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Saturday, 21 February 2015

Ashes to Ashes

I preached this sermon on Ash Wednesday, and slightly modified, used it again on the Sunday following.
The Bible passage I mainly used is John 8:1-11.

What do you think God is like?

I’d like you to put yourselves in the shoes of an interested visitor to our service today. Imagine someone who has probably read the service booklet by now, listened to the words of the hymns and the Bible readings, and who is probably wondering what “Imposition of Ashes” might be, and whether it hurts.
What might they think we are about?
Would they be concluding that we are a nervous, somewhat paranoid bunch of people, who feel the need to check that God isn’t cross with us, rather than confidently making our own way in the world?

What would our visitor think of the God we are worshipping? Does he sound like a stern and strict enforcer of the rules?
Or is he like a violent husband who, unless his wife keeps saying that everything is her fault and she’s so sorry, will let fly with his fists again? That may be what they would think.




But I don’t think we believe in an angry sort of God, and I don’t think we are a nervous sort of people.
So I want to take a closer look at what we’re like and what God is like. I want to suggest that we’ve got a God who loves us no matter what we’re like, and that we’ve got a God who has found a way of dealing with the wrongs in the world.

The Gift

During the week I saw a programme on telly about a man who as a boy had quite mercilessly bullied a school mate. Now grown up and my age, he was tortured with guilt and shame about what he had done, and desperately wanted to meet the man he had wronged, and ask for his forgiveness.
The programme built up the tension by interviewing a psychologist, who spoke about the immense damage that bullying can do. Then Matt Baker, the presenter, did the detective work of tracking down Simon, the bullied boy, and asking if he would be prepared to meet Jon, who had done him such harm. 
Jon was a perfectly decent family man, yet as a child he’d picked on another boy and made his life a living hell. It made me think that something is very wrong in people. Even people who ought to be perfectly decent and good don’t always behave in a decent, good and righteous way. 

Jesus came for sinners

It made me think how that old fashioned word that the church still uses – sin – still has some currency. Jesus said, “I haven’t come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” So if you are righteous, holy, decent and good, I’ve one thing to say – there’s the door. Just close it on your way out, and keep us sinners warm. Because we’re the ones Jesus has come for. And in this service, we are confronting the reality that none of us are good through and through. 

We believe in Love

The truth is, we’re not all bad. Alongside that crookedness inside us all, there is also a great deal of goodness. We respond to love. We have it within ourselves to respond with kindness when we see a need. 
But the dividing line between good and bad doesn’t separate US, the good people, from THEM, the bad ones. Oh no. The dividing line runs right through the middle of our souls. And that’s the problem.
And or course God knows all about it. He knows we aren’t perfect, so he gave us a book with rules to follow, he taught us right from wrong. God’s ways, the Bible’s ways, are the basis of the law of our land.
The law is very good at telling us what we should do. But the law is a lot less good at telling us what to do when we’ve done what is not right. We tend to resort to punishment, in those circumstances. 
But punishment doesn’t put right what was wrong. It just makes the perpetrator suffer. The injured party is still injured. 
If I broke into your house and stole all your possessions, and if I was then arrested and sent to prison, you wouldn’t have your things back. I’d be suffering for my crime, but you would still be dealing with the shock of being burgled, the fear of it happening again, the loss of your treasured belongings. Two wrongs don’t make a right. 
And yet we still think that a little bit more suffering will cure our suffering. A little bit more violence will fix our own violence. One more war will end all wars. But it never does.
We need more than the law.
Jesus was different. He knew what to do with people who had done something wrong. And we’ve got a brilliant example in our gospel reading today.

Jesus and the woman caught in adultery

First of all, this is not about the woman. The pharisees weren’t wanting to know what to do with someone who had committed adultery, They knew perfectly well. They just wanted a situation to throw at Jesus, something to test him with. They just wanted to say “It’s all very well for you to criticise us for being judgemental and unloving, but let’s see you deal any differently with a crime!”

