Sunday after Ascension

Collect

O God the King of glory, you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven: we beseech you, leave us not comfortless, but send your Holy Spirit to strengthen us and exalt us to the place where our Saviour Christ is gone before, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

(or)

Risen, ascended Lord, as we rejoice at your triumph, fill your Church on earth with power and compassion, that all who are estranged by sin may find forgiveness and know your peace, to the glory of God the Father.

Readings

A reading from Acts

In those days Peter stood up among the believers (together the crowd numbered about one hundred and twenty people) and said, ‘Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus— for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.’

So one of the men who have accompanied us throughout the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.’ So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. Then they prayed and said, ‘Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.’ And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.

Acts 1:15–17, 21–26

Psalm

1  Blessed are they who have not walked

      in the counsel of the wicked, •

   assembly of the scornful.

2  Their delight is in the law of the Lord •

   and they meditate on his law day and night.

3  Like a tree planted by streams of water bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither, •

   whatever they do, it shall prosper.

4  As for the wicked, it is not so with them; •

   they are like chaff which the wind blows away.

5  Therefore the wicked shall not be able to stand in the judgement, •

   nor the sinner in the congregation of the righteous.

6  For the Lord knows the way of the righteous, •

   but the way of the wicked shall perish.

Psalm 1

Epistle

If we receive human testimony, the testimony of God is greater; for this is the testimony of God that he has testified to his Son. Those who believe in the Son of God have the testimony in their hearts. Those who do not believe in God have made him a liar by not believing in the testimony that God has given concerning his Son. And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.

I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.

1 John 5:9–13

Gospel

‘I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.

John 17:6–19

Sermon on Sunday after Ascension

Today is the Sunday after the Ascension. I don’t think the Ascension is a well-known christian festival. It came into the foreground for me when Bishop Michael came to the diocese. He had organised a eucharist over at Ozzleworth on a beautiful Ascension evening. It was quite an occasion, as some of the clergy and readers had been invited to enjoy a repast at the “big house” afterward. We got to know each other better over the meal, Bishop Michael essentially introducing himself to this deanery. — So you can see why this particular holy day holds some warm memories for me. But I must return to the subject matter – Ascension.

This notion of rising is something that we all know in our lives, isn’t it? We all want to better ourselves – to get on in the world, as they used to say – to rise above the crowd and make our mark. This is a natural understanding of ascending, like in that verse describing the angels ascending and descending around the Son of Man.

This lifting up is true of ourselves, but it also describes our hopes, doesn’t it? Don’t we all want to lift our hopes high not just for ourselves, but also for those around us? I don’t think every one of us is so selfish that we don’t have hopes for those around us. Certainly this is true for parents as they contemplate their children. Brothers and sisters hope for better lives for their siblings, don’t they? Even if you don’t get on with your family, you don’t really wish them ill, do you?

Now what do you hope for on behalf of your friends and neighbours? Certainly we wish them well, don’t we? We know them for the greater part, and know that they would appreciate rising above the mass of humanity in some way and so we hope for them. However, you might understand why people don’t wish the stranger well. We just have to remember the story of the Samaritan, don’t we?

These thoughts have all arisen because of a comment on a controversy in the United States. The chaplain of Congress has been at the centre of a dispute, one which, I think, is central to being human, that being which lives and moves in the midst of others – the controversy arose because the Jesuit chaplain ‘Conroy had prayed that lawmakers would [and I quote] “guarantee that there are not winners and losers under new tax laws, but benefits balanced and shared by all Americans.” [and then the commentator went on to say,] Oh-oh! Speaker Paul Ryan, also a Catholic, muscled in, according to Conroy, saying: “Padre, you just got to stay out of politics.”’

The commentary went on to talk about the fundamentally political nature of all life, cenobitic or eremitic, in the midst of society or as a hermit cut off from everyone. But that is not why I brought up Mr Conroy’s predicament. It was his aspirations, how he wanted all to ascend. He wanted all to rise above the mire of poverty or hardship. The prayer was that everyone should benefit. Isn’t this what our christian love is all about?

Is this a political agenda? No, I would say it is hope in the ascendent, wouldn’t you? Isn’t this what everyone wants – that all will benefit from each other? A political agenda is when we prescribe just how we would accomplish our hopes. The capitalist sees the hope being attained through the capitalisation of work by those with foresight and money to invest and risk all. The communist sees the hope achieved by the communal ownership of all things and shared work. Both political agenda hope in the same loving care of all within society, but they work it out so very differently from each other, don’t they?

When we hope for the ascension of humanity, when we pray for the ascension of humanity, we are not politically motivated. No, we are driven by the Lord, our Lord who rose into the heavens to sit at the Father’s right hand, who promised us the Holy Spirit as a comforter in our despair at his crucifixion. Our aspirations are holy, without prejudice and programme. – Well, if there is a programme, the scheme is love; and as we all know love is all encompassing and open, without any artifice of plan and skullduggery.

Love has to be the highest form of ascent for human being. Is there anything else that can overcome any of the usual barriers between people? The total giving of self to another lifts us up from the muck of our busy and too-often self-centred lives, where cloying narcissism obscures all beauty and altruism, where obdurate material aims tend to smother us.

We ascend through love. The heights we rise to are magnificent, in fact they are infinite when we love God. The constraints of personality and history are burst apart when the Other becomes the focus of our attention and our care. We ascend to new levels through this thoughtfulness for others. Isn’t this the summit which is our goal? Isn’t this the heaven of hearts in love? Hasn’t the Church always pointed us in that direction? Surely, we must agree, this has to be the locus of our ascension.

The Ascension of Jesus Christ is what the theologian calls a mythos through which we capture meaning. The theologian would also say that the Ascension of Jesus Christ is a potent symbol for the believer.

The believer can use this symbol to understand where she is in the world, to understand how he is in the world. This where and how allows us to take our direction on the journey of life.

When we confess that Jesus “ascended to the right hand of the Father” where he is worshipped and glorified with the Father and the Holy Spirit, we mark out the dimensions of our world and how we want to live in it. When we ascend through love, our world is limitless and without a limiting plan. We “let it be”, as the song goes, and our only thought is to keep the barriers down. – It is ever so simple, at least for the believer.

I have been reading in the missal lately, and there the daily antiphons continually raise our hopes in this the season between Easter and Pentecost. The resurrection is to inspire us to live and work for the Kingdom of Heaven. Our aspirations are found in the facts of our faith which are reflected in the antiphons.

Those antiphons inform our lives, repeating the mystery of the first-fruits of the resurrection for our lives. No longer will the leaven of malice infect us, but rather the love of God will innoculate us and keep us healthy as we take the medicine of immortality in the eucharist.

Amen

Easter 5

Collect

Almighty God, who through your only-begotten Son Jesus Christ have overcome death and opened to us the gate of everlasting life: grant that, as by your grace going before us you put into our minds good desires, so by your continual help we may bring them to good effect; through Jesus Christ our risen Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

(or)

Risen Christ, your wounds declare your love for the world and the wonder of your risen life: give us compassion and courage to risk ourselves for those we serve, to the glory of God the Father.

Readings

Reading from Acts

Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Get up and go towards the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over to this chariot and join it.’ So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ He replied, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:

‘Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,

   and like a lamb silent before its shearer,

     so he does not open his mouth.

In his humiliation justice was denied him.

   Who can describe his generation?

     For his life is taken away from the earth.’

The eunuch asked Philip, ‘About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?’ Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, ‘Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?’ He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.

Acts 8:26–40

Psalm

25  From you comes my praise in the great congregation; •

   I will perform my vows

      in the presence of those that fear you.

26  The poor shall eat and be satisfied; •

   those who seek the Lord shall praise him;

      their hearts shall live for ever.

27  All the ends of the earth

      shall remember and turn to the Lord, •

   and all the families of the nations shall bow before him.

28  For the kingdom is the Lord’s •

   and he rules over the nations.

29  How can those who sleep in the earth

      bow down in worship, •

   or those who go down to the dust kneel before him?

30  He has saved my life for himself;

      my descendants shall serve him; •

   this shall be told of the Lord for generations to come.

31  They shall come and make known his salvation,

      to a people yet unborn, •

   declaring that he, the Lord, has done it.

