Sunday, 2 July 2017

Trinity 3: Enslaved to God?

“You have become slaves of righteousness” says Paul in our second reading. The word “slaves” appears four times in that fairly short reading. Slavery is a concept that probably feels quite alien to us, though in fact, according to the UN there are more slaves in the world now than there have ever been , an estimated  21 million . They work in sweatshops, mines, agriculture, domestic service and the sex trade. Some are trafficked far from home; others are enslaved in their own communities. But slavery is something that is officially outlawed and condemned now, so it’s hidden from most people’s view.

That wasn’t the case in Paul’s day. Slavery was an accepted part of life, part of the fabric of society. The great cultures of the ancient world, Greece, Rome, Assyria, Egypt, couldn’t have existed without slaves. No one challenged it. Slaves might have been captured in battle, or sold into slavery, or born as slaves. Some rose to high office and were trusted and loved by their masters and mistresses, but many suffered degrading and harsh experiences, and none were free to live their own lives, or marry whom they chose, or earn their own livings. They belonged to their owners, and, in Roman society, their masters had power of life and death over them. The idea that all people have the right to liberty and self-determination is a very modern one – most of our ancestors would be astonished at it.

It’s important to know that. Sometimes we assume that the people of the past were basically just like us, except that they wore different clothes and didn’t have mobile phones. In some ways that’s true. They felt joy and sorrow, had hopes and dreams, cared about their children and got annoyed with their neighbours just as people do today. But their understanding of the world and how they fitted into it was often profoundly different. They accepted slavery without question. It was the way the world was, and always would be.  Slavery was regarded as shameful, but the shame was attached to the slaves, not to their owners. It was their fault, their destiny, their place in the world to be slaves.

I’ve laboured that point a bit, because I think it’s important we have it in mind when we hear Paul’s words.  When the Christians in Rome read the letter he had sent them, they knew what he was talking about from the inside, because they saw slavery all around them. Some of them almost certainly were slaves. Others were slave-owners. All would be familiar with the sight of slaves, and with the fear of falling in to slavery, and the shame associated with it.  So, when Paul uses the word “slaves” he knows that it will set up powerful resonances in people’s mind.

But, of course, Paul isn’t talking about literal slavery in the passage we heard at all. He is talking about internal slavery if you like, the slavery that binds our hearts and minds.  He is pointing out to a society that despised slaves, and to slaves who despised themselves, that in some ways we are all enslaved. The only question is, what or who are we enslaved to. As Bob Dylan sang, “You’re gonna have to serve somebody. It may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”

We may like to think we are all free spirits, independent minded, that we can do what we please with our lives, but it’s not true. All of us, in some ways, however small, have restrictions on our lives, commitments we can’t shirk, ties we can’t break, burdens we have to bear.

Some of those things may feel, and be, profoundly negative. We may feel enslaved by an illness or disability – something we didn’t choose and can’t escape. We may be enslaved by addiction to something – gambling, alcohol, spending money we don’t have on things we don’t need because it makes us feel momentarily better. We may be locked into patterns of behaviour that are harmful and destructive. We may be enslaved by the opinions of others; we can’t be the people we want to be because we’re afraid they’ll disapprove, that they’ll gossip about us at the school gates, or write snarky things on social media. We may feel enslaved by the expectation that we will climb the social ladder, push ahead at work, get that promotion, even if we really don’t want to. That’s what Paul means when he talks of us being “enslaved to sin”.

But the opposite of that slavery isn’t, as we might expect, freedom to do whatever we want. Instead, Paul talks about us becoming “slaves to righteousness” and “enslaved to God.” What does that mean?

He’s not thinking of God as some kind of brutal overlord, ready to crack the whip if we slack off or get things wrong. He doesn’t mean us, either, to adopt an unthinking, unquestioning faith. What Paul means is that our relationship with God should be one that is whole-hearted, touching the whole of our lives. “Let the Gospel and its values have a claim on you”, he is saying, “on the way you live, the way you behave to others, the way you work and shop and play. Let it shape your life and change you”. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul,with all your strength and with all your mind,”  says the Bible.  Being “enslaved to God” means living that out, day by day, week by week.  Maybe we think Paul is pushing his analogy too far by calling it slavery – it is, of course, our choice to follow him, and slaves don’t have a choice, but it’s his analogy, not mine. And he uses it deliberately to emphasize the totality of the commitment he is talking about, a positive, joyful commitment, but one which should have profound consequences for our daily lives.

