Being Rich & The Kingdom of God

Bit late but here is my sermon from yesterday on the grounds of “better late than never”!

 

Mark 10.17-31

When I think about the man in today’s gospel reading I imagine a rather earnest, conscientious person who worries about doing what’s right.

He’s a good Jew who not only knows what he’s supposed to do but strives hard to actually live out his faith.

And as a good 1st century Jew he would’ve been firmly of the opinion that being rich was a sign of God’s blessing.

His friends and neighbours would’ve agreed with him, as well, for everyone knew that if you were a righteous person God would bless you with money and possessions.

This of course also meant that if you were poor you were not so blessed by God and were probably not so righteous.

This is not very far from those who preach the so-called prosperity gospel today, claiming that if only you do what God commands you’ll be blessed with incredible wealth.

But, going back to the rich man in our reading, for all his wealth and his confidence that he keeps God’s law, he seems to feel that there’s something lacking, something that Jesus can supply, so he comes to ask, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’.

 

And Jesus looks at him and loves him.

 

This is the only time in Mark’s gospel when Jesus is said to have loved someone.

Jesus showed his love for many people but in this direct statement Mark is, I think, drawing our attention to the fact that everything Jesus says to the rich man next is out of loving concern for him.

And what Jesus says next is hard and challenging.

He tells the man to sell everything he has and give the money to the poor.

There’s no well, how about if you spend less on luxuries, give some money away, increase your offerings to the Temple.

It’s an uncompromising command that seems to cut to the heart of the rich man because he goes away in a state of shock and grief, and we don’t know if he eventually does what Jesus says or not.

Then, Jesus also confuses and shocks his disciples by telling them that it’s as impossible for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God as it is for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.

They, don’t forget, also believe that righteousness and wealth go together, hence their shocked exclamation ‘Then who can be saved?’.

This may also be uncomfortable for us, as the link between being a good person and being wealthy hasn’t disappeared from our society.

Just think about how people on benefits are sometimes portrayed as lazy scroungers who waste their money on cigarettes and big TVs.

We also might be aware that, despite all the years of austerity and recession that we’ve had in this country, most of us are in fact incredibly rich compared to much of the world.

 

The temptation here throughout the centuries has been to try to soften Jesus’s words.

So, for example, in the 9th century someone came up with the idea that the eye of the needle was in fact a gate in Jerusalem that camels could only get through if they were unloaded first.

But sadly there never was such a gate.

Jesus is clear: just as large animals can’t get through tiny gaps, the rich don’t fit in the kingdom of God.

 

But why is this?

Is it because wealth leads to the temptation to believe that we’re self-sufficient, with no need to depend on anyone else, and by extension no need of God?

Wealth can lead to arrogance and a feeling of entitlement, and the temptation to think that anyone less wealthy just isn’t trying hard enough, replacing love for our neighbour with a feeling of superiority.

And wealth can cause us to cut ourselves off from other people, becoming cynical about their motives and thinking we don’t need anyone else, and making us hard and closed to human relationships.

This reminds me of a recent storyline in the soap Neighbours, where a long-lost sister of the doctor turned up who was very rich and was constantly pushing people away, including her children.

This was because she’d become so caught up in her wealth and suspicious of other people’s motives that she thought everyone was only after her money – even her 4-year-old grandchild.

 

Or do the rich not fit in God’s kingdom because they hold on to what they have at the expense of others?

Is it that a focus on always having more and better ignores the need to feed and clothe those in need, to ensure justice for the powerless, to protect the weak and vulnerable, to strive to make sure that everyone has enough to live on?

 

I suspect that it’s a combination of these things: the way wealth cuts us off from those around us, and the way it makes us focused on ourselves at the expense of others.

 

Yet, don’t forget, Jesus looked at the rich man and loved him.

Yes, the man was called to a costly discipleship in which he was to give up what he held most dear.

And he had his ideas about righteousness and blessing turned upside down – but it wasn’t some cruel whim.

Rather, Jesus was aiming to reset his priorities and get him into the kingdom.

And if the rich man had stayed long enough he might’ve been encouraged by Jesus saying that even though in human terms a rich person can’t get into God’s kingdom, for God all things are possible.

For Jesus isn’t in the business of making us feel bad about ourselves and just leaving us to it.

In fact, in the Bible making people feel guilty and doing nothing to help is the devil’s job.

Jesus is instead in the business of rescuing people who can’t save themselves.

We often think of this in terms of obvious sins, and bringing justice and help for the poor and vulnerable, because these are strong themes in the Bible.

But Jesus also loves the rich person who’s trapped by wealth in ways they might not even realise, and he comes to save them, and us, as well.

For Jesus looks at all of us and loves all of us enough to challenge us to our core.

Thanks be to God.

 

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Living Faith

15th Sunday after Trinity / Proper 18 / Year B

James 2.1-17 / Mark 7.24-37

 

Once upon a time a man called Nasrettin was invited to a banquet and set out wearing his old patchwork coat.

Along the way he stopped to help capture a runaway goat.

When Nasrettin arrived at his friend’s house, the friend, the servants, and all the other guests ignored him.

He realized that this was because his coat was now dirty and smelly, as well as worn-out.

