The Rich Young Ruler

Mark 10.17-31 / Hebrews 4.12-16

 

John had learnt and practised all the arm and leg strokes he needed for swimming.

 

His muscles were well-toned, and his breathing regulated.

 

He knew all about how to get off to a winning start, turning at the end of each length and how to pace himself.

 

But one day John said to his coach, “I know all about these things but still can’t swim. What’s going wrong?”

 

The coach took a deep breath and said, “Well, John, I think the time has come when you really do have to actually get in the water”.

 

—————————————-

 

The response Jesus gave to the wealthy man in our Gospel reading was something along the same lines: “You lack one thing … sell what you own … give to the poor … then come, follow me”.

 

The man had learnt all the rules, practised them, and knew all the rhythms of living his faith.

 

Yet, he knew something was missing, he knew he still wasn’t getting there, and he turned to Jesus find out why.

 

So, Jesus looked him in the eye and told him that if he sold everything and gave the money away, he’d finally be swimming.

In other words, he’d be really living the life of faith.

 

It was a step too far for the young man and the encounter ended in shock and grieving, with Jesus also grieving the loss of someone who just couldn’t take that last step.

 

In the eyes of many Jews, wealth, power and status were clear signs of God’s favour, even though the Jewish Scriptures didn’t always agree with them.

 

Hence, the disciples’ amazement at Jesus saying how hard it would be for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.

 

In their eyes rich people would surely be first in line as God’s favourites, and if they couldn’t get in, what hope would there be for anyone else?

 

Jesus had turned the order of things upside down, making the first last and the last first.

 

He’d also struck a blow against the young man’s understanding of himself, and it was a hard lesson, though delivered in love.

 

This is the kind of thing our reading from Hebrews was talking about, when it described the word of God piercing, laying bare and judging, but also Jesus sympathising with our difficulties and offering mercy and grace.

 

Jesus laid bare the young man’s desire for wealth, but also loved him and offered him the solution.

 

————————————-

 

At the beginning of today’s gospel story, we might identify with the young man.

 

We might recognise the sense that even though we do our best to follow God’s commandments we’re still missing something.

 

We might have a niggling uncertainty or an empty place in our hearts that aches and longs for something we can’t fully identify.

 

Like the young man, we too might kneel before Jesus and ask him what we must do to receive the assurance and certainty about our faith that we long for.

 

Just as he looked at the young man and knew what had to be done, so Jesus looks on us with eyes of love and knowledge and sees what it is we need.

 

His answer to us, though, might not be “go, sell what you own” because it’s not just the fact that the man is wealthy that makes it difficult for him to follow Jesus.

 

Rather, it’s the relationship the man has with his possessions that holds him back.

 

What he owns gives him a sense of identity and security which are difficult to put aside, even for God.

 

Wealth is a good servant but a bad master, and wealth has become too big a part of who this man is.

 

————————————-

 

The answer Jesus gives to us will be deeply personal.

 

We might already know in our hearts what it is we’re holding on to for our security or sense of identity, over and above our faith and identity in Jesus.

It might be possessions, memories of wrongs done to us, pride in our own abilities, a particular view of ourselves; it might be our job or position in the community; it might be addiction or destructive relationships; it could be any number of things.

 

We might feel that to let go of whatever it is would just be a step too far, that it means giving up something of who we are.

 

Then we’d have to go away, like the young man, shocked at what is being asked of us and grieving because we believe it’s impossible and too costly.

 

But, says Jesus, for God all things are possible.

 

For the young man it seemed impossible to give away all he owned, and he had to go away bruised and heavy hearted.

 

But perhaps he thought more about the words of Jesus and struggled with his own reactions.

 

Perhaps in time, and with God’s help, he did the impossible.

 

Maybe he came round to seeing that whatever he had to give up would be worth it in terms of what matters in the kingdom of God.

 

And if we identify with the young man in this story, we can call upon the great high priest who sympathises with us in our weaknesses and offers us mercy and grace.

 

Then one day, in that mercy and grace, we may well find ourselves doing the impossible and following Jesus with all that we are and all that we own, finding, in the process, who we truly are, and the treasures that really matter.

Questions, questions

A sermon on Mark 9.30-37

19th September 2021

 

The disciples didn’t understand what Jesus was saying and were afraid to ask him.

Reading today’s gospel passage reminded me of school chemistry lessons.

I was often confused by chemistry, but I was afraid to ask questions because the teacher was always annoyed at my lack of ability.

