Saturday, 25 February 2017

Beginning ministry - be like Jesus

John 13:12-15      Romans 12:1-13

The readings we heard – especially from Romans, can seem a bit scary in their demands to Roger & Jacquey and all of us:
Really love them…Never be lazy…Always be eager”.
But we know that we are all only human – so how do we do that and avoid burn out?
I have spent this week at a course entitled ‘leading with emotional maturity’ – which aimed to help those of us on it to understand ourselves better and (I quote) ‘become more able to function as the people God has made us to be’.

I suppose those of us in Christian leadership need courses like that because we need to check, every now and again, that we are serving God through the church in the way we should, but also getting the balance right and not trying to do too much.
But I can save you four days of hard studying and all that expense by summing the course up in one sentence – be more like Jesus.

As you came in I hope you got a ‘Be like Bill’ sheet. For those of you who haven’t met ‘Bill’ before, Bill offers good advice on the internet.
So we have:
This is Bill.
Bill is here to worship God.
Bill knows that if his phone goes off he’ll be embarrassed.
Bill swtiches his phone onto silent.
Be like Bill.

I’m not the first to put together a ‘be like Jesus’ version.
This is Jesus.
Jesus washes feet;
Jesus teaches humility;
Jesus knows his purpose;
Jesus changes lives;
Be like Jesus.

This is pretty much the message of the Gospel reading we heard.
Jesus gives his followers an example of how to serve when he washes their feet.
Your reaction to feet may be the same as mine  – urgh!
When I was young and foolish I had an idea one Maundy Thursday that I would wash someone’s feet. As I was sharing the service with another minister  - a much more experienced colleague - it seemed quite a good idea to wash his feet. It was only during the service as he took his socks off that I realised I had never washed someone else’s feet before, and that other people’s feet  - even if clean – are a bit peculiar – nobbly and hairy in all the wrong places. But there was no way out – the bowl of water and the bare feet were ready and I had to get on my knees and wash those feet.
It was a good visual example of service for the people in worship that evening, and it taught me that sometimes when we try to serve others we get into something we find quite unpleasant. And it doesn’t take much imagination to think that that the feet of fishermen who had been in a hot climate and on dusty roads all day would be spectacularly unpleasant.
When Jesus washes those feet he is doing something unpleasant but very necessary for the disciples – a footwash on entering a house would be standard in Jesus’ time – and he states clearly that he has done this to give the disciples an example to follow.
Following Jesus’ example needn’t involve feet, you may be relieved to know, but it certainly involves serving others, being ready to do what needs to be done, however unpleasant, to make someone else’s life better, and Jesus sets the example to show his disciples that nothing should be dismissed as being beneath them.

And we hear an echo of that in Paul’s teaching to the Romans to be a ‘living and holy sacrifice’.
Paul encourages us to know our purpose.
“If your gift is serving others, serve them well. If you are a teacher, teach well. If your gift is to encourage others, be encouraging. If it is giving, give generously. If God has given you leadership ability, take the responsibility seriously. And if you have a gift for showing kindness to others, do it gladly.”
But Paul reminds us that these things are gifts from God, and those gifts are given to the different parts of Christ’s body, the church, working together. So leadership is not just about what we do  - but how we enable and encourage others to use their gifts, too. That is our purpose.

As leaders, as Christians, we need to be ready to give our time and talents and lives for others and to enrich their lives. But Paul also says we are a holy sacrifice – our prime purpose in all we do is to serve God and build God’s kingdom. And so we don’t respond to every demand we see around us, we don’t allow ourselves to become burnt out by trying to serve 24 hours in every day, because we are here to glorify God in our lives of service.
There were feet Jesus did not wash, lives he did not heal, people he did not touch, because he came to show the power of God’s love in his life and death and resurrection, not to exhaust himself through good works. Jesus knows who he is – the son of God who points to God the Father and promises the Holy Spirit.

It is the Spirit who fills us with the grace and power of God to do the things he has called us and gifted us and made us to do. The fruits of the Spirit grow in us when we follow Jesus, the gifts of the Spirit equip us to serve, the Spirit shapes us into the people we are made ot be – people who are more like Jesus.

When we are open to God’s leading through the Spirit we cannot fail to use our gifts – it is what we were made for.
A light can’t fail to shine, water can’t fail to be wet, salt can’t fail to be salty…Jesus-folk can’t fail to be Jesus-y.
So as you grow into this ministry here in Lynton, Jacquey & Roger - Be like Jesus. you are made for this.

And I pray the Spirit will enable you all here in Lynton to grow more like Jesus, to declare and reveal signs of God’s kingdom.
To the glory of God, Father Son & Holy Spirit.