Psalm 22

Epistle

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Saviour of the world. God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgement, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us. Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

1 John 4:7–21

Gospel

‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.

John 15:1-8

Sermon on Easter 5

“In his humiliation justice was denied him.” This is a very strange verse, a verse I don’t immediately understand. Like the Ethiopian Eunuch, I would like Philip to sit by my side to explore the meaning of these words.

However, Philip is not here. You are. – Let’s explore the story together. The Ethiopian Eunuch is a very powerful political-economic figure, isn’t he? Luke describes him as a court official. In fact, we would call him “the chancellor of the exchequer” for Candace the Queen of the Ethiopians. He was, Luke says, “in charge of her entire treasury.” Her entire treasury – imagine that. He must have been quite a figure riding in a chariot – and reading the prophet Isaiah on top of it all. Who normally rides in a chariot? Military commanders to be sure – they are the heavy cavalry. Chariots are instruments of war – they thunder down roads scattering everyone in their path, don’t they? I suppose if a tank were coming down St John’s Road, wouldn’t all of us scatter? The powerful would ride in a chariot in ancient times. Court officials would obviously travel in chariots. Here is a man of status in that political world travelling along the road as only a court official in charge of the treasury could do.

But this important man is a eunuch. This makes him a very peculiar figure in that world. Who takes a eunuch seriously? – well, Candace did, but who else? In the middle east of ages ago powerful men were like David and Solomon, with many wives and concubines. They flaunted their “power” in the guise of their manhood – their “women”. A eunuch could do nothing of that sort. He was isolated and marginalised, even though he was in charge of the entire treasury.

The eunuch can be seen as a metaphor for the people to whom the message of Jesus would mean so much. The gospel could be explained through the history of humanity, and those people, who experienced many of the things described in the bible, would like to understand – if only it were explained to them.

So our verse would make perfect sense to a great many of the people of the time, as they experienced this fact – “in humiliation justice was denied.” Like the eunuch, they asked to whom does such a verse of a sacred book refer? They experienced humiliation and the denial of justice, but why is such a figure in the book? To those on the outside, this verse makes no sense.

Philip went up to the eunuch and sat with him. He thus was able to talk this man through the whole history of salvation and reveal Jesus as that man who was humiliated and denied justice. His eyes were opened and he saw, he understood that Jesus and he were linked intimately.

What linked them? That Jesus lived and died in real time in front of witnesses was very important at the time, and even today it is. The link was death. Jesus was the man whose “life is taken away from the earth.” This was revealed as good news. Philip proclaimed it, and the eunuch saw it.

His eyes opened, and he saw the symbolic reality of his life and that of this man, Jesus, who was humiliated and denied justice and whose life was taken away from the earth. In this symbolic reality the eunuch and we finally comprehend life.

His eyes opened and he saw water where this happened. The Ethiopian then asked “Why not baptise me here?” Everything has changed for this fellow. He now understands the book he had on his lap – he now sees the divine here and now – he now sees his life in a greater context, a universal and eternal context.

In what context, do we see this story of the eunuch? Let’s look at the beginning of the story again. The eunuch “had come to Jerusalem to worship”. This fellow had come all the way from Ethiopia to worship in Jerusalem – this is a mighty act for anyone to accomplish. Easier for this rich man, but quite a feat nonetheless. Going to Jerusalem was not something people would normally do, especially a Jew of the diaspora, although the Passover farewell “Next year in Jerusalem” rings in contemporary ears. Candace’s exchequer is able to travel to Jerusalem to worship, to read the word of God and to ponder it, but more importantly to discuss it with those around him. Philip appeared at the right time for him and was able shed light on the passage of scripture before him.

The New Testament is full of people who are Jews. They go to the Temple to worship at the centre of the world, the centre of their religious world. This is overturned, their everyday understanding of worship and what is expected is completely changed into a new day, the dawn of the new age when a river, instead of being merely flowing water becomes a means of transformation, the vehicle for baptism.

With these new eyes, the world is transformed and the world no longer has the old values. Now the eunuch sees everything in a very different way. That water, for instance, becomes baptism.

The extraordinary continues when Philip is taken away to the coast to preach and teach in all the cities there. Philip himself goes into a new world of sharing the gospel, the Word of God, just as he did with this Ethiopian, this eunuch who was ever so powerful in the life of Queen Candace’s court.

Philip was then transported to places far away where he continued his work. But how did this happen? I do not want to explain away this miracle, but I would ask you to remember that such miracles happen in our lives – for instance, how do we come to be in this church at this time? Can we explain away how we come here? No, I don’t think we can. We often say we just arrived, don’t we?

We have arrived, this is the new Jerusalem for us where we will worship, where we will travel with the book in our lap as we ponder its meaning. We are here at the centre of our world where we have come to worship, and we depart to new destinations. In the new world where God is the centre of all reality, we could barge around in chariots or walk about quietly. Here we live and move and have our being in places never imagined in the era of the young churches. This is the new age where Philip has walked before us, discussing the good news with anyone who would spend time with him. Are we prepared to live in this new world? Will we sit down with strangers and talk of many things – whether it is cabbages and kings or what is right and good? I certainly hope so.

Amen

Easter 4

Collect

Almighty God, whose Son Jesus Christ is the resurrection and the life: raise us, who trust in him, from the death of sin to the life of righteousness, that we may seek those things which are above, where he reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

(or)

Risen Christ, faithful shepherd of your Father’s sheep: teach us to hear your voice and to follow your command, that all your people may be gathered into one flock, to the glory of God the Father.

Readings

Old Testament

The next day their rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem, with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family. When they had made the prisoners stand in their midst, they inquired, ‘By what power or by what name did you do this?’ Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, ‘Rulers of the people and elders, if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. This Jesus is

“the stone that was rejected by you, the builders;

   it has become the cornerstone.”

There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.’

Acts 4:5–12

Psalm

  The Lord is my shepherd; •

   therefore can I lack nothing.

  He makes me lie down in green pastures •

   and leads me beside still waters.

  He shall refresh my soul •

   and guide me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

  Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,

      I will fear no evil; •

   for you are with me;

      your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

  You spread a table before me

      in the presence of those who trouble me; •

   you have anointed my head with oil

      and my cup shall be full.

  Surely goodness and loving mercy shall follow me

      all the days of my life, •

   and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

Psalm 23

Epistle

We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?

Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.

And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.

1 John 3:16–24

Gospel

 ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.’

John 10:11–18

Sermon on Easter 4

Risen Christ, faithful shepherd of your Father’s sheep: teach us to hear your voice and to follow your command, that all your people may be gathered into one flock, to the glory of God the Father. Amen.

This alternative collect sets the theme for my thoughts today, as I begin with these verses from today’s gospel.

I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. … and they will listen to my voice.

Jesus is speaking to us. However I have to ask, do we really hear him? Who is the shepherd of our souls? The shepherd of this scattered flock? The shepherd whose voice is heard and recognised by his own sheep?

As 21st century schizoid humanity, we can answer this in many different ways, one for each of the personalities we exhibit through course of our lives, or even through the waking hours of our day.

One way we can answer this is in what we call our “secular” lives by naming our head of state or prime minister. Perhaps it is our boss at work, since we are terrified by him. We stand in awe of the head of the department and bow to his authority. We quake when we have to approach his private office, his sanctum, don’t we?

In our personal lives, we name our life coach or guru, don’t we? There are many people we take as our leader, aren’t there? Sometimes this shepherd is closer to home, our loved ones, our family members, perhaps husband, wife, our children, then there might be father,  mother, even a brother, or a sister…. So many people shepherd us in so many ways.

The question of this guiding shepherd presents itself to every generation. Sometimes it is a question that is never asked, as we listen to the many voices around us, as we are guided by someone else.

In our more reflective moments, don’t we wonder who cares for us as our shepherd? In this epoch don’t we wonder about the course of our life and what the guiding principles are in it? Clearly the early church struggled with this same question. Our gospel passage reveals this concern, don’t you think? Why else would this story come down to us? Why would the gospeller recount this story?