We probably all have positive commitments like that already. We may not call them slavery, but we make choices which we know will bring restrictions as well as joy. I am very glad to be tied to Philip by the bonds of marriage, and to have two lovely children who will always be there in my heart and mind, even if they aren’t physically close by.  These things don’t feel like slavery at all – if they did there would be something badly wrong! They feel like freedom, but there’s a commitment involved in any family relationship. Our families have a justifiable claim on our time, our attention, our money. We’re not free just to do what we want – to move house or go on holiday, for example - without consulting them or considering the impact it will have on them.

Jobs and voluntary commitments may also involve a sacrifice of certain freedoms. If we’re lucky, we may be doing jobs we have freely chosen, but even in the best job there’ll be moments when we just wish we could take off for the day, or the week- or forever - instead of turning up for work.

All of us in some ways, then, both positively and negatively “serve somebody”, as Dylan said. Or as St Paul puts it “ Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?”  Our choices and commitments can be destructive or constructive, deathly or live-giving – to ourselves and to those around us. We need to choose wisely, to let the right things and people have a claim on our time.

In the Gospel, Jesus reminds us that it is the “little ones” who should come first, the ones who have no voice and no power.  We may look at them and think they are nothing to do with us, that it’s not our job to slake their thirst, whether that is for water, or justice, or a helping hand, or a kind word, but we are wrong. If we belong to God, if we say we are part of his family, then all other people are our brothers and sisters.

What does this look like in practice, when people are living a life of committed love, recognising their responsibilities to God and one another? It looks like the firefighters who ran into Grenfell Tower again and again to rescue people, when everyone else was running out of it. It looks like the churches and the mosques and other community organisations who immediately swung into action to care for the survivors – they didn’t know what they were doing, but they knew they needed to do something. It was their job. It looks like the policeman, Wayne Marques, who I saw interviewed on the television news this week. He fought off the terrorists at Borough Market armed just with a baton, and was badly injured himself, so that he could buy time for others to escape.

But it also looks like those who volunteer day by day in less dramatic ways to help in their communities , who staff the charity shops, befriend those going through tough times, or check in on a frail neighbour. It looks like those who speak out at work when they see something unjust happening, or who campaign for those at the bottom of the heap. Closer to home, it looks like the many people here who care for  this church, and build up its  congregation, so that we can comfort those who come here in times of sadness, and rejoice with those who celebrating. We may just give a cup of cold water, but that says to people, “you matter to me.”  It may seem odd to call these things slavery, but doing them takes commitment and the sacrifice of some of our freedom, our time and our energy. Not much that’s worth doing is going to be easy or quick or painless.

So, what are you enslaved to today? What holds you in its thrall? For all of us, there will be a mixture of answers. There may be enslavements which we need freeing from, things that crush our souls and drag us down. Let’s pray for deliverance from them, for God’s grace to find the freedom he wants for us. But there may also be ties that we rejoice in, commitments that are life-giving and good, things we are called to.  Let’s pray for strength to fulfil them, to embrace them whole-heartedly so we can live out our commitment to God, to one another, and to his life-giving Gospel.

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Patronal Festival: Being an apostle

Today is a special day, as you know. It’s special for two reasons. First, because it is our Patronal Festival, the feast of St Peter and St Paul, and secondl, because we are all aware that today we are saying thank you and farewell to the Harvey family, sending them out on their journey to the distant shores of Hadlow. Well, it’s not all that distant, of course, but it will be a new start for them, after many years here, as Nicky prepares her ordination as a deacon and then a priest. 

And if you are sending people out, there’s no better day to do it than the feast day of two of the churches most important apostles, because that word, “apostle”, means someone who is sent out. In a sense, the Harvey family are apostles today – sent out from this congregation - and we pray that those who receive them will be nourished and enriched by their gifts as we have been.

They are following, as I’ve said, in illustrious footsteps. We heard a bit about the apostles Peter and Paul in our readings today. Peter is commissioned – sent out – by Jesus himself, given the “keys of the kingdom of heaven”. He will have authority in the new community of Jesus’ followers to open doors that seem closed, to set people free, and to bind things that need binding.  That’s an awesome power to have, though in some sense we all have it – we can make or mar the lives of others very easily, and it’s important that we know that, so that we can choose to be a force for good in the world.

Paul, the second saint to whom this church is dedicated, didn’t know Jesus during his earthly ministry. His “sending out” came in a very different way to Peter’s. He was on the road to Damascus, on a mission to destroy the followers of Jesus, because he was convinced that they had got it all wrong, and that Jesus had perverted God’s message. It was only when he heard Jesus’ voice calling to him from heaven, a place where he thought he could never be, that he realised his mistake. As he sat, blinded and confused, in a house in Damascus, a Christian called Ananias came to him there. He’d been sent by God to pray for his healing, and God had told Ananias that Paul would be “an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel…” And that’s why Paul claims to be an apostle at the beginning of our first reading today. He had been sent out by God too, just as Peter had.

