Armour of Christ

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Ephesians 6.10-20

 

Ferreting around to find a good book to read on holiday, I made a surprising discovery. It appears most popular at the moment are paranormal stories where zombies, vampires and invisible worlds abound. And that’s a problem if you just want a good down-to-earth thriller like The Day of the Jackal or House of Cards.

Yet if we listen to Saint Paul, these genres of fiction are similar.  Since, in this morning’s passage, he is saying that people alone don’t do malevolent deeds. Repressive regimes, endemic corruption and mass brutality are not tares just of the human mind. Instead, he sees these being inspired and encouraged by supernatural forces. For Paul then, the world’s ills are due to real entities of wickedness and evil.

 

But is he being a shade melodramatic? Maybe, he is headline grabbing?

 

Well, just looking at last week. The news alone suggests that various nasty viruses are once more running riot. Since we hear of outbreaks of racism and segregation and partition. And it is believable that these violent outpourings come from a cosmic power of nastiness. It is easy to think of genies being let out of bottles. It is easiest of all to connect with David Keig who wrote:

I dreamt I saw the devil

The devil I did see

I know it was the devil

Because the devil is in me.

 

How then does Paul suggest we defeat this malicious entity?

 

Well, he suggests we strap on the armour of Christ. Or, put in the way of the current crop of penny dreadful books, we need supernatural charms to fight off supernatural foes.

 

If you are of a certain age, you will remember Dixon of Dock Green. At the end of each programme, the worthy constable gave a homily dressed in his helmet, tie and tunic. Today we see police officers dressed more appropriately for their demanding roles. Yet, in all honesty, I still find their grey and masked anti-terrorist outfits a tad daunting.

 

However, the lesson is clear. We too need to don Christ’s armour and weapons suitable for today and not the past.

 

Take the belt of truth. Nowadays, like Pilate, we can all ask – what is truth?  Because we face an incessant swirl of comments, opinions and views. We hear about fake news. Statistics, reports and dodgy facts drown us. And this uncontrollable deluge tempts us to change heart even to lose heart. But we can still find truth can with calm thought, quiet prayer and keeping in mind what we believe. Since if we remain certain we have experienced a loving God and a living Christ, we will find the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the divine truth.

 

Next, we can build on this truthful experience. That means using the shield of faith. For if have known God’s safety and guidance in the past, we can have faith that these gifts will continue. We can use this guarantee to bat away the naysayers. Those who say today’s problems are too complex. Those who are convinced that the world is irretrievable. Worse still, those who dismiss our own difficulties and maladies as insoluble. For it is with the shield of faith we will deflect those stings which deflate our hope and undermine our determination.

 

Finally, let us not forget the adage ‘the best form of defence is attack’. Because we must also wield the sword of the spirit. As a result, we must read scripture and listen to the word of God in finding our response to this world’s evils. That entails thinking through what God want us to do in every situation of conflict. That means requesting Christ to show us the way to action, resolution and reconciliation.

 

Is all this effortless?

 

In 1961 the Soviet Union shocked the free world by sending the first man into space. One month later, the USA followed with a 15-minute sub-orbital flight by Alan Sheppard. Everyone was excited, but problems abounded to actually putting a human into orbit. Yet that did not stop President John F. Kennedy making an almost unbelievable announcement. Because he then called on his nation to land a man on the Moon. Many thought this was impossible. But he then said,” We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade, not because it is easy, but because it is hard.”

 

Planet-wide problems have not been solved because they are hard. Our community’s issues appear intractable because they are difficult.  Our own tribulations seem insoluble because they are so complex.

 

But today we have a choice. We can join people everywhere who are giving into a spirit of helplessness, lassitude and even wickedness.

Or we can, like Kennedy, be undaunted even inspired to do what is hard. We can put on the armour and weapons of Christ. We can indeed fight the good fight.
Will you then this morning proclaim, “With the Lord’s help, I will fight that fight. I will serve this year. I will make a difference?” Because this is the year. Today is the day. This is the moment.

So, go on, sign up now.

 

Amen

 

The reward of praise

cross at durham cathedralPsalm 150

Have you noticed that for many authors and composers, one work in quite different

 

from all the others? To back up my thesis, I give you Shakespeare’s Tempest and Gilbert & Sullivan’s Yeoman of the Guard. The Bible too has that rather strange book of the Revelation. Also, in any anthology or collection, such items are often put at the end.

Well, today we come to the very last Psalm. Does it then show some unique feature or other? Well, on the face it, it is but another hymn to celebration and thanks-giving. However, with a bit of thought, it dawns on us that it doesn’t actually give a personal reason for this upwelling of joy. And so, in that way, at least, it is unusual. Since most of the other Psalms do express gratitude for some specific divine gift or direct response. But this is not true for Psalm 150. It is very much a matter of ‘praising – Yes’ but ‘motives – No’.

 

Why should this be?

Well there is almost a suggestion in its lines that praise is its own reward. That praise is the obvious response to being given joy but that it also the way to find joy itself. In fact, the giving of praise in faith strengthens faith and emboldens belief. Praise then is more a question than an answer.