The man

He is concerned with everyone, the pahrisees, the woman, and the person who isn’t there. Let’s just mention him first. You can’t commit adultery by yourself. What happened to the man involved?
Nobody knows. All we know is that he managed to get away. Maybe he was hopelessly in love with this woman, maybe he was heartlessly using her for his own pleasure, whatever the situation, he was savvy enough to make himself scare when the religious police came knocking. He exemplifies our modern morality nicely, doesn’t he? The only thing that’s wrong is getting caught. Like HSBC thinking that making money out of tax evasion was fine, so long as nobody knew.  So the man, the absent man, is a very important part of this story.

The Pharisees

Jesus doesn’t confront them back. He crouches down.  
He doesn’t escalate. He finds something very interesting on the ground instead, until finally he says “who’s good and who’s bad here? Just show me where the dividing line goes.” And they can’t. They can’t draw a line that allows the adulterous woman to be on one side, and the upright, religious people to be on the other side. They find that it can’t be done, so they slink away.

The woman

At last Jesus turn to the woman and points out that no one has condemned her. “Neither do I condemn you, Go and leave your life of sin.” Jesus opened a door for her, and gave her the chance to step through into a new life. 
The key that opened the door was Truth.

The tv programme I saw last night had Simon, the victim of the bullying saying “Yes I will meet Jon. But I won’t forgive him. I’ll never forgive him for what he did to me.”
Jon the bully said “I can’t keep this a secret any longer, I have to put my cards on the table. I don’t know what Simon will say when we meet, but I have to believe it’s better to tell the truth about what I’ve done.”
When they met, Jon said “Simon, will you forgive me?”
And Simon said “Yes.”

The truth will set you free

The woman had no choice about telling the truth – the truth was told for her. Jon felt he had to tell the truth, because the secret of his shame was eating him up. 
We’re in the happy position of being able to choose. But if we want a door unlocked in our lives, maybe we need to tell God the truth about ourselves.
Jesus is the truth, he said, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Jesus is present here, by his Spirit.
So we’re in good company, we’re in safe hands. 
And what does he have to say to us? “I do not condemn you. Go and leave your life of sin.”

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Jesus walking on water

Tomorrow I'm telling the story of Jesus walking on water. I started writing, and this is what came out.

