Some sermon notes since March 2018
Revd John Edwards pointed out the interesting fact that John’s gospel has the cleansing of the Temple near the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, while the other three place it near the end. The Ark was in the centre of the Temple, while outer courts around it were reserved for certain groups in the society. Exclusion was the order of the day. Gentiles who “stepped over the line” faced a death sentence. The notices around the Temple were in Hebrew, Latin and Greek, but in no way did that signify that all were welcome. Not only this but the trading in the temple with its insistence on the purchase of animals provided by the priests and the extortionate rates of exchange from having to use only the stipulated currency: all this was totally contrary to the mission of Jesus. The Temple “was meant for all”. John Edwards was of the view that The Gospel of John was probably right. Jesus was establishing his authority; he was thenceforth marked down as a trouble-maker; he was hounded by the religious authorities whose one purpose was to destroy him. Jesus knew the risks he was taking. He wanted foreigners, outsiders, women, children, tax-collectors, the whole spectrum of society to connect with God, to be free to worship God. He was “talking like a rabbi, but not towing the line”. The Cross “should be in the market place”. And so should we be. It’s what the Church should be about. Jesus lived with and died for the outsiders, for everyone. He went to the Cross refusing to deny the value of the outcast, the marginal in society. We must have a positive outlook, building each other up. We are not to build walls. We are all meant to be one, relating to people of all faiths or none, (reflecting another interesting fact that blood transfusions recognise no boundaries of race, colour or creed).
IN THE WILDERNESS
Revd Karen Stallard based her sermon on two very different passages from Scripture giving very different depictions of God: in Numbers 21 v 4-9 we read of God sending snakes to poison (fatally in many cases) the grumbling Israelites. In Mark 1 v 9 – 14 we read of God confirming his love for his beloved son “on whom his favour rests”. The link between them is the number 40. This gave rise to an interesting survey of the significance of this number: the 40 days of Lent; Jesus struggled in the wilderness for 40 days echoing the struggle of the Israelites wandering in the desert for 40 years; 40 years, a generation; 40 weeks, the gestation period in the womb and so on. The wilderness is the place where we face the best and the worst of our humanity, said Karen. This wilderness time, whatever form it may take, shapes us and makes us fit to serve. A time when we question, we face trial and loneliness, we learn the vital importance of going through this time, not round it. There are no short cuts. This is in no way a suggestion that times of dancing and merriment are wrong: quite the contrary, they are all good, unless they take us away from our overriding direction and purpose. There is no place for harsh purity. Joy and pleasure in human love and fellowship is as much part of our humanity as the times of testing and pain. It is in these “wilderness times” that we discover that God does provide ministering angels to help us through.
PS Forty is the only number whose letters are in alphabetical order; Noah was awash with rain for 40 days and nights; The Monopoly board has 40 locations; Celsius and Fahrenheit only meet at 40 degrees. Plenty more if you look, but essentially it seems the Bible uses the term 40 for “a long time”.
Professor David Teager reminded us of the familiar AV version of Luke 9 v 51: “Jesus set his face stedfastly (AV spelling) to go to Jerusalem”. This word was one that David rather cherished against the background of ever-changing English language usage. Other versions use words like resolute, firm and secure etc. Researching this passage, David had discovered that the very early Jewish accounts that much influenced Luke, spoke of Jesus going up to Jerusalem “with flint”. This strengthens even more the staggering significance of Jesus’ decision. Here he was on the sea shore surrounded by adoring, astonished crowds witnessing wonders from this charismatic miracle-worker. Even the disciples, in spite of Jesus’ preparation, expected him to be crowned as King and Messiah. They were confused, to say the least. “Didn’t he, didn’t they, deserve something better?” But Jesus will move on, be spurned in Samaria, face tragedy in Jerusalem. The ultimate goodness of God pitted against the evil of the world. Our Saviour set himself against popular acclaim. Luke gives us a picture of the heart of our Saviour. Nothing could deter him, though he knew full well the agony, physical and spiritual he must endure. And our Christian hope is grounded in an underlying certainty that our God is indeed a Rock. Hope, coupled with faith and love: the most precious gifts of the Holy Spirit. The forces of evil can be overcome; our part is to hold fast to the promises of God. Can we identify with Isaac Watt’s great hymn-testimony: “I’m not ashamed to own my Lord.” (Hebrews 6 v 13 – 20 Luke 9 v 18 – 27 and 51)
AGENTS OF THE KINGDOM
Revd Elwin Cockett began his Palm Sunday sermon with a poem written for Christmas:
What the Donkey Saw.
