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.

Lent Lunch Talks 2018 – 3

Roy Arnold

I spoke last week about our sins, which can come in all shapes and sizes – little sins, big sins and huge sins. The interesting thing is that huge sins begin normally with small thoughts we allow to grow.

If you think about it, the holocaust, in which six million Jews died, began with someone’s thoughts and passed on through the ages until it became a terrible crime against humanity.

My talk last week was about our sins of thought, word and deeds – hateful thoughts, hateful words and hateful deeds. And we can divide these sins into two halves, namely things we actually do or think or say (we call these “sins of commission”) in contrast to our “sins of omission” – things we don’t think (when we should) or don’t say (when we should) or deeds we should do but don’t.

And I have always believed that all of us are more guilty of sins of omission. The good thoughts and opinions about other people, or the good, encouraging (loving) words we should have said but didn’t or don’t, and the good deeds which we forget to do – or never even thought of. All of which linger on, as thoughts, words or deeds which remain good intentions.

According to our prayer-book  we don’t act as we should, through “negligence, weakness or our own deliberate fault”. In this season of Lent our faith reminds us of our need to come to God and say sorry. And, if need be, to say sorry to the people we sin against. That is if we previously through carelessness or negligence haven’t even recognised that we have hurt them – usually the ones we shouldn’t hurt at all…

If we can ask God to forgive us for our sins of commission or omission, then forgiven and freed from guilt we will be able to serve God and one another in newness of life – the fresh start which Lent reminds us about.

New mercies each returning day
hover around us while we pray.
New perils past, new sins forgiven.
New thoughts of God, new hopes of heaven.

3rd Sunday of Lent 2018

Brian Reader

Exodus 20. 1-17; 1 Corinthians 1. 18-25; Ps 19; John 2:13-22

Today is the third Sunday of Lent and our readings direct us to think about the Law and Jesus’ action in the temple. I am sure you recognized the reading from Exodus as the Ten Commandments. Those of you old enough to have been brought up using the old 1662 prayer book will remember that the Ten Commandments were part of the old communion service and even if they were omitted for the rest of the year, they were certainly recited in Lent. My father-in-law, the rector of a small village church, loved to tell this anecdote of how he took a service in another parish in the early 1940’s and read out all the 10 commandments. One of the older ladies in the congregation was so impressed that she handed him a crisp 10 shilling note – which was a lot of money in those days – with the words “a bob for each commandment”!

A ten bob note

Let us now consider the reading from St. John’s Gospel. One of the first prayers I remember as a child starts – ‘Gentle Jesus, meek and mild’. The record of Jesus overthrowing the tables in the temple is not the action of a meek and mild person. Before we look at what happened, we need to consider the importance of the Temple itself. The Temple was the beating heart of Judaism. It wasn’t just, as it were, a church on a street corner. It was the centre of worship and music, of politics and society, of all national celebration and mourning. It was also the place where you would find more animals (alive and dead) than anywhere else. But, towering above all these, it was of course the place where Israel’s God, YHWH, had promised to live in the midst of his people. It was the focal point of the nation, and of the national way of life. And this was where the then unknown prophet from Galilee came in and turned everything upside down. People used to this Bible story can forget how shocking it must have been. And it raises a number of questions. What was wrong with the Temple? Why did Jesus do what he did? And, when they asked him for a sign, what does his answer mean?

Before even that, there’s another question to be considered. People who know the other gospels in the New Testament will realize that they also contain a very similar incident. However in the other three Gospels it occurs at the end of Jesus’ public career, when he arrives in Jerusalem for the last time, rather than at the beginning as it does here. One reason for putting the incident at the beginning, as John does, is the fact that Matthew, Mark and Luke don’t have Jesus in Jerusalem at all during his adult life, so the final journey is the only place where it can happen. John, however, has Jesus going to and fro to Jerusalem a good deal throughout his short ministry. And if he had done something like this at the beginning, it would explain why certain other things happened. Like why people came from Jerusalem to Galilee to check him out, and why, when the high priest finally decided it was time to act, he already felt they had a case against him.