Jesus had done another amazing thing. Yes, another one. 
What a day it had been. There was a huge crowd of hungry people, who needed a square meal but they were miles from home. All of us disciples had said to Jesus “Stop talking now, and let the people go home so they can have something to eat.” And he'd said, “No—you give them something to eat.” 
Well, we’d looked and we’d asked everywhere, and all we could find was one young boy who hadn’t eaten his packed lunch yet. Perhaps listening to Jesus had made him feel very generous, or perhaps he’d taken a look at the tiny little barley loaves (slightly mouldy in places) and the two little strips of dried fish, and didn’t fancy them. Anyway, he gave us his lunch, and we gave it to Jesus, and Jesus had given it to all those people, and then we’d spent the rest of the afternoon clearing up the bits!
And you know what? That’s not the amazing thing I’m talking about. 
No it isn’t. Because what happened after that was even more amazing. The people were so in awe of Jesus that they kept bowing down to him, and singing to him, and chanting his name, and one of them had this strip of shiny metal that he’d made into a circle and he kept trying to slip it on Jesus head—like a crown. I don’t know if it was a joke, or whether he meant it seriously, but when the crowd saw it, they all shouted for joy. “King Jesus!”
Jesus went wild. He flailed his arms about, he flung that little crown so far into the distance that nobody ever saw it again and he jumped up onto a little hill and started screaming with rage. Everybody was scared and went quiet. He started issuing orders—like I’ve never heard him before. He lined those people up like they were his soldiers, and told them he wasn’t going to be their king and he wasn’t going to be their general and if they didn’t stop thinking like that they were never welcome in his sight ever again. And he made them march away without looking back.
We stood there, not knowing what to do, and he gave us orders as well. “Go across the lake,” he said,” I’m staying here all night to pray. I’ll see you tomorrow. Go on! Go! Get out of my sight!!”
Well, we didn’t hang about. It was getting dark, and Peter had his boat, so we all climbed in and set off. The fishermen knew what to do, and they got us moving pretty fast. We wanted to get out of Jesus’ way as quickly as possible. We’d never seen him so cross. Jesus didn't wait looking at us, he turned on his heel and walked off up the hill. He always went up a hill to pray. Or a mountain. The higher the better.
We were sailing across the lake, but it was getting hard work. The fisherman puffed and pulled on the ropes, and turned the boat this way and that. Eventually they pulled the sail down and announced “We’re going to have to row.”
But there’s plenty of wind!” said Matthew.
And it’s blowing in the wrong direction, you idiot!” said Peter.
Matthew turned red and shut up. He hated being on the sea. I think it scared him. Peter was muttering under his breath. He hated it when he was on his boat and things went wrong. It made him embarrassed. Like that time when there was a really bad storm and Jesus was asleep. We had to wake Jesus up because we were afraid we would drown, and Jesus had just told the storm to be quiet and it died away.
Another amazing thing. Jesus was full of them. But Peter hated it. He never talked about that day, because that was the day Jesus had seen him in charge of his boat and totally unable to make it go where he wanted it to. He didn’t like Jesus seeing him at sea and being, you know, all at sea.
Soon, Peter’s irritation made him want to get at somebody. He chose Matthew again. “Oy landlubber—come and take a turn on the oar—perhaps you’ll learn what it’s like, pulling into the wind.” He didn't let James or Andrew stop rowing, but he stood up and held out his oar in Matthew’s direction. Matthew tried to stand up but he couldn’t keep his balance—the boat was tossing and turning, and it was nearly dark—there was no warning when a wave was coming to rock the boat. He wailed a bit, tried to take a step, and fell over Thomas’s feet. Nobody laughed, except Peter.
Come on lazybones! Get up!”
Matthew shouted back, “You think you're so brave standing there in your little boat, don’t you! You’re only doing this because you know I’m scared of water and I can’t swim! You weren’t so brave that night you thought you saw a ghost, were you?”
Yes, everybody knew that Peter was scared of ghosts. Ever since he’d had a bad dream one night and woken up shouting about it. That was the thing about Peter. He couldn’t stop his mouth, even when it blurted out secrets he didn’t want anybody else to know. We all had a joke: “If you want everybody to know something, whisper it to Peter, and tell him it’s a secret.”
But Peter didn’t say anything this time- he didn’t answer back. He was staring out to sea."What’s that??” he said.
Everybody turned to look. It was hard to see—it was very dark now, but it looked as though there was someone out there, quite close to the boat, standing still as if there was a rock just below the surface of the water, standing quite still even though the waves were going up and down. The figure started to walk, and seemed to be going past the boat—not slowed down by the wind or the waves, just walking calmly along as if it was a sunny afternoon.
It looked...it looked a little bit like Jesus.
Peter was crouching down now, hands over his face. But Matthew stared out at the figure and called out, “Jesus, is that you?”
Of course it is!” said Jesus.
When he heard his voice, Peter looked up, shot a glance at Matthew, as if to say, “Don't you dare say I'm scared.”
Jesus, if it’s you, tell me to come to you on the water!” he shouted.
We gasped. All of us. Even though Peter was stupid, unthinking sometimes, this was taking recklessness to a whole new level.
James called out “Peter, don’t be stu -”
But Jesus interrupted him – hand held out, he said “Yes, come.” He was walking half sideways, half backwards now, to keep pace with our boat which was drifting now, the oarsmen being too preoccupied to row. The waves splashed up and down his body, but in the half light I couldn’t see if they were making him wet.
We all held our breath as Peter lifted himself up over the edge of the boat (Matthew closed his eyes and leaned the opposite way, afraid that Peter’s bulk would capsize us). Peter put one foot, then the other, into (onto?) the water and stood up, rocking backwards and forwards like Matthew had earlier.
He glanced at Jesus, and a big grin formed on his face. A matching grin beamed back at him from Jesus. I suddenly realised – the last time I’d seen Jesus he’d been angry with us. Now – he just seemed to be having enormous fun.
But Peter couldn’t keep it up. He glanced down at the water, and breaking his eye contact with Jesus seemed to be fatal. He floundered, like a non-swimmer would, like Matthew would, and yelled “Save me Lubullubullub!” as his head disappeared under water. I saw Jesus darting forwards, bending over and straightening again with his arms under Peter’s shoulders. He grunted as one of Peter’s flailing arms caught him across the back of the head, and with a mighty heave lifted him back against the side of the boat, which lurched crazily, bringing squawks of alarm from Matthew and several others. As the boat lurched back again, Jesus bent down once more, shifted his grip to Peter’s waist and propelled him back into the boat, where he landed with a mixture of a splash and a thud in the middle of us all. A splud!
People scrambled backwards away from Peter, as he floundered to his hands and knees, half expecting him to shake himself like a dog. But he just crouched there, dripping, with his breath whistling in and out. Jesus swung a leg over the side of the boat, slapped Peter across the shoulders playfully and said, “Where’s your faith, big man?”
I looked round. Suddenly, the waves were dying down, the clouds overhead parted, and the moon peeped through.
A nervous laughter began somewhere in the boat, took hold and grew until we were all hoarse with hysterical relief.