No room in the inn of course,
And not that much in the stable,
What with the shepherds, magi, Mary,
Joseph, the heavenly host-
Not to mention the baby
Using our manger as a cot.
You couldn’t have squeezed another cherub in
For love nor money.
Still, in spite of the overcrowding,
I did my best to make them feel wanted.
I could see the baby and I
Would be going places together.
U. A. Fanthorpe.
The image of life as a journey is a much used one, but particularly applicable to Palm Sunday. Those crowds with their hosannas had no idea what journey Jesus was on. That he was to die that week. When Jesus called the disciples, they had no idea what journey they were embarking on. No clue what it meant. Our task is to seek, in walking in the footsteps of Jesus, to reflect on the Kingdom he spoke of. It is so encouraging to list the truly unlikely people chosen by God to serve him, Moses, Jacob, Jeremiah etc (plenty of lists on the web). Not images of perfection. They were used by God “as they were”. They were part of the story of our redemption. We make mistakes. Yet every one of us is called to be part of that Kingdom. There is a cost; all but one of the apostles came to a painful end. The cross was, let’s be clear, a terrible way of putting people to death. So “to take up your cross” may not mean a long and wonderful life. The cross was foolishness, yet we rejoice in the cross because it was the ultimate place where God’s love was poured out. We are called to be foolish: to give our money away, to give and receive generously, to rely on the one who gave himself for us. (On a recent visit to Kenya, Elwin had been greatly moved by the eagerness of people with very little to share even that little unsparingly.) We are to trust “what eye hath not seen”. We may not fully understand, but we are agents of God’s Kingdom and his love. We are to be kind, kind, kind; we are to express the foolishness of the Cross. Zechariah 9 v 9 – 12 and 1 Cor 2 v 1 – 12
Revd Alan Bolding directed our attention to the “silence” that distinguishes the ending of Mark’s gospel from the other three. Mark undoubtedly knew about the various other post resurrection appearances, but he ends his account very simply with three very frightened women. There are no alleluias. They “do not behave as we would like them to do” even after the positive message from the figures in white. Alan suggested that this very silence, this admission that you cannot put their “mixture of trauma and ecstasy into words” makes this in some ways the “resurrection account for us”. We too stand trembling before the empty tomb, as they did. The women didn’t see Jesus or hear him call their names. Nor do we. We haven’t touched his hands, picknicked with him on the beach. These three women can be our guides, bringing the gospel into our lives. Their silence is “an invitation rather than a coercion”. How will we tell our story? Those three stand beside us today: the life of faith is one of trembling and joy, trauma and ecstasy. The end of Mark’s gospel is always waiting to be filled in by people of every generation.
Acts 10 v 34 – 43 Mark 16 v 1 – 8
PEACE BE WITH YOU
So Jesus is risen. He is risen indeed. But the disciples are hiding in a locked room. Hiding from the Jewish authorities? Perhaps even from God? Revd Elizabeth Price led us through some of the post-resurrection appearances. The disciples can’t understand what has happened to Jesus’ body. Mary says she has seen him. But the others are wondering who will soon arrive to arrest them. However, there was no loud bang on the door; Jesus came through the locked door. And what were his first words? “Where were you lot? Why did you run away and hide?” No. Astonishingly, his first words were “Peace be with you” . All was clearly forgiven, the desertion, the denials, the fears. The disciples were not just “glad” to see him, as some versions have it, they were ecstatic, overjoyed. His next words were equally astonishing. “I will send you.” A group of frightened men. Not understanding the reality of the situation. Yet they are not required “to pass a test”. John, as he so often does, refers back to the book of Genesis. “Jesus breathes over his disciples (just as God brought Adam into life.) In a sense the disciples are dead and he must bring them to life. They are to receive the Holy Spirit, or “breath”. Jesus knows the needs of his disciples, to see, to touch. Thomas was not alone in doubting. But Jesus repeats his message of forgiveness, and goes on to give them, give us – the generations who would not be able to see, “yet would believe” – the gift of the sacred meal, the Eucharist, the Communion. He comes into our loveless, failing state and says “Peace be with you”. And we “taste and receive him” in this way, and become more part of him and he of us.