So, who is the shepherd whose voice we hear? This is not a question about delusion or brainwashing. We are not talking about the hearing of voices which no one else catches. It is a question about the voice we hear when our conscience is pricked and we are uncomfortable about everything around us. What is the voice we hear when the call of conscience – God’s call – screeches in our ear drowning out all the noise of the everyday? Who is this voice? Our gospel tells us that if we are the sheep, we hear our shepherd’s voice clearly.

Our text today sets a very difficult problem for each one of us. Do I really know that good shepherd as well as he says he knows me? I ask this question because I have been working on the farm again where there are sheep. These sheep run past me just as I want to look a particular lamb over. Whoosh, and ten lambs dash by and I am left standing there without a clue – I am the hireling, I am only a substitute shepherd, and I don’t know them well, and I certainly would not lay my life down for them at this point in my career as a shepherd.

So I am in two minds as to how helpful this image of the shepherd is for me. On the one hand, I am not a knowledgeable shepherd, for I don’t know the flock very well, I cannot tell each sheep apart from every other one. And, on the other hand,  I am not very good at handling them. I am not sure of myself as a shepherd, and I cannot extrapolate from my knowledge to that symbol of the good shepherd, the symbol which the universal Church has held before us in so many ways in its history.

Does the good shepherd know me in that same way as I know that small flock? When we all begin chattering away in the anonymity of the crowd, does the shepherd get confused when my voice is raised in petitionary prayer amongst the gabbling of the rest of humanity. That shepherd has told us that he knows each and every one of his sheep – and I don’t know a thing when I stand there in the midst of the small flock I help with. I am dumbfounded as I stand in the midst of the pen – I am struck dumb as I stand here before the Lord.

“And they will listen to my voice…” Those words come to me and bolster me, even if I am not a very good shepherd. I know that I am not a very good shepherd, and my consciousness of my own deficiencies informs my image of the good shepherd. I know what I should be able to do with the sheep, but, like all humanity, I fail at the task before me.

So I have confidence in that good shepherd whose voice I hear in the call of my conscience. I hear a voice which is not tainted with the clamour of the everyday crowd which presses all around me, much like those sheep who congregate around me in the pen. I am able to look and observe what is happening. I am able to assess what is right and what is wrong around me. That sheep with a dodgy something clearly stares at me and I need to care for it.

When I hear the call of conscience, it is an imperative which drives me away from the crowd. Sometimes I do not even understand it either, but I am caught up with it – I am driven apart. I can no longer follow the herd. That call of conscience drives me into myself so that I must act on my own, for myself. Yet that doesn’t mean I withdraw from the world. Not at all! The call of conscience has driven me here, to stand before you and talk about that call, to speak about that voice of Jesus which speaks to my very self. It is nothing more, and nothing less, than pure authenticity, I may agree with the mass of humanity, but that decision is not just “going along” with the crowd. I stand as myself hearing the voice of my shepherd causing me to act consciously and conscientiously.

That shepherd’s voice is one we all hear, if we would take the time to listen. It is part of the clamour of everyday life. That voice underpins everything. When we can strip the everyday, ordinary things away from our lives, when we still those things that distract us from the good and noble, when we take away everything which deflects us from the divine, we are left with our conscience as it calls us to ourselves. IF we listen, then we will be able to follow the true path, in that flock which gathers together under the protection of Jesus, our good shepherd.

Amen

Easter 2

Collect

Almighty Father, you have given your only Son to die for our sins and to rise again for our justification: grant us so to put away the leaven of malice and wickedness that we may always serve you in pureness of living and truth; through the merits of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

(or)

Risen Christ, for whom no door is locked, no entrance barred: open the doors of our hearts, that we may seek the good of others and walk the joyful road of sacrifice and peace, to the praise of God the Father.

Readings

Old Testament

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.

Acts 4:32–35

Psalm

1  Behold how good and pleasant it is •

   to dwell together in unity.

2  It is like the precious oil upon the head, •

   running down upon the beard,

3  Even on Aaron’s beard, •

   running down upon the collar of his clothing.

4  It is like the dew of Hermon •

   running down upon the hills of Zion.

5  For there the Lord has promised his blessing: •

   even life for evermore.

Psalm 133

Epistle

We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us— we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.

This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

1 John 1:1–2:2

Gospel

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

John 20:19–31

Sermon on Easter 2

Today we are consumed by fear of extremists, aren’t we? Who are they? Why are they disturbing everything we hold dear? What do they want with me? I am a nobody – I have no money, no power, no prestige. Why terrorise me?

However, terror is not an issue just in our time. Terror has always roamed the world. In the beginnings of the Church universal, there was persecution. The Church went into hiding to escape. Later in the middle ages, the Church itself became an agent of terror, when it pursued the Crusades. Nowadays, there is terror from jihadists, those who would invoke God for acts of violence, christian or muslim. Is this terror any different from any other time in the life of the Church? Do we call upon a divinity who mirrors our own fear?

In these times of terror, I want each and every one of you to become radicals – even to the point of being arrested as being a threat to the status quo – but I want you to be extremists in love. How many people today would be arrested for their radical love? How many people would be imprisoned for their acts of kindness?

This is what the gospel is all about – not random acts, but constant acts of kindness, a profound care, that same love for the world which our saviour showed in his last acts on earth, in the sharing of bread and wine, his body and blood, amongst those who would believe in him.

These thoughts of a radicalised love have arisen because of the events of Easter. With Easter there is something very different in the world. There is a new energy at work, isn’t there? No longer is it the same old, same old – no longer do we feel that we have to fit in with the rather poor decisions around us. We have been freed from the constraints of the everyday world.

The resurrection is not just a theological construct to explain away the empty tomb. We have gone through the horror of the passion and we have emerged from the empty tomb. What terror can the world hold for us now?

Human beings live in a web – the laws of nature, the rules of etiquette, the expectations of the masses, the law of the land, social norms, anthropological necessity, the categorical imperative, the boundaries of good taste, moral fastidiousness. This web can be experienced and interpreted as constricting, or it can be liberating.

We are all, indeed, bound up in the red tape of everyday existence. The laws of the country, for instance, do constrain us in everything we do. If I live here, then I have to abide by “law” in its many guises, don’t I? Theologians and their abstract thoughts do have something to say to us in our everyday, relatively simple, activity. As we go about our ordinary activities, their considerations touch the heart of our lives as christians, as followers of the way. That great theologian, Paul, spoke of the law, its dead letter and its spirit. He told us how we should live by the spirit of the law, as did Jesus, because the law ‘was made for man’. That is the basis of my plea for you all to become radicals – to live by the one law Jesus commanded us, that we love one another.

Our Lord commanded us to love one another just as he loves us. That is a law which trumps any legality our politicians would dream up. It is a law which binds us to one another and to something which transcends us all.

Who acts kindly out of love every moment of the day, at all times in their lives? Only Jesus did, I think. Only Jesus lived a life of radical love, an extremist’s love. Even in the extremis of the final moments, Jesus never stopped his care, “Forgive them!” he said. The saints must have had moments when they forgot that inner compulsion to love. Occasionally their hearts showed a flinty hardness, rather than that softer human characteristic of flesh – the human heart which bleeds for others, that human heart which breaks all too often. This is the real heart God has placed in us, a heart which knows what is right instinctively, a heart which beats to the rhythm of goodness.

That big drum sounds as our conscience – if we let it. Our contemporaries, however, make so much noise that it drowns out the beat of that different drummer, for don’t we just follow the noise around us and not act kindly out of love, especially when it is not in line with what is “politically correct”? What is expected of us by those who surround us, is not even “random acts of kindness”, rather all that is expected of anyone is selfish behaviour. And that expected behaviour has no basis in true love.

True love – that christian agape – is what the feeling heart has at its core. I would say any act which shows something other than love for another is sinful. I want you to be bullied by the letter of the law no more. I want you to be free for the spirit of the law. I want your hearts to beat to that drummer who is not of this world. When we have those hearts of flesh, then we will live very differently. We would radically act – we would take the weak up in our arms, the poor would be cared for, the dying would receive succour. This is a radically different model of behaviour. There will be no “war on terror” – that conflict which only ramps up the evil behaviour of the bully. I am calling for a new radicalism, a jihad of love.

