Friday, 29 April 2016

Easter 7

Acts 16: 16-34
John 17: 20-26

A sermon preached to the ministers' spring school, but using the readings set for May 8th.

I was very moved by the ‘cardboard testimonies’ which Dave Hopwood showed us and what we saw of the power of God to transform lives. Seeing what was written on those bits of cardboard and especially seeing the faces of the people holding them light up s they showed their testimonies made me feel that I would want my ministry to be a channel of that transformative grace. In the context of this week exploring worship it also made me think about the ways is which worship can be a channel of transformative grace, taking us from this to this (card).

When we look at the story from Acts it seems that there are many transformations in this story – or at least changes from one state to another – from this to this.

Paul has been having a strange time, it seems.
The Council of Jerusalem had met and made the decision to lift the requirement that Gentiles be circumcised on becoming Christian. Paul and Barnabas are sent out to Antioch with a letter declaring this teaching against circumcision.
Then Paul decides to return to every city in which he and Barnabas have preached, to see how they are getting on. Barnabas wants to take John Mark (who let them down earlier) and give him a second chance, but Paul doesn’t trust him: so Paul & Barnabas go off in separate directions – Barnabas takes John Mark, and Paul chooses Silas to go with him. Paul then picks up Timothy to accompany them – and has him circumcised, so that they can go from town to town telling people they don’t have to be circumcised.
It seems that even then consensus decision-making wasn’t to everyone’s liking – or maybe the change from this to this isn’t always as straight forward as it seems.

Next Paul sees the vision of a man from Macedonia calling for help, so they travel there, where Paul baptises Lydia (the dealer in purple cloth) and her household.
Then we come to the chain of events we heard.

The first to experience change is the slave girl, whose spirit of divination is driven out by Paul.
But why does he heal her? Because Paul is ‘very much annoyed’. A change from this to this because the healer is fed up with the person he heals.
This in turn annoys the owners of the girl, who stir up the crowd who change from listening to Paul & Silas to attacking and imprisoning them.

We are told that about midnight, Paul & Silas are praying and singing “and the prisoners were listening to them”. There is an earthquake, the doors fly open and the chains restraining the prisoners are broken.
Yet the prisoners do not make a break for it. Maybe they have experienced a change, listening to Paul & Silas?

The jailor, fearing the worst, is ready to kill himself rather than face the consequences for losing all his prisoners, but is reassured by Paul that there is no need for panic.
Then comes the focus of the whole account, as the jailor asks “sirs, what must I do to be saved?”. Here is a man looking for transformation.
Paul& Silas preach to him and his household; the jailor washes their wounds and then he is baptised (in the same water?) and they all rejoice.

Whether any of these events change Paul or Silas is not recorded. Surely Paul, in particular, might need some change in his life – he seems to be acting against the council of Jerusalem, he’s fallen out with Barnabas, he gets irritated by the slave girl who’s following him round… yet in the midst of it he is preaching and baptising and seeing people change.

As we hear these stories of change from this to this we see that
They are not always straight-forward
Not always welcome
Not always done in a spirit of love and kindness
Yet it seems that God’s power makes change possible from even the most unlikely people.

How does this change happen? In the name of Jesus Christ.

So what is Jesus saying?
In John’s gospel, Jesus prays for us. He makes it clear he is praying for the disciples in the room and those who believe through them.
And for what change does Jesus pray? That they – we – may be one.
This is not a shallow ‘getting along’ – never disagreeing, always smiling – it is a oneness that sees us all properly encorporated into Jesus as one body.
From this rag-tag bunch – to this people who are in Jesus and who know Jesus is in them
                                    People who are one with the Father
                                    Who share God’s glory, see God’s glory and show God’s glory
                                    People who know they are properly loved and held.

How does this change happen? Through this prayer of Jesus
But when does it happen? Not immediately, because the very next thing that John tells us is that Jesus goes out to the garden of Gethsemane, where he is betrayed and arrested.
Then follows crucifixion, resurrection and (finally) the coming of the Holy Spirit.
The change from this to this comes, but not immediately.

So how can worship bring change, even transformative grace, in the lives of God’s children?
There are, of course, dramatic testimonies of lives where God’s love rushes in and changes a life. But I want to tell you a quieter, more gradual story – of Dorothy.
Dorothy started coming to the 8am communion service at one of the Anglican churches where I was minister. It was a spoken service, using a fairly simple order, in an unheated church, and usually there were about 8 people kneeling to receive communion.
As I gave the chalice to Dorothy I noticed that she was crying. The next week, the same things happened – because it was a large chalice, her tears were falling into the wine. I went to see her and she explained that she had no church background but had started coming to church for some peace and quiet after her husband had died. She said ‘I’m still not sure what I believe, but when I kneel for communion I know that God is there and I am loved and everything changes. I am so grateful, all I can do is weep’. For the next 6 years she continued to weep, silently, into the chalice in pure gratitude for God’s presence. As far as I know, she still does.

We are changed by worship.
When we rehearse God’s worth – whether we praise God in beauty, in silence, in music, in movement, in breaking open the Word, in sacrament… – we remember who God is and what God has done and we are changed.
We are made one with the creator of all things, welcomed as beloved children, become channels of the grace and power of healing of the Holy Spirit. We are changed.
We come to this table with our real lives of pain and doubt and busy-ness and worry, we receive Christ, and we are changed.
Jesus promises us hope, healing, wholeness, as we are made one in him.
Take, eat , drink, and receive this sacrament to your holy comfort.