I didn’t want to look stupid in front of everyone or be told off for not getting it, so I kept quiet and scraped through.

I wonder, though, what might have happened if I had asked questions?

And what if the teacher had shown a little more patience and explained a little more kindly?

Would I now be a chemistry expert?

Jesus’ apostles also had trouble understanding, although I don’t know if they had chemistry lessons.

Just before the reading we heard today they tried to cast out an evil spirit but failed, apparently because they didn’t pray enough.

Then they set off with Jesus to Galilee, and Jesus tried to explain what was going to happen to him: that he was going to be betrayed and killed but then rise again.

Sadly, this did not compute!

The disciples had no idea what he was talking about.

It’s easy for us, with the benefit of hindsight, to know exactly what Jesus was talking about.

It’s at the centre of our faith after all: Jesus died for us and rose again to save us from our sins.

But at the time this was a radical idea.

From their earliest years, the Jews were taught and believed, quite rightly, that God was all-powerful and all-knowing.

They believed that when God’s Messiah came he would crush everyone and everything that stood in his way and rule the world through his mighty power.

The idea that God would let himself be betrayed, tortured and killed was incomprehensible and an insult to his name and power.

So when Jesus said he was going to be betrayed and killed, the disciples, knowing him to be God’s Messiah and therefore expecting him to storm the palace at any moment, didn’t understand – and they were afraid to ask him to explain.

It’s not just that the disciples didn’t understand some piece of information.

They didn’t understand the very heart of the Incarnation.

How is it possible for the Son of God to suffer and die?

And why should it happen?

So why didn’t the disciples simply ask Jesus to explain?

Maybe they were still embarrassed by their failure to cast out the evil spirit and thought Jesus was cross with them.

Maybe they just didn’t want to look stupid, each one thinking they were the only one who didn’t get it.

Besides, the closer we are to Jesus, the more we are supposed to know about religious stuff, right?

But what if they hadn’t been afraid to ask?

OK, Jesus is sometimes tough, but is he really the kind of person who would meet a sincere desire to understand with annoyance?

Do we really need to be afraid to ask Jesus to help us follow him?

In short, is Jesus really like a not particularly good chemistry teacher?

This isn’t a problem confined to those first disciples: no one wants to look uninformed, confused or clueless.

We withhold our toughest questions from one another and from God, pretending we don’t have them.

Yet the deepest mysteries of life do indeed escape us.

Why do good people suffer?

Why are people cruel to one another?

Why does evil succeed?

Why does God let the world go on like this?

But we withhold such questions at our own peril.

When the disciples were afraid to ask, to reveal that they didn’t know everything, they began arguing with each other, squabbling among themselves over petty issues of rank and status.

There is a direct line from verse 32, when the disciples didn’t understand, to verse 34, when they started arguing about who was the best.

When the disciples avoided asking hard questions, they focused on posturing about who was the teacher’s pet.

They fell prey to the very human tendency to try to cover up insecurity and weakness with bluster and arrogance.

We’ve seen this too often in the history of the Church: Christians fighting each other over things neither side fully understands but with a burning determination to be right, to be the best, to be God’s favourite, and above all to not be seen as lacking in understanding or getting things wrong.

Going back to our gospel story: how might it have been different if the disciples had asked Jesus their questions?

What kind of conversation might have taken place between Jesus and the disciples?

What kind of relationship might have grown up between them?

And how might our stories be different if we asked our questions?

What kind of conversations might we pursue?

How might our life together as disciples be different as a result?

Might we become more understanding, gentler, humbler and wiser if we became more willing to show our vulnerability to God and each other?

We don’t need to be afraid of questions, misunderstandings, confusion or curiosity in the presence of God, whose “perfect love casts out all fear”.

The good news is that Jesus welcomes us even when we don’t understand or don’t know or are just plain wrong.

The good news is that Jesus welcomes honest questions.

This story closes with Jesus embracing a child, the ultimate symbol of not knowing, not understanding, of being immature and undeveloped, with much to learn – yet loved, welcomed and honoured by Jesus.

May God help us all to cast off fear and ask our questions, knowing that in this way we can grow closer to him and each other.

The Magnificat, or Mary’s Song

Luke 1.46-55

Today, the 15th of August, is one of those times when the Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Church and the Church of England all celebrate a major feast, that of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

For Roman Catholics, this is the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin – a celebration of Mary being taken body and soul into God’s eternal presence as Queen of Heaven.