The theologian has asked the question about the conjunction of spirit and letter, a question which makes us look at our hearts, to see how they beat and bear the pain of the world. The theologian is right at the centre of our lives, as he asks us to think about life, the universe and everything. The theologian asks us to see the world through the prism of love.

This is a radical departure from the ordinary view of the world, isn’t it? Our alternative collect bids us to pray for the love of Christ –

Risen Christ, for whom no door is locked, no entrance barred: open the doors of our hearts, that we may seek the good of others and walk the joyful road of sacrifice and peace, to the praise of God the Father.

Normally we see through self-interest. Even if it is enlightened, it is still selfish. When we love, it transforms the world – when we love we love everyone, not just our beloved. This is the love Jesus showed throughout his whole existence.

However, I always remember these lines from my radicalised and extremist youth, which speak to the same sentiment with the same hope of our collect –

“If you can’t be with the one you love,

Love the one you’re with!”

Amen

Passion Sunday

Collect

Most merciful God, who by the death and resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ delivered and saved the world: grant that by faith in him who suffered on the cross we may triumph in the power of his victory; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

(or)

Gracious Father, you gave up your Son out of love for the world: lead us to ponder the mysteries of his passion, that we may know eternal peace through the shedding of our Saviour’s blood, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings

Old Testament

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

Jeremiah 31:31–34

Psalm

1  Have mercy on me, O God, in your great goodness; •

   according to the abundance of your compassion

      blot out my offences.

2  Wash me thoroughly from my wickedness •

   and cleanse me from my sin.

3  For I acknowledge my faults •

   and my sin is ever before me.

4  Against you only have I sinned •

   and done what is evil in your sight,

5  So that you are justified in your sentence •

   and righteous in your judgement.

6  I have been wicked even from my birth, •

   a sinner when my mother conceived me.

7  Behold, you desire truth deep within me •

   and shall make me understand wisdom

      in the depths of my heart.

8  Purge me with hyssop and I shall be clean; •

   wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.

9  Make me hear of joy and gladness, •

   that the bones you have broken may rejoice.

10  Turn your face from my sins •

   and blot out all my misdeeds.

11  Make me a clean heart, O God, •

   and renew a right spirit within me.

12  Cast me not away from your presence •

   and take not your holy spirit from me.

13  Give me again the joy of your salvation •

   and sustain me with your gracious spirit;

Psalm 51

[ or

9  How shall young people cleanse their way •

   to keep themselves according to your word?

10  With my whole heart have I sought you; •

   O let me not go astray from your commandments.

11  Your words have I hidden within my heart, •

   that I should not sin against you.

12  Blessed are you, O Lord; •

   O teach me your statutes.

13  With my lips have I been telling •

   of all the judgements of your mouth.

14  I have taken greater delight in the way of your testimonies •

   than in all manner of riches.

15  I will meditate on your commandments •

   and contemplate your ways.

16  My delight shall be in your statutes •

   and I will not forget your word.

Psalm 119 ]

Epistle

So also Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him,

‘You are my Son,

   today I have begotten you’;

as he says also in another place,

‘You are a priest for ever,

   according to the order of Melchizedek.’

In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.

Hebrews 5:5-10

Gospel

Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’ Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honour.

‘Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—“Father, save me from this hour”? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.’ Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’ The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, ‘An angel has spoken to him.’ Jesus answered, ‘This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

John 12:20–33

Sermon on Passion Sunday

Today we begin “Passiontide”, a part of Lent when we turn to the events leading to the crucifixion itself, when we meditate on all that Jesus experienced in his last days – I have to ask: can we really imagine the thoughts and feelings that went through him on that last day, after he accepted the bitter cup which was offered him as the Christ.

‘Now my soul is troubled,’ says Jesus, and I say, “What an understatement!”

Jesus is looking forward to his ownmost possibility, to his own future, to what must happen to him, to his death, to his being sacrificed on the cross. And this only “troubles” Jesus? The Greek word, tetaraktai, is what we translate as “trouble”? Right from Homer this word has been used literally as meaning to stir up something. In John, this word is used to describe the waters of the pool of Bethsaida as well. The sick were there waiting to jump into the pool when the waters bubbled that they might be healed. Those “troubled” waters were the means of healing for some.

But it was hardly healing that Jesus felt when he says “Now my soul has been troubled.” Surely it is exactly the opposite Jesus is feeling. Like the waters at Bethsaida Jesus’ soul was stirred up. What normally were quiet and still have become agitated. There is no rest, it has all been put into flux like that water at Bethsaida.

My soul has been thrown into confusion – There is only a commotion of thoughts and feelings – I am all at sixes and sevens – I don’t have a fixed point in my life. – I am troubled. – All these things could be said in relation to this Greek word, tetaraktai. One scholar wrote, “To cause one inward commotion, take away his calmness of mind, disturb his equanimity; to disquiet, make restless” All of this comes to a head in this one short sentence which the gospeller has recounted for us.

“I am upset,” Jesus is saying. What is his “inner perplexity?” we ask in Lent. Is it something we can understand? Aren’t we troubled on occasion? – When our plans go awry, when we don’t get our own way, when our expectations are dashed – aren’t we agitated then? But what is causing Jesus such perplexity, what can agitate him so?

Well, I think he has been looking into the hearts of the people around him. What could be more upsetting than that? We all have expectations which we bundle onto others, don’t we? Imagine what people were expecting from Jesus! “Jesus, saviour of the world, have mercy on us.” Imagine your name being placed in that sentence. Would you not be exercised – would you not be upset – as you consider all before you?

I would like to link this verse and its troubling word with another word. The word which I associate with passiontide – the Greek word paschein. This word means “to feel heavy emotion, especially suffering”. But with my philosopher’s hat on I would emphasise a second meaning I found for it, “affected, experiencing feeling (literally [it means] sensible, that is,  sensed-experience); the feeling of the mind, emotion, passion” This Greek word compounds what Jesus is going though, when his soul now tetaraktai. – In my reading of the passion, who could not be upset? Who would not be agitated and troubled by these events? Who could fail to be affected by all that happens in holy week? If we can participate in the passion at this remove, imagine how Jesus experienced all of these events!

The online dictionary I used, related this observation about the word paschein –  “The Lord has privileged us to have great capacity for feeling (passion, emotion, affections).” This author, Thayer, goes on to say “from Homer down, [the word means] to be affected or have been affected, to feel, have a sensible experience, to undergo.” So you can see why I associate these two words. I think they are central to our lives of faith.

Our Lord could be troubled, agitated, upset – so would we with all those milling around us calling our name out for healing and salvation. Parents must feel this keenly when their children are crying at their feet. We can not keep our equanimity with all of this happening in our lives, can we? Our feelings are aroused, we must have a deep passion as we look on the state of humanity. Don’t we feel great emotions because of what we are going through? Don’t we understand why people take extraordinary measures when the wrath is stirred? Don’t we want to speak out as Jeremiah does, calling on the Lord to place in us hearts of flesh which beat to the law of the Lord?

This ancient word paschein is the basis of the whole of our lives. If we are not open to what happens about us, where is our humanity? We do feel, don’t we? We do want to cry out for the pain of the world, but we are silenced by our feeling of impotence, of powerlessness to be effective. Why? Why do we feel that we can do nothing for the sake of the world? for our children? for ourselves?

I think we have been cowed by the anonymous “they” – that silent majority – which makes cowards of us all, since we don’t have the courage of conscience.  Conscience, like Jesus’ soul, should always be troubled, but we do nothing because no one else does anything and we don’t want to stand out from the crowd, do we?

This Greek word forms the etymological base for many of our words: pathos, empathy, sympathy, compassion. This common experience of emotion joins all of humanity together. We cannot help but feel, can we? As that scholar wrote “Indeed, this is inherent [in us] because all people are created in the divine image. Note for example how Jesus [even] in His perfect (sinless) humanity is keenly felt.  … [The word is used] in a bad sense, of misfortunes, to suffer, to undergo evils, to be afflicted (so everywhere in Homer and Hesiod; also in the other Greek writings where it is used [in an absolute sense]).”

Some theologians have emphasised this experiential troubling as the basis of human life. They say human being is thrown into a world of care and sorrow and must overcome it, just as we say Jesus overcame the world. Jesus, as fully human, teaches us the way to experience the world – with compassion. So our souls are troubled because of our experiences, and we need to open our hearts, we need to take action, and we need to relieve the suffering all around us, if only by stretching out our hands in the loving friendship of Christ.