 

Something of this can heard in the life of John Wesley. We of course know him to be the cofounder of the Methodist Church with his younger brother Charles Wesley. Yet to achieve such a monument to faith, he had many failures. But throughout he kept enough faith to keep looking for faith. Indeed, this may have started when he was on his way to the Americas and his ship lost a mast placing it in jeopardy. Whilst most of the passengers panicked a group of Moravian Christians calmly sang hymns and psalms.  This faith searching for faith and praise search for the reason for praise impressed him hugely.

 

Many years later it was at one of their service, which he attended in a state of low depression, that he found his joy. Since as he relates:

 “In the evening, I went very unwillingly to a Moravian society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation. “

 

That phrase ‘strangely warmed’ is one of the turning points in British Church history. It could be our turning point too.

 

For there much in these days to dent faith and to diminish joy. There is much that dampens our desire for praise, for rejoicing and for celebrating. There is much that tempts us to silent ingratitude.

 

But all that flies in the face of the Psalm that is the epilogue but not the epitaph to the Psalter. For its truth above all truths is that God is our creator. That through Christ, he is our saviour. And that, through the Spirit, those in the deepest mire will find their hearts strangely warmed.

 

One hymn that I rarely slate to be sung is ‘Oh love that wilt let me go!’ The reason being that one well-known member of our Church family found it too much of an emotional trial.

 

It may well be so for you too. But its story tells of joy in the least expected place and faith found through faith.

 

For its composer, the Reverend George Matheson, was very bright academically. In fact, he graduated with first class honours when he was only 19 years old from Glasgow University.  Yet a deep tragedy was being worked out in his life. For, even as he completed his studies, he was rapidly going blind. He broke the news of his impending blindness to his fiancé.

To his astonishment and deep sadness her blunt answer came as a dagger to his heart, “I do not want to be the wife of a blind man” she said – and with that they parted.

Years later the memory of that rebuff came flooding back on the evening of his sister’s wedding who had been his assistant and companion. He recalls the pain of that night as he tells how it was that he penned his most famous hymn:

“My hymn was composed in the manse of Innellan on the evening of the 6th of June, 1882, when I was 40 years of age. I was alone in the manse at that time. It was the night of my sister’s marriage, and the rest of the family were staying overnight in Glasgow. Something happened to me, which was known only to myself, and which caused me the most severe mental suffering.

The hymn was the fruit of that suffering. It was the quickest bit of work I ever did in my life. I had the impression of having it dictated to me by some inward voice rather than of working it out myself. I am quite sure that the whole work was completed in five minutes, and equally sure that it never received at my hands any retouching or correction.

I have no natural gift of rhythm. All the other verses I have ever written are manufactured articles; this came like a dayspring from on high”.

 

Here then is surely a most certain case of praise seeking a reason for praise, of a little faith searching a greater one and a rediscovery of joy in the one whose love in Matheson’s own words – wilt not let us go.

 

This Sunday then of high summer, let us give ourselves over to praise and faith and to joy. If, for you, they are in short supply may they then grow in our seasons’ warmth. If your heart however finds itself strangely warmed, let it rejoice wholeheartedly, let it luxuriate in renewing faith and let it praise God not for you can get but for whom you can give.

 

For at the end of his life of faith finding faith, John Wesley passed away repeating “The best of all is, God is with us”

So now as we close our Psalm book refreshed from its opening let us join him and George Matheson in giving praise in those very same words:

 

“The best of all is, God is with us.”

 

Amen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Living Words

 

Psalm 30

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Last weekend was exceptional.  It also didn’t rain at the Glastonbury. Music Festival!

And so, it was in warm sunshine that Barry Gibb, the surviving Bee Gee, sang:

 

 

It’s only words, and words are all
I have to take your heart away

Well, since then I have had a week of meetings. And so, I have also had a week of words. Some crucial, some important yet others were rather uttered as routine.  For, we in the Church, have a habit of saying the most awe-inspiring words almost as clichés – the result being we really don’t think what we have said nor do we realise what we have heard. As examples, I give you the often carelessly used words of gospel and grace and mission.

 

That’s why I approach the words of today’s Psalm with such trepidation. For it would be too easy to reduce them to the arid words of God forgets me, God gets angry with me and then God sorts everything out. Thanks be to God. That’s why I must introduce three literally awesome words here and truly mean them. That’s why to get to the heart of what this Psalm means to you in your situation and me in mine, I must prefer to it as ‘The living Word’

 

Oh, you say, surely the whole Bible is the living word? And I would reply it depends on how you read it.

For some will read the bible like a legal or academic text. We can read it as merely a dusty tome of ancient history and lofty moral advice.  We can even read it like the highway code. Put more bluntly, we can look at its words without imagination or empathy. But when we do that, we do not see its uniquely personal message to us. We do not hear Christ’s voice uniquely speaking to us. We do not even believe that the living word will change our situation. Therefore, in the end, an unemotional reading of the bible leaves unfilled and unfulfilled.

 

Take our Psalm of today.