What. An. Amazing. Day.

Monday, 18 August 2014

I love Vicky Beeching

There are three reasons why I love Vicky Beeching.
First - she's a Christian, therefore she is my sister in Christ. She is part of the same family as me, adopted by God our heavenly Father out of his great love, sharing with me and all other Christians the wonderful inheritance of eternal life.
Second - I love her music. She is an immensely talented lady, I play her songs, both on my MP3 player and (less well) on my guitar as I use them in leading worship in my church. She has great insight and the gift of communicating it clearly and attractively, as can be seen in her career in the media. She has become a Christian voice of reason - a welcome sound amidst the more strident tones of extremism.
And third - I love her because she has been honest and courageous. Some have criticised her for attacking the church in the way she chose to come out (giving an interview to a journalist known for anti-church sympathies, speaking about the harm done to her by well meaning but misguided Christian counsellors in youth camps and conferences) but they have ignored the hurt she has suffered. I admire her and applaud her.
I'll be saying more about what I think on the gay issue and why later, but what I don't want to do is wade in to an edifying mess with yet more words of fairly dubious wisdom.
Gerard Kelly once said "Religion at its best opens us to God's presence. At its worst its rules shut us down. God help us trade rigidity for relationship."
All I want to say is - I love Vicky Beeching.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

The Samaritan Woman: a theological discussion with a lady of ill repute

Today's sermon was based on the passage from John 4 - Jesus' conversation with the Samaritan Woman, re-imagined as a text conversation.


I love the exchange between Jesus and the unnamed Samaritan Woman - it's such a great conversation on so many levels.
But of course, it should never have happened.
There are three good reasons why the two of them should never have spoken.
First off, an unattached man would seldom initiate a conversation with a woman, unless he thought the woman was a prostitute, and he was propositioning her. And she would never reply, unless she was willing to entertain the proposition.
Secondly, a Jew would never talk to a Samaritan.
And if that wasn't enough, thirdly, a rabbi would not talk to a woman of doubtful repute. Rabbis, as upholders of the Law, would not risk defiling themselves with unnecessary contact with sinners.
So Jesus defied the conventions that said you only talk to a woman if you want sex with her, you keep yourself racially pure, and you shun her if you think she’s shoddy goods.
Remember what we were saying about subtext last week? There's a very cheeky subtext going on here, at least for the first half of their dialogue. This has led me to think what their conversation would look like if it was a flirty text chat.
First of all, you might want to read the whole passage in a proper Bible, so you know where I'm starting from.





Here we go - Jesus launches in.