Amen

Sunday, Lent 3

Collect

Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

(or)

Eternal God, give us insight to discern your will for us, to give up what harms us, and to seek the perfection we are promised in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings

Old Testament

Then God spoke all these words:

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.

You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

Honour your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

You shall not murder.

You shall not commit adultery.

You shall not steal.

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.

You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.

Exodus 20:1–17

Psalm

1  The heavens are telling the glory of God •

   and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.

2  One day pours out its song to another •

   and one night unfolds knowledge to another.

3  They have neither speech nor language •

   and their voices are not heard,

4  Yet their sound has gone out into all lands •

   and their words to the ends of the world.

5  In them has he set a tabernacle for the sun, •

   that comes forth as a bridegroom out of his chamber

      and rejoices as a champion to run his course.

6  It goes forth from the end of the heavens

      and runs to the very end again, •

   and there is nothing hidden from its heat.

7  The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; •

   the testimony of the Lord is sure

      and gives wisdom to the simple.

8  The statutes of the Lord are right and rejoice the heart; •

   the commandment of the Lord is pure

      and gives light to the eyes.

9  The fear of the Lord is clean and endures for ever; •

   the judgements of the Lord are true

      and righteous altogether.

10  More to be desired are they than gold,

      more than much fine gold, •

   sweeter also than honey,

      dripping from the honeycomb.

11  By them also is your servant taught •

   and in keeping them there is great reward.

12  Who can tell how often they offend? •

   O cleanse me from my secret faults!

13  Keep your servant also from presumptuous sins

      lest they get dominion over me; •

   so shall I be undefiled,

      and innocent of great offence.

14  Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart

      be acceptable in your sight, •

   O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.

Psalm 19

Epistle

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,

‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,

   and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

1 Corinthians 1:18–25

Gospel

The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money-changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, ‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market-place!’ His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’ The Jews then said to him, ‘What sign can you show us for doing this?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews then said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

John 2:13–22

Sermon on Third Sunday of Lent

You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

What are the idols of our time? In this age of terror, what do we set in front of us – to keep us safe in our time? What intervenes between the face of God and ourselves, so that we do not see the divine in our lives?

We must be living in a time when our great-grandparents must have done something so iniquitous that our God has punished our parents and us, and it seems that God will punish our children. What can we do now to ensure that the steadfast love of God will be shown to the thousandth generation from us?

But this raises the question, if three or four generations back have been so evil, how is it that we here in church still look to the love of God, how do we know that there is a steadfast love of God? If that previous generation had been so wicked, why do we still pray for the grace and mercy of God? Or are we the fifth generation – the generation that will redeem humanity? Are we the generation which will bring the steadfast love of God to that generation a thousand generations from this time?

Surely, in this dreadful period of history, when there are so many wars, famines and now the terror of hatred – surely this generation is doomed as the one which has been cursed by God. How often do we hear people say such things round about us? How are we tempted to acquiesce into an agreement with such a judgement, and in the lee of this decision about ourselves we agree to that opinion and condemn all of our neighbours and ourselves to punishment and do nothing about our sinfulness? This has not happened just in our generation. Throughout the history of the west we have people submitting to this bullying thought, kowtowing to the wicked because they “have the power”, and the theologians in their generations have justified such a deference to the fates of the pagan religions or to the notion of predestination of our own protestant forbears.

And then when we hear Paul’s words, “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” doesn’t everything get turned upside down? It makes the statements of the mass of humanity, that anonymous silent majority, nonsense. Paul is saying that wickedness makes no sense, that the visible behaviour of the so-called “normal” people is just plain wrong, and that justice and truth, goodness and mercy, they are the real marks of reality – what we really do want.

The wisdom of this world is not really the message from the OT and it certainly has not come down from Jesus, has it? On the contrary, even in this verse condemning idolatry there is hope, there is an expectation that every generation will work toward that steadfast love of God.

Those idols, what we might call “the wisdom of the world”, which we place in front of the face of God have bamboozled us into inactivity, a lack of decision for what is right and working to enact the good in our lives – in spite of the fact that no one seems to care. In the extremes of our lives, don’t we ask about mercy and goodness?

Jesus was a prophet who spoke for God, and his life and death was the focus for God’s saving action in the world. In the Gospel reading for today, we heard about Jesus cleansing the temple of the thieves who had taken up residence in the most holy of places for the Jew. Jesus in prophetic zeal acted for what was right, in spite of the fact that everyone was prepared to allow the morally questionable to continue. When I read this story, I wonder what my zeal has accomplished.

I stand here in this out-dated garb in a building that the majority of the population here has never entered, and I do wonder what my zeal has accomplished. When I read this story about Jesus, I ask whether my zeal should be cleansing the temples of our age. In my doubt, I suppose that many look at me as I stand up front here and they must wonder what I am doing. My zeal for worship is foreign to so many – but not you who are here so often, of course. However, for those who come only for baptisms, weddings and funerals, our worship is a completely foreign language. Does our zeal for our God in fact make any sense to the unchurched?

How can we be zealous for a vengeful God, which all so easily remember from their religious education in school? How can we be zealous for a seemingly uncaring God who allows all this mayhem on a global scale and above all this personal suffering? However, I ask in response, “Is this the God we worship?” Especially, after we have read our lessons for today. I now  have to ask myself “Have we really understood our God at all?”

We are in the midst of Lent, when we have to ask ourselves these hard questions. We are supposed to examine our lives in depth during Lent, aren’t we? We are to put our zeal under the microscope and understand just what its intention is.

An alternative collect for today is this:

Eternal God, give us insight to discern your will for us, to give up what harms us, and to seek the perfection we are promised in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Lent is the time we are to “discern God’s will” for ourselves – and I mean this in two ways.

First, we must work God’s will out as it is in our lives – perhaps to attribute all the good that we have experienced to God, and all the bad to our own wickedness. We need to see that goodness and mercy has flowed from God to the world and, in particular, to ourselves individually.

Second, I mean that we need to “discern God’s will” by our own efforts, albeit founded on the grace of God’s granting us insight. We need to disentangle ourselves from the “wisdom of the world” and that oftentimes is not in our own power, that moment is the time of grace in our lives, when we begin to act in righteous humility with mercy to all around us. That is a life-changing moment – a revelation which emerges from a Lenten discipline, when we truly understand for ourselves the idols of our times and we begin to overthrow them for the true divinity Jesus Christ showed when he scourged the traders in the temple.

Amen

Sunday, Lent 1

Collect

Almighty God, whose Son Jesus Christ fasted forty days in the wilderness, and was tempted as we are, yet without sin: give us grace to discipline ourselves in obedience to your Spirit; and, as you know our weakness, so may we know your power to save; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

(or)

Heavenly Father, your Son battled with the powers of darkness, and grew closer to you in the desert: help us to use these days to grow in wisdom and prayer that we may witness to your saving love in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings

Old Testament

Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, ‘As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.’ God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.’ God said to Noah, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.’

Genesis 9:8–17

Psalm

1  To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul;

      O my God, in you I trust; •

   let me not be put to shame;

      let not my enemies triumph over me.

2  Let none who look to you be put to shame, •

   but let the treacherous be shamed and frustrated.

3  Make me to know your ways, O Lord, •

   and teach me your paths.

4  Lead me in your truth and teach me, •

   for you are the God of my salvation;

      for you have I hoped all the day long.

5  Remember, Lord, your compassion and love, •

   for they are from everlasting.

6  Remember not the sins of my youth

      or my transgressions, •

   but think on me in your goodness, O Lord,

      according to your steadfast love.

7  Gracious and upright is the Lord; •

   therefore shall he teach sinners in the way.

8  He will guide the humble in doing right •

   and teach his way to the lowly.

9  All the paths of the Lord are mercy and truth •

   to those who keep his covenant and his testimonies.

Psalm 25

Epistle

For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight people, were saved through water. And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.

1 Peter 3:18-22

Gospel

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’

Mark 1:9–15


Sermon on First Sunday Lent

How many times have we seen a rainbow? What are our thoughts when we see it?