 

If we do want to get away from it being the minutes of some discussion with God, we must engage its words with emotion.  For then in its lines we find all the turmoil of the faithful mind. We sense the mental struggle between unbelief and belief in the words ‘I called and I cried to you’. We feel the emotion of drifting, of being unguided and of being abandoned. Here I am thinking of – you hid your face from me. Moreover, we join the psalmist in his fear of an angry God bent on retribution even if for a moment.

And, surely, we all know these passions in times of trial and distress.

 

Yet if we read with feeling, then the words start truly to live. They genuinely start to speak into our troubled hearts. We hear Christ calling to us in new and reassuring and liberating words. Consequently, we do grasp that, with him, our enemy whatever that might be, will be defeated. We do comprehend his healing and favour and faithfulness. Indeed, we do rediscover the word of life in the emotion of being helped to the point of dancing. Hence it is for all these reasons that the psalms, and this one in particular, sing in our hearts and make us feel better.   That’s why the psalms are not so much the word of God but the music of God.

 

Returning to the Bee Gees. Now, of course, Barry is the last surviving member of the group formed with his brothers. And you would think that being on his own and 70 years old, he would want to retire. Well this is what he says:

“I thought, That’s enough now. My bones were creaking, my knees were hurting and with everything that had happened, I thought, maybe it’s just time to be Grandad and not worry about it anymore. But music has to be played and I wanted to keep the music alive.”

 

Today we each have been given the living word music in the psalms of God. Through his living word in scripture, we each have been given encouragement to go on singing his praises in all emotional weathers. Above all, we have been given a one word more – God’s unbreakable word – his final word to us – the eternal word of Jesus Christ.

 

So, let us this morning hear God’s word to us in a modern-day psalm. For in the sunshine with rain clouds threatening, Barry Gibb sang on:

Smile an everlasting smile

A smile could bring you near to me

 

This world has lost its glory

Let’s start a brand-new story

 

Talk in everlasting words

And dedicate them all to me

And I will give you all my life

 

A single word I say

It’s only words, and words are all

I have to take your heart away

 

It’s only words, and words are all

I have to take your heart away

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Good Bouncer!

Psalm 23

John 10.1-4

My old school song was in Latin. And when I was taught it in primary school, we weren’t even given a translation.  So, even today, I can recite it at break-neck speed without the first idea of what it means. A tribute then to the memory of youth. A similar feat can be the ultra-swift recitation of the 23rd psalm. Since many of us were forced to learn it by heart. Yet the danger is the same as with the school song, words without understanding.

Modern_Bouncers

By Xxinvictus34535 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Let us then take time today to tease out this, the most famous of psalms. Let us take time to meet it afresh not as a memorising chore but as a friend. Let us indeed find within its refreshing depths, meaning that will get us through to those green pastures and quiet water flowing by.

 

Of course, the key word in the 23rd Psalm and indeed our lesson from John’s gospel is ‘shepherd’. Now this conjures up those overly sentimental portraits of Jesus carrying a lamb in his arms. Yet this meek and mild image is somewhat misleading. For, in the Old testament, the descriptor ‘shepherd’ was often used for a king. Therefore, we should perceive from our psalm not just God’s promise that we will get through that valley of darkness but that he has the means of doing so.  In fact, it is his rod and staff that comforts, protects and gives us peace of mind. In our personal reflection on this psalm, then, let’s swap the shepherd motif for one of a commanding power guiding us into righteousness. The right way of helping to spread tables with food, of providing overflowing cups of clean water and of ensuring safe dwelling places. That indeed means restoring the soul of a community so that we all fear no evil.

 

Let us now leap forward many centuries to meet the mind of the writer of John’s Gospel. Here again the image of the shepherd is invoked. And once more, the picture of a rather strangely Anglo-Saxon Jesus carrying an adorable lamb comes flooding into mind. Yet, once again, I must counsel caution. Ok we should continue to hold onto the powerful king concept, but I am also aware of a fly in the ointment. Since, the 1st Century Jewish listener to Christ’s teaching would have other views on shepherds. It a point I don’t often raise at Christmas. The reason being no nativity play would complete without the traditional appearance of small boys adorned with mums’ tea towels.

 

But a two thousand years ago in the Holy Land, shepherds were viewed as outsiders. They lived rough wandering lives in the hills, they didn’t go to the synagogue and they could not observe Jewish rituals.

 

Therefore, we could make our lesson from John more contempory by reading Jesus as saying – I am the good bouncer. No one comes through to God expect via my security. Some other places have real thugs on the door but with me you are safe and will be secure inside.

At first this reading is disconcerting. But then with some thought, not least of the events of the past few weeks, we can get a fresh feel for that level of comfort Christ is offering. Put directly, he is someone who rushes towards danger when everyone else is running away. Someone who will fearlessly intercept the bad before injury is caused. The person who will push into the smoke and flame to carry us to safety no matter the pain and risk to themselves.

 

Here then is an image for us to carry into the next week. The vision of a powerful and courageous Christ as our rescuer and protector; the idea of him being our fourth emergency service.