Peter and Paul, two apostles, two men who are sent out and who become the most important leaders of the early church, and it’s easy to see how they exercised their apostolate, what they were “sent out” to do. Peter and Paul both travelled extensively, founded Christian communities, and both, according to Christian tradition, ended up being martyred in Rome because of the message they preached and lived.

But they aren’t the only apostles in the readings we’ve heard today, and thinking about the others in these readings might broaden our view on what it means to be sent by God and used by God. Who are these others who are “sent out”? They both feature in that first reading, the letter Paul wrote.

First there’s Timothy. Timothy, was a regular travelling companion of Paul’s. We don’t know much about him for sure, except that he came from Lystra and had a Jewish mother and a Greek father, but we do know that he was immensely important to Paul. He refers to him often, and always with great affection. Again and again, Paul talks about being glad of his company, or looking forward to seeing him. He’s described as a beloved child, as well as a brother. Paul obviously felt protective of him, but he also knew that he needed him. Timothy supported him practically, travelling on missions for Paul, and he supported him emotionally too, sticking with him when he was in trouble. That sort of supportive role is vital, often far more important than those who perform it realise. I know that many people here have supported Nicky through her training, first as a Pastoral Assistant and then in her ordination training, praying for her, giving her feedback on sermons, taking an interest in what she’s been doing, and many more will support her and Mike and their family in her future ministry, and they will also be vital. Ministry is not something you do alone. You rapidly realise that when you are ordained. It is something you do as part of a community, and without that community, you can’t do anything at all. The Timothys of this world have an apostolic job too, something they are sent by God to do. It’s to walk alongside others, and they are just as important as the Peters and Pauls. 

Peter and Paul are big Christian heroes, and you might have heard of Timothy before too, because there are letters to him in the New Testament. My guess is, though, that the fourth “apostle” I want to think about today is one most of us have never noticed at all. It is Epaphras. Who?  Epaphras. He’s mentioned in passing just twice in Colossians, and once more in the letter to Philemon. A bit of detective work, though, uncovers some interesting things about him. He seems to have been with Paul, who was in prison, when he wrote to the Colossians, but a bit later on in the letter Paul describes him as “one of you” . Epaphras is from Colossae, a leader, and possibly the founder, of the Christian community there. He’s come to Paul with news of the Colossians.  Some things are going well, “He has made known to us your love in the Spirit”, says Paul. Others aren’t – we hear of some of the struggles and arguments in the church later on in the letter. He wants Paul’s advice and help.

It seems likely that he originally met Paul in Ephesus, and became a Christian through Paul’s ministry. But Paul never went to Colossae himself, so it must have been Epaphras who took the good news there. That’s why I want to call Epaphras an apostle. He was sent, just as much as Peter, Paul, and Timothy were. But he was sent home, sent to what is often the hardest place to minister, the place where everyone already knows you!  In every generation there are Peters and Pauls, people who travel with the gospel of Christ to new places, as Nicky and Mike will do, and as I have done in my ministry. But for many others throughout history, their calling is to stay put, to bloom where they are planted, to transform their own backyards, their own communities, their own workplaces, to stick at it even when the grass looks greener elsewhere. Epaphras was an apostle to his own people, in his own place, just as many – perhaps most – Christians are called to be. That might not always feel very exciting, but without those local apostles, the church will soon wither and die. So if that is your calling, then live it!

In a moment, the choir are going to sing a setting of the Magnificat in G Major by Sumsion, that song of Mary which reminds us that God, in Jesus, is transforming the world.  He is putting down the mighty from their seat, exalting the humble and meek, filling the hungry with good things, and sending the rich away empty, challenged to change their lives. It’s a song that’s all about God’s mission, and Mary’s astonishment that it is happening through her.  At the end of this Eucharist, as we send Nicky, Mike and the family out with our love, our blessing and our prayer, we need also to remember that God sends us out too, into our own apostolate, wherever that is.

Each of us is called. Each of us is sent. God has a purpose for each of us, something that we, and only we can do. It might be far away, or it might be right here. We might be a Peter or Paul, a Timothy or an Epaphras, called to travel, or called to stay put, called to lead, or called to encourage, but each of us matters and can make a difference. Paul’s prayer for the Colossians is that each of them will bear fruit, grow in wisdom, build his kingdom. That’s my prayer for Nicky and Mike and their family, and I am sure that it is their prayer for us too as they leave us today.