Pots of gold? Leprechauns?

How many times do we think of this story of Noah when we see a rainbow? Do we ever consider the covenant when we see a rainbow? Actually, how often do we think of this awesome covenant which we, the people of God, have with the Almighty?

Imagine Noah looking into the distance at the dark clouds after that great storm and its flood disappearing – what are his thoughts? He has carried out the instructions from God – he has saved all of creation in its two by two’s, hasn’t he? And now he realises why he has done so. – So that God should not utterly destroy his own creation. Noah now sees a bright rainbow, perhaps a double rainbow, in the sky, bright against the dark clouds as they dissipate into the sunshine of the new day, that day when the dove returned with that branch of new hope for the future.

How many times when we look at a rainbow are we reminded of this story of Noah? Do we consider the delicate balance in which the world stands when we see the rainbow?

God said to Noah, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.’

The covenant is what the rainbow signifies, a promise that if the covenant is kept, all things will stand on earth. But do we keep the covenant made on that day? Do we act as the guardians of a trust which allows the promise to be kept?

One of the hardest things I had to understand at college was this notion of Covenant. The Hebrew people started the Covenant with God when they walked out of Egypt. They began to understand it as they wandered for forty years in the desert. The Jews at Jerusalem took up the Covenant again at the temple, with its ritual sacrifices. The early christians believed in the covenant as the chosen people of God. We have inherited that belief, haven’t we? We know that we have been part of a tremendous transaction with God in the life of Jesus, that cross of Christ, something far more miraculous than a rainbow!

All of us “chosen ones” have acted – let us say – not as humbly as we should have. In our pride we have forgotten that we have a part to play in this Covenant. Like in what they call the “social contract”, we have obligations which undoubtedly we have not held up as our part of the bargain. In the “social contract” I would simply say that our part is honesty and helpfulness. – But have we behaved honestly and helpfully at all times? – I wonder if anyone watch the television drama, Collateral. There we could see everyone breaking the terms of the social contract. Everyone was not totally honest, and no one was very helpful. So everything was falling apart. Can’t we see this in our contract, our covenant, with God? We are not keeping up our side of the bargain, are we? Our leaders behave as though morality has nothing to do with our lives together. So, should we be surprised that the climate is shifting? that society is nothing stable? that people are terrified? I don’t think so. I don’t think many act under the terms of the social contract, let alone the covenant we have accepted from God, that contract we have to keep the commandments, the law which are the terms humanity has accepted, the terms of the contract God has made and sealed with the rainbow.

Whenever the Law is discussed in the OT, we are told time and again that if we keep the covenant we shall benefit. The land will flow with milk and honey, water and wine, like the gardens of paradise. But have we kept the covenant? – Scientists question our keeping of the environment, our leaders have come under scrutiny in their keeping of the most basic parts of the social contract, honesty and helpfulness – we ourselves have been tasked in this period of Lent to examine ourselves – to consider how we have kept the law Jesus gave to his disciples, to us, that we love one another. I imagine we all have fallen short of that mark Jesus has set before us.

This is particularly poignant language during the Olympics, isn’t it? All those athletes striving for perfection in their disciplines, and only tiny errors have taken the medals away – a slight mis-step or a wobble because of the wind might cause an attempt to fail, but just by less than half a second or a point out of three hundred.

As Paul says, we are all athletes attempting to win the race. We are all doing our best to equip ourselves for the contest, practising and pummelling our bodies into submission to achieve the highest reward, that laurel wreath of a champion, that gold medal of today’s Olympics. But as christians we are in training for something greater! – The prize we long for is not of this world, a kingdom beyond all things, to be with God. The prize symbolised by that rainbow of promise Noah first saw. – No worldly prize could come close to those aspirations, could it? The kingdom we wish to win has a peace the world cannot give, a justice no earthly court can dispense, mercy with which not even a mother’s care can compare. We know all of this because of the rainbow, that promise of God to creation, a creation worthy of preservation. If the creation, which is so unlike our aspiration for the kingdom of God, is worthy of protection, what of that covenant we have with God? Surely the terms of that agreement exceed all earthly expectations, just like that rainbow.

Don’t we marvel at the beauty of those colours in the sky after the terror of a storm? What can we offer to God to keep the covenant? Well, I think it is those two commandments Jesus gave. They transcend all worldly behaviour and should be immanent in all our behaviour. Loving God and our neighbour are activities the sinful human being fails to fulfill. But this is Lent, when sinful humanity repents of its failure to fulfill the Law. Lent is when we look around us at the evidence of our failure, isn’t it? This is Lent when we should be examining ourselves so that we may accomplish the Law in our lives. But we also need to look into the sky when the storm breaks and see the rainbow. We need to come to Easter renewed in energy and purpose so that we might grasp life in all its fullness. Lent is our olympic training for the great prize. We will walk the walk Jesus taught. We will stride on that narrow road to salvation in the footsteps of Christ, won’t we? But we have to come through the Lenten discipline, don’t we? Let us, like Noah, look to the horizon’s rainbow in order to see the promise of life given to us, and let us keep the great covenant by fulfilling the Law Christ gave us.

Amen

Second Sunday before Lent

Collect

Almighty God, you have created the heavens and the earth and made us in your own image: teach us to discern your hand in all your works and your likeness in all your children; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit reigns supreme over all things, now and for ever.

(or)

Almighty God, give us reverence for all creation and respect for every person, that we may mirror your likeness in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings

Old Testament

Does not wisdom call,

   and does not understanding raise her voice?

The Lord created me at the beginning of his work,

   the first of his acts of long ago.

Ages ago I was set up,

   at the first, before the beginning of the earth.

When there were no depths I was brought forth,

   when there were no springs abounding with water.

Before the mountains had been shaped,

   before the hills, I was brought forth—

when he had not yet made earth and fields,

   or the world’s first bits of soil.

When he established the heavens, I was there,

   when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,

when he made firm the skies above,

   when he established the fountains of the deep,

when he assigned to the sea its limit,

   so that the waters might not transgress his command,

when he marked out the foundations of the earth,

   then I was beside him, like a master worker;

and I was daily his delight,

   rejoicing before him always,

rejoicing in his inhabited world

   and delighting in the human race.

Proverbs 8:1, 22–31

Psalm

26  O Lord, how manifold are your works! •

   In wisdom you have made them all;

      the earth is full of your creatures.

27  There is the sea, spread far and wide, •

   and there move creatures beyond number, both small and great.

Psalm 104

Epistle

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Colossians 1:15–20

Gospel

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

John 1:1–14

Sermon on Second Sunday before Lent

Here we are – we have completed our Christmass celebrations, and yet today we read the prologue to the gospel of John, where he lays out the glory of the logos – the Word. Normally, this is a lesson for Christmass Day, isn’t it? So let us bear in mind what John says in one of today’s verses.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

Candlemass and Christmass combine in one of the longest celebrations of a theological verity, the incarnation of God. I think we must take this notion on into Lent. For if Lent and Easter are to make sense, the glory of the Lord must be foreshadowed in what we understand as the reality of the incarnation.

As we follow the lectionary, we have been reading in Paul’s letter to the Hebrews about the perfect priest who offers humanity up to God as if we ourselves were being given as an offering. That perfect priest incorporates all of us in himself, our frail corporeality which can fail, as easily as it can fulfill, its potential.

Here in our readings we have the presentation of Wisdom in the world. Wisdom is the companion of the creator, the apprentice to the master. Wisdom

was daily his delight,

   rejoicing before him always,

rejoicing in his inhabited world

   and delighting in the human race.

The apprentice watched the master create the world in which the human race would dwell, rejoicing in humanity’s aspiration to wisdom. We still attempt to emulate the apprentice, don’t we? Don’t we, like wisdom, call out – perhaps in that indistinct groaning Paul calls prayer somewhere or in our petitions to solve the state of the world.

Does not wisdom call,

   and does not understanding raise her voice

about the state of the world and human fallibility? How everything has been “going to the dogs”? The despair of the understanding mind is all too apparent as wisdom is applied to what human being has done to God’s handiwork, that creation which delighted Wisdom when first unveiled in the light of a brand new sun.