 

Talking of the fourth emergency service, I believe that the Automobile Association used that catchphrase in their advertising a few years back. I have to say, I have just paid my annual subscription that organisation and it wasn’t cheap. But when you need them, you need them. So it is with Christ the king Shepherd and Christ the guard Shepherd.  Therefore, we do need to pay our subscription. We do need know what Christ offers and be part of his security team. Moreover, need to keep in touch ready to call in any emergency.

 

There is a story told of an old vicar being asked to party. He went along but to his dismay the other guests were the rich and famous. Not surprisingly, he felt like a fish out of water. Suddenly someone had the idea that all should take part in the entertainment. A well-known pianist played entrancingly, a celebrated singer gave full voice and a great actor recited. He had just played the role of a saintly missionary and repeated the 23rd Psalm version from the script. Then it came to the minister’s turn. He protested he knew nothing except the 23rd Psalm and that had already been done. Everyone demanded he did something. Then our actor stood up and said – I knew only the Psalm’s words but you know the Shepherd himself.

 

Let us then know words less and the shepherd more. Let us talk less shepherding and rely more on the shepherd. Let us dine now with the shepherd as King and protector. For then alone will we not want for more.

 

Amen

 

 

 

 

 

How long?

Psalm 13

How long is a piece of string?  When we go into the garage and ask how long it will take to fix the car – we don’t expect that answer. We don’t expect the mechanic to shrug his shoulders and say – how long is a piece of string? When we put an order in to Amazon we don’t expect that answer. We don’t expect an email saying we will deliver when they get to the end of piece of string. Yet when we talk to a doctor or a minister or even a politician we often get that answer. How long is a piece of string?

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Because the unvarnished truth is that often the most important questions we have, begs that answer. Put more bluntly still, our key questions in life have no answer here on earth.

 

This was also the point by David in his psalm. It starts with that yearning even distraught question – how long O Lord? Moreover, it is amplified in its dismay by the next questions how long will you forget me and hide from me? He concludes his dismal interrogation by seeking a time-line for his thoughts and sorrows and defeats. David then is asking a ‘how long is a piece of string ‘question and in return what did hear? – silence.

 

Here then is the time honoured conundrum. Since with the events of the last few weeks in mind we can sympathize with David. With the terrible fire in London scarred into our memories, we too can ask the same set of questions as David. More to the point, with so much trouble around, we are equally unable to accept the answer of how long is a piece of string? Indeed, we find the silence to be – unbearable.

 

Have you noticed that as you get older, time seems to go more quickly? Our perception of time also differs depending on whether we are waiting for a bus on a bitterly cold day or watching our favourite telly programme. In fact, Einstein’s theories tell us that time does go past quicker on the space station than it does down here. Or, in simplistic terms, our heads are older than our feet.

 

This also answers questions of string lengths. For time is an entirely different thing for God. It his creation and his tool.  He stands outside it and so he controls it. Therefore, he does know the length of every piece of string, of every human life and every joy and tribulation. It’s just that we cannot perceive it or understand it or command it – we just must take it on trust.

 

David too came to the same conclusion. He came to rely on God’s unfailing love alone to put the twinkle back in his eye, bring victory to his efforts and rejoicing in his heart.  Ultimately, he came to rely on God’s own time and not his own. Because he knew that to be not the good time or better time but the right time.

 

My step-father’s aunt did wonderful tapestry. In all honesty, the reverse was as beautifully sewn as the front. But it is not always the case. For frequently, when we see the back of some great work of art it looks, politely, a bit of a mess. Yet when we turn it round our breath is still taken away at what we could not see before. And so, we are stunned by the bigger, better and truer picture.

 

If then in this week you like David are challenged by imponderable questions, let us pray we can have faith like David. On this day, when our nation seems to have multitudinous questions, may we all have patience to trust in an answer. And in this moment, across our globe we hear continually questions of how long? But to each we must say – I cannot answer – but God knows. Because God’s time should always be our favourite and favoured time. Because, God does know the length of every piece of string!

 

 

 

 

Song of Joy

Psalm 100

 

I surprised myself last Sunday by sitting down and watching the last hour of the Ariane Grande concert from Manchester. Although I knew few of the artists or their songs, it was clear that the audience did. And so, despite that this great musical event as the result of the evil atrocity of a few weeks earlier, you could see there was healing in the music. Indeed, the global superstar Justin Bieber spoke not just movingly of the power of love but also brought up the subject of faith. The incorruptible faith that is of a good God yearning for his creatures to treasure their own individual lives by treasuring our common life. To be frank, he did a better job in front of those young people, than many a preacher.

 

whatchurchescouldbelrgAnd it is this joy – joy of worship – joy in music – joy in coming together even in adversity that is the heart of our psalm of this morning. For Psalm 100 gives voices to an unalloyed joy at being the people of God against the odds.

 

Yet it must be said, few people beyond our doors would think it a joyful treat to come to church. Moreover, they would not consciously take part in an act of worship. At best, they may offer the odd prayer in times of trouble or thanks in moments of sublime peace.

 

And why is that?