For Orthodox Christians, this is the Feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God – a celebration of Mary, her earthly life ended, falling sleep-like into the eternal arms of God.

We in the Church of England, however, noting that there’s no account of the end of Mary’s life in the Bible, just mark today as a general celebration of Mary.

Mary doesn’t in fact say that much in the Bible, but among the words she does say, the ones we heard in our Gospel reading have been sung, spoken and chanted for centuries.

To get a good idea of what’s going on here, we need to have some context.

Mary has learned that she is pregnant, even though she’s a virgin.

That’s a huge shock, and a scandal.

She’s also learned that her cousin, Elizabeth, is pregnant.

Elizabeth is too old to conceive, so her pregnancy is also a miracle.

Mary visits Elizabeth. When Elizabeth sees Mary, the baby inside Elizabeth’s womb leaps for joy.

Elizabeth says, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb”.

Imagine how overwhelmed Mary must be by all of this.

Our Gospel for today is her amazing response.

It is beautiful, prophetic poetry, containing strong emotions.

He has shown strength with his arm.

He has scattered … who?  The proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

He has brought down … who? The powerful from their thrones.

And lifted up … who? The lowly.

He has filled … who?

The hungry with good things.

And sent… who? The rich away empty.

What’s going on here?

It seems like God loves … who? The lowly and the hungry.

How does God feel about the arrogant, the powerful and the rich?

Not so good.

This is the point at which rich and powerful people start to squirm.

And it raises the question, does God hate rich and powerful people?

Let’s see what’s going on here.

God scatters the proud because he hates arrogance and loves humility.

God brings down the powerful because they use their power to oppress others.

God sends the rich away empty because they keep things to themselves while others suffer.

It seems that the issue here is not our level of wealth or how much power we have but rather how we deal with them.

God’s main concern is not with the size of our bank account but with what we do with the money we have.

Do we selfishly hoard our treasures, or do we have generous hearts and a desire to help those with less?

Do our money and possessions make us feel that we’re better than others, or do we see them as generous gifts from God to be used for the good of all?

God doesn’t say that person is powerful, let’s pull him down a peg or two.

Rather, he wants to see power used responsibly, with care for others, with justice and with mercy.

Is power just for our benefit, so we can get what we want, or does it come with a responsibility to use our position to do good?

I think we can safely say that God doesn’t hate rich people.

Rather, God hates arrogance, selfishness and oppression.

God doesn’t hate powerful people.

God hates injustice and misuse of power.

And on the other side, God doesn’t love poor people because they are poor.

God hates it when people are mistreated and will always stand to defend the weak.

The climate report this week highlighted the threat to some of the poorest people in our world, some of whose countries may disappear completely under the sea.

We also heard the horrific news from Portsmouth, including the tragic death of a young girl.

Surely God cares about these things and these people, and will bring about justice for the weak and the poor?

Not, though, so that the lowly can lord it over the mighty in some sort of twisted justice.

Rather, God’s aim is to remind us that each human being is a beautiful creation of God, and we are all equal in his eyes.

God’s work of salvation involves restoring proper relationships not only between God and humanity but also between people.

Mary understood this, and so she sang of God’s new world order, one in which all have value, all are loved, all are cared for and protected, and each person looks out for the good of others.

Much has been said about Mary during the Church’s history, and she’s been exalted in the minds and hearts of some to a degree I’m not altogether comfortable with.

But she did catch a wonderful vision of what God’s salvation means for our world, and for that we can thank her and God.

Bread of Life, or Lunch is not the only meal

John 6.24-35

Did you know that from April 2020 to March 2021 a record 2.5 million emergency food parcels were given out in the UK by the Trussell Trust? This was a 33% increase on the previous year and included 980,000 parcels going out to children. It also included nearly 250,000 in the East of England. These numbers are staggering, and hopefully will go down again, ideally to nothing because we build a fairer society which cares for all.

Horrible though it is, however, to be without food and have to depend on charity, there’s another important kind of hunger. This is spiritual hunger. You might have felt it when wondering if there’s more to life, a deeper purpose behind everything, or if you’ve felt an urge to pray or meditate or do something that has real meaning or makes a difference in people’s lives.

For me, Jesus is a good place to go to have spiritual hunger satisfied, as he describes himself as “the bread of life”. This is an odd way to describe yourself, admittedly, but it’s all about Jesus saying he can meet our spiritual hunger. And he offers himself as a gift to us in this way, freely and without conditions. Many of us, if we’re honest, worry deep down that we’re not good enough. But Jesus just says come, I’ll give you everything you really need.