We decry all sorts of things, don’t we? – when we call out against the injustice of the courts and laws, when we call out against the senselessness of our society, when we call out against the emptiness of our hearts … We call out, as wisdom does, into the abyss which lays all around us, where we must leap into life in all its fullness.

However, do we always emulate that apprentice of God, Wisdom, in all her delight in the creation? Do we care for the world around us, the oceans, the beaches, the farmland, even our own habitations, in the manner which would prove our delight in the creation, the work of our God for us, the reality which we confess of Jesus? When we profess that Jesus is fully human, just like us, we have perhaps forgotten that reality in our joy of Christmass, when we showed ourselves as party animals.

But today! – Today we are called back to this moment, two Sundays before Lent begins in earnest, when our discipline takes hold of our self-indulgent behaviour and beats it into submission with the great fast. Lent forces us to turn again to what is right, to what is just, to what is holy. We turn now to that “sober life” which the prayer book’s collect enjoins on us.

Wisdom and the glory of God are, I think, synonymous. They issue forth in that Logos of the gospel, don’t they? At one point we see the Logos as the wisdom of God, that unassailable argument about what love is perhaps. At another point we might see the Logos as the glory of God wrapped up in that love which has no vice, what I think fired Paul up to write his letter to the Corinthians. We are left to consider the Logos in its glory and its demand on us, aren’t we? Lent is an austere time when the glory of Christmass and Epiphany are not at all apparent. With the dousing of the lights in the church at Candlemass, we have perhaps left the world bereft of enlightenment.

The other night I was reading in the daily missal about Candlemass. The ritual of the day actually was quite different from what we did last week, when we celebrated the feast. Instead of extinguishing the candles, everyone should have been given a candle in order to go out into the world as lights. We were to become individual beacons in the world where there is so much darkness – in hearts, in corners of rooms, in forgotten areas of communities, in the halls of state where the affairs of individuals are determined with scant recourse to the people themselves. We are bid to keep our lights lit for the sake of others, not hidden away in the dark.

The dark corners of the world exist – they should not be denied. Terrorism is darkness unleashed on each and every one of us, and no one realises their complicity in those acts we dread.

When we look to the light of Christ, in that supreme act of love which is the reason for everything we cherish – when we light our candles in this dark world, we do more than hope that the flame will not go out. When we hold our candles in the wind, we profess a profound faith – a faith which the world bludgeons to smithereens because it does not want to love without any desire to control. The love of the candle flame has no concupiscence, no grasping of the other. Rather the flame’s light is given to all and sundry, the worthy and the unworthy. Like the sun’s rays, it illuminates all, were their eyes open to see.

How many times have we tried to tell our contemporaries that message? That “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

The grace and truth of the Word become flesh, can be lived out in the flickering flames of faith, hope and charity in our lives, but it blazes ever so clearly in that christian love of the other whatever the time and place, opportune or ever so inconvenient. That is why I think we are asked to turn to the beginning of John’s Gospel just as we enter into our great fast of Lent, when we aspire to do great deeds in the name of Christ.

Amen

Sunday, Epiphany 3

Collect

Almighty God, whose Son revealed in signs and miracles the wonder of your saving presence: renew your people with your heavenly grace, and in all our weakness sustain us by your mighty power; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

(or)

God of all mercy, your Son proclaimed good news to the poor, release to the captives, and freedom to the oppressed: anoint us with your Holy Spirit and set all your people free to praise you in Christ our Lord.

Readings

Old Testament

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, ‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.’ So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

Jonah 3:1–5, 10

Psalm

5  Wait on God alone in stillness, O my soul; •

   for in him is my hope.

6  He alone is my rock and my salvation, •

   my stronghold, so that I shall not be shaken.

7  In God is my strength and my glory; •

   God is my strong rock; in him is my refuge.

8  Put your trust in him always, my people; •

   pour out your hearts before him, for God is our refuge.

9  The peoples are but a breath,

      the whole human race a deceit; •

   on the scales they are altogether lighter than air.

10  Put no trust in oppression; in robbery take no empty pride; •

   though wealth increase, set not your heart upon it.

11  God spoke once, and twice have I heard the same, •

   that power belongs to God.

12  Steadfast love belongs to you, O Lord, •

   for you repay everyone according to their deeds.

Psalm 128

Epistle

I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.

I Corinthians 7:29–31

Gospel

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’

As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

Mark 1:14–20

Sermon in Family Worship – Sunday Epiphany 2

“I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short. … For the present form of this world is passing away.” These are apocalyptic words from the apostle Paul. What can they possibly mean today, 2,000 years after they were written?

The appointed time for the world, which Paul declared, has passed hasn’t it? The world is still here – and yet we still bewail “the form of this world”, but do we believe with Paul that everything as we know it is about to end, and that the Lord will be with us imminently?

These are questions my teacher asked me when I first began to study scripture, and I had no answer. I still ask these questions again, because as I listen to the news, talk with friends and neighbours and overhear strangers talking here and there, I am very disturbed. On very bad days, I, with the whole of the country, quake in terror because of what the future could hold for us all. So I do believe the time is short and the form of this world truly is passing away.

I think Paul is asking us to live up to a standard which the “form of the world” does not recognise. I think he wants us to delve deep into our notion of the future, a future which is my ownmost possibility, that one thing which the world does not offer me – some sort of constant reality. The present form of the world is transient – it is “passing away” – what are we to do? Paul talks about everyday things in these few verses, doesn’t he? He talks about wives and husbands, the sadness of mourning our loved ones who have died, the transactions of everyday, even the joy of those who rejoice – this is business as usual. Paul is talking about those things which pass away. However, he wants us not to overly engage with these things.

Paul tells us to be like the Stoics, those dispassionate souls, who, like Kipling in his poem If, would treat victory and defeat, in fact any of the polar opposites of everyday life, in the same way. The Stoics were not like the manic–depressive who one moment would be cock-a-hoop shouting to the heavens with the utmost joy and at another time would be curled up in a darkened room groaning in black despair. The Stoics would show the most even of tempers, composed in joy or despair, never veering from that middle way.

Who among us would “buy as though they had no possessions”? Are you one who deals with the world as though you had no dealings with it? Those people are few and far between, aren’t they? We, however, worry about the slightest things to the exclusion of all else. We all know the catalogue of woes and we can recite all the passing forms of this world.

When we take that view of all things which Paul is urging on us, what do we see as the core of the world? Our families and friends, obviously, our homes where we gather to keep warm on cold winter nights, our work and the making of wages and then our pensions. – Oh, so many things can take our attention away into the passing world!

The forms of the passing world are the everyday concerns which overwhelm us. Instead of concentrating on our love for our neighbour and family, we would worry about what the stranger might take from us. That is not a middle way, is it? We need to love our neighbours, like the Good Samaritan, through what we do, with and for, them. We should be forgetful of our own personal problems so that our overarching care for the world around us takes hold. I should be able to forget my worries about this and that and remember that the person facing me is the most important fact at that very moment. I should not care more for the next big thing. I should not be deflected from that person before me. – I need to look that person in the eye so that the other can see my caring soul.

When we act in this manner, with that fundamental christian love, don’t worldly concerns fade into insignificance? That is the joy the Stoics reveal. The transcendent matters of life – my ownmost possibility – become the priority. No longer do my business worries control me – no longer do my neighbours worry me because of their foibles. – I have come to recognise the passing forms of this world.

Paul’s outlook – his focus on love – was very different from our own everyday attitude, isn’t it? He is looking to a future where the Kingdom of God is realised in the coming of the Lord Jesus, a future when only God’s will for the created order will rule. Obviously my own petty concerns fade into nothing, but I can love! My ownmost possibility has been realised.

No longer do I have to save my green stamps, my loyalty card points, in order to be happy. My joy will be complete when I let those forms of the world pass away. No longer will I feel the snubs of people passing by, AND no longer will I pass by on the other side.

I will be able to live life to the full because I will engage meaningfully with the whole of creation. I understand the love of God which my life should reflect and place that as the only rule I have in life.