 

Well we could spend hours beating ourselves up about offering new hymns, differing forms of worship or even services at all sorts of hours and days.  And don’t get me wrong the result of our deliberations would be useful. But ultimately, there is much resistance to worshipping because it is neither a spectator sport nor a couch potato pastime. Because the unvarnished truth is good solid worship is hard work. Many, therefore, are not up for the effort.

 

But why must worship take mental, spiritual and even physical exertion?

 

Well, to achieve the joy of worship, we need to do the hard work that is quietly hinted at in the psalm. We need to strive to put our buzzing brains full of concerns and cares aside so that we can be surprised by joy. We need to press the pause button on all our interests and desires to find contentment in being with the one who made us. We need to put our whole self on hold to see the bigger picture and then be overawed by it.

 

Moreover, it is not only that. For, as it is often said – the things that give us greatest satisfaction are the things we must work hardest to get. And so, if we do the hard graft of worship we are rewarded by a sense of joy that is beyond our understanding.  We also get a sense of why we should be thankful for our own uniqueness and potential inner beauty. More to the point we get a sense of communion not with a distant and uncaring maker but an attentive father. And it is in that moment of unconsciousness to self, we win the medal of consciousness of God’s unbounded love.

 

Put then maybe a tad simplistically, the joy of worship is not of the adult who has achieved adulthood but an adult who has achieved their renewed childhood.

And who would not work for that?

 

Who would not want to sell this health tonic to others?

 

Who here can doubt that if we enjoy the wellbeing of strenuous worship that we should get our friends and family to sign up as well?

 

A famous preacher recounted his visit to the home of Leo Tolstoy in Moscow during 1971.

Here is his account.

There, tied in bundles and stacked against the wall, were Tolstoy’s handwritten manuscripts for all of his great novels – War and Peace, Anna Karenina, and Resurrection. For an hour, I leafed through the mountain of paper, seeing the man’s handwriting, his strikeovers, and even the doodles he made in the margins.

An elderly Russian woman, the curator of the museum, noticed my deep interest and began to talk to me. “He was a friend of the people, Leo Tolstoy was,” she said. “Would you like to see his desk where he wrote?”

She didn’t have to ask me twice! And the next thing I knew she had me seated in Tolstoy’s chair leaning over his desk and holding his writing pen in my hand! I tell you, it was an awesome moment for me!

Our clergyman goes on to say that often during the rest of his college days, his mind would wander back to that study in Moscow. He’d see himself sitting at that same desk, holding that same pen as the bearded Tolstoy himself opened the door and strode in. “Stephen,” he’d say, “I’m working on a new novel and I need your help! Let’s get down to work!” And our narrator would then sit up straight, look him in the eye, and say, “Yes, Leo, I’ll work with you.”

Well if that was one worship leader’s great commission, how much more so is it our commission to preach the joy of worship. For yes, we can try new ideas and offer a wide-open welcome. But, ultimately, we will achieve our task by talking about joy. The joy of finding the true answers to important questions in life. The joy of knowing that this is not a universe indifferent to our existence but a temple to one who is our shepherd, our pastor and our friend. The joy indeed of working with him, even in times of trial, on the greatest and truest story ever told.

 

May then there be the song of joy in in your hearts in the week ahead.

 

Amen

Getting Fired Up

Acts 2.1-8

Galatians 3.26-4.7

pentecost

A minister put a job ad in the local paper. The plan was for an all-round handyman who could fix things around the church and do the routine maintenance.

The very next morning after the ad ran, a well-dressed young man came and asked to speak to the minister. The pastor “sized up” the chap… and then asked him a flurry of questions:

 

– Can you start the boiler? “Yes!” Can you be here by 7 a.m.  every morning? “Yes!”
– Can you polish the silver and do woodwork “Yes!”
– Can you keep things tidy and mow the grass? “Yes Sir!”

 

And the minister continued: “And, of course, there will be electrical problems and unexpected leaking pipes and toilets overflows and…

Wait a minute! The young man interrupted, “I came here to make arrangements for my wedding. But if it’s going to be like that, I think I’ll just forget the whole thing!”

 

Well, the Holy Spirit’s coming was a bit like that story. You knew there was a punchline coming, but not what it was.

 

So, my question – what was the Holy Spirit’s punchline?

 

Well, the day that the spirit came gives us a clue. For Pentecost was the Jewish festival of harvest long before it had Christian significance. The name itself means 50 days – or 50 days after the Passover. Let’s then look for a harvest within the punchline of the Spirit. Let us look for a good harvest after Easter.

 

Our reading today from the Book of Acts tells of one fruiting of the Spirits’ bestowal. It was the gift of languages. Of course, we cannot fully understand how all the various Jewish pilgrims to Jerusalem could understand the words of the apostles. In fact, it would serve little value to speculate. Nevertheless, the why of the bestowal of tongues is obvious. Since, it was to show that the divisions in humanity were coming to an end. It was to illustrate that the message of the life of Jesus is of everyone. That the power of the risen Christ is available to all humanity. For, the spirit comes to aid, comfort and encourage all who is God-fearing. The tongues then of the Spirit are indeed of fire.