Sunday, 11 June 2017

Trinity Sunday: Remember, I am with you...

Today is Trinity Sunday, the day when I am supposed to explain to you the mystery of how God can be three and one at the same time, probably using dodgy analogies of ice, water and steam or images of shamrocks or long theological words like perichoresis.  You’ll probably be quite glad to hear that I’m not going to do any of that.

But that doesn’t mean that I think the idea of the Trinity doesn’t matter. It’s just that it seems to me it is something to explore, not explain, to wonder at, not to dissect. The idea of the Trinity started with the experience of the early Christians, and it’s when we let it speak to our experience that it really starts to make a difference to us.

In particular, it grew out of their experience of the truth of the words Jesus spoke to them at the end of his ministry, the words we heard in our Gospel reading just now. “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” says Jesus. So if we want to start exploring the Trinity, this is a good place to begin. To do so, though, we need to take a step back and think more generally about the Gospels.

We have four Gospels in the New Testament. They all tell the story of Jesus in different ways.  The authors choose to shape their stories in different ways, pulling together memories of those who had been with Jesus and stories that circulated around the early Church. They were written a generation after Jesus, between the 60’s and 90’s AD, soon enough to capture those first hand memories, but as far as we know, none of the Gospel writers had been with Jesus in his ministry. They were written for different audiences too, who needed to hear messages for their own context, messages that would help them to deal with the challenges that they faced and the questions they were asking.

So, although the Gospels have a common core, each one tells the story in a slightly different way. You may know that only two have stories of Jesus’ birth, and that we can’t really mash them together without doing violence to one or the other, not that that stops us trying in our Nativity plays. The same is true of the Easter stories, the stories of Jesus’ resurrection, and, especially the stories which come after that, of Jesus’ appearances to his disciples.  If I were to ask you how Jesus’ earthly ministry ends, my guess is that most of you would say, “With the Ascension, that story of Jesus rising up into heaven through the clouds, from the Mount of Olives outside Jerusalem  ”. It’s there in the creed that we’ll say in a minute. But in fact that story only comes in the Gospel of Luke, and the Acts of the Apostles, which was written by the same author. The other three Gospels end quite differently. Mark ends with the women who have come to the tomb finding it empty and running away terrified. John ends it with a lakeside breakfast and some words addressed to Peter giving him the task of leading the church. And Matthew, as we have seen today, ends it on a mountain in Galilee, with what is called the Great Commission, and those reassuring words “I am with you always”. After that, nothing. Matthew doesn’t say a word about what happened to Jesus’ physical body after that. There is no going up, no “exit stage left”. Matthew doesn’t seem to be at all bothered that he hasn’t explained where or how Jesus went, or why he stopped appearing to his followers.

Why is this? It could be that Matthew doesn’t know the story Luke tells – their Gospels were written around the same time. But I think it’s more likely that Matthew is simply making a different point. Luke emphasizes that Jesus is going away at this point. The disciples stand gawping up into space until angels appear to tell them go back to Jerusalem and wait for the Holy Spirit.  But Matthew wants to emphasize the fact that though they may no longer see Jesus, he has not, in a sense, gone anywhere at all. “Remember, I am with you always”. His story isn’t about absence; it is about presence.

And it has been so right from the beginning of his Gospel. He is the one who describes an angel appearing to Joseph telling him that Mary will bear a child who will be called Emmanuel – he is quoting from the prophet Isaiah. And what does Emmanuel mean? It means “God is with us”. Matthew is the one, also, who tells us that when we do anything to help the least and last in the world, we do it for Christ; he is present in the hungry and thirsty and homeless. If we ignore them, we miss seeing him too. He compares the Kingdom of Heaven to yeast, hidden in the dough, indistinguishable from it, and yet transforming it from a solid lump to good bread.
“The kingdom of Heaven has come near” says Matthew again and again. (Mt. 3.2, 4.17, 10.7)

And that brings me back to the Trinity. I haven’t forgotten about the Trinity!

The early Christians were convinced that God was Father, Son and Holy Spirit because that was their experience. It wasn’t  a dry and complicated doctrine, but a living reality for them.  They knew of God as creator and loving parent from their Scriptures. That was foundational to Jewish belief. When they met Jesus they had the sense that they were meeting someone who showed them what God was like, who bore God’s likeness, the family likeness. And when Jesus was no longer physically present, they sensed him through the Holy Spirit, who came to them in prayer, and in the new communities they formed, and in the people they reached out to, people who they might once have shunned as unclean outsiders, different from themselves.