Firstly, we have to understand what a dramatic and violent act this was, and, you might ask, ‘Is there a link with the Ten Commandments?’ Well Jesus was angry at the injustice and the downright theft – Thou shalt not steal. He was angry that the poor were being exploited. To buy a dove would cost a full day’s wage but a ‘guaranteed unblemished dove’, which alone was acceptable for sacrifice, well that would cost three full weeks’ wages. And it could only be bought in the Court of the Gentiles; it was a racket! The Temple tax was two days’ pay but Gentile coins bore ‘graven images’ so it cost another day’s pay to have your money changed into Temple coinage. And Jesus was even more angry that Israel, the so called ‘people of God’, were dishonouring the name of God, and were also denying its calling to be a light to the nations.

There was blatant exploitation of pilgrims! From all parts of the Roman world they came, Gentiles, attracted to the Jewish faith by Jews they met in their home towns. They were excited to come to their great Temple, but there they found that the only place they were allowed to go to pray was like a noisy market. It seemed that neither Gentile coins nor Gentile people were welcome. The Lord had suddenly come to clean out his Temple, just as Malachi had promised. So Jesus drove the sheep and cattle out, and overturned the tables of the money-changers.

His new Temple has no need for animal sacrifice. John understands that all Jesus’ actions here are linked to the time of Passover. John has already told us that Jesus is God’s Passover lamb, and now He goes to Jerusalem at the time when freedom, and rescue from slavery in Egypt, was being celebrated. Somehow, John wants us to understand, what Jesus did in the Temple is a hint at the new meaning he is giving to Passover. But the action and the story as it unfolds, also point to Jesus’ own fate. Because when they ask him what he thinks he’s up to, and request some kind of sign to show them what it all means, Jesus speaks, very cryptically, about his own death and resurrection.

He is the true temple: he is the Word made flesh, the place where the glory of God has chosen to make his dwelling. The Jews had ancient traditions about the Temple being destroyed and rebuilt. It had happened before, and some thought it would happen again. Herod the Great had begun a programme of rebuilding the Temple, and now, forty-six years later, one of his sons was completing it.

The period of time, ‘In three days’ links with the wedding at Cana, when the wine was changed on the third day. Similarly their imperfect religion will be superseded; by and through his Resurrection. He is himself the spiritual Temple where God is truly worshipped. His friends recalled verse 9 of Psalm 69 about the Messiah, which says ‘Zeal for your house will consume me’; but the Sadducees were angered by his claim and used it in evidence at his trial. ‘Destroy this Temple’ he said – and they did; because by persisting in avarice and prejudice, they brought destruction on themselves. Jesus takes the traditions and applies them to himself. He is the reality to which the Temple itself points. His death and resurrection will be the reality to which the whole Passover celebration points.

In the two vivid scenes of this reading, John has introduced us to almost all the major themes of the gospel story, and has given us food for thought about where it’s all going. If profit matters more than people and prejudice more than unity, these things lead to death. So the story is not about church bazaars or dual-purpose buildings or even Sunday selling; it’s much more serious than that! Jesus still challenges his Church: if we set profit above people, if we let prejudice hinder unity, if we neglect our mission, we too shall bring judgement and destruction on ourselves. The Lord whom we seek has already come to his Temple. And the church and Christians fail
when they neglect God’s standards of holiness, justice and love. And if all this sounds too difficult to take in, I can do no better than to finish with the words of that great evangelist Dr. Billy Graham who consistently preached that “Jesus Christ is the Son of God who alone can save us from our sins”. Countless people found faith through his simple, clear message, and responded to his call to “pray to God for forgiveness and, by faith, receive Jesus Christ into your life”.

Amen

Lent Lunch Talks 2018 – 2

Roy Arnold

Here we are in the season of Lent – and, from her fabulous collection of stoles, Veronica will be wearing purple for the next few weeks at Holy Communion. Purple for “saying sorry to God” for our sins and to receive his forgiveness.