 

Certainly, this was the very type of language that Paul was using on the Galatians. As we have talked about over the last few weeks, this nascent Christian community was riven down the middle with the desire for rules and regulations. As a result, they were divided one from another. And so, Paul gives them a telling off as we heard last week. Because he writes to them – there is neither Jew or Greek, male or female or slave or free in Christianity only brothers and sisters in Christ.

 

And to make his case, Paul uses an argument that would have been strange to the pagan ears of 1st century. For they were used to gods being arbitrary, very human and decidedly unruly. This concept they used to explain the vagaries in their lives. Since, to them, this was the natural outcome of being the gods ‘playthings.

 

Even the Jewish people who knew the true God felt that there was a divine law had to be kept if they as a people were to show devotion.

 

Paul, however tells the Galatians the good news. For the gospel is always that we are not subject to any perceived divine law. We are not the slaves of a quixotic God. Instead we are a family under a God. Moreover, through his loving concern, we can call him – Abba – daddy in our parlance.

 

Why is that important. Because no truly loving parent constrains a child with silly boundaries. No mum or Dad express their power through insignificant rules. No father stifles their offspring with shackles simply to show their own control. No- every parent with their salt uses only rules for a child’s safety and well-being. They only direct for the benefit of whole family and its members.

 

So isn’t then a matter of ‘nanny knows best’ but the Spirit knows better than we do. Moreover, we usually need all the advice we can get.

 

What then might the Spirit be guiding us into today?

 

The well-known author and preacher Fred Craddock tells a thought-provoking story. A few years ago, he was a guest teacher at a theological college. Just before the first lecture, one of the students stood up and said, “Before you speak, I need to know if you are Pentecostal.” The room grew silent. Craddock said he looked around for the Dean! He was nowhere to be found.
The student continued with his quiz right in front of everybody. Craddock was taken aback, and so he said, “Do you mean do I belong to the Pentecostal Church?” He said, “No, I mean are you Pentecostal?” Craddock said, “Are you asking me if I am charismatic?” the student said, “I am asking you if you are Pentecostal.” Craddock said, “Do you want to know if I speak in tongues?” He said, “I want to know if you are Pentecostal.” Craddock said, “I don’t know what your question is.” The student said as he stomped out, “Obviously, you are not Pentecostal.”

 

Well that story reminds in this week, in particular, there are many who would seek to exploit our divisions. There are those who would rather drown out the quiet voice of sense with their own raucous tongue. Moreover, there are even some whose only message is to give a lie to us claiming we are living in a post-truth age.

 

So, let us again be energised by those tongues of fire. Let the Spirit guide us through the storm of noise to the voices of those who need us most to hear. Let the Spirit aid us to look beyond language, creed or race to what we, the Church, can do and be for them. Let the fiery spirit embolden us to speak for that truth which cannot be superseded; that gospel truth that under Christ we are not slaves but children of God and heirs to his kingdom.

 

Let then this week, each bare the fruit of our common language. Let each light up with the Spirit’s fire. Let us each be the gospel’s child.

 

Amen

 

Offering while Don plays

 

 

 

 

 

Do you understand?

Do you understand?

 

Acts 8.26-40

 

One of my favourite visits when we are on holiday in Durham is the local air museum. Very much a self-help operation, there is a certain air of how things used to be before electronic screens. This sense is heightened by their reconstruction of a wartime street. In a kitchen, an aproned woman is baking with earthenware bowls and an enamelled gas cooker. The air raid warden’s hut and Anderson Shelter give a reminder of the nation being ‘all together’ facing a common foe. And the toyshop’s window displays metal Meccano – now there’s memory from the past!

 

i12011And after a few moments, it is easy to say – those were simpler times, those were better times and then the real clanger –those were safer times. For one door lies ajar and it tempts you to push it open – only to find the undertaker on the other side. Those war years then were not safer times – they were indeed very dangerous times. This however doesn’t stop us from searching for that cheapest item of eye wear – rose-tinted spectacles.

 

Now nostalgia fuel myopia was certainly a risk facing the early apostles.

 

For, with the death of Christ, our faith’s ancestors faced a cross roads. They could have sought the apparent safety of a socially walled-off group within their exclusive parent religion. They could have cultivated the delicious ‘them and us’ syndrome that effects all sects.  They could indeed have run back to the known and possibly safer past.

 

Or – or they could grasp the alternative. They could break out into the risks of a new world; a future of hostility and opportunity. Put more directly, they could step out bravely into tomorrow.

Obviously, this would mean a geographical journey across the lands of the ancient Roman world. But it also meant a sociological journey across the boundaries between peoples, life styles, personalities and attributes. It meant, in fact, finding new ways of worshipping, living and witnessing.

 

Since – you see – the Ethiopian official in Acts would have been a different race, culture and class than Philip. It would therefore have been very easy for him to have seen this rather exotic character at a distance and let him pass. But he did not, he took courage from the spirit and did the right thing. He leapt the wall that divided them and ask the question – do you understand what you are reading?