“Nothing can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus” said Paul to the Romans (Romans 8.39). They realised that God wasn’t – and had never been – hiding in a distant heaven in untouchable perfection. He was all around them and within them.
That doesn’t meant that they thought there was no heavenly realm beyond their earthly experience. They knew that they hadn’t seen heaven in all its fullness yet, but they discovered that it all started here and now. There was no separation between humanity and God. In Christ, and in the Holy Spirit, God was where they were, going through what they went through. And that changed them utterly.

Just imagine what a difference it would make if we fully understood this ourselves, if we truly realised that God was present in us, and in each other. How would that change the way we treated each other, and ourselves?
Just imagine what a difference it would make if we fully understood that God was present in our homes and workplaces. Save him a desk in the office, or a seat at the dinner table, and see how that affects the decisions we make at work and at home.
Just imagine what a difference it would make if we truly believed that God was present in every part of his creation. Wouldn’t we care for the world rather better than we do now?

It was the sense of God’s presence with them, first in Jesus, then in his Holy Spirit, known in prayer, known in the communities they formed, known in the people they reached out to, which transformed those early Christians and made them so excited that their message spread to the ends of the earth.

But it took practice to learn this – it didn’t happen by magic, and that’s something we need to take note of if we want to know the presence of God. It’s obvious from our second reading, in which Paul tells the Corinthians to “put things in order” and “live in peace with one another”  that they weren’t doing that. It is only as they do that they will become aware of the “God of love and peace” being with them, says Paul.

Perhaps that’s why Jesus doesn’t just say “I am with you always”. He says remember, I am with you always” or, to translate it more accurately, behold, I am with you always”. The Greek word is “idou” and it means “look”. If we want to see God’s presence, we have to look for it, and doing that will shape the way we live.  

If we never pray, how can we know the one we never pray to? If we never come together how can we know the one who dwells in our brothers and sisters? If we never reach out beyond ourselves, how can we discover the God who is out there on the margins ?

Until I was in my twenties I knew nothing about gardening, and I wasn’t very interested. Gardens were full of green things, indistinguishable to me from any other green things. A leaf was a leaf was a leaf. It was only when I started gardening myself, that I started really to look. I needed to differentiate the seedling I wanted to nurture from the weed I needed to pull out. It’s the same with God. He doesn’t usually shout at us. He doesn’t write in golden letters in the sky. He doesn’t force himself on us if we don’t want him, but if we open our eyes to him, we learn to find him. And eventually, if we keep our eyes open, we discover that he is at work in all people and places, in all times and seasons, in sorrow as well as in joy. And that discovery changes us, as it changed those first disciples, like that yeast that leavens the dough.

“Remember – behold – look - I am with you always,” says Jesus. The good news that Matthew proclaims from beginning to end in his Gospel is that God has never abandoned us and will never abandon us. He is Emmanuel, God with us; Father, Son and Holy Spirit, a trinity of love, woven inextricably through the life of the world. He calls us to see him and know him, to trust him and work with him. Let’s pray for the grace to open our eyes to his presence.


Sunday, 4 June 2017


John 20.19-23, 1 Corinthians 12.3-13 & Acts 2.1-21

When horrendous acts are perpetrated such as those last night in London Bridge and Borough not everyone is in the mood to hear of the Holy Spirit or anything much to be honest. We are saddened, sickened, angry, even the morning sunshine doesn’t lift the feeling that a dark cloud hangs over us.

Deep down as mature Christians we know that nothing has changed in our relationship with God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, yet we feel for all affected, particularly those who have lost people they love, for them everything has changed and life can never be as good again.

I’m sure many of us haven’t slept much, praying through the night for all who would oppose this evil, from the police who had to make the decision to kill the attackers, medics trying to save lives and many brave and kind people who did all they could to help.

If your thoughts drift away to the victims in the next few minutes I understand and I’m sure God willingly receives them.

We heard in our Acts reading how the Holy Spirit came as wind and fire to the disciples also bringing new powers of speech but there isn’t much time to dwell upon this as the main focus moves quickly to the work they are to do and suddenly we find ourselves in the middle of a busy crowd hearing of their amazement at the clarity with which they could hear God’s message.

Perhaps that’s a helpful starting point as we consider the facets of the Holy Spirit, one element is its ability to cut through confusion, pomposity and religious complexity.