I think, regardless of beliefs, there’s something wonderful about the idea that spiritual hunger is an important need, something worth looking for, not just a distraction from what people call “real life”. So, my hope for all of you is that you will see and understand your spiritual hunger, and that you will find answers to your deepest needs and longings.

Breaking Down Barriers

Mark 5.21-end

The people in our gospel story today couldn’t have been more different.

 

First, there was Jairus, a respected and important member of the community.

 

He was a leader of the synagogue, and as the synagogue was central and important to the whole community, he was a significant member of society.

 

It was Jairus, among others, by whose invitation Jesus preached in the Capernaum Synagogue.

 

He was bold and desperate enough to reach out publicly to Jesus for help at the time of his greatest need.

 

Then, there was the unnamed woman who touched Jesus’s cloak in the crowd.

 

She too was desperate, but years of being shunned and despised and an awareness that she shouldn’t be out in society made her choose a more private approach.

 

Despite their differences, though, these two are connected by the theme of barriers.

People, including some Christians, seem to like putting up barriers between people.

The barriers might be between those who are considered godly and those who aren’t, according to a set of rigid criteria.

They might be barriers of race, gender, sexuality, language, accents, clothing or wealth.

They might be barriers about how and when and where people worship.

Sadly, barrier-building has happened a lot in the Church in the past and can still happen now.

I find this strange, though, because it seems to me that Jesus was all about breaking down barriers.

 

He welcomed women and children and treated them as equals, at a time when that was unheard of.

 

His disciples were amazed when Jesus told them not to send children away but let them come to him.

 

As a Jew, he spoke to non-Jews and was concerned about them, at a time when it was common to look down on non-Jews.

 

He spoke to a woman by a well in Samaria and granted the prayer of a Syrophoenician woman, while his disciples looked on in confusion.

 

Jesus also broke down another barrier, one which seems strange to us today – the barrier between clean and unclean.

 

This is what we hear about in today’s Gospel reading.

 

The idea of being clean or clean was about whether a person was considered pure under religious law and therefore able to worship God or if there was something which had stained them.

 

It was a ceremonial rather than moral idea – various animals were considered unclean, as were certain skin conditions.

 

They weren’t immoral but they weren’t worthy of God.

 

Importantly for our reading today, though, a woman was considered unclean while bleeding, and dead bodies were also unclean.

 

And if you had contact with an unclean person, you were also made unclean.

 

This had serious consequences as, if you were unclean, you were both a social outcast, shunned by others, and a religious outcast who couldn’t go to worship God until you’d been made clean again through a religious ritual.

 

Jesus, though, took no notice of this in today’s gospel reading.

 

It describes him praising a woman who touched him for healing from chronic bleeding and talks about him taking the hand of the dead daughter of a local religious leader to bring her back to life.

 

Technically, Jesus was now unclean and an outcast, having had contact with two unclean people, but it didn’t stop him reaching out to help.

 

In the process, Jesus showed that there is no condition which cuts us off from the mercy and love of God.

 

In both of these miraculous healings we see Jesus demonstrating the steadfast love of the Lord.

 

This love brings genuine healing and hope to those who have experienced enormous suffering and loss.

 

The woman is restored to health and society; the young girl is restored to life, and in the process the ancient taboos of the law are broken.

 

No one is excluded from the kingdom of God, from the love of God or from the help of God.

 

In saying all this I’m conscious that there are times when prayers seem to go unanswered.

 

There are times when illnesses aren’t healed, people die anyway, and our worst fears come to pass.

 

This is a great mystery which the greatest theologians have trouble explaining, but I think we can be sure that, whatever it looks like, we are all equally loved, held and supported by the God who, in the words of Lamentations, ‘does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone’.

 

There are no people who God doesn’t want, no ways to put ourselves beyond his help, and no barriers that he won’t cross to reach us.

 

Us human beings still put up barriers between people, both inside and outside the Church.

 

But I wonder what it might be like if we took more notice of Jesus’s example of breaking down barriers?

 

What if we reached past our social barriers to get to know people who are different from us, or who we look down on?

 

We might be surprised at the good people we find and the ways in which our lives become richer.

A Ship of Fools, or Calming the Storm

Sermon on Mark 4.35-41

 

what ship plays with icebergs

and plays soft music as it sinks into the ocean?

what ship on the throw of a dice

feeds a prophet to his fishy destination?

what ship breaks its spine on the rocks

and turns the waves black with lubrication?