In return, and to the Ethiopian’s credit, he pushed his pride to one side and asked for help from a foreigner. Help to understand the prediction of the good news of Jesus Christ for all peoples.  And so, the outcome of this interchange was a baptism and the message carried outward – carried forward into the future; the future where we live now.

 

We too can blind ourselves with rose-tinted spectacles and hanker for a past of packed churches complete with overflowing Sunday Schools.  We can hunger for everyone wanting to do church in the same way. And many Christian communities still look to this reminiscence as safe and sure and cosy.

 

However, it no longer exists any more than the whole family sitting around the steam radio listening to news from foreign fronts. Instead, our world today is multi-screened, multi-coloured and multi-choice – so let’s embrace it with the Spirit – let’s step out with courage – let’s get on with the job of being the future.

 

Yet even if we want to modern day Philips, we are unsure how to access this future. And the answer lies in those questions – do you understand what you are reading?  And, can you explain it to me?

 

A first-year student in a seminary was told by the dean that he should plan to preach the sermon in chapel the following day. He had never preached a sermon before, he was nervous and afraid, and he stayed up all night, but in the morning, he didn’t have a sermon. He stood in the pulpit, looked out at his classmates and said, “Do you know what I am going to say?” All of them shook their heads “no” and he said “Neither do I. The service has ended. Go in peace.”

The dean was not happy. “I’ll give you another chance tomorrow, and you had better have a sermon.” Again, he stayed up all night; and again he couldn’t come up with a sermon. Next morning, he stood in the pulpit and asked, “Do you know what I am going to say?” The students all nodded their heads “yes.” “Then there is no need to tell you” he said. “The service has ended. Go in peace.”

Now the dean was angry. “I’ll give you one more chance; if you don’t have a sermon tomorrow, you will be asked to leave.” Again, no sermon came. He stood in the pulpit the next day and asked, “Do you know what I am going to say?” Half of the students nodded “yes” and the other half shook their heads “no.” The student preacher then announced “Those who know, tell those who don’t know. The service has ended. Go in peace.”

The seminary dean walked over to the student, put his arm over the student’s shoulders, and said “Those who know, tell those who don’t know. Today, the gospel has been proclaimed. Well done!”

 

Here then is how to spread the good news of Jesus Christ today. Here is how we can break down the barriers of difference that so many are rushing to build up. Here indeed is how to make our faith live in this 21sr Century.

 

For we need to ask each other – do you understand? And where we hear ‘yes’ let us hear a resounding proclamation of the gospel’s experience. But where we hear ‘No’ – let us give witness from the depths of our own understanding. Our knowledge that Christ came for all humanity and creation. That Christ lives so that his presence can guide and sustain even when life is flinging its worst at us. That Christ is alive, that his church is not a museum and his people are moving forward.

 

So, this day – if you do not understand, then ask.

 

If you know, then say.

 

For then the gospel is preached, the kingdom is brought near and the past is made fresh for the future.

 

The sermon is ended – now, preach one to another.

 

 

 

 

 

Do you recognise him?

f12000d6bb28b9556b19bb3896add406_stationsresurrection4-road-to-emmaus-clip-art_350-480Luke 24.13-27

 

If I am being honest, I remember little of my divinity lectures of nearly 20 years ago today. Wish, of course, it was otherwise. However, one comment did stick in my noddle. And it is there in today lessons. For, it seems, that after Jesus was resurrected, he was somehow not immediately recognisable.
Now, I find that rather intriguing. For if you watched last Sunday’s episode of Maigret on the telly, you will know the real drama was in the unmasking of people. Indeed, the plot of every thriller is seeing people as they really are; in truly recognising them as it were.

Well, possibly Matthew was using this concept to entice you into his gospel narrative. The storyline being that you can only understand the birth and life and death of Christ from the viewpoint of his resurrection. For, it is only from that vista, can we recognize that time itself has been defeated. More to the point, time has been vanquished not by making it ‘never ending’ but rather by making time non-existent. Now, this is a wonderful hope for those who have lost a loved one. For, through Jesus’ cancellation of time, we know our beloved are still here but just out of our mortal sight.

However, there may have been another reason that Jesus was not directly recognised by his followers.

This leads me to a great story I heard from a Minister recently:
Some years ago, when he was a Parish Minister, he happened to be at the Western General Hospital in Edinburgh visiting a parishioner he hadn’t met before. He located the ward and the bed. “Hello, there, Mrs Bloggs, and how are you feeling today? “Not so bad, thanks, but I’ve got a bit of pain…about here” and she indicated her abdomen, and then proceeded to go into what the minister thought was very personal and indeed private, if not intimate detail about the effects of her recent surgery.
He was getting a bit hot under the dog collar by this time, and especially when she said that she would like to show me her operation scar.
“I think I’d better get a nurse, Mrs B”
“Right, DOCTOR” she answered
That’s when the penny dropped. DOCTOR a case of mistaken identity.
Needless to say, he made his excuses and left.

Put directly, we often don’t recognize Christ, because we have made a case of mistaken identification. More precisely, we have looking for the Jesus we have made up in our head rather than the real one. A bit like the mistake of the disciples on the Emmaus road.

