Saturday, 28 April 2012

Easter 4 Good Shepherd

Jesus the Good Shepherd
John 10: 11-18, 1 John 3: 16-24

 I wonder how you feel about being likened to sheep. Because if Jesus is the Good Shepherd, surely we are the sheep. Somehow that doesn’t feel like a compliment. Having just returned from Northern Ireland, I’ve spent quite a lot of time with sheep. There are most definitely more sheep than people in the Irish countryside: and very lovely the sheep and lambs looked. But they’re not bright, are they, sheep.? As a friend of mine once heard a Yorkshire farmer put it “You see, sheep are not as clever as they like to think they are”. They are easily spooked by sudden noises, easily misled into wandering off by just following the others, difficult to keep together and safe in the pen.

 The more I see sheep, the more I think people are just like them in so many ways. And believe me, a group of ministers (which is who I was in Northern Ireland with) are as capable of behaving like daft sheep as anyone else! So we all need a good shepherd – we need rounding up, being cared for, being tended.

Jesus’ listeners knew how dependent the sheep of their day were on the shepherd – even more so than in ours. Their sheep were not fenced off in lush green fields like ours – they were out in the wilderness where crops couldn’t be grown. I’ve seen sheep in this country get themselves into some tangles even in this relatively safe environment. But in 1st century Palestine the sheep were dependent on the shepherd to help them find food and water as well as to keep them safe from the many hungry wild animals. So when Jesus calls himself ‘The Good Shepherd’ he is painting a picture of himself as the one who will care for and protect the sheep, leading them with his voice, and knowing each one by name. Unlike the hired hand, who doesn’t really care about the sheep and who will run away in the face of danger, Jesus is prepared to lay down his life for the sheep.

 Whatever else we may do or not do as Christians – whatever we try to do as a church, or as individuals, wherever we may wander or stray, Jesus is clear. He is the Good Shepherd. If we listen for his voice, if we follow him, if we accept his love and care, no real harm can ever come to us. However silly, however scatty, however distracted we are, he will love and care for us and the whole purpose of our lives is that we must follow him.

 So we need to forget feeling insulted at being likened to sheep, and learn to rejoice in the fact that we have a Good Shepherd, and learn to listen for his voice and learn to follow him more closely. And part of following Jesus is to have a concern for one another – and not just those safe within these walls, but all the people of this world, for whom Jesus gave his life.

 Jesus makes it clear that ‘There are other sheep of mine, not belonging to this fold’ – that there are other people to whom Jesus has come offering loving care, who at the moment are considered outsiders. The first examples of these outsiders in the early church were the Gentiles, non-Jews: originally that would have meant all of us. But as we read this passage today I wonder how we feel? 

We are now the insiders, we are safely in the fold, we can be assured that the love of the Good Shepherd is always there for us. But there are people even today who feel like outsiders in the church, who wonder whether it is for them. They may wonder if they’re good enough…

But Jesus says that they are every bit as much part of the flock of Jesus as we are, even though they have yet to be brought into the fold. How can we make those who feel like outsiders in the church feel welcomed and a part of the love of Jesus which we share?

 The writer of the first letter of John writes ‘Children, love must not be a matter of theory or talk, it must be true love which shows itself in action’. That action can mean going out of our way to invite someone to worship. It can mean getting involved with our community in different ways, to show that we care about them. It can mean being prepared to change the way we do things for the sake of others, especially those who are outsiders.

 This may mean offering chances for prayer and worship other than on a Sunday morning; singing hymns or songs we don’t like ourselves, but recognising that someone else loves it!; putting up with a service that isn’t our ‘cup of tea’ for the sake of those who like that sort of thing; being always ready to be challenged by the Spirit to risk something different.

 And if all that sounds a bit scary, don’t be like silly frightened sheep: listen for the voice of the Good Shepherd, calling you by your name, reassuring you that God loves you and will always care for you. Come what may, we are safe in the arms of Jesus, the Good Shepherd. And may all that we are and become as a church be to his praise & glory. Amen.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Easter 3

No sermon this week, sorry.
But if I WAS preaching I think I'd be focussing on the 'YOU are witnesses to these things'. Of course we have the gospel accounts, but can we add to these our own encounters with the risen Christ? Maybe not a Damascus Road event (or maybe so!) - but where/when/how have we known the risen Lord in our lives? And can we tell others??