Friday, 17 February 2017

Be perfect? A slap in the face.

Leviticus 19: 1,2 12-19,  Matthew 5: 38-48

This week is our last chunk of the sermon on the mount before the lectionary asks us to look at the Transfiguration of Jesus, and then we go into Lent and start preparing for Easter. And what does Jesus offer us, in this final bit of teaching? A slap in the face.
If someone strikes you on the right cheek, offer the left… love your enemies..
be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect.

It all feels so impossible, so unattainable, so much like a slap in the face. I have been thinking all week about being perfect. How can I do that? How can I even try?
Why is Jesus asking me to do the impossible?

Then I read this translation of the passage in “The Message”. The Message is written by an American scholar of NT Greek, Eugene Peterson, as his attempt to make the Greek original come to life for a 21st century audience.
So here is how Eugene Peterson reads Matthew ch5 v38-48 

“Here’s another old saying that deserves a second look: ‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.’ Is that going to get us anywhere? Here’s what I propose: ‘Don’t hit back at all.’ If someone strikes you, stand there and take it. If someone drags you into court and sues for the shirt off your back, giftwrap your best coat and make a present of it. And if someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life. No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously. You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that.
If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that.
In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”

Suddenly ‘be perfect’ has become ‘grow up & live generously and graciously’. This is because Peterson is translating the word ‘telos’ – which does have a sense of perfection, but also means ‘the end or the goal’. Jesus is not trying to set an impossible ‘bar’ for our behaviour, but to drag us, with him, into being fully alive, fully grown up, fully what God has made us to be.

It’s not a slap in the face to reprimand or rebuke, but a call to wake up and follow Jesus into being people of the kingdom.
Jesus has already warned his listeners that they need to wake up and look again at the laws of Moses, the sort of thing we heard from the book of Leviticus.
Jesus warns that we shouldn’t for a moment think that following him means we don’t need any laws any more – and maybe that’s the sort of thinking that Jesus has in mind when he says to those who are following him ‘do not think I have come to abolish the law and the prophets – I have not come not to abolish but to fulfill’. There’s that idea of perfection, or completion again.

If we look at the laws we heard today from Leviticus, I don’t think there are any there we would want to say should not apply to us as Christians : Leave a harvest for the poor, do not steal, lie, swear falsely, or exploit others. Judge justly, do not slander, and do not hate, but love others.
There is a concern for doing the right thing, living the right way, and caring especially for the poor, which is shot right through so many of the laws of the Hebrew scriptures.
If some people think that following Jesus is an alternative to following the law, Jesus says do not follow the law less, but follow it more closely – exceed what you think is the letter of the law – aim for perfection, completion, the end and goal that is the kingdom of God

The problem with rules and regulations is that there are different ways of ‘following’ them, aren’t there. Think of someone who is operating a ‘work to rule’ at work, for example. The attitude becomes ‘you can only make me do what it absolutely states in my contract of work I must do and no more’. The rules become the limit of what is required of that person, rather than the foundation for the work they do, which may well include things which aren’t actually written down anywhere at all. The danger of this attitude to rules or laws is that it can lead to a grudging acceptance of how to behave.

We know that Jesus faced this sort of attitude from people of his time, because we have the example of the rich young ruler who says to Jesus ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ (Mark ch 10).
When Jesus says ‘you know the commandments..’ the young man says ‘I’ve kept all those’.
But when Jesus says ‘then give everything you have to the poor’ he goes away saddened, because he can’t bear to do that.
He didn’t realize that the law to care for the poor might actually extend to giving up his own wealth. He thought there was a limit to the law.

But here, in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus makes it clear ‘you must be perfect, as God is perfect’. Our following of God’s way cannot have a limit, any more than God’s love has a limit.

Maybe Jesus’ slap in the face is meant to bring us to our senses.
I will love my friends but hate my enemies ….slap
I will love those who love me..slap
I will be good to those who are like me…slap

In God’s kingdom we are expected to do better than that!

Of course Jesus doesn’t just talk about accepting a slap in the face: he will practice what he preaches.

As we follow Jesus into Lent to the cross we will find that following his arrest in the garden of Gethsemane the officers holding him will spit at him and slap him in the face. Jesus will not fight back, and we will be inspired by his example of self-sacrifice on the cross & then transformed by God’s love greater than death as we celebrate resurrection.

This is the perfection, the goal and the end of Jesus’ life: to bring us into the reality of God’s love in God’s kingdom, so that we may be part of that love and that kingdom.
May that love so fill us that we will be more the people God has made us to be – following Jesus, perfectly, to the end.