For we often concoct an image up of him from childhood myths, others’ cod-theologies and even our own desires and prejudices. In essence, we want to hug the Jesus of our wants and run away from the Jesus of our haunts. And, as a result, we do not accept the real Christ with his own requests, his own goals and his own topics of conversations.
And so, we walk by; we do not recognize him in his own right.

It is here, I want to recount a tale I have told you before. For that I am sorry however it is very relevant here. Moreover, it is a great tale. It is in a book by Kathleen O’Sullivan. She says one evening she was in the queue at her local fish and chip shop. It was a bitterly cold and windy night. Everyone just wanted to pick up their food and get back to their warm homes. Suddenly, the door opened and in blew a gentleman of the road. The other customers drew closer together and away from him. The manager surreptitiously appeared and spoke to the arrival quietly. There was no problem as the tramp had enough money for a cup of coffee.
As Kathleen collected her order, she turned and looked at the man sitting alone at wall counter. Suddenly, her world reeled before her. For behind the unkempt beard, she saw the eyes of he who had seen Peter on the beach, the eyes of the one who greeted his followers on the road to Emmaus. The eyes of he who joined them on the mountain top. She saw too the eyes of one who knew her to the core of her being. Moreover, for a second, she also saw his amusement at that moment of recognition. She hurried from the shop in total confusion.

Let then the experience of the disciples on the road Emmaus be a warning to us. In fact, in the week ahead, let us try to put aside our preconceptions of Jesus and let him speak for himself. Let us look for him in the strangest and least expected places. Let us indeed not walk blindly and so allow him to pass us by. For we may not come that way again.

Oh, we say I don’t have the time.
Your right – but God has!

All we need do is recognise it in him and him out with it!

.

Amen

Surprised by resurrection

Luke 24.1-12

There is only one thing more annoying than forgetting the punchline of a joke and that is to remember the ending but not the jape that went before.

 

And that is relevant today, as I saw a sermon title but could find the text. To explain, I was researching today’s talk when I came across the heading ‘surprised by resurrection’. However, I then lost the page and never did read the story beyond it.

 

Nevertheless, you’ve got to admit it’s a cracking title – surprised by resurrection. So much so, it got me thinking. It indeed got be pondering the types of surprises.

 

For there are those pleasant ones of unexpected visitors or invitations to a party. And there are the nasty ones – I’ll leave their illustration to yourself. But there is a third category of surprise – the ones that leave us dumbfounded as we simply can’t fathom what has happened.

 

Now this seems to be the type of surprise suffered by the women and the disciples in today’s resurrection story. For, as we read their story, we get no sense of joy at the Lord’s resurrection – in fact, quite the reverse. Since, if the truth be told, what they were seeing was beyond their experience and comprehension. As a result, the whole experience must have been at best perplexing and at worse downright unsettling. Because, we as a species, are uncomfortable with the inexplicable, events that don’t fit a pattern and facts that cannot be bound with others to give understanding.

 

And it is for these reasons, resurrection is not a hot topic even amongst Christians today. For, we know we don’t see it in our every day. And, as a result, we fear it can be more a stumbling block to faith than a promise of that faith.

 

What then is to be done when we encounter this surprise called resurrection?

How do we cope with the incomprehensibility of resurrection?

Ultimately, what does resurrection genuinely mean for you and I?

 

Well, I believe we must start at a point where the disciples did not. And that means approaching the whole narrative with an open mind. Since Jesus’ followers had a lot of misconceptions about how his rule would be established. As a result, they were not ready to be surprised – surprised by the total newness of the situation.

Let us not make the same mistake – let us be ready to be surprised.

 

Next, we need acknowledge there is much in this physical universe we do not understand – indeed don’t know about. What other civilisations lie far out in space as an example.

 

When we do this, we prepare ourselves for the surprise of something totally different.

It is then we are ready put aside all the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ of the resurrection. We ready to set aside explanation. We ready to acknowledge our limitations.  And now are we are open to encounter – encounter with risen lord in our lives. We are open to companionship –  companionship with Christ with us. And we are open to love – the love of the living Jesus.

 

Finally, we in the right place to receive the real surprise at the core and purpose of resurrection.

 

Since in the early part of World War II, an American Navy submarine was stuck on the bottom of the harbour in New York City. It seemed that all was lost. There was no electricity and the oxygen was quickly running out. It seems the crew was lost.  A Navy diver went over the side of a rescue ship to the dangerous depths in one last rescue attempt. The trapped sailors heard the metal boots of the diver land on the hull’s surface, and they moved to where they thought the rescuer would be. In the darkness, they tapped in Morse code, “Is there hope?” The diver on the outside, recognizing the message, signalled by tapping on the casing of the sub, “Yes, there is hope.”

Here then is the real surprise of resurrection. Here is the real purpose of Easter. For it is not about chocolate eggs and bunnies. It is not even about days off and family get-togethers. It’s about being surprised by hope where we least expect it. It is about being surprised by hope in the darkest places. It is about finding hope when we least understand it. In fact, it is about coming alive again by more hope than we can handle.

 

And that is no joke!