Peter is able to do this as he takes the words of the prophet Joel but instead of interpreting them as horrendous condemnation he is there for the people to show that God is offering salvation and hope for the future.

If we are open to allowing the Spirit to come alongside us the result is that we will become more alive, more aware of what we can do to play our part in God’s kingdom. Just as the Spirit shows all who would have Jesus crucified as a sinner that we are the sinners we start to see and understand things anew.

 As we do God’s work and run into barriers and challenges then we will be pleased to have a comforter in the way that a reliable friend or loved one can support us through difficult times and an advocate in the way of someone seeking the best outcome for us.

Perhaps the spirit weaves her way through our lives in more ways than we care to think, perhaps it’s not all such a remote concept when our minds are open.

But what about all those languages? Those much cleverer than me know that the peoples referred to starting with the Parthians to the east in Iran, Pontus to the north in Turkey, Cyrene to the west in Libya and the Egyptians and Arabs to the south either side of the Red Sea together with all the other references radiate out in all directions from Jerusalem.

We hear that the God of Pentecost can be understood by people in their own language, he is multilingual to the point that there is no one he struggles to communicate with, a reminder to us that he loves his entire creation and is not constrained by our man made borders. This is a really challenging thought when we consider how much difference those borders make to people’s life chances. The Holy Spirit cannot be contained by race, borders, sects or religions she is everywhere.

One aspect of the Spirit I read described her as ‘the windswept protest of a borderless God, standing against humanity’s misguided preference for the empty language of the powerful.’ This is as true today as it was when it was applied to those who wanted to confine God within the walls of their temples, coming alongside the powerful and apparently respectable.

The disciples had gathered in Jerusalem during the festival of Shavuot, Hebrew for weeks, coming 7 weeks after the Passover and then a Jewish harvest festival. Pilgrims from around the known world had gathered for the celebration when suddenly the disciples burst forth into the packed streets. From the mouths of a bunch of uncouth, uneducated, disreputable Galileans comes a multilingual message of all the magnificent works of God.

It became clear that God wouldn’t be found only in a temple or a church but on any street near you. It became clear that you don’t have to be posh, ordained, or wear funny clothes to tell people about God and his love for them, anyone can do it. God was as happy for the occupying Romans to tell of his love in their imperial Latin as he was for it to be told in any language whatsoever by rich or poor, powerful or powerless.

As you are probably aware, many here at Seal have taken part in the Archbishop of Canterbury’s prayer initiative ‘Thy Kingdom come’. If you look on the dedicated website you can see parts of the globe lit up in locations where people have taken the time to pledge their prayer. The names of places on the map have changed a bit since the day of Pentecost but many lights still shine brightly across the Middle East from those taking part, even if the number of pledges is greater across Britain, Europe and North America.

It’s a beautiful thought that so many have been united through prayer , in so many languages, each seeking a perfect translation of God’s message through the Spirit.  We pray that we and all humanity might know the love of Jesus and that we may understand that the way we live our lives themselves are prayer.

In church many have written prayers and created focal points for prayer and I’m certain that God can even decipher the thoughts behind the writing which is incomprehensible to the human eye! Even more he discerns our deepest thoughts and emotions this morning.

In our prayers we are helped by the spirit, we often pray in the power of the spirit and in union with Christ. We may find Paul’s words from his letter to the Romans helpful this morning as we struggle to articulate our feelings, he wrote ‘we do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.’ In plain English the Spirit helps us to pray when words simply are not enough, going far deeper, opening us up to God.

Certain disciplines and exercises may help our daily prayer, many find God in nature, in stillness, meditation, study and imagination. Involuntary prayer occurs when we receive news be it good or bad.

If we’re honest we sometimes find prayer hard and may often only think of it in formal terms but being open to the Spirit is prayer in itself. Devoting work and the proceeds of all types work to God are prayer. Stepping outside our comfort zone to do stuff that pleases God is prayer.

Using words can often feel difficult, clumsy, inadequate, ask anyone who ever leads prayers publicly, doing so can make the person feel exposed, what if people think my prayers are stupid, offensive, too short, too long, I hope no one imagines that just because I’m prepared to have a go that I think I’m Holy or devout or more able to pray than they are. This can only ever be one small part of each person’s prayer life and it would be a mistake to think ‘that’s me done for another week’.

Then we have to try and avoid the selfish prayers, I remember the story of a man returning home to his village after a day at work and he sees smoke billowing over the hill, ‘O Lord please don’t let it be my house that is on fire’ he instinctively prays.