 

a ship of fools

but there are fools and

those who seem to be

 

what ship is built on a dry highland

is launched in a downpour

and flies on watery wings to the peak of a mountain?

what ship has a crew

of taxmen thieves and fishermen

who decide in the howling storm

to make a small sleeping carpenter

their captain?

 

yes

a ship of fools

but there are fools and

those who only appear to be.

 

This poem by Simon Jenkins suggests that living the Christian life is a bit like travelling on a ship of fools. This talk is about being on a boat with Jesus, and what you might expect to happen on that watery journey.

 

Our gospel story shows that if you’re on a boat with Jesus on the Lake of Galilee then you should expect storms.

 

Galilee is notorious for its storms. They come out of clear blue skies with shattering and terrifying suddenness.

 

If you’re on a boat with Jesus, voyaging across that lake, you might expect to encounter just such sudden storms.

 

And of course, that boat, that lake, those storms, can be seen as metaphors about us and the bumpy ride that we often find ourselves on.

 

We can put ourselves onto that tiny Galilean boat, into the story of that stormy day.

 

So, in your life, if you’re on a boat with Jesus, you might expect confrontation.

 

You’ll be confronted with uncomfortable truths about yourself. You might not be a fisherman, accustomed to travelling this way. You may be a tax collector, a civil servant, a landlubber. Sickly and shaken, out of your depth, you may have to face your weaknesses, on a boat with Jesus.

 

You’ll be confronted with uncomfortable truths about God, too. Things like, when there’s a crisis, when there’s a storm, finding that God seems to be asleep. You’re panicking, you’re fearful, you’re being tossed and blown by the most awful winds of change. And though you know that God’s there with you, God doesn’t seem to be paying any attention. Just when you need him most, if you go looking for Jesus’s help, you may find him asleep.

 

And when you wake him – it’s up to you to wake him – if you’re on a boat with Jesus you might expect to find more questions than answers.

 

Questions like, how do I wake up God? Do I have to tiptoe around, give a little nervous cough, in the hope that the Almighty will stir and notice me waiting there? Can I shout at God, when the storm is loud, can I scream to get God’s urgent attention? Is it ok to pray that way?

 

Questions like, can I argue with God? Call God to account: “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”.

 

And if I do get into an argument with God, many many more questions:

Why is this happening to me?

Why do innocent people suffer?

If you’re a God of love, why all this horror?

If you’re a God of order, why all this chaos?

If you’re so powerful, why do you seem so impotent?

What does the future hold for us?

 

If you’re on a boat with Jesus, you might feel like you’re on a ship of fools.

 

Why put ourselves through all this when we could stay calmly on the shore?

 

But some only appear to be fools.

Jesus spoke, and calmed the storm. Overcame the evil in the wind and waves. Let the waters become the sailors’ friend again, no longer their enemy. He restored order to creation. He encouraged the amazed disciples to look deep inside themselves to see if there was any faith there, that might liberate and awaken them to see beyond fear to the loving eyes and strong arms of God.

 

If you’re on a boat with Jesus, you should expect storms, and many questions.

 

But you should also expect God to turn your eyes to another view of the world, one in which storms will be stilled, even if not when you expect. One in which questions will be answered, but maybe not how you imagine.

 

The story of this little boat which Mark told is a metaphor for our spiritual lives. But it’s also something the Bible says happened in time and space. We mustn’t forget that Jesus lived this, in the physical, because that awakens us to expect that, in a mysterious way, he lives with us in the physical here and now, with all its storms and chaos.

 

Jesus is with us in the storms of life as he was with his disciples on Galilee that day. So, when those times come yes, we can shout at God to wake up, we can argue, we can ask questions.

 

And in return we can expect Jesus to ask us to let our fear go the way of the wind, to embrace faith.

 

For storms are real, and so are doubt, fear and despair, but within them stands God, reaching out to pull us to safety.

 

It may look foolish to get into a boat with Jesus, but some only appear to be fools.

Religious humblebragging

A Short Mid-Week Communion Talk

Matthew 6.1-8, 16-18

I don’t know if you’ve ever come across the word “humblebrag”?

It’s a kind of ugly word, in my opinion, but it perfectly captures a particular phenomenon.

It refers to saying something which is designed to seem modest, self-critical or casual while actually highlighting something you’re very proud of.

For example, someone might say “I just spent £2000 on a handbag because I’m so terrible with money”.