Nasrettin hurried home, bathed, put on a magnificent new coat, and returned to the banquet.

Now everyone was glad to welcome him.

Delicious food was set before him, which he proceeded to feed to his coat.

“Eat, coat!  Eat!” he said.

The host and guests were horrified.

“Why, surely you wanted my coat to eat,” Nasrettin responded.

“When I first arrived in my old coat, there was no food for me.  Yet when I came back in this new coat, there was every kind of food for me.  This shows that it was the coat – and not me – that you invited to your banquet.”

 

James writes, “For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?”.

 

We all have a tendency to judge people by how they look or sound.

We might not realise we’re doing it but as soon as we meet a new person or see a stranger come through the door we make decisions about what kind of person they are: rich or poor, educated or ignorant, attractive or ugly, like us or not like us.

Just as one example, it’s said that interviewers for jobs make a decision about a candidate within 60 seconds.

This kind of snap judgement also leads to discrimination.

People are discriminated against based on how they look – their size or skin colour or because of a disfigurement.

People are also discriminated against because of their wealth and social status – a rich businessman receives very different treatment from a homeless refugee.

And people are discriminated against because they are teenagers or elderly or single parents, or because of any number of other reasons.

Yet if there’s one community where this shouldn’t happen it is the Church – but it does.

I remember once being at a church service elsewhere when a man came in who appeared to be homeless.

He came up for communion and was given it but later some members of the congregation complained that this man shouldn’t have been allowed.

In such a way even Christians become ‘judges with evil thoughts’.

The problem, though, is that God doesn’t play favourites, but loves even the worst of us, and especially doesn’t judge between people based on our human standards and prejudices.

So if our faith means anything then it must make a difference to how we treat people.

The kind of faith that believes in God as a kind of afterlife insurance policy without any demands on us to actually do anything is not real faith at all.

As James says, ‘… faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead’.

It’s not that we’re saved by what we do but our faith is meant to motivate us into trying to live according to God’s will.

This is sometimes seen as contradicting Paul’s words about being saved by grace and faith.

But actually Paul also recognises the need for faith to lead to action, telling us in Ephesians 2 that we’re created in Christ to do God’s work, and in Romans 6 that we are move from doing the will of sin to doing the will of God.

So, if we have faith we should be wanting to try to live according to God’s standards.

And that includes not judging people by outward appearances, or blindly following the crowd in paying extra attention to people who are rich, powerful or famous while ignoring the poor, the weak and the people on the fringes of society.

After all, ‘God has chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him’.

 

Yet this reading has been rather troublingly placed next to the story of the Syrophoenician woman in today’s readings.

On the face of it the gospel reading seems to contradict the idea that God doesn’t play favourites, as Jesus rejects the woman who comes to him for help on the grounds that she’s not Jewish, and throws in what was a common racial insult from Jews to non-Jews.

It’s not what we expect from Jesus, and to be honest I can’t find an explanation for how he spoke to her that completely satisfies me, although there are several theories.

But I think there is a reason for putting these two readings together.

Although Jesus at first tries to turn the woman away she perseveres because, despite his reaction, she believes that God loves her and her child, regardless of the fact that they’re not Jewish.

She knows that the barriers between people of different races, religions, social statuses or whatever else divides us are less important than God’s love for the whole world.

And through her determined faith she seems to show Jesus that his mission to the Jews is to be widened to the rest of the world, that it’s time for barriers to come down and for discrimination to end.

Jesus has always been clear that he’s come only to bring news of salvation to the House of Israel, but this could be Jesus learning that there’s more to it than that.

It’s an odd idea, perhaps, that Jesus needed to be taught something, but he did come to earth as a human being like us, and so maybe he also needed to learn like us.

And ultimately the message of the gospel did reach beyond the Jews, and break down the barriers between them and us, otherwise we wouldn’t be here.

So let us remember that God tears down barriers, rejects favouritism, overcomes prejudice and calls us to do the same, with a living faith that doesn’t just say the right things but also does the right things.

 

Bread of Life

John 6.35, 41-51 / Ephesians 4.25-5.2

11th Sunday after Trinity / Proper 24 / Year B

 

In our reading today Jesus speaks of himself in these words:

 

“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry; whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

 

During our lifetime we will probably spend over 35,000 hours eating – that’s the equivalent of 8 years of nonstop meals, 12 hours a day.

 

Imagine having to cook that amount of food, never mind consuming it!
Many of these meals will include bread.

 

It’s a common staple found in homes all round the world, and many of us love the distinctive aroma, good taste and soft texture of freshly baked warm bread, just out of the oven.

 

It’s also vital to many people’s survival in some countries and is a symbol of all our daily physical needs in the Lord’s Prayer.
The problem of course is that even after a big meal we sooner or later get hungry again.
Yet in our Gospel reading Jesus talks about food that will satisfy our hunger forever – his very self.

 

Jesus gives himself to us forever because we need him forever.

 

Just as when we eat ordinary bread it becomes part of us and helps us stay physically strong, when we consume Jesus he becomes part of us and helps us stay spiritually strong.

 

If you like, bread makes physical life possible; Christ makes spiritual life possible.