Saturday, 11 February 2017

The lens of love

Deuteronomy 30: 15-20 Matthew 5: 21-27

We heard teaching from Jesus from ‘the sermon on the mount’. Last week – if you were following the lectionary – we heard how Jesus talks of the blessing of God on the poor, those who mourn, the reviled to the great crowd of all sorts of people who have gathered around him to hear what he has to say.
This is good news – the blessing, care and love of God for those ho most need it. How the crowd must have felt cheered by what they heard,
The love of God is great enough to stop down to the lowest and the least, to the rule-breakers and the unclean, and to bless them.

But in today’s reading it might seem that the mood has changed.
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, `You shall not murder'; and `whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.'
But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, `You fool,' you will be liable to the hell of fire.”

If the unclean have reveled in Jesus’ teaching about God’s blessing, they should not imagine that Jesus is lifting the laws of God.
“Think not that I have come to abolish the law – I have come not to abolish but to fulfil it”.

Jesus does not try to set up a conflict between the gospel of love and the law of Moses – I don’t believe he would would have much time for the argument that the New Testament does away with the old.
Instead, Jesus is telling his listeners that Love is the lens through which we read the law.

This is not new – it is entirely consistent with the way in which we heard the laws described in Deuteronomy.
 Moses says “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish”.
God says to the people of Israel – choose life. Choose to walk in God‘s way. Choose to be mindful of God’s laws, and to keep them – not because otherwise you fear punishment, but because this is the way to live full and happy lives. So do not kill – not because you will be punished by God if you do, but because when everyone keeps this law society is richer and better. Do not break God’s laws, because in laying down the laws, God has shown people the best ways to live. Love is the lens through which we read the law.

In the same way  Jesus warns his followers ‘if you are angry you will be liable to judgement’.
If you are angry with someone you are choosing the path that leads to sin – the path that ultimately can lead to murder. Jesus wants his followers to orientate themselves towards the will of God – to know how to turn at every twist in the path of life. Jesus wants us to choose well, and to choose always what enhances life and affirms and builds up, rather than destroying life and hope.

To underline how important it is to make the right choices, even when they seem small choices, Jesus points out that anger can eventually lead to murder, that looking lustfully can eventually lead to adultery, that divorce should not be entered into lightly and thoughtlessly, any more than marriage should be in the first place.

And in case his listeners think that sin is only about big things and not the little choices, Jesus uses some dramatic language:
“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.”

Jesus doesn’t want us to be able to blame a wandering eye or itchy fingers for what we might think of as ‘minor’ sins. Jesus wants us to be wholehearted in our walk in God’s way - loving God with all our heart, soul mind and strength and choosing the right path, even in the little things of life.
So love becomes the lens not only through which we read the law, but also the lens through which we examine our lives.
The good news so far is that we are not walking in fear, trying to be good in order to avoid God's wrath & judgement. Life is not about obeying God’s orders, it is about following God’s order forla good life.
But it’s still not feeling like really good news, is it?
It still seems that so far we’ve been thinking about what we need to do to get our lives right. If love is the lens through which we read the law and the lens through which we examine our lives, this reading and examination feels intensely uncomfortable.

The danger with Laws is that they can seem like they are creating a limit to love and even lead to excluding people. Those who keep the law are clean, those who do not are unclean. But Jesus starts with blessings for the poor and wretched – he points us to a deeper understanding that love has no limits. For Jesus, God’s law is not an external structure which keeps us on the straight and narrow, it is deep within, a guiding ethic or principle. God, from love, gives us the Law to help us choose a rich, good life, and God reaches out to us to fill our hearts with love so that we have the inner resources to live lives of love which are mindful of God’s law.
The lens of love not only allows us to see more clearly, it also focuses the power of God into our lives, like a magnifying glass on a sunny day.

Jesus says know you are loved & blessed, be ready to share that Good news with the world, but don’t think you can live however you like – live as children of God who walk in God’s light. Jesus will move on, in the sermon on the mount,  to teach about revenge, love, giving, prayer and money. But the conclusion of this ‘sermon’ is simple ‘do not worry. Your father in heaven knows what you need’.

God knows the strength we need to be enabled to make all the right and good choices in life. So it is good that we meet today in the Lord’s house. Here we have a reminder of all that God’s love has done for us and all that God wants to give to us. In bread and wine we celebrate Jesus’ giving of his very self – Jesus outpouring of his life to demonstrate God’s love which knows no limits: not even death.
It is God’s love which can make us able to live God's way, so that we can be children of God who shine with the light of our heavenly father’s love.

To God’s praise and glory. Amen