Or they might say, “I don’t know why people keep complimenting me on how I look”.

It happens a lot on social media, maybe because it’s easier to do behind a keyboard than directly to someone’s face, where they might laugh or challenge you.

In today’s Gospel reading Jesus talks about the religious equivalent of humblebragging – doing good things to get praise from others.

He highlights those who want to be seen giving money so that everyone will know how generous they are.

Those who flaunt their spirituality and prayer life so as to seem holier than everyone else are also condemned.

And those who make a big deal about fasting so that everyone is impressed by their dedication are also not in favour.

Giving, prayer and spiritual disciplines can be good things to do if done for the right reasons – but those reasons don’t include earthly rewards.

A more recent example I came across was someone saying online that Christians should be exempt from lockdown regulations because of all the work churches do to help others.

I try to avoid getting drawn into online arguments, but I felt I had to point out that we don’t do things for what we can get out of them here, but for heavenly rewards and out of love.

Jesus urges us to do good things quietly and truly humbly, because in this way we’re not motivated by looking good or getting praise.

Instead, we’re motivated by doing God’s will, knowing that even if no-one else notices God does.

We may be noticed and praised, and that’s always nice, but it shouldn’t be why we do things.

Our focus and aim are always to love God and others and do what good we can.

And we can rest assured that every good act and loving impulse is noticed and will be rewarded by our Father in heaven, without any need for us to be religious humblebraggers.

 

The Holy Trinity & Geometry

Holy Trinity Church, Great Paxton

Sermon for Trinity Sunday 2021

Quite a while ago, I did an online course about Quakers, just out of interest. People could make comments and ask questions as we went along, and one thing I remember is someone asking why a certain person talked about the importance of praying directly to God but then prayed to Jesus instead. It seemed she hadn’t grasped that for Christians Jesus is God.

She’s not alone in her confusion because we set a puzzle in Christianity by saying there’s only one God and then talking about Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We say this is a mystery: three persons but one God. Three sides, like the three leaves of the clover leaf; three ‘states’, like water, mist and ice, but one element. But none of the many images we use are exactly right, and it’s a well-known saying among preachers that it’s impossible to preach on the Trinity without falling into heresy. So, it’s no wonder that most Christians, let alone non-Christians, feel confused about the Trinity.

We need to understand as much as we can, though, or we lose a great gift. So, despite the dangers of trying to describe the Trinity, I’m going to talk geometry for a while. Many people think of the Trinity as an isosceles triangle, with two long sides leading up to the Father at the top, and a short side at the bottom with Jesus and the Holy Spirit at each corner. This reflects our human way of putting things into hierarchies. It works well for providing good management in business and industry and is vital for effective armed forces. You get a clear line of command, everyone knows what they can and can’t do, and everyone knows where to lay the blame when things go wrong. But, there is no hierarchy within God. In theology speak, Father, Son and Holy Spirit are co-equal.

Another way of thinking is to see the Trinity as an equilateral triangle. Here, the three persons are distributed equally, but then we often fall into only ever addressing one of them.

But we could also see the Trinity as a circle. In a circle there’s no beginning or end, no top or bottom, just an eternal dance round and round. And this, I think, is a good way of seeing the Trinity. We can imagine God, always there, always the same, always existing in a perfectly balanced relationship.

But, you might be wondering, what difference does this make? Why the geometry lesson? Well, this is important because the belief that God is Trinity is the basis for the belief that God is also love. If God were not Trinity, but just a solitary individual, the most we could say with confidence is that God sometimes or often chooses to act lovingly but is not in himself love. When we talk about God as Trinity, we say that, even before there was anything outside God for him to love, God’s nature was expressed in the loving relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God cannot help but love because God is a relationship of love, an eternal circling dance.

And this is not just some inward-looking love or an abstract idea. Instead, it has all the hallmarks of love that we recognise: it’s personal, dynamic and creative. It’s full of delight and generosity and wants to be shared. It longs for everyone to see the true loveliness of the beloved, delights in all their successes, and longs to help in their difficulties. And we, the beloved, are invited to join that relationship, to be in God, and God in us. Instead of searching after God we’re invited into the circle. Instead of praying to God, we pray in God.