 

But what does it mean to eat the Bread of Life? To consume Jesus?

 

There’s an obvious link with Holy Communion here.

 

When we come to the altar and see and take the bread and wine we have a clear, concrete image of taking Jesus into our selves and being nourished by him.

 

This is an important sign for us because we’re physical creatures who need and understand physical things.

 

Taking and eating actual, physical bread and wine can help make the spiritual truth of God’s presence with and within us more real to us.

 

They help us connect with God and become more fully united with him.

 

Depending on your theological slant this experience can be understood as anything from remembering Jesus’ sacrifice to literally eating the body and blood of Christ.

 

But I think there’s even more to Jesus being the Bread of Life than this.

 

We take and eat when we look to Jesus as our spiritual nourishment, day by day.

 

We take and eat when we continually draw close to him in prayer and worship, spend time with him, get to know him and enjoy being with him.

 

When we carry on reading about him, learning what he said and what he asks of us, and try to put these things into practice.

 

Then Jesus becomes the source of our values and the pattern for our lives.

 

More than that, he lives in us.

 

God himself living within us!

 

He becomes part of us, like the bread we eat.

 

We take in the mind and heart of God, who loves all people as his children and has compassion on the weary and the sinful.

 

As we absorb the Spirit of Christ and his love, justice and compassion, these qualities live more fully in us.

 

This will help us grow into natural imitators of God who live in love, as we heard in our reading from Ephesians.

 

In that reading Paul sets out how we are to live together in a community bound and guided by the Holy Spirit, following the example of Jesus.

 

As we live nourished by him we will find that speaking the truth, handling our anger well, working honestly, being kind to one another and all the other things mentioned in that reading become more and more naturally part of us as we absorb Jesus more and more into our hearts, minds and lives.

 

As we consume physical bread, it gives us nourishment and energy for our physical lives.

 

As we consume Jesus, he becomes the nourishment and energy for our spiritual, emotional and moral lives.

 

Just as physical bread must be eaten and become part of us to bring nourishment to our physical bodies, so the Bread of Life must be ‘eaten’ and become part of us to bring us spiritual nourishment.

 

This isn’t some dutiful, dull eating.

 

It’s not a case of eating your greens because they’re good for you.

 

If we’d had the psalm set for this morning, which is Psalm 34, we would have said “O taste and see that the Lord is gracious”. In other translations this comes out as “O taste and see that the Lord is good”.

 

The Bread of Life tastes good as well being good.

 

Perhaps more like a chocolate bar than a plate of Brussels’ sprouts – unless you happen to prefer sprouts to chocolate of course.

 

Jesus doesn’t offer dull, dutiful sustenance but life in all its fullness – and good things to those who will take them.

 

And it’s important to notice that Jesus says ‘anyone’ who comes to him can have this bread.

 

This is an open invitation to anyone who wants it, with no exceptions, ifs, buts, maybes or small print.

 

It reminds me of Isaiah chapter 55 where it says “everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price”.

 

No-one will be rejected and there’s no expiry date on the invitation.

 

Stephen Cottrell, the Bishop of Chelmsford, says this in his book Do Nothing To Change Your Life:

 

“The door is still open, the welcome mat is still out on the porch, the table laid, your place prepared, the ticket to the party is still valid: you just have to say the word and you’re in………Contrary to all the sensible advice of an anxious and competitive world, there is such a thing as a free lunch. God himself has set the table and everyone is invited.”

 

Solid and good food is available to us all – food that will sustain us on our spiritual journey.

 

It would be a tragedy not to take and eat.

Miracles, Faith and Free Will

6th Sunday after Trinity / Proper 9

Mark 6.1-13 / 2 Corinthians 12.2-10

 

Mark tells us that Jesus has come home to Nazareth after performing a string of miracles, but if he’s hoping for some rest and comfort among his family, friends and neighbours, he’s going to be disappointed.

He goes to the synagogue on the sabbath and begins to teach, and people are reportedly ‘astounded’.

The word translated in our reading as ‘astounded’ is ‘ekplesso’, which doesn’t mean happy amazement but rather disbelief and scepticism.

And it’s not just what Jesus is saying that upsets them.

Their reference to Jesus as the son of Mary is a roundabout way of calling Jesus illegitimate.

Even if Joseph had died Jesus should still have been called Joseph’s son.

He’s still Jewish because Judaism is passed down through the mother’s line but he’s tainted by shame.

So Jesus is scandalous just by his very existence, and now he’s presuming to stand up in the synagogue with all the good, legitimate Jews, and tell them what to do.

Even worse, he’s just a local handyman, not a proper rabbi at all, so why should they take any notice of him.

They knew him when he was just a kid running around in the dirt with his brothers and sisters, so what makes him so special now?

The end result of all this is that Jesus can do almost nothing in the town, apart from heal a few sick people.

Before this point he has stopped a storm, freed someone from being tormented by evil spirits, healed a woman who’d been ill for years, and brought a young girl back to life.

But now, suddenly, all that power is gone, and Jesus can’t do anything.

But why?

Was it to do with the town’s lack of faith?

In his previous miracles Jesus has responded to requests.