Sins:
– the things we have thought (about other people – and even about ourselves) which has saddened God
– or the words we have spoken. – unkindly or carelessly – and which maybe have been contrary to God’s ways
– or our  deeds which have been wrong in God’s eyes.

To sum up, our sins of thought, word or deed.

Note the order of our sins. Sins begin with thoughts – the things which we harbour in our minds, or which other people have planted in our minds. Things which we keep in our “craws” and which, as sure as eggs are eggs, thoughts will become words. And from being hidden they will become public – out in the open – for all to hear. And from words they can soon become deeds.

How much better our own lives and our world would be, and happier too, if we could think good thoughts, and speak good words, and do good deeds. But often maybe we don’t, which means we must own up to God our sins of thought, word or deed, and trust in the love of God – who surprisingly knows the thoughts of our hearts, and our words before they leave our mouths and our deeds before we do them.

But before he can forgive us, we must own up, come clean. Then God in His everlasting love can truly forgive us, and we can make another new start. We must be born again – maybe many times!

2nd Sunday of Lent 2018

Brian Reader

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Romans 4:13-25; Ps 22:23-31; Mark 8:31-38

Good Morning to you all. Today is the second Sunday of Lent and Lent is a time of reflection. Our Bible readings for today direct our thoughts to consider what it meant for Jesus to be the Christ and what it means for us to be a Christian.

The passage from Genesis talks about Abraham. Now he had believed in God and had been doing God’s will for some time, so when God spoke to him again “I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless”, he was not surprised, as this is the fifth time that God had made promises to Abraham, so it is nothing new.

However, many years had now gone by since God had first promised Abraham that his descendants would become so numerous that they could be compared to the dust of the earth and the stars of the sky. But so far, Abraham and his wife had not had any children. They were both getting older, and it was looking like they would not have any children. So God took this occasion to remind Abraham that He would multiply him “exceedingly”.

At this time God also changed Abram’s name to Abraham, meaning he would become a “father of many nations”, and changed the name of his wife from Sarai to Sarah. Even though it didn’t look like Abraham and Sarah would ever have a child, God continued to repeat and add details to the original promise He had made to Abraham.

And Paul in his letter to the Romans makes reference to this promise. He reminds us that Abraham wasn’t righteous or doing the will of God because of the Law because the Ten Commandments had yet to be written, No, Abraham was judged righteous because he had faith, he believed, he did what God wanted.

In the same way, we can’t buy our way into heaven by doing good works or by just following the Ten Commandments. Which is just as well, as we will never be able to fully keep the first commandment, let alone the rest.

So how do we respond to God’s infinite love and Grace?

Well Jesus fulfilled the Law; firstly by showing that love is the fulfilling of the Law. In fact, Jesus gave us the double command to ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your Soul, with all your mind’, and ‘to love your neighbour as you love yourself’, and said that this was the perfect summary of all the Commandments, in the world the entire Law.

And secondly Jesus showed, by his whole life of obedience to the Father, from start to finish, that this was how the genuinely human life should be lived. His death on the cross ushered in God’s new promise for all mankind, so the way to salvation now, is not by keeping laws but by receiving God’s forgiveness through Christ. He and not the Law opens the way between the Father and us.

Earlier in this service we used the Ten Commandments as a confession. Some may ask is the Law relevant for us today? The Law may be fulfilled in Jesus Christ but this does not mean we can ignore it. Its inadequacies are clear enough, and it was for this reason we were reminded about the positive sayings of Jesus as well as the negative parts of the Old Testament Law.

Rules cannot lead a person to God. Nevertheless they remain ‘holy, just and good’. The Ten Commandments are the essence of the moral law of the world, as we understand it. We are not made Christian by keeping them, but we heed them because we are Christians and we try to live as God has decreed. The church and Christians fail when they neglect God’s standards of holiness, justice and love.

Also, an understanding of the Law helps us to understand the Jewish culture of the day, and this in turn helps us to better understand the good news of the Gospel.