This, I think, is why we get the story of Nicodemus this morning. Like many religious people, Nicodemus believes to some extent that God is love. But to him God’s love is measured and sensible and follows a set of rules. And he’s worried that Jesus might not be following the rules like he should. He’s gone further than many of his contemporaries, to give him credit, but not yet far enough. Jesus challenges him to let go of his measures and rules and launch himself into the unmeasurable totality of God’s love. God doesn’t love us when we’ve met some requirements, when we’ve changed enough to be lovable, or when we’re lucky enough to be born with the right colour or gender. God just loves. And trying to measure the love of God is like trying to control the wind. Hence, the climax of this passage: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life”. ‘This is the point of it all’, says Jesus, ‘that God’s beloved people may live with us forever, in our circle of love’.

So, the Trinity isn’t just an idea for theologians to argue about, or a mathematical puzzle. Instead, it’s the basis of who God is, our relationship with him, and our hope for the future.

Thanks be to God!

 

 

 

Fruit of the Vine

Sermon for the 6th Sunday of Easter/Year B/John 15.9-7

Last week we heard about the importance of abiding in Jesus like branches on a vine so that we can bear much fruit.

This week we go on to find out what that fruit is – and it turns out to be love.

Love is the fruit of the relationship between Jesus and the Father, and love is the fruit of our relationship with God.

There are different ways to respond to this.

Some of us might focus on the words, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you”, “you are my friends”, and “I have chosen you”.

These words offer rest for the weary, a promise of acceptance, healing for all of our inner wounds and insecurities, an assurance that everything will be OK.

All we need to do is accept the gift of love and abide in Jesus.

Others of us, though, might find it hard to take these words in. We might’ve been failed too often by those who claimed to love us.

We might’ve been hurt, rejected or abandoned by friends, family or partners, and if this happens too often the idea of abiding in love sounds shallow, unrealistic and unsustainable, and letting ourselves be loved becomes a heavy risk.

Here, we need patience with ourselves and courage as we try once again to open ourselves up to love.

And we need people around us who will understand and support our journey, without judgement or trying to rush us.

We might also find it helpful to remember these words of Julian of Norwich:

“Pray, even if you feel nothing, see nothing. For when you are dry, empty, sick or weak, at such a time is your prayer most pleasing to God, even though you may find little joy in it.  This is true of all believing prayer.”

Then there’s the romantic idea of love presented to us in films and books, in which love means finding the perfect person and living with them in perfect harmony forever.

In this idea there are no imperfections to irritate us, no disagreements, just constant happiness.

But this idea lasts only a very short time when faced with real life and so we can end up rolling our eyes and becoming cynical about love.

Love, though, is not some sentimental idea or constantly being blissfully happy.

Love is beautiful, but not because it’s pretty and happy.

Love is beautiful because it goes all in.

It’s willing to take on the ugliness of life, the pain and suffering, to accept others as they are and not how we wish they would be.

It stands by us when relationships end or when loved ones die.

It sticks with us through accidents and tragedies, sin, broken dreams and hurt.

It sits quietly with us when we cry, feels for us, and prays for us whether we know it or not.

Jesus shows us what love looks like throughout his life.

He kneels down and tenderly washes the dirty, worn feet of his companions.

He accepts and welcomes adulterers, oppressors, and outcasts of every kind.

He shows compassion, defends the vulnerable and offers healing.

He loves and forgives, even when betrayed by his closest friends.

He gives up his life in the most gruesome, humiliating way.

Jesus’ love is not pretty or polished.  But Jesus’ love is profound.

Sometimes we forget to go past the words of Jesus about how much he loves us to the part about being appointed to bear fruit.

The blanket of God’s love for us is guaranteed and ours for the taking, but that gift becomes fullest when it’s shared.

We practice sharing that love here in our church community, and then go out to share it with the grumpy neighbour, the family member who drives us up the wall, and all the people we meet in all their wonderful, quirky, confusing and annoying variety.

We might get hurt, we will certainly get it wrong sometimes, but being loved and loving others is what we’re made for, and we will always have the love and friendship of God to sustain us as we grow and bear fruit.

 

Bible Sunday

A sermon on the Bible for Bible Sunday, 25th October 2020.

King James

It’s slightly over 400 years since the publication of the Authorized, or King James, version of the Bible in 1611.

This was the only authoritative English Bible for reading in churches until the Revised Version in the 19th century.

Influence

It’s been called “the most influential version of the most influential book in the world, in what is now its most influential language”.

“The most important book in English religion and culture”.

And “the most celebrated book in the English-speaking world”.

It’s so influential that Cambridge students of English have to read it so they can understand the many biblical references in English literature.