Acts 4 v 32 – 35 John 20 v 19 – 29
BREAKING BARRIERS, BUILDING BRIDGES
Read Ephesians 2 v 11 – 22 Isaiah 49 v 1 – 6
Revd Dr Alan Beavis spoke of his admiration for Martin Luther King, but asked the question: “ How much has changed” when “the most segregated time in the week in America is at 11 0’clock on Sunday morning?” This week’s TV programme on the murder of Stephen Lawrence had highlighted the same question in the UK. Segregation, he suggested, has given way to alienation; people feel left out, second class. We are a divided country in every way. The Ephesians reading is about alienation. Between us and God and between us an each other. It was the same at the temple in Ephesus, where the Gentiles could only look in from the outside. Trespassers would be executed. UNTIL CHRIST CAME. His take on the Temple was diametrically opposite. Most of the converts in Ephesus were in fact Jews, looked down on as second class (uncircumcised) Christians. But Paul speaks into this situation; he is quite clear: Israel was special but others were to be fully included in God’s unfolding plans. The Gentiles were as much “heirs” as the Jews. Becoming a Christian doesn’t blot out our prejudices. The Church Universal has perpetuated divisions. Slowly the Church is waking up to these division. People don’t just feel “tolerate” but “embraced”. We are to be healers, not haters. Welcoming, not critical. God’s intervention has changed our relationships with each other. We are ALL brothers and sisters. We must guard against elitist attitudes. We have been given “the ministry of reconciliation” ( 2 Corinthians 5 v 18)
THE GOOD SHEPHERD
Read Psalm 23 Revd John Edwards had early experienced at first hand the life of the sheep farmer when staying on his uncle’s farm in Wales. Jesus uses the illustration of the role of the shepherd to indicate that he would be with us, standing by us, no matter what. He died so that we might live. His end was inevitable. He connected with outcasts and prostitutes, riff raff in the eyes of the authorities. He refused to conform to any religious regulations. Loving without judging; that could not be tolerated. Christianity is not selfish: we’re all in it together. We are called to be friends, shepherds, as he is for us. We all have a ministry. We are all ministers. Are we challenging ourselves enough? We wonder whether we can make a difference in this world where many suffer malnutrition, many are refugees in desperate situations, many desperately need the medical care we so easily take for granted. We can help! We can give. Far from Woodford Green a child’s sight can be restored for a mere £10. The Mercy Ships ( for example) can transform lives. In these great works of love and charity and service we can be participants. And find joy in being involved. In helping to make a difference.