Although the woman's reply sounds dismissive, it wasn't, because as I've said., the very fact she replied means that she was willing to consider his proposition. So the subtext was "Come on pretty boy, let's see what you've got."



Jesus tries to move the conversation on to a different plane. I'm not exactly what you think I am, lady - that's his subtext.



The woman replies with the obvious point that she's the one with the water jar, and where is Jesus going to get this magic water from, anyway? But she knows her Bible - She recalls a time when someone else asked a woman for a drink – Jacob asking his future wife Rachel, and defending her against rival shepherds.


Jesus persists, using a common theme of his. Drink this water, and you’ll get thirsty again. Drink of me, and you’ll never thirst. Elsewhere, he talked about himself as living bread, satisfying hunger for ever. Here he paints the fascinating and attractive picture of a stream of living water, welling up from within a person's heart.


The woman is half hooked, but still not convinced. But she asks Jesus for water. Maybe I won't have to come out here on my own in the heat of the day. Of course, she only had to do that because the other women wouldn't have anything to do with her - she wasn't welcome for the girly chats that took place around the well first thing in the morning.


Then, suddenly Jesus plays hard to get. He asks her to pop home and bring her other half back so they can have a cosy family chat. This conversation is beginning to change tack.



In reply, the woman plays with the straightest of bats. Sometimes it's best not to give too much away.



The trouble is, with Jesus, the forward defensive doesn't work. He demonstrates that he knows an awful lot about her - far more than she could have imagined, or would be comfortable with.



So she deploys her diversionary tactics. This man's a rabbi, and a Jew - he won't be able to resist telling me that my Samaritan worship is all wrong. Clearly she is well practised  at deflecting unwelcome attention.



Surprise surprise - Jesus lets himself be diverted. Or maybe he wanted to talk about this all along. Either way, he tells her that a new day is dawning, when it won't matter if God is worshipped on this mountain or that mountain, but God the Father is seeking worshippers in Spirit and in Truth. He speaks as if it is an invitation - you could be one of these new worshippers, you know. God is looking for people like you.


And then she reveals her deepest hope. One day, Messiah will come, and he will explain everything. One day, someone will answer all my questions, tell me why my life has ended up like this - five times betrayed, now not daring to trust any longer, ignored and ostracised by my neighbours. One day, someone will come and show me a way out of this.


If this was a game of chess, we would shout checkmate. But this hasn't been a battle, it's been a friendly contest of conversational wit, and both parties end up as winners. This Samaritan lady has met her Messiah. Jesus has a new believer. She rushes back, not just to fetch her partner, but to call out the whole town to see this man "who told me everything I ever did."

And with the end of the passage we see the outcome. Jesus has made this woman into an evangelist. She fetched the whole town out, and they invited Jesus to stay.
They - the Samaritans - invited Jewish Jesus to stay in their houses, and eat their food and talk to them about himself. And they understand what the dense disciples don't yet - Jesus is the saviour of the world. In the verses before the final quote, we see the disciples in one of their classic dim misunderstandings: "Oh, has someone else brought him some sandwiches?"
What Jesus promised this lady came true for her – there was indeed a spring within her, out of which came streams of living water, to the delight and refreshment of all who heard her.
This is the amazing privilege that we share, you and I. As Christians, we are not Jesus himself, we can’t necessarily do the things he did, but we can bring his refreshment and peace to others.
Would you like to share in this ministry? It is one of the most thrilling things to do, as a Christian, to meet people, talk to them, and have them find a well of refreshment that doesn’t come from you, but comes with you, that comes in alongside you. We can offer comfort, peace, encouragement, hope to people, not because we are skilful counsellors or trained listeners. We can do it because we bring Jesus with us into the room.
We bring his refreshment, his streams of living water, his promise of new life that surprises and delights.
It's wonderful.
Come and discover it afresh. Come and join in with Jesus' joyful harvesting of the fields that are ripe for the picking. Doesn't matter if you haven't done the groundwork - you'll find out it has been done for you, by others or by God himself. Just come, with the living water that God's Holy Spirit has put within you, and share it with the thirsty people all around us.
Amen.