He stopped the storm when his disciples woke him and demanded help.

He freed a man from evil when he ran to Jesus and begged for assistance.

He healed a sick woman when she reached out to touch his cloak.

And he helped a dying girl when her father begged that he would come.

But now no-one, apart from a few ill people, has even the faith to ask.

They’re too wrapped up in cynicism and doubt and preconceived ideas about Jesus to see and hear what’s happening right in front of them – the breaking in of God’s kingdom and the start of God doing something new.

And because they don’t believe they won’t ask for help – why would you ask for help from someone you think can’t provide it?

And because they won’t ask Jesus is unable to act.

 

 

Now, I’m definitely NOT saying that if we don’t see miracles or get answers to prayers it’s because we don’t have enough faith or haven’t prayed well enough.

Probably all Christians, even ones of great and deep faith, at one point or another, experience times when they pray for a miracle, a change, a healing, for things to be different, and are disappointed.

Paul refers to this when he talks about his mysterious ‘thorn in the flesh’.

He asks God to take it away three times but his request is refused, and I don’t think anyone could accuse Paul of lacking faith.

Sometimes we have to live with things for reasons that are unclear.

 

But there does seem to be some kind of link between God’s power and our willingness to ask.

There’s a scene in the film Life of Brian where a healed leper complains that Jesus came along and just healed him, when he was doing very nicely begging.

Jesus doesn’t work like that, though – we were created with free will, with the ability and right to decide whether we want anything to do with God or not, and he’s not going to march in and override that.

We may not always get what we ask for but if we don’t ask God won’t force his power on us.

What God can do, though, is find another way.

When Jesus can’t get through to his home town he goes to the surrounding villages and sends out his disciples to spread the message around the area.

And maybe the message filtered back into town and people were able to hear it then, separated a little from the Jesus everyone thought they knew, and maybe not, but the point was that Jesus didn’t spend his time trying to force the kingdom on people.

Instead, he offered it to them, and when it was rejected he accepted their answer and found a new way to get his message out and to bring help to people who needed it.

And if they won’t ask Jesus won’t force his help on them.

Instead he goes elsewhere and finds a new strategy, sending out disciples to spread his message to people who will listen.

 

 

 

This gives us both help and a pattern to follow.

It helps us because it prepares us to face opposition and rejection, even and perhaps especially from those closest to us, because we know that Jesus has faced the same thing.

This means we aren’t alone, and we haven’t necessarily failed.

It may be that the people we’re talking to aren’t ready to hear the message, at least from us, or prepared to be part of God’s kingdom, although that doesn’t mean they won’t ever be.

There’s always hope while God is at work.

And we have a pattern to follow because this story shows us that if something isn’t working we can change our plans, be flexible, find a new way of going about things, maybe involve new people.

The God we follow is living and active and prepared to adapt where things aren’t working, and calls us to be the same.

 

So let us pray that we will always have the faith to ask for God’s power to help us, the courage to bear it when we don’t get what we ask for, the consolation of knowing that we’re not alone in facing difficulties and rejection as we try to spread God’s kingdom, and the openness to God’s Spirit to go to new places, try new things, and see what God can do.

Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know?

2nd Sunday after Trinity /Proper 5 / Year B

Mark 3.20-35

 

Lady Caroline Lamb said of the poet Lord Byron that he was “mad, bad and dangerous to know”.

If this phrase had been around in 1st century Israel it would’ve been very useful to the enemies of Jesus.

They’re possibly scared of Jesus’ popularity or shocked at what seems to be outrageous behaviour – he’s been healing on the sabbath, casting out evil spirits, breaking rules and arguing with the authorities – and now look, huge crowds are following him.

He could stir them up to anything, to ignore all their carefully laid down rules, to upset the order of things, and he’s not even a proper religious leader.

Jesus is a threat to authority, an affront to law and order, and a dangerous subversive, with his healing people on the sabbath and talk of a new order of things.

And what better way is there to get rid of such a threat than to undermine it with a few words about being mad or bad?

So those who were threatened and upset by Jesus started spreading rumours that he was mad – dismissing his importance and undermining his credibility.

And then some of the religious authorities joined in the campaign against Jesus, announcing that he was in league with the devil, and therefore both bad and dangerous.

After all, in their eyes, the power that Jesus had could only come from God or the Devil, and it couldn’t come from God because God only worked in accordance with Scripture, while Jesus was breaking rules all over the place.

In this way they could justify stopping and containing Jesus, and even say it was for his own good.

But Jesus undermined their game by calmly pointing out the problem with their idea that Satan was fighting against himself.

When there’s a civil war it’s disastrous for that country – we only have to look at Syria to see that.

When members of a household start fighting among themselves it can lead to a family breaking apart.

In the same way, if evil is working against itself, then it’s weakening itself and is doomed.

It just doesn’t make sense to claim that evil is being driven out by evil.

In fact, evil is doomed but not because it’s in a state of civil war.

Rather, evil is doomed because Jesus is here and bringing in God’s kingdom.

All the things Jesus has been doing – all the healings, all the casting out of evil, all the preaching good news about freedom and forgiveness, his choosing of disciples to spread his message – all these things are signs that the kingdom of God is coming and breaking down the walls of the kingdom of evil.