It’s added 257 sayings and expressions to the English language, more than any other single source, including Shakespeare.

These include “a drop in the bucket”, “a fly in the ointment”, “at his wits end”, “in the twinkling of an eye” and “the skin of your teeth”.

And the King James is still the most popular translation in the United States, despite the many different versions that we have now, all produced to keep up with our ever-changing language, better translation techniques and technology.

Culture

But …

King James didn’t get people to spend 7 years translating the Bible just to produce a good read and a source of quotes.

Although we can read the Bible like that and some people do.

They marvel at the beauty of the language, the poetry, the vivid images, the exciting stories.

And they feel they’ve taken part in a cultural activity like reading a novel or visiting a museum.

Before I became a Christian I considered the Bible a book of interesting stories, like other books I’d read, and I suspect I’m not alone in this.

Scholarship

It’s also possible to spend hours analysing the Bible as if it’s just any other ancient book.

We can decide what kind of writing each part is, when it was written and by whom, what exactly this particular Greek or Hebrew word means, and so on.

I’m not knocking these things – they can help us get a deeper understanding of what’s being said.

They can also help us avoid either interpreting things too rigidly and literally or dismissing everything as myths.

They can help us not take verses out of context and use them to browbeat others or to justify violence, hatred and our own prejudices.

Plus, these things keep biblical scholars happy and off the streets!

But if we get too deep into technical analysis we might forget what the Bible is actually for.

What is the Bible for?

The Bible isn’t just a good story, a collection of ideas, things you should and shouldn’t do, or a fascinating historical document.

Although it contains all these things and more, it’s a collection of books, that changes us by pointing to the living word of God – Jesus.

It guides us, teaches us and helps us discover the truth about humanity, God and the world.

It’s not that there’s necessarily an easy answer to every question in the Bible (if there was, Christians wouldn’t argue so much).

But it shows us which way to go to begin or carry on a relationship with God, how to be transformed by the power of God’s Spirit so we begin to live good lives, and where to find real help, peace, hope, guidance and comfort.

Why read it?

But none of these things can happen unless we actually open it.

As an old Chinese proverb says, “a book unopened is but a block of paper”.

There’s a story about a young couple who went on honeymoon and, due to a flight delay, arrived at their hotel in the early hours of the morning.

The next morning they complained that their room was ridiculously small, had no windows and only a single bed settee.

Having booked a honeymoon suite, they’d been given a box room, they complained.

The manager came upstairs and asked if they’d noticed the double doors, which the couple had assumed was a wardrobe.

Beyond the doors was a room with a four‐poster bed, a balcony with a sea view, flowers and champagne.

They had spent their wedding night in the lobby of the best suite in the best hotel in the country.

It can be the same with the Bible if we’ve never sat down and read it properly.

We might know some of the stories or books but stick with the Sunday school stories we learnt as children.

Or we might hear bits of the Bible read here every Sunday but never find out how and where they fit in the overall story.

If we don’t read the Bible for ourselves we could miss out on the treasures it contains.

We could stay in the lobby and miss the good things that are waiting for us on the other side.

This is why today’s collect asks God to help us hear, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest the scriptures.

Without all this the Bible is just another book on the shelf and we miss out on its power.

A power that can transform not just us as individuals but our whole society.

Faithful readers of the Bible have set up just legal systems, cared for the poor and helpless, improved working conditions and made widespread education available.

Overcoming some of the difficulties

It’s true that reading the Bible can seem a daunting task.

It’s long, it contains strange names, it has bits we don’t understand and bits that seem just horrible. 

And we all have a million other things that need doing.

But there are lots of Bible reading plans which break it down into small, manageable chunks.

There are books which help with the hard bits.

There are versions written in different styles for different people.

We can listen to it through apps or online.

There are Bible study groups.

Why not ask each other about it – all of us need help sometimes.

And we can probably safely skip the really long lists of names if we want to.

Some benefits

In the process we might be surprised at what we discover, what we learn and how we change if, in the words Colossians, we let the word of Christ dwell in us richly.

So, let us keep our hearts and our minds open to what God might be saying to us today through words that have been changing the world for thousands of years.

Questions to ponder for bible sunday

Do you have a regular Bible reading pattern or is the Bible more of a mystery to you?

How can we deal with the more difficult passages involving things like violence, subjugation of women and slavery?

Do you have a favourite Bible passage or Bible translation?

Do you use apps or websites to read the Bible or do you prefer paper?

Are there helpful reading plans or guides that you’d like to share?