Nicodemus & Jesus: an elderly theologian discusses gynaecology

Today a Twitter conversation ended up in my promising to blog my sermon on the Samaritan woman Jesus met by a well.
But before I get there, I need to post last week's sermon. Stick with me if you can - the two are linked.

John’s gospel has some lovely ironies in it. One of my favourites is that in chapter 3, Jesus is in conversation with an elderly male religious scholar. In chapter 4, which we will be reading next week, he talks to a woman who has had at least five relationships, and who was a bit of a social outcast.
He talks theology with the Samaritan Woman, and he talks gynaecology with the religious scholar.
Poor old Nicodemus is doing his best. He is very open minded, compared to many of his colleagues, and he desperately wants to know if Jesus is genuine. But he’s afraid of what others will think, so he comes to Jesus at night.
Next week, we meet someone who comes to Jesus in the day, but she’s also coming at the wrong time, because everybody else fetched their water in the early morning. Because she was an outcast, she had to wait, and come in the heat of the day.
So two very different people both come to Jesus at the wrong time and get the right answer. I won’t say any more about the Samaritan Woman, I’ll save her for next week, but now it’s time to look at what Jesus said to an old man about childbirth.
Childbirth is a messy and painful business. So I’m told. What would I know? We were discussing it over the meal table the other day, and my daughter Ellie was wishing that humans laid eggs, because that sounds a lot less painful. I think if I was female, I would entirely agree.
When the Bible talks about it, it emphasises the pain and the danger involved. And before medical advances and painkilling drugs, that’s exactly what it was. But the Bible references to childbirth aren’t overwhelmingly negative – they talk also about the joy of bringing new life into the world. But it’s a joy that’s tinged with sorrow and anxiety. One very significant woman in the Bible dies in childbirth – Rachel, as she gave birth to Benjamin, Jacob’s youngest son, and years later, at one of Israel’s lowest ebbs, another woman dies in childbirth and names her son Ichabod, which means “the glory has departed,” so prophesying that Israel were enduring dark days indeed.
Jesus himself, later in John’s gospel, expresses the agony and the ecstasy: “Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.” He’s telling his disciples about his impending death.

Subtext

So when Jesus chooses being born as a metaphor for becoming a Christian, it’s got a whole shedload of subtext that Nicodemus would have been aware of.
What is subtext?
I'll let Mitchell & Webb explain.
So Jesus is saying, Yes this is a wonderful thing, but it’s going to be disruptive. Things are not going to stay the same, Nicodemus, this will be hard.
Perhaps Nicodemus can’t cope with this straight away, and so he takes refuge in not understanding what Jesus is talking about, prompting the discussion about being born of the Spirit, about the wind blowing where it wills, about or need to let go of control over what God is doing, and try instead to catch the breeze of the Spirit and be blown along in his direction.

Vision

We’re making changes at the moment – modifying our building to make it more welcoming, more suitable for our vision. Change is never universally welcomed, and perhaps some of us feel uneasy about what has been done. But it is important to remember why we are doing it. Two years ago, as we went through the Mission Action Planning process, one image grabbed us, and caught our imagination.
It was this – the image of an open door, and the light from within spilling out. It’s an invitation, which is for us to walk in and find all that God has got for us, but also that we might become like that to our community, the sort of place that people can come in to and find a welcome, find a home, find the love of God. We identified that we are a welcoming church, and we want to build on our strengths, build on what God has given us already. We want to do better, we want to be more welcoming, more including, to make it still easier for new people to come and fit right in.
So we need to remember that vision, and shape our building and our life together to fulfil the vision. We want to be blown along by the breeze of God’s Spirit.