Friday, 13 April 2012

Easter 2

Acts 4: 32-35
John 20: 19-31

John writes, at the very end of his gospel:
‘these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name’.

So what does it really mean to believe in Jesus?
I seem to have quite a lot of conversations with people about belief.

Recently, visiting someone who was very ill, he said to me “I wish I could believe in God and heaven and all those things – but I haven’t been able to for many years”.
For him, belief was something that might have brought a measure of security in his last days, and I admired his honesty and integrity, that he wasn’t prepared to state an allegiance to a faith as some kind of insurance deal.

But it seems that for people of honesty and integrity, faith is not something that can just be conjured up, however much they may want to believe or however pleasant and positive they are about people who do have faith.

Believing is not simple.

Take Thomas. He is not with the other disciples when they see the risen Jesus Christ on Easter day. And though they tell Thomas what has happened, and though their story ‘we have seen the Lord’ is corroborated by the two from Emmaus, and by Mary who met Jesus at the tomb that morning – Thomas does not believe. The other disciples have received the gift of the Spirit from Jesus – but somehow they cannot convince Thomas that Jesus is risen. And then a whole week passes.

I wish John told us what happened in that week. Did Thomas just keep away from the others, with their crazy stories of the risen Jesus, and their strange insistence that they had received the Holy Spirit when Jesus breathed on them, and that they were going to tell the whole world this good news of Jesus, the one who came back from death?
Did the apostles try to tell anyone else, or were they so gutted by Thomas’s disbelief that they kept the news to themselves. Did they try, every day, to convince Thomas of the truth of their story? Did Thomas pray, like the father of the sick child in Mark’s gospel “Lord I believe, help my unbelief”?
Or did they all just wait for Jesus to act?

We don’t know. John doesn’t tell us. And only John tells us this part of the story – about Thomas - so we just don’t know.

But we do know that Jesus appears to Thomas – 7 whole days later – and that Thomas, when we sees the risen Jesus, believes. And Thomas then goes the whole hog ‘My Lord and my God!’

But aren’t those 7 days fascinating? Why did Jesus wait 7 days – why not put Thomas out of his misery sooner (because whatever else did or didn’t happen in those 7 days, Thomas was left mourning his teacher and Lord). Perhaps, somehow, Thomas needed that time to accept the truth, to believe, to see.

Maybe this strange gift of belief is a gift that God waits, patiently, to give us when we are ready to receive it.

Of course, waiting patiently is not something most of us are very good at. We want to know – now. We want ot have faith, enough to move mountains, we want the church to be filled with power to change lives.
We want God’s spirit to make people listen to the story we have to tell about the resurrection of Jesus and to believe and join us.

But sometimes we have to be patient, hard as it is.
We listen to the account in Acts and we might feel very impatient, very jealous of the early church:
‘With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need’.

The apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection and many believed. But,, wait just a moment – these are the very same apostles who had 7 days to convince Thomas of their ‘testimony to the resurrection’ and who failed. What’s changed? Well, this account comes from Luke’s second volume – the Acts of the apostles, and according to Luke, the disciples had to wait 7 weeks for the coming of the Holy Spirit, and only then were they able to preach with great power.

They had to wait. Thomas had to wait to believe. They have to wait to see results from their belief.
What about us?
If we believe that Jesus is risen, is we believe that Jesus sends us to tell the world, what are we waiting for? Perhaps we have to wait for God’s time to be right, for people’s hearts to be open to hear what we have to say. But we need to pray to be ready. Ready to believe; ready to tell; and ready to welcome those who also believe, so that believing we may all have life in Jesus’ name.
Lord, help our unbelief. Amen.

Elders in the United Reformed Church

I have been thinking about the role of elders in my denomination, ahead of a training event this weekend. I 'wordled' a number of Biblical passages which refer to elders, and the 'word cloud' of ideas is
Wordle: Eldershere

The passages were
Romans 12: 1-8
1 Corinthians 12: 27-31
1 Peter 5: 1-4
Ephesians 4: 11-16

I found it fascinating, and hope it will give us food for thought...

Friday, 6 April 2012

Easter Sunday - Christ is Risen!

