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.


Friday, 26 May 2017

Ascension Day: Battered and scarred

Happy Christmas!
You probably think I have had a bit of a brain fade, but there is a sense in which today is really the end of the season of Christmas, not of Easter.
At Christmas we celebrate God coming down to us, in the shape of a baby, vulnerable and helpless, as all babies are, pure and innocent, as all babies are. God comes to us as a clean slate, a new beginning , someone as yet untouched by the world into which he has been born, just as all babies are. But he is born into a maelstrom of hardship, sin and hatred, as all babies are too. His hands will grow calloused in the carpenter’s workshop. His feet will ache from walking the roads of Galilee. And in the end he will hang battered and bloody, on the cross. Even when he rises from death, his body will still bear the scars the world has inflicted on him.
And that is the body which, according to the stories we hear on Ascension Day, rises into heaven. Not the cherubic baby, with silky smooth skin and tiny, perfect, sea-shell ears, but the body marked by the hardships of life and death.
It was shocking – offensive even – to the people of Jesus’ time to imagine that God could be found in the form of a crucified man. Crucifixion was a disgrace, a sign of God’s rejection. Jewish law forbade those who were diseased or disabled entry into the Temple. Mangled bodies were unholy, a sign of God’s rejection, a sign of failure. Gentile Greek thought idealised physical beauty too – there was nothing unusual about this equation between physical and moral beauty. The Greeks even used the same word – kalos – to mean beautiful and morally good; think of all those ancient sculptures which celebrated the perfect body.  Morality and appearance were inextricably linked. That’s something we’ve never entirely shaken off, but at the time of Jesus it was almost unquestioned. How, then,  could Jesus possibly be God’s Messiah?
That’s why the early church set so much store by Ascension Day, why it mattered so much to them. It was the proof to them that you could be battered, mangled, suffering, a complete failure in the world’s eyes, and yet be loved and honoured by God. And that’s why it seems to me that this day is the completion of Christmas, the completion of  Christ’s work of incarnation. At Christmas, Christ came down to us, to be where we are. But on Ascension Day, he took us back with him into heaven, wounds, scars and all. He took into heaven the mess of the world, a world where young men grow up so twisted inside that they think it is a good idea to blow up children and young people enjoying a pop concert. He presented that world to his Father, the world which had torn him apart, whose scars he bore, and his Father didn’t turn away in disgust. Instead, in the beautiful words of Revelation 21, he turned towards it – towards us - and turns towards us still, wiping every tear from our eyes, and making all things new.
It doesn’t matter that today we know that heaven isn’t in the sky, that the “up” and “down” of this story doesn’t really work for us anymore. The message is the same. We are where God is, just as we are. God is where we are, just as God is. There’s no barrier, no wall, nothing that divides us. There’s nothing that we can do, or can have done to us, which keeps us apart from God. We don’t have to hide what is broken or ugly in us. We don’t have to reject what is broken or ugly in others. That means that we are set free to love and to forgive ourselves and others too. In the face of sin and evil such as we have seen this week, we are set free to cry “Lord, have mercy,” instead of “Lord, take vengeance”.
Just as he was, scarred and battered, Jesus was taken into the heart of his Father on Ascension Day. Just as we are, scarred and battered – scarring and battering -we are taken into his heart today too, so that he can make all things new in us.

Monday, 22 May 2017

Easter 6: God's children. Breathing Space Communion sermon

“I will not leave you orphaned” says Jesus in today’s Gospel reading. I wonder what images come to your mind when you hear the word “orphan”. Perhaps Little Orphan Annie, or a character from Charles Dickens – his stories are full of orphans like Oliver Twist or Pip from Great Expectations. Orphans are common in Victorian novels, partly because there were so many of them, in an age when parents died of many things they would now easily survive. I’ve looked back into my family tree, and found my great-great grandfather in a workhouse at the age of 5 with his older sister. His mother had died of cholera, and I've never been able to trace what happened to the father. At 13, he was working as a farm labourer, then became a navvy, and died in his 40’s of pneumonia after an all-too-short life of hardship which would seem unimaginable to most of us. What chance did he have?

Or perhaps when you hear the word “orphan” you think of the many orphans there are around the world now in places where life is still fragile and perilous. Sub-Saharan Africa has a huge population of orphans, many of whom have lost parents to AIDS. 11 million children under the age of 15 in Sub-Saharan Africa have lost one or both parents to the disease; some are being cared for by their wider family, others have no family to support them.

The word “orphan” is a powerful and somewhat terrifying one. It is every parent’s worst nightmare to think of their children having to navigate the world alone, and every small child’s worst nightmare to find themselves alone without a friendly adult to help them.

But of course Jesus isn't speaking to small children when he speaks those words we heard today. He’s speaking to his disciples on the night before he dies. They are grown adults, burly fishermen who've sailed boats through gales, tax-collectors who've had to deal with the Roman political and military machine, women who have lived on the margins of their societies, and had to develop quick wits and courage. Yet he recognises that when they lose him, first to crucifixion and then as he ascends to his Father in heaven, they will feel lost, bereft, uncertain. They will have to make their own decisions, take on the work he has called them to. And it won’t be easy. They will face persecution. They will feel orphaned.

The fact is that, however old we are, however much we’ve been through, we all come to points in our lives when we realise we can’t face life on our own, when we look around for someone who knows what they are doing or who at least looks as if they do. We may be grown up chronologically, but there’s a small child in each of us, looking for help and guidance.

“I will not leave you orphaned” says Jesus. What does he mean? The rest of the reading makes it clear. Through his Holy Spirit, he say, they will feel his presence in an even deeper way than the way they have until then. Up until now, they have had to physically be with him to see him, hear him and feel him. But the Spirit of God will be within them, like the sap that rises through the grapevine, like the blood that circulates through their veins, closer than their own heartbeat. And the Spirit will be known too in their community – the Spirit isn’t some personal possession, but will be in the love that draws them to each other.

In our first reading, from the book of Acts, St Paul stands on a well-known debating place in Athens, the centre of philosophical learning in the ancient world. Athens was home to people of every philosophy, every religion and none. He had walked there past a bewildering array of shrines to this god and that goddess, and had even found one to “the unknown god” – a way of hedging your bets just in case you’d forgotten one. The shrines were mute testaments to the human longing to reach out beyond ourselves, to find support and care in a vast and sometimes lonely universe. But Paul is confident as he talks to these people that he has found the source of the love that is really needed. “We are God’s offspring” he says, his own children, known, loved and held in his safe embrace, children of a God who loved us so much that he came among us himself, served us and died for us.

“I will not leave you orphaned”. Whatever we face, we do not face it alone, but surrounded by love that nothing can destroy.