Sometimes when different generations use evolving language it can be difficult to keep up, how many of us would have thought that if something is ‘absolutely sick’ that the person means ‘it’s great.’ Hey God the trees look absolutely sick at the moment, we don’t need to worry whether they look fantastic or are diseased, God will know what we mean.

We sometimes hear a techy person using terms we can’t relate to, we wonder are they speaking English and it’s clear that even in our common language there’s plenty of problems understanding each other.

It can be the same when some people hear about generosity, trust, compassion, sacrifice and God’s unconditional love. It’s no good them being told about or reading of this if they never experience it. The experience is the point of crystal clear translation, which is where we come in, where we can make the Holy Spirit a reality for others. What a great revelation it must be to those who come to know what these things really mean for the first time, finally someone is speaking their language.

In considering our written prayers over the last few days amongst many others they seek compassion for the bereaved, life with God for the dead, mending of broken relationships, peace, healing and support for physical and mental health challenges, continued joy from the support of community, family and friends. To prayers for those suffering from the Manchester attacks we add all affected in London last night.

As we look around our congregation and beyond to the wider community it is evident that the Spirit is alive in the varied gifts we have among us and the way that people employ them. We collectively possess Spiritual Gifts that can work towards a great deal of what people have prayed for, our prayers can be answered at least in part by the way we serve each other and we may discover that much of what we pray for can be found very close to home.

May our response to evil be inspiration to live lives that make God’s love a reality.


Kevin Bright

4th June 2017

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Easter 7 : Upheld by grace

“Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”
The disciples are standing on a mountainside with Jesus, forty days after his resurrection. They seem to know that this is a significant moment, a moment when everything is going to change, but they don’t know how. The question they ask reveals just how much they haven’t understood, because they get it just about as wrong as they could possibly do.
In fact, there are four big misunderstandings in that one short question, and they are misunderstandings that I think we often share.

 “Is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”
The first thing they get wrong is the pronoun. “Is this the time when YOU will restore…?” When Jesus ascends into heaven they’ll discover that this is, in fact, the moment when THEY will have to start doing the work.  “You will be my witnesses…” says Jesus to them.  “What are you doing looking up into heaven?” the angels ask them. There is work to do and they’re going to be the ones to do it. If they don’t do it, no one will.  

The second thing they get wrong is that word “restore”.  “Restore” means put back. They are hoping to reclaim some golden age of the past, but what God is calling them to is something utterly different. They’ll find themselves formed into new communities which cross all the boundaries they’re used to, communities where men and women, slave and free, Jew and gentile are equal in status and dignity. All the assumptions and patterns of life they’ve grown up with will be challenged .

Linked to that mistake about restoration is a similar misunderstanding about the word “kingdom”.  Of course, Jesus has talked a lot about the kingdom during his ministry, but it is a very different kingdom from the one they seem to have in mind. The fact that they use the word “restore” shows that.  The high point in Jewish history had been in the time of the kingdoms of David and Solomon. Their kingdoms had been won and sustained by military strength. David and Solomon had been wealthy and politically powerful, respected by other nations around them. But the kingdom Jesus had talked about was one which there would be no earthly glory. He’d sided with the weak and the outcast. He’d said that the least and last would be greatest and first in his kingdom. He’d lived and died as a servant, not a despot. A crown of thorns was the only crown he’d ever worn and a cross had been his only throne. His kingdom wouldn’t be like anything they’d seen or heard of before.

Their fourth and final mistake was the word “Israel”. The new kingdom that they were being called to build wasn’t going to be something just for their nation, for their people, but for the whole world. It would be good news for their enemies as well as  their friends. Even the Romans who’d oppressed them, who’d killed Jesus, would be welcome to be part of it. Just a few chapters later we find a Roman centurion, Cornelius, filled with the Spirit, becoming part of the early church with all his household.  It was a real challenge for these Jewish disciples to get their heads around this, to realise that God wasn’t the property of Israel, but a God who was at home in every nation, every heart.

So, four mistakes in one short question.  That’s quite an achievement! The disciples know that something is coming, that God is on the move, but they’ve misunderstood completely what that will mean. And the true picture will be one that is rather more challenging than the one they’d anticipated.

They knew that this moment mattered, that it was a moment of change, but they thought it would be a military or political change, led by their own Jewish superhero commander-in-chief, Jesus. They thought it would bring back the glory days of  David and Solomon, and that all the world would bow to Israel. What they are actually being called to is a difficult and sometimes dangerous task, which won’t bring them any kind of wealth or power for themselves at all. No wonder they stand staring up into heaven. They must think there’s been some mistake.