Nicodemus – got some things right

But I don’t want to be too harsh on Nicodemus, because he he has gone out on a limb here, And it seems that he was convinced by Jesus. He is a secret supporter of Jesus for the rest of the story. He is not able to prevent the Jewish Council arresting Jesus and condemning him to death, but he does argue against it. And after Jesus’ death, he comes out and organises his burial, together with Joseph of Arimathea. So he moves a long way, if not quite all the way, as far as we see him in the story.

What did he have to do to get this far?

Yesterday I was on a men's conference with two other guys from church, and the speaker used the following illustration:

Kenny Dalglish once said: "don’t get lucky, get into position."
He talked about someone who got his positioning all wrong, and someone else who got it right.
David positioned himself for failure, Samuel positioned himself for success.

Conclusion 

What are we looking for in church? Can we be more like Nicodemus, ready to look out for God’s new movement, ready to listen, ready to move, at least a step, towards what God intends? Perhaps we can.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Vicars - the happiest people?

Yesterday my son sent me a link to a news story saying that vicars have the job with the greatest satisfaction rating in the UK. Publicans have the lowest.

I wasn't sure what to make of it. At first I felt smug, then I decided that wasn't a proper reaction. I thought about the similarities between the two jobs - we both live over the shop, we know large slices of the community, and many people choose to tell us their woes.

I thought about my own situation, how I'm doing the thing I feel that God has called me to, that I was made for, that fits me like a well made shoe fits a foot.

I thought about doing something that involves never being alone, about how spending time praying to the Creator of the Universe counts as work, about how I don't get judged on results, like some people do (football managers, teachers, engineers), and about how I don't have to worry about redundancy.

Then I thought about how I often feel guilty for not praying enough, anxious that my congregation is not growing, or not growing very fast, about what the future holds for the church in this country, and realised that I put myself under the same pressure.

Then a crazy idea came to mind. Perhaps I should swop jobs for a day. I wonder if Dave or Gill would fancy being a vicar for a day. How about it guys?

Monday, 17 February 2014

Priest

We're having a short series of sermons entitled "All are called." This is the middle one of the three, which takes a look at the Biblical idea of priesthood.

First we heard this passage from 1 Peter.

Living Stones

The first point Peter is making here is that we are living stones, being built into a house to give to glory to God. Its a powerful image – a fine stone building, imposing and magnificent, but not built out of lifeless lumps of rock, but out of people. While Paul often uses the idea of a body to represent the church (as we’ll see next week) Peter here gives us a building.

The cornerstone

Then Peter focusses in on one stone in particular. Paul, with his body idea, calls Jesus the head of the body. Peter calls Jesus the cornerstone, the most important stone of all. He quotes a verse from Isaiah, and applies the words to Jesus. Then he points out that the important people of Jesus’ day in fact rejected him – they had him crucified – but that far from finishing off Jesus, this made him an even more formidable force. And he digs out two more apposite quotes from the Scriptures.

Chosen people

Finally, he goes on to say some wonderful things about us. We Christians are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own possession. Calling to mind the story of the prophet Hosea, who God commanded to name his children prophetically: you’re not loved, you won’t receive mercy, you are not my people … now, says Peter, you are very much loved, you are God’s special people, and God has poured out his mercy on you.

A royal priesthood

Now let me focus in on one phrase. Peter calls the church a royal priesthood. Back at the beginning of the chapter he had called them a holy priesthood. It may not sound much to us, but this was a revolutionary idea. He is saying that the priests aren’t just a little subset of the people of God, but that all God’s people are now priests. To understand this, we’re going to have to have a history lesson. We have to get out of our minds the image that the word priest conjures up.

This is not the Biblical picture of a priest.

Nor are these guys. Called the priests, they are a singing ensemble, and Sony gave them a recording contract in 2008. They are big business! But they are actually priests, and Fr Eugene, Fr Martin and Fr David have a very unique contract that specifies that they must have sufficient time to continue their pastoral work in their parishes.

