never know how they are going to take things. Self-righteousness is another thing which can destroy happiness.

I could go on about everyday sins because they can ruin family life and marriage. Maybe – if we would like to Spring Clean our life – this is where we could start in this season of Lent, which as it happens, coincides with Spring. And Spring coincides with fresh life and new growth.

God doesn’t want us to confess our sin to him in order to condemn us, but to give us a Good Life. A life like Springtime after Winter. To give us LIFE and have it more abundantly.