Saturday, 9 April 2016

What does it mean to love Jesus?

Acts 9: 1-6, John 21: 1-19

Are you the sort of person who can pinpoint a moment when you first began to love Jesus: your own ‘Damascus moment’? – a moment of blinding clarity and clear call, which changed your life forever?

I have known people with that sort of story: one of my friends, Val, once told me that she was on a bus, thinking through something she’d heard in church, when she suddenly realised that she believed that God’s love for her was shown in Jesus. She told me it was as if all the lights were suddenly turned up, and she felt she should tell other people about God’s love for them.
“Otherwise” she told me “it’s like having all the chocolates and keeping them for yourself !”.

Val was otherwise a very quiet, rather subdued person, but when she talked about her faith her face really did light up.
That sort of change, that sort of realisation in a single moment, turns murderous Saul into possibly the greatest disciple of them all – Paul.

But maybe you have always been secretly rather jealous of people with that sort of dramatic story to tell, because your own story is more one of slow realisation. You can no more pinpoint when you fell in love with Jesus than you can recall the moment you realized that Cadbury’s chocolate is just the best thing ever.

It was Nigel Collinson, a former president of Methodist conference, who helped me understand that dramatic realisation and gradual realisation don’t have to be seen as opposites. Back in 1986 his book ‘The opening door’ used the analogy of a door slowly swinging open in a room. If you are facing the door, you see it slowly open, but if your back is to the door, you suddenly turn and find the door wide open to you. So it can be with faith.

However the door of realization opens for us – what does it mean to respond by loving Jesus?
To help answer that question I’d like us to think about our gospel reading.

In this story, Jesus hails the disciples, who are out fishing, with love “children, you have no fish, have you?”. I think we can hear the love in Jesus’ voice, as he calls them “children..”: and in return, their first act of love is surely to obey Jesus – to cast the net on the other side of the boat.

The net is filled – and John’s eyes are opened “it is the Lord”.  Peter’s huge heart takes over from his head – in love for his risen master he puts on some clothes and jumps into the sea, to swim to Jesus ahead of the boat.

Jesus has lit a fire and is cooking bread and fish, but when they reach him he tells them "Bring some of the fish that you have just caught”. Peter goes back on board the boat and brings the whole lot – a bulging netful. If Jesus has asked for something, Peter wants to give his all. This seems very much like an extravagant act of love, to me.

When they have all eaten, Jesus asks Peter the big question : “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”. We have probably come to see this thrice-asked question as an opportunity for Peter to erase his three-fold denial of Jesus, but Peter doesn’t’ seem to get it, does he? By the time Jesus asks for a third time “do you love me?”, the gospel writer tells us Peter felt hurt and he certainly  sounds quite exasperated, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you”.
And what does loving Jesus mean? Each time Peter says he loves Jesus, Jesus gives him work to do “feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep”.
It is not enough for Peter to love Jesus – he has to also take on loving all other followers of Jesus.
And then Jesus points out to Peter that his love for Jesus will lead him into trouble “when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go”. Loving Jesus is not going to offer Peter an easy path through life. He may not have been able to fulfil his promise to go with Jesus to death, when Jesus was crucified on Good Friday, but he will end his life on a cross, at the last.

Even in this fairly short account, we learn that loving Jesus, for Peter and the others, involves
Listening to Jesus
Obeying him
Rushing to be with him
Offering everything to him
Declaring love for Jesus
Caring for his followers, his sheep
And accepting the consequences of loving him, even if the world’s hatred leads to death,

Loving Jesus is all of this and more – for those first disciples and for us.
Jesus sums all this up in just two words to Peter “follow me”.
You might remember that Luke’s gospel also contains this story of the miraculous catch of fish – but where John tells us this story here, as part of the resurrection appearances of Jesus, Luke has it right at the beginning of the gospel, when Jesus first calls the fishermen to follow.

So you might be wondering quite when Peter becomes a disciple – when he first starts to follow the earthly Jesus, without even knowing who he is, or here as he follows the resurrected Jesus, who he knows is “the Lord”? And is Peter’ s realisation gradual or sudden?

The answer, of course, is both. Peter has to make a decision to start to follow Jesus, but this is a decision he will have to keep making, everyday of his life, especially when persecution comes.
Yes, he has already said he will follow Jesus, way back when they first met on the shores of Lake Galilee, but Jesus gives him a chance to respond to the call to follow yet again, as a new start, as a new act of commitment to follow Jesus.

And that’s what we’re offered today too.

A new start. The food of our pilgrimage – this bread and wine, signs of our readiness to promise to follow Jesus today.. and tomorrow.. and each new day.
And a sign of God’s promise to give us a fresh start each day, as Jesus gives Peter the forgiveness he needs to leave his mistakes behind.

So we may, like Saul, be able to pinpoint the exact moment when we first encountered Jesus, or we may not.
We may not yet be ready to say we love Jesus, or we may find it hard to number all the ways in which love for Jesus affects our lives.
But we can, like Paul & like Peter, choose to leave our old selves behind and promise to follow Jesus.

He will feed and strengthen us for the journey and will give us all the love and forgiveness we need to make it possible.
And I pray we will find, like my friend Val, that our love for Jesus is returned to us a thousand fold in the great flooding of light that is God’s love for us.
Thanks be to God