Let us now consider the reading from Mark. Just before the passage set for today, Jesus asks the question “Who do people say I am?”  And Peter answered, “You are the Christ.” But it is quite clear that Peter did not understand that God’s promised ‘Christ’ or ‘Messiah’, would have to be the Suffering Servant promised in Isaiah.

Now, Jesus’ friends and followers were used to danger. It was a perilous time. Anyone growing up in Galilee just then knew all about revolutions, about holy people hoping God would act and deliver them, and instead, ending up getting crucified for their trouble. Any new leader, any prophet, any teacher with something fresh to say, might go that way. They must have known that by following Jesus they were taking risks. The death of John the Baptist, will simply have confirmed that.

But this was different. This was something new. Mark says Jesus ‘began to teach them’ this, implying that it was quite a new point that could only be begun, once they’d declared that he was the Messiah – like a schoolteacher who can only begin the next stage of mathematics when the pupils have learnt to add and subtract.

And the new lesson wasn’t just that there might be danger ahead; the new lesson was that Jesus had to walk straight into it. Nor would it simply be a risky gamble that might just pay off. No, it would be certain death. This was what he had to do.

You might as well have had a football captain tell the team to stand still and let the opposition score all the goals they wanted. This wasn’t what Peter and the rest had in mind. They may not have thought of Jesus as a military leader, but they certainly didn’t think of him going straight to his death.

As Charlie Brown once said, “winning isn’t everything but losing isn’t anything”; and Jesus seemed to be saying he was going to lose. Worse, he was inviting them to come and lose alongside him. This is the heart of what’s going on here, and it explains both the tricky language Jesus uses; it was tricky for them to puzzle out at first hearing, which explains the strong negative reaction of Peter, so soon after telling Jesus that he and the rest thought he was the Messiah. Messiahs don’t get killed by the authorities. A Messiah who did that would be shown up immediately as a false Messiah.

So why did Jesus say that’s what had to happen? St Mark explains this in the later chapters of his Gospel, but already there is a hint, an allusion. ‘The son of man’ must have all this happen to him, declares Jesus; only thus ‘the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him’: It is the only way for the kingdom of God to come. Jesus is half quoting, half hinting at, themes from the prophetic books of Daniel and Zechariah. He will eventually be vindicated, after his suffering, as God sets up the kingdom at last.

Jesus is both warning his followers that this is how he understands his vocation and destiny as Israel’s Messiah, and that they must be prepared to follow in his steps. So important is this message that opposition to the plan, wherever it comes from, must be seen as satanic. Even Peter, Jesus’ right-hand man, is capable of thinking like a mere mortal, not looking at things from God’s point of view.

This is a challenge to all of us, as the church in every generation struggles not only to think, but to live from God’s point of view in a world where such a thing is madness. This is the point at which God’s kingdom, coming ‘on earth as it is in heaven’ will challenge and overturn all normal human assumptions about power and glory, about what is really important in life and in the world. The coming of God’s kingdom with power has a lot more to do with the radical defeat of deep-rooted evil, than with the destruction of the good world that God made and loves.

Jesus understands that evil will be defeated, and the kingdom will come, precisely through his own suffering and death. But despite this, the passage makes it clear that following him is the only way to go. Following Jesus is, more or less, what being a Christian means; and Jesus is not leading us on a pleasant afternoon hike, but on a walk into possible risk and danger. Or did we suppose that the kingdom of God would mean merely a few minor adjustments in our ordinary lives? Yes, suffering is also part of being a follower of Jesus – it may be as simple, yet as difficult as saying ‘No!’ to oneself, or bearing hardships or being at risk to life and limb.

We should remember Abraham and be like him. He had faith, he believed, he did what God wanted. God made promises to Abraham and these were kept. In a similar way, God, through Christ, has made promises to us, which he will keep. Our Lenten reflections should show us that a true understanding of what it takes to follow Jesus, will involve hardship, and, sacrifice
but the rewards will be everlasting!

AMEN