Friday, 31 October 2014

Who is Jesus ?

This was last week's sermon - didn't get posted as I was away from my desk from the Thursday. Sorry.
Gospel reading was Matthew 22: 34-46

Who is Jesus?  That might seem like a huge question, but it is one which I think resonates through each gospel (each of which, after all, was written to try to answer the question) and is as important a question for each of us as ever it was for the first followers of Jesus.

In the section of Matthew we’ve had in the lectionary over the last few weeks there have been questions to Jesus – some from the Sadducees, some from the Pharisees: there have been questions on divorce, authority, taxes, resurrection and now the law.
Matthew states that these questions are put to ‘test’ or to ‘trap’ Jesus, but perhaps there was also a genuine desire to find out whose side Jesus was on, what he stands for, who should rally to his cause. Who is Jesus? Or perhaps whose is Jesus? But Jesus shows no interest in claiming support from one faction rather than another.

We know that at the time of Jesus there were factions amongst God’s people.
The Pharisees were the strictest in terms of law – they were highly moral, deeply suspicious of the Romans and concerned for moral purity. The Sadducees were more concerned with the continuation of temple worship and were content to collaborate with the Roman powers. The Essenes were more radical and exclusive, and were expecting God to overthrow the Roman powers but without a Messiah figure. They had taken themselves off to the desert,  which is probably why we don’t hear of them interacting with Jesus.

But for the Pharisees and Sadducees the question of whether Jesus was the Messiah and if so what sort of Messiah he was, and therefore whose side he was on, was of real importance.
Who is Jesus?
Was Jesus the Messiah who had come to reinforce the law of Moses, the son of David who would lead the people to a new kind of moral purity? Or was he a more political leader who would help the Jewish people to stand alongside the Roman powers with temple worship preserved and honoured, but not disturb the status quo too much?

So we come to today’s question in Matthew’s gospel. When the Pharisees ask Jesus ‘which is the greatest commandment?’ it’s meant to be a difficult question. Jesus is potentially onto a loser – if he says ‘You must not kill’ is the greatest commandment, people might say ‘Ooh, he doesn’t think worshipping God is important, then’ or if he says the most important commandment is ‘Respect your parents’ he can be criticised for not being tough enough on crime!

It’s also trying to work out whether Jesus sides more with the moral aspects of the law (favoured by the Pharisees) or the ceremonial aspects of the law (favoured by the Sadducees).
Whose side is Jesus on? Who is Jesus?

Jesus, as ever, responds in a very clever way – he sums up all the 10 commandments in two phrases: the greatest commandment is ‘Love God with all your heart & soul & mind’ and ‘the second is like it - love your neighbour as you love yourself’.’ Jesus places the two laws very clearly side by side, with no preference or hierarchy. Love God, love other people – that’s it.

So Jesus gets out of the trick question very neatly.
But he does something else – Jesus makes us think about what the commandments are really for.
They aren’t a set of rules to be followed like mindless robots – and God isn’t watching & waiting for us to slip up so that he can punish us horribly for breaking the rules. The commandments are there to help us work out what life is really about – what we are here for.
And they tell us that we’re here to love God & love other people. And if we are here to love God, we need to seek and know God, which brings u back to the question of Jesus’ identity.

Then Jesus deals with the unspoken question of what sort of Messiah he is, with the question about how he can be both the son of David and the Lord of David. Jesus’ answer is that he is the Messiah they are expecting – the son of David – but he is also more than they can imagine – the Lord of David. Not just a messenger of God but God himself come to save his people.
Jesus points us to a law that is about more than rules, and a knowledge of him that is about more than facts.
Jesus resists each faction, each human desire to divide ourselves according to what we believe.

And what about us? Who is Jesus? We might think that the divisions of the Sadducees and Pharisees and Essenes are no longer relevant to us.
But we have our own divisions: are own answers to the question ’who is Jesus?’
Is Jesus a teacher? Then it is following his teaching that is the most important thing for us to grasp – we are to be followers of Jesus.
Is Jesus the Messiah? Then we should be asking what his message of liberation is, and for whom – we are to be social revolutionaries.
Is Jesus the Christ? Then we should focus our energies on worshipping him and proclaiming him to others.
And what denomination is Jesus? And for which party would Jesus vote? And which charities would be support?

Remember, when you’re asking yourself who Jesus is and what Jesus would have you do, that Jesus himself resist all divisions and pulls all our factions and differences together to show us that he is all we hope for and pray for and look for – and more.
Who is Jesus?
The one who tells us who we are to be., and yet the one who resists our every attempt to think that we have completely or comfortably found him.

Jesus says ‘love God and love your neighbour’.
The most important thing is to know God, and love God in return;
to know God’s love in Jesus Christ, and to celebrate it; to know that our love for other people is a vital part of being alive, and to want to serve them.