I expect we can sympathise with them. Wouldn’t we all like a hero to come along and do all the work for us, to sort out the troubles in the world and in our own lives as if by magic?  We look at the challenges we face , personally or politically - and this week they have been all too obvious – and we long for someone to swoop down from the sky and rescue us. But that’s not how it works. It wasn’t then, and it isn’t now. It is we who are called to action, we who must respond, but like those first disciples I expect most us don’t feel up to the task.

I’m reminded of a poem about the Ascension by Denise Levertov. I’ve put it on your pew leaflets. It’s called “Suspended” and it’s about that moment when Jesus ascends to heaven. Levertov imagines trying to hold onto “God’s garment”.

I had grasped God's garment in the void
but my hand slipped
on the rich silk of it.
The 'everlasting arms' my sister liked to remember
must have upheld my leaden weight
from falling, even so,
for though I claw at empty air and feel
nothing, no embrace,
I have not plummeted.

Denise Levertov (1923–1997)

“I have not plummeted,” she says. Sometimes it feels as if we are doomed to failure, sure to fall, pulled down by things that are just too heavy for us to cope with, but, she says, somehow we realise that God’s grace is holding us up. He doesn’t do the work for us, but he gives us strength to face the challenge. All our instincts tell us to despair, but by God’s grace we manage to hope, not perfectly, not all the time, but enough for us to realise that something miraculous is happening, something beyond our ability to understand

That’s what I think Levertov means when she says “I have not plummeted.”  We might not always cope elegantly in times of trouble. It might not be comfortable. But I have seen, again and again, people finding the strength to stagger on until they arrive at the borders of the new world, the new kingdom, into which God’s calling us.

I look at the people of Manchester, coming together to sing and to pray and to reassert common values of love and inclusion, in the face of all that has happened to them, and I marvel. I look at the many people who endure unimaginable hardships in Syria and yet keep working for peace and justice there, or those who, in refugee camps, start schools which try, against all the odds, to give children a taste of normal life and I marvel. I look at those who struggle to treat the wounded on the front lines of the world without the drugs and equipment that modern medicine takes for granted, and I marvel.  I look at all those who hang onto hope, who resist evil, who work for a better world in the teeth of opposition and discouragement and I marvel. I look at those who face personal challenges of illness and sorrow that ought to break them and yet don’t, people I come across daily in my work, and I marvel at them too. Faith, hope and love somehow abide, even in the most terrible of circumstances.

At this point, you may, of course, be saying, “that’s all very well, but I’m right in the middle of a crisis now, and I’m not at all sure that there are any everlasting arms holding me up. How can I find that sense of assurance?”

It’s a reasonable question, and perhaps it is the last few verses of our first reading which help us to answer them. What do the disciples do when they realise they are going to have to do this work themselves, in charge of a mission for which they don’t feel at all equipped?

We’re told two things. First, they come together, all together. Not just the eleven named disciples, but the women who’ve followed Jesus and supported him, and Mary and his brothers, the whole motley assortment.  Faithful or doubting, with all their differing opinions, this rather random group of people gathered together. It’s tempting, in times of trouble, to withdraw, perhaps assuming that everyone else has it all sorted out, and it’s just us who is struggling, but it is rarely so. And each of us is God’s gift to all the rest of us. Those “everlasting arms” which uphold us are often known in the flesh and blood arms of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

The second thing the disciples do is to devote themselves to prayer, just as we are going to be doing next Friday and Saturday.  They don’t just sit around feeling daunted or worried. They pray. They tell it like it is to God. “We want to build your kingdom, God, but we don’t know what we’re doing. Show us how. Guide us. Give us strength.” And it’s not just a one-off prayer. They devote themselves to it. They keep going. They make it a habit to tell God that they can’t do what he is calling them to. And that means that ten days later, when he sends his Spirit on them, in that same upper room, they’re wide open to receive it. And the wind of the Spirit blows them out across the world. And the love of the Spirit draws them into that community that seemed so unlikely. And the power of the Spirit strengthens them to do what seemed impossible.

Prayer isn’t an optional extra for the super-spiritual. It is a survival strategy for all of us. It doesn’t matter whether our prayers are full of fancy words, or have no words at all. It doesn’t matter whether they are full of faith and hope, or full of doubt and anger. It is the act of opening ourselves up to God that matters. When we do that, we give up the idea that we have to sort ourselves out, and that means God can act in us and through us.

“I have not plummeted,” said Denise Levertov. May we, this week and every week, in prayer together, discover God’s miraculous grace, which holds us up and leads us on until we get to the place we need to be.