But his enemies are holding on too tightly to the idea that God must work in particular ways, ways that fit with their own understanding and experience and beliefs.

There’s no room for God doing something new or surprising, as everything God does, has done or ever will do is neatly laid out for them in Scripture, tradition and scholarship.

Any change in that pattern doesn’t mean that God is living, active and doing new things, or that what they thought might not be 100% accurate.

Instead, new and different are labelled bad and wrong, and neatly dismissed or treated as dangerous, a tendency that still exists today.

Jesus’ opponents refuse to see the work of the Holy Spirit among them because it doesn’t look how they think it should, and end up labelling what is clearly good – the coming of God’s kingdom – as the work of the devil.

And this attitude leads them to the edge of the unforgivable sin – labelling the work of the Holy Spirit as the work of the devil.

The unforgivable sin has been debated and worried about a lot from the early days of the Church.

But there seems to be a general agreement that is not a case of a one-off misunderstanding of what God is doing, or just making a mistake.

If it was Paul would never have been able to become a Christian on the road to Damascus after strongly rejecting Jesus and persecuting his followers.

And Peter wouldn’t have been able to receive forgiveness and restoration to his position as the rock of the church after denying Jesus 3 times.

Rather, it’s a case of wilful, ongoing seeing and knowing what God is doing and deciding to label it as evil.

It’s not accidentally getting something wrong but rather constantly choosing to deny the signs of God at work among us.

It’s seeing all the good that God is doing but deciding to reject it and literally demonize it.

It’s persistently attributing God’s work to the devil with a stubborn resisting, rejecting and insulting of the Holy Spirit.

Many Christians worry that they might have committed this sin – but worrying about it is a good sign that you haven’t – because those who are genuinely trying to follow Jesus are unlikely to have such a hardened, ongoing hatred of God and rebellion against his work.

But what can we make of the idea that this sin is unforgivable?

Doesn’t this contradict the idea that God can and will forgive all our sins?

Well, I don’t think it’s the case that God won’t forgive but rather that it puts people in a position where accepting his forgiveness is impossible.

It’s rather like hanging off a cliff edge by your fingertips but refusing to accept help because you’re convinced that the person offering it is trying to kill you.

You would probably prefer to hang on hoping for someone else or even to just let go and take your chances if you’re convinced strongly enough of that person’s bad intentions.

Similarly, if a person is completely and persistently hardening their heart so that they see God as evil then they’re not likely to accept his offer of forgiveness and carry out the repentance needed to receive it.

It’s refusal to be forgiven that gets in the way – not reluctance from God.

For, as it says in 1 John 1, verse 9: If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

All that is needed is to turn to God, admit weakness and let the Holy Spirit carry us, instead of resisting him.

So let us not lose heart, or let guilt, worry and fear weigh us down, for we have a loving and forgiving God who longs to draw us ever deeper into his kingdom of goodness and love, if only we will turn to him.

The Good Shepherd: And Being Sheep

4th Sunday of Easter / Year B

John 10.11-18

 

Every year, in the summer, I go to the Lake District with my husband, where we like to go walking and climbing the hills.

They are usually long and hard climbs, but the views at the top are worth it.

What does rather unreasonably annoy me though is that often I’m just about at the top and I’ll come across a sheep calmly looking down at me and chewing away in a relaxed fashion.

I may be paranoid, but this comes across as rather smug when I’ve just spent a couple of hours struggling up to this point.

However, apart from that, I rather like sheep.

In this country they don’t really have too much to worry about.

There are a few animals that might attack them, especially when they’re lambs, but they don’t have to worry about wolves, big cats or bears.

Neither do they generally struggle to find food or water.

This is lucky for them because sheep are pretty defenceless animals.

So they need a leader, someone to take care of them who they can trust and follow.

When Jesus talked about being a shepherd he was talking about a very tough job.

I’m sure being a shepherd is a hard, physical job at any time or place but what Jesus had in mind was a bit different from shepherding in this country.

Here sheep have plenty of grass to graze on, water to drink, fields to be penned up in, shelter at night if needed, and no predators that a human would be scared to face.

But in Israel shepherds had to prepared to stay with their sheep day and night, always ready to fight off wolves, bears and lions, sleeping in front of the sheepfolds in case of trouble.

During the day they had to lead their sheep across miles of barren land to find enough grazing and water for the flock.

And they had to know each member of the flock personally.

This was because with no fields to separate one person’s flock from another, sheep belonging to different people would become mixed up during the day.

Then at night, when they needed to be put in their own sheepfolds, their shepherds would call them by name to come and follow him – or her, incidentally, as women could also be shepherds in Jesus’ time.

For this to work the sheep really did have to know and trust their shepherd.

They had to recognise the shepherd as their leader, defender and guide to food and water.

They had to know that this was someone with the authority, power, ability and willingness to look after them.

If they were faced with a stranger or a shepherd who mistreated them they might well run away or refuse to go with that person, so the relationship between shepherd and sheep was vital.

It’s said, by the way, that sheep can recognise up to about 50 different people and other sheep, and distinguish between different sheep and human voices, so this way of shepherding was entirely possible.