The story is told of Pope John 23rd that at a large audience we was to be seen staring intently and yet lovingly into the crowds. Those who saw him felt that he was looking for the face of Jesus in every face of those around him.

So remember as this week unfolds before you that you cannot ever rest completely in your search for Jesus anymore than he rests from his search for us.
Jesus is more, ever before us, greater than we think and perhaps to be found, this week, in unexpectedly places and people.
And as we find him so may we love him.

All Saints Sunday

Matthew 5:1-12      1 John 3:1-3

There are some Bible readings which we’ve heard so many times that maybe they’ve lost their power to make us sit up and take notice.
Perhaps today’s Gospel reading is like that – a reading so popular we often put it on the walls of our churches opposite the ten commandments. It’s such a well-worn piece of scripture we even have a special posh Latin name for it, the “beatitudes”.
But what Jesus is actually saying is quite shocking. Blessed are... the last people you might expect.

Who would you expect to be the ones considered most blessed by God? What does the world say about the “Top people of 2014”? I used Google to answer that question and I found lists of
The most influential people
Most creative
Most famous
Most powerful
Most popular
And people shaping the fashion industry

But who does Jesus say are the most blessed people?
The poor in spirit
Those who mourn
The meek
Those who long for right to be done
Those who are merciful
The pure in heart, the peacemakers and the persecuted.

Jesus’ list is almost the exact opposite of what we expect.

And the challenge is to hear that as if for the first time, to let it sink deep down into our hearts and souls and minds.
God blesses the most down-trodden.
We need to hear that because, surely, there are times when we all feel down.
Maybe it’s the darker evenings, but in the last few weeks I have been feeling rather weary, a bit hedged round with worries, a bit tetchy, if I’m honest.
And worried about my parents’ health, or friends who are unhappy, or the terrible state of the world.
And, no, I’m still not rich or powerful or creative or famous.

And what does Jesus say to me?
You are blessed. You are not forgotten, or a failure: you are a treasured child of God.

Blessed – to be a citizen of the kingdom, and comforted. To inherit the earth and see right prevail.
To receive mercy. To see God. Blessed to be a child of God, scooped up into God’s everlasting arms.

God blesses all his children. We might see those who are rich and famous and all those other things and think how lucky, even how blessed they are. But Jesus wants us to know that even when we feel that life is going all wrong, that is not a sign that we are no longer loved by God. Instead God promises to bless us. When we are down, rejected, even crushed – we are still the beloved children of God and God waits to turn mourning to comfort and persecution to reward.

More than that, Jesus promises not just that the downtrodden will be blessed – but that we are blessed: that God’s blessing is already upon us, God’s love already surrounds us and that we are not alone as we face difficulty.

Years ago when I was at Leicester University I was part of the student Methsoc. I remember our chaplain, Michael Skinner, who had been a principal of Wesley College in Cambridge, telling the story of slipping downstairs and breaking his leg. One of his church members saw him with his leg in plaster and said “fancy it happening to you, Mr Skinner” – as if a better minister would have found that God had suspended the laws of physics for him and saved him from harm.
But Michael knew, and we know, that even the most saintly and godly people are not preserved from harm, but that what marks them out is that even when disaster strikes they know they are still blessed – still loved by God.

In the midst of the Reformation, Martin Luther was trying to define the church  in a way which took people beyond a historical or institutional understanding of what it means to be church.
He asked the question ‘how do we know when a church is a church?’ and came up with seven ‘marks of the church’.
The first six marks state that the church is present where the Word of God is opened and where there is  baptism, communion, confession and forgiveness, called and ordained ministers, and prayer and praise. The seventh and final mark is that “the holy Christian people are externally recognized by the holy possession of the sacred cross” – in other words, where people are faithfully following Jesus there will be suffering, struggle, and difficulty.

We are following Jesus – who went to the cross -  and so we will never be immune from suffering. But like Jesus, we will be carried through our suffering by the love of God the Father and will find that our suffering is transformed and that we are blessed indeed by the love and presence of God.

So today we remember all those blessed by God – the Saints of the church’s history, and those whom we have known whom we would call saints, and we celebrate that like all God’s saints, we too are blessed with grace and love.

So come now to this table of blessing, with all God’s saints, and celebrate the gifts of the kingdom: bread broken, wine outpoured, symbols of suffering and symbols of blessing.

In the name of Jesus, the one who blesses, the one who was blessed and the one who is a blessing to us.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Holding on / Letting go

This week I am preaching at a Church Anniversary, using the lectionary readings: Exodus 33: 12-23 & Matthew 22: 15-22

I’m grateful to our previous Synod Moderator, David Grosch-Miller, currently moderator of General Assembly, for the start of his latest blog:
“It has been a busy time in pursuit of the places where God is at work! The latest quest began in Sheffield with the 300th anniversary of worship on the site now occupied by Central URC. Anniversaries can sometimes be the excuse for nostalgia to cloud the memory and reality to take a back seat.”