But this is the Old testament idea of a priest. When Moses led the children of Israel out from Egypt, and began to prepare them for life in the Promised Land, he passed on God’s instructions to them, and amongst those instructions, God made it clear that one of the 12 tribes, the tribe of Levi, wouldn’t be getting any land to live on when they reached Canaan. The other 11 tribes were all given their own territory, and in the rich and fertile land, it was plenty for them to grow and prosper, and grow their crops, tend their animals and make lives for themselves. But the tribe of Levi weren’t given any land. Instead, they were given the task of organising the nation’s worship. And amongst the Levites, some of them were to be priests, whose particular job was to offer sacrifices on behalf of the people, and to be their mediators, to do business with God on everybody else’s behalf.

Mediation

It’s about mediation. What God told them was that while the rest of people are working, some of you need to think about worship. Some of you need to be free from your preoccupations about the seedtime and the harvest, and the famine and the footrot and all the rest of it, free to concentrate on God.  The priests were fully aware of the things of God, they held on to the things of God, and they held the hand of the people, and they brought the two together. Their job was to bring God and the people together. They were to bring the worship of the people to God, empower the people to worship God, and speak to the people on God’s behalf.
Now – just remember that this cannot be translated into contemporary church leadership – it’s not the same thing. Jesus has changed everything. We’ll come on to that in a minute. Just think about the priests a bit longer.


Illustration – arc welding. You build up a huge electric charge in the welding rod, you earth the piece of metal that you want to weld, and as you bring the two together, the charge jumps the gap and releases an explosion of energy. This provides the heat for the weld.
So the priest said to the people: Bring your life a little bit closer to the presence of God, and I will bring the presence of God a little bit closer to you, and as they approach each other, a spark will happen and heaven will pour into your life.
Now – let’s update this picture to how it looks after Jesus has come and changed things.

Jesus cleansed the Temple – why was he so angry? The priests were using the court of the Gentiles to buy and sell, and any seekers who were trying to pray would be doing so in the midst of a market. He was telling them – you don’t care about these people, because you’ve got your special bit – the Holy of Holies. You don’t care about the people on the edge, but you should – you’re not doing your job of bringing the presence of God close to them. “My Temple will called a house of prayer for all nations.”

Having confronted the priests, Jesus became the High Priest – he has become the mediator, the only one we need, dying on the cross for us. Then he inaugurates a whole new priesthood. As a result, the priestly role as seen in the OT, is now the role for every single one of us. We mediate the presence of God to people. Wherever we go, God goes. Wherever we see a person who is seeking after God, we don’t put them off by our inward looking behaviour, by our busyness and noise, but we create a sacred space for them to meet God.
That’s our job.
We bring the presence of God close to them, as they bring themselves close to him, and then the spark can come, and heaven can tumble down to earth once again.
Now do you see what this means? It means that we can’t blame the state of our churches on our leaders. We can’t sit in the pews and say, I wish our church was better, it would be if I was in charge, but that professional Christian up the front, he won’t listen!
You can’t blame the leader. Not exclusively. We are all priests, we are all mediators, we all carry the most amazing treasure about in our earthen vessels, and it’s all of our responsibility to share it, not just mine. We are carriers of God’s grace, called to distribute it wherever it is asked for or sought after. We are all called to this task, to be like the Levites and priests, who didn’t have a share of the land and all the responsibilities that went with it so they could be free to concentrate on God – now we are all called to care less about our mortgage deeds than our neighbours because we know we have an inheritance in heaven, and the earthly things don’t matter so much.

Priest

What does it mean to be a priest? Love God, love people, love life. We need to say to God, we will bring people to you and you to people, and we will let them know that every effort they make to seek you and know you is valued and received. There is something gentle and beautiful about a priesthood that notices. Where people don’t necessarily mention God, or use the name Jesus, or talk about religion, but in what they say you know that they are expressing a longing for God in their lives. It was said of Jesus that he would not break a bruised reed, or snuff out a smouldering wick. And this is it – not crushing someone’s tentative reaching out to God, but honouring it, holding it as sacred, and helping them to give it a different kind of language. It’s beautiful. We are priests, helping people to find God.
A royal priesthood, a holy nation, belonging to God … but here for everyone else.