So when Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd he’s saying, ‘I am the person you can trust to provide you with what you need, defend you in times of danger, to look out for your needs, and to bring you home at the end of the day’.

Jesus is the one who goes out looking for us when we’re lost in the dark, scared by storms or have fallen down a hole because we weren’t paying proper attention.

He defends us from the things that try to take us away from him and destroy us.

And although we still face difficulties and sorrows, and must still eventually face death, he stays with us and helps us through everything.

Jesus is also saying that he knows every one of us by name, with all our quirks, flaws, gifts and talents.

He knows who will run and hide when things are hard and who will stand and fight – and loves us all equally.

He knows who will be the life and soul of any gathering and who would rather stay at home with a book – and rejoices in and works with our variety.

He knows who can do what, the things that make us laugh or cry, our likes and dislikes, and our secret hopes and fears.

And he wants only those things will help us flourish and grow in the best way for us and his kingdom – even if they look very different from what the world or even the Church calls good, useful or successful.

Of course, if we follow a shepherd then we also need to remember that in some ways we are sheep.

This doesn’t mean we need to follow blindly and not think for ourselves, although sheep are known to be able to solve problems and so are not quite as stupid as people think.

What it does mean is that we’re meant to be Christians with others.

Sheep are highly social flock animals who become stressed if left alone.

When threatened they draw together for defence, not leaving anyone out to face the danger alone.

From the very beginning God said that it is not good for man to be alone, and the same holds true today.

As Christians we’re called into a new family, a new community, a new kingdom, in which all have a known and cherished place, we’re accepted as we are, and no-one is to be left out in the cold to fend for themselves.

We may be very different from one another, and we may find Jesus bringing people to join us who we find it hard to understand, get on with or agree with.

But they, like us, are beloved sheep belonging to our shepherd – the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.

And our job is to be his flock together, to listen, trust, follow and play our part in it, and to welcome in all his sheep as he has welcomed us.

What’s Your Passion?

Jeremiah 31.31-34 / Hebrews 5.5-10 / John 12.20-33

5th Sunday of Lent / Year B

I don’t know what sort of things you’re passionate about.

 

When I say passionate I mean that you feel gripped by them, unable to let them go – you want to spend lots of time doing them because they inspire and excite you or transport you away from everyday life.

 

Perhaps your passion is music, films, crafts, TV soaps, reading, DIY or gardening.

 

Or maybe you long to jump out of planes or trek through South America.

 

When we talk about passion these days we think about an intense desire, maybe even an irresistible force, something we really want to do or have, or a person we feel we can’t live without.

 

Often, when people don’t know what career they want to have they’re advised to follow their passion, on the grounds that if they really love something they’ll enjoy working in that area.

 

Passion, though, is one of those words that seems to have completely changed its meaning over time.

 

Its root is the Latin word patior, which means to suffer.

 

The word is also used to suggest the idea of being driven to suffer by some sort of force.

 

And it suggests the idea of being driven to take action where there is pain and suffering.

 

This is why we talk about the passion of Christ – his suffering on the Cross because of his desire to save all of us from the consequences of sin and bring us into relationship with God.

 

And today is traditionally known as Passion Sunday, the start of Passiontide, when the Church begins to look more closely at Jesus’ suffering during the last days of his earthly life and his death on the cross.

 

Yet, although it seems at first glance that the passion of Christ and what we call passion today are completely different, I think there’s still a link between the two.

 

When we’re truly and deeply passionate about something, or someone, we’ll do anything in pursuit of that passion.

 

We’ll go out of our way to follow it, even if it means working long hours or sacrificing other things, or even undergoing pain and suffering.

 

Think of ballet dancers, for example, some of whom will dance on with horrible pain and injuries in their feet in pursuit of their passion.

 

All of our Bible readings today contain passion in both the old sense of suffering and the modern sense of a strong desire.

 

In the reading from the book of Jeremiah we’re told that God’s law, the will of God as described in the Old Testament, will pass from the written word, from tablets and scrolls and paper and books, into our hearts, so that we can live it out naturally and easily, in closeness with God.

 

The promise is, says God, that he will write his law in our hearts.

 

And this promise comes from God’s suffering as he sees his people betray him again and again, and his strong desire to have a relationship with us despite all of that.

 

Then in the Hebrews reading we see Jesus described as a priest passionately praying to his Father on our behalf with tears and cries in his desire for us to be saved, and willing to accept suffering on our behalf.

 

And finally, we have our Gospel reading, in which Jesus talks passionately about his coming death, and how it will both bring about the victory of goodness and love over hatred and evil, and draw people to him.

 

Although Jesus is troubled he stands firm and faces suffering because of his love for us and his strong desire to win our salvation.

 

And it was this love, this all-consuming passion, that was the basis of Jesus’ life, and which led him to his own passion and death on that Good Friday.

 

It was this all-consuming love and passion that guided all that he said and did.

 

It drove his faith, and it led him in the will of God.

 

It wasn’t easy, and it lead to death, but his death and resurrection have made it possible for each one of us to share in the life of God.

 

And we hear in the Gospel that as disciples of Jesus we’re called to follow in his footsteps.