Perhaps this explains why I was initially nervous about accepting the invitation to lead worship today as we celebrate this church anniversary.
It is dangerous, isn’t it, looking back. It can make us wistful, even a little disconsolate , as we remember past glories and good times.

When I was the minister of one quite large church, we were talking about the church anniversary which was coming up and one member said “I just wish it was like it had been when my children were young, back in the 1970s – that was a real golden age”. When I looked at a church history that had been written in 1972 I found a chapter “The golden age – 1842-1867”. Perhaps it is human nature that we always look back with fondness.

But we need to beware the desire to grasp and hold and keep what has been and so miss out on the present. Of course we honour what has gone before, but then we need to let go and move on.

In the Gospel reading we heard, Jesus is facing a challenge from those who want to hold on to things. They want to hold onto their religious traditions, they want to hold onto the status quo in the political sphere, and it turns out they would quite like to hold onto their money, too.
The Pharisees send people to ask Jesus a question:
Should we pay tax to Caesar? It is clearly a trick question – saying yes to tax to the Roman power is going to be considered irreligious – whilst saying no to Roman tax is politically unwise – perhaps even suicide.

But Jesus’ answer refuses to fall into their trap, and instead sets their brains whirling. Whose image is on the coin? Caesar’s. “Then give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God that which is God's".
I am not a great scholar of Greek  - I rely on far wiser people than me to open up the subtleties of the original text for me. But I was interested to learn that the verb, in the question which is put to Jesus, is ‘dounai’ – to give, to pay.
But Jesus in his reply uses the verb ‘apodote’ – which has more of a sense of ‘giving back’ – it’s the verb which is used when Jesus ‘hands back’ the scroll after he has read in the synagogue.

Should we pay tax to Rome? – Jesus says you can give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar – that’s the coin, with the emperor’s head on it – and give back to God what belongs to God. Give back to God the creator of all that which God has first given to you - which is everything, surely !

Jesus is telling his followers to let go, not grasp, and he is not limited to talking about money – he wants his followers to recognise that if they are to be people of the way – those who follow him, children of the kingdom, they must give their all. We must live as those who know that our worship, our money, our very lives need to be given back to God in deep gratitude for all the grace God has shown us.

So in our anniversary celebrations we give thanks for all the ways in which people here have given their all in following Christ, and we ask what it is that we need to give back to God.
It seems perhaps that Moses, in our Exodus reading, is also trying to grasp and hold onto something: in his case not money but God himself. Moses is used to conversing and meeting with God. His first encounter was in the burning bush, he has known God’s help as has been through struggles with Pharoah, led the people through the parting of the Red Sea, there have been various adventures in the desert, and the giving of the Law at Sinai. But he wants to hold onto God’s presence, to see God’s face.

God’s answer is “you will see my back, but my face you will not see”.
God is with his people, but they are always scrambling after God. They can never rest in one place and know that they have arrived in the golden age where God will be wholly present.
If we come here to this or any church to bask in the glory of God, to gaze on him and forget the world, I think we’re in for a disappointment.
Worship is about recognising God’s place in our lives – God’s love, mercy and rule and how we should respond to those things. But we cannot conjour up God’s presence here and then hold onto exactly what we think God looks like or is saying to us. We are constantly following where God leads, looking for signs of God’s activity in our world and trying to join in: seeing God’s back, and scurrying after.

Celebrating this church anniversary is about giving thanks for all those who have glimpsed God’s back striding into the future and have moved this church to follow after – in worship and service.

We honour the past, we give thanks for all God has given, we give back to God’s service all that we have received. And we seek to move on to where God’s grace shown in Jesus is leading us.

And that means not only thinking about where God is leading us as a community here in Taunton, but also sometimes lifting our eyes to other places in the world. I know you are good at that, here: I know we have been collecting for Water Aid, and the total has been amazing.

But I’m going to ask you to give more. Don’t panic: I don’t want money. I want a little of your time. This weekend is Christian Aid's "climate justice" weekend. We are being asked to inform ourselves more about climate change (what some call global warming) and the effect it is having, especially on the poorest people in our world, who are most dependent on the land for survival and least equipped to cope with unpredictable climate change. I want to give you something -  a postcard to send to our MP if you are minded to. I want to ask for your prayers. I want to challenge you to follow God into the future, in your actions, in your prayers and in this church.
And I want to give you a promise - God will be with us, Jesus’ love will show us the way, and the Spirit will inspire us, today tomorrow & forever. Amen.