Gospel reading: John 20: 1-18

During Lent, some of us have been reading Stephen Cottrell’s book ‘The things he said’ – looking at all the things Jesus says on Easter Day. What’s surprising is that so many of things Jesus say are not statements, like ‘I am the risen Son of God’ , but are questions.

Easter Day is a good day for questions. We might question, first, which of the gospel accounts to believe. Perhaps it is not surprising that each gospel tells the story of the resurrection in a slightly different way – earthquakes, a group of women or just Mary of Magdala, other disciples running to the tomb, angels, linen wrappings, Jesus appearing in the garden, on the road to Emmaus, in a locked room in Jerusalem – everywhere except the tomb. The empty tomb, the amazing, startling, miraculous sight of a tomb with no dead body. There is so much to tell, such excitement, such amazement. So many questions.

Why might wonder what the purpose is of al these questions. But it’s not surprising that the excitement and joy build quite slowly. Perhaps we are too used to barrelling into church on Easter Sunday morning & immediately coming out with statements rather than questions, as we say ‘Happy Easter’ or ‘Christ is risen’.
But John’s account is more cautious, and each event leads to its own questions.
The tomb is open (what’s going on?)..t
he tomb is empty (where is Jesus?)…
the wrappings are there (not a hastily stolen body, wrappings & all, then?)..
the head wrappings are carefully put separately (not a theft at all, it seems?).

That’s enough for Peter & ‘the disciple Jesus loved’ – who go home to think about what they’ve seen.

But Mary weeps, and looks into the tomb again (maybe she wants to double check what she’s seen)…two angels ask another question ‘why are you weeping?’, but they do not tell her where Jesus is…and then Jesus himself appears – at first unrecognised, and bearing his own questions ‘why are you weeping?’ ‘who are you looking for?’.
Then, finally the real truth dawns “I have seen the Lord” – now, finally it’s time to for an answer to all the questions – time to say ‘he is risen’.

It’s not surprising that John lets the truth trickle out bit by bit, to give us chance to really grasp it.
Maybe what is surprising is that every gospel agrees that it is a woman, or a group of women, who first discover that Jesus is risen from the dead.

If someone was seeking to put together a convincing account of the resurrection, they would probably start with the testimony of a man rather than a woman. In first century Palestine, if you wanted legal witnesses to an event women did not count – only Jewish males were allowed to be legal witnesses.

But John’s gospel account starts with Mary and it reads like a gathering of first-hand accounts from those who saw or who heard from those who saw what actually happened on that Easter Sunday morning. Slowly all the questions and the fragments of story build up into a wonderful, almost unbelievable truth.

And so we approach this story today with the biggest question of all – is it really true?

Mary has come to the tomb, probably to grieve. When she sees that the stone has been moved she runs and fetches Peter & the other disciple and they run to the tomb and find it empty.

It is hard for us, who know the whole story, to recover their sense of complete shock –they have seen Jesus die on the cross, seen the body lifted down & laid in the tomb. Dead people stay put – unless grave robbers come – and that big stone was meant to stop that.

But Jesus body is gone – leaving the wrappings neatly folded – and no grave-robber would do that.
After the men have gone, and Jesus speaks to Mary she is told to return to the others to tell them that she has seen the Lord.

Perhaps it is not too surprising that other gospel writers say that at first the disciples do not believe this – this is altogether too amazing for words!

But slowly the truth dawns… Jesus is alive – others have seen him, too – and he has a message for his followers that they must spread the news of his resurrection life and power to everyone.

Jesus’ new life breaks into the grief and resignation of all who have seen him die, bringing a new message of hope, eternal life, and God’s presence in our world.

If you question what to believe – believe this: Jesus is alive, God’s love is stronger than death: death itself has no more power over humanity.
This Easter morning, let the truth dawn into your life slowly.
Jesus Christ – who was dead, has been raised from death by the power of God the father.
The love of God is so great it went to the cross in Jesus:
the love of God is so great it suffered the darkness of the tomb in Jesus;
and the love of God is so unquenchable that it could not stay in the tomb, but burst out, crushing death forever.

We can celebrate new life, a living hope and the certainty of the power of God to bring each one of us safely through death to eternal life.

To every one of our questions, he is the answer.
He is risen indeed!