 

This means we too must have a passion for God that makes us willing to serve him, whatever the cost.

 

We must also have a passion for those around us that means we’re willing to love, help and serve others as Jesus would do.

 

The Bible is quite clear that, as Christians, our faith must be alive and active, and filled with passion.

 

The Christian life is not a passive thing,  but must be a passionate thing.

 

Serving and following are active, not passive – they are things we must actively pursue as Christians.

 

And we do all of this so that God’s name may be glorified, so that his Kingdom may come and his will be done.

 

So that the seed of this old world may pass away and God may bring resurrection life to all of creation.

 

So that we can oppose all that seeks to hurt and destroy and hinder the purposes of God, for although Jesus has won the war against evil there are still battles to fight.

 

So that fullness of life in Christ can come.

 

So that all people may be drawn to Christ as he’s lifted up on the cross.

 

We can play our part in this great plan, in our great hope of faith, by living our Christian lives with passion in all that we do.

 

By being willing to face the consequences and the costs, just as Jesus was, in order that God may work in us and through us and in partnership with us to usher in the new life of his Kingdom to all people.

 

May Jesus’ passion, and the way he passionately led his life, inspire the whole of our lives, and may passion for Christ and for the coming Kingdom consume us and draw us ever closer to God.

 

Amen.

Elijah, Elisha and Transfiguration

2 Kings 2.1-12 & Mark 9.2-9

Sunday next before Lent/Year B

 

This week I’ve been up in my attic rummaging through old things.

I don’t go up there much because there’s a danger of meeting spiders, but for some reason I had an urge to do some clearing out, and it’s not a big time for spiders right now, so I went.

And while I was up there I came across a portfolio from when I was a librarian and working to get my chartership.

Once you’ve got your academic qualification in librarianship you can become a chartered librarian by working for 1 to 2 years with a mentor to achieve some continuing professional development objectives.

I’d never worked with a mentor before and I found I really enjoyed it.

It was good to have someone interested in my development, and willing to talk and listen about how I could further my career and interests, generously giving me the benefit of her wisdom and experience.

There came a time, though, when I had to leave my mentor behind and begin to stand on my own.

At that point I was on my own when it came to making my way in the library world.

And this feeling of being on your own is what Elisha experienced on the day when his mentor Elijah was taken up to heaven.

Elisha really didn’t want to let go of this relationship, saying three times during our reading that he wouldn’t leave Elijah.

His fellow-prophets also seem worried, as they keep asking Elisha if he knows that today’s the day he loses his mentor and has to take on the job of lead prophet himself.

Elisha isn’t pleased by this, essentially telling them to shut up and stop going on about it.

Perhaps the other prophets weren’t confident about Elisha’s abilities, maybe they were trying to make sure Elisha was prepared, but all they do is rub salt in the wound.

Then Elijah is suddenly gone, separated from Elisha by a chariot and horses of fire, and taken in a whirlwind.

Then Elisha cries out “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!”

Now, Elijah was not Elisha’s father, but it was normal at that time for a pupil to refer to a master as ‘father’, so that much makes sense.

But I did wonder what that statement about the chariots of Israel and its horsemen was about.

It seems this refers to an ancient image of God as the commander and chief chariot driver of the heavenly host of angels.

Elisha is therefore recognising that God himself, or at least his heavenly host, has come to collect Elijah.

Interestingly, when Elisha later lies dying in 2 Kings 13 the king of Israel uses the same words in grieving for him, as if Elisha is to be taken in the same way.

And this phrase is also where the song “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” comes from.

But, going back to our story, an interesting thing happens.

Just after the place where our reading ends, having seen this great vision of God’s power and glory, Elisha picks up Elijah’s mantle, repeats his miracle of parting the waters of the river Jordan, and is recognised by the other prophets of Israel as having received Elijah’s spirit, meaning that he’s been given the power that Elijah was given – to act as a prophet of God and leader of all the prophets in Israel.

Elisha has been empowered and reassured, and the further story of his life proves that he’s learnt from his mentor and walks in the power of God.

But what does all this have to do with the transfiguration of Jesus, which is what we’re supposed to be remembering today?

Well I think perhaps the link lies in the way in which the visions in the two stories reassure, strengthen and help God’s people in their work.

Elisha was given a vision of glory which equipped him to take on his mentor’s job when he was full of doubt, fear and grief.

The disciples on the mountain with Jesus were also given a vision of glory.

They weren’t yet facing doubt, fear and grief but it wouldn’t be long before Jesus began heading towards Jerusalem and towards his suffering and death.

Then they would begin to doubt – this wasn’t how the story of God’s Messiah was supposed to go, perhaps they’d made a terrible mistake.

And they would be afraid – if their leader had been arrested and executed maybe they would be next.

And they would be grief-stricken – their leader, friend, guide and mentor would be dead, and all their hopes would be gone.

It’s easy for us to underestimate how difficult that time was for the first disciples, as we move into Lent and start to look at the events of Jesus’ suffering and death from the other side of Easter.

For them there was no Easter, and no idea that one person could die and rise from the dead for all of humanity.

To them, resurrection was something that happened all at once to everyone at the end of the world, and then it would be too late to make any difference to things here and now.