ENJOYING OUR INHERITANCE
Revd Simon Marshall urged us to recognise that “we have a down-payment of the Holy Spirit as a promise of things to come.” What we receive in this material world will be multiplied infinitesimally in the world to come. We are called to live day by day increasingly conscious of our inheritance and we must witness to it as a church. We are given power by the Spirit, not for selfish ends but for the proclamation of the good news of Jesus We are meant to be a blessing to the community. Am I living my life to its fullest? Simon referred to Eric Liddle, of Chariots of Fire fame, who used his gift of speed to the glory of God. The Holy Spirit is the authentic mark of God in us. Paul when writing his letter was in prison, but was still using the opportunity to glorify God. We need heart knowledge of God and of his love if we are to be the true body of Christ .Are we living impoverished lives, when God wants to give us all the resources for life in abundance? Read Acts 1 v 1 – 8 and Ephesians 1 v 11 – 23
THE TRUE VINE
Read John 15
The vine was a very familiar metaphor for the Israelite nation in the Old Testament. Hosea (10 v 1) speaks of the vine being “rank”, or in some translations “empty”. The psalmist (Psalm 80 v 14) cries out to God begging him to “take thought for this vine and tend it, this stock that thy right hand has planted”. Jeremiah quotes these “words of the Lord” : I planted you as a choice red vine, true stock all of you, yet now you are turned into a vine debased and worthless”. So Jesus was perfectly well understood when he spoke of himself as “the true vine”. His assertion that we who believe in him are the branches certainly throws up challenging questions, said Revd John Edwards. The vine is unlike, say, the beech tree with branches spreading out independently; its branches intertwine and encircle one another, all nurtured from the central stem. We become one of the encircling branches; a community shaped by the love of Jesus and bearing fruit, and developing together. If there is negativity in the community, our faith overcomes it. This faith should be sustaining and guiding us in our attitudes to life rather than the doom-laden media. John had been reading recently published international research which had demonstrated clearly that the statistics regarding poverty, life expectancy, levels of vaccination ( amongst many other concerning areas) were massively more positive and encouraging than people have come to assume from reading the newspaper headlines. Jesus wants us to have abundant life. The image of the vine rules out precedence and hierarchy in the life of the church. And what is its fruit if not Love that binds us together in him? Love which we are to share within and beyond the community life of the church,
WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED?
(Read Luke’s two accounts of the Ascension: Acts 1 and Luke 24 v 44 – end). For forty days after the resurrection Jesus appeared to the disciples, sometimes in Galilee, sometimes in Jerusalem. There is no coherent narrative, said Revd Kevin Swaine, but all told of the same kind of experience, of talking with him eating with him, touching him. Sometimes he came suddenly as in the upper room, sometimes as part of daily experience, as on the road to Emmaus. It was the same Jesus they had known. Yet not the same. Not the weary hungry man of Galilee in the same limited body. And he did not stay. He withdrew. Why for as long as forty days? To convince the disciples that he had risen and was alive. But then he withdrew for the last time in a different and highly significant way, in the act of blessing them. With our modern awareness of a vast universe, we have difficulties with the idea of Jesus being “lifted up to Heaven”. So where is Heaven? Three things to grasp: 1.After the resurrection he had a spiritual body, material, but not subject to time and space, the kind we will have. 2. Heaven is not a place but “a state”. Our citizenship is in Heaven. The greatest truths are expressed in poetry and symbol. Especially about Jesus. Here was “an enactive symbol” showing that his earthly ministry was at an end. He would not appear again. His work was finished and he was entering a new kind of activity. Not just “rounding off the story” but being exalted into God’s glory. Clouds are important in both the Old and New Testaments and signify the divine presence. He was confirmed as the Lord of the Universe. 3. He takes on a new activity as “our great high priest” in Heaven. Making intercession for us. A glorified man still bearing his scars. Always with us, and with all the resources of Heaven available to us.e transgforms our humanity ot become “like him”. His power is with us. There is no unbridgeable gap between earth and Heaven, with us in Christ and Christ in us. Always with us and all the resources of Heaven made available tio us.
WHAT’S THE CATCH?
Major John Holifield, like many of us, gets inundated with offers of so-called ‘free gifts’. Of course we know that you can’t get ‘owt for nowt’ and that there is nearly always a catch. The offer is often the carrot dangled before us to try to persuade us to buy something we don’t need. At Christmas and birthdays the gifts we receive from our friends and family don’t come with strings attached, but are an indication of the giver’s love for us. On Pentecost Sunday we are reminded of God’s love for us in the amazing gift of the Holy Spirit given to the disciples. In a way this was his leaving present to them, though it is usually the one who is leaving that receives the gifts, not those remaining. Of course Jesus was not really leaving them, since although he was no longer with them in human form his spirit would remain with them always. The gift of the Holy Spirit not only showed the world that Jesus is God’s son but also challenged the disciples to go out into the world with the same message. The Spirit came not only with wind and fire but with the gift of language, indicating that the church would be inclusive, for peoples of all nations. It transformed the disciples, but the story didn’t end there. That free gift is still on offer today, bringing God’s truth and love to us, with no strings attached. There is no catch. Read Acts chap.2: 1-13, John chap.15:26-26 & chap.16: 4-15