This golden rule sets all at nought except itself. My care extends universally when I get it right. I reflect the attitude Paul wants the christian to have. In another place in the epistle Paul sings his hymn of love. Over against love everything pales into insignificance. The forms of this world pass away and a grander vision is to be grasped. This is how Paul is asking us to deal with the world – without any anxiety. That triad of faith, hope and love never pass away while the everyday does.

“The time is fulfilled.” Jesus preaches. “The Kingdom of God has come close to hand.” “The time is ripe for a proper harvest” of decision – of faith, hope and love.

All salvation was accomplished in Christ as Paul never tires telling us. The ever-loving Christ, Son of God, Love from Love, calls us to faith. The decision needs to be made now, before it is too late. Even if Christ does not come within the nonce, it is imperative that we live as though in a moment, in a twinkling of an eye, the last trump will sound – and everything Jesus promised will come to pass.

Living in that present of faith, hope and love places us right in the moment of the coming of Christ. We can, like Paul, live in that ultimate moment of our ownmost possibility, the moment when Christ is beside me and you and only love remains.

Amen

Sunday, Epiphany 2

Collect

Almighty God, in Christ you make all things new: transform the poverty of our nature by the riches of your grace, and in the renewal of our lives make known your heavenly glory; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

(or) **

Eternal Lord, our beginning and our end: bring us with the whole creation to your glory, hidden through past ages and made known in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings

Old Testament

Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.

At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ and he said, ‘Here I am!’ and ran to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ But he said, ‘I did not call; lie down again.’ So he went and lay down. The Lord called again, ‘Samuel!’ Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ But he said, ‘I did not call, my son; lie down again.’ Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, ‘Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” ’ So Samuel went and lay down in his place.

Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ And Samuel said, ‘Speak, for your servant is listening.’ Then the Lord said to Samuel, ‘See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. On that day I will fulfil against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. For I have told him that I am about to punish his house for ever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering for ever.’

Samuel lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the Lord. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. But Eli called Samuel and said, ‘Samuel, my son.’ He said, ‘Here I am.’ Eli said, ‘What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.’ So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. Then he said, ‘It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.’

As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord.

1 Samuel 3:1–20

Psalm

1  O Lord, you have searched me out and known me; •

   you know my sitting down and my rising up;

      you discern my thoughts from afar.

2  You mark out my journeys and my resting place •

   and are acquainted with all my ways.

3  For there is not a word on my tongue, •

   but you, O Lord, know it altogether.

4  You encompass me behind and before •

   and lay your hand upon me.

5  Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, •

   so high that I cannot attain it.

12  For you yourself created my inmost parts; •

   you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

13  I thank you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; •

   marvellous are your works, my soul knows well.

14  My frame was not hidden from you, •

   when I was made in secret

      and woven in the depths of the earth.

15  Your eyes beheld my form, as yet unfinished; •

   already in your book were all my members written,

16  As day by day they were fashioned •

   when as yet there was none of them.

17  How deep are your counsels to me, O God! •

   How great is the sum of them!

18  If I count them, they are more in number than the sand, •

   and at the end, I am still in your presence.

Psalm 139

Epistle

Then I saw in the right hand of the one seated on the throne a scroll written on the inside and on the back, sealed with seven seals; and I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, ‘Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?’ And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it. And I began to weep bitterly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. Then one of the elders said to me, ‘Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.’

Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. He went and took the scroll from the right hand of the one who was seated on the throne. When he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell before the Lamb, each holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. They sing a new song:

‘You are worthy to take the scroll

   and to open its seals,

for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God

   saints from every tribe and language and people and nation;

you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God,

   and they will reign on earth.’

Revelation 5:1–10

Gospel

The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me.’ Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.’ Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’ When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’ Nathanael replied, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ Jesus answered, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.’ And he said to him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’

John 1:43–51

Sermon on Second Sunday after Epiphany

“The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” When do you think those days were? I think the story about Samuel could be told about anyone right here and now.

Whenever someone says that he or she has had a vision, don’t we all tell them to go back to sleep just as Eli did – at first. I think we do this to our friends and acquaintances time and again. There is nothing bitter and twisted about our lack of belief in what they are saying, only a revelation that we aren’t as good friends as we should be.

One of the ancient philosophers wrote a treatise called On Friendship, in which we can read about the great goodness of a true friend. The one thing I always remember is that a friend will always accept what you say, never judge you, but always talk with you about what you are saying to see whether there is truth in it. This, I think, is where our society has gone awry, for we certainly do not delve for truth in all our conversations and I wonder about people in calling them friends in that strict definition of the philosopher. Rather, we say that you can trust no one, and, even worse than that, is that we believe everyone lies purposely. Why is that? I don’t know but I think we certainly treat no one like a true friend.

Our time is full of difficulties and we are a little to selfish to speak to larger matters than whether someone is lying because they want something from us. – I remember being in Detroit with a friend at a local community centre. I was just myself and talking with a few children, as you do. It was a nice time, and later my friend told me that the kids didn’t know what to make of me because the only people who ever talked to them wanted something from them. No one ever talked with them for themselves. That was where I was different from everyone else they usually met in that city. Everyone had an angle they were running on the kids. However, I  was running no scam: I didn’t want anything from them. They did not know what to make of me. I suppose I wanted to be for those children that philosopher’s dispassionate and compassionate friend. I was willing to listen to them for their own sake.

That experience in Detroit encapsulates what I fear is the problem all around us. Everyone is trying to play some scam to “make a few bucks” or to “mess with your head.” Everyone does it, don’t we? So what do we do when our friend comes to tell us their vision? — Well, I think we should really talk about it. I think we both could learn something about each other if we could engage with the message of the vision. We both could learn. I would learn about your hopes and dreams, and I could learn about myself, about my own hopes and dreams as we talk about your vision. In this discussion you would learn about yourself and your place in the world because of your vision.

Isn’t this what happened with Samuel and Eli? Three times he asked Samuel to go back to sleep, but at the third, he realised that something else was happening, that the voice had to be heard for what it truly was, no longer the master to a slave, but the Lord of the universe was calling to him from the depths of space and time. It is up to Samuel to listen to that voice and up to Eli to help interpret the vision with Samuel for their own time. In other words, we have to encourage the other to listen to what they have encountered. We all need to take our perceptions seriously.

So, what are the visions we have? Some are little daydreams – how we would like to care for a loved one – some are revelatory – what we would like to do for the rest of our lives for the sake of the world. Our visions are statements of intent, aren’t they? Our visions focus us on a goal out there, sometimes they are really out there beyond our usual compass, but usually the goals of our visions are limited. We are not the world’s visionaries, are we? Rather, we would like to live our lives of desperation quietly, don’t we? We don’t want the trouble of the world beating their way to our door for our paltry insights into life and how to live.

But imagine if the words we have heard were like these which Samuel heard, “I am about to do something that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.” Wouldn’t we rise and do what we have been asked? But, as I said, we don’t have those big things in our lives, do we? Or do we? Haven’t we heard the Word of God week in and week out? Haven’t we had those words tingle both of our ears?

I think we have – why else would we come here week after week? Our vision is one that must be shared, isn’t it? Why do we stand alone against the bulk of the population talking with one another about our hopes and fears? Who knows – perhaps they have heard something that has tingled both their ears. What should we do for those friends?

I think we should talk with them with that philosopher’s attitude, to learn about meaning with them through their visions. We should take them as seriously as we take ourselves – to discuss their hopes and fears out there in their world, just as we do with each other here in Church. Their hopes and fears out there in the world are just as real as our own here within the church’s sanctuary.

“Eli said, ‘What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me.’” Are these the words we ask our friends when they rise from their visions? Do we reply truthfully when our friends ask us about what we have seen?

The joke about answering whether these clothes make me look big is not without its point. How many times have we said, “Those clothes do nothing for you”? We cannot disappoint anyone, can we? Aren’t we just like the court around the emperor when he showed off his new clothes? We say nothing, and the vision the emperor has is faulty and may even harm someone. Is this what friends do for each other?

Let us be good friends. Let us speak with clarity and honesty with our friends. Let us be clear about our vision and share it with our friends, so that everyone will benefit.

Sometimes visions are extraordinary things – we see something others don’t. Speaking to Nathaniel. “Jesus said, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree?’” If we talked with others, our visions could have a life of their own for people who will be true friends, and no one need be left out.

Amen