So perhaps this vision of glory, like the one given to Elisha, was designed to help them through the dark times to come, to strengthen them when they felt weak, give them hope when they wanted to give up, and to reassure them that God was indeed near them and at work in the person of Jesus – they had only to hold on until things became clearer.

Of course, there is a difference: Elijah was gone and couldn’t help Elisha any more.

But Jesus is not gone, and he doesn’t leave us to carry on alone, but stands with us always.

And, even if we never get a vision like the ones we’ve heard about today, we have the benefit of the Easter story to help us hold on to the truth that God is alive and active in the world, the mentor who never leaves us, and the one whose glory fills both heaven and earth for ever.

Revelation

1 Samuel 3:1-10 / Revelation 5:1-10 / John 1:43-51

2nd Sunday of Epiphany / Year B

 

In this season of Epiphany we’re celebrating the ways in which God reveals himself to the world in Jesus.

Revelations come in many ways.

Some are small but persistent like the voice in the night that Samuel got.

Some are dramatic, scary and strange, like the visions of the Book of Revelation.

And some build up quite slowly but then become big, as with the one given to Nathanael.

This revelation begins with Jesus showing that he knows something about Nathanael’s character – that he’s an honest man.

John seems to be suggesting that this is a wry reference to Nathanael’s rather impolite question “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”.

Nathanael is amazed because Jesus has never met him and shouldn’t know anything about him.

And Jesus wasn’t there for the Nazareth statement, so how does he know what Nathanael said?

This is the first step of the revelation – that God knows us inside and out even if we don’t know him.

 

Then Jesus says that he saw Nathanael sitting under a fig tree before Philip called him.

This apparently small thing refers to a prophecy about the coming of God’s Messiah in Micah Chapter 4:

“… they shall sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no-one shall make them afraid…”

It’s subtle but to someone steeped in Scripture and Israel’s hopes the meaning is there.

Nathanael obviously gets the reference because he reacts by moving from cynicism about people from Nazareth to proclaiming this particular Nazarene to be the Son of God and the King of Israel.

This is the second step of the revelation – that Jesus is the Messiah promised to Israel.

 

And then Jesus promises more even than these things by referring to back to Jacob’s ladder.

Jacob appears back in Genesis, where we find that he’s the son of Isaac and Rebecca, the grandson of Abraham, and one of the great patriarchs of Israel.

He’s also a trickster and a liar who takes his older brother Esau’s birth right in exchange for some lentil stew, fools his father into giving him the blessing that should’ve gone to Esau, and then runs away to stay with his uncle when his brother threatens to kill him.

Yet it’s while he’s running away that Jacob’s life is changed by an encounter with God in his famous dream about a ladder between heaven and earth with angels going up and down it, in Chapter 28 of Genesis.

God himself then appears to Jacob in the dream and promises to bring him back home with blessing, peace and prosperity.

Now why God does this, and the further story of Jacob, are a tale for another time, but the relevance here is that it seems to be this dream of Jacob’s that Jesus is referring to when he says, “you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man”.

The point of Jacob’s dream was that it showed that God was there with him, with angels moving up and down to bring heaven and earth together.

Jacob named the place where he had the dream Bethel, or the house of God, and later the idea grew up that when you worshipped God in his house he was really there with you in a special way, you were directly in his presence and linked with heaven.

This is why the Temple was so important – it was where the gap between heaven and earth was closed and God was among his people in a special way.

And now Jesus is here saying that he’s the place where heaven connects to earth – not the Temple in Jerusalem.

He’s the gateway through which angels pass to connect earth and heaven, and the place where God dwells.

Jesus is the real ladder between fallen humanity and a perfect God which Jacob’s dream was pointing to.

And he makes a further small change.

Nathanael has referred to Jesus as the King of Israel, claiming Jesus and the blessings of God for his own people.

Yet Jesus calls himself the Son of Man, pointing to himself as belonging to all of humanity.

He is a ladder not just for Israel and God to meet but for all people and God to meet.

We don’t know how Nathanael reacted to this, but it is the third step of the revelation – that God has come to draw all people to himself, not just Jews but also us Gentiles.

 

These are big ideas: God knows us completely before we know him; Jesus is the promised Messiah of God; Jesus bridges the gap between heaven and earth for all people.

And they are truths that shine brightly in a sometimes dark world.

If we wonder if we’re really good enough for God or other people we can be comforted by remembering that God has always known exactly who and what we are – and he has always loved us.

We are his children, whatever we do and wherever we go.

We can stop rushing round trying to prove ourselves with achievements and possessions, and difficult New Year’s resolutions, and instead focus on sharing the love we’ve received with others.

When we look at the news and see prejudice, death, war, division, disasters and cruelty we don’t need to lose hope.

Our hope and faith are that the world has a Messiah, one who has lived, suffered and died among us, and who lives now forever to lead us to a new world of peace and safety, justice and mercy.

Living in the light of this revelation we can be a source of hope for others by being people who offer the peace, love, forgiveness and help we received to those around us, without judgement or expecting anything back.

So may God lead us and all his people to his promised kingdom, in which everyone “…. shall sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no-one shall make them afraid…”.